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The Chutzpah Years

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended but by the offender himself.”
Marx (The Indian Revolt)

( November 21, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The original Mahinda Chinthana Manifesto was launched with much fanfare in 2005. The theme song of that event referred to Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa as a ‘King who believed in equality’.

Eight years later, with painful hindsight, it is easy to realise that that monarchical reference - together with the title of the Manifesto (the first time any Lankan leader named his/her election manifesto after him/herself) - constituted the first tentative steps in the country’s descent from a flawed democracy to a patrimonial oligarchy. At that moment, the lyrics and the title seemed just an example of infantile but essentially harmless self aggrandisement many Lankan politicians are lamentably addicted to.

In Milton Meyer’s analysis of how ordinary Germans reacted to – or didn’t react to – Hitler, a philologist, who lived out the Nazi years in apathetic safety, argues that “…one must foresee the end in order to resist or even see the beginning” . It is true that many anti-democratic regimes use the Mithridates method – gradual habituation of the public to autocracy, through the administration of repressive measures in small doses. Yet there are always signs, even at the very beginning of such a journey, which give a fair warning of the intended destination. If a nation misses those signs, it is because it prefers the blessings of inertia to the ‘curse of consciousness’.

In Sri Lanka, there were numerous early warnings of the nature and destination of the Rajapaksa trajectory. The most well known include the constitutional and unconstitutional empowering of Rajapaksa Siblings, attacks on opponents/critics, subverting the 17th Amendment, scuttling the regime’s own APRC and IIGEP, the twin myths of ‘Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties’ and ‘Welfare Villages’, the vengeful persecution of Gen. Fonseka, enthroning Sinhala-Buddhist Supremacism and the 18th Amendment.

Barely a month after the triumphant conclusion of the Fourth Eelam War, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga came up with an intriguing proposal: the setting up of ‘spy units’ in every state institution - to combat corruption! In an editorial titled ‘A Timely Move against Corruption’, The Daily News described the proposed ‘spy service’ as “….a mole planted in every state department…working incognito” .

That was a time when dissenting voices were far less timorous than they are today. Faced with an onslaught of verbal opposition, the regime abandoned its Orwellian proposal.

In 2006, the Auditor General informed the parliament that the tax and export income statistics of the government were misleading; these errors have been pointed out on many occasions, to no avail, he revealed, and warned that they will jeopardise the budget and future economic plans .

This fiddling with figures was not an accident or an anomaly. Underestimating costs and overestimating revenues is a key pillar of Rajapaksa budget-making; the resulting gap is bridged by introducing several supplementary estimates annually.

The Rajapaksas were furious about the Auditor General’s public warning. They responded by trying to do to the Auditor General’s Department what was done to the Central Bank – the appointment of an acolyte as the AG. The employees of the Department (with trade union and opposition backing) went public with their protest against the planned politicisation of this key overseer of the financial health of the state. Faced with the resultant politico-societal outcry, the Siblings backed down.

The attempts to reintroduce the criminal defamation law, set up of Jana Sabhas (which would have disempowered not only provincial councils but also government and opposition parliamentarians) and de-legalise minority political parties (under the guise of banning parties with ethno-religious affiliations) failed due to national (and international) opposition.

The opposite is also true. The Rajapaksas succeeded in intensifying familial power, entrenching impunity and weakening dissent whenever apathy – born either or fear, indifference or a combination thereof – reigned.
Namal Rajapaksa began his political career with the organisation, Tharunyata Hetak. Why didn’t the society question how a fledgling organisation, started by an unemployed undergraduate (this was before his controversial successes at the Law College exams), with no known income, was able to undertake hugely expensive projects? Why didn’t the Opposition query in parliament about who donated how much to the First Son’s NGO? Why did veteran SLFP ministers and parliamentarians give precedence in public to Law Student Namal Rajapaksa?

When impunity is the prerogative of the rulers and their acolytes, bad governance becomes the only possible governance. According to COPE sources, in 2010, Maga Neguma defaulted road contractors of a ‘massive Rs. 1.2 billion’ mostly for work done in the Hambantota district. The defrauded contractors remained silent because they feared Rajapaksa vengeance. The officers of Maga Neguma reportedly do not submit their accounts to the Auditor General; according to a COPE member, “they even produced letters from the Attorney General’s Department to support their argument that the COPE has no power to probe them” .

As Meyer said, “Nations are made not of oak and rock but of men, and as the men are, so will the nations be” .


The Rajapaksas rule in an ‘ought world’ of permanent success and generalised wellbeing while a recalcitrant reality, indifferent to the grandiose claims of propaganda, moves in a tangentially opposite direction. The chasms are multiplying – between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, between those of different ethnicities and religions, between intoxicated imaginings and the stark reality. A conspicuously consuming 20% exists, side by side, with a compulsorily abstemious 80%, as the country moves inexorably towards an 80-20 society. High taxes, exorbitant prices and low quality services are asphyxiating even the middle class.
A regime wedded to a Sinhala-Buddhist agenda cannot ensure normalcy in a pluralist land. A regime committed to Familial Rule cannot permit democracy. A regime that is blasé about the plight of the poor and the powerless cannot bring about meaningful development.

Sri Lanka as a rest-and-recreation haven for the rich and the infamous, that seems to be the Rajapaksa development-vision.

But the public must be liberated from knowledge about this insalubrious reality; Rajapaksa opponents and disillusioned voters must be held fast in the ‘dictatorship of no-alternatives’ . Thus the regime scuttled the Freedom of Information Act, wields a carrot-and-cudgel method to silence critics and even arrested an astrologer for making a politically unfavourable prediction (another Lankan First). The old myths of wealthy minorities preying on Sinhala wealth and fecund minorities encroaching on Sinhala Lebensraum are used, with an increasingly heavy hand, to keep the South in a patriotic slumber.

A vision circumscribed by familial interests is ultimately inimical to the enlightened self-interests of its practitioners because it blinds them to the accumulation of discontent, even within their own core-constituency. Familial politics equates the interests of the family with public/national interest. The promotion of the Family becomes the primary function of power. When dynastic ambitions are added on, governance becomes even more undemocratic and imbalanced.

Chutzpah might seem great and grand for a while. But it is an illusion, transient, destructive and self-destructive.
The Rajapaksas should know; that was how they were able to defeat Vellupillai Pirapaharan.


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