Mahinda Rajapakse is literally everywhere
By R. Wijewardene
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
deviya” proclaimed the crowds who prostrated themselves
before the President’s motorcade, as he made his way to
deliver the post war victory speech.
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.”
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.”
country emerging from three decades of war simple
euphoria following the defeat of a ruthless terrorist
organisation is understandable.
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
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.
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
Posters declaring Mahinda Rajapakse the new Dutugemunu
or exalting Gotabaya The Great began appearing as long
as three years ago.
Divine right to rule
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.
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.”
cyberspace discussions and message boards are filled
with tributes to ‘Mahinda the great’ and ‘Mahinda the
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
most Sri Lankans concerns about the religious bias of
posters and government propaganda is simply irrelevant
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
the island’s political figures only one, Velupillai
Pirapaharan actively cultivated the image of a god.
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
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.
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.