From Strong to Soft
It is said that in politics two factors often determine a politician’s career trajectory – his words and his body language. Sometimes they are even more important than action. But even among the two, it is the body language that at times speaks louder and clearer than words.
By this standard, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has come across as a very confident head of state in his public appearances during the last few months. Mahinda Rajapaksa has appeared in complete control of the situation in the company of some of the big players of international politics such as the Indian prime minister, the prime minister of Japan or the president of China,
The question is why should he look otherwise?
Political analyst from inside and outside Sri Lanka believe that the last year was quite rough for President Rajapaksa. Although Sri Lanka successfully hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, its efforts to investigate the war crimes – allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan Army in the last few months of the decades-long civil war – were continuously questioned by world leaders. Some Commonwealth countries even boycotted the CHOGM for the same reason.
In what can be termed a particularly embarrassing diplomatic blunder, UK Prime Minister David Cameron harshly criticized the Sri Lankan government for not doing enough to bring the culprits to book. Around the same time, leading UK newspapers, such as the Independent and the
Guardian, ran news stories with eerily similar headlines: ‘Who is Mahinda Rajapaksa?’ (The Independent) and ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa: Sri Lanka’s savior or war criminal?’ (The Guardian).
However, despite minor hitches, the meeting took place and was
Rajapaksa has proved himself invincible time and again. He has managed to govern the country on his terms despite the pressure of the international community to conduct a fair and transparent investigation into the allegations of war crimes.
largely successful. But the months that followed were rough for the country – and more so for its president.
The calls for a credible investigation increased as time passed. Another reason for the mounting intensity was the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 2014. The U.S. had announced that it would present a motion against Sri Lanka for severe violations of human rights. There was an unprecedented build-up to the meeting with the U.S. proactively lobbying to get as many countries to vote in the resolution’s favor as it could.
Many countries had already expressed their willingness to side with the U.S. resolution. Sri Lanka’s closest and crucial neighbor India had also given mixed signals. While India refrained from voting in the resolution’s favor, it was nonetheless passed at the Geneva meeting, paving the way for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes in the final phases of the civil war in 2009.
From November 2013 – when the CHOGM had taken place – to March 2014, when the UNHRC meeting took place, Sri Lanka was in a hard place as it faced criticism and pressures from left, right and centre.
Clearly, the noose around President Rajapaksa was tightening. But he did not seem to budge an inch from his long held stance: no country or organization has the right to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal matters.
While he was still battling on that front, the state of affairs on the domestic side was not too bright either.
Communal tensions had been simmering between the Sinhalese Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena and the minority Muslim community for some time. The conflict started in early 2013 when the BBS objected to
certification on certain products. This certification is issued by a group of Islamic clerics called the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU). A compromise was reached between the ACJU, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and Buddhist clergy and it was announced that “the ACJU would stop putting the logo on products for local consumption but will continue to use them for products being exported to Islamic countries” where the certification is compulsory. However, the BBS later walked out of the agreement and demanded an end to “the entire process.” Giving in to the organization’s pressure, the government declared in March 2013 that the ACJU did not have the authority to issue the certification. Although the issue was not discussed after that, the tension between the two communities thrived.
It culminated in the June-July 2014 religious riots, termed as “the most serious anti-Muslim violence in at least two decades” by some analysts. As many as four people were killed, 10,000 people – 8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese – were displaced from their homes and various shops and business centers, mostly owned by the Muslims, were looted and gutted.
With the international media’s attention squarely focused on ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa was in trouble once again as his party was accused of covertly supporting the Buddhist organization. The basis of the allegations was the reported proximity of presidential sibling Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to the BBS.
Regardless of the government’s efforts to dismiss such notions, the Sri Lankan media continued to allude to a link between the two. A Sri Lankan columnist Kalana Senaratne wrote, “It is necessary not to underestimate the power of the state. It is a state that has tremendous military might. And it is one which is so powerful that it can effectively suppress any movement if it really wants to, and has every power to do so; legally, constitutionally, militarily, judicially or in any other imaginable way. The fact that it’s not happening with regard to the BBS tells us precisely what the BBS is all about.”
President Rajapaksa faced problems on his foreign trips as well. During the UN General Assembly meeting in 2014, a large number of Sri Lankan Tamils gathered outside the UN building to protest against President Rajapaksa who was there to attend the meeting.
However, Rajapaksa has proved himself invincible time and again. He has managed to govern the country on his terms despite the pressure of the international community to conduct a fair and transparent investigation into the allegations of war crimes or the human rights organizations’ criticism of the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka..
While this shows a strong resolve on his part, it has not always benefitted the country and its people. Take the matter of the longstanding demand of the UNHRC regarding a probe in the war crimes. In the absence of a proper closure, Rajapaksa’s party support has dwindled in recent months. Although his party, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, managed to win the provincial assembly elections in the southeastern province of Uva, the share of votes dropped by more than 20 percentage points from the last polls in 2009. This is a bad sign considering Rajapaksa’s aim of contesting the next presidential election which is due next year.
Perhaps it is time for him to get rid of his ‘strongman’ image and soften his stance on some critical issues. In failing to do so, he may face the unsavory prospect of saying goodbye to his main calling - politics.