Decisions made President Rajapaksa’s Government for the past two years which have resulted in severe mounting crises have left political observers wondering about the strategy of the Government in tackling them. In Sri Lankan lingo people ask: Is the government coming or going? Even the most devout worshippers of the Lotus Bud (Pohottuwa) party are [...]

Sunday Times 2

What’s Gotabaya’s strategy on mounting crises?


Decisions made President Rajapaksa’s Government for the past two years which have resulted in severe mounting crises have left political observers wondering about the strategy of the Government in tackling them. In Sri Lankan lingo people ask: Is the government coming or going?

Even the most devout worshippers of the Lotus Bud (Pohottuwa) party are questioning whether they are on the correct track — Vyath Maga, No Maga or Atharamaga?’

However, the innermost of the hardcore say, it was the pandemic and now that Gota has got almost all vaccinated, we will be galloping towards the ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ soon as envisioned in his manifesto.

The scenes on the streets both in cities and countryside are crowded with angry people of all classes voicing protests, demanding withdrawal of some of the decisions made by President Rajapaksa while some are silently standing in queues — breathing venom on whom they voted to power.

Rajapaksa’s main thrust during his presidential election campaign was for the need to re-establish national security which the Yahapalnaya government had floundered on following violent attacks on Churches and tourist hotels by a local extremist Muslim group alleged to be linked to the international terror group, the ISIS.

He has brought into top administrative posts, military officers, including retired officers, ostensibly to strengthen national security. Most observers presumed that on this bedrock of national security, his plan for development would be built upon.

He has appointed four service officers — retired and in service — as secretaries to four key ministries and several other retired officers as heads to key institutions such as the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the Ports and the Customs. These were posts held by civilian officials of the Administrative Service. Administrative Service officials, though remaining discreet silent, obviously cannot be too happy about key posts in their cadres being given to those of the armed services while those of the lower ranks are resenting the inroads made into their civilian service and also view this as an attempt to suppress trade union activities.

Government service employees by and large have traditionally supported the SLFP and did so to its successor Pohottuwa party at the last presidential election, as evident in the postal voting. Will Rajapaksa be able to keep this prong of support with him when the next election comes around?

The strident and vociferous protests made against the manner in which the billion (or millions of dollars) Yugadanavi LNG plant deal with an American company was made and the things said about the Rajapakasa government on this issue certainly did not seem to bode well for the Rajapaksas.

For some inexplicable reason, most of the important decisions made by this former Lt. Colonel (Retd) seem to go against the interests of segments of the electorate that cast 6.92 million votes for him (52.25 percent of the total number of votes cast).

In the field of Education, there were no objections to granting the Kotelawala Defence Academy the status of a university.  But in June 2021, a bill was brought before parliament, proposing changes to the administrative structure of the Kotelawala Defence Universirty (KDU). It placed the KDU under the Defence Ministry management with a senior manager of the armed services as the Vice Chancellor rather than under the manager of the Higher Education Ministry as has been the accepted norm. Several academic groups and students alleged this was an attempt at privatisation and militarisation of the KDU that would enable it to function independent of the University Grants Commission (UGC).

The KDU issue united almost the entire academia from university professors to student union leaders as they vehemently opposed the move.

The issue has brought into question the support of many academics and intellectuals for the party of the Rajapaksas as against the UNP and the SJB.

While the university academia have their guns trained on the President, principals and teachers have been on strike for months demonstrating on the streets for long overdue salary increments.

During the last presidential hustings, a vote-catching slogan was that they opposed tooth and nail the selling of ‘national treasures’ to foreign investors which meant foreign interests.  Some of these were making huge financial losses over the years. The lease/sale of the Hambntota harbour which was being ignored by international shipping lines and the Mattala airport which was described as ‘the loneliest airport in the world’ was opposed with gusto, stirring up nationalism of the highest order. It was seen as a threat to the ‘sovereignty of the nation’.

Now the chicanery of politics when in opposition has boomeranged on those leaders who opposed foreign investments under the previous government.  Foreign investments being made on state-owned property are now openly opposed by trade unions which backed the Rajapaksas when they were in the opposition. Direct foreign investments are what this Government is longing for.

Finally, the coup de grace was delivered on itself by the overnight announcement to ban the import of inorganic fertiliser and farmers asked to use organic fertiliser.  No other issue had generated such responses from farmers who comprise the biggest segment of the population in this agricultural country.  We will not delve into the issue because those knowledgeable have said it all. But the president, a former military officer, won’t go back on his order on the ban.  It appears that in military terms ‘an order is an order that has to be obeyed’. True, he had said it in his manifesto quite clearly that he would stop the use of chemical feriliser and insecticide because of the harmful effects on the health of the people.

But farmers ask: couldn’t time be given to make the shift? Crops — rice, vegetables and tea — take different times for growth and require specific plant nutrients, not what a military mind determines. Napoleon, Hitler all have beaten massive retreats, when the situation demanded .But President Gotabaya, so far stands firm, making only minor adjustments.

There are some other decisions and actions that may be considered as follies of Rajapaksa and his government. His supporters will deny that they have adverse effects on the nation and give reasons for failure, mainly the Covid 19 pandemic.

The Five Great Forces (Pancha Maha Balavegaya) that launched the SLFP in 1956 to power continued to back the SLFP. The SLPP that contested the 2020 elections and had supported Gotabaya Rajapksa for presidency mainly comprised former SLFP members and were backed by this five pronged force: Sangha, Indigenous physicians, teachers, farmers and industrial workers. By last week four of the five forces, save indigenous physicians, were on the streets demonstrating against the Government.

Last week, some coalition party partners of the Government seem to have picked up enough courage to tell President Rajapaksa that they could not go along with all his unilateral decisions. Thus faint fissures are appearing in the coalition that may deprive the Government of its two-thirds majority.

President Rajapaksa seems not too concerned about the rallying of forces that had supported him and his party. Last week he was at the COP 26 summit, talking to world leaders probably about his efforts to protect the soil of Sri Lanka by using organic fertiliser.

Thus, the question arises whether he has a planned strategy by letting even the supporters who backed him go against him or he is overwhelmed by the crises that has assailed the country and is just muddling through.

Is his strategy to let chaos accumulate and then bring order using military resources? Already he is constitutionally vested with executive powers which no other president had wielded before.

On the other hand, he may be thinking that all this hot air will blow over once the pandemic ends and the financial crisis eases. And that Sri Lankans memories do not last for more than two weeks. That was also the thinking of Velupillai Prabhakran.

But the amnesiac Sri Lankan memory should not be relied on too much. Remember that people did not forget the food shortages, broken promises, empty rhetoric and the long queues in the era of Sirima Bandaranaike who won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 1970 but was reduced to a pathetic eight seats in the General Election of 1977.

(The writer is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader)

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