Back to the future in Sri Lanka

The standoff in Sri Lanka as a result of the ongoing crisis continues even though there have been some developments. The economic situation is dire and it was even announced last week that they had only enough petrol (gasoline) for just one day. That has eased very slightly. After the prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was sacrificed by his brother the president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in response to popular demands that both should leave office, a new prime minister and cabinet had to be appointed, since the cabinet automatically gets dissolved when a prime minister leaves office.

Gotabaya R picked as the new prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. To understand how bizarre this choice is, you need to know a little Sri Lankan political history. Wickremasinghe is the leader of the United National Party. This party was a dominant force before and after independence in 1948 and reached the pinnacle of power in 1977 when they were swept into power with a very large majority. The then party leader J. R. Jayawardene proceeded to institute massive changes that were designed to cement his party in power and keep their policies intact for decades to come, including changing the constitution to create the powerful post of executive president that he held and used to set in motion sweeping pro-business, pro-western, economic policies, as well as fanning anti-minority sentiment. It was during his presidency that the government-backed anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 took place that resulted in my decision to leave Sri Lanka and come to the US with my family.

Wickremasinghe was the son of a powerful political figure who, akin to Rupert Murdoch, ran a major consortium of newspapers in Sri Lanka and was seen as a king maker within the UNP, and so it was natural that his son found it easy to rise in the party as a young man. Jayawardena was also a member of that political family and in the fine old nepotistic tradition, he groomed his nephew Wickremasinghe for future leadership by appointing him at the young age of 28 to a cabinet position. In addition to his uncle’s patronage, his rise in the party was facilitated by the assassination of more senior party leadership figures during the civil war and the insurrections, and this resulted in him becoming prime minister in 1993 at the age of 44 when the then president R. Premadasa was assassinated and the prime minister D. B. Wijetunga, who became president under the succession rules, appointed him as his replacement. But his party lost the parliamentary elections one year later.

Wickremasinghe is widely viewed as a self-serving, uncharismatic, and feckless leader without the high level of political skills that his uncle and the murdered rivals for the leadership had, and over time, under his leadership, the party’s fortunes have sometimes waxed but largely waned and overall has steadily declined. He became prime minister again from 2001-2004 and yet again from 2015-2019 but his party did not command a majority and he never served a full term.

The final ignominy was in the 2019 general election when his party lost every single seat they contested. Wickremasinghe lost his own seat too. In the hybrid system Sri Lanka has, some seats are allocated on a so-called ‘national list’ based on the overall vote totals and his party got a single seat under that rule. You would think that after such a colossal repudiation, any self-respecting politician would step down from the party leadership and hand over the reins to a new generation of leaders. But to general astonishment, Wickremasinghe said he would remain as party leader and appointed himself to that single seat. So when president Rajapaksa picked Wickremasinghe to be the new prime minister, he was asking someone whose party has just a single seat in the 225-member parliament. As a result, there has been the usual horse-trading, cajoling, coercing, bribing, and other measures to persuade other MPs to join his cabinet and form a parliamentary majority. Unstable does not even begin to describe it.

So why would Rajapaksa pick Wickremasinghe of all people, someone who has no base of support, to guide the nation through this major crisis? One can only speculate. One reason may be that since Wickremasinghe is a member of the English-speaking westernized elites and seen as being very pro-western in his views, he may be more acceptable to the international lending agencies to whom the country is currently pleading the case for loans. Another possibility is that Wickremasinghe, who is viewed as being a stooge of the Rajapaksas, is likely to try and shield them from the anger being currently directed against them. When Wickremasinghe was prime minister from 2015-2019, he reportedly boasted that it was he who saved the Rajapaksas and their underlings from facing war crimes trials for the sheer brutality with which they treated the Tamil minority while suppressing the Tamil separatist movement.

On a personal note, Wickremasinghe was a student in the university at the same time as I was except that he was one year senior to me and in the law faculty while I was in the science faculty. I viewed him at that time as a lightweight and despite his subsequent rise to prominence, my opinion has not changed. I was, however, friends with his cousin who was in the science faculty, and considered her to be much smarter and more principled than him. But while she became a senior economist working for the Central Bank, she did not aspire to political office.

So what now? What is possible is that although Rajapksa seems determined to stay on as president, if for some reason he decides to leave or is forced to do so, Wickremasinghe, the has-been to beat all has-beens, would automatically become president, achieving the position through the back door what he has sought so many times in the past but never reached. He would be a prime example of someone with a privileged background who keeps failing upwards.

This video summarizes the situation and explains how the country got to this point..


  1. Dunc says

    So why would Rajapaksa pick Wickremasinghe of all people

    Could it perhaps be as a kind of insurance policy -- an attempt to head off challenges to his position by setting up an even more unpopular default successor? “If you force me out, look who you’ll be stuck with!”

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I don’t have anything constructive to say about the political mess, but I have been thinking about Sri Lanka’s underlying economic troubles. I wonder if a coalition of big polluting industries in the U.S. and elsewhere could be formed to provide the tools and material for solar and wind farms, and set up schools to train Sri Lankans to build and maintain them, in exchange for tax incentives and a facelift for their public image. After they were built, Sri Lanka would have less demand for imported fuel, AND they would have a new exportable “product”: trained and experienced workers who could go to neighboring countries to help them also get off the fossil fuel treadmill. I know there are a million unanswered assumptions behind this, but it seems like something that might really do some good.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Dunc @#1,

    That could be a possibility, to the extent that I can gauge from so far away.

    Another possibility is that Wickremasinghe is the only person with any name recognition who would take the position. Any politician with a future would be immediately tainted by being picked by Rajapaksa and so would decline. Wickremasinghe has no future and hence nothing to lose.

  4. jrkrideau says

    I was reading about the abrupt move to organic farming a couple of days ago. Actually, I think it could be done over the course of 20 or 30 years. The Cuban experience after the collapse of the USSR suggests a lot is possible but the first 10 years were pure hell. I remember reports of people going blind due to poor nutrition.

    Abruptly? Total insanity. Gota probably should be tried for crimes against humanity. Idi Amin does not seem much worse.

  5. says

    I’ve got to go with the anarchists’ “all government is crime'” but it’s so obvious it’s pointless. What if someone had a political system and threw it at you?

    It’s oil at the bottom; that’s where the money comes from. Pump it till it runs out and then we can fight over the remains.

  6. lanir says

    There’s probably a reason, even if it’s not a very good one. If that family was actually smart and good at running the country they wouldn’t be in this situation so making more mistakes seems entirely possible. My first thought was maybe the new appointee brings something nonpolitical to the table like money or connections.

    Second thought was something Machiavellian. Maybe they’re looking to blame the new guy for the current situation if they hold on long enough with him around. Or if they do have to leave, they setup the new guy to fail harder. It would give them a chance to rejuvenate their image in the long run because people have a way of focusing on the worst points and ignoring what leads up to them after everything is said and done. When things get this messed up, sometimes you’re in a better position if you lose power and come back later rather than struggle to barely keep it the entire time.

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