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Editorial

East Container Terminal

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The proposal to sell 49 percent of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port to a group of investors led by India’s Modi-friendly Adani Group has been the hottest potato to land on our ruling coalition’s lap since its election last year. Massive trade union and other resistance, strongly supported by the Buddhist clergy and other activists, many of whom campaigned for the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) and its allies at the last election, continues to escalate. This opposition is backed by one of the country’s most popular television channels is enervating the ‘Save ECT’ effort. The fact that Adani is interested in the new farm laws against which unprecedented farmer protests have been mounted in India has added grist to the mill of those hellbent on preventing what they call a sell-off of a valuable national asset.

The ECT is the second deep-water facility in the Port of Colombo which began operations last November. The state-controlled Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) has been running it since inception and the government has unequivocally announced that it will hold the controlling 51 percent of any joint venture. It urges that the lion’s share of the trans-shipment business to India now handled in Colombo will benefit from the Indian involvement. Only the first phase of ECT under which a 450 m berth has been commissioned has been completed until now and an additional 600 m berth must be added in the second phase. Given the government’s current cash-strapped status, foreign investment from India and Japan, also interested in investing in this project, as well as investment from John Keells Holdings, Adani’s local partner, is most welcome.

The previous government in 2019 signed as Memorandum of Cooperation with India and Japan to develop ECT. But in the context of the present brouhaha, both Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and its parent UNP, appear inclined to win whatever mileage that is possible from the resistance that has been mounted against foreign investment in ECT. The port unions say that the SLPA has the resources to develop the terminal and no foreign investment is required. They vociferously ask why profits that can be earned by a solely owned national entity should be shared with foreign investors. Different voices from sections of the ruling coalition are heard on the news channels every night and what the eventual decision will be is yet an open question. On Thursday night, former minister and Communist Party leader, DEW Gunasekera, added his voice to the cacophony saying that the government must not forget that Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike lost his life over a port related matter. The reference was to Buddharakkita fishing for government backing for a lucrative shipping line after Bandaranaike sent the British out of Trincomalee and nationalized the country’s ports.

The Abhayarama in Narahenpita was the virtual headquarters of the SLPP in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections. So much so that it was commonly referred to as the “Mahindaramaya.” Its chief priest, Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda who is President of the Public Service United Nurses Union, has been particularly outspoken on the ECT controversy and has not minced his words opposing foreign investment in it. Yet both the prime minister and president were at his temple recently for the priest’s landmark birthday alms giving. This has been interpreted as fealty to the Sinhala/Buddhist virtue of kelehi guna danna (acknowledging the good that somebody has done you). Many analysts believe that the president is more inclined towards permitting the 51-49 deal while the prime minister, consummate politician he is, is working towards smoothing the wrinkles on the governments support base. They say there’s no aiya-malli problem here that the government’s opponents are wishfully hoping for.

Our regular columnist Kumar David, unrepentant Marxist and electrical engineering professor, has in his contribution today offered an insightful analysis on “the right way” to do ECT which we recommend as good reading (as always) both for style and substance. He has touched on geopolitical implications that are obvious in the context of both India and China looking to maximize their influence in this region which is very much a factor in the equation. China Merchant Port Holdings (CM Port) already has a 99-year lease on the Hambantota Port given them by the previous government on the grounds that there was no other way to repay the massive Chinese loan which enabled its construction. CM Port also operates the existing deep-water terminal in Colombo, Colombo International Container Terminals. The Jaya Container Terminal, the Unity Container Terminal and South Asia Gateway Terminal run in partnership by John Keells Holdings and the global shipping giant Maersk are not able to handle the mega ships. Hence the focus on ECT.

Opponents of foreign investment in this terminal argue that Adani, the biggest operator and builder of Indian ports, will wreck ECT for India’s advantage. But the fact is that India has only one deep water port, Krishnapatnam in Tamil Nadu with a draft of 17.5 meters as opposed to Colombo’s 18 meters. Colombo has the further advantage of tidal movements affecting the depth of its ports only marginally while Indian ports must deal with the complications arising from such movements. This, together with the fact that our ports straddle East-West shipping routes gives us many advantages that will not be damaged by an Indian interest in ECT. But how the papadam will crumble remains to be seen.



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Editorial

Kings and eggs

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Thursday 8th December, 2022

King Charles III is known for his affability, which has won him many admirers across the globe. But some people do not seem well disposed towards him. Well, it takes all sorts to make a world. Within the first few weeks of his accession and months ahead of his coronation, he seems to have realised how uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. He has already come under two egg attacks; the second one occurred in Luton, on Tuesday. An egg thrown by a youth flew by him, but his walkabout continued, according to media reports. The King is said to have a predilection for going among the people.

By no stretch of the imagination could the egg attacks at issue be considered a sign of public disapproval of the reign of King Charles III, which has not yet begun in earnest. Instead, they seem to be symptomatic of an odd trend that is catching on. The King is lucky that he has had to duck only eggs. In 2008, the then US President George W. Bush had a pair of leather oxfords whizzing past him, at an Iraqi press briefing.

Nobody will approve of the practice of throwing eggs, or any other objects for that matter, at anyone by way of protest, which could be registered in a more civilised manner. But something that the first egg thrower said in Yorkshire, last month, is of significance. “This country was built on the blood of slaves,” he shouted as he threw eggs at the King. Supposing his reference was to Britain’s past sins against its colonies, one can say that better ways are available for the present-day British public, who must be feeling pricks of conscience, when they enjoy the fruits of colonialism and neo-colonialism, to make amends. They could urge their leaders to return the wealth plundered from the British colonies, and make substantial financial reparation to the victim nations. One may argue that the UK has granted tangible development and humanitarian assistance to its former colonies since they became independent. But much more needs to be done by way of atonement, and throwing eggs at the current monarch is certainly not the way to set about it.

Perhaps, the ruthless western colonialists’ sins against this country pale into insignificance in comparison to the grave crimes our ‘patriotic’ leaders have perpetrated during the past several decades; they include mass murders and the plunder of national wealth.

UNICEF’s Sri Lanka Appeal could be considered an indictment of the incumbent regime, which is heaping unbearable economic burdens on the public. It has said: “An acute economic crisis since early 2022 has caused severe food insecurity in Sri Lanka … An estimated 6.2 million people (28 per cent of the population) are moderately acute food insecure, while 66,000 people are severely acute food insecure. Two in five households (41.8 per cent) spend more than 75 per cent of their expenditures on purchasing food, leaving little to spend on health and education. Many families have exhausted their savings and are struggling due to crippling inflation.” This, we believe, is the truth although the government has come out with some cock-and-bull arguments to challenge it. People usually do not believe anything in this country unless it is officially denied!

Our potentates who consider themselves to be the reincarnations of native warrior kings and even foreign megalomaniacs like Hitler, and obviously are a few eggs short of a dozen, are lucky that eggs are too expensive here to be wasted. So, they can rest assured that they will have no eggs flying at their nuts, but they had better watch out for hard objects; the resentment of the public knows no bounds, as sure as eggs. They should consider what they suffered at the hands of angry protesters, a few moons ago, as just a foretaste of what is to come. Unless they stop lining their pockets at the expense of the country, refrain from testing the patience of the irate public, apply themselves earnestly to cleaning up the economic mess of their own making, and respect the people’s franchise by holding the Local Government polls, perhaps, they will have to brace for far worse things than mere egg attacks.

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Editorial

Law and duplicity

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Wednesday 7th December, 2022

The government has gained the upper hand over its political rivals by ruthlessly invoking some draconian laws such as the Offences against Public Property Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It is ready to do everything in its power to consolidate its hold on power. A few months ago, the ruling party politicians were running as fast as their legs could carry them to escape from the Aragalaya activists, but today the boot is on the other foot.

The government has succeeded in turning the Aragalaya agenda on its head, to all intents and purposes, and making its political opponents opt for defensive action. Earlier, the Aragalaya protesters staged street demonstrations in a bid to bring about a ‘system change’, and succeeded in ousting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself, but, today, they have had to fight to secure the release of their leaders languishing in remand prisons!

Two leaders of the university students’ movement—Galwewa Siridhamma Thera and Wasanatha Mudalige—who were arrested and remanded for damaging the main gate of the Education Ministry, Battaramulla, during a protest, were bailed out yesterday. Mudalige was however taken back to remand prison over another case, according to media reports.

Protesters have no right to inflict damage on properties, public or otherwise, and those who violate the law have to be severely dealt with. But the problem is that the Offences against Public Property Act is enforced selectively. It does not apply to the so-called lawmakers, who therefore can destroy public property with impunity.

One may recall that in October 2018, a large number of UPFA MPs, who had banded together as the Joint Opposition, went berserk in Parliament, and smashed up electronic equipment and furniture there. No action was taken against them, and most of them are in the current Parliament. Even more shocking is Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s claim that such incidents cannot be dealt with under the regular laws of the country! He reportedly said so at a media briefing in August. Does this mean that the legislature is above the law simply because it makes laws?

If what the Cabinet Spokesman has said about Parliament and its property is true, then the government MPs can even set Parliament on fire and get away with it, provided the Speaker, who represents their party, refrains from taking action against them. The ruling party troublemakers can get together and oust the Speaker if he tries to bring them to book! In other words, the government MPs enjoy legal immunity and can do anything in Parliament. This is a very serious situation. Let the Opposition be urged to take up this issue in the House and seek a clarification from the Speaker. If such a culture of impunity prevails in Parliament, new laws must be brought in forthwith to do away with it and ensure that the MPs are not ‘more equal than others’ where the law of the land is concerned.

The UNP let out a howl of protest when the then Opposition unleashed violence and damaged parliamentary property following the latter’s abortive attempt to grab power in 2018. It even lodged a complaint with the police against the troublemakers. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister at the time, is the President today; ironically, he is backed by the very MPs who ran amok in the House and even tried to harm Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who courageously stood up to them, and frustrated their attempt to capture power and then dissolve Parliament. The incumbent government consisting of such rowdies has had some protesters arrested and prosecuted for damaging the gate of a ministry!

Worse, while protesters are being pursued relentlessly, arrested and prosecuted for damaging gates, etc., the rogues who have ruined the economy, and carried out mega scams, causing staggering losses to the state coffers are given police protection! No wonder the people have lost faith in the legal system, and the country is descending into lawlessness.

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Editorial

Towards ‘No-Election Commission’?

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Tuesday 6th December, 2022

NPP MP and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has fulminated against the Election Commission (EC), and with reason. Speaking in Parliament, he has demanded to know why the EC ever asked for an opinion from the Attorney General anent the Local Government (LG) elections instead of exercising its powers to initiate the process of conducting the much-delayed polls. He sought to cast a doubt on the impartiality of the EC, and took a swipe at its Chairman Nimal Punchihewa.

Some independent legal experts maintain that the EC is now constitutionally empowered to hold the LG elections. The PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair elections) has reportedly written to EC Chairman, urging him to announce the date of the LG elections without further delay as there is no legal barrier for him and his outfit to do so. The EC has chosen to remain silent, but its silence will not do.

There is a misconception that all it takes to ensure the independence of key public institutions is to put in place constitutional mechanisms to depoliticise them. Hence, the creation of the Constitutional Council (CC) and the Independent Commissions (ICs) has been acclaimed as a surefire way of strengthening the state institutions. The 21st Amendment has restored the CC, which is believed to have strengthened the ICs, scilicet (a) the Election Commission (b) The Public Service Commission (c) the National Police Commission (d) the Audit Service Commission (e) the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (f) the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (g) the Finance Commission (h) the Delimitation Commission, and (i) the National Procurement Commission.

Essential as such legal mechanisms may be, the CC and the ICs will become ineffective again if their heads and members stoop so low as to pander to the whims and fancies of the political authority, the way some of their predecessors did during the Yahapalana government. Under that regime, the CC became a mere rubber stamp for the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had most of its members on a string. Constitutional provisions cannot make the spineless stand upright.

National Police Commission (NPC) Chairman Chandra Fernando’s presence at a recent ceremony at the BIA, where former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was given a rousing welcome by his hangers-on, has called the independence of the NPC into question. Fernando has claimed that he happened to be at the BIA over some other matter and his meeting with Basil was not preplanned. But he should have known better than to be present at a political event.

It is unfortunate that the EC has got embroiled in a controversy, especially at this juncture. There has been a severe erosion of public trust in the electoral system, and anti-politics is manifestly on the rise, eating into the vitals of all public institutions. The task before the CC and the ICs is to restore public faith in the democratic process and arrest what is widely thought to be the country’s slide into anarchy.

Who guards the guards, or quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is the question the denunciation by the Opposition of the EC has prompted us to ask.

If the EC baulks at exercising its powers to safeguard the people’s franchise, it will forfeit its raison d’etre and be dubbed ‘No-Election Commission’. One can only hope that the EC will try to prove its critics wrong by plucking up the courage to grasp the nettle so that the people will have the pleasure of letting the government have a mega electoral shock, which it richly deserves.

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