Dr. Harsha de Silva’s call for a dialogue between the president and the opposition about the foreign exchange crisis that the country is now mired in should resonate among both friend and foe alike. We quote him in our front page today rejecting claims that the situation is not as bad as it seems and calling for the dialogue “to better understand the problem and find a solution together as we are all in this together.” The people are very well aware of how bad the situation is; all that’s needed to find out is a visit to a grocery shop. Mr. Everyman and his wife find it very difficult to find milk powder and other essentials. Most vegetables are beyond reach of the common man. Cooking gas was a major problem until very recently. For how long uninterrupted power supplies will be possible because of the country’s inability to find the wherewithal to pay for the fuel necessary for thermal generation is anybody’s guess.
There was breaking news while this commentary was being written, that a dialogue had commenced on the initiative of TNA frontbencher MA Sumanthiran on how best the emerging situation can be met. Although no government heavy weights were present, three ruling party MPs heading parliamentary watchdog committees were there. It had been intensively speculated that the recent prorogation of parliament was a ruse to get rid of these independent chairmen, Professors Charitha Herath and Tissa Vitarana and Mr. Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. But this was belied by their reappointment last week. Happily former speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, now heading late Ven. Sobhitha’s National Movement for Social Justice, had also been invited for the meeting. It had been attended by TNA MPs Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and Rasamanikam, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickremaratne, Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, Messers Rauf Hakeem and Mano Ganesan.
Although this was no dialogue between the president and opposition as called for by Dr. Harsha de Silva, this is undoubtedly a great leap forward. The ice has been broken and it is to be hoped that senior members of the government would also join the discussion down the road. The participants are educated and senior and not tub thumpers like too many in the political spectrum. A degree of consensus seem to have been reached on doing the needful without compromising the poor. Hopefully there will be early forward movement on what has been achieved with all parties acting in the national interest rather than on a petty political basis. This is what the country desperately needs at the present time.
Regular columnist Uditha Devapriya says today that a checklist presented by Minister Udaya Gammanpila, leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya which is a constituent of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), “seems to make sense”. This calls for accepting that there is an issue, identifying it, understanding it, revealing the truth to the people and leading by example by making sacrifices. There have been some differences within the government on whether the issue is as serious as made out though the scarcity of foreign exchange to pay for the country’s essential imports has been identified as the crux of the problem. Whether all shades of opinion within the government (and perhaps the opposition) have totally understood what the issue is all about may be doubtful. As for revealing the (whole) truth to the people, that has certainly not being forthcoming. And leading by example and making sacrifices, our politicians of all complexions are not famous for that.
Whether the government and opposition can arrive at a consensus on how the foreign exchange crisis can be met head on, particularly with a moratorium on the two sides not reaching for each other’s jugulars over obviously unpopular decisions that must necessarily be taken, is yet doubtful. The opposition extracting optimum mileage from the woes of the people has always been how the political game has been played in this country. But it must be admitted that what we are facing today is probably the worst economic crisis, compounded by Covid-19, in our contemporary history. The only fix, and not just the quick fix, that can address the forex crisis is setting the right price for the dollar through the interplay of market forces as lucidly explained by economist Romesh Dias Bandaranaike in this page last week. But whether that will be done and whether the opposition will let the government pour bitter medicine down the country’s throat is yet an open question.
In the midst of the existentialist woes of the people, particularly the poor, election talk has now entered the political space. It is not talk about provincial council elections as before because those elections cannot be held under the existing legal regime. The focus is now on local elections with terms of local bodies already extended by an year. Is a moratorium on elections going to be part of the big picture if there is bipartisan progress on doing the needful with regard to the critical economic front?
Aiya’s wisdom and Malli’s folly
Former Minister Chamal Rajapaksa has told Parliament that his younger brother, Mahinda, should have quit politics after completing his second term as the President. This is something Chamal Aiya could have told Mahinda Malli in private. Why did he make such a statement on the floor of the House, of all places?
Mahinda is not alone in trouble; all members of the Rajapaksa family find themselves in hot water. Their properties have come under mob attacks, and they cannot move about freely. Worse, they have had to suffer indignities at the hands of angry protesters, who include many of their erstwhile supporters. Whoever would have thought, about a year or so ago, that such a fate would befall the powerful ruling family?
The Rajapaksa family is in the current predicament mainly because it took the masses for asses. The Rajapaksas thought the country was their fiefdom, and laboured under the delusion that they could ride on the sataka of Mahinda, who used to be a political magnet, win elections and continue to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. They did not learn from their humiliating defeat in 2015, and became cocky and arrogant when the people, fed up with the yahapalana rule, elected them again in 2019/2020, for want of a better alternative; they started making up for lost time. Their current rule is like a replay of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015), and what they are facing today would have played out if President Rajapaksa had succeeded in securing a third term in 2015.Chamal’s admonition, as it were, for Mahinda has come too late in the day although one cannot but fully endorse it. He should have prevailed on Mahinda not to introduce the 18th Amendment, which did away with the presidential term limit and restored the executive powers of the President. He was the Speaker at the time. The 18th Amendment became a curse for not only the Rajapaksa family but also the entire country.Did Chamal make a serious effort to dissuade his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR), from introducing the 20th Amendment, which is as draconian as the 18th Amendment, and has boomeranged? President GR has given in to pressure from the protesting public and undertaken to do away with the 20th Amendment and reduce his executive powers.
As a seasoned politician, Chamal should also have protested against the appointment of his younger brother, Basil, as the Minister of Finance. The task of running the Finance Ministry requires a real maven. If a well-versed person had been appointed the Finance Minister and given a free hand to address the economic crisis with the help of experts from the Central Bank, the Finance Ministry and elsewhere, the country would not have gone bankrupt, and the Rajapaksas would have been safe.Chamal should have guided President GR, who apparently thought he could run the country with the help of some retired military officers, whose pathetic performance as public officials makes one wonder how they succeeded in defeating the LTTE, which was described as the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world. The so-called intellectuals who rallied behind GR and made his victory possible at the 2019 presidential election have their critics visiting mockery upon them. Has Chamal admonished the incumbent President as well?
The Rajapaksa family has not given up its efforts to retain its grip on power, as can be seen from the way it is manipulating numbers in Parliament, and causing divisions among its rivals. It has appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and engineered several crossovers from the SJB, and the SLPP dissident group. But what really matters is not dosh-induced defections but public opinion, which is obviously not in favour of the Rajapaksas.
Address cause of mob justice
Friday 20th May, 2022
There has been a call for the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the alleged complicity of some defence and police bigwigs in goon attacks on a group of anti-government protesters in Colombo on 09 May. This call should be heeded. The SLPP goons who went on the rampage, and others who made use of the Galle Face attacks to set the country ablaze must be severely dealt with, according to the law.
No one should be allowed to attack peaceful protesters, or destroy anyone else’s property under any circumstances, and Monday’s SLPP goon attacks and the ensuing spate of mob violence amounted to an assault on the rule of law. There should be zero tolerance for mob justice, which is a manifestation of savagery, and antithetical to democracy.
Questions have been raised in Parliament about the government decision to provide the MPs, affected by mob violence on 09 May, with houses in a state-run housing scheme. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said it was only a temporary arrangement, and there was a precedent. He got it right when he said that unless steps were taken to look after the lawmakers affected by mob violence, good men and women would be wary of entering Parliament. Most members of the current Parliament cannot be considered decent, but indiscriminate attacks on the MPs, and a sustained hostile campaign against the legislature, which some politicians and their parties have unfortunately brought into disrepute, will make decent people avoid politics like the plague; Parliament might end up having only trigger-happy characters as its members, in such an eventuality, as the PM said.
Most of the problems the country is beset with boil down to one thing—the breakdown of the rule of law. Parliament ought to address this issue and sort it out urgently if further trouble is to be averted. Given the country’s rapid descent into lawlessness, nobody will be safe. If the rule of law had prevailed, the Galle Face protesters would have been safe on 09 May, and there would have been no retaliatory attacks.
The breakdown of the rule of law is also one of the main reasons for the present economic crisis. Anti-graft laws are not properly enforced, and powerful politicians and their cronies are free to amass huge amounts of ill-gotten wealth at the expense of the state coffers, and even make a vulgar display of it with impunity. Election laws are blatantly flouted; candidates are free to receive and spend colossal amounts of undeclared funds, and even anti-social elements like drug lords can bankroll election campaigns. Massive tax cuts and import duty waivers that the current administration effected immediately after the presidential election in 2019 were intended to benefit the moneybags who lavished funds on the SLPP politicians for electioneering and other purposes. They led to a sharp drop in the state revenue, and a huge increase in money printing, which contributed to soaring inflation and unprecedented currency devaluation.
The current economic meltdown has been blamed on a coterie of politicians and their kith and kin who have earned notoriety for bribery and corruption. They would not have been able to return to power, much less ruin the economy, if they had been made to pay for their crimes, after their defeat in 2015. They could have been dealt with while they were in the Opposition during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime (2015-2019). But the yahapalana leaders struck various deals with them. This is the price the country has had to pay for allowing the rule of law to be subjugated to the interests of the politicians in power.
Meanwhile, the government is planning to compensate the MPs whose properties were destroyed by violent mobs last week, we are told. Before that, the taxman should be made to ask the victims how they raised funds for the acquisition of the properties that have been either damaged or destroyed. If they cannot provide satisfactory answers, public funds must not be utilised to compensate them.
Thursday 19th May, 2022
Dissident SLPP MP Wimal Weerawansa has hinted that goon attacks on a group of anti-government protesters on 09 May were due to a clash between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the Prime Minister at the time. He went ballistic in Parliament, on Tuesday, while decrying the attacks on the Galle Face protesters. He laid the blame for the incidents of violence at the feet of those who had organised a meeting of local government members at Temple Trees, on that day. Calling for legal action against all of them, he revealed that the police had not carried out President Rajapaksa’s order that the SLPP goons be prevented from marching on the Galle Face Green. He claimed someone had prevented the police from using force to disperse the mob.
Most of the pro-government goons were sozzled to the gills and staggering, and a high velocity stream of water would have swept them off their unsteady feet, and sent them crawling whence they had come, but the police did not use water cannon on those characters. The CID has questioned Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon, who was present at the Galle Face Green, and he should be able to reveal what actually happened. The person who ordered the police to give kid-glove treatment to the SLPP rowdies must be traced and brought to justice.
Weerawansa also claimed that there had been a delay on the part of the Army in reaching the Galle Face Green to prevent the goon attacks although the President had called for immediate action. The allegation must be probed.
Accusing the police of having done nothing while his house was being attacked, Weerawansa claimed that the police had been asked to look the other way. He called for action against the police and security forces top brass responsible for the breakdown of law and order on 09 May.
The police have arrested some SLPP MPs and their supporters for the Galle Face attack, but it is the masterminds behind the incidents who have to be taken in for questioning. Let the police be urged to arrest those who organised the Temple Trees meeting, and incited violence.
Make MPs wait in queues
Arrangements have been made for the members of Parliament to refuel their vehicles at the police filling station in Colombo while hundreds of thousands of people are waiting in long queues for petrol, diesel and kerosene, in all parts of the country. Why should the MPs be given this kind of special treatment? They do not carry out their legislative duties and functions properly, and it defies comprehension why special arrangements should be made to make fuel available to them.
Parliament wasted its time on Tuesday. The government and the Opposition should have elected the Deputy Speaker unanimously instead of resorting to a political battle. The vote on the Opposition’s motion for suspending Standing Orders for a motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be advanced was an exercise in futility. The entire country has censured the President so much so that he has even agreed to strip himself of some of his executive powers, and taken steps to appoint an interim government. Therefore, the question is whether there is any need for Parliament to censure the President separately at the expense of what needs to be done urgently to stabilise the economy and grant relief to the public. Perhaps, Parliament should consider passing a motion to censure itself for its callous disregard for the suffering of the hapless public.
The MPs must be made to undergo the same hardships as the ordinary people who maintain them; their perks and privileges will make even their counterparts in affluent countries green with envy. In Sweden, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, the MPs and ministers are not entitled to vehicles or fuel allowances; they are given only bus and train passes. If they use private vehicles, they have to do so at their own expense. Only the Prime Minister is given an official vehicle there. But in this country, which politicians and their kith and kin have bankrupted, the MPs get first dibs on everything, and live in the lap of luxury while the ordinary people are suffering.
The MPs must be made to wait in queues to refuel their vehicles.
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