An Introductory Note from Michael Roberts
Gerald Peiris and I were undergraduates at Ramanathan Hall Peradeniya in the late 1950s and met on occasions when we were pursuing postgrad studies in UK and I visited Cambridge. Thereafter we were colleagues in the Arts Faculty at Peradeniya University from 1966 to 1975. Quite vitally, we were active members of the Ceylon Studies Seminar. During those seminars and at times in private tête-à-tête over drinks the two of us occasionally engaged in discussions, sometimes with sharp disagreements on specific issues.
This practice has continued over the decades, usually in the convivial location of his drawing-room in Kandy. I have benefited from these debates – not least from the vast and intricate knowledge he brings to most discussions.
Peiris has a phenomenal memory – a recent illustration being his detailed recollections of the beatings inflicted upon jailed personnel by a Burgher police inspector at the police station next to his parental home in the Negombo locality in the 1940s. More vitally, he is a geographer who has conducted empirical research in most parts of the island and especially in the hill country. His research work is a combination of geography, economics and politics. Indeed, as a young lecturer he attended a few JVP meetings circa 1969-71 and heard Wijeweera speak – even though his Trot Party links would have made him a target for death if the JVP had ever gained local power at Peradeniya.
In brief, the empirical material and the analytical thrusts which he brings to most discussions cannot be underrated. Alas, he has been hit last year by a serious attack of shingles. In recovery now, he is still dependent on drugs and can spend only a short time at any computer. It is a measure of our friendship and his devotion to scholarship that he even responded recently to my thoughts on Maithripala Sirisena’s performative act with his new cabinet on 16th December 2018 – https://thuppahis.com/2019/01/14/the-dressing-down-of-the-century-president-sirisenas-scathing-sermon-to-his-captive-cabinet/.
Typically, this set of responses has been sharp and unrestrained. They benefit all because, unlike me, Gerald Peiris has always been a critical observer of the media politics in Sri Lanka as it unfolds.
Let further debate commence.
Memorandum ONE from GERALD PEIRIS, 25 January 2019
While your essay is, as usual, quite neat in its presentation, it also illustrates how easy it is to miss certain ground realities, in attempting an “impartial” synthesis of information extracted from ‘grapevine’ sources and commentaries of a few individuals (like, for example, NGO personalities parading their goodness with a sheaf of pious claims).
In my understanding, Sirisena, like all politicians, is in relentless pursuit of power. He has some extraordinary skills in Sinhala communication, and a record of ‘Sinhalese-rural’ political activism that dates back to his early youth. Among the second rung leaders of the post-war MR regime he certainly stood out as the only person who could carve out about 5-10% of that regime’s electoral support if he were to defect. So, it was no surprise that the ‘regime changers’, within and without, identified him as the most suitable presidential candidate in 2015.
What really happened thereafter was somewhat comparable to the Yasalalakatissa-Subha story of the Mahavamsa which you must have heard about. Sirisena liked being the president; and, in order to ensure a second term of presidential power, he has been using all the guile at his command to erode the popular support of his rivals in both the MR camp as well as the UNP. Can you blame him for that course of action — using all the seemingly innocuous derogatory phrases deployed by enemies to portray him as devil incarnate, while refraining from any mention of the despicable records of others who are in pursuit of power at the highest levels?
Incidentally, his harangue, the English translation of which you have used, was the third of its kind. In his previous ‘Addresses to the Nation’ over prime-time TV, he said more or less the same things he repeated in the presence of his “captive” audience — they could, of course, have walked out had they been less concerned about their own pursuit of power.
I should also state that I have an intense dislike for Sirisena for the irreversible harm he has done to Sri Lanka during the last three years. Despite all the skulduggery of the Rajapaksa regime, there were very definitely its tangible long-term achievements in nation-building which even a MR-led government NOW is unlikely to be capable of restoring.
Memorandum TWO from GERALD PEIRIS: Some Clarifications & Corrections[i]
2A = Sirisena’s removal of RW’s cabinet on 26 October 2018 followed by a dissolution of parliament is referred to by you as the onset of a ‘Crisis’. What did happen that day was a decision by Sirisena to withdraw his party (SLFP) from the Yahapalana coalition which meant, among other things, the government losing its constitutional status as a ‘National Government’. It was that statutory status accorded by the ’19th A’ that made it possible for the Yahapalana government have a cabinet on ministers and ministers of non-cabinet rank well in excess of the constitutionally stipulated ceilings (respectively) of 30 and 40. It was therefore the collapse of the ‘Yahapalana Coalition’ that immediately made the executive branch of the government unconstitutional.
This is a fact that has been glossed over by the anti-Sirisena campaigners all along.
2B = The presidential decision to dissolve parliament was genuinely controversial. Its political context included the following facts: (a) No party commanded a numerical majority (i.e. 113+) in the legislature (Remember that the TULF was a party in the parliamentary opposition with his leader holding the official post of ‘Leader of the Opposition) (b) the JVP, especially after the debacle of the LG elections of February 2018, was increasingly strident in its criticisms of Ranil and his colleagues. This meant that the support of the 6 JVP MPs to the UNP was not assured. (c) The LG polls indicated a huge erosion of popular support for the Yahapalana government, (d) The government was deliberately delaying the PC elections for some of which they were long overdue. (e) More important than all else, there was the massive upsurge of popular demand in the majority community (75% of the population) for the immediate facilitation of the people’s right to exercise their franchise (deprived by mutually contradictory provisions in the ’19th Amendment). There are many legal experts here who vehemently hold that the SC judgement on this was in error (no person would dare express that opinion in public and thus be exposed to a ‘Contempt of Court’ charge).
2C = What exactly was the nature of this so-called ‘Crisis’. For nearly 2 months there was no effective executive branch of government consisting of persons elected to parliament. The related powers remained vested in the office of the President. Following the SC judgement referred to above there was a restoration of a Cabinet and other ministries curtailed in size in conformity with the Constitution.
The most important outcome of the “Crisis” is that the leader of the second largest party in parliament was appointed to the post of Leader of the Opposition (thus ending a mockery of parliamentary government) — a position that had been usurped by the leader of a party that had only 16 MPs. So, could this, in any sensible way, be compared to the genuine ‘Crisis’ situation in many other countries (including ours until mid-2009)?
2D = You have been excessively gentle in handing the intervention of the main NATO powers in our electoral politics. I just cannot comprehend the reluctance of certain opinion makers to disregard the evidence (admittedly inconclusive, as it is in most clandestine operations) of the agencies of the US promoting its ‘Regime Change’ policy in Sri Lanka, especially through its lackey outfits mainly in Colombo.
E = Background Information
Since you have taken great pains to psychoanalyse the English translation of the ‘Sirisena Sermon’ I must tell you about his two earlier discourses referred to in my earlier e-mail message. While his recent harangue contained much of what he had stated earlier, there were interesting differences in their focus.
In the first ‘Address to the Nation’ the emphasis was on three specific charges: (i) That there was/is a conspiracy to assassinate him (& mentioned in passing, Gotabhaya)….. (ii) That RW and his team of ministers are corrupt, participating as they so in various malpractices including massive financial scams………………………………………. (iii) That RW acts as if he, and not Sirisena, is the head of the executive branch of government, and is often offensive in his dealings with the president.
Even to those not entirely unfamiliar with Sirisena’s ability to make false pronouncements in a persuasive manner, the ‘Assassination’ charge sounded authentic. Remember that there was a very detailed and protracted investigation on this charge by a law enforcement outfit (manned not by Sirisena appointees) that had ended with the incarceration of a DIG after 6 days of prolonged interrogation. That ‘regime change’ operations have also not been devoid of assassination of elected leaders is also not a fact that could be forgotten.
About the other charges referred to above – you are aware of the related facts.
In the second ‘Address’ the theme was that what he had against Ranil was not a personal enmity, but that there was a fundamental and irreconcilable policy (or doctrinal) difference between the two of them — in regards to macroeconomic affairs, external relations, and the safeguarding Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. In the course of elaborating these motifs he referred to most of the other charges he made recently in the presence of the UNP leadership.
F = You are in error regarding the contrast drawn in the urban-rural electoral alignments. The UNP performing better in some of the urban areas is due largely to the relatively large numerical presence of the two minority communities, and, to a lesser extent, middle-class Sinhalese. Let’s not forget the fact that the UNP does have a solid support base of at least about 20% of the Sinhalese segment of the electorate. When you come this way next time, I suggest that we take a drive through some of the ‘rural’ areas around Kandy for you to appreciate that fact that a rural-urban cultural dichotomy is not particularly evident in most parts of the island.
Memorandum THREE, dated 26 January 2019, in response to my request to elaborate on the previous comment re “the long-term achievements in nation-building” during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Tenure
G = Winning the ‘Unwinnable War’
The defeat of the Prabhakaran’s military cum terrorist offensive against the Sri Lanka nation-state was so obviously MR’s foremost contribution to the Sri Lanka’s national consolidation. I must have been really sick to have missed it in my notes. Even those (like you) who have venturing deeply into this topic could easily lose sight of the fact that none of our other leaders since the early aftermath of independence had such a profound impact on the daily life of the ordinary people of all ethnic groups here comparable in intensity to the elimination of the armed onslaught of the LTTE on the Sri Lankan state and the counteractions of the security forces to preserve the state. After the Eelam War began in earnest in the mid-1980s we lived in constant fear. At its height there was seldom a day when we had to witness the results of the barbaric destruction. That after mid-2009 the general ethos of peace, and the restoration of democratic norms of governance (not entirely unblemished by the usual stresses and strains experienced in most countries), achieved in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, have often tended to be forgotten, ignored or concealed.
H = Reconstruction of the damaged economy
(a) Macroeconomic Trends
There is an abundance of statistical evidence with which it is possible to show that since the end of the War (MR’s 2nd presidential tenure) economy became buoyant in a way that improved the standard of living of the people in all parts of the country. The illustration and the appended notes copied below, based on the World Development Report (annual series) is intended to serve as an example of the type of evidence to which I refer.
(b) Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of the North-East
- Eastern Province – The military confrontations in almost the whole of the East had ended following the retreat of the Tiger cadres in late 2006 after their Mavil Aru-Muttur debacle and the more general loss of popular support for the LTTE following Karuna’s defection about 30 months earlier. So, the reconstruction of economic infrastructure there commenced about 18 months before the war ended. There were, at the disposal of the government, aid funds specifically earmarked for the East as aid from various sources including some of the Islamic countries with which MR had nurtured mutual rapport. What achieved in the coastal lowlands of the East, though forgotten, was nothing short of a miraculous transformation. Only those who have been to the eastern lowlands while the war was on in full blast (especially researchers like my colleague, the late H. S. Hasbullah, those who were engaged in disaster relief in the aftermath of calamities such as the cyclone of 1978 and the Tsunami of 2005, or even others like me who had glimpses of that area since the early 1960s) were aware that poverty there, especially among the Tamil peasantry, was as intense as in any other areas of the island.
- The North– Here, following hurriedly established disaster-relief measures, economic reconstruction began in late 2009. Despite the urgent demands of development projects launched in other parts of the country, the excruciating and time-consuming task of land-mine clearing, and externally imposed obstacles (economic sanctions imposed by the main NATO powers), the progress was extraordinarily rapid. In fact, knowledgeable and unbiased critics noted that disaster relief and the restoration of a range of basic needs services such as those of public transport, curative health-care, supply of electricity in the war-zone of the North in Sri Lanka compared favorably with the relief provided with excruciating delays by almighty Washington DC to the Katrina Typhoon (1998) of victims of Florida and Louisiana. What was readily observable here was that MR, with the services directed by brother Gotabhaya, were instrumental in mobilizing the security forces manpower to restore roads, irrigation systems, buildings and other economic infrastructure in the Vanni and the northern peninsula.
- Peace Dividend of the North-East — Given the enormity of the destruction caused by the Tigers in the areas of the north-east that were under their jackboot over various lengths of time, restoration of the northern peninsula was features by unavoidable inadequacies and delays. Apart from the ever present scarcity of resources that retard the pace of development in low-income countries, the government was faced with several dilemmas such as (a) those arising from the discovery of large caches of weaponry buried by the LTTE with the obvious intention of resuming their armed struggle, (b) the difficulties of identifying the legal owners of the land where its military bases and encampments had been installed during the war (in the context of the massive exodus of the civilian population – an emigration of at least 300,000 from Jaffna peninsula during the war), and (c) the lingering hostility of diehard remnants of the LTTE towards the government. Needless to say, the alleged reconstruction delays were often exaggerated in pro-secessionist propaganda campaigns both within and outside Sri Lanka. One of the persistent charges is that the armed forces of the government have continued to occupy extensive tracts of land that had belonged to civilians in procedures which are tantamount to land-grabbing. I have exposed in detail (Peiris, 2016: 199-209) the blatant falsehoods and distortions of this accusation disseminated worldwide in several publications of the Colombo-based NGO, ‘Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (Rahim, 2013; Fonseka et. al., 2013 & 2014).
The economic benefits of the post-war reconstruction efforts are reflected in several sets of data published regularly by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka from which I have extracted the following estimates which show, inter alia, that from production perspectives, the ‘peace dividend’ of the Northern and Eastern Provinces has been more substantial than that witnessed in most of the other provinces. The sectoral estimates of Province-level domestic product presented in the same format also show that, while agricultural growth in these two provinces has been subject to short-term fluctuations (following an early post-war upsurge) major advances have been recorded in the ‘Industrial’ (which includes fisheries and tourism) and the ‘Services’ sectors.
I = Changes in Post-war Reconstruction Strategy – In the reconstruction of a war-ravaged area such as the densely populated northern peninsula there is a significant criterion in a strategy adopted by the MR regime in and around the Palali Cantonment (the largest among the multimodal military bases in Jaffna) which appears to have been guided by the notion that what needs to be restored is not the socioeconomic milieu that generated intense unrest and alienation from the national mainstreams – conditions of widespread gloom and despair among the youth which was ideal for the ‘do-or-die’ secessionist insurrection – but create the type of tertiary sector employment opportunities that could alleviate poverty and fulfill aspirations of those entering the labour force. The strategy I refer to is that, since 2011, parts of the cantonment have been opened up for civilian tertiary sector uses that employ Tamil youth. This attempt faced intense opposition, especially from those among the Colombo-based Tamil political elite seemingly because (I speculate) persistent poverty in that part of the country is desirable from the viewpoint of their political objectives. According to the information presently at my disposal, that approach to reconstruction been abandoned since the fall of the MR regime in 2015.
J = Modernising the highway system
The Intercity highways in Sri Lanka that had hardly ever received much attention ever since the early 1930s. In most parts of the country we continued to use what the British had left behind – a network intended mainly to the needs of a plantation-led economy – with only a few piecemeal and improvements of their surface and width. (with the Mahaveli Development highways represent the only significant exception to the low priority accorded to intercity linkages. Meanwhile there was an almost exponential increase of traffic – the total of automobiles increasing from 230,000 I 1977 to 800,000 in 1997, and 3,600,000 in 2017, which was 16-fold increase over a span of 40 years.
I wonder whether you recollect that the construction of an expressway from Colombo to Katunayake began when we were undergraduates. the progress made in that project by successive governments until Rajapaksa took over was confined to a concrete structure facing the new Kelani bridge used only for display of billboards. This neglect, I believe, was due largely to the notion that expressways benefit only vehicle owners – i.e. the high income people. It was seldom realised that rapid transport between the main cities facilitates geographical integration of the metropolis with the remote parts of the island. If, say, public transport could convey people and goods between Colombo and Matara to 2.30 hours (instead of 6 hrs, or from Jaffna to Colombo to 5 hours (instead of the earlier 12) that kind of change contributes substantially to the economic integration of the people living in different parts of the island, opening up of all-island employment opportunities and of markets for the goods they produce apart from elevating land values. I sometimes feel that, if MR continued to have his way, by now we could have found our way to Colombo in 2 hours (not that I am all that keen on going to Colombo).
On this, you are aware of the related details. The southern expressway met with all kinds of criticisms, with certain morons in the ‘environment’ campaign expressing concern over the calamity of stray dogs getting killed by fast moving vehicles.
K = Mega development projects
Increased power generating capacity, and a rapid increase in the coverage of domestic electrification (remember the 5-hour power-cuts of the late 1990s, alleviated only by a few makeshift measures after Ranil took over in December 2000?), improvements in domestic water supply, improvements in the outlets of curative health care are among the barely noticed advances seen in the related estimates furnished by the Central Bank in its annual compendia and information. Apart from these, there were the mega projects such as the Hambantota Port, Colombo land reclamation & Port-City Project, and Mattala airport project alongside several others of smaller scale (Sooriyaweva cricket stadium, Ranminitenna film village etc.) all of which encountered intense criticism (on grounds such as misplaced priorities, waste of resources, corruption, mismanagement, and ecological disruption). Some of these criticisms, it appears in retrospect, were displays of ignorance and/or prejudice. It must be remembered that certain large projects such as harbours, airports, land reclamation, and expressways usually have long periods of ‘gestation’ until they generate optimum returns. Also, don’t forget the employment impact of these projects. For many thousands who found employment at various levels of these project were local people. There was, nevertheless, their short-term effects of real incomes and employment.
L = New alignments in foreign relations
The related facts are well known. Briefly stated, what they indicate is that up to about the time Rajapaksa consolidated himself as president was essentially the same as what had prevailed since 1947. Following the end of the Cold War, and the forced introduction of doctrines such as R2P (main objective of which was the consolidation of the uni-polar geopolitical power arrangement) there was a trend towards intensifying intervention by the main Western powers in our internal affairs in total disregard of sovereign rights of nations. Rajapaksa resisted this trend as much as he could given the constraints of the secessionist war. That resistance became more effective in the post-war period. If you have kept in touch with our news you cannot fail to realise the ominous erosion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty resulting ffrom the reversal of those trends under the Yahapalana dispensation. The several incidents widely reported by the media during the past couple of weeks indicate that Washington has already begun using Sri Lanka as a base for its military operations.
M = Colombo Facelift
I should add to this the long overdue improvements made in the landscape of the city for which the initiative was mainly by Gotabhaya. Given the opportunity he would have continued with that impressive effort, especially in the Beira Lake, Kollupitiya-Bambalapitiya and Independence Square areas, but certainly not confined to those localities.
The critics, in response, have continued to highlight the squalor in other parts of the city. Colombo, like many other cities the world over, is still a long way off from eliminating the exemplifications of poverty in housing.N = Safeguarding Sri Lanka’s cultural legacy
You need only to refer to the highly enlightened discourses on this subject by Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, probably the most enlightened Christian clergyman I have ever listened to (as it happens on several occasions in the past few weeks), in order to appreciate the essential elements of that legacy. I will send you a copy of Chapter 6 of my book on Kandy (as a confidential document till that book appears in print) to convey my understanding of that town’s cultural heritage.
Rajapaksa, under extremely difficult circumstances, contributed towards strengthening that legacy – an aspect of governance in which Chandrika and Ranil have both failed disastrously. I think one of the insurmountable problems he had in his efforts were the campaigns of Buddhist extremist groups (and, of course, the extremism displayed by certain leaders of other religious groups. From little wisps of evidence, the campaigns like that of the Gnanasara Thero (Bodu Bala Sena) were promoted by the ‘regime changers’.
LIMITED HAPHAZARD BIBLIOGRAPHY of Some Publications …. viz. Gerald H. Peiris
* “The Doctrine of Responsibility to Protect: Impulses, Implications and Impact,” 30 June 2010, http://www.slguardian.org/2010/06/the-doctrine-of-responsibility-to-protect-impulses-implications-and-impact/ AND https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/from%3A(geraldpeiris%40yahoo.com)+OR+to%3A(geraldpeiris%40yahoo.com)/1510fc7141751033?projector=1
* Development and Change in Sri Lanka. Geographical Perspectives, Delhi, Macmillan, ICES & CDA & Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 1996 …. SBN 0333 92431 2
- Sri Lanka. Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy, Kandy Books, 2006 .… ISBN 99644 02 05 2 “An Appraisal of the Concept of the Traditional Homeland,” Ethnic Studies Report 1991, vol. 9: 13-39.
- “Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka: Transnational Impulses,” in K. P. S. Gill & Ajai Sahni (eds.) The Global Threat of Terror. Ideological, Material & Political Linkages, Delhi, 2002, Roli Books, Bulwark Books & Institute for Conflict Management
- “An Appraisal of the Concept of the Traditional Homeland,” Ethnic Studies Report 1991, vol 9: 13-39.
[i] My head is buzzing — I will not even re-read what I have written above. So, it is likely to contain a scatter or errors which you will have to disregard.