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A strange paradox: Political stability in spite of circumambient crises



by Rajan Philips

Every crisis in Sri Lanka’s checkered history, both before and after independence, began and ended with a political crisis. More accurately, perhaps, every crisis got extended, for nothing ever ended except the war. Ironically, it is the Rajapaksas, who claim sole ownership for ending the war, that are now caught all ends up in all manner of crises. What is strange and paradoxical about their situation is that for all the crises that they are the primary cause of and are being resoundingly blamed for, their political positions are in no immediate danger.

There is no threat to the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. No one is even thinking of impeachment, let alone saying it. The SLPP government has a solid majority in parliament to ward off any no confidence motion (NCM). Not that anyone is looking like trying one. And the Samagi Jana Balawegaya will not risk a second setback after falling on their face when they tried an NCM against Minister Gammanpila over petroleum price hikes. Where there might be some reason for worry, for President Rajapaksa and the SLPP in parliament, is over prospects at the next elections. But elections are a full three years and more away, which are a long time in politics by any measure.

When government worked

The next three years are also going to be peppered with crises if what is going on now is any indication of what is going to follow. It is this juxtaposition of political stability and circumambient crises that renders the current situation strange and paradoxical. This is a uniquely unprecedented situation. In the past there was political instability, governments were elected and ejected, but the departments of government did their job like clockwork, unlike the broken clocks and daily alarms we now have for government agencies.

In the past there was always a political dimension and overtone to a serious crisis. The malaria health crisis in the 1930 became the baptismal fire for Sri Lanka’s left movement. The 1947 General Strike, Sri Lanka’s belated substitute for an independence struggle, hastened the departure of the Empire and the arrival of independence. Public outrage over food scarcity and prices precipitated the Great Hartal of 1953 and the resignation of a young Prime Minister (Dudley Senanayake) who had won a popular landslide victory barely a year earlier.

Three years later, in 1956, the blunderbuss government of Sir John Kotelawala was routed at the polls. The next eight years were years of tumults and crises – communal riots, labour strikes, the assassination of a Prime Minister, schools take-over, a failed army coup, Tamil satyagraha in the North, emergency rule and so on. There were three elections, four Prime Ministers, two centre-left coalition governments and several cabinet overhauls. Through it all, and to my point in this essay, the government worked.

The schools and hospitals were open. Children studied and played. The sick were attended to. Look where they are now. Trains and buses ran, though not like in Japan or Singapore, but infinitely better than now after 40 years of economic liberalization and privatization. Farmers and fishers, the largest of Lanka’s working populations, subsisted and produced. Colonial era plantations were past their productive peaks, but they were kept on a plateau through careful research and correct ministering. Now the bottoms are coming apart.

The farmers effortlessly straddled tradition and modernity, switching from the plough to the tractor, blending the organic and the inorganic, and reaching the elusive self-sufficiency in rice in the 1980s. There were middlemen in agriculture, but no mafia. No one executively told farmers, no more pohora, only manure. Until now. And no one apparently advised the current omnipotent executive that tea doesn’t grow on cow dung unless there is a cow for every bush.

For all its travails, the 1956 government introduced income tax and taxation became the staple source of government revenue. Until someone lamebrained in the current government decided that removing taxes is a shortcut to economic growth and bigger revenue. In one stroke, half a billion rupees of revenue were written off. Balance of payments and imports became chronic problems in the 1960s, but government after government kept managing them.

Foreign reserves began to be counted in terms of months of imports, but never in terms of weeks or days. No one ever thought there will come a day when a Sri Lankan government will run out of cash to import basic food and the new necessity of fuel. And after imposing the biggest import ban in history, this government actually ended up increasing the annual import bill. That is the record. Not even the most blinkered Rajapaksa apologist can pretend to not see the record for what it is.

Stability and Crisis

After two decades of government turnovers, electoral stability was realized for the first time between 1965 and 1970, when the third and the last Dudley Senanayake government lasted its full elected term. It was badly defeated in the 1970 election, but the UNP maintained its largest vote base despite the poor electoral returns. After 1970, electoral stability came to be more contrived than democratic.

The 1972 Constitution provided for a one-time extension of parliament by two years. Objectively, it should have been a defensible extension to make up for the time lost owing to the JVP insurrection. But the United Front government’s intentions were not pure, and the First Republican Constitution itself was arrogantly adopted as a proud government product to the exclusion of not only the UNP opposition but also the constitutionally sensitive Tamil Federal Party.

After lambasting the two-year extension of parliament from 1975 to 1977, JR Jayewardene went for broke and cancelled a whole election for the chicanery of a referendum in 1982. JRJ had already upended the country’s parliamentary system in the name of providing political stability. The outcome though was not political stability but electorally enduring governments.

Internal instability of governments has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s political history from 1947, if not from 1931. The difference before and after 1977 is that, before 1977 internal instabilities eventually brought down governments and precipitated elections. After 1977, governments lasted in spite of internal instability. More often than not, after 1977, presidents and governments have lasted in office much longer than they deserved to last. But there has been no political stability in spite of prolonged government tenures.

What President Jayewardene was planning to achieve by way of political stability, was to have the same party, obviously for him – the UNP — in power over several electoral terms, if not for ever. What he did not bargain for was that internal instability would arise within his Party (and his government) almost instantly over the position and powers of the Prime Minister in the new presidential system, and more persistently over presidential succession. As it turned out, the presidential system that was created to entrench the UNP in power ended up devouring the grand old United National Party itself.

What JRJ could not also have foreseen was how his constitutional experimentation would play out in the event of the SLFP returning to power with a younger Bandaranaike as President. True to form, as under the UNP presidential governments, internal political instability became a government problem for President Chandrika Kumaratunga. More so in her second term, and she was even forced to bow out earlier than she was planning to, and reluctantly left the family torch to be usurped by the newly arrived Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What JRJ most certainly could not have seen coming, at least in President Jayewardene’s view of the Sri Lankan society, was the arrival of the Rajapaksas out of nowhere. The now powerful brothers and their extensions were not only out of JRJ’s political radar, but were not even embryonic in the presidential order when it was newly set up. Whatever may have been their status in the 20th century, the Rajapaksa brothers have dominated Sri Lankan politics in the 21st century, and it would be correct to say that their dominance over the last two decades has no parallel in the politics of the last century.

There has never been an instance in Sri Lankan politics when so many brothers and sons and nephews have been part of the same kinship political apparatus. It is their kinship apparatus and their success in subordinating the state resources to kinship power that has made their hold on power internally stable. The 2014 defection of Maithripala Sirisena was an aberration that has only proved the rule, in that even after defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential battle, Sirisena lost the war over the SLFP to the Rajapaksas. Whether there will be another defection to end the Gotabaya presidency three years from now, it is too early to speculate.

The more immediate question is how will the current contradictions between regime stability, on the one hand, and the plethora of crises – health, social and economic, on the other, play themselves out between now and the electoral reckoning more than three years from now? The traditional perspective is one of crisis heightening and potential confrontations between public protests and government forces. The government is far too entrenched to be knocked over by a single strike. Equally, the government is not in a position to permanently rule by force, suppressing protests.

Between these contending options, is there a role for the national parliament to play – to make the current regime change its ways, rather than the proverbial regime change? The 1972 Constitution exalted parliament, the National State Assembly, as the Supreme Instrument of State Power. The 1978 Constitution trashed that notion and introduced the notion of separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But from day one of the 1978 constitution, the executive has been the dominant instrument of state power. It is time for parliament to restore its role as a co-equal branch of government. Is the current parliament capable of restoring itself? (To be continued).

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President’s efforts require parliamentary support



President Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

With less than a year and half to the presidential elections, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has a tight deadline to meet if he is to attain his aspirations for the country.  His visit last week to Japan where he sought to renew ties which had made it Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor for decades, was reported to be highly successful.  During his visit, the President had apologized to the Japanese government leaders regarding the cancellation of the Light Rail Transit project which was subsequently delivered by Japan to Bangladesh.   The completion of the elevated railroad would have significantly reduced Colombo’s traffic jams. The disastrous mistake the previous government made in crudely cancelling the project unilaterally and without rational reason lost Sri Lanka the goodwill of Japan which will not be easy to get back.  Getting Japan back as a donor partner would be a great boon.  Overcoming the serious economic crisis that besets the country and its people would require a massive infusion of foreign assistance if the period of recovery is to be kept short and not prolonged indefinitely.

President Wickremesinghe’s leadership is also being credited with the structural economic reforms that the country is undertaking with regard to revenue generation and cost cutting.  Undertaking economic reforms that would streamline the economy has been a long term desire on the part of the President and seen during his past stints as Prime Minister.  During the period 2001 to 2004, when he effectively led the government as Prime Minister and entered into the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, he tried to implement the same set of economic reforms.  Both of these radical measures proved to be too much for the population to bear and he suffered defeat at the elections that followed. Typically, the reform measures he presents is based on the “trickle down” theory, which, in highly corrupt polities, like Sri Lanka, means that the poor have to be content with the crumbs falling off the table. Once again, and unfazed, he is taking up the challenge of taking up unpopular economic measures, such as cutting subsidies, increasing taxes and privatizing state owned enterprises.

As part of the IMF recovery plan for the country, the government, under his leadership, is putting in place anti-corruption legislation that is required by the IMF.  It appears that this legislation, which is still in its draft form, is being pushed more by the President than by the government.  This was evident when a civil society group, led by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, held a meeting for parliamentarians of all parties within the parliamentary complex.  The attendance from the government side was limited, though the Opposition participated in strength.  The top leadership of most of the Opposition parties, was in attendance, especially the largest Opposition party, the SJB, whose leader Sajith Premadasa also made an appearance.  They gave an inkling of the change of faces that needs to accompany any “system change.” The consensus of the discussion was that the draft legislation was a positive addition to the fight against corruption.


The situation on the ground, in terms of implementation of the laws pertaining to good governance and accountability, continue to be highly unsatisfactory.  The protest movement that was in evidence a year ago, gave its attention to issues of corruption and economic mismanagement for the reason that it had led to the economic collapse of the country that affected the entirety of its population. Both corruption and economic mismanagement had been facilitated by the concentration of political power in the executive.  One of President Wickremesinghe’s first actions was to give astute political leadership to the passage of the 21st Amendment which sought to restore the independence of key state institutions necessary for a check and balance function.  The most important aspect of the 21st Amendment is to protect those who are in charge of oversight bodies from interference by the political authority.

 A notable feature of the present is that the parliamentary majority has shown itself to be willing to follow President Wickremesinghe’s lead when it comes to putting frameworks of good governance and accountability in place for the future.  But when it comes to implementing them in the present, the ruling party, in particular, works in its own self-interest and to protect its own.  Unfortunately, there are a growing number of instances in which it can be seen that the parliamentary majority, led by the ruling party, continues to flout the spirit of the law and practices of good governance.  This was seen in the manner in which the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission was forced out of his position through a majority vote in Parliament.  Regrettably, the protections afforded by the 21st Amendment could not protect the Chairman of the regulatory authority who opposed the electricity price hikes that led to the price hike to the poorest being up to 500 percent, while to the super rich and companies it was only 50 percent.

The second incident, in the same week, has been the apprehension of a parliamentarian at the airport for gold smuggling who was let off with a fine that was much less than the fine provided for by law for such offenses.  The parliamentarian himself has shown no remorse whatsoever and on the contrary has argued with considerable gumption that he is a victim of injustice as he did not pack his own bag and it was done by another.  The very same day that he paid his fine and was released by the Customs he went to Parliament, as if he had no problems. Opposition parliamentarians have urged that the parliamentarian, caught gold smuggling, should resign, but so far to no avail.  The question is whether he will be held accountable for the discredit he has brought upon himself, his political party, Parliament and the country or whether he will be judged to be no worse than many of his peers and the matter put aside.


The third incident, in the same week, is that of a foreign national who entered the country, on a forged passport, and was apprehended, at the airport, by Immigration officers.  They were instructed by a government minister to release the foreign person on the grounds that he was a businessman who had come to invest in the country.  However, when the incident was reported in the media, the government decided to deport him and said it will take action against the Immigration officers who had followed illegal orders in releasing him.  The media reported that no inquiry will be held against the Minister for influencing the Immigration officials to release the arrested foreign national as anybody could make a request like that but that an inquiry should be held against the Immigration officials for obeying the wrong instructions.

President Wickremesinghe has won many plaudits for his willingness to take up the challenge of rescuing the country from the abyss when he accepted former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s offer to become Prime Minister. It has now become clear that the President is determined to set laws and frameworks for the future. Unfortunately, it appears that the implementation of good governance practices and accountability is simply impossible in a context in which the parliamentary majority is not willing to follow them.  As a result, the crackdown on corruption and abuse of power that was hoped for when President Wickremesinghe took over has not manifested itself on the ground.

There is still little or no evidence that President Wickremesinghe is able or willing to take action against those within his government who violate the laws and frameworks of good governance that he is setting for the future of the country.  Up to now, the President has only been able to use the security forces and the parliamentary majority to crack down on the protest movement which demanded an end to corruption and accountability for abuse of power. If this situation continues, the President will lose both credibility and authority while those who engage in corruption and abuse of power will once again entrench themselves and become impossible to dislodge to the detriment of the national interest.  There is a need for all in the polity, both government and opposition, to strengthen the hand of the President to make a break with the past so that the resources of the country will be used for the common good rather than end up in private pockets.

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Sri Lanka’s ignorance matches that of US – II



LTTE training forcibly recruited civilians

Human Rights and war crimes:

By Daya Gamage
Foreign Service National Political Specialist (ret.)
US Department of State

(Continued from yesterday)

It is essential to note the most fundamental divide in the country is between rural and urban populations. Sri Lanka’s economy has always been essentially agricultural and even today some 77 percent of the population lives in rural districts. The ratio of Sinhalese to Tamils living in rural districts nationally approximates their ratio in the population at large.  Rural areas include Tamil-majority parts of Vanni (Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya Districts) and the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province.  Similarly, such Sinhalese-majority districts as Monaragala and Badulla in the southern province of Uva, and Hambantota in the south are mostly rural.  During the colonial period and until the early 1970s the economic and political elites of Sri Lanka were almost exclusively a subset of the approximately 19 percent of the population living in urban areas.

These areas were privileged in terms of better economic infrastructure, better health and other government services, and better educational and employment opportunities.  These advantages were shared by all communities living in the cities: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, who coexisted and cooperated in general harmony.  Again, all three ethnic communities in the rural sector face inadequate educational facilities, less economic infrastructure and employment opportunities.

Post-Independence dilemma

Post-independence leaders faced a prickly dilemma: the economic development and broadened enfranchisement demanded by democratic politics required that more resources and opportunities be shared with the countryside, which would dilute the power and privileges of the 19 percent. All sections of the educated urban class were threatened by this, and none more than urban Tamils.  Not surprisingly, political leaders reacted to this broadening competition for national resources by reaching out to their ethnic constituencies for support in defending their privileges.

Let’s turn to war crimes and human rights violations the 18 May 2023 US House of Representative Resolution and the Canadian prime minister were referring to. The data and facts given below could be new to policymakers and lawmakers in Sri Lanka as well as to their counterparts in Washington. I say this because there was no evidence that Sri Lanka ever presented these factual data to the West. If the policymakers and lawmakers in Washington were aware of the following data the Resolution would have taken a different tone.

The question of war crimes—and related charges of crimes against humanity and even of genocide—are a telling example of the frequent gulf between complex facts and simplistic popular beliefs that has distorted perceptions of the Sri Lankan civil war and, one would argue, US policy towards Sri Lanka. In a broader sense, this writer believes that the persistent fictions that have grown up around the separatist conflict are symptomatic of a larger problem in the crafting of policy toward countries that are insufficiently or incorrectly understood.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the tendency of international observers to rush to judgment— and censure—under worst-case assumptions is evidenced by the civilian fatalities figure cited extensively in print and public discourse. This figure of 40,000 is alleged to be the number of unarmed Tamils who were killed during the final stage of the war (January–May 2009). These deaths are blamed largely on the Sri Lankan military, which is accused of using excessive and indiscriminate force, and thereby of committing war crimes. The 40,000 figure became an item of international orthodoxy after it was mentioned in the report, often referred to as the Darusman Report, by an “unofficial” panel of experts appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The figure was arrived at by simply subtracting the number of internally displaced civilians who were administratively processed after the hostilities from the UN’s estimate of the number of civilians caught up in the final offensive.

To be precise, the March 2011 Darusman report conceded that “there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths” but stated that the figure of 40,000 “cannot be ruled out” and needs further investigation.  The report did not refer to “credible evidence,” much less adduce any, using instead the vague expression “credible allegations.” This verdict was not voted upon or endorsed by the United Nations as an organisation, and despite its questionable logic and conflicting figures from other sources, the UN Secretary General pronounced the figure of 40,000 to be definitive. In a strange case of groupthink, most western governments and international NGOs have accepted it unquestioningly and wielded it rhetorically.

Disputed death count

The currency and obduracy of the death count, to which the Darusman Report gave birth, is all the more mystifying because it represents a major departure from calculations made not only by other reputable observers but even by UN staff on the ground in Sri Lanka. On March 9 (2009), the country team of the UN mission in Colombo briefed local diplomats for the first and only time on the civilian casualty figures it had collected from its Humanitarian Convoy.

 According to this briefing, 2,683 civilians had died between January 20 and March 7, and 7241 had been wounded. The UN country team did not indicate to the diplomats that the majority of these casualties were due to government shelling.  According to a cable from the US embassy in April 2009, the UN had estimated that from January 20 to April 6 civilian fatalities numbered 4,164, plus a further 10,002 wounded.  The International Crisis Group is quoted as reporting that “U.N. agencies, working closely with officials and aid workers located in the conflict zone, documented nearly 7,000 civilians killed from January to April 2009.

Those who compiled these internal numbers deemed them reliable to the extent they reflected actual conflict deaths but maintain it was a work in progress and incomplete.” Some three weeks before the end of the war, Reuters reported that “A UN working document, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, says 6,432 civilians have been killed and 13,946 wounded in fighting since the end of January.” An unpublished report by the United Nations country team in Sri Lanka stated that from August 2008 to May 13, 2009 (five days before the war ended), the number of civilians killed was 7,721. Even if the UN Secretary General chose to ignore reporting from his own staff in the field, there were reports from other sources that should have tempered the figures adopted by other international organizations and governments with diplomatic representation in Colombo.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside agency present in the war zone during the final phase, used various statistical indicators to conclude that the total number of noncombatants killed was around 7,000.  Lord Naseby, a British parliamentarian and longtime advocate for Sri Lanka, announced in the House of Lords in November 2017 that he had managed to pry classified documents out of the Foreign Office through a freedom of information inquiry. These documents, which were dispatched from the British Defense Attaché in Colombo during the final days of the war, reported that about 7000 people had been killed.  Amnesty International wrote that . . . “derived independently from eyewitness testimony and information from aid workers [we estimate that] at least 10,000 civilians were killed.” This figure is in line with the estimate of an anthropologist working in Australia who questioned LTTE government servants and others who survived the final battles. This academician estimates that total fatalities from January 1 to May 19 ranged from 15,000 to 16,000, including some 5,000 Tiger dead. He cautions that any final figure must take into account the 600-900 deaths due to non-military causes that would be expected at standard death rates for a population of several hundred thousand over a period of five months, especially under very difficult conditions. He emphasizes that it was very difficult to distinguish civilians from combatants because the latter often did not wear uniforms.

According to some commentators, the prevalence and resilience of the 40,000-fatality figure can be attributed in significant measure to the publicity given to it by Gordon Weiss, an Australian journalist, who served as spokesperson for the UN mission in Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009. In that official capacity Weiss reportedly used the fatality figure of 7,000 for 2009 and noted that, for the Sri Lankan Army, it made no tactical sense to kill civilians. Yet, in interviews to promote his popular book on the final days of the war, he used the unsubstantiated figure of 40,000, presumably for its shock value. When the book was published, the fatality figure had been reduced to 10,000.

ICRC figures 

On July 9, 2009, the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, John Clint Williamson, met in Geneva with Jacques de Maio, Head of Operations for South Asia for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Williamson requested the meeting in order to collect information required for reporting to the US Congress. This information was invaluable because the ICRC was the only international organisation allowed by the GSL onto the northeastern battlefield for humanitarian work. In his diplomatic cable to Washington on that meeting, Williamson quoted de Maio as saying that “the Sri Lankan military was somewhat responsive to accusations of violations of international humanitarian law and was open to adapting its actions to reduce casualties.” The ambassador added that de Maio . . . “could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the Army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths …. On the LTTE, de Maio said that it had tried to keep civilians in the middle of a permanent state of violence. It saw the civilian population as a ‘protective asset’ and kept its fighters embedded amongst them.

De Maio said that the LTTE commanders’ objective had been to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred.”  In April, as the fighting was nearing its climax, both the United Nations and the Group of Eight nations strongly condemned the LTTE for using civilians as human shields.

This writer can assure that the manuscript he is preparing with the retired Senior Foreign Service and Intelligence Officer of the Department of State Dr. Robert K. Boggs will disclose startling evidence of Washington’s foreign policy trajectory toward Sri Lanka, and how successive governments in Sri Lanka since 1980 – to date – displayed their utter ignorance that led to the infantile foreign policy approaches.

(The writer, Daya Gamage, is a retired Foreign Service National Political Specialist of the U.S. Department of State accredited to the Political Section of the American Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka)

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Excitement galore for Janaka



Janaka Palapathwala…a new identity soon!

Another artiste who is very much in the limelight, these days, is singer Janaka Palapathwala, who specializes in the golden hits of the past, made popular by Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis, Tom Jones, Jim Reeves, and the like.

He has been seen crooning away at some of the prestigious events, in Colombo, and is now ready to entertain those who love the golden oldies…in Canada and the States.

Janaka, who plans to reveal a new identity soon, indicated to us that he is eagerly looking forward to this particular overseas tour as he has already been informed that the opener, on 3rd June, in Washington D.C., is a ‘sold out’ event.

“Summer Mega Blast’, on 3rd June, will have in attendance the band Binara & The Clan and DJ Shawn Groove.

Dynasty (Apple Green)…in action at ‘Memories Are Made Of This’

On 16th June, he will be in Toronto, Canada, for ‘Starlight Night’, with the band 7th String.

He has two dates in New York, on 24th June and 28th July (‘Welcome To My World’); Nebraska, 4th July (‘An Evening With Janaka’): Los Angeles, 15th July, and San Francisco, 22nd July.

Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco events are titled ‘Memories Are Made Of This’ and Janaka will perform, backed by the group Dynasty (Apple Green).

On his return home, he says he has to do the St. Peter’s College Welfare Society Dinner Dance, “Wild West’, scheduled for 26th July.

There will be plenty of action at this Peterite event, with the bands Misty, and Genesis, Shawn Groove, Frank David, Mazo, Ricardo Deen, Dinesh Subasinghe and Clifford Richards.

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