Sri Lanka: Making Sensical Policies

PM Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Rajan Philips

Due apologies for a mouthful of a title! Sri Lankan politics is nothing when it is not mouthful. Better that way than going fistful, to give the latter word a violent meaning. Or, put another way, “Jaw, Jaw is always better than War, War”, as Sir Winston Churchill is said to have quipped during a 1954 White House luncheon. Hosting Britain’s World War II Prime Minister was the American WW II General turned President, Dwight Eisenhower. The Americans now have a president who goes nuclear on twitter. What a turnaround – the greatest communication revolution in human experience is at the service of the worst warped political mind ever and anywhere. On Friday, Trump’s former National Security chief Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to charges of lying about his Russian connections.


Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his vast team of top of the list investigators had methodically cornered Flynn and he had no choice but to plead and guilty and co-operate in the probe against others in the Trump Administration. That’s how investigations and apprehensions are carried out in a society abiding by the rule of law and due process in its Magna Carta meaning. Sri Lanka has had the untoward experience of executing untenable arrests and not carrying out legitimate arrests. Last week, the country was spared of what would have been a monumentally stupid arrest of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa literally over the construction of a monument to his father. The politics of ancestral worship might deserve derision but not police arrest. Let me digress for a moment here.


Colombo’s boiling political turmoil may have been dampened by days of unseasonal rainstorms. The climate goddess is unleashing a double whammy all-round the island and beyond. Under a rare, if not unprecedented, double cyclonic formation the entire island and most of South India are having heavy rains and gale winds at the same time. It seems quite different from the more seasonally separated southwest and northeast monsoons. The weather maps currently being displayed in the media, despite some unseemly hedging going on the national Meteorological Department, seem to geographically attest to what historians have started calling the SISL – South India Sri Lanka – region. The weather goddess is driving home the obvious point about the geographical proximity of Sri Lanka to South India. World capitalism, first as colonialism and later as globalism, turned natural and pre-colonial proximities into un-navigable chasms. Not just in South Asia but everywhere.


All flak and no fame for PM


What was centuries-old local trading between the island’s littoral and the coasts of South India became smuggling in colonial law and lexicon. Everything about colonialism is anathema in Lankan politics except the colonial legacy about smuggling. No political leader has suffered more on account of this than Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, for his dogged pursuit of free trade with India. Please don’t mention his passion for a bridge connection between Mannar and Ramsehwaram. What a maelstrom it created. The brouhaha over the bridge exposed deep seated prejudices among the intelligentsia and their inability to differentiate between historical irrelevancies and current realities. Non-striking doctors even warned about Tamil Nadu mosquitoes come crawling on Ranil’s bridge to destroy Sri Lanka’s civilization.


As trade ideas go, Mr. Wickremesinghe is in good company. Hector Abhayavardhana, the LSSP intellectual, was a lively advocate of total free trade with India. Left thinking is usually more than a few generations ahead of its contemporaries. Genealogically, it would be interesting to know if Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s free trade ideas owe any inspiration to his father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, who in his salad days was a blue-eyed boy of the LSSP. Even JRJ was a socialist relative to the grandees of the Ceylon National Congress. All of that was before DS Senanayake founded the UNP, a large enough home for all in the extended family.


To get to my point, Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) is a unique political leader of his generation who gets all flak and no fame for pursing what are politically path breaking ideas in Sri Lankan politics. Is it in the water he drinks or the company he keeps? Chandrika Kumaratunga (CBK) is in the same category but she was always an electoral winner. Unique in her own way, she never lost an election in which she was a candidate. Her non-accomplishment is a different story. I will not call the ideas and approach of RW and CBK progressive given the term’s traditional connotations in Sri Lanka. But they are positively path breaking given Sri Lanka’s long miring in politics and policies that have time and again proved to be bigoted, short sighted and self-destructive. Their coming together behind a common candidate in 2015 was both an affirmation of what they jointly stand for and what they jointly stand against. All of that was also a repudiation of what the Rajapaksas stood for then and seemingly unashamedly stand for now.


What a world of difference the Prime Minister could have made in 2015 if he had announced immediately after the January election the bond blast he announced in parliament last week. A systematic probe of the goings on in the Central Bank under the previous government would have been an ideal start for the new government. Perhaps that could not be done because there were other political IOUs and personal favouritism. The country did not deserve a Finance Minister like Ravi Karunanayake and the Central Bank would have been perpetually better off without having as its governor the father-in-law of its then perpetual bond dealer. The blast of a probe the Prime Minister has just announced is not too little. But is it too late?


Ancestral Worship


The same dilly and dallying and procrastinations have been the experience in the government’s handling of the allegations of corruption and abuse of power under the previous government. Every now and then the police announce yet another major breakthrough in the investigations of the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunga and Wasim Thajudeen. But the murders remain unresolved even though they are an open secret. Then stories are leaked about the likely arrest of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for allegedly violating arcane provisions in the Public Property Act in building a monument to his father in Medamulana, their ancestral village. The President even commented last Sunday that no arrest would be made before he discussed it with the Prime Minister who was out of the country at that time. That let the cat out of the bag if any letting out was necessary. This was political interference of the passive kind, but no less blameworthy than the active interferences that were common under the Rajapaksas.


The political aside to this is the rather concerted efforts by the Rajapaksa brothers and their entourage to elevate the political memory about their father to a level of prominence that it had not acquired on its own. Few people may have noticed this rendition of history that President Rajapaksa inserted into his 2012 Budget Speech, in his dual role as Finance Minister, and addressing the then Speaker who was his brother, Chamal Rajapaksa: “You would recall our young days when our father – late DA Rajapaksa, with other late leaders such as SWRD Bandaranaike, Philip Gunawardena, SA Wickremasinghe, were in the forefront to make a decisive change in our society. … This transformation was subsequently taken forward by several progressive leaders such as late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, late Dr. NM Perera, and late Dr Colvin R de Silva.”


And there is more. The curriculum for the now terminated leadership training program for university students conducted by the military under the auspices of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as Defence Secretary included this list of “world famous leaders” as examples: “Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, King Dutugemenu, Anagarika Dharmapala, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Veera Puran Appu, and Ranasinghe Premadasa.” It is not that the Rajapaksa brothers personally prepared the budget speech or the curriculum list but the ethos they created enabled their political acolytes to proliferate such nonsense. On the other hand, giving a government agency the authorization, whether directly or indirectly, to build a monument to one’s father, no matter how great a historical figure he was or not, is quite irregular and certainly unprecedented. And none of this would have come out if Mahinda Rajapaksa had won a third term as president.


There was a recent recollection story about Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike getting parliamentary approval to provide funding support for Lalith Athulathmudali’s education at Oxford after the latter’s father passed away and the family was in some financial difficulties. The Left leaders were not supportive of parliament making ad hominem provisions rather than a general allowance for all deserving students, but the point here is that Mr. Bandaranaike sought parliamentary approval for spending a very small amount of government money outside the budgetary allocations. Contrast the ethos of public finance then with what Prime Minister Wickremasinghe casually revealed to the bond commission – about contract payments made outside budgetary allocations during the Rajapaksa regime. The Medamulana monument might be small fry in the vast scheme of unbudgeted or unauthorized expenditures in the Rajapaksa era.


Lord Naseby’s dead count


Rather than exposing these irregularities, the present government has not only taken ownership of them and added its own contributions to them. And that has been the unravelling story of yahapalanaya victory. That has also been the story of the Joint Opposition – relying on government’s blunders for political traction: the bond scam, the handling of the constitution, the UNHRC resolution, award of tenders, the sale of Hambantota, and the list goes on. With other hot topics losing steam, the UNHRC is back in focus for nationalist scrutiny and political slights. The critics have found some new ammunition in Lord Naseby and his much publicized revelations before a rather empty House of Lords in London.


In fact, there is nothing new about Lord Naseby or his advocacy of alternative numbers for the death toll in the final phase of the war. Advocates are easy to come by, for hire or for hospitality. And Sri Lankans overseas have competing global forums with competing advocates. There is no ground breaking for either side; only vigorous spinning in opposite directions on safely separated spindles. In Sri Lanka, there is a clamour for debating competing dead counts. And there is blame that the government is not taking the lead in debating Sri Lanka’s dead in world forums. How deadly has our politics become? There is no point picking on those who clamour and those who blame, for the responsibility for the current impasse, if not mess, must rest mostly with the government and perhaps equally with UN fly-by-nights from Geneva.


Yesterday’s headline in The Island: “Sri Lanka under cavalcade of UN scrutiny”, must alert UNHRC officials to what is becoming of their mission in Sri Lanka. There is little to show by way practical results after two years of time and effort. The virtual non-accomplishment by foreign experts on human rights is not the best case for involving foreign judges for dispensing transitional justice. This is not a criticism of the overall UNHRC objective in Sri Lanka, but the legalistic and sometimes hectoring approach is not showing results in a situation involving strong emotions and strong opinions. A mission rethink might be in order before the prevailing cynicism becomes even more entrenched to the point of questioning if Sri Lanka is Geneva’s only active file.


Local Elections


It was hilarious to see how over last Sunday and Monday there were news stories first confirming and then contradicting the likely re-uniting of the two SLFPs to contest the local government elections. SWRD Bandaranaike used to have word-play fun at the expense of the good old CWC and DWC – calling them “the two double you sees!” He may have never thought that there would be a day when people will be talking about the two SLFPs.


On Sunday, the story was that the old People’s Alliance was being resurrected to fight the local elections with 40% of the seats for the two SLFPs each and 20% given to the non-SLFP parties of the JO. All that Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted was for President Sirisena to disavow the UNP. He seemed open to re-uniting even after denouncing a few days earlier the government’s alleged plan to arrest his younger brother over their father’s monument.


Wheels came off on Monday when President Sirisena met the group who brought him to power and not the SLFPers who wouldn’t bet on him when he left them to run for office. He told the yahapalanaya group there was no way he was going to have any agreement with the Rajapaksas. So what was all the re-uniting talk about? Was President Sirisena calculating to have a form of ‘no-contest’ agreement from 1960s – secure 40% of the LG seats for his party, and then dump the Rajapaksa group just as he did before the August 2015 parliamentary election? If so, he is made of shrewder stuff than he is given credit for. But he could not possibly explain his cunning stratagem to the good-government goody-goodies and so had to call it off.


As for the SLFP ministers who were dreaming of a new SLFP government after getting rid of the UNP bunch even before the local election, all their labour has been in vain. The two SLFPs are back to their separate ways and just to make sure that there will be no chance of an agreement with Maithripala Sirisena, Basil Rajapaksa got his new outfit the SLPP to start paying deposits in a number of areas to prepare for the LG elections. The beleaguered Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government, Faiszer Musthapha, apparently one of the better lawyers in parliament, stood his ground against slings and arrows directed at from every political corner. The petitions to the Court of Appeal on the Minister’s gazetting of municipal delimitation scheme have been withdrawn, so the race for the local bodies is finally on.


In another instance of constitutional overreach, municipal elections have become multiple exertions of the franchise and assertions of subdivided sovereignty. GL Peiris, former Law Professor and now the powerful Chairman of Basil’s party, has declared that the local elections will be a national referendum on the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government. That is to say, there will be no kaanu-bokku elections this time! Put another way, we can expect national politics to fill up municipal drains surcharging the monsoonal rainfall.

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