Kath Noble

The tragedy of so many errors

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 10, 2013

A review of Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book, ‘Long War, Cold Peace’

DJ-book-coverThe monks of the Bodu Bala Sena have inadvertently done Sri Lanka a favour. Their speeches are so crass and their actions so crude that they have provoked a backlash – the media is full of criticism of their anti-Muslim campaign, much of it coming from Sinhala Buddhists themselves.

People have recognised that these groups are a menace. The question is whether their rise has been properly understood and whether the measures being taken to combat them are likely to be effective.

In my last column, I mentioned and quoted from Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book in connection with the vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva last month, referring to his diagnosis of the mess that the Government is in, internationally speaking, and his prescription of how to get out of it. This is an argument that he has made on many occasions in newspaper articles, but it clearly needs to be repeated, given the near total disjuncture between the world as many commentators on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy see it and anything even vaguely resembling actual reality – implement the 13th Amendment to build up a solid constituency around India and the Global South in order to counter what is inevitable pressure from the diaspora-driven West.

Instead of following this very simple plan, Colombo’s thinkers are busy discussing how best to prepare for sanctions. And if they succeed in bringing this on the country, they will immediately feel compelled to start planning how to dig all the bunkers that they will need to hide from the air strikes that they will then be convinced are bound to follow.

Why risk so much to avoid the 13th Amendment?

The book sets this debate in context, and at the same time explains the rise of groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.

Its central thesis is that the LTTE had to be defeated, since it was a fascist organisation. One of the most interesting sections traces Prabhakaran’s rise to dominate the Tamil struggle. In 1976, when Prabhakaran reconstituted his forces as the LTTE after his split with Uma Maheswaran, he seemed to be at a disadvantage – a relative nobody in his community with no ideology and thus limited access to sources of foreign training. For a long time, the LTTE was also numerically smaller than its competitors. Yet by the time of the Indo Lanka Accord, it had become the preeminent organisation.

Dayan highlights the importance of Black July, which saw the primary contradiction confirmed as being not between the Tamil community and the State but between Tamils and Sinhalese. People supported the group that they considered to be the most effective, and their understanding of effectiveness can be summed up in the massacre at Anuradhapura in 1985. This support enabled Prabhakaran to eliminate his rivals, as he did in the massacres of TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE cadres in 1986 and 1987– a strategy that he continued until his own demise more than two decades later, in the meantime killing everybody from his deputy and top negotiator Mahattaya to TULF leader Amirthalingam to activists and intellectuals Rajini Thiranagama and Neelan Thiruchelvam to Deputy Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Kethesh Loganathan and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Not only was Prabhakaran absolutely ruthless, he was unwaveringly committed to Eelam. As he dared to tell Nirupama Subramanium of The Hindu even after signing the CFA, his famous statement that he should be executed by his followers if he deviated from this goal was still valid.

That is why he went to war against the IPKF, against Premadasa and against Chandrika Kumaratunga, and it is also why he conspired to keep Ranil Wickremasinghe out of power.

He was a fundamentalist.

No state formed by a guerilla movement and no group still engaged in an armed struggle came forward in solidarity with the LTTE, even in its final hour.

The book suggests that the overreach of the LTTE was inevitable.

However, more important in the current context is its analysis of the politics that gave rise to the LTTE and resulted in Tamils ending up with nothing to show for a generation long war. Dayan puts it as follows: ‘The history of Tamil politics in the last quarter century has been blighted by two major errors. The first of these has been the non-use or abuse of united front tactics. The second error has been the substitution of extremism, fantasy and emotionalism, of sheer unaffordable posturing, for serious politics and stone-cold realism.’

None of the Tamil organisations accepted the Chidambaram proposals of 1986, which foresaw the permanent merger of the North and East, minus Ampara, and as a result they were given a merger subject to a referendum in the Indo Lanka Accord, and space was created for the Sarath Silva-headed Supreme Court to effect a de-merger. Similarly, the TULF rejected the 13th Amendment and the EPRLF took office in the North East Provincial Council promising to reopen negotiations, and their adventurism led to Premadasa deciding that the LTTE was less of a threat than the continuing presence of the IPKF – Tamil groups were busy talking of a ‘Cyprus solution’ – and there was no devolved administration in either the North or the East for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of lives were lost.

Where are the self-criticisms by Tamil leaders? They should start by reviewing Dayan’s book – although he is now best known as a spokesperson for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, he is as much of a critic of Sinhala chauvinism as he is of Tamil extremism.

Speaking of which, what of the failings of Sinhala leaders?

The list of mistakes made is absolutely sickening and far too long to even summarise in this column. I hope that Sinhala leaders will read the book and reflect on it before they make too many more.

Of most relevance to the current context is the claim that these errors led not only to the outbreak of the armed struggle and its dragging on for an entire generation, but also to the rise of an equally ugly phenomenon – Sinhala ultra-nationalism.

Dayan has plenty to say about the early days of Sinhala chauvinism, but he sees a significant difference in attitudes later on. He argues: ‘Sinhala ultra-nationalism was the default option of the Sinhala people in the face of the existential threat posed by LTTE aggression and the vacuum created by the failure or partial and inadequate success of more pluralist, progressive, cosmopolitan or liberal-leaning leaderships.’

In perhaps the most devastating paragraph of the book, he says, ‘Had it not been for the excess and lopsidedness of Chandrika’s ‘package’ and P-TOMS, and Ranil’s CFA, Sinhala fundamentalism would not have enjoyed the surge it did. Sinhala ultra-nationalism, which had been marginalised under ‘Premadasa-ism’ to the point that its key ideologue was sacked by the then VC of Colombo without a social ripple, had reached such a peak a decade later that it was conceded 40 seats by Chandrika’s negotiator Mangala Samaraweera, over the protest of Mahinda Rajapaksa, then PM.’

Ranil Wickremasinghe was of course the leader for whom the least excuses can be made. Although he came to office just after 9/11 when the international mood had turned against the LTTE and when the Sri Lankan Special Forces had finally begun to demonstrate their ability to strike at Prabhakaran’s senior cadres, having killed eight field commanders in as many months, the UNP chose to see how Prabhakaran would respond to appeasement. It exposed its own Military Intelligence in the infamous Athurugiriya raid and agreed via the CFA to disarm the paramilitaries of its Tamil allies, with no concern for the arms of the LTTE and what it would do with them. Without securing access to areas controlled by the LTTE, it allowed the LTTE to move into its own areas and take over as many institutions and functions as Prabhakaran considered useful.

In short, the UNP did everything possible to build Prabhakaran’s confidence, despite the fact that he was the one with the track record of starting wars. Prabhakaran was even allowed to sign the CFA by himself, in his ‘capital’ Kilinochchi, sitting in front of a map of what he very reasonably expected would soon be his Eelam.

For me, nothing sums up the post-war crisis in Sri Lanka as neatly as the choice its voters face even four years after the defeat of the LTTE – Ranil Wickremasinghe, Sarath Fonseka or Mahinda Rajapaksa.

None of these leaders has the capacity to get the better of Sinhala fundamentalism, even if they were motivated to try.

An alternative simply must emerge.

‘Long War, Cold Peace’ shows just how much space there is at the centre of Sri Lankan politics, and provides some much needed hope that it will eventually be filled.

The outpouring of angst about the Bodu Bala Sena is certainly encouraging, as was the sight of those responsible for the attack on Fashion Bug hiding their faces with their robes as they were being taken into custody by the Police, since this implies that they believe that Sri Lankans regard such actions as shameful. They are right. However, it is not just about stopping a few crazy monks and their followers going around throwing stones, although that is essential. There is also an ideology to be tackled.

Sinhala Buddhists are standing up against violence, but they must also stand up against the ideological foundations of the anti-Muslim campaign.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 10th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A problem of power

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 6, 2013

On the reshuffle and what it tells us about how the country is being run 

Harry JayawardenaThat MPs have lost interest in democracy was clear from the impeachment of the Chief Justice. But even the rewards given to those who played important roles in that process reveal just what a state Parliament is in.

Last week’s reshuffle was very limited in scope. The major changes were the elevation to the position of Minister of Petroleum Resources of Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who headed the Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated the charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, and the promotion of Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who led the group of five MPs who handed over the impeachment motion to the Speaker, as Minister of Power and Energy.

They have been rewarded for their service to Mahinda Rajapaksa. But just look at their rewards! The only way in which these positions can be considered rewarding is in terms of the potential they offer for corruption – bribes and jobs for hangers-on.

In every other sense, they are god-awful jobs.

The incumbents are blamed for the regular and egregious failures of the institutions within their purview, which are brought to public notice whenever the prices of electricity and fuel are increased, and then again when these price increases are used to justify increases in the prices of pretty much every other necessity. But the ministers are usually near powerless to make any important changes.

Both sectors are totally mired in corruption, of a kind that only a concerted effort by the Government as a whole could hope to tackle.

When the ministers are from the SLFP, they don’t even get to decide who to appoint to key posts such as the chairmanships of the CEB and the CPC. The President gives the orders, and the appointees know it. They don’t bother about what their ministers say.

Susil Premajayanth, who lost the portfolio of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources last week, faced a lot of criticism over the import of substandard oil, which is estimated to have cost the country hundreds of millions of rupees. Perhaps he was indeed to blame. But it is rather more likely to have been the work of the CPC Chairman at the time, Harry Jayawardena.

Ravaya has alleged that this same man used his position to extract a similarly large amount from the CEB – he withheld oil from the CEB so that it could not operate its own power plants and instead had to purchase electricity from private power producers.

Coincidentally, he is the director of a company that generates as much as 10% of the country’s total power requirement!

Appointing people with such obvious vested interests demonstrates the complicity of the President.

Champika Ranawaka was slightly better off at the Ministry of Power and Energy, as he did at least get to pick his own people. But in a rather unique development in the history of trade union agitation, he was compelled to withdraw them following a strike by engineers.

While this is the kind of activism that the Government is usually very eager to crack down on, including with the use of the military, it for some reason felt that this was a special case.

If the minister is not even in a position to decide who should be the CEB Chairman, what chance does he have of tackling the endemic corruption in the sector, which Ranawaka said when he was appointed was his main priority? (He also claimed that he was determined to make Sri Lanka an energy hub, but we can pretend that we have forgotten that since it was a very silly idea.)

Engineers are now ruing his departure, interpreting it as a sign that the Government is planning on privatisation.

The UNP claims that the reshuffle was done at the behest of India, since Ranawaka was seen as the main obstacle to starting work on the Sampur coal power plant. He probably was delaying it, but there is a bigger story here.

It was not only with regard to Sampur that Ranawaka was raising objections. Ravaya has also reported that he was opposing the handover of the Norochcholai coal power plant to China.

Although China built Norochcholai, it is the Government that owns and operates it. China lent Sri Lanka the money to pay for it, but that loan will soon have to be repaid. The suggestion is that rather than repaying, the Government could hand over the plant instead. As far as China is concerned, this would be great news, since it would have employed its own people, equipment and materials in building a plant that would not need to concern itself with the cost of its output since it would be to Sri Lankans and not Chinese that it would be sold. Meanwhile, its company has positioned itself very nicely to secure a whole range of other projects, many of which may be happening only because it has ‘somehow’ managed to convince officials that they would be a good idea.

It has already been given a maintenance contract for Norochcholai because there didn’t seem to be any other way of stopping the plant breaking down on a regular basis, so it is not hard to imagine the Government deciding that it would be easier still to let China have the whole thing.

The trouble with the power sector is that there is always a lag between when foolish mistakes are made and when the public feels the impact. Price increases of recent years are the result not of what this administration has done but of what its predecessors did or failed to do, in particular the decision to allow private power producers and the terms of the agreements signed with them.

Such concerns are behind opposition to the handing over of Norochcholai to China. It may give relatively cheap power now, but who knows what it will ask for later.

As a joint venture, Sampur is less of a problem, but Ranawaka told the Sunday Times last month that India was demanding an excessive return on its investment and also an excessive rate of interest on the loan that it is giving the Government for its part of the project.

Whether it is to private power producers or foreign countries, relinquishing control of a strategic sector like power is inherently risky.

Just a week before the reshuffle, Minister of International Monetary Cooperation and Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning Sarath Amunugama spoke in favour of privatisation, and Ranawaka shot him down. But now Ranawaka is gone.

Time will tell if that too is a coincidence.

It would seem that his successor at the Ministry of Power and Energy, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, has no particular views about anything, which is fortunate for her, since she would anyway not be allowed to act on them!

The reshuffle has been criticised for adding to the already unbelievably heavy burden Sri Lanka has to bear due to the proliferation of ministers, which is certainly fair. Surely no other country in the world has a cabinet consisting of nearly one third of MPs! The cost is far more than the Rs. 32 million that the Government admits to spending monthly on each one, since this amount is only to pay their salaries and allowances and to provide them with basic facilities.

But while ministers are proliferating, power is continuously being concentrated and centralised. They are there literally only to make up the numbers in Parliament.

The question is when MPs will remember that their emasculation is possible only because they agree to it.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 6th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Calling in the marines

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 30, 2013

Why struggles for justice and the independence of the judiciary cannot be outsourced to the international community

20130130_Calling in the marinesAs I said last week, it is easy to become disheartened with the way that things are moving in Sri Lanka. One disappointment follows another, and each is more extraordinary than the last.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice was particularly disturbing. It demonstrated just how little space there is for dissent. Even the mild disturbance created by Shirani Bandaranayake when she ruled that the Divi Neguma bill had to be referred to the provincial councils or passed with a two thirds majority was intolerable to the administration. She had to go. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing on her part. She was removed on the grounds that she might try to cover up the corruption of her husband, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa claims to have done himself!

Since very few of us are willing to agree with everything that the Government says all of the time, it was appalling to see the lengths to which it is ready to go to impose its will.

No doubt that was the objective of the exercise.

Our distress was compounded by the failure of the Opposition under Ranil Wickremasinghe, who appeared to be far too busy plotting his next move against Sajith Premadasa to bother with something as mundane as the independence of the judiciary. Having successfully ousted his rival from the deputy leadership of the party – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen – he finally managed to pen an article on the impeachment for the Sunday Times this week, but readers may not have had the stamina to get past the rather laborious exposition of his knowledge of the history of English country houses and meetings of the Commonwealth to locate his point.

Once again, the widespread information campaign that was so badly needed to counter the propaganda put about by the Government has been left to others.

Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalising’ what must be a national struggle.

Honestly, who cares about the Commonwealth?

If Ranil Wickremasinghe tries very hard, it may decide to move the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting away from Sri Lanka. But what use is that? I don’t believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be in the slightest bit upset.

Quite the reverse, he is at his most comfortable when under fire from abroad.

No doubt the Government is totally hypocritical when it calls people traitors for taking their problems to international fora. We all know that Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing in the late 1980s, when the UNP administration was butchering Sinhalese youth.

It is also wrong. There is nothing traitorous in informing the world about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

It can even be useful in some circumstances.

I don’t believe that it had any impact on the anti-JVP campaign. The architects were either convinced that Sri Lankans would never prosecute them for their excesses or too desperate to care about what might happen once it was all over. On the whole, they were right – not morally but factually. If they were punished, it was almost exclusively by extra-judicial means.

Even today, as the JVP calls for an inquiry into the discovery of a mass grave from that era in Matale, there is little chance of it being granted and no chance whatsoever of that resulting in jail time for the politicians who ordered such activities.

The JVP will not push on the issue, for to do so would be to remind people of its own role in the slaughter.

But imagine what would happen if it did. Imagine it calling on the international community to investigate, as many people are doing today with regard to the deaths of Tamils in the Government’s war against the LTTE. Would justice be done?

No.

Even after the passage of more than twenty years, and with an SLFP-led coalition in power, there is nothing the international community could do about it.

Why? Because the international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka.

It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremasinghe wouldn’t do it.

The international community has zero moral authority, as everybody in Sri Lanka is very well aware.

We know that other countries have dirty wars of their own. Indeed, if we needed reminding that some things remain the same even after the replacement of George Bush by Nobel Peace Prize winning Barack Obama at the top of the world’s greatest democracy, Dirty Wars is the name of a documentary that premièred at the Sundance Festival in Utah last week.

Sri Lankans love to blame the Western media for focusing on abuses in this country while remaining silent about what their own governments get up to, but this is rather myopic. Everything we know about the crimes of Western nations has been brought to our attention by Western journalists.

According to an interview with the producers, the documentary looks at how the War on Terror, which started overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now become covert. We know everything there is to know about the night raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which has even been made into a rather captivating Hollywood film, but there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan that year. Nobody talks about them. The documentary recounts the story of one in which an elite squad of American soldiers killed a senior policeman and his family while they were in the middle of a birthday party, and tried to cover it up. While the survivors watched, they dug the bullets out of the bodies, then announced to the world that they had stumbled onto the aftermath of an honour killing.

How very honourable!

The American ‘kill list’, which had only seven names on it after 9/11, now includes thousands. That is thousands of people that Barack Obama has said that it is perfectly acceptable to murder, never mind whether they are holding up white flags.

It also talks of the American drone programme, which allows them to do so without getting close enough to see a white flag. Indeed, George Bush established a policy, which Barack Obama has endorsed, of dropping bombs on people even when they aren’t on the ‘kill list’. In certain areas of Pakistan and Yemen – countries with which the United States is not at war – all young men are assumed to be terrorists and can be killed as and when convenient.

This is also top secret. Barack Obama personally intervened to stop the Yemeni government releasing a local journalist who photographed the remnants of American cruise missiles that he says regularly kill civilians.

American funded warlords in Somalia are shown on camera saying in a completely matter-of-fact manner that they execute foreign prisoners on the battlefield.

The War on Terror goes on in another equally repugnant form.

Given this well known background, if the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response.

There really is no short cut.

To succeed in the pursuit of justice, it is the minds of Sri Lankans that have to be changed. If they start to want prosecutions, it will happen.

It is a national struggle, and trying to involve the international community can only make it harder.

Likewise, ‘internationalising’ the effort to restore the independence of the judiciary is also going to create more problems than it solves.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed how uninterested he is in the opinion of the international community by announcing the impeachment of the Chief Justice just days before Sri Lanka faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Deceiving ourselves may make us feel better, at least for a while, but it isn’t going to result in any actual change.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 30th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The limits of the budget debate

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 17, 2012

What sloganeering misses about the budget and what the budget tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity

chamal rajapaksaParliament has become a place where its members go for a free lunch when they have no better offer. And it would seem that MPs receive plenty of attractive invitations, since most of them are rarely to be seen in the chamber, even for a nap on the comfy recliners the Sri Lankan people have so thoughtfully funded, assuming that their representatives would be spending long hours debating the future of the nation.

The Speaker admitted as much last week. There is no point in holding the budget debate, he said, when the responsible ministers are not present.

In principle, he was quite right. Why bother to ask questions about the allocation for higher education when SB Dissanayake is not there to answer or at least to hear what is being said? Suggestions cannot be taken into account in formulating policy if the person taking the decisions is ignorant that they have even been made. And on the day Chamal Rajapaksa made his statement, only four out of the scheduled twenty-two ministries were represented!

However, practically speaking, we should probably breathe a sigh of relief when ministers stay away.

Consider the Parliamentary Select Committee that has been impeaching the Chief Justice. Ministers enthusiastically attended every one of its sittings. But what did they contribute? When they were not calling Shirani Bandaranayake names, they were justifying a very obviously unjustifiable process on the pathetically simplistic grounds that what Parliament says goes. There was no debate about the decision to require the Chief Justice to reply to more than 1,000 pages of ‘evidence’ literally overnight. It was simply declared by the ministers present. Likewise, once she had walked out of the proceedings in protest at her treatment, there was no debate about calling the ‘witnesses’ they had previously said would not be available for cross-examination. They arrived within minutes, once the coast was clear. And by the following day, the Parliamentary Select Committee had managed to finish its ‘deliberations’ and prepare a lengthy report (including references to cases from as long ago as 1852!) – more work than any of the ministers had done in the previous year.

But what Parliament says goes. And in this case it said that it didn’t care to give the Chief Justice a fair trial according to the principles that Sri Lanka applies to everybody else (including ministers!).

In any case, the budget debate is generally used by MPs not so much for commenting on the Government’s plan for the following year as for presenting what they hope will be a headline-catching soundbite, on whatever subject happens to take their fancy.

And this time was little different.

The Opposition quickly latched onto a catchy slogan. The budget was summed up with the phrase ‘lamborghinis for politicians, badagini for the people’, which no doubt resonates with the middle class in Colombo. However, it is not really accurate. If things were that simple, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be a lot less popular than he is with the masses.

Of course the war victory is important in explaining the support he enjoys among the majority Sinhalese, but it can no longer be the only factor.

We need to understand the secret of his success. For if the President were even somewhat more unpopular, his capacity to use the powers that he has won would be considerably restricted. He would not be able to control Parliament to the extent that he does today.

And then the Chief Justice might just stand a chance.

As the Government’s plan for the following year, no matter how many changes are bound to be made later, when nobody is paying attention, the budget gives us an idea of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal.

The lamborghini-badagini slogan is not really accurate, but it is not completely inaccurate either. As the UNP’s chief economist MP Harsha de Silva pointed out, the budget maintains taxes on food such as milk powder and tins of salmon while exempting racing cars. He called it a budget for the 0.1%, no doubt consciously evoking parallels with the popular campaign of the Occupy Movement in the United States and elsewhere that talks about 1% of the population controlling an ever greater share of the country’s wealth. His point was that only the richest of the rich can afford racing cars, which are now going to be cheaper thanks to the Government’s proposals, while the price of basic food items is of most concern to the poor.

The Treasury issued a totally ridiculous statement in response to this criticism. It seems that it is not lamborghinis but go-karts that are being exempted from tax. Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? People are constantly complaining about the cost of go-karts!

Of course tax exemptions for racing cars of whatever kind are completely misguided.

The proliferation of such random concessions is one of the many things that are wrong with the Government’s tax policy. The more complicated the system, the easier it is to avoid paying one’s dues. At the same time, exemptions mean less revenue for the Government.

Far too little attention is paid to the appallingly low level of tax revenue being collected in Sri Lanka. Taxes amounted to only 12% of GDP in 2011, far below the international benchmarks of 25% for a Middle Income Country and 18% for a Low Income Country, as noted by Anushka Wijesinha in a recent article on the Institute for Policy Studies ‘Talking Economics’ blog. And rather than improving with average incomes, the ratio is getting worse. This is a massive anomaly.

In the absence of sufficient tax revenue, the Government resorts to borrowing, which tends to push the country ever further into debt.

Another huge problem is the extraordinary dependence on indirect taxes, meaning taxes that fall not directly on incomes but indirectly through consumption.

There are two issues here. First, the two forms of taxation are not substitutes. Indirect taxes create inflation, since they add to costs – if a company has to pay taxes on its inputs, it will simply increase the price of its output to compensate. By contrast, direct taxes have no inflationary effect. And so long as the Government spends the money it collects, taxing corporate profits actually increases the level of profits in the economy and thus also the national income. This is counterintuitive, but non-economists should try to understand that this is often the case in economics. Something that is true at the level of an individual is often not true at the level of the economy as a whole. A company might believe that taxes reduce its profits, but it does not exist in a vacuum – the effect of spending by the Government increases economic activity and generates increased profits, albeit not necessarily for that particular company. (This idea should be more easily accepted now, since it was such a fallacy of composition that Keynes pointed out at the time of the Great Depression, saying that if individuals all saved more then aggregate demand would fall, which would mean a lower national income and thus less savings in the aggregate – the ‘paradox of thrift’. The Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath have repopularised his ideas regarding the need for what is now called a ‘fiscal stimulus’ to get out of an economic downturn.)

Secondly, the poor bear more of a burden than the rich when taxes are collected indirectly rather than directly, since consumption forms a larger share of their income. They may spend half of what they earn on food, but it would be physically impossible for Bill Gates to do likewise – even throwing so much food away would be a challenge!

In Sri Lanka, direct taxes constitute only 20% of the total, with the remaining 80% being indirect taxes. This compares extremely badly with other countries.

Totally ignored by just about everybody, the Government is busy making things worse. Last year, when it finally restored income tax liability to public servants, it managed to ensure that this resulted in no overall increase in tax collection by significantly reducing tax rates and doubling the tax-free allowance. And this year it has introduced a whole range of additional concessions, such as reducing the income tax rate for IT professionals to 16%, organic tea exporters to 12% and large scale poultry farmers to 10%. Meanwhile, companies that list on the stock exchange are to be given a three year half tax holiday. And these are just the new measures. Some time ago, the Institute of Policy Studies estimated that concessions offered by the Board of Investment to foreign companies cost Sri Lanka 1% of GDP, in the process of attracting investment that amounts to no more than 1.5% of GDP – and this money would likely have come anyway, since foreign companies openly state that they are not primarily interested in the level of taxation. Soon it will cost the Government more to administer the tax system than it actually collects!

Many of these issues were undoubtedly highlighted by the Presidential Commission on Taxation, which spent about a year working solidly on the issue, submitting its report in October 2010. But Mahinda Rajapaksa has declined to publish it.

When presenting the budget, he highlighted the fact that the Government has not resorted to privatisation, a recruitment freeze in the public sector, cuts in subsidies or neglect of infrastructure development, even though it is short of revenue. But what the President was hiding is that he has nevertheless cut expenditure. Or rather he has prevented expenditure on certain items – education and health in particular – from going up in line with the national income.

Why? Because he wants to meet the fiscal deficit target set by the IMF.

I would argue that there is absolutely no need to follow the advice of the IMF, but even doing so would not have been a problem if Mahinda Rajapaksa had got a grip of tax policy.

All that said, even if we limit ourselves to discussing tax policy, Harsha de Silva’s analysis of the budget is tellingly off the mark.

He wants to abolish taxes on milk powder and tins of salmon, but these are not just a matter of revenue. They are an integral part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s programme for the development of agriculture in Sri Lanka. Backed up by a whole range of other interventions, including through the much criticised (including by me) Divi Neguma, they provide incentives to farmers and fishers to boost production, since they increase the price of imported goods. And they are working.

Sri Lanka has become self-sufficient in rice, maize and black gram, and will soon be in green gram, onion, sugar and milk.

This is a good thing, since the prices of food on the international market are now subject to speculation by financiers, who regard it as just another commodity. They are volatile and increasing at a faster rate than ever before.

It is also one of the reasons why Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular with the Sinhala masses. For he has put a lot of money into rural areas.

Rural areas have also benefited from what I would describe as his other major economic policy – maintaining a large army and putting them to work in all manner of ways. I have written at length against this on political grounds, but economically speaking it has been a key source of growth. And the budget shows that there will be no change in approach. It justifies a significant increase in spending on the police on the basis that they will take on some of the responsibilities that the army handled during the war, while making no proposal to reduce spending on the army.

An addition this year is the plan to establish twenty technical colleges catering to the requirements of jobs in other countries.

Of course there are many other things to be said about the budget, but they will have to be left for another opportunity. For the moment, let us simply realise that things are not as clear cut as Harsha de Silva made out.

The UNP’s problem is that it has no coherent alternative to present to the people. Its policies under Ranil Wickremasinghe were tremendously unpopular, and he does not appear to have changed his mind about them. What is worse, the UNP does not appear to have changed its mind about him. He has been given another six years to accomplish what he could not do in the last eighteen. And the country’s problem is how to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa in check when the Opposition seems so determined to remain ineffective.

Until that question is answered, any debate in Parliament is bound to be a waste of time.

This article was published in The Island on 17th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A bloody riot

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 14, 2012

Reflections on twenty-seven extraordinary deaths 

There was one thing that everybody was sure of on Friday afternoon as news of the riot at Welikada prison broke – there would be a lot of bodies.

And so it happened. Twenty-seven deaths had been announced by Saturday morning. The stand-off lasted for an hour, as inmates somehow managed to get the better of not just their regular guards but 200 fully-armed members of the STF. They battled their way through clouds of tear gas to break into the armoury, then made their way up to the roof with a haul of more than 80 guns, from where they proceeded to shoot at passers-by. Some escaped, somehow.

This story is in itself fairly extraordinary.

But so too was our reaction. We knew very well that a lot of people would end up dead.

Some said it approvingly. Prisoners may be human beings, as the sign on the wall declares, but human beings can behave worse than animals. Welikada houses convicted rapists and murderers, amongst others, and some people wouldn’t mind seeing them knocked off, legally or otherwise.

This constituency is behind the intermittent attempts to revive the death penalty, which they regard as cheaper and easier than keeping criminals in prison. And cheap and easy is all the rage these days.

It doesn’t matter to the Government whether restarting executions really does reduce the crime rate, since the objective is not to achieve anything but just to look like it is trying. That is, when it can’t persuade us that it is only media coverage of crime that needs to be reduced! Its representatives say the funniest things. Like when a minister explained how criminals are needed for election campaigns. Well, then we’ll just have to put up with crime!

Even cheaper and easier than executing prisoners is shooting them in a riot, of course.

This group argued that we need not worry about how a simple search got so out of control since the deaths are to be welcomed. They aren’t interested in investigating what happened.

I fear that after three decades of war, there are rather more people in this camp than ‘normal’.

The question for Sri Lanka is how to ‘normalise’ – how to get back to being a society that in general abhors killing in all its forms. (Before picking up their pens to complain that Western nations kill people all the time, readers might consider checking on how many occasions I have said exactly that in these pages. Such knee jerk reactions are another element of the war mentality that has to go – we need more thoughtfulness and less shouting at each other.)

The other reaction to the riot was even less encouraging. These were the people arguing that the incident was the result of a plot by the Defence Ministry, either to create an excuse to bring prisons under its purview, or even more disturbingly to get rid of a few inconvenient underworld leaders. Excessive violence was thus part of the plan. For them, it was never supposed to be a simple search.

They won’t believe the findings of any investigation, since they are already convinced that it won’t be conducted properly.

Part of ‘normalcy’ is citizens generally having confidence in the Government, or rather in the checks and balances to which it is subject. They should believe that elections are free, that the police can be trusted to maintain law and order, that courts give people a fair trial and that officials and politicians do their duty, and that when this isn’t the case, there are mechanisms that can be used to put things right. They should trust that they can effect change when it is needed.

But rather than moving towards this ideal, now that it is free of the pressures of war, Sri Lanka seems to be gradually slipping away in the opposite direction.

It is not a matter of popularity. Mahinda Rajapaksa would still win a re-run of either presidential poll, whether against Sarath Fonseka or Ranil Wickremasinghe. A lot of people like him, or at least prefer him to the alternatives on offer. The problem is power.

Even his own voters can see that he has too much of it.

I would like to think that the impeachment of the Chief Justice will be a turning point – that it will prove to be an outrage too far. The charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, which finally emerged last week, certainly encourage such an outcome, especially in combination with her letter of refutation that was sent to media outlets who published them. If it proves accurate, they boil down to being married to somebody who has been named in a complaint to the Bribery Commission – a case that is being pursued primarily to be able to argue that Shirani Bandaranayake must be impeached!

(Of course her husband shouldn’t have been holding the position that has got him into trouble in the first place, but that’s another matter. Let’s drop it – her predecessors haven’t had husbands.)

However, there is probably still a long way to go. The Government won’t really mind how it looks so long as the Opposition remains in disarray.

While they recover, the only thing the rest of us can do is continue to apply pressure.

The Chief Justice must argue her case, and the media should ensure that the public hears as much about her defence as it does from the Government.

And the Government must be pushed to investigate what happened at Welikada.

Killing twenty-seven inmates in a prison riot cannot be practically unavoidable, and it should not be allowed to pass as either morally acceptable or sadly inevitable. The Government will no doubt try to put the blame on the guards, who are already being accused of having incited or assisted their wards. The rumours may even be true, since we know that some of them are doing very good business in contraband, most disturbingly phones via which some underworld leaders are said to be continuing to run their criminal networks from their cells.

But even if the guards helped, the inmates were stuck inside four walls that were quickly surrounded with armoured vehicles, and they had limited ammunition.

There is certainly a need to clean up prisons, but this incident cannot justify giving more power to another person who already has plenty. That is, the Defence Secretary.

In the end, this would bring more problems than it solved.

Regular guards can do only limited damage. They can take money in exchange for allowing contraband to get into prisons, but at least they cannot let the inmates out!

I am reminded of an expose about goings-on in prisons in India that appeared in the press there a few months ago. A journalist filmed a well-known gangster politician from Uttar Pradesh (where Mervyn Silva wouldn’t last long!), who had finally been convicted of the murder of his mistress after dozens of cases had been dropped due to the curious disappearance of evidence and witnesses, walking out of the jail in which he was supposedly being held for what turned out to be his daily turn around town. Assembly elections had thrown out the administration that had locked him up, and he was to all intents and purposes a free man, albeit keeping up appearances by returning to the jail to sleep. His luxury car, complete with driver and personal assistant, not to mention his laptop and mobile phone, picked him up in time for a hearty lunch. And having eaten, he proceeded to his meetings. More than 100 people came to see him in what was essentially his office on each and every afternoon, to submit petitions as if to their MP, to make deals and – allegedly – to organise crime.

The same piece listed a most impressive array of criminals the new administration had in its ranks, having unofficially helped them to get out of prison, one way or another.

This is ‘normal’ for Uttar Pradesh.

Sri Lanka must do better. And we should help the country to get back on the right track by trying to understand why we all knew in advance that the Welikada prison riot would end so bloodily.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on 14th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The deafening silence on electoral reforms

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 17, 2012

Why Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to get rid of Proportional Representation and why Ranil Wickremasinghe is ready to help him

The Local Government Elections Act was amended last week, with no debate either inside or outside Parliament. But was the change genuinely uncontroversial? I don’t think so.

Given that the process was initiated in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 18th Amendment, we should have been more suspicious. The 18th Amendment was part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-war strategy to tighten his grip on power. He was thinking about how to make use of a moment at which he enjoyed unprecedented popularity to achieve what is best for him. Are we really to believe that reforms to the voting system announced just a few weeks later were about what is best for the country?

People have a general sense that Proportional Representation is problematic, which leads them to assume that a mixture of Proportional Representation and First Past the Post – the new legislation calls for 30% of seats to be decided using Proportional Representation and 70% using First Past the Post – would be better.

The argument goes as follows. The country is unstable with Proportional Representation, since it is difficult for any one party to achieve a majority. Proportional Representation also leads to violence during elections, as candidates fight each other for preference votes. They have to spend more since constituencies are larger and they have to cover a larger area, leading to more corruption. And it is more difficult for voters to hold their elected representatives to account. First Past the Post disadvantages minority parties, but what is being proposed is a compromise.

Will the reforms actually solve any of these problems? Are they even the problems that need solving?

When it comes to accountability, it seems to me that voters will have even less chance of controlling politicians under the new legislation. At the moment, people can choose between candidates while maintaining their allegiance to a party. This is important. They need not vote for a party whose policies they don’t agree with simply because they don’t like the individual the party has nominated in their area. I bet plenty of UNP supporters stayed at home or even backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election rather than cast their vote for Sarath Fonseka. That is what happens when choices are limited.

Electoral reform as a means of reducing corruption is even more of a stretch of the imagination. Are politicians compelled to steal in order to pay for election posters? Or is it rather that they pay for election posters in order to be in a position to continue stealing?

Meanwhile, violence may or may not be reduced. Intra-party violence should be wiped out with the abolition of preference votes. But this is not the only sort of violence. Inter-party violence is already a problem, as we saw last month in the Eastern Province – one of the most serious incidents reported was a knife attack on SLMC candidate Azath Salley by supporters of Ameer Ali of the UPFA. That had nothing to do with preference votes. With competition from within the ranks of their own party eliminated, politicians could focus all of their attention on their opponents.

The only real solution is the empowerment of the Police.

Parties themselves can have an impact. They don’t have to tolerate intra-party violence, as the JVP has demonstrated. They don’t have to nominate thugs.

These days, much more of a problem than violence is the abuse of state resources.

Parties must commit themselves to a no-tolerance policy on all electoral abuses. They would be substantially reduced almost immediately, without the need for any change in the voting system. But the Government isn’t interested, since it knows that without electoral abuses its performance would suffer.

The only completely logical part of the argument is the bit about stability, but this is a reason to oppose the reforms not to support them. Under First Past the Post, a party can win representation far in excess of its vote share. It tends to guarantee one party a majority, reducing the need for potentially destabilising coalition building. But surely nobody in Sri Lanka believes that the country is currently short of stability, electorally speaking? Mahinda Rajapaksa isn’t under any pressure from the members of his coalition – on the contrary, he could easily do without them. Does he need a guarantee? Even under Proportional Representation he has managed to secure enough seats in Parliament to change the Constitution, which was supposed to be impossible.

First Past the Post is even more problematic than Proportional Representation.

What kind of a compromise is that?

The new legislation ignores genuinely popular and important electoral reforms, such as a compulsory quota for women candidates. Women make up only 2% of elected representatives at the local level. And according to a 2010 survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the vast majority of people from all communities, including over 90% of Sinhalese, support quotas. They were even promised in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s now forgotten Chintana.

If the voting system is to be changed, the introduction of a compulsory quota for women candidates should be the top priority.

I hope that there would be at least some debate on the matter before the Government gets around to extending the new system to the provincial and national levels, as it announced following the passage of the amendment to the Local Government Elections Act last week. The implications are bad enough at the local level. But at the provincial and national levels, the reforms have even greater potential for causing trouble. Minority parties, and in particular the JVP whose supporters are spread relatively thinly across the country, will be badly affected. Of course, this is hardly a coincidence, since it is the JVP’s seats Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to take over, in case the UNP gets rid of Ranil Wickremasinghe and starts to challenge him. Changing the voting system is just another way of shoring up his position.

Given that Mahinda Rajapaksa already holds the over-powerful Executive Presidency, shoring up his position is not something we should encourage.

That the task of defining constituencies in the new system is entrusted to the responsible minister with little in the way of oversight is even more reason to be suspicious of the move.

But such a debate is unlikely to be initiated by the Opposition.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has already indicated his support for the new system. Naturally, since the amendment will result in an increase in the power of party leaders. And when it comes to power, he is as obsessed as Mahinda Rajapaksa – only less successful.

Party leaders don’t like Proportional Representation because it gives some of their power to voters. They make their nominations, but it is voters who choose which of the candidates get elected. With First Past the Post, party leaders can give the areas where the party has a strong base to their favourites and consign their bêtes noires to areas where they have absolutely no hope of winning.

It is obvious why that is appealing to Ranil Wickremasinghe.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 17th October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Drunk and disorderly

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 10, 2012

What the university teachers’ strike tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thinking

Something has gone to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s head, and I’m guessing it’s power. Because that seems to be the only thing that interests him these days – how to bolster his own position and how to undermine everybody else’s.

Hence his first priority after the end of the war was to get himself another term as president. The presidential election was called early, and it was followed within a couple of months by a parliamentary election, enabling him to strengthen his grip on the legislature too. The Opposition was in disarray. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted a two thirds majority, so a few more crossovers had to be engineered. Neatly bringing us to priority number two – legislation to reduce checks and balances on the executive, and to enable him to run again, as many times as he finds convenient, by abolishing term limits. The Constitution was changed. And it was ‘urgent’. Naturally, for what could be more important than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s future? Not peace-building, certainly. That’s for wimps. The third and final priority was to keep the Opposition cowed. Which is why he has called one election after another, to keep them in campaign mode so that they never get around to replacing their has-been leader.

The actual running of the country has suffered. But that needn’t matter if people learn to be satisfied with the mere appearance of achievement rather than the real thing. What matters is announcing that resettlement is complete and Manik Farm closed down, right? Not whether the IDPs are actually back home with roofs over their heads. Get with the programme, folks.

The Government isn’t bothered about ‘details’ like that. After all, it won the war – nothing else matters.

It certainly doesn’t matter that university teachers have been on strike for three months. Never mind that such a massive and sustained trade union action by a normally rather conservative group of people is unprecedented in Sri Lanka.

What matters is not giving in to terrorism.

Sorry, did I say terrorism? I must be getting confused – the modern world is so difficult for those of us with only limited intelligence. It’s academics Mahinda Rajapaksa shouldn’t negotiate with, right?

The FUTA struggle presents us with a crystal clear picture of the Government’s post-war failings.

The debate has exposed just how little substance there is to the grandiose vision that was set out in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s much-hyped Chintana. He wanted Sri Lanka to become a knowledge hub, for people to flock to its universities from around the world and for them to turn out graduates prepared to transform the country into the ‘Miracle of Asia’.

So far, so inspiring.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a man with half a brain to make it happen.

SB Dissanayake had only one idea for the development of universities – put a stop to ragging. Because this is how he managed to spend four years at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura following a degree in ‘public administration’ without learning even the basics of how to minister to a government department? I guess not. It was training in how to be a politician he was after those days, for which purpose I imagine ragging was very helpful. Who knows. Wiping out ragging is a pretty simple task. And as a ‘bonus’, it can be linked up with the further militarisation of society by making young people eager to discover the origins and meaning of life in the universe march around in circles and learn how to salute. A no-brainer, in other words. Anything else would no doubt turn out to be a bit tricky, the Minister may have thought, so it had better be left to the private sector. At least that would bring in some money.

I have already discussed the follies of the Private Universities Bill in these columns, so I will not bore readers by repeating myself, except to say the following – companies may provide the kind of education that students think will get them jobs, but they have absolutely no incentive to do anything more.

That leaves stopping ragging.

Now, ragging is a waste of time (and worse) that certainly ought to be stopped. But stopping it falls rather short of being a comprehensive plan for the creation of a knowledge-based society in Sri Lanka!

When confronted with other people’s ideas, the Minister hasn’t demonstrated a lot of patience. Indeed, his response to the FUTA struggle has mirrored the Government’s reaction to any and all criticism, displaying a totally absurd war mentality.

SB Dissanayake alternates between claiming that the demands of the university teachers are unreasonable, if not downright sinister, and saying that they have already been met.

Take the call for the Government to spend 6% of GDP on education. According to SB Dissanayake, this is a random figure dreamt up by Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri over his morning tea, with short eats provided by the Opposition, NGOs or most imaginatively Prabhakaran’s ghost, all to make trouble for Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, it is actually a globally accepted norm. What’s more, it is a target that the Government along with its counterparts in many other countries, including the whole of South Asia, has committed to reaching. The only person who thinks it is not important is the responsible minister in Sri Lanka.

Adding insult to injury, he then manages to claim both that public expenditure on education is already nearly at 6% and, in his very next utterance, that it need never be anywhere near 6% since Sri Lankans are already very well-educated. What a propaganda machine! The figure of 1.9% was calculated by the Government. The last time the UK allocated such a tiny proportion of GDP for education was during the First World War – it currently spends 6.1%. Think of all the extra ministers we could have if only we realised that 1.9% was enough for countries with near universal literacy! Maybe SB Dissanayake would agree to look after our universities once he has finished ‘revitalising’ the ones in Sri Lanka. We could do with some help with our trade union movement. But coming back to the point, it is official statistics that UNESCO includes in its global database (www.uis.unesco.org). FUTA has nothing to do with it. Rummaging around in the national income accounts to find some other vaguely associated spending to add to the 1.9%, as SB Dissanayake sometimes advocates, is simply not credible.

When the Minister is in a mood to accept that Sri Lanka does indeed spend only 1.9% of GDP on education, he is keen to point out that increasing the allocation would take up an impractically large share of government revenue. How thoughtful! Like any good housewife, he is keen to keep expenditure within income. Will he also offer to give up his perks in the national interest? Don’t hold your breath. But of course the economy doesn’t function like a household – increasing government expenditure can generate more income. The share of government expenditure, which is the only relevant figure, wouldn’t have to be unduly large either, since government expenditure could be increased to meet the 6% target.

But enough with the ‘details’, right?

SB Dissanayake would rather waste our time (or worse) calling the leaders of the FUTA struggle names, trying to make us suspect their motives.

Smear tactics are the bread and butter of the Government.

Its objective is not to find a solution to the problems in universities, but to hang on until academics have to give up their strike – three months is a long time to go without salaries.

It simply hates to lose. And winning has come to mean sticking to a position, whatever happens.

Mahinda Rajapaksa should be ashamed of himself for losing track of what is truly important. He did Sri Lanka a tremendous service by putting an end to the generation long war, for which the vast majority of people are extremely grateful, even if they do not approve of each and every action taken in the process. He amassed massive political capital. And he was, and indeed still is, in a position to do even more good for the country. Sri Lankans waited a long time for peace, not only to escape the relentless death and destruction but also because so many things were excused or put on hold because of the war. They have a long list of priorities, none of which it seems Mahinda Rajapaksa can be bothered to tackle now that he has ensured his own place in the history books.

A change of attitude at the top is required.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 10th October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Next stop, Jaffna

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 19, 2012

A few thoughts on the provincial council elections

Mahinda Rajapaksa must really love elections. Since he came to power, at least some part of the country has gone to the polls almost every year, sometimes more than once. We had local and provincial council elections in both 2008 and 2009, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2010, more local elections in 2011 and now more provincial council elections in 2012. No prizes for guessing that in 2013 somebody somewhere in Sri Lanka will be voting.

I hope that it will be the turn of the Northern Province.

Concerns have been raised about the prospect of a TNA-led administration in the North, on the basis that the party may use the platform to push for more devolution or even a separate state, by itself or with the support of the West.

Indeed it might. The TNA hasn’t done enough to distance itself from the use of violence to achieve political ends, or to distance itself from the goal of Eelam. Both would have been helpful for its constituency and for the country, since distrust of the TNA’s intentions encourages or is used as an excuse by the Government to delay the much-discussed ‘political solution’, or to avoid it altogether. Perhaps the TNA is under pressure from the diaspora, or maybe it is yet to be convinced that the war is over.

Whatever, keeping it out of power by undemocratic means isn’t going to convince either the party or its supporters to change their ways. The voters of the Eastern Province demonstrated as much on September 8th.

There have been many fascinating attempts in the media to present the results of the provincial council elections in the East as a resounding endorsement of the Government and its policies. However, this is no more than wishful thinking.

For a start, the UPFA won by a margin of less than 1%, receiving 31.58% of the popular vote compared to 30.59% for the TNA. Given the usual massive abuse of state resources by the incumbent administration, it is ridiculous to suggest that people are anything like enthusiastic about Pillayan et al staying on at Trincomalee.

Also and most importantly, while the UPFA’s vote share fell by well over 10% of the total, the TNA’s went up by nearly 10% – it secured only 21.89% of the popular vote in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The TNA now enjoys the support of the vast majority of Tamils in the East. And it got eleven Tamils elected to the provincial council, compared to only one from the UPFA (the former chief minister, whose achievement has been questioned).

Being out of office clearly isn’t a problem for the TNA in terms of popularity.

Of course it isn’t. While the Government insists that life is now very good in the former conflict areas, a lot of people living there don’t agree. They aren’t so hopeful about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s development agenda. This we know from many sources, including the fact that according to official figures, 2,992 Sri Lankans crossed the sea to Australia in the first eight months of this year, compared to 736 in the last twelve months of the war. The vast majority of them were Tamils. And this data includes only those who reached their destination, not those who are now being caught by the Navy on an almost daily basis. Everybody is debating whether or not they should be classified as refugees, as if it would be quite normal for so many people to want to undertake such a perilous journey for economic reasons – it is not.

In the North, the TNA will be the sole beneficiary of dissatisfaction with the Government. The party has its faults, but at least it won’t put up any more signboards in Sinhala and English in areas where Tamils make up 100% of the population. (I am taking a trivial example not because there aren’t more important things to be done, but to demonstrate that it is will as much as ideas and resources that is lacking.)

The TNA must know that its prospects are only going to improve the longer it is prevented from challenging the Government, so it isn’t going to feel at all pressured to fall into line.

The other point to note from the East is that the SLMC too increased its vote share. At the 2010 parliamentary elections, the SLMC and UNP together achieved 26.57% of the popular vote, increasing to 32.80% in 2012. The ever-hopeful supporters of Ranil Wickremasinghe may like to think that the UNP is the party whose fortunes improved, but that is plain silly. It achieved 11.82% of the popular vote in the provincial council elections, compared to 20.98% for the SLMC. And for their information, 11.82% is pretty close to zero! The UNP is in a deep hole, electorally speaking, but it is hard to feel sorry for people who believe that clinging to the same leader for nigh on two decades is perfectly normal. If only their foolishness didn’t have such an impact on the rest of the country.

It is equally clear that the SLMC would not have seven provincial councillors if it had run under Mahinda Rajapaksa. The party leadership’s rumoured decision to form an administration with the UPFA, going against the wishes of its members from the Eastern Province and likely also the views of its voters for the sake of concessions in Colombo, is not very democratic.

Totally undemocratic are the moves reported by DBS Jeyaraj to persuade five of the eleven provincial councillors from the TNA to switch their allegiance to the UPFA, which if they had been successful would have given the Government its all-important majority without the need for the support of the SLMC. DBS Jeyaraj says that the TNA representatives were approached by military intelligence operatives with a range of ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’, including the offer to one provincial councillor who is also a building contractor of a major state infrastructure project and the threat to another that his young son would be taken into custody for alleged involvement with the LTTE.

As DBS Jeyaraj points out, attempts to engineer crossovers are nothing new, although the employment of military intelligence operatives certainly adds a novel and even more reprehensible dimension to the phenomenon.

Also, we don’t normally get to hear the details of the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’.

For this we should be grateful to the TNA. It has shown us what politics in Sri Lanka has become, and how difficult it will be to clean up – Mahinda Rajapaksa is clearly very good at engineering.

I hope that we will find more reasons to thank the party once elections are called in the North.

Although the TNA did not stand up to Prabhakaran, for which it deserves the harshest of criticism, it is willing to stand up to the Government. And it would be in a position to do so in the Northern Province. A TNA-led administration could do what most Sri Lankans now agree is necessary and show the Government that it cannot get away with everything everywhere. The danger for the TNA and indeed for Sri Lanka as a whole is that as things stand its positions and actions can easily be dismissed as sectarian and extremist, which could end up deepening the divisions in society and further entrenching the Government.

For that reason, and of course also as a matter of principle, the West should firmly resolve to say and do absolutely nothing.

It is only a matter of time before Mahinda Rajapaksa starts to fear elections.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 19th September 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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The one and only family

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 29, 2012

How Mahinda Rajapaksa is promoting his relatives to consolidate his power

The rise of Basil Rajapaksa has been rapid to say the least. Having spent years out of the country pursuing other interests, his return to support his brother’s presidential campaign was unexpected. Even more surprising was the popular backing he managed to acquire within a very short period in an unfamiliar district – he recorded the highest number of preferences in Gampaha in the 2010 parliamentary election, about as many as the next three candidates combined.

He is projected as a man who gets things done. The idea is that he will do for the economy what Gotabhaya did in terms of security, with Mahinda Rajapaksa being the figurehead who holds it all together.

The family brand is now so strong that people either love them or hate them.

It is perhaps understandable that Mahinda Rajapaksa is so obsessed with his family. Politicians adore power and want to hang onto it for as long as possible, and in this region in particular one means of extending their period of influence is to promote their relatives, lining them up for eventual succession.

Some months ago, Namal Rajapaksa gave a most amusing speech in Delhi at a forum on ‘political dynasties’ in which he claimed that the only real advantage of being the President’s son was that it had been slightly easier to get a nomination to contest elections. He argued that it was then up to the public to decide. This must be one of the most ridiculous statements of 2012. Yes, they have to collect votes, but even if they do so honestly on the basis of their image and not through the abuse of state resources that we all know is rampant in Sri Lanka, their image is only partly reflective of their capabilities. It is far more dependent on the opportunities they are given.

And both Namal and Basil have had a lot of help.

Why does Sri Lanka even have a Ministry of Economic Development? Because after the 2010 parliamentary election, Basil wanted a portfolio that would enable him to get involved in everything that might help to increase the family vote bank while making him responsible for nothing that could jeopardise it.

The Economic Development Ministry undertakes programmes that involve distributing freebies, money and jobs, especially focusing on young people in rural areas. Divi Neguma is an excellent example. Launched in 2011, its first phase involved the creation of one million home gardens. A lot of people were recruited to go around handing out seeds and equipment, or the money to buy them, and the whole exercise was given a lot of publicity. Never mind the impact of an increase in household production on farmers, since their marketing problems are the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture.

Or is it the Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife? Livestock and Rural Community Development? Rural Affairs? Could Divi Neguma be run by the Minister of Food Security?

Does anybody actually remember who is responsible for these subjects?

Mahinda Rajapaksa believes in the centralisation of all useful power in the hands of his family, and the distribution of all useless responsibilities among as many other people as possible, so as to reduce the likelihood of any challenges to his authority from both inside and outside his governing coalition. He is constantly on the lookout for Parliamentarians he can induce to join the Government. Crossovers weaken the Opposition, but they also dilute the influence of each Cabinet Minister – instead of being one of about 20, they are now one of 60.

The resulting confusion obviously creates tremendous wastage and inefficiencies, which people ‘tut tut’ about from time to time.

But wastage and inefficiencies are only really actively opposed in Sri Lanka when they are sins committed by provincial councils. People are ever ready to find reasons to get rid of provincial councils, and their consumption of resources without producing much in the way of improvements to well-being is the issue cited most often as justification.

However, this problem too is created by the Government. Provincial councils don’t get a lot done because the Government doesn’t want them to do a lot.

The Government implements whatever projects it likes, wherever it likes, never mind whether their subjects fall within its purview or within that of the provincial councils. Cabinet Ministers may be given a chance to get involved to stop them feeling too bad about their increasingly powerless situation, but the really important stuff is bound to be given to a member of the Rajapaksa family. Why else would Basil have been put in charge of reawakening the East and bringing spring to the North – as far away from his constituency as one can get while remaining within Sri Lanka’s borders?

It is obviously nonsense to suggest that there are no capable people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, or that the Chief Ministers couldn’t have done the job with appropriate support from Parliamentarians representing those areas.

There is not even the explanation generally put forward as regards Gotabhaya, that Mahinda Rajapaksa really needed somebody he could trust due to the sensitivity and urgency of the situation during the war.

There was no justification for giving the responsibility to Basil.

I have made the same argument about the recent expansion of the Ministry of Defence to include street cleaning and landscape gardening as surely the world’s only Ministry of Defence and Urban Development (‘The Army’s No-War Games’, The Island, June 20th). Gotabhaya is apparently now spearheading the Rajapaksa family’s popularity drive among the middle class in Colombo.

Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t want devolution on anything other than a highly selective basis to people who won’t be in a position to use the power they are given meaningfully.

Divi Neguma is his ideal model. The key actors in the programme are community-based organisations, which operate in just one Grama Niladhari division or indeed in only part of one Grama Niladhari division. This is supposed to be empowering. Indeed it might be if there was a mechanism to enable these community-based organisations to have a say on policy – if the process were actually democratic, in other words. However, this is clearly not what is intended. They are given every opportunity to discuss amongst themselves, in a whole range of different forums at the local and even national level, no doubt involving plenty of wastage and inefficiencies that people won’t mind in the slightest, but all important decisions are taken by somebody else – Basil and officials under the control of Basil.

Provincial councils, which could reasonably expect to be in charge of work to promote home gardens, and more importantly to decide whether promoting home gardens is really the best option to make people in their areas better off, aren’t given the chance. They are not the ones with the money.

Why discuss this now? Because the Government is in the process of further extending and formalising this way of operating by means of a bill that transforms what was once merely a programme into a permanent structure of the Government – the Department of Divi Neguma Development, to be established within the Economic Development Ministry – which will also take over the work of regionally-focused development bodies such as the Udarata Development Authority and the Southern Development Authority, plus the work of the Samurdhi Authority.

The move is being challenged in the Supreme Court this week by a range of different groups, including the JVP.

A particular concern is that money deposited in Samurdhi Banks could be used by the Ministry of Economic Development without oversight, while the bill says that officials will be required to maintain absolute secrecy about their work, which is rather unusual.

However, it is the implications for the coordination of the development process that are most disturbing. Is Sri Lanka really best served by a system in which everything is decided by one, two or at best three people in Colombo?

Even if passage of the bill is blocked as a result of this legal action, it is clear that the real work will still remain to be done – the growth of Basil’s empire will be only slightly affected.

Mahinda Rajapaksa will pay no attention, certainly. He will continue to promote his relatives, in the expectation that being the President’s father will bring plenty of benefits in his dotage, and the space for others to contribute will continue to be closed down.

People may not feel very inclined to care about the fate of politicians, such is the frustration that has built up. The fact that internal democracy is as much of a problem in the SLFP as it is in the UNP doesn’t seem very important. However, it is through political parties that change has to come. The impact of their internal problems is being amply demonstrated by Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is preventing the Opposition from mounting a serious challenge to the Government by refusing to give up the UNP leadership. What Mahinda Rajapaksa is doing to the SLFP should be equally obvious.

Reforms are needed, and soon.

Basil Rajapaksa’s admirers shouldn’t get agitated by this suggestion – if he is as competent as they believe, he can manage without so much assistance from his brother.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 29th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Mumbo Jumbo

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 25, 2012

Why the UNP needs a new leader

Everybody knows about the crisis in the UNP. Of the many elections there have been in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, it has lost all but one. This includes four presidential elections and four out of five parliamentary elections. And it will have the opportunity to lose a few more in September, as the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces go to the polls.

In the last general election, it could secure only 29% of the popular vote, worse than either of the two major parties have fared in a very long time.

The main reason for its failure was identified last year in a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that less than 20% of Sinhalese support the UNP. And although the party does rather better than the SLFP with minorities, it has to compete with ITAK, which is backed by more than 50% of Tamils, the CWC with about 30% of Up Country Tamils and the SLMC and NUA, which together have the backing of some 35% of Muslims. Meanwhile, the SLFP is the preferred party of nearly 75% of Sinhalese – Sinhalese being nearly 75% of the population, this alone gives it a good shot at 55% of the popular vote.

To have any hope of ending its losing streak, the UNP needs to rebuild its base among Sinhalese.

Some analysts argue that the SLFP’s popularity is due to the war victory, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the number or scale of its electoral successes, which have given Mahinda Rajapaksa amongst other things a two thirds majority in Parliament – a feat that was supposedly impossible with proportional representation. That a more balanced distribution of power would be good for the country is widely accepted. They suggest that things will get back to ‘normal’ in a while, even if no action is taken. In other words, there is no cause for concern. However, such confidence in the automatic revival of the Opposition is misplaced. Voters are more discerning than they think. Having ended a war is no guarantee of support, as Winston Churchill found out within months of Hitler’s death – the British public acknowledged his brilliant wartime leadership and were grateful, but many of them preferred to have somebody else in charge of the recovery. Sri Lankans would have done the same if the UNP had presented them with an attractive alternative.

The fact that in the most recent local election – more than two and a half years after the end of the war – the UNP lost strongholds like Kandy that it had held for over five decades demonstrates that there is every reason to worry.

The problem, which I find it hard to believe anybody can fail to see, is Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Ranil really is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s best friend. He is irreversibly associated with two policies that much of the Sri Lankan public – certainly the vast majority of Sinhalese – regard as anathema. Also, Ranil doesn’t seem to have changed his mind about them. These are his enthusiasm for appeasement and his commitment to neo-liberal economics. And Ranil isn’t just keen on these policies. He is a radical adherent. His Regaining Sri Lanka programme envisaged a sharp reduction in the role of the state in pretty much every sector, no matter how cherished. And he wasn’t just willing to do whatever it took to do a deal with the LTTE, he went so far as to ridicule the Government’s military campaign almost until it reached the banks of Nanthikadal.

He has not admitted that he was wrong. Indeed, he often sounds as though he would do it all again if he had the chance.

In addition to being a liability with voters, Ranil is not even able to hang onto the few members his party does manage to get elected. Dozens of his MPs have crossed over to the Government, especially in the last seven years. Of course this is the result of the smart manoeuvring of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the Opposition too has to be smart. There’s nothing wrong with the Government making use of MPs’ interest in ministerial positions to boost its numbers – this is politics. (Of course it would be good to set a constitutional limit to the number of ministers an administration can appoint.) But Ranil should be able to take advantage too. He should be capitalising on the growing dissatisfaction within the SLFP at the dominance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family and their plans for his succession.

I can’t think of many other democratic countries in which the same person has been in charge of a major party for as long as Ranil Wickremasinghe. In the UK, Tony Blair took over as party leader just a couple of months before Ranil became leader of the UNP. Even though he won three successive terms for the British Labour Party, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he was still compelled to hand over power to a successor after ten years as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the British Conservative Party changed its leader four times until it found David Cameron, who finally defeated Labour in 2010. Imagine their fate if they had stuck with John Major! It is standard practice to bring in new faces – and hopefully also new ideas and new energy – from time to time, even when things are going well. Ranil has been party leader for 18 years, almost all of which have been spent out of office, yet still nobody has been able to replace him.

In the circumstances, it is quite ridiculous for the UNP to accuse Mahinda Rajapaksa of clinging onto power, when he has only been in charge for seven years. The worst dictatorship in Sri Lanka is to be found in the UNP.

This is exactly the argument made by those who have crossed over.

The struggle to eject Ranil has been going on for most of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in office. And it has occasionally looked pretty serious – recall the awful death of Rienzie Algama, who set himself on fire outside Sirikotha in July 2010.

Ranil’s eventual agreement to initiate an annual secret ballot to select the party’s key office-bearers seemed to offer some hope of change. However, the constituency was only the Working Committee, and Ranil easily won the first round in December 2011 – he beat Karu Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. (Polling all party members would obviously give a much better idea of the mood in the country than asking a group of people who are either directly appointed by Ranil or indirectly depend on him.) That there were many in the party who were desperately unhappy with the result was made clear by the violence that engulfed Sirikotha soon after it was declared.

Now this violence is being used as a pretext to undo even this very small reform, with the Working Committee announcing last week that the party leader will henceforth be chosen for terms of not one but six years. They say this is essential for party unity.

Frankly, why does the party need to be united in defeat?

In any case, party unity is overrated. Plenty of leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and even leaders of the UNP in its more dynamic era, have won elections despite vicious infighting – it can even bring out the best in them.

Six year terms will enable Ranil to stay on until 2018. That is until after the next general election.

This must be music to the ears of Mahinda Rajapaksa. His strategy is clear – he intends to make the UNP face one election after another in the next few years, to keep its members obsessed with party unity. They will think twice about agitating against their leader if they are constantly in campaign mode. And they won’t have the spirit to resist Ranil when they are continually reminded of what bad shape the party is in, courtesy their regular election defeats. Because Mahinda Rajapaksa would love nothing better than to compete with Ranil for the presidency again – his unprecedented third term. He wants to ensure that the UNP never recovers from its crisis.

The UNP can’t play somebody else’s game. It must forget about the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, which are not very important in comparison with what is at stake in Colombo, and instead refocus its efforts on choosing the most suitable leader and working out a new and more appealing programme for the next general election.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 25th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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