The President and Commander in Chief HE Gotabaya Rajapakse invited 186 of his old military comrades and their ladies for dinner at President’s House on Dec. 22, 2021. For a media that lives on gossip, this was manna.
A Sunday paper (not the Island) on 26 Dec reported the invitees numbered 1,050.The figure was specific. Many readers were, as expected, duped to believe it. Added on was that ‘drinks’ too were served as though that was news. No detailed description of the menu was given as has happened before for reasons that will be a revelation. Was it to show profligacy which was news? The Sunday Island of Dec. 2, 2021 had a news item by Dayan Jayatilleka that went one better. He increased the figure to a smarter 1,090. Those made a lie look like the truth. It was meant to be so. No questions were asked as to sources.
The Dec. 26 Sunday paper also had a dig at the organizers. Apparently a few had turned down the invitation. That was curious as the invitations were sent only to those who confirmed verbal enquiries as to their attendance. It may have been that after accepting the invitation a few old sweats, officers and gentlemen it is said they had been, were churlish enough to avoid attendance at the C in C’s dinner. Were they the same fellows, who being absent from the scene, did the counting of heads too?
Jayatilleka went further. He thought there was something odd if not sinister in the exercise. He believed 1,090 ‘senior military men, serving and retired’ attended. He asked readers not to continue reading if they did not believe that the invitations had been sent with some ulterior motive. The suggestion was that the dinner was not a ‘sociable, benign gesture of a year-end party’. It obviously worried him that good and normal men in SL would have thought differently and questioned the assumption.
To begin with his facts were absolutely cock eyed. The cooked figures he had been served (1,090) by someone who was possibly not at the dinner, clearly supported his fertile imagination. He probably thought a mere 186 officers at dinner would not be enough to invent a rollicking fairy tale.
The only serving officers present were the tri services commanders. With their spouses a round figure of 400 invitees could have been closer to the truth. All the others were veterans aged 70 years and above, some disabled. A few were 90 years old and were in wheel chairs.
Now what did Jayatilleka a former minister in the EPRLF that was a IPKF stooge that made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the late1990s, think the doddering old and but still bold 186 could have been up to? It certainly helped to propel his latest onslaughts on the fanciful ‘militarization’ of the nation. Was it also to mark up points with the West, just in case?
So how did the ‘gala’ dinner go? First of all male guests in smart casual (tie), and their ladies in sarees, arrived well in time as is the norm among servicemen. They were given antigen tests by a team of medics before gathering in the manicured garden where the military bands played some lively music.
Old comrades reminisced with their friends, many after decades and two years of Covid. Everyone was refreshingly relaxed. Many recalled long forgotten incidents, hilarious mishaps mostly, and extraordinary characters they served with. Many heroes were present but stories of daring and battle were not recounted here. The missing was not forgotten.
As at any military social function, not a word of politics was heard. No one pulled rank. When the C in C came and graciously mixed with his guests, all older than him, no one in the best of service traditions and etiquette forgot who he, the C in C, was. He knew and called all of them by their first names. He seemed as happy as his guests were, to meet simply as old comrades, exchange greetings and enjoy themselves. There were no speeches.
A splendid buffet dinner followed.
Here was the first old soldier who had become the elected President and C in C of SL. He was now among old friends. They all thanked and wished him and his lady the very best in the challenging year to come.
People who will never know what military comradeship is should not waste their time trying to question the motives of a C in C in inviting his old comrades to dinner. It was the first ever in SL history. There was nothing ‘gala’ either, as anyone who was inveigled by his ‘informant’ may have believed. Such people should try not to judge others by their standards, be mean and gullible and should not to circulate worn out tales or have recurring nightmares about ‘militarization’.
Old soldiers never die; they only fade away, even from the President’s House. God only knows what happens to mercenaries and tale carriers.
The daunting challenge before PM Ranil Wickremesinghe
by Gnana Moonesinghe
At long last the nation has a new prime minister who has a unique record of having been PM of the country five times in the past. The wealth of experience such a person must have will be invaluable in the present context.
There are some who are opposed to his appointment. They are of the opinion that since he is not an elected member of parliament, as he entered the House through the National List, he is not entitled to be made PM. Further, he being a single member representing his party in Parliament, his claim to lead the country is challenged once again. Another objection to his selection is that when the 21st Amendment to the constitution is implemented, he as PM will become the Chief Executive of the country over and above an elected incumbent for whom 6.3 million people voted.
The need of the hour is that a nation faced with a gigantic economic crisis which has left its citizen without basic essentials, which they are angrily demanding, be urgently addressed. The prime ministerial post was first offered to the leader of the Opposition who initially rejected it. But later, after it was offered to and accepted by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa agreed to accept it if certain conditions he placed were accepted.
Urgent action to make the economy viable and create tolerable living conditions for the people is essential. Protesters in their tens of thousands are demanding quick solutions. The urgency for action needs be recognized. This certainly is not the time for placing conditions for unity or for support.
There is no more cash to pay for essential imports and no longer is the nation held creditworthy. People are protesting about economic mismanagement and demanding the resignation of the President. He, however, is constitutionally entitled to stay in office expires until his term expires in two years.
In the meantime the elected Prime Minister has resigned in the face of widespread demand and as a result the cabinet stood dissolved. A new cabinet in now in place and, hopefully, the challenge of getting the economy back on track and making necessary systemic changes will be addressed.
The consensus among the people is for all groups in parliament to get together and find a resolution to the country’s crisis and the peoples’ plight. There is suspicion that Ranil had been chosen to cover up the misdeeds of the government. Much was expected during Ranil’s last tenure.
The people wanted the Rajapaksas charged with fraud and other misdemeanors but no action on this front was seen by the public. Hence the suspicion of cover-up. Many explanations have been offered for his inaction during his previous tenure. He now has to prove himself. Time will tell whether he will succeed.
This is however not a time for picking holes. It is for Ranil to deliver on our expectations of taking take the nation out of this crisis and bringing peace in society. By accepting the premiership he has given the promise of uniting the nation at a time when the nation was looking for a leader with the capacity to do so. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s experience holds promise.In his address to the nation he analyzed the government’s present predicament. A budget deficit of Rs 2.4 trillion, 11 % of GDP, cannot be wished away.He cannot present a rosy picture of quick recovery. Instead he presented our grim situation and said inflation will further increase. That is how dire the situation is.
Against his better judgment he is compelled to permit printing money to pay state employees and fund procurement of essential goods and services. The immediate future will be challenging but in the near future he expects our foreign allies to help us. But we will also have to tread a new path, he stresses.
A National Assembly has to be established or a political body where all parties will participate and take decisions for short, medium and long term plans to end this crisis within a specified time frame. Ranil hopes to build a contented nation where peoples needs are satisfied. The task is daunting but he promises to deliver with the support of the nation.He has presented the problems and the way to resolve them in the short term. He hopes to solve the problems with the support of friendly external allies . He did not minimize the problem in his analysis. In this context his reference to the budget deficit as 11% of GDP reveals the magnitude of the problem facing us.
I remember his calling for unity among the different political parties amid raucous shouting by parliamentarians during a recent parliamentary session. The seriousness of the situation has been demonstrated by the spontaneous reaction of a cross-section of our people protesting against corruption and bad governance inflicted upon us for many years.
That we must map our own strategy as agreed by the parliamentarians is evident. What may this be? Wickremesinghe says it has to be developed in consultation with all. The challenge is to work with all shades of opinion and come up with an action plan after wide ranging discussion. It is not one man’s job . The task before us belongs to all. Critics are not the need of the moment; problem solvers are. I think Ranil Wickremesinghe is a man who can meet this daunting challenge. He has accepted it and we wish him well.
The fall of the middle-class
By Uditha Devapriya
I distinctly remember one day in January 2020 when I felt I had everything I could want. I couldn’t explain the feeling; it just came up. I had resigned from work after three years, and was preparing for my higher studies, with hopes of going abroad.
That day three friends paid me a visit. We talked about the future. I pointed out we had nothing to lose. By “we”, I meant our generation: a generation which had come of age and left school around the time the war ended. We were now spending our way through life and saving very little of it. Our dreams remained the same: study hard, do a job, earn what you can, and spend what you will. This simple formula was what had pushed my generation on. My friends – younger than I – agreed that it would push them on as well.
We were supremely egotistical. We felt we could bend the world to our will. And to an extent, we did. We gorged on the latest consumables and luxuries, took cabs when earlier we took buses, and revelled in parties and outings. Education, for us, was a way of securing enough money to sustain this lifestyle. That is why we concentrated so hard on our A Levels and university exams: because it was our path out of poverty and misery.
Not surprisingly, we defined our status in terms of ownership: the latest phones, the fastest cars, the cleanest homes, the sexiest dresses. These remained our benchmarks.
We didn’t realise how fragile the ground beneath us was. We didn’t understand that our enjoyment of these luxuries depended on certain things. We called ourselves middle-class, even bragging about it to each other. Yet to remain middle-class, paradoxically, our lives had to be subsidised. Back then the minimum bus fare cost LKR 17. A litre of petrol cost LKR 117, and a kilometre in a metre taxi cost LKR 60. We failed to appreciate that to become who we were, these fares had to remain at those levels. And for them to remain at those levels, the government had to, in essence, absorb losses from lower prices.
We also failed to realise, I think, that the country’s economic model, which had sustained us for so long, could not sustain itself for too long. In the absence of an industrial base, or to be more specific an industrial ecosystem, the gap between what we wanted – which we had to pay for in dollars – and what we exported – which never brought in the dollars the country needed – could only widen. Successive governments made up for this deficit by borrowing. In other words, to subsidise the middle-class and their lifestyles, the country had to keep on running trade and budget deficits, and borrowing beyond its capacity.
It’s not that we didn’t understand this. Economists have been warning against Sri Lanka’s failure to industrialise for years. But we didn’t appreciate how steep borrowing, widening deficits, and diminishing export proceeds were financing our lifestyles. We didn’t realise, I think, that this couldn’t go on for much longer. A country aspiring for middle-class status, and had more or less achieved that status, had to extricate itself from what has been called the middle-income trap. To escape this trap, it had to start producing, and take the next step in manufacture. Yet the model we seemed content with was a rentier one: importing what we wanted, adding a profit mark-up, and reselling it to the local market.
This carnival of sorts began in 1977. It ended somewhere last April, when for the first time in its history and the first time in Asia in over a quarter-century, Sri Lanka announced that it would not service its foreign debts. It will now, for the 17th time or so, go to the IMF, only this time it will have to become debt sustainable. For a lot of Sri Lankans this seems like good news: we’ll be back on our feet and we can all go back to the way things were before COVID-19 and the wretched Rajapaksas. But some of us know better.
Sri Lanka’s middle-classes have always been vulnerable to external shocks. Yet until now, they were shielded from these shocks thanks to government intervention. The government kept the prices of essentials down, enabling the middle-classes to focus on other priorities. Since petrol and diesel were relatively affordable, they could prioritise buying vehicles and phones. So between 2011 and 2014 the country witnessed a tsunami of vehicle imports. The streets of Colombo flooded with SUVs and cabs. A JICA report, published during the second Mahinda Rajapaksa government, warned against rising vehicle numbers. But we didn’t care: since everything seemed within our reach, we wanted more.
We never thought of public infrastructure. We never thought of improving our public services. Yes, we built Expressways and Highways. But these, by themselves, were never enough. We never paid renewable energy the attention it deserved, for instance. Even at the height of the recent crisis several months ago, we witnessed CEB officials bemoaning the previous government’s decision to close a coal power plant. Now coal prices are on their way up and several countries, India included, are facing acute shortages, the worst in over 25 or so years. Meanwhile the sun keeps shining and the winds keep blowing. We’ve made use of neither. And officials who should be caring don’t seem to be.
Napoleon reportedly called Britain a nation of shopkeepers. He might as well have called Sri Lanka a nation of consumers. Joseph Stiglitz advised us to learn to produce and to learn to learn. This country has enough and more talent to take us forward there: it has the capacity, for instance, to produce electric vehicles. But such initiative should have been encouraged early on. Instead, pushed on by our faith in quick fixes, we ignored what was in plain sight. The IMF will sooner or later turn us towards debt sustainability, yes. But this will come at a tremendous cost, and not just for the country’s poor and vulnerable.
The middle-classes that once thought no end of their future will have to take the bite soon. The irony is that this was a long, long time coming. We just chose to turn the other way. That is our tragedy, though we have only ourselves to blame.
The writer is an international analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com
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