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Sri Lanka courts a strongman


Gotabaya Rajapaksa

THE setting is the chandeliered splendor of the ballroom at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel In Colombo, Sri Lanka, which is packed to capacity. A trim, white haired sixty-something man attired in regulation business suit walks briskly on stage and begins to address his audience.

His tone is mesmerizing and mellifluous but unmistakenly authoritative: “l love my country. I am proud of my country. I have a vision for the future of my country. I will never bow my head to anyone who opposed my country. I will never allow anyone to infringe upon the sovereignty of my country.”

Sri Lanka — the paradise island that hangs seductively like a teardrop on the Indian Ocean — is in the throes of a bitterly contested and highly divisive election to choose it’s next President. But years of extreme political dysfunction that has seen economic stagnation, an alarming breakdown of law and order, astounding corruption, revenue streams and national assets criminalized (and turned into personal piggy banks, to boot) productivity dismally low and the once much vaunted education system deteriorating alarmingly — and all this presided over by rival centers of power — have boosted public demand for a more assertive, muscular leadership.

Out of this morass a new archetype of leader has emerged. The era of the strongman is here. And Gotabaya Rajapaksa — the candidate of the opposition Sri Lanka People’s Front — is heroically rising to the challenge. And playing the impending role with gusto on the election trail.

His is a no nonsense message, delivered with virility and swagger: “I have always discharged every responsibility that has been entrusted to me to the best of my ability, and I assure you that I’m fully prepared to provide the leadership needed to succeed in this challenge to take the nation forward. I make every effort to deliver results that go beyond expectations”.

He goes on: “What the country requires today is leadership that has a vision for the future, plans to develop the country, and the ability and political will to execute those plans. The people of Sri Lanka expect disciplined, corruption free, people orientated and patriotic leadership from its President.”

We got the chance to meet Rajapaksa away from the political cauldron that is the hustings, where glad-handing politicos abound and the adoring masses treat him more like a rock star than a political neophyte — and to whom simply put the man is, indeed, the message. In private though he is the most impolitic of politicians. Mild mannered and soft-spoken, he has a studious air about him, and given more to listening than talking. “ I’m not running for office just to win. I want to wake people up to empower them to realize their true potential”, he says.

But Rajapaksa is much more than just another political candidate with good intentions wanting to make a difference. His pedigree and credentials seem impeccable. He is the younger sibling of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose 10-year tenure as president (2005 to 2015) saw the winning end to a 30 year separatist war against the then most feared and sophisticated terrorist entity in the world, the Tamil Tigers — who invented the genre of the suicide bombers and provided the playbook for terrorist outfits like Al-Queda and ISIS that have followed.

The crippling decades long struggle had left the economy in tatters and much of the country under siege. Rajapaksa who had seen action on the battlefront in the early days of the war, had retired from the Srilankan Army with the rank of Colonel and emigrated to the United States where he was an IT executive in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley when the call came from brother Mahinda requesting he return home and help with his election run. On winning the presidency Mahinda requested his brother to remain in Sri Lanka and head the Ministry of Defense with the unrelenting brief to defeat the Tamil Tigers and end the war once and for all.

That he took to his task with verve and zeal (even surviving an assassination attempt by a Tamil Tiger suicide squad that resulted in five of his bodyguards being killed) is now part of global history. Within just over three years of being given the formidable task, Rajapaksa had spearheaded the total demise of the internationally branded terrorist outfit, and overseen the end of the war that had seen hundreds of thousands killed, many of them innocent civilians.

He declares: “When I was a young Army officer 35 years ago the Army commander bestowed on me a commendation in which he described me as ‘an officer who takes initiative over and above the call of duty’. It is this quality that enabled me to provide the strategic guidance and administrative support to end 30 years of terrorism in our country in just three and a half years. It is also this quality that enabled me after the war ended as Secretary of Urban Development to drive the transformation of Colombo into Asia’s fastest developing city, and to create an environment that attracted significant investments that changed the skyline of the city.”

Taking a drive through the city that Rajapaksa regentrified when peace dawned, one is instantly captivated by its rich multicultural fabric. In many neighborhoods Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, Hindu kovils and Christian churches live in amiable juxtaposition to each other.

But paradoxically, ethnicity keeps popping up on the Srilankan landscape like some national genetic disposition. And it’s not possible for any politician to escape its clutches altogether — especially in the light of the recent Islamic inspired Easter Sunday terror wave aimed at churches and 5-star hotels that saw over 250 locals and foreigners killed.

But Rajapaksa assures: “I will never allow religion based extremist terrorism to raise its ugly head ever again. I will be president for everybody. We are a nation that has lived together in friendship, with respect for each other’s religious beliefs and cultural identities. This unity has to be our strength. I pledge to create a safe and secure environment in which all Sri Lankan’s irrespective of their race or religion will be able to live in peace.”

As the prophetic saying goes: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” So, will Sri Lankans this time around go for the strongman option as a panacea for a better future? Their decision on November 16 will shape this jewel of a nation for decades to come.



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