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Sri Lanka: Asking the Future

 Candidate Rajapaksa’s first media conference was more baby pool than ocean. Yet he often floundered and meandered.

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“You are talking all the time on the past, no. Ask the future (laughs) I’m trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka. If you concentrate on the future, I think it is better (laughs).”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa (at his inaugural media conference)

The past is what Gotabaya Rajapaksa invokes when he tells us to vote for him. In his glitzy propaganda material, the past has the pride of place - the war-winning man and the Colombo-beautifying man.

He wants us to remember the past but not all the past, only the approved bits. When questioned about the Other past at his inaugural media conference, he turned testy and evasive. “Ask the future,” he told the media.



The next day, his media spokesman, Dulles Allahapperuma issued guidelines about questioning Candidate Rajapaksa. Don’t ask him about the past, Mr. Allhapperuma said, ask him about his opinions and ideas.

Ask the future.

At the media conference, the future was not forgotten. Some of the questions Candidate Gotabaya managed to answer, often with a general dose of platitudes. But when asked how he will finance the generous promises he is making, he had no answer to give. He turned speechless again, when questioned about the debt crisis. When a journalist asked him about extremism and reconciliation, he was silent for several long seconds; he stared, smiled and made a circular gesture with one hand, eventually giving an answer that had little to do with the question. On issues that could shape the future he was as clueless as he was unforthcoming about issues that coloured the past.  
At the conference he didn’t have a meltdown, didn’t call any woman journalist a shit eating pig (as he did when Fredrica Jansz questioned him about the Swiss-puppy) or threaten to hang a political opponent (Gen. Sarath Fonseka). But his dislike of probing questions and follow-ups were was clear. Asked why he didn’t attend the all candidate confab on October 5th (he promised to attend it and didn’t) his response was characteristic of both the man and of the president he intends to be. “I have presented my policy proposals on many occasions,” he said, followed by his signature laugh. “Therefore it’s not necessary to go to a place where there are about ten opponents, and one is isolated.”  
            Candidate Rajapaksa’s first media conference was more baby pool than ocean. Yet he often floundered and meandered. No wonder he has been shackled to a teleprompter ever since he was named the SLPP’s presidential candidate. In a theatre where every move, every word is controlled, he can don the mantle of sagacity, play the philosopher-technocrat to his heart’s content.
A firefly needs the darkness of the night to shine.

The president of the future Sri Lanka

            There’s much to say for the teleprompter-habit. No off-the-cuff gems that Sajith Premadasa and his merry men excel at (especially Harsha de Silva, who is rapidly becoming the lead joker in a pack of jokers). Every word can be taken seriously, because every word is meant. Like these words, this pledge by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at his inaugural campaign rally: “A large number of war heroes are in jails on trumped up charges. At this moment I’d like to say by the morning of the 17th all of them would be acquitted and freed.” (At the media conference he was asked how many military personnel are in custody. He didn’t answer, perhaps because he didn’t want to admit that the answer is 7 - 48 military personnel were arrested by the CID since 2015. 41 have been bailed out.)

            A president can pardon a convicted criminal. But only a judge can acquit and discharge an accused. Therefore Gotabaya Rajapaksa intends to begin his presidency by violating the constitution, by breaking the law, by exercising powers the presidency never had, no presidency anywhere has.  If any judge or lawyer tries to resist this gross constitutional violation, he/she would probably be accused of treason and locked up, if not worse. Given the primordial silence of the Bar Association about Candidate Gotabaya’s statement, it is reasonable to assume that there won’t be any protests when President Gotabaya sets himself up as the judge and jury. The country will fall onto its collective knees, allowing the president of the future to shape the future any which way he likes.

            In his warning to the media about permissible and non-permissible areas of questioning, Dulles Alahapperuma said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa separates black from white. No arguments there. When Mervyn Silva’s son Malaka Silva assaulted Major Chandana Pradeep of the Military Intelligence, the self-appointed godfather of all war-heroes, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa threw that particular war hero under the bus. He saved the ministerial brat by criminalising the major, accusing him of “acting as a personal bodyguard of an individual, which is beyond his duties” (Sri Lanka News – 14.9.2012). Amongst those he intends to acquit and discharge are the four military personnel charged with killing three unarmed protestors in Rathupaswala.

Black and white.  

Like ACSA and SOFA, black as imperialism when others try to renew the agreements, white as national sovereignty when Gotabaya Rajapaksa renews them. The two agreements with the US were first signed under the presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and renewed under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, with not a hum from anyone. When they came up for renewal this year, the SLPP went into a patriotic frenzy, accusing Ranil Wickremesinghe of turning the island into an American military base, the Guantanamo of the Indian Ocean. The SLPP patriots even formed an organisation, STOP USA, to defeat this ‘great betrayal’. “If Sri Lanka does not take a stand against…there will be no turning back,” Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa thundered (Ceylon Today – 26.6.2019). His partner in hysteria, parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila warned, “The time has come for us to find allies that will not intervene in our internal affairs. Even if this agreement was for a certain time period, what happens when the time period is over and if the US refuses to leave?” (Ibid). Mr. Rajapaksa, who until recently was a Sri Lankan-American, remained silent as his supporters screamed about an imminent American invasion.

When asked about how ACSA and SOFA would impact on Sri Lanka’s non-aligned status, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s reply was they didn’t. “The agreement we signed went on for ten years.” He said, and laughed. “Nothing actually happened with that. The benefit was for us. Not for them.” Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila both actively participated in the media conference, but remained silent as their candidate gave the lie to their fiery campaign of last several months. (Incidentally, thanks to the Rajapaksa mandated STOP USA campaign, President Sirisena deferred the renewal of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant by six months. As a result, Sri Lanka stands to lose – or has already lost - a grant of US$ 480 million.)

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president of the future Sri Lanka, is breaking new ground in this campaign going back to the past. On September 26th, he and Brother Mahinda attended the Shanthikarmavedinge Jathika Sammelanaya, a gathering of kapuwas, exorcists, astrologers etc, at the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre. According to internet reports, the brothers promised the gathering that these ‘god-men’ will be accepted as a separate profession, given a separate ID card and registered in the Cultural Ministry. A special administrative unit will also be established for them. Are we in the Duvalier territory, with this politicisation of superstition?

Ask the future, where disorder is discipline, lawlessness is law, impunity is justice and superstition is knowledge.

The God-president?
            The Mirror and the Light, the long awaited final book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell will be out in 2020. The official publicity video carries a quote from the book: What have I but what my king gave me? What am I but what he has made me?
          
  Those two lines encapsulate the nature of monarchic despotism where king was god. It was a past common to most of the world. And in some parts of the world, it remains a possible future.

Candidate Rajapaksa clearly has little knowledge and even less interest in constitutional provisions. He sees post-19th Amendment presidency not as it is – a weakened institution sans many of its powers – but as it never was – an omnipotent position that will make him an uncrowned king, not a constitutional monarch, but an absolutist one, the head of all three branches of government including the judiciary.

The only man standing in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s path to a god-presidency might be his older brother. Mahinda Rajapaksa is now the spiritual leader of Sri Lanka, at least according to Basil Rajapaksa. “No matter who our candidate or our president is, our leader (Mahinda Rajapaksa) will be the head of the government (as PM). So this arrangement suits us well. He is our leader and he is the spiritual leader of our country” (The Hindu – 13.10.2019 – emphasis mine).

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s elevation from the secular to the sacred plane, from High King (maharajano) to spiritual leader is but the logical conclusion of the Rajapaksas’ boundless self-veneration. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa is unlikely to be content to play nominal president to his brother’s spiritual-leader PM. The contestation between the two siblings and their attendant satellites to lay claim to the centre of gravity in the new regime would make an interesting spectacle, assuming anyone interested in such matters is in a fit shape to observe.

Totalitarian in intent, familial in nature, violent in means, majoritarian supremacist, deeply rooted in superstition under a technocratic and futuristic veneer, adhering to a kith-and-kin capitalism (which combines the worse features of neo-liberalism and statism) – where to pigeon-hole Sri Lanka under a Gotabaya presidency is uncertain. But stable is one thing it will not be. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president, his word was the law for his brothers. Who will call the shots when younger brother Gotabaya is the president and older brother Mahinda is the prime minister? What happens when the likes of Kamal Gunaratne, Mohan Wijewickrama and Chagi Gallage confront the likes of Dinesh Gunawardane, Keheliya Rambukwella and Dulles Alahapperuma for power, influence and wealth? Will the Lankan state become the terrain of contestation between the armies of God-president and Spiritual leader?  
Is this future our unavoidable fate? Not yet. The election is wide open still. There is no clear winner the way there was in 2015 or 2010, yet. Currently Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the frontrunner. But given the nature of the man and his politics, his path to victory, while short, is also extremely narrow. He can never win anything other than a sliver of the minority vote. If he fails to win the SLFP vote in near-entirety, he cannot win outright. If he fails to win a majority of the SLFP vote (50% or above) he can lose. If he gains less than 30% of the SLFP vote, he will lose.

A percentage of the 2018 SLFP vote will go to the SLPP, but how much that would be is and would remain unknowable until after the election. There is a real possibility that a majority of those who voted for the SLFP in 2018 will not vote for the SLPP in 2019. The pro-Rajapaksa SLFPers are no longer in the SLFP. Those who remain are more likely to be Bandaranaike supporters or left-of-centre voters with a more modernist outlook and therefore uncomfortable with the extreme brand of familial politics practiced by the Rajapaksas.

If Sajith Premadasa can gain more than 75% of the SLFP vote and more than 75% of the N/E minority vote, he can defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if not outright, then in the second round. His chances will improve considerably if he can persuade those who vote for various third party candidates to give him the second preference, as the only way to stop a Gotabaya-victory. When the real contest is between a joker and a murderer, the choice is cringe-worthy but clear. Sajith Premadasa with his embarrassing antics might give democracy a bad name, but he will not set out to destroy democracy on the morning after.

Unfortunately, Sajith Premadasa is yet to emerge from the echo-chamber of his supporters’ hurrahs and face reality. To overtake Gotabaya Rajapaksa and reach the finish line, he has a long way to go.

Filling the Galle Face will not win him election. To win, he needs to heal the fissures in the UNP he and his supporters worsened in their vitriolic campaign to win the candidacy. To win, he must understand that his constituency is no longer Hambantota, but Sri Lanka, a place of not just Sinhalese, Buddhists and monks, but also of Tamils, Muslims, Hindus and Christians, a place of not just villages but also of cities and towns.

Even if Sajith Premadasa gains a majority of the SLFP vote, he cannot without the minorities. If he thinks the minorities will flock to his side because of their fear of a Gotabaya-presidency, while he spends all his time chasing the mirage that is Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist vote, he is mistaken. The episode with the fasting disabled soldiers should have taught him a lesson about what his real constituency is. His assumed nativism didn’t work even in Hambantota (where he never equalled the UNP’s national average, except once). It will fail miserably in multi-ethnic, multi-religious Sri Lanka. 

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