Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Can the Rajapaksas deliver Lankans true democracy?

Sometimes, lessons on security and insecurity in a browbeaten democracy are delivered by events in the region. India and Sri Lanka now share a chilling umbilical. It will be highlighted when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s newly elected president, visits India on 29 November.

India will be pushing hard to retain its geopolitical and geo-economic gains against China in Sri Lanka which it has enjoyed since January 2015. That was when Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother and a person who swung the pendulum China’s way in a quid pro quo for Chinese credit and global support, offering massive construction projects and safe harbour to China’s businesses and its armed forces, lost his bid to retain the presidency. Among other things, China snagged a deep-water port in Hambantota, a long-time Rajapaksa family fief to that country’s south.

Now, the electoral tables have turned to favour the Rajapaksa family. Mahinda is also back, now as prime minister, an appointment sealed by his brother, Gotabaya.

India scrambled to reach out as soon as Gotabaya’s electoral victory was announced on 17 November. That is as it should be in the perpetual game of national interest. But this is a cautionary tale as much as a practical one, as the Rajapaksas do pretty much what they want. And, also, because it involves citizens, and a celebratory majoritarian haze can hide an undermining of institutions, economy and polity. In a mirror of recent India, the Rajapaksas in their earlier avatar preached integration but ended up practising absolute power.

A decade ago, Mahinda, at the head of a centre-left coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, wrapped up a famous victory against Tamil Tiger rebels, in May 2009. When I visited Sri Lanka that month—one of several visits since the early 1990s, some truths were evident. The Tigers were ever more vicious, continuing forced conscription of Tamil civilians, even children, to replenish warriors. In the closing months of the war, Tigers shot as traitors Tamil civilians fleeing their territory, people for whom they claimed to be fighting a war of freedom. But the state and its agencies loosened their hands too. The at-any-cost final push—aided by Indian intelligence and logistics input—brought massive collateral damage of Tamil civilians in that country’s north and east. But the end of a three decade-long internal war made Mahinda a darling of the Sinhala right, including the influential and conservative Buddhist clergy which, in a mirror of India’s politico-religious construct, drives solutions on faith as fact. Mahinda actually placed his face on LKR 1000 currency notes issued in May 2009, a sign of both absolutism and a sense of his place in history.

(The Sinhala Buddhist majority comprises nearly 70% of the population. Sri Lankan Tamils are about 11%, concentrated in the north and east; ‘Indian’ Tamils, brought by the British to work plantations in central Lanka, are nearly 4%; ‘Moors’, or Muslims, a little over 9%.)

Mahinda released a document titled ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ (Mahinda’s Vision), in 2005, the year he first became president. “I will not permit any separatism," he claimed, and added, “I will also not permit anyone to destroy democracy in our country." The second assertion came unstuck in his first term, as his government stifled dissent and the media, targeting anyone who questioned corruption in government or questioned its war tactics. Gotabaya was then secretary of defence, and public security, law and order. (Basil, another brother, was then the president’s adviser). Several prominent media persons were jailed, or left the country. Some were killed.

On several subsequent visits, I witnessed Mahinda’s re-election, a post-war economic boom, reluctance to devolve power in Tamil-heavy areas, a massive policy tilt towards China, and the Rajapaksa family’s control. Alongside the continuing offices of Mahinda and Gotabaya, Basil was in-charge of economic development. Another brother, Chamal, was speaker of parliament. The extended family controlled the central bank, the ports authority, the state-run airline, and telecommunications, besides several other institutions.

That monopoly ended in January 2015, when the incumbent coalition lost out to one led by the opposition United National Party. Now, the monopoly is back, riding on public insecurity triggered by the so-called Easter bombing in April 2019. Absolutism is already on the menu. Shared prosperity, true integration and democracy should be too.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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