Thursday 21st July, 2022
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is in seventh heaven. Everybody wrote him off when he lost the last general election (2020), having contested two presidential elections unsuccessfully in 1999 and 2005, and baulked at running for President in 2010, 2015, and 2019. He became the Prime Minister in May and President in July. But for his age, a jubilant Wickremesinghe may have turned cartwheels and somersaults on the parliament lawn when the outcome of yesterday’s vote was announced. Let him be congratulated!
The SLPP is cock-a-hoop, having scored a win, nay flexed its political muscles, in Parliament. Politically speaking, Diyawanna is fast becoming ‘Nandikadal’ for the Rajapaksas. Their power is now limited to Parliament, where they are putting up stiff resistance desperately.
President Wickremesinghe is lucky and unlucky at the same time, paradoxical as it may sound. He is lucky because he has been able to take a shortcut to the much-coveted presidency. He is unlucky because he has achieved his goal amidst the country’s worst-ever politico-economic crisis, which caused his elected predecessor to resign. All socio-economic factors that led to several popular uprisings during the past few months and the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa are still there. There has been a let-up of sorts in mass protests, but what we are experiencing at present could be the calm before the storm. The massive build-up of public anger remains intact, posing a grave danger to the unstable social order, which has to be restored for economic recovery to become a reality. The only way to defuse tensions in the polity safely is to eliminate the causes of the worsening economic crisis. This task cannot be accomplished without a significant increase in the country’s foreign currency reserves. There’s the rub.
President Wickremesinghe will be leading a government that lacks legitimacy. The resignations of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa caused the current SLPP regime to lose its legitimacy. It is they who led the SLPP’s presidential and parliamentary election campaigns and secured popular mandates. The SLPP started fearing people long before they took to the streets. It betrayed its fear of the public by postponing the Local Government polls, last year. It has also been losing co-operative society elections, which are considered a barometer of popular support. Thus, President Wickremesinghe should not lose sight of the fact that he owes his win in Parliament yesterday to a bunch of rejected politicians, who are too scared to go before the people; their decisions do not reflect the will of the masses.
Parliamentary majorities do not necessarily translate into public acceptance and legitimacy. It may be recalled that the UNP-led UNF government mustered a working majority in the House and torpedoed the hurriedly-formed Sirisena-Rajapaksa government in 2018, but the UNP could not win a single seat at the general election that followed. The Rajapaksas had two amendments to the Constitution passed with a two-thirds majority each, but the 18th Amendment was deep-sixed in 2015, and the current SLPP government itself has undertaken to replace the 20th Amendment. In 2013, Parliament impeached Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake at the behest of the Rajapaksa family, but two years later the then President Maithripala Sirisena reinstated her; Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister at the time.
The SLPP bigwigs, troubled by the smart of being unable to go on abusing power, stealing public funds and indulging in corruption, due to public protests, will seek to exact revenge by means of brutal crackdowns on anti-government protesters. They tried to pressure President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to grant their wish, but thankfully he chose to resign instead of unleashing the military on the protesters. One can only hope that President Wickremesinghe, too, will not give in to their pressure.
The SLPP MPs who voted for Wickremesinghe yesterday made a tremendous contribution to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s downfall. They are obviously salivating at the prospect of being able to make up for lost time. The biggest challenge before President Wickremesinghe will be to make good on his promises with the help of those elements, whose allegiance is to Basil Rajapaksa. Most of them are sure to demand Cabinet posts.
Almost all MPs who backed Wickremesinghe yesterday are from the SLPP, and he will be dependent on them for his political survival. The person who controls the ruling party is more powerful than the Executive President. It is Basil who has the SLPP under his thumb. Even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected by 6.9 million people, was at the mercy of his sibling, Basil. President Wickremesinghe may be able to prevent himself from being overdependent on Basil by forming an all-party government so that a concerted effort could be made to rescue the economy and ameliorate people’s suffering, which finds expression in popular uprisings. But he will have his work cut out to rope in the SJB, the SLPP rebel group and the JVP-led NPP.
The Aragalaya is only the tip of the iceberg of public anger, and the incumbent regime is a mere battered bark with broken masts and tattered sails. This is something the new President should bear in mind if he is to avoid the fate that befell his immediate predecessor.
Independence, democracy and franchise
Saturday 4th February, 2023
The SLPP-UNP regime is celebrating ‘Independence’ on a grand scale today while trifling with people’s sovereignty, which includes the power of government, fundamental rights and franchise. It makes no bones about the fact that it is all out to delay the local government elections and deprive the public of an opportunity to exercise their franchise. It is pulling out all the stops in a bid to throttle the electoral process by denying the Election Commission funds for conducting the mini polls scheduled for 09 March.
The government is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP promised in its manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls. It does not heed public opinion at all and bulldozes its way through. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, and therefore they must be able to exercise their right to vote and thereby express their opinion on how the country is being governed. A regime that undermines people’s power of government and franchise cannot be considered democratic.
The SLPP-UNP government also stands accused of violating people’s fundamental rights. Convener of the Inter-University Students’ Federation Wasantha Mudalige, who was released on bail recently, has levelled a very serious allegation against the government. He says an attempt was made to kill him while he was in police custody. Besides, it has now been revealed that he was wrongfully arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); the Colombo Magistrate’s Court has cleared him of charges pressed against him under the PTA. He is planning to file a fundamental rights violation petition against the police and others responsible for pressing trumped-up charges against him and his illegal detention under the PTA.
The incumbent dispensation has thus proved that it does not care two hoots about the people’s fundamental rights, power of government and franchise. It is therefore without any legitimacy to exercise people’s legislative, executive and judicial powers.
Mudalige’s serious allegations against the police evoke one’s dreadful memoires of the reign of terror in the late 1980s, when abductions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings were the order of the day. The politicians and their hired guns who committed heinous crimes in the name of counterterrorism, in that era, and some former southern terrorists and their hit squad members are still around.
Old habits are said to die hard. It is being argued in some quarters that the wave of retaliatory violence that swept across the country following SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters on 09 April 2022 bore the hallmarks of southern terrorism the country witnessed in the 1987-89 period; widespread arson attacks on the ruling party politicians’ properties were well-coordinated and swift; they were far from spontaneous, and the same is true for the abortive attempt to take over Parliament in July last year. The UNP, which unleashed barbaric counterterrorism, is in power, and the JVP is threatening to launch a wave of protests if the mini polls are postponed.
It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The J. R. Jayewardene government made a colossal blunder by doing away with the 1982 general election, and holding a heavily-rigged referendum, instead, to retain its five-sixths majority in Parliament. Its interference with the country’s electoral process intensified public anger, which the JVP effectively tapped to fuel its second insurrection. The youth were resentful and rose against the repressive regime. Mahinda Rajapaksa took up the cudgels for the rights of the victims of state terror and returned to national politics in the late 1980s. But today, his party, the SLPP, and the UNP have closed ranks, and are apparently creating conditions for another conflagration.
If a general election had been held in 1982, that would have helped defuse tensions and release pressure in the polity, and the JVP would not have had a casus belli to take up arms and mobilise the youth.
One can only hope that the local government polls will be held as scheduled and the people provided with an opportunity to give vent to their anger democratically and jolt the government into making a course correction so that the country will not witness another catastrophe.
Friday 3rd February, 2023
Sri Lankan political leaders exude ‘patriotism’ from every pore. These rotund grandees never miss an opportunity to suck in their stomachs, puff out their chests and sing the national anthem with gusto, making as they do a public display of their brand of patriotism. We will see them in action again tomorrow, when they are celebrating what the country does not have—independence—on a grand scale.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has, in what may be considered an outburst of patriotism with nationalism thrown in for good measure, ordered that the use of the place name, ‘Slave Island’ for ‘Kompagngna Veediya’ be discontinued immediately on account of the country’s 75th anniversary of Independence. He has decreed that ‘Kompagngna Veediya’ be used in all three languages—Sinhala, Tamil and English. Curiously, it seems to have escaped the Prime Minister’s attention that successive governments have turned the entire country into a ‘slave island’ of sorts. The incumbent dispensation has presided over the completion of the process of the country’s enslavement, which gathered momentum after the 1977 regime change and received a boost from every government thereafter.
PM Gunawardena is known for wrapping himself in the flag and his fiery oratory replete with patriotism and nationalism. He has, in his wisdom, defended the government’s decision to spend the country’s scarce resources to the tune of Rs. 200 million on tomorrow’s Independence Day extravagance in the name of patriotism. These funds could have been utilised to buy medicines and food for the sick in government hospitals.
The PM finds himself in the exalted company of a bunch of politicians who made preparations for a grand ceremony to mark the quincentennial of the arrival of the Portuguese here. Thankfully, the UNP-led UNF government was dislodged in 2004, and the event did not come to pass. So much for the present-day leaders’ love for the country and its independence!
Thanks to decades of economic mismanagement, waste, corruption, abuse of power and reckless borrowing under successive governments led by the ‘patriotic’ leaders of all political hues, the country has become a bankrupt vassal state, which has to take orders from other nations. It has to do what is good for others at the expense of its national interest and is now under Indian pressure to ensure the full implementation of a constitutional amendment that New Delhi rammed down its throat in late 1980s. When President Ranil Wickremesinghe undertook to implement the 13th Amendment fully, at a recent party leaders’ meeting, Gunawardena, who was present there, chose to remain silent!
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in which Gunawardena was a key figure, stood accused of turning the country into a ‘Chinese colony’ much to the consternation of India and the western powers that are averse to the rise of the Dragon. The current administration has made it a lackey of the US-led Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). When China got the Hambantota Harbour in return for a loan, the US media said Sri Lanka had been made to cough up a port. But the country has since been made to cough up a container terminal, an oil tank farm, etc., in return for financial aid, but those deals have not made headlines internationally!
Has the SLPP-UNP government, which is averse to a part of the Colombo City being called ‘Slave Island’, forgotten that the country is heavily dependent on remittances from its women reduced to slavery in West Asia. It is also the sweat and tears of women slaving away for paltry wages on estates and in factories here that fuel the export sector, bringing in much-needed forex, with which the super luxury vehicles carrying the government politicians to the venue of the Independence Day ceremony, today, have been purchased.
Let the self-proclaimed patriots in the current regime be told that they cannot hoodwink the public.
When ambition overtakes reality
Thursday 2nd February, 2023
The UNP and the SLFP have started talking about the next presidential election even before the long-overdue local government (LG) polls are held. UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has recently said President Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election. Former President Maithripala Sirisena himself has told the media he will run for President again, and is confident of securing the presidency as he is the leader of the SLFP and the people are with him. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has not made any such announcement, but it is clear that he will be his party’s presidential candidate. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake will not allow anyone else to contest the next presidential election and overshadow him. The SLPP is in total disarray. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest a presidential election again, and it is highly unlikely that ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will face a presidential contest ever again. So, who will be the SLPP’s presidential candidate?
Interestingly, three of those who are expected to contest the next presidential election have been held to account by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks. The COI has recommended criminal proceedings against Sirisena. It says in its final report (p 265), “Based on the evidence, the COI is of the view that there is criminal liability on his part for the acts or omissions explained above. The COI recommends that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code.” The report (pp 470-471)) says, “The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy.” Thus, Wickremesinghe cannot say he is free from blame for the serious security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday attacks. Premadasa and several other SJB seniors were Cabinet ministers in the Yahapalana government, and there is no way they could absolve themselves of the blame for the acts or omissions of that administration.
Sirisena himself may not have thought he would be able to secure the coveted presidency in 2015. He failed pathetically as the President so much so that he decided against seeking re-election and opted to re-enter Parliament, instead. The political forces that enabled him to realise his presidential dream are no longer with him, and most of the SLFP MPs have joined the SLPP-UNP government. Above all, there is the possibility of criminal proceedings being instituted against him over the Easter Sunday carnage unless he toes the government line. Thus, it is doubtful whether he will be able to contest the next presidential election.
Wickremesinghe is like a passenger who has undertaken to attempt a talk-down landing due to the incapacitation of the pilot and the co-pilot of the aircraft he is travelling in. He is not doing anything on his own; he is only following instructions from others. He no doubt deserves thanks for the risk he has taken and his effort, and it is the fervent hope of everyone that he will manage to make a safe emergency landing. But it is too early to say whether he will succeed in his endeavour. Everyone is on a wing and a prayer. Before facing a presidential election, Wickremesinghe will have to steer his party to victory at the LG polls and get the economy back on an even keel. These tasks are as uphill as the twelve labours of Hercules.
Premadasa, too, will have to ensure that the SJB wins the LG polls before facing the next presidential election, if he is to be seen as a winner, and whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen. Now that Dissanayake has talked the talk, very eloquently at that, he will have to walk the walk. The NPP was able to secure only 3.84% of the total number of valid votes at the last general election, and the challenge before Dissanayake will be increasing it to at least 30% at the next election for him to be considered a formidable presidential candidate.
It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Rajapaksas to Range Bandara’s declaration at issue. Last year, they wanted someone who was not a political threat to them to complete the remainder of Gotabaya’s presidential term, doing as they said, and fade away so that they could buy time to make a comeback for one of them to run for President. Has the nephew of the Old Fox outfoxed the Medmulana clan?
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