Summing up President Maithripala Sirisena’s first year in power, Minister Arjuna Ranatunga said at a Ports Authority function that he (Sirisena) formed a government and has had no peace thereafter; and that he has not seen another leader as beset by problems as President Maithripala Sirisena. Minister S.B.Dissanayake speaking at the SLFP’s first press conference for the New Year described the past one year as a period during which no decisions could be made or a proper programme of work implemented – a government in a ‘gandabba’ state. He further stated that the UNP and SLFP are two different parties with different ideologies and that they can’t run a government together for long and that if they do stay together for a long time, extremist forces will emerge as political alternatives. That was the assessment of the first year of yahapalanaya by ministers of the government.
Minister S.B.Dissanayake’s misgivings about the SLFP-UNP marriage of convenience were confirmed by an incident at the 49th Anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation held last Thursday under the patronage of President Maithripala Sirisena. The SLFP trade union had with the concurrence of the chairman and director general of the SLBC put up a banner welcoming MS in his capacity as the president of the country and the president of the SLFP. The UNP unions had objected saying that it was the UNP that had voted for Maithripala Sirisena and that the SLFP had voted against him and therefore they had no right to put up banners welcoming him. The UNP unions had forced the SLBC chairman and director general to order the banner to be removed. The SLFP unions had refused to take down the banner but then the chairman under pressure from the UNP union ordered the security guards to take it down. Resentment within the UNP at the SLFP getting a free ride on their shoulders is boiling to the surface.
The government is in a state of paralysis. The cabinet reshuffle that was due early this year was put off for fear that it may give the opposition a boost if the affected ministers raise objections to changes in their portfolios. Earlier the local government elections were put off. The government is postponing, prevaricating canceling and sidestepping as a way of getting over the problems that crop up. If the government is in the doldrums, so is the opposition. After an election, the people usually become politically apathetic and that could be seen in relation to the anniversary celebrations of the yahapalana government. Even though the government asked the people to hoist the national flag to celebrate the first anniversary of the so called ‘rainbow revolution’, not a single national flag was to be seen anywhere. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was to comment that it appeared as if even the national flags that were on sale in shops had been taken off display!
Significantly, the national flag was not displayed even by the Pettah pavement hawkers who were permitted to set up their stalls by the present government. Just as there were no national flags, there were no black flags either as called for by Udaya Gammampila. The people were indifferent to both. The satyagraha last Friday in front of the Bo tree in Pettah by the Pevidi Handa organisation led by Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero to protest against the betrayal of war heroes by the government was not a success in comparison with the mammoth pro-Mahinda rallies held before August last year. It drew a crowd of about 200-300 monks and about 700-800 laymen.
RW’s nine lives
When this writer was observing the Pevidi Handa satyagraha in Pettah, a political bird whispered in his ear that President Maithripala Sirisena had spoken individually to a significant number of Joint Opposition MPs and promised them that an SLFP government will be set up soon, after removing Ranil Wickremesinghe from the premiership. A list of names of Joint Opposition MPs who had agreed to join MS after RW is kicked out was also whispered in this columnist’s ear. A group of more than 20 UNP parliamentarians were also expected to join Sirisena in the new formation. What this columnist heard certainly dovetailed with the remarks made by S.B.Dissanayake at the SLFP’s first press conference for the year. It also makes sense because the only way that Sirisena can hope to win over the SLFP voter is if he forms an SLFP government. So long as a UNP prime minister runs the country, the average SLFP voter is going to see Sirisena as the leader who betrayed the SLFP to the UNP. Even the Joint Opposition will not be able to logically oppose a move to form an SLFP-led government.
There may of course be opposition to such a plan from the international backers of the yahapalana project and whether Sirisena will be able to overcome this is a moot question. Another factor is that Sirisena himself is completely out of his depth in running the country and he is dependent on the UNP in that regard. Most cloth and baniyan clad Sinhala speaking SLFP types have this impression that the tie and jacket wearing English speaking gentlemen in the UNP understand economics and administration and have international contacts and can do ‘something’ to keep the country going. Getting rid of RW will leave Sirisena without anyone to lean on, and whether he is prepared to take that risk is a major question. It can be seen that among the SLFP parliamentarians that Sirisena has taken into the yahapalana government there is nobody who can take matters to hand and run the country.
But if out a desperate desire to bolster his place within the SLFP, he does kick the UNP out and forms an SLFP led government with the help of some renegades from the UNP, that will be a great blessing for Ranil Wickremesinghe. We have been dwelling at length in this column on the build up of an unprecedented economic crisis. The people got only a brief glimpse of this during the budget debate but the government quickly swept it under the carpet by agreeing to drop the distress causing proposals. This has only postponed the crisis, not averted it. Because of this postponement, the seismic pressure built up also increases correspondingly. We are now sitting on an economic volcano. If RW remains in the government, he too will be a victim of the economic fallout, but if he is kicked out before the collapse comes, he will be able to survive to fight another day. So these whisperings about an attempt to form an SLFP-led government may be providence working in RW’s favour!
IMF report on SL blocked
The Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund representing India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka Dr. Subir Gokarn met the Minister of Finance Ravi Karunanayake last week. The IMF is the only body that can rescue Sri Lanka from its present plight by imposing discipline to the financial management of the country. But whether the government has the political capacity to carry out the requirements of an IMF programme is a moot question. The IMF completed the fourth post-programme monitoring report on Sri Lanka in mid-November last year, but the government has not yet given its consent to publish the report obviously because of adverse comments on the state of the economy under the present government. Even without this report, the comments that the IMF has been making in its press releases since March last year highlight in ample measure the fact that the IMF is not happy at all about the economic management of the yahapalana government. They have been making various recommendations since last year none of which have been implemented. Even though the government did make an attempt to implement some of those recommendations in the last budget they were forced to retreat on every single one of them.
The challenge for this government will not come from any political organization but from their inability to manage the economy. Even as George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz were in Sri Lanka to give us economic advice on the first anniversary of the new government, the stock market collapsed, the indices recording the lowest level since the present government came into power. Reuters reported that while Rs. 4.4 billion in foreign holdings in the stock market had been withdrawn in 2015, the exiting of foreign equity holders had accelerated alarmingly in the first few days of this year with over Rs. 1.5 billion in foreign holdings having exited already in 2016. This is now not an exiting, but a haemorrhaging which will only grow worse as the world economy itself enters a period of uncertainty with the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran intensifying and other factors like the depreciation of the Yuan and the hike in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve. This happens to be just about the worst year to have an economically indecisive government in power, but that is exactly what we are saddled with.
The Thajudeen CCTV footage
Though it was widely reported in the media that the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) had informed the Additional Magistrate Colombo that the images in the CCTV footage purportedly relating to the Thajudeen affair are not clear and that the tapes should be directed to a more sophisticated forensic laboratory abroad such as those run by the FBI or Scotland Yard, we reliably learns that the University of Colombo School of Computing has neither seen this footage nor made any recommendations to the Magistrates court to the effect that it should be forwarded to the FBI or Scotland Yard. The usual procedure when the courts orders computer related material to be examined would be for a police officer to meet the Director of the UCSC with a copy of the court order and material that needs to be examined.
This time however, nobody had contacted the Director of the UCSC Prof. Gihan Wikramanayake with the court order or any CCTV footage relating to the Thajudeen investigation and he and his staff are in the dark about the report said to have been submitted by the UCSC to the Additional Magistrate Colombo. This report on the CCTV footage that is said to have been submitted to the Magistrate’s court is purported to have said that though the CCTV footage allegedly showed a vehicle in the vicinity of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen’s car, its license plate number could not be matched with the licence number supplied by the CID, and that the night time footage had been distorted due to strong lights from oncoming vehicles. The Additional Magistrate is also said to have been informed that it was not possible to identify any human figures inside the vehicle.
How the UNP lost its marbles
The Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka brought into sharp relief the shabby manner in which the present government has treated China. Pakistan has been a steadfast friend of Sri Lanka through the decades, and that close relationship has survived changes of government in both countries. Even within the UN Human Rights Council, Pakistan has been an outspoken and fearless defender of Sri Lanka. It was fitting that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka should go to the airport to receive the Pakistani PM and also see him off at the airport at end of the visit. Given the manner in which Pakistan has stood by Sri Lanka during UNP and SLFP led governments alike that was a fitting way to show the world the regard with which Pakistan is held by Sri Lanka.
The treatment accorded to the Pakistani Prime Minister contrasts sharply with the way China was treated by this government. China has been as steadfast a friend of Sri Lanka as Pakistan and the sheer volume of economic benefits that Sri Lanka has received from China has been enormous. Ironically it is the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake that first got close to the new Communist government of China. The Rubber-Rice pact of 1952 was what enabled the UNP government to hold onto power till 1956. The Chinese had been extraordinarily generous buying our rubber at more than the world market price and selling rice to us at less than the world market price so that Sri Lanka benefited from both sides of the transaction and that was in an era when China was hardly the rich country that it is today.
Since that time, China has maintained close relations with every government in Sri Lanka regardless of whether it was UNP or SLFP led. It was only with the present government that this relationship was broken with yahapalana leaders accusing the Chinese of building infrastructure projects at enormously inflated costs and giving billions of rupees as kickbacks to the Rajapaksas.
All Chinese funded projects were halted the moment the new government took office until ‘investigations’ into them were over. This was an extraordinary insult to a powerful nation which has never had anything but goodwill towards Sri Lanka. Even the Port City project which was inaugurated by the Chinese President himself was stopped for investigations into corruption in awarding the contract and other matters. Only the Chinese funded projects were singled out for this kind of treatment. Large sections of the Southern Expressway and the Outer Circular Road, were done with lines of credit from Japan. While no questions were raised about the Japanese funded projects only the Chinese funded segments were deemed to have been tainted.
That the Chinese still have diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka is a miracle. They were being treated like dirt in Sri Lanka at a time when the British were falling over one another in their eagerness to please the Chinese leaders. When the Chinese President visited Britain in October last year, he was accommodated not at a hotel but at Buckingham Place and was shown around the city in the Queen’s ceremonial horse drawn carriage. The first sign that the UNP had lost their marbles was when they held a demonstration outside the HSBC Headquarters in Colombo in 2007 against the bank being involved in facilitating a 500 USD sovereign bond issue. This was Sri Lanka’s premier capitalist party which was a member of the collective of conservative parties – the International Democratic Union – acting like a lunatic fringe leftist group.
Even the JVP has not held a demonstration outside a leading international bank. The highest point in this insanity was reached with the shabby treatment that was meted out to China in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena’s victory. Despite these insults Maithripala Sirisena was welcomed in China and even given various grant aid such as a Kidney Disease hospital. It was Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe’s boast that while the Chinese gave no grant aid to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the yahapalana government obtained billions in grant aid from China. Even after this demonstration of patience and generosity, the insults continued and none of the Chinese funded projects were recommenced. Because the yahapalana project was backed by the USA and India, the leaders of the present government would have felt invincible.
It was only when a whole procession of American dignitaries came to Sri Lanka and brought not a cent with them, that reality deems to have dawned on the government that if the Americans were going to give Sri Lanka any money, they would have to borrow it from the Chinese! As this reality dawned on them and the economic crisis began to bite, the government started making overtures to the Chinese once again. By that time the damage had already been done. It is now painfully obvious who’s calling the shots in Sri Lanka.
The controversy over the purchase of JF-17 fighter jets from Pakistan is a case in point. The local newspapers reported that an agreement had been signed for the purchase of the jets during the visit of the Pakistani prime minister to Sri Lanka. Subsequently however reports began appearing in the Sri Lankan press that no such agreement had been signed. At the same time sections of the Pakistani press were reporting that Sri Lanka will be buying the Pakistani jets despite Indian pressure not to do so. Even at the height of the war when military hardware was desperately needed the Indians objected to Sri Lanka purchasing radars from China. Today in a situation where the Indians can claim a certain degree of ownership over the present government, it is unlikely that they will allow SL to buy Pakistani aircraft. Whether we need these aircraft is another matter and not buying them from anywhere may be the best solution.
The prime minister introduced in parliament a resolution converting parliament into a constituent assembly to promulgate a new constitution. This process of constitutional change has added another dimension to an already fragile situation. Controversies have erupted about the holding of a referendum in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. The Joint Opposition has come out strongly against the holding of a referendum for fear that certain entrenched provisions in the constitution such as the unitary state and the special place accorded to Buddhism will also be changed. However the fact of the matter is that according to the Supreme Court determination on the 19th Amendment, the abolition of the executive presidency will require a referendum. If the government is to fulfil their principle pledge to the people, a referendum will have to be held in addition to getting a two thirds majority in parliament. It will of course be the job of the opposition – the real opposition that is – to keep a close watch on what the government tries to sneak past the people in the name of constitutional change.