Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The New Era of Sri Lankan Politics: Another 21 years of SLFP (mis)rule is coming to an end

The general election of 1994, held on August 16, was a landmark election in Sri Lanka. From the beginning of the campaign, it was clear that the UNP, which ruled the country since 1977, would find it difficult to retain power. In the end, it was a narrow victory for the SLFP-led PA (so much so that late Gamini Dissanayaka attempted to cobble together a coalition government for UNP) but a victory nevertheless. Over the course of the next few years, it was a clear that the SLFP was back and that the UNP would not recapture power anytime soon. It was able to win the general election of 2001 and hold on to government sans presidency for a brief period but even then it was clear that its hold on power was tenuous. The SLFP stalwarts proclaimed in 1994 that they would rule the country for two decades and they were right.
Which brings us to the general election of August 17, 2015. I'm going out on a limb here because making predictions about elections is always a risky business (just read about the US presidential election of 1948) but I think at this point it is pretty safe to say that the UNP would win the election by a narrow to a moderate margin. With the Tamil parties and the JVP unlikely to back the UPFA, all it (and its coalition partners) need to do to win comfortably is to win at least one seat more than the UPFA. Even 100 seats in the 225 member legislature would be a victory as the UPFA would get a lesser number of seats, something like 90, in this case. Then the crossovers, some principled - some opportunistic, will bloat the margin.

But the bigger picture here is that the general election of 2015 is destined to be a landmark election just like 1994. Exactly 21 years and 1 day after the second era of SLFP dominance in Sri Lanka began it looks destined to end.  One might argue that it had already ended on January 8, 2015 and there's a lot of truth in that. But after all, the man who became president on January 8 is a life long SLFPer, for whom the party is extremely important as we have seen the past few months. This time there is far less ambiguity.

The second era of SLFP dominance was just bad for the country, but the first era of SLFP dominance from 1956 to 1977 can only be described as disastrous. In a very real sense, this was the most critical period of independent Sri Lanka where it would have either become a developed Asian country like Japan, South Korea, Singapore or at least a upper middle income country such as Malaysia or... what it is today. The blame falls squarely on the SLFP and its husband-and-wife pair of leaders. This has been pointed out by several authors including C.A. Chandrapema in his vastly underrated book කොළපාට සමාජය. It was a tragedy of enormous proportions that in this period of expanding world trade, Sri Lanka, which had all the right basics, was ruled by inward socialist nutcases. And the one man who could have reversed this disaster (J.R. Jayawardena), chose to accept the leadership of a far less effective politician (Dudley Senanayake) albeit more popular. As the result, even the UNP-led "national government" of 1965-1970 couldn't change the course of the country as in the years following the 1977 election. The SLFP drove the country - and itself - into disaster culminating in the humiliating defeat it suffered in the 1977.

The talk of landmark elections appears to run in the face of the conventional wisdom that the Sri Lankan electorate changed governments every 5 years prior to 1977. But a closer inspection would show that saying that governments changed every 5 years is only half the story. UNP won in 1947 and 1952. It lost badly in the famous rout of 1956 and "won" in the 1960 March election because the SLFP was divided but wasn't able to muster a majority. In 1960 July, it lost decisively to Sirima Bandaranaike. Its victory in 1965 was a narrow one and SLFP enjoyed tremendous public support while in opposition. In this sense, the 1965-1970 UNP government was similar to the UNP government in 2001 - 2004. As such it can be seen that the era of SLFP dominance ended only in 1977. This has been pointed out by Prof. K.M. de Silva in his famous biography of J.R. Jayawardena and probably by other political analysts.

The second era of UNP dominance of 1977 - 1994 is far easier to recognize because the SLFP was never close to capturing power during this period. It took the impeachment motion against president Premadasa and the assassinations of two of the three leaders groomed by J.R. for leading the party for the the SLFP to finally become the governing party again. And since then SLFP in its various avatars has been running the country except for the brief period of 2001 - 2004. Now that it's finally coming to an end, this is a good time to look back at the previous eras and what we can expect in the emerging new era.

1948 - 1956: A somewhat promising start


Despite having a weak claim to the title "Father of the Nation", D.S. Senanayake appears to have got close to owning that, in his relatively short reign from 1948 to 1952. He created a national identity for the country, kept the basic capitalist structure inherited from the British (albeit with a significant state sector) and gave opportunities for the politicians from the next generation like JR who was made Finance Minister. But he is known mostly his work on establishing farming communities in the North Central and Eastern Provinces, which had some economic value. But it can't be denied that these were also aimed at strengthening the Sinhalese communities in these ancient Sinhalase lands. While this can be seen as communal, it is also true that this policy strengthened the Sri Lankan state in the years of separatism.

What is troubling is that he may have emptied the state coffers in these exercises. It is often stated with pride that Sri Lanka didn't obtain any loans for the Gal Oya scheme and everything was funded by Treasury. But this also means that the reserves accumulated by the British over decades were being drained. Sri Lanka didn't have a budget deficit until Bandaranaike took over but the country's reserves may have been dwindling during the UNP government as well. In spending state coffers and as a general focus of the government, D.S. put more weight on agriculture as opposed to industrialization and infrastructure development (roads, urban development) which set the tone for future UNP governments as well until Premadasa became president in 1989. In this sense, D.S. (and successive UNP governments) can be accused of being too obsessed with the history of Sri Lanka where developing agriculture was seen as the primary focus, which stands in contrast to the popular accusation that UNP is an agent of Western powers. In essence, the charge here is that the UNP had not learnt enough from Western powers.

Nevertheless, by and large D.S. took the country in the correct direction.  He kept the capitalist policies left by the British in place and let the businesses grow. Unlike Nehru of India, he didn't start building a Socialist Raj. These policies continued under his successors Dudley Senananayake and Sir Johh Kotalawale. The Marxist parties and Bandaraniake's SLFP (after his defection from the UNP) were obstructing them - sometimes vigorously as in the hartal of 1953 - but the country was on the right track. Communal tensions were checked as well and there were no communal riots until Bandaranaike took over.


1956 - 1977: The country loses its way

The SLFP era started with a bang in 1956. For several decades after the (in)famous election of 1956, it was seen as a true revolution, the event that actually achieved independence from British, etc. It is only recently that the country has begun to realize that what happened in 1956 was a colossal mistake. The best explanation I've read about the change in 1956 is that it was an event that bought do nothing of the society to power, made in the above mentioned book කොළපාට සමාජය. There is a nice story about an MP elected to parliament from the SLFP that highlights this point. Upon seeing this person in the first session of Parliament, a UNP MP (one of the surviving eight) is reported to have expressed dismay on to a leftist colleague - ideologically opposite but educated and belonging to the same social strata - saying that he can't even speak well either in English or Sinhala. Upon overhearing this conversation, the SLFP MP has got very angry and told the UN MP - "Huh! Why should I speak? There's the speaker for that!". The point is that the election of 1956 bought to power such nutcases without an education or a vision for the country.  

The events leading up to the 1956 general election are a very interesting read. Long story short, some Buddhist monks and Sinhala nationalists were able to rile up the Sinhalese population against the UNP government in general and against Sir John Kotalawala - with his penchant for British traditions just like Bandaranaike - in particular. The Buddha Jayanthi of 2500 years provided further ammunition. One cartoon created by these people is seen as the defining propaganda material that sealed the fate of Sir John.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and his SLFP/MEP government assaulted the young independent state of Sri Lanka (well Ceylon back then) in countless ways. He attacked and in some cases destroyed the business class mainly as retribution for supporting the UNP. He destroyed the delicate balance on racial matters maintained by the previous UNP governments resulting in the first communal riots in independent Sri Lanka. He limited the opportunities for the village youth to learn English and thereby understand what's going on in the world. He started converting Sri Lanka into a socialist country through his policies and starting various corporations destroying the good chance it had in becoming a developed country in the next few decades. He started the process of curbing press freedom although he couldn't succeed in nationalizing Lake House during his term of office. In short, he took the country down the wrong path.

It will take a much longer essay to analyze the harm done by Bandaranaike (and there are some very good ones including the books by one of my favorite authors Sisira Kumura Manikkaarachchi, who was far ahead of his time in seeing through the stupidity of SLFP and Marxist policies and was vilifed for that) but it is insightful to look at one sector in particular: public transport. When Bandaranaike took over, Sri Lanka had a group of large privately owned bus companies that covered the entire island. It is said to be one of the most sophisticated public transport networks at the time some manufacturers were said to be planning to move some of their vehicle manufacturing plants to Sri Lanka to cater for the demand of buses. The service provided by these companies was pretty good - for that time and when compared with present. For example, if a bus broke down with its passengers there would be a special "breakdown bus" to take the passengers to the destination. Compare that with having to get into another bus when a private of state owned bus breaks down even in the highway. These large bus companies were a national asset they might have produced entrepreneurs who would venture into new areas as time went by. All this stopped when Bandaranaike came to power. He nationalized the buses without providing any compensation to the owners mainly as punishment for supporting the UNP. This is similar to MR nationalizing the Sewanala plant owned by Daya Gamage for his financial backing of the UNP half a century later. He then created the CTB, which was run by the above mentioned nut cases backing him. Needless to say, the quality of public transport plummeted in the years to come and Sri Lanka was deprived of a valuable group of companies and a set of talented entrepreneurs (a process repeated in nationalizing the plantation companies in the 1970-77 SLFP government). 25 years later, the country came back to square one - well behind square one - by reintroducing privately owned buses. But this time, partly due to lack of capital and partly due to the shortsightedness of the UNP Minister in charge of transport - M.H. Mohammed - they were small operators running one or a few buses instead of large bus companies. We see the results even today. Ask any ordinary Sri Lankan what bugs him most in his daily life and chances are that you will hear transport. And the authorities have a general idea about what the solution should look like - large privately owned bus companies accountable to government and the general public (in fact a law was passed in parliament to this effect some time back). In other words what we had before the Great Revolution of 1956. Imagine what would have happened had Bandaranikae not destroyed the bus companies. This is a microcosm for what Sri Lanka would have been had Bandaranaike not messed it up. I think all Sri Lankans should be ashamed of having this person's name in the only (functional) international airport that Sri Lanka has.  

However, all this might have been reversed had Bandaranaika not been tragically assassinated in 1959. Any assassination of a national leader is tragic. But this was doubly tragic, because it gave SLFP a longer life by appealing to the raw emotions of the population. His widow Sirima (or Sirimavo, I truly don't know the correct name) played this role to perfection. By the time Bandaranaike was assassinated, most people were anxiously waiting for the next election to get rid of සෙවළ බණ්ඩා as he was known. He earned this nickname having shown indecisiveness in many instances and by abdicating his authority to the "nominal" leader of the country Governor General Oliver Gunathilake in the midst of communal riots. Instead, his assassination in 1959 meant that SLFP would be in power for a much longer period under his politically savvy widow who certainly didn't suffer from his indecisiveness (the only man in the cabinet one foreign reporter noted during the 1970 - 1977 period) but was committed to socialist policies that took Sri Lanka down the drain.

What happened in the 1960-65 SLFP government and the 1970 - 1977 United Front/SLFP governments was basically the continuation of policies initiated by Bandaraniake. They nationalized banks, oil companies, schools, all sorts of enterprises, the Lake House, plantations and toward the end of their government in 1970-77 period, the popular Buriyani Hotel of Maradana. It's comical if not for the tragic consequences for the country. In addition to destroying the capitalist economy of Sri Lanka left by the British, they etched socialist concepts strongly into the popular psyche of Sri Lanka so much so that JR thought it was wise to commit to socialism in the 1977 election campaign.

The destruction of the economy is half the story about the harm executed by the SLFP era of 1956-1977. The other half is the raising of communal tensions and radical socialism. By their policies seen as detrimental to the Tamils, they aided the rise of terrorism. While there were hardly any signs of communal tensions when the UNP handed over the government in 1970, tensions were close to a boiling point when it came back in 1977. The JVP revolt of 1971, the product of Sinhala-only education and socialist policies leading to economic stagnation more than anything else - fueled the tensions. When UNP took power in 1977, they were sitting on a time bomb. Although they had good economic policies, as we know they failed miserably in defusing the bomb.

What about the UNP government of 1965-70? Well, nothing much. Dudely is said to be a good fellow - if you discount the allegations that he backed the 1962 coup - and he was successful in developing agriculture like his father. But he was not a visionary leader. Two things that happened during his reign show an insight into the kind of leader he was. One, he refused to let television to be introduced to Sri Lanka. Two, he refused an invitation to join ASEAN as a founding member. One can't expect to turn the trajectory of the country through a leader like him. JR could have done that. And having taken care of the party after the 1956 defeat as its unofficial head - Sir John had no interested in it despite being an MP and Dudley was on retirement - he may well have taken over it had he pressed his claim for leadership. Many people didn't cared much as to who its leader was as they thought the UNP was dead during that time. But he was discouraged by not being elected to Parliament and thought that Dudley would provide the much needed public support for the party. As the result, he basically dragged Dudley to lead the party. I think it would have been much better if JR had taken over the party. Had he come to power in 1965 - a long shot by any means - he may well have turned the trajectory of the country and Sri Lanka would still have emerged as a developed country or at least an upper middle income country.

What is quite surprising about the above assessment of this era of Sri Lankan politics is how mainstream this view has become. Tell a die-hard SLFP/Mahinda supporter that the SLFP governments from 1956 to 1977 did great harm to the country and that S.W.R.D. Bandaraniake's Sinhala only policy was disastrous to the country and chances are that he or she would agree with you. Close to 40 years after the introduction of capitalist policies the Sri Lankan society at large has realized the folly of the policies of the 1956-1977 era. The stupidity of the Sinhala-only policies, either in forcing the Sinhala language on Tamil-speaking citizens or depriving the knowledge of English language for Sinhala students too is well accepted. But the same SLFP/Mahinda supporters will tell you in the same breadth that the UNP and J.R. Jayawardena have done nothing good for the country. Apparently changing the trajectory of the country from an inward socialist country to an outward one which provides opportunities for everyone counts for nothing.


1977-1994: Recovery with complications

The above mentioned change of trajectory took place in the years after 1977. When many people talk about the UNP government from 1977-1989, they talk a lot about the 1983 July riots, the rise of the LTTE and the JVP insurrection of 1987-1989. What is conveniently forgotten is that the first UNP term from 1977-1982 and the spectacular economic recovery made during the period. Unlike the economic booms present only on papers produced by the Central Bank, this was economic development common man could feel. With the opening up of economy through free-trade zones and deregulation as well as through various initiatives undertaken by the capable ministers of the government - Gam Udawa by Premadasa, Accelerated Mahaweil by Gamini Dissanayaka and Colombo Port development by Lalith Athulathmudali, the country could feel that it was taking off. This was easily the best performance by a government in its 5-year term in independent  Sri Lanka. Had the country continued in this path in the next 10 to 15 years it would certainly have become an upper middle income country.

But as well all know, this was not to be. Unavoidable outside factors, mistakes by the government as well as outright wrongs by the government contributed towards this. But as I see it, the underlying reason was that JR was at least 12 years too late. He was 67 when he became the leader of UNP and 71 when he became Prime Minster. He was still sharp and energetic at the start of his first term, being a sportsman when be was young, but towards his second term he was showing visible signs of aging and may not have up to the task when serious challenges began to emerge after 1983. In his biography of JR, Prof. K.M. de Silve says that JR was very slow to respond to the 1983 riots, quite uncharacteristic for a guy who was busy at work when the results of the humiliating defeat of 1956 election were being broadcast. A younger JR would have tackled these problems more vigorously.

First about the mistakes of the UNP government. I think one of the biggest mistakes of the UNP government was one of its crowning achievements - the Mahaweli project. No, I'm not saying that it was bad for the country. It improved agriculture, provided employment for many people and produced enough electricity for the country for a short while. No, the problem was in the political capital spent on this project. In other words, the opportunity cost of the Mahaweli project was just too great. It is very interesting and heartening to read about how Gamini Dissanayaka toured several countries - UK, Germany, etc. - with his plans for the Mahaweli project (who was given permission for this exercise by JR over the objections of Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel who said that this is not the way things are done) and charmed his way into obtaining funds for the project by making a strong impression in his audience. Those days rich countries were actually rich (unlike now when they seem to be in quite some trouble) and were willing to support capitalist third world countries like Sri Lanka. And they were tired of seeing unsophisticated dictators who only cared about making a loot. As a result, Mahaweli project was funded largely by loans/donation from individual countries obtained on better terms as opposed to loans from institutions. Had JR entrusted this man with building a highway network for the country, he would have done it three times over. The funds and the focus of the government spent on the Mahaweli project meant that it was not to be. A more balanced approach would have put some focus on agriculture and put a lot of weight towards infrastructure development, industrialization and privatization of state assets. Premadasa understood this and that jobs can be created more quickly and easily through industrialization. He did this through his much vilified garment factories and finally began to withdraw the state from the economy. Privatization of state entreprises (even the Buriyani Hotel of Maradana) only took off under him. JR, for all his greatness in finally breaking the socialist policies initiated by the SLFP, still had the remnants of D.S. Senanyake thinking, where developing agriculture was seen as the primary task of the state. That was his mistake. Again, this runs counter to the popular accusation that JR was a westernized leader. In essence, the charge here is that JR was not westernized enough.

Outside factors adversely affecting Sri Lanka during this period can be summed up into two words - Indira Gandhi. How she began to treat Sri Lanka under JR as an enemy is a very interesting story (which involve her close friendship with Sirimavo Bandaranaike, general election losses by both in 1977, UNP comparing her fate to that was SLFP and the short-lived government of Moraji Desai) but the bottom line was that after her return to power, Sri Lanka had a giant enemy to the north. Once racial tensions began to boil over, RAW, under guidance from Indira, set up training camps for groups like LTTE and actively mentored them. This was too much for Sri Lanka. Again, we all know how this Shakespearean drama ended but in talking about this period it is sufficient to tell that these policies continued under her son Rajiv.

Which brings us to the outright wrongs committed by the UNP government. These are well known as the SLFP governments in the second era hardly waster a day without mentioning them. The most serious of them is the 1983 July riots. JR could have stopped it but he was slow to respond. These riots meant that the racial tensions would boil over into full blown war, given that armed Tamil groups had the backing of India. And then JR doubled down on errors by trying to pin the blame on the JVP. It was also aggravated by one of his previous errors - not holding a general election in 1982 and holding a referendum to extend the life of the previous parliament. This exercise was not only undemocratic but also prevented the JVP and rising politicians like Vijaya Kumaratunga from entering the parliament. In the end, all these problems reached a boiling point towards the end of JR's reign. Premadasa was quite right to say he got a විලක්කුව with fires from both sides.

As we all know, Premadasa doused one fire and led a quick economic recovery in the South. As mentioned above, in terms of economic management he was probably better than JR. He sidelined Gamini and Lalith leading to the eventual downfall of the UNP but he had a great lieutenant of his own - Ranjan Wijerathna. When one realizes that all of them were killed - Ranjan, Lalith, Premadasa and Gamini - within four year it is not hard to understand why UNP went into a slump. Ranil, though groomed by JR for leadership, never rose to the level of those personalities within the UNP era of 1977-1994.

Anyhow, long story short, infighting within the UNP and the assassinations paved the way for the SLFP to eventually come back to power. Even then, UNP might have sneaked in a victory had it not been for the brash decision to hold a special election for the Southern Provincial election less than a year before the general election. Chandrika Kumarathunga might have a hard time believing her luck in this case with each obstacle moving out of her path as if by divine intervention. In the end, SLFP in its avatar as "People's Alliance" grabbed a narrow majority in the 1994 August election and the UNP era was over.

While it has become fashionable these days to say that UNP destroyed the country in its 17 year rule, any unbiased analysis would show that the opposite is true: it was during the 17-year UNP rule that the country finally turned the corner and started going forward. In addition to introducing the capitalist economy it succeeded in changing the mindset of the population to the new economic and social order. This is reflected in the accusation we hear that JR and the UNP destroyed the "culture" of the country. What they really mean is that JR and UNP changed the socialist-closed mindset of the population. True, the UNP made serious errors during its reign. But towards the end of its rule in 1994, it had dismantled the autocratic practices initiated by Premadasa (political debates on TV started during this era) and the LTTE problem was being contained - it was almost eradicated from the East and was being contained in the North. The economy was booming, the stock market was steadily rising and there were hopes that Sri Lanka would reach NIC (Newly Industrial Country) status by 2000 or so.  

Yet one cannot totally fault the electorate for sending the UNP packing in 1994. It has been in power for long period of time and a single party being in power for that long is definitely not good for democracy. SLFP looked as if it has reformed under the rising leadership of Chandrika and it looked reasonable to give them a chance. This and her promise to strengthen the democratic institutions - starting with abolishing the executive presidency - appealed to the population. I don't think people cared much about her promise to negotiate with the LTTE seriously. LTTE was contained to a significant extent during this period and people assumed that it would just continue to be that way. So the die was cast and SLFP was back in power.


1994 - 2015: Messed up and to the brink and back more than once

It was very fortunate for the country that the offspring of Bandaranaikes had a good enough worldview to move away from socialism. It was Anura Bandaranaike who first broke ranks with the socialist camp within his party and attempted to move it to the right. Chandrika came from the leftist camp but completed the process and was much more successful in this than Anura. May be she was helped by the fact that Anura had already broken the back of the socialist camp. Either way, the party that came to power in 1994 was committed to capitalism just like UNP. But being out of power for too long, it lacked competency in government and this was aggravated by the socialist-closed mindset of some of its members.

I think the best phrase to describe Chandrika's 11 year rule is "messed up". She clearly had inherited one of the serious leadership flows from her father - indecisiveness - and this was apparent in her rule. Soon after she took over, the economy began to loose steam and never really recovered. The slogan of UNP in the 1999 presidential election was improving the economy and to the horror of the SLFP it resonated with a large segment of the population. Had it not been for the bomb blast that nearly killed Chandrika in the last election rally, Ranil may well have won. There's a nice story about a government servant elated by Chandrika's victory talking with a shop owner in the morning after the election. The shop owner looked very sad and the government agent asked whether it was because Ranil lost. The shop owner replied - "No sir, I was just thinking how I can continue doing business like this for 6 more years". People like this shop owner got their say in 2001 but as we know the resulting UNP government lasted only 2 years - just enough time to give a respite to the economy and the country as a whole.

Yet it's unfair to say that no development took place under Chandrika. The improvement of telecommunication infrastructure was impressive, carried out under one of her able deputies - Mangala Samaraweera. The ICT industry too took off under her rule but it was a global trend rather than something spurred by the government. And privatization of state enterprises was not only continued but accelerated under Chandrika. But the process was seriously mismanaged the there were many talks of corrupt deals.

And she seriously messed up handling the LTTE issue. As mentioned earlier, the UNP government was pursuing a policy of minimizing and containing the LTTE problem towards the end of its tenure. That allowed the economy of the south to grow while the LTTE was still there. Chandrika embarked on highly publicized, high risk gamble to make peace with LTTE and this stated the era of wild swings on the LTTE war. As the talks broke down and the war dragged on, she couldn't commit to one of the two sensible approaches - a truce aimed at obtaining breathing space if not lasting peace as Ranil did or an all out war aimed at annihilating the LTTE as Mahinda did. Her approach appeared to be weakening the LTTE enough to compel them to agree to peace talks - a nonsensical approach to the say the least. Because of this, the LTTE problem got more and more serious taking the economy down and the country was just messed up.

And in one other front Chandrika completely failed: preserving and improving the democracy. In a very real sense, this was the central theme of her successful 1994 campaign. People didn't vote for her because they were very upset about the economic situation of the time; they thought the UNP was in power for too long and was corrupting the democratic institutions of the country. The stuffing of ballot boxes in the 1989 general election was an important talking point of the PA campaign. Yet, Chandrika and PA forgot all those lofty talks about democracy after assuming power. Her government filed criminal charges against the editor of Sunday Times barely three months into the office. Had Premadasa adopted this practice, he would have had to file charges against a whole set of editors. The first accusations of ballot box stuffing against the Chandrika government arose in the 1994 presidential election (held just after the general election) from the Pathadumbara electorate, when the outcome of the election was never in doubt. By the 1997 local government elections, SLFP organizers of many areas of the country have begun to systematically harass the UNP supporters. These practices reached a breaking point in the infamous provincial council election for the North Central Province on January 25, 1999. The PA was scared to the core that this election would be a repeat of the 1994 Southern Provincial Council elections: a defeat for the ruling party in an area where the opposition was traditionally strong. As a result, a minister was put in charge of electorate and this resulted in marked increase in attacks against the UNP before the election. But it was what happened on the election day that shocked many. Between 7-9 am, armed grouped took over most polling stations while the police officers looked on - unable or unwilling to risk their lives in fighting the armed groups with heavy firepower - and stuffed ballot boxes in what was known as Operation 7 to 9. Chandrika didn't deny that this happened and it may well have been carried out without her approval. In one electoral where stuffing was not carried out, PA won by a narrow margin and in others it "won" close to more than 2/3 of the votes. Despite all the talk about this not happening again, the simple fact that such a thing took place after the UNP conducted peaceful elections resulting in its defeat indicated that something was fundamentally wrong with PA. When the UNP was accused of ballot box stuffing in the 1989 general election, the JVP rebellion was raging and the country was like a war zone. When the SLFP carried out ballot box stuffing in 1999, there was nothing of the sort and the terror was created by the SLFP itself. This was the enough is enough point for many people. Personally, this was the event that convinced me that the UNP was in fact the better option - given its better record on economy, better political skills and now better record on democracy - although coming from a traditional SLFP family (My parents and relatives had voted for SLFP even in 1977).

So as the messed up Chandrika era continued with wild swings in the war. There was widespread celebrations when the Army took over Jaffna - and it was a major event - and then started moving through the A9 road. But soon it was evident that something was seriously wrong. First it was the setbacks along the A9 road, and then it was the overrunning of the Mullativu camp. Things reached a new low when the Elephant Pass camp felt. I remember speaking with a Colonel of the Army (a family friend) serving in Jaffna sometime before this event. He boasted that the Elephant Pass would never fall. When asked what would happen if Elephant Pass did fall, his answer was unequivocal: "Then Jaffna would fall". The Sri Lankan state was in the brink of losing the civil war at this point. As everyone know, India, to its eternal shame, refused to help, other than offering to evacuate the Sri Lankan forced by ships with the agreement of LTTE. (14 years earlier, when the LTTE was facing a similar crisis, it intervened decisively on Tiger's favor) It was the multi barrel rocket launchers provided by Pakistan - a friend in need for Sri Lanka - that stopped Tigers and saved Jaffna.  

The point I'm trying to make is that the LTTE was in the brink of victory in 2001. It was in this background that Ranil Wickremasinghe signed the now infamous ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. At that point, there was nothing else to do. And the Sri Lankan electorate approved this initiative by voting for UNP - it was well known at the time that Ranil would come into such an agreement with the LTTE. Given that Chandrika has brought the country to the brink of a cliff through mismanagement of the LTTE problem, that was the only reasonable thing to do and Ranil and the UNP had the courage to carry it through despite the problems it would pose in the future elections. The Sinhala population largely enjoyed the respite while criticizing the agreement at the same time. It was only after the economy stabilized and the bunker mentality went away that the electorate was somewhat ready for another round of hostilities.

Any reasonable assessment would determine that the truce was more beneficial to the Sri Lankan state than the LTTE. The LTTE, which was in a very strong position when it entered in to the ceasefire emerged much weaker when war broke out again in 2006, largely because of the Karuna split. On the other hand, the Sri Lankan state was decidedly stronger with Ranil's "international safety net" operating to some extent with backing from not only India but Western countries led by US as well. Sri Lankan economy too had recovered to some extent from what it was in 2001. The international community was fed up with the LTTE because the rigidity it showed in the negotiations and was tacitly acknowledging that LTTE had to be annihilated if lasting peace were to be created in Sri Lanka. All in all, the stage was well set.

Which brings us to the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as president in 2005. The election of 2005 was seen as a contest between a dove and hawk but as a keen foreign correspondent notes, no one believed that Mahinda would immediately embark on a war (he didn't) or that Ranil would meekly accommodate all LTTE requests. Nevertheless, it can be argued that by 2005 a more confrontational approach with the LTTE made sense and Mahinda was better suited for that role. After an year or so trying to negotiate peace with LTTE he embarked on what the Sri Lankan state has not attempted since 1987: a war is aimed at annihilating the LTTE. He was lucky to have an Army commander equal to the task in Sarath Fonseka, without whose strategic capabilities and bombastic personality, the endeavor may well have failed. (In the American Civil War, Lincoln shuffled his Generals and always came up with a joker leading to failures and setbacks until he found Ulysses S. Grant). As we all know, Mahinda and Sri Lankan military took the war to the very end until Prabhakarn was killed.   
It's a very interesting question as to what would have happened if Ranil was elected in 2005 instead of Mahinda. SLFP and MR supporters say that we would still be listening to Hero's day speeches by Prabhakaran and UNP supporters say that he would have ended the LTTE without so much loss of life. The truth is probably something in between but we will never know. Even the most accommodating dove can be pushed in to war - It was the same Neville Chamberlain that pursued the much maligned appeasement policy with with Hitler to ridiculous levels that finally declared war on Nazi Germany. Analyzing what ifs in history is seldom an important exercise and I don't think it's the case here. What we know is that Mahinda led the Sri Lankan state to victory over LTTE and because of this, it can be argued that his election of 2005 was good for the country.

In talking about the victory over the LTTE, it is worthwhile to talk a bit about the broader context. Those who died fighting the Sri Lankan Army were not invaders from another country. They were sons and daughters of Sri Lanka. That's why we should be careful in celebrating the war that ended the LTTE. Do we have celebrations to commemorate the end of JVP insurrections and the killing of Rohana Wijeweera? The only ceremony to mark this event is conducted by the JVP to shower praise on Wijeweera and his followers. There is no stomach among the Sri Lankan population, even die-hard opponents of the JVP, to celebrate the crushing of JVP because they know that those who fought on the JVP side were misguided youth of this country whose killings was a national tragedy. Why should the situation be too different when it comes to the LTTE? Sure, the magnitude of the challenge faced by the state was several times higher when it comes to the LTTE but in essence both were armed struggles by a section of the population against the state. While it should be celebrated that the Armed Forces were capable of defending the territorial integrity of the country it should combined with the somber reality that killing fellow countrymen who were fighting against the state is not an event to celebrate. Several countries emerging from civil wars have successfully navigated these difficult sentiments including the US after it emerged from the 1860-1864 civil war.

In Leonard Woolf's famous autobiography about his 7 years in Sri Lanka, he mentions an incident that had happened when he was serving in Jaffna. He had been accused by a prominent citizen in Jaffna of hitting him with the driving whip that Woolfe used in his horse carriage. Apparently, what has happened was that the said citizen has passed Woolfe when he was using the whip to point something to a higher official while standing in a main street. Having denied the charge that he hit the said person, Woolfe writes something like this. "But if they think that I committed an offense by standing across their main street, brandishing my whip as if I own the place, then for that I am guilty. That's what imperialism is about. I, a young Englishman, had no business playing lord over the native population. I might have hurt their sentiments by my mere presence." This in essence is, in my view, the aspirations/grievances of the Tamil people. They do not appreciate and do not want Sinhala politicians brandishing their whips so to speak over the Tamil population of the North and East even though they might have no intention of hitting them. The call for devolution of power, be it provincial councils or a federal structure rises from this. If the Sinhala people and especially politicians are capable of understanding this sentiment and accommodating a compromise, we would have gone a long way in lowering racial tensions. 

Having conceded that Mahinda deserves credit for ending the war, with the caveat that a lot of credit is also due to Sarath Fonseka, it is time to look at the other main plus point many people see in his rule - infrastructure development. Here, I think the positive assessments are overrated. Southern and Colombo-Katunayake highways have cut down commuting time for people who use them but I doubt whether it has spurred any economic activity, at least just yet. Hambantota port may be successful in the future but because of the nature stuck with the Chinese most of the benefits and jobs will go to Chinese - with the local population left to killing dogs and selling salt by the roadside to make some money. Mattala looks destined to be a complete failure. Wasn't there a man with common sense to advise Mahinda to build this thing in Jaffna, if he really wanted to build a second international airport in Sri Lanka? That would have been economically more feasible and would also have made a strong point about national reconciliation. As a more general point, had Mahinda been serious about infrastructure development, he would have addressed issues like public transport, which would not be glamorous as building ports or floating markets, but would earn the gratitude (and votes) of the long suffering public.

The rest are negatives. The most serious problem with the Mahinda rule was that it was increasingly turning into an autocracy. The word "regime" has never been used to describe any previous government in Sri Lanka, but by the start of the second term of Mahinda rule, it looked very apt. During Chandrika's rule criminal charges were filed against newspaper editors but during Mahinda's rule they were attacked and killed. Mahinda supporters will continue to deny that his government has anything do with Lasantha Wickrematunga's murder, carried out just a couple of days after the Sri Lankan Army overran Kilinochchi, but that's basically hiding the head in the sand. The matters related to Ekaniligoda's disappearance are just coming to light. There are many good sources about how Mahinda's rule systematically converted into an autocracy and I don't wish to make this any longer by repeating these. Just thinking about what happened on January 26/27, 2010 (even forgetting about how Sarath Fonseka was imprisoned later) is enough to understand where the country was heading. In which democratic country does the losing candidate have to move from place to place for fear of life as the results are being broadcast and would be surrounded by armed forces as the final result is being announced by the Elections Commissioner (who later said that he was suffering from "stress")? I still believe that we haven't heard the full story about what happened on those two days although in all likelihood Mahinda had won the election. Had Mahdina won in 2015, we would have seen a repeat of the same things, probably deadlier and rising to level of a Night of Long Knives. Fortunately, Sri Lanka was spared of this and instead and Mahinda and his team had to hastily retreat to Medamulana.

As I see it, this was the central problem in Mahinda's rule. In a very real sense, the threat posed by the Rajapaska regime in converting Sri Lanka into an dictatorship/autocratic country such as Libya, Egypt or Myanmmar was as serious as the threat posed by LTTE in dividing and destroying the country. It was well in this path when the opposition coalition miraculously stopped this nonsense. Had Mahinda won a third term, Sri Lanka would have basically sealed its fate as an autocracy governed by Rajapakshas for the Rajapakshas. This is what the Rajapaksa supporters - uneducated and educated - fail to grasp.

Widespread corruption went hand in hand with the rise of autocratic rule. True, corruption had already been there but it was never institutionalized as done during Mahinda's rule. Again there are enough good  references on these and those who do not want to be convinced are not going to be convinced no matter what you say. As such, there is no point in wasting time on this.

One final debatable point about Mahinda's rule and SLFP rule in general is whether it was good or bad economically for the common man. Statistics cooked up by the Central Bank would say that the per capital income and GDP has risen by so much and the economic condition was steadily improving. But there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. It was SLFP stalwart Susil Premjayanth who said that people are flocking to dansals because they don't get enough to eat. He was roundly ridiculed for this statement but I think there's a lot of truth of in it. The only inaccuracy about his statement was that this was happening after January 8. This has been going on for years. There's an (in)famous temple near where I lived in Sri Lanka, and large crowds would come there midday on poya days, apparently because of there was a dana. Many people weren't even shy about saying that they came because of food. Apparently, saving money on a meal was important to them. There's enough anecdotal evidence that people are tying a lot to save money from food but I don't think there has been any study on this. Why do people try to save money specifically from food? Because, it is the one large item in a family's budget that is negotiable as noted in many studies; you can't negotiate on electricity bills, school supplies or bus fare for example. The point here is that the economy is not that great as statistics would show. It might be all good for the higher ups in the society but not so for most. I truly believe that the actual living standards have fallen during the 20 year old SLFP rule as a result of years of economic stagnation.

In conclusion, what can we say about the second SLFP era? For Chandrika's period and the entire era as a whole, I think the answer is that it was a failure. If you compare where the country was in 1994 and where it is now, it looks like slow progress at best. If we look at Mahinda's rule alone, I think we have to say that the net result is positive because he, after all, ended the war. But I'm 100% convinced that had he won a third term, he would have dragged the country to disaster.


2015 - : A stabler path to an upper middle income country

This brings us to the peaceful revolution that took place on January 8th. The country's march to a dictatorship was suddenly stopped on its tracks and old Sri Lanka - very political and messy - was back. The change was so sudden that many people within and outside Sri Lanka were caught off-guard. Many Sri Lankan thought that the regime would somehow keep power. This accounted for the complacency seen among Mahinda supporters before the election. Foreign observers too were surprised. In their eyes, Sri Lanka was a banana republic where outcome of the elections are well known in advance. No one thought that an autocratic regime will be toppled through an imperfect election. It has been reported that some universities in US are studying the change of power in Sri Lanka in January 8 election as a model to effect regime change in larger autocratic countries (think Russia) and articles such as this provide some credence to this.

Somehow the deed was done and the general election of 2015 will solidify the change. After the election, there will be no fear of the comeback of the regime. The crimes of the regime - financial and otherwise - will come to light in rapid succession. Before the end of the year, the key figures of the Rajapakse regime will be languishing in prison. The era of the regime when the Family ruled everything will soon be relegated to history.

What about politics? The UNP will be the main partner of the government and it is quite likely that the SLFP will join it as a junior partner. After the second electoral defeat, the Rajapaksa will be buried for the second time in the words of Minister Vijithamuni Soysa (When you think about it අප්පච්චි මලා statement by this guy should get some type of award for its canniness). This time there will be no one to oppose Maithripala taking over the party. It is not clear whether it would continue double-acting as a governing and opposition party but either way it would create a close contact with UNP. Over the years, the difference of the two national parties have minimized to the point where forming a national government (like the ones in Germany and Israel) is not a crazy idea anymore. In fact one of the most important but underrated achievements of the Maithri-Ranil government was the creation of a governing coalition between UNP and SLFP, however cumbersome it was. This will continue in the five years of the next parliament starting in September 2015.

What about abolition of executive presidency? I think it's unlikely. The magic of the office of presidency is that all politicians - young and old - aspire of having it. Its powers will be cut down (including limits on the ministerial posts the president can hold) to make it more answerable but chanced are the executive presidency will survive. And I suspect that Sri Lankans actually like the presidential form of government although they loudly say that they denounce it. Besides, as the election of January 8, 2015 showed having a national electorate elect the leader of the country gives everyone an equal power - something that may not happen in a general election. It is likely that the voting system will be changed into a mixed of preferential of first-past-the-post systems although here again there are unappreciated positive features of the preferential voting system. The representation it gives to small parties is well known but in addition it also give the voter more power over choosing their representative: in the electoral district system a voter can only vote for the contestants of his or her own seat although they might not like those people. This allows established politicians to remain in parliament because his party supporters have no choice. The preferential system allows unpopular politician from parties to be voted out. This trend was stopped after the preferential vote results started to be dictated by the powers that be but it is not a fault of a system. But either way, it is likely that the preferential voting system will be modified to include some form of first-past-the-post system.

So if the presidency is not going to abolished who are going to be contenders in 2020? In the UNP side it is probably going to Ranil Wickremasinghe or Sajith Premadasa. What about the SLFP camp? Assuming that MS keeps his word not to contest again, it seems like an open race. On the first glance Nimal Siripala de Silve would look like the natural choice because he kept some middle ground between Maithri and Mahinda and was after all the Leader of Opposition. But I doubt it. Corruption investigations notwithstanding he doesn't seem to have the mettle to fight hard the nomination or to contest. Rajith Senarathna has become something of a comical figure and will not be taken too seriously. Duminda Dissanayaka will probably get his turn but not in 2020. As far as I can see that leaves only one person from the leftist/nationalist camp and that person will not be from the SLFP: Champika Ranawaka. When the time comes, it's quite likely that SLFP will rally around him but it's too early to predict this let alone the outcome of a contest between him and Ranil Wickremasinghe or Sajith Premadasa. 

But it is quite likely that by 2020, the contest will be about who the senior partner of the government will be, it being taken for granted that the other party will be accomodated as the junior partner. As such it might not the life or death competitoon it used to be. The countours of the national policy will be largely set and there will be much more certainty about what would happen. Overall, Sri Lanka will be stable.

But what about people such Wimal Weerawansa? There will be remnants of the Rajapaksha regime but wihout the power of SLFP these will be marginal parties. The JVP will also conintue but as long as it doesn't officially give up communism and get reborn as a social democractice party (with more leftist policies than SLFP) and removes the bearded fellow from their propagandha material it will not even come close to being the governiming party. It has largely been force for good since it entered mainstream politics in 1994 but there's a limit it can go with its ideological and historic baggage.

What about devolution of power? It is likely that the Provincial Councils will be strengthened and more powers granted to them. Personally, my choice is for an assymetric system where a province will get a povincial council only if its people or representatives think so. Do you think Western Province requires a provincial councile? Probably the council is detrimentail to the development of the province as seen by the complete mess of its education system and public transporation. Does the Northern Province require a provincial councial? The super majority will says yes. What about Northe Central Province? Again I think the answer will be yes given that it's a large province located far away from capital. And what about merger of North and Eastern provinces? I don't think it will happen and personally I think it's a nonsensical demand. The East is markedly different from the North in its history and population. Is there any chance of another armed conflict in North East? No. Many people forget that LTTE became the menacing force that it was because of the backing provided by Indira Gandhi and many other unfortunate events. This will not happen again even if there are lingering concerns and complaints by Tamil people. But the government of good governance should take care of those grievances much better than the Rajapaksa regime. Will Tamil parties take part in the central government and take up ministerial posts? I don't know but hope that they would do so.

But that is politics. What is more important but probably less interesting is how the Sri Lankan economy and society will change in this new era. One very important thing that I think we all need to understand is that Sri Lanka is NOT going to become a developed, first-world country in the next 20-30 years. There's a reason we say that Sri Lanka missed the bus in the 1956-1977 period. Ask what country moved from third world to first world from 1950 to 1985 and we have a handful - South Korea, Thaiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and may be couple of more. In addition, countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia developed very rapidly and came close to the above mentioned Asian Tigers. Ask what country moved from third world to first world after 1990 and we are left scratching our heads. Maldives became a upper middle income country but it has a very small population and even then it couldn't become a developed country. China and India for all their greatness are still developing countries with large populations living below the poverty line and that is going to be case in the forseeable future. More over countries such as Malyasia and Indonesia couldn't complete their transition into developed countries and look stuck in the upper middle income category. Some former communist countries from the "second world" have become developed countries (Solvak Republoc, Estonia) but that's a different story from moving from third world to first world.

What's at play it here? I'm not an economist or a socilogist but these are the reasons I see.
  • While the Soviet Union and the communist block was in place, there was some sense of solidarity among capitalist countries. They might have been helping each other by design or by accident.
  • The population was low and there were more resources, especially land. This was extremely important in development of cities and highways. Look at how spacious the photos of old Colombo look and how messy it is now. Planned urban development, which is an essential part of developing a country was easier and cheaper.
  • After the Second World War, there was some lingering habit of treating other humans "humanly". This translated to better treatment of workers in developed countries (like US) and it may have had some effect on developed countries as well. Add to that, capitalists were not so good at optimizing all the processes and leavers of power for short term gain. Compare that with now where companies fire workers and reduce wages while seeing an increase in profits.
  • Global warming is real causing all kinds of catastropies. While the effects of this are just beginning to be felt, industrialization as we know it may have to stop.
The bottom line according to this view is that no country with a large population will move from the third world to first world in the near future. This sound harsh but understanding the reality makes it possible to see some popular fallacies and make important adjustments. The following are some of them.
  • We often hear that Sri Lanka needs a dictator or an autocratic government and curtailing of freedom to make it a developed country. That model may have worked in 1950s to 1980s (for example if Sir John acted on the offer reportedly made by CIA to defy the 1956 election results) but not now. Any autocratic government now would achieve only that - having an autocratic government. As such, the population should demand democratic rights, including but not limited to the right to change governments when they see fit. Giving them up doesn't mean that country will become developed one in a couple of decades.
  • All long term plans and policies should be based on reality: A large portion of the population will be poor in the forseeable future and massive infrastrucutre developments will not necessarily translate into greater good. Social safety nets and welfare schemes are going to be extremely important. Meaningless targets should not be set. At best, Sri Lanka can become a upper middle-income country with reasonable opportunities for everyone and which takes care of its weaker members. 
As I see it, the government formed after the August 17 general elections will be at a perfect place to pursue these policies. Having defeated the Mahinda Rajapakse regime for good, it can prosecute the wrongdoings of that regime with full vigor. These are essential in re-establishing the democratic principles in Sri Lanka after years of heavy assaults on them.

Furthermore, free from the greed of the Rajapakse regime to fill the coffers of a select few, Sri Lanka can provide more to relief the masses, improve education and develop inftrastrucutre as necessary. With ministers having actual authority over their fields, there will be room for new ideas similar to what was witnessed after 1977 - Mahapola, Gam Udawa, etc. All in all, we should be able to see a marked improvement for the masses. The country can expect something from people like Champika Ranawaka, Sajith Premadasa and Harsha de Silva.

Most importantly, the government based on the principle of good governance will be able to provide a level playing field for everyone allowing new businesses to develop. That the former regime controlled most sectors of the economy for the benefit of the Family and their henchmen may be news to some lucky fellows at the top of the corporate hierarchy in a few sectors that appear to have been left alone but it is no news at all to the vast majority of the population: no one could get a government contract unless they supported the Family and the local business; towards the end of the regime, business transactions of entire sectors were awarded to a select few; local politicians would look at large lands on sale and "persuade" the land owners to sell it for them at the price they want. The new government has the potential to correct these errors and open up opportunities for everyone. This is why good governance is not an abstract concept to the masses. They know that they were missing it.

In the short run, this may mean some discomforture for the higher ups in big corporations. It is well known that these types generally supported the former president in the presidential election of 2015 and some are still yearning for his comeback. Some find this puzzling because UNP is traditionally seen as more market-friendly. The (open) secret here is that these people have developed good working relationships with the previous regime and the regime often helped them in various ways - often not worrying about rules, laws or concerns of the population. Sometimes it even meant stifling competition. A nice insight on this was provided when such a person said in a newspaper interview that they have developed such a nice relationship with the regime that they can get important things done using a single phone call.  I think this is what they mean by the code word "stability". Sorry boss, democracies and a societies abiding to rule of law don't work like that. These higher ups will have to adopt to the new situation and they will. 

One area of particular importance for the new government appears to be urban development, in particular the development of the city of Colombo. It has recognized this need as shown by the statement by the Prime Minister that he plans to convert the entire Western Province into a metropolis. They have the right ideas but those need some refinement. A more careful analysis would show that a metropolis centered on the current city of Colombo should not cover the entire Western Province but a smaller area stretching from Negombo to Panadura and inwards to limits of towns such as Homagama and Kadwatha. This would be the new "Greater Colombo", larger than what was covered by the Greater Colombo project in 1980's but smaller than the entire Western Province. I personally think that there should a Ministry of Greater Colombo Development having authority over all the levers of government in this area - some snatched from the Western Province Council - to convert it into a proper metropolis. Some actions to be taken by the new authority will be popular - such as improving public transport and schools and some will be unpopular - such as imposition of tough road rules and restricting three wheelers and pavement hawkers. The bottom line is that while Sri Lanka cannot become Singapore it should strive to develop a mini-Singapore within it if it want to become an upper middle income country. This is what Malaysia has done with Kuala Lampur.

In conclusion it is nice to look back at the last millenium. Within this period, the 15th year of a century has been crucial inflection point for Sri Lanka on a couple of occasions. It was in 1215 that Kalinga Magha sacked Polonnaruwa that marked the end of the classical era of Sri Lankan history, which was based on an agri-urban Sinhalese civilization in the dry zone. 600 years later, in 1815 the defeat of the forces of Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe marked the beginning of the British rule over the entire island. From one point of view, it was the nadir of the decline started in 1215 but from another point of view, it was a new beginning marking the birth of modern Sri Lanka in many ways. Let's hope that 200 years from that even, in 2015, we are witness the start of a new era which would be beneficial to everyone in Sri Lanka.

1 comment:

  1. Sir,

    This is beautifully written and spot-on. I love how long ranging the analysis is and the history backing it up. Would be great if you can add some numbers and graphs and would love to see this published on a publication.

    All the best!