Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Ranil Wickremasingha

An Australian Coup Part One

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday June 8 2015.

 

It's Time

Lessons for Sri Lanka?

As Sri Lanka’s foreign minister voices doubts about the value of this country’s long-standing commitment to the  Non-Aligned Movement and the US Secretary  of State takes a strong interest in moving Sri Lanka away from China and into the US orbit we should pay heed to what happened to Gough Whitlam.

poster

Peter Carey

Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has been in the news recently because he was one of the six authors (including Michael Ondaatje)  who protested about PEN International giving an award to Charlie Hebdo magazine. Salman Rushdie was not impressed and wrote an article entitled “Six authors in search of a bit of character”.

Carey has a new novel out called Amnesia. Critics drew parallels with a previous Carey novel (which I have been re-reading) The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, published in 1994.  Amnesia’s central figure is Felix Moore, who describes himself as “Australia’s last surviving left wing journalist”.

Governor General Sacks Prime Minister

kerrand queen

In 1975, the governor general of Australia,  Sir John Kerr, the unelected representative of Queen Elizabeth II, removed  Labour Party leader Gough Whitlam from the office of prime minister and replaced him with Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the opposition Liberal (conservative) Party. Felix, like many others in real life (among them John Pilger) described this as a coup. Before the coup, there was a concerted campaign of disinformation and manufactured scandals designed to show Whitlam in a bad light. Rupert Murdoch was a major player in this campaign.

In Carey’s 1994 novel Tristan Smith, Efica is Australia and the US is Voorstand. “The alliance between the parliamentary democracies of Voorstand and Efica is built on three areas of joint co-operation—Defence, Navigation, Intelligence—DNI.” The Labor Party is the Blue Party, the conservatives the Red Party. Tristan footnotes his autobiography with explanations of the events leading to Whitlam’s ouster —the concocted scandals, the VIA (Voorstand Intelligence Agency), the DoS (Department of Supply, a version of the Australian spy service ASIO). The two services worked closely at all times, it sometimes being said that the DoS’s loyalty lay with the VIA, not with the elected government of Efica.

John Pilger

John Pilger, veteran Australian investigative journalist and polemicist (I do not know if Carey had Pilger in mind when he created Felix) has written extensively about the CIA’s role in engineering Whitlam’s ejection from office.  The coup against Whitlam is described in full in his book, A Secret Country (Vintage), and in his documentary film, Other People’s Wars, which can be viewed on http://www.johnpilger.com/ Whitlam’s government had provoked the US by withdrawing Australian troops from the Vietnam War. He also opposed nuclear weapons testing, and made a nuisance of himself by querying the purpose of the Pine Gap signals intelligence centre near Alice Springs.

An Independent Australia

change nation

Pilger wrote:  “Australia briefly became an independent state during the Whitlam years, 1972-75.”  Whitlam challenged US values and interests with radical reforms pushed through in less than three years between 1972 and 1975. He also challenged Britain. Whitlam moved Australia towards the Non-Aligned Movement.

Beneficial Reforms

The Whitlam government abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. The government established offices in each state capital. It abolished university fees, and established the Schools Commission to allocate funds to schools. Whitlam founded the Department of Urban Development and, set a goal to leave no urban home without sewers. The Whitlam government gave grants directly to local government units for urban renewal, flood prevention, and the promotion of tourism. Other federal grants financed highways linking the state capitals, and paid for standard-gauge rail lines between the states.”Advance Australia Fair” became the country’s national anthem in place of “God Save the Queen”. The Order of Australia replaced the British honours system in early 1975.

abo

Whitlam campaigned for indigenous rights creating the Aboriginal Land Fund to help indigenous groups buy back privately owned lands, as well as the Aboriginal Loans Commission to help establish indigenous-owned businesses, pay for health and education expenses, and for the purchase of property with a view to home ownership.

girly2

Opposition Blocked Funding.

WhitCrowd

Although Labour had a majority in the House of Representatives, the Liberal-dominated senate refused to release the funding to enact the reforms on which he had been elected. Whitlam asserted the primacy of the House of Representatives and his right to govern so long as he retained a majority there, whereas Fraser claimed that a government denied Supply by the Senate should resign. Whitlam had already won two elections so apart from the Liberals refusing to bring the budget bills to the vote was there should have been no need for an election. Whitlam went to the polls in 1974, only 18 months after winning power in 1972 to resolve the deadlock. He was re-elected. Whitlam had sufficient supply to run the government for another two weeks.

Foreign Loans

The Whitlam government looked for foreign loans from the Middle East, rather than from traditional American and European sources, to finance its development plans. Just as the Sri Lankan government upset the US by turning to China for development assistance, Whitlam put  American noses out of joint by preferring Middle East backing. Whitlam attempted to secure financing before informing the Loan Council (which included state officials hostile to him), and his government empowered Pakistani financier Tirath Khemlani as an intermediary in the hope of securing US$4 billion in loans. While the Loans Affair never resulted in an actual loan, according to author and Whitlam speechwriter Graham Freudenberg.  In the end, no loan was ever obtained, no commissions were paid, but the government was made to look reckless and foolish.

The Opposition believed that if Whitlam could not deliver supply, and would not advise new elections, Kerr would have to dismiss him. Supply would run out on 30 November. In October 1975, the Opposition, led by Malcolm Fraser, determined to withhold supply by deferring consideration of appropriation bills.

kerr and fraser

Whitlam and his ministers repeatedly claimed that the Opposition was damaging not only the constitution, but the economy as well. Whitlam told the House of Representatives on 21 October, “Let me place my government’s position clearly on the record. I shall not advise the Governor-General to hold an election for the House of Representatives on behalf of the Senate. I shall tender no advice for an election of either House or both Houses until this constitutional issue is settled. This government, so long as it retains a majority in the House of Representatives, will continue the course endorsed by the Australian people last year.”

After he was ousted Whitlam made a speech: “Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General’s Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s cur. They won’t silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks … Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day”.

rage

At the ensuing election, Fraser’s conservative coalition won a resounding victory. The Australian publican public forgot its temporary aberration of not electing a Liberal government, decided that change was too disturbing  and went back to boozing and sunbathing.

 

 

Crosstown Traffic

This article appeared on Page 9 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday January 6 2015.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html

Vote in hope and repent at leisure

About twenty years ago, I had a meeting in Whitehall with a Conservative MP who was concerned that one of his constituents had been falsely accused (by his estranged wife) of child abuse. After the meeting, I noticed that my umbrella was missing. Soon after, I was watching the news on TV when I saw the MP announcing that he had switched to the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella”, I cried.

Alan Howarth, for it was he, was the first MP to defect directly from the Conservatives to Labour, and the first former Conservative MP to sit as a Labour MP since Oswald Mosley. Howarth wanted to be seen to be doing the decent thing by winning a seat as a Labour candidate. He failed at Wentworth and then again at Wythenshawe, but got a chance at the safe Labour seat of Newport East. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who had been emasculated by Thatcher, stood against him but Howarth easily held the seat for Labour. He now sits in the House of Lords, as does his partner Baroness Hollis. They came under a cloud for claiming separate expenses although they live next door to each other. He did send my umbrella back.

New Labour

When I lived in the UK, I always regarded it as my moral duty to exercise my franchise. Because of my class and family background, it would have been anathema for me to ever vote for a Conservative candidate. The Labour Party stood for my class, the working class; it had provided the welfare state (with some help from Liberal Party thinkers); it had allowed me (with some help from Conservative education minister RAB Butler) to go to grammar school and university. Labour candidate Jack Diamond came to our school. He always won the Gloucester seat- until he lost to Conservative Sally Oppenheim.

When I moved to Wimbledon, I found it rather creepy when I received a letter from Sir Michael Havers welcoming me to his constituency. This was a rock-solid conservative seat, so I later tactically voted Liberal-Democrat in the hope of unseating Sir Michael’s successor Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes. I was unsuccessful in my attempted coup. However, in 1997, miracle of miracles, Roger Casale won the seat for Labour.

That was the year that New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule. On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions. Sound familiar?

The Myth of Political Parties

The story of the development of political parties is a fascinating one but must wait for another article. Briefly, the theory is that like-minded people band together and agree a set of policies. They exert a discipline within the group in order to translate those policies into legislation and administrative procedures. They persuade the public to support them by placing before them an outline of what they propose to do if elected. The public can compare this with what rival parties propose to do.

How does this work out in practice? Blair had won power by jettisoning many traditional Labour policies. The Blair government achieved some progressive measures but the effort was undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism that undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit? Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One can see why New Labour was attractive to a Conservative like Howarth – it was carrying on Thatcherite policies and it was in power. Power attracts crossovers.

Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Democratic elections involving political parties are often little more than the chance to get rid of one set of scoundrels when we are tired of them, only to replace them with another set. Blair replaced Major but carried on the same policies. In Ireland, Fine Gael replaced Fianna Fail. The voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Sri Lankan Party Theory

What do the Sri Lankan political parties stand for? We think of the SLFP of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a party of the left. She had Marxist parties, LSSP and CP, as members of her governing coalition and she moved a long way towards a command economy with nationalisation of key areas and subsidies alongside austerity.

The UNP of JR Jayewardene was instrumental in introducing economic liberalisation even before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Ranil Wickremasingha tried to continue such policies. Strange to note then that in 2014 the official website of the UNP says: “We are being cheated by the neo-liberalists and the Washington consensus: the UNP vehemently opposes ‘social protection’ cuts and wants more subsidies”.

Crossovers in Sri Lanka

Incessant party-hopping is bad for democracy, confuses the voters and casts doubt upon who stands for what, if anything. There are stories of vast sums of money being paid to those who change allegiance. The case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006) opened opportunities for crossovers. That same Amir Ali, only a fortnight after being nominated as an MP by the UPFA, crossed over to the Opposition. As I write, 26 UPFA MPs from a 225-member parliament have defected and more are expected.

After weeks of speculation, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, finally said he would resign his ministerial portfolio to support Sirisena. This is in spite of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena strongly rejecting Hakeem’s demand for a separate administrative district in the East for Muslims. I will never forget Rauf Hakeem’s comment back in 2007: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Blair would appreciate that.

Fissiparous Alliances

Keeping the governing coalition together must have been like herding cats. The opposition will find it as difficult as the government to herd its constituent components. Although the UNP has retained some atavistic loyalty among the planting community in places like Uva Province, Ranil Wickremasinghe has not been able to match the populist appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the rural Sinhala Buddhist masses. Siresena might be able to eat into Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support but he will also need support from the minorities.

Significant numbers of Tamil and Muslim politicians have gone over to the opposition, but will that be enough to convince minority voters that their needs will be met when the JHU seems to be exerting an unhealthy influence on opposition strategy? Rajitha Senaratne cited as one reason for his defection the ruling party’s silence over the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist groups who were allegedly involved in anti-Muslim clashes. Faizer Mustapha decided to join the common opposition because the government failed to take action against BBS. Hunais Farook crossed over for the same reason. The opposition’s dependence on the JHU should cause Muslim voters some anxiety. The common opposition candidate has agreed with the JHU to preserve the constitutional prominence given to Buddhism.

Tamils are seeking greater devolution of power to Tamil areas but the JHU sees that as creeping separatism. Many Tamil politicians are unhappy that the TNA is supporting Sirisena. TNA Northern Provincial Council Member Ananthi Sasitharan told the BBC Tamil Service that the TNA election manifesto for the last Northern Provincial Election was clear on its stance on Tamil identity and autonomous rights. There is nothing in the JHU-inspired Manifesto to give Tamil voters confidence that their lot will be improved by an opposition victory. The hand of the JHU can be seen in the formulation: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.”

Conclusion

The president has been seen as a canny populist who understands the rural masses in a way that Ranil Wickremasingha never could. Recently, many have remarked that the President appears fatigued and overworked. He was once the youngest elected MP and he has spent 40 years in politics and nearly ten years as President. US presidents always seem to age rapidly in office but they are limited to eight years. Tony Blair became haggard by the end of his reign.

Blair tried to appear hip by associating with the likes of Noel Gallagher of Oasis (the more truculent brother Liam Gallagher refused to be wooed). An indication that the president may have lost touch with the masses is that he has recruited Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez to help in his campaign. According to The Hindu newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, under his usual rates in 2012, Salman Khan charged approximately 30,000,000 Sri Lanka rupees per day for public appearances. Near where I live there are people living in temporary accommodation in schools because their homes have been destroyed. They may not be impressed at this time by Bollywood stars. The Hindu also reported that 30 people had been killed and 650,000 displaced because of severe rain.

The historian, Tony Judt, wrote: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.” Thinking about an election in 2015 prompts a recollection of an article I wrote about an election in 2008, which prompted a recollection of an election in 1997. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. It has not been closed yet and today Obama seems unlikely to take action against those found guilty of torture. In 2008, I advised those euphoric over Obama’s victory: “Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.”

Tsunami Today

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday December 30 2014.

 

Colman's Column3

tsunami today2

I wonder what little Liam Cutler in Melksham, Wiltshire, would think of the current politicking for the presidency in Sri Lanka. Well, Liam is not so little any more. Ten years have passed since Liam’s heart was broken by the tsunami. He must be around seventeen years old by now. Have things improved in Sri Lanka since Liam decided to do something positive at the age of ten?

I wrote in these pages recently about the art of giving and the nature of the gift relationship. Reactions to the tsunami ten years ago highlighted many aspects of the gift of giving and the relationship between people and politicians. It is particularly instructive to examine the actions ten years ago of two politicians who are still in conflict today – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

International Compassion

The feel-bad effect of the disaster triggered a feel-good factor internationally as people rushed to make donations for the relief effort. Tessa Doe is a friend I met on a tour of South India in 1994. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire in the UK. In 2005, Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.

Melksham resident  Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.

Seend Cleeve village primary school organized bring-and-buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.

Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his class making posters to advertise the event.”

A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.

I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”

Feelgood even in Sri Lanka.

Amid all the suffering, there was a hint of a feel-good factor even in war-battered Sri Lanka itself. Unlikely partners were working together, including combatants on both sides of the conflict. There was initially hope that there might be harmony with the Tamil Tigers as everyone pulled together to cope with the tragedy. Alas, this was not to last long. There was a fragile cease-fire in operation at the time but the Tigers were using this to re-arm, re-group and to impose even more securely their grip on the territories they held.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: “Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks”.

Even within the government itself, harmony was short-lived. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee. Despite government failings, an effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades. Sinhalese and Muslims wanted to go to the North and East with supplies but the LTTE refused to allow them into  areas under its control. Up-Country Tamils went to the South to help Sinhalese victims.

Role of the Army

Today there are concerns about the role of the army in various aspects of life after the victory over the LTTE. After the tsunami, twenty thousand soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.

Some security personnel lost their lives trying to save civilians during the tsunami. Tamils in refugee camps flocked around soldiers without any fear. Members of the armed forces even helped Tiger cadres. The LTTE too helped save affected security personnel. On our first visit to Hambantota in January 2005, Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit. Cynics had warned us that soldiers would pilfer relief supplies. Our experience was that soldiers refused to take supplies from us saying that people would appreciate receiving gifts from our hands while looking us in the eyes.

On our visit three months after the tsunami, there was no sign of the army.

 

P-TOMS

CBK set up the Post Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS), the joint mechanism, after a Sri Lanka donor conference in mid-May indicated that much of the promised $S3 billion in aid depended on a resumption of peace talks. Many critics saw this as in irreversible step towards conceding Eelam. Wimal Weerawansa said the JVP would “defeat this betrayal with the sacred intention of safeguarding our motherland”. He accused Kumaratunga of taking the decision without informing her coalition partners.

Tsunami Today

Part of the reason for the muddled initial state response was the rivalry, which continues to this day, between CBK and MR. As prime minister, MR set action in progress from Colombo in the absence of CBK who was on holiday in Britain. According to DBS Jeyaraj, as soon as she returned, she set about unpicking his plans and placing all reconstruction and relief under presidential control. Mangala Samaraweera has his own view of MR’s contribution.

Worldwide sympathy for the victims meant that funds were flowing into the country. However, CBK decided to go for over-ambitious plans, which excluded not only input from victims but also input from the rest of the government or the opposition parties or politicians from affected areas. Government spokesman, Tilak Ranaviraja, admitted to the media that after five weeks 70% of the tsunami victims in government-controlled areas had not received government aid.

Speaking recently at an event at Crow Island in Colombo to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, CBK recalled that soon after the tsunami, political parties had united for one cause and this ensured the country recovered from the disaster within a short period of time. She said that the unity among the several political parties backing Maithripala Sirisena for President guaranteed they could win.

Mangala Samaraweera, who once served as MR’s foreign minister, previously served as CBK’s media advisor, and previously planned Sarath Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, also brought up the tsunami in the current election campaign. In a speech on December 26 2014, he gave CBK credit for the public’s generosity. “Ordinary citizens across the world stood in solidarity with us, and on then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s request gave generously of their resources and time.” He contrasted this with “a man who is contesting to be President of this country does not care for people’s suffering. He has consistently put his own private gain above the people’s pain.”

Ten years ago, the tsunami generated harmony and compassion. Today it is exploited for political advantage. I wonder what Liam Cutler, Pete King, Sheila Ward and Beverley Martin in Wiltshire, would think.

 

 

 

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