Saturday 7 April 2018

Rajapaksa moves towards an encore (Sunday Guardian)

M D Nalapat 

‘Lack of strong leadership’ is not a shortcoming of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

 COLOMBO: Outside the room window at the Galle Face hotel, every few seconds bring the whisper of waves reaching the shoreline. It is a beautiful sight, very different from that December night in 2004 when a tsunami hit the island, taking with it more than 40,000 human lives. Five years later, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa finished off a different kind of tsunami, the war against the Sri Lankan state carried on by the LTTE under Velupillai Prabhakaran, who though being a Christian by faith, was not always conspicuous in paying heed to Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek”. During those weeks in 2009, the BJP under L.K. Advani was giving a sympathetic ear to ally Vaiko’s admonition to the party to try and save Prabhakaran from final defeat, and the Congress was heeding the call of its allies in Tamil Nadu to make the Sri Lankan military abandon its pursuit of the LTTE. At the same time, goaded by the Norwegians (who appointed themselves the patrons and protectors of the LTTE within the international community), both the US as well as the EU were raising to a high decibel pitch their commands to Rajapaksa to desist from finishing off the LTTE and its commander. Several times in the past, the Sri Lankan military had reversed its pursuit of the “Tamil Tigers” in deference to international pressure, thereby gifting that organisation several “lives”.
This time around, in Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabhaya (who as Defence Secretary was in effective command of the Sri Lankan armed forces), the Sri Lankan state had a pair who refused to play by the rules set by the former colonial masters of South Asia, and who continued to harry Prabhakaran and his men to their deaths. Not surprisingly, many civilians too (especially the human shields placed in key locations by the LTTE) lost their lives. Since then, an all-out effort has been launched to ensure that at least a few Sri Lankan generals (present and past) be brought before the International Court of Justice to stand trial for “crimes against humanity”. Rather than ask the US and the EU to first bring to account those from their own militaries who have caused such alarming loss of civilian life in operations in locations such as Fallujah, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe unity government in Sri Lanka has gone a considerable distance in accepting the demands of the US and its allies that the Sri Lankan military be punished for winning the war on terror at a time when NATO has failed to subdue either the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
In the calculus of human rights in Sri Lanka of those countries that have thus far failed to prevail over terror groups despite having expended trillions of dollars on the effort, allowance does not seem to have been made for the fact that the country has been at peace since the final defeat of the LTTE in 2009 at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. In times past, Colombo was a warren of roadblocks manned by jumpy troops looking for the next suicide bomber. In the 2015 polls, because of a split in the Sinhala vote, Tamil and Muslim minority parties held the power to determine who ruled Sri Lanka. Had it not been for the boost in voting percentages among the Tamils to a level unprecedented since the 1970s, and had Muslim voters not turned against him because of the perception that he was tacitly backing hardline Buddhist groups, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have remained President of Sri Lanka in the 2015 elections. The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe unity government got passed a constitutional amendment barring an individual from standing for more than two terms, thereby taking Rajapaksa out of the next Presidential race.
However, every enactment has a loophole, and if Mahinda Rajapaksa can secure victory at the polls for a proxy candidate, that individual can dissolve Parliament and expect that Rajapaksa’s new party can secure an overwhelming mandate at the parliamentary polls, the way they swept the local body elections some weeks ago. After that, the newly elected (proxy) President can resign, thereby clearing the way for Rajapaksa to return to the office he held from 2005 until 2015. Given current trends, that would align with the wishes of the majority of Sri Lankan voters, who are getting disenchanted with the unity government and its “lack of strong leadership”. Whatever be the shortcomings of Mahinda Rajapaksa, “lack of strong leadership” is not among them. The loyal individual who resigns his Presidential chair after ensuring Parliamentary polls get held, quitting in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa, would be made Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the way the posts of President and Prime Minister were exchanged by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in the Russian Federation. Among the possibles for such a role would be G.L. Peiris, who has long been a backer of the former President of Sri Lanka.
In the absence of a strong push towards policies which can lead to faster growth, a clash of ethnic and cultural identities has risen to the top of the consciousness of politicians across several corners of the world. Since the Trump presidency began, the US has been rolling up, rather than rolling out the welcome mat for trained immigrants from locations with more sunlight and hence greater pigment than Europe. This will cost the US the edge it needs to ensure that the country keeps ahead of China in the technology race, especially if Beijing were to welcome such individuals into its cities and companies. However, it is the no longer hidden fear of the US becoming a country with a majority of “non-whites” that is a prime mover of the Trump poll machine, and the new administration is using the most counter-productive, indeed primitive, instrument at its command to try and stave off that day, which is by making it difficult for “non-whites” to get citizenship.
Among the new regulations are an effective bar on Green Card applicants who use public services in the country, even if this be for emergency medical attention. The number of H1B visas has slowed to half of what they were during the Obama years, and within years, this will result in Jack Ma prevailing over Bill Gates in dominating the technology of the future. Sri Lanka is no exception to such politics. The present government has the support of only a minority of the Sinhala population, relying instead on the near-total backing of the Tamil and Muslim populations on the island, both of which came out to vote in unprecedented strength during the 2015 polls (which saw the defeat of Rajapaksa). At that point in time, several Sinhala voters either stayed away or voted for Sirisena or Ranil Wickremasinghe. During the next round, they are likely to return to Rajapaksa, mainly because of a reaction to the consolidation of minority (Tamil and Muslim) voters against him. The era of the strongman of Sri Lankan politics seems to be on the cusp of return.

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