During the Tunisian people’s revolt that eventually ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, an anonymous Tunisian youth wrote in the comment section of Britain’s Guardian newspaper that, “…we love our country and we want things to change but there is no organized movement; the tribe is willing but the leader is missing”. Five years after [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

“Tribe willing; leader missing”


During the Tunisian people’s revolt that eventually ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, an anonymous Tunisian youth wrote in the comment section of Britain’s Guardian newspaper that, “…we love our country and we want things to change but there is no organized movement; the tribe is willing but the leader is missing”.

Five years after (May 2009) Sri Lanka crushed a bloody revolt by LTTE fighters, President Mahinda Rajapakse is firmly in control and, the lack of an effective opposition lets him do whatever he wants, whatever he thinks is right for the people. There is no debate, a lack of debate, or the government doesn’t care about another’s viewpoint.

Rajapaksa is admired by one section of the country and frowned upon by another, which so far is an opposition of a minority nature. In essence, that Tunisian youth’s plea rings very much across Sri Lanka where people want changes in governance through a democratic process but there is no strong movement to bring that change.

No doubt the country owes a debt of gratitude to Rajapaksa for ending a war that was unwinnable at times due to foreign influence and the ‘human rights’ invasion. Yes, Sri Lanka is a far safer place but is it a secure place? If, for example, the course after the war had changed to a more caring, feeling and incorruptible (it is no secret) administration, things would be much better and Sri Lankans a happier society. Corruption comes in different ways – money, abuse of power, breakdown in law and order and absence of fundamental rights. Happiness comes with freedom of speech, freedom of choices, cost of living comparable with wage levels and a law that applies equally from the president downwards to the poorest of the poor.

Ruling party politicians love to hate outspoken academics and NGO bosses (some of who are also biased) whose criticism of the administration and the Rajapaksa family is growing by the day. But that’s not changing the goalposts for the simple reason that, “the tribe is willing but the leader is missing.”

A weaker opposition could also be to Rajapaksa’s disadvantage. A stronger opposition could have transformed Rajapaksa into a more benevolent leader, recognising the needs of all ethnic communities, minimising corruption, reducing the control his family has on the country – political, economy and social spheres – and in so many ways, made life better. In the absence of an ‘opposition’, the Government does what it wants and the only way problems could arise is through internal dissent, as happening right now – Wimal Weerawansa’s tantrums and the JHU’s opposition to casinos.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, a former UN ambassador and renowned Sri Lankan academic, wound up a recent article on the 5-year anniversary, by saying “… I am filled with a deep sadness. Something is amiss. Something has gone terribly wrong. We have lost something precious- perhaps it is our soul”.

She wrote, “Five years after the war I often think of how it could have been. A President who, the day after the war ends, speaks to the people of the North and East, emphasises that the government was facing a ruthless enemy but expresses remorse for the suffering they have undergone and pledges to make amends, and does. An army, when faced with war crimes allegations, says categorically, discipline is important to us, we will not tolerate impunity, perpetrators will be punished, all the while winding down, returning to barracks and letting the civil administration take control. A majority community that reaches out to their Tamil brothers and sisters, saying we are sorry about all your suffering, we never understood your aspirations, we will try now and move toward a pluralistic, inclusive Sri Lanka. A Tamil community that says we are sorry for supporting this ruthless organisation that killed so many people; we were blinded by their propaganda. Let us talk now, openly and frankly and try and work it out. If we disagree – we reassure you our protests will be non-violent”.

The National Peace Council, also hated by the regime, says, “A creeping culture of impunity is being entrenched where some people seem to believe that they can get away with lawless behaviour. Lawlessness, all types of crimes such as armed daylight robberies, murders, rape and the sexual abuse of women, frauds of all type and corruption spreading into areas of national life confirms this slide”. Academics, professionals and NGO activists are expressing frustration and helplessness at the state of play. Criticism of the administration is still confined to the cities, social classes and the elite. The masses is where the President’s support comes from, an area that a weak opposition has been unable to sufficiently penetrate to demand change, accountability and restoring law and order.
There are many pluses in terms of massive infrastructure development – roads, bridges and highways -, freeing trade and investment from foreign exchange controls, and economic growth. However inconsistency is the hallmark of this administration, and a clear example are the contradictory statements by the President and his ministers on the casino fiasco.

An indisputable fact is that the Government agreed to proposals to set up casinos in three integrated development projects including Australian James Packer’s investment. That cannot be denied however much ministers will ‘stand on their heads’ contradicting themselves. Whether casinos are good or bad is not the issue; conflicting messages are bad for business and shoots off negative signals.
On the economic front, ‘real’ cost of living is rising (however much the Census Department says COL has fallen); interest rates don’t bring the required return for people living on interest income to survive; the crash of finance companies and institutions like Golden Key still reverberates in the financial system with no end to the crisis; the gap between the investment and savings rate is widening; foreign borrowings are growing while revenue is insufficient even to meet debt interest payments (forget capital); exports hasn’t diversified from the traditional tea, textiles and agriculture while remittances from ‘hard’ labour by migrant workers in the Middle East is paying for most of Sri Lanka imports; and foreign investment is not happening as projected primarily because of mixed and contradictory signals and partly due to western pressure over human rights issues.

On the political front, apart from the phenomenal (but short term) rise of General Sarath Fonseka, a rising star in the past few months is Anura Kumara Dissanayake who took over the leadership of the JVP and since then has rejuvenated the party with fiery, well-researched speeches on varied topics, drawing even admirers (secretly of course) from the ruling party.

The JVP leader has also drawn admirers from bourgeoisie networks like Facebook, social classes that the party frowned on before. The opposition is flexing its muscles for possible elections this year but has a long way to go to outsmart, outwit and outdo Rajapaksa whose rural countrywide base stills remains intact. Only a miracle can upstage the President, who at the moment, five years after ending the conflict, is still sitting pretty.

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