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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 111

Assessing the Role of President Mahinda Rajapakse

Professor Laksiri Fernando - University of Colombo

"Some men see things the way they are and ask why, I see things as they could be and ask why not." - Bobby Kennedy

It is high time to assess President Mahinda Rajapakse’s leadership role in Sri Lanka, critically and comprehensively, particularly in respect of peace, as he will be completing three years in office as the country’s Executive President, in five months from now. This article is only one effort. Among the leaders of the country after independence, he has already earned an image, within and outside Sri Lanka, as a man to be reckoned with both in national and international politics. President Mahinda Rajapakse  does not seem to mince his words when it comes to matters of principle. In all other circumstances, he is always a mild, modest, unpretentious and even a humble personality.President Mahinda Rajapakse does not seem to mince his words when it comes to matters of principle. In all other circumstances, he is always a mild, modest, unpretentious and even a humble personality.

Whether in the forums of the United Nations or the meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of State, he does not seem to mince his words when it comes to matters of principle. In all other circumstances, he is always a mild, modest, unpretentious and even a humble personality. While the former seems to emerge from his down-to-earth political convictions, the latter undoubtedly is a product of his rural and Buddhist upbringing.

How to Assess?

How to assess a leader is undoubtedly a controversial matter. The ‘context’ is the framework that many authors safely use without getting into controversy in assessing a leader. The contextualization of that leader’s background, and more importantly his or her policies and actions is the methodology used in this kind of an effort. The purpose is to finally assess whether that particular leader has been successful or not in terms of resolving issues and facing challenges and threats by the time when that assessment is made. There is no doubt that President Rajapakse would pass that test quite easily only perhaps having a low mark for inflation control. He or his advisors may say that inflation is something beyond their control. However, what is attempted in this methodology is not merely a performance evaluation on issues like inflation or human rights but an overall assessment of life and times of a leader within the relevant historical, social and political context. While there are merits of simplicity and clarity in this method, it is also like a ‘vegetarian approach’ where the assessment might not produce much meat or flesh to the narrative unless other criteria or devices are used.

Among the classical thinkers, there were two contrasting groups who expressed their rather philosophical views on the issues of leadership. On the one side of the fence were Lao-tzu and Tolstoy who almost downgraded a leader’s role from a pacifist or an anarchist point of view. According to Lao-tzu the ‘best leader is an unknown leader’ who allows people to achieve the goals that he may implement without taking the credit for them. Among the leaders who were at the helm after independence in Sri Lanka only perhaps Dudley Senanayake as a Prime Minister (1960-65) would come closer to Lao-tzu’s image. Yet it might be controversial whether Senanayake had any kind of strong goal which the people of that era or after could realize in a tangible manner while it is correct to say that he was committed to a kind of a ‘green revolution.’ Nevertheless, he undoubtedly was a good man.

Tolstoy’s approach or philosophy was more or less the same while having some sympathy for the leaders, men or women, who confront tragic times but fails to charter a country towards a particular direction or deliver tangible results. Tolstoy’s imagination was of a small ship facing thundering waves and his view was that this is always the case because social events and processes are all the time stronger than individuals. His views were understandable in the pessimistic atmosphere of the pre-revolutionary Russia, perhaps similar to the past period in Sri Lanka (1988-2005), where there was no much hope and therefore leadership was not that important although a role was attempted.

On the other side of the philosophical fence were Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. Both were optimistic about the role of a leader and in fact came up with quite impressive prescriptions on how a leader should behave or act facing crises situations. Both of the thinkers were largely misunderstood or misquoted except in recent times where a good number of leadership theorists, including in the field of management, have opted to derive useful guidance from them. It is mostly Machiavelli who is largely misquoted in Sri Lanka particularly in respect of his notion of the rather dialectical connection between ‘end and means.’ If any leader applies that notion to justify any means (e.g. terrorism) to achieve a perceived ‘good end’ (e.g. rights of a minority) without proper justification for that end itself, that could be construed as misreading or misquoting Machiavelli. A major culprit undoubtedly is a person like Velupillai Pirapaharan. But what Machiavelli in fact did was to caution the Prince or the today’s leader of the ‘futility of completely following pacifist principles when a country is faced with terrible terrorism or similar challenge.’ How far President Rajapakse follows the correct Machiavellian principles, knowingly or unknowingly, is still a matter of conjecture.

Perhaps Sun Tzu is more important than Machiavelli. For the purpose of brevity, I only wish to quote what Donald Krause has summarized as ten principles of that important philosopher as advise to a leader facing trying and challenging circumstances like in Sri Lanka today where clear, practical and efficient solutions are necessary to stop killings, violence and terrorism, and to arrest instability and disintegration of our democracy. That means to overcome all challenges and obstacles that Tolstoy considered as the enigmatic ‘wave problem.’

The following were Sun Tzu’s ten principles.

Learn to fight
Do it right
Expect the worse
Burn the bridges
Pull together
Show the way
Know the facts
Seize the way
Do it better
Keep them guessing

Some Glimpses

It is my hunch that perhaps Sun Tzu himself is within President Rajapakse who mastered ‘how to fight’ from his student days (1960-64) and tried his best to ‘do it right’ when he was growing up (1966-1970). He always ‘expected the worse’ in calculating a strategy (1987-89 or today) and in fact did not hesitate to ‘burn the bridges’ with unwanted or hostile quarters (Mangala-Sripathi). He has, on the other hand, successfully ‘pulled together’ not only his party - the SLFP - to which he has consistently been faithful, but also the UNP dissidents, the TULF, the CWC, the EPDP, the NUA, the JHU, the JVP dissidents and most importantly the TMVP. Only the SLMC, amongst the possible elements, is out of the pale today for not so rational reasons. His policy is in fact an embodiment of a ‘grand coalition’ that Arend Lijphart staunchly advocated for a multi-cultural or a multi-factional polity facing a crisis like in Sri Lanka.

He is reputed as a team leader and has earned lot of political friends and respect here and abroad. Support from the Sri Lankan émigré abroad is most significant and no leader before even imagined the necessity or potential of that kind of support. He has ‘shown the way’ most characteristically in liberating the East and the country’s fight against ruthless terrorism. It is an indication of what could come through his strategy for the North. He ‘knows the political facts’ at his finger tips from a long experience in politics and knows how to seize the opportunity when the situation is ripe or when the iron is hot. Judging from his elevation and performance from a MP to a Minister, from a Minister to a Prime Minister, and then to the post of Executive Presidency his motto seems to be to “do it better.’ He has been the most artful leader in dealing with the opposition or the opponents perhaps far exceeding the reputed talents of the former President J. R. Jayewardene. He keeps them guessing to say the least.

The above does not mean that he is a leader without spots, weaknesses, mistakes or failures. It is best to leave them for his own revelation or to relate them when a proper narrative of his life and times is constructed. Leaving that aside from this short introduction, there are several other ways of assessing a leader or more concretely President Rajapakse. One framework which should not completely be excluded perhaps is Max Weber’s analysis of a charismatic leader. Charisma is a quality that Weber identified in certain type of leaders ‘resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character.’ There are certain attributes that Weber identified which might not fit exactly with President Rajapakse. While the ‘exceptional sanctity’ usually comes in the case of religious leaders, ‘heroism’ is too simplistic or narrow to identify his multifaceted character.

He is of course ‘exemplary’ compared to many of the leaders of the past and this exemplary nature derives particularly from his vision for the country, and the mission to achieve its goals with a team of able men and women, who themselves tirelessly pursue those goals with much devotion and enthusiasm. He is undoubtedly not a traditional type of a leader that Weber talked about like Jayewardene or Premadasa. He is also not completely the so-called ‘rational-legal’ type without heart or emotion, the type that Weber thought to be modern which is fast outdating in the more modern conditions of the world whether you believe in a post-modernist scenario or not.

While charisma is there in abundance in his character and his relationships with the masses, he is more of a ‘transformational’ leader that James MacGregor Burns talked about initially in 1978. As one of the disciples of Burns, B. M. Bass aid, ‘Transformational leadership starts with the development of a vision, a view of the future that will excite and convert potential followers.’ That is what exactly the Electoral Manifesto of Mahinda Chintana did in 2005. As Bass further explained, “this vision may be developed by the leader, by the senior team or may emerge from a broad series of discussions.’ President Rajapakse has never claimed Mahinda Chintana solely to be of his own. There are many groups and individuals who contributed to it. ‘The important factor’ as Bass again said, is the ‘devotion of the leader to the transformation that envisioned in the vision.’ What has he transformed or intends to further transform to earn the title of a transformational leader?

Strategy towards Peace

It is completely a lateral strategy that President Rajapakse has employed to achieve peace in Sri Lanka since his ascendancy to power in November 2005. This is drastically different to the strategy that was employed previously during the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) brokered by Norway during 2002 and 2006 or even before. The previous strategy was completely one sided with the intention of brining peace solely through a ‘utopian good will’ with the ‘terrorists while they remained terrorists.’ This was termed as peace through political negotiations mediated by a third party. With all respect to Norway and the Norwegian government’s good intentions for bringing peace to Sri Lanka, this strategy was simply not working with the LTTE. It was a growing conviction of Mahinda Rajapakse even before he came to the office as the President that there had been something fundamentally wrong with the assumptions or parameters of the peace process as it was chartered by the previous governments or leaders.

It was Otto Von Bismarck who first characterized politics as the ‘Art of the Possible.’ President Rajapakse appears to be a master of this art with great acumen for pragmatism and compromise without however betraying the cardinal principles and foundations of the ‘democratic nation state’ in Sri Lanka. The nation state may be a matter of controversy for some theorists who even confuse terrorism with democratic struggles. However that is not the political reality in Sri Lanka. What Bismarck expressed was of course a realistic view even today’s politics, and not a utopian dream. What it says is to attempt what is possible, and not the impossible, within a given options to achieve a particular goal without sticking to one option dogmatically.

There is no doubt that theoretically speaking peace through political negotiation is a valid option, and also a proven one, vindicated through experience in several countries. The conflicts of those countries also had involved organizations that have intermittently used terrorism ‘as a tactic’ or were branded as terrorists by the international community at one time or other. However, they all have expressed genuine willingness to negotiate, desist from violence and come to the democratic main stream prior to or along with the negotiation process. The latest case is Nepal.

There is no doubt that if peace could be achieved through political negotiations, and if the other party is genuinely willing to find a political solution through negotiations, that is undoubtedly a valid option. This is an option that President Rajapakse contemplated during the first six months in office and still apparently believes that negotiations are possible if and when the LTTE desists from violence and give up or express genuine willingness to give up arms. This is a view of a political realist for peace and not of a utopian.

It was Edward de Bono who advocated lateral thinking in many endeavors including conflict resolution and peace building. Lateral thinking, as he defined, is thinking concerned with changing existing paradigms or assumptions when those are proven to be useless or not reaping tangible results. It is about reasoning which is not based on traditional way of peace building or step-by-step of negotiations, but could involve negotiations not necessarily with the main protagonists but with others or dissidents through alliances or practical political understanding.

Lateral thinking allows a leader who uses common sense and intelligence to go beyond the ‘proverbial box’ or the traditional paradigms to design a way out of conflict towards peace. As De Bono said, ‘sometimes a problem cannot be solved even by removing its cause.’ As he further remarked, ‘we may need to solve some problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.’ The way forward is the way that President has designed to achieve peace without waiting for the LTTE to come to the negotiating table. Nevertheless the efforts at resolving political problems that affects both the Tamil and the Muslim communities are in place along with other strategies.

It was after many efforts at peace negotiations that President Rajapakse decided in mid-2006 to take firm military stand against the activities of the LTTE. What else a legitimate leader, with a democratic mandate to protect people, could do? Peace efforts advocated by some sections of the international community should not mean the allowing of a ruthless outfit of terrorist to blackmail a legitimate democratic government and its people. President Rajapakse’s strategy for peace is already vindicated by its success in the East. Of course the post-conflict scenario there is not completely clear yet and naturally beset with considerable problems. The major challenge however is the infiltration by the LTTE cadres with a view to destabilize the province, taking advantage of the territorial bases that they still hold in the Northern province, formally allowed by the so-called previous peace process and the CFA.

The peace strategy of President Rajapakse in the East has involved several steps. The first has been to clear the areas of the province from the terrorist hold through firm military action. In this endeavor, while the technical planning has completely been given to the military commanders, the President has extended supervision and advice as the commander of the armed forces and the leader of the country. The most important have been the political strategies and tactics that he has employed. The military alliance with the breakaway group from the LTTE, first led by Karuna Amman and later by Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, popularly known as Pillaiyan, has been a major tactic in the latter endeavor. This alliance was something that the old guard of the peace advocates in Sri Lanka vindictively desisted. According to them the only alliance possible in what they called a peace process should be with the brutal terrorist leader Velupillai Pirapaharan. As a result of Rajapakse’s lateral strategy, the TMVP has now come to the democratic mainstream in the province and in the country, arousing much envy of the Rajapakse opponents.

The Rajapakse strategy for peace in the East has not primarily been a military operation. The military operation has only been the necessary pre-condition. The strategy has been to reinstate and strengthen the democratic institutions, both at the local and the provincial levels, allowing the democratically functioning political parties and groups to thrash out the issues of controversy (peacefully and democratically) while the development initiatives for the people are being pursued both by the centre and the provincial authorities. It was for the envy and also perhaps for the surprise of the old guard of peace advocates that the local government elections were announced in the East in early this year and completed with much success paving the way for holding the provincial council elections in May thereafter. There cannot be any doubt that the dominant Tamil political group in the East was the TMVP and not the LTTE. Therefore, the negotiation with the TMVP to bring peace to the province was a legitimate effort even on the basis of the traditional criterion of peace building.

The Provincial Councils were the institutional framework developed on the basis of the Indian model, with India’s active support and participation that were devised to resolve the ethnic conflict in 1987. This institutional framework was introduced through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Almost all of the Tamil political parties including the armed and militant groups agreed to come to the democratic stream, after that initiative, except the LTTE, and few others following them later. What emerged thereafter was not purely an ethic conflict but primarily a terrorist one while many aspects of the ethnic conflict persisted largely because of the non- implementation of the provincial council system and other measures of the 13th Amendment.

It is in this context that the bold implementation of the provincial council system and the 13th Amendment by President Rajapakse beginning with the East has constituted the most tangible effort to bring peace to Sri Lanka in the present conjuncture except that some crucial areas of the North are still under the control of the LTTE. The remaining military and terrorist infrastructure of the LTTE seems to be the major obstacle to build peace, harmony and democracy in the North. A tangible transformation is already in the offing in the East both in the political sphere and in the economy. What has been achieved so far is commendable: terrorism has been curtailed; elections have been conducted; and democracy is largely restored.

As Neville de Silva reporting to the Sunday Times (15 June 2008) from London has related, the President has told the Commonwealth Leaders that ‘we are not trying to bring a military solution to our conflict. It is because we want those who are living under LTTE terrorism also to enjoy democratic governance that we are trying to weaken the LTTE militarily and find a political end to the conflict.’ President has further said, ‘a one-time LTTE terrorist leader was recently elected to political office because we allowed him to enter the democratic process. He is not just an elected provincial member. He is the Chief Minister of that province. How many other countries have been able to achieve this in such a short time, holding elections and bringing militants in the political mainstream.’


What has made President Rajapakse to become a transformational leader? The simple and straightforward answer would be ‘gift and practice.’ Before elaborating on the answer, it might be necessary to recapitulate who a transformational leader is. Transformational leader is a leader who implements new ideas to transform society and issues. These leaders continuously change themselves, stay flexible, adaptable and continually improve those around them. A transformational leader is also a transactional leader. This is about deployment of people and resources to get results. It is based on an exchange of services for various kinds of rewards (not old patronage) that the leader controls. It also means the encouragement of his followers by acting as a role model, motivating them through example and inspiration. Transformational leader is not a status quo leader. More than any other types of leader, transformational leader is people-oriented and believes that success comes first and last through deep and sustained commitment.

Leadership, whether transformational or not, cannot be taught. Like music it is basically an innate gift. It can be improved only by practice. It is difficult to locate a definitive source for a person’s innate gift. It might go to an extent with the family. If that family gift is the bud, the blossom undoubtedly comes through practice. Mahinda Rajapakse is a person born to a modest political family in rural Sri Lanka, in the Deep South. A vivid picture of this area and its social life is narrated in Leonard Wolf’s Village in the Jungle as at the beginning of the 20th century. Mahinda Rajapakse of course was born a half a century later. The Rajapakse family did not count for the Colombo elite. Nevertheless they were well respected in the area. His father was in politics, as an MP and a Minister, and many of his uncles were the same representing the rural Sri Lanka.

The year he was born – 1945 - was decisive. It was the end of the Second World War and the beginning of a new era internationally. When Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948, Rajapakse was just three years of age. The post-independence Sri Lanka has in fact evolved almost along with Rajapakse’s life experience. He came of age before Sri Lanka came of age. He was witnessed to many decisive events in the country that undoubtedly created immense impact on his life. The Hartal (or the general strike) of 1953 led by the left and the progressive movement, the rural linguistic awakening that culminated in 1956 which overturned a Colombo based neo-colonial government, and the 1971 youth insurrection were some of the formative experiences. He was attracted towards anti-colonial struggles influenced by the liberation of Vietnam and the struggles of the Palestinian people. Nevertheless he was a member of the centre left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), similar to a social democratic party, with moderate and pragmatic public policies.

He was the youngest Member of Parliament in 1970 when he first entered into active national politics. Since then he has accumulated political experience (or intellectual and social capital) for over thirty eight years as a MP, a Minister, Leader of the Opposition, a Prime Minister and now the Executive President. Before that he was involved in student activism during the mid-1960s and thereafter in grassroots human rights and democratic campaigns. There has been no other comparable leader in the country after independence with so much of experience, accumulated almost consecutively one after the other with long term engagement in each of the above positions. It is the issues and problems of Sri Lanka that have transformed Mahinda Rajapakse. It has now become incumbent upon him to transform Sri Lanka in order that those issues and problems are amicably resolved.

- Asian Tribune –

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