President Gotabaya Rajapaksa completed two years in office on Nov 17. The 72-year old veteran of Sri Lanka army was elected with an overwhelming majority by Sinhala voters, with the hope he would use his “terminator” magic to “achieve new heights as a nation” as brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa puts it. His election manifesto - “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” (VPS) has been adopted as a national policy framework after he assumed office. It has ten key policies, with an elaborate and detailed action plan, not designed for the nation yet to recover from the unhealed wounds of three decades of continuing ethnic confrontation. In fact, the VPS prioritises only Buddhism of the Sinhala ethnic kind.
Unlike his Chinese counterpart Xi Ping’s Chinese Dream, Vista's vision was over ambitious for a presidential term of five years. Some of its modest goals are probably achievable, if people were inspired to make sacrifices. However, the President’s style, depending upon military-bureaucratic regimentation, rather than leveraging political strength, can hardly inspire people already suffering from trust deficit in politics.
Moreover, he had inherited a degraded government, empty coffers and the national economy groaning under a decade of mounting debt burden. The COVID-19 global pandemic, mutating every day, provided convenient excuses, but aberrations of governance make economic recovery more complex. Under this emerging scenario, President Rajapaksa rule is probably heading for a turbulent third-year in office. The takeaways from his actions so far, shorn of political rhetoric surrounding them, expose the soft underbelly of governance. Its features seem to be: firming up the Rajapaksas' grip on the nation, pampering Buddhist clergy and the Sinhala majority and neutralising the influence of political satraps on the government through the use of military men (including veterans) and ViyathaMaga loyalists.
The country’s participatory democracy, never fully allowed to bloom, has been reduced to “partial democracy.” It is in danger of deteriorating into autocracy, supported by the military and Rajapaksa loyalists. So when President Rajapaksa talks of a new constitution (indicated in the VPS framework), political parties of all hues including minority parties fear formalisation of his style of governance. The President’s talk of being beholden to Sinhala majority support and reverting to unitary form of government under the new constitution stoke minority fears of further marginalisation from the national mainstream.
The President has constituted a committee of experts, not a committee of elected members of parliament, to prepare the draft constitution. Earlier, the Sirisena government went through the same charade of drafting a new constitution. It was still born because of trust deficit between various ethnicities. Under the present dispensation, even the small gains made by earlier governments to gain the confidence of the Tamil minority through influential diaspora bodies like the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), have been snuffed out after they have been banned again. After the LTTE was wiped out, its overseas elements lost control over diaspora Tamil bodies like GTF. The ban has come at the wrong time, when the government needs to use diaspora Tamils to find a working equation with the aggrieved Tamil minority within a united Sri Lanka. The present government’s ban of even moderate diaspora groups, has given a lease of life to LTTE’s overseas elements, still “democratically” fighting for the cause of independent Eelam. Their calls for international action are likely to get more shrill.
In October, the President appointed the hard-line Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnasara to head a 13-member task force to prepare a draft law for implementing the “One Country, One Law” as promised during the election. It is to replace the present laws based on different ethnic cultural traditions, that have existed from colonial times. The monk gained notoriety by leading the anti-Muslim hate campaign of Bodhu Bala Sena, Buddhist fringe group in 2013. His legal experience is limited to being found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for criminally intimidating a witness in court in 2016. Of course, he was conveniently pardoned by President Sirisena just before he laid down office in 2019. His perspective on Sri Lanka is summed up by a statement attributed to him: “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.” The composition of the Task Force was in keeping with the sentiment. Originally, it had four Muslim members but there was no representative from Tamil minority. However, after representations were made by various parties, three Tamil members were added. But the damage to its credibility has been done.
It is in this environment the exercise of drafting a new constitution is being undertaken. As the Colombo daily The Island editorialised “One can only hope that the Constitution which is said to be on the anvil will not be an exercise to compass the political ends of those in power, especially the ruling family, which has a deep batting line up, as it were." However, President Gotabaya in his third year in office is likely to be confronted with more mundane existential issues, than about gaining brownie points for the VPS agenda.
These include finding money to import oil and other essential daily needs like rice, pulses and vegetables, ways to service foreign debt after Sri Lankan rupee has been further discounted and credit rating is sliding dangerously. On national security, house cleaning is urgently required to ensure accountability in the wake of Easter Sunday jihadi bombings, lest rogue elements within the system getaway with it. In the emerging disturbing strategic scenario in the Indo-Pacific, Sri Lanka can expect more overt and covert arm twisting from China, as demonstrated by what followed the Chinese organic fertilizer import fiasco. So it may have to take a relook at its long term relationship building with China. Internally, the President may be required to seriously look at his political support bAase as the feud between the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seems to be gathering momentum.