Wednesday 13th April, 2022
Sri Lanka has had to suspend foreign debt payments for the first time. It is a sad day for every Sri Lankan. This measure has become unavoidable for two reasons. The country has to prevent a hard default; foreign debt payment due this year is reportedly about USD 4 billion including a USD 1 billion international sovereign bond maturing in July. It badly needs dollars for essential imports which are in short supply much to the consternation of the people, who have taken to the streets demanding relief and the ouster of the government. Political stability is essential for economic recovery, and vice versa. The country is thus in a catch-22 situation. It has come under a pall of political uncertainty, which has stood in the way of measures being adopted to save the economy. People’s economic hardships act as jet fuel for social unrest, which hinders economic recovery.
The need for debt restructuring cannot be overstated; but that task requires the consent of creditors, who will ask for a cast iron guarantee that their investments are safe and they will get returns thereon. It is doubtful whether the current political turmoil will help win their confidence.
It is hoped that when more forex is available for imports, and supplies are replenished, long queues will disappear—hopefully—making it possible for tension on the political front to be defused.
Newly appointed Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe has assured that the drastic measure at issue is only temporary, and the country will reach an agreement with the creditors concerned. One can only hope that the government pundits will allow the three men—the CB Governor, new Finance Minister Ali Sabry and new Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana—and their teams of experts do what they deem necessary to tackle the economic crisis.
Needless to say, political upheavals drive away foreign investors and tourists and cost the country a great deal of much-needed foreign exchange. They also affect national productivity, which is a prerequisite for economic development. Neither the protesters nor the government politicians are willing to soften their stands. Both sides remain intransigent, making the country’s economic recovery an uphill task.
Protesters want the entire government to resign, and the latter is apparently playing a waiting game—maybe on the advice of its astrologers including Gnanakka—in the hope that protests will fizzle out with the passage of time, and its leaders will be able to crawl out of the woodwork and do more of what they have been doing.
The government does not seem to have realised the gravity of the situation. Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said very little in so many words when they addressed the nation. The PM did not say anything new on Monday; he only repeated himself, and was seen to be making an effort to justify his decision to stay put amidst calls for his resignation.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa should have apologised to the nation, on Monday, for having wasted billions of dollars on Ozymandian projects like the Hambantota Harbour, the Suriyawewa cricket stadium, the Mattala Airport and the Lotus Tower. All Rajapaksa governments have been characterised by rampant corruption, which has led to an increase in national debt. The PM should also have explained to the public why the current administration had not sought IMF assistance at the first signs of trouble, the way his government had done in 2009 to avert an economic disaster.
The CBSL says it warned of the present crisis a long time ago but the government did not heed its warning. The yahapalana government ignored a warning by a foreign intelligence service of the Easter Sunday attacks, and more than 270 lives were lost, as a result. The present administration’s refusal to take on board the CBSL’s advice has turned the country into a hellhole, as it were, for 22 million people who have been left without essentials.
The government is struggling for survival, and let Parliament be urged to initiate action to abolish the 20th Amendment and reduce the executive powers of the President so that an interim arrangement could be worked out to facilitate the country’s economic recovery.
We wish our readers a happy New Year!
A dangerous trend
Tuesday 5th July, 2022
Fossil fuel is highly inflammable and has to be handled with care, as is known to everyone. Shortages thereof could also be so, in a manner of speaking, as evident from how tempers flare in fuel queues, igniting violence. There have been countless untoward incidents at filling stations, some of which even had to be closed temporarily as a result. The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse. Now, protesters are clashing with the police and security forces personnel directly. An armed soldier was stabbed at a fuel station in Embilipitiya, the other day, and an army officer was seen kicking a protester elsewhere. This is an extremely dangerous trend. When the armed forces are deployed to control angry crowds, violent encounters are to be expected.
In May, the country witnessed a spate of violence in the aftermath of the SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters. Organised gangs wearing full-face helmets carried out arson attacks in a very systematic manner as if they had rehearsed for those destructive acts. Luckily, they failed to sustain the wave of violence, but they may be able to compass their anarchical ends if clashes between the people and the armed forces erupt.
The best way to defuse widespread tensions is to make fuel freely available, but given the prevailing forex crunch and the attendant shortages of essential imports, the government must at least make a serious effort to ration fuel to be imported and bring profiteers to justice. Cynics say Sri Lanka has become an oil rich country of sorts although pumps at its filling stations have run dry. This situation has come about thanks to hoarders who are making a killing while the ordinary people have been left without any fuel. At this rate, the government might not be able to solve the fuel shortage even if a dozen ships carrying oil were to arrive in quick succession. Raids continue to yield huge amounts of hoarded diesel and petrol, but we believe that the police are only scratching the surface of the problem. If handsome rewards are offered for information that leads to the seizure of hoarded fuel, and raids are stepped up with more decoys being deployed, the police will be able to seize at least a shipload of fuel from hoarders.
What characterises the petroleum sector is utter chaos with racketeers having a field day. Most vehicles, especially trishaws, do not leave queues even after being refuelled; they keep returning and obtaining diesel and petrol continuously at the expense of others, who are left without any fuel as a result. Most trishaws are not available for hire these days, for it is much more lucrative to wait in queues, obtain fuel and sell it on the black market, where a litre of petrol or diesel fetches as much as Rs. 2,000. The success of any strategy to dispense fuel equitably will hinge on the government’s ability to hold unscrupulous elements at bay until fuel supplies are restored to the pre-crisis level. The recently-introduced token system has manifestly failed, and it is only natural that the government has dissociated itself from this harebrained scheme.
The government should introduce fuel rationing urgently. Perhaps, it should seriously consider adopting the odd-even rationing and having fuel stations stamp a mini calendar on the reverse of the revenue licence of every vehicle so that dates on which fuel is issued can be cancelled, at the pump, preferably by the police. This scheme, we believe, may help halve the number of vehicles waiting in fuel queues, infuse the public with confidence and thereby thwart speculation, which results in hoarding.
Meanwhile, when diesel is issued, priority has to be given to vehicles engaged in public transport and tourism, trucks transporting essentials, fishing craft, etc. This does not happen at present; even the owners of super luxury SUVs that do not do more than four to five kilometres to a litre of petrol or diesel have unlimited access to fuel. Many such gas guzzlers have been sighted at the CPC’s Kolonnawa storage terminal, where fuel is said to be issued to the so-called VVIPs, while the majority of private buses cannot operate for want of diesel.
The root cause of the fuel crisis is the shortage of forex, but the government’s cavalier attitude and inability to introduce a proper rationing system have aggravated it and are likely to plunge the country into anarchy with people clashing with the police and the armed forces, much to the glee of the so-called Helmet Brigade waiting in the wings for another opportunity.
Lessons from Libya
Angry protesters have set the Libyan Parliament building on fire. They have been calling for elections. Continuing power cuts, soaring prices, months of political deadlock, etc., have driven the Libyans to extreme action although their demands have been endorsed by the interim Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has also agreed in principle to the need to overhaul all state institutions. Libya is in chaos today with rival parties vying for power and killing one another because of the western-backed regime change in 2011.
Muammar Gaddafi was an eccentric dictator, who had to be made to uphold democracy, but the West had other plans and destabilised Libya by supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces that included Jihadist fighters. Until the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya had boasted not only political stability but also excellent living standards, which were the highest in Africa and easily compared with those in the developed countries; it had one of the best social welfare schemes in the world. The Arab Spring has turned out to be a winter of despair for Libyans.
Prevailing economic, social and political conditions in Sri Lanka are similar to those in Libya at present in some respects, and have the potential to plunge the country into lawlessness just like the north African nation in depths of anarchy. This is something both the government and the Opposition should take cognisance of.
The government is groping in the dark. The Opposition parties are pulling in different directions, demanding that they be allowed to govern the country. They have said they will join forces to hold a continuous protest in Colombo, seeking the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The removal of the President may be the most effective way of extricating the country from the tentacles of the Rajapaksa family, which is aggravating the crisis by leveraging Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dependence on Basil Rajapaksa’s SLPP. Now, some Basil loyalists such as SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, are crawling out of the woodwork. But the ground reality is that President Rajapaksa cannot be ousted so easily. Unless he resigns, he has to be impeached. The process of impeaching the President is a tedious one, and the Opposition is without sufficient numbers in Parliament for that purpose. A sustained protest campaign backed by a general strike may be considered an option, but such a course of action will be tantamount to collective suicide in that political upheavals will destroy the economy and deprive the country of the much-needed foreign assistance. The way out, in our book, is to crank up pressure on President Rajapaksa to appoint a truly national government so that all political parties will have to stop protesting and make a contribution towards crisis management.
Sri Lankans are a credulous lot. They swallowed Dhammika peniya (syrup), which was touted as a cure for Covid-19. Gotabaya offered a political peniya, (read the Vistas of Prosperity) claiming that it was the cure for all ills of Sri Lanka, and the people fell hook, line, and sinker for it only to be disappointed. Now, they are being offered the Sajith peniya and the Anura Kumara peniya. The SJB consists of a bunch of politicians who were in the yahapalana government, which failed. The country is paying the price for having elected, as its President, a person without any experience in statecraft. The JVP, which could not run even a local government institution properly, is now demanding the reins of government. Its ideology is an anachronism in the modern world, and its utopian dream may be marketable but is not attainable.
The Opposition parties must be prevented from using the present crisis to hoodwink the public, capture power, and thereafter go on asking for time to find a solution while blaming their predecessors. No single party is equal to the task of helping straighten up the economy under its own steam, and there will have to be a concerted effort. That is why all political parties must be made to form a unity government and carry out their promises collectively pending a general election. They have to make necessary laws and policies to enable the technocrats of the Finance Ministry, the Central Bank, etc., to resuscitate the economy. Nobody will be safe if the country slides into anarchy with the irate public marching on Parliament.
Guns in wrong hand
Recent news on the results of inadequate gun control laws in the United States of America reminds us Lankans in this so-called Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka, of the gun control here we have known in the past and what applies at present. Older readers would remember the redoubtable C. Sutheralingam who sailed into the then coveted Ceylon Civil Service and then resigned saying he was “tired of signing gun licences and dog licences” in various kachcheris. A mathematical genius, he reverted to academia as Professor of Mathematics in the University College and later served as a Minister of the first D.S. Senanayake government of then Independent Ceylon.
From the British colonial era, Ceylonese as we were then, were not permitted to own firearms without a licence. These were issued by the government at various kachcheris after a careful evaluation of whether the permit holder was a fit and proper person to hold a firearm. In the early days gun licences were not easy to obtain but not as difficult as later; for example during the JVP’s first and second insurrections and during the civil war. Those of us who are old enough remember that the JVP commandeered a large number of shotguns issued to permit holders mainly for crop protection. Guns then had to be surrendered to police stations so that they were safe from marauding insurgents. Ironically many police stations were overrun and their own armouries as well as firearms surrendered for safe custody were taken away. This is history.
In the past few weeks we have seen a series of brazen daylight murders by gunmen on motorbikes blazing away at their victims in offences most likely connected to the narcotics trade that is rampant in the country. Automatic weapons have been used in several of these killings. Obviously the weapons used are not licenced. One little remembered aspects of our long drawn civil war was that there was leakage of military hardware imported into the country to fight the northern insurgency. The military trained a large number of youth, many from rural areas, in the use of firearms. There has been no proper accounting of firearms lost from military armouries during the war years and thereafter. Deserters often took away arms that were never recovered. There are also firearms the JVP robbed during its two adventures that remain unaccounted. Then there are the guns issued to politicians for self-defence at a time there was a very real threat to their lives. Many of these were not returned by those to whom they were issued.
We believe that even today politicians, or at least their personal security officers, are issued firearms. The recent killing of an MP and mob attacks on, homes of politicians and their property is evidence enough of their need to be armed. However that be, it is obvious that a great number of ‘leaked’ firearms are possessed by the not inconsiderable underworld operating with near impunity in this country. Such arms are frequently used in acts of crime and seldom recovered. It is necessary for the concerned authorities to take cognizance of this reality. Many of us, rightly we believe, are convinced that this bankrupt country, in addition to its bloated public service, extravagantly incurs defence expenditures totally unrelated to our needs since the war ended. But getting rid of military personnel, trained in using firearms, into an economy that cannot offer jobs is positively dangerous. Bangladesh discovered this to its cost with its Mukti Bahini created at the time of the liberation war. Releasing trained and often armed soldiers or para militaries into the civilian world without proper employment available to them can mean buying trouble.
Many of us have strong opinions that the new gun control regulation, first in three decades, recently passed by the U.S. Congress is too little, too late. The U.S. has been bedevilled over a very long period of time by wanton killings enabled by lax gun laws in that country. The National Rifle Association (NRA), an immensely wealthy organization known to fund the Republican Party has for decades successfully lobbied against vitally needed gun control laws. This was most recently illustrated by the brutal massacre of 19 toddler and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But it must be acknowledged that the bill recently enacted by Congress is significant in that it received an unprecedented level of support from Republicans. All 50 Democratic Senators and 15 Republicans endorsed the bill in a 65-33 vote.
President Biden is on record saying, “After 28 years of inaction, bipartisan members of Congress came together to heed the call of families across the country and passed legislation to address the scourge of gun violence in our communities”. Although these new regulations fall far short of the controls required to contain the “scourge of gun violence” in the USA, a scourge that has claimed the lives of close to 40,000 lives per year for decades, it’s still a start. As far as we are concerned, our problem is nowhere near that of the U.S. where guns can be easily and freely purchased. While this is not so in Sri Lanka, far too many military weapons imported for use in the war continue to be in the wrong hands.
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