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Editorial

Mini parliamentary session?

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Thursday 24th March, 2022

The much-advertised All-Party Conference (APC) on the economic crisis got off to a somewhat bumpy start yesterday with some participants, true to form, coming close to locking horns. UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took exception to a remark Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal made about the economic downturn during the yahapalana administration. Interestingly, former President Maithripala Sirisena, who was the head of the previous government, is currently in the SLPP; he is also the main architect of the APC! President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to step in to pour oil on troubled waters, and succeeded in his endeavour. But he has his work cut out to reconcile the APC participants who are at daggers drawn; they hold old grudges against one another.

Wickremesinghe waxed eloquent on the need to adopt a conciliatory approach, but added in the same breath that the people had not languished in queues to buy food and fuel during the yahapalana government; he also got Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s goat, so to speak, by calling for copies of the IMF report on Sri Lanka’s economy. A visibly angry Rajapaksa denied having received any such document from the IMF, and when Wickremesinghe persisted in asking for it, the former said the IMF had sent only a draft. One could see Wickremesinghe’s lips curl into a smirk of triumph. Old habits are said to die hard. Politicians cannot resist the temptation to score points!

We listened to the APC participants carefully, but none of them had anything new to say; they only repeated what they had already said in Parliament. The saving grace, however, was that the political leaders acted with some restraint, and for once made an attempt not to indulge in Sri Lanka’s national sport—blame game.

The APC session was like a replay of a parliamentary debate, the only difference being Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s presence. The JVP and the SJB have been pressuring the Speaker to make the Finance Minister attend Parliament, but in vain. Their leaders would have been able to meet Basil and seek answers to their questions, which are legion, if they had attended the APC yesterday.

The government leaders were obviously playing it close to their chests. Wickremesinghe spoke sense at yesterday’s meeting; the government leaders and officials were all at sea as usual, and what they said did not leave us any the wiser.

The political leaders who gathered at the President’s House yesterday exemplified the popular Sri Lankan saying, mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne— ‘when one has brains one has no power, and vice versa’. The SLPP leaders also made sensible proposals and formulated a grand plan to usher in economic development while they were in the political wilderness. What has become their brains is the question.

One sees a similarity between the SLPP government in trouble and the proverbial fox, which fell into a well, but managed to get out by jumping onto the back of a goat it lured into jumping in. But unlike the unsuspecting goat in the Aesopian fable, the Opposition parties are treading cautiously. If the government wants to keep the APC process on track, and enlist its political rivals’ support for its attempts to wriggle out of trouble, the SLPP leaders ought to realise that they are not doing the Opposition a favour, and it is the other way around. They must not try to browbeat or shout down their Opposition counterparts. Instead, they must treat the Opposition parties with respect, and make available all information the latter seek.

Now that the government has invited its political rivals to the APC, it should lay its cards on the table. The Opposition’s main beef is that the government conceals vital information about the state of the economy and negotiations with the IMF. Unless the SLPP mends its ways, the Opposition parties will vote with their feet and the APC will end up being an SLPP-SLFP conference.



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Editorial

Restoring dignity of legislature

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Tuesday 17th May, 2022

There has been a severe erosion of public faith in all three branches of government, albeit to varying degrees. The less said about the executive, the better; it has become a total failure. The scales of justice are tilted in favour of politicians in power and their kith and kin, and rogues walk free, as a result. The legislature has become a huge liability, and one sees hardly any difference between it and the Mattala International Airport.

The country is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, but the legislature apparently does not care two hoots about people’s suffering. Parliament should have convened a few days earlier to discuss ways and means of resolving the worsening crisis and restoring social order, but the Speaker’s request to the President to summon Parliament urgently went unheeded. The party leaders were also not keen to have Parliament convened before 17 May. Instead, they had some meetings themselves; they are all hat and no cattle. Even when the House is in session, its members are busy settling political scores instead of addressing national issues. Some sensible MPs have called for a course correction, warning that the people are so incensed that they might even set Parliament on fire. Their warning should be heeded if trouble is to be averted.

Parliament always gets its priorities mixed up, and wastes its time and public funds. The recent election of the Deputy Speaker is a case in point. Deputy Speaker Ranjith Siyambalapitya resigned because his party, the SLFP, pulled out of the government. He was re-elected to the same post a few days later. He resigned again on some flimsy grounds. The House is scheduled to elect a new Deputy Speaker, today. No wonder, protesters are trying to march on Parliament.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said Parliament should have a female Deputy Speaker. One cannot but agree with him on this score. In a male-dominated House, women must be able to have their voice heard. It is hoped that a female MP will be unanimously elected to that post, today, for several reasons.

Women, who constitute more than one half of the Sri Lankan population, are not adequately represented in Parliament or any other political institution; we have only 12 female MPs at present. There should be more women in Parliament as well as the Cabinet. Respect for women is zero in the House. Some MPs have the despicable habit of dragging others’ mothers and wives into their slanging matches, and their speeches are replete with smutty jokes or other forms of double entendre or risqué humour. There are occasions when the men in kapati suits even trade raw filth unflinchingly. The situation is far worse in the local government institutions, where female councillors are not even allowed to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. They complain that whenever they take the floor, they are greeted with boos and catcalls from their male counterparts. Harassment has caused them to sink their political differences and fight for their rights, together, and they deserve public support for their struggle. We suggest that the misogynists in the garb of people’s representatives who harass female representatives in Parliament, the local councils, etc., be named and shamed besides being made to face disciplinary action.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is reported to have decided to form several committees consisting of the MPs of all political parties to explore ways and means of tackling various issues. This idea is sure to find favour with those who want to see the country come out of the present crisis. We believe that there is a need for the appointment of a special parliamentary committee consisting of female MPs to address the issues that affect housewives and other women.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, like his predecessors, has been struggling to restore the dignity of Parliament, but it is doubtful whether his efforts have yielded the desired results; protesters are demanding that all 225 MPs go home. One can only hope Parliament will get its priorities right, and refrain from turning the election of the Deputy Speaker into a political battle.

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Editorial

Absit omen!

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Monday 16th May, 2022

It never rains but it pours. Sri Lanka has had more than its fair share of misfortunes during recent years, but there seems to be no end to them. A report published by The Hindu says the Indian intelligence has warned that the LTTE is regrouping to carry out terrorist attacks in this country; it must have sent a chill down the spine of every peace-loving Sri Lankan.The Indian media reported that the Defence Ministry of Lanka had initially denied the report in question as baseless, and claimed there was no such threat; it had received no intelligence warning of any such threat. But according to a news item published in this newspaper today, the Defence Ministry says it has sought more information from the Indian intelligence agencies about the warning. It had better act fast; it has a history of dillydallying, making colossal blunders and jeopardising national security. In 2019, it took an Indian intelligence outfit’s warning of a series of bomb attacks for granted, and a group of terrorists carried out the Easter Sunday carnage with ease.

If there is no threat of LTTE attacks, as the Defence Ministry seems to imply, every peace-loving Sri Lankan will be happy, but in dealing with terrorism, a state has to plan for the worst-case scenario if surprises are to be avoided. Terrorists make the most of economic crises, and socio-political upheavals to stage comebacks. There has been irrefutable evidence of attempts being made consistently to revive the LTTE.In January 2022, the Tamil Nadu police busted an international network of ex-Tiger cadres and sympathisers engaged in raising funds for reviving the LTTE. According to The Hindu, in October 2021, the National Investigation Agency of India revealed before a special court in Kochi that ‘two Tamil Nadu natives arrested in connection with the seizure of drugs, were working secretly for furthering the activities of the LTTE under the supervision of leaders of the organisation in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and other foreign countries.’ In 2010, the Indian police arrested three LTTE cadres with more than 5,000 detonators which were to be smuggled into Sri Lanka. Several LTTE cadres have been arrested with arms and explosives in this country as well. In January 2017, the Terrorist Investigation Department arrested four ex-Tigers over an alleged plot to assassinate a TNA MP in Jaffna.What remains of the LTTE may not be so strong as to mount large-scale attacks but some of its cadres may be able to carry out ambushes, political assassinations, and attacks on civilian targets.One can only hope that the Defence authorities will do everything in their power to neutralise possible terrorist threats, and what is feared will not come to pass.

Curiouser and curiouser

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reportedly said the ‘Gotago Gama’ protest should go on, and the government is ready to provide necessary assistance to the protesters. There is absolutely no need for state sponsorship, as it were, for an anti-government protest; and the protesters themselves have rejected the PM’s offer out of hand, for such assistance will be tantamount to the kiss of death for the protest movement. The protesters have asked the PM to ensure that the SLPP goons who attacked them on 09 May are arrested and prosecuted. This demand is nothing but fair and should be granted forthwith.It will be interesting to know the reaction of the President’s Office to the PM’s offer at issue to the protesters. What will happen in case of the protesters achieving their goal—the ouster of the President—and who will stand to gain in such an eventuality?

Another power centre in the government is bound to emerge around the newly-appointed Prime Minister. The government has undertaken to restore the 19th Amendment fully in the form of the 21st Amendment to be brought in. If this pledge is carried out, the President will be stripped of his vital executive powers, and the Prime Minister will become the de facto Head of State; a defeated candidate who has entered Parliament via the National List will become more powerful than the President elected by 6.9 million people! Such a scenario will make a mockery of the people’s franchise.

Welcome to Sri Lanka, a land like no other!

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Editorial

Ranil with president, people or both?

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New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told a British journalist at the Walukaramaya temple where he had gone to obtain blessings after being sworn as prime minister for the sixth time in his 73 years that Churchill became Britain’s prime minister in 1939 with only four MPs. He’s become Sri Lanka’s with one! This was typical Wickremesinghe parrying questions with debating flair. He knows European history, perhaps a little better than he knows Sri Lanka’s. But there too he is no neophyte. Hours after his swearing, Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha, today a very visible political monk in the anti-Gotabaya camp declared this was a “deal.” What else can it be? How else can the man who brought the UNP down to zero in the incumbent parliament, and thereafter procrastinated for months in filling their only national list seat before taking it himself become the prime minister of a government not yet into its second year?

What can be the bottom line of any alleged deal? Obviously there will be no chasing Ali Baba and his forty thieves. That said, there will be many who will believe that Ranil is the best man for the present moment. He has more experience than any of his rivals in the political field and he is certainly no fool. His pro-western and pro-business tilt is a given. That perhaps was why one of the earliest congratulatory tweets was from the U.S. ambassador in Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Namal too were among the early tweeters. Maybe they feel less hounded now. GR obviously would not have made his pick without the confidence that the majority of the SLPP will back his choice. That however may not be unanimous. Vasudeva Nanayakkara for instance cannot be expected to support a UNP prime minister. But there are many that can be influenced by office; others by protection and not a few must watch their backs. Aiyo (or Cheerio) Sirisena can tilt either way; but however that be, he will not he able to chart the course for the whole group of SLFP MPs. Also, will Sajith Premadasa who has clearly dropped a catch by procrastinating in taking an offer he now feels he should not have refused be able to hold his group together?

There are capable, untainted MPs in the SJB with the ability to selflessly serve a national revival government that the country desperately needs. Wickremesinghe will be glad to have them. But whether they will chance their future political careers by serving a government created by a political horse deal remains to be seen. Public opinion is near unanimous that what GR has done is in the Rajapaksa interest including his own. Anybody coming on board will not be cheered. No doubt many Pohottuwa MPs, bleeding from the blows that their personal property have taken from the ugly turn of what was at first an idealistic, non-violent protest to get the Rajapksas out of the national polity, will now do what’s best for themselves: protection from further attack and, perhaps, compensation down the road. They will remember REPIA (Rehabilitation of Property and Industries Authority) that followed Black July 1983 when victims were compensated.

That Gotabaya must go remains the national demand and it is unlikely (if not impossible) that the president has appointed a prime minister who is out for his blood. Mahinda Rajapaksa, before he succumbed to lunacy and let loose an organized horde on the Galle Face protesters appeared confident of his numbers in parliament. Despite all that has happened since, the likelihood is that the no confidence vote against the president, like the touted impeachment, remains a long shot. If that is the way the process unravels and the outcome favours Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Ranil Wickremesinghe is home and dry. But for how long is an imponderable in the context of what cinema-goers brand as a “fast breaking serial.”

The Colombo stock market reacted positively to the political developments with both the broad based All Share Price Index and S&P SL20 covering more liquid shares gaining sharply on Friday on a respectable turnover. That, of course, does not mean that investors are now confident that Sri Lanka has turned the corner and is back on track towards regaining political and economic stability. Stock indicators are volatile and their signals are for the day; not even for the short term. Important considerations on whether a new prime minister and government are going to be good for the country will include the external view. The West is likely to favour present developments and India may fall in line. Whether China will come on board is an open question.

Soon after his swearing, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the Galle Face protests will be allowed to continue as at present and there will be no interference. But hours before he said that police warned over loudspeakers on the green that a curfew was on and nobody was permitted in public places. But they didn’t enforce their threat. Already burnt by their tepid response to the Temple Trees horde setting upon the ‘Gota Go Home’ crowd, the Rambukkana shooting and perhaps what happened to SDIG Deshabandu Tennekoon, the cops were pussyfooting. But the ‘clear the green’ announcement would not have been made without clearance from the top. Now there’s a ‘lay off’ order from the new PM. So let’s wait and see how events unfold.

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