by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"Mother, are your watching from heaven, as the Son, who the gods and the Brahmas sent to your womb from golden palaces, is protecting the Nation?” (From a song dedicated to President Rajapaksa’s mother)
Admire him or detest him, support him or decry him, the indubitable fact is that in five short years Mahinda Rajapaksa has transformed Sri Lanka, almost beyond recognition.
Some of President Rajapaksa’s achievements are glaringly evident. He (together with his brother Gotabaya and former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka) ended a nearly three-decade war in less than three years. The LTTE, thought by many to be invincible, was comprehensively defeated and top Tiger leaders, including Velupillai Pirapaharan, decimated.
The wish-list of the irrationals on the ultra-Sinhala fringe has been turned into the official policy of Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa denied the very existence of an ethnic problem, removed the task of achieving a political solution from the national agenda and even effaced the very terms ‘ethnic problem’, ‘political solution’ and ‘devolution’ from the political lexicon. The APRC is dead and plans to change the demographics of the North and the East via state-aided colonisation drives is continuing apace.
A recent cabinet paper ordered provincial councils to seek permission from relevant line ministries before issuing any circulars, thereby making a mockery of the 13th Amendment.
The 18th Amendment axed the presidential term-limit clause, the sole really-existing obstacle to long term Rajapaksa Rule and turned the Independent Commissions into Presidential appendages. The consequent transformation of top public officials (especially the Elections Commissioner and the IGP) into mere presidential ciphers has immeasurably enhanced the possibility of future elections becoming stage-managed exercises with predetermined outcomes, like the electoral black-comedy in Myanmar.
The politically motivated trial and incarceration of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka is having on the democratic opposition the same stunning effect the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge had on the non-state media.
Both deeds demonstrate how deadly dangerous it is to seriously challenge Rajapaksa rule. The point is driven home consistently in diverse ways, from the harassment of the aged mother of the press-owner who printed a poster comparing President Rajapaksa and Herr Hitler to the sudden escalation of deaths in police custody.
Post-war, the militarization of Sri Lanka continues. Defence expenditure dwarfs all other items in the 2011 budget. The military controls the civil administration of the North while plans are afoot to garrison even the Sinhala majority districts. A new intelligence service is to be set up.
The defence establishment persists in imposing restrictions on the rights of citizens, the most recent case in point being the limiting of the number of SIM-cards an individual can own, arbitrarily, without even informing the Telecommunication Regulation Authority.
The Emergency and the PTA continue to be in force while the Defence Ministry is making ever deeper inroads into civil administration; for instance, the Ministry recently took over the management of public bill-boards in Colombo and ordered foreign and local aid workers to register with it. Sri Lanka is being moved rapidly into the Chinese sphere of influence, possibly as a counter to future pressures from India and the West.
The Rajapaksas rule supreme, from Point Pedro to Point Dondra.
Democracies can be assaulted from without or undermined from within. History is littered with examples of elected leaders using the power they gained democratically to transform democracies into autocracies. Such as the Duvaliers in Haiti; Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier came to power democratically in a free and fair election.
Once in power, President Duvalier moved systematically to build personal and familial rule. He hounded his defeated rival out of politics, used terror to subdue his opponents and changed the constitution to enable his own re-election (the Haitian constitution permitted only one presidential term). Duvalier became ‘President for Life’ and nominated his son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) as his successor, via a constitutional amendment.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa was nominated the SLFP’s Presidential candidate in 2005, he named his election manifesto Mahinda Chinthanaya, after himself (a song written for the occasion referred to Rajapaksa as a ‘King who believes in equality’). This move, unprecedented in Lankan politics, seems portentous with hindsight. As President, Rajapaksa worked diligently to create a personality cult and to gather all power into his and his siblings’ hands. The Rajapaksa brothers control key ministries as well as a lion’s share of the public funds (around 70% of the national budget).
At the last parliamentary election, his eldest son Namal formerly entered the political arena. Though only a neophyte parliamentarian, he accompanies his father on official visits abroad and plays the role of ‘heir-apparent’, casting even the Foreign Minister into shade. (Namal played the high official, unofficially, even before he entered parliament; for instance, he was a keynote speaker at the official 61st Independence Day ceremony at the Lankan Embassy in Washington, together with Ambassador Jaliya Wickremasuriya, a son of President Rajapaksa’s first cousin).
After just five years of Rajapaksa rule, the necessary line of demarcation between the First Family and the state is almost non-existent. Thraunyata Hetak (Awakening Youth), an organisation formed by Namal Rajapaksa in the 2005 Presidential election season, is planning to set up ‘Blue Villages’ (Nil Gammana) in the Kandy District to mark the upcoming swearing-in of President Rajapaksa. According to UPFA Parliamentarian Dilum Amunugama, “The purpose of this project is to develop the villages and to promote the Nil Balakaya… The project has been funded by government institutions, NGOs and through private funding” (Daily Mirror – 10.11.2010; emphasis mine). Nil Balakaya (the Blue Brigade), an affiliate of Tharunyata Hetak, emerged literally out of the blue, fully formed and generously endowed, about one year ago.
According to Namal Rajapaksa, it “has a political objective. Nil Balakaya was made cynosure to the youth (sic) who are ‘fed up’ with party politics… Nil Balakaya wants to make the youth a political being (sic)…” (The Sunday Observer – 4.4.2010). Neither Tharunyata Hetak nor Nil Balakaya is a statal or a para-statal organisation. They are political entities with partisan agendas (according to a report by Transparency International, Tharunyata Hetak placed TV and radio advertisements worth Rs. 90 million during the Presidential election, indirectly supporting Candidate Rajapaksa). And yet, they continue to receive massive state patronage.
Louis XIV of France, in a statement which symbolised the absolutist monarchist ethos, infamously equated himself with the state. In absolutist states, public funds would belong to rulers to do as they please, be it building palaces, promoting relatives or rewarding favourites. But in a democracy, public funds cannot be used to promote partisan political projects, even when they belong to a presidential offspring. The public has a right to know why its tax money is being used to fund activities by Tharunyata Hetak or to promote Nil Balakaya. This constant breaching of the essential line of demarcation between the state and the Ruling Family should cause public outrage. The fact it doesn’t indicates how far we have come in the short first-term of President Rajapaksa.
Because, the most portentous of the Rajapaksa achievements is the consensual imposition of a new commonsense on the Lankan public, turning the impossible and the inconceivable into unremarkable daily fare. We do not laugh when President Rajapaksa is hailed as High King. We have accepted the equation of Rajapaksa interests with national interests and are unmoved by the blatant creation of a ‘Familiocracy’. The notions of ‘president for life’ or ‘heirs-apparent’ would have appalled us once but do not anymore. We choose not to see the danger of the militarisation of Sri Lanka by a Rajapaksaised military and are willing to sacrifice our democratic freedoms in return for being saved from apocryphal dangers.
Perhaps the unquestioning acceptance of such abominations as ‘humanitarian offensives,’ ‘zero-casualty wars’ and ‘welfare villages’ has adapted us psychologically to accept lesser lies and outrages, with complaisance. Perhaps we are willing to be deceived because we realise that the truth is too unpleasant and frightening to be handled, and would impede our determination to continue with our daily lives as if nothing much has changed in the last five years.
For a dynastic project to be viable, it must be placed within an ideological framework which legitimises the rule of one family by making its interests coterminous with the interests of key segment/s of the populace. Using the stupendous victory over the Tigers (won without making a single political concession to the Tamils and after rolling back many progressive measures of the 1987-2005 period), the Rajapaksas have succeeded in persuading a majority of the Sinhala majority of the correctness of their Family-centric narrative.
This narrative depicts Mahinda Rajapaksa as the sole Leader-Hero-Saviour of the Nation and identifies the continuation of Rajapaksa rule as a necessary and sufficient precondition for the protection of the nation from internal and external threats.
It redefines Sri Lanka as a country of One Nation, One People, One Leader; patriotism is loyalty to the One Leader who embodies the spirit of the One Nation and expresses the will of the One People. By implicitly transferring the sovereignty of the nation and the people on to the leader, it has enabled the creation of a National Security State, with a difference.
The purpose of Sri Lanka’s nascent National Security State is not the protection of rule by an ethnic or religious group or a class; its purpose is perpetuating Rajapaksa Rule and Rajapaksa Dynastic succession. A democratic façade is used to justify what is essentially an anti-democratic monstrosity. Even the incessant invocation of national values is nothing more than a gimmick, as the passing of the Gaming Bill demonstrates.
During his first term President Rajapaksa ruled by imposing a consensual hegemony on the Sinhala majority and a non-consensual domination on the minorities. The continuation of this dualist strategy depends on his capacity to deliver the peace dividend to the Southern masses in his second term (the minorities are cowed and will remain so, until new leaderships emerge). But this political requirement runs counter to the economic strategy of the regime.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal during his recent sojourn in the United States, President Rajapaksa promoted Sri Lanka as a low-cost alternative to China. This would entail turning Sri Lanka into a ‘sweat-shop hub’ characterised by low wages, poor living conditions, low educational levels and absence of trade union rights, sustainable only under conditions of despotism.
In the context of such an anti-popular economic strategy, the Rajapaksas need to remain Sinhala heroes if they are to retain their hegemony in the South. Therefore in his second term President Rajapaksa will accelerate attempts to create a siege mentality by conjuring Northern, Southern and international enemies and Tiger, JVP and even UNP threats.
The recent hype about ‘wheat terrorism’ is indicative of the Rajapaksa willingness to invoke the most preposterous of bogeys to justify their inability to deliver economic relief to their Southern base. Where these tactics fail, naked terror will be used, selectively.
Rains and the resultant deluges permitting, the second-Rajapaksa swearing in will be celebrated with the pomp and pageantry befitting a coronation. Ranil Wickremesinghe was hailed as a harbinger of a bright new future when he took over from Gamini Dissanayake.
For two decades, Velupillai Pirapaharan was praised as a great leader and even worshipped as a living god. Yet they both turned out to be disasters for the causes they espoused. For many Sri Lankans, the encomiums which will be heaped on President Rajapaksa at the end of his first term may not seem all that excessive.
But his final legacy may turn out to be not dissimilar to that of the marginalised Wickremesinghe or the dead Pirapaharan. It is a thought to remember as we stand on the cusp between the First and Second Rajapaksa Presidential terms and look back at five transformative years; or watch the hubris-laden celebration hailing our Rajapaksa future.