Every time Sri Lanka looks like it is developing further to become a more democratic or liberal state, remotely more integrated with the rest of the world, it manages to reverse itself politically by electing an ultra-nationalistic protectionist with a human rights record that even Josef Stalin would envy. It’s what I’d like to call the Sri Lankan political paradox and it’s been proven again with the recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a maniacal technocrat, to the role of president. The man who is the walking embodiment of a cover-up is now the most powerful individual in Sri Lanka.
He is a contentious character, to say the least. Despite pioneering crackdowns on internal terrorism and utilising his brutishness to help shorten the civil war, he did so with no regard for human life. Hidden under the carpet are his inexcusable ‘death-squads’: army puppets reporting above and beyond the head of the army himself- reporting only to Gotabaya. They went around performing his ‘dirty work’: capturing and disposing of journalists, ethnic minorities and dissidents; all the time shielded from repercussions by Gotabaya’s elder brother, who at the time held the role of President.
Just take page 2 of his manifesto – “An establishment Free from Corruption.” The man who once exploited his power so far as to create ‘death-squads’ is now claiming that he’ll bring about a corruption-free political system: not in my lifetime Gotabaya.
He defends himself by claiming that the police and army have “proved their innocence” through their defeat of the LTTE. I do not buy this for even a second. The army has been found to breach innumerable rights of both civilians and surrendering LTTE members throughout the war. If he is talking of re-implementing the police on a large scale to ‘keep the peace’, I undoubtedly fear for the entire population.
His rise to power was almost inevitable now in hindsight. After being hailed a “national hero” due to ending the civil war his campaign was boosted further by his brother’s economic performance as president. GDP rose from circa $24bn to over $80bn at the end of Mahinda’s tenure. Crucially, however, we must note that Mahinda ran on an economically liberalising platform: opening the nation to mass investment from the Far Eastern giants of China and Japan, allowing them to fund pivotal major infrastructure projects, such as the highway system; all this hastened Sri Lanka’s economic development.
Contrastingly, Gotabaya has emphasised a highly protectionist Sri Lanka, one that will no longer be “bullied by Britain” or have “unfair” UN law placed upon it. Yet the lunatic pledged to meet the sustainable development goals, developed by the UN, in his manifesto. God knows what he’s thinking in the Presidential office right now other than ‘Thank the Lord I’m a populist’. Without a doubt this was his way into power. Populism has always been -pun intended- popular in Sri Lanka. Evident in both brothers’ successes in elections, the electorate of the island nation tend to be easily swung by big-tent policies such as ‘Priority to national security’ and ‘People Centric Economic Development’: both schemes are found in Gotabaya’s manifesto as part of the 10 key policies for the nation. Realistically, Sri Lanka will be unable to achieve this if it is combined with the new President’s protectionist reforms. Protectionism inevitably leads to a fall in development. Just look at the Soviet Union: a fundamentally flawed state with unfathomable levels of inequality and the inner circles of government and the police inciting fear into the minds of the population, branding dissent as a suicidal idea. This is now undoubtedly the path Sri Lanka is headed upon under the firm grasp of Gotabaya and his protectionist policies.
To close, we can only hope this paradox is not further proven at subsequent Sri Lankan elections and that we can eventually see progress in this tarnished nation.