The Sunday Leader

A Realist Perspective On The Rajapaksa Presidency

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

An evaluation of a political leader must be historically concrete. What was the context in which he/she assumed power? What was the situation he/she inherited and what did he/she make of that inheritance? Did he/she improve the situation in respect of the central challenge or main problem, cause it to worsen, or remain unchanged? The evaluation must also factor in the actually available alternative to his/her leadership; how that alternative personality would have fared and at what cost.
It often takes a critical outsider to register the authentic dimensions of the achievement of a distant nation and its leader. Though they contributed negatively to the emergence of that challenge, how many of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-Independence predecessors prevailed over a challenge that was as formidable by any standard of contemporary world history; indeed of “the era”? In his recently released volume Monsoon: The Indian Ocean And The Future Of American Power, Robert D. Kaplan, member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis writes of “…the government’s gradual victory over the Tamil Tigers, among the post World War II era’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations…Prabhakaran had been causing death and destruction to a much greater extent and for a much longer period than Osama bin Laden in the case of the United States. This was the kind of clear-cut, demonstrable victory that any American administration could only hope for…” (pp. 203, 210)
President Rajapaksa won his second term fairly and squarely. The debate on the 18th Amendment is irrelevant here, because that followed, not preceded his re-election and pertains to a possible third term, not the second.  Is Sri Lanka in better shape in the most basic sense at the commencement of Rajapaksa’s second term than it was on the eve of his first term? Sri Lanka, like any other country, has to be evaluated as a totality, not through the prism of its ethnic minority, though the minorities question must indubitably be part of the evaluation. Assessing Sri Lanka through the lens of the Tamil Diaspora or the Tamil question is as misleading as assessing Turkey through the lens of the Kurds, India through the Kashmiris or Nagas, the Philippines through that of the Moros, and Spain through the Basques. That would provide insights, but a partial, skewed perspective.
Things must also be classified as primary and secondary. At this point in time, has the record of achievement of the Rajapaksa presidency been in the main, positive or negative, and is the contribution made to the country and its people by him primarily good or bad?
Mahinda Rajapaksa inherited a Sri Lankan state in grave crisis, with a powerful armed enemy rooted in a part of its soil, attempting to dismember its territory. Three previous Presidents and four previous leaders, JR, Premadasa, Wijetunga, Chandrika and Ranil failed to restore the territorial integrity and unity of the country, end the war and terminate the secessionist challenge. This, Rajapaksa accomplished.  The result is that for the first time in decades, there is no deadly violence on a large or medium scale. For all this, he was freely elected to a second term. After 30 years of life in its shadow, the country and all its peoples are safe and secure from an existential threat of the most basic and awful kind.
Sri Lankan opinion and opinion on Sri Lanka are broadly divisible into two categories: those who regard Mahinda Rajapaksa’s achievement or contribution as more positive than negative and those who view it as more negative than positive.  However critical or ambivalent they may be on this or that specific policy, action or inaction on his part, there is little doubt as to which side of the divide the vast majority of Sri Lankan people are. There is also little doubt in my mind as to what history’s verdict would be, given the magnitude of his historic achievement.
Critique must not be distorted by nihilistic negation, just as recognition of the positive must not be discredited with blindness towards the negative, and a defence of achievement must not be vitiated by avoidance of that which remains to be done.  Sadly, most commentary by and on Sri Lanka is warped by one or the other distortion.
The analytically slipshod shows of erudition which wildly toss references to leaders who have been elected to power only to establish dictatorships, omits the vital datum that such leaders proceeded to bury representative multiparty democracy by violently smashing the main opposition. Mahinda Rajapaksa has not done so. Whatever his transgressions, he cannot be held responsible for a diminution of the competitiveness of representative democracy through the prolonged leadership debility of the Opposition and the dwarfing of that Opposition by his achievement of destroying the Tigers (something that he did not prevent his predecessors from doing themselves)!
Still more absurd is the attempt to equate Rajapaksa with Prabhakaran. This assumes that the strategic projects of the two (reunification vs. dismemberment of the country) can be equated, as can the lamentable compliance of Tamil society with a movement that decimated the political leadership of that community (burning alive the TELO youth, to name but one instance) with the democratic state and the Southern public sphere that resisted and rolled back anything that came close. Even so acerbic a Western analyst of the Rajapakse dispensation as Robert D. Kaplan does not fail to balance his observation that there is a  “more severe coarsening of politics in Colombo” with the repeated definition of the country as a democracy — on which he places his bet as Sri Lanka’s ultimate salvation.
The fact that our external critics depict their excessive strictures as coming from the ‘international community’ when they reflect, if at all, only a segment of it, does not mean that the international community does not exist;  it simply means that these unfair and prejudiced critics are not synonymous with it.
Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence showcased Sri Lanka’s recent and ongoing achievement in the following words to an international scholarly audience attending the 6th international conference of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) of the National University of Singapore:
“…Sri Lanka has emerged from a decades-long civil war, and is enjoying an economic revival. It is currently the second-fastest growing Asian economy after China, a fact not lost upon the IMF, which recently upgraded Sri Lanka to middle income emerging market status…”  No two yardsticks are more important in assessing the state of a nation-state and the performance of its leadership than (a) war and (b) the economy. President Rajapaksa has won the first, has improved the second and seems to be laying the foundations for a stronger economy.
If Sri Lanka is positioned to benefit from the rise of Asia and the significance of the Indian Ocean region, it is because Mahinda Rajapaksa has cleared the way for it to do so by overcoming the most formidable obstacle: the secessionist enemy. The grade on Sri Lanka’s score card as given by an important Singaporean leader demonstrates that there is more than one view of Sri Lanka in the international system; that the primarily positive views do not limit themselves to those of allegedly ‘rogue’ or ‘maverick’ states, regarded as ‘anti-Western’; that there is a realist Asian or Eastern perspective on Sri Lanka.

19 Comments for “A Realist Perspective On The Rajapaksa Presidency”

  1. Ware Talan

    What a twisted logic? Do you really mean assesing Kurds through Turkish lens is not misleading?In your view the agressor’r perspective is correct while the victims one is misleading. How did you come up with that? Little fairness is required here in your own assesment.

    • billy

      try to read it again, hes saying its wrong to see the minority view as the common and the more general view!

  2. Chee Lanka

    To us, Dayan Jayatilleka is no longer the respected academic or independent analyst and liberal thinker that he used to be. He is now a political appointed holder of a diplomatic position (Ambassador to France and UNESCO) who simply must sing endless praise of his Dear Leader as part of his job description (and for his survival). His uncle (father’s brother) is another political appointee at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Bangkok, who also moonlights as diplomatic correspondent for The Sunday Times.

    So clearly this Uncle-and-Nephew singing party (UNSP?) is well set for the next six years to whitewash the Rajapaksa regime in their respective spheres. But we now know, before they begin, what they are going to say…and why! Perhaps they ought to co-opt that other clever sycophant Victor Ivan (editor of Ravaya) to be their banjo player!

    • Ruwan Ferdinandez

      “No longer the respected academic..??” What are you talking about pal? Has he ever been a respected academic? Yes somehow he managed a prefix title to his name but what has he done to deserve it? A friend at a Colombo university might have offred him an honourary title but then Mervyn Silva, Keheliya Rambukwella, Athulathmudali, CBK, yes CBK were also offered such honourary doctorates each.Lakshman Watawala is now called a ‘professor’ my word. Gordon Brown the ex-PM of the UK did have a PhD and was a proper academic before he entered politics but he never used it in politics. That’s an intelligent intellectual.

  3. Tiny

    Birth of a KINGDOM and Death of a Nation ( instead of 2nd term presidency)

    -Almost all powers will be with the king- Hire, fire, promote, demote, dismiss any one police, judiciary, election and public services
    -Immunity to the king means he can never be brought to justice
    -More than 70% of national wealth will be under him or his cohorts

    1. King will be supported by around 150 puppets who are deaf, blind and dumb apart to say ‘yes’ to the king
    2. King will buy/ force other opponents at his will
    3. Elections will be held but result will be decided by the king
    4. Ministerial appointments according to the proud service- i.e- TV studio humiliation, assaulting TV workers, destroying of private stations, use of foul language etc will be give Deputy minister in Media

    Human standards
    1. Govt. servants will be tied to trees going back to stone ages of humanity.
    2. While king will spend multi billions for his upkeep, even trivial salary increases to subjects will not be given.

    Law and order
    1. If you give exemplary service all your life, save the nation, put your life at risk etc, you will be charged, arrested, remove all titles and pension will be stopped.
    2. If you cause mayhem, kill thousands of people, work against the nation, you will be given luxury living at the expense of the king.
    3. Will not solve any murders, disappearances, killings , attacks i.e- journalists but hundreds of charges will be brought at lightning speed for people who have saved the nation.
    4. While petty criminals can expect maximum punishment, their will not be any action against any one responsible for loss of more than Rs 870 billion

    1. The crown will be passed over to kith and kin at an appropriate time as no one will ever be able to challenge due to total control of power.
    2. Kings family will live happily ever after
    3. The citizens will ‘see stars’ in the Rajapaksa King – DOOM !

  4. Stanley


    Be satisfied with what you have achieved.

    Whether you boast about Rajapaka or not, he has given you the maximum that you deserve.

    Now it is the time for you to write about models in Paris.

    What is your self-estimation?

    Democrat, Capitalist, Socialist, Markxist, Moaist, Leftist, Candilist (holding candle) or Mixture of everything.

    Whether you hold the candle or not, dont forget that you cannot become the Prime Minister, because you are a Christian.

  5. Panduka Dasanayake

    As always, very well reasoned, and analysed, Dr Jayatilleke.
    “Whatever his transgressions, he cannot be held responsible for a diminution of the competitiveness of representative democracy through the prolonged leadership debility of the Opposition and the dwarfing of that Opposition by his achievement of destroying the Tigers (something that he did not prevent his predecessors from doing themselves)!” So true!

    The wholesome side of ending the military conflict cannot be undermined by ignoring whatever that was, and remains, unwholesome, is well said, too. And looking at this and managing this in a manner that will address the root causes of the military conflict in the first place will surely enhance the credibility of the nation’s government, and other’s perspective on it.

    Time will hopefully bring out your analyses that will monitor the current action being taken on all fronts to reach socio-economic development that the Singaporean Deputy PM has envisaged.

    The role of the past leaders who failed to end the secessionist military action may speak of a lack of political will or single-minded desire to end the insurrection, confusion from history, the desire for economic development, the disbelief that the Tamils indeed took up arms as they did, and even remotely, the unwillingness to do what would surely mean the loss of thousands of innocent lives!

    Now that is all in the past, and much can be done to undo the unwholesome aspects that a military conflagarartion like what Lanka had to endure for 30+ years does to a country, and these cannot all be in the economic field only. The roles of education, religious leaders, social services to help those affected in heart and limb, to manage and overcome emotional scars, and above all, to set up a decent political ethos that will ensure tolerance on all levels in society, can all be the imperatives of moving on in this journey thus far of the Rajapakse presidencey that Dr Jayatilleke has very fairly evaluated.

    • Ilankai Thamizhan

      Mr. Dassanayake
      Dr. Jayathilake is an intellectual fraud. A brilliant man who has always been a lacky of some despot starting with Varatharaja Perumal. If he is honest to his Conscience, he will be hailed as one of the top acdemics lanka produced

  6. punyadasa

    DJ, first & foremost you seem to have forgotten that though the war was won under his leadership, there were many more contributers to it,and one of them is languishing in jail…you have also conveniently ignored his shenanigans with the media (including the killing of lasantha, which ofcourse you as predicted absolved MR of any responsibility in a previous article ) his inexplicable tolerance to the misdeeds of mervyn silva(another case of selective justice,and his newly found best friend KP),blatent nepotism & erosion of democracy, the 18th amendments and its disastrous consiquenses to the judiciary and what not,wastage (over 100 of his followers were given a joyride to NY sponsored by the tax payer-one in a list of many),harrasment of his critics,over the top celebrations(all school’s were instructed to broadcast his speech at the swearing in ceremony-much like prabakaran with his hero’s day speeches) in which democratic country would you find as many cutouts of its leader??oh yah…north korea,china,iran, libya, mayanmar)
    and just in case you need reminding, the presidential/general election was NOT free & fair(the abuse of state media,police,and all the state property it could lay it’s hands on)…and the fact that you claim that it was, exposes your extreme bias and a general lack of “A Realist Perspective”…. but so long as MR is pampering you with all the comforts & luxuries i’m sure you will continue to pen more of your one sided views….how pathetic you are…

  7. punchinilame

    Speaking of the Singaporean Grades now available to Dyan in his praise for the
    Regime,read ……
    “a nation can never develop when a part of ur citizens r unhappy”-

    (also by singapore president)

  8. Subramaniam

    Ilankai Thamizhan

    Please find out from Dayan, where and how he got his Doctorate?

    Dont be silly, he didnt get his doctrote by submitting s thesis, it is a honoury Doctorate.

    You are talking about intellectuality.

    Do you know that all the people who got doctrate are not intellectuals.

    I do not think Ilankai Thamizhan was a reall Tamil.

    Even Dayan or his friends could be Ilankai Thamizhan.

    Dayan has long way to become an intellectual. His writting are partial and he holds candles to Mahind Rajapaksa.

    God bless you all.

  9. Wombat

    This is a freaking joke of an article. With a Human Rights abuse charge over his head and the country still under the poverty line, how can you say SL is doing well. He cannot go to any western country, but hang around crooks and thugs from rogue regimes.

    SL is till living on borrowed money that will never be paid. SL is going from country to country begging for money. It is still fly infested, garbage everywhere and people in colombo are still begging for food. I live in my beautiful western country that has a 100 billon surplus and is the best country in the world. We are still helping you poor Lankans to put food on the table. This article is a joke.

  10. Banda

    Can somone tell me, why this president is not allowed into the US, UK and other developed western nations? The answer is that he is now regarded as a human rights violator for slaughtering 40,000 innocent Tamils.

  11. Genaraala

    Pseudo intelectuals singing for thieir supper!!! Doesnt this joker has a job to do as the ambassador in Paris, instead of dishing out some convoluted logic
    to please his master???

  12. The Analyst

    The prevalence of Rajapakse dynasty is a unavoidable consequence of MR winning the war against terror.
    Colombo 7 UNP hoorah boys & girls should learn to live with it.

  13. Ravana

    When a man calls himself rational where does that put his rationality ?

  14. Thilag

    Attn. Dayan

    Where is your reply to the above comments.

    Dont say that you are busy packing your baggage to Paris.

    Ususally your reply any comments to your article.

    Yes I agree that there are difficult questions which you do not want to answer.

    Dont worry we know the answers!

    Dont stop writing your analysis, please continue.

  15. punyadasa

    wonder what this so called PHD guru a.k.a mahinda licker thinks of the govt.s continous extension of the emergency regulation?? going by his “bending backwards to satisfy his master” articles that he often articulates, dayan would probably justify it, as he did in his article that the presidential election was won “fairly and squarely”….
    really dayan, your articles are very predictable and sickeningly pathetic and shallow… dont you see absolutely anything wrong with the way MR & his family governs the country?? (i’m yet to read anything bad abt MR from you??or are you afraid to disappoint your Master??) perhaps you should start writing poems praising MR…

  16. Sarath Fernando

    Dear, Dear Dayan,

    It is clear the rupial-Pottoinger has taken full reins, now that the original Brit is out of the scene. You have an exceptional capacity to hunt down the meager, convenient compliments, while burying the whole mass of abundant inconvenient truth that is glaringly obvious. What a talent!

    You state “there is little doubt as to which side of the divide the vast majority of Sri Lankan people are”, no doubt implying that that should be adequate to subordinate any critiques. When SWRD replaced the Queen’s language with swabasha, the Sinhala jubilation was no less euphoric – but alas it took twenty years, and a whole generation of opportunities lost, let alone the thousands and thousands of youth-life sacrificed by both communities, and a whole heap of brain-drain before we opened our eyes to the need to re-introduce English to schools – and that by his own daughter.

    We need intellects and political scientists who can look beyond their noses to guide the Government to longer-term stability and prosperity. Not wolves in sheep’s clothing to pay undue homage solely help satiate self indulgence.

    If one strips your article of all the fluff and the glitter of word-adornments, basically your argument is that Rajapaksa has done right by the country only because Kapalan and Singapore Deputy P.M. said so.

    Let me point out a few issues that need a little more thought rather than be merely used as word-candy to seduce the masses.

    • Politician’s are not the most dependable to validate statistical accuracy, and they certainly don’t need to be. I checked. IMF estimates Singapore has the fastest growth expectation, well ahead that of China at 10%. Most countries in the Asian region are forecast to grow at between 7 to 9%; and the expected growth of Sri Lanka is actually at the lower 7%. Last year, despite all the hoopla, Sri Lanka managed to eek out just 3% growth, not even a third of China’s growth. My point is, not that Mr. Hean, the Deputy PM was lying, but rather that Sri Lanka is not the “next China” as you would want us to believe — there is no expectation of uniquely magnificent growth outlook there for Sri Lanka.

    • It is possibly accurate that Sri Lanka has a relatively narrow gender gap compared to most of Asia. The compulsory education for all children that we have retained even since independence is no doubt a primary reason for this – unlike in most other nations including India, Pakistan, China, etc where emphasis on girl’s educational need is sadly inadequate. There is, however, no credit that is owed to Rajapaksa on this – that needs to be clear.

    • Further, it will be interesting to check how much of the narrowing in gender-gap earnings resulted from the concentration of mass employment in garment manufacturing and maid-exports that, by its unique nature, provides greater opportunities for mothers, sisters and daughters rather than to fathers, brothers and sons, who to the most part remain domestics, with hardly any employment opportunities. Is that really a good thing?

    • Similarly Rajapaksa has no claim to credit on the 90% literacy rate. On the other hand, despite this 90% literacy rate, a significant share of foreign-exchange earnings comes from maid-exports. Rajapaksa’s first-election promise of 50,000 (or was it 500,000) foreign employment (read labor & maid) reflects not only the bankruptcy in development foresight, but also the plight to which this educated nation has been reduced to. Remember the good old days that Sri Lankans enjoyed uniquely disproportionate foreign employment as doctors, engineers, accountants and teachers in almost all regions of the world?

    • Another point that you proudly, but blindly reiterated is “In any country, women account for half of the current talent base and have a key role in nurturing the next generation.” Do you think expanding programs to send our mothers, sisters and daughters to the arrogant Middle East and pursuing similar “golden” opportunities in Korea, Malaysia and now in Chennai is the best we can do to nurture our next generation? Think, Dayan Think – it won’t hurt! You attended institutions beyond the middle school for a reason, a reason beyond cutting and pasting.

    • You thought it fit to reiterate ” The most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human talent – the skills, education and productivity of its workforce.” Words are easy to come-by – action speaks louder. Aside from the initial promise of 50,000 at the first elections, Mahinda recently appealed to give Sri Lankan labor another chance suggesting that “we would work for half the wages you’d pay to the Chinese, the cheapest available.” In addition we are now inducing (forcing?) the children to learn Korean and Chinese (Hey! What happened to swabasha??!) Are we expecting them to take away from Koreans and Chinese the engineering, medical, legal or any other professional employment opportunities worthy of the 90% literacy rate that we proudly claim (kind of like the insistent Dr. title some of us are addicted to)? No – not at all. Neither Koreans nor Chinese are going to give us anything but janitorial work at best – the Sri Lankan chakkili force to the fore! Is that the goal behind the Korean and Chinese language programs? Think about it Dayan – don’t just parrot.

    As for Kaplan’s summary, all I can say is your aptitude to take convenient words as gospel is unparalleled. In his recent writings Kaplan leaves little doubt about not only his sentiments on China’s intrusive aspirations, but also how the best of intelligence of his country did not have a clue of what China was up to, until it was too late. We don’t need any new evidence to evaluate credibility of US’s military intelligence (or rather the intelligence gap) – even Bush lately, and finally expressed his dismay. There is a vast amount of credible academic and non-academic literature available out there, that is produced without the (some-times necessary) military biases. So, read a few more reports from academics other than those who help sell you — that is not an intellectual profession; there is another word for that.

    I have asked you many a time – but I am not easily discouraged. In Democracy, development and stability, what is more important is not where we are but in which direction we are headed, and how fast. Could you name a few policy or program changes that Mahinda has put in place that YOU would consider as progressive?

    Did you hear of the clown named Grumpy who got elected to the Congress in Brazil? His support was based on his motto “it can’t get any worse”. That is principally where we are now, I suppose.

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