May 5th was Vesak. It is the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May, the most sacred day for millions of Buddhists around the world. The triple event of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and passing away is celebrated on this day with various religious ceremonies in Buddhist countries around the world including Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is where I was born. However, I spent part of this important day trying to understand what is going on in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country where people are supposed to live according to the five basic precepts of not lying, stealing, killing, etc. But the country is plagued with corruption to the point that it went bankrupt. They had to beg for IMF loans for the 17th time. Right now, there is some calmness but the next big storm or an economic tsunami is not far away.
Two major parties plagued with corruption (i.e., United National Party – UNP – of President Ranil Wickremasinghe and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna – SLPP – of former president Mahinda Rajapakse) or their various coalitions ruled the country since independence in 1948. An increasing number of Sri Lankans, especially the youth, however, seem to believe that the time has come for a radical change in the country’s leadership. They have found an alternative in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP). The NPP is expected to get the highest votes in the local government election when it is held.
In a previous article, I raised several questions about the NPP’s ability to lead. Even if the NPP wins a future election, can it effectively deal with India, China, the US, and other international powers and funding agencies? I have also recently sat down with Bimal Ratnayake, a former Member of the Sri Lankan Parliament. Bimal is a politburo member of the JVP and a top-ranking leader of the NPP coalition.
On this sacred May full moon day, I sat down via WhatsApp with Sunil Handunnetti of JVP and NPP. Handunnetti entered full-time politics in 1998 and was elected as a councilor of the Colombo Municipal Council during 1998-1999 and was elected to the Central Committee of the JVP in 2000. He was appointed to the Political Bureau of the JVP in 2012 and was appointed as the Financial Secretary of the JVP. He then entered Parliament at the general election held in 2004 with the second-highest number of preferential votes from the Colombo District. In 2004, he was appointed as the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Rural Economic Affairs. He is not in parliament currently but is very active in the NPP and JVP activities. He has also chaired The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), a parliamentary committee.
AD: I know you just finished your May Day rallies that were attended by large crowds. Thank you for taking the time on this holiday to talk to me. From where you stand, what are the 3 burning issues in Sri Lanka today?
SH: Number one is our economy which is in total disarray. It is mostly a man-made disaster. As a result, the government is struggling, and the people are suffering individually with an unprecedented cost of living that is beyond their means. Sri Lanka’s Trade Balance recorded a deficit of 39.1 USD Million in Feb 2023. We have begun to sell pieces of our country to survive. We heavily depend on loans from lenders such as IMF and China. At this rate, there is no future for Sri Lanka unless we change the current system.
The second burning issue is that our democracy is at stake. Media freedom is gone although the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) which is designed to silence dissent is temporarily postponed. Local elections were postponed too. A ruler who was not elected by the people is running the country and he is backed by the very same elected officials who dragged the country into these economic depths. Ranil Wickremasinghe can stay in power as president until November 2024. He may or may not hold elections even then. We have already filed a court case against the postponement of the local elections.
The third issue is that people are not fully aware of the dangers they are in. Our job is to educate them before the next election. We do that at the grassroots level and using social media. It is an ongoing process. People who used to vote for material benefits such as food, alcohol, or a toilet, or a roofing sheet, given by the politicians around elections, are much wiser today.
AD: You were the chair of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) once. COPE is a parliamentary committee established on July 21, 1979. What did you achieve during your time as the COPE Chair? Where is it going today?
SH: COPE investigated various allegations against top corrupt government officials. But we did not have a legal framework to go any further than submitting a report to the parliament. When you question the accused, they always try to minimize what wrong they did and try to save themselves. So, I decided to live telecast these COPE sessions so people can see them in real time. I also invited the legal officers to the hearings so they could build their cases from there. Unfortunately, this did not happen like with many other inquiries against the corrupt leaders in power. I hope the current COPE realizes this and brings the changes needed to make their work complete.
AD: It seems very difficult to bring charges against the corrupt rulers in Sri Lanka. Why is that?
SH: Of the 225 current parliamentarians, most are corrupt and are guilty of some wrongdoing. But they control the judiciary and the law enforcement forces. When the criminals are the ones who are making the laws and overseeing the legal system, you cannot find justice. An independent judiciary is a must.
AD: We see increased media campaigns from those who still support the corrupt rulers against the NPP amidst the popularity of the NPP. But we see very little response from your group.
SH: We address these at our grassroots-level meetings. Our media resources are limited when compared to those owned by the rulers and our other political opponents. The rulers have their own media and have paid propagandists to cook up lies and other false narratives against their opponents. As Bimal also told you, there is a segment of the population who benefitted from the corrupt leaders, and they consume these lies and further propagate them. Only about 35% of Sri Lankans use the internet. People are not reading the newspapers as they used to due to higher costs and the poor quality of writing and biased nature of the current journalists. We correct these false narratives at our village-level organizations, at larger meetings, and also using our policy documents.
AD: Let’s move on to the international arena. Which global powers are interested in Sri Lanka and why?
SH: We are in a geopolitically strategic location. With the increasing influence of China on the global economy and the declining power of the US in the global arena, those who are interested in our region see Sri Lanka as an important asset. China is already here in SL. A Chinese state-owned China Merchants Group (CMG) has said recently that it plans to take its investment in Sri Lanka to $2 billion by building a major logistics hub. The investment by the CMG in a large logistics complex at Colombo Port, with an estimated construction cost of $392 million, is the first major foreign investment in Sri Lanka since the default. Sri Lanka also handed the Hambantota Port over to CMG for $1.12 billion on a 99-year lease. Neighboring India as well as the United States have expressed concerns about China gaining a naval advantage in the Indian Ocean with its access to these Sri Lankan ports.
AD: How confident are you that the Sri Lankan voters will get rid of the corrupt rulers and choose the ‘correct’ leaders after 75 years since independence?
SH: Well, although we are very literate and technologically advanced to some extent, our political literacy is still in its infancy. Especially at the local level, voters tend to pick parties as opposed to policies, and their selections are further based on race, religion, popularity, pedigree, nepotism, and personal and material benefits they can get from the politicians rather than focusing on track records or policies. This Husband-to-wife, mother-to-daughter, father-to-son, uncle-to-nephew system needs to change. We have uneducated and criminal elements in the current parliament. There are drug dealers and bar owners, and mega thieves too. They all must go. With the younger generation who are technologically savvy, this change is happening, slowly, but surely. So, I am confident that very soon people will use their brains at the voting booth.