View from abroad
Back in Sri Lanka after seven months, I find little has changed on our beach. A boutique hotel chain has bought some neighbouring property, but the sandy bay that stretches for a mile outside our home remains as lovely and peaceful as ever, apart from the constant pounding of the surf.
Despite the sense of unchanging serenity, there is a growing frustration among the people I have spoken to. The euphoria of the change in government following the presidential election of 2014 has dissipated. On the morning following that historic election, we awoke to the sound of fireworks and drums that announced Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over the incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse.
After years of nepotistic rule that saw four Rajapakse brothers and a son in positions of political power among widespread allegations of corruption, Sri Lankans heaved a sigh of relief at the departure of the family. Sirisena is the very antithesis of his predecessor: mild-mannered, soft-spoken and personally austere, he could not be more different from the loud, brash Trump-like figure of Mahinda Rajapakse.
The prime minister, Ranil Wickremsinghe, has been in active politics for decades, and heads the United National Party that now shares power with Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). These two parties have taken turns at running the country since its independence, but are now in coalition, thus leaving no opposition to speak of. The SLFP has split up into the ruling faction and one headed by the ex-president around whom several dissidents have gathered.
Now, as dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition rises, there is talk of Rajapakse forming a new party to contest the next election. But as the constitution has been amended to prevent a third term, there are suggestions that one of Rajapakse’s brothers will run for president, and appoint the ex-president the prime minister. In fact, the constitutional provision imposing a limit of two terms restores the original clause that had been changed during the Rajapakse regime to accommodate the president who had been in office twice.
But beyond this, this government has little to show for its two years in power. Prices have gone up, the stock market continues to slide and the currency is down to 150 rupees to the dollar from 128 when I was last here in March. At least, people say, Rajapakse built roads.
My bank manager saw no redeeming feature in sight. According to him, the rupee is under pressure because of the heavy repayments due on loans contracted by Rajapakse for his ambitious infrastructure projects, many of which are white elephants. There is talk of the Chinese buying or leasing the port and airport they financed and built in Rajapakse’s constituency of Hambantota, about fifty kilometres from where we are.
Recently, the Chinese ambassador held a press conference in which he took the highly undiplomatic step of accusing the finance minister of blaming his country of giving loans on high interest rates for non-viable projects. The same minister then asked China for further loans to pay off the previous ones.
Meanwhile, the enquiries into allegations of corruption that swirled around the ruling family appear to be going nowhere. This was the strongest case Sirisena and Wickremsinghe had built up against Rajapakse during the election campaign, and many promises were made to make the family accountable for their alleged kleptomania while in office. Indeed, we heard scores of stories of crookery at the highest level. Land apparently forcibly acquired by the Rajapakse clan was pointed out to us while we were driving along. Namal, Mahinda’s son, was given a seat in parliament from a nearby constituency, and wielded enormous power, especially over development projects.
Despite spending nearly two years to trace the alleged Rajapakse fortune, the authorities have made scant progress. Meanwhile, Rajapakse is gathering support for the next election. People forget that he won 48pc of the popular vote in 2014, and if he and his brothers are not disqualified before 2019, they may well be back in power. There have been persistent rumours of Wickremsinghe having done a deal to ensure a smooth transfer of power in which the Rajapakse family would not be prosecuted for their alleged misdeeds.
Perhaps this government’s greatest failing has been a lack of political will to reintegrate the Tamils of the north and north-east into the mainstream. This minority, devastated in the years of civil war, remains marginalised. Large numbers of troops continue to be stationed in and around Jaffna, and often run small businesses that deprive locals of opportunities. A nasty, strident Sinhala nationalism, often propagated by Buddhist monks, has made the minorities insecure and edgy.
There is talk, too, of Saudi funding of a Salafi group in Sri Lanka. Over the years, I have observed increasing numbers of young local Muslim men dressing in long Arab outfits and growing straggly beards, while women cover themselves completely. This outward evidence of religiosity makes the majority Sinhalese uneasy. And as a recent report on child marriages by this newspaper’s Sri Lanka correspondent revealed, Muslims here have insisted on their ‘right’ to force young girls into marriage with far older men. This mix of Sinhala nationalism and fundamentalist Islam makes for a potentially explosive cocktail.
That was the bad news. The good news is that despite all its failings, this government is led by decent people who believe in democracy and the rule of law, unlike their predecessors. There are no white vans in the night in which journalists were kidnapped; no opposition members are threatened and beaten up; and few rumours of personal corruption.
So a glass half full and a pass mark for the coalition government.(Dawn)