By R Hariharan –
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (also known as Lao Tze)’s well known saying “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is coming true in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery process. However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, seems to have spent the month trying to find the first single step to begin the journey. It was not his fault that the recovery plan as outlined by him was hazy, as it depends upon factors beyond his control. These include both internal and external factors.
Internal factors include President Rajapaksa’s backseat driving to prove himself as a worthy president and the PM’s dependence upon the political stability of a shaky coalition of members supporting him. In addition to the outburst of public anger, there is simmering anger among the youth disillusioned with the political class. They have taken to social media to scrutinise every utterance and action of leaders in power. Their potential as political influencers of the public is still an unknown quantity.
During his six weeks plus in office, the PM has bought time for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to weather the mounting mass protests demanding the resignation of Rajapaksas from power. PM Wickremesinghe’s regular public communications to prepare the people to face the difficult times ahead have probably helped the administration to manage public protests despite continued aberrations in governance.
This period has also helped the President to regain his confidence, rudely shaken by the wave of violence on May 9-10 that resulted in the exit of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa in his May 12 statement agreed to support the 21st Amendment (21A) to the constitution (to curb powers of the executive president) as it was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s precondition to join the government as PM. President Rajapaksa has changed his narrative as he does not seem to apprehend any threat to his office in the near term. Probably, this led to the President to publicly apologize for his mistakes and announce he would serve the full term to see the country through its economic recovery.
He seems to have used the new found bonhomie with PM Wickremesinghe to further water down the 21A draft, which was gazetted after all party consultation. The main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJP) party which did not attend the all-party meeting, prepared its own draft of 21A. However, the effort became still-born after the Supreme Court ruled the SJB draft required a national referendum to become a law. Now, the government has gazetted a revised draft, christened as 22nd Amendment to avoid semantic confusion with the SJB version of 21A draft. The 22A as gazetted will be placed before parliament for enactment after discussion.
The 22A appears to be a compromise between 19th amendment and 20A. The 19A was passed when PM Wickremesinghe in his earlier stint as PM. It made the executive president accountable to parliament and curbed his powers to make key appointments. On the other hand, the 20A enacted by President Rajapaksa in his present term, superseded the 19A and restored the powers of the executive president. Passions are likely to run high when the parliament discusses the draft 22A. The final form of 22A will also have to satisfy the civil society both at home and abroad, who have become influencers of public policy discourse. The problem in Sri Lanka politics is unpredictability. Often, there is a disconnect between thought and action, living upto the Biblical quote: “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The final form of the act will show how meaningful it is in increasing the executive president’s accountability to parliament. That will indicate the level of political power of the Rajapaksas’ continue to wield in influencing the parliament and the constitution. This may well decide the future course of drafting a new constitution that President Rajapaksa had promised. PM Wickremesinghe also made an attempt to draft a new equitable constitution during his term with the earlier Yahapalana government. The effort was never allowed to go beyond the first draft stage by the same political class now in power. But it may be too early to undertake that exercise as opposition parties, particularly SJB and JVP are watching the performance of the government from the wings to decide their future course.
Externally, the PM’s economic recovery exercise has probably fared better. Talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were initiated and hopefully positive results can be expected shortly. Measures have been initiated to repair damage caused during the Rajapaksa’s spell in Sri Lanka’s relations with the US and Japan as well as the oil-rich Gulf countries. Of course, India had taken the initiative to closely monitor and repair its relations with Sri Lanka. India started to economically help Sri Lanka, even before the May upheaval. It has now become an indispensable partner in Sri Lanka’s recovery process. This is more so, in meeting Sri Lanka’s urgent need for fuel and other necessities. India has extended over $3.5 billion line of credit and rescheduled its loans. It has also extended further credit for urgent supply of diesel. There is regular consultation, cooperation and coordination between India and Sri Lanka to meet the island’s real time needs.
But it was the UN warning early in the month that Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis could develop into a “dire humanitarian crisis” that triggered international attention and aid. The UN humanitarian agency OCHA appealed for $47 million aid to address the immediate needs of 1.7 million of the most vulnerable people. The UNICEF representative in Colombo sought help to save e 56,000 children who are potentially at the risk of dying due to malnutrition.
The UN warning probably triggered the US to become an active partner in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. From mid-June, the US has announced a series of fund allocation for Sri Lanka’s small and medium businesses ($120 million), dairy industry ($27 million) and humanitarian assistance ($5,75 million). In the recent G7 Summit, POTUS Joe Biden announced $20 million in additional assistance to strengthen food security in Sri Lanka. This funding aims to support a school nutrition programme to feed 800,000 Sri Lankan children and benefit over 27,000 pregnant and lactating mothers. This takes the total US humanitarian assistance since June 16 to $32 million. Plans are also afoot to support approximately 300,000 farmers through agricultural assistance and cash to increase food production. The US is also assisting Sri Lanka in its talks with the International Monetary Fund.
The government ended the month with its back to the wall adopting a series of firefighting measures to curtail activities that involve fuel consumption after it ran out of supplies. It suspended fuel sales to the public till July 10, except to keep essential services going. Bus services between provinces have been halted. Schools have been shut and the government servants have been asked to attend offices only thrice a week. Private enterprises have been requested to work from home, as far as possible. Though diesel shipment is expected in the second week of July, there is no word of petrol supplies.
The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has come out with a strong indictment of the efforts of PM Wickremesinghe’s performance so far. Speaking at Matara on June 29, he accused PM Wickremesinghe of saving Gotabaya “who was contemplating his resignation”. He appealed to political parties to sink their differences and come together to get rid of corrupt rulers. He appealed to them to take to the streets and said the JVP will “announce a day and call upon people to suspend whatever they are doing and come to the street to join the final push to send them home.” These words could escalate public protests, increasing their potential to explode into full fledged civil unrest. That could destabilise the country when it needs a period of stability for economic recovery. [Written on June 30, 2022]
*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.