Much before Gotabaya Rajapaksa took power in Sri Lanka as its new President, and promptly named his elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister, Indian journalist Apratim Mukarji saw the Rajapaksas returning to office and warned that this would nullify the democratic rights won by the people during the predecessor regime; however inept it may have been. The first part of Mukarji’s prophecy has been proved correct.
The world may have hoped that the military victory over the LTTE in May 2009 would finally mark the end of a torturous politics that left tens of thousands dead and lead to a slow process of reconciliation amid the festering ethnic and other social fractures. Not only did it not happen but hardliners in the majority Sinhalese community, from where the Rajapaksas draw their strength, found new targets in the Muslim and Christian minorities, needlessly prolonging Sri Lanka’s internal strife. And both in and out of power, the Rajapaksas acted like Sinhalese, not Sri Lankan, politicians. Equally, they antagonised India.
Mukarji was first posted in Colombo as a journalist in 1990, by when the IPKF adventure had ended on a bloody nose for India. Like most foreign journalists he fell in love with Sri Lanka’s God-given beauty. After authoring two books on the island nation, Mukarji again visited Sri Lanka in 2017, years after the Tamil Tigers had been crushed, and this time left “with a mind over-burdened with memories of the follies piled up by the (country’s) leadership”. So, his third book on Sri Lanka is far more critical than what he would have wished it to be.
Those who follow Sri Lanka have come to realise that there is a seemingly pathological inability by the Sinhalese political leadership to treat the Tamils as equal partners. To that extent, the majoritarian outlook the Rajapaksas display brazenly is only a continuation of a process that began long ago. The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the annihilation of its leadership under the Rajapaksas were portrayed as a victory of the Sinhalese over the Tamils. Anyone speaking for the Tamil community was branded as a traitor. “Tolerance, not to speak of greater tolerance, appears to be a non-existent virtue of the Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism.”
But, the Rajapaksa rule was different from all previous regimes in Sri Lanka. The wiping out of the LTTE gave President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who presided over the brutal war against the Tigers until the end – as well as other family members a halo they would have otherwise never earned in their political career. During the decade Mahinda was the President (until 2015), Mukarji says, he tried his best to encroach upon Tamil and Muslim-majority regions by erecting Buddha statues and temples with hardly any Buddhists in the vicinity, besides changing Tamil names of villages to Sinhalese. “War Heroes” – an euphemism for military officials charged with committing atrocities on Tamils towards the end of the war against the LTTE – were placed beyond any scrutiny. Ditto for those involved in extra-judicial killings. Interestingly, Mukarji underlines, the military did not “celebrate” its two equally bloody victories over the Leftist JVP in the ’70s and ’90s; was it because both the victors and the defeated then were Sinhalese?
According to the book, post-LTTE peace time has only brought about cosmetic changes in the former war zone. While infrastructure is back and life seemingly looks normal in Jaffna and other parts of the northeast, badly needed economic advancement has not taken place despite many promises. This has led to numerous “honour” suicide deaths by traders in particular who borrowed heavily from banks assuming they would soon see prosperity but were disappointed and could not replay the money.
The dramatic defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 Presidential election amid internal fissures in his party catapulted Maithripala Sirisena to Presidency with Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. It was an uneasy coalition but led to the State dismantling some of its suffocating repressive measures. But, the bonhomie between the two leaders, coming from divergent backgrounds, did not last long. It was clear to Mukarji by the summer of 2018 that the Rajapaksas were back on the road to power. “And in case this actually happened, the gains of Sri Lankan democracy in the last three years might well be lost.” These words were written a long time before Gotabaya was elected the President and named his brother Mahinda (who has had two stints in the top post and cannot go for a third term) as the Prime Minister, marking the return of the Rajapaksa clan – “entrenched demons”, as the author brands them – to the helm.
(The reviewer is a long-term Sri Lanka watcher and author of three books on the subject, including the only biography of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran.)
Title: Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka
Author: Apratim Mukarji
Pages: 214 plus
Price: Rs 850