Monday 13th September, 2021
Nobody has taken kindly to the stringent import restrictions the Central Bank (CB) has imposed, however necessary they may be to shore up the country’s depleting foreign exchange reserves. From the reactions of various people to the government move to restrict imports, one can guess how they prioritise their needs and wants. Most of them are worried about possible shortages of domestic appliances, food items, beverages, skincare products and the like. Their concerns and consternation are understandable. But, curiously, what worries the Opposition is the restriction on underwear imports, of all things!
It is said that the ordinary Sri Lankans think with their stomachs, especially when they vote. In commenting on the 100% cash margin deposit slapped by the CB, the focus of many Opposition worthies has been on a possible shortage of imported underwear; this kind of reaction shows the Opposition MPs’ preoccupation with their nether regions more than anything else—a fact that has become evident from their lewd utterances in Parliament. They have been flogging the underwear issue to the point of queasiness during the past couple of days. The Opposition is bent on getting its back on the government politically, and this may be the reason why it has sought to give the latter a wedgie, but in so doing it has unfortunately reduced an otherwise very serious economic issue to a mere political joke.
Garments, imported or otherwise, are the least of Sri Lankans’ problems, at present, for two reasons. In April, they bought all the clothes in the world as if they had never seen them before, and they have loads and loads of them in their wardrobes; their irresponsible shopping sprees caused an explosive spread of Covid-19, which has led to a situation where they are confined to their homes and cannot wear what they have bought. On the other hand, enough garments are produced locally, and export quality clothes also enter the local market. So, the Opposition politicians’ worry about a possible shortage of underwear is baseless.
Ironically, the present-day political leaders looked down upon garment factories during their Opposition days about three decades ago. When the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa set up garment factories throughout the country to develop the rural economy and provide employment to the poor, the then SLFP-led Opposition ridiculed his project, claiming that he was having Sri Lankan girls stitch jangis for suddhis (underwear for the white women). The JVP, too, looked down upon the garment factory programme and coined a catchy slogan to denigrate it—kellanta gament, kollanta pament (garment factories for girls and pavement hawking for boys). Today, the Opposition led by the late President Premadasa’s son, Sajith, would have the public believe that Sri Lankans will have to do without underwear due to import restrictions! The worst critics of his father’s project at issue have become dependent on garment factories to earn foreign exchange.
It is expected that the 100% cash margin deposit requirement will help maintain the stability of exchange rates and foreign currency market liquidity as it discourages excessive imports of speculative nature. Most of the commodities on the CB list are non-essentials, and the public can do without some of them, or locally produced alternatives thereto are available. But how can tyres be considered non-essentials; are locally manufactured tyres available to prevent shortages due to import restrictions?
True, the blame for the country’s forex woes should be apportioned to successive governments which borrowed heavily from external sources for projects that have become white elephants. A sizeable chunk of the borrowed funds also ended up in the off-shore accounts of the politicians who have been in power during the past several decades. The former Rajapaksa administration was mainly responsible for borrowing excessively and embarking on useless ventures in the name of development. But there is no gainsaying that the country has to adopt drastic measures to hoist itself from the present economic mire. Import restrictions alone will not do. While importers are discouraged from bringing in non-essential goods, action must be taken to ensure that the country benefits from Sri Lankan exporters’ dollars, and exporters do not misprice their goods to park their dollars overseas to make the most of the rupee depreciation. The practice of stashing away dollars overseas and mispricing have aggravated the country’s current account deficit by depressing the dollar inflows. It is doubtful whether any effective measures have been adopted to prevent exporters from under-invoicing goods to keep their dollars abroad and importers from over-invoicing goods to send their dollars out.
Meanwhile, not all mobile phones can be considered non-essential goods. Most Sri Lankans are dependent on mobile phones to carry out their day-to-day functions. The pandemic has made the mobile phone essential for even children following online lessons. There are also others who purchase the latest editions of mobile phones unnecessarily. Import restrictions, therefore, could have been imposed on mobile phones, if at all, above a certain factory price. The same holds true for domestic appliances such as refrigerators which people cannot do without.
The 100% cash margin deposit requirement will enable big-time businessmen with enough dollars to monopolise the import market by elbowing out others, and fleece consumers. Such a situation has to be averted. Most of all, the need for revising the list of imports affected by the extreme cash margin deposit measure cannot be overemphasised to prevent it from dealing a crippling punch to the average consumer.
Singer and different UN tune
Friday 17th September, 2021
State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour inside two prisons has drawn widespread condemnation from the civilised world—and rightly so. The government has stooped so low as to shield him, and in so doing it has brought not only itself but also the entire country into disrepute.
Popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake, given to making a melodrama out of everything in life, is serving a jail term for having said something that the judiciary deemed an affront to its dignity; he lost his parliamentary seat as a result. But Ratwatte, who forcibly entered two prisons and held some Tamil prisoners at gunpoint in one of them, on Sunday, is moving about freely, and, worse, remains a State Minister. The least the government can do by way of damage control is to sack Ratwatte and ensure that he will be arrested and prosecuted without further delay, as we argued yesterday. With the likes of him within its ministerial ranks, the government needs no enemies.
Meanwhile, no sooner had Ratwatte’s despicable behaviour come to light than the UN pontificated to Sri Lanka on the need to look after prisoners. UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said that it was the duty of the State to protect the rights of prisoners. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” Singer tweeted on Wednesday. One cannot but agree with her. The state of Sri Lanka is duty bound to protect all prisoners.
If only the UN had shown the same concern for its own workers taken prisoner by the LTTE. At the height of the Vanni war in 2007, the LTTE abducted two UN workers, accusing them of having helped the Tamil civilians flee the areas under its control. The captives were kept in a dungeon, badly beaten and questioned. The UN chose to keep the incident under wraps, and held clandestine talks with the LTTE to secure the release of the victims, but in vain. On 20 April 2007, we reported the capture of the UN workers. The LTTE again held a group of UN personnel and their families as part of its human shield in the Vanni, but the UN did not condemn the outfit or call upon the big powers to intervene to pressure the LTTE to release them. So much for the UN’s concern for human rights and the safety of prisoners! This kind of duplicity on the part of the UN and the world powers has stood in the way of the global efforts being made to protect human rights.
What Minister Ratwatte is reported to have done in the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday is an act of terrorism. No civilised person can condone such brutality. Similarly, all acts of terrorism must be condemned unreservedly if human rights are to be protected. The TNA is also out for Ratwatte’s scalp. It has every right to do so, and the government must heed its concerns about the Tamil prisoners, whose safety must be ensured. But the TNA owes an apology to the Sri Lankan public for having defended the LTTE and acted as the outfit’s mouthpiece in Parliament as well as elsewhere despite its heinous crimes against civilians. The TNA, which is currently on a crusade to defend human rights, has not even condemned the LTTE for assassinating its own leaders, child abductions, civilian massacres, political killings, running illegal prisons, and the violent suppression of dissent, among other things.
Let it be repeated that the government must strip Ratwatte of his ministerial post immediately, make him face the full force of the law and ensure that the SLPP takes disciplinary action against him. It must also stop fielding murder suspects at elections, accommodating killers in Parliament, pardoning convicted murderers and appointing those who should be behind bars as ministers.
Thursday 16th September, 2021
Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)
It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!
Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.
A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.
Crush Health Mafia!
Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?
The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.
The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.
The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!
The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.
The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.
If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.
This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.
Donations tainted with politics
Wednesday 15th September, 2021
The Chinese Embassy in Colombo is reported to have handed over a consignment of medical equipment to the UNP for distribution among the state-run hospitals. China has made the donation at the request of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, we are told. It defies comprehension why any foreign government should hand over medical equipment, meant for the Sri Lankan public, to local political parties instead of the Health Ministry. As a popular Sri Lankan saying goes, why should a donkey be entrusted with a task that is best left to a dog?
What are the criteria that China adopts in determining the eligibility of Sri Lankan political parties to handle some of its donations to Sri Lankans? There are 70 registered political parties in this country, and 15 of them are represented in Parliament. What if all of them, or the ones with parliamentary representation, ask for medical equipment from the Chinese government to be handed over to the government hospitals and gain some political mileage? Will China oblige? If not, why? Is it that kissing goes by favour? (China got a port from a UNP-led government, didn’t it?)
China has been looking after Sri Lankan politicians very well, as is public knowledge, and therefore does not have to do anything more for them. It offers junkets even to the local government members. But for the pandemic, by now, all the MPs and most local councillors would have been to China on pilgrimage. Even the most vociferous critics of China in Parliament have no qualms about benefiting from the Chinese largesse.
Political parties should not be allowed to gain political mileage from donations that come from the people of other countries to their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is an affront to the kind-hearted foreigners for their donations to be tainted with partisan politics at this end. When foreign governments make donations through local political parties, they are seen to be helping further the agendas of the latter. Is it fair for foreign governments to use their taxpayers’ money for such purposes?
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, is raking Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa over the coals for having asked the government to hold a snap election. Those who call for elections while people are dying of Covid-19 need psychiatric care, Dissanayake has declared. True, there is absolutely no need for an election at this juncture, and the country’s top priority should be fighting the pandemic, and everything else can wait. But Premadasa should not be singled out for criticism; all politicians see opportunities in crises. If the present-day leaders had been in the Opposition today, they would also have asked for an election; they made the most of a national security crisis in 2019 to floor the yahapalana government and capture power.
The JVP is not acting out of principle when it opposes Premadasa’s call for polls; it is scared of facing elections. It, however, has a history of trying to topple a government while the country was in a bigger crisis. It joined forces with others in a bid to defeat the Rajapaksa administration’s budgets in 2007 and 2008 while the country’s war against the LTTE was raging. Had they succeeded in their endeavour, the government would have fallen, and an election would have had to be held; Prabhakaran would have been given ample time to have international pressure ratcheted up on Sri Lanka to halt or abandon military operations against the LTTE; the armed forces, too, would have been greatly demoralised in such a situation.
In this country, politicians think of everything in terms of elections. It is said that a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. Sri Lanka’s biggest problem is that it has not had statespersons.
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