Friday 9th June, 2023
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana finds himself in an unenviable position over the arrest of All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader and MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who was granted bail after being produced before the Kilinochchi Magistrate’s Court, on Wednesday. He is under fire from the Opposition, which says he did precious little to prevent Ponnambalam’s arrest, but the government MPs have endorsed police action. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has said he does not approve of what MP Ponnambalam is alleged to have done, but the latter should not have been arrested on his way to Parliament. He thinks there has been a breach of parliamentary privileges.
Speaker Abeywardana insists that he is without power or authority to prevent the police from making arrests. The question is whether the police would have been allowed to arrest a government MP for berating the police, or whether any action would have been taken against Ponnambalam if he had been supportive of the ruling coalition. When MP Ali Sabri Raheem, who has crossed over to the government, was recently nabbed by the Customs at the BIA, with 3.5 kilos of gold and nearly 100 smartphones, he was allowed to walk free after paying a fine amounting to only 10 percent of the value of the contraband goods, which were confiscated. Pointing out that a smuggler without political connections would have been made to pay a fine equal to the total value of the illicit goods taken into custody, the Opposition has asked why no action was taken against MP Raheem for violating the exchange control laws.
In a widely-circulated video, MP Ponnambalam is seen launching into a tirade against a group of policemen, one of whom pays him back in his own coin, in Vadamarachchi, recently. According to media reports, the incident took place near a GCE O/L examination centre; did it disturb the students sitting the exam, and if so, action should be taken against all those responsible for the commotion. Such behaviour is unbecoming to the so-called lawmakers and law-enforcement officers.
The Vadamarachchi incident would not have developed into a mega issue if MP Ponnambalam had made a statement to the police when he was asked to do so. In fact, there would have been no issue at all if he had refrained from confronting the police personnel, allegedly obstructing them in the process; the situation, we believe, could have been handled wisely. The matter, which is now before a Magistrate, is best left to the learned judge. We only discuss some political aspects thereof.
We usually do not have a kind word to say about the police, but they should be treated with respect, and must not be obstructed while on duty. All politicians, save a few, ride roughshod over the police albeit to varying degrees, but angry reactions from the latter are extremely rare. Will the police stand up to the unruly government MPs as well?
All MPs must be treated equally. What MP Ponnambalam is alleged to have done in Vadamarachchi pales into insignificance in comparison to charges against State Minister Diana Gamage; the CID did not arrest her even though the Colombo Chief Magistrate held that the police could take her into custody without a warrant. What made the police baulk at arresting her? Is it that the government thinks all MPs are equal before the law but the members of its parliamentary group are ‘more equal than’ others?
As for the clashes between the MPs and the police, one may recall that in late 2018, the Rajapakasa loyalists in the UPFA parliamentary group went berserk in Parliament in a bid to prevent the UNP and its allies including the JVP and the TNA from toppling the 52-day government, hurriedly formed by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a questionable manner.
They turned violent in the House, and even lunged menacingly at Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who had to be escorted to safety. They then damaged furniture and microphones in the House and threw chairs at the policemen protecting the beleaguered Speaker. It is a non-bailable offence to damage public property. But no cases were filed against those violent MPs.
What’s the world coming to when the MPs who throw projectiles at the police inside Parliament itself and smash up public property are let off the hook but legal action is taken against an MP for hurling verbal abuse against some police personnel and allegedly obstructing them? The government has made a mockery of its ‘one-country-one-law’ slogan, which it makes out to be its guiding principle. The aforesaid instances of duplicity make one wonder whether that catchphrase should be changed to ‘one-country-two-laws’.
The India – Canada spat
Opinion will surely be divided on whether Foreign Minister Ali Sabry should have waded into the ongoing spat between India and Canada on the assassination of a Sikh Canadian citizen allegedly by Indian agents according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sabry got a lot of media play in India characterizing Trudeau’s statement to Parliament as “outrageous.” Colombo, of course, continues to smart under the Canadian PM’s recent remarks about “genocide” in this country which Sabry says “everybody knows” did not happen. No wonder then our minister thought it fit to tell an Indian television station that “sometimes Prime Minister Trudeau comes out with outrageous and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Given India’s generosity to Sri Lanka during the ongoing economic crisis ,Colombo would surely like to score brownie points in New Delhi. This despite clear knowledge that free lunches are not part of global international relations and the need to steer clear of rivalries between India and China in big power contests. Sri Lanka professes non-alignment and is even now grappling with issues arising from an upcoming port call by a second Chinese research ship about which Indian and U.S. concerns have been expressed.
In such situations it makes sense in not resorting to the tit for tat reactions of the kind displayed by both Ottawa and New Delhi over the Hardeep Singh Nijjar assassination. Many would regard Minister Ali Sabry’s remarks on the India – China row as partly reflective of Colombo’s resentment of genocide and pro-LTTE references emanating from Canada.
Lankans, of course, are well aware that pro-LTTE rhetoric is part of domestic politics in Canada. Some 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, comprising about 0.7 percent of the total Canadian population live in that country. These numbers are sufficient to make a difference between the two major parties at elections and much of the Canadian political discourse reflects that factor.
Similarly, Sikhs are also a significant segment of the Canadian population with the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab living in that country. According to the 2021 census, 770,000 Sikhs live in Canada and they would therefore be a more influential factor than Sri Lanka Tamils in Canadian domestic politics. Hence the various statements tilted towards these communities emanating from Canada.
Good relations with India must always be a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Such relations sank to abysmal depths during the civil war when India allowed the separatist LTTE to train and stage from Indian territory much to Sri Lanka’s detriment. The war would have probably ended long before it actually did in 2009 if Operation Vadamarachi was not aborted by India’s incursion into Sri Lanka’s air space and the infamous parippu airdrop.
The Indo – Lanka Accord and the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. Today it can be said that relations between us and our giant neighbour have never been better. True there are reservations that Big Brother is taking economic advantage of Sri Lanka’s current predicament but these are issues that must be sensibly navigated.
It must be noted that Prime Minister Trudeau did not claim ironclad evidence on the assassination of the Sikh activist in British Columbia. He merely said there were “credible allegations” (emphasis ours) on that score. Whether hard evidence could ever be unearthed on this matter is an open question. There have been media reports of early signs that both Canada and India, after the initial sound and fury, are resorting to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. That would be in the interest of both countries as well as the wider world.
There have also been reports that intercepts of diplomatic communications from the Indian High Commission in Ottawa possibly by the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the U.S., had a role in Trudeau’s allegations. However that be, the Canadian premier would not have got out on a limb with his allegation, rightly or wrongly, if he was not convinced that he was on terra firma.
End of IMF review mission
Despite the polite noises made at its closing press conference, there appears to have been no agreement yet between the Government of Sri Lanka and the IMF review mission which concluded its two weeks-long visit on Wednesday. There was no word on when the disbursement of the second tranche of the deal would begin. There is no way that the IMF board will disburse the next tranche until the staff level agreement is concluded.
The closing statement reported “remarkable resilience” of the Sri Lankan people in the face of enormous challenges and “commendable progress” in implementing much needed reforms. While reporting a string of achievements it said that “discussions are ongoing” and the authorities are making progress on their revenue mobilization targets and anti-corruption efforts. But there was no word that a desired staff level agreement has been reached or when the funds will be released.
Two weeks ago when the review began, then acting Finance Minister Ranjit Siyambalapitiya said he was “very hopeful of getting the second tranche of $330 million” from the IMF. But obviously there is more ground to cover and the funds are not likely to be available in the short term. The Financial Times in Britain reported on Thursday that Sri Lanka has failed “to reach agreement to unlock the IMF bailout tranche” and “the delay threatens to slow the country’s recovery from the worst economic crisis in its history.”
Saturday 30th September, 2023
The government and the Opposition may be at daggers drawn, but they do see eye to eye on matters that are mutually beneficial to them, such as the MPs’ perks and privileges, which they jealously guard. Such concord and coadjuvancy, however, are conspicuous by their absence where issues that affect the national interest are concerned. Not even the country’s worst-ever crisis has prompted them to make peace and put their shoulders to the wheel jointly to drag the nation out of economic morass of their own making.
The Opposition has gleefully declared that the IMF bailout programme is dead in the water. It would have the public believe that the IMF delegation, which was here for a review of their programme, left unsatisfied with the government’s revenue shortfall, and the next tranche of the lender’s extended fund facility is not likely to be unlocked. Acting Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe has denied the Opposition’s claim, insisting that the next installment of the IMF loan will be released soon, after some issues are hashed out with the IMF headquarters.
The Opposition seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the fact that the IMF has not announced the release of the second tranche of its loan immediately after the conclusion of the review meeting. It is bashing the government for the revenue shortfall, which the IMF has frowned on.
Taxes and tariffs have already been increased exponentially so much so that many professionals have left the country in a huff never to return; the Ceylon Electricity Board is reported to have asked the Public Utilities Commission’s nod for another price hike. How does the Opposition think the government could increase the state revenue further?
The Opposition insists that it will be able to resolve the economic crisis in next to no time when it forms a government. In other words, it will not reveal what it claims to be its secret formula for economic recovery until such time, regardless of the woes of the hapless public.
Elections are not likely to be held until the latter part of next year, and the Opposition cannot topple the government by parliamentary means anytime soon. Supposing its claim of being able to turn the economy around is true, then one can accuse it of cruelly perpetuating the suffering of the public to advance its political agenda.
The government ought to explain why it has failed to meet its revenue targets in spite of the unbearable economic burden it has heaped on the public by way of unprecedented tax and tariff hikes, which have brought about significant increase in the state revenue, compared to 2022.
This situation may be due to defects in the tax collection process, and the government’s failure to curtail its expenditure and prevent waste, losses caused by corruption and the mismanagement of public resources. If action is taken to sort them out, among other things, it may be possible to turn the economy around sooner than expected.
The Opposition, for its part, ought to keep a watchful eye on the economic recovery process while keeping pressure on the government to ensure frugal management of public resources and make a serious effort to curtail waste and corruption. Regrettably, instead of acting as an alternative government and facilitating economic recovery for the sake of the public, the Opposition has chosen to settle old political scores with some government leaders, bellow rhetoric and cry wolf ad nauseam. It claims that the government has failed, but the question is whether it has not.
The brainless and brain drain
Friday 29th September, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government continues to be at loggerheads with irate professionals, who are demanding solutions to their problems. Many of them have already left the country never to return thanks to the government’s callous disregard for their grievances.
University teachers staged a protest in Colombo the other day in a bid to jolt the government into addressing the various issues that affect the education sector, but it is doubtful whether they succeeded in their endeavour. Instead of heeding the voice of the educated Sri Lankans on the warpath, the government has chosen to unleash its propaganda hounds on them.
One of the main issues that drive resentful professionals to street protests is the unbearable personal taxes. They have made it abundantly clear that they are not refusing to pay taxes; they are only demanding some relief, given the unexpected circumstances that have left them struggling to make ends meet. They are also demanding that the country’s tax revenue be properly utilised.
The government does not care to curtail the waste of state resources, as can be seen from the sheer number of politicians and officials junketing overseas at the expense of the public. Why should millions of dollars be spent on their pleasure trips which are made out to be official visits? The Health Ministry has become a metaphor for corruption, but the government continues to defend the Health Minister and corrupt officials. The same goes for all other ministries.
The government is sure to use the IMF’s recent statement that Sri Lanka’s tax revenue is very low to justify its refusal to grant any relief to the protesting professionals. But if it streamlines tax collection, it may be able to increase its tax revenue without squeezing the fixed-income earners dry.
Parliament has reportedly decided to take up the multi-faceted problem of brain drain for debate––at last. The fact that it has not already had an extensive discussion on brain drain, much less striven to find a solution thereto, is proof of the appallingly low priority it has assigned to this vital issue, which will have a bearing on the country’s future.
Regrettably, some government members do not seem to have realised the gravity of brain drain. If their unintelligent utterances in Parliament are anything to go by, they are labouring under the misconception that the exodus of Sri Lankan professionals is not something bad; they have said it will help boost the country’s inward remittances! They have mistakenly equated the mass emigration of the country’s best brains for good with the migration of unskilled workers. Figuring out the gravity of a problem is half the battle in finding a solution.
The worst that can happen to a country is for its educated youth to think they have no future at home, for their disillusionment manifests itself in brain drain, reduced innovation and socio-political unrest. True, brain drain is a global phenomenon that affects all countries to varying degrees, but it becomes a crisis when it assumes exodus proportions, as has been Sri Lanka’s experience. The ever-increasing human capital flight, which has adversely impacted all sectors here, is bound to make the task of resolving the country’s economic crisis even more uphill.
The task of having a comprehensive debate on so complex an issue as brain drain, with emphasis on its causes, consequences and a potential solution, requires brains.
What the so-called people’s representatives on both sides of the House, maintained with public funds, ought to do is to have a decent debate on the issue, confess collectively to having ruined the economy, show some remorse for their wrongful actions and dereliction of duty, resolve to avoid their past mistakes and make a concerted effort to sort out the economy.
If they are going to play the blame game once again, resort to slanging matches replete with invectives and raw filth, and drag one another’s names through the mud, as they often do, they might as well forget about the debate they are scheduled to have on brain drain.
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