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Editorial

A elephantine issue

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Wednesday 10th February, 2021

Never a dull day in Parliament! Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa crossed swords yesterday. Premadasa demanded to know why Bank of Ceylon had granted a pledge loan to the tune of Rs. 3.1 billion to a company owned by a person connected to the government, for stockpiling fags. Claiming that the bank had followed proper procedure in granting the loan, Minister Cabraal asked Premadasa why the latter had been silent when the same bank released as much as Rs. 10 billion within 10 minutes to Perpetual Treasuries (Pvt.) Ltd. for purchasing Treasury bonds in a fraudulent manner, under the yahapalana government.

The bond scams continue to dog the UNP and its offshoot, the SJB. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his Independence Day speech, said he had asked the Attorney General to ensure that all wrongdoers, especially the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday carnage and the bond scammers, would be brought to justice. One can only hope that the President’s instructions will be carried out to the letter and the culprits made to pay for their sins.

The question, however, is whether the bond scams have been investigated properly. Some of the culprits have been identified and legal action has been instituted against a few of them. But much more remains to be done.

Speaking, at a recent UNP organisers’ meeting at Ja-Ela, former UNP MP Range Bandara sought to deny a claim that the UNP had not looked after its local government members; he said that following the formation of the UNP government, in 2015, all UNP local councillors had been invited to Temple Trees and given Rs. 500,000 each as the first tranche of cash handouts. He stopped short of saying how much more they had received afterwards. Where did the money come from? All political parties dish out funds in that manner ahead of elections. But what makes the UNP’s cash distribution, in early 2015, stand out is its timing.

The UNP had been reduced to penury after losing power in 2004 so much so that its headquarters, Sirikotha, could not settle electricity and water bills. But within weeks of the formation of the so-called national unity government after the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, on 08 Jan. 2015, funds suddenly started to pour in and the UNP candidates went on a spending spree in the run-up to the general election that followed. It is against this backdrop that Range Bandara’s aforesaid claim should be viewed.

The first Treasury bond scam was committed on 27 Feb. 2015, about seven weeks after the formation of the yahapalana government, and Perpetual Treasuries with links to the UNP made a killing to the tune of billions of rupees. It has now been established that the UNP-led government facilitated the financial crime. (The second bond scam was committed the following year.) The UNP would not have helped the bond scammers in return for nothing. Part of the loot apparently found its way into the UNP’s war chest. This aspect of the bond scams went uninvestigated.

It is never too late for frauds to be probed. If a proper investigation is conducted, it may be possible to find out how the UNP benefited from the bond scams and how much it received by way of campaign funds. But it is doubtful whether the incumbent government will ever have the issue probed. Crooks on both sides of the political divide do not go all out to destroy one another, especially on issues such as ill-gotten wealth. Those who are currently in power are apparently busy making up for lost time. This is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics.

When ordinary people deposit their hard-earned money with banks, they are asked numerous questions, and information so obtained is passed on to the taxman. But there are no such legal requirements as regards the political parties that receive and distribute billions of rupees during elections. Elections are the times when loads and loads of black money get laundered.

The need for laws to regulate political donations and campaign expenditure cannot be overemphasised. At present, even drug lords and other anti-social elements can bankroll election campaigns of political parties and cock a snook at the law.



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Editorial

The parliamentary president

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Rajan Philips who brightens this page with his incisive and perceptive commentary has today called President Ranil Wickremesinghe a “parliamentary president.” RW, particularly during the ongoing budget debate, has indeed demonstrated this description to be most appropriate. He is a frequent presence in the parliamentary chamber, more so than any of his predecessors. As far as the budget debate goes, the fact that he wears the finance minister’s hat as did two other presidents, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes his presence in the House at this time most welcome. Who else but the finance minister should be present in the House during the budget debate? Basil Rajapaksa’s short tenure at the Treasury set a rank bad example in this regard.

Wickremesinghe, of course, like his uncle JR Jayewardene who created the executive presidency and was the first to wear the twin hats of head of government and head of state, is very much a parliamentary animal. Having had a long innings at the legislature including multiple terms as prime minister since 1977 until his ignominious exit from parliament in August 2020, he welcomes the hurly burly of its chamber without standing aloof in his presidential ivory tower. But JRJ as president or any other was never as frequently present in the parliament chamber as nephew Ranil. JRJ didn’t have to, having never presented a budget during his presidency.

Having long served as finance minister under the old Westminster order, Jayewardene saw no need to cling on to that portfolio, being content to hold the defence ministry, probably a necessity, and a few others largely for convenience. While we do not advocate presidents doubling as finance ministers, we do freely agree that it may be or is a necessity this time round given the unprecedented economic catastrophe the Rajapaksas have plunged our country into. RW, after all, wrote and presented this budget and who better than he to pilot it through the House? Thus his willingness to intervene in the debate is a welcome tradition although whether it will continue in the future remains to be seen.

His recent appearances in the legislature clearly demonstrates his enjoyment of being in the thick of things. Parliamentary watchers would not have missed his entry into the chamber to respond instantly to something he heard being said when he was in his office in the parliament building while the House was in session. We suspect he listens to the budget debate in situ as it were. So much to the good. Of course, as mentioned by our columnist Rajan Philips, it would have been appropriate if he had been more forthcoming in areas on which the people are thirsting for information. These include when the IMF bailout can be expected. There has been speculation that the earliest will be March next year though it had been optimistically forecast earlier that it might be by end December.

Wide open questions on the possibility of debt restructuring also remain. Are electricity consumers, both domestic and industrial, due for a double whammy with a further tariff increase in the short term? Although the petrol and gas queues are gone, there are eerie reports that timely coal procurement for the Norochcholai power plant is not assured. And there is scant comfort about the availability of dollars to keep the filling stations pumping even in the short and medium term. There are also compelling questions on how corruption is being dealt with. Given the surrounding context, the president has made a rank bad nomination to the Constitutional Council whether by choice or compulsion we do not know. Questions abound on whether this is the result of the president being a captive of his pohottuwa constituency. Nobody can be happy about that. RW may well feel that these are questions that can be dealt with by the concerned ministers at the ongoing committee stage of the budget debate. But given that he’s both the president and the finance minister, the people would have expected the big man himself to shed more light on these burning questions.

Sadly the news broke only on Friday that former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had spent hundreds of millions of tax rupees maintaining staggering numbers of personal staff. The information, previously withheld by the presidential secretariat, was made public thanks to an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had asked the questions and appealed the non-disclosure. The Daily Mirror reported on Friday that the two former presidents had together guzzled Rs. 1.48 billion on this account – Sirisena beating his predecessor with an expenditure of Rs. 850 million on his staff against MR’s Rs. 630 million. Whether these two former presidents will explain themselves either on the budget debate platform or elsewhere remains to be seen. We are sorry that this news did not break in time for the discussions on the president’s vote in the House. That would have been an opportunity for a searching probe and perhaps responses from those named and shamed.

James Carville, a strategist in President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush coined the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid” which resounded through Clinton’s successful campaign. Here in Sri Lanka right now what matters most is the economy and not enough focus on that has been seen thus far in the budget debate. Hopefully there will be a course correction in the remaining days.

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Editorial

A double whammy

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Saturday 3rd December, 2022

The current economic crisis has eclipsed many other serious issues the country is beset with, and among them is the drug menace. President of the Government Medical Officers’ Forum Dr. Rukshan Bellana has made a revelation, which is sure to send a chill down everyone’s spine; drug addiction is on the rise among hospital workers, he has told the media. The majority of these drug addicts are members of the minor staff, and they are involved in drug peddling as well, he has said. There seems to be no shortage of narcotics at government hospitals, where medicinal drugs are in short supply!

An oft-heard complaint in health circles is that minor staff members in the state-run hospitals have become a law unto themselves because they are recruited on the basis of their political connections. Gone are the days when every worker in the state sector was recruited on merit and properly trained, and made to face disciplinary action in case of transgressions. There have been instances where hospital workers even threatened and roughed up their superiors, and politicians intervened to protect the culprits. It is only natural that they use and sell narcotics in hospitals with impunity. The need for these elements to be severely dealt with cannot be overstated.

It is hoped that the Health Ministry will get cracking on ridding the hospital system of narcotics instead of taking action against Dr. Bellana for having exposed drug addiction among health workers. When a doctor released the findings of a survey on malnutrition among children, a few months ago, the health panjandrums took disciplinary action against him!

The narcotic trade seems to have thrived during the past several years. About 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to drugs, State Minister Dilum Amunugama said, last year. President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that about 50% private bus drivers are addicted to drugs, countrywide, and most of them have graduated from cannabis to ICE (crystal methamphetamine). No wonder they drive like bats out of hell! Drug addiction must be equally high among other heavy vehicle drivers as well. Last year, about 2,490 lives were lost in road accidents, which numbered 2,325, and left 5,263 seriously injured.

A programme to conduct roadside drug testing is to be launched in January, we are told. This is a long-felt need and will help reduce the number of fatal accidents significantly. At present, there is no way drug addicts behind the wheel could be detected although most bus and truck drivers are addicted to narcotics. The police can nab only drunk drivers. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna has said about 5,000 drug screening devices have been distributed among the police. This is a worthwhile investment.

Worryingly, the drug Mafia has succeeded in spreading its tentacles to schools as well. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has revealed in Parliament recently that in the current year more than 81 schoolchildren have been sent for drug rehabilitation. The number of students addicted to drugs could be higher, as President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Priyantha Fernando has said. The drug menace has not spared even rural schools, according to him. It is against this backdrop that the government’s budget proposal to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis for export should be viewed.

Who guards the guards? A survey conducted by the police headquarters has revealed that about 37 police personnel are addicted to drugs in the Western Province. The police are expected to conduct similar surveys in other provinces. Needless to say, addicts in uniform are a danger to society and have to be weeded out.

The government has many problems to wrestle with, but it must redouble its efforts to crush the drug Mafia, which is taking advantage of the current political situation, where the police are apparently doing full-time political work, to expand its operations.

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Editorial

Rapists at large

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Friday 2nd December, 2022

A diplomat attached to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Muscat has been arrested upon his arrival at the BIA and remanded for his alleged involvement in a human trafficking racket, where women smuggled out of this country were forced into prostitution in Oman. According to some media reports, they were auctioned like slaves and raped. But those who have gang-raped the Sri Lankan economy for years can move through the BIA freely.

Basil Rajapaksa, who is one of the politicians responsible for the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy, returned to the country recently through the VIP section of the BIA. Worse, National Police Commission Chief Chandra Fernando himself was among those present there to welcome him; Fernando was seen touching his forelock before Basil! What’s the world coming to when the heads of the so-called Independent Commissions, which have been established to depoliticise public institutions, behave like fawning sycophants before disgraced politicians?

Anyone who commits sex crimes have to be severely dealt with according to the law, and the diplomat from hell who has allegedly collaborated with human traffickers and even sexually abused some of the victims must be made to face the full force of the law. But the question is why no action has been taken against those who rape the economy and inflict so much suffering on the public.

The perpetrators of economic crimes against the nation are back in action, and some of them, who went into hiding during anti-government protests a few moons ago, are now on the offensive; they have started carrying out attacks on their political rivals. They unleashed violence at Hanguranketha on Sunday. Old habits are said to die hard.

The unfortunate Sri Lankan women who were auctioned as sex slaves in Oman can at least hope to have their day in court here, thanks to an effective media campaign against the human traffickers and their accomplices in the Foreign Service, but the victims of the rape of the economy have to suffer in silence. The government has chosen to gag them, and threatened to unleash the military on them in case they take to the streets to voice their grievances.

Basil could not leave for the US in the aftermath of the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July, due to protests against him at the BIA; he had to return. But he left the country via the BIA, with his head held high, following the election by the SLPP of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President, in Parliament. Today, he is given VIP treatment and police escort. This seems to be the only change the current SLPP-UNP administration has brought about!

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe symbiosis reminds us of the sea anemone and the hermit crab. The Rajapaksas’ lot and that of their cronies and the UNP grandees have manifestly improved while the people are undergoing untold hardships. People are in for another shock; electricity tariffs are to be jacked up again next year. Corruption is rampant, and public funds continue to be plundered. The health sector trade unions have blown the lid off a racket involving oxygen concentrators!

There has been a let-up of sorts in public protests, and this seems to have lulled the government politicians into a false sense of security, and emboldened them to make up for lost time, but let them be warned that they are courting danger. What they are experiencing is like the eerie calm and drawback that precede the landfall of a killer tsunami. They are behaving like those who, blinded by greed, and oblivious to danger, tried to grab newly-exposed land when the sea rolled back minutes before the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and perished.

Given the massive build-up of public anger in the polity, the protests that led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will look mere ripples in a puddle in comparison to the next popular uprising, which is bound to happen sooner than expected. There is absolutely no defence against a real People Power revolution. Tinpot Hitlers are not equal to the task of stopping it; even the mighty Chinese Communist Party is struggling to contain a wave of public protests.

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