These days Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe is an angry man. He is particularly piqued at those who criticise the proposed Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India. He takes every opportunity to take a swipe at them, even calling them ‘traitors’. A trade union representing doctors and some media outlets have been in the line of fire.
Anyone feels a sense of déjà vu?
Take your mind back a few years. Mahinda Rajapaksa was President. WimalWeerawansa and the like were running a well-oiled propaganda machine. Practically anyone and everyone who dared to oppose the Rajapaksa regime were labelled traitors and even worse, ‘terrorists’, or, to use the more popular vernacular, ‘koti’.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe knows this only too well. He entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in good faith, hoping the Tigers would reciprocate. They initially did and Wickremesinghe was hailed as the man who brought peace to the country.
Then the Tigers reneged on their word after a couple of years. That is when Rajapaksa’s propagandists took over. Overnight, Wickremesinghe was a traitor and a ‘kotiya’ who tried to hand over Eelam to the LTTE on a platter.
That label stuck and it took Wickremesinghe more than a decade to recover from that and return to power. Even then, it was not on his own steam but by using Maithripala Sirisena as a proxy for the presidential election because there was a belief that had Wickremesinghe contested, the ‘koti’ issue would be raised again.
We can understand the Prime Minister’s anger with the media and the trade unions. He has got the reins of office after a long wait in the opposition. He wants to do a sincere job of work and he believes he is taking the country forward. Then, he has to deal with forces who are standing in his way who, he believes are crying wolf at the mere mention of India. So, he lets off steam, labelling them as traitors.
There are a couple of issues that the PM can deal with, before does that. First, the details about ETCA are not very clear and we keep getting mixed messages. Some ministers are claiming that the agreement is only a ‘framework’ for co-operation between the two countries and nothing is set in stone just yet. Other ministers are trying to explain the small print and assuring us that even if it is implemented, there is nothing to fear. And with so many ministers to go around, everyone is naturally confused!
Second, is it not possible to have a mature debate about ETCA, without all the name calling? Those who oppose anything the government does will of course oppose it. The Weerawansas and the Vasudevas can have their say. That is politics in this country and that is their right too.
But some of the opposition comes from professionals who have genuine concerns that they will be swamped by hordes of Indians offering cheap labour. It is all about having concerns about your future prospects, not just about being ‘traitors’.
When Rajapaksa and his cohorts called everyone else traitors, he could afford to do so. He had been re-elected with a massive mandate and enjoyed a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Having just won the war, he was the uncrowned King of the country and MR stood for ‘Maha Rajaaneni’.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has none of these advantages. He is not the President and in fact, the President is from a rival party. He barely has a working majority in Parliament and if it comes to a contest, will need the support of other parties to stay in power. So, he needs friends more than he needs enemies. Right now though, he is making more enemies than friends. Just a few months into your term of office, that is not a sensible thing to do.
So, it is in the Prime Minister’s own interest to have a decent dialogue about this instead of getting hot under the collar and seeing a red under every bed. Because the PM is lashing out at so-called ‘traitors’ now, all that is happening is that he is being accused of threatening the media and being a dictator. The sooner he realises this, the better it is, for his own sake!