by Krishantha Prasad Cooray
Next week’s presidential election in the United States of America has become a remarkable event on the world stage. It has exposed the dark underbelly of the American political system and left us all wondering whether America, the world’s oldest modern democracy, is indeed still a democracy at all?
Four years ago, America fell to a strongman. Donald Trump took the national stage with masterful control of the media, hijacking a democratic system, bypassing the traditional scrutiny of presidential candidates by hiding his tax returns, silencing people with non-disclosure agreements and controlling the narrative about his political opponent.
By the measure of an election in any normal democracy, he failed, garnering 2,868,686 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, a margin of 2.23%. To put that margin in a context that Sri Lankans would understand, Ranil Wickremasinghe lost the 2005 presidential election in Sri Lanka by a narrower margin of only 1.86%. However, under the American system, it is the combination of states you win in the Electoral College that counts, not the number of votes, and Donald Trump became president as a result.
For decades, the battle for the right to vote has been a feature of American politics. Politicians and judges they have appointed frequently succeed in preventing minority groups, young voters or others from voting, and have found ways to have their ballots excluded from the final tally. On more than one occasion, the politicized American Supreme Court has sided with these efforts, further divorcing the American political system from what we in Sri Lanka understand as democracy.
Indeed, we can take pride in our own system. For all the political turmoil that our country has suffered in 72 years as an independent democracy, no one barring the LTTE has ever tried to deny the franchise to any Sri Lankan constituency or to prevent them from voting. More importantly, it would be unthinkable for Sri Lankan courts to even entertain a case seeking to deny the vote to any group of Sri Lankans.
But what is still unthinkable in little Sri Lanka is now the stated path to victory for Donald Trump’s re-election in America. A president who came to power on a technicality is now seeking to unleash a torrent of technicalities to cling on to power. His acolytes are sabotaging the postal service to scuttle the postal vote, rushing to courts across the country to seek rulings preventing votes from being counted, shutting down polling places in urban areas to make it more difficult for poor people to vote, and adopting a flurry of similar strategies not to increase their own vote count, but to reduce the number of votes counted for their opponent.
To those of us who treasure democracy and the institutions that defend it, there is solace to be found in the fact that Donald Trump is the first incumbent American President running for reelection who has not been endorsed by living former Presidents in his own party. Lifelong institutionalists in his Republican party, from former Speaker Paul Ryan to the late Senator John McCain, disavowed him. McCain went so far as to request that Trump not be allowed to attend his funeral.
Hundreds of retired senior military, intelligence and law enforcement officials in America have spoken out not just to oppose Donald Trump but to warn that his re-election would pose a grave threat to the national security and integrity of the United States of America.
What America has seen in the last four years is that when strongmen bluster their way into high office on a façade of glitzy propaganda and magical promises, the reality is that they will spend their time in office making excuses as to why they could not get anything done, and insisting that the only way they can deliver what they promised is if they are allowed more time in office. Meanwhile, they chafe at the democratic and institutional safeguards designed to ensure that our rulers are accountable to their people and serve at their mercy.
With Trump’s failure to deliver on his promises, and his catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is reason to hope that his defeat will make way for healing America and making its institutions stronger than they were before Trump began his assault. There is a lot of healing to be done.
Ever since World War II, America has marketed itself as the poster-child for democracy on the world stage, even though the fairness of its electoral system has lagged objectively behind those of several other established democracies like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.
Despite America’s wide inequalities, it is the country’s evolution that is most romantic. Before being elected President, as an opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln explained that America’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that all men are equal, was not a statement of fact but an aspiration to strive for. The concept of equality, Lincoln said, is one that must be “constantly looked to, constantly laboured for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colours, everywhere.”
Indeed, the American tradition has been to own up to its country’s dark history and aspire to do better. Whether slavery, the treatment of native Americans or other ethnic and religious minorities, the country has openly and gradually strived to evolve into a less racist and xenophobic, and more inclusive and equal nation, all under the glaring eye of one of the most searing and merciless news media environments in the world.
America’s claim to moral authority around the world has come from reconciling its roots in inequality, slavery and other heinous crimes, owning up to them, accepting its present shortcomings, and actively striving to grow with its founding values, while espousing those same values abroad. Democracies that have shared those values or even overtaken America in their implementation have found in the USA a strong and staunch ally who will stand up to autocratic bullying.
This is why Trump’s rejection, deriding and snubbing of democratically elected leaders, and his embracing and enabling of dictators and autocrats, and his encouragement of human rights abuses in his own country and overseas have struck such a serious blow to fragile democracies everywhere. The ideologies of countries like Russia and China depend on people losing faith in the idea of democracy and a free press. They could have no greater champion than an American president who insists American elections are rigged and boasts that he helped a foreign prince get away with murdering and disemboweling a journalist.
So when Mike Pompeo came to Sri Lanka, winked that democracies should stick together, and warned that the Chinese Communist Party is preying on Sri Lanka, his words would ring less hollow if his own party were not so feverishly dismantling and delegitimizing the concept of franchise in his own country. Indeed, he would sound more sincere if President Trump had not just months ago been impeached for “preying” on the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine.
Sri Lanka cannot be credibly lectured on human rights and democracy by a country whose government has for the last four years institutionalized the oppression of minorities, forcibly separated refugees from their children, and laboured to engineer the arrest of journalists and jailing of political opponents. When Trump speaks of autocrats like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, he betrays a frustrated envy of these strongmen and how simply they can silence and dispatch their political opponents.
These weaknesses in Trump and his lack of character are the primary reason he is on track to garner far fewer votes than his opponent, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. Unlike Trump, whose manicured public image propelled him to fame on a campaign of fear, hate and race-baiting, Joe Biden is someone who has long been known to Americans and the world.
As a leader on the world stage, Biden has championed support for independent institutions in emerging democracies, especially in making judiciaries independent and distancing law enforcement activities from political pressures. All the while, he has made no secret of the fact that he believes his own country has a long way to go in making its own established institutions more inclusive, fair and just.
There is little doubt that Biden will garner more votes this Tuesday, but his opponent has made no secret of his plan to win through an assault on the franchise more akin to those adopted by leaders of failed states than the President of the world’s largest democracy. He has even tarred the independence of the courts, making no secret of his motives when stacking the Supreme Court with judges he believes will deliver him the presidency a second time.
Dictators, strongmen and autocrats around the world are also watching. In a world where such people cling to power not through overt fascism but by putting on the thinnest guise of democracy, it is mana from heaven for them to see an American President boast of rigging the US Supreme Court to stay in power. If Trump succeeds, they will only be inspired and emboldened to employ similar strategies to stifle the democratic will of their own people. If they see one candidate win millions more votes in America, only to have their victory overturned by a politically stacked court, they will see a blueprint for how they too can cling to power until the end of their days.
When George W. Bush was declared president in 2000 by the Supreme Court stopping the counting of votes in Florida, three key lawyers on his legal team were John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. All three are now Justices on the US Supreme Court, who may soon be asked to choose whether the next President of their country will be their “party man” or the man who won the most votes.
Those Republicans in America who seek to use a politicized Supreme Court to prioritize keeping Trump in power over the founding principles of their nation would do well to examine the events that led to the founding and rise of their own political party. The Republican party in America came together after 1854 by bringing together a growing number of American politicians whose opposition to slavery left them without a party that reflected their political ideology.
As the party and its philosophy garnered traction and it became clearer that a clear majority of Americans were opposed to slavery, it was the opportunistic president James Buchanan and politically motivated Chief Justice Roger Taney who colluded to deliver a 7-2 judgment of the Supreme Court that declared that those of African descent were sub-human and thus must be treated as property all across the United States.
The barbarism of this move and its aftermath played no small role in the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. The question of freedom and who deserved to be free so charged American politics that his opponents tried to kill him before he took office, and soon drove the United States into a civil war. That war was won by those who stood on the principle that freedom and equality were the inalienable rights of all human beings. The world in the 1860s was not remotely as interconnected as it is today. The telephone had not yet been invented, and news traveled across the world no faster than a ship could sail the sea.
Today, the eyes of the world are on the American voters and American institutions. Dictators, strongmen and autocrats around the world have had an easy time of the last four years, finding their actions more legitimized by the United States than chastised, while journalists, rights advocates and those who stand for the rule of law have often found themselves isolated in every corner of the world.
If a Biden electoral victory is suppressed by discounting votes and overruling the will of the American people, the path will be cleared for every ruler who seeks to govern without the consent of those they govern to follow America’s example, and craft policies and institutions that cement their power. Such counties will then join America as politically apartheid states, democracies only in name.
A perverse twist: Blame Aragalaya, let Gota stay, and kids can go home!
by Rajan Philips
Although the May 9 Temple Trees ‘coup’ ended disastrously for its orchestrators, the coup’s purpose may have been fulfilled indirectly, even if only partially. Aragalaya, though still alive, has been deflated enough to encourage twisted reactionary politics creep back to life after going dormant for over a month. The perverse twist is being manifested in blaming Aragalaya for its allegedly infeasible demands, deriding its apparent inability to provide an alternative leadership, calling Galle Face protesters middle class kids and telling them they have had their fun and they can go home now, and asking Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even if tongue-in-cheek, to stay on and tidy up his mess.
I call this perverse and twisted partly because such insults and instructions were never flung at the Rajapaksa regime which has been on the run since the end of March, and more importantly because the mushrooming criticisms of Aragalaya totally miss the economic elephant in the room. Until May 9 and its violent Temple Trees teledrama, criticisms of the Aragalaya have been generally from the Left. They were mostly supportive and friendly criticisms. After May 9, the reactionaries seem emboldened to assume they have got their license back. Hence the flurry of criticisms ranging from a rather bizarre comparison to the utterly abominable trucker-protest in Ottawa, Canada, to the patronizing advice that Aragalaya kids have had their fun at Galle Face, have eaten their free biriyani lunch, and now they can go home.
Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya has many similarities with protests in other countries over the last decade in what is being described, both by the political Left and the Right, as the age of mass protests. According to one assessment the size and frequency of protests since 2009 are eclipsing the protest waves of the last century in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. According to another, a majority of the of the protests in different countries are triggered by the failure of representational democracy and the outrage over systemic corruption and lack of accountability. The latter study (World Protests: A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century. 2022. Global Social Justice, Initiative for Policy Dialogue, New York), identifies “mass middle-class involvement in protests” as a “new dynamic” that has ruptured “a pre-existing solidarity of the middle classes with elites,” mainly as a result of economic failures.
Even so, the Aragalaya in Sri Lanka cannot be understood or discussed in isolation from the economic calamity that the country is facing. The collapsing economy is virtually the be all and end of Aragalaya. There would be several contributing ‘determinants,’ but in the absence of anything like the current economic crisis, it is safe to say, there would not have been the Aragalaya that took Sri Lanka by storm for well over a month. What is so deterministic about Sri Lanka’s economic condition? In my view, it is what Professor Mick Moore of the University of Sussex described (to the BBC’s Today programme) as “the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis of which I know.” And public outrage has simply targeted the men who made it.
Mick Moore has been a consultant on Sri Lanka for the Asian Development Bank and he knows something about the island’s economy and its decision making compulsions. His description that it is “the most man-made and voluntary economic crisis,” is the most accurate assessment and explanation of our situation among all the assessments and explanations that are flying around. Moore rejected the lately canvassed idea that Sri Lanka’s difficulties are due to global economic problems, and asserted that the Sri Lankan crisis is “emphatically not that”.
His criticism would seem to include both the Mahinda and the Gota regimes. The former borrowed money for infrastructure projects and the latter “insisted in this very macho fashion” on repaying the massive debt instead of restructuring it. The government, Prof. Moore said, “went along in this way until about six months ago and basically they had given away virtually all the foreign exchange they could command”. “This is egregious incompetence,” he concluded.
Prof. Moore’s assertions were resoundingly validated by the Central Bank Governor Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe, when he appeared before the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) on Wednesday, May 25. As reported in The Island (Thursday, May 26), the current Governor confirmed that his two predecessors (Lakshman and Cabraal), then Minister of Finance (and Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Treasury Secretary S. R. Attygalle – all of them criminally failed to act on the dire warning given by the IMF as far back as March-April 2020, of an impending financial crisis and Sri Lanka’s debt unsustainability. Without debt restructuring, IMF has warned, that Sri Lanka will not be able to procure new loans.
The Committee was also informed how three members of the then Monetary Board (Governor W.D. Lakshman, Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle and nominated member Samantha Kumarasinghe) disregarded the written objections of the two minority members (Ranee Jayamaha and Sanjiva Jayawardena) and decided to maintain a fixed exchange rate at Rs. 203 by using the Bank’s reserves ($ 5.5 billion in reserves between June 2021 and March 2022), in order to hide the extent of the debt crisis.
Here we are a year later, with forex reserves depleted to daily subsistence levels and the country going from pillar to post in search of fuel, gas, medicine and food to meet its daily needs. What Prof. Moore called “egregious incompetence,” was described at the COPE hearing as “a crime” by committee Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath. The Chairman went on to call for a Special Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate those whose negligence has brought the country to its current plight. .
As Prof. Moore has observed, Sri Lanka’s current crisis cannot be blamed on global economic problems. No other Asian country is in the same perilous plight as Sri Lanka. Countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, which were far behind Sri Lanka in the starting lineup for economic take-off, have now surged far ahead of Sri Lanka and they are not having any of the problems that Sri Lankans are now facing, Covid or no Covid. The current problems are not only man-made but they were also made in the last two years. There is much to be said about Sri Lanka’s economic trajectory after 1948, but none of it can be used to mitigate the misdoings of the last two years. Blaming 74 years of independence is simply lamebrained.
It is not 74 years, but only the last two years of egregious incompetence that are to blame. People caught it instinctively and it was their outrage that became Aragalaya. Corruption and incompetence are not unknown to Sri Lankans, but never before have they seen the two fusing in a single ruling family, to such a large extent and in so short a time. That made Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa the bullseye targets of public outrage. For the first time ever, Sri Lankans targeted a political figure and his family for expulsion by resignation. And the target slogans Gota-Go-Home and Myna-Go-Home were given territorial grounding in Gota-Go-Gama and Myna-Go-Gama, respectively.
Put another way, it is the ‘egregious incompetence’ of the Gotabaya-government and the hardships it has caused for all Sri Lankans regardless of their social and spatial locations, which is at the root of the ‘Aragalaya’ movement and offers some insight into both its anatomy and its anticipations. Aragalaya is still a ‘real time’ phenomenon, and it is too early for broadly acceptable analysis and interpretations of the movement. So, it has become a dart board for others to throw their favourite missiles, often making their own projections rather than attempting reasonable insights. In the absence of plausible explanations, there is no harm in accurately describing what one can see about Aragalaya, and it would be sufficient to say for now, “this is how things are,” as a great 20th century philosopher used to say.
Aragalya activists have been described, on the one hand, as the westernized children of 1977, with the implication that they are undermining the achievements of the children of 1956. They have also been seen as lion-flag waving Sinhala supremacists who are among the 6.9 million who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa but who are now disenchanted with him after seeing him in action as President. And there might be many shades in between.
Another litmus test applied to Aragalaya is how inclusive and reflective it is of Sri Lanka’s ethnic plurality. Aragalya has shown no overt ethnic exclusion or symptoms of chauvinism. That in itself could be seen as a positive development in the twilight of Sri Lanka’s political past. In addition, the current economic hardships are so pervasive that there is hardly any opportunity for feelings of ‘relative discrimination’ between groups. Everyone is in the same bind, just like as it was after the 2004 tsunami. It was political leadership that failed then, and it is political leadership that is failing now even though the circumstances are vastly different.
Admittedly, Aragalaya has been deflated by the violence of May 9, the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the rest of the family (save one), and the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister by the sole surviving Rajapaksa family member, i.e., President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But to take Aragalaya for dead is to forget the economic elephant that is still in the room. Everyone wishes Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to succeed on the economic front. But can he look after the economy without minding political housekeeping?
That is the question and the difficulties he is facing are quite significant and they are not easily scalable. As some of us have been arguing, the manner in which Mr. Wickremesinghe was inducted as PM is also contributing to the difficulties he is facing. This is not something seen in hindsight, but should and could have been anticipated earlier. That is to say, Mr. Wickremesinghe should have had the discussions he is having now with political party leaders as part of accepting the President’s invitation to become PM rather than as a consequence to it.
And instead of proceeding to implement an agreed-upon agenda, the Prime Minister has to waste and time resources to deal with Basil Rajapaksa’s machinations involving SLPP MPs in parliament. It is now known that the latest vote in parliament to elect its Deputy Speaker was not parliamentary cretinism, but Basil Rajapaksa’s highhandedness to show that he alone is the SLPP boss, and not the President. Call it separation of powers, the Rajapaksa way!
And the youngest of the Rajapaksas is reportedly planning to sabotage the much anticipated 21st Amendment because it includes a provision that would disallow dual citizens as MPs, that would directly apply to Basil Rajapaksa. The current draft of 21A is less than the ideal as pointed out by the Bar Association in its letter to the Prime Minister. But even a second or third best version of 21A might become impassable in parliament if Basil Rajapaksa has his way.
In fairness to Ranil Wickremesinghe, he is not the only one to blame for the current stalemate. Both the SJB and the JVP have to take their share of the blame for failing to provide a proper transition plan that could have facilitated the resignation of the President and brought in an interim government to implement a limited agenda of crucial tasks before calling a general election. The SJB was looking for an invitation from heaven to lead an interim government, and the JVP was hoping for a general election to fall from the skies. The SJB is now looking for admission to the Ranil-Rajapaksa administration through whichever door, while the JVP seems to have suddenly gone silent. Or could it be that the mainstream media is ignoring the JVP unless it has something offensive to say about it?
As for Aragalaya, it might be deflated, but it certainly is not dead. Aragalaya is not limited to what goes on at Galle Face. It is manifested in every protest that is going one in any part of the part of the country. It is manifested in the long and never ending queues for scarce supplies. Aragalya may not have achieved its most publicized objective, the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not yet. But it has achieved the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, which would have been impossible if people had not come out in protest starting in Mirihana. It has achieved, as well, in the very public pursuit of wrongdoers which is supported by lawyers acting pro bono, forcing the Attorney General’s Department to suddenly become responsive, and providing the courts the sociocultural context to resonate positively to what the people are looking for. These achievements are not insignificant by any standard.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH FELIX DIAS BANDARANAIKE IN THE EARLY 70s
by Eric. J. de Silva
I had always an interest in the subject of public service training and when Mr B.H. (Buddhi) de Zoysa, the Director of the Academy of Administrative Studies (re-named later in the eighties as the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration – SLIDA for short), asked me whether I would like to come as his Deputy with the prospect of being able to succeed him in the event of his leaving to take up a job in the World Bank which he was fairly hopeful of getting,
I had no reason to say ‘no.’ This was at the very end of December 1971 when I was working as General Manager of the Industrial Development Board, a statutory body which came under the Ministry of Industries. Though this was a ‘cushy job’ as one would call it with the additional advantage of being able to draw a handsome allowance over and above one’s substantive salary, I felt somewhat uncomfortable working there – the reason being that its Board of Directors was full of theoreticians and was trapped in a `No Action – Talk Only’ type of syndrome, to use a popular expression, despite the valiant efforts made by its Chairman, Somapala Gunadheera who was responsible for getting me there and was no longer there by that time.
I had come to know Buddhi when he was Government Agent, Colombo and I happened to serve as his Addl. G.A. for a few months after the dissolution of Parliament in December 1964, ahead of the General Elections of March 1965 and, together with the very capable and experienced Asst. Elections Officer D.S.Ratnadurai, relieved him of much of the burden of running the elections – Colombo being the district with the largest number of electorates.
On being assured by Buddhi that he had got the necessary approval of his Minister (Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, who held the portfolio of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Local Government) for the proposed move, I readily agreed. Even if Buddhi was not to get the World Bank job and I ended up as Deputy there, I felt it was well worth taking up the offer with at least a long-term prospect of succeeding him, considering the many attractions that the Academy offered for a person with my sort of interests.
Shortly thereafter, I found the Minister addressing a letter to Mr. T.B. Subasinghe, the Industries Minister, stressing the important role the Academy had to play in improving the quality of administration, and asking for my release from the IDB for the position of Deputy Director in the Academy for which I was very well suited (‘ithamath yogya’ were the words used). Mr. Subasinghe, the genial gentleman and veteran politician, called me up on receiving this letter and said that he had no option but agree to the request made by his colleague though he was sorry to let me go.
I came over to the Academy as the year 1971 ended and was appointed as its Director on March 01, 1972 on Buddhi’s departure for Washington having got his World Bank appointment. This was a position that many of my seniors would have aspired to hold, considering the reputation and the recognition the Academy had already acquired as a vital instrument for improving the overall performance and efficiency of the public service.
I found the work at the Academy to be both interesting and challenging and, to the surprise of many, had no problems with the Minister who was considered to be a hard task-master and a very difficult person to please. He went to the extent of saying openly at regular meetings of Heads of Divisions of the Ministry (the Academy was concurrently the Administrative Training Division of the Ministry) that he was satisfied with the work the Academy was doing.
He was particularly pleased when I broke new ground by running the first Management Course in Sinhala for mid-level SLAS officers. Not only did he come for the ceremonial opening of this course, he also paid me and my staff a huge compliment for having worked tirelessly to prepare the course material.
I had no problems whatever with the Secretary of the Ministry, Mr. B. (Baku) Mahadeva, whom I had known as Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Food during the 1960s when I worked as Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Agrarian Services, and later moved to the Ministry to take up the position of Deputy Director of Agricultural Planning.
So was it with Mr. P.H. Siriwardhana, the Additional Secretary under whose wing the Academy directly came and whom I had not known earlier at a personal level. An economist by training, who had been in the service of the Central Bank for more than half his lifetime, he was a man of few words, and did not want to tread into areas he was not too familiar with. He kept in close touch with me, quietly appreciating the work that we were doing and giving us his fullest support as and when necessary.
Things, however, changed with the departure of Mr. Mahadeva to take up an assignment in Kuala Lumpur, resulting in the elevation of Mr. Siriwardhana to take his place, and the appointment of someone from totally outside the government sector who was a close relative of the Minister to take up the position that the latter held.
The new Additional Secretary, arrived on the scene with pre-conceived ideas about what sort of training public servants needed to be given, and wanted many changes done almost overnight. These, in my view and in the view of senior officers at the Academy, were of an ad hoc nature and would have disrupted programs that had been developed over the years on the basis of comprehensive needs assessments conducted by the Academy. This naturally led to many disagreements between him and me.
He bided his time until the Minister left for England on some official business and had to extend his stay there to be with his wife cum Private Secretary who had to undergo an eye surgery (if I remember right), and asked that I be replaced immediately with a person of his choice. When the Secretary called me up and asked me what the problem I had with the Additional Secretary was, I explained to him that I had no problem with him at a personal level, but there were some issue-based differences of opinion between us.
I also reminded the Secretary that on no occasion had he found me wanting in my job during the period he was overlooking the Academy, which he acknowledged with a smile. Being a man of few words, he quickly went on to say that there was no point in my staying on in the job if the Additional Secretary wants a change, and I said I felt the same.
He then offered me the post of Government Agent, Galle which was vacant or about to fall vacant if I was willing to take it, and I indicated that I did not like to go as G.A. to my home town if I had a choice. This he fully appreciated and said that the Secretary, Ministry of Planning and Employment (Prof H.A. de S. Gunasekara) was looking for someone to fill the vacant post of Director, Regional Development in his Ministry and that he would speak to him shortly and get back to me.
Not stopping at that, he gave me the assurance that he would keep me attached to the Ministry office until a suitable position comes up in keeping with my seniority. It appeared he felt there was no reasonable ground to get me out of the Academy, but was in no position to prevent it. All this happened on a Saturday which was a half-working day at the time.
After having got home, I mulled over the options-available to me considering the suddenness of my fall from grace. I had reservations about taking up the Planning Ministry job for more than one reason. Not only had Prof Gunasekara been one of my teachers at Peradeniya, he was also one of my immediate neighbours at Wijerama Mawatha where I resided at the time, with our two families maintaining very cordial relations.
In the circumstances, I thought it was better if things were left at that. However, the prospect of being ‘attached’ to the Ministry of Public Administration for too long was not very pleasing as it would have given the impression that I had been relegated to the so-called ‘pool’ – not the most enviable prospect for a former Director of the Academy, the main function of which was providing management training to public servants at middle and senior levels.
The very next day (Sunday) I happened to meet Mr. W.T. Jayasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs quite by chance when I drove in to a ‘petrol shed’ near the Thunmulla Junction to get some petrol for my car. I had known him from the time he was Controller of Immigration and Emigration in the early sixties and I was an Assistant Secretary in the Defence Ministry under which his department came.
He asked me how I was doing at the Academy and went on to say “you must be enjoying your work there.” When I told him that I had just been “unceremoniously kicked out” from there, and that I will be in the so-called ‘pool’ from the very next day he raised his eyebrows in disbelief. I briefly told him about the events that preceded my ‘fall from grace’ and said that there was a possibility of my being sent as Director, Regional Development in the Planning Ministry which, like his Ministry, came directly under the Prime Minister at the time.
“Why not come back to your old Ministry?” he asked, and followed it by saying “If you are agreeable, the post of Senior Assistant Secretary (Defence) is there for you subject, of course, to the Prime Minister’s approval. (I had been Assistant Secretary – Administration and thereafter Assistant Secretary – Defence in that Ministry in the early sixties.) In fact, we have kept the position vacant for some time since Ridgeway Tillekeratne left, until a suitable person is found. I will ask the Prime Minister and get back to you before Hillary (Prof H.A.de S.Gunasekara) gets hold of you.”
I was, no doubt, delighted to accept the offer and rushed back home to break the news to my wife. Of course, the final decision was in the hands of the Prime Minister who, I thought, may not remember me working in her Ministry in the early sixties.
Later in the evening that same day, Mr. Jayasinghe phoned me at home to say that the Prime Minister had given her approval, and asked me to report to his office on the following morning saying that he would speak to his counterpart at the Public Administration Ministry and get the formalities attended to.
Thus within a single working-day after being “dismissed summarily” from the Academy, I had arrived in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs much to the surprise of those whom I had left behind at the Academy, as well as those who had been following developments at the Public Administration Ministry itself.
When Minister Felix returned to the island a few weeks later, he would have found that the Director of the Academy had left his job while he was away and I wondered what reasons would have been given for his sudden departure. Obviously, it had to be something seriously wrong that could not wait till the Minister got back to the island.
Be that as it may, I felt it was MY duty to meet him and formally bid him farewell while thanking him for having given me the opportunity of heading that important institution as well as the courtesy and support he had always extended to me in my work. It was not possible, however, to get a suitable time to meet him as he was extremely busy attending to matters that had awaited his return not only in the Ministry of Public Administration but also in the Ministry of Justice which too had been entrusted to him in January 1972, following the resignation of Senator J.M. Jayamanne.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister convened a meeting at the Parliament building to discuss some important issue relating to Defence that had legal implications, regarding which the presence of the Justice Minister and his officials was also required. I went with the Defence Secretary to the meeting and sat next to him at the conference table.
The Justice Minister came to the meeting a few minutes late as he had been participating in a debate which was taking place in Parliament and, soon after taking his seat, threw a sharp glance at me the moment he saw me across the table which made me feel like an accused in the dock.
As soon as the meeting was over and the Prime Minister left, Felix made one big dash towards the Chamber where the debate was still going on. I virtually ran behind him and having caught up with him, asked whether I could have a word with him. He threw another sharp glance at me and said somewhat brusquely: “So you got a more powerful job and left, eh?” I said “No sir, that is not what happened” quite emphatically, and followed it up by saying “I would never have left in your absence if I had a choice. I have been waiting, ever since you came back to meet you and explain to you what actually happened”.
With a look of surprise on his face he said “Well, come and see me sometime at my office in Hulftsdorp”, and dashed off towards the chamber. It became clear to me that the Minister had been misinformed about what had taken place, and I did not find it difficult to understand why he wanted me to meet him at the Justice Ministry rather than at the Public Administration Ministry where the offending parties were more likely to learn about my meeting with the Minister.
The very next day, I phoned his office at the Justice Ministry in Hulftsdorp and got the earliest possible appointment to meet him. When I went there, I found that the Minister had gone to attend a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court which is usually held when a Supreme Court judge retires or a new appointee takes office, and it took quite some time for him to get back.
He saw me in the waiting area right outside his office room and asked me to come in, apologizing for having kept me waiting. Once we sat down, he asked me as to what really happened. He listened to what I said very intently and said without the slightest hesitation “Oh I see, but what the people over there told me was that you got a more powerful job and left the Academy.”
He then paused for a moment and said: “Anyway you have got a good job and I wish you well” – words that resonate in my ears to this day. I left his office as a much relieved man, wondering what the result would have been if I had not sought a meeting with him to put the record straight.!
During my stay at the Defence Ministry, I met him a couple of times along with the Secretary in his capacity as Minister of Justice regarding matters connected with the Emergency Regulations operative at the time, but he never looked at me the way he did that evening at the meeting presided over by the Prime Minister at the Parliament building or when I ran behind him to have a few words with him after the meeting ended.
(Excerpted from A Peep into the Past, the memoirs of Eric. J. de Silva)
What can Ranil get done?
by Kumar David
The spirit of my heading is not a mocking: ‘He can’t get anything done; his Interim Administration (IA) is an exercise in futility’ gesture. Not at all, it is a serious even bookish question about what RW’s IA with a bit of luck is likely to achieve and what, even a congenital optimist will grant, it cannot do. And in between there are a raft of maybe and may-not-be options. I have never been a UNP supporter but I will not let my political views affect the assessment offered here.
I think RW will pull a few rabbits out of the hat and get a few things done re the impending catastrophe. Maybe that’s one reason why he said the “next two months could be the worst”. If he eases the pain he can crow “See I did it!” Tamil Nadu has flagged-off ship-loads of rice, milk-powder and medicines and Delhi flagged-off mercy-tankers of petroleum/oil. Japan has offered a $1.5 billion grant which we will not be able to repay. The IMF and the Americans have not yet dropped anything in the begging bowl but charity is being pondered. For some incomprehensible reason, though we know we are a crummy lot, the rest of the world has a soft corner for Ceylon-Sri Lanka. And then there are the virtues of nonalignment. If RW plays coy he can get the Chinese and QUAD to fight over mating rights. Petrol and gas shortages may ease and if so RW will claim credit and wolf-whistle at Sajith to come over for a cuddle and a tumble. This is not unrealistic; it is a possible two-month subplot; indeed so far he has outsmarted the SJB. However, if he fails to ease the fuel snarl up within say two weeks he will be toast; public opinion will turn against him and there will be more trouble on the streets.
If this subplot seems manageable, the next is much tougher. Food! Gotabaya’s imbecile fertiliser dogma has brought the country to the threshold of starvation. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres singled out Afghanistan and Lanka as countries where people will go hungry this year. Furthermore, even if we had dollars the global scene is very bad. Many UN agencies warn of a food crisis. Between 1.5 billion and 400 million will go hungry. An FAO Information Note points out that Russian wheat accounts for 16.8% of world wheat exports and Ukraine’s share is 11.5%. In 2021; either Russia or Ukraine (or both) ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize and sunflower oil. (China and India, in that order are the world’s largest wheat producers). Russia is the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, second in potassium fertilizer and the third in of phosphorous fertilizer. The UN warns of an unavoidable dire fate. Bread price in this Gota-blighted island has doubled. RW et al can do nothing about any of this except pray harder.
Why not make a conspiracy-theory movie with a plot that our fertiliser scuttling imbeciles were working in cahoots with Russia and Ukraine to hold the world to ransom? I have a grumpy buddy in Australia who will buy the global rights if it’s gloomy enough. Seriously though, the Treasury and the Central Bank have been robbed empty by the villainy or idiocy, respectively, of MR plus Royal Family, or of GR. This then is RW’s third hurdle (after fuel shortages and impending food calamity). The nation’s reserves are gone, the future is bleak and RW and his merry-men cannot overcome any of this. At some stage people will say of RW either: “The bugger tried and did a few things, but the real villains are the goddamn Paksas”, or they will roll him up with the Paksa-brigands and nearly-225 other sons of bachelors and damn him too.
Alas I am not done with bad omens. The worst pertains to a medium-term programme to rebuild the nation’s economy. In a series of columns spread over weeks I have made some points that people have agreed with. Prominent is the fundamental truth that we as a nation consume and have for some 70+ years consumed more than we produce. Ceylon-Sri Lanka is broke because we ate our way through much more than the output of our economy. A significant cut in consumption is already in full swing. Steep inflation, hefty increases in fuel prices and a fall in the value of LKR by 50% without an increase is wages, amounts to substantial restructuring of the economy away from consumption. Savings of all description, insurance and pensions, indeed anything monetary in public hands de facto been slashed in value. Inevitably there will be more to come. The cutting consumption side of restructuring is underway, the production side has still to be addressed.
Does this sound like taking the side of the well-heeled against the yakos? No, the capitalist class was into crooked games up to its eyeballs. The worst was JR’s neoliberal period (RW was a part of it), oiled by anti-Tamil pogroms, subversion of the judiciary and an authoritarian constitution. To stay within the narrow remit of the economic argument, the JR era of neoliberal opening-up for much sought-after global investors and unchecked laissez faire in domestic economics was a disaster. Investors did not arrive in anything like expected numbers, multiplied plunder of national resources and pauperised Northern and Eastern farmers, a factor in the rise of Tamil nationalism.
Having got this anti-capitalist harangue off my chest, the question remains “What to do now?” Two things that will have to be done even if God Almighty becomes Finance Minister is consumption will have to be pruned and production and productivity raised. The left will wail at the first; but what the hell comrades Lenin did it, Stalin did it with an iron fist, Stalinist governments did it in Eastern Europe, the great helmsman tried in China and mucked it up because he was half-mad by then, Castro did it fairly successfully (think healthcare, education and poverty alleviation) though US aggression undercut any thought of democracy. The big difference is that Lanka is not a post-revolutionary society; our task is to push in progressive social-democratic directions. The left, if faithful to its past, will not rob; furthermore it can help people understand why they are sacrificing and that the usufruct will be ploughed back for the benefit of their children.
To get back to RW. Ok I am prepared to grant that he is not a crook, unlike the Paksa-Plunderers, SLPP hangers-on and the majority of current MPs and one-time Provincial Councillors – you know what I am saying; adverbs and adjectives fail me and my Editor has a phobia against four-letter words. The question at issue is can an Interim Administration led by RW, buttressed by cross-overs from here and there and everywhere, with a less than second-rate Cabinet, carry through a programme curtailing consumption and engendering increased economic output? The answer is that the question is beside the point since the IA has no mandate beyond dealing with urgent tasks pertaining to the prevailing emergency. RW plus alliances he concocts (the SJB has now put its head down offered to back the IA) must win an election to gain legitimacy for any medium- or long-term programme on his drawing board. So, in tennis parlance; point-and-set to early elections.
The other bourgeois-democratic option, the Sajith bandwagon, cannot form a government till it wins a general election or cobbles together a working-majority or teams up with RW in an electoral front. That makes it ‘game’ too to early elections. Now let’s give our mind to match-point. What will appease an angry populace and mollify Gale Face Green? I cannot imagine any government without an electoral mandate surviving and executing a programme of reforms and reconstruction, unchallenged, for any length of time. That surely is match-point for holding an election as quickly as the Elections Department can arrange it.
Do I have a programme I will stick my neck out for? Well here goes. “Gotha Go” is unconditional, but timing is negotiable within limits provided the funeral date is announced now. It will appease the masses and mollify GFG. Every day Gotha stays is perilous; he will undercut Aragalaya and conspire with fellow Gannakka deifying devotees in the military. So long as he remains at the helm, emergency, curfew and military-on-the-streets will be Lanka’s lot. Rumour has it that a crisis is brewing now about draft 21A; a section of the SLPP it alleged is making a last ditch attempt to resuscitate Paksa-Power via a Basil reincarnation. If true this will cut the ground under RW who will be pressured into a tacit alliance with Aragalaya? Good but does he have Imran Khan’s fighting spirit? All this, including crucially the indispensable abolition of the Executive Presidency, belong to the political domain and all are no-brainers.
Far, far more complex is the economic dimension; we need a via-media acceptable to the mass and feasible in prevailing circumstances. Switching to a left perspective, I have aimed these last three paras at the NPP, JVP and Frontline, but they will interest others as well. I concede that the state-form will retain capitalist features for the foreseeable future; but what capitalism? There are as many “capitalisms” (and “non-capitalisms”) as there are fingers on my two hands; Egypt or England, Pakistan or Peru, (and Vietnam or Venezuela). The concept of state-form has become complex and convoluted the world over in this era, especially the last forty years. However this is not the occasion for a review of state theory in the Twenty-first Century.
What kind of semi-capitalism in Lanka; neoliberal, laissez faire, state-directed, franchises to the capitalists or populist concessions to the masses? Markets do indeed rationalise production decisions and up to a point investment options; neither central planners nor computer algorithms can replicate that. But markets also need to be regulated, controlled and directed in the social interest. This is a balance that calls for intelligence, expertise and vision. To manage a 21st century economy one needs a core cadre with adequate internal expertise at the heart of political power, but one also needs relationships with assemblies of experienced specialists outside.
In addition to old economic skills to run a government one must understand non-fungibles that have risen to prominence in recent decades; finance-capital, monetary policy, global trade and institutional practices. In addition there are intangibles; design, research, digital systems, technical innovation. I do not expect a left political entity to transform itself into a panoptic faculty of specialists, nerds and wizards; of course not! What it needs, aside from a competent core, is to stimulate sympathetic connections and external working relations in these quarters. This way of thinking is a paradigm shift for Lanka’s young-left, but there’s time enough to adjust. The left contingent elected to parliament at the next election will be large; a sign of things to come and a portent of responsibilities it will have to bear in the future when it comes into administrative office.
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