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Expensive bad taste makes Lanka's "coronation drama" a garish spectacle

Nov 21, 2010 7:42:33 AM- transcurrents.com

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Among his many presents, the President should have received a crown”. Minister Basil Rajapaksa (quoted in The Economist – November 2011)

It was Bollywood’s sort of inauguration, a garish spectacle which caught the eye even as it horrified the mind. Expensive bad taste combined with technical competence made Sri Lanka’s ‘Coronation drama’ a truly memorable occasion.

The absence of a throne or a crown or the non-essential concessions to Tamil language did not detract from the true essence of the event: this was no inauguration of a democratic Lankan president; this was the de facto coronation of a Sinhala-Buddhist king, as of old.

The backdrop was formed by a gigantic painting of an anthropomorphically personified sun in the traditional Sinhala style, with a fat rotund face surrounded by curly rays. The mostly yellow monstrosity covered the graceful entrance to the former parliament building (current presidential secretariat). At the foot of the stately structure and beyond, the special invitees and the public waited in their marquees or under the sun, for the show to begin. At the auspicious moment, the painted sun parted, and the main actor of this extravaganza, Mahinda Rajapaksa, emerged, followed by his wife and three sons (including the heir-presumptive).

All in all, it was a stellar performance. The stage-setting was apposite for the occasion. The many statutes of national leaders which dotted the lawn in front of the old parliament building had been removed, plinths and all (perhaps because according to the dominating worldview, history ended in 1815, and resumed only in 2005). The symbols were solely Sinhala-Buddhist with no concession made to the minority religions or cultures. In a clear departure from past practices (instituted by President Premadasa) the show commenced with just a Buddhist religious observance and not multi-faith observances; non-Buddhists were told to reflect on their religions, while the Buddhist monks gave pansil (the Five Precepts).

The supporting cast played their roles well, especially the enthusiastic Secretary to the President, who was obviously determined to remain the Teacher’s Pet. Buddhist monks chanted pirith as the President signed on the dotted lines (there were other religious leaders too, but they were just mute-displays). Drummers drummed and dancers danced; of particular note was a charming dancing display by a bevy of school girls, who should have been studying for their year end term tests.

But the star attraction of the show was also its main actor – President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He smiled happily; he frowned portentously; he waved regally; he was joyous and solemn in turn; he exchanged greetings with the invitees and stopped the motorcade to get out and greet the public, his movements as perfectly choreographed as those of the dancers who graced the occasion. His speech was obviously crafted with an eye to the history books while his delivery was good enough to put a moderately talented actor to shame.

The spirit of the occasion and the ethos of the era it ushered in were masterly summarised by an expert: “The President’s urbane brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is unabashed in claiming that in Sri Lanka an era of ‘ruler kings’ has begun. Western ideas of transparency, he claims, along with limits of presidential power and accountability, are not relevant to ‘Asian Culture’” (The Economist – November 2011).

There is the Ruler-King: infallible and dedicated, strong and courageous, able and willing, simple and humble in spite of his manifold excellences; and there are the nameless, faceless masses, obedient, adoring, faithful and trusting. The Ruler-King addressed the willing subjects. He reminded them what he achieved and he told them what he plans to achieve. Parameters were thus set, of the past and of the future.

The war was won. There the matter ends, because, in the Rajapaksa universe, there is no ethnic problem, no special Tamil grievances. The most the Tamils can hope for are roads and ports and a modicum of economic development (and in case they did not notice, they have more development now than they ever did): “We have carried out development work in the North and East as never before in the history of these regions.

All development processes carried out in the North and East are a closure of the highways to terrorism. I strongly believe that this infrastructure to banish poverty is a major part of a political solution. The people of North were able to use their franchise in freedom at the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. In the following elections too, we will ensure their right to vote freely and elect their representatives”.

It is not as if the Sinhalese or the Muslims can expect a better deal either on the developmental front. President Rajapaksa belongs firmly to the trickle-down school of economics. According to his version of this demonstrably erroneous and oft disproven dogma, development will follow spontaneously once the physical infrastructure is in place and the cities are beautified.

The five ports are at the centre of the Rajapaksa development plan while the highways gird it. Then there are the electricity projects and the waterworks. Investment, factories and computers will follow, bringing in their wake employment and prosperity for all. No special focus on education, health, job creation of poverty alleviation is necessary, because ports and roads, with some electricity thrown in, will take care of it all.

It is a simple formula which could look beguiling to those who know little of the politico-economic history of the 20th Century, including that of Sri Lanka. For instance, this was the path followed by the Jayewardene administration from 1977 to 1988, the very path which exacerbated the Northern problem and created a Southern insurgency.
Other notable absences in the President’s speech included any mention of the need to strengthen democracy and improve human rights. Probably the President sees both as goals achieved rather than goals to be achieved.

A clear message was sent, once again, to the region and the world. We will be friendly with our friends i.e. those who are willing to help us without making demands about political solutions or human rights: “We extend our hand of friendship to those who assist us in this endeavour (development)”. The need to ensure the rule of law was reduced to fighting ‘crime’: “I am not used to abandoning a task due to difficulty or hardship. Not only in freeing our nation, we will also not hesitate to take the boldest of decisions in resolving the deep crises that many think prevail in society.

We need a land free of a lawless underworld, racketeering, extortion, and the carrying of illegal weapons or drugs; a land free of corruption and inefficiency”. In other words criminals who do not have the right political connections will be punished while criminals on the right side of the political divide and political criminals will continue to enjoy immunity. Moreover with friends in right places, even convicted criminals can look forward to freedom and total escape from punishment – as the decision by the President to free the former Basnayake Nilame of the Saman Davalaya in Ratnapura, convicted of killing his mistress and sentenced to life imprisonment amply demonstrates.

The President’s pious wish for a quite retirement in his native Medamulana would have carried more conviction if he did not rush through the 18th Amendment removing the term-limits in toto. The stanza from the Dhammapada he quoted at the end of his speech seems far more sincere, because, this is indubitably how he sees himself: “The fame of him who strives after perfection, who is mindful, pure in deed, considerate, restrained, righteous and heedful, spreads far and wide”. Like Mahinda Rajapaksa, ‘The Leader who Conquered the World’, ‘The King who does not feel like a King’, ‘The Sun and the Moon of a Country which conquered Terror’.

Most leaders would be a trifle embarrassed to be referred to as ‘High King’ or ‘The Leader who conquered the world’ or ‘The Sun and the Moon’….. Not Mr. Rajapaksa. He thinks such laudations reeking of hyperbole are nothing less than his due. In his megalomania he is beginning to resemble his vanquished foe Vellupillai Pirapaharan. Mr. Pirapaharan was hailed as ‘Sarvadesh Thalevar’ (Leader of the world) by his followers; Mr. Rajapaksa’s followers refer to him as. ‘The Leader who Conquered the World’. Mr. Pirapaharan was also hailed as ‘Surya Devan’ (the Sun God). The official slogan for the Second Inauguration refers to President Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka’s Sun (and Moon). And an image of the sun formed the backdrop for his Second Inauguration, and from this sun he emerged at the auspicious hour.

The spectacle on the 19th was preceded by many other spectacles; the weeklong party will continue till the 22nd. There was a tree planting campaign; according to official propaganda 1.1 million saplings were planted (the number of actual plantings would remain unknown). More than 250 Buddhist monks voyaged from the Galle Harbour to the new Hambantota harbour alias Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, chanting the ‘Sagara Piritha’. More than 300 chefs made a gargantuan milk-rice (kiribath) weighting 4,000kg, reportedly the world’s biggest. The weeklong celebrations will cost the Treasury dear. But then, Sri Lanka is never poor when it comes to celebrating Rajapaksa Rule and achievements.

The official inauguration contained a few interesting absences. Only four countries sent official delegations to the swearing-in of ‘The Leader who Conquered the World’ – Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and China. Though President Rajapaksa is the head of the G15, not one single member sent an official delegation. The other members of the G15 are Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Jamaica, Peru Venezuela, India, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia, and some of these countries, such as Iran and Venezuela, are supposed to be particular friends of Sri Lanka. Yet not one sent a delegation to the second presidential inauguration of the current Chairman of the G15.

This absence demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the Chairmanship was awarded to Sri Lanka for one reason only – because the Rajapaksa regime was willing to host the summit, when all other member countries refused to do so, considering it a waste of resources.

The dearth of foreign delegations indicated our true standing in the world, that most countries for one reason or another do not care for us overmuch (obviously they have failed to notice that President Rajapaksa has conquered the entire world). We are not an international pariah; but we are not much liked either or respected. The failure of India to send a special delegate is either a studied insult or a deliberate message, or both.

Either way, in his current hubristic mood, confident of unconditional Chinese support, Mr. Rajapaksa is unlikely to care. What the Indian response is likely to be, and what options are available to India realistically, remain to be seen, if President Rajapaksa takes Sri Lanka even more firmly into the Chinese orbit, in his second term.