By Jehan Perera –
The passage of the budget by a comfortable majority confirms that the government’s parliamentary majority is holding in the face of adverse circumstances. The ruling party has lost over twenty of its members who no longer follow the party line. But the rest of them appear to be staying together despite the lack of a clear and public leadership. Prof. G L Peiris who gives leadership to one of the breakaway groups has assailed the ruling party members for having betrayed the mandate on which they got elected. At the previous elections, the SLPP had committed itself to protecting state assets including state-owned economic enterprises (SOEs).
In a strongly worded speech in parliament he accused the party of switching allegiance to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the expense of its own manifestos at the last elections. He pointed out that having repeatedly assured the electorate that state owned enterprises (SOEs) would be further developed and modernized at the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls, the SLPP has thrown its weight behind President Wickremesinghe, who, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, reiterated his determination to sell even the profit-making SOEs. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed privatising several state enterprises including Sri Lanka Insurance and Sri Lanka Telecom.
The government’s budget proposals make it clear that the decks are being cleared for a major overhaul of state owned enterprises. Members of the ruling party who once spoke in favour of protecting them are now explaining the need to change their stance. Minister Bandula Gunawardane said Sri Lanka would not be in a position to be part of the international trading system unless it boosted its foreign reserves by selling some of its assets. The Minister said that if Sri Lanka did not shore up its reserves to the tune of over three billion dollars, international companies would not accept the letters of credit given by Sri Lankan banks.
The realpolitik behind the dramatic shift in the stance of members of the ruling party is politics based on practical objectives, which is survival in this case rather than ideals. The protest movement that erupted in the aftermath of the economic crisis that hit the country a year ago reached its peak with the overrunning of official residences and secretariats of the president and prime minister. It caused their resignations and also denuded the ruling party of any credible leadership that can face the people. It was in this context that the five-time former prime minister took on that challenge with his single party seat in parliament to give the ruling party his leadership.
Some of the actions of President Wickremesinghe have been subjected to severe criticism, such as the crackdown on the protest movement and more recently the government’s policy on taxes and lack of policy on corruption. However, after the president took over the reins of government, support for the protest movement has diminished to all appearances and so have the numbers coming out in protest. The increasing levels of economic hardship being experienced by the masses of people who are now forced to cut down on their consumption and their savings are being borne in silence, at least for the moment. Sporadic and short protests are taking place in a number of industrial areas, but they are yet showing no signs of coalescing into one powerful force.
It seems that the hope of an imminent economic recovery and apprehension of the security forces continues to subdue the will of the people who balk at another round of large scale public protests. Nonetheless, members of the ruling party who could not face the people at the height of the protest movement are wary of the people even now. They seem to prefer to stick together even if it means going against the fundamentals of what they have been espousing in the past. In the north women were shown throwing rotten tomatoes to a hoarding on which the pictures of parliamentarians were pasted which would a shared sentiment in the south as well. Justifying their reversals, their spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardane said that “Fitch again reduced our rating. No matter who governs Sri Lanka, they will all face the same problem. We need to build our reserves.”
It is in these straitened circumstances that President Wickremesinghe has been declaring his intention t resolve the country’s ethnic conflict and bring about national reconciliation without delay. He has set a target of February 4 next year, when Sri Lanka will celebrate its 75th year of Independence. This can be dismissed as an impossible dream. The ethnic conflict is one that predates independence from British rule. It was a problem that was identified by the colonial rulers much before independence. In response to a demand by some of the leaders of Ceylon, as it was then known, for self-rule, they noted that “Had the inhabitants of Ceylon presented greater appearance of unity and corporate spirit, one obstacle to the grant of full responsible government would have been removed.”
The divided nature of Sri Lankan society observed by the British colonials has been witnessed on every occasion on which a political solution to the ethnic conflict has been proposed. In 1957, there was the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, which was torn up, which was followed by the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1965 which was not implemented, the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 which was only partially implemented, the draft constitution of 2000 of Chandrika Kumaratunga which was burnt in parliament, the All Party Representatives Committee proposals of 2010 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period which were not even considered by the government, and the constitutional assembly of 2015 by the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government that came up with multiple proposals.
In other words, the political solution to the ethnic conflict has been worked and reworked on multiple occasions. They have tended to be accepted by the government in power or by sections within the government but rejected by the opposition that is out of power. This time, however, the most militarist and ethnic nationalist political party in Sri Lanka’s history is dependent for its short term survival on the leadership of a non-racist political leader. This is an opportunity that may never come again and needs to be taken. Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
President Wickremesinghe’s assertions that he will solve the ethnic problem by the next Independence Day may reflect a realistic confidence that what was done in the passage of the budget can be replicated in the political solution whose contours have been readymade by being worked and reworked on multiple occasions. There would be no future or survival unless the country gets its act together and the political solution seems to be the basic one to unite the country to handle the present crisis. To continue with Shakespeare, “Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.”