By Kusal Perera
On Tuesday last, that’s January 01st, few asked me “what’s new this year?” My reply was in turn a short question; “new in what?” It’s a long list one began with; heavy road traffic, hospitals, schools, income and cost of living, solid waste disposal, rising apartments and more. But these were basically all issues in the “City” Issues the Colombo middleclass is concerned about. Thus, they are talked only in terms of city life. Road traffic is talked about without any mention of public transport. Hospitals are spoken about with no mention of preventive health and a referral system. Schools are spoken of in relation to Grade I admissions for ‘over popular’ national schools. Solid waste disposal is only about removing them from one’s own household. Rising apartments is about encroaching on one’s previously used common amenities. The only issue that reaches beyond the city is “income and cost of living”. That too is not approached in terms of rural economy. This city approach was always the case every year, in and out of the calendar.
What could be new then? For me, all those issues come uninterrupted from past years. Even in terms of city life they will not be solved without “national planning” in any year to come. What is proposed and is hung for publicity with the new tag “Megapolis” as “development planning” is mere “city expansion” in Western Province. Often at the expense of the environment. There is no “urban planning and development” in them. But have big profits for investors. “National” planning lost its importance after the economy was opened up for free trade 40 years ago. Most urban professionals now see “planning” as means to a “closed” economy wholly controlled by the State. This middleclass mindset is well tuned now to demand a total withdrawal of government and State interventions in economic activities. They want the free market to take over “development” with no defining what “development” is.
“National” planning lost its importance after the economy was opened up for free trade 40 years ago. Most urban professionals now see “planning” as means to a “closed” economy wholly controlled by the State.
That urban ‘mindset’ raises the next logical question, “why elect a parliament and a government for?” We don’t need to if the “free market” is to be given responsibility for “development”. If the government and the State have nothing to do in it. We have by default, come to that in this New Year. We have carried over a government to this New Year that cannot govern. A government that is in crisis.
President Sirisena still holds the reins in keeping the Wickramasinghe government in crisis. While compromising to have Mangala Samaraweera as Media Minister, he negotiated to have 03 of his “Yes men” in Lake House, SL Rupavahini and in ITN. But he is still firm yet on his stand of not swearing in any SLFP MP as a minister who would cross over. This is now turning into a crisis within his SLFP. His men who were earlier privileged to be ministers in Wickramasinghe’s government, are now being denied same. Most being ministers for over 12 years running and some for over 20 years being Ministers in President Kumaratunge’s cabinet, they and their families don’t know what life is without ministerial privileges, perks and benefits untold. But for Sirisena, he will have to maintain an “anti UNP” image with his SLFP to work out an alliance with Rajapaksa’s SLPP, his only available option. The crisis lies there and he would have to live through that crisis this New Year.
PM Wickramasinghe’s dilemma is, he simply cannot provide any more portfolios, trapped in his own Constitutional clause included in the 19 Amendment.
That adds to the crisis, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe is faced with, in his own party. He is being lobbied and pressured to provide more ministerial portfolios to his party men, for their loyalty in staying with him and without crossing over to Rajapaksa. That being the major or only qualification to become a minister in this laughable “democracy” there is no loud and clear protest voice against it by the Colombo “civil society”. PM Wickramasinghe’s dilemma is, he simply cannot provide any more portfolios, trapped in his own Constitutional clause included in the 19 Amendment. When he defined a “National” government in the Constitution, an absurd provision to have in a Constitution, his only thinking was, he could provide for a large cabinet to include President Sirisena’s men and have a majority government under him. But that could only limp around for 03 years from August 2015 and not 04 and a half, he thought he could continue with perhaps troubleshooting now and then.
Its crisis 2019 now. Apparently, his government though without numbers for a majority and with no provisions for more ministries to please his party men seems to be kept afloat on the promise of a “New Constitution”. PM Wickramasinghe was reported as having said he would bring the draft bill for the New Constitution to parliament before 04 February. That seems a double promise. One, a promise for the ITAK leadership in the TNA to support Wickramasinghe to continue as PM. Two, that seems what the Western Diplomacy in Colombo wanted from Wickramasinghe in return for their not so covert support and believe would be honoured. For both parties, it could end up as the New Year wish for 2020 as well.
It was a New Year wish for the now Colombo based ITAK leadership since 2015 when they opted to stand with Sirisena as Common Candidate. That political stand 04 years ago then, was validated by the Tamil people in both elections; 2015 January presidential election and the 2015 August parliamentary elections expecting the TNA leadership to have solutions and answers for their daily issues. Veteran politician and the most senior in active politics Rajavarotham Sampanthan wanted two things done from the Tamil people at this 2015 August parliamentary election. He told the Jaffna Tamil voter, he wants Sumanthiran in parliament, no matter what. That squeezed out EPRLF leader Suresh Premachandran from parliament with many allegations against the ITAK leadership. Most importantly, Sampanthan also wanted Tamil people to vote for the TNA en bloc to strengthen its bargaining power and promised answers to all Tamil issues with a New Constitution before 31st of December, 2016. Two full years have lapsed by now with no change in the promise, made for 2019 as well.
Leave alone a New Constitution, the ITAK leadership could not negotiate any solution to any of the daily issues the North East Tamil people wanted solved. They could not and did not want to push for on the land issues and military occupation of land. The issue of “involuntary disappearances” was compromised to have another Commission with an awkward name, the “Missing Persons Office”. That would only do what 03 other previous Commissions did, except offering “compensation” and a “certificate for missing”. They claim it would be legally accepted. There are regular reports of collective Sinhala encroachments on land belonging to Tamil people with patronage from Security forces, the ITAK leadership wouldn’t speak about. The issue of Sinhala fishermen having free access to Northern waters while Northern fishermen still have to get permission from the SL Navy, is not on ITAK’s political agenda.
The political reason why ITAK leadership keeps avoiding all these issues, but believes a New Constitution is possible is more a ‘comedy’ than a ‘tragedy’. The loose explanation is, they should not push the Wickramasinghe government into a tight corner demanding answers to those issues, for that would provoke Sinhala Buddhist sentiments and make it difficult for the government to push through the “new Constitution”. The proposal for a new Constitution is far more explosive with the TNA seen as a “hand” in making it. Also, with any new Constitution the Sinhala South too has to give consent to at a Referendum, Rajapaksa is there to campaign against.
Thus, ITAK’s craze for a ‘new’ and an impossible Constitution to even table in parliament, ignoring all the issues of the Northern and Eastern People, has already made them “betrayers”. They have already lost the glitter they walked around with, during the 2015 August elections. Their “politics of compromise” the ordinary agitating Northern people reject has paved the way for a new Tamil political entry very much a replicate of Sinhala Southern “Pohottuwa” politics in Tamil North. It is thus a cautious wait to see if Justice Wigneswaran would clear his way from falling into the trap of hard line “Tamil nationalism”.
Turn of political events in 2019 thus would cater to further Sinhala – Tamil polarisation, holding the Muslim community helplessly trapped within it. Their political leaders have proved they cannot be trusted in negotiating any decent alliance on principles. This for the last decade and more has left the Muslim community without any principled political leadership. Sinhala campaign has already begun with Mahinda Rajapaksa calling for “Sinhala patriotism” to save the country from being parcelled into 09 different parts. Meanwhile Basil leaves a liberal door open for Muslim leaders to enter into negotiations with the SLPP. The political summary for 2019 thus shows, President Sirisena, PM Wickramasinghe and the ITAK leadership in TNA, all living through a crisis, while Rajapaksa keeps his platform strong in the Sinhala South, thanks to all the blunders the ITAK leadership keeps making. There is thus nothing new this New Year too unless the growing crisis throws up a parliamentary election before the year folds up.