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Wiping out terrorism, feather in Rajapaksa's cap

About a week before the presidential election, I visited one of my good friends who was holidaying in Sri Lanka. My friend, a learned surgeon has a good practice overseas.

Minister Champika Ranawaka

When I arrived, a few other friends too were there and I joined the confabulation swiftly. The main topic was the presidential election and the politics around it - the most interesting subject at the time.

It was a balanced conversation. Most of us did appreciate the political leadership President Mahinda Rajapaksa provided to end the civil war with the LTTE separatists. Undoubtedly, it is a feather in his cap even now - wiping out a terrorist group that was a bane for 30 years is a singular achievement for a politician by any standard. The LTTE being the number one guerrilla movement that existed, this defeat was a consolation for the entire world.

Having destroyed the LTTE in 2009, a unique window of opportunity fell on President Rajapaksa's lap to take the country to greater heights.

This was a rare opportunity a politician could ever dream of. The entire peace-loving population expected him to make Sri Lanka a peaceful and prosperous place for all as this opportunity dawned.

Chit-chat

With the war victory President Rajapaksa wanted a fresh mandate for another six years. As we all knew, the war achievement was the principal reason behind President Rajapaksa's landslide victory in 2010. In fact, he stood for this mandate on the promise of building Sri Lanka on all fronts.

Our little chit-chat advanced gradually, at some point, I expressed my dismay as to why President Rajapaksa didn't want to become a Mandela after winning the war. There was an immediate response from my surgeon friend. He said boldly, "It's because Mahinda Rajapaksa was not a Mandela".

We had a moment of 'pin-drop' silence in the room; I presume, did my friend voice a lot by these few words.

Most of us witnessed how Nelson Mandela acted upon his election victory in 1994.

He got elected as President of South Africa for a common purpose, he delivered and stepped down gracefully having just done one term although he had the right environment to continue. He kept his promise as a gentleman.

War

I believe this behaviour is not common in the world, it takes a lot of self-discipline; real education; wisdom and the selfless mindset and nature of the person more importantly to sign-off in such a manner.

In the run up to the Presidential election this time, the country was apprised as to how the war was fought after 2005. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka was one of the key speakers on this topic.

He did recall how the JHU-JVP kept President Rajapaksa on his toes to continue the war at some important junctures when the latter was hesitant over his political future.

Also, Minister Ranawaka said that the President Rajapaksa came forward when the war was making its headway to accept the credit despite his lukewarm initial responses. One would believe this statement to be true as the public was not offered any counter-statement.

Also, Minister Rajitha Senaratne told the public about the futile initiatives he took to persuade President Rajapaksa to apply for the Nobel Peace prize.

Nevertheless, the war victory per se would not have been sufficient; the application would require real peace-building efforts in the post-war era for it to see some success.

After winning the war, I believe, President Rajapaksa had to select between the following two options by and large.

(1) Becoming a real hero and patriot: This is a mammoth task. Honesty is a must to be a real patriot as we all know. This route would have been a real rough and tough one given Sri Lanka's socio-economic structure. One of the key tasks would have been the reconciliation and integration of our multi-racial and religious society. Also, it would require to ensure equality and the economic benefits are distributed in an accepted manner down to the grassroots.

(2) Becoming a sole authority (dictator): This is basically acting as the sole proprietor of the country and handling it as a private property according to the whims and fancies of President Rajapaksa, his family and the henchmen that were around.

Ownership

Unfortunately, President Rajapaksa opted for (2). In a nutshell, I presume, he thought the country was an open cheque drawn in favour of the Rajapakses as the war was won under President Rajapaksa's stewardship. He gradually discarded or conveniently forgot the fact that he was only the custodian of the state for a limited period of time.

The limitless praise and virtual coronation the public offered on the war victory was taken as the confirmation of his ownership to the country by President Rajapaksa. This could be a quite natural tendency in Sri Lanka where people are too sentimental and emotional.

President Rajapaksa assumed that he and his family were bestowed with perpetual positions in the society. Some people even went to the extent to call him 'Maha Rajano' (king or emperor) and unfortunately President Rajapaksa got intoxicated by the undue praise.

This self-centered thinking led him to get derailed from the peoples' agenda and swiftly embark on a hidden personal plan.

President Rajapaksa was a brilliant actor much more than a statesman. He had a talent to pretend that he cares about the people and this had some success with the rural masses for sometime.

Kith and kin

As the second term began in 2010, President Rajapaksa wanted to be more secure in his position. He did every dirty trick possible to suppress and dismantle the opposition. One of the most deplorable deeds of President Rajapaksa was jailing his opponent Gen. Sarath Fonseka and harassing his family just because the latter stood against him. President Rajapaksa violated most democratic principles and rights, norms and traditions of the soil.

He placed his elder son and two brothers at the forefront; together the family controlled about 60% of the national budget. On the second tier, he placed all his uneducated and inexperienced kith and kin (the entire living family tree) and close friends to hold important portfolios just to maintain his sole control and the status quo over the entire establishment.

President Rajapaksa expected people to treat his family as royalty. The entire family wanted the limelight. More often than not the public witnessed the Rajapaksa family members deputise the Head of State over the senior Cabinet Ministers.

Also, President Rajapaksa created institutions (commercial and otherwise) according to his whims and fancies without any commercial feasibility. In one of the election rallies he mentioned the reason to set up Mihin Lanka.

The mere reason had been that Sri Lankan Air lines' (when it was under Emirates) refusal to provide the seats for President Rajapaksa and his 'battalion' for a sudden overseas visit. One would be shocked to hear this from a person who is said to be a lawyer of that age. Most professionals know how airlines are run. They would not refuse a business for the fun of it. People expect professionals, at least, to show their education in act. Some professionals show intelligence and wisdom especially when they are mature. However, in real life, with age, there can be two possibilities;

(1) Becoming a senior hand - This is running time holding on to something, just count months and years; finally become a senior citizen - no need to achieve much.

(2) Becoming a mature person - This involves acquiring intelligence with time; basically learning from the past and getting better-equipped for the future.

Viability

Where does President Rajapaksa stand? Did he show his education and/or wisdom in his decisions? The act of incorporating Mihin Lanka was similar to opening a bakery without checking its commercial viability because one couldn't find bread one particular morning, wasn't it?

Would a prudent person launch a business risking the country's meagre resources in this fashion? Mihin Lanka never reached its break even since its inception, it was another added burden on the exchequer. This is just one example. The last 4-5 year period saw prosperous times for the Rajapaksas and their inner circle while the masses suffered on all fronts. Most democratic and fundamental rights were absent. The basis for most decisions was just the level of allegiance people had for the Rajapaksa family. If one was on the Rajapaksa side he or she was a 'patriot' irrespective of his or her action and it was other way around for the opponents. The Rajapaksas did damage the social fabric big time. Sri Lanka was governed by two sets of laws. The government machinery was politicised.

The independence of the judiciary was swallowed and the judicial decisions were made on the instructions that had been issued from Temple Trees. The Rajapaksas allowed all types of ill trades in the country on the basis; ‘I scratch your back, you scratch my back.’ Virtually it was complete lawlessness.

The law abiding public became helpless. They didn’t have a place to go for redress. The people lost faith in the system but most of them were helpless in front of the power that was revolving around the culprits.

Lousy system

Fortunately, an iota of government politicians of the past regime were apparently clean or less corrupt compared to the Rajapaksas and their inner circle.

But they too were helpless and didn’t have an opportunity to join hands against the lousy system that prevailed. But, with time, they managed to come out under the leadership of President Chandrika Kumaratunge (as per her recent Sirasa TV interview).

For President Sirisena and his supporters, this exercise was much more than a mere election campaign. It was a battle between life-and-death.

We Sri Lankans should be grateful to President Sirisena for risking everything he had and fighting injustice on behalf of us.

As a result of much tedious action, today, Sri Lanka is blessed with Mr. Maithripala Sirisena as President of Sri Lanka - thanks to all who voted irrespective of colours.

With this much awaited change that took place on January 9, the country saw a lot of liberation. It was a breath of fresh air. The much needed environment was set in for people to enjoy their democratic rights immediately.

As a result of President Sirisena’s victory, the government changed and Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister together with a new cabinet to implement the 100-day plan.

Some of the promises have already been fulfilled, but a lot to be done yet. One of the salient points was; President Sirisena giving back 95% of his 2015 budget for the benefit of the people (the budget is now reduced to about Rs. 270 million).

Favourites

Although it’s important to prove the allegations, these days, the country is bombarded with colossal bribery and corruption charges that are being levelled against the Rajapaksas and their henchmen. There can’t be a smoke without a fire - but the country is yet to ascertain the extent of this fire officially.

However, it is apparent that the Rajapaksas allowed their favourites to enjoy the country’s resources without any checks and balances while they get secured in their positions and control the more lucrative deals by themselves. One of the reasons for this concession granted was to maintain a captive clan to be used as gatekeepers against criticism and other possible animosities.

The Rajapaksas were intoxicated with power and prepared to do anything to retain the same. That was the only thing they were after. They never thought of a defeat. The plan was to market the war victory and President Rajapaksa’s indispensability (the notion of LTTE’s return if the country loses him). But, the people were really tired of the Rajapaksas. Also this marketing strategy/tactic was dated - it is not possible to fool/hoodwink all the people all the time.

The country has to move on, the Rajapaksa rulership is behind us now. People’s expectations are high. The 100-day program was attractive to the people despite the various bribes President Rajapaksa offered to masses.

Now the Sirisena administration must perform and deliver. It’s obviously an uphill task as the country is in disarray. First and foremost the new administration should keep the house in order. It includes the passing of necessary parliamentary acts and laws to strengthen the democratic institutions of the country. One of the other short-run priorities is bringing the people who robbed the country to justice, as promised.

Objectives

In the medium to long run, the government led by President Sirisena must make sure that the economic benefits are distributed on a justifiable basis right down to the grassroots. The racial integration is an vital component of this exercise. Equality is a must in a society to achieve long-lasting peace which is a prerequisite for economic prosperity.

Easier said than done; obviously, this exercise would take tireless, painstaking, sincere and honest efforts.

Hope President Sirisena could achieve these ambitious objectives to a great extent in his tenure. The general election that would fall in the middle part of this year would be crucial to take these plans forward; hope the people of this country will send the right human beings to the parliament for this purpose.

Let’s see how President Maithripala Sirisena will perform as the chief government servant (as he says). He appears to be quite simple despite his accomplishment, most decorations and privileges have already been relinquished. He looks a well-rounded human being; his tenure has been reduced from six years to five; his retirement is already announced.

This poses a real contrast against President Rajapaksa who wanted to be in power for ever and hand over the battle to the next generation after him.

My surgeon friend was right. I believe, the aforesaid is sufficient evidence to suggest that President Rajapaksa was not the ‘Mandela’ material.

The 2009 opening (the war victory) was a lost opportunity for the country. But, our little island nation could now forge ahead again to bring about peace and prosperity as President Sirisena has won the hearts of most segments of the society.

On the strength of achieving long-lasting peace through proper social reconciliation; integration and distribution of economic benefits, our noble country would be able to produce a Nobel Peace prize winner too in time to come.

The writer is a marine engineer by profession

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