An Independence Day fete Ranil may still like to forget

An Independence Day fete Ranil may still like to forget

By N Sathiya Moorthy

For incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, taking the Independence Day as the nation’s President is known to be a dream come true. It should be so for most politicians in the country, especially when they are young, inexperienced and unexposed. It would have been more so for Ranil, as this is not only the first time that he was unfurling the national flag at capital Colombo’s famous Galle Face Green, as his predecessors had done in heir time, but it was also the nation’s landmark 75th Independence Day, which his government spared no effort to celebrate with customary pomp and show, despite criticism and opposition over the high-spending in the midst of unprecedented economic crisis.

Yet, President Wickremesinghe, for all right reasons and wrong, might also want to forget the I-Day honour and the attendant fete. Despite his open appeal and official invitation, most Opposition parties stayed away, citing equally predictable reasons that they called justification. They had also stayed away from the all-party talks called by President Ranil to address the ethnic issue, lest he should take credit for the ‘interim solution’ that was centred on the ‘full implementation’ of the 13th Amendment – if and if alone it succeeded. Thankfully for them, it did not reach that stage, not by Ranil’s self-declared Independence Day deadline.

‘Sole representative’

The reasons are not far to seek. While the southern Sinhala Opposition’s boycott of ethnic talks, though not the Independence Day celebrations, was only to be anticipated, the government possibly was not prepared for the ‘beneficiary’ Tamil polity observing it as a ‘black day’. The list included the vertically-divided Tamil National Alliance (TNA), including the one-time ITAK leader of the coalition, with whose leaders alone the President and the government were holding most of the talks as if they were the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil community.

In the process, the ITAK itself seem getting divided. Party MPs, M A Sumanthiran and Sanakiyan Rasamanickam, led a rally in eastern Batticaloa (the native district and electorate of the latter). This even as students of the Tamil-majority Jaffna University commenced a North-to-East march on the same theme, but with a different intent and participation.

Protestors at the Batti rally wore typical ‘Gandhi caps’, as if to recall and reassure for the nation, the peaceful path that they have inherited from party founder S J V Chelvanayagam, often referred to ‘Ceylon Gandhi’ or ‘Tamil Gandhi’. It is another matter that that ITAK president Maavai Senathiraja was nowhere to be seen, and the possibility is that he was not ever taken into confidence, making it a two-man show all the way, in the neighbourhood of ailing leader R Sampanthan’s eastern Trincomalee base that too has dwindled over the years.

Loaded statement

Incidentally, it was at Batti, where SJV declared that the just-concluded BC Pact with then Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike was only the ‘first step’ (towards a ‘separate state’?). Authors, analysts and international diplomats often fed exclusively on the Tamil information and interpretation of the contemporary ethnic history, seldom mention that SJV’s speech might have been the cause for SWRD tearing up the pact, seeing it as a ‘betrayal’.

Sampanthan, who could not participate in the Independence Day fete (only) owing to overnight hospitalisation for what his family described as a ‘routine check-up’, has since issued what reads like a loaded statement, addressing the Tamils as much as the government and the majority Sinhala polity that is also majoritarian in many parts. He said that if a political solution was not found for the ethnic issue, there was the fear and possibility of the ‘historic Tamil homeland’ being ‘snatched away, step by step’.

There is no denying that despite the controversies surrounding his leadership, Sampanthan might be the last hope for the Tamils, after SJV and LTTE-slain Amirthalingam, and of course, the LTTE and Prabhakaran, too. Tamil critics often see him as too soft on the government and Sinhala polity, always speaking for ‘self-determination within a  united Sri Lanka’, and also relying excessively on the ‘international community’ than the domestic constituency and the Diaspora.

Unmet pre-conditions

In this background, Sampanthan was obviously hinting at the real possibility of the government and the Sinhala polity not feeling like having the need to talk to other Tamil leaders after his time – and thus even having the need to address the ‘legitimate aspirations’ of the Tamil people. While they may continue to want hiding their own short-comings or may even be on a denial mode, they all seem to be tired of the Tamils’ way of taking two steps backward after one forward step.

The current situation is a case in point. A year ago, most Tamil parties wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for New Delhi to press/pressure Colombo for the full implementation of 13-A. India’s visiting External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar too said as much, and in public, about wanting it that way, and his conveying the Indian message to President Ranil and other government leaders.

However, after the TNA split ahead and over the nation-wide local government elections (LGE), scheduled for 9 March, one after the other, ending with the ITAK, announced their boycott of the Independence Day, and not just the Colombo fete. They introduced pre-conditions for talks, which were not new, and which successive government could have resolved through the stroke of the President’s pen.

Now, Ranil is seen as completing the unfinished task from his long innings as Prime Minister (2015-19). However, there is no knowing why he could not have completed it then and there. After all, issues such as freeing ‘Tamil political prisoners’ and also Tamil private lands in the military’s possession, and even ‘justice for missing persons’ are all issues that needs political will than bureaucratic paper-work.

Rajapaksas too stay away

While in Colombo, India’s Jaishankar also met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, along with political heir, Namal Rajapaksa, MP, where the subject was believed to have come up for discussion. The Rajapaksas are the real power behind Ranil’s throne, yes, and Jaishankar meeting Mahinda was more than courtesy shown to a former President and ex-Prime Minister. After all, there are three other former Presidents around, and Jaishankar did not meet any of them.

Yet, at the end of the day, all six Rajapaksas in politics, including the non-controversial older brother Chamal (a former Minister and also full-term Parliament Speaker) and his equally invisible son Shasheendra, who is also a state minister in Ranil’s government, stayed away from the official function. According to low-profile, at times delayed reports, Mahinda as also another former President, Maithripala Sirisena, were invited – and both stayed away, unbecoming of the high office they had held, whether or not they were still a part of the government coalition.

It was even more problematic when Ranil’s immediate predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, were reportedly not invited for the I-Day fete. If true, it was odd, especially after the otherwise ‘despised’ Gota was among the guests at the India’s Republic Day reception – as was only proper and protocol-driven – just days earlier. It is anybody’s guess why and how Ranil could expect cooperation from others when  his leadership has acted like squabbling school children.

No explanation has been offered as to why the Rajapaksas, stayed away, as Namal is still a parliamentarian, with reported aspirations to be President in his time (though not in the foreseeable future, thanks to uncle Gota’s mis-administration and mal-administration that was thankfully short-lived. Namal is since on record that father Mahinda, though Prime Minister at the time, was not consulted, nor was he involved in Gota’s controversial decisions, one after the other.

It does not explain how Mahinda, because of whom his constituency voted for brother Gota – could abdicate responsibility, and not the position until the Aragalaya protestors made it too late and too difficult. The explanation does not hold for Basi, another of the four brothers, who is no more a parliamentarian only because his national loyalty is still equally divided between Sri Lanka and the U S, which he refuses to give up.

The ‘why’ of Basil choice still remains a mystery, yes, but more than that is the question how the SLPP, going beyond the Rajapaksas’ clannish leadership, could afford to share their secrets with him. It is another matter that Basil is still considered the chief strategist of the party, and also its chief organisers, in reality and otherwise.

Be it as it may, President Ranil’s parliamentary majority tends to become doubtful if there is more to the Rajapaksas’ ‘boycott’ of the Independence Day fete than whatever remains undisclosed. It is not unlikely that they are unhappy with the way the Election Commission desires to go ahead with the local government polls that many predict the SLPP alliance would lose – and very badly so, in the aftermath of last year’s protests and the economic crisis that caused it all.

It could also mean that if not addressed adequately in whatever way, the SLPP may decide to rise questions about Ranil’s approach to economic management, IMF debt-requirements and of course the 13-A. When Ranil raked up the issue in Parliament some months ago, Mahinda went a step further to declare that they were ready to discuss 13-Plus, too.

Some hopes then, but….

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email:

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