l by Tisaranee Gunasekara
Hitler swallowed the boundless adulation. He became the foremost believer in his own Führer cult” – Ian Kershaw (Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris)
(December 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) “Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” lamented Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Modern rulers know better. They hire expensive public relations firms to cleanse them of stains and smells. One of the most noxious practitioners of this unscrupulous trade is the British firm Bell Pottinger, the Rajapaksa regime’s reputation launderette of choice.
As part of Bell Pottinger resume, Public Relations Chairman David Wilson, boasts that his team wrote the 2010 UN speech of the Lankan president: “We were writing a speech at the same time as (President Rajapaksa) was asking his foreign office to write a speech as well, and he chose to use our speech despite several attempts by the foreign office to change the tune” (The Independent – 6.12.2011). The Rajapaksa administration has angrily denied the story; naturally. The revelation sits rather ill with a regime which takes its nationalism to absurd extremes, such as cutting down willow tree on Independence Avenue because they are non-indigenous.
Bell Pottinger is currently struggling to launder its own reputation. Two journalists of the British newspaper ‘The Independent’, posing as Uzbek government agents discussed image remaking possibilities with top Bell Pottinger executives. In the recorded conversations, the executives brag about their prowess at using ‘all sorts of dark arts’. As part of Bell Pottinger resume, Public Relations Chairman David Wilson, boasts that his team wrote the 2010 UN speech of the Lankan president: “We were writing a speech at the same time as (President Rajapaksa) was asking his foreign office to write a speech as well, and he chose to use our speech despite several attempts by the foreign office to change the tune” (The Independent – 6.12.2011). The Rajapaksa administration has angrily denied the story; naturally. The revelation sits rather ill with a regime which takes its nationalism to absurd extremes, such as cutting down willow tree on Independence Avenue because they are non-indigenous.
Megalomania is a malady few despots are resistant to. President Rajapaksa’s fondness for such panegyrics as ‘High King’ and ‘Lord of the Three Sinhala Lands’ and his habit of naming mega structures, from ports to stadiums, after himself are manifestations of his willing embrace of this psychological quirk (the newest addition is ‘The Lotus Pond: Mahinda Rajapaksa Visual Arts Theatre’). Being the lord and master of Sri Lanka is just one part of this monstrous conceit; achieving recognition as a titanic figure on the international stage is the other. Thus his propagandists’ eagerness to heap such encomiums on the President as ‘Universally renowned Lord’ and ‘Leader who conquered the World’. But these fevered imaginings are a far cry from the reality. Thanks to the emblematic democracy-deficit, human rights-deficit and devolution-deficit of his rule, President Rajapaksa is not a welcome guest in Western capitals.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is no Hugo Chavez who is genuinely contemptuous of the Western powers. His craving for recognition makes him pay millions of dollars of public-funds every year to Bell Pottinger to arrange trips to Western capitals, to plant ghost-written articles in Western papers and to persuade Western leaders to welcome him (last years’ Oxford fiasco resulted from this yearning.) His ire at their unfriendly mien is understandable. After all, Western leaders unhesitatingly embrace Third World tyrants when it is in their interests to do so. If Sri Lanka is discovered to be the repository of substantial reserves of petroleum/natural gas, Mahinda Rajapaksa too will be able to stride into the good graces of Western leaders, jumbo entourages and all. But in the absence of such a fortuitous development, he will have to win the West the hard way, by paying a king’s ransom to reputation launderettes.
So the Rajapaksas were willing to waste billions of dollars on the 2018 Commonwealth Games and will waste millions of dollars on the 2013 Commonwealth Summit, just to play host to an Elizabeth Windsor, a David Cameron or a Julia Gillard in their family-fief of Hambantota. Who can doubt that giant billboards of President Rajapaksa with the Queen of England and non-Third World commonwealth leaders will adorn every Lankan roadside for years to come, as an eternal reminder of a ‘crowded hour of glorious life’?
Discarded Ballot Papers and Indelible Stains
The 62 ballot papers marked in favour of opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka and found abandoned near the Ratnapura Technical College are not photocopies, as the regime claimed. They are real ballot papers, according to the testimony of the retired Questioned Documents Examiner at the Elections Department. This revelation causes serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Rajapaksa victory at the 2010 Presidential election. It also demonstrates the anti-democratic lengths to which the Siblings are willing to go to stay in power.
The Rajapaksas can survive only as malefactors of great power (to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt). They can pursue their Familial Project only along a despotic path. Democratic measures, such as re-establishing the independent commissions or releasing Gen. Fonseka, will improve Sri Lanka’s international image more than all the ‘dark arts’ of Bell Pottinger. But such measures are impossible, because they will undermine the Rajapaksa raison d’être: familial rule and dynastic succession.
A political solution to the ethnic problem can help win the West. But devolution is anathematic to the Rajapaksas not only because they are Sinhala Supremacists but also because devolution normally strengthens democracy. For instance, a new law aimed at empowering the government to expropriate private lands by invoking economic, social/religious, environmental or historical necessity was withdrawn from parliament last week. The Supreme Court had refused to consider the bill because it was placed on the Order Paper without “complying with the constitutional requirement that it be first referred to the provincial councils for their views” (The Sunday Times – 4.11.2011). So the devolutionary 13th Amendment impeded the Siblings from introducing a profoundly tyrannical law. (Had the Northern provincial council been functional, the law could have been blocked permanently. Currently the Rajapaksas can resurrect the law by getting their underlings in other councils to accept it).
A credible investigation into human rights violations will improve Lanka’s image. A recent media report indicates why this possible change is impossible for the Rajapaksas. A top Lankan military official has testified in New York that “he was informed that the Defence Secretary had passed on ‘some instructions to a field commander to get rid of those LTTE cadres who are surrendering’….. The source admitted to the existence of ‘white vans’ that were allegedly used for kidnappings…. The source alleges that the 12-year-old son of Villai Prabhakaran, the late leader of the Tamil Tigers, was interrogated and killed.
The source states: ‘I got to know at the latter stages that they found out where Prabhakaran is, through his son… And subsequently, I got to know that [the boy] had been killed’…. The military source also stated that he was aware of threats or actual killings of journalists who criticised the government, including that of Lasantha Wickrematunge…” (The International – 30.11.2011).Using the negative-example of Sri Lanka, Bell Pottinger executives explained to the undercover journalists that the success of their efforts depends on the client’s willingness to change: “If a government says it wants to change but won’t change then sorry that will come back and hit them. And I probably need to say any more about the reputation of Sri Lanka” (The Independent – 6.12.2012). But the Rajapaksas cannot change without undermining the very existence of their rule, without abandoning their dynastic ambitions, without endangering their own freedom. Perhaps Lady Macbeth was right after all; in the end, even the most expensive reputation launderette cannot cleanse a ruler who must heap crime on crime just to survive, in power.