“President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksas will rule this country for a long time…. The Rajapaksas will become beloved leaders of this country…. The next chapter in Sri Lanka is reserved for the Rajapaksas…”
(An Astrological prediction published in the state-owned Silumina – 7.6.2009)
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
There is good governance; there is bad governance; and there is Rajapaksa governance.
The remarkably smooth transition of Sri Lanka from a vibrant, albeit a flawed, democracy into a Familial Oligarchy, in just five years, symbolises the potency of Rajapaksa governance, its remarkable ability to achieve the inconceivable and turn the abnormal into the new norm. The only (really existing) impediment to the Rajapaksa dynastic project, presidential term limits, is on its way out.
According to media reports, a constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits is to be enacted before November. Once that shackle is removed, Mahinda Rajapaksa can become President for life (aided by the Augean Stable-type mess in the UNP), to be succeeded by either son or brother. (Only the wilfully obdurate will fail to realise that Namal Rajapaksa is being groomed to step into his father’s shoes; if no crisis intervenes, Baby Doc will take over from Papa Doc, someday).
The process of concentrating all power in the hands of the President (and the Ruling Family) is gathering momentum. The Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department have been taken over by the President; this would enable Rajapaksa to interfere in the judicial process, legally. Inadequate speed and zeal in prosecuting terrorist suspects by the AG’s Department is the specious justification given for this gross violation of the principle of separation of powers.
Now the President (and the Ruling Family) will be able to prosecute on suspicion alone, without bothering about hard evidence. The fact that this momentous step was taken with nary a public protest, either from the legal fraternity or from society, is symbolic not only of the level of impunity achieved by the Rajapaksas but also of the degree to which Sri Lanka has become accustomed to such acts of impunity. The cancer of impunity has spread so far, so fast, that it no longer seems a malady but a very part of the body politic.
(A necessary digression: A powerful Presidential sibling has often expressed dissatisfaction about the lack of missionary zeal on the part of the AG’s Department in prosecuting ‘terrorists’. In a recent interview he emphasised the ‘pivotal importance of the judiciary, particularly the Attorney General’s Department, in supporting the government’s efforts to suppress terrorism’ and railed against moves ‘to release some LTTE operatives held in connection with the assassination of Gen. (retd) Janaka Perera’ by the courts, for lack of evidence. All such abominations will now end. This sibling is also on record calling for ‘new laws to meet new security requirements. That wish too can now become a reality.)
Other pending amendments would enable the President to spread his tentacles all over the Lankan states, still further. One proposed amendment will empower the President to appoint members to the Independent Commissions created by the 17th Amendment. Independent Commissions will thus be independent in name only; in reality they will function as appendages of the President, implementing or rubber stamping his decisions. The 17th Amendment was crafted with the express purpose of reducing some of the excessive powers of the executive president; therefore it has the potential to seriously impede the project of Familial Rule.
The proposed amendment would turn the 17th Amendment into its antithesis – from a law which reduces the powers of the President into a law which enhances the powers of the President! This is a classic example of Rajapaksa governance — the Independent Commissions will not be abolished; they will merely be rendered utterly meaningless; from new centres of power they will be transformed into juicy pastures for Presidential favourites and stage props to keep the illusion of democracy alive, in the midst of Familial Rule.
Another proposed amendment will enable the President to sit in parliament and take part in parliamentary proceedings. This amendment too will be touted as a ‘democratising’ measure which reduces the power of the President by making him accountable to parliament. In reality, it will enable the President to attend parliament at will, interfere in its work, and most importantly, to keep government parliamentarians on a very short leash.
The Rajapaksas would know that an impeachment motion or a radical power shift in parliament, though not highly likely, is not impossible. Chamal Rajapaksa was made the Speaker precisely to prevent such a mishap. With the new amendment, the President himself will be able to play the ‘Big Brother’ to UPFA parliamentarians. This amendment, which violates the principle of separation of powers, will further empower the President under the guise of restraining him.
The Rajapaksa approach to constitution making is symbiotic of Rajapaksa governance; piecemeal changes, one amendment at a time, until any and all factors impeding the dynastic project are removed. No constitutional upheaval, no controversial referendum; just a gradual process of transformation until quantity turns into quality and the Jayewardene Constitution becomes the Rajapaksa Constitution. In the end, the constitution is revolutionised, without a constitutional revolution. Powers not in consonance with democracy will be granted to the President, democratically, by the Constitution.
The following comment by Nazi official Ernest R. Huber on the nature of the National Socialist state would be applicable to the new Rajapaksa state: “We must speak not of state power but of Fuhrerpower…. The Fuhrerpower is not hemmed in by conditions and controls, by autonomous preserves or shelters and jealously guarded individual rights, but is free and independent, exclusive and without restriction” (quoted in Germany – Gordon A Craig).
The piecemeal transformation of the constitution would also enable the regime to turn such thorny issues as devolution, democracy and basic rights into non-issues. The 13th Amendment will stay in place, while, eventually, a new amendment will be enacted, which will render it meaningless. Just as independent commissions will be turned into presidential commissions, provincial devolution will be vitiated to village level administrative decentralisation. The Tamils are powerless. Delhi many protest, but its protest will be politely deflected, with another promise or another commission; whatever real capacity India had of influencing Lankan policy on the minorities died with Velupillai Pirapaharan on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon.
Almost 100,000 civilian Tamils are still living in camps in the north, forced to endure the torrential rains in their inadequate shelters. Out of public sight, their tragedy will remain out of public mind. The Rajapaksas surmised correctly, when they surmised that limitless abuse is possible so long as it goes unrecorded and unreported. In the absence of independent reporting, it is easy to turn lies into truth and render crimes invisible.
The absence of independent reporting enabled the Rajapaksas to create and sustain the twin myths of ‘humanitarian operation’ and ‘zero civilian casualties’. But myths cannot last forever, and, already, seemingly credible evidence of civilian casualties has emerged. The staunchly anti-Tiger UTHR has issued a couple of reports packed with details; the latest report of the International Crisis Group (and the latest video of BBC’s Channel 4) indicates that the issue is unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future.
The Eelam War was a civil war. Therefore, in the interests of a Sri Lankan future, it would make sense to investigate allegations of war crimes, not just by the LTTE, but also by the Lankan Forces. How can we expect the Tamils to put the past behind them and look to the future, if they are to be deprived of justice or the right to mourn their dead, normalcy or political freedom? Even if the regime thinks that Tamil sentiments can be ignored, it would realise the need to address Indian and Western concerns to some degree (especially since the fate of the GSP+ hangs in balance) and to prevent a UN investigation of any sort. What better way than to appoint a commission dignified by an esoteric title, packed with loyal servitors and predestined for failure via a nebulous framework?
Titles are a Rajapaksa forte. Once, not so long ago, there was the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP); now there is a ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC). The new commission’s terms of reference are vague; and its members include the man who delivered the 2009 D.A. Rajapaksa Memorial Lecture (he began his peroration by declaring ‘It is no secret that the national and the international community stands in gratitude and salutes Your Excellency for your unwavering leadership, our defence leaders and personnel for their enormous sacrifices..; he ended it by asking ‘the international community and humanitarians’ to ‘help Sri Lanka nurture its heritage’ since ‘this is no time to point fingers and find blameworthiness for punishment; ‘May the true humanitarians stop forward and show their true colours’ was his rousing finale – Asian Tribune – 4.12.2009).
Another member was so affected by ‘the awe inspiring sight of the President worshipping the ground’, so filled with ‘pride and veneration for this remarkable leader who defeated terrorism for good’ that he was moved to draw ‘an invaluable portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa paying homage to Mother Lanka’ (The Daily News – 21.6.2009). Clearly a most suitable commission, which will produce a most useful report; in the meantime, hopefully, Delhi can be fobbed off, Brussels persuaded to renew the GSP+ and the UN cajoled into postponing any ‘war crimes investigation’.
Behind the regime’s half-hearted attempts at generating an illusion of compliance and moderation, the transformation of Sri Lanka into a national security state continues unabated. Despite the publicity blitz (doubtless aimed at an international audience), senior journalist Tissainayagam is yet to be pardoned. Prageeth Eknaligoda is still missing. Sarah Malini Perera (the Sinhala Buddhist convert into Islam) is to be tried under the Emergency for ‘insulting Buddhism’. A third court martial is to be set up to try Gen. Fonseka while a powerful Presidential sibling has declared, portentously, that anyone seeking to undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is a traitor who deserves capital punishment (death).
Namal Rajapaksa’s new Television channel, YV, was launched by his brother Yoshita (Vice President of Namal’s NGO, Tharunyata Hetak). Thus, the Rajapaksa – Sinhala supremacist triumphal chariot marches forward….
In the meantime, the crisis in the UNP is turning into a black comedy. Removing Ranil Wickremesinghe from party leadership, forthwith, is the only way out of the current impasse. However, thanks to the Wickremesinghe policy of preventing the emergence of a second level leadership, there is no alternative leader acceptable to all factions of the party; consequently the danger of a two (or even a three) way split is very real. Replacing Wickremesinghe with a Leadership Council, as an interim measure, can prevent a shattering leadership battle (which will benefit none but the Rajapaksas; a split in the UNP will be a welcome bonus to the regime). Let this council commence the re-organisation drive and from that nation-wide mass effort, a new leader may emerge. Remaking the UNP while safeguarding its unity is a necessary precondition for the necessary task of taking Sri Lanka back from the Rajapaksas, someday.