Sri Lanka: Bury the past, Mr President Gota!

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N Sathiya Moorthy 20 November 2019

If there is a lesson that fellow politicians in the country can learn from President Gotabhaya Nandasena Rajapaksa, it is the utmost dedication and sincerity of purpose that he displayed on the job on hand, or for which he needed to prepare himself. As Defence Secretary, he would not be tempted to be distracted to take to big-time politics. This was so even after the successful conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ and when a ruling party MP under elder brother and President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly offered to resign, for him to enter Parliament and then become a minister.

Dedication and hard work are also the hallmarks of his competitor and outgoing Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. He did a lot of wonderful things as Housing Minister – rather took his UNP one step closer to the rural poor, as only his slain father Ranasinghe Premadasa had done as President. Of course, in between, President Mahinda had laid roads to the rural South, and followed it up with electricity to those pockets. Now, for President, the question is whether to build on the twin-heritage, which in a way could be said to have been build around an unplanned national consensus.

Gota’s ascendancy means that Sri Lanka now has a sibling-pair at the presidency, so separated by time. Earlier, In the Senanayakes (UNP) and the Bandaranaikes (SLFP) set the familial tone of parent-son/daughter precedent. In becoming the post-World War global democracy’s first elected woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike succeeded slain husband S W R D Bandaranaike. The family created other histories by SWRD, Sirimao and daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga all becoming Prime Ministers. For a couple of years, mother Sirimavo also served as PM under President-daughter.

Media ignorance

The international media, for one, should eat their words in painting the Rajapaksas and promoting Sajith Premadasa as a ‘total democrat’ of whatever kind. In doing so, they were only exposing their own ignorance, absence or at least lack of homework. Sajith, every Sri Lankan knows, is the son of President Premadasa. By contesting the presidential polls, he might have only been seeking to fulfil his personal aspirations, but he could well than be called a ‘dynast’.

Definitely, a lot of positives, like better and efficient administration could be attributed to President Premadasa, could well be attributed to him even decades after his untimely exit, caused by the LTTE. But every time Sri Lankans recall the Premadasa years, they cannot forget his foolhardiness in colluding with wily Velupillai Prabhakaran to get the IPKF out of the country – and then, get killed by his bicycle-bomber.

Likewise, every time Sri Lankans fondly remembers President Premadasa’s social welfare uplift schemes, his southern Sinhala constituency cannot forgive him for the slaying of 60-100,000 Si9nhala youth, both boys and girls in the reproductive age-group, in the name of exterminating the militant JVP. No one, then or now, would describe Premadasa, Sr, as a democrat, as the western media wants their leaders and readers to believe.

Salute Sri Lanka!

The same cannot be said of western governments, even those that had openly backed outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the height of the twin constitutional crises triggered by President Maithripala Sirisena withdrawing his SLFP’s support to the fo, in October last, and installing Mahinda R as Prime Minister. After the nation-wide local government polls of February last, they knew that Gota Rajapaksa would start off at an advantage, with 40 per cent ‘Rajapaksa votes’ in his kitty.

In a way, the election boiled down to if he would get the mandatory minimum of 50 per cent vote-share, and where from would that additional ten per cent come. This election has proved that those additional votes and more came only from the majority community’s Sinhala South, what with the ethnic minorities, especially the Tamils and Muslims in the North and the East, voted Sajith P, wholesale.

Yet, what stands out in all this is the readiness and willingness with which Team Sajith readily conceded defeat once the counting trends became known. This naturally reduced the unavoidable electoral tension that was building in the air since campaigning commenced. Equal and even more credit should well go to Team Gota, after the leading candidate appealed to his cadres to celebrate the victory with ease, poise and peace.

Healthier precedent

Overseas occasional observers of the country should thus need to know / remember that a healthier precedent was set in Elections-2015, when incumbent Mahinda R conceded doubt at the crack of dawn, when only a third of the votes might have been counted, and the news from the Tamil North and Muslim East was not encouraging.

Credit should go to the third Rajapaksa, namely, Basil, who was the poll strategist then and now, for predicting even close to two years before Elections-2015, how they would lose if they did not get 20-25 per cent of the Tamil and 30-35 per cent of the Muslim votes. When Mahinda’s failed the mark, he had no hesitation to step aside, and drive down to the family home, deep South.

Yet, even that that twilight hours, there were those who had benefited as Ministers and aides in the Rajapaksa dispensation (like his successful competitor, Sirisena, who went around telling the world how they were trying to ‘hijack’ the elections and how two of the Rajapaksa brothers had flown the coop (?) to safer haven overseas once vote-counting commenced. In painting the Rajapaksas black, they also said that ex-LTTE arms procurer and the first self-styled prime minister of post-war TGTE, Kumaran Pathmanathan, too, had done so.

Five years down the line, the promised probe has not happened, so has the outgoing government leaders said or done anything about bring back the Rajapaksas’ all the ill-gotten money from overseas, with help from friendly nations. This does not mean that the path is going to be laid out with roses and jasmines for Gota, who could still face revived/reopened cases flowing from his cancelled ‘dual citizenship’. But to hit back at his political adversaries, as became a habit with past Presidents, is just not on.

Given the grace with which Premadasa conceded the election, one can hope that his camp may not want to take Gota to court on this or other issues. It ma be true of all 33 others who had similarly contested and lost. The same cannot be said of such other busy-bodies, who otherwise may still have the constitutional right to do so.

They or others of the ilk have lost once before the polls, when the Court of Appeal ( CA) dismissed their pleas. What the nation requires is not division, but unity – as there or otherwise enough causes for such divisions. It is here the new President has to break from the inherited past of several decades, raise above partisan politics, and set the nation on the path of a healthy and wholesome democracy.

Not far to seek

The issues that divide the nation are not far to seek. First and foremost, of course, is the ethnic divide, which played out once again this time again. Like Premadasa and most other candidates in a total of 35, Gota too contested for the presidency of the nation. But ethnic minorities, especially the Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims, who (alone) divided the nation on ethnic lines, by making it all personal.

They all (too) need to realise their folly just as President Gota needs to reach out to them as much as to the rest of them that make the national fabric. Yet, it is President Gota’s job to raise above such partisan considerations, and be accepted as the President of all Sri Lankans, and not just above half of them, even going by ethnicities – but more definitely by vote-shares.

It is not a difficult job, but President Gota has to get rid of those supposedly Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners, or publicly distance himself from them. President Mahinda R lost Elections-2015, not only because of the Tamils, but even more so because of the Rajapaksas’ inability, portrayed as unwillingness to distance themselves, for instance, from the likes of BBS and Gnanasara Thero.

Successor Sirisena did a yo-yo with the controversial Thero, first by looking the other way when courts jailed the latter, including one term for contempt, and yet taking a U-turn when his candidacy for a second found no takers. He quietly granted presidential pardon to Gnanasara, that too only days after his office had denied all such plans.

At the end of the day, it was still a positive vote, by a majority of the nation’s voters, which is what democracy and elections are all about. In this case, the losing minority comprises not only the minority ethnicities but also a minority within the majority. That is however not the case with the victor’s vote-share composition.

It is here that the temptation for elected Presidents and their political parties to play communal politics has its beginning, but in a country for which the Buddha preached peace and brotherhood. Given that the presidential poll is the unique as this is the only one in the country where all nation votes for the same set of candidates, the temptation to bank on the support of only one community or should end with it.

Come parliamentary polls, even Premadasa’s UNP will be fighting the TNA in the North and the SLMC and other Muslim allies from the outgoing Government in the East. It is not unlikely that the TNA and the SLMC may – or, may not — consider coming together for the Provincial Council polls  Ask the Muslims, they would say that the Tamils and the LTTE at one time, replaced by the TNA since, were acting as a ‘majority within the minorities’ in discussing a political solution to the vexatious power-sharing issue and more so to the re-merger of the North and the East.

That is the Sri Lanka that Mr President Gota Rajapaksa has inherited – that too full ten years after the end of the war, and five years of a ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU), of which all but the TNA were partners. That is where the problem to any permanent political solution begins. Hence also why the outgoing government, whom they together elected together, was halting in offering a new Constitution, as promised – only to be kept a promise!

The article appeared in the Ceylon Today on 20 November 2019

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to Rediff.com since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University