Thursday 20th January, 2022
Pickpockets and Sri Lankan politicians have many things in common, besides being nimble-fingered. Their modi operandi are similar in most respects. They steal from the people in such a way that the latter do not realise their losses until it is too late. Pickpockets have their accomplices kick up fake shindies in public, and prey on curious onlookers who jostle and shove to get a better view of such incidents. Those who watch such pulse-racing ‘brawls’ return home minus their wallets. This is apparently what the incumbent government is doing to the public.
Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge and Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila have engaged in a war of words over fuel supplies to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and their verbal battles that television stations liberally beam into many a parlour almost daily have assumed the form of public entertainment.
Lokuge has been blaming the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for the fuel shortage the CEB’s thermal power plants are experiencing, and Gammanpila has been maintaining that the CPC cannot issue any more fuel unless the CEB settles its outstanding bills and makes dollars available. Perhaps, it is for the first time the CPC has asked the CEB to make payments in dollars! Thankfully, the CPC has supplied a stock of fuel to the CEB, but power cuts continue.
Lokuge and Gammanpila could have sorted out their differences at Cabinet meetings, or in private. Both the CPC and the CEB are state-owned entities dependent on the Treasury for funds. It is up to the Treasury to make funds available for these two institutions in times of crisis, and the responsibility for this lies with the person who controls the public purse—Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
Lokuge and Gammanpila seem to have volunteered to be whipping boys for Finance Minister Rajapaksa, whom nobody is criticising for the power crisis. Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Althugamage is taking all the whipping for the sake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the government’s botched organic fertiliser experiment. It is his effigies that irate farmers are burning although the organic fertiliser drive is the President’s brainchild. If Aluthgamage thinks he will be rewarded for doing so, he is mistaken. He will be used and discarded like karapincha (curry leaves).
Having witnessed the fate that befell Susil Premjayantha, who ruffled the feathers of the members of the ruling family, and lost his ministerial portfolio, other ministers seem to be trying to humour their bosses lest they should also be stripped of their positions. Minister Wimal Weerawansa is also defending the government as never before! No minister wants to lose his or her Cabinet post; it is a fate worse than death for any politician thirsting for power.
Time was when power and energy sectors were kept together under one ministry, and their bifurcation has been welcomed by experts, but the ongoing fake clashes between the two ministers in charge of them would not have been possible if they had remained merged. What would be the situation if the power and energy sectors were brought under either Lokuge or Gammanpila, or any other minister? There would be no ministerial ‘clashes’ over them for public consumption.
The current squabble between Lokuge and Gammanpila has effectively distracted public attention away from the real causes of the crises in the power and energy sectors—the government’s poor economic management, the crippling foreign currency crisis that has resulted mainly from the investment of huge amounts of borrowed dollars in useless mega projects, and widespread corruption that drives foreign investors away.
The government has succeeded in defraying criticism thanks to the verbal clashes between Lokuge and Gammanpila. If they become too embarrassing for it to defend, it will reshuffle the Cabinet, and give them some other portfolios; the problems in the power and energy sectors will remain, but the public will be so confused as to decide whom to direct their anger at. One wonders whether the government is setting the stage for another round of fuel price hikes or an increase in electricity tariff by having problems in the power and energy sectors highlighted.
Restoring dignity of legislature
Tuesday 17th May, 2022
There has been a severe erosion of public faith in all three branches of government, albeit to varying degrees. The less said about the executive, the better; it has become a total failure. The scales of justice are tilted in favour of politicians in power and their kith and kin, and rogues walk free, as a result. The legislature has become a huge liability, and one sees hardly any difference between it and the Mattala International Airport.
The country is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, but the legislature apparently does not care two hoots about people’s suffering. Parliament should have convened a few days earlier to discuss ways and means of resolving the worsening crisis and restoring social order, but the Speaker’s request to the President to summon Parliament urgently went unheeded. The party leaders were also not keen to have Parliament convened before 17 May. Instead, they had some meetings themselves; they are all hat and no cattle. Even when the House is in session, its members are busy settling political scores instead of addressing national issues. Some sensible MPs have called for a course correction, warning that the people are so incensed that they might even set Parliament on fire. Their warning should be heeded if trouble is to be averted.
Parliament always gets its priorities mixed up, and wastes its time and public funds. The recent election of the Deputy Speaker is a case in point. Deputy Speaker Ranjith Siyambalapitya resigned because his party, the SLFP, pulled out of the government. He was re-elected to the same post a few days later. He resigned again on some flimsy grounds. The House is scheduled to elect a new Deputy Speaker, today. No wonder, protesters are trying to march on Parliament.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said Parliament should have a female Deputy Speaker. One cannot but agree with him on this score. In a male-dominated House, women must be able to have their voice heard. It is hoped that a female MP will be unanimously elected to that post, today, for several reasons.
Women, who constitute more than one half of the Sri Lankan population, are not adequately represented in Parliament or any other political institution; we have only 12 female MPs at present. There should be more women in Parliament as well as the Cabinet. Respect for women is zero in the House. Some MPs have the despicable habit of dragging others’ mothers and wives into their slanging matches, and their speeches are replete with smutty jokes or other forms of double entendre or risqué humour. There are occasions when the men in kapati suits even trade raw filth unflinchingly. The situation is far worse in the local government institutions, where female councillors are not even allowed to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. They complain that whenever they take the floor, they are greeted with boos and catcalls from their male counterparts. Harassment has caused them to sink their political differences and fight for their rights, together, and they deserve public support for their struggle. We suggest that the misogynists in the garb of people’s representatives who harass female representatives in Parliament, the local councils, etc., be named and shamed besides being made to face disciplinary action.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is reported to have decided to form several committees consisting of the MPs of all political parties to explore ways and means of tackling various issues. This idea is sure to find favour with those who want to see the country come out of the present crisis. We believe that there is a need for the appointment of a special parliamentary committee consisting of female MPs to address the issues that affect housewives and other women.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, like his predecessors, has been struggling to restore the dignity of Parliament, but it is doubtful whether his efforts have yielded the desired results; protesters are demanding that all 225 MPs go home. One can only hope Parliament will get its priorities right, and refrain from turning the election of the Deputy Speaker into a political battle.
Monday 16th May, 2022
It never rains but it pours. Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of misfortunes during recent years, but there seems to be no end to them. A report published by The Hindu says the Indian intelligence has warned that the LTTE is regrouping to carry out terrorist attacks in this country; it must have sent a chill down the spine of every peace-loving Sri Lankan.The Indian media reported that the Defence Ministry of Lanka had initially denied the report in question as baseless, and claimed there was no such threat; it had received no intelligence warning of any such threat. But according to a news item published in this newspaper today, the Defence Ministry says it has sought more information from the Indian intelligence agencies about the warning. It had better act fast; it has a history of dillydallying, making colossal blunders and jeopardising national security. In 2019, it took an Indian intelligence outfit’s warning of a series of bomb attacks for granted, and a group of terrorists carried out the Easter Sunday carnage with ease.
If there is no threat of LTTE attacks, as the Defence Ministry seems to imply, every peace-loving Sri Lankan will be happy, but in dealing with terrorism, a state has to plan for the worst-case scenario if surprises are to be avoided. Terrorists make the most of economic crises, and socio-political upheavals to stage comebacks. There has been irrefutable evidence of attempts being made consistently to revive the LTTE.In January 2022, the Tamil Nadu police busted an international network of ex-Tiger cadres and sympathisers engaged in raising funds for reviving the LTTE. According to The Hindu, in October 2021, the National Investigation Agency of India revealed before a special court in Kochi that ‘two Tamil Nadu natives arrested in connection with the seizure of drugs, were working secretly for furthering the activities of the LTTE under the supervision of leaders of the organisation in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and other foreign countries.’ In 2010, the Indian police arrested three LTTE cadres with more than 5,000 detonators which were to be smuggled into Sri Lanka. Several LTTE cadres have been arrested with arms and explosives in this country as well. In January 2017, the Terrorist Investigation Department arrested four ex-Tigers over an alleged plot to assassinate a TNA MP in Jaffna.What remains of the LTTE may not be so strong as to mount large-scale attacks but some of its cadres may be able to carry out ambushes, political assassinations, and attacks on civilian targets.One can only hope that the Defence authorities will do everything in their power to neutralise possible terrorist threats, and what is feared will not come to pass.
Curiouser and curiouser
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reportedly said the ‘Gotago Gama’ protest should go on, and the government is ready to provide necessary assistance to the protesters. There is absolutely no need for state sponsorship, as it were, for an anti-government protest; and the protesters themselves have rejected the PM’s offer out of hand, for such assistance will be tantamount to the kiss of death for the protest movement. The protesters have asked the PM to ensure that the SLPP goons who attacked them on 09 May are arrested and prosecuted. This demand is nothing but fair and should be granted forthwith.It will be interesting to know the reaction of the President’s Office to the PM’s offer at issue to the protesters. What will happen in case of the protesters achieving their goal—the ouster of the President—and who will stand to gain in such an eventuality?
Another power centre in the government is bound to emerge around the newly-appointed Prime Minister. The government has undertaken to restore the 19th Amendment fully in the form of the 21st Amendment to be brought in. If this pledge is carried out, the President will be stripped of his vital executive powers, and the Prime Minister will become the de facto Head of State; a defeated candidate who has entered Parliament via the National List will become more powerful than the President elected by 6.9 million people! Such a scenario will make a mockery of the people’s franchise.
Welcome to Sri Lanka, a land like no other!
Ranil with president, people or both?
New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told a British journalist at the Walukaramaya temple where he had gone to obtain blessings after being sworn as prime minister for the sixth time in his 73 years that Churchill became Britain’s prime minister in 1939 with only four MPs. He’s become Sri Lanka’s with one! This was typical Wickremesinghe parrying questions with debating flair. He knows European history, perhaps a little better than he knows Sri Lanka’s. But there too he is no neophyte. Hours after his swearing, Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha, today a very visible political monk in the anti-Gotabaya camp declared this was a “deal.” What else can it be? How else can the man who brought the UNP down to zero in the incumbent parliament, and thereafter procrastinated for months in filling their only national list seat before taking it himself become the prime minister of a government not yet into its second year?
What can be the bottom line of any alleged deal? Obviously there will be no chasing Ali Baba and his forty thieves. That said, there will be many who will believe that Ranil is the best man for the present moment. He has more experience than any of his rivals in the political field and he is certainly no fool. His pro-western and pro-business tilt is a given. That perhaps was why one of the earliest congratulatory tweets was from the U.S. ambassador in Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Namal too were among the early tweeters. Maybe they feel less hounded now. GR obviously would not have made his pick without the confidence that the majority of the SLPP will back his choice. That however may not be unanimous. Vasudeva Nanayakkara for instance cannot be expected to support a UNP prime minister. But there are many that can be influenced by office; others by protection and not a few must watch their backs. Aiyo (or Cheerio) Sirisena can tilt either way; but however that be, he will not he able to chart the course for the whole group of SLFP MPs. Also, will Sajith Premadasa who has clearly dropped a catch by procrastinating in taking an offer he now feels he should not have refused be able to hold his group together?
There are capable, untainted MPs in the SJB with the ability to selflessly serve a national revival government that the country desperately needs. Wickremesinghe will be glad to have them. But whether they will chance their future political careers by serving a government created by a political horse deal remains to be seen. Public opinion is near unanimous that what GR has done is in the Rajapaksa interest including his own. Anybody coming on board will not be cheered. No doubt many Pohottuwa MPs, bleeding from the blows that their personal property have taken from the ugly turn of what was at first an idealistic, non-violent protest to get the Rajapksas out of the national polity, will now do what’s best for themselves: protection from further attack and, perhaps, compensation down the road. They will remember REPIA (Rehabilitation of Property and Industries Authority) that followed Black July 1983 when victims were compensated.
That Gotabaya must go remains the national demand and it is unlikely (if not impossible) that the president has appointed a prime minister who is out for his blood. Mahinda Rajapaksa, before he succumbed to lunacy and let loose an organized horde on the Galle Face protesters appeared confident of his numbers in parliament. Despite all that has happened since, the likelihood is that the no confidence vote against the president, like the touted impeachment, remains a long shot. If that is the way the process unravels and the outcome favours Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Ranil Wickremesinghe is home and dry. But for how long is an imponderable in the context of what cinema-goers brand as a “fast breaking serial.”
The Colombo stock market reacted positively to the political developments with both the broad based All Share Price Index and S&P SL20 covering more liquid shares gaining sharply on Friday on a respectable turnover. That, of course, does not mean that investors are now confident that Sri Lanka has turned the corner and is back on track towards regaining political and economic stability. Stock indicators are volatile and their signals are for the day; not even for the short term. Important considerations on whether a new prime minister and government are going to be good for the country will include the external view. The West is likely to favour present developments and India may fall in line. Whether China will come on board is an open question.
Soon after his swearing, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the Galle Face protests will be allowed to continue as at present and there will be no interference. But hours before he said that police warned over loudspeakers on the green that a curfew was on and nobody was permitted in public places. But they didn’t enforce their threat. Already burnt by their tepid response to the Temple Trees horde setting upon the ‘Gota Go Home’ crowd, the Rambukkana shooting and perhaps what happened to SDIG Deshabandu Tennekoon, the cops were pussyfooting. But the ‘clear the green’ announcement would not have been made without clearance from the top. Now there’s a ‘lay off’ order from the new PM. So let’s wait and see how events unfold.
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