Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • July 2022
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Archive for July, 2022

Caught in political deadlock, here are three likely scenarios for Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on July 19, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in India Today on the 15th July 2022)

Amid intense protests against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, here are the three likely scenarios for Sri Lanka, which is facing one of its worst crisis in decades.

Last week, July 9, 2022, was a momentous day in the annals of recent Sri Lankan history when the protests that had been going on for months against the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gathered momentum. The protesters, swelling to their hundreds of thousands, filled the streets of Colombo and overran the heart of Sri Lanka’s executive arm of the government, the President’s House, the president’s office and earlier the prime minister’s official residence.

On July 13, they overran the prime minister’s office, taking control of the key government institutions and offices.

President Rajapaksa and his family had to be evacuated to safety by the Sri Lankan state security forces, reportedly aboard a naval vessel that then went out to sea but not outside Sri Lankan territorial waters. Three cabinet ministers also resigned, most notably the recently appointed investment promotion minister, business magnate Dhammika Perera, one the richest men in the country.

A meeting of the party leaders was chaired by the speaker of Parliament and they called for the resignation of the president and the prime minister. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to resign on July 13, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed to resign in the event a divided Parliament could agree first on his successor.

On July 13, the self-imposed deadline for his resignation came and gone, and it is clear that President Rajapaksa has little or no intention of resigning. Instead, he fled the country, aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft for the Maldives, from where he appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president. The leaders of parties represented in Parliament again demanded that Wickremesinghe also resigns while the speaker’s office has confirmed that it is examining if the president’s actions of fleeing the country constitutes a vacation of post situation.

Meanwhile, there are new concerns being expressed in Colombo, by both political elements and the security establishment, that the protests or ‘Aragalaya’, meaning struggle in the Sinhala language, is being hijacked and taken over by Left-wing extremists and neo-fascist forces to capture state power through the protest movement.

Trigger for the deadlock

The deadlock in the democratic political structure is very apparent because the Rajapaksa’s or their governing party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), controls a near majority in Parliament, even after breakaways and defections. Short of a genuine resignation, or at least a retirement to the Opposition benches by the Rajapaksas, it creates a complete deadlock in the democratic process.

The relatively young, 50 something leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, himself the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, has consistently called for a parliamentary election for the multiple purposes of taking the heat from the street protests to an election campaign, getting a genuine people’s mandate and reestablishing the legitimacy of the government and securing public support for the painful fiscal and state reforms which are required for the Sri Lankan economy to become a viable, functional and sustainably growing entity again. It probably helps that he and his party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), are confident of winning an election, not least because the government has crashed along with the economy.

The likely scenarios for Colombo

So, what are the likely options and scenarios for Sri Lanka? The most likely one in the short term would be that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will continue to play his preferred role as “acting president”, with the consequence that the country at best would be unable to make the reforms so essential for an economic turnaround, and at worst will lead to anarchy as a government seen entirely as illegitimate seeks to keep people in misery through an iron fist.

The alternative is for the fractious and divided Opposition to start coalescing together at least for the limited purpose of ousting the Rajapaksa regime, but the obstacle to the same is that the parties stronger in Parliament are less prevalent on the streets and those on the streets are not really present or significant in Parliament. Hence, the street protesters stated preference for extra-constitutional regime change and becoming more attractive as constitutional regime change is made impossible by Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe’s intransigence.

The third option which cannot be off the table is a military-backed regime, a kind of hybrid government where a civilian façade of political personalities constitutes a government that is largely seen as illegitimate, and where military might and muscle is needed for barebones governance.

Of the above three scenarios, the only appealing one is for the Opposition to coalesce sufficiently for an interim or transitionary governing arrangement followed by elections in a clearly defined short-time span of perhaps three to six months. Even the Rajapaksas, one hopes that it is in their best interest to step aside and out of the quagmire that they have sunk Sri Lanka into and should they favour their own chances of a quick return, join the fray at an ensuing election. This would be in the best interest of Sri Lanka.

Economic challenges & India’s role

Sri Lanka’s core challenges are economic. The political instability arises from an economic collapse brought about by poor governance and bad policies. Accordingly getting Sri Lanka’s economy back on track, of crucially making her national and especially foreign debt sustainable, all require fiscal and economic policy reforms, which only a stable government can implement. India has pretty much done the most she can, and more than Sri Lanka expected.

Lending Sri Lanka over two billion dollars in currency swaps and credit lines, India stepped into the gap created by other lenders, bilateral and multi-lateral who all stopped, when repayment became suspect. But India too has to ensure that economic reforms take place, not least so that the loans she has extended to Sri Lanka are repaid over the long term and on the concessionary term that have been provided.

(The writer is former adviser to the minister of foreign affairs, Sri Lanka)


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Time Lankan Rulers Feel the Pulse… Patience Running Out

Posted by harimpeiris on July 12, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Economic Times of India on the 11th July 2022)

Will go down in the annals of Sri Lanka’s history as a momentous day. On that day, in a country where schools and government offices were closed for a couple of weeks because of the lack of fuel and the lines outside fuel stations ran into several kilometers and the wait for fuel was about three days, close to 200,000 people converged at the “Gota go home” protest site on the historic Galle Face green at the city centre of Colombo. For a country of 20 million people, 1% of them on the streets of the capital city is quite formidable. From Galle Face, the protestors marched to the presidential secretariat and the President’s (former Governor General’s) house, the official office complex and residence of the head of state and government of Sri Lanka.

By early afternoon, both buildings were overrun by protestors, who overturned barricades, ignored teargas hurled by the police and security forces, to storm and take over Sri Lanka’s seat of executive power. The sheer weight of their numbers, close to perhaps 200,000 at its peak, overwhelmed the thousands of assembled police and paramilitary Special Task Force personnel. The security forces had a stark choice, either stand down or engage in a Tiananmen Square type massacre, because anything less would not have worked.

Very wisely for a military that provides troops to UN international peace keeping operations with human rights mandates and receives advance training and security cooperation from both India and the United States; as well as for a country engaging in negotiations with both the IMF and as owners of its international sovereign bonds, the option of a blood bath of civilian protestors at the centre of the capital city was never really an option.

About 80 protestors and police sustained injuries — none life threatening. The only violence that occurred happened later at night at Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s private residence, where STF officers badly assaulted six journalists, on live TV, including a young female TV reporter of the fiercely independent News 1st TV channel. As news of the attack spread, the crowd outside the PM’s residence grew, the house was overrun and torched. The whereabouts of the President and prime minister, both of whom were evacuated earlier, is unknown.

The real question is where does Sri Lanka go from here? From Greece to Iraq, Libya to Syria, governments have lost their seats of power, and continued for some time as regimes on the run and under siege. Sri Lanka is South Asia’s oldest democracy having received universal adult franchise in 1932, only a few years after all women received the vote in Britain and, accordingly, as a nation, seem to be loath to extra constitutional means of changing governments.

Sri Lanka has never had a successful military coup and always transferred power after democratic elections, even during the height of the civil war. That the change has to come from the people power protests on the streets is actually an indictment on Sri Lanka’s institutions of democracy, which have been insufficiently robust in dealing with this national calamity.

The problem is, however, more political than institutional. It was only as recently as November 2019 and August 2020 that President Gotabaya Rajapakse received an overwhelming mandate as President and a near two-third majority in Parliament for his party, which under proportional representation was thought a near impossibility. Appalling governance and corruption almost from the start have brought Lanka to ruin.

It takes a particular kind of genius to bankrupt a country, an outcome which did not even occur during 30 years of a long drawn-out civil war. This also ironically from a mandate sought to create “vistas of prosperity and splendour”. The President has informed the Speaker of Parliament (verbally) that he intends to step down in a few days’ time and the prime minister likewise says he is ready to resign if anyone else can show he commands a majority in Parliament. Why not immediate is anybody’s guess. This is because the President’s party, even after defections, is the largest party in Parliament and the other opposition parties cannot seem to agree on a common alternative. Party leaders have proposed an interim solution, where both the President and the PM resigns and, as per the constitution, the Speaker of Parliament takes over as interim President until the Parliament elects a new President and conducts fresh elections within an agreed time frame. Would Sri Lanka’s legislators now heed the voice of the people and reach a minimum consensus on basic interim governing arrangements and crucial immediate economic reforms or fail to do so. Time as well as patience is running out.

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