1 July, 2022

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Lanka’s Quest For Stability

By R Hariharan –

Col. (retd) R.Hariharan

Interim Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on his sixth term, has just completed a month in office. Nobody expects the newly anointed PM to come charging on a white steed like a modern-day Sir Galahad to save the country from economic bankruptcy. From the start, there is a lot of skepticism about his success as PM as the fully empowered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is riding on his back. Many protesters see him as a proxy of Gotabaya, who refuses to resign.

A second reason for doubts about Wickremesinghe’s credentials as PM is that he is serving at the pleasure of the president, who is seen as the source of Sri Lanka’s economic woes. The PM draws his parliamentary support from Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its cohorts, as well as the UNP’s traditional political rivals, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

The last time Wickremesinghe served as PM of the uneasy UNP-SLFP coalition, with SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena as president, the Yahapalana (good governance) government did not cover itself with glory. The president and the PM spent more time wrestling for power than delivering the good governance they had promised the people. They had no time to heed early warnings of an impending attack by homegrown Islamic terrorists that led to the infamous Easter Sunday attacks which resulted in the avoidable death of nearly 300 people. In a way, the Easter Sunday attacks paved the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be elected president and the Rajapaksas to bounce back to power with massive support from Sinhala nationalist voters in the last presidential and parliamentary elections.

In this respect, Wickremesinghe’s handicaps remind one of Sammy Davis Jr, the legendary American pop singer of the 90s. When asked about his golf handicap, the singer quipped: “My handicap? Man, I am a one-eyed Black Jew! That’s my handicap.”

A SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threats) analysis of the PM is revealing. Wickremesinghe’s strength is his political experience of over half a century. During this period, he has ridden both the crests and troughs of Sri Lanka’s elitist politics and its by-products—cycles of ethnic conflict, revolutionary insurgency, political violence and periodic assertion of hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to the detriment of religious and ethnic harmony.

Probably, the secret of Wickremesinghe’s survival in the acrimonious island politics is his mastery of using the Middle Path of Theravada Buddhism (Majjhima-patipadā in Pali). It advocates avoiding the extremes of self-gratification on the one hand and self-mortification on the other. Middle Path in politics can be construed as not taking hard decisions that could tread on many feet. It has not only helped him to survive, but also remain relevant as a man for all seasons both in victory and defeat in the turbulent politics of the island nation.

This is perhaps one reason why President Rajapaksa chose him for the PM’s post despite the disastrous performance of the UNP under his leadership in the last elections. Agreeing to become PM after the ignominious exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM when the ship of state threatens to capsize requires a lot of self-confidence. Wickremesinghe seems to have plenty of it, though the elected representative of the UNP is absent in the parliament, perhaps for the first time.

On the flip side, that is also his weakness. His political past is strewn with the failure of many well-meaning efforts. The 2002 Norwegian initiated peace process with the LTTE is one example. If successfully implemented, it could have saved at least 1,00,000 lives which were lost in the Eelam War 4.

During the peace process, the political and personality differences between Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga were taken advantage of by LTTE leader Prabhakaran, leading to its collapse. Similar leadership weakness led to the failure of the Yahapalana government, under Wickremesinghe’s joint stewardship with Sirisena. These are just a few examples of Wickremesinghe’s failure to deliver upon his promises.

However, it is to the PM’s credit that since coming to power, in his public discourses he has repeatedly warned the people of privations and shortages that would continue for some more months. Even conservative estimates look at six months to one year lead time for the economic process to firm in.

The PM’s cabinet that is supposed to implement the national recovery plan is a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly. In the one month, the PM has achieved some semblance of stability after seeing the exit of Basil Rajapaksa, the finance minister. He is out of the cabinet, but he still influences the SLPP and is capable of pulling the rug. Prof GL Peiris, the foreign minister, had been active to cash in on the international goodwill Sri Lanka enjoys. But there are elements in the cabinet that bring no credit to any government.

Wickremesinghe is one of the few Sri Lankan leaders acceptable to a wide cross-section of the international community. That includes most of the Sri Lanka Tamil bodies abroad, with whom he had struck a working equation during his earlier avatar as PM of the Yahapalana government. President Rajapaksa must have realised that he needed him in his team when the country desperately needs international goodwill and support to rescue the beleaguered economy.

Within a month of Wickremesinghe becoming PM, there has been a positive international response to Lanka’s economic woes. Of course, Sri Lanka is not the only country facing the after-effects of Covid. This, compounded by the Ukraine War has crippled the economy and endangered the livelihood of the people everywhere.

Of course, India has extended a lifeline to Sri Lanka, providing over $3.5 line of credit to import fuel, medicine and essential food supplies. A separate credit line of $500 million has been extended for the purchase of fuel. But help is also flowing from unexpected sources in India. Tamil Nadu is donating 40,000 tons of rice, over 100 lifesaving drugs and 500 tons of milk powder. Tamil Nadu’s ruling DMK party has donated Rs ten million and its MPs have pledged a month’s salary for CM MK Stalin’s fund for assistance to Sri Lanka.

In a rare gesture, the ambassadors of the US and China met in Colombo on May 13. They “had a friendly discussion on broad topics of mutual interest”, according to a tweet from the Chinese embassy. It added: “China and the United States could work together to help Sri Lanka to overcome current difficulties.”

The meeting is significant because the same day, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken spoke to Wickremesinghe and discussed Lanka’s current economic and political challenges. According to the State Department spokesman, the Secretary affirmed the US’ commitment to the Sri Lankan people during this challenging time and the importance of supporting reforms that address their concerns, including democratic governance and human rights. The PM’s media unit said that the PM in his conversation explained the current status of the discussions with the IMF and looked to work closely with the US.

But foreign aid can only flow if Sri Lanka pays attention to international concerns over its poor accountability for violation of human rights, war crimes, absence of rule of law and ethnic strife.

There are three threats that could vitiate Sri Lanka’s return to stability. First is the leaderless protests that have snowballed into a national movement, a sort of colour revolution. The GotaGoGama (Gota Go Village) protestors are established firmly in the minds of youth and the middle class, who are disillusioned with the political class as a whole and the Rajapaksas in particular. Their main demand now is the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They are watching from the wings to see how the government goes about organising the essential supply of food stuff, fuel and sustenance of the poor. The government cannot afford to ignore them, lest nihilists take over the protests to spread disorder.

Second, is the demand to curb the executive president’s powers to make him accountable to the parliament. This has near unanimous support of the public and almost all political parties, including sections of the ruling SLPP. The president also seems to have realised this. This requires the abolition of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution introduced by President Rajapaksa soon after he came to power. There are two drafts of the 21st Amendment floating—one proposed by the PM and the other from the SJB opposition. Its passage in parliament could be problematic. Even after the amendment is passed, implementing it both in letter and spirit with Gotabaya on top is going to be a problem. It will require a sagacious leader to do it. People are still looking over the horizon for such a leader.

The third problem is sustaining public support for implementing the common economic recovery plan for at least a year. There are a few drafts of such a plan evolved by civil society organisations. One is the Common Minimum Programme for Economic Recovery drafted by the National Movement for Social Justice. It examines eight underlying aspects of the crisis: macroeconomic stability, revenue consolidation, primary expenditure control, public sector and state-owned enterprises management, social safety net, energy and utilities, trade and industry and specialised legislation critical to recovery. Any economic recovery plan will be on a similar model, with short, medium and long term goals to be achieved in a time-bound manner.

Without going into the nitty gritty of economic reforms or legislation, the moot point is the ability of the government to sustain the plan for a year. It will not only require leadership commitment and continuity, but holistic support of the political class to see through the crisis. Good governance, rule of law and corruption free administration can only sustain such an effort. If Sri Lanka can do it, under any leader, it would be a great achievement.

For the present, PM Wickremesinghe is saddled with the job. He cannot do the “Candy Man” act (to quote the lyrics of Sammy Davis Jr’s 1985 classic) to “take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew nor cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two” or “take a rainbow and wrap it in a sigh, soak it in the sun” to make “a groovy lemon pie”.

Wickremesinghe has the unviable task of maintaining stability of the country to keep it going, feed the hungry, encourage investment, resuscitate tourism trade and agriculture and keep the money flowing. As the country’s pointsman, it is going to be an ordeal by fire. He will need more than good wishes; solid support of the people to see through this arduous task is what he needs. And that means less political bickering and more action.

Corruption Reigns

Absence of rule of law has vitiated governance in Sri Lanka for a long time. The present government is no exception. Recently, the Colombo High Court sentenced Sri Lanka’s newly sworn-in minister for public security and tourism Prasanna Ranatunga to two years rigorous imprisonment. He was found guilty of threatening businessman G Mendis and demanding Rs 64 million to evict unauthorised occupants of a land and to refill the land.

The High Court also imposed a fine of Rs 25 million on Ranatunga and ordered him to pay Rs 1 million to Mendis as compensation. If the minister fails to do so, three more months will be added to the prison sentence, which, of course, has been suspended.

It is not surprising that Ranatunga had a victorious smirk on his face when the media clicked him after the trial. Thereafter, the man on suspended sentence for a criminal offence entered the parliament and sat with cabinet ministers.

*The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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Latest comments

  • 21
    1

    Mr Hari Haran, what is your opinion with regards to the Sri Lankan military opening fire on Thamizh demonstrators, in Visvamadu who were protesting mildly after standing for hours in the queue waiting for fuel with regards to the way, fuel was distributed to certain vehicles and however, the same Sri Lankan military and police dare not to the same to Chingkalla protestors and demonstrators in the south of the island, even under extreme provocation. Is it because this Chingkalla military and police fell empathy towards their fellow Chingkallams suffering but cannot feel the same towards the island’s Thamizh and Muslim Thamizh and see them as enemy aliens, however, the Sri Lankan state is very happy to get aid from India and Thamizh Nadu. Is this a quest for stability?

    • 21
      0

      Please also what is your opinion with regards to the recent incident at the ancient centuries-old Sivan Kovil, at Kuroonthoor Malai in the Mullaitheevu district, which is now being falsely being claimed as an ancient Buddhist site, despite hardly any evidence of any ancient Buddhist relics. Under the guise of archaeological diggings, they were trying to convert this ancient prehistoric Hindu site into a Buddhist site by secretly building a Buddhist Vihara with the help of the Sri Lankan armed forces stationed there, with powerful backing from many important Chingkalla politicians down south. This is against court orders. An attempt to install a huge Buddha statue, on this ancient Hindu site. This was stopped by the local Thamizh on time and the police who were there and not doing anything were forced to take action. Many Thamizh protestors were severely beaten by the Police, whilst the Chingkallams who were there illegally against court orders were allowed to roam freely.

    • 8
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      PK
      Not that I agree with your approach, but bear in mind what interests the retired colonel represents.
      Not the kind of person who cares two hoots about this country.

      • 9
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        SJ Thaatha I do agree with this, that this colonel cares two hoots about this country, especially about the plight of his fellow Thamizh living on the island. I heard he came here with the IPKF. He and many Thamizh upper classes, elite and politicians really do not care about Eezham Thamizh, especially from certain communities. However deliberately brought these issues to his attention, as they pretend or ignore this is not happening and give lots of support to these Chingkalla Buddhist Fascists. Who are now successfully destroying and erasing all traces of the ancient Thamizh and Hindu history and presence on the island, shamelessly getting aid from India and the state of Thamizh Nadu and then cavorting with India’s enemies. These Indians and including many Thamizh from certain communities think, that pandering to Chinkgkalla racism, at the expense of the island’s Thamizh will win them favours but still have not learned from their previous experiences, that the Chingkallms despite being largely of Indian Thamizh ancestry, are anti-Thamizh, anti-Indian and anti-Hindu to the core. Will use the Indians when they need their support and aid and discard them. India’s security on its Southern flanks is the preservation and existence of the Eezham Thamizh lands on the north and east of the island.

        • 0
          6

          Pandi Kutti,
          “Chingkallms despite being largely of Indian Thamizh ancestry”
          —-
          ‘CHINGKALLMS’. Is this the term Demalu use for Sinhalized Demalu? They may have Indian Thamizh ancestry but indigenous Sinhalayo who evolved in this country do not have an Indian Thamizh ancestry.

  • 11
    0

    Lanka never quest for Stability. All the Sinhala politicians since independence made sure there is no stability or harmony amongst its diverse population. Instead the politicians promoted racism and racist violence made money and buggered of to USA.

    Even today when people are queuing for fuel, gas, kerosene, for hours in the scorching heat, people have even died in queue , there is no medicine, inflation is sky rocketing, the racist war criminal Real Admiral Sarath Weerasekara is inciting racial hatred from the safety of the parliament compound.
    People have died while queuing for these essentials, there no apologies or words of condolence/comfort to the family, but instead , Real Admiral Sarath Weerasekara is racially inciting them, of course on the order of the man who is responsible for this diabolical state of the country, the Hitler of Sri Lanka – Gota

    • 0
      7

      This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

      For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

    • 11
      0

      Well said Rajesh. Constantly making racially inciting speeches against Tamils, which are very disturbing not only to Tamils but to anyone with the right mind. However, never being brought to task or disciplined. Making one wonder who is behind all this. The TNA has at last condemned his speech and stated it is very disturbing and alarming to the Tamil people. The economy is ruined, no food no medicines and people are starving. As you stated no apologies, words of comfort, or attempts to remedy this situation, at least now, but instead divert people’s attention by making racially inciting speeches using parliamentary privilege. As if Tamils rightfully preventing the illegal installation of a Buddha statue at the ancient Sivan temple at Kurunthoor Malai is the most important and pressing matter, even to the Sinhalese, other than the extremists. How can stability be achieved by these types of behaviour or speeches?

      • 1
        6

        Rajash,
        “All the Sinhala politicians since independence made sure there is no stability or harmony amongst its diverse population. Instead the politicians promoted racism and racist violence…”
        —-
        Sinhala politicians formed non-racist, non-ethnic based political parties; United National Party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party to unite all the communities and develop the country after independence but racist separatist Tamil politicians in Yapanaya formed an ethnic-based political party Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (toned down as Federal Party in English but the real meaning was Tamil State Party) in 1949 which had as its hidden agenda the establishment of a separate state for Tamils in Yapanaya grabbing Sinhala land in NE.

        • 5
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          Rubbish they were all national only in name but were promoting and practising racism and Sinhalese Buddhist Fascism. It is because of their racist marginalization policies against the Tamils from the time of independence, starting with making a million Indian origin estate Tamils who had lived on the island for generations and at that time earned most of the island’s wealth, ethic cleansing of Tamil areas and then colonizing these areas with outside Sinhalese to deliberately change the demography of the Tamil north and east, denial of language, employment, higher education to Tamils, organizing periodic pogroms against Tamils, when even they protested against their treatment, non violently and democratically, created all the problems and is the root cause of the current crises.

          • 6
            0

            Each successive government became worse in the treatment of Tamils and the Rajapakses took it to another level, that even the UN is now investigating war crimes against innocent Tamil civilians. The north and east of the island, as well as the north-western Puttalam and Chilaw areas, which were Tamil until very recently, are all historical Tamil lands and were never Sinhalese lands. These were the ancient homelands of the Eelam Tamils, where they had lived from ancient times and ruled most of these lands, until European colonization. Even your Mahavamsa recognizes this and states the lands to the north and east of the island are Tamil lands. Even the Portuguese and the Dutch colonials ruled these Tamil lands as a separate colony, from the coastal Sinhalese areas they conquered, as they recognized these people were a separate nation. It was the British who merged these Tamil lands with the Sinhalese lands in 1833, soon after they captured the Kandyan kingdom, for their convenience and created a new colony called Ceylon, thereby making the Sinhalese a majority on the whole island and the Eelam Tamils who were a majority in their lands a minority by this stroke.

            • 5
              0

              The British when they created the Northern and Eastern Tamil provinces created these from the areas and lands, where the Sinhalese had no historical claim whatsoever, there is no history of Sinhalese living in these areas, before independence and Tamils from South India invading and forcing the Sinhalese to pack their bags from these areas and move further south, and west. Nothing. Please stop posting the same racist lies, misinformation and rubbish. I am not going to discuss any other things here, as others have already posted, with regards to this. I just wanted to answer your post.

    • 2
      5

      Rajash,
      “All the Sinhala politicians since independence made sure there is no stability or harmony amongst its diverse population. Instead the politicians promoted racism and racist violence…”
      —-
      Tamils who started violence, terrorism against indigenous Sinhala Buddhists and massacred Sinhala Buddhists for three decades are trying to clean their blood-soaked hands by putting the blame on Sinhala Politicians.

  • 6
    1

    …. Agreeing to become PM after the ignominious exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM … ?
    .
    I don’t buy the above line of simplifying Sri Lanka politics. Was Mahinda Rajapaksa sent packing… ?
    .
    It was a master stroke of Mahinda. (No elaboration is needed.)
    Ranil is an all-weather friend of Mahinda. It was their game, ploy, tactics, …. whatever you want to call it.

    • 5
      3

      “It was a master stroke of Mahinda.”
      Not a “master stroke” by any stretch of imagination..
      He would in his prime have done it better style without revealing his hand in the attacks.
      But I agree, too early to count him out.

  • 4
    0

    “Thereafter, the man on suspended sentence for a criminal offence entered the parliament and sat with cabinet ministers.”

    I understand when a media reporter asked PM whether it is right to sit with a convicted criminal in parliament he replied he has two more opportunities to appeal the decision and if he sits in parliament even after the appeal failed.
    The fact is that Politicians are more powerful than Sri Lankan Judiciary or any other institution. Recently, a IGP or Some high level police officer said that most of the Police Officers were appointed with the recommendation of Members of Paliament of the governing party.

  • 3
    1

    TO-EAGLE BLIND EYE-You talk too much about buddist singala people.But in srilankan political history from 1948 no real singala buddist ruler ruled the country.Those who ruled are all fake buddist or converts.
    DUDLEY SENANYAKE
    SOLOMON RIDEZWAY DIAS BANDARANAYAKE.
    SRIMAVO RATWATTE DIAS BANDRANAYKE
    JUNIOS RICHARD JAYAWARDENA
    CHANDIRIKA DIAS BANDARNAYAKE
    MAHINDA PERCIVAL RJAPAKSE
    NOW ALL FAILED BUDDIST LEADERS HAVE FALLEN ON THE FEET OF CHRISTIAN RANIL WICKREMASINGHE
    PLEASE STOOP BEATING THE DRUMS LOUDLY ABOUT HALF BAKED SINGALAMS..

    • 2
      0

      Not only that, almost all of them have a recent South Indian Tamil immigrant ancestry. Yet they all fostered Sinhalese Buddhist Fascism and beat the anti-Tamil drum to gain power, plunder the nation, created so much misery, laid the foundation for the birth of the LTTE the 30-year-old war, that created the current crisis and even in the midst of the current crisis, still want to pursue anti-Tamil racism. People can starve, die or be sick without medicine, no fuel or gas but funds are still found to forcibly convert and take over ancient Hindu temples in the north and east to Buddhism, to further the Sinhalization program.

    • 0
      4

      paragon,
      Sinhale, the Land of Sinhalayo and Vedda Eththo got in to this pathetic situation because Tamils and Muslims from Hindusthan who were accommodated by indigenous Sinhala Buddhists in their country resorted to terrorism and ruined the economy.

      • 2
        0

        Sinhale? From where ever in the world did this word originate? A recently coined word by Sinhalese racists and Sinhalese Buddhist Fascists to claim the entire island for the Sinhalese. The ancestors of the Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan Tamils and the island’s Muslims are all from the Indian mainland, from prehistoric to modern times. This includes the ancestors of the Sinhalese, not just the Tamils and the Muslims. Modern DNA analysis has proven that the island’s Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims are closely related and the island’s three main population groups are closely related to the people of South India. Proving if there is any input from North India or western Asia it is minimal. The closest relatives to the Sri Lankan Tamils are the Sinhalese, especially the Kandyan Sinhalese and not the Indian Tamils. We are all Indian and that too from South India from prehistoric to fairly recent. Please google and read the latest DNA analysis about Sri Lankan people. Instead of quoting rubbish from extremist Sinhalese sites.

  • 2
    0

    Ranil Wickremasinghe does not possess any SWART as you claim. He has no strength since he was not elected MP. His weakness is trying to pursue activities in which he would finally fail. He is only an opportunist otherwise he would not support Rajapaksass at this time, while the entire country is asking them to Go home. Rani himself has been a threat to the country since he joined hands with his own rivals, to safeguard them from the majority of people who are protesting against this Gov’t.

  • 2
    0

    Indian Governments[apart from Indra Gandhi] has so far been not been for creation of EELAM. Tamil Nadu political Leaders too just provided no real help to achieve Tamil nation’s dream of an Independent state. M K Stalin’s Father had a PSEUDO FAST to show support for SL Tamils in early 2009.Under MK’s watch Tamils were raped tortured and killed in thousands. Ranil.W is no friend of Tamils. He did not ALLOW any competition to the UNP leadership thereby allowed Rajapaksas to rule 3 times since 2005. In 2015 He had the opportunity to bring criminal cases against Rajapaksas and put them out of politics for ever. But he did NOT DO SO. Now he has become PM to protect the criminals who plundered nation’s ECONOMY. He should at least pass a constitutional amendment that removes all powers to the Executive President.

    • 2
      0

      Now son Stalin and the Thamizh Nadu government are giving lots of aid to the people in Sri Lanka, food medicines, to the value of billions of rupees , which mainly going to help and feed the Chingkallams, who take all this from Thamizh Nadu and then their armed forces and government departments, still going around conficating private Thamiuzh lands under various fake excuses and in the name of religion and fake archaeology and are forcibly converting ancient Hindu sites in the north and east to Buddhist, with the vies of settling Chingkallams on these traditional historic areas, of Thamizh Hindus. Not a word of protest or whimper from the Indian central government or Thamizh Nadu, still giving unconditional aid to the island, whilst many of their senior ministers are making racist, inciting speech against Thamizh and giving false facts about history, about what is happening.

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