Colombo Telegraph

Electing Sirisena As The President: Have We Made The Correct Choice?

By DNR Samaranayaka

DNR Samaranayaka

The expectations about the changes that could occur as a result of President Sirisena’s victory had led many people to believe that Sri Lanka will enter into a new phase under the Sirisena administration. Most people expected a change in the political culture that plagued the country with rising corruption and falling law and order. Since Sirisena was known to be a simple person with no direct links to political corruption or any other anti-social activities, he began to receive a wider support as the nominee for the presidency. This support would not have been possible if Ranil Wickremesinghe was the candidate opposing Mahinda Rajapaksa. He would have certainly added another loss to his long list of failures since the early 1990’s.

Although Maithripala Sirisena was in politics for nearly 50 years, he was not known to be a dynamic politician who has achieved anything of significance. He started as a ‘Gramaniladhari’, which is the administrative tier at the lowest level in the public service. After a few years, he joined SLFP to pursue a full time career in politics. In 1989, he contested on SLFP ticket and became a member of parliament. He rose from an ordinary member of the party to be the Secretary of SLFP—the most influential position within the party. He has been a minister since 2004; at the time he left the part to accept the coalition nominee for the presidency, he was the Minister of Health. His main interests, as the Health Minister, were the reduction of tobacco and liquor consumption in Sri Lanka. For this effort, he received two awards from the Harvard University and World Health Organization (WHO).

After nearly two years at the helm, it is beginning to cast doubts as to whether the people have made the correct choice of electing Sirisena as the President and allowing him to enjoy executive powers with a lavish life style at the tax payer’s expense. Although he frequently makes statements highlighting his achievements, it is difficult to find any evidence to support these claims. As briefly discussed below, his claims of achievements only show his attempts to seek cheap publicity.

I restored democracy after 2015: Sirisena, The Hindu, Nov. 11, 2016

In a recent interview with The Hindu newspaper, Sirisena said, “Those who have been in power and have lost power are trying to sabotage all these activities”……”They are abusing and misusing the democratic freedom that I have restored in this country.” He further said, “When the people made me the President, they did not ask me for food, water or clothes. They wanted a society where they could live freely and happily. I have given that to the people.”

The President Sirisena has a very short memory. The freedom that people began to enjoy after the election is not the making of President Sirisena. The country had already moved in this direction even before the election was held. The 2015 election was one of the cleanest elections that the country had seen for a long time under any government. Most elections in the past were marred by riots and vote rigging, but none of these was seen in the 2015 election. There were no evidence of intimidation, abductions of opposition candidates, violence aimed at the opposition, or any other form of threat to peace during the election. There was no stuffing of marked ballet papers in sealed boxes, and even the police were acting much more responsibly compared to other elections in recent times. The election commissioner and even the foreign observers gave a clean report on this election.

This change was largely due to the wave of protests organized by various social groups, especially the forum organized by Sobitha Thero much before the election. The freedom that we see in the country now is in fact came before the election. If the election was held as it was done earlier, President Sirisena would have lost and he would have gone 7 feet underground, as he revealed later. The freedom that people enjoy now has nothing to do with the President, and it is entirely the efforts of the people who agitated against the Rajapaksa administration for some time. It is this agitation that brought Maithripala Sirisena to power as well. The country has not seen any change that we can attribute directly or indirectly to President Sirisena or his administration. If he is responsible for this change that we see after 2015, he must tell us what he did to bring this change. However, as various reports and news items reveal on daily basis, the police and the judiciary are still under government surveillance to control decisions that could go against the members of the government.

Good governance under Sirisena administration

Yahapalanaya’ was the magic word that emerged after the 2015 Presidential election to describe the policies that would be implemented by the Coalition government if it came to power. It has now entered into our vocabulary as a household word. Its frequent use by the people and the media is not to acknowledge what the present government has done, but to repeatedly tell the government what it has not done according to the promises that were made earlier. As the criticisms mount on the government, president Sirisena appears to be complaining about the inaction of those responsible for dealing with corruption. Consider the absurdity of the following statements by President Sirisena.

1. If we clean corruption in some key institutions, a good portion of our budget deficit can be recovered. Culprits are few and we defeat them, PMD News, Dec. 09, 2016

This statement by President Sirisena clearly acknowledges the presence of large scale corruption costing the country billions. He also acknowledges that actions on those responsible for large scale pilfering of public funds are yet to be initiated. Furthermore, it also implies that actions to bring them to justice is someone’s responsibility and apparently not his. He says, “We are going to defeat them”, but he does not say who he refers to as ‘We”. This statement clearly shows his lack of seriousness and leadership qualities in dealing with one of the main issues that brought him to power.

He also makes an absurd statement about the relationship between corruption and budget deficits. The money siphoned off into private accounts of corrupt politicians cannot be easily recovered. No country uses these as a source of financing budget deficits. Even if it is possible, it will be very insignificant and the expenses on recovery always outstrips the amount collected. Corruption is a disease that has harmful effects on economic and social development. It increases budget deficits, taxes, debts, cost of borrowings, and inflation. It also has adverse effects on the poor due to rising inflation reducing their meagre real income, which in turn reduces their living standards further. If President Sirisena can show the country that this money can be recovered to help finance the budget deficit, then we all should appreciate his efforts. If he cannot do it, he is only displaying his ignorance about the issues that even an average citizen would know. He must have seen at least 30 budgets during his time as an elected member, but he still does not know how the budgets are financed.

2. Environment conducive for corruption must be eliminated, PMD News, Dec. 10, 2016

This is another absurd statement by Sirisena. Does he understand that it is his and his government’s responsibility to take action on corruption? He was elected by the people with the promise of Yahapalanaya and not just to make ridiculous statements from time to time.

3. Maitrhi reveals Rs 3012 million went missing the day before the presidential polls, Ceylon Today, Nov. 28, 2016

This statement had been made two years after the 2015 presidential election. He has revealed that a check has been issued on 7 January 2015 for Rs 3012 million on behalf of the Mattala Nilwala scheme. After two years, President Sirisena says that he does not know what happened to this money. If he does not know about this money, who should know about it? What has his government done so far to take action on this? It is not difficult to find out about this transaction since it can be easily traced to the recipient. He has simply become the messenger about frauds that are taking place, but does not show any interest in taking action. Even though the incident took place two years ago, he appears to have just woken up and has suddenly realized that the money has gone.

4. Yahapalanaya is not a joke to us, I am serious about good governance and my government is committed to fight corruption, PMD News, Nov. 26, 2016

People remind you all the time that Yahapalanaya is not a joke. It is you, the prime minster and your government think it is a joke. That is why the government continues to ignore the screams of the people telling you to do what Yahapalanaya promised. Over the last two months more than 100 articles appeared in media sharply criticising not only the failure to implement the promised Yahapalanaya, but also the corruption in the present government.

5. People’s confidence on government has not diminished, PMD news, Dec. 26, 2016

This is a totally immature statement and not expected from a person holding the highest office. It is the same as a little girl asking, “Am I Beautiful?”, and no one is going to say ‘NO’ even if she is not beautiful. This statement needs no further elaboration as it already speaks a lot about the President.

I am ready to make the SLFP a victorious party, PMD news, Nov. 26, 2016

As revealed in the above statement, Sirisena’s main desire is to bring back SLFP into power. He says, “As the SLFP, we should teach a new lesson about how to work honestly by refusing fraud, corruption and irregularity, and not putting the money of the people into our pockets”. The President was speaking at the SLFP Membership Promotion Program in Galle District held on November 26 2016.

Maithripala Sirisena has been a leftist from the beginning of his political career. As the Hindu newspaper reveals he still has Lenin’s photo hanging in his living room. Despite being a strong left oriented politician, he accepted to be the nominee of a government that will be formed with the help of the UNP, which is known to hold more liberal policies. If a person is fully committed to a particular ideology, it is difficult to understand why that person joins a party with a completely different ideology unless he saw the opportunity to grab power.

The majority of the votes that he received at the election in 2015 was not from SLFP supporters, but from the UNP supporters. What Maithripala Sirisena says now clearly undermines the trust placed on him by millions of people. This statement is simply a slap on the face of non-SLFP voters in the country who worked hard to bring him to power hoping he will address the issues related to corruption and democracy, in particular. Has he ever considered how the people who supported him at the lection feel with this idiotic statement by him? Can a person be so disrespectful for those who did so much to make him the president? He not only shows his lack of respect for the support he received, but also displays his ignorance, selfishness and opportunism.

Unfortunately we can’t find a SLFP government in the past which did a great service to this country. SWRD Bandaranaike created a mess by nationalizing private companies and bringing them under government control. The result was inefficiency in basic services, drop in investment and a decline in growth. Then he brought the Sinhala only policy to be implemented in 24 hours. It was essentially a policy that meant to grab the support of the Sinhalese to win the election. Unfortunately, it led to a sharp division of the two main communities, leading to the emergence of radical groups in the Tamil community in the 1980’s. As a result of this ill-conceived policy, the country is still struggling to bring the Sinhala and Tamil communities together and heal the wounds of the war.

Sirima’s government from 1970 to 1977 introduced price and import controls. They resulted in long queues even to buy basic consumer items such as milk powder or bread. People had to stay in various queues to collect their basic necessities. She suffered a humiliating defeat to the UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene in 1977. Chandrika ruled the country from 1994 to 2005, and she was more interested in her personal life than the interests of the country. It was during this period that the ethnic conflict intensified and the army suffered heavy losses. From 2005 to 2015, the country was under an UPFA/SLFP government. We all know why it was thrown out in 2105. Given this history and the experience with him as the president, do we really want another SLFP government under Sirisena?

Solving the problems of Tamils is my problem, The Hindu, Nov. 11. 2016

In his interview with the Hindu, Sirisena said, “solving the problem of Tamils is my responsibility”. Unfortunately, this is not a problem of Tamils, but a problem of the entire country involving all communities. It is not a problem that Sirisena can handle or solve by himself or his party. It has remained as the most complex issue that divided the nation for a long time, and its characteristics sharply changed after 1983 July riots from a communal problem to a conflict that led to a war between the government forces and the Tamil liberation army. The war ended in 2009 at a heavy cost to human lives and properties. The wounds of the armed struggle are still visible as diaspora continues to influence foreign governments to bring war crime charges against the former regime and the army.

It is not a problem that can be solved through constitutional reforms, but through understanding, negotiations, education, interaction with other ethnic groups to develop trust and confidence to work together for the benefit of all community groups. It can take a long time to come up with a fair solution to all stakeholders in this conflict. What the government can do first is to establish a system of good governance to make the Tamils believe that a fair solution is possible. President Sirisena’s approach to this problem, as he states at the interview, is by making frequent visits to Jaffna and make friends within the Tamil community. He has already travelled 11 times to Jaffna, but unfortunately his approach is unlikely to solve anything even if he travels thousand times. He sees this is an issue that should be simply built on friendship.

Prior to my assuming office, Sri Lanka was an unaccepted country in the international community, The Hindu, Dec. 14, 2016

In the same interview with The Hindu, President Sirisena has also made the following statement, “Our government has turned a new page in our international relations. Prior to my assuming office, Sri Lanka was an unaccepted country in the international community. I believe that all the countries in the world are our friends now. The manner in which I obtained the support of the international community — I feel it is a victory for me. Not just a victory for our country and people, but also a personal victory for me. In today’s circumstances, no country can develop by making enemies in the international community”.

According to this statement, Sirisena has turned Sri Lanka from an unaccepted country in the international community into a country that is loved by all the countries in the world. He says “I feel it is a victory for me.” He wants to solve the country’s domestic and international problems through friendships that he has developed since he became the president.

President Sirisena has also made a statement recently about the war crimes allegations that were instituted by UNCHR. He claims that he was able to save Mahinda Rajapaksa and the members of the armed forces who are accused of committing war crimes during the final stage of the conflict in 2009. Although Sirisena openly says that his intervention has cleared those involved in war crimes allegation, there is so far no official statement by the UNCHR. Without an official statement to the effect that the charges have been dropped against the former president and the members of the armed forces who are accused of war crimes, these allegations can be resurfaced again and again, especially under continued pressure from the Diaspora. President Sirisena must prove that the UNCHR has completely cleared them or else he should withdraw this statement. If the president has already dealt with this issue, why is he pleading with the President Elect Donald Trump’s help to squash war crimes allegations?

President Sirisena is always ready to take credit that others do not see that he has anything to do with it. Unfortunately, he does not realize that the international community considers him as a friend in his official capacity as the President of Sri Lanka. Any person who holds this position will receive the same recognition. Even Mervin Silva or the Pistol wielding Chairman of Hambantota PS, they will also receive the same recognition. It is the position and not the person holding the position is important. Furthermore, friendships with powerful politicians have a very short life span since a politician can be powerful leader today an ordinary citizen tomorrow. A good example is the former Prime Minister of the UK, Mr David Cameron. After the Brexit he had to retire from politics. Similarly, after 20th January 2017, Barack Obama will no longer be the president. President Sirisena counts them as friends. They did not do anything to him or to the country when they were in power, and they do not have the same status now as they had before. Has the President Sirisena ever considered why they think him as a friend, not the former President?

After 198 years, I cleared the names Wellassa heroes including Monarawila Keppettipola, PMD News, Dec. 8, 2016

This was the most disgraceful act carried out by Sirisena as the president. As reported in Ceylon Government Gazette on January, 10, 1818, (reproduced in Sunday Observer on 11.12. 2016) the reason that the names of Keppetipola and 16 others have been written in Sri Lankan history was because they were considered as traitors for the uprising against the British rule, especially after the capture of the Kandyan kingdom by the British. They were captured by Captain O’Neil on October 28, 1818 and were offered the option of seeking pardon from the colonial rulers, but they refused the offer. Instead, Keppetipola offered his head to be severed from his body pointing to his neck and all others followed the leader.

If Keppetipola and others sought the freedom from the Colonial rulers, they would have been granted clemency by the Colonial rulers. If that happened there is nothing significance about their uprising against the British. Like many others who fought against the British rule, whose names are not recorded in history, Keppetipola and his group would have not been remembered as heroes. They are so remembered for their heroic act for rejecting the pardon and choosing death instead. By clearing their names what President Sirisena has done is to completely take away the historical significance of this event. They deserved to be on historical records because it is the only way the country can remember them as national heroes. Furthermore, since they were branded as traitors under the notice issued by the then Governor Robert Browning on 1818, on behalf of the colonial rulers, it is not normally removed by another ruler who does not represent the British government. By calming to clear their names, the President has tried only to get cheap publicity.

“I did this” and “I did that”: President Sirisena

In some of the statements reported above, President Sirisena highlights his achievements since he became the president and takes credit for them. However these claims of his achievements could mislead the people because he has not done anything significant to achieve the respect of the people over the last two years. Most people are highly critical about the President and his government for the failure to address the promises given to them and the commitment they made to establish good governance or clean government under the new administration. If he has made any significant change under his administration, the people will immediately recognize what he has done. He does not have to say “I did this” or I did that”. He has not only failed to deliver the promises, but also shows that he does not have the leadership qualities or a vision to take the country forward. Usually a popular leader does not have to brag about his achievements because the people are already familiar with what he had done and what he will do in the future. It appears that he is trying to build up his ego through cheap publicity.

His push to bring back the SLFP into power also involves a conflict of interests because he is planning a government under a SLFP in the future while being the President in a government who received unprecedented support from the opposition. Unfortunately, he does not have the brains to understand what he is doing is unethical. It is very clear that we ended with the wrong choice as the president, although the country got rid of Rajapaksa government.

The writer can be reached on tilaks@iprimus.com.au

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