by Malinda Seneviratne
Over the last few weeks there has been a concerted campaign in social media attacking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The ‘Gota Fail Campaign,’ as it was, promoted a strong response questioning the success of the President’s detractors. The campaign was clearly targeting the President’s first anniversary celebrations and the impending reading of the budget. The campaign failed or rather, now that the moment has passed, the campaigners have taken a break.
It was a week marked by celebrations. We had Mahinda Rajapaksa celebrating his 75th birthday. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa completed his first year in office and addressed the nation to mark the occasion. The first budget of the Government that came to power in early August was presented. Secretary to the then President (Mahinda Rajapaksa) Lalith Weeratunga (also the ex officio Chairman of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission) and Anusha Palpita (former Director General, TRC) were acquitted of all charges of misappropriation by the Court of Appeal.
Quite a week, to say the least.
Ranjan Ramanayake, predictably, ridiculed Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘for not standing while presenting the budget.’ Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa rapped Ramanayake on the knuckles for doing so, in a gesture of good grace rarely seen in Parliament.
Obviously, Mahinda Rajapaksa is no longer the energetic man he used to be. This of course does not necessarily mean he is infirm in mind. He still remains one of the most effective communicators in our tribe of politicians. He’s had his good days and bad ones, like anyone else. He receives praise and blame, which again indicates strong passion, fierce loyalty and, on the part of his detractors, equally intense sentiments which include envy, fear and disgust.
That said, as ‘The Gadfly,’ a regular contributor to the website www.theleader.lk observed, when the post-independence history of this country is written, there will be a special chapter devoted to Mahinda, whereas the likes of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Rajitha Senaratne an Wijedasa Rajapaksha would get, at most, a line or two. Again, depending on who is writing the history, someone might say. However, Mahinda’s’s mark is unmistakable and certainly hard to brush aside.
Some argued that he should have gracefully retired in 2015. Maybe he should have. On the other hand, ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’ is not just a man but a brand and moreover a name that’s etched in the political consciousness of the nation, and, as the August 5 results indicated remembered with gratitude that obliterates memory of his blemishes. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa was captain-designate and Basil Rajapaksa the man chartering course, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the name of the ship (with a tagline, ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’) and ‘MR’ a signature that was on every element of the vessel.
So, let us wish him, belatedly (on account of circumstances), a very happy 75th birthday, good times ahead, good health, continued guidance of his younger brother the President in matters political and restraint in deference to changed times and more importantly the leadership and power that is constitutionally granted to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The budget is still being debated. Predictably Harsha de Silva has come down hard on it. He tweeted, ‘the most boring budget speech in years,’ adding ‘…a weak n inspiring (he probably meant ‘uninspiring’) budget w totally unrealistic revenue figures…a shift towards protectionist n failed ‘Import Substitution Industrialization’ model.’ Having opened the debate for the Opposition, he then tweeted ‘a short edit’: 1. Figures fudged. 2. No stimulus package. 3. About to explode foreign debt issue ignored. 4. Import Substitution Model has failed; need bridges not walls.’
Now de Silva is a fear-mongerer if ever there was one. There was a time when again he was in the Opposition, when he would issue dire predictions of imminent economic collapse almost on a weekly basis. The man had to keep quiet when the UNP regime he was a part of mishandled the economy. He had nothing to say on the Central Bank bond scam.
He might have been thrilled when that regime wagered on the West coming to Sri Lanka’s help, but he didn’t contradict his then leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who, when ‘Brexit’ happened, suddenly said ‘we will look East.’ This after badmouthing China in the run-up to the January 2015 presidential election. We remember Harsha posting selfies with the Port City construction in the background at the time when his party was swearing to put a stop to the project. Finally, his government signed an agreement even less favorable to Sri Lanka. This was to be expected; after all the Yahapalana Government cheered itself while compromising sovereignty by way of Resolution 30/1 in Geneva. Anyway, neither de Silva, Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and pretenders to various political crowns now in the Opposition seem to have cottoned on to the fact that the USA is no longer the big boss in the global economy and that the sun set on the British Empire a long time ago.
Nevertheless, the onus is on the Government to respond to the charge that figures were fudged. As for the revenue plan, we will certainly assess it, realistic or otherwise, as time goes by. The rest is obviously Harsha rattling off received (non) wisdom about things economic.
Stimulus packages hinge on the erroneous premise that the private sector is the one and only engine of growth, where ‘growth’ itself is a concept that is contentious at best in the development discourse and has by and large been rubbished considering what that model has done to the world, the health of the planet and of course the most vulnerable sections in the global population.
Pertinent here, as has been editorially pointed out in www.gammiris.lk is Harsha’s myopia about the Bretton Woods institutions. Here’s a quote:
He (Harsha) does not seem to have gone through Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents, which talks in succinct detail how these institutions operate, particularly in underdeveloping countries. A pity, because Stiglitz took the trouble of writing on Sri Lanka, and more to the point, of cautioning the then administration against hedging its bets on the IMF-World Bank paradigm of, what else, “globalizing and liberalizing.’
Siglitz, interestingly, observed, that if Sri Lanka is to progress, it should start “learning to produce, learning to export, and learning to learn.” Harsha of course can’t think beyond the outdated and erroneous neoliberalism model. The budget has sought to empower local production. This is not the same as import-substitution, though. All framed by Covid-19, one must add.
It must be pointed out that the strategy laid out doesn’t make sense if the banking institutions are not focused on development. The Bretton Woods institutions have always been against development banks. There has been talk of setting up a cooperative bank, but the details are still to be worked out. This was an opportunity to get it down in black and white.
Meanwhile a delegation of the European Union and the Embassies of France, Germany, Italy Netherlands, and Romania issued a statement slamming the government’s trade policy, ‘with an obligatory non-sequitur to human rights,’ again editorially observed by ‘gammiris.’
‘Thanks to the EU’s special Generalized System of Preferences (GSP+), Sri Lanka enjoys competitive, predominantly duty- and quota-free access to the EU market,” they said. Trade, they pointed out, ‘not a one-way street,’ and observe (gravely) that ‘a prolonged import ban is not in line with World Trade Organization regulations.’ They interjected the par-for-the-course HR reference (Resolution 30/1) and said ‘we are concerned.’
The hypocrisy of Europe crying foul over human rights is well known. But why talk of WTO rules here? Just last year Indonesia complained to the WTO over EU restrictions on palm oil imports. Both Germany and France blocked their own exports of crucial personal protective equipment (PPE) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hypocrisy much, eh?
Well, if the EU’s ‘concerns’ (threats?) do translate into action, it would only push Sri Lanka even further into the Chinese circle of influence. Sri Lanka would have no option but to promote domestic production and rebuild as per the demands of the home market.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa completed one year in office. Not given to pomp and pageantry, his first year has been relatively subdued. He promised ‘work’ and ‘systems.’ Covid-19 was an obvious dampener. And yet, in this one year, we saw a mandate overwhelmingly reiterated. We also saw the passage of the 20th amendment which resolved the confusion of the 19th Amendment with respect to who really rules the country. The 19th, let’s recall, as acknowledged by its authors themselves, is full of flaws. The Supreme Court shot it down and the then regime introduced what was almost a fresh document; and in clear contravention of established parliamentary procedure (in the UK, the House of Lords can make changes but only minor ones). Here, there were wholesale changes at the committee stage. In contrast, the 20th it a) retained certain elements of the 19th such as term limits and b) incorporated the observations of the Supreme Court).
The President’s anniversary speech was essentially a rehashed version of his ‘throne speech.’ He didn’t detail the modalities of getting the ‘One-Country, One-Law’ going. He probably should have explained the controversial circular on ‘Other State Lands’ over which he has been getting a lot of flak. It was a no-frills anniversary speech quite in keeping with the personality he has projected or even the person he is seen to be. The proof of everything is in the ‘works’. Work is where he will be judged eventually.
Given the announcement that the Government is planning to introduce a new constitution, the buzz over the 20th seems silly. The Government, of course, could have incorporated the 20th into a new constitution and seek passage in one go.
Covid-19 has framed the president’s first year. He has had to balance coping mechanisms with keeping the economy going. The Opposition, as pointed out in a television discussion on Thursday by Deputy Editor, The Island, Shaminda Ferdinando, was bailed out by Covid-19. Now they have something to talk about, he said. There are charges of mishandling. The rise in numbers is certainly worrying. The Government does have a plan and it is as reasonable as any given multiple constraints.
However, it is certainly ridiculous that so many government officials and healthcare professionals are commenting and contradicting each other on Covid-19. The Government should authorize a single person to do this. Others should obtain from what this person says and not act as though they are epidemiologists. That goes for the opposition and political commentators as well, of course.
In Canada, for example, according to a Sri Lankan who is a long time resident there, ‘there’s a chief medical officer giving daily recaps at the federal level with Prime Minister Trudeau offering a daily non medical brief. At the provincial level, the chief provincial medical officer gives a daily briefing. All financial assistance information is conveyed by Trudeau since it’s all federal at this stage. In Sri Lanka, in contrast, everyone except the Minister of Health is an authority on the pandemic!’
Finally, the court decision on Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Pelpita. Now they were acquitted not by judges appointed by this government. The charge that the court was politically motivated is therefore silly. In this regard it is pertinent to point out that the President has nominated the six most senior judges for promotion to the Supreme Court. Seniority was spurned out of hand by the much-celebrated Constitutional Council of the previous regime. Friendship and loyalty were rewarded. Good move by the President but one which he ought to apply across the board in the matter of appointments/promotions.
The 62-page verdict notes, ‘There is no dishonest intention with which both accused appellants have acted. They were not actuated by men rea or actus reus. There has been a bona fide exercise of their powers and duties. Neither accused was enriched. Whilst the board authorized a transaction which is protected by law and corporate social responsibility, it is a travesty of justice that only two members of the TRC had to endure the traumatic experience of a selective prosecution at a prolonged trial, causing a senior public servant of long years of meritorious public service humiliation and anguish.’
Intention of course is always assessed subjectively. It’s the act that the court has to assess. The court was of the view that the prosecution failed to establish the ingredients of the offenses laid in the indictment. The court also determined that the circumstances in which the presiding judge came to hear the case created a serious doubt on the impartiality and validity of proceedings adopted. In other words, there was selectivity and deliberate maneuvering to obtain a pre-arranged outcome.
Weeratunga is a seasoned public servant. He probably knows the Establishments Code inside out. He probably knows not only what’s possible and what’s not but all the loopholes that can be used and abused. He was obviously following orders from the top on sil redi, but, as the Court has determined, in a legal manner. He didn’t benefit personally. Neither did Palpita. One can argue that had Mahinda Rajapaksa won in January 2015, whether or not the sil redi issue was a factor, both would have benefited. At the very least they wouldn’t have been subjected to the obvious harassment meted out by overzealous yahapalana operatives (who essentially turned the FCID into a kangaroo court and operated from the Prime Minister’s office). That’s however in the territory of speculation. Courts are not in that business.
The court has ruled. That’s that.