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Sri Lanka general election a referendum on Rajapaksa misrule

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Message James Duglous Crickton

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Sri Lanka is getting ready to elect its new Parliament in less than a week with the old war horse, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the running for the post of Prime Minister; but India figures nowhere in the political discourse of the Indian Ocean island nation of 21 million people.

Tamil Nadu, the Tamil speaking South Indian province, which generally sets the tone for New Delhi's Sri Lanka policy, also is hardly mentioned in rallies held in the ethnic Tamil belt of Northern Sri Lanka or in the Sinhala dominated Southern Sri Lanka. This comes as a surprise since Rajapaksa had blamed India for his defeat at the hands of challenger Maithripala Sirisena in the Presidential election held at the beginning of this year.

China figures in the campaign, since Rajapaksa has been alleging that the development projects initiated by him with Chinese help weren halted after he was voted out. The Sirisena government has not responded to the criticism but it has taken care not to annoy the Chinese in the way Rajapaksa had annoyed the Indians.

So what is the election all about?

The one -day ballot on Aug 17 is no more than a referendum on Rajapaksa's rule, which was marked by abuse of power and corruption.

Good governance is the plank of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who has put together a broad based coalition for the elections, while Rajapaksa promises a new moon.

Significantly, Ranil's alliance is presented as the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG). Its manifesto promises to fight against corruption, the legacy of Rajapaksa years. It also pledges to consolidate the gains in 'democratic freedoms and good governance achieved by the January 8 Presidential election'.

Rajapaksa has entered the fray with a big handicap. His ten-year rule was a family rule with three brothers, one of whom was his de facto defence minister, and a son calling the shots in all sectors from defence to media. He still controls the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, (SLFP), which is the mainstay of his United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

President Sirisena, who is from the SLFP, has distanced himself from the UPFA while several prominent leaders have moved over to Ranil's Front, a clear indication that they have read the writing on the wall!

There are many theories on why Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to test his electoral luck so soon. As a former President he enjoys immunity for all the actions carried out in his official capacity.

Yes, as the supreme commander of the Army he has to bear the cross for the atrocities committed by the Lanka armed forces on innocent ethnic Tamils and for the way basic civil rights were crushed in the days prior to the declaration of victory on May 19, 2009. Since he took full credit for eliminating the LTTE scourge, he cannot escape blame for the flip-side of the war in which his regime earned the sobriquet of police raj.

It is inconceivable that Sirisena government would walk the extra mile to make Rajapaksa a martyr. Such a proposition makes no political sense and certainly when sections of the majority Sinhala community continue to see him as the true warrior in whose hands the country is safe.

In fact, this assessment prompted Rajapaksa to seek election from Kurunegala, which is dominated by ex-servicemen; he left the family pocket borough, Hambantota, to son Namal, niece Nirupama, and brother Chamal. This is a first in his forty-five year long political career.

My assessment is that Rajapaksa has been guided by concerns other than human rights to enter the electoral fray; these concerns center around his family.

His brothers, Basil, who ran the economic ministries, and Gotabhaya, who headed the defence ministry, as well as Namal, the crown prince, are in the eye of a raging storm. Basil was arrested but has been released pending investigations. Gotabhaya has already sought legal protection. Since they acted invoking his name and reportedly kept him in the loop, the family patriarch may find himself in the firing line. In at least two scams, the needle of suspicion points to him.

One is the supply of arms to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine by SL Ambassador in Kiev, Udayanga Weeratunga, who is his close relative. Weeratunga figures in a shady deal to buy four MiG-27 aircraft from Ukraine through an "unknown" offshore company. The other case is Gotabhaya setting up a Floating Armoury off Galle harbor as a private enterprise for attacking the LTTE den during the Eelam War.

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A blogger since July 2008 James Duglous Crickton is a London based consultant working with a consultancy firm focusing on Asia, particularly South Asia and East Asia. Political Research is his functional focus area. While his interests are (more...)
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