Remaking Sri Lanka, The Rajapaksa Way

“And should fate decree the rise of an efficient tyrant, so energetic and so proficient in warfare that he enlarges his dominions, no advantage will accrue to the commonwealth, but only to himself….” — Machiavelli (The Discourses)

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

(March 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Mahinda Rajapaksa is arguably the most successful leader in post-1948 Sri Lanka, just as Velupillai Pirapaharan was the most successful Tamil leader of modern times, until, intoxicated by hubris, he overreached and brought upon himself and his people a devastating defeat.

When Rajapaksa won the presidency less than five years ago, the existence of the ethnic problem and the need for a political solution were deemed axiomatic truths. Only a cabal of Sinhala supremacists, vociferous but politically negligible, occupying the margins of Lankan polity and society, refused to accept these twin realities. When President Rajapaksa repeatedly stated his disbelief in the existence of an ethnic problem, he was positioning himself within this Sinhala supremacist space. Concrete actions accompanied his ideological shift. The unitary state was declared unalterable. The homeland concept was rejected. The north-east was de-merged, sans a referendum. Sinhala extremist discourse became de rigueur, again. Gradually, almost insensibly, Sinhala supremacism began to assume a new gravitas, until it possessed the political heights and permeated the southern society.

The APC process was aimed at camouflaging this steady erosion of the post-1987 devolutionary gains. Minister Tissa Vitharana was appointed to head it, in a move calculated to reassure the doubters. The APC was an exercise in deception, the real purpose of which was to neutralise India and the West rather than find a solution to the ethnic problem. When the Experts Panel of the APC came up with a Majority Report outlining a devolution formula, the President rejected it and disbanded the panel. He used his allies in the APC to prevaricate and subvert the process from within and rejected any and all proposals emanating from it.

He also offered district level de-centralisation as the SLFP’s ‘solution’, thereby leaving all but the willfully blind in no doubt as to his anti-devolutionary intent. Today even the 13th Amendment is being dismissed as unnecessary and undesirable by a government intoxicated by its victory over the LTTE, and disinclined to countenance devolution to gain Indian goodwill.

In the absence of the Tiger

Until 1987, Sinhala supremacism constituted the main obstacle to a political solution to the ethnic problem. The Sinhala Only of 1956 was its offspring while its influence was pivotal in causing the demise of the BC Pact and the DC Pact. The Black July marked its apogee, when Tamils were targeted for being Tamils in a ‘Sinhala country’ and the dominant commonsense excused this bloody orgy as a manifestation of the justifiable anger of the Sinhalese. For the Sinhala supremacists, even petty decentralisation was too much, because, in their eyes, Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese, and the minorities, as mere guests, had no right to make demands. 1987 onwards, the LTTE became the main impediment to a political solution. For the Tigers even the most generous power-sharing agreement was too little. They too agreed that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country in which Tamils can never be equals and insisted that the only possible solution was a separate state comprising of the north and the east.

Sinhala supremacism and the Tigers were thus ideological twins, united in their refusal to admit the possibility of a Sri Lanka which belonged to all her citizens equally, in which no race or religion could dominate others. Occupying seemingly antithetical extremes, each helped justify the crimes and the excesses of the other by its mere existence.

As President Rajapaksa began implementing his agenda of counter-reforms aimed at taking Sri Lanka back to the status quo ante bellum, the intransigence of the Tigers served as an effective diversion. The Tigers, maximalist to the end, refused well-intentioned attempts to prevent a bloody dénouement, dragging the Tamil people into a crushing defeat in their wake.

The removal of the LTTE from the political scene has bared the real purpose of the Rajapaksa agenda. No longer can the absence of a political solution be blamed on Tiger maximalism. However the Rajapaksas do not require excuses for their Sinhala supremacism anymore (except in the event of an Indian reaction, in response to a reactivation of the Tamil Nadu factor). The post-2005 change in the southern commonsense has rendered the concept of ethnic problem obsolete and the slogan of a political solution anachronistic.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected, Sinhala hardliners hailed him as the true legatee of the 1956 Revolution. Events have proven them right. He has succeeded in turning the clock back to pre-July 1983. The best measure of his success is the critical absence of the terms ethnic problem and political solution in the new UNP Manifesto. The UNP has not become a racist party, as evidenced by its timely promises to reduce the number of military camps in the north and to address the issue of human rights violations (this, incidentally, is the only certain way of preventing an international war crimes inquiry, someday). The UNP has merely succumbed to the new Sinhala supremacist commonsense (just as it succumbed to Sinhala Only), not out of conviction but in a misguided attempt to woo the south.

Indian intervention and Tiger military successes compelled the Sinhala South to accept the need for a political solution to the ethnic problem, post-1987. Today the LTTE is decimated while Delhi clings desperately to the delusion of a Rajapaksa propelled political solution. In the absence of these twin pressures, the south seems quite willing to return to status quo ante bellum. Perhaps the Sinhala majority never really ceased equating the ethnic problem with the LTTE, rather than seeing the LTTE as a by-product of the ethnic problem. Perhaps the Sinhala majority does believe that, post-LTTE, Tamil concerns can be marginalised. And yet, the ethnic problem has not ceased to exist, simply because the new southern commonsense deems it non-existent. It has merely disappeared from the country’s political lexicon. It will take the resurrection of Tamil politics (hopefully in a peaceful and a democratic form) for the south to once again accept the existence of an ethnic problem and the need for a political solution.

The Rajapaksa regime has made permanent all temporary military camps in the north, via a Special Gazette. Visitors to the north talk about a proliferation of Buddha statues in this province peopled almost exclusively by non-Buddhists (“Namal Rajapaksa arrived on a sudden visit to Jaffna…with a statue of Sangamitta….to be enshrined in the newly built Buddhist temple in ‘Maathakal’, according to the First Son’s official website). A country with an ethno-religiously pluralist demographic base cannot sustain a majoritarian supremacist political superstructure without relapsing into crisis.

Just as Sinhala Only gave birth to the Tamil militancy and Black July ensured the ascendance of the Tigers, the ideological occupation of the Lankan state by Sinhala supremacism and the physical occupation of the north by a Sinhala Buddhist army may work in favour of Tamil extremism rather than Tamil democracy. If so, the resurgence of Tamil politics may take a non-democratic form, to the detriment of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.

Consenting to dynastic rule

Underlying the Rajapaksa project is an implicit covenant with the Sinhala South: the Rajapaksas would defeat the Tigers and restore Sinhala dominance; in return the Sinhala South would consent to familial rule and dynastic succession. The Rajapaksas would protect the nation and the nation would promote the Rajapaksas.

The aim would be dynastic rule which is hegemonic in the south and dominant in the north (‘cooperative power’ for the south and ‘coercive power’ for the north). Since the Sinhalese are the majority, this mix may enable the Rajapaksas to implement their familial agenda with some legitimacy and behind a democratic façade. Whether economic factors (spiralling cost of living, deteriorating living standards) can upset this carefully calibrated balancing act remains to be seen.

Jaya Jayawe, a musical show organised by ITN (and attended by the President, his wife and brothers) was symbolic of Sri Lanka, remade the Rajapaksa way. The President was hailed as ‘the Lion in the Lion Flag’ and praised as the ‘Divine Gift’ sent to his mother’s womb ‘by the gods and the Brahmas from golden palaces’.

‘Mahinda Rajapaksa is our king…. King Rajapaksa’s name will be written in history in letters of gold’ sang a child. The innumerable encomiums heaped on the President included ‘Our Future’, ‘Our Solution’, ‘Our Comfort’, ‘Our Happiness’, ‘Our Light’, the ‘Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Wonder of the World and the Universe’, ‘Golden Sword which defends the nation’, ‘Golden Thread which unites sundered hearts’, ‘the Sun’ and ‘the Moon’…

Often turning points reveal their seminal nature only post-facto. It is so with the Rajapaksa revolution. When did we consent to the idea of a president for a term becoming a (de facto) monarch for life? When did we begin concurring with the lie of Rajapaksa infallibility? When did we accept the equation of President Rajapaksa with the nation and, in consequence, anti-Rajapaksaism with treachery? What was the defining moment in this transformation of Sri Lanka from a pluralist democracy into a Sinhala supremacist family oligarchy?

At the launch of the original Mahinda Chinthana Manifesto in 2005, the theme song referred to Rajapaksa as a ‘King who believes in equality’. As subsequent developments revealed this was no idle expression of infantile vanity but the manifestation of a quality quintessential to Rajapaksa thinking, an omen of things to come under a leader who equated himself with the nation-state.

The hitherto inconceivable becomes normal in transformative times. Last week the Sirasa TV was attacked, again, for ‘promoting’ a show by a singer who had ‘insulted’ Buddhism. Subsequent to this violent outburst, the regime decided to deny a visa to the singer. Since the singer was invited by a state agency, the Tourism Promotion Bureau, the issue could have been resolved in a civilised manner, without making Sri Lanka seem like a suzerainty of religious fundamentalists (this incident is indeed indicative of the degree to which the tentacles of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism have penetrated Lankan polity and society; according to the Gulf Daily News, a Sinhala woman who had converted to Islam is being held by the Lankan police for writing a book insulting Buddhism; at this rate we will have our own ‘Faith Police’ before long). By trying to use the issue for cheap political gains, the government created an unnecessary image problem for Sri Lanka (the next step would be to pay billions to some international advertising firm to solve this image problem).

Sarath Fonseka was arrested accused of conspiring to overthrow the government and murder the President and his family. When his military trial began last week, these sensational charges were conspicuous by their absence. Instead he was charged with minor misdeeds — hobnobbing with opposition politicians and misusing his powers, as Army Commander. Though the government seemed to have lied and lied big, there was no outburst of outrage from southern society, which once worshipped General Fonseka. He too, like the civilian Tamils and the Sinhala victims of the Rajapaksas (journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda being the latest), has become invisible.

That too was a feat inconceivable just three months ago. The transformative achievements of the President, his capacity to make the inconceivable happen requires us to take the man and his project very, very seriously. The world beyond the pale cannot be resisted if its menace is regarded lightly – as the morality tale of the Tamils and their ’saviour’ Pirapaharan demonstrates.