By R Hariharan –
The happenings in Sri Lanka’s turbulent month of May have many wheels within wheels of political intrigue and chicanery. It has set many precedents in Sri Lanka history. Nationwide public protest against the Rajapaksas bringing a change in government leadership with Ranil Wickremesinghe replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. The newly installed PM had neither proven parliamentary majority nor constitutional authority is perhaps an inconvenient detail. But the biggest loser was democratic polity with the vast majority of people losing faith not only in the Rajapaksas, but in the country’s decaying political system as well.
American President Franklin D Roosevelt once said, “the future lies with those wise political leaders, who realize that the great public is more interested in government than in politics.” Apparently, the Rajapaksas have not read Roosevelt’s words of wisdom. They cogitated for over a month on how to manage the public protests that wanted them out of office quit for their miserable failure of governance. They tried out various political moves but they failed to satisfy neither the political class nor protesting public.
PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation came about rather ignominiously. The last hurrah of Mahinda led his acolytes and goons gathered to show their solidarity on May 9, misfired when they went on a rampage against protestors in Temple Trees area and the GotaGoGama (Gota Go Village) at Galle Face Green in Colombo. With the police benignly watching from the side lines, the goons attacked everyone, including handicapped war veterans, destroying property and injuring scores.
Apparently, the Mahinda-acolytes game plan had not factored the deep sense of resentment among the public against them. Enraged anti-Rajapaksa protestors went on a meticulously planned retaliation, to chase and beat up the goons, damage the buses that ferried them and set fire to as many as 28 properties including houses of pro-Mahinda political leaders and parliament members. The retaliatory violence extended till early hours of May 10. Army called upon by distressed ruling party politicians arrived rather late, after arsonists reduced properties to ashes. It had one positive outcome: the President who was out of touch with the reality of the ground situation seems to have now realised that the Argalaya (struggle) cannot be wished away by politics; results beneficial to the public matters.
Peeved Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MPs met the President on May 14 to complain about the failure of the armed forces to respond to their call for help to quell violence both in Mirihana on March 31 and on May 9 -10. A highpower military committee of former chiefs of three services has been appointed to look into lapses of the forces in these incidents. Going by the fate of such “high power committees”, nobody will be surprised if the administration fails to read its recommendations.
The bottom line in the whole sordid tale of Sri Lankan version of the Game of Thrones is, brothers Gotabaya and Basil have sacrificed PM Mahinda to pacify the public and install a more amenable leader to partly appease the protestors. So, what has been achieved by PM Wickremesinghe since he became PM on May 12?
Firstly, the five times PM, if we count his truncated tenures in the Yahapalana government, has partly relieved the pressure of public protests on the President. However, the protestors reminded everyone they were very much alive by taking out a huge procession of people from all sections of society in Colombo to mark the 50th day of protests on May 29. This shows the popular Aragalaya (struggle) movement has scored a success with the ouster of Mahinda. If led imaginatively, the Aragalaya has the potential to re-energize the movement demanding Gotabaya’s resignation. This factor will have to be borne in mind by not only the President or PM Wickremesinghe, but all other stakeholders.
Secondly, the President’s ploy of bringing in Ranil as PM, has confused the opposition which was vociferously demanding Gotabaya’s resignation. It also split the ranks of the main opposition SJB, after Ranil said his acceptance of office was conditional to replacing 20th Amendment to the constitution that concentrated all powers in the hands of the executive president. The SLFP led by former president Sirisena, after some posturing on the side lines, is not only supporting PM Wickremesinghe and the all-party government. The other parties, barring the weakened SJB and the JVP, which has questioned the constitutionality of installing Ranil as PM, are likely to support the government. That is likely to include the Tamil National Alliance, which would expect some palliative action from the President and PM to satisfy Tamil aspirations.
Thirdly, the biggest advantage PM Wickremesinghe enjoys is his positive equation, with better articulation, with India, the US, EU and the West. Starting with India, they were among the first diplomats to call upon the newly anointed PM. Domestically, this may not be a great advantage. But internationally, it will help speed up the processing of financial restructuring proposals from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and assistance from Asian Development Bank (ADB) etc. Measures are also afoot for negotiating with creditors to restructure the loan terms.
PM Wickremesinghe has also sought out China’s to help in seeing through the economic crisis. In the midst of the fuel crisis, China had made an offer to provide diesel stocks for emergency use from stocks held in Singapore, but Sri Lanka did not react to the offer. PM Wickremesinghe is now said to have directed the officials to discuss with China regarding their offer which was made before he assumed office. The Finance Ministry’s discussions with the China Development Bank and the China EXIM Bank to postpone repayment of outstanding loans also appear to have not been followed up by the Ministry. The China International Development Cooperation Assistance (CIDCA) had offered RMB 500 million as emergency assistance. China has also dispatched a shipment of rice to reach Sri Lanka.
In a televised address on May 29, the PM said the main issues in the country are not limited to the financial sector; in the political sphere there are two issues – one to do away with the 20th Amendment (20A) to the constitution reducing the executive president’s accountability to the parliament and implement the 19th Amendment once again which was abolished. He said “the party leaders are currently preparing the 21st Amendment” to carry this out.”
He also identified abolishing Executive Presidency as the second issue. He left it to the party leaders to decide on when and how to carry this out. He added “The Executive President has been given more powers. The main allegation today is that the Parliament has not acted to prevent the economic crisis.” He said the structure of Parliament must be changed to create a new system by combining the existing system of Parliament or the Westminster system and the system of State Councils so that Parliament can participate in governing the country. His proposal include the setting up of several new committees as well as an all-party National Council with youth participation.
Politically, the PM’s rhetoric touched the right notes with democrats everywhere. But in Sri Lanka where political heavies play the game of thrones, can the PM implement such radical changes? As the JVP, perhaps only a new constitution can include incorporate changes. The priority is to empower the parliament to control the economy by abolishing 20A and reintroducing 19A. Nothing less will satisfy the agitated public, unless it is the resignation of Gotabaya.
The moot point is, can PM Wickremesinghe with no political stake in parliament serving at the invitation (or pleasure) of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, successfully implement his plan? A more apt question will be, will the President and his SLPP cohorts, who worked hard to restore full executive powers of the president, agree to the proposal to reinsert 19A?
To set the record straight, it was Ranil as PM of the Yahapalana government, who ensured the 19A to whittle down executive presidency was passed in the parliament. Ranil as a seasoned wheeler-dealer in Sri Lanka’s convoluted politics, is perhaps one man who can pull such a rabbit out of his hat. But he is also a man who survives by making political compromises. So, the rabbit he pulls out may turn out to be a guinea pig, after political consultations of parliamentary parties give it a final form during the week. [Written on May 31, 2022]
*Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.