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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 8 New Delhi February 8, 2020

Sri Lanka: Gotabaya plunges into true Gotabayaism

Sunday 9 February 2020, by Apratim Mukarji

“Gota’s Goons” is now a popular phrase in Sri Lanka. This is not surprising, because Sri Lanka’s newly elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, does not believe in wasting time to get into action.

Let us talk about a recent manifestation of this Gotabaya dictum. In early December, as journalist Maduka, who was recently transferred to the Lake House Media Department (the Lake House group of media is Sri Lanka’s largest media group owned by the government), was attacked by trade union members of the Gotabaya Government. In his statement to his employers seeking an inquiry into the incident, a number of activists of the trade union entered the Resa newspaper’s (one of the group’s newspapers) editorial department and took him out by force and assaulted him and left before threatening him not to go back to his office again.

This intimidating incident happened after the journalist had already resigned from his job and was present in his office as his contract of service required him to do so. He is a heart patient and the incident has affected him badly. He is since under treatment.

Why was he assaulted? He is one of the many journalists who have regularly exposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa and has been marked for retribution in good time. That time has now come with Rajapaksa as the new Sri Lankan President. It is not for nothing that scores of independent and critical journalists have fled the country following Gotabaya’s victory.

The flight of policemen who were investigating various corruption and murder and assault cases against the Rajapaksa brothers, including the former President and present Prime Minister Mahinda, was only widely anticipated. As many as 700 of these policemen have been barred from overseas travel by Gotabaya in one of his first acts as the President. He has publicly stated that these men will be prosecuted for institutiong and pursuing false cases against him and other Rajapaksas.To his chagrin, the leading investigator, Nishantha Silva, managed to flee to Switzerland before the new President was elected and could have laid his hand on him. He was soon sought to be followed by another key investigator but he was detained on the eve of his departure to Europe. The rest of the team are now kept back and being watched by the police under Gotabaya’s instruction.

The environment of fear was clamped down on the nation even before the presidential election was held when author Lasantha Wijeratne was attacked in his home in Galle town in the south. The four attackers broke into the house at pre-dawn hours when darkness prevailed and assaulted him right on his bed. Before escaping, they also smashed the furniture.

It was not difficult to fathom why Wijeratne was attacked. He had just published a book titled Wasteful Development and Corruption, analysing the much-criticised development spree that was the hallmark of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime (2005-15) and of which the Rajapaksas are still boastful. After the publication of the book, the author presented it to Sajith Premadasa, the presidential candidate of the then ruling party, the United National Party (UNP).

Since his ascendance to the office, similar incidents have been further reported. But the most serious event was the one involving a Sri Lankan employee of the Swiss embassy in Colombo. One evening as the woman left office and was on her way home, she was attacked and abducted by unknown persons and taken to a place where the men snatched her cellphone, which contained confidential information on Sri Lanka and did not return it. She was then let off with a warning. The embassy took up the case with all seriousness since it involved the violation of diplomatic immunity. The Swiss Foreign Ministry issued a stern protest note to the Sri Lankan Government, demanding justice. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa assured that his government would be “taking a serious look” at the allegation but demanded that the said victim would have to make a statement to the government. The embassy refused, saying that the victim was not fit to face any interrogation as her health was deteriorating in the aftermath of the incident.

Since then an unprecedented tussle has broken out between the two sides. The government has gone to court demanding that the woman appear before the court, which the embassy, backed by its government, immediately declined to concur with. The court thereafter has issued an order to the embassy to produce the woman before it but the embassy has again refused to do so. The tussle between the Sri Lankan Government and the court and the Swiss embassy and the government seems to be far from a conclusion. The latter’s hands have been strengthened right from the beginning by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, still being manned by the previous regime’s nominees, which is persistent in its demand that the incident must be properly investigated and the attackers and their backers be identified and prosecuted.

Why is the Gotabaya Government so rattled by the information contained in the employee’s cellphone? It is already established that the sensitive data contained in the phone pertain to various detected facts and statistics about the rampant illegel and criminal acts committed during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime when Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary and presided over the armed forces, the civil police and the investigating agencies. These were unearthed by a plethora of cases launched by the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremasinghe Government immediately after its victory in the January 2015 presidential election. The Swiss embassy appears to have obtained these data from the then government.

As international attention has clearly reverted to Sri Lanka in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency’s instant attack on the media and independent analysis, the President took the initiative to paper over the ugly expose of his real intentions. In a display of half-truths and hidden implications, he delivered a seemingly pious sermon to the Sri Lankan media house chiefs on December 12, advising them not to fear governmental reprisal and to ensure that their writings do not tarnish the “fair” image of the country, its development efforts and anti-corruption drive.

A statement issued by his office said, “(The) people of this country elected me to the office of the President with great expectations. Enhancing the efficiency of politicians and public officials, elimination of corruption and the economc development are some of the priorities among them. As such I expect the fullest support and cooperation of the media towards achieving these objectives.”

It is little wonder that this thinly veiled warning to the media was not lost on its intended target. Victor Ivan, one of the most renowned Sri Lankan journalists who have always fought for media freedom, was sceptical. He told The Hindu (December 13, 2019), “There is no doubt that there is a big fear factor now. A lot of journalists, who merely covered and followed issues as part of their job, now feel threatened under the new government. The previous government, although foolish, was relatively much better for media freedom.”

The “fear factor” for the Sri Lankan media emanates from its experience during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime when the hatchet man was Gotabaya, now at the helm of national affairs. The Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom advocacy group, reported that at least 14 journalists were murdered during 2005-15 (with Mahinda Rajapaksa in office). In 2017, when the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) told a magistrate’s court in Colombo about “top-secret death squads” reportedly linked to the defence establishment, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Defence Secretary under his brother, squarely blamed the changes (since the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government was in power). The CID’s submission pertained in November to the alleged assassination of the well-known newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in January 2009.

Since November last, at least one newspaper website was raided, while two other on-line journalists were “questioned” (questioning by the CID has been traditionally sufficiently rigorous to put the fear of God in any atheist’s mind). An editor of a Vavuniya-based Tamil newspaper was also questioned in November over the publication of “LTTE-related” photographs.

For all one knows, Gotabaya’s ostensible attempt to reassure that press freedom is assured under his rule has managed to turn into a cynical laugh of an elected dictator.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and has recently authored Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka : An Unfinished Story.

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