A MARRIAGE OF INCONVENIENCE

Time is running out for the coalition that ousted the Rajapaksa family from power, reports Neville de Silva

Two years ago, parliamentary elections sealed the end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s dominance of Sri Lankan politics. He had unexpectedly been defeated in the January 2015 presidential election by his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, and the parliamentary vote eight months later created a coalition between the new president and Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister.

But now, with nearly half its parliamentary term completed, the government is running out of time. An historic opportunity for national reconciliation, after nearly 30 years of war that ended with the defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is being squandered. Instead, the thirst for power, privilege and self-aggrandisement ofthe country’s ever-squabbling politicians has greatly multiplied since peace returned in May 2009.

The present government promised the international community that it would generate reconciliation, but little progress has been made, and there are renewed rumblings from the minority Tamil-dominated north. In October 2015 Sri Lanka co-sponsored a Western-backed United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that called for ‘transitional justice’ in the wake of the conflict. But on every occasion that there has been discussion in Geneva about assessing progress, the government has pleaded for more time.

A constitution now in the making has significance for the Tamils demanding greater devolution, including a federal structure, according to the authorities. This is a hugely contentious issue that would surely require a referendum, but the government is in no mood to risk going back to the people, given growing disenchantment, particularly among those who worked assiduously to bring the current leaders to office.

There are renewed rumblings from the minority Tamil-dominated north

Local government elections are long overdue. Sporadic violence in Jaffna, the northern capital and cultural heartland of the Tamils, appear no more than a distraction right now, but could be a source of possible trouble in later years. Those concerns are overshadowed, however, by infighting in the national unity government, both between the two main parties and within those parties.

While the government, preoccupied by its internal problems,puts northern issues on the back burner, Tamil demands for greater devolution are being exploited by supporters of ex-president Rajapaksa to whip up Sinhala-Buddhist sentiments. The dangers of religious and ethnic tensions being added to the present political wrangling are clear. But the governing alliance was always a marriage of convenience, rather than an ideological pact based oncommon policies.

The United Party (UNP), led by Wickremesinghe, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), now led by Sirisena, are in reality polar opposites,which have been at loggerheads most of the time since independence in 1948.Fortuitous circumstances brought them together. Determined to oust President Rajapaksa’s authoritarian regime, rid the country of bribery, corruption and nepotism and reinstate the rule of law, political forces of the right and left came together with civil society groups to support a common candidate for the presidency.

That was Sirisena, who defected at the eleventh hour from the Rajapaksa government to surface as the opposition’s choice.Such was the public mood at the time that support for this ‘rainbow coalition’,which promised good governance, and justice for those responsible for stealing state assets and squandering public resources, grew exponentially.

The opposition forcesgathered behind a highly respected Buddhist monk, Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, who a couple of years earlier had launched the ‘Movement for a Just Society’.Hedied three months after the unity government was formed, and many believe that he was already highly disillusioned, a reformer who had watched the ideals they fought for being gradually abandoned by those who promised widespread social and political changes.

REVERED: Buddhist monk Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero launched the 'Movement for a Just Society' but died soon after the unity government was formed
REVERED: Buddhist monk Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero launched the ‘Movement for a Just Society’ but died soon after the unity government was formed

Today the government is in disarray. The pro-Sirisena faction of the SLFP, dissatisfied with and suspicious of the conduct of its coalition partner, is pressing the president to quit the shaky cohabitation. They want him to open a dialogue with the Rajapaksa faction of the party, with the aim of reuniting and forming an essentially SLFP government.Sirisena is wary, fearingthat he would be outflanked by a more aggressive and organised Rajapaksa-led SLFP, which has more MPs thanhis own faction. Since he hasaccused the Rajapaksa familyof corruption and profligacy, among other abuses, personal relations are hostile.

The real problem in the government stems from within the UNP, whichlikes to portray itself and its leader, Wickremesinghe, as clean. But it is now being accused of corruption, and of interfering withlegal process by delaying charges against the Rajapaksa family and its cohorts. The UNP found itself at the centre of a Treasury bond scandal shortly after Sirisena assumed office. The party’s nominee asgovernor of the Central Bank, Arjuna Mahendran, and his son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius,are alleged to have been implicated in bond sales that couldhave cost the government several billion rupees.

The UNP found itself at the centre of a Treasury bond scandal shortly after Sirisena assumed office

The UNP has dragged its feet over the scandal. It encouraged the dissolution of parliamentjust before the parliamentary watchdog, the Committee on Public Enterprises, was about to present an incriminatingreport on its investigation for discussion. With little progress in the investigation, Sirisena appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which heard the evidence of former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. His family had bought a luxury penthouse apartment which was leased out to them by Arjun Aloysius.After pressure from within the UNP and outside, Karunanayake was forced to resign in early August asForeign Minister, a post he occupied for less than six months after being shuffled out of the finance ministry.

Also in August, another UNP minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who was responsible for Justice and Buddhist Affairs, found himself being asked by his own party to resign or face a no-confidence motion in parliament.The apparent reason is that he publicly criticised a deal with a Chinese company to run the southern port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease, which he did not oppose in Cabinet, thus violating the principle of collective responsibility. The real reason appears to be somewhat different.

According to observers,Rajapakshe, rather than pursuing corruption cases against ousted president Rajapaksa and his family circle, was cosying up to them. Eventually the Prime Minister, under pressure from his own party, told the President that the UNP had unanimously decided that Rajapakshe should go, and Sirisena removed him.

Since August 2015 three ministers of the UNP have fallen by the wayside, but the coalition must go on at least till December, when the government will have to pass the budget. What happens thereafter is difficult to predict, as old alliances are falling apart and new ones are being sought.


Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who worked in Hong Kong for many years in senior roles at The Standard and in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Le Monde, Asian Wall Street Journal, AFP and other foreign media. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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