by Dushy Ranetunge in London
This week, a headline of the Hindustan Times screamed, “the crowning of a republican king”. Some read it as being clowning. Whether you like it or not, Mahinda VII of Sri Lanka was legitimately crowned this week.
The last time around, there were too many discrepancies, with allegations of pay offs to the LTTE to prevent the Tamils from voting and lingering doubts about “Helping Hambanthota”.
This time around, there can be no doubts, he assumes office humbling and even silencing the opposition and if there were any doubts about “helping” Hambanthota, now there are none.
The previous Mahinda VI who ruled in 1187 did not last long. He was out in under a year. Before that Mahinda V was the last king of Anuradhapura. The Indians invaded and he fled and ruled in Ruhuna around 1001 AD, before being captured by the Indians and deported in 1017AD. He died a prisoner in India in 1029.
The present Mahinda has been quite formidable. His achievements, political, economic and military are due to his clever manipulation of India and China. His rural cunning and Machiavellian manipulations are breaking new ground in Sri Lankan statecraft and governance, where the orthodox Western trained mind fails and seem dysfunctional in a rapidly changing world order.
The old value system upon which Sri Lankan functioned seems to have been completely discarded and a more authoritarian, assertive and even aggressive order has taken its place. This has instilled a certain confidence in the general population, who felt demoralised, helpless and defeated before 2005.
Mahinda VII has given the rural Sri Lankan something that perhaps SWRD gave them in the 1950’s, a certain “je ne sais qua” which the old fashioned UNP trapped in the Western mindset is unable to counter, so far.
The UNP is not trying to win, they are waiting for Mahinda to falter and lose. In fact, Mahinda is winning because the UNP is losing. It has lost its way and needs rejuvenation by appealing to the general population with new ideas and visions for the future to capture the imagination of the general population.
Without such a vision, the UNP will be in opposition for a generation or more.
It is indeed of concern, that the UNP seem incapable of countering the likes of “chinthanaya” and “suba Anagathayak” which are pedestrian by any standards.
Mahinda seem to have learnt from both SWRD as well as Premadasa and the same way that he went all out to defeat the LTTE, is now going all out to ensure economic revival.
Going all out to defeat the LTTE had its consequences in terms of civilian casualties and war crimes allegations. He might have got away with it a few decades back, but during an era of advanced satellite surveillance and mobile phone technology, the level of evidence as well as legal advancements has tilted the balance away from him.
Despite recent press reports that Rajapakse faces arrest in the United Kingdom under the concept of universal jurisdiction, the chances of successful legal action against him is remote and could be defended with the legal right of sovereign immunity. The maximum that war crimes legal action could achieve is temporary embarrassment.
But, once he is out of office, this immunity will be lost, and here lies the value of the 18th Amendment to ensure a long reign and indeed “god save the king”.
Similar to these consequences of the Rajapakse military doctrine, his economic doctrine has a double-edged sword. His political survival is dependent on continued economic growth. The inherent political instability in Sri Lanka, the high cost of power and land, the relatively high cost of labour etc is working against Sri Lanka. In comparison, other countries look far more attractive than Sri Lanka. Many wealthy nations are also viewing Africa as the future, where there are considerable raw materials, cheap labour, power etc.
Even the Sri Lankans are in Africa. A significant portion of the Sri Lankan Gem trade is now taking place in Madagascar, where there are greater rewards and opportunities.
These facts mean that private investments into Sri Lanka have fierce international competition and Rajapakse’s desperation for investment forces him to turn to the Chinese state. Chinese investments are in the form of loans, which is an additional debt burden on the Sri Lankan population. More debt is being mounted by selling dollar sovereign bonds on the market at exorbitant rates. In banking the interest rates, reflects the inherent risk of the transaction. A prerequisite to sustain all this mounting debt is that the economy keeps rolling forward. If it falters, there will be a concertina effect on the economy, with resultant economic and political destabilisation. The Sri Lankan economy is inherently inefficient, with large corporations operating at huge losses and dependent on the state to keep funding these inefficiencies.
His policy of re-nationalisation continues to add to this burden. A popular example is Sri Lankan airlines, re-nationalised and now operating with huge losses, which have to be funded by the taxpayer. The culture that Rajapakse brings with him, have all these inefficiencies built in. It will be politically difficult for him to shed them as it will weaken him politically and create opportunities for the UNP.
He is maintaining a huge army to deal with any civil unrest, but in other countries such as Indonesia, large armies have not saved their rulers.
These are all strategies to give him time, the expensive rolling dollar loans, the Chinese loans, the massive military presence, re-nationalisation and over employment in state enterprises etc. They are all inherently inefficient. The massive army (now larger than the British army), the loss making corporations, the renationalised entities, which invariably become loss making entities are all a drain on the economy and a burden on the taxpayer and the nation, driving up the cost of living. It is all in place to keep the king in power. As to how long this party can be kept on the road is anyone’s guess.
Considering the level of inefficiencies, the marketing of Hambanthota port competing with super efficient Singapore is somewhat amusing. The proposal of Hambanthota to service shipping travelling on the international shipping lanes from the Gulf to Singapore is as ridiculous an idea, as building an airport at Hambanthota expecting aircrafts travelling from Europe to Australia to stop over for their hamburgers.
During Rajapakse’s first presidency he was characterised by the international press as struggling while holding a Tiger by the tail. After having slain the Tiger, he is now running while holding a Lion by the tail.
The downside of all this is, when the lid blows on the Rajapakse Presidency, like it always does for all leaders, the inherent instability will throw up another leader, who will be equally destabilising. The present frontrunner is holding court from jail.