By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
I know it is far too early to attempt an assessment of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime that has just ended. We are too close to the remarkable event. On the other hand, a wake-up call about a serious danger must necessarily be as early as possible if it is to be useful.
I was in Sri Lanka during elections and watched the process closely. Rupavahini and ITN, both national ventures of considerable influence, are paid by the taxpayer in order to perform a public duty. Pro-government newspapers had to pay their way but they did so largely because of advertising monopolies granted to them by the government; again, sourced by taxpayers. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his team believed they were entitled to a monopoly of support from these institutions regardless of the fact that these media agencies were taxpayer funded. The opposition voice was never heard in these agencies. If not for Sirasa, TNL, partly Derana, and less-partly Swarnavahini and the burgeoning social media the people would have thought it was all a one-horse race; that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ten-year-old government had no vices to talk about; that the opposition constituted a set of conspirators “backed by Western powers” who were out to get at Mahinda out of jealousy “for destroying Prabhakaran.”
Except for Rupavahini and ITN the other TV stations/ radios had limited island coverage. Facebook, too, had limited users. This compounded the problem. The Right to Information Bill had also been turned down with the President saying it was unnecessary because he is prepared to provide any information that the public may desire!
I have just finished reading a novel based on the factual regime of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to May 1961, when he was assassinated. It is written under the title, “The Feast of the Goat,” by Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas –Llosa, Peruvian writer. I thought to myself how Mahinda Rajapaksa had been developing signs of the early (less harmful) stages of Trujillo who was first elected president and later morphed into an unelected President of the Dominican Republic. I must emphasize, they were symptoms of the early Trujillo. By the time Trujillo was assassinated at the end of three decades he had completed an ugly track record of state-sponsored murders, rapes by himself and his men, and setting up monuments to himself all over the country. When I saw the huge cut-outs of our own President spread out all over the island I reminisced about Trujillo’s monuments. Furthermore, Trujillo had left behind vast infrastructure that boosted growth rates but kept ordinary citizens struggling to make ends meet. “Our highways!” I reflected.
From all accounts Mahinda Rajapaksa had once been a decent guy; affable and loving. What transformed him into the ruthless, manipulative ruler he eventually became was the bahubootha vyavasthawa of JR Jayewardene introduced in 1978. Mahinda Rajapaksa was in many senses a victim of the constitution. And with him, the people suffered collateral damage. Parliament was converted to a rubber stamp. By the carrot-and-stick approach opposition MPs were induced to swell the parliamentary ranks and to remain in the camp without questioning. Numerous dissenting journalists disappeared under Mahinda’s watch. Prominent editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was brutally butchered on his way to work (strangely on January 8th-election day) with no serious action taken by law-enforcement agencies. Government –critical TV stations were burnt down and so on. At election time the opposition was prevented from getting suitable meeting venues and their stages were shot at. Maitripala Sirisena was stoned and had to be hurriedly evacuated. Maitri thereafter addressed meeting behind a security screen.
Not satisfied with all the power he had gotten to himself, Mahinda Rajapaksa set out to enhance his authority further by manipulating space in the constitution. Came the odious 18th Amendment and the abolition of the 17th Amendment. Independent Commissions meant to enable some sense of healthy independence from the executive arm in vital areas of the Judiciary, Public Service, Police and the Elections office were dispensed with. President Mahinda Rajapaksa became a foreboding, masked dictator.
Power accumulation feeds on itself and, in time, induces a sense of unrealistic self-confidence. You go on blind speed until it all hits you on the head. This is exactly what happened when Mahinda, cocksure of winning a prematurely-called and thereby expanding his life as ruler for another decade or so, opted for a Presidential election despite having two years to go. The inebriation of power blinded him to underestimate the forces arraying against him. The astrologer had beguiled him.
My belief is that Mahinda must be thankful for having been toppled because, otherwise, he may have become a Trujillo and eventually received a spray of bullets into his head as the former did. Likewise, Sri Lankans are lucky to have been spared a Trujillo for the longer haul with the possibility of feeble-minded successors following him.
It was all a wake-up call to the dangers lying inherent in the constitution of 1978. Ordinary Sri Lankans living in rural areas and numerous unsophisticated ones in urban areas are still medieval in outlook. The culture of feudalism still sways over our island. The 1978 Constitution has the potential to be nourished by this culture and, thereby, creating a “monstrous High King” in the future. Mahinda Rajapaksa fell short of that climax but his career evinced symptoms of that stage of maturity.
The new President in his address to the nation from the Paththirippuwa in Kandy demonstrated a great deal of prescience when he said that what Sri Lanka needs is not a king but a genuinely humane leader.
*Shyamon Jayasinghe was formerly Secretary, Ministry of Labour& Vocational Training. He is a writer on social and political affairs and an author of published books. Also, a well-known Sarachchandra player.