By Sisira Gamanayake –
Ever since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the country has been governed by a well-entrenched political class known as ‘political elites‘. They have close connections to big business, families associated with the British colonial rulers and accumulated immense wealth, those who prospered through the plantation economy, and borrowing from international donors. The political class shared power among themselves through the two-party system which later became a multi-party system or coalitions of major and minor parties plus cross overs to include vociferous political groups that one may not describe as political elites. However, after a few years such minor party members and their leadership also became economically prosperous through the perks of office plus other dealings and wheelings. In Sri Lanka, most MPs get licenses to operate liquor shops which is considered as lucrative. Political families nurtured their extended family members and school or university friends either to take up political roles or roles in the government bureaucracy e.g. as chairmen of corporations or board members as well as executive positions in critical corporations such as ports, insurance or banks. Transfer of favours thus flowed both ways. They were also legitimised. In a political and governance system where politicisation became the hallmark, those who supported one alliance or another benefitted once the alliance came to power including the offer of plum diplomatic positions.
Thus, after the direct colonisation ended and indirect colonisation started with the transfer of power to English educated elites with substantial material wealth, Western culture capital including the power of Kaduwa (English language) in 1948, the ruling elites were able to hang on to power and direct the country’s economic, political and social spaces in a manner that serves the interests of a few rather than the many. The introduction of Executive Presidency in 1978 that was not subject to country’s laws as other citizens are became the hallmark of this tendency to concentrate power within the elite political class and their self-appointed leaders. However, the three rebellions launched by unhappy Swabhasa (Local language) educated youths from the South and the north highlight the dissatisfaction with this system as was the aragalaya (struggle) launched by disgruntled internationally exposed youthful activists last year seeking a total system change. Since the new President Ranil Wickramasinghe, an English educated former Royalist and conservative UNP leader became the Executive President last year, after about 40 years of parliamentary presence his government that includes Rajapaksa family members in the parliament has curbed popular protests by the use of police and security forces as well as the court system. Now his government is proposing an anti-terrorism bill to replace the existing Prevention of Terrorism act (PTA) hated by the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese equally. Opposition is emerging from national and international groups who foresee a danger in terms of human, political and civic rights of the citizens if the bill is passed. As the Podu Jana Peramnua controlled by Rajapaksa family has a majority in the parliament and potentially there are some breakaway MPS from other parties who may support the bill, there is every chance that this bill may go through the parliament. If it happens, it will be a darker day for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.
In the past, there have been pressure from international and national human rights bodies and advocates to repeal the PTA. Each time this was raised by international bodies, Government undertook to consider this but failed to do so in reality. At last it has shown its hand now in a totally unexpected way. Instead of bringing a diluted Prevention of Terrorism Act to replace the draconian one existing at present, government has come up with a draft bill that is even more draconian. We need to understand why?
Sri Lanka’s economy was collapsed last year due to its inability to pay off the premiums for loans taken from international agencies and in the bond market resulting in a foreign exchange crisis of unprecedented proportions. Even to pay for a shipload of fuel or food, the government could not find required foreign exchange. In this context, it had to seek the help of India and other countries for short term loans. India provided several billions worth of loans. Several other countries also provided modest loans. Late last year IMF came to the scene. The government has been in talks with the IMF for a couple of billion-dollar loan. By now, the first instalment of this loan has been provided to the government. Out of the IMF funds It paid part of the loan secured from India. The underlying reality is that as part of the deal with IMF, the government was required to introduce tax reforms, privatisation of government owned corporations and assets, take anti-corruption measures. In short, remove loss making government owned corporations and other entities and make the remaining ones profit making. No subsidies are to be provided to the suffering masses as before. Purely a dry, economic rationalist prescription. With the heavy hand of security forces and the police plus planned legislation to control social media, the government is in the process of implementing IMF prescriptions in the face of trade union plus other forms of opposition. Famous examples are the measures to privatise Telecom, Insurance corporation and the Ceylon electricity board. Simultaneously the government started a publicity campaign promoting the measures taken and the positive results which may or may not be true. It is showing the public that the economy has been stabilised with the help of IMF. Further measures to privatise state owned corporations and boards are necessary. In the meantime, opposition to government has been building over the months especially through the work of National People’s Party (NPP) led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of JVP (Janata Vimukthi Peramuna). Given he has only 3 seats in the parliament his capacity for stifling any government move to introduce a draconian anti-terrorism bill is limited. However, this time there can be a groundswell of opposition as a combined move in the parliament as the draft bill surpasses even the position of moderate parliamentarians.
The political system in place in Sri Lanka is one that denies the average citizen the capacity to contest elections and become a parliamentarian. To be successful one either has to be aligned with a major party or have substantial financial and other resources. Country has a proportional representation system. The entrenched mainstream party system, economically enriched political families and their corporate and media friends basically take the majority population to ransom by manipulating the popular opinion through elections to become the legitimate power for a 5 to 6-year term. Once in power, the ruling political class and its close technocratic associates make policies and project proposals with little public consultations. These policy steps require further borrowings from national international agencies. Majority of the population become disempowered in the face of this process. Conducted in their name. After the elections, elected or party nominated politicians become inaccessible to the average voter. In the past, elected MOS from an electorate was accessible. It is no longer the case. Buddhist religious establishment and its leadership also work collaboratively with the political class and its leadership. The police and security forces toe the line to preserve their privileges which are huge by today’s standards. One only has to look into the privileges offered to those sin senior and middle positions in the armed forces to understand the extent of such privilege. Senior Police officers and middle level officers are also in the gravy train. Police stations in the country still follow colonial era tactics and procedures as the courts are. Slow process of law takes some cases decades to resolve. Judiciary is struggling to be independent. Thus, a Fijian or PNG style government has emerged in Sri Lanka that is alienated from the very people that it is supposed to serve. As a result of price increases in essential items and utilities as well as new taxes, in the post IMF era, the people are going through many difficulties to meet ends. While trade unions and student organisations are leading a campaign of resistance, the heavy hand of the military and police on the streets with orders to curb popular resistance from the top, those who come to the streets are finding themselves in police stations and courts with mostly fabricated charges. It is not a healthy situation. There are indications that the parliamentary democratic process overshadowed by an executive Presidential system of governance is yet again taking the people on a ride as it happened many times after the independence in 1948. There is every chance that the country may revert to emergency rule on some pretext in due course (since independence out of 75 years more than 40 had been ruled with emergency laws). Even the overdue Local Government elections have been postponed.
The international community has to open eyes and ears to what’s going on in this splendid country today and the plight of average citizens in terms of the denial of their political, civic and human rights for peaceful expression of dissent. And secure their livelihoods. It is one thing for the ruling class to remain in power and enjoy the fruits of their longstanding privileged lifestyle with imported vehicles, security guards, mansions with domestic staff, foreign travel, children settled in Western countries, and family business dealings. It is yet another thing to deny the majority a descent life without creating circumstances where living and providing a secure future for children becomes impossible. If the government goes in the direction it plans by introducing a draconian law like the Anti-Terrorism Bill, it will in fact lead to the emergence of terrorism or 4th rebellion against the system rather than prevent it. However, this may be the wish of the ruling class which has lost any credibility.