The state of Sri Lanka – Part two: taking sides against the family

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The last post finished with the horror that was the last two weeks of the civil war in 2009. If you haven’t seen Channel 4’s excellent and harrowing documentary “The Killing Fields” then I thoroughly recommend it. If you are more of a left brain person then the UN have written a 214 page report which covers much of the same ground. The point is that both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE did some pretty terrible things. This post will explore both how they were allowed to happen and why they aren’t been investigated by explaining a little about how Sri Lanka works now.

The three brothers

The Joe Kennedy of Sri Lanka was a man named Don Alwin Rajapaksa. He was a founding member of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party and an MP from 1947 to 1965. He served as a junior cabinet minister twice but his greatest achievement was building a political dynasty who now run Sri Lanka. His brother served a state governor, one of his nephews is the current Sri Lankan Ambassador to the USA, another is the current Ambassador to Russia, his eldest son is the current speaker of parliament, his son-in-law is the Chief Executive of Sri Lankan Airways, and all in all something like 70 members of his extended family have senior roles in the government. But when talking about the Rajapaksa’s hold on the Sri Lankan Government, all these relatives are merely hangers on, the real power is held by Don Alwin’s three middle sons:


Mahinda RajapaksaMahinda has been the President of Sri Lanka since 2005. He is avuncular, very good at bread and circuses, and superb at winning elections. Allegedly, and in all probability to maintain plausible denyability, he is not personally as involved in some of the murkier aspects of the Sri Lankan state as his brothers, but this should not be taken as meaning he is in any way the most ethical brother. The Rajapaksa project: authoritarianism, nationalism, and militariation – particularly the latter – is very much a Mahinda project. Moreover, it is not at all clear how much the distance between Mahinda and the crueller elements of the state is real, and to what extent it is a product of the Sri Lankan media’s observance of the long-standing taboo about directly criticising the President; thus one invariably hears “an underling severely let down the President”, or “the President is clearly receiving some bad advice” as opposed to “Mahinda is a psycho”

Surprisingly, he used to be a human rights lawyer. Indeed he made a name for himself defending JVP activists against the government and taking on Habeas Corpus cases when no-one else would. An interesting effect of this is that he had, and to a certain extent still has, many personal friends in the world of human rights lawyers and Sri Lankan civil society. This hasn’t done them much good as -as you will see – being a friend of Mahinda offers you no protection, and arguably puts you at greater risk. Whilst opinions differ on the subject it appears Mahinda was only ever really interested in human rights work for the political leverage it could generate for him against the UNP.

Brothers notwithstanding, his control over the Sri Lankan state is considerable. He has personally taken responsibility for four ministerial departments: defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation (more important than it seems given the possibility for bribery), and highways (also more important than it seems for reasons that will become clear if you ever need to get anywhere in Sri Lanka in a hurry). These departments collectively control 70% of the Government of Sri Lanka’s budget, as well as giving him direct control over his brother’s departments. In addition as Commander in Chief of the Armed forces of an increasingly militarised country (the Army control much that isn’t the traditional role of the military – most recently taking direct control of Colombo’s municipal services) and as a man who has devoted his entire presidency to increasing the power of the executive (see this report on the effect of the President appointing everyone that matters in the judiciary) it is very clear that he is the only power that matters in Sri Lanka.

He is notoriously corrupt and nepotistic and, since his father’s death, he has been the primary driver behind the insertion of a Rajapaksa into every conceivable role. The classic example is the development of his home town of Hambantota – which has been showered with largesse despite its lack of economic or strategic need , including an international port and a test match cricket stadium – the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium. His son, Namal, is the local MP, and it was largely to help his electoral prospects that the stadium was built.

Mahinda has eliminated term limits and so could be in charge for a while to come. However the  constraints of being the president – particularly when it comes to overt corruption – may tempt Mahinda into a life as an éminence grise / Prescott style soap-box-occupier, provided he can manage his succession. He clearly is trying to nurture Namal as an heir apparent, and this is causing tension with the other brothers who would rather another brother – probably Basil – should come next. Meanwhile the SLFP old timers strongly resent the way a 25 year old who only passed the bar exam by cheating has been parachuted to the front of the queue and are chuntering threateningly.


Basil RajapaskeBasil is apparently the most intelligent, the most sensitive and the most moderate of the brothers. He does not have much competition when it comes to the second and third of these qualities and he is hardly what you would call a soft touch – as his iron rule of northern Sri Lanka will testify.

He is the minister for economic development which makes him the number two in the Sri Lankan Treasury, and since the number one is Mahinda this gives him a considerable say on economic policy. He was Mahinda’s election campaign manager in 2010 and is his currently the official Presidential advisor. One of the obsessions of Sri Lankan politics geeks is the extent to which Basil is the Sri Lankan Karl Rove: is he Mahinda’s brain, or merely his envoy, patsy, and – at some future point – fall guy? The linked question of course is whether he will eventually replace Mahinda, and what damage his attempts to do so will do to his fraternal relations.

But whilst the extent of Basil’s role in the south is entirely unclear, what is clear is that Basil rules the former LTTE held areas – the Vanni – almost single-handedly. He does this as chair of the PTF: the President’s Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security in the Northern Province. Although ostensibly not much more than a parliamentary sub-committee Mahinda has given it such wide ranging powers, and Basil has further encroached on others’ authority, that we are now at a stage where not a finger can be lifted in former Tiger-held areas without Basil personally authorising how high it can be lifted, and for what length of time it can remain raised. As a result much needed development work is drowning in micro-management and significant sums are simply being turned down if they don’t fit in with Basil’s plans. It is not yet clear what Basil’s plans are: some claim ethnic dilution with the best plots of land being parcelled off to Sinhalese newcomers. That isn’t proven and might be wide of the mark, but the creation of a heavily militarised north where all the most lucrative aspects of the tourist trade are run by the Army and Tamil political aspirations are strangled in red tape is clearly continuing apace.


Gota RajapaksaGota, as he is known to all, is a psychopath. In fact, one suicidally brave – if shrill  – journalist went even further saying it is his stupidity which leads to his insecurity which in turn leads to his brutality. Their article appears to have disappeared which is not surprising. In fact there is even less criticism of Gota than there is of Mahinda – for the very simple reason that if you criticize Gota you often end up dead or worse. Later, I am going to attempt to describe the rational equation that governs political violence and the attempt to control public space in Sri Lanka. What is clear is that that is only half the story, the other half is that Gota kills anyone who pisses him off. As a result there is a fair cannon of journalism at the moment criticising but not naming an individual close to the president – the reason is that that individual is Gota.

This is a classic example and is clearly about Gota. Whilst the tone is somewhat hysterical, this was not written by a ranting member of the diaspora but by a former SLFP minister and political fixer. The idea that Mahinda himself is scared of Gota and might one day come to the same end as Abel is actually quite common. Personally I find it quite unlikely given how tightly bound a unit the Rajapaksa family is and the fact that I’m pretty sure on some level Gota realises he needs his more acceptable and presentable brothers as a shield for his actions.

The other great Gota conspiracy theory is the extent to which Sri Lanka contains a “deep state” or a hidden parallel state run by Gota and his secret military hit squads. There is enough that is sinister and unsettling about Sri Lankan politics without engaging in conspiracy theory but what does seem to be the case is that the disappearances, torture and assassinations of dissidents and journalists do seem to be centrally co-ordinated in some way – and the finger of suspicion always seems to hover over Gota. And then there’s the small matter of everyone who criticizes him ending up dead. And the fact that he was in charge of the key brigades during the end of the civil war. Interestingly this may prove his undoing as Gota, like Basil, studied in America and, like Basil, took advantage of the opportunity to claim US citizenship while he was over there. So he may yet end his days in an American dock.

Gota’s actual role is often misunderstood. He is not actually the Defence Minister (that is Mahinda), nor is he the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (Mahinda again – constitutionally it has to be). Often referred to as the Defence Secretary, he is actually the Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the Defence Ministry – in other words (in theory) a politically neutral civil servant, albeit the most senior one in the department, with no direct executive or political power. And if you believe that then you’ll believe anything.

How it works

I may have painted the brothers as monsters and that is because they are. But that is not the full story of how they rule.  They are very very popular, particularly Mahinda, and this is not just because they buy votes with development funding (though they do) or because they are benefiting from a post conflict boost (though they are).  There are many populist demagogues of whom the same can be said. What has become known as “the Sri Lanka model” is slightly more interesting than that – and whilst none of it is entirely new it is at least unusual.

Sri Lanka controls the media very tightly, but one could make a case for saying that other countries – such as Syria or pre-Tahrir Egypt – control their media far more tightly. Yet Sri Lanka has a far more favourable domestic press than Syria or pre-Tahrir Egypt. Fear and intimidation is part of it, nationalist populism another part, and apathy and conditioning born of the effectiveness of the program a considerable part. But for me the key is that they have a very successful narrative: that they and everyone else who agrees with them represents the people and everyone else represents the elite. They have been helped by the fact that there is a kernel of truth to this. With some far-sighted exceptions most who have raised the issue of free speech have not made much of an effort to engage with grassroots Sri Lankans; and most Sri Lankans have similarly not been far sighted enough to draw the line between civic human rights and economic human rights (although interestingly the new pension bill might be bridging that gap).

Managing the balance necessary to preserve this narrative is a matter of some skill: one must be brutal enough to cower your critics into silence but not so brutal as to make them feel they have nothing to lose or alienate the public. No one does this as well as Sri Lanka and that is why whilst there are regimes far more brutal than the Rajapaksas I’m not sure there are any so insidious. Brutal regimes who smash opponents are two a penny – what makes Sri Lanka unusual is the artistry and subtlety of its brutality. I fear this makes them worse rather than better: absolutist regimes leave people nowhere to go except into open revolt, and so rarely stand the test of time. The Sri Lankan model could prove more durable.

It also means that Sri Lanka is a country beset by shades of grey. In the same way that Sri Lanka is not a dictatorship because the Rajapaksas don’t need it to be, so it is not a country that prohibits free speech because it doesn’t have to. But while one can speak out, one needs to exercise great care when doing so and consider a delicate equation. To look at that equation, it is worth looking at the time someone – arguably the state – got it wrong, and at arguably the most extraordinary editorial any newspaper has ever published:

Lasantha Wickrematunge

In the mid 1980s two of the most fearsome human rights lawyers in Sri Lanka were Mahinda Rajapaksa and Lasantha Wickrematunge. They took the UNP government to court countless times over their treatment of JVP activists and they became firm friends as they did so. As Mahinda’s political career took off Lasantha – also an SLFP activist in his youth – went into journalism and often found himself criticising his former friend.

Lasantha ended up editing the Sunday Leader with his brother Lal. Refusing to compromise on the truth, the Sunday Leader became a constant thorn in the government’s side – laying bare corruption and nepotism and, most damagingly of all, doing what no other newspaper would dare and telling the truth about the war with the LTTE. Anti-tank shells were fired into Lasantha’s house, it was sprayed with machine gun fire, he was assaulted twice, but still he did not stop. Yet throughout Lasantha and Mahinda remained firm friends, in the word’s of the former:

“Hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days”

According to Lasantha himself this friendship took a break in January of 2006 when Mahinda rang him saying, “F**k your mother, you son of a bloody whore! I will finish you! I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapaksa is. You watch what I will do to you!” It turned out Mahinda was angry about an article in the Morning Leader about the first lady which simply didn’t exist. Lasantha’s response was to say “Mahinda, just because you are President, do not talk in that threatening way. We don’t get intimidated by threats. Tell us what it is we are supposed to have written.” This did not calm the irate President who continued, “You are not scared! I will show you what it is to be scared. I will rest only once I have destroyed you. You wait and see. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapakse is.” Lasantha’s response was the same as always: to publish the entire exchange in the newspaper, and their relationship hit rock bottom.

Yet they made up again within the year and continued tearing chunks out of each other in public and drinking together in private. Then in January of 2009 four motorbikes surrounded Lasantha’s car as he was on his way to work and four hitmen shot him dead. The next day the Leader published this editorial that Lasantha had written for publication in the event of his assasination, seemingly only days before. The first few paragraphs will give you goosebumps:

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”

And the rest is just as good.

There was outrage in response to his death, and further outrage in response to the 34 inconclusive attempts to open an investigation into it. There was talk that the eccentric SLFP MP Mervyn Silva (a man largely famous for tying civil servants to mango trees to “discipline them” and appearing on reality tv to swear at the judges) had admitted to his murder. Even today the controversy has not gone away. In a country where a BBC journalist was murdered with scarcely an eyelid batted, Lasantha’s killing still casts a long shadow.

The formula

Assassinations are of course just the tip of an iceberg of intimidation which starts with the sort of low level stuff I imagine will start appearing in the comments section of this piece, and goes through threatening phone calls, to midnight home visits, to abduction and torture. But the principle is that the state has to weigh up on the one hand how famous and/or protected the target is and thus how much of a stink they will cause dead. They then have to weigh up how vocal and – even more importantly – effective they are in their criticism and thus how much of a stink they are causing alive. If your killing causes more fuss than the things you say do then you live.

With Lasantha Wickrematunge it appears that they may have got the calculation wrong. It may be that his brilliant posthumous editorial severely increased the international news value of his death. It may be that an important extra factor to consider was Lasantha’s uniqueness: whilst there were other vocal critics of the Government no-one was really doing what the Leader was doing in highlighting the government’s conduct of the Civil War and, much as his brother Lal claimed that Lasantha’s death would only make them bolder, it has (understandably) resulted in the Leader moderating its tone. So the government may have considered the heat worth it to silence an irreplaceable critic.

And it may be of course that this was not a rational decision. Personal feelings of betrayal may have caused the President to have his Thomas à Becket moment. Or he may have angered Gota more than usual (Gota was suing him for libel over his coverage of the war at the time). Either way it could have caused a serious problem for the government – had there been any opposition.

The (non) opposition

The UNP are falling apart. Two times PM and former Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe is still leader despite being widely seen as unelectable. He has survived repeated leadership challenges and has changed his party’s rules to make himself more secure – as a result the party is widely seen as marching determinedly into the political wilderness. Meanwhile his party under Sajith Premadasa, the son of the former President, are in open revolt – a revolt no doubt in part stoked up from behind the scenes by the SLFP’s agents.

But the UNP do at least have a coherent identity – even if it is about to split into two. That puts them head and shoulders above most other opposition parties. The choice at the last Presidential election was not scintillating: on the one hand there was the war criminal/hero, autocrat, and architect of the civil war Mahinda Rajapaksa and on the other was err… the war criminal/hero, autocrat, and architect of the civil war Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka. Yet virtually every party fell into the trap of supporting one or t’other.

Those that backed Fonseka found themselves stranded when the coalition imploded after his defeat and arrest on war crimes charges just before the Parliamentary election (whilst clearly politically motivated this move could yet prove the Rajapaksa’s undoing – containing as it does the admission war crimes took place, that they should and can be prosecuted, and that the higher echelons of the command structure were involved). Those that backed Rajapaksa found themselves even more compromised – with the result that some of the strongest critics of the government: the JVP and the socialist SSP are now ensconced in ministerial posts and so silenced.

In the north there is a mixed picture. The TNA was the Sinn Fein to the LTTE’s IRA; with the LTTE gone it initially seemed leaderless and pointless and on its way towards oblivion. Yet despite the best efforts of the government the TNA managed a remarkable recovery and has now emerged as the genuine and independent voice of the majority of the Tamil north. That said what they haven’t yet done is worked out what they now stand for.

Meanwhile all executive power is exercised through Basil and the PTF or Gota and the military – but as they are loathed they are unable to put down political roots. The government’s solution is to turn to its Tamil allies: those members of the LTTE who rebelled and joined to the governmental side towards the latter stages of the war. There is the TVMP of Karuna (Colonel Karuna Amman – real name Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) whose split from the LTTE delivered the east to the Government, and the EPDP of Douglas Devananda. The problem with their groups is that they are viewed as war criminals and traitors by both sides – a composite of all the sins of the LTTE and all the sins of the Sri Lankan Government. That the Sri Lankan government chooses for the moment to defend them, and thus by extension the LTTE, may eventually come back to bite them; in the meantime it does nothing for their popularity. And so the TVMP and EPDP attempt to control the population the way the LTTE did – through fear. But with the LTTE and all associated with them so reviled and discredited in Tamil eyes (if not yet all of the diaspora, who haven’t quite caught up) that doesn’t really fly either.

Depressed? You should be. Here’s Kumar Sangakkara singing the backstreet boys. Really:



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