Author’s note: On the invitation of the Editor, I’ve written to the Sunday Island newspaper every week since late 2015. Not a single column since then was rejected or even significantly edited, until this one. As I noted on Twitter, the Editor citing “orders from above” said that my column would not be published.
This isn’t the first time content anchored to Gotabaya Rajapaksa has fallen foul of owners of a newspaper. For many years, I was a columnist in ‘The Nation’ newspaper, under the then Editor Malinda Seneviratne. Malinda’s politics differ vastly to mine, but as Editor, he didn’t edit out a single word of what I wrote, repeatedly noting to me and others that as Editor, what he wanted in the newspaper was a diversity of opinion, including those he disagreed with but presented well. Sadly, the pressure from the owner increased – first to encourage me to obliquely reference the Rajapaksas, then to focus on Mahinda but not on Gotabaya and finally, to not mention Gotabaya at all. On a trip abroad and under a temporary Editor, my column was stopped.
The fear of or deference to the Rajapaksas runs deep. In 2015, I was invited by the Sri Lanka Insitute of Architects to write a piece for ‘The Architect’ magazine on ‘democratic space’. The Editor in Chief a few weeks before publication noted that references to the Rajapaksa’s were problematic and that the Sri Lanka Insitute of Architects was in fact entirely partial to the hugely problematic beautification projects in Colombo led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the then all-powerful Defence Secretary. I ended up publishing the piece on Groundviews.
Dr. Charitha Herath, embedded in the new Presidency and Sri Lanka Podujana Party, responded to my tweet noting,
In this tweet we see the template for how the Rajapaksas will control (and strategically also allow) critical dissent in Sri Lanka under a Gotabaya Presidency. Moderates within the SLPP will either out of genuine personal conviction or more coercive direction, publish content that avers the Presidency and government have nothing to do with overt censorship. In parallel, media owners, out of fear or seeking favour – knowing full well their businesses run & rely on ads as well as political servitude – will proactively jettison voices and authors they deem inconvenient or risk raising the ire of the Rajapaksas. This jettisoning will not be based on orders from the Presidency. The President’s reputation and the Rajapaksa legacy is enough to instil fear. Coupled with this, enhanced and pervasive surveillance will be used to track tone, timbre and thrust of thought against or partial to Presidency and government. Those who are critical will be monitored more and silenced in ways that set an example for others to abide by or go silent on account of.
The more violent suppression of critical voices may occur too, but I think unlikely in a context where dissent will simply not have any meaningful space to seed or spread, on social media or in the real world. All the while, moderates like Dr. Herath, who I’ve known for years, will – sincerely I believe – claim that no orders were given to censor critical voices, creating plausible deniability for Presidency and government around the most draconian censorship, hidden in the open.
If the fear, less than a week into Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency is such that just around 1,200 words is deemed too much criticism for a newspaper to publish by the powers that be, the future of Sri Lanka’s writers, activists, independent and investigative journalists, thespians, actors, academics and citizens interested in holding those in power accountable is bleak, at best. As I noted in my censored column below,
The Rubicon crossed on the 16th was more than an electoral victory for the incumbent. It is the end of a Sri Lanka as we know it, and the birth of something else in its place, which shares a name, but little else.
The day after the 7th President was sworn into office, racism celebrated a new birth on Facebook. Across many pages that played a key role in President’s electoral bid, the message was simple and clear. Sri Lanka was for Sinhalese Buddhists only, and his victory ensured the country would remain thus. All Tamils were labelled terrorists. An electoral map of districts that voted for the President’s opponent was juxtaposed with a map of Eelam. The implication, explicitly noted or implicitly projected, was that the opponent’s bid was to divide Sri Lanka and give the Tamils what the LTTE wanted. And because of this ingratitude, the suggestion was that the Sinhalese should inhabit these areas as well since nothing good would ever come from Tamils. The Sri Lankan flag was replaced by the Lion flag next to the Buddhist flag. Lions, in fact, dominated the images across these pages. In other pages, the Lion covered the entire map of Sri Lanka. ‘Lions are back’ proclaimed a notorious page supporting the new President, with an image of him and his brother on two ends, with a Lion in the middle. In the background to the images of both men, maps of Sri Lanka covered by the Lion symbol. In more explicit posts, Hakeem, Bathiudeen and Sampanthan were called the f word, reminding them that the electoral result was an indication the Sinhala race wasn’t dead. Many pages congratulated the new President as the representative of the Sinhala Buddhists. Hyper-conscious of public optics, the new President tweeted that “I am the President of not only those who voted for me but also those who voted against me and irrespective of which race or religion they belong to.” And yet, the racism on the pages continues in the same vein. All the posts are hugely popular.
On Day 3, Major General Kamal Gunaratne was appointed as the new Secretary of Defence. I last wrote about Gunaratne in October 2017, after encountering a speech of his at a Viyathmaga public meeting, made in front of the man who is now President. The video of his speech is still on YouTube. Gunaratne’s comments were directed at those like myself who remain deeply committed to a new constitution. The translation of the comments made in Sinhala, noted in my column, are worth repeating in light of the position he now holds.
Gunaratne wants those who support a new constitution dead, because he proposes they are in fact traitors. He normalises death to traitors as something natural, and inevitable. He wants a return to the height of the JVP’s violence in the late 80’s in order to create the context to deal with those who support a new constitution. His desire to punish traitors extends post-mortem. Mirroring the humiliation the JVP meted out to its political opponents even after being murdered, he wants those who were in favour of a new constitution to not even be given a proper burial. He doesn’t want Buddhist priests to bless them or even to visit their homes.
The Viyathmaga audience claps loudly and enthusiastically at Gunaratne’s comments. As noted in the Hansard and reported in international media, Gunaratne is alleged to have murdered an employee at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Brazil. Other news reports capture his time at a leading international school in Sri Lanka, and the terror to both parents and children that ensued. Gunaratne joins the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Shavendra Silva – a man whose bulky frame serves primarily to carry the weight of allegations of war crimes against him – as the chief architects of national security, aided by state intelligence services and a deep or dark state entirely partial to the Rajapaksas.
On Day 4, the new President was framed in a set of extraordinary photos at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. Flanked by Buddhist monks, Nilame’s and the ornate, ostentatious regalia of Kandyan pomp and pageantry in full display, the new President, dead centre, projected himself, comfortably, as a King. The same day, Shani Abeysekara, till that day the Director of the CID, was demoted as a personal assistant to a DIG, one of the lowest ranks in the Police force. Abeysekara was in charge of cases involving the Rajapaksas, including the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Thajudeen and the disappearance of Eknaligoda.
On Day 5, a day after the new President’s brother was sworn in as Prime Minister, the entire website of the PM’s office was wiped clean. Nothing remains of the old site as a vital repository of public records linked to the former incumbent’s years as PM. Exactly a year ago, during the constitutional coup, the then illegal PM did precisely the same thing. When the coup failed, the site was restored. This disturbing proclivity to completely delete history, erase public records, wipe clean government sites of any and all material framing or focused on political opponents informs the new President’s approach to governance.
On Day 6, I woke up wondering what the multi-billion rupee investments on surveillance, through bilateral agreements with China, Israel and Russia – now entirely in the hands of the new President and his team – would lead to. Counter-intuitively, the new President’s time in office could well be the most peaceful Sri Lanka’s seen yet. The disbanding of extremist Buddhist groups, self-censorship of journalists, abject fear felt by all minorities and the very real fatigue of civil society to fight against however many years or even decades the first family will remain in power almost guarantees that opposition to the Presidency will be muted, at best, within the country. Pervasive surveillance spanning human, communications and digital media, aided and abetted by all telcos present in the country, will result in a public sphere were inconvenient truths and dissent will be controlled, contained or censored. Coordination amongst and collaboration of any opposition to the Presidency will be tracked. At the same time, because the new President’s PR is a cut above anything else in the country, vast sums of money will be spent on propaganda for consumption within the country, and marketing campaigns to promote the country abroad. With markets rebounding, investor confidence returning, tourism promotion, branded content, sponsored ads, paid tours of celebrities and a country without any visible manifestation of internal strife, the new Presidency stands to be marked by what in common parlance the people wanted – a leader who took care of garbage and made a city look clean. On that score, the President will deliver. Entirely lost will be a focus on rights and accountability. Any focus on these, and the barbarians no longer at the gate, but inside Temple Trees, will be let loose silently, to devour their prey in the dead of night, so that the carcasses in the morning are a reminder of how little dissent means in a country moving forward, with intellect, meritocracy and Buddhism at the helm.
All this is more the failure of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena than the success of the incumbents. Shavendra wasn’t appointed by the new President. One wonders if the former government was waiting for an astrologically sound hour to release the findings of Shani Abeysekara’s investigations. None of the allegations made in public about the corruption of the Rejapaksa regime by the leading lights of the former government were backed up by investigations that led to indictments. The Parliamentary Select Committee report’s capture of the former President’s ineptitude and the PM’s lack of leadership are criminal in nature and negligence. The public had had enough, and understandably so. The inheritance of incompetence though is shared, and therein lies the rub. Not everyone who voted in the new President is a racist, or even close. But the vote to place him in power will result in a renewed reign of racism. Many see 2005-2015 as what Sri Lanka will return to. I do not subscribe to this. White vans may not need to come back, and journalists will not need to be murdered. Knowing the nature of the beast and the popular support it enjoys at present, no one will dare say or do anything to upset it. The result of this will be the entrenchment of the Rajapaksas and the normalisation of everything that is abusive, corrupt, violent, exclusive, authoritarian, sexist, communal or majoritarian.
The shift of popular discourse and the public imagination to embrace the tenets of authoritarianism as essential to and inextricable from stable governance is a legacy future governments will not be able to roll-back, or even want to. The Rubicon crossed on the 16th was more than an electoral victory for the incumbent. It is the end of a Sri Lanka as we know it, and the birth of something else in its place, which shares a name, but little else.