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Editorial

Gota’s address to the nation

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The point has been made that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his address to the nation last Thursday had not only argued the case for his defence over the dire predicament now confronting the country, but had also left a great deal unsaid. We begin this comment complimenting the president on the tone and tenor of his delivery. As is usual with him, he made his pre-recorded address without oratorical flourishes or rhetoric, obviously reading from a teleprompter, and also not taking cheap jibes at his opponents as most politicians are wont to do. He clearly said that he is very well aware of the present suffering of the people but these problems were not of his making. As President Rajapaksa has eyes to see and ears to hear, he cannot be unaware of what people are going through today. Right now we at a juncture widely accepted as being among the worst periods in our post-independence history. These feelings are freely articulated at numerous protest rallies and queues for almost impossible-to-get essentials and are beamed to millions of homes countrywide in the evening television news bulletins.

What hit many viewers of this address was that not a word was said about the president’s fertilizer misadventure that created chaos in the agriculture sector. It disrupted production and created massive shortages of previously available essentials including home grown rice, vegetables and fruit. The president conveniently chose to ignore all this, a matter which is a major contributor to the present impasse rooted in the forex crisis the country is now fighting. There was also his remark that those who contributed to creating the problems are criticizing the government before the people today. This, perhaps was the only overt criticism of the opposition in his speech aimed at and those who served the previous Yahapalana administration. It could not be targeting the JVP which too is in the vanguard of the protests. Certainly Yahapalana’s acts of omission and commission during its tenure, notably the bond scam, did contribute to the present mess but the present lot has done worse

The president must not forget that his brother, Mahinda, who unsuccessfully sought a third term in 2015 after engineering defections for a two thirds majority to abolish the constitutionally mandated term limit on the presidency, brazenly colluded with Yahapalana leader Mathiripala Sirisena to unlawfully seize the prime ministry from Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sirisena and his SLFP were part of the winning coalition at the last parliamentary election although they are now distancing themselves from the ruling party which enabled most of them to win their seats.

Who blasted the country’s precious resources in vanity projects like the not yet commissioned Lotus Tower, the far from viable Mattala International Airport, and other projects at Hambantota like the stadium, the international convention centre, what was claimed to be the only dry zone botanical garden and much more? The Hambantota port is now under long lease to the Chinese to overcome debt servicing and repayment problems. Then there was the disaster of getting rid of the Emirates Airline profitably managing the national carrier under a joint venture over a matter of personal pique and the airline has returned to losses. Some of these vanity projects were shamelessly bestowed the name of a living Rajapaksa.

While there is no gainsaying that the highway construction initiated by the previous Rajapaksa regime vastly improved connectivity in the country, there are questions on whether many of them were rated high enough on the national priority list to rate turboprop implementation at great cost. Did we for instance need a six lane highway to Hambantota with the elaborate Siribopura intersection linking it to the local road network? We cannot overlook pervasive suspicion that road building entails massive kickbacks into political pockets.

Then there was Gota’s assertion that he entered politics at the invitation the people. That was what Winston Churchill once called a “terminological inexactitude.” He was undoubtedly invited by the Rajapaksa family to run for president to succeed his brother who wasn’t entitled to run for a third term thanks to the 19th Amendment. He gave up his U.S. citizenship with that objective. Although 6.9 million voted for him, grateful for the major role he played in the war victory, and trusting his promises of “vistas of prosperity and splendor”, they in no way invited him to seek the presidency. That was his own and his family’s choice. The majority were happy that he won comfortably but many of them are now publicly ruing how they voted and saying so without mincing their words. That has hitherto not happened on the present scale when people publicly express their feelings towards their rulers in the harshest terms. But that, of course, can be marked a plus for the regime not interfering with free speech.

Nobody would have expected a mea culpa address to the nation from an incumbent president and we did not get it. People remember that President J.R. Jayewardene in 1983 did not utter a word of apology to the Tamils who were set upon by savage Sinhala mobs while law enforcers idly stood by earning his regime a massive blackmark at home and abroad. President GR in his address last week called for the cooperation of all to overcome the massive problems besetting the country. The generally non-abrasive nature of his address has set the stage favorably for achieving a positive outcome from that effort. But for that much else must be done as Mr. Karu Jayasuriya said at Anuradhapura last week. But his proposal that 20A be repealed as a sign of good faith is too much to expect. So also the demand of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa’s that a presidential election be held and the government handed to a ‘can do’ SJB. Dr. Nihal Jayawickrema has forensically demonstrated that this is unattainable while columnist Rajan Philips has on this page branded it as “vacuous bluster.”



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Editorial

To dock or not to dock

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Monday 15th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.

There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.

It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.

It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.

Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.

Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.

Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.

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Editorial

Unarmed but not peaceful

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We run on this page today an article written by a retired Major General of the Sri Lanka Army who argues forcefully that the Aragalaya protesters were NOT repeat NOT peaceful. Over the weeks and months of the protest, which now appears to be fizzling out, although contrary claims that it will continue persist, the Aragalaya was described by the media, human rights activists, politicians, diplomats and many more as a “peaceful protest.” That label stuck. A protest it was, and an unarmed protest to boot, but nobody can claim that it was “peaceful” especially during its concluding stages when barricades protecting President’s House and the Presidential Secretariat at the old Parliament building were repeatedly stormed.

The whole country was privy to these all or nothing charges, where large groups akin to human battering rams, unrelentingly and repeatedly stormed the barriers surrounding the seats of government. They did so with the clear knowledge that there would be no shooting. These scenes were beamed over national television news bulletins widely viewed countrywide. Police and troops manning the barriers used tear gas and water cannons and on a few occasions fired into the air. Fortunately, thanks be to whoever was responsible (some say that outgoing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa so ordered before he fled the country), no live bullets were fired. Thus no lives were lost. All to the good. The retired military officer, Major General Lalin Fernando, who has titled his contribution “Peaceful and Unlawful Assembly” has, to our mind, by quoting sections of the Criminal Procedure Code conclusively established that the assemblies under reference were totally unlawful. There is no second word about that. Unarmed yes, but peaceful no.

Another curious and coincidental occurrence regarding the Rajapaksas’ departure and what many believe to be the end of the Aragalaya has occurred within exact one month intervals over a three-month period beginning May 9 this year. On that day Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa responded to the “Go Home Mynah” demand. Exactly a month later, on June 9, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa went home although there was no “Basil Go Gama.” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa eventually caved into the “Gota Go Home” demand and fled the country like a thief in the night, flying first to the Maldives, then to Singapore and now to Thailand. And last week on August 9, the Aragalaya which pushed all the Rajapaksas out of office also seems to have ended. Those who thought that the country has seen the back of the Rajapaksas when GR swore a cabinet minus all of them except his aiya who installed him on the throne, was forced to call for MR’s resignation, and thereafter to resign himself, will have to think again. The Pohottuwa still calls the shots in parliament as clearly demonstrated by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister, then as acting president and finally his comfortable election by parliament as president to serve out the rest of GR’s term.

Remember Mahinda Sulanga after MR who had engineered a constitutional coup ending the two term limit on the presidency suffered a stunning loss to Maithripala Sirisena, the former general secretary of MR’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, while seeking a third term. A combination of forces led by the UNP and including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ensured Rajapaksa’s defeat. But he did not lie down and die. Within days and weeks of what seemed an unbelievable end to a remarkable political career, Mahinda Rajapaksa was being feted and greeted by tens of thousands of his supporters at his Tangalle home. Before long, with the help of his brother Basil and the founding of his Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) best known by its Pohottuwa election symbol he was able to demonstrate that he was no spent force at the local government elections of February 2018. This was the biggest ever election in the country and his new party was able to gather 40 percent of the popular vote. The UNP and SLFP ran a poor second and third.

But reckless, ill- managed government, rampant corruption and sheer incompetence led to the Rajapaksa nemesis and Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. Never has Sri Lanka, ranked a middle income country, reached the depths to which it has plunged today. The majority of the people, mostly the poor, are facing untold hardship. Food prices have galloped through the roof. The latest World Food Program (WFP) assessment reveals that 86 percent of Lankan families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether. Before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across the country were already high. There is no need to labour over the cascading effects of the fuel crisis and the kilometers long queues for diesel and petrol. The present improvements can last only as long as we can borrow the dollars to continue supplies.

There is no signal from the president or the government that a serious effort at course correction will be made at least on the political front. The attempted All Party Government is certainly not going to be lean. Abject failures and suspect personalities are back in office and the country fears there will be more of it. Those within the incumbent parliament, judged by the knowledgeable as competent, are unwilling to take political office. President Wickremesinghe is doing his best, but will that be enough?

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Editorial

Get down to brass tacks

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Saturday 13th August, 2022

The government’s high-octane performance is really amazing although the Opposition has accused it of doing nothing by way of problem solving. It has already solved many problems since the appointment of the new President and the new Cabinet, and is in the process of tackling many others.

The UNP has overcome many problems, thanks to the current dispensation. It has come in from the cold, at last. It was in penury following its disastrous electoral loss in 2020, but is showing signs of recovery. Some of its seniors who were in hiding after defaulting on bank loans to the tune of billions of rupees have crawled out of the woodwork. Their problems, too, have been solved.

 The SLPP also had numerous problems; it faced the prospect of being ousted. But the government has solved all of them. The Rajapaksa family is out of danger; it is calling the shots in the government, again. The SLPP MPs who fell out with their party bosses, and were sidelined, are back in the Cabinet.

Some ambitious Opposition politicians have realised their dream of becoming ministers. Having crossed over to the government, they no longer have any problems to contend with, and can now make up for lost time to their heart’s content. Many more ministerial posts are expected to be created when the 22nd Amendment Bill with provision for the appointment of a jumbo Cabinet is steamrollered through Parliament, and the problems that most MPs are facing will be solved in the event of a national government being formed. At this rate, all the problems of the UNP, the SLPP and others who are willing to switch their allegiance to the government will be solved once and for all.

But the problems that the people are beset with remain unsolved, nay they are worsening. There’s the rub. The foreign currency crunch continues, and precious little is being done to ensure a steady forex inflow, which is the be-all and end-all of economic recovery. The fuel crisis is far from resolved; rationing is no solution however efficient it may be. The economy is thirsting for oil. Extremely high petroleum prices have led to an increase in production costs and the prices of essential goods and services. Inflation is soaring. Bread now costs as much as cake did about two years ago. People continue to skip meals. Doctors are complaining of drug shortages in the state-run hospitals. The school system is not fully functional yet due to transport issues. The Ceylon Electricity Board has jacked up electricity prices unconscionably, and the Water Board is expected to follow suit soon. Tax increases are said to be in the pipeline. Businesses are closing down due to escalating production costs and for want of imported raw materials. Many people have lost their jobs. The situation is bound to take a turn for the worse when the adverse effects of the conditions for the IMF bailout packages kick in. The government does not seem keen to address these issues. The Opposition is all at sea.

The government and the Opposition have been busy talking instead of making a collective effort to pull the country out of the present economic mire. They are blowing hot and cold on the formation of an all-party government, which has come to mean different things to different people. The Opposition insists that the proposed joint administration should be an interim one, but the SLPP has some other plans; it wants to cling on to power by sharing ministerial posts with the Opposition. If President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLPP and the Opposition are serious about joining forces for the sake of the country, they ought to stop wasting any more time on endless talks, get down to brass tacks, set goals and formulate a definitive plan to reach them in the shortest possible time.

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