by Uditha Devapriya
Sri Lanka’s Central Bank will be settling a USD 500 million bond the day after tomorrow. Earlier this month, Ajith Nivard Cabraal tweeted that the Bank had set aside the required amount from its foreign reserves, reiterating the country’s commitment to honouring its debt obligations. Perhaps in response to this development, bondholders appear to have regained confidence about our prospects: latest figures show that bond market prices are converging with face value, though this may well be a temporary gain.
The January 18 settlement is the first of two that will have to be made to our International Sovereign Bond (ISB) holders this year. The second, amounting to USD one billion, is due on July 25. The Central Bank’s strategy is one of doubling down on these debt obligations while renegotiating loans from other governments. This strategy isn’t as muddled up as it is made to be by its critics: unlike governments, ISB holders don’t negotiate, and if they are asked to, it’s usually on the eve of a default or severe economic crisis.
In strategising a way out, then, the Central Bank has identified its priorities: it will pay up on its ISB commitments and devote foreign exchange to little else.
It’s difficult to predict how that will affect our foreign relations in the longer term. The country is presently governed by a party that promised never to sell or lease out its assets. Yet, today, officials are travelling everywhere, negotiating with this government and that, hoping for more lifelines. We have clearly exhausted other options: we can’t raise anything from bond auctions, and we are rejecting the IMF line. Since governments are easier to talk with, we are hence talking with as many of them as possible. It’s doubtful whether this is the only option available, but it’s probably the best shot we can give.
In giving that shot, however, are we exposing ourselves to the pressures of regional and extra-regional power pressures? Consider the countries we have gone to so far: Oman, China, and India. Negotiations with India have been successful, with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar stating that Delhi is ready to stand with Sri Lanka. Though his government has remained quiet over requests for credit lines, these may well come our way.
On the other hand, Beijing has responded to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s call to Foreign Minister Wang Yi to restructure its debts, with Cabraal declaring that a new loan is on the blocks. As for Oman, though negotiations have stalled over requests to explore the Mannar Oil Basin in return for interest-free credit, this too is a window that remains open.
These developments are, all things considered, intriguing. In the face of the worst global health crisis in over a century, our foreign policy has taken a massive beating. The fertiliser imbroglio with China and the withdrawal of Chinese projects from the North over alleged Indian pressure, as well as the visit of the Chinese Ambassador to the North, are cases in point here. All these point to an increasingly complicated foreign policy front. The question is, will the country’s foreign exchange problems complicate it even more?
Perhaps more so than the 1970s, when it faced a severe balance of payments crisis, Sri Lanka is gradually giving way to a foreign policy dictated by depleting foreign reserves. The administration’s dismissal of W. D. Lakshman and appointment of Cabraal, in that regard, accompanied a shift of focus, during the fourth quarter of last year, to the country’s foreign exchange situation. This has spilled over to our external relations.
Here the Central Bank has had to reckon with a contradiction: between its insistence on not going to the IMF and its assurances about meeting ISB obligations. Though it’s debatable whether the Bank has addressed, let alone resolved, that contradiction, it’s clearly making use of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to pay bondholders their due.
For their part, economic experts have shifted in their response to what the government is doing. While earlier they warned about impending defaults, now many of them have turned to questioning the current policy of repaying bondholders no matter what.
Nishan de Mel of Verité Research, for instance, points out correctly that defaulting is not the same thing as declaring bankruptcy. Suggesting that the former is preferable, he contends that the government should do what it can to renegotiate its debts. On the other hand, as Dushni Weerakoon of the IPS rightly observes, restructuring debt may be easy for a country with a reputation for defaults, like Ecuador, but it is unviable, lengthy, and costly, at least in the short and medium term, for a country like Sri Lanka.
What of the IMF line? It’s obvious that Sri Lanka can no longer negotiate for more breathing space from the IMF without conditionalities being imposed on it. The only way it can obtain such space, in other words, is by succumbing to those conditionalities.
Now, defenders of the IMF line may argue, justifiably, that there’s no give without take, and that if we go to that body we will have to eat humble pie, gratefully. But the question to ask here is, who are we asking to take on these burdens? Who are we asking to endure more of the same? Have IMF advocates considered these problems?
The IMF is not a charity: it has provided financial assistance to almost 90 countries on condition that fiscal discipline be enforced in the long term. If we go down that road, we will need to give back something, like public sector retrenchment and fuel price formulas. These have generated enough backlashes elsewhere. Are we ready to risk them here?
So long as the government fears an uprising from the people, it will not choose the IMF line. To say this is not to defend the powers that be. They have contributed to the mess we are in. But to admit to that is not to deny that, whatever that mess may be, to opt for structural adjustment, when social pressures are peaking, would be politically inadvisable.
That is why Basil Rajapaksa’s billion rupee economic relief package, tabled earlier this month despite much criticism, is intriguing: among other things, it promises a LKR 5,000 allowance to 1.5 million government workers, pensioners, and disabled soldiers. Its underlying thrust is not less money, but more: not spending cuts, but spending hikes.
The urban and suburban middle-classes have responded to the package with characteristic ambivalence. While demanding for relief from the government, they are also questioning the efficacy of printing money. What they have failed to realise is that that printing money is the only resort the government has to grant the kind of relief being demanded. It’s a classic either/or scenario: you get the relief with printed money, or you don’t.
Though economists don’t spell it out exactly in these terms, they do observe that printing money can only lead to greater inflation, implying that the only alternative is to stop doing so. But what are the socio-political costs of such measures? What are the knock-on effects they will have on economic relief for the masses? To ask these questions is not to split hairs, but to raise valid concerns that have not been addressed by the other side.
That is not to say that the government’s measures have been farsighted. They have not. Though Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) policies, which the regime is advocating, may get us space in the short term, it is not the type of reform we should be enacting in the longer term. The policies we need require radical reform and radical action. However viable it may be, printing money should not be considered a substitute for such reform.
To suggest one option, one of Sri Lanka’s most brilliant economists, Howard Nicholas, has advised that we industrialise, noting that the historical record has been better for countries which opted to do so. The example of Vietnam shows how even a sector like textiles can be used to propel industrialisation. That is an example Sri Lanka under Ranasinghe Premadasa followed, at least according to Dr Nicholas, but it is one we have since abandoned, in favour of orthodox prescriptions of fiscal consolidation and untrammelled privatisation.
Sri Lanka needs to consider these options without caving into stopgap measures and orthodox alternatives. How do we do that? As Dayan Jayatilleka suggested some time ago, we should convene an economic roundtable. Such a roundtable will likely prevent economic discussions from becoming a monopoly of elites, thereby helping the government, and the opposition, to align the interests of the economy with the interests of the masses.
This has been a long time coming. Both the government and the opposition have tended to view economic priorities as distinct from other socio-political concerns. Yet the two remain very much interlinked. In that sense, caving into economic orthodoxy while ignoring social reality would be detrimental to the future of the country and the plight of its people. To this end, we need to think of alternatives, and fast. But have we, and are we?
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
The future of the aragalaya
By Uditha Devapriya
Lenin once remarked that there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen. Much more than a decade passed last week at Galle Face. Beginning with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desperate and disastrous attempt at retaining his premiership, events began to cascade, one after another. Praised by everyone, locally and internationally, for their peaceful veneer, the Galle Face protests turned sour when Rajapaksist goons started vandalising the protest site and beating up protesters. As expected, the retaliation was swift and severe: although no one was killed at the protest sites, around eight people ended up dead elsewhere, a sad finale to an otherwise peaceful display of dissent.
This flow of events may or may not have convinced the Rajapaksas that they can no longer call the shots as they once did, but it compelled the elder brother’s resignation as Prime Minister. The main thrust of these protests remains, however: Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go home. Yet caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Scylla of resistance to his rule and the Charybdis of retribution following his resignation, Rajapaksa has opted for the safer option, appointing a Prime Minister and an interim administration while remaining as President. How different political formations have responded to these developments tells us much about the rut that Sri Lanka’s Opposition is currently in.
The mob-led violence earlier last week proved two things. Firstly, though middle-class protesters may have the patience to hold peaceful protests, the lower classes – urban and rural – will not tolerate political chicanery anymore. That neither police officers nor soldiers could handle the situation on Monday night should tell us that the situation has got out of control. Secondly, the Rajapaksas can remain oblivious to these developments at the cost of not just the country’s, but also their own future. This is why it is more than likely that the Rajapaksas will not enact the anti-climactic theatrics Mahinda engaged with on Sunday and Monday, again. People have reached their limit, and the First Family knows it.
The brief turnaround from a peaceful to a violent momentum at Galle Face signalled another, more paradigmatic shift among political parties. SJB MPs and UNP activists have, for quite a while now, been accusing the Galle Face protests of being manipulated by the JVP-NPP and the FSP. What happened on Monday has more or less hardened their stance: while not completely opposing the demonstrations, these MPs and supporters have been criticising the JVP-NPP-FSP’s involvement in them. Such a state of affairs came about after Sajith Premadasa’s attempt to enter Gotagogama on Monday was rebuffed.
Since this incident, social media has been rife with speculation about the real hands behind these protests. From the SJB’s and UNP’s perspective, the protesters are as much against their parties as they are against the Rajapaksas. At the same time, they see them as being lenient or soft on the New Left. Very naturally, the SJB and the UNP view this difference in treatment hostilely, claiming that the protests have been hijacked by certain political parties and are harbouring insidious agendas against certain others.
Is the SJB-UNP correct here? To an extent, yes. But we need to be clear on a few things. Firstly, if the protests have been infiltrated by the New Left, it is because outfits like the Inter University Students’ Federation have become active participants. The IUSF does not enjoy the support of the UNP or the SJB, nor does it endorse their politics. The IUSF is aligned with the FSP, more than with the JVP, and it identifies with an activist Left. As far as the Galle Face protests go, neither the SJB nor the UNP can up their ante here.
Secondly, though the protests themselves remain leaderless, economic conditions have radicalised the middle-classes, including the Colombo middle-classes. What this means is that while they may have ridiculed student groups like the IUSF earlier, as they actually did when the latter organised demonstrations against SAITM in 2016, now the middle-classes sympathise with the likes of Wasantha Mudalige, the IUSF’s convenor. They have expressed solidarity with trade unions also, the latter of which have, in response these turnarounds, changed their strategies: whereas before, unions from institutions like the Ceylon Electricity Board went for all-out strikes, disrupting public services, now they are refraining from such action, claiming it would disrupt the protesters and their access to social media.
My private university student friend who declared, on Facebook, and in response to the growing solidarity between private and public university students over Gotagogama, that class is a convenient construct, and that the fight was always against political elites, may have got his reading of the situation wrong, but it testifies to how middle-class perceptions about Left politics and activism have changed. That is not to say that the Galle Face Protests are revolutionary in the classical Marxist sense: led primarily by a middle-class, it has more or less endorsed peaceful tactics over more violent strategies. But there is a definitive Left veneer to the protests. Whether the SJB and UNP likes it or not, therefore, the protests will continue to be dominated by groups identifying themselves with the Left.
To be sure, this does not shield the protests and the Left groups and parties themselves from criticism. On the one hand, as far as the JVP-NPP and FSP are concerned, one criticism that’s often dished out is that such parties milk our collective animus against politicians: this explains the “225 Ma Epa!” sloganeering of the New Left. The anti-corruption narrative of the JVP-NPP and FSP is that all politicians are equally bad and that if there is to be change, they must all leave. To say the least, this line is impractical and counterproductive. It can only be promoted by parties that don’t have a significant parliamentary presence: the JVP’s much derided three percent, for instance. The same goes for student groups: they too tout the “225 Ma Epa!” line, persistently advocating a so-called “system change.”
On the other hand, SJB MPs and UNP supporters may be grumbling about the Galle Face demonstrations turning against them, but they have a point. Engagement with all political parties, whatever their ideology, is essential to any real uprising. The JVP-NPP has always, since time immemorial, or at least since they left the Chandrika Bandaranaike government, held against engaging with other parties. This holier-than-thou attitude, which has infected Left student groups also, has turned supporters and activists away from the idea of politics itself. What parties that advocate this line forget is that no mass uprising will hold for long if it doesn’t engage productively with other political alliances.
At the same time, the protesters must come up with a programme that is at once reformist and radical. The UNP and the SJB have always been associated with right-wing politics and policies: they are for the IMF, for instance. It would be a mistake to assume that the likes of the IUSF, and the JVP-NPP and FSP, will extend their support to IMF austerity in the longer term. To be sure, it is difficult to think of an alternative to IMF reforms now, but it is possible to negotiate the level of austerity we will have to impose on ourselves.
Now the UNP and SJB may be adamant, orthodox neoliberals as far as these reforms go. But they should realise that the crisis we are seeing through today extends beyond Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit from politics. This is why the Left must engage with these concerns, while interacting in a spirit of goodwill and constructive critique with other parties.
The lesson from the protests that unfolded in Lebanon and at Tahrir Square in Egypt was that unless every social element of a mass scale uprising gets together, an aragalaya will gradually run the risk of dying down. The Lebanese protests were divided between a social democratic and a radical left wing, though the two often joined forces. The same went for the Tahrir Square protests. That these protests were aimed at, and against, unpopular and authoritarian governments, did not necessarily blind the protesters to the need for a radical social programme which went beyond the toppling of such governments. Yet without a clear sense of direction and focus, they soon ran out of steam.
The issue with the Galle Face protests is that they too seem to lack direction and focus. The underlying message of the protests is simple: Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go. But protesters must also engage practically with other issues, turning the aragalaya in a more progressive direction. One way the protests have become progressive is through the intervention of left-wing groups. Right-wing Opposition parties, in particular the UNP, may feel threatened by left-wing intervention in an anti-government uprising. Yet such parties must realise that in the present moment, only a radical programme can and will set things right. These parties should hence look at themselves in the mirror, and adjust accordingly.
The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE CLEAR & PRESENT EXISTENTIAL DANGER TO THE STATE
Dr. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
We are sitting on a massive, active, rumbling volcano which will explode soon. What we saw on May 9th was the first spewing of lava.
The causes are quite well-known and must be addressed but the most pressing threat is that the combination of unprecedented material hardship, perception of privilege, understandable rage and the determined anarchism of ultra-left forces will soon trigger a tsunami of a violent uprising which will overwhelm the state, the economy and society.
Given the background of the organized drivers of the violent anarchy, and their vengeful memories, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces will also be in danger if the wave overruns the system.
Certainly, we have faced such challenges before, in 1971, 1987-1989 and the 30-years-war. We came through, prevailed. However, we cannot rely on the same outcome this time because of at least three reasons.
Firstly, as Leon Trotsky said “the crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of leadership”. Sri Lankan democracy does not have the quality of leadership we had during those crises and conflicts. In 1988 we had two alternatives, both of them impressive: Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa. During the war we had Mahinda Rajapaksa who in 2005-2009 was unrecognizably different from what he became 10 years later.
Secondly, in 1971, 1988 and 2005, we had dramatic democratic change in the form of new governments, new leaderships. The JVP had begun arming during the UNP administration of 1965-1970 but when it went into action it faced a very different government which had been elected a year before. In 1988-89 Premadasa had taken over from JR Jayewardene. As Prabhakaran prepared for the ‘final war’, in 2005, Mahinda had taken over from Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Thirdly we have a crisis of ethics and morality; of combative spirit in defence of democracy. The fact that ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has yet to publicly denounce the mob attack on Kumara Welgama, her supporter, SLFP veteran and the first public denouncer of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was allegedly stripped, beaten and sought to be burnt alive, is emblematic of the collapse of moral leadership in the democratic space.
There has been no expression of regret or condemnation by the Aragalaya leaders or those of pro-Aragalaya parties on the attack with murderous intent on Welgama or the assault of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa at Galle Face Green.
How can this country avoid plunging into a post-apocalyptic anarchy in the coming weeks and months, because the lethally violent wave of May 9th has receded like a tsunami wave, only to roar in again, not entirely spontaneously, this time in its deepest-reaching and most conclusively destructive surge?
We have to learn the lessons of the past and apply them. If the UNP had stayed on in 1970 instead of the shift to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, if JR Jayewardene had stayed on in 1988 instead of the shift to Premadasa; in short if the profile of the leadership of the democratic system had not changed, the system would have been overrun by the forces of ultra left anarchy. If the leadership had not changed and we had faced Prabhakaran’s Final War with Chandrika as president instead of Mahinda as leader and General Sarath Fonseka (who she had marginalized) as Army chief, we would have lost the war.
Today, the choice is either the continued Presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the survival of the democratic system. Either he goes, or he and the Parliament will go, together with the democratic system, the market economy and society itself. Simply put, either Gota goes or the entire democratic order– social, political and economic—goes. And goes up quite literally in flames, this time with the factories, shops, offices, and the inhabitants of the houses of those perceived as more affluent in every neighborhood.
So, how to toss Gota overboard in a manner that doesn’t get rid of all that is best about our democratic system?
The history of global politics and indeed life itself, teaches that not every desirable and legitimate goal can be achieved in one go. But that does not mean that the first step is not to be taken so as to swiftly complete the journey or that an all-or-nothing leap is better than a measured series of brisk steps.
In 1988-89, there was no way to stabilize the situation without removing the main growth factor of the unrest. That was the presence of the IPKF. It didn’t cause the uprising but it was the fuel or accelerant that gave the uprising a national cause.
The deeper socioeconomic causes of the uprising could be addressed by Janasaviya, the 200 garment factories program etc., only after the main plank of the platform of the uprising had been removed.
Similarly, the coming uprising cannot be prevented or rolled back without removing the main plank of its platform: the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency.
Since he is not leaving, how can one throw him out without leaving the task to the tender mercies of a lethally violent uprising? I suggest a three-step strategy, the first step of which can be taken right now, or next week.
1. The 21st amendment: Time is of the essence so the trap must be avoided of going for the full package of the abolition of the executive presidency because that will be a protracted process and may not even secure the support of the SLFP, let alone the SLPP. Do not overshoot the mark. Even the SLPP will be loathe to vote for the continuation of the 20th amendment. Therefore, give the 21st amendment a haircut, so it contains only that which can obtain a 2/3rds in parliament while avoiding a Referendum. Rush it through. Once that happens, Gotabaya and indeed any President loses his/her grip on the state machine. The desirability of this option is not merely tactical, because the frame of the executive presidency is needed for decision-making in the face of imminent anarchy.
2. Elections, the Magic Bullet: Elections have always saved us. The dreadful economic situation of 1970-77 was quickly turned around with the general election of 1977 and the opening up of the economy. With two civil wars raging, transformers exploded and an acute foreign exchange crisis, we held provincial, presidential and parliamentary elections in 1988-89. That was the portal for the country’s recovery. Today there must be an agreement on the self-dissolution of parliament before crazed, anarchic mobs set fire to the parliament with its MPs blockaded inside it.
3. All-parties or multi-party government: The PM has no mass base or political base in parliament. Domestically he brings nothing to the table because he cannot. He has no political real-estate. Either the Leader of the Opposition and the main Opposition party must be invited to take over immediately or there must be an all-parties government after snap elections, well within the year. It is only such a government that can re-brand Sri Lanka and reach out in all directions to the world for support.
Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister
by Uditha Devapriya
“Churchill had only four members backing him in 1939. How did he become Prime Minister? Because of the crisis. I have done the same.”
— Ranil Wickremesinghe to a British journalist, after his appointment
The Constitution of Sri Lanka empowers the President to appoint as Prime Minister any MP who he feels musters the confidence of the parliament. Thus Maithripala Sirisena, instead of retaining an MP from the UPFA or SLFP, chose Ranil Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister in 2015, even though the UNP had less than 90 seats in the House. When the UNP won a majority in the general elections that year, the confidence Wickremesinghe mustered in the country’s legislature was as symbolic as it was tangible.
The 19th Amendment did away with much of the President’s powers. This included the power to appoint the Prime Minister. Thus, when Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa in October 2018, he had very little to back him up. He did the inevitable, which was to delay a vote in parliament. Eventually, when mounting pressures made him realise that such tactics would go nowhere, he appointed Wickremesinghe again, the third time in four years. In other words, his fortunes hinged on whether the Constitution permitted him to appoint a Prime Minister of his preference.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s choice of Prime Minister was obvious from the word go: his brother was always going to be his choice. Meanwhile, the 20th Amendment flattened the 19th Amendment, though without reviving the 18th. This brought all independent commissions under his purview, giving him sweeping powers of appointment and dismissal, including of the Prime Minister.
That is why it didn’t matter that Ranil Wickremesinghe was the sole MP of a party that had clinched barely 250,000 votes from the entire country. The power of the 20th Amendment was such that an unpopular President could appoint a sole sitting MP as Prime Minister, while securing the support and approval of the ruling party.
Appointed Prime Minister five times since 1993, Ranil Wickremesinghe now serves in that capacity for the sixth time under Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The irony there is almost delectable. The same man who the Rajapaksa camp derided as a traitor hostile to the national interest, in 2019, has been made the deputy in that camp.
Not too long ago he courted the love and admiration of Colombo’s upper middle-class liberals. He has since lost the respect he used to get from this class, but his base remains. In any case, in the minds of his detractors, even inside the nationalist camp, he has now turned into Sri Lanka’s last great hope.
The SJB MPs criticising Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s latest appointment have forgotten that they were once part of Wickremesinghe’s coterie, and that they entered politics through him and with his blessings. They were also, not too long ago, his biggest cheerleaders. While many of them supported Sajith Premadasa’s shot at the leadership of the UNP as far back as 2013, not all of them came out to oppose the real leader.
All this changed in 2019, when, after the November elections, the anti-Ranil faction summoned enough courage to inform him that they wanted the party to move in a new direction. Wickremesinghe, naturally, did not agree with their proposal. That is how the SJB came to be.
The SJB has always had a complex relationship with Wickremesinghe. When, after months of speculation, he decided to fill in the one slot the party won at the 2020 general election, an SJB MP tweeted rather positively, wishing him the best and hoping he would work for the country. Then another MP shot back, charging that the man was concerned only with his welfare and not the country’s.
Meanwhile, Harin Fernando’s exit from the SJB came in the wake of speculation that he would return to the UNP, after he made a stirring of statements critical of Premadasa. Exasperated by Premadasa’s dithering over the premiership (“asayi-bayayi”), Fernando struck at the 11th hour, leaving the party.
It’s hard to ascribe all these developments to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s machinations. But it is true that he has acquired a reputation for brokering the most impossible deals. In 2000 no one imagined that he would become Prime Minister a year later. Three years later, the then President had sacked him, setting off a cycle of appointment, dismissal, resignation, and re-appointment that continues to this date.
Wickremesinghe has a knack for the most unlikely comebacks. And this may be his greatest comeback: becoming Prime Minister, not under a UNP or SLFP president, but under a Rajapaksa, and Gotabaya at that.
Not a few people consider Wickremesinghe’s appointment a betrayal of the Galle Face mandate. They are not entirely wrong. The underlying message of the Gotagogama protests was, and will be, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s departure from the presidency. Wickremesinghe’s appointment does not help achieve this target, even if Rajapaksa did, in his address to the nation on Wednesday night, promise a rollback of the Executive Presidency through the re-introduction of the 19th Amendment.
Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe now serves as Prime Minister of an interim government tasked with the revival of the economy. The perception that he can achieve this is what has emboldened not a few protesters to praise the decision, and to admit that Rajapaksa’s choice is the only man to do it.
In other words, opinion over Ranil Wickremesinghe remains as heavily divided as ever. On the one hand, Wickremesinghe leads a bandwagon of supporters no less servile than the most stubborn and unyielding Rajapaksa loyalist. On the other hand, over the years, he has cultivated an image of himself as a doer and a thinker.
Not a few of his pronouncements during the last two years have come true. This, coupled with the SJB’s indecisiveness over the premiership, has made many anti-Rajapaksa activists endorse the decision, even if they think that Gotabaya should still go. For them, Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister is a small victory to be celebrated, though not at the cost of the wider objective.
In that sense, the protesters’ relationship with Wickremesinghe is as complex as the SJB’s relationship with the man. The Galle Face Green protests are as leaderless and rudderless as urban protests go. Though SJB MPs and UNP activists now accuse them of being led, if not manipulated, by the JVP-NPP and FSP, they represent different shades of political opinion and different political formations, from the UNP to the JVP.
Brought together by a common slogan – #GotaGoHome – the protesters are only beginning to wake up to the realities of party politics and ideological differences. Thus, in the same breath with which they could hail the protests as progressive, UNP and SJB allied supporters are now turning against the demonstrations, claiming that they are tilted heavily to the New Left.
Does this mean that Wickremesinghe’s appointment will split the movement? Perhaps. Not a few UNP and SJB activists believe that the protesters favour the JVP-NPP and FSP. When Sajith Premadasa tried to enter Gotagogama last Monday after pro-Rajapaksa goons began vandalising the site, he was physically rebuffed by the protesters.
This sparked off a series of tweets by an SJB MP who complained that while Anura Kumara Dissanayake could enter the ground without any problem, the SJB, despite being the main opposition, was not given the same courtesy or extended the same invitation. While many of these tweets, which even UNP activists make and share, border on conspiracy theories – inter alia, about the New Left destabilising the country – Wickremesinghe’s appointment, and Premadasa’s aspirations to the premiership, have distanced the SJB and UNP from the protests.
All this makes one wonder whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a pincer move with Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe enjoys a reputation that SJB MPs do not, even if that reputation is hardly of the kind a politician would want. He is associated with enough and more intrigues and deal-brokering: an asset to any President down on his luck. As deeply unpopular as he is, besides, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not devoid of options; in refusing Sajith Premadasa’s offer, he has signalled his readiness to work with a man his supporters would never, in their wildest dreams, have associated with him. This shows how desperate he is, but it also shows how hopeful he is about his latest arrangement.
US Ambassador Julie Chung congratulated Ranil Wickremesinghe immediately after his appointment, stating point-blank that his premiership is one of the first steps to restoring stability to the country. I know several protesters – of course barring the sort who admire Wickremesinghe – who’d beg to differ.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that Sri Lanka’s latest Prime Minister enjoys the confidence of the President, even if he doesn’t enjoy the confidence of the House. What deals Wickremesinghe can negotiate in the next few days will determine the country’s course over the next few months. Lenin once said that there are decades where nothing happens, and days where decades pass. We are living through those days. One can only wish everyone the best as we pass through them.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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