x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Rajapaksa's support still strong in Sri Lanka despite setbacks

President’s popularity unaffected by cancelling of speech to Oxford University in UK after protests by Tamils.

COLOMBO // Support for President Mahinda Rajapaksa remains strong and his opposition weak and divided despite protests in the UK that forced the visiting president to cancel a planned speech to the Oxford Union.

Hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates and supporters of former Tamil rebels protested in London against Mr Rajapaksa's visit, prompting Oxford University to cancel the president's talk, scheduled for December 2.

But while the cancellation was hailed as a moral victory for Tamil supporters and an embarrassment for the president, analysts in Colombo said it would have little effect on his popularity in Sri Lanka.

SI Keethaponcalan, the head of the department of political science at the University of Colombo, said: "Yes, the protest would give a slight psychological boost to the Tamil diaspora and rebel supporters. But beyond that I don't think it's a huge advantage to them because the president's support base here is still strong despite facing economic issues at home."

The president's popularity soared immediately after Sri Lanka's civil war ended in May 2009, and he won his second, consecutive election in January. But the rising cost of living and the government's inability to provide a monthly pay increase of 2,500 Sri Lanka rupees (less than Dh90) to government employees, which was one of Mr Rajapaksa's campaign promises, have drawn criticism from opposition parties and sections of the public. In the 2011 national budget announced last month, an increase of just 600 rupees per month was announced.

Dr Keethaponcalan said the cancelled Oxford speech is unlikely to create any real repercussions for Mr Rajapaksa. "The mood [support] is still buoyant for the president. There is no doubt however that rebel supporters will try to capitalise on the failed British visit - but that is unlikely to be a major issue."

Even some of Mr Rajapaksa's opponents supported the president and denounced Oxford's decision. Wijedasa Rajapakshe, an opposition member of parliament from the United National Party (UNP), said the cancellation was not only an affront to the president but an insult to the nation.

A government minister, Wimal Weerawansa, led a group of supporters in a protest outside the British mission in Colombo on December 3. On the same day, there were unruly scenes in parliament as ruling party members tried to manhandle the UNP politician Jayalath Jayawardena, accusing him of taking part in the London protests while on a visit there. Mr Jayawardena denied the charge.

Since the end of the civil war, rebel supporters have been working through Tamil associations overseas for the rights of the minority community through political and peaceful means. For decades Tamils have complained of unequal opportunities in land use, allocation of government jobs and education. Suresh Premachandran, a member of parliament with the Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil political party, said the protests in the UK would never have happened if Mr Rajapaksa had discussed a political solution with his party.

"The war is over but the conflict is not," he said.

Mr Premachandran said the government has not investigated the disappearance or deaths of hundreds of civilians during the final stages of the war. In recent months many Tamil parents have appeared before a government commission investigating the causes that led to the war, saying their children were arrested and they had not heard from them since.