The sense of economic optimism expressed by Sri Lanka’s increasingly despotic president is not shared by the country’s long-suffering people, writes , Neville de Silva
Presenting his first budget since assuming office as president after his predecessor fled the country, Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed to see a new dawn on the horizon. Speaking in parliament in mid-November, he saw ‘a glimmer of hope on emerging from the economic abyss’, adding that it was ‘currently visible’.
In his ‘Essay on Man’, English poet and satirist Alexander Pope wrote that ‘hope springs eternal in the human breast’. Wickremesinghe, who was catapulted into the presidency by fortuitous politics and a constitutional provision that dilutes the legitimacy of a publicly-elected president, might well foresee a distant dawn, as the mass protests that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country have subsided – or, more accurately, have been forced into virtual silence.
Certainly, the protests ended largely because long-time politician Wickremesinghe, who for years as Opposition Leader flaunted democratic credentials, employed outdated and obnoxious laws and the security forces to trample on public dissent.
That transmogrification of ‘Ranil the democrat’into what some describe as an ‘autocratic ruler’might not have been as dramatic as Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. But it surely astonished many who had had faith in Wickremesinghe’s greater liberal response to the mass demonstrations that sprang from unprecedented economic hardships, sharply rising living costs and shortages of essentials, which had driven even the lower middle class into poverty and deprivation.
Public surprise was doubly so, for when he was elevated to the premiership last May by a besieged President Rajapaksa,Wickremesinghe even inquired after the welfare of the thousands of protesters camped on the seaside promenade opposite the presidential secretariat and asked the deputy leader of his United National Party (UNP) and cousin Ruwan Wijewardene to look to the protesters’ needs.
Today as I write, of the two student activists who were incarcerated under the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) – on whose use the previous Rajapaksa government promised the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) there would be a moratorium, until a new law compliant with international human rights and humanitarian law is introduced – the Buddhist monk has been released on bail after 89 days in detention, while the other remains in custody,‘under judicial care’.
Despite President Wickremesinghe’s visions of a perceptible economic recovery resulting from the measures he has taken, the general signs are more ominous than he and the Central Bank would like to admit.The US$2.9 billion bail-out from the IMF that was being negotiated to pull Sri Lanka out of its economic morass, which was expected to be successfully concluded by the end of December, is still dragging on.
The debt restructuring that Colombo has sought from its foreign creditors, which should be done before the IMF steps in with any assistance, is still not complete. One reason is said to be China supposedly dragging its feet over it.Beijing is reportedly reluctant to re-arrange Sri Lanka’s debt repayment, fearing that several other indebted developing countries might ask for a rescheduling of their own loans, or call for them to be written off.
Moreover, China is said to be using the opportunity to hasten Sri Lanka into finalising a Free Trade Agreement, which the Indian Ocean nation – whose closest neighbour and, in recent times, biggest donor is India –has been putting off for some time.
If Sri Lanka fails to win IMF acceptance of the bail-out package this month, it will have to wait till next March when the IMF Board of Governors next meets, analysts say, upsetting any economic changes the Wickremesinghe government has in mind.
That is not the only issue Sri Lanka faces in its current dealings with the IMF. Though President Wickremesinghe’s economic reforms announced in his budget might go beyond IMF expectations, some of the government’s recent actions and inaction have evidently raised concerns.
One of the main reasons for Sri Lanka’s economic downfall is widespread corruption among politicians and officials at the highest levels of governance. An endemic problem over the years, it has figured prominently in reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions and in the European Parliament, which has called on the EU Commission to consider suspending Sri Lanka’s GSP Plus trade benefits.
Although there are still some pending cases into bribery and corruption, a President Gotabaya Rajapaksa-appointed commission recommended or actually dropped some cases against ruling politicians and officials, even after the court ordered some convictions.
But strangely (or perhaps not), the Wickremesinghe budget that was expected to state how he would clean up the existing mess made just a passing reference to dealing with this crucial issue, despite a very specific condition by the IMF in its end-of-mission statement last September. The Washington-based institution said that battling corruption is a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, as Colombo’s respected Sunday Times newspaper pointed out.
‘Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance’, is one of the IMF’s preconditions.
In its perceptive editorial, the Sunday Times, owned by President Wickremesinghe’s maternal uncle, asked: ‘Granted, there is a draft anti-corruption law floating around and a passing undertaking to push it through Parliament, but what is holding back the President? Is it the risk of a mutiny by ruling party MPs with allegations of corruption hanging over them?’
What indeed! The current minister of urban development and chief government whip was sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment for extortion,but received only a suspended sentence. He was made a cabinet minister by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and more recently by Ranil Wickremesinghe, with a new portfolio.
Today’s minister of public security had earlier said he was present when money was passedfrom Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign in 2005 to the proscribed secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),to induceits leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to order Tamil voters in the country’s north and east, under LTTE control, to boycott the election. That resulted in Mahinda Rajapaksa winning a very close vote to became president. The victim? Ranil Wickremesinghe, his main rival.
But four months ago, Wickremesinghe appointed this same man, who helped fix a major election that cost him the presidency 17 years ago, as minister of public security. The widely despised police who have been using force to break-up public demonstrations work under him.
As the Sunday Times rightly says, it is political necessity – Ranil Wickremesinghe’s survival as president – that is causing the procrastination and shielding the corrupt from the law.
That is more important to him domestically than bending to demands from international institutions and foreign governments, even though it is to them Colombo has turned with begging bowl in hand.
Wickremesinghe assumed his position of power, which he had failed to win by public assent, because of the Rajapaksa clan, whose fading fortunes led it to elevate him first to the premiership and later to the presidency.
It is the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, Sri Lanka Peoples Front),with its majority in parliament (though this is now dwindling through defections), that voted Wickremesinghe into the presidential seat. So he is beholden to the SLPP for that. What he would not concede, of course, is that it was the people’s struggle (aragalaya) – which he now denounces, having told parliament the other day he will use the military and emergency powers to crush any similar protests in the future – that created the space for him to reach the top of the political totem.
Without the SLPP’s support, he cannot push through legislation in parliament. For that there has to be a quid pro quo. What it is became clear enough when Wickremesinghe made a categorical statement in parliament that he will not hold national elections until there is economic recovery, which might seem a fair argument.
But was that the real and only reason? The pro-Rajapaksa SLPP does not want an election right now, with its future looking thoroughly bleak, given today’s public antipathy towards the Rajapaksa clan and its cronies for reducing the country and its people to penury.
The next general election is due five years from the last parliamentary election in August 2020, though the president has the option of dissolving parliament any time after two-and-a-half years from the last election.
But he will not do that for at least two reasons. If he does any time after next February, he takes an enormous risk of the SLPP being unceremoniously ousted. Some of the current crop of SLPP legislators are in parliament for the first time. If they are ejected before they complete the full five years, they will not get their pensions and other perks.
Nor does Wickremesinghe want to lose control of parliament, as he prepares to push through unpopular legislation and other reforms that are on the cards.
What had raised public ire now is his decision not to hold general elections and the threat to set his ‘dogs of war’ on any aragalaya-style protests, under cover of emergency rule.
With the World Food Programme and other international agencies saying that millions are in need of food aid and more citizens are slipping into poverty, food security is bound to be a serious challenge to the government.
Wickremesinghe’s references to‘glimmers of hope’ will only antagonise more people in the coming months as rising prices and wider economic hardships begin to bite, and the nation is denied the opportunity to elect a new parliament, and the right to peaceful public protests.
If elections must await economic recovery, who will decide that? Will the sole arbiter be the president, who many argue lacks public legitimacy?
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