Why the ‘Ugly American’ label does not fit Basil Rajapaksa

Wednesday, 9 March 2022 00:20 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa


Hell hath no fury as two Sri Lankan ministers ejected unceremoniously from the cabinet by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa! Both the sacked ministers wrathfully lay the blame for their ouster on Presidential sibling and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila who held the portfolios of Industries and Energy ministers respectively are now industriously energetic or energetically industrious in berating dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa on account of his US citizenship.

The essence of accusations levelled by Weerawansa and Gammanpila against Basil Rajapaksa is that the dual citizen is working against the land of his birth Sri Lanka at the behest of his adopted land the United States of America.

“Basil Rajapaksa has only one contract. The Americans can take him into custody on money laundering charges at any time and to stop that from happening he has to work for the Americans. He is deliberately allowing the economic crisis to deepen so as to create a situation which leaves the door open for American intervention,” Wimal Weerawansa told journalists at a media briefing.

Weerawansa also came out with the disclosure that he and Gammanpila were removed by the President after Basil Rajapaksa had said he would not attend Cabinet meetings if they were going to be there. “As always, the President sided with his family member and took the decision. The President is heavily influenced by Basil Rajapaksa,” he said.

Addressing the same media conference, Udaya Gammanpila faulted Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa for the dire economic situation faced by the country. “When the economics of the country is under the control of a person with zero economic sense, day by day the country is falling deeper into a crisis and it is about this we have spoken out,” Gammanpila said. He further said that they had spoken according to their conscience and would continue to do so in keeping with the mandate given to them by the people.

“American” Basil is engaged in an American conspiracy was the basic allegation levelled by the two ex-ministers. Gammanpila added a colourful twist to his accusation by referring to Basil as the “Ugly American”. The pejorative term ‘Ugly American’ seems to have gone down well with multiple sections of the media highlighting it. The Sinhala and Tamil newspapers too carried it. One young journalist asked me half-jokingly, “Why is Udaya calling Basil ugly? He may not be very handsome but is certainly not ugly, no?”

Gammanpila has certainly scored politically by referring to Basil as the Ugly American. However, it is debatable as to whether the usage is appropriate or applicable to Basil Rajapaksa in the current context. Basil Rajapaksa is a Sri Lankan who acquired US citizenship. He is now a dual citizen of both countries. Moreover, he resides in Colombo serving as a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament and as Sri Lanka’s Minister of Finance. It is somewhat problematic therefore to call Basil an ugly American because he does not seem to fit the definition of the term in current usage. Who then is the Ugly American?

Definition of an Ugly American

According to the Collins English dictionary “An Ugly American is an American who travels to a foreign country and gives the United States a bad reputation by acting in an offensive way”. The Oxford Dictionary defines Ugly American as “An American who behaves offensively when abroad.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the term is “An American in a foreign country whose behaviour is offensive to the people of that country”. 

The term Ugly American came into vogue after the publication of a political novel “The Ugly American” in 1958. The book written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick was a best-seller and churned political waves. The book was made into a film starring Marlon Brando in 1963. The movie directed by George Englund was not a box-office success.

The success of the book resulted in the phrase “Ugly American” coming into common usage as being descriptive of an arrogant, boorish American throwing his or her weight around in a foreign country and causing offence to the host nation.

John Kerry

The supreme – and in a sense, cruel – irony in this is that the original book’s title as well as content meant entirely the opposite of how the Ugly American phrase is being viewed currently. Excerpts from a letter to the editor in “The Atlantic” of March 2004, by former democratic party presidential candidate and US secretary of State John Kerry revealed this very clearly: “In ‘Tour of Duty’ (December Atlantic), Douglas Brinkley refers to Vietnam’s past ‘invaders,’ and includes among them the people that William Lederer and Eugene Burdick called ‘Ugly Americans’ in their 1958 book. The clear implication is that ‘the ugly American’ is the ‘bad guy,’ representing US ethnocentrism and inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of Vietnam. Indeed, the epithet is often used in a negative way, and the reference is always to this book by Lederer and Burdick.”

“The phrase is not, however, used this way in the book. The Ugly American is indeed about US interference in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan (read Vietnam), and most of the Americans are seen as a bunch of arrogant and ethnocentric bureaucrats who deal with top officials and recommend inappropriate development projects that do not meet the needs of average Sarkhanians. These Americans and their Sarkhanian counterparts are portrayed as the ‘suits’—prettified officials who never take the trouble to talk to the peasants.”

“Chapter 17 introduces another sort of American—an economic-assistance engineer named Homer Atkins, who lives among the common people and gets to know their lifestyle and needs. Rather than ‘building dams and military roads,’ as proposed by the American government, Atkins finds that what is most needed is a simple water pump that can be powered by bicycles. He sets out to build this in the countryside, and takes on a Sarkhanese as his partner. So, Atkins is the hero, not the villain, of Lederer and Burdick’s book. He is called ‘the ugly American’ because he is physically ugly; his partner is ‘the ugly Sarkhanese’ for the same reason. Despite their physical ugliness, these two are morally beautiful, because they work for the people, helping to develop a needed product and to build an indigenous industry at an appropriate level of technology. In contrast, the ‘suits’ in the capital city are physically attractive but, presumably, morally ugly.”

Daniel Runde

Daniel Runde senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a “Foreign Policy” article written in February 2018 referred extensively to the book. Here are some relevant excerpts:

“The commonly used phrase “ugly American” has come to depict an overseas American who is too loud, too ostentatious, or too arrogant (or all three). The popular expression emerged from the title of a novel published 60 years ago. It caused a sensation, the way that few books have in U.S. history. The novel is a series of linked vignettes about Americans working overseas in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, at the centre of American and Soviet competition in the late 1950s. In the text, the titular ugly American is actually a kind, practical, wealthy engineer who is humble, speaks the local language, and works with people in their villages solving local problems — the exact opposite of what the term has come to mean.”

“The novel was also an indictment of American counterinsurgency tactics and U.S. public diplomacy efforts. At the time of its publication, several significant American political figures, including Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator William Fulbright, denounced it. Then Senator John F. Kennedy however sent copies of the book to all of his colleagues.”

“The novel, however, is credited with spurring a massive reorganization of America’s economic and diplomatic engagement with developing countries then emerging from European colonialism. President Kennedy set about taking a series of sweeping steps in 1961: He set up the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, added to U.S. Army special forces (the Green Berets), proposed the reorganisation of foreign assistance through the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, and created the Peace Corps. The Ugly American is easily the Silent Spring of U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance policy.”

“The book, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, was a national best seller and sold more than 4 million copies. At the time, it seemed as though almost all of America’s educated set had read the novel. Today, few people under the age of 60 actually have, yet its message still resonates.”

Pejorative term

The above excerpts quoting John Kerry and Daniel Runde explain very clearly the origins of the term “Ugly American”. It emerged from the bestselling book by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. They also point out the ironic contradiction of how the positive attributes of the titular character of the book has acquired negative connotations over the years. The phrase ugly American is now used as a pejorative term. 

Udaya Gammanpila has introduced the term into the political vocabulary of Sri Lanka by using it to denigrate Basil Rajapaksa. Superficially it may appear appropriate as Basil is indeed a US citizen and therefore an American. But viewed against the backdrop of how the term Ugly American is used internationally nowadays, the description is not applicable to Basil. The label Ugly American does not fit Basil Rajapaksa.

If Udaya Gammanpila had read the original book or kept himself abreast of how the term is in usage presently, he would not have used the phrase to label Basil. But then neither Gammanpila nor his comrade at arms Weerawansa have a reputation for basing allegations and accusations on facts or reality. In the past both have let their tongues run riot in the service of the Rajapaksas by attacking their opponents on the basis of untruthful or unsubstantiated charges. This served the Rajapaksas well and both minions were amply rewarded.

“Rajapaksa Rottweilers”

The scenario has now changed and the two “Rajapaksa Rottweilers” are now biting the hands of their erstwhile masters who fed them well in the past. However, the duo has adopted the tactic of growling at Basil ferociously while whimpering and whining vis a vis Gotabaya and Rajapaksa. This is because both recognise Basil as the major contradiction while Mahinda and Gotabaya are perceived as lesser and even friendly contradictions. Despite this attempt to differentiate, the track record of the Rajapaksas shows that the family will close ranks against “outsiders” whenever the necessity arises.

Basil Rajapaksa won the first battle in 2020 by ensuring the smooth passage of the 20th amendment with a two-thirds majority. He won the second battle by returning to Parliament as an MP holding dual citizenship and being awarded the powerful finance minister portfolio. Basil has now won the third battle by ousting his twin adversaries from the cabinet. The “war” therefore will continue and there is every possibility of the going getting tougher in the days to come.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)

Recent columns