By Austin Fernando
The background to mayhem
The GotaGoGama protest has been on for 32 days to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa Clan, from domestic politics, and achieve national progress. It was a civilized civilian event. Exactly on the 30th day of the protest, a meeting was held at Temple Trees in support of the Prime Minister, canvassing his continuation in office. The numbers cursing and demanding the departure from offices of both, are in the region of millions, compared to about 3,000 persons who attended the Temple Tress meeting, and went berserk thereafter.
Participants at the Temple Tress event were described as the SLPP members of Local Authorities and dissolved Provincial Councils and ruling party parliamentarians. Nevertheless, they were a motley crowd, including ruffians hired for Rs. 5.000 and booze, etc. There were a few or, no participants, from the North and East. The SLPP participants were not answerable to anyone, but the GotaGoGamians, on the other hand, were organized and answerable to their inclusive Group. It has been alleged that some prisoners were brought to the Galle Face Green for the attack, but the Prison’s Department has denied this allegation.
Instigation and the clash
A slow murmur—’Time to drop in at Galle Face’—was heard at the end of the Temple Trees meeting: Thereafter, they poured onto the Galle Road and attacked MynaGoGama. The Police did precious little to rein in the mobs, maybe because they came from the Temple Trees.
The Police should have anticipated an attack on GotaGoGama, and given protection to the non-violent protestors against a mob of ruffians and street fighters who were drunk, armed with clubs, etc.
The Police were present but their high-octane performance, which is seen when they protect government politicians, was absent. At the Galle Face Hotel roundabout, the water cannons were not used to disperse the crowd, originating from Temple Trees. The Police inaction was in sharp contrast to the aggressive manner in which they controlled crowds, near the Parliament, last week.
The Police should have used teargas to disperse the SLPP mob; instead, they tear-gassed GotGoGamians, who were exercising their constitutional-guaranteed right to protest, and fighting hard to safeguard their huts. Thugs were allowed to attack the GotaGoGamians. They had a field day, in one instance three males shamelessly attacked a young girl on the road.
After General Shavendra Silva sent his men, the situation was brought, somewhat, under control. It was announced by General Shavendra Silva that it was the Police that called the Army in. The Police should have done so much earlier. The presence of the lawyers helped bring the situation under control. If the Army was present at the Galle Face Green earlier the GotaGoGamians would have suffered less damage.
Destructive response from the public
Most GotaGoGama participants hail from the villages, though they may be currently living in Colombo. Wide publicity that the media gave to the events in GotaGoGama must have made the public respond to the wild behaviour immediately. Unfortunately, it happened in the worst form of arson. Houses were torched, including the President’s ancestral property at Medamulana and even the DA Rajapaksa Memorial Museum.
We have seen on television many buildings being torched without any resistance; family members, even security officers, were absent. This. I consider a bit suspicious.
This status was a nasty response by the public who had undergone extreme difficulties, created by shortages, price hikes, income reduction, personal difficulties, etc., all creations of the Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa Government administration. Anyway, this also reflected the government’s unpopularity.
I remember parliamentarian Johnston Fernando stating, a few weeks back, in Kurunegala, that the government had 6.9 million people behind them and that justified the President and Prime Minister continuing to be in their posts. The way people reacted to the deplorable manner the protesters were dealt with proved that not only the government, but even the key personalities, and their assets, are vulnerable. Some members of the Prime Minister’s family fled the country and even the Prime Minster had to be taken to Trincomalee.
Negativity of destruction
On the 9th of May, the Governor of the Central Bank, along with the Minister of Finance, Ali Sabry, started negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. The Police higher-ups, who knew only to appease the political bosses, should have considered the impact of their behaviour, and the consequences on the economy, and prevailed on the ruffians, because the IMF is concerned about the stability of the country and the government. Minister Ali Sabry must be doing his best to convince the IMF negotiators how stable the government, without a Prime Minister and a Cabinet, is; and, all incidents of arson were due to fireworks lit to celebrate the Prime Minister’s departure! Additionally, an Asian Development Bank team also is in town. I do not think that the orders from the political masters were to push the country down the precipice unless the bosses wished to ensure the succeeding government and the President both fell deep into an economic abyss. Jealousy, selfishness, and political enmity have no limits.
Public opinion formation
Since I was working with a team of seniors on this issue, between the GotaGoGama and the civil society (which was known even to the President of the BASL and Mahanayakas of Malwatte and Asgiriya), I was restricting my views, in public, on the calamity. After seeing what happened near the Parliament and on the 9th instant, such restraint became redundant. It is because this will be the treatment the government will give to my children and grandchildren, as well as other free citizens’ and their children who will demonstrate democratically and constitutionally, in search of their rights. My feelings could be the same as any others.
The President’s failed contribution to saving the economic, social, and political crisis is well known and needs no elaboration. However, recapitulation of what the youth at GotaGoGama, in Colombo, and other protestors, elsewhere, orchestrate is sufficient to prove that the President’s decision-making process, the decisions, the application of decisions, etc., are unprofessional, faulty, failed. All expectations laid on him, in November 2019, have evaporated. One needs not repeat them when he and his Minister of Finance have admitted their mistakes.
When he acquired all powers by the 20th Amendment to act cozily, blaming the Prime Minister and Ministers alone is unfair because the President is the captain of the ship. He should have navigated the ship properly. To direct, he should possess knowledge and management capacities. When he lacked them, he should have sought technical knowledge and expertise from others.
The President, being a former military officer who is used to “Comply and complain,” seems to have been intolerant of anyone challenging his decisions. It is not the best way to govern as a politician, which he should have learned, but failed. However, the Constitution has created restrictions as regards the office of President becoming vacant.
Long wait, is it possible?
Can Sri Lanka afford to wait till the expiration of the President’s term, given the present crisis? It is impossible for him to rectify the mistakes such as tax cuts, delay in seeking IMF assistance and ban on agrochemicals. People are suffering due to his mistakes though he does not seem to be deterred, only saying that he had made mistakes.
Therefore, the demand for his resignation is quite justified. His clinging on is not considered a panacea for the ills of this government’s misdoings. The protestors believe his being so will accentuate the economic, social, and political problems created within the two and half years of his reign. It is the belief of the largest Opposition group Samagi Jana Balavegaya, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and the Tamil National Alliance. All other so-called minority group representations are mostly included in the TNA and Samagi Jana Balavegaya. The latter represents about 25 percent of the total population of the county.
Even the Human Rights Council of Sri Lanka and foreign diplomats have been critical of the attack on GotaGoGama. This will affect Sri Lanka’s pleas for the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus. Questions are likely to be raised at the UNHRC about it.
Due to these, there should be a system change, and the common demand is for the President to resign, too. Even the much-hyped unity government has been jeopardised. Some say that the government has lost its majority, irrespective of the ayes received at the election of the Deputy Speaker last week. The rift within the Pohottuwa Party is quite evident from statements made by various spokespersons. The President seems isolated.
At the time of writing, there is no Prime Minister and a Cabinet. His Secretariat’s, or his capacity, to run the government alone, is questionable from his past performance. He will be exposed severely if he is to explain the security situation to the Parliament, without a Prime Minister and a Cabinet. Since he has arrogated to himself all functions of Ministries by not appointing a Cabinet, he must answer parliamentary queries. He will find the mistake if it happens since he cannot answer queries with a note written by someone.
This weak uncertainty may give various spurious, nasty ideas to other establishments. It is a dangerous status to live with. In a situation where peace has crashed, it is worse. Fortunately, such other establishments will consider the extremely problematic status of the country and may not nod their heads. Therefore, the most important interest of all establishments should be to maintain peace and harmony. The President must take serious and immediate action against any lawbreaker, irrespective of being siblings, political supporters, or business friends, and he will win the confidence of the public in general. It will be useful for him one day when he decides to leave.
Of course, from his point of view, he will face threats for slacked governance during his term of office as Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and for being a member of the Rajapaksa clan. Rightly or wrongly, there are allegations of corruption and violation of rights which will re-emerge when his immunity is withdrawn after he ceases to be the President. This may prevent him from voluntarily resigning. These are some of the de-motivators for him to resign while the previous points, I made, are pro-motivators. Mr. President, toss a coin and give the victory to the people, who elected you.
An invitation to economists
Our economy has declined over the last three years. There are inevitably partisan explanations of what caused the decline. For me now, seeking causes is far less important than finding ways of working ourselves out of this misery. What I fail to see are statements on the nature and extent of the decline, including differences among regions and income groups; probable trajectories of these processes during the next five years; feasible alternative recovery paths and their consequences on the populace, differentiating among income and regions. I would also expect an exploration into who, meaning what agencies, can work to bring about these changes.
There are plenty and more competent persons in our universities to do this work. There might emerge more than one set of conclusions. They must all be welcomed. There might emerge a consensus. We are economists and have no copyright on consensus building; Keynes walked out of the Versailles Peace Conference and came home abandoning the discussions in Washington DC to establish intergovernmental financial institutions. Let differences flourish. If you let numbers argue your case, wild differences are likely to be less. Numbers are beautiful that way.
This sort of exercise is essential as politicians and political parties shy away from informing the public reasonably clear ideas about their own diagnoses and prescriptions. They go about announcing bombastically that if they were installed in office, they would solve the problems. My own understanding is that there is no such solution, all solutions will take time. The current situation in the country is one in which the public need to be taken into confidence. Nobody can solve these dire and complex problems affecting lives and livelihoods of millions of people without the understanding and the cooperation of the public.
It is time for the profession of economists to go out and lay bare their understandings. I know that there is no organisation that will initiate and finance this kind of operation, because it will not guarantee them tenure in Tavatinsa. The profession must stand up to it. Most of the work can be done online with clusters in our universities. All meetings can be on Zoom. Consequently, this effort must be paid for by economists with their own sweat and tears. It would be a fantastic learning opportunity. I personally do have neither the energy nor the wealth to help in the project. In the event that it may be necessary to buy some small amount of stationary, I will offer some money for the purpose. There may be other volunteers. Most economists will contribute with their own labour. Their output will see the profession’s labour well rewarded.
Editor of Tamil Times, Comrade Rajanayagam, is no more
It is with great sadness that I received the news of the passing away of my friend Comrade Periyathamby Rajanayagam (Rasa). Rasa was the younger brother of Comrade Dr. P. Arasaratnam. They hailed from Chunnakkam, a stronghold of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party at the time. Comrade P. Nagalingam was the Chairman of the Chunnakam Town Council for a long time and was nominated to the Senate by the LSSP, where he served with distinction.
Both Arasa and Rasa joined the Lanka Sama Samaja Party as youngsters. When the LSSP split in 1964, Arasa remained with the party while Rasa joined the LSSP-R. I first met him in the late 1960s at the opening of Dr. Arasa’s clinic in Ratnapura. I remember that Comrade NM Perera also graced the occasion.
Rasa joined the clerical service and it was natural that he would become involved with the LSSP-controlled General Clerical Service Union (GCSU). He edited the GCSU’s monthly bulletin The Red Tape, and its Tamil version Nava Uthayam. Rasa qualified as a lawyer in Sri Lanka and was a junior to Bala Tampoe before the Criminal Justice Commission that tried the leaders of the JVP. He specialised in labour law and appeared in the Labour Tribunal for workers who had lost their jobs. He later moved to London and qualified as a Solicitor. He served as a local council lawyer.
Rasa was editor of the Tamil Times for over 25 years and used to send me copies. His writings evoked much discussion in the Tamil community, worldwide. While being a Tamil rights activist, he abhorred violence and was also for a political solution. By fearlessly taking this position, he earned the wrath of both Tamil extremists, who considered him a traitor, and Sinhala extremists, who called him a separatist. His editorials were collected and published in two volumes. He was a popular figure in the Tamil community in England.
Rasa was committed to a constitutional resolution of Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis and actively participated in several discussions on constitutional reform in Sri Lanka that I attended at the invitation of the NRTSL (Non-Resident Tamils of Sri Lanka). I remember him chairing one discussion.
He was devastated when his wife passed away but had the courage and determination to move forward. He was ill for some time. Arasa pre-deceased him in December 2021.
Let us salute Comrade Rasa for the excellent work he has done.
May his soul attain Moksha!
(Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel
Need to prioritise national needs
May the Gods give us timely rain,
May the harvests be bountiful,
May the people be happy.
And may the King be righteous.
I believe that there are many (here and abroad) who are ready to help our country to flourish and our people to enjoy the maximum benefits, out of the blessings that Nature has plentifully bestowed on us “Where every prospect pleases, and Man alone is vile”, or as that wonderfully expressive Stanza above, inspires us.
We have it all, but have (mis)managed comprehensively, to destroy our endowments, and reduced ourselves to disgraceful beggary. We have been blessed by our location in the Tropics. Had it not been so, we would have needed to invest all of our earnings, to merely keep ourselves warm in the biting cold of Winter and if we could not, possibly perishing.
One of the alarmingly helpless laments heard is this: “What is the point of writing or talking, when we are sure that nothing will happen?” The youth in the ‘Aragalaya’ have proven otherwise. The authorities seem to be deaf and blind, and ready to sacrifice all, in their greed for money or worldly comforts, for themselves and theirs – to hell with the “sovereign people”. Venality, like heroin, is addictive and is transmissible. We see this – crooked parents beget crooked children. Retribution, in this or future lives is bound to come.
Against the pessimism of several friends, and others, I am cautiously hopeful. This is what emboldens me to keep on writing. After all, it is the incessant beatings of little drops of rain that convert even the hardest of rocks into fertile soil. Persistence and patience in doggedly and relentlessly pursuing a worthy goal, are the operative words. The youth in the Aragalaya, display the courage of their conviction against corruption that we, the Seniors had not the guts to do.
Three imperative goals for us (among many others) are:
(iii) Law and order.
Some Cosmetic changes first…
Drop the “Sri” from our title. “Great Britain”, became “Britain”. Likewise, “Lanka” would be more modest, and less pompous than “Sri Lanka”. So also “Deshapalanaya” which carries with it the flavour of subjugation and control. A word more suggestive of humility and compassionate scholarship might be better, and a lot more accurate.
For this, the well-endowed Parliament library may be worthy of more presence by members.
Of the three supporting columns of democracy, the “Judiciary” could remain as it is. It must however be admitted that certain rulings, particularly those concerning politicians, are disturbing. “The Executive” (President as of now), should move to, and Head “The “Legislative,” whose function is to formulate Laws and supervise their intended implementation. “The Executive”, should logically be what we now loosely call “the Administration”. To “execute” is to implement, to act, to perform and to deliver. It also has the closest contact with the public, and most in need of radical change. This brings us to a concept of “Governance,” having as its credo and primary responsibility, “to ensure convenient and orderly life to all citizens” and thereby not to be seen as an avoidable nuisance, but as a friendly helping hand.
(1) We, as a nation have a very poor work ethic. Responsibility, integrity, courtesy and courage against interference from any quarter, are necessary and inviolate. Every effort should be made to ensure that efficiency, honesty and economy should be key. In the words of John F. Kennedy, the US President, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for yours,” That is, to maximize the “Give” and minimize the “Take”.
(2) Cabinets -should be established solely in the interests of serving the needs of the public. They have instead become an instrument, not for the common good but for electoral convenience. The first Cabinet at Independence, numbered only 11. Today, there could be near 50, (counting the Deputy, State, Subject and “over-seeing” Ministers), This is more to assure votes for the governing party, than to provide useful service. This is naked betrayal of trust.
Any subject that seeks to divide the citizenry should not be entertained. This is particularly so, when it ignores likely unrest. We have seen it happen. What need is there for portfolios such as for ‘Buddha Sasana, Christian Affairs, Hindu and Muslim Affairs”. It is sheer arrogance to think that these great religions need Cabinet support. How can we talk of Religious Amity, when these seek to divide rather than to unite?
Monks in Parliament have been a disaster. Likewise, Culture and Sports are entirely personal matters and need no Governmental interference.
Acts of supreme stupidity, even by our less than stellar Parliament, were the attempts to prevent conventional attire of Muslim women, the “Halal” issue, and burial of their dead. The worst was the opposition to singing of the national anthem in Tamil. No wonder that our country is near bankruptcy, when our Legislators were busily engaged in pettiness, trivialities and robbery.
(2) We do need radical reforms, if we are to have the three arms (or legs) of Government, to serve the Public, who are their ultimate paymasters. “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” No system driven without this doctrine, can survive. Punctuality (the courtesy of Kings), application and pride in one’s job, are also crucial. Even in domestic employment, the first and dominant question is “How much will I get?” Seldom is it asked, “How can I help?” The ‘Public Service’ amounts to some 80 percent of the employed, while consuming about 70 percent of the Budget, makes it predominantly ‘an employment sink’ and a wide-open door for tempting or enticing marauding politicos. The diabolical dissolution of the former CCS, mostly comprising an elite and fearlessly independent set of Administrators, was a tiresome barrier to the corrupt. It had to be destroyed, and Felix Dias was the man to willingly and wilfully do it. Today, we have for the crooked politician, a comfortably compliant service in place of what should be one of such formidable propriety, that none will dare corrupt. A Public Servant who seems willing to double as Toilet Paper for a corrupt boss, is an unforgiveable scoundrel. One can identify several such. We were shocked to hear, from one of them, that half his colleagues in Cabinet were heroin addicts. So, then what?
(3) No politician can rob alone. There have to be compliant officials. It may take many courses of fierce purgatives to totally cleanse our corrupt Governance system. Corruption is so entrenched in every nook and cranny of the system, that unbelievably drastic action has to be taken. The complicit quickly learn the ways of the game and gleefully violate all principles of honesty, integrity, decency and culture. The whole structure cries out for urgent reform, and to be made leaner by trimming the superfluous. Some will need a new spine and, some others would warrant castration. In view of the fact that the Politician is often the source of the evil pollutant and source, I began to write about this in some detail. The text got to be so long, that I decided to leave it for the present, and resolved to honor it with an article on its own.
Every livestock farmer is familiar with the concept of “Carrying capacity” – which determines the number of chickens that can be sustained in a cage, or cows in a field.
What applies to animals surely should apply to the species, Homo Sapiens. Natural Laws are universally valid. A farmer culls his stock when it exceeds his capacity, by “culling”. This cannot be applied to human populations. Has Nature taken over, by inflicting periodic natural or self- inflicted disasters (conflicts or diseases), to restore some stability?
In 1798, Reverend Thomas Malthus, FRS, postulated that populations would increase beyond the capacity to provide adequate food. Population increases exponentially, while productivity of (food), does only increase linearly. Thus, sooner or later the latter outgrows the latter. At that time, this was condemned as a diabolical plot to deny the Benefits of the Industrial Revolution to the poorer countries or the poorer segments of society. It seems that the dire warning is proving its validity. Even at the risk of rejection as being unprofessional or superficial, the situation that confronts Sri Lanka is serious. Making some assumptions, our population of 21 million and increases (growth- rate) of 2 %, the annual population increase, (excluding deaths), would be 420,000, and birth rate would be roughly 1,000 per day.
The requirements of a few crucial sectors would be as follows, Rice (additional acreage), Schools (4 x 250), houses (assuming that all marry) 500, Universities (assuming 10%) 10, Transport (50- seater buses) 20, Hospital beds (assuming 1% sick) 10, Jobs (at 50 %) 500 and so on. One has to note that these are estimated daily requirements. Even If today’s requirements are met, tomorrow’s will loom menacingly. This assumes that the present standards of living remain as they are. This seems an impossible task. The only option is some sort of population planning, which of course be resisted.
Global warming might seem a distant prospect that may not bother us at the moment. This is so, although recent observations suggest that the earlier projections were in error, and the worry is more severe than at first feared.
Several of our major rivers flow brown from eroded soil. This points to serious flaws in our land and water use. The Soil Conservation Act, prohibited forest clearance above high elevations but that continued nevertheless, mainly for tea planting. If such tea is left unplucked, (i) they would soon grow up to about 10-15 feet and also allow the establishment of secondary forests of tree types n natural to the area.
(ii) Sand for construction requirements are normally met by river sand. Remembering that most soils, have only a small percentage of sand, every ton of sand removed, would mean that several tons of soil has been eroded. It would take centuries to build back an inch of topsoil thus washed away.
(iii) Our forest cover, which is estimated to have been about 50% of the land area at the beginning of the last century, is now below 20% due to resettlement, urbanization and wanton destruction. It has to be noted that in even the much-decried Chena system, vegetation is only thinned. The land cultivated changes from time to time rotationally and thus the natural forest regenerates. Large scale clearance is manifest in mechanized logging operations and unsupervised encroachments. The same applies to illegal timber extraction and sand mining. Experience shows that co-operating with regular entrants to forested areas, is far better than the total exclusion of entry into forests. Firewood collection, from naturally shedding tree branches, and collection of medicinal herbs, are a centuries-old tradition.
Attention has been increasingly drawn to the question of pollution, particularly by long-life plastic wastes. Some regulation is sorely needed as the menace grows.
Law and order issues
There is an increase in the civilian protests – related mostly to shortages of fuel and cooking LPG. Adding to this are civilian protests as is manifested in the ongoing “Gota go home’ rallies and the unleashing violence and destruction of Private properties, consequent to the raid of Gotagama protesters, and lately in gas and fuel shortages. The peace keeping apparatus is showing signs of fatigue and the crowds more and more hostile, ending often in unseemly confrontations. The situation is menacingly volatile. Open revolt the last thing we need now.
Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda
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