The Yahapalanaya Government in Crisis … and the War Crimes Dilemma — Rajan Philips

I. Rajan Philips: Neither whys nor wherefores, let alone solutions, as government lurches from crisis to crisis,” Sunday Island, 20 March 2016,

 TROIKATo paraphrase the poet (Coleridge), it is crisis, crisis everywhere, but no robust government response anywhere. The economy is in deep trouble and no one is trying to exaggerate the challenges or the consequences of failure. The power system has failed and the consequences have been felt everywhere and more than once or twice. Whether the causes of these crises are current or inherited is immaterial. The people are reasonable enough not to expect instant solutions, but they can see through bluff, bluster and incompetence on the part of any government, old or new, corrupt or conning. The current economic troubles are mostly inherited from the previous government. And the electrical troubles go back even farther. But the political and administrative troubles are mostly manufactured by the present government. The deficit between good governance promises and actual practices is worse than the budget deficit. The confusion in government ranks is confusing everyone else. There is an Executive President and an Executive Prime Minister. Together they made a cabinet that broke the rule for size that they stipulated in the much vaunted 18th Amendment. The size of the cabinet doesn’t matter when all it has are Jokers and no Aces. The Prime Minister has virtually become the Man for all Ministries in the cabinet and the government. Every file goes to him for decision and statement as the government lurches from one crisis file to another. 

Sri Lanka joins the blackout club: There have been three island-wide blackouts in six months, each lasting several hours. The restoration of power supply has been intermittent and not uninterrupted. The total collapse has brought industries to a halt and threatened the treatment of drinking water in Colombo. Even the standby generator in the President’s office wouldn’t start and Mr. Sirisena had to leave work early. Apparently, the President was not amused. We do not know what Secretary General U Thant was thinking when he walked down, with a candle in hand, from the top floor of the UN building during the Manhattan power failure in 1971. On the bright side, the urban darkness facilitated a baby boom in a few of New York’s boroughs. Sri Lanka is not the first place to suffer a major blackout, but it is now at the bottom of a list of thirteen significant national or regional power failures in the last fifty years. The twelve failures before Sri Lanka’s, affected larger populations ranging from 30 million (US/Canada Northeast blackout in 1965) to 620 million (in India in 2012). Ten of these blackouts have been in this century, and Sri Lanka is now the fourth South Asian country to suffer a major power failure, joining India (2012 and 2001), Bangladesh (2014) and Pakistan (2015).

It would be up to experts to determine if there are common factors involved and lessons to be learnt from these recent power failures in the four South Asian countries. What is disconcerting is that two of the three failures in Sri Lanka occurred within a three-week span (February 25 – March 13), and no one in the government or the CEB has been providing information to the public in a credible, comprehensive and forthright manner. Finally, there is some useful information in the letter written by the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) to the CEB in regard to the three power failures in September 27, 2015, and February 25 and March 13 of this year. Apart from the motherhood reminder to the CEB of its responsibility to provide uninterrupted power supply, the letter reveals that the Commission has investigated the causes of the September 27th failure, with the assistance of experts from Manitoba HVDC Research Centre (from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada). According to PUCSL’s consultants, there are shortcomings in the CEB’s transmission modelling and practices, and the consultants have recommended remedial measures. Interestingly, the PUCSL letter asks the CEB to respond before March 24, if the CEB is not in agreement with the findings and recommendations of the Manitoba HVDC consultants!

This is my whole point – were not CEB engineers involved in, or even consulted during the PUCSL investigations? Why such adversarial back and forth in public, instead of a more collegial and co-ordinated approach to diagnosing problems and finding solutions. One does not know whether government ministers who have appointed another committee to investigate the February 25th failure and extended its mandate to include the March 13th failure, have been aware of the investigations carried out by PUCSL. It would seem practical to ask PUCSL’s consultants who investigated the September failure to also study the two subsequent failures. One appreciates the role and independence of different agencies, but in a crisis situation involving a national power failure the people expect their elected government and professional experts to demonstrate that they are acting in a concerted and co-ordinated manner to determine the causes of and find solutions to problems.

The CEB has become a tarnished behemoth of electricity monopoly. Well-meaning and even hard working engineers are sucked in a system that has become inert and inflexible, when quick reflexes and responses are needed. In my view, the panacea of privatization is not the answer to the problems of the CEB. Whether private or public, the government and people will be on the hook to pay the capital cost and the electricity bills. So it would make better sense for the government to undertake the arduous, but necessary, task of reforming and restructuring the CEB from top down.

Who’s in charge of the Economic file? In the cabinet system of government, the Prime Minister is described as “first among equals”, which would suggest that Ministers by and large run their own shops while being collectively responsible among themselves, and individually and collectively accountable to parliament. It is true today that in almost all parliamentary democracies prime ministers have become virtually presidential. In our hybrid system and its current incarnation, there are two powerful executives and the ministers have been increased in numbers but reduced in their powers. Historically, the finance portfolio in Sri Lankan cabinets has been the most important portfolio next to that of the Prime Minister who looked after Defence and External Affairs. In 1977, JR Jayewardene, as Prime Minister, cut loose External Affairs but maintained the importance and even the autonomy of the Finance portfolio. Before that, a central tenet of the United Front was that the LSSP leader Dr. NM Perera would be the Finance Minister in a United Front government. When that principle was tried to be revoked in 1975, the United Front broke up.

Everything was turned on its head with President Premadasa appropriating the Finance portfolio as a presidential function, and a bad precedent was set. President Kumaratunga persisted with this practice when she formed the new PA government in 1994. She kept Finance to herself when most informed observers expected the LSSP’s Bernard Soysa, a proven veteran on that file, to become the Minister of Finance. The LSSP was by then too old and weak to protest and went along with the Science and Technology crumb, but the country’s economy paid the price. Matters got worse under President Rajapaksa and the country is now reaping debt from the development he sowed.

The present government appeared to revert back to one of the good practices of the past in assigning Finance to a cabinet minister rather than vesting it in the Head of State or Head of Government. But the change was meant to be in appearance only. In a bizarre allocation of responsibilities to the new Finance Minister, the Central Bank and later commercial banks and institutions were taken out of his purview regardless of the legal requirement that some of them remain under the Finance Ministry. For all intents and purposes, the Prime Minister is now the face of Finance, and its custodian. Then why have a Finance Minister?

As with the electricity crisis, the economic challenges call for concerted and co-ordinated efforts by the government, and not a one-man show. After 1977, the UNP established itself as the better managers of the economy, at least in the minds of many of its supporters if not independent observers. But what the current UNP-led government has demonstrated so far indicates very little of good and consistent management. The amendment infection has spread from the constitution to government budgets. The Finance Minister remains padlocked after his long winded delivery of his now jettisoned budget. Curiously, he was allowed to open his mouth last week to announce that the stop-go Port City is now ‘go’ again. What is of concern is that the government’s insistence, that the Port City and the Megapolis development will be the new engines of economic growth, is in fact no different from the development-led approach of the Rajapaksas. The only difference is the relocation of construction activities from Hambantota to Colombo. There will be little difference in their consequences and their contribution to debt.

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II. Rajan Philips: “War Crimes and War Heroes: Horns of Sri Lanka’s dilemma,” 15 February 2016,

Even for those of us who are not (western) classists, it would makes sense to know that the resolution of a dilemma in logic and rhetoric involves either taking the left horn, the right horn, or going in between the two, not to mention (rhetorically) distracting the proverbial bull. Transcending from the ‘precocious’ world of ancient Greece to the pernicious world of contemporary Sri Lankan politics (where good things can still happen from time to time – as Professor Carlo Fonseka realized and reminded us last week), we could identify the vested interests hanging on to one or the other of the two horns of our country’s dilemma, as well as hanging on to both. The Rajapaksa forces have hung on to the horn of war heroes ever since 2009 and won two (2010) and lost two elections (2015). The Wickremasinghe forces were impaled on the heroic horn twice in 2010, and have now caught the horn of war crimes after their double resurrection in 2015. President Sirisena, although it requires some research to see if he commands any (political) forces, is by far the only player of consequence today who has been on the winning side in all the four contests in 2010 and in 2015. Reduced to being less than insignificant in the Rajapaksa universe in 2010, Sirisena emerged as more than a hero for the common opposition in 2015. He is now trying to hang on to the two horns of the nation’s dilemma.

The politics of war heroes: Underlying the antics of political bull fighting are serious political issues that are pregnant with precarious outcomes for the country and its people. The fact of the matter is that the Sinhalese electorate, the electorate that matters in Sri Lankan politics, first overwhelmingly endorsed Rajapaksa’s identification with war heroes, in 2010, but became decisively indifferent to it the second time around in 2015. Even after their two defeats last year, the Rajapaksa forces are still pushing the war-heroes wedge to demarcate their political space and the divisive message that goes with it. It is now the only plank in their platform and it is also becoming their main mode of defence as they try to take their case to the court of public from the courts of law where the Rajapaksa family members and close supporters are increasingly coming under police and prosecutorial squeeze.

The arrest of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son is a serious matter and anyone who reads the reported, and prima facie illegal, activities of the Carlton Sports Network (CSN) will know how serious a matter it is. With the courts and police acting independently, and without the control they once exercised over them, the Rajapaksas appear to be in dire straits, legally speaking. While accusing the government of political vendetta, it is the Rajapaksas and their supporters who are doing everything to politicise the legal case against their scion and his associates. What business a navy officer has in running a sports network involving loads of unexplained cash is a matter that the courts will have to finally determine. But the case cannot be pushed under the carpet merely because it involves the son of a former president. The best that the parents can now do is to arrange for their son the best possible legal defence in court. Minister Arjuna Ranatunga whose younger brother is also in custody over the CSN affair has shown the right attitude in the circumstances, saying that he will stand by his brother in sibling solidarity while acknowledging that the brother has to go through the drill for what he has done in the bad company of others.

The public has certainly not bitten the bait of war heroes to support the Rajapaksas in their legal battles. And the kite that the former first family offered their second son to the navy to boost military recruitment did not fly at all. The young man was far too pampered and protected from danger to become a war hero. The only people who took the bait are the joint opposition MPs, and they have not been able to do much other than making themselves fools by breaking coconuts in a temple. The desperation can be seen in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comparison of the UNHRC resolution to the 19th century Kandyan Convention. But nothing is sticking. The government, or the Wickremasinghe forces, knows that the Rajapaksas are in a bind and that seems to be giving them encouragement to proceed with implementing the UNHRC resolution. The risk in this approach is that while the Sinhalese by and large are fed up with the Rajapaksas exploiting the war-heroes goodwill to serve their own political and legal purposes, it does not necessarily follow that the same people will readily and vocally support a war crimes investigation. The government can ignore this difference only at its peril.

The risks of war crimes: A purely legalistic approach to war crimes investigation ignoring the specificities of local contexts is fraught with significant political risks. And war crimes investigations and trials are not the ‘secular’ legal process that people are ordinarily accustomed to seeing in the courtrooms of a country. Nothing is black and white in war, just as it is in ordinary life, but a fundamental difference between the two is in the strong collective emotions that wars create, and the emotional investments during a war cannot be easily swept aside in dealing with postwar consequences. The emotional stakes are all the graver in the context of an internal war in which the state army exclusively comprising the majority ethnic group defeated the armed group of a politically aggrieved minority group.

There is no denying that the insistence on war crimes investigation is a direct derivative of the postwar intransigence of the Rajapaksas and their flagrant refusal to honour the commitments they made to other governments in return for their support during the final stages of the war. The Rajapaksas had the political option, let alone international obligations, to preside over postwar reparations and reunite the country, but instead they chose a mode of divisive politics that became the continuation of war by other means. They lost credibility among the Sinhalese when it became apparent that their narrow nationalism was no more than a ruse to serve the interests of their families and their cronies. The minorities did not need much convincing to add their votes when it mattered to bring them down.

The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government had no option but to do what it did in Geneva and co-sponsor the UNHRC resolution. The government leaders deserve due credit for being open and honest about revisiting the prosecution of the war to address the consequences of the war. What is of concern is that as in many other areas, the government is taking steps to implement the UNHRC resolution without adequately, if not at all, apprising the people about what it is doing and why. The lightning point in the UNHRC resolution is of course the involvement of foreign experts and judges in the process of investigating alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. It is also the main cudgel for the government’s critics. This is an area to which government leaders could have and should have given much thought and articulated a coherent and consistent position based not only on principles, but also practical possibilities. Instead, the government and its tandem leaders, the President and the Prime Minister, to put it inelegantly but bluntly, are all over the Sri Lankan map on this sensitive issue.

Equally, there have been no formal announcements but only leaked information about the steps that the government is taking to implement the UNHRC resolution. The steps are reportedly included in an “Action Plan” that is being confidentially circulated among western and Indian governments. Why is the government not being transparent and informing the people of the steps that are being taken? There appear to be too many disturbing parallels between the current efforts and the failed peace process of 2001-02. The intentions are laudable and defensible, but the methods are questionable and even indefensible. The government and, more importantly, the country cannot afford a repeat failure.


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