Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE (IDN) – After Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s shock decision on October 26 to appoint his political foe of recent years Mahinda Rajapakse as Prime Minister, Western diplomats and the international media have expressed outrage at what they perceive as “lack of respect for democratic institutions” such as the Parliament.
But, within an hour of the announcement, Sri Lankan media broadcast images of people lighting celebratory fire crackers across the country including in Tamil-dominated Jaffna.
When President Sirisena addressed the nation three days later, he gave a lengthy 30-minute speech explaining why he had to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and appoint Rajapakse. It was a devastating character certification of Wickremasinghe’s manipulation of parliamentary procedures, inability to connect with the common people and his disrespect for those outside a small circle of the Colombo-based elite, his disregard for the country’s sovereignty and his tendency to favour foreign business over locals.
“Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political conduct was unbecoming of civilized politics and belittled the victory achieved risking my life in 2015. I believe that Mr Wickremesinghe and his group of closest friends, who belonged to a privileged class and did not understand the pulse of the people conducted themselves as if shaping the future of the country was a fun game they played,” President Sirisena told the nation.
“Mr Wickremesinghe destroyed the concept and the noble expectations of good governance by his actions during the last few years. Corruption and fraud spread widely in the country”.
He went on to explain how Wickremasinghe repeatedly blocked attempts to investigate and bring to justice perpetuators of the biggest financial scandal in Sri Lanka’s history, the Central Bank bond scam that happened while the PM’s good friend Arjuna Mahendran was heading the bank. But the President did not explain why he dissolved parliament in June 2015 just before an independent report on the scam was to be presented.
Sirisena’s latest action has been widely welcomed in Sri Lanka, because the people have seen their standard of living dipping badly due to perceived economic mismanagement by the Wickremasinghe government and they have also been resentful of the government’s policies to open up the economy to foreign investors, even to the extent of allowing them to buy land freehold.
In February this year, the government suffered a heavy blow when at island-wide local government elections, the newly formed Sri Lanka Podhujana Peramuna (SLPP) headed by Rajapakse loyalists won 239 of the 340 councils contested. This was seen across the country as a rejection of the economic policies of the Wickremasinghe led government. In September, a peoples’ march ‘JanabalayaaKolabata’ organized by the youth wing of the SLPP brought over 200,000 people from across the nation to Colombo demanding an immediate dissolution of the government.
There have been students, unions, farmers, even university professors and doctors mounting protest action against government economic policies in the past 12 to 18 months. Thus, a groundswell of public opinion has been building up for the sacking of PM Wickremasinghe, who was increasingly seen as a servant of the West, particularly the U.S., supporting their geo-political agenda in Asia.
Dr Wijedasa Rajapaksa (no relative of Mahinda) who defected from Wickremasinghe’s United National Party (UNP) to join the new Cabinet, said at a media conference that he had left the UNP mainly because the Wickremesinghe administration had leased out Hambantota Port to a Chinese company without a proper appraisal.
He also referred to inaction on the bond scams, the deplorable move to hand over the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port to India without presidential or Cabinet approval, the new land laws, and government action at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that put Sri Lankan sovereignty at risk.
Another UNP MP that defected in October to the Rajapakse camp, Ananda Aluthgamage, said that he was angry about the manner in which a cabal loyal to Wickremesinghe had run the government. “No attention was paid to the grassroots,” he said.
“The current constitutional crisis is unprecedented in that Sri Lanka has never had the legality and legitimacy of its government called into question in this way. We regret and deplore the course of action that has resulted in this unnecessary crisis and democratic backsliding,” the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a western funded local NGO said in a statement.
“The whole set of circumstances suggests not the way a change of government ought to occur in a democracy, but the sharp practices associated with a constitutional coup, which is likely to lead to a constitutional crisis. It is a constitutional coup because the serving Prime Minister has not legally ceased to function in office before a new Prime Minister has been appointed,” added CPA’s Research Fellow Dr Asanga Welikala.
Rajapakse supporters have been refuting such claims pointing out to the way Wickremasinghe was appointed Prime Minister in 2015. A day after being sworn-in as President, Sirisena appointed Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister citing a campaign promise, even though his UNP only had 46 MPs in a 225 member parliament. After appointing him as PM, Sirisena-Wickremasinghe alliance forced the existing PM D.M Jayartane to give a back-dated resignation letter to avoid any constitutional hassles.
Sirisena was the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was led by Rajapakse during his tenure as President from 2005 to 2015. He defected in November 2014 and became the common opposition candidate to challenge Rajapakse – a decision that also shocked the nation.
Son of a rural rice farmer, Sirisena was able to connect with Rajapakse’s Sinhalese Buddhist support base, and along with a slogan of ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) coined by western agencies and delivered via NGOs funded by them in Sri Lanka, it connected with the masses who resented corrupt practices widely practiced by Rajapakse cronies including his family members. Thus, riding on this popular anti-corruption wave, he won the presidency narrowly in January 2015.
Yahapalanaya has become a joke today, as people who voted for clean government in 2015, now find that they got a new mob that was not any better, even worse, because of selling national assets to foreigners.
A free trade agreement (FTA) signed with Singapore has been challenged in courts by a number of groups under the fundamental rights petitions. One such challenge comes from the Government Medical Officers Unions that claim the agreement was signed without parliamentary approval and that it infringes upon the rights of Sri Lankan service sector workers.
At a time when the U.S. and some European countries have raised concerns about Russian interference in domestic politics in their countries, the behaviour of their own missions in Colombo has raised eyebrows in the country. Western ambassadors have had meetings with the ousted PM, NGOs and opposition groups and issued statements via their governments for “Immediate convening” of parliament and “restoration” of democracy.
On October 30, President Sirisena summoned all foreign envoys for a meeting to brief them about his actions. During the meeting, the EU Ambassador Tung-Lai Margue warned that if democratic norms and constitutional provisions are not observed in handling the on-going political crisis in Sri Lanka, the EU may consider withdrawing the trade concessions the island nation enjoys under the General System of Preferences Plus (GSP Plus).
Sirisena has reportedly told the Western envoys that they appeared to be “unaware of the pulse of the people”. The President has suggested that the foreign missions get surveys done to ascertain the common man’s thinking, and added the surveys would “reveal that 70 to 75 percent” of the people are with him.
He told the envoys that it is best to leave the governance of Sri Lanka to Sri Lankans and that the government and the people of Sri Lanka know best what is good for them.
Buddhist prelate, Venerable Elle Gunawansa Thero addressing a media briefing on October 31, noted that the West and its allies are shedding more tears at the change in Government rather than the people of his country. He noted that these tears are being shed because these countries are wondering “if their agendas came to an end in Sri Lanka”. He asked, “why the citizens of the country are not taking to the streets if there has been an injustice?” [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 November 2018]
Photo: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena with his political foe of recent years, Mahinda Rajapakse. Source: Colombo Telegraph.
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