Democracy in Sri Lanka Part 1 An Irish perspective
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on August 20 2020
Sad, Soggy Images
Our gated residential complex is littered with sad, soggy images of aspirant politicians. In the run-up to the Sri Lankan parliamentary election on August 5 2020, our normally sedate environment was infested with disreputable-looking teams of party workers distributing election ‘literature’. I caught a fellow tossing a leaflet over my front gate. I explained to him: “this red metal thing with a hole in it is a letter box. Why did you not put your leaflet in the hole rather than chucking it into the garden?” He mumbled apologetically. I said, “I won’t be voting for your lot”. Being a privileged white imperialist exploiter, I don’t actually have a vote, but the principle is sound.
Ranil Brings Us to Sri Lanka
Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) was responsible for me coming to live in Sri Lanka. We had a holiday in Sri Lanka in 2001 and my Sri Lankan wife liked it so much that she wanted to return to her motherland. The war against the LTTE was still on but Ranil had agreed a cease-fire. As we traveled about the country on our holiday, we could see that war had become a way of life. Military check points were so well-established that they were covered in advertisements.
We had been living in Ireland from March 1998. Soon after we arrived in Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement was signed and there was hope for peace. Martin McGuinness went from being a terrorist murderer to being a statesman and minister in the new Stormont government. My friend, the Reverend Harold Good OBE, told me he was proud to call McGuinness his friend. Harold spoke at McGuinness’s funeral. “Our paths crossed many times and often he trod the path that came to our home and that is where you make friendship as you share your own fireside.” Harold has always refused to discuss his role in the peace process but it is a matter of recorded history that it was he who made the formal announcement that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned their arms, effectively saying the war was over.
McGuinness’s contribution to the Sri Lankan problem was not helpful; he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. McGuinness criticised the EU for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said, “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” The problem was that they were demons and only represented the Tamil people in so far as they killed off any rivals. McGuinness told Sri Lanka: “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”. In Sri Lanka, there was a military victory over brutal terrorists who steadfastly refused to compromise or accommodate. He may have meant well, but he was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. If Sri Lanka had followed McGuinness’s advice, we would still be suffering from the atrocities of the LTTE.
It was never likely that Prabhakaran would model himself on Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams. Like McGuinness, RW believed a political solution could be reached through negotiations. A ceasefire agreement (CFA) was signed on 22 February 2002. There was a sigh of relaxation and Sri Lankans began travelling to places they had not visited in years. We did not know much about Ranil at that time. Our friends in Ireland (they were retired from jobs at the UN; she was a very westernised Indian and he was an Italian) spoke highly of him. He looked very reassuring to foreigners. He wore western suits and not the traditional garb, shoes and socks rather than sandals. We moved to Sri Lanka on July 4 2002.
The war did not end but we stuck it out. The LTTE frequently broke the cease fire and used the opportunity to regroup and rearm. Critics saw the CFA as a threat to the sovereignty and unity of Sri Lanka which would lead to a separate state for the LTTE. I was trepidatious about the future when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005 but I soon came to realise that a military solution was the only option.
The Yahapalana Government won the 2015 elections, presidential and parliamentary, mainly by promising to root out corruption and establish good governance. No-one was brought to book but the allegations are still trotted out. Many of those against whom allegations were made are back in Parliament.
Mere months after taking office, the Yahapalana crowd had their very own huge scandal in the bond scams. Although he had opposed the appointment of Arjuna Mahendran as governor of the Central Bank, President Sirisena stood by the UNP. Sirisena dissolved parliament, on the night of June 26, 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) presenting its report to parliament.
The voters have rejected many of those involved in the bond scam and the cover up – RW, Karunanayake, Ajith P Perera, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Sujeewa Senasinghe. The JVP, which was perceived as siding with the UNP, lost three out of its six seats. Now that they are out of parliament Wickremesinghe and Karunanayake face the prospect of lengthy legal proceedings.
We had a very good buffet lunch at the Cinnamon Grand on April 14 2019. The staff at the Taprobane Room were very efficient and attentive. Just a week later, suicide bombers had targeted Catholic churches and luxury hotels killing 269 people. Our waiter at the Taprobane room was among the dead.
The president was in Singapore when the slaughter occurred and did not rush to return home. He took two days to come up with a mendacious and self-serving statement. India had passed on specific intelligence to Sri Lankan authorities that a terrorist attack was imminent, and even gave addresses where the bombers could be found. Politicians passed warnings to their friends and increased their own security protection but did not give a damn about the wider public.
A major contribution to the electoral success of the SLPP must have been the competent way that President Rajapaksa has coped with the pandemic, restricting the number of deaths to eleven. Even Dayan Jayatilleke, who has transformed himself from a friend of the Rajapaksas into a feeble foe, concedes, “There are few citizens who are not thankful that it is this administration rather than the previous one, in charge at this time. The armed forces and personnel of the State machinery as a whole are going flat out, motivated and functioning as they never would have been under the decrepit, languid, lackadaisical Ranilist UNP governmental sub-culture. “
The Economy, Stupid!
When I first came to live in Sri Lanka, the economy and the infrastructure were in a parlous state. We had to take a 36-kilometer round trip on terrible roads just to get cash from an ATM. There were just two banks in Passara and neither had an ATM so one had to queue. Today there are at least 12 modern and efficient banks in Passara each with an ATM.
The Rajapaksa government entered upon huge infrastructure projects which improved the quality of life of most people. After the civil war ended in May 2009, political stability was restored; tourism, exports, and workers’ remittances picked up; and previously under-utilized land and labor resources in the north and east benefited the nation as a whole. There were annual GDP growth rates of 8 percent, 8.4 percent, and 9.1 percent over the three-year period 2010-12.
To get elected in 2015 the coalition made profligate promises, such as an extra Rs. 10,000 to nearly 1.3 million state sector employees. GDP growth declined steeply from 5% in 2015 to 2.3% in 2019. The World Bank recently downgraded Sri Lanka from an upper-middle income to a lower-middle income country.
Mr Clean, Mr Bean Mr Has-Been
RW took over after the UNP had ruled for 17 years. He became the longest-serving opposition leader and under him the UNP never won an election as a single party. Wickremesinghe’s main concern has seemed to be retaining the leadership of the UNP, at whatever cost, rather than doing what is best for his country and his party. He was a master of using protocol to fend off challenges. It was indicative of his character that he did not immediately resign from the UNP leadership after his humiliating defeat in the August 2020 election.