Sri Lanka A Chequered Legacy
A look at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 10-year rule in Sri Lanka and the end.
Was Rajapaksa a democratic or authoritarian ruler?
Over the past years, Sri Lanka has undergone immense political turmoil, the roots of which can be traced back to the 1920s when the British Governor, William Manning reformed the original legislative council to introduce the concept of “communal representation” on the basis of ethnicity. Ceylon, as it was known then, comprised Sinhalese, Tamils and the Burghers. The first election resulted in thirteen Sinhalese
Before taking a cursory look at his policies that might help to understand why Rajapaksa was defeated in January 2015, it would not be out of place to say that South Asian countries suffer from the malaise of political leaders having more or less similar characteristics that are in no way enviable.
and three Tamils winning. This made the Tamils conscious of their minority status, awakening a sense of Tamil nationalism. Political inexpediency, after attaining independence in 1948, acted as a catalyst that eventually culminated in the decades- long civil war which, between 1982 and 2009, took its toll of almost 80,000 to 100,000 lives, tormented even a greater number of innocent people including children and stripped the peace from this picturesque country. Many would accede that, in retrospect, if certain mistakes had not been committed, Sri Lanka would have indeed been a prosperous paradise on earth, though it is still destined to be that.
In addition to the ethnic composition of the island, there are also divisions on religious grounds with a predominant Buddhist population comprising almost 70%, Hindus 13%, Muslims 10%, Christians 7% and others around 0.04%. This puts further pressure on the government to adopt policies that are not based on discrimination and provide everyone adequate opportunity to education, employment and political representation. This avoids conflicts and establishes feelings of brotherhood among diverse members of the public.
It is necessary to analyse if this is exactly what was done during twiceelected Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 10- year rule or was he, like his predecessors, instrumental in missing important buses, thus becoming a great disappointment to the Sri Lankans. A lot of hope had been pinned on this seasoned politician who made his political debut at the tender age of 24 and who went through a lot of upheavals before taking on the responsibility of becoming the sixth president of the Democratic Socialist Republic.
Before taking a cursory look at his policies that might help to understand why Rajapaksa was defeated in January 2015, it would not be out of place to say that South Asian countries suffer from the malaise of political leaders having more or less similar characteristics that are in no way enviable. Mahinda Rajapaksa did not prove to be any different as can be observed from the following list of the principal allegations that caused his downfall: • Curtailing media freedom, bringing Sri Lanka to almost 158th position in the world’s press freedom index. Killing of about 40,000 people in the final weeks of fighting between Tamil Tigers and the government forces, according to a report compiled by a United Nations appointed panel of experts and published in April 2011 by Ban Ki Moon plus other atrocities inflicted on female Tamil fighters and other civilians. • Involvement in massive corruption in mega projects in collaboration with other countries, forcing Sri Lanka to lose millions and earning for the country a very low ranking in the Transparency International Corruption Index. Forging an alliance with Sinhalese nationalist, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who had strongly opposed the 2002 peace process, terming it as treasonous. In doing so, Mahinda Rajapaksa tore away the mask of being a true people’s representative as he gave the military greater powers against the LTTE and refused to devolve power to the Tamil people. He thus proved himself as a man of war rather than peace. In fact, he sowed the seeds of hatred among the minorities that accelerated his ousting. • Use of military aircraft by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family members during presidential election campaigns, causing a heavy drain on the public exchequer. Allegation of an attempted coup to seize polling counting centres on realising defeat during the final moments prior to announcement of presidential election results. • Involvement in money laundering and parking billions of dollars offshore through the auspices of the former governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. • Indulgence in nepotism by allowing a free hand to family members to exploit public funds and power. On assuming power on 16 January 2015, the Sirisena Government resolved to investigate some of the allegations of corruption, especially in deals with China, regarding mega projects. Some of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s close aides and henchmen are also in the process of filing corruption charges against him and his brothers, demanding probe for abuse of power. The new government has also sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to locate hidden wealth while the governments of Seychelles and India have extended their support while searching for funds deposited abroad. The anti- corruption unit formed for this purpose is being led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
There are a few opportunities for men in power to do something concrete for their country to establish longlasting peace and assure prosperity for its people, no matter which ethnic or religious group they belong to. Instead of remaining focused on this aim, our South Asian leaders tend to veer towards their vested interest and self- aggrandizement. The ruthlessness with which they play havoc with the lives and properties of their people can never earn them respect or admiration. Instead, they are destined to be humiliated and thrown out of power, as was the fate of Mahinda Rajapaksa. This holds a warning for all politicians universally, but especially for countries where authoritarianism prevails in the name of democracy.