Ranil to campaign overseas


As we reported last week, it does turn out that the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe will be going abroad for several days just when the local government election campaign will be gathering steam. The Friday before last, when RW, Jayalath Jayewardene, Tissa Attanayake, Karu Jayasuriya and Mangala Samaraweera went to see the jailed Sarath Fonseka, RW told SF that he will be going to attend the International Democratic Union meeting in Brussels and that he will be taking up SF’s expulsion from parliament in that forum. So the opposition leader is leaving Sri Lanka even in the middle of an important election campaign on the excuse of making representations on behalf of Fonseka. RW promised Fonseka that as a party, the UNP will campaign for his release both inside and outside parliament.

This is one election that the government is facing on the back foot due to high food prices and resentment due to a poor disaster relief response and the UNP should really be gearing to make the most of the situation. But RW seems to be more intent on junketing than electioneering. Jayalath Jayewardena told SF that his matter had been presented to the Human Rights Committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and that it is due to be taken up next month.  Some months ago, we heard a great deal about representations being made against the Sri Lankan government to the Standing Committee on Human Rights of Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The IPU Standing Committee did begin their ‘confidential procedure’ by communicating with the speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament. They were supposed to deliver their opinion last month.  But things are going slower than expected in the IPU.

Last week, Karu Jayasuriya and Tissa Attanayake spoke at a meeting of the Kegalle District local government candidates organized by Kabir Hashim and another meeting of LG candidates in Kandy organized by Lakshman Kiriella. They also addressed a janahamuwa held in the Teldeniya electorate to kick off the Kandy district LG election campaign and two more meetings of local government candidates in Nuwara Eliya and Matale. RW did not attend any of these party gatherings but he was on hand to address the South Asian Session of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association held at the Hilton last week.

Addressing the South Asian parliamentarians, RW said that in order to ensure transparency and good governance, the Committee on Public Enterprises and the Public Accounts Committee should be chaired by members of the opposition.  Despite these noble sentiments, the Committee on Public Enterprises which was founded only in 1979 appears to have been chaired only by members of the incumbent government, whether they then sported UNP or SLFP colours, from its inception and much the same can be said about the Public Accounts Committee.

Ranil won’t budge

Last Thursday was Nawam Poya day. To mark Poya day, Ranil Wickremesinghe published an article under his own name in the Lankadeepa’s center page. The usual column that is published on this page on Thursdays was shifted out to accommodate RW.  Just last week, this columnist pointed out that the big UNP show on February 9 at Viharamahadevi Park and Lipton Circus had just about cooked Ranil’s goose and that the meeting turned out to be a reaffirmation of Sajith Premadasa’s complete ascendancy in the party; and that this was a good indication of what would happen at that first election to be held to elect a party leader in the first week of April. However RW does not seem to be in the least fazed by the clear show of hands in favour of Sajith within the UNP and his Poya day article was not that of a man on his way out but someone who expects to stay on for quite a while. The gist of what he said there with the telling title "A new system based on Buddhist Economics", can be summarized as follows.

* We live today in a lost world. The majority of the world’s population has been rendered helpless due to various political, social or economic reasons. Developed nations have fallen victim to the global economic meltdown. The developing countries are suffering from a lack of funds for public services, a lack of employment and incomes.

* Unable to endure these hardships people are on the streets all over and the world has been swallowed up by unrest. The rulers unleash repression on them. Because of the development in communication these events are seen around the world as they happen.

* Today, wealth is distributed not among the many but among the few. The banks and the stock market have been strengthened. But agriculture and industries are in the doldrums. Because of this, the younger generation the world over is in a state of despair. A system that ensures solutions to problems and equal opportunities for all has to be established.

* Such a society cannot be created in a hurry.  Long term stability and development is necessary to achieve such a result. The aim of a system of governance should be to have such a programme. Instituting a policy framework which will be implemented over an unbroken period of 20 to 25 years should be the aim of a government. Such is absolutely necessary for the wellbeing of society and the system of governance as well.

* Various sections of society hold many differing views. The way shown by the Buddha was consensus. The Buddha preached the seven ways of avoiding downfall to the Vajjians. It need not be stressed how important this advice is to statecraft even today.

* The Buddhist way is not to measure prosperity by the Gross National Product and per capita income but by per capita satisfaction. There is a need to go beyond the values of the market. While competition is essential for the economy, competition without restraint will be destructive.

* It is said that increases in the Gross National Product raises per capita incomes. But if you are unable to make ends meet and to educate your children, of what use is that growth?

RW’s Poya day article is interesting in many ways.  On the one hand, this appears to be the most radical restatement of UNP policy since the mid-1970s when J.R.Jayewardene assumed leadership of the party.  JRJ’s UNP advocated economic growth. Now, unable to compete with the Rajapaksa regime on the question of raw economic growth, RW has jettisoned the growth model and embraced hippie style ‘satisfaction’ instead. Gunadasa Amarasekera must be roaring with laughter at this. For decades, Amarasekera has been lambasting the UNP’s model of economic growth, and now at this late hour RW has decided to join the Amarasekera camp but only after MR beat the UNP at the UNPs own game.

The most significant aspect of the article is RW’s invoking of the seven ways to avoid downfall preached by the Buddha to the Vajjians. The saptha aparihani dharmaya as it is known has the following components which all fit in neatly to the present power struggle in the UNP. The Buddha’s advice to the Vajjians had the following components.

* Do everything in unity (Harping on unity helps the incumbent leader)

* Stick to the existing laws and do not promulgate laws with retrospective effect. (In other words don’t kick me out for what happened in the past. Don’t apply the new party constitution to the past. Give me a fresh start from December 2010 onwards.)

* Respect your elders (since RW is older than Sajith, the former is deserving of respect. Remember the Buddha did not qualify this exhortation to respect elders in any way. Age should be respected unconditionally irrespective of whether the aged were deserving of respect!)

* Be nice to ladies

* Supporting wise men and saints by continuing to give alms to these people as they did earlier. (A message to the business community!?)

Of all these components, unity is the aspect emphasized by RW most in his article. He elaborates on the importance of unity stressed by the Buddha in speaking of the Vajjians in three different places and even ends his article with the exhortation "We must meet in unity, discuss in unity. In unity we should arrive at a consensus. It is only through such consensus that we have to embark on a new journey towards a new hope".

This poya day message should make the UNP reformists chew their own rear ends in anguish. Even after all that has happened he’s not going! One of the most noteworthy points in RW’s article on Thursday is the fact that he says that a just society cannot built in a hurry and that a long term plan spanning 20 to 25 years is necessary to achieve that objective.  This undermines one of the key arguments that the UNP has been putting forward on the election platform– that things should have improved after the war but they have not.  The question is, why expect MR to deliver in less than two years what RW himself admits will take more than two decades? UPFA propagandists may find RW’s article on Thursday very useful in the local government election campaign.  

In any case the upshot of all this is that RW is not going to leave of his own accord. A man on his way out does not talk of new beginnings and a new way. Nor does he posit a radical reinventing of the policy framework of his party. If he was going quietly, he would leave the reinventing part to his successor. The funny thing is that in the same paper that carried RW’s article on the Vajjian ethic,  there was an interview with JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath waxing eloquent about the goings on in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and in the Middle East in general and predicting that such a wave will be upon Sri Lanka as well soon.  If the JVP has any hopes of making Mahinda Rajapaksa resign with just a few demonstrations like Hosni Mubarak, then they will have to think again.

Mahinda now has the example of the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who refuses to resign no matter what.  He has beaten RW once and on the second occasion RW went into hiding to avoid being beaten again, so MR can’t be seen to be weaker than RW. If at all he will have to outdo RW if he is to maintain his self respect!

Dreaming of a putsch

That apart, there’s little that is amusing in the attempts being made by individuals like Karu Jayasuriya in the UNP and Vijitha Herath in the JVP to equate what is happening in the Middle East with Sri Lanka. Those countries had never known democracy whereas Sri Lanka is a democracy with history of over eight decades of universal franchise and elections.  There were no less than three regime changes in the last decade alone. In this country experience has shown that no amount of repression will prevent a genuinely unpopular government from being voted out.  It is also the fact that the Rajapaksa government has never persecuted either the UNP or the JVP. What is happening to Sarath Fonseka may look like persecution to an outsider but has really been caused by Fonseka’s threats to rat against the Rajapaksas in a foreign war crimes tribunal.  So trying to equate this most benign of elected governments with un-elected regimes in the Middle East simply because the UNP can’t prevail against them at the hustings is an act of gross irresponsibility. 

The well established tradition in this country is that changes of government take place only at elections. Any suggestion that crowds brought out on to the street should topple governments in Sri Lanka will be an attempt to take this country backwards.  In any country, the crowds that come out on to the streets constitute a minority.  Such crowds can never be a substitute for elections.  It may be the case that for an unpopular opposition which can’t win elections, the prospect of being able to seize power by bringing out organized crowds onto the streets would indeed offer a tempting prospect.  What is most insidious is Vijitha Herath’s suggestion in his interview in the Lankadeepa that the last presidential elections were rigged and therefore Mahinda too is a dictator like Hosni Mubarak who used to get 80 to 90% of the vote at elections. 

The fact that token elections are held even in dictatorships to give a veneer of a popular mandate for their rule should not blind anybody to the fact that Sri Lanka and India have been vibrant democracies for decades with many peaceful changes of government and the whole paraphanalia of democracy. Toppling governments in the Middle East with crowds on the streets may be progressive in that part of the world which has never had a mechanism to change governments but nobody can allow countries like India or Sri Lanka to go down that path.  The present government has been elected for a six year term in office. If there is any attempt to force the government to resign before that with street protests by the opposition, then that has to be met with all the force at the command of the state.  Any action however draconian taken to prevent mobs from replacing elections will not only be justified but also warranted.     

To give due credit to RW, there was once a time that even the UNP could bring crowds on to the street. But he never made use of that to make an attempt to force Chandrika Kumaratunga to resign from the presidency after 2001 despite strident calls for him to take direct action against the president especially after she seized control of the media, defence and finance ministries in late 2003. There was sufficient sense in the UNP leaders at that time to realize that once you go down that road, power will repose in the hands of organized mobs and not the people. It may not be the UNP but the JVP that is more interested in this kind of action because they do not have that many votes but can collect almost all their voters into one location if they really want to.  Fortunately for this country, the JVP is now an ageing party with no new blood coming in and a JVP meeting today resembles an LSSP meeting in the 1980s attended mostly by white haired and pot bellied revolutionaries of yester year. As such they are in no position to carry out sustained mass action to oust a government.

Targeting individuals

Last Monday. On St Valentine’s day, Sri Lanka Guardian, one of the many websites that have mushroomed in recent times had an article alleging that Maj General Kapila Hendavitharana who had served in the military intelligence set up and now serves as the Chief of National Intelligence has to answer for extrajudicial killings said to have taken place in the past.  This article is reminiscent of the campaign carried out against Janaka Perera after he retired in 2001, and the government should be vigilant about the LTTE diaspora via various dubious fly-by-night websites targeting individual officers in the armed forces so as to demoralize not just the targeted individual but others witnessing this process as well.  The Americans also carried out such psychological operations against targeted individuals in the Saddam Hussein regime before they invaded Iraq. They had paralyzed many Iraqi military officers with threats against them and their families long before bombs started dropping on Iraq.    

Hence articles targeting important officers of the state should be taken very seriously. According to this website, Hendavitharana has more crimes to answer for than even Pottu Amman of the LTTE. Some of the accusations are way off the mark. For instance it accuses him of having formed the deep penetration units of the army (the units credited with knocking off Shankar the LTTE air wing chief and Charles the No 2in the LTTE intelligence set up) But this is not correct. The deep penetration units were from the Special Forces and not under military intelligence. The article says that the deep penetration units targeted civilians as well – which is plain nonsense because nobody is going to penetrate deep into enemy held territory, at the risk of being tortured to death if caught, just to kill civilians. Besides the rest of the army would have laughed at the Special Forces saying "You kill unarmed civilians but we, the ordinary soldiers kill Tigers armed to the teeth!" That’s not how things work in the army.

Hendavitharana is also accused of maintaining two killer squads even at this moment called the Ranjith Group and the Rajan Group, one headed by a Muslim which carries out extra-judicial killings in the north. A couple of weeks ago, this column had a note on allegations of Mafia rule in Jaffna. Our source however never reported any extra-judicial killings in the north. Who are they supposed to be killing? All allegations in Jaffna related to money making - not killing.   A serious allegation against Hendavitharana is that he was behind the killing of Lasantha Wickremetunga as well.  When such allegations are made, they tend to stick and could cause demoralization among the officer cadre and in an emergency everybody may try to play safe. A demoralized military or civilian officer cadre which prefers to play safe can be fatal to any state or government. These allegations are made to make it impossible for these officers to travel abroad and thereby to make them incur losses and to ruin their lives.

One of the few good things that Chandrika Kumaratunga did was to stand by Janaka Perera when the LTTE targeted him after retirement. She and Lakshman Kadirgamar saw to it that Janaka Perera lost nothing as the result of the LTTE campaign against him. Likewise the officers who are in danger of being targeted by dubious websites because of the role they played in the final war against the LTTE, should have some sort of an incentive scheme which is automatically activated whenever they come under attack in this manner even after retirement. If customs officers and policemen get rewards for doing their duty, it is all the more important to ensure that the military officers who did their duty are not left alone when targeted individually. The government should have some of a scheme to ‘look after’ and compensate such officers of the state when they come under attack from dubious overseas quarters.

The British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Alex Burt is due to visit Sri Lanka next week. In the absence of Ranil Wickremesinghe who will be campaigning overseas, it will be Karu Jayasuriya, Ravi Karunanayake, Jayalath Jayawardena, and Mangala Samaraweera who will be meeting the visiting British politician. Given what Karu J in particular has been saying on the public stage, we can well imagine what the British politician is going to hear from them.  Burt is going to go back to his country with the satisfying knowledge that the divide and rule policy of the British is still working its magic in Sri Lanka six decades after the British left with litigious natives still carrying tales against one another to whitey!   

President Mahinda Rajapaksa hosted a dinner last Sunday for the visiting parliamentarians from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association of the South Asian region at Temple Trees.  The Speaker of the Indian Lok Sabha and the Speakers of the parliaments of Pakistan, Bangaladesh and the Maldives had been present among others. The Sri Lankan opposition had been represented by Dr Jayalath Jayawardena, Sujeewa Senasinghe and Tiran Alles. Dr Jayawardena informed the president that when he was in London recently, he had submitted a letter to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association suggesting that Provincial Councilors in Sri Lanka also be permitted to join the CPA. To this the president had replied that it seems like a good idea. A.H.M.Azwer who happened to be standing near the president said "Well when you are overseas you don’t do only good things you do bad things as well".

This had infuriated JJ who had told Azwer that the Speaker Chamal Rajapakse who is the brother of the president had said in parliament that accusations should not be hurled at parliamentarians without sufficient evidence. JJ had then praised Chamal for doing his job with the utmost impartiality and taking decisions without any fear of favor. Unfortunately however everything was said in Sinhala so the visiting parliamentarians from all over South Asia were not able to understand what was being said and get to know at first hand the high regard in which the eldest member of the Sahodara Samagama is held  even by a hostile and embittered opposition.

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