21 July, 2019

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Basil’s Move On The SLFP And The Rainbow Alliance To Abolish Presidency

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

It was an agenda packed political week in Colombo. There were BJP visitors from India at the BMICH, Basil Rajapaksa made his move on the SLFP, and a rainbow alliance came together at the New Town Gall. All in a week. Sadly, however, the political agenda gets packed every week but political realities remain stubbornly the same. Hopefully, the figurative rainbow that was publicly aspired last Thursday at the Colombo Town Hall will turn out to be politically consequential unlike the real one that tantalizes and disappears.

For starters, India’s BJP stalwart Subramanian Swamy had a captive audience at the Colombo BMICH last week. Good for him. The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) has found a newer Ram Sethu in Swamy. The new BCIS Director has found a new mission in life after all previous incomplete achievements, the last one being the achievement of practical trilingualism in Lanka now exemplified by the official singing of the National Anthem. Swamy came in the good company of other BJP intellectuals (I don’t want to throw at our neighbourly visitors the old LSSP joke for an oxymoron example: UNP/SLFP intellectual!), and between them they cast a few pearls about Sri Lankan politics and history: Indira Gandhi created terrorism in Sri Lanka; there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, only the European imagination of it. Like the philosophical cat that never gets hungry except in your imagination.

Mahinda Gota BasilSomeone should have shown Swamy, Qadri Ismail’s recent imagination and critique, post Aluthgama, about the Serendib island in the Indian Ocean populated by several groups of people including those named Limat, Milsum and Alahnis. The same island, where a long war ended five years ago, has since been given a pass by peace, while rape, murder, plunder and arson still go on officially. And so on. Qadri Ismail’s piece is a must read at least for quondam LSSP intellectuals now turned BBS (Qadri calls it for what it is) apologists, regardless of it being seen or not seen by Swamy now back in India. Pertinent for different reasons is the observation by Dayan Jayatilleka that the BJP seminar at the BMICH should be an eye opener to both the Rajapaksa government and its Tamil diaspora detractors. They should both ‘recalibrate’ their options in light of the government change in Delhi, and they should also learn to compare distances in world geography: the government should learn that India is much closer to Sri Lanka than China, and the Tamil diaspora should learn that regardless of where they are – India is also closer to Sri Lanka than any Western country. And the closest Western country, i.e. Australia, seems to be getting closer to the Sri Lankan government than China ever will.  There is also the matter of another relevant geographical proximity: Tamil Nadu is the closest jurisdiction to Sri Lanka, and is India’s ‘border state’ vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, like West Bengal is to Bangladesh, and like Punjab, Gujarat and Rajasthan are to Pakistan.

A barber shop Cabinet?

My allusion to the barber shop stems from newspaper minutes of confidential cabinet meetings that recently noted the President’s use of a folksy idiom, ‘salon door’, to describe the UPFA where people can come and go as they please. The President used the term to berate past cabinet ministers who have come and gone, and to tease those at the table now (whom he doesn’t like) to leave if they want to. But the Ministers have now learnt the art of doing their bit and staying put. They don’t have to leave and they will not be fired, that honour is reserved for judges with even an iota of independence. When no one gets fired, or impeached, it should mean that the Rajapaksa universe is unfolding as the Brotherhood wants it to. The Rajapaksa universe is unfolding in myriads of ways on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Just look at the following sequence of events.

It was salon door for the BJP folks to arrive in Colombo a short while after the South African Vice President, Cyril Ramaphosa, had come and gone. Officially, he came as a Special Envoy of South African President Jacob Zuma to help the Rajapaksa government launch the much maligned reconciliation process. But he was in the Serendib island as a tourist, opined Lanka’s ever loquacious media minister. And he knows he will not be fired for saying such silly things. No one asked the minister whether Subramanian Swamy and his fellow Indians were in Colombo as tourists, or as opinion makers. Either way it doesn’t matter because defence regulations muzzling NGOs may not apply to the BMICH or BCIS.

If Ramaphosa’s visit was to facilitate reconciliation, his departure was celebrated by the presidential reappointment of Major General G.A. Chandrasiri, the controversial current Governor of the Northern Province, for another term as Governor. Even the usual defenders of President Rajapaksa could not find anything positive to say about this patently dumb reappointment. For once, the Defence Secretary was spared and did not become the scapegoat for an act of the President. But then the President confounded everyone including his cabinet of ministers, who are confused about their role as ministers anyway, by appointing an Advisory Panel of expert international advisers to assist the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons. Ostensibly, the appointment of an Advisory Panel is a positive move and goes against everything the government has been saying all along against the UNHRC inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka. I say ostensibly because genuine concerns have been raised that the manner of the appointment of the Advisory Panel and the widening of the scope of the ongoing Commission of Inquiry into missing persons may prove to be unworkable in the end.

That the whole exercise may blow up in the government’s face should not be a source for political satisfaction because what is at stake is the continuing frustration of tens of thousands of people who are desperate for answers about their missing family members. Already, the Commission headed by Retired High Court Judge Maxwell Paranagama, is said to have received 19,000 complaints, but has so far completed interviews of only about 460 people. In this situation, the latest gazette notification announcing the appointment of the advisory panel of international experts also expands the scope of the already overburdened Commission. The mechanisms and the resources are inadequate to handle the volume of complaints received. It is an altogether different matter if outreaching mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that all surviving victims are made aware of the opportunity to complain about their missing persons. The modalities for the working together of the Commission and the Advisory Panel have also not been thought through. In the end, for all the bother, another botched exercise appears to be in the offing. Once again, left high and dry, with no one to turn, will be the victims of the war.

Not surprisingly, the appointment of the Advisory Panel has drawn criticisms from within the ranks of the government. The JHU and the NFF who did not like the government inviting and receiving the South African Vice President are even more incensed by the President’s appointment of the Advisory Panel. The National Freedom Front of Wimal Weerawansa, whose eloquence in parliament while sponsoring the government resolution against UNHRC inquiry was admirably noted by editorial writers, has issued the gauntlet that if the government does not amend the July 15 Gazette notification, the NFF will have no alternative but to quit the UPFA. Some threat! With so many tails wagging the UPFA dog, it is no wonder that the government’s actions show more confusion and knee-jerk reactions than clarity or any sense of purpose – other than when it comes to protecting the power base.

Basil’s move and the Rainbow potential

What is the real power base of the Rajapaksa government? Is it the “old SLFP” that the Brotherhood has been systematically neglecting and marginalizing, or the extremist upstarts, the JHU, the NFF, the BBS and so on, that the Brotherhood has been assiduously cultivating? A frustrated government insider (Rajiva Wijesinha) has written that “the unhappiness of the vast majority of the senior SLFP leadership, and their willingness to engage in political reform that promotes pluralism, are ignored in the belief that victory at elections can only be secured if what is perceived as a fundamentalist and fundamental Sinhala Buddhist base is appeased.” There is nothing new in this observation, but what is often overlooked is that the so called Sinhala Buddhist base, outside the two mainstream political parties of the Sinhalese, the UNP and the SLFP, has always been the unnecessary creation of individual leaders. This is a phenomenon that arose mostly under the presidential system and the operation of proportional voting in parliamentary elections. The JVP before 2009, the NFF that came after, the JHU, and the more recent BBS and its kin groups have all been beneficiaries of presidential sponsorship from JR Jayewardene to Mahinda Rajapaksa. They would not have survived, let alone grown, without the high-level support they have been receiving.

The system of mainstream marginalizing and extremist fostering has been working thanks to periodical presidential successions and the perception of political change. But doubts, questions and even challenges arise when someone tries to be President interminably, and restrict succession to sons and brothers. Doubts and questions multiply when the regime consistently runs into difficulties with the outside world and they begin to affect the country’s economy and people’s lives. National security alarms and patriotic appeals can only go so far as they can. But the Rajapaksas are a clever bunch and their response to the apparently expanding calls for the abolishment of the executive presidency is to take control of the SLFP instead of neglecting it. Basil Rajapaksa could not have timed his move better – in telling the Mawbima newspaper that there should be a distinction between party officials and elected officials. No one will question whether this principle should also apply to a person who is both the President of the Party as well that of the country. But the move is ultimately to enable a Rajapakas to become Prime Minister. Who else better than Basil? What harm, the President will ask as he has done before, if it is in the national interest just like President John F. Kennedy appointing and relying on his brother Robert Kennedy as Attorney General. Except, the example has already been used too many times and it no longer has credibility.

Besides Basil’s move, the Rajapaksa leadership also announced the preparation to launch “one of the strongest Presidential campaigns” by the SLFP. Every electoral outside the North and East will be activated, the Pancha Maha Bala Vegaya will be enegized, and special efforts for mobilizing women and the youth will be spearheaded respectively by Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Namal Rajapaksa. The campaign announcement coincided with news reports that the UPFA’s miniscule Socialist Alliance (of the LSSP, the CPSL and the DLF) were to meet with the convener of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) and the much touted common presidential candidate, Ven. Sobitha Thera, to discuss efforts to achieve their common objective of abolishing the Executive Presidential system.  The Socialist Alliance leaders are still waiting to hear from the President on their own proposal to have the system abolished. It might turn out to be a long wait.

Others are not for waiting. Last Thursday, in the rarefied space of the New Town Hall, rather than at a more appropriate mass rally, the conveners of the abolitionist movement laid out their road map for removing the presidency through the electoral and constitutional process. Gracing the occasion were the leaders and representative of all the opposition parties, as well as former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is still a Member of the SLFP. The inauguration of the abolitionist movement went well by all accounts, but the initiative will require two developments to give it credibility and traction beyond Colombo. The two developments are interconnected – one is the mobilization of the people, and the second is support from a substantial section of the SLFP. President Kumaratunga is too tarnished to be a presidential candidate again, and doing so will be contrary to the principles of opposition to the 18th Amendment. But she is more qualified than anyone else for one more political battle, namely, the battle for the SLFP and of the SLFP. This should not be a long wait.

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Latest comments

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    Subramaniaswamy is not taken seriously by anybody in India including the leaders of the BJP. He is treated as a joker. He is of use only to the government of Sri Lanka. Poor man, he has no clout in Tamilnadu or any other part of India!

    Sengodan. M

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      Sengodan M:

      Subramaniam Swamy (SS) may be a joker or even be a comedian of sorts but the fact that the members of his team, besides him, had made statements that lucidly and as-a-matter-of-fact spelt out the path plans of the Modi govt indicates what the future portends.

      While the national performance of the Modi led alliance in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections was stellar, the results from Tamilnadu was anything but pathetic. His alliance managed only two seats and the one consoling seat taken by its Tamilnadu leader, Pon Rathakrishnan may have not gone down well with Modi’s leadership. This may have also led to its belief that any solution on SL Tamils would be accredited to the vociferous TN leadership under Jayalalitha. Hence, the “de-link” strategy that is being worked out now. The stark silence by New Delhi (ND) and the unequivocal statement on the latest stand by the previous govt on the UNHRC inquiry are unmistakably the indication of a hard stand ND is poised to take vis-a-vis Tamils in SL. Now that visas have been denied (according to news reports) to the UNHRC team to visit India as part of its investigation leaves no doubt whatsoever that ND has one certain point to make – that it, and it alone will decide what kind of solution and what shape it should take as regards Tamils in SL. It is India and Modi govt that should be seen to have done anything for the Tamils.

      Is there anything wrong with this approach? I would tend to think so. The analogy of SS argument that the parties of the BJP alliance in Tamilnadu that were vociferous on the issue of SL Tamils have been soundly defeated (Vaiko,etc), thus alluding that the issue itself has little or no traction in TN is a bluff. Even before the election the BJP alliance has been discredited as being anti SL Tamils and word has spread far and wide on this. The notion is these parties who formed an alliance may have fared much better as these were seen as supporting a party that hardly believes in alleviating the concerns of Tamils. The rout was unbelievable. To the contrary, Jayalalitha’s govt that passed four major resolutions and have been very vociferous on the Tamils’ issue swept almost all the seats. A nationally upbeat party losing so heavily in Tamilnadu may have rubbed the wounds of the party seniors but truth be told, their lackdaisical attitude in their manifesto damaged their stand and weighed in heavily against their partners in Tamilnadu.

      While it may be true that there were a host of other reasons that contributed to this heavy loss, the fact that Tamilnadu Congress was totally wiped out, with most of them even losing their deposits is largely attributed to the duplicitous stand it has maintained on the Tamils’ issue. The way the NPC was prevented from functioning by the Rajapakse regime angered a lot of Tamils and the regime blew off any little face the Congress may have wanted to show as of anything to its credit. In a way, the Rajapakse regime contributed to the very dismal performance of Congress in TN.

      That the new administration in ND had decided a unilateral approach to the SL Tamils’ issue would, no doubt, prove disastrous. While it may believe that it is heading in the right direction, politically and strategically, the heat generated from the resilience of the Tamils would be too much to handle. Rajiv Gandhi believed in such and the issue still remains unresolved to this day and has significantly degenerated into chaotic proportions. Hammering a solution to take the gloss out of Tamilnadu may work only, and only if, the longstanding aspirations of the SL Tamils are attended to and resolved. In this equation, anything achieved with the MR regime without the input or anything shoved down the throat of the Tamil leadership will be doomed to fail. The ND administration should not even guess otherwise.

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      This fool of a fellow a disgrace to all Tamils, despised by everybody and respected by nobody runs in search of recognition and reward. Two years ago he cut a pathetic and pitiable figure in the Chennai Courts premises when he was drenched in a shower of rotten eggs and found no place to hide.

      Not all the perfumes of Sri Lanka can remove the stench. No number of trips will wash away the ignominy.

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      See this article about Swamy’s sordid past and the reason for his animus toward Chidambaram:

      http://www.outlookindia.com/article/The-Jury-Is-Out/279890

      “He is certainly not an anti-corruption crusader, he is a megalomaniac rebel. Calling him maverick is not right as mavericks have positive qualities.” Kumar Ketkar, Editor-in-chief, Divya Marathi

  • 0
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    Have I missed out on:
    ”exemplified by the official singing of the National Anthem”?

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    It would have been awesome if PM Rudra can be persuaded to join the Rainbow Alliance to liberate the 70 % inhabitant population from the corrupt dictator Rajapaksa.

    Just imagine what wonders it would do for the inhabitant a Buddhists, with the Billions from the Diaspora plus many more from their backers Cameron , Harper and Obama?.

    Can the BBS take note and join hands with Handunnetta to hoist CJ 43 to become the first ever President to tender the resignation , sorry abolition, the day after inauguration.

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      Sumanasekera:

      I thought the 70% of the inhabitant population. to which you belong to, are afflicted with a degenerative disease where their faculties have become redundant years ago. Why would then Rudra join these diseased people I wonder?

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    At least can a Gay Alliance topple MR?

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      Fathima:

      Nothing is impossible in SL. After all, it is the land of monks flashing their [Edited out]

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    K.A Sumanasekera

    “Rainbow Alliance to liberate the 70 % inhabitant population from the corrupt dictator Rajapaksa.”

    It is much much much more easier to liberate 70% inhabitant population from their stupidity than liberate you from yourself.

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