A president like no other
ON the global airways Sri Lanka likes to boast (and with every reason given its ancient history and natural beauty) that it is “a land like no other.” Now it can also proclaim that in recently installed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country has “a President like no other.”
Within hours into his presidency Rajapaksa announced that the unbending decades-long practice of the official photograph of the reigning president staring dax0own benignly at the citizenry from all public buildings, schools and other institutions nationwide would end forthwith. Known for his hands-on style, the tough though amiable Rajapaksa — who, in his previous spell in government as Defense secretary, spearheaded the total defeat of the Tamil Tiger terrorist group that had plagued the island nation for over 30 years — was signaling from the outset that he would neither reign or rule but instead govern without the optics of power.
Even as social media was going berserk over this bit of disarming news, Rajapaksa then announced that he would eschew the stately colonial pile that is the grand and sprawling Presidential House in the heart of the capital and continue to live in his humble private abode at the end of a nondescript alley in suburban Colombo. And for good measure his wife Ioma, gracious, unassuming and completely shorn of the airs and graces expected of first ladies the world over, apparently gave her mobile number to her neighbors asking them to call her should they experience any inconvenience as a result of the president living down their road.
Then came the presidential motorcade of over a dozen vehicles that used to clog up traffic annoyingly every time the sitting president was on the move. It was reduced to just three vehicles — and no more roadblocks to ease his way — much to the delight of long-suffering commuters.
Next it was the turn of perennially agitating students — a disruptive thorn on the side of successive governments — to get a surprising taste of the newly minted presidential style. On their first major demonstration (probably more to test out the new President than highlight any pressing concern), they were met not with baton-charging policemen and water cannons, as had always been the case previously whenever they approached the presidential secretariat. Instead they were allowed to march right up to the president’s office and student leaders were invited in to discuss their woes over tea and biscuits. And to ensure any succeeding demonstrations of students would not disrupt traffic in the vicinity, the president declared a sizable vacant area near his office as an “Agitation Site,” where aggrieved students and workers could assemble to air their complaints. In fact, once Rajapaksa — in a remarkable first for any head of state — actually stopped his vehicle and walked up to the demonstrators and discussed their issues, and on that particular occasion even providing an instant solution.
As the president (as he never fails to mention) “of all Sri Lankans,” Rajapaksa has also turned up unannounced at government offices to check how the public was being served. He also undertook something of a presidential road show down south, stopping at towns and villages and hearing out the needs and grievances of the understandably nonplussed populace, who had never known what it was like to be up close and personal with their president.
And all this within the first 100 days of his presidency. So much so that many Srilankans — pleasantly shocked and in awe of his unique style — are already harking of a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency that extends long beyond his mandated five years.
The man himself is more circumspect. Seated in his wooden paneled office set in a splendid period building inherited from the country’s British colonial past, Rajapaksa says: “Actually, I don’t even need a second term to execute my plans. The people elected me with great expectations. However, I’m prevented from using my executive powers due to haphazard and shortsighted amendments to the constitution such as the 19th Amendment, which has put the whole country in a mess. But I should be at least allowed to work in these five years without an hindrance.”
With this in mind, the president has prorogued parliament and called a general election on April 25 where he is banking on the Sri Lanka People’s Front, which propelled him to the presidency winning a two-thirds majority and paving the way for, as he sees it, the prohibitive 19th Amendment to be abolished.
Developing the economy is Rajapaksa’s key goal. And as an information technology (IT)-savvy executive during a previous private sector stint in the United States, he firmly believes that in the global marketplace, where technology has swallowed distance, Sri Lanka needs to keep pace with technology to grow its economy.
Rajapaksa explains: “ Currently the IT-based industry in Sri Lanka is worth $1 billion. We can easily develop this to a $3-billion industry creating 300,000 new jobs. Knowledge is the buzzword of this century. And while my administration is focused on developing industries such as agriculture and tourism, I want to give priority to developing IT-based sectors.”
While pointing out that the root of all internal political strife has been economic disparity, Rajapaksa adds with some frustration that “unfortunately, politicians for their own gain give these root causes their chosen interpretation.” He stresses: “These issues are not based on ethnicity. And the only effective solution is to develop the economy and develop the living standards of our people irrespective of ethnicity, religion or any other parameter.”
Rajapaksa’s key role in annihilating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) — in its time considered the most ruthless and dangerous terrorist outfit in the world — has gained him unrelenting detractors from among the Tamil diaspora that supported the Tamil Tigers and, even with their demise, still refuses to accept the reality.
EJKs and the disappeared
All accusations of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) and disappeared families that have been hurled at Rajapaksa have failed to stick since independent commissions and courts both in Sri Lanka and abroad have largely dismissed the charges. These accusations reached a crescendo during his run for president. But despite the sustained campaign of hate and lies — hurled from the comfort of places abroad — the Srilankan electorate handed him the presidency with a thumping majority.
Addressing the contentious issue of the disappeared, Rajapaksa says: “We have studied and analyzed this issue very carefully. Even in the Sri Lanka Army there are many soldiers who disappeared. In fact as soon as the war ended United Nations Children’s Fund did a study in the conflict areas about the missing. Out of 2,600 cases, about 60 said they did not know what happened to their loved ones, eight accused the military for their disappearances, but the rest said their missing relatives were either willingly or forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. Unfortunately, there are some in the Tamil diaspora with their own hidden agendas who refuse to accept these factual findings.”
Interestingly, one former known LTTE cadre living in Europe has metamorphosed into a “learned scribe,” penning pieces that surprisingly sometimes manage to find a home in respectable (and unsuspecting?) publications. In one such recent piece, he claimed to expose skeletons in the Rajapaksa cupboard. But talk in discerning circles is that should the cupboard of this particular LTTE cadre turned scribe ever be opened, whole cemeteries would tumble out!
Meanwhile, Rajapaksa points out that he is firmly focused on matters at home and not on what is falsely peddled abroad. On a broader note — and taking a shot at any global body that might think otherwise — he reiterates that “Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is sacrosanct and non-negotiable.”
As he gets down to work and awaits the outcome of the forthcoming election that will have a major impact on his “Vision in Action” mission, Rajapaksa is entitled to bask in the immense popularity he enjoys the length and breadth of his country.
This was, perhaps, best epitomized when a group of youngsters took it upon themselves to beautify a discarded part of their neighborhood by painting it over with a colorful mural. When this creative effort went viral, it caught the attention of Rajapaksa who took to Twitter to applaud their community spirit. Almost immediately hundreds of thousands of youthful Srilankans took this as a clarion call to uplift their communities, and armed with paint and brushes painted the idle walls of their towns and cities with colorful and creative designs — with some murals even depicting fierce ancient kings alongside a somewhat stoned pop icon Bob Marley!
The telling metaphor there is the hope of all Sri-lankans that Rajapaksa will splash himself in glorious colors across the fabric of the nation and uplift their lives and inspire them like no other president ever before.
BY GLENN GALE