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Editorial

Balancing the cabinet

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Cabinet making must necessarily b e a balancing act as various interests, including ethnic and religious, must be satisfied together with seniority claims and personal ambitions. The president and prime minister must be congratulated for limiting the number of cabinet ministries, that had assumed obscene proportions in the past, to 25 including the prime minister although the 19th Amendment provides for 30 such appointments. It was possible to go much higher, as the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe administration did, by titling itself a “national government” comprising several parties. The incumbents have not succumbed to that temptation although the pressures to do so would have been tremendous. But the 39 state ministers and the new class of District Coordinating Committee Chairmen have added to the numbers which for a country like ours have swollen to unaffordable levels.

All these appointments are going to cost the taxpayer a very pretty penny as each appointee will be backed by support staff and will be provided numerous perks and privileges including the ubiquitous chauffeured official vehicles. Hopefully, those who ride them will not make spectacles of themselves as many of their predecessors did in the past with pilot and backup cars and lighted torch-wielding security squads waving other road users out of the way to make room for their lordships. Such habits made ordinary people want to push such personages off their pedestals as has happened at several elections. Convoys tearing down the roads have been less visible from the time President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected with the Head of State setting a good example of unpretentious conduct both in dress and deportment.

Looking at the new cabinet and other appointments, we have not seen many that inspire confidence (or optimism) of outstanding performance. Several old faces are back in the saddle (though in the same ministries as earlier) despite a few ‘demotions’ here and there. Given that neither of the two contending parties took any notice of the public demand that those against whom there were serious allegations, were under investigation or had visibly demonstrated rowdy behaviour should be fielded as candidates. But many were including Mervyn Silva from the UNP’s Ranil faction. The available choices therefore were not great. The fact that the voters re-elected most of them, warts and all, gives credence to the proposition that “the people deserve the government they get.” While the legal maxim that “a man must be deemed innocent until proven guilty” cannot be ignored, we must not forget that the rate of conviction in our courts is as little as six percent. That does not mean that the other 94 percent were squeaky clean.

Our voters have also not taken sufficient notice of the fact that an unacceptably high number of our politicians have played the game from both sides of the fence, personally benefiting from defections that are now more a rule rather than an exception in the national politics of this country. We saw what happened in 2010 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa asked the electorate for a two thirds majority to enable amending the constitution. What he failed to get electorally, he got via defections. The 18th Amendment, abolishing the two term limit of the presidency was the result. But Rajapaksa’s third term bid failed in 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena, running as a common opposition candidate stunningly defeated him. It would be a useful exercise for a researcher to publish a list of who these defectors are, from what sides they were elected and the various offices that have been conferred on them as a result.

The proportional representation system of elections President J.R. Jayewardene bequeathed to this country included anti-defection clauses that have proved useless. Such provisions were most necessary as the voter is first required to choose a party (or independent group) and then mark his preferences from a list of that party’s (or independent group’s) candidates. But JR permitted one way traffic, with crossovers to the government side permitted – we remember an Eastern Province heavyweight who defected from the Federal Party and was rewarded with a portfolio – but not the other way round. The anti-defection provisions permitted MPs expelled from their parties to appeal to a Parliamentary Select Committee or the Supreme Court and although there have been many defections, no MP had lost his seat as a result.

Whether the president and the prime minister have plans for former President Maithripala Sirisena, who was believed interested in Mahaweli and Environment Ministry, is not known. Sirisena was present at the Audience Hall in Kandy when the ministers were given their letters of appointment but he was not among the recipients. The media pounced on that and his exclusion was a major part of the new cabinet story along with the comment that the SLFP he leads had only been served crumbs. Governmental leaders have chary about speaking on the subject suggesting that something may be in the offing as cabinet slots are still available. But we must wait and see.

 

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Editorial

Blinding ingratitude

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Saturday 19th September, 2020

A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.

The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.

During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.

Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.

President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.

The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.

Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.

 

 

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Editorial

Terrorists and ‘babies’

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Friday 18th September, 2020

What is unfolding before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage reminds us of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Erik Solheim once called the Tiger chief a nonpareil strategist. In fact, during the Vanni war, he sought to discourage the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa from going all out to eliminate the LTTE’s military muscle; he told the latter, at a meeting, that Prabhakaran was blessed with superb strategic thinking and capable of springing huge battlefield surprises for the army. Solheim’s claim did not have the desired impact on Mahinda, who bluntly said he would fight the war to a finish, come what may. Prabhakaran perished several months later, and the war came to an end.

Solheim was not alone in mistakenly believing that Prabhakaran was trying to achieve his goal according to a well-thought-out strategy. They must now be convinced that the LTTE had no such plan, and Prabhakaran should have waited and launched his Eelam War IV under a UNP government. From what former intelligence bigwigs and defence officials have revealed before the aforesaid PCoI so far, it is patently clear that the UNP-led yahapalana government made a big mess of national security from 2015 to 2019, and if the LTTE had been around it would have been able to make the most of the situation.

The UNP government (2001-2004) undermined national security in a similar manner. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicrkremesinghe were at loggerheads during that period. The LTTE made use of a fragile truce to consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the South, take delivery of arms shipments, decimate the military intelligence network in areas under its control, and prepare for war. Prabhakaran, while being trapped in the shallows of Nandikadal, must have rued the day he had engineered UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat in the 2005 presidential race by ordering a polls boycott in the North and the East. If he had not meddled with that electoral contest, the UNP would have captured power and undermined national security big time.

Thanks to the PCoI, especially the probing questions its members and the Attorney General’s Department personnel pose to key witnesses, we know how lightly the yahapalana government took national security and public safety. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were busy fighting each other. Intelligence big guns were playing ping-pong over matters of crucial national importance. They worked in silos and, not to put too fine a point on it, behaved like a bunch of Montessori kids. They did not share foreign intelligence about impending Easter Sunday terror strikes with one another properly. Instead, they wrote letters about it to various others obviously in a bid to pass the buck. The State Intelligence Service (SIS), the President and the Prime Minister did not care a tinker’s cuss about national security, which became nobody’s business. The National Security Council became a joke.

The person who was the Chief of National Intelligence, in 2019, has recently told the PCoI that the SIS chief disconnected a call during a telephone conversation, on 20 April 2020, about the foreign intelligence pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks and never called back. Former President Sirisena has claimed that nobody had told him, prior to the terror strikes, that Zahran was a terrorist. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, he said he knew about a ‘golden horse’ and many other assets of the Rajapaksas, but he now claims that, as the President and Commander-in-Chief, he was not aware that Zahran was a terrorist!

Zahran was a kindergarten tot in the world of terror, compared to Prabhakaran, but national security was neglected to such an extent, during the yahapalana days, that even he could easily carry out a series of suicide blasts, which shook the world. What would have happened if Prabhakaran had been alive, or the LTTE rump had made a serious effort to regroup and make a comeback between Jan. 2015 and Nov. 2019?

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Editorial

A shocking lament

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Thursday 17th September, 2020

Perhaps, nothing hurts good judges more than having to acquit anti-social elements owing to flaws in cases and lapses on the part of the police and others responsible for prosecution. Colombo High Court Judge Vikum Kaluarachchi had this experience, on Tuesday. He had to acquit an accused produced before him for possessing drugs. He censured drug busters and prosecutors for their negligence, which had allowed the accused to go scot-free. His consternation is understandable. It is little wonder the conviction rate is said to be below 5% in this country.

The learned judge’s lament is an indictment on the police who conduct drug raids and those entrusted with the task of prosecuting the suspects taken into custody. This, however, is not the first time a drug baron has got away with his crimes. There have been many instances in the past, as we have pointed out in this space over the years. The police have botched up numerous probes, and drugs sent to the Government Analyst’s Department for testing have mysteriously become flour, of all things. Thanks to the arrest of over a dozen corrupt Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) sleuths for collaborating with the drug Mafia, the public knows why charges against some drug lords cannot be proved and the drug trade is thriving here.

Drug barons have colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth and huge slush funds which they expend generously to safeguard their interests, as is public knowledge. Drug lords have infiltrated all vital state institutions such as the legislature, the police and the Government Analyst’s Department. In 2012, late Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne told Parliament that politicians including some MPs were involved in the drug trade. He made no revelation, but other MPs let out a howl of protest. He stood his ground. Ironically, one year later, he was accused of having links to drug dealers because a haul of heroin was found in a container his office had sought to have cleared on priority basis. The Opposition demanded his resignation. The then UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera said in Parliament that some MPs were living on drug dealers’ money. He, however, stopped short of naming names. Mangala must be au fait with what is happening on the political front, where shady characters bankroll election campaigns of prominent politicians. More than a dozen PNB officers are in hot water for having allegedly sold drugs taken into custody and their deals with drug barons. It may be recalled that an IGP once attended the birthday party of a drug lord’s daughter, in a Colombo hotel, as a special invitee.

In the run-up to the last general election, some candidates were accused of being drug dealers, and they have been elected! So, one may argue that discrepancies and contradictions in police officers’ reports and testimonies and lapses on the part of prosecutors are not due to negligence. Is it that they craftily open escape routes for drug dealers on the judicial front?

The police and the Attorney General’s Department officials know what they are doing. They do not easily make mistakes. They ensure that ordinary lawbreakers get convicted and sentenced expeditiously. Curiously, investigators and prosecutors lack this kind of efficiency when wealthy drug barons happen to be caught and prosecuted.

Drug dealers are among the richest in the world. Colombian Pablo Escobar, who was ranked the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes, made a bonfire of cash worth USD2 million to keep his daughter warm and cook food while fleeing, his son revealed in 2009. Thankfully, he is not among the living. Sri Lanka drug dealers may not have wads of dollars or rupees to burn, but they are certainly wealthy enough to buy off venal police officers, politicians and state officials and get away with their crimes.

Some cricketers are notorious for spot fixing, and what they do at the behest of bookies are made to look slip-ups such as dropped catches, careless strokes and fumbling on the field. Are the police officers and others responsible for prosecuting drug barons ‘fixing cases’? Those whose ‘lapses’ help drug dealers go scot-free must be probed.

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