Can Ranil succeed in Game of Thrones in Sri Lanka?

To set the record straight, it was Ranil, as Prime Minister of the Yahapalana government, who ensured that 19A to reduce the executive presidency was passed in parliament. Ranil, as a seasoned wheel dealer in Sri Lanka’s convoluted politics, is perhaps a man who can pull such a rabbit out of his hat.

by Col R Hariharan

The events of the turbulent month of May in Sri Lanka have many wheels within the wheels of political intrigue and chicanery. He set precedents in the history of Sri Lanka. Nationwide public protests against the Rajapaksas led to a change in government leadership, with Ranil Wickremesinghe replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. The newly installed Prime Minister had neither a proven parliamentary majority nor constitutional authority, which is perhaps an embarrassing detail. But the biggest loser was the democratic regime, with most people losing faith not only in the Rajapaksas but also in the country’s decaying political system.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those wise political leaders, who realize that the general public is more interested in government than in politics.” Apparently the Rajapaksas did not read Roosevelt’s words of wisdom. They brainstormed for more than a month how to handle public protests that wanted them ousted for their miserable governance failure. They attempted various political maneuvers but failed to satisfy the political class as well as the protesting public.

The resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa came in a rather ignominious way. Mahinda’s last hurrah led by his cronies and henchmen gathered to show their solidarity on May 9, failed when they lashed out at protesters in the Temple Trees area and the Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village) at Galle Face Green in Colombo. Under benevolent police watch from the sidelines, the thugs attacked everyone, including disabled veterans, destroying property and injuring dozens of people.

Apparently, the Mahinda-Acolytes game plan hadn’t taken into account the public’s deep resentment against them. Enraged anti-Rajapaksa protesters carried out meticulously planned reprisals, chasing and beating the thugs, damaging the buses carrying them and setting fire to no less than 28 properties, including homes of political leaders and members of the pro-Mahinda parliament. The retaliatory violence continued into the early hours of May 10. The army called in by the distressed ruling party politicians arrived quite late, after the arsonists had reduced the properties to ashes. It had a positive result: the president who was disconnected from the reality of the situation on the ground now seems to have understood that the Argalaya (struggle) cannot be abandoned by politics; beneficial results for public affairs.

Resented Sri Lankan MPs Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) met the President on May 14 to complain about the failure of the armed forces to respond to their call for help to quell the violence both in Mirihana on March 31 and May 9 and 10. A high-level military committee made up of former heads of three services was appointed to examine the failings of the forces in these incidents. If we follow the fate reserved for these “high-level committees”, no one will be surprised if the administration does not read its recommendations.

The gist of the whole sordid story of the Sri Lankan version of Game of Thrones is that the Gotabaya brothers and Basil sacrificed Prime Minister Mahinda to appease the public and install a more docile leader to partly appease the protesters. So what has Prime Minister Wickremesinghe achieved since becoming Prime Minister on May 12?

First, the five-time prime minister, counting his truncated terms in the Yahapalana government, has partly eased the pressure of public protests on the president. However, protesters reminded everyone they were alive and well as they staged a huge procession of people from all walks of life in Colombo to mark the 50th day of protests on May 29. This shows that the popular movement Aragalaya (struggle) has achieved success. with the ousting of Mahinda. If led imaginatively, the Aragalaya has the potential to reinvigorate the movement demanding Gotabaya’s resignation. This factor will have to be taken into account not only by the President or Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, but by all other stakeholders.

Second, the president’s ploy of bringing Ranil into the post of prime minister has sown confusion in the opposition, which has been vociferously demanding Gotabaya’s resignation. He also split the ranks of the main opposition SJB party, after Ranil said his acceptance of office was conditional on replacing the 20th Amendment to the constitution which concentrated all powers in the hands of the executive chairman. The SLFP led by former President Sirisena, after some postures on the sidelines, supports Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the multi-party government. The other parties, with the exception of the weakened SJB and the JVP, which questioned the constitutionality of installing Ranil as prime minister, are likely to support the government. This is likely to include the Tamil National Alliance, which would expect stopgap measures from the President and Prime Minister to accommodate Tamil aspirations.

Third, the greatest advantage that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe enjoys is his positive, better articulated equation with India, the United States, the EU and the West. Starting with India, they were among the first diplomats to appeal to the newly appointed prime minister. At the national level, this may not be a great advantage. But internationally, it will help speed up the processing of financial restructuring proposals from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and aid from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), etc. Steps are also underway to negotiate with creditors to restructure loan terms.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also called on China to help him overcome the economic crisis. During the fuel crisis, China had offered to provide stockpiles of diesel for emergency use from stocks held in Singapore, but Sri Lanka did not respond to the offer. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is now said to have ordered officials to discuss with China their offer which was made before he took office. Finance Ministry discussions with China Development Bank and China EXIM Bank to defer repayment of outstanding loans also appear not to have been followed up by the Ministry. The China International Development Cooperation Assistance (CIDCA) had offered 500 million RMB as emergency aid. China also sent a shipment of rice to reach Sri Lanka.

In a televised address on May 29, the Prime Minister said that the country’s main problems were not limited to the financial sector; in the political sphere, there are two issues – one to remove the 20th amendment (20A) to the constitution reducing the accountability of the executive president to parliament and to re-implement the 19th amendment which was abolished. He said “party leaders are currently preparing the 21st Amendment ‘to achieve this’.”

He also identified the abolition of the executive presidency as a second problem. He left it up to party leaders to decide when and how to proceed. He added: “The executive chairman has been given more powers. The main allegation today is that Parliament failed to act to prevent the economic crisis. He said that the structure of Parliament needs to be changed to create a new system by combining the existing system of Parliament or the Westminster system and the Councils of State system so that Parliament can participate in the governance of the country. Its proposals include the creation of several new committees as well as a multi-party National Council with the participation of young people.

Politically, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric has hit the right notes with Democrats around the world. But in Sri Lanka where political heavyweights play the game of thrones, can the prime minister implement such sweeping changes? As a JVP, maybe only a new constitution can include changes. The priority is to give Parliament the power to control the economy by removing 20A and reintroducing 19A. Nothing less will satisfy the restless public except Gotabaya’s resignation.

The moot point is this: can Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who has no political interest in parliament, sitting at the invitation (or pleasure) of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, successfully implement his plan? A more appropriate question will be: Will the president and his SLPP cohorts, who have worked hard to restore full executive powers to the president, accept the proposal to reinsert 19A?

To set the record straight, it was Ranil, as Prime Minister of the Yahapalana government, who ensured that 19A to reduce the executive presidency was passed in parliament. Ranil, as a seasoned wheel dealer in Sri Lanka’s convoluted politics, is perhaps a man who can pull such a rabbit out of his hat. But he is also a man who survives by making political compromises. Thus, the rabbit he pulls out may turn out to be a guinea pig, after the political consultations of the parliamentary parties have given him a final form during the week.

[Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: [email protected]]


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Raymond I. Langston