“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
— Orwell (In Front Of Your Nose)
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
As the latest WikiLeaks-cables reveal, lies and deception occupy a position of honour in the Rajapaksa modus operandi. Open defiance is not the Rajapaksa way, when operating in an unfavourable climate of opinion. Instead, the siblings favour the stealthy approach of Velupillai Pirapaharan, using deceptive declarations and false promises to camouflage a ruthless will and a steely determination. Thus they bedevil critics and disarm opponents, until the ground reality changes and their objective becomes a fait accompli.
Understanding the Rajapaksa Way is important because the siblings are planning the next critical step, aimed at nullifying the 13th Amendment and debasing parliamentary sovereignty, both sources of countervailing power and thus inimical to Rajapaksas supremacy. Legislation to set up Jana Sabhas will be presented in parliament in April. Jana Sabhas will not be elected institutions; their members will be appointed by the Rajapaksas and their acolytes. Barring a few token credentialed members, an absolute majority of these appointees will be political stooges whose main – and perhaps sole – qualification will be unquestioning loyalty not to the SLFP/UPFA but to the Rajapaksa Family.
The process is already underway. This is to be Brother Basil’s empire and he has reportedly “made arrangements to enrol 5,000 graduates at village level…. purely on the recommendation of SLFP electoral organisers without conducting an interview (The Colombo Times – 14.5.2010). These unelected institutions choking with Rajapaksa-loyalists will have total control over local government authorities and provincial councils, according to Minister Susil Premjayanth. Local or provincial authorities will not be able to implement any development project without their approval; no approval, no project. “The Jana Sabhas would also have control on how the decentralized budget for MPs….would be spent” (The Sunday Times – 20.3.2011).
The 18th Amendment nullified the 17th Amendment by turning independent commissions into presidential appendages. Jana Sabhas (19th Amendment?) will nullify the 13th Amendment by disempowering provincial councils (according to Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Jana Sabhas will be multi-ethnic in composition – i.e. they will include some Tamils and Muslims who are Rajapaksa loyalists).
The new system will also undermine a parliamentarian’s capacity to implement development projects of his/her choice. Jana Sabhas will thus be a crucial milestone in the ongoing effort to Rajapaksaise the Lankan state, from the very top to the very bottom. As Minister Wimal Weerawansa said, “The ultimate objective of this concept is to ensure that the development work is closely monitored by a small group that has an awareness of the needs of the area” (ibid).
The local government elections were relatively free and extremely unfair. Though large-scale rigging was absent, state power and resources were abused blatantly and overwhelmingly. Yet, the UPFA’s average vote declined, by 2.7% compared to 2010 Presidential election and by 5.4% compared to 2010 Parliamentary election! The government is still popular, but less so than it was one year ago. If this downward trend persists, the Rajapaksas might find winning the next presidential and parliamentary elections an uphill task, without unleashing violence and malpractices, on a massive scale.
The siblings, infinitely more farseeing than their enemies, obviously sense this problematic future and are preparing to deal with it. The 18th Amendment was an important step in this direction. Its results are obvious in the conduct of the Elections Commissioner who admitted, post-facto, to the “occurrence of incidents of thuggery…..during the period of the nominations and subsequently” and the “misuse of State resources and State owned media” – and yet did next-to-nothing to stem this tide of irregularities. This catatonic-state was partly sourced in the 18th Amendment, which disempowered his post, turning him from an autonomous-guardian of the electoral process into a presidential functionary.
Jana Sabhas will be the next logical step in this process of creating a Rajapaksa-centric system (the Rajapaksas give and the Rajapaksas take away) which consciously discourages independence and integrity by rewarding servility and punishing dissent. The new system will devalue all elected institutions, making them increasingly irrelevant in politico-economic terms. It will enable the Rajapaksas to reward ‘loyal’ areas and punish ‘disloyal’ ones by delivering or withholding development projects.
If this insidious system comes into operation, the Rajapaksas will be able not only to revenge on dissenting voters but turn those SLFP/UPFA politicians they deem insufficiently loyal into political-eunuchs by taking away their ability to look after their own constituents. The electorate will get the message soon enough, and not just the opposition but even those SLFPers who are not Rajapaksa stooges will wither away, leaving the Ruling Family in total control over
Understanding how the Rajapaksas came this far, this fast (under six years) is vital to comprehending where they are headed and how they intend to get there.
According to WikiLeak cables, President Rajapaksa used two tactics to allay Indian and Western fears about the human cost of the war and his post-conflict intentions. He promised a ceasefire and a political solution to the ethnic problem. The Indians chose to believe him and persuaded the Americans to follow suit. According to the first cable, Indian National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan told the American Ambassador that “President Rajapaksa had agreed to announce on April 27 a cessation of hostilities with the LTTE…..” after consulting his cabinet and to stay silent, “until Rajapaksa fulfils his pledge and announces the pause”.
The promised ‘pause’ never happened; perhaps the President informed Delhi that hardliners in his cabinet blocked him!
According to the second cable, Narayanan assured the Americans that President Rajapaksa, “intends to pursue political devolution (‘the 13th Amendment plus’) and will make a gesture soon to win over Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Narayanan mentioned that Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya was currently paying a visit to New Delhi”. Indians were concerned about “higher casualty figures” and acknowledged that “pressure needed to be put on the Sri Lankan government to limit the harm caused to civilians” but cautioned the Americans that “bilateral diplomacy would be more effective than highly public pressure in the UN Security Council or the Human Rights Council”.
India trusted Velupillai Pirapaharan at the commencement of the Eelam War and burnt a finger and an arm. India trusted the Rajapaksa siblings at the end of the Eelam War (probably on the rebound) and ended up humiliated and option-less.
Understanding this Rajapaksa method (irrespective of whether one is pro or anti-Tiger) is important, because this is the way the brothers deal with internal opposition as well. This, for instance, is the method they adopted vis-à-vis the critical 18th Amendment: pretend to retreat in the face of opposition; resume the Blitzkrieg when the opposition has disarmed itself.
The lies and deception work not just because the Rajapaksas are masterly illusionists but also because the intended victims choose to ignore the obvious. When will we realise that the siblings want not national-sovereignty but Rajapaksa-sovereignty? Or that the empowerment of Rajapaksas (via Jana Sabhas, for instance) means powerlessness for the rest of polity and society?