Sri Lanka: Nation At Cross Roads, All-Round

Sathiya Moorthy
4 June 2017

Coupled with the May 19 commemoration of the conclusion of the ethnic/anti-terror war, the subsequent reshuffle of the Cabinet may have put the nation at the cross-roads, all-round than anything else. It may be good in ways, not-so-good in other ways. In the absence of the alternatives, this is the best that could have been hoped for, at least politically though not necessarily otherwise.

A mid-term shake-up of the Cabinet is inevitable under any circumstances. In this case, any further delay would have also made it even more politically untenable than already. Credit should be given to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for standing by their ministers, or at least most them, through thick and thin, and choosing the least pressured time to effect the Cabinet changes.

For instance, the Joint Opposition had fixed a political price on the head of outgoing Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, over the Central Bank scam even before the parliamentary polls of August 2015. Though delayed already from his self-fixed 100-day deadline for dissolving Parliament from the day he assumed the presidency, Sirisena did come to the aid of Ravi K when the JO was taunting the COPE report at the so-called Government for National Unity (GNU).

Fresh parliamentary polls at the time also meant a fresh lease of life for Team Ranil, which had assumed office not necessarily under constitutional circumstances when Sirisena became President in January 2015. It was an irony that advanced presidential polls would upset incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but advanced parliamentary polls would confer greater legitimacy on Team Ranil.

Ravi-Mangala swap

On paper, the swap-deal involving Finance Minister Ravi K and Foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera seems normal and usual. In political terms, it’s so, yes. But otherwise, as Finance Minister Mangala S would need time to learn the ropes in the Finance Ministry before he could initiate actions that could help stabilise the economy, which is nothing great to go by. Continuity might have helped at least in fire-fighting of the kind that Ravi K had excelled in.

Likewise, Ravi K as Foreign Minister would have to follow-up on the promises that Mangala S had made to the international community, especially on accountability probe and UNHRC resolution. Mangala did gain two more years for the nation to report to UNHRC on accountability probe and related issues, but that deadline would come up when Sri Lanka would be readying for fresh polls, first to the presidency and then to Parliament.

Unless there is anticipation in the international community about a possible return of the Rajapaksas, at election-time Ravi K would not have the kind of luxury that Mangala had when the Sirisena-Ranil team took over. He may not be able to get further instalments for his Governments as Mangala could do with nonchalance. He may not be able to market an UNHRC-approved solution of the time to the Government’s domestic constituency. Unlike Mangala at inception, Ravi now at least has the time to work out details.

Arjuna’s bow!

Despite the high-profile ministries and personalities, the Ravi-Mangala swap is not the surprise-element in the Cabinet reshuffle. Instead, the shifting of ex-cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga from Ports Ministry to Petroleum Resources should be watched with interest – and concern.

With help from his brother Duminda Ranatunga, who was/is heading the public sector Sri Lanka Ports (SLP), Arjuna had raised a series of objections to the Government’s casual move on the debt-equity swap with China on the Hambantota port. Apart from the global oil market and prices, which are just now favourable, Arjuna is now charged with a ministry which has been charged with handling the Trincomallee oil tanks farm, involving the Indian neighbour.

On Hambantota front, the Government was faced with mass protests over the swap proposal, both from port workers and the Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition (JO). It is so also on the Trincomallee deal. He however has the comfort on this score if he decides to ‘review’ the Government’s original decision. Before his Delhi visit in March, PM Ranil himself had given a written commitment to the labour unions that the deal would not go through in the immediate (near?) future.

Even more interesting in the Arjuna case is the decision to hand over a ‘UNP ministry’ in this Government to SLFP’s Mahinda Samarasinghe. Media analysts have claimed that President Sirisena’s observation that the reshuffle would provide ‘new impetus’ to development was aimed at the change of leadership at the Ports Ministry even more than the Finance Ministry or any other.

The major party-swap does not end there. Now in the UNP after a long stint in the SLFP, new Finance Minister Mangala S has been charged with Media Affairs as well. He may thus become the Cabinet Spokesperson, a position that was held by controversial Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, a Sirisena acolyte.

With Mangala in focus, some sobriety could well return to weekly Cabinet briefings and other media dealings of the Government. Almost from day one, Rajitha had used the position mainly to target political adversaries within the Government and even from within the Sirisena camp.

Over the past two-plus years, President Sirisena had also mastered and fine-tuned the art of maintaining stoic silence, at least in public, over issues and controversies, be it ‘independent, international investigation into allegations of war-crimes’ or Central Bank scam, or Hambantota deal. The question thus arises if the current Cabinet reshuffle indicates the emergence of a Sirisena-Ranil consensus on this and other issues, including those that may come up in the future.

New Constitution

Prime Minister Ranil has since spoken about his informing Indian counterpart Narendra Modi that work on the promised new Constitution is on track, and the draft would be ready in two months. The fact however remains if the Government leaders know what they want or what they had promised, or what they at least had intent promising for and in a new Constitution, ahead of the 2015 presidential polls.

Outside of the country, much of these expectations were/are on a political solution to the ethnic issue, starting with power-devolution. Inside, too, Sri Lankan Tamils to a greater extent and Muslims and Upcountry Tamils in a lesser way, too, had/have anticipated the same.

However, to the Sinhalas, if at all, it was/is more about Executive Presidency and the like. To all sections within the country, ‘unitary State’ and electoral reforms are still issues – though, too, varying degrees.

It is not about what the draft Constitution would have to offer. It is more about what it could at all offer. It requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament for getting a draft passed. But unlike Budget-2017, which mustered the numbers, a new Constitution is not just about individual MPs and their political parties staying on as MPs.

Instead, it is more about their being able to face the electorate, as and when elections became due. It might require a referendum, and mostly probably a judicial review ahead of presentation to Parliament. The question thus arises if it could be a new Constitution, or would only have to be a set of amendments to the existing one – if only to avoid a referendum per se, but more so to ‘deny’ and/or decline a set of the poll-eve promises.

Without fresh debates on a new Constitution, the Government is united, both inside and outside Parliament. The Rajapksa-centric Joint Opposition (JO), by whatever name called, can be expected to contest some/many of the promised or expected concepts and features, provisions and clauses. At this pace, the provincial council polls in three Provinces, including Sirisena’s North-Central Province (NCP) could come ahead of the constitutional discourse, debate and vote(s).

Already, the Government has not been able to explain (away) the continued delay in conducting the nation-wide local government elections. Indications are that the Government parties are not convinced about victory against JO in the Sinhala areas, against the Rajapaksa camp. The Sirisena and Ranil camps are even more unsure about contesting against each other in the PC polls and local government polls, without triggering a vertical split in the GNU combine.

Tamils’ dilemma

It does not stop there, either. Clearly, a part of the constitution-making/amending process is all about power-devolution and political solution to the ethnic issue. Apart from what the Tamil wants and what the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State are willing to give, the Tamils’ party in the TNA is already in sixes and sevens.

The internal strife in the TNA has been coming out in the open, one day after the next. In the case of the ‘Big Two’ in the Sinhala polity, there are as much ideological differences as there are ego clashes. Among the Tamils too, the old, pre-war, pre-LTTE wounds have reopened. Or, they are being prised open, going beyond the raw hurt and sense of injury against the Sinhala majority.

It was sad and unbecoming that TNA’s tallest leader in R. Sampanthan was heckled by his own party cadres and fellow-Tamils at the party’s annual observances of the war’s end on 18/19 May. It would be even more unacceptable for anyone to point a finger at Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran for this, but then he has been emerging as a taller leader of the community than anyone else, since coming to office.

The Sampanthan-Wigneswaran differences may now have a personality element to it, but they too are all about ideological issues. If they agree on anything ethnic, it is only about the modus of not taking on, or supporting militancy, to achieve a political solution. But on the solution issue itself, there are sharp differences.

Neither are the two leaders and camps ready to articulate it in public, for the rest of the nation and the rest of the world to hear and help address them. Nor are they willing to discuss and dilate it at the leadership level. When a new Constitution draft is offered, these differences could come to the fore without the Tamils not having discussed and debated them among them without extraordinary pressures or external pressures, be it from the Diaspora or the international community or both.

The only difference between them is that Sampanthan has all along represented the spirit and persona of the Tamil moderates. Wigneswaran just now is only seen as a mouthpiece or mirror of the hard-liners, who otherwise are settled overseas without having to face the ground realities themselves.

Yet, he is on a stronger wicket locally, and that has its own consequences for the Constitution-making process. It now suits the Government leaderships and also the international community to talk to Sampanthan and the TNA parliamentary group that remains undivided as yet under his stewardship. They can ignore the Wigneswaran camp and also the Northern Provincial Council group within the party, but not after the draft statute is out.

The writing is all on the wall – the nation is actually at the cross-roads, be it domestic politics or foreign policy, economic development and international aid and agreements. It is not that the nation’s multiple leadership(s) is not reading it. They do not want to read it aloud lest it should catch the attention of the people, who are already reeling under different issues and distinct concerns, caused by the Government and the polity – all of it getting reflected, rightly or wrongly, and for right reasons and wrong, by the multiplicity of trade union actions and student protests. They do not seem to end, or ebb.

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