The country is going into an uncertain future in the New Year. Its foreign reserves have never been so low before threatening default on foreign loan repayments. The disconnect between the lifestyles of the rulers and ruled has never been so stark before. On the ground people were lining up to buy gas cylinders for cooking purposes. In the air were as many as one fourth of the country’s parliamentarians with their families who went abroad to enjoy the Christmas festivities using dollars that are not available for import of essential food items. The national airline is continuing to make huge losses which denies the state the resources to subsidise other needy sections of the people. Such an inequitable situation was not anticipated when the country went to the polls in November 2019 in the hope of electing a strong leader who would instill discipline and self-discipline in the country and take it on a course of Singapore-style development (or even China-style development) with greater efficiency and zero tolerance for corruption.
There was, and continues to remain, high hopes that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will make a change for the better as he comes from outside of the party political system that has got steeped in corruption, much as the United States over a century ago. “Chicago politics is a national cliché, evoking images of a one-party system, dominated by a boss-controlled Democratic political machine whose crafty politicians dangle patronage before competing ethnic and racial groups in return for votes. Indeed, no political, ethnic, class, or gender group in the city or its suburbs has escaped the lure of patronage politics or the stain of corruption. When reform Republicans captured control of the Common Council in the late 1890s, they behaved exactly as had the ousted Democrats. Republicans replaced all Democratic appointees with their own followers, a practice the Republicans had decried when done by Democrats. Democratic Alderman Johnny Powers did not find this strange: “To the victors belong the spoils,” explained Powers.”
Addressing the gathering at an event in which he was bestowed an honour by Buddhist monks, the President recalled that he had been elected by a majority of the Sinhala people and promised to protect them and their heritage. He said, “I pledge to protect and nurture the Buddhist philosophy in this country. We must always protect the Sinhala culture and heritage that has a history of thousands of years. Therefore, the government will continue to provide patronage to protect our values, traditions and customs.” Equally significantly the he also said, “I will always uphold the right of all Sri Lankans to live in peace and harmony by preserving their religious identities and to live with dignity in association with the main culture of this country that persisted throughout the history. I am ready to embark on a new journey by overcoming the obstacles we have encountered so far, and to fulfill the aspirations of the people who elected me as President of this country. I responsibly declare before this Most Venerable Sangha community that I am ready to take any tough or bold decisions that need to be taken in this regard.”
There are some key things the president needs to do to honor his pledge to uphold the right of all Sri Lankans to live in peace and harmony by preserving their religious identities. The international community, most notably the European Union, has been insisting that the PTA should be amended or abolished to bring Sri Lanka’s laws pertaining to the arrest and detention of people in line with international law. There is currently a case before the courts in which the eminent lawyer M M Zuhair has argued that the accused in the case pertaining to attacks on some Buddha statues at Mawanella are completing three years in state custody, though there is not a single eyewitness who had seen any of the accused in this case attacking any of the Buddha statues. They are in remand custody without the availability of judicial recourse to bail under the provisions of the PTA. But where attacks on other religious sites have taken place, the suspects have all been given bail. This is a clear case of discrimination, unequal treatment before the law and unequal protection of the law contrary to Article 12(1) and 12(2) of the Constitution.
There are other issues too where Sri Lanka is falling short of international standards, and in a most shameless way due to political interference. The country now risks getting downgraded in regard to international trafficking. “Officials working to combat human trafficking in Sri Lanka revealed that a number of women trafficked to Sri Lanka from Uzbekistan have been assisted over the past few months. The foreigners either arrive in Sri Lanka as tourists or on a work visa and are forced into sex. The official said that the women who escape and seek support often face issues with shelters or safe houses. The official also revealed that internal trafficking is also continuing with some brothels operating with powerful backing. They are often alerted about such brothels by authorities who find that their hands are tied because of the involvement of VIPs. Human trafficking in Sri Lanka is at a level that the country faces the risk of being downgraded in the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the United States.
In his speech accepting the award from the Buddhist monks, the president said, “On this occasion, I would like to specially mention the fact that I was born into a Buddhist family, the disciplines I received when I am studying at Ananda College, Colombo, one of the leading Buddhist schools in the country, the inspiration I received from following the advices of the Maha Sangha and the discipline I received from serving in the Army were the factors that made my life better.” The president comes across as an abstemious person, being a vegetarian, and not indulging in ostentatious and self-indulgent practices. He needs to ensure that the law and ethical practices are followed, and not shameless cover ups and the pursuit of ill-gotten wealth at any cost, regardless of who wants to break them, even those near to him due to past and present relationships.
The Chief Secretary of Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagri Maha Sangha Sabha, Head of the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Peradeniya, Aggamahapanditha Most Ven. Prof. Kotapitiye Rahula Anunayake Thero delivering the main sermon, said that the blessings of the Maha Sangha will be conferred on the President to build the country properly managing the remaining three years as there is still more time left. When there is a success, there are many people to share it. But when an attempt fails miserably, the blame falls on the leader himself. Most Ven. Prof. Kotapitiye Rahula Anunayake Thero said that this was a normal situation and wished the President strength to build the country in the future bravely while facing bitter experiences in politics.
It is an observation of management theory that one man, however competent or strong, cannot run a country on his own. He can run a system and give it leadership and ensure that it operates without breaking down. The president’s pledge of a new constitution provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state through a constitutional council consisting of members of government, opposition and civil society would lead to appointments that are more deeply considered and have a wider political backing rather than ad hoc appointments that disappoint. The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government based on checks and balances to which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa can give leadership as urged by the religious clergy and, indeed, all people of goodwill.