by Rajan Philips
Two weeks ago I wrote that “everything is predictable in Sri Lankan politics but nothing bears a positive outcome”. Well, not everything is predictable it turns out from the events of the last two weeks. Who would have predicted a longstanding supporter of the UNP setting himself on fire disgusted by party infighting and its falling support in the country?
Who could have predicted the fiasco of a moronic government minister tying a helpless government servant to a tree as punishment for whatever? And who would have been surprised by the two crossovers from the UNP Opposition to the government so soon after Ranil Wickremasinghe thought he had successfully checkmated Mahinda Rajapakse’s desire to have a third term (why not more?) as President?
The tragic death of UNP supporter Rienzie Algama has been attributed to his frustrations with the leadership crisis in the UNP. Although Mr. Algama died supporting Mr. Wickremasinghe, the supporter’s sacrifice has not solved any of the leader’s many problems. The leader is under challenge within the party and is facing criticism from outside the party. Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe is being blamed for atrophying Sri Lanka’s Grand Old Party and thereby undermining Sri Lanka’s democracy. The criticism is coming even from those who would never support or vote for the UNP, who would consider as outcasts those among their peers who vote for the UNP.
Ranil Wickremasinghe deserves all the criticism that is being thrown at him but the suggestion that Sri Lankan democracy is going to founder because of him is more than far fetched. The villain of the piece when it comes to undermining democracy in Sri Lanka is the government itself and there is no point in kicking the molehill that is Ranil while standing under the shadow of the Rajapakse mountain and pretending not to see how dysfunctional and dystopian the mountain is growing in the name of national security and national sovereignty.
The pretention of these critics is somewhat inevitable because they are also the unsolicited theoreticians of security and sovereignty, defending both against perceived attacks from the international community. Unsolicited – because the government cares no hoot about their sophisticated opinions when it can deploy direct action by the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Mervyn Silva. There have been spurious defences of Weerawansa’s antics but it would be a tough one for anyone with any intelligence to explain the presence of a person like Mervyn Silva in the cabinet of ministers.
The folly of Ranil Wickremasinghe is that no one takes him seriously when he lashes out at the ministers who are turning the business of government into mad hatter tea party. Those in the government must be relishing Wickremasinghe’s attacks – “like being savaged by a dead sheep” as Dennis Healey famously ridiculed Sir Geoffrey Howe in the British House of Commons. But that’s not the point - for shouldn’t those who cavil at Ranil for not being effective in Opposition be also castigating Rajapakse for presiding over a dystopian regime?
The latest criticism against Ranil Wickremasinghe is that he has brought the United National Party of D.S. and Dudley Senanayake to its current predicament by aligning his Party with the agenda of the NGOs and the INGOs. Even new terminology has been ventured: the NGOisation of the UNP! The specific clincher in this general accusation is that the NGOs and INGOs were not supportive of the 2000 constitutional proposals (of Chandrika Kumaratunga) because they did not believe constitutional changes will work without prior agreement with the LTTE. Ranil Wickremasinghe fell for this NGO ploy, so goes the theory, and ended up defeating the 2000 constitutional proposal.
The 2000 reversal is identified as the start of Ranil’s so called sellout that soon led to ceasefire with the LTTE and the peace process. It needs to be said in passing – that it says something of the war and its consequences when the theoreticians of the war have to keep criticizing Ranil for the dead end peace process instead of criticizing the government for not positively moving forward after winning the war.
A counterfactual argument has also been put forward. Had Gamini Dissanayake been the UNP leader instead of Ranil Wickremasinghe, he (Gamini) would have supported the Kumaratunga proposal to end the presidential system and would have engineered a ‘parliamentary coup’ (whatever that means) to bring UNP to power with himself as Prime Minister under the new constitution. There are several holes in this theory and reasoning and it is not necessary for my purpose to expose all of them. I will limit myself to a few pertinent questions and direct them not at Ranil Wickremasinghe and the UNP but at Mahinda Rajapakse and the government.
First, instead of blaming Ranil in 2010 for bringing down Chandrika’s 2000 constitutional proposals, why not ask the Rajapakse government if it would reintroduce them now. After all the proposals were prepared by the SLFP-led by People’s Alliance government. President Rajapakse was a Minister in that government and presumably supported those proposals. Their principal architect, G.L. Pieris, is a key minister in the present government and he could champion a worthy cause that befits his forensic learning instead of being the mafia lawyer defending every kind of governmental mess up.
Second, the 2000 proposals were drafted independent of any agreement with the LTTE; so wouldn’t reintroducing them be appropriate now that the LTTE has been eliminated? It would also amount to a fitting homage to Neelan Tiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgamar both of whom were killed because they tried to find a solution to the Tamil question without consulting the LTTE. It would also make it unnecessary for the government to enter into unsavoury deals with former LTTE operators turned renegades.
Third, are not the chances of obtaining the requisite two-thirds majority in the current parliament for constitutional changes almost perfect compared to what they were in 2000? With the crossover of the two Upcountry Tamil parliamentarians, the government now requires only four more votes to meet the two-thirds target. In fact, even a four-fifth majority support is quite achievable in the current parliament if the government were to bring back the 2000 proposals or some version of it.
Fourth, while taking put shot at Ranil, can it be asked of the government why is it searching for dystopian constitutional changes – such as extending the presidential tenure beyond two terms, or contriving an Executive Prime Ministerial system, when it can use the 2000 proposals, modifications of it, or even the APRC proposals?
Fifth, the NGOs and INGOs are not likely to support changes to extend the presidential tenure or the Executive PM system. So if Ranil were to support Mahinda Rajapakse’s Executive Prime Minister system, despite NGO opposition, would that mean a sufficient de-NGOisation of the UNP? Will it render Ranil a more acceptable, patriotic, politician? Will it restore the UNP to being a normal political party seeking to win power from what it is currently alleged to be: a single issue NGO and agnostic about power?
I have no hope in hell that the present government will even consider or implement positive and practical constitutional changes. But it is useful to keep the debate going to at least prevent the government from implementing wrongheaded and self-serving changes. And while it is necessary to take Ranil to task for his failure to vigorously present to the country an alternative to the government, it is doubly necessary to hold the government’s feet to the fire for its continuing failure to govern in keeping with law and order and with fairness and efficiency, and for contemplating constitutional changes that have nothing to do with the interests of the country but everything to do with entrenching and extending the power of the Rajapakse regime.