Right turn, wrong move
Neville de Silva laments the democratic backsliding that Sri Lanka is witnessing under its current, unelected president – nephew of a former leader with similarly dictatorial tendencies
When this Indian Ocean island gained independence from Britain in 1948, following some 450 years of colonial rule under three western powers, it was simply named the ‘Dominion of Ceylon’.
Granted universal franchise nearly two decades before independence, the country was seen as one of Asia’s first democracies – if not the first.
Sadly, that reputation has fast faded.
Today the right to vote is being denied, with even elections to local bodies halted for various dubious reasons, including a lack of state funds. The most recent desperate move is to have parliament vote to let the expired bodies continue in the absence of elections.
The government’s concern is understandable. It is led by a stand-in president of one party, propped up in parliament by a majority from a one-time political enemy, now living a symbiotic political existence.
Neither of them wants an election, even at the lowest levels of governance, for fear of what the results might signify. Adverse results would sound alarm bells ahead of the presidential elections next year and parliamentary elections the year after, though the president could call parliamentary elections earlier.
Those who look back at Sri Lankan political history since 1977 might well wonder whether current president Ranil Wickremesinghe – filling in until November next year for his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned after fleeing public wrath – has taken a page out of his uncle Junius Richard ‘JR’ Jayewardene’s book of political tactics.
But if ‘Yankee Dicky’, as Jayewardene was called from his early days for his pro-American foreign policy views and capitalist economic outlook, took a turn to the right when he came to power in 1977, his nephew has taken an even sharper turn in that direction. His neoliberal views mesh with the IMF rescue programme intended to pull Sri Lanka out of the economic mess that Gotabaya Rajapaksa created during his short presidency.
Yet Wickremesinghe’s path to economic resuscitation is strewn with political and working-class casualties, against whom some of the most abrasive laws in the country’s statute books, such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), have been deployed. They have upturned international conventions such as the ICCPR to detain dissidents and clamp down on public protests and other rights guaranteed by the constitution that his uncle imposed on the country.
If the IMF agreement calls for the government to sell the family silver, as Wickremesinghe’s offer of even profit-making, state-owned enterprises and other state assets to foreign and local investors suggest, this is bound to have adverse effects on employment, adding to mounting joblessness following the Covid pandemic and President Rajapaksa’s misguided economic policies.
Additionally, a new Labour law that would repeal some 28 existing laws granting workers’ rights, won over the years through hard struggles by leftist trade unions and political parties, would be replaced by stringent new laws heavily weighted in favour of employers. They would jettison many long existing workers’ rights to create a comfortable environment for prospective foreign investors and government politicians’ business cronies.
A new anti-terrorism law, more abhorrent than the PTA, has drawn heavy flak, while an anti-corruption law has just been passed to satisfy the IMF. But this is another hoax. Though Sri Lanka already has stringent laws, not even a handful of politicians have been prosecuted and convicted for bribery and corruption.
Meanwhile, the country is facing a huge brain drain. Since 2022 some 700 or so doctors, specialists and medical staff have left for employment abroad. So have other professionals, including engineers, IT specialists, airline pilots and technicians.
Education Minister Susil Premajayantha admitted in parliament recently that 255 university academics and some 150 non-academic staff have vacated posts since last year.
Furthermore, UN reports have pinpointed the rise of poverty in the country, with families and school children skipping meals because people cannot afford the high prices for domestic essentials like electricity.
The apparent political stability, with no queues and no demonstrators, should not be misconceived. While Wickremesinghe’s governing alliance, in which fissures have been prominent recently, prepares the ground to welcome foreign and local capitalist entrepreneurs, that same ground is being cut from under the feet of the vast majority who survived all these years on their meagre earnings and are now struggling to survive.
In 1972 the then coalition government led by the world’s first woman prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike, which came to power two years earlier, made the final constitutional break with Britain, dropping the British monarch as its head of state and declaring the country the ‘Republic of Sri Lanka’. Yet it maintained the Westminster-style parliamentary system to which it was accustomed.
That government was roundly defeated at the 1977 general election. The right-wing United National Party (UNP), under its new leader Jayewardene, won an unprecedented five-sixths majority in parliament, driving Mrs Bandaranaike’s SLFP to a single digit presence.
Jayewardene decided the country needed a new constitution. But it was drafted without any public consultation, whereas the 1972 constitution was drafted by parliament meeting separately as a constituent assembly.
Jayewardene named himself president and was sworn-in on 4 February 1978 under a new executive presidential system. The name of the country was changed to the ostentatious ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’.
The new name for Sri Lanka was a tragic misnomer. It did not take long for Jayewardene to show that he was neither democratic nor socialist. He set up a presidential commission which hauled up former prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike, her closest minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike and others before it for alleged corruption and abuse of power. They were stripped of their civic rights and eliminated from political activity for seven years.
More concerned with preserving his huge majority in parliament and fearing that a general election would see a resurrected opposition returning in larger numbers, in a move unheard of in democratic governance, the president obtained signed letters of resignation from parliament from all his 140 MPs. Only the date was missing, which the president would fill in if required. That was Jayewardene’s Sword of Damocles, suspended over his own MPs.
But the biggest blot on Jayewardene’s escutcheon were the bloody events of 25 July 1983, when minority Tamils in Colombo and around the country were physically attacked and some 3000, according to reports, were killed, their houses burnt and their businesses destroyed and looted. Thousands were made refugees in their own country or abroad.
The immediate cause for this horrendous and tragic happening was said to be the killing of 13 soldiers by Tamil insurgents in the north. But when the attacks on Tamils and their homes unfolded, as I witnessed that day, there were clear signs of government involvement. The fact that neither the president nor any minister appeared on TV calling a halt to this ethnic convulsion spoke volumes.
When the government did finally speak out, about four days later, it claimed the attacks were a ‘spontaneous outburst of Sinhala wrath’ at the killing of the soldiers.
However, with the international community critical of the government’s inaction to stop the carnage, Jayewardene swiftly changed tack. The government claimed there was a ‘Naxalite’ conspiracy to assassinate government figures and overthrow the administration. A foreign hand – unnamed – was involved, it said.
Jayewardene evoked the Public Security Act to round up opposition politicians and throw them in jail, and seal the Communist Party newspaper.
I remember my friend John Elliott of the Financial Times calling it ‘a crude cover up’, while other foreign journalists simply dismissed the story.
What matters is that, right through these events of the Jayewardene years, Sri Lanka’s current President Ranil Wickremesinghe was a faithful member of his uncle’s cabinet and possibly privy to what went on inside. In fact, if I remember correctly, he made a speech in parliament on the so-called ‘Naxalite’ plot.
But there is one essential difference. JR served two terms as president. His nephew lost two presidential elections and yearns to have a swing at the next to be an elected president. How far will he be willing to go to secure it?
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