By Rajan Philips –
Everyone is familiar with national reconciliation, some even to the point of being bored. I am using the term reconciliation in two other situations: one, in accommodating criminal activities, past and present; and two, in juggling between different elections (local, provincial, parliamentary) for presidential advantage. The prime mover and chief puppeteer in all three is, of course, President Wickremesinghe. National reconciliation has been a longtime pastime for the President. To be fair, the man actually believes in it and is quite sincere about it. But his pure intentions and the positive benefits of national reconciliation are invariably contaminated by what goes on in the sphere of criminal activity and on the terrain of electoral politics. In both areas, the President has notorious precedents to follow, and he keeps following them rather dispiritingly in spite of his lofty assurances to the contrary.
Let us take criminal reconciliation first, as it is the oldest of the three. The political accommodation of crime and corruption became a phenomenon after the 1977 parliamentary election, and more comprehensively after the presidential election of 2010. We don’t need to name any names here. It was the allegation and experience of corruption that led to the first defeat of a sitting President in 2015. The white knight who promised the eradication of corruption in January 2015 was then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. But within days of his promises and the celebrations at Independence Square, the Central Bank bond scam hit the political fans.
Thajudeen and Schaffter
For all intents and purposes, the promises of yahapalanaya were dead on arrival. But the pretension of action was not given up. Special mechanisms for investigating corruption were set up for public showing, but their progress was stymied from the top. President Sirisena did it clumsily. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe did it artfully. The so called emblematic crimes were reopened from cold storage and nothing actually came out for any of them. Police covered up the death of Wasim Thajudeen as accident in 2012, but concluded it was murder in 2015. But nothing came out of it. The family of Wasim Thajudeen had to go through the ordeal of seeing his body exhumed and re-examined, ultimately for nothing.
Another family, the Schaffter family, is now going through the same ordeal after the shocking daylight murder of their son, Dinesh, in the national cemetery. Police investigation of it has been inept and wayward. In the case of Thajudeen, the Police ruled accident first and murder after three years. In the case of Schaffter, the police have become wiser and are suggesting murder and suicide at the same time. Incompetent JMOs have been known to make technical mistakes and have been humiliated in cross-examination during trials by competent lawyers. But never have JMOs been known for tampering with and falsifying medical evidence as it would seem to have happened in the Thajudden and Schaffter cases. And whoever committed the crimes and whoever tried to cover them up are getting away as if nothing ever happened.
The point about reconciliation involving crimes is a point about credibility. How can you trust a government that promises an economic turnaround for the country, when the same government makes no effort to pull the country out of the cul-de-sac of crimes where it is stuck now? Last Wednesday, the President waxed eloquent in parliament as he canvassed the MPs for their support of the IMF Agreement. He called for “a national policy framework targeting the Year 2048 (the centenary of Sri Lanka’ Independence) through which the country can achieve prosperity.” He called for creating “a green economy, a digital economy,” and said, “that’s the way forward in the global economy.”
Missing in this litany are references to crime or corruption. Shouldn’t we create a crime free society? A corruption free government and economy? Where are they in the policy framework targeting 2048? What will prosperity be if it is not free of corruption and of crime? It will be pyrrhic prosperity. The President who is becoming quite garrulous as he ages, never mentions crime or corruption and the need to eliminate them in a serious and committed way. Both are continuing unabated even through the economically difficult times that the country is going through. If debt-restructuring is the buzzword in economic discussions, the key words in law and order discussions are coverup and inaction.
The X-Press Affair
Take the case of the MV X-Press Pearl disaster that occurred on Sri Lankan waters off Colombo, on May 20, 2021, causing significant ecological and livelihood harm. Compensation claims must be filed within two years, but with hardly 30 days left before the clock runs out, the government is in a scramble not only to prepare the legal claim but also to decide where to file them – in Colombo or in Singapore. Already, the to-be respondents are reported to have set up a ‘limitation of liability fund’ in London up to a maximum of 19.5 million pounds, a paltry starting point. But the Sri Lankan government is yet to send a letter of demand to the respondents even though local experts working on the matter have produced a Damage Assessment Report, which preliminarily estimates the damages to be USD 6.2 billion. Some expect that it could be as high as USD 10 billion. It would be like getting two to three times the current IMF loan without getting into debt. But no urgency to send a letter of demand to counter the ridiculously low limitation amount of GBP 19.5 million.
The Damage Assessment Report and the estimate were completed in September 2021, but nothing has gone from the Sri Lankan government by way of a letter of demand to X-Press respondents. As if all this is not enough the Minister of Justice casually drops a grenade that he has received information that a certain Chamara Gunasekera was paid USD 250 million as bribe to stop the government’s lawsuit for damages. The Minister would seem to have informed parliament even before he alerted the police to find out what on earth is going on. That really is the question as the media is now questioning who Chamara Gunasekera is, and others speculating who he really could be.
To get back to reconciliation, how can the President or the government make credible assertions that they are all set to liberate the economy based on the IMF Agreement, when they cannot even send a letter of demand to X-Press Pearl and put them on notice? How can they reconcile their economic assertions with their inactions on any and all corruption files? Oh yes, there were coverup attempts and inaction when X-Press Pearl caught fire, but the inferno was too much to hide and extent of the damages to marine ecology and maritime livelihood was too vast to paper over.
Elections as Pawns
The dilemma for the President is that he cannot withdraw his protection of the Rajapaksas from the allegations that are swirling around them, without risking his majority in parliament. All that he has been able to do so far is to keep the Rajapaksas out of the cabinet and away from the levers of power. But there are ministers in the cabinet who are as corrupt as the Rajapaksas, but they are all supporters of the President now. The President with his usual cleverness is not only poaching erstwhile UNPers from under the wings of Sajith Premadasa, but he is also peeling off SLPPers who want to break away from the fallen Rajapaksa family enterprise.
The question if he were to establish a majority in Parliament independent of the Rajapaksas, what will he do with it? Will he use it to declare a National Government and use that ruse to cavalierly expand the cabinet? Will he use it to crack down on corruption sparing no one, not even the Rajapaksas? Or will any fight against corruption have to wait until Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes an elected president? Even as he calls on the parliament and the country to “target 2048” as the year of our prosperity, the President is targeting the next presidential election, the last hurdle to clear to achieve the ultimate goal in his political life.
It is here I think we could be seeing the President resorting to what I call electoral reconciliation. That is to reconcile the opposition demands for elections by giving them not the elections they are expecting but the elections that are of advantage to him. In other words, use elections as pawns. The local government elections are now dead, not only for now, but potentially until the next presidential election is over. That is because the local elections will give significant advantage to the NPP/JVP, and a sound electoral platform to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections.
None of the other (southern) parties want the JVP to steal a march over them. That includes the SJB. The mainstream media is unable to shake off its JVP phobia even if the people have started warming up to it. And the President did all of them and himself a favour by scuttling the local elections. He did so with his usual artfulness by starving the Election Commission of funds for the local elections. There was no need for any other fuss, or emergency.
Now there is talk of conducting provincial elections, one or two at a time, until the next presidential election. Whether this is a trial balloon that is being floated, or not, we know not. But it is a time tested method for staggering provincial elections to the advantage of the governing party. The Rajapaksas made the most of it, and now Ranil Wickremesinghe seems ready to make enough of it to buy electoral time till the next presidential election.
The calculation is simple. Unlike the local elections, the provincial elections can be called one at a time so any negative effect (to the President) will be limited and not nationally significant. Also, no party is in a position to win in multiple provinces. The President’s Party, the UNP, is not in a position win anywhere (unless there is a re-merging of the UNP and the SJB), but the President can pretend that he is not losing anywhere. His main advantage would be to divide the opposition and make sure that no single party emerges as a dominant force and provides the base for a viable presidential candidate to run against him. Right now, there is none.
And the President can compound national and electoral reconciliations by calling the Northern Provincial Council election to go first. The Tamil Parties will not object. India will be pleased. The President cannot lose no matter who wins in the north. And Wimal Weerawansa can write another book that the whole scheme was cooked up in a Washington kitchen. Weerawansa will get good press but no one will notice, while Wickremesinghe will move on to the next province. The East, perhaps, to please the Muslims. Then the Central to accommodate the Plantation Tamils. And gradually to the cosmopolitan Western Province before targeting the Ranil-wary heartland provinces. A perfect scheme if that indeed is the plan and nothing goes wrong.
Chandrika Kumaratunga started in the South and marched on Colombo in 1994. Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to start in the North, but the difference now is that Mr. Wickremesinghe does not have to march on Colombo. He is already President, he is already in Colombo, and you can see why he has been busy fortifying it. He is the executive establishment, not an outside usurper. The hugely bigger difference between 1994 and today is the economy. That is the elephant in the room which everyone misses as they keep playing the same old political games, even if in different costumes.