Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sri Lankan brotherhood

By Eric Ellis

Nations can be run as democracies or dictatorships, monarchies or even as products, for instance the widely admired production-to-port ''Singapore Inc'' model. But is there a country run by a fraternity?

Step forward, Sri Lanka, a year after the end of the 30-year civil war between the ruling Sinhalese of the island's mostly Buddhist south and the separatist Tamil Tigers of the Hindu/Tamil north-east.

The war was a triumph for the Rajapakse brothers, led by the President, Mahinda, who rather sees himself as the modern-day incarnation of an ancient Sinhala monarch who also vanquished his Tamil foes.

The presidency is but one of the jobs the 64 year-old Mahinda occupies. He's also Minister of Finance, Planning, Highways, Ports, Aviation and Defence. That's a lot of tasks but a nation devastated by war needs a lot of rebuilding. So, step forward three of his brothers, and their sons, to help in that effort.

Mahinda appointed his unelected brother Gotabaya as Defence Secretary in 2005, and he is the widely hailed if not always loved mastermind of the victory over the Tamils. A former manager of a Californian 7-Eleven store, ''Gota'' is in charge of the military (army/navy/air force), the coast guard, the police and national intelligence, external and internal.

Immigration, a big revenue-earner for a labour exporter like Sri Lanka, also comes under Gota's remit as do, oddly, the Urban Development Authority and the department overseeing land reclamation.

Elder brother Basil is an adviser to his presidential sibling. He got elected to parliament in April. But no time spent hanging around the government benches learning the ropes for him; he was immediately appointed Economic Development Minister, managing the regeneration of the war-ravaged Tamil areas. Basil also has a big say in another big Sri Lankan money driver, tourism, as Colombo seeks again to persuade travellers it is safe to loll on its idyllic beaches. Basil also oversees the country's foreign-investment promotion body.

If three's not enough Rajapakses for one administration - politician father Don had nine offspring - add eldest brother Chamal to the mix, the parliamentary Speaker. And the sons; Chamal's boy is a regional provincial chief minister and Mahinda's 24-year-old son, Namal, just got elected to parliament.

The Rajapakses' control over Sri Lanka is near absolute. By one measure, they steer departments accounting for 80 per cent of the national budget. But few Sri Lankans (dare) suggest they are not doing a good job. Amid unconvincing claims of electoral fraud, Mahinda was re-elected to the presidency in a landslide earlier this year. His United People's Freedom Alliance then swept parliamentary polls in April.

That all suggests war-weary Sri Lankans were rather more exercised about rewarding the victors after a conflict that defined the island for nearly two generations than to worry, for the moment at least, about voting themselves and their economy into an elective dictatorship.

Though the Rajapakse model is Singapore, the feel is more like Suharto's Indonesia, as power pyramids to the palace, where diktats matter more in the execution of policy than the vaguely checked and balanced niceties of parliamentary democracy. Foreign investors arriving on the island looking for the next Asian economic miracle know it's a good idea to try to get an audience with Basil Rajapakse.

While the Rajapakses' ruling style may not quite be to Western taste, the Rajapakses are the last to care as they pragmatically snuggle up to China, Iran and India to offset American and British influence in business.

Indeed, a recent week's interviews in Sri Lanka suggest that Sri Lankans quite like their ruling family and are more than prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Even their dyed-in-the-wool opponents, particularly in business - the opposition United National Party has traditionally been the party of business - grudgingly accept the Rajapakses' hand in the deal-making mix if they can deliver the promised prosperity that has eluded Sri Lanka for decades.

A year after the war's end, Sri Lankans are starting to glimpse the peace dividends trickling in. From a very low base, there are more tourists on the island; the few hotels are roaring and more are planned. Where at worst I once counted nine security checks on the hour's drive from Colombo airport to town, last week there were none. The financial district, bombed into oblivion by the Tigers in the 1980s and 1990s, has reopened and you no longer need to negotiate airport-style security to get access to it. Roads that Churchill built are now being upgraded, donors are opening wallets and the neglected south, the Sinhalese heartland that provided cannon fodder for the Tamil war, is becoming a building site.

It doubtless helps that it is the Rajapakses' ancestral district. In the President's home town of Hambantota, a huge port is nearing completion, financed and built by Beijing to become one of its ''string of pearls'' - quasi-sovereign Chinese economic outposts to guarantee the supply chain to feed and maintain the mainland economic beast.

Beijing is also building Sri Lanka's second international airport here and the big idea is for the area to become what Phuket is to Bangkok or Penang is to Kuala Lumpur - economic, tourism and transportation hubs bypassing the faraway dominant capital. In Sri Lanka's unique case, development of the south as the alternative to Colombo also keeps economic power away from the Tamil regions, denying meaningful development in its two main centres, Jaffna and Trincomalee, with their enormous harbours.

So, how long can this Rajapakse era last? Well, if Sri Lanka is morphing into a south-Asian Indonesia, then it is only about 1970 and the Rajapakses-as-Suhartos haven't yet broken into stride. The Suharto era ended in tears and big problems Indonesia still hasn't fixed. Singapore seems the better option.

© The Sydney Morning Herald

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