This article is a sequel to “Challenging a Supremacist”, the Sunday Times 14.12.2014. On January 9, in a simple, hastily arranged ceremony a simple, unpretentious man was sworn in as the sixth President of Sri Lanka. There could have been no greater contrast between that man and that event, and any previous public event which [...]

Sunday Times 2

The dethroning of a supremacist


This article is a sequel to “Challenging a Supremacist”, the Sunday Times 14.12.2014. On January 9, in a simple, hastily arranged ceremony a simple, unpretentious man was sworn in as the sixth President of Sri Lanka. There could have been no greater contrast between that man and that event, and any previous public event which featured the flamboyant, charismatic man he had just deposed; events which were invariably accompanied by pomp and pageantry, and fanfare and trumpets.

This unbridgeable contrast was also reflected in the brief, but absolutely intense election campaigns through which the two candidates addressed the voters of Sri Lanka.

End of an era? Rajapaksa leaving Temple Trees after his election defeat

Rajapaksa, on the podium, was all drama and histrionics. He implored and demanded; he was placatory and intimidating; he cajoled and hectored; he supplied the answers and then proffered the questions. He and his supporters resorted to base strategies of disinformation and Sirisena bashing, which finally did more to diminish his image than to damage that of his opponent. In blatant violation of election laws, he ravaged State resources, men, money and material, in the promotion of his cause. He mercilessly flogged the dead horse of the war and dangled before the nation, the spectre of renewed conflict and the division of the country if he was not re-elected; he shamelessly appealed, as many unscrupulous politicians have done before him, to an existing mind-set in the collective psyche of the Sinhala/Buddhist segment of the Sri Lankan voting population, that thinly concealed ethnic bias against the minorities.

It was old wine in a new bottle but the wine had turned vinegary.

Sirisena, on the other hand, delivered a simple message in simple terms. He appealed to the more decent instincts in man and a different hierarchy of needs. His message carried the assurance of ethical governance, the establishment of independent commissions and the release of the judiciary from the executive yoke, coupled with the promise of the impartial administration of justice and law and order. He offered media freedom, transparency of executive action and the removal of the Executive Presidency, which the previous incumbent, with the employment of highly questionable strategies, had placed above the law and any form of accountability.

Sirisena provided a reformist platform which, eventually, found resonance with a thin slice of the voting population.

What existed was a kingship led by an autocrat who had forsaken the very democratic process which propelled him to that position and who governed through a tightly knit federation of siblings, relatives, family connected acolytes and friends. It was a Mafia which found legitimacy within an ostensibly democratic framework. What is promised is a transparent, corruption free government and the restoration of democratic norms, within which all citizens can once more become equal and even the politically powerful are made accountable for their actions. However, in the context of the entrenched evil of a decade, we may be looking at a seemingly impossible Utopian ideal.

While it was an unexpected and cleverly strategised series of moves which, in the space of eight weeks, led to the ouster of a man whose position had seemed unassailable for many years into the future, there is another factor, not given sufficient credit, which made this incredible turnaround possible. .

It was the gradual mobilisation of public opinion, through fearless individuals and groups, not necessarily connected to each other, not all politically motivated, which provided the vital backdrop of public dissent against a regime gone feral. It was the articulation of creeping disillusionment with the blatant dismantling of checks and balances against immoral governance. Through articles in newspapers, on electronic media and social networking, websites, personal blogs, exchanges of dissenting views via email, from public platforms and debates on TV, the real, repulsive face of rogue governance and the massive excesses of a decade were exposed for public consumption. That is the reality of civil dissent to unethical rule, in itself a facet of “Arab Spring”, which contributed significantly to the derailment of the Rajapaksa project for permanent power and dynastic succession.

Then there is the silent but massive contribution by the minorities, a group I identified previously as an “underclass” (Island of 16/10/13 — “Voice of an Underclass”). In this context, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary, with insensitive, iron-fisted and racially discriminatory strategies articulated in the North and the East, has unwittingly contributed more to his brother’s political demise than all other factors combined. The fanatically racist and the State-sponsored Bodu Bala Sena, which has Talibanised a philosophy based on detachment, compassion and tolerance, was another decisive factor.

The minority antipathy to the Rajapaksa regime is clearly reflected in the voting pattern of the North and the East. In Nuwara Eliya — 72 per cent for Sirisena and 28 per cent for Rajapaksa. This is despite the lack of a clear, unequivocal position in regard to minority issues, in Sirisena’s policy statement.

There cannot be a clearer message than this, that a regime which calculatedly marginalises its minority communities, will find itself in serious trouble at some point of time, especially when the contest is “one-on-one” at a national level. Leaving aside the unarguable moral and ethical imperative to treat all minority ethnic groups within the populace as equals with the majority, there is also a compelling political prudence in doing so, as Rajapaksa will now realise. It is also a factor that the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party perceived as one promoting a hard-line Sinhala/Buddhist position, will do well to bear in mind, particularly in view of the significant role it has played in the promotion of Sirisena’s candidacy and the role it may justifiably be expected to play in a Maithripala administration.

In this context, I will quote three passages from that scholarly and highly perceptive book – “JAFFNA – Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision” by Neville Jayaweera, one of Sri Lanka’s ablest Civil Servants, now living in retirement in the United Kingdom.

“More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority community, and endows it with a true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to accord to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and dignity equal to its own, and never to let them feel marginalised or disadvantaged because they are fewer in number, or because they are different in colour or beliefs. Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realise that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be mired in conflict.” (Page 174/175)

Jayaweera projects a degree of optimism in pages 219/220,

“Can President Mahinda Rajapaksa step up to fill that awesome role in Sri Lanka? Can he, will he, be the great catalyst and change agent that the nation has been looking for ? …”

But in Jayaweera, the pragmatist, reality soon re-asserts itself.

“However, I must also confess, that given the elements that comprise Mahinda Rajapaksa’s consciousness, such a transformation in the southern consciousness is not likely to happen. What is more likely is that Rajapaksa will stoke the southern supremacist consciousness and lead the country in a downward spiral into a deeper and wider conflict. Rather than promote a transformation of consciousness leading to reconciliation and a new beginning, he might generate circumstances that will suck India into conflict again. If that happens, we might witness an outcome which successive governments in Colombo had fought a horrific thirty years war to avoid – namely, the eventual partition of Sri Lanka.”

I would like to earnestly believe that, with the Presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, we are about to charter a course that will be a counter to the unpalatable scenario painted by Jayaweera.

As for minority aspirations, parties which represent minorities must realise that this is their best, and perhaps the last opportunity, for redress for genuine grievances and the righting of imbalances. They must also accept the harsh reality that making demands which the majority Sinhalese find unacceptable will only hurt the minority cause. President Sirisena will not — and dare not — deliver outcomes to the minority, which the majority, rightly or wrongly, perceive as being inimical to their interests.

Perhaps, there is also hope for the restoration of genuine media freedom, an environment in which journalists and artistes are able to express unpalatable truths without fear of inviting state-sponsored reprisal. This is a vital need in a country which, since 1977, except for brief interludes, has not been a fully functioning democracy. Since the murder of Richard de Zoysa in 1990, about twenty journalists and media personnel have been killed, most of them Tamil and most of them during Rajapaksa’s watch. Perhaps Prageeth Ekneligoda, who was “disappeared”, can now emerge from hiding if he is still alive, or if he is not, the truth about his fate revealed, so that his family can find closure.

Apart from the treatment meted out to General Fonseka and Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, there can be no clearer reflection of the Rajapaksa attitude to democratic dissent than in the content of an exchange between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and a BBC interviewer. GR’s response to questions regarding Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination was that, it was just one amongst so many other murders and that since Wickrematunge was a mere editor of a tabloid, the agitation regarding his murder was totally disproportionate to his importance. “Who is Lasantha?” was his contemptuous dismissal of the questioner. No more need be said for the imperative of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ouster.

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