A Wasted Second Year; An Uncertain Future

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There are times – they mark the danger point for a political system – when politicians can no longer communicate, when they stop understanding the people they are supposed to be representing.” -Ian Kershew (Hitler)

The adage is common to many cultures, the condition it refers to a universal one. Madness is often the prelude to end times, private and public, individual, institutional and systemic. But before madness comes blindness and deafness, wilful and self-imposed; suicidal absence of sanity is foreshadowed by a perplexing refusal to see, hear or acknowledge the obvious.

It’s a rare government which lives up to its initial promise. This is particularly so when an electoral change of leadership is – or is perceived as – politically transformative. On January 8, 2015, Lankans voted not only to elect a new president but also to create a different way of governing. The mandate Maithripala Sirisena received two years ago was not a personal one; he was the symbol of the political culture he promised to build, one which was more accountable to the people, less self-indulgent, more democratic.

Two years later, that promise remains largely unfulfilled.

In the first year of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, positives outweighed negatives. In the second year, the obverse happened. In 2015, it was still possible to hope. In 2016, hope began to morph into delusion. The passing of the long-awaited Right to Information Bill and the replacement of Arjuna Mahendran with Indrajith Coomaraswamy as the Governor of the Central Bank were the two sole major-positives in a year lacerated by avoidable errors and unnecessary misdeeds.

President Barak Obama, in a recent interview, opposed the idea of a presidential third term arguing that “…at some point you lose touch… By being in this room at some point you get worn down. At some point you get into bad habits.”i The interrelated maladies of losing touch and falling into bad habits seemed to have infected the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration in its second year. When a president – whose brother is a premier rice-miller in the country – maintains a baffling silence about skyrocketing rice prices, when a prime minister tries to create a ministerial-post which is untouchable by the law, when a parliament is more concerned about female attire than about the warnings of a severe drought, the omens are not propitious.

That the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration inherited a misgoverned land deeply in debt is unarguable. What is incomprehensible is the administration’s growing proclivity to exacerbate inherited problems and create new ones.

Ghosts of the Past

Independent Lanka’s only real and successful campaign of nationwide mass-disobedience happened over the issue of rice, the Hartal of 1953 which brought the government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. The United Front government’s arbitrary rules regarding the consumption and transportation of rice played a key role in its epic downfall of 1977. The importance of rice (price and availability) in the scheme of political things can be ignored only by a government which is obtuse to the point of self-harm.

So why is the government – president and prime minister downwards – emulating the proverbial Chinese Monkey in this matter?

The government’s collective silence on a crucial politico-electoral issue is just one degree less inexplicable than the genesis of the issue itself. There is no shortage of rice; adequate stocks exist, as all parties admit. Yet prices are high and getting higher in not just the open market but also the government-owned CWEs. The subject minister and the president’s rice-miller brother are trading accusations. Wholesalers pledge to provide rice at reduced prices if the government releases stocks. The government seems to be living in some alternate reality.

This official indifference – shared by both the green and the blue components of the administration – is symbolic of a larger malaise, a stupefying disregard for public opinion. Just two years on, the government is ensconced in an echo-chamber, which shuts out all dissonant notes. In 2016, it not only failed to tread the path it promised to but also embarked on a path it pledged never to take. As a result, it lost the momentum and the moral-high ground, antagonised allies without winning over enemies and narrowed to an alarming degree the critical difference between itself and Rajapaksa rule.

Those activists and voters who enabled Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe to win two elections, the first one under incredibly difficult odds, did so for many reasons, from restoration of democracy and alleviation of economic burdens to ending official racism and impeding corruption and nepotism. But none of those who worked and voted for a Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration did so because they wanted a return to Rajapaksa thinking and Rajapaksa ways.

2016 was darkened by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s willingness to emulate some of the worse Rajapaksa errors. The best case in point is a plan formulated by the UNP-half of the government – and specifically by the unelected minister Malik Samarawickrama – to handover the Hambantota port and 15,000-acre-exclusive-industrial-zone to China on a long lease. If that imprudent plan succeeds, Sri Lanka will be saddled with its own version of Guantanamo. And we the people will find ourselves in the politico-economic-military crosshairs of other countries’ battles.

As the fate of the Hambantota deal hangs in balance, it is instructive to remember that American marines first entered Guantanamo to assist Cuba in its struggle for independence against Colonial Spain. Once Spanish imperialists were driven out, Americans, instead of leaving, passed the Platt Amendment, giving Guantanamo to itself. Cubans tried to resist and failed and the lease agreement was signed in 1903.

It was a logical move for Washington. The importance of sea power in turning America into the next global supremo had been argued forcefully by one of the prime architects of an imperial-expansionist policy, Captain AT Mahan, especially in his influential book, The Influence of Sea Power in History. Grabbing Guantanamo made sense to the US; placing its imprint in its immediate region was a necessary prelude to marking its presence globally.

China, the next rising power, too understands the vital importance of the sea to the realisation of the ‘Chinese Dream’. This is clearly stated in the first public military strategy white paper released by the Chinese Ministry of National Defence on May, 2015, “The traditional mentality that land outweighs seas must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests. It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military structure commensurate with its national security and development interests…so as to provide strategic support for building itself into maritime power.”ii Hambantota’s place in this grand plan, given its strategically proximate location to India, is not hard to surmise

Cuba in 1903 couldn’t withstand America. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has no such excuse. And this re-embracing of China couldn’t have happened at a worse global time. The Zeitgeist is one of political illiberalism, religious fundamentalism and ethnic-nationalism, but it doesn’t mean that all political leaders who embrace these atavistic positions will embrace each other in fraternal alliances. The incoming US president is already engaged in a twitter-conflict with China. Once Mr. Trump is sworn in, relations between the waning and rising global powers are likely to deteriorate still further. China’s recent vetoing of an Indian proposal to have the UN declare Masood Azhar, the mastermind of the 2016 attack on Pathankot airbase, a terrorist indicates that even on the issue of combating terrorism, the two regional powers can develop contradictions.

Tethering Sri Lanka to China, to the detriment of the country’s relations with both the US and India, seemed an inanity peculiar to the Rajapaksas. The current administration’s sudden move not just to emulate but also surpass the Rajapaksas in this regard is one more sign of a radical loss of self-interest.

The Instable Stability

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa greeted 2017 by proclaiming his intention to oust the government within the year. The strategy would be an obvious one – exacerbate the natural differences between the UNP and the SLFP halves of the government until they turn into antagonistic contradictions, isolate President Maithripala Sirisena within the SLFP, edge Ranil Wickremesinghe out via a change in the parliamentary balance and form a new government under the premiership of Mahinda Rajapaksa. A nationwide campaign of fear-mongering about the imminent end of an independent, single Sri Lanka is already on, and would provide the soundtrack for the planned political changes.

Ever since he was defeated, Mr. Rajapaksa has been making claims about regaining power. His most recent proclamation need not have been taken seriously except for one simple fact – the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s growing tendency to shoot itself in every limb and digit.

The president and the prime minister on occasion indulge in the delusion that each can survive without the other. The truth of the matter is that neither can survive alone. If the president withdraws his support, the premier can be unseated; if the premier withdraws his support, the president can be impeached. President Sirisena will not be president for a long, if Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes the PM. Premier Wickremesinghe will find himself back in the opposition – possibly after a short stint as the acting president – if Maithripala Sirisena is impeached. The only way one can survive is if the other survives.

But neither will survive, if they fail to acknowledge and alleviate the growing public discontent. This is not limited to a rapid rise in living costs. Hints of other discontents abound, from an attack by affected villagers on a quarry in Padukka (supplying stones to the Colombo Port City) to the ongoing strike by lottery sellers. These localised or sectoral problems, if allowed to fester, can cause a generalised sense of disillusion and persuade a majority of the populace that the government is incapable of improving their living conditions. If such a feeling gains ground, the SLFP parliamentarians currently supporting Maithripala Sirisena are more likely to shift back to Mahinda Rajapaksa. It doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict that they will be joined by some UNP parliamentarians, especially those disaffected by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

A different vision of Sri Lanka was one of the key factors which animated the 2015 presidential contest. In 2016 the government displayed a distressing lack of interest in promoting the idea of a country which is open, tolerant and treats all her people as equal citizens. Though official racism has not made a comeback, various key members of the government flirt with racists, sending a worrying message to minorities, without whose backing President Sirisena would have lost in January 2015.

President Sirisena has failed to recreate the SLFP as a modern democratic party, immune to the siren song of the Rajapaksas. Premier Wickremesinghe seems to be succumbing to the hubris which brought the administration of JR Jayewardene to grief. If Mahinda Rajapaksa’s New Year wish comes true, it will happen not because of his virtues, but because of the weaknesses and failures of his two main opponents.

Two years after the presidential election of Jan 2015, the political battle lines remain unchanged. There is no alternative to Rajapaksa rule other than the current administration. There is no alternative to the current administration other than Rajapaksa rule. The one crucial change is that those forces which enabled the defeat of the Rajapaksas are fractured, disillusioned and demoralised. After a year of lost opportunities, the future looks unhopeful.

i http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/28/obama-reckons-with-a-trump-presidency

ii https://news.usni.org/2015/05/26/document-chinas-military-strategy