Photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Way ahead of the presidential election of 2019 Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had given enough indication that he was incapacitated, incompetent and illegitimate to establish a democratic government that would safeguard the interests of its people. We had all the signs.

Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote a letter where he prophesized his own death. He claimed that he would one day be killed by the Rajapaksas. And then he was killed, when Mahinda Rajapakasa was the President and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary. Thirteeen years have lapsed and no one has been prosecuted yet.

When people protested at Rathupaswala demanding clean drinking water, their demands were met with live bullets and a heavy military clampdown. At least three were killed and several injured.

In 2010, the cartoon journalist Prageeth Eknaligodwent missing. His whereabouts are still unknown. The journalists Poddala Jayantha and Keith Noyahr were beaten and tortured to within an inch of their life. The perpetrators of these dastardly acts remain at large.

In 2012, the former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa openly threatened the former editor of the Sunday Leader with death.

He is the same man who said with a straight face on British TV that it is acceptable to bomb hospitals, in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Despite having every opportunity of knowing his way of doing things or not doing the people decided to bring him in as the saviour to all their woes. But these woes did not include the woes of the marginalized: the northern Tamils who were still seeking answers about their disappeared; the plantation workers who were demanding a minimum wage of Rs. 1,000; or the Muslims against whom a targeted campaign instigating Islamophobia was being systematically carried out by the mass media. Despite clear warnings people insisted in granting a man with a transparent record of exercising his authority with impunity the mandate to rule. In the end what launched Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to power was the passion for ethnic-nationalism. This was evident in his presidential campaign, which was predominantly nationalist populist in character. Although it consisted of rhetoric such as ‘eradicating corruption’ and ‘appointing expert panels and professionals’, it was weaved in to the larger ethnic-majoritarian rhetoric.

His campaign excluded civil liberties and minority rights and was instead centered on the argument of development, which was aimed at persuading his constituency of ethno-nationalists.

But now, nearly three years later, we seem to have realized why Gotabaya Rajapaksa should step down because now it’s not a selective minority that is suffering but the entire nation.

The protests are legitimate and the revolution is justified. It is historical because no Sri Lankan government has ever faced a people’s mandate of this magnitude. The whole island is united under one slogan – Go Home Gota!

It’s indeed a fabulous sight to see people unite as human beings in spite of their differences to achieve a common goal but there are a few pertinent questions we need to raise in order to ensure that this historical uprising does not merely end with an answer to the current popular frustrations because the problem is not what we see on the surface – it is not the gas crisis or fuel shortage or power cuts or the dollar crisis; it is what led us to elect a government, not on any universal values or political conscientiousness, but on emotions of ethno-nationalism and race that were systematically manufactured and nurtured by the media. We let ourselves be fooled by our passion and exploited through our emotions. There can be no better occasion in our history to understand how a nation divided by religious and racial markers can be aroused and blindly driven through media propaganda to willingly hand over their fate to someone who was not only referred to by psychology experts as a psychopath but someone whose track record of committing some of the heinous crimes during his tenure as the Defence Secretary was no secret. But none of that mattered when it came to safeguarding a race and the nation state. We wanted someone with a whip in hand to put our house in order, even if it was at the expense of the violation of justice and the rights of the marginalized.

But now we are collectively experiencing the consequences of handing undisputable power to a man who was prone to exercise his authority with impunity and indifference; the once celebrated saviour, upon securing the majority to attain power, has failed miserably to not only deliver but he has dragged Sri Lanka down to ruination, leaving the next generation a country that is bankrupt and severely crippled. And when people get to the streets demanding answers, he does what he does best – responds with force and bullets.

In light of this last minute insight it is important to turn around and question what went wrong so that we can rectify our mistakes and ensure not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

The most important question we need to raise is whether we going to let ourselves be exploited yet again in the name of nationalism and race.

The Illusion of unity  

It was truly a pleasant sight to witness Muslims carrying out their rituals of breaking fast at the Galle Face sitting shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Sri Lankans, a sight that would have been impossible only a few months ago. To see social media flooding with these photos with captions such as ‘This is the real Sri Lanka’ and people passionately commenting on this elegant display of unity is indeed heartwarming. But the question is whether this is an intelligent realization stimulated by a real political consciousness or an emotional solidarity triggered by an economic genocide that has inevitably united all Sri Lankans?

What will happen after the Rajapaksas leave and we get back to business as usual? What will happen when there are no more power cuts, no more fuel shortages, no more gas crisis, no more price hikes? What will happen after our middle class problems are resolved, when you encounter on the streets women after women adorning the black Burka, when a monk accuses the Muslims of over populating and plotting to colonize the Buddhist land, when they claim that traditional Muslims are the only good Muslims, when women wearing the Hijab are labelled as extremists, when the media once again masterfully executes a targeted propaganda stunt, systematically fueling anti-Muslim sentiments, and suddenly you find the equation ‘Muslims=extremists’ wherever you turn?

What will happen when competition returns, when race and religion yet again becomes the markers that define our existence, when that existence seems to be threatened by the racial and religious ‘other’ fabricated by the likes of Derana and Hiru, when yet again we return to our comfort couches and begin to consume the deluge of media propaganda about the ‘Tamil terrorist’ or ‘Muslim extremist’, which will be customized to feed into our deep seated fears and suspicions of the ‘other’. What will happen when we finally stop reasoning and give into the emotional politics of divide and rule?

Unless we address the root cause of this divisive politics our country will forever be prey to the rhetoric of corrupt politicians who continue to bank on the fervor for ethno-nationalism to win the people’s mandate.

Following is an excerpt from a report published by the Center for Policy Alternatives that illustrates the electoral rationale that brought the government of Yahapalanaya in to power:

“….according to a noteworthy statistical study, the Sinhala vote was split 58-41 in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa while Maithripala Sirisena obtained an 85-13 margin of the overall minority vote, demonstrating that Rajapaksa was still the preferred candidate for the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

The government, which commanded a two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2010, lost support dramatically by 2015 with Mahinda Rajapaksa losing well over a million votes from January to August 2015. But Rajapaksas’ declining support among the majority community cannot be completely explained by waning Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. A plausible explanation is that for those who supposedly voted against the nationalist camp, nationalism was something they left behind to take care of other burning issues that were highlighted in the campaign such as the corruption and the public space occupied by the Rajapaksa family that was highly critiqued among Sinhala-Buddhist society as much as it found criticism amongst the minorities.

Nationalism was not gone. It was only left behind until the burning issues were resolved. Couldn’t that be the same rationale behind the unity that we’re witnessing now?

Towards a system change to pluralism

It is crucial to understand this underlying problem since this collective ethno-nationalistic psyche coupled with the fear and suspicion of the other minorities have been the final and only hope of aspiring politicians. Presently what has united all of us as Sri Lankans is a common economic crisis and large scale corruption. Every one of us, regardless of our different racial and religious affiliations, has become a victim of it and we shall remain united as long as this common problem inevitably binds us together. But in the wake of this realisation it is critical to raise the question, “What will happen when we don’t have a common problem to unite us as Sri Lankans?”

We seem to have realised how for the last 74 years, politicians albeit representing different parties have corrupted the system and exploited the country’s resources for their own selfish political gains. Thus, we are demanding a system change, we are demanding to dismantle the current system, which is erected upon corruption and deceit and instead we demand a system that is people centred. However, in order to construct a people centred system we need to learn from our past, and understand that only a system that is rooted on a politics of pluralism and inclusivity, a system that is constructed on mutual trust and respect, and not a politics of polarising ethnic-nationalism can lead to a long term solution. What we need is not a system change at the top, but a system change at the bottom that will create free thinking rational citizens who are morally conscious and not emotional voters driven by the passion of ethno-nationalism.