by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.”
Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s failure to abolish the executive presidency has brought Sri Lanka to this impasse.
Replacing the executive presidency with a more democratic alternative was the founding promise of the uniquely disparate alliance that successfully challenged the Rajapaksa behemoth in 2015. The failure to honour that promise has placed in jeopardy every single achievement of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, notably the partial advances made in democratic restoration and establishment of the rule of law. These advances are significant, but fragile. They require space to take root and time to grow. Thanks to current administration’s failure to abolish the executive presidency and its shameless violation of every tenet of good governance, Sri Lanka is unlikely to have that space and time.
The government’s other signature failure was its inability to reform the prevailing political culture by limiting corruption, repression and abuse. Had the government achieved some success in redefining political culture, the bar for potential candidates for the presidency could have been set at a higher level. Thanks to the duplicity, venality, cowardice and inefficiency of the current administration, any two bit character, from politicians to retired military men, from entrepreneurs to tuition masters, can present himself as a presidential candidate. The government’s many failures are being equated with failures of democracy. The myth of the strong leader is regaining political traction. Saviours emerge from behind every bush, and under every rock offering salvation to an electorate that is too disenchanted or angry to be rational.
Dinesh Amaratunga, the math tuition master whose defender-riding ‘VIP security’ attacked a van driver in Kalagedihena two weeks ago, has been touting himself as a putative presidential candidate. Another dreamer of the presidency, businessman Dhammika Perera, seems to have been caught causing severe environmental damage in search of a quick buck. Hayleys Free Zone, the company at the centre of the garbage importation scandal, is a subsidiary of the Hayleys Group of which Mr. Perera is the majority shareholder and joint (non-executive) chairman. In 2013, another Hayleys subsidiary, Dipped Products PLC, was at the centre of the Rathupaswala tragedy. The company was reportedly responsible for the contamination of ground water in 28 grama niladhari divisions. When the affected residents protested peacefully, the Rajapaksa administration responded by sending the army. Three people died and many were injured when the army shot at the protestors.
In 2011, President Rajapaksa appointed businessman Dhammika Perera as the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. Mr. Perera was holding that position when President Rajapaksa signed the Extraordinary Gazette 1818-30 in July 2013. That gazette permitted the import of used goods to Sri Lanka tax-free, under the facade of re-export. That gazette could be signed with no fuss (just as the SOFA could be renewed by American-Lankan dual citizen Gotabhaya Rajapaksa with no fuss), because that was a time when transparency was unknown, and dissent a crime.
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