By Asoka Seneviratne –
Running up to the 2019 presidential elections, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the golden glory boy of Lankan politics. It resembled President Obama’s pre-election glory in 2008. Millions of Lankans pinned their hopes on him. Most believed he was made of a different cloth and he was the incoming Mosses of the Lankan people. They didn’t quite care of his citizenship issues, white van gossip or hard hitting attitude on Western media. Or that yet another Rajapaksa was going to be at the helm.
Lankans were fed up with both major parties. 60 long years after independence from British Raj, we were still stagnant in the 3rd world club while our people as a whole are educated, hardworking and enterprising. The largest forex inflow came from domestic workers in the ME which was sad enough. Political culture created by both parties only resulted in many politicians, their henchmen, families getting richer while the rest stagnated. People by and large knew law enforcement / justice system was a myth wherein only the petty criminals were jailed while the super criminals allied to the bigwigs destroying the country and youth were insulated from prosecution. People watched in fear when white vans were abducting brave media men at the dead of the night pre Sirisena and when the central bank was robbed post Ranil/Sirisena apparently with help from the very top. People watched with anger when a huge Rajapaksa dynasty was ruling the country pre Sirisena and Christians were terrorized with church bombings post Sirisena.
More and more people were beginning to believe that both parties together are playing a game looking after each other’s back at the expense of the wellbeing of the people. While the majority could barely afford to buy a motorbike, political bigwigs, their henchmen, kith and kin were roaming the streets in posh SUV’s, the largest money can buy at times including bullet proof.
So on November 16th, 2019 Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was handed a landslide victory by a mammoth 6.9 million Lankans followed by another landslide victory at the parliamentary polls on August 5th 2020. Gotabaya’s party asked for a mandate to once again to amend the constitution to hand more power to him. While he fell short of the 2/3rds, they managed a horse trade from the opposition and gave unprecedented power to Gota to rule as he wished. People trusted him to navigate the nation into prosperity. But did he?
Never in the history of Sri Lanka, has one family being handed so much power. With all this power vested in one family, transparency, accountability, rule of law and broadly speaking Democracy got flushed into the toilet, something the 6.9 million trusting voters did not think about in their unstinted belief in Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as political immaturity as a people.
Power Corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, said Lord Acton. This has been proven over and over across the world and now in SL, the stage was set for this to be tested.
First Gota rushed to give a massive tax relief to people, blowing a hole into our budget to the tune of about 600 Billion rupees. I have no doubt he seriously regrets this today. This was inexperience 101. Then appointed his entire family to run the nation’s most important sectors. He horse traded to pass 20 Th A. Then a huge import duty cut was granted for sugar imports that was widely criticized as being a billion $ give away to a business buddy. Despite promises of right man for the right job, he appointed a few totally unqualified friends and supporters to top posts. When the commission report came for the church bombings, he appointed his eldest brother and few party loyalists to study it and hand over the summary of it, totally negating the authenticity of the commission report for which people spent millions. He appointed a one man commission to investigate large number of criminal/corruption cases of loyalists going through our court system, who recommended dropping all charges and going after the investigators. Then he tried to legislate those recommendations through parliament again directly violating the independence of the judicial system. This indeed was a massive attack on our judicial independence. Land grabs by henchmen from precious preserved rain forests started happening and when a young lady opened up to tell the plunder, police showed to her house to intimidate her to shut up.
To add injury to insult, he also broke the election promise to bring to justice the former governor of the CB who is hiding in Singapore and widely believed to be the mastermind of the bond scam. Yet another broken of many promises. And the remaining suspects are at large as if laws don’t apply to them. Indeed laws don’t apply to the rich and the powerful, sadly.
The Promised Land was not going to be.
People want to know why both parties always protect the big criminals. Why, why. Why? All people see are photo ops of high powered suspects walking into CID or court houses and magically their cases disappear or drop.
Lack of experience was showing up again and again. Gota wants to transform farming by switching to organic fertilizer but wants to do it in a hurry and in the midst of a global pandemic where almost all our revenue streams have dried up. Farming was still alive and well and at least kept our people fed. That vital economic activity was derailed by nobody other than the head of the country in his haste. This could have waited and should have been introduced gradually. Now farmers are hunting for that most essential of things, the darn fertilizer.
Then came the icing on the cake. A convicted murderer who whose conviction was reinforced by the Supreme Court was pardoned and then awarded to run a key department (remember right man for the right job?) while all pleas made to release his fierce critic Ranjan from jail went nowhere. Ranjan was an elected and respected member of parliament who spoke fearlessly against corruption, while the murderer was just a goon. Gota could have won a tiny bit of his lost glory by releasing Ranjan too. Pardoning Duminda was a huge slap on our judicial system again and a display of sheer arrogance and abuse of executive power – executive overreach.
Then he rushed to appoint his non-elected dual citizen brother as the Finance Minister. On what qualifications, god only knows but people have taken notice of this nepotism than ever before. This is no doubt a political blunder that will further alienate the President.
All mighty China is its quest for global domination has been making inroads into SL. Port city is a plan to get us hooked. Their loans are a plan to get us hooked. China is no friend of ours. They are a predator. Ruling party tried to legislate the Port City bill that was making port city practically a part of China. Their attempt to rush it just before Sinhala New Year was rightfully thwarted by the Supreme Court thanks to JVP.
20 Th Amendment with all its glory was showing its colors, not to strengthen our democracy or freedoms but to suppress dissent and favor the goons. Thanks to social media people take note than ever before.
Mostly due to Covid, the country is a fiscal mess and broke. No dollars even to pay of the debts. Imports curtailed, black market raising its head all the while the top leaders motorcades have not shrunk thanks to the money printing press at Biyagama. This is going to fuel inflation that will further hurt the everyday man who is already scraping the bottom of the pan. In fairness Gota inherited the fiscal mess thanks to his older brother’s and UNP’s massive borrowings.
The country needed a tried and tested leaders but Gota fell short. He had a golden opportunity to shine and win a part of his lost glory. He could have pre planned and rushed the vaccines to the nations much earlier on in keeping with his reputation as a doer. But vaccinations came too late and too little. A precious opportunity missed.
Today it is hard to find any of the 6.9 million voters. They have gone into hiding. People are angry and hungry. People are licking the wounds while looking for a rupee to feed their families. We are being compared to Afghanistan. We have become the beggar of the Indian sub-Continent.
Other than seeking China’s help we have an alternate. Gota can take a 180 and build friendship with the powerful West. They do have the capacity and resources to help us out of this fiscal mess. They have done this before to fellow European nations like Greece, Ireland and Spain. But that calls for dismantling many things he resorted to so far including dismantling nepotism, restoring the independence of the justice system and civil liberties, restoring the civil service back to civilian rule, releasing political foes from jail and observe and respect Democratic norms.
The irony is this. Who is going to dismantle the crazy 20th Amendment? That needs 2/3rds. It is hard to imagine another Sirisena to revert power. Besides, people are fed up of the other major party too. All those who voted for 20th A and the horse traded in from opposition should be treated like treasonist for this one reason.
Finally as a citizen of SL, whose ancestry runs deep into generations, why should I critique, one might ask. Is it because I hate Rajapaksas or Wicremesinghes? No, not at all. MR won the war and deserves a golden mention in our annals. It is called participation in the democratic process. Every citizen has a constitutional obligation to participate by screaming when the country is heading in the wrong direction. I wish more Lankans would do this screaming. That is our sacred duty to Mother Lanka and the least we all can do.