Ever since he assumed the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made a habit of scolding public officials publicly. The antic seems to work on several levels
“What is the truth? Where did it go?” – Bob Dylan (Murder Most Foul – Rough and Rowdy Ways)
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“I can’t breathe,” George Floyd said 12 times before he died. “I can’t breathe,” were also the last words of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as his killers asphyxiated him, prior to dismembering him with a bone saw.
When US President Donald Trump issued a statement trying to exonerate the Saudi Crown Prince of Khashoggi’s murder, outrage ensued. The true purpose of that atrocious statement was not to shield the de facto Saudi ruler, claims former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton in his tell-all book; it was to protect Ivanka Trump, then facing criticism for using her private e-mail on official business. “This will divert from Ivanka,” President Trump is quoted saying. “If I read the statement in person, that will take over the Ivanka thing” (The Room Where It Happened).
Did President Gotabaya Rajapaksa go on a verbal rampage against Central Bank officials to shield himself from public anger over mounting economic pain?
On the face of it, that Chandi Malli type tirade looks like a genuine, stress-induced, anger-driven meltdown. The TV showed a Zeus in a minor key, hurling words as if they were thunderbolts from the mini-Olympus of presidency. The fury and the venom were authentic, but were they spontaneous?
Ever since he assumed the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made a habit of scolding public officials publicly. The antic seems to work on several levels. It is part of his image-building exercise, the tough, no nonsense leader taking on vested interests on behalf of the common (Sinhala) man. It is spectator sport with considerable entertainment value; the sight of ‘uppity’ bureaucrats being reduced to snivelling invertebrates probably appeases and titillates the Rajapaksa base. It sends a clear warning to all public servants – lose your backbone, and do as you are told, if you want to survive and thrive.
The unleashing of a Sin-glish tirade on Central Bank officials, the televising of the entire affair, its airing on every channel, indicates this was less spontaneous outrage and more planned burlesque.
The economy began unravelling when COVID-19 wasn’t even a blip on Lankan horizon. The pandemic exacerbated the problem, but it commenced with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s clueless tax cuts which denuded the treasury with no compensatory benefits to the general public, or to the national economy. The pandemic accelerated the decline; now prices are sky rocketing, unemployment is growing and sources of income vanishing.
The Rajapaksas would know that their base is hurting economically. They doubtless remember the critical role economics played in their January 2015 defeat. The electoral tide is still in their favour, but the massive majority they want will elude them if the economic fallout is not handled. Lacking a plan to halt the downslide, they cannot but seek salvation in excuses and scapegoats. The hardy perennials are there and will be made use of, Muslims and Tamils; Christians too, if necessary, and those unending foreign conspiracies. The military-led presidential commission to protect archaeological heritage of the East would create a diversion or two, when needed.
Racism is useful and indispensable, but there are times when it is not sufficient, like now. Other scapegoats are needed to fill the gap. In this context, officials – especially those in institutions associated with economic policy making – become high value targets. What better blame game than framing top Central Bank officials, accusing them of not implementing the wise and pro-people policy measures devised by the leaders?
Spontaneous meltdown or staged inferno, the televised presidential tirade would have been a nauseating spectacle for any citizen with an iota of dignity. The President’s readiness to denigrate and humiliate a set of senior officials in public was as cringe-worthy as the officials’ continued genuflection before a petty tyrant.
Viyath Maga, according to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is a path that can be traversed only by those who have shed all shame and dignity. The show, in its crass incivility, made clear the choice before us. We have a president who has no vision beyond parroting a few catchphrases, no strategy beyond militarising every civilian space. Do we give him a two-thirds majority?
Mister Sandman and the dreams he peddles
Sandman is a figure popular in European folklore. He induces sleep and dreams by throwing sand in one’s eyes. Actual and would be despots are often like this folkloric Sandman. They persuade citizens to embrace political somnolence by peddling dreams of eternal security and rapid prosperity. Arguably the first leader to take this path in modern times was Benito Mussolini, who birthed the myth of the efficient dictator. His rule was remarkable inefficient, but in the absence of freedom of expression, this reality could be hidden behind a facade of loud verbiage endless action.
In a recent book, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy from Triumph to Collapse, 1935-43, historian John Gooch examines how Il Duce’s farcically inept leadership brought disaster upon Italy. Like most actual and would-be despots, Mussolini was averse to expert opinions when they stood in the path he was predisposed to take. So when his own military intelligence service, Servizio Informazioni Militare, warned him in November 1941 about the dangers of remaining in the war once the US entered it, he turned a deaf ear. Mussolini wanted to be a modern day Caesar, and dreamt of making a string of conquests at Hitler’s side. He stayed in the war. The rest is history – a history his latter day followers prefer to ignore.
Dreams of instant success, contempt for expert advice, dismissal of complex realities, action for the sake of action, these were the ingredient in the disaster that has been visited on the Mt. Lavinia beach.
In mid-March, under cover of pandemic-induced curfew, the project of creating an artificial beach between Kalutara and Mt. Lavinia took off, at the speed of a Usain Bolt. The Coast Conservation Department reportedly dredged 150,000 m3 of sand two to six km offshore of Ratmalana station and placed it on Mount Lavinia beach.
Waves came and washed most of the sand away, baring rocks and creating a new swamp. When the devastation was made public via the internet, there was an outpouring of anger. “We don’t know who wished for this change,” legendary chef Pubilis Silva lamented. “It is a huge crime. You can see the sands filled being washed away. None of the rocks you see now were visible before this atrocity took place” (http://www.newswire.lk/2020/06/10/its-a-huge-crime-veteran-chef-pabilis-silva-on-what-happened-to-mount-lavinia-beach/).
Then the Director General of the Coast Conservation Department rose to the occasion, claiming that the devastation was not accidental but planned. “The sand which was washed away will move with the water and collect at Wellawatte and Dehiwala, creating a part of the artificial beach,” he proclaimed (http://www.newswire.lk/2020/05/31/mount-lavinia-artificial-beach-erosion-was-expected-coastal-dept/).
Unfortunately, nature, uninformed of this brilliant strategising and abhorring a vacuum, dumped a thick carpet of rubbish where the sand had been. The Police swung into action and launched a probe to find the culprits. Senior DIG Deshabandu Teenakoan promised appropriate legal action “against anyone who pollutes anyone canals or waterways with polythene or plastic” (News First – 5 June 2020). How would that case be titled? State vs. vs.
Poseidon aka Neptune?
The entire fiasco could have been avoided and at least 110 million rupees saved had expert opinion been consulted and heeded. No erosion was occurring “along the five km stretch of beach between the Mount Lavinia headland to the Wellawatte canal outlet,” wrote Asha de Vos and two others attached to the Oceans Institute of Australia.
“…it has been stable for many decades… The sand nourishment of Mount Lavinia beach appears to have no tangible outcomes with respect to the aims of the project. The exercise appears to be undertaken without adequate planning and ignoring even basic coastal engineering principles. However, a considerable amount of money has been spent…” (https://oceanswell.org/books-reports/the-tragedy-of-mount-lavinia-beach).
The genesis of this particular tragicomedy can be traced to a tweet sent out by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 8 March (reproduced by Lanka News Web on 1 June). In it, he mentions three ‘coast conservation efforts,’ the third stage of which would involve the 500-metre Mt. Lavinia beach. The President further states that the chief engineer of the Coast Conservation Department is confident that all three stages could be completed by 20 April.
So this seems to be a presidential brainchild, implemented in his preferred manner. Speed was prioritised and doubts brushed aside. No Environmental Assessment Report has been obtained. No study was undertaken. When disaster ensued, officials sought refuge in Orwellian New Speak. Failure was success; erosion was planned. No need for anyone to own the devastation because, despite the evidence, there is no devastation.
The Coast Conservation Department has shown the way. The other officials will follow. The rapidity with which Central Bank officials reduced the Statutory Reserve Ratio, not subsequent to any objective assessment but simply to escape another public humiliation, indicates the road ahead, if the Rajapaksas come anywhere close to a two-thirds majority.
Sri Lanka could have avoided more than two months of curfew, if airport was locked down in early March and all incomers subjected to PCR testing. That was possible, but not done. More than half of the acknowledged COVID-19 patients are from the Navy, a direct result of placing generals and admirals rather than medical experts in charge of facing the pandemic.
In the meantime, the Head of the Epidemiology Unit Dr. Sudath Samaraweera says that “the Health Ministry has no statistics on the exact number of dead bodies compulsorily ordered for cremation” (http://www.themorning.lk/no-stats-on-the-cremated/). Is the vanishing pandemic another dream peddled by Sandman?
Opening the floodgates with two-thirds?
On younger brother Gotabaya’s 71st birthday, PM Rajapaksa wished him wisdom, fortitude and patience in a tweet. That snide remark notwithstanding, the birthday was turned into a show of Rajapaksa unity.
A picture with high symbolic value shows Mahinda Rajapaksa and wife sitting in the middle, flanked by brothers Gotabaya and Chamal and their wives. In this wise management of fraternal contradictions, one sees the hand of Basil Rajapaksa. The differences between the brothers are real enough, and their battle-royale will recommence once the election is over, especially over how to wield their majority. But until then, the brothers are likely to maintain a united front. A case in point is Mahinda Rajapaksa asking the electorate to enable his presidential brother to work by giving him a strong Parliament, at a meeting in Malsiripura last week.
The opposition has no Basil Rajapaksa, just Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. Having bisected the elephant to remain leaders, the two men and their followers are attacking not the SLPP but each other.
Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2010 Presidential Election with a 58% of the vote. At the Parliamentary Election, three months later, the UPFA came strikingly closer to a two-thirds majority with 60.3% of the vote. This was not because its vote bank increased. On the contrary, its votes decreased from 6.1 million to 4.8 million between January and April 2010. The UPFA achieved this feat despite the haemorrhaging of its vote thanks to the weakness and disunity of the Opposition.
The Opposition, which faced the Presidential Election together, broke up into squabbling parts in the aftermath, more intent on attacking each other than the common enemy. As a result they lost 1.2 million votes. Had they retained even half that number, they could have reduced the UPFA to a bare majority.
If the UNP and the SBJ continue to attack each other instead of turning all their rhetorical fire in the direction of the SLPP, that history will repeat itself.
There are more than enough hints of what the Rajapaksas would do with a massive majority. The treatment accorded to the Central Bank, the devastation heaped on the Mt. Lavinia beach, and the repeated failures to nip the pandemic in the bud all indicate the road ahead. Hejaz Hisbullah remains in custody, the first time a lawyer has been persecuted for the crimes of his client. That, the hounding of Opposition politicians by Avant-Garde Chairman Nissanka Sendhipathi (obviously with Presidential blessings) and the unauthorised seizure of senior journalist Dharisha Bastians’ computer demonstrate the zero-tolerance future that awaits all dissident voices. Racial and religious baiting will continue, as will militarisation. (Will a former general or admiral or air vice-marshal replace Prof. W.D. Lakshman as Governor, Central Bank, someday soon?)
The UDA was not a loss-making enterprise until Gotabaya Rajapaksa took it over in 2006. From 2006-2011, under his command, the UDA suffered a colossal loss of Rs. 1.23 billion (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140427/news/uda-losses-since-2006-total-rs-1230-million-auditor-general-93978.html). If the Rajapaksas get their cherished two-thirds, Sri Lanka will end up with neither democracy nor stability, neither rights nor efficiency. The unnecessary calamity visited on the Mt. Lavinia beach can well be a mirror to our common future.