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Sri Lanka’s Regime of Crisis

Paper No. 5518                                           Dated 28-Jun-2013

Guest Column by Dr. Kumar David  

The political scene in Colombo has changed rapidly in the last two months. Actually it is not sudden, as I will explain at the end, but there has been a remarkable shift in the political domain. A regime which since the end of the civil war in May 2009 was strong, stable and popular has mutated fairly quickly into a regime of crisis.

A leader who was master of all he surveyed (President Rajapakse) is spluttering and struggling to keep his head above water. At least one Cabinet Meeting in mid-June nearly ended-up in fisticuffs; now factions of Ministers hold press conferences at which they bash each other either as soft-on-Tamils-traitors, or as Sinhala chauvinists. In-fighting in government rages in the open with meetings and counter meetings, charges and counter-charges. The President has no control of the factions. A bothersome genie has escaped from the bottle, and men may come and men may go, but no way can the imp be corked back into the container.  

The immediate bone of contention is the election of a Provincial Council (PC) in the Tamil majority Northern Province (NP) and the 13-th Amendment to the Constitution (13A) under which PCs were established in 1987. Sinhalese nationalists in government (the Jathika Hela Urumaya or JHU party in parliament and its minister Champika Ranawaka, and a barmy maverick minister Wimal Weerawansa) and extremist and monk’s organisations such as the BSS (Bodhu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Army) outside parliament, have mobilised to have NP-PC elections, likely to be held in late September, called off, and/or 13A amended or repealed altogether.

Although seven Sinhalese majority provinces have had PCs for 25 years and the Muslim-Tamil-Sinhalese plural Eastern Province has had a PC from a few years after the end of the civil war, Sinhala extremists refuse to accept a PC in the NP. They argue that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will win which is true, and will use the provincial administration as a platform to divide the country, which is poppycock. Defence Secretary and president’s brother Gotabhaya, as a public servant should not intervene in political issues at all, but he is playing a strident role opposing NP-PC elections, mounting the BSS platform and adding his voice to extremist propaganda, often in defiance of stated Cabinet policy. It’s a mad hatter’s tea party.

Against the extremists, the other forces mobilised within government are the Muslim Congress (SLMC) the countries biggest Muslim party, the Communist Party, the LSSP and Tamil Cabinet Minister Douglas Devananda. The most resolute champion of the counterattack on extremism is Minister Rajitha Senaratne who crossed over to the government benches with a group of 16 MPs from the main opposition party, the UNP, six years ago – previously Rajitha was in former Chandrika Bandaranaike’s party before she became president. It is also no secret that several MPs and ministers of the main government party the SLFP are opposed to messing around with 13A and favour unimpeded NP-PC polls. Thondaman, leader of the CWC, the party of the Upcountry Tamils, is also known to be of the same view, but he too, like the SLFP ministers is lying low, afraid to show his hand or rock President Rajapakse’s apple cart.

If President Rajapakse cracks the whip and threatens dissident ministers with expulsion from Cabinet some may capitulate but a few have said that they would not back down even in this event.

Many current opponents of changing or repealing 13A, are parties or individuals who suffered considerably in murderous attacks at the hands of the JVP in the late 1980s because they stood by it at the time it was enacted. Indian readers may recall that at this time when the IPKF was battling the LTTE in the north it was de facto freeing President Premadasa’s hand to take on and crush the JVP in the south. Paradoxically, Premadasa was arming and giving succour to the LTTE to take on the IPKF. The Indians were played for suckers; a syndrome that has recurred with a vengeance in the last five or six years.

Outside government, civil society organisations, united fronts of the smaller left parties, the Christian churches, and the TNA are active in opposing Sinhala extremists. The political ferment that has broken out in the last two months is quite remarkable. All this detail of who is on which side may seem tedious to non Lankan readers, but since the infighting in government has come into the open, and the government is visibly split and there is much agitation in public, it was necessary to explain the scene in a little detail. President Rajapakse seems powerless to call his ranks to order; he is commander in chief of a government in disarray.  The sure sign of a government in deep crisis and weakening structural instability is internal dissension and the surfacing of factions pulling in contrarian directions.

Indian intervention

Rajapakse’s project to amend or repeal 13A seemed to have been abandoned, rather suddenly, during the third week of June, but nothing is certain as each day some different version of the state of play is splashed across the media. What frightened the regime into abandoning its campaign to repeal or water down 13A is the whiplash from India, and this is also fuelling internal dissent within government. I quote three phrases from Indian government statements that show its severity; “The Prime Minister (Singh) said he was dismayed”; “These changes would be incompatible with LLRC recommendations”; “Raises doubts about the commitments made by GoSL to India and the international community”. Clearly India was laying the groundwork for follow up action. Rajapakse capitulated.

I have been very critical in this column of Delhi’s weak-kneed attitude to Colombo’s flagrant transgressions of diplomatic and international good behaviour in recent years. Just this once when Delhi stood firm, Rajapakse capitulated; I hope the lesson is not lost on the Indian leadership. 

This is not the end of the Colombo regime’s problems; it is the start of a different type of imbroglio. That’s why the Rajapakse administration has become a regime of crisis. Anti-13A extremist forces are not going to take Rajapkse’s capitulation lightly. They are mobilising on the streets and will come out in force, led by monks. Many, including the BSS and All Ceylon Buddhist Congress will commence action with a convention on 2 July. Newspaper reports assert that Cabinet Ministers, Dinesh Gunewardena, Champika Ranawaka and Wimal Weerawansa will support and participate in the event. We are still in day-1 and there is a long way to go before the five-day test match is decided.  Rajapakse is caught between the devil and a sea of yellow robes; mishandled, he is kaput.

A little background to 13A

To say that 13A was forced on Lanka by Delhi is correct. When the Sinhalese state (I use the appellation advisedly) was on the brink of militarily wiping out Tamil militants and sealing total control over the Tamils in the north in 1987, there was dismay among Tamils and consternation in India. Rajiv Gandhi then ordered an airdrop of food over the Jaffna Peninsula, signalling to then president JR Jayewardene that the game was up. This was followed, in short order, by Rajiv’s visit to Colombo, the Indo-Lanka Accord, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Lankan Constitution. The purpose of 13A was to devolve power and award a degree of self-administration to the Tamils. The LTTE systematically sabotaged 13A and scuttled every possibility of even a limited degree of devolution. Its game plan was all or nothing, Eelam or bust.  Wiley JR sabotaged 13A implementation at every step. Hence we now have a situation where 13A is more honoured in the breach than in the observance and to say 13A must be superseded by an autochthonous new constitution is correct. The constitution is in tatters after a series of harmful and contradictory amendments the most pernicious of which is 18A which removed term limits on the presidency and granted him enhanced dictatorial powers.


However, the argument that 13A is largely out of date is merely technical in terms of the ongoing power struggle. The issue at this moment is not about drafting a better new Lankan constitution; the ongoing battle is about defeating an attack by extremist and chauvinist forces on concessions to the minorities.  If this battle is lost kiss any hopes of devolution in the long term goodbye.

To be truthful what’s going on in Lanka today has little to do with specific provisions of 13A though detractors claim that there are four provisions that worry them. Police powers to provinces which were never devolved; land powers which were hardly delegated; the right of provinces to merge, but experience has been in the opposite direction because a merged North-East was broken up by a maverick and racist Chief Justice some years ago; and fourthly about a Provincial Council’s power to restrain central legislation that affects, and it dislikes, unless carried by two-thirds in parliament. The issue are off the practical radar screen or never devolved. They are a smokescreen for an extremist onslaught.

These issues are red-herrings in what is actually a struggle about the place of minorities in Lanka; are we a plural society or one in which the majority race holds hegemony of state power? The crisis in the government is about whether Sinhala-Buddhist extremism wins this round in the political struggle or whether it can be thrown back. If chauvinism is defeated the balance of power will change in a welcome direction; the converse will be a setback for democracy and the minorities.

Socio-economic background to the crisis

The present crisis did not come as a cloudburst out of the blue. On the international side it has been brewing for a long time through the UNHRC setback the government suffered in 2012 and 2013 and concerted campaign on human rights violations and alleged war crimes that have built up to a crescendo. Another powerful factor behind the weakening of the government and its instability is a deteriorating economic situation with commenced in August 2012. It is not appropriate to attempt anything like a summary here, but I will name the principal axes of this downturn before closing this report.

The trade deficit has gone berserk; exports pay for only half Lanka’s imports; difference is made up by remittances from domestic workers in the Middle East, tourism receipts and short term inflows when foreigners play in the stock-market or buying short-term treasury bonds. Therefore Lanka has no funds to pay interest on foreign debt or to service maturing debt; the country is trapped in a mounting spiral of foreign debt.

Government revenue is only 13% of GDP while budgetary expenditure is over 20%, hence the fiscal deficit is enormous and rising with no possibility of amelioration. Hence the government is also trapped in a rising domestic debt spiral.

The result is inflation which is fluctuating between 7.5% and nearly 10%  annualised, unpopular price hikes such as electricity tariffs, foreign investment of less than one third what it should be, lack of local investor confidence, and a very serious shortfall in robust industrialisation. A background like this is a breeding ground for political dissent and multiplies the woes of a regime of crisis.