Politics

Truss’s U-turn and Rajapaksa’s Downturn

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“In a year of scarcity…Louis XV was hunting, as usual, in the forest of Sénart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired… ‘For a man or a woman? A man. What did he die of? Hunger’.” – Jules Michelet (Historical view of the French Revolution)

On the sharp edge of the precipice, the UK halted, reversing back to relative safety.

A massive tax cut was the showpiece of the mini-budget of PM Liz Truss and chancellor of exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Reaction was immediate. Markets revolted. The pound crashed. The IMF issued the kind of rap-across-the-knuckles-statement it generally reserves for the Third World. The Bank of England pledged to buy UK government bonds worth 65 billion pounds (73 billion dollars) in a desperate attempt to reassure markets and save pension funds.

The prime minister and the chancellor of exchequer remained unmoved.

Then the Tory party’s dissent broke out into the open. With the annual party conference in session, more than a dozen MPs aired their disconcert in public. The naysayers included several Conservative grandees. Party chairman issued an implicit threat to deny nominations to those who would vote against the mini-budget. But the rebellion could not be staunched. Opinion polls showed that the tax cuts, especially reducing the top rate from 45% to 40%, and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses were deeply unpopular with the electorate. More than half the voters wanted Liz Truss out.

Faced with the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the mini-budget and a general election, PM Truss backtracked. “We get it, we have listened,” said the chancellor of exchequer who had reportedly celebrated the tax cut at a champagne dinner with financiers. The worst was averted by throwing the most objectionable overboard – the slashing of the top tax rate. Democracy, and the dissent it enabled, saved the day.

Compare this with what didn’t happen in Sri Lanka when the Rajapaksas unveiled their own crazy tax cut. The objectors were few, the UNP and the JVP, some voices from civil society, international rating agencies. But from the ruling coalition, there was not a word of protest. Those who are now busy painting themselves in saviour-hues, from Dullas Alahapperuma, G.L. Peiris, and Charitha Herath to Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Maithripala Sirisena, were as silent as the dead.

Tory MP Damian Green said, “It’s a political no brainer that if we end up painting ourselves as the party of the rich and the party of the already successful, then, funnily enough, most people won’t vote for us and we lose,” (The Guardian – 3.10.2022). In Sri Lanka, the SLPP said nothing about the Rajapaksa-giveaway to the rich, because the Rajapaksas were the party of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The majority safely tethered with minority-phobia, the coming parliamentary election was as good as won.

The Rajapaksas could get away with manifestly disastrous policies for so long because they could count on the backing of a majority of the majority. Another key contributory factor was the absence of inner-party democracy, an autocratic plague common to all Lankan parties. There was also the bureaucracy’s entrenched habit of going along with politicians up to the precipice and beyond. In the absence of the necessary human factor, institutional guardrails became reduced to stage props.

A sovereign default and two popular uprisings later, very little seemed to have changed. The factors that pushed us down the precipice are impeding our puny efforts to crawl out of it, starting with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP.

Politics of hunger

Ranil Wickremesinghe began his premiership by telling the truth to the people about the country’s disastrous condition. That was perhaps his finest hour.

Today the opposite is happening. His ministers, Rajapaksa-acolytes to a man and a woman, have reverted to covering the soiled reality in clean linen. They deny the width and depth of hunger, of malnutrition, of poverty. Listening to them, a visiting Martian could be pardoned for thinking that nothing much ails this country. Most worryingly, even now, these know-nothing politicians can find bureaucrats to corroborate their lies.

This at a time when the FAO and the WHP have included Sri Lanka among the 48 countries identified as hunger hot spots. Recently the Health ministry rejected a UNICEF report on Denial not just covers up the problem. It removes the need to look for solutions, the duty and the responsibility to take action.

Sooriyawewa, that Rajapaksa pocket-borough, is currently in the crosshairs of a malnutrition spat. Medical professionals claim an 80% malnutrition rate. The SLPP part of the Government decry the statistic as calumny. In the meantime, in the Namadagaswewa Maha Vidyalaya in Sooriyawewa, the principal and the staff have set up a food bank to feed hungry children. Teachers bring an extra food packet or two daily and deposit in the bank; needy students withdraw the packets.

This innovative solution was possible because the staff noticed that many students fainted from hunger during school hours. If the staff went into denial, if they blamed the fainting on voluntary dieting or enemy action, the food bank would not have come into being; and increasing hunger would have resulted in mass dropouts.

We must acknowledge the abyss before we can escape it.

Denial is not just counterproductive. It is also stupid. You can lie about growth rates and foreign reserves. But you can’t convince the poor that they are rich or the hungry that their stomachs are full. Poverty and hunger can be hidden only from those who are neither poor nor hungry. And in Sri Lanka, that percentage is shrinking.

We are living in times of dissonance. The IMF chief has warned about people on the streets, again, a global problem. There’s nothing more dissonant than a small percentage of the populace living in the lap of luxury in a time of general want. In his tome on the French Revolution, historian Jules Michelet mentions that for centuries, observers were amazed at the patience of the French people, their acceptance of intolerable economic and political injustices. But there comes a day when even the most worm-like worm turns.

While denying the gravity of the economic crisis and the depth of public suffering, the SLPP is busy pushing for an expanded cabinet. They won the first round when President Wickremesinghe gave in and appointed 38 parasitic state ministers. If he expands the cabinet, he will fail the ‘smell test’ again and destroy his credibility, even among those who are grateful to him for ending fuel and gas queues.

More pertinently succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure will impede President Wickremesinghe’s capacity to implement his economic agenda, to the country’s detriment. After the appointment of that herd of state ministers, the Government has no moral right to talk about inefficient and overstaffed state sectors. Given the public funds squandered on maintaining this herd in a state of luxury, how can the people be asked to tighten their belts any further? The rot is already visible in a tendency to take the easy way out, eschewing the hard road out of the crisis, the one that will address the root causes, the one President Wickremesinghe keeps on referring to in his speeches. The reversion to a disproportionate dependence on indirect taxes and the abolishing of 15% interest rate on deposits by the elderly are cases in point.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone as the more extremist or simple-minded elements within the opposition insist. The ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ slogan may work as propaganda but it shouldn’t have become the basis of political analysis or strategising. For instance, if the opposition came to a short-term deal with President Wickremesinghe about a common political and economic program and a parliamentary election in 2023, the SLPP could have been deprived of their bargaining and blackmailing power. The Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback partly because the opposition and Wickremesinghe turned their guns on each other. Incidentally this comeback may be electoral as well, going by the SLPP’s huge wins at the Panadura and Gampola cooperative elections. The world provides other worrying examples. In Brazil, more than 43% voted for the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, bucking opinion polls, pushing the election into a second round.

When everything becomes reduced to survival, that very obsession threatens survival. The high security zone gazette fiasco could have been avoided with a little forethought. But the Rajapaksas are hooked on immediate gratification and their ethos is winning in government circles. In August, it looked like President Wickremesinghe with his economic sanity had the upper hand. By the end of September, he seems to be reduced to a voice in the margins, with the Government walking, talking, and smelling like the Rajapaksas.

In history, art can be omen. This year’s top winner at the Cannes film festival was ‘Triangle of Sadness’. A super luxury yacht filled with jetsetters is engulfed in a storm at sea. The turbulence outside creates an upheaval within. Power relations are upended, with a former cleaner gaining control. Real life is not that neat. The last may not become the first; cleaners may not win in the end. But the time before that revanchist end could become filled with violence, visceral and indiscriminate. The democratic narrative is undermined when injustice becomes entrenched. The virtues of stability and order sound hollow, when poverty and hunger overwhelm a populace.

Political illiberalism and economic neoliberalism: a lose-lose scenario

Tsering Dorje was an ordinary Tibetan man who discussed the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother on the phone. For that ‘crime’ he was detained for a month in a re-education facility by the Chinese authorities.

Re-education or rehabilitation centres sit ill with democracy. Irrespective of the name they masquerade under, these are Orwellian entities aimed at turning thinking citizens into mindless subjects.

After the high security zone gazette departed, in ignominy, came an attempt to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation. Its targets, apart from the usual terrorists and extremists, would be drug addicts (turning drug dependence into a political crime) and ‘any other group or persons who require treatment and rehabilitation.’ Would the ‘persons who require treatment and rehabilitation’ include the thuggish son of state minister Prasanna Ranaweera? Or the ministerial goons who attacked petrol station attendants in Maharagama for refusing to violate the QR code? If not, why not?

The Bureau’s Governing council is to include the secretary of defence. The current holder of that title has a credible claim to the label extremism. At an October 2017 Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha, retired major general Kamal Gunaratna defined the backers of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft constitution as traitors who deserve death. They should be denied normal last rites as the JVP/DJV did to its victims during the second insurgency, he further stated.

Commenting on this pronouncement, Mangala Samarweera said, “We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power.” To take his argument a step further, what kind of rehabilitation will such people implement if the Bureau of Rehabilitation becomes a reality?

Addressing a memorial meeting for Gowri Thavarasa, lawyer and human rights defender, the former director of CID Shani Abeysekara said, “I had produced so many before courts. But I understood what it meant only when I was produced before the courts”. When Abeysekara was persecuted by the Rajapaksas, he was saved by the commitment of civic-minded lawyers like Thavarasa and by a judicial system that retained the backbone. A functioning system of justice and an active civil society are protectors of the last resort for every one of us.

Whatever the faults of liberal-electoral democracy, it provides the best available protection – however inadequate – for the poor and powerless from the depredations of political and economic power-wielders. By keeping avenues of peaceful dissent open, it also functions as a proven safeguard against violent disorder and systemic instability. The UK may have escaped a fate partially similar to Sri Lanka because, unlike Sri Lanka, its electoral democracy is also quite liberal.

Instead of making the Lankan system more liberal, as he did during the 2015-19 period, President Wickremesinghe is initiating or permitting a return to the illiberal policies, practices, and ethos of the Rajapaksa era. By doing so, he is helping to stifle whatever corrective mechanisms and safety valves still exist. At a time a global economic and political storm is brewing, and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line nationally, this mix of political illiberalism and economic neo-liberalism cannot ensure order or save the Government (it can’t even maintain tourist arrivals; an outsized obsession with terror laws and repression is not a lure for tourists). By increasing societal alienation, it will just bring another day of reckoning closer, a more violent one.

Sri Lanka Politics of Protests

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During the month, Sri Lanka government made some progress in the measures it had initiated earlier for economic recovery. After holding the staff level meetings with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government is hopeful signs of $2.9 bn loan materialising. However, some other measures it has taken like the formation of a bloated cabinet for political reasons, declaring focus areas of Aragalaya protests as high security zones (HSZ) and the use of draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to arrest some of the protest leaders have drawn flak both at home and abroad. These negative aspects have provided a rallying point for opposition political parties to come together and articulate their stand against the Wickremesinghe government.

Actions of the government to suppress public protests found a place in the report on Sri Lanka by the outgoing High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) at Geneva. The session slated to end on October 7, is likely to extend the time given Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments to the international body on the accountability for its human rights aberrations during the Eelam war. At the same time, it is likely to add negative riders in the resolution on the way the government has been handling public protests.

Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled the country for his safety on July 13, returned home to a warm official welcome on September 2. Though he had been keeping a low profile, his return has reinforced the belief that the Rajapaksas will continue to call the shots in the Wickremesinghe government.

Politics of protests

The Aragalaya public protests that had dethroned the Rajapaksas from power have shaken up the political parties of all shades as much as the government. Recovering from the shock effect of four-month long socio-political protests, political leaders seem to have realised the Aragalaya phenomenon as the expression of the unheard, unheralded and deprived citizens who are fed up with the existing political order.

Prof GL Peiris, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), in an interview in the Daily Mirror aptly described the Aragalaya as the alternative of ideas, of policies of freshness. “A new departure. The Aragalaya had a visionary aspect to it. Later it degenerated into violence. That is not to be condoned in any manner.” He found “a kind of renaissance about it.” The SLPP leader, who has chosen to sit separately in parliament from most of the SLPP members supporting the government, saw in the creations of protestors as “an expression of creativity and deep desire for a system change. To reorganise the system.” Prof Peiris, while acknowledging that some of the measures taken by the government to revamp the economy and ease the fuel and food shortages have yielded results, said a bloated cabinet cannot bring a systemic change. There were fewer public protests during the month. However, the ultraleft elements of the JVP and its student body seem to be using the Aragalaya to rekindle the embers of the protest movement to expand their political influence.

In June 2022, before Wickremesinghe was elected president, the Sri Lanka government had told the members at the UNHRC in Geneva that it was imposing a moratorium on the use of the PTA. Even a month later when protestors were forcibly evicted from “sensitive areas,” the newly elected president assured foreign diplomats in Colombo that the government will uphold both Article 21 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 14 (1) (b) of the Sri Lanka Constitution which govern the right to peaceful assembly. However, these promises seem to have been forgotten by President Wickremesinghe after his election. The President who had once called the Aragalaya protestors as fascists, seems to be trying to weed out their influence, using teleological methods. This was evident from the mass arrest of protestors under the PTA.

The detention of several activists of Aragalaya under the PTA including the convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Mudalige was condemned by many political parties across the ethnic spectrum. This may be considered a positive outcome of the protests. This was seen in the participation of many leaders of the opposition parties, civil society and trade union activists and retired public servants, in the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)’s mobile signature campaign against the PTA. When the protest launched in Jaffna reached Galle Facethe presence of former defence secretary Austin Fernando and trade union activist Joseph Stalin, apart from leaders from political parties like the ITAK, SJB and SLMC like Sumanthiran, Rasamanickam, Hirunika Premachandra and Rauf Hakeem, underscored its relevance in the present political environment.

Similarly, the government notification of several areas around key government buildings and their adjoining roads in Colombo as High Security Zone to prevent holding of public meetings and protest marches has also been condemned by large sections of society. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa called the setting up of HSZ as “acts of a dictatorship.” He said the cabinet had recently given the nod for setting up a committee to regulate and control media. Premadasa said it was a dictatorial move and warned the party “will take to the streets against all these moves in the future.”

President Wickremesinghe has sworn in a jumbo cabinet to satisfy the members from assorted parties, who support him. Apparently, he considers it only as a political exercise and not an effort to revamp the system in keeping with public sensitivities over the style of governance. Perhaps, conscious of this shortcoming, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena successfully moved a unanimous resolution in parliament to constitute a ‘National Council’ (NC) after three rounds of talks with all parties. The NC will be chaired by the Speaker with the PM, leader of the opposition, Chief government whip and not more than 35 MPs representing all parties as members. According to a statement the NC will determine the priorities for the formulation of national policies, agree on short and medium term common minimum programs to stabilize the economy. It will also organize special meetings with cabinet ministers, the NC, the chairpersons of special committees and observers from youth organizations.

However, for the present the public is likely to view the formation of the NC as a political expediency. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake speaking in the parliament said the JVP will not support the NC project. He called the NC as “a facade. It is another attempt to dupe the people and the rest of the world.” He said the NC would not help solve problems. Few would dispute the JVP leader’s description of the prevailing political culture as “tainted by corruption, no respect for the rule of law and politicians enjoying perks and benefits and placing themselves above the law.” Unless the NC can address these issues, it is likely to end up as yet another glorified commission, whose findings are confined to the archives. Sri Lanka’s problems are not merely economic or political but much more organic, reflecting the disconnect between the polluted political system of governance and the ordinary people. Aragalaya is a manifestation of this disconnect. Unless the President and the political parties can rework their equation with the people, politics of protests is likely to continue as the norm.

Dr Subramanian Swamy with former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa [Photo: Special Arrangement]

Tailpiece: Visiting BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy called upon Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after the former president returned home. In fact, Swamy was the first foreign visitor to call upon him. Swamy, a close friend of the Rajapaksas, was in Colombo to attend a conference on national security at the Kotelewala Defence University. He also met with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and attended the Navratri pooja at his residence. The Indian leader is well known for making shocking one-liners. In his twitter on July 11, he said the Sri Lanka crisis was engineered and India should ensure that later ‘this mob’ does not become refugees of India. What was he up to in Colombo? That is a question for twitterati and WhatsApp university to debate.

[Written on September 30, 2022.]

United Kingdom: Legal Basis for The Constitutional Monarchy

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Do not be fooled by constitutional theories (the ‘paper  description’)  and  formal  institutional  continuities  (‘connected  outward  sameness’)  – concentrate  instead  on  the  real  centres  of  power  and  the  practical  working  of  the  political system (‘living reality’).  Walter Bagehot (1867)

This article commences with profound appreciation of Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II and her service to the Nation and concludes with every good wish for the reign of His Majesty King Charles III.

At this turning point in the history of the United Kingdom the most fundamental truth and point of clarity is that the King reigns (as head of nation) but does not rule.  This legal profundity is founded on the philosophy of John Locke ( 1632-1704) who propounded the concept of the “Moderate Monarchy” – a new political idea – that infused certain limitations of power on the Monarchy based on the principle that laws should be enacted for the common good of the citizenry.  Having introduced this approach,  Locke advocated residual powers for the sovereign, ascribing discretion to the sovereign to change or amend laws – again for the common good -a practice  now known as the Royal Prerogative. 

It is the Parliament that rules and the King is obliged to follow the advice of Parliament. The King has meetings once a month with his Privy Council – his advisory body – and approves Orders in Council that emanate from the consultations with and advice of The Privy Council.  The King also performs, with the advice of the Parliament,  several key functions such as appointing the Prime Minister and senior judges and  receiving  incoming and outgoing ambassadors. The King also signs State papers which he receives daily and conducts weekly meetings with his Prime Minister as well as other meetings regularly  with senior officials.

Additionally, the Monarch can declare war and peace; sign treaties; dissolve Parliament; confer peerages and knighthoods.

In 1689 co-rulers of England King William III and Queen Mary II signed into law the English Bill of Rights.  For the first time in English history the bill adumbrated explicit constitutional and civic rights and it is believed by many that it was the genesis of the constitutional Monarchy (where the monarch’s discretion is limited) and Parliamentary power over the Monarchy. Arguably, The English Bill of Rights greatly influenced the draughtsmen of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The English Bill of Rights came into being after the ouster of King James II who was largely considered autocratic and was subsequently ousted.  Ineluctably therefore the document identified the misdeeds of James II.  The English Bill of Rights clearly ascribed to the king or queen the exalted position of head of State but circumscribed some of his or her powers which were considered as limited by law. Some of the rights contained and embodied in The English  Bill of Rights were: freedom to elect members of Parliament, without the king or queen’s interference; freedom of speech in Parliament; freedom from royal interference with the law; freedom to petition the king; freedom to bear arms for self-defence; freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail; freedom from taxation by royal prerogative, without the agreement of Parliament; freedom of fines and forfeitures without a trial; freedom from armies being raised during peacetimes. The English  Bill of Rights also prohibited Catholics from becoming the Monarch and required that Parliament be convened regularly.

The Monarchy was obligated to rule under the consent of Parliament, with the recognition that the people had individual rights. Therefore, it would not be incorrect to say that in the  British constitutional Monarchy, the king (or queen)  plays a largely ceremonial role. However, the monarch stands out as the symbol and inspiration of national unity and earns the respect of the local and international community as an apolitical figure.  The famous former editor of The Economist Walter Bagehot described the monarch as the “dignified part of the Constitution”.

At law, there can be no civil or criminal proceedings against the sovereign. It’s par for the course that this exemption notwithstanding, the King or Queen (as the case may be) is careful to act within the bounds of law and tradition. The genesis of this tradition arguably lies in The Magna Carta Liberatum (Great Charter) signed between King John and a group of barons in 1215 laying out the freedoms of individuals.  The document was composed of 63 Articles, one of which said the king must follow the law and could not simply rule as he wished. The Magna Carta stands as the monument of the constitutional history of England.

One of the legacies, and indeed a blessing of the Moderate Monarchy as espoused by John Locke is that between the Monarchy and parliament, these two institutions effectively preclude the infestation of insidious and invidious autocracies in the community. A corollary to the harmonious blending of the two institutions is The Rule of Law.  One of the most significant features of the majesty of the law as the queen of humanities is the elegance of the Rule of Law as the foundation of humanity.  The Rule of Law is the hallmark of democracy.  Regrettably, at the present time, the aspirations people had of equal rights and representation by the people of the people for the people have gradually  eroded into a quagmire of ambivalent populism that is shrouded in mendacious and self-serving casuistry. A whole new phenomenon called illiberal democracy has been identified by the intelligentsia as a definition of this  phenomenon. The hallmark of illiberal democracy is the ignoring by those democratically elected by the people – in many instances those that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda – of constitutional limits on their power, thereby depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedom.

The Rule of Law, which is entrenched in the unwritten British Constitution reflects the quintessence of Constitutional Monarchy. To this end Lard Bingham has attempted a definition of the Rule of Law thus: “all individuals and organizations within the State, whether public or private, are bound by, and entitled to the benefit of laws prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts”.  This definition can be expanded to several corollaries. Laws should be intelligible.  They should not be couched in a plethora of pages in convoluted language and expanded to hundreds of regulations.  Nor should they be orally delivered  through speeches and pronouncements.  Any written amendment to a law should be brought to the attention of the people.  A society should be governed by law and not by discretion granted to or assumed by public officials.  Additionally, they should be equally applied.  To expand further, laws should not favour a particular category of individual.  Past examples are the depravity of slavery, servanthood  and the arbitrarily perceived  inferiority of women in some jurisdictions.

It can be argued that the sustenance of the modern-day British Monarchy and its dignified relationship with the Parliament would continue to ac as a buffer against populism, illiberalism, and autocracy.

The Bewildering Vote in Chile That Rejected a New Constitution

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On September 4, 2022, more than 13 million Chileans—out of a voting-eligible population of approximately 15 million—voted on a proposal to introduce a new constitution in the country. As early as March, polls began to suggest that the constitution would not be able to pass. However, polls had hinted for months at a narrowing of the lead for the rejection camp, and so proponents of the new constitution remained hopeful that their campaign would in the end successfully convince the public to set aside the 1980 constitution placed upon the country by the military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. The date for the election, September 4, commemorated the day that Salvador Allende won the presidency in 1970. On that date, those who wanted a new constitution suggested that the ghost of Pinochet—who overthrew Allende in a violent coup in 1973—would be exorcized. As it happened, Pinochet’s constitution remains in place with more than 61 percent of voters rejecting the new constitution and only 38 percent of voters approving it.

The day before the election, in the municipality of Recoleta (a part of Chile’s capital city of Santiago), Mayor Daniel Jadue led a massive rally in support of passing the new constitution. Tens of thousands of people gathered in this largely working-class area with the hope, as Jadue put it, of leaving behind the “constitution of abuses.” It, however, was not to be. Even in Recoleta, where Jadue is a popular mayor, the constitution was defeated. The new constitution received 23,000 more votes than Jadue had received in the last election—a sign that the number of voters on the left had increased—but the vote to reject the constitution was larger, which meant that new voters made a greater impact on the overall result.

On September 7, Jadue told us that he was feeling “calm,” that it was a significant advance that nearly 5 million Chileans voted for the constitution and that “for the first time we have a constitutional project that is written and can be transformed into a much more concrete political program.” There is “no definitive victory and no definitive defeat,” Jadue told us. People voted not only on the constitution but also on the terrible economic situation (inflation in Chile is more than 14.1 percent) and the government’s management of it. Just as the 2020 plebiscite to draft a new constitution was a punishment for former President Sebastián Piñera, this was a punishment for the Boric government’s inability to address the problems of the people. Jadue’s “calm” stems from his confidence that if the left goes to the people with a program of action and is able to address the people’s needs, then the 5 million who voted for the constitution will find their numbers significantly increased.

Within hours of the final vote being announced, analysts from all sides tried to come to terms with what was a great defeat for the government. Francisca Fernández Droguett, a member of the Movement for Water and Territories, wrote in an article for El Ciudadano that the answer to the defeat lay in the decision by the government to make this election mandatory. “Compulsory voting put us face to face with a sector of society that we were unaware of in terms of its tendencies, not only its political tendencies but also its values.” This is precisely what happened in Recoleta. She pointed out that there was a general sentiment among the political class that those who had historically voted would—because of their general orientation toward the state—have a viewpoint that was closer to forms of progressivism. That has proven not to be the case. The campaign for the constitution did not highlight the economic issues that are important to the people who live at the rough end of social inequality. In fact, the reaction to the loss—blaming the poor (rotear, is the disparaging word) for the loss—was a reflection of the narrow-minded politics that was visible during the campaign for the new constitution.

Droguett’s point about compulsory voting is shared across the political spectrum. Until 2012, voting in Chile was compulsory, but registration for the electoral roll was voluntary; then, in 2012, with the passing of an election law reform, registration was made automatic but voting was voluntary. For such a consequential election, the government decided to make the entire voting process mandatory for all Chileans over 18 years old who were eligible to vote, with the imposition of considerable fines for those who would not vote. As it turned out, 85.81 percent of those on the electoral rolls voted, which is far more than the 55.65 percent of voters who voted in the second record turnout in Chile during the presidential election in 2021.

A comparison between the second round of voting during the presidential election of 2021 and the recent vote on the constitution is instructive. In December 2021, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric—leading the center-left Apruebo Dignidad coalition—won 4.6 million votes. Apruebo Dignidad campaigned for the constitution and won 4.8 million votes. That is, the Apruebo Dignidad vote in December 2021 and the vote for the new constitution was about the same. Boric’s opponent—José Antonio Kast—who openly praised Pinochet—won 3.65 million votes. Kast campaigned against the new constitution and was defeated by 7.88 million voters. That is, the votes against the constitution were twice more than the votes that Kast was able to garner. This figure does not register, as Jadue told us, as a shift to the right in Chile, but rather is an absolute rejection of the entire political system, including the constitutional convention.

One of the least remarked upon elements of political life in Chile—as is in other parts of Latin America—is the rapid growth of evangelical (notably Pentecostal) churches. About 20 percent of Chile’s population identifies as evangelical. In 2021, Kast went to the thanksgiving service of an evangelical congregation, the only representative invited to such an event. Forced to vote in the polls by the new mandatory system, a large section of evangelical voters rejected the proposal for a new constitution because of its liberal social agenda. Jadue told us that the evangelical community failed to recognize that the new constitution gave evangelicals “equal treatment with the Roman Catholic Church because it ensured freedom of worship.”

Those who were not in favor of the constitution began to campaign against its liberal agenda right after the constituent assembly was empaneled. While those who were in favor of the new constitution waited for it to be drafted, and they refrained from campaigning in the regions where the evangelical churches held sway and where opposition to the constitution was clear. The constitution was rejected as an expression of the growing discontent among Chileans regarding the general direction of social liberalism that was assumed by many—including the leadership of Frente Amplio—to be the inevitable progression in the country’s politics. The distance between the evangelicals and the center-left is evident not only in Chile—where the results are on display now—but also in Brazil, which faces a consequential presidential election in October.

Meanwhile, two days after the election, school children took to the streets. The text they circulated for their protest bristles with poetry: “in the face of people without memory, students make history with organization and struggle.” This entire cycle of the new constitution and the center-left Boric government began in 2011-2013, when Boric and many of his cabinet members were in college and when they began their political careers. The high school students—who faced the brutal police and now answer to Boric—want to open a new road. They were dismayed by an election that wanted to determine their future, but in which they could not participate due to their age.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Sajid Javed: Man Behind Truss’s Victory

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3 mins read

I’m wandering across Scotland spreading time between tasting Scotch, admiring the stunning terrain, imbibing the Scottish way, and witnessing historic political events in the UK from Melrose, on the Scottish-English border. Dominating the news are two events: the battle for No 10; and the embarrassing failure of HMS Prince of Wales to sail.

At 12.30 PM Monday, the Conservative Party at Westminster chose Foreign Minister Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak with a surprisingly small majority to become Prime Minister of Britain following the coup against Boris Johnson in July. Truss’s win was widely predicted and only a miracle could have helped Sunak win. Commentators said they would ‘eat their hat’ or any other item of accouterment was Truss to lose. The UK is not yet ready to have a non-White as Prime Minister.

At 96, the ailing but most loved Queen did not ask the heir to the throne, Prince Charles to swear in Liz Truss, a ceremony that was performed for the first time at Balmoral Castle during her 70-year reign and not Buckingham Palace where thousands of tourists pay Pound Sterling 30 (Rs 3000) for a guided tour. Instead, yesterday the Queen received the PM-in-waiting Truss for the ‘kissing of the hand’, forming the government, and a photograph. In 1908, King Edward VII gave an audience to Herbert Asquith when the monarch was relaxing at the French coastal resort of Biarritz. Both Truss and Sunak had agreed to meet the Queen wherever she was, with Sunak adding: “the PM serves her Majesty”. For Indians, Sunak reaching so close (and yet so far) to becoming PM must be something to celebrate.

On 27th August, the Daily Telegraph put out a two-page supplement for its guesstimate of the Truss cabinet. Expected for the three most senior posts of Chancellor, Home Secretary, and Foreign Secretary are Kwasi Kwarteng, Suella Braverman, and James Cleverly. Kwarteng is a free marketeer and a consistent political ally of Truss. Together they have advocated low taxes, low regulation economy, and minimum governance. John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg are likely to assist the Chancellor. Braverman will have the challenging mission of ending illegal immigrants across the Channel (last Sunday 1061 crossed over). She’s known to have favoured their deportation to Rwanda, since suspended by the courts. Braverman, a child of Kenyan and Mauritian immigrants had described the British empire as “on the whole, a force of good”. For Foreign Secretary, Truss’ likely choice and replacement are James Cleverly assisted by Tom Tugendhat, who was one of the PM aspirants. Cleverly was a junior minister in the Foreign Office.

Tugendhat, a former Army officer, and like Truss a China hawk is chairman Foreign Affairs select committee. Ben Wallace, the current Defence Minister, is likely to keep his job. He has advocated a higher defence budget which agrees with Truss’pledge to raise it to 3 per cent of GDP. Some other ‘likelies’ in the Cabinet are Sir Ian Ducan Smith as leader of the House, Nadeem Zahawi whose leadership bid failed spectacularly, as Health Secretary, and Ranil Jayawardene of Sri Lankan descent as Environment Secretary. Whether Sunak will be in is the big question. He has said he wants to support the Conservative Government in “whatever capacity”.

Sajid Javed who triggered the coup against Boris Johnson and later backed Truss may be rewarded with a ministerial post. Big names likely to be left out are Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab, and Alok Sharma. The Truss government faces enormous economic challenges especially meteoric energy bills. While the pound sterling is struggling, funding the National Health Service is the other big challenge. The never-ending row with France is back in the spotlight. When asked last week whether she considered Macron a friend or foe, Truss replied: ‘the jury is out’. Macron’s response: ‘The UK is a friendly nation, regardless of its leaders’. Macron added: ‘if Britain and France cannot determine whether they are friends or enemies, then we are heading for serious problems.

An embarrassing event that Britain could have done without last week was the failed maiden voyage to the US of the UK’s largest (65,000 tonnes) aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, dedicated to Nato. Earlier this year, the second aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, was on a long tour of the Indo-Pacific which included exercises with the Indian Navy. A British Gurkha veteran I spoke to, was puzzled about the four-year Agnipath scheme. Operation BoJo (return of Boris Johnson as PM) many Brits feel, could happen before Christmas following a no-confidence vote in Truss so that he can lead Tories into elections in January 2025. Labour is ahead in the recent polls. India is hoping the FTA under India-UK Comprehensive Strategic Partnership due by Diwali will happen and the price of Scotch will be deregulated. Cheers from Melrose!

A Sri Lankan as Cabinet Minister of United Kingdom

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443 views
2 mins read

Who would believe that among the Cabinet members of Prime Minister Liz Truss, is a British-born Sri Lankan, Rt. Hon. Ranil Jayawardena, the charismatic constituency MP for Northeast Hampshire.

As a Sri Lankan living in England, without a British Passport, since the World Cup in June 1966, I find it is a singular honour for my country, an accomplishment of note for Ranil Jayawardena, becoming the first ever individual of Sri Lankan parentage, to be not only appointed a Cabinet Minister but hold one of the prestigious and coveted posts, as Secretary of State for Environment. Food and Rural Affairs. The Brits know we have problems back home, but have much to offer in Britain?

Ranil Jayawardena previously served as Minister for International Trade from May 2020 to September 2022 in Boris Johnson’s government. Without much publicity, I do not need to tell my readers how much he accomplished.

No one knows how much PM Liz Truss had entrusted Ranil Jayawardena, with the delicate diplomatic work of clinching trade treaties with many nations, including with Australia, when she was Secretary of Trade, prior to being promoted by Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. She has in my opinion, rewarded him now for his track record.

A Cabinet of the Colours of Benetton or the Commonwealth?

PM Liz Truss has entrusted and appointed four ethnic minority representatives to hold the four key posts in her Government. It is not necessarily to appease the minorities?

They are the offices of Chancellor of the Exchequer, to Rt. Hon. Kwarsi Kwarteng, of Sierra Leone, the first Black Foreign Secretary; James Cleverley, of West Indian parentage; the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, Q.C, of Indian origin and the first Black Trade Secretary, Kemi Badenock of Nigerian parentage. Besides, we have others of foreign decent, holding well-deserved high posts, both in Government and H.M. Opposition.

It appears for the first time in the history of Parliament and Cabinet Government in the United Kingdom, we see a Government with Commonwealth representation, the “United Colors of Benetton” or a government entrusted to citizens of foreign parentage.

Why are so many Cabinet Ministers of foreign background

It is a well thought out and planned strategy for the Brits to entrust difficult assignments, for that matter “impossible tasks at times of crisis to people of foreign origin”. There is an adage that “the new colonial mindset of the Brits”, is to rely on the best available talent available in the country.

It has been tried and tested strategy in times past, that to get a job done, well and truly done or, “to make a task doable,” the most reliable way, is a search for talent, coupled with proven track record. The Brits are very good at spotting talent, and cultivate association.

People of foreign origin, have a habit of wanting “to better the British,” and they often perform impossible tasks, through sheer hard labour, knowledge and attention to detail.

I know from my experience, how foreigners work hard and how much they deliver against all odds.

I can also imagine how much Ranil Jayawardena will give of himself to prove “a point of delivering the impossible”, by sheer diplomacy.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is a well-known adage

Prior to Brexit, we were told, “that Britain’s being shamed by an army of highly motivated East European immigrants willing to work long hours, according to a report published by the Home Office. Employers believe that immigrant workers are often harder working, reliable and motivated compared to their British counterparts. Have Britons lost the work ethic?” according to The Times.

That said, I know the job ahead of Prime Minister, Liz Truss is a thankless job. To be frank, even her Prime Ministerial post contestant, Rt. Hon. Rishi Sunak said: “he would go back to United States, “Silicon Valley” rather the contest his seat in Yorkshire Dales again.

What makes the Brits so confident that they will deliver now?

For those of us who have breathed the air and the tenacity of the Brits for over half a century now, the British have an innate feel when an impossible job is “do-able”?

They are so adept in getting anyone in the world to do the job, they think can be done.

We must learn lessons from history

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436 views
4 mins read

I represent the Jaffna Electorate not the Colombo Electorate. The problems of the North and East are different from those of the South. This Country consists of two Nations. – the Tamil Nation and the Sinhala Nation. The Tamils are the original inhabitants of this Island. They have lived continuously for over 3000 years in this Island according to latest excavations, inscriptions and findings. They are the majority in the North and East even now. The Sinhalese are the majority in the other seven Provinces. By adding the majority in the North East to the majority in the Southern seven Provinces they have made us minorities in the Country. But we are not minorities. We are the majority in our areas. That fact should have been realized by the British when they gave independence. Only later did Lord Soulbury realize their folly and stated so in a foreword to a book by B.H.Farmer in the early 1960s. 

We have been asking for a settlement of our political problem for the past 70 years or more. In fact our youth took up to arms due to the discriminatory policies of successive Sinhala majority Governments. Our youths were freedom fighters not terrorists. Now our Sinhala brethren are getting a taste of the PTA.

So any attempt on our part to join any government and sail with them would depend upon the resolution of our Political Problems as well as Social and Economic Problems we face today. We have identified some of our immediate problems such as;

  • Release of all Tamil Political Prisoners some of whom have been in incarceration for over 25 years.
  • Withdrawal of the PTA whose provisions go against the grain of our normal Criminal Law.
  • Order an International inquiry into the status of the Disappeared.
  • Calling off the functioning of the Commission on Archaeological Research and returning the lands in the North and East expropriated by the Commission.
  • Withdraw the Mahaweli Authority from the North and East and stop all colonization taking place in the Tamil areas bringing in Sinhalese from outside the Provinces and settling them. Hand back the lands appropriated by the Mahaweli Authority back to the people from whom they were taken. Hand over other Lands to the D.Ss of the respective areas.
  • Withdraw the Military from the North and East. They have no right to occupy the North and East even after the war was over. Such Occupational Forces must be withdrawn and placed in other Provinces since the Government in recent times have identified the need to have the Military in other Provinces as well. The North and East could be run by an efficient Police Force inclusive of Tamil speaking Police persons from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
  • Stop illegal fishing being done on our shores by persons from outside our two Provinces with the help of the Armed Forces, to the prejudice of the local fishermen.
  • Stop the taking over of our good Schools in the North and East to the Central Government under the pretext of making them National Schools. The Central Government under the Thirteenth Amendment cannot interfere with the powers granted to the Provinces.
  • Open up the Palaly Airport. Allow owners of lands around the Airport to get their lands back evicting the Military occupying them.
  • Start the Ferry Services to from South Indian ports.
  • Allow diaspora investment in the North and East without interference from the Centre nor its officials.

Only if there is a change of heart in the powers that be, after the aragalaye, could we lend support. Even the Leader of the Opposition wants to help the Rajapakses and the war criminals at Geneva. Polarisation in Sri Lanka is not between what is right and what is wrong. It is between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

Joining a Cabinet full of Sinhala speaking majority by a member of the Tamil speaking Community could be an embarrassment. They would jabber, jabber and jabber in Sinhala and most of the time we would be outside the purview of their discussion. Of course I do know a little Sinhala but not to the extent of understanding the jabbering that takes place in Parliament.

Secondly once we enter the whilpool of Sri Lankan Politics we would lose sight of the purpose for which we are there – to obtain relief for the Members of our Community.

Thirdly Cabinet responsibility would control us. We would not be able to differ from or contradict the decision taken by the majority Sinhalese Members of the Cabinet. If I am a non Tamil speaking Tamil like certain earlier Ministers I would not have any problem deciding to the detriment of the Northern and Eastern Tamil speaking people. We must learn lessons from history. In the past, many Tamil politicians held and are holding ministerial positions on the pretext that they are working with the government to work towards the interests of the Tamil people. But in reality, through these ministerial positions, they have done more to blunt the struggle for Tamil rights than to do any good to the Tamil people. They are forced to go to Geneva and argue that what happened in Mullivaikal was not genocide. I wouldn’t dream of doing that.

I am not interested in becoming a Minister for the glamour it gives whether such glamour shines or not. I am interested in finding solutions to the long standing political, social and economic problems of my people. I hail from the North and East. I was a Judge in the North and East and I lectured in Law inter alia to Students from the North and East. Hence I owe a responsibility to my brethren who hail from the North and East. 

The Tamils are definitely interested in working for peace, reconciliation and economic progress. But they must be pulled up from the bottom of the well to terra firma to stand up as equals with the Sinhalese to work for peace, reconciliation and economic progress. There cannot be peace and reconciliation between unequals. How could we be considered equal when the Military are stationed in large numbers in the North and East since even after the war?

Views are personal

Sri Lanka: Costs of Sinhala Hegemony

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6 mins read

The Government should have reduced expenditure at a time of severe economic crisis that we undergo presently rather than raising it further while the public suffers from high inflation rates. If benefits were to be given to the penurious needy some other expenditure should have been cut down. Because inflation would not come down as the Central Bank was continuing to print money to meet expenses. A fortnight ago it printed Rs.30 billion according to reports. Unless the Government cuts down expenditure, including Capital expenditure, we would not be able to reduce the inflation rates and stabilize the economy. Of course reasons have been given for the increase in expenditure. But increase in expenditure would further increase the inflation rates.

In addition to public administration, a notable increase can be observed in the expenditure assigned for the President, for Defense, education and health.

The defense allocation has been increased and a sum of Rs. 212,808 million has been allocated to the Ministry of Public Security. A sum of only Rs.138,560 million has been allocated for agriculture in contrast. Such are the priorities.

It appears we are not going to tarnish our reputation as the 14th largest Army in the World. Why does our small Country need such a large Army? Generally a Country would focus on the process of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) after a War. These are essential to restore sustainable peace in a post-war scenario. We should have reduced our Army personnel as soon as the war was over or at least a few years later. We have today 331,000 Army personnel officially as opposed to Britain’s 90000. This number is to be further reduced by Britain soon. The DDR is one of the significant aspects of the process of post-war peace-building. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) is a process that contributes to security and stability in a post-war recovery context by removing weapons from the hands of combatants, taking the combatants out of military structures and helping them to integrate socially and economically into society by finding civilian livelihoods for them. But those who fought the war are still in our Armed Forces. Some of them are still working in the combat areas. It is high time they are taken out of the North and East and reintegrated into the civil society.

After thirteen years since the end of the war why is the Military being allowed to occupy our Peoples’ lands and buildings, our forests and shores?

In most of the cases world over, this process has been implemented with the assistance of foreign governments and international or regional institutions. However, the circumstances under which the Government of Sri Lanka happened to take over the sole responsibility for implementing the DDR process have raised serious concerns both at the local and international level. The findings of a recent study show that the DDR process was not fully implemented in a broad manner in the Sri Lankan context, but only served as a continuation of the military victory over the LTTE. In particular, not much attention was paid to disarming and demobilizing the armed groups, and the so-called DDR process took place in Sri Lanka without international assistance and supervision. One would think that the Sri Lankan powers that be had a purpose in keeping out international assistance and supervision. I would surmise it is to keep the North and East under the Military boot.

This coupled together with the expenditure for the armed forces in the Amendment Bill show that there has not been any changes in the psyche of the powers that be in Sri Lanka even after the aragalaya. Thoughts of Sinhala hegemony still reigns heavily in their minds.

All the talk about an All Party Government becomes a mockery in the light of such continuous military spending. Therefore the clarion call to unity is an empty shell. The Government under the present President wants to continue to spend large amounts of money to maintain our 14th largest Army. It has no intention of forging any form of reconciliation with the minorities.

And whom is the Government expecting a war with? Against India? Against China? Against America? Or even against Maldive Islands? No ! They expect an attack from us poor Tamils of the North and East! Because the government believes that the Tamil people will not continue to endure against the Sri Lankan state’s continued oppression and genocide. That is why the Sri Lankan Government preferred to conduct the so-called DDR process without international assistance and supervision. They want the presence of the Military permanently in the North and East.

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is due to many factors. One major factor was the war and the money that Sri Lanka borrowed to buy destructive weapons. Another is the massive corruption among Government and Defense department officials.

A further major reason for the crisis was the ethnic cleansing that forced most of the Tamils to quit small businesses, high tech-related jobs, manufacturing trades, exportation and training, impeding Sri Lanka’s economic development, managerial efficiency, and productivity. The State by its shortsighted racial policies sabotaged itself.

Earlier racial discrimination against the Tamils forced many of them to leave Sri Lanka. They are the Tamils who are now offering to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Sri Lanka if the political problems of the Sri Lankan Tamils are solved.

All of the erstwhile racist activities led Sri Lanka to this economic crisis. It did not happen overnight. It started with the ethnic riots of 1958.

Israeli Professor Oren Yiftachel has said ethnocratic countries often experience ethnic tensions which cause instability. Therefore, as long as Sri Lanka remains an ethnocratic country, there will continue to be instability. This will never lead to sustainable peace and economic prosperity as expected by His Excellency. The fact that you have increased defense spending to keep the army in the North-East and to establish massive military infrastructures and settlements to continue oppressing the Tamil people shows the instability that will continue in the future.

After thirteen years since the end of the war why is the Military being allowed to occupy our Peoples’ lands and buildings, our forests and shores?

The existing problems that the Tamils face which were brought to the notice of the President are conveniently forgotten in the Speech. We feel though the President had positively responded to our queries regarding the day to day problems the Tamils face apart from the need to solve the political problems of the Tamils, he prefers to remain silent in Parliament regarding our problems lest he disturbs a hornet’s nest.

I am reminded of Robert Walpole who was Prime Minister of England in 1715 or thereabout whose policy was “Let sleeping dogs lie”. May be because our Tamil Youths in recent times have not resorted to Aragalayas in their areas he believes we are but sleeping canines, best left to be unsaid and unreferred to. But am sure this time Geneva would reiterate its stand quite positively.

I like to remind the contents of my request letter to which His Excellency responded to positively. His Excellency promised to release all Tamil political prisoners. Nothing has come out from that promise. It is said that there is a move to release some persons taken into custody on suspicion after 2019 just in time for the Geneva deliberations. None are going to be fooled by such gimmicks if they be true.

If the case of the Tamil Political Prisoners, some of them languishing in jails for over quarter of a century is not going to be considered in a humanitarian manner considering the long period of incarceration and the type of diseases that have been contracted by some of them, I am wondering if any Tamil Parliamentarian could be ethically and morally be called upon to join in an All Party Government. Many of these Prisoners had been found guilty solely on their confessions made to Police officers under the PTA. Such confessions to Police officers cannot be accepted as evidence under our regular criminal law. That was why I had asked for the release of the Tamil Political Prisoners and for the scrapping of the draconian PTA from our statute books. Instead, it is being now used against the Aragalaya leaders. These leaders would soon be called Terrorists.

Any attempt to bring in diverse political viewpoints together under one umbrella must be preceded by genuine acts of goodwill towards those holding such viewpoints. It is useless saying join us and I will give you a free hand to express your views. The moment a Tamil Parliamentarian joins the Government he would lose his freedom of speech. Majority in the governing Party will rule the roost! I hope the Tamils whose names have been included in a Ministerial list recently would wait till the Geneva deliberations are over before taking office.

I have no objections to attending a meeting of Party leaders friendly towards this Government to put forward the viewpoints of the Tamils.

Finally, my request to the donor countries and the IMF is that in this difficult situation for Sri Lanka, you should definitely help to save the people of Sri Lanka from starvation, but please see that you do your assistance in such a way that your assistance is not used to suppress the rights of the Tamil people and be used for defense expenditure.

Views are personal

Sri Lanka:  Anatomy of Baleful Crisis

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937 views
15 mins read

The following article is based on the keynote address by the author at the recent seminar titled, The Conundrum of an island: Sri Lanka – Present Crisis, Geo-Political Challenges and Way Ahead, organized by the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) which is a Chennai-based Think Tank that mainly carries out research on developments in China and assigns priority to Indian policy interests.


May I, at the outset, express my deep sense of appreciation and heartfelt thanks to my good friends Commodore RS Vasan, Bala and his junior colleagues for associating me with this significant seminar and requesting me to deliver the keynote address.

When I went through the programme I found that I have been allotted 20 minutes. There lies the problem. It takes nearly 20 minutes for a Professor to warm up in the classroom and to expect him to conclude his presentation in 20 minutes is an unfriendly act. However, I shall try to be as brief as possible. As the Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Taylor, told her husband, soon after her 9th marriage: “This too shall be brief”.

Appropriate Title

My congratulations to Commodore Vasan and Bala for choosing an appropriate title – Conundrum of an Island. It reminded me of the poem written by the Great English Poet, John Donne, entitled No Man is an Island. Just as no man is an island, no island can remain an island. In a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizon the momentous developments taking place in its immediate neighbourhood and in the wider world will have a tremendous impact on Sri Lanka. Let me quote parts of John Donne’s poem:

                        No man is an island, entire of itself

                        Every man is a piece of the continent,

                        A part of the main…

                        Any man’s death diminishes me

                        Because I am involved in mankind

                        And, therefore, never send to know for

                        Whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

South Asia a Unique Region

     The most striking feature of South Asia is the pre-eminent position of India, which bestrides the region almost like a colossus.  In terms of area, population, economic resources and armed forces, India is more than all the other countries put together. The World Development Report, a few years ago, pointed out that India has 78 per cent of the area, 73 per cent of the population and 77 per cent of gross domestic product.  What is more, India is at the very centre and all other countries are bordering on India. The other countries do not share anything in common, except perhaps fears and misgivings about India. The crux of their foreign policy is how to manage relations with India. In other words, India is the axis around which the wheel of South Asia revolves.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity. And given the ethnic, religious, political and economic linkages, what happens in one country will have its fallout on another. If the Hindu temples are destroyed and the Hindu population comes down, as in Pakistan and in Bangladesh, naturally the Hindus in India will be agitated. And if the Muslims in India are discriminated against and when the Babri Masjid was demolished the Muslims in the region were naturally agitated. If the Tamils in Sri Lanka are singled out for discrimination and subjected to violence, naturally the Tamils in Tamil Nadu will campaign for them. We have to recognize these realities and then evolve a neighbourhood policy.

Despite our common cultural heritage, each country has its own individual personality and national identity.

The ideal neighbourhood policy, with reference to smaller neighbours, was explained by former Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh as “asymmetrical reciprocity”. Inaugurating the road between the Indian side of Kashmir and Pakistani-occupied Kashmir Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh said, “I cannot do anything about the borders, but I can try to make the borders irrelevant”.

In the classroom situation, I am fond of narrating a story which exemplifies the need for a win-win situation. The Christian Missionaries started a school among Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh to teach the children the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. A large number of students were admitted to the school. At the end of the year, the Principal decided to celebrate the first anniversary by organising a sports meet. 100 meters race. All the boys were asked to assemble. On your mark, get set and go. All boys began to run. There was a strong boy who was running ahead of others. Everybody cheered him. But mid-way he stopped. The Principal went to him and said, “you were running ahead of others. You could have easily lifted the trophy. Why did you stop in the middle?” The boy told the principal “Madam, in our community that victory is the greatest victory when we all win together”. Win-Win situation – that should be the objective of India’s relations with smaller countries in our region.

Some Issues relating to Nation Building  

I do not know how many of you – I am asking the students – have heard of Khan Abdul Wali Khan. You have not heard his name. You must have heard his father’s name, Abdul Ghaffar Khan– Frontier Gandhi (Sarhadi Gandhi) – as we used to affectionately call him. Khan Abdul Wali Khan who was president of the Awami National Party in Pakistan and a son of the prominent Pashtun nationalist leader Ghaffar Khan passed away a few years ago. Wali Khan was asked by a journalist “Are you a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pathan?” Wali Khan replied: “I am all the three combined into one”. The journalist will not give up. ”You must tell me what is your primary identity, what is your secondary identity and what is your third identity?” Wali Khan replied: “I am a Pakistani for the past 35 years, a Muslim for 1800 years and a Pathan for the last 5000 years”.

All of us have multiple identities. When I was an undergraduate student in an affiliated college of Bombay University in the mid-1950s, my Professor used to say: “You are an Indian first, you are an Indian second and you are an Indian last”. Those days, we never disagreed with our teachers, because the teachers did not like that. So all of us nodded our heads in approval. As I grew older, I realized that I have several identities – I am a Tamil because my mother tongue is Tamil; I was born and brought up in Kerala and had my school education in Malayalam medium; in fact, my Malayalam is better than my Tamil, so I have a Kerala identity; I had my under-graduate and post-graduate education in Bombay and started my teaching career in an affiliated college in Bombay University, therefore, I have a Maharashtrian identity; I  have a teacher identity; an Indian identity; I have a South Asian identity; I have a universal identity. These multiple identities must co-exist harmoniously.  They should not clash with one another. That is the basis of ideal nation-building.

I speak several languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi, English; I learned Sanskrit as the second language, I can read and write Sanskrit, but cannot speak; while in Bombay, I learned a little bit of Marathi, though I am out of touch with it now; as a doctoral student, I learned Bahasa Indonesia. The more languages I learned I became more tolerant My good friend, K Suresh Singh, former Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, used to tell me “Diversity and linkages, freedom and tolerance go together”.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course.

The distinguished political scientist, Louis Halle, in early 1970’s, surveyed all countries in the world (132) and found only 13 (9.0 per cent) did not have problems of integration because they were inhabited by people speaking the same language, follow the same religion and belong to the same ethnic group.  There is only one country in South Asia which does not have problems of nation building. It is the Maldives. But it is not a model to be followed. It is a downright reactionary country. According to Maldivian Constitution, only a Sunni Muslim can be a citizen of the country.

The Italian political philosopher Massimo d’ Azeglu, I do not know how the Italians pronounce the name, I am pronouncing the name in my Malayalam – Tamil way, said in 1848, after the unification of Italy: “We have made Italy, now, we must make Italians”. The same is true of all countries in our region. We have become independent states but the process of making the Indian nation, Pakistani nation; Bangladeshi nation and Sri Lankan nation have begun only after independence.

Two Contrasting Scenarios

I would like to submit two propositions which can be considered as the yardstick for the success of nation-building experiments in multi-ethnic societies in South Asia. First, the political system should provide sufficient space for minorities so that they can preserve, promote and foster their identities while being part of a wider country.  Second, a federal polity, with entrenched provisions for sharing powers between the Centre and the States, can lead to softening of secessionist demands and pave the way for eventual national integration. Two illustrations, one a success story from India and the second, a tragic narrative from Sri Lanka, both relating to my community – Tamils – are given below. What is interesting to note are the differing political developments and contrasting responses on the issue of nation-building.

            In Sri Lanka, the Tamil political leaders drifted from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite and eventually began to demand a separate state of Tamil Eelam. The Dravidian movement in India followed a diametrically opposite course. The scholars studying the Dravidian movement are unanimous in pointing out important milestones – the formation of the Justice Party and the non-Brahmin movement in 1917; E V Ramasamy Naicker’s Self-Respect Movement and Anti – Hindi agitation; the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam in the mid-1940s and its demand for a separate state of Dravida Nadu; the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam under C N Annadurai in 1949;  the coming into power of DMK after the 1967 general elections; and the domination of DMK and its offshoot All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in 1972 in the politics of Tamil Nadu. The DMK gradually got “domesticated” because the Indian political system provided sufficient space within which the Tamil identity and regional autonomy could be preserved and fostered. What is more, the domestication of the DMK was evident even before Annadurai formally renounced secessionism in 1962 (after the Sino-Indian conflict) and the 16th Amendment to the Constitution (which proscribed secessionism and required from all candidates, seeking political office, an oath of upholding the Constitution) was passed. The DMK/AIADMK stakes in the unity of India got further strengthened when these parties started sharing power in the Centre.

            (Let me give an illustration of how the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils were sacrificed by Karunanidhi and the DMK during the Fourth Eelam War. It needs to be recalled that the Dravidian parties considered protecting the interests of Overseas Tamils as one of their foremost objectives. In the Tamil film, Parasakthi, (the script was written by Karunanidhi)  Gunasekaran, the hero (acted by Sivaji Ganesan) asks the question “Why are the waters of the Bay of Bengal saltish?” and then he replies “It is because of the tears of Overseas Tamils”. During the Fourth Eelam War, the DMK was an ally of the Centre and went on with India’s Sri Lanka policy. It did not do anything constructive to prevent the genocide of the Tamils. Karunanidhi was permitted to do a political gimmick; he undertook a hunger strike in the Marina. He started the fast after breakfast and concluded it before lunch. The Union Ministers rushed to Chennai and persuaded Karunanidhi to withdraw from the hunger strike).

            In contrast, an overview of Sri Lankan Tamil politics since independence clearly shows that the Tamils had been mainly “reactive” to Sinhalese politics. Since Sinhalese-dominated governments never fulfilled their hopes and aspirations, frustrations became intense, demands more radical, which finally culminated in the demand of a separate state of Tamil Eelam in 1976. The politics of Tamil opposition started with the demand for balanced representation and responsive cooperation; which spanned the period from 1948 to 1956. The demand progressed to Federal State and non-cooperation during 1967-1972. It escalated to separatist slogans during 1973-76. Finally, it ended with the demand for a separate State in 1976. But, while the demands changed, the mainstream Tamil political leadership confined themselves to strategies of peaceful agitation, parliamentary and non-parliamentary alike. From 1979, militancy began to creep into the agitation and by the beginning of this century, the Tigers became the most dominant force in the Tamil areas.

Fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus. 

            By mid-1970’s, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who were, to begin with, “reluctant secessionists”, began to define themselves as a separate nation, entitled to self-determination and a separate state. Discriminatory legislative enactments and governmental policies in the areas of language, education, land colonization, religion and employment opportunities, the abrogation Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1956 and the Senanayake- Chelvanaygam Pact of 1965, which conferred limited autonomy to the Tamil areas, and, above all, brutal military repression convinced the Tamils that they cannot co-exist with the Sinhalese.

Cardinal principle of India’s Sri Lanka Policy

            India was committed to the principle that Sri Lanka should not solve the ethnic problem through military means. When the July 1983 holocaust took place Prime Minister Indira Gandhi telephoned President Jayewardene: “Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao is coming to Colombo tomorrow to study the situation”.  It must be highlighted that Mrs. Gandhi did not seek Jayewardene’s permission. Narasimha Rae toured Colombo and became deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of the conflict. If the communal fire is not extinguished it would spread to Tamil Nadu also. The fire must not only be extinguished but the causes of fire must be removed once and for all. A solution could be found only if there is a Sri Lankan consensus.  In other words, the solution must be isolated from competitive Sinhala politics.  

T-72 M1 and the crew from the Indian Army 65 Armoured Regiment during Operation PAWN in Sri Lanka [ Photo © Frontier India ]

            At the end of July 1983, Amirtalingam came to India and visited New Delhi. In order to escape the attention of Sinhalese hoodlums on the way to Colombo airport, he was dressed as a Muslim and travelled in Thondaman’s car.  It was a changed Amirtalingam who met Indira Gandhi and G Parthasarathy. Hitherto Amirtalingam’s main support came from the Dravidian parties. Amir used to say” “In India south is fighting against the north, in Sri Lanka north is fighting against the South”. The TULF leader began to realize India has its stakes in Sri Lanka and it would be in the interests of Tamils to get the support of New Delhi. In the closed-door meeting Indira Gandhi told Amirtalalingam that India would not support the creation of an independent state, but a solution less than that of independent Tamil Eelam, Tamils could count on India’s backing. Then the GP asked Amirtalingam: “What is the strength of Tamil militants? Will they be able to defend the Tamils if JR launches a military offensive?”. Amir replied: “The number of militants, all alphabetical combinations together, is less than 100. They are in no position to defend the Tamils”. New Delhi, to assist the Tamils to defend themselves began to provide military training to Tamil militants. It should be pointed that the twin pillars of India’s Sri Lanka policy, at that time, namely mediatory and militant supportive, were contradictory. How can you mediate when you support one side through military training? Naturally, India’s Sri Lanka policy resulted in a quagmire. However, New Delhi was determined not to permit Colombo to solve the problem through military means.

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover.

            When in May 1987 Colombo launched Operation Vadamarachi and the LTTE guerrillas were running away from the battlefield, New Delhi stepped in. It violated Sri Lanka’s air space and dropped food materials in Jaffna.  The international community did not even “lift a finger” against New Delhi. JR later explained his dilemma as follows. He first sent Lalith Athulathmudali to Pakistan to seek its support. Lalith realized that Pakistan would not open another front against India. Then he went to China. China was, at that time, interested in normalizing relations with India and advised Lilith to settle the ethnic issue with the help of India. Events moved swiftly and concluded with the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and the induction of the IPKF on the invitation of President Jayewardene.

            The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the suicide squad of the LTTE completely altered the situation. India, especially Tamil Nadu, underwent a catharsis, from which we are yet to recover. India’s response to the fourth Eelam war is an illustration of the changed situation. The Sri Lankan military forces realized that if they have to win the war against the Tigers, the flow of refugees to Tamil Nadu should be stopped. The Sri Lankan Navy, therefore, began to consolidate its hold on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, from Talaimannar to outer islands in Jaffna. On the Indian side, the Coast Guard stepped up its vigil and prevented the refugees from coming to India. During the last stages of the war, five Tamil refugees took a boat from Mullaitheevu and came to India undergoing great suffering. Three of them died of dehydration and two reached the Mandapam camp. Thanks to the NGOs working among the refugees I could meet these two refugees and talk to them They said” Every innocent Tamil, caught between the Sinhalese lions and the Tamil Tigers, would like to come to India as refugees”.   

When the Fourth Eelam War degenerated into a savage war against the Tamils and the Sri Lankan air force began to bomb hospitals, places of worship and orphanages I raised the matter in the National Security Advisory Board, of which I was a member. Ambassador Shankar Bajpai, who was the Convenor, requested Ambassador Tirumurthy, who was Joint Secretary in charge of Sri Lanka, to initiate the discussion. He performed his duties faithfully and justified New Delhi’s then Sri Lanka policy. When my turn came I pleaded that  India, along with the United States and members of the European Union, should pressurize Sri Lanka to declare a ceasefire, so that those innocent Tamils who want to escape from the war zone could be evacuated to a safer place. My plea turned out to be championing a lost cause. Only 9 members of the 27-member NSAB supported me. The end result was according to the United Nations 40,000 innocent Tamils died during the last stages of the war. India, I submit, is guilty of collaboration with Sri Lankan armed forces. As Lady Macbeth said in the sleepwalking scene: “There is the smell of the blood still. And all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten my dirty hands”.   

Conclusion

Commodore Vasan is pointing the wristwatch to me implying that I have exceeded my allotted 20 minutes, Therefore, let me come to the conclusion. I shall conclude with one of my favourite quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography. The quote is in relation with his visit to Jaffna.

“One little incident lingers in my memory. It was in Jaffna, I think. The teachers and boys of a school stopped our car and I said a few words of greeting. The ardent, eager faces of the boys stood out. And then one of their number came to me, shook hands with me and without question or argument said: “I shall not falter”. The bright young face, with shining eyes, full of determination, is imprinted in my mind. I do not know who he was, I have lost trace of him. But somehow I have the conviction that he will remain true to his words and will not falter when he has to face life’s difficult problems”.

            We in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, should have an interest to see that this young boy, and as he grows older, his son and grandson, do not become once again the cannon fodder in the senseless conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers, on the contrary, he is provided with opportunities so that he could blossom into another Ananda Coomaraswamy.  

Sri Lanka: What Lies Ahead? – An Indian Viewpoint

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President Wickremesinghe and PM Gunawardena have started their rule with the inherited burden that brought down President Rajapaksa’s rule.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has been able to gain support from the Buddhist clergy and has installed a cabinet that is favourable towards his instructions and the naysayers have been eliminated.

But economic challenges facing Sri Lanka are immense. Sri Lanka’s inflation, as measured by the change in the Colombo Consumers’ Price Index (CCPI) increased to 60.8 percent in July 2022 from 54.6 percent in June 2022. Economic relief to the people alone will wave Wickremesinghe

The year 2022 was marked by sustained political instability with initially opposition lacking the numbers to depose the government and the Rajapaksa brothers digging in.

Even with a dramatic turn of events, with a new Prime Minister and President, political flux continues along with fuel and food concerns.

The economy struggles to stay afloat. A semblance of political stability has returned but the situation continues to remain volatile requiring a close watch.

A President was sworn in as a National List MP of the United National Party (UNP) as the Party could not even have one elected member after split by the SJB.

But to the credit of Mr. Ranil he opted for the hot seat that none was willing to accept at a time of acute financial crisis which led to outpourings on the streets.

The SJB has assured issue-based support to the President but will not join the government. However SJB leader possibly suspects that the President wants to rebuild the UNP. The Leader of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and National People’s Power (NPP) MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake have called on the people of the country to come forward to oust the current government. These parties had contributed the political muscle to the protests.

Over that there are reports that former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country last month amid public protest, may return home in September. He is presently in Thailand. If that happens protesting parties and organisations are expected to get a boost.

On the economic front discussions between representatives of the International Monetary Fund and Sri Lankan government authorities commenced on August 24 at the Central Bank premises in Colombo.

As per the local media objective is to make progress towards reaching a staff-level agreement on a prospective IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) arrangement in the near term.

Because Sri Lanka’s public debt is assessed as unsustainable, approval by the IMF Executive Board of the EFF program would require adequate assurances by Sri Lanka’s creditors that debt sustainability will be restored, the IMF said.

This is likely to be a very tough proposition as the debt is huge and is spread over multiple channels.

At one time President Wickremesinghe had highlighted dimensions of the debt thus, “In the economic crisis we are facing, the huge problem is the national debt. According to government statistics on public debt, the percentage of debt received from China is 10%. 13% from the Asian Development Bank, 9% from the World Bank, and 47% from sovereign bonds (ISB).  10% from Japan, 2% from India and 9% from all other countries.” Bringing all these lenders on the same slate will remain a challenge.

Much will depend on the agriculture harvest, energy imports with Russia being an option and related geopolitical issues, balancing support by India and China evident in the recent Yuan Wang 5 PLA’s tracking ship incident. Thus the Island nation continues to be surrounded by choppy waters ahead.

(Excerpts from the monthly review by Security Risks Research in Delhi based on the perspectives of Col R Hariharan with the editorial support of Harshita Panwa. Click here to read the complete assessment)