THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA Part 7
Posted on April 12th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa    continues to be recognized by Asian governments. Rajapaksa had a private meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when Modi visited Sri Lanka in May 2017. This was widely discussed in political and diplomatic circles. Many an eyebrow has been raised over former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s late night meeting with visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at India House said the media. Both sides remain tight-lipped over what was discussed.  The discussions were “confidential,” they said  .

Political observers believe it was not for nothing that an invitation was extended. “The Indians wanted to send a message that they haven’t totally abandoned Rajapaksa.” Analysts said that this was probably a high level discussion and was probably initiated by India. Indian High Commissioner told the media that the meeting had taken place at the request of the former Sri Lankan president. It was a courtesy call. India wanted to maintain a dialogue with all major political powers in Sri Lanka.

Mahinda Rajapaksa went on an official visit to South Korea in 2016 and met the Prime Minister.  Island newspaper ran a photo of the two of them engaged in conversation. Rajapaksa also took a delegation on a tour of Japan in May 2017.   The Japan-Sri Lanka Buddhist Organization for International Cooperation had invited him to participate in a function at the Muryoko-in, a Buddhist temple located on Mount Kōya.   During this visit, Rajapaksa met Yukio Hatoyama, who had briefly served as Prime Minister 2009-2010 and Nikai Toshihiro, former Minister of Economy, trade and industry.

Rajapaksa had also met the Sri Lankans living in Japan.  The Sri Lankans in Japan were frustrated with the Yahapalana government and they calling for a regime change in Sri Lanka, said Mahinda Rajapaksa.  The Lankan businessmen including vehicle importers had complained that they were no longer in a position to survive due to the disastrous government policies, Rajapaksa said. They are asking us, the Joint Opposition, to take up this issue with the government .

Gotabhaya Rajapakse also went to Japan in December 2016, on an invitation extended to him by the Sri Lankan community in Japan who are supporting former President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Mahinda Rajapaksa went to Malaysia in 2016, to attend a conference of Asian political parties organized by the Malaysian government at the Putra World Trade Centre. This visit had much drama. A group of Tamils with alleged links to LTTE had assaulted the Sri Lankan high commissioner to Malaysia, I.S. Ansar in a restricted area of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The attackers had come in search of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, The assaulters came and asked Ansar about the whereabouts of ‘war criminal Rajapaksa.’ When he replied that they should go and find out from security officers, they beat him and left him bleeding,” said a foreign ministry official.

That was not all. When they heard that Mahinda Rajapaksa was to visit the Malaysian Buddhist temple, members of the Malaysian Indian Progressive association, Malaysian Tamilian Association and Malaysian Indian Education Transformation Association, went there and assaulted its Chief Priest. They had abused him with vulgarities and then hit him.  They punched him in the face and also kicked him. The group had gathered at the temple ‘as they wanted to give a stern warning to all Buddhist temples not to allow the mass murderer here.’ they would keep vigil to make sure that Mahinda Rajapaksa did not enter the temple, reported Daily News.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is recognized by these countries, because he knows how to manage international relations. Answering a question about his government’s relations with China and Pakistan during his days in office, Rajapaksa replied, in 2018, “Sri Lanka has always had close relations with India, China and Pakistan and these friendships will continue in the future as well. Pakistan is a valued friend which has helped us at crucial moments during the war and on the diplomatic front. Likewise, China is a valued friend with whom we have had many economic dealings. It has helped us on the economic front. Even though the present government of India may have had reservations about my government in 2014, I believe they will look at things differently now.

Sivashankar Menon, former High Commissioner for India in Sri Lanka, said in his memoirs published in 2016, “I found that as the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya, had a clear view of Sri Lanka’s interests, one that was compatible with ours. Immediately after the war, he reassured Indian troika about the nature of Sri Lanka’s defence relationship with China, and helped Indian companies re-enter the reconstruction of Colombo. Security was Gotabhaya’s preoccupation, which made him sensitive to India’s concerns, while his brother Mahinda was much more compliant with Chinese demands, having built a political machine on Chinese money. 

The war-winning Rajapaksa government had been under heavy Indian pressure to acquire Sri Lanka’s defence ‘needs’, including training and intelligence from India. This led to the ‘unprecedented’ post-war bilateral agreement between Sri Lanka and India in 2014, for the building of two Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPVs)   for Sri Lanka, built by the Government of India owned Goa Shipyard Limited.  This was part of a project meant to enhance Sri Lanka -India relationship, said Shamindra Ferdinando. The first AOPV arrived in 2017.

Rajapaksa also succeeded in having an arrangement with the USA. in May 2007, Sri Lanka and the United States, , signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), valid for 10 years, to facilitate transfer and exchange of logistics supplies, support and re-fuelling services. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the then American Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake signed the agreement. This Agreement facilitates reciprocal logistic support between the United States and Sri Lankan military, for unforeseen circumstances or exigencies in which one of the parties may have a need of logistic support, supplies and services of the military forces of the other party.  This arrangement was brilliantly used by the Navy, to obtain location information from USA to   destroy the five LTTE weapon ships.

To the question What is your reaction to observations on Sri Lanka moving closer to China, Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean region and the huge investments being made in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan” Rajapaksa replied, Sri Lanka has had close relations with the People’s Republic of China since it was founded. The relationship that my government had with China was purely economic. Some of the key projects that China did like the Hambantota Port was first offered to India but was declined and it was then handed over to China.

 When my government was in power, there was never any move to lease the entire Hambantota free port along with its precinct of 5,000 acres to a private company. My government had made plans to lease only the container terminal the same way the terminals in the Colombo harbour have been leased to private companies. But the free port and its 5,000 acres would have remained under the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. I must say that China also never asked us to lease the free port to them. This idea of leasing the entire Hambantota free port to a private party came up only after the change of government in January 2015.

The economy improved under Rajapaksa. Statistics show that Sri Lanka achieved middle income status, that the general lot of the masses was improving, said Samantha Kumarasinghe. In the last three years of the Rajapaksa regime, economic growth was high, ranging from 7- 8.5%., said Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda. Sri Lanka had the best growth rate among SAARC countries ruing 2009-2014, said Samantha Kumarasinghe.

Rajapaksa also said he managed the economy well. Rajapaksa said, under my presidency, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 6% from 2006 to 2009 despite a raging war and at 7.4% in the five post war years from 2010 to 2014. No government in post-independence history has achieved an average growth rate of 6% leave alone 7.4%. Because of that growth, the economy was able to absorb the relatively modest annual increases in taxation under my government.

The exchange rate was controlled to prevent increases in the prices of imports. So whatever was given by my government as salary increases actually stayed in the hands of the recipients. During my nine years in office, our per capita income grew by an average of USD 286 per year said Rajapaksa.

There was never any problem about meeting the payments for the Hambantota port because it was paid out of the profits of the Ports Authority’. Even though there was this talk of huge debts incurred by my government for infrastructure projects, the loans taken for those projects was actually quite small whencompared with the foreign currency borrowings of the present government. Sri Lanka was never in any kind of Chinese debt trap during my tenure in office even though some sections of the Western media portrayed it as such. Today’s debt crisis has been brought about by the present government.

The  Rajapaksa  regime had implemented one of the most ambitious development plans in the world by setting up a US$1.4 billion deep sea port, an international airport, as well as a tourism zone, conference centre, an international cricket stadium and some of the best highways in the country, said Bandula Sirimanne.  The Port city, Colombo Harbour south container terminal, Colombo Katunayake expressway,  and the Lotus tower must be added to this list.

There was fast infrastructure  development   in the tertiary sector too. New roads, bridges, schools, hospitals were  built across  the  country  Bridges were built in rural areas, within six months, using new technology. In 2014, the media reported that 210 bridges are almost complete, they include Polwatte oya bridge, in Matale Dambulla,  Weddawala bridge, Hapuvida bridge near lower Rattota Matale, Kuda oya bridge at Ethiliyawewa in Balahuruwa, Wellawaya.    major housing schemes, fisheries harbors were launched and completed. the   rural electrification project was extended to  remote regions.   

Mahinda Rajapaksa  was the single most important factor behind these impressive achievements said Rohana Wasala. He  just had  a brief five years after  end of the war in 2009  to accelerate economic development and  achieve social progress in a peaceful environment.

Rajapaksa’s plans for Hambantota  are praised. I remember visiting the Hambantota Port in 2014 and being very impressed with the 10 Year plan to develop the region, said Janaki Chandraratne.

Jetwing Air Director Sunil Peiris    had positive things to say about  Mattala airport. Peiris sees huge potential for the Mattala airport. It has lot of unused land that can be developed.”  the, development of the Hambantota Port, extension of the Southern Expressway to Hambantota, the planned oil refinery, and more luxury hotels opening in the Southern Province, Mattala international airport will be a busy aerodrome in the future,  he  said. with the opening of five star hotels like the Shangri La, Anantara Tangalle, Marriott Weligama, two Hilton hotels in the deep South and other new hotels opening in Tissa and Yala, Mattala will be a bustling airport in the future.

Peiris  said Jetwing has flown down groups for special events such as weddings and corporate events at the South coast hotels. Peiris believes that in the future tourists visiting the Southern and Eastern coasts will opt to fly directly to Mattala instead of Colombo. Budget airline Flydubai, owned by the Emirates Group, has operated uninterrupted  to Mattala since it opened in March 2013 and currently has four weekly services.

When the Colombo international airport was being refurbished, SriLankan Airlines’ China bound flights made a stopover in Mattala and saw heavy movement of passengers from Mattala. Jetwing is also in close talks with the Ministry of Labour to have Sri Lankans seeking employment in Dubai and living in the South and East to opt to travel from Mattala instead of Colombo, Peiris said.

Despite ‘all the dents of the last two years’ Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charisma and political appeal continues to endure said Sinharaja Tammita Delgoda. In 2016, when Rajapakse visited Rathupaswela area to address a public gathering some people tried to organize a protest against him but it failed with less than a dozen people turning up. Sending the army to quell the disturbances in Rathupaswela was a bad mistake but it did not affect the voting pattern of the area either, despite the manner in which the riot was put down. The people of the area  knew that the whole thing was  controlled by agents’ provocateurs, said Chandraprema.

In August 2017 Rajapaksa  accompanied his wife, Shiranthi to the law courts   at Hulftsdorf as Shiranthi Rajapaksa   had been summoned by court to appear before it. This could be considered a ‘private’ visit. But  when   Rajapaksa emerged from the law courts, with his wife and got into the  car, the crowd went wild .  Rajapaksa had to get out of the car  and wave  briefly before leaving.

Similarly in August 2017, Rajapaksa attended a pinkama organized in memory of Janaka Bandara Tennekoon’s father.  That too was a private visit. however,  when he arrived, there were  enthusiastic crowds waiting to greet him. Television cameras showed them waving to him. Some had climbed trees to get a  glimpse of Rajapaksa. (Derana News. 13.8.17)  (continued)

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