Thursday 24th June, 2021
UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, after months of dilly-dallying, entered Parliament via the National List, yesterday. He should be thankful to his late uncle, J. R. Jayewardene, who amended the Constitution to enable defeated candidates to have themselves appointed to Parliament through the backdoor, as it were. Immediately after being sworn in, he began lambasting the government as if to the manner born. He did not say anything new in his first speech, though. He only reiterated what he had been saying on social media for the last 10 months or so. But he, in our book, put his finger on what had gone wrong with the government’s pandemic control strategy.
Of the three former Presidents around, only Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is not in the current Parliament. Time was when it was speculated that she was trying to enter Parliament after completing her second presidential term. If she had done so, we would have had, under one roof—of course, during the incumbent President’s trimonthly presence in Parliament—all the leaders responsible for what has befallen the country during the past three decades or so. One may recall that President Kumaratunga toyed with the idea of returning to Parliament as the Prime Minister, and sought to introduce a new Constitution in 2000 to achieve her goal. Her plan went pear-shaped because the UNP opposed her constitutional reform package, and literally set it on fire in Parliament.
The UNP is trying to make Ranil’s return to Parliament out to be a cometh-the-hour-cometh-the-man occurrence, but the public is not so naïve as to expect washed-up political leaders to play messianic roles in national politics. There is no way Wickremesinghe can unsettle the current regime. He was not equal to the task of keeping governments in check even when there were more than 50 UNP MPs. But he can easily be a problem for the SJB, which reduced him to a virtual political nonentity last year. So, he is very likely to try to outperform the SJB and emerge strong at the expense of it.
The UNP is hopeful that Wickremesinghe will be able to win over enough SJB MPs to secure the post of the Opposition Leader. This is a tall order. He, as the Opposition Leader could not retain the support of the UNP MPs, many of whom defected to the previous Rajapaksa government. So, it is doubtful whether he, without a single UNP MP on his side, will be able to muster enough numbers in the current Parliament to become the Opposition Leader. But, as Elvis Presley has said, ambition is a dream with a V8 engine!
The SJB has not taken potential threats from Ranil lightly. It has been unusually active during the past few weeks. The reason for its high-octane performance is obvious. Its leaders are trying to outshine their former boss. On Tuesday, the SJB MPs staged a public protest near Parliament; they travelled a short distance in trishaws, backhoes, tractors, etc., condemning the government for the fuel price hikes, which are hurting the public. Yesterday, they invaded the Well of the House, carrying as they did placards with catchy slogans. Whether they have succeeded in eclipsing Wickremesinghe or impressing the public with their protests is anybody’s guess. The SLPP MPs tried to take moral high ground, yesterday, urging their SJB counterparts to behave in Parliament without disrupting its proceedings! Among the government members were those who unleashed violence in the House during the failed October revolt in 2018; these violent elements should have been thrown behind bars for serious offences such as damaging parliament property, throwing chilli powder at the Opposition MPs, attacking the police and threatening to harm the Speaker.
Some of the SJB MPs interviewed by television channels, on their way to Parliament, yesterday, said they expected Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and Wickremesinghe to kiss and make up. They are being extremely overoptimistic, but nothing can be considered impossible in politics. In January, 2015, whoever would have thought the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the Rajapaksas would ever smoke the peace pipe much less contest elections together?
Whether Ranil will succeed in clawing his way up, as expected, or whether Sajith will be able to hold him at bay, one may not know. Ranil’s return to Parliament, however, can lead to some negative developments in politics much to the detriment of the Opposition and to the benefit of the government. But it has already had a very positive effect on Parliament; it has jolted the SJB into action.
Leave animals alone!
Monday 18th October, 2021
A move to set up a zoo on a 72-acre land (in Piliyandala), which has been allocated for the construction of a veterinary hospital, and a factory to manufacture food for zoo animals, has incensed the Dehiwala zoological gardens workers. The protesters have blamed Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge for the controversial zoo project, and warned of trade union action if he is allowed to have his way. They are reported to have made representations to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in this regard. Lokuge’s response to the zoo workers’ protests was not known at the time of writing.
Minister Lokuge is one of the senior politicians who have, to borrow a one-liner from Bob Hope, reached ages when candles cost them more than their birthday cakes. It is high time they concentrated on meritorious deeds more than anything else, and showed some compassion towards dumb animals whose rights must be safeguarded. Lokuge and other government worthies ought to heed what Arahat Mahinda told King Devanampiyatissa: “King, you are only a custodian of this land held in trust. Not only human beings but also wild animals and birds have the right to move freely in this land.”
It may be recalled that Minister Lokuge made a song and dance when the Kesbewa public health officials imposed travel restrictions in the Piliyandala area, which had become a Covid-19 hotspot, a few moons ago. He had their decision reversed immediately and the area reopened because he did not want his supporters’ movements restricted in his electorate. But he wants hundreds of animals held in a prison for life in the same electorate.
A zoo is an animal prison, which should have no place in the civilised world. Animals must be allowed to live in their natural habitats free from human interference. Human interventions are permissible only when they are aimed at saving animals in danger. Many species are endangered because humans destroy their habitats such as forests depriving them of food and water. This is the main reason for the human-elephant conflict in this country. When the affected wild animals invade human settlements in search of food and water they are killed. The incumbent government seems to have a problem with animal habitats, especially forests. We have recently reported, quoting a senior environmentalist, that the government has decided to hand over 6% of the land in the Anuradhapura District to a private company for cultivating Aloe Vera. This deal is bound to worsen the human-elephant conflict in the area.
There are other reasons for wild animal invasions, we pointed out in a previous comment, quoting Dr. Nishan Sakalasooriya of the University of Kelaniya, who has said that the prolonged neglect of forest tanks or kuluwew built for special purposes such as storing rainwater, enriching groundwater level, providing water for wild animals, maintaining the food chain, etc., has caused the problem of wild elephants, monkeys, porcupines, giant squirrels and wild boar invading village ecosystems and threatening the settlers in an unprecedented manner. Insects, rats and snakes also enter residential and farming areas as a result, he has said, concluding that if the kuluwew are renovated systematically and forest ecosystems restored, the wild animal threat can be reduced by about 80 percent. Instead of doing so, the government is alienating forest land for plantations and encouraging its henchmen to encroach on animal habitats.
When a human is wrongfully detained, there erupt protests, and rightly so; fundamental rights petitions are filed, and street demonstrations held to pressure the state to release the victim. But the rights of animals are taken for granted; thousands of them are held in ‘prions’ in this country, but no action is taken against the perpetrators.
The practice of animals being used as exhibits must be discontinued. They are not there to be kept in cages or in ‘open prisons’ for people to have the pleasure of viewing. They must be able to live freely in forests and other such habitats where they belong.
As for the Piliyandala land, where Lokuge reportedly wants animals imprisoned, we have a suggestion; an open-air prison should be set up there for the politicians who abuse their power to commit various crimes, steal public assets, and have become a threat to society.
Will exposés become fish wrappers?
Journalists the world over are familiar with an expression worn thin over decades and more: ‘yesterday’s news is only fit to wrap the fish in!’ That’s exactly what’s happened to the Pandora Papers that made big news a few days ago in this country and many others globally who’s leaders/citizen had been fingered. A week later, with three weeks yet to go for the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption to respond to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s one month’s deadline for a report, the whole business is nearly forgotten. Hardly a bleat is heard. Readers would remember that the Panama Papers where a massive data base of some 11.5 million files from Mossac Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm made global waves; and a number of Lankans and companies incorporated here were named. But this is now less than a dim memory. That was over five years ago and, as far as we know nothing much has happened since, anywhere, about that exposé, also by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Will that material, and this, eventually become fish wrappers?
However that be, there are many matter that arise that deserve attention not only from governments but also from the wider public. All of us are aware of the numbered bank accounts that have made Swiss banks both rich and famous. Such accounts, with multi-digit numbers known only to the client and selected bankers, add another layer to banking secrecy. But they are not completely anonymous. That’s because the name of the client is still recorded by the bank and is subject to what’s called “limited warranted disclosure.” Such hiding holes are widely sought by the wealthy to stash away both legitimate and ill-gotten wealth from the prying eyes of governments, law enforcement agencies, taxpeople and sometimes even spouses. Lesser known is the fact that such facilities are no longer the exclusive preserve of the Swiss. They are now available in over a dozen countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Apart from numbered bank accounts, there are many tax havens in several parts of the world widely used for both money laundering and tax avoidance. They are useful not only to those anxious to exploit their possibilities but also to the service-providing countries to enrich national coffers.
Since the Pandora Papers hit the headlines, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has made several noteworthy speeches into the expose` which linked hundreds of Pakistanis, including members of his cabinet to wealth secretly moved through offshore companies. Khan has promised action if wrongdoing is established just as much as our own president has done. Ownership of offshore holding companies is not illegal in most countries including, we believe, Sri Lanka. But they are frequently used to avoid tax liability or to maintain secrecy about large and shady financial transactions. Even before the smelly stuff hit the fan with the publication of the Pandora Papers, Khan addressing the UN International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity Panel called upon countries he termed tax havens to “adopt decisive actions” and return wealth looted from developing countries. Saying that the figures were staggering, he estimated that perhaps a trillion dollars were siphoned off in this manner and much of that were bribes received by corrupt white collar criminals. Demanding that the bleeding of poor and developing countries must stop, he urged that stolen assets of developing countries including proceeds of corruption, bribery and other crimes must be returned immediately.
Where Sri Lanka is concerned, the liberalization of the economy in 1978, not 1977 as commonly stated, resulted not only in devaluation of the currency and the stupendous increase in the money supply, but also the commencing of massive and expensive infrastructure and other development projects of which the Accelerated Mahaweli Development was perhaps the largest. This resulted in the award of gigantic contracts on a scale previously not known in this country. Such contracts also meant commissions, and what these were and who collected them was largely unknown. Since then we have had many other very large projects. While the country knows what the taxpayer paid for these as revealed in the figures presented to parliament and budgeted for, what kind of commissions were paid and to whom, is information largely outside the public domain. While decision-making politicians and perhaps bureaucrats are widely suspected to have been beneficiaries of such loot, companies, some well known and others less so, have been identified as agents of various contractors. Whether such funds were duly accounted for and the taxes thereon paid remains unknown.
Whistles have been blown here but we have unfortunately not been able to obtain the cooperation, for example of the Government of the United Arab Emirates about loot allegedly stashed in Dubai. Nobody can expect companies providing haven to ill-gotten gains to cooperate with bloodhounds on their trail. Imran Khan’s appeal to tax haven providers can only fall on deaf years as has happened before and will continue to happen in the future. Third world countries claiming to pursue criminals who had bled their economies will only do so if the quarry belongs to an opposing camp. Governments will only chase opponents and when they change, investigations already undertaken, not without influence of ruling powers, will be abandoned as we have too often seen. As the late Sunil Perera of the Gypsies so memorably sang, Lankawa ehema thamai, I don’t know why!
Another sucker punch
Saturday 16th October, 2021
Hardly a day passes without huge increases in commodity prices being reported. Prices are rising so rapidly without any discernible increase in economic activity that one wonders whether the country is being tipped into stagflation. The government is behaving like an inebriated lifeguard who watches a drowning man flailing, instead of throwing a lifeline. Powerful businesses are having a field day, jacking up as they do prices according to their whims and fancies. Businessmen determine the prices of their products and services, and announce them at press conferences, making one wonder whether there are any consumer protection laws in this country. There is no one the hapless consumer can turn to. What is this world coming to when a government looks on while the people are being fleeced so savagely?
Consumers have been suffering heavy blows, one after another, during the past so many weeks, and the latest one has come from the local dairy product manufacturers including a state-owned company; they have jacked up the prices of the locally produced milk powder by Rs. 225 and Rs. 200 a kilo. The new prices are Rs. 1,170 and Rs. 1,165 a kilo, according to media reports. These price hikes have left one puzzled.
Three main reasons the milk powder importers have given for increasing the prices of their products are the increases in milk food prices in the international market, the depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar, and the escalation of freight rates. True, there have been some cost increases, but the question is whether they are so high as to warrant such massive increases in the prices of imported milk powder here. The milk powder importers obviously emulated the rice millers who have become a law unto themselves; they, too, created a scarcity and won their demand for unprecedented price hikes. Now, imported milk powder sells at Rs. 1,195 a kilo. People expected the local dairy companies, which heavily market their ‘Sri Lankan-ness’, to act reasonably, only to be disappointed.
How come the prices of locally produced milk powder have risen so sharply? The domestic milk powder manufacturers have claimed their costs have also gone up. Their argument is not convincing. The onus is on the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) to reveal to the public whether the increases in the prices of local milk powder are actually due to increases in production costs, or whether the domestic dairy product manufactures have sought to make the most of the situation; consumers feel that they are being exploited. An explanation is called for.
The general consensus is that the CAA has become so politicised and impotent that it only provides a rubber stamp for unscrupulous big businesses with political connections. Will it try to prove its critics wrong by taking up the cudgels for the public?
Is there a government? This is the question one asks oneself on seeing how helpless the public has become vis-à-vis powerful businesses who exploit them with impunity.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday bombings (2019), in its report, says one of the reasons for the serious security lapses which led to the carnage was that the then government was dysfunctional. True, the yahapalana government became a metaphor for dysfunctionality and ineptitude. The present dispensation, whose leaders promised a strong government to protect the interests of the public, does not look any different in spite of having a two-thirds majority in Parliament; confusion is reigning at the upper echelons of government. Ministers are running around like headless chickens, and the public is at the mercy of profiteers who enjoy unbridled freedom to do as they please.
Let the ruling politicians be told that they are digging their own political grave.
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