By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Take a good look at the photo of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the two term president of Sri Lanka who called a snap election, expecting to win by a landslide, then lost, decisively. Note the aggressive mustache, the arched eyebrows, the bug eyes. Shift your gaze to the polychrome of the rakshasha Ravana (folk art from the Indian state of Odisha), the demon king of Sri Lanka whose abduction of Ram’s wife Sita led to his own destruction, according to the much beloved Indian epic. Could there be a better caricature of the ultra ambitious Rajapaksa, who was working his way toward becoming a president for life? And how was he going about that? By getting Sri Lanka’s Constitution amended to allow himself to succeed himself unendingly, by putting siblings and other puppets in top government and army positions and by thoroughly cowing the rest of the population, including the judiciary and potential opponents among the Singhalese as well as the defeated and humiliated Tamils.
Just as a lecherous Ravana lured Sita out of her charmed circle by pretending to be a sweet little deer, Rajapaksa wooed his Singhalese Buddhist compatriots into seeing him as the urgently needed savior of the lovely, conflict-torn island nation of Sri Lanka. During his first term, a protracted and very ugly civil was brought to a dramatic close in a high fatality, highly controversial battle, after which a popular victorious general who’d dared to oppose Rajapaksa in his run for reelection was imprisoned on over-hyped charges. The message was clear. If Rajapaksa and company could destroy a war hero, the same or worse could happen to other challengers. To solidify his post-war hold on the Singhalese majority, Rajapaksa made no effort to rehabilitate the non-combatant Tamil population, forcing them to live under concentration camp conditions that gave rise to international criticism. The human rights community also demanded an investigation of that final battle. Had an overweening Rajapaksa government as well as the despicable Tigers* been guilty of war crimes?
Rajapaksa resisted outside scrutiny, thus becoming a pariah to the Western democracies that had been showering Sri Lanka with foreign aid. No problem, said Rajapaksa. He turned to an unjudgmental China for grants and development support. The result: a new improved harbor in-the-making for Colombo plus a strengthened economy, the latter surely just what he needed to clinch his election to a third term. Unfortunately for Rajapaksa, in his greed for unchallenged power he’d alienated more than a few democracy-loving Singhalese Buddhists as well as the Muslims, Christians and Tamils who’d long been part of a once fairly harmonious multiethnic state. And so he lost the election.
Meanwhile, the Chinese alliance offered a collateral benefit for Rajapaksa. It allowed him to thumb his nose at big neighbor India as well as the U.S., this in spite of the fact that India was a natural ally in the struggle against the Tigers, who’d eyed the south Indian state of Tamilnadu as a logical part of their future Tamil nation. In 1991, in fact, a Tiger operative had assassinated an Indian Prime Minister who (like his predecessors) had no intention of presiding over the disintegration of India. However, New Delhi’s threat/offer to provide troops to assist in the civil war was no more attractive to Colombo than to the rebels. The not entirely paranoid fear: would assistance be the prelude to a full scale Indian occupation? As an antidote to India’s annoyingly hegemonic assumptions about the sub continent, the routine presence of the Chinese fleet in Sri Lankan waters had a strong attraction. Needless to say, the Indians were watching the election campaign in Sri Lanka very closely. To New Delhi Rajapaksa was Ravana redux.
Rajapaksa is gone now—and for good, hopefully. But what about his successor? He’s a member of the same party as Rajapaksa, the very Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by the Bandaranyeke family who generated support by stoking Sinhalese nationalism and enacting legislation excluding Tamils from equal educational and employment opportunities. The SLFP’s relentless ethnic demagogy provoked the backlash of despair and anger that made the birth of Tamil terrorism almost inevitable. Is the new man up to the arduous business of rebuilding long wrecked bridges?
Less than a month into his presidency Maithripala Sirisena seems free of the Ravana-complex, and he’s saying the right things. For instance: “What this country needs is not a [demon] king, but a real human being.” Better yet, in his first address to the nation he promised to lead the country back to a parliamentary system of governance. Nice words. And they come with promising deeds as well. Sirisena has replaced the much resented Governor of the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. Not only has he installed a career diplomat instead of a general who fought against the Tigers in the civil war, that very diplomat served on a Truth Commission in favor of investigating abuses during the last phase of the war. But these are early days. It won’t be easy to make reparations to the Tamils without alienating the Sinhalese majority. We can only hope that Mahinda Rajapaksa won’t have the last laugh.
And how about China? It’s said that Sirisena plans to make some changes in that relationship. Any reduction in Chinese influence should make New Delhi happy—and Washington, too.
*I use the term “Tigers” as a composite representing a number of groups with similar goals and tactics of which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam is the most important.