The state of limbo created by the pandemic has given the President invaluable time and space to build his own support base. The parliament is in abeyance. The cabinet exists only in a caretaker capacity. Even the prime minister is a caretaker prime minister. In this grey landscape, the President remains the sole figure of certainty
“We’ll leave behind an iron scrap
And the hollow, mocking laugh of generations.”
– Tadeusz Borowski (Wherever the earth)
by Tisaranee Gunasekara
While the world struggles with the Wuhan-born COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government has taken a great leap towards Hong Kong. Beijing has unveiled a new national security law enabling the use of Chinese security apparatus against dissent in Hong Kong. The law is to be included in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution without the consent of either the city’s populace or its legislature. The road is being cleared for the Chinese army to stage a Tiananmen in Hong Kong.
China’s action is hardly unique. The world over, COVID-19 has become grist to the megalomaniac mill of national populist leaders. President Donald Trump might be more clown than menace, but democracy is facing evisceration in countries with less rooted institutions and robust oppositions, such as Sri Lanka.
When he nominated younger brother Gotabaya as the SLPP’s presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa may have planned for a Putin-Medvedev type future, where he, as PM, continues to run the show. If so, that plan has gone sadly awry. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emerged from his brother’s colossal shadow, claiming for himself the kind of unfettered power ancient kings enjoyed. He is impatient with any limitations on his right to rule, constitutional or legal, institutional or fraternal.
President Gotabaya’s dreams of grandeur are not (yet) consonant with his actual strengths. The SLPP is still not his party. Basil Rajapaksa controls the party machinery while the base remains loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa. This became evident during the nomination process. There was no secret that President Gotabaya wanted a slew of his loyalists to be given SLPP nominations. But only a handful actually received nominations, demonstrating that in the SLPP, Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa still call the shots. Six months into his presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains a general in search of an army.
The state of limbo created by the pandemic has given the President invaluable time and space to build his own support base. The parliament is in abeyance. The cabinet exists only in a caretaker capacity. Even the prime minister is a caretaker prime minister. In this grey landscape, the President remains the sole figure of certainty.
Unsurprisingly, the military seems to be the mainstay of the power base the President is building for himself. A parallel hierarchy of authority is being created via the inserting of retired and serving military men into key civilian positions. President Gotabaya used his short speech at the War Heroes Commemoration to portray himself as the military’s unconditional and sole champion. Immunity in return for loyalty was the subtext of his speech. He has already walked the talk by making generals out of brigadiers with questionable pasts and pardoning convicted killer Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also making a concerted effort to win the backing of the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate by acting as the prime protector of majoritarian interests. Cases in point include placing Muhudu Maha Viharaya under direct military protection and promising to appoint a defence-secretary headed presidential task force to protect (Buddhist) archaeological sites in the east.
In a move bristling with symbolism, the President has appointed a Buddhist Advisory Council scheduled to meet on the third Friday of every month. According to the statement issued by the President’s Office after the second such meeting (in May), “The Maha Sangha further said that there are no words in the vocabulary to felicitate the speech made by the President at the National Ranawiru Commemoration Day... The Theros also pointed out that while the entire world appreciates (sic) the steps taken by the government to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, the behaviour of the opposition is disgusting. (https://www.presidentsoffice.gov.lk/index.php/2020/05/22/presidential-task-force-to-protect-archaeological-sites/?lang=en).” The tenor of the statement, taken together with the conspicuous absence of Mahinda Rajapaksa, sends an unmistakable message.
Sinhala-Buddhists have a new High King.
The double-edged sword of militarisation
On 18 February 1965, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate between two iconic American public intellectuals, the great African American writer James Baldwin and the high priest of conservatism, William Buckley. The topic was ‘The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro’.
In his presentation, Baldwin pointed out that the answer to the question depended on who you are, on what your sense and system of reality is, and on deeply ingrained assumptions. It is not only frothing-at-the-mouth racists who oppose moves towards racial equality; even respectable and ‘good’ people do.
Buckley, in his response, proved the correctness of Baldwin’s argument, enabling the latter to win the debate by gaining the backing of the absolute majority of the mostly white audience.
Fifty five years later, Baldwin’s insight retains its validity in explaining the inexplicable – from the victory of Donald Trump to the triumph of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Rajapaksas rendered Sinhala-Buddhist extremism respectable and even honourable by conflating it with patriotism. That work, begun under Mahinda Rajapaksa, is being now taken to its logical conclusion by President Gotabaya. Having won the presidency handsomely with no minority support, he seems to be building his own power base not just sans the minorities but also against them. Extreme nationalism is an insecure animal, prone to see a foe in every passing shadow.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to be more adroit than even brother Mahinda in mining and weaponising this inherent sense of insecurity. His ability to efface notional senses of equality and speak to deeply embedded and barely acknowledged fears seems outstanding. This was evident, for example, in the mastery way the pandemic was used to reignite anti-Muslim hysteria in the country.
A recent online incident is indicative of how far and how fast Sri Lanka has moved towards the nether regions of extremism. In a facebook post, a young professional by the name of Theshara Jayasinghe said he was a fan of Adolf Hitler’s turgid and racist tome, Mein Kampf. When challenged, he defended his preference by praising the Führer’s patriotism.
Admirers of Hitler are not a rarity in the lunatic fringes of every country. What is different here is that this particular admirer of Hitler also happens to be the chairman and director general of the National Youth Service Council and a ‘Strategist at Government of Sri Lanka’ (whatever that may mean). In the Gotabaya Rajapaksa era, the head of a state institution in charge of training the nation’s youth can publicly praise Adolf Hitler – a worrying indication of how the regime is creating an enabling atmosphere for the most obscene forms of majoritarian extremism. After all, in a land where Hitler is passé, nothing is impermissible, including tyranny.
According to the dominant narrative, the constitution and democratic institutions are peripheral and even inimical to national security and public safety. Only a militarised state led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa (with the blessing of the Buddhist clergy) can save the motherland from the never-ending internal and external threats. The military in particular is being showcased as the epitome of efficiency and honesty, in contrast to venal politicians and ineffectual legislature.
These myths have found many a receptive mind. It is not rare to read on the internet, appeals to President Gotabaya to scrap the parliament, cancel elections, and rule with a set of military governors and administrators. (The continuing cluster of infection in the Navy demonstrates that militarisation of civilian functions leads not to efficiency but to confusion and even disaster.)
Sri Lanka experienced its first wave of militarisation under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. But there is a key difference between that first wave and the ongoing second wave. The first wave enabled the military to encroach into civilian spaces but it did not enable military oversight of key civilian institutions; the military remained subordinate to the ruling family and the ruling party. Generals had to take a backseat to ministers.
In the second wave, the military is being built up as a competitive power-wielder to the ruling party and even sections of the ruling family. For example, the army commander seems to be having more of a say than PM Mahinda in the anti-pandemic campaign. It is perhaps no accident that of the two retired military men appointed as permanent secretaries, one was to oversee the mega ministry headed by Chamal Rajapaksa.
The second wave of militarisation carries a greater danger since it can cause a transformation of the military’s perception of itself and its role on the national stage. History is replete with incidents where the military decided to change its role from the saviour’s enforcer to the saviour.
Will the main arm of the new trinity turn on its creator? Will President Gotabaya Rajapaksa end up like the Lady of the Riga who went for a ride on a tiger? Only time can tell.
Veiling the truth?
A government about to face an election would not have hiked the price of consumer essentials, unless it has other plans to win the election.
The first obvious path would be racism, an appeal to Sinhala-Buddhists to elect a government that can keep the minorities in their proper subordinate place. The second could be the abuse of quarantine regulations. The ongoing saga of Prof. Rathnajeevan Hoole’s daughter demonstrates how racism and abuse of quarantine regulations can be combined to create deadly brew inimical to democratic dissent.
The facts are clear. Prof. Hoole’s daughter returned from the UK on 4 May and went into paid quarantine at a hotel. Two weeks later, on 18 May she was duly discharged, after testing negative for COVID-19. She has a certificate to prove this, signed by Army Commander Shavendra Silva and Director General of Health Services Anil Jasinghe.
The certificate is available on the internet; it says that she ‘underwent the necessary quarantining process’. No mention is made of any self-quarantining at home. Despite the evidence, Hoole is being accused of violating quarantine regulations even by mainstream media. For them, facts don’t matter. Often in the reportage, there is an underline thread of racism; accusations of treachery hover in the air.
The persecution of Hoole is aimed not just at silencing her father but also at sending a message to every official, especially those in charge of elections. Former SLPP parliamentarian Shehan Semasinghe’s outburst against the chairman of the Election Commission, accusing of being a traitor, is another indication of how the government is hoping to steamroll the bureaucracy into compliance.
The assurance given by the health authorities to the Supreme Court about the possibility of an early election is cast into doubt by the horrific fate of Fathima Rinoza, the ninth Lankan to die of COVID-19, according to official reckoning. When Rinoza admitted herself to the hospital for a pre-existing condition, she was diagnosed via a PCR test as COVID-19 positive. Her family was rounded up and sent to Welikanda for quarantining. But the next day, the family was brought back to their home and told to self-quarantine. The results of their PCR tests were never given to them (https://www.bbc.com/sinhala/sri-lanka-52662991).
Rinoza passed away while her family was on their way to Welikanda and was cremated. A son, who was allowed to see his mother, has said that the body was not in the usual body bag.
All of this indicates that a mistake had been made in the testing, and that Rizona did not die of COVID-19. Yet her name remains on the COVID-19 death list. No apology has been rendered to her grieving family, perhaps because untrammelled power cannot be justified without the pretence of fallibility. This pretence has been enabled by the silence of most of the mainstream media which has abandoned the pursuit of facts in favour of parroting official truths.
Take another example. According to a chart issued by the Ministry of Health, up to 13 May, 91 COVID-19 patients were detected at the Ranagala Navy Camp – about 10% of the total number of infected (http://www.newswire.lk/2020/05/17/11075-area/). The Ranagala camp is nowhere in Welisara, but in the vicinity of the Colombo Port. Yet, the spokespersons for the government and the navy continue to talk about the Welisara cluster, omitting any mention of the cluster in the Ranagala camp. Most of the mainstream media do likewise. Given these lies and half-truths, the government’s boast of containing the pandemic becomes questionable.
If Supreme Court allows an early election or clears the way for the President to rule beyond 2 June sans a parliament, Sri Lanka’s vestigial democracy will be dead in the water.