Democracy in Sri Lanka
By Padraig Colman
I mentioned in my previous article that a major contribution to the electoral success of the SLPP must have been the competent way President Gotabaya Rajapaksa coped with the pandemic.
Ireland was often touted as a success story for its handling of the pandemic. It might have been more effective than its neighbour, the UK. However, it has had 1,777 deaths from a population of 4.9 million. New Zealand has a similar population to Ireland and had 22 deaths. Sri Lanka has a population of 21.4 million and had twelve deaths, the latest being a cancer patient recently arrived from India.
An Irish (virtual) friend, a former diplomat, tentatively suggested that Ireland might have special circumstances which made it more difficult for it to cope with the pandemic than it is for Sri Lanka. “Small or medium-sized highly globalised countries located within the main highway of the globalised economy and with high volumes of diverse migrant and visitor population flows (Ireland, Sweden, UK) may have a greater exposure”. Like many westerners, he doubted that western democracies could get away with the authoritarian approach and use of the military adopted in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is part of the globalised economy. Among the many factors severely damaging the Sri Lankan economy during the pandemic was the effect on migrant labour. Some of the clusters of confirmed cases arose because migrant workers returning from Italy disappeared into their local communities without registering with the Police or being tested. More recent new cases were migrant workers returning from the Middle East. The Government seems to have handled this well.
Authority and Legitimacy
Critics argue the Sri Lankan President has been ruling dictatorially by task force without a Parliament. There were calls to reconvene the Parliament that was dissolved on 3 March. That Parliament, elected five years ago, was no longer representative, as proved by the success of the SLPP in the Local and Presidential Elections. The Parliamentary Election wiped out the UNP and the SLFP.
The authority of the Irish Cabinet was diminished by the fact that three of its members were voted out of the Dáil (Parliament) in the General Election on 8 February but remained in Government. It could be argued that Sinn Féin won the Election, but they are being kept out of power by the two parties who normally take turns to govern. The Dáil hardly existed for several months and its committees were in abeyance. The two major parties eventually worked out a way to stitch things up so that Sinn Féin could be excluded from Government.
The coalition that was cobbled together is, after barely eight weeks in power, in deep trouble. According to Pat Leahy, political editor of the Irish Times, “Ministers, TDs (MPs), officials and aides are scrolling through their social media feeds and cowering in the face of a tsunami of outrage.” Oireachtas Éireann, is the legislature of Ireland. The Oireachtas has a golf club. A total of 81 people attended a dinner in Clifden, County Galway, on 19 August organised by the Oireachtas Golf Society. This was far in excess of the limits permitted for indoor gatherings. The prohibition on medium and large indoor events is a penal provision, meaning it is a criminal offence to exceed the limits. Anyone convicted of organising an event in breach of the COVID-19 regulations faces fines of up to €2,500 and/or up to six months in prison. An Garda Síochána (Police) are investigating.
Invitations for the golfing event were issued by society captain Noel Grealish TD (Independent) and society President Donie Cassidy, a former Fianna Fáil senator. Among those attending were Supreme Court judge Séamus Woulfe and EU Commissioner Pat Hogan. Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary resigned as did Jerry Buttimer, Deputy Speaker of the senate.
Pat Leahy wrote in the Irish Times: “Public trust has now been deeply undermined – and perhaps destroyed entirely – by the revelations which, on the most benign interpretation, demonstrate a willingness to bend the regulations and, on a more realistic one, show the Oireachtas golfers were willing to disregard them altogether.” This event seems to have more impact than the Thondaman funeral did in Sri Lanka.
It is no surprise that Sri Lanka’s success should be ignored in Ireland and the UK. Sri Lanka and Vietnam are among a few countries in the world that completely killed the First Wave and, through contact tracing, contained the spread of the pandemic triggered by third party nations including the UK. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is not on the list of Nations exempt from restrictions on travel to the UK. The UK has had at least 41,423 deaths.
It is, sadly, also no surprise to see Sri Lankans joining in the denial of their homeland’s success. There is one particularly unpleasant fellow (not using his real name, of course) who is sticking in an uncivil manner to this line on YouTube: “Is there something fishy going on? Maybe that is why the Western Media is reluctant to publicise Sri Lanka as successfully suppressing the COVID-19 virus.” This is the kind of begrudger who would be unable to accept the overwhelming verdict of the Sri Lankan people in the local Elections of 2018, the Presidential Election of 2019 and the Parliamentary Elections of 2020. This kind of fellow would not have the grace to accept what a tremendous accomplishment it was to defeat the LTTE in 2009.
This kind of fellow would probably have applauded the fact that the Yahapalana Government co-sponsored a resolution against itself at the UNHRC in Geneva. Resolution 30/1 has come to denote the main features of Sri Lanka’s transitional justice agenda, particularly in relation to accountability mechanisms for alleged abuses suffered by victims of the civil war. Many see it as humiliating and this sense of treason may have been a contributory factor in the demise of the UNP. Whatever the ‘international community’ or the westernised Colombo elite ‘civil society’ might think the majority did not like this betrayal. Whinge however much you like, it is what it is. The people have spoken.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been leader of the UNP since 12 November 1994. He served as Prime Minister from 1993 to 1994 and 2001 to 2004 and again from 2015–2019. During those many years he has been seen as a threat to the Nation by many because of his lack of rapport with the Sinhalese majority and his courting of the international community. Critics saw the CFA as a threat to the sovereignty and unity of Sri Lanka, which would lead to a separate state for the LTTE.
The Government is of the view that the Geneva resolutions threaten the sovereignty of the country and therefore, the country should withdraw from the two agreements that were adopted at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This too would have been popular with the voters.