By Rajan Philips –
The SLPP’s election fireworks in Anuradhapura may have perished instantly in the Sacred City’s ancient lakes. But political moves and counter moves are emerging independent and regardless of local government elections being held or not held in the near future. New developments are being reported both within the governing (SLPP/SLPFA) alliance and outside it, as well as independent of the government and on behalf of the government. There are four potentially significant developments that have been and are being reported in the media:
* Shifting political alliances both within the governing alliance and among opposition parties.
* An ‘all-party’ initiative in parliament to persuade the government to take steps for restructuring debt payments to tide over the country’s critical foreign exchange shortage.
* The sudden and shocking return of White Vans in Colombo even as the government is trying to improve its human rights image in time for the March UNHRC sessions in Geneva, and while the Catholic Church is threatening to ‘go global’ in its search for justice for the victims of 2019 Easter Sunday bombings.
* Foreign Minister GL Peiris’s unusually expansive interview to The Indian Express, during his recent visit to India, and his exclusive interview with S. Venkat Narayan, Sunday Island’s Special Correspondent in New Delhi.
Shifting Political Alliances
On Thursday, February 17, the Daily Mirror reported what would appear to be very consequential shifts occurring within the political alliances that underpin the current composition of MPs in parliament. According to the Daily Mirror, twelve of the political parties who are now part of the SLPP/SLPFA alliance and all of whom were left out of the of SLPPs’ family rally in Anuradhapura, are expected to announce in early March the formation of a new alliance, while remaining part of the SLPP-led government.
The leading lights of the new alliance will be Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, as well as the Chairmen of the three crucial parliamentary committees – Tissa Vitarana (Committee on Public Accounts – COPA), Charitha Hearth (Committee on Public Expenditure – COPE) and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (Committee on Public Finance – COPF). The new alliance is expected to include a few SLFPers as well, two of whom are also committee chairs.
What will the group’s ministerial troika (Wimal/Gaman/Vasu) do? Will they quit cabinet, or stay on as ministers until the President shows them the door? Giving up their cabinet positions may mitigate their political culpability until now, while getting fired will not improve their already tarnished political credibility for the future.
The formation of this alliance will not result in the government losing its current parliamentary majority, but it could take away the government’s two-thirds majority which will be required to effect constitutional changes. The President and the SLPP could just ignore the group, forego the craving for two-thirds majority, and give up on going ahead with constitutional changes. That in itself will be a positive outcome for the country. The country will be spared the agony of going through an ‘organic’ constitution after the disaster over organic fertilizer!
The new alliance could also bring pressure on the President and the government to undertake basic remedial measures that are desperately needed to tide over the country’s current financial and food crises. But there is nothing automatic about the effectiveness of this group in influencing policy or changing government direction. And its effectiveness will be limited unless the group is prepared to work with opposition MPs and parties, as well as more constructive SLPP MPs, on specific issues that are now critical to the country.
Principled cross-floor collaboration can serve two purposes. One, acting as the legislative branch of government, parliament could take independent positions on critical issues to countermand mistaken presidential actions and provide alternative routes for the country’s government. As a consequence of this, parliament can establish its constitutional role in the presidential system without being a mere rubber stamp to the president.
Many have commented on President (G) Rajapaksa’s rootlessness in political parties as a source of weakness for his presidency. Conversely, it could be argued that the deep rootedness of previous presidents in their parties (except Sirisena, who was neither here nor there as President) was a source of weakness for the legislative branch. Shouldn’t parliament use the present opportunity to restore its constitutional role and function?
The Daily Mirror news story also reveals shifting alliances within the opposition in parliament. Of special note are reported discussions involving Champika Ranawaka, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and parliamentarian Kumar Welgama. A coming together of upstart ambition and decadent frustrations, to paraphrase the inimitable turn of phrase of Doric de Souza! Where and how far this convergence will carry, it is not worth a second of speculation. What is pertinent is that Champika’s overtures to Ranil are reportedly the result of Sajith Premadasa’s failure to respond to Mr. Ranawaka’s request for deputy leadership in the SJB.
Mr. Ranawaka apparently is not the only one feeling unrequited in the SJB. “Minority parties” affiliated with the SJB are also reportedly disappointed that Mr. Premadasa is not heeding their calls for formalizing a broad alliance where ‘minority parties’ can maintain their identities. If Sajith Premadasa is reluctant to go into broad alliances, it may be due to his own insecurity and there are also reports about other prominent and young UNP-defectors who too are not very pleased with the leadership and the insulated inner circles of Premadasa the Younger. But I am trying to get to a different point here.
And that is about what seems to be a shared reluctance among Gotabaya/Basil Rajapaksa (SLPP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP/NPP) to enter broad alliances with other parties. The reluctance might be due to different reasons – arrogance and not having to answer to anyone (Gotabaya/Basil), insecurity (Sajith), and – call it – progressive puritanism (JVP/NPP). But the effect of this shared reluctance would be a major shift in post-presidential electoral politics that needs to be watched as the electoral dynamic unfolds over the next three years. The past alliance champions – Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena are now spent forces with little consequence.
National Unity over National Debt
There is nothing more serious than the national debt burden, and its aggravation of foreign exchange shortages and import capacity limitations. There have been suggestions for negotiating debt payments and calling on the IMF for help. But the government and the Central Bank have done nothing about either suggestion. In the absence of government action, a group of government and opposition MPs have been putting their heads together to urge the government to act promptly on negotiating with the country’s creditors and for approaching the IMF.
TNA’s MA Sumanthiran has been the convenor of these discussions, the second of which was attended by R Sampanthan (TNA), Sajith Premadasa, Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne (SJB), Rauf Hakim (SLMC), Mano Ganesan (TPA), , Shanakiyan Rasamanikam (TNA), and from the ‘government side’ Charitha Herath (COPE Chair), Tissa Vitarana (COPA Chair) and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (COPF Chair). Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya attended the second meeting. The first meeting was also attended by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Kabir Hashim (UNP), and Dr Harini Amarasuriya (JVP/NPP).
As reported in the Sunday Island last week, Mr. Sumanthiran has indicated there is agreement in the group that the government should commence renegotiating with creditors before running out of existing foreign reserves and reschedule loan settlements. The group recognized renegotiation as a multi-step process, which could be guided by the experiences of other countries such as Argentina and Uruguay. The purpose of debt negotiations would be to ensure the continuous flow of essential goods and the continued protection of the poor and vulnerable social groups.
Again, there is no indication how far this initiative will go. But this is an instance and an opportunity for parliament to assert itself and literally compensate for the lack of political will on the part of the President and the Minister of Finance. There is another angle to this initiative given the convenor-role of Sumanthiran. It underpins the unifying role of national debt and everything ‘economic’. It also speaks to Mr. Sumanthiran’s role as a parliamentarian and a constitutional lawyer, and his abilities to work across party lines and ethnic boundaries on matters that are of importance to all Sri Lankans. I cannot think of a Tamil parliamentarian before him who would have played such a national role so well while being inflexibly principled on matters affecting the rights and expectations of Tamils as Sri Lankan citizens.
White Vans Return
The most shocking development last week was the return of White Vans after nearly seven years. In the first reported instance, goons in a white van attacked the house of TV journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrema with rocks and faeces and drove away with impunity. In the second instance, Catholic civic activist Shehan Malaka Gamage was arrested and taken way by CID men who too had arrived in a white van. Gamage managed to livestream the arrest on Facebook, calling it abduction, and the publicity forced the CID to produce him in court where the Magistrate released him om bail.
Gamage’s arrest stirred the ire of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who endorsed Gamage’s description that what was done to him was abduction. The Cardinal went on to call it “an uncivilised, thuggish act that should have no place in a democracy.” The Cardinal lambasted the Attorney General who authorized the ‘arrest,’ reminding him that the country’s Attorney General is “a public servant and not a tool of politicians.” According to media reports, the Cardinal also condemned the attack on the residence of journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrama, and “expressed his disbelief that the government would resort to such tactics with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session just days away.”
It is not only the UNHRC that the government will have to worry about for this year’s month of March. Cardinal Ranjith has put the government on notice that Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church is working with the Vatican to help find justice for the victims of the 2019 Easter bombings. The outspoken Cardinal has said that “if we cannot find a solution within the country, we will try going through international organisations.” And that “the government alone must take responsibility for that, because it is the government that has not paid an iota of attention to this.”
The return of the White Van a week after the release of Human Rights and Constitutional Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah might suggest that the SLPP operatives in the government do not know what they are doing. More sinisterly, the family, the SLPP and the government might be switching sides as they struggle to contain the continuing fallout from the Easter bombings. First they promised retributive justice to Catholics at the expense of the Muslims. Now the SLPP government might be trying to woo the Muslims and abandon the Catholics.
Playing one group against another never works and it always backfires. That has been the story of the entire Rajapaksa power trajectory – its slow rise, sudden peak and the rapid decline. Power not only corrupts and corrupts absolutely, but also comforts the futility of learning nothing and forgetting everything. Of all people, Prof. GL Peiris, easily the most erudite person to be in any Rajapaksa cabinet, gave a demonstration of this during his recent (February 6-8) visit to India.
India – a tried and examined pal
Foreign Minister GL Peiris visited his Indian counterpart Subramanyam Jaishankar in the first week of February. At the end of his visit, the Minister gave an interview to the Indian Express and to the Sunday Island’s Special Correspondent in New Delhi. The latter interview appeared in the Sunday Island last week – in the paper’s print and electronic editions but did not make the cut to the trendy online version. In the Sunday Island interview, Minister Peiris indicated that he had a better understanding of what the people of Jaffna need after spending three days in the peninsula, than any Tamil MP who, according to Peiris, is usually preoccupied with war crimes, which the Minister did not make it a point to deny as he usually does.
The key takeaway from the Sunday Island interview is his refutation of the claim (attributed to ex-Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran) that the proposed new constitution will remove the 13th Amendment and “convert Sri Lanka into a Unitary State instead of a Federal State.” The Minister called the assertion “irresponsible speculation” while not bothering to clarify to the Indian journalist that Sri Lanka is a constitutionally stipulated unitary state. He went on imply the need for patience till the Experts Committee releases its much awaited draft without indulging in “surmises and conjectures.”
In his Indian Express interview (which seems poorly transcribed and was reproduced in the Daily Mirror on February 14), the Minister was categorical that “the 13th Amendment is an integral a part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution of 1978.” Its “primary characteristic,” Peiris said “is a division of powers between the central authorities and the provincial councils.” He rightfully blamed the current suspension of the Provincial Council system on the previous government and the TNA for indefinitely postponing all provincial council elections through legislative inaction by parliament.
Quite apart from the 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils, the Indian Express interview is remarkable for its unusual expansiveness and its glowing allusions to the historical and currently “strategic” linkages between India and its “utmost isle” (Milton), including a potential “financial integration” of the two countries. The Minister described India as “a tried and examined pal that’s all the time there for us.” While admitting to the apparent competitiveness in Sri Lanka’s dealings with India and China, the Minister asserted that “there’s something very particular about Sri Lanka’s relationship with India … a particular high quality about it,” and deemed it “inconceivable that Sri Lanka would (have) allow(ed) our nation for use in opposition to India.”
The Minister identified different economic sectors as underpinning the evolving “strategic relationship” with India. They include ports and harbours, electrical energy, petroleum, tourism, prescription drugs, and of course all the financial credit help which sets up for the “integration of the financial system of India and Sri Lanka” for mutual benefits. If Ranil Wickremesinghe had said half as much, he would have been tattooed and crucified no sooner than he got off the plane at Katunayake. But Pieris may have the Teflon touch as a Rajapaksa Minister.
It could also be that whatever Minister Peiris says in India may be of little consequence for the President or the Prime Minister in Sr Lanka. But that is hardly the way for the government of Sri Lanka to manage its relationship with India. It can get counterproductive when it is apparent that the Sri Lankan government, or Minister Peiris on his own, is trying get New Delhi’s help to deal with UNHRC in Geneva. Besides the UNHRC, there is the EU, and now the Vatican and the whole Holy Catholic See to deal with. Connecting all the external dots internally is the return of the White Van to violate the streets and homes in Colombo. Either the government is inexplicably dumb, or it is assuming that it is cleverer than everyone else in dealing with human rights.