July 2023

Double trouble

An uneasy pact between two opposing political forces has done little to alleviate Sri Lanka’s continuing woes, writes Neville de Silva 

Politics, say those not averse to paraphrasing Shakespeare, makes strange bedfellows.

Last July two of Sri Lanka’s leading political parties and arch enemies decided to bed down together, not because of a new-found intimacy but rather for their political survival.

As mounting public protests and calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign reverberated across the country and demands grew to include the SLPP government led by his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president responded by removing his brother and his cabinet in May last year.

With the country’s economy heading towardsthe abyss, unable to pay its accumulated foreign debts, the president of this bankrupt country turned to Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of a bankrupt party rejected by the people and with a single seat in parliament (that, too, secured indirectly through the National List), and offered him the role of prime minister.

Whether President Rajapaksa thought that the six-time prime minister, with decades of political experience, could save the nation, or he was more intent on saving the Rajapaksa family from political obscurity, if not oblivion, as some observers argue, remains speculative.

But Wickremesinghe, the sole UNP member in parliament, had to have a quid pro quo ifhe was to  protect the Rajapaksa clan and negotiate with the IMF, to which Gotabaya had desperately turned, and push through necessary legislation in parliament which the IMF was bound to demand if a financial bailout was to be considered.

The arrangement was that the Rajapaksa-led SLPP (Sri Lanka People’s Front), which still had a parliamentary majority, would provide the new prime minister with legislative backing.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
The Rajapaksas suspect that Wickremesinghe (pictured) is trying to split or weaken their party

That seemed to work well at the beginning, with the unusual spectacle of the SLPP, which had lost some of its MPs to the opposition, hailing Wickremesinghe as a new messiah, whereas previously they had abused him.

But this was no ‘marriage of true minds’, in Shakespeare’s words. One year on, the ‘impediments’are beginning to show. Sharing one bedis starting to get uncomfortable.

Last month President Wickremesinghe called SLPP leaders and district representatives to a meeting with him.That visibly annoyed the Rajapaksas, in particular, who let him know that,although president, he had crossed the line. Moreover, the Rajapaksas suspect that Wickremesinghe is trying to split or at least weaken their party by winning over some of its MPs, including certain ministers, so they will back him as he fixes his sights on next year’s presidential election.

At 75next March, it could be his last shot at the top job, which has eluded him over the past decades.

One year on, the ‘impediments’ are beginning to show

There is another sticking point, too. The SLPP wants some former ministers and prominent members appointed to the cabinet,which now has 22 but could legally accommodate 30. But Wickremesinghe has beenignoring the call or pushing back, mainly because some of those named have dubious histories.

With Wickremesinghe obviously intent on trying to turn his part-time presidency, serving out Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unfinished term, into a permanent one, he does not want ministers with unsavoury recordsaround him.

So the tug-of-war is on. Both sides hold trump cards and have for some months. The SLPP could queer Wickremesinghe’s pitch by not supporting the president’s legislation, including some which are necessary to meet IMF requirements or others that may require two-thirds majorities if the Supreme Court so determines.

But if he smells trouble ahead, with the SLPP ganging up against him or undercutting him politically, he now has the power to dissolve parliament, That, most likely, woulddespatch many of the current SLPP MPs and party candidates into the political sunset at any general election (officially due late next year), given the current public ire.

President Wickremesinghe and his political backers, some of them won over from the SLPP, speak confidently of Sri Lanka’s economic revival, with the inflation rate – previously hovering around 70 per cent – now down to the 20sand the Central Bank expecting it to soon drop to a single digit. The long queues for fuel and gas are long gone, they claim, and food shortages have largely ended.

But the flip side paints a different picture. The Department of Census and Statistics conveys part of it.Its statistics show the overall economy has shrunk by 11.5 per cent in the first quarter. The industry sector has been the hardest hit, experiencing a contraction of 23.4 per cent.

Dept of Census and Statistics stats show the overall economy has shrunk by 11.5 per cent in the first quarter

These results add to Sri Lanka’s poor performance in 2022, when the overall economy shrank by 8 per cent. This downward trend continues, with many businesses forced to close down.

Meanwhile, Sunday Times economic analyst Dr Nimal Sanderatne said in his 25 June column that, while there is a degree of economic stabilisation and expectations of further improvement, most economic activity has contracted, causing feelings of despair. ‘The discontent is owing to the high prices, despite the improved availability of essentials,’ he wrote. ‘The decreased real income of people, higher unemployment, increased poverty, and malnutrition are serious concerns.’

Add to that the exodus of professionals such as doctors, engineers, IT specialists and other educated Sri Lankans, quitting for foreign employment.Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa recently told parliament that, in the last several months, 70 pilots from Sri Lankan Airlines,the national carrier, had resigned while another 18 are due to join a Dubai international airline, leaving Sri Lanka with fewer than 260 pilots. It needs 330 pilots to operate optimally.

WORDS OF WARNING: UN Deputy HC for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting internationally. The IMF wants action taken to clean up governance and corruption, which have been the bane of Sri Lanka over the last few decades. The IMF has said that‘anti-corruption and governance reforms are imperative’ to ensure forthcoming reforms benefit the people.

Conscious of Sri Lanka’s failure on both counts at the time the IMF was engaged in negotiations, the Fund has made the island nation the first country in Asia to undergo an IMF diagnostic exercise, with the report due in September.

Recent cases where State ministers are not being arrested for serious offences, whereas an opposition MP is arrested for a relatively minor offence – which violates the constitutional principle of equal justice for all –are glaring examples of the arbitrary use of the law.

September could be a particularly crucial month for the government. The IMF’s diagnostic report, among other assessments, could determine whether Sri Lanka qualifies for the Fund’s second tranche of its $2.9 billion bailout.

But equally, if not more importantly, couldbe the full written update the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is due to present in September on how far Sri Lanka has progressed in implementing several recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council.

In its very critical assessment of the situation in Sri Lanka, Deputy High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif, in her oral update to the Council last month, said that ‘accountability remains the fundamental gap in attempts to deal with the past’, meaning the country’s pre- and post-war conduct against the Tamil separatist LTTE and the Tamil community at large. If impunity continues, the country will achieve neither genuine reconciliation nor sustainability, she said.

But the most testing warning to the government and the country’s ethno-nationalists was her later seeming threat.

‘As long as this “accountability deficit” remains the international community can – and should – play complementary roles. Means to do so include the use of accepted principles of universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators.’

Al-Nashif did not rule out targeted sanctions against ‘credibly alleged perpetrators’.

That should sound the alarm for many, including political leaders and the armed forces.The US and Canada have already banned entry to some. The fear is that other countries may now look to do the same, or even go beyond.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London