Politics in Twilight Zone


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

"This accursed, shortsighted statecraft!" Heinrich von Kleist
(Prinz Friedrich)

Thirteen months have passed since the anti-Muslim riots of Digana. Time enough for the main suspects to be tried in a court of law. Yet no one has been formally charged and every suspect is out on bail. Once again, the promise of justice is profaned, and turned into a mockery.

When justice retreats, impunity advances and crimes proliferate.

Now marauders are on the move again. This time the target is a Methodist Church in Anuradhapura. The attack happened on Palm Sunday, the day on which Christians worldwide celebrate Christ’s triumphant entry to Jerusalem. No perpetrator has been arrested so far. The police seem to be moving with the speed of snails, while political leaders, including the minister in charge of Christian Affairs, are busy being blind, deaf, and mute.

These failures demonstrate Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s increasing unwillingness to resist the forces of extremism hell-bent on plunging Sri Lanka into another round of internecine bloodletting. Do the two leaders regard inaction against Sinhala-Buddhist maximalism as an election-winning strategy? Or is their indifference more visceral? Whatever the reason, the government’s callous inattention to the fears and safety of ethno-religious minorities is one more indication of how far it has veered from the core promises of 2015. And many minority voters, caught between the aggression of the Rajapaksa bloc and the lethargy of the anti-Rajapaksa bloc might try to find a way out of their predicament by opting out of the electoral process altogether.

This is not where Sri Lanka was supposed to be four years after the defeat of the Rajapaksas.

Many expectations coalesced to make possible the historic victory of January 2015. Change was the overarching frame enabling that coalescence. The new government was not supposed to travel the same road as the old one. The new government was not supposed to turn itself into a weak carbon copy of the old one. If ethno-religious extremism, unfreedom, corruption, impunity, injustice, economic inequality, intolerance and environmental degradation was what a majority of Lankan people wanted, Mahinda Rajapaksa would still be the president, and some other Rajapaksa the prime minister. Maithripala Sirisena is the president and Ranil Wickremesinghe the prime minister because a majority of Lankans wanted the country to head towards a different future, and not hobble back to the past.

On almost every front, the government has lost the moral highground. On almost every issue, the distance between the government and the Rajapaksa opposition has narrowed, on occasion to the point of non-existence. The way things are, the government seems to be standing for nothing, and representing no one, not even its own best interests.

If the electorate can expect from the government nothing other than a watered-down version of Rajapaksa politics, economics and governance, why not have the Rajapaksas back? This is probably what many floating voters and first-time voters might be asking themselves, as they survey the unappetising choices confronting them.

Self-defeating tactics

Ahimsa Wickremetunga had to seek justice for her murdered father in the United States because there’s clearly no chance of ensuring justice for Lasantha in Sri Lanka.

That failure belongs completely to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. That failure is neither accident nor oversight, but the outcome of a deliberate policy. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena saw an important use value in the continued existence of the Rajapaksa factor in Lankan politics. After all, the only reason both men rose as high as they did was because they constituted the only viable electoral alternative to the Rajapaksas. Keep the electorate caught in that trap, and enough Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims would vote for the key anti-Rajapaksa party to keep the Rajapaksas out.

So the prosecution of the Rajapaksas was turned into a media circus. High profile arrests were followed by nothing. Even when cases were filed, they were allowed drag on and on. The president, the prime minister and other ministers took turns to save this or that Rajapaksa. Every prevarication, every non-result weakened them and strengthened the Rajapaksas, but the government was too blinded by power to see that truth.

Had some of the cases against the Rajapaksas been heard and brought to a successful conclusion, the 2015 electoral defeat could have been followed by a serious political de-legitimisation of the onetime ruling family. The speed and efficacy with which the Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra case was prosecuted demonstrates that the possibility was definitely present. It was not used because none of the top leaders of the government was truly interested in it. They all wanted the Rajapaksas to be around, as a credible bogey, something to scare the voters with.

The outcome of 2018 Local government election proved the absurdity of this reasoning. Yet neither the UNP nor the SLFP learnt from it. It encouraged Maithripala Sirisena to seek an alliance with the Rajapaksas, in the vain hope of winning a second term with their support. Ranil Wickremesinghe and other top UNPers still think that the fear of a Rajapaksa-return would suffice to ensure their victory at national elections. Quite a few leading UNPers might be regarding a Gotabhaya candidacy as an unfailing way to regenerate the winning electoral coalition of 2015.

They might be dangerously wrong.

Even with the threat of a Gotabhaya presidency on the horizon, is it possible to be enthusiastic about a Ranil Wickremesinghe or Sajith Premadasa or Ravi Karunannayake or Navin Dissanayake presidency? Not really. The same goes for a second Sirisena term. Given the bleakness of the political fare on offer, a significant segment of the electorate might adopt a "Plague on both your houses," attitude at the next presidential election; they might abstain or spoil their votes or vote for an obviously losing candidate. That might suffice to bring the back the Rajapaksas, especially if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa fails to divest himself of his American citizenship in time and the seemingly non-threatening Chamal Rajapaksa becomes the SLPP presidential candidate. The oldest Rajapaksa sibling, known for his avuncular manner, played a key role in some of the most egregious Rajapaksa assaults on democracy, such as the illegal impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake, but who’d remember that come election time?

Abolishing the executive presidency was a founding promise of the anti-Rajapaksa opposition alliance in 2014. It was also one of the earliest promises to be forgotten by the new government. Most leading members of the new government wanted to keep the presidency going; each of them believed that he’d be able to win it if not in 2020, then in 2025. That belief could have been sourced in astrolog (those ludicrous raja yoga predictions) or hard political calculations. Either way, they trumped every other consideration, starting with honour and decency and ending with enlightened self-interest.

That failure presaged and informed every other failure. The dominant perspective became not what is good for the country, people or even the government but what is good for one’s own presidential ambitions. The presidency-centric perspective also encouraged the adoption of a curiously lenient attitude towards the Rajapaksas. If the next presidential election too could be framed as a battle for democracy, then victory would be a foregone conclusion – that seemed to have been the calculation especially within the UNP.

On April 7th, the new government of Maldives won the parliamentary election with a massive majority. Former President Yameen campaigned on a platform of nationalism and religious conservatism, regarded as a wining-combination in places as diverse as Donald Trump’s Washington and Narendra Modi’s Delhi. Mr. Yameen lost, and lost badly. Since winning the presidential election in October 2018, the government of President Solih has worked hard to honour its election promises, moving swiftly to investigate the Yameen regime’s corrupt deals (including with China), killings and disappearances. The near two-third victory at parliamentary polls is the reward for that fidelity.

That is a path Sri Lanka could have taken post-2015. Four years and three months later, time has all but run out.

Hanging over the Abyss

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities unfolds as a series of imaginary conversations between Marco Polo and Emperor Kubali Khan. Each chapter contains a description of a city the fictional Polo may – or may not – have visited.

The city of Octavia is described as a thin city, a massive spider web-like structure spanning two steep mountains, hanging over a void.

That image seems apposite for Sri Lanka, as the fateful year of 2019 wends its way. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s failures have placed not just the government but also the democratic system at risk.

Lankan democracy is real. It is also weak and fragile. It needs time and space to grow, to become entrenched. If confronted by a ruthless adversary too early, it is unlikely to survive. It stood up to Maithripala Sirisena on rampage and emerged triumphant because Mr. Sirisena did abide by some limits, notably judicial rulings. Politics under a President Gotabhaya or Chamal Rajapaksa would unfold differently.

Take, for example, how the Rajapaksas used mob violence to stymie international media during the 2013 Commonwealth Summit. The regime couldn’t ban a Channel 4 team from coming to the country during the time of the Summit. So mob rule was used to render their visit ineffective.

The team was greeted at the Katunayake Airport by a protesting mob. The protest lasted for two hours. The police didn’t intervene, even though the airport was a high security location.

That set the tone to the rest of the visit. When the team tried to travel to the North, they were stopped by another demonstration.i For hours, two trains were stuck at the Anuradhapura station because the rail tracks were occupied by "nearly a thousand supporters of North Central Provincial Council Chief Minister and supporters of his brother Deputy Minister SM Chandrasena."ii

The police had imposed a ban on demonstrations ahead of the Commonwealth Summit. That ban had no effect on the protesting mobs.

The ban was again in abeyance when a mob protested outside the UNP Headquarters where a meeting highlighting human rights-violations by the regime was taking place. The protesting mob was allowed to burn tires, destroy UNP decorations and attack Ranil Wickremesinghe’s vehicle.

If that was how the Rajapaksas dealt with international media against the backdrop of the Commonwealth Summit, it is easy to imagine what they will do to every critic, every opponent once they return to power, after winning the next presidential election.

Would Sri Lanka’s fragile democracy, including its newly-independent judiciary, be able to survive in such an environment? The answer is a clear no.

Commenting on the state of Europe in the inter-war period, Tony Judt wrote, "The violence of war did not abate. It metamorphosed instead into domestic affairs – into nationalist polemics, racial prejudices...Europe in the Twenties and especially the Thirties entered a twilight zone between the afterlife of one war and the looming anticipation of another."iii

Similarly Sri Lanka too is in a twilight zone between the afterlife of one tyranny and the looming anticipation of another – possibly worse – one.

Twilight, however dark and gloomy, is not unending night. Twilight is still a better place to be than the unending night. Yet, that difference might seem moot to an electorate disgusted by the shenanigans of an administration that has turned itself into the perfect poster-child for inane and ineffective governance.

In some battles, indifference is the deciding factor. That is where Sri Lanka might be, when the time for the next presidential election arrives.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...