By Neville de Silva*
LONDON, (IDN) — Never in Sri Lanka’s 74-year post-independence history has a democratically elected leader been forced to flee the country, running away from the economic shambles and social disarray he was largely responsible for creating.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa with 6.9 million votes under his belt was elected president at the butt end of 2019. Two and a half years later, one of the siblings of the most powerful political family in the country, was forced out of his private residence in the outskirts of the capital Colombo by angry crowds as essentials such as fuel, cooking gas, medicines ran out and some foods were hard to find.
Daily interruptions to power, at times lasting 10 hours, exacerbated the mounting crisis with offices, factories, schools closing down and hospitals curtailing surgical operations.
On April 1 the country’s president retreated to the over 200-year-old colonial building built by the last Dutch Governor Johan van Angelbeek somewhere in the 1790s. Later it was sold it to the British who named it variously as “King’s House” and “Queen’s House” (depending on who was monarch), and for many decades as “Governor’s House”. That was until 1972 when Sri Lanka became a republic and shed the colonial appendage.
Since then, the opulent and majestic-looking building with sprawling gardens and manured lawns has been the official residence of Sri Lanka’s head of state and came to be known as “President’s House” though foreign journalists mistakenly call it “palace”.
For almost four months President Rajapaksa, forced out of home, lived in this high security area, guarded by contingents of police and military and rarely seen in public.
Meanwhile, ever multiplying numbers of Sri Lankan citizenry, led mainly by educated youth, despondent, angry and increasingly frustrated at the nepotistic and corrupt system under which the rulers, their cronies and political acolytes fattened themselves at the expense of the people and the State, demanded their resignation and return of stolen state assets.
Thousands set themselves up in the seaside promenade right opposite the Presidential Secretariat, another stately colonial building once the country’s parliament.
From the early days of the protest movement this promenade where many thousands drawn from Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society pitched camp, was appropriately named “GotaGoGama” (gama meaning village).
The clarion call of the Aragalaya (struggle) was “GotaGoHome” — the ouster of President Gotabaya and the rest of the Rajapaksa clan and his return to his Los Angeles home.
This was an orderly, peaceful and non-violent movement that would surely be etched in the annals of modern Sri Lankan history until the later days when it was infiltrated by more politically-motivated and violence-prone youth.
The last days of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rule, saw him his escape by land, sea and air starting from President’s House where he allegedly used a secret underground tunnel that led to the nearby Colombo port. Eventually he landed in Singapore via neighbouring Maldives with Singapore claiming he was on a visit visa.
Earlier he, his wife and entourage were reportedly to fly from Colombo to Dubai on a Sri Lankan Airlines commercial flight but its flight captain and crew refused to accommodate Gotabaya who was still the country’s president, apparently after a passenger said he and his friends would manhandle the entourage if they were on aboard. So social media said.
All this seemed like something out of the pages of fiction, especially when the letter of resignation the President promised to send the Speaker of parliament on July 13 had still not reached him that night.
Speculation was rife. Was this another sleight- of- hand to cling on to power, giving time to the Rajapaksas to regroup and re-enter politics with the help of the armed forces of which Gotabaya was still the chief? Multiple stories circulated as the hours ticked by.
What is ironical, however, was the coming change of guard at the very top even before Gotabaya Rajapaksa flew the coop and sent his belated resignation by email from Singapore.
It had been signed in the presence of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner there on July 14 who arranged for it to be flown to Colombo expeditiously by a diplomatic staffer from the Sri Lanka mission, reports said.
What would have been considered political comedy straight out of “Yes Prime Minister” had it not been so serious, are the events that followed the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda from the prime ministership on May 9.
After pro-government armed thugs attacked peaceful protesters opposite the Premier’s official residence and later marched to “GotaGoGama” over a kilometre away attacking protesters there and destroying and burning their makeshift village of all its contents while the police stood by nonchalantly.
With Mahinda Rajapaksa, the two- term president’s resignation, Gotabaya had to search for a prime minister from outside his Sri Lanka Peoples’ Front (SLPP) party that dominated parliament. While some he approached were consulting their respective parties, Gotabaya picked on Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Some suspect that this was a ruse to make Wickremesinghe—said to be a friend of the Rajapaksas which Wickremesinghe stoutly denies—’hold the fort’ and steer the country out of the economic mess until the Rajapaksa clan rebuilds its political base.
The problem is that the public appears to have even less faith in Ranil Wickremesinghe than they do in the Rajapaksas just now. They are seen as belonging to the same political elite that survives by scratching each other’s back while the people bleed.
So, the public ire that kept ballooning against the Rajapaksas had turned against Wickremesinghe. He and his party are considered as lacking both political and moral legitimacy.
His sudden rise from zero to hero in two months and becoming the country’s executive president without a peoples’ mandate, is viewed with grave suspicion by a public which has lost faith in politicians.
Ideologically and politically the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe belong to opposing camps. So how and why the Rajapaksas chose Wickremesinghe to bear the cross. In the civic nostril it smelled like some kind of Faustian deal.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been five times prime minister. Three months back President Gotabaya elevated him for the sixth time though Wickremesinghe has never completed a full term and twice lost the presidential election in 1999 and 2005.
But his most humiliating defeat was in 2020 when the United National Party (UNP), one of the country’s oldest parties, which he has led for many years, was totally wiped out at the parliamentary election losing every seat it contested, including his own.
His entry into parliament was in a way fortuitous. His party was entitled to one bonus seat for garnering 2 % of the national vote at that election. He grabbed it but bided his time entering parliament
He did so only in June 2021 when much of the derision that would have greeted him as a publicly rejected leader creeping in through the back door, as it were, had died down and the Rajapaksa government was too busy trying to undo the economic and other policy foolhardiness that had brought the country to its knees.
Observers believe that the Rajapaksas were willing to have Wickremesinghe complete the rest of Gotabaya’s presidential term which runs for another two-and-half years during which he would look after the Rajapaksa interests.
Secondly, Wickremesinghe has pro-US and pro- western proclivities which are critical to secure the assistance of the IMF and other international lending institutions and donor nations if the country is to emerge from the financial and economic shambles.
Though Wickremesinghe would strenuously deny any deal with the Rajapaksas, the truth is that the Rajapaksa-run SLPP with its parliamentary majority swung its support behind Wickremesinghe, a non-SLPP member.
When the MPs voted on July 20 to elect the new president—as stipulated by the constitution—Wickremesinghe won 134 votes in the 225-member parliament. His opponent a dissident SLPPer but still a party member, received 82.
That was sufficient evidence to a sceptical public that a deal had been struck between them.
One of the first acts of President Wickremesinghe, the day after assuming office was to let loose the police and armed forces on protesters still occupying the presidential secretariat and the protest site. This after the protesters had announced earlier they would leave the former by afternoon.
Hours before dawn the armed police and military swooped down on the sleeping protesters including women and differently abled persons and beat them up. They attacked lawyers who went to their assistance and journalists, sending several to hospital.
Withing hours the UN, EU and diplomatic missions of several other western countries and human rights agencies condemned the brutal assault.
Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission, the Bar Association and civic rights groups decried the use of brute force as “despicable”.
What is difficult to fathom is why so soon after assuming office, the president who desperately needs international goodwill right now should let loose the dogs of war on the innocent.
Some believe that President Wickremesinghe is trying to prove to the Rajapaksas who propped him into the top job that has eluded him so long, that he is ready to crush those who dislodged the Rajapaksa family from the political edifice.
A quid pro quo, perhaps. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 August 2022]
*Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media, including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently, he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.
Source: Asian Affairs, London
Photo: The long lines for kerosene, used in cooking, which is in short supply island wide. Credit: Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
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