A Government Edging Towards Disarray

[National Affairs]

Having had 68 years of parliamentary government, people of the country have little reason to hope for good parliamentary governance. But they vote, at times by habit, at times by temptation, or out of sheer boredom.

Being rid of a regime which was accelerating in the direction of a corrupt, family-controlled fascistic dictatorial regime was a relief to many. But, for certain, Mahinda Rajapaksa ― now not the insuperable national leader that he was throughout to be after winning the Presidential Election of 2009 ― is the most popular politician around. He misjudged the worth of Sinhala chauvinism, and aligning with fascist thugs like the BBS cost him the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections of 2015.

The alliance cobbled together to defeat Rajapaksa at the Presidential Elections had no serious political agenda, except to address what were perceived as the most salient faults of the Rajapaksa regime. As for the concerns addressed in the election manifesto of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, serious attempt was made to fulfil just one, namely elimination of the execute presidency. The Supreme Court ruled that the elimination of the executive presidency would need a referendum. Thus the plan to transfer much of the executive power from the President to Prime Minister was curtailed. Short term interests subverted consensus on reform of the electoral sytem. The pledge to restrict cabinet size to 25 ministers was stillborn in the face of the need to secure a parliamentary majority. Action against corruption and steps to punish past offenders were weak and at most partial.

When the “Good Governance” manifesto for the Presidential Election pledged a balanced foreign policy, the putative national government led by a UNP-SLFP alliance was expected to distance the country from China and locate it politically and economically close to the US and the West. But objective reality dictated otherwise. Every minister who made strong anti-China utterances was soon humbly pleading for more Chinese investment.

On the other hand, India ― whose performance vis-a-vis the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement of 1998 led to strong resentment among the professional and business communities of Sri Lanka ― could not get the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) proposed in 2008 ― to rectify the flaws in the FTA and strengthen economic ties ― off the ground despite strong pressure from India. The Indian government then came up with the Indo Sri Lanka Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA) in 2015, following the visit of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and plan to have the agreement signed by May 2016.

Despite heavy canvassing on the part of the Sri Lankan government and its professional agents, ECTA faces stiff resistance from large sections of the professional and small business communities, although the big business represented by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has been won over. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena have so far failed to quash suspicion that ETCA is a fresh attempt to re-introduce CEPA. The recent surreptitious introduction of an Indian ambulance service has not helped alleviate public suspicions about Indian intentions and connivance of the Sri Lankan government.

What is significant here is the prospect of India being used as a component of the planned Indo-Pacific regional “pivot” of the US to contain China. The US, for now, feeds the great power ambitions of the Indian ruling elite to thoroughly integrate Sri Lanka economically, militarily and politically. Thus the seemingly casual remarks by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe about a land link between India and Sri Lanka cannot be lightly dismissed.

The government, despite declaring an even more liberal economic policy than its predecessors by letting foreigners own land in the country and offering massive tax concessions has thus far failed to attract investment that will lead to economic development. On the other hand, efforts to privatize higher education and public health are gathering speed.

Nationally, the pledge to release political prisoners has not been honoured. The government has justified continued detention of political prisoners by declaring that there are no political prisoners and that those in detention are held on charges of terrorism. It seems that the government feels obliged to please the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists whose support it used to secure power.

Inquiries into political murders and kidnappings under the previous regime are proceeding at snail’s pace and legal action against corruption and abuse of power are slow and selective, and appear to be timed to bring political pressure on opponents rather than to inquire into misdeeds and punish the culprits. The latter is hard to achieve as the government relies on members of the former government to sustain its overwhelming majority in parliament.

Matters that once irked the public include the abuse of the position by members of the government as well as children and other members of the family. There was expectation that ‘good governance’ will be free of such abuse. The President violated a basic principle by taking his son Daham Sirisena with him to the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2015. On 13th March 2016 Daham Sirisena went one further to land onstage during the awards ceremony of the 137th Royal-Thomian cricket match.

Between the two episodes, parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra was accused of abduction and assault of a person on 21st December and Minister Champika Ranawaka of driving a hit-and-run vehicle on 28th February. Police action was slow in both cases. Since 1978 massive bribery, corruption, nepotism, links between politicians and the world of crime and abuse of privilege have assimilated to the political culture of the country. It will be folly to expect that changing personalities soaked in that culture to change bad habits. Thus matters of law and order are likely to worsen as the government further consolidates power.

During the elections, no major political alliance declared its position on the national question, although there has been a secret understanding between the UNP-led alliance ― which includes some of the worst Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists ― and the TNA, the Muslim and Hill Country Tamil leaders. But there has been nothing concrete. For political reasons Tamil nationalist leaders are demanding an international inquiry into war crimes. But the government has only secured remission and not release from the prospect of an international inquiry being imposed on it.

Besides the continued detention of political prisoners, vexing issues for many thousands in the North and East include prolonged delays in returning army occupied land, continued military presence in areas with a large civilian population, denial of the right of fishermen to go to sea along certain stretches of the coastline and inability of the displaced to return to their homes and denial of livelihood. To add to their frustration, the government has ― partly under Indian government pressure and partly based on the indifference of Tamil nationalist political parties ― been lax in dealing with poaching by Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters in the north and northwest of the country’s territorial waters. Poachers arrested by the navy and occasionally by local fishers are promptly released, on demand by the Indian government.

The economy seems rudderless so that the budget proposals had to be revised several times in the face of middle class protest. Recent announcement of increase in the VAT and other indirect taxes will burden the low income groups, especially the peasantry denied of subsidies, plantation workers denied of a wage increase, and private sector employees whose modest wage increases are resisted by employers.

That the government will be repressive has been made clear by the brutal handling by the police of protests by students. That is inevitable since the government has no economic development policy except the sale of local labour on the cheap to foreign exploiters.

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