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Editorial

Govt. playing with fire

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Thursday 26th May, 2022

The government seems determined to perpetuate people’s suffering. It claims that adequate fuel stocks are available in the country, but pumps at most filling stations have run dry, and long lines of vehicles are seen everywhere. When the fuel supply was restricted, recently, despite the unloading of two or three oil shipments in quick succession, it became obvious that the government was planning to jack up petroleum prices. What was feared came to pass; oil prices increased. But the fuel shortage remains.

What prevents the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation from maintaining an uninterrupted fuel supply if it has enough stocks? Is it starving the market again with a view to effecting another price hike? The only thing it does promptly is to close the filling stations where clashes occur; this measure only aggravates the suffering of the peaceful people. Why can’t the police prevent such incidents at petrol stations, where they have a significant presence?

More than 40 filling stations have been closed countrywide, owing to clashes, according to media reports. It is only natural that tempers flare when people languishing in queues for long hours have to return home without fuel. Most people spend more than 12 hours in queues to obtain petrol and diesel. How would Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, who has filling stations closed at the drop of a hat, feel if he happened to queue up for fuel and return empty-handed after hours of waiting?

Minister Wijesekera talks nineteen to the dozen in an accusing tone that suggests that he thinks the people have bankrupted the country and got their comeuppance. Let him be reminded that he is part of a failed government, whose leaders have ruined the country by mismanaging its economy and helping themselves to public funds; he is also responsible for the current mess. He should be considerate towards the people, and take action to ensure that fuel is distributed efficiently, instead of lecturing to them. He and his bosses ought to realise that they are playing with fire. They know what it is like when public anger spills over on to the streets, don’t they?

Fathers of crisis

Parliament is not without some good men and women who take their legislative duties and functions seriously and do their utmost to safeguard the interests of the hapless public. The Chairman and some members of the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) are among them. They have exposed various rackets in the public sector and censured errant state officials. They deserve public plaudits.

COPE Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath has called for a PSC (Parliamentary Select Committee) to find out who is responsible for ruining the economy and bankrupting the country. There is no need for an investigation to identify those who have reduced the country to penury.

The present economic crisis is not of recent origin, but it is the current regime that worsened it. The blame for the current mess should be apportioned to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the finance portfolio, and former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. They did not heed expert advice, and ran the country like a petti kade in Medamulana. It has now been revealed that the Central Bank economists warned of an economic crisis well in advance, and called for action to avert it, but the government chose to ignore their warning.

A PSC probe, if conducted impartially, will help officially establish who is responsible for the economic meltdown. It must also be found out how US dollars disappeared from the country so fast, and whether there is any truth in the allegation that large amounts of foreign currency were smuggled out systematically during the past two years or so.

People have no faith in PSC probes thanks to the one into the Treasury bond scams, under the yahapalana government. The ruling party members of the PSC that investigated the bond racket behaved like a bunch of ruffians, insulting and intimidating the Central Bank (CB) officials, who testified against the then CB Governor Arjuna Mahendran. They stooped so low as to spoil the final COPE report with a slew of footnotes, and the Central Bank officials were prevented from countering their flawed arguments.

If a PSC is to be set up to investigate the economic crisis, the right persons will have to be appointed as its members, the majority of whom should come from the Opposition, if it is not to end up being another Treasury bond probe committee.



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Editorial

JVP’s call to arms

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Friday 1st July, 2022

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has sounded a call to arms. Speaking at a recent rally in Panadura, he unveiled his party’s strategy to resolve the present crisis. It consists of three phases, according to him—bringing down the incumbent government, forming an interim administration and holding a general election. He said his party was planning to oust the government, and would announce when the people should take to the streets in their numbers for that purpose.

There is no gainsaying that the present government is as dangerous as a dead man walking. Its grandees have ruined the economy, and are likely to inflict more damage on the country if they are allowed to exercise power any longer. Basil Rajapaksa continues to control the government as the eminence grise despite his resignation from Parliament. The sooner this administration is dislodged and a truly multi-party caretaker government is formed, the better.

It was reported yesterday that Israeli Parliament had voted to dissolve itself, bringing down the government and setting the stage for a fifth election in less than four years. This is an option available to Sri Lanka as well, but it is not desirable at this juncture. Therefore, the course of action the JVP has proposed may be considered acceptable, but the same cannot be said about the modus operandi as regards the first phase thereof, for it may be possible to dislodge the government without street protests, which should be the final recourse or pis aller and certainly not the first resort, given their potential to aggravate political instability or even unleash anarchy.

The Opposition and the SLPP dissidents ought to get themselves around the table urgently and reach a consensus on the formation of a caretaker government and a common agenda besides a timeframe for a general election, and then ask President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accede to their demand. If they take to the streets without a proper plan straightaway, they will only aggravate the crisis instead of helping overcome it.

In his above-mentioned speech, the JVP leader attributed the present forex crisis to the theft of the country’s dollars over the years. He said foreign currency in the state coffers had found its way into the offshore accounts of powerful politicians. True, the country is in this predicament mainly because the kleptocrats in the garb of political leaders and their kith and kin have helped themselves to huge amounts of public money and stashed it away overseas. They have also changed laws to facilitate foreign currency rackets. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) has said the Yahapalana government amended the Exchange Control Act in 2017 for the benefit of forex racketeers. FSP Spokesman Pubudu Jagoda was quoted by this newspaper yesterday as saying that the Exchange Control Act of 1953, which prevented forex rackets, had been amended in 2017, enabling exporters to keep their dollars overseas; violations of the foreign exchange laws had been criminal offences earlier, but the 2017 amendment had made them civil offences much to the benefit of racketeers, paving the way for the current crisis.

Curiously, the JVP, which is flaying the incumbent dispensation for the country’s forex woes, had no qualms about defending the Yahpalana government and even preventing its collapse in 2018. It is high time the Exchange Control Act was rid of the questionable amendments and strengthened to hold racketeers at bay.

The JVP leader claimed that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha and his fiancee had planned to have a photo session in Kashmir before their wedding, but a clash between Pakistan and India had put paid to the pre-shoot. Dissanayake said MP Namal Rajapaksa had confided that to him. Whether his claim is true or false, we do not know, but the fact remains that the sons and daughters of most political leaders are living high on the hog thanks to undisclosed sources of income. They must be made to disclose how they have amassed so much wealth. One can only hope that the interim administration the Opposition is planning to form will address this issue.

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Editorial

EC chief tells home truth

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Thursday 30th June, 2022

Some Opposition politicians would have the public believe that the present crisis cannot be resolved unless a general election is held. They insist that they can save the economy and deliver the people from suffering if they are given a popular mandate to govern the country. There is hardly anything Sri Lankan politicians do not capitalise on, and therefore it is not surprising that they are making the most of the crisis. Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Nimal Punchihewa has told them a home truth.

We have quoted the EC chief as saying that action must be taken to ensure that people’s basic needs are fulfilled before an election is held, for the public mood is not conducive to an electoral contest. One could not agree with him more. Even when there are no shortages of essentials and other such deprivations, people tend to turn aggressive and their tempers flare during election campaigns. How bad the situation will be in the event of the country having to go to the polls at this juncture is not difficult to imagine.

What the EC Chairman has not said is that people are so incensed that many politicians’ lives will be in danger if they come out for electioneering.

It will not be possible to hold an election in the foreseeable future owing to various shortages. The fuel crisis has crippled both public and private sectors. Schools have already been closed save those in some rural areas, and hospitals remain partially open with doctors, nurses and other health workers waiting in endless queues to obtain fuel. Teachers engaged in evaluating the GCE O/L answer scripts have run into difficulties for want of fuel. How can an election be held, given these conditions?

Some Opposition parties are labouring under the delusion that they will be able to sweep to victory if an election is held soon because the ruling SLPP has cooked its goose. But the entire Parliament has incurred the wrath of the public, who will not be so stupid as to vote overwhelmingly for any political party again. The economic crisis will not go away anytime soon and is bound to trouble a future government as well if an election is held before it is brought under control.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has torn into the government, which, he says, is using the crisis as an excuse to sell state assets. He has said legal action would be instituted against the culprits under an SJB administration. But protests alone will not prevent the current government leaders from striking questionable deals with foreign governments and firms. They are ready to do whatever it takes to save their skins and will not hesitate to compromise the national interest. They have already cut several shady deals with foreign companies in the power and energy sectors, and the only way to stop them is to extricate the country from their clutches.

If Premadasa is genuinely desirous of saving state assets, then he should join others in taking over the government. Many are the things that need to be done before the next election. The 21st Amendment has to be passed. The Parliament Election Act must be amended to prevent political parties from filling the National List vacancies with persons other than those whose names are submitted to the people before a general election. A constitutional provision must be introduced to enable post-enactment judicial review of legislation so that bad laws do not become faits accomplis. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption must be strengthened, and new laws introduced to tackle private sector corruption as well; it must be given back the power to initiate investigations on its own without waiting for complaints. A special probe must be launched to trace and recover stolen public funds which are believed to amount to billions of dollars. There will have to be laws to regulate campaign finance with provision for stringent punishment for noncompliance, and to make it mandatory to present all vital agreements between the state and foreign governments or companies, to Parliament for approval. There are many other such issues that need to be sorted out once and for all before a general election is held.

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Editorial

When incompetence fuels crisis

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Wednesday 29th June, 2022

What was feared has come to pass; the country has run out of oil to all intents and purposes. But the government’s lame excuses are not in short supply. It says it will restore the oil supply on 10 July, and until such time fuel will be issued only for essential services. What guarantee is there that enough dollars will be raised within the next two weeks for fuel imports? Are we being made to wait for Godot? It is very likely that on 09 July the government will ask for two more weeks to make fuel available.

Now that the government has closed the country owing to its inability to make fuel available, the question is whether it has any moral right to stay in power. Its leaders have only demonstrated their incompetence and shamelessness. If they continue to be in power, they will inflict far worse damage on the country. They are already conducting a fire sale of state assets, and all out to deprive the country of its energy sovereignty; they have invited multinational oil companies to commence operations here. Some of them will laugh all the way to foreign banks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have ordered that dollars be released for fuel imports urgently. Whom is he trying to fool? He cannot be unaware that there aren’t enough dollars for fuel purchases. Is he trying to deflect criticism by issuing such directives? The SLPP government bankrupted the country by stealing public funds, slashing taxes, granting massive pay hikes to some categories of public sector workers, throwing money around in the name of pandemic relief, and using forex reserves to defend the rupee in vain, despite repeated warnings from the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry officials. Various rackets such as the sugar tax scam have also taken their toll on the economy. The country is therefore without enough dollars to pay for essential imports including fuel, and there is no way either the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry could find foreign currency for fuel imports in a hurry simply because the President asks them to do so. Perhaps, the only way to pay for fuel imports immediately is to make the corrupt government politicians who have helped themselves to public funds, all these years, return part of their ill-gotten wealth hidden overseas.

SJB MP Champika Ranawaka has flayed the government for the fuel crisis. He has said the country’s image will have to be repaired before foreign assistance is sought. It will not be possible to overcome the present crisis so long as failed politicians continue to be in top posts, he has said. One cannot but agree with him. He is one of the few Opposition members capable of strategic thinking although he was a member of the failed yahapalana government. He has said he is willing to be actively involved in crisis management if a truly multi-party, interim government is formed with a timeframe set for a general election. He would have been able to take over the Power and Energy Ministry if the SJB had accepted the President’s offer to form a government, last month. He and other SJB MPs should have brought pressure to bear on their leader Sajith Premadasa to form a caretaker government together with other parties. They should do so, at least now. A new interim government may not be able to contain the crisis overnight, but it will help prevent the likes of Basil Rajapaksa from manipulating ministers to compass his ends. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the mercy of the Rajapaksa family, which controls the SLPP. The incumbent administration is a collective of self-seeking strange bedfellows who are willing to further the interests of the Rajapaksa family; the sooner it is got rid of, the better. That will be half the battle in managing the crisis.

Meanwhile, the government ought to find ways and means of holding racketeers at bay to ensure that fuel to be imported will be dispensed in an equitable manner. It has to devise a rationing system to prevent hoarding. Otherwise, a part of the next fuel shipment will also end up on the black market via hoarders’ dens, and the ordinary people will be left without petrol, diesel or kerosene.

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