Rajapaksa: Sri Lanka’s affable authoritarian?

Harsh crackdown on dissent, charges of corruption dog canny South Asian leader

by Jason Burke

The Observer

Down in the deep south of Sri Lanka, where life usually moves at a leisurely pace, there is one small town that is less tranquil. Hambantota — population 20,000 — is expanding fast. There is a vast new deepwater port, built with $360 million of borrowed Chinese cash; a new 35,000-seat cricket stadium; a huge convention center; and a $200 million international airport. A broad-gauge railway is under construction. Powerful people have ambitions for Hambantota. None is more powerful or more ambitious than President Mahinda Rajapaksa, born nearby in 1945.

There is much construction in Sri Lanka these days. The island nation was already one of the wealthiest in South Asia but its economy had been held back by decades of civil conflict. Now the war is over and growth rates, the government claims, are touching 7 percent.

Earlier this month, a new section of motorway was opened. Undeniably one of the best roads in a part of the world where rutted single-lane highways still link many major cities, it joins the international airport with Colombo, the political and commercial capital. British Prime Minister David Cameron, 51 other leaders and Prince Charles will drive down its tarmac next month when they fly in for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

The summit is controversial. Rajapaksa, now in his eighth year of power, is much reviled — at least in the West. The chief charges against him are serious: that he ignored, condoned or even encouraged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan troops in the final bloody phases of the campaign to crush the brutal Tamil Tigers rebels; that he has again ignored, condoned or possibly even ordered a wave of repression directed at those who contest his or his government’s authority; that he has made no serious effort to reach out politically to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority; that he aims to ensure that his family’s grip on the island nation is without challenge for decades to come.

In short, it is alleged that under his rule Sri Lanka is becoming a nasty, authoritarian quasi-rogue banana republic. If there is some truth in many of the charges, the reality, like the man, is more complex than appearances suggest. In person, Rajapaksa is more avuncular than ogre. Tall, heavy-set, with an astonishing bouffant as solid, glossy and black as polished coal, he exudes the hearty bonhomie of the rugby player he once was. He remembers names, slaps backs, happily strips to the waist when he visits temples, and makes sure his guests, even journalists who have come to grill him, have been offered a cup of tea. One reporter watched astonished as the president went off to fetch biscuits. Such gestures reveal a canny politician with a carefully cultivated folksy style.

Almost all Sri Lanka’s post-independence leaders have been smooth, English-speaking, often educated abroad, and from Colombo or its environs. Rajapaksa, a small-town lawyer without a university degree, is thus very different, even if he does come from a political family. Rarely seen in Western dress and never in a suit, he is supposed to enjoy a traditional country breakfast of buffalo milk curd and cane sugar treacle. His trademark rust-brown neck scarf deliberately recalls the sweaty rags of farmers and is supposed to represent the millet they sow. He usually speaks Sinhala in public — though he can get by in English, albeit without the fluency of many South Asian senior politicians, and has learned some Tamil.

One problem for his critics is that, though elections are marred by intimidation, violence and the misuse of state resources, few deny that Rajapaksa’s successive poll victories reflect a genuine mandate. Even his opponents in Colombo admit that he remains without a serious local political challenger. His heartland is rural, conservative, Buddhist and dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

It was these voters that, as a 24-year-old novice politician armed with a law degree and a famous father, he won over to enter parliament for the first time in 1970. The same voters backed him in 2005 when, after a year as prime minister, he stood for president, and still back him now. Part of the dislike, and the fear, that Rajapaksa inspires in Colombo’s political elite is his unashamed exploitation of his status as a political outsider.

The emotions Rajapaksa inspires in many Tamils, who comprise 10 percent to 15 percent of the population, have their source elsewhere, however. A key election pledge was to end the bitter war against the Tamil Tigers, the de facto government in much of the north, by negotiation. This stance shifted. Here his brother, Gotabhaya, the defense secretary, played a key role, as he would do in the campaign to come. During the 26 years of conflict there had been a number of truces, most recently in 2002. These, the Rajapaksa brothers and the senior military believed, were simply used by the Tamil Tigers to resupply and reorganize. This time the Rajapaksas decided there would be no truce, whatever the international pressure.

The military was expanded hugely. The cease-fire collapsed entirely. One senior Sri Lankan official remembered how, when a report of heavy army casualties arrived on the president’s desk, Rajapaksa called Sarath Fonseka, a junior general with a ruthless reputation who had been picked to command the new campaign, to express his concern. Fonseka said that if the president wasn’t prepared to have men killed, he would resign. He stayed.

Only during the last few weeks of the conflict did the world begin to take notice of events in the rough, scrubby plains of northern Sri Lanka. As they retreated, the Tamil Tigers took hundreds of thousands of civilians with them. In a series of interviews last month, noncombatants spoke of chaos, “no-fire zones” that were not respected by the army, and orders from the Tamil Tigers to leave their homes. What is also clear is that the Tigers made little effort to separate combatants from civilians, particularly toward the end of the fighting, when huge numbers, including fighters and the Tamil Tiger high command, were packed into a tiny area between a lagoon and the sea. They may have shot some people who tried to escape.

But the army bombed, shelled and strafed the area indiscriminately, killing the Tigers’ leaders but also thousands of civilians.

“For many days we did not leave our bunker. It was just shells all the time,” one refugee from the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu recalled last month. “Finally we decided we would die unless we ran. So we waited until a break. . . . The army was only a few hundred meters away but on the way we passed maybe 25 or 30 bodies, men, women, old people, children.”

There are also reports, backed by images shot on soldiers’ phones, of large numbers of summary executions of captured rebel cadres and some civilians. These are the alleged war crimes that the United Nations wants credibly and independently investigated — something the Sri Lankan government has so far failed to do. Rajapaksa has called the allegations “propaganda” and accused the U.N. of doing the bidding of “big countries” who “bully” little ones.

Such rhetoric plays well at home, particularly from a man whose career has been built on an image of the straight-talker from the backwoods, and can be useful globally too. No one in Rajapaksa’s neighborhood is very keen on lectures from the west either. “We can live with it, but the public finger-wagging doesn’t help anyone,” said one senior Sri Lankan diplomat.

Since the end of the war other concerns have intensified. There have been scores, some say hundreds, of abductions. Journalists are systematically threatened. Trade unionists and human rights activists receive regular “warnings” or are roughed up. The constitution has been changed to allow Rajapaksa a third term. Dozens of his relatives hold government posts, controlling, according to one estimate, nearly half the state expenditure. A son is being groomed as a successor. There are widespread allegations of graft and an upsurge in sectarian violence.

“It is a situation of total state capture,” said J.C. Weliamuna, a leading human rights lawyer in Colombo.

This is South Asia, of course, where zero-sum politics, dynasties, massive development in the native towns of incumbent leaders, marginalized minorities and corruption is unexceptional. Tourist visits and revenues are up — though not by as much as the government would like, or, probably, claims. Foreign investment worth $2 billion is expected this year, officials say. But even regionally there are now worries about where Sri Lanka is headed.

These concerns will all be carefully obscured next month. So far the only invited leader not attending the Commonwealth summit is Canada’s Stephen Harper. David Cameron says “tough messages” are best delivered in person. Rajapaksa will no doubt be his usual bluff and cheery self at the meeting. But if anyone is delivering a tough message, it will be him.