By Rajan Philips –
After this article was sent to Colombo Telegraph at 14:00 hours on October 1, the Daily Mirror has reported (at 16:00 hours) that “An Extraordinary Gazette has been issued by President Ranil Wickremesinghe revoking the order issued declaring the High Security Zones.” This of course is welcome news, but there is no kudos to the President in this. There is nothing extraordinary about the revocation and the President deserves to be condemned on record for imposing what was an extraordinarily bad idea in the first Place. – RP
Last week I ventured to suggest that President Wickremesinghe could quite simply start ending the government’s annual embarrassment in Geneva by starting to implement the many promises of his predecessors – on human rights, reconciliation, executive presidency, electoral reforms and so on. Implement one promise at a time, I said, the UNHRC resolution would wither way in no time. Not that my suggestion was going to make any mark at any place that matters, or anywhere for that matter. Yet even I would not have thought the Wickremesinghe Administration would somehow manage to act worse than any of its predecessors.
How else could one explain President Wickremesinghe’s gazette notification to declare High Security Zones in Colombo under a 1955 law called the Official Secrets Act? Or the Justice Minster’s Bill in Parliament to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation to ostensibly to “rehabilitate drug-dependent persons, ex-and misguided combatants, members of violent extremist groups, and any other group of persons who require treatments and rehabilitation,” but actually to ensnare Aragalaya activists already arrested under the PTA. Either the President is at his wits’ end, or he is being played by nitwits around him.
After a deluge of condemnations of the extraordinary gazette, there were news reports that the President, now on the second leg of his funeral tour, has asked the Attorney General to review the matter in order to have the gazette rescinded upon his return. That would have been quite a withdrawal made between two state funerals. Not so.
For, on Thursday, 29 September (10:28 AM), the Daily Mirror headlined a story, viz., “Police to quiz some politicos over secret plot to overthrow govt.,” which carried this bizarre gem: “The Daily Mirror learns that despite reports that last week’s gazette declaring high-security zones in Colombo will be reversed, the government will brief the Supreme Court in the coming days over the purpose of why the HSZ’S are required and why the sites listed need to be protected.” Isn’t that something?
Admin without Adults?
For two and a half years the country suffered Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dupes and dullards running the government. Now, we have to ask the question whether there are any adults in the Wickremesinghe Administration? Otherwise, how would anyone purportedly for the government plant a news story that “the government will brief the Supreme Court in the coming days over the purpose of why the HSZ’S are required and why the sites listed need to be protected?” How is that going to happen? In camera or in open court? Full Bench or less? Since when did Supreme Court Justices become sounding board decoys for national security busybodies? Or proofreaders for government gazette?
Even the crux of the Daily Mirror headline – that some politicos have been plotting to overthrow the government – is not at all substantiated in the story. No punchy innuendos or spicy speculations. No concrete evidence, of course. And the police are yet to quiz anyone! But someone has already decided to announce that the Supreme Court is going to be briefed even before the investigation has been completed. What appears to have been official secret so far is that “some politicians” have been encouraging “some ‘protester’ groups to overthrow the government by forcefully occupying Parliament and preventing a vote to elect a new President following the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July.”
Now, the hitherto well-kept official secret is being revealed as the main reason for setting up High Security Zones (HSZs). And the howsoever placed government “sources” have told the Daily Mirror, “as the Supreme Court had not been consulted in the process, the relevant authorities will now consult the Supreme Court and seek its advice over the establishment of these HSZS to ensure an unhindered administration.” The administration is not unhindered but unhinged. And pigs can fly!
The question is where really is President Wickremesinghe in all this fuss that his security underlings are making about high security zones? Was he caught rushing between funerals when he was asked to authorize the Gazette Extraordinary? The widely reported news story that he would rescind the gazette after returning from his Asia-Pacific travels would indicate that he has since come to realize the utter idiocy of the whole HSZ idea and would want to rescind it forthwith. On the other hand, is the above Daily Mirror story the true position of the government? Either way, it is not unfair or uncharitable to infer that the President, after 45 years as MP and not even four and a half months as President, has come to the end of his long extended tether.
The political betrayal inherent in the very idea of considering security zones in Colombo is monumentally huge. The sense of timing involved, while the government is in the dock in Geneva for human rights violations and economic crimes, is appallingly tactless. And the purported manner of its implementation, by implicating the Supreme Court, is clumsily amateurish. The President has to take ownership for all of this, because the Gazette Extraordinary went out under his name and signature. Whether he signed it in Sinhalese or in English, I do not know. What I know is that Mr. MA Sumanthiran, TNA MP, has been having fun at the expense of the President for his apparently newfound proclivity for signing illiberal announcements in Sinhalese, and not in English.
It would be rational to expect the President to withdraw the gazette notification and send it to the shredder. He may appoint a committee (headed by the Attorney General?) to look into the matter. That is his usual wont. On the other hand, if he were to persist with the gazette as it is and give the go ahead to his security minions to set up security zones, that would be the Wickremesinghe equivalent of the fertilizer fiasco under Gotabaya Rajapaksa. And it will confirm that the President has not only reached the end of his tether, but he also has no slack left to be of any use in doing anything worthwhile for the country, let alone salvaging the crashed up economy. The forever patient Wickremesinghe faithful will have to finally realize that they cannot expect economic miracles out of someone who sloppily allows a gazette announcement on high security zones. This is not a one off incident but part of quite an established pattern.
Failed Second Chances
Among his political contemporaries, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the most unfortunate in electoral politics. But he also leads the list of those who have been given second chances, and he has had them multiple times. He has botched them every time. His peace-process premiership foundered on the corruption of his cronies whom he let loose to do as they pleased. His yahapalanaya stewardship was run off the rail by the bond scam and was permanently disabled by his supercilious inability to work collegially with someone like Maithripala Sirisena. And now as President, at last, Mr. Wickremesinghe is in an unenviable situation where his inherent virtues are hopelessly overwhelmed by the political vices he has accumulated over forty years.
This is unfortunate, and it is more so for the country than for the man himself. For, Sri Lanka deserved and would have benefited from a brief respite of sanity and stability after the Rajapaksa turbulence. That was all he was supposed to provide. But he got too presumptuous, expanded his canvas to include everything from comprehensive political reform to ultimate economic growth, and has figuratively extended his spell all the way to 2048. The new horizon for the island to reach economic self-sufficiency, one hundred years after independence. All the while extending and expanding the Rajapaksa legacies of cabinet bloating, import profiteering and security scaremongering. I am summarizing here in six words what has been reported over six hundred times each about cabinet jockeying and import corruptions. And now, high security zones.
How does one reconcile the Wickremesinghe aspirations with the Wickremesinghe realities? That is the question. And one that only Mr. Wickremesinghe can and should answer. But he has failed to do so, satisfactorily enough for his own credibility and adequately for the country’s benefit. The HSZ Gazette Extraordinary makes this failure almost irreparable, in my view. That does not mean the end of the Wickremesinghe Administration. It may and it will likely go on to its term limits. He will be around to preside over haircuts and power cuts, but he will be constrained to spare the SLPP MPs of any cuts.
It would be idle to speculate whether or not there will be another intervention by aragalaya or a new avatar of it. No one foresaw the first one coming, and it would not have come if it were not for the dire economic provocations of the Gotabaya administration. The current administration will do everything possible to avoid provocations by keeping supplies flowing, but they will keep flowing through the same old channels of spot purchases without tender, and clearance only with commissions. They will not be through the new channels of process and probity that aragalaya aspired, and Ranil Wickremesinghe promised. His spirit might still be willing, but the flesh has never been strong. Except, it seems, when it is needed to clampdown for the sake of protecting government space from public protest. High security zones are the spatial statement of authoritarian politics. No more, no less.
That Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the end of his political tether does not mean the end of Sri Lankan politics. It is in fact a new beginning, and one that will necessarily overlap with the remainder of the Wickremesinghe Administration. The succession to it will invariably involve the present parliament, but hopefully only for the purpose of discarding the deadwood and preserving the good ones. The opposition parties have been correct in keeping out of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s National Council charade. But they will be mistaken if they, especially the JVP or the SJB, try to stage a new aragalaya. Aragalaya was an unrehearsed civil society uprising which cannot be reproduced by political rehearsals. People cannot be won over by rehearsals, but only by real politics in the real interests of the people themselves.