By Rajan Philips –
Imagine Ranil Wickremesinghe trying to be a presidential candidate as a former dual/American citizen. The political sky would have crashed, and the poor guy would have been verbally lynched as an American agent by patriotic pundits. There would have been no mercy even if Mr. Wickremesinghe had properly applied for new Sri Lankan citizenship, duly paid the application fees, kept his payment receipts, and got the citizenship certificate the normal way without presidential fast tracking and brotherly imprimatur. He would have been tarred and tattooed even if no file had been lost and all the documentation on his citizenship were properly in place. Even without being a presidential candidate, Mr. Wickremesinghe is perpetually in trouble for parachuting past-citizen Arjuna Mahendran from Singapore to Sri Lanka’s Central Bank, and to continue bonding from where the previous regime had left it, albeit a lot more greedily and totally foolishly.
Contrast the real and virtual patriotic harassment of Ranil Wickremesinghe with the patriotic hospitality extended to Gotabaya Rajapaksa as he battled questions about the validity of his second Sri Lankan citizenship. It was the petitioners who dared to question, who were accused of wanting in patriotism and of having ungrateful blood in their veins. Of course, the legal challenge was political, and since when did it become illegal or immoral to be political?
All these questions have now been set aside by the Court of Appeal, and a major roadblock to Mr. Rajapaksa fulfilling the nomination requirements on Monday, to be a presidential candidate, has been effectively removed. Although all should be well that ends well, at least for now, there were more than rumours about unease and anxiety in the Rajapaksa camp about the outcome of the court hearing. Speculations caught fire last week when Mr. Rajapaksa sought and obtained his new Sri Lankan Passport from the Permanent High Court and the Court’s approval to travel abroad for medical reasons.
Then on Friday and out of nowhere, the Rajapaksa elder statesman and former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa paid his cash deposit to join the long list of 33 (all men) to be a candidate at the November presidential election. It may be that the former Speaker threw in his name just to be able to step in, in case his younger brother should opt to step out. The elder Rajapaksa will likely withdraw from the race, now that the courts have palpably cleared the path for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to finalize his nomination. In any event, we should know by Tuesday which Rajapaksa is in and which one is out. Kudos to the oldest Rajapaksa for taking one for the family and offering himself as a throwaway substitute.
The legal challenge to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan citizenship status seems to have inspired lawyerly accounts about the powers of the Executive President, even though the burden of the challenge was more about process than about presidential power. Even without the 19th Amendment, the 1978 Constitution outlines the contours of The Executive in three separate chapters: The President of the Republic, The Cabinet of Ministers and The Public Service. The Executive encompasses all three components, and they are supposed to function seamlessly and continuously even through disruptions for whatever reason, including elections and presidential and/or ministerial successions.
At no time should a President be left alone to carry the entire burden of the country and its government, and to act arbitrarily or without accountability (to parliament) on their behalf. It is fair to assume that no President at any time would solely, acting on his own advice and by virtue of whatever powers vested in him, award a government contract; issue a bicycle license; or grant new citizenship to the citizen of another country, let alone a family member. Goodwill and honorary Passports are a different matter, as people have recalled instances when President JR Jayewardene apparently gave such a Passport to Cyril Ponnamperuma, the Scientist, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga gave another to Duncan White, the Olympics Medalist.
The word on the street is that Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa obtained his newest Sri Lankan Passport through the auspices of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Chivalry, since when did thy name become politics? The underlying theory is that in Mr. Wickremesinghe’s scheme having Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a presidential candidate would help him (RW) to win not only his Party’s candidacy but also the country’s presidency.
The questioning of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship status opened a whole can of worms about how the government administers the applications for and the granting of dual citizenships. While the legality of Mr. Rajapaksa’s citizenship has been settled, none of the murkiness of the process would appear to have been cleared. Add to that the mysteriously missing documents between 2005 and 2007, and no one knows for what other periods? Does the government know how many dual citizens Sri Lanka has without proper documentation, or with missing documentation? And how has the government acted to prevent people taking advantage of missing documents and producing fraudulent citizenship certificates ? Of course, none of this applies to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and not even the petitioners challenging the validity of his citizenship suggested anything untoward.
And none of these details, and missing details, from the deep State bottoms would have surfaced if Gotabaya Rajapaksa had not come forward as a presidential candidate. In fairness to him, the thought of being Sri Lanka’s President at some point may not have even crossed his mind when he received his dual citizenship from his President brother fourteen years ago. Yet, here we are, and if all goes well on Monday as planned, Mr. Rajapaksa would be the new torch bearer of the Rajapaksa family, the new presidential candidate of the equally new Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, and Sri Lanka’s first ever dual citizen to contest a presidential election – albeit after renouncing his American citizenship.
But for the 19th Amendment, Mr. Rajapaksa could have contested the Sri Lankan election as a dual citizen, because the US government places no barrier against any of its citizens with dual nationality – to either contesting or holding public office in their old countries. What better way to look after American interests in far flung countries? And to be an American President, one must not only be an American citizen but also born on American soil. Nonetheless, if Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets elected as President on November 16, Sri Lanka’s new first lady would be an American citizen, that is if Mrs. Rajapaksa is not already a dual citizen. As well, there is now precedent for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if elected President, to grant new Sri Lankan citizenship to Lady Rajapaksa by exercising his plenary, repository, or residual presidential powers.
Teflon Gota, Toxic Ranil
Patriotism sits differently on different people. Gotabaya Rajapaksa could renounce Sri Lankan citizenship to become an American citizen and still claim all the patriotic credentials in Sri Lanka. Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, who never left the country except on visits lasting no more than a matter of days, can never pass muster with the self-appointed security guards of Sri Lankan patriotism. Self-inflicted mistakes drip from every pore of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s political body, but being unpatriotic should not be one of them. Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is Teflon when it comes to the test of patriotism, and Ranil Wickremesinghe is always toxic among self-proclaimed patriots. This dichotomy has defined the political narrative over the last fifteen years when Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe squared off against each other for the political prize.
Will the narrative change now that Ranil Wickremesinghe is no longer a presidential contender and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former American citizen, is the new Rajapaksa torch bearer? The earlier speculations were that the US government may throw a spanner in the works to delay Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s renunciation of his American citizenship. There was no basis for that speculation and the emerging sense now appears to be that the American government would really not mind either way – having or not having Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. A former American citizen elected as Sri Lanka’s President may not overtly help American interests in the island and the region. But he is certainly not going to go out of his way to hurt American interests.
Already the Rajapaksas have indicated that neither the defence co-operation agreements with US – Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the under-negotiation Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), nor the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact involving $ 480 million of grant assistance would be off the table under a new Rajapaksa presidency. The current government was brow beaten to put them on hold by weekend newsprint pundits and online patriots. They went to town scaring everyone with the scary titles of these agreement while the government sat on its hands doing nothing to explain their innocuous contents.
Somehow, getting an MCC grant to create a database for an east-west economic and transportation corridor between Colombo and Trincomalee ended up in someone’s wild imagination as a scary scheme to bifurcate the country – north and south! The Rajapaksas will have no tolerance for wild imaginations and they would likely end up dealing with the Americans the same way Ranil Wickremesinghe ended up dealing with the Chinese. That said, anti-Americanism may not feature prominently in the election, at least between the two main rivals because both parties have plenty of American (dual) citizens and aficionados on their sides. Still, we cannot be so sure because Sri Lankan politics is not unknown for throwing stones from inside glass houses.
More than the Americans, the Chinese and the Indians are partaking the country like nobody’s business. Apparently, the Chinese want to demonstrate that they are as interested in Point Pedro as they are in Point Dondra (as was GG Ponnambalam), and the Indians want to run trains not only to the north but also to the south. The received wisdom is that New Delhi may hope for a Sajith Premadasa win even though the Indians do not think they got much out of the current Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The Chinese will sit back and be confident about being able to deal with whoever wins the election, regardless of their citizenship history.