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Revaluating the Rajapakse Presidency

by  Dayan Jayathilleka

(November 23, Singapore City, Sri Lanka Guardian) If President Rajapakse should come in for a bit of stick, it is not for the overall record of his just completed first term and the dawn of his second. If anyone deserved it for performance and achievement, it is surely him. An evaluation of a political leader must be historically concrete. What was the context in which he/she assumed power? What was the situation he/she inherited and what did he/she make of that inheritance? Did he/she improve the situation in respect of the central challenge or main problem, cause it to worsen, or remain unchanged? The evaluation must also factor in the actually available alternative to his/her leadership; how that alternative personality would have fared and at what cost.

It often takes a critical outsider to register the authentic dimensions of the achievement of a distant nation and its leader. Though they contributed negatively to the emergence of that challenge, how many of Mahinda Rajapakse’s post- Independence predecessors prevailed over a challenge that was as formidable by any standard of contemporary world history; indeed of “the era”? In his recently released volume ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’, Robert D Kaplan, member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis writes of “...the government’s gradual victory over the Tamil Tigers, among the post World War II era’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations...Prabhakaran had been causing death and destruction to a much greater extent and for a much longer period than Osama bin Laden in the case of the United States. This was the kind of clear-cut, demonstrable victory that any American administration could only hope for...” (pp. 203, 210)

President Rajapakse won his second term fairly and squarely. The debate on the 18th amendment is irrelevant here, because that followed, not preceded his re-election and pertains to a possible third term, not the second.

Is Sri Lanka, in better shape in the most basic sense, at the commencement of Rajapakse’s second term than it was on the eve of his first term? Sri Lanka, like any other country, has to be evaluated as a totality, not through the prism of its ethnic minority, though the minorities question must indubitably be part of the evaluation. Assessing Sri Lanka through the lens of the Tamil Diaspora or the Tamil question is as misleading as assessing Turkey through the lens of the Kurds, India through the Kashmiris or Nagas, the Philippines through that of the Moros, and Spain through the Basques. That would provide insights, but a partial, skewed perspective. Things must also be classified as primary and secondary. At this point in time, has the record of achievement of the Rajapakse presidency been in the main, positive or negative, and is the contribution made to the country and its people by him primarily good or bad?

Mahinda Rajapakse inherited a Sri Lankan state in grave crisis, with a powerful armed enemy rooted in a part of its soil, attempting to dismember its territory. Three previous Presidents and four previous leaders, JR, Premadasa, Wijetunga, Chandrika and Ranil failed to restore the territorial integrity and unity of the country, end the war and terminate the secessionist challenge. This, Rajapakse accomplished. The result is that for the first time in decades, there is no deadly violence on a large or medium scale. For all this, he was freely elected to a second term. After thirty years of life in its shadow, the country and all its peoples are safe and secure from an existential threat of the most basic and awful kind.

Sri Lankan opinion and opinion on Sri Lanka are broadly divisible into two categories: those who regard Mahinda Rajapakse’s achievement or contribution as more positive than negative and those who view it as more negative than positive. However critical or ambivalent they may be on this or that specific policy, action or inaction on his part, there is little doubt as to which side of the divide the vast majority of Sri Lankan people are. There is also little doubt in my mind as to what history’s verdict would be, given the magnitude of his historic achievement.

Critique must not be distorted by nihilistic negation, just as recognition of the positive must not be discredited with blindness towards the negative, and a defence of achievement must not be vitiated by avoidance of that which remains to be done. Sadly, most commentary by and on Sri Lanka is warped by one or the other distortion.

The analytically slipshod shows of erudition which wildly toss references to leaders who have been elected to power only to establish dictatorships, omits the vital datum that such leaders proceeded to bury representative multiparty democracy by violently smashing the main opposition. Mahinda Rajapakse has not done so. Whatever his transgressions, he cannot be held responsible for a diminution of the competitiveness of representative democracy through the prolonged leadership debility of the Opposition and the dwarfing of that Opposition by his achievement of destroying the Tigers (something that he did not prevent his predecessors from doing themselves)! Still more absurd is the attempt to equate Rajapakse with Prabhakaran. This assumes that the strategic projects of the two (reunification vs. dismemberment of the country) can be equated, as can the lamentable compliance of Tamil society with a movement that decimated the political leadership of that community (burning alive the TELO youth, to name but one instance) with the democratic state and the Southern public sphere that resisted and rolled back anything that came close. Even so acerbic a Western analyst of the Rajapakse dispensation as Robert D Kaplan does not fail to balance his observation that there is a “more severe coarsening of politics in Colombo” with the repeated definition of the country as a democracy—on which he places his bet as Sri Lanka’s ultimate salvation.

While there are some analysts in whose perspective the defining narratives of Sri Lanka are the one that accepts the existence of an ethnic problem and those that do not, and that President Rajapakse’s achievement has been retrogressive than positive because he is (seemingly) classifiable in the latter category, it is far likelier that history will define the age we have lived through as that of the Thirty Year War of secession. An analogy would be Europe in the 20th century. While it is certainly true that this history is rooted in the rise of Germany, and the triangular relations between Germany, Britain, France and Russia, history correctly uses the more important classification of the two World Wars, the inter-war years, and the Cold War. Similarly, the dominant and determinant driver of our contemporary history and crisis has been the protracted war. Against that backdrop there were two narratives in the intersecting spheres of the state and civil society: those who regarded a negotiated settlement with Prabhakaran and the Tigers as both feasible and desirable, and those who did not, grasping instead that the nature of the enemy rendered a comprehensive military victory desirable, imperative and possible. This is how the people will remember it and history record it.

Tragically, many, perhaps even most, of those who belong to the narrative of recognising the existence of an ethnic problem wound up either temporising or worse still in the camp of appeasement, while the camp of determined resistance to the Tigers comprised mainly of those who failed to recognise or accept the existence of an ethnic problem which required a political settlement. Thus, the ‘ethnic problem/political solution’ narrative was subsumed within the ‘stop the war/negotiated endgame’ one and its votaries de-legitimised in the eyes of the people and history, just as ‘the spirit of Munich’ remains a dirty word in the West or the issue of collaboration, the Vichy regime and the Resistance remain the defining elements of that period of the history of France. The narrative of ‘no political solution/zero devolution’ was legitimised by wrapping itself up in the flag.

More than a year after the war and at the dawn of the Rajapakse second term the polarisation continues, with the call for war crimes investigations coming from those who failed to endorse the decisive drive to eliminate the Tigers, while the strident defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty coming mainly from those who do not wish to acknowledge the need for a political solution to the country’s ethnic problem and the need to forge a new, pluralist and multiethnic identity. It is ironic that those who seek to oppose President Rajapakse and champion democracy, also refuse to endorse Sri Lanka’s last war and its heroic, defining final battles, going to the extent of criticising the administration for non-compliance with hypocritical Western calls for ‘war crimes’ probes. If democracy means anything it means popular sovereignty, and the ultimately sovereign people are conspicuously clear on the issue of the war, its final battles, the military, and ‘international war crimes investigations’.

This leaves a paradoxical situation. Within the dominant Sri Lankan discourse (not to be confused with actual public opinion polling stats), those (of us) at the interface of the two competing narratives, those who stood and stand for the military defeat of the Tigers, the resolute defence of national sovereignty and for a political settlement of the ethnic question, are a minority, but in the international arena, this is precisely the position of the Eurasian and Non Aligned states which supported Sri Lanka. It is also quite definitely the Asian consensus.

The fact that our external critics depict their excessive strictures as coming from the ‘international community’ when they reflect, if at all, only a segment of it, does not mean that the international community does not exist; it simply means that these unfair and prejudiced critics are not synonymous with it.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence showcased Sri Lanka’s recent and ongoing achievement in the following words to an international scholarly audience attending the 6th international conference of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) of the National University of Singapore:

“...Sri Lanka has emerged from a decades-long civil war, and is enjoying an economic revival. It is currently the second-fastest growing Asian economy after China, a fact not lost upon the IMF, which recently upgraded Sri Lanka to middle income emerging market status. Like Brazil, Sri Lanka enjoys an adult literacy rate of just over 90%. Sri Lanka’s gross enrolment ratio, which gives an indication of school attendance, is also comparable to that of China. What is particularly noteworthy of Sri Lanka’s growth is the narrowness of its gender gap. In the Global Gender Gap Report 2010 published by the World Economic Forum, which measures gender-based disparities on economic, political, education and health-based criteria, Sri Lanka ranked within the top 20, the only South Asian country to do so. Closing the gender gap is not just an issue of gender equity, it is also one of harnessing the current human resource potential, and uplifting the potential of the next generation. The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human talent – the skills, education and productivity of its workforce. In any country, women account for half of the current talent base and have a key role in nurturing the next generation.”

No two yardsticks are more important in assessing the state of a nation-state and the performance of its leadership than (a) war and (b) the economy. President Rajapakse has won the first, has improved the second and seems to be laying the foundations for a stronger economy. If Sri Lanka is positioned to benefit from the rise of Asia and the significance of the Indian Ocean region, it is because Mahinda Rajapakse has cleared the way for it to do so by overcoming the most formidable obstacle: the secessionist enemy.

The grade on Sri Lanka’s score card as given by an important Singaporean leader represents at least five significant things. Firstly, that there is more than one view of Sri Lanka in the international system. Secondly, that the primarily positive views do not limit themselves to those of allegedly ‘rogue’ or ‘maverick’ states, regarded as ‘anti-Western’. Thirdly, that there is an Asian or Eastern ‘Realist’ perspective on Sri Lanka. Fourthly, that the country’s main external constituency is Asia the region that is on the rise and to which power is shifting. Fifthly, the views of Sri Lanka’s ‘Atlanticist’ critics and civil society denouncers (INGOs, the western media and local publicists) are relatively less relevant to the country’s destiny and are seriously warped, in that they do not flow from and fail to contain a recognition of the positive achievement of Sri Lanka in the Rajapakse years, as any honest, objective evaluation surely must.

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