Gotabhaya is ready, but is Sri Lanka?


Rajan Philips

"Man by nature is a social animal …"– Aristotle

"Human beings are social animals. They are not individuals."

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at Water’s Edge

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (GR) has announced that he is ready to be a presidential candidate if the people are also ready for it. Not to be outdone, his oldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa has also declared his readiness: ‘If Gota is ready, so am I!’ It is immaterial whether these are conditional declarations, trial balloons, or, plain bravado to enthuse their respective sponsor groups. Gotabhaya’s sponsors are the upstart professionals of Viyath Maga who see their Messiah in Gota. For Chamal, the instigators are the degenerate progressives like Vasu, Dinesh, et al who are alarmed by the prospect of a Gotabhaya candidacy and are clinging on to Chamal to protect their placements at the Rajapaksa political table. It is immaterial as well even if their declarations are co-ordinated mixed signals from the Rajapaksa house to keep Sirisena worrying and Ranil Wickremesinghe guessing. And who cares if the signals are only aimed at the decision-making Rajapaksas-Mahinda-Basil-Namal and no one else.

What matters is the political universe that GR seems to be sketching for the benefit of his followers and the attention of all others. At their most recent gathering, after being sidelined for nearly three months by the tumults of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa power-grab antics and aftermaths, Rajapaksa addressed his faithful in esoteric terms – lauding the virtues of nationalism as opposed to globalism, pitching for a Sri Lankan identity rising above the island’s ethno plurality, and asserting (falsely) the collective rights of society over the individual rights of its members. He got into some terminological twists (‘Jathikathwaya’ vs ‘Jathiwadaya’) in differentiating between racism or communalism (even casteism) and nationalism in the national language (a terminological pitfall in articulating the theory and experience of nationalism, that is common to almost all South Asian languages), but rescued himself by claiming that diaspora Sri Lankans, given their life on the global platform, appreciate the attributes of Sri Lankan nationalism better than resident Sri Lankans.

The simple difference is that to every diaspora group, long-distance nationalism of the old country is the convenient antidote to the social and political alienation that a good number of diaspora members experience in their immigrant countries at least in the earlier years after their relocation. GR himself is a perfect illustration of this duality. A dual citizen of Sri Lanka and the United States, he successfully fought a war for the Sri Lankan government and now wants to be its President. But he must first renounce the US citizenship. Ay, there’s the rub, and more on it later.

The crux of his message is that Sri Lankans must celebrate nationalism as opposed to globalism, must privilege collective rights over individual rights, and as "social animals" work together to liberate Sri Lanka and the poor among Sri Lankans out of their poverty. There could not have been a more glittering gathering in Sri Lanka, or elsewhere, for a political homily on poverty, than the Viyath Maga audience, who assembled in their Saturday best to hear and cheer their political neophyte. And no one goes to Water’s Edge to talk poverty. No, poverty eradication is not on the agenda of the Colombo busybodies who are flocking behind Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

They want to get back to the levers of power and influence at the commanding heights of politics and the economy from which they were suddenly wrenched off in January 2015. They want to restart from where they left and to them GR is the man who can take them back to the seats of power. They are fed up with the self-gratifying politics of Ranil Wickremesinghe and frustrated after the Maithri-Mahinda power grab cockup in October-December last year. The Gota-for-President campaign they launched last May with the Shangri La bash has since been sidelined and ambushed by developments within the Rajapaksa tent and outside it. Now, they want their man front and centre both inside tent and in the country at large.

Yet, the Gotabhaya candidacy is not a certainty. It is certainly more potent than the mendicant candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena. GL Peiris could not and did not brush aside Gotabhaya’s declaration of presidential readiness the way he (GLP) dismissed Sirisena’s vicarious overture through Nimal Siripala de Silva. Only Mahinda Rajapaksa can decide who the presidential candidate will be – that was Peiris’ putdown to Sirisena and Siripala. But commenting on Gotabhay’s candidacy is clearly above GL Peiris’ pay-grade in the Rajapaksa universe. Leaving Peiris aside, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s apparent reluctance to forthrightly endorse his brother’s presidential candidacy might be due to his caution about GR’s ability to successfully transition from his military background to a winning presidential candidate. Many other reasons have also been suggested for the former President’s reluctance about his younger brother’s candidacy.

Individual rights in a social animal farm

A few days after the Water’s Edge scripted remarks on social animals and individual rights, GR seemingly tripped himself up talking about his US citizenship. Given the speculation that he may not be able to give up his citizenship in time to be eligible to be a presidential candidate, he spoke like an American. He told reporters after appearing before the Special Corruption High Court in Colombo, that his US citizenship was an entirely personal choice and he could withdraw it at any moment. "It is a personal choice and I can make any decision on that. I can either seek to withdraw it or continue with it …. The US is the father of Liberal Democracy. The country cannot make a person a US citizen by force."

Personal choices are individual rights by another name, and by GR’s Water’s Edge logic what is sauce for him as an American citizen may not be sauce for other Sri Lankans as Sri Lankan citizens. Sri Lanka is not in any enviable position like the US in having to deal with one of its (dual) citizens renouncing his American citizenship to be President in another country. But many Sri Lankans may consider themselves to be in unenviable positions if GR were to become Sri Lanka’s President in the next presidential election. And they are the experiential victims of the illiberal effects, putting it mildly, of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency especially after 2009. GR, as Defence Secretary, overseeing everything from national security to urban development to legal drafting, was a huge part of it.

Every illiberal effect of those years and the direct or indirect experience of it involved individual rights. What was involved was the violation by the state and its official and unofficial agents of basic individual rights – the right of personal security, the right to personal liberty, and the rights involving private and public property. People were arrested without cause; people were kidnapped and tortured or killed; and people were just killed in broad daylight. Private and public properties were sequestered and abused for the corrupt benefits of those in power. None of them have been proven in a court of law, but there is no doubt that every one of them happened and there are direct and indirect victims and survivors, the living but helpless proofs, carrying the physical and mental scars of the violations of individual rights. The litany of victims is long and old and needs no recounting here.

No one is accusing GR or any of the prospective presidential candidates of anything. But is it unreasonable to ask every one of them, including GR what their position is in regard to unresolved crimes and unexposed corruption, and what they will do differently, if elected as President, to address them? Will GR give the country the benefit of his understanding and the assurance that as President he will get cracking on them until every crime is investigated and resolved? He could, of course, ignore this plea and it would mean by implication that these individual loses are not worth the bother in the context of the larger schemes that he has in mind for the country.

GR’s Viyath Maga professionals will, of course, wholeheartedly agree. And that will take the country back to the slippery slope to the social animal farm, where it was heading until Maithripala Sirisena came out of nowhere and interrupted the slide. Given the special role he played as Defence Secretary under Mahinda Rajapaksa, the younger Rajapaksa’s Water’s Edge lecture on social animals and individual rights take on an ominous meaning for the future. It is too fanciful, and dangerously so, to dismiss individual rights to life and against arbitrary actions by the state as western constructs that are not relevant in Asian societies. These rights may have been formalized and codified in legal texts starting in the West, but they embody the basic human urge and aspiration to enjoy them anywhere and anytime. They are also internalized as constitutional rights in Sri Lanka, India and every Asian country that is a constitutional democracy. The alternatives are social animal farms.

Are GR and his professional faithful telling us that we put aside constitutional democracy in order to uplift Sri Lanka from its lower middle income status to the higher middle income status? Just how many more people need to be kidnapped, forced to disappear, or killed, before our average annual income goes up by a few hundred dollars? There is no political or economic project that is worth the deliberate sacrifice of even a single human life. When human lives are expended and individual rights are infringed by the state, the real reason is not any larger economic or political goal for the greater good; the real reasons are corruption, cronyism and family bandyism, and the narrow political agenda to sustain them at all cost. And, nationalism, without constitutional democracy and individual rights, has a different name: fascism. Be a Hitler, so to speak.

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