28 March 2015

Ranil Wickremesinghe's words and deeds

Ranil Wickremesinghe, when he addressed and briefly responded to questions from heads of media institutions and editors, was clear, precise and quite articulate.  He articulated the Government’s strategy, progress made and what’s in the pipeline on three broad subjects: reconciliation, corruption and the ‘100 Days’ Program’.  

When asked if corruption allegations predating the Mahinda era would also be taken up, he correctly pointed out that we cannot go back to ‘The Beginning’ (wherever that may be) and supported the ‘post 2005’ selection by saying that it is hard to collect relevant information pertaining to 2005.  He deftly sidestepped the issue of whether or not the draft 19th Amendment was a reflection of promises pertaining to reforming the executive presidential system scripted into President Sirisena’s election manifesto.  Where parliamentary elections will be held before or after electoral reforms, he left grey.  These are understandable, however.  He is a politician and is in the business of power.    

His ‘spelling out’ of the above three subjects was classic.  It was a politically correct presentation.  It was a classic note marked at every turn by the best in what could be called ‘the spirit of democracy’.  If one forgot the articulator and his record, that is. 

Let’s take the three areas, one by one. First, reconciliation.  Let’s forget the past of the CFA, promises of federalism to Anton Balasingham and Thoppigala talk. 

In the here and now, we have him endorsing the appointment of ex President Chandrika Kumaratunga as head of a ‘Unity’ body, i.e. one that will facilitate reconciliation.  Kumaratunga, during her tenure as President was not only despised by Tamil nationalists (for not giving enough) but was criticized by the Sinahala nationalists on many counts.  No leader since Independence has attacked the Sinhalese and Buddhists as she has, it can be cogently argued.   

Then we have his Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a staunch Kumaratunga loyalist of course, claiming that the Government would review the proscription of organizations considered to have supported the LTTE.  Review is good, but when it comes to matters linked to the LTTE, it is not a job for the Foreign Ministry.  It is a national security issue and that’s President Sirisena’s territory.  Mangala getting this basic things twisted is understandable given his past associations and competencies, but Ranil ought to have seen the error and corrected it. He let it fly. 

Saying that the Tamil version of the National Anthem is an affirmation of things unitary by referring to the line eka mavakage daruwo (the children of one mother) is correct.  Necessary.  Hardly sufficient.  The rub of reconciliation is not located in anthem but choices that have considerable implications.   Chandrika and Mangala, together or separately, is bad news for reconciliation.  These choices make a mockery of statements that could even be called nationalistic (e.g. ‘We have not signed the Rome Statute,’ ‘We will have a truth and reconciliation commission a la South African but one that is adjusted to social, cultural and historical context of Sri Lanka,’ ‘we will not let the West or anyone else dictate to us.’). 

Ranil also said, in passing, that the Government will not do anything to antagonize any country, but seems to have forgotten that he bad-mouthed Tony Abbot of Australia and made a loose statement on shooting Indian fishermen who stray into Sri Lankan waters. 

Corruption.  Again, some good lines about due process, deferring to the Rule of Law instead of pandering to those who are asking for blood.  However, the credibility of this position has suffered untold damage by the appointments he’s made, the appointments made the appointed and the dodgy actions he has defended.  Yes, the ‘Central Bank Bond Blast’.  The appointment of Arjuna Mahendran was going to draw flak.  The scandal over Mahendran’s son-in-law, information-leakage and the appointment of lawyers associated with the party to investigate actions of a man appointed by the party leader cannot thrill anyone who expected this Government to do things differently.  It certainly takes the gloss from all that he said about combating corruption and combating it the right way.

Finally there’s the ‘100 Days’ Program’.  A lot has been done, he said.  He’s even appointed a former member of the UNP’s Working Committee and man who earned a good reputation for his impartial work in the NGO Commission, to help publicize the progress of the Program.  But ‘free wifi’ is hardly the most important ‘change’ that those who voted for Maithripala Sirisena wanted.  It’s the structural reforms that are most important. 

The 19th is a blast from the UNP’s sordid ‘past’ when it comes to amending the constitution.  In a word ‘partisan’.  Without dealing with the thorny issue of where executive power should reside and in what measure with fidelity to relevant passages in Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto, Wickremesinghe’s effort seeks to make an individual elected by the entire country servile to an individual elected by a majority in a 225-member Parliament. 

What we are seeing with respect to constitutional amendment is tinkering that suits a particular party and individual with little or no trace of the statesmanship that ought to mark such an exercise.  To be fair, that’s partly thanks to the Prime Minister’s uncle for whose crimes of omission and commission he should not be asked to pay.  Still, he can do better. 

Finally, the truth or otherwise of his democratic pretensions has to be measured by his democratic flair, let’s say, in his own party.  This is where ‘do’ (or rather, ‘not done’) stumps ‘word’.