Featured image courtesy Asia Times
“History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again”.
Maya Angelou (On the Pulse of Morning: An Inaugural Poem)
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s maiden speech as the SLPP’s Presidential candidate was a masterpiece in banality. It didn’t contain a single memorable sentence or one inspiring idea. That absence was no accident. The speech aimed not to fire the imagination of its auditors, but to quieten their unease, to reassure them, to lull them into a sense of complacency. Its purpose was to create a word-image of a new Gotabaya who is the antitheses of the familiar Gotabaya. This Gotabaya-in-the-making is a harmless but effective technocrat, not the terminator of men, but the terminator of corruption, as his brother Basil phrased it.
In her Nobel Lecture, Toni Morrison reflects on how language “is handled, put into service, and even withheld…for nefarious purposes.” Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech, and the campaign it foreshadows, would have us disremember that this man, when told that Gen. Fonseka had implicated him in the White Flag incident, spluttered, “He can’t do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason. We will hang him if he do that… He is a liar, liar, liar…”
Not that man, who dreams of dispensing death, like Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech cajoles us to believe. That man never was. We imagined him. Just listen to this speech choking with unexceptionable platitudes that any politician anywhere would use: people-centric development, developing human resources, more jobs, more infrastructure, e government, middle class housing, war heroes, patriotism, national sovereignty… This is the reality of Gotabaya, not a terrifying killer, but a boring pedant, who deals not in violence but in safe commonplaces.
What was sui generis about the speech were not the words used, but the words carefully left out – omissions not of forgetfulness but of memory, since the candidate was reading off a teleprompter. The speech made no mention of democracy, basic rights and freedoms, justice or rule of law. It condemned extremist terrorism but not extremism. All these absences clearly indicate what his presidency would be about – the rule of one man and his coterie, according not to laws or due processes but their wants, needs, whims and fancies.
Early in the speech, Gotabaya Rajapaksa introduced himself as a man who always made “every effort to deliver results that go above and beyond expectations.” That was a mistranslation, in all probability a deliberate one. The correct translation of the Sinhala sentence would be, “When given a responsibility, I always tried to fulfil it without being constrained by limits and by going beyond norms”. That is the real Gotabaya: a man who respects no law, no constitution, no norm; a man who might have forged that Certificate of Renunciation of US Citizenship; a man who doesn’t understand that civilisation is about limits, a man who has no qualms about cavorting beyond the pale.
An Extreme Man.
Make Sri Lanka Safe Again?
In his maiden speech, Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to make Sri Lanka safe again.
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa talks about safety, he doesn’t want us to think of Khuram Shaikh, the British tourist hacked to death in the Rajapaksa bastion of Tangalle by a Rajapaksa acolyte. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa promises that under his rule women will be able to travel across the length and breadth of land with no fear, he doesn’t want us to remember Mr. Shaikh’s gang-raped companion, Victoria Alexandrovna.
Or perhaps he would have us believe that Ms. Alexandrovna was neither raped nor sexually assaulted, as he – or his presidential brother – got Dinesh Gunawardane to inform the parliament on 11th July 2013. Would he make women of Sri Lanka safe again by turning rape into a forbidden word, even as it remains a permissive deed?
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa talks of ending crime, he wants us to forget the gun fight of the Mafia variety that took place in the Colombo suburb of Kolonnawa on October 8th, 2011. The principals were Monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry and Gotabaya-acolyte Duminda Silva and Presidential advisor and long time Mahinda supporter, Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. The mini-battle ended with several deaths, including of Mr. Premachandra. As was established in two courts of law, the murder weapon was a gun stolen from the Elephant Pass camp when it was overrun by the LTTE in 2000. Amongst Duminda Silva’s gang was Dematagoda Chaminda, a notorious underworld boss.
In 2016, Duminda Silva was convicted of murder by the Colombo High Court. The conviction was unanimously upheld by a five judge bench of the Supreme Court in October 2018. In his ruling, the then Chief Justice, Priyasath Dep said this: “Starting from the time the polling commenced and till the time it was drawing to an end, the 11th Accused (Duminda Silva) spent his day, marauding between polling stations with weapons, defying officials discharging their duties, and assaulting and victimizing people associated with Solangaarachchi (a rival candidate)… The only time they were not seen intimidating people were when the group was having lunch.”
When the Supreme Court gave its verdict, Duminda Silva’s supporters shouted, “We will bring back Gotabaya Sir to get him out, ” according to The Colombo Telegraph. Make Sri Lanka safe again, indeed!
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa promises us discipline, does he mean as disciplined as the mobs that besieged the British and the Canadian High Commissions, and the UN compound in 2010? The mob against the UN was led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa, another Gotabaya-acolyte. The police looked on as the mob forcibly entered the UN compound and some of its staff hostage. When the police tried to ensure the safety of the captive staff, the mob erupted in anger. “After police intervened Weerawansa made a call on his mobile phone…. The call was to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa…Weerawansa spokesman Mohammed Mussamil said. Weerawansa passed the phone to the commanding officer who answered, ‘The Inspector General of Police ordered me to do this, sir’. Moments later he ordered his men back and the demonstrators erupted in cheers” (Reuters – 6.7.2010). But the mobs were disciplined. They didn’t besiege the embassy of the United States of America, the adopted homeland of their master.
In 2010, soon after his brother won a second term, Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave an interview, detailing his future plans for Sri Lanka. Foremost was bringing the judiciary in line with the regime. Two years later, his brother’s government realised that dream by illegally impeaching Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in gross violation of the limits imposed on him by his position as a public official, jumped into the political fray, accusing those who opposed the impeachment of terrorism. He called such opposition “a conspiracy…..hatched by foreign elements to topple the Rajapaksa regime… the country was facing challenges similar to those that existed during the military conflict. Everyone knows that school children, university students, university lecturers and trade unions were used to create trouble… Today they are attempting to do it through the judiciary. They want to destabilise the country” (Daily Mirror – 29.12.2012 emphasis mine).
In his masterly book, Mussolini’s Italy, RJP Bosworth reminds us that Fascist Italy was “a deadly enemy of what is best or most humane about humankind.” That is true of every tyranny, and will be particularly applicable to any of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s making. The man has already decided to form a paramilitary force consisting of volunteers and headed by retired military officers, to ensure his own safety. History offers a parallel: Sturmabteilung; the SA; aka the Brown Shirts.
This is the man we are not supposed to fear.
Brothers at arms?
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s maiden speech was most significant in what it didn’t say about Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It made no mention of Mahinda Chinthana. It didn’t say that a President Gotabaya will tread the path of President Mahinda. Using strategic silences, the speech made clear that a President Gotabaya would be his own man who would go his own way. Mahinda Rajapaksa, a savvy political operator, would have heard the unspoken message. No wonder he barely smiled during the entire ceremony.
Our monarchic past was not exactly the haven of stability we think it was. Of the 58 Sinhala kings covered by the Mahawamsa of Bhikku Mahanama, only 17 reigned for more than 10 years (two presidential terms by current reckoning). Many kings with short reigns were deposed by their closest kith and kin. A Gotabaya Presidency may well return us to this glorious past when power struggles within royal families was a fact of everyday life.
A week before his younger brother was anointed the SLPP’s presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa made a portentous statement to The Virakesari. The newspaper had questioned Mr. Rajapaksa about minority angst concerning a Gotabaya presidency. He responded with a standard denial, and this: “In reality, further to the (19th) constitutional amendment, the Prime Minister has more powers. I’m the Prime Ministerial candidate. So we have to work together” (emphasis mine). Mr. Rajapaksa’s statement is a declaration of intent on what kind of prime minister he plans to be. It is also a warning of the power struggles that will roil the Lankan state under a Gotabaya Presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa, though not the oldest of the Rajapaksa siblings, inherited DA Rajapaksa’s political mantle. For decades he had been the political paterfamilias of the entire Rajapaksa clan, the sun around which siblings and offspring, nephews, nieces, and cousins revolved. His statement to The Virakesari indicates that he has no intention of relinquishing that pre-eminence to his younger brother. What he feels when leading Sinhala-Buddhist monks hail Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new Dutugemunu is all too easy to imagine.
If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the presidency and Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes the Prime Minister (both outcomes seem likely at this moment), there will be a full scale political civil war between the two brothers for every scrap of power and every inch of ground. In this politico-familial conflict, they will be ably assisted by their loyalists. Some of Gotabaya-loyalists have already begun to publicly criticise Mahinda Rajapakasa. Nalin de Silva, who was a prominent attendee at last Sunday’s Gotabaya investiture ceremony, launched a broadside against the former president just two weeks ago. “Mahinda has no vision. He is merely engaged in popular politics. Mahinda has a backbone. But he is being manipulated by Basil and others… Even President Sirisena might be manipulating him” (Kalaya – 27.7.2019).
Mahinda Rajapaksa has almost a childish love for over-the-top accolades (‘the Lion in the Lion Flag’, ‘Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Wonder of the World and the Universe’). He clearly enjoys seeing his own face staring at him from a thousand billboards and a million posters. He liked being called Maharajaneni (high king). He is likely to do his best to get his brother elected president, because therein lies his path to premiership. But that unity would be tactical, and is unlikely to last beyond election night. Being eclipsed by his younger brother is unlikely to be the future Mahinda Rajapaksa intends for himself. He’d be able to tolerate a President Gotabaya only if the presidency is pared down to a ceremonial role. And he will try to attain that goal using the 19th Amendment as his suit of armour and his Excalibur.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who believes in being his own king and has developed his own coterie consisting of retired military men, active businessmen, and tame professionals, is unlikely to succumb to his older brother’s demands. Since neither brother respects the rule of law or due process, we will not be able to depend on the judiciary to settle any future turf war between them. With no institution capable of acting as an arbiter, the Brothers’ War is likely to escalate, turning the state into a battleground, and compelling politicians and public officials to take sides. This total power struggle between the two brothers, their nuclear and extended families, their black-coated or saffron-robed advisers, and their armies of supporters might be what posterity most vividly remembers about a Gotabaya Presidency.
And those who willingly bartered their rights as free men and women for the dream of stability would find themselves chasing mirages in a desert bereft of compassion, decency or peace. What other outcome is possible in a country ruled by Homo Extremum, a man who believes himself to be beyond the limits of human condition, and of the boundaries that mark and guard the territory of civilisation.