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The Nugegoda rally and the

governments midlife crisis

by Rajan Philips-February 21, 2015

The governments 100-day plan is nearing its halfway mark. The record so
far is somewhat mixed. The big concern is whether all the constitutional
and legislative changes proposed in the plan can be implemented within
the remaining 55 days and certainly before the meaningless April 23
deadline for dissolving parliament. More than anybody else, Prime Minister
Ranil Wickremesinghe is insistent on sticking to the dissolution deadline
with the expectation of forming an all-party national government after the
elections in June. The simple question is why not make sure that the entire
100-day plan, including changes to the electoral system, is implemented
by letting the current parliament complete its term in April 2016. Why not
let the current parliament function as a national government without
prematurely putting the country through a general election in the hope
getting a different national government? Would it not be prudent to use
the current parliament to its maximum potential without risking the
uncertainty of an election? Isnt it too early for anybody to forget the
lesson from the last prematurely held presidential election?
The risk of having a parliamentary election sooner than necessary must
have been brought home to the UNPers in the new government by the
inciting MR for PM rally last Wednesday in Nugegoda. The rally did not
fizzle out as many in the government were predicting, but attracted a
massive crowd and received extensive media coverage, far more than the

organizers were expecting. Politically, the Nugegoda rally outdid the

governments diplomatic success in getting the UNHRC report on Sri Lanka
deferred till September even though it is due this March. The Geneva
deferral spared the country from the ides of March for the fourth year in
succession. But in Nugegoda, there was wild cheers for the return of
Mahinda Rajapaksa who had thrown the country into diplomatic mud in
Geneva after winning the war in 2009.
True, one rally does not a PM make. And the surging crowds at the rally did
not cover up the self-serving opportunism of the rally organizers and the
chauvinistic content of their messages. Laksiri Fernando has superbly
ridiculed the silly comparison of the Nugegoda rally to the United Left Front
rally of the LSSP, the MEP and the CP in 1964. It is not the size of the
crowd, but the credibility of the leaders and the content of their politics
that should be compared. And there is no comparison between NM-PhilipSAWicks, in 1964, and Vasu-Dinesh-Wimal in 2015. Taking a different line,
a recent Daily News editorial, now written under different dictation and
without vitriolic personal malice, has rightly contrasted the freedom the
organizers had in going ahead with the Nugegoda rally, to the difficulties
that Maithripala Sirisena and the opposition had to face in organizing their
meetings during the presidential election campaign. Official access to
meeting sites was routinely denied and unofficial thugs were routinely sent
to destroy meeting preparation when alternative sites were found. But the
pro-MR organizers are not interested in the observance or denial of
democratic freedoms. By hook or by crook, they want their man back to
serve their own ends.
The organizers were smart in picking Nugegoda and not any other
traditional political battleground in Colombo to rally for Rajapaksas
resurrection. An MR rally at Hyde Park might have been a different story.
Nugegoda is a different stomping ground. It was in Nugegoda, in January
2007, that Mervyn Silva led a gang of thugs to beat up a peace rally
organized by the United Peoples Movements. It was also in Nugegoda last
year that the BBS brought out its own throng of storm troopers to bad
mouth the Muslims and the Christians. More than the location, the rally
organizers think they have a smart strategy up their sleeve. They are not
opposing the Sirisena presidency and programme, but are targeting Ranil
Wickremesinghe and daring him to run against MR for Executive PM. Their
strategic premise seems to be that Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the
chief architect of the January 8 regime change, is also the Achilles Heel of
the new government in a political contest. For political pundits on the
sidelines, a blood contest for the Prime Ministers position is more

entertaining than the boring politics of constitutional and administrative

changes. All that Mahinda Rajapaksa has to do is to politically disown his
nuclear and extended families, and he will be unbeatable again. That is the
The absurdity in spoiling for a Ranil-Mahinda face-off in a future election is
that of all the 20 million and more people in Sri Lanka, it was to Ranil
Wickremesinghe that Mahinda Rajapaksa turned at the worst moment of
his political career, that early morning on January 9, allegedly after
exploring unsavoury alternative options, to ensure safe passage from
Temple Trees to ordinary life. Clearly, the outgoing president was not
thinking of Vasu, Dinesh, Wimal, Udaya, or Dayan for political smarts at
that time. It was vaguely reported then that Ranil Wickremesinghe assured
the then President that he and his brothers deserve to be protected for the
service they had done for the country. There has since been a lingering
suspicion that Ranil may try to protect at least Mahinda Rajapaksa from
the consequences of a full scale investigation into the misdeeds of the Old
Regime. The suspicion is not unfounded because that is the name of the
game that has been going on for almost 40 years. Even a former Chief
Justice boastfully conceded how he saved a certain political leader from
certain conviction in a case connected with tsunami funding.
Nearly four decades of executive presidency, and the last ten years of
unbridled family bandying and power abuse, have erased the traditional
political affiliations and party loyalties. The system is awash with all
manner of not so strange political and personal bed fellows. Politically
connected people are always safe no matter whether they are with the
government or with the opposition; in fact they enjoy connections to both
sides. It is the politically unconnected but concerned citizens who are
vulnerable to official punishment and unofficial attacks. It was revealed in
parliament the other day by the Minister of Justice that the rate of
conviction in criminal cases is four percent Sri Lanka. It could be even
lower if one were to include the cases where prosecutors have blandly told
judges that the case files have gone missing. Worse, politically connected
people are neither investigated nor prosecuted, let alone being punished,
no matter which political alliance is in power. Putting an end to this game
of mutual back-scratching was one of the solemn promises in the Maithri
Apart from sensational allegations, nothing concrete has been
accomplished. There is no clear and consistent messaging of the steps that

will be taken to investigate and deal with allegations of corruption and

abuse of power. Different statements have emerged at different times:
revamping the Bribery Commission, setting up Presidential Commissions,
establishing a new secretariat and so on. While resources are needed to
investigate and frame charges, the prosecution and trial of those charged
should be left to the Attorney Generals Department and the court system.
What is needed is to ensure that prosecutors and judges can function
independently in dealing with charges of corruption and abuse of power.
What is not needed and what should be avoided is the creation of
politically constrained judicial commissions to administer justice. The
purpose of prosecution should not be political vindictiveness but future
deterrence. And corruption cannot be fought by prosecution alone.
Systemic checks and balances to prevent corruption are even more
A useful lesson from the Nugegoda rally is that the new government must
be alert to protecting the victory against authoritarian abuse of power that
the people won on January 8. This can only be done by President Sirisena
and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe constantly working with the current
parliament, where they have combined majority support, as a transitional
body for the specific purpose of implementing what they promised to the
people in January. It seems not only odd but a significant omission that the
new government did not commence its term and mandate with the
President delivering the Statement of Government Policy to parliament
when it met for the first time after the Presidential election. This is a
constitutionally mandated function that seems to have fallen by the way
side during the Rajapaksa years. Midway through its 100-day plan, the
government could use this time honoured convention to update its plan
and the road map to fulfilling the promises in the Maithri Manifesto.
It is worth restating what is commonplace. Unlike any of his predecessors,
President Sirisena enjoys unquestionable democratic legitimacy and the
unequivocal and entirely voluntary support of every member of the current
parliament. The reason for this is both his subjective commitment to
ending the executive presidency in its current form, and the support that
the said purpose enjoys unanimously within parliament and almost
universally in the country at large. President Sirisena should therefore be
presiding over and be seen to be presiding over the changes that are
underway, including the abolishing of his own powers. In addition, as a
measure of safeguard he should keep his powers until all the other
changes have been implemented.

Posted by Thavam