“Speak Measured, without Bombast” Keitel tells Mahinda

keitelMatthias Keitel of Tubingen in ASIAN TRIBUNE, 28 January 2017, http://asiantribune.com/node/90032 … emphasis added by Editor, Thuppahi

“Mahinda Rajapaksa, as he jockeys to lead Sri Lanka again, must speak authoritatively on national issues. He must be the voice representing the unhappy masses and the disenchanted business community.

His statement on the proposed ETCA was excellent. But sadly there has been no follow up. The business community expects him to provide firm leadership on such matters. He must demonstrate confidence on issues of national importance. Confidence breeds confidence. Not braggadocio”.

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Two years in to the Sirisena-Wickremasingha government, the economy of Sri Lanka is in the doldrums. Despite all the hype orchestrated by the government, nothing seems to be working.

Business confidence is at a low ebb in the absence of clear governmental policy guidance. Very few in the business community express anything positive about the future and this sentiment is reflected in the reluctance to start new ventures. In fact many parts of the economy that seemed to be progressing steadily under the previous much maligned Rajapaksa regime are now wobbling. Investment levels have witnessed a nervous retraction.

FDI is dwindling and, in 2015, barely exceeded $300 million, down from over $1600 million in 2014. While Rajapaksa’s borrowings for infrastructure development have been heavily criticised by the current government, under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who came to office at the beginning of 2015, domestic debt grew by 12% and external debt by 25% without starting any new large-scale infrastructure projects. The total debt exceeds $65 billion today.

Two loudly promoted and high profile European investments, car assembly and tyre manufacturing, appear to have fizzled out. The Chinese who have expressed interest in investing in Sri Lanka appear to be toeing the water gingerly and with extreme caution. Confidence is lacking. There has been a noticeable tightening of visa procedures by China making it difficult for Sri Lankan business persons to visit that country. Increasing unemployment is becoming a concern, The cost of living is rising. Agricultural production has declined, compounded by an abnormal drought. It is difficult to find a farmer who would admit that he voted for the present government. The stock market has not recovered from the contraction experienced in 2015. Export levels are a concern and the Rupee continues to be under pressure.

The only bright spot in the economy is tourism. The tourist intake has grown rapidly and the number of hotels of all categories has increased, many approved during the previous regime. Top end hotel buildings crowd Colombo’s landscape. But tourism is a temperamental area of any economy. Even this sector will evaporate rapidly if the government does not deal courageously with divisive and extremist ethnic politics, including the expansive demands of the TNA and the Muslims. Any violent incident would easily affect the tourist intake. Ethnic based minority political parties are again indulging in divisive politics and testing the patience of the nation.

The tolerance level of the majority community has its limits and endless disregard for majority sentiment, including by elements of the government persisting with proposals to push ahead with deeply resented amendments to the constitution, could have disastrous consequences, as we have experienced in the past. Rajapaksa must continue to insist that Mangala Samaraweera be sacked for the supine docility with which he caved in to the very first demands of the US human rights warriors in Geneva.

In short, the economy is not working and political stability is doubtful. The attempts of the government to talk up the economy seem to be squishing like a damp squib in a peat bog.

In to this uncertainly stuttering machine, former President Rajapaksa has thrown a challenging spanner. He confidently expects the government to be toppled in 2017 and to lead the country again. Ominously, seven chief ministers called on him during the weekend. While, clearly, under the constitution, the government could be expected to complete its term, Rajapaksa may be aware of things that are not obvious to all. It is certainly hoped that he is not simply relying on astrological predictions. Astrology has not helped him in the past.

To have a good shot at governing again, Rajapaksa and his cohorts must primarily continue to beat the drum on the economic failures of the current government and remain focused on the obvious economic decline of the country. There is pain. Rajapaksa must reflect the people’s pain and be their voice. Many recall that life, though not brilliant, was not impossible during his tenure in office. Then there was hope. This is a line that he must emphasise. His bandwagon must do the same in addition to taking selfies with him on public occasions. Photographs might boost the ego but do not necessarily get transformed in to votes. Really, photos of Rajapaksa sitting on gilded thrones (e.g. during his visits to Thailand and Japan ) are more likely to bring back memories of the worst excesses of his time in power than generate sympathy. Excessive expressions of loyalty are unlikely to endear the man to the common people.

The Face Book must be used to convey a positive message from Mahinda Rajapaksa. Comparisons between the stability experienced during the Rajapaksa era and the uncertainty of the present must be repeatedly harped upon. Too often the FB is used to express adulation. In time, the average reader is bound to get cheesed off with some of the sycophantish adulation. The Face Book is a potent tool to convey a positive message. It must be used for this purpose.

To realise his ambition and make an impact on the political trajectory of Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa does not need to allow himself to be dragged along by narrow ethnic and provocatively nationalistic currents. There are some elements in the body politic who seem to be stoking the inherent fears of the Sinhala Buddhists about real or perceived slights generated by certain minority elements. Rajapaksa must manage and channel the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in a statesman-like manner without making the minorities nervous. He needs to demonstrate a global and all embracing vision. In fact he does not need to do much other than look like a father figure with a vision. Every one knows that he ended the reign of terror of the Tigers and also held the economy together.

Rajapaksa’s analysis of the situation surrounding the unrest pertaining to the Hambanthota harbour was clearly masterly. But a statement of this nature, made just once, would only be a flash in the pan to be quickly forgotten. His sentiments need to be echoed repeatedly by him and by his followers and the issues need to be approached from different angles. The government cleverly and repeatedly highlights the debts allegedly incurred by him and the attendant corruption. As Goebbels once said, repetition tends to make a story convincing. He simply needs to ensure that his story gets repeated.

The massive economic development that resulted from the loans obtained by Rajapaksa does not receive the airplay that it deserves.

He must speak authoritatively on national issues. His statement on the proposed ETCA was excellent. There is considerable danger in concluding the ETCA based on false and skewed assumptions. Sri Lanka needs to first ensure that the existing Free Trade Agreements, particularly with India, are properly implemented. But sadly there has been no follow up to Rajapaksa’s statement. The business community expects him to provide leadership on such matters. Confidence breeds confidence. Not braggadocio.

Rajapaksa needs to be a statesman now, and leave parish pump politics to the others. It was a huge error to have thrown his weight behind the relatively small number of protesters objecting to the government’s attempts to permit the Chinese to lease land in Hambanthota. The number of protesters was small enough to be ignored. They were not from Rajapaksa’s voter base. The negative impression created in Chinese minds could be a disadvantage to his future leadership aspirations and the protests may even have been deliberately engineered by anti Rajapaksa and anti China elements, including India. They may have been designed to inveigle Rajapaksa into an anti-China trap.

In the past Rajapaksa’s Chinese connection brought great rewards. China is the biggest lender of finance to the world and can be Sri Lanka’s saviour in the future as well. The whole country recognises this and the business community relies on the Chinese life line. The Colombo hotels are crowded with Chinese business representatives. The development of Sri Lanka’s tourism sector will be heavily dependent on the 100 million Chinese who travel abroad annually. Rajapaksa needs to be carefully nuanced in any statement he makes on the Chinese economic connection with Sri Lanka, especially since any electoral benefit from an overly nationalistic stance will be marginal. Lending his voice to rabble rousing political extremists will not earn him votes with the majority of the people and certainly not with the ordinary masses of Hambanthota who will benefit from the jobs and businesses generated by the Chinese investments. The possibility of the tentacle like hand of India in the Hambantota unrest cannot be ruled out.

Internationally, he needs to cultivate and gain the confidence of major powers, and political figures, not excluding India. Sri Lanka is now, for good or bad reasons, too much in the sights of global and regional powers. He must use his past connections to continue cultivating global leaders, including the newly appointed UN Secretary-General. He must take a leaf from Ranil Wickremasingha’s play book. Ranil spent a considerable portion of his time in opposition cultivating international leaders. Visiting adoring party faithfuls overseas is just not enough.

China invested heavily in Sri Lanka during Rajapaksa’s time in power because it needed a safe place to invest some of its vast reserves and stability along the artery that provided it with energy and trade access. At this stage, it is highly unlikely that China considers Sri Lanka to be a militarily strategic asset although India has referred to Sri Lanka as a massive aircraft carrier parked 22 miles from its shore.

While India would not want a hostile aircraft carrier in its backyard, it is unlikely to interfere in Sri Lankan affairs as long as India’s strategic interests were respected. India’s interests and sensitivities need to be carefully addressed in Rajapaksa’s public statements. He successfully kept India reassured during the conflict with the terrorist LTTE. Now, he needs to restore the same level of confidence in the suspicious and nervous neighbour. He must use the people who built that relationship again. Rajapaksa also needs to acknowledge that it was not he alone who consolidated that relationship but the hard work of some key officials. They must be brought on board his bus again and tasked with the job.

With the human rights warriors of the Democratic regime in the USA now safely ensconced in the academia or in lucrative lobbying firms, and given President Trump’s disinterest in the subject, the US is unlikely to get too closely involved in Sri Lankan affairs. This provides Rajapaksa a golden opportunity to cultivate good relations with the undoubted superpower of the world. Again, he needs to heed the counsel of those who are close to US politics and those who can impact on thinking in Washington. While the new administration may not necessarily be overly interested in Sri Lankan affairs, it would always be useful to ensure that it maintained a favourable or at least, neutral stance towards Sri Lanka. Personal relations count. America’s attitudes will influence many others, including many Europeans. The mainstream global media, which had been anything but favourable to Sri Lanka in the past, will in due course, pick up its cues from the White House.

In dealing with the international scene, Rajapaksa should try not to rely too much on tired and discredited old hacks. The world knows who had an impact globally during his time in office. It is also aware of those who hung on to his coat tails (or was it to the scarf?) for personal gain. He must deftly distance himself from all of them, if his own credibility is to be reestablished. He must remember that he lost an election, that could not be lost, largely due to the shenanigans of those around him, including family. He must distance himself from the rot of the past, however difficult it might appear.

If Rajapaksa’s goal is to get back the SLFPrs who defected to Sirisena, they must be given the confidence that he can deliver power. There is some remaining doubt that he is able to do so.

Those who served him in the past and who did not defect and who still maintain public respect must be brought back in to the inner circle. His image must be subtly built up with their help.

The country needs to develop fast. Sri Lanka has lagged in the backwaters for too long. Mahinda Rajapaksa must recognise that in the absence of Sri Lanka’s own resources, development can occur only with foreign investment. Foreign investments will not come as long as opportunistic political and nationalistic drums are beaten for electoral gain. Foreign development assistance is almost non existent in the contemporary world.

Rajapaksa must embrace this reality, take a stance that encourages foreign investment and clearly air his views like an elder statesman. This will earn him positive results in the West also. Of course committed and national conscious people of integrity should be in charge of dealing with the world of business, not self-seeking and bribe taking yes men.

Dr Keitel writes regularly on Sri Lankan political issues.

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