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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

Egg on the face

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Egg on the face or the Emperor’s new clothes? Pick what you will. Both the president and his government has made a song and dance about a Rs. 1,700 daily wage for plantation workers with President Ranil Wickremesinghe announcing it on May Day at a Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) rally at Kotagala. Shortly thereafter Labour Minister Manusha Nanayakkara gazetted the wage increase and the matter appeared all done and dusted. But voila! The country was last week treated to the revelation that the state-owned Janatha Estate Development Corporation (JEDB) and the State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC) are not paying the stipulated wages. The exception was Elkaduwa Plantations Ltd., also state owned, which is paying what they must in accordance with the government diktat.

Sad but true, the CWC which has for long been the country’s biggest trade union and a strong political force representing plantation workers of Indian origin has said nary a word about the failure of government in this regard. Whether Mr. Jeevan Thondaman, the union’s general secretary and a cabinet minister in President Wickremesinghe’s government, has raised this matter at the highest levels, we do not know. His cousin, Senthil Thondaman, is the Governor on the Eastern Province and is the leader of the CWC. He too has easy access to the powers that be. It is not only the JEDB and SLSPC that have not been paying the decreed higher wages. Several of the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) are also not paying them although a few do comply. So also private proprietary estates and smallholdings hiring labor.

Jeevan Thondaman made waves a few days ago when he and a group of supporters illegally threw their weight about at Pedro Estate, Nuwara Eliya, belonging to Kelani Valley Plantation PLC (KVPL), a Hayleys company. Acting like thugs, they assaulted a fellow employee and demanded the reinstatement of three workers suspended for creating disturbances over land preparation for planting coffee on unproductive tea land. They threatened arson against company property and held plantation executives hostage for several hours. One of them had to be hospitalized.

The Planters Association (PA), in a strongly worded statement, accused Thondaman of forcibly trespassing on the estate, blockading it, and illegally detaining plantation employees and executives against their will for a “harrowing four hours.” It further said these employees were surrounded by a drunk and unruly mob and were subjected to prolonged threats of bodily harm and arson if they did not accept the minister’s demand to immediately reinstate the three suspended workers. Thondaman, like all ministers, is provided with an armed security detail belonging to the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) of the police. There has been an unconfirmed report that the MSD, on orders from the top, withdrew and Thondaman had later apologized to Public Security Minister Tiran Alles for the incident.

Quite apart from not paying the government mandated daily wage to their workers, the state owned plantation companies are also guilty of not paying Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees Trust Fund (ETF) dues for decades. Elkaduwa which is now paying the higher daily wage is bracketed alongside the SLSPC and JEDB in this regard. Massive arrears have built up and State Minister of Finance, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya recently went on record that cabinet had approved five billion rupees to be allocated to clear these dues. “This comprehensive settlement aims to rectify the financial neglect experienced by estate workers and their families,” he said. He added that some workers did not have money to by medicines and had died. There were some 2,000 cases filed over this matter. But he did not indicate whether the state-owned enterprises will be subject to the penalties normally imposed on EPF and ETF defaulters.

Employers falling back on these payments are liable to hefty penalties. While the ETF is solely an employer liability, both employers and employees contribute to the EPF with the employee contributions deducted from wages. The big question here is whether such payments have been deducted and not credited to the workers’ accounts as frequently happens in the case of such defaults. Penalty-wise, is it a case of sauce for the goose and not sauce for the gander?

The Court of Appeal last week denied an injunction sought by 21 Regional Plantation Companies seeking to suspend the implementation of the wage hike. An Additional Solicitor General submitted that the RPCs boycotted a Wages Board meeting convened to discuss the matter and the Labour Commissioner, exercising the powers assigned to the Labour Minister, had taken legal steps to increase wages. The matter remains not concluded as far as court action is concerned. The PA insists that it has no option but continue to resist what it calls a “sudden wage increase.”

It stresses that wages must be intrinsically linked to productivity to ensure sustainability of businesses and the livelihood of workers. Sri Lanka is already grappling with the highest production costs, wages and lowest productivity among all tea growing nations, the PA claimed. It said the newly gazetted wages, notably, is double that of India, creating significant cost disparities. Further, the unilateral increase affects not only the RPCs but also over 400 private tea factories. Whether politicians looking at a bloc of plantation votes at the forthcoming elections will be influenced by these arguments or whether they can be sustained in the courts remains to be seen. The government has already adopted a “pay up or get out” approach. Can it wave its fist at the RPCs when it does not itself pay the mandated wages and defaults on EPF and ETF obligations? Also can it take back the estates and run them viably or find alternate investors? The country has already burnt its fingers by nationalizing the estates.

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Editorial

Kukul Chaminda and his ilk in kapati suits

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Saturday 15th June, 2024

The Sri Lanka police are known for their efficiency, which is unfortunately selective in most cases. They swing into action and make arrests in double quick time when lawbreakers happen to be ordinary people. They even act on social media videos—and rightly so—in arresting suspects. A few weeks ago, they swooped on a street food vendor in Colombo for turning abusive towards a foreign tourist who refused to be overcharged. The suspect was produced in court and bailed out.

A wicked stepfather, known as Kukul Chaminda, was arrested for assaulting a small child of his mistress. His wife, his paramour and a person who provided them with shelter while they were on the run were arrested. Another stepfather from hell was remanded the other day after being arrested for assaulting a nine-year-old girl brutally.

Curiously, no arrest has so far been made over a high-profile assault incident, at the Presidential Secretariat, where government MP Gunathilaka Rajapaksha suffered a leg injury on 02 June. He has said MP Mahindananda Althugamage set upon him after a government group meeting, chaired by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has found fault with the police for dragging their feet on his complaint. He has called for Aluthgamage’s arrest.

MP Aluthgamage has vehemently denied Rajapaksha’s allegation. He has said he had nothing to do with the incident. It will not be difficult for the police to examine the CCTV footage of the incident and ascertain the truth or otherwise of MP Rajapaksha’s claim. Nearly two weeks have elapsed since the incident, and the police continue to trot out lame excuses for the tardy progress in their investigation into Rajapaksha’s complaint. The Police Spokesman has come up with some absurd reasons for the delay in concluding the probe, and they were an insult to the intelligence of the public.

The police are apparently under pressure from the powers that be to delay the probe until the issue fizzles out, for action against the alleged assailant at this juncture will open a can of worms for the ruling coalition. The fact that the government is all out to hush up the incident became clear when MP Rajapaksha, who suffered a serious leg injury, was rushed to the military hospital, of all places.

MP Rajapaksha has said he will reveal everything about the alleged assault when he returns to Parliament after convalescence. But he will be mistaken if he thinks any action will be taken based on his complaint. He cannot be unaware that even the MPs who went berserk in Parliament in late 2018, assaulting their rivals and the police, damaging desks, chairs and microphones, and even menacingly lunging towards Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who had to be whisked away, got off scot-free.

There was a live telecast of that stormy parliamentary session and the public saw the troublemakers in action. Those violent characters should have been arrested and prosecuted for their violence and damaging public property, a non-bailable offence. A fish is said to rot from the head down, and when the lawmakers break the law with impunity, in Parliament itself, it is well-nigh impossible to restore the rule of law in the country at large. So, let MP Rajapaksha be warned to brace himself for a huge disappointment. His political bosses may even force him into silence.

President Wickremesinghe is the Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and if an alleged assault on a government MP inside his Secretariat cannot be probed expeditiously, how can the public expect the government to ensure their safety and combat crime. Shouldn’t the President order the police to get cracking?

The plight of Kukul Chaminda’s little victim would not have come to light but for an intrepid boy who videoed the heart-wrenching incident and released the footage to the media. The police rewarded him. Likewise, the CCTV footage of the government group meeting and MP Rajapaksha’s fall, on 02 June, will help figure out what actually happened. One can only hope that the police will not claim that the CCTV recording is not clear or has been deleted.

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Editorial

Hunter’s gun

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Friday 14th June, 2024

The US presidential race has taken another dramatic turn with a federal jury finding President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, guilty of having illegally purchased and possessed a gun while being addicted to crack cocaine. A sentencing date has not yet been set. The offence carries a prison term. Hunter is reportedly considering an appeal. A life of debauchery is dogging him.

No sooner had Hunter’s guilty verdict been announced than President Biden declared that he accepted the outcome of the case and respected the judicial process. His reaction was in sharp contrast to that of his rival, former President Donald Trump, who claimed a felony trial that led to his conviction had been rigged. However, Biden only made a virtue of necessity. There is no way he can be critical of the verdict at issue, which came close on the heels of Trump’s felony conviction, which the Democrats have welcomed.

It was ironic that Biden, who gained politically from Trump’s conviction in the presidential race, happened to hug his convicted son in public on Tuesday. Never had a US President, former or serving, been found guilty of felony before Trump’s conviction. Similarly, Hunter is the first child of a US President to be convicted of a federal crime.

President Biden lost no time in declaring that he would not grant a pardon to his son convicted of three federal gun crimes. He cannot afford to do otherwise, with the presidential election only a few months away; the Republicans are all out to destroy him politically.

Pardoning his son is a surefire way to ruin his chances of re-election. However, the White House has not ruled out a potential commutation for Hunter. But such action will entail a huge political cost for Biden. Perhaps, a commutation could prove as costly as a pardon politically.

The two convictions at issue are sure to figure heavily in the debate to be held between Trump and Biden soon. However, opinion is divided on the potential impact they will have on the campaigns of the two candidates. The Democrats claim that following Trump’s conviction, Biden has picked up a few points, especially in the battleground states, but political analysts point out that these increases in his approval rating are within the margins of error and therefore negligible. The Republicans insist that there has been an uptick in their fundraising since Trump’s conviction, which the former President has succeeded in monetising, so to speak.

Biden, however, stands accused of having leveraged his political positions to help his son, Hunter, in the past. In 2016, it was alleged that he, as the US Vice President, had engineered the ouster of the then Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Viktor Shokin, who had launched a probe into Burishma Holdings Ltd., a Ukrainian energy company, which had Hunter on its board of directors and paid him a princely salary. There were several such controversies involving Hunter’ foreign business interests while his father was the Vice President.

Trouble, however, is not over for Biden. Hunter will face another trial in September for not paying taxes in 2017 and 2018. The hearing is sure to grab media attention and be another disconcerting distraction for Biden.

The US is no respecter of international laws and conventions, but the guilty verdicts against Trump and Hunter, and a nascent impeachment inquiry against President Biden have demonstrated that its domestic systems are stronger than individuals, however powerful they may be politically or otherwise, and therein lies the real strength of the American democracy, unlike in countries like Sri Lanka, where politicians and their kith and kin are above the law, and can amass ill-gotten wealth and even have their rivals murdered with impunity.

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