The first time Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed the seat of president in Sri Lanka, it was to limited fanfare. The year was 2005. He had just survived a fierce battle with his party for leadership, and the civil war with the rebel Tamil Tigers was still simmering. There wasn’t much to celebrate.
This time around, the pomp and circumstance surrounding his second inauguration is staggering. Posters adorned with his photo have been erected on virtually every street in the country, every few feet.
The government decreed a week of celebrations, starting with the planting of three million trees and the presentation of the world’s largest milk rice cake for the leader’s birthday which just happens to coincide with his second oath to office.
“The milk rice is our traditional form of celebration,” said one of the five hundred chefs enlisted to fashion the gourmet monstrosity that weighs some 7000 kgs.
“It is seen as a blessing from the Gods to the people and to the president.”
With nightly fireworks, marching bands, and ceremonial Sri Lankan dancers at various events held in honour of him, the resemblance of Rajapaksa’s swearing-in to a royal ordination is not lost on the greater populace. And is on the whole welcomed.
Age of peace
The 65 year-old former lawyer is revered as the man who ushered in a new, and unexpected, age of peace though some would say it was brought about through a ruthless campaign against the Tamil Tigers, that even until now is shrouded by international concerns of human rights abuses.
Still it is a ruthlessness many on this island are willing to overlook, as after 30 years of devastating civil war the economy is predicted to mark a record growth of eight per cent in 2010.
“Rajapaksa achieved what no one in the international community thought possible. There was a myth that terrorism could never be defeated but he did so, and he did it in our own Sri Lankan way,” Keheliya Rambukwewla, a government spokesperson, said.
That the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, or LTTE, was in fact a terrorist group, is the view of the victors. Some in the country’s Tamil minority continue to see it differently.
But with the ethnic group making up 13 per cent of the population Rajapaksa knows one of his main challenges in his second term in office is to prove he can forge reconciliation between Tamils and the majority Sinhalese population.
He has promised that all ethnic groups will share equally in the future prosperity of the country. There is a lot of rebuilding to be done.
Almost every minister in government will tell you that not long ago Sri Lanka was considered a failed state. The Tamil communities of the north, where much of the fighting occured, remains in utter ruins.
However, beyond economics, perhaps of even more concern, is a litany of government moves that have critics fearing a dictator-in-the-making.
Shortly after Rajapaksa’s re-election was the highly publicised arrest of Sarath Fonseka, his challenger and former army general. The war hero now spends his days shuttling between the courts and jail on various charges.
He has already been convicted of corruption and for using his military position for politicking crimes that will have him serve a jail term of several years.
Fonseka’s soft-spoken and dutiful wife, Anoma, has faithfully defended his innocence and speaks of harassment and a climate of fear created by the country’s leaders against those who oppose them.
“Actually we don’t have democracy, one can … understand that day by day we are going to the lower level,” she said.
What has baffled this one-time close friend of the Rajapaksa family, is the president’s personal history.
She says that in his days as a lawyer he championed human rights and the need for limits on the government’s power, especially in the executive branch.
But just months after securing his presidency Rajapaksa amended the constitution, giving him overall authority in appointing civil servants, the police and judges.
He also removed the two-term limit for a president, allowing him to technically be in charge indefinitely.
The fact he has given himself and his brothers almost all the key portfolios in cabinet from finance to defence, has led to talk and criticism from international rights groups that he is running a family dynasty rather than a democracy.
But Rambukwewla says the world has nothing to fear, that at the end of the day the president will still need to run for re-election every six years.
“Whether he is having ten departments or a hundred departments, if the people are happy and the people are being given what was promised, or more than what was promised, why should the outside world be concerned about it?”
Where once Sri Lanka cared for what the world thought of it, Rambukwewla says there is a newfound confidence in the island nation’s own abilities.
Rather than simply embracing the West and it’s “ideals”, he talks of expanding trade with nations like Iran and China.
Rajapaksa himself speaks of turning his country into the next economic “miracle of Asia”. And the greater majority appear willing to let him try.
When asked about whether the president has too much power, most on the streets respond with shrugs and the typical response: “this is the way things are done here. It is the Sri Lankan way”.