The proof of the pudding being in the eating, it is only by returning to the Premadasa paradigm that the democratic Opposition can lead the country once again. The next chapter of the volume will be about the battle between the Rajapaksa clan (led either by Namal or Basil) and Premadasa’s only son. Someday there may be a new protagonist. But not today. Or tomorrow. Meanwhile, the re-entering Ranil should be avoided by the Opposition as toxic, radioactive
“Those young hands applauding us now may manufacture the bombs that will kill us, if we too do not change our ways of living and leadership” – Ranasinghe Premadasa, UNP May Day 1977 (quoted in Mervyn de Silva, ‘Survival of the Fittest,’ Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, 20 May 1977, pp.17-19)
Every year, this week in June marks two anniversaries, separated by a single day, which have personal resonance for me. The death anniversary of my father Mervyn de Silva (22 June 1999) and the birth anniversary of Ranasinghe Premadasa (23 June 1993), the President I supported and worked with 30 years ago in my early-mid 30s.
Born to a father who was a print and radio journalist, a foreign correspondent and later an editor and publisher, I tend to recall trends in the media. I cannot recall a time and a topic which elicited such an outpouring of credentialed scholarly, scientific and professional opinion in the Sri Lankan media as on the ban of chemical fertiliser.
The strident warnings of catastrophe have been accompanied by Sri Lanka’s academic community with the systematic dismantling of the arguments justifying the Government’s policy.
Of the several dozen such authoritative articles and statements which cumulatively contain hundreds of signatures, and dozens of TV presentations by professors, I shall list just two for reasons of lack of space, to exemplify my point that the evidence-based argumentation is formidable and the exposure of the recklessness of Government policy and falsity of its propaganda is near-total. My recommended shortlist of reading is: ‘GMOA President Misleading the Public’ – The Island (https://island.lk/gmoa-president-misleading-the-public/) and ‘What to expect in the short term and long term’ – The Island (https://island.lk/what-to-expect-in-the-short-term-and-long-term/).
The President, the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole have ignored the Sri Lankan scientific community’s impassioned appeals on this most vital of subjects, just as they have done on the matter of COVID-19 (ignoring, in the latter case, their own colleague Prof. Tissa Vitharana’s views and potential participation).
How can a Government which collectively ignores the collective, evidence-based view of the country’s scientific community specialising in the relevant problem-areas, and goes full speed ahead to implement precisely the policy that the most educated members of Sri Lankan society have sounded the alarm against, avoid leading the country to a catastrophe?
What kind of leadership would refrain from a structured dialogue with the scientific community in the realms of soil sciences, agrarian economics, virology and epidemiology and macroeconomic policy, when things are going badly in the realms of agriculture, COVID-19 suppression and macroeconomics, and there is a torrent of credentialed, credible criticism on these subject areas every day?
Why would a Government ignore these critical counterviews, and press ahead? Why would it fail to make course-corrections? What kind of closed, blinkered, mentality and allergy to voluminous scientific evidence, rules our rulers? Apart from the mountains of scholarly evidence there is also the bare, basic facts on the ground such as the wrecking of the tea industry and especially of the tea small-holders who keep the flag of ‘pure Ceylon Tea’ flying.
Do our rulers think that whatever the social impact, the Port City inflows will guarantee a sufficiently elastic affordability of patron-client relations, i.e., of patronage; the loyalty of the armed forces is ideologically and materially ensured by making them stakeholders; and together with the backing of China, these will ensure that the predictable electoral consequences can be cushioned against or overturned?
Historian Barbara Tuchman attributed the main causation of what she famously designated ‘The March of Folly’ in decision-making and therefore history, to the factor of “wooden-headedness”.
This factor is manifestly at work in Sri Lanka today. Consider the much-belated invitation to the TNA to a dialogue with the President, its abrupt cancellation without reason, and the absence of a fresh date for the meeting. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government is under mounting external pressure with potential economic consequences. It needs to clean up its act. Reopening a political dialogue with the Tamil parties would help. The President took this step but immediately took it back. Why? What or who made him change his mind?
A newspaper whose proprietor is very close to the administration speculated that it was ‘nationalist pressure’ within and outside the Government. This may well be true, but this time that pressure was invisible and inaudible, which is not the case usually with ‘nationalist pressure’. What kind of pressure-wielding nationalist does not seek publicity and credit for the move, in the media? Is it perhaps the kind of ‘nationalists’ who are institutionally unable to acknowledge their pressure tactic in the mass media? In short, did the ‘nationalist pressure’ come from the bowels of the Deep State, which is not so deep anymore?
Was the price worth it? If President Gotabaya opened the dialogue and sustained it, he could have made a breakthrough. He enjoys a two-thirds majority or a near two-thirds majority in the Parliament. If he arrived at an agreement with the TNA on structural reforms which require a two-thirds majority while avoiding a referendum, he would almost certainly have been able to count on support from the opposition to offset any rebellion by ultra-nationalist fringe elements. Such a breakthrough would instantly remove a considerable part of the external pressure on him. Even if he did not wish to go quite so far, he can agree upon rectifications and restructuring that requires only a simple majority, which is easily achievable.
His Cabinet Minister Douglas Devananda has been a long-time advocate of measures to improve the 13th Amendment that can be taken with only a simple majority. At a valuable event held a few months ago by the One-Text Initiative, Devananda’s comrade from the 1970s, former Northern Provincial Council Opposition Leader Thavarasa, presented a brilliant paper which spotlighted the necessary ‘turnkey’ for activating effective, moderate devolution: the passage of enabling statutes.
The Indian High Commissioner immediately and understandably picked up the slack; afforded a safety-net for the TNA.
The Sri Lankan Government seems completely unmindful of India’s threat-perceptions regarding the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, on India’s southern flank. The Gotabaya administration is certainly unmindful that it has ignored and perhaps even transgressed unilaterally, the principle enshrined in the annexures to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the exchange of letters, to the effect that Sri Lanka will do nothing that impinges negatively on India’s security interests.
A June 2021 study by Dr. Smruti S. Pattanaik, based at India’s oldest think-tank, the IDSA, describes Sri Lanka in the following manner: “…Moreover, while Bangladesh remains an important cog in China’s Bay of Bengal strategy, Sri Lanka is Beijing’s Indian Ocean maritime strategy partner.”
While there is a clear limit to what serving officers and officials can say in public, a far more detailed picture of India’s likely threat-assessment of China’s presence in Sri Lanka in general and the Port City in particular, is contained in a recent article in the Times of India, by Colonel R. Hariharan, retired military intelligence officer and former head of Military Intelligence of the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.
“…The SEZ [Special Economic Zone] will confer not only commercial and financial benefits to China. But it will augment its intelligence and counterintelligence operations to eavesdrop and interfere with Indian communication, track warship movements, enhance cyber threat and satellite tracking. And more than all this, the SEZ can be a useful take off point for infiltrating agents acting against Indian interests…
Sri Lanka unique geographic location, midway astride the sea lanes of Indian Ocean, makes it an essential part of China’s maritime security architecture in the Indo-Pacific…
…As China firm up its presence within the CPC [Port City], we can expect it to increase its influence with the body politics of Sri Lanka. It is poised to become an indispensable part of the part of the party politics…” (Growing Chinese Shadow in Tamil Nadu’s backyard)
In a Rediff.com article entitled ‘As India watches, China grows powerful in Sri Lanka’, Col. Hariharan further writes:
“…Close on the heels of the enactment of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, the cabinet decided to award the contract to build the 17 km Kelaniya-Athurugiriya elevated highway project, estimated to cost $1 billion to the CHEC, without competitive bidding. The Chinese company will build, own and transfer the major highway after 17 years, adding yet another feather in Xi’s BRI cap.
…Both the US and India are unlikely to forget such conduct, when they deal with Sri Lanka. With both the US and India recasting their relations with China, Sri Lanka could face the flak of their reaction…”
It is against this backdrop, that the ANI report based on an interview with India’s Navy Vice Chief Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar must be read: “With the Chinese Navy getting new port projects in Sri Lanka, a top Indian Navy officer said that it ‘could pose a threat’ to Indian interests in the region and there is a need to keep a close watch on such activities”.
In another report, Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar is quoted as saying that 30 US built Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles will be deployed to monitor “potential adversaries” in the Indian Ocean. (republicworld.com – https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/predator-drones-along-the-indian-ocean-key-to-monitor-potential-adversaries-indian-navy.html)
China has high-octane engagement with Sri Lanka. President Xi had two telephone conversations with President GR, and there were visits by the CPC’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. India’s stellar Foreign Minister (and Sri Lanka hand) Dr. Jaishankar has of course visited, but he has a full dance-card, globally.
Sri Lanka seems to have no information or reminders about India’s red-lines, if any. It may therefore be a mutually-beneficial idea to restore an old diplomatic device which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used in the 1980s and President Joe Biden has deployed in relation to Iran and other places: the appointment of a Special Envoy.
“Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China has become the most powerful country in the world economy today.” This is extracted from the published text of the lengthy presentation by the leader of the UNP, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the event celebrating the centenary of the Communist Party of China.
A fact-checker will prove this categorical statement empirically wrong. Though the gap is closing, the US is still “the most powerful country in the world economy today”. Wickremesinghe’s inaccurate remark in a written text on an important occasion certainly helped clarify my confusion about his re-entry to Parliament.
The record shows that by 1987-’88, 10 years after the UNP’s landslide victory of 1977, i.e., pre-Premadasa, the country was ablaze and the UNP was facing electoral and physical extinction. It also shows that post-Premadasa, the UNP was never the country’s option for leading it. It is only with Premadasa at the helm that the UNP never lost an election. After him, the UNP never held office from the highest (Presidency) through the intermediate (Parliament) to the lowest (Pradeshiya Sabha) levels of the political system.
Following Premadasa’s assassination by the LTTE, the slogan was one of reunification of the party after the allegedly polarising Premadasa period, but in actuality the project was one of restoration of the status quo ante, i.e., of the dominance of the old UNP elite, its policies and profile. The elite, which had caused two civil wars and a foreign intervention, now wanted its party back. The political agenda of the impeachment conspiracy which Premadasa defeated, prevailed by infiltration and takeover after his assassination when the UNP reconverted to its ideology and program.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was given a unique chance of combining a traditional UNP leadership with a Premadasa program. The Premadasa Centre was inaugurated on Premadasa’s 70th birth anniversary by his right-hand man and UNP Secretary Sirisena Cooray, with ex-President J.R. Jayewardene delivering the keynote address. Ranil was the Patron while I was the Executive Director of the Centre. The Premadasa Centre had close relations with Karu Jayasuriya and helped in his successful campaign for the Colombo mayoralty in 1997. All Ranil really had to do was to bring together Cooray, Karu Jayasuriya, and the Premadasa family and run the party on a Premadasa-ist platform. Instead, he serially double-crossed Sirisena Cooray, Karu Jayasuriya, and (in the next decade) Sajith Premadasa.
The chance of a hybrid UNP based on a Premadasa platform was lost with Wickremesinghe’s decision to fragment the Ministry of Housing into six, depriving Sajith of the chance of building a significant mass base for the UNP as his father had done. The last nail in the coffin was the delay in giving Sajith the nomination in 2019 though Gotabaya Rajapaksa had already commenced his campaign, and refusing to honour tradition by transferring the leadership of the UNP to Sajith, together with the candidacy, as in 1988 when Ranasinghe Premadasa took over both the candidacy and the party leadership in October 1988 at the Sugathadasa Stadium.
While the UNP reunited, it sacrificed its organic unity with the masses which Premadasa had restored after the violent rupture of the mid-late 1980s. Hence its inability to win the trust of the people and produce an elected president. Maithripala Sirisena, the UNP’s partner and proxy, had the legitimacy of being in the Rajapaksa’s war-winning Cabinet, i.e., not a member of Ranil’s UNP.
Ranil or Sajith?
Ranil Wickremesinghe drove the UNP into the ground but remains its Leader, and now he’s back in Parliament, unelected. In the democratic world there is no party leader who has remained at his or her post uninterruptedly for as long as Wickremesinghe, through and despite a track record of electoral defeat and shrinkage, right down to zero elected representatives.
The proof of the pudding being in the eating, it is only by returning to the Premadasa paradigm that the democratic Opposition can lead the country once again. Premadasa is not merely a name; it is a perspective and a program. Premadasa is not merely a perspective and program, it is also a name. The story, the narrative, the chronicle, counts. One must understand the logic of the story line. The next chapter of the volume will be about the battle between on the one hand, the Rajapaksa clan (led either by Namal or Basil), and on the other, Premadasa’s only son. Someday there may be a new protagonist. But not today. Or tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the re-entering Ranil should be avoided by the Opposition as toxic, radioactive. The incumbent administration’s popularity is in freefall because it can no longer wrap itself up in the flag or “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes”. It no longer has the image of a Ranil Wickremesinghe-led alterative to point to, sound the cry of a danger to the nation, pose the question “does the Sinhala nation really want to risk his return?” and rally the Sinhala vote behind it. Denuded of that supreme political asset, that ‘enemy image’, the Government is wide open.