Opinion: Events in Sri Lanka show despots can never win in the long run – The News Minute
The Rajapaksa brothers chose to remain politicians, portraying themselves as Sinhalese-Buddhist emperors who had finally taught the Tamils a lesson that is bound to haunt the community for generations.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa must be ruing the day he decided not to graduate from being a politician to a statesman. He had a golden opportunity to do that in 2009 when he achieved what was considered an impossible achievement: militarily crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the world’s most feared insurgent outfits. If Gotabaya had wanted, he could have, along with his elder brother and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, changed the course of history in the island nation, burying for good the decades of deeply ingrained ethnic divide.
Now that the LTTE was dead, albeit at a terrible human cost that was mainly borne by ordinary Tamils, he could have extended a genuine hand of friendship to the country’s dominant minority and thus scripted a glorious dawn. Instead, the Rajapaksa brothers chose to remain politicians, portraying themselves as Sinhalese-Buddhist emperors who had finally taught the Tamils a lesson that is bound to haunt the community for generations.
It is this misplaced belligerence which laid the foundation for an autocratic mindset, an I-care-a-damn attitude, that made the siblings embrace a cocky style of governance, which eventually economically ruined Sri Lanka. Once the LTTE was gone, the Rajapaksas – Mahinda later became the Prime Minister and Gotabaya took charge of the presidency and with many members of their clan holding key posts – treated anyone opposed to them with disdain.
The repeated calls to make up with the Tamil community were ignored with contempt. Sinhalese-Buddhist hate mongers backed by the Rajapaksas, went on the offensive against the Tamil-speaking Muslim minority, which itself had been victimised by the LTTE. The growing calls for accountability during the closing stages of the war against the LTTE and for devolution of power, led the Rajapaksas to take a cavalier attitude towards not only the West but also India, a country which had helped them in many ways.
The devastating 2019 Easter bombings in Colombo blamed on Islamists, helped the Rajapaksas who had lost elections to bounce back to power with a vengeance and launch a no-holds-barred Islamophobia that completely unsettled Muslims. Sinhalese critics of the government were either done away with or treated roughly, whatever their status. One such victim was Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who headed the army when the LTTE was defeated and who later developed major differences with the Rajapaksas.
Once democracy was given the go by while corruption went on unchecked, it was time to bid goodbye to sound and sane policies. It is not surprising that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the President, took the most widely criticised decision to ban chemical fertiliser and promote organic farming, a move that virtually killed agriculture in Sri Lanka. He wouldn’t care for well-meaning advice to the contrary.
Just as Sri Lanka began to recover after the Colombo terror bombings, COVID-19 hit hard, and the President and his government had no clue how to keep it under check so that tourism wouldn’t derail. But the industry, a major foreign exchange earner, was badly hit. By the time these tragedies struck, the Rajapaksas had taken international loans left and right, to build infrastructure which proved to be white elephants, rejected suggestions to approach the IMF, and frittered away so much foreign exchange that none was left to import essentials like fuel, food and medicines.
What unfolded then was an unimaginable disaster. A country which once dreamt of becoming another Singapore collapsed like a pack of cards as the economy imploded, leading to unprecedented fuel shortages that caused prolonged power outages, closed down factories, led to massive job losses and to a mad and mass scramble for basic necessities which had always been taken for granted.
Hundreds of thousands of people daily stood in serpentine queues, at times for hours together, to buy cooking gas, petrol and diesel. As prices escalated with no relief, many were forced to do more than one job to provide food on the table to their families. Millions began eating once a day. With cooking gas either not available or becoming out of reach, thousands of families switched over to firewood.
The anger on the streets built up day after day. Political parties of all varieties, religious leaders, civil society groups as well as professionals began asking for the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister, both Rajapaksas. But dictators that they had become, they either did not hear the voices from outside their citadels or could not care less. When violence on May 9 forced Mahinda Rajapaksa to quit as Prime Minister, his son had the audacity to claim that this was only “a bad patch” and that the Rajapaksas were not going anywhere. Even when the anti-government protesters announced calls for a massive gathering in Colombo on the weekend of July 9 and 10, Gotabaya was busy with his antics, apparently confident that he would surmount the crisis. Instead, the crisis devoured him – and the Rajapaksas.
In a sheer demonstration of will power, tens of thousands of people simply overran the President’s House on July 9 and quickly occupied the British-era building as well as other symbols of power – the Presidential Secretariat and the official residence of the Prime Minister. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man who chased the LTTE to its death, was now on the run, first taking the navy’s help to take to the sea and then the assistance of the air force to fly out to the Maldives after realising he will not be allowed to leave from the international airport near Colombo. But he has left behind two brothers – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa – who are now barred from leaving the country without a go ahead from the Supreme Court. A group of brothers who were once the masters of all they surveyed in Sri Lanka, are now in a limbo.
Sri Lanka holds many invaluable lessons. Why sound economics must always be pursued, why democracy is vital for a nation’s healthy growth, why hate mongers can never win in the long run, and why dictators must cease to be dictators.
MR Narayan Swamy is the Executive Editor at IANS News Agency. He is the author of Tigers of Lanka (1994) and Inside an Elusive Mind (2003). Views expressed are the author’s own.