BY HARIM PEIRIS
The undeclared front runner for the Rajapaksa clan / SLPP / JO nomination is undoubtedly former Defence Secretary. So his views and vision for Sri Lanka, which he is now periodically presenting as his undeclared presidential candidacy commences, merit serious attention. A democracy requires that there be debate and dialogue on policies and decisions affecting national life and, in that respect, the military is the last institution one wants to learn democratic norms from. The military personnel are trained are over a lifetime to obey lawful orders without question and have orders carried out without question.
Accordingly, in recent times, opinion leaders in support of a Gotabaya candidacy and Mr. Rajapaksa himself have been making comments that indicate that within the new Sinhala nationalist political project, which is what the Gotabaya candidacy is about, there is a general disdain for democracy and a belief in what might be termed a faith in a strongman. A well-intentioned dictator or an enlightened despot, as renaissance era political thinkers may have termed it. First there was a call, a couple of months back, by a very senior religious prelate for a military government like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The attempt to backtrack on the comments or give it a benign spin was not successful with the unforgiving video records on social media.
Just last week, a retired Navy commander, now involved with other military officers around the former Defence Secretary has gone on record saying that countries should not emphasize democracy and human rights. He reportedly further stated that democracy had, only brought ethnic division and strife to the country.
Then, there is Mr. Rajapaksa himself stressing the need for guaranteeing economic and social rights and not civil and political rights. It is clear that Mr. Rajapaksa and the retired generals around him are seeking to run the country in much the same way as they ran the military and defence ministry, and preparing the people to accept, under their potential rule, vastly reduced democratic and human rights.
A flawed democracy should be strengthened not further weakened
There is one thing on which the new Sinhala nationalist project and all others can agree on, and that is that Sri Lanka’s democracy is flawed and weak. This, of course, is contrary to what we argue in international fora, but that contradiction is another story. That criticism is clearly made by Mr. Rajapaksa and those around him. Others such as Tamil nationalists, make the same criticism for entirely different reasons, but come to the same conclusion, a correct one, that Sri Lankan democracy has not really served them or indeed anyone.
It was State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne, who during the abortive 52-day Rajapaksa regime late last year, stated that the current political set up served only the rulers and not the governed. He was speaking to a group of professionals and was arguing for taking governance from populists to professionals. This same argument was the basic rallying cry of the rainbow coalition of 2015, which built a socio- political movement on good governance and consequently challenged and overthrew the president who ended the war.
There is little doubt that Sri Lankan democracy, or our institutions of governance, has not in the past delivered for our people. We have been unable to manage the political debate, make the compromises and achieve the minimum consensus required to have a cohesive and integrated society within our democratic institutions.
That failure resulted in political and communal violence. The failure was not just on ethnic relations. The two JVP insurrections of the 1970s and 1980s clearly demonstrated that even with regard the economic and socio-political aspirations of the Sinhala community our institutions of governance were unable to deliver.
But the answer to that must be, as declared in January 2015 by the rainbow coalition, is for democracy to be strengthened and for good governance to be established. Towards this end, this dream and political vision, 6.2 million Sri Lankans, comprising a majority of the voting public gave their mandate. The 19th Amendment was a step in this direction; the Constitutional Council was a step in the same direction––small steps but definitely the right direction. Four years on, the criticisms of these by the Rajapaksa’s and their acolytes are a clear indication of their desire to roll back the clock. When democracy is weak, the solution is not to kill it but strengthen it.
A Rainbow coalition must come back
The assault, during this election year 2019, on the democratic institutions of the Constitutional Council, the 19th Amendment, the Human Rights Commission are all indicators of what a Rajapaksa return would entail for Sri Lanka. An elected dictatorship, benign to its supporters and brutal with its opponents; an unmitigated disaster for a post war, pluralist society like ours. The last time, when the fascist experiment of one folk, one Fuhrer and one fatherland was attempted in Europe, it resulted in both a holocaust and a world war. What is needed is to strengthen Sri Lankan democracy not truncate it.
The answer to this, of course, is a repeat of the politics of 2014/15, five years later. The actors would be different. Instead of the term limit barred Mahinda, or the age-limit-barred Namal, the candidate may be Gota and heading a rainbow coalition; the candidate may be the UNP leader, or his current or former deputy. But irrespective of the candidates the basic political formulae of the Rajapaksa clan verses the rest, would still pose a significant political challenge to the Rajapaksa come-back project, and the resultant diminution of Sri Lanka’s democratic, civil and political rights.