Gamini Weerakoon

Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island, and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader.

In search of a leader for Lanka

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Thomas Jefferson, hailed as a great president of the United States of America, made many historic contributions to the development of the United States at its infancy and also wrote the Declaration of American Independence. He designed his own tombstone and wrote his own epitaph:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

And father of the University of Virginia.

He did not mention that he was twice elected as the President of the United States! (Excerpted from 100 Great Nineteenth Century Lives by John Canning)

It is not possible to enumerate Jefferson’s many significant historic achievements in this column due to space constraints but Jefferson is also not without critics.

He was the son of a wealthy tobacco planter and did not renounce some of the powers and privileges that were exercised by those planters. Thus, he is the target of 21st Century anti-American critics, human rights activists, even business-like and buccaneering Sri Lankan NGOs, and genuine NGO activists of today.

Jefferson appears to fall somewhat into the category of a leader envisaged by Lao Tzu (601 BC), the founder of Taoism. He declared: A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves.

That kind of leadership may have been scarce even in those ancient times and certainly extinct today. In 20th and 21st Century democracies, leaders attempt to work on the principle of: Ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for the country, as enunciated by John F. Kennedy.

Of course, the performance records of a great many politicians of today, though they shout out to the world from rooftops that they are devoting all their efforts for the benefit of the country and not for themselves, show the personal benefits accrued by politicians from their country, far outweigh the benefits received from them by the country. Success for them is essentially the impressions made by them on the voters.

We delved into these qualities of leadership because the Sri Lankan people, now suffering from the worst financial and domestic crisis created by politicians since Independence, are searching for a leader who could take them out of the morass they are in.

The country is now being governed by two political parties whose leaders Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP and Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Pohottuwa (Lotus Bud) party had been bitterly opposed to each other since 1977 until the last General Elections in 2020. Through some unique constitutional procedure, Wickremesinghe is now the President of what is supposed to be a Democratic Socialist Republic which is not democratic, socialist or a republic with a president not elected by the people.

The question whether this kind of leadership can resolve the acute crisis— a significant proportion of the people facing starvation — is indeed valid. According to the FAO, 6.2 million Lankans ‘face acute food insecurity’.

An islandwide presidential or general election is believed by most people to be the panacea or Kokatath Thailaya.

What can the Rajapaksa family party produce at such an election as a solution to the imbroglio? Namal Rajapaksa, his brothers and cousins as ministers for a new government?

The party is reported to be back in the temples with the monks.  Would this strategy as in 2019 — ‘Sinhala-Buddhism is under threat, there is an international conspiracy that resulted in the collapse of the last government, and we won the war and saved Lanka from Tamil terrorism — work once again?

The Rajapaksas may be hoping that the sharp political divide that existed between the two parties — Rajapaksas and the UNP with the splinter group the SJB of the Premadasa faction — before the current crisis set in, remains and that their block vote is still intact.

If hunger, starvation, inflation at 300 percent, unemployment, the monumental fertiliser blunder, spiralling crime rate, schoolchildren being assailed with drugs and being without even exercise books, pens or shoes, and starving wild elephants smashing up homes and humans in search of food have not affected the thinking of the masses, then they are true political asses as they are often called by the political cognoscenti.

In this festive season when much is made of token gifts such as wheelchairs, donations to poor schools, Christmas treats, and the like, we place on record the magnificent and monumental gift of China to the children of Sri Lanka: School uniform material worth 90 million RMB (5 billion Lanka rupees) to meet 70 percent of Lanka’s requirements. Let us all thank the people of China.

When Wickremesinghe accepted the post of prime minister and later the presidency, the thinking was that his task would be mainly to negotiate with the IMF, other international lending institutions and Western nations with whom he has good relations. The initial breakthrough with the IMF which he expected by the end of December has not come through as yet.

According to reports, the economy has shrunk by 11.8 percent in the third quarter of this year ending in September. The suppression of the Aragalaya forces, using police and security forces after Wickremesinghe assumed the office of president with the objective of establishing political stability for economic growth, does not seem to have taken off. Repression of political forces that overthrew the Rajapaksa regime has not resulted in attracting foreign investments.

But he is going full steam ahead giving the impression that he will be president not only till the term of office of the Rajapaksa government officially ends but intends to contest elections and return as the president once again as his uncle JRJ rose phoenix-like from the fires of 1956 to the greatest election victory 20 years later.  The probability of lightning striking twice at the same place is said to be one in some millions.

Of the politicians in harness, Sajith Premadasa the leader of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Leader of the Opposition, is the brightest star on the horizon.  He is unsullied by the Rajapaksa dynastic corrupt politics and polled 5.5 million votes (41.99 percent of votes polled) in an extremely short presidential election campaign delayed because of his squabbles with Wickremesinghe. But Premadasa has placed himself in a conservative strait jacket and is still regaling about his father’s policies on housing, poverty alleviation and promotion of the garment industry.

Can he rest on his paternal laurels and not change with the times? He has to be politically savvy and open up to other political parties instead of trying to go it alone.  At the last party convention held on December 12, a formal resolution was adopted for the SJB ‘to work together with all progressive and democratic forces ‘to agitate against the government’s repression of mass protests’ and demand local government elections. But that resolution alone is not enough. He has to make moves and call for a united opposition with the JVP, and other left parties — at least an election no-contest pact. Above all, can he ignore the Aragalaya forces that threw out the Rajapaksa regime through non-violent means?

The Aragalaya leaders such as Vasantha Mudalige are still behind bars on flimsy charges such as obstruction of the police in carrying out their duties during mass legal democratic protests. Some of them are being held under the Prevention of Terrorist Act. Others were earlier arrested for sitting on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s bed and chairs when they stormed the President’s House. This petty nitpicking under the cover of terrorist laws has become a source of entertainment in social media.

Aragalaya leaders are possibly unique in that they are the only such leaders that threw out a government through non-violence — the force of the people’s opinion. They are perhaps the only revolutionary leaders who did not cease power and appoint a president from among themselves after throwing out a government!

Thomas Jefferson, twice elected as president, didn’t want to be remembered as a president.

The Aragalaya leaders did not want to be president!

Sri Lanka needs such leaders.

Sri Lanka: Nephew’s Patrimony

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For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong’ — H.L. Mencken (American writer and humorist).

The validity of this contention in Sri Lanka can be gauged if we listen to ‘pundits’ on radio and television providing solutions to the most devastating problem this country has faced in its 73 years after Independence.

Sri Lankan governments have been attempting to resolve problems in the usual way that all ‘democratic’ governments do: Appoint commissions of inquiry and investigations and even presidential commissions to determine what went wrong.  Maximum publicity is provided to the progress of commissions on radio, TV and the print media but gradually the pressure is eased till time erases memories of the devastating problem.

The financial and political abyss that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brothers and nephews confidently marched into with their military and civilian advisors was beyond the capabilities of presidential commissions to resolve and they remained in their bunkers until the GotaGoHome boys and girls rallied tens of thousands of protesters, stormed the bastions of power of the Rajapaksas, forcing them to resign and Gota to go home the way of ‘Parangiya Kotte Giya’ (The circumcircuitous way the Portuguese were taken from Colombo Fort to Kotte). Gota went home in a High Security Zone in Colombo by air via the Maldives, Singapore and Thailand.

But the problem remains: Sri Lanka has no money, little food or medicines, no fuel and has to keep borrowing.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was a free and defeated man with no problems to resolve but he seems to relish problems for power.

He volunteered to take on all the terrifying problems of the country left over by the Rajapaksas by volunteering to become the prime minister and then be elected president by politically destitute members of the Rajapaksa party, who are not his fans.

Wickremesinghe has done his job well in negotiating with the IMF and the Western bloc of nations but has kicked into his own goal by cracking down on the GotaGoHome boys and girls who had unwittingly paved the way for his political resurrection.

Wickremesinghe during the past week or so has gone through Westminster Castle and Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, chatted with King Charles III and been able to present Sri Lanka’s case in a favourable light, reports said.

This week he was in Tokyo with powerful Japanese politicians and in the Japanese Imperial Palace with Emperor Akihito in the vicinity of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Japan has been our all-weather friend since the San Francisco conference speech of his uncle J.R. Jayewardene who pleaded for Japan at that critical moment when the world was sitting in judgement over Japan’s conduct in the War.  The nephew of JR pleading for Lanka’s cause now may have revived poignant memories way back.

Japan has been showering assistance on this country without any strings attached.  The Kotte Parliament in a picturesque setting, the Jayawardenapura Hospital, the Administrative Capital of Kotte and the development of the entire region of Colombo East that has now become the best residential area of Colombo are all spin-offs of Japanese munificence.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s wooden-headed military mind destroyed that seven-decade-old friendship by boorishly halting the Japanese light rail project which would have eased the traffic congestion in the area. Ranil Wickremesinghe now has the opportunity to undo the damage although he is working for the ‘Pohottuwa’ government.

From Japan, Wickremesinghe went to Manila to chair a meeting of the Asian Development Bank where he called for the support of creditors and stakeholders for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery.

Is Wickremesinghe the solution for Sri Lanka’s economic and political debacle?

There is tremendous opposition to him continuing as the President and there are daily protests demanding his resignation. But indications are that he has no intention of giving up the presidency and intends to carry on for the next two years till the presidential term ends. He has had no qualms in crushing opposition forces rising against him although it is being pointed out that non-violent protests against legal governments are permissible under Sri Lankan law.

The parallels between Ranil Wickremesinghe’s and his uncle JRJ’s careers are striking. JRJ even when he was in his seventies did not have control of his party, the UNP, which he had stood by in all adversities and also put it back on its feet.

Even after the rout of the party in 1970 by the Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front, Dudley Senanayake continued to be the leader with JRJ trying his utmost to oust him.

At one stage, JRJ declared that he wanted to join Sirima Bandaranaike’s coalition but the left leaders including Samasamjist N.M. Perera and Communist Pieter Keuneman were vehemently against it. N.M. Perera declared: ‘If he comes through the front door, I go out through the back door and if he comes through the backdoor, I go out from the window’.

JRJ tried many tactics to oust Dudley. He even tried to storm Siri Kotha (then located at Kollupitiya) with elephants!

And then Dudley Senanayake passed away plunging the entire nation into grief.  The astute JRJ then played his master stroke. His funeral oration at Independence Square was a masterpiece of oratory in democracy and hypocrisy: Goodbye Sweet Prince…May a thousand Devas…..

JRJ took control of the party and in 1977 swept the polls with a five-sixth majority for the party to hold power for 17 years.

Ranil Wickremesinghe still is the leader of the UNP but the vast majority of members ditched him in favour of Sajith Premadasa and Wickremesinghe could not even win a single seat — not even his own. Speculation is that he will try to wean away former UNPers now with Sajith Premadasa and contest the next election as leader of a rejuvenated UNP and win like his uncle did.

Sajith Premadasa had only one month’s time to organise his presidential election campaign against the formidable Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He contested under a new party name with ex-UNPers backing him.  He polled a creditable 41.99 percent of the poll against Rajapaksa’s 52.25 per cent.  Premadasa is today the sole opposition leader directly opposing both Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas and is no lame duck.

Can Wickremesinghe repeat his uncle’s feat. Time will tell.

Growth of Artificial Intelligence and decline in Human Intelligence

A voluminous newspaper supplement in a state-owned newspaper last week aimed at boosting artificial intelligence in Sri Lanka had us wondering about the possible science fiction scenario of the takeover of the former Pearl of the Orient by electronic robots.

A determined effort, it appears, is being made to have robots with artificial intelligence (AI) to help us Lankans in our domestic chores as well as work in factories. Glancing through some of the articles we were impressed at the enthusiasm and optimism expressed which made us conclude that robots functioning on artificial intelligence will grow at an exponential rate.

This accelerated growth of artificial intelligence in Lanka per se was not a matter of concern to us. What concerns us is its rapid growth alongside the rapid decline of human intelligence in this country.  It began decades ago and this year accelerated blindly with

open eyes into the chasm of financial bankruptcy and political wilderness.

The scenario we envisage is not the usual sci-fi battle between robots vs humans because the robots have to be fed with instructions by humans into the foreseeable future.  Increasingly intelligent robots coming up with solutions with dumb Lankans may not be able to comprehend, is a challenge to those now nurturing artificial intelligence.

Ranil’s Alchemy Challenge

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken on the role of an alchemist of sorts.

Ancient alchemists attempted to transform various metals called, base metals, as lead and copper by subjecting them to various treatment as melting to produce pure gold, which was the most sought after metals in those times, as it is today. They failed in their attempts which were said to be impossible to achieve on scientific principles.

A different kind of alchemist also attempted to produce an elixir that could make humans immortal or produce a panacea — sure cure — for all diseases. These attempts have so far not been successful although the attempts still continue, viz, ‘Vadakaha Sudiya’ and ‘Covid Paniya’ which we Lankans are familiar with.

Wickremesinghe’s chosen specialty appears to be Political Alchemy: Mixing up ‘base politicians’ together with other ingredients to produce pure gold recognised worldwide in the 21st Century — the All American Mighty Dollar which could save Sri Lanka from the financial and political crisis it is sinking in.

The Wickremesinghe strategy appears to be centered on the APG (All-Party Government) under his presidency. The opposition parties, the SJB of Premadasa, the TNA of the North and East, and allied parties of the JVP have declined invitations to join the APG under Wickremesinghe, and he is left with those of the Rajapaksa government left destitute after Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ministers resigned and Gotabaya Rajapaksa took off to foreign climes with almost the whole country at his heels.

The leading lights of the APG are: Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the vast number of Rajapaksa members left destitute and the triad of leaders of three minor political parties: Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the Trotskyite, spewing red-hot anti-capitalist rhetoric, Wimal Weerawansa, also an incendiary speaker creating tremendous noise but with little sense and Udaya Gamanpillar, leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (Party Bearing Purest Sinhala Heritage) whose rhetoric does not cut much ice.

How the APG could make these disparate elements click and work out a strategy to produce the much-needed US dollars that will take Sri Lanka out of the hell fires, perhaps, only the Alchemist Wickremesinghe knows and has them all under his hat. But what happens if he fails?

Whether by accident or design when Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to appoint Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and later he was elected President, he had chosen the best politician in harness for the job of negotiating with the IMF and countries Lanka is indebted to. Six times Prime minister and also having been the Finance Minister, he not only knows the complicated manoeuvres to follow but that he has also been on good terms with Western leaders whose opinions have clout with the IMF. Politicians and diplomats knowing one another over a period of time is said to be a distinct advantage in diplomacy. However, Wickremesinghe is in a severely disadvantaged position at home. The disadvantages are: His party was routed at the last parliamentary election and he is not an elected representative; his way to the presidency has been through the Rajapaksa family that has been driven out of politics. He stands firmly only on one foot — the Constitutional procedure adopted in his appointment — while his other foot is on the slippery support of the Pohottuwa members who may be asked to topple him by shadowy forces pushing the Pohottuwa around.

Another looming threat is the return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Colombo from Bangkok. Since he fled the country to the Maldives and then to Singapore from where he sent in his resignation from the presidency and then on to Thailand, no country has given him a residence visa. Now it is reported that he will be back in Colombo and stay here until he gets back his US citizenship which he gave up to contest in the Sri Lankan Presidential Election.

This visit is fraught with the possibility of regeneration of political instability. The intention of return to power by the Rajapaksa family is quite evident and Gotabaya’s return could be used to whip up the now moribund Rajapaksa family spirit which in turn could ignite the Aragalaya activists who Wickremesinghe has repressed with severity.

All such events would have a backlash on Ranil’s Political Alchemy of turning out US dollars with IMF and international assistance.

Wickremesinghe does not seem to have learnt a lesson from a basic mental aberration that the UNP suffers from: Crushing legitimate dissent by force using UNP thugs or security services has been one of the main reasons for the nemesis of the party, the notion being that if the opposing forces are given a sound thrashing, the issue at hand will disappear. It did not happen on the first occasion and the problem is still with us; it did not happen when UNP political thugs joined in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots; failed in the use of violence when the Jaffna Public Library was set on fire and on occasions like well-known UNP strongmen led by ministers pulled intellectuals such as Ediriweera Sarathchandra and subjected them to humiliation and also the use of force to crush the trade union movement for opposing the Jayewardene government. Instead, they created massive backlashes which whipped the party to defeat at elections.

Last Thursday’s use of well-armed and uniformed security forces against a peaceful protest of student leaders with tear gas and water cannon would certainly not help in his Political Alchemy or even with his Western democratic supporters.