by Rajan Philips
They are the three corners of Sri Lanka’s vicious political triangle. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family are nothing if they are not blatant about everything. They defeated the LTTE, so they can do no wrong. They will return to power, they insist, and rule for ever, no matter what. If and when they do, the blame or credit for it must surely land on the present government – for its betrayal of the common opposition promises in the landmark election of January 2015.
The handsome prince of betrayal is of course the cleverly honest Prime Minister. He keeps clean hands but allows other dirty hands at the table and under the table. Ranil Wickremesinghe made the greatest possible political sacrifice before the last presidential election, but has since undone it by betraying the straightforward promises he made at the same election: stop Port City; expose and end government corruption; and rescue the Central Bank and restore its purpose and dignity. There were plenty of other promises – ranging from constitutional overhaul to national reconciliation to sweeping good governance. Starts have been made on almost all of them, but no sense of accomplishment or steady progress in any of them. On balance, the dim lights of achievements are blinded by the glare of broken promises.
Maithripala Sirisena is the blame-master of the three. From his corner of the triangle, he blames Mahinda Rajapaksa with both hands and Ranil Wickremesinghe with a hidden hand. He promised to abolish the presidency when he defeated and succeeded Mahinda Rajapaksa as president, but now seems set on succeeding Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the next SLFP presidential candidate. Between the two major parties, the UNP has become unable to pick its own winning presidential candidate, and the SLFP is stuck on running incumbents who cannot win as presidential candidates.
The political triangle is not suspended in a social vacuum. The three corner figures and whatever connections there are between any two of them are linked to the social and political forces that keep them afloat and spin them around. Political commentaries get more excited at the triangular connections, or contests, at the top and are less interested in the linkages between the three leaders and the socio political constituencies that support them. The base matters only as voting coalitions or blocs (not ‘blocks’ as in the illegal spelling of a legal luminary) and political insight is all about discerning the abilities of the topmost competitors to strike winning permutations and combinations out of the voting blocs.
For sheer embellishment of commentary, there are plenty of ideological and adjectival sources: patriotism, sovereignty, security, good governance and so on. The focus of contention now is whether the present (good) government is really a non-government, and if the previous government was strong and effective even if it was bad government. When the choice is between bad government and no government it means ordinary people are being stretched to their limits and wits to survive and nothing much beyond. Humankind has come a long way to fall back to Hobbes’s state of nature of old, but Sri Lankans have to endure a new state of nature in mounds of garbage, chaotic traffic, striking doctors, acres of drought and highways of flood, and universal mismanagement from hospitals to schools to electricity, to petroleum, to ports, to airports and aviation, and even cricket. The picture is all too familiar and all too grim.
The question is whether Sri Lanka can rely on Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena to do anything to pull the country, or at least start pulling the country out of its current morass? Admittedly, Rajapaksa is not part of the governing partnership between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena, but his relationship with either of the two implicates the functioning of the partnership, and even the government as a whole. That in effect was President Sirisena’s cabinet complains two weeks ago not just for his ministers to hear but for the whole country to know. Not that the likelihood of a silent understanding between the Rajapaksa clan and the higher echelons of the UNP was not known all along, but the President saying it set off a flurry of speculations about the relationship between the President and the UNP, and the future of the unity-government itself.
The President’s complain may not have surprised anyone, but his disclaimer on corruption investigations convinced no one. His boast at the cabinet meeting – that if things were left to him he would have done everything in three months, is just that – a boast. You don’t need a long memory to remember that only October last year President Sirisena publicly took to task officials in the CID, FCID and the Bribery Commission for their allegedly disrespectful handling of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Navy Commanders over allegations of abuse of authority and financial misdemeanours in Avant-Garde enterprise.
Political calculations are considered to be the main reason for the general lack of progress in corruption investigations, even total inaction in some instances. As generally understood, the UNP’s calculation in protecting the Rajapaksas and giving them political space is to keep the SLFP divided and benefit the UNP electorally. To President Sirisena, protecting military officials from investigation is necessary to counter the patriotic claims of the Rajapaksas. The political hypocrisy in this triangular relationship is quite transparent. What may not be readily apparent is the cultural common ground over corruption.
It is the culture of quid pro quo – I will scratch your corrupt back, and you mine, that seems to be the real roadblock against corruption investigations. The Central Bank and the Avant-Garde cases are disturbing illustrations of this culture. To wit, no one in the UNP was keen on going after the Central Bank shenanigans under the Rajapaksas, so long as the UNP could carry out its on shenanigans at the bank. The UNP’s bond scam was a bit too much to escape notice, putting it very, very mildly, but the point is that the Rajapaksas have pointedly avoided criticising the UNP leadership over the bond scandal.
While the bond scam has got its comeuppance under a commission of inquiry, there is nothing to write about the on-again, off-again investigations into the killings of Lasantha Wickrematunga and Wasim Thajudeen. In his cabinet outburst, President Sirisena is said to have specifically referred to the two murder investigations and wanted results in three months. Three months are a long time- if it is political interference that is preventing police from proceeding to trial in these two cases. If the President and the Prime Minister cannot act to stop political interference in two high profile cases, what else can they be trusted to act upon? Why are those interfering with police work not being isolated and exposed? And what will prevent police from being selective and discretionary in the investigation of other crimes, if political interference were to succeed in the Wickrematunga and Thajudeen murder investigations?
So the question whether Sri Lanka can rely on Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremasinghe and Maithripala Sirisena to do anything to pull the country out of its current morass, should be reformulated as to whether any or all of can do anything unless and until they do something about government corruption and crimes. From Korea to Brazil, politicians in and out of power are being held accountable for their actions. In Sri Lanka, we have fallen back from a well-functioning criminal justice system to one that is compromised by political interference. It says something of a country’s state of affairs when its president calls out his ministers in charge of justice and law and order for political interference, and nothing happens after that. Let us wait for three months to see if we can say anything different.