There have been positive developments three months into the new administration, but ominous signs remain
It will be three months in mid-February since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the helm as president of Sri Lanka and we already notice positive developments concerning good governance.
Many promises were made during that time to tackle corruption by giving priority to the development of the economy.
Rajapaksa seems to have drawn up plans with his close associates and with those who supported him when he was defense secretary during his elder brother’s administration, when he had the Urban Development Authority under his control beautifying the cities.
The simplicity in his style of leading is something that should be appreciated. Top officials did not go for imported vehicles and there will be fewer motorcades blocking the roads when ministers attend to their duties.
The tax cut proposed at the very first cabinet meeting was a very positive sign. The cabinet did not want to dwell on the mistakes of the past but was ready to make amends and forge ahead with building the future.
Some ministers said they will continue to implement the projects started by the previous government and even pay the arrears that were accrued.
State-appointments facing scrutiny by a special committee would be a very good proposal. Fewer officials will make foreign trips and they will use the normal passenger queues at the airport.
There is a special place to hold protests without creating pandemonium on the streets. The new leader is ready to listen to people’s grievances and promises to consider their requests. Water cannons and tear gas will no longer be deployed to discourage violent reactions by protesters.
The president makes impromptu visits to government agencies to see the working conditions at these offices. He has already visited Bandaranaike airport, the Department of Motor Traffic at Narahenpita and Welikada prison to observe the service they render to the public and to ensure efficiency at these institutions.
The unannounced visits also seek to eliminate corruption in government offices and the president has vowed to continue this checking and observation process.
Bad decisions of the captain
In sports the captain plays a major role in the decision-making to ensure victory for the team. In Sri Lankan politics it is the cabinet that makes decisions and if they withdraw their support the team cannot forge ahead.
Voters need to choose the best team to govern the country based on their policies without any secret dealings.
But how does the head eliminate corruption when many in his cabinet are embroiled in corruption?
Many leading politicians can be categorized as corrupt and the last government failed to bring them to book.
Under previous administrations, scam bonds were rife at the central bank. If these mistakes are not rectified, then these vicious practices will surreptitiously enter the agenda of the politicians. It can happen in an unnoticeable way.
Recent reports on the bond scams included those politicians in the earlier regime of Mahinha Rajapaksa who were appointed to key positions.
Dismissal simply on grounds that they did not provide support at the presidential elections may not augur well for the leader.
Members of the Viyath Maga organization were appointed to important positions together with military personnel, which is surely a bad omen for the freedom of the people. Is it something secret that is harnessed by the leader to carry out his personal agenda?
When military men without any political links are given positions in public affairs, the people can experience some sort of phobia.
This action of the military taking over civil matters might instill discipline but that is not everything in the political game. Its effectiveness has to be monitored from experience in other countries as well. Will there be a benevolent dictatorship in the country?
At the 72nd Independent Day celebrations they did not sing the national anthem in Sinhalese and Tamil. This was a discontinuation of the practice of the last government of Sirisena Wickremasinghe. Here again the opportunity for continuity was abandoned to please the majority of Sinhala Buddhist voters.
This also reveals the attitude of the Gotabaya regime, to think that cultural dominance and ethnic reconciliation are not on the main agenda of governance, even though the president promised at his inauguration speech that he is the president of all citizens, including minorities who did not even vote for him. These words would have escaped from his mind to satisfy the extremist element.
If he had allowed the national anthem to be sung in both languages, it would have caused resentment among nationalists and chauvinists at the expense of reconciling all ethnic communities.
The Rajapaksas went before the electorate in a very forceful manner against international agreements. In particular, they made clear their opposition to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and stated they will not sell the freedom of the country. But once in power, there is an openness towards MCC and other deals. Here again words and promises do not tally with the actions and the implementation of policy.
What are the future challenges?
The Gotabaya regime is keen to gain a two-thirds majority at the parliamentary elections to be held within the next two months. What do they hope to do with that majority in parliament? To change the 13th and 19th amendments? Is it to go back to the pre-2015 era where the Rajapaksa family dominated all activities?
If the regime is to follow the non-corruption path, then corrupt officials and those who are already indicted must not be nominated by Gotabaya’s party.
Some leaders from religious groups are planning to contest the elections. This should be discouraged. They have a role to play but it is not in the parliamentary assembly.
They can be advisers outside the chamber, but they should not dominate the political agenda with divisive politics and create disharmony among the citizens. Religious heads must take steps to discourage their clergy from getting on the political stage to support one or the other party.
The most impoverished workers are the plantation workers but the promises to give them 1,000 rupees per day must be implemented. Although there were a plethora of tax reductions, the drop in prices of essential items has yet to materialize.
Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a prominent human rights defender. He was a university lecturer and former chaplain of the Young Christian Workers’ Movement of the archdiocese. He is well known in Sri Lanka for his writings and commentaries on social and political issues.