Wednesday 17th November, 2021
Nobody will buy into the government’s claim that it was to prevent the spread of Covid-19 that the police yesterday turned back many buses carrying SJB supporters from different parts of the country for a protest in Colombo. The police swing into action only when Opposition supporters violate the quarantine laws. They just look on when the culprits happen to be government politicians or their supporters. It was only the other day that the SLPP celebrated its fifth anniversary on a grand scale. Government politicians are also often seen taking part in various public events, where health regulations are blatantly flouted.
One cannot but agree with the SJB that the government is using pandemic control as an excuse to disrupt Opposition rallies. Mass protests are a worrisome proposition for any government in power. There have been many anti-government demonstrations during the last two years or so, and it is only natural that the SLPP is trying to suppress the Opposition on the pretext of controlling the pandemic. But it is not the government that the SJB should listen to, where the health crisis is concerned; it must respect and act according to health experts’ advice. After all, the SJB has urged the government to leave pandemic control to the health authorities, hasn’t it?
Medical professionals and the Public Health Inspectors have demanded that all mass gatherings including religious events be suspended to prevent the formation of infection clusters. Covid-19 cases are on the rise, and the day may not be far off when the death toll from the pandemic increases exponentially, causing the country to be closed again.
An explosive spread of the pandemic will lead to the closure of schools, which have just reopened, and deliver a crippling blow to the ailing economy again. Another lockdown will mean more job losses, a further drop in foreign reserves, scarcities of all sorts, and, in short, more suffering for the public. Is this what the SJB seeks in a bid to gain some political traction? It must act responsibly and prove that it cares for the people unlike the government. That is the way to make up lost ground.
On the other hand, there is absolutely no need for anyone in the Opposition to make an effort to bring down the government, which is digging its own political grave apace. Why should anyone distract it? No one in the Opposition seems to have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the oldest military treatise in the world. Otherwise, the SJB would not have taken to the streets yesterday. Sun Tzu has said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” The Opposition is only providing a fresh rallying point for the warring factions of the SLPP.
By ignoring health experts’ advice and warnings, the SJB has shown that it does not scruple to further its political interests at the expense of the public.
At present, the best place where the Opposition can corner and expose the government is Parliament, where Budget 2022 is being debated. The SJB can tear the Budget, which is full of holes, into shreds if its leaders have the capacity to study the document and critically analyse its content.
Sadly, the Opposition top guns are wasting their time and energy in the House by kicking up rows and raising irrelevant questions. There is ample time for the SJB or the UNP to present alternatives to the current Budget proposals, etc., and thereby convince the public that they are more competent than the SLPP to manage the economy despite the huge blunders they made while in power from 2015 to 2019. Instead, they are busy fighting political battles in the House to the neglect of their legislative duties.
In commenting on the Budget, most Opposition worthies have been scoring quite a few Maggie’s drawers, and proved that they are no better than their SLPP counterparts they are trying to oust.
How could the SJB leaders who cannot even make a significant contribution to a budget debate, much less offer an alternative to the appropriation Bill, expect the people to believe that they will be able to salvage the economy if they are voted into office? Street protests are no substitute for a programme of action.
Schools closed; taverns opened
Thursday 22nd February, 2024
Government politicians wax eloquent, to the point of queasiness, about their grand plans to develop the education sector and prepare the country for future opportunities and challenges. They claim to be on an ambitious mission to align education with job market requirements, both there and overseas, by modernising the state-run schools, universities and other seats of learning. But between saying and doing many a pair of shoes is said to be worn out.
There are 10,146 state-run schools in Sri Lanka. Of them 9,750 are under Provincial Councils; 396 are national schools. About 800 rural schools have been closed down in Sri Lanka during the past several decades, and many more are bound to face the same fate in the near future, we have reported, today, quoting Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin. There has been an alarming increase in the school dropout rate, he says. Instead of making a serious effort to prevent the closure of rural schools which cater to the poor, the incumbent government has chosen to open more liquor outlets throughout the country. It is under fire from the Opposition for having issued about 300 new liquor licences mostly to the ruling party MPs during the past one and a half years or so.
Former Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, MP, has said about 129,000 students have dropped out of school due to the current economic crisis; their parents find it extremely difficult to pay for their food, school supplies, transport, supplementary tuition, etc., he has said. This fact is borne out by the findings of a survey conducted by the Department of Census and statistics. But the government does not give a tinker’s cuss about this situation. Its priorities are different. While refusing to waive VAT (18%) on school supplies, it has slashed licence fees for taverns and liquor retailers!
Some government MPs frequently complain about high liquor prices and call for legalising cannabis cultivation. Never do these worthies take up vital issues such as the exorbitantly high cost of education, and the sad fate of underprivileged schools. Are the current rulers trying to overcome popular resistance to corruption and misgovernment on its watch by intoxicating the public? A pithy political slogan, which became popular during the J. R. Jayewardene government, comes to mind: ‘Amathilata kaar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—‘cars for ministers, liquor bars for their supporters and inebriation for the public’. It is hoped that the ruling party politicians will not push for the legalisation of the so-called zombie drug, which is said to cause hallucinations, delusions and a feeling of detachment from the world.
The closure of rural schools is said to be multifactorial. Some of the reasons for their predicament are prolonged neglect and the glaring urban bias in state resource allocation for education. Whatever the causes of the closure of underprivileged schools may be, the fact remains that proximity and easy accessibility help attract poor children to schools, especially today, when transport costs are prohibitive. If the rural schools are left to wither on the vine, the dropout rate among poor students will further increase, leading to various social issues.
It is time the government shifted its focus from opening taverns and slashing taxes, etc., for the benefit of liquor manufacturers to the need to develop the school system, which has been starved of funds. The opening of a school is tantamount to the closure of a prison, as a local saying goes. The government seems keen to open more prisons.
Acid test for JVP
Wednesday 21st February, 2024
Sri Lanka and India are planning to conclude the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) soon, according to media reports. The news about attempts being made to sign the controversial agreement expeditiously could not have come at a worse time for the JVP, which is mending fences with New Delhi and crowing about its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s recent India visit.
ETCA had to be shelved previously owing to vehement protests from Sri Lankan professional associations, civil society groups and political parties. Prominent among them was the JVP, which demonised ETCA, claiming that, if implemented, it would sound the death knell for Sri Lanka’s IT industry, etc.
There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch, and an all-expenses-paid junket is more so. One may argue that the invitation New Delhi extended to the JVP-led NPP, making the latter feel important, was aimed at furthering India’s economic interests more than anything else, given the JVP’s considerable trade union strength in the key sectors Indian ventures already have a presence in or are eyeing, such as ports, airports, power, energy and telecommunication and dairy farming. By smoothing over differences with the JVP, India has apparently sought to neutralise trade union resistance to the big fire sale the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is holding to dispose of Sri Lanka’s state assets that Indian business magnates, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rockefeller, Gautam Adani, have evinced a keen interest in acquiring.
Big powers have weaponised trade and commerce to further their expansionist interests. They also use chequebook diplomacy for that purpose. The JVP is trying to obfuscate the issue of its past terror campaign against what it termed Indian expansionism. Its current leaders have claimed no knowledge of their party’s initiating lecture on Indian expansionism! But in the late 1980s, the JVP brutally murdered quite a few traders for selling ‘Bombay’ onions in defiance of its blanket ban on goods imported from India so much so that the then Trade Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was compelled to rename Bombay onions ‘Lanka loku loonu’ (‘Lanka big onions’) to save lives. One may argue that those unfortunate incidents happened several decades ago, and the world has since changed. But the JVP’s opposition to ETCA cannot be dismissed as history.
Making a fiery speech at a seminar, ‘Trading, Sacrifice and ETCA’, in Colombo, on 20 Sept., 2016, JVP Leader Dissanayake said ETCA would pave the way for an influx of low-grade IT professional from India, causing the Sri Lankan youth to lose employment opportunities. He warned that if ETCA was signed, the future of the Sri Lankan youth would be in jeopardy. The JVP had launched a struggle to defeat the Yahapalana government’s efforts to sign ETCA, he said, vowing to go all out to achieve that goal.
The JVP claims to have a considerable following among the Sri Lankan youth, many of whom are employed in the IT sector, and therefore it will have to reveal its position on ETCA, which it considers a danger to Sri Lanka’s IT industry as well as other vital sectors.
What has become of the JVP’s struggle against ETCA? It will be interesting to see the JVP’s reaction to the signing of ETCA on the cards. Will the JVP leaders go all out to scuttle it in keeping with their pledge to do so, or will they choose to soft-pedal the issue lest they should antagonise India, which they are ingratiating themselves with? The possibility of the JVP putting up some resistance to ETCA half-heartedly and allowing the government to go ahead with the signing of the controversial agreement, cannot be ruled out.
Throttling democracy, the govt. way
Tuesday 20th February, 2024
The leaders of the SLPP-UNP government, troubled by the prospect of having to face elections, must be having sleepless nights. They are believed to be busy devising ways and means of putting off the presidential contest due in eight months or so. The President’s Office has however said the next presidential election will be held on schedule. The promises of governments in trouble are like pie crust; they are made to be broken.
Speculation is rampant in political circles that the government is planning to postpone the next presidential election on the pretext of abolishing the executive presidency. But there is no way the SLPP-UNP combine can muster a two-thirds majority for a bill seeking to scrap the executive presidency and have it approved by the people at a referendum. Is it planning to strangle elections financially, again? It stands accused of trying to halve the fund allocations for the presidential and parliamentary elections.
A statement issued by the Media Ministry, announcing the Cabinet decisions made on 05 Feb., 2024, said inter alia: “The Cabinet of Ministers considered that an allocation of Rs 10 billion has been made by the budget estimate for the year 2024, within the financial stamina of the government and those provisions have to be managed for covering the expenditure of the presidential election and general election (emphasis added).”
Executive Director of the Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies Manjula Gajanayake has pointed out that the Cabinet has halved the amount of funds needed for the presidential and parliamentary elections. We have quoted Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake as saying that the Election Commission needs Rs. 10 billion for the next presidential election, and Rs. 11 billion for the parliamentary polls due next year, and the two estimates were submitted to the government in August/September 2023.
The government has either revealed its hand unwittingly by making public the above-mentioned Cabinet decision or sent a trial balloon to gauge the reaction of the Opposition and the public to its move. Curiously, the Opposition has not taken up the issue.
The ministerial decision at issue could be considered an instance of the Cabinet overriding Parliament, which controls public finance. Gajanayake has rightly said President Ranil Wickremesinghe is using the Cabinet as a cat’s paw to postpone elections.
President Wickremesinghe has proved that he is no respecter of the separation of powers; he usurps the powers of Parliament, where he even tells the Opposition members to shut up. Checks and balances are the bulwark against the emergence of dictatorships. An unmistakable sign of a judiciary buckling under executive pressure, in any country, is the inexplicable postponement of judgements that are not favourable to those who are close to the powers that be.
Is it that the absence of stiff resistance to its refusal to allocate funds for the local government elections, in 2022, has emboldened the government to adopt the same modus operandi to put off other elections as well?
The government is keen to curtail its expenditure only when funds are required for elections! It is quite liberal with people’s money where its leaders’ spendthrift ways are concerned. The Treasury makes colossal amounts of funds readily available for the government politicians’ foreign junkets, perks, and state ceremonies, which are an utter waste of money.
Let the government be warned that by suppressing democracy, it is giving a big fillip to ultra-radical political forces with extra-parliamentary agendas, thriving on public resentment. It created conditions for Aragalaya, which was hijacked by extremists masquerading as saviours to compass their sinister ends; they almost succeeded in decapitating parliamentary democracy.
Unless the government mends its ways and stops throttling democracy, it will have a bigger uprising than Aragalaya to contend with sooner than expected. Public anger is reaching the tipping point, and it has to be defused through elections if disaster is to be averted.
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