Photo by Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images, taken off Middle East Institute
In what must surely count as one of the most hilarious, unintentionally ironic and terrifying proclamations ever uttered by a modern head of state, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has established a task force to “create a virtuous, disciplined and lawful society” in the country. Terrifying: the body, led by Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratne, consists almost exclusively of high-ranking Sinhalese military officers. They’ll guarantee the body count rises. Ironic: many of the Force, beginning with Gunaratne himself, including the Army Commander, Shavendra Silva and the Director of the State Intelligence Service, Suresh Salley, are credibly accused of war crimes. Lawbreakers all, thus lacking in virtue, could anybody believe this bunch of terrorists, led by the country’s ultimate terrorist, the president himself, deliver anything but lawlessness and vice? I burst out laughing when I read the news, then realized it actually wasn’t funny.
I consider dissent a virtue. These a***holes don’t. They’ve been arresting journalists for reporting during the coronavirus. Expect such arrests to increase.
I admire human rights workers. These thugs don’t. Tasked with policing “antisocial activities,” whatever that means, they’ll place unprecedented constraints on the work of civil society activists.
They are appropriately named: their task is force. Relentless, unmitigated, merciless force. Ours, to oppose.
So, now that he’s shown us his bloody hand, let’s take a closer look at our leader.
Sporting his signature white short-sleeved linen shirt and dark pants, a uniform designed to signify tropical technocrat, camouflage the warrior, disguise the rabid Sinhala nationalist, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, our first ex-soldier – he retired as a colonel – to get elected president, flanked by the media, inspected – unannounced, as you might remember – the office of the Department of Motor Traffic in late December last year, just two months into his term. According to a statement from the presidential secretariat, Rajapaksa commanded the DMT’s “process…be streamlined within a month, before my next visit…Time is a vital factor for anyone. Hence, the officials should be committed…to provide their service in an efficient manner…This will be helpful to the public to attend their other work instead of…wasting their time at the office.”
Displaying a distinctly un-Sri Lankan approach to punctuality is the least disturbing of the questions that arise about the visit and statement, which damn an entire cadre of bureaucrat, who lack the position to respond without fear. Rather than proceed systematically, consult, discuss, inquire if the administrators have the requirements – the resources, technology, personnel, mechanism and, perhaps most importantly, incentive – to process applications promptly, presuming to grasp the problem and possess the solution without such inquiry, Rajapaksa ordered the department to improve in just four weeks, before announcing the consequence of failure, a threat – another presidential inspection. He would tackle, settle this issue individually. A video clip from Derana shows him grilling two mid-level officials, a woman and a man, on their procedure: they smile deferentially, awkwardly, apprehensively. Speechlessly. Besieged, their smiles disappeared as the hectoring continued, as Rajapaksa impressed upon them that, as Defense Secretary, he processed up to 1,000 files a day, while masterminding a war. Why couldn’t they follow his lead, get behind him. “That’s why I tell you that the public service should be transformed into a service for the people during my tenure. Isn’t that the correct thing to do?”
The rhetorical question, insinuating that the entire Sri Lankan bureaucracy, together with prior heads of government, neglected their duty before his assumption of office, preempts, forbids disagreement; it hails from the architect of a ruthless war. Rajapaksa instructs – “I tell you” – his administrators before posing the question, implies, insists, in an antagonistic spirit hostile to dissent, heterogeneity, that pits people against bureaucrat, us against them: I am (with) the people; you are not. I work hard; you do not. Nevertheless, I grant you a choice (that is no choice): ally with me, help the people – or I will consider you against me. The pivotal term in the homily is the first person singular pronoun, I.
Like Narcissus admiring his reflection, the rhetorical question, bearing no reflection, signifies self-adoration. I alone am doing the correct thing. It solicits a mirroring or, more precisely, echo: yes, you are doing the correct thing. As Freud reminds us, the narcissist “finds himself possessed of every perfection…of value.” Rajapaksa offers himself as singularly bringing to the problem – any problem within and without the ambit of the presidency – the right, exact, flawless course of action. Though vice and virtue are private matters, he and his generals, many now occupying posts formerly held by civilians, will arbiter the distinction.
On the other hand, Rajapaksa’s “visits,” like his refashioned outfit, must be read as a staging, a choreographed introduction of the recently elected presidential self to the Sri Lankan public. (If he only sought increased bureaucratic productivity, he needn’t have mobilized the media.) The nondescript, managerial attire distinguishes him from brother Mahinda, who stages himself, too, but in elegant white national/ist dress, stained by that gaudy, vulgar crimson shawl. The deceptively straightforward clothes produce Rajapaksa as transformed, no longer executor, but executive. He could, perhaps should, have requested the relevant minister to attend to the shortcomings at DMT, or summoned the Commissioner of Motor Traffic, instituted a system that would work in his absence. Instead, the president postured before the country. As he toured the DMT, he desired his presence felt there – and everywhere. The television cameras serving that instrumental purpose. I will be ruthlessly efficient – or, perhaps, efficiently ruthless. You may love my brother; fear me. I could materialize at any moment in your office.
The self thus staged emerges as megalomaniacal. To ventriloquize: I don’t trust my ministers; I can’t rely on my heads of departments or their minions. I alone can fix things, with the help of my former comrades-in-arms. And I will do so if I have to visit every government department personally. My mere presence, or the threat of it, will dynamize the bureaucracy. That is the correct thing to do.
Freud helps us think the networked relation between megalomania (“the overestimation of one’s…self”), narcissism (“the love of one’s self”) and the superego or conscience. But, before turning there, a symptomatic instance of such presence, a signifier of the presidential psyche, from a 2009 interview with Rajapaksa by Chris Morris of the BBC. The then Defense Secretary – wearing, typically for a senior bureaucrat, a long-sleeved shirt and tie – infamously, angrily, clearly agitated by the implied accusation of murder, the presumption, daring of the journalist, unaccustomed to criticism, dismissed the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, in his time Sri Lanka’s most esteemed English-language journalist, as that of an irrelevant reporter for a tabloid. “Who is Lasantha?” Rajapaksa – a completely charmless man, unlike his charismatic brother – sniggered in response to a Morris question. (He might, actually, have asked his brother, Wickrematunge’s erstwhile buddy.) “There are murders everywhere…I am not concerned about that.” Sounding more like a secretary of offence, Rajapaksa wouldn’t commit himself to even a pro forma inquiry into the killing, which occurred inside a high security zone, thus within his jurisdiction. He couldn’t fabricate a single word of regret, condolence. Failed to forge a conscience. The murder of a high-profile editor leaves him unmoved. And he will lead a lawful society?
“Why are you asking about one man?…The LTTE killed so many people. Why are you not asking about them?” Despite consenting to an interview, Rajapaksa rejects probing, judgement from outside, has no stomach for censure, would rather interrogate, occupy the position of inquisitor. “[Lasantha] criticized me, I went to courts. That is the correct thing to do. Isn’t that the correct thing to do?” Actually, no; other responses to criticism exist: rebuttal, dismissal, laughter. Ideally, self-appraisal. But Wickrematunge’s explosive reporting alleged, if not actually demonstrated, Rajapaksa’s involvement in bribery on a colossal scale. Repressing those charges, in this iteration the rhetorical question desires affirmative response, echo from another journalist, a white European.
Refusing conscription, Morris fired back, raised the prospect of Rajapaksa terrorizing the country: “people seem to be scared of you. Should they be?” Rajapaksa sniggered – he reacts thus when uncomfortable, agitated, scrutinized – shrugged off the criticism as “propaganda” or, as we might say today, fake news. Then characterized Sri Lanka, unambiguously, in antagonistic terms inhospitable to dissent, as constituted by ally and enemy, us and them: “I have only two groups…The people who want to fight terrorism and the terrorists…Either you are a terrorist or,” he sniggered again, awkwardly, “a person who’s fighting the terrorists.” Finding his opening, Morris pounced: “Do you think that dissent or criticism during a time of war is treason?” With calm certitude, Rajapaksa responded immediately, authoritatively: “Yes.” The punishment for treason being death, he might as well have confessed to murder.
The kernel of the colonel, Rajapaksa’s fiat is fear.
Freud argues that the narcissist, loving only the self, withdraws his/her ego from society or, more precisely, from its “admonitions,” censure. This inhibits the development of what Freud calls the superego, conscience. “The institution of conscience was at bottom an embodiment first of parental criticism and subsequently that of society…The revolt against this ‘censoring agency’ arises from the [narcissistic] subject’s desire…to liberate himself from all these influences…His conscience then confronts him in a regressive form as a hostile influence from outside.” The ordinary subject’s conscience gets established through interaction with others, social forces, signifies a response to heterogeneity, acknowledgement of such forces, norms, limits on one’s actions. Signifies acknowledgement, ultimately, of the law. Assuming himself perfect, this particular narcissist rejects limits. Outside norms, outside the law, an outlaw, this narcissist always knows the correct thing to do. Like, for instance, pardoning ex-Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, a convicted murderer of eight harmless Tamil civilians, including a five year old. Another outlaw, Ratnayake slit their throats.
And our president wants us to believe he upholds the law?
The Morris interview constitutes a cortical instance of Rajapaksa’s agitation at and hostility to probing, reproachful questioning. At a press conference on the eve of his election, Meera Srinivasan, of The Hindu, queried the fate of those LTTE cadre who, after the war, “surrendered to the army.” Sniggering again, Rajapaksa insisted: “We had a commission on this. Nobody said that such and such a person was handed over on such and such a day to such and such a person.” Persistent, Srinivasan pointed out that the Paranagama commission, instituted by his brother’s government, did precisely that, identified names, dates, places. Rajapaksa sniggered: “No, I don’t think so.” Even the record, in this instance an authoritative government document – easily consulted, mobilized to refute him – fails to disturb, constrain, limit the megalomaniac. I don’t think so: his thought, his frame gaslights the record. A fortress, Rajapaksa’s narcissism ramparts his ego from criticism. It hasn’t, however, prevented his intelligence services from, since his election, harassing the mothers of these same disappeared, who continue to inquire about their children. Discipline, to Rajapaksa, means the suppression of dissent.
The Sri Lankan military under Rajapaksa’s guidance, including Defense Secretary Gunaratne and Army Commander Silva, is tenably accused of complicity in the deliberate slaughter of at least 40,000 Tamil civilians, many sheltering in government designated “No fire” zones, during the final stage of the war against the LTTE. (For its part, as we know, the LTTE slaughtered Tamil civilians attempting to flee its areas to safety.) After the battles, on or around 18 May 2009, many LTTE cadre, including some in leadership, publicly surrendered to the army, escorted by an elderly Catholic priest, Father Francis Joseph, in Wadduwakkal, witnessed by many civilians, including family members. They were herded into buses and driven away. The International Truth and Justice Project has documented 110 of their names. None of them have been seen again, including the priest.
This represents virtue? Discipline? The only thing the Presidential Task Force knows about the law is how to break it.
The megalomaniacal statement, I have only two groups, terrorists and terrorist-fighters, produces LTTE “terrorism” as an effect without cause, aligns it with the (tautological) global discourse on “terrorism.” (They undertake terrorism because they are terrorists. They are killers, so we will kill them.) Gaslighting the Sri Lankan social as coincident with Rajapaksa’s framing of it, it denies the Tamil people, oppressed from the moment of our independence, difference, specificity, grievance, injury, trauma. It represses both the quotidian harassment of Sri Lankan Tamils and the extraordinary – the many pogroms directed against them by the postcolonial state. It represses the routine rape, torture, detention without trial and disappearance by the military, under Rajapaksa and others before him, including his brother. Deeming the LTTE a violence without cause, it rejects a politics to the militarism of the organization – however heinous the latter may have been; and its record, as we know, is obscenely violent, whether directed against Tamils and Muslims, or Sinhalese. (Remember the lamppost killings of the eighties? Many northern Tamils once supported those extra-judicial executions.) In sum, the formulation represses difference by transforming it to the same: I will comprehend you (only) on my terms.
By conflating Tamils with the LTTE, Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised the Tamil people a reign of terror, for they failed to oppose terrorism. In the north, east, south and west of Sri Lanka, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime kept that promise. Intent on outdoing his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Task Force will extend that reign, eventually, to all citizens. Beginning with Muslims.
The term Islamophobia entered our political lexicon after the Jathika Hela Urumaya, whose Secretary, Champika Ranawaka, served – let’s not forget – in Ranil Wickremasinghe’s cabinet; after its offshoot, Bodu Bala Sena, inaugurated post-war, became a vocal public presence. BBS General Secretary, the venal, not venerable monk – who once pled guilty to drunk driving – Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara, threatened Muslims with annihilation prior to the Aluthgama attacks: “if a single Marakkalaya or some other paraya touches a single Sinhalese…it will be their end.” A single Muslim would, metonymically, represent the entire group. Mere contact by an individual Muslim, any Muslim – a paraya, outcaste, like the terrorist beyond recognizable difference – of a Sinhalese, any Sinhalese, serves as justification for mass murder.
Following the Easter Sunday bombings last year, by the ISIS-inspired National Tauheed Jamaath, that killed 259 people, Sri Lankans, mostly Tamil and Sinhala Catholics, and tourists, the JHU monk/MP, Athuraliye Rathana, appointed to Parliament by Wickremasinghe, demanded the sacking of certain Muslim governors and ministers, whom he accused of aiding the attackers. Going one better, Gnanasara guaranteed a “carnival” of Islamophobic violence if they remained in office, all in the name of Sinhala Buddhism. Terrified, the governors and every single Muslim cabinet member resigned. Do you think the President’s Task Force will impose any discipline on these Buddhist advocates of mass murder?
Remember: then Defense Secretary Rajapaksa, as chief guest, ceremonially opened the BBS’s training center in the south not long after its establishment.
The Rajapaksas, of course, don’t bear sole responsibility for virulent Sinhala nationalism, a century-old phenomenon one could trace back, to name just one person, to Don David Hewawitharane, also known as Anagarika Dharmapala. Gnanasara, jailed for contempt of court, literally an outlaw, was pardoned by the previous president soon after the Easter carnage. That government – of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe – responded to the massacres by, ridiculously enough, granting a long-standing Sinhala nationalist desire loudspeakered by the BBS: banning the burqa and niqab. As we know, the seven suicide-bombers of the churches and hotels were all men, dressed in shirts and pants. A brutality without a politics, an Islamist brutality caring only of the afterlife, the Salafist NTJ, which must be understood in a global frame – its targets were Christians and westerners – represents the antipolitical as such, solicits only antipathy from anyone on the left or, indeed, any decent human. In their case, suicide constitutes a passport to paradise. Since Islam prohibits suicide, they conjure jihad as their visa.
Writing soon after the butchery, as “a Muslim woman activist,” Hasanah Cegu Isadeen points out that, even in village Sri Lanka, women wearing abayas and burqas fight for women’s rights re education, child marriage, custody and so on. The homogeneity of the overdetermined uniform does not signify a homogeneity of subjectivity. It may conceal, camouflage, apart from a gendered body, a defiant politics. While some of us may consider such clothing a patriarchal imposition, and I most definitely do, Cegu Isadeen argued that the ban will “push Muslim women…further into the margins…Through this ban, we are confining these women to their houses, taking away their freedom…For some women, their burqa is their shield.” For some Muslim women, access to the public sphere requires protection from it. From its dominant men, its patriarchy, both of the Sinhala nationalist kind and of the Islamist.
Though the ban was subsequently lifted, Sri Lankan Muslims, in particular othered women, regardless of social class, continue to live their everyday since the bombings shuttling between fear and terror. Whether walking on the street, in public transport, looking for trishaws, calling Uber – before the coronavirus – shopping in boutiques, markets and supermarkets or at job interviews, they know not what may come next. If at the DMT, they cannot anticipate their reception. They know not what even decades-long friends may say tomorrow, down the lane, at the bar, across the buriyani table at a wedding. The Muslim is today’s object of the Sinhala nationalist war of terror. Not on, of.
Thus the forcible cremation of the corpses of Muslim victims of Covid-19, despite the fact that, as the WHO informs us, the virus can only be transmitted by live, breathing bodies. And these people presume to teach us virtue?
Thus the illegal arrest of lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah for the crime of representing the opposition. And these people pretend to uphold the law?
Five days after the Easter massacres last year, Rajapaksa announced his candidacy for the presidency, promising in particular to save the country from “Islamic extremism…by rebuilding the intelligence service and surveilling citizens.” It quotes him finding that the previous government “did not give priority to national security…They were talking about ethnic reconciliation…human rights.” Framing Sri Lanka in antagonistic terms, ally and enemy, us and them, disappears the question of reconciliation. Unlike inefficient bureaucrats, you can’t accommodate traitors. Dead people walking, terrorists – Rajapaksa’s metaphor for Tamil and Muslim citizens – have no human rights. Within his perspective, neither does any and every human who opposes him.
A narcissistic megalomaniac – or, perhaps, megalomaniacal narcissist – a killer of individuals and masses, a terrorizer of populations, repressor of difference, suppressor of dissent, an outlaw, a man without a conscience, an unprecedented president, the contours of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka, which the militarist Task Force will contour, are not difficult to anticipate. Structured by antagonism, governed by fear, tinged by the threat of terror, it would disappear its critics, keep its coroners busy, turn its mothers and wives to insomniacs.
Rajapaksa should, therefore, be exposed, opposed. If he cannot be deposed for another five years, he must be defanged, declawed, denied a parliamentary majority at the forthcoming election.
That would be the correct thing to do.
So I say, Mr President: you are a truly hideous human. F*** you.
Professor Qadri Ismail teaches at the Department of English, University of Minnesota.
 “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” In James Strachey (ed.) On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. New York: Penguin, 1991.
 See The Schreber Case, New York: Penguin, 2003.
 “On Narcissism”: 90.