A family affair

Neville de Silva charts the continuing and ever more enthralling drama being played out on Sri Lanka’s political stage

If there is one continent that has produced more than its share of prominent political families who, over time, have yielded renowned national leaders, it must surely be Asia.

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Sri Lanka –even Marxist North Korea – are some Asian states that have a history of dynastic rule.

Despite the fact that some of these leaders bestrode the international arena as powerful, regional or even world figures, Sri Lanka stands unique among them. Then named Ceylon, the country made history when it elected the world’s firstwoman prime minister in 1960, after her husband, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated in 1959.

Sirima Bandaranaike not only served two more terms as premier; her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike, who survived an assassination attempt, won the Sri Lankan presidential election in 1994, makingherthe first president whose parents had both been prime ministers.

In later years, another political family with close ties to Solomon Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rose in the predominantly Buddhist south. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who entered parliament in 1970,was the son ofDA Rajapaksa, a Solomon Bandaranaike loyalist and a cabinet minister in his government.

I knew Mahinda from the day he first took his seat in parliament nearly 50 years ago as a charismatic young politician always ready to help the media with news and views. Naturally, many in the press gallery on that day watched his steady progress within the SLFP and parliament, and saw him emerge as prime minister.Eventually he rose to the top in 2005 as the country’s president, defeating Sri Lanka’s current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party(UNP)

When Mahinda and his younger brother Gotabaya (as defence secretary)combined–Mahinda providing the political will and Gotabaya the military muscle – to take on and defeat the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a bloody and brutal war that dragged on for nearly 30 years,an overjoyed people rejoiced, believing that peace had finally returned to Sri Lanka. In 2009, when the war ended, the two brothers were anointed national heroes.In the minds of some they were like Sri Lanka’s ancient kings.

But the post-war conduct of the Rajapaksa government, with its creeping authoritarianism, allegations of corruption, nepotism,violence against media critics and dissenters,saw their popularityamong the public slowly turn to burning anger.

So when Mahinda Rajapaksa mistakenly called a presidential election in 2015, two years ahead of time, the disgruntled, disillusioned and disenchanted in virtually every sector of society joined hands to halt the Rajapaksa juggernaut that only six years earlier had been greeted with garlands and incense.

With the Rajapaksa regime confident of victory, the important task was to find somebody ready to bell the cat. Finally the opposition forces, including the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP, decided on one of Rajapaksa’s ministers, Maithripala Sirisena, who announced his candidature, having dined with the President only the previous night.

Mahinda provided the political will and Gotabaya the military muscle to defeat the LTTE

The Rajapaksas and their advisers had miscalculated public feeling. With the backing of some 50 political parties, civil society organizations and exhorted by a respected Buddhist monk, Sirisena won.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had agreed on a power-sharing arrangement and readily formed anew administration. Within the first few months of their coalition government they moved an amendment to the Constitution which was seen by the Rajapaksas and their cohorts as specifically aimed at blighting their power and influence and neutralizing the family.

The 19th amendment reduced the presidential period in office to a maximum of two five-year terms, banned dual citizens from holding public office, raised the age limit of a presidential candidate to 35 years and reduced the powers of the president, which would apply to the newly elected Sirisena too.

But before long the president and prime minister were at each other’s throats – especially so when Sirisena realized that his curtailed powers did not allow him to act with the arbitrariness employed by some of his predecessors.

This acrimonious relationship led to an attempted ‘constitutional coup’ by Sirisena last October, when he moved surreptitiously to oust Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and install his arch enemy Mahinda Rajapakasa as premier.

The matter went to the Supreme Court, which held that the president had acted unconstitutionally. This infuriated the president.It meant a return to the status quo antewith egg all over Sirisena’s face and accusations of political conspiracy.

Three factors helped the Rajapaksas regain their influence and public popularity. The first is the increasing friction within the current government, with Sirisena’s constant public criticism of Wickremesinghe and attempts to oust him from the premiership.

The Easter Sunday suicide attacks in Colombo opened up a political opportunity for Gotabaya Rajapaksa (inset)
The Easter Sunday suicide attacks in Colombo opened up a political opportunity for Gotabaya Rajapaksa (inset)

The second factor is the infighting within the UNP, Rajapaksa’s main enemy. Such internecine strife over leadership, policies and choosing a presidential candidate for the elections in November/December 2019 has led to bitter quarrels, from which the Rajapaksas have profited. They themselves had spent many sleepless nights trying to make up their minds which family member should enter the fray.

Thirdly, a fortuitous tragedy made the choice much easier. The Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo by Islamic extremists,which killed some 260 Sri Lankans and foreigners and wounded hundreds of others, triggered the call for tighter security in the country. Particularly so when neighbouring India had sent several intelligence alerts about an impending attack which had failed to evoke any action.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has little or no political experience but had been building a gaggle of retired military officers and a coterie of ‘nationalist’ Buddhist monks calling for a strong leader to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security, suddenly found a space through which to enter and establish a political presence.

With the UNP still fighting and struggling at the time of writing to find a viable contender to take on Gotabaya,the Rajapaksas and their new party –the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) – launched their election campaign on August 11 with a great show in a Colombo stadium.

If only the Roman emperors of yore, who staged spectacles for their deprived citizenry in the hope ofassuaging public discontent, were present that day to watch this extravaganza! It possibly overshadowed their own stagedspectacles, described by the poet Juvenal as ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and circuses).

The Colombo extravaganza saw girls popping out of lotus flowers (the symbol of the SLPP), and the crowd roar their approvalas Mahinda introduced his younger brother Gotabaya, the presidential candidate.

Moved by the moment, the prospective president assured the gathering that he had the strength and the will to face any challenge, as he had done in the past. But his assurances were not always clear, as some have already pointed out that there were contradictions in what he said about how far he would go to establish law, order and security.

As one columnist in the prestigious Sunday Times wrote recently, ‘The SLPP is the first party to field a presidential candidate with much criminal baggage manacled to his ankle.’ This refers no doubt to several legal cases facing Gotabaya, some of which are before the courts but have still to be heard.

That is not all. There is also the question of his dual citizenship as, like his brother Basil, heis a citizen of the United States.

While Gotabaya Rajapaksa claims he has dumped this baggage, which would prevent him from contesting the presidency, and handed over to the US authorities official papers renouncing his US citizenship, some of his critics have asked him to produce documentary proof of this.

With such episodes going on, Sri Lanka’s political scene is far more exciting than it has been for several years. A hungry public is eagerly awaiting the next phase of the entertainment – perhaps a political, and titillating, danse macabre.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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