by Namini Wijedasa
He tried to talk peace. When it failed, he gave leadership to a military campaign that defeated one of the most organised, ruthless, thriving and criminal terrorist organisations in the world. Not everyone is happy at the manner in which the battle was conducted. Allegations of war crimes keep dogging his footsteps, and those of his military. But Mahinda Rajapaksa is today a hero to millions of Sri Lankans that will forgive him anything — even barefaced nepotism and the obvious erosion of their civil liberties.
Pic courtesy of: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times
On November 19, Mahinda Rajapaksa will take oaths for his second term as president. The ostentatious ceremony that is planned will mark an end to a first term that was such a complex mix of good and bad that it is impossible conclude whether the former outweighs the latter.
As a politician, Rajapaksa has proved himself astute, suave, focused, and strategic. He could charm the whiskers off a cat. Judging by the manner in which he manoeuvred his way to the top (nobody had imagined that he would one day be president and a war-winning one at that), Machiavelli isn’t a patch on him. Once he got there, he gathered his family around him like a protective cloak and decimated the opposition with a cunning that has left political analysts reeling. Sri Lanka no longer has a viable opposition.
The pluses of President Rajapaksa’s first term are well documented, not least his defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers facilitated his victory over Ranil Wickremesinghe at the 2005 presidential election by instigating a boycott of the poll in the North and East. It was a move Velupillai Prabhakaran lived — and later died — to regret.
President Rajapaksa made his brother, Gotabhaya, his defence secretary, injected resources into the military like never before, gathered some efficient commanders around him, fended off international criticism and obliterated the LTTE. For the first time in thirty years, the sceptre of the suicide bomb was gone.
But the final stages of the war also left with it burning questions about civilian casualties caused by the use of heavy weaponry. While the LTTE had inarguably directed heavy weapons against advancing troops, the military maintained they were not firing artillery or mortar shells into areas with civilian populations — particularly the designated ‘no fire’ zones.
The end of the war then threw up new challenges. The government’s treatment of the Tamil displaced came into question. The president was criticised for incarcerating thousands of civilians in ‘concentration camps’; of blocking media and international aid organisations from these camps; and of an uncaring attitude towards Tamils. For many months, the government was on collision course with NGOs, global media, aid organisations and the West.
Today, however, the majority of displaced Tamils have been returned to the North and East and only a few thousand remain in camps. There is much to be done. De-mining is still ongoing; local economies are yet to be resuscitated; the displaced may have been taken to their villages but many live in rudimentary housing while others have none; schools, hospitals, transport, road networks and other government institutions have to be rebuilt; NGOs, aid organisations and even multilateral agencies continue to face inexplicable access restrictions; and the military must get out and leave civil administration to civilians.
The North is particularly far from returning to its pre-war past or from matching development in the South. And the funds are not enough. Still, nobody said it would be easy to rebuild a country after 30 years of war.
There is no discussion today on sharing power with Tamils or other minorities. President Rajapaksa staged an elaborate show of an All Party Representatives Conference and then dumped all reports pertaining to devolution in the proverbial dustbin. Critics maintain that the president has still not won the hearts and minds of Tamils in the North. It is an area he must work on.
One of the hallmarks of President Rajapaksa’s post-war development plan is the rebuilding of infrastructure. Roads are being reconstructed in the North and East at a speed not witnessed in recent times. Bridges are whole again, causeways are replacing ferries and many government institutions, including police stations, in those areas are housed in new buildings. Many tertiary roads are now made of concrete. Agriculture has taken off, there is no restriction on fishing, high security zones in limited areas are dismantled and there is a promise that checkpoints will be removed.
In other parts of the country, projects that were blocked for years are near completion or well on their way. The Upper Kotmale Hydro Power Project and the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant are among them. An airport will come up at Mattala and Hambantota has a new port. Highways are being built and railway tracks extended. Cities in all parts of the country are getting facelifts. Even Moneragala, commented a friend recently, is like Nugegoda. There are gleaming tarred roads now in Ampara, Hambantota, Moneragala and Badulla, to name a few. There is a tunnel at Ramboda and roads in Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Mahiyangana, Puttalam and Anuradhapura are also being rehabilitated.
But while there is heavy investment in physical infrastructure, the money injected into social infrastructure is low. The health and education sectors are floundering. The funds allocated to them are insufficient or less than before while defence, even after the end of the war, gets a lion’s share.
In short, a villager can take a nice road to a rural hospital and get turned away because the institution does not have the necessary drugs. Private television stations still highlight the plight of students who have shacks for school buildings. School textbooks are riddled with errors. Teachers need training and examiners need training. All levels of government officials need training and there are serious questions about the capacity of the public sector. Fancy roads and sturdy bridges can’t fix that.
Yes, agriculture has taken off. No, it hasn’t led to lower consumer prices or decent income for producers who continue to remain poor. Instead, the middlemen are more powerful than ever. Paddy production is high but the government cannot buy the produce. Neither have they devised a system to reduce the vast difference between the prices that producers get and the prices that consumers pay. Despite encouraging macro economic indicators, the cost of living is prohibitive.
Then, there is the question of civil liberties. Why, in this day and age, does President Rajapaksa maintain the Emergency Regulations? The only plausible reason would be that he wishes to invoke them against his ‘enemies’ and unfortunately he has not shied from doing so. He once nurtured the media in his rise to power. But President Rajapaksa has today lost the inclination to tolerate criticism of his policies. Self-censorship is the norm among journalists because that is the way he wants it. Others are happy to sing along to the many ditties dedicated to the president.
Through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, President Rajapaksa did away with the two-term limit imposed on the executive presidency, a vital check on power. The legislation also effectively ensures that there isn’t a single independent oversight institution in this country. It is something that Sri Lankans will one day rue.
Everything — from the elections and police commission to the auditor general and bribery commission — now falls now under the control of the president. So do hundreds of other government institutions that are either under his purview or under the purview of one of his brothers.
Anybody who is anybody in the government today either belongs or is closely allied with the ruling family. President Rajapaksa has a sprawling cabinet but hardly any other ministers get publicity. The state media, which has the widest reach, is dominated by a few people. The president has also been criticised for appointing henchmen and ‘yes men’ as advisors and to key posts.
Still, President Rajapaksa today is well on his way to achieving cult status among Sri Lankans. He promotes this through well-targeted campaigns that serve to enhance his image. The elaborate ceremonies planned for his swearing-in next week are an example of how this happens.
The future of President Rajapaksa is successfully equated with the future of Sri Lanka. The message is that if he fails, Sri Lanka fails too — and one of the president’s greatest achievements is that an entire nation willingly believes this. COURTESY:LAKBIMA NEWS