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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 8, February 14, 2015

The Fall of the Sri Lankan "Monarch"

Monday 16 February 2015, by Apratim Mukarji

What was unthinkable till the third week of November 20014 in Sri Lanka has, nevertheless, happened, and the “Monarch” Mahinda Rajapaksa has fallen.

Challenger Maithripala Sirisena, who declared his defection from the Rajapaksa Government and his candidature in the January 8 2015 presidential election as late as November 21 last, achieved the unthinkable and defeated the redoubtable Rajapaksa in a very convincing manner indeed, by a 3.7 percentage point margin.

Despite the fact that the Opposition candidate did not provide any hope for an initiative for the implementation of the 13th Amendment “plus” settlement of the ethnic Tamil question if he became the President, the Tamils in the north and east clearly voted in his favour in overwhelming numbers. So did the Muslims, the other aggrieved minority community which had suffered increa-singly at the hands of Sinhala chauvinists palpably encouraged by the political establishment.

Sirisena’s victory margin apparently came from these minority votes, for Rajapaksa appeared to have maintained a fair hold on the Sinhala majority votes. As in India, minority votes always count decisively in the Sri Lankan elections wherever minorities dominate and even in mixed constituencies. This was rather dramatically demonstratd when Ranil Wickre-masinghe, now in his third term as the Prime Minister, would have clearly won the 2005 presidential election but for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s direction to the Tamis to boycott the election. Four years later, Rajapaksa’s military offensive brought about Prabhakaran’s death and the demolition of the LTTE.

The January 8 election result primarily reflects the entire country’s desire to get rid of the authoritarian Rajapaksa-clan rule manifest in rampant corruption and anti-people measures taken over the last ten years.

However, the new President faces a major challenge in Parliament dominated by the Rajapaksa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Without some coperation from the majority of the MPs the President would be unable to adopt any major measure requiring parliamentary approval. The question, therefore, is if Rajapaksa would direct his MPs to suport the President. In all probability, Sirisena would be compelled to go for fresh parliamentary elections and seek to secure a comfortable majority for the parties supporting him.

As for Sirisena’s promise to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of his incumbency, there is considerable scepticism in the country to treat it as more of an election-time hype than an honest desire to take the step. It is, however, time alone that will reveal what lies ahead. In any case, a successful implementation of the promise would be possible only with the cooperation of a majority of the MPs.

Till the day of the election, the general opinion in Sri Lanka was that Rajapaksa would at the very least scrape through with a vastly reduced margin, but it was simply beyond anyone’s imagination that he would actually be bested in such a telling manner.

Indeed, the defeat was so stark that even before the final result was arrived at, Rajapaksa had already acceded his defeat and had even vacated his official residence.

How did the stunning result occur? One easy-to-appreciate answer lies in the title of this article. Sri Lankans, exasperated by the blatant misuse and concentration of power and the corruption of democracy in a virtual dictatorship run by the Rajapaksa clan, had long begun to ridicule the President as their “monarch”.

This epithet actually signified their disgust with Mahinda Rajapaksa whom the 70-per cent Sinhala majority community had supported with almost full enthusiasm through two presidential elections in 2005 and 2010. On the surface, this support was so palpable that there was no earthly reason for Rajapaksa to go for an interim election in the beginning of 2015 with another almost two years to go by before an election would have been due in the normal course.

It was for this reason that the people were surprised when the President suddenly called for an election on January 8. But, as it now appears, the President was in a hurry to perpetuate his and his family’s regime and that he was already perturbed over the people’s growing disenchant-ment with his and his brothers’ acts of omission and commission. He obviously did not want to delay the process of re-electing himself which he had already initiated with the amendment to the Constitution to ensure that he could stand for the third time in a row. This he accomplished, by successfully getting the Constitution amended through a subservient Parliament and then, when a defiant Chief Justice barred the amendment by removing her through a parliamentary impeach-ment, and thereafter getting the amendment approved by the Supreme Court.

It is only with hindsight that one now realises that the people did not accept any of these blatant acts of authoritarianism and rank unconstitutio-nality. What the Rajapaksas and the rest of the world along with them had automatically accepted was that the Sinhala majority support would always remain faithful to the regime and that the rising inequities and injustices and the criminality of the state authorities could for ever be swept under the carpet.

The reality had obviously deviated from this comfortable certainty of thought. Rising costs of living, scarce evidences of economic revival except the usually misleading infrastructural develop-ment, sizeable rates of unemployment, and above all a very public display and exercise of militari-sation had begun to bother and antagonise the majority population for quite sometime.

What perhaps reflected the sharply changing popular mood in Sri Lanka was that even in the Sinhala-dominated South, the militarisation of the state had come to be detested and even contested. In a telling instance, the scope of freedom of speech was severely curtailed in July 2014 when the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations under the Defence Ministry expanded its list of “unauthorised activities” preventing the 1421 NGOs listed with it from holding press conferences, workshops, training for journalists, and dissminating press releases. The National Secretariat itself had earlier been shifted from the jurisdiction of the Social Services Ministry to the Defence Ministry.

In a response to this major act of militarisation, the Lawyers’ Collective said at the time that it was only authoritarian regimes and not demo-cracies which prevented normal democratic engagements. The main Opposition, the United National Party, commented that this was “a chilling blow to civil society and the freedom of assembly and free expression in Sri Lanka”.

While this writer witnessed in 2012 how the military presence in the Jaffna peninsula had even invaded Tamil households where purely personal and religious events, such as a marriage or a funeral in the family, could not be held without the presence of the Army, the latter institution, overwhelmingly made up of ethnic Sinhalas, now plays a major role in such routinely civilian fields of activity like urban development and civil construction in the rest of the country. In fact, the Urban Development Authority itself functions under the Defence Ministry.

The armed forces have spread their wings even to the Foreign Service where former Major-Generals are serving as diplomats. Militarisation is now present in education and manpower training as well. The Defence Ministry’s budgetary allocation now stands at 20 per cent of the total national budget.

Interestingly, the militarisation in Sri Lanka differs substantially from the militarisation in military dictatorhips. Here, the military acts strictly as a tool of the civilian government and, to be specific, of the Rajapaksa brothers one of whom is the Defence Minister. To quote the Lawyers’ Collective, “They (the government) need to militarise their apparatus to sustain state capture”; a “massive state capture” where all the state institutions were being controlled by its military which was, in turn, being controlled by the government. (Meera Srinivasan, “Rampant militarisation of state apparatus”, The Hindu, August 2, 2014)

The significance of the outcome of the January 8, 2015 presidential election lies to a large extent in the fact that a number of popular grievances cutting across the ethnic and geographical divides converged in the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The most important population segment, the ethnic Sinhalas, had obviously forsaken the “monarch” and his clan to a significant degree as their disenchantment grew and crystallised over such diverse issues as rising costs of living, static employment opportunities, ruling party thuggery, rampant militarisation and consequent corruption. Added to this long list of disenchantment were the Tamils and Muslims with their very serious grievances which were revoltingly ignored and even ridiculed by the ruling clan.

The reality of the situation on the eve of the presidential election was well articulated by Sobitha Thero, a senior and eminent Buddhist monk who has also consistently displayed an impressive spirit of independence through many years. Leading the National Movement for Social Justice and extending support to the Opposition candidate, he told The Hindu on November 30, 2014: “From the police force to the judiciary, the President has everything under his control. People who are corrupt are protected by the government and people are suffering...We need a government that will lok after the interests of notjust the Sinhalas but also thoe of Tamils and Muslims. There cannot be any discri-mination based on religion, caste or ethnicity.”

Yet another major contributory factor was obviously the timely coming together of almost all the Opposition parties and groups to back Maithripala Sirisena. In fact, the very act of announcing Sirisena’s defection and candidature and the sudden emergence of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga into active politics at the last moment, giving little room for manoeuvre-bility to the government, appear to have been nothing short of political master-strokes.

Typical of the President’s attitude towards the Tamils was his advice, given in Mullaiitivu on December 18 last, that the Tamils should forget the past. “Let us unite,” he told an election rally. “Forget the past. Let us develop this country together. We cannot let history repeat in this country.”

Are Indian Muslims being subjected to the same kind of advice? Incidentally, it may be profitable to recall that the BJP leader, Dr Subramaniam Swamy, who became overly active in bringing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the redoubtable and now dethroned Rajapaksa together, suggested not so long ago that the Sri Lankan President should be honoured with the Bharat Ratna. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi wished Rajapaksa a victory in the election, raising eyebrows everywhere.

Far from it, the Indian Government rushed to cngratulate and invite Maithripala Sirisena even when he had not been sworn in as the President of Sri Lanka.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.