There Ravi Karunanayake sat, flanked by the lieutenants of his new fief, gamely fielding combative questions thrown at him by members of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. Many of them, including the Chamber’s President Suresh Shah, addressed him simply as ‘Ravi’—no Honourable Minister he. The atmosphere of the occasion was almost surreal: a sea-change from just one month ago, when even the Rajapaksa Government’s Treasury Secretary, P.B. Jayasundera, acted as if he were God and senior ministers rose deferentially to their feet when one of the President’s offspring entered a room. The sweeping transformation of Sri Lanka’s political culture in just a few weeks has been absolute and unprecedented. But this new-found freedom, if not nurtured wisely, could still spell its own doom. No one who witnessed the fall of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government in 2004 could view the present goings on without a cold shudder and a sense of déjà vu.
Remember December 2001? After years of bombs and slaughter, Wickremesinghe cashed in on the global swing against terrorism that followed the 9/11 mayhem to force a ceasefire on the LTTE. The checkpoints and barricades disappeared overnight. And we saw even then many of the reforms we now see being replayed. Ministers were forbidden to muscle their way through traffic with siren-blaring escorts; the media took a deep breath of new-found freedom; foreign investment gushed in and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, with the creation of the Constitutional Council, at last created a mechanism that guaranteed the independence of those arms of government that should be independent.
The 2003 Debacle
But all this newfound liberalism wasn’t to everyone’s liking. The half of the Sri Lankan constituency that was (and remains) nationalist was sharpening its claws and pawing the dust impatiently. Biding her time, in November 2003, Chandrika Kumaratunga used the pretext of the LTTE demanding an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) to sack three of Wickremesinghe’s ministers, including Defence Minister Tilak Marapone. A slanging match between the UNP Government and the People’s Alliance’s president ensued, with the latter frantically fanning the flames of nationalism to discredit the former.
Then, on December 12, 2003, the death in St Petersburg, Russia, of the Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera played right into the hands of the PA. Certain sections quickly labelled it a Christian conspiracy and demanded a commission of inquiry, burning the odd church while the government stood shell-shocked by this new phenomenon. The commission quickly added fuel to the fire by hinting vaguely that the Thera’s death was a homicide. Somehow, Christian fundamentalists had infiltrated Russia and murdered the Ven. Thera, though no one knew quite how. Not four months later, Wickremesinghe had lost the ensuing general election and sat licking his wounds in Srikotha.
It would be reckless of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Administration to lose sight of that precedent. If only he were familiar with the works of the Poet Dryden, Mahinda Rajapaksa might even now be saying, “I am sore wounded but not slain; I will lay me down and bleed a while, and then rise up to fight again”. And no one is more able, and better equipped with the rhetoric and gumption to fan the flames of nationalism than Mr. Rajapaksa.
It would be a grave error for the new government, anxious to portray its Nice-Guy image, to allow that to be mistaken for weakness. Just moments after he was sworn in as President, Maithripala Sirisena proclaimed that he was a one-term proposition, not a hankerer after power and glory. Just last Saturday he requested, in his customarily humble manner, that he not be addressed as Your Excellency and that his wife not be referred to as the First Lady or the Sinhala honorific ‘Aryawa’. Kudos to him. A hangover from the time of British colonial governors, Your Excellencies have no place in a modern-day republic. What is more, the president has spared no pains to clip his own wings, retaining for himself few powers and giving up some of the most colourful of his privileges. And the wing-clipping is set to continue with the constitutional changes now being drafted.
How all this will resonate with the electorate however, is another matter. Sri Lankan memories are short, and such gratitude as the people might have for a government genuinely striving to pass off as its servants could well prove transitory. The emasculation of the executive in the name of democracy, if taken to excess, could well spell the doom of that very democracy.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the new-found freedom of the media. While nothing is more important to our fundamental liberties than a free media, this freedom also provides the likes of Mohan Peiris a platform from which to air their odious views. Of course they have the right to do this, and the media has the right—nay the duty—to reflect the full spectrum of political diversity. But the government has so far shown little stomach to combat Peiris’s attempts to whitewash his profoundly soiled reputation. Even if he was not party to a coup conspiracy in the early hours of 9 January, his presence at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s side at that time exudes the foulest odour. What business had the Chief Justice in Temple Trees at such a time? After all, he is not an advisor to the government. It merely colours him as partial to one side of the political divide at a time when he should have had no side. And the country should have no truck with a chief Justice of that ilk.
Meekness or Weakness?
Even after that, his attempts to bargain his exit by haggling for a plum diplomatic posting, and then calling up the president to offer favourable judgements, shows up a man unfit to hold any public office, let alone that of the island’s supreme jurist. It is at its peril that the government fails to show up people like Peiris for the low life that they are: turning the other cheek simply does not work in such cases. And it must never forget that Mahinda Rajapaksa continues to lurk in the wings, darkly machinating his return. Maithripala’s simplicity should not be allowed to pass for weakness, and it would be suicidal for him to assume that his adversaries entertain the same scruples as he does. All the more reason then, that the rampant corruption that was alleged during the presidential campaign be investigated and prosecuted. With upwards of 600 allegations of bribery and corruption already having been levelled against the former regime, this is a herculean task. What is more, the conventional means of police investigation—the recording of countless statements and following numerous paper trails—is hardly likely to catch the biggest crooks. In this modern era of internet banking and secretive offshore tax havens, tracking down miscreants calls for equally sophisticated sleuths. The modern detective must, in addition to knowing the tricks of the erudite money-launderer, be a competent computer hacker and know the ins and outs of banking. Anything less is likely to let the biggest fish slip by.
Additionally, one must bear in mind that it is not always the most elaborate or the largest scam that is easiest to prosecute. Oscar Wilde might well have won his defamation case against the Marquis of Queensbury had not the latter’s advocate, Edward Carson QC, caught Wilde lying about his age. Such was Wilde’s vanity that he had claimed under oath to be rather younger than he was. And this seemingly trivial slip was all Carson needed to drive home his rapier and end Wilde’s brilliant, colourful career.
Likewise, for all the sins of his nine years in office, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Achilles heel could very likely be the Helping Hambantota scam, in which he put himself in grave jeopardy by siphoning to a private account controlled by his family upwards of Rs.80 million in tsunami aid given to the government. There could be no clearer case of misappropriation than that, and a wealth of evidence for multiple offences has already been widely published. What is more, Rajapaksa enjoys no immunity (save that offered him by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court presided over by Sarath Silva, who now says he regrets his judgement) and could very easily be called to account for his actions. There is no gainsaying that if Rajapaksa were still president and Ranil Wickremesinghe were caught with his hand in the till, the latter would now be busy making numberplates in the Welikada Gaol.
Thus, even as the new administration settles in to clean up the stables and usher in a new, progressive era of democratic reform, it must be vigilant and watch its back. It may have won an election, but barely a month later, as Monday’s rumpus in parliament showed, the Opposition is far from cowed: on the contrary it is more alive and aggressive than the UNP ever was. And their goal is simple and straightforward: to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister under an emasculated presidency come June this year. Unless the government looks very sharp indeed, this is all too likely to happen. Camelot is under siege: let no one doubt it.
Edward Hapuarachchi Thursday, 05 February 2015 07:24 PM
This is a real eye opener for the government. Do not under estimate the Opposition. They are gunning for the premiership. MR is able and willing. As a foreign friend of mine predicted, MR, if not exposed and sealed, will rise up to come back. As we have witnessed in the past, many ex leaders in south east Asia did not go home humbly. Most wanted to turn back and hit even when there was clear public opinion.In making decisions to retreat and come back later, there are many who advise to do so. Sri Lanka has many.
Wijitha Thursday, 05 February 2015 08:45 PM
The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, with the creation of the Constitutional Council was not during the UNP government of 2001/2004
Citizen Thursday, 05 February 2015 05:17 PM
I hope the President and Prime Minister will read this article and take damage control action now itself. As suggested they can get the Helping Hambantota issue back and publish a beak down of the massive expenditure of the former President and his family for which people were charged duty on milk and food.
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