Sri Lanka: Double Trouble

Politics, say those not averse to giving Shakespeare’s words a little twist, make strange bed fellows.

Last July two of Sri Lanka’s leading political parties and arch enemies decided to bed together, not because of a newfound intimacy but rather for their political survival.

As mounting public protests and calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign reverberated across the country and demands grew to include the SLPP government led by his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president responded by removing his brother and his cabinet in May last year.

Still hoping to stay in office, President Rajapaksa turned to his political opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the UNP, a party completely wiped out at the August 2020 parliament election, as prime minister. That he hoped would salvage his presidency.

With the country’s economy heading to an abyss and unable to pay its accumulated foreign debts, the president of the bankrupt country turned to the leader of a bankrupt party rejected by the people and with a single seat in parliament–that too secured indirectly through the National List.

Whether President Rajapaksa thought that six-time prime minister with decades of political experience, Ranil Wickremesinghe, could save the nation or he was more intent on saving the Rajapaksa family from political obscurity if not oblivion, as some observers argued, remains speculative.

But Wickremesinghe, the sole UNP member in parliament, had to have a quid pro quo if he was to protect the Rajapaksa clan and negotiate with the IMF to which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had desperately turned, and push through necessary legislation in parliament which the IMF was bound to call for if a financial bailout was to be considered.

The arrangement was that the Rajapaksa-led SLPP (Sri Lanka Peoples’ Front) which still had a parliamentary majority would provide the new prime minister with legislative backing.

That seemed to work well at the beginning with the unusual spectacle of the SLPP which had lost some of its MPs to the opposition, hailing Wickremesinghe as a new messiah whereas they had abused him before.

But this was no “marriage of true minds” in Shakespeare’s words. One year on the “impediments” are beginning to show. Sharing one bed was starting to be uncomfortable. Last month President Wickremesinghe called SLPP leaders and district representatives to a meeting with him.

That visibly annoyed the Rajapaksas in particular, who had him know that, though president, he had crossed the line calling SLPP members for a meeting. Moreover, the Rajapaksas suspect that Wickremesinghe is trying to split or at least weaken their party by winning over some of its MPs, including some ministers, to back him as he fixes his sight on next year’s presidential election.

At 75 years next March it could be his last fling at the presidency which had eluded him in the past decades.

There is another sticking point. The SLPP has wanted some former ministers and prominent members appointed to the cabinet which now has 22 but could legally accommodate 30. Wickremesinghe has been ignoring the call or pushing back mainly because some of those named have dubious histories.

With Wickremesinghe obviously intent on trying to make his part time presidency serving out Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unfinished term, into a permanent one, he does not want ministers with unsavoury records and publicly despised heavy baggage around him.

So, the tug-of-war is on. Both sides hold trump cards and have doing so for some months. The SLPP could queer his pitch, so to say, by not supporting the president’s legislation including some which are necessary to meet IMF requirements or others that may require 2/3rd majorities if the Supreme Court so determines.

But if he smells trouble ahead with the SLPP ganging up against him or undercutting him politically, he now has the power to dissolve parliament which, most likely, will despatch many of the current SLPP MPs and party candidates into the political sunset at any general election (officially due late next year), given today’s public ire.

Though President Wickremesinghe and his political backers, some of them won over from the SLPP, speak confidently of Sri Lanka’s economic revival with the inflation rate that was hovering around 70% now down to the twenties and the Central Bank expecting it to drop to a single digit before long.

They say the long queues for fuel and gas are long gone and food shortages have largely ended.

But the flip side paints a different picture. The Department of Census and Statistics conveys part of it. Its statistics show the overall economy has shrunk by 11.5% in the first quarter. The industry sector has been the hardest hit, experiencing a contraction of 23.4%.

These results add to the poor performance in 2022 when the overall economy shrank by 8%. This downward trend continues, with many businesses forced to close down.

Meanwhile the Sunday Times economic analyst Dr Nimal Sanderatne said in his 25 June column that though there is a degree of economic stabilisation and expectations of further improvement most economic activity has contracted causing feelings of despair.

“The discontent is owing to the high prices despite the improved availability of essentials. The decreased real income of people, higher unemployment, increased poverty, and malnutrition are serious concerns.”

Add to that the exodus of professionals such as doctors, engineers, IT specialists and other educated Sri Lankans, leaving hospitals largely depleted of doctors and hospital staff and other specialist and technical personnel quitting for foreign employment.

Last week Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told parliament that in the last several months 70 pilots of Sri Lankan Airlines- the national carrier—had resigned while another 18 are due to join a Dubai international airline leaving Sri Lankan with less than 260 pilots whereas it needs 330 pilots to operate optimally.

Meanwhile pressure is mounting internationally. The IMF wants action taken to clean up governance and corruption that have been the bane of Sri Lanka over the last few decades. The IMF has said that “anti-corruption and governance reforms are imperative” to ensure that forthcoming reforms benefit the people.

Conscious of Sri Lanka’s failure on both counts and its continuing to so at the time IMF was engaged in negotiations, the Fund has made the island nation the first country in Asia to undergo the IMF diagnostic exercise with the report due in September.

Recent cases where State ministers are free from arrest for serious offences whereas an opposition MP is arrested for a relatively minor offence, violating the constitutional principle of equal justice for all, is a glaring example of the arbitrary use of the law.

September could be a particularly crucial month for the government. The IMF’s diagnostic report among other assessments, could determine whether Sri Lanka has qualified for the Fund’s second tranche of its $ 2.9 million bailout.

But equally, if not more importantly, could be the full written update the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is due to present in September on how far Sri Lanka has progressed in implementing several recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council.

In its very critical assessment of the Sri Lanka situation Deputy High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif in her oral update to the Council last month said that “accountability remains the fundamental gap in attempts to deal with the past”, meaning the country’s pre and post-war conduct against the Tamil separatist LTTE and the Tamil community at large. If Impunity continues, the country will achieve neither genuine reconciliation nor sustainability, she said.

But the most testing warning to the government and the country’s ethno-nationalists was her later seeming threat.

“As long as this “accountability deficit” remains the international community can-and should- play complementary roles. Means to do so include the use of accepted principles of universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.”

She did not rule out targeted sanctions against “credibly alleged perpetrators”.

That should sound the alarm for many including political leaders and the armed forces. US and Canada have already banned entry to some. The fear is that other countries would now look to do the same or even go beyond.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.

Neville de Silva – IDN-InDepthNews

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