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Monday, June 17, 2024

Sri Lanka : The Return of a Supremacist – Anura Gunasekera

Never has the truth of that  hackneyed cliche’, “ in politics there are no permanent friends  or permanent enemies, but only permanent interests”, been so aptly demonstrated than in the drama that is being currently played out in our theatre of the absurd.

In an act of unbelievable political expediency President Sirisena betrayed all the noble principles of the Rule of Law, Constitutional Democracy and Good Governance  that  he so sanctimoniously vowed four years ago  to uphold, and handed back the reins of power to the  supremacist whom he ousted;  at the risk of his life as Sirisena himself said at that time.  

Maithripala Sirisena, a colourless man with a colourless career, for a greater proportion of that  an unthreatening presence to his more ambitious colleagues, will now be remembered for ever for two epochal events, both occurring in the evening of his political life. Without those two episodes, in the normal course of events he would have faded away  as many other politicians of his calibre,  eventually to be forgotten even by his constituents.

The first event was when, in November 2014, he stood before the nation, flanked by his campaign companions and supporters and declared  his challenge to the most powerful and most charismatic politician this country has seen since Independence. In the context of the time and the nature of his opponent it was a courageous gesture and  a  moment of genuine greatness in an otherwise  singularly unremarkable life. Given the history of the Mahinda  Rajapakse operational style, the possible risk to his life was not an exaggeration. The number of Rajapakse opponents and critics who were neutralized through violent death, inexplicable disappearance, summary dismissal from public office, incarceration and expulsion or permanent flight to other countries,  represents a  compelling body of  evidence of the peril inherent in  throwing down the gauntlet at Mahinda Rajapakse.

The second event  was just a couple of days ago, when with a terse message addressed to sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, he betrayed the trust of 6.2 million people and released to the land the spectre that he had once  helped to contain. With one stroke of his pen he re-launched the Rajapakse dynastic project which he himself once helped to derail. Unless something miraculous happens the project is now on track and in my view miracles do not happen. The Rajapakse cabal will not make the same mistakes again. It is not that they will reform. They will simply act with greater ruthlessness, with  excessive care and certainty, ensuring that the opposition will not rise again.

Irrespective of the arguments in support of Sirisena’s action, particularly by G.L. Peiris, that unrepentant apologist for a succession of unscrupulous rulers, the entire episode of unseating Wickramsinghe and appointing Rajapakse carries with it all the elements of a constitutional coup, secretively configured and suddenly executed, carefully hidden from the victim till the very end. The Parliament, the Speaker and the nation, which includes the many people who propelled both the victim and the perpetrator in to power, were kept in the dark. It is something that should never have happened in a robust democracy. It is exactly what happens in a typical “ banana republic”, which the Rajapakse regime helped to usher in. So far there has been no shooting, as would be normal in a banana republic, except in a parallel development  at the Ceypetco office. But, unless there is a reasonable and democratically acceptable solution to this crisis, the shooting may also soon take place elsewhere.

What Sirisena has done is unparalleled in the recent history of  a democratic entity, anywhere. In his subsequent address to the nation,  he attributed to his action  a long litany of purported misdeeds of the Prime Minister to which he also attached the cultural gulf that existed between the two of them. He stated  that Wickramasinghe conducted the business of running the country in consultation with a just few close associates of his, who belonged to a privileged class. That statement would be laughable if not for the ominous consequences that the nation will face under Rajapakse rule. Does Sirisena  seriously expect Mahinda Rajapakse to act differently or more democratically than Wickramasinghe? Under Rajapakse the country will be governed by him, in consultation with  his family and a couple of associates and friends, as was the case in the nine years of his stewardship. Of course, there will be one cardinal and singularly important difference between the two regimes. Under RW, criticism of the regime and its actions   was permitted to a ridiculously candid extent. As opposed to that extreme of freedom of expression, one has only to consider the history of dissent under Rajapakse governance. Elaboration is unnecessary.

The constitutional and legal validity of RW’s removal will continue to be debated and can be finally resolved only by a ruling of the Supreme Court, assuming that the Rajapakse juggernaut that is rapidly steamrolling the RW administration will permit the issue to be canvassed at that forum.  Mahinda Samarasinghe, over electronic media, triumphantly read out two letters, first the one  addressed by the Speaker to the Acting Attorney General seeking clarity regarding the issue, and second the  latter’s response to it. The reply appeared to be deliberately equivocal and certainly does not lay the matter to rest. As I, and I am sure most reasonable people in this country would understand it, the crucial determinant of legitimacy of governance is provided by a parliamentary majority. That I believe is the litmus test.

The prorogation of Parliament, notwithstanding all the logic attached to it by its proponents, is really a strategy to enable MR to gather, through cash purchase and any other means possible, the additional numbers he needs to legitimize an illegitimate promotion. The consolidation of Rajapakse power over the administration before reconvention of the Parliament, may eventually be an impediment to the delivery of an impartial legal opinion on the matter. The medium term objective of this constitutional coup is also to provide  Sirisena a path, as a Rajapakse lackey,  for a second presidential term,  which the UNP would have denied him.

Irrespective of the legal and constitutional arguments, Sirisena, with his precipitate action, has set in motion an unprecedented constitutional crisis, locking two men in an internecine  struggle for the prime ministerial seat and the right to govern. It has brought in to question the very validity and legitimacy  of the existing constitution. Sirisena has created the conditions  for  civic disobedience in the country and that  is an environment  in which Mahinda Rajapakse thrives. It has always been his political bread and butter. In a contest in which the quickest path to victory is the  use and abuse of power and extra-legal intimidation, coercion and paramilitary suppression, there can be only one winner.

A perfect example of the above is the violence unleashed on Rupavahini and the ITN within hours of the proclamation of MR as Prime Minister. The unambiguous threats of forcible eviction of RW from Temple Trees, delivered by Wimal Weerawansa over electronic media are  also simply  echoes of his master’s voice.

It is not the purpose of this writing to either demonize Rajapakse or to sanctify Wickramasinghe. Both are unscrupulous in different ways and equally power-hungry. The difference with RW is that physical intimidation not excluding murder, is not the preferred method of stifling dissent and enforcing personal writ. What is at stake here is not the desirability of one individual over the other as the Prime Minister of the country but the legitimacy of democratic rule in the country. That is infinitely more important than the two individuals concerned.

Under a new Rajapakse rule one has to expect certain immediate and  inevitable consequences. Firstly, there will be the dismantling of all the ongoing  investigative processes in to financial irregularities and other crimes-including politically motivated murder- committed during the previous Rajapakse regime. Selected criminals currently serving sentences are likely to be pardoned. It may not be too long before Galaboda Gnanasara exchanges his prison jumper for the robes that the Buddha sanctified and recommences his rampage against Muslims. Duminda Silva may soon be  addressing political rallies once more. The Armed Forces, the Police Department  and the Judiciary are likely to see Rajapakse favorites in crucial positions. The areas of public service which are expected to deliver impartial outcomes to the nation  will once again become willing adjuncts to  the Rajapakse project.

President Sirisena has created a situation which is pushing a country, already beleaguered by a faltering economy and massive public fraud, in to total chaos at all levels. It is his responsibility now to resolve it. In January 2015 he said that he risked his life in order to do the right thing on behalf of the nation. That is exactly what he needs to do again, despite the certain knowledge that the risk is now  of a greater magnitude. The Rajapakses do not forgive those who betray their cause; certainly not a second time.

On that eventful day four years ago, almost immediately after  Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over Mahinda Rajapakse was officially  confirmed, I received a call from a friend, once one of the most highly regarded civil servants of then Ceylon, for long   living in retirement in England. I was euphoric, as Sirisena’s win over Rajapakse represented to me, literally, the triumph of good over evil. My friend brought me down to earth with the words, “  Never place your faith  in politicians. I have, for years observed their operations at close quarters. Sirisena himself  may one day create the path for Mahinda Rajapakse to come storming back”.

Those were the exact words of  Neville Jayaweera,  Chairman and Director General of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation from 1967-1970 and, at different times, Government Agent, Jaffna and Vavuniya. A prophetic utterance, from a man who had seen the best and worst of politicians, in an era when most politicians were of a different breed.

Maithripala Sirisena has defined himself, irrevocably, as a man of straw. Inevitably,  it is they who are first consumed by the conflagrations that they fuel.



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