Defection, betrayal & resistance in Sri Lanka

These hopes have mostly been in vain. And thanks to President Sirisena, the old killers are now in back control

by Rajan Philips

( November 25, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Thursday, November 21 was the fourth anniversary of Maithripala Sirisena’s historic defection from the jaws of the Rajapaksas to become the winning presidential candidate for the common opposition. November 21 fell on a Friday in 2014. It was on two Fridays this year (October 26 and November 9) that Sirisena chose to betray what he had daringly espoused four years earlier. Whatever alchemic connection there might be between Sirisena and Fridays, he is not your Man Friday when it comes to defending the cause of democracy and the rule of law in today’s Sri Lanka. What is more, as the JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, declared in parliament on Friday (again), Sirisena now stands on the side of murderers and against their victims.

The old battle lines of 2015 are being redrawn in 2018 but with crucial as well as comic differences on both sides. The common opposition forces in 2014 are again in opposition now and are recapturing the old mood of resistance after going flabby for four years under an ineffectual Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The Rajapaksas who were all powerful in government then are again in government, but without a majority and alternatingly relying on physical thuggery and parliamentary Standing Orders for the government’s survival. The central defector hero of 2014 is now the betrayer in chief in 2018. The Supreme Court that was more than occasionally a cat’s paw for the Rajapaksas, is now the defender of constitutional democracy against executive overreaches.

Resistance Movement

The most crucial development of all is the emergence of a popular resistance movement against the new Sirisena-Rajapaksa axis and the presidential antics that have come out of it. The significance of this ‘resistance’ manifests itself at several levels. First, it is not anyone’s political cat’s paw but a spontaneous response to the President’s antics and assaults on constitutional democracy. It gives the lie to the spurious assertions that Sri Lanka is a so called presidential democracy and therefore President Sirisena can fire the Prime Minister at his whim and dissolve parliament at his fancy and still get away with it without consequences. It also gives the lie to the claim that those who are opposed to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa axis are old elites and new NGOs who do not represent normal Sri Lankans but act on behalf of foreign interests. The fact of the matter is that the new resistance is made up of normal Sri Lankans who can see the difference between the patriotic claims and the personal agendas of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa forces.

Second, the resistance movement is not for protecting the political bacon of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe but for protecting the fundamentals of Sri Lankan democracy. This aspect is crucial in undermining the Sirisena-Rajapaksa stratagem of using the unpopularity of Ranil Wickremesinghe as their principal political weapon. Put another way, the new resistance has put the Sirisena-Rajapaksa forces on the defensive, forcing them to justify their anti-democratic actions and explain their vulgar behaviour in parliament. Attacking Ranil Wickremesinghe is only annoying politically neutral people who are disgusted with the thuggery and the rowdiness they see in the government MPs in parliament.

Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) is now the main beneficiary of the wave of resistance against the Sirisena-Rajapaksa ‘government,’ but very soon he will be overwhelmed by the new momentum and will be forced to make his now customary political sacrifice - one more time, perhaps the last time - and stand down in favour of another more inspiring leader. RW is obviously the preferred loose ball candidate for the Sirisena-Rajapaksa axis to run against either in a parliamentary or presidential election. But time is running out on them and it is more than likely that circumstances will change rapidly to push Ranil out of the way for a new face, but keep Ranil in prominent background to ensure a smooth transition.

Third, the new resistance has made a mockery of the strong-arm takeover of the state media outlets by the Sirisena-Rajapaksa forces within hours after Sirisena sworn-in Rajapaksa in the former’s private residence in front of orchestrated media cameras. The heavy footed state media is no match for the swift explosions of the social media and the new resistance is back where it left off in January 2015. In between, Namal Rajapaksa showed media savvy in building up the apparently largest individual twitter following in Sri Lanka. But after his father’s ill-advised and unconstitutional political cohabitation with Sirisena, the Rajapaksa scion’s social media currents have dried up and been run over by the social media explosion of the resistance movement.

Fourth, the resistance movement is providing powerful illustrations of authentic mass politics– selfless involvement and binding solidarity - and has virtually crowded out the fake politics and protests (e.g. GMOA, SAITM etc.) that had paralyzed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government practically every day of its tortuous existence. Having tasted early validation, the new resistance movement is unlikely to lose its momentum so long as the current crisis continues. If channelled properly, the momentum should electorally benefit the reactivated common opposition forces. If on the other hand, the Rajapaksas were to succeed electorally, the resistance could become the strongest check against yet another Rajapaksa government. Already, there are encouraging signs of pushback against the old ways of the Rajapaksas.

No return to killings

Fifth and finally, the most visceral aspect of the resistance movement is its revulsion at the prospect of the return of the dark years (2010-2014) under the Rajapaksas, when the power and the resources of the state were abused in the kidnapping, disappearance and killing of people none of whom had done anything against the law. They were done in, however, by hired miscreants in violation of every norm and law of a civilized society. It was the miscreants who had the protection of the old regime and the victims were denied justice and their survivors were left to suffer in silence. Hopes were raised after January 2015, that the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government will investigate, expose and deal with all the hands behind the many crimes and acts of corruption under the previous government.

These hopes have mostly been in vain. And thanks to President Sirisena, the old killers are now in back control. That was the accusation of the JVP leader in parliament on Friday. The common fears are that all the evidence that the police painstakingly assembled over the last three years could be destroyed. Intrepid officers who have been conducting the investigations may be sidelined, transferred and even punished. The entire process of investigation might be ordered to be halted by the new patriotic regime. The families of victims who were traumatized by the new revelations and who had to endure the pain of exhumation and reburial of the victims’ remains will now have to bury their disappointments without any closure at all and without ever knowing: who ordered, who killed, and why were they killed.

Nonetheless, and despite the betrayal of Sirisena and the indifference of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the resistance of the people shows no sign of backing down. In fact, it is showing new defiance and the collective strength to push back on the attempts to thwart and reverse the process of investigation. The government has been forced to rescind its transfer of the main CID Inspector, and the chances are that investigations will not be stopped entirely, even though the process may get considerably slowed down. It might just be that the Rajapaksas will realize that the Sri Lankan universe has changed between the time when they were voted out of office and the time now when they have been let in through the back door.

That difference is also the central and the singular achievement of the now defunct Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The difference is that there have been no kidnappings, killings and disappearances while the Rajapaksas were out of office. That may not be a sufficient reason to justify the re-election of a UNP-UNF government with or without Ranil Wickremesinghe as leader. But that in itself is a necessary reason why the Rajapaksas should not be given a free ride back to power. Free ride is what they thought they were getting from Maithripala Sirisena and they didn’t mind taking it even though they knew it is unconstitutional. But the ride is proving to be anything but free, and quite rough for that matter, thanks to the Supreme Court, the power of the people, and the requirement for a majority in parliament.


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