“The Leader of the Opposition must engage in good faith with the President and Prime Minister to try and prevent them from driving Sri Lanka into calamity”- Open Letter to Sajith Premadasa by Krishantha Prasad Cooray

( Text of Open Letter Sent to the Leader of the Opposition and Samagi Jana Balavegaya , Sajith Premadasa by Former Lake House Chairman and Ex- UNP Working Committee Member Krishantha Prasad Cooray on June 20th 2022)

Sajith Premadasa

Krishantha Prasad Cooray

Dear Sajith,

When Ranil Wickremasinghe became Prime Minister, I wrote to him and urged that he respond to the magnitude of the moment by directing his focus towards uniting the opposition and avoiding the mistakes of the past. Although I have deep reservations over how the Rajapaksas maneuvered him into the premiership, I sincerely hoped that he would succeed in uniting the country to face the greatest crisis we have encountered since independence.

Many people both known and unknown to me chastised me for “wasting my time”. I can only hope that this letter to you does not merit a similar reaction. Even if so, I have no choice. For my country’s sake, I have to try.

It is evident that that the Prime Minister understands the gravity of the situation, but so far, he has failed to do anything tangible to unify the country, secure any meaningful financial assistance or enact serious fiscal reforms that would get the international community to take us seriously.

By appointing committee after committee, the government appears to be trying to achieve different results through a spin on the same old style of governance.

Thanks to the tenacity of the Aragalaya movement, most of the Rajapaksas save for Gotabaya Rajapaksa have been driven out of power. But the vacuum of power they left behind is not being filled by well meaning, capable and sincere statesmen seeking to save the country.

Instead, like before, it is being filled by opportunistic politicians who want to be president, and some entrepreneurs who see our failing state as ripe for a hostile takeover, hoping to pick the bones of our economy on their way to the presidency to bolster their own extraordinary wealth on the backs of the poor.

In today’s climate, however, it is inconceivable that anyone who demonstrates such selfishness can ever be elected to lead the country.

Sadly, from career politicians to businesspeople, those who the President and Prime Minister have entrusted with our salvation are spending more time in television interviews than on trying to do any real good. And they are doing it as people die on the street of hunger, dehydration and desperation.

As our people fall dead, none of these messiahs have uttered a word to indicate that they could care a damn about the suffering of the poor. They are only talking about their personal political ambitions and not about how to address the grievances of the people.

I hope that this reality will move you, as a politician who has always spoken about caring most about the poor. At the end of the day, Sajith, actions speak louder than words.

Our people see one failed regime give way to another failing regime with virtually the same game plan. Anyone is right to wonder whether you are functioning as an effective opposition leader to present an alternative vision.

The general feeling in our country is that we have a president who no one wants because he has failed spectacularly. We have a prime minister who has no parliamentary support and has failed to build bridges with any meaningful coalition. And we have an opposition leader who seems unable to even unify the opposition. To the ordinary citizen, it feels like your strategy is to just wait until this government also fails in the hope that power will simply fall into your lap.

Given the way that our people see our President, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, it feels that the greatest political challenge in Sri Lanka is a human resources crisis, or a lack of leadership at the very top.

Make no mistake. The opposition had virtually nothing to do with ridding us of the bulk of the Rajapaksas. They were chased out not by the political opposition but by the youth of this country. Whether or not you agree with all their positions, they got on the streets passionately and fearlessly to take the Rajapaksas head on. They had no interest in any sort of accommodation or special privileges or deals from the Rajapaksas. They just wanted them out.

The message the people had for the Rajapaksa family, the message they have for the current prime minister, and the message they have for you is the same: in the words of General George Patton, “either lead, follow or get out of the way.”

On 12 April 2022, all the rules changed. You cannot continue to do politics now as it was done before that date, when Sri Lanka announced it was defaulting on its foreign debt, becoming the first Asia Pacific country to do so in the 21st century. Now the very existence of our country as a functioning democratic republic is at stake.

Every single second counts. You simply do not have the luxury of watching and waiting until another government fails and hope to pick up the pieces. If this government fails, it may well take the country down with it and start an unstoppable spiral of inflation.

Silence and armchair criticism are not options today for any political leader who truly aspires to serve and save our people.

The leader of the opposition must unite the opposition, articulate clear stances on critical issues, and present a clear vision for our future. You must also rise to the challenge of engaging in good faith with the President and Prime Minister to try and prevent them from driving us into calamity.

I understand the practical difficulty in working with two leaders who are cemented in their ways, driven by ego and who are surrounded by failed teams who they are unlikely to replace. But until you have a viable path to replacing them, there is simply no choice. If you are serious about arresting the deterioration of our country, you have to come forward with your team and stop at nothing to try and get us out of this mess.

Sajith Premadasa

You have at your disposal in the opposition some of the brightest economic and political minds in Parliament. For example, you have an experienced economist in Harsha de Silva who can take our case to the world and build confidence in Sri Lanka once more. You have a proven finance leader who has the respect of career officials in the treasury and central bank with Eran Wickremaratne. You have a highly qualified engineer with deep experience and expertise in the power sector in Champika Ranawaka. There is one of our country’s finest legal minds in M.A. Sumanthiran. You have Harini Amarasuriya, who has studied structural unemployment and the flaws of our national education system more soundly and in more depth than almost any other academic in the country.

If you take just these five individuals, let alone the abundance of talent on the opposition benches, there is more serious, credible talent and positive track record than the entire current cabinet put together.

With talent like this at your disposal, you must find a way to put this intellectual horsepower to use to help the country.

Perhaps you could secure their blessing and then have a frank conversation with the President and Prime Minister. Tell them in blunt terms that they have failed, and that they have a failing team, and offer them a better team to prevent our economy from imploding and our people from starving.

Some may advise you that this is political suicide. But even if it is, political suicide for politicians is far better than letting the country collapse to the extent that parents choose to commit suicide rather than watch their children starve to death. That is the reality of choosing to do nothing.

A quarter of our people have no food to eat. Children are being permanently stunted physically and intellectually by malnutrition. Desperate people are dying in petrol queues. Anyone who has the means to do so is fleeing the country.

Waiting until the government collapses to take over is not a solution. There may well be nothing left to take over. You need to be sincere, fearless, and committed. Unless you find the strength to stand tall and make sacrifices, you cannot hope to succeed.

Put the poor before yourself, because heaven knows, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not, and by the looks of it, neither will Ranil Wickremasinghe.

If you or someone else as Opposition Leader is not willing to do that, it is not just you or the opposition who will fail. Sri Lanka will fail, and our entire system of government will fail with it.

Yes, there are opportunistic MPs who undermined you and joined the Rajapaksa-Wickremasinghe government for ministries, perks and business deals. They may want to have a good time and globetrot on the public dime while people are dying on the streets.

But there are others in the SJB who genuinely and sincerely want to help our country to stave off disaster.

If you, through inaction and indecisiveness, leave them with no choice but to leave you, the SJB too may very quickly erode into an empty shell.

If you want to inspire these few serious and committed politicians and give them faith in your leadership, you can start by standing up for the opposition members who fearlessly take on the government.

One of the main reasons that Sri Lanka was reduced to pariah status among the civilized world was our tolerance for the Rajapaksas using threats, intimidation and persecution to silence political opponents.

I trust that you were present in Parliament when the Prime Minister resorted to these same disgusting tactics of majoritarian dog whistling to try and intimidate and silence TNA MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, who has been one of his most outspoken and vociferous critics.

A leader who so readily resorts to such petty cheap shots cannot rise to the challenge of unifying a nation in a time of crisis. They can only succeed in disintegrating not integrating.

I remain shocked that neither you nor your opposition leadership stood up to defend Rasamanickam or spoke against Wickremasinghe’s usurping a solemn vote of condolence for the late Amarakeerthi Athukorala to settle a personal score. You should have stood by Rasamanickam and deterred the government from the kind of thuggish tactics that helped get us into this mess in the first place.

Strategically, you must foster courage and strength among the opposition MPs and bolster their numbers in any way you can. It is also high time that the SJB makes its stance clear publicly on the several MPs elected on your ticket who voted for the 20th Amendment.

It has been nearly two years since they raised their hands to support legislation that brought the country to its knees. Will you sack these MPs or those who have now sworn allegiance to Gotabaya Rajapaksa?

Imagine, for a moment, that instead of appointing Diana Gamage from the national list, that you had instead shown the wisdom to appoint the eminent lawyer Suren Fernando to Parliament. Would he have ever betrayed you, your party, or the country, by voting for the 20th amendment and making the Rajapaksas into a royal family?

You will forever have to live with the fact that the government was only able to pass the 20th Amendment with 156 votes because they secured the support of eight of your SJB MPs, none of whom have yet been sacked for this betrayal.

Perhaps this lack of consequence for betrayal is what enabled another of your national list MPs to also pledge his fealty to the Rajapaksa-Wickremasinghe government. Imagine, if instead of such MPs occupying national list slots, you had appointed professionals with integrity and a sense of duty. We have no shortage of them. In just the last month alone, two Sri Lankan professionals distinguished themselves by rising to the height of eminence in their fields.

Hans Wijesuriya, the founder CEO of Dialog, was appointed acting head of Axiata, one of Asia’s largest telecom conglomerates. Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda, our most eminent scientist, who began his career in the civil service, was also awarded the Linnean Medal for his lifetime contribution to scientific research.

It is professionals like them you should appoint from your national list. Can you imagine either of these people jumping ship at the first sign of a ministerial portfolio and public perks?

At least now, it is your duty to rid your party and Parliament of those SJB members who have betrayed the party and the country by pledging themselves to the Rajapaksas. In their stead, surely you can appoint people who will contribute to the solution and not cause more problems.

Sajith, you have perilously little time to learn from these devastating mistakes of the past. It is imperative that you take stands on these fundamental issues and demonstrate to the people that you are serious about making a difference.

What is your vision for bringing investment and aid to Sri Lanka? You need to explain what you or a future government led by you would do differently to change the culture of corruption and cronyism that keeps most serious and honest investors away and attracts those looking to pay commissions and make a fast buck.

What is your stance on the need for accountability for the architects of this fiscal calamity – P.B. Jayasundera, Basil Rajapaksa and Ajith Nivard Cabraal?

Will you assure the people that they will not be able to cut a deal and escape responsibility on your watch?

Will you pursue justice for those who colluded with the Rajapaksas and fleeced our foreign reserves through sweet scams and political grifting? No one knows what the SJB stand is on any of these matters. And no one will know unless you come out and take a stand.

Until you demonstrate that you are not cut from the same cloth as every other cookie cutter politician who only cares about getting their speeches on TV, putting their face on posters and billboards, and being worshipped by villagers at pocket meetings, no one will see you as a viable alternative.

If you sincerely choose to rise to the moment, unite and galvanize a serious opposition, you will find that Sri Lanka is facing a Singapore-like inflection point.
Whether the next few years sees us going back to the stone age or evolving to the next age is largely a question of whether we have a leader in our country who is capable of seeing what others have not, a leader who can energize and inspire our country to victory through honesty, hard work and teamwork.

If this is the kind of leader you feel you are destined to be, the moment to stand up and say so is now. If this all feels too overwhelming, daunting or complicated, then I would urge you to give serious consideration to bowing down and facilitating your party to appoint a successor who is willing to fight hard, to the bitter end, to guide our people to salvation.

Yours Sincerely,