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Barmecide feast and ‘Lotus heaven’



We are not short of leaders who claim to have laboured tirelessly to achieve national progress. Never do they miss an opportunity to make a public display of their patriotism, and boast of what they call the country’s achievements under their governments. But the abysmal report cards of these worthies have come to light again.

The Professional Forum of Physicians on Medical and Civil Rights (PFPMCR) has made a shocking revelation. It has said that according to the findings of a health survey conducted in the village of Walsapugala, as many as 80% of children there are affected by nutrition disorders with undernutrition and malnutrition among them amounting to 50% and 30% respectively. The plight of these children must have shaken the conscience of every Sri Lankan except those who have been helping themselves to public funds, which could have been used to feed hungry mouths.

The district where Walsapugala is situated is of significance. It is Hambantota, the stronghold of the Rajapaksa family, which has produced Prime Ministers, Presidents and Cabinet ministers. We bet our bottom dollar that no one connected to the Rajapaksas or other wealthy politicians from that area is among the malnourished children of Hambantota. The predicament of the children of Walsapugala represents in microcosm what has befallen the country under successive governments, especially the Rajapaksa administrations.

Hambantota is believed to have benefited from the Rajapaksas’ expensive infrastructural development drive; it boasts an international airport, an international conference hall, an international cricket ground and an international port. The road network there compares with the best in the world. But the living conditions of the people of Hambantota have not improved, at all, if the severe nutrition disorders affecting them is any indication. The same is true of their counterparts elsewhere.

If wasteful expenditure amounting to billions of dollars on useless infrastructural development projects had been curtailed and those funds channelled for agricultural development, children’s nutritional needs could have been taken care of. Many Sri Lankans however seem to enjoy the Barmecide feast their crafty rulers host. The PFPMCR revelation has come while Sri Lankans, troubled by the pangs of hunger, are feasting their eyes on a tall tower in Colombo. They are queuing up near the Lotus Tower to pay for elevator rides to the top of it and take a bird’s eye view of the slums and shanties in Colombo, among other things. A person who visited the tower has likened his experience to a trip to heaven, of all places!

One of the main causes of the current economic meltdown which has led to the prevailing food crisis, soaring inflation and a rise in the rate of malnutrition is heavy borrowings for mega projects that hardly yield any returns but have helped politicians and their cronies enrich themselves. Economic inequality has also contributed to the prevalent nutrition disorders. But those who are at the levers of power do not seem keen to curtail waste, sort out the economy and grant relief to the people. Instead, they are busy feathering their nests. The colony of leeches (read the Cabinet) is expected to expand further.

PFPMCR Chairman Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa has told the media that most schools in the Hambantota District have cancelled morning assemblies because a large number of students faint due to hunger. A similar situation prevails in other districts as well, according to the Ceylon Teachers’ Union.

Many educated, talented youth have already left the country, and others will do so, given half a chance. Long queues are seen near the visa sections of foreign embassies in Colombo. Children are starving and cannot stand erect, much less concentrate on their studies. There is no future for a country which does not care to look after its youth and children. Worryingly, political leaders are busy trying to retain power or regain it; religious leaders are worried about only one thing—the abolition of electricity subsidy for places of worship; business leaders are safeguarding their own interests at the expense of the public, and most people are looking forward to viewing Sri Pada from the top of the Lotus Tower!

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Kekilles in overdrive



Saturday 24th September, 2022

Government politicians are behaving as if the media had done something far worse than the economic crimes they and their leaders have perpetrated against the nation. They are tearing into the media outfits that expose the untold suffering their government has inflicted on the public by bankrupting the country. In Parliament, on Thursday, some government worthies were beside themselves with rage over a story that a poor girl had recently brought some coconut kernel to school for lunch, and teachers had provided her with a decent midday meal. They claimed that the media reports at issue were false, and the principal of the school concerned had said no such thing was ever brought to her notice.

Sri Lankans usually do not believe anything that the media says about governments until it is officially denied. They know that the very opposite of what the powers that be make out to be the truth is true.

State employees are scared of politicians in power and do not dare antagonise the latter, as is public knowledge. The aforementioned school is situated in Minuwangoda, which is Minister Prasanna Ranatunga’s constituency. A few months ago, the Colombo High Court sentenced Minister Ranatunga to two years rigorous imprisonment suspended for five years, and fined him Rs. 25 million, in a case where he had been accused of threatening a businessman and demanding money. (He has appealed against the judgement.) The SLPP parliamentary group has an MP, who summoned a female school principal, abused her in raw filth and made her kneel before him when he was a Chief Minister; he was infuriated because she had refused to carry out an illegal order. Subsequently, the victim gave in to political pressure, and the culprits got off scot-free. One may also recall that during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, a Cabinet minister tied a public official to a tree as ‘punishment’ for being late for a meeting. The victim chose to grin and bear it. This is a country where a culture of impunity prevails; journalists are harassed or even vapourised for telling the truth; political dissent is violently suppressed; the long arm of the law has become a mere appendage of the government in power, and Justitia unashamedly cosies up to ruling party politicians. So, it is only natural that neither teachers nor the Education Department officials have vouched for the veracity of the news reports about the poor girl who had coconut kernel for lunch.

Having ruined the economy and turned the country into a hellhole, the government is in the same predicament as the proverbial cat which eased itself on a rock; it is making a determined yet futile effort to cover up the mess. The ruling party politicians have gone into overdrive to deny reports of their corrupt deals, rampant malnutrition and other such issues. They have even sought to challenge the reports issued by some UN agencies on poverty, food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. They have insisted in Parliament that the situation here is not as bad as it is made out to be, but everybody knows that their cock-and-bull narratives are based on stories cooked up by a bunch of stooges in the garb of bureaucrats. Now, they have launched a witch-hunt against whistleblowers. The Health Ministry has initiated an inquiry against President of the Public Health Officers’ Association Upul Rohana, who has revealed that a consignment of Thriposha (a supplementary food item given free of charge to lactating mothers and undernourished children) was found to be contaminated with aflatoxin.

The SLPP politicians have overtaken King Kekille, who according to folk stories, always punished the innocent and spared the wrongdoers whenever he heard cases. He once had a goldsmith punished for a structural fault in a newly-built wall around his palace. On being questioned by the king, the bricklayer concerned said he had been distracted by an attractive woman who had been going past the work site several times a day. The woman, summoned to the royal court, said she had been compelled to make many trips to the goldsmith, who had delayed the delivery of her order. So, the king decided to punish the goldworker.The current rulers must be King Kekille’s descendants.

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Franchise is the key



Thursday 22nd September, 2022

The government now has another problem to contend with, an unnerving one at that; it is troubled by the prospect of having to face an election, which it is scared stiff of. The Opposition is making the most of the SLPP’s fear of elections; it has gone into overdrive to pressure the government to conduct the much-delayed Local Government (LG) elections. It says the Election Commission (EC) is now in a position to hold the LG polls.

The Opposition’s call for the LG polls has come while the UNHRC is cranking up pressure on the government to hold the Provincial Council (PC) elections, which have been postponed indefinitely. Curiously, not even the ardent proponents of devolution protested when the Yahapalana government amended the PC Elections Act, in 2017, to postpone the PC polls, which it was scared of facing. The TNA, which is calling for the PC polls, voted with the UNP-led government to pass the aforesaid law. The JVP also voted for it. The UNHRC, and the western powers that keep it on a string never so much as tut-tutted when the PC polls were postponed on some flimsy pretext; it is believed that they did not want the Yahapalana government, which was doing their bidding, to suffer a midterm electoral setback. So much for their commitment to protecting democracy!

The Opposition, which was asking for a general election, has now shifted its focus to the LG polls. Perhaps, it has come to terms with the reality that try as it might, it cannot cause a general election to be held anytime soon; only Parliament can accomplish that task, but it is controlled by the SLPP, which fears elections.

Whether the SJB and other Opposition parties will be able to bring enough pressure to bear on either the government or the EC or both of them to conduct the LG polls remains to be seen, but they will be able to gain a great deal of political mileage by undertaking to safeguard the people’s franchise.

There has been a let-up of sorts in anti-government protests due to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the availability of fuel and cooking gas to some extent. But it is only an interval in hell, if you like.

In times of distress, people tend to pin their hopes on those who make themselves out to be messiahs, and therefore it is only natural that they expected President Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom they had deemed unfit to be even an MP, two years back, to steer the country out of the present crisis. But they are now convinced that it has been yet another false dawn; none of the problems that led to popular uprisings during the past several months have been solved. The food crisis is worsening. Corruption is rampant. The cost of living is increasing, and the number of people affected by food insecurity has risen to 6.3 million, according to the UN. Most of all, the SLPP, which ruined the country, is using President Wickremesinghe to consolidate its power. Some of the rogues responsible for mega corrupt deals, abuse of power and the theft of public funds have secured ministerial posts again, and others of their ilk are expected to be back in the Cabinet soon. There are signs of a wave of public anger forming; it will be far more destructive than the previous ones. Only a clean break with the current regime will help prevent another popular uprising.

It was thought a few moons ago that the economic situation was not conducive to an election owing to the rupee crisis, power cuts, the fuel shortage, etc. But the government seems convinced otherwise; it thinks it can hold a plebiscite, of all things. No less a person than President Wickremesinghe has issued a veiled warning to the Opposition that unless it helps ratify the proposed electoral reforms among other things, he will be left with no alternative but to hold a referendum and have them approved by the people.

The LG elections are usually taken for granted so much so that they have come to be dubbed mini polls or kaanu-bokku (drain-culvert) elections, but this time around, they will assume the same importance as a general election, given the people’s eagerness to give vent to their pent-up anger. The government, which is labouring under the delusion that it can revert to old ways and consolidate its hold on power by suppressing democratic dissent, has to be given an electoral shock. An election will help defuse the build-up of public anger, which is a ticking timebomb. A government that fears elections is a threat to democracy.

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Mihintale sermon



Wednesday 21st September, 2022

On seeing how politicians are deified in this country despite its relatively high literacy rate, one wonders whether power politics has evolved into a religion of sorts here. It is not only the ordinary people who touch their forelocks before politicians; many religious leaders also make a public display of their servility when they meet the ruling party grandees, and at times their conduct could be unforgivably cringeworthy. But all is not lost; there are still some outspoken prelates who dare speak truth to power and even give the powers that be what for.

An instance of two prominent Buddhist monks shining a light on the self-aggrandisement of politicians and censuring them has been reported. What these prelates have done is as uplifting as the recent victories clinched by the national cricketers, netballers and cricketing legends.

Chief Incumbent of the Mihintale Rajamaha Viharaya, Ven. Walawahengunawawe Dhammaratne Thera deserves public plaudits for having told some home truths to a group of ruling party politicians led by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, on Sunday. He did not mince his words when he said the present-day rulers were responsible for the country’s predicament, and the people’s suffering. He urged them to get their priorities right and do their utmost to resolve the crisis and grant relief to the public instead of busying themselves with party reforms. He also asked them to learn to let go of power, and hold an election in six months.

If Mahinda Rajapaksa had retired as the President at the right time, he would have become a national hero, the Thera said, condemning dynastic politics and stressing that the practice of sons inheriting leadership from their fathers had to end, and the current leaders were mistaken if they thought they would be able to continue it.

Dhammaratne Thera must have struck a responsive chord with the public when he told the PM and others that they had to bear in mind that the people were so fed up with politicians that they were asking all 225 MPs to go home. There was absolutely no need for more ministers, he said, asking politicians why they could not practise austerity during the country’s worst ever economic crisis. Politicians had all the luck, and the public was being burdened with taxes, he pointed out, blaming them for engaging in all kinds of business activities such as running liquor bars. A slogan coined by the advocates of anti-politics comes to mind: Amathilata kaar, golyanta baar, janathawata soor — cars for ministers, liquor bars for their henchmen and inebriation for the people’.

Chief Incumbent of the Mirisawetiya Temple Ethalawetunawewa Gnanathiklake Thera also said a mouthful when the PM, accompanied by a group of ruling party politicians, visited him, in Anuradhapura. Pointing out that one should not live beyond one’s means, he called for an austerity drive. It is however doubtful whether he succeeded in knocking any sense into the government bigwigs.

Meanwhile, the members of the Maha Sangha who are raking the unscrupulous politicians and their cronies over the coals for ruining the country and inflicting suffering on the public should lead by example. They themselves must adopt the austerity measures they preach, scale down religious functions and consume electricity sparingly in view of the present crises. Some of them are seen moving about in flashy gas guzzlers while the country is pinching and scraping to pay for fuel imports. Example is said to be better than precept.

Unless politicians got their act together, the religious leaders would be compelled to take the lead in getting rid of them by mobilising the masses, the Mihintale Nayake Thera warned. The ordinary people battling the pangs of hunger and gnashing their teeth on seeing the government politicians and their kith and kin leading the life of Riley at their expense must be looking forward to that day!

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