We fear Gotabaya | Sunday Observer

We fear Gotabaya

10 November, 2019

A Series of policy dialogues between presidential candidates was a unique feature of the 2019 presidential election season. These are not high pressure debates that make or break candidates in the primary and general election cycles in the US. But they provided brief glimpses into a candidate’s thinking outside the fever-pitch of election rallies and scripted political events.

In each one of these, there has been a notable absentee.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa claims work interests him more than talk. His handlers may fear exposing the candidate to independent scrutiny, lest the image of the benevolent disciplinarian, carefully built up through months of public relations planning, falls apart. Lest the electorate remembers the defence secretary’s frenzied screaming into the BBC cameras – “I will hang him”. Or witnesses the sudden flash of anger captured on cameras in Polonnaruwa, when the candidate’s speech was interrupted at the rally, to usher UNP defector Wasantha Senanayake.

The truth is that these absences are not due to a lack of oratory or presentation skills by the SLPP candidate. We believe it is emblematic of the disdain with which Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his fellow travellers treat the democratic process.

This past week, as the presidential election campaign winds down, a picture is emerging of the future under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rule.

A young woman with Down syndrome was raped five times inside a bus that ferried people to a SLPP rally in Kegalle. Terrified policemen failed to subject the woman for medical testing or sought to obtain a statement from her about the incident. Her family is reportedly under pressure to drop the complaint. Three police officers in Kegalle have been interdicted for actions that might have compromised an investigation into this heinous crime.

A monk in the Matale District was threatened with death by a SLPP Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman for refusing to attend a rally to support Rajapaksa. A video featuring Nawalapitiya SLPP strongman Mahindananda Aluthgamage warning the Muslim community in the Kandy District that they would have to ensure Rajapaksa wins 25% of the Muslim vote in the region has been widely circulated. “If you want us to be able to fight for you, get us 25%” the popular politician told community leaders.

The vote for us or else doctrine could have a devastating impact. Terrified of reprisals, minority communities may stay away from the poll to ensure specific villages are not targeted in the aftermath of the election. In the North, sudden roadblocks in the Mullaitivu Districts have been set up by the military, raising fears about whether attempts were being made to intimidate voters ahead of Saturday’s vote.

The signs are unmistakable. On November 16, Sri Lanka is facing a make or break election. A wrong choice at this election will send the country hurtling towards authoritarianism and iron fisted rule. Elsewhere in this edition, multiple columnists and political scientists speak of the fatality of this presidential election. In some ways, the stakes of this election are even higher than in the last.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was marked by three unique features: Family bandysim, corruption and brutality.

The Rajapaksa standing for election this time, was the defence secretary under whose watch journalists were killed and abducted and citizens exercising their democratic right to protest were shot to death. Under his watch, the UDA forcibly evicted thousands of residents from Colombo, many of them were overnight turned out of homes they had lived in, to make way for 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.

To Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s die-hard followers, none of this matters. His alleged violent rule, is what makes him their champion. The man of action rather than political compromise and policy discourse.

This is indeed a curious country. While societies across the world are clamouring for greater freedoms and democracy, a significant segment of our electorate appears willing to gladly surrender those rights. The barter is said to be development for freedom. Give up freedoms of minorities, the down trodden, and hopefully not yours, for economic prosperity. In exchange the Rajapaksas will build highways, ports, airports and towers of lotus.

But as journalists, we live and die by our right to free expression. The past five years, wrought with disappointment, frustration and anger at the Government that promised change though it was, opened up a space for journalists to work without fear, after a decade of watching colleagues fall or flee for the crime of reporting. Elsewhere in this edition, the daughter of Lasantha Wickrematunge makes a poignant appeal, in which she charges that only “cowards meet words with bloodshed.” Too many times in this country, and under too many regimes, our words have been met with violence. Enough times for the media fraternity to stand up and say ‘never again’.

For nearly five years, this newspaper has strove to push for justice and accountability for crimes against journalists. Our in-depth investigations into the modus operandi of the attackers, leaves little doubt about what the stakes are at this election– for us as media practitioners – and for the fate of democracy in this country. The masks are effective, but transparent. Yesterday’s architects of white van terror, are the intellectual technocrats of today. If the centre does not hold at Saturday’s election, tomorrow will become the stuff of nightmares.

In this edition of the Sunday Observer, our last before Sri Lanka goes to the polls next Saturday to elect its seventh executive president, this newspaper appeals to its readers to make the right choice. Vote to keep the lights on in Asia’s oldest democracy. Vote to keep the journalists in this newsroom and newsrooms across the country who are trying to be truth-tellers, safe from harm.

There are 35 candidates on the November 16 ballot paper, but a presidential election is ultimately a choice between two candidates.

One of them terrifies us.