|Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe amongst the Liberals|
|Monday, 26 May 2008|
By: Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Last week saw what might be termed the most significant transformation in political thought in recent years. Under the able guidance of Sagarica Delgoda, head of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe declared himself an adherent of the particularly liberal doctrine of individual freedom.
He did this at an International Conference in Berlin to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung for Freedom, the foundation associated with the German Liberal Party. The German liberals had financed his visit to Europe, in the course of which, as the press had it, he was going to argue the case for GSP+ preferences being extended for Sri Lanka by the European Union.
This might have seemed incredibly kind, were it not that his speech in Berlin made it quite clear that his aim was the opposite. The argument, such as it is, against extending GSP+ for Sri Lanka, is based on inadequacies in Sri Lanka’s human rights record, the belief that its government somehow does not live up to particular principles.
Obviously, if Ranil Wickremesinghe is going to argue the case for Sri Lanka, he must present himself as a devoted adherent of those principles, and so throughout his speech he shows himself an adherent of liberal democracy, quoting at length from the EU Treaty, the German Constitution and the 1991 Commonwealth Declaration on Good Governance, doubtless documents that, on Ms Delgoda’s directions, he now keeps by his bedside.
Such devotion is a far cry from his contemptuous assertion, when Chanaka Amaratunga first brought liberal thinking before the Sri Lankan body politic, that Liberalism had died out in Sri Lanka with Sir James Pieris. But if twenty years is a long time in politics, and a man can grow up and reform in all sincerity, it is less easy to swallow the idea that there has been a sea change since the authoritarian assertions of five years ago.Unsurprisingly – at least for those who are acquainted with chameleons - five years ago Ranil Wickremesinghe was singing the praises of states neither liberal nor democratic, states that many might have termed authoritarian. Having remarked, in a speech in Chennai in 2003, on the Chinese economic miracle, after years of ‘failure’, once ‘the free market reforms took place in the late 1980s’,Wickremesinghe remarked how ‘South Korea turned its economy into a powerhouse before granting her people real political freedom. Indonesia was single-minded in improving its economic performance and has only recently adopted more genuine democratic processes. Even Vietnam, one of the few remaining communist countries, has been increasing amounts of foreign investment and looks set to achieve great economic strides in the near future….the current widely accepted view is that a functioning democracy is essential for sustainable economic growth and development.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, left, and LTTE’s Anton Balasingham in Oslo, Norway, 2002
Nevertheless, the evidence from both our countries (India and Sri Lanka) is that this is not necessarily the case.’Only Ranil Wickremesinghe could pretend to have transformed himself in five short years from Nietzsche to John Stuart Mill. But, just to make it clear that he is having a ball, and laughing at all and sundry who remember nothing, he throws in a hint of where his real allegiances lie. Knowing well that German liberals would probably not remember J R Jayewardene at all, he begins his speech by saying that ‘Popular belief equates democracy with representative democracy together with the notion that Parliament is sovereign and can do anything, other than make a man into a woman or a woman into a man’.Popular belief entertains no such notion, except in diseased minds. It was only J R Jayewardene who claimed that, under the Presidential constitution he had introduced, he could do everything except inflict gender change.
Only someone like Wickremesinghe, a convert after his marriage to gender equality, could believe that he might even be able to go further, if endowed with Jayewardene style powers, the type of power he wanted to give Prabhakaran under the interim authority proposals for the North and East he sent to the LTTE shortly after this 2003 speech.It is typical that, before his attack on the current government, he should tongue in cheek have paid his customary tribute to the uncle who launched him on his political career, by promoting him into the Cabinet when he was still under thirty. For the pith of Wickremesinghe’s speech, to an audience that he doubtless hoped would take the message back to European Union decision makers mulling over GSP+, was that Sri Lanka was moving ‘from an illiberal democracy to an authoritarian state’.What are the criticisms he makes of Sri Lanka at this forum to which the German Liberals have obligingly flown him? First he claims that the Government is attempting to use a war against the LTTE to slowly extinguish democracy.
Dr. Chanaka Amaratunga
Founder of the Council for Liberal Democracy in Sri Lanka in 1981
This is a preposterous claim, particularly coming from someone who was a leading figure in the Government that introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act which, given the ham-fisted manner in which it was implemented, immeasurably increased the strength of the LTTE – as did that Government’s appallingly illiberal undemocratic acts such as the referendum to postpone elections, the cajoling over through constitutional manipulation of Tamil MPs, the banning of political opponents from contesting elections, the introduction of a constitutional amendment designed to get rid of Tamil MPs from Parliament, and so on and so on and so on.
It is also outrageous, except that no one would know the facts in Berlin, in that he is talking about a Government based on a Parliament and a Presidency elected democratically, that has since held elections on schedule and won them convincingly at all levels, and that has also reintroduced democracy to the Eastern Province that he himself was happily prepared to hand over to the Tigers lock, stock and barrel through the interim authority he proposed in 2003 (in three different incarnations, each more authoritarian in scope than the previous one).
He goes on to substantiate his claim by asserting that the Government has entered into electoral alliances with ‘Tamil para military group accused of human rights violations. Contesting the election, intimidating voters and ballot stuffing in Tamil areas’. He forgets that his own UNP was not just accused, but even found guilty, in the Election Commissioner’s Report on the 1982 Referendum, of turning polling into a complete farce.
He also forgets his own reliance on the LTTE in all elections in this millennium. It was after all Ravi Karunanayake, his line to the German Liberals, who encouraged him to refuse to compromise with President Kumaratunga in 2003 on the grounds that the UNP could not lose a General Election, since together with the TNA they could be sure of a majority. And even this time round, having tried to turn the Eastern Province Election into a communal issue, he was then saved by LTTE instructions to in effect support the UNP alliance, so as to thwart the Government. Instructively, when even the world has begun to condemn particular acts of LTTE terrorism, the UNP has sedulously avoided any criticism of the LTTE, and has instead continuously tried to blame the Government for the deaths of civilians and soldiers alike.
Wickremesinghe also talks of the Government ‘weakening the party system to replace it with family rule’. This is particularly rich, coming from a man whose initial preferment was entirely due to his being the nephew of an all powerful President. Wickremesinghe knows well the resentment against him in those days of a sizeable section of the UNP, he knows the names he was called by more intelligent and accomplished politicians such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, ranging from Young Fascist to Milksop (in a much more pithy Sinhala version). Still, with all of them being killed, courtesy of the LTTE, with Gamini Athukorale and Karu Jayasuriya also gone, after they were stripped of significant party positions, Wickremesinghe now reigns supreme in his own right.That he runs his party not as a family fiefdom but through old school ties, with prominence given primarily to people of the same class and educational capacity – never outstanding - such as Kapukotuwa and Karunanayake and Samarawickrema and Charitha Ratwatte (also a member of the family, but at least competent, and bright enough to want to stay at arm’s length now), may seem a virtue to Wickremesinghe. But it is not what accountability and transparency and democracy are about.
And in the midst of all this, at international fora where there is no one to challenge him, he sets himself up to critique insidiously a popularly elected Member of Parliament who was only made a Cabinet Minister belatedly; the most effective Secretary of Defense this country has had in decades; the person responsible for the most efficient resettlement programme for internally displaced persons in any conflict situation in the world; and all this whilst retaining a stranglehold on his party which precludes any challenge, changing its constitution at will, primarily to get rid of potential rivals such as Athukorale and Jayasuriya from significant positions.
This is surely the height of hypocrisy, which sadly the few intelligent and able people left in the UNP have to swallow, because the sycophants will always shout louder. The only hope for the party is that the jealousy of the unelected incompetents is such that even those of goodwill will be alienated and before long Wickremesinghe will be left with just a royal core, incapable of saving him from the vote of no confidence that, despite it not being possible under the party constitution, may be mandated by law under a fundamental rights application.Incidentally, Wickremesinghe’s last exercise in this respect, of publicly badmouthing the government, was in Bulgaria, a year or two back, in a speech not to the Liberals but to the Conservative Union, when he specifically included Nivard Cabraal in his allegation of family- bandyism. The statement was based on misconception, Wickremesinghe not really understanding that, though Mrs Cabraal comes from the same District as the President, any family connection lies four or five generations back, and is nothing like as close as Mrs Cabraal’s connection to Wickremesinghe himself (which is doubtless why Mr Cabraal was a favoured UNP candidate until his undoubted abilities proved too much for the royal inner circle).
The FNS indeed used to recognize Cabraal as an expert to use for training programmes, until it decided to put all its eggs into the Karunanayake/Wickremesinghe basket in Sri Lanka, despite the latter having taken the UNP into the Conservative Union.A couple of months ago it was announced that Wickremesinghe was going to a meeting of the Conservative Union, of which he was a Vice-President, and it was hoped that he would be made its President. Nothing more has been heard of this, which may explain his sudden conversion to liberal values. Certainly Chanaka Amaratunga would have been proud of him, for the first section of his speech strangely echoes what Chanaka wrote in the second chapter of ‘Liberal Values for South Asia’, that ‘Liberalism is not about material things or even ultimately about constitutional relationships but about the real freedom of real individuals.’
His successor as Chairman of the FNS is subject to the advice he receives from the ground, and unfortunately the FNS in Colombo is gridlocked into the Karunanayake approach to political activism. With no one else left in the UNP parliamentary group who can even pretend to engage productively in foreign relations, Wickremesinghe may see the wisdom of learning at least a little about Liberalism.And if in the process he attacks the Government from a liberal standpoint, so much the better for those who wish to undermine the Government, its efforts to bring back democracy to the East and then the North, its Non-Aligned Foreign Policy, its excellent relations with powerful countries in Asia, its commitment to economic growth with equity. Wickremesinghe is an odd companion for the German Socialist Minister for Development Cooperation who was so critical recently of Sri Lanka with regard to GSP+, or for Hillary Clinton, who was acting as an apologist for Tiger terrorism after the concerted efforts of Tigers to fund her campaign – but the strangest alliances have emerged in a world in which it is no longer clear who is pulling the strings. It would certainly be tragic though, if those who believe in democratic pluralism and the rights of minorities allowed themselves to be diverted by Wickremesinghe’s attacks into undermining the first positive efforts at peaceful reintegration and regional empowerment in Sri Lanka, since the Tigers disrupted the 1987 Peace Accord. On that occasion they found willing allies in the then Government, which included Wickremesinghe as Leader of the House, to promote their cause. Sadly history repeats itself, even if the guises under which strange bedfellows come together changes as convenient.Professor Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Sunday, 04 January 2009 )|
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