Berlin Bluster: Wickremesinghe’s New Normal

The DW interviewer made the mistake of basing his question pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage on the so-called Channel 4 exposé, which was nothing more than a collation of unsubstantiated allegations.

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President Wickremesinghe during the interview [ Screengrab from DW's video]

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent interview with Deutsche Welle (DW), in Berlin, has been trending in the digital realm—not for all the right reasons, though. Thanks to it, the genre of interrogative interview has apparently taken on a whole new meaning, with the interviewee aggressively interrogating the interviewer! There was obviously much more to what transpired during the DW interview than the interviewers’ questions, comments and remarks provoking an angry reaction from President Wickremesinghe.

On watching the DW interview, one may have wondered whether President Wickremesinghe was wearing a saataka under his coat, for he sounded just like one of the Rajapaksas who are known for their antipathy towards the West. Opinion is divided on his angry reaction and the resultant imputation of motives to his interviewer. He has received both encomia and sharp barbs.

The DW’s bumpy interview with Wickremesinghe reminded us of Narendra Modi’s indignant response while being interviewed by senior journalist, Karan Thaper, in 2007. Thaper’s question on the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat made Modi see red and abruptly end the interview. Perhaps, Thaper’s curveball should not have come at the beginning of the interview.

President Wickremesinghe did not say anything new in the DW interview, which, however, was not without some takeaways, the main being that the SLPP-UNP government will not hold an international probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy under any circumstances, and it totally rejects the UNHRC report on Sri Lanka.

DW journalist posed some loaded questions, which Wickremesinghe adduced to justify his claim that an attempt was being made to corner him. Making himself out to be the victim of a hostile western propaganda campaign, Wickremesinghe craftily generalised by blaming the western media for having a bias against the Global South, and trying to cast Sri Lanka in a bad light.

The DW interviewer made the mistake of basing his question pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage on the so-called Channel 4 exposé, which was nothing more than a collation of unsubstantiated allegations. Wickremesinghe shrewdly demolished the very basis of that query by questioning the credibility of Channel 4, and the argument the interviewer was trying to build to trap him collapsed like the Sri Lankan economy under the Gotabaya presidency! DW should have known better than to use some unsubstantiated claims in a foreign television programme oozing with prejudice as a peg to hang its arguments.

Interestingly, Wickremesinghe, who was once accused of being subservient to the West and having internationalised Sri Lanka’s domestic issues, is now taking on the West as vigorously as the Rajapaksas. Has his thinking undergone a radical change due to his close association with the Medamulana family since last year’s political marriage of convenience between the SLPP and the UNP?

In the pre-Aragalaya era, Sri Lanka’s national politics was dominated by the Medamulana Chinthanaya of the Rajapasksa family and the Kollupitiya ideology of Wickremesinghe and the UNP. These conflicting ideologies even shaped the responses of the two warring camps to vital national issues such as the country’s war on terror. The UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) relied on the western powers to make the LTTE amenable to a negotiated settlement, albeit in vain, but the political forces led by the Rajapaksas advocated the elimination of the LTTE militarily. The UNP was considered pro-western while the Rajapaksa camp was identified with China. But last year’s political upheavals have led to a convergence of these competing ideologies, with the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe joining forces for political expediency.

Is it that Wickremesinghe, on whose watch the UNP suffered the worst-ever electoral defeat, is now disillusioned with the West and has realised that if the UNP is to make a comeback and face the next election confidently, it has to shore up its vote bank by eating into the Rajapaksas’ support base, and the best way to achieve that end is adopting the SLPP’s nationalistic agenda? Gotabaya may have failed to live up to the expectations of those who elected him, but he proved that the nationalist camp was strong enough to determine the outcome of a presidential election under its own steam. UNP propagandists are all out to gain maximum possible mileage out of the DW interview and reimage their party as a patriotic entity.

Perhaps, one should not rush to conclusions anent the apparent sea change Wickremesinghe’s attitude towards the west, etc., has undergone. It is said to be wiser to judge political leaders by their deeds than by their words.

Prabath Sahabandu

Prabath Sahabandu is the editor in chief of the Island, a national daily newspaper in Colombo

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