Price of chauvinism: Sri Lankans soul-search as mass fury topples a prime minister
The path ahead in Sri Lanka will not be easy – for anyone. But the situation – widespread shortages of all essentials including medicines, food and fuel – have left many Sinhalese wondering if they were right in ignoring what tens of thousands of Tamils underwent for long years, writes M R Narayan Swamy for South Asia Monitor
It is a tragedy that dictators never seem to grasp the reality until it is too late. Sri Lanka’s once seemingly unshakable strongman, Mahinda Rajapaksa, proved it yet again as he resigned as Prime Minister on Monday but not before creating more trouble that further stoked the fire on the streets.
The reality is that the shelf life of the Rajapaksas has ended. The tens of thousands who have taken over the streets of the island nation appear to know it. But not President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Call it an irony. It was on May 19, 2009 that then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his younger brother and then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa crushed the Tamil Tigers militarily to end a quarter-century of insurgency.
Victory gone wrong
Basking in the glory of a victory that they did not know how to handle for Sri Lanka’s betterment, the Rajapaksas acted like some bygone Sinhalese kings who had finally put the Tamils in their place.
It was the start of a chauvinist script that is waiting to devour them now.
Just 10 days short of the 13th anniversary of their 2009 jubilation, Mahinda Rajapaksa has been unceremoniously forced to step down, just over a month after younger brother and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa too was ousted from the cabinet.
Minus the others in the Rajapaksa clan who have either resigned or quietly slipped out of the country, Sri Lanka is now left with one high-profile Rajapaksa – President Gotabaya.
The President was the one who told Basil Rajapaksa to resign though the latter was not for it. Basil has been reportedly sulking since then. The President had also urged Mahinda Rajapaksa to quit although the latter kept arguing that he would not.
But after telling a cabinet meeting only days ago that he was ready to bow out, Mahinda Rajapaksa had a seeming U-turn. On Sunday, after being booed by crowds in the Buddhist holy city of Anuradhapura, he warned – in a chilling message clearly directed at the crowds massed on the streets -- that violence would only beget violence.
As if on cue, his supporters, bussed to Colombo, met Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday and then physically assaulted scores of anti-government protesters who had been peacefully demonstrating outside the Prime Minister’s official residence and at the nearby Galle Face Green promenade.
Violence grips island
In a clear indication as to who was behind the savagery, the police largely remained a mute spectator and displayed none of the aggressiveness that was on display whenever the anti-government crowds showed belligerence.
Some 200 people were injured in the uncalled for violence. It sparked massive condemnation, both within and outside Sri Lanka. More important, it compelled a reluctant Mahinda Rajapaksa to finally quit, making the end of his political career.
The ugly violence orchestrated by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or Sri Lanka People’s Front) triggered counter-protests as people who saw it all on social media attacked SLPP offices and its leaders in an outburst of mayhem that mirrored the start of Arab Spring.
Many houses, including an ancestral one belonging to the Rajapaksa family, were set on fire. A ruling party MP fired at a crowd, killing one person, and ran to escape mob fury and shot himself dead. A policeman was also killed. So was the father of a SLPP leader. Vehicles belonging to SLPP leaders were pushed into a Colombo lake or torched. Some SLPP leaders were tied to electric poles and assaulted.
Once the Prime Minister exited, there was no logic for the cabinet to continue. This is what the President desires since he wants to form an all-party government in a desperate bid to tackle the country’s worst economic crisis.
Politically, this is possible. But it is unlikely that the masses who have been protesting across Sri Lanka since early April are going to allow – they want the President and all his aides also to exit.
The President may think that he will be – unlike his brothers Basil and Mahinda – more acceptable to countries like the US and India. That may or may not be true. But he is not detested as much on the streets, where the main slogan remains: “Go home, Gota!”
The protests that have engulfed Sri Lanka are not directed at a political party. It is aimed at the political class, the elites, who are accused of letting down Sri Lanka, reducing the once largely middle-class country into a nation of paupers with their disastrous economic policies.
The young on the streets want the system riddled with corruption and nepotism to be junked. It has no sympathy for the mass of MPs of any hue. This is why no political party has been able to hijack the raging movement. A senior opposition leader who visited the Colombo protest site on Monday had to hastily retreat in the face of people’s anger.
Yet, there was no trouble for leaders of the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front), a leftwing outfit that has been involved in two mass insurrections, when they showed up at the same Galle Face Green.
No rosy future
Many if not most of those demonstrating today may have once voted for the Rajapaksas. Today, the Rajapaksas has become a dirty word in much of Sri Lanka. Members of the clan who have bowed out or are still at the helm are seen now as Suhartos who made merry while Indonesia sank.
The path ahead in Sri Lanka will not be easy – for anyone. But the situation – widespread shortages of all essentials including medicines, food and fuel – have left many Sinhalese wondering if they were right in ignoring what tens of thousands of Tamils underwent for long years.
Today, many Sinhalese seem to repent what happened to the Tamils, particularly during the end stages of the war when the same Rajapaksas mercilessly killed thousands of innocent and non-combatant Tamils. But will this thinking change once the economic crisis gets over? Will the chauvinist mindset return? Or will there be a genuine ethnic hand-shaking in Sri Lanka?
(The author is a veteran journalist, author and Sri Lanka watcher. Views are personal)
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