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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Sri Lanka: Euphoric hope that Ranil in the saddle, international lending agencies will be queueing to offer loans, now fast fading

Image: Ranil-Gota govt has deployed police and army in modern anti-riot gear to suppress peaceful protestors. ( credit for original phots:Thilina Kaluthotage @ThilinaKalu)

As the gathering clouds further darken not allowing a single streak of light to fall on this godforsaken island, where an economic crisis rages unstoppable in the backdrop of swirling mass unrest, it is increasingly self-evident that neither will a fair wind blow to chase away the clouds nor will the storm abate as long as the biggest impediment to restoring public confidence in the entire gamut of government remains unbudged.

Despite mass protest throughout the country, all demanding in one singular voice that President Gotabaya must resign from office forthwith, he has refused to leave, knowing full well no constitutional provision exists to force him to quit, no way to force him out, save the time consuming, complex, partisan procedure of impeachment.

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They have braved the elements, they have braved the mob, they have braved the hardships to dawn a Brave New Lanka, free of the Rajapaksa feudal yolk; and vow to carry on till Gota goes

Armed with this legal shield, he has tried every gambit in the political book to survive his tenure at the helm. He forced his cabinet of diehard loyalists to resign in April, took two weeks to assemble a new look ‘system change’ cabinet of young Turks and, when that didn’t do the trick, forced the resignation of his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, the sole anchor of his power, as Prime Minister.

“Perhaps the President, like so many others, hasn’t quite grasped the gravity of the crisis. Perhaps he thinks that this is just a passing storm that can be weathered by an appeal to the world for aid to tide Lanka over these difficult times.”

On Black Monday, May 9, with the automatic dissolution of the cabinet which a Prime Minister’s resignation constitutionally entails, Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the only Lankan President not to have a Prime Minister, no cabinet, no government, having sacrificed them all in his bizarre bid to defy the fates, and wage all on one last throw of dice to salvage his crumbling Presidency by offering his government to the Opposition.

No other President has cut such a sorry figure on Lanka’s political stage than Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, after arrogating to himself dictatorial powers under his own 20th Amendment, readily offers to face the ignominious prospect of being the chastened bearer of an emasculated presidency.

Perhaps the President, like so many others, hasn’t quite grasped the gravity of the crisis. Perhaps he thinks that this is just a passing storm that can be weathered by an appeal to the world for aid to tide Lanka over these difficult times. That a few thousand tourist arrivals or getting more dollars from expats in the Middle East would do the trick. That this is a mere cash flow problem and that bridging finance from some world lending institution is the answer. That the nation is bankrupt seems not to have sunk in.

A silver streak at storm cloud’s edge did, indeed, seem to shine by his questionable appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Although he was not in anyone’s opinion the one ‘most likely to command the confidence in Parliament,’ having lost his own seat at the 2022 election and only present in the political conclave by the dubious virtue of the single national list seat awarded to his similarly routed party, he was, nevertheless, widely held by some, thirsting for a saviour, as one who commanded the confidence of the West.

With his fluency in English coupled with his western attire and liberal mindset, not forgetting his five times Prime Minister pedigree, he was hailed as the darling of the West: the IMF’s pin-up PM whose face, alone, could launch a thousand Indian ships and charm the bottomless pockets of Washington’s aid groups.’

“With euphoric hope that once swelled the optimistic breast that with Ranil in the saddle on the SLPP bronco, international lending agencies will be queueing to offer loans, now fast fading, the focus shifted to the 21st Amendment Bill”

But while the initial promise to get easy dollars from western agencies may well hold him a hostage to fortune, these last two weeks he has done naught else but – apart from assembling as his cabinet, a mishmash of swashbuckling pseudo patriots, who leaped aboard after jettisoning their much-hyped principles — be the harbinger of bad news to a people living it, day in and night out, well aware of the economic apocalypse that awaits them if no action is taken to avert its imminent coming.

The news this week from the lending agencies has put paid to the saviour mirage, even as ‘the importance of being Ranil’ has begun to wane. The World Bank issued a statement on Tuesday denying media reports that it plans to support Lanka by the grant of a bridge loan or new loan commitments. It said that ‘until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place, the World Bank does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka.’

The World Bank demand for a ‘macro-economic’ policy framework means that Lanka must show how it plans to revive its economic sectors, including agriculture, industries, commerce, exports and tourism. But without a politically stable environment, that task will be all the more difficult.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power pledged her support to the people of Sri Lanka and ‘stressed the need to urgently undertake political and economic reforms to gain the trust of the Sri Lankan people.’

On Thursday, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told India’s NDTV, that “I feel for the people in Sri Lanka. It is a result of mismanagement, and therefore the most important thing to be done is to put the country back on a sound microeconomic footing.

The previous day, the IMF team, which concluded its virtual mission on May 24, said it will continue to monitor the economic and political situation in Sri Lanka very closely. However, the statement declared: ‘Since Sri Lanka’s public debt is assessed as unsustainable, approval by the Executive Board of an IMF-supported programme for Sri Lanka would require adequate assurances that debt sustainability will be restored.’ It certainly is a long, long way to Tipperary.

With euphoric hope that once swelled the optimistic breast that with Ranil in the saddle on the SLPP bronco, international lending agencies will be queueing to offer loans, now fast fading, the focus shifted to the 21st Amendment Bill which was presented to the Cabinet on Monday and distributed to the Opposition for its comments and proposals to be made on Friday.

“But in this instance, let alone condescending to consult the masses demanding real system change, parliamentarians  have not even paused to listen to the people’s roar demanding that Gota must go.”

Many were soon to make their protests public beforehand. The main charge against it is that it doesn’t go far enough to reflect the people’s will. Understandably in the eyes of its promoters, it did not seek to abolish the Presidency for that will entail reference to the people by way of Referendum; and that wouldn’t do at all, now would it? It is the conditioned notion of all MPs that they alone can sort out these important constitutional affairs for they, like mothers, know best.

And, of course, wouldn’t that be a sign of crass ingratitude toward a personage by whose grace these servile men owe their sudden exalted positions. To throw the baby with the bathwater would be akin to getting rid of the benefactor and where would that leave them?

For some time now Parliament has been functioning in a world of its own. Existing on an island mass, in the middle of a lake, its inhabitants act and speak in isolated splendour, engrossed in their own affairs with scant regard to those that live at and beyond the water’s edge of the Diyawanna. To consult the people on any matter, especially on the way they are governed, will be an insult to the high esteem in which they hold themselves, a slap to their egos, and a blow to their horse deals done behind close doors.

But in this instance, let alone condescending to consult the masses demanding real system change, they have not even paused to listen to the people’s roar demanding that Gota must go.

On the contrary, apart from the welcome restoration of independent commissions, the President will continue to hold executive office, though slightly dulled at certain hems, in the style and manner he is accustomed to enjoy. Instead of clipping his wings to ground him, he has been given extra feathers for extended flight. The proposed amendment bill will allow him to hold any number of ministries, unlike the 19th Amendment which allowed him none. Thus it will let the President calmly continue his term of office, with throne and sceptre secure.

After the parties had met on Friday where dissenting views were discussed and a further meeting scheduled for next Friday, the Prime Minister issued a statement declaring that consensus had been reached among the parties present, including the SJB and the SLFP, that 19A will be made the 21 Amendment.

If this is indeed the case, and it must be emphasised that it may not be, then will a resurrected 19A, reincarnated and presented as the new 21A Avatar, not serve to make a mockery of the entire democratic process? 19A may have been suitable in 2015 when a national government was in place, with the powers granted to the elected and unsackable Prime Minister served to keep in check the powers of the elected President.

But in today’s context will it fit the bill? Does it go against the very grain of democracy to elevate the present unelected Prime Minister, one rejected with all his party members at the last general election, by anointing him with de facto status of the President and, even as the President is, similarly fortify his position by making him constitutionally irremovable? Even if it gains parliamentary approval, will it pass the people’s muster? Or is that the last of promoters’ concern?

Will this not be a travesty of Parliamentary representation? An insidious attempt to make democracy wear a ridiculous face? Thankfully there are many miles to go before the pons asinorum is reached. As things stand, 21A has been put on hold till next Friday.

But when the day comes for it to be presented, in whatever shape or form, be it a half-baked cake or a well-done steak, an enemy within may sabotage its final passage in the House. On Tuesday, the day after the 21st Amendment draft had been presented to the cabinet, the ruling party, the SLPP, gave an inkling as to what may happen to the mooted constitutional amendment.

“Only one man prevents the resurrection of Lanka, only one man holds back its dawn and that is the President who, by his intransigent refusal to resign, insufferably delays Lanka’s revival and prolongs the agony of 22 million of her people, without a tinge of conscience.”

The party’s Secretary, Sagara Kariyawasam, told Ranil Wickremesinghe, in no uncertain terms, where he should get off the bus. He said: ‘We said that we will support Wickremesinghe to make a new Government to solve the country’s economic crisis. There is no Constitutional or political crisis here. He was appointed to find solutions to the economic crisis. But the economic crisis is still there. People are still on the roads in queues. And he is trying to bring a Constitutional amendment. First, solve the economic crisis and create an environment which allows a Parliamentarian to walk freely on the road and have the mental freedom to think. Then, we can discuss a Constitutional amendment.”

The SLPP, founded and controlled by Basil Rajapaksa who faces parliamentary expulsion if 21A is passed with its anti-dual citizenship article intact, has the numbers necessary in Parliament, to torpedo the bill from gaining the crucial two-thirds majority needed for its enactment. Thus, all the time, trouble and effort taken to bring it to the voting stage may well come to naught at the final hour.

Ranil Wickremesinghe may well have become the workhorse dragging the Rajapaksa cart over rough terrain, made the prime minister to become the prime beggar in the Rajapaksa camp while the still ruling clan remain sitting pretty, biding their time, awaiting to return or to make safe exit.

Only one man prevents the resurrection of Lanka, only one man holds back its dawn and that is the President who, by his intransigent refusal to resign, insufferably delays Lanka’s revival and prolongs the agony of 22 million of her people, without a tinge of conscience. All the concessions he has made, all the ready willingness to take steps to even abolish the presidency have come to no avail and will come to no avail in the future.

All it has achieved is to keep the political parties busy in constitutional tinkering, engaged in a futile game of hitting the ball to the opponent’s court and returning it once again. If they refuse to play these patriotic games, they risk being branded traitors.

But if Gota hides behind the constitutional shield and refuses to resign, he can still be shown the door. All that Parliament needs to do is launch a campaign of noncooperation. Resign from all cabinet posts and pass no legislation; and, like Gandhi — who, with his nonviolent strategy of civil disobedience or Satyagraha made the British hold up their hands in despair and quit India — drive home the point that no single being can go against the manifest will of 22 million people.

But as long as there are unprincipled politicians who still wish to take the dangled bait, opportunistic men of straw who yearn to shine as heroes even in the ephemeral light of the Rajapaksa setting sun, no Gandhian exercise can succeed in ending soon the Rajapaksa triumvirate from continuing to hold Lanka as their personal fiefdom.

By Don Manu/ Sunday Times

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