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Anura Kumara is ready to lead, Sajith asks the government to leave, Rajapaksa mulls referendum, and Sirisena calls it silly

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by Rajan Philips

The title is a mouthful. But that is the state of Sri Lankan politics now. Nonetheless, some saw a spark, and others a specter, when in December JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told his Party convention and the country at large: “We are ready to take up the leadership of the country”. There is a swagger about the JVP now, justifiably after Mr. Dissanayake’s relentless probing in parliament, his exposé of the New Fortress Energy Agreement, and the growing media interest in the JVP and its electoral front, the NPP. But their detractors are questioning if what the JVP/NPP is showing is enough to vault it from three percent of the vote and three seats to even 30% and 75 seats, let alone 50% and 125 seats.

That is a fair question to ask. But it should not be difficult to see, except for those who are stuck with anti-JVP beams in their eyes, that the present JVP is not the same JVP of the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike in 1971, there is no Left in Sri Lanka for the current JVP to go far or ultra-Left. And unlike during its second coming in the 1980s, there is no Right in Sri Lanka for the JVP to go far-right and chauvinistic. Now, there is only the Rajapaksa regime that it is neither Left nor Right, but downright corrupt, incompetent to the core, and civilizational when convenient. The present regime is the singular marker on the political landscape that defines the relative positions of all its detractors and contenders, including the JVP.

As for Sajith Premadasa, he has higher numbers – 42% of the vote in 2019 and 54 seats in parliament; and so, goes the argument, he and his Party have greater entitlement than the JVP to reach 50% and 125 seats. Sajith’s proponents assert his paternal name recognition and take his readiness for granted, even though the younger Premadasa has not declared his readiness the way his father did, or Anura Kumara is doing now. He has, however, while celebrating “his 55th birthday in the North”, on January 12, has “urge(d) the present government to resign,” as Sri Lanka “needs new rulers who can take the nation out of the economic crisis.” Among the “many things to be done to get rid of the current national tragedy”, Mr. Premadasa has added, “the most important thing is to handover the nation to an able leader.” Who would it be?

Election, which election, or Referendum?

 Where does all this leave the incumbent President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa? His term in office so far can only be described as “terrible two” (years). Even though he is not shying away from his record, the President blames everyone else other than himself for the state of his presidency and the plight of the country. He told newspaper editors when he met them before Christmas that he has three more years to helm the ship, or the situation, around. Since then, he has got wiser and wants two more years added to his term to compensate for the alleged loss of two years due to Covid-19. A simple question is how have Bangladesh and Vietnam, and other comparable countries who too have had Covid-19, been able to manage their economies well? In the case of Bangladesh, it is cash-rich enough to offer Sri Lanka currency swaps to tide over its forex shortfalls.

The President is now mulling over, as headlined by The Island on Monday (January 10), a proposition put to him by an anonymous young Sri Lankan at the Dalada Maligawa, “why a referendum couldn’t be conducted to ascertain whether the electorate approved him extending his first term by two years as Covid-19 deprived him of 2020 and 2021.” The President, according to his Media Division, complimented the young citizen that “he should be appointed an advisor to the President”! But even before the President could have the referendum idea clairvoyantly vetted by Gnanakka in Anuradhapura, his predecessor from Polonnaruwa has poured cold water on the referendum idea.

Indeed, the very next day after The Island’s main story, former President Maithripala Sirisena told the Daily Mirror that “it would be unrealistic for anyone to imagine the extension of the term of the present government by approval of people by referendum.” In his view, “the next parliamentary election would come first,” and given the country’s long history of government by alliance, the next government would be a different alliance with his SLFP playing a major role in it. All signs are the SLFP is on the way out of the Rajapaksa alliance, and it is no secret that alliance-brokers are trying hard for a Sajith-Sirisena political front. They have been together before in spirit, now they can be in person.

Now it is also different. Everything is different for that matter, and to some the Easter Sunday retribution clock is ticking on Maithripala Sirisena more than on anybody else. Mr. Sirisena would want a different government that includes him sooner than later. This present government gives him no protection. And he has zero prospect of being President again. A PM position in a new Premadasa presidency will be a good outcome, and he could do better than being a ‘name board’ PM, as the old Premadasa dig goes. But every plan has a snag. The preferred election for the Premadasa camp is not the parliamentary election but the presidential election. The brokers will have their work cut out. But they cannot quite determine which election would come first.

The JVP’s preferred election is also the parliamentary election. Sunil Watagala, the JVP Central Committee Member and Legal Advisor, told the Sunday Island (January 2) that the government has proved to be a failure and it should hold elections after dissolving parliament. That might lead to a new parliament and a different majority, but the President will remain until his term is over. That is the vicious cycle of the JRJ Constitution. For his part and for the SLPP, President Rajapaksa would have no election rather than any election. Hence his curiosity about the referendum option.

If only a referendum can postpone all elections with the people exercising their sovereignty in one fell swoop. But isn’t the President on course to have a different referendum for his new constitution? That, of course, is unless he evades it by amending the present constitution that requires only a two thirds majority and no referendum without going for a totally new constitution as promised. So, which election or referendum will it be? Parliamentary or presidential? A constitutional referendum or a ‘terminal’ one? Or two referenda in one and no election? Back to the 1982 future? President Jayewardene used to wish that Sri Lanka would have its own Kemal Ataturk – the founder of modern Turkey after the collapse of the old Ottoman Empire. The wag would say Sri Lanka has got its own Gotaturk.

Crazier and Crazier

Talking about the President’s new constitution, no one knows if it is still on track or has gone off the rail. The President’s constitutional project is not unlike his fertilizer fiasco in thought (or lack of it) and in action. But, fortunately, there is no physical devastation in the constitutional project. To put this in perspective, the 2019 presidential election was the first election in 25 years, since the 1994 presidential election, when the presidential system or the constitution were not on the ballot. Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first elected political leader without any prior familiarity with anything about the constitution, set himself up to deliver a new constitution wholesale, not just routine retail amendments. But like everything else about this government, the President’s constitutional project has turned into a spectacle. And this one in a court room.

Two prominent lawyer members of the Experts Committee that the President gazetted up to draft his new constitution, namely, Romesh de Silva and Manohara de Silva, are pitted on the opposite sides in the Yugadanavi fundamental rights case before the Supreme Court. Manohara de Silva is appearing for one of the petitioners challenging the government’s LNG contract with the American company, New Fortress Energy, while Romesh de Silva is representing one of the government respondents, the Ceylon Electricity Board. In a case that is shaking the very stability of the SLPP caucus and the Rajapaksa cabinet, not to mention the hallowed sovereignty of the country.

There is nothing wrong in two lawyers taking opposite sides in a court case. What is wrong is in the President’s appointment of lawyers from the unofficial bar to officially draft the country’s constitution. In times past, when propriety was premium, lawyers from the unofficial bar who worked on constitutional drafting or government business would take leave of absence from their private practice and accept temporary appointments in government. Not in the present regime. And stuck as he is on every front, the President is hardly in a position to present whatever draft that his committee may have prepared, let alone pursue its passage in parliament and a referendum.

While there is a great deal of esoteric chatter about constitutional changes, the people are agitated about their hardships and the very strong likelihood of their getting even harder. There is Covid-19 and the concern that the current calm might turn into another infectious storm, the way it happened in the last cycle. There is imminent food shortage and there are fears of mass starvation. Power cuts are looming and there is no crude oil to refine. There is no foreign exchange for anything and the Pied Piper of the Central Bank is fooling the entire cabinet that he can cash-swap Sri Lanka out of indebtedness without even saying IMF. The mystery of misfiring gas cylinders has become mysterious after the same-day firing and rehiring of the Chairman of Litro Gas. Things are no longer getting curiouser and curiouser. They are only getting crazier and crazier.

Resistance and protests have already surfaced across the country in every cross-section of society. There is no indication that the government is capable of providing any redress to the people on any matter that is hurting. All indications are that the government is clueless about anything and everything that come before it. The expectations are that people’s frustrations will spill over into street protests and agitations. The fears are also that the government might use mass agitations as excuse for a military crackdown. On the other hand, calling on the military might be a step too far and precipitate government collapse. There could be early elections, or there might be attempts to have term extending referenda. This is the backdrop in which Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa are staking their claims to take charge of the country. They have a long way to go, even though the present government is running out of road.

(To be continued)



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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