Systemic, not regime change

As so many times before, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s most recent verbal assault is relegated to the memory of a few. He continues to hold high and influential public office. The regime dealt with the fallout as it always does – masterfully manipulating a fractured, fearful media community by inviting them over to Temple Trees for a spot of dinner and running a hilariously pathetic interview in a newspaper to give Gotabaya’s ‘side’ of the verbal assault. But few were interested in the issue to begin with. Business as usual, just as the government would like it to be.

Soon after Gotabaya’s tirade, there was some talk of a civil society petition calling for his resignation. To the knowledge of this columnist, this statement, for whatever reason, never saw light of day. Perhaps, just as well. There is a photo – very easily found via Google or Bing – that shows the President hugging his younger brother six years ago. It is clearly not a staged photo, since neither subject looks particularly dignified, in the manner they usually appear hung in government institutions or projected through mainstream media. Mahinda, eyes closed and with an impish smile, hugs the younger brother. Gotabaya, spectacles in hand, gives a smile visibly more genuine than any he’s flashed since.

In this intensely private moment though shared in public, there are at least two markers for regime change idealists. One, to deal with Gotabaya is to really confront the protection afforded to him – as family – by the President. Two, and extending the previous point, is that those desirous of removing Gotabaya from office are in fact perceived to suggest the President is himself unfit to hold office. A call for accountability over one brother is an affront to all. Go after one member – brother, son, wife or relative – and it is the full, and in this case, brute force of family one faces. The answer is perhaps to not to call for resignations. They hold no real traction anyway. Not unlike increasing the space for the regime to engage in international fora that this columnist has argued for previously, the answer to the regime’s chutzpah and violence is to continue to give them access to public platforms and meticulously record their excesses, so that as US citizens first or Sri Lankans, they have no place to hide when their sustained record of violence becomes too much to escape, ignore, censor or spin away.

We need to be principled in this endeavour. We do not need to know who Madini Chandradasa is beyond the fact that a few years ago, she was part of an all female crew that for the first time in Sri Lankan aviation history, flew from Colombo to Trichy. She has, unless proven otherwise, not stolen from public coffers. Largely speculative stories based on who she is in a relationship with, coupled with photos of the girl plastered in the media only adds to the regime’s censoriousness and strengthens official pushback, to the detriment of everyone in civil society. Even those most convinced of regime change by whatever means surely have no truck with Madini. It is the government that calls us and our families, colleagues and friends, terrorists. Let us not embrace their argot or lens. Let’s also be honest about calling for and working towards systemic change, lest we end up like Egypt after its revolution early last year. What can we make of, for example, the UNP’s recent decision to extend, without any chance of removal, the term of its party leader? Surely, isn’t this no less despotic and illiberal than the government the party is opposed to? Where are the calls for the UNP’s leader to resign for holding on to power at great cost? Who is questioning how a party that’s so unashamedly undemocratic can be trusted with meaningful change in governance and government?

We need to go back to that photo of Mahinda and Gotabaya. Captured in that frame is what most in society continue to perceive no matter what either brother does or says. Mindlessly shaming and naming those who only through biological accident are related to the first family risks isolating pockets of broader support in favour of accountability. We need to afford the first family the essential dignity they deny or deracinate for so many others. The threat of isolation and removal from office can enhance, not decrease, domestic regime support. This columnist would argue it is better to give government the space and platforms to undo themselves, from inside. Seen this way, periodic outbursts of the most outrageous expletives are to be welcomed, not merely feared.

The day will come when the government will not be able face public opprobrium over the accumulation of and impatience over these manic excesses. It will not happen because of civil society. That blessed day will come because the regime itself will architect it, despite itself.

All a few of us can and must do in the interim is bear witness, and fearlessly record for posterity.

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Published in the print edition of The Nation, 22 July 2012

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