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Midweek Review

first major political crisis since 2019 prez poll

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa in conversation in Parliament on Feb 11, 2021. It was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s fourth visit to Parliament since the inauguration of the new session (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, MP, recently caused quite a political storm by calling for the inclusion of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) decision-making hierarchy. In spite of efforts to settle the issue, amicably, strong statements made by SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris and its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam at the regular weekly media briefing at Waters’ Edge underscored the simmering problem (report on media briefing on page 1)

Weerawansa’s call triggered an extremely angry response from the ruling SLPP with its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam lambasting the former JVPer. Flanked by Kalutara District SLPP MP Sanjiva Edirimanne and SLPP Administrative Secretary Renuka Perera, Attorney-at-Law Kariyawasam dismissed Weerawansa’s call.

The briefing at the SLPP Nelum Mawatha Office, Battarmulla, revealed unprecedented deep resentment towards Weerawansa whose unexpected appeal took the SLPP by total surprise. Newcomers Kariyawasam, a National List MP and Edirimanne, who polled 105,973 preference votes in the Kalutara district at the last parliamentary election in August 2020, teamed up with Perera. The SLPP ‘blitz’ shook the political scene.

The SLPP primarily targeted Weerawansa on two issues, namely the NFF leader had no right whatsoever to call for removal of SLPP leader Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the NFF maintained clandestine links with two foreign intelligence agencies.

A section of the media thrived on the unexpected political controversy caused by Weerawansa. The former JVP Propaganda Secretary couldn’t have made that call without realizing the far reaching consequences. Those seeking to exploit the SLPP-NFF dispute tried to capitalise on the situation. The SLPP, too, contributed to that strategy. In its haste to attack Weerawansa over his interview with the Lankadeepa in its Feb 7, 2021 edition, the SLPP forgot the NFF leader wanted a specific political role for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Does President Gotabaya Rajapaksa require a political role? Does he deserve such a role? Can President Rajapaksa be denied a leadership role in the SLFP, undoubtedly the most powerful political party today? Can Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘operate’ outside the SLPP, thereby depriving him an opportunity to intervene in political matters?

 

Media ‘blitz’

The SLPP’s drastic response to Weerawansa’s timely suggestion underscored President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lacking much needed political clout. Over a year after the last presidential election in Nov 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained a man without SLPP membership. In fact, the SLPP on its own should have considered how to accommodate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Had the SLPP acted wisely, Weerawansa wouldn’t have had to risk a preventable political crisis. The SLPP actually owed an explanation why it failed to consider a suitable position within the hierarchy. It would be pertinent to mention that Weerawansa secured two other interviews on Feb 7, the day the Lankadeepa published the controversial discussion. Mawbima, published by the Ceylon Newspapers Pvt Limited owned by SLPP National List MP Tiran Alles and Communist Party mouthpiece, ‘Aththa’ (Truth), a name borrowed from the former official Soviet CP newspaper Pravda.

The writer found the Aththa interview conducted by its Editor (name not given) quite critical of the incumbent Rajapaksa administration. In fact, Weerawansa therein asserted that there had been much better internal discussion within the SLFP-led coalition during the previous Rajapaksa presidency (Nov 2005-January 2015). There had been no reference to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being given a political role whatsoever. The NFF leader who spearheaded a campaign within the SLPP against the hotly disputed government decision to hand over to India 49 per cent stake in the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo port, in Feb 3, 2021 sought to explain the common stand taken by some parties within the SLPP. Instead, Weerawansa created an enormous political issue that overwhelmed the ruling coalition.

Perhaps, someone should remind Weerawansa how he fired the first salvo against the previous Rajapaksa administration by seeking a consensus with the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha. The meeting in the second week of July 2014 set in motion a spate of events leading to SLFP General Secretary Maihripala Sirisena switching allegiance to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

 

Attack on influential clique

Responding to an Aththa query, Weerawansa explained the weaknesses in the SLPP. Alleging the absence of a regular discussion among constituents of the SLPP, Weerawansa said that though all contributed to the overwhelming victories at the 2019 and 2020 national elections, today a small clique sustained the power. When the actions of that clique caused trouble, the administration sought the help of all others to face the crisis. Declaring he had made his position clear on the extremely unhappy situation, Weerawansa alleged that the government suffered due to lack of internal discussions. Compared to the situation today, the previous Rajapaksa administration handled internal issues better. The views expressed at that time received some recognition. The absence of internal discussions had resulted in challenges to the incumbent administration.

Asked to comment on some SLPP constituents taking a common stand on the ECT issue leading to the SLPP targeting the NFF leader, Weerawansa said that representatives, including lawmakers met at his official residence on January 30, 2021, to take a common stand on the issue at hand. Altogether 10 political parties had participated in the discussion and, at the conclusion, they decided to continue with the grouping. “We decided to meet once a month to discuss developments. Discuss required changes. Discuss the government strategies,” Weerawansa said, revealing they reached a common understanding meant to bring both the government and the country under pressure. The Minister declared that at that time they met to discuss ECT exclusively, subsequently a decision was made to continue with the project. Weerawansa said that they would try to obstruct those trying to take President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on a wrong path.

Weerawansa, in his interview with Aththa, emphasised how the Western powers went even to the extent of exploring the imposition of economic sanctions on Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the 46th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at a time the country was mired in a deepening crisis due to rising foreign debt. Weerawansa didn’t mince his words when he acknowledged daunting economic challenges and the failure on the part of the government to achieve the much-touted economic objectives. Weerawansa blamed the Covid-19 pandemic mainly for the economic downturn. The former JVP heavyweight warned of dire consequences if the country couldn’t raise over USD 4 bn annually to settle loans obtained by successive governments, particularly the previous yahapalana administration taking commercial loans at high interest rates. Weerawansa alleged the UNP-SLFP administration went for excessively costly loans in the wake of their humiliating defeat at the last Local Government elections on Feb 10, 2018.

In other words, Weerawansa acknowledged that there couldn’t be any justification in ‘boru shows’ at a time of the rapidly developing crisis that could overwhelm the national economy. It would be the responsibility of the SLPP to ensure political stability both in and outside Parliament. An internal crisis within the SLPP now can cause irreparable damage.

Time for politics

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa entered active politics in the wake of the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015. The 19th Amendment deprived President Mahinda Rajapaksa of an opportunity to seek a third presidential term. One-time SLFP strongman and war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed in his hotly challenged bid to secure a third term in 2015. Having launched civil society groups Viyathmaga and Eliya at the onset of the yahapalana administration, Gotabaya Rajapaksa slowly but steadily pursued a political strategy that ultimately paved the way for him to secure the SLPP’s presidential nomination in August 2019. Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t publicly receive SLPP membership. Gotabaya Rajapaksa launched Viyathmaga in early 2016 to take his message to the masses. Viyathmaga was followed by Eliya that focused on countering moves to introduce a new Constitution at the expense of the country’s unitary status.

Viyathmaga emerged as an influential group within the SLPP parliamentary group with eight out of nine contestants gaining entry into Parliament at the August 2020 general election. The SLPP won 145 seats, including 17 National List slots. The Parliament comprises 196 elected and 29 appointed members.

Of the SLPP winners, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (328,092) and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (325,479) polled the highest preferential votes in Colombo and Gampaha electoral districts, respectively. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fielded the group on the SLPP ticket whereas former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal and Dr. Seetha Arambepola were accommodated on the National List.

Of the successful Viyathmaga members, only Weerasekera has represented Parliament before having served the Navy for over three decades and retired as its Chief of Staff. Weerasekera represented Digamadulla electorate during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second tenure (2010-2015) as the President.

Viyathmaga nominees Prof. Channa Jayasumana (Anuradhapura/133,980), Gunapala Ratnasekera (Kurunegala/141,991), Nalaka Kottegoda (Matale/71,404), Tilak Rajapaksha (Digamadulla/54,203), Dr. Upul Galappatti (Hambantota/63,369), and Udayana Kirindigoda (Mahanuwara/39,904) entered Parliament at the expense of those who represented the last Parliament on the UPFA ticket.

Viyathmaga nominated Businessman Anura Fernando who nursed Colombo (north) electorate failed to get elected, whereas Ali Sabri, PC, who also served Viyathmaga, was accommodated in Parliament through the SLPP National List and not as a member of Viyathmaga.

Can the SLPP continue to ignore the need to bring in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, formally into the decision- making apparatus of the SLPP?

Mahinda Rajapaksa switched his allegiance from the SLFP to the SLPP less than two weeks after the constitutional coup staged by the then President Maithripala Sirisena in late Oct 2018. Mahinda Rajapaksa received membership on Nov 11, 2018 from SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris in the presence of its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam. The well attended event took place at Premier Rajapaksa’s official residence at Wijerama Mawatha. Thirty other UPFA lawmakers received SLPP membership on that day.

 

MR takes SLPP membership

Mahinda Rajapaksa made the surprising move, close on the heels of the Supreme Court suspending President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament on the night of Nov 9, 2018, and called the general election on January 5, 2019. Sirisena had no other option after the then Joint Opposition and SLFP failed pathetically to prove a simple majority in Parliament. Violence caused by the Joint Opposition in Parliament didn’t serve any purpose other than to bring the entire parliamentary system to disrepute.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling on Nov 14, 2018. Among those who moved the Supreme Court were the UNP, TNA and the JVP. A jubilant UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, while hailing the Court ruling, tweeted that the people have won their first victory. “Let’s go forward and re-establish the sovereignty of the people in our beloved country.”

If the SC ruling went against those who moved the Court, perhaps the political situation would have been much different today. The political situation would have been fashioned on the outcome of the January 5, 2019 general election. Perhaps, the UNP on its own could have secured the largest block of seats in Parliament and form a government with the support of a section of SLFP lawmakers with or without Sirisena. In the last Parliament the UNP had 106 elected under the ‘Elephant’ symbol. The January 5, 2019 general election would have thwarted a disastrous split in the UNP a year later that ultimately led to annihilation of the UNP at the August 2020 general election. The UNP managed to secure just one National List slot. It would be pertinent to examine whether the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) resorted to the Easter Sunday carnage on April 21, 2019 if the general election was held on January 5, 2019 as envisaged by President Sirisena.

Top academic Rajan Hoole speculated in his immensely interesting and controversial ‘Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State Gets Out Of Its Depth’ launched in the run-up to the 2019 Nov presidential election how the failure on the part of the NTJ to secure parliamentary representation at the 2015 general election may have led to the Easter Sunday attacks. If general election was held as President Sirisena wanted the NTJ would have had an opportunity to secure some of its people elected to Parliament via Muslim political parties. Had that happened, perhaps it wouldn’t have resorted to the Easter Sunday attacks, he reasoned.

Who knows spice merchant Mohamed Yusuf Ibrahim whose sons detonated explosives at the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels on April 21 would have found a place in the Parliament. The JVP never explained why Ibrahim was accommodated on its National List at the 2015 general election.

Ibrahim’s sons — identified as Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim and Imsath Ahmed Ibrahim —detonated their explosives at the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels, respectively.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s emergence as the SLPP presidential candidate should be examined against the backdrop of an extremely sensitive political environment following the Easter Sunday carnage. The UNP, the SLFP, JVP, TNA and all political parties represented in Parliament played politics with the issue. A naïve government allowed extremists to go on the rampage weeks after the Easter attacks. The failure to protect the Muslims is definitely as bad as allowing the NTJ to strike in spite of specific warnings received from India. The government never explained how extremists stormed Minuwangoda in the second week of May, 2019. The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, having failed to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks and anti-Muslim violence, exploited the situation to seek a political career. The Army Commander, too, should have been held responsible for both failures as he also had at his disposal one of the country’s biggest intelligence operations run by the DMI. Senanayake who couldn’t even secure 50,000 votes at the last presidential election, contrary to much publicized promises, refrained from contesting the last parliamentary election. Perhaps he reslised that he had already been badly exposed.

 

19 A paves the way for GR

If not for the 19th Amendment, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wouldn’t have received SLPP nomination even though a significant section of the electorate appreciated the wartime Defence Secretary’s entry into politics at the highest level. Lawmakers Kumara Welgama, an SLFP heavyweight and Democratic Left Front (DLF) leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara opposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entry. Welgama had the strength not only to take a public stand against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s emergence as the SLPP candidate but switched his allegiance to the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) at the parliamentary election. Welgama entered Parliament from Kalutara.

In utterly appalling Sri Lankan politics, the country shouldn’t be surprised to see the bankrupt SJB and the JVP trying to exploit Weerawansa’s declaration. State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabrral recently reminded the real status of the SJB. Responding to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa’s query on the Katuwana branch of the Bank of Ceylon granting D.S. Gunasekera Company Rs 3.1 bn loan, a smiling former Central Bank Governor asked Premadasa where was he when the BOC subsequent to the then government’s intervention granted the Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) a staggering Rs 10 bn in 10 minutes.

Premadasa formed the SJB after losing to Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential poll. A section of the civil society in a shameless bid, obviously on behalf of the UNP, moved the judiciary against Gotabaya Rajapaksa claiming he was not eligible to contest. A highly jittery SLPP fielded the then UPFA MP Chamal Rajapaksa as an independent candidate in case Gotabaya Rajapaksa suffered an unthinkable setback. The judiciary ruled in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest is history.

The government tackled the crisis caused by Weerawansa’s intervention. Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga visited the ‘Made in Sri Lanka exhibition’ on Feb 12 on Minister Weerawansa’s invitation where he declared the issue has been settled while issuing a warning to smaller parties. On the following day, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the exhibition on Weerawansa’s invitation as the top leadership sought to settle the dispute. The SLPP initially hit back hard by calling a media briefing at Ape Gama on Feb 11 where Sanjiva Edirimanna, MP and several others strongly opposed the NFF’s intervention in what they called an internal matter. The government needs to examine contentious matters seriously. In addition to Weerawansa’s stand on the ECT and comment on the SLPP leadership, the former JVP firebrand clashed with the SLPP over the original 20th Amendment as well as an alleged attempt to influence NFF lawmakers. The clash between Weerawansa and SLPP National List MP Jayantha Ketagoda in Premier Rajapaksa’s presence in Parliament highlighted the torrid relationship between the two parties. Obviously all is not well within the ruling coalition. Those who exercised their franchise for the SLPP in 2019 and 2020 expect the ruling coalition to address internal issues, swiftly and decisively or be ready to face the consequences.



Midweek Review

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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President Wickremesinghe with US Ambassador Chung at the Colombo harbour, on Nov, 22, at the commissioning of newly acquired Offshore Patrol Vessel, formerly of the US Coast Guard.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having comfortably won the vote on the Second Reading of 2023 Budget, two days earlier, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on November 24, dealt with a spate of issues, including the responsibilities of the armed forces and the police, obviously indicating how a second Aragalaya, aimed at ousting his government from power, by way of violent protests, as was done to the previous President, would be tackled, as the country could not possibly afford any more turmoil.

The UNP leader stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to protect the armed forces and the police, who performed their legitimate duties and responsibilities.

The Parliament approved the Cudget, on Nov. 22, with 121 voting for and 84 against, as the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) reiterated its commitment to a political marriage of convenience with UNP leader Wickremesinghe whose party has only one seat in the 225-member Parliament. Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the Budget, on Nov. 14.

The SLPP secured 145 seats, at the last General Election, though three breakaway groups of lawmakers have since distanced themselves from the party.

Speaking on the continuing threats faced by his government, Wickremesinghe underscored the responsibilities of all, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe’s reference to responsibilities of those from Corporal to Field Marshal should be examined against the backdrop of perceived relationship between the war-winning Army Commander and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), accused of toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe talked tough and didn’t mince his words when setting the tone for the remainder of his term, secured on July 20, courtesy the SLPP. Wickremesinghe seemed confident that the balance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, won with a landslide at the Nov. 16, 2019, presidential election, could be completed.

Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Acting President, on July 13, and was elected the eighth President on July 20. As the sole UNP National List MP, Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes, including his own, whereas his rivals Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) obtained 82 and 03 votes respectively.

Wickremesinghe delivered a clear message. The UNPer didn’t mince his words when he warned that unauthorized protests, meant to undermine his government, wouldn’t be tolerated, under any circumstances.

Wickremesinghe declared that trouble makers wouldn’t be allowed to take cover behind human rights and any attempt to adopt strategies, similar to those employed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be crushed, militarily. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s stand.

So, in case the FSP et al launched the second phase of ‘Aragalaya,’ targeting the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, they can expect the armed forces and law enforcement authorities unleashed on them.

 Immediately after taking oaths, as the eighth President, Wickremesinghe directed the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament). Ironically, President Wickremesinghe, who was always for protests against the government in power, when in the Opposition, overnight metamorphosed into ignoring protests by the NGO-led mafia against the deployment of the armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave in to US pressure not to use the armed forces to evict those camping outside the Presidential Secretariat until it was too late.

Even on May 09 when a well-orchestrated wave of physical attacks, and torching of properties of government politicians, was unleashed across the country, as if in spontaneous response from the public at large, over the attack on the Galle Face protesters, the same evening the US Ambassador Julie Chung issued a statement, through the local media, warning the armed forces and the police not to crackdown on peaceful protesters. We all saw how peaceful these foreign-funded protesters were when the opportunity arose. On May 09, they even turned on a group of SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, when they visited the Galle Face protest site. Luckily for them, they beat a hasty retreat, with their security, sensing what was in store for them, after getting a few knocks.

During the campaign against Gotabaya Rajapaksa that commenced with violent protests outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, SLPP lawmaker Rear Admiral (ret.) Sarath Weerasekera told this writer, on a number of occasions, the danger of failing on the part of the then administration to deal with the growing threat efficiently. Weerasekera was one of the few who demanded tangible action against the protest campaign. By July 09, protesters forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Janadhipathi Mandiraya by sea. Field Marshal Fonseka, MP, had been the only parliamentarian to address the protesters, near Janadhipathi Mandiraya, just a few hours before they forced their way into the presidential abode.

No one bothered to remind the Field Marshal of his obligations at that time. In addition to Sajith Premadasa, Fonseka, too, received an invitation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the premiership. Both declined for different reasons.

But, on the part of Wickremesinghe, there hadn’t been any wavering, as in the case of Premadasa, despite being the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP leader simply grabbed the opportunity and proceeded step by step, having evicted those occupying the Presidential Secretariat.

Lawmaker Weerasekera, who sided with President Wickremesinghe at the Budget vote, told The Island the UNP leader had dealt appropriately with those trying to undermine law and order. Unfortunately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite being a distinguished former frontline combat officer, hesitated to meet the protesters’ violent challenge due to well hatched Western propaganda against his government, the MP asserted.

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

President Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to remind the House of the correspondence between his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to him being sworn in as the Premier on May 12. During his Nov. 24 address to Parliament, the UNP leader tabled in House Sajith Premadasa’s letter, dated May 12, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate his position, faulted the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up the presidency. The President’s strategy seems clear. In addition to dealing with the economy, Wickremesinghe faces two primary challenges, namely rebuilding the UNP, now reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena), in preparation for future elections and the resolution of the national question (post-war national reconciliation)

The re-building of the UNP has to be achieved at the expense of Sajith Premadasa. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s strategy. Wickremesinghe has no option but to relentlessly push SJB members to switch their allegiance to him. Although many believed Wickremesinghe could influence the majority of the main Opposition, the SJB, to switch sides, in the wake of his appointment as the Premier, it didn’t materialize. Of the 54-member SJB parliamentary group, Manusha Nanayakara (Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment) and Harin Fernando (Minister of Tourism and Land) deserted Sajith Premadasa when they accepted Cabinet portfolios, on May 20 from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The two SJB MPs, who spearheaded a high profile campaign, targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, had no qualms in receiving their letters of appointment from the very person.

The other SJB MP to accept state ministerial portfolios from Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, in April (Transport) and September (Tourism) was Diana Gamage, now at the centre of a simmering controversy over her allegedly being a British national. When there are probably at least half a dozen or so other dual citizen MPs in Parliament we wonder why just Diana Gamage is being targeted by so many.

President Wickremesinghe appears to be confident that some of those who had been elected on the SJB ticket, as well as some SLPPers, may accept Cabinet portfolios soon. Appointments are likely to be finalized immediately after the final vote on the Budget, scheduled to take place on Dec 08.

Wickremesinghe needs to reach a consensus with the top SLPP leadership, as regards Cabinet portfolios, as the latter wouldn’t, under any circumstances, tolerate appointments, sans its approval. However, Wickremesinghe will go out to engineer defections from the SJB. Will the UNP leader be able to influence a group large enough to cause the disintegration of Sajith Premadasa’s party, formed in early 2020, to contest the last General Election?

However, in spite of enjoying executive powers, Wickremesinghe would find it an extremely difficult task as the SJB, as a group, abhorred joining the SLPP-led government. On one hand, Wickremesinghe required the continuing support of the SLPP to sustain his government. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe’s dependence on the SLPP made him quite unpopular. The SLPP has so far refused to accept that it couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout, caused by utter mismanagement of the national economy. Had the SLPP government sought the IMF intervention, soon after the 2019 presidential election, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have ended up as the President. The circumstances that compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Wickremesinghe to accept the premiership underscored the seriousness of the situation the country had fallen into.

Having failed to get elected, from Colombo, at the last General Election, Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament, in late June 2021, on its National List, at a time the national economy was rapidly deteriorating.

But, even Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have anticipated the turn of events that compelled the desperate Rajapaksas to invite him to accept the premiership, one month short of a year later. Having taken over the government, under an incomparable situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda. The SLPP seems to be so far satisfied. The vote on the Second Reading of the Budget meant that the SLPP and Wickremesinghe are prepared to work together. though quite significant differences remain.

However, the SLPP has, in no uncertain terms, indicated that it didn’t bother about the mandates received at the 2019 Presidential and 2020 General Elections at which its candidate received 6.9 mn votes and the party obtained a staggering 145 seats, respectively.

Prez roadmap

SLPP National List MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, in two speeches in Parliament (delivered during the ongoing Budget debate) dealt with Wickremesinghe’s strategy. The leader of civil society group Yuthukama did it quite well. The first time entrant to Parliament discussed the issues at hand, including the alleged move to deliberately lose state control over land that may cause irrevocable consequences. At the onset of one speech, lawmaker Cumaratunga reacted somewhat angrily as some government members continued with their noisy private conversations, among themselves, as the MP dealt with contentious issues.

The MP asked whether Wickremesinghe was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance his own roadmap at the expense of the country. Cumaratunga raised the possibility of those enjoying the political power allowing further deterioration of the economy. The MP expressed fears of Wickremesinghe’s Budget causing a heavier debt burden at a time the country has suspended repayment of loans. The MP also slammed the government over the inordinate delay in amending the Exchange Control Act of 2017 to make it mandatory for importers to bring back massive amounts of funds ‘parked’ overseas, over a period of time, within a stipulated time frame.

In addition to Cumaratunga, Prof. Charitha Herath, as well as Prof. Channa Jayasumana ,made important contributions during the ongoing Budget debate. Both of them dealt with the land issue.

Herath, who earned public appreciation for his role as former COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman dealt with a number of issues, including an ‘operation’ meant to facilitate land grabs. The first time MP alleged that the move to place state land under the purview of Divisional Secretaries was nothing but a ruse to allow land grabs.

Participating in the Second Reading debate on the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath alleged that the move was meant to allow cronies of the ruling party to get hold of government lands. Declaring that LRC lands had been misappropriated for the political gains of successive governments, since 1977, Prof. Herath questioned the way state land were utilized. The 2023 Budget has proposed to legitimize wrong procedure, lawmaker Herath said, adding: “We summoned the LRC, two or three times before the Committee on Public Enterprises, and investigated the issues at hand. We found out that there had been many shortcomings in its land utilization process. We instructed the officials to take remedial measures. Now the 2023 Budget has proposed that these LRC lands should be placed under District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and allow them to decide to whom those lands should be given for the purpose of cultivating them. The proposal would prune down the powers of the Lands Minister.

“We do not approve the status quo of the LRC because every Lands Minister has placed the LRC under his or her friends who, in return, placed the lands at LRC under the mercy of the Minister. This should come to an end but not in the manner that has been envisaged by the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath said.

Prof. Jayasumana raised the legitimacy of crucial decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader didn’t have a mandate to do so from the people. Addressing the Parliament, during the Committee Stage of the Defence Ministry vote, the first time MP asked whether the President could take decisions pertaining to national security and policy matters as he was only entrusted with completing the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

The Anuradhapura District MP suggested the need to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as regards the ability of Wickremesinghe to call for a presidential election four years after the last poll. In this case the one held in Nov. 2019. Lawmaker Jayasumana declared that he would submit a private member’s proposal to enable Wickremesinghe to call for a fresh presidential poll after completion of one year in office. If consensus could be reached, a fresh presidential election could be held in July 2023, Prof. Jayasumana said, adding that if Wickremesinghe won he could implement whatever his proposals. Pointing out that as Wickremesinghe’s agenda had been rejected by the electorate in 1994, 2004 and 2019, the UNP leader could face serious public challenge unless he obtained a fresh mandate.

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a huge mandate at the 2019 presidential election to preserve Sri Lanka’s unitary status, Prof Jayasumana questioned the moves to even go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The academic reminded that the Supreme Court had been divided on the 13th Amendment.

The SLPP rebel reminded that the Supreme Court bench that decided on the 13th Amendment did so by a majority of just one judge.

Sri Lanka is heading for unprecedented political upheaval as Wickremesinghe pushes ahead with his agenda amidst further deterioration of political-economic-social situation. The much-touted USD 2.9 bn in emergency aid from the IMF, spread over a period of four years, seems wholly inadequate to remedy the situation. Impending political turmoil appears to be quite threatening and may even undermine the economic recovery efforts unless the Parliament addressed the issues at hand with the dedication such situations required.

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

It is vitally important to value our freedom more than anything else, as Patrick Henry did and declared: “Give me liberty or give me death. My humanity diminishes the less I am free; my humanity is enhanced the more I am free.” Moises Naim has written a book that every freedom loving human being must read to become aware of the treacherous dangers to his/her freedom.

The book is about how our freedom won with so much trouble, toil, blood and sacrifice is being corroded today, not from outside forces, like in the past such as tribal chiefs, kings and dictators, but more insidiously from within, subtly and deceptively, with something that looks like truth or democracy.

The mortal enemy of freedom is power. The gradual defeat of power by freedom and democracy we enjoy is being slowly strangulated by power returning to battle in unsuspecting hidden ways and means. That is why the book is titled “The Revenge of Power”.

The book is about the 3-P autocrats who steal our freedom and kill democracy. The three Ps are populism, polarisation and post-truth. The corrosive and corrupting consequence of the trio – populism, polarisation and post-truth – is a criminal and complete takeover of the state.

Populism

Populism is a set of practices and strategies. Through this, the autocrats become not only the sole voice and face of the government but also of the state. It empties the meaning of the authentic exercise of the will of the people as it weakens popular and civic organisations, and eliminates the function of political parties as channels of alternative ideologies.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) perfectly fits the bill for a populist leader. He came to power through democratic and legal means unlike Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) who became the President through trickery. No autocrat can beat the executive powers of the President of Sri Lanka, thanks to J. R. Jayewardene, who introduced the 1978 Constitution. Slowly, MR began to show traces of an autocrat. Even the few checks and balances that were in existence were disregarded. Self-promoting useless extravaganzas increased. He openly became nepotistic. He began to interfere in the judiciary by removing Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Shirani Bandaranayake, and brought in 18th Amendment in a bid to become the President for life. In the meantime, more and more allegations of huge commissions on mega projects, robberies, scams and crimes of family members, relatives and cronies increase. Pandora Papers disclosures as regards Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband has revealed only a fraction of what the Rajapaksa family has amassed.

MR’s younger brother, Gotabaya, entered politics in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre declaring that he alone could protect the country’s national security. He said at the very beginning of his presidency that his word took precedence over government circulars. He banned agrochemicals. His idiotic economic decisions bankrupted the country.

Polarisation

Polarisation is the age-old idea of divide and rule. The autocrats generate intense hatred against the rivals and neutralise them. Since they exploit the atavistic fears and prejudices of and the social cleavages and divisions among people, they have a huge fan-base, and hence emerge as Messiahs.

Creating an enemy, the Other, is the speciality of our politicians. The Tamil minority was the first enemy. JR, the autocrat deliberately organised the 1983 July riots, and the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Then, we had the 30-year civil war. They demonised the Tamils in the North and the East. GR came to power after Easter Sunday tragedy, promising to ensure national security and making the Muslims, the Other or the enemy.

Creating and accusing the Other, the enemy is part of the political practice in Sri Lanka. Rulers speak of imperialist conspiracy, Tamil separatism, Muslim Wahabism, NGO betrayals, Christian conversions or what not. They make ‘others’ monsters ready to pounce on the hapless majority, destroy them and conquer Sri Lanka.

Divide and rule is the name of the autocrat’s game. RW has called the Aragalaya youth fascists making them The Other. By using the PTA he has made the university students terrorists. Anti-riot police in full gear with tear gas masks, water cannon trucks and hundreds of men and women armed with batons and shields are sent to suppress the fundamental rights of the people to protest of small groups of unarmed non-violent civilians.

Post-truth

Post-truth is the confused conceptualisation and uncontrollable diffusion of fake news that distorts reality. It has such a power that it can systematically block the knowledge and diffusion of the truth. It is not simply spreading lies. It is about muddying the waters to such a point that it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. Post-truth is the baby of the modern mass communication media.

“Post-truth has been defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth.” It is a condition that arises in public life when the dividing line between facts and knowledge, on one side, and belief and opinion, on the other, withers away, or at least when they are used interchangeably so often that the dividing line between them is no longer widely agreed upon.” (Quoted from the aforesaid book)

With easy access to millions, social media, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc., we are inundated with facts and messages that can be true, partially true, false or fake. Often contrary facts and news are presented to us and we are confused as to what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. This weakens our democracy. A country of confused citizens is easy prey of the rapacious populist autocrat.

How to protect our freedom

The author has proposed methods of fighting the 3-P autocrats by battling against their five most used tactics.

The battle against the Big Lie

The Big Lie was the slogan given by Trump to his election loss. Here are some of our Big Lies. “Dharmishta Samajaya” sounds so pious and nice but the reality of the JR presidency was just the opposite. Then MR presented the vision of “Suba Anagathayak.” Now, we are in the Rajapakses’ ‘Anagathe’, you can decide whether it is ‘suba’ or ‘kalakanni’. “Yahapalanaya” was another fantastic goal to be achieved, but the UNP and its cronies carried out the Treasury bond scams, and the SJB footnote gang shamelessly tried to protect the culprits. Finally, we have the “Saubagya” of GR, well, the country is bankrupt and economically bogged down and ruined. The sweet dream of ‘Saubagya’ has become for the people a nightmare! These are the Big Lies of Sri Lankan politics. There are many small lies that are brazenly proclaimed in public like when Namal R said that “No Rajapakse has robbed anything. Take us to courts and prove the charges.” Of course, GR had “Nidoskota nidahas” all the cases against the Rakapakses and their crony murderers and thieves. Or take the television channels that promoted the Dammika Peniya as a cure for Covid-19.

Now for the battle. Democracy and freedom can be saved only if the citizens are well informed of how the government works. Ways of educating the youth and even the elderly must be found and implemented. They must be taught to check always the myriads of facts, figures and information they receive and even double check them before using them to make decisions or sharing them with others. The perpetrators of the Big Lie must never be allowed to win an election again. Even the supporters and promoters of the Big Liar must be dealt with similarly. The electorate must be made to feel seriously responsible for the election results.

Battle against criminal regimes

There are countries where criminals are no longer underground but very much above ground and in the highest places of power. Since the 1970s, Sri Lanka has also joined the club or the mafia of such countries. A good example of where it started is when JR made the notorious criminal, Gonawala Sunil, a Justice of the Peace after pardoning and releasing the latter from prison! We have a person convicted of “Kappan” as the Chief Whip of the government and most others are all thieves or at least collaborators of thieves. It is not for nothing that people call them Ali Baba and the 225 thieves.

As every government deal, whether oil, gas, sugar, medicine, vaccines or other essentials, is suspected to be a scam and the allegations are never investigated or admitted, we sure have a kleptocracy consisting of the politicians, top administrative officers and their crony businessmen openly robbing the wealth of the nation. The kleptocrats robbed and bankrupted the country. They have taken out the wealth of the country and stashed it away in black tax havens.

When the people of Aragalaya led by the youth, protest publicly against the criminal government, they are arrested and jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Saving democracy and freedom from a criminal regime is going to be a war of attrition. Then we must investigate the route of the stolen money and confiscate it. So far, nothing has been done in this regard. All that we know about Nirupama Rajapaksa, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, Udayanga Weeratunga, Air Bus scam, etc., has been revealed by investigations conducted overseas. We cannot expect a criminal government to conduct such investigations. It will have to be the work of NGOs, journalists, detectives and lawyers. Anybody, even charities that receive funds from autocrats who need character laundering must be named and shamed.

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

Powerful autocracies and even some democracies competing for global domination have always interfered in the smaller democracies. It is clear how funding for elections is received. It is no secret that China funded Rajapaksas or the US funded some others. There were allegations that North Korea funded the old JVP and India funded the LTTE. Funds apart, now they use the social media on a global scale to disinform, mislead and tarnish the images of politicians who are undesirables, or support their favourites. They have found that Russia has interfered in the Trump election and in the Brexit referendum.

The only defence of the democracies against such onslaughts depends “on three priorities: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.”

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

Democracy is a way of organising political competition. In a democracy, those unhappy with the current state of affairs can change things, but only if they can persuade enough fellow citizens to vote for them. Ensuring fair and lawful political competition is the central purpose of democratic checks and balances. (Quoted from the book)

But political cartels that include the judicial, administrative and military sectors unleash anti-competitive pressures to stifle freedom and democracy. They are rigging the game to stay in power. The autocrats become political monopolists. In Sri Lanka, the practice of bribing MPs to switch sides is part of anti-competition.

“To defeat them, we need a kind of political anti-trust doctrine, one designed to protect the competitive dynamic at the heart of democracy. Whether dealing with campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, or media regulation, policymakers must squarely confront one question: Do the current rules foster fair and constructive competition? Where the answer is no, a strong prima facie case exists for intervention and reform.” (Quoted from the book)

Battle against illiberal narratives

The autocrats create the Big Lie that they are the saviours of the people harassed by poverty, and the elites are insensitive to the people’s plight. They cater to the people’s gut level feelings and make their adrenalin work. But the democrats find difficult to achieve such results as they will offer only abstract principles of truth and fair play; freedom and competition. Usually, the democrats are always at a disadvantage.

“The populist frame is too powerful to be defeated permanently. Like a virus, it reappears in outbreaks again and again throughout history. But the rhetoric is hollow. And pointing out that hollowness gives us an opening we must exploit to sell people once more on the promise of democratic life.” (Quoted from the book)

In our country, Aragalaya has opened the eyes of people as never before and now many of them can see how they have been deceived and abused by populist autocrats.

“Sobriety is in order. The fact that democracy has survived over the last three centuries in no way guarantees that it will prevail against its enemies once more. But if we can defeat the Big Lies, sideline criminalized governments, parry the attempts at foreign subversion directed at democratic elements, face down the political cartels that stifle competition, and beat back the illiberal narratives that sustain autocratic onslaughts, we’ll have won the war to preserve democracy.” (Quoted from the book)

Conclusion

As I finished reading the book, I realised that we had found the local antidote to the 3-P autocrats. It is our own way of dealing with our own variety of 3-P autocrats. It is what emerged as Aragalaya in April this year, climaxed in July and is still simmering like live coals in the ashes. Proudly, I called it the Beautiful Revolution. However much its detractors howl against it, it is now a historical fact. Aragalaya happened and nobody can deny, delete or forget it. Our youth led it and were responsible for it and all, their mothers, fathers even little children joined them whole heartedly. The world was stunned by its success. Not a drop of blood was shed by the protesters.

I gauged them at the Galle Face Gotagogama. Aragalaya can be defined with the three words they always use, Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraya. Nirpakshika means they are not followers or slaves of anybody, any party or any ism. They are strong free adults; they think for themselves and they decide for themselves. Nirprachanda means non-violence stemming from human solidarity. Aragalaya was an experience of solidarity; not the narrow solidarity of groups of the same race, religion, language, class, caste or political party but the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race. At Gotagogama there was open trust and friendliness among all sorts of people. I remember one incident clearly; when the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu said that he was going to send food-aid to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, a young Tamil took the mike at Gotagogama and sent a message to the Chief Minister; Sir, either send food-aid to Sri Lankans or don’t send at all. Yes, we are Sri Lankans, period. Finally, they called their movement Aadaraye Aragalaya. I suppose it is inevitable; nirpakshika and nirprachanda leads naturally to the peculiar ethos of Aragalaya; an ethos of love, peace, friendship and brotherhood.

Aragalaya led by the new generation revealed what is truly necessary for democracy. It was democratic as it never had a clear leader. All were welcome to come forward and share their opinion. Various individuals were spokespersons for it but Aragalaya went on, a common project of the people. Everybody shared equal responsibility for the spontaneous project, in such a way that all were leaders. Aragalaya formed free citizens fit for true democracy. And this is the best antidote to the 3P autocrats. Democracy, not just in name but in practice, is possible in Sri Lanka. The good news of Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraye Prajatantravadaya must be spread island wide. This is the foundation for the system change we are looking for. And this is what frightens the enemies of Aragalaya, Ali Baba and the 225 thieves. They know their evil system is in its death throes. With PTA, emergency, suppression, new alliances, new parties, fake news and all kinds of crooked deals they are fighting for their survival. They will be vanquished.

Let us keep in mind; the price of sweet freedom is the hard work of eternal vigilance or a sort of permanent Aragalaya.

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