By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“At times media freedom is used to forget what is necessary for the country, what should be done for society… Similarly if we do not get the support of the courts we cannot do this. Every institution must realise this…. ‘Human Rights’, ‘Media Freedom’, various ideas such as these are given to us by The International to control our society… Be it the police, the army, some officials, politicians or leaders: it must be realised that they act sincerely. They must be supported” ~ Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Interview with the ITN – 24.2.2010)
If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency, he and his family will have two priorities: secure the premiership for Mahinda Rajapaksa and obtain a two-thirds majority in the next parliament for the SLPP. Reaching the first goal would be a necessary condition for reaching the second. If the SLPP can go for the next election under a SLPP president and a SLPP premier, a landslide victory would be possible.
There are rumours that a President Gotabaya plans to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe with Brother Mahinda via a Gazette Extraordinary one minute past Hour Zero. The legality or otherwise of such a move would not bother him. As he said in his famously infamous ‘conversation’ with Fredrick Jansz, “I’m not afraid of the bloody courts!” (The Sunday Leader – 12.7.2017).
The past can be a reliable mirror into the future, especially when some of the lead actors remain the same.
What did the Rajapaksas did when they last won a presidential election?
It was the early hours of January 27th, 2010. The votes were still being counted. Hundreds of armed soldiers and policemen surrounded the hotel in which Candidate Sarath Fonseka, his family and his political colleagues were temporarily residing.
Various Rajapaksa spokesmen claimed that the purpose of the siege was to arrest hundreds of armed army deserters Gen. Fonseka was keeping inside Cinnamon Lakeside. They accused him of plotting to mount a coup and to assassinate Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The ‘siege’ couldn’t uncover any deserters. There were none. The only soldiers present were members of Candidate Fonseka’s official security detail granted to him by the military, in accordance with the orders of the Election Commissioner. When these uniformed men came out of the hotel to report to their original unit, they were arrested, made to kneel on the road, handcuffed, and taken away by the military police.
Busy days followed.
The editor of the para-JVP paper, Lanka was arrested. A Swiss reporter was deported for asking sharp questions at a post-victory press conference. Cabinet Spokesman, Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa accused Mr. Fonseka of planning a ‘Bolshevik style coup’. Mr. Fonseka’s office was raided by a 200 strong STF contingent, searching for ‘army deserters’ and ‘illegal weapons’. Having found neither one nor the other, the raiders arrested 15 members of Mr. Fonseka’s staff, all of them duly retired army men. The office of the website Lanka e news was sealed. Government leaders announced their determination to obtain a two thirds majority at the parliamentary election, and effect a constitutional change. The army was subjected to a spate of transfers and compulsory retirements. The state TV began airing old and new songs hailing President Rajapaksa as the King of Sri Lanka. Private TV stations followed suit.
Two weeks after the presidential election, Mr. Fonseka was arrested. He was assaulted, handcuffed, and dragged away like a common criminal.
The next day, Mahinda Rajapaksa dissolved the parliament.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in an interview with The Strait Times, connected the dots: “Now he can’t (campaign in the parliamentary polls). The court martial will begin immediately after the assembling of the summary evidence is done. I don’t know how long it will take because that depends on lawyers. But we want to finish it soon, in less than six months maybe. The severity of the charges is very high. He can be put in jail for as long as five years.”
In the fortnight between the conclusion of the presidential election and dissolving of the parliament, the opposition’s back was broken and the path to a landslide victory for the governing party assured.
Bolshevik Coups and Other Tales
In Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, Joseph K is arrested because “someone must have been telling lies” about him. Throughout the book he tries to discover the name of his crime and fails. In the end, he is condemned to death by “the judge he had never seen” and “the high court he has never reached.” The fear both the protagonist and the reader feel comes from this unknowing. Any landscape however terrifying can be negotiated if it has familiar landmarks. But when a landscape is surreal, unknowing and unknowable, direction has no meaning and being lost is every destination.
Sri Lanka in February 2010 was going to become Russia in October 1917, or so Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa claimed. Possibly with Sarath. Fonseka as Vladimir Illich Ulyanov also know as Lenin.
No one laughed.
‘Bolshevik Committees’ headed by military officers loyal to Mr. Fonseka were to be formed, the cabinet spokesman claimed. The purpose of the coup was to assassinate Brothers Mahinda, Brothers Gotabaya and Basil and several senior ministers. “With the military officers who were active partners of the conspiracy spilling the beans, it is frightening to contemplate the result of what may have happened if such a Russian Revolution–style military coup had taken place… In a popular revolt when people get killed it is not possible to pinpoint the killers. That was how the plotters planned to divert the attention of the public from the bloodbath and prevent investigations being conducted” (Daily Mirror – 6.2.2010).
How does one respond to such a charge, when laughter is not an option?
The only way the opposition could have managed in that Kafkaesque landscape was by banding together. Instead the oppositional unity unravelled. The UNP and the JVP faced the parliamentary election as rivals, sealing their doom and that of Lankan democracy.
The Rajapaksas won a resounding victory just short of a two-thirds majority. And almost 40% of the electorate did not vote.
The turnout at the presidential poll had been 74.5%. At the parliamentary election turnout was down to 61.26%. That abstention enabled Rajapaksa to score a massive win, despite a drastic drop in its average vote compared to the presidential election.
As the outcome of the election became clear, Rupavahini began telecasting songs hailing President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the ‘God given King’ and ‘Saviour-Hero’ of the nation.
A fortnight later, Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a warning to the new parliament. “The new government should go all out against any local element promoting separatist sentiments regardless of political consequences,” he told the legislators. He “expressed concern that a section of officialdom could help the separatist cause by trying to appease foreign governments and some funding agencies,” and emphasised the “pivotal importance of the judiciary, particularly the Attorney General’s Department, in supporting the government’s efforts to suppress terrorism.” He stated that “Opposition political parties or constituent partners of the ruling coalition should not be allowed to engage in divisive politics” (The Island – 17.4.2010).
Not a word was said, then or later, about the Bolshevik coup. Having created the psycho-political conditions for a landslide Rajapaksa victory, it was consigned to the abyss of forgotten lies. It was needed. Then it was not. As Joseph K is told by a priest, “You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.”
The Shape of Dystopia
This week a man called Julampitiye Amare was sentenced to death.
Who was Julampitiye Amare? What was his crime?
During the run up to the Southern provincial council election, a JVP meeting in Katuwana, in the Rajapaksa bastion of Hambantota was attacked. Ten men on five motorbikes, armed with T56 rifles shot into the crowd, killing two and injuring several.
Julampitiye Amare, a man the police was looking for high and low but could never be found even though he moved around in broad day in the company of the Rajapaksas, led the attack. This much wanted man was even in the habit of visiting his friends in prison, a judge revealed in open court.
That was how law and order was maintained in the Rajapaksa past.
This is the disciplined and law-abiding future which awaits us if Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency.
If so, JVP activists in Hambantota might even encounter a hastily pardoned Julampititye Amare during the upcoming parliamentary election campaign.
The Rajapaksas needed the Julampitiye Amares to win elections because of the mess the economy was in by 2011 and its growing political fallout.
For instance, between July 2011 and February 2012, the Central Bank used a third of the country’s gross foreign exchange reserves to keep the rupee stable. More than US$ 2.7 billion was released into the market during these seven months. When this insanity turned unsustainable, the Rajapaksas veered to the other extreme and allowed the rupee to go into free fall. The day the rupee was allowed to depreciate freely the President placed the armed forces on alert. Then he was in Singapore. His brother and economic czar Basil Rajapaksa was missing. When the inflationary time-bomb exploded, neither was around to explain what went wrong. And Gotabaya Rajapaksa was too busy waging a war against birds who were sullying his pristine Colombo with their droppings.
Fuel prices were jacked up to astronomical levels, all at once. Bus fares and electricity rates also went up within days. When fishermen in Chilaw demonstrated against the fuel hike, they were met by a combined force of police, army and the STF. One fisherman, Anthony Fernando, a father of two, was shot dead and around eight were injured, some seriously. A JVP protest in Colombo was brutally attacked the same day and a joint-Opposition protest was treated in an identical manner two days later.
According to Nesta Fernando, an eyewitness to the shooting of Anthony Fernando, “…the army attacked our people, beat them up and tear-gassed them. They shot at several of our people. We told them several times not to shoot but just to beat back our boys. But they did not listen. We may have been able to save the injured boy if we were allowed to take him to hospital” (Gosssip Lanka – 17.2.2012). Chilaw, on the day of Mr. Anthony’s funeral, looked like a part of the besieged North, teeming with armed soldiers and military vehicles.
From the charade of economic miracles to a very real death – that was how the Rajapaksas managed the economy in the past. That past will be repeated if Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency.
As for preserving the culture, traditions and heritage, this was what the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter, Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Thero, had to say in 2012: “Excavating treasure under the guise of resurrecting ancient history is not done without the consent of high-ranking government officials…even excavating machines are used for digging treasures. The average man can’t dig with backhoes, and even if the underlings are caught, the big guns behind these crimes still manage to be safe…” (Ceylon Today – 18.5.2012).
Then there were the plans the Rajapaksas couldn’t implement then, and will resurrect in the future, if the future becomes theirs on November 17th.
Such as the plan by Tharunyata Hetak, a Namal Rajapaksa fief to set up ‘Blue villages’ to develop the villages and to promote the Nil Balakaya, another Namal Rajapaksa fief.
Such as the Jana Sabha scheme. The Jana Sabhas, as the UPFA General-Secretary Susil Premjayanth pointed out, were to have the power to prepare their own budgets and development plans and to obtain the necessary financial allocations from the central government. The elected provincial councils and local government authorities were to be legally obliged to seek approval from the unelected Jana Sabhas to launch any project. The Jana Sabhas were also to be given control over the development funds of parliamentarians, including how the money is to be spent and monitoring of related projects. And they were to function under the ‘purview’ of Basil Rajapaksa.
The brothers were in the process of turning the Lankan state into a Rajapaksa state when 2015 intervened. Will we enable them to resume that interrupted journey on November 16th? That is what this election is really about.
The Morning After
Maithripala Sirisena’s unpardonable decision to pardon the brutal murderer of a young woman was one more reminder of the dangers inherent even in a truncated presidency. Mr. Sirisena’s capacity to abuse power was limited not just by the law, but also by his own lack of real power. He was hemmed in by the fact that his party couldn’t dominate the parliament and he couldn’t dominate his own party.
If he wins, Sajith Premadasa’s worse instincts too would be hemmed in by similar constraints. He wouldn’t be able to rule the UNP, but lead it through a process of consensus. The UNP would not be able to rule the next parliament because there will be a strong opposition.
But none of these constraints will be present if the Rajapaksas make a comeback. Mahinda Rajapaksa could turn Sri Lanka into a familial oligarchy because of a unique set of circumstances. He won the war, and he had a Mafia-type family of brothers, sons, and nephews. With these two factors he was able to hegemonise and command his party, and for several years the country.
If there’s a second incarnation of the Rajapaksa Inc. it would be shorter on hegemony than last time. But in the SLPP the Rajapaksas have a party that is wholly theirs and in Gotabaya they will have the president no Lankan institution will resist (they are already kowtowing to him). If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency, the future will be like the past and worse.