Coronation in Lanka: Beating the drum

Saturday, 20 November 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Economist: What to give a President who wants for nothing? Sri Lanka’s moustachioed ruler, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who turned 65 on 18 November, has a thriving personality cult, helped by propaganda that gives him sole credit for the crushing of Tamil rebels last year, after nearly three decades of civil war.

He won a second presidential term in January. His party romped home in Parliamentary polls. And he has since had the Constitution re-jigged to scrap term limits and make his office mightier.

Though it is almost a year since his re-election, Rajapaksa’s followers this week prepared for his swearing-in party in Colombo, the capital, on 19 November. Artillery pieces were hauled to the quayside to ensure things went off with a bang. Some 8,000 drummer boys and a huge honour guard also attended. Rajapaksa himself went off to his southern hometown of Hambantota, visiting a big, Chinese-built port about to receive its first ship, to be blessed by a boatload of monks on Thursday.

Rajapaksa has a surfeit of recent gifts. The opposition has handed itself up on a plate. Several MPs defected when ministerial posts (none powerful) were dangled. The Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, seems content to play a languid role. Meanwhile, the President’s most serious rival remains Sarath Fonseka. The former Army Chief oversaw the bloody end of the war and then dared to mount a presidential challenge. He has since been locked up over his supposed Army conduct and will probably be behind bars for at least the next three years.

A once vibrant press has fallen mostly silent about the country’s ever-more undemocratic ways, cowed by unexplained attacks on journalists. This week most editors complied with a Government “request” to publish a big birthday photograph “of His Excellency on the top left hand side of the first page of your newspaper”. From billboards across Colombo the President beams like the Cheshire Cat.

Like the cat’s smile, Rajapaksa will hang around a long time yet. Drive 400 kilometres (250 miles) up a bone-shaking road to the northern, Tamil-dominated town of Jaffna, and it is obvious that many Sri Lankans fiercely dislike their President, but are resigned to him. Since the Tamil rebels — widely despised for their brutal methods — were crushed, the country’s Sinhalese majority is in no mood to seek an accommodation with the minority Tamils.

Quite the reverse. Earlier plans for more regional power have been scrapped and the government seems to be using the army to help shift more Sinhalese people into Tamil-dominated regions. Tamils are too fearful to resist. Neither they nor outsiders such as the United Nations are able to force a proper inquiry into growing evidence that in the last days of the war the army killed perhaps tens of thousands of Tamil soldiers and civilians. This week the Government dismissed video footage of massacres, broadcast by Al Jazeera, as fake.

The President’s urbane brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is unabashed in claiming that in Sri Lanka an era of “ruler kings” has begun. Western ideas of transparency, he claims, along with limits on presidential power and accountability, are not relevant to “Asian culture”. Sri Lanka will keep its long-running state of emergency, and reforms to the voting system will make it harder for smaller parties.

As a thunderstorm unleashes an early monsoon downpour, the brother suggests that a ruler’s worth should be judged by a traditional standard. “When the king is good,” he says, “in time the rains come.”Among his many presents, the President should really have received a crown.