Reply to ‘The Wickremesinghe Presidency’
by Dr. Mahim Mendis
“The man of character is the persistent man, the man who is faithful to his own word, his own convictions, his own affections”.
The analysis by Anura Gunasekere in The Island Newspaper, of 22nd July, 2022, is a reflection of a segment of the English-speaking middle class in Sri Lanka, confused and burdened by the state of flux, or the terrible uncertainty that engulfs the nation at large. They often confine their criticism to private gatherings, while a few others express themselves through newspaper columns with hard hearted sentiments against politicians like Sajith Premadasa, whom they love to undermine. Ironically, these distractors themselves are not principled on they look at national level problems.
OVERWHELMED BY ACTION TO OUST RANIL/RAJAPAKSAS
Members of this social class, going by the contents of Mr. Gunasekeras column, never believed in ousting Rajapaksas or Wickremesinghe, as they easily embrace the status quo; unlike hapless masses who courageously resist without running away when fired by the State armed forces or the goons employed by the Ranil/Rajapaksa regime. They also resent the militant outlook of University students affiliated to the Inter-University Student Federation, as they know that they are tougher in heart and mind than their own sons and daughters.
Anura Gunasekere has remembered to grant some fatherly advice to these militant youth that revived the Aragalaya consistently as follows: “Also a word to unemployed graduates; the State provides you with an education, but is not obliged to provide you with sinecure employment of your choice. You need to work at becoming employable and learn to accept what is available”.
Probably, Gunasekere did not understand that these boys and girls are concerned about the massive disparity in educational standards in Sri Lanka, with approximately 9% completing tertiary literacy with absolutely poor human and physical infrastructure rooted in major socio-economic incompatibilities in 25 Districts.
Anura Gunasekere probably did not realize that youth leaders, like Wasantha Mudalige and Lahiru Weerasekere, of the IUSF, or Duminda Nagamuwa of the Frontline Socialist Party, constantly battle against the prevailing system, demanding decisive changes in the system, even risking imprisonment. Anura Gunasekere, won’t even remember that these militant girls and boys have been fighting in recent times against militarization of vital institutions of the State, including, public administration, health, education, agriculture, etc., warning all of us about the effects of the militarization project, if pursued to a logical conclusion.
ARAGALAYA DID NOT CHANGE; THOUGH SOME AT GALLE FACE CHANGED
IUSF, just as much as academics, farmers, fishermen and school reachers, had already started their Aragalaya, long before committed and passionate youth started the GOTAGOGAMA. I say this as Anura Gunasekere has taken the typically conservative position often repeated by the English-speaking elites, as follows:
“The Aragalaya itself appears to have changed, in both complexion and composition. Ordinary citizens of all social and economic classes have withdrawn and the Aragalaya is now represented by more militant, professional agitators, seemingly drawn largely from the Frontline Socialist Party and the Inter-University Federation, with some assistance from habitual malcontents who occupy the fringe of all strife, irrespective of political belief”.
The Aragalaya. that Gunasekere talks about. was abandoned not by ordinary people but by those of higher social echelons, probably the day Mahinda Rajapaksa’s goons attacked unarmed youth near Temple Trees and at Galle Face Green. Probably the members of the bourgeoisie suffered from major withdrawal tendencies with the SJB leader and Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa nearly getting assaulted by a few disgruntled JVP/JJB activists.
SAJITH EXPRESSED TRUE SOLIDARITY WITH THE ARAGALAYA IN A HOLISTIC SENSE
Whilst Anura Gunasekere confers status to the Aragalaya from the time Gotagogama emerged, Sajith Premadasa was sensitive to different segments of the suffering people, long before Gotagogama emerged. Having established a viable political alternative, inspired by Social Democracy, to the Rajapaksa-led and Military blessed Pohottuwa, the neo-liberal and neo-feudal Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP, and the Communist inspired JVP/JJB, Sajith was also concerned about acute militarization of society and the misery that could befall the nation through anti-people economic policies with special tax concessions to the most affluent.
When the IUSF and the FUTA opposed the KDU Bill, Sajith Premadasa worked with the anti-militarization lobby, as he knew that the Rajapaksas would cause havoc with this power, sooner or later.
FRIVOLOUS ASSUMPTION THAT SAJITH BLUNDERED BY REJECTING P. M. OR PRESIDENT POST
Sajith Premadasa, who had a mind and a spine to challenge the UNP, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the JVP, led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and the Pohottuwa, led by the Rajapakses, at the 2020 General Elections, with his own party, emerged as the leader of the most formidable Opposition, with both the UNP and the JJB trailing far behind, with a voter base that did not reach 5%.
Now, it is such a leader that Anura Gunasekere advocates should be changed, knowing that this is Sri Lanka’s newest party with an unprecedented electoral performance, politically annihilating the RW-led UNP in every district in Sri Lanka.
PRINCIPLED LEADER PROJECTED AS A COWARD
Is Anura Gunasekere an appeaser of the Ranil-Rajapaksa regime to have a serious grouse with Sajith Premadasa for not accepting the Prime Ministerial post under Gotabaya? Is he incapable of understanding that such a step would have been most dishonourable for anyone who expressed solidarity with the peoples’ struggle? Anura Gunasekere also seems to be thinking that the ousting of the Rajapaksas; Mahinda, Basil and Gotabaya created a massive dilemma in the mind of Sajith Premadasa as he was not confident enough to accept high office.
As stated by him: “Why was a relative nonentity, like Dulles, until very recently a Rajapaksa faithful, chosen to oppose RW? The most obvious answer would be that Sajith Premadasa, who faced a second career challenge within weeks, again showed no stomach for the fight. In this situation the most obvious candidate to oppose RW would have been the Leader of the Opposition”.
UNITING ENTIRE OPPOSITION AGAINST RANIL /RAJAPAKSA WAS PREMADASA’S PRIORITY
Anura Gunasekere should know better that it was not a matter of Sajith proving the strength of the SJB which had 50 members, like what was done by the Anura Kumara-led three member JJB/JVP combine, against the Rajapakses 2/3rds in Parliament. He should realize that this was at a time the TNA and the SLFP had already decided to abstain from voting.
The Statesman like position of Sajith Premadasa only helped to galvanize the Opposition with a few more supporting the second major demand of the Aragalaya for an Interim all-party consensus that will honour constitutional and socio-economic reforms proposed to ensure dignity of life for the majority of our citizens.
I see Anura Gunasekara’s frustration that Sajith did not play Ranil’s politically vulgar trick. But that is unacceptable to democratic minded people, although Anura Gunasekere states that: Today, he (Ranil) is the elected leader of the country, ironically, enthusiastically sponsored by the very members of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which, in August 2020, consigned him to political oblivion”. Now, if Gunasekere had a value centered democratic political perception, will he in any way perceive that Wickremesinghe is the elected Leader of the country, when he was in fact rejected in every electorate?
FRIVOLOUS THINKING OF SO CALLED RESPECTABLE
Let us accept that the Sri Lankan nation is in a perilous state not because of the formally untrained, poverty–stricken majority, but because of the privileged, educated, so called cosmopolitan minority, who are confused and attitudinally poverty-stricken. Even in Parliament they have never been a source of inspiration for the lesser mortals.
The challenge for the English-speaking middle class is to be more inspiring than Wickremasinghe types who have proved with actions that they have not really read any decent books in their own libraries.
Lacking in pro-people ideological convictions, they are not sure about what they believe in, like for example, the way some opt to worship in any religious shrine under the sun. They criticize Sajith Premadasa, who in fact has the charisma and the backbone to form his own party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, which is today working towards a new political culture to refrain from grabbing political power at whatever cost.
SAJITH’S MISSION TO FORM A NATIONAL MOVEMENT TO RESIST FASCISM
As pointed out by the eminent Political Scientist and former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nation, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke, in an article in the Colombo Telegraph of 22 July 2022, the highest priority right now is to ensure the formation of an anti-fascist united front, leading to a united front against repression and dictatorship.
As a strong leader with a heart and mind for the ordinary people, Sajith has already created the foundation for this broad coalition, to unite all, as prescribed wisely by Dr. Jayatilleke. This is to unite the JVP, the FSP, the SLFP and the 10 smaller parties and the Dullas faction to fight the Ranil-Rajapaksa civilian-military junta.
Sajith becomes a strong leader since he tirelessly and selflessly worked to unite the entire Parliamentary opposition, while the Aragalaya united the people. He is strong enough to understand that Aragalaya believes in a Peoples’ Council to engage in farsighted deliberations, while his distractors are busy aligning themselves with Ranil’s anti- people regime. Proposal for a Peoples’ Council is not a Pol-Potish tendency on the part of Youth leaders.
Premadasa respects the three Cs in governance: Consultation, Consensus and Compromise, that his own father Ransinghe Premadasa was committed to practising when he even appointed an All-Party Parliamentary Select Committee, under the SLFP MP Mangala Samaraweera to resolve the ethno-political crisis. Hence, let me remind Anura Gunasekere:
“Partisan rancor and party politics and ideology have got in the way of compromise – and compromise is the only thing that has ever made politics successful”.
– Kevin Spacey, American Film Producer and Political Activist
Need for best relations with China
(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)
I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.
Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.
I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.
Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.
It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.
It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.
A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.
These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future
A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka
Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.
Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!
They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.
Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.
Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.
The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.
Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.
What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.
Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.
Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW
It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.
These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.
Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:
* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees
* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees
* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.
These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.
As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!
Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.
UPULl P Auckland
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