AFP /His sacking of Sri Lanka’s chief justice may have prompted new international condemnation, but analysts say President Mahinda Rajapakse is not merely impervious to foreign criticism — he thrives off it.
Already cold-shouldered by the West after the bloody end to an ethnic conflict, Rajapakse drew further flak this weekend by sealing the impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake and then installing a government adviser in her place as the country’s most senior judge.
The US State Department said the impeachment “raises serious questions about the separation of powers in Sri Lanka, which is a fundamental tenet of a healthy democracy.”
The Commonwealth, the European Union and former colonial power Britain have also weighed in against Colombo.
But according to Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, Sri Lanka pays little heed to the chorus of disapproval from Western capitals as it continues to receive crucial support from China.
“Given that Western criticism of the army’s actions at the end of the civil war had little impact on the government, it is unlikely to worry about the response to the impeachment,” Price told AFP.
Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said that far from weakening him, the president was strengthened by such criticism.
“He projects foreign powers as the new enemy of the state and he is fighting them,” Sithadthan told AFP. “All this international criticism helps him in a big way to increase his support locally.”
Colombo has rejected allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed by security forces in the final months of a no-holds-barred offensive that ended a 37-year Tamil separatist war that had claimed about 100,000 lives.
Despite being censured by the UN Human Rights Council, Rajapakse’s electoral showing has gone from strength to strength and his United People’s Freedom Alliance now has more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
It also runs more than 80 percent of the municipal and urban councils while even one-time opponents have struck coalition deals or crossed over to the UPFA.
With the political opposition now so weak, Rajapakse has been able to brush aside criticism from other institutions such as the clergy and judiciary.
Buddhist and Catholic leaders had pleaded with Rajapakse not to go ahead with Bandaranayake’s impeachment and a succession of court rulings deemed the whole process unconstitutional.
Rajapakse however insisted he was acting in line with the constitution.
Even the army, once one of the most powerful institutions in the country, has been effectively silenced since its former chief Sarath Fonseka landed himself behind bars after mounting a 2010 presidential challenge to Rajapakse.
“President Rajapakse and his government is like a bulldozer without brakes,” the author and political commentator Victor Ivan told AFP.
“It demolishes everything in its path.”
The president’s dominance of the political scene is so absolute that he has installed three of his brothers in key posts.
His eldest brother Chamal is parliament speaker, Gotabhaya is defense secretary and his younger brother Basil is the economy minister.
The drive to impeach Bandaranayake began shortly after she ruled against transferring more powers to Basil’s ministry.
The president’s eldest son Namal is also a political player, serving as a lawmaker and heading up a government youth organization.
Price said while there was a danger of public opinion turning against the government, the opposition was deeply divided and unable to mount any credible challenge.
The government had also calculated that “Western governments have much higher priorities elsewhere at the moment,” Price added.
So far no government has suggested imposing sanctions on Sri Lanka or warning off its citizens from travelling to its sun-kissed beaches.
The number of tourists heading to Sri Lanka exceeded a million in 2012 and while the economy saw a slight slowdown, it still recorded an annual growth rate of 7.2 percent.