The train which made the inspection tour from Beliatta to Matara is seen welcomed by onlookers. (pix by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk)
The inspection train tour from Beliatta to Matara marked a new beginning for Sri Lanka Railways, but it also brought to light the fact that development work can’t be separated from politics. Train journeys offer a wonderful way of telling stories about a country. The Matara-Beliatta extension of the Southern railway was tested under the supervision of Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Arjuna Ranatunga on January 6 (Sunday). The South has been the stronghold of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. And even on Sunday there were shadows of the political strongman hovering over the Southern rail line. The inspection train run encountered protests by a group who identified themselves as supporters of Rajapaksa. These protesters disturbed the train journey at Beliatta and Bamibarande stations airing their grievances which came in the form of a claim that the extension project of the Southern railway line was commenced by Rajapaksa when he was the country’s president.
- Here in Sri Lanka it’s more about the politician and not about what he can do
- In contrast Rajapaksa loved these ‘train shows’
- Politicians know that even bad news amounts to publicity
- In politics one must learn the art of stealing the limelight
- China is playing a huge role in the extension of the Southern railway
Minister Ranatunga quite rightly asked the gathering to keep politics out of the scene and reminded everybody that the train service was operating because of tax contributions made by the people.
Speeches where the people’s tax moneys are being used for public construction work is the truth, but they are in short supply in a country like Sri Lanka. Here in Sri Lanka it’s more about the politician and not about what he can do. Politicians like Rajapaksa, who elevated himself to demi god status, have their ways of gate crashing into the parties or celebrations hosted by the government.
This is the time when Maithripala Sirisena is huffing and puffing to highlight the few achievements he has during the four years he has completed as president. Politically speaking, he showed too much enthusiasm to declare open the ‘New Laggala Town’ on January 8 and perhaps neglected the ‘train show’ which he failed to attend; held two days prior to the function he attended.
In contrast Rajapaksa loved these ‘train shows’. We remember how he was present in a big way when the ‘Yal Devi Express’ was recommenced in 2014. There were massive crowds in Jaffna awaiting the arrival of Yal Devi to the north. Rajapaksa, then basking in the glory of defeating the tiger rebel terrorists, was quick to mention that ‘this is not a train, but a bridge between the north and the south’ adding ‘these train journeys will help correct hearts and minds.
Now it seems evident that Rajapaksa loyalists knew just how to keep their political big wig’s name in the news, even though the leader from the south wasn’t present at the ‘train show’ in person. Politicians know that even bad news amounts to publicity. Rajapaksa loyalists behaved badly, but they put their leader in the news. Newspaper accounts of the test train run also gave prominence to the voice of protesters. In politics one must learn the art of stealing the limelight and whoever who associated with Rajapaksa has learned this art.
These protesters made the Rajapaksa name associated with the event, hook or by crook. The protesters even shouted out slogans which said ‘victory to our king’; implying they were paying pooja to Rajapaksa
The extension of the Southern Expressway is in a way a gift to the majority Sri Lankans. But politicians like Rajapaksa knew that such projects had to be launched earlier in the north. That is why the Yal Devi service was resumed with all the pomp and pageantry. After four years in the hot seat of the presidency, Sirisena sees the Government of Sri Lanka having had the vision only to take its development work on a railway line for a meagre distance of 26 km. But in contrast Rajapaksa’s vision went as far as 397.8 km on the northern railway line.
As for the people of the north it’s not only about the capacity of a politician. The northerns are hellbent on preserving their culture and tradition and Rajapaksa was accused of damaging or destroying both when the civil war raged; during which period he also functioned as the commander of the tri forces. That could be one reason why he first chose to reopen the northern train service before shifting focus to the south, for development. But Sirisena has been just the opposite; a milder leader with an open mind, ready to accommodate the minorities rather than telling them what to do. This is why in 2015 the people in the north, who had earlier flocked to the railway station to see the return of Yal Devi, turn their backs on Rajapaksa at the last presidential elections.
China is playing a huge role in the extension of the Southern railway. The first phase of the project-the Matara-Beliatta extension- is being done with the funding which came in the form of a loan from Exim Bank of China. The loan was to the tune of US $ 278 million.
‘Victory to our king’
Sirisena like Rajapaksa has shown an interest to work with China. Chinese officials in Sri Lanka, knowing the instability in the island, have shown an interest to keep ends warm with all players in the political scene over here.
But right now Sirisena has taken a backseat from most government activities and allowed the Wickremesinghe led regime to call the shots. Many believe that this will be the scenario till the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2020.
This Government has promised to complete the first phase of the Southern Railway extension from Matara to Beliatta and make the service available to the public by the time the Sinhala and Hindu New Year dawns this April.
Minister Ranatunga quite rightly asked the gathering to keep politics out of the scene and reminded everybody that the train service was operating because of tax contributions made by the people
This is a time when Sirisena has teamed up with his old fore Rajapaksa and watches eagerly till Wickremesinghe makes another political blunder. The Southern Express train reached its destination during the trial run despite Rajapaksa loyalists creating mayhem. These protesters made the Rajapaksa name associated with the event, hook or by crook. The protesters even shouted out slogans which said ‘victory to our king’; implying they were paying pooja to Rajapaksa. All this happened while Sirisena was absent at the event.
These are times when public opinion goes against the government even if a train bangs into an elephant. Sirisena ought to know that he must tread cautiously and not take his eyes off the train service which the present Wickremesinghe regime wishes to improve on. Sirisena must learn a lesson from the ‘jumbo punch’ he received as a result of several petitioners seeking legal assistance over his decision to unlawfully dissolve parliament; a verdict which critics believe derailed him politically.