Neville De Silva
President Wickremesinghe’s first official visit as head of state was on a sad occasion here in the United Kingdom. The country was mourning the death of a much beloved Queen who had been the longest reigning monarch in England and had endeared herself to her subjects so much that many people queued for more than 15 hours in sunshine and rain to pay their final tributes.
The only Sri Lankan leader who drew such large crowds at his death was former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. While his body was lying in state at the old parliament building by the sea, which more recently was the scene of the weeks-long “Aragalaya”, the queues of people stretched for several kilometres all the way from parliament along the Galle Face centre road to well past Galle Face Hotel towards Kollupitiya. Those queues of mourners, determined to pay their last respects to a much-respected leader, went on for days while I spent many late nights in the parliament building covering the event.
For Ranil Wickremesinghe, it was not all paying respects to a Queen who was until 1972 Ceylon’s head of state and first visited the country in 1954 when Sir John Kotelawala was prime minister. Her next visit was in 1981 for the 50th anniversary of the granting of universal franchise, perhaps the second in Asia after Japan.
It was that significant step that cleared the path for parliamentary democracy in Ceylon though in recent times it brought into that hallowed assembly so-called peoples’ representatives some of whom should never have been there except to taint the place with corrupt practices and vulgar brouhaha.
Though there have been some who have questioned whether President Wickremesinghe should have visited London at these troubled times in his home country, his presence had more significance than paying tribute to the passing of a highly respected monarch.
It was also a way of thanking the country that implanted the right to vote for men and women at the same time while advanced nations such as Switzerland gave women the right to vote and to contest in federal elections only in 1971, that too after a national referendum.
But as the President pointed out while addressing a wide cross-section of invitees of all communities and a multiplicity of professions and speaking with them later, the parliamentary system itself now needs a change to suit today’s needs and to reflect the calls for change from the younger generation that feels alienated from governance and certainly from what many consider a corrupted political system.
The President’s ideas on the system changes he envisages to make governance more relevant seems to have percolated with many in the audience I spoke to later.
Ranil Wickremesinghe said he intends to open two non-profit making universities like some of those, such as Oxford, that exist here — one in Jaffna and one somewhere in the outskirts of Colombo. That would throw open the doors to larger intakes of students, some of whom are unable to gain admission to existing universities.
More importantly, it was his thoughts on economic reforms and plans to resuscitate a fallen economy and what opportunities would be available to those who wish to invest in a new look Sri Lanka which he had in mind.
But he did not downplay the difficulties that lie ahead. As he told the gathering it is well known that “we are broke.”
Even if the country negotiates the IMF landmines and succeeds in gaining an Extended Fund Facility, the government must still prepare for the long haul.
Speaking to several of those present, the impression I got was the general belief that President Wickremesinghe was candid and he had clear ideas on how to rescue the country from the present mess though some plans would take time.
But the main fear was that Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite his readiness to chart a new course, is a prisoner of the Rajapaksas who control parliament and who will not let go of their hold on power.
They seem to trust the president to do what he says but they do not trust particularly Basil Rajapaksa who is pulling the party strings. So the view from here is that if the country needs the help from the diaspora which President Wickremesinghe is trying hard to attract, then he should be given the political strength to challenge the Rajapaksa cabal in whom they lack trust and have no faith after what Sri Lanka has turned into under their rule.
With the UNHRC breathing down the neck of the government even more than before, I asked Mr Wickremesinghe about establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as previous governments had promised the UNHRC and which the UN body has and is calling for.
He told me that Sir Desmond de Silva QC had done a report on it and he as prime minister had prepared a draft Bill which was presented to the cabinet in September 2018 and so the groundwork has already been done.
But it could not go further as I remember, because then President Maithripala Sirisena launched a failed constitutional coup by removing Ranil Wickremesinghe from the prime minister’s post and installing Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Maxwell Paranagama Commission, which had the services of the late Sir Desmond in an advisory capacity, said that it is “of the view that in order to achieve peace and reconciliation the issue of accountability on all sides of the conflict must be addressed”.
It said that “it is for the political authorities to determine whether a South Africa-style Peace and Reconciliation Commission without prosecution is the most appropriate mechanism or if the Sierra Leonean model of combining the prosecution of those ‘who bear the greatest responsibility’ with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will better meet Sri Lanka’s post-conflict needs”.
With the IMF on the one hand and the UNHRC on the other pressing Sri Lanka to fight corruption which is seen as one of the principal causes of the country’s economic gridlock and the terrible failure in governance, the government will need to show definite and tangible signs of doing so of catching the crooks and punishing them.
All this time impunity and lack of any mechanisms for dealing with accountability allowed politicians and their business cronies to get away with bribery and corruption. Now with economic crimes added on to the list of critical issues that Sri Lanka must deal with, the government cannot continue to slip out with promises any longer.
The problem, however, is as Sri Lankan diaspora members said the other day, with the best of intentions, President Wickremesinghe is stuck with a parliamentary majority which does not want anything of the sort that will expose the malfeasance of their political leaders, their cabalistic cronies and some of them too. That majority does not have the courage to support such a commission and fears they too will be enmeshed in its investigations of corruption and fraud.
From the conduct of the SLPP general secretary and MP one could well see that he is not the ventriloquist as he would like to see himself as but as the ventriloquist’s dummy who hears a voice from across the Atlantic.
So will we see a fully-fledged Truth and Reconciliation Commission or just a pale shadow of what it should really be as some here believe would happen despite what President Wickremesinghe would actually want? So they are more likely to watch and hope for an end to the Rajapaksa rule than step in right now to help their country of origin.