Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2021
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A Tribute to My Mother-in-Law

Posted by harimpeiris on November 26, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 25th November 2020)

My mother-in-law, Mandrani Gunasekera, nee Malwatta, passed away peacefully in our home a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements were complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation, and the resultant weekend curfew in Colombo.

It is a privilege for me to reflect on my mother-in-law and her role in our lives. Vocationally, she was a practitioner of one of the noblest professions on earth, that of being a teacher, with the responsibility of educating and molding young lives. First in the public-school system, then overseas, and finally in Colombo’s leading international schools. As someone who topped her batch at the Peradeniya University, teaching was an unusual and perhaps unglamourous choice, but it demonstrated her commitment to the service of others.

In private life, she, was a mother to two daughters, one of whom is my wife, and their strength of character are a tribute to her. Her four grandchildren, including my two sons, are, I am sure, left in no doubt, that their mothers were raised in the home of a teacher, with a strong commitment to both education and discipline. I saw first-hand, that my mum-in- law, was an enabler and facilitator, guiding and molding her family. Her eldest grand-daughter, Thisuni Welihinde’s wedding late last year, was a milestone for her and we were never sure who was more excited, the bride or her grandmother.

To me, she was always “Ammi” and having lost my own mother when I was very young, I was determined to treat my wife’s mother, as I would my own. After my father- in- law’s death, a decade ago, it was a joy to care for my mother-in- law, in our home. Ammi was retired and lived a life of leisure. Which was a good counter balance to our own lives, which always seemed to be so hectic and rushed. I also learned from my mother -in-law, that being effective did not come from being prominent.

Ammi was also regular at Church, every Sunday, and was also an active member of a mid-week ladies Bible study, and prayer group, who were also her group of friends. They always ended their meetings, with brunch if not lunch. It was special joy that we were able to celebrate her 80th birthday with a “surprise party” at home, with her friends, about six weeks before her passing.

Ammi enjoyed the simple joys of life, and of our home, whether it was meal times, the constant chatter and boisterous behaviour of her two teenage grandsons, our weekend activities or family vacations to most of which she accompanied us. She was also an avid rugby fan, especially of Royal College rugby, since her brother had captained Royal and now her grandson was playing. In fact, she used to attend many matches and the 75th Bradby encounter last year, held in the shadow of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, was her last, to witness her brother honoured on the field with other past captains and her grandson take the field, as a junior player.

This strange Covid-19 pandemic year, and its unprecedented lockdown ,enabled us to spend lots of time together, as family. Our lockdown daily routine, which included lots of sleep and rest, was centered on the daily family lunch, either preceded, or followed by family prayer. Ammi became the most committed and enthusiastic participant in our family mid-day gatherings. It was a great blessing, in disguise, that enabled us to spend the last few months, with noting much else to do, but enjoy each other’s company. While we miss her, we have the hope that she is with our Lord Jesus Christ. Her favourite Bible scripture in Psalm 91, states “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty …. and with long life I will satisfy him and show him, My salvation”.

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Mike Pompeo Seeks to Stop Sri Lanka’s Slide to China

Posted by harimpeiris on November 5, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 03rd November 2020)

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was in Sri Lanka last week as part of his Asian tour that included regional power India as well as the Maldives. Coincidently his visit came not too long after one by former Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to Colombo. It was also on the eve of the November 3 presidential elections in the US, which will determine if the Trump Administration is re-elected for a second term or if the Democrats take the White House under Joe Biden, President Obama’s former Vice President.

Regarding Sri Lanka the American diplomats, never known for their subtlety, were unusually blunt even by their own standards. Days before departing for their Asian tour, delegation member Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson, stated that the US would “urge Sri Lanka to make the difficult but necessary choices” on its economic and development partners. Although not mentioning China by name, the inference was clear. Goaded, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, proving that beneath the benign smiles and frequent bowing of its diplomats lay very thin Asian skins, had the audacity to issue a statement that declared, among other reasons, that because Sri Lanka was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we really shouldn’t be troubled at this time with a visit by the US delegation. So much for poor Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the ostensible host of the visit.

The US is the world’s largest economy and is Sri Lanka’s single largest export market. The EU is larger but that is made up of many nations. Over the past many decades, the US has provided more than US$ 2 billion in aid through various USAID projects while the multilateral institutions it effectively controls, such as the World Bank, have provided much more. Our export driven economy is quite dependent on its key export markets and we ignore their concerns at our own economic peril.

The focus of the US visit, being firmly fixed on Sri Lanka’s growing dependence and indebtedness to China, had largely to do with the Rajapaksa Administration’s foreign policy, which is viewed in global capitals and certainly in both Washington D.C. as well as New Delhi, as being solely and overly reliant on Beijing. This is a major departure from decades of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy that has always been a balanced neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, which was principled as well as pragmatic. Perhaps the best articulator of that policy in recent years was former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and, in an earlier era, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who cultivated a personal friendship with the Gandhi family in India but also succeeded in having the Chinese gift Sri Lanka the BMICH that enabled us to host the 5th Non-Aligned Nations Summit in 1976. A truly neutral non-aligned policy that served Sri Lanka well.

The world is changing from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a more multi polar world in which the Chinese, as well as other powers such as India and Russia, have real interests, strategic and economic as well as security, outside their own borders. Sri Lanka as a small nation and hence a threat to none but blessed with a strategic location and a highly literate population can, in our post-civil conflict era, well benefit from the various economic opportunities that arise thereby. However, this does mean that we must have a balanced foreign policy, as indeed we have had for much of our post-independence period.

Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy during our 30-year civil war was a very simple, single issue foreign policy; developing and maintaining international support and political space for the prosecution of a long drawn out conflict and indeed, in that context, we were successful. Sri Lanka won its war with no domestic armaments industry to talk of, with entirely imported weapons systems ranging from Israeli Kfir jets, American Bell Helicopters and Czech multi barrel rocket launches, among many others. Most importantly perhaps, the US led efforts to put an international squeeze on the LTTE’s money laundering and financing of terrorism efforts while Indian intelligence sharing and security cooperation were crucial in the interception and sinking of the LTTE’s rearmament ships in international waters by our Navy in 2009 that ensured the war ended.

However, post war, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has much broader strategic interests as well as strategic challenges. In terms of interests economic diplomacy, seeking to attract and increase foreign direct investment still at abysmal levels compared to regional peers and expand trade as well as access to new export markets, must surely rank first among our key interests while managing the challenges of an emerging multi polar world and its hot issues in our region, such as maritime security. In that context, it was very unwise for the former Rajapaksa Administration to allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock twice in the Colombo port in 2014. A similar Chinese request in 2017 was turned down by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration.

The post war Rajapaksa Administration of 2010 to 2015 performed very disappointingly. It abandoned Sri Lanka’s traditionally neutral and non-aligned foreign policy, despite paying lip service to it, and took us firmly into a debt trap, notwithstanding protestations to the contrary by the Government, from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves. Sri Lanka’s project financing from China is not concessionary and is very expensive, even more expensive than what we source competitively in international capital markets for budgetary support. Project financing needs to be much cheaper. The debt for equity swap that the former government effected with regard to the Hambanthota port was inevitable and bought us some time and space to pay off our other loans. Although President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, just after his election, wanted to review the agreement, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the face of Chinese protests, declined. It is surprising that the critics and pandits who decry the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s grant (not a loan) of half a billion dollars, that is, free money that does not need to repaid, are totally silent about the expensive loans for the white elephant projects – a port with no ships, an airport with no flights and reclaimed land from the sea for more apartments and hotels, as if we are short of either in Colombo.

Before its departure the visiting US delegation took pains to point out its commitment to our shared values as a democratic society and also reiterated support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post war undertakings to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon of accountability, justice and reconciliation. Time will tell if the SLPP Administration will recalibrate its foreign policy to a more balanced and neutral one. Early indications are to the contrary.

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The Continuing October Revolutions in Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on October 19, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 19th October 2020)

“October Revolution” is a term that used to gladden the hearts of Communist stalwarts the world over, our own left parties included. It was the occasion, more than a century ago, when of the Russian monarchy and the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for over three hundred years was violently overthrown and succeeded by the Communist Soviet Union, which itself came to an end in more recent times with the finish of the Cold War.

However, Sri Lanka has also, during the last several years, experienced our own momentous October revolutions, defining moments in our national and political life. It was six years ago in September/October of 2014 that the then governing UPFA narrowly won but recorded a significant decrease in its popular vote in the Uva Provincial Council elections and through ensuing political events three months later, the second Rajapaksa Administration was defeated at the presidential election of January 2015.

After a relatively quiet three years, October 2018 witnessed President Maithripala Sirisena sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Earlier in the year,  in February, at the  local government elections the SLPP won but with about forty percent of the national vote. Perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s greatest political periods was October to December 2018, which demonstrated the resilience of our democratic institutions and the robustness of her processes, when subsequent to Parliament passing several no confidence motions against the usurpation of power by a constitutional coup and based on both Appellate and Supreme Court decisions, the status quo ante was achieved.

Time in politics does not stand still and the complete absence of any political course correction by UNP leader for life, Ranil Wickremesinghe, meant that an year later by October 2019, he had the presidential election nomination wrested from him by the desertion of all the UNP’s political allies to his deputy and current Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. Shortly thereafter, the Rajapaksas regained political power, democratically this time, by winning the presidential election of 2019.

The October 2020 revolution of the 20th Amendment

October 2020 is no exception to the recent patten of momentous October political events and the newly elected SLPP Administration is seeking nothing short of a complete overhaul of the Sri Lankan State, through its proposed 20thAmendment to the Constitution. The 20thAmendment seeks essentially to establish an elected absolute ruler, where the President will appoint everybody to all state positions as he sees fit, including the higher judiciary and the independent commissions, including the Election Commission, which would thereby no longer be independent, as well as autocratically control everything and be beyond the reach of the law. The proposed amendment does not just seek to revert Sri Lanka to a pre-19thAmendment era but rather goes beyond it. It is a considerable political over reach in that it moves beyond the consensus that exists within political society and the governing elites.

It is exactly that over reach that has resulted in both internal dissent within the governing alliance and from staunchly apolitical sections of civil society. Religious leaders ranging from the Sanga Sabawas of both the Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Christian Council, all came out strongly against the 20thAmendment, calling it a retrograde step that should not be proceeded with. Even some of the more political monks, generally both hawkish and nationalist, who had actively supported the politics and policies of the SLPP and contributed to the Rajapaksa election victory, expressed their disquiet and disagreement with the proposed amendment leading to significant parts of the SLPP Alliance, including the National Freedom Front calling for significant changes, if not the wholesale abandonment of the Administration’s first signature political initiative. Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Vidura Wickramanayake and Wijeydasa Rajapakshe are all staunch Sinhala nationalists and regime stalwarts. Their critique of the 20th Amendment arises not from the 20th Amendment’s rather obvious challenges to an inclusive, tolerance of diversity and pluralistic Sri Lankan state but from a governance standpoint. Their vision of a Sinhala nationalist state is that it be efficient, technocratic and to some extent accountable. Accordingly, the abrogation of the Audit Commission and the exemption of the President’s and Prime Minister’s Office from Independent State audit seems, correctly, absurd to them from an accountability and governance standpoint.

The more recent construct of Sinhala nationalism has been insular, inward looking and anti-Western. It has been an article of faith that the world in general and the West in particular is seeking to dislodge Sri Lanka from its exceptional place in the sun. Accordingly, the provision in the 20th Amendment allowing dual citizens to hold high political office runs against the grain of their ardent beliefs and potentially opens the door for Tamil diaspora activists to engage in politics in Sri Lanka. Hence the internal dissent regarding the amendment. The Government has exactly 150 votes in Parliament, including the casting vote of the Speaker. It is precisely because of the vacillation of a few Government members that overtures, both carrots to Hakeem’s Muslim Congress and the stick to Bathiudeen’s People’s Congress, has been in the works during the past few weeks.

It was a very irate Malcom Cardinal Ranjith who went on record accusing the Government of a deal with Bathiudeen regarding the 20th Amendment – since denied by the Government – subsequent to the release of Bathiudeen’s brother from detention by the CID. As if to buttress the denial, or on the contrary to increase pressure and leverage on the People’s Congress, Rishard Bathiudeen himself was arrested by the CID after the Fort Magistrate refused to issue a warrant for his arrest and while Appellate Court proceedings to prevent his arrest are pending. There is a strong strand of opinion among Muslim political leaders to be not seen as obstructing the Sinhala people if they want to elect an absolute ruler.

Before the end of October 2020 we will know if our own October revolution has succeeded, not like in Russia a hundred years ago in the overthrow of an autocratic absolute ruler and dynasty, but in the establishment of one.

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The Opposition SJB Strives Hard to Counter 20th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on October 8, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 07th October 2020)

The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, on various legal grounds. With oral arguments finishing with the Attorney General’s submission early this week and only written rebuttals accepted thereafter, the determination of the Court is likely to be communicated to Parliament within the week. However, this article does not seek to examine the various legal issues being argued before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, but rather to examine the political dynamics which enabled the Government to engage in this complete overhaul of Sri Lanka’s state structures.

The proposed 20th Amendment seeks nothing less than the creation of an elected leader with all the powers of an absolute monarch, baring the need to be periodically re-elected. Sri Lanka is clearly nostalgic for its days of pre-colonial absolute monarchy. In fact, our 1978 constitution with its proposed 20th Amendment would be more centralizing than ancient Ceylon’s pre-colonial monarchies, set in another day and age, which had feudal structures with powerful nobles. In contrast the 20th Amendment will reestablish, a Prime Minister with no powers and Cabinet and state ministers with even less powers. The President will in essence appoint everybody, decide on every matter and would be beyond legal challenge, even on fundamental rights. The central argument of the government is that the 20th Amendment merely takes the country back to where it was with the 1978 Constitution and accordingly there is no problem. However, the reality is that the anti-democratic features of the 1978 Constitution and especially that of its overbearing executive presidency were so apparent that every president elected since 1994 has pledged to reform it and its lack of inclusion and democratic space, alienated large swathes of the population, from Sinhala rural youth to the Tamil community

The UNP as the great enabler of the 20th Amendment

The UNP or rather its essential leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the great enabler of the 20th Amendment. Firstly, his steadfast refusal to cede the presidential nomination until days before the November presidential elections and then subsequently in the run up to the August parliamentary elections, scuttling the efforts to have a unified opposition alliance, so dented the political credibility of the opposition, that what would have been a close defeat, along the lines of the February 2018 local government election results, led instead to a complete route and a constitution changing two third majority in parliament for the SLPP.

The parliamentary elections resulted in the end of the United National Party (UNP), as a serious, national political entity, losing to its successor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), by a resounding and unequivocal margin of 10 to 1, in the popular vote. The SJB garnering 2.7 million votes and fifty-four Members of Parliament, while the UNP got a little less than one tenth of that at about 250,000 votes country wide and going from being the largest party in parliament, to no district representation and a single national list seat, on which it cannot agree as to who would be the nominee. The refusal of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, even at this late stage, to gracefully leave the field when the umpire has ruled him out and the third umpire has also concurred after review and perhaps busy himself with some international commitments, or an elder statesman’s role, for which he is eminently suited, has meant that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has struggled to unify the opposition and create and present a cohesive and united opposition to the government. Resulting in the Rajapakse Administration indulging in significant political overreach in its proposed 20th Amendment.

The real political dynamics in the country are worse, from an opposition standpoint. What currently exists is a unified government and a divided opposition which enables government inflexibility and rigidity, even in the midst of some internal dissent. An internal dissent regarding the 20th Amendment exists from some very Sinhala nationalist sources, including Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, which stated that if its views expressed and the resultant recommendations of the Government committee, on which it leader served and which examined the 20th Amendment were ignored, it would not hold itself responsible for the political consequences.

The SJB needs to broaden its outreach

The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa did incredibly well under difficult circumstances, post the presidential election to annihilate the UNP at the ensuing general elections held recently and essentially capture the party in all but name, symbol and head office, none of which are the essence of politics. Sajith Premadasa’s great strengths are similar to that of his late father’s; the common touch, a strong grassroots appeal, a good sense of the Sinhala polity and boundless energy, all of which were lacking in the old UNP and hence his appeal within that party and its allies. However, those skills were complemented by the UNP’s entrenched strengths, such as extensive media interests of the Wickremesinghe / Wijewardena clan, considerable financial support from the Colombo business community as well as political allies within and good relationships with the international community. The SJB as a new party and the chief opposition alliance needs to create this network and extend its outreach to the different segments of society, so that in their disquiet of the Rajapakse Administration’s policies, the SJB is seen as an effective check and balance as well as a viable and credible future alternative government. The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa needs his own equivalent of “Eliya” and “Viyath Maga”, except resolutely civilian and absolutely inclusive and pluralistic.

The opposition to the 20th Amendment has been fairly spontaneous and widespread. From the Retired Judges Association, to Government Auditors, from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Sri Lankan civil society, from the Bar Association to young lawyers, a record number of plaints were filed against the said Amendment. However, the SJB has not quite been able to harness all this raw energy against the amendment and to hugely increase the political costs of the same to the Government. All political indicators are that some slightly amended version of the 20th Amendment will soon become the law of the land. The only hope is that in its adventurism and political overreach of the 20th Amendment, the subsequent and ultimate objective of a new constitution will likely be denied the SLPP, notwithstanding its super majority in parliament.

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Judges, Civil Society & Opposition Push Back Against 20th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on September 28, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 21st September 2020)

The Rajapakse Administration, by Government gazette, published its proposed 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution and subsequently the Secretary General of Parliament announced that it would be taken up for its first reading in Parliament on September 22, opening up the narrow window of time for the widely anticipated legal challenges to the amendment in the Supreme Court.

The 20th Amendment in a nutshell

The 20th Amendment essentially seeks to establish an elected absolute ruler who can theoretically do no wrong and is therefore not to be held accountable for his or her governance or adequately and independently guided in his or her actions. The executive presidency so created will not only wield powers arrogated to itself prior to the 17th and 19th Amendments, but it will also make that office even less accountable, removing for instance independent auditing of the President’s Office and the advisory role of the Constitutional Council.

For the past 25 years or more, the general consensus in political and civil society has been that the 1978 Constitution had centralized power too much and created an executive presidency that over shadowed all other organs of the State and that this must be reformed. Every government elected since the Kumaratunga Administration in 1994 has pledged to reform and reduce the powers of the executive and make it more accountable – the 17th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution doing just that.

It is precisely because a consensus existed among political elites, and consequently the general public, that the powers of the executive presidency should be pruned and Sri Lanka’s executive arm of government should increase its accountability to both the judiciary and the legislature, that the 19th Amendment, introduced in early 2015 by a minority government that had only 43 seats in the 125 member House, was passed with near consensus with only a single vote against. Contrast that with the present situation where a government, which has a two-thirds majority in the House, is already running into internal dissent on its signature 20th Amendment. Interestingly there are over 25 members of the present parliament, as opposition members in 2015, who voted for the 19th Amendment, now having to be hurrah boys for its demise.

Internal SLPP opposition to the Amendment

The SLPP Administration has at least two very clear strands within it (factions would be too strong a word). The first strand is the old guard politicians, allied parties and traditional political operators, generally all managed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and party chief Basil Rajapaksa. The other, and currently dominant, strand of the Administration is the professional and retired military personnel around the president, organized through their various groups. The 20th Amendment is very much a creation of President Rajapaksa’s inner circle of professionals, strong on personal loyalty and weak on political sense. The 20th Amendment is classic over reach by the politically naïve professionals. The result has been significant disquiet and push back from various forces within the government itself.

The ultra-Sinhala nationalist wing of the ruling Alliance has a serious problem with enabling dual citizens to be parliamentarians or Cabinet Ministers since it potentially opens the door for various diaspora activists to engage in electoral politics. They also want the Sri Lankan State, which is seen as synonymous with the majority community they represent, to be more not less accountable. Accordingly, the elimination of both the independent Audit Commission and the Independent Procurement Commission has been met with stiff resistance. It has been a reflection of that resistance that led the Prime Minister to appoint a ruling alliance advisory committee to study the proposed amendment and report back. But as media reports over the weekend indicate, their recommendations for changes would not be incorporated into the proposal. Changes, if any, are to be moved during the committee stage debate in Parliament.

External opposition by judicial, administrative, civil and political forces

Besides the internal government concerns and the disquiet over the proposed 20th Amendment, the totally non-partisan Retired Judges Association (RJA) stated that they were “gravely perturbed” by the potential impact of the 20th Amendment on the constitutional separation of powers and particularly with regard to the selection and appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. In a letter to the Justice Minister, the RJA states that an accountable and publicly transparent process of appointment of judges is integral to upholding the Rule of Law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice. They claim, with considerable merit, that they “are concerned by the amendment of Article 41A of the Constitution, to replace the Constitutional Council having the power of issuing recommendations by a Parliamentary Council which can only make observations in regard to pending judicial appointments”. They further note that the Parliamentary Council lacks the important element of non-political membership and is seriously compromised by the President’s ability to remove nominees of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

Similarly, government auditors also express their serious concerns over the removal of the Independent Audit Commission and the weakening of the powers and the removal of the autonomous nature of the office of Auditor General.

For Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and the more than 50 parliamentarians who make up the SJB parliamentary group and their political allies, the immediate introduction of the 20th Amendment creates both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that it does not have the luxury of settling down before having to take on a strong government, which nonetheless has shown some cracks due to over reach. The opportunity is that the 20th Amendment and the opposition to it from various quarters, including from sections of the Sinhala nationalist political forces, presents a real opportunity to create a diverse though united force, based on established high political principles, against the 20th Amendment and its proponent Administration.

The Rajapaksa Administration, feeling vindicated at the Parliamentary elections and emboldened by its two-thirds majority in Parliament will not back down or compromise on the 20th Amendment. It will push through the 20th Amendment without compromise or consensus and will in all likelihood see a 20th Amendment in place. But in winning this battle, it may lose its ultimate war for a new constitution. The 20th Amendment will certainly not be the beginning of the end for the SLPP Administration but it may well be the end of the honeymoon period for it. Sri Lankans are happy to place blind faith in their leaders but it begins to come a little unstuck when the leaders try and take more than what is on offer.

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