By 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.
Someone 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.