Enter Gota | Sunday Observer

Enter Gota

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the third Roman Emperor. He was popularly known among his Roman subjects by the nickname Caligula.

The first seven months of his reign was peaceful, and he was hailed as a moderate and generous leader. But in the following years, Caligula became a law unto himself. The entire Roman treasury was his largesse and within one year of his reign, he had siphoned off from state coffers monies to the tune of 2,700,000,000 Roman Sersitus – or 50 percent of total state revenue.

When Roman subjects who were struggling to make a living failed to pay tax unto Caesar, they were mercilessly liquidated. The nobility was strongly encouraged to form gambling addictions.

Adding insult to injury the lands of the poor were expropriated and vested with members of the Emperor’s family. If ever there were enterprising businessmen, their wealth and property were craftily vested in Caligula or his near and dear ones.

Caligula’s whims and fancies swiftly became the law of the land and the judiciary was brought under his total control. The story goes that compared to his Roman subjects, the Emperor Caligula’s horses were far better off.

The Emperor adorned his horses with gold, gems, pearls and ivory tusks and other jewellery. Horse-shoes were forged in gold and gold was added to the beasts’ feed to make their coat shine a rich shine. In the end, the Horse Incitatus was appointed an Ambassador of the Roman Empire, of equivalent prominence of a Roman Senator.

For the Romans, Caligula heralded a dark time.

If this article was written three years ago, the story of state capture of

Rome by Caligula would have resonated strongly with Sri Lanka’s own reality at the time. The regime of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also perpetuated a type of darkness in the country by allowing his family to capture the entire machinery of state and bend it to their will. Rajapaksa was an emperor in his own right, tearing down democratic institution after institution; The State was Mahinda Rajapaksa. And Mahinda Rajapaksa was the State.

The Emperor Caligula’s first priority was to drive the Romans fanatic with patriotism. He set himself up as a divine entity and made the people believe that he was the almighty through constant brainwashing and a publicity blitz. His kindred were showered with riches and titles. Driven by paranoia, Caligula believed that the whole world was his enemy conspiring to destroy him and insisted that it was the duty of his countrymen to protect him.

Now observe the parallels. Three years ago, the Sri Lankan treasury was entirely commandeered and controlled by the Rajapaksa family. According to one budget analysis, some 60% of the Government’s total budget was controlled by the Ministries of Economic Development and Defence – both run by President Rajapaksa’s siblings.

Some 200 members of the extended Rajapaksa and Wickremasinghe families – many of them barely qualified to hold office and run publicly owned institutions - were granted Government positions. The regime undertook a multitude of vanity projects, borrowing recklessly to build ghost airports, harbours, cricket stadiums and convention halls in its sparsely populated ‘kingdom’ of Hambantota. Songs were sung about the “maharajano” even as the former President brought his eldest son into politics and made him a de facto senior minister. Another son was sent off to join the Navy where he virtually became de facto commander of the country’s sea-borne force.

The third and last son studied to become an astronaut and was put in charge of Sri Lanka’s non-existent ‘space programme’. The family stamped the Rajapaksa name on every school, airport and roadway possible.

Even as the Rajapaksa regime heaped tax upon tax on the citizenry as the country dived deeper and deeper into a debt crisis, the former President reared exotic macaws in the gardens of the President’s House and his brother Gotabhaya’s official residence featured massive salt-water shark tanks and a pet elephant, all maintained by armed forces personnel. The Rajapaksa sons made drag races official and raced luxury cars around the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, ignoring an outcry by the Sangha.

The opulence and excess of the former ruling family rubbed salt in the wounds of ordinary Sri Lankans who were struggling to finance the Rajapaksa regime’s spending – largely on themselves, but the chest-beating about Western conspiracies kept the public largely sympathetic until November 2014, when the tide started to turn when chinks appeared in the Rajapaksa armour for the first time in nearly a decade.

The January 2015 election that ousted the Rajapaksa regime therefore was no ordinary thing. For nearly a decade, the name ‘Rajapaksa’ had resonated in every corner of this island nation. Still, a small band of dreamers, united in the idea of democracy and freedom, prevailed over a juggernaut that was propelling Sri Lanka towards full-fledged autocracy.

Three years later, the Emperor returns wearing new clothes. The Rajapaksa bandwagon seeks to shed its corrupt image – buoyed by the Government’s own failure to prosecute members of the former administration over the past three years – and pick up where it left off. It is counting on public memory about its excess and brutality being short.

For years during his presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa shadow-boxed senior members of his party and won every round.

He was in no way prepared for the knock-out blow he would receive in November 2014, when in the supreme arrogance of power, he declared elections nearly two years early, never suspecting that the disgruntlement within the ranks of his party was set to explode and tear his world apart. The memory of that implosion must still haunt the former President, but the allure of power is greater.

This time, he will win power even by using his brother to do it. This time too, the Rajapaksas are stepping into the presidential election fray very early, with the country at least 18 months away from the next poll. The Rajapaksas believe that the country is ready for the return of the family; so they have begun construction on the next phase of the dynastic project.

For the moment, the Rajapaksa faction looks spoilt for choice in terms of picking a candidate – part of the JO wants elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa, the ultra-nationalist sections prefer a Gotabhaya candidacy – and there are reports swirling that Basil Rajapaksa – architect of the Pohottuwa miracle in the February local Government poll – is also ready to throw his hat in the ring.

But one thing is clear, Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be President for a third time, barring a change of the constitution. His target at the next election is securing the position of Prime Minister. The presidency is now Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s dream. The Shangri-La Viyathmaga convention makes that part clear. It is the right of any citizen to harbour dreams of winning thePresidency, and the former Defence Secretary is no different. But the citizenry must be eternally vigilant about presidential aspirants, having learnt bitter lessons in the past.

And in the case of the man who is currently vying to be Sri Lanka’s next Executive President, his recent past tells a terrifying story; and his success could herald an even more terrifying future.

Who is Gotabhaya Rajapaksa?

He is the Chairman of the Urban Development Authority that forcibly evicted thousands of legal residents of the capital Colombo to achieve his dream of a beautiful Colombo. This Colombo would only serve the country’s upper middle classes, while it threatened to wipe away the livelihoods of thousands of the city’s poorest residents. He promised them palaces in the sky in return for evacuating them under armed guard; they ended up in chicken coops, housed by the UDA in barely 400 sq.ft apartments.

Those who resisted the evacuation felt the strong arm of the law and the lack of sympathy from the judiciary, by then run by Chief Justice Mohan Peiris.

This is the ‘Viyathmaga’ way to nation-building. For people at the receiving end of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s nation building policies, it could well be, as Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said this week – a ‘Vipathmaga’ or tragic path.

The ‘Viyathmaga’ Chairman’s idea of lawfulness has proved remarkably fluid in the past. The former regime believed it was lawful to court martial its own Army Commander on the charge of engaging in political activity, through a flawed judicial process – all for the crime of daring to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa for the Presidency in 2010. This same lawfulness unabashedly permits an incumbent Defence Secretary to grace the opening of a UPFA candidate’s election campaign as chief guest, even though such action is prohibited by the Establishment Code which governs the conduct of public servants.

This is doubly important in the case of ministry secretaries, who as chief accounting officers of their respective ministries must ensure state property is not abused during election season. But back then, since the Rajapaksas were the law, for them, the law was meant to be broken.

Yesterday’s architects of ‘white van’ terror, scribe abductions and attacks; men who shrieked “who is Lasantha?” on international television after the assassination of one of Sri Lanka’s most senior journalists; those who stood mute while villagers protesting for water and fishermen begging for lower fuel prices were shot in cold blood; and those who fanned the flames of racism and presided over the worst communal riot since 1983 in Aluthgama – these are the ‘intellectual’ technocrats of tomorrow.

If the entry of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in the 2020 Presidential fray adequately galvanizes liberals and moderates, the Sri Lankan electorate will go down in history for the second time in five years for defeating the forces of tyranny through the ballot box.

But if the liberal project fails, tomorrow will become the stuff of nightmares. 

Comments

This same Sunday Observer was writing daily articles praising the Rajapakse family when they were in power.Double face of Sri Lankan journalism

This political editor has gone nuts. Media if impartial should never stoop to this level to assassinate the character of anyone.

There were a number of thought came to my mind reading 'Enter Gota' by Observer Political Editor: (1) The writer fears the entry of Gota than Mahinda. If so, to prevent Gota's entry, the most practical move the writer's bosses in the government should do is to amend 19A of the Constitution to facilitate Mahinda to contest the 2019 Presidential Election. (2) If the Rajapaksas were disgusting elements for the masses of the preople in Sri Lanka, I, who live in the United States, wondered how could a political organization representing the 'Pohottuwa' within a year's existence captured 75% of the country's local government bodies obtaining a nationwide poll of 43%. (3) I worked for the US Department of State for well over 25 years in its Foreign Service cadre as its Political-Research-Analyst at the US Mission in Colombo, and I have some knowledge how Washington manipulate politics in Third World nations. Sri Lanka obviously was succumbed to that Washington manipulation in February 2015. (4) If the Sirisena-Ranil administration has done, so far, for the betterment of the masses the most reasonable test could be to hold the Provincial Council elections. (5) According to the political editor's analyses, the masses were so disgusted with the Rajapaksas they roundly defeated them in 2015. What explanation could be given to as to how the same masses overwhelmingly gave 43% of the nationwide endorsement to Rajapaks-led Pohottuwa and gave 75% of the local government bodies? This is Daya Gamage writing from the United States of America.

Same excrete, different smell. That's all. You are talking taxes? Who isn't been taxed now? You haven't done your research correctly. Go back to the basics.

I was certain you would not publish my comment on the report by your "Political Editor" since it was so defamatory and hateful, not in keeping with journalism and reporting by a National Newspaper of a country. Shame on you, a newspaper such as the "Sunday Observer".