There is no escaping the reality that the Thursday night Pangiriwatte Mawatha protests near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Mirihana home was an outpouring of mass anger at the hardships the people are bearing at present. The poor, as always, are the worst hit but others too are at the end of their tether coping with gas queues, fuel queues, unavailable essentials and prices of everyday needs rising to hitherto unknown levels. Businesses without export cushions are in deep distress. Many small businesses have shut down altogether. Banks are unable to provide hard currency even for most essential imports and no light is visible at the end of a long dark tunnel. Where it is going to end is anybody’s guess. Regime change is not going to be any kind of quick fix with many convinced that successors are going to be no better than incumbents.
Many of the protests, catalyzed by despair, are spontaneous. But political elements looking at seizing opportunities cannot be discounted altogether. Today, April 3, has been picked for countrywide protests and how far they will spread and how effective they will be remains to be seen; so also the response of the regime. The police curfew imposed on several parts of the city and suburbs on Thursday night could well have been an effort to prevent the swelling of numbers at Mirihana especially after what began peacefully took an ugly turn with stones thrown and a vehicle used as a roadblock set ablaze. Doubtlessly middle class, educated protesters who are mostly apolitical feel that they owe both themselves and their country the duty of registering their dissatisfaction at the manner in which the country is being misruled.
Kumar David, our regular columnist, who wrote a recent column in the Colombo Telegraph has claimed authorship of the ‘Go Gota Go’ slogan and its various renditions and juxtapositions. He says he is happy to have been the source of the slogan, but the way things are moving is more serious than anyone’s authorship. There was another protest outside the president’s private home a few weeks earlier and this protest, middle class and female oriented, was attributed to ex-MP Hirunika Premachandra. A retaliatory demonstration outside her home followed. Very many small candlelit protests where participants carried placards in both English and Sinhala have been part of the everyday scene recently. Voice cuts from protesters, in both languages, have been aired on national television indicating a middle class presence in the demonstrations. Some arrests have been made and journalists covering the protests claim to have been roughed up by the police with photos of a few of the injured lying on hospital beds published.
Demonstrators participating in the various protests must not be unmindful of the possibility of goon elements infiltrating them for obvious reasons. Given the turn the Mirihana protest, which began peacefully enough but later turned violent, took with the arrival of a motorcycle squad wearing full face helmets has its own message. The use of tear gas too may have been provocative but middle class protesters do not resort to violence as goons do – even retaliatory violence. The intention may well have been at attempt to suggest that protests mean violence and therefore there should be a clamp down on all protests. There was an attack on an earlier JVP protest where rotten eggs were thrown. One miscreant was arrested and allegations made that he belonged to a regime supporting paramilitary outfit was widely made. But, as in many similar cases, investigations have been dragging on without conclusion. Such tactics are commonly used by state agencies for their own purposes and resort to them cannot be discounted in the present context.
Today’s economic crunch is largely due to the hard currency shortage that has been long building up. Responsible advice that debt repayments be re-negotiated at least as far as the last sovereign bond settlement was concerned was totally ignored. The government has been trying to pass off much or our current difficulties to the covid pandemic which forced lock downs and restrictions. But it has been clearly pointed out that at least in the region we have done much worse than our more severely affected neighbours. Bangladesh which Henry Kissinger once labeled as an “international basket case” is doing very nicely we have had to resort to currency swap arrangements with that country to tide over our difficulties.
There is no need to labor the fact that we have for long lived way beyond our means. Two of our major problems are a highly overloaded public service and an outsized military. No serious effort has been made to trim these behemoths to realistic proportions. The last budget announced a freeze on public sector recruitment but this is merely scratching the surface of the problem. Our armed forces grew to their present size as a result of the civil war. But no effort was made to downsize the military after the war ended. On the contrary our defence budget keeps increasing annually.
As in the years before the war, we have to think of our military primarily as an internal security force supplementing the police. We cannot ever hope to repel a foreign aggressor as clearly demonstrated when India engaged in the infamous parippu drop at the time we might have ended the war at Vadamarachchi. The SLAF was no match for Mirage fighter jets escorting Hercules transport aircraft carrying food supplies for what was falsely alleged to be a starving population. So let us be realistic in our defence spending without blasting the few resources we have on an unnecessarily large peacetime military.
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.
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!
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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