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Midweek Review

US-China power struggle: Impact on Sri Lanka

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2021 developments

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Former President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, MP, was a notable absentee at the Government Party Leaders’ meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, on Dec 25th. Twice President, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the meeting. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who hadn’t obtained the membership of the SLPP (though he was that party’s nominee for 2019 presidential poll) was present at the three-hour long discussion that dealt with the current situation.

Tackling the Covid-19 situation, both local and foreign debt obligations and restoration of financial stability are formidable challenges, the government and all other political parties represented in the parliament should be concerned about. They cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current instability in every sector.

The Dec 25th discussion covered the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic, the simmering crisis over the cremation of Covid-19 Muslim victims, long-delayed Provincial Council polls, fresh threat posed by armyworm, how some officials exploited the absence of PC polls et al. Over two hours into the meeting, former CPSL General Secretary and ex-Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera sought approval from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to speak on a couple of issues.

Gunasekera received an invitation to the important government group self-evaluation in spite of him giving up the Communist Party General Secretary post on August 30, 2020 to pave the way for Dr. G. Weerasinghe.

The veteran Communist didn’t mince his words when he drew the attention of the top government leadership to the growing danger in Western powers exploiting the cremation of all Covid-19 victims as part of their overall strategy meant to undermine Sri Lanka, the rapidly deteriorating economic situation here, and the need to take the public into confidence and what the electorate expected from the SLPP government in the wake of the sweeping 2019 presidential election victory. Gunasekera also questioned how Asanga Abeygoonasekera, a civilian attached to the Defence Ministry, took an extremely hostile stand on China in a recent article carried in the state media. Gunasekera alleged that such a hasty stand could be severely detrimental to the country against the backdrop of continuing US-China confrontation at regional and global level.

None of those present therein responded to Gunasekera’s concerns. The warning issued at the party leaders’ meeting was nothing but a stark reminder of the daunting challenges the country faced in 2021.

Gunasekera’s awakening call should jolt the government to take stock of the situation and take tangible measures to address the issues. One-time COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Gunasekera’s unpalatable advice to explain the dire economic situation, to the people, must have caused quite a stir among those present.

No less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, without hesitation, has acknowledged the difficulties faced by the country as a result of the Covid-19 eruption. It would be pertinent to point out that the President, on April 29, 2020, told the then Acting Ambassador and Chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy, in Colombo, Hu Wei, that due to the nose-diving of the global economy Sri Lanka lost its key income generating sources, like the apparel industry and tourism. The President’s Office quoted Rajapaksa as having said that it might take a considerable time for the global economy to recover, hence the long-time impact on Sri Lanka.

At the time President Rajapaksa made that statement, the country was coping with the first Covid-19 outbreak better than most countries, due to prompt military-like reaction to it.

The situation was brought under control by June. However, former Minister Gunasekera has issued the warning at a time the country was struggling to overcome the far more deadly Covid-19 second wave. The economy is in tatters with the bankrupt Opposition seeking to exploit, even the good work being done by the government, to its advantage. Despite the national economy having suffered irreparable damage, all political parties continue to play politics with the issue at hand.

The second Covid-19 eruption happened in the first week of October 2020. The government owed an explanation to the public as to how the second outbreak happened. In the absence of proper inquiry into widespread allegations that Covid-19 eruption may have originated at Brandix apparel facility in Minuwangoda, Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, issued specific instructions to the then Acting IGP C.D. Wickremaratne on Oct 27, Oct 29 and Nov 05 as regards the inquiry. The President’s Counsel directed the police to investigate negligence on the part of Brandix, and government officials, in what he called the creation of the ‘Brandix cluster.’

The public is yet to be informed of the outcome, or at least progress, of the investigation. Public Security Minister, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera should look into the status of the CID probe. A deeply concerned AG went to the extent of personally briefing the investigation team before the commencement of the inquiry. Most importantly, the AG stressed to the Acting IGP his (AG’s) legitimate duty and responsibility to issue instructions to the investigators, personally.

Against the backdrop of a much deteriorated economy, the government should establish how the second wave started. The government cannot turn a blind eye or conveniently forget the origins of the Covid-19 eruption. A really silly attempt was made by interested parties to blame the Covid-19 eruption on Ukrainian nationals. They also tried to pin the blame on members of a private airline crew who stayed at Hotel Ramada, Seeduwa, as well as group of technicians invited by the Air Force to inspect its AN 32s before them being dispatched to Ukraine for overhaul.

Let there be clarity and genuine understanding in this matter. The Opposition, the civil society and the media should push the SLPP government to bring the investigation to an early successful conclusion. The inordinate delay in finalizing the inquiry, or attempts to sweep it under the carpet, will only make matters worse.

Before we move onto other matters, the SLPP’s thinking on Provincial Council polls, too, should be examined. Several ministers, including Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Dayasiri Jayasekera, emphasized the need to conduct the much-delayed PC polls. However, some sections of the government are strongly opposed to the PC polls, in addition to the nine-member Expert Committee, headed by Romesh de Silva, PC, entrusted with the far more important and crucial task of formulating a new Constitution for the country. The proposal to conduct the PC polls under the ‘old system’ by moving an amendment in Parliament as suggested by the Chairman of the Election Commission, Nimal Punchihewa, can be quite disastrous as far as the formulation of constitutional proposals is concerned.

 

New Year wishes

Hiru’s main news bulletin on January 1, 2021, included statements issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and various others. Among them was President’s Counsel de Livera, who had followed an unprecedented path never even dreamt by any of his predecessor Attorneys General. Have you ever heard of a previous AG, on both print and electronic media, so much?

Addressing the AG Department employees, in Sinhala, De Livera said that as a functioning institution the department should definitely make a difference. But, making a difference wasn’t sufficient. The people should be able to realize and feel the difference. Livera emphasized the need to perform their duties and responsibilities in such a way, the public would know what was going on.

The New Year portends a series of challenges. The Office of the President, the Legislature and Judiciary face the daunting challenge of navigating a safer passage as the country faces both external and internal obstacles. Former Minister Gunasekera, in his own style, has reminded the powers that be of the need to identify major issues at hand and take remedial measures without delay. But, will there be political will to tackle the contentious issues?

The much-touted 20th Amendment, enacted in late Oct. 2020, hadn’t restored the desired political stability. The SLPP repeatedly assured that the 20th Amendment would be the panacea for all ills caused by the 19th Amendment, passed with an overwhelming 2/3 majority, in Parliament, on April 28, 2015. All those who had voted for the 19th Amendment, voted for the 20th Amendment whereas Maithripala Sirisena skipped the vote.

 

A silly strategy

Having backed the 19th Amendment to the hilt and prevailing on doubters in the UPFA to back it, Sirisena, now an ordinary lawmaker representing the Polonnaruwa District, excused himself from voting. However, 13 other SLFP lawmakers elected and appointed (Dr. Suren Raghavan) voted for the 20th Amendment. The SLFP group in the SLPP government is the second largest in the coalition. The SLFP is quite displeased over the way the SLPP managed coalition politics. As part of the SLFP strategy, the party sounded to the SLPP that it might go it alone at the next PC polls. Sirisena explained his party’s stance on several issues, including the possibility of contesting PC polls on its own devolution and the rights of the minorities, in an interview with Meera Srinivasan, The Hindu correspondent in Colombo. Even if the SLFP finally decides to go it alone, it is unlikely to pose a threat to the powerful SLPP, now in control of the vast majority of Local Government bodies, the Parliament and the Office of the President. The SLPP is unlikely to succumb to the SLFP tactics, regardless of Sirisena’s rhetoric and that of its General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera.

Let us reproduce the relevant section from The Hindu interview, posted on Dec 30, 2020, and updated on the following day. The Hindu Q: You recently remarked that the SLFP faced a “huge injustice” in the parliamentary elections and have hinted at possibly contesting the Provincial Council elections separately. Would you do that?

Maithripala Sirisena:

“We were treated unfairly when the candidates were picked ahead of the general elections in August 2020. Our party didn’t get a slot in either Kalutara or Nuwara-Eliya districts. In Gampaha, we were given only one. In Kurunegala, we were given only two slots. In the districts we are strong, we weren’t given a fair number of slots. We had asked for 30 candidates. Had we been given 30 slots in the last general election, we would have got at least 25 in Parliament. They [ruling party] organized political attacks on our candidates who had been nominated. So, while we still look forward to contesting the Provincial Council elections as a coalition, we insist on the fair share of seats due to us. If we get that, we will have no problem going to polls together with the government. If there is no fair treatment, our party will decide on a solo journey. We are ready for both options.”

The SLFP is in a pathetic situation. Formerly the major alternate political power, the SLFP, though being represented by 14 lawmakers in the current Parliament, is desperate. Of the 14-member group, only one is elected from the Jaffna District (Angajan Ramanathan) contested on the SLFP ticket (hand symbol). In other words, both the SLFP and the UNP, the two major political parties in the country, are reduced to one lawmaker each, elected under their own symbol. The humiliating and debilitating electoral setbacks suffered by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, caused permanent damage to the two parties. The emergence of the SLPP (145 elected members) and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB/54 members) should be examined against the backdrop of dilution of the UNP and the SLFP. Would it be too harsh, if one called for examination of the demise of those parties? The failure on the part of the UNP to resolve its leadership crisis, even five months after the last embarrassing defeat, is a grim reminder of its plight. The continuing disagreement on who should fill the only National List slot secured by the party at the last general election has further undermined the party. The party Constitution is silent on filling National List vacancies. In other words, if Wickremesinghe is so desired, he can keep the vacancy till the current term ends. The Expert Committee formulating the new Constitution should propose remedial measures.

The main Opposition SJB, too, is divided over policy. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and its partner Rauff Hakeem are struggling to cope with dissidents. Over half a dozen lawmakers, elected on the SJB ticket, and one of its National List MPs Diana Gamage, voted for the 20th Amendment, much to their embarrassment.

The SLPP must realize though the disillusioned political Opposition doesn’t pose a challenge, the Covid-19 and a plethora of other issues threatened to overwhelm the administration.

 

Destabilized by debt

The China-US clash is perhaps one of the major issues Sri Lanka should be seriously worried about. With the growing US-India nexus entering a new phase, vis-a-vis Chinese challenge, Sri Lanka is under heavy pressure to join the US-led strategic coalition. Indo-Pacific Defense FORUM, in a recent edition, extensively dealt with the Chinese challenge and counter measures that were being taken (Volume 45, Issue 1, 2020). The edition is a must read for our decision makers and members of Parliament. Under a section titled Setbacks to OBOR (One Belt, One Road), the US Indo –Pacific Command categorized Sri Lanka and the Maldives as countries destabilized by debt.

The MOC (Memorandum of Cooperation) entered into in late May 2019 by the yahapalana administration with India and Japan on the ECT (East Container Terminal) at the Colombo harbour should be examined against the US-led global coalition built against China. Contrary to promises made in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls, the SLPP is inclined to go ahead with the project. Against the backdrop of what can be certainly described as an economic downturn, even far more serious than during the height of the war, and intense pressure over the 99-year leasing of the H’tota port to China, the SLPP government may not have a way out of what can be safely called ECT imbroglio.

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa MP, raised the finalization of the proposed agreement on ECT at the recent government party leaders’ meet. Weerawansa strongly opposed the deal on the ECT. His erstwhile colleagues in the JVP, too, are at least ostensibly opposed to the Indian role. They have quite conveniently forgotten that the original agreement was moved by President Sirisena’s government, which the JVP helped to install in 2015 and thereafter the comrades propped up that government nicely from behind the scene. The current crop of JVP Leaders no doubt came up in the aftermath of the then UNP government and its death squads wiping out the cream of the party and its leadership barring one, who managed to escape to India at the time.

A hard hitting statement issued by the National Joint Committee (NJC), carried in the Dec 30, 2020 edition of The Island, took a pretty hard stand on the SLPP move. Finely drafted statement flayed the government, the strongest warning issued by the NJC since the last presidential election.

Regardless of the US leaving Sri Lanka out of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact recently over the latter’s hesitant approach, Washington continues to eye the country firmly. The US has already finalized ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in August 2017 though it was not successful with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

In spite of repeated assurances given by Sri Lanka, Western powers remained seriously concerned about growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. In addition to the H’tota port, secured during the Yahapalana administration, China runs a major operation within the Colombo harbour. Set up during the UPFA administration, Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd., (CICT) is a joint venture Company between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CICT is a listed blue chip company in the Hong Kong stock exchange. While H’tota lease covers a 99-year period, CICT agreement is for a 35-year Build Operate and Transfer operation. China holds 85% of the partnership while the balance pittance of 15% is being held by SLPA.

The Geneva sessions, in late February-March, can turn nastier with Western powers stepping up pressure on Sri Lanka over her decision to quit the 2015 Geneva Resolution. It would be important to keep in mind that those countries might gang up against Sri Lanka over her relationship with China and adopt a common stand in Geneva. That is the undeniable truth. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned human rights issue is nothing but a key element in their overall strategy meant to browbeat the country.

Some key recent happenings in Europe like the departure of the UK from the EU obviously with the intention to firmly align with its colonial cousins, like the US, Australia and Canada, the determination of Europe to complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia despite dire warnings from Washington (once completed, it is set to significantly increase Russian gas supplies to Germany), and even the recent signing of a free trade deal by EU with China despite Trump trying to line them up against Beijing are worthy fissures that might stand in good stead for us.

The growing hostility between China and India as well as the latter joining the US project against China certainly increase pressure on Sri Lanka, now in an unenviable position. Waste, corruption and irregularities in every sector and the failure on the part of Parliament to ensure financial discipline surely weakened the country, thereby paving the way for aggressive foreign interventions.



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Midweek Review

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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President Wickremesinghe with US Ambassador Chung at the Colombo harbour, on Nov, 22, at the commissioning of newly acquired Offshore Patrol Vessel, formerly of the US Coast Guard.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having comfortably won the vote on the Second Reading of 2023 Budget, two days earlier, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on November 24, dealt with a spate of issues, including the responsibilities of the armed forces and the police, obviously indicating how a second Aragalaya, aimed at ousting his government from power, by way of violent protests, as was done to the previous President, would be tackled, as the country could not possibly afford any more turmoil.

The UNP leader stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to protect the armed forces and the police, who performed their legitimate duties and responsibilities.

The Parliament approved the Cudget, on Nov. 22, with 121 voting for and 84 against, as the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) reiterated its commitment to a political marriage of convenience with UNP leader Wickremesinghe whose party has only one seat in the 225-member Parliament. Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the Budget, on Nov. 14.

The SLPP secured 145 seats, at the last General Election, though three breakaway groups of lawmakers have since distanced themselves from the party.

Speaking on the continuing threats faced by his government, Wickremesinghe underscored the responsibilities of all, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe’s reference to responsibilities of those from Corporal to Field Marshal should be examined against the backdrop of perceived relationship between the war-winning Army Commander and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), accused of toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe talked tough and didn’t mince his words when setting the tone for the remainder of his term, secured on July 20, courtesy the SLPP. Wickremesinghe seemed confident that the balance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, won with a landslide at the Nov. 16, 2019, presidential election, could be completed.

Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Acting President, on July 13, and was elected the eighth President on July 20. As the sole UNP National List MP, Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes, including his own, whereas his rivals Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) obtained 82 and 03 votes respectively.

Wickremesinghe delivered a clear message. The UNPer didn’t mince his words when he warned that unauthorized protests, meant to undermine his government, wouldn’t be tolerated, under any circumstances.

Wickremesinghe declared that trouble makers wouldn’t be allowed to take cover behind human rights and any attempt to adopt strategies, similar to those employed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be crushed, militarily. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s stand.

So, in case the FSP et al launched the second phase of ‘Aragalaya,’ targeting the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, they can expect the armed forces and law enforcement authorities unleashed on them.

 Immediately after taking oaths, as the eighth President, Wickremesinghe directed the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament). Ironically, President Wickremesinghe, who was always for protests against the government in power, when in the Opposition, overnight metamorphosed into ignoring protests by the NGO-led mafia against the deployment of the armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave in to US pressure not to use the armed forces to evict those camping outside the Presidential Secretariat until it was too late.

Even on May 09 when a well-orchestrated wave of physical attacks, and torching of properties of government politicians, was unleashed across the country, as if in spontaneous response from the public at large, over the attack on the Galle Face protesters, the same evening the US Ambassador Julie Chung issued a statement, through the local media, warning the armed forces and the police not to crackdown on peaceful protesters. We all saw how peaceful these foreign-funded protesters were when the opportunity arose. On May 09, they even turned on a group of SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, when they visited the Galle Face protest site. Luckily for them, they beat a hasty retreat, with their security, sensing what was in store for them, after getting a few knocks.

During the campaign against Gotabaya Rajapaksa that commenced with violent protests outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, SLPP lawmaker Rear Admiral (ret.) Sarath Weerasekera told this writer, on a number of occasions, the danger of failing on the part of the then administration to deal with the growing threat efficiently. Weerasekera was one of the few who demanded tangible action against the protest campaign. By July 09, protesters forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Janadhipathi Mandiraya by sea. Field Marshal Fonseka, MP, had been the only parliamentarian to address the protesters, near Janadhipathi Mandiraya, just a few hours before they forced their way into the presidential abode.

No one bothered to remind the Field Marshal of his obligations at that time. In addition to Sajith Premadasa, Fonseka, too, received an invitation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the premiership. Both declined for different reasons.

But, on the part of Wickremesinghe, there hadn’t been any wavering, as in the case of Premadasa, despite being the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP leader simply grabbed the opportunity and proceeded step by step, having evicted those occupying the Presidential Secretariat.

Lawmaker Weerasekera, who sided with President Wickremesinghe at the Budget vote, told The Island the UNP leader had dealt appropriately with those trying to undermine law and order. Unfortunately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite being a distinguished former frontline combat officer, hesitated to meet the protesters’ violent challenge due to well hatched Western propaganda against his government, the MP asserted.

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

President Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to remind the House of the correspondence between his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to him being sworn in as the Premier on May 12. During his Nov. 24 address to Parliament, the UNP leader tabled in House Sajith Premadasa’s letter, dated May 12, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate his position, faulted the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up the presidency. The President’s strategy seems clear. In addition to dealing with the economy, Wickremesinghe faces two primary challenges, namely rebuilding the UNP, now reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena), in preparation for future elections and the resolution of the national question (post-war national reconciliation)

The re-building of the UNP has to be achieved at the expense of Sajith Premadasa. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s strategy. Wickremesinghe has no option but to relentlessly push SJB members to switch their allegiance to him. Although many believed Wickremesinghe could influence the majority of the main Opposition, the SJB, to switch sides, in the wake of his appointment as the Premier, it didn’t materialize. Of the 54-member SJB parliamentary group, Manusha Nanayakara (Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment) and Harin Fernando (Minister of Tourism and Land) deserted Sajith Premadasa when they accepted Cabinet portfolios, on May 20 from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The two SJB MPs, who spearheaded a high profile campaign, targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, had no qualms in receiving their letters of appointment from the very person.

The other SJB MP to accept state ministerial portfolios from Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, in April (Transport) and September (Tourism) was Diana Gamage, now at the centre of a simmering controversy over her allegedly being a British national. When there are probably at least half a dozen or so other dual citizen MPs in Parliament we wonder why just Diana Gamage is being targeted by so many.

President Wickremesinghe appears to be confident that some of those who had been elected on the SJB ticket, as well as some SLPPers, may accept Cabinet portfolios soon. Appointments are likely to be finalized immediately after the final vote on the Budget, scheduled to take place on Dec 08.

Wickremesinghe needs to reach a consensus with the top SLPP leadership, as regards Cabinet portfolios, as the latter wouldn’t, under any circumstances, tolerate appointments, sans its approval. However, Wickremesinghe will go out to engineer defections from the SJB. Will the UNP leader be able to influence a group large enough to cause the disintegration of Sajith Premadasa’s party, formed in early 2020, to contest the last General Election?

However, in spite of enjoying executive powers, Wickremesinghe would find it an extremely difficult task as the SJB, as a group, abhorred joining the SLPP-led government. On one hand, Wickremesinghe required the continuing support of the SLPP to sustain his government. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe’s dependence on the SLPP made him quite unpopular. The SLPP has so far refused to accept that it couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout, caused by utter mismanagement of the national economy. Had the SLPP government sought the IMF intervention, soon after the 2019 presidential election, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have ended up as the President. The circumstances that compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Wickremesinghe to accept the premiership underscored the seriousness of the situation the country had fallen into.

Having failed to get elected, from Colombo, at the last General Election, Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament, in late June 2021, on its National List, at a time the national economy was rapidly deteriorating.

But, even Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have anticipated the turn of events that compelled the desperate Rajapaksas to invite him to accept the premiership, one month short of a year later. Having taken over the government, under an incomparable situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda. The SLPP seems to be so far satisfied. The vote on the Second Reading of the Budget meant that the SLPP and Wickremesinghe are prepared to work together. though quite significant differences remain.

However, the SLPP has, in no uncertain terms, indicated that it didn’t bother about the mandates received at the 2019 Presidential and 2020 General Elections at which its candidate received 6.9 mn votes and the party obtained a staggering 145 seats, respectively.

Prez roadmap

SLPP National List MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, in two speeches in Parliament (delivered during the ongoing Budget debate) dealt with Wickremesinghe’s strategy. The leader of civil society group Yuthukama did it quite well. The first time entrant to Parliament discussed the issues at hand, including the alleged move to deliberately lose state control over land that may cause irrevocable consequences. At the onset of one speech, lawmaker Cumaratunga reacted somewhat angrily as some government members continued with their noisy private conversations, among themselves, as the MP dealt with contentious issues.

The MP asked whether Wickremesinghe was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance his own roadmap at the expense of the country. Cumaratunga raised the possibility of those enjoying the political power allowing further deterioration of the economy. The MP expressed fears of Wickremesinghe’s Budget causing a heavier debt burden at a time the country has suspended repayment of loans. The MP also slammed the government over the inordinate delay in amending the Exchange Control Act of 2017 to make it mandatory for importers to bring back massive amounts of funds ‘parked’ overseas, over a period of time, within a stipulated time frame.

In addition to Cumaratunga, Prof. Charitha Herath, as well as Prof. Channa Jayasumana ,made important contributions during the ongoing Budget debate. Both of them dealt with the land issue.

Herath, who earned public appreciation for his role as former COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman dealt with a number of issues, including an ‘operation’ meant to facilitate land grabs. The first time MP alleged that the move to place state land under the purview of Divisional Secretaries was nothing but a ruse to allow land grabs.

Participating in the Second Reading debate on the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath alleged that the move was meant to allow cronies of the ruling party to get hold of government lands. Declaring that LRC lands had been misappropriated for the political gains of successive governments, since 1977, Prof. Herath questioned the way state land were utilized. The 2023 Budget has proposed to legitimize wrong procedure, lawmaker Herath said, adding: “We summoned the LRC, two or three times before the Committee on Public Enterprises, and investigated the issues at hand. We found out that there had been many shortcomings in its land utilization process. We instructed the officials to take remedial measures. Now the 2023 Budget has proposed that these LRC lands should be placed under District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and allow them to decide to whom those lands should be given for the purpose of cultivating them. The proposal would prune down the powers of the Lands Minister.

“We do not approve the status quo of the LRC because every Lands Minister has placed the LRC under his or her friends who, in return, placed the lands at LRC under the mercy of the Minister. This should come to an end but not in the manner that has been envisaged by the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath said.

Prof. Jayasumana raised the legitimacy of crucial decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader didn’t have a mandate to do so from the people. Addressing the Parliament, during the Committee Stage of the Defence Ministry vote, the first time MP asked whether the President could take decisions pertaining to national security and policy matters as he was only entrusted with completing the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

The Anuradhapura District MP suggested the need to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as regards the ability of Wickremesinghe to call for a presidential election four years after the last poll. In this case the one held in Nov. 2019. Lawmaker Jayasumana declared that he would submit a private member’s proposal to enable Wickremesinghe to call for a fresh presidential poll after completion of one year in office. If consensus could be reached, a fresh presidential election could be held in July 2023, Prof. Jayasumana said, adding that if Wickremesinghe won he could implement whatever his proposals. Pointing out that as Wickremesinghe’s agenda had been rejected by the electorate in 1994, 2004 and 2019, the UNP leader could face serious public challenge unless he obtained a fresh mandate.

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a huge mandate at the 2019 presidential election to preserve Sri Lanka’s unitary status, Prof Jayasumana questioned the moves to even go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The academic reminded that the Supreme Court had been divided on the 13th Amendment.

The SLPP rebel reminded that the Supreme Court bench that decided on the 13th Amendment did so by a majority of just one judge.

Sri Lanka is heading for unprecedented political upheaval as Wickremesinghe pushes ahead with his agenda amidst further deterioration of political-economic-social situation. The much-touted USD 2.9 bn in emergency aid from the IMF, spread over a period of four years, seems wholly inadequate to remedy the situation. Impending political turmoil appears to be quite threatening and may even undermine the economic recovery efforts unless the Parliament addressed the issues at hand with the dedication such situations required.

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

It is vitally important to value our freedom more than anything else, as Patrick Henry did and declared: “Give me liberty or give me death. My humanity diminishes the less I am free; my humanity is enhanced the more I am free.” Moises Naim has written a book that every freedom loving human being must read to become aware of the treacherous dangers to his/her freedom.

The book is about how our freedom won with so much trouble, toil, blood and sacrifice is being corroded today, not from outside forces, like in the past such as tribal chiefs, kings and dictators, but more insidiously from within, subtly and deceptively, with something that looks like truth or democracy.

The mortal enemy of freedom is power. The gradual defeat of power by freedom and democracy we enjoy is being slowly strangulated by power returning to battle in unsuspecting hidden ways and means. That is why the book is titled “The Revenge of Power”.

The book is about the 3-P autocrats who steal our freedom and kill democracy. The three Ps are populism, polarisation and post-truth. The corrosive and corrupting consequence of the trio – populism, polarisation and post-truth – is a criminal and complete takeover of the state.

Populism

Populism is a set of practices and strategies. Through this, the autocrats become not only the sole voice and face of the government but also of the state. It empties the meaning of the authentic exercise of the will of the people as it weakens popular and civic organisations, and eliminates the function of political parties as channels of alternative ideologies.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) perfectly fits the bill for a populist leader. He came to power through democratic and legal means unlike Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) who became the President through trickery. No autocrat can beat the executive powers of the President of Sri Lanka, thanks to J. R. Jayewardene, who introduced the 1978 Constitution. Slowly, MR began to show traces of an autocrat. Even the few checks and balances that were in existence were disregarded. Self-promoting useless extravaganzas increased. He openly became nepotistic. He began to interfere in the judiciary by removing Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Shirani Bandaranayake, and brought in 18th Amendment in a bid to become the President for life. In the meantime, more and more allegations of huge commissions on mega projects, robberies, scams and crimes of family members, relatives and cronies increase. Pandora Papers disclosures as regards Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband has revealed only a fraction of what the Rajapaksa family has amassed.

MR’s younger brother, Gotabaya, entered politics in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre declaring that he alone could protect the country’s national security. He said at the very beginning of his presidency that his word took precedence over government circulars. He banned agrochemicals. His idiotic economic decisions bankrupted the country.

Polarisation

Polarisation is the age-old idea of divide and rule. The autocrats generate intense hatred against the rivals and neutralise them. Since they exploit the atavistic fears and prejudices of and the social cleavages and divisions among people, they have a huge fan-base, and hence emerge as Messiahs.

Creating an enemy, the Other, is the speciality of our politicians. The Tamil minority was the first enemy. JR, the autocrat deliberately organised the 1983 July riots, and the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Then, we had the 30-year civil war. They demonised the Tamils in the North and the East. GR came to power after Easter Sunday tragedy, promising to ensure national security and making the Muslims, the Other or the enemy.

Creating and accusing the Other, the enemy is part of the political practice in Sri Lanka. Rulers speak of imperialist conspiracy, Tamil separatism, Muslim Wahabism, NGO betrayals, Christian conversions or what not. They make ‘others’ monsters ready to pounce on the hapless majority, destroy them and conquer Sri Lanka.

Divide and rule is the name of the autocrat’s game. RW has called the Aragalaya youth fascists making them The Other. By using the PTA he has made the university students terrorists. Anti-riot police in full gear with tear gas masks, water cannon trucks and hundreds of men and women armed with batons and shields are sent to suppress the fundamental rights of the people to protest of small groups of unarmed non-violent civilians.

Post-truth

Post-truth is the confused conceptualisation and uncontrollable diffusion of fake news that distorts reality. It has such a power that it can systematically block the knowledge and diffusion of the truth. It is not simply spreading lies. It is about muddying the waters to such a point that it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. Post-truth is the baby of the modern mass communication media.

“Post-truth has been defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth.” It is a condition that arises in public life when the dividing line between facts and knowledge, on one side, and belief and opinion, on the other, withers away, or at least when they are used interchangeably so often that the dividing line between them is no longer widely agreed upon.” (Quoted from the aforesaid book)

With easy access to millions, social media, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc., we are inundated with facts and messages that can be true, partially true, false or fake. Often contrary facts and news are presented to us and we are confused as to what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. This weakens our democracy. A country of confused citizens is easy prey of the rapacious populist autocrat.

How to protect our freedom

The author has proposed methods of fighting the 3-P autocrats by battling against their five most used tactics.

The battle against the Big Lie

The Big Lie was the slogan given by Trump to his election loss. Here are some of our Big Lies. “Dharmishta Samajaya” sounds so pious and nice but the reality of the JR presidency was just the opposite. Then MR presented the vision of “Suba Anagathayak.” Now, we are in the Rajapakses’ ‘Anagathe’, you can decide whether it is ‘suba’ or ‘kalakanni’. “Yahapalanaya” was another fantastic goal to be achieved, but the UNP and its cronies carried out the Treasury bond scams, and the SJB footnote gang shamelessly tried to protect the culprits. Finally, we have the “Saubagya” of GR, well, the country is bankrupt and economically bogged down and ruined. The sweet dream of ‘Saubagya’ has become for the people a nightmare! These are the Big Lies of Sri Lankan politics. There are many small lies that are brazenly proclaimed in public like when Namal R said that “No Rajapakse has robbed anything. Take us to courts and prove the charges.” Of course, GR had “Nidoskota nidahas” all the cases against the Rakapakses and their crony murderers and thieves. Or take the television channels that promoted the Dammika Peniya as a cure for Covid-19.

Now for the battle. Democracy and freedom can be saved only if the citizens are well informed of how the government works. Ways of educating the youth and even the elderly must be found and implemented. They must be taught to check always the myriads of facts, figures and information they receive and even double check them before using them to make decisions or sharing them with others. The perpetrators of the Big Lie must never be allowed to win an election again. Even the supporters and promoters of the Big Liar must be dealt with similarly. The electorate must be made to feel seriously responsible for the election results.

Battle against criminal regimes

There are countries where criminals are no longer underground but very much above ground and in the highest places of power. Since the 1970s, Sri Lanka has also joined the club or the mafia of such countries. A good example of where it started is when JR made the notorious criminal, Gonawala Sunil, a Justice of the Peace after pardoning and releasing the latter from prison! We have a person convicted of “Kappan” as the Chief Whip of the government and most others are all thieves or at least collaborators of thieves. It is not for nothing that people call them Ali Baba and the 225 thieves.

As every government deal, whether oil, gas, sugar, medicine, vaccines or other essentials, is suspected to be a scam and the allegations are never investigated or admitted, we sure have a kleptocracy consisting of the politicians, top administrative officers and their crony businessmen openly robbing the wealth of the nation. The kleptocrats robbed and bankrupted the country. They have taken out the wealth of the country and stashed it away in black tax havens.

When the people of Aragalaya led by the youth, protest publicly against the criminal government, they are arrested and jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Saving democracy and freedom from a criminal regime is going to be a war of attrition. Then we must investigate the route of the stolen money and confiscate it. So far, nothing has been done in this regard. All that we know about Nirupama Rajapaksa, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, Udayanga Weeratunga, Air Bus scam, etc., has been revealed by investigations conducted overseas. We cannot expect a criminal government to conduct such investigations. It will have to be the work of NGOs, journalists, detectives and lawyers. Anybody, even charities that receive funds from autocrats who need character laundering must be named and shamed.

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

Powerful autocracies and even some democracies competing for global domination have always interfered in the smaller democracies. It is clear how funding for elections is received. It is no secret that China funded Rajapaksas or the US funded some others. There were allegations that North Korea funded the old JVP and India funded the LTTE. Funds apart, now they use the social media on a global scale to disinform, mislead and tarnish the images of politicians who are undesirables, or support their favourites. They have found that Russia has interfered in the Trump election and in the Brexit referendum.

The only defence of the democracies against such onslaughts depends “on three priorities: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.”

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

Democracy is a way of organising political competition. In a democracy, those unhappy with the current state of affairs can change things, but only if they can persuade enough fellow citizens to vote for them. Ensuring fair and lawful political competition is the central purpose of democratic checks and balances. (Quoted from the book)

But political cartels that include the judicial, administrative and military sectors unleash anti-competitive pressures to stifle freedom and democracy. They are rigging the game to stay in power. The autocrats become political monopolists. In Sri Lanka, the practice of bribing MPs to switch sides is part of anti-competition.

“To defeat them, we need a kind of political anti-trust doctrine, one designed to protect the competitive dynamic at the heart of democracy. Whether dealing with campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, or media regulation, policymakers must squarely confront one question: Do the current rules foster fair and constructive competition? Where the answer is no, a strong prima facie case exists for intervention and reform.” (Quoted from the book)

Battle against illiberal narratives

The autocrats create the Big Lie that they are the saviours of the people harassed by poverty, and the elites are insensitive to the people’s plight. They cater to the people’s gut level feelings and make their adrenalin work. But the democrats find difficult to achieve such results as they will offer only abstract principles of truth and fair play; freedom and competition. Usually, the democrats are always at a disadvantage.

“The populist frame is too powerful to be defeated permanently. Like a virus, it reappears in outbreaks again and again throughout history. But the rhetoric is hollow. And pointing out that hollowness gives us an opening we must exploit to sell people once more on the promise of democratic life.” (Quoted from the book)

In our country, Aragalaya has opened the eyes of people as never before and now many of them can see how they have been deceived and abused by populist autocrats.

“Sobriety is in order. The fact that democracy has survived over the last three centuries in no way guarantees that it will prevail against its enemies once more. But if we can defeat the Big Lies, sideline criminalized governments, parry the attempts at foreign subversion directed at democratic elements, face down the political cartels that stifle competition, and beat back the illiberal narratives that sustain autocratic onslaughts, we’ll have won the war to preserve democracy.” (Quoted from the book)

Conclusion

As I finished reading the book, I realised that we had found the local antidote to the 3-P autocrats. It is our own way of dealing with our own variety of 3-P autocrats. It is what emerged as Aragalaya in April this year, climaxed in July and is still simmering like live coals in the ashes. Proudly, I called it the Beautiful Revolution. However much its detractors howl against it, it is now a historical fact. Aragalaya happened and nobody can deny, delete or forget it. Our youth led it and were responsible for it and all, their mothers, fathers even little children joined them whole heartedly. The world was stunned by its success. Not a drop of blood was shed by the protesters.

I gauged them at the Galle Face Gotagogama. Aragalaya can be defined with the three words they always use, Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraya. Nirpakshika means they are not followers or slaves of anybody, any party or any ism. They are strong free adults; they think for themselves and they decide for themselves. Nirprachanda means non-violence stemming from human solidarity. Aragalaya was an experience of solidarity; not the narrow solidarity of groups of the same race, religion, language, class, caste or political party but the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race. At Gotagogama there was open trust and friendliness among all sorts of people. I remember one incident clearly; when the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu said that he was going to send food-aid to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, a young Tamil took the mike at Gotagogama and sent a message to the Chief Minister; Sir, either send food-aid to Sri Lankans or don’t send at all. Yes, we are Sri Lankans, period. Finally, they called their movement Aadaraye Aragalaya. I suppose it is inevitable; nirpakshika and nirprachanda leads naturally to the peculiar ethos of Aragalaya; an ethos of love, peace, friendship and brotherhood.

Aragalaya led by the new generation revealed what is truly necessary for democracy. It was democratic as it never had a clear leader. All were welcome to come forward and share their opinion. Various individuals were spokespersons for it but Aragalaya went on, a common project of the people. Everybody shared equal responsibility for the spontaneous project, in such a way that all were leaders. Aragalaya formed free citizens fit for true democracy. And this is the best antidote to the 3P autocrats. Democracy, not just in name but in practice, is possible in Sri Lanka. The good news of Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraye Prajatantravadaya must be spread island wide. This is the foundation for the system change we are looking for. And this is what frightens the enemies of Aragalaya, Ali Baba and the 225 thieves. They know their evil system is in its death throes. With PTA, emergency, suppression, new alliances, new parties, fake news and all kinds of crooked deals they are fighting for their survival. They will be vanquished.

Let us keep in mind; the price of sweet freedom is the hard work of eternal vigilance or a sort of permanent Aragalaya.

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