Would you seize the moment Mr. President?

By Nayantha Wijesundara

What the present political landscape shows is that at the moment, there is a Prime Minister and a UNP dominated fraction of the government who have become too unpopular too fast. Then there is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa with the backing of what is called the 'joint opposition', a group of forty-fifty members of Parliament, and there are signs that this group may launch a new political party soon.

How soon, we do not know yet. Then there is President Maithripala Sirisena. Yes, President Sirisena is mentioned as the third political force in the country, after both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa, and this is not by accident.

President Sirisena is in a curious position at the moment. He is the Executive President of Sri Lanka, an office which is still very powerful despite the largely cosmetic changes brought in by the 19th Amendment. Curiously though, President Sirisena has exercised his powers with much restraint. One would even say, with more restraint than necessary. It appears that most of the major decisions are taken by Premier Wickremesinghe, while the President has been content to limit himself to a largely ceremonial role.

But now, the cracks within the 'good governance' regime ('Yahapaalanaya' in Sinhalese) are becoming more visible. This columnist maintains the cracks started appearing in March 2015 with the 19th Amendment where the Prime Minister, in violation of the Constitution, attempted to arrogate for himself executive powers that were not his to take. Anyhow, with issues like the Arjuna Mahendran affair and the VAT case now there are signs that things are moving faster towards an inevitable confrontation in this uneasy cohabitation which is the 'national unity government'. The ultimate clash, however, could occur over constitutional reforms and the war crimes issue. The stance the main political actors take on these two issues may determine the next ruler of Sri Lanka.

Under Wickremesinghe's watch, Sri Lanka gave a promise to the international community that an international(ized) prosecutorial mechanism with foreign judges and lawyers will be established to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. We are unaware whether President Sirisena knew this promise was going to be given at the time. At the time, all decisions on this matter were taken by Premier Wickremesinghe, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and one could also presume the opposition TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran who was shuttling back and forth from Geneva to Washington DC to have an international(ized) tribunal established to try the alleged perpetrators of war crimes.

However, to President Sirisena's credit, he maintained from the beginning that there will only be a domestic mechanism/Court. One could assume, what he means by a domestic mechanism/Court, is an institution manned by Sri Lankans whose primary interest will be to punish those errant soldiers and officers, and not to delegitimize the whole war. Sirisena, admirably, was steadfast on this position. Of course, Foreign Minister Samaraweera recently said Sirisena's utterings were his personal opinion only. The columnist is not certain what exactly Samaraweera was trying to imply there.

To be fair by Premier Wickremesinghe, he had mentioned in May that the mechanism will be a domestic one. But the legitimate concern arises whether this statement could be believed. Being the Prime Minister of a government which, for all intents and purposes, is run by him, one finds it very difficult to believe that Wickremesinghe was unaware of the contents of the Geneva resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in October 2015, which said Sri Lanka will initiate a judicial mechanism with foreign judges and lawyers. Thus, Wickremesinghe had shown support to two mutually exclusive things (i.e. an international(ized) and a domestic mechanism. It is difficult to assess Wickremesinghe's actual stance as he had contradicted himself on this vital issue.

Even if Wickremesinghe really meant what he said in May about initiating a domestic mechanism, this columnist remains sceptical as to what he means by 'domestic'mechanism. This is because one could also set up a mechanism consisting of those Sri Lankans who were anti-war, anti-military and members of LTTE sympathetic garden variety NGOs, and call it a 'domestic' mechanism just because the DNA of those individuals is traced to Sri Lanka, while the puppet master remains in a much colder clime in the West. One could not be faulted for anticipating such a move from Wickremesinghe if the composition of the several offices already established to look into 'reconciliation' related matters is considered.

Wickremesinghe has displayed ideological leanings which are in harmony with western expansionist and neo-liberal agendas, but often at variance with the national interest. One such leaning is the present attempt to introduce a federal(ized) Constitution under a parliamentary system of government, potentially paving the way for the de facto dismemberment of Sri Lanka. Another classic case in point from the past is the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 (CFA), which accepted the LTTE as a legitimate entity with territorial control over a large part of land and sea, which happened under the stewardship of Wickremesinghe. One does not know whether he was played out by his trusted Westerners who fashion themselves the 'international community' or whether Wickremesinghe was actually aware of the legal implications of the CFA or whether he anticipated the political consequences of the CFA which allowed the LTTE to re-arm and even acquire air power. However, what the CFA episode and the present neo-liberal constitutional reform process demonstrate abundantly clearly is that Wickremesinghe is more likely to accept the word of the West irrespective of its consequences to Sri Lanka. The question is, whether Sri Lanka could afford to take such a gamble with the war crimes issue.

When comparing President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe with regard to the war crimes issue, one may conclude that Sirisena's stance on the matter is more in tune with the national interest. Of course, the West may denigrate a domestic mechanism, just like they attempted to rubbish the LLRC report before it was even published, on the basis that it lacked transparency, credibility, etc., etc. However, the objective of the game should not be to appease the West but the best interest of Sri Lanka, especially in such a crucial matter which has direct implications to national sovereignty and even security. It has been proven time and again that for the West, Sri Lanka is only a pawn on their chessboard, a carrot to dangle in front of the Tamil diaspora to win the votes at elections back home, a laboratory to experiment with dubious notions such as responsibility to protect (read neo-colonialism) and a temporary filling station and outpost in their march to the East in search of riches.

At present, it is President Sirisena who displays any pragmatism over the war crimes issue and he must not be isolated, for it is possible, being only human, that he may capitulate if the pressure against his stance seemed overwhelming. At the moment he is in a self-imposed exile as he had thus far, left the running of the country to the dominant UNP partner. But they have proven themselves incapable and too corrupt to govern. Thus, perhaps, the President should take the reins now.

Of course, one would not fault President Sirisena if he hesitates here as he does not command much support in Parliament or among the general populace at the moment. But, the nature of Sri Lankan politics is such that things change very rapidly. It is very probable that if the President asserts himself more forcefully his influence in the political sphere may grow quickly. In any event, the more he waits, the more powerful his political opponents may become. That is, the 'joint opposition' and the UNP. He must be proactive and tap those elements that are discontent with the manner in which the present government is functioning. There are several ministers and MPs who are very unhappy. There are MPs in the 'joint opposition' who may jump ship if the President seems like a viable political option who could go the distance.

What of disgruntled social groups that President Sirisena could mobilize for mass support? Presently the Sinhalese feel marginalized and threatened by the manner in which the UNP dominated government is moving towards what it terms 'reconciliation'. The Sinhalese are realizing that the constitutional reforms of the present government, the war crimes matter and other institutional reforms that are in the pipeline are all designed and promoted by the neo-liberal West, pro-western NGO lobbyists and pro- separatist/federalist Tamil elements. Naturally, a fear psychosis is created among the Sinhalese in a context where the government suppresses them in the name of 'reconciliation'. 

Although thoroughly discontented, the Sinhalese have no structured movement to further their legitimate aspirations at the moment. Sinhalese nationalism is still 'rudderless' and in need of a viable leader. Although Rajapaksa loyalists may claim that the Sinhalese are with them, the claim has not much merit. Even at the 2015 January Presidential Election the Sinhalese vote was split nearly at the middle and although some Sinhalese may have gravitated towards the Rajapaksa camp in the face of the marginalization by the present administration, this need not perturb the President. Although Rajapaksa is much respected as the national leader who oversaw the war victory, the Sinhalese as a group has not forgotten the rampant corruption and arrogance which followed the war victory. Hence, if there is a viable rallying point, the Sinhalese may shift towards that point instead of Rajapaksa. President Sirisena could be this rallying point, if he wants to, that is. He only has to take a constructive stand on the war crimes matter (which he has already done), put his foot down and end the mockery that is the present neo-liberal constitutional reform process and also to acknowledge that the Sinhalese have real grievances that need to be redressed, to win over the Sinhalese.

Just as it is important for President Sirisena to lead this group for his political relevance in the future, it is also crucially necessary for him to do so to prevent the rise of extremism among the Sinhalese. It is very possible that in the absence of a viable and constructive leadership, the Sinhalese masses could find a voice in a hardline nationalist camp. The possibility of the rise of Sinhalese radicalism is compounded by the conspicuous inaction of the government over the attacks on Sinhalese in the North and the East. President Sirisena too is guilty of this inaction although he still has the opportunity to correct this. The attitude of the UNP dominated government on this issue is reminiscent of the CFA days where the then UNP led government turned a blind eye to the assassinations of military and intelligence personnel by the LTTE, in its attempt to appease the West and the LTTE and maintain that putrid peace at any cost.

The sense of victimhood among the Sinhalese will breed extremism and possibly, violence in the future. But, if this disgruntled community is adopted by a viable leader such as President Sirisena, it may eradicate the sense of victimhood among the Sinhalese masses and may temper the potential for extremism. Just as Sirisena needs the Sinhalese, the disgruntled Sinhalese too need a viable and moderate leadership to prevent them from descending into extremism in the future.

However, Sirisena, if he opts to lead the Sinhalese, must also remember that he is the President of all communities who live in Sri Lanka. He should be the representative of the legitimate interests and aspirations of not only the Sinhalese, but also of the legitimate aspirations of other communities. Within the present political discourse the interests of minorities are over-represented as every effort is made by the government to gratify them. This happens to the exclusion and marginalization of the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese are not represented in the political discourse at present. However, it is still not too late for the President to correct this wrong. Although there have been scattered instances of sporadic violence in the past, the Sinhalese, as a community, have been accommodative of the minorities. One only has to look at the changing demography and how minorities thrive in the traditionally Sinhalese majority areas to realize that the Sinhalese as a community are far less exclusivist. Hence, representing the interests of the Sinhalese will not require him to exclude the other communities. The two interests, that is, the legitimate interests of the Sinhalese and minorities, are not mutually exclusive.

Although the Sinhalese have been accommodative of others so far, in the face of continuous marginalization support may gather for radicalism and harden the ethnic sentiment. However, President Sirisena could give leadership to a more tempered Sinhalese nationalism and he must seize the moment now before the Sinhalese community is radicalized. If he waits too long, mass discontent of the Sinhalese may grow into something more extreme and uncontrollable, which nobody wants.

It seems, President Sirisena has come to a crucial crossroads with the impending neo-liberal constitutional reforms and war crimes probes in the backdrop of growing Sinhalese mass discontent. He must make a decision very soon. That decision could decide the fate of his political career and also the country's.

Few leaders have been presented with the opportunity to decide whether their story will be a chapter or a footnote when history is written, and fewer have chosen wisely. President Sirisena has been presented with that opportunity one and half years after he assumed duties as Executive President. It is for him to seize the moment, if he wants it.

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