Friend and foe alike will grant that, since his election in November 2005, President Mahinda Rajapakse has proven adroit at strengthening his grip on power, be it by means fair or foul. During that time, his regime has propelled itself on the axes of war and a purging of the political opposition. A variety of approaches are being utilised for both. The military aspect has been a resounding success, starting with the Mavil Aru waterway incident of August 2007, to the captures of Kilinochchi, Elephant Pass and the Mullaitivu ‘command hub’ in January 2009. All three of these events took place to the shrill accompaniment of chauvinist street parades and triumphal drums.
Perhaps of more importance than war per se has been the opportunist use of racist rhetoric, against the background of what of course is an ethnic conflict. This has worked essentially to glue the Sinhalese people to the Rajapakse regime, while simultaneously deflecting attention from systematic state-engineered terror, inefficiency of economic policy, unprecedented corruption and grotesque failure of governance. Also executed with remarkable skill has been the engineered breakdown of the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP); the marginalising of both the Sinhala-chauvinist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the nationalist Tamil National Alliance (TNA); and reduction of the leadership of the three traditional left parties – the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Communist Party and the Democratic Left Front – into pliant sycophancy. Nevertheless, there is an eerie unreality in Sri Lanka today, like a castle floating on a seabed of molten lava. Is the regime really as stable as it appears? Will calm turn to chaos when deeper rages eventually surface?
The outer envelope of President Rajapakse’s cabinet includes the largest number of ministers in the world (105), in addition to the military-police establishment, the government-appointed bosses of state corporations, a client class of business beneficiaries, and thousands of ruling-party hangers-on. A widespread agent-client relationship – as in the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos – marks the Sri Lankan polity today, both within the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the UNP. This is not merely a case of every people ultimately getting the government it deserves; rather, party-aligned individuals ingratiate themselves to the regime and eventually share in the spoils of office – contracts, jobs and privileges. The moral degeneration of the political space could not have gotten this far without this process of collaboration, made all the more lucrative because of the war economy.
At the core of the Colombo regime, however, resides a very small cabal. This consists of Mahinda Rajapakse; his two younger brothers, Basil and Gotabhaya (his elder brother, Chamal, is also a minister, but is not as closely involved in policy matters); the army commander, Sarath Fonseka; and a small coterie of businessmen cronies, with Harry Jayawardena and Sajin Vas Gunawardena being the most notorious. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who has an important ex-officio role, and the ultra-chauvinist Champika Ranawaka of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) the ‘monk’s party’ (though Ranawaka is not a monk) are also part of this inside track. When it comes to the most vital decisions, however, it is only the ‘brotherhood’, along with the prime minister and Fonseka, who count and who run the country and the war.
President Rajapakse is a personable fellow, and is generally liked by those around him. He likes to eat, drink and experience most of the other things that make life enjoyable. Basil, a Member of Parliament and an incumbent of several presidential advisory positions, is the smart one, the brains behind the entire Operation Sri Lanka. It is Basil, in his various capacities as the president’s point man, who is assigned the toughest challenges, including dealing with the LTTE breakaways Pillayan and Karuna in the Eastern Province, or embarking on sensitive trips to Delhi to soothe Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Undoubtedly, he has been very effective.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya, (a Sri Lanka-US dual national) is the one who the Tamil community loves to hate. A hardline militarist, together with the army commander, Fonseka, he is the most determined to wipe out the LTTE and pursue the war to its bitter end. Neither Gotabhaya nor Basil has much compunction regarding human-rights violations, extrajudicial excesses or deporting Tamils from Colombo, and they have been relatively unsympathetic to collateral civilian casualties – if they are Tamil. Sometimes they may act without explicit consultation with the president, but not once has this carte blanche been revoked or rescinded. Fonseka, meanwhile, has not hesitated to overreach his role and make racist remarks during interviews at home and abroad (“Sri Lanka is the land of the Sinhalese,” he said in an interview with the Canadian media in 2008. “We will be mindful of the rights of the minorities, but they must understand their place”).
The point to appreciate here is that, with over 100 ministers, the cabinet is almost completely irrelevant. Before he died in 2008, Anura Bandaranaike (former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s brother and a member of the Lankan cabinet) described it as a “carnival of clowns.” The current cabinet’s impotence is, of course, part of the process of focusing all power in the hands of the inner cabal. A single story tells it all. The chairman of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) and the minister of science and technology, LSSP leader Tissa Vitarana, worked his way through some 90 meetings towards a new draft constitution. In early 2008, President Rajapakse called for an interim report to answer the ‘irritations’ that were being expressed by a visiting international delegation, and Vitarana produced a 30-page missive that summarised the points on which the APRC had reached consensus thus far. The president told him to shorten the document, and then told him to shorten it again. Finally, he gave Vitarana three pages that had nothing to do with the committee’s deliberations, saying, “Sign this and give it back to me.” The ever-pliant Vitarana dutifully complied, supplying weeks of mirth to Sri Lanka’s chattering classes and the press.
Uses and abuses of war
The string of defeats that the LTTE has suffered over the past year has by now forced it into a small area less than 500 square miles in a remote corner in the country’s northeast. Many believe that the LTTE, that formidable military power, has been vanquished, or at least silenced, for years to come – annoyances such as suicide bomb attacks aside. Whether this is truly the case, of course, remains to be seen, but either way the mood in the government, the military and the Sinhalese public has already turned to triumphal and racist gloating. This mood has provided the state with an opening for a rapid acceleration of repression, in terms of direct attacks on the media and in promoting patriotic fervour to create an ‘appropriate’ climate – trends that had been growing more slowly during the previous three years of the war process.
It is no exaggeration to describe the Rajapakse regime’s programme in Sri Lanka as ruthless, with complicity at the very highest levels of the state and military. Three recent incidents can be taken as indicators of a ghastly pattern. In the early hours of 6 January 2009, the office of MTV, the largest independent television station in the country, was ransacked and destroyed by a well-organised group of men armed with grenades and machine guns. MTV’s sin: failing to pour enough glory on the army’s ‘heroic’ capture of Kilinochchi. Since then, the talk on the street has been that the perpetrators were state personnel acting on official instruction. Indeed, in private, government officials do not deny this version, adding the argument that, essentially, MTV deserved the treatment. Two days later, Lasantha Wickrematunga, the courageous editor of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper that has exposed vast financial scams and poured cold water on military heroics, was assassinated, military style, in broad daylight. Last October, President Rajapakse had described Wickrematunga to Reporters without Borders as a “terrorist journalist”.
The third incident threatens to result in a complete breakdown of the relationship between the government’s executive and judicial branches. In response to a complaint that taxes on petrol far in excess of 100 percent constituted a violation of fundamental rights, in mid-December the Supreme Court ordered price reductions. However, the executive branch has baldly refused to comply. Indications are that this refusal, coupled with several other court decisions that are said to have angered the regime, could be leading to a disastrous breakdown of the relationship between the judiciary and executive. The authoritarian determination of the executive in Sri Lanka is no less obstreperous than in Pervez Musharaff’s Pakistan, and the possibility looms of a systemic collapse of the pluralistic state if the regime were to attempt a monopoly power grab. For instance, riding on the charged-up war mood and exploiting the momentary euphoria of victory, the ruling cabal could seize the initiative and land the first punch. The likely initial step would be to continue to contemptuously ignore Supreme Court rulings, bringing the court into public ridicule and showing up its ‘impotency’ when confronted by overarching executive power.
The weakening of the judiciary is only being made worse by the fact that both the cabinet and Parliament have turned themselves into objects of public derision. The cabinet ballooned to its humungous proportions because the government morphed from a minority to a majority by offering dozens of portfolios to a UNP breakaway group and to multiple others in order to make up the required parliamentary number. Parliament, meanwhile, has lost credibility for having abdicated its role of monitoring and controlling the executive. Nearly all government MPs are ministers, and the opposition is fractured and directionless. The UNP has been in shambles since early 2007, when about a third of its membership – crass opportunists all – crossed over to join the government upon promise of portfolios.
The sadder case still is of the Marxist-chauvinist former rebels of the JVP. In 2005, the JVP carried President Rajapakse’s election on its shoulders because it had the cadres, the organisation and the speakers with which to dominate the campaign. It pushed Rajapakse to modify his manifesto in chauvinist directions – commitment to a unitary state, decoupling the north and east, and a total commitment to war – because it had hoped eventually to capitalise on these measures and outflank Rajapakse by becoming even more chauvinist than him. The party also assiduously cultivated the Sinhalese lower orders in the army, bearing in mind that any military engaged in an ethnic war inevitably becomes a crucible of racial hate that can be utilised for its own consolidation. Having never outgrown its infantile insurrectionary adventurism of the early 1970s, this was the JVP’s natural way of thinking. In the event, however, President Rajapakse was the one to outflank the JVP, by making himself the champion of war and the oracle of chauvinism. Outmanoeuvred, frustrated and having lost its mass base, the JVP took to picking fights on trivial issues, and was soon kicked out of the coalition government. The flood of UNP opportunists was able to make up part of the government’s lost numbers in Parliament.
The Tamil National Alliance, a pro-LTTE Tamil nationalist party and the largest Tamil party in Parliament, has likewise been cowed down by the government. Three of its MPs have been murdered since Rajapakse took office, and several more have been hauled up and interrogated by the Criminal Investigation Department for having visited the rebel stronghold of the Vanni, meeting LTTE leaders or making statements that allegedly promote secession. The climate of paramilitary intimidation during last year’s Eastern Province Provincial Council elections forced the TNA to back down to the extent that it ultimately did not even put forward a list of candidates. After all, the ban on the LTTE is one sure way of landing anyone in prison for upwards of 20 years on trumped-up charges of being in cahoots with a proscribed organisation.
The analysis seems to have been that the process of building repressive, state-monopolised power structures necessarily required the destruction of political and parliamentary opposition, by means most foul. In all of this, one must keep in mind Mahinda Rajapakse’s pedigree as a left-of-centre SLFP politician. He led human-rights marches across the country during the 1990s, and as labour minister he was known to be sympathetic to the trade unions. The traditional left parties and the JVP endorsed his presidential campaign in 2005 with enthusiasm, and even led from the front. But the rightward drift of President Rajapakse over the last three years has caught most of his erstwhile supporters flat-footed. In the case of the traditional left, the disappointment is just one more example of the perennial illusions that reformists indulge in about populist capitalist leaders. As for the JVP, it was simply tactically outwitted.
The consolidation of power at the top without a clear-cut majority in Parliament (minus JVP or UNP crossovers), made the ruling cabal weak, dependent on political machinations and various ‘operators’. The fallout has been the quid pro quo of permitting powerful ministers, dreaded white-van abductors and paramilitary forces in the Eastern Province their turn to indulge in abuses of power at the ministerial and provincial levels. The exemplar is the regime’s jack-of-all-strong-arm-trades, Mervyn de Silva. This minister is a symbol of notoriety, leading physical attacks of TV stations and journalists, getting into fisticuffs with law-enforcement agents, and with alleged connections to the Colombo drug underworld. Sri Lanka ranks high on the register of failing states because of a generalised, not merely a centralised, failure of law enforcement and governance. Mervyn de Silva’s ways symbolise this failure.
While corruption has undoubtedly been significant over the past several years, the allegations, if proved, would not show the Rajapakses overly enriching themselves. Nor would it have been possible to score such a remarkable victory in the war if generalised sleaze in military contracts was so severe as to erode the warring credibility of the forces themselves. Nevertheless, the matter of graft and kickbacks warrant scrutiny.
The SLR 8 billion MiG-29 scandal was just one of the worst, in which five of the world’s most advanced jet fighters were purchased with which to chase the LTTE’s slow-moving Cesnas around the Vanni airspace. The alleged point man on this: Gotabhaya Rajapakse. A presidential commission investigating ex-navy commander Vice-Admiral Daya Sandagiri found that Sri Lanka also “lost” SLR 400 million on the purchase of dud artillery guns from Israel passed off as new. The whistle blower: his successor, Vice-Admiral Wasantha Karanagoda. In addition, the Sunday Leader (18 May and 22 June 2008) published correspondence from overseas suppliers accusing Karanagoda of being a “liar” and a fixer in a SLR 56 million swindle regarding the purchase of a military sonar system. But we are not done with Sandagiri, either. Another allegation against him pertains to a SLR 3 billion deal for inappropriate ‘high speed’ naval craft.
How does this affect the Rajapakses themselves? While it has not been alleged that the brothers benefit directly from these military-contract scams, there is an inhibition in investigating charges of corruption against senior military officers at a time of war, and how the booty is distributed in the entire state machinery. The proclivity to spread the bounty is only natural.
There is also the ongoing scandal of the so-called government budget airline, Mihin Airways (named after Mahinda, no less), whose only budgetary achievement is swallowing SLR 3 billion from government pension funds and loans from the government-owned Bank of Ceylon. The operators who handle the government’s airline deals are Vaas Gunawardena and Harry Jayawardena; the former of which is an opportunist businessman who latched onto the president and made himself useful, while Jayawardena is a different kettle of fish altogether – a mega-rich tycoon who makes sure he gets on with every government in power. Mihin’s three leased aircraft have been recalled by the owners for non-settlement of dues, and the ‘airline’ has been grounded for months.
In the midst of this multitude of antics, the president directed Piyasena Ranasinghe, the director-general of the Bribery Commission, to resign in February 2008. According to observers, this was done for Ranasinghe’s excessive enthusiasm in probing high-level corruption. When he refused, the very next day the president moved Ranasinghe out of office and into the Presidential Secretariat, for which the chief executive earned himself a sharp rap on the knuckles from Transparency International. As long ago as the mid-1970s, Chief Justice Sarath Silva, exasperated at the futility of his efforts in enforcing the common law, opted for ecclesiastical law, and pronounced that those who abuse public funds “will surely go to hell”. His Lordship forgot to add, “And take the rest of country with them!”
~ Anonymous is a policy analyst on Sri Lankan affairs.