Sri Lankans’ hopes of an honest, accountable government have been shattered as the Unity Government fragments and doors open for the return of the Rajapaksas. Neville de Silva assesses the situation
When Maithripala Sirisena defected from President Rajapaksa’s government and challenged his leader at the January 2015 presidential election, he pledged he would be a one-term president.This promise was made during the election campaign, and thenagain immediately after he ousted an over-confident Rajapaksa seeking a third six-year term and perhaps an even longer stay.
Sirisena has made this same promise three times starting with his inauguration, notably in the precincts of the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, the custodian of the tooth of the Buddha and before some of the country’s leading Buddhist monks.
Pledges made in this hallowed place, in a predominantly Buddhistcountry that is said to safeguard and foster the original teachings of the Buddha, are honoured, not broken. Yet President Sirisena, a devout Buddhist who hasbeen over three years in office,with less than two years of his term left, now seeks to jettison one of his crucial promises to the people andis preparing to launch himself into another presidential election, though his opponent or opponents still remain unknown.
The lure of presidential power and all its attendant advantages for him, his kith and kin and political acolytes, has proved to have greater magnetic pull than the honouring of an oft-madepromise.
While politicians breaking pledges is hardly an unknown phenomenon, Sirisena promised yet again not to seek a second term at the funeral of the revered Buddhist monk Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera just three months after President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cemented their National Unity Government (NUG).
Ven. Sobitha, who launched the National Movement for Social Justice, played a vital role in rallying multifarious forces, from political and civil society groups to the country’s intellectuals, artists and human rights activists, in support of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena.This influential monk and his politically-motivated phalanx hoped that Sirisena would topple what was increasingly viewed as a Rajapaksa oligarchy and return Sri Lanka to democracy, the rule of law and a just society.
In the early days of his presidency Sirisena appeared sincere and ready to fulfil his main promises. With a 100-day programme in hand, he planned to push through the 19th amendment to the constitution, which not only curtailed some of the powers he enjoyed as president, passing them on to parliament and the prime minister, but also struck down the Mahinda Rajapaksa-inspired 18th amendment that removed the restriction of just two six-year terms for any incumbent president.
Moreover, Sirisena had to coax many of his own party MPs from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to vote for an amendment that reduced presidential powers and limited the term in office from six to five years. It is generally accepted that the 19th amendment, which required a two-thirds majority vote, would not have passed had Sirisena not persuaded some of his reluctant MPs.
While the country applauded President Sirisena for keeping to some of his promises, rumblings of dissent also began to grow. One of the main election platforms, both at the presidential and parliamentary elections that followed in August 2015, was to end the widespread corruption of the Rajapaksa era, meting out severe punishments to the guilty.
But as the months turned into years, politicians and officials suspected of corruption – including Mahinda Rajapaksa’s powerful younger siblings and sons – remained free, though some were questioned by investigators. Others made brief appearances in court but then had their hearings postponed for long periods.One of them, the once-powerful defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has not had the cases against him heard in the last three years, as time after time judges recused themselves.
In the meantime, friction was mounting between the two main partners in the Unity Government: Sirisena’s faction of the SLFP and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Party (UNP).One of the main chargeseach levelled at the other was that investigations into bribery and corruption were being blocked or put off by both the UNP and the president in order to protect some of the corrupt.
One way crooked politicians and their bag carriers protect themselves is by using their influence to keep investigative agencies at arm’s length and curbing the independence of investigators, which this government promised to uphold in the early days.
While many Asian leaders over the years have faced trial for corruption and fraud, some of Sri Lanka’s leaders act as though they will never have to be named, shamed and brought to justice, and spat upon by an incensed public that believed the honeyed words emanating from seemingly sincere political mouths at election time.
The constant sniping between the coalition partners – the UNP and Sirisena’s SLFP – came to ahead when,at the May 30 commemoration meeting for the late Ven Sobitha, President Sirisena launched a tirade. He mentioned no names but the allusions were obvious. They were directed at the prime minister and his UNP.
In his unscheduled speech (Sirisena claimed he had not been officially invited to the commemoration), the president said he appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister although the UNP had only 47-seats in parliament, and he was unaware of the contents of the 100-day programme. He blamed those responsible for not including the dissolution of parliament as one of the tasks to be fulfilled.
Sirisena was either seriously forgetful – dangerously so – or he was seeking to capture the moral high ground as a leader more sinned against than sinning. The truth is that the presidential election manifesto issued under his signature not only speaks of the implementation of the 100-day programme but says that,if elected, he would make Wickremesinghe prime minister.
Yet he derisively dismissed the 100-day programme as ‘one of the silliest things ever undertaken by this government’. Critics argued that Sirisena should have re-read the manifesto he issued on December 19, 2014 before misleading people.
Now virtually rejected by the Rajapaksas – whose newly formed party, the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP),convincingly won the February local government elections, despite the overtures made by Sirisena, and being marginalised by UNP seniors – the president wants to continue in office by projecting himself as the genuine sentinel against corruption.
That is a hard sell as onlyrecently, his chief of staff and another senior official were nabbed in a parked car counting some 20 million rupees, just a portion of an alleged bribe demanded from an Indian businessman. The two are now in remand.
Before this tragedy cornered Sirisena, who has been trying to pin some blame for wrongs on the UNP (and not without reason), he had sought advice from the Supreme Court on whether reducingthe presidential term to five years applied to him as well.This was the first sign that he had got a real taste for power and he intends to go on.
The Supreme Court ruling surely came as a disappointment to him. But he is determined to go ahead, pledges of a one-term presidency notwithstanding. At the moment he appears orphaned as 16 of his SLFP colleagues, including six ministers, quit a couple of months ago and still others are waiting in the wings to join Rajapaksa’s SLPP.
Without the UNP vote, Sirisena would never have become president. He will not get that vote again. Nor is he likely to receive the support of the Tamil and Muslim minorities who have lost faith in his promise to work towards ethnic reconciliation.
His only chance of returning to power is to cling on to a Rajapaksa. But would they want the man they claim played Brutus to Mahinda’s Julius Caesar?