“Let me bow before you my country, where
It is ordained that none will walk the streets with his head held high.”
Faiz (Let me bow before you)
On the 72nd anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa conferred the rank of major general on 17 brigadiers. The list included Deshapriya Gunawardane, the commanding officer accused of ordering soldiers to shoot at unarmed protestors of Rathupaswala. Three people were killed as a result, including a 14 year old boy.
Three weeks previously, President Gotabaya granted an equivalent promotion to Commodore DKP Dissanayake, making a rear admiral out of the former Navy Spokesman who has been accused of abducting, torturing and murdering 11 youths between 2008 and 2009, as part of an extortion racket.
The new major general is an accused in the Rathupaswala case to be heard by a Gampaha high court trial at bar. The new rear admiral is an accused in the 11 youths case to be heard by a Colombo high court trial at bar. In short, both have been charged with serious crimes in courts of law. Their promotions send a chillingly clear message to the judiciary.
These are the President’s men.
In his Independence Day speech, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “I’m bound to protect the needs of the people of this country. That is my duty and responsibility. In implementing that I don’t expect any obstacles from public officials, the legislature or the judiciary.” Juxtapose this statement with the two promotions and the kind of judiciary the new president desires becomes evident. It will be a compliant judiciary, one that will not stand in his way.
There is an insidious new myth gaining ground among a segment of anti-Rajapaksa Lankans that President Gotabaya is an improvement on Defence Secretary Gotabaya. His decision to honour two military officials charged with causing the murder of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim civilians proves the obverse. President Gotabaya is no improvement on Defence Secretary Gotabaya. The notion of a difference-for-the-better is an illusion created by a slick propaganda machine.
What Gotabaya Rajapaksa desired as Defence Secretary, he is reaching for as President. When he says that he doesn’t “expect any obstacles from public officials, the legislature or the judiciary,” in his job of protecting the needs of the people, what else is he claiming for himself but absolute power and total impunity?
In his short stint as president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has gone a fair distance in the direction he promised as candidate. Thanks to the 19th Amendment, he cannot interfere in the judiciary or the legislature directly, certainly not when his party lacks a parliamentary majority. But where possible, he has moved decisively to intrude and reshape. The examples range from the remaking of the CID to issuing an approved playlist of 1000 songs for private buses. He is intolerant of tolerance and suspicious of diversity. He wants a Sri Lanka that is not just obedient but also uniform.
Militarisation has resumed with a vengeance. The military has a host of new responsibilities, from purchasing paddy to recruiting and training 100,000 youths from low income families to function as minor employees in government owned institutions, especially schools and hospitals. Retired military men have been given top jobs. Even a new committee on poverty alleviation contains a serving general.
The incursion of Sinhala-Buddhist monks into matters of governance has reached a new high. Medagoda Abayatissa Thero who singlehandedly destroyed the introduction of sex education into school curriculum also wants a new constitution sans not just the 19th Amendment but also the 13th Amendment. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president, the most fervid dreams of Sinhala-Buddhist extremism have a chance of becoming reality, if not now, then someday.
Little wonder, then, that the self-appointed patriots are yet to utter a word of protest about the elevation of a military officer whose primary claim to fame was as the killer of unarmed Sinhala demonstrators demanding clean drinking water.
The manner in which the Independence Day celebration was choreographed is revealing about the distinct nature of Project Gotabaya.
President Gotabaya attended the ceremony attired in casual clothes, and his medals. Wearing the medals was not a personal gesture promoted by vanity but a political move, carefully thought through and well crafted. The master of ceremonies used the combat medals as the framework for his bombastic introductory remarks, hailing the new president as a ‘war-loving (ranakami) war hero who loves the motherland like his life’. If President Mahinda was the Great King, President Gotabaya is the War Hero King of Sinhala-Buddhists and those minorities who are happy in their inequality. The rest are extremists of some type or the other who will be dealt with in a fitting manner.
Then the national anthem was sung, only in Sinhala, by students belonging to all three communities. The act was a total reversion to Sinhala Only – not just the demoting of Tamil language but also the imposition of Sinhala on Tamil speaking Lankans.
Afterwards, President Gotabaya worshipped older brothers Chamal and Mahinda. It was another highly symbolic gesture aimed at laying to rest surging rumours about a Gotabaya-Mahinda split. Probably a Basil Rajapaksa touch, whose advice will weigh with President Gotabaya at least until the parliamentary election is over.
During the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, militarisation was an instrument of Rajapaksa power. The military was transformed from a politically non-partisan entity into the de facto praetorian guard of the Rajapaksa Family – a force willing and able to overstep legal and constitutional limits in defence of Rajapaksa Rule.
The second wave of militarisation beginning now is similarly politically driven. But its motive force is not so much the Rajapaksa family as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The new militarisation is not a family project. It is a key component of Project Gotabaya. The aim is the transformation of the military into President Gotabaya’s exclusive power base, independent from his brothers. This is evident in his decision not to hand over the defence ministry to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and in his even more telling decision to make brother Chamal rather than brother Mahinda the State Minister of Defence. If the defence portfolio was given to Mahinda Rajapaksa, it would not have been possible for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to monopolise military affairs. With Chamal Rajapaksa as the state minister of defence, President Gotabaya can have his unopposed way.
Though the defence portfolio remains officially vacant, the Defence Ministry is busy planning for the future. For instance, in late January 2020, the Defence Ministry announced its intention of drafting new laws “to prevent the publication of articles in social media that denigrates people of high positions” and to develop a mechanism to remove such people from social media (Citizen.lk). Even in the absence of additional laws, fear has become normalised. Self-censorship is the new norm.
A recent development indicates the growing tendency to criminalise any criticism of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The heads of the SLPP trade union in Lake House have written a letter to the new director of the new CID (with copies to the president, the prime minister and the defence secretary) demanding that criminal proceedings be launched against journalists Dharisha Bastians and Anurangi Singh as well as the former chairman of Lake House Krishantha Cooray. Their main crime is working against Candidate Gotabaya during the presidential election.
The internet is one of the few spaces left for dissenting voices. The planned law is obviously aimed at denuding this space. The only reason it has not been done yet is because President Gotabaya lacks a parliamentary majority. Once he has that, freedom of expression can be transformed into a crime and the legal and judicial disembowelling of democracy will begin in earnest.
Mahinda Chinthanaya vs. Viyath Maga
The original Rajapaksa narrative redefined Sri Lanka as a country of ‘One Nation, One People, One Leader’; patriotism was loyalty to the One Leader who embodied the spirit of the One Nation and expressed the will of the One People.
Until Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the undisputed One Leader, the only man capable of protecting the ‘One Nation’ and ‘One People’ from inimical forces, external and internal. But now, this hegemony is fractured. President Gotabaya clearly sees himself as the One Leader while Mahinda Rajapaksa will not willingly concede that primacy, so long as a breath remains in his body.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was either unaware of or unwilling to admit that younger brother Gotabaya had his own very different political project, which was less familial, more openly tribal and militarised. “There is no Viyath Mawatha,” he said in July 2017. “It is just a word for a programme. Clearly this is a carrying forward of Mahinda Chintanaya…”.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was present on that occasion did not contradict his older brother. “Rajapaksas always go together. We don’t have divisions like others,” was his response to his brother’s downgrading of his political project. He was careful to play the second fiddle until he won the presidency. Not anymore. Perhaps he has been nursing dreams of supremacy for a long time. After all, when he told the Daily Mirror, “If they harm me, it is the country they harm,” he was just the secretary to the Ministry of Defence.
During his presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa remade the SLFP from a Bandaranaike party into a Rajapaksa party. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is aiming to remake the SLPP from a party loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa to a party loyal to him. The first step would be to ensure that as many Viyath Maga members and other Gotabaya loyalists are elected and appointed to the parliament.
Now that his brother’s ambitions are naked, Mahinda Rajapaksa would do his utmost to ensure that there is a preponderance of his own loyalists in parliament. Much would depend on which way Basil Rajapaksa turns. Will he try to maintain a balance between brothers Mahinda and Gotabaya, not just because it makes politico-electoral sense, but also because it would help his own political ambitions? After all Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a septuagenarian who has undergone bypass surgery. Would it be surprising if Basil Rajapaksa dreams of the day President Gotabaya is succeeded not by a President Namal but by a President Basil?
Whatever their political and personal differences, and in spite of their conflicting ambitions, the Rajapaksas will remain united in their efforts to win as large a majority as possible at the upcoming parliamentary election. Theirs would be a dynamic characterised by unity and struggle – working as one against common enemies while competing against each other for dominance.
During the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, there was much talk, sotto voce, about Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pet sharks. Most of the visitors to his official residence would have seen them, but the only detailed description about them I could find was in the New Yorker in a long essay on post-war Sri Lanka by Jon Lee Anderson. The relevant part makes fascinating reading. Perhaps there is no better time to read it than now, before the parliamentary election, while we still have a sliver of a chance to deny Gotabaya Rajapaksa the absolute power he so craves.
“After dinner, Gotabaya led us outside. Across his lawn, by the garden’s high security wall, was a huge, illuminated outdoor aquarium. Inside, several large, unmistakable shapes moved relentlessly back and forth.
‘Are those sharks?’ I asked him.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you want to see them?’
We crossed the lawn and stood in front of the tank, which was eight feet tall and twenty feet wide. There were four sharks, each about four feet long, swimming among smaller fish.
I told Gotabaya that they looked like black-tipped reef sharks. He shrugged. ‘They’re my wife’s,’ he said. She knew everything about them, he explained, but she was away on a visit to the States. All he knew was that the tank needed to be changed with fresh seawater every two weeks. ‘They bring it in special tanker trucks,’ he said, watching the sharks. He giggled softly” (The death of the Tiger – New Yorker – 9.1.2011).