South Asia

Sri Lanka to inaugurate leader with 'biggest rice cake'

Boys with drums wait to take part in a dress rehearsal for President Mahinda Rajapaksa's second term swearing in ceremony at the presidential secretariat building in Colombo 17 November, 2010.
Image caption Critics say the inauguration is being treated like a royal coronation

Some 12,000kg of white rice, 1,500 coconuts and 300kg of cashew nuts are some of the ingredients for a very special Sri Lankan recipe.

It's the world's biggest ever kiribath, or milk rice cake, a dish being cooked up by a top chef for the public.

Other revelries are under way at a special exhibition in the capital.

The city is lit up and pasted with posters of the man at the centre of it all, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is being re-inaugurated as president on Friday.

As part of celebrations, dancers from the ancient hill capital, Kandy, have shown off their skills, while crack troops mounted a pageant.

The opposition and the government's critics are boycotting this week's ceremonies, calling them a waste of public funds.

'Sun and Moon'

On Thursday, the president's 65th birthday, he oversaw the first Sri Lankan vessels entering the huge new port of Hambantota in his home district, the showpiece among a series of big development projects.

Image caption I declare this port - open!

Pro-Rajapaksa rhetoric is flowing.

"You are the Sun and the Moon, who dispelled fear and will preside over a glorious tomorrow," says the main, ubiquitous poster, mostly in the majority Sinhala language, although there are some in Tamil.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister DM Jayaratne has poured out the tributes in his own message.

Mr Rajapaksa is, he says, a great man and a blessing to the whole nation.

He is the "father of principle", the "giant tree that would give shade to the whole nation for an eternal period", said the prime minister.

Another message in the papers, from a Sri Lankan-Chinese environmental group, says the "miraculous" new port will help in the "crusade of making Sri Lanka the Miracle of Asia".

Monks of the Buddhist faith - that of most Sinhalese - have been bestowing their blessings, including 250 who sailed around the southern coast in one of the boats entering Hambantota.

The inauguration seems anomalous. President Rajapaksa was re-elected 10 months ago. But, because he went to the polls earlier than he had to, the Supreme Court then ruled that his six-year term would only start now.

A recent constitutional change means that he can later stand for a third and further terms if he wishes.

So does Sri Lanka need these celebrations?

Yes, says the government.

Media and communications minister Keheliya Rambukwella dismisses complaints that the Rajapaksa family is too powerful.

Some commentators suggest the president and two of his brothers - the economic development minister, Basil, and the defence secretary, Gotabhaya - control 70% of the country's budget.

But Mr Rambukwella says it is "a blessing for the country" to have politicians who can "deliver finally to the people".

'Personality cult'

Mr Rajapaksa enjoys great popularity because of last year's victory over the Tamil Tigers.

But critical writers say the island's government is promoting a personality cult and treating the inauguration like a royal coronation.

They say the government is destroying democracy, having pushed the recent constitutional change through parliament by securing opposition crossovers through shadowy means.

"They are systematically undermining all these state institutions we have taken for granted for years," says the main opposition party spokesman, Mangala Samaraweera.

"The police, the judiciary, the independent election commission, the independent public service commission, have all more or less become like a private serfdom of the presidency."

Mr Rajapaksa's critics also say he has done little to address the Tamil minority's grievances - or tackle human rights problems such as people missing and intolerance of dissent.

But the opposition is decimated and one of its figureheads - the ex-army chief and former presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka - is in prison.

Sri Lankans may disagree in their assessment of Mahinda Rajapaksa but he enjoys huge power.

On Friday all schoolchildren will be expected to tune into his re-inauguration speech.