By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“His smiling picture is everywhere…. He’s given his name to all the squares….
He’s burned the last soothsayer — Who failed to kneel before the idol….
From the Caribbean to China’s Great Wall — The dictator-dragon is being cloned.”
— Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati (The Dragon)
Thursday’s local government election marks a key milestone in the Rajapaksa project of establishing total familial control over the state, the army and the SLFP.
The election took place in a context totally advantageous to the regime. The 18th Amendment had tilted the electoral-field firmly in its favour. The opposition is in unprecedented disarray. Polling took place mostly in rural/suburban areas where the Rajapaksas enjoy considerable popularity. Elections for all municipal councils were postponed, to save the UPFA from a humiliating defeat in Colombo. The governing coalition ignored election laws with impunity and abused state power and resources at will.
Defeat was impossible under such conditions.
And yet, instead of taking the election in their stride, the Rajapaksas campaigned with manic energy. This poll, though unimportant as an electoral battle, was of immense significance as a political contestation. What was at stake was not just power at the local government level but also the Rajapaksas’ capacity to maintain their hegemony in the South, including within the SLFP. A less-than-total win would weaken the Ruling Family’s standing in the country and loosen its grip on the SLFP. A stunning victory would enhance the ‘Rajapaksa magic’ and convince rank and file SLFPers to shift their allegiance unreservedly from the Bandaranaike-dynasty to the Rajapaksa-dynasty.
So the President and his siblings spearheaded the election campaign while senior SLFPers were reduced to a barely visible ancillary role. Under Rajapaksa tutelage, the campaign became a hot-war against the opposition and a cold-war against the remaining pockets of (passive) resistance to Rajapaksa Rule within the SLFP. The main focus was on Hambantota, the traditional Rajapaksa fiefdom and Gampaha, the former Bandaranaike stronghold, which Basil Rajapaksa is intent on taking over. Interestingly, Brother Basil, rather than First Son Namal, functioned as the second-in-command to the President, demonstrating that this is still Rajapaksa Brothers Inc. (though it may metamorphose into Rajapaksa and Sons Inc. someday.) The campaign also debunked persistent rumours about a major ‘fall-out’ within the Ruling Family. There would be differences of opinion among various members of the family, as well as incompatibilities created by competitive personal agendas (for instance, between Uncle Basil and Nephew Namal). But these are mere ‘tiffs’ of no strategic import and do not prevent genuine unity in defence of the overall Familial Project.
A Dysfunctional Society
Despots want their people to become permanent navel-gazers. A despot’s utopia is a society in which people live in their own petty private worlds surrounded by massive psychological ramparts. Milton Meyer has pointed out that non-interference was what the Nazis wanted from ordinary Germans: “Absolutely nothing was expected of them except to go on as they had paying their taxes, reading their local paper and listening to the radio” (They Thought They were Free). Similarly the Rajapaksas want nothing more from Sri Lankans than passive, silent acquiescence to their rule. Their ideal is an accommodationist mindset, characterised by indifference and apathy, and a temperament which ignores even the most obvious injustices because of a deep-seated belief that ‘nothing can be done’. A Rajapaksa landslide at the election will etch this deadly and deadening fatalism ever more deeply into the collective Southern-psyche by making long term Rajapaksa Rule seem even more of a fait accompli than before.
Despots prefer dysfunctional societies purged of natural compassion and human solidarity, especially across primordial or political barriers. They compel people to focus on dividing lines rather than on unifying factors, thereby reducing drastically the politico-psychological space for common vision and common action. The Rajapaksas would want their Southern base to believe that their draconian policies towards civilian Tamils or Colombo’s poor are correct. They would want the Sinhalese to be indifferent to the forced registration of Tamils, the non-poor to be indifferent to mass eviction of the poor and the well-fed to be indifferent to the fact that 20% of Lankan children are undernourished.
The Rajapaksas would regard with paranoia the idea of oppositional unity across ethnic, religious and class lines on the basis of political freedom and socio-economic justice (a project of politico-social liberalism in contradistinction to economic neo-liberalism). Their counter is Sinhala Supremacism masquerading as patriotism; and resurrecting the dead Tiger periodically to keep ethnic over determination alive.
A key lesson of Arab revolutions is the decisive role of the military. If the army is not a national entity but the security force of the Ruling Family, it does not cavil at reacting with overwhelming violence to unarmed protests. Such an army would either crush a peaceful uprising immediately or cause it to change its peaceful character and become violent, by compelling protestors to arm themselves in sheer self-defence. The regime can then characterise the revolution as a civil war and drown it in a blood-tide, as Muammar Gaddafi is doing in Libya. The Libyan Army (unlike the armies in Egypt and Tunisia and even in Bahrain) is not a national entity but a mere praetorian guard for the Gaddafi Family. This is no accident but the outcome of deliberate policy; during his 42 year rule, Gaddafi destroyed the relative autonomy of the Libyan Army and turned it into his personal tool.
In Sri Lanka, the process of Rajapaksising the Armed Forces is well underway. The siblings have deployed for this purpose their signature carrot-and-stick policy, symbolised in the contrasting fates of Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Gen. Shavendra Silva. Gen. Fonseka is a prisoner in Welikada jail, while Gen. Silva is in New York, as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Ambassador to the UN. The message these antipodal ends send to every serving or retired officer is as unmistakable as the message sent by the pre-emptive sacking of Mangala Samaraweera to SLFP seniors – no one is big enough to escape the wrath of the Rajapaksas.
Total, unquestioning loyalty to the Ruling Family is the only option available to those who want to avoid trouble and get ahead in life. Mussolini defined his fascist model as “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”. ‘All within the Family, nothing outside the Family, nothing against the Family’ is the Rajapaksa ethos.
Despots believe that their rule represent the end of history. But a day comes when the promise of bread, the reality of expensive circuses and the fear of barbarians at the gate cease to suffice. The Rajapaksa Rule will last for a while, but this ‘low dishonest decade’ (or decades) will end someday. The democracy tsunami cannot be confined to the Arab World, nor will Sri Lanka be immune to the democratic Zeitgeist of the new century. The Rajapaksas have already begun to prepare for this future danger by working diligently to erase the line of demarcation between the Ruling Family and the Armed Forces. Their aim would be to turn the Lankan military into their praetorian guard, a debased force which will not balk at mowing down unarmed and peaceful Sinhala protestors.