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President Rajapaksa needs to expand his comfort zone


The resounding victory by President Mahinda Rajapaksa placed in perspective the feelings of many Sri Lankans, a sense of gratitude towards a President that had the courage to withstand international pressure and take the battle to the end. A feat that was by all considerations thought to be inconceivable. As a war-time President he braved international pressure and provided political determination as never seen before to completely annihilate the LTTE. The three forces since independence had maintained their individual roles but had no formal coordinating structure and a poor record of joint operations capability. The President’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a retired military officer, as Defence Secretary changed the dynamics of inter-service coordination. His personal understanding of the ground situation and personal relationships within the services proved to be invaluable for successful joint operations. The Mavil Aru confrontations provided the initial test for the Gotabaya plan. The military strategy included a massive troop surge, improved firepower and the psychological motivation to defeat the LTTE. As the advancing military achieved success after success, it was evident that the military achievements were not complemented with diplomatic success. The miserable failure on the diplomatic front resulted in battlefield successes becoming diplomatic liabilities for the government. The impulsive foreign policy approach facilitated a culture of diplomatic contempt and defiance, most often through megaphone diplomacy. While this strategy worked well with the domestic audience, the image and reputation of the country internationally was on a free fall. The Rajapaksa administration viewed both local and international issues from a domestic prism with theatrics to the local audience. The President’s circle excelled in a stricly domestic comfort zone in which all the rhetoric was framed for local politics.

This was compounded by the disinformation campaign carried out by the pro-LTTE lobby in western capitals and a hostile foreign media that found Rajapaksa bashing to generate headline airtime. Added to this, the diplomatic debacles over a special envoy with Downing Street and personal baggage between Robert Blake and the Rajapaksa administration caused relations with the west to further deteriorate.

In his second term, President Rajapaksa will have to redefine his international credentials and rebuild the international standing of Sri Lanka. The President needs to expand his diplomatic circle beyond Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Palestine, to include the economic heavyweights such as the G8 and G20 countries. Sri Lanka is at a critical point with great opportunities for economic revival, however with limited local capital any real economic progress is dependent on infusion of foreign capital and investor confidence. Therefore, at the political and economic level rapprochement with the west will be the defining factor for strong economic growth or lost opportunities.

The Rajapaksa administration will have to place economic growth as the bedrock of all future development plans. In the past, the war deflected attention away from economic issues and economic growth, however now with a directionless JVP in the opposition and former LTTE combatants returning to civilian life, the youth unemployment bulge will be a key destabilizing factor if not addressed satisfactorily.

President Rajapaksa has demonstrated that he will not be subservient to the west, a leadership quality that all Sri Lankans can be proud of. The Rajapaksa administration needs to develop a foreign policy approach that embodies his strengths as someone the west cannot push around, but also a dependable partner they can engage positively. The Rajapaksa foreign policy must make it clear that Sri Lanka stands by its war heroes, and this is a non-negotiable element of the policy. The preoccupation of the west with a witch hunt and a scrutiny of the forensics of the war in which both sides transgressed on accepted norms is counterproductive. There were bigger hospitals than the one at Puthukkudiyiruppu destroyed in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the world moved forward. It must be made clear that the government will not dwell on the past, nor be unduly burdened by a legitimate victory over terrorism.

The government on many occasions offered the LTTE opportunities to surrender prior to the final assault; in fact the last cessation of hostility period for surrender ended only a week before 19 May 2009. Therefore, much of the criticism over the conduct in the final days must be apportioned to the LTTE for its decision to go down fighting.

However, moving forward cannot be "business as usual", there has to be a shift in the political culture and political discourse. President Rajapaksa needs to recognize the deteriorating state of governance, rampant corruption and breakdown of law and order. As a President elected on the goodwill of the people for defeating terrorism, it is only fair that he improves on his governance and integrity credentials. The President needs to put forward sound reform proposals on governance and devolution with the same political will and commitment as shown in respect of the war. The political will for change can only be achieved if the President is willing to expand his insular comfort zone and consider the bigger picture. Based on the presidential election results, the ruling coalition is likely to have a clear majority at the general election, further strengthening the President’s ability to implement change.

In the aftermath of the war, many political pundits predicted a post-war regime change, the Churchill fate as the turning point for Sri Lanka. The resounding victory at the presidential elections indicates that President Rajapaksa has endeared his regime to his local audience, and excelled in his domestic comfort zone. A true statesman must command the confidence of his constituents, which the President undoubtedly does, but he must also be able to do so as regards the international community.

Now the test is to expand the comfort zone beyond the local audience, to build an international profile for his leadership and the country—to engage with the international community as equals and not as outcasts. The President has a three year window of opportunity to set the foundation for reform and implement change. The provisional decision for Sri Lanka to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2013 will provide a litmus test for the President’s international standing. The next three years will also be crucial in terms of economic stability, the fallout from the withdrawal of GSP plus, the uncertain future of a belligerent JVP and an open tap policy on money supply, are all critical issues that need immediate attention.

History will honour the President and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the architects of the military victory over the LTTE, however as for his stewardship towards a political settlement, peace and economic growth, it is yet unknown what the history books will say.

~ The Island ~ by Shanaka Jayasekara
Associate Lecturer,
Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism
Macquarie University,
Sydney, Australia


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