Given recent developments, I am jotting down a quick analysis of the positions, concerns and silences in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech today. The tone and substance of this speech is slightly different from the last few Independence Day speeches characterised by triumphalism and exuberance. The context of the speech is the mounting protests on the ground and increasing economic pressures.
The location of the speech in the historical city of Anuradhapura and the reference to Kebethigollawa in Anuradhapura District – the site of a horrific LTTE attack on a civilian bus in 2007 with tens of lives lost and scores injured which contributed to shifting the Sinhala public opinion fully behind the war effort – are attempts to remind the public of the horrors of war, the war victory and to mobilise Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The solution, at the outset of the speech to all of Sri Lanka’s woes, is emphasised as the government’s “giant development works” as part of the march from “backwardness to modernity”.
The government’s claims of high economic growth, expanding GDP and economic prosperity have not reached the people. If anything, the mounting protests, particularly in the health and education sectors, are confronting the possibilities of further privatisation and cuts in services. It is in this context that Rajapaksa assures the public that he will not end the legacy of free health and education, even if both are already in the works with further legislations waiting to be pushed through.
There are increasing pressures on the economy, including the boomerang effects of financial liberalisation leading to fears about imminent balance of payments problems. The recent stock market declines are characteristic of what was one of the best performing stock markets in the world two years ago to one of the worst performing stock markets this year. The nervousness about such developments are apparent in Rajapaksa’s vocal concerns about the impact of the global economic crisis.Sri Lanka’s precarious situation given the economy’s heavy dependence on oil – where not only have global oil prices surged, but the US sanctions against Iran from which Sri Lanka imports about 90% of its oil with a substantial credit line for oil purchases – is clearly a serious concern. The Americans have been leveraging this situation with a string of US officials visiting Sri Lanka as pressure mounts ahead of the UN Human Rights Council session in a few weeks where accountability for the last phase of the war is likely to come up.
Such pressures are coupled with mounting protests on the ground opposing neoliberal policies and cost of living increases by a long list of constituencies that are protesting and engaging in strike action; students are protesting at the barricades, strike action by university teachers, other strikes by state sector unions such as nurses, doctors, postal workers and electricity workers, the recent wild cat strike by railway workers, and the major uprising two weeks ago by prisoners. Protests are building on protests and momentum is shifting the political climate in the country where dissent is gaining ground even if the political opposition is shamefully in shambles. In this context, Rajapksa is trying to make connections between the asinine and increasingly marginal politics of the pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil diaspora, conflating their campaign for separatism with mounting protests within the country.
There is a worrying attack on the long standing debate on devolution, by Rajapaksa’s claim: “Ethnic communities have no separate regions.” Particularly, when he does not mention nor recognise the long standing acknowledgement in the country of devolving powers to the regions. He boots the question of a political solution to parliament, knowing that once it’s mired in yet another parliamentary committee, the political solution will either not come forward or will be regressive to the liking of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. Indeed the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) appointed by the President six years ago faced similar pressures, but it managed to bring out some sensible recommendations. However, the President has buried that APRC report and now wants to initiate yet another process.
Rajapaksa’s evasion of Presidential responsibility is justified by his claim that sovereignty resides in the parliament. This begs the question as to why he did not abolish the Executive Presidency as stated in his election manifestos. Instead he increased the powers of the Executive Presidency and even removed the two term limit with the undemocratic 18th Amendment a year and a half ago. There is also a veiled reaction to India’s pressure towards a political solution, which reads: “It is the duty of all parties in the country to solve problems according to the people’s wishes by participating in this Parliamentary Select Committee rather than relying on imported solutions and utilizing foreign influences.”
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the President’s speech is the silence on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) Report. The LLRC Report, while limited on what it says about accountability for abuses during the very end of the war, has important recommendations on issues ranging from demilitarization to the need to explore devolution. Rajapaksa who has yet to speak to the substance of the LLRC Report, simply claims we must all take responsibility and that much has been done since it was made public a month and a half ago, while remaining silent on the substance of the recommendations.
The recent developments and particularly the escalating protests that are biting into the regime’s social base signal significant developments in the year ahead. The jitters in the regime’s talk are reflective of the pressures they are facing. However, the situation is fluid without a coalescing of opposition forces and given the consolidation of political power by the Rajapaksa regime. If pressure mounts, the implosion of the regime is not out of the question as there are fissures within the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). However, given the continued militarization and the regime’s firm control over the military, militarized repression against protests is a real concern.
Full text of President Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech:
Venerable Maha Sangha and clergy of all religions
Hon. Prime Minister
Hon. Chief Justice and other Justices
Ministers and Members of Parliament
Chief Ministers of Provinces
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Secretary to the President and other public servants
Commanders of the Three Forces
The Inspector General of Police
Director-General of the Civil Defence Force
Mothers and Fathers
Today we have come to a city with a great history to commemorate the 64th anniversary of independence. This city was established prior to 400 BC. Even the wind that blows from a city that exemplified prosperity, pride, religion and great traditions for thousands of years reminds the Sri Lankan nation of independence, freedom and prosperity. On this occasion I pay the nation’s respect to the war heroes who dedicated their lives and all others who were committed to freedom.
You know freedom is an immense responsibility for us today. During the war previous governments could blame everything on the war and escape. However, the people who reached peace after war expected to march from inefficiency to efficiency, from unemployment to employment, from impurity to purity and from backwardness to modernity.
The people who then forgot everything else and demanded a bunker for the village and a rifle to defend lives, today expect not only electricity, water, housing, highways, higher education but also a law abiding, clean and a modern Sri Lanka. What your requested me when I visited Kebethigollawa some times ago is different from what you request me today.
Therefore, during the three years after gaining freedom from terrorism we have been able to use that freedom to give the Motherland an immense value much more than that given during the half century since independence in 1948. Today we have built the country to that status when we could draw the map of the Motherland more proudly than then.
We have still to go a long way. We have to give the rural people who comprises 80% of our population the results of giant development works we have initiated in the country. It is not only an expectation but also a challenge which we are ready to take up.
We would be able to utilize the giant development works built by us for national development only if we can bring up a citizen equipped with modern, scientific, technical and language skills and who could be on par with anybody else in the world.
When the late C. W. W. Kannnangara presented the Free Education Act, D. A. Rajapaksa was also among S.A. Wickremasinghe, N.M. Perera, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, J. R. Jayewardene, A. Ratnayake, W. Dahanayke and others who supported it. Just like those who were dedicated to free education and health then Mahinda Chinthana is dedicated to defend those rights of the people today. We will not allow anyone to deprive the people of those rights.
The economic crises in the world also affect our country. But thanks to the Gama Neguma, Divi Neguma and the immense revival of agriculture we face this world food crisis very well. You know that we are becoming self-sufficient in food and are strong enough even to export food to the world outside. It is also important to understand the problems we face due to the rise in oil and gas prices. It is important to be aware of the reality. In face of all these we should be prepared to demonstrate our strength and courage to the world.
We would be able to exist as an independent, sovereign state only if we strengthen our economy. We have to get together and work just as we got together and worked with dedication to defeat terrorism.
Conspiracies and propaganda of terrorists based overseas have not abated still. When such things happen abroad some people here do various things to destabilize the Motherland. They expect to achieve in Sri Lanka certain results that happened in some countries of the world. Both these groups are one. Fuel and nutrition for this struggle in Sri Lanka are received from separatism active in foreign lands.
We are engaged in the task of creating a stable peace and national unity after liberating the country from terrorism. This is not a task confined to one individual or a party. Remember, the country would not benefit by trying to please selfish groups who receive foreign funds. Similarly solutions cannot be obtained by implementing the proposals of extremist groups of whatever persuasion. What is required today is the formulation of policies based on a vision that is commonly applicable to the whole country.
Ethnic communities have no separate regions. The entire country belongs to all ethnic communities.
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has stated that all are responsible for this problem. All those who act according to their conscience should take heed of this statement. Therefore, we have already started implementing what was in the Commission. The report was tabled in Parliament on December 17. Since then we have done a lot.
Acting against public opinion using executive power is not democratic. We are committed to parliamentary democracy as well as to the country’s law, independence of the judiciary and good governance. Sri Lanka is the Asian democratic state which has practiced universal suffrage without gender discrimination uninterruptedly for the longest period. We are committed to defend the right to make and break governments through universal suffrage. We all know that Parliament representing people including all parties, ethnic communities, religions is the supreme democratic institution. Therefore we believe that the mechanism for solving the National Question is the Parliamentary Select Committee. It is the duty of all parties in the country to solve problems according to the people’s wishes by participating in this Parliamentary Select Committee rather than relying on imported solutions and utilizing foreign influences.
We are on a virtuous and steady path to the future on behalf of the people. In this path there is no repression, no threats, no influences. There is only governance and sound management. Today hundreds of thousands of youth in this country have pinned the national flag to their chests.
Your hearts are full of national sentiments and patriotism. You must direct these patriotic sentiments to the supreme task of building a country in which all could live together.
The words of the Buddha show the path we should take and how we should solve problems.
Akkodhena jine kodham – asadhum sadhuna jine
Jine kadariyam danena – saccena alikavadinam
(Let an angry man be conquered by love; an evil man by goodness. Let a miser be won over by liberality; and a liar by truthfulness)
Let this thought guide all in making the freedom of our motherland meaningful!
A happy future for you all!