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Midweek Review

Field Marshal breaks a long silence on Tamil vote at 2010 prez poll

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By Shamindra
Ferdinando

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka last Wednesday (19) explained why the Tamil electorate voted for him at the January 26, 2010, presidential election. The explanation coincided with the low-key 12th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In other words, Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief emphasized how he won the hearts and minds of the Tamil community.

Fonseka said so in Parliament after Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa asked for time on behalf of Fonseka. Premadasa wanted the former minister given time to speak on Sri Lanka’s triumph.

Having thanked the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (now President), the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now Prime Minister) and other services and the Police as well as the Civil Defence Force (CDF), Gampaha District lawmaker Fonseka declared: THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH AND EAST VOTED FOR HIM WITHOUT HATRED BECAUSE OF THE RESTORATION OF PEACE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Why did MP Fonseka make such an assertion 12 years after the war? What prompted him to say so? Most importantly, was he telling the truth? Did the Tamil electorate really vote for him because of his role in the eradication of the LTTE? Lawmakers haven’t responded to Fonseka so far. The civil society, too, has remained mum.

Let me discuss the post-war national reconciliation  process, taking into consideration three statements made in Parliament on May 18th (Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa) and on May 19th and 20th (Sarath Fonseka). Having declared that those who spearheaded the war against the LTTE never followed genocidal strategies, Premier Rajapaksa thanked the war time service commanders. Twice President Rajapaksa mentioned Field Marshal Fonseka first. On the following day, MP Fonseka didn’t mince his words when he appreciated the services rendered by the Rajapaksas. Having thanked the President and the Prime Minister, lawmaker Fonseka claimed why the Tamil community backed him at the 2010 presidential election. MP Fonseka zeroed in on Rear Admiral (retd) Sarath Weerasekera on the next day. MP Fonseka sought to isolate Public Security Minister Weerasekera by declaring that even the Rajapaksas recognized the services by him (Fonseka).

Actually, why did the Tamil community vote for Fonseka whose Army literally eradicated the LTTE militarily in the battlefield in May 2009. The failure on the part of the LTTE rump to regroup since then in spite of unlimited funding sources and a section of the international community backing them is a huge credit to the armed forces as well as the political leadership. Obviously, those who survived the war (including the rehabilitated lot) lost their will to take up arms again having succumbed to the combined security forces onslaught.  Fonseka’s Army brought the war to an end following nearly a three-year long relentless campaign. However, that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the significant contributions made by the Navy and the Air Force, in support of the ground offensives, in addition to strategic actions directed at the LTTE. Wasantha Karannagoda and Roshan Goonetileke, received promotions as the Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Air Force, respectively, in recognition of the services rendered during the war.

There hadn’t been a previous instance of Fonseka appreciating the role played by the Navy due to his personal animosity towards Karannagoda during the war and thereafter. Some, however, say that the rivalry between the two actually originated at their alma mater, Ananda College, Colombo, due to both of them being talented and ambitious in their own right. But, Karannagoda, in his memoirs, titled ‘Adhistanaya’, lucidly explains the circumstances leading to the crisis. 

Anyway, lawmaker Fonseka’s brief but timely speech delivered on the day his Army brought the war to an end, 12 years ago, should be appreciated.

 

A calculated risk

Actually, why did the UNP pick Fonseka as the common candidate? In the aftermath of the eradication of the LTTE, in 2009, the UNP had no option but to accept Fonseka as the common candidate, particularly against the backdrop of the war-winning General making covert moves in that direction. The UNP-led Opposition strategy was primarily meant to deprive President Mahinda Rajapaksa the advantage of the unbelievable (in the eyes of the powerful West that insisted on the invincibility of the Tigers in battle) war triumph. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Fonseka though the Opposition leadership quite correctly realized how the inclusion of the LTTE’s sidekick Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the grouping distanced the Southern electorate.  Fonseka, however, remained silent until the last moment.

Fonseka didn’t mince his words when the media, on July 15th 2009, raised the possibility of his entry into active politics. The writer was among those who had been present at the media briefing called by General Fonseka, in his new capacity as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) within the Army Headquarters premises.  Fonseka declared he would never seek a political career. The war veteran said that he wouldn’t want to lose his popularity within 24 hours by taking to politics. The former Army Chief recalled the fate of his senior colleagues, Major General Lakshman Algama and Major General Janaka Perera, both of whom perished in LTTE suicide attacks on election platforms (Gen Fonseka: Lanka ready for fresh UN commitments, with strap line, CDS rules out political career – The Island,  July 16, 2009). The LTTE assassinated Gemunu Watch veteran Algama on Dec 18, 1999 at an election rally in Ja-Ela held in support of UNP Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, whereas Commando veteran Perera perished on Oct 06, 2008 in Anuradhapura at an event related with PC polls in which he contested as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the North Central Province.

 Nothing could be further from the truth than Fonseka’s recent declaration in Parliament that those living in the northern and eastern regions voted for him because of the restoration of peace therein? The Tamil electorate never accepted Fonseka’s  role as the Commander of the Army and repeatedly accused him and his Army of genocide, especially after the crushing defeat of the LTTE.

There cannot be any dispute over that. Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, way back in 2001, the TNA wouldn’t have accepted Fonseka if the outfit wasn’t convinced that only the former Army Commander could have challenged the immensely popular Mahinda Rajapaksa at that time.

 The plan received the wholehearted backing of the West and especially the US, though the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, in a confidential dispatch from Colombo, subsequently exposed by Wikileaks, categorized Fonseka as a war criminal along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and lawmaker Basil Rajapaksa. The diplomatic missive, dated January 15, 2009, held the above-mentioned leaders responsible for war crimes. In spite of that, the US threw its weight behind Fonseka, perhaps initiating the move itself as the only viable political strategy to defeat the hugely popular war, winning Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a second term.

 

Neelakandan’s dilemma

 It would be pertinent to mention what the then President of the All Ceylon Hindu Congress  (ACHC) late lawyer Kandiah Neelakandan told the writer during a visit to Cheddikulam, Vavuniya, on January 09, 2010, organized on the instructions of the then Justice and Law Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda.  Among those who had been present were one-time Bank of Ceylon Chairman Rajan Asirvatham, a member of the government negotiating team for talks with the LTTE in 1994-1995 and Gamini Godakanda on Minister Moragoda’s staff. The visit coincided with President Rajapaksa’s releasing a group of rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadres at Cheddikulam. Asked how he felt the TNA joining the UNP-led alliance backing Fonseka’s candidature at the presidential election, Neelakandan confided that the Tamil community had been asked to vote for the man who conducted the actual war in a bid to defeat the one who gave that directive. Neelakandan confessed that the Tamil community was in a deepening dilemma. Moragoda, now our High Commissioner to India, secured the assistance of the ACHC and other like-minded persons as part of the overall efforts to win the confidence of the Tamil community (Have faith in me – President tells ex-LTTE combatants, The Island, January 10, 2010). President Rajapaksa visited Vavuniya then just over two weeks before the presidential election with him contesting for a second term.

But, obviously, the Tamil community knew what the TNA expected of them. The TNA declared its support for Fonseka’s candidature and the northern and eastern provinces responded accordingly. Fonseka comfortably won all northern and eastern districts though the South delivered a massive blow to the war-winning Army Chief. The then incumbent President defeated Fonseka by over 1.8 mn votes. The US-approved political strategy failed. The failed project caused catastrophe. In fact, the disintegration of the once powerful party, the UNP, began with the disastrous 2010 project. Perhaps, in its haste to bring the Rajapaksa era to an end, the grand old party gambled and gambled badly. What really went wrong? The UNP paid a huge price for not sincerely backing the war effort (August 2006-May 2009) and then exploiting differences between the Rajapaksas and Gen. Fonseka. A political alliance involving the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi-led TNA, tainted by its murderous relationship with the LTTE, at the 2010 presidential election, boomeranged. The UNP and even General Fonseka ignored how the LTTE-TNA coalition at the 2005 presidential election ensured UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat. If not for the LTTE-TNA prevailing on Tamils not to vote for Wickremesinghe, the UNP Leader would have won the election hands down.

Wickremesinghe contested the 2005 presidential election on the UNP ticket. A UNP-led coalition fielded presidential candidates on the New Democratic Front (NDF/symbol swan) at the 2010 (General Sarath Fonseka) 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and 2019 (Sajith Premadasa). Having engineered Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential poll, the TNA backed candidates fielded by the UNP at the following three elections. The UNP suffered avoidable defeats due to its involvement with the TNA. The UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) affiliated with the TNA, too, played politics with the government. The GTF had access to President Maithripala Sirisena during his first visit to the UK following the 2015 presidential election.

A statement issued by the influential Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to mark the 12th anniversary of the conclusion of the war revealed their strategies remained the same though the LTTE was no longer around. In spite of the TNA gradually losing its clout and the emergence of other political parties, the GTF seems pursuing the same strategy. Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section of the GTF statement issued by Suren Surendiran: “Equally important is that the Tamil people and their leaders take stock of the challenges and opportunities in the present political climate and act strategically by forming partnerships with stakeholders across all communities in Sri Lanka and in the international community. The importance and urgency of securing pragmatic and tangible gains, with the objective of fulfilling the political and economic aspirations of the Tamil people, cannot be overstated.”

 

The UNP’s plight

 If General Fonseka is genuine in his assessment that the Tamil community voted for him at the 2010 presidential election in appreciation for restoration of peace, why on earth the TNA pushed for an international war crimes probe. Fonseka cannot be unaware 13 Tamil lawmakers, including those who backed him at the 2010 presidential poll, sought international intervention at the 46th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Feb-March this year. Perhaps Fonseka should seek an explanation from Tamil political parties in the Opposition why they pursued a war crimes probe against the backdrop of the Tamil electorate voting for him. That of course is only if Field Marshal is genuine in his May 19 assessment.

The UNP’s post-war strategy caused the deterioration of the party. The UNP/President Sirisena stratagem in accepting the TNA as the main Opposition party in Parliament with the connivance of then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya during the yahapalana administration at the expense of the Joint Opposition which commanded the support of much more MPs, elected on the UPFA ticket, at the 2015 general election, caused irreversible setback to the UNP in the eyes of the public. Unprecedented split in the UNP in the run-up to the last parliamentary election in August 2020 made matters worse for the party.  Fonseka was among those who switched allegiance to the SJB. The badly depleted UNP, for the first time in its history, failed to win a single seat. The party ended up with just one National seat. Over eight months after the election, that seat remains vacant primarily because of the vacillation of its Leader and his stubbornness in holding onto the party leadership despite numerous polls defeats under his watch. The leadership is like an heirloom that he has inherited.

 Why Fonseka accepted the TNA’s backing against the backdrop of its close relationship with the LTTE is a mystery. Having recalled the killing of Majors General Algama and Perera when he assumed duties as the CDS in July 2009, Fonseka quite conveniently forgot the TNA’s endorsement of the LTTE bid to assassinate Fonseka. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka in April 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Oct 2006, the war would have definitely taken a different turn as we have often reminded.  

The recent passage of a Bill 104 in the Ontario Provincial Legislature that recognized that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was subjected to genocide is a reminder of the growing threat posed by a section of the international community even though many of those powerful Western nations which are instigating the Tamil Diaspora have much blood in their own hands-leaving aside their recent grave criminal acts as in the Middle East, countries like the USA, Canada, Australia were created after committing many acts of genocide against natives of those lands. We also cannot forget the unforgivable crimes that have been committed against Negroes in the last five hundred years or more. They demanded and got compensation for Jews, but have they at least given even a proper apology for the grievous crimes committed against gypsies and blacks that they continue to perpetrate. It is as if not a week goes by in the USA without the extrajudicial gunning down of a black in the streets of that country by its law enforcers. Prior to 2020 the so called independent free media simply ignored such killings of blacks and other minorities running to hundreds each year. But last year as they wanted to target Trump the media suddenly picked up the Black Livers Matter cry, especially to get at right wing perpetrators of such crimes and their sympathisers in the Trump camp.

 Field Marshal Fonseka represents the people in Parliament. Having commanded the successful Army, lawmaker Fonseka cannot under any circumstances play politics with the issue at hand. Parliament, too, as an institution should recognize high profile threatening Canadian project and how it could influence other countries and strengthen the ongoing Geneva inquiry.

 Field Marshal Fonseka’s declaration that the Tamil community voted for him for the restoration of peace cannot certainly be accurate. Re-assessment of the ground situation is of pivotal importance as interested parties brazenly exploit the utterly corrupt political party system.  The GTF’s advice to the Tamil speaking community and their leaders regarding political strategies is evidence of how the project is pursued. The bottom line is that those who once believed in the conventional fighting capability of the LTTE seem confident their political objectives could be achieved through constitutional means. They have the backing of the Western powers. Western backing for candidature like General Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, respectively underscored their strategy. Both the UNP and the SLFP paid a huge price for giving into the Western initiatives. At the end both political parties suffered irreversible setbacks. Who would have thought the birth of SJB and SLPP at the expense of the UNP and the SLFP, respectively? Today, both parties are in a sorry state with no hope in sight of a comeback.

The UNP seeking to bring the Mahinda Rajapaksa era to an end fielded Fonseka. For the UNP, it didn’t matter whether their presidential candidate was able at least to exercise his franchise. The then General’s inability to vote for want of him being registered as a voter was known only on the election day. Obviously the electorate was deceived. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, the UNP-led coalition, foolishly propagated the lie that the former Army Commander was defeated through what the losers called a computer jilmaart (manipulation). The JVP literally ran with the computer jilmaart lie. Today, the JVP has been reduced to three lawmakers in Parliament. Their group includes one National List MP (Dr. Harini Amarasuriya). At the height of its parliamentary power, the JVP group comprised 39 members of Parliament elected in 2004, including three National List members. In fact, all political parties involved in the 2010 coalition established to back Fonseka are in turmoil. The UNP has been reduced to one National List MP, the TNA to 10 and JVP three with two other constituents, the SLMC and the ALCM reduced to five and four members respectively. Perhaps a fresh look at political landscape is necessary against the backdrop of the passage of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill.

 We apologise to the readers for not touching on the burning topic plaguing the country, the coronavirus pandemic. We felt the readers need a break from the subject as the media is replete with the subject, day and night.



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Midweek Review

State of national economy, scandalous SUV order and fuel price hikes

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A smiling PM Mahinda Rajapaksa takes SLPP membership from SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris in late 2018 at the former’s Wijerama Mawatha residence while Sagara Kariyawasam, General Secretary of the Party, now embroiled in simmering controversy, looks on.

 

Trade Minister says Prez does not bring money from Mirihana or PM from Medamulana

 

By Shamindra Ferdinando

What is the current state of the economy? How can the public determine the state of the economy? Let me briefly refer to recent statements made, both in and outside Parliament, by members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) on the state of the economy. The issue, at hand, is whether the incumbent government is competent to cope up with the situation.

Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardane (SLPP/Colombo District), Energy Minister Attorney-at-Law Udaya Gammanpila (PHU/Colombo), Urban Development and State Minister of Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal and Community Cleanliness Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (SLPP/Gampaha District) lucidly explained ground realities. They painted an extremely bleak picture. Perhaps, they haven’t done so intentionally, to place the government in a difficult situation. However, their assessment certainly underscores the responsibility on the part of the government to review its strategies, without further delay.

Twelve years after the conclusion of the war against terrorism, the national economy is in tatters. The deterioration of the economy cannot be entirely blamed on the rampaging global pandemic, Covid-19.

Political parties may seek to take cover behind the pandemic, conveniently forgetting how waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence withered the economy. Obviously, the pandemic has accelerated the decay and the government is in an unprecedented crisis. Vast majority of people are struggling to make ends meet against the rapidly worsening situation.

Those responsible (both UNP and SLFP members of Parliament in the 2015-2019 yahapalana administration cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility) for Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, are now advising the SLPP on how to manage the economy. Interestingly, the SLFP is a constituent of the ruling SLPP, whereas those who stood with the Treasury bond thieves, now represent the Samagi Jana Balavegaya. There is never a dull day in utterly corrupt Sri Lankan politics.

 

‘Government unable to bear continuing losses’

Lawmaker Gammanpila made two damning statements as regards the state of the economy – at the Energy Ministry, on June 3, and at another briefing, at the same venue, on June 11. Unfortunately, the former Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight’s critical comments didn’t receive sufficient media attention.

Addressing the media, on June 3, at his Ministry, Minister Gammanpila admitted that heavily debt ridden and cash-strapped government and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) weren’t in a position to procure USD 3 bn loan (USD 3,000 mn) required for a new oil refinery at Sapugaskanda. Therefore the funding required for what Minister Gammanpila described as the country’s largest single project to be carried out following competitive bidding had to be external investment (read outside the government).

Declaring that the proposed refinery project will be the biggest ever industrial venture undertaken, Minister Gammanpila declared that all major previous undertakings had been carried out, sans competitive biddings. The declaration was made after he admitted that altogether the Hambantota port (USD 1,350), Norochcholai coal-fired plant (USD 900mn), the Mattala airport, and the Colombo-Katunayake highway, cost USD 2,916, whereas the proposed Sapugaskanda refinery project is estimated to cost a staggering USD 3,000mn. PHU leader Gammanpila’s admission there hadn’t been competitive bidding, in respect of previous major projects, is nothing but an indictment of the previous Rajapaksa administration, or the system in place.

Minister Gammanpila’s declaration that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation Act (No. 28 of 1961) would have to be amended to pave the way for USD 3 bn investment, triggered accusations the government was planning to privatize the state venture. The lawmaker described the proposed Sapugaskanda project as a BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer) basis enterprise with it reverting to Sri Lankan ownership once the investor recoups his investment.

The ministerial claim that the government refrained from increasing fuel prices for 21 months is a grim reminder the public cannot expect the truth from politicians. Or did they keep quiet expecting a miracle rescue like their earlier faith in Dhammika Peniya (syrup) and the hocus-pocus of pouring contents of some earthenware containers into a river to tackle the pandemic?

At the June 11 briefing, Minister Gammanpila commented on the imminent fuel price increase, in addition to the proposed Sapugaskanda project. Gammanpila explained that the government’s inability to bear further losses against the backdrop of the pandemic driven collapse of the tourism sector, halt in foreign investment, sharp drop in foreign remittances, hence the hiking of the fuel prices with the world market price of crude topping USD 70 per barrel. The Minister declared that it would be quite a challenge to procure the required fuel, amidst the foreign exchange crisis.

Responding to strong JVP criticism of the Sapugaskanda project, Minister Gammanpila pointed out that the USD 3 bn estimate was based on a pre-feasibility report, prepared before him being appointed the Energy Minister. The forthright politician declared that once they finalized feasibility study a better understanding of the project could be had.

The bottom line is that the country lacked wherewithal to undertake a major infrastructure project.

 

Total collapse of revenue sources professed

State Minister Dr. Godahewa, during an inspection tour, on June 09, of Sarakkuwa and Dungalpitiya areas badly affected by the sinking of the fire-ravaged X-Press Pearl container carrier, didn’t mince his words when he explained the state of the national economy. Dr. Godahewa, who had served the private sector quite efficiently, before turning to party politics, explained the pathetic state of the national economy. What he said was simply frightening. Assuring the SLPP’s commitment to provide relief to those who had been affected, Dr. Godahewa declared that one fourth of state revenue had been spent on ongoing efforts to bring the Covid-19 epidemic under control. Dr. Godahewa asserted that the government faced the prospect of total collapse of state revenue. The State Minister’s assertion cannot be taken lightly.

Making reference to Rs. 5,000 relief allowance paid to selected groups of people, on four occasions, the former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission estimated that so far the government spent over Rs 250 billion for Covid-19 control/relief work.

Trade Minister Gunawardane, too, bitterly complained about the state of the economy in Parliament. His June 8 speech, in the relatively empty Parliament, underscored the pathetic situation. The government seemed quite helpless and in a deepening dilemma over the absence of wherewithal to meet daunting challenges. In his own way, Minister Gunawardane admitted that public finance was in quite a distressing position. The COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee of Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) should take tangible remedial measures to redirect Sri Lanka’s from its disastrous path.

In spite of making quite horrendous revelations about waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence, the parliamentary watchdog committees haven’t been able to bring runaway corruption under control. Those who had been exposed at COPE proceedings continue in their nefarious activities with impunity. The national carrier, SriLankan Airlines is a case in point. In last week’s column, titled ‘How public sector corruption withers national economy: RJ’s insight,’ the writer dealt with the late Rajeewa Jayaweera’s damning reportage of the national carrier. RJ left SriLankan Airlines, in 2005, not in 1995, as inadvertently mentioned. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ) brought the error to the writer’s notice. But, what really interested me was SJ’s observation that the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Air et al prepared following 12 months of sittings during yahapalana rule hasn’t been released, nor any action initiated against the wrongdoers.

RJ’s 41 articles on the national carrier revealed how those who managed the SriLankan Airlines and political authority defied laws of the land and continue to do so. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stand at a staggering Rs. 326 bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses.

Minister Gunawardane explained the country’s economic woes, bluntly. Acknowledging that the national economy was in dire straits and if budget shortfall couldn’t be met, through domestic and foreign loans, there was no option but to sell-off assets. Having compared how a government and a family struggled to manage shortfall income, the former reputed economics tuition master recommended selling of national assets. The SLPP certainly owed an explanation whether Minister Gunawardane articulated its position.

Minister Gunawardane told the stark truth to the House that neither Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the Finance Minister, nor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would bring money from Medamulana or Mirihana to solve the unprecedented financial woes facing the country. Emphasizing the responsibility of Parliament, in respect of public finance, Minister Gunawardena emphasized 225 members of Parliament (regardless of political parties they represented) were responsible for taxpayers’ money.

 

Sharp hike in fuel price amidst Covid time bonanza

Minister Gammanpila’s Friday announcement, on fuel price hike, came as quite a surprise. That move flabbergasted the public, as much as the shameless decision to procure 228 Toyota Land Cruisers did in late May. Of the 399 vehicles ordered, 225 were for members of Parliament, made up of SLPP 145, SJB 54, TNA 10, JJB 3 (JVP contested under the JJB banner), AITC 2, EPDP 2, UNP 1, SLFP 1 and OPPP, TMVP, MNA, TMTK, ACMC, NC and SLMC one each. Among the beneficiaries is the sole UNP National List member though yet to take oaths as an MP. Obviously super luxury Toyota Land Cruisers are ordered for 225 members of Parliament. If so, the government should reveal the lucky recipients of the three remaining SVUs. Such luxury vehicles for lawmakers, at a time the country is experiencing severe economic difficulties, cannot be justified under any circumstances. Now JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has questioned the rationale in ordering SUVs for 225 members, the JVP should ask the Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Dasanayake whether the three JVPers, in Parliament, were included in the list of those destined to receive brand new vehicles. Did the Finance Ministry submit a Cabinet paper that dealt with 399 vehicles, including those intended for MPs without seeking their approval? The JJB parliamentary group comprised Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Vijitha Herath and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya.

The contentious issue at hand is whether the Finance Ministry placed an order for SVUs for MPs without asking the consent of all members of Parliament, representing 15 recognized political parties?

Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella is on record as having said that though the Prime Minister’s Office announced the cancellation of the 399 vehicle order, against the backdrop of financial difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the government may not be able to do so because Letters of Credit had already been opened. Amidst the growing public anger over the squandering of public funds to acquire luxury vehicles for MPs, Minister Rambukwella, on June 11, declared that the Finance Ministry, and other parties to the Rs 3.7 bn transaction, following successful negotiations, has cancelled the vehicles for lawmakers.

It would be pertinent to mention that the Prime Minister’s Office on May 20 indicated the impending fuel price hike. A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said that the government was seriously concerned about the rising price of crude oil in the world market from 2020 and an upward revision was imminent.

However, what really stunned the public was General Secretary of the SLPP Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam questioning the fuel price hike. National List MP Kariyawasam asked whether the unexpected increase was meant to undermine the SLPP administration. The MP faulted Energy Minister Gammanpila for the situation.

Hiru presenter Chamuditha Samarawickrema last Sunday (13) ridiculed lawmaker Kariyawasam’s declaration. Samarawickrema, who had been recently embroiled in a controversy over make-up artist Chandimal Jayasinghe and Public Security Minister, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, having functions at the Shangri-La hotel, on May 30 and May 28, respectively urged MP Kariyawasam not to stage dramas.

The Hiru anchor questioned Kariyawasam’s accusation that Minister Gammanpila did so to cause trouble for the government.

The government obviously is in deep trouble. It should explain why such expensive SUVs were ordered for lawmakers, in May, against the backdrop of the rapid deterioration of the nation’s financial position. The country got to know of the despicable decision to place an order for SVUs only after the Prime Minister’s Office through a public announcement claimed to have cancelled in the fourth week of May.

 

CPC saves USD 300 mn

COPE, PAC and COPF proceedings, since the last general election, revealed waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Inquiries that had dealt with public sector enterprises over the past two decades, exposed public-private sector partnerships in utterly wasteful and corrupt practices. So much so that today’s financial crisis cannot be examined without taking into consideration extremely poor management of state enterprises, and public and private sector cooperation, at the high level, to rob the country. Two such glaring examples are the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, by the Yahapalana administration, and the massive sugar tax scam, carried out by the SLPP. The JVP is on record as having alleged that the sugar tax scam is far worse than even the Treasury bond scams. The high profile sugar scam couldn’t have been executed without the issuance of gazette bearing No 2197/12 dated Oct 13, 2020 by the Finance Ministry. That resulted in the immediate replacement of Rs 50 duty on a kilo of imported sugar with a mere 25 cents. In spite of COPF Chairman lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa’s declaration, on January 05, 2021 that the consumers didn’t benefit at all from duty reduction the government has conveniently forgotten the matter. The SLPP should be ashamed of its role in such corrupt practices.

Perusal of proceedings of COPE, COPA and COPF underscored those in political authority as well as officials who ruined the national economy. As the writer mentioned before, the ruination of SriLankan Airlines is just one example. Both the SLFP and the UNP ruined the national carrier in style is certainly nothing to be surprised about. They dealt with all state sector enterprises in a similar way. The way procedures have been manipulated to rob the country is another story. Proceedings in respect of procurement of coal required by Norochcholai revealed unprecedented corruption. But, absolutely nothing has been done. No action whatsoever has been taken against corrupt elements, though shocking revelations have been made in Parliament.

Would you believe the statements issued by the Prime Minister’s Office and Energy Minister Gammanpila, as regards the status of crude oil prices, were contradictory? However, the Communication Department of Parliament recently revealed that the CPC saved USD 300 mn in 2020 due to the drop in crude oil prices in the world market as well as some other factors. This came to light during COPE proceedings, thanks to a query raised by SJB member S.M. Marikkar.

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Midweek Review

Shamelessness!

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By Sasanka Perera

Meng Ke (also known as Mencius), the Chinese philosopher, who lived between 372 BC and 289 BC, has been in my mind lately for what he said on ‘shame’ and ‘shamelessness’ all those years ago. According to him, “a man must not be without shame, for the shame of being without shame is shamelessness indeed.” Feeling shameful for doing something wrong is necessarily a core foundation for the emotional and ethical development of a person as well as the society in which he or she lives. Meng Ke’s thoughts came to my mind because of what has been happening in contemporary Lanka in all spheres of society for quite some time. We seem to be experiencing a virtual and concerted dismantling of all notions of shame as if it is a moment of national reckoning. And we seem to have largely succeeded too. This dismantling of shame is most clear in the multiple dramas that relentlessly unfold in the country’s public sphere. In these dramas, the stars, the supporting characters, script-writers, directors and producers are politicians, government officials, public figures, academics and so on. Simply look at a handful of examples.

It is truly mindboggling that a seasoned politician, supposedly representing what is left of Lanka’s Left, like Vasudeva Nanayakkara said in late May in response to the X-Press Pearl disaster that the country would receive a large package of compensation from the company that owned this stricken ship even as he acknowledged that the incident had impacted the country’s natural environment negatively for years to come. There was no mention of how a ship was allowed to come so close to the country’s shoreline when Lanka had no local capacities to deal with the kind of disaster that ultimately did happen. Besides, this is a country run by a regime whose war cry not so long ago was ‘national security.’ A few thousand dollars that may or may not come to the state coffers seems to make everything ok. Very clearly, Nanayakkara has lost both his commonsense and ethics while also shedding his ability to be ashamed.

Then, look at the case of the veritable ‘return of the mummy.’ That is, the decision taken by the United National Party after many moons of deliberation to send its discredited leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led the party to an abject defeat in the last parliamentary election to Parliament again on the infamous National List. What is worse is Wickremesinghe’s complete lack of shame or guilt in accepting such a responsibility. Was there absolutely no one else in the party who could represent it in Parliament other than Wickremesinghe? But then, the National List itself has also become a list of shame through which incorrigible political nitwits from all parties creep into parliament, often after continuous years of nefarious lives and after lives in politics — barring a few.

The country’s entire COVID-19 vaccination programme is a public performance in shamelessness. It unravelled from the beginning simply due to crude politics of favoritism engineered quite openly by all sorts of politicians aligned to the state. Sri Lanka had inherited a reasonably well-tuned apparatus of public health over the years, learning from its engagement with the anti-malaria and anti-polio campaigns, among many others. What has been learned from decades of well-run elections could also have been used to build a fair and equitable vaccination programme, which by all accounts was in place. But from the very beginning, this has been unraveled by politicians taking over the programmes in their local areas, giving priority to family members, neighbours and political supporters not to mention the LKR 5000 per jab that was illegally charged in a number of places for something that is supposed to be free. The most recent and notorious example was the public fiasco created by the Mayor of Moratuwa when government officials were trying to implement the programme according to an approved plan. But the man wanted it to be done according to ‘His List.’ And again, the List.

And while all this is happening in broad daylight, public officials trying to protect the environment are routinely and consistently vilified by elected representatives of the people as anti-development agents. The Forest Officer in Gampaha was confronted not too long ago by the regime’s politicians and their supporters for trying to do her job. She was asked, “What is the use of oxygen?” (ඔක්සිජන් කන්නද?) And anything in the environment that can be raped for profit seems to be up for grabs, from deforestation to illegal sand mining. While these activities are reliably reported from around the country, the government’s main approach has been to muscle the discontent over these matters rather than to address the issues.

In the midst of the continuing pandemic, where the virus now seems to have outsmarted the government, the regime has ordered hundreds of brand-new luxury vehicles at an exorbitant cost for members of Parliament while asking for public donations to fight the pandemic and restricting the importation of many goods – including ordinary vehicles of people. This was also the time that ordinary people were facing starvation, mounting unemployment and anxiety over their futures. To take a decision to import luxury cars in these conditions can only done by a group of people who cannot even be described by the word ‘vulgar.’ As shameless as our MPs are, the most outlandish reasons were given to justify this decision. But that is precisely what happens when shame has left our consciousness. It is a different matter that the vulgar performance in excessive consumption has been momentarily postponed due to the outpouring of loud public anger.

And where is the Opposition in all this? The main opposition led by Sajith Premadasa seems to have become a veritable branch office of the government. Its present role as Opposition gives us even more room to fear for our collective future. If this motley crew are to form the next government — again with a very short supply of shame and intelligence — what would become of us? And the JVP, with its stagnant voter-base admittedly utters everything right in Parliament and exposes acts of corruption and abuse of power like a good Opposition should. But no one seems to listen. In their single-minded lack of imagination, party members strut around in their little red caps and tiresome revolutionary rhetoric, which has steadfastly ensured their vote base will never increase beyond a point. Why? Because ordinary people fear that however honest they might sound, if in power, they might end up nationalizing their refrigerator, microwave oven while taking over their cars for a collective transport scheme and ban their kids from going to school in private transport. In this time and age, image matters, and an old revolutionary image does not help even though what needs to be done in the future cannot be achieved short of a radical revolution in ideas and attitudes at large. It is shameful when something this simple does not penetrate the gray matter of our comrades.

And as if this were not enough in the realm of national shamelessness, a well-known university academic with the aid of numerous national newspapers has found himself in the middle of a dubious campaign to claim that his Sinhala language movie has made it to the competitive rounds of the Cannes Film festival. The problem is neither the organizers at Festival or any other reasonable film portal seems to know anything about this seeming victory. Shamelessness is obviously not a simple matter of politics.

This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to lack of shame in public life in our country. This is happening everywhere and at all levels. What exactly is going on? Things had not been this bad until the present dispensation came to power. The bottom line is that those with access to power do not seem to give a damn about the nefarious and clearly wrong or unethical activities they are openly engaging in. Why? Because more than any time before in our country, laws mean very little to the well-connected and trust in justice and fair play have significantly eroded. Clearly, there are no consequences for engaging in what is wrong in terms of the law and in terms of ethics. With this, what social utility would shame have as a deterrent? It seems to me that there are two related attributes that individuals lose when their overall sense of shame disappears. That is, their commonsense and their understanding and appreciation of ethics.

In this scheme of things, the public are expected to be mute viewers of the shameless dramas the powerful routinely engage in even though often, the public also become part of all this by living in blind faith right through these dramas. That is why many ordinary people, including close relatives and friends seem to have become card-carrying members of the shameless bandwagon. They hardly benefit finically by repeating the most mind bogglingly unintelligent excuses for the worst excesses. But they keep on repeating these lies. It seems, to acknowledge the reality is too much of a civilization burden to bear, and they somehow need to find a way to ensure that the flood of pubic shame sweeping us into inglorious eternity should somehow be made invisible and unnarrated — as if these things did not happen in the first place.

 

Not so long ago our country used to be what Tamler Sommers referred to in Why Honour Matters as an ‘honour culture,’ which relied on shame to keep its conscience intact. It is as part of inculcating ourselves into such an honuor culture that our collective sense of lejja (shame) and baya (fear) played a crucial role, particularly in Sinhala popular culture. That is, refraining from doing something wrong for the fear of being publicly shamed. But while the Sinhalas may have had a popular terminology for it, everyone else contributed to the ethics this sensibility entailed. But today, as Sommers note, in place of this idea of shame, what prevails “is an epidemic of shamelessness.” And our country, its leaders, its politics and its people with countless excuses to justify what is wrong and unenlightened, has become a textbook case of this epidemic. To survive and to be masters of this shameless and guiltless world devoid of ethics, one must master the art of not seeing what one does not want to see. I think Salman Rushdie explains this best in the Enchantress of Venice when he outlines the aftermath of Marco Vespucci’ death when he hung himself after being spurned by Alessandra Fiorentina: “His body dangled from the Bridge of the Graces, but Alessandra Fiorentina never saw it … because Alessandra had long ago perfected the art of seeing only what she wanted to see, which was an essential accomplishment if you wanted to be one of the world’s masters and not its victim.” It seems to me our leaders and their supporters have become highly accomplished local Alessandra Fiorentinas and opt to see only what they want. Those of us who are cursed to see what actually happens and are burdened with a conscience and a fear of shame might have no choice other than to embrace an end not too dissimilar to Marco Vespucci. And our end will be made further invisible by the erasing gaze of prevailing shamelessness.

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Midweek Review

On decolonising SL universities

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By Susantha Hewa

Whether we like it or not, the world is market driven, and business interests more or less impact all social institutions, education being one of the most important. This can be easily seen in most university qualified students’ primary concern about which degree programme will pave the way for getting a well-paid job as early as possible after university, as Kaushalya Herath (KH) correctly points out in her article titled “Decolonising SL universities” appearing in The Island of 8th June.

It is apparent that over the years the courses of study offered in our universities have increasingly been influenced by direct and indirect demands of the corporate sector which has resulted in the gradual sidelining of arts subjects. However, one has to agree that science has been put “in the service of humanity” just as much as arts or even more, as many would argue. Moreover, it is doubtful whether “critical learning, that produce[s] passionate thinkers, as well as contextually relevant knowledge” can be wholly credited to arts studies to the exclusion of science studies, as KH seems to suggest in the last sentence of the first paragraph of her article. One may find a whole host of critical and passionate thinkers among science scholars; Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell easily come to mind.

The problem lies, as KH herself correctly asserts, with the increasing tendency to use universities to produce “employable graduates” to cater to the global market economy. For example, it isn’t out of love for Shakespeare that university syllabuses have given the pride of place to “soft skills” (in English). The liaison between employability and English language skills is so firmly established that today hardly any undergraduate would be able to make a two-minute speech on “employable graduates” without using the term “soft skills.” Every conceivable professional is expected to be a glib salesperson who knows how to talk his way through.

In fact, the label “unemployable graduates” is being given ever more superfluous legitimacy in this context where undergraduates’ “soft skills” are becoming more marketable than their academic achievements. This becomes patently clear when, for example, today’s private sector employers show an unconcealed admiration of candidates who are glib talkers of English even if their academic records may leave much to be desired. As such, at job interviews for engineers, for example, students with relatively poor academic records stand a better chance of getting the job over those who have excelled in academic studies without sufficient English language skills to match. In short, be warned that if you want to succeed in becoming an “employable” engineer, your “soft skills” count more than your grades in engineering at the job interview! In other words, even science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects), which easily outcompete arts subjects in terms of “status” in tertiary education are eclipsed by “soft skills.”

There is no doubt that gaining a good command of any language is an asset to anyone and is the primary purpose of learning a second language. However, elevating it to such a stately position in a university curriculum simply to cater to the needs of the corporate world is a textbook example of commercial interests prevailing over academic concerns. That the private sector appreciates a candidate’s language fluency solely on its acquired utility value in the market world shows why such recognition is not given to fluency in Sinhala or Tamil in the present Sri Lankan context. If Mandarin happened to be the “international language” in our part of the world any time soon, “soft skills” would automatically mean fluency in Mandarin.

The extent to which the needs of the global market influences the mindset of students can be seen in the way science stream students choose their subjects from STEM- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How many AL mathematics stream students seeking university admission would select science and mathematics in preference to engineering and technology? Or, for that matter, how many AL biology stream students would select bio-science over medicine? The fact is even if universities were to offer only STEM subjects and eliminate arts and humanities altogether from their curricular, students wouldn’t be free from the all-pervasive influence of corporate interests. Obviously, engineering and technology would beat science and mathematics hands down in a contest designed to lure corporate giants. As such, it is little wonder that arts and humanities cut no ice with any profit-oriented system of economics.

The term “employability,” despite being the buzzword in producing graduates today, cannot help giving you the uneasy feeling that higher education is a way of ending up being hired by someone-a cog in a giant corporate machine. It would be a hopelessly inadequate ending if we were to consider education as a major contributor to civilization. Instead of originality, excitement and vitality that tend to accompany a more informed notion of education, “employability” seems to associate conformity, tedium and lethargy. Such negative feelings would be the complete antithesis of what education can and should bring about if it were to realize its full potential. Yet, such a gross incongruity is unavoidable when education is pared to be nothing more than an endless supplier of “hands” in an all-encompassing profit earning venture.

Commenting on the world’s fixation with boosting the speed of Internet connections and the efficacy of Big Data algorithms, historian Yuval Noah Harari says: “We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential.” Even those who would not necessarily agree with Harari’s views on the advancement of human civilisation would not have any difficulty in seeing the relevance of this contention in the context of today’s market oriented tertiary education.

If we were to agree that education could do more than spawning technically-skilled people to be employed as tools to sustain economy, it had better change gear to tap more of latent human potential. However, it would be nothing short of fantasizing if one expects an education essentially moulded to cater to the dynamics of a globalised market economy to change track in favour of initiating broader human interests that are not marketable.

It would be futile to think of separating university education from its glorified mission of providing “employable graduates” until all of life’s concerns remain subsumed by the cash nexus and consumerism. It is true that humans have been breaking away from myth-regulated small bands and forming ever expanding communities under more general “banners” throughout history. However, since money came to govern all man-made systems, we have not been able to break free from its spell. To what extent hunter gatherers depended on hunting skills for survival, to that extent do we depend today on what is now made available as education for our upkeep, however more sophisticated it may be than the life in the wild. The raw link between what you learned and how “securely” you lived in those days has proved to be resistant to date defying all historical and cultural changes. Surely, what you choose to learn today and your success in it guarantee much more than three square meals. However, “hunting” remains to be name of the game with money skulking around; a minority merrily hunts for “excess” while the majority still continues to hunt to keep the wolf from the door.

The notion that natural sciences are at war with arts is rather misleading. Both arts and sciences are equally important products of human potential and are helpful in making societies more and more refined. Some students are truly passionate about natural sciences while others are fond of arts and humanities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either inclination. Furthermore, critical thinking and philosophising are not unique to either stream. The problem is that the corporate world favours STEM subjects as they are grist to its mill and, as a result, has produced an unwelcome hierarchy between the two equally human friendly streams.

KH seems to be optimistic that “develop[ing] mechanisms to understand and theorise local knowledge systems” and “indigenis[ing] knowledge production” will be helpful in minimising the commercialization of university curricular. Such changes alone do not seem to serve the purpose because our country cannot function in a “vacuum” and our political and economic systems are not any more favourable to a chaste academically oriented education than those of other countries.

Even if we entirely replaced the existing tertiary education with “indigenous systems” it would not be possible to prevent the new system from being absorbed by the global economy since separating our politics and economics from the rest of the world is unthinkable. Knowledge systems wouldn’t be either innately “good” or “harmful” depending on whether they are produced here or elsewhere. Hence, to slip into excessive “nationalism” by being trapped in a self/other binary in knowledge production might prove more harmful than productive. KH implies this when she says, “How the universities can decolonize and indigenize knowledge production without going into the other extreme of nationalism is a bit tricky and will require dialogue and reflection.”

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