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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Two Ways to Stop Rajapaksa – Ranga Jatasuriya

It is not boredom of retirement, but insecurity that motivates ex-president to make a political comeback.

The proxies of the ex-president have fired the first salvo.Over six million Sri Lankans who voted against the kleptocratic regime of Rajapaksa and many others who later realised the full extent of excesses and abuses that took place during his regime have reasons to worry.

essrs Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena and Udaya Gammanpila who cannot win at the next Parliamentary Elections without contesting on the SLFP-UPFA ticket, want Mahinda Rajapaksa to make a political comeback –in order to save their own political future and not so much the future of the country. For that purpose, they held a political rally in Nugegoda, last week and the wheeler-dealers who benefitted from the largess of the previous regime footed the bill.

Without their generosity, renting 150-200 buses to ferry supporters from far-flung villages and paying for other important details such as their food and booze would have been beyond the reach of the four minor political parties that organised the rally.
So, the Nugegoda rally tells us, among other things, that the ex-president is continued to be buttressed by the people with deep pockets. However, that is not something new; the question is how long such loyalties would last.

It is also not surprising that thousands attended the rally. Social, economic and political circumstances in this part of world produce enough foot soldiers and gullible masses to be preyed upon by the self-interested politicians, megalomaniac terrorist leaders, doomsday preachers and even unassuming astrologers.
What is however disappointing is that not only thousands who were at the Nugegoda rally, but also a sizeable segment of the population are not appreciating the democratic reforms currently underway.

The Witness Protection Bill which had been put on the backburner by the former regime was passed last week. A Right to Information Bill, which had twice been defeated in Parliament by the former regime, is expected to become an Act soon. The military grip in the North has been relaxed. (Even during the high profile CHOGM, the then regime did not allow the parents of the missing Tamils to proceed beyond Vavuniya. The new President Sirisena is leading by example; he travelled to New Delhi for his first official visit on a commercial flight. His predecessor used to take an entire contingent of coterie, their spouses, girl friends, make-up artistes, hairdressers, dancing girls and many others, all at public expense on chartered flights.)

Instead in Nugegoda, Wimal Weerawansa succeeded in whipping up the ethnic frenzy of down trodden masses, who have, inter-generationally, fallen prey to the dubious political operators.

That is a recurrent dilemma in electoral democracy in the developing world, especially, when people are ignorant, poor and despondent.

Weerawansa is trying to exploit those existential circumstances to create a collective sense of victimhood among his receptive audience. That is dangerous.

That is something that Velupillai Prabakaran and Rohana Wijeweera, two other megalomaniacs who wreaked havoc in this country were successful in achieving.

The reality is that Sri Lankans, including those twenty thousand people who thronged at the pro-Rajapaksa rally are better off without Rajapaksa and his brothers. They will not be ‘whitevanned’ or locked up under trumped up charges by the powers that be, like it happened under the regime of Rajapaksa.

Making a political comeback is ex-president’s democratic right. However, the irony is that Rajapaksa himself presents an existential threat to democracy in the country.

Whether he can pose a significant electoral challenge by running under a new political party is open to debate. However, should he get hold of the SLFP and run for election, he would be a power to reckon with.

He could well win. He is exercising his democratic right to run for the public office and people who vote him exercise their democratic right to send their representative to Parliament. That is the essence of democracy.

However, my fear is that democracy would end there.

After Rajapaksa gets elected and becomes prime minister (if ever), the Right to Information Bill and the Witness Protection Bill, among other many other democratic legislations, would not be worth the paper they were written on.

(That is also subjective to the prospect that he would not completely annul them. In his second term, he dismantled the 17th amendment by passing the 18th amendment.)

The least destabilising solution to this dilemma is that the ex- president keeps away from politics.

However, to do that, he would require incentives from the new government.

Experience of a number of countries ranging from Brazil, Argentina, Pinochet’s Chile and Suharto’s Indonesia, all of which went through a transition from brutal dictatorships to democracy could shed some useful insights.

In each of those situations, the outgoing dictators and new democratic leaders reached a tacit understanding that granted the old guard immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during the former regimes in exchange for their non-interference in the affairs of the new democratic State.

Such an understanding, of course, did not deliver justice to the thousands of political victims of those autocratic regimes. (Both, the incumbent President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Lula de Silva were political prisoners of the military junta). Though it was an imperfect solution, it still helped a smooth transition from the abyss of dictatorship to democracy. Decades later when democracy took root in those countries, some legislations that granted immunity to the old guard were revoked and ageing generals were brought to court in wheelchairs.

Sri Lankan context is unique for Rajapaksa was an elected leader, who turned his elected office into an elected dictatorship. Now, he is trying to return to do the same. It may not be the boredom of retirement, but insecurity that motivates him to contemplate a political comeback.

When the JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake demands action against Presidential scion and Navy Lieutenant Yoshitha and Minister Champika Ranawaka says that the ex-president should be held accountable for corruption in mega projects, they make him feel worse.

Of course, the JHU and the JVP are echoing a demand shared by millions of Sri Lankans.However, they force Rajapaksa to the wall, precipitating a kneejerk reaction from him.

The former President has genuine concerns over the fate of his brother Gotabaya, who despite having played an indispensable role in the war victory against the LTTE, is still a likely target of any investigation into white van abductions and extra judicial killings.

The reinvigorated Sarath Fonseka, whom the former Defence Secretary defended throughout former’s tenure as the commander of Army, before they fell out should now be making both Rajapaksas – who are well aware of former army commander’s propensity- cringe.

Those and many other concerns, including those involving his other brother Basil, could have compelled Mahinda Rajapaksa to preempt the manoeuvrings by the new government by making a political comeback.

The danger is that if he succeeds, he is most likely to rollback whatever democratic reforms that would be implemented by the current government.

One option to neutralise this threat is to address the concerns of the ex-president.

One way to do that is to grant him (and possibly his family) immunity from prosecution for the alleged abuses that took place under his regime in return for his guarantee that he would not interfere with the democratic transition of the country.

That would however not prevent the government from tracing money he and his cronies have looted from the country. (In fact, Philippine has been tracing money siphoned by its former dictator Ferdinand Marcos until recently. As recently as 2014, it received US $ 23 million from Swiss banks.)
However, immunity for Rajapaksa is not the most desirable solution in the eyes of many millions of Sri Lankans, who want justice delivered for the crimes committed by the former regime. However, imperfect circumstance we are faced with warrant less perfect solutions.

If the public are not prepared to reconcile with the old regime, we are left with the other option: that is to expose the abuses and excesses of the Rajapaksa regime to their full extent and thereby greatly diminishing his political appeal and then to prosecute him and the family for those crimes.

However, it does not appear that the UNP stakeholders of the new government really want to do that. Many of them have less altruistic reasons to be in politics and do not want to set a precedent which would one day be used against their misdeeds.

Nowadays, public are treated with a daily staple of news reports of fresh bribery allegations lodged with the Bribery Commission by the Ministers and MPs, who visit the commission, accompanied by television cameramen. However, the absence of any follow up action cast doubt over those allegations. When this happens repeatedly, public, understandably, lose trust.

Of course, investigations into those complex economic crimes are time consuming. For whatever reason, it took the Bribery Commision over six weeks to obtain a simple court order to probe into the assets held by Sajin Vass Gunawardene and others. Also, whether the investigative apparatus, specially the Bribery Commission have expertise to investigate those complex crimes is open to question. The integrity of the commissioners is also open to debate.

Equally puzzling is that the government has, so far, been reluctant to pursue other allegations which, could even be much easier to investigate: White van abductions, disappearances, murder and assault of dissidents, civil society activists and ordinary Tamils. Half- hearted efforts by the government to hold the old guard accountable (only for selected crimes) are bound to backfire. Last week’s rally should be viewed as a warning of the danger of this misplaced strategy.

There is another element in this equation: Perhaps the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe may be thinking that an irritant Rajapaksa would divide the SLFP and check president Sirisena’s hold of the party.

There is an interesting anecdote.

During the short- lived UNP administration of 2001-2003, the CID investigating a double murder in Tangalle arrested Southern Provincial Council Minister M.K.Ranjith alias Chandi Malli, who confessed that the murder weapon had been concealed in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Carlton residence.

When, a senior Police officer, an ASP, was on his way to Tangalle, armed with a search warrant to search the residence of Rajapaksa, he received a call from the powers that be in the then UNP government, who instructed him not to proceed with the search and return to Colombo.

The rationale, I was told by those who were privy to that investigation, was that a possible arrest of Mahinda Rajapaksa would be a boost to Chandrika Kumaratunga, with whom Mahinda Rajapaksa was always at loggerheads.

In 2005, Rajapaksa won the Presidential Election and in the subsequent years, he made Parliament and other democratic institutions redundant. If he returned, he would do it again.

Correction: In my last week’s column, Dr. Warnasena Rasaputram, the governor of Central Bank (1979-1988) has been mentioned among Tamil gentlemen who occupied high posts of bureaucracy in the early 1980s. Mr Rasaputram is a Sinhalese. (He later changed his name to Rasaputra.) I regret the inadvertent error.

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