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The Gargantuan Cabinet and the Rajapakse Dynasty

President Rajapaksa's latest Cabinet with over 100 Ministers and Deputy Ministers is not only a world record but a monument to his folly. Countries with economies many thousand times the size of Sri Lanka's get along with a fraction of the SL Cabinet, so the size of the SL Cabinet is itself testimony to the foolishness and inefficiency of its Ministers. So when Tisaranee Gunasekara in the post below calls the President "a man of monumental vision and unparalleled dexterity" this must surely be mockery. But given that Tisaranee is a loud exponent of devolution of power to minorities it might be that she actually sees some virtue in the President's move as it is another step towards his Chintanaya vision of "maximum devolution".

It is said that GOSL is finding it difficult to find a venue for the gargantuan Cabinet to meet. After the Hela Revolution when they created gargantuan Universities they had to use the racecourse to conduct lectures, hence the nickname ashva-vidyalaya. Maybe the cabinet can meet there and it will be appropriately called the ashva-cabinet. This is appropriate as only horse-sense can come from such a cabinet.

But the main thrust of Tisaranee's article is not the size of the Cabinet but to emphasize the stranglehold that the foreign governments and external NGOs are developing over GOSL. The are emerging as the real "kings" who rule over SL. Thus the aid pledges at the recent aid consortium in Galle contained clauses calling for a "political solution" to the separatist problem. It is not difficult to guess that this political solution amounts to racially based federalism at the very least. The spectacle of Sri Lanka after over 50 years of independence holding out the begging bowl is a sad commentary on the Great Hela Revolution and the "patriots" who still extol that Revolution.

Tissaranee shows that GOSL is becoming increasingly reliant on American support even at a time when America is facing debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as she shows American support is also conditional on finding the elusive political solution. American diplomats have openly touted the federal solution, and it is not difficult to assume that GOSL will finally settle for this. It will not end the current problem but only create a new springboard from which the final plunge to hard-core Eelaam can take place.

Tissaranee also shows how the Rajapakse dynasty is being groomed to replace the defunct Bandaranaike dynasty. She writes:

"Quite a few of the new President's appointees are family members; and the President's son is also being moved into the public arena as the head of a youth movement. According to an as yet un-contradicted report in the Sunday Leader, the President's brother, Basil Rajapakse, at an official gathering of the Maga Naguma project, assured those present that 'the Rajapakses' will be in power for 24 years! (The same report mentions that the gentleman was hailed as the 'Chief Minister of the Second Dutugemnu' by none other than Minister Mervyn Silva)."
The Bandaranike dynasty brought untold disaster to the SL body politic, but at least the founder of dynasty is still hailed as a man of intellect and honesty. This cannot be said of the succeeding Rajapakse dynasty. It is thoroughly steeped in political corruption, and Istriyaani religionism. Above all it has not been able to produce a single idea even though the M-Chintanaya is touted by the "patriots" as the greatest contribution to political theory since the time of Kautilya. It produced the masterly gem of "maximum devolution within a unitary state" which may well be swansong of Sri Lanka as a truly united nation. But then whether the Rajapakse dynasty can survive as long as the Bandarnaike dynasty did is an open question given the extremely fluidity of the SL political scene and the existence of the Great Satan of Killinocchi.

On consequence of the new situation is to marginalize the JVP and the JHU at one stroke. It has also made the UNP into a small rump congregating around Ranil Wickremesinghe whose position has been strengthened (as Tissaranee has shown). But one thing that has not been highlighted is that the LTTE (through their TNA proxies) have also been invited into the ruling coalition. In the President's Independence day address he is reported to have said: "I also wish to make this appeal to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) represented in parliament, who have so far not entered into dialogue or understanding with us. It is only by joining with us that the innocent Tamil people of the north can be liberated from terrorist intimidation and the misdeeds of violence; and the north could be emancipated". It is interested to note that this appeal to the TNA is couched in terms of saving the Tamils from the LTTE, not saving the major victims of the Tamils, viz. the Sinhalese and the Buddhists. This going head-over-heels in an attempt to save the Tamils from the Tigers is part of the mythology that the Tigers are only oppressing Tamils and not Sinhalas. It would appear that the President is fully conforming to the popular myth. But of course this maneuver is aimed at pleasing the foreign lobby than helping the oppressed Tamils and Sinhalese.

In the present essay by Tissaranee has correctly diagnosed that President Rajapkase's dalliance with the minority parties ranging from the Tamils to the Muslims is simply to appease them by giving devolution. This of course fits in with the agenda that Tissaranee had been advocating in her frequent contributions on the separatist problem. This is also probably why she overlooks the absurdities of the Gargantuan cabinet and the attempt to create a new Rajapakse dynasty.

But the consequences of this policy for Sri Lanka can only be a monumental disaster.

Victor Gunasekara


Of Cabinets and Kings

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune : 2007-02-04

"Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation…." Marx (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

President Rajapakse deserves ample congratulations for the ingenuity, creativity and commitment he displayed in his first cabinet reshuffle. It is not just anyone who can come up with ways and means of creating 108 ministers and deputy ministers (and counting). True, it is possible to discern in the titling of the ministries more than a modicum of repetition (for instance, there are no less than five non-cabinet ministers of nation building, all Sinhalese); and this overlapping may necessitate oracular assistance to determine the duties and responsibilities of each minister. Even so the achievement is a stupendous one, which establishes for all times Mr. Rajapakse's reputation as a man of monumental vision and unparalleled dexterity.

Sadly the inaugural meeting of this gargantuan cabinet has been postponed – some media reports say indefinitely – because a venue large enough and secure enough to accommodate the enhanced numbers could not be found (perhaps the luxurious presidential bunker can be enlarged for this purpose?). There is also a severe dearth of rooms for the new cabinet members in the parliamentary complex; and the Secretary General, with commendable foresight, is reportedly seeking UDA permission to construct a brand new building to accommodate the newly office-less. But all these are of little significance. What is important is we have one of the largest collections of ministers in the world – and possibly the highest Ratio of population to ministers globally - a record to be proud of indeed.

The induction of the UNP defectors, the SLMC and the JHU has given the Rajapakse regime a comfortable majority in parliament. The UNP has been significantly weakened (though at the cost of strengthening Ranil Wickremesinghe's stranglehold on the party); and the JVP no longer has the whip-hand over the government. True, the composition of the new government may result in the exacerbation of old contradictions and the creation of new ones.

For instance, a group of dissenters, comprising of disgruntled SLFPers, seems to be forming around Mangala Samaraweera; and the JHU is bound to be at loggerheads with the CWC and the SLMC on a number of issues (including over the 'Buddhist heritage' of the East, a subject that is dear to the JHU in general and its archaeologist-leader Ven. Ellawala Medananda Thero in particular). The future progress of the regime is likely to be quite stormy, but for now the President has reasons to congratulate himself, on his masterly handling of Southern politics.

External Compulsions

The external situation continues to be bleak. The message from the aid group meeting in Galle is clear – even the more sympathetic donors are demanding peace and a political solution in return for the 'pledged' aid while the World Bank is also insisting on economic reforms. And according to the Daily Mirror, apart from the February meeting of the Security Council's Working Group on child soldiers, the UN is to discuss the Lankan situation thrice, between March 12th and April 5th – based on reports by Philip Alston (on extra-judicial killings) and by Radhika Coomaraswamy. 2007 will see enhanced international interest and intervention in Sri Lanka, unless the regime takes pre-emptive remedial measures on its own.

International response to the Lankan situation seems broadly twofold. On the one hand, friendly or neutral countries, such as the US and India, focus on the need for a political solution to the ethnic problem. This was evident in the American Ambassador's remarks to the Aid Forum in Galle and in the message conveyed to the new Foreign Minister by the Delhi administration during his recent Indian sojourn. The EU (which is not quite well disposed towards Sri Lanka) is focusing on human rights and is veering towards adopting punitive measures; the EU is also expected to forward a resolution to the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Commission on Sri Lanka.

If the regime moves purposefully to put in place a political solution to the ethnic problem it may be able to gain some relief on the human rights issue. If the regime makes an effort to reduce human rights abuses and takes energetic and credible steps to punish some of the wrong doers, the pressure to come up with a political solution may be reduced. President Rajapakse has the option of doing one or the other; or ideally both; but he does not have the option of doing neither. Even American support for Sri Lanka is not unconditional or open-ended; and these days the USA is the most reliable and sympathetic friend we have in the world.

According to media reports the APC is expected to unveil its final proposal by April (the SLFP has appointed a special committee to study the matter and come up with its own comments). Is this a serious commitment or is the government buying time, as usual, hoping that the issue will fade away? Can it back a devolution proposal which has the support of some of its constituents without running the risk of loosing the backing of some of its other constituents? (For example the minority parties which are part of the government back the Tissa Witarana proposals while the JHU is totally opposed to these). Or is the government readying to juggle with illusions – the illusions of a political solution via the APC (which fails to materialise at the last moment) and the illusion of a recommencement of the peace process (the Norwegians are meeting the Tigers again)?

The regime is no longer dependent on the JVP. The optimistic may argue that this enhances the regime's capacity to come up with a devolution proposal acceptable to the moderate Tamils and the international community. However the regime is dependent on the JHU for its majority and the JHU is totally opposed to devolution in any form. If the APC comes up with a devolution package that is generous enough to win the backing of the minority parties and the international community, it will be opposed not just by the JVP but also by the JHU. In fact the JHU's opposition to such a proposal will be particularly virulent because it would not want to cede the 'patriotic' space to the JVP; and it will want to prove that it had not sold its 'patriotic' soul for a mere ministry.

What will President Rajapakse do in such an eventuality? Jettison that proposal just as he dumped the Majority Proposal of the Experts Committee? What will be the repercussions of such a move? You can do that once and get away with it, particularly since the Majority Report was not a product of the APC proper. But it will be hard to do a repeat performance, and with a proposal by the APC proper, cost-free. The APC needs to produce something, but such a move will also be fraught with danger for the government. The regime cannot avoid devolution if it is to keep the money flowing but some of its allies, on whom its parliamentary majority depends, are profoundly anti-devolution. It is the classic Catch 22 situation, the resolution of which is likely to be far more difficult than creating 108 portfolios.

Internal Dynamics

If the UNP's anti-Ranil rebellion succeeded, the party would have had a more moderate, non pro-Tiger leadership. This would have enabled genuine cooperation between the SLFP and the UNP, a national government that is anti-Tiger but pro-devolution. With such a unity a political solution based on democratic devolution would have been possible, despite JVP, JHU and LTTE opposition. Unfortunately President Rajapakse's disastrous decision to sign a MoU with Ranil Wickremesinghe when the UNP leader was facing a rebellion from within led to the creation of a different scenario.

Thanks to the Mou Mr. Wickremesinghe strengthened himself at the expense of the rebels. The last chance for the rebels was the petition they field seeking an injunction to prevent the party congress from being held. In a surprising move, and contrary to recent trends, the judiciary ruled in Mr. Wickremesinghe's favour and against the rebels. Mr. Wickremesinghe used his legal victory to hold the Convention and axe his opponents. That development signalled the definitive defeat of the rebellion. After that the rebels had little choice except to do separate deals with the UNP leader or to defect to the government. A few took the former option while many opted for the latter. Unfortunately the defections, though they weakened the UNP, strengthened Mr. Wickremesinghe's leadership; the defections also discredited the rebellion, and made the rebels seem like power-hungry politicos willing to sacrifice both the party and their own integrity for ministerial posts. It would have been different if the defectors made their move on the basis of a clear national political agenda (such as solving the ethnic problem); however in the absence of such a public agreement the impression is that they were motivated by nothing more than personal ambition.

President Rajapakse's decision to save Mr. Wickremesinghe is not as inexplicable as it may seem on the surface. Having Mr. Wickremesinghe at the helm of the UNP is bad for the country but it is necessary to ensure Mr. Rajapakse's victory at the next presidential election. The choice the President made becomes even more explicable given the possibility of a dynastic project by the Rajapakses. In fact the Rajapakse administration seems to be following in the footsteps of the Bandaranaike administration of 1970-77 in the matter of creating and fostering a family tree in the public arena. Quite a few of the new President's appointees are family members; and the President's son is also being moved into the public arena as the head of a youth movement. According to an as yet un-contradicted report in the Sunday Leader, the President's brother, Basil Rajapakse, at an official gathering of the Maga Naguma project, assured those present that 'the Rajapakses' will be in power for 24 years! (The same report mentions that the gentleman was hailed as the 'Chief Minister of the Second Dutugemnu' by none other than Minister Mervyn Silva).

The failure of the UNP rebellion (and the resulting defections) has given Mr. Rajapakse the majority he so ardently desired. But it has also circumscribed his ability to address the all important task of coming up with a political solution to the ethnic problem. Today he is not dependent on the JVP; but he has little capacity to move beyond the agenda he permitted the JVP to impose on him during the Presidential election (it is no secret that the Mahinda Chintanaya is really JVP Chintanaya). In short, even though the President has a comfortable parliamentary majority, what he can do with that majority is severely restricted, due to the composition of the new governmental alliance. Even if Mr. Rajapakse realises the need to either devolve power to the minorities or to improve his human rights record, the balance of political forces within the government and parliament will not permit him to do so. Willingly or unwillingly he is as much of a prisoner of the JVP's anti-devolution agenda today as he was before the cabinet reshuffle.

The most likely outcome therefore will not be movement in this or that direction but stagnation. Since any attempt to move forward on the political front will create a severe crisis within the new coalition, the President is likely to opt for his favourite stratagem – buy time with promises and faints while doing nothing. The war will continue though the time of relatively easy victories are almost over. The government's decision to avoid a JVP orchestrated general strike by conceding five out of six demands of the organisers demonstrates its understandable unwillingness to risk a confrontation with its erstwhile ally. It is an untenable situation and the denouement is likely to be an explosive one.