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Editorial

Counting deaths and votes

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Thursday 27th May, 2021

Government leaders seem to think their failure to muster a two-thirds majority for the Port City Economic Commission Bill (PCECB) recently in Parliament is a far worse problem than Covid-19 ravaging the country, thanks to their bungling attempts at pandemic control. Only 149 MPs voted for the bill much to the disappointment of the SLPP, which expected at least 150 votes in favour. Justice Minister Ali Sabry is one of the SLPP MPs who insist that something went wrong with the vote count, and there should be a recount. The government says it is keen to get to the bottom of it. If only it had been equally keen to heed dire warnings from health experts and take action to prevent the current wave of the pandemic.

Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella has said parliamentary Standing Orders do not provide for vote recounts. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene has appointed a committee to look into what actually happened.

The government, we believe, ought to stop worrying about its inability to maintain its two-thirds majority in the House, and instead concentrate on how to control the raging pandemic and save lives and the economy. But it needs to be mentioned that a remedy is available for disputed vote counts in Parliament even though one does not know whether the government’s claim at issue is true or false; politicians and political parties are adept at making lies sound like veracities.

There is a precedent anent vote recounts in Parliament regardless of what the Standing Orders say. On 05 May 2016, the JVP made a surprising move in the House; it wrong-footed the yahapalana government by calling for division on a supplementary estimate. The government MPs hurtled helter-skelter in Parliament in a desperate bid to muster a majority (33) of those present; some MPs were not in the Chamber, and they had to be brought in. The vote was taken amidst an awful din. Secretary General Dhammika Dassanayake declared that 33 votes had been cast in favour and 31 against, and all hell broke loose with the Joint Opposition (JO) claiming that the vote had been rigged, and demanding a recount.

An examination of the CCTV footage of the vote revealed that 31 had voted in favour and 31 against. The then Chief Government Whip Lakshman Kiriella insisted that the outcome of the vote was a fait accompli as the Speaker had endorsed it, and there was no provision for a recount. But Speaker Karu Jayasuriya appointed a committee comprising Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, former speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, and Minister Rauff Hakeem to look into the very serious allegation and submit a report. The following day, the JO called for the resignation of the Secretary General. A fresh vote was taken subsequently on the recommendation of the ad hoc committee, and the estimate was passed. The issue was forgotten.

So, the incumbent government may be able to make use of this precedent as per the PCECB, but there is absolutely no need for such action as the bill, which needed only a simple majority for passage, was duly ratified. However, before asking for a recount, the government will have to substantiate its allegation perhaps with the help of the video footage of the vote.

Why the government is making such a hullabaloo defies comprehension. Maybe, it cannot come to terms with the fact that it is no longer capable of securing a two-thirds majority in the House. It must be regretting that Rishad Bathiudeen’s party was not made to cough up three votes instead of two for the PCECB. The Opposition, which is without any achievements as such, is cock-a-hoop at the government’s failure to secure a two-thirds majority. It should try to stop its MPs from voting with the SLPP instead of deriving a perverse pleasure from others’ problems.

What should be of concern to the government at this juncture is the increasing number of lives being snuffed out by the pandemic, and not the number of votes it can muster in Parliament.



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Editorial

JVP’s volte-face

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Tuesday 7th February, 2023

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decision to implement the controversial 13th Amendment (13A) fully could not have come at a worse time for pseudo-patriots such as the SLPP leaders, who enabled him to realise his presidential dream, and are therefore responsible for his acts or omissions. They have refused to grant the Provincial Councils land and police powers, claiming that such measures are fraught with the danger of leading to secession. Now, they find themselves in a dilemma. They, however, did not resort to violence in a bid to scuttle 13A when it was introduced in the late 1980s. But the same cannot be said about the JVP.

The JVP has said it sees nothing wrong with efforts being made to implement 13A, which is now part of the Constitution. This is the very opposite of what it said in the late 1980s, when it went on a spree of violence, claiming that 13A would lead to the division of the country, and had to be torpedoed, at any cost. Its savage suppression of dissent left hundreds of people dead. Its victims included politicians, student leaders, trade unionists, traders, monks, public officials, police and military personnel and voters who defied its order to boycott elections. Among the state assets it destroyed were 240 agrarian service centres, numerous Paddy Marketing Board warehouses with stocks of paddy therein, countless CEB transformers, power cables and pylons, and hundreds of state-owned buses. It also disrupted universities and schools, insisting that one’s love for the motherland had to take precedence over one’s education. Due to its brutal anti-13A campaign, its founder, Rohana Wijeweera, and all its senior leaders save Somawansa Amaraweera, perished at the hands of the police, the military and the pro-UNP vigilantes during counterterrorism operations. The same fate befell thousands of its junior cadres as well. Now, it says 13A is a fact of life!

The JVP claims to be a Marxist outfit but Machiavellian thinking seems to have polluted its revolutionary ideology. It is apparently guided by the Machiavellian maxim anent its pledges — ‘the promise given was a necessity of the past, and the word broken is a necessity of the present’.

What characterises the JVP is a chronic lack of policy consistency, as we pointed out in this space, on 05 April 2021, when the quinquagenary of its first sanguinary revolution fell. The only thing consistent about the JVP is perhaps its modus operandi to gain political momentum periodically to propel itself. It honeymoons with the main political parties and then takes them on. It backed the SLFP-led United Front ahead of the 1970 general election. The following year, it took up arms against the government formed by that coalition. In the late 1970s, it went politically steady with the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene, who released Wijeweera and others from prison. A few years later it turned against the JRJ regime and caused another bloodbath. In 2004, it closed ranks with the UPFA led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and thereafter left her administration. In 2005, it backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential fray, making a tremendous contribution to his victory; subsequently, it fell out with him and tried to topple his government. In 2015, it threw in its lot with a UNP-led coalition, which fielded Maithripala Sirisena as its presidential candidate and captured power in Parliament after his victory. Its honeymoon with the UNP lasted several years before it took on the UNF government and Sirisena when they became extremely unpopular.

This kind of political promiscuity, as it were, has cost the JVP dear both politically and electorally, as can be seen from the number of seats it has secured at the general elections over the years: one MP (elected on the Sri Lanka Progressive Front ticket) in 1994; 10 MPs in 2000; 16 MPs in 2001; 39 (from the UPFA) in 2004; four MPs (from the Democratic National Alliance) in 2010; six MPs in 2015, and three MPs (from the NPP) in 2020. This time around, the JVP leaders seem to think there is a tide in their affairs, and it has to be taken at the flood, but let them be warned to tread cautiously, mindful of the fact that Brutus, who acted likewise, finally ran on his own sword in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It was a huge mistake for the JVP to try to march on Parliament last year.

As we have argued in a previous editorial comment, the JVP’s style of politicking smacks of demagogy like that of other political parties although it takes the moral high ground, and whether it will be able to charter a course and navigate the shoaly waters of national politics it has drifted into remains to be seen.

Everything undergoes change. The universe itself is said to be in a state of flux. Therefore, it is only natural that political parties evolve, and the cadre-based JVP is metamorphosing into a mass-based political entity. It has demonstrated its willingness to abandon its threadbare ideology and associated anachronisms such as dirigisme; it has come to terms with the current global economic reality and is wooing the local business community. Besides, its current leaders are known for their sartorial and tonsorial elegance and predilection for dernier cri. These are no doubt welcome signs. But the question is whether the heinous crimes that ‘revolutionary’ groups commit in the name of liberation should be allowed to go unpunished.

The JVP has to show that it feels remorse for having resorted to savage terror to compass its political objectives. The least it can do is to tender an apology to the public, especially to the victims of its terror, the families of its cadres who answered its call to arms, came forward to ‘save the country’ and perished in vain.

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Editorial

Return of state terror

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Monday 6th February, 2023

The spectre of state terrorism raising its ugly head again looms over the country. The Brownshirts of the incumbent regime, as it were, are now free to operate alongside the police to crush anti-government protests. Old habits are said to die hard. Those violent characters were seen in action on 03 February night at Maradana, where a group of people staged a peaceful protest against the government over the widespread waste of public funds, abuse of power, suppression of democratic dissent, economic mismanagement and the resultant hardships.

It was unfortunate that on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the country’s Independence, which was celebrated on a grand scale with public funds, the people were denied their right to protest.

The UNP has a history of unleashing state terror to silence its political opponents. In fact, it has got this down to a fine art. It did not spare even upright judges and human rights lawyers in its heyday. Its goons targeted independent journalists, and their violence left thousands of people dead in the late 1980s. They would swoop on polling centres, and stuff ballot boxes with the police looking the other way. Some senior police officers would stoop so low as to kowtow to the UNP thugs like Gonawala Sunil and Soththi Upali!

The Rajapaksa regimes also have had goon squads, which killed their political enemies, torched media institutions, and rigged elections with impunity. Their goons were free to crush Opposition protests in full view of the police. Friday night’s attack at Maradana reminded us of an incident that took place on the Independence Day in 2011, when the thugs working for the then Rajapaksa government attacked a protest march conducted by the UNP in Borella. Everybody knew that the goons were led by Mervyn of Kelaniya but no action was taken against him. The UNP condemned the Rajapaksa government for suppressing the Opposition’s right to protest. In April 2022, when the pro-SLPP goons attacked the peaceful Galle Face protesters, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe himself issued a statement, not only condemning the savage attack but also calling upon the entire government to resign. But he joined the repressive regime as its Prime Minister shortly afterwards! Today, the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe are cocking a snook at the people.

The fact that political stability is a prerequisite for economic recovery cannot be overstated. But the government does not seem keen to pacify the resentful people. What provokes the public into holding street protests is the government politicians’ cavalier attitude, cronyism, abuse of power, corruption and waste. Schools and hospitals are crying out for funds, but the government is spending public money on ceremonies, politicians’ junkets, etc. The SLPP and UNP are behaving as if they were deriving some perverse pleasure from people’s hardships. One wonders whether the ruling politicians are inflicting suffering on the people by way of punishment for rising against them. They robbed the country and bankrupted it and now they are trying to use its bankruptcy to stay in power without elections while suppressing people’s rights! What is playing out is like a gang of robbers punishing their victims with the help of the police and the armed forces!

The SLPP-UNP combine seems to be labouring under the delusion that it will be able to prevent another wave of political upheavals by crushing protests before they spread. Hence the deployment of thousands of police personnel at the drop of a hat. Let the government be warned that its strategy is bound to fail, and it is playing with fire. Public anger has already passed the tipping point, and the next wave of popular uprisings may be only a matter of time. When a tsunami of public anger makes landfall, there is no defence whatsoever for a repressive regime; the police and the military will not be able to defend it however pampered they may be.

Friday’s goon attacks at Maradana could be considered a dry run of what the government is planning to do on the day of the upcoming local government elections, which it cannot win. There is hardly anything that a beleaguered government that fears an election will not resort to avert a crushing defeat in midterm. The Election Commission, the Opposition, the media and election monitors should remain Argus-eyed. The SLPP local government politicians demonstrated what they were capable of when they took on the Galle Face protesters last year.

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Editorial

Income tax

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It is very clear at present that the new income tax net cast by the Ranil Wickremesinghe government has provoked a situation that may well become unmanageable and ominous signs of this are clearly emerging. Strident protests from groups including doctors, university academics and others including port and airport employees and many others have been becoming increasingly strident over the past several days. Hints of direct trade union action, obviously meaning strikes, have been made. Whether a government, already on the back foot following Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Convenor Vasantha Mudalige’s release on bail and angry public opinion railing against blatant efforts to postpone the scheduled local elections. can fend off the tax protests remains to be seen.

All those protesting on this account well know that the government is desperately cash strapped and needs to urgently harness revenue to keep the wheels of state turning. On its part, the government also is too well aware of the inability of most of the protesters to bear the new income tax burden in the face of galloping inflation, particularly food, electricity and a host of other goods and services are concerned. But there is very little that it can do about it. Wickremesinghe’s and his government’s obdurate refusal to abandon or cut down on Saturday’s 75th Independence anniversary bash, said to have cost Rs. 200 million, has only aggravated public fury about the new income tax burden placed upon the people.

The very small number of personal income tax payers in this country have always felt unfairly treated, believing they have been singled out for harsh treatment while the vast majority remained untouched. They could not be more wrong. All the people of the country pay taxes and how! As one famous newspaper editor of the past pungently put it, “every time you strike a match or flush the toilet, you are paying a tax.” We all know the platitude that the only thing that is certain in life is death and taxes. Indirect taxes unlike those that are direct (like income tax) by far account for the lion’s share of tax revenue. Populations of developed countries, particularly in Europe and North America, pay high income taxes. But they, unlike us in Sri Lanka, get good returns for what they pay. We, in this land like no other, can only grin cynically when we see signs proclaiming “Your tax rupees at work” at road digs and construction sites and think “like hell” to ourselves.

Equity is a basic principle of taxation long ignored in this country. Go back to 1977 and the early years of opening our long shackled economy by the J.R. Jayewardene government with Ronnie de Mel as finance minister. That was when public service emoluments were freed of income tax on the argument that top public servants were paid much less than their private sector counterparts and this hindered government’s ability to hold competent managers in the public sector hierarchy. The contention was not altogether without merit but there were many fallacies as well. Public servants from the colonial days have enjoyed non-contributory pensions which is not the case (with very few exceptions) in the private sector. Dr. N.M. Perera, as finance minister in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s United Front government of 1970 tried, without success, to withdraw the pension benefits from new entrants to the public service. He sensibly proposed that they be paid a retirement benefit like what is offered by the EPF to private sector employees with contributions from both employer and employee. The failure of this effort has left a ticking time bomb on the taxpayer’s lap to this day.

At a post-budget press conference following freeing public sector salaries from income tax, then Finance Minister De Mel was asked whether parliamentary emoluments too would be similarly exempted. He ducked the question saying “that hasn’t been decided yet.” Of course the benefit was extended to MPs too. Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardene told a post-cabinet news briefing a few days ago said that the IMF wanted all those earning Rs. 45,000 a month to be made liable to income tax. The government tried its best to push it to a monthly Rs. 150,000 and finally settled at Rs. 100,000. There were those who didn’t believe the minister on the premise that an institution like the IMF would not have got into micro details but would have broadly prescribed a percentage of GDP that must be gathered as tax revenue. However it wasn’t long before the president himself confirmed Gunawardene’s claim.

There’s no avoiding the reality that Sri Lanka’s income tax base is far too narrow and needs to be widened substantially. This would mean that people who have never paid income tax would caught up in the tax net and would deeply resent being compelled to pay. This is particularly so in the context of the value of money reducing sharply, most so in recent months. The country is also saddled with an Inland Revenue Department entrenched in a tradition of harassing already squeezed lemons to increase tax collection in a society where evasion is widely prevalent, often among professionals who should know better. The government must also be cognizant of the untaxed, lavish non-cash benefits of politicians deeply resented by the people. However that be, whether the government will be allowed to implement the announced scheme or be compelled to backpedal remains to be seen.

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