From confusion to chaos

As election day looms, Neville de Silva follows the continuing mayhem and ‘devilry’ caused by Sri Lanka’s crumbling political class

‘Things fall apart,’ wrote the Irish poet W.B. Yeats of the post-war chaosin the early years of the 20th century. But who would have thought that, exactly 100 years later, Yeats’s words would prove so prophetic as the world looks at Sri Lanka’s chaotic political scene?

Five years ago, when a respected Buddhist monk forged an alliance of several political parties and many civil society organisations with the intention of cleansing the country’s political landscape of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power, people looked forward eagerly to a nation bent on pursuing the rule of law and strengthening the pillars of democracy.

Instead, in recent times this island nation’s political elite haspursued paths of genuinely malign intent or engaged in political chicanerythat hasonly incensed an increasingly alienated populace as the promised ‘clean governance’ began to disintegrate.

At the time of writing, Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena and prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are engaged in a bitter war of words over what, for many, seems to be nothing short of farcical.

The spat concerns last-minute moves at a special cabinet meeting to seek ways to abolish the country’s executive presidency.It came a few days after the Election Commission had already announced November 16 as the date for this year’s presidential election and some prospective candidates had already taken to the campaign trail.

With fingers pointing at each other, the two leaders, who in recent years have drifted far apart, were quarrelling overwhich one urgedthe holding of the special cabinet meeting.

In a break with cabinet traditions, the essence of what transpired at this meeting has leaked
In a break with cabinet traditions, the essence of what transpired at this meeting has leaked

In a break with cabinet traditions, the essence of what transpired at this meeting has leaked and is now largely public knowledge. More importantly, the question now being asked is this: why the hurry to abolish the presidential system when this government had pledged before and after the 2015 elections that it would do so when in office?

Now, nearly five years later and with the country on the vergeof a crucial election which may well see the return to power of the Rajapaksa family, the current leaders are trying to bring down the system.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe reportedly told the cabinet that it may not be possible to muster sufficient numbers in parliament to pass the required legislation. It would require the support of the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Peoples Party (SLPP) to garner the necessary votes.

The obvious question is why the Rajapaksa clan should weigh in when it has already nominated the youngest sibling, Gotabaya, defence secretary during the Rajapaksa regime, as presidential candidate. The SLPP believes that if it wins the presidency it can easily win the parliamentary elections due around mid-2020.

Two factors give some credence to this belief. Firstly, Gotabaya is not a politician but an ex-military officer who has promised to bring law and order and enhance national security. Operating mainly in the political shadows, he came to the fore on this ticket after the Easter Sunday Islamic bomb attacks on churches and hotels, in which nearly 270 people, including foreigners, were killed and 500 others injured.

As defence secretary, Gotabaya is credited with having played a lead role in the military defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. He now presents a macho figure at a time when the people long for a strong leader to bring discipline to a nation dispirited and angry over the failed promises of the political class.

Secondly, the main parties challenging the Rajapaksas are in some disarray. The UNP is sharply divided over who should be its presidential candidate, with Sajith Premadasa, the son of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, assassinated in 1993 by the LTTE, insisting that it should be him.

A section of the UNP hierarchy is demanding that Premadasa be tapped for the post, thus paving the way for an internal cleansing of the party which has been headed by Wickremesinghe for the last 25 years or so.

Meanwhile President Maithripala Sirisena, who, on being elected, had some of his powers transferred to parliament and his six-year term cut to five, with a promise to quit after one term in office, has over the years experienced a change of heart and mind.The taste of power, even if now limited, has aroused his political instincts and he has been probing for ways in which he can extend his stay or strike a deal with possible aspirants to power for some place in the sun.

The party that Sirisena leads, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), held talks with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP and Rajapaksa himself is hoping to forge an alliance that would provide Sirisenawith an opening.But the talks failed when the Rajapaksas refused to change the election symbol of their party. If the Sirisena SLFP wants to forge an alliance, then it has to contest elections under the SLPP symbol, which will erase the image of the SLFP still further.

Sirisena also tried to cause a split in the UNP by promoting Premadasa and striking a relationship with him in the hope of gaining some power if Premadasa succeeds.Now, with nowhere to go but back home, Sirisena has been lashing out at every possible opponent in pre-election moves to embarrass and denigrate them in the public mind.

The real shock attack came when last month,at the ceremonial opening of Colombo’s ‘Lotus Tower’ (reputedly South Asia’s tallest tower), constructed with Chinese financial assistance, President Sirisenaaccused a Chinese company of bolting with Rs 2 billion paid as an advance. Sirisena claimed there was no sign of the company named ALIT or the money.This was intended to embarrass Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president in 2012, and also China, whose ambassador to Sri Lanka was among the honoured guests.

A couple of days later Mahinda Rajapaksa hit back at Sirisena, describing the president’s allegation as a ‘complete falsehood’ designed to ‘throw stones at the opposition’ on the eve of a presidential election. Moreover,to fling such mud was an insult to China, a major world power that has always been friendly and helpful to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile former Sri Lankan foreign secretary Palitha Kohona, an adviser to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was quoted as saying that Gotabaya would sort out relations with China, which have dipped badly under the Sirisena administration. Yet China has long been a steadfast friend of Sri Lanka, providing diplomatic and financial support during and after the anti-LTTE war, a relationship that was strengthened during the Rajapaksa years.

While ruffling China’s feathers, Sirisena has also taken pot-shots at the United States. He said last week that he will not sign any military agreements with Washington as long as he is president – referring to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the US has been anxiously pushing Colombo to sign. The pro-American UNP was hoping to get it done quickly but Sirisena has quashed it for the moment.

Embarrassing China as he did, alleging that a state-owned company ran away with Sri Lankan funds, and refusing to sign any military agreements with the US, Sirisena has hit out at both the Rajapaksas and the pro-US elements in the UNP.

There is an old saying in the Sinhala language which roughly translates as‘the departing devil delights in breaking the pots and pans’. What other ‘devilry’ might be in the air as Sri Lanka moves inexorably towards November 16, the people will discover as the days go by.

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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