Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images via Time.com

President is reported to have told parliament today in his special address on the Resolution to elect a Constitutional Council, no one should be afraid of a new Constitution as it is for the benefit of the people. While saying we need a Constitution that will treat all religions and ethnicities alike, he had also said the country’s main religion (Buddhism) will not come into any harm. He also had said the security forces will not be reorganised. Yet he had warned of extremist elements that want to de-stabilise the country.

One year gone, today, 09 January 2016 (in the evening) is when the second year of Maithripala Sirisena’s Presidency begins in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. While conceding the defeat of Rajapaksa at the last presidential election was a significant political victory for all the “People” and more for the 25.1 per cent minority citizens, there seem to be nothing more to celebrate or anything the people can boast of achieving since voting Rajapaksa out. The demand to abolish the Executive Presidency was shelved with the 19 Amendment. Much campaigned for anti-corruption crusade is hardly moving. Where it moves, there are unseen and untold road blocks placed. Obvious it is, with many heavy weights in the discredited Rajapaksa regime, also forming part of the “Yahapalanaya” rule. Obvious it is, with the hierarchy in the State apparatus still living with the Rajapaksa “mind set” and allowed to continue without change under “Yahapalanaya”.

Most, the people can talk of is the crudely deformed 19 Amendment, which means little in practical life. It’s a total contradiction to what this society was demanding for, to de-politicise the State. A total let down with 07 out of 10 members nominated to the Constitutional Council (CC) being members of parliament and 05 of them able to sit as adequate quorum. Except at the HRCSL where things seem to be happening, all other independent commissions are “zero effect” outfits with questionable characters nominated by the politically powerful CC and appointed by President Sirisena. The Right to Information (RTI) Act in its present draft form though with some deficiencies seem acceptable for now. There is no guarantee it would have clean passage through parliament. Even if it does come out unscathed, RTI Act will have very little meaning in a society that is not interested in its living environment. Worst, everything seem to stop with the drafting of the Act. There is no serious effort to educate people in how and why they should use the RTI for their own advantage. That would therefore leave the RTI Act, deep frozen.

Most such issues are more relevant to the urban Sinhala society than to the rural polity. Also, most such issues are not high priority to the majority of the minority population of 25.1 per cent. Their priorities have not been even considered seriously, except for international propaganda. Their immediate issue is de-militarising of their two provinces North and East, recommended by the LLRC too. Their immediate issue is regaining lost land and resettling. Most such land is occupied by security forces and termed HSZs. They have high priority issues like long term detentions without charges, unanswered enforced disappearances, war widows and children without parents the State has no official records of. War widows are said to be close to one hundred thousand and the count on parentless children is any one’s guess. Their livelihood issues in a war torn terrain has not been seriously addressed, even by the NPC. All that is carried with the demand for a sustainable and a workable political solution to the long overdue conflict on power sharing.

The first year of President Sirisena did not address any of them adequately and as urgently important, although his victory at the 2015 January presidential election was firmly guaranteed by the minority vote of 550,839 from the North and East provinces. That gave him the 449,072 majority over Rajapaksa’s 5,768,090 votes polled almost entirely from the Sinhala polity. It was that which prompted Rajapaksa to quip he is “still the President of the Sinhala people”, when he landed himself in Medamulana after the defeat. Seven (07) months later he still garnered 4.7 million votes from the Sinhala constituency.

This change from Rajapaksa to Sirisena nevertheless allowed the Wickremesinghe government to negotiate with the US to have the Resolution at the UNHRC sessions in September 2015, altered to suit its position, not very different to Rajapaksa. With no change in the governing “mind set” the US co-sponsored Resolution is already lagging behind in bringing about required legal and procedural interventions by this government. In what and how this government does things leaves too many bends for any serious and independent domestic probe. Certainly, this Sirisena led government is in no way determined to allow an independent probe on accountability and violations of IHL. There is also no pressure from the Tamil polity in demanding answers, with the ITAK leadership in TNA playing co-habitation with this government.

In such context, what can this 25.1 per cent minority within Sri Lanka expect in the second year of Sirisena’s presidential term? That’s no difficult question to answer, from public statements, his image building and his gradual usurping of power that explains “Sirisena politics” in this “Yahapalanaya” rule. He is certainly usurping power and Wickremesinghe is unable to even control his encroachments. In his first year as President, despite the UNP demanding local government elections as scheduled, he on his own decided to postpone elections by 06 months. He positions his PRECIFAC as the main pivot in anti-corruption investigations leaving PM Wickremsinghe’s FCID on the side lines. He directed changes to the UNP Budget for 2016 both during the budget debate and after. He went on record saying, in his second term he would be supervising work in all ministries. While Foreign Minister Samaraweera promises an independent domestic probe into war crimes as required by the OISL Resolution adopted in October (2015), President Sirisena has consistently said, he would not allow any member of the security forces to be taken to task in any probe. If security forces are not the key factor in the probe, there is hardly anything to investigate. Most recently (on 03 January, 2016) speaking to “The Hindu” newspaper, he is quoted as having said, what happened during the war has to be first evaluated before deciding on any step. In relation to the OISL Resolution of 01st October (2015), he has told The Hindu, “We have not been ordered to do anything”. Virtually meaning, there is no necessity of a probe, if he thinks so.

This certainly is all about the power struggle within this government rolled out as “co-habitation for survival”. In that, both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe live with a fixation on Rajapaksa. They work out strategies taking Rajapaksa as their main factor in politics. President Sirisena has no option but to gain firm control of the SLFP for his political future. That requires overall power in the SLFP for which he has to oust Rajapaksa from politics. His bidding this year beginning today will be to achieve that and that was the only reason to postpone LG elections. He needs time to win over the grassroots, the power hub in Rajapaksa’s Sinhala constituency. His political statements from safeguarding “war heroes” to Enrique’s “Love and Sex” concert, all are geared towards Rajapaksa’s Sinhala constituency. It is right to challenge him on his crude statement over “bra throwing” culture, but wrong to think its bad advice given that made him say such muck.

There is a very strong Sinhala Buddhist line in all what he says, does and allows to be done on behalf of him and his political image. In everything up to his latest image building video “Numba Ape Minihek” (You are One of Us) to celebrate one year as elected President, the Sinhala Buddhist line is clearly evident. It is evident everywhere Sirisena goes. The whole concept of “war hero” was developed on “bravado” against Tamil “separatism”. Thus it was defined in terms of “Sinhala” patriotism. Almost all “war heroes” are from the Sinhala rural society. That’s Rajapaksa’s constituency. Therefore Sirisena wants to reach out to that constituency by standing with “war heroes” and opposing war crime probes against the security forces. Sirisena crying foul over “bra throwing” is only an extension of that political need. His audience was a gathering of Sinhala Buddhists in Ampara and not the urban middle class in Colombo. He promised “Apey hamuduruwane” (Our reverend monks) that he would not allow alien cultures to destroy “our cherished Sinhala Buddhist culture”. That was what the “bra” was used for. His celebratory video is another of the same Sinhala Buddhist politics. This takes the Sinhala Buddhist culture in its most feudal form. A culture that always go in search of a “king”, a culture of servitude as Kunkunawe thero exhibits; “Oh, you ants, you too have a king – It is us who don’t have – That’s why we lament”. This Sinhala Buddhist culture was exploited by Rajapaksa when he was celebrated with the song “Ayubo weva Maha Rajaneni” that made him a replicate of king Dutu Gemunu among Sinhala Buddhists. President Sirisena wants to counter Rajapaksa’s image as a divine lordly personality in his promotional video (said to have been removed from YouTube and his media unit later disowned any link to the clip) who lands here to bring prosperity. Coming from the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa, the seat of King Parakramabahu the Great who brought the country under his single authority and made it self- sufficient, Sirisena seems to want a projection of a more benevolent lordly king than Dutu Gemunu. Yet for both, it’s an image of a popular Sinhala king they wanted in identifying with the Sinhala Buddhist constituency.

In his bid to oust Rajapaksa who PM Wickremesinghe takes as an advantage in controlling Sirisena, the presidency with the Defence Ministry will be Sirisena’s forte in strengthening his image for a popular Sinhala Buddhist appeal. For he cannot be delaying taking total control of the SLFP. This is now his most important item in the “2016 Agenda” after one year had lapsed. He is thus compelled to decide and define all his moves in terms of Sinhala Buddhist politics in his second year, in competing with Rajapaksa. One may count on US and international pressure in holding back Sirisena in favour of Wickremesinghe. But Sirisena is also playing to the West, more than to China. He is all rhetoric on reconciliation sans war crimes probes. He is all rhetoric on a political solution sans demilitarising. He is all rhetoric about ethnic amity and equality sans release of Tamil detainees held without charges. Rhetoric that nevertheless keep not only the international community happy, but also the ITAK leadership praying for solutions before the year 2016 ends. The US and its allies would not mind such a popular Sinhala Buddhist president in the next 03 years who would be accessible to them than to China.

But that will not be what North and East would want. They are fatigued and frustrated listening to niceties and promises given out with no cost. What would be left dragging for the 25.1 per cent minorities are their long and painful issues with no answers. That will not be a priority for Sirisena turning fast into a Sinhala Buddhist leader this 2016. Wickremesinghe cannot push Sirisena into decisions, even if he wants to. He would therefore try scheming his way into political power, a hard task given a Sinhala mind set that both the Rajapaksa camp and Sirisena would compete to keep alive. Year 2016 would thus be the year that would tell who is who in the political landscape of missed opportunities in Sri Lanka where alternatives are not what’s discussed but incremental advances compared to Rajapaksa rule. It thus had been a year, where social space gained by defeating Rajapaksa went waste and would still go waste another year.

  • puniselva

    If the Prez and the PM are interested in ”national unity and reconciliation” they should go for an island wide education and consciousness building programme on pluralist democracy starting with the parliamentarians, schools and the military along with constitution-making process.