by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”Franklin Roosevelt (The State of the Union Address, 1944)
This is not fiddling while Rome burns. This is taking ‘selfies’ on the railway track ignoring the hurtling express train.
No government can remain eternally popular. Governments, like people, also face midlife crises. Some of the woes afflicting the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration are due to such natural factors. Not all of them, though, or even most of them. These heights of inefficiency, this unwillingness to stand up to the bullying of special-interest groups, this inability to understand its own peril – there is nothing normal about any of this.
After a mere thirty months in office, the government has become contemptuous of ‘even the most common rules of commonsense’ and is suffering from a ‘radical loss of self interest.’i The crisis is a self-made one. It didn’t have to happen. It was allowed to happen.
Chaos is not democracy. Drifting into disaster is not good governance.
Had Sri Lanka been a country with a democratic government and a democratic opposition (however flawed), the government’s crisis would not have become democracy’s crisis. Elections would have acted as a pressure-releasing mechanism, by ensuring the peaceful transfer of governmental power from one democratic political party to another.
Unfortunately, post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka has a democratic government. But it lacks a democratic opposition.
The ouster of the Rajapaksa regime required a never-before-attempted coalition between the UNP and a segment of the SLFP (How much support President Sirisena really commands within his own party and the SLFP’s traditional base remains to be seen). This coalition created a vacuum in the Southern oppositional space. The main oppositional party in parliament, the TNA, is democratic but its politico-electoral presence is limited to two provinces. Had the JVP been able to make the transition to a social-democratic party or even a democratic-socialist party, it could have filled this vacuum. But the JVP was both unable and unwilling to change itself. Consequently the vacuum was filled by the JO, a motley collection of parties committed not just to the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power but also to the restoration of Rajapaksa power.
During their two-and-a-half years in opposition, the Rajapaksas have become more anti-democratic, more retrogressive and more extremist. There has been no self-criticism, no rethinking, no reset; their defeats were and are blamed on minorities and imperialists. Their agenda is purely revanchist, starting with the destruction of whatever meagre advances made towards democracy and reconciliation since Jan. 2015. They are not coy about what they intend to do – restore familial rule, disembowel democracy from within and use a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist superstructure as both window-dressing and a dam against inevitable popular disillusionment.
Lankan people don’t have very high expectations of their politicians, but the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is failing to meet even the lowest expectations of those voters who enabled its victory. In the critical absence of a democratic opposition capable of providing an alternative to the current administration, the government’s crisis has become democracy’s crisis.
From Uma Oya to SAITM via Meetotamulla: Shouldering Rajapaksa sins
How did a government which began with so much hope, credibility and legitimacy sink to this level in mere 30 months?
The short answer is that it didn’t do what it promised and did what it pledged not to. It stubbornly repeated Rajapaksa errors while ignoring their good-governance promises.
The Uma Oya crisis is a microcosm of the larger governmental crisis.
The Uma Oya project was first mooted in the early 1990’s and abandoned due to its environmental repercussions. Its environmental unfeasibility, as revealed by a feasibility study, meant that no respectable bank would touch it.
It was resurrected by the Rajapaksas, as part of their megalomanic plan to turn Hambantota into a world-class city. Those mammoth white-elephants, the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport, plus the proposed industrial zone needed water. Satiating this gargantuan thirst was the main purpose of the Uma Oya project. The devastation the project would cause in the Badulla district in general and the Bandarawela area in particular did not concern the Rajapaksas.
Since no reputed bank would touch this disastrous venture, President Rajapaksa sought help from his ally, the then Iranian President, Mohammad Ahmadinajad. Mr. Ahmadinajad talked to Iran’s Exim bank. A loan was approved with no feasibility study. The project was inaugurated, with the usual Rajapaksa hype, during Mr. Ahmadinajad’s visit to Sri Lanka.
By January 2015, the ill effects of the project were becoming glaringly obvious. Houses were compromised and wells drying up. People protested and President Sirisena ordered the suspension of the project. But a few months later, the project was recommenced, with no changes in the modus operandi, and no attempt to deal with the consequences.
The current crisis is the result of that disastrous decision.
Why was the project recommenced sans even a modicum of remedial measures? There was no international pressure to do so (unlike in the case of the Colombo Port City). By that time, the loan had dried up, and the project belonged solely to the government. It would be instructive to discover who ordered the recommencement of the project and on what basis. That might reveal some vital clues about the way this government thinks and operates.
Now 80% of the project is over, and environmental degradation has reached unimaginable proportions. The project has been suspended again and foreign expertise sought (why wasn’t this done in 2015?). The proposed solutions include scaling down the project to Uva-Wellassa and the use of a more sophisticated (and supposedly less damaging) earth-digging machine. Why weren’t these solutions implemented in 2015? Why did the government wait until the issue exploded?
A similar trajectory is discernible in the garbage crisis.
The government has begun to take concrete steps to deal with the garbage issue at the points of creation (the ban on certain plastic items), collection (sorting of garbage) and disposal (turning garbage into electricity). Why weren’t these measures undertaken in 2015? Why did the government wait till the Meetotamulla tragedy to do the right and doable thing? Incidentally, the government wouldn’t have done the right and doable thing, even post-Meetotamulla, had it not been for a slew of court rulings and public protests. Without those interventions, the government would have replaced the Meetotamulla dump with a Karadiyana dump or a Muturajawela dump.
Of the triad of preventable woes worsening the general crisis, perhaps the most easily avoidable one was the SAITM issue.
The South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, like the Uma Oya project and the Meetotamulla garbage dump, was a Rajapaksa baby the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government adopted as its very own. It was set up with Rajapaksa blessings and active support. SAITM was granted the status of a degree-awarding institution via an extraordinary gazette (1721/19) on August 30, 2011. In the same month, President Rajapaksa gave the institute a financial leg-up when he granted government scholarships, each worth Rs. 7 million, to 10 students to undertake their medical studies at SAITM.
Where was the GMOA then?
Every year, a significant number of academically promising students from ‘developed’ districts are denied access to government medical colleges, thanks to district-level standardisation. Therefore there is an objective need for private medical colleges. The problem with SAITM is not its ownership but its dubious admission criteria and the doubts about the quality of the training it provides. The government should have studied these issues in 2015 and proposed and implemented solutions, such as making SAITM degrees conditional on students sitting for and getting through a qualifying exam conducted by the Medical Council.
The government could have settled the SAITM issue, but didn’t. That failure has enabled the GMOA to weaponise the issue, possibly as part of the broader Rajapaksa agenda of regaining power as soon as possible.
De-legitimising Democracy; Re-enabling Autocracy
Elections are decided by people – and numbers. That is what the government has forgotten. In its determination to limp along the Rajapaksa path, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is antagonising those segments of the populace which enabled it to defeat the Rajapaksa juggernaut in January 2015, and to beat back a resurgent Rajapaksa challenge in August 2015.
The government has alienated the minorities with its toleration of the likes of BBS and the execrable monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara. It is allowing a segment of Sangha-extremists to decide how the country should be run, as if this is a Sinhala-Buddhist theocracy, along the lines of Saudi Arabia or Iran. Caving into saffron-clad bullies is hardly surprising, since the government also caved into bullying by hardline Muslim clerics and washed its hands of the MMDA.
Little is being done to alleviate the economic woes of the war-torn areas. The government has also failed to satisfy those Sinhala voters who voted for it to gain some economic relief.
Democracy is best served when the polity is pluralist and no party is in government for a long period. In a normal situation this government deserves to be defeated. But what happens when the available alternative is a political formation which is openly and unashamedly anti-democratic, and extremist in the full sense of the word, without even the saving grace of economic populism? What happens when the next presidential election becomes a battle in which one contender is Gotabhaya Rajapaksa?
President Sirisena’s antipathy towards and fear of the Rajapaksas are sincere. Ranil Wickremesinghe is allowing the Rajapaksas to grow in the hope that their growth would hurt only the SLFP.
If the crisis festers and explodes, the Rajapaksas won’t have to break up the SLFP. They will take over the SLFP leaving Maithripala Sirisena with just a handful of supporters. But they will also manipulate a schism in the UNP. The groundwork is already being done, creating a subtle division in the UNP between ‘patriots’ and ‘anti-patriots’. In this rendition, ‘patriots’ are soft on Sinhala-Buddhist extremism; they are politically and socially illiberal and oppose many democratisation measures; they also equate strong government not with an effective democracy but with any autocracy. When the crisis explodes, the Rajapaksas will take over the SLFP and break up the UNP, absorbing the so called patriots into their fold and leaving Ranil Wickremesinghe with a rump. So what is at stake is not just the fate of the SLFP or Maithripala Sirisena. What is at stake is the fate of the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The administration’s problem isn’t located in too much democracy, as some claim, but in its suicidal inability to distinguish friend from enemy or to understand the special nature of the current political moment. Every mistake the government makes helps not a normal opposition, but an opposition which is a threat to Lankan democracy.