Brian Senewiratne: The choice in Sri Lanka's presidential election

Mahinda Rajapaksa (middle) with his brother Gotabaya (left).

By Brian Senewiratne, Brisbane

January 5, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- There are two main candidates – Mahinda Rajapaksa and “common opposition candidate” Maithripala Sirisena. The January 8, 2015, election was called by Rajapaksa two years before it was due because of a slide in his popularity as judged from the recent provincial council elections. He has claimed, with some strange reasoning, that even if he loses, he will continue as president for two more years (if he wins, the two years will be added to the six-year term – making it eight years).

With the opposition in disarray and unable to find a credible candidate, Rajapaksa was so sure of victory that he even said that he would be the only candidate. He failed to see that the possible candidate was Maithripala Sirisena, his own health minister and general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

With no warning, on November 21, 2014, Sirisena said that he would be the “common opposition candidate”.

He blasted the Rajapaksa regime.

The entire socioeconomic and political systems of this country have been taken over by one family. They have ruined this country that is now engulfed in corruption and blatant abuse of power. It is against this that I am coming forward as the common candidate of the opposition.

Holding the president responsible, he said, “thuggery, embezzlement, crime, drug mafia, nepotism and corruption have institutionalised under the Executive Presidency but alas President Rajapaksa or his government has done little to arrest this horrible and dangerous situation.”

Going on to say what he would do, if elected, he went on:

I will abolish the Executive Presidency in 100 days after being elected as president. I will restore the rule of law by reactivating the 17th Amendment to the constitution and make the police, elections, public service and the judicial service commissions fully independent. The president will be made answerable to the legislature and create a people’s government that enjoy real peace, prosperity and happiness.

Unfortunately he did not say what he will do about the serious problems facing the Tamil people in the north and east who are under military rule, the absolute need to demilitarise the Tamil areas or allow internationally credible human rights organisations into the country.

He was well aware of the risks. Referring to the Rajapaksa junta, he said:

They will do everything possible to tarnish my image and will even go to the extent of murder.

I would rather not print the words used by Rajapaksa when Sirisena went to hand in his resignation as health minister. Security staff advised Sirisena to leave while he was still in a position to do so. It was sound advice given what happened to “Loku Athula”, a senior SLFP politician, who had decided to back Sirisena. I will describe that outrage later.

The support Sirisena had was overwhelming and cut across political and party divisions and has continued to grow.

The election is more than an attempt at a regime change. It is an attempt to dismantle the Rajapaksa family autocracy and replace it with something that is more acceptable. It is, by far, one of the most important elections in recent times in Sri Lanka, which could have far reaching consequences for the country.

Any consequence for Tamils?

Being a contest between two Sinhalese politicians to elect what in effect is a Sinhalese president, there has been some speculation whether this is of any consequence to the Tamil people in the north and east – the suggestion being that they should boycott the election as they did in 2005. However, the feeling today is very different. Many Tamils in the north and east want to vote. The question is whether they will be able to do so in an area which is an army-run military state.

With no credible election monitors and with plans afoot to commit extensive vote rigging, including violence to prevent people from voting, the validity of the result will be doubtful, especially if Rajapaksa wins. On December 29, 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned the Sri Lankan external affairs minister and conveyed his “strong expectation” that the government of Sri Lanka will ensure “the peaceful and credible conduct” of the presidential election.

Ban Ki-moon would have restored his vanishing credibility had he said that the UN was sending election monitors to see that the results were credible.

Some crucially important points

1. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brothers and scores of his family run (or, as Sirisena put it, “ruined”) Sri Lanka. Some 70% of government expenditure is in the hands of this family. It has become a “family business”. If Rajapaksa goes, so will they.

2. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa’s brother, a US citizen, is one of the most powerful people, if not the most powerful person in Sri Lanka.

Supposedly the “defence secretary”, in reality he is the de facto president of Sri Lanka, his brother only being the de jure president.

He is also one of the most violent people Sri Lanka has ever produced. He could call the senior editor of a major newspaper a “f…..g pig who eats shit! Shit! Shit!” and get away with it.

A former army officer, he has absolute control of the armed forces and police. He is more than capable of launching a military coup to take over the country.

3. Sri Lanka’s politically active Buddhist monks, the curse of Sri Lanka for more than half a century, are as bigoted as they come. They will oppose any degree of power sharing, however minimal, with the Tamils. For these Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious bigots, Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation. Neither Rajapaksa nor Sirisena will be prepared to challenge their bigotry and send them back to their temples to preach.

If Sirisena has to sign a memorandum of understanding with one of these chauvinist groups, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which he has done to get their support to get elected as president (as Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike did in 1956 and was later assassinated by one of them), one wonders how he can do anything to address the “national problem” facing the Tamils.

Rajapaksa family control

A rundown is necessary to remind the Sinhalese people of the regime that they are under. The Tamils do not need to be reminded – it is a daily fact of life.

Sri Lanka has never been run by a more violent or corrupt regime than the one run by Rajapaksa since his election as President in November 2005.

Since his election Rajapaksa launched what was clearly a genocidal war against the Tamil people. Claiming that this was to “defeat Tamil Tiger terrorism” it was much more than that. It was to crush the Tamil people into accepting Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist nation.

Rajapaksa has continued to destroy the Tamil people in what is best described as “slow genocide”. The Tamil people in the north and east have been handed over to the Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) armed forces, which can do what they want with no accountability. It is one of the most brutal armies in the world. It treats the areas they run as “occupied territory” and the people in it (Tamils and Muslims) as the “spoils of war”.

The Tamil people have lost their lands in land grabs by the armed forces, and they have been prevented from earning a living (agriculture, fishing and commercial activity – all of which have been taken over by the armed forces or handed over to Sinhalese brought from the south).

Torture, sexual violence, detention without charge or trial at undisclosed locations, and involuntary disappearances are daily occurrences for the Tamils in the north and east.

Militarisation is at an unprecedented and completely unacceptable level with one member of the military present for every five (Tamil) civilians.

Sinhalese people are being relocated in the Tamil north and east by the Rajapaksa regime in a determined effort to change the demography and make the Tamils a minority even in the areas where they are a majority. This “Sinhalisation” might well not be reversible whoever takes over as president, now or ever.

Buddhism is being forced down the throats of the Tamils who are Hindu or Christian in what has been called “Buddhistisation”.

Tamil children are being taught by Sinhalese (many of them soldiers) who have no expertise in teaching or even of the Tamil language.

The Tamil people have suffered immensely under Rajapaksa’s regime. The question of the Tamil people in the north and east voting for him simply does not arise. The only exceptions are those who support Tamil thugs whose leaders are in Rajapaksa’s government.

Human rights

The international investigation into human rights abuse, currently being conducted by a team appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been obstructed in every possible way by Rajapaksa and his cronies. It is likely to come down hard on the Rajapaksa regime when its report is submitted in March 2015.

In addition to the gross violation of human rights and crimes against humanity, Rajapaksa has tampered with the constitution to suit his own political interests and hunger for power. This will affect all ethnic groups in the country.

His decision to scrap a two-term limit for presidents via the 18th Amendment has been criticised across the board for ignoring democratic conventions. The amendment reeks of authoritarianism, typical of Rajapaksa. Under it, the president has the power to appoint the chairperson and members of the Election Commission, Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, Human Rights Commission, Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Finance Commission, Delimitation Commission, the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court, the president and judges of the Court of Appeal, members of the Judicial Service Commission, the attorney general, auditor general, ombudsman and secretary general of parliament.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Rajapaksa has used this to ensure that his loyalists are appointed to these powerful constitutional posts. The United Nations Human Rights Council has already criticised this amendment as a violation of the human rights of the citizens of Sri Lanka.

Since the announcement of the election, there has been no space for any voice of dissent, as Rajapaksa is abusing the state machinery to conduct arbitrary surveillance, detention, and much more, of his detractors. The democratic fabric of Sri Lanka is under serious stress, with authoritarianism having crept into governance as well. The state apparatus is subservient to the Rajapaksa family, rather than the people of the country. Police and armed forces members are openly putting up placards praising Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa heads one of the biggest governments in the world, with more than 100 ministers and deputy ministers in office. It is a vast network of patronage and control. Politicians only thrive if they are inside this “ruling club”. The real government is much smaller, concentrated around the three Rajapaksa brothers, who manage nearly 70% of the state budget. The family has captured the country’s economy, administration as well as the management of the ruling political party. 

The president’s brother, Gotabaya, presides over the powerful Defence Ministry. Another brother, Basil, is effectively in charge of the economy, as minister for economic development. To round things off, elder brother Chamal is the parliamentary speaker, while Mahinda’s son is a wheeler and dealer in many matters.

It is through this network that the Rajapaksa family has been exercising improper influence by carrying out inducements, pressure, threats or interference in the working of the legislature, judiciary and the executive. With the electoral process underway, Rajapaksa and his coteries have diverted their might to preparations for large-scale rigging.

Cronies of Rajapaksa control the major businesses of the country. An election needs funding, and this one needs more for rigging and malpractices! This money is readily found by members of the family and their cronies who have robbed Sri Lanka since Rajapaksa came into power. Money is not a problem – as we will see.

Media censorship is so tight that even the Sinhalese (72% of the country) do not know what is going on. What they do know is that the cost of living has soared due to maladministration, stealing by Rajapaksa cronies and his family, the “need” to maintain a massive army of some 300,000 – the highest per capita of the civilian population in the world. This is claimed to be for the protection of the country. In reality it is for protection of the regime.

Law and order has collapsed and been replaced by the rule of armed thugs and hooligans. Bribery and corruption are rampant at all levels – adding to the cost of living since it is not possible to get anything done without a bribe. Democracy has been replaced by a totalitarian regime under one family. There is an atmosphere of fear in the Sinhalese south, as there is to a much greater degree in the Tamil north and east.

It is difficult to see why the Sinhalese would want to vote for more of the same.

Rajapaksa boasts that he has brought peace, security and prosperity to the country with the defeat of Tamil “terrorism”. Yet he has refused to allow internationally credible human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to enter the country. The reason is that state terrorism today is far worse than any terrorism that existed earlier.

Maithripala Sirisena

A relatively unknown entity even in Sri Lanka, Sirisena has been in the cabinet and has been the general gecretary of the SLFP (the party to which Rajapaksa and his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga belong) since 2001.

To give credit where credit is due, he had the courage to come forward as the common opposition candidate to contest Rajapaksa. He has taken the not inconsiderable risk of being murdered – a risk he has acknowledged.

His account of Rajapaksa’s poor governance was accurate but he was a member of this regime, and a senior one at that, for much of this time. His excuse was that he was too afraid to speak.

Of more serious concern is that he said nothing about the major problems faced by the Tamil people in the north and east. Perhaps he was too afraid to address this critical issue for fear of losing Sinhalese-Buddhist votes. If so, it is difficult to see how as president he will address the major problems faced by the Tamils.

Sirisena’s main agenda seems to be that he will get rid of the Executive Presidency “within 100 days” of being elected as president. There is no doubt that this will be a welcome step towards democracy but the question is whether it will be sufficient. Simply getting rid of the Executive Presidency and returning power to parliament is insufficient. There is much more that needs to be done, such as the separation of powers which is the cornerstone of democracy.

There was not a word by Sirisena about demilitarisation of the north and east – an essential step in addressing the enormous problems faced by the Tamil people. As such, the change to a Sirsena government might be of no benefit to the Tamils.

Sirisena’s closeness to the most extreme ethno-religius chauvinists, the political party of Buddhist monks – the Jathika Hela Urumaya – is of serious concern. He has just signed a memorandum of understanding with them. If it is necessary for him to get into bed with a rabid anti-Tamil party of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists, it is difficult to see how he can deliver peace with justice to the Tamil people.

History might well repeat itself since this is exactly what S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (from Rajapksa’s party) did in 1956 – to ride to power on the backs of politically  active Buddhist monks and found that he had to implement serious discrimination against the Tamils. When he tried to water this down (minimally), he was assassinated by one of them. Today, the Buddhist monks are far more violent than they have ever been. Sirisena will have to be firm – something that is unlikely to happen. If he does, his survival will be in doubt.

Sirisena has clearly stated that he will not allow an international investigation into war crimes or allow those found guilty to face justice.

That will make him an accomplice to war crimes.

What is the choice facing Sri Lanka on January 8?

The options facing the Tamil people in the north and east are voting for more of the same, which they will not do, or voting for Sirisena. The question is whether they will be able to get to the polls with a murderous army watching every step. For the Tamils to abstain from voting (as they did in the 2005 presidential election) is to vote for Rajapaksa, a mistake they will not make this time.

The Sinhalese people also have a choice. They can vote for Rajapaksa and a continuation of a totalitarian state, which is absolutely corrupt, where there is no law and order; a regime characterised by nepotism, police and army brutality unleashed on the Tamil people, but is now being unleashed on them; where the media are muzzled and dissenting voices silenced; a sky-rocketing cost of living and the usual problems of living in a totalitarian state.

They can vote for a change – hopefully a change for the better since it cannot be a change for the worse.

Escalating violence

There will, without doubt, be escalating violence both in the Tamil north and east organised by the Sri Lankan armed forces and Rajapaksa’s violent supporters; and in the south by goon squads supported by the government.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) says that more than 300 cases of violations of law have been reported thus far. In most of these cases pro-government armed goon squads have been involved. This violence will escalate as more defections from Rajapaksa’s camp cement the defeat of President Rajapaksa.

On December 26, 2014, in Beruwela, a suburb near Colombo, after an election rally for Sirisena, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and Western province councillor Ms Premchandra visited western provincial councillor Jemine Marika Mohamed’s house for dinner. Goon squads attacked the house, damaging Kumaratunga’s vehicle and injuring an Mansoor Dalhan. Dalhan was taken to the Beruwela base hospital but was refused admission. The outpatient doctor in a report sent to the CMEV stated that police had instructed her not to admit any casualties to the hospital.

Death of ‘Loku Athula’

A much more serious event involving the president himself.

“Loku Athula” (Nimalasiri Jayasinghe) was a former deputy minister in Rajapaksa’s government and SLFP organiser in a rural area (Gampaha). He was once a leader of the JVP insurrection in 1971, and then joined the SLFP to further his political career.

After he had revealed to his close party associates that he was going to support Sirisena, he was summoned to “Temple Trees” (the residence of President Rajapaksa) on the night of November 29, 2014, to hold discussions.

Loku Athula had discussions with a high-profile team comprising Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa, Dallas Alahaperuma, Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadharshana Yapa.

At the end of the discussion, Mahinda Rajapaksa called Loku Athula into a room to have “further discussions”. What happened thereafter is known only to the two of them. What is known is that screams were heard, the “resident” ambulance at Temple Trees took Loku Athula to hospital. When he arrived there he was dead.

In such circumstances, a post-mortem should have been conducted compulsorily to ascertain the cause of the death, and an magisterial verdict delivered after the inquest. Yet, this procedure had not been followed. What is worse,  moves are being made to suppress information of the incident.

Current voting trends

Figures released by an independent agency show that support for Rajapaksa is 15%, for Sirisena 85%. However, this can change dramatically due to violence, vote buying or plain election fraud.

If things turn bad for the Rajapaksa, his brother Gotabaya can launch a coup “to restore law and order", perhaps in response to “disorder”.

If Sirisena wins, arrangements are in place to get the Rajapaksas, their families and cronies flown out of Sri Lanka. Based on informed sources in diplomatic circles, if the Rajapaksa regime is unable to use the Sri Lankan planes, the regime has made arrangements with two Indian charter plane companies. The Rajapaksa family has already sold a huge amount of the gold it has robbed from the country, to a Japanese millionaire Keiji Matsumura.

Sirisena, if he wins the election, might like to look into this. On the other hand, he might think it wiser not to do so. However to look into the death of “Loku Athula” is mandatory.

The Tamil people and the election

What the Tamils cannot do is sit back and hope that their significant problems will be addressed by either candidate. They should know from long experience, spanning more than half a century, that this will not happen.

The Tamil people must draw up a political program to fulfil their aspirations and mobilise themselves around such a program. The priority in this program is to pressure for the right of self-determination to ascertain what the Tamil people in the north and east want.

They must insist on the immediate admission of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch into the country in general, and the Tamil north and east in particular. It is a reasonable request that the world must support.

All that has been written might come to naught, if Rajapaksa sweeps to victory using fair means or foul and starts his eight-year term, possibly to recontest in eight years’ time for another six years.

[This article has been abridged.]