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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 49 New Delhi November 24, 2018

The Great Lankan Betrayal

Sunday 25 November 2018, by Apratim Mukarji


In the midst of the unique political turmoil in Sri Lanka since October 26 one important voice was missing. Both Sri Lankans and foreigners wondered why former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was silent.

Their curiosity was mitigated on November 15 when Kumaratunga spoke up for the first time since the October 26 morning “coup” by President Maithripala Sirisena when he summarily sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and swore in the immediate past President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In her statement, Kumaratunga called Sirisena’s action as a “betrayal” of the popular mandate that had seen him propelled to the presidential chair in January 2015. It is so by all definitions. It is a betrayal of such magnitude that by one stroke, Sirisena has almost destroyed the political and democratic edifice that Sri Lankans had built over the last seven decades. It is such a fell blow that Sri Lanka’s slow and unfinished recovery from the political, economic, social and ethnic destruction wrought over the last three decades and more is now pushed to a new precipice.

Destruction of democracy is always facilitated by a deceleration of political parties which act as instruments of democracy, and Kumaratunga said that this is exactly what Sirisena has accomplished. She recalled that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by her father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and later led by her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, built a “massive unprecedented movement” with other parties (the most remarkable of which is the United National Party, its traditional rival) to forge a brighter future for the country.

“It is regretful,” she said, “that some sections of our beloved party find it fit to betray all our policies and once again join hands with a political group that destroyed fundamental rights, democracy, democratic institutions and built a destructive network of graft and corruption”, in an apt summing-up of the Rajapaksa regime of ten years (2005-2015).

When the political storm broke out with the sudden ouster of Wickremasinghe, who continues to enjoy a clear and stable majority in the 225-member Parliament (as many as 122 MPs signed the motion of no-confidence submitted against the usurper Rajapaksa), the move delivered a double blow to the prevailing political landscape as his replacement proved to be none other than Rajapaksa, till then a sworn enemy of Sirisena. The consequences of the President’s wayward actions since then have turned out to be nothing short of a political earthquake. But this earthquake is increasingly resembling one without rhyme or reason.

Of course, Sirisena has since then presented a host of reasons to justify the steps he has taken, which could be interpreted as washing his government’s dirty linen in public. A day after the October 26 coup, Sirisena addressed the nation by defending his action of sacking the incumbent Prime Minister and said that the latter’s conduct was “uncivilised”.

Wickremasinghe and his group, the President said, belonged to the privileged class and did not understand the pulse of the people, and conducted themslves as if shaping the future of the country “was a fun game they played”. Once in the government, ”Wickremasinghe arrogantly and stubbornly avoided collective decisions, and tended to take individual decisions. This behaviour led to many conflicts.” It must be noted that every word of this indicment is true and nothing is exaggerated. The President added that all his efforts to correct the Prime Minister bore no fruit. He had advised that the Prime Minister worked in tandem with the senior government leaders “collectively”, and that the government should take decisions after “proper discussion to achieve the goals of good governance”. However, the Prime Minister continued to ognore the aspirations of over six million people.

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka bond scam that broke out a little after the government was formed and morphed into the biggest financial scandal of the country understandably figured prominently in Sirisena’s address. He recalled how Wickremasinghe had barged into his residence when he was about to visit the bank in the wake of the countrywide agitation over the scandal and sought to block his visit and how he brushed aside his objection, saying that “as the President of the country, I have the right to visit that place”.

Irrespective of the fact that the President’s actions since October 26 are unconstitutional and unsupportable, it is equally undeniable that he has put his finger squarely on the precise differences between Wickremasinghe and himself. Sirisena represents the rural south of Sri Lanka, peopled by the largely poor villagers who are by their very nature suspicious about the city-based, foreign-educated and sophisticated leaders like Wickremasinghe and the majority of the UNP leadership. He has also grown into the party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), through a long career in party politics, though he was bested by Rajapaksa who was born into a rural political family in his party game.

In a sensitive analysis of the tussle for power between the President and the deposed Prime Minister, Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist based in Jaffna, wrote that the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, which had escalated during the last few years and was once acknowledged by the government, brought to the fore long simmering concerns over “neglect of the rural economy, particularly in the context of a protracted drought. The political fallout of the restricting fertiliser subsidies to farmers, policies of market pricing of fuel and the rising cost of living delegitimised the government.” (See “Sri Lanka’s national crisis for what it is”, The Hindu, November 14, 2018) He also held the rise and spread of authoritarian regimes across the world along with the onward march of neoliberal policies as responsible for affecting Sri Lankan politics.

Several Sri Lankan analysts concur with Kadirgamar’s view that in these circumstances, Rajapaksa and Sirisena are bound to rise to power at the cost of Wickremasinghe and his party.

While Sirisena’s declaration that fresh parlia-mentary elections will be held on Janaury 5, 2019 is now beholden to the Supreme Court’s verdict, the Rajapaksa-Sirisena combine is certain to win the polls whenever they are held. Meanwhile, by formally joining the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), largely made up of SLFP members who broke away from Sirisena earlier this year, and finally forsaking the Sirisena-led SLFP, Rajapaksa has served the final notice on the President that it is he and not the latter who will call the shots in future. Already reduced to the stature of a junior partner in the Wickremasinghe-led govern-ment, the rump SLFP led by Sirisena is now further decimated and will necessarily have to live on Rajapaksa’s small mercies.

It is wiser not to over-emphasise the role of international players in the Sri Lankan crisis. They, like India, China, the United States and the European Union, are at best peripheral characters and do not influence the turn of events in any meaningful manner.

The crisis, it must be emphasised, is entirely home-made and has its roots in domestic political dynamics and history. It is in a way misleading to read a heightened play of geopolitics in it. The value of geopolitics has already been exploited fully by Rajapaksa in his earlier avatar to whip up the Buddhist-Sinhalese xenophobia against possible international intervention, and any attempt by the Wickremasinghe camp (as has already been done by his Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera on November 4 when he said that the uncertainty created had triggered an immediate negative impact at a time of tremendous fragility in global financial markets) would be effectively countermanded by the Rajapaksa-Sirisena camp. The present Foreign Minister, Sarath Amunugama, said on November 10 that the new government would not seek any confrontation with the Western powers who were critical of Sirisena’s actions.

As was only to be expected, the crisis has brought back the Tamil and Muslim minorities closer once more to an unwelcome period of uncertainty and probable a slide-back to the re-enactment of renewed Sinhalese chauvinism. Ever since 2014, events have unfolded in a way to only feed the minorities’ fears, led and instigated by Buddhist monks and Rajapaksa’s supporters. With the rising unpopularity of the National Unity Government and the forceful show of Rajapaksa’s steady rise to power, they were already apprehensive of their future. Their apprehensions now seem to be on the verge of being confirmed. One manifestation of this was available when the Tamil and Muslim parties together rejected Rajapaksa’s approach to get them on his side at the time of the voting on the two motions of no-confidence brought against his government by the UNP and Jatiya Vimukthi Peramuna earlier this month.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs. His forthcoming book, Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka: An Unfinished Task, will be published shortly.

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