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Resolution #9: Protecting Human Rights & Prosecuting Economic Crimes

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by Rajan Philips

Sri Lanka is facing its ninth Resolution at the current UNHRC session in Geneva. To be clear, it is not the people of Sri Lanka but the government that is being embarrassed in Geneva year after year. It is because the government shows up every year without doing any of the homework it promises to do. Every year, the resolution gets longer – with new paragraphs added to old ones. In this year of Gotabaya disgrace, a new clause has been added concerning the country’s current economic crisis. That has raised plenty of hackles among self-righteous patriots.

There are also plenty of other Sri Lankans, no less patriotic and not just diaspora Tamils, who are welcoming the new resolution and its reference to the economic crisis and its criminal perpetrators. The resolution itself does not include the words, ‘economic crimes,’ but calls upon the government to investigate and even prosecute “corruption by public and former public officials,” and assures that the Commission “stands ready to assist and support independent, impartial, and transparent efforts in this regard.” What is wrong with that? Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister has a different take.

Addressing the Commission before the 9th Resolution was released, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry took the usual exception to the Acting High Commissioner’s Report for making “extensive reference to economic crimes.” The Minister went on to add that “apart from the ambiguity of the term, it is a matter of concern that such a reference exceeds the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).”

Back home, the Minister has been taken to task by commentators for being oblivious to the fact that in UN lexicon, human rights – all human rights including economic, social and cultural rights – are “indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” If anyone thinks women’s rights are excluded, Hillary Clinton famously answered it in Beijing nearly 30 years ago, declaring that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, once and for all.”

Economic Crimes

All rights are one and indivisible, and the violation of each is a crime. Even so, why pick on a small country like Sri Lanka when there is no country in the world where there are no human rights violations or economic crimes. That has been the commonplace grouse among Sri Lankan objectors to what some of them call the “Geneva charade.” But calling it a charade doesn’t solve the problem. You can argue till the cows come home about how and why Sri Lanka got stuck in Geneva, but that will do little to get the country unstuck. It has become an agonizing annual ritual for the country and the yearly escalation in the resolution is a direct result of the government’s inaction during the preceding year.

The Rajapaksa regimes used Geneva as a platform to whip up political support at home. The Ranil (Wickremesinghe)-Mangala (Samaraweera) duo, on the other hand, thought they could find a way out of Geneva simply by co-sponsoring a resolution without any back up action to win public support at home. Both strategies backfired. This year is different. The UNHRC mandarins got an altogether new brief for their drafting of the annual resolution. That brief arose from the vortex of aragalaya protests that quite peacefully ended the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa barely halfway through its elected term.

Minister Sabry can split hairs as much as he wants, but he cannot hide a pumpkin in a plate of rice. Not after aragalaya, and not after the expulsion of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office. Mr. Sabry cannot deny that there were economic crimes committed by the Gotabaya Government that led to a wholly ‘man made’ economic crisis. Nor can he disagree that the men who made it must be made to answer for their crimes. If he wants UNHRC out of the picture, he should advise his current President to find domestic ways to bring justice to the victims of not only economic crimes, but all crimes committed by the state.

On the external front, the Rajapaksa regimes extended their native cunning methods to play one country against another, not so much for any strategic benefit for the country but for their own nefarious purposes of making money for the family through the machinery of the state. This is the root cause of the country’s over reliance on China for bilateral debt. The Ranil-Mangala duo berated the Rajapaksas for annoying India and alienating the West and played the opposite strategy of wooing the West and India without upsetting China. But the duo was not transparent at home about what they were trying to do abroad and they did not make a concerted effort to persuade a critical mass of the people to get on board with their approach to national reconciliation in general, and the UNHRC in particular.

In the upshot, the resolutions in Geneva kept getting longer, and Sri Lanka’s debt to China kept getting bigger. In Hambantota debt was turned into equity, like water becoming wine, for China. In Port City, again to please China, Ranil Wickremesinghe went back on his election promise to shut the project down, a promise he made without meaning to keep it. When Rajapaksas returned with Gota at the helm, the highway construction robbery resumed in earnest. But a half a billion dollar US (Millennium) grant for road infrastructure was recklessly rejected because there was no room for cuts or commissions. The Colombo Light-Rail project with Japanese funding was stopped by an email from the President’s Secretary to the Transport’s Secretary, with no formal or informal intimation to Japan. Non-organic fertilizers were banned to save foreign exchange while hoping for an organic agricultural miracle. The military President’s select experts had other bright ideas as well. Eliminate taxes to boost the economy and print money to get out of debt. If these are not economic crimes, what are they?

Rude Awakening

The rude awakening came too much, too late, with the tanking of the economy two years after Gota became President and 17 years after the family first took office. Coincidentally, like the 17 year UNP rule earlier. Now, the government suddenly finds itself having to be exceptionally ambidextrous – talking ‘hair cuts’ with the IMF, and splitting hairs at the UNHRC. The kneejerk thinking among patriotic pundits is that the IMF and the UNHRC are in cahoots against Sri Lanka and the Core Group of countries who are navigating the resolution in Geneva are also calling the shots in the IMF in Washington. Udaya Gammanpila is already into speculation that the UNHRC resolution might be tied to economic relief for Sri Lanka, and is baselessly scaremongering by comparing Sri Lanka’s situation to Indonesia and East Timor in 1999. Thankfully, few pay attention to Mr. Gamanpila or the new political outfit – Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya, that he and his former fellow Rajapaksa acolytes have recently launched.

It turns out that the countries that are positively flexible with Sri Lanka on the economic front and debt restructuring are taking a sterner stand over the UNHRC resolution and accountability for human rights and economic crimes. India is charting its own course in Geneva after being the only country to consistently advance forex through weeks and months when Sri Lanka had neither cash nor credit. India is staying clear of the resolution but reading from the old script on devolution and provincial councils. China, on the other hand, is frightfully non-committal on debt write-off or restructuring, but leading the cheers for Sri Lanka in Geneva. Cash or cheers? That should not be the question.

New Unity

There is no need to conflate the debt crisis and Geneva resolutions as some external imposition on Sri Lanka. There is no external conflation, only domestic delusions about it. Even if there is conflation, there is little that any Sri Lankan government can do about. The need is for the government to realize that both are of its own making and that the resolution of both should start with fundamental changes at home. Living with a permanent stalemate in Geneva was possible so long as the economy was limping along. Now with the economy broken, nothing can be fixed until everything is fixed. That is the conflation here – a national necessity for change and not a foreign imposition of burdens.

The President has a busy schedule with far flung funerals – from London to Tokyo. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that a state funeral can be a good working funeral. The Sri Lankan President must surely be having two good working funerals, one after the other. Hopefully, more so in Tokyo where it needs to be all about debt. The country can wait for their results. Between funerals there is nothing much to write home about. There is endless haggling in parliament as to who knows what about the IMF agreement. Nothing is likely to be sorted out until the President is back to normal work after the working funerals. If you did not notice Sri Lanka has no finance minister to answer these questions. It is all with the President and about the President, no matter who is President.

At the same time, there has been a positive development outside parliament with the starting of a new ‘mobile signature campaign’ for repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The campaign that was initiated by the ITAK in Jaffna on September 10 reached Gall Face last week and was joined by signing opposition MPs, Civil Society activists and even retired public servants. Former defence secretary Austin Fernando was reportedly the first person to start off signing in Colombo. ITAK MPs, Sumanthiran and Rasamanickam were joined by Eran Wickramaratne, Mujibur Rahuman, Hirunika Premachandra, Rauff Hakeem and Tissa Attanayake. There were also social activists Pubudu Jagoda, and Dharmasiri Lankapeli, and Trade Unionist Joseph Stalin. Bringing great poignancy to the occasion was Human Rights Lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, who had been long detained under the PTA for no reason by the Rajapaksa regime.

Sumanthiran struck a note of unity between the north and south in the new campaign for the repeal of an old law that first entered the statue books in 1979, introduced as temporary measure for six months. The bill was challenged by TULF activists as fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court, with Colvin R. de Silva as the lead lawyer. Court challenges meant nothing at that time for a government that had a five sixths majority in parliament. The law was kept in force by every succeeding government despite promises to repeal it. Just like the promise to abolish the executive presidency.

All that President Wickremesinghe has to do now is to start fulfilling the unkept promises of his predecessors. One promise at a time. That will speedily shorten the UNHRC resolution from year to year until there is nothing left. He can do most of it in one year. He could start by repealing the PTA and stop arresting political protesters. That would be a positive change after two working funerals.



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Prospects for NPP/JVP at the next election

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by Kumar David

Several months ago I brought to my reader’s attention a straw-poll that I had conducted among my friends on the left of the political spectrum, university colleagues and liberal intellectuals on two matters; (i) their own voting intentions, (ii) what they perceived were the electoral prospects of the NPP/JVP. The replies were consistent. Most said that they would vote for the NPP/JVP or that they were mulling over it. Almost all declared that would not seriously consider Sajith or Ranil led outfits and that anything linked to the Rajapaksa-Porotuwa garbage heap was out of the question. Regarding whether the NPP/JVP could win an election most people in my straw-poll had reservations. While they were themselves satisfied that the JVP would never again repeat the madness of 1971 and 1989-91 they reckoned that the electorate at large was still anxious (minissu thaama bayai). I am grateful to all who wrote to me (actually everyone I contacted replied) for their frankness and careful evaluation of ground realities.

The National Peoples Power (NPP), an alliance of about 28 political parties, trade unions and grass-roots organisations conducted a public seminar on January 24, 2023, which was jam packed, not enough seating room. The keynote speaker was Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Anura hereafter) who was very clever in how he handled the seminar by declaring right at the start “People are concerned about our economic policies; they want to know how we will handle the economy”. Now indeed this is true, but it also let him off the hook about the insurrectionary folly of 1971 and 1989-91 and allowed him to skirt the concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities. I will touch on all three issues, economy, minorities and political adventurism in this short article while giving priority to the economic discussion in the light of the enormous success of the January 24 Seminar/Symposium/Consultation.

Yes, there is considerable interest in the JVP’s economic programme since it has never been explicitly spelt out in the past except as simple anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal slogans. Anura, as expected focussed on the great hardships the people were suffering because of the ongoing economic crisis, the unbearable increase in prices and the breakdown in public services – hospitals for example are short of medicines, dressings for wounds and beds.

I will begin by picking up six crucial economic issues that arose from the January 24 seminar without stating whether the questions were or were not adequately addressed by the panellists on the stage. It is the right answer to the questions that matters most not whether the panellists got it right or are still working towards adequate solutions. What’s the rush, the elections aren’t tomorrow?

Will an NPP/JVP government be friendly to private-sector businesses?

How will Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) be encouraged and financed?

What is the attitude of the NPP/JVP to loss making state enterprises?

How will foreign investment be encouraged?

What is the is the right approach to Free Trade Agreements with other countries?

How will digitisation of production and of enterprises be encouraged?

I will now proceed to comment on these seven economic issues without indicating whether my comments are the same or different from what the panel members said. There is lots of time more to the next election; we are in the midst of a discussion in progress. Let’s go step by step. Yes, the NPP/JVP should aim to consolidate a mixed economy and therefore the role of the private sector must the recognised. As will become clear when I answer questions lower down what has to be consolidated is a dirigisme economy where the state directs fundamental policy, emphasis being on the word fundamental. In Singapore, South Korea and above all in China (Deng Xiaoping onwards) the private sector prospered although the directive role of the state in the broad sense was retained.

Making resources available for SMEs has to be undertaken as a matter of policy. Certain banks must be identified for that purpose, policy instruments create and funding provisions made via the Treasury. Support for SMEs has to be a state responsibility.

In my view policy towards loss-making state enterprises needs to be well defined. White elephants like Sri Lankan Airlines should be sold off. Loss making state enterprises have to be divided between those who make a loss because they carry a huge consumer subsidy (electricity for example) and others which are fattening an excessive work-force (some portions of the petroleum industry). In respect of the former the NPP/JVP has to decide to what extent and for how long a subsidy is a political necessity, and in respect of the latter a ruthless but time diversified closure policy adopted. Time has to be given for people to learn new skills to find alternative employment avenues. Digitisation is a specialist topic and I was pleased with the response of the relevant member (I am unable to recall his name) of the Seminar Panel who spoke briefly on digitisation and showed an expert grasp of his subject.

From a left propaganda point of view to speak of the tremendous hardship that the sudden economic crisis and the post-Covid and post global-recession period, had created is straightforward. Anura drew attention to the great hardships of the masses, the need to provide additional resources and made a fairly straightforward moral argument. The practical point is how to get this done without cutting other contending demands and how to persuade China to restructure rather than defer (postpone) debt repayment. Though I am a member of the NPP and have been an electoral candidate on the NPP National List slate what I say in this article is not NPP policy, rather is an open-ended contribution towards the ongoing discussion and it is intended to help formulate NPP policy. There is a long way to go before the next election and the lot more water will have to flow under the bridge before the NPP finalises its positions.

It is in this spirit that I make the comment that the NPP needs to openly declare that its model can, broadly, be described as social-democracy. Obviously, it is absurd to focus on prescriptive details but alternatives such as a USSR type state directed economy or the outdated Cuba-Venezuela-Angola-Ne Win Burma models are out of the question. Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Imran Khan opposition, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mongolia de facto, in the context of post-Covid, global recession threatened world, have explicitly or all but explicitly endorsed social democracy. The NPP must have the gumption and the courage to explicitly state that it stands for social-democracy. It must tell the JVP that the old model of in the Wijeweera days is all dead and useless.

“Pepe” Mujico (Jose Mujia) the 40th president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015 is described as the world’s humblest head of state. He donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities. He was an outspoken critic of capitalism. A former guerrilla with the Tupamaros, he was tortured and imprisoned for 14 years by the military Uruguayan dictatorship (1973-85). Military dictatorships are the foulest and most abominable of regimes in the world. In Argentina for example the military dictatorship (1976-83) threw its opponents, alive into the sea out helicopters and that included pregnant women. Have no doubt that a military dictatorship in Sri Lanka will do the same. Have we not had enough experience of what unfettered military power can do? Sixty thousand young men and women perished when military power ran unchecked in 1989-91. But this comment is by the way, what I wish to say is something else; it’s about social-democracy. Pepe’s most famous quip is that if Uruguay was a big European country it would have become famous as the home of modern social-democracy. The point then is that in this complex and uncertain period the correct model to explicitly assert is social-democracy. The NPP must openly and explicitly declare itself a social-democratic entity.

I promised to comment briefly on minority concerns and the insurrectionary history of the JVP before I sign off. I would like to see the NPP explicitly reject the Wijeweera-Somawana storylines. That is reject Wijeweera’s fifth lecture and his general antipathy to plantation Tamils. Likewise, I would like to see the NPP dissociate itself from the Somawansa – Sarath Silva intervention that dissolved N-E provincial unity. More broadly I would like to see the NPP declare itself in favour of devolution to minority communities and to provinces. Obviously specific details remain to be clarified and that should be the topic of many fruitful discussions in NPP forums.

On the matter of apologising for the insurrectionary excesses and anarchist folly of 1971 my friend Prof Eich persuaded me that this is an unrealistic expectation and I should drop the matter. I agreed and remained silent for about two years. But as the NPP/JVP influence spreads more broadly into the Sinhala petty-bourgeois and rural classes the topic is raising its head again – (minissu bayai). An election winning strategy cannot plaster over that. The pathological madness that, as in the Cultural Revolution, the past has to be utterly destroyed in order to build the world anew may have influenced some in the extremist ranks of the JVP some decades ago. I have indeed run into many admirers of the Cultural Revolution in “those” times. However now the NPP must be uncompromising; there is no room for sympathy for any of this in its commitment to social-democracy.

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75 Years: How a halcyon start became a horrible sorrow – A tale of two compacts and two economies

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by Rajan Philips

Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, became independent in the best of times. Almost all contemporary accounts said so. A model colony was becoming independent unexpectedly soon with no struggle or sweat. No other emerging polity apparently had it so good. The economy was on a roll by the measures of foreign reserves and local consumption levels. As a small island it was easy to be overcome by modernization. Road and rail networks crisscrossed the island, telecommunications and postal services were bringing people closer. Public education was free and public health was looked after, the two anchoring a robust welfare system that was unique among comparator colonies. The population was under seven million and even though the vast majority of the people were relatively deprived, there was optimism that there was opportunity for everyone.

Universal franchise had been introduced 17 years earlier, in 1931, and the people had had a head start in experiencing electoral democracy – uniquely among non-western polities and well ahead of quite a few western ones. Independence arrived on the back of a new constitution, which was a simple text crafted by unassuming legal drafting and not the exalted product of a ponderous constituent assembly. Yet Sri Lanka’s first constitution, unlike its successors, was a compact document that possessed too many virtues and too few faults. Most importantly, it underwrote the communal compact that was the necessary and sufficient prerequisite for the colonial rulers to handover power to their local successors.

“Communal Compact” (AJ Wilson) is the idea that the (Soulbury) Constitution and the granting of independence were the result of a political agreement among the country’s constitutive “communal groups.” Put another way, the British had to either assume or believe that there was such an agreement among the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims before deciding on the timing and the terms of their departure. Before long, however, the communal compact came under stress and eventually broke.

After 75 years, the controversy is over a different and somewhat narrower compact – the ‘devolution compact.’ Equally, the seemingly salubrious economy that greeted independence in 1948, has now become a deflated and damaged economy requiring intensive treatment in 2023. Hence, the tale of two compacts and two economies. But how did we get here?

Broken Economy

The answers go back to the circumstances in which Sri Lanka became independent. There was more to them than the rosy pictures painted by contemporary accounts. There were already economic fissures and sociopolitical fault lines. These fissures and fault lines defined the political questions of the day and the political alignments that arose out of them. How they unfolded is the story of Sri Lanka after independence. It is an overtold story, but there are always new takes on them as new generations come along to live through the same old problems.

For all its consumption complacency, the economy in 1948 was the “classical colonial export economy”. Plantation exports paid for consumption imports and left a not too small Sterling surplus as bonus. However, the situation was structurally unsustainable. A fast growing population and a politically demanding consumption culture could not be supported indefinitely by the export earnings from tea, rubber and coconut alone. Within a decade, foreign reserves fell from one year worth of imports to four months of them. There has been no looking back since, albeit the wrong way.

The decades following saw severely imposed import restrictions that did not, however, serve the textbook purpose of stemming consumption and accumulating aggregate savings for productive investments. Import scarcities also had to pay a heavy political price. Unemployment became the new scourge along with the chronic mismatch between the outputs of free education and the labour needs of the economy.

Free education expanded the imparting of academic learning and not the technical mass education needed for the development of industries. Industrial development itself was circumscribed by the small national market of the island, its total lack of non-agricultural raw material resources, and indiscriminate import restrictions. State led industrialization proved to be too capital intensive and addressed neither the unemployment problem nor the needs of consumers.

The open economy alternative did unleash the potential for private industrial development and shifted the economic base from its sole reliance on plantation exports. But skyrocketing consumption levels, privatization of education that serves no social or economic purpose, criminal neglect of and corruption in the vital energy and transport sectors, and economically inappropriate and graft generating infrastructure investments have brought the national economy to its current parlous state.

In the assessment of Sri Lanka’s current President, there is no economy left to be reformed! He is promising, among many other promises, a new take off for a better landing at the hundredth anniversary of independence, which neither he nor his followers and critics will be around to witness.

One beam of light that needs to be added to this rather bleak recounting is the story of domestic agriculture, which has been an impressive one in terms of overall growth, if not quite so in terms efficiency of input allocations and certainly not in terms of the distribution of its outputs. Whether comparatively advantaged or not, agriculture is the bulwark of livelihood for the majority of Sri Lankan households; and inclusive of the plantations, it also provides the main domestic base for local industries. Any government can ignore agriculture only at its peril, and the punishment for anyone choosing to monkey with it will be the swiftest and the severest. The organic fertilizer fiasco just proved that, and rightly so.

In 1966, concluding his monograph, Ceylon: An Export Economy in Transition, Donald Snodgrass saw only one certainty “from the historical perspective of 120 years of modern Ceylonese economic development;” and that was, “the search for an economic system that will provide a politically acceptable and economically viable replacement for the classical export economy will continue.” The economy now is far more diverse than what was there in 1948. But the point about the elusiveness of the search for a “politically acceptable and economically viable replacement,” is spot on, 75 years on.

Broken Politics

Of the two, political acceptability and economic viability, it is the political part that has been playing the weightier role in Sri Lanka’s political economy. Politics itself has been swayed by non-economic pressures and compulsions than it has been informed by economic imperatives. The current debate over devolution would suggest that nothing might change even now. Economic doldrums, notwithstanding.

Political divisions along party lines were in their embryonic stage at the time of independence in 1948. The newest political party, the United National Party, had just been formed by DS. Senanayake to contest the 1947 parliamentary elections on a rightwing platform. GG Ponnambalam had formalized his Tamil Congress a few years earlier. And the country’s oldest political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, that had just been freed of its proscription was already in two parts marking the second of its many splits. Rounding off the Left was the Communist Party that had come into being as the first splinter of the LSSP.

Many candidates ran as independents in 1947 and an unhealthily large contingent of them were returned as MPs. The UNP did not win an overall majority (50 of its 92 candidates lost in the elections) but was able to form the new government with the help of independents and Appointed MPs. The efforts of non-UNP MPs, through their historic gathering at Yamuna, the Havelock Road house of highly respected lawyer politician, Herbert Sri Nissanka, to present an alternative bid for power ended in failure, marking the first of many such failures to come. (To be continued).

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Sri Lanka at 100

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by Ram Manikkalingam

Sri Lanka’s future is hanging in the balance as we turn 75.

On its 75th birthday Sri Lanka is divided. There is a stand-off between the people and the political institutions. The people reject Parliament and the President. And Parliament and the President fear the people. This standoff cannot last indefinitely. It will lead to authoritarianism, anarchy or reform. The decisions made, not only by politicians who control our political institutions, but also by the people who want them changed, will determine where we end up.

If there is one person, who has a decisive role in where our country will be in 25 years, it is President Wickremesinghe. While parliament and the people can no doubt make a difference, their decisions must come through political persuasion and mobilization. But President Wickremesinghe can act on his own.

He was picked by the Rajapaksas to protect their interests. But he is not of the Rajapaksas. He protects the Rajapaksas indirectly, by protecting the system that they, and other politicians have benefited from. This system is a combination of rentier capitalism and majoritarian democracy. Businessmen make their money from permits, contracts and quotas provided by politicians. In turn, these businessmen fund the politicians, who run campaigns that favour the majority. Breaking out of this is not what the leading politicians of Sri Lanka want. When the Aragalaya peaked, and the Rajapaksas found themselves rejected, they looked for the next best leader. Someone who would maintain the system the Rajapaksas required for their survival. So Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen. But he also has a choice.

He can hang onto the Rajapaksas and let the Rajapaksas hang onto him. Or he can begin a serious process of reform that by its very definition will require ditching the Rajapaksas and their ilk.

If he chooses the former option, he will preside over the rapid erosion of the economy and the gradual deterioration of democracy. Because the Rajapaksas very much represent the faction against both political and economic reform. This would prevent him from making the kind of economic reforms required to restructure our debt with the creditors, attract investors, promote equality, and improve public services. As anti reformists, the Rajapaksas would prevent Wickremesinghe from making critical changes required to move the country forward. Instead, they will act as a reactionary force, hostile to any democratic impulse and economic changes that reduce their corrupt grip on power.

This alliance between Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas would, in terms of policy, transform itself into an alliance between Sinhala extremism and neo-liberalism. This would precipitate political opposition, not just from political parties, but also from newly mobilized political groupings, including the youth, the students, the middle class, the trade unions and civil society. This opposition, in turn, can lead to state repression, as the government uses its control over the security forces to crack down on the newly revitalized Aragalaya, leading to authoritarianism or anarchy.

Ordinary people, spooked by threats and suffering under the burden of a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, would not even have the wherewithal to protest. They would be struggling to make ends meet, feed, clothe and educate their children, while taking care of the elderly and their struggling kin. The result would be a dispirited country, submitting, once again, to the authoritarianism of a narrow political elite, that unites in the face of popular mobilization.

Instead, the crackdown may also lead to greater mobilization, spiraling out of control despite the armed forces using excessive force. And in an echo of last year, gets rid of the President and this time the parliament, as well. In the absence of a sensible political programme, this systemic change brings neither reform nor revolution. Instead, Sri Lanka becomes saddled with a series of unstable governments that lack the capacity to advance democracy or the economy. Sri Lanka becomes a country where governments come and go, not because of fundamental political changes, but because an influential faction in or out of government is dissatisfied with a particular policy or leader.

This leaves Sri Lanka with a narrow path to political and economic reform that must be picked within the next couple of months.

At the end of February, President Wickremesinghe would have the power to dissolve parliament. He may fear doing so, because the new parliament will be dominated by political parties that are his rivals. He will then have to negotiate reforms with a prime minister who may have more popular support than he does. But does he really have the power to enact reforms, today? Even his positive efforts to release military occupied land and PTA prisoners, and implement the 13th Amendment are being met with hostility by his own faction in parliament. Moreover, any effort to balance the budget, strengthen welfare measures for the poor and vulnerable, raise taxes, restructure loss making State Owned Enterprises – would require a government that has the support of the people, not one that fears them. It is not too late for President Wickremasinghe to lead such a government that includes all political parties.

Sri Lanka has a narrow window to begin a process to deepen democracy and enact economic reforms that would bring us dignity and equality when we celebrate our centenary.

(Ram Manikkalingam is Director of the Dialogue Advisory Group. He was an adviser to then President Kumaratunga and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Amsterdam)

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