By a Special Correspondent
Both a political activist and a corporate and media personality, Krishantha Prasad Cooray is not known to mince words and is quite forthright. He was former Chairman of Hotel Developers (Lanka) Plc, which owns Hilton Colombo, Lake House and Independent Non-Executive Director at DFCC Bank as well as a Working Committee member of the ruling coalition party UNP. The Daily FT spoke to Krishantha to get a frank personal assessment of the country’s current status of governance and the political economy as well as business.
Here are >excerpts:
Q: Did you expect the country to deteriorate so rapidly?
Of course, but by no means was I the only one. It was inevitable. In 2019, the people of Sri Lanka decided by an overwhelming majority to elect as their President a man who along with most of his family was on trial for swindling public funds, who is credibly accused of countless atrocities and who had never held any elected office or ran even a corner shop or petrol shed at any point in his life. They elected an inexperienced, politically immature and extremely bitter man.
He has never shown a shred of remorse or an iota of compassion or empathy for anyone other than himself. There was simply no reason to assume that he could care about the wellbeing of anyone other than himself and his family, let alone effectively govern a country. He was a creation of extremists and Sinhala nationalists who created a character in the public eye to serve a narrow and divisive agenda. It is now evident that they never even had a plan to effectively govern this country.
Q: Every government comes to power to govern. Why do you think this one was any different?
What have they governed? All they have done is pursue vendettas and consolidate power. Those who saw through the Rajapaksa clan knew precisely what to expect. From the minute they came to power, their number one priority was revenge. They immediately went after Nishantha Silva and Shani Abeysekara. When they found out Nishantha Silva had left the country, the president used his first television appearance after taking office not to set out his vision for the country, but to whine and complain that Nishantha Silva had escaped. Within 24 hours, a Swiss embassy employee was put through a horrific ordeal out of revenge for her role in Nishantha’s departure.
The persecution only continued from there. From politicians to lawyers, to poets and police officers, this is all that they excelled at: going after professionals they disagreed with and trying to hound them into submission.
By the time that COVID-19 pandemic hit, they had already built a fear psychosis. While the rest of the world treated it as a public health emergency, only in Sri Lanka was it used to militarise the country and put generals in charge of day-to-day life. And while the economy was reeling from the pandemic, they started taking over the public service. They gutted the public service and sent cronies to embassies, they sacked the monetary board and forced out the Central Bank Governor, Indrajith Coomaraswamy, the same man they are now banking on hat in hand to clean up their mess.
And they turned the police and Attorney General’s department into political weapons, locking up people who disagreed with them, and pardoning or exonerating murderers who they empathised with. These were their priorities. A government with priorities like these has no time to solve difficult challenges in difficult times. This is how this Government began its rule and that is why they have ended up this way. As they say, if the beginning is not good, the end will be even worse.
Q: But the COVID pandemic was unprecedented and unexpected. To some degree would you agree that matters were beyond the control of the Government?
Absolutely not. Every country in the world was affected by COVID. Why is it only Sri Lanka whose foreign reserves evaporated and where the economy was reduced to ashes? It was Eran Wickramaratne who pointed out a couple of months ago that all our neighbours have increased their foreign reserves since the pandemic started. Their reserves rose between 15%-40% in the same period where ours dropped nearly 80%.
COVID affected all these countries. What made Sri Lanka different is that only we had Rajapaksas. We can recover from COVID. But the Rajapaksas have ravaged our economy like the worst case of COVID could ravage a human body. They printed money like there was no tomorrow, and burned through our dollar reserves in an absurd effort to defend a currency that they were deflating to win elections. And even after all of this, almost 6.9 million people again voted for them again in 2020 and gave them two-thirds in Parliament, which they used to move the country towards a monarchy by gutting the reforms in the 19th amendment, and passing a 20th amendment that has left us with a virtual king in the office of the presidency.
All of these things were done to consolidate power and make money, while silencing people who they perceived as political threats. They never had a plan for the economy other than to let their near and dear enrich themselves. As much as a challenge COVID was, it was also an unprecedented opportunity to stand out in the global tourism market with an intelligent response.
Yet in the middle of combating the economic damage of the pandemic, they implemented an agricultural policy that in one fell swoop destroyed our entire agricultural sector, gutting the tea, coconut and rubber industries and forcing us to import rice for the first time in my lifetime. They cost us billions in export losses over some unscientific and illiterate fantasy that caused several career civil servants to resign in protest.
To say they have failed is different than saying there was no plan. How do you think the Government expected people to react when they failed to manage the economy?
Their arrogance stood in the way of logical thinking. They presumed that the people, like sheep, would be scared of their police tactics, would fall for their propaganda and would behave with the deference of citizens in North Korea or China. They felt their media lackeys could keep hoodwinking people by turning them against each other or some other imaginary enemy. But this is where they miscalculated. The younger generation finally saw through them. This time the Rajapaksas messed with the wrong generation.
These are the things they were doing while supposedly focusing on COVID and the economy. And just, look at what they did with Jaliya Wickremasuriya, the President and Prime Minister’s cousin, who they had made Ambassador to Washington. When he was on trial in Washington during the pandemic, the Government used the full might of the foreign service to try and protect him and give him immunity, despite the fact that he was being charged with robbing our public funds.
A foreign country had to prosecute a Sri Lankan official for stealing from Sri Lankans while the Sri Lankan Government was trying to protect him. This was the first time in our history that a government had used the foreign service to try and protect a criminal, and it was the first time in our history that an ambassador was found guilty of embezzling funds in a foreign country. It is a disgrace that we will be living down for generations.
Q: You’re saying you hold the Government entirely responsible for the state of the country? Doesn’t the Opposition also deserve a fair share of the blame for not standing up to the Government?
The Opposition has its faults, but this is a Government that commands a two-third majority in Parliament and controls every lever of the State machinery. It was theirs to succeed or fail and they failed catastrophically. But the Opposition could have done more to present a viable alternate view.
There is also a segment of voters that I take issue with. It is the one million voters who handed the Rajapaksas a two thirds majority in Parliament by staying at home at the 2020 general election. These are voters who were not inspired by the UNP, SJB, TNA or JVP or any other party. As a result of their inaction the Rajapaksa margin of victory exploded, and Parliament was handed to them on a silver platter. Those one million voters could have made the difference in 2020, whoever they voted for, just by voting, and preventing the 20th amendment from being passed. I hope every one of these voters has reflected on the cost of their decision to stay out of the democratic process.
Q: In your view, what is it about the 20th amendment that led to the problems we are facing today?
The 20th amendment took away from the people the same power that they desperately wish they had today – the power to check presidential excess and hold their government accountable. At least now, hopefully, the people who passionately supported it will realise that the Constitution is meant to give power to the people. They should never again elect leaders who try to morph it into a tool to rule over them like kings.
People can realise this now because their hunger, the darkness in their homes, the queues they need to stand in to get basic necessities and their day-to-day pain have all become so severe that they have pierced the veil of propaganda and lies that have been fed to them for so many years to prop up the Rajapaksas by business people and media moguls who treated them as pawns to be manipulated for them to profit and share in the power of the Rajapaksa dynasty. This is why I can’t stand when people blame voters for the failures of leaders. Even now, it is the people who have spearheaded the search for a solution, even as the Rajapaksa propaganda machine continues to bombard them with lies.
Virtually every television and radio network or large newspaper spent the last two years singing the praises of the Rajapaksas and parroting their propaganda against their opponents. Some opportunistic business luminaries committed the same sins. Even when the government enacted policies that they knew would decimate the economy, they continued to praise the regime, asking people to focus on “positive news” until the very last minute when there was none to be had.
Now these same people who profited from Rajapaksa corruption are trying to distance themselves and hoodwink the masses into thinking that they are independent. Anyone who wants to hold a grudge against the “hata nama lakshaya” (6.9 million) who voted for the Rajapaksas must reserve the bulk of their anger for those who knowingly and greedily hoodwinked these people into supporting them. Whether it is those who benefited from antigen deals or sugar deals or fertiliser scams, these are people whose role in our current plight must never be forgotten.
Q: Businesspeople and media organisations have often put their weight behind political parties and candidates on various sides. Even the Opposition has its own business and media support. What makes those who supported the SLPP any different?
The difference this time is rank hypocrisy and betrayal of everyone who trusted them. Many people in business and the media will have political opinions and support candidates they feel can deliver on policies or programs that they believe in. That is part of the democratic process. But here we are talking about people who subverted the democratic process, through a patient, planned systematic and violent race-baiting and divisive campaign, to turn Sri Lankans against each other just so their political patrons could seize power. It was crass, craven and had no policy objective behind it.
We have seen how freely and corruptly so many of these people have profited from the regime, stealing public funds to their heart’s content. These are intelligent people. Many are professionals. They knew that plundering the country and sabotaging the public service would have dire consequences, but they chose not to care. So long as they got rich, pocketed dollars overseas and got to feel privileged by their proximity to the Rajapaksas, they didn’t care if the country burned to the ground.
Now they are trying to rebrand themselves as innocent and hapless bystanders who were also failed by the Rajapaksas. Media moguls and cronies who made money hand over fist with the blessing of the Rajapaksas are now suddenly suffering from amnesia and claiming that they had nothing to do with the first family or their government. They are behaving like rats leaving a sinking ship and being unfair to the President and the Rajapaksas who enabled and supported their profiteering for so long.
Q: Can you truly say that this Opposition has a chance? Can they even hold a candle to the ‘joint opposition’ that opposed the Yahapalanaya regime from 2015 to 2019?
You can’t say the Government has failed without saying that the Opposition too has yet to prove themselves. Of course, some in this Opposition have distinguished themselves with their courage in taking on the regime, but by no means has this parliamentary opposition risen to the moment to the satisfaction of their voters.
That is why these voters have taken it upon themselves to take to the streets. To date, they are starved for a credible alternative to the autocracy that they are opposing. Even within the opposition ranks, there is a feeling of uncertainty. If they remain divided and continue jockeying for positions, then the people will rightly lose faith in them too. The Opposition has one last chance to rise to the challenge and give the people a reason to have faith in them.
Q: At this point what can the Opposition do to restore the people’s faith in them?
The people are chanting “Go Home Gota”. They want him out. They want this Government out. And they want a solution for what will be done after this regime is gone. It is past time to put forward concrete policy steps that the next government can take to rescue Sri Lanka, kickstart our economy and turn the page on this pattern of politically corrupt and nepotistic governance.
Serious professionals from all sectors need to come forward with a roadmap for undoing the damage done by the Rajapaksas and to take us forward. We need a plan to repair the agriculture sector and to support those whose livelihoods were shattered by this Government’s absurd policy. We need a plan to reform the energy sector, not just to power our factories but to start doing so cheaply. Our industrial sector must stop paying for the waste and inefficiency of the CEB and the CPC.
We need a sustainable fiscal policy that doesn’t depend on our leaders flying around the world with a begging bowl. This Rajapaksa habit of borrowing billions at commercial interest rates, which started in 2006 and has continued to-date, must stop and someone must make clear how it will stop. It is absurd that while so many people are suffering, so many kingpins who profited from the regime’s corruption are enjoying the comforts of ill-gotten wealth. We need a plan to ensure that the public service and police become and remain independent, and to ensure the people can have well-earned confidence in their public institutions.
Q: Can we talk about what comes after the current government when they still hold the presidency and a majority in Parliament, even without a credible way of dislodging them? Are you taking for granted that the no-confidence motion against the Government will pass?
I am not taking anything for granted, and frankly, I think the Opposition is naïve to have any faith in any parliamentary process while the house is governed by a Speaker who is personally loyal to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and not to Parliament.
There is one part of the Constitution no one should forget, and that is Article 42: “The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and function under the Constitution and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security.”
Parliament cannot hold the President accountable if it is run by a man who sees himself as a servant of the President and not of the House. When the 52-day coup took place, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya stood toe-to-toe with those who tried to seize power from Parliament, he stared them down, endured physical attack and defeated them. If MPs want the president to be held accountable through Parliament, they need an independent Speaker, not one devoted to the President and his family.
If there really are 113 MPs today who do not have faith in the Government or President, then there must certainly be at least that many who have no confidence in Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena as their Speaker. Unless he is removed first, there is no point trying to do anything through Parliament.
Parliament must also ensure that the Rajapaksas don’t unleash the state apparatus on the people who oppose them. To start with, once they have sent the President’s Speaker home, Parliament should also send his IGP and his attorney general home. They have presided over the unprecedented politicisation of their departments and serving the whims of a ruling family instead of the Constitution they are sworn to protect. There is a law that governs Parliament’s power to remove them. They can put it to use.
A simple majority in Parliament can also put in checks and balances on the use of the Armed Forces, intelligence services and police against the public who are exercising their rights. They can amend the public security ordinance to curtain the abuse of emergency powers. They can add checks and balances to the conduct of elections.
These are things that usually take months to accomplish, but if the Opposition is serious, then it is their job to match the devotion, dedication and courage of ordinary citizens, some even carrying their children, who have taken to the streets, and do what is necessary to curtail the President’s powers and pave the way for some security and stability. This is not the time for them to be bickering on who will replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Mahinda Rajapaksa. That is for the people of Sri Lanka to decide. It is up to the opposition to make sure that the people are given a fair chance to make that decision by laying the ground for a free and fair election.
Q: These are ideas that would take months if not years. Is it practical to expect so much from an opposition that has achieved so little up to now?
It is up to the people to decide at the next general election whether any party, be it in the Government or Opposition, has done enough. At a bare minimum, the opposition parties should demonstrate the same unity we are seeing from people on the street of all ethnicities, religions, genders, ages and political persuasions, and unite on some common set of values and objectives that they can accomplish in this Parliament to make a meaningful difference.
We don’t want to hear what the SJB is doing, what the UNP is doing, or what the TNA or JVP are doing. We want to see that they are all sitting down together and proving to the people that they can rise to the moment and work together. They must go beyond our expectations and rise to the level of the ordinary Sri Lankans on Galle Face Green who have inspired us all.
The key political leaders in the opposition, from Sajith Premadasa, to Champika Ranawaka, Anura Dissanayake, R. Sampanthan, President Chandrika Kumaratunge, President Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe, Rauf Hakeem, Rajitha Senaratne, M.A. Sumanthiran, Eran Wickremaratne and Harsha de Silva, but all come together and agree on a common plan for their parties and organisations to unite, salvage our democracy, rid us of the executive presidency and take the country forward.
It is up to them all to recognise the urgency of the moment, put their personal politics and differences aside and to come together and do what the people expect of them. If any of them puts their personal needs ahead of the country’s now, the people will never forgive them, nor should they. Sadly, the person who could have effortlessly made this sort of alliance work would have been Mangala Samaraweera, who is no longer with us. It is incumbent upon these leaders to come up with a plan to abolish the presidency, a plan that meets the aspirations of the revolutionaries who have brought the Rajapaksas to their knees.
Q: But if the current President is forced to resign, won’t the next debate among the Opposition be who is going to succeed him as President?
The Opposition has to be sincere in their desire to get rid of the executive presidency. In that event, I don’t see why they would fight over the post to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The right thing to do would be to appoint an apolitical person as President, who is not from any of their political parties, perhaps by bringing them through a national list. This should be a credible person who has no long-term political ambition of clinging to that office.
This becomes a lot easier once there is a crystal-clear bill on the table that would abolish the presidency and restore the parliamentary powers, checks and balances that existed in the 19th amendment. It must be a firm bill, with no half-measures, that wipes out the executive presidency once and for all. If such a bill can be put to the people by a referendum held concurrently with a parliamentary election, then it is up to the people. It is entirely up to the opposition to put forward such a proposal. This is why it is not just the government but also the opposition that has perilously little time to prove their credibility and independence to the people before it is too late.
Q: When is it ‘too late’, and what do you think will happen when it is too late?
It is ‘too late’ when the people run out of patience with the opposition to present and deliver on a solution. I think today, most people are willing to accept that the Rajapaksas were uniquely corrupt and incompetent. They would settle for getting them out and replacing them with a new set of leaders who have a credible and well-articulated plan for writing out a new positive chapter for Sri Lanka. The revolution – and make no mistake what we are seeing is very much a revolution – is going to give the opposition a chance. If the opposition fails, they will have to suffer serious consequences.
I strongly believe the stakes today are high for all politicians, but not for the rest of the country. The people have delivered two ultimatums: one, to the Rajapaksas, to go home, period. The second ultimatum is to the opposition, to prove that they are a viable alternative, otherwise they too will be sent home. Even if people lose faith in the current opposition party setup, these are not violent protestors or thugs; they are patriots devoted to democracy. Among them will come a new crop of intelligent, educated and capable leaders who will rise to the top, win the confidence of the people and see us out of this mess.
You can mark my words. This a proud moment and a turning point for Sri Lanka. A few years from now, Sri Lanka will once again be a proud, vibrant and multicultural democracy with a roaring economy. The era in which our politics was defined by Rajapaksas will be confined to our history books. As dark as this hour seems, for the people, it is the brink of a new dawn. Now that this generation has demonstrated the limit of their tolerance and shown us their willingness to take regime failure into their own hands and demand accountability, they have set an example that can be envied around the world.
I cannot think of any country in which the most powerful, brutal and once popular regime was so quickly and peacefully paralysed by people devoted to democracy. It is a revolution unlike any other and when it is over, the world will look to Sri Lanka as a textbook example of the power of civic activism. On their own, with no political leadership, our people are showing the world that they were not beholden to the government or the opposition, and that they are way ahead of them.
By the time this battle is over, I am confident that we can expect to see not just a new government, but a new system of governance, more advanced, democratic and efficient than most countries in Asia. The post-revolution government won’t have to beg for dollars or plead with the diaspora to return or foreign investors to take a chance on Sri Lanka. No. They will eagerly flock back to the country on their own accord. The opportunity will be self-evident and the latent talent of our people, free from the shackles of Rajapaksa era divisions, deception and myopia, will put a spotlight on Sri Lanka like never before since independence.
All that remains to be seen is whether the rest of our political class, who are not hand in glove with the Rajapaksas, can prove to the people that they too have earned their seat at the table. If they fail to rise to the moment and the people lose patience, then it won’t just be the Rajapaksas who are sent home, but all the MPs and political parties who failed to deliver when their country needed them the most.