Amanda Hodge in The Weekend Australian, 16 November 2019, where the title runs “Sri Lanka election dilemma: democracy or the dread of dynasty”
Ahead of Sri Lanka’s polarising presidential elections on Saturday, an editorial tinged with desperation in the Sunday Observer newspaper urged voters “to keep the lights on in Asia’s oldest democracy. Vote to keep the journalists in this newsroom and newsrooms across the country, who are trying to be truth-tellers, safe from harm,” it said. “There are 35 candidates on the November 16 ballot paper, but a presidential election is ultimately a choice between two candidates. One of them terrifies us.”
Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party on Wednesday during the last political rally before heading to the polls on Saturday. Picture: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.
Until its shock defeat in 2015 parliamentary elections, former defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the most feared member of a government headed by his brother and then president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now he is the frontrunner in a pivotal election race some fear could entrench a political dynasty and unwind recent democratic progress.
In their 10 years in office, the Rajapaksas ended the country’s 26-year civil war by crushing the Tamil insurgency, then poured billions of dollars into postwar reconstruction. But the Rajapaksa decade was also marked by countless “white van” abductions and disappearances. Prominent Tamil politicians were murdered and journalists critical of the government were detained, sometimes tortured. Some were killed. About 60 fled the country. Gotabaya has been accused of running death squads and ordering the shootings of surrendering Tamil Tiger commanders. His critics hold him responsible, as former defence minister, for the deaths of up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in “no-fire zones” in the last months of the war.
Gotabaya has denied all claims and now, less than five years after Sri Lankans threw out its last strongman leader, the country is poised to elect his volatile younger brother.
Gotabaya, 70, will likely draw wide support from the Buddhist Sinhalese community that makes up 70 per cent of the population, and from a business community that remembers buoyant economic growth under the former government. At a rally outside Colombo this week, supporters expressed support for his strongman pitch.
“This country needs to be protected. What is the use of democracy if we don’t have a country for our children?” said retired schoolmaster WU Weerakkody. “Human rights is a tool for developed countries to suppress weaker ones. We need to fight this and only a Rajapaksa government will do that.”
Sri Lankan political scientist Jayaweda (sic) Uyangoda says Gotabaya could win up to 60 per cent of the Sinhalese vote, though the winner ultimately will also need the votes of minorities who did not fare as well under the Rajapaksa/Buddhist nationalist regime.
Within Tamil and Muslim communities particularly, there are fears about a future Gotabaya presidency. The international community is also wary.
The Rajapaksas — four of the brothers held senior government positions before their defeat — left a crippling debt to Beijing that has become a cautionary tale for small nations seeking Chinese largesse. With Western nations largely unwilling to lend to a regime accused of serious human rights abuses and possible war crimes, the government turned to Chinese loans to finance postwar reconstruction — highways and airports, but also billion-dollar vanity projects in the family heartland of Hambantota that helped finance its 2015 election campaign. The result was a huge increase in expensive government debt that could not be serviced and led to the surrender of the Hambantota Port — a gateway to the South China Sea — on a 99-year-lease to Beijing.
The current United National Party government has tried to restore the foreign policy balance between Eastern and Western powers, though Uyangoda predicts a Gotabaya presidency will recalibrate back to China which, unlike Western nations, has little to say over human and political rights.
But the UNP government’s failure to turn around Sri Lanka’s crippled economy and deliver justice to human rights victims has helped revive the Rajapaksas’ political fortunes. Last year Mahinda’s opposition Sri Lankan People’s Party swept local government elections. Then came the Easter Sunday bombings. Some 269 people were killed in Muslim terrorist attacks on churches and upscale hotels across the country.
A few days later, Gotabaya declared his candidacy and promised to restore the national security state. Mahinda, 73, is constitutionally barred from running again for president but will become prime minister if his brother is elected.
Sri Lankan media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene says at its most basic level Saturday’s election is about “choosing between an imperfect, chaotic democracy and returning to (pre-2015) authoritarian rule”. “The political and economic fallout of the Easter Sunday attacks are shaping the issues of this election,” he says, pointing to the government’s failure to act on multiple intelligence warnings and its mishandling of the aftermath, which led to revenge attacks against Muslims.
Gotabaya told supporters at a Wednesday night rally his government would “give utmost priority to national security. We completely wiped out terrorism from this country, but this government gave no priority to the people’s protection,” he said. “It is a cabinet of ministers influenced by international forces … a group of parliamentarians who were against the war heroes of this country. It is a cabinet influenced by international NGOs.”
Gunawardene says such messages are resonating with many Sri Lankans for whom the wounds of the April attacks have not yet healed. “The Easter Sunday attacks created a very deep sense of insecurity among Sinhalese and Tamil people,” agrees Uyangoda. “The government failed to provide security to its citizens and the Rajapaksas have made use of this to present themselves as the only credible alternative.” A parliamentary investigation was scathing of security lapses, concluding the state failed to act on numerous, specific intelligence warnings of an impending attack.
Anger at those failures, combined with the economic crisis and weak government, has “reopened political space for the strong man, strong government alternative”, says Uyangoda. “The subtext of Gotabaya’s promises — to bring economic modernisation, political stability and efficient government — is that it would become a post-democratic state. The Rajapaksas are contemptuous of the rule of law, checks and balances, human rights, minority rights. They’re not convinced there should be accountability so the political order in Sri Lanka runs the risk of being converted into a post-democratic one.”
“My feeling is that will generate a lot of resistance in the country but, of course, autocratic rulers know how to deal with popular resistance.”
There are no reliable polls in Sri Lanka to indicate which way voters will go this weekend but the late entrance to the race of Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa has shaken things up. The 52-year-old son of former prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in office by Tamil Tiger rebels, is said to have stolen some of Gotabaya’s momentum by shifting public attention from security to the poor.
Uyangoda says the election contest now looks tight, and the result could come down to second-round preferences if no candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the vote.
The Gotabaya campaign rejects that assessment.
“That’s just the propaganda of a losing candidate,” Gotabaya spokesman Milinda Rajapaksa told The Weekend Australian. “We’re in the margin of 55 per cent and the UNP 41 to 42 per cent. That’s not just our internal polling but also what we have heard from intelligence. People are asking for law and order and the re-establishment of national security, and that’s the exact manifesto we have put forward.”
Asked about accountability over past human rights abuses, Gotabaya has said he is focused on the future, though another brother, Basil, has admitted mistakes were made that will not be repeated. Still, Tamils and Muslims are expected to vote overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa.
Sri Lankan Muslim Council chairman Hilmy Ahamed, a spokesman for the Muslim community after the Easter Sunday attacks, returned to Colombo only this week after he and his wife fled multiple rape and death threats last September. Many of the threats referenced change and a new administration that would “take care of” his family and other outspoken Muslims. “We only came back so that we could cast our votes but we may have to leave again. What everybody fears is that if Gotabaya wins there will be Rohingya-style violence against Muslims,” he told The Weekend Australian, referring to state-sanctioned pogroms against Myanmar’s Muslim minority that forced a million Rohingya into Bangladesh.
“There will be an exodus of Muslims trying to flee Sri Lanka if (Gotabaya) wins.”
Journalists and civil society activists are also, once again, watching their words for fear of retribution should Gotabaya win office this weekend. But some will not be cowed. Ahimsa Wickrematunge was 16 when her father was killed on a crowded Colombo street in January 2009. Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, had become a public target of Gotabaya’s wrath for investigating claims of corruption and rights abuses in the lead up to his murder. No one has been prosecuted for Lasantha’s killing despite military intimidation leading up to his murder, and Gotabaya has vowed to indemnify any perpetrators in the military.
From her home in Australia — where she fled with her family — Ahimsa launched legal action in US courts against Gotabaya, a US citizen until his candidacy, whom she alleges is ultimately responsible for her father’s murder. It was the only way to push for justice that can never be delivered in Sri Lanka while the Rajapaksas “continue to carry undue influence on the Sri Lankan courts”, she told The Weekend Australian.
Should Gotabaya become president, however, “I will have to give up all expectations of ever seeing accountability for my father’s assassination … imposed by the Sri Lankan criminal courts”. In a public statement this week, Ahimsa urged Sri Lankans not to trust a man who “fans the flames of extremism and then promises only he can put them out”.
“The danger in relying on such a man to keep you safe is that no one can keep you safe from him,” she warned.
AMANDA HODGE ……Amanda Hodge is The Australian’s South East Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. Previously based in New Delhi, she has lived and worked in Asia for more than a decade covering social and political upheaval
4 COMMENTS at https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/sri-lanka-election-dilemma-democracy-or-the-dread-of-dynasty/news-story/0b0db93352471a049cfa1d635ef0890e
Ivan … 13 HOURS AGO
70% of the Sri Lankan population are Sinhalise budhists who back the Rajapakse candidate. Isn’t that democracy working? And this is despite all the fear mongouring and moral panic surrounding the Rajapakses, which are based on assumptions that have never been substantiated.
Chris ….. 14 HOURS AGO
What an appallingly one-sided and biased report. If they are the most feared and hated as this report claims, then why will the majority vote for them? And not a word of criticism of the actions of Tamil and Muslim terrorists.
Sam17 …… 20 HOURS AGO
For the first 35 years of my life I lived in Sri Lanka. As a small child I saw the absolutely beautiful country with good , honest people were destroyed by political agenda by the United National party led by JR Jayawardena and then by R Premadas – the father of Sajith Premadasa. I remember how their goons set fire to Jaffna Library and also perpetrated black July in 1983, as a young man the fear I lived through when Premadasa started killing anyone opposed to him and his goons in villages started carrying out reprisals against any political opponent and their family, jumping over dead /dying bodies of young men just couple of year older than me on my way to school. I remember the bodies burning on “Tyre pyres” on the road and dogs running with human bones, walking home from school 8 km away because there were no buses on the road due to JVP activities. I remember the only person, who tried to save these young people from the murderous Premadasa – the much maligned Rajapaksha! I remember how people rejoiced – lighting up fire crackers, making kiribath, when Premadasa was blown up in the road. I remember the fear that every innocent man, woman or child had getting onto a public transport or going to a busy town due to the bombing by the tamil terrorists I remember consoling my uni batch-mate when his girlfriend since junior school was blown to pieces on her way to work her very first day. I remember the utter devastation felt by us all when tamil terrorists blew up Kandy Dalada Maligawa, the most sacred place to Buddhist in the whole world (imagine Vatican, Mecca if you can not understand how we felt) I remember (in Australia) hearing about the decimation of those filth on earth by the SL forces of Rajapajska regime, I remember Ranil Wickramasigha, Lasantha Wikramatunga, Eknaligoda tried to derail the war efforts, I remember the joy I felt when called to tell me the war is over and how free they feel. Ms Hodge, with all due respect, you have no idea.
Debra L ……..6 HOURS AGO
Sam17 – comments such as yours are the reason why I read this paper. Thank you for the reality check.
A = this article pursues the same refrains stressed within another collection presented in Thuppahi a day or so ago under the title “Media Blitzkrieg from Keenan, Al-Jazeera et al: Fear Gota” ….. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/sri-lanka-election-dilemma-democracy-or-the-dread-of-dynasty/news-story/0b0db93352471a049cfa1d635ef0890e
B = While I have not followed the election campaign closely (from afar in Australia) my fear is from left field: namely, the strong possibility of an assassination hit on Gotabaya Rajapaksa if he wins — with consequences and reverberations that will be worse than those voiced n the blitzkrieg directed against his party in the article above.
C = As with the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (where one Richard Gower is the frontman), Amanda Hodge presents the same picture about the last stages of Eelam War IV and retails the qualified allegations on the death toll presented by the UN Panel of Experts as definite fact. Apart from the manifest deceit in this “little twist,” both Hodge and the Sri Lankan Campaign display a neglect of context and the structured factors associated with the context of Eelam War IV in presenting this distilled distortion. That is, they compound the distortions.
Thus, their reviews are beset by the same deficiencies reveled by Darusman, Sooka and other making up the UN Panel of Experts: namely, the bourgeois drawing room assessments of individuals who had limited experience of warfare, no familiarity with the terrain of northern Lanka and the Vanni, and no understanding of the ideology sustaining Pirapaharan and the Tigers.
D = I consider it as remarkable as ironic that those who present themselves as paragons of democratic probity should present assessments of the Sri Lankan political processes in the period 2006-2012 without accessing/reading a wide swathe of material published in print and on web that clarify the structural dimensions of the war as well as its most pertinent features and events. These include works by a Marga team, Gerald Peiris, Serge de Silva-Ranasinghe, DBS Jeyaraj, Kath Noble, Rajiva Wijesinha, Bryson Hull, Padraig Colman aka Michael O’Leary, Naren Rajasingham and a thuppahi bugger named Michael Roberts 9 to name a few sources This body of articles have been presented in Sri Lanka as well as a number of ‘little’ web sites.
That NONE of this literature has been consulted indicates that (D1) Hodge, Keenan, Gower and SRI LANKA CAMPAIGN for JUSTICE repose in the ivory towers commanding the international media circuit and can happily bypass minnows in the media waves of little states — allowing their media power to drown little fish; and that (D2) their seemingly moral stance is fractured by seams of dishonesty — because they do not address this literature.
In other words, their bibliographical lacunae suggest a combination of dishonesty, power-play and callousness. That is, Might is Right.