When the Rajapaksas last went home

The cost of getting rid of despots only goes up

Enter Sirisena

It was around six in the evening. Friendship Villa in the South Eastern University was full of activity. As I made my way through the corridor in search ofdrinking water, a batch mate from Batticaloa beamed at me. He was shaking with excitement. Sinhalese students could be heard shouting from their rooms. I soon came to know the cause of all the commotion: the opposition had unveiled Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate.

By the time I logged into facebook a little later, the Batticaloa friend had sent requests inviting all of us to ‘like’ Sirisena’s facebook page. Another university friend, popular for his hilarious quips on social media, had shared the photograph of Sirisena getting out of his car for the press conference with the caption ‘just in case’. A tweet read ‘by God, now there is a chance’.

Photo via: Groundviews

A week ago Mahinda Rajapaksa was assured of victory. No one gave the opposition a chance. Experts penned article after article trashing the UNP and Ranil Wickremasinghe. Suddenly, the tables had turned.

Contrary to popular belief, the electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa became a possibility in the minds of many Sri Lankans from the moment Sirisena announced his challenge.

Jumping Olympics

As the people of Sri Lanka geared up for a historic election, their representatives in governing bodies developed a keen interest in ‘jumping’. So much so that in the final weeks of campaign it was a full blown circus. It was hard to keep track of cross-overs.

The Man of the Match award should surely go to Amir Ali, the ex-Eastern Provincial Councillor. Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Ali to the national list seat previously held by A. H. M. Azwer, the UPFA’s official court jester, possibly with the hope of cashing in on Ali’s eastern vote base. Three weeks later Ali, along with Rishad Bathuideen jumped ship, shattering Rajapaksa’s two-thirds majority in the process. Rauf Hakeem was some way off the pace.

Election Day

There was no doubt that Tamils would vote for Sirisena. The lingering question was how many would vote. If Rajapaksa was to be defeated minorities needed to vote in large numbers. My fears of low voter turn-out ceased as early as 7.15 am on election day.

I woke up to the sound of my step mother rushing through the gate (it makes a thundering noise). She was back from the polling centre. This was the first time she had exercised her franchise in almost twenty years. Even though she was reading the newspapers rather keenly in the lead up to the election, I dismissed it as old-age boredom. No one in the family expect her to vote this time. I was pleasantly surprised by her enthusiasm. If she — the embodiment of political apathy — was so bent on seeing the back of Mahinda … there was certainly hope.

I accompanied my sister to the polling centre — my sister’s school, which was only a few hundred meters away from home. Mannar folk were out in their numbers. A sizable queue confronted us as we made our way through the entrance.

As we waited in the queue, an elderly lady slowly made her way in the direction of the booth. In a loud voice, she declared her intention to vote despite not possessing identification. We came to know that she was in her late eighties when she showed her NIC number, scribbled on a piece of paper beneath her name, to an independent monitor.

By midday, election officers from Tamil areas confirmed 50% turnout. Who said Tamils did not care who won?

A New Dawn

During the exodus of ’95 batteries were in short supply. Listening to news meant pedaling your socks off: radios were powered up using bicycle dynamos. I recalled this bit of history as I dusted up our old radio and tuned into Sooriyan FM, a Tamil radio station of dwindling repute. My laptop was out of service and the house did not have a television. The ancient Sanyo radio was the last resort.

The time was nine o’clock and postal voting results were expected to flow in soon. I had two dozen mosquitoes for company. For the next nine hours I followed the results on Twitter (for commentary — via my phone) and
Sooriyan FM (for breaking results).

Ratnapura postal voting was the first result announced. It was an electorate that had voted for Rajapaksa, and UPFA, in overwhelming numbers in the past elections. Even though Sirisena lost, the margin of defeat was encouraging. More results slowly followed. To my great annoyance, Sooriyan FM kept playing love-failure songs in between.

It was Killinochi that first propelled Sirisena into the lead — a lead that Rajapaksa would often threaten but never assail right till the end. Killinochi results was also a sign of things to come. Rajapaksa’s small gains in the southern electorates would be wiped out in style, time and again, by minority votes. The most telling of such blows was delivered by the upcountry Tamils, who thrashed Rajapaksa by a whopping hundred thousand votes.

Around 3.30 am as Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother Gotabhaya and Chief Justice Mohan Pieris sipped soup and mulled over the possibilities of staging a military coup, I received a text message from a friend in Colombo:

“Pres. Secretariat is getting ready to welcome new president machan. Fuck yes.”

On Twitter and Facebook others began calling the election.

At around six in the morning news broke out that Rajapaksa had vacated the Temple Trees following a discussion with Ranil.

I shut my eyes in a bid to hold back tears.

The fog of fear and repression that held sway over the country for a decade was slowly lifting, the filth of Rajapaksa was already washing away.

End Note

The message I received reflects the kind of raw emotion many of us felt on that night. The problem with political analysts is that they reduce politics to the abstract — to jargon, infographics and meaningless discussion of numbers. They talk of politics as though it takes place in a vacuum. In doing so, they undermine human agency and the enormous sacrifices of ordinary people that are the foundations of political change.

Much of the commentary on Sri Lanka’s extra-ordinary moment has not been any different. For example, a professor of law writing in the New York Times declared that ‘Sri Lankans shocked themselves’ by defeating Rajapaksa.

Political change is a matter of desire, more than anything. “How badly people wanted change?” is a far more appropriate question than “how many wanted change?”. Sirisena’s victory stands testament to this. It was possible only because people like my mother and the elderly lady wanted a new direction for the country.

This is the story of Sri Lanka’s ‘Rainbow Revolution’ as I know it.

[Originally published on February 1, 2015, a month after Maithripala Sirisena’s victory, as a blog entry]

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