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President speaks again, Premadasa breaks silence again

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by Rajan Philips

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation last Wednesday, yet again in his just over two-year long presidency. The nation was briefly spared of power cuts for the nationally televised state-of-the-country speech. The speech was 15 minutes long, shorter than his earlier ones, and was also short of worthwhile specifics. There was nothing consequential in the speech except his decision to seek IMF’s help to tide over the economic and debt hurdles that is daunting the country. By then everyone knew the government was going to the IMF for help, except, apparently, Nivard Cabraal, the Governor of the Central Bank.

Accountants are not supposed to be ideological, but Mr. Cabraal has been fancying himself as Sri Lanka’s economic oracle and envisioning a non-IMF way out of the national financial mess, to which he substantially contributed. Now that the government is going to the IMF, where will the Governor go? Do an about turn and join the delegation for IMF talks, or join Vasudeva Nanayakkara and leave the government?

The decision to seek IMF’s help is already one year too late, just like the decision to artificially sustain the rupee from falling against the dollar. We now learn that since December 2019, the current government has “squandered as much as USD 5,500 mn trying to prevent the depreciation of Rupee,” (The Island lead story on March 15). But the President continues to insist: “This crisis was not created by me,” as he did again in his speech. The senior appointments he made, especially to the Monetary Board, and the directions he gave officials based on harebrained outside advice, have brought the country to its current pathetic pass.

Sri Lanka has had foreign exchange problems since the 1960s but there was never a time when the country was going to face a trade off, or a triage, as it could be called in the current medical parlance, between paying off debt and importing food for its people, poor and rich. The situation was by no means as dire even in November 2019, when GR become President, as it is now, in the second year of his first term in office. So, it is a bit rich for the President to now say that he did not create any of this.

It is like his government’s sweetheart highway contractors saying that they did not create the poor soil conditions where a new bridge has to be built! They may have a point if they were given the job without a tender!! The President has no excuse. He should have known what he was bargaining for when he signed up for the job – giving up one citizenship for another, accepting his family’s nomination to be the country’s president, obtaining favourable court rulings that his citizenship paperwork was all in order, and getting voted in – as he constantly reminds everyone – by 6.9 million citizens. Now that he is coming up short in measuring up to the challenges he himself has aggravated, he cannot throw up his arms and say – I did not create them.

Snappy Politics

There was someone else raising his arms for recognition in Colombo last week. It was Sajith Premadasa, the Leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the Leader of the Opposition in parliament. SP broke his periodical silence in front of the Presidential Secretariat the day before the President made his periodical speech. Carried away by the enthusiasm of his supporters protesting against the government, Mr. Premadasa called for “a snap presidential election with the consent of all political parties,” as the “only way out for the country.” The Leader of the Opposition should know his Constitution. There is no provision for a ‘snap presidential election,’ no matter how much consent there is among all political parties.

Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama has again written spelling out the constitutional provisions pertaining to the timing of presidential elections. It is a shame that after more than 40 years of the presidential system, senior political leaders including presidential aspirants are not familiar with the rules governing the timing of presidential and parliamentary elections. The next presidential election is due when Gotabaya Rajapaksa completes his five year term. He can call an election before his five year term is over only if he is running for office for a second term, not otherwise. Even then an earlier election can be called only after the expiry of four years from the last election in November 2019. That means there cannot be a presidential election, snappy or otherwise, before November 2023.

Similarly, the next parliamentary election is due after the five year term of the current parliament is over in August 2025. The President can dissolve Parliament before August 2025, but only after March 2023, thanks to the 19th Amendment. Under the same amendment, Parliament by resolution can request the President to dissolve parliament. But the SLPP is not going to support an early dissolution of parliament, nor is the President going to be in any hurry to dissolve parliament any time after March 2023. So, how is Sajith Premadasa, the SJB, the JVP or any other opposition party going to precipitate an early parliamentary election under the existing constitutional provisions?

Put another way, an opposition party calling for a snap election in 2022 is a vacuous bluster that is not going to trouble the government in any way, nor is it going to contribute to easing the real-time burdens of the people. In addition to calling for snap elections, Mr. Premadasa is also demanding the present government hand over power to SJB, because the SJB has “able people who could deal with the present economic crisis,” and that the SJB has lined up “three Middle Eastern nations (who) had already promised to provide oil at concessionary rates to a future SJB government.”

This kind of rhetoric was quite common before 1977 when the country was having a parliamentary system of government. There was to be even rice from the moon after the 1970 election. But frequent elections and government turnovers did not result in significant beneficial changes either immediately or in the long term. This was one of the reasons behind the advocacy for a presidential system. That (the presidential cure) has proven to be worse than whatever disease that was associated with the parliamentary system. Where do we go from here?

Empowering Parliament

The predicaments are many. It is virtually impossible under the current system to snap governments out of power and let an opposition party take power instantly. What is also unique to the current situation is that a government and a President who are not even halfway through their mandates have exhausted whatever little usefulness they ever had, and have become themselves burdens on the country. So, it is logical and compulsive for people to protest against the government, but political leaders, while they should be in the forefront of protests, should know better when they bluster about snap elections and power transfers which are never going to happen. They should use protests to empower parliament to play its constitutional role even under the presidential system.

Even the project of abolishing the presidential system that shaped and defined opposition politics from the day JRJ’s constitution came into force, would now seem to have run its course. Its high-point was the 2014-2015 presidential election campaign and the victory of the common-opposition abolition candidate, whose betrayal eventually became the low point of the abolition project. What was the determining dynamic in the 2014-15 election, is hardly an electoral issue now given the current basic needs and concerns of the people. The presidential system may eventually be drastically modified or substantially abolished, but that is not the top-of-mind issue for most people.

Again, it will be up to parliament to make it happen with or without a referendum. Not this parliament, may not be even the next parliament, but certainly a future parliament. It can be a routine shedding of the executive without unnecessary political hullabaloo. For now, the current parliament, although dominated by the SLPP majority, can and must play a positively aggressive role in identifying priorities and pressuring the Cabinet and the President to act on them until their intended outcomes are achieved.

In his speech, the President seemed emphatic when he said, “I urge the Cabinet, the Parliament and public officials to work together as a team to achieve our desired goal of providing a better country for our children with a great commitment.” How can the President urge parliament to work together with the government unless he is prepared to tolerate dissent within government and to reach out to opposition MPs and build consensus on actions that are urgently needed now?

Equally, if the opposition parties have ideas about possible solutions, why should they be not working towards building consensus within parliament and exerting pressure on the executive? If Sajith Premadasa has in his Party, as he claims, “able people who could deal with the present economic crisis,” and if the SJB has obtained promises from “three Middle Eastern nations … to provide oil at concessionary rates,” why cannot they be used now, through the current parliament? SP and the SJB can claim all the credit for doing so, and they will be duly rewarded at the next election whichever it might be and whenever it comes.

The protests are having their effects and they also seem to be forestalling the government’s alternative recourse to using its coercive powers. Even frequent speeches by the President are welcome, because, to modify what Jayaprakash Narayan, the doughty Indian fighter against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule, once said – political speeches can be means of escape from military action. So let there be more speeches by the President. Let him deliver them in Parliament, and stay around to listen to MPs criticize his speeches. That he will keep the Colonel away from his Generals. There are also growing external deterrents to internal repression, thanks, inadvertently, to Vladimir Putin.

The Russian President, when he embarked on his misadventure in Ukraine, may not have realized that his action will trigger a remaking of the world in quite the opposite way from he would have wanted it to be. There is now a new global weapon, the weapon of sanctions, that has transcended the earlier limits of state-to-state interactions and can be applied against anyone, anywhere, and not only by states but also by private citizens and corporations.

Freezing bank accounts that proved to be the ultimate tool in ending the trucker protest in Canada, has now become the common weapon against Russia. The International Criminal Court that few people took note of has become a forum of interest, inadvertently thanks to Putin. The positive and negative ramifications of these development may not be readily apparent now. But their relevance and power as a deterrent against authoritarianism cannot be mistaken. And the government of Sri Lanka cannot be unaware of it.



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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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