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Enlightened leadership for a resurgent Sri Lanka

by Jehan Perera

(November 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The state media described President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s oath taking ceremony for his second term in office that took place on November 19 as a simple, solemn and dignified one. The President’s demeanour on the occasion was indeed simple, solemn and dignified. Historians of Asian practices have noted that the old traditions, especially those influenced by Buddhist teachings, give prominence to the ascetic ideal which fits well with the practice of simplicity that is both solemn and dignified. However, the build up to the president’s taking of oaths, and everything else about the ceremony, was ostentatious, lavish and would have been costly. The government declared November 15 to 22 a commemorative week and organized activities country-wide to celebrate the president’s swearing-in with government buildings lit up and large posters of the president erected around the country. It appears that those who organized the various ceremonies wished to make a different connection to the past.

In traditional cultures, the sun and the moon are the physical objects that most closely represent permanence, with the sun dominating the day time and the moon outshining the stars at night. The sun and moon which have been used as symbols of kingship was the stage décor beneath which the president took his oaths. While such imagery is not in harmony with a modern political system, Sri Lanka’s executive presidential system is one that can tempt its incumbents to think in those terms. The position gives enormous power to the incumbent, which is why the first executive president J R Jayewardene said that the only thing he could not do with it was to make a man into a woman and vice versa. President Jayewardene also traced his political lineage to the kings of the past. President Ranasinghe Premadasa who succeeded President Jayewardene made for himself a chair that was modeled on the thrones of the kings. President Rajapaksa has enhanced the powers and privileges of the presidency by passing the 18th Amendment to the constitution.

Despite the difficulties that the government is experiencing in finding resources to increase the salaries of public servants and to resettle the war displaced people in an acceptable manner, the resources were somehow found for the magnificent celebrations. Two events could even earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, as stated in the government’s official news portal. One was the planting of 1.1 million trees in 11 minutes as a representation of the prolific productiveness of the president’s second term. The other was the cooking of a gargantuan dish of milk rice, a traditional food used for auspicious occasions, and variously estimated to be between 4000 to 15000 kilograms in weight by a team of over 300 cooks and to feed 65,000 people, which works out at exactly a thousand for each year of the president’s age. The state news agency Lankapuvath reported that this novel exhibition and ceremony had been organized by the Government Information Department to provide the people with an opportunity not only to witness the preparation of the dish but also to taste it in the presence of the Head of State.

Imagined King

Immediately prior to the oath taking, religious observances took place in many religious places to bestow good fortune upon the president and country, which were set to continue for a week. The ceremonial opening of the new Chinese built harbour at Hambantota took place in a unique manner with its naming as the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa port. Into this port sailed in three ships, one bearing over 300 chanting Buddhist monks, another being a replica of an ancient Sinhalese sailboat and a third with relics from Burma. The international media has interviewed leading members of the government who have not been embarrassed to project the president to be in the mould of a king whose righteous rule brings rain to make the crops flourish. The recent issue of the Economist magazine has quoted a government member claiming that in Sri Lanka an era of "ruler kings" has begun. Western ideas of transparency, he had claimed, along with limits on presidential power and accountability, are not relevant to "Asian culture". As a thunderstorm unleashed an early monsoon downpour, he had suggested that a ruler’s worth should be judged by a traditional standard. "When the king is good," he had said, "in time the rains come."

The practice in Sri Lanka is for governments to seek to become more powerful and to deliver patronage to the people in the form of jobs, subsidies and hand outs. The first constitutional amendment in nearly a decade, the 18th Amendment, passed by the Rajapaksa government was to increase the powers of the presidency. The central authorities are the ones in whom the most amount of power and resources are vested. This very fact indicates that the people have to place their confidence in them rather than in local authorities who do not have such power and resources. Therefore, in Sri Lanka, the situation is that people will say they have the most amount of confidence in the central government rather than in devolved government. President Rajapaksa may therefore enjoy the most confidence of most of the people as he is the one who most epitomizes central power.

However, in contrast to traditional societies, modern societies seek the rule of law that binds the government and people alike, and also seeks the empowerment of the people to the greatest degree. In his speech after taking oaths for his second term, the president reminded the people of his government’s victory over war and terrorism. He said Sri Lanka’s task as a nation on the rise to be among the great nations of the world, is to prevent such bloodshed in another twenty or thirty years. Therefore our first task is to ensure lasting national unity and sustainable, permanent peace in our Motherland. He also asked the people to be aware that the developed countries in the world have many other cities of fame apart from their capital cities. President Rajapaksa added that when development spreads and the revolution of roadways expands we will have several cities that are not second in anyway to Colombo.

Ascetic leadership

These aspirations of the president to spread development and prosperity throughout the country requires that power is shared amongst different institutions and devolved as far down as possible, without it being centralized in one institution or in any one person. Within the European Union, which contains the very oldest democracies in the world, the devolution of power has been maximized through the principle of subsidiarity. This means that whatever can be done at the level of government closest to the people should be done at that level rather than at more distant or higher levels. In addition to sharing power, the president needs to consider adopting the ascetic ideal of leadership that resonates with the psyche of Asian people. This is what Mahatma Gandhi did in India to an extreme degree by identifying himself with the masses of people by his dress and strict eating habits. His asceticism struck a chord with the deep rooted belief that the leader who controlled himself could control the world.

Leaders of emerging nations who lead Spartan lives give credibility to their exhortations to the people to make sacrifices in the national interest. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India is an example of such a leader right next to Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa’s close friend and ally President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is reputed to live a simple lifestyle having rolled up the antique Persian carpets in the Presidential palace and sent them to a carpet museum and refusing the VIP seat on the Presidential plane. It is also reported that he had wanted to continue living in his modest family home in Tehran, until his security advisers had prevailed and even then he moved into a normal building in a secluded area rather than into the presidential palace. The greater tradition of enlightened leadership not only in Asia but in the world is to be the first to make the sacrifice for others and to be a symbol of what is more revered in the culture and to live as their fellow citizens do.

Now that President Rajapaksa has won the war against the LTTE and terrorism is taking on the war against poverty he may need to call a halt to ostentatious and costly programmes of projecting his leadership, and instead seek to project a more austere image. This is especially on account of the sacrifices he is calling on the working people to meet in order that the country meets its tryst with destiny and becomes the Wonder of Asia, as he promised in his inauguration speech. The dilemma is straightforward. The country cannot afford both substantial salary increases as demanded by trade unions and opposition political parties on the one hand, corruption and extravagance on the other, and also find resources for necessary infrastructure and economic development activities. When the masses of people are being called upon to be austere in their lifestyles and expectations, President Rajapaksa on whom all eyes are turned is best positioned to set the example.

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