Two recent developments, in as many ways, serve as indicators of yahapalanaya’s terminal decline from hope and confidence to insecurity and despair.
The first is the response to and media coverage of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Meethotamulla disaster area. A grammatically convoluted press release by the PM’s office, printed verbatim in the State run English press, suggested the PM would cut short an official trip to Vietnam because of the gravity of the disaster. He was due back in Sri Lanka on a Wednesday. And yet, he only returned to Sri Lanka late Tuesday night. The tepid interest in political leadership aside, on the morning after, in photo after photo, the most obvious and indeed, obnoxious point about the PM’s visit to the disaster area was the face mask he sported. There were two in fact, of different colour and type. One made him look like, as was pointed out on social media, remarkably akin to a villain from one of the recent Batman movies. The other, a lost surgeon. No one else in his entourage wore a mask. The hapless victims of the disaster who were seen with him, living with the putrid stench of the garbage dump for years, destitute after losing family, loved ones and homes, didn’t sport any masks either. It was a public relations debacle. Suggestions that the PM was suffering from poor health on the day of the visit – which may well have been true – came later, and that too, without any concerted official confirmation or communication. This tone deafness around public relations is in fact a defining characteristic of Mr. Wickremesinghe. Somehow packaged in one person is one of the brightest minds and sharpest intellects by far currently in Parliament, and also a monumental PR disaster, almost biologically missing a gene that makes in large part successful politicians what they are – media, people and voter friendly. This isn’t new, to those who have known and worked with him. And therein lies the rub. When Mr. Wickremesinghe is the best chance we have around desperately needed constitutional, political and institutional reform, the central challenge, which also isn’t new, is how to stop him from being his own worst enemy. Progress on this front is shambolic.
The second development comes in the form of a pronouncement by Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne last week, as reported in the media, that President Sirisena requested Minister and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to quit his ministerial portfolio and take up the post of army commander or overall commander for two years to discipline the country. The BBC’s video footage of the cabinet press briefing in Sinhala makes for – and I am genuinely at a loss for words here – interesting viewing. Minister Senaratne starts off by noting that public demonstrations today have, to a large degree, political motivations. He is then asked how Field Marshall Fonseka will help instil discipline in Sri Lanka, to which he first responds by saying that Fonseka is himself a very disciplined individual. He then says Fonseka will expedite all pending investigations that have been dragging on. When pointed out that Fonseka isn’t the Police, Senaratne’s response is that he would be overall Commander, thus suggesting he would possibly outrank the IGP. When asked at the press briefing what Fonseka’s response was to the President’s offer, Senaratne says that if it was in line with clearly outlined responsibilities, he was partial to it. When flagged that citizens and trade unions had a right to protest, Senaratne notes the issue is with their political motivations, by which he means that public agitation supported by the JO is what is really the cause of concern. He also notes that this kind of agitation wasn’t possible under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, hinting at a future where Fonseka may employ similar fear tactics, which later on the press conference, he goes on to deny. He notes that Fonseka will handle protests ‘beautifully’.
The session quickly descends into farce. When asked why a man who headed the Army at a time when its rank and file were engaged in serious, sustained human rights abuses including violence against the media, Senaratne’s response is that Fonseka is actually the person who testified as to how this violence was architected. When asked why Fonseka couldn’t control his own Army, Senaratne responds by saying he doesn’t expect him to, since Senaratne can’t even control everyone in his own Ministry! The Damoclean sword, aimed at the JO but alarming everyone else, is the threat that the President has invited Fonseka to take an overtly more authoritarian, militaristic approach to governance and in particular, crisis response. This is all very familiar.
Shortly after the news of Senaratne’s incendiary statements were made public, the BBC also followed up with Fonseka. Characteristic confusion ensued. Fonseka denied Senaratne’s comments around the offer of taking over the Army, and said that all he had been invited to consider leading was a new crisis response mechanism in response to the disruption by elements only interested in destabilising government. If his response is taken at face value, this indicates a strong, strategic JO united in purpose, and a weak, fearful yet furious and perhaps isolated President unable to come up with any viable alternative to what any party in opposition will do – attempt to regain power. Two things are distinctly clear. The JO will in the weeks and months ahead, with varying degrees of open association, architect public strikes, protests and rallies that will hit all the major sectors of service delivery and government. They will hit traffic choke points, medicine, logistics, fuel, power, communications, tourism. The government, which no doubt knows of these plans to a far greater degree than ordinary citizens, seemingly finds itself at a loss to respond democratically. It may secretly wish for a Gotabaya Rajapaksa type solution, where baton, bullet and brutes are the chief emissaries greeting protestors.
Enter the Fonseka.
On the very same day, Minister Senaratne delivered the keynote address at the ‘Thanthai Chelva’ memorial event, commemorating S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. Going through the live tweeting by the TNA was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Minister Senaratne spoke passionately in favour of federalism and Tamil rights. Lest we forget, this is coming from a government that pushed through crucial and deeply controversial counter-terrorism legislation, the implementation which may well place at much greater risk of torture and abuse the very Tamils Minister Senaratne says he is partial to, without any public consultation or scrutiny, just to regain the GSP + preferential trade agreement.
The circus has clearly come to town. The argument made, not without merit, is that the worst of this government is better than the best of the last regime, around at least, the timbre of democratic governance. Where this argument holds little to no currency is around people who do not feel or perceive tangible existential relief and material gain under yahapalanaya. We have a PM who is grossly insensitive. We have a President, out of fear, fury or foolishness, relying on militaristic solutions to what are political challenges. We have a government without a single-voice, claiming to be for minority rights and democratic governance, yet doing everything it possibly can to undermine both. What government suggests in the morning, quite literally, is not what it claims in the evening. Perhaps all this is justified through the lens of long-term stability. A Thatcherite approach to strikes, and armed with GSP+, an economy more stable than before could contribute to a reduction in the disruption of public and political life, charting an easier path to a Yes vote for reform at the constitutional referendum. And yet, this isn’t the yahapalanaya that was promised. The JO’s success may be less around how it manages the strikes ahead, and more around how it forces government to negotiate on the political turf it circumscribes. It is increasingly clear that the JO, both umbilically linked to and independent of the Rajapaksas, enjoys strategic foresight, an enduring power and popular appeal the government is at wits end to counter, contain or control. One thing in clear. A PM sporting masks and a President with infantile aspirations to greatness by courting the military and its tactics doom us to a future that is far removed from, indeed diametrically opposed to the timbre of government, and promise of governance on the 8th of January 2015.
As the of quoted French adage goes that holds true in Sri Lanka, the more things change, the more they stay the same.