Problems for the New Sri Lankan Government
MA (Cantab), MBBChir (Cantab), MD (Lond), FRCP (Lond), FRACP.
Despite an outrageous abuse of State power and the violation of every election rule, the Sinhalese people have spoken. They have spoken loud and clear against the brutal, dictatorial, incompetent and corrupt People’s Alliance (PA) Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The Tamils are delighted and think their problems will be solved. They usually do with every change in the Sinhala leadership. As I have said in “What can the Tamils expect from the 2001 Election”, (www.sangam.org), the Tamils are the world’s greatest optimists. Every ripple in the Sinhala parliament appears to them as a tidal wave sweeping away Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism. What is needed is a change in the mind-set of the Sinhala leadership, not just a change of faces. There is no evidence whatsoever that there has been this crucial change. This may sound like pathological pessimism but the Tamil euphoria may be unrealistic optimism. What has been achieved on 5 December 2001 is a replacement of one Sinhala parliament by another.
A New Sinhala Parliament
As I have said in my previous article, the December 5th Election was to elect a Sinhala Parliament. The Tamils are out of the equation. Their problems are discussed only when it is necessary to pass some repressive legislation e.g. Emergency Regulations which enable Tamils to be held without charge or trial at undisclosed sites, tortured, raped or be subjected to that Sri Lanka specialty – ‘disappearances’. (Sri Lanka has the 2nd highest incidence of ‘disappearances’ in the world – only second to Iran, says the UN reports of 1999 and 2000)
If one needed convincing that it is a Sinhala Parliament, one need only look at the voting and the line-up of Ministers in the new (UNP) Government.
In the Sinhalese South 75-80% of voters were able to exercise their franchise. Contrast this with the Tamil areas. In Jaffna and the Vanni, only a third voted, i.e. 60% were effectively disenfranchised. In some areas it was a farce. In Kilinochchi only 3.8% voters got to the polls. In Mullaitivu it was even worse – only 1.1% of the 53,158 voters (just 630) were able to vote. The MP for Mullaitivu from Kumaratunga’s PA was elected with 298 votes and represents 0.5% of the population! The fact that the Sinhala Parliament does not represent the Tamils becomes all too clear.
The Ministerial line-up confirms this. In Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s new UNP government, even the Minister for Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees, essentially a problem in the Tamil areas, is a Sinhalese from the South! How much more ‘Sinhalese’ can one get?
The problems which will have to be addressed are:
The new United Front (UF) Government faces monumental problems. It is not just a question of settling the ongoing ethnic conflict, important as this is. There are equally serious problems outside the ethnic arena.
1. The problem of governance
Perhaps the most urgent action needed is for the UNP government to do something about the Executive Presidency and its occupant.
a) Dismantling the Executive Presidency and returning power to Parliament.
b) Deciding whether President Kumaratunga is fit to continue as the President?
2. The ethnic problem
It is, of course, imperative that the ethnic conflict be settled. To do this the Sri Lankan people and their government (be it the UNP or the SLFP) will have to accept that Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala-Buddhist country but a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural country. If this cannot be accepted, the chaos will continue. As Voltaire said, “if we believe in absurdities [the absurdity of Sri Lanka being a Sinhala-Buddhist nation] we will commit atrocities [the war in the Tamil areas]”.
The necessary requirements are:
a) To accept the right of self-determination for the Tamil people (12.5% of the population).
b) To tender an apology to the Tamil people in the North and East for what has been done to them.
c) To bring the perpetrators of what can only be described as “crimes against humanity” to book – irrespective of their standing, present or past.
d) To stop the continuing abuse of human rights in the North and East.
e) To lift the embargo on goods to the North which is causing so much civilian suffering/hardship.
f) To control the Armed Forces and make them accountable.
3. Non-ethnic problems
These are serious, if not, more serious than the ethnic problem.
a) Rampant bribery and corruption at every level including, and especially, the top.
b) Murder as a form of governance.
c) The breakdown of law and order with thugs and hoodlums in the underworld replacing the police.
d) An economy on the verge of collapse.
The list is by no means exhaustive.
Is this our business?
Is it the business of those who have decided to leave the country to “dabble in the internal affairs of the country”. The answer is “most certainly, yes”. Why?
Chaos in one country results in a fall-out in other countries. As Sri Lanka disintegrates, refugees, be they humanitarian or economic (it matters little) think it worth the risk contacting the nearest ‘people smuggler’, paying huge sums of money to get into leaky boats which sink off the Australian coast (or arrive there only to be diverted to be “processed” in Nauru). Damage is done to the image of Australia as a caring country, to say nothing of the enormous expenditure incurred in bribing Pacific nations (currently of the order of A$500 million a year) to house these uninvited visitors. If the astronomically increasing problem of refugees is to be addressed, countries at the receiving end such as Australia, Canada, US, UK and European countries, to name just a few, will have to focus on the source of the problem rather than try to put up inhumane shutters. So, Sri Lanka’s problem becomes our problem and we have a right, an obligation, to “interfere”.
Major human rights violations in a country are no longer considered an “internal affair” of that country. e.g. the international condemnation of apartheid in South Africa, the condemnation of Indonesia’s action in East Timor, the barbarism in the Congo and in Tienamin Square, the human rights crisis in the former Yugoslavia. Sri Lanka cannot claim that the “Tamil problem” is out of bounds to comment from the international community. It is not.
When the destruction ends, the task of rebuilding the country falls on the international community. A good example is East Timor. We watched, we waited for years, while the murderous regime in Jakarta systematically raped that country and its people, reducing East Timor to a mere shell with no suprastructure, no infrastructure – nothing. It will take the UN 50 years to rebuild East Timor. The UN, i.e. we, pays for this little exercise. We therefore have a right to try and prevent a similar devastation in Sri Lanka which is already far advanced in the North and East`
We in the international community have the right to ask the hard questions and say the harsh things (if necessary) to bring sense to a senseless situation which may well become our problem (it already is).
Some would claim that the people of Sri Lanka can decide their fate. No, they cannot, any more than the East Timorese under the barbaric regime in Jakarta could have decided their fate.
1.The Executive President
Should the Executive Presidency be dismantled?
The December 2001 Election was not about changing governance but about changing the head of a castrated parliament. If the Sinhalese people want a change of governance, they will have to get rid of the powers of the Executive President and return power to where it should be in a democracy – Parliament.
This is not to say that nothing has been achieved on 5 December 2001. A step has been taken in the direction of sanity but if the Sri Lankan people want a meaningful step taken, then the mandate for the new United National Front (UNP and its allies - UNF) Government should have been (or will have to be) such that they have a 2/3 majority in parliament which would enable this body to dismantle the sweeping powers of the Executive Presidency. The journey to sanity has only just begun. The necessary goal might have been achieved if the rigging of the elections and other malpractices by the Kumaratunga Government had not been so great.
However there still may be possibilities in the near future to rectify this. The Local Council elections have been fixed for March 2002, and elections to the Provincial Councils a little later. If the Sinhalese overwhelmingly vote against Kumaratunga’s party, there will be a clear message sent to her that she has no moral right to continue as President. However, just a “message” may not be enough. The people might well have to protest on the streets.
There is also the possibility of pressure being exerted by the electorate on some of the PA MPs to cross over, if only to provide the Government with the 2/3 majority needed to change the Constitution and get rid of the Executive Presidency. It is all up to the Sinhalese people. The question that has to be put to them is “Do you want to live in a Presidential dictatorship or in a Democracy with a proper Prime Minister and an accountable Parliament?”
There is no one who disagrees that the sweeping powers given to the Executive President must be removed. Chandrika Kumaratunga herself, before she became the Executive President, was one of the most vocal critics on this assault on democracy by former President J.R. Jayawardene via his 1978 Constitution.
In October 2001, Kumaratunga wanted to have a Referendum on this. A Referendum is not needed since there is no one (including herself) who thinks that the country does not need a new Constitution.
Kumaratunga’s ploy was to dismantle the Executive Presidency after her (last) term in office, which ends in 2005 and then return Executive power to Parliament and the Prime Minister. She could then contest for the position of Prime Minister and, if successful, would ensure that Executive power remained with her.
These self-serving strategies should not be allowed to work. The Executive Presidency must be dismantled now, not in 2005.
Is Chandrika Kumaratunga a fit and proper person to remain as President?
There are two issues here:
President Kumaratunga’s handling of the ethnic conflict. She is not only the President, but has also been the Minister of Defence and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. As such, she has a case to answer for the gross violation of human rights in the Tamil areas during the period of her Presidency (1994 - date). It is not just the Army Commanders who have a case to answer but she has an even greater case to answer. What happened in the Tamil areas could not have happened without her consent, indeed, her direction. ‘Consent’ or ‘direction’ aside, the ultimate responsibility must lie with her and she must be held accountable for what happened.
There have been some serious charges made against President Kumaratunga by a former Senior Minister in her own party and newspaper editors whose lives have been threatened. These includes charges of bribery, corruption, plans hatched by the President to murder people critical of her government and of the President concealing information she had about the murder of politicians. This contravenes several sections of the Penal Code and the Constitution itself (Section 38). The President has neither denied these charges nor has she taken action for defamation, which raises the serious possibility that they are true. The least she can do is to step down from the Presidency until the charges are properly investigated. If she refuses to do so, she will have to be impeached.
If Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and his UNF Government do not take the necessary action in Parliament, their own credibility will be on the line. Should this happen, the people (both in Sri Lanka and outside) will have to ask the new Government some hard questions.
2. The Ethnic Problem
It is important to appreciate one point about the current (post 5 December 2001) situation. This may well be the last chance that the Sinhala-dominated Government in Colombo will have to reach a negotiated settlement with the Tamil minority.
The Mess Created by the PA Government
Thanks to the incompetent, misguided and barbaric governance of the past six years, Kumaratunga’s party (SLFP) will almost certainly not have another chance to negotiate with the Tamils in the North and the East. The PA Government has been the most ruthless, barbaric and worst government that the Tamil areas have ever had.
President Kumaratunga, with the absolute powers she has, must carry full responsibility for the current mess. With absolute power goes absolute responsibility. Kumaratunga cannot say that she did not have the power, she did. She cannot say that she did not have the backing of the people (Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims). She had. No other Head of State has ever been elected to power in Sri Lanka with the support that Kumaratunga had. Her spectacular failure to govern and the mess that the country has got into must be attributed to her incompetence.
The President’s Attitude
Of concern is Kumaratunga’s attitude. Just before the Elections she is reported to have declared,
“Whoever wins the forthcoming polls, I will continue to be the President, Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and under no circumstances will I permit the implementation of the alleged Pact [between the UNP and the LTTE].”
The Ceylon Daily News, run by her henchmen stated,
“… if the UNP wins by any fluke and tries to hand over the North and East to the LTTE by setting up an interim administration she would use her Executive powers to thwart it”
Translated, it means that the people can elect a Government which negotiates peace, but the President will block it.
Kumaratunga’s statement is typical of her arrogance and absolute disregard for the wishes of the people who are fed up with the war and want peace and an improvement in the economy. This attitude was before the drubbing her party received at the elections. It was also before she lost the Defence Ministry.
If this arrogance persists and she blocks or even attempts to block any settlement or attempted settlement of the ethnic problem, then she will have to go. If she does not go, she will have to be impeached and there are ample reasons to do so.
The solution needed
In solving the ethnic problem, what is needed is not just a “solution” but a “just solution”. This is one that will enable the Tamil minority in the North and East to live without fear, without discrimination (and this includes economic discrimination) and with the right to develop the area in which they live without obstruction from the Sinhala-dominated regime (be it the UNP or the SLFP or the JVP) in Colombo. One could call it a Separate State, a Federal State or a Confederation. These are merely words for politicians and other to play with. What is needed is a genuine devolution of power to the Tamil areas – essentially a reversal of the Colebrooke-Cameron ‘reforms’ of 1833 which amalgamated 3 separate entities into one and a centralisation of power in Colombo. This was the single most destructive British colonial construct during the 150 years of colonial rule (see my ‘Abuse of Democracy in Sri Lanka’).
My concerns about Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s ability to address the Ethnic Problem:
The most fundamental requirement is a change in the Sinhala mind-set that Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala-Buddhist nation. I doubt if this essential change has occurred in the new government. My concerns about the new Prime Minister are:
Wickremasinghe is not charismatic but what he lacks in this area he makes up in political ability. He is a seasoned politician, having been a Minister at the age of 29. He is clearly a pragmatist and at least recognises that the country cannot spend US$1 billion (6% of GDP) every year on the war. Kumaratunga was foolish enough to announce this at the recent Paris Aid Consortium and then expected her begging bowl to be filled. All it did was to raise the eyebrows of the IMF/World Bank chairperson who commented that the expenditure on defence would have to be reduced.
What Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has done so far (5.1.2002)
It is clearly too early to judge whether Wickremasinghe can deliver the goods and stop the slide of Sri Lanka into an Afghanistan. He has, so far (5 January 2002), made some correct decisions, some dubious ones and some that are frankly wrong.
The correct ones are:
1. To stand up to President Kumaratunga and insist that she swears him in as Prime Minister and also that she relinquishes the portfolios of Defence and Finance. The President has the Constitutional power to appoint (anyone as) the Prime Minister and people of her choosing as the Cabinet. She also has the right to take any portfolio she chooses. With these powers, there was initially some concern that she would even refuse to appoint Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. He had to threaten that if he was not sworn in he would get a million people to surround the President’s House until she did.
She then insisted that she retains the crucial Defence and Finance portfolios. Wickremasinghe refused and it appeared that a crisis was in the making. However sanity prevailed and she backed down. I suspect that lawyers in her party advised her not to try and be a J.R. Jayawardene. She does not have the stature or the authority to do so. For example, she does not have a tame Parliament whose MPs signed undated letters of resignation and meekly handed them over to Jayawardene. What exists today is an entirely different ball game.
reciprocate the one month cease fire (from 24.12.01) announced by the
Tamil Tigers and announce a Government cease fire. I only hope that the
cease-fire is not utilised by either side to go on a recruitment
campaign to strengthen the depleted stocks of men and weapons. This is
what happened during the 1994 PA Government – LTTE cease-fire. After
several months of useless talks, we had visible evidence of the
invisible beefing up of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces when the Government
launched Operation Riviresa on Jaffna and half a million civilians had
to flee for their lives. It was one of the worst atrocities committed by
the Kumaratunga Government. It was of such magnitude that the then UN
Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali called on the international
governments to assist the uprooted Jaffna population.
Let us hope that history does not repeat itself after the current UNF-LTTE cease-fire. It might if the new Defence Minister’s recent assurance to the Armed Forces is implemented. There is a report that Defence Minister Tilak Marapone told the Armed Forces that he will give them whatever they need to smash the Tamil Tigers. Minister Marapone has clearly been asleep since his predecessor tried just this. She only succeeded sacrificing the lives of thousands of youths fighting this unwinnable war. This senseless strategy did not work then, I doubt if it will work this time. Even if one can “smash the Tigers”, I doubt if one could smash the cause they are fighting for. What I say to people who talk of smashing the Tamil Tigers (or anything else) is to “Go, pick up an AK47 and smash them yourself. Don’t send poor village boys on this futile mission”.
A plus for Wickremasinghe is that he is well-read which, is more than can be said for Kumaratunga who, according to one of her most senior Ministers, reads nothing (neither newspapers nor even State publications).
The dubious decisions:
1. To go to India to ask mainly for economic help. What he should have done was to ask for a de-proscription of the Tamil Tigers since neither India nor Sri Lanka can negotiate with a proscribed group.
2. To try to draw India into the Sri Lankan mess. We already have seen what that did in 1987 when his uncle J.R. Jayawardene drew in the novice Rajiv Gandhi. We saw the massive protest in the Sinhala South. Does Sri Lanka want to repeat this? Moreover, India can hardly settle her own problems with her minorities, e.g. Jammu – Kashmir and Tamil Nadu, not to mention the longstanding and escalating problem with Pakistan. Expecting India to settle the complex Sri Lankan problem is like buying a hair restorer from a bald salesman.
3. To attempt to lay the ethnic problem at the feet of Norway. What is going on in Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan problem, not a Norwegian one. The Norwegian role is only that of a facilitator. The proposals for a settlement which must take into account the longstanding insecurity of the Tamil minority in the North and East, must come from the Sri Lankan government. This is where the previous government failed and why the 1994 peace talks broke down.
The wrong decisions have been
1. To allow President Kumaratunga to continue as the Commander-in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces are some of the most brutal services in the world whose track record is such that the generals should be facing charges for crimes against humanity. To leave these undisciplined Armed Forces in the hands of Kumaratunga (despite her not being the Defence Minister) simply sends the wrong message to the Tamil people in the North and East. The control of the Armed Forces should have been completely taken out of the hands of the President. Wickremasinghe could well pay a price for this if the Army continues to behave like an Army of Occupation in Jaffna on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. It might well put the entire pursuit of peace in jeopardy – a terrible price to pay for one silly mistake.
2. To appoint a Sinhalese as the Minister for Rehabilitation , Resettlement and Refugees. As I have said, this is a problem affecting the Tamil people in the North and East. To have appointed a Tamil MP e.g. the UNP MP for Jaffna would not only have made more sense but would also have sent a message to the Tamil people that a genuine attempt was being made to address their problems. To appoint a Sinhalese from the South is the sort of stupidity we have come to expect from the previous government. It is regrettable that the new Government seems to be going down the same path.
3. To say that it was “not appropriate” for him (Wickremasinghe) to meet with the Tamil Tiger leader Pirabhakaran. Why not? If there is a major political problem to settle, it is the leaders who have the necessary authority to make decisions who should meet – not entrust this to ‘messengers’. I am sure the Norwegian government could arrange for both parties to meet in Oslo or the Indian Government could arrange with the Bhutanese Government for them to meet in Thimpu.
I was aghast when it was reported that Wickremasinghe had said he would go down the same path as Kumaratunga where negotiations with the Tamil Tigers were concerned. What? Go down the same path of destruction? I only hope that he picks a better team of negotiators than Kumaratunga did (an architect, a bank manager, a civil servant, a University Professor, an NGO, two security force personnel and the Bishop of Colombo!). There was not a single politician sent by the Government for any of the talks with the Tamil Tiger political leadership. Had there been another round of talks, I have no doubt that the Buddhist hierarchy, the Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, would have demanded to have been sent. And they would have had a watertight case. If it was acceptable to include the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, by the same token, it must also be acceptable to send the Buddhist clergy. It was a stupid and dangerous decision made by the President which might well be a precedent which could wreck all subsequent peace talks. It is also an encouragement for religious leaders to get involved in politics which, as I have indicated below, a disaster.
Challenges for the New Prime Minister
If the new Prime Minister is to achieve anything, he will have to address and overcome some crucial problems. Above all, he will have to establish himself as a leader. In some of his recent acts (cited above), these leadership qualities are lacking.
The Buddhist Clergy
Wickremasinghe will have to insist that the Buddhist clergy return to their temples. If they want to meddle in politics, they should disrobe, join a political party and contest a seat in Parliament. For them to be the “backseat drivers” telling the Government what it can and cannot do is totally unacceptable.
This is what they have repeatedly done since 1956 and for which the country has paid a terrible price.
This separation of religion from politics is so important that it is written into the American Constitution. Many other countries where this separation between Religion and Politics does not exist are in chaos. I need hardly draw attention to Ayatollah Khoumeini and the chaos in Iran, the violent clerics in Afghanistan and many other places. I might add that in 1986, an Egyptian lawyer, Faraj Fada wrote a booklet “NO To Sharia” (the Islamic law) in which he argued for a separation of Religion from the State because (in that situation) Islam could not provide the secular constitutional framework necessary for running a modern State. The same holds for Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.
His non-confrontational attitude
As I have said, non-confrontation should be applauded. It is certainly a giant leap forward from the confrontation and destructive politics of Kumaratunga. However, there are circumstances when confrontation is necessary, indeed mandatory.
The futility of adopting a non-confrontational attitude with Hitler was shown by Neville Chamberlain early in World War II. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Neville Chamberlain stood in the House of Commons in London (2 September 1940) hypothesizing what Hitler might or might not do. What was needed was not a hypothesis but a confrontation with the dictator. Chamberlain’s reluctance to confront the dictator precipitated a frontal attack on him by a member of his own party. One of his ex-Ministers, Leo Emery called for a change in leadership to meet the challenge posed by Hitler. Quoting Oliver Cromwell’s famous address to the Long Parliament some 300 years before, Emery said,
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
A non-confrontational attitude would not have worked with Idi Amin. It will not work with the senior Buddhist Clergy. It will not work with President Kumaratunga. Wickremasinghe will have to become a Leo Emery.
Confrontation may be the only language some of these people understand. For example, in the months following the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike by the Buddhist monk Somarama Thero on the orders of the whisky-drinking, immoral and outrageously dishonest crook, Venerable Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero, the civilian population adopted a ‘confrontational attitude’ towards anyone in a yellow robe seen on the streets in the South. These gentlemen had to take refuge in their temples and get on with the business of preaching one of the great religions of the world. It is a pity it did not last.
His decision to “co-exist” with the President.
The idea of “co-existence” is interesting. Co-existence with whom? Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga! That is not a strategy, it is a joke.
In 1994 we saw this ‘co-existence’ when the then new Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga (SLFP) had to co-exist with President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga (UNP). However, that was a very different ball game since Wijetunga was the very antithesis of the arrogant and dictatorial Kumaratunga.
There is no question that sooner or later this co-existence will have to come to an end and Parliament will have to stand up to the President and demand that Executive power is returned to Parliament. She will also have to be made accountable for some of her actions. This is not a witch-hunt. It is the sending of a clear message that somewhere down the line, people at the highest level will have to justify their actions and be held accountable.
This may mean that Kumaratunga will have to stand down. If she refuses to do so until the charges against her are looked into, then she will have to be forced out by impeachment. There is a very strong case for such drastic action since she has violated Section 38 of the Constitution. In fact, there is as strong a case to have her appear before the International Court in the Hague together with some of her Army Generals, one of whom she has appointed as an Ambassador.
There is no question whether this can be done. The question is whether Wickremasinghe and the UNP Government will have the necessary courage to do so.
Failure to lift the crippling embargo on goods to the North
I gather that the ban on some items will be lifted “on 15 January 2002”. Why 15 January when so many civilians are suffering because of these bans? Is this an auspicious day?
I recently read that the lifting of the embargo was not possible without President Kumaratunga’s permission. So do we wait for permission from a person who says that an embargo does not exist? “An embargo . . . that is nonsense”, was her response when interviewed on CNN. The other side of the coin is that if the President says that no embargo exists, then lifting the non-existing ban should be no problem.
Can he stand up to the Sinhala extremists?
Wickremasinghe will have to stand up to the murderous JVP. One way of doing this is to apply the “due process of the law”. To do this, can he ask Tony Blair for the extradition of Somawansa Amerasinghe? Amerasinghe is the only member still alive of the politburo of the murderous JVP (the 1988 variety) which murdered hundreds of politicians and others including Kumaratunga’s visionary husband. He has now been in self-exile in the UK for the past decade. The evidence against him has been documented and there is a warrant for his arrest. It was unbelievable that Kumaratunga had the man brought from London as a State guest to address an election rally and then allowed him to go back instead of having him arrested. It is another of the President’s outrageous acts.
The other equally important method of dealing with the JVP is to cut the grass from under their feet and address the problems faced by the rural poor. It is a failure to do this that has resulted in such a spectacular increase in support in the Sinhala South for this dangerous group whose murderous activities were seen in the closing years of the 1980s.
Controlling extremists and unrealistic optimists
I have already cited the comments about crushing the Tigers reportedly made by Minister Marapone. There will, most certainly, be more. Can Wickremasinghe control them? I hope he can but I doubt it.
Wickremasinghe will be well advised not to get into bed with either the JVP in the South or the EPDP in the North. That should be left to the SLFP in whose bed they have already been in for the last few years.
Bribery, corruption and murder
Can Wickremasinghe address the serious problems of bribery, corruption and murder as a mode of governance? These are at epidemic levels in Sri Lanka that foreign investors are pulling out of the country saying that they cannot cope with it.
If Wickremasinghe wants to attract foreign investors (whether or not this is a good thing is another matter), he will have to see that at least his Ministers are honest. This will be an about turn from the Kumaratunga era when a Ministerial position was a passport to wealth, the official salary of the Minister, some Rs 30,000 a month, being merely a drop in the bucket.
One way to drive the point home is to launch an immediate investigation into corruption in the past six years and pursue the criminals all the way to the top irrespective of status, past or present. And then? Jail and confiscation of property i.e. the confiscation of the visible results of invisible income.
W.J.M.Lokubandara, the new Minister of Justice, Law Reforms and Integration, announced on 27.12.2001 that the UNP planned to bring the President Fund under scrutiny. No audit check has been done on this since 1995! He said that people, including some Security Force personnel, had become “super-rich” overnight and that they have to be investigated. He also intends to end corruption and whatever illegal activities are taking place in Ministries under his control. He suggests that all other Ministries should do the same. This sound advice should be taken and the culprits prosecuted, jailed and have their property confiscated.
It is the failure to take such deterrent action against crooks and criminals in the Suharto regime in Indonesia (including and especially Suharto’s children and Suharto himself) that has resulted in continuing bribery and corruption despite a change of faces at the top.
If this means prosecuting President Kumaratunga on a charge of bribery, so be it. One of her senior Ministers has recently stated publicly that she received Rs 2 million from a businessman in front of two of his former colleagues. This is criminal activity and if proved, will not merely call for impeachment, but for a term in jail. This is the only way that the point can be driven home that crime does not pay. At the moment in Sri Lanka, crime does pay and pay handsomely.
Silencing the Media – murder if necessary
The murder of political opponents and newspaper editors and others, has apparently been regularly discussed and even initiated by President Kumaratunga. I quote (former) Minister S. B. Dissanayake
“Your urge to kill certain media personnel and to set fire to media institutions is not a secret to us. I can describe one by one how you planned those personally and how you ultimately gave those up, some of those, as there was no other support.”
The Ceylon Daily News of 5 November 2001, operated by Kumartunga’s cronies, says that Dissanayake, alarmed by the drop in popularity of Kumaratunga’s Government, told her:
“Madam, the Government is very weak and it could collapse at any time. If necessary I will even kill an editor or two who is critical of the Government.”
The report states that the President said that on that occasion it was not necessary because there was no weakening of the Government. The mind boggles at what the President did on other occasions.
In 1999, the Sinhala newspaper Satana (Battle) ran several articles on high level corruption and bribery involving, among others, President Kumaratunga’s media advisor Sanath Gunatilleke. The editor of the newspaper, Rohana Kumara, was gunned down in Colombo on 7 September 1999.
On 19 October 2000, Mailvaganam Nimalarajan, a much-respected Tamil journalist working in Jaffna and reporting to several international organizations including the BBC, was assassinated by Tamil gunmen working in association with Kumaratunga’s government. Nimalarajan had just reported on vote rigging in the 10 October 2000 elections and problems faced by displaced people. He was assassinated in his home which was in the high-security zone in Jaffna!
In February 1995, Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper highly critical of the government was, together with his wife, assaulted by thugs. In June 1998, his home was machine gunned while he, his wife and young children were inside the house. Wickrematunga reported this to the police citing President Kumaratunga’s bodyguard, an underworld character with a murderous reputation, as the chief suspect.
Soon after the December 1999 Presidential election, Nihal Karunaratne, the Superintendent of Police in charge of the Presidential Security Division (PSD) nonchalantly told Waruna Karunatilake, the Free Media Movement convener and Reuters reporter, that Lasantha Wickrematunga was number one on the PSD hit list, followed by Victor Ivan, the editor of the Sinhala newspaper, Ravaya which was critical of the government. The International Press Institute, Switzerland, reported this in their Year 2000 World Press Freedom Review (p 143).
On 5 November 2001, Wickrematunga wrote a letter to President Kumaratunga expressing concerns about his safety. The reason “…should I be assassinated, I want you to know that the public will hold you personally responsible”.
We now have access to a letter written as far back as September 2000 by the Director of the Colombo Detective Bureau, Senior Superintendent of Police, Bandula Wickremasinghe. It reveals that the President was fully informed of the murder of the charismatic Tamil leader Kumar Ponnambalam, in the heart of Colombo, on the orders of Kumaratunga’s cousin, Mahen Ratwatte, whose father (Kumaratunga’s uncle) was a senior Cabinet Minister and is currently a MP in her party in parliament. The President’s failure to report the information she has had to a Magistrate contravenes the Code of Criminal procedure and sections of the Penal Code 296 (murder) and 297 (culpable homicide). It also violates Section 199 of the Penal Code, which also deals with protecting criminals, an offence that carries a 5-year jail sentence.
All the allegations made (by MPs, Cabinet Ministers, Police Officers and newspaper editors), could be false. If they are, then they face charges for defamation. At the time of writing (4.1.02) I know of no action for defamation filed by the President. This raises the serious possibility that they are true. If they are, and the charges can be proved in a court of law (not a white-wash court but a proper court with international jurists present), then it goes beyond impeachment to criminal charges and conviction. In fact, Wickremasinghe, himself a lawyer, has said just that. The question is whether he will have the courage and the will to do what has to be done. If he does not, then his own credibility, especially as a leader, will be on the line.
What is also of concern is that the gentleman who suggested assassinating “one or two editors . . .” is now in Wickremasinghe’s cabinet. When the fortunes of the UNP go into decline and the same gentleman suggests that “one or two editors” be bumped off, hopefully Wickremasinghe’s response will be somewhat different to that of Kumaratunga, which was to discuss her parliamentary majority!
An Apology to the Tamil people
An apology to the Tamil people is mandatory for any healing process to occur. I recognised this in July 1983 when the Tamils in the Sri Lanka South were butchered. I waited for President Jayawardene to say “sorry”. He could not say the word. I felt that as a Sinhalese, I should say “sorry” to the devastated Tamil people and wrote the very first booklet I have ever written outside Medicine “The July 1983 Massacre. Unanswered questions.”
A close friend of mine, Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe, the current Prime Minister’s outstanding cousin, did the same. Neither Bishop Lakshman or I had slit any Tamil throats but we felt a collective responsibility for the barbaric behaviour of a few of our ethnic group (Sinhalese) in Colombo.
Here in Australia there has been a sense of national outrage because Prime Minister John Howard is unable to say “sorry” to the Aboriginal Australians for what the colonial settlers did to them 200 years ago. In Sir Lanka we are talking of what the Sinhala Government has done to the Tamil people in the North and East over the past 20 years, in particular, the past 5 years of relentless bombing, shelling, incommunicado detention without charge or trial, torture, rape and “disappearances” of people in custody.
If the Sri Lankan Government cannot say “sorry”, it can forget about a solution to the ethnic problem that does not involve a division of the country. If a separate Tamil State, Eelam, is the goal of the Sinhala Government (be it the UNP or the SLFP) it will be unnecessary to say “sorry”. If the solution is something short of Eelam, then to say “sorry” and mean it, is mandatory.
The new Government says that it will take urgent steps to restart the ‘Peace Process’. To be real and not mere rhetoric, it must be matched with the appropriate actions. As I have said, it alarms me to see that even the simple step of a relaxation of the crippling embargo of goods to the North which is causing so much civilian suffering and which Ranil Wickremasinghe promised to do if elected to power, has not been done.
Another important way of saying “sorry” and giving it a genuine touch is to round up some of the criminals who have been responsible for the atrocities committed on the Tamil people, try them before a reputable Court and punish those who are found guilty. This will mean recalling some of Sri Lanka’s diplomats to face charges. Hard? Yes, very hard, but also very necessary.
It is because of this absolute necessity to hold people accountable that there has been hunt for Nazi war criminals, now in their 80s, and to charge them with atrocities committed more than half a century ago. If this is not done in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s attempts at negotiating peace will be dead in the water. The final result will be no better than that of the “Angel of Peace” whom everyone voted for in 1994.
The economy is in chaos. As far as I am aware, the only person who thinks the economy is in good shape is President Kumaratunga. But that is no surprise.
Those who know what economics is all about are alarmed. Even those who are not economists but are struggling to find the next meal, realise that all is not well with the economy. This is one reason why hundreds of thousands of people abandoned the PA and voted, not for the UNP, but for the JVP despite the murderous record of this group.
The economy is projected to register a negative growth this year for the first time in five years. This is the expected result of a reckless expenditure on an unwinnable war (US $1 billion, 6.5% of GDP last year), an outrageously large number of Ministers (the largest proportional number in any Government anywhere in the world), the President’s ego (nearly a billion rupees to be spent on her proposed mansion which, thanks to the JVP and now the UNP, has been put on hold), bribery and corruption with major Government contracts going to Presidential favourites, Presidential interference in the awarding of major contracts, and financial kickbacks going to Army bosses for purchasing unusable junk etc.
To get Sri Lanka out of the economic mire that six years of the Kumaratunga regime has got it into, may take more than a Ranil Wickremasinghe, K.N. Choksy (the Finance Minister) or anyone else.
Virtually every economic indicator that has come my way in the past year indicates a rapidly deteriorating situation – the breeding ground for the likes of the JVP and other extremists and for an insurgency in the South such as occurred in 1971 and again in 1988. If Wickremasinghe and his colleagues do not get their (economic) act together, they will have more problems than the civil war in the North and the East. For a party who from their inception has been the darling of the capitalists and the businessman, the economic action taken may be for the benefit of this group but not the rural poor.
In summary, the situation does not look good either on the ethnic front or the serious non-ethnic problems I have briefly outlined. Sri Lanka will certainly need all the help it can get but I cannot see the international community rushing in to help unless there is hard evidence that the two major groups of problems (the ethnic problems and the non-ethnic problems) are being addressed.
There is an old Sinhalese saying that if one has a headache there is no point in changing the pillow. The PA pillow (the pillow case is still there) has been changed to a UNP pillow. I am not holding my breath that the headache will go away.