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Sri Lanka recycling

Purpose-built for the Age of Trump

In #SriLanka last Friday, a brewing coup d’etat took another giant stride forward. Elected thugs surrounded and intimidated the Speaker of Parliament. Furniture and punches flew.

Lawmakers assaulted police, who tried to shield the redoubtable Speaker as he took his seat. Chilli powder was thrown. This was an orchestrated blow against Sri Lanka’s constitution and people, a plot to seize power.

It is political theatre, but the props are real. At least one MP was reported wielding a knife in the sea of lawmakers who traded blows for the Republic.

Chief plotter in the wings is #MahindaRajapaksa. Remember him? He was a Caesarian figure to the majority Sinhalese people, who had grown thoroughly tired of the stranglehold of conflict and terrorism on their island paradise. Like Caesar, he delivered peace.

As president between 2005-15, Rajapaksa and his brothers Basil and Gotabaya did what analysts said couldn’t be done. They smashed the Tamil Tiger insurgency, snuffing out 25 years of suicide bombs and the nascent Tiger republic on the island’s north.

In the final months of battle in mid-2009, around 330,000 Tamil civilians got caught in the fight. Tens of thousands were probably killed as Rajapaksa loosened the army’s hitherto disciplined reins in an effort to swiftly kill the Tigers.

Shortly after, messrs Morrison and Bishop gave his government Australia’s stamp-of-approval when they toured the vanquished Tamil Tiger area themselves. Nothing to see here folks, move right along.

Conversely, in a mea culpa, the #UN said the final Sri Lankan victory evoked similar passages of civilian slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda.

In the following years, the Rajapaksa bros gradually asphyxiated the press and judiciary, repressed the vanquished Tamils, and re-shaped politics to smooth their systemic looting and nepotism, underwritten by their crowing ethno-religious nationalism. None of this “What touches us ourself shall be last served” stuff for these boys.

But to everybody’s surprise, when he tried to get appointed President-for-life in 2015, dictator perpetuo in all but title, the people got wise to his kleptocracy and unquenchable hubris, and turfed him from office. Sri Lankans are nothing if not acutely alive to strongman politics and electoral manipulation on a Shakesperean scale.

His successor as president, #MaithripalaSirisena, once a Rajapaksa ally, promised clean and transparent government. He even promised to investigate the alleged slaying of tens of thousands of civilians in the final months of the civil war.

The international community loved the things Sirisena said and did. He freed the press, reinstated judges ousted on caprice by Rajapaksa, returned presidential powers stolen from parliament, and appointed a Minister for Reconciliation.

We cooed and aahhed. The #EuropeanUnion eased trade with Sri Lanka. Justin Trudeau shook his hand. The credit and trade preference spigots opened.

But Sirisena was only ever an apprentice President, who failed to deliver. He chose as his Prime Minister a silver-tongued and silver-tailed Patrician fixture of the Colombo political scene, Ranil Wickremasinghe, a man with a well-known taste for the spoils of government.

Pretty soon Sri Lankan politics settled back into a familiarly inert state of corpulent government, boondoggle projects, and crooked political deals. There was no investigation of war crimes, scant reconciliation with the vanquished Tamils, and little transparency.

Three weeks ago, after three years of lacklustre government, Sirisena sacked his Prime Minister, with whom he was now in open feud, and announced the appointment of his archenemy, Mahinda Rajapksa. But the move was clearly unconstitutional.

When parliament objected and the sitting PM Wickremasinghe barricaded himself in his official residence, Sirisena first suspended then dissolved a restive parliament. On Monday, the Supreme Court over-ruled Sirisena. Now broken furniture and chilli powder rules the re-sat parliament.

Sri Lanka matters acutely to our national security interests right now, as it did then, because China is there. China funds the plotters. Its ambassador scurried to meet and be photographed with faux-Prime Minister Rajapkasa as soon as President Sirisena appointed him.

#China had part funded the war against the Tamils, and when Rajapksa wanted more cash for a major port in his sleepy southern hometown after the war, they gladly extended credit. When Sri Lanka could no longer meet the debt repayments, China took the port. Now its submarines visit Sri Lanka.

The island is an important piece in China’s #BeltandRoad strategy, a linchpin in the sea-lanes that provide it with oil and trade security. China has used its classic strategy of easy, no-strings loans, oiled with back-handers to compliant politicians, to seize its objectives.

Its carpet-baggery, as well as its manoeuvring to white-ant India’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka’s economic and investment affairs, will be protected should Rajapaksa win office. From its new bauble, the #Hambantota Port (where barely any cargo ships dock), China can eavesdrop on US communications in #DiegoGarcia.

The Rajapaksa’s had taken their cues from the War on Terror to crush the Tamil Tigers, with little heed paid to civilian deaths in the final months in 2009. The welcome victory nevertheless left serious questions about adherence to international laws guiding internal conflict.

Those are just some of the rules that guide international affairs, the totality which encourage us all towards greater cooperation in other acutely urgent fields such global warming, space junk, trade, migration flows, and conflict prevention.

Two Sri Lankans are already dead from the latest flummox. In the dangerous days ahead, beware the advent of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He’s a boxer, a guy you can have a beer with, a political chameleon, and a man with a healthy contempt for the democratic process. He will slip in just fine on the steadily expanding bench of world leaders who share his political tastes.

Don’t expect the Trump administration to kick up much dust. Mendacious, greedy, telegenic, brazen, authoritarian, and with a keen ear for the populist dog-whistle, Mahinda Rajapksa is purpose built for the Age of Trump.

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