It appears as if the curse of Kuveni keeps revisiting this land whenever we are primed to move forward towards prosperity. With a Presidential election looming, we are witnessing the fissiparous fractures in the politics of our land. Mahinda Rajapaksa is likely to call for a Presidential election two years before the due date. The [...]

Sunday Times 2

The curse of Kuveni


It appears as if the curse of Kuveni keeps revisiting this land whenever we are primed to move forward towards prosperity. With a Presidential election looming, we are witnessing the fissiparous fractures in the politics of our land.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is likely to call for a Presidential election two years before the due date. The reasons for this premature election are yet not clear. But it behoves us to examine carefully the performance of the Rajapaksa government.

First on the catalogue of achievements is the ending of the 30-year war. This was a war that according to many sanctimonious do-gooders could not have been won. Successive administrations were willing to concede a separate state albeit in name to the LTTE, for the simple reason that they considered the war unwinnable. The world did not help us. We could not get the weapons to combat the enemy. The LTTE arsenal was far superior to our weapons inventory.

I remember visiting the Kokkilai army camp after the first LTTE full scale attack on a military establishment. Ravi Jayawardene was the security advisor to the then President. This was the first time that we saw an RPG. The army did not know what this was, till Ravi told them that it was a rocket propelled grenade. The LTTE had fired many of those at the beleaguered army camp. Despite the inferior firepower the army overcame the attackers and thirty two bodies of LTTE fighters lay dead after an encounter lasting several hours.

The brothers two: Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa

President Jayawardene tried desperately to get the weapons to defend his imperiled country all to no avail. Leave alone RPGs, no one was willing to give us even small arms. A friend of mine volunteered to get these weapons on the arms bazaars of the world and a plane load of material was held up at the Madras airport, because the plane had run out of fuel, my friend had run out of money. That was how the sovereign state of Sri Lanka was treated by the western world. It was the Chinese government which later provided us the weapons to combat the enemy.

We had the India of Indira Gandhi arming and training the rebels. The western powers were breathing down our necks supporting the LTTE, and presurising us to enter into peace talks. The Indo-Lanka accord was the consequence of the talks. We were burdened with a provincial council system that was meant to end the war. The system was rejected by the Tigers but was foisted upon the South where there was no conflict. It was just jobs for the boys.

In a sense the Rajapaksa government ably assisted by Gotabaya Rajapaksa took on the world. Gotabaya moulded the most efficient fighting machine bringing together the Army, the Navy, the Air force and the Special Task Force formed by Ravi Jayawardene to eventually comprehensively defeat the LTTE. Mahinda handled the political and international arena with complete dexterity and finesse. He was like a ballerina dancing on eggs, without breaking them!

Today Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in this region where there is not a single gunshot fired in anger. Pakistan is in turmoil; sectarian conflicts rage in India; Bangladesh is disturbed; Thailand has a military regime. In Sri Lanka we have no LTTE, no al-Qaeda, no ISIL that is seeking to completely destabilise the western world. This is perhaps the safest place for Caucasians and that is why they are all flocking here.
But we have the curse of Kuveni.

The Rajapaksa government launched some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country — the Southern Highway (this was initiated by the UNP); the Northern Highway and the Highway to Kandy; the upper Kotmale project; the commissioning of the Norochcholai power plant; the train service to Jaffna the Hambantota Harbour and the Mattala airport, which is of course is bedeviled in controversy. Mattala may not have been the most appropriate place for an airport but the fact is that the South needs air transport facilities for the burgeoning tourist Industry. Given proper management, both the harbour and the airport can be made to work. The proper management is a must. President Rajapaksa now realises the need for this.

All this is in a span of seven years. But there is the curse of Kuveni.

Provincial elections were held in the North and East. There is massive road and infrastructure development in the North, the train service was restored. There are many problems that needs to be addressed and the Government is grappling with the representatives of the Tamil people themselves, though they are not cooperating with the central government in jointly addressing these issues. The displaced people have all been resettled, but the rapid resolution of these conflicts will emerge if the Provincial government works with the Central government in a non-confrontational manner. It is an undeniable fact that in democracies, political parties eventually help those who help them. So the people in the North will stand to gain considerable concessions and facilities if they work with the government. Opposing and confronting the central government is certainly not the way to progress. They must no longer fall a prey to this malady.

All is not perfect; a lot has been done — but there is the curse of Kuveni.

Gotabaya may not only be remembered for putting together the vital ingredients that won the war for us but for the work that he is doing in urban development.

Colombo city has never, ever, been so clean, not even during the late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s period even though he was known for his penchant for cleanliness. The city has been transformed into a spectacular showpiece as befitting any capital city in the world. What can we do with elegant buildings and a clean city, the detractors ask. We cannot eat the elegant buildings and superhighways. Man does not live by food alone!

The curse of Kuveni, keeps haunting us. Everything is looked at with askance.

Nepotism, says the opposition. Basil was elected by the people with a resounding majority, so was Namal and Chamal Rajapaksa and also Shasheendra, who then is to be blamed for this? Mahinda Rajapaksa has also been successively endorsed at all the elections by the people. There are, however, many who hold public positions though they are incompetent. This applies in particular to the diplomatic service. Sri Lanka cannot experiment with amateurs in the chancelleries of the world. We have to have the best professionals serving Sri Lanka overseas. The President may well reconsider some of the appointments and he does not have to wait for the third term to do this.

Gotabaya is the only unelected Rajapaksa. Never in the history of our country have we had a defence secretary who has safeguarded this country from all violent interventions both internally and externally. Let there be no complacency. Our conflicts are not over and if the defence establishment is weakened the price will be too much to pay. The peace and prosperity can come to an end with one serious outbreak of violence. This to me is the most worrying factor in attempting to change this administration.

John F Kennedy had Robert Kennedy as Attorney General and Edward Kennedy as a Senator. Srimavo Bandaranaike had Chandrika and Anura, and a whole host of unelected friends and relatives, who were not even competent to hold their positions.

Corruption: When we built the Mahaweli the same drumbeat of corruption was levelled at the UNP. “Gamini Dissanayaka had apple orchards. He was the third richest man in Asia,” bleated the detractors. I am not so sure that the Dissanayaka family is not living very modestly after the demise of Gamini. T.B. Illangaratne, I remember, was accused of owning hotels in Switzerland. Some even claimed that they had seen his photograph in a Swiss hotel as the owner. Later a UNP stalwart told me that this was carefully planted propaganda. Illagaratne died a poor man; he did not even own a tea boutique.

I visited Kalpitiya recently with my son. Pointing at a few Islands, we asked the local people as to who owns them. Pat came the reply: “the Rajapaksas”. Later I found that the owners planted this story on purpose to keep away encroachers and other troublemakers. When I asked Gotabhaya why he does not deny these allegations, he replied, “We have other things to do and can only respond if the security of the state is threatened, we cannot respond to rumours.”

If there is corruption and what is the opposition doing about it? Has evidence been raised in parliament? Has there been agitation? I have no doubt that corruption is rife, and I have been at the receiving end of such an incident.

We have a group of hospitality facilities constructed and supervised by Sri Lanka’s leading architect. When we had to obtain the COC, the chairman of the local council wanted Rs. 500,000 to ease the path. I complained to the President. He immediately took the telephone and wanted to inform the Bribery commissioner. I had to tell him not to do so, as a foreigner was involved and in an inevitable court case my foreign colleague would have to come down to court. “This is the problem,” the President told me, “You complain and when I want to take action you withdraw.” I remained silent. There may be other more subtle incidents I am not prepared to comment without full knowledge.

The Rajapaksa government has lost control over the social media. It is the websites that are circulating these virulent stories. The government has to come to terms immediately with combatting this false propaganda.

Foreign visitors are flocking to this land. Abercrombie and Kent, one of the leading travel agents, brought a jet load of multimillionaires to Sri Lanka for the first time. They also visited my plantation and they were extremely impressed by the infrastructural facilities. “This country has a great future and we will come back not as a group but individually to visit the whole country” was the popular refrain.

All is not perfect. The government has to overhaul the management of the various state corporations and diplomatic missions overseas.
“We are mortgaging are country to the Chinese,” some intone.

When we were building the Mahaweli, the same litany was echoed. The country is being mortgaged to the World Bank. The British government owns the Victoria Dam. Randenigala is owned by the Germans. Kotmale is a failure.

What is the problem in seeking the aid of China to build roads, airports, harbours and to reclaim the sea? Who is going to give us the money to take these projects forward? These donors cannot take these projects back to their own country. They will remain on our soil and the President knows how to handle the Chinese the Indians and the Americans.

I can only quote a passage from a book written by one of Sri Lanka’s most accomplished civil servants and administrators, Neville Jayaweera, now living in Britain and observing from afar unfolding events in this country. The book is titled ‘Jaffna, Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision’. He is not a Rajapaksa fan as is evident from the same book but this is what he says.

“On the other hand I say that both Machiavelli and Kautilya should be declared innocent in the presence of our own Medamulana Mahinda Rajapaksa! So absolutely astute has Rajapaksa been in manipulating the political landscape that one is inclined to think that he can, if he puts his mind to it to navigate the rocks of competing political pressures, a solution to the reconciliation impasse. Therefore there is no reason why, if he wants to, he cannot push through the desired reforms. However the operative words are’ If he wants to’.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa not only deserves to be reelected but voted back convincingly to head the country for the next five years. His government can be criticised, fought, opposed, and agitated against. That is all a part of democracy. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who said that “it is the noise and chaos of democracy that keeps a country alive.”

Will we be able to break the spell of Kuveni!

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