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The Premadasa Impeachment
15 October 1991
The struggle to remove President Premadasa serves to expose the true nature of democracy, Sri Lankan style. It also serves to expose the underlying hypocrisy of the Sri Lankan government's preconditions for talks with the Liberation Tigers.
In early this year, President Premadasa responded to the LTTE call for unconditional talks by insisting that the talks should be with all the political parties in the island. It was urged on his behalf that this was necessary because of his profound commitment to 'consultation' 'compromise' and 'consensus'. But , threatened with an impeachment resolution, President Premadasa was quick to suspend Parliament, and prevent the elected representatives of the Sinhala people from even discussing the resolution. He then lost little time in moving to expel the key members of his party who had the temerity to oppose him. So much for consultation, compromise and consensus.
Today, the political parties in the South, far from moving towards anything remotely resembling a consensus, are at each others throat - metaphorically and literally. President Premadasa's effort to address Parliament on the 24th of September was met with sustained booing and shouting from the opposition, and the sittings were adjourned in disorder. But it was a conference of these very same political parties which , it was suggested, would some-how help to resolve the civil war, and thereby enable President Premadasa to peacefully continue in power!
As the impeachment struggle continues, the question will increasingly become: for how long can President Premadasa survive? This is no constitutional crisis and constitutional pyrotechnics will not resolve it. This is a naked , 'no holds barred' struggle for power between opposing factions of the Sinhala establishment. It is a battle that is unlikely to be won or lost on the playing fields of Sri Lanka's Parliament. All the portents are that, in the end, it is a battle that will be taken to the people and to the streets, Aquino style.
President Premadasa's power base is fast disappearing. His own party is deeply divided. The Goigama Buddhist establishment which never really accepted President Premadasa, has now openly turned against him. The opposition parties including the left parties want him out. The JVP is an implacable enemy and has described the crisis in the UNP as a "Keselwatta-Kurunduwatta (Cinammon Gardens)" power struggle.
President Premadasa has few friends abroad. The U.S.A and Israel are not happy about the closure of Israel's Interests Section in the American embassy in Colombo. Twelve members of the European Community joined in the protest against the recent expulsion of the UK High Commissioner David Gladstone, whose interest in human rights was not to the liking of the Sri Lanka government. India has not forgotten President Premadasa's stand on the IPKF and it is not without significance that all six E.P.R.L.F. M.P.s signed the impeachment resolution.
And as the saying goes, as the going gets tough, the toughs will get going. Ex Minister, Mr.Lalith Athulathmudali, has expressed fear for his life at the hands of 'extra constitutional goon squads formed to terrorise political opponents'. As a Minister in President Premadasa's Cabinet, until a month ago, Mr. Athulathmudali should know what he is talking about.
But then, during the past several years, innumerable human rights organisations have documented the acts of such 'extra constitutional goon squads' - including those during the period when Mr.Lalith Athulathmudali served as National Security Minister in President Jayawardene's Cabinet. Those Tamils who survived the onslaught of these ' extra constitutional goon squads' in 1983 will understand, but, understandably, may not sympathise with Mr.Athulathmudali's feelings of insecurity.
Not to be outdone, President Premadasa has also declared that he fears for his life. After all, 'extra constitutional goon squads' are not the special preserve of any one political group. As long ago as December 1983, a Netherlands Human Rights Group reported on democracy, Sri Lankan style:
These are the realities of democracy, Sri Lankan style and the claims for democracy made by the contenders for power in Colombo must ring hollow for all those who are not tone deaf. Again, as the going gets tough, the toughs will turn increasingly to another enduring aspect of democracy, Sri Lankan style - and that is 'Tamil bashing'. Over the years, Sinhala politicians have used 'Tamil bashing' as a sure fire method of securing Sinhala support.
Mr. D.S.Senanayake was subtle about the way he set about it. Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was brash and open. Mrs. Bandaranaike improved on her husband's style. Mr. J.R.Jayawardene appeared to revel in it. And now, President Premadasa and Ex Minister Lalith Athulathmudali have begun enjoying themselves as well.
Posters supporting President Premadasa have appeared in Colombo proclaiming that Ex Minister Lalith Athulathmudali and others with him are in league with the LTTE. Ex Minister Athulathmudali on the other hand alleges that President Premadasa has supplied arms to the LTTE and proposes to save the Sinhala people from both President Premadasa and the LTTE. This allegation, ofcourse, has the added bonus of gaining for ex National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, the support of the all important armed forces as well.
Both President Premadasa and Ex Minister Athulathmudali seek to out bid each other in their efforts to ride to power on the back of Sinhala chauvinism.
It is not that they are unaware that 40 years of Tamil bashing has only served to consolidate the growth of Tamil national consciousness into the demand for Tamil Eelam. It is not that they are unaware that the ensuing civil war has led the Sinhala nation to the brink of anarchy. But, in a selfish quest for power, each contender, prefers to divert the attention of the Sinhala masses from the political reality that confronts us all in 1991, and believes that the worn out slogans of yesteryear will lead to victory. But after victory what?
1991 is not 1948 - or for that matter 1956 or even 1983. Time does not stand still. The political reality in 1991 is that the Tamil struggle for national self determination which was born in the womb of oppression cannot be aborted by a continuation of that very same oppression.
The political reality in 1991 is that Sri Lanka cannot go on, as it does, spending more than $575,000 a day and more than 20% of its annual budget, on the effort to suppress the Tamil struggle for self determination. The civil war has served to sharpen the problems inherent in a third world country and the Sri Lankan economy is heading towards that which a World Bank Report has described as a 'disaster scenario'.
Unsurprisingly, as the economy has weakened, so has Sinhala dissent increased. Those in power have sought to eliminate such dissent by the use of 'extra constitutional goon squads' - a strategy which has led to the disappearance of more than 60,000 Sinhala youths during the past two years.
On the one hand, President Premadasa presides over a Sri Lanka economy which cannot survive without foreign aid. On the other hand, as the reservations expressed at the last Aid Consortium meeting show, Aid Donors have become increasingly aware that aid cannot provide stability to a regime which has been compelled to resort to such large scale repression to stay in power. Recently, Rev. Richard Wooton of the Uniting Church of Australia declared forthrightly: "Australia cannot support a Pol Pot type regime which instead of using the ordinary processes of law, uses death squads to kill thousands."
The Paris Aid Consortium has indicated its displeasure by postponing its usual October meeting to February next year. The Aid Donors are well aware that despite a 6% overall growth, the divi-sion between the haves and have nots in the Sinhala South has wid-ened into a chasm. Discontent has gone underground - and that is where it is most dangerous to stability.
But stability will not come without sustained and broad based economic growth and the first step towards achieving that, is to end the civil war in the North East. And, as Asiaweek has remarked recently, the starting point to any quest to end the war must be to recognise that minorities may be forced to stay in political unions but they cannot be made to like it. Lithuanians do not like it, Croats do not like it, Eritreans do not like it, Tibetans do not like it. The Tamils hate it.
Peace will come only when the broad mass of the Sinhala people begin to recognise that self determination is not a dirty word. Peace will come when they begin to recognise that self determination is a tremendous energising principle which will energise every people to make their own rich contribution to the increasingly small world in which we all live. Peace will come when the broad mass of the Sinhala people begin to recognise the truth of the words in the open letter addressed to them by the Liberation Tigers, last week:
The prolongation of the war of aggression against the Tamil people and the spread of anti LTTE and anti Tamil sentiments are the 'trump cards' used by sections of the Sinhala political estab-lishment to maintain and consolidate their oppressive rule over the Sinhala masses. These sections seek to 'blind fold' the Sinhala masses with a pervasive form of racism so that they may continue to rule and exploit them.
The time has come for the Sinhala people to join in the struggle to dismantle a corrupt and politically bankrupt structure, and pave the way for a free association between two free nations. Democracy, Sri Lankan style has not worked, is not working and cannot be made to work.