The year that was | Daily News


The year that was

October 26, 2018 dawned just like any other day. People went about their normal business. But as the evening approached, rumours began circulating that former President and MP Mahinda Rajapaksa has been appointed as the Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena. Everyone was naturally baffled – there was no election or budget vote. Was there any other provision or loophole in the Constitution that could make this happen? That was the question on everyone’s lips. All the rumours were confirmed when Rupavahini interrupted their evening news bulletin to announce that Rajapaksa has indeed been appointed as the PM after the “sacking” of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Thus began 51 days of controversy, uncertainty, instability, chaos and political theatrics unprecedented in the history of Sri Lanka, even surpassing the abortive military coup of 1962. Sri Lanka, which was not in the news at all globally, was suddenly thrust into the global spotlight. Wickremesinghe, who claimed that he was ousted illegally, violating the Constitution, did not vacate Temple Trees while Rajapaksa occupied the Prime Minister’s office. For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka had two Prime Ministers, a situation which most other countries found rather baffling and even hilarious. No country recognized the new Prime Minister and the Government, though one ambassador met Rajapaksa.

There was a frantic attempt to get MPs over to the Rajapaksa camp and MP Palitha Range Bandara released the now-infamous recording of a telephone conversation where a former minister offered him various inducements for crossing over. However, Parliament had in the meantime passed several confidence votes in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. When it became clear that the Rajapaksa camp could not muster the required numbers, Parliament was dissolved. This was immediately challenged in Courts. Although it was not very clear at the time, this was the key that resolved the whole imbroglio.

On December 7, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the dissolution violated the Constitution. This left no option other than to recognize Ranil Wickremesinghe as the legitimate Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, ending 51 days of political turbulence that left the country in tatters. He was sworn in again on December 16, ending the Constitutional crisis and in the process, becoming the only person to have taken oaths five times as the Prime Minister. It also resulted in the formation of an all-UNF Government with the scrapping of the National Unity Government formed in 2015. Now the challenge is to keep the number of Cabinet portfolios to around 30.

Economists and political analysts are still calculating the damage suffered by the country as a result of the crisis, but it has been tentatively estimated at over Rs.220 billion inclusive of losses to the tourism sector. In fact, just two days before the illegal appointment of Rajapaksa, the respected travel publishing group Lonely Planet had named Sri Lanka as the Number One Destination for 2019. But after the unfortunate events of October 26, a large number of tourists cancelled their trips. Now that the status quo has been restored, things are returning to normal and several new airlines are flying into Colombo.

Indeed, other news stories of 2018 faded into insignificance compared to this but there were a few notable ones. In February, the local elections brought victory for the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or Pohottuwa Party led de facto Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was a wake-up call for both the UNP and SLFP/UPFA.

May saw the departure from our midst of the greatest Sri Lankan film director of all time Dr. Lester James Peries (99), acclaimed for changing the course of Sinhala cinema with his landmark creation Rekhawa (Line of Destiny) in 1956. Another significant event in May was the launch of a new map of Sri Lanka updated with the Colombo Port City, which will be completed by 2040.

In July, President Sirisena announced that he was in favour of reinstating the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers who were still dealing in crime from their prison cells. This raised a hornet’s nest as many international organisations called on the Government to rescind the decision. However, at a UN session held this month, Sri Lanka voted in favour of a moratorium on the death penalty. In this light, it seems unlikely that Sri Lanka will resume executions soon.

There were a few dark spots too as fake news and rumours resulted in ethnic riots in Ampara, Digana and Ginthota. The Government managed to quell these rather quickly. However, several recent incidents in Mawanella and elsewhere indicate that some organised groups could be trying to incite racial violence again to gain political mileage. Racism is the only oxygen they can thrive on and the Government must cut off that supply. These incidents must be nipped in the bud. During its earlier incarnation as the National Unity Government, most figures associated with this Government campaigned on a platform of peace and reconciliation. They must not lose sight of this avowed goal. Our main resolution for 2019 should be building a Sri Lankan nation that has unity at its core. 

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