Sept 2022

In the crosshairs

Neville de Silva navigates Sri Lanka’s ever more chaotic political landscape as its leaders, past and present, face censure both at home and abroad

They called him ‘Mr Clean’. But in the world of politics, such sobriquets are not necessarily untainted, especially if one’s political life spans close to five decades.

So when Ranil Wickremesinghe, fortuitously or otherwise, suddenly became Sri Lanka’s prime minister and, two months later, was elevated to the post of the country’s 8th executive president by the Rajapaksa family-dominated government, he came not only carrying suspect past baggage, but also with highly damaged new baggage.

The wrath of the public – who for months had been demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and return home (presumably to Los Angeles), and the rest of the Rajapaksa family to quit politics for the unprecedented mess they had made of the country’s economy and the lives of most of the 22 million people – now turned on Ranil Wickremesinghe.

To many, the unveiling political drama of the defeated leader of the totally rejected United National Party (UNP), trounced by the Rajapaksas-led SLP Pat the August 2020 parliamentary election, ending up, first as prime minister and shortly afterwards as the all- powerful executive president in a Rajapaksa government, seemed unbelievable.

In the increasingly incredulous and suspicious public mind, the only conceivable explanation was of a noxious political deal struck between then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, gripped in a vortex of a fast-collapsing economy and spreading social malcontent, and an opposing party leader without a single parliamentary seat and no electoral mandate or public legitimacy.

Sri Lanka’s worsening problems of rising shortages of food, fuel and medicines, sharply declining foreign reserves (leading to the slashing of some essential imports) and failing domestic agriculture were largely the creation of President Rajapaksa and his cohort of over-rated advisers from academia and business circles, as well as misplaced military men with no experience in governance and civil administration.

Pressed on the one side by growing rebelliousness among the population and on the other by a deepening economic crisis, fathered largely by ten years of Mahinda Rajapaksa rule starting in 2005, and more recently by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency that saw corruption, fraud, profligacy in mega vanity projects, nepotism and cronyism multiply exponentially (as some claimed), President Gotabaya was looking to pass on the burden of halting the slide and hopefully restoring normalcy.

‘MR CLEAN’: Sri Lanka PM Ranil Wickremesinghe

That, he expected, would be a temporary panacea. It would shift the limelight away from the Rajapaksa clan which, at the time, held five cabinet positions, including those of prime minister and finance minister, until a Lazarus-like second coming, when the public had hopefully forgiven their multiple indiscretions that had roused international condemnation.

Elder brother Mahinda’s resignation from the premiership on May 9, followed by the entire cabinet, cleared the way for President Gotabaya to look for a new prime minister.

The resignations came after pro-Rajapaksa mobs launched vicious, unprovoked attacks on unarmed and peaceful protesters demanding an end to Rajapaksa-rule. All the while the police, armed with batons and water cannons, stood by, leaving the mobs to do their worst. Later that day, these attacks generated retaliatory responses against SLPP parliamentarians, with their homes being burned in many parts of the country.

Wickremesingh badly needs international support if he is going to push through his planned economic revival

President Rajapaksa turned to Wickremesinghe, though apparently he was not the first to be approached. Rajapaksa’s initial call was to opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, possibly to satisfy constitutional protocol.

Wickremesinghe had played his cards shrewdly. That came as no surprise, as he had been tutored in political craftsmanship and Machiavellian manoeuvres by his uncle Junius Richard Jayewardene, Sri Lanka’s first Executive President, an astute and wily politician variously known as ‘Yankee Dicky’, Old Fox’ and ‘20th Century Fox’, but popularly called ‘JR’.

Though the Wickremesinghe-led UNP, derisively called Uncle-Nephew Party, had been annihilated, losing every single seat it contested at the 2020 election, his saving grace was the one ‘Nationalist List’ seat it was entitled to, based on the total votes it polled.

While Wickremesinghe could have entered parliament in September 2020 using his allocated seat, he stayed away until June 2021, possibly to let the ignominy of defeat recede from public memory.

Moreover, he seems to have wanted President Rajapaksa and his advisers to slide deeper into the morass they’d created. When he did return to parliament, spouting Cassandra-like prophesies of gloom and doom and implying he knew the solutions, he appeared as the much-needed voice of sanity in a Rajapaksa-dominated parliament of mounting disarray.

With clamorous cries for President Gotabaya’s resignation, Wickremesinghe saw the prime ministerial role as a possible stepping-stone to the presidency that had always eluded him. But the only way to the top right then was through a vote in parliament – constitutionally permissible but morally questionable and lacking legitimacy, as some argued.

The IMF said it requires ‘adequate assurances’ from Sri Lanka’s creditors before it will negotiate any assistance programme

But that was possible only with the support of the Rajapaksa-managed SLPP(or ‘Pohottuwa’) party that wielded a parliamentary majority. It is claimed that the quid pro quo for the Pohottuwa vote, and to sustain Wickremesinghe’s intended reforms through parliament, was for him to protect Rajapaksa interests, and their close associates from judicial action and possible international intervention.

So some began to publicly call Wickremesingh ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ for seemingly fronting for the family. This, they believe, will be proved soon when a new cabinet is named and former highly discredited people appear in the list.

But of more immediate concern, and with far-reaching consequences, is whether President Wickremesinghe has over-reached himself. Despite continuing negotiations, he has failed to put together an All Party Government (APG) he has tried to broker, and lacks the political stability that the IMF has called for, though he has managed to usurp a few from one party or another.

Furthermore, the IMF, which has a staff-level team in the country as I write, said it requires ‘adequate assurances’ from Sri Lanka’s creditors before it will negotiate any assistance programme.

For several years the UNHRC has been introducing increasingly critical resolutions on Sri Lanka

So Wickremesingh badly needs international support if he is going to push through his planned economic revival. He is now appealing to China, the country’s closest ally during the Rajapaksa regimes, to change its views on debt restructuring, and calling on Japan to host a meeting of Sri Lanka’s major creditors and help clear the way for an IMF assistance.

But President Wickremesinghe’s seeming lack of concern for international opinion in other areas of gathering concern, especially to major western countries and UN agencies, is troubling.

Sri Lanka is on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in less than two weeks, with a more stringent resolution –based mainly on an updated report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights – confronting the island nation.

For several years now the UNHRC has been introducing increasingly critical resolutions on Sri Lanka, damning its human rights record, violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws, and avoidance of accountability hearings on those suspected of such breaches, including security forces.

Besides, the European Parliament had earlier resolved that the EU should consider suspending, as it had done under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the GSP Plus trade concessions granted to Sri Lanka for not adhering to some of the 27 international conventions and laws including human rights and ILO agreements Sri Lanka is signatory to.

The issue reaching critical mass is President Wickremesinghe’s use of emergency powers from the beginning of his presidency and now the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), with several obnoxious provisions.

The UNHRC, the EU and international human rights organisations and legal watchdogs such as Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and Human Rights Watch have been calling for its abolition or, at least, a drastic rewrite, eliminating provisions that violate Sri Lanka’s own obligations as signatory to several international laws and conventions.

As soon as the emergency lapsed on August 18, the dreaded PTA was brought into operation. Under it, the leader of the Inter University Students Federation and two other student activists including a Buddhist monk, were arrested. The defence ministry, of which Wickremesinghe is minister, ordered that they be held for 90 days of a possible 12 months. There will be no judicial oversight, so what happens to them in that period will not be public. Their legal counsel could also be denied access, and any confessions made to a police officer, even those extracted under torture, are admissible in court.

Meanwhile, other arrests have continued on various charges. One report suggests that so far, 3353 activists have been arrested and 1255 are still in remand custody, though figures are not confirmed.

Sri Lanka’s PTA – based largely on British laws during the IRA violence and South Africa’s apartheid-era laws – was first admitted as temporary legislation in 1979. The fact that it became law under President JR Jayewardene, Ranil’s uncle, speaks volumes for the obnoxiousness of its provisions.

Wickremesinghe possibly presumes that his pro-US and largely pro-western leanings would allow him to weather any storm from the US-led ‘Core Group’ on Sri Lanka and adverse UN reports, while he stamps on dissent at home.

So what transpires at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva later this month, when Sri Lanka is in the crosshairs, will be well worth watching.

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 the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London