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From the authors of 18A and 19A



Friday 12th November, 2021

The government is acting as if it had solved all the burning problems the country is beset with; it has undertaken to unveil the draft of the proposed Constitution, before the end of this year. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa himself said so in Parliament on Wednesday. Why is the government in such a mighty hurry? Why isn’t it equally keen to fulfil the other election promises, which are legion.

The government is like an overloaded tuk-tuk fitted with a lorry horn. It makes all the noise in the world, but its performance is abysmally poor. It has bitten off more than it can chew by accelerating its constitution-making project. Having got its priorities mixed up, it is inviting trouble. The unveiling of the draft Constitution is bound to trigger protests amidst the current national health emergency.

What needs to be done urgently at this hour is to beat the virus decisively and straighten up the economy, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. There are many other unresolved issues such as labour disputes, and the prospect of widespread industrial action in case of the government going ahead with the New Fortress energy deal, etc. There are signs of another explosive spread of Covid-19, but the government does not seem to care. If the country happens to be locked down again, not even the deities who are believed to have made this country their abode will be able to save us.

A book can be judged by its author’s reputation, and that is why popular writers’ names are printed in bigger font sizes than the titles of their works. The same is true of Constitutions and amendments thereto. When mention is made of the US Constitution, the names of great leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams invariably come to mind. It is the collective vision of those personalities, who passionately loved their land, and other patriotic Founding Fathers, that is reflected in the US Constitution, and has made the American democracy robust so much so that it has survived the likes of President Donald Trump.

America’s political leaders, in days of yore, had the capacity to contribute to the framing of the supreme law. Statespersons of such calibres are rare today even in the US, and we, in this part of the world, have been left with a bunch of ‘leaders’ who cannot even have a Gazette notification properly drafted.

A discussion on the promised Constitution at this juncture is like preparing a horoscope for an unborn baby, as a popular local saying goes, but it is certainly naïve to have high hopes, given the reputations of the political leaders behind the project.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, on Thursday, spoke of the flaws in the present Constitution and its amendments. It is he who introduced the 18th Amendment, one of the worst pieces of legislation the country has ever seen. His brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, overtook him by having the 20th Amendment passed. If the 20th Amendment is abolished with the 19th Amendment being reintroduced with some changes thereto to cleanse it of yahapalana politics, the existing Constitution can work until the time is opportune for making a new Constitution.

Meanwhile, the government leaders involved in the constitution-making project should heed what a federal judge told former US President Trump on Tuesday: “The Presidents are not Kings.” Blessed is a country that has intrepid judges capable of humbling arrogant politicians. We are not that lucky. That is why we have Presidents acting like monarchs.

One can only hope that the Constitution which is said to be on the anvil will not be an exercise to compass the political ends of those in power, especially the ruling family, which has a deep batting lineup, as it were.

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Justice and duplicity



Monday 20th March, 2023

The US and its allies are in seventh heaven over the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for their bete noire, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children. The US lost no time in welcoming the ICC warrant, and so did Ukraine. Russia has sought to pooh-pooh the ICC move and called it ‘outrageous and unacceptable’. The ICC action and the reactions of the US-led western bloc, Russia and Ukraine thereto reek of partiality and duplicity.

There are allegations that thousands of Ukrainian children are being unlawfully sent to Russia, and such despicable acts no doubt amount to war crimes, which must not go unpunished. So, there is no way Russia could make light of them. But these allegations must be properly probed and the veracity thereof established before arrest warrants are issued. The ICC seems to have been in a mighty hurry to initiate action against the Russian leader, presumably at the behest of the western bloc; it has thereby left itself wide open to criticism.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has welcomed the ICC warrant as ‘historic’ and called upon the world to take action against the Russian leader. He ought to realise that he has also blundered by antagonising Russia, and providing Putin with a casus belli. He should have known better than to allow the US and other NATO members to use him as a cat’s paw to further their geostrategic interests vis-à-vis Russia, at the expense of Ukraine. True, Russia’s military response to the ‘Ukrainian threat’ has been disproportionate, but the blame for what has befallen Ukraine should be apportioned to Zelensky, the US and its NATO allies as well.

There have been numerous instances where the US also reacted, just like Russia, to threats to its security; it has invaded countries and killed thousands of people besides engineering military coups to dislodge democratically-elected foreign governments and install dictatorships.

Zelensky is receiving military assistance from the US, the UK, etc., and they also make him feel important by inviting him to address their parliaments, but he should not lose sight of the fact that it is his people who are dying and his country runs the risk of being left in the lurch like other nations that sided with the US in the past. It requires vision and experience for a leader to navigate the so-called big power rivalry, which has become the order of the day.

Interestingly, ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan has said, in a media interview, that the message from Friday’s warrant “must be that basic principles of humanity bind everybody. Nobody should feel they have a free pass. Nobody should feel they can enact with abandon. And definitely nobody should feel they can act and commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes with impunity.” Really? Has the ICC acted in a similar manner in respect of the US and its allies? Will it explain why it did not issue arrest warrants for US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair over hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq due to an illegal war waged on the basis of falsified intelligence reports?

There has been irrefutable evidence that the Iraq war and sanctions caused many deaths. Madeleine Albright, who became the Secretary of State, herself admitted this fact. When the CBS channel, in an interview with her, pointed out that half a million Iraqi children had died due to the war and sanctions and asked her whether the price was worth it, she promptly said, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, is worth it.” Strangely, no action was taken against either President George H. W. Bush or his son, President George W. Bush, for the war crimes in Iraq. And, President Joe Biden has welcomed the ICC arrest warrant for Putin, and taken moral high ground!

The ICC took no action against Tony Blair as well despite the Chilcot report on the Iraq war. It trotted out some lame excuses. The report, which is a damning indictment of Blair, has basically said, among other things, that there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein; the UK intelligence furnished ‘flawed information’ and Blair exaggerated the case for the war.

Sadly, the ICC has failed to resist pressure from some western powers and remain impartial. This, however, does not mean that what Russia is accused of doing in Ukraine should go uninvestigated. Allegations against it must be probed but in a credible manner. However, the so-called world order is governed by Rafferty’s rules or no rules at all, and the big powers do not have to worry about the consequences of their actions. There’s the rub.

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Banking on IMF bailout



All indications are that the executive board of the International Monetary Fund will sign off tomorrow on the $2.9 billion bailout package its staff worked out with Sri Lanka in September. President Ranil Wickremesinghe can no doubt claim credit for clinching a deal on which work began at the height of the island’s economic crisis.

Ministers and government politicians are already trumpeting the impending success. They see it as a way out of the unprecedented financial crisis precipitated by their own SLPP administration. There is no argument that the country was pushed into bankruptcy following the foolish tax and agricultural policies of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, together with the country, paid a high price for his folly.

With all that murky water under the Kelani bridge, the real question is whether nine tranches of $300 million spread over 48 months can revive Sri Lanka’s economy and deliver the reliefs promised by Ranil Wickremesinghe.

No sooner the Executive board signs off on the bail out, the IMF is likely to release its first tranche. That may appear like loose change in the scheme of international finance – the bailout of Credit Suisse last week was reportedly $53.7 billion, about two thirds of Sri Lanka’s GDP.

Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana is on record saying that it is not the amount of the bailout, but the signal that Sri Lanka’s economy is now under IMF supervision that will give confidence to lenders and potential investors. Some of the currently frozen bilateral funding, especially from Japan, could be made available, but will any private capital rush in where prudent investors fear to tread? Will creditors who bought into Sri Lanka’s oft repeated boast that it had never defaulted on its foreign obligations think of putting their money in Sri Lanka after the unprecedented sovereign default of April 2022? At the time, Sri Lanka’s external debt was $46 billion according to revised government figures.

The IMF deal was based on the strict understanding that Sri Lanka’s creditors agree to restructure the debt in such a way it will fit into the “Debt Substantiability Analysis” carried out by the Washington-based lender of last resort. What does this really mean? How much of a haircut will bilateral lenders agree to? Will the private creditors, also known as the International Sovereign Bond (ISB) holders, agree to the same terms? Out of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, more than 50 percent is owned by private creditors.

It is common knowledge by now that getting the IMF bailout was held up for months mainly because of a delay in securing “financial assurances” from China which accounts for 52 percent of Sri Lanka’s bilateral credit. Whether one likes it or not, China can still make or break the deal.

Those who believe in a quick recovery after the expected good news from the IMF tomorrow would do well to realize that it’s a long way to Tipperary. The “financial assurances” must now be negotiated, and actual numbers established. How much Sri Lanka can pay back in the next four years? President Wickremesinghe in his candid statement to parliament on March 7 made it clear that Sri Lanka on its own does not have the capacity to payback 6.0 to 7.0 billion dollars annually till the end of 2029.

As a leader with little or no political base, except the fickle support of the SLPP, can Wickremesinghe steer the course? Sri Lanka has had 16 programs (aka bailouts) from the IMF since 1965. Sri Lanka’s track record with the Fund is not inspiring. Apart from being a repeat offender, Sri Lanka has completed only nine out of the 16 programs. In the early days, not drawing down the funds allocated to the island could have been taken as a good sign – an indication that the country was able to get out of the woods even ahead of schedule.

But the last program in 2016 clearly underlined the policy instability that has plagued the country. The program was almost on track when Gotabaya Rajapaksa jettisoned the IMF without completing it. Gotabaya Rajapaksa can also take credit for pushing the country to the abyss by spurning the concessionary credit of Japan and scuttling the multi-billion-dollar Light Rail Transit (LRT) project. A minimum $1.5 billion investment he spurned with another $480 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) of the United States.

By the end of next year, Sri Lanka will have to face a presidential election and the outcome of that will decide if the country has the courage to keep up the reforms. Even before that, trade union pressure will test the government’s resolve to remain with the IMF deal. Wickremesinghe can also call a parliamentary election anytime of his choosing if he wants to test the public mood which doesn’t appear to favour him or his governing partner the SLPP.

Austerity is never popular but demonstrating that the rulers are also leading frugal lifestyles is necessary to win public confidence. This is woefully lacking. Those who think that an IMF bailout alone will be a quick fix to all Sri Lanka’s economic woes must think again.

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‘Shree Anna’ and  Sri Lanka



Saturday 18th March, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government can allocate funds for anything other than elections. It claims to be too broke to spare any money for polls whenever the Election Commission makes requests to that effect. But it readily parts with huge amounts of public money to keep its politicians happy. One thing they put their hearts and souls into is junketing overseas. Never do they miss an opportunity to see the world at the expense of the public, who are struggling to dull the pangs of hunger.

Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera is reported to have left for India to attend the ‘Global Conference on International Year of Millets’ to be held in New Delhi, today and tomorrow. The UN has adopted India’s proposal that 2023 be declared the Year of Millets.

The importance of millet needs no elaboration. It is considered a wonder grain with the potential to help tackle global hunger so much so that Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has, in her Budget speech, aptly described it as ‘Shree Anna’ or ‘mother of all grains’. It has been reported that the global conference which gets underway, today, will focus on some important issues related to millets such as promotion and awareness of millets among producers, consumers and other stakeholders, value chain development, health and nutritional aspects of millets, market linkage, research and development. International scientists, nutritionists, health experts, start-up leaders and other stakeholders are expected to take part in the conference, according to media reports.

India has evinced a keen interest in millet production and set up the Indian Institute of Millets Research in Hyderabad. Finance Minister Sitharaman has said it will be converted into a centre of excellence to share best practices, research and technologies at the international level. Sri Lanka should promote millet production as part of its strategy to ensure food security and could enlist India’s help for that purpose.

Minister Amaraweera and his former political bosses, the Rajapaksas, who are controlling the incumbent government, come from an area—Hambantota—once known for producing finger millet or kurakkan, which is of ideological importance to the current regime. The Rajapaksa family has adopted the colour kurakkan for their trademark saataka, which they flaunt to hoodwink the ordinary public, especially the farming community. Sadly, the country has had to import even finger millet to meet a shortfall in the supply thereof. The same goes for mung, which is also imported in large quantities as its local production has dropped drastically over the decades. So much for the current rulers’ contribution to the development of agriculture!

It will be interesting to see how Minister Amaraweera proposes to promote millet production here. But rice being Sri Lanka’s Shree Anna, as it were, shouldn’t the Agriculture Minister, first of all, make a serious effort to sort out issues related to paddy cultivation? Rice growers are up in arms in all parts of the country, unable to bear the escalating cost of production and the shortage of fertiliser, etc. They also cannot sell their produce at reasonable prices. The government keeps making various pledges, which go largely unfulfilled. Powerful millers continue to exploit farmers and consumers alike by manipulating the paddy and rice markets with government politicians and officials doing nothing to rein them in for obvious reasons. Let Minister Amaraweera be urged to reveal how he proposes to tackle these problems after his return from the international millet conference.

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