Monday, December 22, 2014

Election 2015: Our choice

Given what we know of the Opposition’s declared strategy and policy at this stage, I am unconvinced that we should vote Mahinda Rajapaksa out. Change is necessary; even imperative. But what kind of change, where, when and to whom? There is a case for peaceful democratic regime change, but what has the current Rajapaksa regime to do with the decades older Executive Presidential system, which is a form of state?

The current choice in Sri Lanka – and the answer to those crucial questions – is excruciatingly simple. On 10 December, International Human Rights Day, Sirisena addressed a civil society coalition and assured it (and the nationwide television audience) that he “was seeking to occupy the chair of the presidency not for the purpose of remaining in it but precisely for the purpose of abolishing its power and going home.” 
Now this was during the same television newscasts that showed the true nature of the place and the persons he was pledging to transfer the power of the Presidential chair to, namely the parliamentarians who before our very eyes, and at that very time, were engaging in a game of musical chairs! So, if we are to trust Sirisena’s pledge, we can expect the disempowerment of the Presidential chair (and its occupant, to wit, Sirisena), which is anchored in the democratic consent of the majority of our citizenry (50.1% of the vote), and the empowerment of an institution susceptible to musical chairs.
Who is to say that in a post-Mahinda period, a hung parliament barely topped by a self-enfeebled presidency with residual executive powers will not be susceptible to decisive manipulation by a concerted infusion of cash from the secessionist network of the Tamil Diaspora? Who is to say that such a maneuver by the Diaspora Tamil Eelamists will be unable to engineer a government of its choice which will pledge the withdrawal of troops from the North?
In the new configuration as designed by the Opposition’s strategists, domestic and external, the residual presidency of Sirisena will not and structurally cannot be the decisively preeminent power center. It will be the PM and the Cabinet. The dominant political poles of attraction are more than likely to be Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. 
One doesn’t have to be Hobbesian (though it helps) to concur that the primary duty of the state towards its citizenry is not good governance so much as the more basic existential one of the protection of life and limb from a violent, determined, ruthlessly marauding enemy. Chandrika and (more so) Ranil miserably failed that most crucial test while Mahinda Rajapaksa passed it with flying colors.
He protected this country and its people, liberating us from Prabhakaran’s reign of terror. Therefore as a student of politics, I cannot recommend an outcome that sends Mahinda Rajapaksa packing while restoring Ranil and Chandrika to prominent positions of power and influence – equal to, if not surpassing that of Sirisena. After all, Mangala Samaraweera did solemnly declare that it is Wickremesinghe who will be “the first among equals.”

Wartime indecision
It is true that Gen. Sarath Fonseka was perhaps the main driver of the victory insofar as the ground war was innovatively designed and determinedly driven by him. It is no less true that this administration treated him disgracefully.
However, an outstanding troika, Generals Fonseka, Janaka Perera and Gamini Hettiaarachchi were in Chandrika’s army for her two Presidential terms and she failed to win the war – because she didn’t believe it could be won; that Prabhakaran could be militarily defeated. Or, due to utter ideological and philosophical confusion, she didn’t consider it as desirable.
Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war for us because he had political will and clarity – and he had a brother, Gotabaya, who could manage the war effort with zealous dedication and knowledge. Together, Mahinda and Gotabaya were able to mitigate the bitter inter-service (Fonseka-Karannagoda) and intra-service rivalries.
In the loop in the early 1990s, I watched helplessly as the Waidyaratne-Kobbekaduwa split paralysed the war effort during President Premadasa’s term, while he refused my entreaties to step in and consistently spearhead the National Security Council, asserting that that “we should leave it to the professionals – the Tamils must be able to see that the Presidency was not directly involved in the war.”
What was the crucial moment of the war? It was a replay of that moment in 1987, when the Sri Lankan armed forces were about to prevail over Prabhakaran in Operation Liberation but President Jayewardene received a deterring warning from High Commissioner J.N. Dixit. In 2009, President Rajapaksa had two fairly similar moments about which I heard, not only from him, but far more credibly and at first hand, from the Norwegian Ambassador Torre Hattrem and the French Foreign Minister of that time, Bernard Kouchner.
It is Mahinda Rajapaksa who sought India’s backing and overruled the US evacuation attempt which had been facilitated by the Norwegians. More crucially, it is he who curtly told an arrogant, blustering David Miliband that “Sri Lanka is no longer a British colony” when pressure was put on him for a ‘humanitarian pause’ in the fighting and a resumption of negotiations, a few weeks before our soldiers achieved final victory. (Kouchner’s story, related to me and my wife at a lunch in Paris, came as no surprise since I was part of the discussion in early 2007 when President Rajapaksa told US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher “I am sorry Mr. Boucher, but what can I do if my terrorists are not Islamic?”).
Champika Ranawaka, who claims credit for the drive to finish the war, was not even a peripheral figure in those decisive discussions with the global powers. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was not present in the room. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in the loop but not on center stage. The decision not to blink and to take the war to a finish whatever the consequences was a political and existential one, and it was made by President Rajapaksa.
In the final analysis, it wasn’t Gota’s war; it was Mahinda’s, and he must not be made to pay a price at our very hands for his resolve in our defense and his defiance of the West. The Tamil Diaspora wants revenge for the defeat of their Tigers and the death of Prabhakaran. The West wants to make an example of Mahinda for far higher stakes: he opted for China and Russia over the West. The two compulsions converge (most overtly in Geneva).
Consider this carefully: are we ready to risk the possibility that Rajapaksa could be a 21st century Rajasinha (the last king of Kandy), carted off by the West to be made an example of i.e. legally lynched, for his defiance in our defense? Do we want that on our collective conscience? Is that how we want future generations to view us? I rather doubt that history will absolve us.
The Joint Opposition’s current program combines the prospects of radical politico-constitutional change and no less radical economic change, given that Ranil Wickremesinghe is an ideologically conservative, neoliberal privatiser and freezer of public expenditure (as proven during his mercifully brief tenure as PM).

Punishing a proven leader
If the contrasting fates of Gorbachev/Yeltsin’s Russia and Deng Hsiao Peng’s China demonstrate anything, it is that political and economic reform must not proceed simultaneously, if one is not to risk meltdown. The scenario of a self-diminished Sirisena Presidency, a shift of power to a volatile Parliament, an economically neoliberal Wickremesinghe Prime Ministership, a ‘CBK as Sonia Gandhi’ factor, an assertive Northern Provincial Council, cosmopolitan civil society-human rights NGO-Western pressures on “cooperation and compliance” with the UN probe on international law and accountability issues, and radical privatisation, fill me with foreboding because the centrifugal factors outnumber and outweigh the centripetal ones.
Are we ready for a Western dominated, semi-colonial Sri Lanka of the sort we lived in during the Ranil–Chandrika-Solheim years; that disgraceful decade of diminished and retrenched national sovereignty? Are we ready for the inevitable blowback, polarisation and radicalisation?
In its narrow judgment in favor of the 13th Amendment in 1987, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that this structural reform, which made for provincial autonomy, remained within the framework of the unitary state because of the executive presidency and its powers over the council as vested in the Governor. Without the magnet or ‘maypole’ as it were, of the elected executive presidency, the centripetal potential of the provincial councils would be greater than their centrifugal potential. This is yet another, doubtlessly unwitting, danger posed by the joint Opposition’s stated project.
A presidential election is not about constitutional change. It is about picking a leader for the country, the state – or more fundamentally, the collective, the community, the tribe (if you prefer an anthropological existentialism).
I am reluctant to dispense with the services of the leader who passed the crucial test of ‘domestic R2P’ – the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ his people and country from the armed enemy. I hesitate to ditch a strong leader and proven success in the most important matter, and replace him with an unproven if courageous, decent man who will cede much of his power to two proven failures.
(Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva from 2007-09, and until recently, Ambassador to France. He is the author of ‘Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka,’ Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2013.)

Source: http://www.ft.lk/2014/12/20/election-2015-our-choice/


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