Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • May 2022
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Archive for May, 2022

The inverted October coup in May 2022

Posted by harimpeiris on May 24, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island & Groundviews on 14th May 2022)

The president of Sri Lanka, sensing serious frustration by the electorate at non-performance, sacks his prime minister and swears in another prime minister. The former PM was reinstated but even lost his own parliamentary seat at the subsequent elections, one year on. No, not President Gotabaya but President Maithripala Sirisena, who back in October 2018 sacked Ranil as Prime Minister and brought in Mahinda for an infamous 52 day “coup administration” ended by the superior Courts, which upheld the several no confidence motions passed by the then parliament.

Now in May 2022, the scenario is now inverted. As President Gotabaya, successfully demanded the resignation of his own brother and installed Ranil Wickremasinghe again as Prime Minister, for a record sixth term. In a multi-polar Sri Lankan polity of 2015-2018, that was Sirisena, Ranil and Mahinda, the calculation was that any two getting together could checkmate the other. The current calculation is that President Gotabaya, with just a part of the Rajapakse clan (Basil is backing the president) and Ranil, with very little support in the country, can hold at bay Sajith Premadasa and his SJB opposition front. Here are the reasons why Ranil’s own tenure as PM will likely be quite “interim” and his exit will also signal the end of the Rajapakse Administration, which has completely lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. 

The deal that Ranil cut

The recent farcical re-election of Ranjith Siyambalapitiya in Parliament as deputy speaker, demonstrated that the Rajapakse’s ruling SLPP though discredited within the country, clearly held its numbers in the House. Somewhat reduced, but still a majority. This then presented the opportunity for both the SLPP and Ranil. The SLPP to kick out its non-executive ceremonial prime minister while retaining all executive authority through the 20th Amendment strengthened presidency and create the window dressing of an ostensibly opposition or independent MP as Prime Minister. Ranil wanted a last hurrah, before a retirement which he is determined will never come and was sworn in yesterday as PM, his United National Party (UNP) at a full conference of one MP (himself), backed by the government group, less most probably Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, which must be seething at not having the former President as the new PM. 

The political instability would go on

Sri Lanka’s political crisis arises out of the near collapse of its economy. Ironically from a President elected on a mandate of promising to provide “vistas of prosperity and splendor”. A government that so totally fails at the provision of basic services and even maintaining the existing economic well-being of the populace, loses its political legitimacy. President Gotabaya Rajapakse has lost all legitimacy in the country. His refusal to accept responsibility for a crisis resulting from his administration’s tax slashing, money printing and fertilizer banning is unconscionable and actually delays remedial measures and policy reforms. Several senior members of the clergy, have already signaled their opposition to Ranil as PM. He is not a figure around whom people will coalesce, so it is doubtful if his cabinet will be inclusive and multi-party. The real problem for Ranil though is he is being seen as prop, albeit a very weak one, for a widely discredited and now even reviled leader.

Moreover, for the Rajapakse clan, being united is critical to capturing or holding on to state power. The 2019 election victory was exactly because the several brothers were able to iron out their differences, present a united front and win big. For the same reason, the divisions and discord within the famous political family is now on full display. Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, his sons and their backers believe with some justification, that Mahinda, shorn of any executive power once he ceased to be Finance Minister, in favor of younger sibling Basil, has been unfairly held responsible and thrown to the wolves as it were, to assuage public anger caused by the president’s own policy blunders. After all the “voodoo economics” of tax slash, money print and ban chemical fertilizer all came from the President’s “Viyath maga” and “Eliya” groups, ironically a path to destruction and darkness, the anti-thesis of their names.

The economic mess

The immediate socio-economic challenge is keeping basic public services and key utilities including fuel and electricity provided at least at the reduced rates as of present, instead of further cuts and reductions of supply. This also applies to LP gas, rice, other food staples including milk powder and medical supplies. Getting out of Sri Lanka’s economic mess requires the kind of fiscal overall that will require significant and painful reforms, which only a government elected and with a popular mandate can implement. If the ruling SLPP does not rescind the 20th amendment, then the same should be on the SJB manifesto and implemented within the first 100 days. If the president will not resign, the office must be made non-executive, he can serve out his term as a ceremonial president. 

Meantime in the days ahead, parliament is due to vote on a motion of no confidence on the president and the new Prime Minister would also be required to demonstrate his majority or support in the House, through the passage of a new budget. Earlier elites used to bristle when Sri Lanka was called a fragile state, now the voices on the street, in the aragalaya at Galle Face and elsewhere, is saying much the same thing. An election will clear the decks and bring in both the political legitimacy, stability and policy reforms that are sorely needed. Replacing Mahinda with Ranil will not. 


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The Need Of The Hour: A Nelson Mandela 

Posted by harimpeiris on May 24, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 11th May 2022)

Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown requires urgent remedial measures and the political impasse created by a President and his administration, which both refuses to either take responsibility or credibly effect corrective policy measures, has placed Sri Lanka in the position of a terminally sick patient who isn’t being taken to hospital for the urgently required life-saving care.

Why President Gotabaya must go

Sri Lanka’s system of governance is not just an executive presidential system, we are the closest to an absolute presidency, like an absolute monarch, found anywhere in the world and especially after the SLPP brought in its signature 20th Amendment to the constitution, which further centralized power in the presidency. Sri Lanka under its 1978 constitution, as amended by the 20th Amendment has an executive presidency and a ceremonial prime minister, the very opposite of what we had from 1948-1978. Therefore, for any meaningful change of government power, it is the president who has to change. It is ironic that a president whose election pledge was “vistas of prosperity and splendor” has presided over the total destruction of Sri Lanka’s economy brought about by a combination of voodoo economics and the absolute refusal to consult, compromise and course correct. Even an A/L commerce student would be able to forecast that the combination of fiscal slippage and loose money, carried out in an absolutely unrestrained manner would have catastrophic consequences. The president needs to take responsibility for the havoc that has been wrought by his administration on Sri Lanka and transition himself out of power.

The fiasco of the Prime Minister’s resignation

Sri Lanka had a farcical resignation of members of the Cabinet as demonstrated by the fiasco of the resignation, re-appointment and re-resignation (the word created by our own recent experience) of Parliament’s deputy speaker. It is clear now that there is a deep division between the President and the Prime Minister, the former trying to put the responsibility for the economic meltdown on the ceremonial post of the Prime Minister, having failed to do so by getting the Cabinet to resign. It is equally clear, that the Prime Minister, is equally determined not to be the scape goat and fall guy for a situation, which he clearly believes was not solely of his making. The reality though is that the Sri Lankan public holds the Rajapakse’s as a ruling family collectively responsible for the sorry situation we find ourselves in today and is requiring a new future without them.

The other phenomena arising from the “aragalaya” is the discarding of the ideology of the SLPP, namely that of majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism. Just like the government of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike so discredited socialism that we are now socialist only in name, the downfall of the Rajapakses is also discrediting their ideology. The young people on the streets, want a new Sri Lanka to be inclusive, pluralistic and tolerant of diversity.

Violating the sovereignty of the people

The president some weeks ago, declared a state of emergency, with possibly the intent to prevent mass anti-government protests, which was resoundingly rejected by the people, who got on the streets anyway. The likelihood of the emergency being defeated in parliament saw the president withdrawing the measure two days later. Now, possibly egged on by hardliners running the ministry of defense, the president has again declared a state of emergency, even as the legal challenge to the prior declaration is still pending before the Supreme Court. As the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the resident diplomatic community noted in statements and social media, there is no justification at all for a state of emergency and using emergency regulations to stifle dissent is not what the emergency is designed for. We have a political and economic problem, not a military and security one. The LTTE and even the JVP insurrection posed an armed challenge to the State, the “aragalaya” poses a political challenge to the government. The people of Sri Lanka are sovereign and unleashing state violence on the people, engaged voicing their dissent is a violation of the sovereignty of the people. It will seriously and permanently diminish the military in the eyes of the citizenry.

Unleashing state security on the organized but non-partisan protest movement and seeking a sequel to the Rathupaswala shooting by the Army of unarmed civilians is a very unwise decision which the generals in the Defense ministry should seriously reconsider. The consequences are likely to be dire. India is bailing out Sri Lanka financially, much more than China, which is refusing to restructure their exorbitantly priced debt. The Indians are unlikely to want an escalation of the instability caused by state violence. The Sri Lankan Army still holds on to lucrative UN peacekeeping roles in Mali and elsewhere, even as there are growing calls for their use to be re-examined. A bloody crackdown on civilian protests will be the final nail in the coffin of Sri Lanka’s “peace keeping” operations. Sri Lanka’s Army commander is already a “sanctioned individual” under US law. It is not in the interests of Sri Lanka’s military to keep having a long list of officers as “sanctioned individuals”. Anything the military does now, will be in the center of our capital city, in the full glare of global publicity and recorded on countless smart phone videos.

Some in Sri Lanka, who should have known better wanted a Hitler type leader. It may be instructive to reflect on how that experience resulted in the destruction of Germany and the last days of the Berlin bunker. What we really need now is a Mandela, a unifier who brings us together, makes the difficult choices and navigates the uncharted waters ahead, as we seek the way back from the self-destruction, which was thrust upon us as a nation.

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