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Back home to a plateful of problems



President Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned home to Sri Lanka on Thursday to a plateful of problems, many of his own making. The farmers protests over the import ban on chemical fertilizer is nowhere near tapering off. Rather, it is gathering further highly-publicized momentum. Then there is the appointment of Bodu Bala Sena chief, Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, as the head of a Presidential Task Force (PTF) on ‘One country, one law’ which has been roundly condemned by a wide cross-section of the people. That Gnanasara, whose track record is by no means clean, enjoyed the patronage of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa before he ascended the presidency is well know. While the president was away in Glasgow at the COP26 Summit, defending (or justifying) the inorganic fertilizer ban, Justice Minister Ali Sabry, also a Gota loyalist who was on his legal team on the pre-election dual citizenship challenge, made known that he had not been consulted on the PTF appointment. There was some speculation that he would resign. But remember he didn’t over the Muslim burial issue.

Whether this will or will not be is likely to be clarified when Sabry meets the president in the short term. This is a country where sharp differences have been papered over or overcome before they caused irreparable damage; so some kind of fix is not impossible. Despite the noise they made, also well publicized like the farmers’ and teachers’ protests, few Lankans expect Ministers Weerawansa, Gammanpila, Vasudeva et al and eight other minor party leaders of the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna constituents, to give up their ministries and attendant perks, national list seats in parliament and other benefits over the New Fortress Energy (NFE) issue. This too has been getting curiouser and curiouser as Alice said in Wonderland. The CEB Chairman says that part of the NFE deal, whose critics allege had been signed in secret at midnight behind the backs of the cabinet and parliament, cannot be disclosed. Pray why? We do know that non-disclosure arrangements are not an unknown business practice. But is it correct for the sovereign to commit a country to an agreement where its people will not see the whole picture and know the whole truth?

We have also heard political leaders, under pressure like never before from farmer protests, repeatedly promising that crop losses will be compensated. Although they are silent about whose money will be utilized for such payments, the people of this country are not konde bandapu cheennu (Chinamen in pigtails) to not know that such payments, if at all, will obviously come off the state exchequer and not out of the pockets of those responsible for taking hasty, irresponsible decisions. Friday’s news reported that India, using military aircraft, “had come to Lanka’s rescue as farmers protests intensify.” This was by airlifting 100,000 kg. of liquid nano-nitrogen for urgent distribution in the context of the ever-growing fertilizer crisis. Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage whose effigy is being freely burnt in the rural hinterland has been proclaiming that there was adequate fertilizer in the country even before the current Maha cultivation season began. Why then airfreight fertilizer? He admits that “we,” meaning the government, “got our marketing wrong” in the effort to convert farmers to organic fertilizer. Clearly there had been little or insufficient preparation for the great leap into the unknown through an instant ban on the import of chemical fertilizer that the country has been used to for the past several decades.

Today the whole world knows very well that mankind must urgently get its act right if planet earth and its population is to survive. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at COP26 that the “It’s one minute to midnight and the clock is ticking” while many other world leaders and UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres offered similar sound bytes. Like smoking, the information of the dangers of greenhouse gases, climate change, rising sea levels, carbon depletion and many more is everywhere. Yet stupids keep lighting up and inhaling harmful smoke to their own detriment and tobacco remains a multi-million dollar industry. So also the global community continuing to plunder natural resources and fragile ecosystems for economic benefits. Rich countries, particularly, refuse to acknowledge reality and do little or not enough to stem tide except mouth platitudes and offer lip service to the cause of the global environment.

Even the ranks of Tuscany cannot forebear but cheer President Rajapaksa’s organic thrust. It sounds very good in theory but can it be implemented in a practical and scientific manner heeding expert advice so that the benefit will outweigh the cost? In an article on Sri Lanka’s “organic experiment” that we publish today, the writer cites Sri Lanka as a cautionary tale from which the right lessons must be taken: organic farming may sound good in principle, but ideology must not be allowed to trump science. When that happens the outcome is likely to be very bad, he says. The EU has already done an analysis and found organic farming unsustainable and be bad for the environment through increased land use. It is no doubt what the writer calls a ‘boutique’ option very attractive to greens, but trying to feed the world (in our case Sri Lanka) organically would be a disaster.

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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.

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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.

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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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