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No light yet at tunnel’s end



Whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to hang on to the executive presidency he won comfortably in a free and fair election in 2019 or not remains an open question. The ‘Gota go home’ pressure is mounting by the day and whether or not the proportions it is expected to reach over the weekend, after this comment has been written, will force the president to throw in the towel remains to be seen. But the whole country must clearly understand that Gota going home is not going to end the deep financial distress now gripping this country. Sri Lanka, in this past week, has been privy to the opinions of many of its 225 legislators on what is happening in the country, and what needs to be done. It what was almost like a committee stage discussion in a budget debate but with a lot of thunder and lightening thrown in. Almost all MPs had their individual say but there is little light emerging at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Tarzie Vitachchi, one of this country’s best known journalists, in the days after he retired from writing his famed Flybynight column in the Sunday Observer and joined the UN system as an international civil servant, would often talk of events and processes. He urged that events, that grab the day’s headlines, are always preceded by processes that take time to unwind. He would urge journalists to analyze the processes without being only focused on the events. We are now treated to many of these process analyses going back to the time we won – or was granted – our independence from the British. It is claimed that the failure of the political class post-1948 is what has landed us in the current mess. There are many who hark back to the good old days when everything was tickety boo with leaders of quality and integrity as opposed to the riff-raff we live with today. Be that as it may, there will be little debate that it is the political class, rather than the people as a whole, who benefited most from independence.

Going back to events and processes, many will agree that among such Rajapaksa clansmanship stands out like the proverbial sore thumbs. Few countries could claim to have three siblings and a scion as members of a single cabinet headed by a fourth sibling. Given the sundry other members scattered in the political space and have held coveted offices elsewhere in government, there is little surprise that the demand that the whole lot should go has risen to the present crescendo. But let us not forget that the UNP was called the Uncle Nephew Party in the early post-independence years for very good reason and dynastic political projects were afoot from the time of D.S. Senanayake.

Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa must probably be glad that he was born into a large family. But does this country deserve as many Rajapaksas as we have in the corridors of power. President Gotabaya briefly took a seat next to his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda in the legislative chamber a couple of days ago to be seen but not heard. But there are stories afloat, whether right or wrong we do not know, that cracks have appeared in the upper echelons of the ruling clan as the legitimacy of the much touted 6.9 million votes and the two thirds majority is in clear decline if not altogether gone. That is very obvious to all with eyes to see and ears to hear. The president has said nothing about resigning although his proxy in the legislature, Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando, rather than his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has categorically stated he will not resign. All that the back to the wall president who has been imploring for a national government/interim administration these past several days has said is: Let anybody show me 113 (over half the 225-member legislature) and I will call upon that group to form the government.

We had a little positive news during the past few tumultuous days when former Central Bank Senior Deputy Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe, who was in Australia (whether as visitor, migrant or any other basis we do not know) agreed to the president’s request to accept the position he was previously denied. He has returned to the country and has been appointed to the job. We’ve also got a new Secretary to the Finance Ministry, also from the Central Bank hierarchy, but no Finance Minister since Mr. Ali Sabry’s remarkably short tenure. What the former justice minister told Parliament on Friday – on what constitutional/legal basis is unclear – is that he is compelled to remain minister as there is no other taker!

Whether a president who not long ago tried hard to keep his cabinet within reasonable limits, fending off clamorous supplicants staking claims for office, plans to gift the country its smallest ever cabinet of all time remains to be seen. He seems to be keeping the positions open in the desperate hope of attaining the national/interim government he desires. Most probably he sincerely believes this is what the country now desperately needs. But it is abundantly clear that there will be no takers in the current political and economic deadlock.

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Trickery and duplicity



Wednesday 17th August, 2022

The SLPP MPs are said to be divided on provision in the 22nd constitutional amendment Bill for the dissolution by the President of Parliament two and a half years after the formation of a government. The ruling party MPs loyal to the Rajapaksas are reportedly demanding that the constitutionally prescribed period be extended to four and a half years, but the dissident SLPP MPs and the Opposition are said to be convinced otherwise; they reportedly favour the current time limit.

Adversity or expediency may make strange bedfellows but they do not necessarily trust one another in cloak-and-dagger politics. They see more devils than vast hell can hold, and are ready to sink their poniards in each other’s back if they feel that is the way they could protect their interests. What happened during the now infamous Yahapalanaya may serve as an example.

The political marriage of convenience between the SLFP and the UNP in 2015 brought a group of highly ambitious politicians together but these elements were suspicious of one another and had their long knives at the ready and put them to good use three years later. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, who won the 2015 presidential race with the help of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, sacked the latter as the Prime Minister and appointed their mutual enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa to that post in a bid to appoint an SLFP-led government at the expense of the UNP.

Sirisena went so far as to dissolve Parliament only to have his executive order quashed by the Supreme Court. He made that deplorable move because he felt that the UNP was undermining him politically.

The SLPP, which made Wickremesinghe the President, seems to fear that he might do a Sirisena in case he falls out with the Rajapaksas.

The 20th Amendment has strengthened the executive presidency, and President Wickremesinghe is far more powerful than President Sirisena was during the Yahapalana government. Ironically, most of the SLPP MPs who voted en bloc for the 20th Amendment, enabling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament after the expiration of two and a half years of its life, are all out to prevent President Wickremesinghe from doing so!

The Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe the President to keep him on a string and have caused the Sword of Medamulna to hang from a saataka over his head. They will not be able to control the President if he can dissolve Parliament, for he will not hesitate to leverage this power in case of the SLPP trying to undermine him. He will be able to use of the ruling party MPs’ fear of Parliament being dissolved to make them fall in line: most SLPP lawmakers know that their chances of re-election are remote.

The only way to prevent the President from exercising his or her power to dissolve Parliament is to move an impeachment motion against him or her. But it is highly unlikely that the SLPP will resort to such a course of action: it has lost its two-thirds majority in the House. Having witnessed the disastrous situation during the latter stages of the Yahapalana government, especially the neglect of national security and the resultant Easter Sunday carnage, one can only hope that the Executive and the ruling party will not be at loggerheads again.

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Heroes and villains



Tuesday 16th August, 2022

The government has delisted some expatriate Tamil groups considered sympathetic to the LTTE’s cause, and drawn heavy flak from a section of the ruling SLPP and the nationalistic organisations that backed it to the hilt at the past several elections. The SLPP leadership has chosen to remain silent on the issue, and it will be interesting to know its stance on the delisting of the Tamil groups that it once demonised. It made Ranil Wickremesinghe the President to do its bidding. Is the tail now wagging the dog?

Why were the aforesaid Tamil organisations banned? Have the factors that led to their proscription ceased to be, over the past few years, for them to be delisted under the present dispensation, which is an extension of the Rajapaksa rule in all but name? If not, what has prompted the government to delist them, and doesn’t its action amount to an admission that those outfits were wrongfully proscribed, or it has acted out of expediency rather than principle or any concern for the national interest, which it claims to protect?

It was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) that initiated action to proscribe some expatriate Tamil groups, claiming that they posed a threat to national security. The SLPP led by the Rajapaksas campaigned on a national security platform at the presidential election (2019) and the parliamentary polls (2020) and secured huge popular mandates to govern the country in keeping with its national security strategy among other things. Does the SLPP think the delisting of the Tamil groups at issue is consistent with its mandates, on the basis of which it continues to rule the country?

The SLPP, which elected President Wickremesinghe, with whose blessings the delisting in question has been effected, owes an explanation to the public.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who represents the nationalistic forces that made the SLPP’s victory possible and are full of praise for President Wickremesinghe for having got tough with the Galle Face protesters and stood up to the Colombo-based western diplomats, to the government’s volte-face on the proscription of the pro-Eelam groups.

Needless to say, when a government does exactly the opposite of what it promises in its election manifesto, for which it obtains popular support, its mandate becomes delegitimised. The key pledges in SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy programme presented to the people and what the government is doing at present are like chalk and cheese, to say the least. One is reminded of a ruse in days of yore; some men, on their wedding days, much to their surprise, found that their brides were the elder sisters of the pretty women they had agreed to marry! Something similar has happened to the Sri Lankans who voted for Gotabaya; they have got Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President courtesy of the SLPP!

The leaders and members of the Tamil expatriate groups that have been delisted will now be able to visit this country. But war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya, who became the President, has fled the country and is in self-exile. President Wickremesinghe has gone on record saying that he does not think the time is opportune for Gotabaya to return home. Speculation is rife that some former LTTE members in detention will be released as part of a political deal the government has cut with the TNA. If the government carries out its pledge to the TNA, those ex-Tigers will walk free. Is it that Gotabaya, as the President, did something far worse than unleashing or supporting terrorism? All the SLPP politicians who were also responsible for bankrupting the country are still in the incumbent government, and some of them are Cabinet ministers although most of them should be behind bars. So much for the change the Aragalaya has brought about!

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To dock or not to dock



Monday 15th August, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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