Thoughts on Sri Lankan endgame
by Ramtanu Maitra on 15 Jul 2022 0 Comment

Things are too fluid to assert any definite outcome in the short term or even in the long term.


The latest news indicates President Gotabaya “Terminator” Rajapaksa has managed to flee to the Maldives. He was hanging near the Colombo Airport in a naval installation for a few days trying to secure flight seats. It did not come through. Nor did come through his request to the US Embassy for a visa to enter the United States. Eventually, in the early hours of Wednesday morning Rajapaksa, his wife and two security guards had boarded a military aircraft to the Maldives.


“Under the provisions of the constitution and on a request by the government, the Sri Lanka Air Force provided a plane early today to fly the president, his wife and two security officials to the Maldives,” a statement said. They arrived in Malé, the Maldives capital. Reports indicate Gotabaya is now negotiating to get an entry into either Singapore or Dubai. Good luck to Gotabaya! Just a note: People never told him to leave the country. He was only asked to resign. It is his own decision to leave the country.


Gotabaya’s younger brother, Basil Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s wholly ignorant Finance Minister, made efforts to secure a visa from the US Embassy, but it has been denied.


Meanwhile, at the time of this reporting, Gotabaya is under pressure to give up his presidency. The issue is seemingly irrelevant. However, Gotabaya has his man, Speaker of Sri Lankan Parliament, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. Before this latest situation developed, the going word in Colombo was Gotabaya would hand over power to Mahinda Yapa and leave. That would be like biding his time to come back. But that is no longer an option.


In fact, Mahinda Yapa has announced that the “crisis management” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has been appointed acting President by the much-disliked Gotabaya. Protestors, angry with the whole lot of politicians, consider Ranil Wickremasinghe is working hand in glove with the Rajapaksas and is a turncoat.


Now, here is what I think of Ranil Wickremasinghe.  In my book, Ranil Wickremasinghe is a well-established political opportunist. He comes from a very wealthy Colombo family (owns newspapers, particularly the always pro-government Lake House Group) and had been minister and prime minister several times. His uncle, Junius Richard Jayewardene, had a long stint as President.


Wickremesinghe had been the country’s prime minister six times, including this latest stint. He reminds me of a Pakistani Punjabi landowner-cum-politician, Muhammad Khan Junejo (of the Junejo tribe). Junejo would become prime minister/president of Pakistan whenever the Pakistani military would choose to shuffle (kick the Bhuttos out, bring Nawaz Sharif in; kick Nawaz Sharif out, bring the Bhutto’s in) pawns at the top. Rawalpindi would then get Junejo to take over. Temporary, oh yes, it was always temporary.


Ranil is cut from the same cloth, but the military in Sri Lanka never had that much control, although it played footsie with the Rajapaksas in killing off the Tamil Tigers and thousands of innocent Tamils. That helped the Rajapaksa family to push the Colombo crowd out of power and emerge as ‘true patriots’ who took the bull by the horn to ‘save’ Sri Lanka. That is how Gotabaya, who was Defense Minister then, earned his kudos -- “The Terminator”. Politicians! God, there must be a separate double-duty Hell for this variety.


I am not sure Ranil Wickremasinghe will look for a plane to fly out like the Terminator. According to Ahilan Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s well-known political analyst, “Ranil Wickremesinghe has lost all credibility with the people. If there is pressure from foreign countries to make him President, the people of Sri Lanka will not accept it.”


However, Ranil Wickremasinghe does not want to be out of the game. He has issued a statement saying: “We must end this fascist threat to democracy. We can’t allow the destruction of state property. The President’s office, the President’s Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s official residence must be returned to proper custody,” he said. “Those who are in my office want to stop me from discharging my responsibilities as acting president. We can’t let them tear up our Constitution. We can’t allow fascists to take over. Some mainstream politicians too seem to be supporting these extremists. That is why I declared a nation-wide emergency and a curfew,” Wickremesinghe said.


Where will Sri Lankans go from where they are now? Nowhere. But the road to ‘nowhere’ could be paved with blood and tears. Ranil-labelled fascists are waiting in long lines for expensive fuel and other daily necessities and enduring extending power shortages. Food inflation is approximately 80% (wheat and milk powder are hard to find; there is no Marie Antoinette in Sri Lanka to offer them ‘cakes’ either) in a country where almost the same percentage of families live from hand to mouth.


The country has virtually no foreign exchange – the fascists cannot be blamed for it – and cannot buy food or fuel from abroad. Officials sought bailout discussions with the International Monetary Fund, increased rates, devalued the currency, banned some imports, and devalued the currency again. The fascists cannot be blamed for these either.


After he took over as Acting President, Ranil Wickremasinghe imposed a State of Emergency and a 24-hour curfew effective immediately (easy to declare but difficult to impose). I have heard of some violent outbreaks across Colombo. The demonstrators, paying scant attention to the curfew, are staying on the streets. Sri Lanka’s war crimes accused Chief of Defense Staff, Shavendra Silva has urged the Speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament to convene an urgent meeting of party leaders to resolve the turmoil gripping the country. Silva further urged the public to cooperate with the military and police until a new President is elected.


Silva is currently serving a travel ban from the US in relation to concerns of war crimes committed as he led Sri Lanka’s notorious 58th Division during the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers. During this period the Government oversaw a litany of human rights abuses, including summary executions; the shelling of hospitals and food lines; the use of white phosphorus against civilians; rape and sexual violence; and enforced disappearances.


The Buddhist clergy, who can control people’s emotions effectively and prevent widespread violence, has prepared a list of five civil activists as potential candidates for the next president to be put forward if politicians failed to reach a consensus on finding a replacement for Rajapaksa. “The future president should be chosen with a common agreement from all political parties and based on the national needs,” Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera told journalists.


A few final words: One wonders what the political scene in Sri Lanka would be, say a year from now. There is nothing as of now to bet on. But from what I observed in Asia, those political families who build up their stock take a long time to die out. I see that in India. The Nehru-Indira Gandhi family is in its death throes now, but it took almost 40 years since Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated to politically liquidate that family.


I see the same in Pakistan. Although they remain at the beck and call of Rawalpindi, the Bhutto family in Sindh and the Sharifs in Punjab have been carrying on since the 1970s. While Zulfikar Ali and Nawaz Sharif were the lead players in those families, the lesser ones are doing just fine. Who expected Bongbong Marcos would make a comeback after his father was systematically denigrated since the 1980s? He did, because the people of Ilocos Norte never abandoned the Marcos family.


In the same vein, I think the Rajapaksa family will survive this tornado. The main politician in the family (it is not the Terminator), Mahinda, has grown old and reports indicate he is suffering from dementia. However, the Rajapaksas are from Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. The family had successfully overcome the decades-old Colombo clique to emerge as the power. While Colombo runs a political machine, the Rajapaksas have the support of almost the entire southern Sri Lanka. This family is the primus inter pares in that area, having attended to the locals needs and demands over the years. The Bhuttos are the same.


I say this because I have already noticed Namal Rajapaksa, young son of Mahinda Rajapaksa, has begun issuing statements distancing himself and his dad, from Gotabaya and Basil. The game is on to reassemble the southern Sri Lankans to rally behind (not immediately, but once the crisis weakens) the family. Namal and Mahinda know what they are doing, because that is how powerful political families carry on in Asia when facing a severe setback.


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