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Editorial

Negligence and explosions

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Friday 9th October, 2020

Having risen from a blissful slumber, the health authorities with the help of military intelligence are doing their darnedest to figure out how the latest COVID-19 cluster, which turned Gampaha into Sri Lanka’s Wuhan, came about. There are two possibilities according to those engaged in contact tracing: it was caused by new infections from another country, or the virus had been spreading unnoticed during the last two months or so while the government, the health authorities and others responsible for tackling the pandemic were resting on their oars.

It is widely believed that some Indian workers caused the second wave of infections. Brandix and the Indian High Commission have denied this claim. Brandix has said, in a media statement, that no one from India or any other country had access to its Minuwangoda facility, the epicentre of the COVID-19 second wave, during the period at issue. However, it is not clear from its press release whether foreigners had access to its factories elsewhere and some garment workers from Minuwangoda came into contact with them there. Brandix has also said the workers who returned to Sri Lanka from India on chartered flights underwent quarantine for 28 days, and none of them visited the Minuwangoda manufacturing facility. The question again is whether they visited other factories of the company. According to the flight details leaked to the media, one batch of Brandix workers returned from Visakhapatnam, India, on 22 Sept. 2020. If this is true, those workers have to undergo quarantine until 20 Oct. 2020. Are they still under quarantine?

Thousands of workers have migrated here from other South Asian countries. Some businesses such as eateries, vehicle service stations and construction companies are dependent on foreign workers, most of whom are overstayers or illegal immigrants, due to a chronic labour shortage. Sri Lankans are reluctant to work in certain sectors, and this has created a huge demand for cheap migrant labour. Employers prefer foreigners to local workers, who are notorious for absenteeism and malingering and entitled to EPF and ETF. This issue which went unaddressed for decades has resurfaced owing to the explosive spread of COVID-19.

The government flaunted the success of its previous anti-COVID-19 operations, which stood it in good stead, at the last general election. Now, it stands accused of having done precious little to prevent the second wave of infections. In April 2019, the country was rocked by bomb explosions as the then government neglected national security. About 18 months on, a ‘viral explosion’ has left it in a state of shock due to negligence on the part of the present dispensation.

We are not short of conspiracy theories. It is claimed, in some quarters, that the COVID-19 second wave is part of a sinister plan to destabilise the country by making its economy scream. We are not in a position to disprove or support these theories, but one thing is patently clear; the economy will not survive another round of lockdowns, and the country will be at the mercy of foreign powers for survival in case of having to be closed again; their assistance will not come without conditions; they will get what they have so far failed to in return for their aid.

What really matters now is not whether the COVID-19 second wave was caused by foreigners, or Martians, but how to tackle it without shutting down the economy and prevent the already strained health system from being overwhelmed. The country’s battle against the first wave of coronaviurs succeeded thanks to protracted lockdowns and curfews besides the strict enforcement of quarantine laws and health guidelines. This time around, we have had to battle the virus without countrywide lockdowns and curfews as the economy is in tatters. This has made the task of beating the virus doubly uphill, and the need for redoubling our efforts to prevail over the pandemic cannot be overemphasised. Everyone should put his or her shoulder to the wheel, or brace himself or herself for a viral tsunami, the signs of which are already visible.



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Editorial

When ambition overtakes reality

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Thursday 2nd February, 2023

The UNP and the SLFP have started talking about the next presidential election even before the long-overdue local government (LG) polls are held. UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has recently said President Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election. Former President Maithripala Sirisena himself has told the media he will run for President again, and is confident of securing the presidency as he is the leader of the SLFP and the people are with him. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has not made any such announcement, but it is clear that he will be his party’s presidential candidate. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake will not allow anyone else to contest the next presidential election and overshadow him. The SLPP is in total disarray. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest a presidential election again, and it is highly unlikely that ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will face a presidential contest ever again. So, who will be the SLPP’s presidential candidate?

Interestingly, three of those who are expected to contest the next presidential election have been held to account by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks. The COI has recommended criminal proceedings against Sirisena. It says in its final report (p 265), “Based on the evidence, the COI is of the view that there is criminal liability on his part for the acts or omissions explained above. The COI recommends that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code.” The report (pp 470-471)) says, “The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy.” Thus, Wickremesinghe cannot say he is free from blame for the serious security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday attacks. Premadasa and several other SJB seniors were Cabinet ministers in the Yahapalana government, and there is no way they could absolve themselves of the blame for the acts or omissions of that administration.

Sirisena himself may not have thought he would be able to secure the coveted presidency in 2015. He failed pathetically as the President so much so that he decided against seeking re-election and opted to re-enter Parliament, instead. The political forces that enabled him to realise his presidential dream are no longer with him, and most of the SLFP MPs have joined the SLPP-UNP government. Above all, there is the possibility of criminal proceedings being instituted against him over the Easter Sunday carnage unless he toes the government line. Thus, it is doubtful whether he will be able to contest the next presidential election.

Wickremesinghe is like a passenger who has undertaken to attempt a talk-down landing due to the incapacitation of the pilot and the co-pilot of the aircraft he is travelling in. He is not doing anything on his own; he is only following instructions from others. He no doubt deserves thanks for the risk he has taken and his effort, and it is the fervent hope of everyone that he will manage to make a safe emergency landing. But it is too early to say whether he will succeed in his endeavour. Everyone is on a wing and a prayer. Before facing a presidential election, Wickremesinghe will have to steer his party to victory at the LG polls and get the economy back on an even keel. These tasks are as uphill as the twelve labours of Hercules.

Premadasa, too, will have to ensure that the SJB wins the LG polls before facing the next presidential election, if he is to be seen as a winner, and whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen. Now that Dissanayake has talked the talk, very eloquently at that, he will have to walk the walk. The NPP was able to secure only 3.84% of the total number of valid votes at the last general election, and the challenge before Dissanayake will be increasing it to at least 30% at the next election for him to be considered a formidable presidential candidate.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Rajapaksas to Range Bandara’s declaration at issue. Last year, they wanted someone who was not a political threat to them to complete the remainder of Gotabaya’s presidential term, doing as they said, and fade away so that they could buy time to make a comeback for one of them to run for President. Has the nephew of the Old Fox outfoxed the Medmulana clan?

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Editorial

PTA as a bludgeon

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Wednesday 1st February, 2023

Colombo Chief Magistrate Prasanna Alwis, who heard a case against Convenor of the Inter-University Students’ Federation, Wasantha Mudalige, yesterday, ruled that the latter had not committed any offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Mudalige was cleared of the PTA charges, but taken back to remand prison over some other cases pending against him.

Why was the PTA ever used against Mudalige? The government, the police and the state prosecutor should answer this question.

There are situations where protesting university students turn unruly and even become a public nuisance. Troublemakers in the garb of students have to be dealt with according to the law, and the police cannot be faulted for doing so, but draconian measures such as the use of the PTA against them cannot be countenanced on any grounds. Ironically, the incumbent dispensation, which has the police arrest anti-government protesters under the PTA, has chosen to grant presidential pardons to several LTTE cadres serving jail terms for terrorist activities! It seems to think that anti-government protesters are more dangerous than terrorists!

Arrested about five months ago, Mudalige underwent tremendous suffering due to being charged under the PTA. This can happen to anyone who dares organise or take part in anti-government protests. Detention or a protracted stay in remand prison is tantamount to punishment in this country.

The police and all others responsible for having Mudalige arrested under the PTA and pressing trumped-up charges against him must be held to account. There is no way they could justify what they have done to him, and it is hoped that legal action will be instituted against them so that the government and its stooges in the police and the Attorney General’s Department will be deterred from using the PTA as a bludgeon against protesters; most of all, the police will be compelled to act within the confines of the law without overstepping their limits to humour their political masters.

Preaching while splurging

The government has been advertising its financial difficulties for the past few weeks apparently in a bid to bolster its claim that it is not in a position to allocate funds for elections. The Department of Government Printing has reportedly asked the Election Commission to settle its dues and make an advance payment for carrying out election-related printing!

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have directed all public officials not to obtain goods and services on credit. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said external debt restructuring is always at the expense of foreign taxpayers, and therefore the countries that have lent funds to Sri Lanka expect us to make sacrifices. One could not agree with him more, but will he explain why the government has not cancelled the Independence Day ceremony, which will cost taxpayers an arm and a leg? The cost of the grand event has been estimated at Rs. 200 million, according to media reports, but there must be other hidden costs. Let the government leaders who are grumbling about lack of funds be urged to learn from Tanzania how to rationalise state expenditure.

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan was considerate enough to cancel her country’s Independence Day celebrations, last month, and direct that the funds earmarked for the event be used to construct dormitories at schools for children with special needs. In 2015, the then President of Tanzania John Magufuli cancelled the Independence Day celebrations and allocated funds saved therefrom for the development of roads in Dar es Salaam. He did so again in 2020 and the money allocated for the Independence Day celebrations was used to acquire medical facilities. In this country, money that should be spent on treating and feeding poor children at state-run hospitals is being utilised for Independence Day celebrations!

Media reports say there have been no reductions in funds allocated for the offices of the President, the Prime Minister and others despite the current economic crisis. Don’t the government worthies who are wailing that they cannot meet state expenses think that they have to practise what they preach to others?

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Editorial

A regime sans shame

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Tuesday 31st January, 2023

The SLPP-UNP combine, which is taking great pains to delay the local government (LG) polls for fear of losing them, is all out to make the public lose interest in elections; it is trying to engineer a low voter turnout. Voter apathy is usually advantageous to unpopular regimes in power. Trotting out lame excuses to make a case for postponing the mini polls, the government claims that it is so broke that it cannot allocate funds for an election at this juncture. Curiously, it is not without such pecuniary difficulties where fund allocations for celebrations are concerned. If the country is to wait until the economy is turned around to go to the polls, it will have to wait until hell freezes over!

The government propaganda mill is in overdrive to deprive the ongoing electoral process of legitimacy. No sooner had it been reported that three members of the Election Commission (EC) were receiving death threats the Government Information Department issued a media statement, claiming that ‘the gazette notice with signatures of the Chairman and other members of the Election Commission required for the commencement of the Local Government election process has not been sent to the Government Press for printing.’ The EC has dismissed this claim as baseless.

The Information Department’s media statement reminds us of an ill-advised letter that Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Neil Hapuhinne, recently sent to the District Returning Officers in a bid to prevent them from accepting deposits for the LG elections. The EC reacted swiftly and Hapuhinne withdrew his letter. The EC assured the public that the electoral process was on track. Hapuhinne was lucky to get away with only a rap on the knuckles from the EC. Now, Director General of Government Information Dinith Karunarathna has done something similar.

We argued, in a previous comment, that Hapuhinne had to be dealt with in such a way that action against him would constitute a deterrent for others of his ilk bent on scuttling the LG polls. He should have been made to face the full force of the law for his high-handed action. It is never too late.

There is no way the government could avoid defeat by postponing elections. Such action is as injudicious and futile as ‘using a loincloth to control dysentery’, as a local saying goes. If the SLPP had plucked up the courage to face the LG polls, last year, instead of postponing them, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration would have suffered an electoral setback and realised the need to make a course correction, which might have helped prevent the current economic crisis.

The SJB, the JVP, the SLFP and some SLPP dissident groups are on a campaign to ensure that the LG elections are held as scheduled, but they, too, have sullied their reputations by helping put off elections. The SJB consists of former Yahapalana MPs; they, the SLFP and the JVP unashamedly joined forces, in 2017, to postpone the Provincial Council elections, which they knew they would lose. Their modus operandi was antithetical to democracy and parliamentary norms they claim to uphold. They helped the UNP-led Yahapalana government stuff the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Bill (2017) with some sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, and steamroller it through the House. The SLPP dissidents, who have taken up the cudgels for the people’s franchise had no qualms about supporting the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s decision to postpone the LG polls.

That the country needs alternatives to both the government and the Opposition, as evident from the phenomenal rise of anti-politics and the growing resentment of the youth cannot be overstated, but first of all, it has to be liberated from the clutches of the current regime, and the LG polls will help loosen their vice-like grip thereon—hopefully.

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