By Lynn Ockersz
Citizens of the storm-tossed Isle,Are at centre stage once again,Though the duration is just a day,And the choice is theirs,To make or mar the days ahead,But if they cannot easily make a pick,From the sea of jostling names,They cannot be blamed,For, integrity remains the acid test;
And the troubling question,Erupts in their minds,Over and over again:Who is worthy of receiving their ‘Yes’?
Queues, Cues and More Queues
By Kalinga Tudor Silva
One of the important ways, the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka has directly impacted our lives is having to go through long and seeming unending queues, to access petrol, diesel, kerosene and even our dear passports. Queues have multiplied, sprung up on either side of the road and across the road in some instances adding to traffic jams, accidents and related road risks and public grievances stemming from the economic crisis. Frustrations arising from the failure at the end of the queues to secure what they were queuing for long hours have also become an important driver of public protests and clashes between different groups of public, consumers and fuel station staff and the public and law enforcement personnel. This is not the first time that scarcities hit consumers in Sri Lanka, but this is the first time in our memory that queues have become a routine and blatantly visible sign of the desperate position we are in with our foreign reserves nearly exhausted and essential imports like fuel, consumer goods and medicines severely curtailed in consequence. While the rising cost of fuel in the wake of the war in Ukraine may have partly contributed to this situation, the totally irresponsible and reckless way our foreign reserves were handled and high-risk international credit using International Sovereign Bonds were obtained by our political leaders and their hand-picked bureaucrats at the top largely contributed to the economic meltdown producing heavy scarcities and the resulting queues. I am writing this short reflection based on my personal experience of long stays in petrol and LP gas queues and brief conversations I had with different stakeholders in the supply chain and the fellow victims in the queues.
While Sri Lankans are notorious for jumping the queues and doing so shamelessly at times wearing ties and all the external trappings of modernity, they have also found ingenious ways of blocking queue jumping. I came across two such devices in the two sets of queues in which I joined. One was the bumper-to-bumper vehicle parking in overnight queues blocking any big enough empty space to be occupied by intruders big or small. The other was tying of empty gas cylinders to one another forming their own queues using a metal chain to prevent any forcible insertions in between, with chains and empty gas cylinders serving as actants in this instance, as the social theorist Latour would identify them within his actor-network framework. In adaptation to the circumstances as well as in outsmarting the habitual queue-jumpers, it is as if queues take cues from one another. That said I find these multiple queues imposed upon us a total waste of our time and resources. For instance, some people exhaust the limited fuel stocks they have in their vehicles in the slow-moving vehicle queues, only to find when they reach their destination that there is no more fuel to be sold. This is the point at which some people get into serious conflict with either the fuel station employees or other parties perceived to be manipulating the supply lines. These confrontations have sometimes ended in serious injuries or even manslaughter.
It must be stated here that while some fuel stations have done a reasonable job of handling this difficult situation, others have made a mess of distributing the limited supplies. In one fuel station that I visited I came to know that there was one long queue to secure tokens for the next day and another even longer queue using the tokens to access fuel. Despite all the seemingly logical efforts such as allocating different days for accessing fuel according to the last number in the license plate, and the introduction of the QR code system, they have further complicated the distribution of fuel and made life difficult for the consumers. The token system was introduced to do away with the queues, but it has in fact multiplied queues, with queues for obtaining the tokens superimposed upon separate fuel queues. It appears to be the case that there is no monitoring or follow up of the various interventions made by the Energy Ministry to make sure that these interventions work in the way expected and fix any inevitable mistakes in the system. As of now some of the interventions such as the token system has only served to make life difficult for the consumers simultaneously hit by the scarcities on the one hand and sharp and repeated escalation of commodity prices on the other. Where yesterday’s queues end, today’s queues begin in anticipation of tomorrow’s uncertain supplies. In the meantime, the number of people collapsing and instantly dying in the queues has recorded an all-time high in this land of prosperity and splendour!
Another unhealthy development we are witnessing currently is the emergence of a black market for fuel and perhaps other commodities in short supply. This black market has several manifestations. One is that the fuel issued for one legitimate purpose such as operation of mechanised fishing boats essential for the fishing industry being diverted to the black-market catering to the motorists. The relevant boat operators perhaps make a good income by illegally selling their fuel supplies instead of catching any fish. Another is that hired vehicles such as three wheelers being used for securing fuel supplies for the black market, these vehicle operators making more money illegally selling their fuel stocks than by hiring their vehicles as expected. This also perhaps partly explains why the fuel queues keep extending despite the supply chain being in operation and replenished from time to time. The police have successfully caught some of these illegal operators, but the number caught may simply be the tip of the iceberg. Some black-market operators reportedly dilute their fuel supplies with whatever bubbling substances at their disposal causing havoc in the vehicle engines to which they are introduced. This again may be a lucrative income avenue for the expert mechanics, but a serious risk faced by the motorists compelled to turn to the black market to obtain fuel supplies during emergencies. Thirdly charges by commercial vehicles such as trucks, taxis and three wheelers have risen so much because of the fuel scarcity and the black market in fuel supply that they rely on to an extent that many users have virtually given them up. The QR code introduced to overcome the resulting problems such as diversion of fuel supplies to the black market, is yet to be implemented across the board and adopted by all parties concerned. Obviously, the ground situation has not been properly assessed in respect of availability of devises and the competence of the fuel station staff and the latter have not been prepared for adoption of this intervention prior to its introduction.
Another parallel development to the black market is the control of certain terminal points in the fuel distribution system by a mafia-like local group with muscle power, heavy street presence and possible connections to the long arms of the law and at times law makers themselves. This group obviously benefits from the black market and perhaps tries to perpetuate it because it serves their interests. This will make it difficult to go back to a free market of the type that prevailed prior to the onset of the economic crisis even when economy has recovered, and the fuel supplies are back to normal. This group can either subvert the efforts to regularise the fuel supply or manipulate them for maximising their own benefits in ways that entrench the black market and enhance their control over it.
Considering the adverse effects of this black market and its potentially irreversible social consequences, it is essential that innovative approaches are pursued in order to prevent it from advancing to the next stage. While the queues may be here to stay for some time, we must find ways and means to ensure that they do not get out of control and destabilise the entire social system and the market economy connected with it. Allocating different types of motor vehicles for fuel supply on different days or to different fuel stations, proper implementation of the QR codes having done the necessary groundwork and preparations, fuel supply for essential services through approved government outlets with required police protection are among the steps that can be introduced on a pilot basis and expanded to the whole system if they prove to help overcome the current crisis. Finally, a systematic assessment of the current situation must be made by a team of competent people also getting feedback from the public with a view to identify the way forward.
Orwellian Isle Ordeals
By Lynn Ockersz
‘Big Brother’s’ surveillance lens,
Is now at greatly magnified strength,
In the Isle thrashed by crisis waves,
Piercing every prospect of the land,
With scorching interrogatory rays,
Aiming to cow into silence,
Citizens demanding real change,
And the deliverance of Justice,
To crime victims long forgotten by time,
But all that would be left in the end,
We are compelled but sorry to say,
Is a fear-driven, straitjacketed state,
Where ‘Big Brother’, with his all-seeing eye,
Will be the power with which to contend.
Proposed all-party govt: Prez wins support from unexpected quarters
The secret vote on the new President as well as the Emergency sharply divided the SLFP. In spite of talks among members of its parliamentary group, the party, led by one-time President Maithripala Sirisena, has not been able to reach a consensus on a strategy to deal with the new President. Of the 14 SLFPers, including National List MP Dr. Suren Raghavan, five have thrown their weight behind Wickremesinghe’s move to impose the Emergency rule. The remaining SLFPers abstained at the vote on the Emergency, though all 14 members exercised their freedom at the secret vote to elect the new President by parliament. The SLFP parliamentary group was reduced to 09 in the wake of 05 switching their allegiance to Wickremesinghe. Even out of the 09, Lasantha Akagiyawanna, Duminda Dissanayake, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and Jagath Pushpakumara wanted to vote for the Emergency, whereas Maithripala Sirisena, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Angajan Ramanathan, Shan Wijelal and Sarathi Dushmantha felt the party should vote against.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Lawmakers sharply differ on a solution to developing the political-economic-social crisis. Election of UNP National List MP Ranil Wickremesinghe as the 8th Executive President and the vote on Emergency on July 20 and July 27 respectively further highlighted the growing differences among political parties, represented in Parliament, as well as individual members.
The Parliament consists of 196 elected and 29 appointed (National List) members. They have entered Parliament on the ticket of political parties mentioned below: The parties are Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (145 seats), Samagi Jana Balavegaya (54), Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (10), Jathika Jana Balavegaya (03) Ahila Illankai Tamil Congress (02), Eelam People’s Democratic Party (02), United National Party (01), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (01), Our Power of People Party (01), Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (01) Muslim National Alliance (01), Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kutani (01), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (01), National Congress (01) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (01).
In the wake of the UNP leader receiving parliamentary blessings to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has emerged as one of the leading demanders of an immediate parliamentary election, notwithstanding the perilous state of the country. The MEP with just three members (Dinesh Gunawardena, his son Yadamini (National List) and Sisira Jayakody) received the premiership.
The three-member Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) parliamentary group, comprising JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Colombo district), Vijitha Herath (Gampaha district) and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya (National List) campaigns for an early general election. The JVP leader, one of the three contestants, received just three votes, including his own, at the July 20 vote.
Having backed Dullas Alahapperuma (Matara district) at the presidential contest, the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), too, campaigns for an early general election. The 54 member SJB parliamentary group is obviously divided over its political strategy, though its leader, Sajith Premadasa seems confident an early general election can resolve the crisis. The SJB group includes seven National List members.
The SJB and the JVP believe an early general election is the panacea for the worst-ever crisis that has brought Sri Lanka to its knees, thereby facilitating external interventions at an unprecedented level.
The rapid developments and the growing uncertainties should be examined, taking into consideration President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stand on an early general election and that of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Both Wickremesinghe and the SLPP are unlikely to accept the holding of a hasty national election, under any circumstances, in the current situation. They agree on Wickremesinghe finishing his predecessor’s five-year term and the Parliament continuing its stipulated period. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fielded by the SLPP won the last presidential election, conducted in mid-November 2019, and the general election in August, 2020.
Dissident SLPP National List member Gevindu Cumaratunga discussed the issues at hand on ‘Thulawa’, anchored by Sudarman Radaliyagoda, on the Independent Television Network (ITN) on July 28.
Responding to former JVP MP Nalinda Jayatissa’s declaration that general election was nothing but a prerequisite as bankrupted Sri Lanka struggled to cope up with an unprecedented economic crisis, lawmaker Cumaratunga strongly argued for an all-party government as the urgent need to restore the gravely ill country.
The outspoken nationalist politician stressed the need for a consensus on what he called an ‘all-party-arrangement’ and the responsibility on the part of President Wickremesinghe to take tangible measures to achieve the desired objective. Civil society group ‘Yuthukama’ leader Cumaratunga explained how a dissident group of SLPP MPs and others tried to convince the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve the Cabinet-of-Ministers to pave the way for an all-party government.
Cumaratunga asserted that consensus on an ‘all party arrangement’ was required as a fresh general election couldn’t guarantee a stable government. The civil society activist asked whether anyone could guarantee how long a government elected at a hastily called general election will last.
Referring to the fate of world leaders, such as the UK’s Boris Johnson, elected in 2019, but forced to announce his resignation recently, Cumaratunga stressed that political parties should be mindful of the impact the corrosive and highly manipulated (especially by foreign interests) social media was having on the entire political party system here.
The MP was obviously commenting on the fate that befell elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with an overwhelming majority and the SLPP. The first time entrant to Parliament pointed out that today posters weren’t required. The MP explained how social media platforms could influence the electorate to topple any elected administration by poisoning the minds of the people against it. Therefore, it would be sensible to have a consensus among those political parties represented in Parliament than going for a fresh election that may not facilitate a solution at all.
Rebels divided over political strategy
Lawmakers Cumaratunga and ‘Yuthumaka’ activist Anupa Pasqual (Kalutara district) elected on the SLPP ticket at the last general election, voted for the Emergency, the day before the live telecast of ‘Thulawa.’ Of those lawmakers representing 10 political parties and groups affiliated with the SLPP, Gevindu Cumaratunga and Anura Pasqual joined Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila in backing the continuation of the Emergency rule.
However, regardless of a decision taken at a meeting of the group held at the Communist Party office, on the previous day, Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Democratic Left Front), Prof. Tissa Vitharana (Lanka Samasamaja Party), Weerasumana Weerasinghe (Communist Party) and Ven. Athureliye Rathana (Our Power of People Party) skipped the vote. The proposal to continue with the Emergency received 120 votes whereas 63 voted against the move. Quite a number of others abstained. Some of those who voted for Dullas Alahapperuma, at the presidential contest, voted for the Emergency, while some of his other supporters abstained. The dwindling Dullas Alahapperuma-Prof. G.L. Peiris camp voted against it though some of its members suffered in the hands of the protest movement. Did they quietly and conveniently forget the killing of MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale on May 09?
Appearing on ‘Thulawa’, MP Cumaratunga questioned the JVP strategy as regards an earlygeneral election, in spite of sensible assertions that an ‘all-party arrangement’ was required to deal with the current unprecedented situation.
The ‘Yuthukama’ chief recalled how the JVP intervened during CBK’s presidency to avert external interventions (reference was to the Pariwasa government) and how the party helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the 2005 presidential election at a time the UPFA candidate lacked the wherewithal. But, the JVP squandered the opportunity to achieve the desired objectives due to ill-fated decisions, the ardent nationalist MP asserted.
Lawmaker Cumaratunga didn’t mince his words when he accused the JVP of being part of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s murderous strategy in the late 80s. The reference was to the second JVP-inspired insurgency, which was eventually crushed by the Premadasa regime itself by outmatching its mindless violence after all attempts made by him to appease its demands failed, after having come to power with some help from their brute violence that had been unleashed, especially in the aftermath of the forced Indo-Lanka accord.
MP Cumaratunga reiterated his call for the JVP et al to change their strategies as part of the overall measures to overcome the daunting challenges faced by the country.
Responding to the interviewer, lawmaker Cumaratunga declared that their proposal for an ‘all-party government’ handed over to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still valid. Urging President Wickremesinghe to initiate action required to achieve consensus on an action plan, MP Cumaratunga referred to two instances of US interventions. The lawmaker questioned the circumstances one-time Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam ended up as an USAID paid advisor to yahapalana Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MP, and how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), too, benefited from USAID funding.
Before voting for the emergency on July 27, the MP reminded the House how the military top brass, at a meeting chaired by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena at the parliamentary complex on July 13, sought a clear cut direction from the political leadership regarding the ways and means of countering the threat posed by those who sought to undermine the country’s democracy.
MP Cumaratunga said that attacks on SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and several of his MPs on May 09 afternoon near Taj Samudra, assault on MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne at a different location and threats on JVP trade union activists, whether staged or not, revealed the dangerous intentions of those who masqueraded as peaceful protesters.
The Yuthukama leader urged President Wickremesinghe to go beyond the UNP’s thinking and take appropriate measures required to restore public confidence in his administration. He expressed confidence and faith in the new Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena whose appointment was described as the most apt at a time of crisis.
Protest movement slams Fonseka
SJB MP Sarath Fonseka’s declaration in Parliament on July 27 before the House extended the Emergency that a campaign, similar to the one that ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa on July 09, would be mounted in Colombo on August 09, angered the protest movement. The Sinhala Regiment veteran urged the military not to interfere with the protest movement.
The protest movement appeared to have been quite surprised and angered by the Field Marshal declaration.
Though the Field Marshal has openly spoken sympathetically towards the protest movement, in actual fact he has no stomach for violent blood thirsty brutes conveniently wrapping themselves in the national flag to hoodwink the nation and the world.
Sarva Parkshika Aragalakaruwo in a hard hitting statement dated July 29 alleged that the Field Marshal’s declaration was meant to cause harm to the protest movement. They called the war-winning Army Chief’s action part of the government conspiracy. The grouping urged the public to be cautious of those seeking to exploit the developments to their advantage at the expense of the overall objectives of the protest movement. Obviously, since Wickremesinghe, on the invitation of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa accepted the premiership on May 12, differences have emerged among those who backed the protest movement. Various parties have questioned the role played by the UNP and its leader Wickremesinghe in the protest movement.
While acknowledging the right to dissent, President Wickremesinghe has sought to consolidate government authority, regardless of serious concerns expressed by Western powers. President Wickremesignhe’s decision to clear the Presidential Secretariat and its environs of protesters on July 22 underscored the new President’s resolve. In fact, the UNP leader won the appreciation and the admiration of many, even from usually unlikely quarters, like perennial ardent critic of Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador in Myanmar Prof. Nalin de Silva, for his prompt action.
At the same time President Wickremesinghe shouldn’t risk causing further turmoil by any overhasty actions. Last Friday’s raid on the Nugegoda party office of the breakaway JVP faction, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), at least on the surface, seems an utterly idiotic move on the part of law enforcement authorities. Such actions wouldn’t help President Wickremesinghe’s efforts to secure cooperation of all political parties represented in Parliament. Instead, overzealous law enforcement operations might undermine the President’s efforts and result in pressure on those lawmakers who voted for the Emergency. Rethinking of strategy is required, urgently to prevent creation of an environment conducive for those hell-bent on ruining the country to come back to saner thinking. Maybe an iron fist in a velvet glove might be the answer.
However, we cannot blame the security apparatus for not taking any more chances. As not only Field Marshal Fonseka who warned of turmoil, but many in the JVP/FSP hierarchy have publicly vowed to drive out President Wickremesinghe the same way they chased out Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In fact just early this week IUSF leader Wasantha Mudalige vowed to bring Wickremesinghe to Galle Face on his knees.
The country has seen enough of those masquerading as non-partisan and non-violent protesters going on the rampage since March 31, when the opportunity permits. We were shocked to see how the US ambassador Julie Chung had the audacity to issue a statement urging the security establishment here not to use force against protesters on May 09, as well-prepared anti- government violent mobs were going on the rampage across the country. Maybe she should issue such statements to the US marines!
Civil society activist Chirantha Amarasinghe has released a taped conversation he had with President Wickremesinghe soon after the police and the military chased out protesters from the environs of the Presidential Secretariat. Amarasinghe questioned the rationale in President Wickremesinghe advising him to seek an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremeratne as regards the July 22 incident against the backdrop of him personally briefing Colombo-based diplomats. Declaring their intention to mount an ‘operation’ in Colombo on August 09, Amarasinghe representing an origanisation called ‘Freedom Defenders’ insisted that the SLPP should be defeated for once and for all !
WW ready to cooperate with Prez
Having voted for the Emergency, considering the gravity of the situation facing the country, obviously instigated by his erstwhile colleagues in the JVP/FSP, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa has offered the support of his party, comprising six parliamentarians, to the government depending on the new President’s readiness to pursue a strategy meant to counter external interventions.
The former firebrand JVPer declared his support for President Wickremesinghe’s all-party government depending on the latter’s response to their proposals. Lawmaker Weerawansa’s stand should be appreciated especially against the backdrop of long standing animosity between the UNP leader and the NFF leader. MP Weerawansa, in his letter dated July 28, has warned President Wickremesinghe that whether he accepted it or not, he too, had only two options namely (i) be part of the despicable Western operation meant to transform Sri Lanka to Haiti’s status and (ii) take tangible measures to address the issues at hand by taking advantage of the current political-economic-social crisis to reach consensus on what the former minister called a social contract.
Weerawansa lost his ministerial portfolio in early March this year. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila, too, lost his ministerial portfolio at the same time. The then President sacked them in response to their leading role in a high profile campaign against the controversial Yugadanavi deal finalized in Sept 2021 under highly questionable hasty circumstances.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to pay a very heavy price for not recognizing serious concerns expressed by SLPP constituents. Instead, the former President sought to justify the actions of those who exploited an utterly corrupt system to finalize the US energy deal. Many an eyebrow was raised when the then CEB Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando defended the Yugadanavi deal at a media briefing arranged by the then presidential spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake at the President’s Media Division (PMD). Ratnayake conveniently took leave before the cultivated public anger exploded at the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana. The former President’s Director General Media Sudewa Hettiarachchi quit several days before the protest movement overran the President’s House on July 09.
Weerawansa made a 12-point set of proposals including a mechanism to accommodate representatives of the protest movement. Amidst fears expressed by some that interested parties would take advantage of the crisis to appoint a jumbo-sized Cabinet, MP Weerawansa’s party has proposed that the Cabinet-of- Ministers should be restricted to 30 and they be deprived of current ministerial perks and privileges (suggestion number 09).
The readiness on the part of the likes of Wimal Weerawanwa and Gevindu Cumaratunga to explore ways and means of reaching a consensus on a recovery plan should be appreciated. The country is in such a desperate situation no one can stick to old policies and strategies unless they want the bankrupt country to collapse, thereby suffering irrevocable damage.However, MP Weerawansa’s recent response to Wickremesinghe invitation for talks indicated the extreme difficulties in reaching consensus on matters at hand. What all, including the President should keep in mind is that they need to address the concerns of the IMF or face the consequences.
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