By R Hariharan –
Learnings from 2022
Sri Lanka did not cover itself with glory in the year 2022. But the year is a remarkable one in Sri Lanka’ political history. The spontaneous Aragalaya protestors demonstrated that they cannot be taken for granted by their elected representatives. It did not matter if they were Rajapaksas – their heroes of yesterday. The protestors’ battle cry “GotaGoGama” saw the unseemly termination of the rule of the Terminator of Tamil separatists – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It has shown that getting elected to the high office of President is not enough; it lasts only so long as people accept it.
Events overtook the Machiavellian plans of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was forced to quit home and office in the face of massive public protests. It showed enjoying parliamentary support is not enough to sustain power, when people are determined to throw you out. The Hindu correspondent in Colombo Meera Srinivasan eloquently puts it: “When you hear ordinary citizens articulate their desire for a better future and country, the message resonates across borders and contexts. At one level, Sri Lankans were resisting leaders who they held responsible for their economic distress. At another, a mass uprising showed that no leader is invincible, and no might is bigger than people’s power.”
The transformation of seven-time Prime Minister and nominated member of parliament Ranil Wickremesinghe, brought in as “night watchman” PM, as President in a crisis, validates another clichéd aphorism: “fortune favours the brave.” But Wickremesinghe, a veteran of many political battles for survival, had the courage to step into the shaky chair. He quickly put together his jerry-built government to stave (save?) the country from plunging into chaos.
The President’s galaxy of ministers are mostly old faces with new labels, with a sprinkle of younger aspirants. It is still intact there, to usher in the new year, disproving the naysayers. This showed that President Wickremesinghe had a much better understanding of crisis management than the Rajapaksas. Despite the anachronism of his survival as President depends upon pro-Rajapaksa MPs, evidently most people feel his priorities are right. Otherwise, Aragalaya protests would have probably continued. It also showed that people are ready to give the leader time and space to get his act together. President Wickremesinghe’s actions show that he is still wary of muted Aragalaya protestors watching from the wings. Though the threat of Aragalaya has taken a backseat from the political mainstream, hopefully it will force the political class to prioritise people’s needs first.
It is the historical Aragalaya movement that propelled President Ranil Wickremesinghe to power. It showed the failure of the traditional tools of state instruments of power including security personnel to quell the protests, Though the movement has seemingly dissipated now, its subterranean presence can be seen now in protests by students and staff in universities, among monks and civil society organisations. So, it is not enough to find berths for youth representatives in advisory bodies of the government. Good governance, rule of law and impartial judiciary will satisfy most of them.
Corruption and cronyism seem to be endemic in every action of the government. For long people have put up with it. The Aragalaya movement has sown the seeds of distrust of the political class in the minds of the people. If Sri Lanka has to survive as a stable democracy, politicians must regain the trust of the people. In this context, Winston Churchill’s words in the House of Commons come to mind. “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper. No amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”
As Sir Martin Gilbert, leading historian, and Churchill’s official biographer, says: “Parliamentary democracy is an easy concept to grasp but a difficult one to sustain. Throughout the Twentieth Century, and into our present Twenty First Century, the institutions and ideals of parliamentary democracy have been under continual threat. The power of totalitarian regimes to dominate their own people is – and remains – attractive to those who wish to control the life of a nation without checks and balances.” These words hold true to Sri Lanka’s present situation as China with its increasing global clout might appear as an attractive alternative. A dissatisfied population may be easily swayed to ignore that it is a one-party “democracy” of 21st century Communism of the Chinese kind.
Agenda for 2023
Sri Lanka is stepping into 2023 with the economy limping on crutches with the tourism industry and export trade taking a beating. The promised IMF recovery package is yet to materialize. Peoples’ woes of continuing price rise, shortage of essential food stuff and energy resources are making life difficult. The scars of Covid pandemic are still there and the flare up of a new variant spreading fast in China, European countries and the US portends ill of a revival of the pandemic in the new year. There is no end in sight to the early end to the Ukraine war. This has queered the strategic stability of Sri Lanka’s environment. Its fall out is being felt in Sri Lanka’s relations with major powers competing for dominating the Indo-Pacific.
The President’s agenda for 2023 will have to be planned in this environment. The year 2023 is going to be a year of long weekends with nine of them falling on Fridays and Mondays. In other words, it will be a year of less than nine months of work. So whatever Sri Lanka plans to achieve will have to factor time as an invaluable resource. In management terms, this would mean investing in short-term projects that yield quick results to stoke the feeling of achievement to raise the morale of the people. Indian experience has shown extensive computerisation of government systems can achieve this.
The first item on the President’s agenda for 2023 seems to be to resolve “the Tamil issue” by February 4, 2023 before the nation celebrates 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence in March. Ethnic reconciliation had been featured as an important item on the agenda of all presidents, except for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The veteran hero of the separatist war, on becoming president made it clear that Sri Lanka was for the majority – Sinhala Buddhists. Of course, despite all the fanfare with which the ethnic issue has been featured in the agenda of successive presidents no discernible results have been achieved. Of course, the only exception is the 13th amendment that created provincial councils. Even that was sent to the halfway house, when the Rajapaksas prioritised pleasing the Sinhala Buddhist constituency, over reconciliation of minorities.
President Wickremesinghe is a past master in using ethnic reconciliation as an effective political tool to garner public support. He had spearheaded the UNP protests against the 2000 draft constitution bill moved by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The UNP MPs set fire to the draft of the bill in the parliament. The draft 2000 constitution contained power sharing proposals that could have ended the ethnic confrontation. It never saw the light of the day and Sri Lanka missed an opportunity to bring the ethnic issue to a closure. It was a costly political expediency that cost the nation dearly, as 100,000 people lost their lives in the Eelam wars that followed.
The Yahapalana government of President Maithripala Sirisena with PM Wickremesinghe went to the extent of preparing a draft constitution fielded by the constituent assembly. But it never saw the light of the day perhaps because both the President and PM had their own political agenda. Considering this background, President Wickremesinghe’s deadline for resolving the Tamil issue by February 4, 2023 seems unrealistic. However, the President appeared to be making the right moves – all party conferences, palaver with the leaders of Tamil, Muslim and like minded leaders of other political parties. He has opened offices in Vavuniya and Mannar to keep his ear to the grind wheel.
But the President must reckon with the elephant in the room – the Sinhala Buddhist rural masses. They need to be convinced that the Tamil issue is the priority when the whole country is locked in the struggle for survival. Long ethnic issue eating into the vitals of Sri Lanka? Only time will tell.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ajith / January 4, 2023
The major enemies of Reconcilliation of people in Sri lanka are regional powers including India, China and Pakistan.
Siva Sankaran Sharma / January 5, 2023
Correct Ajith, India used the plight of the island’s indigenous Eelam Tamils from the northeast to its advantage to creep into the island, to teach Sri Lanka a lesson for its then and current pro-Chinese, pro-Pakistani and at that time pro-western policies. The LTTE was a creation of India and the racist anti-Tamil policies of every Sinhalese government from the time of independence. India used the Eelam Tamils and the LTTE when it suited them and then discarded them once they crept in and as usual adopted a pro-Sinhalese policy. The largely Sikh and North Indian IPKF was in reality not a peacekeeping force but was anti-Tamil to the core and was doing the dirty work of the Sinhalese in the north and east. We all know what happened to the Tamil civilians at their hands. I was there for a short period. Pirapakaran was correct, when he stated the so called Sec 13A
Siva Sankaran Sharma / January 5, 2023
Will never work and as usual, the Sinhalese will never honour this but scuttle this and this has come to pass. Rajiv was taken for a ride by the wily fox JR. Who had no intention of granting just Tamil rights or any form of federalism. This is why he deliberately created 8 provincial councils instead of just the northeast, to deliberately muddy the waters, make it not work and did not provide these councils with any powers. Then cunningly made the LTTE and the IPKF fight with each other and do the dirty work of the Sinhalese. We know what happened after that. We also know the part played by the Indian Congress government led by Rajiv’s widow Sonia, whose advisors, were North Indians. Malayalis and Indian Tamil Brahmins, in the war crimes and large-scale killings of innocent Tamil civilians in May 2009 and the support they provided to the Sinhalese Sri Lankan state, in every way. Militarily, logistically, economically and diplomatically and in the UN. All for revenge against the LTTE and they did not care what happened to the island’s Tamils.
Siva Sankaran Sharma / January 5, 2023
India was fully aware of what was happening and was defending the Sinhalese. The largely anti-Indian and anti-Hindu Sinhalese cunningly used them and then discarded them, and as usual ran back to China/Pakistan. Now India blinks at their own stupidity but still wants to please the Sinhalese only at the expense of the Tamils, not realising only a powerful Tamil NE region, which is a guarantee or safeguards for India and its southern shores. If Sinhalese or these now very Islamic south Indian Tamil origin fake Arab, Sri Lankan Moors get hold of these regions, like they badly want to, India will have to look out. As for the Sinhalese Buddhist and Catholic masses, they were taught to be anti-Indian, and anti-Tamil by the Sinhalese elite, politicians and their clergy and it is the same with the island’s Tamil Muslim masses or the Moors, their elite and politicians have been brainwashed them to be anti-Tamil, Indian and very pro-Islamic and Arab and to associate Islam not with their Tamil ethnicity or culture but with Arab ethnicity and culture.
Siva Sankaran Sharma / January 5, 2023
What has all this racism and religious extremism brought to the country only destruction and economic decline. By trying to suppress and destroy the island’s Tamils, steal their ancient homeland, and destroy their language, culture, history, historical monuments and ancient Hindu temples, they have destroyed themselves but other than a small minority, still largely do not realize it but want more of this and will still elect rogues, charlatans and opportunists who promise them more of this.
Kanapathy Varunan / January 6, 2023
All fart and no shit seem to be the order of the day. Unless a good opening dose is given to bring out the shit, the abdomen will bloat and burst.
Mahila / January 5, 2023
All the right noises and moves, with no outcome!!!??