President Sirisena:A curate’s egg

Good in parts; quite odd in other parts


 “What else in heaven’s name can I do?”

A happy family; just keep them out of public affairs

by Kumar David

Before taking up my subject for the day I wish to make an urgent comment about last weekend’s news from Turkey; a failed coup attempt by mid-ranking officers who were unable to establish a chain of command. The top brass of the army seems not to have been involved in the botched adventure of a fraction of the military. Erdogan was lucky; he was able to bring tens of thousands onto the streets. Let this be a lesson to Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister that to coexist with vipers in one’s bosom is perilous.

Now I turn to my topic. The President is turning out to be rather a mixed bag and I say this as one who strongly supported his election – admittedly for the purpose of keeping Rajapaksa out though Maithripala Sirisena did come across before and in the first several months after his election as decent and dignified. But of late things have become complicated - I ignore gossip about his close relatives financial impropriety - and deal with substantial political issues only.

As should always be the case I say the good things first. Though I invested political capital in Sirisena expecting only the minimal return of keeping MR out, it soon turned out that I was getting rather more on my outlay. In the first year President and Mrs Sirisena made several foreign visits and they were dignified ambassadors who did the country proud. His government accomplished a proportion of its 100-day programme, and apart from the rotten choice of his brother as Telecom Chairman, there is no big wrongdoing that one can grumble about. More recently he did well in putting his foot down on Mahendran serving a further term overruling a very unwise, on this score, Prime Minister. (Ranil for some odd loyalty or hush-hush benefit maybe for the UNP dug in right to the end, but I suspect he is secretly pleased the way things have turned out without him having to double-cross Mahendran). Generally, Sirisena remained quiet up to a few months ago and his infrequent political forays were laudable.

Things have changed; a more aggressive and interventionist Sirisena is the norm now. To anyone from selfish medical practitioners, to army brass who want to cling to other’s property, to nativists who abhor war-crimes probes, President Sirisena will lend a sympathetic ear. Sometimes he does look a bit silly as his remarks about transformers and power blackouts. At other times he gets himself into a jam; I will take up the UNHRC and foreign judges sham anon.

Surely Maithripala Sirisena is not naïve and can see through the GMOA’s attempt to protect doctor’s incomes and privileges from foreign competition. These people are no different from British plumbers who voted ‘Yes to Brexit’ to keep the influx of Polish counterparts out. There are three million EU immigrants in the UK (5% of the population) and one can see the point in their grouse. Likewise our men of medicine will brook not the slightest challenge to the wellbeing of their pocketbooks. That is to be expected, but the President riding along with a decoy (that’s what this ‘National Policy on Foreign Trade Pacts’ is) is unwarranted. Is the medical profession going to hold Lanka ransom and dictate the nation’s trade policy? If President and PM are playing good-cop-bad-cop with a wink and a nod, that’s fine, provided they tame the braying ass in the end. But I am not sure this is a prearranged drama. I think Sirisena is enjoying his moment basking in a populist sun, but his sunspots are damaging prospects of manpower infusion essential if Lanka is to make economic progress.

His ambivalent stand on SAITM (the private medical school in Malabe) is also spineless. Carlo Fonseka, Chairman of the Medical Council and his team held that SAITM facilities are inadequate to grant its graduates registration. Let’s accept Carlo’s judgement as objective and not motivated by intrinsic opposition to private universities, but when he threatens to resign his Chairmanship if the government does not uphold his findings it is emotional. President Sirisena created the impression in his audience to the GMOA and other pressure groups that he is opposed to private universities in principle and his concern is not about SAITM’s shortcoming per se. If there are inadequacies then the short-term fix is, in consultation with the Medical Council, to run bridging programmes to bring graduating classes up to spec. In the long-run staff and equipment updating, again in consultation with the Council has to be done. We are doing this sort of thing in engineering all the time all over the world when accrediting bodies so demand. Their attitude is a constructive; not to throw students on the dust heap but overcome shortcomings and ensure that graduates are competent professionals. The President and Prof Carlo give the impression that they oppose private universities in general or at least in medicine. If that be so they need to explain their case. Should private universities be abolished all over the world including India too? Socialism through the back door is vacuous populism and President Sirisena is inching close.

According to the Lanka Business News website we are to form a consultancy company with Singapore’s part government-owned Surbana Jurong. The report, shorn of its verbal diarrhoea, says: "The government has identified the need for investment and a state owned consultancy company is planned. Malik Samarawickrama is to sign an MoU for cooperation in city planning, development management and project management. This was approved by the Cabinet". I am curious what petitions and protests will reach the President from Joint Opposition (JO) and Dead Left (DL) because "imperialism’s running dog" Singapore is to be involved in Lanka’s development.

My complaint is the opposite of that of the JO and DL. Why limit it to service activities? Well, we know the answer: Malik, Ranil and the UNP economic-pack cannot think out of the box that JR and the IMF shoved them into a long time ago. I favour the state intervening actively and facilitating and directing economic strategy - the Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kwan Yew, Korea post-1962 approach. I support the current initiative but my grouse is that collaboration in industry and manufacturing is not envisaged. For this reason the initiative falls short of what is needed. Will we see is our recharged president intervene to correct this defect?

The issue on which President Sirisena has got himself in knots is foreign judges in the UNHRC probe (euphemism for war crimes tribunal). He bellows that under no circumstance will they be allowed to sit in Lankan tribunals. But even the Island in a burst of logic observes editorially on 15 July "The participation of foreign judges cannot be wished away. Political leaders may bellow but the fact remains that they are under pressure to do as they promised as cosponsor of the resolution". From Chandrika’s time Lanka has acquired an unsavoury reputation for habitually two-tongued dealings with the rest of the world on human rights. The US however does not want regime change in Sri Lanka again so soon and may agree to a compromise proposal recognising that Srisena is with his back to the wall.

The editorial then goes on to say what I need as a lead to my next point. "Having sought to curry favour with the western bloc by co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government finds itself in the soup politically". This is wrong on the first score and hits an unintended bull’s-eye on the second. The government co-sponsored the resolution not to curry favour with the west but to save Sri Lanka’s neck from the chopping board when the world (not only the west) knew that some charges of human rights violations and war-crimes could be substantiated. It was a desperate concession to take the heat off a negative UNHRC resolution and possible sanctions. Sinhala chauvinism, in the dog box at that time, understood and acquiesced in the grovelling.

The second point about the government finding itself in the political soup is more interesting. I doubt very much if the Editor of the Island and most Lankan newspapers (TV is worse) intend to say it, but a progressive stand on the national question in general, let alone war-crimes probes, will get any government, this one, the previous one, or any future one, in the soup. It will be curtains for any Sinhalese government that has the temerity to dare. I assert this not as moral indictment, I am tired of that, but as simple fact. No government since Independence has, could, or can in the future, dish out moderate autonomy and devolution or create a national ethos of pluralism if it wishes to retain power beyond the next election. That’s plain fact akin to proposing that Pakistan no longer be an Islamic state or equal rights for Palestinians in Israel.

Anyway it’s not editors, but the President and his choices that are my concern. If he does not keep promises his government gave in Geneva, Lanka would yet again be a deceiver and a poltroon in international eyes; not just the west, but Asia too. If he dares go ahead as promised he had better kiss his good health goodbye long before the scoffed at second-term issue arises. [En passant, I am of the view that the Sirisena-Ranil team should continue in its current format for a second-term; feasible alternatives are deplorable. I have to revisit that topic head-on on another occasion].

I differ from the hoi-polloi of analysts who cuss and swear at the chauvinism of political leaders. No it is primarily the people themselves who manifest these traits. SWRD was not the architect of Sinhala Only, the Sinhalese petty-bourgeoisie was. If NM cried ‘Sinhala Only!" and Banda intoned the virtues of Tamil rights, the incumbency of PM and Opposition Leader would have been inverted. Bad leaders do not corrupt good and decent people; on the contrary people choose leaders who suit their style. My point is this; Sirisena is playing the game of balance between good sense and chauvinism one way it can be played if he wants to hang on to power. Whether he should hang on, whether the game is worth the candle, that’s a moral question!

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