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Can the Rajapaksas regain their charisma?

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Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the more, if not the most, popular political leaders of this country. When he lost the presidential election in 2015, people started visiting him in their thousands, and they had to wait in line to meet and greet him. Such a phenomenon has never been witnessed in this country, particularly in relation to a politician who has lost an election. They were almost apologetic for voting him out of power. Some were worshiping him, some were crying. And when the next election came along, they voted for him with a vengeance as if to make amends for the previous injustice done to him.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also very popular and could have won the election on his own steam if that was necessary. He had proven his capabilities in winning a war that was supposed to be unwinnable, and then developed Colombo City to be the number one city in the world. He was apolitical and was believed to be intolerant of inefficiency and corruption.

Gotabaya took over a government with a very poor economy, which had been brought down due to mismanagement and unprecedented corruption. the GDP which was about 6% in 2014, had been reduced to 2% by 2019. Heavy loans had been obtained with nothing to show for them. The country had been betrayed at the UNHRC in Geneva. The Central Bank had been embezzled, not once but twice. War heroes were being hounded at the behest of foreign powers and LTTE agents. Foreign interference was threatening to make Sri Lanka a subject nation, and perhaps divide the country or create a federal state in the least. People who had spurned the Rajapaksas turned up in millions and voted for them. People domiciled abroad came in their thousands to vote for them. Gotabaya won comfortably and the parliamentary election was won with a two-third majority, which was said to be impossible in a proportional representation voting system. Rajapaksas had done the impossible yet again.

Yet both of them, at the present moment, seem to be in the doldrums, as far as political popularity is concerned. Gotabaya had come to power at the most unfortunate moment. The economy at the time was in a very poor state. And then the country was hit by the pandemic. Initially the pandemic was satisfactorily controlled and the economy also made a V recovery. But the second and third waves proved to be devastating from the health point of view, as well as the economy. Thousands died and the economy contracted by about 11%. Foreign reserves have dried up, and servicing the heavy loans has become almost impossible.

Under such circumstances, what the government should have done was to carefully manage the economy and effectively control the pandemic. The effort to control the pandemic has been excellent. But the economy has been badly affected, not entirely due to the Covid. One of the worst blunders was the sudden ban on the import of chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals. Gotabaya’s reasoning is that what is good must be done no matter what. What is good must be done at any cost. But not when a pandemic is raging and devastating the economy. Not when 30% of the economy is dependent on agricultural exports. Not when 70 % of the people are involved and dependent on an agricultural economy. The warnings of the agricultural scientists were not heard, and now the country is paying the price. Farmers have got onto the streets asking for fertiliser. Vegetable and tea production has reduced significantly. Prices of vegetables have skyrocketed. The adverse effect on the dollar reserves due to the declining tea production would come later.

The government also failed in the attempt to control the mafia involved in rice, sugar, gas, and milk powder rackets. As a result, the cost of living has gone through the ceiling. The government must remember that the cost of living is the biggest single factor that operates in the determination of election outcomes. Several governments, including the Rajapaksa government in 2015, had been rejected by the people due to the high cost of living. If the present trend continues unabated, there is no hope for this government.

The SLPP came into being due to the blunder made by the SLFP in joining the UNP. The SLFP stood for nationalism and represented the national interest and the common man of the country. In contrast, the UNP historically represented the forces that opposed the national interests. This is why Western powers support the UNP and plot to oust SLFP and SLPP governments.

Thus, the question arises whether the country could afford to lose nationalist political leaders like the Rajapaksas, and a political party that represents the national interest — like the SLPP. Could we afford foreign interference once again, interference in internal affairs like constitutional making, the security matters and armed forces, the national economy, etc.? Could we afford to be held to ransom by minority political parties? Could we afford to be betrayed at international fora? like the UNHRC? Could we afford to live in fear of being turned into a federal state? It is of paramount importance that we have a nationalist government in power at this juncture.

The Rajapaksas and the SLPP must not betray the people who had shown immense confidence in them. The country needs them. But not the Rajapaksas who commit blunder after blunder. They must take stock of the situation, be humble enough to accept their mistakes and take corrective measures. There is no moment to waste, they have only three years to correct the blunders of two years. They know what their mistakes are. They must be big enough to accept it and correct themselves. Otherwise, they will be rejected by the people. They must remember that without the farmers’ support they are doomed. And the country, too, would be doomed, for without power the national forces will be ineffective, until a new leadership is developed which may never happen. The Rajapaksas must rise to the occasion.

N.A.de S. AMARATUNGA



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Opinion

Building trust, a better investment

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The government has allowed private companies to import chemical fertilisers. The farmers had been holding many a street protest against the government’s blatantly unwise policy of shifting to organic farming overnight, but to no avail. The Minister concerned and others repeatedly said that they would not change the government’s decision as it had been made for the good of all the people. The farmers had no problem with organic farming but insisted that the transition had to be phased out to avoid serious adverse effects. But no! The government never relented and tried to show that the street protests were instigated by interested parties including chemical fertiliser companies, to make the government unpopular. The government insisted that chemical fertilisers have caused many ailments including the dreaded kidney disease and turned a deaf ear to the farmers’ grievances.

However, hot on the heels of Mr. Modi’s U-turn last week, the Minister has changed track and tells us that the government, being one which is always ‘sensitive to people’s concerns’, has decided to make chemical fertilizers available through private imports, but would not import them on its own or change its policy of going fully organic. Questioned by journalists, another ruling party spokesperson quipped that the government’s decision came about neither due to the Indian PM’s ‘example’ nor in response to the loud protests. It is a result of the discussions held within the party, he assured.

However, it is unfortunate that the government had to wait for more than seven months to be ‘sensitive to peoples’ concerns’. If the ruling party members had only taken a few minutes to watch TV news headlines, they would have proved their ‘sensitivity’ months earlier, not waiting for Mr. Modi to steal a march on them, so to speak. To any reasonable person, the government obviously has responded to the rampant protests that were actually the climax of a prolonged process, which began with pleading, explaining their predicament, reasoning, chest thumping, expressing disbelief, which gradually culminated in loud protests, burning of effigies and threatening to come to Colombo in numbers. Surely, Mr. Modi didn’t make it any easier for the government to justify its ‘sensitivity’ to farmers’ grievances!

Thus, to any reasonable person, the government had actually responded to the unbridled anger of the helpless farmers, not to their grievances. What’s more, looking at how the government had handled the previous issues of a controversial nature, it is hard to recall any instance where it promptly responded to people’s concerns; it was always a case of responding to people vehemently protesting as a last resort- be it the Port City issue, Eastern Terminal, Teachers’ salary or Yugadanavi Power Plant issue, not to mention the pathetic state of innocent villagers being perpetually traumatized by wild elephant attacks often taking their lives wantonly. In each of these cases, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, seemed to regard the voices of concern, not as appeals worthy of serious attention, but as attempts at disruption or politically motivated interventions. This, surely, does not augur well for the government or support its claim to ‘sensitivity’ as regards people’s concerns.

The government’s decision to compromise on its strict chemical fertiliser ban, which has come soon after Mr. Modi’s reversal of sorts, allows room for the discerning public to make obvious inferences, despite the government’s claim about its decision not being influenced by that of the Indian PM. In fact, the government reps have nothing to gain by pretending to blush when journalists suggest that they perhaps took a leaf from their neighbour. Even at this juncture, people’s representatives seem reluctant to prefer sincerity to affectation; hence the government’s growing aloofness, which is causing a “severe trust deficit”- to borrow a pithy phrase from The Island editorial of November 19.

As the representatives of the public, what any government needs to foster are sincerity and empathy. It is this tacit bond between the people and the government, which will consolidate trust in the long term. Being the party that holds power, the onus is on the rulers to secure people’s faith. Instead, every party that has come to power since Independence has always helped the Opposition to make a five yearly ‘ritual cleansing’ in the eyes of the people. So, the wheel turns.

Susantha Hewa

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Opinion

Don’t harass whistle-blower

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Thushan Gunawardena, who alerted the authorities and the media to a serious fraud taking at Sathosa should not be harassed by the Police as it is clear that he has no political motives and has acted in the public interest.

The Cabinet minister concerned is attempting to show a conspiracy against him when he has failed to prevent such frauds at Sathosa and let it continue as there were benefits flowing to him in addition to his being able to employ family members and manipulate the system for personal profit.

It is patently clear that he is trying to take the investigation in a different direction and prevent changes that would clean up the mess that is contributing to the massive losses at Sathosa.

Mahinda Gunasekera

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Opinion

Stanley (Sam) Samarasinghe

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A TRIBUTE TO A PATRIOT

Even with the prior knowledge that the end was near, when the news of the passing away of Sam on the 23rd of November 2021 was conveyed to me, it was difficult to bear. Though living the better part of his adult life in the United States, to those with whom he had regular contact and dialogue, he was ever present. He succumbed to an illness that he bore with courage and fortitude for several years. In that time his enthusiasm to live his life to the full did not diminish. Except family and close friends none had even the slightest inkling that he was battling an invasive enemy within.

I have described Sam as a Patriot, if its definition is “one that loves his country and zealously maintains its interests”, then it fits him well, as he did that in full measure.

Having schooled in Kandy at Dharmarajah College, Sam completed a special degree in economics at the Peradeniya University where his father worked. Having being accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he turned to his mentor, Professor H. A. de S. Gunasekera, who had advised him to take Cambridge. He went there with his wife Vidyamali, whom he had met at Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. in Economics. They both returned to Peradeniya and Sam became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics. He taught there until 1989, when he left for the United States with his wife and two sons, Mevan and Ranmal. He was appointed Professor of the Development Studies Programme at the USAID, a position he held for many years in Washington. But what is remarkable, is that he continued his abiding interest in the many facets of Sri Lankan life, especially in education and politics and of course, Kandy. He returned to Sri Lanka at least twice a year. While others would spend such breaks as a let up from work, Sam vigorously involved himself in many spheres of activity.

Along with Prof. Kingsley de Silva, he created the only intellectual hub outside of the Peradeniya University in Kandy at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). As Director, he secured funding for many academic projects that the Centre did. Sam was instrumental in the ICES buying its own place and then constructing a tarred road leading to the Center. The way he set about it will give the reader an idea of the man Sam was. The road served at least 12 houses. He arranged a meeting of all the householders and sold them a deal that none could refuse. Each household was asked to pay proportionately to the distance from the main Peradeniya Road to their house. At the end of the exercise. Sam refunded the excess in that same proportion!!

Sam was an academic, researching and writing extensively, sometimes collaborating with other academics such as Prof. Kingsley de Silva and Prof. G.H. (Gerry) Peiris. On several occasions, he brought out his post graduate students from the Tulane University, New Orleans (where he was Visiting Professor of Economics) to Sri Lanka and to Kandy, arranged field trips and had them interact with academics and professionals.

His particular interest in Kandy made him do a study of its traffic congestion and organised a public seminar with other experts on the subject. As the President of the Senkadagala Lions Club, Sam obtained funding for many of its projects. In fact, Sam had a penchant for writing up project proposals, an expertise he ungrudgingly shared with anyone who asked for it. He started a monthly local newspaper in 1994, the “Kandy News”, becoming its Chief Editor and its main sponsor. The last issue was a special supplement done in the run-up to the Kandy Municipal Council election in 2018.

When the tsunami stuck the country in 2004, Sam was the lead Consultant of a World Vision programme designed to make a qualitative assessment of tsunami and non-tsunami villages from Kalutara in the Western Province to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. A task he successfully completed with his team under the aegis of the ICES.

He was an advocate for cooperation and harmony among the races. His involvement in the post tsunami work in Jaffna and Trincomalee with the Lions Club is proof of that, as much as it was when he asked the guests to the nuptial reception of his son Mevan, not to give presents but to contribute towards the project initiated by Mevan and himself in giving school books and equipment to the Tamil Primary School at the Gomorra Estate in Panwila.

My own association with Sam goes back to the time I ran for office as Mayor in 1997. He threw his weight behind me helping out in ways too numerous to mention. That friendship grew and grew and it embraced my family as well. He would ask me to criticise his writing especially on politics. He was a stickler for accuracy and uncompromising on facts. His opinions were rational, practical and unbiased. A bubbly personality, he was always a believer that there are better times ahead. His enthusiasm was infectious. His criticism of events and people were never personal. There is much to take from the life and times of Sam Samarasinghe.

We share his loss with his wife, the two boys of whom he was justly very proud of and his siblings whose welfare he always had. The country is poorer for his passing.

May he find peace in Nibbana!

Harindra Dunuwille

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