Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president of a democratic Sri Lanka in 2005. He thereupon logged a huge achievement: winning, once and for all, the war against a brutal separatist movement by the “Tamil Tigers” (Tamils are an ethnic minority) that had wracked the country for decades.
True, this took a bloody military campaign, with civilian casualties. But once it was done, and the country pacified at last, Rajapaksa had a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the achievement by making national reconciliation and reconstruction the priority. This would have earned the nation’s everlasting gratitude. Instead, success went to his head, and he chose a different path: consolidating total control for himself and his brothers (two cabinet ministers and the parliament speaker), making himself a detestable poster boy for the old adage about the corrupting effects of power.
And so, instead of national reconciliation, we see continued stomping on the Tamils, sure to stoke renewed ethnic tensions; dogged cover-up of human rights violations in the military campaign and its aftermath; persecution of political opponents (the commanding general in the war, Sarath Fonseka, who ran for president against Rajapaksa, was thrown in jail on murky charges); suppression of free speech and press freedom; and even the frequent “disappearing” of regime critics and human rights advocates.
Is this all too predictable? We’ve certainly seen this movie before. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. (Indeed, nothing like these abuses of power were seen in Sri Lanka even while the war was raging, and one might have expected a “siege mentality” and accompanying transgressions in the name of security.)
In nearby Myanmar (Burma), Thein Sein (born the same year as Rajapaksa) became president in March, 2011 – not freely elected, as Rajapaksa first was, but installed by a vile military regime that has ruled with an iron fist for decades. And Thein Sein has set about methodically dismantling it.
While we can’t yet be absolutely sure that Thein Sein is really on the level (or that the next film won’t be The Empire Strikes Back), it appears that he is putting his nation firmly on a path toward democracy and openness. His government has released political prisoners, relaxed press censorship, and has now held a free election. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning pro-democracy activist, and her political party had won a national election in 1990 but the military regime had simply ignored the results and she was under house arrest for most of the next two decades. This time, released from detention, she won again, a sweeping victory, and is being allowed to take her seat in parliament together with a sizable number of her followers, also elected. They are still a minority in the parliament, but this looks like the thin edge of the wedge. Apparently Thein Sein sees democratization as the only way forward, out of the economic and societal cul-de-sac that military repression has meant. He wants his country to join the modern world.
Power does have its allure; I get that. All human beings have egos. But there isn’t just one way to satisfy an ego, if you have some imagination.
You have two basic choices: you can cling doggedly to power till the last, and end up as an object of loathing: Qaddafi, Assad, Mugabe, Suharto, Mubarak, Putin, alas the list goes on, and Rajapaksa seems intent on joining it. Or you can end your days basking in the glow of veneration as a national benefactor: Washington, Ataturk, Mandela, and now, hopefully, Thein Sein.
The choice is yours. Choose well.