(The writer is the former editor of The Sunday Island,
The Island and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader)
Both pundits and the hoi polloi now agree that when Sri Lanka was at the critical juncture in deciding whether to take the straight and narrow hard way or muddle through and be engulfed in chaos, a correct decision was made to go to the IMF.
However, it was not wisdom that resulted in going to this UN institute with 189-member countries but the stark reality of bankruptcy threatening the nation.
Military men do not like to obey the dictates of others. And Lt Col (Retd) former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in no mood to listen to the dictates of others– not even of the IMF. The IMF, it was well known, imposes ‘conditionalities’ on its borrowers, like most money lenders, and Rajapaksa at the height of his power was in no mood to obey.
He had won the Presidential election polling 6.92 million votes (52.25 percent) and following that victory the Pohottuwa (Rajapaksa Party) swept the parliamentary polls winning a two-thirds majority. He then proceeded to enact the 20th Amendment which gave him powers that no other executive president has ever had.
Rajapaksa carried on ruling the country in military style — like a sergeant commanding his battalion — not even heeding the opinion of Parliament. But he and his brother Mahinda earlier– failed to govern the country even in the manner a housewife would manage her household expenses: Balancing expenditure with income. In two years, Rajapaksa attempted to implement his blueprint, the Vistas of Splendour and Development, but soon ran out of funds.
The people of all ranks rallied against him and on July 9 came the final Big Bang that made him flee the country.
His last presidential move in appointing Ranil Wickremesinghe as the acting president would perhaps be considered his most sagacious of political moves or the most stupid, considering the fact that although parliamentarians of the Rajapaksa party voted overwhelmingly to elect Wickremesinghe the president, the people that threw out Rajapaksa are demanding that he, too, be deposed in a similar manner.
Wickremesinghe is, no doubt, an outstanding politician in the eyes of the Western world. Eight times prime minister and been a finance minister as well, he is competent to deal with the IMF and leaders of Western nations. He has been a rightist neoliberal who had gone along with the West on vital issues such as working out a negotiated settlement with the LTTE, instead of going for an outright military victory which Gotabaya and his brother Mahinda did succeed in achieving.
But will he be able to hold the millions of people who threw out Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa government in control?
The statement of the IMF Managing Director Kristina Georgieva on Wednesday in Tokyo would indeed be welcome news to Sri Lankans who have been getting gloomy predictions on the impact of IMF conditionalities since Lanka requested assistance. She had said that the Fund was very deeply concerned about the well-being of Sri Lanka. At the moment there was a government that the IMF could continue discussions with and the IMF team was already in Sri Lanka. She was hopeful that based on the technical work that had already been done, the IMF could complete programme negotiations as quickly as possible.
Georgieva has also made a statement that could be subject to much speculation here. She had said: The IMF would work with any Sri Lankan administration as long as the next leader enjoys the support and has the longevity to lead the country.
Since her statement had been made before the election of Wickremesinghe, it is likely that her reference was to him.
Is she banking on the political longevity of Wickremesinghe?
If so, would the future of Lanka be dependent on the travel guide taking us out of the woods and the people should follow him blindly?
Quite obviously Western leaders are happy with the election of Wickremesinghe as president. Representatives of the US and the UK have been prompt in congratulating Wickremesinghe while the UN Resident Coordinator has said that the UN acknowledged the constitutional transfer of power to a new president.
Certainly, political stability and a government to negotiate with are required if the IMF is to successfully negotiate with Sri Lanka and its debtors to settle the massive debt amounting to billions of dollars. That is perhaps why even those bitterly opposed to the government are likely to tolerate the coalition government headed by Wickremesinghe. But as pointed out by JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the opinion expressed by the vast majority of the country that threw out the Rajapaksas are contrary to the opinion of the Pohottuwa MPs that elected Wickremesinghe as president to help the Rajapaksas.
Meanwhile, on Friday morning, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s police forces cracked down on the Galle Face Aragalaya protestors destroying their camps and driving them out of the premises they heroically under great privation occupied for 103 days. They were able to catalyse public opinion strong enough to throw out the most powerful executive president this country has ever had together with his government comprising his brothers, nephews and others near and dear.
The right to peaceful protests was one main factor that enabled the Rajapaksa dynasty to be driven out. Western governments consistently warned the Rajapaksa government against the violation of that human right and the Rajapaksas heeded that probably because they had one foot in this country and the other far away in the United States.
By Friday afternoon, at least three Western embassies had condemned the violation of the freedom of the right to protest. We await to see whether this freedom which was observed under the Rajapaksas will be protected by the guardians of Western democracy under Wickremesinghe too who has both feet firmly planted near his old school.
Meanwhile, Gall Face Green activists who brought about a political revolution through non-violent means should now organise themselves into a political force if not a political party to defend the fundamental rights they so valiantly and successfully fought for. It will be a loss to the Sri Lankan nation if such a potent force dissipates itself under the threat of police batons and jackboots.