Right of Reply: ‘Open letter to Sajith: Lead or leave’

Wednesday, 22 June 2022 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa 


The above article, ‘Open letter to Sajith: Lead or leave’ written by Krishantha Prasad Cooray, was published in the Daily FT of 21 June 2022. 

Krishantha Cooray is a regular contributor to the newspapers and has never been shy of sharing his opinions on politics, amongst other topics. However, in the aforementioned ‘open letter’, Cooray seems to have dispensed with basic logic in making some of his assertions.

On one hand, Cooray seeks a fresh start, a new modus operandi. Interestingly, the case being made regarding Sajith Premadasa appointing professionals to the National List is based on the lack of loyalty shown to the party by some of Premadasa’s appointments to Parliament. I can surely agree with Cooray that some have displayed an alarming lack of loyalty and integrity; that is one accusation that cannot be hurled at the Opposition leader.

Yet Cooray sounds politically naïve in many parts during this letter. At its outset, he states that he wrote an open letter to Ranil Wickremesinghe in the hopes that he might “respond to the magnitude of the moment” by “uniting the opposition”. So Cooray was seemingly one that held some belief in the present Prime Minister, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. When has Wickremesinghe ever united an opposition? The record shows he has struggled to maintain any sort of coalition, the majority of politicians have explicitly stated that he is very difficult to work with.

In expecting the PM to “do anything tangible to unify the country, secure meaningful assistance or enact serious fiscal reforms” you are again showing utter naivety. Did you think the appointment of a PM with no popular mandate and no real support in the chamber could possibly build credibility? Without political credibility, how do you expect the Government to enact fiscal reform? By now you would have noticed the Cabinet; who is seated on it and who is leading it? Do you think this Cabinet has the credibility to enact reform, do they even have the want or will to do so? 

Cooray, you have reached the highest echelons in the financial sector, even taking seats on the Boards of large banks; how can you be this ignorant of the need to build policy credibility and show political capital to our lenders and bilateral partners? How can this basic fact of the operation to bring Sri Lanka out of the crisis have escaped such an astute observer?

This brings me to the main point. It is not what the Opposition Leader can do for you, but what you can do for your Opposition Leader. Are you supportive, or do you openly aim only to criticise? Should not yourself and your colleagues, members of the elite of Sri Lanka, members of the corporate, business, financial elite, those that were silent during the Vistas manifesto and tax cuts, should you not, at least now, support the only true opposition, the only party that has been right on the issues throughout?

Premadasa warned of painful lockdowns when many in the business community stated that lockdowns were bad for their cashflows. He requested health authorities to look into anti-viral therapeutics when Government MPs laughed at him, only to turn around and promote a ‘Dhammika Paniye’. The media mocked his characterisation that the Sri Lankan economy was heading for “Armageddon”. Look where we are now, Cooray.

I noted a piece by you from last year in which you openly suggested that the SJB was lacking in vision.

I have to keep reminding people like Cooray that the SJB did in fact outperform any new party in Sri Lanka’s political history. Many have realised, with the benefit of hindsight, that Premadasa’s performance at the Presidential Election was actually quite impressive given the forces against him, both from the Pohotuwa as well as internally from his own party. At the General Election, despite having to disengage from the UNP political project which had multiple decades of failure, the SJB was able to win in excess of 50 seats. You will notice that there are no electoral pretenders to the Opposition. The media, the intellectual classes and the corporate classes can do their best to ignore this fact and promote different oppositional power centres, but the fact is, only one real Opposition remains, it still has 50 seats despite the best efforts of the establishment to poach MPs away with bright shiny objects.

Cooray speaks of a vacuum of power following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the earlier departures of family members from the cabinet. Mr. Cooray has failed to notice that these resignations were largely symbolic. The seats on the Cabinet have been filled with Rajapaksa loyalists, the Prime Minister remains a scare-crow under the current constitution. So where is the power vacuum? 

This is the kind of short-sighted analysis that leads one to believe that a Ranil Wickremesinghe-led Government can attain international credibility.

The fact is, power still lies with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Executive President and the Cabinet led by him, constituted by a group of loyalist MPs that were themselves drivers and enablers of this economic collapse.

I completely agree that “actions speak louder than words”. The actions of the Opposition Leader include refusing to betray his party in 2018, the UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, by accepting any of the dozens of invitations by President Maithripala Sirisena to take up the Prime Minister’s post through the back door. Actions such as refusing to work with a corrupt political establishment led by a failed President simply to please the gallery and display some superficial façade of credibility in order to fool the international community into believing that we are serious about reforms.

Yes, actions speak louder than words, Cooray. The Opposition Leader has acted on principle, that much has been consistent.

Perhaps by questioning the effectiveness of the Opposition, you are confused about what effectiveness actually means. The SJB was in fact the first party to lead a large crowd, one of the largest ever seen, to the Presidential Secretariat and shake those barriers.

The SJB has organised over Rs. 150 million worth of medical equipment and medicine to over 50 hospitals in Sri Lanka’s poorest districts through the “Husma” program. This includes providing life-saving ventilators at the height of the pandemic, all donated directly to the hospitals using funding from SJB MPs and party members. 

The SJB was even able to attract foreign donations from a friendly nation through their consulate, the first time such support has been extended to an opposition party in Sri Lanka. The SJB has also donated school equipment including computers and smart boards to some of Sri Lanka’s underprivileged schools through the “Sakwala” program. This is work done whilst being in Opposition.

If by effectiveness, Cooray is referring to the effectiveness of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Opposition through 2015-19, manipulating unions and creating a false sense of crisis. Do you recall the infamous bicycle protest when the price of petrol increased by a few Rupees?

What I believe Cooray really means when he talks of effectiveness, is the purchasing of political power through financial incentives. This is what he means. 

This is what he wants the SJB and Sajith Premadasa to do: pay off MPs to support the cause, to switch sides and help the SJB gain power. This is the type of political manoeuvring that the SJB is trying to eradicate and yet Colombo’s elite commentators wish for a deepening of this corrupt system of back-room dealings. 

No, Cooray, if this is what it means to be effective in your world, then we must agree to disagree. The country and the people deserve better, not more of the same.

In the current make up of Parliament, the SJB has 50 seats, which opposition party has double digits? So those commentators such as yourself that are asking the Opposition Leader to “unify” the Opposition have not understood political formations, not from history and not from theory. 

The NPP-JVP, no matter how moderate the now try to appear, have not shown any inclination to work with other moderate parties. The TNA has always been engulfed by communal issues. The Independents and the SLFP consist of the politicians that you say you despise, that you yourself have called traitors and opportunists. On a different page however, you are asking the Opposition Leader to bring them into the fold. Do you see how your strategy will only serve to diminish the credibility of the Opposition? Is that conducive to gaining economic assistance?

You say there is no choice but to work with those that crashed the country, however, the fact is that working with them will only prolong the misery, this seems obvious now after almost 60 days of this new Government. Did you expect the SJB and Sajith Premadasa to walk into an impossible situation with their hands tied behind their backs by an SLPP Parliamentary majority and a constitutionally omnipotent President?

“Unless you find the strength to stand tall and make sacrifices, you cannot hope to succeed,” says Cooray while, in fact, Premadasa has sacrificed personal power and privilege on many dozens of occasions to stand tall and show that principles are worth more than positions.

You ask what Sajith Premadasa and the SJB’s plans are for attracting investment. Premadasa has articulated the economic policies of the SJB many times on national TV. However in specific response to yourself, one of the main drivers of attracting investment is through enhancing credibility and Premadasa has ensured that he remains a credible leader by not falling for political traps and by not trying to resuscitate a failed establishment.

Cooray has missed the point when he states, “You need to explain what you or a future Government led by you would do differently to change the culture of corruption and cronyism that keeps most serious and honest investors away and attracts those looking to pay commissions and make a fast buck.” The SJB has distanced itself from the culture of corruption and cronyism, which is precisely why it remains in the Opposition.

By not surrendering to political deals, by not falling for Rajapaksa traps and by standing on principle, instead of jumping at any opportunity to move in to the Prime Minister’s official residence, Premadasa has demonstrated to all that he is not “cut from the same cloth as every other cookie cutter politician”. It is time the corporate and financial elites such as Krishantha Cooray recognise this fact and formulate themselves around the Opposition Leader for the sake of the country.

Tharindu Ranawaka (Colombo)

Recent columns