THE RAJAPAKSE REGIME: BRICKBATS, PLAUDITS
[Editors note: This article complements The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate, also by the same author.]
This is a disjointed exercise that does not claim comprehensiveness. That is impossible in a short essay, the more so because I write without ethnographic exposure to the experiential subjectivities of either the Tamil people in Sri Lanka or the poor people from every community struggling with the cost of living.
In a recent essay I have briefly annotated the government’s failure to prevent a series of killings and intimidations directed against media personnel and the widespread belief that elements in its sprawling establishment had a hand in many of these acts of injustice.[i]
In step with this record the Rajapakse Regime has consolidated the long tradition of overcentralised decision-making and authoritarianism at the top that has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s so-called democratic institutions for many decades.[ii] It is not surprising, therefore, that little or nothing has been done to initiate a genuine devolution of power in ways that would give the Tamil and Muslim peoples a goodly glass of political hope. All they have received so far is sweet words.
The All Parties Representative Committee has not secured any forward movement and the Leftist Ministers Tissa Vitharana and Dew Gunasekera seem to be holding on to barren sinecures. A great deal has been written on this line of failure in Groundviews, Transcurrents and in the local press, say, by Tisaranee Gunasekara and Shanie; so no further elaborations are required.
More recently, the International Crisis Group has set out some reasonable suggestions for administrative and constitutional reform that could go a long way towards improving the political climate in Sri Lanka. Take two of their pragmatic suggestions by way of example:
â€œdevelop with a sense of urgency a program of â€œlanguage rights for all”, featuring: i) expanded incentives and training opportunities for government servants to learn Tamil and full provision wherever needed of Tamil translators, government signs, and forms in Tamil; ii)Â expanded and improved instruction in Tamil for Sinhala-speaking students and in Sinhala for Tamil-speaking students â€¦”[iii]
The ICG!!! That name may well be a red-rag to a bull. But that is precisely why I have chosen such a non-tactical path: to underline the obduracy and myopia in some government circles.
When Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in 1994-94, partly on the back of a peace platform, she promised to restore â€œdignity” to the Tamil Sri Lankans. Her intent was genuine, but her administrative bungling, her choice of aides and the contingencies of politics truly scuppered that intent.
Many politically conscious Tamils in Sri Lanka today have doubts about the Rajapakse Regime’s depth of intent in this sphere. Infrastructural gifts to the Tamil regions will not suffice. Without reaching out to Tamil hearts through meaningful acts of devolution the Rajapakses who won the war will lose the peace.
But let us not forget that triumph, namely, winning the war, and the contrast with the bumbling efforts of the governments during Eelam Wars II and III. This demands a step back in time.
2002-08: From Shaky Peace to Victory at War
Standing in 2002 I was among those who supported the peace efforts and the search for a modus vivendi that would arrest the cycle of war. This was informed by my belief that the government simply lacked the capacity to defeat the LTTE â€“ a conviction that was not unjustified in terms of past history. The Achilles heel in this stance lay within the incisive point raised by Dayan Jayatilleka: how can one have any federal state or any consociation of nationalities when the territory hosts two armies and two navies? In brief, the situation spelt the likelihood of a return to war at any moment.
Besides, during my brief visit to LTTE territory in November 2004 I discovered quite definitively that the LTTE was set on returning to war, a step that was delayed by the losses they suffered during the tsunami in late December, but one which they eventually made. We also know now that Pirapaharan reacted in rage when the Oslo Agreement was signed; and that Anton Balasingham, Thamil Chelvam and Karuna were in his bad books thereafter. Indeed, Baalsingham was sidelined, but that shift was carefully covered up by tales about his illness. Apart from the revelations provided by George Master, I recently gained further confirmation of this facet of history from a young Tamil of pro-Tiger disposition in Melbourne who possessed incredible information about the LTTE’s inner workings.
Helping the hawkish Rajapakse coalition to come to power was one aspect of the LTTE’s strategy of adhering to its dogmatic pursuit of Eelam by war and by diplomacy founded upon victory and/or stalemate secured by war. The ideology of the LTTE hardcore, including Pottu Amman and Castro, was quite set in its ways.
What they did not bargain for was the capacity of the Rajapakse brothers, with Gothabaya to the fore, in coordinating military activity across the branches of armed action and in expanding the resources needed for war on a phenomenal scale.[iv] Nor did they know that a few of the top brass in the army, including General Sarath Fonseka, had built up the skills and endurance of the infantry regiments during the period of peace.[v]
These skills materially assisted the new strategies of warfare and new tactics engineered by Sarath Fonseka with the help of such thinkers as Brigadier Prasanna Silva and a whole battery of junior officers. Tammita-Delgoda’s essays on the subject of the infantry role in the final battles should be compulsory reading for those who push pens without any inkling about the character of the Eelam War IV.[vi] For those of us familiar with the hierarchical nature of Sri Lankan society, the decentralised decision-making and action-taking methods established by Fonseka are as incredible as revolutionary.
Such an emphasis does not displace the importance of a critical factor in securing the total defeat of the LTTE: namely, the superiority in numbers and machinery available to the Sri Lankan armed forces, not least the availability of satellite technology and numerous UAVs that improved the precision of artillery fire and aerial bombing. In overview, the victory in 2008-09 may not quite match that of the Viet Minh in 1954 or the Viet Cong in the 1970s, but it is not far short of these moments in modern military history when framed against the organisational and fighting capacities of the LTTE.
That triumph brought much kudos to the Rajapakse Regime in the eyes of many Sri Lankans. The week after the final battle may have seen a display of triumphalism in the streets of Sri Lanka that latter-day puritans have viewed with sanctimonious distaste;[vii] but these expressions were no more than the displays that bubbled over when VE Day was announced at the end of WWII or when the Free French under De Gaulle marched into Paris.[viii] My own reading while in Sri Lanka in May 2009 was that the overwhelming sentiment among Sri Lankans of all classes was one of relief. Nor were the joyous expressions purely Sinhalese. Rumour held that the Muslims of Kathankdudy expressed their delight in unrestrained fashion.
Adroit Foreign Policy
Central to the success in Eelam War IV was the Rajapakse Regime’s ability to sustain an enormous increase in its military stock through arrangements with Pakistan, China and India in particular. In countering the sustained campaign in Western capitals to undermine its war efforts in early 2009 the government drew on the mutuality of interest it possessed with big powers Russia and China in providing no oxygen to separatist forces within their respective territories.
The government also cultivated the friendship of Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Iran. Indeed, Iran has been a major player in the Sri Lankan arena for some time through substantial investments in such projects as the US$450 million Uma Oya hydroelectric project and the US$750 million upgrade of Sri Lanka’s only oil refinery at Sapugaskanda.[ix]
China’s capital investments in Sri Lanka have been even greater, even monumental. Such major infrastructural projects as the Hambantota Port Development Project (US$ 1 billion), Norochcholai Coal Power Plant Project (US$ 85.5 million) and the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway (US$248.2 million) are being funded by China. Thus, China’s aid to Sri Lanka grew five-fold between 2006 and 2008, â€œreplacing Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest donor.”[x] The depth of friendship was underlined by the fact that between them the two Rajapakse brothers made eight visits to China in recent years.
China’s stake in developing Hambantota port is clearly part of a grand design serving its interests in maintaining its arterial highway for essential supplies of oil and other goods. India has expressed concern about this process. But one does not need to be taken in by the one-eyed fear-mongering peddled by some Indian dilettantes such as Brahma Chellaney.[xi] Nor should we pay much attention to Robert Kaplan’s one-sided opinion that â€œthe biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won” â€“ a claim supported by a colour-drawing of Hambantota port in its modernised scale.[xii]
India too has substantial investments in Sri Lanka and had a strategic interest in preventing a separatist state in Sri Lanka. Be that as it may, the Sri Lankan government’s success in straddling the tight rope between Indian and China in recent times was no mean diplomatic achievement.
Hambantota as Growth Pole
Hambantota District in the extreme south eastern corner of the island is from where the Rajapakse clan hail. The creation of a modern artificial harbour is not the only major project they have sponsored within this area. A new airport estimated to cost US$210 million has just been inaugurated.[xiii]
There is also to be a new cricket stadium. Sri Lanka already has a few too many cricket stadiums, nineÂ now with that in Hambantota; but cricket is at the centre of sporting patriotism in the island because it is a new ‘religion’ and the only game in which our sportsmen can match the international best. Such a venue will undoubtedly boost the game in this neglected outback area and discover new Jayasuriyas over the long run.[xiv]
What we see then is a multi-stranded endeavour by the Rajapakses to develop their own patch of territory. In doing so they are also catering to the Ruhuna sentiments within Sinhalese imagination.[xv] The venerable Pali and Sinhala texts say that it was this area in which the Sinhala hero-figure, DutugÃ¤munu, was nurtured prior to military campaigns that evicted Tamil invaders and unified the island under one umbrella in the second century BCE. Mahinda Rajapakse is cast as a new DutugÃ¤munu by his followers and the money invested within his home-ground may well be regarded as legitimate attention to hearth and kin.
Sceptics may cavil at the motives inspiring this regional focus. Such queries about their motivations notwithstanding, the Rajapakses have accidentally pressed forward with a master-stroke that will be of immense benefit to Sri Lanka. For over 100 years since 1850, and especially since Colombo port was developed as a modern harbour by the 1880s, Sri Lanka has been weighed down by the metropolitan hegemony of Colombo and its environs. Since that moment, the metropolis functioned as the island’s principal ideological manufactory, its modular display of symbolic life-styles and a magnet that has induced internal migration from outlying arenas to its hub of opportunities.[xvi] Ruhuna-folk and Tamils from the Jaffna Peninsula have been important elements in this process of internal ‘colonisation’.
The Vaddukoddai Resolution of Eelam in 1976 and the war that followed challenged this spatial hegemony. The comprehensive defeat of the LTTE in 2009 threatens to restore the imbalance. But in my view, the programmes centred upon Hambantota District will even the keel somewhat. That is to say, the Hambantota locality will soon develop a capacity to function as a growth pole and a counterpoint to Colombo’s dominance. This probability will be of immense benefit to Sri Lanka’s political economy.
A Third Growth Pole
Sri Lanka’s rulers in the immediate future should not stop there. Indeed, from this moment on they should proceed to develop the North-East as a third growth pole, with the axis constituted by Point Pedro-Trincomalee-Jaffna town as the central trunk and Kankesanturai, Palaly and Velvittatturai as adjunct limbs.
Point Pedro?Â This port was important in the coastal trade in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It housed a shipbuilding centre in the mid-twentieth century. Together with VVT it provided the Tiger personnel, mostly Karaiayar, whose maritime capacities gave the LTTE an edge over the other Tamil fighting groups. It is time for Sri Lankans to restore Point Pedro’s potential as part of a north-eastern axial growth centre. The Rajapakse Regime has made an excellent start in this direction by lining up one Indian and one Chinese company in US$ 430 million deal to reconstruct the Northern railway line from Omanthai to Kankesanthurai next week.[xvii] Here, then, is another balancing act that carefully nurtures both regional giants, a measure that will also be of great benefit to the northern Tamils. However, that alone is not adequate: such a focus must be expanded in the same manner as the drive to build up the south-eastern corner of the island.
Modernisation through Infrastrutural Development
In extending my plaudits to those governmental projects directed to infrastructural development, clearly, my position is functionalist and economistic. The yardstick is that of political economy with a spatial emphasis.
This stance is conditioned by my study of modern Sri Lankan history. The transformation of Sri Lanka was made possible by the roads and railways built by the British. They carried out these changes in their own interest. It facilitated the appropriation of surplus from the island towards the mother-country and its imperial projects. It also deepened the implantation of a proletarian class.
But the process also enabled the growth of an indigenous bourgeoisie and its adjunct stratum of â€œmiddle classes.” That is, social mobility was fostered. So, too, was the health of the general population improved considerably; while the near-eradication of malaria from the 1940s consolidated these improvements.
This mode of evaluation can be highlighted by focusing on the subject of rural electrification. As an urban lad I never had to face up to the problems of studying by oil lamp or living in semi-darkness. A glimpse of Chinese peasant life through a recent French-Canadian documentary on the Yangtze did provide me with a dim understanding of the difficulties faced by rural folk in backward areas. Placed thus in context, the Rajapakse Regime’s major improvements in the island’s power supplies must be regarded as a boon, albeit one that will favour entrepreneurs and politicians more than they do the ordinary man.
This programme, in turn, dovetails with the rapid improvements in the island’s road network begun in the previous dispensation and now taken into higher gears by the Rajapakses. The fly-overs at Nugegoda and Dehiwala junctions are but one sign of the extraordinary improvements in the roads in most parts of the island which I experienced in April-May and which several friends have also commented upon.
All such projects in China, India, Sri Lanka and much of Asia, of course, are lubricated by â€œcommissions” and involve the â€œperquisites of office.” Where there is some sort of democratic process, they interlace with patronage networks that can deliver votes. So, there is self-advantage for governing elites in pressing forward with modernisation. Both wallet and vote-bank bulge. Such outcomes have one plus attached to them: the projects do not remain on paper, but are implemented. There are fringe benefits for the users of electricity and travellers on road and rail; and perhaps even a reduction of consumer prices.
A Major Caution
All this modernisation is well and good. But such â€œgoodies’ will not win Tamil hearts and minds. There is a deep sense of embitterment throbbing within the hearts of many Tamils, including those who have been hostile to the LTTE. Infrastructure does little to change such profound sentiments. Without meaningful acts of devolution that restore their dignity and sense of full citizenship, their Sri Lankan-ness will not be regenerated. In such an event, the Rajapakses who won the war will undermine the potential benefits.
Early in 2009 Rohan Gunaratna pressed the same message:
“The Government must make Tamils feel that they have the same rights and privileges of Sinhalese and the Muslims. The Government must commence a process of reconciliation with those Tamils and offer an amnesty and reintegrate LTTE surrendees. Similarly Government must develop the North and the East and build a super-highway between Jaffna and Colombo. â€¦In this conflict Muslims have suffered as much as Sinhalese and Tamils. However, if we are to remain a united Sri Lanka we must identify ourselves as Sri Lankans. We must think and act as Sri Lankans. To forge such an identity, there must be a visionary leadership.”[xviii]
His refrain is not markedly different from that of the International Crisis Group. The Rajapakse Regime will do well to imbibe these thoughts and implement programmes in these fields in the same energetic manner that has been displayed on the infrastructural front.
[i] â€œThe Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in press.
[ii] See four chapters on â€œThe Asokan Persona,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994 and â€œSome Pillars for Lanka’s Future,” Frontline, 6-19 June 2009, vol.26/12.
[iii] ICG, â€œSri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus,” 7 Nov. 2009, http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5144&l=1
[iv] Rohan Gunaratna in Asian Tribune, 18 April 2009.
[v] Tammita-Delgoda, â€œSri Lanka. The Last Phase in Eelam War IV,” Manekshaw Paper No. 13, 2009, New Delhi, Centre for Land Warfare Studies.
[vi] Tammita-Delgoda ibid [also serialised in the Sunday Island, for four weeks prior to 6 Sept 2009].
[vii] Suwendrini Perera, ?? in The Age, 12 Nov. 2009
[viii] Knowledge derived from my assiduous reading of past London Illustrated News in the library of St. Aloysius College, Galle, when I was schoolboy 1948 onwards.
[ix] Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe, â€œSri Lanka â€“ The New Great Game,” Island, 1 Oct. 2009.
[x] De Silva-Ranasinghe Ibid.
[xi] Chellaney, â€œChina fuels Sri Lanka’s War,” http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2009/03/brahma-chellaney-china-fuels-sri-lankan-war.
[xii] Michael Totten, â€œA Conversation with Robert D. Kaplan,” http://www.michaeltotten.com/ archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php.
[xiii] W. Liyanarachchi, â€œSouthern Airport Project gets off the Ground,” Daily News, 26 Nov. 2009. Michael Hardy’s critical review of the project is bedevilled by internal contradictions (â€œHambantota Airport fuelled by Politics,” Sunday Leader, 29 Nov. 2009).
[xiv] Already the left-handed paceman Suranga Lakmal, who now plays for the Tamil Union, has broken into the top 40 pool of players. He is the first youngster from this district to come into prominence.
[xv] Note C. A. Chandraprema, Ruhuna: A Study of the History, Society and Ideology of Southern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Bharat Publishers, 1989.
[xvi] Roberts, “The Two Faces of the Port City:Â Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.), Brides of the Ocean:Â Port Cities of Asia, 1500 to Modern Times, Sydney, Allen and Unwin. 1989, pp. 173-87.
[xvii] Irangika Range, â€œNorthern Railway Line Reconstruction expedited,” Island, 26 Nov. 2009.
[xviii] Interview with Manjula Fernando, â€œLTTE loses both Skill and Will,” Daily News, 22 March 2009. Also see M. Roberts, â€œThe Needs of the Hour,” in www.groudnviews.org, 1 April 2009 and R. Gunaratna, â€œEnding the Sri Lankan Conflict,” http://www.dailymirror.lk/DM_BLOG/Â Sections/ frmNewsDetailView.aspx?ARTID=45444.