CP Chairman DEW G says lawmakers here should be aware of what is going on in the world. The Parliament cannot turn a blind eye to global developments, the former MP said, pointing out that the ongoing Ukrainian crisis underscored the need for greater understanding of international affairs as the rapid developments taking place with the US hegemony under threat. The crisis reflects the global power struggle.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Veteran politician Don Edwin Weerasinghe Gunasekara or DEW G, 88, wants left-wing political parties, including his Communist Party (CP), to join forces with centrist political elements to meet the growing future right wing challenge posed by ‘Pohottuwa,’ backed incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The former CP General Secretary warned those opposed to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa juggernaut to reach consensus on a tangible political strategy soon or be prepared to face the consequences.
As things stand, Gunasekara declared that UNP leader Wickremesinghe would be the SLPP’s candidate at the next presidential election, therefore urged, what he called, the genuine Opposition to take a stand.
The CP is represented in Parliament by just one MP Weerasinghe Weerasumana from Matara. The first time entrant to Parliament contested the last general election on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peremauna (SLPP) ticket.
Having parted company with the SLPP, or the Pohottuwa party, the CP is now a constituent of the Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya (ULS).
DEW G acknowledged that left-wing parties, including the CP, couldn’t anticipate any future political alliance with the Rajapaksas’ led party, especially with Basil, an arch right winger, like Ranil, playing such a pivotal role in the family and the party they lead. “Therefore, a realignment of political forces, opposed to the incumbent administration, is a must”, he said.
Gunasekara didn’t mince his words when he admitted that left parties lacked the wherewithal to take on the government, though the ground situation has changed quite drastically, owing to unprecedented public protests, engineered or not by the West, as in the case of the Maidan rebellion in Ukraine in 2014, forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa elected, with 6.9 mn votes, to flee.
A smiling Gunasekara asserted that the emerging world environment could be quite advantageous to Sri Lanka with the US and its fiat currency dollar likely to lose world dominant position, if proper repositioning of political parties and groups takes place here to ensure a Left and Centre combination surging ahead with the best global economic environment after 1945, Gunasekara assured.
In an interview with the writer at the CP’s recently refurbished office at No 91, Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Colombo 08, last week, DEW G discussed a range of issues, both domestic and international, with the focus on the deteriorating economic-political and social crisis against the growing uncertainty caused by restructuring of domestic debt.
Unless left parties reached a consensus with those in the centre, the latter would move to the right to the advantage of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Gunasekera said. “At least 90 percent of the country’s capitalist class is with Wickremesinghe and unless something goes awry, the UNP leader is certain to be SLPP’s nominee with or without machinations by the West.”
sought the much respected politician’s views on current issues against the backdrop of the CP preparing to celebrate its 80th anniversary this week.
At the onset of the interview, one-time Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms Minister, an Octogenarian himself, emphasized that what the country experienced was an unprecedented critical situation. “We are at a crossroads. We experienced crises in 1952 and in the ’70s, primarily due to external factors. However, though there were certainly foreign influences and interventions, we created the current catastrophe,” the former lawmaker said.
Gunasekara identified what he called an explosive combination of factors that plunged the country into its worst ever post-independence crisis, namely dearth of foreign exchange even to buy basics, like fuel, drastic drop in government revenue, coupled with a crippling debt due to borrowings at high interest from international bond markets, especially by the previous Yahapalana regime.
Referring to the times of JRJ’s Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel (1977-1988) who presided over Sri Lanka embracing a free market economy in the late ’70s, and his successor M.H.M. Naina Marikkar (1988-1989) at the height of the JVP-led second insurrection (1987-1990), the CP veteran pointed out that the erosion of government revenue began after 1978.
A calamity of unimaginable proportions
Pointing out that in 1978 the government revenue had been 24 percent of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) a gradual decrease began during JRJ’s reign and by the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the President, brought in his brother Basil Rajapaksa as the Minister of Finance, in July 2021, the state revenue had dropped to a poor six percent of the GDP. That the Rajapaksa family compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accommodate BR in the Cabinet, even at the expense of the coalition, is a matter that should be addressed separately, the outspoken politician said. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa paid a very heavy price for exploiting the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to appease the family to bring in Basil Rajapaksa, he added.
The drastic drop of the state revenue to just six percent of the GDP meant that the government didn’t have sufficient funding in Rupees, especially due to a drastic cut in vital taxes, no sooner Gotabaya assumed office. “I have never heard of a disruption of an economy in a particular country for want of whatever local currency, though foreign exchange crisis is certainly not a new occurrence. We ran into trouble at a time when the then government was on a money printing spree.”
Gunasekara attributed the developing crisis to neoliberalist policies adopted in the wake of JRJ’s victory at the 1977 general election. “The change of tax policy in line with neoliberalist strategy brought about the crisis. The gradual change in direct and indirect taxes was nothing but a disaster. At the time of the late Premier Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the direct and indirect tax ratio was 70 to 30 percent. JR reduced direct taxes to 55 percent, Ranasinghe Premadasa to 45 percent, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to 35 percent, Mahinda Rajapaksa to 28 percent (during his first tenure as the President), then to 24 percent and subsequently to 18 percent and Basil Rajapaksa brought it down to 14 percent.”
The increasing loss of income, due to a sharp drop in direct taxes, was compensated by corresponding increase in indirect taxes, the former Minister said, added that finally the irect and indirect tax ratio stood at 10 and 90 percent, respectively. Instead of taxing the affluent, those struggling to make ends meet were further burdened, Gunasekara said, alleging that tax evasion at the moment was at its zenith. “There is no point in denying successive governments facilitated the tax fraud. The fraudulent process over the years became part of the system in place,” the ex-MP said.
Asked whether Parliament, as the supreme institution responsible for public finance, should be held responsible for the current predicament, a smiling Gunasekara said that was the position constitutionally.
“However, the actual situation is different or in other words Parliament is irrelevant. The Finance Minister takes decisions on behalf of the Cabinet of Ministers which exercises executive powers in Parliament. Whoever at the helm, exercises political authority thereby implements a strategy that may not be in the best interests of the country though appropriate as a political tool. That is the reality.”
Neoliberalism, or market-oriented reform policies, such as doing away with price controls, freeing of capital markets, and reckless lowering of trade barriers, as well as privatization, brought us to this pathetic situation, the former CP leader said.
Regardless of the recent crash, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government seemed to be hell-bent on following the same wretched policies. “If not, President Wickremesinghe and his acolytes wouldn’t have considered USD 2.9 bn IMF loan facility as the panacea for our economic ills. In a way we are now in an irreversible situation,” Gunasekara said.
The one-time Chairman of the parliamentary watchdog COPE sarcastically declared without hesitation that he was too optimistic of the much-touted economic recovery plan, based on the much debated agreement with the IMF.
“Don’t forget we sought IMF intervention on 16 occasions previously. And the worst IMF intervention is now underway”, the still crisp thinking octogenarian said.
Parliament has deteriorated to such an extent that it no longer commanded the respect of the public. That, too, contributed to the overall decline, Gunasekara said, explaining how the Ranil-Maithree-led Yahapalana government borrowed heavily from international money markets during the 2015-2019 period, though they have conveniently forgotten their own role in the economic ruin. In foreign money markets, minimum interest was six percent and out of the USD 15 bn taken at such high interest rates as much as USD 12.5 bn was obtained by the Yahapalana rule within a short period of time, Gunasekara pointed out.
Perhaps if Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2015 presidential election, he, as the Finance Minister, too, would have sought more loans from international money markets, Gunasekara said, asserting that the then Secretary to the Treasury Dr. P.B. Jayasundera may have pushed for early presidential elections as he was aware of the impending financial crisis. “But I tried unsuccessfully to convince President Rajapaksa not to face the electorate as he couldn’t have won under any circumstances,” Gunasekara said.
Bid to save Gotabaya
The former Minister recalled how representatives of political parties met at the residence of lawmaker Tiran Alles in the wake of the violent Mirihana protest, in March 2022, to discuss ways and means of saving Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mandate. According to him, there had been a general agreement of an interim national government for at least a period of one year until some sort of stability could be restored. Among those who had been present were Dullas Alahapperuma and Maithripala Sirisena and other rebel SLPP MPs, Gunasekara said, adding that consensus couldn’t be reached as the President was not free to act as he desired.
“The President somewhat struggled to address never ending concerns of the Rajapaksa family,” the ex-CP boss said, expressing disbelief that the premiership was first offered to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and then SJB leader Sajith Premadasa before beleaguered UNP leader accepted the proposal in the second week of May 2022.
Gunasekara acknowledged the writer’s suggestion perhaps the UNP leader was the best choice, politically, at the time though he personally didn’t agree at all with the destructive market-oriented reform policies agenda pursued by the incumbent President to please the IMF.
In the run-up to the July 2022 calamity, Gunasekara had advised and warned Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending economic crisis but was ignored. “Obviously Dr. PBJ and Basil Rajapaksa were at the helm of economic matters. They shaped the damaging policy,” Gunasekara said, recalling him warning Gotabaya Rajapaksa regarding the impending economic crisis at the first public meeting held in Matara following the handing over of nominations for the 2019 presidential election. “The CP organized the Matara meeting where over 5,000 attended. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena were among those present. I handed over a printed booklet that dealt with the impending crisis and measures to be taken to Gotabaya. Obviously, he didn’t bother with it.”
Responding to another query, the one-time Prison Reforms Minister said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was overwhelmed by the Rajapaksa family. “That is the ugly truth. The family didn’t allow the President to proceed on his own path,” Gunasekara said, explaining how the ill-advised Cabinet decision to abolish a range of taxes at the first Cabinet meeting chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, enactment of the 20th Amendment to pave the way for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament, chemical fertiliser ban and cancellation of the Japanese-funded Light Rail Project, without consulting the donor, caused immense damage.
The former Minister said that the unveiling of a comprehensive and far reaching alternative economic development programme that dealt with repositioning of Sri Lanka’s foreign trade and economic relations by the CP coincided with their 80th anniversary. Gunasekara emphasized the responsibility on the part of the decision-makers to focus on human resources development, especially against the backdrop of the brain drain and the general perception that there was absolutely no hope of an economic recovery.
Gunasekara said that the vast majority of those who now represented the Parliament, as well as the executive, refused to accept the heavy impact the restructuring of domestic debt was having on the public. Whatever the economic recovery plans under discussion or at the onset of implementation, we lacked the wherewithal and political consensus, Gunasekera said, adding that the issues at hand should be addressed accordingly.
Gunasekara also discussed the continuing failure of Parliament to respond to the growing threats, with quite formidable external interventions taking place right under the noses of the political leadership. References were made to USAID and UNDP interventions at the highest level.
Need for urgent reforms
Gunasekera urged political parties to give sufficient time for new entrants. The ex-lawmaker said that sufficient time should be allocated for new MPs to address Parliament on important issues. How could they deal with a particular issue within three minutes, Gunasekara asked, acknowledging that he wouldn’t have achieved current status if he was denied adequate time.
Gunasekera recalled how he entered Parliament in 1986 in the wake of the death of Sarath Muttetuwegama, 51, lawyer, killed in a car crash at Ratnapura. At the time of his death, Muttetuwegama, married to Manouri, daughter of Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, represented the Kalawana electorate.
Gunasekera said that the decision-making Central Committee of the CP nominated him to fill the vacancy created by Muttetuwegama’s untimely death. There had been provision for a political party to nominate a person to Parliament, within a month, following the creation of a vacancy, and Dew Gunasekera was the CP’s choice though not unanimous. One member of the decision-making body had voted to appoint Manouri Muttetuwegama. In case, a particular political party failed to reach a consensus within a stipulated period of time, the then Election Commission would have called a by-election.
Touching the table, at where he sat, Gunasekara said on the day he took oaths as an MP, the then CP Chairman Pieter Keuneman advised him how to conduct himself in Parliament right here. “We were in this room. I was told to address Parliament while looking at the direction of the Speaker to prevent being disturbed and distracted by opposing MPs. Keuneman stressed the need to be fully prepared to address Parliament. I was also told the importance of having the address in point form and being logical. Perhaps the most important advice was to keep in mind that as an MP he should address the electorate not members of Parliament.”
Towards the end of the interview Gunasekera said that he was not sure whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa wanted to contest the 2019 presidential election or the family fielded him due to Mahinda Rajapaksa being disqualified by the 19th Amendment barring a third term. Gotabaya was not like other Rajapaksas and his wife a humble and gracious lady who never stepped on the toes of anyone. They were never extravagant and basically lived a simple life but Gotabaya Rajapaksa never realized the pitfalls in the political party system here.
Referring to the Matara meeting, immediately after presidential nominations where he advised SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ex-MP Gunasekera said that the President’s response to concerns raised by the CP at a meeting he chaired on 20 December, 2020, deeply disappointed him.
The meeting had been called to discuss the government response to the Covid-19 threat. “On behalf of the CP, our General Secretary Dr. G. Weerasinghe urged President Rajapaksa not to force Muslims to cremate Covid-19 victims as the decision was not backed by scientific reasons nor by the World Health Organization. The President and others present there were warned of dire consequences of such a drastic decision. But Dr. Weerasinghe’s plea was ignored.”
Gunasekera said that he took advantage of the opportunity to warn the President of the impending economic crisis again. The ex-MP recalled him telling the President that unless he addressed the issue at hand none of those 6.9 mn voted for him would remain when the troubles erupted. “The President didn’t say anything but smiled nicely.”
Gunasekera criticized the Mahanayake Theras’ response to the developing crisis. Underscoring the responsibility on their part to rein in politicians, Gunasekera said that the emergence of the likes of ‘Pastor’ Jerome Fernando and Natasha Edirisuriya should be examined against the backdrop of the pathetic conduct of politicians and most religious leaders.
Commenting on the Aragalaya and related developments, Gunasekera confirmed that the US Ambassador Julie Chung advised Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to succeed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
He said that National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s recent declaration to that effect was based on what he told the MP.
Wickremesinghe’s emergence as the President, an Office he couldn’t have won at an election, highlighted the ruination of the political party system and the dearth of leaders. The UNP, being restricted to just one National List seat, and the SLFP down to one elected MP (other 13 elected on the Pohottuwa ticket) highlighted the collapse of the political party system, as hitherto known, and further deterioration of the situation.