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The apotheosis of Mahinda Rajapakse

Mahinda Rajapakse is literally everywhere

By R. Wijewardene

At every junction, on every major road, on practically every wall, in the country a single visage — that of the nation’s unifier, liberator and leader, stares out at the people.

A face that just five years ago would have been unknown to most of the island’s people is today the most instantly recognisable image in the island. In the wake of the government’s victory over the LTTE Mahinda Rajapakse has achieved omnipresence — he is literally everywhere.

No longer merely an elected leader, news of the death of Velupillai Pirapaharan has elevated the nation’s President to the status of a monarch — a new king.

“He is not just a king but the king of kings,” were the words of Chamila and Sandun, taxi drivers who have decorated their trishaws with images of their hero.

Posters declaring Mahinda Rajapakse — Hela Raja, the king of the island and drawing comparisons between the victory achieved by the present administration and the feats of former kings of the island decorate walls across Colombo.

Mythic proportions

But history alone it appears is not enough and the adulation heaped on the man who led the country to victory, has now reached genuinely mythic proportions.

Mahinda Rajapakse is seen not merely as the king of kings but also as the mythical Diyasena Kumaraya, a saviour predicted to appear 2500 years after the death of Lord Buddha to revive Buddhism on the island.

But even kingship it appears is not enough and to many the President is nothing less than a living god — joining the ancient Saman, Upul, Vibishna deviyo in the island’s pantheon of protector deities.

“Ape deviya” proclaimed the crowds who prostrated themselves before the President’s motorcade, as he made his way to deliver the post war victory speech.

Roman emperors were elevated to godhead amidst spectacular imperial festivals and something similar appears to have happened in Colombo.

Lalitha a domestic worker in Colombo insisted that the President “is a like a god for us – he saved us, when no one else could.”

A group of young people raising funds for war veterans on the streets of Pannipitiya were unanimous in their approval; “He unified this country; the whole world was against us but he appeared to save us, he really is like a god — come to protect our heritage.”

In a country emerging from three decades of war simple euphoria following the defeat of a ruthless terrorist organisation is understandable.

The President’s achievement in steering the army and the nation towards a final victory over the LTTE in spite of staunch international opposition, is certainly commendable.

However the current omnipresence of military images, most of all the beaming and photogenic visage of the great leader himself suggests nothing less than the emergence of an incipient personality cult.

The elevation of men to the status of gods rarely ends well and this current bout of deification is particularly dangerous as it appears to be more than the product of genuine popular euphoria and at least in part the deliberate creation of the government’s own propaganda machine.

Posters declaring Mahinda Rajapakse the new Dutugemunu or exalting Gotabaya The Great began appearing as long as three years ago.

Divine right to rule

For years the government’s propaganda has played on the idea of king’s and kingship and now that victory has been achieved, the army’s triumph is being presented as proof of Mahinda Rajapakse’s almost divine right to rule.

Asked about elections and democracy a young man in the Pannipitiya group was adamant “it’s time to change our constitution and turn Sri Lanka into a kingdom.”

In cyberspace discussions and message boards are filled with tributes to ‘Mahinda the great’ and ‘Mahinda the god.’

Given the militarisation and heightened nationalism that naturally follows the end of a large scale conflict exaggerated sentiments are inevitable.

However endorsements of kingship run deeply counter to the idea of democracy.

There is of course no reason to elect kings and the government’s deliberate cultivation of this image of kingship raise further questions about an administration whose long term commitment to democracy is already questionable.

Of course the government’s present strength and popularity which is the underlying cause for much of the public’s adulation is more than a matter of propaganda.

The President’s legitimate achievements, the weakness of the opposition, and a paucity of successful leaders in the island’s recent history, have left people with little option but to single out President Rajapakse as a ‘symbol’ of the victory.

However the extensive use of Buddhist and Sinhala imagery in the various posters deifying the President again raise questions about the character of the post LTTE Sri Lanka and the sincerity of the government’s claims regarding the creation of a genuinely inclusive state.

In a widely publicised ceremony Rajapakse was crowned as Thrisinhaladheeshwara at the Dalada Maligawa — the nation’s Buddhist epicenter and everywhere in the south of the island posters have appeared declaring him the savior of Buddhism in the island.

Deeply disturbing

For many within Sri Lanka’s minority communities this clear identification of the nation’s ruler with a particular religion and race is deeply disturbing. “While the Sinhalese might see him as their king he is not our king,” were the words of a Tamil shop keeper in Mount Lavinia.

But to most Sri Lankans concerns about the religious bias of posters and government propaganda is simply irrelevant

“We won because of Mahinda; he came forward to fight when others wanted to sell the country, he is our true leader — he deserves all the praise and more,” claimed Asiri, a young graduate, in a Dehiwala tea shop.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Alternatives, explains the Rajapakse cult as the “culmination of the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism that has always existed in the country.”

Euphoria will fade

However the current fervour for Mahinda is out of all proportion with anything that has gone before it – D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike were hardly seen as living gods.

Of all the island’s political figures only one, Velupillai Pirapaharan actively cultivated the image of a god.

And ultimately Pirapaharan’s ignominious end hardly two weeks ago proved conclusively that there was no room for living gods on the island. There is hope however that the current trend t oward the deification of the President is only reflective of short term public euphoria. A euphoria that will fade as the public discovers that no leadership no matter how successful is infallible.

The possibility remains however that current posters are part of a more deliberate and sinister propaganda effort, encouraged by the government to cement its already extensive authority. After all it is exceedingly difficult to oppose a god.

But while some roundabouts in the country now bear a startling resemblance to public spaces in North Korea plastered with oversized pictures of the ‘dear leader,’ Sri Lanka of course remains a democracy. And while the war maybe over rebuilding this nation will ultimately require the services of just and efficient administrators – not a king, or gods. 








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