By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Madness is the purest, most total form of qui pro quo. It takes the false for the true, death for life….and the victim for Minos”. – Foucault (Madness and Civilisation)
Ciudad Constitution is a name unknown to most Peruvians, but this insignificant town-let of around 8,000 people was once destined to be Peru’s magnificent new capital. Few abandoned ‘model houses’ and a functioning highway are the sole relics of that grandiose project, commenced in 1984 by President Belaunde Terry. Bedevilled by financial troubles and corruption charges, the project to build a capital in the jungle was abandoned when its author lost the Presidential election in 1985.
Peru was a functioning democracy, so the system could auto-correct itself. Pre-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka had that capacity[i]; Rajapaksa Sri Lanka has all but lost it. In the absence of a functioning democracy and an informed and active citizenry, idiosyncrasies of rulers become national policy and determine national fate.
Like most megalomaniacs the Rajapaksas prefer big, tall and shiny. Such as the artificial ‘shopping’ island off the coast of Hambantota, to be built with Chinese loans[ii] and using the soil excavated to expand the Mahinda Rajapaksa Port. That port was inaugurated with much fanfare to mark the 65th Birthday and second presidential swearing-in of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The first ship to the new port (bearing Buddhist artefacts and pirith-chanting monks) arrived in October 2010[iii]. The 100th ship came almost three years later, in August 2013[iv]. That is an average of 3 ships (2.9 to be exact) per month (0.01 ships per day)! Had the Rajapaksas not ordered all vehicle imports to be handled through their Port (to the detriment of importers/would-be buyers), their signature creation would have become a ghost-harbour by now.
And the Siblings are expanding this barely used port even further. By what logic is that measure logical?
The new Rajapaksa airport is probably the only international airport in the world which is not visited by a single international carrier. According to the opposition, the proposed Matara-Kataragama railway line will be another record-breaking white woolly mammoth[v]. Billions are being spent on giving Colombo the equivalent of a ‘Gold Facial’ while its million+ inhabitants and visitors remain dependent on a sewage system built by the reviled colonials for 100,000 people.
The Rajapaksas are building the superstructure of a highly developed country on an economic base which is underdeveloped and debt-ridden. The equivalent would be a man who builds a Jacuzzi and a home-gym with borrowed money, while ignoring the leaking roofs and the cracked walls of his house.
The Rajapaksas are political narcissists, enamoured of their own (self-created) image and their own (self-fabricated) narrative. Like the milkmaid who became engrossed in her grand dreams and mistook them for living reality, the Rajapaksas seem to believe their own boasts about Sri Lanka being the ‘Wonder of Asia’. Unlike the milkmaid, the Siblings can indulge in this illusion for a while, with the country’s resources, at the cost of our future.
Sri Lanka and her people will continue to pay the cost of this madness long after the Rajapaksas had vanished from the political scene.
Pride or Shame?
Adam Smith identifies the promotion of private gain at public expense as a key sin of mercantilism: “It is the industry which is carried on for the benefit of the rich and the powerful that is principally encouraged by our mercantile system. That which is carried on for the benefit of the poor and indigent is too often either neglected or repressed”[vi]
The Rajapaksas are actively implementing a policy regimen which seeks to maximise the power, wealth and glory of the Ruling Family at public/national cost. Sometimes, this or that segment of ordinary Lankans might benefit from these completely family-centric policies, but their medium-to-long-term national costs would far outweigh these sectoral-advantages.
Familial gain and public cost cannot create a felicitous future.
Take, for example, the President’s recent UN visit with a 75-strong delegation. What did Sri Lanka gain from this juvenile jaunt? President Rajapaksa chatted with a few leaders, took a picture with Barack and Michelle Obama, had a disastrous ‘twitter-session’ and gave an unforgettable interview to Al Jazeera. He was not interviewed in the American media; he did not address any gathering of American opinion-makers; he was not received in the White House; he could not even meet the Indian PM. By what standards, apart from Rajapaksa-gain, can this trip be called good or useful?
While Mahinda Rajapaksa waxed eloquent to an almost empty hall, the new President of Iran was engaged in reaching out to the American leaders and public. Dr. Rouhani, described as ‘a man of considerable gravitas…serious, businesslike and fully in command of his brief”[vii], was acting not as a supplicant but as a serious statesman. This is a distinction beyond the capacity of the Rajapaksas, just as it was incomprehensible to Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor Mr. Ahmadinejad, who emitted shrill anti-Western rhetoric while pushing his country and people to the brink of ruin.
Government propagandists preach that we should be proud about being the Commonwealth host-county. There are still things in Sri Lanka we, as citizens, can be justifiably proud of, such as being an elderly-friendly country. What is there to take pride in hosting an international talk-shop? What did the hosting of the NAM Conference gain for Lanka and her people? And that was in 1976 when NAM had a far greater relevance in international scene than the Commonwealth ever did or will. The Commonwealth Summit would be even more deleterious to Sri Lanka’s financial health than the NAM. When it comes to grandiose-play acting the Rajapaksas beat the Bandaranaikes hollow.
Even though the Summit is more than a month away, the waste/corruption scandals are already seeping out. For instance, Commonwealth first ladies are to be presented with custom-made brooches embedded with their portraits. “The actual cost to make 72 brooches was Rs.2.88 million according to the cost given by the craftsman. However the price quoted by the (Sri Lanka National Gem and Jewellery) Authority for the….total cost to make 72 brooches was Rs.18 million”[viii]. This means a cost-inflation of Rs.15.12 million or a padding of 525%!
All this for Mahinda Rajapaksa to be hailed as ‘Leader of the Commonwealth’ by ill-informed and sycophantic followers!
Countries do not develop by holding international political/cultural/sports extravaganzas. Countries which are already developed can use such extravaganzas to showcase their socio-economic achievements. What can be we showcase? A youth unemployment rate of 19%? [ix] An HDI ranking well below the average for countries in the ‘High Human Development Group’? Falling from the 29th place to 28th place in the Failed States Index? Reaching the bottom 20 in the World Happiness Index? Being ranked among countries with 10 worse passports?
Societies and countries develop only when a majority of people who form these societies and live in these countries develop. When countries ignore that basic truth, and prioritise the advantage of a small clique, whatever gains they make become unsustainable. Beyond the glitz and the shimmer, an implosive future awaits such lands, rather like Macondo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘City of Mirrors (or Mirages)’ in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
[i] For instance, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga wanted to build a mammoth presidential palace near the parliament. Fortunately elections – and the term-limit provision – intervened.
[vi] The Wealth of Nations – Vol. IV
[viii] The Sunday Times – 29.9.2013