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Sri Lanka: A year in Cloud Cuckoo Land

During the last presidential and parliamentary elections, the mainstay of the Rajapaksa platform was their image as saviours of this national (Sinhala-Buddhist) community.  Sinhala-Buddhist monks played a key role in this war to reclaim the land, state and society for the majority community, to create a Sinhala-Buddhist king and, through him, a Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. 

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Then take us for Gods, as is proper and fit...”

Aristophanes (The Birds)

A pandemic with no end in sight, an economy that is unravelling, a fiscal abyss, a debt pile-up, an overwhelmed public health system – and the Gotabaya-Mahinda government is planning to build a leisure park near the Peralanda wetland in Ragama. 

The cabinet paper was presented by PM Mahinda Rajapaksa last week and approved. The cost was not mentioned, but is likely to be stupendous, money that should have been used to increase our testing capacity, assist those whose livelihoods have been destroyed, or bring back our migrant workers, some of whom are reduced to sleeping in parks. 

During his speech presenting the Appropriations Bill for 2020, PM Mahinda revealed that the government will grant Sri Lankan Airlines a loan of $150million, i.e. bout SLR27.7billion. This same government has not added a single new ICU bed, a single new ventilator to the existing stock since March this year. President Gotabaya’s explanation is as incomparable as the decision itself: “Our doctors and hospital staff were able to diagnose COVID infections in the first stage and treat them accordingly. Therefore intensive care services were not required” (https://www.president.gov.lk/our-health-service-capable-of-controlling-covid-with-peoples-support-president/). 

The situation would be comedic if the stakes were not so colossal.

The President has delegated the task of beating the pandemic to the Army Commander and the military. The Premier has delegated the task of beating the pandemic to monks and his favourite quacksalver, Eliyantha White. 

As infections soar beyond our modest testing capacity, scarce resources are being spent on a drone regiment to uncover and arrest curfew breakers. These curfew breakers will be sent to prisons which are already hotbeds of Covid-19, adding more human fuel to the viral fire. Buddhist Affairs Department has officially instructed all divisional secretariats to arrange for Ratana Sutta and Bojjanga Sutta to be chanted in temples. Ministers, including the Minister of Health, were shown throwing magical pots, courtesy Eliyantha White (the faux doctor of our faux royals) into waterways. A monk who claims to be an arhat went on a chopper sprinkling pirith pan over the island. 

In this Opera of Chicanery, everyone sings the same aria: the government has the pandemic by the throat, there is zero-community transmission, there have been only five true Covid-19 deaths... Discordant voices are ignored or silenced. Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara, who tried to introduce a note of reality into the officially sanctioned symphony of fantasy, has been asked by the Minister of Health to resign. His immediate crime was probably a statement he made on the 12th. “Though we think there are only 15,000 infected people in Sri Lanka, a greater number might be found if we do testing properly” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=47&v=qRAxxPX4nzU&feature=emb_title). Nothing reveals the strategic ineptitude of our rulers than the 2021 Budget. Unless a revision has been made, the 2021 Budget will allocate less money for Health than the 2019 Budget did. According to the Appropriations Bill for 2021 (approved by the cabinet in early October) allocation for Health decreased by Rs 29billion compared to 2019. 

The war ended more than a decade ago. The pandemic is a living reality. Yet defence tops the 2021 budgetary allocations. The second place goes to Highways, which gets more than double the money allocated to Health. 

With such prioritisation, it is little wonder that no steps were taken to ramp up our testing capacity during the lull between the previous and current waves. 

On November 1st, the GMOA, a key Rajapaksa enabler, said that the government was claiming there was no community spread without doing random community testing. Most testing is limited to contacts. The entire Kurunegala district got only 50 test kits a day, the GMOA stated. With such a paltry number, random testing (or even adequate testing of contacts) is impossible. If the plan is to hide the real spread of the infection, as Donald Trump wanted to, there’s no better way than this. Is it any wonder that the Rajapaksas prefer to entrust pandemic fighting to generals and quacks?   

One year on: Rajapaksas 1; Sri Lanka 0

One year after the 2019 presidential election, the Rajapaksas’ maximum programme has been achieved. 

Sri Lanka has President Gotabaya, Prime Minister Mahinda, and Ministers Chamal, Namal, Shasheendra and Nipuna. Soon there will be a Minister Basil too; a signature campaign is on, getting SLPP parliamentarians to ask Basil Rajapaksa to come to parliament as the next saviour.

20th Amendment swept aside all obstacles to familial rule and dynastic succession. One year on, the promised Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour are a reality, for the Rajapaksas. 

But for Sri Lanka and a majority of Sri Lankans (including a majority of those who voted for the Rajapaksas), prosperity and splendour remain distant dreams, more unreachable than they were in November 2019.

High prices and chronic shortages in rice and vegetables and a bus fare hike, have added to the economic woes of ordinary people, already hard hit by the pandemic. Environmental devastation continues at an unprecedented pace and will get worse with the handing over of more than half a million acres of forest land to divisional secretaries. 

Caught between contending American and Chinese pressures, Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is being undermined in open sight. The Rajapaksas are far less capable of withstanding international pressures, given their unprecedented financial dependence on China and their family ties to the US. The Rajapaksas’ natural politico-economic affinity is with China. But with so many core family members being US citizens (with homes and bank accounts in America), the regime cannot ally itself totally with Beijing. 

For the Rajapaksas, a Biden-Harris administration is a worse prospect than a second Trump term. The new State Department is likely to be controlled by Obama-era officials, many of whom have an intimate knowledge of the Rajapaksas. Given Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksas’ familial ties to the US, this administration is likely to be more vulnerable to the potential uses of the Magnitsky Act than the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Since Xi’s China behaves more like an imperial master, openly intolerant of any sign of autonomy on the part of its satellites, the Rajapaksas might find themselves in deep international waters in 2021, unable to live without Chinese largesse, unwilling to give up their (chosen) American homeland.   

Though quite a few of the once faithful Rajapaksa acolytes are unhappy about the new deeds of their masters, an open rebellion is unlikely. When Minister Johnston Fernando boasted that the government would protect loyalist lawbreakers, the obverse, though unstated, was also included – dissenters will be punished, whether they are innocent of guilty. The curiously similar fates of Shani Abeysekara, Hejaaz Hisbullah and Rishard Bathiudeen would make any potential dissenter think twice before walking the (occasional grumbling) talk. 

While the public is focusing on pandemic and economic woes, the Rajapaksas are busy transforming the state into a private fief. 19 CID officers were transferred out last week, all of them involved in the investigation on the Easter bombing. The director of the investigations division of the Bribery Commission, SSP Padmini Weerasooriya, has been packed off to Jaffna. Previously, she was sent to Nugegoda, but the 19th Amendment was still in effect, so the transfer was rendered invalid. With the 20th, the Rajapaksas have absolute control over the state and unlimited power to punish any official who is unwilling to toe the line.

The ongoing tragicomedy in America demonstrates that in the story that is democracy, there is no happy (or unhappy) ever after. The chapters end, the book goes on. In the US, all it took was a reality TV star to undermine a fundamental pillar of democracy – the peaceful transition of power, a timely reminder that democratic failure is not an exclusive Third World malady.

In military coups, democracy is killed in the open. De-democratisation works differently, more erosion than decapitation, a gradual chipping away at democratic institutions and values, norms and practices, until only the shell remains. This is the Lankan reality today. The 20th Amendment has turned the presidency into a de facto monarchy again. 

Lifetime presidents exist in a ‘mirror-state’, Roger Owns points out in The Rise and the Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. These leaders see themselves as “omnipotent, indispensable and well loved by a grateful people in whose name they professed to govern.” To maintain this self-delusion, critical voices must be silenced and derisive laughter wiped out. This is evident in the Rajapaksa moves to shape the pandemic narrative. The police are searching for anyone spreading fake news -or uncomfortable truths - on the internet. One man is already in custody. The aim is to force social media to confirm to the official truth, as most of the print and electronic media have done. Once established and normalised, the practice of hunting social media dissenters will continue even after the pandemic is a distant memory. The drone regiment too would become a permanent weapon in the Rajapaksa arsenal, a way to watch over us, like Orwell’s Big Brother. 

A chance to defang religious politics

The new despotism, claims political thinker John Keane in his eponymous book, is top-down state capitalism which obfuscates its inherent inequalities by “top-to-bottom patron-client connections, middle-class loyalty, staged elections, and a great deal of officially sanctioned talk of the people as the veritable source of political order.” All of these features are present in the Rajapaksa model. But like in many countries with deeply ingrained racial or religious divisions, there is also an element that serves as a politico-ideological binding agent – the notion of a ‘national community’ – the unity of the majority race or religion (sans a few traitors), to defend its ‘common interests’ against minority encroachment and foreign interference. 

In his soon-to-be-released autobiography Barack Obama verbalises a truth many have known – that the Trump presidency was a reaction to the presence of a Black man in the White House: “It was as if my presence in the White House had triggered a deep seated panic, a sense that the natural order has been disrupted...” (https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/12/politics/obama-memoir-promised-land/index.html). Donald Trump made use of this innate fear and anger, fed into it and built on it. The first weapon he used, the Birther conspiracy, is a trope familiar to us in Sri Lanka – the notion of minority communities as perennial aliens, viscerally unpatriotic, an argument used by Mahinda Rajapaksa (and his JHU backers) in 2004 to wrest the Prime Minister post from a man who was more suited than him in every way to hold that position, Lakshman Kadirgamar. 

What Donald Trump said about Barack Obama (and what he will say about the coming Biden-Harris administration) is no different to what Mahinda Rajapaksa and his acolytes claimed after their 2015 defeat - their racist attempts to delegitimize the election results on the ground that a majority of Sinhalese didn’t vote for the Maithripala Sirisena, that he was elected by the minorities, as if the vote of a Tamil or a Muslim is of less value than that of a Sinhalese.  

During the last presidential and parliamentary elections, the mainstay of the Rajapaksa platform was their image as saviours of this national (Sinhala-Buddhist) community.  Sinhala-Buddhist monks played a key role in this war to reclaim the land, state and society for the majority community, to create a Sinhala-Buddhist king and, through him, a Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. 

Sinhala-Buddhism is a political religion. This political religion was used by the Rajapaksas to fuel their comeback. But now, their goal achieved, the monks who worked to ensure the electoral success of Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa are being disregarded. 

This is a positive development for a truly Sri Lankan future – because it creates a rare opportunity to break the toxic link between religion and politics, a link that has harmed both politics and religion. But instead of allowing political Buddhism and its representatives to fade into oblivion, we are subjected to the unseemly sight of both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa rushing to the abodes of the discontented monks. Nothing illustrates the bankruptcy of Lankan opposition today than these opportunistic attempts to woo the Rajapaksa discards. It might seem like clever politics, but it is the brand of myopic cleverness that bedevilled Ranil Wickremesinghe’s career and reduced the UNP to its current status. Tragically, Sajith Premadasa seems to be imitating his erstwhile leader’s tactics, believing that he can create and crest a new Sinhala-Buddhist wave.

 The Rajapaksas are the true owners of Sinhala-Buddhism, just as Donald Trump has made himself the true owner of White racism. The JVP, the JHU and Sarath Fonseka tried to become more Sinhala-Buddhist than the Rajapaksas and failed. If the UNP and the SJB try to traverse the same path, the Rajapaksa future will remain bright. 

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