The new Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe partnership has got perhaps the shortest, possible honeymoon ever for a Government starting out after a tense and closely-fought election. Less than a week after Sirisena beat a once-unshakable Mahinda Rajapaksa for the plum post of Sri Lankan President, the screws are on the ruling coalition with new appointments being [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

People have spoken, get to work!


The new Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe partnership has got perhaps the shortest, possible honeymoon ever for a Government starting out after a tense and closely-fought election.

Less than a week after Sirisena beat a once-unshakable Mahinda Rajapaksa for the plum post of Sri Lankan President, the screws are on the ruling coalition with new appointments being questioned and many catchers and hangers-on waiting on the sidelines for positions. In-fighting for positions with anonymous and scurrilous accusations are fast coming out into the open.

Coalition politicians are also openly expressing disappointment with their portfolios like Sujeewa Senasinghe, Deputy Justice Minister for instance, who was unhappy with his post but said they (all) need to get used to it. How on earth can the President satisfy everyone when it was agreed during the campaign that the cabinet won’t exceed 25?

On the flip side, ruling coalition politicians having promised an era of good governance, clean government and an end to corruption, shouldn’t be clamouring for positions, least of all washing their dirty linen in public. Shame!

At a panel discussion via Skype organised by the Business Times last Saturday, three eminent personalities representing diverse backgrounds said what was needed was governance/rule of law, an end to corruption and civil society being the watchdog to ensure the new regime doesn’t go off track.

Sarvodaya General Secretary Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne said action must be taken against corruption immediately; the plunder and looting of public assets should stop immediately; and past wrongdoers must be dealt with swiftly. Unfortunately both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have in the past week been mostly putting out the fires on appointments and disappointed faces.In the meantime questionable public officials like Securities and Exchange Commission chief Nalaka Godahewa continue in office in their respective positions, determined to stay on.

When Rajapaksa, insistent that he continues as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party but backed off when his support base waned, met Sirisena and agreed to step down as party chief, news reports said the former President had set conditions including a provision where his sons won’t be harassed. That saw an avalanche of protests on social media with one Facebook user asking “We, the civil society, have a right to know the conditions agreed to by the President to Mahinda”. Social media is not going to be lenient to this administration particularly when the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine has promised a transparent government and re-activating the Right to Information (RTI) Act that would considerably reduce the number of secrets a government can keep or hide.

“Don’t let the people down and let the rogues in,” exhorted a civil rights activist, He was however, more accommodating than other more virulent activists, saying, “It’s not easy to put things on track as quickly as possible as finding consensus is very difficult from constituent partners in the coalition. They need a little more time but not too much (time).”

Here are a few basic fundamentals that the new regime needs to do as immediate steps to restore stability and appease the people:

= Bring the law and order situation back on track with the IGP in control without interference from any quarter. All corrupt police officers with misdeeds must be immediately sacked or suspended pending an inquiry. Police-public relations must improve on the roads and at police stations.
= Charges should be filed against corrupt politicians and high officials, some of whom are still holding onto their positions and refusing to quit. The JVP has made a good start in filing complaints before anti-corruption authorities while parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera has filed a complaint with the CID on the alleged post-election coup. With these probes getting underway, suspects should be barred from leaving the country until they are cleared.

= Bring down the cost of living by a judicious reduction in taxes. There are competent officials at the Treasury who will be able to advise the government on how to manage the funds, reduce expenditure and use that money to reduce the COL.Furthermore, the President needs a set of good, experienced advisors which Wickremesinghe has, and has had for a long time.

Expectations are running high. The new regime has some daunting challenges. For the moment all intentions and statements by the President and the Prime Minister are sprinkled with good governance messages, an issue this column has been espousing for a long time. The Business Times and its polling partner Research and Consultancy Bureau have effectively brought these issues to the fore through many opinion polls over the years.

A political storm is brewing with protests against some UPFA members joining the government who protestors say should not be allowed or told their misdeeds would be probed. No one must be spared when the country has bled to death in economic terms through the loss of billions of rupees in wasteful expenditure and kickbacks.

Many years ago, neighbouring Maldives faced a similar political storm and demands for accountability when Mohamed (Anni) Nasheed and the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) ended in 2008 Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30-year long tenure as President, a period where political opponents were hounded, jailed and dissent suppressed. Nasheed, just like the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe alliance, rode into power on a platform of good governance, freedom of expression and an end to corruption.

However in February 2010, after less than four years in office, Nasheed was forced to resign following months of military-backed opposition protests. Why? Largely because he was reluctant to remove dozens of Gayoom loyalists in key sections of the public service and the judiciary, who eventually helped the opposition to plot his downfall. In Nasheed’s own words, “I didn’t want to take action against them, despite public demands, as it would be tantamount to behaving like Gayoom, ruthless and abusing of power.” As weeks and months went past with Gayoom cronies still continuing in key positions, Nasheed’s hold on power weakened and led to his resignation which he said was forced on his by the military.

These are lessons for Sri Lanka’s new rulers who must clean up the system and take action while at the same time displaying that it is not a political witch-hunt.

Hard as it may seem with the Government needing numbers in parliament to push through crucial constitutional reforms, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine must be firm enough to refuse entry to politicians with corrupt backgrounds whose main objective is to join the ruling administration and hopefully pre-empt any investigation against them.

These are tough days for the new regime but not insurmountable. Sri Lanka has been blessed with a fine blend of a President who seems compassionate and not revengeful and a Prime Minister who means business and has proved to be a good public administrator and economic manager. Add to that the eagle eye of the JVP and its charismatic leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and maybe Sri Lanka’s prayers have been finally answered. Well … only time will tell!


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