By Ameer Ali –
A desperate decision by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) to invite TNA leaders for talks followed by an equally desperate cancellation of that invitation reveals a lot more than what news headlines try to convey. On the one hand, it recalls what happened in the 1950s when Bandaranaike realized the folly of introducing the Sinhala Only Bill and events followed thereafter; and on the other, it admits an uncomfortable truth that the country has reached a dead end under GR’s so-called ‘alternate way’ to achieve prosperity and splendour and that the time has arrived to change direction. Above all, it also indicates that the day of reckoning is approaching Rajapaksa Regime (RR).
SWRD Bandaranaike came to power by mobilizing the forces of Sinhala nationalism and political Buddhism. Having come to power with the support of these forces he could not avoid surrendering to their demands and one of those demands was to make Sinhala the only official language. Recently, his elder daughter Sunethra Bandaranaike was quite open and honest in admitting to a TV interviewer that what her father did was an inexplicable blunder that had brought the country to ruins. However, the Official Language Bill immediately earned the wrath and ire of the Tamil community, and the Federal Party (FP) launched its Satyagraha campaign against that Bill and demanded either federalism or equal status for Tamil Language. The racial riots that followed made SWRD realize that he had to make mends to calm the situation and strike a compromise with the Tamil minority. The infamous Banda-Chelva Pact was the result of that realization. But the mistake he made was not to consult with and convince beforehand his backers at the election, the lay leaders of Sinhala nationalism and Buddhist hierocracy. That neglect left room for JR Jeyewardene to regroup the same nationalist forces, and his infamous march to Dalalada Maligawa, forced SWRD to abandon the pact, which ultimately ended in his assassination at the hands of a Buddhist monk.
The same mistake appears to have been repeated by GR last week in inviting TNA for talks, before consulting with and convincing his own supporters in the South the necessity of post-war reconciliation with minorities. Given the fact that there is no shortage of takers to champion the cause of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, both within the opposition as well as from his own ruling coalition, GR, in fear of an open revolt from his backyard, had no option but to cancel the invitation and postpone the meeting indefinitely. The situation is back to square one but the regime is reeling under multiple pressures.
The pressure is acute on economic front. An uncoordinated and impulsive approach to policy making has led to the collapse of the national economy, with little over $4 billion in foreign reserves – just enough to finance three to four months of imports. Faced with a debt crisis leading towards default in servicing, widening balance of payments and domestic budget deficits, chronic shortages in consumer items and production inputs causing steep increase on cost of living, and worsening public health crisis compounded by the pandemic have taken their toll on the popularity of RR. Never in the history of independent Sri Lanka that a government elected with such overwhelming majority as this has lost so much in so short a time. In a sense, it is Covid-19, apart from the military, that is protecting RR by preventing the masses from openly gathering in large numbers and demanding the government to quit. It is therefore in RR’s political interest to allow Covid-19 to continue little longer. Is this the reason why the government is ignoring the advice of health experts and opting for sub-optimal solutions?
While the economy is in tatters, the country’s post-war foreign relations are in shambles. In a world grappling with a new cold war between China and a US-led West, RR’s strong inclination to align too closely with China obviously raises concern within the other camp. It has also made neighbouring India, another regional power, to rethink its strategy towards future with Sri Lanka. Adding to this worry is the role of diaspora Tamils who are relentless in pressing Western governments, including UN agencies, to bring more pressure on RR to address the issue of reconciliation. This diaspora, like the pre-Word War II Jewish diaspora is economically resourceful, intellectually capable and politically influential in certain Western democracies such as Canada, UK, and US.
Until recently, governments in Sri Lanka had been quite dismissive of this diaspora and ridiculed its strength. All that seem to have evaporated with the passing of the UNHCR resolution in September last year. The fact that Tamil diaspora had a hand in pressing for this resolution is undisputable. Following that, there had been a few other developments internationally. The US Congress has decided to move ahead with a resolution to recognize North and East of Sri Lanka as Tamils’ traditional homeland. That resolution has been sent to the Foreign Relations Committee and, if cleared, will be presented to the Congress. A few weeks before that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also passed a resolution condemning RR over its poor human rights record in relation to the minorities. In this, a small but growing Muslim diaspora appears to have played a significant role. On top of these came the threat from European Union to withdraw its Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) concession on Sri Lankan exports. Being the second largest export destination for the island that withdrawal, if eventuates, would spell disaster to an already struggling economy.
From the time GR became President, his bravado that Sri Lanka is a democratic sovereign country and that foreigners, including UN, should not interfere with domestic decisions taken by an elected government was meant chiefly for home consumption. It was that bravado which also prompted RR to ignore UNHCR resolution and blamed the “vanquished Tamil Terrorists” for its false propaganda. It only demonstrates the immaturity or incompetence of the regime’s diplomatic approach towards international relations. Now that the chicken had come home to roost, a mood of desperation has set in. It was this desperation that prompted GR to schedule talks in a hurry with TNA leaders. Although it was too little too late, the tragedy is that, like Bandaranaike before him, neither the President, nor the Prime Minister and not even their ministers had the audacity to explain the reality and truth to their grassroot supporters in the South. Reconciliation with minorities cannot be postponed any longer. More than the UN and world powers, it is the country’s economic revival, internal peace and external reputation that demand it. By ignoring this, RR is edging towards its day of reckoning.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia