President Mahinda Rajapaksa: Strengths and Limitations

Victor Ivan, a refined and re-edited version of an article in the Sunday Leader, 28 November 2010

 The swearing in ceremony of President Mahinda Rajapaksa following his second successive victory at the presidential elections was held on November 19. President Rajapaksa cannot be considered as a state leader who has been subjected to a just evaluation. Either we hear loud praises being sung about him or vicious and furious allegations hurled against him. This article seeks to weigh the strengths and limitations unique to President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a state leader.

He can be considered as a leader who is the most powerful and colourful among  those state leaders who emerged since Sri Lanka’s (SL) Independence. He can be identified as different from other state leaders on two factors: Hitherto every state leader was from Colombo and primarily Colombo oriented, whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa is the first state leader who is  from a village and village oriented. The other important reason which makes him stand out from other state leaders is the role of saviour  he had to play in his field. No other present state leader of Sri Lanka was afforded the opportunity to play this saviour role. He is the first and only leader who was saddled with that challenge.

He is not received well among the urban liberal middle class intellectuals. Even during the period when he gained power, they were puzzled by him. Who is he? What does he know? Those were the questions asked by the sceptical middle class. The principal reason for this doubt arose from the fact that he was not from the city and not from the urban elite. Such a doubt also assailed this part of society in its relationship with President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Decision making ability

Mahinda Rajapaksa is not  an individual who had arrived on the political scene by accident or by chance. He can be reckoned as a leader with the same experience  as  President Ranasinghe Premadasa  and one who has gone through the mill. He nursed the feeling for a long time  that he would some day become the leader of this country. Like Premadasa, Mahinda Rajapaksa too aimed at that goal. He had in him the experience and incisive knowledge  in regard to the country’s affairs. He was a leader who waited patiently until he got the opportunity. Even on the occasions when he was sidelined or  demeaned within the SLFP,  he bore them with patience and stuck with the party. He never deserted it. That trait of his goes to confirm his determination and political ambition.
He proved his mettle as a leader not only after the war, but even before. When a number of previous state leaders avoided the implementation of projects owing to opposition and protests, Mahinda Rajapaksa pursued an unswerving and strong policy: he not only went ahead, but also implemented the Norochcholai coal power project opposed by the church, and the upper Kotmale power project which was stalled because of the opposition mounted by Thondaman.
Even before the war ended, he announced his interest to develop infrastructure facilities. He introduced new road projects while also improving roads in the rural areas in a manner never undertaken by anyone hitherto. What was most striking and special about it all is even after the war erupted, the infrastructure plans which had commenced and the programmes associated with them continued uninterrupted alongside  the raging war. From this it is evident that he is a leader with an exclusive vision for development that is peculiar to himself. Prior to this, two leaders emerged in modern Sri Lanka who had grandiose visions. They were President J.R. Jayewardene and President Ranasinghe Premadasa. President Mahinda can also be considered as a leader who is on par with them in that respect.
His painful decision to fight the war against the LTTE to the end can be considered the most difficult and arduous task that he has undertaken. Previously, all state leaders nursed the belief that the LTTE is a cruel organisation  which could not be defeated. The international community too entertained the same view. The state leaders harboured fears in respect of the monumental problems they may have to confront if they were to engage in a decisive war against the LTTE. Every other leader fought the war against the LTTE not with the aim of defeating it, but rather as a means of compelling them to come to the negotiating table.
Unlike his predecessors, in relation to this complex issue, Mahinda was exceptional for he was determined to defeat the LTTE. He stuck to this goal with grit and determination without yielding to the international pressures brought to bear on him. Finally the LTTE was annihilated in a manner which no one could believe. His political opponents had pinned their hopes on the war to take advantage of his failures and debacles in that engagement. But on the contrary, they were driven to defeat with Mahinda successfully vanquishing the invincible Prabhakaran and emerging victor.
It is the view of Mahinda’s political opponents that Mahinda’s decision to fight the war and his subsequent efforts in pursuit of the war against the LTTE stemmed from his Sinhala extremist perspective. It can however be emphatically noted that at that particular juncture in 2006 the President had no other option except to wage war against the LTTE.
The LTTE’s objective had been to secure a confederation status if they could not establish a separate state. They had no intention of accepting anything less than that. The LTTE had created a situation where it was impossible to resolve the issue by discussion because of their stern and inflexible stance. Moreover they never took an innocent position where they could say they aggressed only when aggressed upon. They were always the aggressors attacking at every opportunity using the weapons in the most destructive manner. In the circumstances, the President was compelled to opt for war and nothing else.
In case the President had not taken this momentous decision, there was room for the situation to  turn detrimental not only to the President but even to the whole country.

The Anti War Front

While the government was at war against the LTTE, there arose an anti government political campaign.  These Anti War Fronts lodged their protests on the pretext that  they were anti war and anti government on the government’s war policy. It can be said that these complicated political developments based on these anti war and anti government fronts were the outcome  of a number of factors. Mingled with  them  were   the UNP and those of the Sinhala society who are  opponents of Mahinda. Minority parties and LTTE sympathisers were also among them. There were also individuals and organisations who believed that this issue can be resolved by dialogue alone. The NGOs receiving foreign funding and  carrying on projects with this end in view also harboured that notion.
This front  became anti war, anti government and anti Mahinda. Their whole political objective was to see the government’s war campaign founder and  Rajapaksa government crash or be devastated. They never believed that the war will be won. They were of the opinion that due to the war, the Rajapaksa government will be plunged into deep trouble thus paving the way for  the opposition to regain power. Based on  this conviction, they did everything possible using all the resources at their command to tarnish the image of the government internationally.
Their actions did grave harm to the government and the security forces internationally. The counter measures taken by the government and the forces against them also did a lot of damage to them in return. This conflict between these two parties was reflected in the  acrimony and bitter hostilities during the final phase of the war.  Consequently, the external image of Sri Lanka was torn down owing to this. The Anti War Front portrayed the government’s war  effort as a campaign against the Tamil race. While the Front tried to  justify their  extremist policies through this portrayal, the government on the other hand sought to justify its action by pointing out the traitorous trait characterising the Front.

Giving the war an anti Tamil complexion

The Anti War Front campaigners interpreted the war as a genocide war against the Tamil people. They were of the view that every arrest made and every attack was an act of revenge against the  Tamils. This erroneous analysis did not cease even after the war was won. It was alleged that the government’s plan was to prolong the detention of the Tamils in the camps when delays occurred in releasing them. When army families were being settled in the North and East they claimed that there was a programme to create an Army colony.
There is no doubt that the war affected the Tamils. But it cannot be presumed that the war operations were intended to harm the Tamils as a people or with governed by atrocious aimsto reduce them to nothing. During the JVP insurgency devastation earlier on, there had been worse incidents in the Sinhala dominated South. After the defeat of the LTTE there were hardly any incidents where the Tamils were targeted by killings inspired by revenge. At the moment of victory, before and after, the restraint and skill shown in restraining expressions of  racial hatred on the one hand, and on the other the administration of the refugees and the prisoners by the Rajapaksa government are significant achievements, albeit measures that have hardly been noticed or appraised by articulate media voices on the non-government side

Managing racial hatred

There were so many factors which contributed during the war to arouse ethnic hatred. Targeting the civil population the LTTE brutally attacked them on occasions with the objective of provoking ethnic vengeance and violence. However, no racial riots erupted –because there was an appropriate administration in place to stave off such provocative situations.
Even though the people were allowed to celebrate ecstatically and enthusiastically as soon as the war was won, they were not permitted to turn the celebrations into ethnic violence. The manner in which the thousands of displaced refugees in the camps, the large number of LTTE supporters who were arrested and those who surrendered were treated, was most humane. The manner  in which the LTTE child soldiers were treated and rehabilitated was exemplary — so much so that they are now considered as model methods  which other countries could follow. Among the voluntary workers who were serving in the refugee camps was a sister of the President, and her husband who was a medical doctor. The humane treatment meted out to the LTTE prisoners by the government can be considered as much better than the treatment that was given by the government at that time to the JVP prisoners of the 1971 insurgency.
The proposal brought forward by Gen. Fonseka after the conclusion of the war to increase the cadres of the army by some hundreds of thousands of soldiers was rejected by the President without any hesitation. If the President had at that moment consented to the proposal taking into account the popularity and power wielded by the army, there was room for Sri Lanka to turn into another Burma.
No changes in the ratio on the ethnic distribution in the North and East have occurred in the way Mahinda’s critics expected. No Sinhala people have been settled in those areas. The government has agreed to reduce the extent of the high security zones step by step and release those lands to the first settlers. It should be acknowledged that the government is also engaged in a special programme in order to improve the infrastructure facilities and standard of living of those who are being resettled. Of course divergent opinions have emerged. Yet, in the North and East there is a general feeling of goodwill. The lives of those people are gradually returning to normal. Even though a political solution has not been found as yet, the people of the North and East are visibly enjoying more freedom than what they had during the LTTE administration. The economic developments which had been denied to them during wartime are now in progress. Despite all this the Tamil people are still suspicious and feeling hurt. That should come as no surprise — those who have lost their family members cannot erase those memories that easily.
Be that as it may, now they have their own active Parliamentary MPs representing  the North and East. Earlier their people’s representatives were confined only to Colombo and could not go to their electorates, but now these  representatives are able to go to their electorates and look into the woes of the people and are able to attend district development meetings. In both the East and the North there is an administration system with their representatives in the Provincial Councils (PCs). While the PC in the East is already in existence, the PC elections in the North ought to be held very shortly. In the North and East the politics of the bullet is being replaced by politics of the ballot.
If every aspect is justly and reasonably examined, it is under the Rajapaksa administration era that the bilingual policy in regard to government servants was followed best and successfully. This was not implemented  only after the war but pursued even before the conflict began. Most number of government servants sat the Sinhala – Tamil proficiency exams only during the Rajapaksa regime. Today in every area where Tamils are living, there are police officers who can work in Tamil. Perhaps the number of officers are inadequate, but the foundation laid is strong enough to move ahead.
I may deem myself as a monitor on  the war and the issues springing  up from it. The political opponents portrayed Mahinda Rajapaksa as a Sinhala Chauvinist leader. There is absolutely no truth in that. He was not only a leader who won the confidence of the majority community but also one who respected the views of all other communities with the ability to give due consideration to the just needs and identities of  the other communities. He is a compassionate political leader who laid a strong foundation for the building up of a single Sri Lankan Nation bringing together all races. He did not have the Oxford University education from Britain of Bandaranaike, yet he can be reckoned as a  progressive leader who has the power and the knowledge to manage various communities of people. He broke away from Bandaranaike’s misguided policies. In all probability, he is the leader who can make the dream of a united Sri Lankan Nation a reality.

Shortcomings and limitations

No leader is entirely without blemish. The emergence of a perfect leader is impossible. Good and bad are always mixed, even Mahatma Gandhi had faults and shortcomings. In the governance of Mahinda too there are  flaws and shortfalls in his style and system of administration. The policy pursued in relation to Sarath Fonseka is unwelcome. He might be an individual who had committed a wrong for which he deserves punishment. There may be reasons to justify the rage of the President against him. But he was an opposition presidential candidate who contested the President.
Looking at the policy followed in respect of him, it seems that it  is wreaking revenge on an opposition presidential  candidate. The signals given out based on this series of events do not augur well for the President or the government.
A government which nurtures nepotism and shows favoritism is reprehensible in the modern context. Since Independence, every ruler had this trait except that it was more in some  and less in others. The UNP which ruled after Independence also governed while leaning more towards its family members. From time to time in every government which  ruled these  family roots persisted. After S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, the SLFP was nurtured under Sirima Bandaranaike with greater weight being attached to one family. Every government that sprung  to power from this party had these  family roots embedded in it. It must be acknowledged that this is more manifest in the Rajapaksa administration.
The impact of this trend was evident especially when the  leaders of the SLFP changed owing to opposition to this trend. MR was not an individual who inspired the confidence of Chandrika and during that time Mahinda was not treated fairly. This situation also  militated against the other leaders of the SLFP. Among them there were some leaders who wished to  please and pamper Chandrika  while ignoring Mahinda. In 2005, Mahinda contested the presidential  election not as a party leader but from a rung below. During  that election the SLFP party leader extended support to Ranil. At that juncture the issues which surfaced inside the party turned detrimental to the other leaders in  a small or great measure.
Even after the presidential election victory, there was a campaign to entice a group of members of the government to the opposition party backed by the former President, and to topple the government. This led the present President to lean heavily on his family members and those whom he trusted. When the war began again, he got pushed deeper into this situation, and when the war raged he strengthened himself on these lines.
Among the individuals who were close to him, his brothers Gotabaya and Basil showed immense dedication and performed a number of tasks. They were an asset to the government and not a liability. Though Mahinda’s relationship as a brother imparted strength to them, they had a special aptitude and ability towards work. Yet the same cannot be said in regard to the others. Every leader is biased towards his family and family relations. But the danger in that bias is when positions are granted considering only the family affiliations and affinities without giving due regard to their efficiency and abilities. In such circumstances reaching the leader’s desired goals become only a dream and not a reality, not to mention they becoming a burden to the country.
The other reason which exposes the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime to justifiable criticism is the pursuit of the policy of continuing with the corrupt political system without effecting fundamental changes. If among the systems of reforms available, the Executive Presidency system is the most favoured, then that system shall be amended to win the confidence and reverence of the people. Unlike earlier, if necessary, it can be accomplished now as never before, as there exists no fear of courting instability.
There is no doubt that grave complicated issues were inherent in the 17th Amendment . But the measures formulated to overcome this cannot be accepted as an  appropriate solution. Any state leader prefers to choose people whom he wishes for state appointments. There is nothing wrong in that. The state leader should have the prerogative to choose individuals to important positions. But that becomes a problem when incompetent and unqualified people are given appointments to those positions. A state leader who has the right to choose must have a system whereby he can preclude the appointment of unsuitable candidates to those positions.
The biggest challenge to steering ahead is the power and practice of corruption. Corruption eats into the revenue of the country and militates against the government’s capacity to provide the necessary facilities and welfare for the people.  If the law of assets and liabilities could be amended appropriately and that law can be tightened, a great deal of corruption can be curbed and controlled. The President must seriously focus his attention on this important issue.
When it comes to electing himself as the type of leader he ought to be, Mahinda Rajapaksa  has a number of options. He can follow Lee Kwan Yu or Muhammed Mahathir’s path and by that he can ensure the country’s prosperous future. But in both those countries while there is economic prosperity they are poor in democracy. Though  democracy in Sri Lanka had always been lacking maturity and has been riddled with complications, the people of the country have always had an innate and inordinate passion for democracy unlike in Singapore and Malaysia. That was why former President Jayewardene’s dream of creating a single party system in Sri Lanka could not be realised. Mahinda’s importance as a statesmen will be fully recognized if and when he makes this country an economically successful democracy.

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