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President’s Dinner for his Old Comrades

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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.

Dinner guest



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Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister

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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 udakdev1@gmail.com

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GOTA RE-SETS; THE ARAGALAYA MUST RE-SET & RE-LOAD

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Dr. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

‘Revolutionary Realpolitik’ is the title of the final chapter of the iconic philosopher and culture critic Georg Lukacs’ slim volume ‘Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought’, first published in 1924 when Lukacs was 35, and reissued by Verso in its radical thinkers series in 2009. Revolutionary Realpolitik, that fusion of revolution and Realpolitik, which made Lenin a great revolutionary because he was a great Realist, has been the perennial absence in the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan Left, and remains dangerously so in Aragalaya Left or pro-Aragalaya Left.

‘The concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ is the heart of politics according to Lenin. There is a new situation or in Marxist terminology a new conjuncture. Any party or formation which thinks strategically must grasp that fact and adapt to it in order to transform it.

The Gotabaya presidency has pressed the re-set button. The Aragalaya must do so too, or else it will be fighting with the old tactics against a target that has reconfigured.

The Aragalaya made a big mistake. It had won a major strategic battle by mid-day on May 9 when it beat back the Mahinda mob and prevailed politically with the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. History may record that this was the highest point of the Aragalaya as it had evolved from the Mirihana uprising of March 31.

The strategic blunder began after that victory of mid-day May 9. That was the lethal character of the mob violence that caused nine fatalities and injured Kumara Welgama, who was also the first anti-Gotabaya politician. It is not that the Aragalaya perpetrated that violence but it did not condemn it though there was real time social media and mass media coverage available to it. At the time of writing (May 12) condemnation is yet to be heard.

The strategic blunder was consummated on the night of May 9 into the early morning of May 10 with the mob violence outside Temple Trees, the successful attempt to break through the gates and enter the premises. Fires were also started by the attackers. The attack started after dusk and went on till pre-dawn the next day. There was plenty of coverage on TV news and social media. Given the bloodthirsty rage of the crowd there was no doubt that the former President and Prime Minister would have been lynched, together with his family. The Aragalaya leaders and the political party leaders associated with the Aragalaya failed to call for restraint. They have still not condemned the incident.

The result of the attempted lynching of Mahinda Rajapaksa was that it gave the military the chance to intervene and a legitimate reason to do so. The Anti-Hijacking and Hostage Rescue Unit of the Commando regiment effectively held the line and performed the rescue. By the morning of May 10, 2022, we were in a different territory. The military had been infused into the situation and the Army Commander’s remarks were determined yet serious. The military was in the game and the power-equation.

This also stiffened the back of the Gotabaya presidency, but it did so without causing either him or the military to sound like there had been a shift to military rule, because that is not what has happened. Addressing the nation, he didn’t sound more autocratic than before nor did he come across as quite as insensitively autocratic as he used to be. The Aragalaya had clearly shaken him but not enough to leave; only enough to make him more flexible when earlier he was totally inflexible.

What has happened is that Gotabaya now has both a stick and a carrot. The stick is the military and the Police backstopped by the military. The real center of gravity for the moment is the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The carrot is a recomposed Government and a set of reforms which include a partial presidential retreat. Gota has promised the repeal of 20A and the return of 19A, also indicating that the door and the road were open for the abolition of the executive presidency.

At the time of dispatching this article, I do not know who the PM will be, but whoever it is, the administration will get some traction, the people will cut it some slight slack, and the Aragalaya will find that it does not enjoy the same near-universality of support it did. Quite a few sympathizers of the Aragalaya may move to the neutral or let’s wait and see column. The reason is that the target profile of the enemy has changed: it’s no longer Gota plus Mahinda. It is no longer an overt Rajapaksa family regime. It is no longer top-heavy with Rajapaksas.

If Gotabaya’s re-set project fails, it doesn’t mean the Aragalaya succeeds. The next move may be an outright military junta with or without Gota, and as several public opinion polls show, though few support military rule, most are pro-military. Outright military rule is not the only option. There could be a civilian-military rule with the military chairing the political negotiations which Gota is now chairing. The behaviour of the political parties maybe quite different then, and in any case as in the Pakistan of old, the military may regulate and restructure the political-governmental space. I doubt that the Aragalaya leaders are aware that things are not black-and white and there are varieties of “intermediate regimes” (Michael Kalecki).

Antonio Gramsci, the founder of a Marxist political science and one of the greatest political scientists ever, rejected Trotsky’s approach (unfairly says Perry Anderson) as “the theorist of frontal assault at a time the balance of forces is such that it could only lead to failure”. Whether or not it was accurate about Trotsky (unlike in Lenin’s case sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t, as far as I can tell), Gramsci’s point is valid. When I hear a prominent Aragalaya youth leader talk about “street fighting” I recall Gramsci’s stricture. If students are shot by the Army it won’t mean the outbreak of the Revolution when it is a recomposed Government in office—and in any case the Army knows that riot-guns with birdshot have non-lethal results.

The slogan Gota Go Home remains valid but it cannot be fought for by the old methods of frontal assault. Gota will not go home and he cannot be sent home right now–not with the military backing him and a new PM bringing some degree of legitimacy and hope. Gota Go Home must be re-calibrated, not as an event but as a process of transition. As Gramsci famously said, it must not be a strategy of frontal assault but a war of position, of attrition.

Personally, I advocated that the SJB take the space available and use the 19th amendment to shift the balance of power. As Nicos Poulantzas, the most famous Marxist political scientist since Antonio Gramsci pointed out, the state apparatuses are not a monolith; they are cross-cut with contradictions, are porous and permeable. Democrats fighting against dictatorships should aim at working those contradictions and shifting the lines of force within the state. This is the strategy that was successfully adopted by the Spanish Communists led by Santiago Carrillo.

That is why I urged that the SJB to operate as a pincer with the Aragalaya and penetrate the system, get its hands on the levers of power.

Poulantzas apart, that would also have been the Middle Path and Golden Mean leading to a renovated center, with the support of the SLFP and the 11 parties.

What then is the path to victory for the Aragalaya and the Opposition? Lenin provides an answer in Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. The masses must learn by their very own experience, of the correctness of the vanguard party’s slogans, which must be calibrated according to each stage of the mass consciousness. Therefore, the Aragalaya and opposition strategy has to be two-fold:

Firstly, though the Aragalaya may be difficult to broaden and may lose some of its breadth, it can be deepened, by resisting unfair economic hardships caused by creditor-and-IMF driven cutbacks and launching new waves of struggle.

Secondly, change the main slogan of the Aragalaya to that which was raised by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa on March 15 during the first demonstration at the Presidential Secretariat, and recently renewed in modified form by the smartest strategic mind of the pro-Aragalaya Left today, KD Lal Kantha of the JVP: demand EARLY ELECTIONS. Of course, with Gota still around, with or without the 20th Amendment, that has to include Presidential elections too.

In 1988-89, with two civil wars raging and foreign troops on our soil, we had several rounds of Provincial Council elections followed by Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Both Presidential and Parliamentary elections can and must be held within this year.

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PRO-GOTA FAKE OPPOSITION, ANTI-GOTA REAL OPPOSITION

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Dr. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

Clearly the old ruling coalition, the SLPP and SLFP, has a majority in Parliament. That is similar to a man who has a huge mountain of money in his house, but all the money belongs to a category devalued by the Central Bank. The majority that the SLPP-SLFP mustered in parliament stands clearly devalued in the eyes of the citizenry and by them.

The 148 votes should give the President and the Rajapaksa clan little cause for comfort. That is because there is a huge gap between the bubble that is parliament and the sociopolitical reality outside it. The Parliament is marooned in the ocean of the people.

The IUSF-led demonstrations on the approach to Parliament provided the best direct response to the 148-65 vote on the issue of the Deputy Speaker.

The so-called Independent Group of 40 held a media briefing after the vote shrieking about betrayal by the Leader of the Opposition and his mother.

By nightfall it became obvious that the Aragalaya, which is by no means supportive of the Leader of the Opposition, was of the view that the re-combination of the SLPP and the SLFP-led 11-party combine, was the real treachery.

Let’s unpack the issue. When it came down to the wire, there were two candidates: Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar. It is self-evident that Imtiaz is the superior choice, in every respect: intellect, integrity, decency. He would have been a symbol of the values of the Aragalaya, of a new patriotism, of unity in diversity.

The Group of 40 refused to vote for him and voted for Siyambalapitiya instead. This was not only the inferior choice but also symbolized continuity in a national atmosphere of dramatic change.

It symbolized two types of continuity.

Firstly, continuity between the old and the new: a cartoon brilliantly showed the old, pre-Aragalaya Deputy Speaker and the new, GotaGoGama period Deputy Speaker. Who just happened to be the same guy? That showed the unresponsiveness of the parliamentary majority to the realities on the ground, and their uncaring about the optics.

Secondly, continuity indeed convergence between the ruling SLPP and the supposedly independent SLFP-led Group of 40 which had been until quite recently an ally of the SLPP.

It is almost beyond belief that the SLFP-led G 40 should be unashamed to have accepted the support of the SLPP and voted together with it, thereby giving the general public the impression of renewed alliance or congruence. If it thought that turning its guns on the SJB and its leader would persuade anyone of its own correctness, it should have had a rethink by nightfall.

If the SLFP-led Group of 40 had its feet on the ground, it would have known and should know that its main task is to demarcate itself from the regime; not put forward a candidate who served that regime and to be seen to vote together with the ruling Pohottuwa in support of that candidate.

The priority of the so-called Independent Opposition Group should have been to prove its independence, and prove it vis-à-vis the regime; not to prove its dependence on the regime’s votes, which is what it did.

The cat has jumped out of the bag. The Independent Group clearly revealed that it has much more of a problem with Sajith Premadasa than it does with Gotabaya Rajapaksa. By contrast, the Aragalaya is very clear as to who the real enemy and the main enemy at this stage of a long struggle, is: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Clearly the main objective of the Aragalaya is the removal of the autocratic ruler: Gota Go Home!

To the extent that this is manifestly NOT the stated goal of the so-called independent group of 40; so long as it has suggested various slogans and solutions to the problem OTHER THAN the one that 90%-96% of the public perceive as the main problem; to the extent that the Independent Group is far from independent of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it can be said to be a fake Opposition.

It was hilarious too see the Independent Group of 40, which is not just a very belated addition to the Opposition benches, but also one which pivoted back to President GR and sat with him and Basil Rajapaksa in a political discussion, hurling accusations at the Leader of the Opposition who had the guts to run against Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the height of the latter’s popularity in November 2019 while the Independent Group was canvassing votes for Gotabaya who had already defended a monk who asked him to be a Hitler.

The independent Group of 40 never opposed Dilum Amunugama, when several months ago, he urged Gotabaya to be a Hitler—a statement that may explain what happened in Rambukkana.

Hilarious too is the fact that the garrulous members of the group of 40, which by far the smaller group in the opposition at the moment, attack the SJB, which is the larger formation of the Opposition.

The touchstone of whether or not any party or formation is an authentic Opposition, is whether or not it stands foursquare for what the people of this country and more concretely The Aragalaya is calling for: GOTA GO HOME!

Going by that touchstone, the authentic Opposition in the country consists of the following streams:

1. The Aragalaya (the non-party autonomous space)

2. The Left: the JVP, FSP, IUSF.

3. The Hartal vanguard: the Trade Union Coordinating Committee, Peasants’ Unions and civic organizations.

4. The SJB, the SJB alliance, JVP, TNA, SLMC, CWC.

Right now, in Parliament, the authentic Opposition are those who voted for Imtiaz Bakeer Markar; not those who still refuse to say—let alone shout out aloud—Gota Go Home!

The fake Oppositionists who wish Gotabaya to remain in office as well as those refuse to take the stand ‘Gota Go Home!’ will, I can safely predict, be wiped out together with the Rajapaksas and all but a few of the SLPP, at any upcoming election, just as the LSSP and CPSL were in 1977 and the UNP was in 2020.

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