Sri Lanka is led by a man who has, by his admission, two faces. In a more democratic avatar is Gotabaya Rajapaksa the President. Here, the individual in question is presented as smart, suave and sage. Before he spoke, his suit bespoke, as rapper Kanye put it in song, captures man and mission. An older and for many years now a dormant avatar is a killer who enjoys killing. There is no point in using euphemisms when Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself dispenses with them. What does it mean for Sri Lanka’s democracy to have this two-faced individual as President?
My Editor first warned me about Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary, a couple of years after the end of the war. A pro-Rajapaksa businessman owned the paper I was featured in. The Editor’s politics were opposed to mine. However, he was committed to a diversity of opinion in the newspaper and fought hard for it. I was attracted to the idea of writing to what would essentially be an audience hostile to my worldview and its presentation, which is a rare gift for any columnist. To my Editor’s credit, not a single word I submitted was ever deleted or changed before publication. We once met in person, after a series of columns calling out the then Defence Secretary by name. I was told to reframe my criticism because the displeasure the owner of the newspaper courted when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was explicitly named. Tellingly, using the then President’s name was not an issue. It was the Defence Secretary who didn’t want to be critically framed – strongly indicating the intolerance of a man who never had to answer for anything. Under his brother, he did as he saw fit and necessary. Inconvenient questions went the way those who asked them – erased from the public record, sometimes silently, but more often as a public example or warning. I realise now my Editor was wiser than I. By naming Gotabaya Rajapaksa, I could no less expect any meaningful answer to critical questions than a shark can answer why it kills, or a cow as to why it produces milk. As Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was his most authentic self, saying and doing what comes naturally. Under his brother’s Presidency, he could.
Almost exactly a year ago, I returned to Sri Lanka for my doctoral fieldwork. Two months after the consequential Presidential Election in November 2019, I interviewed a diverse group of individuals at length as part of research that studies social media’s impact on violence and democracy. Respondents included those were part of the SLPP’s election campaign, card-carrying members of the party, and those who worked in some official capacity in government. As a researcher, I was there to receive and record as recounted. During these interactions, I encountered a very different Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the person projected by my erstwhile Editor. The individual painted – by each respondent, albeit to varying degrees – was a saviour, not just from the disastrous yahapalanaya government, but from his own brother’s legacy as President as well. Given the nature of the meetings, there was no performative loyalty. What was said and framed was meant and considered. Though variously framed, I was presented with the outlines of a man who was not a devil incarnate. As I later reflected, respondents were as excited about the new President as I was on 9th January 2015, witnessing the swearing in of Maithripala Sirisena. None of my interlocutors was corrupt, murderous or had any interest in either. The new President was presented as a technocrat, presenting the opportunity to focus on everything the former government could and did not. Gotabaya Rajapaksa as someone with little patience for corruption and nepotism was a leitmotif, along with an impatience for positions within Ministries and Departments that served no purpose other than as plum positions for party stalwarts. Encoded into these submissions was something occasionally openly noted – Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not and would not be his brother. The tacit or explicit suggestion was that even those close to the Rajapaksas were tired of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brand of politics and animated by what the younger brother represented. The new President had no children interested in political office, or even resident in Sri Lanka. He did not waste time at weddings, funerals, parties, book launches, concerts. He was a doer. My interlocutors were open about the President’s lack of charisma compared to his elder brother. However, they said that his interest in and dedication to government efficiency was a much better substitute.
In sum and risking howls of righteous outrage from civil society, the man presented to me was hard not to be inspired and taken in by. That is the point. Gotabaya Rajapaksa represented a pivotal moment in the family’s political expansion and entrenchment. The older brother, who had served his purpose by this time, was projected as an individual who would be useful, but increasingly peripheral. The critical capture of the new President at the time, especially in international media, was a world apart from what those in the SLPP thought of him and his mandate.
I later reflected how if I found this optimism somewhat infectious, what those who did not believe or know what the President’s murderous past was would take him to be and see him as. Reinvented as technocratic-outsider and disciplined-doer, Gotabaya Rajapaksa held the promise of government’s reinvention. The early days of any political journey are intoxicating.
And then Coronavirus happened.
Things started to unravel early on and then at increasing pace. Neither President nor government knew how to deal with a pandemic. In this, to be charitable, he was not alone. But running an official campaign inviting tourists to come to the country in March was the start of a string of inchoate and incoherent policy decisions incompatible with what a pandemic response demanded and the WHO recommended. The best-laid plans for Executive flexing fell apart. Gotabaya Rajapaksa loves crises of his own making or communal in nature. When the enemy is a biological virus – which cannot be abducted, killed or tortured into silence and is entirely impervious to propaganda campaigns – the President is at a loss. Of course, this did not stop Gotabaya Rajapaksa from reverting to type, embracing militarisation and racism with equal vigour. Campaign upon campaign in the first half of the year created what researchers call ‘emotional contagions’, where interactions with, the sharing of or commenting on content propping up the President, government and military diverted attention from their failures. This was a familiar and very effective script for the Rajapaksas, but never before used during a pandemic. It was successful at diversion. It was a disaster at addressing Coronavirus. After the second wave of the pandemic in October, things started to fall apart. The President is on record, mid-2020, asking why the world did not recognise and, importantly, commend him, on how the pandemic was handled successfully. He does not appear much after the far deadlier second wave.
It is not looking good online either. My research studies data from over 340 Facebook pages, 160 of which are proxies of PM Rajapaksa and the rest proxies of President Rajapaksa. Suffice to say that neither individual directly controls these pages and thus have plausible deniability around everything featured on them. Simultaneously, these pages are central in generating attention around respective subjects, which can be to amplify something advantageous or drown out something inconvenient. Studied from January 2018, both the PM and President’s popularity is greatest whenever there is a crisis that involves or is instrumentalised by them. The current President is a near-complete non-entity till April 2019, with engagement then peaking around the time of the election campaign and halo of victory. Over 2020, however, and especially in the second half, the decline in engagement across both individuals is significant. Inexperience and insecurity camouflaged by military fatigues, it appears, is an increasingly tough sell over the long-term.
But when I go back to my field notes from early 2020, another problem is entirely the President’s creation. Like ink bleeding from one page to another, what was so animatedly welcomed then as a clean-cut from the elder brother’s political signature is now the President’s very own. Widely reported as an act of political sabotage, diplomatic posts given to sons, daughters and a motley array of other individuals are apposite given the political context, but go against the early promise. What is reported around these appointments is partisan in framing. What is not reported is how this will play out within the government and amongst those who support the SLPP not out of fear or seeking favour, but principle and conviction. These individuals now have more in common with Eran Wickremeratne, who mid-2019 opposed some of these appointments, than their beloved President.
In under a year, the President’s actions are an embarrassment even to his propaganda machinery. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech in Ampara is a good example. Someone – not the President clearly – realised that the high-pitched laughter as he recounted the killing of Prabhakaran “like a dog” was not the best look for 2021. Speaking extempore, Jekyll’s old rasp clawed out through the more measured Hyde. The Defence Secretary emerged. The President receded. Revealingly, however, this part of the speech was the least promoted on Facebook. In a strategic miscalculation, the now infamous segment of Nandasena and Gotabaya (both excellent names, I agree), revealed a deeply insecure man. More petty than Presidential, the segment ironically served to underscore points MP Harin Fernando stressed in Parliament, including how inexperienced the President is as a politician compared to his elder brother. Knowing it was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s enduring popularity, presence and photographs that won November 2019’s election, the unkindest cut for the younger brother is to be reminded of this debt. The pressure is growing. The Presidential mask is slipping.
In James Blinn’s compelling Gulf War novel ‘Aardvark Is Ready For War’ the hero is asked what makes him feel anxious. His answer precisely captures what Gotabaya Rajapaksa is and feels today,
What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of everything… I’m afraid of my ignorance. I’m afraid of things I can’t see, things I don’t even have words for… But the main thing that frightens me is fear.
As the satirical Twitter account NewsCurry recently tweeted, “We’ve Been Politically Victimised, Says Govt That Won Election With A Strong Mandate and A Stronger Inferiority Complex”. We have a fearful god as the President, far removed from the individual I was told about a year ago. The more the President appoints Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, the more he fears what he can’t comprehend – democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the parliamentary process.
Like Trump, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was an outsider elected on the promise of draining our swamp. Like Trump, the President has not delivered. Like Trump and the GOP, the SLPP enables and ennobles a fumbling, flailing and failing President. Like Trump, our President weaponises media and uses powerful public and private proxies to amplify propaganda. Like Trump, but more efficiently and successfully, our President is militarising governance and politicising the military. Like Trump, there is no correlation between the President’s popularity and his performance. Like Trump, the President’s lies will endure long after he no longer holds office.
In the short term, the President will persevere, if only because there is no viable and visible political opposition. Over the medium to long term, there will be inescapable consequences of Michelle Bachelet’s damning report. Basil Rajapaksa will be increasingly forced to reflect on what his citizenship entails. Without Basil, Gotabaya’s propaganda scaffolding crumbles. Without Mahinda, Gotabaya’s umbilical to politics beyond the partisan is severed. And then the Defence Secretary will arise, whether called upon by the sangha or not. For this, one also needs a false-flag crisis, which is why the cremation of Muslims is so disturbing. As I tweeted recently, the policy is not a mistake or oversight – it is intentional and strategic. Even as the President fades away, the Defence Secretary lives, with Myanmar’s fate a salutary lesson of militarisation’s logical end.
Nevertheless, what lies beyond our fear of Gotabaya Rajapaksa?
If this President – more powerful than any in the history of Sri Lanka, a killer, a doer, a technocrat, man of the hour, our best hope and saviour – is a hot mess at the mere mention of his first name, what can we expect? Violence, for sure. After all, that is par for the course and when in a corner, what will be unleashed for distraction and instruction. However, when one knows this, the fear recedes, and only laughter remains. Laughter when reading the government’s response to the OHCHR’s report. Laughter when studying how it is diplomatically dealing with India. Laughter when Sri Lanka’s Minister of Justice faces a frothing Islamophobia that no one from the government wants even to acknowledge because it comes from the President’s closest allies. Laughter when the President wants the world to congratulate him and feels slighted when it does not. Laughter when all he does, with unchecked power and the middle of a pandemic, is to appoint endless commissions of inquiry. Laughter when he bristles after being addressed by his first name, which is precisely why so many now do it on social media. Laughter when the President’s and by extension government’s foreign policy today, as highlighted by columnist Chandani Kirinde recently, is so outmoded and out-dated, it beggars belief.
Every time Gotabaya Rajapaksa the Defence Secretary bares his fangs, we know what is coming. More unclear is whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa the President knows what is in store for him. Surrounded by men and women too scared to be critical, isolated by deification, fearful of justice and anxious about what the future holds, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is floundering, but projecting authority.
Who tells this Thanatos that his Heracles is not the UN, US, the West, civil society or rights activists, but those he so blindly trusts the most?
First published on Groundviews, 2 February 2021.