Monday, 20 September 2010

Settling in for the long haul...

Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse’s dynastic ambitions coagulated this month when parliament – where he enjoys a largely coerced majority – approved the 18th amendment to the constitution which abolishes presidential term limits. Incidentally, the president also oversees the workings of a staggering 90 different government bodies and departments.

President Rajapakse – once a vocal opponent of the country’s all-powerful executive presidency – returned to power in early 2010 on the back of a surge of popularity following his military’s demolition of the LTTE. The ‘Tigers’ – as the LTTE billed itself – were once considered the world’s most ruthless and sophisticated terrorist outfit, and had pillaged its way through 30 years of war in a bid to carve out an independent state in the north and east of the picturesque Island.

The Rajapakse government was uninhibited about such things as collateral damage in its quest to rid the North of the ‘Tigers’. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed – by both sides. Human rights and aid agencies were barred from the battle zone; journalists were kept even further away.

The military victory was achieved with the support of such agreeable regimes as China, Pakistan and Iran (which has since agreed to supply Sri Lanka with copious amounts of oil and natural gas at 20 pence a barrel). Soon after, keenly aware of his popularity (The Shock Doctrine), the president called for a general election. His main opponent however turned out to be the head of the army which had routed the LTTE, General Sarath Fonseka, who also enjoyed tremendous public support. Fonseka decried the fact the president and his younger, defense secretary brother had hogged all the limelight in the aftermath of the military victory and of course Rajapakse’s autocratic ambitions. After Fonseka lost the election by a ridiculously small margin, he was promptly arrested for having the gall to challenge the president, instead of retiring to a plum diplomatic post in an exotic Far Eastern state. Fonseka remains locked up to this date.

Anyone silly enough to speak out against such blatant abuses of power has either been killed (in the case of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga) or transferred to locales with no plumbing and to subsist on Rabbit food. And now…the 18th amendment.

The fear is that President Rajapakse, a deceptively charming and agreeable man when he’s er…not being agreeable and charming, is laying the groundwork for several generations of Rajapakse’s to remain in power. One of his sons – who, as a student in London, had a penchant for turning up at Black Tie events in ripped jeans and tight t-shirts – is already an MP.

I think the below piece by a journalist named Tisaranee Gunasekara captures brilliantly the president’s unconcealed craving for power. More significantly, it also encapsulates the indifference of a populace still in shock after the end of a brutal and soul destroying 30-year conflict and consequently bemused by the political shenanigans taking place in Colombo. Whilst she has an annoying habit of putting a famous quote before every article, and uses words like “unctuous”, there is a fire in her writing that appeals.

- Vijitha Alles

MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE - HERE FOREVER IT SEEMS...

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” — William Pitt the Younger (Speech in the House of Commons – 18.11.1783).

So the Emperor is finally divested of his dazzling patriotic mantle, his vulturous greed for power and grandiose dynastic ambitions bared. The proposed 18th Amendment to the Constitution is quintessentially Rajapaksian: anti-democratic and deceptive, megalomanic and supercilious, rapacious and unctuous. The confluence of its two main components – presidential term-limit removal and negation of the 17th Amendment — would produce a supra-presidency which Mahinda Rajapaksa can hold for life and bequeath to his chosen successor. A virtual monarchy with a reassuringly democratic title – this was the predestined destination of the Rajapaksa project.

The road to tyranny is often paved with indifference on the part of unexceptionable, law-abiding citizens. No perilous turning point happens in a vacuum but is preceded by innumerable official misdeeds, to which society should have reacted with outrage but did not, deeming them unimportant, irrelevant or kosher. The Rajapaksas have come within striking distance of transforming Sri Lanka from a flawed democracy into a dynastic oligarchy because their crimes and abuses have gone largely unchallenged by Lankan society, especially that intellectual-ethical obscenity, the zero-civilian casualty myth (and the incarceration of more than 300,000 Tamils in ‘welfare villages’).

The case of Sarath Fonseka was a dry run for the 18th Amendment. The regime demonised and persecuted Gen. Fonseka and yet, no societal opprobrium ensued. The opposition launched a few desultory protests, but failed to comprehend the gravity of the common threat or to unite to defeat it. Emboldened by this indifference and ineptitude, the rulers imposed a pernicious sentence on Gen. Fonseka, depriving him of his rank, honours and even pension.

It was news for a couple of days while the normally voluble Buddhist monks, business and artistic communities and academia acted deaf-mute. For the Rajapaksas this would have been proof-positive that Lankan society will not react, even in its own defence or enlightened self-interest.

When a society is afflicted with indifference, resistance becomes a non-option. In such bleak psychological landscapes would-be tyrants thrive. Today the Rajapaksas are making a blatant power-grab, motivated by nothing other than greed and ambition, and, yet, where is the outrage? Why aren’t we opposing, to the full democratic measure, this most anti-democratic deed? Is our psychological degradation so complete, we see nothing wrong in Mahinda Rajapaksa being president for life or Namal (or Basil or Gotabaya) Rajapaksa succeeding him? Or have we been deceived by that beguiling lie assiduously spread by Rajapaksa apologists – that the 18th Amendment would not endanger democracy, because the electorate can vote out Mahinda Rajapaksa or his chosen successor, whenever necessary?

L’ affaire Mervyn and the 18th Amendment

Rajapaksa-justice is an oxymoron, as is evidenced by the scandalous exoneration of Mervyn Silva by the SLFP disciplinary committee. This was despite the existence of innumerable visual records in the public domain of Mr. Silva getting the Samurdhi official tied to a tree. The SLFP disciplinary committee claimed that the incident was a mere piece of theatre; an Orwellian self-incriminatory letter was obtained from the hapless victim, indubitably under duress. The entire charade was so specious as to insult the intelligence of even a small child; it demonstrates the contempt with which the Rajapaksas hold the Lankan people, including fellow SLFP leaders.

The conduct of the SLFP disciplinary committee is a prototype of how the 18th Amendment will work, in reality. The electoral removal of President Rajapaksa presupposes the holding of even marginally free and fair elections. Are free and fair elections possible, once the 18th Amendment empowers President Rajapaksa to hire and fire all key officials, including the Election Commissioner and the IGP? On the contrary, the 18th Amendment is tailor-made to prevent free and fair elections.

The proposed Advisory Council is a toothless entity; its sole task is to offer advice which the President may accept or reject, as he sees fit. The President will be empowered to appoint members to ‘independent’ commissions and remove them, thereby devaluing these entities into presidential appendages. This subversion of the independence of the Independent Commissions would enable the total subjugation of the public service, the judiciary and the media to the will of the omnipotent President. The 18th Amendment will further strengthen the presidency at the expense of the legislature, the judiciary and the citizens, thereby exacerbating the imbalance inherent in the system.

The 18th Amendment will enable the President to make and break careers with total impunity. Would public officials, civil or military, want to antagonise President Rajapaksa by acting justly and independently, when their career prospects and opportunities for post-retirement preferment are completely dependent on him? Particularly when they know how far, fast and hard a man can fall, once he has antagonised the Rajapaksa brothers?

After all, Gen. Fonseka was the third member of the triumvirate which defeated the LTTE, a man whose popularity was second only to the Rajapaksa brothers’, a warrior with a very real following in the Lanka Army, a Sinhala supremacist hero-worshipped by Southern hardliners and the Sangha. Today he is defeated and humiliated, a fallen idol whose fate is of indifference to his erstwhile devotees. The contradictory trajectories and the contrasting fates of Tiger Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) and anti-Tiger Sarath Fonseka indicate how to survive in a Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

The faultline is whether one is with the Rajapaksas or against the Rajapaksas. All other factors, from ethnicity and religion to party affiliations, will avail a citizen nothing if he/she takes that fatal step of opposing the Rajapaksas effectively. For the Rajapaksas, patriotism is ultimately a means to an end, an attractive garb under which their naked power-hunger is concealed. After all, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his years as the leader of opposition, did maintain a near total silence about the Wickremesinghe-Pirapaharan appeasement process and the ensuing Tiger atrocities.

So Sri Lanka is a land polarised between the friends and the enemies of the Ruling Family. In this land, anyone who is willing to play by Rajapaksa rules and submit to Rajapaksa dictates can lead a ‘normal’ life, without experiencing state terror. The North has been bludgeoned into sullen silence; Tamils will be stigmatised and repressed as Tiger supporters if they show signs of democratic dissent. If the 18th Amendment is through and the Rajapaksas entrench themselves, a majority in the South, including most of those who voted against the UPFA, will consent to Dynastic Rule and the loss of basic rights and freedoms, in return for a measure of peace and normalcy. Extreme economic deprivation can shatter this deceptive calm, but a general outburst of discontent may take years to happen.

If the 18th Amendment is through, other constitutional reforms will follow, subverting democratic freedoms in the name of national security. The regime’s political solution to the ethnic problem (if it materialises) will involve less and not more devolution. The Rajapaksas do not want to share power anymore than they want to give it up. Democracy is incompatible with the Rajapaksa project; and in this battle for supremacy, the Rajapaksas seem to be winning.