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Return to Autocracy.

Byline: TAHA KEHAR

With one Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka's President and the other as Prime Minister, it is expected the country will enter a new era of autocratic rule, corruption and nepotism.

It is difficult to forget Gotabaya Rajapaksa's tenure as Sri Lanka's defence secretary. Under him, a diverse range of human rights violations and war crimes were reported. While the defence chief permitted these transgressions to run rampant, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the president of the country and pushed the Sri Lankan polity towards authoritarianism. Around the same time, other Rajapaksa siblings also assumed key positions in the corridors of power, making the clan's dynastic ambitions all the more palpable.

Though 2015 steered Sri Lanka away from the web of nepotism woven by the graft-addled Rajapaksas, the island nation's political climate after the Easter bombings in April 2019 has once again brought the clan into public office. In November 2019, the erstwhile defence secretary won the presidential elections and pledged to appoint Mahinda as the country's prime minister.

As the Rajapaksas gear up for their second innings in power, the stage is set for yet another authoritarian regime that will blithely distort democratic values and undermine civil liberties. However, Gotabaya's victory continues to divide public opinion. A vast majority of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese population believes that Gotabaya and Mahindra's persistent endeavours enabled the Sri Lankan army to quash attempts by the Tamil Tigers to establish a separate state in the country. That Gotabaya was able to get 52% votes suggests that he is still riding on the crest of his wartime popularity.

As expected, public memory is short-lived and the crimes against humanity committed during the civil war have been conveniently overlooked. Analysts believe that the influence of the Rajapaksas hasn't been weakened by these allegations because national security considerations are above and beyond any acts of cruelty against the Tamil Tigers.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa's presidential campaign capitalized on these sentiments after the Easter attacks. The incumbent president led the electorate to believe that active surveillance and drastic changes within the intelligence services could control "Islamist extremism" from gaining currency. Gotabaya was able to secure a win for himself by exploiting the frailties of the country's troubled electorate after April's terrorist attacks and the subsequent instability.

Now that a Rajapaksa government is in office, we cannot expect accountability for the alleged war crimes. Instead, the abuse of power and the cycle of bigotry are likely to increase, and threaten democratic survival.

During the previous Rajapaksa regime, nepotism was deeply embedded in the polity and meritocracy was dealt a critical blow. Until 2015, approximately two-thirds of Sri Lanka's national budget was controlled by the Rajapaksas. If news reports are to serve as a gauge, key slots within state corporations and the national airline were monopolized by members of the Rajapaksa clan. Even diplomatic postings were made on the basis of nepotism. Since the Sri Lankan government is now run by siblings, one can expect similar practices in the years to come. Though corruption and nepotism have remained recurring problems in Sri Lanka, another Rajapaksa government may sound the death knell for efforts to curtail these issues.

The centralization of power and gradual institutional erosion are likely to make matters worse. During the previous Rajapaksa government, then president Mahinda Rajapaksa dismantled constitutional pro-visions that stipulated term limits for the presidency - an autocratic move that showed disregard for the constitution. Years later, Mahinda joined hands with former president Sirisena to push the country towards a repressive path through an attempted coup. With such a checkered history in preserving democratic values, it is unlikely that Gotabaya's decision to bring his brother into the prime ministerial slot will bode well for the nation.

An editorial comment - titled 'We fear Gotabaya' (Sunday Observer, November 10) - that was published days before the presidential election, outlined the Rajapaksas' uneasy relationship with journalists and activists. According to the editorial, "the Rajapaksa standing for election this time was the defence secretary under whose watch journalists were killed and abducted and citizens exercising their democratic right to protest were shot to death". With Gotabaya in the top slot, media freedom will be compromised to a large extent as the scope of dissent will shrink further than it was under the previous Rajapaksa regime.

According to a report published in The New York Times, a crackdown is feared on critics of the so-called Rajapaksa political dynasty. As a consequence, a vast number of officials and media personnel who had been conducting investigations on the political clan's involvement in human rights abuses and corruption are trying to flee Sri Lanka.

Some weeks ago, a Sri Lankan employee of the Swiss embassy in Colombo was kidnapped. The abducted official was forced to reveal sensitive information about Sri Lankan citizens who had sought asylum in Switzerland because they feared for their safety under the new president. A travel ban was simultaneously imposed on over 700 members of the Sri Lankan police who were involved in investigations against the Rajapaksas.

Separately, a group of police officials and officers in plain clothes raided a news outlet that was fiercely critical of the Rajapaksas. Journalists were asked to have their computers examined for any objectionable content. Although no incriminating material was found, it appears that this was a flagrant attempt to threaten the media and encourage journalists to pursue tactics of self-censorship to avoid a falling out with the powers that be.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the Rajapaksas, who were brought back into the saddle by a Sinhalese majority fuelled by Buddhist nationalism, may rule the country in a fundamentally divisive manner. Minority groups, such as the Tamils and Muslims, may find themselves short-changed by this arrangement. With Sinhalese nationalism at its peak after the Easter bombings, anti-minority violence and a new wave of ethnic strife will emerge. With the seeds of bigotry sown in Sri Lanka, the return of the Rajapaksas is more likely to weaken the roots of democracy.
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Author:TAHA KEHAR
Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Jan 31, 2020
Words:1091
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