A people betrayed

Seventy-one years after Sri Lanka gained independence, Neville de Silva explores why the country has failed to fulfil its considerable democratic potential

Just over seven decades ago Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, emerged from years of colonial rule with sufficient attributes to make it one of Asia’s successful emergent nations.

Asian leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew,enamoured of Ceylon’s enviable characteristics such as an efficient civil service, high levels of literacy and political stability,hoped to emulate the island nation when Singapore achieved its own independence some years later.

Yet when Sri Lanka commemorated its 71st Independence Day this February 4, there was little to show for the country’s early promise as a model nation founded on firm democratic principles and practices.In a recent survey of the state of democracy around the world, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reported that Sri Lanka was a ‘flawed democracy’.

Sadly, it is not democracy that is flawed but the country’s leaders, who promised to foster and nurture democratic governance,bringing Sri Lanka’s 22 million people political freedoms and economic emancipation.

Those pledges were reiterated not too long ago. When Maithripala Sirisena became the opposition’s ‘common candidate’for the presidential election in January 8, 2015, having suddenly deserted the cabinet of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he made extravagant promises which the people nevertheless believed.

One such promise was to abolish the executive presidency created by former President Junius Richard Jayewardene (popularly known by his initials JR) under a new constitution introduced in 1978 after an unprecedented parliamentary election victory the previous year.

Jayewardene famously said that as executive president, the only thing he could not do was to turn a man into a woman and vice versa. Rajapaksa, who became president in 2005, could not do that either. But he wielded enough power to have parliament pass an 18th amendment to the constitution,deleting the provision that limited the president’s term to a maximum two six-year periods.

Sri Lanka’s current president brought democratic governance to its nadir in October last year

This constitutional change would have allowed him to rule for a lifetime if the peopled wanted him to. Right then Rajapaksa was widely popular, having headed a government that militarily defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) after nearly 30 years.

So it was not democracy that failed Sri Lanka; it was the country’s ambitious political leaders. After seven decades of independence Sri Lanka’s current president brought democratic governance to its nadir in October last year when the Sri Lankan populace suddenly found itself without a government for some 50 days.

Political manoeuvring and backdoor deals by President Maithripala Sirisena led to him, literally overnight, sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installing in his place former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s arch-rival whom he had metaphorically stabbed in the backover three years earlier. All these covert and deviousmoves shocked the country when the news broke the next morning.

For the first time in its post-independence history, Sri Lanka had no government and a people confronted by a barely functioning administration. The result was that ordinary citizens trying to transact business with some state institutions found officials reluctant to perform their duties because of the prevailing uncertainty.Would their actions be legal or would they at some time have to face administrative penalties, or even more? These were the questions facing public officials.

And that was not all. A country with no government found itself with two prime ministers: the newly appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa and the dulyelected Ranil Wickremesinghe, who refused to quit and ensconced himself at Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence, surrounded by the party faithful and public supporters.

It seemed as though a small island nation was mocking the world’s sole superpower. If US President Donald Trump could shutdown his administration, why could Sri Lanka’s President Sirisena not do the same?

The difference, however, is that Sirisena’s political legerdemain ended up before the Supreme Court. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (UNP), along with some other political parties and civil society groups, petitioned the Supreme Court, charging Sirisena with violating the constitution.

Sirisenathen made a cardinal error. When he found he had been misled by those who claimed Rajapaksa would be able to rustle up a parliamentary majority by persuading or bribing opposition MPs to cross over in support of the new ‘prime minister’ (he failed miserably), Sirisena panicked and announced the dissolution of parliament.

The 19th amendment that he himself helped to get through parliament clearly stated conditions under which parliament could be dissolved. One such vital provision was that parliament could be dissolved only after four-and-a-half years of its firstmeeting. One other way was if parliament itself, during its five-year term, passed a resolution by two-thirds of its members calling for its dissolution. Since parliament first met on September 1, 2015, it could be dissolved only after February 2020, unless parliamentary members voted for its dissolution.

A seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously held that the president had acted illegally and had violated the constitution. This slap in the presidential face was even more ignominious when Sirisena was compelled to reinstate Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister.In the meantime, Rajapaksa threw in the towel when parliament voted that it had no confidence in him as premier.

Sirisena’s pledge to the nation before the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy that he would serve only one term as president was broken the moment he started showing signs of his intention to continue for a second five-year term.He deceived the people, who believed his election assurances that he would abolish the executive presidency and bring to justice the corrupt in the former Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

Even before the first year of his term was over, the people were fast losing faith in Sirisena. His vow to establish a transparent, accountable government soon turned out to be a fantasy, cynically concocted by an ambitious politician who had tasted power and wanted to go on enjoying the perks of being president.

In the last four years, Sirisena – often with his family is tow,though generally keeping that a secret from the public – has travelled abroad more than any other president or prime minister in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history. In January he made a five-day visit to the Philippines. Hardly had he set foot back on native soil when he left for Singapore.

TENACIOUS: Ranil Wickremesinghe (inset) ensconced himself at Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence
TENACIOUS: Ranil Wickremesinghe (inset) ensconced himself at Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence

Now Sirisena faces a major hurdle. He cannot win the presidency on his own, especially since his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is fractured, with some senior members threatening to quit.Having no national standing,he needs the support of Wickremesinghe’s UNP or Rajapaksa’s new party, the Sri Lanka People’s Party(SLPP). But after his sacking of Wickremesinghe, which made such a mockery of the constitution, the UNP – which backed him to the hilt to oust Rajapaksa in 2015 – has said it will not touch him, while Mahinda Rajapaksa’s siblings – former Defence Secretary Gotabaya and former Speaker Chamal – have both indicated an interest in the presidential candidacy, which makes Sirisena’s hopes of an alliance with Rajapaksa extremely remote.

With three elections – provincial, presidential and parliamentary – due within the next 12 months, the orphaned Sirisena is struggling to establish legitimacy by looking for some moral and national issues to give credence to his political platform.

Sirisena cannot win the presidency on his own

Curiously, he is backing Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh and extrajudicial actions as a solution to Sri Lanka’s narcotics problem. Sirisena insists that he will hang convicted drug dealers who are said to be engaged in the business even from prison.

Although he is opposed to any of Sri Lanka’s military being tried for human rights abuses or violations of international law during the last months of the war against the Tamil separatist LTTE, his National Unity Government co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution that promised transitional justice and accountability trials – none of which has been done.This procrastination is bound to come up in March when the issue of Sri Lanka’s progress in fulfilling its obligations is raised at the UNHRC sessions.

Sirisena’s quandary is that he has few allies right now. He has forfeited the faith the public had in him in 2015, and much of the country’s instability today has been caused both by his U-turn on his pre-election promises and by his willingness to betray a political ally, the UNP. Themachinations of this over-reaching president is a sign ofthe abject state of Sri Lanka’s political class today.

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 foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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