The Tamil polity has responded with a degree of skepticism to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s declaration that he will talk to Tamil leaders and find a solution within the course of the next year which is also Sri Lanka’s 75th anniversary of independence. They are aware that the promises made by successive governments since the 1960s were never delivered wholeheartedly if at all. The president’s previous periods of governance were not any different. In the period 2015-19 as prime minister, he promised a new constitution in which the concept of power sharing would be entrenched. He was arbitrarily sacked by the then President Maitripala Sirisena in 2018 in the infamous 52-day coup. It was the Tamil leadership in parliament and outside, such as TNA leaders R .Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran who led the fight for his restoration. When the prime ministership was regained by him, there was still a hope he would deliver on his promise of constitutional reform. But nothing happened. Not even the provincial council elections were held.
The primacy being given to the defense budget at time of cost slashing in virtually every other area is a pointer to the government’s reliance on the security forces to maintain and exhibit political stability and their grip on power. It is also a reflection of the government’s fears that the worst is still to come. This does not bode well for the people who are hoping that the country will come out of its worst ever economic crisis soon. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s accession to power was greeted with the hope beyond its query of legitimacy that he would be able to navigate through the prevailing political instability and access international support through his familiarity with international systems. This hope has still to materialize. The last significant economic support to the country came from India before President Wickremesinghe took office.
The release of eight long term LTTE prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the government was unexpected. The government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe has arrested and detained about 4000 people associated with the protest movement though it has permitted bail to be granted to most of them. But several hundreds, if not more, continue to languish in detention for several months. The government has so far not been receptive to calls for their release, or amnesty, by national and international human rights organisations. In particular, the arrest of Wasantha Mudalige, a student leader, and Venerable Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, a young Buddhist monk active in leadership of the student movement, both charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, has elicited widespread condemnation most recently from the country’s Human Rights Commission, which has been demonstrating a sterling sense of independence for a state body.
The passage of the 22nd Amendment to the constitution came as a surprise. It was originally scheduled to be debated in parliament a fortnight earlier. When the decision to postpone was taken it seemed as if the 22nd Amendment would not be taken up again in the near future or even if it was, it would not be passed. There were two contentious areas on which members of the government and opposition were in disagreement. The disagreement was not only between parties but within them. The first contentious issue was the president’s power to dissolve parliament at his discretion after the passage of two and half years. The retention of the two and a half year provision is a clear political triumph for President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
For a country that experienced four months of mass protests that not only captured the attention of the world, but also led to the resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, Sri Lanka gives an impression of being remarkably peaceful and stable, at least on the surface a mere three months later. The credit for this transformation, if such a felicitous term is appropriate, needs to go to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Those in the higher ranks of government at the time of the rise of the Aragalaya protest movement have reason to be grateful to him. For months they were afraid to come out of their hiding places for fear of encountering the wrath of people who had lost half or more of the value of their incomes and savings virtually overnight when the economy collapsed. They are back in the saddle as government ministers and those who still await their return are showing signs of impatience.
The economic situation in Sri Lanka continues to deteriorate on multiple fronts though slowly enough for people who can afford to pay higher prices not to notice too much. For the past four months or so there has been a relatively steady supply of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. The long queues are no longer to be seen. The rationing system for auto fuel has been effective at curbing demand for it and at conserving dollars. Cooking gas is freely available. The prices of all these essentials have escalated three fold giving rise to inflation. But those who can afford to pay at least double or triple the prices they used to pay, because their income levels are high, are satisfied that they do not have to wait in long lines as in the past. Most of them are no longer members of the protest movement. Indeed, some of them have even become supporters of the government crackdown on the Aragalaya.
The government is facing the strongest resolution yet by the UN Human Rights Council during its 51st session in Geneva. This will be the 9th resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC since 2009 when the war ended bloodily on the military battlefield in circumstances that generated worldwide attention. On every occasion, successive Sri Lankan governments have strived to ensure that there will be no more resolutions where the country’s human rights record is scrutinized to the detriment of the country’s international reputation. But to no avail. This has been due to the fact that what successive governments have promised has not been delivered by either them or their successor governments.
The Paris Club has declared its satisfaction at the agreement reached between the government and IMF regarding a USD 2.9 billion loan to be given over a period of 48 months. The loan will be made under the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility, which helps countries deal with balance of payments or cash flow problems. The Paris Club is an informal group of rich countries which have given loans to less developed countries. They seek to find solutions to the repayment difficulties experienced by those countries which invariably occur. The enlightened self-interest of the countries that constitute the Paris Club can be seen in their member countries’ provision of time, space, advice and more loans to ensure that the original loan obligations to their countries are respected.
The ruling party has requested President Ranil Wickremesinghe to facilitate the return of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the country and his appointment as prime minister. The former president left the country when large numbers of protestors who had been actively protesting against the economic collapse and corruption in the country took over his presidential residence. Few would wish to see a former president going from country to country seeking asylum. Even those who have supported the protest movement are unlikely to oppose his return to the country. However, any attempt to promote his active participation in political affairs is likely to be controversial and would also go against the “Gota Go Home” struggle’s main objective and can undermine the government. In fact, the signs of a power struggle are becoming evident which will be detrimental to the stability that the government needs to secure the future of the country.
Early this year the government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amended the Prevention of Terrorism law. It accepted the position that the law was in violation of international standards and wanted to show it was committed to improving its human rights record. The ground was set to mitigate the pressures from the UN Human Rights Council and other international bodies. However, the government’s plans now appear to be veering of course. This is reflected in the appeal of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to President Ranil Wickremesinghe not to sign the detention orders of Inter-University Students Federation convenor Wasantha Mudilage and two others. She said “I call on President Ranil not to sign their detention order, doing so would be a dark day for Sri Lanka.” The significance of the detention orders is that they were issued under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.