Letter from Colombo
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This appeared in Private Eye number 1516, dated March 3 2020. It is somewhat different from what I originally drafted.
Letter from Sri Lanka
from Our Own Correspondent
THE Rajapaksas are back! Just four years after Mahinda was ousted from the Sri Lankan presidency by an opposition plan of Baldrickian cunning, he’s once more in the hot seat, now as prime minister – with his younger brother Gotabhaya as president.
Gota polled 52 percent in November’s elections, but his victory was as much his rivals’ defeat: the previous faction-riddled and mediocre government had promised yahapalanaya (‘good governance’) but failed abysmally to deliver.
Gota is not short of critics. Civil society groups link him to what we call the ‘white van culture’, a nod towards impunity for anonymous violence against dissenters. Members of the Tamil diaspora accuse him of war crimes during the brutal civil war and its even more brutal conclusion a decade ago and bandy the word ‘genocide’. Other accuse him of supporting militant Buddhist monks who persecute minority Muslims during more recent spasms of violence.
The members of Gota’s interim cabinet do not inspire much hope. There are numerous old lags from Mahinda’s past (including another brother) as well as a few crooks and thugs. During the October 2000 general election, Lohan Ratwatte (son of a former defence minister) was accused of voter intimidation and ballot rigging and was alleged to be in control of a death squad that killed ten members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Conference on December 5th, 2001. He is now a minister. A policeman who had been investigating claims of impropriety against the Rajapaksas made a speedy exit to Switzerland.
But Gota is also widely admired and even hero-worshipped, the saviour of a nation that gave women the vote in 1931 and has kept faith with democracy since independence in 1948 but has been fatally weakened by corruption and sectarianism.
The new President likes to present himself as a cut above the normal (and widely disliked) party political careerist – efficient, competent. Many who were not among the victims thank Gota for winning the war and for modernising Colombo. The previous government let Gota’s improvements slip and demonstrated a lethal incompetence in security matters. There is the little matter of the Easter bombings. Gota managed to create the impression that it would not have happened if he had been in charge, and it’s certainly the case that senior officials’ reckless incompetence and personal vendettas in the government at the time played a big part in 300 needless deaths and the ruination of the tourist trade.
It seems Gota has been listening to good advice, distancing himself from his older brother’s stock-in-trade personality cult. So far, there are no statues or ten-foot high posters. He dresses simply. He cut down drastically on his security detail and travels in a convoy of fewer than five vehicles which stops at traffic lights. He ordered that his portrait not be hung in government offices. He turned up unannounced at the airport to talk informally with staff and tourists and made similar surprise visits to government offices, asking members of the public how long they have been waiting. Human rights campaigner Jehan Perera was a strong critic of the previous Rajapaksa regime. He has said of the new president: “He has made executive directions by himself that show him as a leader who is different.”
Gota is well aware that Muslims and Tamils distrust him. He told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he intends to focus on development of the Northern and Eastern regions and not on political issues. “Judge me by my record on development of the North and East after five years.” Gota announced, “I am the president of all Lankans – those who voted for me and those who did not”.