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Colombo is full of deal-makers – Saudi Gazette

[MISC, Sunday, 21 November 2010 09:35 No Comment]

TWO weeks back a Colombo newspaper ran a story saying some top government leaders were hatching a deal to sell a prime property in the capital to a favored blue chip conglomerate and that other sections of the government were opposed to the plan.

The Business Times didn’t name the negotiating parties or the company concerned but it is well known in the Colombo high-society circuit that the company in question is John Keells Holdings, a powerful group that has extensive interests in the tourism and leisure sector, as well as real estate and has tremendous influence with the government. Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, who has survived many changes in government and is now a close confidant of President Mahinda Rajapakse, is pushing the deal which – on the other hand – is being opposed by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, younger brother of the president and also a towering personality in Sri Lanka. The Urban Development Authority, a government agency which comes under the authority of the Defense Ministry, owns the 11-acre land and feels the property should be subject to an open public tender.

The moral of this story is that Colombo is full of deal-makers, after the end of a near 30-year-long bloody conflict over rights of the Tamil minority community. Know any influential ruling party politician (mainly close to the Rajapakse clan), then hey presto you can cut a deal.

As President Rajapakse sets off on his second, six-year term in office, one of the biggest challenges that he is facing, apart from finding a political solution to satisfy the aspirations of the 2.5 million Tamil population, is to reduce corruption and nepotism which is rampant in Sri Lanka. Ironically much of it comes from his own backyard where the Rajapakse family, relatives, friends and kinship are firmly entrenched in all forms of public, social and economic life.

Rajapakse’s influence extends to his son, Namal (a 24-year-old ruling party parliamentarian being groomed as a possible leader), three brothers – Chamal (Speaker of Parliament), Basil (Economic Development Minister with unprecedented powers) and Gotabaya (the powerful Defence Secretary). Add to that Chamal’s two sons (both holding high government office), relatives, cronies and friends – a number which one newspaper recently said totals about 200.

POLITICAL analysts say the biggest disappointment in the post-war period of 18 months – since May 2009 when government troops crushed Tamil separatist guerrillas – has been the president’s inability to restore the freedom and dignity of the people, particularly Tamils.

“There is some development taking place. Roads are being built and paved and banks and business have opened here. But there is no industry, no jobs and no rights,” said a journalist from the Tamil-dominated northern city of Jaffna, more than 400 km away from Colombo. Jaffna is the seat of Tamil nationalism and the hotbed of Tamil militancy, spawned in the early 1970s. “Many young people still want to go abroad because they feel there is no future here. However, many countries like Canada and Europe are closing their borders to migrants and asylum-seekers,” the journalist said.

Most analysts are pinning their hopes on Rajapakse restoring human rights and the rule of law which was lacking in the first term after he first won power in November 2004.

J.C. Weliamuna, a top human rights lawyer and Executive Director of the Colombo office of global rights watchdog Transparency International, says that Rajapakse has ‘huge’ challenges to re-establish the rule of law in every aspect including economic freedom and political patronage.

He said it’s a myth to assume that the country can develop with so much corruption. The president has a role to ensure good governance and human rights, Weliamuna added.

While Western nations slammed Sri Lanka over what they called a poor human rights record particularly during the last stages of the ethnic conflict, the European Union stopped crucial duty-free imports in August. This facility, mostly utilized by the country’s biggest export commodity – garments – has led to job losses.

THE government and Rajapakse in particular have defended strongly against these allegations saying claims of Tamil civilians being shot by government soldiers during fierce fighting was propaganda dished out by Tamil rebels to the Western media. To some extent, that appears to be true, judging from the evidence of a Tamil doctor before a state-appointed reconciliation commission Friday. The doctor, based in the North, said he was forced by the rebels to increase figures of civilian casualties, who were injured or died during the conflict.

The commission has been appointed to examine the conflict, its issues and suggest ways and means of ensuring it doesn’t happen again, which many analysts say will happen only when Tamils feel they are a part of the decision-making process.

Residents in Tamil-controlled towns like Jaffna are yet to share in decision-making. Most of the Tamil parties ruling there are controlled by the Colombo establishment while the military is still a powerful force and involved in decision-making in the northern region.

The National Peace Council, a peace lobby in which newspaper columnist and human rights campaigner Dr. Jehan Perera is an executive director, said in a statement Friday that a disappointing feature of the whole series of events organized to celebrate Rajapakse’s ‘oath-taking’ ceremony on Nov. 19 was that it had little or no participation of communities from the North and East of the country who have suffered in the conflict.

It urged the president to address the roots of the ethnic conflict that gave rise to the war, instead of denying its existence because Tamil rebels were defeated and hoping for development to make the ‘ethnic demands’ vanish.

Thus, as Rajapakse embarks on his second journey as leader of South Asia’s most vibrant nation, free of conflict, he is surrounded by sometimes, insurmountable political and economic challenges. Only time will tell whether Sri Lanka’s most powerful leader in the post-independence era succeeds in bringing prosperity and freedom to this island.

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