Politics

Sri Lanka: Is 13A Panacea?

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Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman and Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran says that his party has decided to boycott the independence day celebrations this year, as reported in The Island of January 31, 2023. Instead, they will declare it a Black Day and commence a movement towards achieving what they call true freedom. According to him, “Immediately after independence, it was transformed into a majority system under the guise of democracy. That’s why other people living in this country did not get freedom”. What he implies is that the ‘independence’ given was only for the majority Sinhalese, and not for the others (presumably, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, etc., the minority communities). Sumanthiran thinks that even though the  majority Sinhala Buddhist people had been under the impression that they got freedom for many years, they also now feel that they didn’t get any freedom either. So, when the 75th independence day is celebrated, the TNA “will declare it a black day and start a campaign for the country to get its freedom properly”.   

Meanwhile, the Indian news website The Federal reported that the 74th Indian Republic Day was celebrated at the Indian Consulate in Jaffna with a function attended by a large gathering of people including Indians, and  some local Sri Lankans, mainly Tamils, on January 26, 2023. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police took part in the celebration. Consul General, Madurai-born Raakesh Nataraj, mingled with the guests and exchanged greetings. According to The Federal, both Indian Republic Day and Independence day had been regularly observed in Jaffna until the outbreak of the ethnic conflict.

I wondered why our leaders (apparently) never thought of declaring a Sri Lankan Republic Day after the 1972 republican constitution was enacted on May 22nd that year, and the island nation became a republic independent of any links with the British monarchy . 

The truth is that Sumanthiran here, tongue in cheek,is  only hinting at a fresh (a last, hopefully successful, as he probably fancies) attempt at eventually realizing the idea of establishing a separate sovereign state for Tamils (but strategically camouflaged asTamil speaking people to co-opt Muslims into the project) in the (soon to be re-merged?) north and east provinces where respectively Tamils and Muslims form the majority, and the Sinhalese  are now in a thin minority due to ethnic cleansing by the LTTE. Late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (1980-84) also talked about solving ‘the problem of the Tamil speaking people’ in these provinces in Sri Lanka, lumping Hindus and Muslims together as Tamil speaking people, in the interest of India’s own traditional expansionist ambitions against its smaller, weaker neighbours.

Sumanthiran is thinking exclusively about freedom for the Tamil minority, whereas the nationalists – the majority Sinhalese and the sensible majority of the Tamil, Muslim and other minority communities – are concerned about freedom for all who make Sri Lanka their home, that is, the Sri Lankan people or nation; they don’t talk about nations based on ethno-cultural identities.  Deliberate disinformation by Eelam lobbyists and parasitic NGOs has turned nationalists into racists, chauvinists, xenophobes, right-wing nationalists, and whatnot in the eyes of the global media. 

Since 1948, all Sinhalese leaders have acted on the basis of the concept of one nation or one country, where the majority Sinhalese, who are the true autochthonous inhabitants of the island, along with the veddahs, were joined by other numerically small groups in the course of history in various contexts, such as trade, war, invasion, travel, and so on. The first prime minister of independent Ceylon D.S. Senanayake, when asked by the Soulbury Commissioners at the end of the 1947 parliamentary elections how many Tamils he wanted in his cabinet, said he didn’t mind even if all the cabinet members were Tamil provided they acted as Ceylonese. No Sinhalese parliamentarian has deviated from this line of thinking. 

On the other hand, Tamil leaders like All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) leader and later founder of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam were different. They adopted an anti-Sinhala racist attitude. They focused on perpetuating the special privileges that the Tamil elite enjoyed under the British. They felt threatened by a system of parliamentary democracy, because they feared that the Sinhalese majority would put an end to their privileged status. It was Ponnambalam who, for years before independence, had been making the absurd 50-50 demand (clamouring for the allocation of 50% of the seats in the  parliament yet to be introduced  for the Sinhalese who were the overwhelming majority of the population, and 50% for all the minority groups). The Soulbury Commissioners rejected that demand with contempt. Another Tamil lawyer who came from Malaysia, S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, founded the Tamil Arasu Kachchi (Tamil State Party/euphemistically in English the Federal Party) in 1949 and the rest is history. Sumanthiran seems to be basically among the latest in this tradition.

 While preparations are being earnestly made by the government for marking an independence that was not granted (a long retired civil servant likens it to a birthday party for a baby that was never born), the 25th anniversary of the devastating LTTE suicide-truck-bomb attack on the Sri Dalada Maligawa (the Temple of the Tooth Relic) in Kandy fell on January 25, without anyone remembering it. It looks as if the government let it pass without any commemorative observances unlike in previous years. Why? (My sincere apologies to everybody concerned, if I am mistaken in this assumption) Was it in the name of so-called ‘reconciliation’, which has been a not so seriously meant, hollow slogan right from the beginning? Or was it in order to avoid spoiling the national mood for ‘consecrating’ some ostensibly momentous event that is going to coincide with the 75th independence day ceremony? The epoch-making event that Ranil Wickremasinghe wants to celebrate thus, as everybody knows now, is the purported settlement of the alleged Tamil ethnic problem through the full implementation of the controversial 13A (forcibly imposed on Sri Lanka by India, without doubt, in the latter’s exclusive national interest, in 1987). Grown-up Sri Lankans remember how thousands of our patriotic youngsters died in opposing Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, in the second JVP uprising, which occurred in the years 1986-89 during UNP rule. A thirty year civil conflict claimed the lives of thousands of Sri Lanka’s defence forces personnel,  Tamil rebel cadres, and civilians caught in terrorist bomb blasts; the conflict left many more injured. All this was in trying to prevent the certain Balkanization of the country through the 13A. Seven executive presidents from JR Jayawardane to Gotabaya Rajapaksa back-burnered it for a legitimate reason. What are the benefits of a fully implemented 13A that justify such sacrifices of the country’s youth of the previous generation?

Be that as it may, does Ranil Wickremasinghe want to invest this servile surrender to foreign pressure with a sacred quality by having a special Sacred Tooth Relic exposition? It can’t be that he is mocking Sinhalese Buddhist sentiments. True, he was totally rejected by the mainly Buddhist Lankan electorate as a prospective candidate for executive presidency. It could also  be a similar passive-aggressive attack on his part on the pohottuwa alliance (the Sri Lanka Podu Peramuna, the SLPP). He must have been waiting for a chance to take his revenge on the SLPP, which turned itself into his nemesis in the last parliamentary election. But the principal partners of the SLPP, the treacherous Rajapaksas, as it has now become so clear to the betrayed public, were able to do this otherwise commendable thing, by pretending to espouse the popular nationalist cause, merely to hoodwink the masses to win votes. Ranil and the Rajapaksas are partners now. They are not strange bedfellows; they are natural allies. Whatever they are making common cause in achieving, turning the country’s hallowed Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage into a political football between rival factions of conflicting persuasions is something worse than the Maligawa bombing itself. It does not augur well for the future of our Motherland. It is the last thing that fair-minded patriotic citizens belonging to all communities are likely to take lying down. 

The only thing that people expect Ranil Wicktremasinghe to do at this moment is to focus on rescuing the country from the economic crisis that it is engulfed in, and leave it to the present day youth of the country from all the diverse communities to lawfully, democratically and peacefully usher in the new corruption free Sri Lanka that they want to build. 

When three LTTE suicide cadres drove an explosives laden truck to the Maligawa early on the morning of January 25, 1998, and set it off, it caused massive damage to the building, while killing seventeen innocent worshippers including two two-year old infants and the three suicide bombers. The attack was universally condemned across the civilized world in the sternest terms. It was reported that three times more money was donated by the ordinary people than was necessary for restoring the destroyed parts of the Maligawa, which was completed within two years of the heinous crime. Ranil Wickremasinghe was the leader of the opposition then. Condemning the bombing he said, “Not even in the darkest moments of Sri Lanka’s 2000 year history has such an act of destruction been perpetrated against the very symbol of our civilization and history.” He should know (I am sure he does, for he is a very well-read knowledgeable person) that the Tooth Relic has been a symbol of sovereignty over the island since the 4th century CE when it was brought to Anuradhapura from Dantapuri (modern Puri, Odisha) in India. If he insists on having the Mahanayakes agree to hold a Tooth Relic exposition to give some sort of legitimacy to his controversial move, and if his request is granted by them, then he will appear to mock the sanity of Sri Lankans and the sanctity of this national symbol. 

To my shock, however, I hear that the relic exhibition that Ranil Wickremasinghe proposed, is scheduled to start on March 4, a month after the day of disputed independence. If this incredible piece of information is true, then it means that the two Mahanayakes, the guardians of the Maligawa, (no one is above them in this matter) have agreed to bless the ultimate victory of those who wanted to destroy ‘the symbol of our civilization and history’!

Of course, Ranil Wickremasinghe alone cannot be held responsible for what is now almost a certainty. All the leaders (or most of them) and their mostly inarticulate juniors in parliament  reportedly support the president’s decision. They should share responsibility, too, for what is going to happen. Constitutionally, of course, there appears to be no barrier to the full implementation of 13A. But that is only a technical point, beyond morality. The three pillars of parliamentary democracy are said to be the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The country’s moral values reign over all three. The ethical conduct of the humans who embody the legislative, executive, and judicial powers is imperative for the proper functioning of the democratic system. That is my idea. 

Civil social activist and Vinivida Foundation convener, lawyer Nagananda Kodituwakku argues in a recent video that president Wickremasinghe has no moral right to take that decision, but that it is in accordance with an agreement reached between the Tamil  National Alliance (TNA), the UNP, and the JVP (represented by Anura Dissanayake, now National People’s Power leader) on September 20, 2017. Recently, Anura Dissanayake even appeared on a TNA stage in the north, according to him.

The NPP leaders say that their goal is to bring in a good government that is free from corruption and theft, and that  establishes the rule of law. But that is the main platform on which even UNP’s J.R. Jayawardane fought the 1977 general election, pledging to bring in a Righteous Society (that has to date failed to materialise). The Island newspaper reported (February 2, 2023) that NPP MP Dr Harini Amarasuriya, asked about her party’s stand on Ranil Wickremasinghe’s decision to implement the 13A fully, said she didn’t believe he would do that, because he didn’t do it when he could do it. The NPP also believes that it should be fully implemented, though there was still a debate about this within the party. She told The Island: 

“It has been presented as a solution to the national problem. It is already there in the Constitution and we believe that it should be implemented, but we have a debate whether it could be a tenable solution for the national problem. Our standpoint is that a government with genuine intention of addressing the issues of Tamil people must bring about solutions to the national problem, and we have no faith in other parties, but only the NPP could do that.”

It is not clear how the NPP is going to deal with the 13A issue. But if it is hoping to wangle the support of the Sinhala Buddhist masses while horse-trading with the federalists, Anura’s chances of becoming president will evaporate soon. As he has already apparently indicated that his prime minister will be Sumanthiran (I am not sure of this piece of gossip) in case he becomes president, the voters in the south will be even more sceptical about voting for him. Sumanthiran is the exact opposite of Lakshman Kadirgamar, that the Sinhalese universally loved, and honoured above all other politicians.

To return to Nagananda, he blames former elections commissioner Mahinda Desapriya for conniving at the TNA’s treacherous intentions revealed in its constitution. Desapriya had been given only the Tamil version of the TNA’s constitutional proposals, which he apparently couldn’t read and understand. He hadn’t asked for or they hadn’t given him the English version of the document (which means, according to Nagananda, they didn’t want its contents to be accessible to the Sinhala majority). Nagananda claims that he had some significant parts rendered into English: According to him, the TNA constitution (includes) “…… the right to self determination, the policy of founding an autochthonous Tamil State, Tamil Aru, and an autochthonous Muslim State, Muslim Aru, and thereby seeing the liberation of the political and economic aspects of the Tamil speaking people…….

Note: An absolute guarantee will be given to the right of religion and language of the minority national races that live in the autochthonous Tamil State that will be set up in the Tamil Motherland……..”.

(Incidentally, I do not agree with Nagananda’s explanation of the concept of the independence of the judiciary in this context.)

Now these autochthonous claims for Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka are ludicrous inventions. Authoritative historians (including Professors Karthigesu Indrapala and Kingsley de Silva) have shown that before the 13th century invasion by Magha of Kalinga, there was no Tamil kingdom in the north of Sri Lanka nor a settled Tamil population there. Tamils are the autochthonous inhabitants of Tamil Nadu in the mainland India. As for Muslims in the eastern province, they were settled there by king Senerath of Kandy (1604-1635 CE) as fugitives from Portuguese persecution in the coastal areas that they were occupying. Muslims and Portuguese were rival traders. The Sinhalese king also settled some of these Muslims in the central highlands. Still later the occupying Dutch and British brought Javanese and Malaysian Muslims, thereby adding to the growing Muslim population in Sri Lanka in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Implications of Nagananda’s revelations for the country need not be elaborated. He emphatically says that the ordinary Tamil people he met in Jaffna do not ask for a separate state. They only want to live in one Sri Lanka peaceably with the other communities.

Nagananda believes that the local government elections that are going to be held will not be of any value and that the Anura Dissanayake-led NPP is unlikely to win such a significant victory at imminent local government election. I personally think that the NPP appears to be the front runner, judging by the size of the crowds that attend its rallies (as reported on online media). But do these people know what the party leaders are really committed to, I wonder? There is no stamp of conviction on most faces, though. Most look sceptical of the leaders

We need statesmen/women, not mere politicians. People are fed up with the latter. Anura is not likely to turn out to be a real statesman, even if he gets the chance to do so one day, if he pursues his proven hypocrisy. However, compared to the leading buffoons of the two traditional parties (the UNP and the SLFP/or their ghostly modern reincarnations), Anura Dissanayake would be someone that the people can look towards as an alternative leader, provided he does not forfeit the trust of the majority Sinhala Buddhists in his attempt to win the loyalty of the traditional minority leaders, who will never ever change their spots, though they may change their hunting grounds.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has got his last chance to prove his statesmanship and retrieve his lost popularity and honour. He should not, as default president, abuse his executive powers to implement the long disputed 13A for the time being, but do whatever he can do to address the economic woes of our suffering masses before the current presidency ends. It is hoped that he will use his constitutional powers to achieve that end. Then let him call presidential elections and fight it himself or get his nominee to fight it on the single issue of the all important 13th Amendment, perhaps against a principal rival like Anura Dissanayake. Whoever it is, the next president must have the support of the active, truly educated youth of the country, not the half-wits now in the limelight.

Sri Lanka: Peace amidst Instability

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In a press release issued on January 25, 2023, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka noted,

…the maintenance of the prevailing tight monetary policy stance is imperative to ensure that monetary conditions remain sufficiently tight to rein in inflationary pressures. Such tight monetary conditions, together with the tight fiscal policy, are expected to adjust inflation expectations downward, enabling the Central Bank to bring inflation rates towards the desired levels by end 2023, thereby restoring economic and price stability over the medium term.

An economic crisis of unparalleled magnitude hit Sri Lanka in 2022. Inflation, at 4.2 per cent in December 2020, increased to 12.1 per cent in 2021, and surged to an alarming level at 57.2 per cent in December 2022. The Sri Lankan rupee (SLR) depreciated drastically against the dollar from 181.3 in January 2020, to 190.5 in January 2021, and at 201.2 in January 2022. By December 2022, the SLR had fallen to 367.5 to the dollar. As on January 27, 2023, it is still at 364.13. Foreign exchange reserves fell from USD 2362 million in January 2022, to USD 1705 million in October 2022, but began to increase thereafter, to touch USD 1896 in December 2022.

The crisis led to severe shortages of food, medicines, electricity, fuel and other essential items for months. In the face of the collapsing economy, Sri Lankans of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds came together in a broad-based protest movement commencing March 2022, to seek a change of leadership, accountability for corruption and economic mismanagement, and to seek more extensive reforms.

As protests intensified, the Sri Lanka Police shot dead one man, identified as Chaminda Lakshan, and injured 10 others on April 19, 2022, in the first fatal clash with demonstrators protesting the island nation’s crippling crisis. In a Tweet on April 20, 2022, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared,

Sri Lankan citizens’ right to peacefully protest won’t be hindered. @SL_PoliceMedia will carry out an impartial & transparent inquiry the incident at Rambukkana which led to the tragedy for which I’m deeply saddened. I urge all citizens to refrain from violence as they protest.

According to an April 28, 2022, report, more than 100 trade unions, including some affiliated to the Rajapaksas’ ruling SLPP party, joined the general strike, as demands grew for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family members to resign.

Later, on May 6, 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a State of Emergency effective midnight, May 6, 2022, for the second time in five weeks, giving Security Forces (SFs) sweeping powers, as nationwide strikes demanding his resignation brought the country to a standstill.

Subsequently, the then Prime Minister (PM) Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters attacked nonviolent demonstrators in Colombo, forcing him to quit as Prime Minister. Following this, there was widespread violence against those who supported the government around the nation, which resulted in the deaths of eight individuals and the burning or damage of the homes of about 70 lawmakers.

Finally, Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign on May 9, 2022. After weeks of political uncertainty, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed United National Party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe as PM of an interim National Unity Government. However, the economic crisis persisted, as did the protests. On July 9, 2022, hundreds of protesters invaded and occupied the offices and the official residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in Colombo. Ranil Wickramasinghe’s private house was also attacked by the protestors. At least 102 people, including two police officers, were injured in clashes during the protests on July 9.

Though both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe offered to resign, President Rajapaksa finally did so on July 13, while Wickramasinghe managed to retain power as Parliament voted him in as President on July 20. Since then, a measure of political stability has been restored, with Wickramasinghe strengthening his position within the Government, as demonstrated by his success in ensuring the passage of the budget in the Parliament on December 8, 2022. While 123 Members of Parliament voted in favour, 80 voted against, while two Members abstained.

Meanwhile, on January 4, 2023, the Sri Lankan Election Commission (EC) announced that local government elections would be held across the island in March 2023, with nominations accepted between January 18 and 21, 2023. The elections must be held before March 19, 2023, when the current term of local government bodies ends. A positive result in these elections will help Wickramasinghe strengthen his position further, while any slip up may undermine the stability to his government. Indeed, fearful that popular anger may express itself in a humiliating electoral defeat, Wickremesinghe and his government have desperately attempted to call off the polls.

The economic situation remains precarious and has the potential to derail political stability at any time.

Despite the major politico-economic upheavals, the country remained free of terrorism, though one terrorism-linked fatality was reported. On November 28, 2022, a suspect linked to the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, who was out on bail, was killed by unidentified assailants in Mattakkuliya in Colombo. According to the Police, the assailants had arrived in a car and killed the 38 years old suspect, whose identity is yet to be disclosed. There was no terrorism-linked fatality in 2021.

The Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar continued to hear the Easter Sunday attacks cases filed by the Attorney General against 25 accused on 23,270 charges, including conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks, and aiding and abetting the attack on Easter Sunday. On January 5, 2023, the Court rejected the bail request made on behalf of all 25 suspects who were in remand custody. The case is to be called up before the Court again on February 1, 2023. On September 1, 2021, a Trial-at-Bar Bench, comprising High Court Judges Damith Thotawatta (President), Amal Ranaraja and Navaratne Marasinghe, had been appointed to hear all cases related to the bombings.

Meanwhile, on January 11, 2022, a live hand grenade was found inside the premises of the All Saints Church in Borella in Colombo. Police later recovered four pistols, one revolver, two swords, a knife, and another weapon from the residence of a 76-year-old retired doctor, who was among the six persons arrested in connection with the incident. The case is still under investigation.

Further, on April 23, 2022, the Sri Lanka Navy arrested a suspect, a resident of Kuchchaweli, in possession of explosives, at Sallimunai beach, Trincomalee District.

Moreover, the threat to security from drug cartels with established foreign linkages, persisted. In over hundred incidents of drug seizures in 2022, around 350 persons were arrested. In a major incident, on December 23, 2022, the Sri Lanka Customs seized SLR 165 million worth of narcotics sent into the country from Spain, UK, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands. Earlier, on December 14, 2022, the Sri Lanka Navy, along with the Police Narcotics Bureau and State Intelligence Service seized over 200 kilograms of Heroin and crystal methamphetamine from two multi-day fishing crafts in the deep sea, off Sri Lanka’s Southern seas. Seven suspects were arrested during the operation.

The continued respite from terrorism has been a big relief to the security establishment, even though residual challenges persisted. Indeed, in 2021, 18 organizations and 577 individuals had been blacklisted in the country for financing terrorism under the United Nations Regulation No. 1 of 2012, according to the Defence Ministry. Through an Extraordinary Gazette Notification dated August 1, 2022, the Ministry of Defence, removed six organisations and 316 individuals from the 2021 list, but added three new organisations and 55 new individuals to the list. Thus, as on August 1, 2022, at least 15 organizations and 361 individuals were blacklisted in the country. The organisations that were de-listed in the August 1, 2022, Notification included six international Tamil organizations – the Australian Tamil Congress, the Global Tamil Forum, the World Tamil Coordination Committee, the Tamil Eelam People’s Congress, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the British Tamil Forum. Of the 15 existing groups in the list five are Islamist groups that include National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), Jama ‘athe Milla’ athe Ibrahim, Willayath As Seylani, Darul Adhar alias Jamiul Adhar Mosque, Sri Lanka Islamic Student Movement and Save the Pearls.

The island country is indeed going through a tough politico-economic crisis. Luckily for it, the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) no longer pose any significant threat, though the vigil against residual elements of the outfit remains a security imperative. Moreover, though the sweeping action has been taken by SFs against persons and organised linked to the Easter Sunday attacks, and these have hit Islamist extremist elements hard, forcing them into dormancy, given their established foreign linkages, it will remain necessary not to provide any leeway, lest they create significant threats in future.

Who Can and Who Will Save Democracy?

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Democracy has a dream-like character. It sweeps into the world, carried forward by an immense desire by humans to overcome the barriers of indignity and social suffering. When confronted by hunger or the death of their children, earlier communities might have reflexively blamed nature or divinity, and indeed those explanations remain with us today. But the ability of human beings to generate massive surpluses through social production, alongside the cruelty of the capitalist class to deny the vast majority of humankind access to that surplus, generates new kinds of ideas and new frustrations. This frustration, spurred by the awareness of plenty amidst a reality of deprivation, is the source of many movements for democracy.

Habits of colonial thought mislead many to assume that democracy originated in Europe, either in ancient Greece (which gives us the word ‘democracy’ from demos, ‘the people’, and kratos, ‘rule’) or through the emergence of a rights tradition, from the English Petition of Right in 1628 to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. But this is partly a retrospective fantasy of colonial Europe, which appropriated ancient Greece for itself, ignoring its strong connections to North Africa and the Middle East, and used its power to inflict intellectual inferiority on large parts of the world. In doing so, colonial Europe denied these important contributions to the history of democratic change. People’s often forgotten struggles to establish basic dignity against despicable hierarchies are as much the authors of democracy as those who preserved their aspirations in written texts still celebrated in our time. 

Over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, a range of struggles developed against dictatorial regimes in the Third World that had been put in place by anti-communist oligarchies and their allies in the West. These regimes were born out of coups (such as in Brazil, the Philippines, and Turkey) and given the latitude to maintain legal hierarchies (such as in South Africa). The large mass demonstrations that laid at the heart of these struggles were built up through a range of political forces, including trade unions – a side of history that is often ignored. The growing trade union movement in Turkey was, in fact, part of the reason for the military coups of 1971 and 1980. Knowing that their hold on power was vulnerable to working-class struggles, both military governments banned unions and strikes. This threat to their power had been evidenced, in particular, by a range of strikes across Anatolia developed by unions linked to the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), including a massive two-day demonstration in İstanbul known as the June 15–16 Events that drew in 100,000 workers. The confederation, established in February 1967, was more militant than the existing one (Türk İş), which had become a collaborator with capital. Not only did militaries move against socialist and non-socialist governments alike that attempted to exercise sovereignty and improve the dignity of their peoples (such as in the Congo in 1961, Brazil in 1964, Indonesia in 1965, Ghana in 1966, and Chile in 1973), but they also moved out of the barracks – with the bright green light from Washington – to quell the cycle of strikes and worker protests.

Once in power, these wretched regimes, dressed in their khaki uniforms and the finest silk suits, drove austerity policies and cracked down on any movements of the working class and peasantry. But they could not break the human spirit. In much of the world (as in Brazil, the Philippines, and South Africa), it was trade unions that fired the early shot against barbarism. The cry in the Philippines ‘Tama Na! Sobra Na! Welga Na!’ (‘We’ve had enough! Things have gone too far! It’s time to strike!’) moved from La Tondeña distillery workers in 1975 to protests in the streets against Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, eventually culminating in the People Power Revolution of 1986. In Brazil, industrial workers paralysed the country through actions in Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo, and São Caetano do Sul (industrial towns in greater São Paulo) from 1978 to 1981, led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (now Brazil’s president). These actions inspired the country’s workers and peasants, raising their confidence to resist the military junta, which collapsed as a result in 1985.

Fifty years ago, in January 1973, the workers of Durban, South Africa, struck for a pay rise, but also for their dignity. They woke at 3 am on 9 January and marched to a football stadium, where they chanted ‘Ufil’ umuntu, ufile usadikiza, wamthint’ esweni, esweni usadikiza’ (‘A person is dead, but their spirit lives; if you poke the iris of their eye, they still come alive’). These workers led the way against entrenched forms of domination that not only exploited them, but also oppressed the people as a whole. They stood up against harsh labour conditions and reminded South Africa’s apartheid government that they would not sit down again until class lines and colour lines were broken. The strikes opened a new period of urban militancy that soon moved off the factory floors and into wider society. A year later, Sam Mhlongo, a medical doctor who had been imprisoned on Robben Island as a teenager, observed that ‘this strike, although settled, had a detonator effect’. The baton was passed to the children of Soweto in 1976.

From Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the Chris Hani Institute comes a memorable text, The 1973 Durban Strikes: Building Popular Democratic Power in South Africa (dossier no. 60, January 2023). It is memorable in two senses: it recovers an almost lost history of the role of the working class in the fight against apartheid, in particular the Black working class, whose struggle had a ‘detonator’ effect on society. The dossier, beautifully written by our colleagues in Johannesburg, makes it hard to forget these workers and harder still to forget that the working class – still so deeply marginalised in South Africa – deserves respect and a greater share of the country’s social wealth. They broke the back of apartheid but did not benefit from their own sacrifices.

The Chris Hani Institute was founded in 2003 by the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Chris Hani (1942–1993) was one of South Africa’s great freedom fighters, a communist who would have made an even greater impact than he did had he not been assassinated at the end of apartheid. We are grateful to Dr Sithembiso Bhengu, the director of the Chris Hani Institute, for this collaboration and look forward to the work that lies before us.

As this dossier went to press, we heard that our friend Thulani Maseko (1970–2023), chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholders Forum in Swaziland, was shot dead in front of his family on 21 January. He was one of the leaders of the fight to bring democracy to his country, where workers are at the forefront of the battle to end the monarchy.

When I reread our latest dossier, The 1973 Durban Strikes, to prepare for this newsletter, I was listening to Hugh Masekela’s ‘Stimela’ (‘Coal Train’), the 1974 song of migrant workers travelling on the coal train to work ‘deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth’ to bring up wealth for apartheid capital. I thought of the Durban industrial workers with the sound of Masekela’s train whistle in my ear, remembering Mongane Wally Serote’s long poem, Third World Express, a tribute to the workers of southern Africa and their struggles to establish a humane society.

– it is that wind
it is that voice buzzing
it is whispering and whistling in the wires
miles upon miles upon miles
on the wires in the wind
in the subway track
in the rolling road
in the not silent bush
it is the voice of the noise
here it comes
the Third World Express
they must say, here we go again.

‘Here we go again’, Serote wrote, as if to say that new contradictions produce new moments for struggle. The end of one crushing order – apartheid – did not end the class struggle, which has only deepened as South Africa is propelled through crisis upon crisis. It was the workers who brought us this democracy, and it will be workers who will fight to establish a deeper democracy yet. Here we go again.

Newsletter of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

The abuse of the concept of “populism”

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ALL regimes based on class antagonism require a discourse to legitimise class oppression and this discourse in turn requires a vocabulary of its own. The neoliberal regime too has developed its own discourse and vocabulary and a key concept in this vocabulary is “populism”. This concept is given great currency by the media, which is peopled by members drawn from the upper middle class who have been major beneficiaries of the neo-liberal regime and have therefore developed a vested interest in its continuation. So pervasive is the reach of this concept that even well-meaning and progressive members of the literati have fallen victim to its abuse and employ the term with the pejorative connotation typically imparted to it by the corporate-owned media.

The term “populism” of course is not an invention of the neo-liberal intelligentsia. It has been used much earlier but with a meaning very different from what is given to it now. The Russian Narodniks for instance were called “populists” by Russian Marxists, including Lenin, but the term was used to denote the fact that the Narodniks did not make class distinctions within the mass that they indiscriminately called the “people”. The idea was not to discredit the use of the term “people”, for Lenin himself used the term “working people” to denote workers and peasants; it was to avoid the obliteration of distinctions among them which needed to be theoretically drawn. Under neo-liberalism, however, the term is used to refer to any appeal made to any segment of the working people, whether to mobilize them on grounds of religious chauvinism or by making fiscal transfers to them.

The term “populism” in its current use, therefore, covers both fascist and semi-fascist appeals to the people on issues that deliberately camouflage their oppression, as well as all attempts to secure some gains for them to alleviate their oppression. The former is sometimes called “Right-wing populism” while the latter is called “Left-wing populism”. The ideological obfuscation is obvious here: not only is there no class perspective behind the use of the term, but by treating both “Left-wing” and “Right-wing” populism on a par as unwholesome tendencies, there is a privileging of the “middle”, i.e., a liberal bourgeois position as the only “sensible” one. A concept used in a rigorous theoretical critique with regard to the cognition of a mass entity, as was the case with the Russian Marxists, has now been converted into an apotheosis of the liberal bourgeois position.

This is not just a case of obfuscation; it is positively misleading as well. The hallmark of the fascist, neo-fascist and semi-fascist positions that are labelled “Right-wing” populism is that they have nothing to offer by way of economic benefits to the masses. By contrast, what is called “Left-wing” populism demands welfare state measures, and, at the very least, economic transfers to the people; by putting the two on a par and debunking “populism” in general, the dominant discourse essentially debunks all economic transfers to the people. It, therefore, advances a position according to which any economic concessions made to the people must be eschewed and the government’s focus must be entirely on the growth of the GDP; since transfers to the people eat into resources that could have been used for making investments which would have accelerated growth, such transfers are a waste, made under duress only because of electoral compulsions, but otherwise utterly unwise. An extension of this logic is the argument that any attempt on the part of the government to reduce economic inequality in society is also unwise.

This discourse is perfectly in keeping with a neo-liberal regime. Before it was introduced, nobody would have been critical if an agenda of reducing inequality and eliminating poverty had been advanced. In fact, Indira Gandhi won an election on the slogan of Garibi Hatao; of course, she did not do it, but the criticism against her was not that she advanced the slogan but that she did not do it. Amartya Sen had argued long ago that devoting just 5 per cent of GDP would eliminate poverty in India and that the country should do it by foregoing total consumption by an amount equal to just one year’s GDP growth (which was then about 5 per cent per annum). Reduction in inequality and the elimination of poverty were thus considered primary tasks before the economy during the dirigiste period; but not so now, even though there has been a massive increase in income and wealth inequality under the neo-liberal regime. And recourse to the pejorative use of the term “populism” is a means of debunking all such demands for greater egalitarianism, an ideological weapon in the hands of corporate capital and the burgeoning upper middle class to beat down all proposals for economic transfers to the poor.

Prioritising economic growth has always been a feature of bourgeois economics, but with a difference. Adam Smith had argued for the removal of state interference that, he believed, stood in the way of economic growth, even though he knew perfectly well that the benefits of this growth would not come to the working class. In his view an increase in the wealth of the nation was an important goal per se; where he differed from his predecessors was in arguing that this wealth consisted not in the acquisition of gold and silver but in the accumulation of capital stock that could be used for producing goods. David Ricardo too was all for the accumulation of capital stock and hence for the growth of output, even though he knew that there was a limit to such accumulation. (Indeed, Karl Marx had lauded Ricardo for advocating accumulation even though the latter believed that such accumulation would run into a cul-de-sac when what was called a stationary state was reached). Ricardo also believed that the working class would not be benefitted by such accumulation.

The reason why both Smith and Ricardo thought that the working class would not be benefitted by such accumulation is because any improvement in its condition tended to bring forth an increase in its population. The only way that workers could benefit from capital accumulation, therefore, was if they restricted their propensity to procreate. But that was a matter that they alone could influence, though the classical economists were in favour of their becoming better off through restricting their population growth. The classical advocacy of growth however was independent of whether workers benefitted from it.

The current advocacy of growth is different. Nobody today believes that the conditions of the working people are miserable because they procreate too much; nobody believes that their conditions cannot be improved through the efforts of the State by bringing about income transfers in their favour. And yet such transfers are sought to be avoided by neo-liberal bourgeois economists on the grounds that they would jeopardise economic growth. The classical advocacy of growth is taken over by modern neo-liberals, but without the classical economists’ sympathy for the working class. Thus, the bourgeoisie’s class animosity against the working class is now reflected in the attitudes of the economists as well.

The emphasis on growth to the exclusion of economic transfers to the poor, which are sneeringly labelled as “populist measures”, is doubly offensive to the poor. On the one hand it prevents an improvement in their living standard that could have been achieved if the transfers had taken place; on the other hand, the quest for growth invariably involves a number of projects that entail the ousting of peasants and labourers from the land that they cultivate, and of people at large from their habitats, which leaves them even worse off than they were to start with. True, employment is created on such projects and also in downstream activities created by them; but the displaced are scarcely the beneficiaries from such employment generation, and even the employment that is created often falls short of the employment that is destroyed. And rehabilitation of the displaced people that is promised when the project is undertaken is scarcely ever realised. If growth was being effected under the aegis of collectives of the people themselves, through for instance peasant collectives themselves starting industrial projects, then matters would be different; but that is not the way that growth occurs under capitalism.

The debunking of welfare state measures by referring to them pejoratively as “populist”, and emphasising GDP growth exclusively as the objective of state policy, are cynically anti-people; but that is the hallmark of neo-liberalism.

Sri Lanka: Gota Ousted by Rajapaksa family, not the public – Ultra nationalist Media Magnate

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1 min read

Dilith Jayaweera who is a known businessman and a head of an ultra-nationalist media outfit in Sri Lanka has revealed that arrangements were made within the Rajapaksa family to oust former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the office much before the general public rallied on the streets.

Jayaweera said former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshita Rajapaksa, who voluntarily resigned from the navy to serve his father, who was then prime minister, first created the famous hashtag GotaGoHome, which was later widely used by protesters.

In his confession, Jayaweera did not hesitate to admit that he was strongly opposed by the Rajapaksa family for supporting Gotabaya Rajapaksa and that other family members believed that Jayaweera was manipulating Gotabaya against the family’s interests.

When asked about the future of much-ambitious Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son Namal Rajapaksa, he said that Namal has no political future. Jayaweera stressed these ideas in an interview with a young musician who runs his YouTube channel.

Sri Lanka: End of the Tunnel

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6 mins read

The abuse of official power by the heads of state in Sri Lanka to amass illegal wealth or to allow their cronies to do so, and also to encourage the public representatives elected to legislative bodies such as the Parliament and Provincial Councils to transact trading business with the Government which is contrary to the law, can be considered as the prime origin of state level corruption in Sri Lanka.

So much so, a corrupt policy which allows the cronies of the head of state to earn wealth illegally and also letting the ruling party members of parliament to transact business with the Government against the law while the heads of state themselves are involved in amassing wealth using or rather abusing the enormous power they have, has become a widespread practice in Sri Lanka. The Members of Parliament of any country where a system of democratic governance prevails are not allowed to transact business with the government. It is considered as a serious offense that leads to depriving the person committing the offense of his seat in parliament.

According to the current law of Sri Lanka, transacting business with the government by a member of parliament is considered to be a punishable offense that could result in the deprivation of the seat of the culprit. It is the Soulbury Constitution and not the 2nd Republican Constitution applicable for this subject. Albert Silva, the UNP candidate elected to the Galle constituency at the 1977 general election was deprived of his parliamentary seat by the Court because he possessed a license for distribution of kerosene oil issued by the Petroleum Corporation in his name. President Jayewardene changed the good policies, practices and traditions that had been maintained by the state administration until then, and turned them upside down and maneuvered the power to rule the country into an easy way for the power group of the ruling party including the head of state to amass wealth by unlawful means.

President Jayewardene launched the parade by giving the valuable land owned by the Land Reform Commission to his MPs and his close friends and cronies at a nominal price. In order to dispel any doubt that the MPs might have had about acquiring land against the law, the President himself set a precedent by exchanging a barren coconut estate owned by him for a fertile one belonging to the Land Reform Commission. Along with that, the President also allowed the ruling party MPs to transact business with the Government contrary to the law.

Consequently, the members of the ruling party became government contractors, suppliers or buyers and also the licensed businessmen of the Government.

Although it was illegal for the members of parliament to do so, the President prevented the law from being implemented against them. Forcing the UNP member who represented the Kamburupitiya constituency to resign from the seat and appointing Albert Silva who was deprived of his parliamentary seat by the judiciary, as a chit MP to Kamburupitiya constituency is one example that can be cited to illustrate this fiasco.

Defending the corrupt system

The main opposition of the parliament and the other opposition parties that represented diverse political trends knew that the corrupt tradition introduced by President Jayewardene was contrary to the accepted democratic parliamentary traditions as well as the rule of law.

But strangely no one representing the parliament has uttered a single word in parliament against this corrupt and ugly practice.

Even after some unpleasant and horrible facts pertaining to this situation were disclosed by the recorded phone conversations between the United National Party MP Ranjan Ramanayake and some prominent figures in the country i.e. after the revelation that there are owners of distilleries, owners of taverns, contractors and licensees doing business with the Government among the Members of Parliament surprisingly, none of the political parties or party leaders or members of Parliament has submitted a proposal to investigate this situation which is illegal and has undermined the prestige and the dignity of Parliament.

Why is that? Is the “appalling silence” maintained by all of them in relation to this issue an unfortunate coincidence? Or is it something that should be treated as an inexplicable phenomenon from a political point of view? What have the political parties or the leaders of those parties got to say about it? Why did the Speakers of the Parliament fail to perceive this dreadful and illegal situation as a heinous crime?

Darkness only and no silver linings

At the outset, if at least one MP, not a large group of them had stood up against this ugly and corrupt system it would have become unsustainable. But all or most members of the opposition wanted to see it prevail until they came to power. After getting power, what they did was to add new elements to it thereby making the system stronger than it was and get the maximum advantage of it. Now, 45 years have passed since this corrupt system has been established, but during that long period, no political party, party leader or a Member of Parliament has spoken strongly against MPs doing business with the government which is illegal and contrary to the law.

Apparently there is an interconnection between the MPs doing business with the government and presidents making illegal earnings from public property in their charge. The presidents have traditionally adopted a policy of allowing the members of the ruling party to do business with the government because it has become a necessary condition for the presidents to have the support of the members of the ruling party to acquire wealth for themselves illegally as well as for allowing their cronies to do the same.

Corruption in the country has become an uncontrollable issue due to the fact that the Executive and the Legislature that steer the helm of the country have tended to act on a policy of making undue wealth. The generation of old politicians, almost all of them, in one way or the other, have been a party that has defended the prime source of this corrupt system. As such, a serious or far-reaching change in the subject of corruption cannot be envisaged even if they get the government power. It is unlikely that a completely new group will gain power in the next election. Even if such a group will secure power by something like a sleight of miracle, they do not seem to possess the wisdom and discipline necessary to bring about a tangible transformation. In that sense, Sri Lanka is not in a stage where new hopes can be kindled for a better future, quickly.

The dilemma of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka can be considered as a country that is caught up deeply in a three-pronged crisis: social, political, economic or financial. Another negative aspect of Sri Lanka’s crisis is that many of the things that should have been reformed have now become long overdue, making reforms extremely difficult. In the balance of payments crisis, the IMF was approached only after the country fell bankrupt, not before. It made the ability to overcome the crisis enormously difficult. The need for resolving the national crisis which is primarily centred on the issues of caste, race and religion was contemplated not immediately after concluding the internal civil war, but only after 13 years. The need for restricting the number of employees in the public sector to 700,000, which is the realistic cadre required to maintain it, was seriously thought about only after the number has exceeded the limit of 1,500,000, and not at least before it reached the 1,000,000 mark.

The dire need for eliminating corruption in public service was also contemplated not when the share of income earned by corrupt public servants by corrupt means remained at a level of 10-15% of their income, but only when it has increased to 75 or 100 percent or sometimes even more of their total income. This situation can be described as the biggest dilemma that Sri Lanka has to face in the subject of reforms. Accordingly, Sri Lanka is not in an easy situation to introduce the essential reforms; it is going through a tremendously difficult situation as far as reforms are concerned.

When President Ranil Wickremesinghe invited the other political parties to join a reform program and if those parties were able to reach a common consensus for a reform program leading to a major change in the system and also if they had been successful in making it a public participatory program with an interim constitution being adopted so that no one could change it for narrow and subjective purposes, even under the present circumstances where things have gone too far from solving the problems easily, still it would have been possible to solve the crises to a large extent, though not completely.

But now Sri Lanka is in an unfortunate situation where it has lost that opportunity. The political future of the country is also in a weird situation which is vague, uncertain and chaotic. If the powerful countries extend their help, Sri Lanka will be able to solve the balance of payments crisis sooner or later. But, Sri Lanka and its people will be compelled to live for a long time in the current socio-political environment which is corrupt and unpleasant.

Sri Lanka: What will be the end of the crisis?

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6 mins read

The object of this article is to point out an important aspect that has been ignored in analysing the crisis facing Sri Lanka, and also to explain what the end of the crisis could be, which I venture to do from the perspective of a critic who has foreseen the impending crisis in advance and had cautioned the authorities and the public about it repeatedly.  

A person who has gone too far on a wrong track may find it difficult or even impossible to get back to the right path even if he realises lately that he was trekking on a wrong track. This doctrine applies equally to social institutions, administrative machineries and states, albeit with some variations. The Heads of State who assumed the power after the establishment of a presidential system of governance in Sri Lanka, and the rebel leaders like Wijeweera and Prabhakaran, who attempted to usurp the political power through violent rebellions, can be considered as leaders who have proceeded so far on wrong paths that it was not easy for them to turn back. 

Even a machine may soon become unusable and ineffectual if it is continued to be used when faults occur, without rectifying them. The same principle applies to the state as well. If the state does not follow a consistent policy of rectifying the errors which may occur from time to time and maintaining the state machinery well, the state too, might become a dilapidated entity, ultimately ending up being a failed state.

Monitoring the functioning of the state 

Many countries adopt and maintain special institutions to monitor the performance of the state. The neighbouring India maintains a permanent commission called “Sarkariya Commission” for that purpose. The Sarkaria Commission was set up by the central government of India against M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, when he clamoured for more autonomy for the state government. The Sarkaria Commission’s charter was to examine the central-state relationship on various portfolios and suggest changes within the framework of Constitution of India. 

The commission has been named after Ranjith Singh Sarkariya who was appointed the Chairman of the commission when it was established in 1983. He was a retired Supreme Court judge. I had the opportunity to meet him in a workshop held in New Delhi to discuss about the functioning of the judiciary in the SAARC, The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which I attended as a participant. Ranjith Singh Sarkariya was the chief guest of that workshop. A group of judicial officers and a group of lawyers nominated by SAARC countries also participated in this work. It was organised by the UNESCO branch in India. 

Apart from me, Sinha Ratnatunga, the editor of the Sunday Times who was also a lawyer and Asanka Welikala, a prominent personality in the field of constitutionalism also participated in it. I, who was neither a lawyer nor a judicial officer, was invited to attend the workshop to elucidate the facts about my struggle against Chief Justice Sarath Silva. I must state that it was the presentation I made that received the most attention of the judicial officials and lawyers who participated in the workshop. My presentation included the factors that led to the conflict with Chief Justice Sarath Silva, and an analysis on how that conflict was continued. 

One of the points mentioned at the conclusion of my speech led to an emphatic discussion in that workshop. When considering the crisis of Sri Lanka, that particular point I had raised in my presentation could be described as an important factor that has been completely ignored by Sri Lanka. I concluded my presentation by stating that the Parliament had moved two impeachments on two separate occasions against the corrupt chief justice to remove him from his position, but the president prorogued the parliament ending the session of the parliament in the first instance to protect his colleague and on the second occasion the parliament was dissolved by the president. 

At the end of my presentation, a senior lawyer of India who participated in the workshop stood up and asked what the Sri Lankan Bar Association did to remove the corrupt Chief Justice from his office when the attempts to impeach him by the Parliament failed, while explaining the policy followed by the Bar Association of India in a similar situation.

Identifying the culprits

As explained by that lawyer, an impeachment against two judges of the High Court of India on corruption charges was presented to the Parliament, but due to some reason, the Parliament was not able to take the impeachment to a logical conclusion. Since then, the Indian Bar Association followed a policy of boycotting the appearance for cases heard before the two judges concerned. In the end, he said that the two judges were compelled to resign from their positions to avoid humiliation. With that, he asked as to why the Bar Association in Sri Lanka did not follow a similar policy. 

What happened in Sri Lanka is fundamentally different from what happened in India. There only a small group of lawyers followed a policy of rising against the Chief Justice, which brought the judiciary into a humiliating state. A large number of people took maximum advantage of the situation by adopting a policy of defending the corrupt Chief Justice. There were other types of dancers who joined the procession. The owners of the mass media organisations that had lawsuits got their cases settled in their favour by adopting a policy that gave maximum protection to the Chief Justice in this crisis, through their publications and channels. Some politicians and certain political parties also took maximum advantage of that crisis by adopting a policy that supported the Chief Justice. Two political movements came forward to defend the corrupt Chief Justice and to safeguard his survival at that difficult moment, and for that, they obtained in return, judgments from the Chief Justice that added to the fame and reputation of their movements. 

According to what I learnt later from a university teacher who was attached to one of the political movements and also had participated in discussions held with the Chief Justice occasionally, they had received instructions from the Chief Justice on how to file court cases which are of interest to them. It was the Chief Justice who drafted the Fundamental Rights petitions for them. The irony was that the panel of judges who heard that petition was chaired by the Chief Justice himself, who has drafted the petition. The extent of the pathetic and comic situation into which the judiciary and the political system of the country had fallen into, even at that time, could be discerned from this incident. 

It is not only the misconduct or corrupt activities of the people who commit errors that can make a democratic political system weak and dilapidated. Even those who support the offenders when wrongdoings are being committed, and also those who are responsible for preventing such occurrences, but refraining from doing so, and letting the mistakes pass unheeded, should also be treated as active partners of such offenses. 

It can be further explained as follows. If the individuals who had supported the corrupt Chief Justice had abstained from doing so and stood up against him, and the opposition political parties and the Bar Associations which had the responsibility to act against the corrupt Chief Justice, had fulfilled their responsibilities properly, the Chief Justice would have been compelled to give up his position. When we requested the Supreme Court to conduct an investigation into the corruption charges levelled against Attorney General Sarath Silva, all the judges of the Supreme Court except three judges expressed their agreement to conduct an investigation. This shows that if others had fulfilled their responsibilities, there was a real possibility of ousting Sarath Silva, who was later appointed as the Chief Justice. 

Had it been the case, the country would have had a better judiciary than the existing one, and perhaps the country would not have fallen into a state of failure. Same principle is equally applicable to all serious mistakes that have been committed in the political level of the country. 

Another illustration that can be cited to explain this situation is as follows: According to the ‘78 constitution, a member elected to Parliament from a recognised political party couldn’t change the party without losing his/her seat. But when President Chandrika wanted to strengthen her government by persuading a group of opposition MPs to join the government, she was able to create a situation with the support of the judiciary (Chief Justice Sarath Silva) in which the MPs defected from the opposition could join the ruling party without losing their seats. It can be considered as an instance that led to distorting the Constitution severely. But the main opposition party in general or any other political parties represented in the Parliament refrained from protesting against this horrible violation of the Constitution. Consequently, this system introduced in violation of the Constitution has become a common feature of the political system. This situation has not only weakened the opposition parties but also led to distort the political system and accelerate its collapse. Along with that the Constitution, the supreme law of the country became an object of ridicule. 

Sri Lanka: President’s Priorities in New Year

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5 mins read

After a tumultuous 2022, what lies ahead for Sri Lanka in 2023, Col R Hariharan postulates possible priorities for the President, outcomes and challenges for the Island Nation which seems to have weathered the political storm of the past year for now.

Learnings from 2022

Sri Lanka did not cover itself with glory in the year 2022. But the year is a remarkable one in Sri Lanka’ political history. The spontaneous Aragalaya protestors demonstrated that they cannot be taken for granted by their elected representatives. It did not matter if they were Rajapaksas – their heroes of yesterday. The protestors’ battle cry “GotaGoGama” saw the unseemly termination of the rule of the Terminator of Tamil separatists – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It has shown that getting elected to the high office of President is not enough; it lasts only so long as people accept it.

Events overtook the Machiavellian plans of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was forced to quit home and office in the face of massive public protests. It showed enjoying parliamentary support is not enough to sustain power when people are determined to throw you out. The Hindu correspondent in Colombo Meera Srinivasan eloquently puts it: “When you hear ordinary citizens articulate their desire for a better future and country, the message resonates across borders and contexts. At one level, Sri Lankans were resisting leaders who they held responsible for their economic distress. At another, a mass uprising showed that no leader is invincible, and no might is bigger than people’s power.”

The transformation of seven-time Prime Minister and nominated member of parliament Ranil Wickremesinghe, brought in as “night watchman” PM, as President in a crisis, validates another clichéd aphorism: “fortune favours the brave.” But Wickremesinghe, a veteran of many political battles for survival, had the courage to step into the shaky chair. He quickly put together his jerry-built government to stave (save?) the country from plunging into chaos.

The President’s galaxy of ministers are mostly old faces with new labels, with a sprinkle of younger aspirants. It is still intact there, to usher in the new year, disproving the naysayers. This showed that President Wickremesinghe had a much better understanding of crisis management than the Rajapaksas. Despite the anachronism of his survival as President depends upon pro-Rajapaksa MPs, evidently most people feel his priorities are right.

Otherwise, Aragalaya protests would have probably continued. It also showed that people are ready to give the leader time and space to get his act together. President Wickremesinghe’s actions show that he is still wary of muted Aragalaya protestors watching from the wings. Though the threat of Aragalaya has taken a backseat from the political mainstream, hopefully it will force the political class to prioritise people’s needs first.

It is the historical Aragalaya movement that propelled President Wickremesinghe to power. It showed the failure of the traditional tools of state instruments of power including security personnel to quell the protests, Though the movement has seemingly dissipated now, its subterranean presence can be seen now in protests by students and staff in universities, among monks and civil society organisations. So, it is not enough to find berths for youth representatives in advisory bodies of the government. Good governance, rule of law and impartial judiciary will satisfy most of them.

Corruption and cronyism seem to be endemic in every action of the government. For long people have put up with it. The Aragalaya movement has sown the seeds of distrust of the political class in the minds of the people. If Sri Lanka has to survive as a stable democracy, politicians must regain the trust of the people. In this context, Winston Churchill’s words in the House of Commons come to mind. “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper. No amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

As Sir Martin Gilbert, leading historian, and Churchill’s official biographer, says: “Parliamentary democracy is an easy concept to grasp but a difficult one to sustain. Throughout the Twentieth Century, and into our present Twenty First Century, the institutions and ideals of parliamentary democracy have been under continual threat. The power of totalitarian regimes to dominate their own people is – and remains – attractive to those who wish to control the life of a nation without checks and balances.” These words hold true to Sri Lanka’s present situation as China with its increasing global clout might appear as an attractive alternative. A dissatisfied population may be easily swayed to ignore that it is a one-party “democracy” of 21st century Communism of the Chinese kind.

Agenda for 2023

Sri Lanka is stepping into 2023 with the economy limping on crutches with the tourism industry and export trade taking a beating. The promised IMF recovery package is yet to materialize. Peoples’ woes of continuing price rise, shortage of essential food stuff and energy resources are making life difficult. The scars of Covid pandemic are still there and the flare up of a new variant spreading fast in China, European countries and the US portends ill of a revival of the pandemic in the new year. There is no end in sight to the early end to the Ukraine war. This has queered the strategic stability of Sri Lanka’s environment. Its fall out is being felt in Sri Lanka’s relations with major powers competing for dominating the Indo-Pacific.

The President’s agenda for 2023 will have to be planned in this environment. The year 2023 is going to be a year of long weekends with nine of them falling on Fridays and Mondays. In other words, it will be a year of less than nine months of work. So whatever Sri Lanka plans to achieve will have to factor time as an invaluable resource. In management terms, this would mean investing in short-term projects that yield quick results to stoke the feeling of achievement to raise the morale of the people. Indian experience has shown extensive computerisation of government systems can achieve this. The first item on the President’s agenda for 2023 seems to be to resolve “the Tamil issue” by February 4, 2023, before the nation celebrates 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence in March.

Ethnic reconciliation had been featured as an important item on the agenda of all presidents, except for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The veteran hero of the separatist war, on becoming president made it clear that Sri Lanka was for the majority – Sinhala Buddhists. Of course, despite all the fanfare with which the ethnic issue has been featured in the agenda of successive presidents no discernible results have been achieved. Of course, the only exception is the 13th amendment that created provincial councils. Even that was sent to the halfway house, when the Rajapaksas prioritised pleasing the Sinhala Buddhist constituency, over reconciliation of minorities.

President Wickremesinghe is a past master in using ethnic reconciliation as an effective political tool to garner public support. He had spearheaded the UNP protests the 2000 draft constitution bill moved by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The UNP MPs set fire to the draft of the bill in the parliament. The draft 2000 constitution contained power sharing proposals that could have ended the ethnic confrontation. It never saw the light of the day and Sri Lanka missed an opportunity to bring the ethnic issue to a closure. It was a costly political expediency that cost the nation dearly, as 100,000 people lost their lives in the Eelam wars that followed.

The Yahapalana government of President Maithripala Sirisena with PM Wickremesinghe went to the extent of preparing a draft constitution fielded by the constituent assembly. But it never saw the light of the day perhaps because both the President and PM had their own political agenda. Considering this background, President Wickremesinghe’s deadline for resolving the Tamil issue by February 4, 2023, seems unrealistic. However, the President appeared to be making the right moves – all party conferences, palaver with the leaders of Tamil, Muslim, and likeminded leaders of other political parties. He has opened offices in Vavuniya and Mannar to keep his ear to the grind wheel.

But the President must reckon with the elephant in the room – the Sinhala Buddhist rural masses. They need to be convinced that the Tamil issue is the priority when the whole country is locked in the struggle for survival. Can President Wickremesinghe convince them to resolve the four decade long ethnic issue eating into the vitals of Sri Lanka? Only time will tell.

Challenges and Opportunities for Annamalai in Tamil Nadu Politics

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3 mins read

Just after a period of less than 24 months of entering Tamil Nadu politics and becoming the President of Tamil Nadu BJP and with no prior political experience, Annamalai has certainly become a “strike force” in Tamil Nadu politics today.

A number of political researchers and discerning observers wonder as to what could be the reason for Annamalai’s stormy entry into Tamil Nadu politics and his nearly outshining so many other experienced politicians in Tamil Nadu including those in Tamil Nadu BJP itself.

A careful study clearly indicates that there are reasons for this.

Entry into politics at the right time:

Annamalai has entered Tamil Nadu politics at the right time when the common people in the state have almost become tired of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu for around sixty years now, which have been marked by several negatives including a high level of corruption, an increasing number of people including children getting addicted to liquor and counter-productive and caste-based politics and unprincipled politicians.

People have been voting for one dravidian party or the other so far since they had no other alternate party with good standards. Poor people have been voting for anyone of the Dravidian party based on the freebies given, loud promises made and distribution of cash to the poor voters at the time of elections. Several poor people know very well that it is wrong to take cash for voting but “justify” their accepting cash, stating that by accepting cash they would be only squeezing out the money swindled by the politicians and thus “would make such politicians poor”.

The senior citizens who have seen great political stalwarts in Tamil Nadu such as Kamaraj and Kakkan, who exhibited very high personal and political standards and ruled the state competently, crave whether such politicians of high standards would enter Tamil Nadu politics anytime in future.

Youth in the state who have been told about the exemplary standards of Kakkan and Kamaraj find it difficult to believe that such great politicians could have lived in the state at all. They often wonder whether such high political scruples would be possible for any politician.

At a time like the present one, when people are looking for political leader of high standards, Annamalai has entered Tamil Nadu politics, raising hope that Annamalai could take the political standard in the state to high level, matching the standards of Kamaraj and Kakkan.

Unique attributes:

There are some unique attributes in Annamalai, which has not been seen in any other politician in Tamil Nadu. He is well educated with an engineering degree and management qualification from a reputed institution, entered the India cadre of IPS bypassing the competitive exam and served as a senior police officer in Karnataka with an impeccable record.

He speaks knowledgeably not only on politics but a variety of other subjects such as administrative ethos, philosophy, history and so on with the capability to speak in the Tamil language that could be readily understood by anyone.

What is more, is his courage of conviction and confidence to make critical observations with informative data and analysis. He uses strong language against corruption, which has caught the imagination of the common man.

In such conditions, everyone is keen to know what Annamalai thinks about any matter and people flock to his meetings in good numbers.

Opportunity:

There is a vacuum in political leadership in Tamil Nadu, as the ministers and politicians are fast losing their credibility and the governance appears to be virtually a family affair. This scenario gives an opportunity for Annamalai to continue his crusade

Constraint:

Both print and visual media in the state appear to be soft and uncritical towards the ruling party for whatever reasons. In such circumstances, Annamalai has a problem in reaching his message to the people through print and visual media. In such circumstances, he is heavily dependent on social media to publicise his views.

Of course, social media has two sides and there is also negative publicity on social media for Annamalai.

Challenge:

Obviously, the politicians belonging to the ruling party and allies are concerned about Annamalai gaining popularity and in the coming days, it is likely that many false allegations would be made against Annamalai to spoil his image. The ruling party is likely to leave no stone unturned in this regard.

It remains to be seen how Annamalai would face this challenge, which would come not only from opposition parties but also from within the BJP itself by those who fall to the “offers” from the ruling party men.

Annamalai at the crossroads:

While Annamalai is gaining popularity, it is too early to guess whether such popularity would be sustained and converted into votes for him.

While popularity means that people are taking a close look at Annamalai’s speech and programmes, he has to maintain high standards in a consistent manner, so that people would not change their views.

Perhaps, Annamalai may pass the test which could happen, if he has the quality in him and exhibit it to the people.

Today, in Tamil Nadu politics, Annamalai is at a crossroads.

Tamil Nadu would be a loser, if Annamalai would fall apart due to the high-pressure campaign against him that is bound to be launched by the opposite parties and vested interests.

People would stand by Annamalai if he would continue to show that he is an unbending fighter against corruption and negative politics.

While Annamalai is gaining popularity, it is too early to guess whether such popularity would be sustained and converted into votes for him.

Sri Lanka in 2023: Challenges and beyond?

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“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker – It’s not what you say but what you do that defines you – Buddha

“Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” – Buddha

The year 2022 will end as the year that turned Sri Lanka on its belly. It demonstrated that while some political leaders were well-meaning and did what they thought was good for the country, the collective effort of 75 years of independent governance had ended in the economic bankruptcy of the country and owing more than what it is economically worth. It has demonstrated that the country is good at living on borrowed money, and it had demonstrated that the country has functioned without a clear vision and a clear strategy as to how to achieve that vision.

It is not the time to dwell on the past unless one is doing so to learn lessons from the past. What is more important is the present, and what one could do to avoid mistakes of the past, create a new vision for the future and move to a better future. 

Not blaming politicians alone for such mistakes is one lesson one should learn as they are a product of the political system in place. Creators of the system and its participants includes the people who elect the politicians. So, collectively, the people, their representatives and the system in place have all failed the country. In saying this, the vast strides made in different sectors of the country are recognized, and so are some leaders who spearheaded such improvements. The achievements of the country are however looked at from the prism of where it is now, an economically bankrupt nation.

One may argue that after 75 years of independence, this bankruptcy extends beyond economic bankruptcy and to social, moral, and ethical standards despite the teachings of three major religions of the world, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam which are well entrenched in the country. Some would take the view that the strengthening of cultural, ritualistic aspects of these religions rather than practices based on the original teachings of these religions have contributed to the social, moral, and ethical bankruptcy that is being experienced. In this regard, it is the religious institutions that should look inwards and question themselves of the part they have played by just mouthing, but not living the teachings of the founders of the major religions.

Politics and religion, or rather the religious institutions and the political establishment has a symbiotic relationship of inter dependance. This is markedly so when it comes to the Sinhala Buddhist institution and the political establishment. Early in independent Sri Lanka, the leader who is hated and loved in equal measure, one who is recognized as the one who gave the Sinhala Buddhist community their due place, and at the same time who is recognized as the person who was the cause of the Sinhala Tamil rift, SWRD Bandaranaike, born a Christian, converted to Buddhism. Whatever the reasons for this conversion, there cannot be any doubt that this helped his political objectives considering that in post independent history, being the first citizen of the country has not been possible unless one were a Sinhala Buddhist.

In terms of the future, a question must be asked where this symbiotic relationship would take the country? More of the same? If the status quo continues, how could leaders of the two institutions, the religious and the political, work together to advance the country rather than themselves? This is one of the most important challenges for the future. While the Buddhist institutions argue that their role is to ensure the protection of Buddhism, their activities have gone well beyond this. Divisions within Buddhist Monks, the institutions they belong to, and their partisan preferences and actions as to who and which party should govern the country, have clearly indicated the real motive of some individual Monks and more broadly the   institutions. This motive being the desire to be a key stakeholder in political governance. In this context, as influential stakeholders, they have contributed in equal measure to the sorry state of the country today. 

The Buddhist clergy is supposed to abide by the Vinaya Pitakaya, the code of conduct applicable to them as Buddhist Monks. Today, this is a joke if one looks at the behavior of some Monks. The Buddhist institution is replete with various internal judiciary positions, all of which are no more than figurehead positions that do not seem to be performing their tasks as outlined in the Vinaya Pitakaya.

While it may be controversial to some, the role and power of the religious institutions and Buddhist Monks, their conformity with the Vinaya Pitakaya and their influence on political governance arising from their political partisanship is a challenge that the country will have to confront with. If their political partisanship, power and influence should remain, and their role as stakeholders in political governance continues, a truly bi partisan economic framework will not be possible to take the country forward. This political bipartisanship has not happened partly due to the actions of some influential members of religious institutions who have exerted a significant degree of influence with the voters who elect politicians and political parties to govern. In this context, such an influence factor contributes either to the success or otherwise of the country’s economic development. If the present status of bankruptcy is to be a yardstick, it can be taken that this influence factor has failed the country. 

Ideally, no religious institution nor its members should engage in politics, and if they wish to do so, they should leave their religious institutions and do so as lay persons. The ability to make this happen is in the hands of the people, and they should clearly and unequivocally send this message to all religious institutions.

Another key challenge for the country and its public is the need for a long-term development framework, at least the contours of such a framework. The very nature of the political system of 75 years has resulted in short term planning of not more than 5 years. There has never been a bi partisan development framework, even within a span of 5 years, let alone any period longer than that. The country needs such a framework of not less than 10 years, and it is heartening to note that the current President is said to be working on a 25-year framework. 

It is vital however for such a framework to have bi partisan (or multi partisan) agreement, and for such an agreed framework to be periodically reviewed and updated to keep it in line with global developments including technological developments.

Such a framework should include major economic drivers such as an export development plan, an import substitution plan, a tourism plan, an agriculture plan to assure food security, a plan to maximize land and water utilization, an industrial development plan that includes Port development, sustainable energy development etc., and an education plan that prepares the future generations to meet the challenges posed by such an economic framework. Besides these, the health of the nation is paramount, and the framework should include plans for long term primary and curative healthcare in the country.

It is questionable whether the people nor their representatives, and other institutions that influence governance planning and decision making will have the foresight nor the guts to make far reaching decisions for the benefit of future generations. Ad hoc planning has been the order of the day for 75 years, and sadly, it is quite likely that this situation will continue for another 75 years if not more. 

Sri Lanka has faced its gravest economic and social crisis since independence, and this has not been sufficient for the political leaders and their parties, in particular the Opposition parties, to work with the governing party and agree on an economic framework to lift the country out of its morass. Calling for fresh elections is the only plan they have offered to the country.  

Even if elections were held, history has shown that generally, the vote between the governing party and Opposition parties have been split in the ratio of 55 % to 45%. 

If this were to be the case at an election the Opposition is clamoring to have, what will suffer most will be the way forward for the economy as political partisanship, split in the manner described above will stand in the way of a commonly agreed economic development framework.

The country is bankrupt, and yet, the singing and dancing goes on. It has been reported that the appointment of more cabinet ministers is imminent. The Titanic is sinking, but more deckhands are said to join the captain. This may defy logic, but it does fit in with the reality that the morals and ethics of most politicians have already sunk far below the level of economic bankruptcy. 

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