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Sri Lanka's powerful president settles in for the long-haul

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse kicks off a second term Friday, promising economic rebirth for the war-ravaged island with the help of nations who have snubbed Western calls for a war crimes probe.

world Updated: Nov 18, 2010 14:59 IST

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse kicks off a second term Friday, promising economic rebirth for the war-ravaged island with the help of nations who have snubbed Western calls for a war crimes probe.

Rajapakse, who turned 65 Thursday, begins his fresh, six-year mandate from an unprecedented position of strength following a constitutional revamp two months ago that ramped up his executive powers.

With his personal popularity running high, family members in key government positions, the opposition divided and his only serious political rival in prison, the president's control over the island republic seems complete.

Brushing off concerns voiced by countries like the United States that his powers pose a threat to Sri Lanka's democracy, Rajapakse insists they are necessary to rebuild the country following final victory last year in the decades-old civil war with Tamil Tiger rebels.

Vowing to make Sri Lanka the "wonder of Asia," he has set in motion or proposed a series of ambitious infrastructure plans, including a 1.5-billion-dollar port in the southern town of Hambantota that he opened on Thursday.

"When I came to power I promised an honourable peace and a new Sri Lanka. I have kept my promise and built a new country," Rajapakse said at the televised ceremony.

While pursuing development, he has shrugged off attempts by the West to link aid and investment to human rights and turned to countries like Iran, Libya and China for help.

Refusing to "beg for aid," he has already opted to forego trade concessions rather than subject Sri Lanka to human rights scrutiny by the European Union.

"We will not be held back by threatened economic sanctions or withdrawn trade concessions by those who seek strategic interference in the national affairs of Sri Lanka," he said recently.

Rajapakse has rejected allegations that the army may have been responsible for substantial civilian deaths during its final offensive against the Tamil Tigers and has dismissed calls for a probe into possible war crimes. Despite US reservations, he secured a 2.6-billion-dollar IMF loan shortly after the war ended last year and raised a further billion dollars through a bond issue in September.

The central bank expects Sri Lanka's economy to grow 8.0 per cent in 2010, up from 3.5 per cent last year, and Rajapakse has promised to double GDP per capita income to 4,000 dollars by the end of his second term in 2016.

Political analyst Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said Rajapakse's focus on economic recovery would leave the issue of reconciliation with the island's Tamil minority on the backburner.

"Any talk about political reform is considered irrelevant at best and subversive at worst," said Saravanamuttu - an opinion echoed by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

"There is no sign the government has any interest in doing any of the things necessary for reconciliation between and within communities damaged by so many years of war," said ICG's Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan.

Saravanamuttu also identified a potential downside to the level of control enjoyed by Rajapakse and his family. "If things go wrong they have no one else to blame.

The family is the state," he said. Apart from being president and commander-in-chief, Rajapakse is the minister of finance, ports and aviation and highways.

His elder brother Chamal is the speaker of parliament, younger brother Basil the economic development minister and another brother, Gotabhaya, the powerful defence secretary.

Rajapakse's main political rival, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, is currently serving a 30-month jail sentence after a court martial found him guilty of military procurement offences.

Fonseka, who also has several criminal cases pending against him, was arrested shortly after his failed effort to unseat Rajapakse in presidential elections in January.

With no visible political threat on the horizon, Rajapakse is able to look even beyond his second mandate thanks to the constitutional changes pushed through in September that also scrapped a two-term limit on the presidency

First Published: Nov 18, 2010 14:56 IST