Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Vacant Seat in Parliament

Posted by harimpeiris on April 21, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st April 2021)

One of the more interesting features about the current Parliament of Sri Lanka, is that it has the highest number of parties with representation in that august Assembly, mostly through a plethora of small parties, which have been elected with one or two members to Parliament. Most of these parties are regional in scope and represent specific communities, often ethnic or religious minorities from the Northern and Eastern provinces. Generally colourful almost quixotic political characters have been elected from these single ticket parties, with a couple of them, including the EPDP and the ACTC securing two seats each. They certainly add colour and a vibrant diversity to the composition of the legislature.

Also falling into this same category of a single seat party, from among the minor parties, is the former governing United National Party (UNP), which rather fortuitously through its vote tally in all districts, managed to qualify for a single National List seat in Parliament. The UNP is a small party with a big party mentality and blessed with close links to major national newspapers, its unelected office-bearers and defeated candidates, manage to make the news daily, if rather irrelevantly.

The UNP has rather unusually been unwilling to fill its single seat, making the current Parliament a full house at 224 members, rather than its complete complement of 225. However, political circles are abuzz with talk that finally its longest serving and possibly leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will have himself nominated to the UNP’s solitary seat in Parliament. It has to be a record in any country with a proportional representation electoral system, for a party to fall from a governing party with 106 seats, to a solitary parliamentary seat in the ensuing election. Leaving that grand old party with a nice head office, a proud history, and some political personalities who made a serious error in political judgement, when they denied its longtime deputy leader and presidential candidate, the party leadership, resulting in the formation of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party.

Just over a year since nominations for the parliamentary elections closed on 20th March 2020 and the UNP thinks about finally getting its act together, to nominate Mr. Wickremesinghe to its solitary seat, and the SJB celebrated the first year anniversary of its formation; it is worth examining the implications to politics and national governance, created by the Rajapaksa political vehicle of the SLPP supplanting the SLFP, and on the Opposition side of the House, the even newer Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, taking over the constituency, the younger generation leaders and the political leadership of the non SLPP/Rajapaksa socio-political forces in the country. The SLPP created its own history in the August 2020 parliamentary elections becoming the most electorally successful political party under the 1978 constitution, securing 145 seats in Parliament, bettering its predecessor UPFA’s result of 144 seats won in the euphoria of the war’s ending in 2010. The SJB also performed approximately comparative to its parent UNP’s 2010 post war performance, securing 54 seats in 2020.

However, the SJB has also made its own mark on the political landscape of the country in its relatively short history. Firstly, by comprehensively wiping its predecessor UNP off the electoral map, and firmly capturing the Opposition political space. It has faced the juggernaut of an SLPP Administration with a super majority in Parliament. In response, the SJB and the Opposition Leader’s approach has been measured, thoughtful and calibrated. Occupying the moral high ground, by claiming that the Opposition should oppose but not obstruct, it has permitted some leeway to the Rajapaksas to implement their mandate; but has been a moral conscience, as well as a check and balance on the government. As a new party it has focused on building up its grassroots capability, and the indefatigable Opposition Leader has been mirroring the President’s own dialogue with the village, by having numerous grassroots level consultations and discussions, albeit without an attendant media circus.

Politically as well, the focus of the SJB has been to bring to sharp focus the shortcomings of the Administration, and accordingly it has been the inspiration for the “sir fail” political concept; a rather direct assault on the performance or alleged lack thereof by the Government and the President, elected as he was among other things as a technocrat who would get things done. Astutely Sajith Premadasa has been careful to refrain from an overly negative assault on his successful rival in the presidential election, focusing instead on the issues and avoiding the personal mudslinging which has been the sorry hallmark of Sri Lankan politics in more recent times. The SJB and the Opposition Leader have sought to adopt a more principled and issue-based politics, rather than on pure personalities and one that is non-sectarian, both distinctions of which are an unusual departure from the norm in mainstream Sri Lankan politics. As the politics of the UNHRC process in Geneva and the cremation issue of the Covid deceased for the Muslim community dominated the political debate in the past few months, the SJB demonstrated remarkable political maturity in taking a principled position opposed to forced cremation based on the WHO guidelines, and then rolling out a newly minted and credible reconciliation policy on the cusp of the Geneva vote, which differentiated it clearly from the Government, arguing that national unity was the best guarantor and contributor to national security.

As a slew of highly charged political issues ranging from exonerating various accused persons from ongoing court cases through a presidential commission, to the controversial proposals for the autonomous Port City Commission come to dominate the political debate in the near future, the SJB will be tested. But Sajith Premadasa took on the Rajapaksas in their home turf of Hambantota for years, and did not flinch from a tough political ask in a local constituency setting. The current challenges are bigger and the setting is the national political stage. One year on, in a game with a five-year cycle, the SJB can take solace and some credit that while the beginning of the end may not have begun for the current Administration, the end of the honeymoon period with the public for the Administration, has clearly already occurred.

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Internal Dissent and Increasing Opposition to the Port City Bill

Posted by harimpeiris on April 20, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 20th April 2021)

Aluth avurudu is generally a relaxed period in the country where most people spend time with family following various traditions. But the SLPP/Rajapaksa Administration upended this situation and in the pre-avurudu period just as people were getting ready for the holidays, introduced a slew of measures, policy initiatives and draft legislation that were wide ranging in scope and breathtaking in audacity.

Firstly, as an Administration that made national security a political issue, to deal with the criticism that it had failed to identify, let alone bring to book the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks, the Minister in charge of the subject claimed that a suspect in custody was in fact the mastermind behind the whole plot. The government then expanded the PTA to create special “rehabilitation centers” sans any due process safeguards for alleged extremists and followed these up with the proscription of about 12 organizations, allegedly involved in extremism, with extremism of course not being defined. The response to these initiatives was a few days coming but when it did was quite severe. Speaking at a ceremony unveiling a monument dedicated to victims of the attack, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith claimed that the attacks were the result of political rather than religious extremism. The Cardinal stated that the “Easter Sunday attack was not a result of a craze over religion but an attempt to capture and safeguard power”. These words were conceptually in line with what opposition front benchers in the SJB have been alleging.

The issue however that blew up in the face of the government was its proposed Port City Special Economic Zone Bill that was also gazetted on the eve of the holidays. The Bill, which seeks to provide the legal framework for the management of the Port City, creates essentially a semi if not fully autonomous enclave that exempts the Port City and its near self-governing Commission, from most of the laws of the land, thereby essentially becoming a law unto itself. The proposed Port City Commission would more or less single handedly decide on all matters within the Port City Zone, with no checks and balances or oversight. The powers devolved to the Provincial Council under the 13th amendment are inconsequential compared to the sweeping powers and exemption from most laws granted to the Port City Commission. Despite the holidays, the response to the audacious proposal was swift and more importantly quite widespread.

Leading the charge was the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which through its General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara and MP Harshana Rajakaruna, filed action in the Supreme Court against the proposed Bill. Similarly, the JVP and even the single seat rump UNP filed action in the Apex Court. The reactions and response of civil society was also swift in coming. The Bar Association through its newly elected executive filed action in Court as did over a dozen trade unions, including those affiliated to political parties that are constituents of the SLPP’s governing alliance. The Supreme Court actions are however necessarily limited in scope to the constitutionality of the proposed Bill; it does not examine the policy or political decisions behind the proposals. That is a job for democratic dialogue and the political and civil society discourse both within Parliament and outside it.

This article does not seek to examine the legal or constitutional aspects of the proposed Bill, which will be argued before the Apex Court, but rather the political ramifications of the policy and the serious dissent in society to the government’s proposals for Port City autonomy. It is hoped that the Speaker, who has in recent times come in for stinging criticism from the Opposition benches for alleged partiality, will realize that not accommodating political dialogue, diversity and dissent within the democratic structures only tends to drive such dissent from political institutions to the streets, as we have seen both in Sri Lanka in the past, when governments have had super majorities and sought to shut out opposition within parliament. The same has been the case in other Asian countries – Myanmar, Hong Kong and Thailand being some recent examples

In that context, it is quite concerning that the government’s response to the public opposition to its proposed legislation is to explore laws to control social media, the one avenue of free expression that is now vibrant and not within the shade and shadow of the ruling alliance. The SLPP/Rajapaksa Administration would do well to remember the lessons of its previous political overreach in proposed legislation of the Divi Neguma Bill, which was successfully challenged in Court and the presiding Chief Justice consequently sacked, but with a straight line from that course of political follies to the government’s popularity decline and electoral defeat in 2015.

Internal dissent is always a greater political peril to a government than external opposition. Both the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration and its successor the Sirisena Administration came a cropper and lost their re-elections because of serious internal dissent that led to internal divisions and resulted in electoral defeat. Therefore it must be of serious concern to even dissenters and the Administration’s apex leadership when serious dissent on policy and political issues arises within the governing alliance, which they are then not disposed of to deal with through consultation and policy adjustments. Leading the internal charge against the proposed Port City Bill was former Justice Minister and current SLPP back bencher Wijeydasa Rajapakshe, who in a widely covered press conference from a well-known temple in the city’s suburbs that had been a cradle for the Rajapakse political comeback effort since 2015, launched a stinging criticism of the proposed special economic zone.  Prelates and lay leaders were also associated with his views. While a lot of the public discussion has been on the government’s reaction to its parliamentary member’s allegations, the more important policy imperatives are the issues that he has raised so publicly.

The opposition to the proposed Port City Bill is widespread and how the government deals with it, democratically as it should or autocratically as it is often tempted to, would have significant impact in the future on these important aspects of our national life.

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SJB Charts a Clear Alternative National Security Policy

Posted by harimpeiris on April 1, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 01st April 2021)

Subsequent to the recent release of the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks and after the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva had passed a resolution highly critical of Sri Lanka’s current human rights situation, Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa, speaking in Parliament has, on behalf of his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), articulated a clear national security and external affairs policy that offers a stinging critique of the ideologically driven and unsuccessful practices of the current administration and lays out a well thought out and centrist alternative on this important area of national life. The policy is noteworthy in that it is essentially a political counter offensive, taking on the Rajapakses in an area which they consider as their strong suit – that of national security and its counterpart, external affairs.

The foreign policy failures of the Rajapakse SLPP

Opposition Leader Premadasa clinically lays out the failures of the current administration. Firstly, he correctly points out that the UN High Commissioner’s report that created the basis for the HRC’s resolution focuses mostly on the current developments in Sri Lanka’s human rights situation after the November 2019 presidential election and much less on developments during war era. The report is not as much about the past as it is about the present. The focus and concern of the international community and the articulation of its responsibility towards conflict prevention is based on and focuses on the failure of Sri Lanka to create a just peace, rather than a critique of a justified war.

Looking at the voting patten in Geneva, where the SLPP Government’s position received just 11 votes, it was an all-time low for country specific resolutions on Sri Lanka. The lack of support was in large part due to the abstentions of Sri Lanka’s traditional friends in the international community, including India and the Muslim nations.

The centralization of state power through the 20th Amendment and the resultant weakening of state institutions that are required to be independent, together with the steady militarization of governance and the erosion of democratic space and freedoms, are all policy and political failures of the current Government. Sajith Premadasa forcefully and convincingly argued in parliament that these developments are not in the interests of either the majority community or for that matter even the minority communities in our diverse country.

The failures of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks

The Leader of the Opposition was stinging in his critique of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks and its report. Drawing comparisons with the US Commission of Inquiry on the 9/11 attacks, he pointed out that despite a period of nearly two years, the Sri Lankan Commission had failed to identify who were the masterminds or the key conspirators behind the attack. The informal nature of the crucial National Security Council (NSC), which is not a statutory body, was also criticized by Mr. Premadasa who proposed that the NSC be formalized through an enabling Act of Parliament and that a single coordinating center for the diverse security and intelligence agencies be created. He promised bipartisan support for any genuine national endeavors while criticizing the politicizing of security issues through ideologically driven unilateral actions followed by blaming regime opponents, as opposed to implementing genuine remedial measures.

Internal strife as a weakening of national security

Sajith Premadasa articulated a truism, widely recognized globally but completely ignored by this Government, that national security is multifaceted and not just based on military or defense policy alone. He argued on the need for economic security. But most importantly, the SJB leader argued forcefully that internal divisions, ethnic polarizations and communal strife cause a significant weakening of national security by alienating huge swathes of society from affinity to, identification with and loyalty towards, the Sri Lankan State. A state that is non inclusive and exclusionary weakens itself. Surely one of the biggest and most objectionable aspects of the LTTE, which we fought for decades to defeat, was its vision and desire for a mono ethnic Tamil state; one in which even Muslims were excluded. Surely having defeated the effort to create a mono ethnic Tamil state, we should hardly be moving in the direction of creating a mono ethnic Sinhala state in which Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities are excluded.

Making a commitment to both devolution and accountability

The opposition and SJB Leader was bold in breaking away from the new dogma of the current Government, which is that even the currently constitutionally existing devolution of power to the provinces under the 13th Amendment is unwise and unnecessary and that there is no need for any accountability with regards to human rights. The SJB leader committed unequivocally to the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution. A commitment to constitutional governance which would not be newsworthy or surprising except that the Government has repeatedly disavowed the same. Further, in recognition of the international and domestic requirement for accountability with regards to human rights violations, the Opposition Leader committed to an internationally credible domestic process of accountability with foreign observers and the required foreign technical assistance as well as the implementation in good faith of the recommendations of both Sri Lanka’s own LLRC and the Paranagama Commission reports. The significance of this policy, a relatively very centrist position, is a platform to create broad domestic and international consensus on the issues. On the contrary, as internationally observed and carefully documented by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the current Rajapakse Administration has shown zero interest in either post war reconciliation, accountability, the protection of human rights or the promotion of fundamental rights and freedoms.

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Changing the Human Rights Discourse

Posted by harimpeiris on March 18, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 18th March 2021)

As the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) winds its way in Geneva, it is now almost certain that the country specific resolution on Sri Lanka, presented by the UK led Core Group on Sri Lanka, will be passed by the Council. The world is looking at Sri Lanka’s human rights track record and trajectory. The occasion has opened up a renewed debate and discourse domestically including an examination of key principles of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Human rights are universal

The key argument put forward by the Government, its political allies and sympathizers is essentially that human rights is an exclusively domestic concern and bases the same on the argument of state sovereignty.  However, there is an insufficient appreciation within that argument for the well-established principle of the universality of human rights. Both state sovereignty and the universality of human rights flow from that same body of knowledge which we broadly refer to as international law and custom, which has become increasingly more clearly defined and developed in the last twenty to thirty years. The establishment of the UN and its different agencies, in the post second word war era, sought to establish a rules based international order among the community of nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted unanimously by the UN in 1948, the Rome Statute of 1998 establishing the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the 2005 UN World Summit Declaration, among other treaties and international covenants, all further defined and codified the body of international law on human rights, as well as in other areas. To argue for the supremacy of one principal of international law, that of state sovereignty, outside the context of and in resolute opposition to a faster developing body of international law, that of human rights, is not really in keeping with the developments in the global arena and in international diplomacy in the past few decades.

Whose rights are being protected or violated?

An oxymoron or contradiction in terms of the human rights discourse in Sri Lanka is to refer to a resolution on Sri Lanka at the HRC as a resolution “against” Sri Lanka. It is a resolution on Sri Lanka. Depending on what you believe are the merits and demerits of the content of the resolution, you could deem it pro or against Sri Lanka, in this case that continuing human rights violations are good or bad for a country and her people. But it clearly a particular view point, to claim that a resolution that calls for the protection of human rights, reforms of the PTA in keeping with international best practice, implementation of the constitutional provisions for provincial administration, allowing the global practice of final funeral rites to be in accordance with the wishes and religious beliefs of the families concerned and the protection of democratic space and freedoms among other things, to be a resolution “against” the country. It is hardly in the interests of a country or her people when rights are systematically violated with impunity, especially during peace time.

Take for instance the issue of slain editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter Ahimsa’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post and her call for international intervention for justice for her late father’s assassination. The Government spokesman claimed she was trying to destroy Sri Lanka. It could instead be argued that murdering editors in broad daylight in your capital city and having absolute impunity for it (no one has been arrested or charged) is in fact a more nation destroying action than seeking international justice for it when it is denied domestically. A similar position has been adopted by the leadership of the Roman Catholic church in relation to the investigation of the Easter Sunday attacks when it expressed dissatisfaction with the inquiry Commission’s inability to trace and identify those responsible for the outrage – not the trigger puller suicide killers who perished in the blast but the masterminds, their financiers, support network and handlers.

As many analysts have pointed out, there is also a significant difference between a period of war and a post war period of peace. Sri Lanka is now in its second post war decade and the world is watching to see if we are establishing a just peace to follow our just or justified war. A war is not a unilateral exercise. There are always at least two parties to an armed conflict. But post war, the onus is much greater on the state because it is now the sole authority in respect of human rights and in dealings with its own citizens in a free society.

The difficult question of accountability

Then we come to the most difficult and vexatious issue of accountability for possible war crimes and/or violations of international humanitarian law or “past atrocities” as US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stated in his address to the HRC’s current session. Sri Lanka’s position has been clear, in that it has always argued for a domestic process. However, the calls for international intervention or processes have been made because for over a decade we have not demonstrated any forward movement in the domestic protection of human rights, not in just the most difficult areas of the war theatre during the “fog of war”, but anywhere. Even in cases of abductions and rights violations that happened way outside the war theatre, the rhetoric, especially of the current government, has been that while civil servants are subject to the law, the military service is possibly exempt and perhaps above even its own law. The best case in point is that of Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was first arrested by the Army’s own military police for, among other things, slitting the throat of a five-year old child, was convicted in a fair trial and finally had his conviction upheld by the Supreme Court. Today he walks the streets a free man, courtesy of an executive political decision. That might well be against the interests of the people of Sri Lanka; slitting the throat of a child and a murderer walking free.

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A not entirely united government opts to be hard line

Posted by harimpeiris on February 22, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 17th February 2021)

It is quite a feat for a powerful government to insult its own Prime Minster and party leader, but that is precisely what the SLPP succeeded in doing last week, when a carefully orchestrated measure to ease up the pressure on the Government through bringing Sri Lanka in line with the rest of the world on Covid-19 burials, went awry. The Prime Minister’s assurance to Parliament, to allow the burial of the Covid-19 dead, was welcomed in a tweet by the soon to visit, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan. However, this was not implemented and instead was contradicted by junior state ministers of the Government. Since the forced cremation of the Covid-19 dead, against the wishes and religious beliefs of the bereaved families, is a uniquely Sri Lankan practice, in non-conformity with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, the issue is being closely watched and monitored not just locally but also globally. Accordingly, the Prime Minister’s assurance was widely welcomed. But clearly, he could not carry the day. It certainly seems the Prime Minister is not totally in charge of the government; shades of the previous Ranil Wickremesinghe premiership.

However, in the context of Sri Lanka’s system of government, this is only to be expected because especially post the 20th Amendment to our Constitution, the governing authority has been totally centralized in the hands of the executive President. Accordingly, one might reasonably expect that the president’s slightest wish is government writ. Therefore, it was quite surprising to note, a few weeks ago, when the nearly half a billion-dollar, foreign investment by India’s Adani Group in the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port was to go ahead, this in a country that is starved of foreign exchange, that the President was seemingly very much on board. The President, quite correctly observed, at various fora, that international obligations cannot be unilaterally abrogated and more importantly that his government had negotiated terms where the Sri Lankan Government through the Sri Lanka Ports Authority would retain a majority stake and accordingly what was occurring was an investment into a minority stake in the ECT. This in the context of other such foreign investments with majority stakes, namely the Chinese Government’s CICT and the SAGT. However, quite surprisingly the President’s wishes to bring in the Indian private sector foreign investment did not quite carry the day inside the Government.

To cap quite a tumultuous first quarter for the Government, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a leader of a minor political appendage of the ruling alliance, namely the National Freedom Front (NFF), stirred up a hornet’s nest in political circles, when he called for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be given the leadership of the ruling party, rather than its current incumbent, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The public call by Minister Weerawansa was met with the immediate demand by the ruling SLPP’s General Secretary, that the Minister both withdraw his statement and apologize for the same. Neither has happened and to the contrary the Minister has reiterated his stand. The call for a leadership change and that too between the president and the prime minister, was quite surprising because there was no reason for Minister Weerawansa to either be so public about a possible leadership role change in the Government or to be out of place by commenting on the affairs of a party he does not belong to. Leading as he does, his breakaway wing of the JVP, styled the National Freedom Front (NFF), a party which has the distinction of never yet having ever contested an election on its own but always in alliance with the Rajapaksa political party, first the UPFA and now its successor the SLPP.

A Government opting to be hardline

Next week the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), based in Geneva, will hold its 46th session, mostly in a virtual or online format and a country specific resolution on Sri Lanka, taking the government to task on our deteriorating human rights situation, will most likely pass. The Government is losing friends like India and alienating allies, like the 57 member nation, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). As political analysts have pointed out, the report by Human Rights High Commissioner and former two-term President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet focuses more on the new hardline policy being adopted since the election of November 2019. Policies, pronouncements and practices, which seemingly indicate a complete unwillingness to accommodate plurality, recognize diversity and defend democratic gains. The High Commissioner reports worrying signs of a government becoming increasingly authoritarian and militarized. The UNHRC report on Sri Lanka, namely A/HRC/46/20 in section 19, page 7 states “(i) militarization of civilian government functions, (ii) reversal of constitutional safeguards, (iii) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, (iv) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric (v) surveillance and obstruction of civil society and shrinking democratic space and (vi) new and exacerbated human rights concerns”. As if in a great hurry to confirm the above contentions by its actions, the Government having earlier rejected the report in toto, the Minister of Public Security withdrew the Special Task Force (STF) guard provided to TNA spokesman and leader in waiting, MA Sumanthiran for his participation and support to a massive anti-government march styled (P2P), from Pottuvil in the Eastern Province to Polligandy in the Northern Province, a not too subtle reference to the “responsibility to protect (R2P), the global political commitment adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 to prevent or hold accountable for war crimes, prevent genocide, ethnic cleaning and crimes against humanity. The rationale given by the Minister was that MP Sumanthiran, a President’s Counsel, had violated court orders, which he denies doing. When the matter was raised by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, many speakers pointed out that alleged violations of court orders should be met with prosecutions in court and not the withdrawal of security. Now we await the Hon. Speaker’s ruling whether it is the threat assessment against the MP, which the Minister himself readily conceded or political servility to the wishes of the government, which determines state security for minority and opposition MPs. The world meantime from Geneva is watching.

As the government domestically disregards plurality, tolerance of democratic dissent and accommodation of diversity and isolates itself internationally, with severe repercussions for our export driven, tourism, foreign investment and worker remittance dependent, globally integrated economy, the possibility of seeing a course correction by the SLPP’s Rajapakse Administration, is rather remote. This does however position Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa and his SJB, as the sole alternative to the government’s ideology, of being the sole representatives of the Sinhala people.

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