Groundviews

Ghosts from the Past

Photograph courtesy Business Today

‘The sleep of reason produces monsters.’
Goya (The title of the 43rd etching of Los Caprichos)

Post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka is being haunted by the ghost of the Rajapaksa past and the spectre of a Rajapaksa future.

The 19th Amendment was a major democratic achievement. It restored presidential term limits, reduced presidential powers and reinstated independent commissions. The commissions will face their first acid test over the appointment of the next governor of the Central Bank. If the tainted incumbent is reappointed, the ability and willingness of independent commissions to stem the partisan excesses of politicians will be cast into grave doubt.

The 19th Amendment also barred two-term presidents from contesting the presidency again. This automatically disqualifies former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting the 2020 presidential election. The only way he can remedy the situation is via another constitutional amendment. Such a change would require a parliament in which Mr. Rajapaksa commands a two-thirds majority and a President weakened to the point of invertebrateness. Neither condition is likely to come about under normal democratic circumstances.

So the Rajapaksas are faced with a problem of Himalayan proportions. How can they use the next presidential election to regain the power they lost in the last one? The Family is unlikely to trust its future to an outsider, however servile that person might be now. The only way out is for another Rajapaksa to contest in 2020. Namal Rajapaksa is too young and Basil Rajapaksa is caught in too many legal tangles.

There is only one choice: Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa must not only contest; he must contest to win. Which means he cannot contest from the third party the likes of Wimal Weerawansa are raring to create; he must contest from the SLFP.

This is the context in which Minister John Seneviratne’s proposal to make Gotabhaya Rajapaksa a deputy leader of the SLFP must be considered.

Minister Seneviratne is one of those SLFPers who contested the 2015 parliamentary election as a member of the Mahinda Sulanga (Mahinda Wind) and jumped ship, post-defeat. Unlike the other senior John in the cabinet, John Amaratunga, Mr. Seneviratne is not given to dropping bricks and drivel every time he opens his mouth. If he says something controversial, it would be by intent rather than accident.

This is also not the first time Minister Senevirtane talked about bringing Gotabhaya Rajapaksa into active politics. In April, 2016, he stated that “senior SLFPers are of the opinion that Gotabhaya should be given a key post in the party.”[i]

Minister Seneviratne reportedly discussed the matter with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for over two hours[ii]. Days later, Mr. Rajapaksa himself made a statement, claiming that, “People living in Sri Lanka and outside the country have asked me to come forward to contest the next presidential election.”[iii] He didn’t say he would; he didn’t say he wouldn’t. But reading between the lines the message was clear: Gotabhaya is willing; willing to contest, become the president and return Sri Lanka to its right and proper fate of Rajapaksa rule.

Third Party or SLFP?
Mahinda Rajapaksa currently enjoys the support of more than half of the SLFP/UPFA parliamentary party. He also has substantial backing in provincial councils and local government bodies. He remains popular at the grass roots level. But how big a split he can effect, how many SLFPers would abandon their traditional political home and follow him into unknown territory is uncertain. Since the birth of the two-party system in 1956, popular leaders who broke away from their parent parties and formed new ones didn’t fare well politico-electorally.

A new party would be effective in making a mark at local government and provincial elections. It can put pressure on President Sirisena. It will be ideal to revenge on the SLFP for the cardinal sin of opting for a non-Rajapaksa future.

But a new party cannot win the presidency; or even form the next government.

If the Rajapaksas break up the SLFP and form a new party, they will achieve what Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamani Dissanayake did in 1992 – pave the way for the other major party to win the presidency and the parliament. If Messrs Athulathmudali and Dissanayake didn’t break up the UNP, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga would not have become the president in 2004. Similarly if the Rajapaksas break up the SLFP, it will be tantamount to providing the UNP with a free pass to victory in 2020.

By going alone, the Rajapaksas can defeat the SLFP. But they cannot defeat the UNP. Power cannot be regained via a new party. Power can be regained only via the SLFP.

The past can sometimes provide a good mirror of the future. Two incidents from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s past can help us remember the kind of leadership he will provide for Sri Lanka.

In April 2014, the editor-in-chief of the Sinhala daily, Lakbima, was interrogated by the CID. His ‘crime’ was carrying a funny caption over a picture of the wife of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. “…..Ayoma Rajapaksa was depicted buying goods at the New Year fair of the Civil Defence Department. The caption of the photo was…. ‘They aren’t fake money aren’t they?’”[iv] The newspaper apologised the very next day, but to no avail. The CID grilled the editor-in-chief for three hours. The sub-editor, directly responsible for the caption, was dismissed from the job[v]. Subsequently the editor himself tendered his resignation.

In February 2008, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa filed a defamation case against the Sunday Leader for its coverage of the Ukrainian MIG deal. The case received wide publicity in the state and private media. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa gave his evidence on May 22, 2014. His cross-examination by counsel for defence MA Sumanthiren started on May 27th 2014. Logically, rationally the court house should have been teeming with media personnel. Yet on May 27th only the BBC correspondents tried – unsuccessfully – to enter the court premises. Two senior cops barred their way and informed them, “Nobody in their right minds would come here. No other media had come to cover this because they know the consequences.[vi]

Mr. Sumanthiran’s questions and Mr. Rajapaksa’s answers should have been headline news. Yet no media outlet carried the story. They obviously knew the consequences.

Pity the country which needs a hero, Brecht says in Galileo. Normal democracies do not require heroes or deliverers. To need a hero, a saviour, a country must be in peril; it must face an existential threat, be challenged by a deadly enemy.

For the Rajapaksa project to succeed, Sri Lanka must become a nation in chaos, imperilled by a racial or religious other. It is only if Sinhala-Buddhist minds are addled by fears, that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa can ride to the rescue.

To regain power, the Rajapaksas need to recreate in the Sinhala-South the phobia of being encircled and undermined by far more powerful and numerous alien forces. There will be increasing talk of reincarnated Tigers and surging Jihadists. Just as Donald Trump accuses President Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton of being soft on ‘Islamic terrorists’, the Rajapaksas will accuse President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe of being soft on the Tamil separatism and Muslim expansionism.

Once the fear of ‘inimical Others’ is in place, the need for a ‘leader rooted in people’ (‘Janamula Nayakaya’) who can save Lanka and Sinhala-Buddhists from inundation/subjugation/extinction will resurface.

And Gotabhaya Rajapaksa can step on the political centre stage, flanked by his brothers, followed by his clan.

Helping Rajapaksas

The Rajapaksas did what they shouldn’t have done and didn’t do what they should have done, and paid the ultimate price. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was elected to right those wrongs and not to repeat them. The current government is in trouble because of its tendency to imitate some of the excesses of its predecessor.

The Central Bank bond issue is not going to go away so long as Arjun Mahendran remains the Governor. His high handed practices including a reported refusal to cooperate with the officials of the Auditor General’s Department have made matters worse both for the man and the political leaders who back him. Reappointing such a controversial figure will be an act which is the opposite of not just good governance but also sensible and intelligent governance. Such a reappointment will delight the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition by presenting it with a credible stick to beat the government with. It will also disillusion those civil society groups whose support the government cannot do without, who would provide a rampart of last resort if Project Gotabhaya gets off the ground.

The attack on Negambo-based whistleblower journalist Freddie Gamage is another problem which cannot be blamed on the Rajapaksas. It is the first such attack since the new administration came into office. The police are not inactive, unlike during Rajapaksa times. Two suspects have been arrested and investigations are continuing. But the absence of a clear and unequivocal political response to what is clearly a political attack is worrying. If the government continues to act as if the incident is of no matter, other attacks may follow. Such violence may emanate at ministerial level rather from the very top, but they will have a disastrous effect on the credibility of the entire government.

The controversy surrounding the attempted resignation of Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, the Director General of the Wildlife Department, is another demonstration of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s suicidal bent. A demand by the subject minister that the Warden of the Yala Sanctuary apologise to Minister Sajith Premadasa for objecting to the latter’s highhanded actions is said to be the most immediate cause for the resignation. Wild life activists and concerned citizens protested, the PM responded by asking Dr. Pilapitiya to stay and looked as if another unnecessary crisis has been averted. Now Minister Jayawickrama Perera says he is going to hold an inquiry against the Warden about the statements he made to the media. According to the Minister, the Warden by going public has damaged the government and Minister Premadasa. But the real damage to the government was done by Ministers Premadasa and Jayawickrama Perera when they humiliated a public official and created a situation which precipitated the highly respected Director General of the Wildlife Department to resign. If the promised inquiry is held, the crisis will continue, and the government is likely to gain not credit but discredit.

No, post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka is not a haven of good governance. But it is a place where there’s freedom to protest bad governance practices and occasionally – occasionally – even put a stop to them.

That is one of the most important developments of the last 17 months: the public is interested in governance issues and expresses its opinions in innovative ways. When traders in Galle and Maharagama closed their shops to protest the drastic VAT hike, it is a Lankan first. The traders also explained that indirect tax hikes cause prices to go up which in turn impact adversely on the purchasing power of small people and the income generation of small businesses – a lesson in real life economics the government and its IMF advisors seem to be ignorant of.

That is why Sri Lanka is a democratic success story, particularly at a time when success stories are rare and failure is the common outcome. There is democratic space and a public eager to utilise that space. Admittedly Sri Lanka is not a finished product, but a work-in-progress. But perfect democracies are as much of a fallacy as perfect markets. What is important is to ensure that Sri Lanka moves forward, even at a snail’s pace, rather than remain stagnant or head back into the past.

[i] http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2016/04/03/gota-approached-to-enter-parliament/

[ii] http://www.colombopage.com/archive_16B/Jun05_1465101156CH.php

[iii] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/if-i-become-president-i-will-put-the-current-mess-on-the-right-track-gotabaya/

[iv] http://www.colombopage.com/archive_14A/Apr09_1397065125JV.php

[v] http://www.srilankabrief.org/2014/04/on-gotas-orders-lakbima-sub-editor.html

[vi] http://www.nidahasa.com/news/news.php?go=fullnews&newsid=1325