Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa has congratulated the young lady with a Sri Lankan background on winning a beauty pageant in Botswana. Our politicians often rush to congratulate beauty queens. Some politicians allegedly have accompanied some beauty queens in their nocturnal and illegal visits to Sri Lankan prisons. Recently, some tele- actresses had told the press, that ‘politicians are harassing them.’
The beauty queen to whom Mr. Rajapaksa hurried to send his warm wishes, is in Botswana- a country that has so much the Sri Lankan parliamentarian learn from.
Our Rajapaksas are known to have looted the country to have become exponential rich in the process. These stories of corruption have been written over and over. Lasantha Ruhunage, a senior investigative journalist, who was formerly at Ravaya and now at Anidda, has published book-length accounts of legendary corruption of the current ruling family. In addition to those stories in print, the incidents of plunder by the infamous family are part of Sri Lankan folklore by now.
Gordon Weiss’s The Cage (2011) is perhaps the first book to openly speak of the corruption by Rajapakasa family. Weiss was UN officer worked in Sri Lanka during the last days of the war. The book is, among other things, about his first hand experience of what happened during the final weeks of the war in the North.
This is what Weiss says of the family’s affairs around 2010 or so:
“In the absence of an overly inquisitive press, a vital civil society, an effective investigative police force, an independent judiciary or the meaningful scrutiny of parliament, the war and its aftermath provided an ideal opportunity to loot the country’s coffers. It was a time when a victory-obsessed parliament was enthusiastically voting increases to the defense budget while the defense ministry was publicly warning journalists not to report on defense purchases. Large percentages could be scooped off billion-dollar defense contracts, as well as programs for the reconstruction of the war-torn east and north. There were huge development projects funded by the Asian Development Bank and other bilateral donors, and major infrastructure improvements such as the billion dollar Chinese-built port complex in the president’s hometown of Hambantota. By 2007, with Mahinda holding the finance portfolio, Gotabaya in charge of defense, another Rajapaksa brother, Chamal, responsible for ports and airports, and a fourth, Basil (known as “Mr. Ten Percent”), tasked with redeveloping the dilapidated east, which had just been wrested from the Tamil Tigers, financial reporters estimated that the Rajapaksa clan directly controlled ninety-four government departments and approximately 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s finances. Any big investment decision now required what the Reuters bureau chief called a “Rajapaksa blessing.”
Just as the decision-making process of the war effort was micromanaged by the defense secretary and his brother Basil, so too were decisions over who would make money in the renewed Sri Lanka. One businessman, a gem merchant who ran a high street shop and also traded some of Sri Lanka’s beautiful stones throughout the world, described the situation thus: “You cannot imagine that these people who are running a country could concern themselves with the tiniest matters of business, but their fingers are in everything: timber, the garment trade, construction, banking. You name it, and they are taking a cut. And it is a model for the entire country now, where everybody is on the take, and the remaining honest police and judges can’t fight the tide. There are too many Rajapaksas to feed”(Pp-170-1).
The Cage is full of such dealings, in addition to the accounts of abduction and murder in which the Family has had a role or another. The Family has not sued Weiss for tarnishing its name! And much worse things happened after The Cage was published. After some six years being the opposition Rajapaksa’s are back. Nearly all top posts of power are held by Rajapaksa brothers and their sons. Those who came to power in 2015 promising, in part, to investigate Rajapaksa crimes did not keep the promise and did not fail to be equally corrupt before they were defeated by the former thieves. The rest is history now.
A story from Botswana
Anyway, let’s switch on to something pleasant. If young Rajapaksa wants to move onto a different political path without entering history as a member of one of the most corrupt political families, there is an interesting movie to watch. Yes. A movie that sets in Botswana. Since I am not a film critic I will refrain from touching on cinematic aspects of the film. Its theme is what I want to discuss here. I regularly use this film in my classes in Postcolonial Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of Peradeniya.
The film is A United Kingdom, and it is about Seretse Khama(1921-80) the founding leader of modern Botswana. In addition to capturing a part of the nation-building story, the movie beautifully narrates Khama’s courtship and marriage to a kind-hearted British woman, Ruth Williams. By birth, Khama is the crown prince of Bechuanaland, – a British protectorate in the early 20th century. He is brought up by his uncle to be the future king of his people. As a young man he is sent to England for education. While studying at the university, he meets progressive-minded a young clerk, Ruth, and falls in love with her. This inter-racial relationship meets with opposition from both sides. Seretse even runs the risk of losing his crown.
It was an unchanging love. In the middle of complex geo-politics of British colonialism and political rivalries among African ethnic groups, Seretse and Ruth’s love grows stronger, and they get married in England. Ruth gives up her comfortable life in London and goes to live with her husband’s homeland. Though a prince, he is not of the kind one finds in the Buckingham Palace. Seretse’ ancestral home is no bigger than a typical middle class house of a Sri Lankan rural middle class family. It is very much like the house Rajapakasas lived before they entered politics.
After living some time with Ruth in his homeland, Seretse visits England but is not allowed to come back. The British manipulates the political situation in Africa to keep Seretse away from the throne. While he is in exile, Ruth gives birth to their first child, a daughter. Seretse continues to fight for his rights: to gain the kingship back home and to be united with his family. Progressive British press and liberal politicians in Britain support him.
Eventually the family is united; Seretse becomes the king; the first-ever democratic election is held in Bechuanaland. After winning the election, Seretse Khama becomes the first prime minister of the country and his homeland is named ‘Botswana.’
During the following decades, Seretse and Ruth become the beloved-ruling family of the country. He fights with imperial forces to get the rights of the natural resources found in his home country, especially diamond and oil to his people. By the time he became the prime minister, Botswana was the third poorest country in entire Africa, and, within a few decades, he turns Botswana into a middle-income country. When died of cancer in 1980, he was still the most beloved leader of the country.
Ruth continued to live in Botswana with her children until she died in 2002.
It is good that Namal Rajapaksa congratulates the beauty queen in Botswana. But young Rajapaksa has better things to learn from that country. Perhaps, Namal alone cannot decide whether he should die as a member family looted a country or as a beloved leader who saved a country.
Seretse Khama is very different from all members of Rajapaksa family. He was truly educated, and a real intellectual. He was a man who could speak elegant English in a manner that could shake the conscience of the world. At familial level, he truly loved the woman who attracted his heart.
Some weaknesses that are quite typical to find in a postcolonial political family might be found in Khama family as well. One of his sons became the president of Botswana too. In a way Khama dynasty continues. But Khama’s legacy is more than admirable, and such a political family is no where to be seen in our country.
Let’s leave Namal at that. Perhaps, for us people, the challenge is to create a Seretse-like leader, someone who can even surpass him, outside of typical political families that are full of thieves. No Seretse is seen within any big political families in the country. Rajapaksa family is the one least likely to produce such leaders.
And again, I do not hesitate to join Namal Rajapaksa in congratulating that young lady, Gimhani Perera’s achievement in Botswana.
*Liyanage Amarakeerthi – Professor of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya