Another week of political chaos and uncertainty has just passed. There was something new in it – Government paralysis for a few days. When two Ministers publicly admitted that the police had been inactive in controlling rioters in the Kandy District that was no ordinary news. There were also media reports, not just rumours that even the army and the STF that were deployed after the declaration of emergency, were just onlookers of mob violence against Muslim citizens.
Another July 1983 was in the making. With unprecedented public condemnation of racial violence, and amidst belated assertion of its authority by the government, Sri Lanka seems to have managed to escape another countrywide bloodbath. Let us hope that the beast has been beaten back.
Amidst this generalized state of chaos, there was also a widely shared feeling of despondency, and a sense of betrayal. With a deep sense of sadness, we citizens also watched the President and the Prime Minister of our Republic performing their public duties in discordance and disunity. We passed a couple of days last week with a strange feeling in the air that the country was bereft of leadership.
What is this sense of betrayal? How did it come about?
It is a sense of betrayal rooted in the collective failure of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to abide by, and to be faithful to, the mandate they were given by the people in January and August 2015. The Government’s continuing disregard, throughout the past three years, of its duty to protect the Muslim citizens from the well-organized attacks by Sinhalese racist groups, is only one side of this sad story of betrayal.
The events in Ampara and Kandy are not accidents, or isolated incidents. They are part of a new political chain of organized ethnic majoritarian violence, evolved in the aftermath of the defeat of Tamil insurgency. When the leaders of the present government were seeking a public mandate at the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, they promised the country’s ethnic minorities that their life, property and freedom would be secured. It was not an accident that President Sirisena’s electoral victory in January 2015 was largely made possible by the ethnic and cultural minority voters.
Look at what has happened to our leaders when they began to wield state power?
They gradually began to isolate themselves from all the constituencies who elected them to power. Our President began to surround himself by the very forces and individuals who did everything to defeat him at the Presidential election. Within just a few months in office, he allowed himself to be alienated from his own natural allies. With future political agendas in mind, he became inexplicably cautious in dealing with the Sinhalese majoritarian groups that unleashed repeated violence against the Muslim citizens. That gave the wrong signals to saffron-clad activists that they were guaranteed immunity from legal consequences for their terrorist behaviour.
Similarly, President Sirisena’s extra cautious approach to criminal cases involving members of the armed forces sent out wrong signals to the judiciary as well. It not only belied all his rhetoric about restoring human rights, providing relief to victims of state violence and initiating a process of transitional justice. It has even paralyzed, as we have been regularly hearing, the judicial process in some of the major cases of grave political crime. Now, a new pattern of justice appears to have been set in Sri Lanka – it is in the realm of Presidential discretion to derail the course of justice in order to please his occasional constituencies. It is quite understandable that the President has to balance the conflicting demands for national security and human rights protection. But, he does not have to do it by ignoring his own human rights commitments.
Then, let us look at the record of our Prime Minister.
If we believe in the report of the Presidential Commission on the Central Bank bond scam, it is the Prime Minister who became the first Government leader to defy with utter contempt the good governance mandate of January 2015. The bond scam began in March 2015, within three months of a regime that sought a popular mandate to inaugurate a new culture of governance free of corruption and mass stealing of public wealth. Voters trusted Wickremesinghe’s promise of restoring ethical governance on the belief that he was different from those who treated political power licence to indulge in organized robbery of public wealth. But in power he set out to prove that he is yet another ordinary politician who treated the public clamour for clean government only as an effective electoral slogan.
This brief background commentary enables us to place in context the present state of Government paralysis in the country. Deviating from their electoral mandate of January 2015, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are now locked in a power struggle which has personal and political roots. They are inextricably intertwined too. The personal dimension of the power struggle highlights the total breakdown of trust between these co-leaders of the government.
It has heightened the political dimension of it, with two key themes dominating their thinking and action at present.
The first is about taking the upper hand in the balance of power within the ruling coalition. The second is who should run for, and win, the next presidential election towards the end of 2019. The intensity of this war of attrition became so public and even bizarre during the appointment of the Cabinet Minister of Law and Order that the new Minister is on record saying the most unthinkable in a parliamentary democracy: the MP was unaware until he reached the President’s office that he was to be sworn in as the Minister.
The betrayal felt by Sri Lankan citizens is particularly intense because the irresponsible actions by the two leaders have brought to a premature end that promising and rare historical moment for Sri Lanka’s democratization, peace-building, ethnic reconciliation and peace, and overall progress in an atmosphere of political openness, justice and fair play. There is no way now to retrieve the political agenda that brought these two leaders to power. There is no possibility of reviving that political coalition either.
To build such an agenda and broad coalition afresh tragically requires another phase of grave defeats and setbacks in which our citizens and communities will have to again suffer, and suffer in violence. As the recent events show, Sri Lanka is on the path to such a phase of setbacks, thanks primarily to our two leaders.
Can Sri Lankan citizens expect from their President and the Prime Minister to do some joint thinking and then take collective action, even at this belated hour, to arrest a catastrophe – sorry for the big word –in the making?