Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Moving away from democracy in Sri Lanka

The present Sri Lankan government has proved that though Sri Lanka is a small country, it has been able to achieve many things that other countries, specially in the West have not been able to. Nowhere in the world has terrorism been crushed and destroyed using only force. “Destroying terrorism is not a crime” the Defense Secretary told Stephen Sackur of the BBC. What was implied is that the means we used cannot be questioned. In other countries a military solution goes hand in hand with a political solution. In Sri Lanka the government believes that there is no political problem and therefore a political solution is not necessary. If that is so what made the LTTE take up arms? “There was no reason. They were born terrorists and the only solution was to exterminate them. We have done it. Now, don’t talk about the past, and put forward the demands of the terrorists like power sharing and devolution of power”, seems to be the government’s answer. Most Sri Lankans including some Tamils have accepted this answer. People of most other countries would not have. That too is an achievement of the Rajapaksa regime. Finally the Rajapaksa brothers have convinced the people that democracy imposed on us by our colonial masters is not such a wonderful system. It is much safer to hand over power to one family. The Rajapaksas did not take over power by staging a coup (Although Sarath Fonseka has called the presidential election the biggest coup!)Using different methods, they merely persuaded the people to vote the whole family into power, for after all the President can only trust his family members and friends. As Gotabhaya Rajapaksa pointed out in his ‘Hard Talk’ interview all members of the Rajapaksa family received a massive number of preferential votes. When Stephen Sackur questioned whether it was healthy in a vibrant democracy, for one family to hold such wide powers, Gotabhaya’s answer was, “If the people gives all that power – all Rajapaksas were elected – so what? If the people want the Rajapaksas – let it be” This then is the biggest achievement of the Rajapaksas,that they have been able to make the people want them, perhaps to stay in power for ever.

Anyone who watched Gotabhya Rajapaksa on BBC would have realized that Sri Lanka is now firmly on the road away from democracy towards authoritarian rule. Gotabhya Rajapaksa was bold enough to tell Stephen Sackur that General Sarath Fonseka, who was mainly responsible for winning the war for the Rajapaksas could be executed if he were to agree to testify before any independent investigation of alleged abuses during the war. To quote his own words, “He (Sarath Fonseka) cannot do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason, we will hang him if he do that. I am telling you. How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar”. Such is the power of the Rajapaksas. The Defense secretary was not elected by the people but he seems to be the most powerful man of the present regime.

Not satisfied with the power they already wield, the regime plans to legally acquire unlimited powers for an unlimited period of time, by changing the constitution. The AHRC (Asian Human Rights Commission) referred to the taking over of the Attorney General’s Department by the President as “one more nail in the coffin, one more step on the road to consolidation of despotic government in Sri Lanka”. But there are more nails to come in the form of constitutional reforms to firmly seal democracy in a coffin. The new constitution would remove the 2 terms limit and give Mahinda Rajapaksa the freedom to remain President for life if he wished to or at least till he could hand over power to Namal Rajapaksa who is already referred to as the “heir apparent”. The senate would make it possible for any pro-democracy law to be effectively vetoed. That would be another nail in the coffin.

Stephen Sackur thinks, “The suggestion that General Fonseka could be executed is likely to cause a political storm in Sri Lanka”. He is wrong. We Sri Lankans know better. There will be no political storm, not even a strong breeze. The Rajapaksa brothers have seen to that. They have convinced the majority that while they won the war on terror and saved the country, General Fonseka has been proved to be a traitor, willing to betray the country. It may not take very long for the same people to be ready to cheer and applaud the hanging of this ‘traitor’ if and when the Rajapaksas decide to do so.

Organizations and institutions that could have staged a protest have been effectively silenced. The media has been the worst hit. Many journalists have been threatened, killed, abducted, tortured, disappeared or exiled for criticizing the government. Any thing that is said in support of these journalists is called LTTE propaganda. Even the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga is being referred as part of anti-government (LTTE) propaganda!

What about the main opposition? They cannot prevent this erosion of democracy as long as Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe remains the leader. He has now forgotten the ceasefire days when he spoke of a political settlement based on power sharing with the minorities. Like the Rajapaksa cabal he too seems to believe that ultra nationalism is the way forward and it is wiser to share power with the Rajapaksas than with the minorities. Being with them he helps the brothers to consolidate their power base. When Chamal Rajapaksa was chosen as the speaker of the House Ranil Wickramasinghe was expected to protest.  But he did not. Instead he lent his support to the Rajapaksa brothers and made his own job secure. Some people are beginning to wonder whether there is a secret agreement between Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa that while one remains President for life the other remains leader of the opposition for life. And so the UNP remains weak and ineffective unable to convince the people that willingly handing over all powers to one man and his family would ultimately destroy their freedom, and when that realization dawns it would be too late.

What about the intelligentsia in this country? Today many professionals and intellectuals are supportive of the Rajapaksa regime. They are ever willing to “protect the President’s good name”. Well known and respected intellectuals are prepared to accept a “little more corruption (un provable) and a little more nepotism (which is understandable)” from the Rajapaksa brothers – all this support is of course purely in the interest of the country they say.

What of the left parties and their leaders? As pointed out by Kusal Perera (June 06th, Sunday Leader) the old left parties like the LSSP and CP do not have any organized party structures as they had in the 50s and 60s. Their leaders are more interested in holding ministerial posts than in offering any constructive criticism. Enjoying state privileges and supporting a corrupt regime they have lost all credibility among the people. Left leaders of the past like N.M., Colvin and Leslie among many others were men of political integrity and honesty. Today there is none among the left parties of that caliber who could give leadership to the dissenting voices. Wickramabahu Karunaratna’s is a lone voice in the wilderness. The JVP does keep protesting but the people do not trust them due to their violent past.

Finally the people could protest against these moves towards authoritarianism but that is very unlikely. Most Sri Lankans are not perturbed by the sweeping powers exercised by the Rajapaksa brothers. To them what matters is that there is peace in the country. They are free to move around without any fear of sudden bomb explosions. There is security and they also believe that the economy is growing and the cost of living will gradually come down with development. As to freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary, probing war crimes and bringing those found guilty to justice, implementation of the 13th and 17th amendments, preventing Human Rights violations, abuse of power and corruption among the politicians, police and the government officials, and finally treating the minorities as equals through power sharing – these mean nothing to them. They are happy within the cocoons they have woven around themselves and refuse to see the reality outside their world. Amidst such apathy and indifference of the people, is there any hope of democracy surviving in Sri Lanka? An honest answer would be “No, not really”. But then as Kumar David says, “Weep not for the People; their mandate was the executioner’s Certificate”. (May 23rd, Lakbima News) Sri Lankans have failed Democracy.