Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes
Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes
South Asia's longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict and ushering in a new era of prosperity for the island nation.
Rajapaksa won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say the 69-year-old has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.
His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
The surprise decision of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect from the ruling party and stand as the main opposition candidate has turned what might have been a walk-over into a real contest.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said the low-profile Sirisena had become a symbol of simmering discontent over corruption.
"He (Rajapaksa) failed to ensure reconciliation," Ivan said.
"His focus was in mega-highways and ports. That was good for GDP growth, but not enough to heal a society wounded by decades of conflict."
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from close Rajapakse ally China.
But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.
Opposition parties including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.
While he still has support among Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.
The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.
Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
Last week he told voters in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, listing a series of infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged region.
Describing himself as the "known devil", the president urged people not to vote for the "unknown" Sirisena. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me," he said through a translator.
The Tamils could be king-makers if the majority Sinhalese constituency is split down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
"We will vote for Sirisena not because we like him, but because we don't like the president," said Colombo-based Tamil company executive Ratnavale Chandrasekaran.
Rajapakse called snap elections two years ahead of schedule in the hope of preempting an opposition fight-back.
Close associates say the timing was decided partly on advice given by his personal astrologer.
The 69-year-old, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010.
Sirisena's defection was carefully choreographed by Rajapakse's bete noire, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to politics after a nine-year retirement, and has split the ruling party.
A hardline party of Sinhalese Buddhist monks that had cheered Rajapakse's refusal to bow to an international probe defected to the opposition in November, accusing him of unprecedented corruption and nepotism.
The president's eldest brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, another brother Basil is economic development minister while a third, Gotabhaya, serves as the defence secretary.
Other family members dominate state institutions and government-owned companies, with the Rajapakse tentacles extending even to sporting bodies.
Rajapakse himself holds a host of ministerial portfolios including finance, ports and highways.
The pro-government media are predicting a close fight, while diplomats in Colombo say they sense a shift in favour of the opposition.
Last week one of Sirisena's top supporters accused the government of deploying thousands of troops to Tamil-majority areas as part of a strategy to intimidate voters against backing Rajapakse's main challenger.
The military has denied accusations of campaigning for Rajapakse.
As signs of opposition strength grew, the privately-run Sunday Times newspaper questioned the wisdom of Rajapakse's decision to call a snap election.
"It was his own calling," the paper said. "President Mahinda Rajapakse for once goes as the underdog."
US intelligence chief is tough on Russia, at odds with Trump
- Dan Coats’ drumbeat of criticism against Russia is clashing loudly with President Donald Trump’s pro-Kremlin remarks
- Trump has been determined to forge closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin
ASPEN, Colo: National Intelligence Director Dan Coats’ drumbeat of criticism against Russia is clashing loudly with President Donald Trump’s pro-Kremlin remarks, leaving the soft-spoken spy chief in an uncomfortable — and perhaps perilous — place in the administration.
Trump’s remarks after Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, where he appeared to deny the longtime US foe was still targeting American elections, are just the latest in a growing list of statements that conflict with Coats’. His job is to share the work of the 17 intelligence agencies he oversees with the president.
Coats, who will be speaking Thursday at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, is a former Republican lawmaker. He was banned from traveling to Russia in 2014 for calling out its annexation of Crimea, and he has continued to raise the alarm on Russia since his appointment by Trump as intelligence chief in March 2017.
That’s left Coats in a tight spot. Trump has been determined to forge closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, culminating in this week’s extraordinary summit in Helsinki. The disconnect with Coats was laid bare after Trump sparked outrage back home by giving credence to Russia’s denial of interference in the 2016 US election as he stood alongside Putin.
Back in Washington, Coats was quick to issue a statement Monday to rebut that position. He restated the US intelligence assessment about Russian meddling and “their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”
Former intelligence officials say Coats is just speaking truth to power, a mantra often used in describing the intelligence agencies’ historical relationship with any president. But in the Trump administration, Coats could be walking into a minefield, given the president’s track record of firing officials who don’t toe his line.
Michael Morell, former deputy and acting director of the CIA, said Coats and other national security officials in the Trump administration are just doing their jobs, and the president undermines them and the institutions they lead when he makes “inaccurate statements.”
“By doing this, the president is undermining our national security,” Morell said.
Trump did walk back his post-Putin summit comments on Tuesday, saying he’d misspoken when he said he saw no reason why it was Russia that had interfered in the 2016 election. He also said he accepted the intelligence agencies’ conclusion of Russian meddling. But he added, “It could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”
The president’s mixed messaging grew even more confusing Wednesday. He was asked if Russia was still targeting the US and answered “no” — a statement that Morell contended was “flat-out wrong” because the Russians never stopped trying to interfere in the US democracy.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later that Trump does believe that Russia may try to target US elections again and the “threat still exists.”
When asked Wednesday in a CBS News interview whether Trump agrees with Coats that the Russian threat is ongoing, the president said he did.
“Well, I accept. I mean, he’s an expert. This is what he does. He’s been doing a very good job. I have tremendous faith in Dan Coats, and if he says that, I would accept that. I will tell you though, it better not be. It better not be,” Trump said.
Trump has had a tense relationship with US intelligence agencies since before he was elected, largely because of their conclusion that Putin ordered “an influence campaign” in 2016 aimed at helping the Trump campaign and harming his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Earlier in the administration, Coats’ voice was drowned out by the more outspoken Mike Pompeo, who was CIA director before Trump tapped him as secretary of state. Now with Pompeo heading the State Department, Coats has been thrust into the limelight as the voice of the intelligence community. In Aspen on Thursday, he’s expected to outline the cyberthreats the US faces from Russia as well as other countries, such as China, North Korea and Iran.
Coats, 75, has been immersed in Washington politics for years. He served in the House in the 1980s and the Senate in the 1990s and 2010s and was the US ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005. In 2014, Coats, who was a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, denounced Russia’s interference in eastern Ukraine and was banned from Russia.
Coats blew it off: “Our summer vacation in Siberia is a no-go,” he joked.
Still, Coats is not known as being flippant. He’s prided himself as being a steady voice, but it’s clear he is no fan of Russia.
In comments at a Washington think tank last week, he said, “The Russian bear ... is out of the cave, hungry and clawing for more territory, more influence and using the same tactics we saw in the Cold War and more.”
He said the “more” is cyberthreats that are targeting US government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical-manufacturing sectors. He said that while there had not been the scale of electoral interference detected in 2016, “we fully realize that we are just one click on a keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.”
Those tough remarks came just days before the Trump-Putin summit — and that was not the first time Coats has made statements starkly at odds with his boss.
On June 8, when Trump suggested at a summit in Canada that Russia should be asked to rejoin the G-7 organization of industrialized nations, Coats was making a speech in Normandy, France. There, Coats offered a laundry list of what he said were recent malign activities by Moscow. Those included political hacking in France, Germany and Norway, a damaging cyberassault on Ukraine, and Russian agents’ alleged attempt to kill two people in Britain with a nerve agent.
“These Russian actions are purposeful and premeditated and they represent an all-out assault, by (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, on the rule of law, Western ideals and democratic norms,” he said.