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Choosing the Future

[Times Online UK, Wednesday, 27 January 2010 22:00 No Comment]

Sri Lanka has most of the attributes of success except good government

The nation that inherits the future will have a young, well-educated population. The skills of its people will furnish a range of industries that will take advantage of the country’s natural blessings and great cultural heritage. So, if Sri Lanka is this good, why is it not better?

Sri Lanka has a young population; one in three Sri Lankans is 14 years of age or younger and only 6 per cent of the nation is over 65. Life expectancy is 73 and 92 per cent of the population is literate. Sri Lanka’s abundance of natural gifts make the production and export of tea, coffee, coconuts, rubber and cinnamon profitable enterprises. Its most dynamic industries — food processing, textiles and apparel, telecommunications, insurance and banking — trade on a well-educated but inexpensive workforce. The beauty of the tropical forests, the beaches and the landscape make this blessed island a tourist destination of the first rank.

This is a portrait of the prosperous developed nation that Sri Lanka could be, but is not. There is something critical missing: wise government. The presidential election, the first for three decades held against a backdrop of peace, should have been an occasion for celebration. Instead, the process degenerated into a farce that is unworthy of South Asia’s oldest democracy. Four people died and more than 1,000 incidents of violence were reported. President Rajapaksa abused the state media, culminating in the accusation that his opponent, General Fonseka, was not a legitimate candidate because he was not on the electoral register. The process ended in unseemly fashion when General Fonseka was stuck in a hotel, surrounded by state troops, amidst claim and counter-claim of coups and assassinations.

There is an alarming portent in President Rajapaksa’s behaviour. He has long been of the view that the democratic values on which Sri Lanka was ostensibly founded in 1948 are a luxury his country cannot afford. The countries with whom he has sought affiliation are more than a clue to the methods of control that he admires: China, Iran, Libya and Burma. His own administration is riddled with corruption, something on which his political opponent has preyed.

A choice between the incumbent President and the general who conducted the campaign against the Tigers, and a man whom many Tamils believe is a war criminal, was hardly attractive to Sri Lanka’s 2.5 million Tamil citizens. Early estimates of the turnout in Tamil areas suggest it could be as low as 20 per cent. General Fonseka secured the reluctant backing of the Tamil National Alliance on the basis that at least he was not the President.

He still isn’t. Mr Rajapaksa won 57.8 per cent of the vote against General Fonseka’s 40.2 per cent. General Fonseka claims the vote was rigged and is seeking to nullify the result. It is hard to doubt he has a case but harder still to imagine it will prevail.

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