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Editorial

A Sisyphean task

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Monday 1st August, 2022

Politics continues to occupy centre stage although the country’s focus should be on the economy and how to revive it. Having taken over the reins of government on a wing and a prayer, President Ranil Wickremesinghe is now calling on all political parties with parliamentary representation to sink their differences and form a national government. But the SJB has reportedly rejected his call, and the SLFP, which is part of the SLPP, is blowing hot and cold. Former President Maithripala Sirisena, true to form, is speaking in riddles. The SLPP dissidents remain noncommittal.

With only a single UNP MP on his side and no popular backing as such, President Wickremesinghe is flying on borrowed wings. It is popularly said in this country that a President is like ‘a banana without the skin’ when his party fails to control Parliament. Wickremesinghe is dependent on the SLPP, to which he also owes his election as the President; the SLPP does as Basil Rajapaksa says. If an all-party government can be formed, the President will be able to secure the support of the Opposition MPs, and thereby lessen his dependence on the Rajapaksas, but he cannot bend the SLPP leadership to his will.

A story is being floated that some SLPP MPs are planning to cross over to the UNP. Someone is trying to have the public believe that the new President is consolidating his power, and the UNP is coming in from the cold. But the SLPP can always pull the rug from under the President by denying him parliamentary support. He is safe for the time being because the Rajapaksa family wants him to act as a political hitman and be left holding the baby, but if he tries to defy its dictates, it will not hesitate to do to him what he did to President Maithripala Sirisena during the Yahapalana government; the UNP openly undermined Sirisena, who however had a section of the UPFA behind him, and could win over the Joint Opposition led by the Rajapaksas. But the UNP, which mustered a working majority in the House called the shots, and the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe became more powerful than President Sirisena to all intents and purposes. Interestingly, incumbent Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who leads the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, which is a constituent of the ruling SLPP, is also heavily dependent on Basil, who thus has both the President and the Prime Minister on a string. Basil is exercising power without responsibility!

What is needed at this juncture is the establishment of an interim all-party government with a timeframe for a general election—‘interim’ being the keyword—and not just a coming together of some politicians from the parties represented in Parliament. It must also be specified how the interim government intends to put the economy back on an even keel, introduce political and economic reforms, and provide relief to the public. Otherwise, the SLPP, which has ruined the country, lost popular support and put off the Local Government polls indefinitely for fear of losing them, will manipulate the administration to be cobbled together and cling on to power until the term of the current Parliament is over; it will be well-nigh impossible to extricate the country from the clutches of the Rajapaksa family for a few more years. The unity government (2015-2019) which Wickremesinghe was instrumental in forming, failed because it lacked a comprehensive action plan, and ran the country according to the whims and fancies of its leaders.

There will have to be a clean break with the Rajapaksa dispensation for the country to come out of the current socio-economic crisis. The Rajapaksa regime reminds us of a gelatinous monster in a sci-fi horror flick; like the Blob, it is extremely resilient and difficult to get rid of. Ideally, a general election should be held immediately so that the people can determine the fate of the current government, which has bankrupted the country, inflicted immense suffering on the citizenry and amply demonstrated its incompetence, but unfortunately the situation is not conducive to an electoral contest. An election however could be held early next year, after political stability is restored and IMF assistance secured, and the government must undertake to do so before calling for the formation of a national unity administration.

The SLPP leadership will be the biggest obstacle to the ongoing efforts to form an all-party government, for it wants to retain its hold on power. It is no respecter of the Presidents. Not even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could square up to it despite being a very powerful member of the Family. This is the harsh political reality, and President Wickremesinghe has his work cut out.



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Editorial

To dock or not to dock

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Monday 15th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.

There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.

It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.

It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.

Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.

Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.

Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.

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Editorial

Unarmed but not peaceful

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We run on this page today an article written by a retired Major General of the Sri Lanka Army who argues forcefully that the Aragalaya protesters were NOT repeat NOT peaceful. Over the weeks and months of the protest, which now appears to be fizzling out, although contrary claims that it will continue persist, the Aragalaya was described by the media, human rights activists, politicians, diplomats and many more as a “peaceful protest.” That label stuck. A protest it was, and an unarmed protest to boot, but nobody can claim that it was “peaceful” especially during its concluding stages when barricades protecting President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat at the old Parliament building were repeatedly stormed.

The whole country was privy to these all or nothing charges, where large groups akin to human battering rams, unrelentingly and repeatedly stormed the barriers surrounding the seats of government. They did so with the clear knowledge that there would be no shooting. These scenes were beamed over national television news bulletins widely viewed countrywide. Police and troops manning the barriers used tear gas and water cannons and on a few occasions fired into the air. Fortunately, thanks be to whoever was responsible (some say that outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa so ordered before he fled the country), no live bullets were fired. Thus no lives were lost. All to the good. The retired military officer, Major General Lalin Fernando, who has titled his contribution “Peaceful and Unlawful Assembly” has, to our mind, by quoting sections of the Criminal Procedure Code conclusively established that the assemblies under reference were totally unlawful. There is no second word about that. Unarmed yes, but peaceful no.

Another curious and coincidental occurrence regarding the Rajapaksas’ departure and what many believe to be the end of the Aragalaya has occurred within exact one month intervals over a three-month period beginning May 9 this year. On that day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to the “Go Home Mynah” demand. Exactly a month later, on June 9, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa went home although there was no “Basil Go Gama.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eventually caved into the “Gota Go Home” demand and fled the country like a thief in the night, flying first to the Maldives, then to Singapore and now to Thailand. And last week on August 9, the Aragalaya which pushed all the Rajapaksas out of office also seems to have ended. Those who thought that the country has seen the back of the Rajapaksas when GR swore a cabinet minus all of them except his aiya who installed him on the throne, was forced to call for MR’s resignation, and thereafter to resign himself, will have to think again. The Pohottuwa still calls the shots in parliament as clearly demonstrated by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister, then as acting president and finally his comfortable election by parliament as president to serve out the rest of GR’s term.

Remember Mahinda Sulanga after MR who had engineered a constitutional coup ending the two term limit on the presidency suffered a stunning loss to Maithripala Sirisena, the former general secretary of MR’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, while seeking a third term. A combination of forces led by the UNP and including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ensured Rajapaksa’s defeat. But he did not lie down and die. Within days and weeks of what seemed an unbelievable end to a remarkable political career, Mahinda Rajapaksa was being feted and greeted by tens of thousands of his supporters at his Tangalle home. Before long, with the help of his brother Basil and the founding of his Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) best known by its Pohottuwa election symbol he was able to demonstrate that he was no spent force at the local government elections of February 2018. This was the biggest ever election in the country and his new party was able to gather 40 percent of the popular vote. The UNP and SLFP ran a poor second and third.

But reckless, ill- managed government, rampant corruption and sheer incompetence led to the Rajapaksa nemesis and Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. Never has Sri Lanka, ranked a middle income country, reached the depths to which it has plunged today. The majority of the people, mostly the poor, are facing untold hardship. Food prices have galloped through the roof. The latest World Food Program (WFP) assessment reveals that 86 percent of Lankan families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether. Before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across the country were already high. There is no need to labour over the cascading effects of the fuel crisis and the kilometers long queues for diesel and petrol. The present improvements can last only as long as we can borrow the dollars to continue supplies.

There is no signal from the president or the government that a serious effort at course correction will be made at least on the political front. The attempted All Party Government is certainly not going to be lean. Abject failures and suspect personalities are back in office and the country fears there will be more of it. Those within the incumbent parliament, judged by the knowledgeable as competent, are unwilling to take political office. President Wickremesinghe is doing his best, but will that be enough?

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Editorial

Get down to brass tacks

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Saturday 13th August, 2022

The government’s high-octane performance is really amazing although the Opposition has accused it of doing nothing by way of problem solving. It has already solved many problems since the appointment of the new President and the new Cabinet, and is in the process of tackling many others.

The UNP has overcome many problems, thanks to the current dispensation. It has come in from the cold, at last. It was in penury following its disastrous electoral loss in 2020, but is showing signs of recovery. Some of its seniors who were in hiding after defaulting on bank loans to the tune of billions of rupees have crawled out of the woodwork. Their problems, too, have been solved.

 The SLPP also had numerous problems; it faced the prospect of being ousted. But the government has solved all of them. The Rajapaksa family is out of danger; it is calling the shots in the government, again. The SLPP MPs who fell out with their party bosses, and were sidelined, are back in the Cabinet.

Some ambitious Opposition politicians have realised their dream of becoming ministers. Having crossed over to the government, they no longer have any problems to contend with, and can now make up for lost time to their heart’s content. Many more ministerial posts are expected to be created when the 22nd Amendment Bill with provision for the appointment of a jumbo Cabinet is steamrollered through Parliament, and the problems that most MPs are facing will be solved in the event of a national government being formed. At this rate, all the problems of the UNP, the SLPP and others who are willing to switch their allegiance to the government will be solved once and for all.

But the problems that the people are beset with remain unsolved, nay they are worsening. There’s the rub. The foreign currency crunch continues, and precious little is being done to ensure a steady forex inflow, which is the be-all and end-all of economic recovery. The fuel crisis is far from resolved; rationing is no solution however efficient it may be. The economy is thirsting for oil. Extremely high petroleum prices have led to an increase in production costs and the prices of essential goods and services. Inflation is soaring. Bread now costs as much as cake did about two years ago. People continue to skip meals. Doctors are complaining of drug shortages in the state-run hospitals. The school system is not fully functional yet due to transport issues. The Ceylon Electricity Board has jacked up electricity prices unconscionably, and the Water Board is expected to follow suit soon. Tax increases are said to be in the pipeline. Businesses are closing down due to escalating production costs and for want of imported raw materials. Many people have lost their jobs. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse when the adverse effects of the conditions for the IMF bailout packages kick in. The government does not seem keen to address these issues. The Opposition is all at sea.

The government and the Opposition have been busy talking instead of making a collective effort to pull the country out of the present economic mire. They are blowing hot and cold on the formation of an all-party government, which has come to mean different things to different people. The Opposition insists that the proposed joint administration should be an interim one, but the SLPP has some other plans; it wants to cling on to power by sharing ministerial posts with the Opposition. If President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLPP and the Opposition are serious about joining forces for the sake of the country, they ought to stop wasting any more time on endless talks, get down to brass tacks, set goals and formulate a definitive plan to reach them in the shortest possible time.

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