by Tisaranee Gunasekara
Basil Rajapaksa is unabashed in claiming that in Sri Lanka an era of ‘ruler kings’ has begun. Western ideas of transparency, he claims, along with limits of presidential power and accountability, are not relevant to ‘Asian Culture’.” (The Economist – November 2011)
The second term of President Rajapaksa (or the ‘Mihindu Era’, as a sycophantic warbler termed it) began on an apposite note. Hours before Dr. Jekyll-Mahinda presented his ‘development budget’, Mr. Hyde-Rajapaksa appointed an anti-development cabinet, hyperinflationary in size, labyrinthine in contours and revelatory in composition. The new cabinet (with portfolios such as Senior Minister for International Monetary Cooperation or Minister of Private Transport Services, and with Mervyn Silva as Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs) demonstrates the contempt with which the Rajapaksas hold the Lankan people. That contempt, however jarring, is not undeserved; it is wages for our acquiescence in the face of persistent abuse and gross injustice.
A democracy cannot be, without elections, but elections alone do not make a democracy. Our responsibilities as citizens do not begin on the polling day nor end at the polling booth. If we voluntarily reduce our role to that of voters and nothing but voters, we will embolden our elected representatives (of all hues) to interpret their mandate as a carte blanche to abuse power or to engage in blatant self-advancement (including ‘party-hopping’). In such an insalubrious environ democracy would erode, even when it is not deliberately asphyxiated. Such abdication of democratic responsibility by the citizenry becomes of far greater concern and consequence, when rulers have despotic impulses or – worse still – harbour tyrannical agendas.
Absurdities are as much a hallmark of a tyranny as atrocities. “Among his many presents, the President should have received a crown”, opines Minister Basil Rajapaksa. (The Economist – 18.11.2010). The official slogan for the Second Inauguration hailed President Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s Sun and Moon; at the swearing-in drama, the President made his grand entrance emerging from a mammoth anthropomorphic sun, painted in the traditional Sinhala manner (that grotesquerie contained several books-worth of analyses of the Rajapaksa Chinthanaya).
The Rajapaksas intend not to govern as democratic leaders but to rule as de facto monarchs. They are impatient of (if not inimical to) democratic traditions and safeguards, such as separation of powers, transparency and accountability. In a move of symbolic import, the Prime Minister’s seat in parliament has been set aside for the President. That step, enabled by the 18th Amendment, signifies the spreading of executive tentacles over the legislature; it is yet another nail in the coffin of democracy.
Dissent is a criminal-sin in a country of (divinely mandated) ruler-kings. The UNP leadership is safe from Rajapaksa-wrath because it cannot challenge the Ruling Family. The moment the opposition acts a little less supinely, the Rajapaksas isolate the agent/s of efficacy and suppress them, as evidenced by the jailing of Sarath Fonseka and the attack on JVPers visiting Jaffna. Even leading Buddhist monks are menaced with Rajapaksa-thunderbolts, when they attempt dissent. The US State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report chronicles how the regime bludgeoned the Asgiriya and Malwatte Mahanayakes into ditching a planned Sangha Council to protest the incarceration of Sarath Fonseka: “….a delegation of government ministers met with the Mahanayakes to discourage them from holding the assembly. There were reports from a wide range of contacts that local temples across the country received anonymous threats that any busses carrying Buddhist monks to attend the assembly would be bombed, and the Mahanayakes called off the sessions indefinitely. Contacts reported that the Mahanayake of Malwatte who had organised the call for the assembly, was threatened with government action, which would split the Chapter and significantly reduce its influence, if he attempted to speak out on political issues again.”
Tyranny can be conjunctural or structural. Conjunctural tyranny can exist within a democracy because it is episodic and incidental, and therefore reversible. Structural tyranny can germinate in a democracy but it cannot come into fruition without fatally damaging its democratic-host. Until the 18th Amendment, Sri Lanka remained a conjunctural tyranny; had Mahinda Rajapaksa retired at the end of his second term (as his two predecessors with despotic inclinations did) his Dynastic Project would have crumbled and Sri Lanka could have returned to being a flawed democracy.
That democratic possibility was killed by the 18th Amendment; it removed presidential term-limits and rendered electoral justice impossible by placing the Elections Commissioner and the IGP, key players in any election, under the thumb of the President. It was the first great-leap in a process aimed at transforming the constitution into an impregnable rampart protecting Rajapaksa Rule.
Barring some fortuitous accident, the Rajapaksas are here to stay. Faced with this unpalatable reality, driven to un-hope by the UNP’s shenanigans, even opponents of the Dynastic Project may feel the urge to disengage, to wait behind a wall of indifference for better times. The opposition is weak and fractured and Ranil Wickremesinghe is a by-word for disaster; precisely why we, as citizens, must remain engaged, intra-elections. If we fail to defend our rights or to oppose wrong done in our name, we will be the losers.
Though regime-change is not a realistic option for now, opposing the abuses and impeding the excesses of the Rajapaksas are both necessary and (still) possible. Indeed, outside of the traditional oppositional space, many citizens (of all political hues and none) attempt to defend themselves, when victimised by Rajapaksa governance or threatened by the ‘developmental war’. The successful protest by fishermen and their families, against a plan by the Navy to land sea-planes in the Negombo lagoon (to ‘promote development through tourism’) is an excellent case in point.
Just as abuses breed more abuses, resistance can breed more resistance. The UDA “now functioning under the Defence Ministry, has drawn up a mass eviction plan for both residents in possession of valid deeds and those occupying state land in Colombo city….. Residents in Slave Island, most of them holding valid deeds for their houses and living in the area for more than five decades, have been told to be prepared to move out…..” (The Sunday Times – 21.11.2010). The UNP may be too engrossed in its internal imbroglios to assist these 60,000 families, a key component of its own vote base; but the intended victims have formed the Colombo Residents’ Protection Organisation to fight this monstrous injustice. Such spontaneous mass initiatives are important in impeding, however minutely, the Rajapaksa Juggernaut; they also provide alternate spaces for political engagements for those who are opposed to Rajapaksa Rule but tired of the traditional opposition.
Political resistance to Rajapaksa deeds would be impossible without psychological resistance to the Rajapaksa Chinthanaya, that grotesque dogma which promotes injustice, impunity and intolerance in the name of ‘patriotism’ and ‘nation’.
In contradistinction to this anti-democratic and retrogressive worldview, we need to create a vision of a Lankan future which is democratic and humane, accepts economic rights of the poor, political rights of the minorities and human rights of all and refuses to countenance ruler-kings. Resisting the Rajapaksa commonsense by developing an alternative worldview is perhaps a sine-qua-non for the creation of an alternative political project, in this Mihindu Era.