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Home > 2022 > Autocracy in Lanka with a new face | Apratim Mukarji

Mainstream, VOL LX No 32, New Delhi, July 30, 2022

Autocracy in Lanka with a new face | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 29 July 2022, by Apratim Mukarji

Sri Lanka is now witnessing a much finer version of sophisticated and camouflaged autocracy than ever before. With the ‘fleeing’ former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa now scheduled to return home on 14 August after he had fled in fear of his life, President Ranil ‘Wily Fox’ Wickremasinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena have set about running the country with an iron hand.

Their plus point is their ability to coat harsh words with reason while putting forth tough principles and policies, a combination it is not easy to find fault with at a time when recovering the economy is the first priority.

Consider the Prime Minister’s style of setting forth his policy: ‘Terrorism was the greatest threat to democracy and the Parliament which upholds democracy would not support such acts of terrorism. There could be different political ideologies, but the Parliament should work in unison to address the issues faced by the people.’

It comes as a shock to realise that he was referring to the popular street protest movement as an act of terrorism, while all authentic accounts have described it as a genuine people’s movement in which, for the first time in modern Sri Lankan history, all the ethnic communities, the Sinhalas, the Tamils, the Muslims and the Christians participated; and Buddhist monks were visible mixing among the protesters and joining in the slogans being raised. Then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and later then Prime Minister and eventually the acting President Wickremasinghe ordered the army to intervene but the army declined to do so. The people praised the army for its restraint.

When finally the crackdown came, it was difficult to find out who the attackers were. But they were swift, brutal and effective. They cleared the front of the President’s secretariat completely. Even a week after the protesters were removed in the swift brutal operation from the site of the Presidential Secretariat in picturesque Colombo, the identity of the attackers remained a mystery.

Were they from the Sri Lankan army? The army is a highly disciplined force and is not expected to undertake any illegal activity ordered by the government. Who, then, were they?

An intelligent guess was that they were former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s men specially trained and used for swift, brutal acts of removals, kidnappings and killings of government critics, mainly, activists and journalists.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime (2005-2015) was replete with instances of serious abuses of power by physically disciplining critics through kidnappings and long detentions, physical assaults, and murders. Editor of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination gained a special resonance at home and abroad because the growing and no-holds-barred confrontations between Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of then government and Lasantha became front-page news over a fairly long time. A terrible assault on a journalist and thereafter a plain assassination on another journalist that happened years ago came back to Sri Lankans’ minds as at the dead of night on late-July 2022 unknown men removed campers by brutal force.. Fearless journalist Lasantha Wickrematung was assassinated on 8 January 2009 while he was on his way to the office at the Sunday Leader newspaper.

In a reminder that those days could well be back again, first, the protest camp was dispersed, and then on 29 July, the office of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was raided by the police. Intolerance had not only been practiced but was also signed in as a state policy of the new government.

But the Ranil Wickremasinghe government would be wrong to take it for granted that the Western world would be sympathetic towards it as the country continues to suffer from a shortage of everything, from fuel to cash to foreign aid and loan. The World Bank has told Sri Lanka in plain language that there would be no new loan until the country corrects its fiscal structure and sets up a macroeconomic policy framework in place.

Meanwhile, a big power rivalry is raising its ugly head in the the context of Sri Lanka’s current unstable political and economic situation. The powerful nations with stakes in this tiny Indian Ocean Region island are China, India and the United States.
While India and the U.S. have declared their intention to support the people of Sri Lanka, China---the largest direct foreign investor---is so far strangely silent. Interestingly, India made a public statement expressing its policy of supporting the people after rejecting the ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s approach for help. Earlier, New Delhi had similarly rejected then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s request for help. Washington also turned down his request for a visa to visit the country. Gotabaya was for long a citizen of the United States but, after deciding to contest in the 2019 parliamentary elections, he gave up his U. S. citizenship.
However, these specific responses by the three countries do not gel with the trend of their behaviour a little before the former president fled and his elder brother had to fall back from leaving Sri Lanka, too. For instance,

The last two years’ popular movement to get rid of the corrupt government of the Rajapaksa clan, which was revved up about ten days ago, however, failed in all its objectives. The protesters wanted all the Rajapaksas to quit office and face trial and be suitably punished, nothing has so far happened. Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to flee the country but was chased and remained under naval custody for over a month. But he at least remained within the country. So did his younger brother and a minister in the outgoing government Basil, who had made a clandestine attempt to travel as a private business traveler. Both Mahinda and Basil were caught by immigration officials and had to stay back in Sri Lanka.

But Gotabaya, who became the worst of the lot in the people’s perception for compulsory introducing use of organic fertilizers by farmers and after banning overnight imported inorganic fertilizers, which the farmers had been using for decades, was the only one Rajapaksa who managed to flee the country, went to the nearby Maldives and later on flew to Singapore.

It was in Singapore that he began to plan his clever game of exploiting the forthcoming presidential election by getting his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe elected as the next president. What he did was nothing short of a master stroke. His political party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is the largest party in the present Parliament. So, anybody who wanted to be president must get the full support of this party. However, the main candidate baked by the Rajapaksas, Ranil Wickremasinghe, never belonged to the SLPP. There came a split in the party when it was known that the Rajapaksas wanted Wickremasinghe as the party’s candidate. The split was led by a veteran member Dullas Alahapperuma who also contested and was placed below Wickremasinghe. However, the main opposition candidate, supported by almost all opposition parties, Sajith Premadasa of the Samagi Jana Belawegaya (SJB) who was leading the opposition against Wickremasinghe, withdrew his candidature once he came to know of the split in the ruling party. The idea was to consolidate opposition votes and offer a tough fight to the official candidate Wickremasinghe.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, who came to vote in Parliament along with his son Namal (both were in hiding), made the curious comment after he had cast his vote that the party had also put forward Dullas Alahapperuma as a candidate in a bid to prove that he (Mahinda) was not behind Ranil’s candidature. But the point to remember is that the Rajapaksa brothers have always acted in unison and never at cross purposes.
Now, at the end of the eventful month, the picture is much clearer. Their own man Ranil Wickremasinghe in power, and with Gotabaya to be back home soon, the Rajapaksas will once again set their chess board anew.

The United Nations has set about helping organise a conference of donor countries soon, and the government has been advised to approach China for an arrangement for debt repayment. As China, India and the US are also setting about their chess boards for the changing scenario, Sri Lanka will continue to offer pregnant policy decisions.

(Author: Apratim Mukarji is the author of “The Demons of Sri Lanka : An Unfinished Story” (2019))

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