It is becoming increasingly apparent by the day that the government is coming under mounting pressure to lock down the country and at least slow, if not halt, the roaring Covid pandemic gaining steam by the day. The daily statistics beamed into homes countrywide by the prime time news bulletins of the different television stations, publicize the growing number of infections and death. Each day’s numbers are higher than the previous day’s. The third line in the statistical tables, giving the number of recoveries so far, is intended to cast at least a single ray of sunshine into an ever-blackening picture. But given the current situation, even that hardly serves to dispel the gloom.
Word came on Friday afternoon after this (now revised) comment was written that the government, or really President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who took the last call, had finally caved into the strident demands dinning his ears these past several days. The ‘too little too late’ accusations will now follow as surely as night follows day. Even the ranks of Tuscany must, and do concede, that the president and his government were confronted with a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation. There is no disputing that the logic presented by the best health professionals in the country pushing hard for a lock down is iron clad and rock solid. But the economic consequences of such a measure for the country as a whole and its very large daily wage earning population is equally terrible.
The Mahanayakes joined the chorus on Thursday demanding a week’s lock down. Others want a considerably longer period running for three weeks, a month or even more. Obviously any lock down for too short a period will be an absolute waste. It is better to bite the bullet and not lock down at all rather than engage in a less than useless exercise. Though Friday’s lock down announcement said it’ll run till the end of this month, whether it will be extended or ot will depend on how things pan out. The minor parties in the Pohottuwa coalition, 10 in all and mostly left inclined, also pushed for a lock down just before it was finally imposed. We all know that most of their leaders now in Parliament, would have not been electable had they not run under the Rajapaksa colours or secured themselves patronage appointments under the Pohottuwa National List. But they are not without influence within the government as the East Container Terminal episode amply demonstrates.
Along with their lock down demand now conceded, there is the concurrent pressure to support the least affluent segment of society including the daily wage earners, who live hand to mouth eking out their existence, in the best way possible with essential food packs, cash allowances and whatever if the country is closed. This was resorted to last time round with some measure of success but a larger measure of failure as has been the case in most (if not all) poor relief attempts including Janasaviya, Samurdhi and whatever, not excluding the various long established schemes of the Social Services Department and various local bodies. We believe that the Colombo Municipal Council continues to run its long established Charity Commissioner’s Department, and many of the other larger Municipalities would also be doing the same.
It is well known that that a large number of persons not qualified to receive Samurdhi and other benefits draw them while perhaps a larger number in desperate need of such support are left out in the cold. Time was when the Communist Party’s Aththa newspaper exposed the case of the parents of a Member of Parliament receiving Samurdhi. These schemes are highly politicized and politicians obtain benefits for their supporters in return for votes. The writer is personally aware of an instance where a domestic aide hailing from an estate in Badulla, working in a well-to-do Colombo home, insisted on going to her line room to cast her vote at an election. When the employer pointed out to her that she would have to bear a travel expense of at least a thousand rupees and an exhausting journey, she said she must vote or her family’s Samurdhi benefits will be at risk. This, unfortunately is the way the papadam crumbles.
There is no need to labour the fact that if, indeed, a lock down is imposed as it now has been, any relief scheme for those most in need will not work as it should. But there is no escaping the reality that something is better than nothing. A very large question mark also hangs over the government’s ability to properly fund such a scheme. Not doing so will obviously add to the discontent. A deserving person seeing his neighbour getting a benefit he does not will naturally seethe with resentment. There will be those who will urge the government to resort to the printing press to meet such emergency expenditure. Money printing has already reached record levels and its effects are all too evident.
It is clear that a Left vs Right contest has emerged in the lock down or not debate. The majority of Pohottuwa constituents who on Thursday urged the president to lock down are left inclined. So are many of the unions pushing for this measure. Much of the organized private sector tilts towards staying open both in their own interest and that of the national economy. Such interests supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Many of their employees were on fully salary during the last lock down although some did suffer pay cuts. Public servants, a sizable segment of the work force, were on full pay and pensions were paid. All this reflected on the huge pressure exerted on the president and his government by the contending forces. We have now seen which way the tide eventually turned. Whatever happened, the country and its people will have to pay through their noses to survive Covid and support the unfortunate pinned with their backs against a wall.
Monsters and Masters
Monday 20th September, 2021
No sooner had Hambantota Mayor Eraj Fernando (SLFP) been arrested yesterday for trespassing on a land in Bambalapitiya recently and assaulting two security personnel guarding the property than he was given police bail. It looks as if the police had been eagerly waiting for his arrival to grant him bail! He is sure to come out with a tall tale in bid to justify his unlawful action. This is not the first time he has allegedly committed trespass. In November 2020, a video circulated on social media showed him and his men engaged in a brawl with some persons over a land dispute in Nugegoda. He sought to justify his action, and received kid glove treatment from the police.
The Rajapaksas have created quite a few monsters, who enjoy unbridled freedom to violate the law of the land. During the previous Rajapaksa government, Fernando, as the Mayor of Hambantota, tried to harm a group of UNP MPs, who visited the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport. He was shown on television, carrying a small firearm and chasing the MPs, who luckily managed to escape. He got away with his crime; his political masters claimed he had been brandishing a toy pistol! After President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, he switched his allegiance to the yahapalana government, and joined the SLFP. Thanks to an SLPP-SLFP deal, he is back in power and going berserk with impunity.
One should not lose sight of the big picture—the issue of land grabbing. Nobody’s property is safe. Organised gangs with links to powerful politicians prepare forged deeds for bare lands or unoccupied houses. The victims are helpless. Mervyn of Kelaniya was able to grab or destroy properties at will by virtue of being a member of the previous Rajapaksa government. He, too, turned his back on his political masters, nay insulted them after the latter’s fall in 2015. His criminal actions and illegally acquired assets have not been investigated although his erstwhile masters are back in power. Maybe they do not want to open a can of worms by probing his crimes. If the yahapalana government had cared to investigate him, it would have been able to uncover the crimes he had committed at the behest of his masters, but the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration did not go to that extent for obvious reasons. Former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are benefiting from the quid pro quo; the incumbent Rajapaksa government is looking after their interests as well as those of their supporters. Fernando’s release on police bail is a case in point.
Nawala Nihal, known as the God Father of Sri Lanka’s underworld, grabbed lands in Colombo, and many people had to pay him protection money. He operated freely under several governments obviously due to his political connections. Landowners in Colombo must have heaved a sigh of relief when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 2006, never to be sighted ever again. But the problem is far from over.
Land grabbing goes on in different parts of the country, and many victims are wary of having recourse to the law for fear of reprisal. Sri Lanka’s laws notoriously favour land grabbers and other such lawbreakers. Land cases drag on for decades and are prohibitively expensive. On 17 August, 2010, the then Justice Minister Athauda Seneviratne revealed in Parliament that it took as long 40 years for some land cases to be concluded!
Land racketeers also have the blessings of corrupt police officers, pettifoggers, and some venal Land Registry officials, and therefore, the victims are helpless. Greedy politicians and their thugs take advantage of this situation. There has to be a special police unit to probe complaints of land grabs expeditiously and action must be taken to have such cases heard speedily for the benefit of the hapless victims.
As for the likes of Fernando, the onus is on the current leaders to clean up the mess they themselves have created. When Mayors enjoy unbridled freedom to trespass, storm vaccination centres and obstruct health officials (in Moratuwa), destroy historical monuments (in Kurungeala), it is only natural that ministers think they should be able to commit far more serious offences with impunity such as barging into prisons and trying to execute inmates.
Lohan Ratwatte: What will be will be
State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s wild behaviour at the Anuradhapura prison last week has triggered universal condemnation and rightly so. He has tendered his resignation from one of his ministries, Prison Management and Prisoner Rehabilitation, but not from his position at the Ministry of Gems and Jewellery related industries prompting The Island to editorially describe him as a “gem of a minister!” But chuckles apart, the public continues to be kept in the dark about much of this horrific incident. For instance, was his resignation accepted by the president a command performance or did he, admitting culpability for gross misbehaviour, volunteer to resign? Either way more questions arise. If his departure from the prisons portfolio was on demand, why was he not asked to quit his second state ministry? If he volunteered the resignation, why was he not told to go the whole hog and give up gems and jewellery as well because he has amply demonstrated that he is totally unsuitable to hold public office.
Getting Tamil prisoners held in the Anuradhapura Prison under terrorism laws produced before him at the prison, brandishing a revolver at their faces, getting at least two of them to kneel before him and threatening to kill them was preceded by another incident at the Welikada Prison in Colombo where he and a group of friends including a woman, allegedly under the influence of liquor, had paid a late night visit and inspected the gallows. Apparently the authorities there had done nothing to restrain him, adopting the all too common ehei hamuduruwaney approach and letting him have his way. If anybody at Welikada had the guts to stand in his way, the Anuradhapura incident probably would not have happened. Unfortunately only very few public servants today stand up to political authorities and do their jobs without fear or favour. The whole country is paying a price for that. The few instances where public officials do stand their ground in confrontations with politicians are so rare that when that does happen, it’s headline grabbing news. So it was when a woman official of the Wild Life Department resisted an effort to destroy a mangrove.
There is some small consolation that Ratwatte has gone from prisons. Most people would believe that he should have gone into prison but that’s way too much to expect in this Democratic Socialist Republic of ours. Mr. Dew Gunasekera, a former Minister of Prisons and leader of the Communist Party, a constituent of the ruling SLPP, went on record on Friday that a cover-up was underway. Be that as it may, Ratwatte who had initially said that an investigation would reveal the truth, had since come out strongly breaking his silence and claiming he has “stopped the prisons from burning” according to Friday’s Daily Mirror. This report quoted him asking “Am I stupid to threaten prisoners?”, claiming he “never touched Tamil prisoners.” Admitting he had visited the Welikada gallows, he had claimed he had gone alone on an inspection and was not intoxicated. Ratwatte says the truth will be revealed to the president and prime minister. Newspapers well know that there are two sides to every story. But hackneyed as the cliché may be, it is nevertheless true that there’s no smoke without a fire. Both sides have now had their say so let us see how the drama will further unfold.
Much of the blame for the untoward incidents involving politicians can be laid at the door of leaders of most parties. They are too often guilty of running undesirable candidates on their party lists enabling them to get elected. The proportional representation (PR) system of elections that President J.R. Jayewardene imposed on this country through his 1978 constitution better enables undesirables to enter the legislature than under the previous constituency system. There is no gainsaying that there are pluses and minuses under both systems. PR prevents national political parties that have polled 30 and 40 percent of the vote at an election from being totally wiped out in landslides such as those we saw in 1970 and 1977. Of course there are exceptions such as what happened the last time round when the UNP was reduced to zero despite PR. The explanation for that was the Ranil – Sajith split. JRJ used his five sixths majority of 1977 to ensure that nobody got a two thirds majority enabling constitutional amendments in the future. But that has now been proved wrong.
The mere fact that somebody who’s charged in a court of law is discharged or acquitted does not necessarily mean he or she is not guilty. There are many reasons why prosecutions fail – shoddy investigations and prosecution, influencing witnesses, able defence counsel and many more. The conviction rate in Sri Lanka is a mere four to six percent according to published figures but we all know what the crime rate is. It is not only in this country that dicey characters get elected both to Parliament and lower down. India is much worse with as many as 43% of its Lok Sabha MPs having criminal records. The chances are that some kind of committee of inquiry will be appointed to investigate allegations against Lohan Ratwatte. This is akin to the pithy Sinhala idiom horage ammagen pena ahanawa (asking the thief’s mother about his whereabouts). The committee of UNP lawyers who them Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed to investigate the bond scam is recent enough to be remembered. We won’t bet serious money or even petty cash that any government appointed investigation will hold against Ratwatte.
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.
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