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Editorial

Long haul ahead

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In this hi-tech era nobody will dispute the fact that computers eliminate manual drudgery, doing in seconds, or nanoseconds what humans would take hours, days, weeks and even months to perform. It is therefore no cause for surprise that the Inland Revenue Department (IRD), responsible for collecting a large share of state revenue, decided to computerize. Better late than never, it can be said. The tax authorities some years ago bought an expensive Revenue Administration Management Information System (RAMIS) which was touted as something that would revolutionize tax administration in the country. It has been used since the beginning of 2017 and according to tax officials has proved more efficient than manual handling. Maybe so, but numerous problems have arisen as a result of the new system. Many taxpayers and accountancy firms handling tax matters for clients hold a different view on RAMIS performance and are constantly complaining of harassment and innumerable difficulties arising in their dealings with IRD post-RAMIS.

However that be, it has been revealed at the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) an oversight body of the legislature, that though over a massive three billion rupees had been paid to a Singaporean company that developed the system, each time an amendment to the tax law is made – and these are frequent – a further four billion must be coughed out to incorporate it in the system. We do not know how much additional expenditure has been incurred in this regard since the system was first purchased and commissioned. The sensible suggestion has been made by a member of COPA that an agreement must be reached with the supplier/developer of the system on a one off payment basis for incorporating amendments to the tax law into RAMIS. That, of course, is commonsense. But whether such an agreement will be possible is something that remains to be seen. Selling a product cheap and thereafter making your money on essential spares and maintenance is not an uncommon business practice. Whoever was responsible for the purchase of the system, and there would have been many involved in such a costly procurement, should have foreseen the necessity of amendments to the tax law having to be accommodated in RAMIS and provided for this initially.

Treasury and Finance Secretary R.S. Attygalle has told COPA that a five-year, consistent tax policy has been proposed (promised?) in the 2021 budget. This would be a convenience for both taxpayers and tax collectors, he has said. Similar promises of a consistent tax policy have been made in the past too, but delivery has been painfully slow. According to data presented to COPA, 532 of the country’s 2,192 big taxpayers account for 70.2 percent of tax revenues. Collection from cash cows such as the highly taxed alcohol and tobacco industries will be relatively easy. But not so from the illicit liquor segment supplying much of the booze consumed nationally. Whether the bookies and casino operators pay their proper taxes are also matters that must be determined. It is very well known that tax evasion is rampant in the country and IRD’s performance in rounding up such evaders has been less than satisfactory with increased collections usually coming from existing files. There have been complaints over the years that the practice of trying to squeeze already squeezed lemons continues to be common practice at the tax office. While fictitious returns and attempted tax frauds cannot be condoned and must be diligently pursued, the taxman should be considerate to honest taxpayers and not load them with unnecessary queries and paperwork.

We run a story from our parliamentary reporter today about a Rs. 1.3 trillion deficit in the government’s tax revenue in 2018. This is before the Easter bomb or the Covid pandemic which necessarily impacted on State revenue. The situation must necessarily be worse since then. Officials have attributed much of the shortfall to many state institutions defaulting on their tax obligations. This is often because they are not in a position to make these payments according to independent assessments, COPA has been told. A full report on such institutions has been called for but whether this will yield the desired result is doubtful. The tax man can force a defaulting company into liquidation but not so government bodies. Apart from not meeting tax obligations, state undertakings are guilty of routinely failing in paying their suppliers. Thus there is a running debt most of the time from SriLankan Airlines to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation which usually carries massive overdues from bodies such as the CEB. While an ordinary householder falling back on paying his domestic electricity or water bill risks disconnection, not so government institutions.

The Covid induced economic downturn will remain with us for a long time despite the many sunshine stories commonly spun on quick recovery. We are given different time frames by various concerned authorities on when such recovery is to be expected. But none of them are in a position to accurately predict when the pandemic will be brought under control. Even when that happy day dawns, return to normalcy will be hard and painful. Some businesses are limping on, but there are many others unable to do so. The government will have to live with the reality of revenue shortfall for a long time to come. If 2018 was as bad as has been stated, 2019 and 2020 must be necessarily worse. In such a context there must be a conscious effort in cutting the often profligate expenditure of state institutions. This something yet to be seen.



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Editorial

A tall tale told by cops

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Saturday 10th April, 2021

Thousands of military personnel who died in the line of duty to make this country safe would turn in their graves if they knew the way the state is treating their loved ones. Their widows and mothers were seen recently staging street protests in a bid to have some grievances redressed. On Thursday, while they were conducting a peaceful march from the Fort Railway station to the Presidential Secretariat, demanding that they be paid their spouses’ salaries instead of pensions until the time when their husbands would have reached the retirement age. Ven. Jamurewela Chandrarathana, described as the chief organiser of the event, and another person were arrested and subsequently granted police bail. The police claimed that the arrests had been made over a stone attack on two of their vehicles. This, we believe, is a tall tale.

No one in his proper senses dares to hurl stones at a police vehicle in full view of heavily armed cops, and run the risk of having to keep staring at the ceiling of an orthopaedic ward for weeks, if not months. There have been instances where even protesting students had their limbs broken and skulls cracked at the hands of the police riot squads. So, only agents provocateurs working for the government will carry out a stone attack on the police.

Two stone throwers, caught by some members of the public and handed over to the police, on Thursday, vanished while in police custody, only Chandrarathana Thera and another person were taken to a nearby police station, according to the organisers of the protest. This is a very serious allegation, which must not go uninvestigated. One of the attackers is seen in the CCTV footage of the incident, and the bold manner in which he threw stones in a place swarming with police personnel in uniform and civvies suggests that he was confident he would not have to face the consequences of his action. If the police cannot do their job properly, they must, at least, learn how to lie convincingly!

The government says it has sorted out the issue over which the widows of the slain military personnel took to the streets, and a gazette to that effect has been put out. If it is telling the truth, then the protesters had not been informed of what it had done. Why didn’t the defence top brass invite the protesters to a discussion and inform them that their problems had been solved? In fact, the government should have solved the salary issue much earlier.

The leaders of the incumbent dispensation never miss an opportunity to boast of having ended the country’s war on terror. They, no doubt, provided unwavering political leadership for the war effort, but the fact remains that it is the military, the police including the STF, and the Civil Defence Force that made the defeat of terrorism possible. One of the main election pledges of the present government was to look after the interests of the armed forces and police personnel. Its leaders, during their Opposition days, shed copious tears for the military and the police, the slain armed forces personnel and their families and gained a lot of political mileage. They, therefore, must not wait until the family members of the late military personnel stage protests, to act, and, most of all, ensure that the latter are treated with respect.

The government claims its political opponents were behind Thursday’s protest. This claim may be true. There is hardly any issue that does not get politicised in this country. Didn’t the SLPP politicise and exploit the Easter Sunday attacks to win elections? The problem of a bunch of bankrupt politicians and publicity-crazy elements including some priests exploiting the grievances of the family members of the slain warriors to compass their selfish ends would not have arisen if the government had cared to give the protesters a patient hearing instead of unleashing the police on them.

Damaging police vehicles is a serious offence, and the duo responsible for Thursday’s stone-throwing incident can be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act and denied bail. An investigation is called for to find out why the police allowed them to escape, as alleged by the protesters.

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Editorial

Dogs, donkeys, fools and lunatics

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Friday 9th April, 2021

A heated argument between SJB MP Sarath Fonseka and Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, yesterday, plunged Parliament into turmoil with the government and Opposition MPs freely trading insults and threats across the well of the house.

All hell broke loose while the SJB was staging a protest against the unseating of its MP Ranjan Ramanayake, who is currently serving a jail term. Protests will not be of any help to Ramanayake, who is languishing in prison. Only a presidential pardon could save him. Not that everybody has welcomed his sentence, but that is the way the cookie crumbles in courts. His colleagues should have asked him to act with restraint. He kept on tearing into the judiciary unnecessarily and asked for trouble. If the SJB actually believes that Ramanayake has not ceased to be an MP, can it allow anyone else from its Gampaha list to fill the vacancy created by his removal?

The MPs of both sides, yesterday, indulged in insulting some animals as well. They were heard calling each other dog, donkey, fool and lunatic, etc. Politicians may be called fools and lunatics, but why should poor animals be insulted in this manner? Animal lovers must be at a loss to understand why some MPs flew into a rage on being called dogs and donkeys, and even threatened their rivals.

Dogs and donkeys are far superior to politicians, in many respects, so much so that one cannot but wish all people’s representatives in this country behaved in such a way as to deserve to be called dogs and donkeys.

The dog is a wonderful creature. It is known for its courage, intelligence, faithfulness, gratitude and readiness to protect its master even risking its own life. What a nice place this country would be if our representatives also had these canine traits. Blessed is a country that has courageous, faithful and grateful politicians who fiercely protect the citizenry like guard dogs. If our MPs were as faithful as canines, they would never switch their allegiance for pecuniary benefits; the problem of crossovers would cease to be.

In this country, there have been several unfortunate incidents, where some wicked humans threw their aged parents into kennels and other such places, and sniffer dogs in their twilight years, needing special care, were thrown out of the police kennels, where they were auctioned instead of being looked after in appreciation of their outstanding contribution to crimebusting. Such shocking incidents come about as humans lack canine qualities; dogs never desert those who look after them.

Sri Lankan politics is characterised by a huge trust deficit. The trustworthiness of canines has never been in question. This must have been the reason why King Matthias of Hungary (1443-1490), trusted his dogs more than his palace guards. Historians tell us that the wise monarch, troubled by intrigue and treachery in his court, which was full of greedy, unfaithful noblemen, surrounded himself with some guard dogs.

The donkey is intelligent and has an incredible memory despite popular misconceptions, according to scientists. They are also known for their ability to carry heavy loads. They coexist with other creatures. So, why should politicians with shallow minds and deep pockets and are averse to shouldering the burden of serving the taxpaying public, who maintains them, be called donkeys that carry heavy loads, expecting nothing in return?

Will our honourable representatives be so considerate as to desist from insulting dogs, donkeys and other such critters?

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Editorial

The strange case of Naufer

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Thursday 8th April, 2021

Public Security Minister, Rear Admiral (retd.) Sarath Weerasekera, would have the public believe that the Easter Sunday terror mastermind has been identified. He has said ‘Naufer Moulavi’, who masterminded the attacks, is in custody. Interestingly, not even the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday carnage, for months on end, was able to find the mastermind behind the savage terror attacks!

How can the government say with certainty that Naufer masterminded the terror attacks? True, he was the theoretician of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) led by Zahran Hashim, and played a key role in indoctrinating the NTJ cadres. He also wielded some influence on Zahran, but there were occasions when they had disagreements. Naufer was only the second in command of the NTJ, according to Chapter 16 (Profiles of Key Individuals) in the PCoI report. It is doubtful whether the NTJ theoretician would have been able to carry out a serious task like planning terror attacks. One may recall that Anton Balasingham was the theoretician of the LTTE, but Prabhakaran did not allow him to get involved in planning any terror strikes. Is it that Naufer has sought to put investigators off the scent by claiming to be the mastermind so that the real mastermind/s will be safe?

Even if it is true that Naufer masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks, it needs to be found out whether he, too, had a handler, local or foreign.

Naufer was not the only source of inspiration for Zahran, who had foreign connections. The PCoI report (page 218) quotes the then State Intelligence Service Director SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena as having said that an Indian named Abu Hind may have triggered the attacks. It says, “He [Jayawardena] went on to imply that the intelligence agencies that provided him with the intelligence on 4th, 20th and 21st April 2019 may have had a hand in the attack.” It then quotes an international expert on terrorism: “According to his [the expert’s] testimony, Abu Hind was a character created by a section of a provincial Indian intelligence apparatus. The intelligence that the Director SIS received on 4th, 20th and 21st April 2019 was from this operation, and the intelligence operative pretending to be one Abu Hind. Operatives of this outfit operate in social media pretending to be Islamic State figures. They are trained to run virtual persona …. Zahran believed Abu Hind was the Islamic State regional representative. Abu Hind was in touch with both Zahran and his brother Rilwan and had spoken to Naufer. This part of evidence is confirmed by Hadiya [Zahran’s wife].” The PCoI, however, says in its report that it has not found any foreign link as regards the Easter Sunday attacks; it has, however, recommended that ‘certain identified parties’ be further investigated. Has any such investigation been conducted?

The PCoI has sought to justify its conclusion that there was no foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks in the light of the fact that none of the key witnesses who said they suspected a foreign link failed to furnish credible evidence to support their claims. The PCoI, therefore, has dismissed their assertions as mere ipse dixits. For reasons best known to itself, it chose to stop at that.

According to the PCoI report, the witnesses who either expressly or impliedly said there had been a foreign link were Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Minister Rauff Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, MP Mujibur Rahuman, former Governor Asath Salley, former Director SIS SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena, former STF Commandant SDIG (retd.) M. R. Latiff, former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral (retd.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, DIG/CID (retd.) Ravi Seneviratne and former CID Director Shani Abeysekera. They may not have made irresponsible statements before the PCoI. So, the need for a thorough probe into the NTJ’s foreign links to find out whether there was an external hand in the Easter Sunday attacks cannot be overemphasied.

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