By Amrit Muttukumaru –
This analysis is written in good faith in the interest of the country and the United National Party. Its objective is to demonstrate that all the brouhaha and panic in the aftermath of the Mahinda Rajapaksa nomination is misplaced if only the UNP asserts itself to its potential. For this to materialize its response must be principled.
The ‘old fox’ JRJ rightly castigated for foisting on us the monstrous executive presidency, had a lot going for him in some ways. He introduced proportional representation to shield the UNP when out of office with a critical mass of parliamentarians who would function as a powerful opposition. Obviously he did not bargain this will be ruined by the shortcomings of his protégé and kinsman Ranil Wickremesinghe. JRJ had the vision, confidence and above all fearlessness to have a credible second rung in the form of Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake et al. It is remarkable that the ‘street-smart’ Ranasinghe Premadasa was able to outmanoeuvre these two strong personalities. At the same time one can have nothing but admiration for the manner in which Lalith and Gamini were able to build the DUNF from almost nothing into a formidable political force.
Compare this with the pathetic leadership of the UNP today. Although Wickremesinghe must bear major responsibility for this, this is not the whole story. Wasn’t there even one person in the UNP who had the guts and wherewithal to challenge him on a principled basis in the greater interest of the party and country? Citing the excuse of the autocratic UNP constitution does not wash. The fact is that Wickremesinghe (for the most part) stands tall in a sea of spineless mediocrity in the UNP of today.
I must stress that I only refer to the leadership skills of these personalities who had the capacity to politically challenge any opposition. I am aware of allegations of an assortment of wrongdoing by them.
There is no question the Rajapaksa presidency did monumental damage to the fabric and psyche of this country. It severely undermined democratic values and the rule of law. Corruption and violence reached unprecedented heights. People had to virtually look over their shoulders before passing any adverse comment on the regime. My premise is that none of these could have happened or at the very least reached such massive proportions if only the opposition led by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had fulfilled its constitutional and moral responsibility. We must bear in mind that the UNP was always perceived to have the largest ‘bloc’ vote in the country. It may be so (arguably) even today. Undoubtedly the UNP even today is a powerful political force in this country. The question is what happened to this force during the 9 year Rajapaksa presidency?
Is it not a fact that a true leader must be a visionary, consensus builder, motivator and above all principled and fearless? How does Wickremesinghe measure up to these attributes? Did not the UNP under his ‘leadership’ (if I am permitted to be liberal with this term!) lose a huge chunk of parliamentarians to Rajapaksa ranks? The warped ruling of former CJ Sarath N Silva legitimizing crossovers and the endemic ‘greed’ of our politicians although presumably making a contribution are not the primary determining factor. After all, in any organization its members must have confidence that their leader can take them to the promised land. Clearly this was not the case in the UNP. Do the people closely identified with Wickremesinghe instill confidence among the masses?
Is the perception that Wickremesinghe as opposition leader had some ‘understanding’ with Rajapaksa without any merit? Has not this perception been reinforced in his current avatar as Prime Minister in the so-called ‘Yahapalanaya’ government? There are others too within senior UNP circles who are said to have compromised the clout of the opposition by accepting an assortment of favours from the then administration which allegedly includes air tickets and assignments to family members. What is disconcerting is that it was tolerated.
The millions who voted for the peaceful 8 January ‘revolution’ for real change from the horrors that were experienced under the MR regime must be a thoroughly disillusioned and confused lot in the run-up to the 17 August General Election. This is not without reason. Empirical evidence would suggest the informal ‘social contract’ with the people leading to the ‘rainbow coalition’ of disparate political groups which promised a complete break from the past has for the most part been breached with impunity. However two major gains must be acknowledged (i) reverting to the two-term limit to the presidency (ii) the absence of fear psychosis – this no doubt is a huge plus. These are early days and we do not know what the future would have held. Memories of credible allegations of UNP excesses which include the Batalanda killings and the murder of media personality Richard De Zoysa during which period Wickremesinghe was a senior cabinet minister linger among the parents of the younger generation.
There appears to be a major trust deficit the people have in the UNP hierarchy – particularly in its leader. He has done almost nothing to dispel this. On the contrary, this has been reinforced by instances such as what is said to have transpired during/in the aftermath of his alleged visit to ‘Temple Trees’ on election night in the company of a controversial individual with links to virtually all sections of the political spectrum. This is further buttressed by his perceived pussyfooting on credible allegations of egregious corruption, extreme violence and abuse of power under the Rajapaksa administration.
The stock excuse of UNP apologists for being tardy on alleged Rajapaksa excesses has been the purported adherence to the ‘rule of law’. Whom are they fooling? Surely within the ‘rule of law’ could there not have been a more assertive response when as claimed in the run-up to the presidential elections there was so much evidence staring in the face?
In this connection, I cite the following categorical assertions by Dr. Harsha de Silva – Deputy Minister, Policy Planning and Economic Affairs (Wickremesinghe’s Ministry):
1) In the run-up to the 8 January presidential elections at a press conference on 17 December 2014 (in the presence of Eran Wickremeratne – Deputy Minister, Investment Promotion) with a slew of files in tow he inter alia stridently referred to casino, drug, ethanol mafias and alleged money laundering in locations such as St. Nevis & Kitts, Seychelles and Dubai;
2) Alleged loss incurred by investment in Greek Bonds
3) Alleged unlawful EPF investments in the stock market
4) Work on the ‘Colombo Port City’ project which he reportedly castigated as “Colombo’s largest land scam.” and in spite of criticizing the then government for dealing with “companies that have been de-barred by the World Bank for corruption” is still continuing.
It is such ambiguity that emboldens alleged wrongdoers to brazenly issue statements of denial and infuriate the millions who voted for good governance.
What is the difficulty in pursuing these cases consistent with the ‘rule of law’ if as claimed they have credible evidence?
Almost all alleged corruption tainted projects are being implemented without taking the public into confidence. What is worse is the questionable conduct of the UNP led administration itself these past few months.
Business as Usual?
The reality is that a large chunk of the public of this country rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly perceive the UNP led ‘Yahapalanaya’ government to be not much different to the Rajapaksa administration in terms of corruption. Its acts of omission and commission in this short period has certainly contributed to this.
Some key Cabinet appointments are viewed with dismay by even sections of the UNP faithful. Questionable appointment of cronies and family members to crucial state agencies is another issue. Publicly funded investigation ‘reports’ by persons close to the administration have not been placed in the public domain leading to suspicion that it is all an eye-wash! This includes ‘Sri Lankan Airlines’.
As anticipated by this writer those concerned in the top management of Sri Lankan Airlines rapped for alleged corruption and abuse of power by the J.C. Weliamuna led panel will go scot-free. This is because it is highly unlikely (almost impossible) that the long standing auditors – Ernst & Young and then high profile directors, many of them in its Audit Committee – some even as Chairmen will ever be held accountable for any dereliction of duty. From all indications, Mr. Weliamuna and his team which includes Mr. Chandra Jayaratne have let them off the hook! This is the ground reality in Sri Lanka. It is nauseatingly apparent that it is ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’ for all concerned.
The guests at a recent cocktail reception hosted by a then Sri Lankan Airlines Director to announce his appointment as ‘Honorary Consul-General’ to a European country included: former Sri Lankan Chairman – Nishantha Wickramasinghe, CB Governor – Arjuna Mahendran, some then Directors of Sri Lankan, senior UNP ‘cabinet’ ministers, senior SLFP members, leading professionals and several business personalities. (‘Daily FT’ 3 July 2015)
Of course none of them would have been privy to the guest list. However, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been any different even if they knew!
Then we have the alleged Central Bank ‘bond scam’. No matter what, the manner in which the investigations were carried out gives rise to suspicion that all is not right. Only a transparent and credible investigation can lay matters to rest.
The appointment of Arjuna Mahendran as CB Governor by Wickremesinghe is itself questionable in the context of the alleged involvement of his son-in-law in deals said to have resulted in huge losses to the EPF.
The perception is that the Draft RTI was formulated without public participation in consultation with a handful of Colombo based NGOs – themselves with questionable financial accountability.
To place matters in perspective, it’s a fair assumption that any initiative for a RTI in any form would have been frowned upon by the Rajapaksa administration. However, this does not give the license to the Wickremesinghe administration to ride roughshod on its version of RTI.
The very fact that the UNP did not field its own candidate at the 8 January presidential elections tells its own story.
The chances are that we are heading for a long period of political, economic and social instability with dangerous consequences. It is tragic that the gains of 8 January has been squandered.
The only certainly is that whatever the result of the General Elections, corruption will be alive and well in Sri Lanka! I am not referring merely to politicians. Even under ‘Yahapalanaya’ the ‘captains’ in the private sector and professionals such as auditors and lawyers who facilitated corruption have not been under the scanner. After all, are they not major contributors to all political parties? Monitoring campaign funds, internal democracy in political parties are crucial issues which are not the focus of this article.
The only game changer at present would be a reformed UNP giving credible leadership to a genuine movement for yahapalanaya.
I am now going to stick my neck out by making a suggestion which some would find preposterous. I am doing so on the basis that desperate times need desperate measures!
As I see it, possibly the only credible person in the public eye today who the majority of people would trust is Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero – provided he is able to jettison his perceived racist baggage on the ethnic issue. I am doing so in spite of my dislike to involve the clergy of any religion in politics.
What I have in mind is not electoral politics for the Venerable Thero – but the leadership of the UNP for a limited period to usher in a real rainbow coalition. This should not be a partisan endeavour. The UNP would only serve as a vehicle due to its formidable vote bank.
I know I am a non-entity and may be out of my depth in such matters!
Could I kindly solicit the views of others and influential parties who could sound out Ven. Sobitha Thero and the UNP leadership particularly its leader – Ranil Wickremesinghe?
I emphasize that in no way should this analysis in the public interest be construed as a personal attack on Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe who is not even an acquaintance! It is envisaged that consistent with his vast political experience and expertise he will always have a pivotal role in the UNP and in the politics of this country.