30 May, 2024


The President’s Policy Statement: Mixed Messages & Mixed-Up Priorities

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Policy Statement that was presented to Parliament on August 19, is more a validation of his nine months in office than a road map for the rest of his mandate. Remarkable for its lack of rhetorical flourish, at least in its English version, the statement has about nine themes to it. The statement is not at all incoherent, but there are internal contradictions and tensions between priorities, which are indicative of the multiple pressures that the President has to accommodate and become more like a ‘traditional politician’ than an outsider doing politics differently. What is glaringly lacking, however, is any indication of the government’s, or the President’s, honest understanding of the twin challenges facing the country – Covid-19 and the economic doldrums; and any indication of some urgency of purpose in guiding the country through the two challenges.

One would have thought that focusing on these two challenges would be consistent with the President’s strengths and his cultivated reputation as a no-nonsense doer. Instead, as the Policy Statement indicates the President seems to be either constrained to be drawn, or willingly wade into cultural and constitutional distractions. The Statement opens with the satisfaction of  two back-to-back victories (in November and in August), and the not unjustifiable assertion that the people are satisfied with what the President and the government have done over the last nine months.    

The people “are impressed with the way,” the statement says, that the country has been “governed during the past nine months despite various obstacles.” And they “appreciate the change taking place in the political culture of this country,” the statement adds. What is this change in the political culture? The term comes up again briefly (as theme #5) in the Statement, with the assertion that the SLPP government is “working towards a significant transformation of the political culture of this country.” And the Statement goes on to say: 

“After I assumed office as the President, changing the existing system, a methodical procedure was introduced to appoint heads of Government institutions whereby qualifications of prospective appointees were examined through a panel of experts. A well-experienced team of professionals, entrepreneurs and academics was appointed instead of relatives, acquaintances, and followers. This policy will continue in the future as well.”

The COVID shuffle

This change of culture is certainly not evident in the manner in which Dr. Anil Jasinghe was shuffled from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of the Environment. As Director-General of Health Services (DGHS), Dr. Jasinghe had become the face of Sri Lanka’s response to Covid-19 not only within Sri Lanka, but also internationally as a Vice Chair of the World Health Organization. Why pull him out of his professional job and post him as Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment, in the middle of a global pandemic whose future trajectory is still as uncertain as it has been from the time it began nine months ago? 

Dr. Jasinghe seems to be taking the kick upstairs in his stride without missing a step. All the best to him, and there is no point in praising him too much and causing him unnecessary problems with his political masters. But the point here is about the government’s thinking and its claim about a new political culture. Reliable news reports have alluded to corridor whispers in the Health Ministry that Dr. Jasinghe may have run afoul of powerful people who do not like breaking routines and hierarchy even in a public health emergency. The story also raises doubt if the next in line to fill Dr. Jasinghe’s void, Dr. Amal Harsha De Silva, will be given the promotion for which he is well qualified. The million dollar question in the ministry circles apparently is whether Dr. Harsha de Silva “will be given what he deserves.” So far, there has been no appointment to Dr. Jasinghe’s old position.    

These bureaucratic shenanigans were expected to disappear once Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President. But they have not. And they fly in the face of the President’s assurance that the government is working towards transforming the country’s old political culture.  What was the “methodical procedure” that was followed before transferring Dr. Jasinghe? And which panel of experts reviewed and recommended the transfer of Dr. Jasinghe? 

And there is a different panel – the very ecclesiastical, if not otherworldly, “advisory council comprising leading Buddhist monks to (seek) advice on governance,” that the President has set up along with the establishment of the Archaeological Task Force. The President (theme #2) describes  these appointments as  furtherance of the constitutional duty of the State “to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.” I am not aware of any former President making such a linkage. The President’s rationale is that – by “ensuring priority for Buddhism, it is now made clear to the people that freedom of any citizen to practice the religion of his or her choice is better secured.” And further that “as representatives of the people, we always respect the aspirations of the majority. It is only then that the sovereignty of the people can be safeguarded.”

There is nothing wrong, or objectionable (who is to object anyway), about the President acting to protect and foster Buddhist thought and teaching, especially if that is the only way in Sri Lanka to secure the religious freedoms of others. And there is no point in quibbling about the incongruence between the aspirations of the majority, on the one hand, and the sovereignty of the people, on the other. What is pertinent to ask is whether what is done to foster Buddhism or further the aspirations of the majority –  should overlap and interfere with the mundane tasks of governance, and rational decision making on matters of public health, national economy, and the constitution? 

Repeating history

Soon after assuming office the President won copious kudos for his appointments to government institutions, Banks, Boards and Corporations – from the Central Bank to the Jaffna Provincial Council, and a host of them in between. Those good early starts would seem to have got derailed now. And the derailment is not going unnoticed. A recent satirical letter to the media entitled, “An unsolicited manifesto for ‘Viyathmaga’ State Ministers”, is indicative of early frustrations among those who may have been expecting a different style of politics. In the old days, it used to be said that rural masses vote governments into power and working classes throw them out. Periodical elections and government changes were the norm in Sri Lanka. The fundamental terms of the political dynamic have not changed, even though the terms of government have got extended under the presidential system. It is one thing to win elections based on the aspirations of the majority, but it is quite a different challenge for a government to satisfy the material needs of the same and however aspiring majority. The material needs cannot get anymore basic than they are today: protection from the pandemic and the protection of jobs.         

The Statement (themes 3 & 4) highlights how the government has restored national security to secure levels after the 2019 Easter debacle, and its “launch of the methodical mechanism to protect the people against social evils” such as underworld crime and drug mafia rule. Sri Lankans are assured that “a virtuous and a law-abiding society is emerging as (we) promised.” The emergence of a virtuous and law-abiding society will be welcomed by everyone. The rub, however, is whether everyone will equally abide by  the law, and whether everyone, even those who have died or disappeared, will receive equal protection from it.  And whether those who have been wronged before, in the so called emblematic cases, will ever receive justice? The new Minister of Justice has inherited a judicial minefield, and one can only wish him well without throwing critical grenades at him. 

As for the emerging new political culture, it is becoming apparent that anyone can do anything and get away with it so long as they can obtain a spot on the party nomination list and win a seat in parliament under proportional representation. In the old first-past-the-post system, the voters would have dealt with a criminal candidate even if the courts did not.   

The bulk of the statement and the middle themes are all about the economy – but narrated in a rather personalized way using the President’s encounters with the people during the August election campaign. It is known that the President took full ownership of the parliamentary election campaign after early indications that he would stay out of it. He campaigned for a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, and he has now made it his and his governments priority. That is also the final theme of the Policy Statement. There might be a political addition problem involving the 14 or 15 SLFP MPs who will be needed to make up the two-thirds majority, including Maithripala Sirisena, now the MP for Polonnaruwa and rebuffed of a cabinet position. But the Rajapaksas are quite adept at whipping up majorities and they may not be losing any sleep over Sirisena. 

The real question is whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs any or all of the constitutional distraction that he is being drawn into, when he has to lead the country through two challenges that no previous President, or government, has had to face. Granted, he won the war against the LTTE, but he did not require a constitutional change or even a two-thirds majority for that. The infamous 18th Amendment came after the war and the Rajapaksas lost the 2015 elections mostly because of the 18th Amendment. The 19th Amendment was the result of that defeat and was approved by the whole of parliament minus one dissent. Now the SLPP seems bent on repeating history. Whether the repeat act will be a farce or a tragedy, time will tell.  

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Does one ever think whether this swabasha Kalla kallathoni of a much-loathed war criminal a cowardly expert in the killing of the innocents will even in his wildest wet dreams know the meaning of the worst – POLICCY.?
    His waste of time in the criminal SLPP/SLFP adorned parliament a few days ago was all a mumble of a humble where he was shown to be worse than a lavatory cleaning coolie.
    They say that ignorance is bliss.
    Having gone through with a fine tooth-comb the composition of this hour boru list of rouge criminal list of so-called ministers in this no erection impotent team, what can one expect.?
    This sakkilli Kalla kallathoni of a war criminal president who was nothing but an alien at the time being nominated as the undisputed winner was still an American citizen.?
    I for one am astounded, still in shock as to why he has not yet been thrown .?out of the royal latrine and a fresh election according to much-lauded clean 19th amendment being called.?

    If this unlikely scenario ever occurs, I can guarantee that a war criminal led military coup of a take over of this democratic island will definitely take place.
    The Rajapuka are the greediest buggers ever to live on this planet.

  • 7

    It is pretty clear that the thinking of the President and his advisers is heavily influenced by nostalgia for a supposedly glorious Sinhala Buddhist past. His advisers are all SB “intellectuals”. But the very description “Sinhala Buddhist intellectual” is an oxymoron. A Sinhala Buddhist ( as opposed to a real Buddhist) has a mind constrained by the mediaeval ideas of the so-called Maha Sangha, who practice Victorian British prudery combined with mystical mumbo-jumbo.
    As a result, we have a Minister for Batik, but none for IT. The president wants to export palmyrah and kitul products. To whom, pray? And we have the tired old mantra of “self-reliance” too.
    I doubt that any new ideas will come out of this blinkered cabal of crooks, manipulators and bogus historians.

    • 6

      old codger,
      Dumbo, what the hell you mean by “a supposedly glorious Sinhala Buddhist past”. Sinhala Buddhists had a glorious past in Sinhale. Go and see the ancient Sinhala Buddhist heritage sites in North and East of the country where Sinhala Kingdoms Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa existed. Sinhalayo built massive reservoirs and developed highly advanced irrigation systems. Bisokotuwa in reservoirs is an ingenious invention of Sinhala irrigation engineers. Sinhalayo built seven story buildings ‘Sath Mahal Prasadaya’. Sinhalayo built massive ‘Dagabas’ which are second only to pyramids. ‘Para’ Dravida invaders destroyed what Sinhalayo built for thousands of years.
      ‘Para’ Demalu in Sri Lanka who are the descendants of Dravida slaves have nothing of their own. Everything that they have are what they brought from the cesspool from where they were picked up by colonial parasites.
      “I doubt that any new ideas will come out of this blinkered cabal of crooks, manipulators and bogus historians.”
      Are you referring to Viggy and his Malabar Vellala racists?

      • 5

        Motta Eagle,
        So you think your Sinhalayo were so advanced because they used Bisokotuwas in their irrigation systems? This is exactly what I call a blinkered view. Ignorance of other cultures. Ours is the Greatest!!!
        Have you never heard of similar irrigation systems in Oman and Ethiopia? Or the UNDERGROUND systems in Iran?
        If the dagabas are “second only to pyramids”, why does Egypt get 10 times the tourists we get? Have you
        even seen the mile long queue of tourists for the Taj Mahal?
        Okay, apart from Bisokotuwas, tell me some technologies invented by your Sinhalayo? Not even a water wheel for grinding flour?
        A civilization is rated on innovation. If the so-called slaves didn’t plant tea and rubber, you wouldn’t have been born to write rubbish. Praising your own butt doesn’t qualify as civilization, even if you do it for 2500 years.

        • 2

          old codger’
          If Tamil terrorist BPs did not launch the terrorist campaign, Sri Lanka could have got flooded with tourists.
          What Sinhalayo have are things they developed when they evolved in this country but ‘Para’ Demalu do not have anything on their own. Everything they have are what they brought from the cesspool when picked up by colonial parasites to be transported as slaves.

          • 3

            “What Sinhalayo have are things they developed when they evolved in this country”
            So, not even a “kalisama” !
            Good to hear that from you.

      • 1

        I don’t think Wigneswaran is Vellala caste. He is high caste and well educated. Vellala (vell + aala = drain bound) is the irrigation/drain caste in SL.

        Gotabaya’s is outdated thinking of the 1960s when he schooled at a school in Mariyakade. Just look at the portfolio allocation of his ministries. Outdated.

        But I agree with you Sinhalese had a glorious history in SL. Only in SL. Tamils had a glorious history around the world from Fiji to the west Indies islands.

        • 2

          GATAM, your interpretation is wrong due to incorrect phonetics. VER-LAR-LAM means agriculture and those who indulged in it are called VER-LAR-LAR (farmers). There is no doubt that Sinhalese had a glorious history in SL, but with resent discoveries it is beginning to emerge that Tamils had a more ancient history than Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. In fact DNA studies have shown that core genetic material of Sinhalese in south Indian, which means that Sinhalese are an offshoot ethnicity from Tamils like Malayalees, Telegus, Kannadigas etc. Sinhala language contains several Tamil words, Sinhala grammar is adapted from Tamil, Sinhala script is borrowed from Malayalam, Sinhala food is copied from Tamil and Malayalam, Sinhala dress is copied from Tamil and Malayalam, Sinhala music is copied from north India and Sinhala dance is copied from Kerala and north India. Even river dams and Buddhist temples were built by artisans from Tamil Nadu. So without input from Tamils, Sinhalese would have never attained any glory..

          • 1

            VER-LAR-LAM using correct phonetics will be வேர்-லார்-லம்.
            Kindly give the link to a single credible DNA study that supports your story.
            Among many questions I have is: Why could not the Tamil artisans who built the Buddhist chaityas build even one to match those in Sri Lanka?
            You do not seem to know the difference between a grammar and a grammar text.
            If your logic holds, Tamil grammar is a copy of Sanskrit grammar (that of Panini).
            Without input from North and Northeast Indians Tamils would have been culturally bankrupt. It was Jainism and Buddhism that brought in texts of ethics and morality to the Tamils. There was not a single Saiva/Vaishnava classic until Ramayana & Mahabharata were adapted in the

            • 1

              There was not a single Saiva/Vaishnava classic in Tamil until Ramayana was adapted in late 12th Century and Mahabharata afterwards. (The nearest to a Saivaite epic was the work of சேக்கிழார்’s Periya Puraanam preceding Ramayanam.)
              The five major classics of Tamil are all Jain and Buddhist, composed perhaps before 3rd Century.
              Every advanced civilization borrows heavily from aliens.
              What matters is how the borrowing is done and put to use.
              Tamil has been stagnating as a language, despite glimpses of individual brilliance, for over 6 centuries. Despite some reforms, Tamil is far less equipped than Sinhala or Malayalam (which made some radical changes to their grammar and Sinhala even the script) to meet challenges of modernism.
              Its script system is a millstone around its neck.
              Thais, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Malays do much more advanced studies in their respective languages than do Tamils.
              One who boasts about his ancestors often has little to claim for himself.

          • 1

            Dr. Gnana Sankaralingam,
            “There is no doubt that Sinhalese had a glorious history in SL, but with resent discoveries it is beginning to emerge that Tamils had a more ancient history than Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.”

            Finally you admitted that Sinhalayo had a glorious history in Sinhale.
            Can you please elaborate what are these recent discoveries and from where these discoveries were found.
            “In fact DNA studies have shown that core genetic material of Sinhalese in south Indian, which means that Sinhalese are an offshoot ethnicity from Tamils”
            Sheer BS! Amarasiri tried hard to confirm what you say misusing DNA data from a research but when I challenged he disappeared from CT.
            “So without input from Tamils, Sinhalese would have never attained any glory.”

            Glory of Sinhalayo has nothing to do with Demalu (Tamils after 1911) who came as invaders and slaves. If you said ‘Without input from Dravida slaves, Portuguese, Dutch and British would have never attained any glory’ that makes sense.

    • 1

      All talk about ancient glory will be window dressing.
      The language of business in this country is English for all practical purposes. It will be English even if the country is taken over by China, Japan, India or Russia. The love-hate bond with English is too hard to shake off.
      Sinhala will as usual be for the small fry.
      Both Sinhala and Tamil nationalists are culturally in the same boat. The Muslims are no better off.
      Our respective blinkered views of the world derived from feudal ideology which has survived the fall of feudal production relations and Western capitalist penetration.

      • 0

        “The language of business in this country is English for all practical purposes”
        Can’t argue with that. Also, I am prepared to bet that very few of the keyboard patriots on this forum are prepared to go to work in sarongs or forgo their tot of arrack.

    • 1

      What is your relationship to Buddhism, except using it to insult the Sinhalese? Who are you to preach Buddhism to us? Have you at least been inside a Buddhist temple ever? What ideas do you have, other than put the Sinhalese down and insult us? Get the hell out of our island, you nasty Tamil man. You simply do not belong here.

  • 1

    I do understand your anxiety Rajan Philips. There is something between the lines that conveys a stark message in this Presidential Policy statement.
    ……..The assertion that the SLPP government is working towards a significant transformation of the POLITICAL CULTURE OF THE COUNTRY could mean anything!
    Could it be a Laplace Transform of a Differential equation?
    Nope! It would essentially boil down to the same old wine 72 years old [ like Old Arrack matured in Halmilla vats! ] in a New bottle.
    Ex: is there in your essay; Dr. Anil Jasinghe. Supreme Price to pay for Professional integrity!

  • 1

    It is a ball-by-ball commentary and the commentary continues.. We shall wait for the subsequent overs

  • 0

    Tamils are so envious of the Sinhalese….. what the hell is their problem? They have all their history and much better versions of everything we have in their homeland Tamilnadu. But they want to put us down, mock us, trample us, ridicule us, insult our religion, insult our culture, ridicule and insult our language, mock our kings and queens and our cities and architecture, call us names, and then turn back and claim our cultural and historical heritage too. Tamils are a really vicious lot. They have no sense of belonging or respect for this island. All these vicious attacks they make on the historical heritage of the Sinhalese and our culture and language just goes on to prove that Tamils are an immigrant community with no sense of attachment, love or respect for this island. Otherwise they won’t insult what it has produced and try to take away the individuality of this island and make it into another Tamilnadu. Tamils are hostile aliens from Tamilnadu. Please go back.

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