The Chinese Curse on Sri Lanka

The Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” appears to have been cast on the present generations of Sri Lankans. We have certainly been living in “interesting times” for about two decades, particularly during the last decade—going from crisis to crisis—with the nation sinking deeper and deeper into the mire.

We have had war, peace, negotiations, boycott of negotiations, abductions, coldblooded murders, smuggling of arms, sinking of ships, presidential tirades, tirades against the president, impeachment motions, and now prorogation of Parliament, declaration of a state of emergency, probably to be followed by the dissolution of Parliament and even more interesting events to follow.

Perhaps very few nations have been as unfortunate as to have gone through such “interesting times.” We appeared to have been recovering, with the economy picking up, business looking good, and tourists trickling in—but now that Chinese curse seems to be back.

A pall of gloom set upon Colombo yesterday. This was caused not only by monsoonal clouds but by the appearance of armed police and servicemen on the streets. A state of emergency has been declared and Parliament prorogued. Speculation abounds, of the sort we dare not put down on paper lest we be accused of inciting unrest.

On Tuesday, when proroguing Parliament and sacking three ministers, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga declared that she was doing so in the national interests, particularly in regard to the security of the nation. But this move could well result in further destabilizing the nation and aggravating security threats.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now in Washington, reacted angrily to the president’s moves, accusing her of precipitating a national crisis in an attempt to subvert the mandate given to his government by the people in the parliamentary elections of December 2001 and the local government elections of March 2002. He vowed that he would not be deterred from achieving his objectives while appealing to the people to remain calm and vigilant.

[Kumaratunga has been a vocal critic of the peace process spearheaded by Wickremesinghe, accusing his government of making too many concessions to the rebel Tamil Tigers. Until the December 2001 cease-fire, the Tigers had been fighting for an independent state in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Peace negotiations brokered by Norwegian mediators were suspended in April 2003, but were set to resume in November. However, on Nov. 14, Norway announced its withdrawal from mediation until the standoff between the president and prime minister was resolved. The pullout, along with the Tigers’ call for political stability as a condition for negotiations, has put peace prospects in doubt.—WPR]

Like the other crises mentioned above, this one is the result of the continuing political struggle between these two leaders and, to a lesser extent, their parties. The people do not want this crisis to take the country into anarchy and will want them to settle their political squabbles in democratic ways that they are bound to follow.

President Kumaratunga, it will be recalled, was elected to power in 1996 on the main pledge that she would abolish the executive presidency. But no sooner had she assumed office than she commenced using the much-reviled powers of the executive presidency and is continuing to use them in the present crisis. She has used such powers to prorogue Parliament and declare an emergency.
Her excuse for retaining the executive presidency is that she lacks the required two-thirds parliamentary majority to change the constitution—but all know that the problem could be overcome by simply cooperating with the United National Party leader to abolish such powers. Apparently, in common with previous executive presidents, Kumaratunga has found that the powers of this office are too tempting to be discarded.

On the other hand, is the prime minister playing strictly according to the rules of the constitution? It does appear that he is attempting to undercut the powers of the executive president vis-à-vis issuing orders to the armed forces.

The attempted impeachment motion against the chief justice does appear to be a blatant move to interfere with the independence of the judiciary, as claimed by the Bar Association and by lawyers who went “on strike” yesterday.
The constitution can be faulted to a very great extent for this present state of affairs, but it is axiomatic that in making constitutions work, a give-and-take between rival factions is essential. The tragedy of our times is that both party leaders and the two political parties are unable to overcome their rivalries and petty jealousies as well as their insatiable desire for power.

Great political leaders—statesmen—give up their office when they realize that they can no longer govern effectively. The people would indeed respect such an individual rather than those who cling to power until they are thrown out by the scruff of their necks. We have had only one such leader in our post-independence era—Dudley Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s second prime minister—and he is still revered by those who lived in his time.

The way the present crisis is brewing bodes ill for this country.