Politics

System Change: an Aragalist touch-me-not?

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4 mins read

Such diversity! Such passion! Such innovation and creativity! Such courage and heroism! Such were and still are the encomiums floating around in mainstream and new media about the Aragalaya. Yes, there was diversity, passion, creativity, innovation and courage. These however do not necessarily constitute good, healthy, wholesome etc. For example, the LTTE, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban and other such outfits had little diversity as is the case in identity based ‘struggles,’  but that all have long histories marked by creativity, innovation, passion, courage and heroism.

There was diversity and there was division. There were LGBTQ collectives (who, if probed, probably had very divergent views on things like governance systems, capitalism, the so-called ‘national question,’ elitism etc) and there were people spouting homophobic rhetoric. There were nationalists and those who equate the term with Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. There were victims of the system and system-beneficiaries. There was the left and the right getting comfy with one another (of course the radical credentials of many self-styled leftists have long since been compromised). And there was Julie Chung playing Viceroy in the midst of a flag-waving multitude. But, clearly, they all got together.
For what? Well, even as they blared out their pet slogans, passed around leaflets and posted in social media nutshell version of particular ideologies and preferred outcomes, and ‘educated’ the ‘ill-educated’ at every turn in pitiful attempts to dislodge long-standing angst, they were in unison in the call for the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

If anyone truly believed that getting rid of Gota would sort the country’s many ills, that’s delusion of the highest order. Nevertheless, it could be argued (and it has) that ousting him is a necessary first step in the process of putting things right. This theory is full of holes.

Systems can be represented by a single person or a collective of a few individuals, a family in this case as is argued for example. A system however is not a person (or a collective). The removal of a representative will not alter it. In this instance there was no agreement among the diverse multitude unified by a person-focused slogan and nothing else about successor or succession. Neither was there any cogent idea or even discussion about what kind of system would be desirable and how to go about installing it.

This is not surprising when outfits such as the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP, which by the way dominates the IUSF) who formed the agitational vanguard in the main and professed to be committed to system-change failed miserably in a) coming up with even a halfway decent set of proposals for system change, and b) did not attempt to mobilise the agitators around the idea of a system-change. The second is understandable given the ideological diversity and a marked tendency to back-burn system change, never going beyond what at best could be called a peripheral slogan/demand.

Not surprisingly neither was there much of a system-change discourse emanating from the Neddas (those individuals/groups directly or indirectly benefiting from funds channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy — NED — the US outfit that took over the CIA’s country-destabilising operation), Candlelight Ladies, Rent-a-Protest Agitators, Stink Tanks, Con-Artists, Bornagainazis and other Funded Voices and other Kolombians. Indeed, for most of them the system was coterminous with Rajapaksas which again demonstrates both naïveté and duplicity.

Not all of this is captured in a survey of the Aragalaya recently carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, but even this suspect outfit has (perhaps inadvertently) come upon a few startling truths about public perception related to what for some, such as the Asia Foundation, was ‘revolutionary’.    

The CPA assures that the semi-structured questionnaire administered among 1100 respondents from the four main ethnic communities (one wonders whether these were weighted to reflect real percentages) covering all 25 districts yielded reliable data.

On the one hand, a vast majority of respondents were willing to compromise on travelling and transport as well as food consumption (76.3% and 69.5%), but more than half were reluctant to agree to more taxes and almost 75% were vehemently opposed to any move that might result in a family member losing a job. This is all understandable. What’s missing here is hat some of the proposals for ‘change’ include these kinds of measures, especially those conditions currently being insisted by the IMF.
More than 80% want ‘system change’ but are clearly wary of neoliberalism. They want welfare and they also want less government. They want foreign companies to invest in Sri Lanka and they don’t want limits on earning capacity but they are not happy about privatising state-owned enterprises. They vehemently oppose greater involvement of the private sector in health and education.

Many questions have not been asked and therefore the data is not available. Here’s a list of issues that the CPA could consider if/when it conducts a follow-up survey:

1. What are the perceptions of Julie Chung’s involvement in the Aragalaya? 2. Can the IMF help the cause of changing the system? 3. Has the system changed? 3a. If ‘yes,’ in what ways specifically? 3b. If not, why not? 4. Does the replacement of a leader amount to system-change? 5. Did the institutional arrangement and the system of state processes change at all thanks to the Aragalaya? If conditions have not improved (The CPA’s income-expenditure data from the survey indicates that the situation has got worse) what really are the positives vis-a-vis ‘change’ that the Aragalaya yielded?  

While at it, the CPA (or anyone else) can ask if people know anything about the global capitalist system, whether or not it is important to develop the country’s manufacturing sector, whether or not development banks are necessary, whether or not a comprehensive plan for food and energy sovereignty and the will to implement it has to be part of a changed-system, whether beneficiaries of the system so reviled (the rich and powerful) truly wanted the structures and processes altered, and why and how the idea of system-change fizzled out the moment Ranil Wickremesinghe took control.

They could also ask what happened to the energy, creativity and courage? What happened to the agitational heroes? Who really benefited from the Aragalaya? Does Galle Face Green look prettier now if more boring? Were they right, those who said that it was a circus, all things considered and that the well-intentioned who were without political affiliation but were determined to build a new Sri Lanka cheated?

Lalith: A Beacon of Nation-building

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9 mins read

Following article is based on the keynote speech by the author as the President of Sri Lanka at the late Lalith Athulathmudali commemoration held recently in Colombo.

I was thinking about when I first met with Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali when he was a lawyer and a lecturer at the Law College and I was an apprentice under Mr. H. W. Jayawardena, before I took oath. The day I took oath I also invited Lalith to come to my oath party, another person I invited was another young lawyer older than me and a member of Parliament Gamini Dissanayake. I had two other members of Parliament I invited since I knew them. One was the Chief Opposition Whip, Mr. R. Premadasa and finally, the Leader of the Opposition Mr. J. R. Jayawardene.

I think the destiny of the country and the UNP was to a large extent tied to the interaction between all these members. Lalith, like me and Gamini, was eager to see a modernized UNP. Now, why did I join? My family has been UNP from the start.

But what attracted me as a modern UNPer was what was called the Kalutara Declaration of the 1963 UNP Convention which was a draft done by Dudley Senanayake and J. R. Jayawardena which laid the ground for social democracy.

We had envisaged as a party from the time of Mr. D. S Senanayake for a capitalist economy and the fact that we wanted to do away with hunger, illiteracy, and disease. That was in 1947.

The next most important part was trading. The trade was given over to Lalith. Later on, shipping was added that the other major project, which is to be the impetus for the development was one was going to be the greater Colombo Economic Zone with the President kept for himself and the other one was the Mahaweli program which had given to Gamini Dissanayake. that is how we started. Lalith’s job was trade.

It didn’t have the flash of the other jobs, but nevertheless, it was important. And he opened up the trade the Greater Colombo Economics. At that time we were a socialist economy, everything was controlled and President Jayawardena wants to go decided to proceed cautiously. And what did he do? He took seven electorates in the Gampaha District starting from Negombo and ending with Biyagama where the normal laws of an open market economy, were applied and special concessions were given in the two investment zones of Katunayake and Biyagama.

But Lalith realized that we can’t get export only from those areas. We need to have the rest of the country. Therefore, he started the Export Development Board to promote exports outside the economic zone.

So he undertook the development of Sri Lanka’s main port, the Colombo port. So you are getting into that two big areas of development around Colombo. On one side was Colombo, the trading hub, and Colombo, the port connected to Colombo was on the other side, the Greater Colombo Economic Zone then into the rural areas came this massive development program which really developed the north central province, parts of east and the whole of the Kandy district.

So these were the driving forces of growth that went along .then as it went on., I was then the Minister of Education Lalith came up with this idea of scholarships for those who want to go to the university. So you had the Mahapola scholarship. It is the first time that we funded individuals for free education and not the institutes.

Unfortunately, we didn’t carry it through with our institutes. And you have, the universities which are today taking money directly from the government and which have not developed, unfortunately, structured around the UGC. I think we have to rethink all mechanisms rather than the countries which funded the student who funded universities and therefore the courses had to be employment oriented.

But in addition, the universities run their external courses so they are external students and every year we had to take in about additional 10,000 people which contributes to the 500,000 excess in the government service.

So anyway, he started the Mahapola scheme to go ahead. So these are what we have to learn of the changes that we have to do now, keeping free education and making it more meaningful. Then came Lalith’s next stint as the Minister of Agriculture where he started modernizing the villages and looking at modernizing agriculture and looking at exports and then his stint as the Minister of Education.

Another one in the picture is Lalith as the Minister of National Security. Much had been said of this, so I will not cover that. I will look at the contribution he made both to the economy and to the development of Sri Lanka. It was then in 1991 that we all parted ways. Lalith decided he will leave the UNP and I thought that I will stay with the UNP.

That the party mattered and the party had to be strengthened. He felt there had to be changed and that he had to go out. And then the politics of Sri Lanka took a different, state altogether. By 1993, Lalith was assassinated. That was a great loss to the country. Within a week, President Premadasa was assassinated. And by the end of next year, Gamini was no more.

So the drivers of the development, the people who were to shape the country were no longer there. And then we had to look at a new phase. By that time, the world was also changing. The whole concept of social democracy had gone further forward. And it was known then as what we call today a social market economy.

When I became president, it was partly because we didn’t follow Lalith’s advice. He said you export or perish. We didn’t export, so the economy perished. Now, the whole issue was how do you restart it again? What is the type of economic model? Are we going in with a completely open new liberal model or something else? So I thought we should stay on with the social market economy and define it should be vibrant. It has to be vibrant.

It cannot be otherwise. And we developed what was relevant for today, a highly competitive economy with social protection. So the economy has to be highly competitive, highly competitive globally. Then it had to be an export-oriented economy. We’ve included in that for the first time what Lalith said, export or perish. And we brought in an issue which was not important that the time Lalith was living or the others. But today, climate change and environmentally friendly, green and blue economy, the green and blue economy, a word that was given to us by the late Mangala Samaraweera at that time, And finally, what Lalith again laid the ground for and what I also work for and what we did to the digital economy So it’s a highly competitive economy, which is export-oriented, which has social protection which is environmentally friendly, and the characteristics is a blue-green economy.

It doesn’t apply to the government of today, and a digital economy. This is what we have. Now we have to go ahead. We can’t be begging anymore. We can’t be going to countries and asking for loans anymore. We have to learn to stand on our own feet. When India fell in 1991, I was the Minister of Industries at that time, they decided to come up by themselves. Deng Xiaoping in China decided that he’ll bring the country up. Japan destroyed by war with the atomic bomb decided to come up by itself. Now, what the hell we are doing; Getting aid all the time?

I certainly don’t like to recreate a beggar nation. We must now in our own effort get back. There is no other way. We can’t aim low. We are looking at a 25-year programme. Many of us won’t be there when it ends. But we, as a nation, are going to complete 100 in 2048. I was born in 49, then we were second to Japan. Today we are just above Afghanistan. Now, where are we going? Let us make up our minds that we are going to build this economy and we can do it.

It’s an open market economy, highly competitive. It won’t come overnight. Gradually over a period of five years will build up our competition. We must aim for five years to sustain a growth of 7%. Easier said than done, but it can be done and international trade as a percentage of GDP must equal 100 or more. We are not doing it overnight, but certainly, over 5- 6 years, which we have to do.

And the annual growth rate from net exports should be $3 billion. Investment annually must be $3 billion and we have to create an internationally competitive workforce, highly educated and highly skilled. It has to be employable skills, not otherwise. So all this is what we have to aim at and we have to go for it. Then what is it? Before that, we have to stabilize the economy.

So we started that process in 2023 our fiscal stabilization program envisages, the government revenue increasing to around 15% of GDP by 2025 and from the present 8.3% at the end of 2023. If you look at an economy with social protection, I think our revenue will have to go beyond that to about 18% of the GDP.

But that can take another five years. We need that. We have to do it. Then we are looking at a primary surplus of more than 2% in 2025.

We are to improve thereafter we have to reduce the public sector debt from 110% of the GDP to 100% of the GDP in the medium term. We have to bring inflation under control and a single-digit and interest rates I presume have peaked and will gradually come down to a moderate and single-digit level.

And the exchange rate in this will become stable and strong with this has to come the growth-enhancing structural reforms. So we are not looking at the four years for the stabilization program and the modernization afterwards is running to get there. It’s supposed to start next year but we’ve already started getting the stabilization program and starting the structural reforms also at the same time.

So this is where we are and one wish on the structural reforms because my friend honourable Charitha Herath had raised it in the debate. Unfortunately, I was not in the chamber to reply. Yes as the policy, we accept that the government should not be running businesses at full stop. Except for one which is an exception, we will stay in the financial sector, we will build the banks we own and make them stronger, but it will be run like any good commercial bank and we don’t mind giving a part to the minorities shares to the deposit holders, amongst others.

File photo of young Lalith with beloved mother and father at Oxford [ Special Arrangement ]

It will bring some discipline in. So the financial sector. Yes, well, you control it with the financial sector. Not with the water’s edge or the Hilton Hotel. That is secondary. So we will keep building on our financial sectors we don’t mind helping out in the technology sectors. The digital economy will have to have some investments there. But the rest, yes, we have tried everything.

We tried state ownership. We have tried mixed economies. We tried to run it with corporations, that trillion of rupees that we have lost and we made us poorer than we were in 2019. So that is what we are going to do. And when you look at the future, one of the biggest new areas of development in Sri Lanka is as a logistics centre. Sri Lanka can be a feeder to most Asian countries, a transhipment hub first is the Colombo port.

Now we have got the south port very soon. We will have investment for the east terminal. And when that is full, the next project we are working on will be the north port, which will take all the way up to Ja-Ela making it the largest port. And from Ja-Ela only five miles away from the airport, you get an Air-sea hub naturally.

Then Hambantota another port, which can we reach out to Africa and Trincomalee on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean. So here we are. This is what we have and we have we are starting at that. Now that is what Lalith started. Secondly, large-scale modernization of agriculture small or big we have to modernize agriculture.

Which will aid the largely rural areas to increase our paddy production. We have a big market for export. The Middle East requires food. Singapore requires food and many other growing markets. There would be at least 500 million more people from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia by 2050 not counting the hundreds of millions in East Africa and South Africa. That’s the area we are looking at highly automated manufacturing because Lower-Wage economies will be in Bangladesh, Myanmar and even in India. We have to jump ahead. Our tourist industry has to now reorient itself to high-level tourism. We can’t have 10 million tourists coming in paying $100 to $150 a night. It’s better to have 2 million tourists at $ 500 to 1,000 a night.

So let’s see how we can build this society. Last time when Lalith, Gamini, Premadasa, Jayawardene, and all of us started, it was derailed by a war. I don’t think there is going to be a war in the country but the consequent, after-effects has to be actually rectified. And we decided after the budget debate is over in the following week that the party leader and the Speaker will meet and the Government to discuss how we can resolve the outstanding issues.

So that one thing we can all work together if you remember a large number of people who have graduated, thanks to what Lalith has done, so let’s work together both for the University and for a better Lanka, where those who graduate, those who post-graduate degrees from that university can exist.

Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Constitutionalism

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5 mins read

The Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East have been urging for the recognition of their traditional homelands from almost the time of Independence. During the grant of Independence, the Tamils though occupying their traditional homelands in the North and East were also resident in all parts of the Country for Government jobs,  trade, commerce and what not.

The Tamils felt safe and secure under British rule. Often the Sinhalese leaders would say the Britishers showed partiality to the Tamils and they adopted a policy of divide and rule. That concept was wrong. The British had good opinion of the Tamils, not because the British wanted to divide and rule (in fact they had no reason to divide and rule since most Sinhalese leaders aped the Britishers, converted to their religion and supported the British except the Left Leaders) but because the Ceylon Tamils were hard working, duty conscious, conscientious workers and they preferred them in many of their colonies. After all the Bhagavad Gita had preached disinterested devotion to duty several centuries ago and the idea was implanted among the Hindus, whether Vaishnavites or Saivites. It was the duty consciousness of the Upcountry Tamils that made Ceylon (Sri Lanka) prosper under the British and even thereafter.

The Federal Party was formed in 1949. If we had requested the British to grant us Federalism in the first instance it would have been granted because the Kandyan Sinhalese also wanted Federalism. Maybe because most of his clients were from the South, without disturbing the demography pattern of the time, Mr. G.G.Ponnambalam, the then leader of the Tamils put forward the 50:50 request, where the majority Sinhalese were to hold half the seats in Parliament and all the Opposition Parties together were to hold the balance 50%. This request was rejected by the British.

Mr.SJVChelvanayagam left Mr.Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress Party and formed the Federal Party in 1949. The reason for asking a federal dispensation was because power was soon going to pass on to the hands of the Sinhala majority in the Country. Since the Britishers had unified the Country’s administration in 1833, and they were leaving now, the Tamils justifiably felt unsafe among the Sinhalese majority. They had to preserve their traditional homelands and the best way to preserve their areas was by asking for self-rule in their own areas without dividing the Country.

Federalism is not dividing a Country. On the contrary, it is a way by which unity could be maintained among disparate communities. The Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka are the most qualified people for federalism. They have occupied continuously for over 3000 years their traditional homelands in the North and East, have had a language of their own, culture of their own and in fact kingdoms of their own before the British unified the Country for administrative reasons. Even though Eastern Province had several sub-kingdoms they were all governed by Tamils. They paid tithes sometimes to the Kandyan King. The last King of Kandy was not a Sinhalese. He signed the peace treaty with the British in 1815, in Tamil. Tamil was the language of Royalty.

The reservations among the Tamil leaders, especially Mr. SJV Chelvanayagam, was to soon prove true. First the Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised. Then by the Sinhala Only Act, the Tamil Government servants were driven away from  State Services.Then through pogroms and riots the Tamils who lived in the Provinces outside the North and East were driven away. Ultimately by standardisation, the studious Tamil students found it extremely difficult to enter higher echelons of the Educational ladder. Meanwhile lands falling within the boundaries of the traditional Tamil homelands were soon being expropriated and Sinhalese from the South were made to colonise those areas.Many of them were Island’s Reconvicted Criminals.

In 1956 Mr.SWRD Bandaranaike when he brought the Sinhala Only Act, did not foresee what he was going to do to the Country. He knew he was being unreasonable to the Tamils who occupied a distinct area, had a language of their own, culture of their own and belonged to religions other than that of the majority. For political reasons, to defeat the UNP, he formulated his policy of Sinhala in 24 hours. But he thought he could bring in the Reasonable Use of Tamil Act and assuage the Tamils. But he had released forces by his political short-sightedness which he just could not control. The Buddhist Priests stormed his residence at Rosmead Place and had him tear up the Reasonable Use of Tamil document. The same unleashed forces ultimately murdered him.

Lee Kwan Yew when he met SWRD, the Prime Minister, the latter had boasted, puffing at his pipe, that he had made the language of the majority the State language of Ceylon! Lee had warned him that it was wrong. In fact, he had made four languages, Chinese, Tamil, Malay and English, the State languages of Singapore and Singapore today prospers while Sri Lanka is bankrupt! 

Political, Social and Economic mistakes have been made in this Country. Costly mistakes! Mistakes devoid of common sense.Mistakes merely to get the votes of People at the next election. But the wise would not cry over spilt milk.They would ask how best could we change the situation and improve our lot.

Let me come to your question now. Yes!  I did say that unless the President consents to a Constitution other than a Unitary Constitution for Sri Lanka it would be purposeless having talks with Leaders of Tamil Parties. Under a Unitary Constitution, the majority community rules the roost. They predominate in everything. They decide what is good for minorities. They had the power to obstruct the progress of communities other than theirs, as we have seen in the case of the Northern Provincial Council. Projects beneficial to the People of the North had been sabotaged. We were not allowed to have the Chief Minister’s Fund when other Provinces had. All Provinces have seen modernisation in this Country except the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Only those who would go and cringe and beg the members of the majority community were found worthy of condescension by the powers that be.

We have not been allowed to run our own schools. Our fishermen are unable to fish in their traditional fishing areas. The Military controls everything from land to sea and may be air too! The Military are stationed in the North and East from the time of the end of war continuously. Expropriation of our resources by the South takes place daily. Appropriation of our lands by various Departments and most notably by the Mahaweli Authority takes place continuously. Buddhist places of worship are coming up illegally in places where there are no Buddhists living. Chinese influence is maintained in Tamil areas with ulterior motives. I once heard a Government Official tell some Chinese officials that they were close to the Chinese because of the closeness of their religion and that the Tamils are Hindus, meaning the Tamils are close to India.

I could go on enumerating the woes of the Tamil speaking of the North and East.

But the fact remains that talking reconciliation and making ad hoc changes to the existing Constitution as it is today being a Unitary one, would take us nowhere. The Tamils need to be freed from the yoke of Sinhala dominance. Even though the LTTE had asked for a separate State, our Voters have brought us into Parliament on the basis that we agitate for a Federal / Confederal Constitution so that we could live within our traditional homelands in amity with other communities, still continuing to be Sri Lankans. My Party alone asks for a Confederation because we want to minimise interference by the Central Government in the areas of our residence.

Unless we divide Power amicably among the different communities in consonance with the areas of their residence we cannot live in Peace and Unity. Always the majority Community would want to interfere and sabotage the activities of others if they feel unequal to the others. The Sinhalese though the majority in this Island suffer from an inferiority complex. The fact that a large contingent of Tamils live close by in South India might be one cause. The fact that Tamils are more hardworking and industrious is another reason. After all the Tamils who were driven out from Sri Lanka have proved their mettle in far-off lands. It took over twenty countries to coalesce to destroy Prabhakaran. He kept the North and East under his control for almost thirty years against a Sinhala Government all-powerful!

You would realise why a constitution other than a Unitary Constitution is necessary. We could discuss the difficulties that we may face in bringing about a federal constitution but certainly to continue with a Unitary Constitution will only bring misery to all.

Views expressed are personal

Exclusive: Champika ready to join President Wickremesinghe

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2 mins read

Former Cabinet Minister who served in several ministries, including Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka, in an exclusive interview with Sri Lanka Guardian, confirmed that he is optimistic about joining President Wickremesinghe when the President accepts the proposal he made on political and economic restructuration.

“This is not the time to play dirty politics but to find ways to be part of a collective effort to overcome the gravest crisis the country has faced,” Mr Ranawaka told.

Time to release all the ex-LTTE members who are currently in jail

Champika Ranawaka MP

He says, that President Wickremesinghe will try his best to bring the country’s situation back to normal despite the many hereditary weaknesses that have affected his political power. But, unfortunately, some political parties created a hostile situation for him. Therefore, the former minister proposed the formation of an all-party government, which was talked about by many, to revamp the country’s degraded governance system.

While talking about his new political initiative, the 43 Brigade, he says that there is a significant number of Tamils and Muslims have rallied around it and now the movement is penetrating into the grassroots.

While responding to the government’s idea of establishing the South African Model Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the former Minister says that could be an unnecessary opening up to reemerge adverse elements who acted against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

“In post-conflict time, what we as the country have done is domestically exceptional. Thousands of former LTTE cadres were rehabilitated and empowered them. But no one in the so-called “Tamil Diaspora” or international community recognized them as they were leading by ulterior motives,” he observed while proposing the immediate release of all imprisoned former LTTE members.

“Let us forgive and move forward together. It is time to release all the ex-LTTE members who are currently in jail and give them proper guidance to lead a meaningful life,” he suggested”, he suggested.

Meanwhile, talking about the economic calamity the country is currently facing, the former minister reaffirmed that “those who are responsible should be held accountable and prosecuted. They are the real criminals.”

When we asked about the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship, the former minister expressed his concern about the weak strategy in our foreign policy-making and did not forget to express his gratitude for India’s support.

China and Japan are the most important friends who can help us restructure the debt and secure our banking system

Champika Ranawaka MP

“It is sad to see that India’s much-vaunted foreign policy is now being run by a group of businessmen and thereby bringing adverse consequences. However, India was part of QUAD to prove that they stand with the West, but when the Ukraine-Russia war broke out, India took a strategic path to increase trade with Russia. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s how diplomacy works. But India should allow other countries to do the same. They cannot force us to sign off on the project without competitive bidding just because they offered aid during hard times,” he suggested.

Meanwhile, presenting his views on Sino-Sri Lankan relations, he did not hesitate to rebuff fabricated theories such as “China’s debt trap diplomacy” and said that China is Sri Lanka’s inseparable partner in overcoming the current economic quagmire.

“China and Japan are the most important friends who can help us restructure the debt and secure our banking system before we end up like Libya,” says the former minister. “China and Japan can salvage us, it’s time for us to convince them and I hope they will help us,” he said.

In response, when we asked him if he has ambitions to lead the country in the future, the former minister outlined his plan to rejuvenate the nation based on meritocracy and the introduction of a strong anti-corruption mechanism. “As a pragmatist, I believe the political context will determine my course. The next presidential election is the biggest turning point in our history and we will seize that opportunity,” he said with confidence.

Global South is facing double jeopardy – Sri Lankan Prez at COP27

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5 mins read

President Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing the COP 27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt said that unbridled industrialization of the developed countries is the root cause of climate change, leaving the poor to suffer the consequences. He said that the problems facing poor countries are augmented due to the absence of adequate funding.

As a result, these countries are facing double jeopardy – struggling to develop economically while fighting to protect the living standards of their populations.

Therefore, President Wickremesinghe said that the developed countries must deliver on their pledge in Glasgow – by doubling their funding to compensate the developing countries for loss and damage.

Accordingly, he said that as proposed by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, commissioning a Special Report on this aspect to strengthen international awareness for future responses would be appropriate.

President Wickremesinghe thus proposed that before COP 28 in Dubai, like-minded nations should meet at Ministerial Level to discuss the way forward on all aspects of climate finance.

He also noted that this should be followed with a meeting of the Heads of Government of these countries on the margins of COP 28 to display a collective frame of mind to stave off the calamity.

Following is the full speech delivered by President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Cop 27 Climate Change Summit;

“The salubrious environs of the green city of Sharm El-Sheikh will undoubtedly inspire our discussions at COP 27 to a successful conclusion. I sincerely thank the Government of Egypt for your warm welcome and hospitality.

Sri Lanka is replete with biodiversity and has consistently addressed the challenges of climate change. Let me record the action of Sri Lanka in this regard:

Sri Lanka

• Commenced the process of reducing carbon emissions by 14.5% by 2030

• Initiated Marine Spatial Planning

• Recently established a Climate Office

• Spearheaded the UN declaration of the 1st March, as World Sea Grass Day

Sri Lanka is

• Employing the National Policy for Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Mangrove Ecosystems

• Implementing the Commonwealth Pilot project for Climate and Ocean Risk Vulnerability

• Led the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods

Sri Lanka

• Will not increase further energy capacity via coal power

• Will phase out fossil fuel subsidies

• Will aim for 70% of renewable energy for electricity generation by 2030

• Will join the recent Global Methane pledge made in Washington

Yet, for climate action to be successful, wide-ranging measures to complement the UNFCC and Paris Agreement must be pursued.

The lack of capacity is the biggest obstacle to the implementation of Climate Action plans. Therefore, capacity building is vital in this regard.

To overcome this obstacle, we propose to establish an International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka, with an ancillary institution in Maldives, which would be the first of its type.

This seat of learning can be a trans-disciplinary global centre for green and blue studies – for scientists, environmentalists, researchers, policymakers, development practitioners, and of course, students the world over, to interchange knowledge transcending national and disciplinary boundaries.

The envisaged Climate Change University will offer both short-term courses and postgraduate academic awards to build capabilities for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The University will also expedite the skills of the new generations to deliver the political, economic, social, cultural and digital transformations required to prevent a 1.5-degree world.

It will be the vehicle to enlighten domestic climate change challenges and prospects.

The collaboration of multilateral institutions and organizations such as the Commonwealth, World Bank and the ADB amongst others, will be sought for the establishment of this institution of higher learning – making it a multi-stakeholder partnership transcending – national boundaries.

I hope Sri Lanka’s proposal will receive extensive support and endorsement from the international community.

Since the prescriptions for addressing climate change have to be dispensed in the global domain, we will meet again next year, charged with high hopes.

However, the chequered implementation of previous decisions, including those of COP 26 is extremely disheartening.

Regrettably, the ground reality is that the fossil fuel-based industrialized countries of G7 and G20 who have been the main promoters of green hydrogen are now backtracking to use of fossil fuel.

In the last year, Carbon Dioxide emissions increased by 2bn metric tonnes – from 34.3bn to 36.3bn metric tonnes.

Such double standards are unacceptable. Developed nations should be given leadership to overcome climate challenges rather than abdicating their responsibilities.

It is no secret that climate financing has missed the target.

It is ironic that the 100 bn dollars pledged annually, have not been available in the coffers to finance climate challenges – as many developed nations deem it fit to renege on their climate financing contributions.

These countries who are also on both sides of the Ukraine war seem to have no qualms about spending for a war which will finally exceed $350bn. A conflict waged purportedly for the security interests of the combatants.

The only security at stake is food insecurity, acerbated to levels not experienced before the war. Many living both in the developed and developing world are outside the scope of three meals a day.

It is estimated that between 30 to 40 million people are being driven into hunger, especially in Africa. This war has also resulted in the upward spiralling cost of living, and shortages of oil and gas supplies, and it has brought the fight against hunger to our homes.

Expectedly, it has led to the curtailing of much-required climate finance pledged by these very same countries.

The issue we have is not finding the party responsible for the war, but the party that will end the war.

Why do we need this funding? It is a known fact that the practice of colonialism transferred the rich resources of Asia and Africa to Europe and was used to industrialize their countries. We became poor from this plunder.

The unbridled industrialization of the developed economy is also the root cause of climate change, the consequences of which, we the poor countries are forced to suffer. Our problems are augmented due to the absence of adequate funding.

Therefore, those in the South are facing double jeopardy – struggling to develop economically while fighting to protect the living standards of our populations.

It is therefore imperative that the developed countries deliver on their pledge in Glasgow – by doubling their funding. Adding insult to injury, damages caused by extreme weather conditions are increasing, and their impacts are exceedingly costly.

Developing countries which are the worst affected by the rise in emissions from the industrialized world, need to be compensated for loss and damage.

While the issue of loss and damage is now included in our formal agenda, we have to ensure that the emitters contribute financially to those affected. As proposed by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, commissioning a Special Report on this aspect to strengthen international awareness for future responses would be appropriate.

Considering the failure of the developed world in bringing about the much-discussed relief, it is proposed that before we get to Dubai for COP 28, like-minded nations should meet at Ministerial Level to discuss the way forward on all aspects of climate finance.

This should be followed with a meeting of the Heads of Government of these countries on the margins of COP 28 to display a collective frame of mind to stave off the calamity.

In conclusion, let me recall the UN Secretary-General’s recent words, “The choice is between collective action or collective suicide”.

The vacuum created due to inaction now requires the global display of sustained political will through dynamic action and constructive cooperation on the part of like-minded countries to prevent this catastrophe.

Let us traverse this path urgently.”

Politics of capitalist transition and state repression

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Capitalist transition within a state is a process that involves changing institutions or the ‘rules of the game’, so that markets become the primary mechanism for resource allocation. These changes must be legitimised at an ideological level. When institutions to establish markets are successful, they become ideas that seem to be natural and common sense, thereby creating a hegemony.

The establishment of the hegemony of markets is not a technocratic process, but a political one. Conflict and struggles are always a part of this. These conflicts can be violent. The process of capitalist transition takes place in a particular society within its own history. This means capitalism is not some sort of a model. It is a historical process, influenced by political forces in a particular historical context. It takes place in a context of global capitalism.

Institutional changes to promote markets create social classes. Since the socio-economic impact of capitalism is always unequal, in Sri Lanka, different sections of the Sinhala majority benefitted unequally from capitalist transition. In other words, although the Sinhalese were unified in ethnic terms, they were divided in class terms. The inequality generated by the capitalist transition within the Sinhala majority could always combine with Sinhala nationalism to oppose the regime in power. In a political space defined by ethnicity, the Sinhala majority was the deciding factor who came to power thorough elections. The opposition to regimes could also turn into an opposition to capitalism, and a general opposition to the state itself.

Post-1977 is a new period of capitalist transition in Sri Lanka. It emphasised markets, the private sector and openness to global capitalism. It changed the process of capitalist transition from the state-dominated capitalism that characterised the 1970-77 period. Political leadership to the process was given by J.R.Jayawardene led the United National Party (UNP) in 1977 general election. Jayewardene saw the challenges that economic reform will face from the Sinhala majority long before 1977. In 1966, in the keynote speech to the 22nd annual session of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, he argued for the need to establish a directly elected president to carry out unpopular economic reforms. A powerful president would be elected directly for a fixed number of years and be able to face opposition to economic reforms.

The UNP won the 1977 election securing 50.9 per cent of valid votes. This translated into 140 seats in a parliament of 168. In other words, it gave the UNP, a degree of political power that was disproportionate to their voter base. At this point it is worth recalling how UNP the brought about this major change in institutions controlling the Sri Lankan state using this power. Prof. A. J. Wilson’s book The Gaullist System in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka (1978), give details of how this happened.

The election was won in July 1977. On 22 September 1977, the government put through an amendment to the 1972 constitution that established a directly elected president as the head of state. Jayawardena, who was elected as prime minister in 1977 general election, became the first president. This bill was not even discussed by the government parliamentary group. It was discussed only at cabinet level, adopted by what then was known as the National State Assembly, and certified by the Speaker on 20 October 1977. There were only six speeches in parliament when this fundamental change to the structure of the state was instituted. Then a parliamentary select committee was appointed in November 1977 to draft a new constitution. This was totally under the control of the UNP. The select committee held only 16 meetings. There was no serious effort to get public participation. A questionnaire that was circulated received 281 responses. Sixteen organisations and a Buddhist priest presented evidence before the committee. The report of the Select Committee was tabled in June 1978, debated in August 1978, and the 1978 constitution became law in September 1978.

It is clear that what determined the establishment of the constitution that still rules over us was the political power enjoyed by the UNP. Often the key role played by the balance of political power in establishing these institutions get masked by discussions on legal aspects. Balance of political power is the key in forming constitution. Linda Colley’s recent book The Gun, the Ship and the Pen demonstrates this, by analysing the history of constitution making in many parts of the world.

Once established, controlling the presidency became the most important political objective for the Sinhala political elite who controlled the state. Although politicians criticised the presidency when out of power, they were reluctant to give up this power when they became president. A powerful presidency existed in a society where there was little possibility to challenge the power of the president through societal mechanisms. In addition, factors such as patronage politics, which seeped into all spheres of social life, and a traditional attitude of looking towards powerful leaders for solutions, made this office even more powerful. As soon as this kind of powerful centre of power was created, these factors generated a political culture based on loyalty towards the centre and the person who became president.

The second institutional mechanism that enhanced the despotic power of the state was the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). This was established just one year later, in 1979, to deal with the Tamil separatist threat to the Sri Lankan state.  It also normalised a discourse of terrorism. Although it came about because of a different issue, it has been used to deal with opposition to economic reforms in Sinhala majority areas. Reforming it, or totally getting rid of it, has been a consistent demand from those who have opposed state repression. But, even after four decades, the political elite who control the state is not ready to give up the power that the PTA provides. In post-war Sri Lanka, the power that presidency and PTA give to the political elite who control the state, is enhanced by well -developed security forces. These now absorb a significant amount of resources of a state facing fiscal problems.

The presidency and the PTA have been part of the Sri Lankan state for more than four decades. An account of the social impact of these in Sinhala majority areas is a study on its own. What we have is largely reports of individual incidents and numbers. A social history of this violence will reveal the true nature of state-society relations in Sinhala majority areas in the post 1977 period. This is a task for future researchers. We need similar research on the social impact of efforts to consolidate the territory of the Sinhala nationalist state threatened by Tamil separatism.

This year, the inability of the Sri Lankan state to satisfy the demands of global financial capital has led to social unrest. This is a part of a global capitalist crisis. Several other factors, like the situation Ukraine, have complicated the situation. A BBC news item reports that there have been various forms of social unrest because of economic discontent in 90 countries. For those who know the history of capitalism, this is not a new situation. What is important is to focus on is how the ruling political elite respond to the situation. In the case of Sri Lanka what we are witnessing now is a repetition of the same strategy of dealing with protests by using the coercive power of the state provided by the presidency and PTA. The scale of suppression might be different from what happened in the past, but the political economy is the same.

A key demand for any kind of progressive movement in Sri Lanka in this situation should be getting rid of both the presidency and PTA. It should be total removal of these institutions and not any kind of reform. The latter only goes to further legitimise these institutions.  Continuous criticism of the various discourses that currently legitimise these institutions will be essential. For example, the use of the term political stability, without clarifying how this to be achieved is opening doors for state repression. Instead, what we need is a regime that seeks to establish political legitimacy with a new social contract. This is necessary not only to promote democratisation, but also to promote social justice and pluralism.

Views expressed are personal

Lula never left Brazil’s centre stage

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5 mins read

The former president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, has won the country’s presidential election by an incredibly narrow margin of 50.90% of the vote against his right-wing rival and incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro’s 49.10%.

When Lula stepped down as president in 2010, he was enjoying the approval of 80% of the Brazilian people. How Lula came to lose his carisma makes a complicated story. He attributed it entirely to the ground reality that he was fighting not an individual but the Brazilian state apparatus. Clearly, Lula’s strongest support base — over two-thirds of the vote — among poor, rural voters in the northeast part of Brazil held firm. 

Lula is anything but a one-dimensional man. Not many would know that he was the first Latin American leader to be invited to Camp David — by none other than President George W. Bush in 2007. Bush said, “You come as a friend, we welcome you as a friend, and our discussions were very friendly.” 

In March 2009, after receiving Lula at the Oval Office in the White House, Bush’s successor President Barack Obama said that he was “a great admirer of Brazil and a great admirer of the progressive, forward-looking leadership that President Lula has shown throughout Latin America and throughout the world.” 

The accolades were improbably similar. There are several reasons why Lula’s victory matters a great deal to the US — trade, democracy, Donald Trump and climate change. Lula’s new greener stance pleases the US. The Amazon rainforest may stop burning. Washington has been enthusiastic about Lula’s business-friendly economic policies, too. 

Lula could be a friend of right-wingers and yet be an iconic progressive leader. His magnetism attracts diverse minds. Lula’s immediate successor as president who was part of a revolutionary underground at one time, Dilma Rousseff, would attribute it to his “rational assessment and emotional intelligence” — a gifted politician’s secret weapon to connect him with human minds across vast political space.

There is record trade between the US and Brazil — aircraft, petroleum, iron and steel — and they also make similar commodities. Brazil is the largest producer of soy and orange, followed by the US, while the Americans are ahead in corn, beef, turkey and chicken production, with Brazil just behind. At a time of recession, there’ll be competition for market share. 

The best piece I read on Lula over the years was an incisive essay dating back to 2011 by Professor and author Perry Anderson (who sits on the editorial board of New Left Review, alongside Tariq Ali) in the London Review of Books. In that 22000-word essay titled Lula’s Brazil, Anderson deftly navigated Lula’s sharply contrasting and yet mutually complementing facets of his two full terms in office as president from 2003 to 2010. 

The broad hinterland of corruption behind Lula’s conquest of power in his first term almost cost him a second term in 2006. But Lula had two assets in reserve. First, his neoliberal economic policies led to sustained economic growth, and, second, as business and jobs picked up, not only the mood in the country changed, but the government’s coffers were filled with larger revenues. 

Succinctly put, although Lula had been committed to helping the poor, he realised early enough in power that accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, and only with the larger revenues, could he launch the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked. 

The transfers reached more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population, messaging that Lula cared for the lot of the wretched or downtrodden, as citizens with social rights. “Popular identification of Lula with this change became his most unshakeable political asset,” Anderson wrote.  

A succession of increases in the minimum wage followed. These conditional cash transfers, higher minimum wages and the novel access to credit set off popular consumption leading to an expansion of the domestic market that finally began creating more jobs. 

To quote Anderson, “In combination, faster economic growth and broader social transfers have achieved the greatest reduction in poverty in Brazilian history. By some estimates, the number of the poor dropped from around 50 to 30 million in the space of six years, and the number of the destitute by 50 per cent.” Since 2005, government spending on education trebled and the hope of betterment was a great popular success.

Lula’s foreign laurels were no less impressive. Lula took care not to confront Washington, but gave greater priority to regional solidarity, promoting Mercosur with neighbours to the south, and refused to cold-shoulder Cuba and Venezuela to the north. Lula recognised Palestine as a state and opposed the sanctions against Iran. No doubt, the increasing weight of Brazil as an economic power and his own aura as the most popular ruler of the age enabled Lula to pull it off. The new position he had won for Brazil came with the formation of the BRIC quartet in 2009, which was virtually a declaration of diplomatic independence from the West.

These paradoxes get reflected today in the complimentary messages flowing in from the collective West and Moscow and Beijing alike wishing Lula success. The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message of greetings underscores how Brazil has become a high-stakes turf in geopolitics. Indeed, China’s ascent as a countervailing economic power in Brazil is a compelling reality. In 2021, China was the number one investor in Brazil.

Latin America is hurtling to the left. Taken together, this group is extremely mixed, differing on economic policy and commitment to democratic principles but they are in unison in their resistance to US hegemony. The ensuing solidarities among governments of the left, cradle Lula’s Brazil within a hospitable environment. In turn, Lula will extend a mantle of protective friendship to regimes –- Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador –- more radical than his own, while at the same time remaining a moderating influence on them. 

To be sure, Lula brings gravitas to the BRICS agenda. Democratisation of the international political and economic order is  very much to his heart. He is the one BRICS leader who can galvanise the grouping as a “counterpoint” to G7 in international politics. 

However, world politics has changed phenomenally in the past 12 year period. The BRICS itself is on the cusp of change. During his two terms as president, the international context was benign for Brazil as Washington lost concentration as continental overlord in the hemisphere and the War on Terror became the front lines of American global strategy.

But in the new cold war conditions, Washington’s traditional mechanisms of hegemony will almost certainly return in Latin America in one form or the other, especially as President Biden is going to have to take some difficult decisions over Ukraine, with a major collapse of the NATO project eastwards coming. 

This is where Lula’s margin in the presidential election is worryingly thin in a political economy with persistently high unemployment, high inflation, and staggering wealth inequality and extreme polarisation. Washington is very good at exploiting such contradictions.

However, the one factor that can restrain the Biden Administration would be the big picture in the hemisphere, which is that there is no nuance whatsoever today in the left versus right map for Latin America. 

Biden’s call with Lula on Monday is an extraordinary gesture underscoring the high importance of Brazil both in the US regional strategy and domestic politics where Latino voters matter profoundly, and affirming strong interest in a cooperative relationship with the towering, charismatic Brazilian leader. Biden must be thrilled to have Lula on his side as he prepares to combat Trumpism.

Criticism and free speech not welcome

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3 mins read

Imagine former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee when alive or former Party President Rajnath Singh being removed from a BJP Chintan Shivir presided over by PM Modi. Unthinkable. Wrong. It is possible if Modi, as things are going, becomes the supreme leader of the BJP and the country’s ultimate ruler. But even then it will not be easy. In President Xi Jinping’s new China, under Emperor Xi (or Maximum Xi), anything is possible: from a warlike lockdown zero COVID policy where in some places COVID tests are held twice a day, to remove former President Hu Jintao (79) his predecessor from the closing day proceedings of the recent 20th National Party Congress. Journalists who were allowed into the Great Hall opposite Tiananmen Square have reported this event backed with video footage – many with more than one set of footage – of the stunning event which, but for this unprecedented incident, passed off with peace and tranquility.

The first reports of the tumultuous incidents appeared on BBC on 23 October which showed Hu’s ‘extraction’ with the explanation it was due to Hu being unwell. But the clips that have now become collector’s items, do not indicate an un-well Hu. He is shown remonstrating with the Emperor and also his protégé, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, sitting on Xi’s right. Nevertheless, he has whisked off the stage without a murmur from the 2300-odd delegates in the Great Hall.

The Hindu was the first Indian newspaper to report that something had gone amiss at the Party Congress. Ananth Krishnan wrote that Hu had attended the opening on 16 October and was known to be in ill health and sat beside Xi. Hu insisted on attending the last session despite health issues. On the closing day, he appeared to mistakenly take a white sheet of paper placed in front of Xi which the latter then removed away from him. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that Hu was not feeling well so his staff took him to the room next to the venue meeting for rest. Throughout the Party Congress sessions, Hu was shown following behind Xi to indicate his hallowed status.

Meanwhile, on its Twitter handle, Xinhua’s reporter Li Jiawen reported the incident on the same lines as Krishnan. The event depicting Hu escorted out against his will when he insisted on attending the closing session has caused a stir. Anybody seeing the video footage will also draw this conclusion. Li’s tweet suggested that Hu should not have attended the session but he did so in defiance of Xi’s wishes. Observers that included several foreign media outlets interpreted Hu’s removal as preventing him from apparently expressing dissent on the removal of his faction (as part of collective leadership of the past) which represented their wipe-out from the leadership. With Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Yang dropped and Hu Chunhua, demoted, (all from the Communist Youth League associated with Hu Jintao) the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is now stacked with Xi loyalists.

Other video footage of the incident showed that twice Hu attempted to return to his seat: he was not permitted to return by his aides, fearing words of dissent from him. This supplements clips of how outgoing Politburo members Li Zhanshu, sitting to Hu’s left, took a file away from Hu while speaking to him. Then, Xi is seen giving instructions to the escorts who persuade Hu to leave not before he is seen muttering words to Xi and Le Keqiang. Krishnan had earlier reported that Hu’s removal was to ensure that he did not vote in the session where several sweeping amendments proposed Xi is “everything” in the constitution.

Richard McGregor of Lowy Institute Sydney described ‘truly extraordinary’ the incident that reflected a lack of basic courtesy to Hu while ‘wooden men elevated by Hu were frozen and dumbfounded in stony silence. Another video shows Hu going to look at the contents of the red folder in front of him only to be stopped by Lin. Hu later reaches for papers in front of Xi who puts his hand on them to prevent Hu from taking them. The footage read together tells the story: Health issues or not, one thing is clear; Hu could have created a big stir that was not in the script. Every event in the Party Congress is so perfectly choreographed that a misstep is almost impossible. Still Hu did it.

In the new Xi era, he is everything forever. His three aides promoted and chose military commanders in the Central Military Commission (CMC) only a powerful insider can rock the boat. Xi has ignored age caps, replaced rules with political standards (loyalty), and brought core interests (Taiwan, South China Sea, and Senkaku Islands) to the front and middle of the great rejuvenation. The video footage of the Galwan clash attracted applause. The image of the PLA commander, the injured Qi Fabio standing with his arms outstretched facing Indian soldiers heralded the start of the conference. Qi was one of the delegates. He was also the torchbearer during the winter Olympics. China has regaled Galwan heroes signaling longer winters in Ladakh. And rubbing salt on wounds PLA had earlier painted in red in 1962 on a stone at Nakula in north Sikkim. India has to show it is 2022, not 1962. But that will require using power.

Sri Lanka: Politics beyond 22

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8 mins read

“You are in the end – what you are.” ~ Goethe (Faust)

22 is not perfect. Far from it, perhaps light-years far. Yet, in a season of defeats and setbacks, it is a win for Lankan democracy, and for those Lankans who would be free citizens rather than obedient subjects or terrified children waiting for the next saviour.

The passing of the 22 (officially 21) came hard on the heels of another democratic victory. The Supreme Court effectively killed the deadly Rehabilitation Act. If President Wickremesinghe or the Rajapaksas dreamed of using the Act to punish past dissent and discourage future protests, that dream is now dead.  

The two wins demonstrate that however flawed or even dysfunctional the Lankan political system might be it’s not broken. It can be built on, improved. The better kind of ‘system change’, the sort that harms less, roots deep, lasts long.

By 2014, the Rajapaksas had disembowelled every single democratic institution in the country, from the highest court to the lowliest pradesheeya Sabha. Only periodic elections remained, a heads-we-win-tails-you-lose game the family believed it had mastered. Wrongly. Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency and democracy made a comeback. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration removed the executive’s mailed fist from the collective back of the judiciary and paved the way for more institution-building than any previous administration via the 19th Amendment and the Right to Information Act.

Electoral defeat also revealed the ordinary clay in the Rajapaksa makeup, diminishing the shock-and-awe effect created by the war-victory. High King Mahinda and Supreme General Gotabaya were downsized to normal size, for a while. The memory of that reduction had faded by 2018, but not dead. In 2022, as normal life collapsed under the cumulative weight of shortages and queues, that memory would return. Without its liberating effect, the peaceful revolt of the middle class which constituted the first inspiring phase of the Aragalaya couldn’t have happened.

Thus the importance in the death of the 20th and the safe birth of 22nd, especially if ‘system change’ is a real goal and not just a radical-sounding slogan or an excuse to scuttle reforms. The next step is its speedy implementation. What was done to the democratising 17th Amendment by the PA and the UNP mustn’t become the fate of 22: death by non-implementation. Having taken the sensible step of backing the amendment, the SJB and the JVP should focus on getting the constitutional council and the national procurement commission up and running. That is of far greater democratic consequence than holding local government elections, an exercise which will cost billions and change little.

The composition of COPE, COPA, and the Peoples’ Council has caused much handwringing and derisive laughter. Deservingly. But almost all the undesirables nominated to those bodies were elected by the people in 2020; more worryingly many would be re-elected thanks to the preferential vote system. A new electoral system is as much of a democratic (and anti-corruption) necessity as abolishing the executive presidency.

President Wickremesinghe’s decision to set up a committee to map a new electoral system may – or may not – be a ruse to postpone elections. Either way, it opens up a path to a desirable and popular goal. If the proposal is a Wickremesinghe-bluff, the Opposition can surely call it by coming up with reform blueprints which combine the best features of the PR and first-past-the-post system? Pertinently, what is the Opposition’s stand on the Election Commission mandated campaign finance legislation awaiting cabinet nod? Surely enacting that piece of legislation should be as much of an oppositional priority as calling for elections?

The Quotidian Rot

In the 19th century, there was an American political organisation called the Know Nothing Party which fared well electorally for a while. A nativist entity (not in the Native American but in the WASP-supremacist sense) it was anti-Black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. That party is now gone and mostly unremembered, but its spectre survives and thrives across the world. From the US to India, from Italy to Sri Lanka, know-nothing (and learn-nothing) voters and politicians are making choices that invite chaos.

US humorist Andy Borowitz asked, “What happens when you combine ignorance with performing talent?” and answered, “A president who tells the country to inject bleach” (Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber). Or a president and a political family who take over a functioning economy and run it to the ground.

Mr. Borowitz divides ignorance into three stages, ridicule, acceptance, celebration. In Sri Lanka, we ridicule ignorance and accept it by voting the ignorant in. When hiring a driver, any sensible person would prioritise driving skills and experience over the width of a smile, the jauntiness of a moustache or the smoothness of a tongue. But the same person may act antithetically when deciding who should be at the national wheel for the next five years. After all, every Rajapaksa fault we decry now was fully or partly in evidence during their previous terms. Accountability is necessary not just for politicians, but also for the people who vote them in and out. If our people fail to understand their culpability for their own plight, how can they be persuaded not to remake the same old mistakes?  

As Liz Truss’ tenure as the UK’s prime minister entered its 6th chaotic week, Daily Star, a British Tabloid, launched the lettuce challenge. Would the premiership of Ms. Truss last longer than the lifespan of an ordinary iceberg lettuce? The lettuce won. And perhaps saved our former imperial masters from going the Lankan way. Had we stuck to the parliamentary system, we could have got rid of the Rajapaksas without the murder and the mayhem (no, it wasn’t all poetic and peaceful; the lynching of two men is murder and the burning of scores of houses, irrespective of the unsavoury nature of many of their owners, is mayhem). Institutional guardrails matter, especially where Know Nothings hold sway.

The rot is not limited to the government. Sajith Premadasa recently held a cosy powwow with that doyen of ideological racism, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, and his majoritarian-supremacist National Organisations Collective. According to the media unit of the leader of opposition, “Opposition leader elucidated the importance of not making further amendments to the 13th Amendment,” and, said that “There are no ethnic minorities, there are different ethnic groups, all should get together and rebuild the country.” According to the Sinhala version, the opposition leader, “will not agree to any proposal that will lead to the fragmentation of the country by empowering the 13th amendment.” No ethnic problem, no need for a political solution: wasn’t that the Rajapaksa mantra too? The 13th Amendment equates division, wasn’t that the abiding cry of the most virulent of racists? Is this an attempt to shift to a Gotabaya-lite position and win with Sinhala votes only?

Mahsa Amini, Nika Shakarami, Sarina Esmailzadeh: three names amongst many unnamed victims of a struggle that began with a simple demand, the right to not wear a hijab.

Lankans probably look with a sense of complacent superiority at the events in Iran. But the rallying slogan of the Iranian schoolgirls, telling clerics to get lost, is valid here as well. After all, we too are plagued with clerics who try to impose their will on secular matters they know nothing about, from economics to sex education, often with distressing success.

            Iran’s ongoing uprising, with its stirring cry of Woman, Life, Freedom, began when a young Kurdish woman died in the custody of the Morality Police. We don’t have a morality police, but morality policing is not unknown here, including on matters sartorial. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre, a coat-and-tie clad top state official tried to make sari-wearing mandatory for female public officials. Banning first year female students from wearing trousers seems to be a fairly standard component of the orgy of cruel and unusual activities that passes off as ragging in Lankan universities.

The dean of arts faculty of the Peradeniya University is on record saying that students studying in the English medium are banned by the Students Union from using common facilities such as the canteen. Universities in Sri Lanka are not havens of democracy, open mindedness, and intellectual curiosity but deserts of intolerance, tyranny, and backwardness. Ragging is both a symbol of that mindset and its progeny. And all this by student unions and organisations under the control of the JVP and the FSP. The two parties can end this barbarism with one command (inner-party democracy is more alien to them than it is to their bourgeois counterparts). They haven’t, yet. In the universities where the two parties hold sway, even simple acts of dissent like opposing ragging is a punishable crime. The Rajapaksas are not the only problem we have.

On the need for deals

The petition filed by the Transparency International against the decision makers of the current disaster, starting with Gotabaya, Mahinda, and Basil Rajapaksa, has been granted leave to proceed by the Supreme Court. The case will hopefully cast some much needed light on who ordered, who enabled, and who consented to what in making this avoidable tragedy.

The 2019 November unfunded tax cut was the first outpost on that road to disaster, the error that made every other error necessary. Repairing that mistake is a necessary step in rescuing the economy without imposing even more burdens on the already overburdened poor. Will the Opposition, especially the economically more sensible SJB, propose constructive amendments to tax proposals instead of taking the easy way of damning the whole? One obvious need is to increase the tax-free threshold from the proposed 100,000rupees per month to at least 150,000rupees per month, to cushion the lower middle class and small businesses. Rates for upper brackets can be increased to make good the loss. (The GMOA is threatening strike action, true to form. Since most of that trade union’s members would not have become doctors without our free education system, their opposition to direct taxes is particularly despicable).

What is morally indefensible and politically dangerous is to increase taxes – any taxes – without touching the innumerable privileges enjoyed by the political class. The opposition can make a deal to combine tax increases with the drastic pruning of these giveaways – the pension system, duty free vehicle permit racket, giving official residences to all ministers and an official vehicle to all elected representatives, to mention but a few. Not likely, since the one subject on which the entire political class is agreed (from the UNP to the JVP, from the Rajapaksas to the TNA) is the sacrosanct nature of these unearned and unmerited privileges.

In her poem Working on the World, A Revised Improved Edition, Polish poet and 1996 Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, approaches her utopia of a good life and a good death in stages, starting with “fun for fools and tricks for old dogs.” Striving for incremental changes is more effective than dreaming of or chasing utopias. Given where we are, no improvement, however minute, should be scoffed at. Foreign remittances have gone up in August and September. Litro is making profit again and reducing prices. The Welisara Magistrate Court has ruled to provide legal protection to a young lesbian woman from the persecution of her parents (and the Welisara police). Women parliamentarians across the aisle have prepared an amendment defining anyone under 18 as a child. The Orwellian attempt to use the police to gather information on Colombo residents has been abandoned. To a drowning nations, straws can spell survival.

Our descent into economic disaster did not happen overnight. Our emergence from that abyss cannot happen overnight either. A parliamentary election might help that long climb or it might not. How an election impacts on the crisis would depend on the percentage of citizens willing to let facts rather than emotions decide their vote. If even 10% of voters cleave to the Rajapaksas (the real figure is likely to be double) despite their culpability for our common plight, an election is likely to worsen rather than alleviate the crisis.

 A fragmented parliament, and the resultant horse trading for power and influence while hunger soars and poverty deepens, can sunder hope in the democratic system. Once popular faith in electoral solutions breaks down, the Sinhala masses are more likely to seek salvation not from the JVP or the FSP, but from the military, and the monks, their brothers in blood and faith.

The saga of 22 shows that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone. Had the  opposition put personal rancour and political needs aside and worked with Mr.  Wickremesinghe once he became the president, a better 22 and other reforms could have been possible. Who can doubt that post-election every party currently in opposition will make whatever deals possible to gain a larger share of the power-pie? Better to make some deals now with the Wickremesinghe government, not for the sake of power, but to promote the sort of political and economic reforms that would help Lankan democracy and Lankan people survive the crisis, and perhaps even emerge a little stronger.

Sri Lanka: Political Prescription to 22A

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Following article is based on the speech made by the author at the parliament during the second reading of Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution Bill

It was expected that this Bill would restore the essence of the more progressive 19th Amendment.  But unfortunately, centralisation of power around a single individual still exists. The checks and balances that were expected in a meaningful manner have not been included. The Independence of the public service, transfer of power to Parliament, checks and balances that could curtail the immense powers of the President, transfer of powers between President and Prime Minister are missing. Fundamentals of public finance and accountability too are missing.

Some of the offending areas are the President holding portfolios, appointing Ministers without the advice of the Prime Minister, President’s discretion to dissolve Parliament early, ability to control or influence 7 of the 10 members of the Constitutional Council thereby undermining the independence of the instittutions to which appointments are made through the Council.

But whatever the shortcomings and discrepancies are this Bill is a step in the right direction. To vote against it would be to perpetuate the present system. In arguing for perfection we should not turn out to be the enemy of the good.

No doubt advantages and disadvantages were envisaged at the time the Presidential System was introduced in 1978.The advantages trotted out at that time were

  1. Quick decision making
  2. Presidential discretion in Appointments. The appointees are directly responsible to the President.
  3. The whole Country elects the President and therefore entire Country is the Electorate.
  4. Fixed tenure of office which thereby ensures stability to the country.
  5. President above Party Politics and therefore insulated from Party Politics.

On the other hand the disadvantages are as follows-

  1. Prone to dictatorship or abuse of office being dangerous to the democratic process.
  2. Separation of powers can cause delays in the execution of government programs if executive-legislative relations are not properly managed. Therefore friction among government organs was contemplated. 
  3. Lack of flexibility in Tenure of office. A Parliamentary system could act according to circumstances and be flexible.
  4. Very expensive to operate. The Parliamentary system was considered to be more cost effective. The President’s power to spend directly creates opportunity for lack of fiscal discipline and even all forms of corruption.
  5. Due to the absence of Party discipline unlike in a Parliamentary system, the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature is prone to disagreements and less easy to manage. With the Government Party now being of one hue and the President of a different colour this possibility is even more plausible.
  6. Presidential lobbying can encourage corruption.  Suppose certain groups within the Governing Party decide to join the Party of the President there can be misuse of power by the President.

We have seen the contradictions that emanated due to lack of understanding between the President and the Legislature during the time of Madame Chandrika as well as during the Yahapalanaya government.

Therefore concentration of power in a single individual can have innumerable implications.

But it was thought that a strong Executive could bring benefits to minorities. The President if he wanted to, he could with his unfettered powers bring relief to the problems of the minorities. But how far that would be possible would depend upon the personality of the President. So far Ranil has not catered to the voice of the chauvinists and the champions of ethnocracy. 

The transitional provisions in the Bill allows the present incumbent to continue until the full term of office of the present Ninth Parliament. Therefore as a person somewhat acceptable to non-Sinhala Buddhists also he has an opportunity to take up matters of importance for the future of this Country.   As I understand them, they are –

  1. Repayment of National Debt through proper fiscal management. The way we diplomatically manage the International Community is intrinsically interwoven with this problem.
  2. Take cognisance of the recent UN Resolution with only seven Countries standing by Sri Lanka and commit the Country to conform to the expectations of the World Body. The Country’s supporters among the International community have steadily decreased every year and the next time I expect China too to abstain from voting for Sri Lanka. Our bravado statements have only exposed us as to who we are.
  3. Knowing the nature of the Tamil Ethnic problem and the long history of the Sri Lankan Tamils extending beyond 3000 years in this Island, it would be better for the Country if the President could solve our problem once and for all times by granting total devolution of powers to the North and East of Sri Lanka in order that all communities could travel hand in hand forward within a United Sri Lanka.

I would submit that the Transitional Provisions of the Bill has given the opportunity for the incumbent President and the members of the present 9th Parliament to work out solutions for our long-standing problems fully and effectively.

It is my studied opinion that a confederation would be the ideal system of Government for this Country. 

But before the present Constitution is changed the services of India would be paramount due to their responsibility in getting the Thirteenth Amendment into our Constitution. Any attempt at the arbitrary replacement of the present Constitution with a new Constitution could deprive the Tamils of even the limited powers granted under the Unitary Constitution by the Thirteenth Amendment. Therefore in the formulation of a new constitution for Sri Lanka, the services of India would be sine qua non as far as the future of the Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka is concerned.

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