The revolt against the PM: Sihala Ravaya side show or sign of cracks in the regime?


Rajan Philips

It was not quite the revolt in the temple of old but sacred temple tenants were out on Flower Road last Wednesday, storming the Prime Minister’s Office and mixing it up with cops and guards who were standing in the way. The monks wanted the PM’s head not over the heroin pickle that the PM has got into but for going on the counter-attack and publicly calling a member of the Maha Sangha "Cheewaradariya".

The Prime Minister, known for his outspokenness, should also have known that with his office implicated in arranging customs passage for heroin from Pakistan, he was in no position to call anybody anything, least of all a member of the Maha Sangha. The Flower Road fracas ended with the monks settling for a letter of apology issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), after getting the original version reworded to their satisfaction. If a letter of apology was all that was needed to atone for the aspersions cast on the venerable echelons of Lankan society, it could have been easily obtained through simple communication rather than a public orgy of street protest. After all and without any fuss the heroin importer was able to get a letter from the PMO - to facilitate customs clearance for the contraband!

Colombo is not unaccustomed to political protests, but the old trade union agitations in the hurly-burly industrial and mercantile areas of the City have now given way to expressions of other grievances, real as well as fancied, in areas that were not accessible to earlier protestors. Relocating the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) from the Senate Building to the old mansion of Sir Ernest de Silva on Flower Road was then Prime Minister Premadasa’s exercise in spatial mobility. But why the PMO should remain there even after the nation’s parliament was moved lock, stock and barrel from Colombo to Kotte is anybody’s guess.

That same Wednesday, unlike the monks and their mayhem, there were genuine grievers out on the streets not far from Flower Road. They were the deprived depositors of Central Investments and Finance Ltd (CIFL) still looking to recover whatever they could from their life savings that were swindled by the financial wizards whom they had trusted. On Thursday, the Federation of National Organizations (here is a federation that opposes devolution!) blocked off much of Galle Road from Kollupitiya to Fort as they marched to protest against the visit of Stephen J. Rapp, the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues. The FNO’s grievance, unlike that of the CIFL depositors, is more fancied than real. Why cannot the monks and the FNO protestors join ranks with people having real grievances, such as those whose savings were swindled by the CIFL, add to their voices and show solidarity with their mission to get their money back?

Political protests, their form, location and content, are indicative of the interplay of political forces and the vicissitudes of political fortunes. ‘The rural masses vote governments into power and the working classes throw them out’ was Dr. Colvin R de Silva’s description of the regular pendulum swings in government changes that characterized Sri Lankan politics until the Jayewardene/Rajapaksa machinations stymied the political dynamic in the electoral process and between elections. While governments changed as a result of the electoral defeats of incumbent governments, the somewhat overlooked factor in those defeats was the internal dissensions and splits in governments before they called elections and suffered defeats.

The Endgame

In almost every instance, especially in 1956, 1965 and 1977, a divided incumbent government was set up for defeat at the polls by an alignment of opposition parties taking advantage of a hostile electorate. While political ambitions and opportunisms played their part in the internal dissensions and splits in governments, the latter were also dialectically linked to the political expressions of people’s real life problems. Seen in such light the Prime Minister’s heroin scandal and the protests over it by monks and minions are a parody of politics and not the model of politics that Colvin conceptualized. To add a foot note from history, Colvin R de Silva not only conceptualized politics, but also demonstrated in practice the masterly organization of protests. That was then, what do we have now?

While commentators have expressed due concern over the involvement of the PMO in the heroin scandal and its implications for ministerial responsibility and the probity of government itself, the central political actors are cynically manipulating the scandal for political positioning rather than dealing with it honestly and transparently. As I noted two weeks ago, no senior government leader has come out in defence of the Prime Minister. The silence of the President is deafening. The President owes it to the country and the reputation of his government for probity, if such standards are still relevant in Sri Lanka, to either defend his Prime Minister or ask for his resignation. He will do neither.

On the other hand, the UNP, aka official opposition, has gone against the common practice of gaining political mileage by calling for the PM’s resignation. Instead, the official opposition seems to be defending the PM. The attacks are coming from minor players such as the JHU and the JVP. According to Mangala Samaraweera, ex-SLFP Minister and now UNP front liner, the attacks on the PM are part of a campaign against senior SLFP leaders in the UPFA, and are being orchestrated by the likes of the JHU and the BBS with blessings from within the Rajapaksa regime. This might explain the cynical silence of President Rajapaksa. But does it suggest a cunning strategy on the part of the UNP?

The UNP is in the political doldrums and whatever it does or doesn’t about Prime Minister Jayaratne is not going to make any difference to the UNP or anybody else. It is the ultimate victim of JR Jayewardene’s grand constitutional design to create a ‘perfect dictatorship’ of the UNP to provide Sri Lanka the political stability for economic growth without opposition protests and trade union strikes. JRJ lived long enough to see the UNP getting torn down the middle by his fighting successors, and to see as well the daughter of his nemesis resurrect her family party from the ashes and recapture power after 17 years. Seventeen years are not a long time for dictatorships – the perfect dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico for 71 years. But JRJ did not live long enough to see the SLFP under a different family rule adapt his constitutional contraption to create a dictatorship of a different kind.

Even though his grand design never really took off under him, and it foundered under his successors from both sides of the political divide, President Jayewardene played out his endgame well. He enabled his own succession, retired from the presidency and lived more than a presidential term as a private citizen. President Rajapaksa is still younger in age to what President Jayewardene was when he became President. Through the 18th Amendment, he was almost planning an endless endgame, so to speak. But the controversy over Prime Minister Jayaratne’s heroin scandal is unexpectedly stirring up succession comments and discussions. Although President Rajapaksa is not publicly defending the Prime Minister, he would rather have Mr. Jayaratne remain as PM if only to avoid appointing as new PM an aspirant for the presidency and a potential challenger in the not too distant future. Suddenly, the presidential endgame is not being seen as endless, 18A notwithstanding.

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