Mahinda Rajapaksa is partial to leaps of faith. One such transported him from backroom liberal to President of Sri Lanka. He has since skillfully led a persistent, unforgiving campaign against Tamil Tigers for which no previous administration had either the care or courage.
Of course, his critics maintain Rajapaksa is setting himself up as president-for-life, bolstered by heavy-handed nepotism and power play. This could further break Sri Lanka at a time it needs desperately to mend.
Those who stump for Rajapaksa and his current leap of faith as victor, including a resurgent army, powerful Buddhist clergy and even, some conservatives drawn from arch-rival United National Party, point to his assertion in a document titled ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ — Mahinda’s Vision. It’s a statement of purpose from 2005, the year he became President. “I will not permit any separatism,” he had asserted. “I will also not permit anyone to destroy democracy in our country.”
Those who see in the President an applicant for a banana republic, refer to a caution in the same document: “O king, you are not the ruler of this land, but the custodian of this land.” The quote is attributed to another Mahinda — Arahat — Emperor Ashoka’s son, as he admonished Devanampiya Tissa, and converted the ancient Lankan king and his court to the way of the Buddha.
This stares the latter-day Mahinda in his face. Because, in the end, rolling over the Tigers might prove an easier task than melding the country’s Tamils — including many callously denied citizenship by political parties including Rajapaksa’s own, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — and its diaspora, the key financiers of Tamil Tigers, into true Sri Lankan nationhood. Equally, he will need to sell a peace deal and idea of a peace dividend that such an arrangement can bring, to the Sinhala majority and its chauvinist echelons. It involves what they fear most: a political, constitutionally mandated solution that devolves both power and responsibility to Tamils in the ‘homelands’ of the island’s north and east.
If Rajapaksa fails, Sri Lanka will face another cycle of fierce Tamil resentment. While Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran is proven many times over as among the most vicious resistance leaders turned terror impresarios of the past three decades, his legacy of battling second-class citizenship still rings true. Emotional protests by the Tamil diaspora I witnessed last week in London, against the Lankan army’s go-for-broke war, is only one such indicator.
The coalition that Rajapaksa’s SLFP leads, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, in April handsomely won council elections in the western province, the country’s most populous and prosperous. This wipe-out performance in a Buddhist stronghold during one of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crises in living memory is seen as an endorsement of Rajapaksa’s anti-Tiger campaign, a bet for tomorrow over today. Commentaries mention how elections to the executive presidency, due in three years, could be a one-horse race. Ranil Wickremasinghe of the UNP is a pale shadow. Within the SLFP, the once formidable Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, a past President, is more out than in. The family redoubt of the Bandaranaikes, at 65 Rosmead Place, Colombo, where I once took impeccable Nuwara Eliya tea and animated political conversation, is today a chic hotel; a bit like 10 Janpath taking in paying guests.
With his new support among the Sinhala majority, Rajapaksa is well placed to sell a peace deal. During my recent visit to Sri Lanka, insiders spoke of how several ‘white papers’ are ready to be rolled out. These range from campaigns abroad to bring the Tamil diaspora to participate in the rebuilding of Sri Lanka, to integrating the Tamils into every aspect of island life — including the administration and military. Economists and businesspersons spoke longingly of how the north and east, where the fight has for long drained the exchequer and the future, could provide the impetus for major economic growth in the next decade, through infrastructure projects, trade, and literate manpower.
The downside is that, Rajapaksa may take the easier way out and bow to the Sinhala versus Tamil history perpetuated since Independence in 1948. There have been some indications of it in his two-year campaign against the Tigers, especially since early 2009, when heavy civilian casualties among Tamils caught in the crossfire have been regarded as acceptable collateral damage for the sake of victory.
The government has suppressed media and public dissent that questions the Rajapaksa family’s hold on the island’s politics and business. The conglomerate includes the President’s wife and her family; and the presidential brothers: the feared Gotabhaya, Secretary of Defence, and Public Security, Law and Order — the boss of the defence, police, and the intelligence structures — and Basil, the President’s political advisor. Several journalists are in jail or have fled abroad. Many have died, including Lasantha Wickrematunge, the maverick editor of Sunday Leader, who in January was shot on his way to work. Lasantha was publicly called a “traitor” by Gotabhaya, for daring to expose corruption, and mishandling of certain aspects of the war.
In some ways, his critics maintain, Rajapaksa’s rule has begun to adopt the pro-Sinhala ideological callousness endemic since the days of Prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika’s mother. It was later perpetuated by a string of Executive Presidents: Junius Jayawardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Chandrika herself. Democratic rights and constitutional empathy in Sri Lanka have for too long been compromised by imperial pretension.
This will need to change. Tamils, and a future for all, must be embraced. Only then will Serendib, beloved of Marco Polo, have a hope in hell for peace and prosperity, and to detach from its sordid recent history.
Sudeep Chakravarti is an author and analyst