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Thursday, July 25, 2024

Sri Lanka: Why nation’s political Siamese twins must live together or perish together

Last year in March when Ranil Wickremesinghe blew the 67candles on his birthday cake, he offered the first slice he cut to Maithri. Not to Maithree, the wife. But to Maithri, the President. And though she may have felt snubbed the prized first slice was not given first for her delectation but to her new namesake, she would have understood the significance and the importance of the gesture made to the cohabitating partner of Ranil’s political marriage. For without it, his own political survival would have been at stake.

The political couple will be sharing their shot gun wedding anniversary next month on the ninth of January. The day they tied the political nuptials three years ago but did not take their marriage vows of living in fidelity, being faithful to each other till political death do them part. The underlying policy was ‘live and let live’. They did not kiss their alliance and seal it in permanence; and neither were they blessed with the benediction ‘what the masses have put together, let no opposition put asunder.”

They had a simple understanding. Maithri would stay in the master bedroom and bark his orders through the intercom whilst Ranil would do the house work and ensure home and kitchen were kept spick and span.

Ranil’s own kin claimed he bought the dower of millions of votes and called the spouse a vote digger. Some of Maithri’s kith called the union was bigamous. And held the SLFP Maithri — whilst still legally wed to the party — had wooed and wed out of his creed, out of his caste, out of his faith and out of the party’s internal law a paramour of the worst sort: who came with a reputation to have an acquisitive eye for the crown and not for its bearer, be it a woman or man.

It was a blow hot, blow cold affair from day one. From the day mutual interests made them strange bed fellows. The nation had conceived them in its despair and the masses had given deliverance to Siamese twins who, to their own horror, perhaps, found they could not sever the umbilical cord that bound them if they wished to survive in the present political world. Each one depended on the other. Together, whatever the vicissitudes of political life held, they knew they would have to live together or perish together.

Without Ranil Wicremesinghe, Maithripala Sirisena would not have been president. And without Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe would not have been Prime Minister. At least on paper. Who came first was like arguing whether it was the chick or the egg that came first. But pragmatically Ranil had a slight cutting edge over his newfound live-in-mate.

For, even though Maithri may have held the pack in his pocket, Ranil had the trump card tucked up his sleeve, though he never flaunted it.
Sirisena had deserted his party and joined forces with the party’s arch enemy to turn the tables on his then commander in chief. He had crossed the Rubicon. And there was no turning back. Ranil, on the contrary, could carry on regardless of the elections’ outcome and serve his third term as the nation’s leader of the opposition and enjoy the perks, the privileges and the foreign junkets that came with the post; and bide his time in quiet reflection till the time came again to contest the next polls.

In August 2015, when the general election results showed that the UNP had emerged as the largest single political bloc in Parliament, with only seven seats short of an absolute majority, his hand was further strengthened. Perhaps he could have easily enticed 7 MPs from the opposite benches to join him and thus claim an absolute majority to dictate to his partner in power Sirisena, but he did not do so. For the nation’s sake, he did not take the low road of ambition.

It is to the credit of both men that, in the winter of a nation’s rapid decline, they decided to put country before self — even compromise the interests of their respective parties — and determined to resolve any differences of opinion through discussion and not make a bee line to the divorce court for shelter at the first whiff of a marital storm.

It’s a miracle that the odd couple -– one, the Pukka Sahib coming from the posh drawing rooms of Colombo’s elite society with well manicured fingernails, the other, the rustic yokel rising from the paddy fields of Lanka’s grassroots with the earthly mud still embedded in his nails — survived as an ‘item’ for the last 35 months. Especially with a jealous suitor who had vowed when jilted, he would bring them both down to the ground with vengeance.

Perhaps the relationship was blessed by the guardian deities of Lanka, for what the duo conceived and promised to deliver was just governance. In Maithripala’s vernacular: Yahapalanaya. In Ranil’s lingo: Democracy.

So, have they done all right, so far?

Before that question can be answered, it’s best to go back to the days of the Rajapaksa regime when the Mahinda Chinthanaya held monopolistic sway over the land. Did anyone dare to mock it in the manner people freely laugh at the mention of the Yahapalana word today? Nay, for fear had begun to stalk the land as the ‘white van’ culture spread and freedom of speech was abducted in the cover of night.

The Rajapaksa appointed Chief Justice Shiranie Bandaranayake was impeached when she gave a decision in the Divinaguma Bill adverse to the Government. And, in her stead, Rajapaksa appointed his legal consultant, Mohan Peiris as the Chief Justice. Mrs. Bandaranayake’s husband Pradeep Kariyawasam had been appointed as chairman of the National Savings Bank by Rajapaksa and when he was accused of an alleged bribery offence, Rajapaksa admitted on television that ‘he was one of us, and I ‘shaped’ it up.”

Take the case of the SLFP’s Tangalle Chairman of the local Council. He and his friends were accused of murdering a British tourist and gang raping his Russian girlfriend but they were not arrested but allowed to roam free. It took a British Prime Minister David Cameron who had come to Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Head of State Summit in 2013, to force President Rajapaksa to take action against them. Only after Maithripala became president were they convicted and sentenced by the courts.

Mervyn de Silva saga

Mervyn de Silva, one of Rajapaksa’s favourite spokesmen, tied a Samurdhi official to a tree as punishment for not turning up for work. He attacked the Sirasa TV station. He stormed Rupavahini only to be given his comeuppance by the enraged staff. But he was not arrested let alone questioned. Instead when the Airport expressway was opened, he was honoured to be invited as the only backseat passenger in the vehicle driven by Mahinda himself with wife Shiranthie seated next to the driving seat. The litany is endless of instances of selective law enforcement. Those who supported the Rajapaksas could commit blue murder. Those who didn’t got the works.

Having won the war at great cost, they failed to utilise the peace earned to build harmony amongst all communities. Instead they turned a blind eye to the activities of the radical racist group of monks belonging to the Bodu Bala Sena. These renegade monks were given free rein to storm Muslim shops and buildings and incite Sinhala mobs to attack the Muslims whilst the law enforcing authorities, along with the political leaders, looked askance.

But when it came to the Rathupaswala residents who staged a peaceful protest on the road to complain that their wells were contaminated with the chemical effluence that flowed from a private company in the area, the STF were ordered to quell it with bullets which claimed the life of a protester. All he was doing that fateful day was to draw the attention of the authorities that he and his community had no water to drink. In Chilaw, too, a fisherman was killed in February 2012, when he along with the kinfolk of the fishing family, staged a protest against the sudden increase of diesel by 36 percent and kerosene by almost 50 per cent, the fuel needed to power large and small boats respectively.

18th Amendment to the Constitution

Then, of course, there was the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which Rajapaksa succeeded in getting passed with a two third majority in Parliament, thanks to the UNP MPs who had turned coat and crossed to his banks on the boat of many an inducement. The primary aim of the 18th Amendment was to abolish the two-term limit of the presidency and allow Mahinda to contest for the post without limit so he could enjoy presidential power forever and set the stage for the creation of a Rajapaksa family dynasty which would then rule Lanka in perpetuity with the young Namal, already hailed as the Prince of Tangalle, assuming the throne, sceptre and crown of Lanka upon the father’s demise.

In the arrogance of power and steadfast belief in immortality, what Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to grasp was that the best laid plans of mice and presidents may be disposed not only by God but by the people, even as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe discovered to his shock and horror last week. Further he failed to realise that, whilst his regime was burying the tenets of democracy one by one and weakening its pillars one by one, it was simultaneously only digging its own grave. He awoke to this reality in the early hours of January 9, 2015 when the nation gave the thumbs down and, through the power of the ballot, booted him out of office.

To those who hail the halcyon days of Rajapaksa rule and proclaim that never before had the country’s economic prosperity overflowed with milk and honey, they should ask themselves the question: if the economy was the sole barometer of a nation’s well being, why did the masses vote Rajapaksa out?

If the rivers of prosperity had flown down to the masses and enabled them to imbibe its waters, why was Rajapaksa and his regime drowned in defeat by a surge of public voting against him and his clan. The answer is that man does not live by bread alone. Not only the belly — not that it was filled to bursting point as the Rajapaksa devotees would have the nation believe, unless, of course, they refer to their own stomachs which Rajapaksa patronage generously filled — but the soul, too, which harbours aspirations to equality, to enjoy fundamental rights must also be fed with equal measure, if not more. Slaves, also, maybe well fed to make the work better; like cattle are fattened to gain more beef.

So what did Maithripala bring with him to the president’s office? A pledge to restore a nation’s lost democracy, to exhume from different graves different limbs and pieces that had been torn from its torso and insidiously buried six feet under a bed of roses, grown and tended to conceal with beauty and scent the gruesome horror and stench of the rotting offal and bones that lay below.

Within three and a half months of assuming the seals of Presidential office, Sirisena, true to his election pledge, was able to muster the support of all parties, including that of the Rajapaksa faction in the SLFP, to get the 19th Amendment to the Constitution made law with over a five sixth majority. The 19th Amendment repealed Rajapaksa’s 18th Amendment whereby he had had not only abolished the two-term presidential limit but arrogated the power to dominate commissions which had held independent status.

Sirisena not only reduced his presidential term of office by a year but sacrificed the opportunity to rule supreme. He renounced his dominance of these commissions to which he had become heir by virtue of Rajapaksa’s 18th Amendment. With the 19th Amendment, he restored to the Election Commission, the Auditor General, the Police Commission, the Judicial Service Commission, the Public Service Commission the independence status each had enjoyed till 2010, the year Rajapaksa had enacted the 18th Amendment had made subject to his presidential iron will. Henceforth, these commissions will be answerable to Parliament and not to the President.

Not bad for starters, eh?

Though Sirisena’s manifesto pledge to abolish the executive presidency and throw it with the bath water, a promise reiterated before the mortal remains of the guiding spirit of Yahapalana and the architect of his election triumph, the most Venerable Sobitha Thera moments before the corpse was consigned to the flames of the funeral pyre, is still to be kept, yet a new constitution is in the making and a draft bill is expected to be presented to Parliament in the near future.

For years, civil rights groups had been clamouring successive governments to gain for the people the legal right to information. Finally, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government accepted the arguments put forth that the right to information was a necessary and basic right that must be accorded to the Lankan citizen if this nation was to traverse the democratic road. And last year, the Right to Information Act was enacted.

The independence of the Judiciary has been immeasurably strengthened; and, like justice must not only be done but must seem to be done, the President has not used his constitutional power to appoint a political favourite judge to the senior benches but has used seniority in office as the sole yardstick to appoint judges to the Appeal and Supreme Court, including the appointments of the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal.

Crackdown on  corruption 

The promised crackdown on the previous regime’s corruption is also on the move, though not with the speed and intensity as the Lankan public would have desired. The FCID was set up. A presidential Commission of Inquiry was established to probe mega corruption. And, hopefully their investigations into mega rogues will soon bear fruit. After all, legal niceties have to be observed and the law’s delay indulged.

Let the court log speak for itself. This is just a few of those who’ll soon be in the dock.A corruption case filed against former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and seven others for allegedly causing a Rs.11.4 billion unlawful loss to the government by giving permission to Avant-Garde Maritime Services (Pvt) Ltd to operate a floating armoury was fixed for trial by the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s court on November 17. The dates are February 26 and March 26 next year. In another case for misusing public property, he was granted an interim injunction preventing the authorities from arresting him till Wednesday the 6th, when the matter will be taken up in the courts.

The Colombo High Court on Tuesday proceeded with the case filed against former SLFP Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa for allegedly misappropriating Rs.2991 million of funds belonging to the Divi Naguma Department while distributing roofing sheets among Divi Naguma beneficiaries during the previous Presidential Election. The trial was fixed for further hearing on December 12th. Basil faces many other cases.

The case filed against Gampaha District Parliamentarian Prasanna Ranatunga and his wife has been fixed for trial by Colombo High Court Judge Waidyatilleke. They are charged with threatening a businessman over the phone and demanding Rs.64 million.

A case filed against former SLFP Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage for allegedly purchasing a house worth Rs.27 million at Kynsey Road, Colombo 7 through illegally acquired money has been fixed for trial by December 13, 14 and 15.

This Thursday NFF party leader Wimal Weerawansa was indicted in the Colombo High Court with 39 corruption charges. Pivithuru Party leader Udaya Gammanpila’s trial for allegedly defrauding an Australian national for millions by forging documents is already proceeding in the courts.

These are but a few who await indictment. But, await, it’s not limited to Rajapaksa loyalists alone.

UNP MP Hirunika Premachandra who pleaded not guilty to the charge over the abduction of textile shop employee Amila Priyankara Amarasinghe faces a date in court next. Her trial has been fixed for the 6th of January.

You might as well ask, so what? Why so few netted, when so many swim free? What’s the big deal about a couple of sharks, a couple of barracudas, some carps and a goldfish with a big mouth? Where’s Moby Dick, the whale shark, for instance — the largest shark that roam the seven seas?

But Yahapalana is not solely about bringing past rogues to justice. To prove it is ‘with it’ it must also show its determination to probe scandals that occur in the present, when the country is under its watch. Many complaints of corruption have been filed against certain politicians of the present regime but sadly none seems to have been yet indicted or brought before court. Perhaps there’s a queue and everyone, including government Ministers and MPs must await their turn.

But not so with the biggest financial scandal of Yahapalana times that was to erupt not even two months of election victory when the nation’s fervent hopes for a new clean era were at its zenith. When the news broke that primary bond dealer Arjun Aloysius had made a cool 5 billion buck killing out of the bonds issued by the Central Bank in 2015 February whilst the Bank’s governor was his father in law — even though no firm evidence has still emerged to show any insider dealing — it shocked the nation to the core: that so scandalous a scam of such magnitude could occur so early in the Yahapalana dawn.

Undoubtedly, the sordid daylight bank heist served to sour the glass of creamy white milk the masses had offered to the nation’s new leaders who had promised to crackdown on the corruption of the former regime. It was with shock and disbelief the masses beheld the prospect that the new masters had instead added their own drop of dung to make it undrinkable. They had cast the first stones against the sinners of the previous regime but were they now free of the same vile sin?

But was it a bad omen that portended doom to the newly established government with its much vaunted Yahapalanaya philosophy cloaked in contempt and riddled with ridicule? Or was it a blessing in disguise though it had cost the public purse billions. Was it a heaven sent chance to show Yahapalanaya in action?

The test of democracy or Yahapalanaya is not whether corruption exists or not under its system. Corruption has always been there and will continue to be there in any social system even in the best democracies of the world. The real test is how the system responds to corruption: whether it will engage in a cover-up or give the full Monty and expose all, no matter the consequences, no matter whose head falls.

The response came two years later, but though it came belated, one must be thankful it came at all. This year in February, moved by the force of public opinion, President Sirisena appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Bond Issue. The presence of two Supreme Court Justices and a former Auditor General gave it impeccable credentials and its credibility was beyond question. It held sittings almost for nine long months and is expected to forward its report to the President this Friday. The Commission’s proceedings also led to the resignation of the foreign minister Ravi Karunanayake. And cast doubts on the credibility of two other Government ministers.

But before it concluded its sittings it gave notice to the Prime Minister to appear before it on the 20th of last month, to answer questions the Commission wished to ask on the affidavit the Premier had already submitted at the Commission’s request. Furthermore the Attorney General too had some questions to ask on the role the PM had played in the affair.

It was no slam bam ten minute quickie affair. For well over an hour the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe answered each question — 48 in total — hurled at him. His answers were solid. No hedging. No evasiveness. No ‘I do not know’ or signs of amnesia. And his frankness was apparent. And in the dock, in the face of the bond inquisition, he seemed as if he was bearing the Holy Grail of Yahapalanaya in his hands and echoing the words of King Arthur’s knight Sir Galahad as writ by the poet Tennyson: “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure. “

His presence in the dock and the answers he gave redeemed Yahapalanaya that even the ranks of the joint opposition could scarce forebear to cheer. If there was one weakness he displayed was to think that all were gentlemen like him and could be taken at their word. He said he asked Arjuna Mahendran to give him an assurance that his son in law Arjun will resign as director of Perpetual Treasuries and all its associated companies before he places his bid. The answer was yes, he will. And Ranil believed him. Ranil said he asked Ravi Karunanayake whether there was any impropriety in him occupying a penthouse suite at Monarch Residencies as alleged by Aluthgamage in Parliament last year. The answer he got was ‘no’, there was nothing improper, and he believed Ravi’s assurance.

The strongest steel is one forged in the hottest fire, and the Yahapalanaya philosophy of this government has survived another test and emerged stronger. But Yahapalanaya, like democracy, is not a gift from the Gods. Neither is it a gift from political leaders. It’s not a full grown study tree laden with fruits for the masses to taste its sweetness immediately.

But rather a plant still to grow and mature, which needs constant care, which has to be daily watered, fertilized, protected and nourished, safeguarded from both wind and storm, before it can bear fruit for generations to savour and rest in its shade sans fear. And it’s not the duty of presidents or prime ministers alone to look after it, but the sacred duty of each and every citizen of Lanka to take care of it and see it grow. Not mock the sapling and blight its growth.

But, bonded as they are, if either Ranil or Maithri thinks he can exist alone at this crucial time, the nation will have to dig two political graves. And cut one more for Democracy.

-Don Manu /Sunday Times


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