Thursday 4th August 2022
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has proved that he is playing his new role with aplomb, and is desirous of adopting a novel approach to governance, if his maiden policy statement is anything to go by. He had yesterday’s ceremony to mark the inauguration of the third session of the ninth Parliament pared to the bone; there was no gun salute. Such measures are bound to go down well with the public.
Declaring that he was the President of every Sri Lankan, Wickremesinghe undertook to defend the rights of all citizens. He stressed the need for all Sri Lankans to unite at this hour of crisis and make a concerted effort to steer the country to safety. He offered to form an all-party government. The SJB, the SLPP dissidents and others are right in having accepted an invitation from the President to talks on the formation of an all-party government, which, we believe, must be an interim administration pending a general election. The formation of a national unity government and a National Assembly tasked with taking key decisions collectively will help reduce the President’s dependence on the Rajapaksas for parliamentary support. Let the President be urged to ensure that the parliamentary watchdog committees such as the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), which are to be reconstituted, will be headed by Opposition MPs.
President Wickremesinghe got on his hobby horse—the need to reform loss-incurring state ventures. A divestiture project will not be politically wise, but it will help save a great deal of public funds that continue to go down the gurgler. It is high time someone plucked up the courage to grasp the nettle.
Wickremesinghe has demonstrated that he is a cut above most other leaders by discussing what the country has to do to reap the benefits of its strategic location in view of the emerging Indian Ocean centric economic power bloc. His exhortation to the House not to oppose foreign investment for the sake of doing sounded sensible, but no agreements detrimental to the national interest should be signed. His offer to formulate a national economic policy for the next 25 years is also of interest. This is something many other countries have already done while Sri Lanka is living from hand to mouth. Another salient point in the President’s speech was his undertaking to respect democratic dissent while getting tough with lawbreakers in the garb of protesters. He sought to allay fears among the people that a witch-hunt against the Opposition had got underway. He said peaceful protesters could complain of injustices, if any, via a dedicated telephone line, to a committee headed by a retired judge, who, he said, would make inquiries and take speedy action. This may be reassuring to the youth who have set out to change the world. The President, however, will have to back up his words with deeds. The proof of the pudding is said to be in the eating.
President Wickremesinghe’s avowal of a neutral foreign policy could not have come at a better time. The international media focus is currently on Sri Lanka due to a controversy over a Chinese survey ship scheduled to arrive at the Hambantota Port. India has expressed concern over the movement of the Chinese vessel.
The President’s willingness to bring in the 22nd Amendment, which will curtail some of his executive powers, is to be appreciated. All progressive provisions in the now-defunct 19th Amendment have to be restored, but the President must be able to hold the Defence portfolio.
The President has talked the talk and impressed even his critics, and now he has to walk the walk. He has taken a huge political gamble and finds himself in an unenviable position. What he has undertaken is a political high-wire act without a safety net. He has to strike a fine balance between unpopular measures that need to be adopted to put the economy back on an even keel, and action to placate the irate public, protesting and demanding relief. The arduous journey he has embarked on is far more perilous than Grusha’s walk across a collapsing rope bridge over an abyss, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He has already lost his house at the hands of some savages masquerading as change seekers, and his political enemies are all out to engineer his downfall. He is in fact sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. One can only hope that he will succeed in his endeavour, and the country will benefit therefrom. Let him be wished good luck!
To dock or not to dock
Monday 15th August, 2022
Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.
There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.
It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.
It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.
Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.
Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.
Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.
Unarmed but not peaceful
We run on this page today an article written by a retired Major General of the Sri Lanka Army who argues forcefully that the Aragalaya protesters were NOT repeat NOT peaceful. Over the weeks and months of the protest, which now appears to be fizzling out, although contrary claims that it will continue persist, the Aragalaya was described by the media, human rights activists, politicians, diplomats and many more as a “peaceful protest.” That label stuck. A protest it was, and an unarmed protest to boot, but nobody can claim that it was “peaceful” especially during its concluding stages when barricades protecting President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat at the old Parliament building were repeatedly stormed.
The whole country was privy to these all or nothing charges, where large groups akin to human battering rams, unrelentingly and repeatedly stormed the barriers surrounding the seats of government. They did so with the clear knowledge that there would be no shooting. These scenes were beamed over national television news bulletins widely viewed countrywide. Police and troops manning the barriers used tear gas and water cannons and on a few occasions fired into the air. Fortunately, thanks be to whoever was responsible (some say that outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa so ordered before he fled the country), no live bullets were fired. Thus no lives were lost. All to the good. The retired military officer, Major General Lalin Fernando, who has titled his contribution “Peaceful and Unlawful Assembly” has, to our mind, by quoting sections of the Criminal Procedure Code conclusively established that the assemblies under reference were totally unlawful. There is no second word about that. Unarmed yes, but peaceful no.
Another curious and coincidental occurrence regarding the Rajapaksas’ departure and what many believe to be the end of the Aragalaya has occurred within exact one month intervals over a three-month period beginning May 9 this year. On that day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to the “Go Home Mynah” demand. Exactly a month later, on June 9, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa went home although there was no “Basil Go Gama.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eventually caved into the “Gota Go Home” demand and fled the country like a thief in the night, flying first to the Maldives, then to Singapore and now to Thailand. And last week on August 9, the Aragalaya which pushed all the Rajapaksas out of office also seems to have ended. Those who thought that the country has seen the back of the Rajapaksas when GR swore a cabinet minus all of them except his aiya who installed him on the throne, was forced to call for MR’s resignation, and thereafter to resign himself, will have to think again. The Pohottuwa still calls the shots in parliament as clearly demonstrated by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister, then as acting president and finally his comfortable election by parliament as president to serve out the rest of GR’s term.
Remember Mahinda Sulanga after MR who had engineered a constitutional coup ending the two term limit on the presidency suffered a stunning loss to Maithripala Sirisena, the former general secretary of MR’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, while seeking a third term. A combination of forces led by the UNP and including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ensured Rajapaksa’s defeat. But he did not lie down and die. Within days and weeks of what seemed an unbelievable end to a remarkable political career, Mahinda Rajapaksa was being feted and greeted by tens of thousands of his supporters at his Tangalle home. Before long, with the help of his brother Basil and the founding of his Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) best known by its Pohottuwa election symbol he was able to demonstrate that he was no spent force at the local government elections of February 2018. This was the biggest ever election in the country and his new party was able to gather 40 percent of the popular vote. The UNP and SLFP ran a poor second and third.
But reckless, ill- managed government, rampant corruption and sheer incompetence led to the Rajapaksa nemesis and Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. Never has Sri Lanka, ranked a middle income country, reached the depths to which it has plunged today. The majority of the people, mostly the poor, are facing untold hardship. Food prices have galloped through the roof. The latest World Food Program (WFP) assessment reveals that 86 percent of Lankan families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether. Before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across the country were already high. There is no need to labour over the cascading effects of the fuel crisis and the kilometers long queues for diesel and petrol. The present improvements can last only as long as we can borrow the dollars to continue supplies.
There is no signal from the president or the government that a serious effort at course correction will be made at least on the political front. The attempted All Party Government is certainly not going to be lean. Abject failures and suspect personalities are back in office and the country fears there will be more of it. Those within the incumbent parliament, judged by the knowledgeable as competent, are unwilling to take political office. President Wickremesinghe is doing his best, but will that be enough?
Get down to brass tacks
Saturday 13th August, 2022
The government’s high-octane performance is really amazing although the Opposition has accused it of doing nothing by way of problem solving. It has already solved many problems since the appointment of the new President and the new Cabinet, and is in the process of tackling many others.
The UNP has overcome many problems, thanks to the current dispensation. It has come in from the cold, at last. It was in penury following its disastrous electoral loss in 2020, but is showing signs of recovery. Some of its seniors who were in hiding after defaulting on bank loans to the tune of billions of rupees have crawled out of the woodwork. Their problems, too, have been solved.
The SLPP also had numerous problems; it faced the prospect of being ousted. But the government has solved all of them. The Rajapaksa family is out of danger; it is calling the shots in the government, again. The SLPP MPs who fell out with their party bosses, and were sidelined, are back in the Cabinet.
Some ambitious Opposition politicians have realised their dream of becoming ministers. Having crossed over to the government, they no longer have any problems to contend with, and can now make up for lost time to their heart’s content. Many more ministerial posts are expected to be created when the 22nd Amendment Bill with provision for the appointment of a jumbo Cabinet is steamrollered through Parliament, and the problems that most MPs are facing will be solved in the event of a national government being formed. At this rate, all the problems of the UNP, the SLPP and others who are willing to switch their allegiance to the government will be solved once and for all.
But the problems that the people are beset with remain unsolved, nay they are worsening. There’s the rub. The foreign currency crunch continues, and precious little is being done to ensure a steady forex inflow, which is the be-all and end-all of economic recovery. The fuel crisis is far from resolved; rationing is no solution however efficient it may be. The economy is thirsting for oil. Extremely high petroleum prices have led to an increase in production costs and the prices of essential goods and services. Inflation is soaring. Bread now costs as much as cake did about two years ago. People continue to skip meals. Doctors are complaining of drug shortages in the state-run hospitals. The school system is not fully functional yet due to transport issues. The Ceylon Electricity Board has jacked up electricity prices unconscionably, and the Water Board is expected to follow suit soon. Tax increases are said to be in the pipeline. Businesses are closing down due to escalating production costs and for want of imported raw materials. Many people have lost their jobs. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse when the adverse effects of the conditions for the IMF bailout packages kick in. The government does not seem keen to address these issues. The Opposition is all at sea.
The government and the Opposition have been busy talking instead of making a collective effort to pull the country out of the present economic mire. They are blowing hot and cold on the formation of an all-party government, which has come to mean different things to different people. The Opposition insists that the proposed joint administration should be an interim one, but the SLPP has some other plans; it wants to cling on to power by sharing ministerial posts with the Opposition. If President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLPP and the Opposition are serious about joining forces for the sake of the country, they ought to stop wasting any more time on endless talks, get down to brass tacks, set goals and formulate a definitive plan to reach them in the shortest possible time.
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