Sri Lanka: A double whammy for President Sirisena

Image credit: Lanka Puvath

N. Sathiya Moorthy  12 February 2019

As only President Maithripala Sirisena’s camp may have expected, the European Union (EU) has promptly opposed the ongoing moves to reintroduce the death penalty in the country, especially for drug offences. 

Soon, many of the other Western Nations that abhor death as a denial of basic human rights can be expected to lend a voice to the deafening silence of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and International Non
-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) operating in the country, who seem to be confused about the public mood, and possible reaction, to what remains Sirisena’s solo war on drugs in recent months.

‘Death-for-doing-drugs’ sits on the shoulders of Sirisena, who is seen as a conservative than any other leading politician in the country. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and most of his UNP ‘liberals’ may be the least to be trusted on this score, but even the otherwise ‘orthodox Buddhist-nationalist’ in political rival and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa may not measure up, the latter two for no real fault of theirs, other than public perception and slotting.

Despite what the Sirisena camp may say in protest, the unsaid campaign effect of their leader ahead of the presidential polls later this year stands out, yes. However, he does not have the kind of delivery mechanism to take his message to the masses, Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims.

Drugs, democracy, development

After democracy and development, and not necessarily in that order, ‘drugs’ may be one issue that may have a common appeal for people of all walks of life, and from all corners of the country, that too in an election year. Sinhalese academics readily concede the increasing incidence of drug abuse among youth, so do those from other communities, as elsewhere, in some parts of the world.

In the war-torn Tamil areas, both social and political leaders readily concede the increasing, and untrampled daily drug use by their youth. In a unique way, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which otherwise came down heavily on all issues moral and health-related, ended up looking the other way, when youth whom they had taken ‘hostage’ to live with their own grandparents and other relatives in the Nation’s war areas, to ensure that their prosperous parents in the West paid up ransoms regularly, could not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs for them.

The general belief is that any campaign of the kind against drugs, drinking, and even smoking gets a ready constituency in the womenfolk, across the world. Sri Lanka is no exception, where the rural womenfolk may welcome the Sirisena initiative. Whether the current efforts are enough to make drug abuse a poll-winning strategy is unclear, as yet.

Because Sirisena’s last-stop campaign team is not as effective as that of Rajapaksa, and the Wickremesinghe-led UNP, the electoral impact of the same cannot be measured until they are actually known after the elections. How far otherwise, will he be able to take the message to every home across the country, between now and the presidential Elections later this year, is the question.

Politically correct

Barring the voter, there are three major stakeholders in the presidential race. Of them, the Rajapaksa camp seems to be the least impacted in campaign-mode just now. But they may be the worst hit, if the Sirisena campaign proves effective. More Sinhalese families from the rural South, identified with the Rajapaksas, may be the first to look up for a different agenda, which could shed some meaning on their everyday life, after all other promises of the political class had failed them.

In the Tamil areas, if there are anti-drug voters exclusively, they may come from the TNA’s traditional constituency. How to stall such voter-migration would depend on the TNA’s overall campaign strategy, which cannot continue to sound as hollow on the political promises as it has come to be. The less said about the TNA’s traditional and new adversaries, including former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, the better.

The Muslim community as a people, and Islam as a religion, have been more intolerant than others on matters of personal consumption. It is not that other religions encourage them, or permit them, but in Islam, the global propagation against such evils has only been going up, thanks also to the West’s misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the every-day moral tenets.

The greater embarrassment may be in store for Wickremesinghe’s UNP. The party and the leadership, now in Government more effectively than Sirisena’s SLFP-UPFA, will have more questions to answer in the coming weeks and months, though they have not at all been impacted in any way, thus far, since the President launched his unilateral, all-out campaign, not very long ago.

One, Wickremesinghe and his ministers sit in the Cabinet headed by Sirisena, who also chairs Cabinet meetings, where corresponding decisions have to be made, for taking forward Sirisena’s diktat. The UNP cannot be seen as hunting with the hares and running with the hound, but that may happen, if the EU and other third Nations and institutions who abhor the death penalty start applying pressure.

Among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-majority parties that identity with ‘liberal values’ of the ‘no-death-for-drugs’ kind, the UNP comes on the top. Post-constitutional crises, centred on Sirisena, the UNP’s ‘liberal credentials’ got a further boost in Western capitals, without any extra effort or demonstration on the part of the party and the Wickremesinghe leadership.

For now, the UNP, as the ruling party, seems to be playing down the issue, and even possibly distancing itself from the Sirisena ‘initiative.’ In a recent intervention in Parliament, it was left to the low
-profile Prisons Minister, Thalatha Atukorale, to say as if indifferently that “we have already complied with the President’s request,” in making arrangements for enforcing the executions.

As the Minister, however, pointed out, the Government has compiled a list of five death-row convicts in the past months. The execution would become possible only after Sirisena, as President, signed the ‘death warrants,’ personally. It is not unlikely at that stage that some of the death-row inmates, and/or their immediate family members, possibly including a wife or dependent children, appeal for clemency, which is a part of the Nation’s constitutional process, where again the President would be the deciding authority, and the Apex Court, a possible intervener, if approached.

Yet, in the immediate political context, the UNP cannot be seen as opposing any attempt by anyone to stop/minimise drug abuse, even if it may not become a decisive electoral issue. They have to sound and be seen as ‘politically correct,’ whatever be their personal or party views on the subject.

By opposing Sirisena’s move, in the name of the party’s ‘liberal’ credentials, and to be seen as such  by their Western backers, both Governments and rights groups, the UNP might end up making ‘drug abuse’ a key electoral issue, if not the only one. For this, as much as other local community beliefs, the UNP may play along, which means Sirisena may not have as big an issue as his camp may have hoped for.

If not, more than the Sirisena camp and the President personally, the UNP leaders, both inside the Government and outside, may be the ones to take ‘drug-abuse’ as an election issue to individual homes, ethnicity notwithstanding. Similar is the predicament for the Rajapaksas, at times even more. Should the UNP help make ‘drug-abuse’ an election issue favouring Sirisena, then the Rajapaksas might find it difficult to deny him the common candidacy in the presidential polls, and still hope to win as smoothly as they think they could!

Death in two months?

Speaking on the subject in Parliament recently, President Sirisena said the death sentence for drugs-convicts, now in prison, would commence in the next two months. He also reportedly declared that the Welikada Prison had become the ‘headquarters’ for distributing drugs around the country. These prisoners would soon be transferred to another prison, he added.

When executed, the death sentence would return to the ‘Buddhist-majority Nation’ after 43 years, or after 1976. However, as the D-Day is fixed, and rights groups and their Government-backers from elsewhere begin talking about various attendant concerns, as well, then Sri Lanka may get caught up in a traffic jam of excessive news, views and opinions on the subject.

Those views could include the very need to ban the death penalty, then the best and most peaceful ways to end a human’s life with the least misery for the ‘victim,’ and of course, rehabilitation of a family that might have lost its bread-winner (?). In traditional societies as in Sri Lanka, the widowhood of the victim’s wife, and ‘orphaned’ stage of his children too might be made a Media-feed.

If nothing else, these are also issues that have agitated western Societies whenever some States or Nations resort to the death sentence. There, however, invariably, the executions are for ‘graver crimes,’ like mass rape or mass murder, and worse. It is, however, another matter, in most, if not all such cases, the rights campaigners have failed to impress local governments and communities.

Less said about the case of such ‘alien’ leaders like Saddam Hussein, who was considered a mass murderer, but against whom not many of those cases were even taken up, to be proved before ‘kangaroo Courts’ of the West’s making. In Sri Lanka, any excessive campaign on the rights-front could trigger such responses, which in turn could have some traction, with at least a section of the Nation’s voters.

Whether or not, it works out in Sirisena’s favour in electoral terms, it could still act as a pressure point on respective polities if their traditional constituencies ‘feel’ the President. The moment those parties and leaderships, including those of the Rajapaksas and the Wickremesinghes, do not seem to have given it a thought, just as much as the Sirisena camp does not seem to know how to take the campaign forward, in electoral terms, too.

In all this, the views of the religious leaders, especially of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, could become a trigger, though prelates, and may not be the vote-swinger as believed long ago. Sirisena is playing the global game in his own little ways, and sought knowledge and training from the Filipinos, to combat the drug-menace, during a recent meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, in Manila.

Rights groups condemned the Philippines once again, and criticised Sirisena for seeking their help in combating the drug-menace. Whether or not, Sirisena’s team had given weightage to the same prior to the meeting, it is a known fact that President Rodrigo Duterte is not a great friend of the West, as some of his predecessors, and is as expressive with his epithets as only US President Donald Trump has been in our times! 

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1 Comment

    Kumarathasan Rasingam
    February 13, 2019, 2:15 am

    During the LTTE’s de-facto role over the North and East of Sri Lanka there was not a single case regarding drugs. Also there was no illicit brewing of Arrack. and no rape. People lived without fear and happily under the LTTE’s rule.
    Now with the presence of the military to the ratio of one soldier to every 5 civilians in the North and East these crimes happens on daily basis.
    It is suspected that the military is encouraging the youths to take drugs and there is suspected links between the drug dealers and the military.


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