Sri Lanka: Unity-government in disarray by itself

Before February 9, the government has a busy week ahead as it prepares to draw a bigger crowd for the Independence Day celebrations next Saturday to answer the Joint Opposition’s Nugegoda rally on Friday.

by Rajan Philips

( January 289, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is really difficult to understate the difficulties that the government seems so apt in getting into time after time. The government’s difficulties are all self-inflicted.The Joint Opposition is all for toppling the government but sees no obligation to demonstrate how it would do things differently if it were to get a chance to govern again. For now, the JO has started doing what it does best – staging rallies. Nugegoda is its favourite point of departure, and this time it’s about Peraliyaka Arambuma. The JVP has issued a soft ultimatum – to topple the government before 2020 if it doesn’t get its act together on corruption. The JVP is onto a more constructive vehicle – Diriya Samithi. The TNA is struggling to be silent in the face of almost hopeless stalemate over the constitution and the government’s ridiculous run-arounds on reconciliation. The TNA’s silence is small mercy for the government as mothers of children missing and unaccounted after the war are starting protest fasts looking for answers from the government. How things can go awry quickly was brought home by yesterday’s shocking news about the foiled attempt on TNA parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran’s life.

The government is facing several other questions as well and many more will arise as the country seamlessly slides into fighting floods while it is still weathering the ill effects of a damning drought. The government’s response to the worst drought in decades has been lukewarm at best, and despite years of experience with recurrent floods the country has no infrastructure for preventing or minimizing flood disruptions and damages. The drought took a toll on rice production last year not only in Sri Lanka but also in the major rice exporting countries. A direct consequence is the devastation of farming families who will be left with neither income nor food. Most of last year, they didn’t have even water. Those active in the food and agriculture sectors have been warning the government of impending shortage of rice and destitution of farmers, but the government has pro-actively done nothing except for a reported recent meeting the President belatedly had with relevant Ministers and their Secretaries.

The Prime Minister has no time for agriculture. When he is not flying he is scouring for land for building factories, apparently by their thousands. Rice cultivation has no place in the new economy that the UNP-side of the government is busy unrolling. It is all about building Singapore-style urban showpieces in Colombo, sowing Chinese factories on every available piece of land elsewhere, and reaping Indian houses including steel houses earmarked for, of all places, Jaffna. When the rice shortage hits importers and hoarders will be given the green light to step forward and prosper. Just like it was done with electricity: talk solar, stop coal and do nothing for years. Then turn to your buddies to turn on their private generators. Every one gains except the consumers.

No fault of Mathri-Ranil!

To say that the government is in disarray is not an exaggeration. As JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has said the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has broken all records in clocking the shortest time to become unpopular after winning not one but two elections within eight months in 2015. Once a forceful partner in the ‘Common Opposition’, the JVP is now prepared to topple the yahapalanaya government before 2020. The last straw for the JVP is the government’s pussyfooting over Rajapaksa-regime corruption and pigheadedness about its own corruption. “This is not an issue with Maithri or Ranil,” Mr. Dissanayake insisted, but the manifestation of broader systemic problems, social as well as political. People are more impatient than before and are also unforgiving about corruption in government. The JVP leader warned that if the government fails to act against corruption, the people will overthrow the government in 2020. But the JVP would do it sooner if an opportunity were to arise.

Also dismayed with the government, for different reasons, is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Like the JVP, the TNA too will not blame “Maithri or Ranil”, but unlike the JVP the TNA has no motivation to topple the government. Insofar as the TNA leaders are concerned, it is fair to say that they have in Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe the most accommodating and flexible Sri Lankan President or Prime Minister ever in regard to addressing the ‘Tamil Question.’ And unlike their predecessors, neither the President nor the Prime Minister has repudiated their commitments. Only, they are avoiding talking about it in public and might confess to being helpless in private. The TNA leaders will have nothing to gain by issuing ultimatums to the government, soft or hard. They are constrained, in my view, to maintain friendly silence, hoping for a better turn of events soon or late.

While the TNA can constrain itself in Colombo, it cannot contain the growing frustration among its people. Frustration leads to resentment and there is no shortage of provocative agents to take advantage of public resentment to further their own stupid schemes. The foiled attempt at Mr. Sumanthiran’s life is a stark reminder of how quickly matters got out of hand in Tamil politics after 1972. If there is any lesson from that era for this government, it is that the government must not keep running from its own initiatives and promises. Before the Sumanthiran scare, the government was already jolted by the fast-unto-death direct action launched in Vavuniya by 13 women looking for official information about their family members who have not been accounted for after the war. After four days of fasting by the women taking neither food nor water, and their conditions deteriorating, the government panicked and flew, last Thursday, the State Minister for Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, to meet with the fasting women in Vavuniya. The Minister managed to persuade them to withdraw from the fast with the written promise to arrange for “a proper response on February 9 through a meeting between the families of the disappeared and a delegation of government ministers and officials at the office of the Prime Minister” in Colombo.

A day or two earlier, Chief Minister Wigneswaran had written a remarkably restrained letter to President Sirisena precisely inviting ministerial intervention. The letter included a polite reminder to the President of the expectations among the Tamils when they voted massively for his victory in January 2015. They were not expecting Eelam or federalism, but simple measures to restore normalcy after the war, such as the withdrawal of the PTA, amnesty for political prisoners, official information on the status of missing persons, and giving back to displaced people their land taken away by the army. While there have been improvements after 2015, they have not been nearly enough to match the scale on which humanitarian improvements need to be undertaken. As the Chief Minister’s letter noted: “The Office of Missing Persons is presently only in name. It has no teeth.”

All of this could have been easily avoided if the government, after the January and August 2015 elections, picked its priorities and focussed on them purposefully. Given their experience in politics and in government, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe could have jointly run a tight administration avoiding corruption and achieving results. Instead, they have ended up imitating many of the Rajapaksa initiatives and examples with new corruption and added chaos. They cannot solve the problem of Missing Persons in a single meeting on February 9. The least the government can do is for the President and the Prime Minister to give a joint assurance about definitive next steps and to keep taking each step one after the other. There is no other way.

Before February 9, the government has a busy week ahead as it prepares to draw a bigger crowd for the Independence Day celebrations next Saturday to answer the Joint Opposition’s Nugegoda rally on Friday. There will be plenty written in today’s papers comparing Friday’s rally size to that of the 2015 (February 17) rally. Sri Lankan pundits are not alone in being preoccupied with crowd sizes. It is now a presidential obsession in the US, in the wake of the largest turnout of women in Washington and across the world the day after President Trump’s inauguration. The message was loud and clear: Women’s rights are human rights, human rights are women’s rights, and all rights do matter. Sri Lanka should be no exception.


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