Colombo Telegraph

A Presidency Under Threat – Perversions Of Norms

By Rajiva Wijesinha

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

I had thought this would be the last article in this series, since the election will be held in a couple of days, and the threat would have been fulfilled then (or possibly averted, though that seems increasingly unlikely as I write). But the manner in which some characters in the President’s camp are behaving suggests we may still have a period of uncertainty after the election results.

First there is the extraordinary statement of Rev Nalaka that, even if he loses, the President can go on for another two years. I cannot believe that a priest could be so utterly ignorant of matters on which he presumes to speak, but that is a less worrying belief than thinking he is a liar, intent on deliberately deceiving the people. The Constitution is very clear on the fact that, if the incumbent President seeks early election, and wins, his term of office begins on the next date corresponding to the date of his previous election (ie he could get upto a year more, but certainly not two years). It is equally clear that, if another candidate wins, his term of office will begin immediately.

The pronouncement of the priest then is bad but, assuming he is ignorant, it is worse that television stations showed him making the pronouncement, without themselves providing a correction. Even private channels should have political commentators capable of making the correction, but it is worse that State Television should allow such statements to gain currency.

A second problem is the desperate efforts of government to curry favour with the forces. They were told just before the postal vote that they would be given motor cycles, while the police were informed of a loan scheme. Sadly the government does not seem to understand that servicemen are not foolish, and I was given several reasons by ordinary members of the forces as to why these promises had no credibility.

Third we have the hysterical pronouncements of those who should know better, with regard to the commitment of the opposition to have a domestic inquiry about charges made against our forces. This is clearly stated in the manifesto, along with the assertion that an international investigation will not be permitted. Even someone like Mahinda Samarasinghe, who I assumed had at least some intellectual ability, confuses the issue and claims that what the opposition has said indicates that we are involved in a foreign conspiracy. The fact that the President himself declared, without having the courage to put it in his manifesto, that he would hold a domestic inquiry is ignored by these characters who wish to rouse panic. Indeed he has already started on one, in the form of the expanded mandate of the Disappearances Commission. But perhaps his supporters assumed that would be a non-starter, as with several other previous commitments, and so feel justified in claiming that the opposition candidate is saying something new.

Fourth are the efforts of government to ensure a boycott of the polls in the North, a stratagem in which they are being assisted by a few extreme elements amongst the Tamils. While moderates who stood firm against the Tigers, as well as those elements in the TNA that have affirmed their commitment to a united Sri Lanka, are clear there should be no boycott, characters such as Mr Ponnambalam and Ms Shashitharan keep insisting that there is no difference between the two candidates. Given the absurd attacks on Ms Shashitharan that some elements in government engaged in before the Provincial Council election, which contributed to her unexpectedly good showing, it seems as though advancing the interests of the more extreme elements in the Tamil polity is part of government strategy.

This is of a piece with the encouragement of extreme elements amongst the Sinhalese, which the Secretary of Defence seems to have engaged in. The President himself told me that he thought the Bodhu Bala Sena was funded by the Americans and the Norwegians (part of the now familiar international conspiracy to do him down), and his Secretary told me that the Secretary of Defence was involved with the BBS so as to moderate their impact. But all this is balderdash. There has been no repudiation by government of BBS support, quite unlike the categorical rejection by the opposition of unsavoury members of government who attempted to jump on the common candidate’s bandwagon.

The pronouncements of the BBS are the more worrying, in view of their capacity to engage in violence, and it is possible they may try to rouse animosities if their patrons seem about to lose. Given the failure of the government to take firm action against them in the past, it is possible that nothing will be done to stop them creating problems, and there may be a leadership vacuum that will contribute to a breakdown in law and order. I would like to think that the current leadership of the police and the forces will accept the popular verdict and act with responsibility, but the politicization of the civilian authorities over them could cause problems. Even if illegal orders are not obeyed by forces who are generally well disciplined, a failure to issue any orders at all with regard to civil disturbances could lead to unnecessary suffering. In such a context, it will be the duty of apolitical religious leaders to take the lead in ensuring law and order, a position which will I believe get the support of the vast majority of servicemen, whose commitment to the country rather than a particular regime is obvious.

Given these potential problems, the next few days will not be easy, and perhaps there will still be threats to the country by the time I write the next column. But these can easily be averted, if only Mahinda Rajapaksa realizes that he should safeguard his legacy, rather than the future of those who have been parasitic upon him and his achievements. Though Keheliya Rambukwelle claims he is entitled to make use of those with qualifications, even though they are his relatives, since otherwise they might go abroad, he fails to indicate what the particular qualifications are of Basil and Namal Rajapaksa as to development. I am assured Namal does have a degree, even though he left the university to which he initially went, and he is also a qualified lawyer. But if these are qualifications which are evidence of his capacity, then we must wonder what gave Basil so much authority.

My own view is that, contrary to these two (and to Sajin Vass Gunawardena) Gotabhaya is more in the league of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and will continue to be respected for what he achieved if he goes quietly in accordance with the verdict of the people. That is why the stories that are circulating about abuse with regard to the forces, using religion to propagandize, and sudden transfers of troops and officers such as General Udaya Perera for unknown purposes, are worrying.

Worrying too are attempts to justify corruption. Earlier Mahinda Amaraweera claimed that, since the current government had looted so much, it was better to let them continue. They would not want very much more, whereas the opposition would be new to the game. This was so preposterous, that I thought it was a statement on behalf of the opposition, not unlikely since Mr Amaraweera is considered one of the least corrupt of Ministers, and is also relatively popular in the Hambantota District. He is known to listen to people unlike most of his fellows in government. He knows what the rest are like, and therefore that their appetites are insatiable.

But perhaps he meant what he said. Izeth Hussain has noted how corruption has risen to hitherto inconceivable proportions now, and it is possible that a new generation does not find it appalling. Thus, though I never felt I could defend Basil with regard to charges of financial irregularity – which I did with Gota for many years – I thought even Basil knew there were certain rules. This has not been the case with Namal, if Arjuna’s story of his dealings with a potential investor for a cricket stadium is correct.

Tragically, this complacence seems to have taken over Carlo Fonseka too. He now attempts to justify corruption, whereas earlier he was ecstatic about Maithripala Sirisena, in claiming that at last an honest man was in charge of the Ministry of Health. I asked him whether Nimal Siripala had not been good, for Dayan had told me he performed well at WHO meetings in Geneva. But Carlo was bitterly critical, so it is now depressing to find he is less concerned about financial probity.

With standards sunk so low, we must be wary that those who have made so much will do their utmost to stay in power. And certainly the new President will have his task cut out for him to correct a situation that has so rapidly spiraled out of control.

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