By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
An evaluation of a political leader must be historically concrete. What was the context in which he/she assumed power? What was the situation he/she inherited and what did he/she make of that inheritance? Did he/she improve the situation in respect of the central challenge or main problem, cause it to worsen, or remain unchanged? The evaluation must also factor in the actually available alternative to his/her leadership; how that alternative personality would have fared and at what cost.
It often takes a critical outsider to register the authentic dimensions of the achievement of a distant nation and its leader. Though they contributed negatively to the emergence of that challenge, how many of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-Independence predecessors prevailed over a challenge that was as formidable by any standard of contemporary world history; indeed of “the era”?
In his recently released volume Monsoon: The Indian Ocean And The Future Of American Power, Robert D. Kaplan, member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis writes of “…the government’s gradual victory over the Tamil Tigers, among the post World War II era’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations…Prabhakaran had been causing death and destruction to a much greater extent and for a much longer period than Osama bin Laden in the case of the United States. This was the kind of clear-cut, demonstrable victory that any American administration could only hope for…” (pp. 203, 210)
President Rajapaksa won his second term fairly and squarely. The debate on the 18th Amendment is irrelevant here, because that followed, not preceded his re-election and pertains to a possible third term, not the second. Is Sri Lanka in better shape in the most basic sense at the commencement of Rajapaksa’s second term than it was on the eve of his first term?
Sri Lanka, like any other country, has to be evaluated as a totality, not through the prism of its ethnic minority, though the minorities question must indubitably be part of the evaluation. Assessing Sri Lanka through the lens of the Tamil Diaspora or the Tamil question is as misleading as assessing Turkey through the lens of the Kurds, India through the Kashmiris or Nagas, the Philippines through that of the Moros, and Spain through the Basques. That would provide insights, but a partial, skewed perspective.
Things must also be classified as primary and secondary.
At this point in time, has the record of achievement of the Rajapaksa presidency been in the main, positive or negative, and is the contribution made to the country and its people by him primarily good or bad?
Mahinda Rajapaksa inherited a Sri Lankan state in grave crisis, with a powerful armed enemy rooted in a part of its soil, attempting to dismember its territory. Three previous Presidents and four previous leaders, JR, Premadasa, Wijetunga, Chandrika and Ranil failed to restore the territorial integrity and unity of the country, end the war and terminate the secessionist challenge. This, Rajapaksa accomplished. The result is that for the first time in decades, there is no deadly violence on a large or medium scale. For all this, he was freely elected to a second term. After 30 years of life in its shadow, the country and all its peoples are safe and secure from an existential threat of the most basic and awful kind.
Sri Lankan opinion and opinion on Sri Lanka are broadly divisible into two categories: those who regard Mahinda Rajapaksa’s achievement or contribution as more positive than negative and those who view it as more negative than positive. However critical or ambivalent they may be on this or that specific policy, action or inaction on his part, there is little doubt as to which side of the divide the vast majority of Sri Lankan people are. There is also little doubt in my mind as to what history’s verdict would be, given the magnitude of his historic achievement.
Critique must not be distorted by nihilistic negation, just as recognition of the positive must not be discredited with blindness towards the negative, and a defence of achievement must not be vitiated by avoidance of that which remains to be done. Sadly, most commentary by and on Sri Lanka is warped by one or the other distortion.
The analytically slipshod shows of erudition which wildly toss references to leaders who have been elected to power only to establish dictatorships, omits the vital datum that such leaders proceeded to bury representative multiparty democracy by violently smashing the main opposition. Mahinda Rajapaksa has not done so. Whatever his transgressions, he cannot be held responsible for a diminution of the competitiveness of representative democracy through the prolonged leadership debility of the Opposition and the dwarfing of that Opposition by his achievement of destroying the Tigers (something that he did not prevent his predecessors from doing themselves)!
Still more absurd is the attempt to equate Rajapaksa with Prabhakaran. This assumes that the strategic projects of the two (reunification vs. dismemberment of the country) can be equated, as can the lamentable compliance of Tamil society with a movement that decimated the political leadership of that community (burning alive the TELO youth, to name but one instance) with the democratic state and the Southern public sphere that resisted and rolled back anything that came close. Even so acerbic a Western analyst of the Rajapakse dispensation as Robert D. Kaplan does not fail to balance his observation that there is a “more severe coarsening of politics in Colombo” with the repeated definition of the country as a democracy — on which he places his bet as Sri Lanka’s ultimate salvation.
The fact that our external critics depict their excessive strictures as coming from the ‘international community’ when they reflect, if at all, only a segment of it, does not mean that the international community does not exist; it simply means that these unfair and prejudiced critics are not synonymous with it.
Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence showcased Sri Lanka’s recent and ongoing achievement in the following words to an international scholarly audience attending the 6th international conference of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) of the National University of Singapore:
“…Sri Lanka has emerged from a decades-long civil war, and is enjoying an economic revival. It is currently the second-fastest growing Asian economy after China, a fact not lost upon the IMF, which recently upgraded Sri Lanka to middle income emerging market status…”
No two yardsticks are more important in assessing the state of a nation-state and the performance of its leadership than (a) war and (b) the economy. President Rajapaksa has won the first, has improved the second and seems to be laying the foundations for a stronger economy.
If Sri Lanka is positioned to benefit from the rise of Asia and the significance of the Indian Ocean region, it is because Mahinda Rajapaksa has cleared the way for it to do so by overcoming the most formidable obstacle: the secessionist enemy. The grade on Sri Lanka’s score card as given by an important Singaporean leader demonstrates that there is more than one view of Sri Lanka in the international system; that the primarily positive views do not limit themselves to those of allegedly ‘rogue’ or ‘maverick’ states, regarded as ‘anti-Western’; that there is a realist Asian or Eastern perspective on Sri Lanka.