Tuesday 16th November, 2021
Being in print for four long decades is no mean achievement for any newspaper. The Island passes that milestone, today. Ours has been an arduous journey amidst numerous obstacles, and future challenges are unnervingly daunting, but our long walk shall continue. It is time for reflection and not glorying in achievements. We, however, do not intend to reminisce, in this space, of what we have done during the past eventful 40 years. Instead, we wish to discuss some contemporary issues that warrant serious discussion, given their potential to have a devastating impact on the country.
Parliament is currently debating Budget 2022, whose focus is basically on medium to long term plans to revive the ailing economy. The success of these plans, however, hinges on the government’s ability to solve the current problems the public is beset with. Independent economists have warned that unless some major foreign exchange inflows occur within the next few weeks, it will be well-nigh impossible for Sri Lanka to service its external debt come January, and there will not be enough forex for essential imports such as petroleum, food and medicine. The Sapugaskanda refinery has already stopped operations for want of crude oil. The government insists that the country has enough oil stocks, but how does it propose to replenish supplies vis-a-vis the current forex crunch?
Unless the government tackles the burning problems such as the shortage of essential goods, the foreign exchange crisis and the soaring cost of living, social unrest is bound to find expression in widespread protests, and even political upheavals. Economic recovery and political instability never go hand in hand. It will not be possible for the government to implement even the good proposals in Budget 2022 in such an eventuality.
Public debt has passed the tipping point thanks to ever widening budget deficits, and Sri Lanka finds itself in a catch-22 situation. All governments have contributed to this sorry state of affairs generously during the past several decades, and the present dispensation’s contribution thereto has been significant. The current budget deficit (8.8 percent of GDP), will worsen the situation, independent economists have said, pointing out that Budget 2022 has not proposed a realistic solution to the public debt issue, and one-off taxes and the leasing of state assets will not help manage the problem in a sustainable manner.
It never rains but it pours, as they say. There are clear signs of coronavirus making a comeback, after a tactical retreat. Covid-19 infections are on the rise, and a similar trend is discernible where the pandemic death toll is concerned. The people are behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past; they seem to have left the fight against the pandemic entirely to the government and health workers.
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa did not try to paint a rosy picture of the economic situation when he presented Budget 2022, the other day––and rightly so. But the public does not seem to have got the message. They must be told in no uncertain terms that fist bumps or hongi with the virus will only accelerate the country’s slide into bankruptcy, the threat of which is looming.
One can only hope that the government will stop duping itself, wise up to reality and do what needs to be done urgently; it has to realise that there are no political solutions to economic problems, and papering over the cracks cannot go on indefinitely. It has to grasp the nettle instead of restoring to money printing, which will lead to further increases in the cost of living and exacerbate the foreign exchange crisis.
There is not much time left for the incumbent administration, those who consider themselves the government in waiting, and the public to make a concerted effort to prevent the country from facing the same fate as Lebanon.
Beware of virus bomb
Saturday 4th December, 2021
It never rains but it pours, as they say. A Sri Lankan infected with the Omicron variant of coronavirus has been detected. There must be many other infections in the country, and the detection thereof may be only a matter of time. Most nations hastened to impose travel bans on South Africa, etc., in a bid to prevent the spread of the much-dreaded variant, but all their efforts have manifestly gone pear-shaped. The new variant is smarter than it was thought to be; it is believed to have already spread across the globe.
Sri Lankans have now forgotten gas explosions and are talking about the possibility of another explosive spread of the pandemic. They are sure to go on speaking about Omicron instead of doing what needs to be done urgently.
Prof. Neelika Malavige, Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, has urged the public to follow the health guidelines strictly instead of worrying about coronavirus variants. That is the only way to prevent infections, she has said. One cannot but agree with the eminent scientist at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s fight against the elusive virus. If the people do as health experts say, then they do not have to fear any variant of coronavirus because the virus cannot spread without human assistance. As a good doctor once said, the virus cannot walk, vault over parapet walls and creep into houses to infect humans. It is the people who take it home.
Since the reopening of the country following the last lockdown, Sri Lankans have been behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. There are well-attended weddings, and other such events where people do not abide by health regulations, at all. Pubs were reopened even before schools! Buses and trains are overcrowded again; nobody seems to care two hoots about preventive measures other than wearing masks, that too perfunctorily. They seem to believe that double jabbing is the proverbial silver bullet, and the country has already acquired herd immunity. But reality is otherwise, scientists inform us.
The government deserves credit for its successful vaccination programme, but it must not rest on its oars. It must go all out to ensure that the health regulations are strictly enforced. It must not hesitate to reimpose restrictions on gatherings and even travel if the health experts think such measures are necessary to curb the spread of the superfast Omicron variant. The time is now; tomorrow may be too late. It is prudent to opt for restrictions early and avert another lockdown, which will send the economy belly up, and lead to unprecedented socio-economic problems.
It behoves political parties and trade unions to act with restraint, and refrain from holding mass protests, which will make only the virus happy. The government had better stop provoking workers and the Opposition, and put on hold all controversial deals such as the New Fortress agreement, which has led to a power sector ca’canny, which is very likely to develop into a strike unless the government scraps the backdoor power deal at issue. On Thursday, a group of irate CEB engineers gheraoed one of their administrators over disciplinary action taken against a union member allegedly for political reasons.
Yesterday’s countryside power outage can be considered a foretaste of what to come. A large number of institutions have introduced work from home in view of the pandemic, and tens of thousands of workers have become dependent on the national grid to carry out their duties and functions. Many of them had to travel to their workplaces, yesterday, due to the power failure, exposing themselves to the runaway virus.
The number of Covid-19 patients remains very high, and the death toll is also showing signs of increasing. Infections among schoolchildren are on the rise, and these early warnings must be taken seriously if a rise in the pandemic death rate and another lockdown are to be averted.
Ranjan reduced to mere slogan?
Friday 3rd December, 2021
The Opposition has embarked on a campaign to have former SJB MP Ranjan Ramanayake released from prison, we are told. Posters have appeared in some areas, calling him a political prisoner. One may have sympathy for the outspoken former MP although he brought his trouble on himself, but it defies comprehension why he is being called a political prisoner.
Ramanayake cannot be considered a political prisoner by any stretch of the imagination, and those who use this terminological inexactitude are doing a great disservice to the cause of real political prisoners. In this country, politicians or even terrorists or terror backers arrested or sentenced to jail are promptly dubbed political prisoners much to the detriment of the interests of the real prisoners of conscience. On the other hand, a campaign based on an unprovable claim has a foundation of sand.
Politics had nothing to do with what landed Ramanayake in prison. He would not have found himself behind bars if he had cared to exercise control over his restless tongue. However, given the fact that many lawbreakers are moving about freely and carrying out their sordid operations with impunity, one wonders how fair it is to keep Ramanayake in jail. Those who are trying to secure his release may have a better chance of success if they care to be truthful.
Ramanayake did something wrong; he made a derogatory statement in public about judges and it was found to be an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. He should have known better than to make such a sweeping statement and repeat it, thereby presumably causing an erosion of public faith in the judiciary. But the penalty he received—four years of rigorous imprisonment—is unusually severe for the offence of contempt of court.
Convicted criminals of all sorts, ranging from rapists to murderers, have received presidential pardons in this country. Besides, S. B. Dissanayake, who made a derogatory remark about the Supreme Court and was sentenced to RI for two years, benefited from a presidential pardon. Ven. Galabotaaththe Gnanasara Thera serving a jail term for contempt of court also received a presidential pardon. So, the question is why Ramanayake should not be treated likewise. Gnanasara Thera is now in charge of the government’s one-country-one-law project, of all things!
Opposition politicians may go on complaining or protesting until they are blue in the face, but there is absolutely no way they will be able to secure the release of Ramanayake under their own steam. Their efforts are bound to come a cropper, and Ramanayake’s plight will remain a mere political slogan unless they do what needs to be done. Only President Gotabaya Rajapaska is capable of having Ramanayake released from prison. The Opposition should face reality. It is left with no alternative but to request the President to grant a presidential pardon to Ramanayake.
Far be it from us to tell the President who should be given presidential pardons, but we believe Ramanayake deserves one, and he should tender an apology to the judiciary. It is being claimed in some quarters that Ramanayake will emerge a hero if he serves the full jail term and therefore he should not seek a presidential pardon.
It is up to Ramanayaka to ask for a pardon or serve the remainder of his sentence; he will be mistaken if he thinks his prison stay will make him a hero.
Opposition and Sudden Savant syndrome
Thursday 2nd December, 2021
Why is it that only the Opposition politicians have brainwaves? Exceptional abilities are said to emerge in some ordinary people after brain injury or disease. We reported a few years ago that an American youth who dropped out of college as he was extremely weak in mathematics had become a brilliant mathematician all of a sudden after being hit in the head by a flying bottle in a pub. (Commenting on the incident, we warned the Sri Lankan youth that suffering head injuries in pub brawls was not the way to improve their mathematical skills!) Numerous such incidents have been reported from several parts of the world. This phenomenon has come to be called the Sudden Savant Syndrome. Where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned, epiphany-like moments occur in them only after traumatic electoral shocks. This is why some politicians act sensibly and come out with brilliant ideas when they are in the Opposition. Sri Lankans therefore say, “Mole thiyanakota bale ne bale thiyanakota mole ne, or when politicians have brains, they have no power, and vice versa.”
Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella told Parliament yesterday that the MPs should be allowed to pursue legal or higher studies, given their legislative experience. This is a sensible idea. In the 1970s, there was such a scheme; the MPs could enter the Law College, as Kiriella has pointed out, and some of the present-day political leaders including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa benefited from it. Why it was scrapped is the question. It should be reintroduced for the benefit of the lawmakers.
A person who gains experience as a member of Parliament should be able to gain university or Law College admission, the Chief Opposition Whip said. However, not all MPs could be considered qualified, for many of them do not use the time allocated for them in Parliament productively; some MPs do not make any contribution to parliamentary debates. They only bellow rhetoric and insult others when they are given opportunities to speak. The MPs who make an effort to improve their performance and knowledge should be allowed to pursue legal or higher education while others who exchange blows and trade raw filth in the House should be denied nominations to contest future elections.
Educational opportunities should be made available to everyone, and courses of study designed for this purpose as in other countries. Those who miss opportunities to achieve their educational goals for various reasons when they are young should be able to realise their dreams later in life if they so desire. Education is a right, and must be treated as such.
In 2019, the then MP Ranjan Ramanayake sat the GCE O/L examination at the age of 56 as he wanted to obtain a better grade for the English language. We praised him editorially for his keenness to study, and urged other MPs to emulate him because this is the right attitude that everyone must adopt. Ramanayake said he wanted to study law, but unfortunately, he is now languishing behind bars because he, in his wisdom, caused an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. He should have studied law earlier.
People should be encouraged not to let their age, chronological or biological, stand in the way of their education. Varatha Shanmuganathan, 87, who migrated to Canada from Sri Lanka, and earned a master’s degree, last month, has shown the way. If a grandma can do so, why can’t others?
Meanwhile, education alone does not make a good lawmaker. Basically, people’s representatives must be intelligent men and women of integrity with a passion for public service. Kiriella has said the MPs are intelligent because they accomplish the extremely difficult task of getting elected. Yes, there are some intelligent lawmakers, but others are blessed with cunning, which should not be confused with intelligence. Most politicians have achieved success through unscrupulous means, and it is doubtful whether they will mend their ways even if they receive postgraduate degrees. What power politics reflect in this country is the law of the jungle, and political dregs with the wherewithal and right connections go places at the expense of educated, intelligent, decent men and women. The emergence of dynastic politics has worsened the situation. Political leaders and their children have all the luck, and others have to settle for crumbs from their tables.
However, it should be stressed that the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition should give serious thought to devising a scheme to help not only the MPs but also all other elected representatives desirous of receiving a decent education achieve their dream.
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