Monday 14th June, 2021
It never rains but it pours. There is no end in sight to the various shocks the public frequently receives from the government. The Covid-19 pandemic is ripping through the country, destroying scores of lives daily. The inoculation programme is moving at a tardy pace as there is no steady supply of vaccines. Travel restrictions are causing hardships to the public and hurting the economy badly but have not yielded the desired results. The poor are asking for food and farmers fertiliser. Atop all these have come fuel price increases, which are bound to send the cost of living into the stratosphere.
Bakery owners have already decided to increase the prices of certain products. Private bus owners, cab operators and the trishaw fraternity will follow suit, and life will become even more unbearable to most people.
The fuel price hikes have made the ruling SLPP coalition look like MV X-Press Pearl, which had a nitric acid leak on board and was burnt out. A caustic remark made by SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has triggered an explosion aboard the ship of government, as it were. No sooner had Minster of Energy Udaya Gammanpila announced the fuel price increases, claiming that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) was incurring heavy losses due to the world market oil price increases than Kariyawasam fired from the hip; he issued a stinging media statement flaying Gammanpila, and demanding to know whether the price hikes were aimed at bringing the government leaders into disrepute; he even asked Gammanpila to resign.
Kariyawasam sought to have the public believe that Gammanpila had done something high-handed. But we reported a few days ago that the government was planning fuel price increases. However, if one goes by the SLPP General Secretary’s statement, then one may wonder if Gammanpila is so powerful in the government as to revise fuel prices himself? But the truth is otherwise. The Energy Minister alone cannot jack up fuel prices or bring them down without the consent of the President and the Prime Minister. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Cost of Living also has a say in such matters.
Gammanpila struck back yesterday; he insisted that he had only announced a government decision, and the uncomplimentary remarks Kariyawasam had made in the aforesaid statement applied to both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa! Several ministers have also sought to justify the oil price increases. Curiouser and curiouser! Is it that they are also party to Gammanpila’s ‘conspiracy’ to make the government leaders unpopular?
If the SLPP really thinks Minister Gammanpila alone is responsible for the fuel price hikes, then there is a simple remedy. The government can swiftly undo what he has done. If it thinks it can get away with the price hikes at issue by laying the blame for it at Gammanpila’s door, it is mistaken.
The SLPP General Secretary’s statement flaying Gammanpila is proof of the ruling coalition’s internal problems. The SLPP is apparently doing to its coalition partners what the SLFP, in its wisdom, did to its United Front allies in mid-1970s. Some SLPP leaders are apparently trying to settle political scores with Gammanpila, who is critical of them. A few moons ago, Kariyawasam took on Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who has antagonised some SLPP grandees.
It was only the other day that the government MPs gloated over the SJB’s internal problems and tried to embarrass the Opposition, in Parliament. They expect UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as a National List MP to create a division in the SJB. But the fact remains that the SLPP, which is magnifying others’ problems, is far from united; and a scenario similar to what we witnessed towards the latter stages of the previous Rajapaksa government in 2014 seems to be playing out.
The SLPP seems to think the masses are asses. Otherwise, it will not try to dupe the public into believing that the government had no hand in the fuel price hikes, and Gammanpila arbitrarily effected them unbeknownst to his bosses. Now that it has come to light that the decision to jack up fuel prices was taken by the Cabinet, the entire government must resign in keeping with the SLPP General Secretary’s argument that anyone responsible for placing another economic burden on the pandemic-hit people has to go.
A flaw in jab drive
Friday 23rd July, 2021
The national vaccination campaign is gaining momentum with more vaccine doses coming in and a significant number of them being administered daily. It has received a tremendous boost from the armed forces’ involvement in the inoculation process. A senior medical doctor, in a letter published on the opposite page today, pays a glowing tribute to the Army, which deserves accolades for its good work. Government health personnel are also working tirelessly to inoculate as many people as possible to help the country achieve the much-needed herd immunity.
There is however a flaw in the ongoing vaccination drive and it needs to be rectified urgently. Thanks to the vaccine war the western bloc has declared on China, etc., the Sri Lankans who have not received the vaccines produced by western multinationals have to pay through the nose for quarantine when they travel to the developed countries.
The government has, with the help of the Army, launched a programme to give Pfizer and Moderna jabs to the students scheduled to migrate to the countries that refuse to recognise the efficacy of other vaccines. This is a welcome move, which has stood thousands of students in good stead. But, curiously, there is no such scheme for the Sri Lankans who migrate for foreign employment. They will have to pay colossal amounts of forex for quarantine in the host countries unless they are given Pfizer or Moderna jabs at this end.
Sri Lanka is facing a grave foreign crisis, as is public knowledge, and restrictions have been imposed on the outflow of foreign currency, and, therefore, there is no way those who are scheduled to migrate for foreign employment can carry the required amounts of foreign exchange even if they are ready to pay for quarantine after reaching their destinations. If they are given Pfizer/Moderna jabs here, the government can prevent millions of dollars being taken out of the country for quarantine.
Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on remittances from its expatriate workers. Therefore, the Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment should be given Pfizer or Moderna jabs on a priority basis. Why the government has not realised the need to do so is puzzling.
It is said that a proposal has been submitted to the Health Ministry for including the Sri Lankans to be employed overseas also in the category of those eligible for receiving Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If so, the Health Ministry must act fast. Perhaps, a presidential intervention may be necessary because some health bigwigs are not well disposed towards the military involvement in the vaccination campaign, which they consider their preserve.
Meanwhile, it defies comprehension why the developed world has chosen to promote the vaccines produced by some western pharmaceutical corporations that have earned notoriety for questionable business practices. In September 2009, The Guardian (UK) reported that Pfizer had been hit with the biggest criminal fine in US history as part of a $2.3 bn settlement with federal prosecutors for ‘mispromoting’ medicines and paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. Pfizer pleaded guilty to misbranding the painkiller Bextra, withdrawn from the market in 2004, by promoting the drug for uses that were not approved by medical regulators. Besides, it took 15 years for Pfizer to make the first compensation payment to the families of the Nigerian children who died or were disabled in a disastrous meningitis drug trial in 1996. This tragedy has made the Nigerians express serious concerns about the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine rollout at home.
One of the main reasons why the world has failed to end the Covid-19 pandemic is the hypocrisy of the Global North. The People’s Vaccine Alliance has said that the self-interest of the G-7 countries is the biggest obstacle to overcoming the Covid-19 crisis, for these nations block proposals for waiving patents and sharing life-saving technology. They have also stockpiled vaccines, causing a jab shortage in the rest of the world. The prevailing world order reflects the law of the jungle.
The developing world is left with no alternative but to follow the vaccine rules set by the rich nations. One only hopes the Sri Lankan government will act wisely and ensure that all Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment receive the jabs acceptable to their host countries so that they will be spared the trouble of paying huge amounts of dollars for overseas quarantine.
Do they want bodies to pile high?
Thursday 22nd July, 2021
Protests against the Kotelawala Defence University (Amendment) Bill continue. Media reports that Parliament will take up the bill for debate soon seem to have made its opponents intensify their agitations. Mass gatherings are sure to give a turbo boost to the spread of Covid-19. Nobody seems to care two hoots about the dire warnings medical experts have been issuing about an explosive spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus. The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and several senior physicians have urged the government and the public to do their utmost to prevent the community level transmission of the Delta variant, which is capable of sending the pandemic-related death toll through the roof, as evident from the destruction it wreaked on India.
The government remains maniacally focused on securing the passage of the KDU bill, and its opponents are making a determined bid to shoot it down. Mass protests are super spreader events, but the organisers thereof do not give a tinker’s cuss about the danger they expose the hapless public to.
Ironically, all universities remain closed because of Covid-19, which has also caused the closure of schools. The GCE A/L examination has also been postponed. But the government and its rivals are clashing over the defence university. Teachers expressed grave concern about their own safety and wanted themselves vaccinated on a priority basis before the reopening of schools. But they are seen conducting protests in violation of the health guidelines! The government is asking the people to adhere to Covid-19 protocol, but at the same time, it drives them to protest. Both parties to the KDU dispute seem to be emulating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who reportedly said, ‘Let the bodies pile high!”
What possessed the government to take up the KDU bill amidst the worst ever health crisis, and trigger street protests? It may have duped itself into believing that the pandemic situation could be used to prevent the opponents of the Bill from staging public protests, or it would be able to make use of the quarantine laws to detain them. Its plans fell through. Even those who are not opposed to fee-levying university education will take exception to the haste with which the government has chosen to proceed with the KDU bill.
Australia promptly placed about one half of its population under lockdown, the other day, following the detection of some Delta variant cases in Victoria (13 infections) and New South Wales (98 infections). Melbourne and Sydney were closed. This shows how concerned other countries are about the Delta variant. In Sri Lanka, the Delta variant accounts for about 30% of the new Covid-19 cases detected in some areas, but the government, the public and trade unionists do not care. What we are witnessing could be considered a case of fools backflipping where angels fear to tread.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Sri Lanka cannot afford protracted lockdowns, given its economic difficulties. Such restrictions may help hold the virus at bay, at least temporarily, but starvation may drive the poor to suicide. The only way to curb the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to lockdowns that make the economy scream is for everyone to follow the health guidelines strictly. But public support for pandemic control remains woefully inadequate.
Clausewitz has famously said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The current Sri Lankan government seems to think that politics is a continuation of war by other means, if its confrontational approach is any indication. There would not have been so many mass protests if the government had acted wisely without trying to rush controversial Bills through Parliament much to the consternation of other stakeholders.
Whether we should promote private universities is not an issue that can be sorted out with the help of special parliamentary majorities; nor can it be resolved through trade union muscle-flexing. It is far too serious to be left to politicians and trade unions alone. The public must have a say in such matters. But one thing is clear. This certainly is not the time for sorting out the issue. The focus of everyone must be on curbing the spread of the pandemic, especially the tranmission of the much-dreaded Delta variant. Everything else must wait.
As for the KDU bill, both the government and protesters must step back for the sake of the public, whose rights they claim to champion.
SJB’s own goal
Wednesday 21st July, 2021
The defeat of the SJB’s no-faith motion against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila yesterday in Parliament came as no surprise. As for winning the vote, the Opposition had the same chance as a cat in hell. The SJB may have sought to give a boost to its anti-government campaign with the help of its no-confidence motion. It has to remain politically active and be seen to be so to bolster its supporters’ morale. It also held a protest near Parliament on Monday. But its no-faith motion was ill-timed and ill-advised; it was an own goal.
The SJB’s no-faith motion reminds us of an apocryphal story of a cop who undertook to shoot a dog which a group of hospital workers had tied to a tree because they thought it had rabies. The policeman with a flair for melodrama came, and having ensured that all eyes were on him, knelt, took aim and fired. Much to everyone’s surprise, the dog sprinted away. The bullet had hit the rope holding the animal to the tree! The cop cut a pathetic figure.
The government has once again demonstrated that is has a two-thirds majority, and must have been more than happy to do so because it has been left with hardly anything else to flaunt, at present. However, parliamentary majorities do not necessarily translate into popular support where vital issues affecting the public are concerned.
The yahapalana government also consolidated its power in Parliament so much so that it could torpedo the illegally formed Mahinda-Maithri government in the latter part of 2018. It secured the passage of all its bills in Parliament with ease. But it was highly unpopular outside Parliament, and the UNP could not win a single seat at the last general election; the JVP and the TNA also lost a considerable number of seats as they had been supportive of the UNP-led UNF government. Sajith Premadasa was wise enough to break ranks with the UNP and form the SJB.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) also had a two-thirds majority, which it abused to steamroller its controversial bills through Parliament. It was also thought to be popular among the voters, but the truth was quite otherwise, as evident from the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.
The government’s victory in Parliament yesterday is an indictment of the SLPP grandees whose allegations against Gammanpila became the basis of the SJB’s motion of no confidence. They held Gammanpila responsible for the fuel price hikes, and demanded his resignation for having embarrassed the government and caused difficulties to the public.
Curiously, even the SLPP MPs who condemned the fuel price increases and raked Gammanpila over the coals, yesterday voted against the motion of no-confidence against him. Thus, it may be argued that in so doing these MPs voted against themselves. They also claimed that the fuel prices would not have been jacked up if Basil Rajapaksa had been in the country at the time of the price revision. Basil has come back and been appointed the Finance Minister, but there has been no fuel price reduction. Is it that the government is actually capable of reducing the fuel prices but does not care to do so?
The SJB’s political strategists do not seem to know what they are doing. But for their no-faith motion, Minister Gammanpila and SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam would have continued to fight at the expense of the government’s unity. In a way, the Opposition did the government a big favour by bringing the warring SLPP MPs together, albeit unwittingly. This is why we argued in a previous comment that the SJB leaders apparently had not read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, wherein it is said that one should not interrupt one’s enemy when the latter is making a mistake.
It behoves the government, which is cock-a-hoop at its latest win, to bear in mind that it may be able to make short work of the Opposition in Parliament, but the issues over which parliamentary battles are fought will not go away. What really matters in electoral politics is not the ruling party’s parliamentary majority but public opinion, which can make or break governments.
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