Sri Lanka: Right Turn, Wrong Move

The tea-pluckers with their wet-weather gear at Blue Field tea estate in Ramboda, Sri Lanka. Amid a looming food security crisis linked to Sri Lanka’s cost-of-living crunch, the country’s most vulnerable breadwinners wonder how much longer they can cope, as the Government battles the nation’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. November 2022. Credit: UN News/Daniel Johnson
  • Opinion by Neville de Silva (london)
  • Inter Press Service

This country which was granted universal franchise nearly two decades before independence was seen as one of Asia’s first democracies-if not the first.

Sadly, that reputation has fast faded.

Today, that right to vote is being denied with even elections to local bodies been halted for dubious reasons including the lack of state funds. The Supreme Court issued an interim order asking that funds be made available for the election. ruling.

That order was simply ignored. Instead, the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) MPs threatened to summon the judges to parliament for allegedly violating their privileges

The most recent is a desperate move by one government MP to move a private member’s motion to have parliament vote to let the expired bodies continue in the absence of elections.

Fortunately, the Attorney-General informed the Speaker that such a move was unconstitutional and so would require a two-third majority vote and perhaps a referendum. That shut the door on this piece of frippery.

The government’s concern is understandable. It is led by a stand-in president of one party propped up in parliament by a majority from a one- time political enemy the SLPP, now living a symbiotic political existence.

Neither of them wants an election even at the lowest levels of governance for fear of what the results might signify. Negative results would sound alarm bells ahead of the presidential elections next year and parliamentary elections the year after, though the president could call parliamentary elections earlier.

Those who would look back at Sri Lankan political history since 1977 might well wonder whether current president Ranil Wickremesinghe, filling in until November next year for predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa who resigned after fleeing public wrath, has taken a page out of his uncle Junius Richard Jayewardene’s book of political Machiavellianism.

But if “Yankee Dicky”, as Jayewardene was called from his early days for his pro-American foreign policy views and his capitalist economic outlook, took a turn to the right when he came to power in 1977, his nephew has taken a sharper turn in that direction, his neoliberal views meshing with the IMF rescue programme intended to pull the country out of the economic mess that Gotabaya Rajapaksa created during his short presidency.

Yet Wickremesinghe’s path to economic resuscitation is strewn with political and working- class casualties against whom some of the most abrasive laws in the country’s statute books have been employed, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

International conventions such as the ICCPR have been stood on its head to detain dissidents and clamped down on public protests and other rights guaranteed under the constitution that his uncle imposed on the country.

If the IMF agreement calls for the government to sell the family silver, as Wickremesinghe’s offer of even profit- making state- owned enterprises and other state assets to foreign and local investors suggest, this is bound to adversely affect employment adding to the amounting joblessness in recent years following the Covid pandemic and President Rajapaksa’s misguided economic policies.

Besides this, a new Labour law that would repeal some 28 existing laws granting workers’ rights won over the years through hard struggles by leftist trade unions and political parties, would be replaced by stringent new laws heavily weighted in favour of employers.

The proposed labour laws now been waved about by an over-enthusiastic Labour Minister hoping to please the president and the business community will, if not challenged before the Supreme Court, will jettison many long existing workers’ rights to create a comfortable environment for prospective foreign investors and the government’s business cronies.

A new anti-terrorism law, more abhorrent than the PTA, has drawn heavy flak both at home and internationally. An anti-corruption law has just been passed, more to satisfy the IMF than to catch the crooks, particularly politicians who fattened themselves over the years. Though Sri Lanka already has stringent laws not even a fistful of politicians have been prosecuted and convicted for bribery and corruption.

Meanwhile the country is facing a huge brain drain. Since 2022 some 700 or so doctors, specialists and medical staff have left for employment abroad. So have other professionals including engineers, IT specialists, airline pilots and technicians.

Education Minister Susil Premajayantha admitted in parliament the other day that 255 university academics and some 150-odd non- academic staff have vacated posts since last year.

Furthermore, UN reports have pinpointed the rise of poverty in the country with families and school children skipping meals because people cannot afford the high prices for domestic essentials like electricity.

The Agriculture Minister was warning the other day about the possibility of poor harvests in the coming season which, if sadly it does happen, could lead to food shortages

The seeming political stability with no queues and no demonstrators, should not be misconceived. While Wickremesinghe’s governing alliance in which fissures have been more conspicuous recently, prepares the ground to welcome foreign and local capitalist entrepreneurs, the same ground is being cut under the feet of the vast majority who survived all these years on their meagre earnings and now are struggling to survive.

In 1972, the then coalition government led by the world’s first woman prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike which came to power two years earlier, made the final constitutional break with Britain, dropping the British monarch as its head of state and declaring the country as the “Republic of Sri Lanka”. It maintained the Westminster-style parliamentary system it was accustomed to.

That government was roundly defeated at the 1977 general election. The right-wing United National Party (UNP) under its new leader Jayewardene, popularly called “JR”, won an unprecedented five-sixth majority in parliament driving Mrs Bandaranaike’s SLFP to a single digit presence.

Jayewardene decided the country needed a new constitution. But it was drafted without any public consultation whereas the 1972 constitution was drafted by parliament meeting separately as a constituent assembly.

Jayewardene named himself president and was sworn-in on 4th February 1978 under a new executive presidential system. The name of the country was changed into an ostentatious “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”.

Armed with enormous powers and a party with a five-sixth majority in parliament Jayewardene said the only thing he could not do was to change a man into a woman and vice versa.

The new name for Sri Lanka was a tragic misnomer. It did not take long for Jayewardene to show that he was neither democratic nor socialist. He set up a presidential commission which hauled up former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, her closest minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike and others before it for alleged corruption and abuse of power. They were stripped of their civic rights, eliminated from political activity for seven years.

The president was more concerned about preserving his huge majority in parliament fearing that a general election would see a resurrected opposition returning in larger numbers.

In a move unheard of in democratic governance, President Jayewardene obtained signed letters of resignation from parliament from all his 140 MPs. The one thing missing was the date which the president would fill in if required. That was Jayewardene’s Damocles-ean Sword suspended over his own MPs.

The biggest blot on Jayewardene’s escutcheon is the bloody events of July 1983 when minority Tamils in Colombo and around the country were physically attacked and some 3000, according to reports were killed, their houses burnt and the businesses destroyed and looted. Thousands were made refugees in their own country or abroad.

The immediate cause for this horrendous and tragic happening 40 years ago was said to be the killing of 13 soldiers by Tamil insurgents in the north.

But when the attacks on Tamils and their homes really unfolded on July 25, as I witnessed that day and later, there were clear signs of government involvement. The fact that neither the president nor any minister appeared on TV calling a halt to this ethnic convulsion spoke volumes.

When the government did finally speak about four days later, it claimed the attacks were the “spontaneous outburst of Sinhala wrath” at the killing of the soldiers.

But with international community critical at the government’s inaction to stop the carnage, Jayewardene swiftly changed tack. The government claimed there was a “Naxalite” conspiracy to assassinate government figures and overthrow the government. A foreign hand-unnamed- was involved, it said.

Jayewardene evoked the Public Security Act to round up opposition politicians he feared were growing in popularity and throw them in jail and sealed the Communist Party newspaper. I remember my friend John Elliot of the “Financial Times” calling it “a crude cover up” while other foreign journalists simply dismissed the story.

What does matter now is that right through these events of the Jayewardene years, Sri Lanka’s current President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Jayewardene’s nephew, was a faithful member of his uncle’s cabinet and possibly privy to what went on inside.

In fact, if I remember correctly, he made a speech in parliament on the so-called “Naxalite” plot.

There is one essential difference. JR served two terms as president. His nephew lost two presidential elections and yearns to be at elected president at least once.

Next March he will be 75. Would he then be at the door step of the Last Chance Saloon? If so how far would he go to make sure he becomes and elected president like his uncle before retires from politics.

The United National Party (UNP) that his uncle represented and he does now, was called the Uncle Nephew Party from its early days. We shall see before long, won’t we.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media.

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