Wednesday 23rd September, 2020
The SLPP juggernaut is bearing down on democracy. The 20th Amendment (20A) Bill was presented to Parliament, yesterday, amidst protests from the Opposition benches. The government has 150 MPs on its side, and is confident that they will vote for the Bill en bloc. Some of them are disgruntled because they have been left out of the Cabinet but they are likely to be appointed ministers when the Bill is passed and the Cabinet expanded.
The Old Fox would guffaw in his grave if he could see those who once condemned his Constitution and called him a dictator going all out to enhance the powers of the executive presidency; 20A would make him green with envy. What a political dog and pony show they put on, under UNP governments (1978-1994), to have the masses believe that the executive presidency was a scourge that had to be removed forthwith! They even undertook to abolish it, contested presidential elections and obtained mandates for doing that, but they reneged on their pledges. Most of the protesting SJB MPs were ardent supporters of the executive presidency while UNP leaders were wielding it and abusing its powers. There has been a role reversal.
Following the 2015 regime change, many thought that the former leaders, who later formed the SLPP, had learnt from their blunders. It looked as if the collective pratfall they suffered had had the desired impact on them, and they had realised the need to act with restraint, upholding democratic values. But, today, they are practising the very obverse of what they preached during their Opposition days. Power has gone to their heads. Those who were intoxicated with power while in the yahapalana government have taken up the cudgels for the people’s democratic rights. This is why we keep saying, ‘Mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne’—‘when one has brains one has no power’, and when one has power one has no brains.
Let the protesting Opposition MPs be told that they, too, are guilty of having raped democracy. They, as members of the yahapalana government, unflinchingly steamrollered bad Bills through. The Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill of 2017 is a case in point. They stuffed it with sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, to postpone the PC polls indefinitely and secured its passage. It is their arrogance and blunders that enabled the SLPP to win a two-thirds majority at the last general election hands down. Their ugly past and hypocrisy will make it difficult for them to drum up public support for their campaign against 20A, as we argued in a previous comment.
The Executive President, directly elected by the people, should have enough powers to carry out his duties and functions, but the sky is not the limit. He should be able to hold the Defence portfolio as he is responsible for safeguarding national security. The 19th Amendment reduced the Executive President to a virtual figurehead so that the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could reign supreme. The 20A seeks to make the President extremely powerful so that the PM will be powerless again. Both these extremes must be avoided and a via media found. One can only hope that the government will listen to reason and agree to amend the Bill.
There is much more to democracy than parliamentary majorities. If all laws ratified with two-thirds majorities are to be considered legitimate and acceptable, then one cannot find fault with the 1978 Constitution, which was passed with a five-sixth majority in the House; similarly, the SLPP leaders should stop complaining about 19A, which all MPs save one voted for in 2015.
Meanwhile, one may recall that the Enabling Act (1933), which paved the way for Hitler’s dictatorship, was also backed by the German lawmakers overwhelmingly. Only the Chairman of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels, had the courage to oppose that draconian law. If only others had emulated him.
Virus in hellholes
Friday 27th November 2020
Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who was taken into custody a few weeks ago, has been released on bail. His counsel, asking for bail, brought to the notice of the court that COVID-19 was spreading fast in prisons. Prisoners are a high-risk group. Life is precious, and nobody must be exposed to COVID-19. Bathiudeen’s safety should be ensured. But what about the other suspects, numbering thousands, held in overcrowded remand prisons, and convicts serving sentences?
Prisoners have held protests, claiming that their lives are in danger due to the spread of the pandemic. Their rights must also be respected. Will the suspects currently languishing in remand prisons also be released on bail to save them from the virus? Or, is it that all prisoners and remandees are equal, but politicians amongst them are ‘more equal’?
Bathiudeen was arrested and remanded for violating the Presidential Elections Act, but if the allegation against him—misusing public funds to transport voters in state-owned buses during a presidential election—is anything to go by, then he should be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act, as well. It is a non-bailable offence to violate this particular Act, which the yahapalana government used to have some of its political rivals remanded. Bathiudeen has not yet been prosecuted for destroying forests although the Court of Appeal has recently determined that he cleared a section of the Kallaru forest reserve illegally and ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the area. He is lucky that the present-day leaders who helped him launch his political career and gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted are wary of pressing for his prosecution over the destruction of forest land. They apparently do not want to open up a can of worms. The rape of the Wilpattu forest began during a previous Rajapaksa government, which benefited from Bathiudeen’s block vote until late 2014, when he decamped and threw in his lot with the common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.
Bathiudeen evaded arrest, following Attorney General’s order that he be taken into custody and produced in court; he apparently hoped that he would be able to get away like the bond racketeers who went into hiding and obtained an interim injunction staying their arrest warrants. The CID was obviously under pressure not to arrest those elements with political connections, but it became too embarrassing for Bathiudeen’s mentors in the present regime to go all out to prevent his arrest owing to tremendous media pressure.
COVID-19 is spreading in the Sri Lankan prisons as it is not easy to contain the highly contagious coronavirus in overcrowded environments. Precautions should therefore have been taken to prevent its spread. The first wave of COVID-19 ripped through the US prisons, which are much more spacious and have better facilities than the Sri Lankan jails, and left hundreds of inmates dead. Prisoners and their family members staged protests in some parts of the US.
Sri Lanka did not learn from others’ experience; only a committee was appointed some moons ago to find ways and means of easing prison congestion. The Attorney General himself has evinced a keen interest in ensuring the safety of prison inmates. But the situation has taken a turn for the worse, and how the government is planning to make prisons safe is not clear.
Prison overcrowding, however, is not a problem endemic to the developing world. It has come to plague even the developed countries, which have been compelled to experiment with technological solutions. Years ago, some nations including the UK adopted the electronic tagging system, which allows non-violent prisoners to be tagged, released and monitored. Opinion may be divided on this method, but it seems to have worked where it is employed and is worth a shot.
Whatever the methods the government is planning to adopt to make prisons safe, it has to act fast. The clock is ticking.
A crying shame!
Thursday 26th November 2020
Male MPs, wearing as they did their hearts on their sleeves, yesterday, wept buckets for hapless women who suffered harassment and violence at the hands of savages who call themselves ‘men’. They made themselves out to be knights errant in shining armour on a mission to help those in trouble, especially damsels in distress. They did so when Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa brought to the notice of the House an incident where a female worker had been assaulted by one of her male counterparts, in a government office, in Gampaha. All of them condemned the incident, with one voice, and stressed the need for safeguarding the rights of women, and rightly so. But is their concern for women genuine? This is the question one must have asked oneself on seeing them shed copious tears for the female assault victim. If they really do, why has none of them called for an end to the shameful practice of governments imposing taxes on women’s hygiene products?
Rohini Kaviratne, one of the few female members of the current Parliament, has taken up the issue of heavy taxes on sanitary towels, according to a news item we published yesterday. She deserves praise, but, sadly, she has not received any support from her male counterparts who pretend to be sisters under the skin.
The despicable sanitary towel tax has been there for years despite protests. Are Sri Lankan governments so broke as to augment their revenue with taxes on this essential sanitary product?
Women account for more than one half of the Sri Lankan population although they have not realised their power, which can make or break governments. Besides, the Sri Lanka economy is dependent on women who are slaving away on estates, in garment factories and in West Asia. They deserve a much better deal.
Urban spaces which used to be eyesores have been yuppified, and infrastructural development is discernible in various parts of the country. These gentrification and development projects may go on, but we must not lose sight of the seamy side of ‘the paradise’.
Most schools are without proper sanitation facilities. Research findings have revealed that many girls stay at home during their periods as they lack access to toilets in their schools, as we have mentioned in a number of previous comments. One may recall that more than one half of adolescent Sri Lankan girls, surveyed by UNICEF and the government of Sri Lanka in 2015, revealed that they did not attend school during their periods.
The education sector is now in the hands of two eminent scholars—Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, a legal brain, and Secretary to the Education Ministry, Prof. Kapila Perera, an engineering brain. Both are former Vice Chancellors who have interacted with students sufficiently and are au fait with their problems. It is hoped that the brainy duo will, together with the government leaders, ensure that every seat of learning will have proper sanitary facilities, and menstruation will not prevent any girl from attending school.
Mangala Samaraweera, credit where credit is due, was considerate enough to reduce taxes on sanitary towels when he was the Finance Minister in the yahapalana government. He went on record saying that access to affordable female hygiene products was expected to have an important positive impact on girls’ school attendance and educational outcomes. He was spot on.
We have a female health minister, but she does not seem concerned about issues women are faced with. Let Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi be urged to stop engaging in exercises in absurdity such as dropping pots into rivers in a bid to banish coronavirus, and prevail on the government to make female hygiene products tax free.
It defies comprehension why female hygiene products cannot be made tax free, in a country, where widespread waste is the norm, and tax exemptions are given to politicians. The government must abolish taxes on such essential products; it may recoup any losses resulting therefrom by increasing taxes on firewater and coffin nails aka cigarettes.
Wednesday 25th November 2020
The UNP has not yet been able to appoint its National List MP. There are many contenders for the post, but the UNP old guard wants party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed; he, however, seems to be in two minds.
Former Minister Arjuna Ranatunga has said the country will gain if Wickremesinghe enters Parliament via the National List because the latter will be able to help the government save the economy. The immediate task before Wickremesinghe is to save the party and not anything else. Charity, they say, begins at home. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Wickremesinghe is an experienced politician, and, therefore, better qualified than anyone else to represent the UNP in Parliament.
Even if Ranil were to be brought back to Parliament as the Opposition Leader, he would not be able to influence the government’s economic policy. The current regime, intoxicated with power, is obdurate and impervious to reason; and not even Sakra will be able to knock any sense into its grandees who are full of themselves.
The Opposition, however, may benefit if Ranil returns to Parliament, for it is short of good debaters to take on the government. The Opposition is apparently all at sea; it could have scored heavily in the ongoing parliamentary debate on Budget 2021, which has some gaping holes, which need to be highlighted. Most of its MPs have been barking up the wrong tree; it is doubtful whether they have even read and understood the budget properly. They, save one or two, confine their remarks to generalities instead of addressing specifics, and the vital aspects of the budget have, therefore, gone unaddressed. What really matters in parliamentary debates is not the numerical strength of a party, but the quality of arguments its members put forth. How legends like Sarath Muttetuwegama held out against the mighty JRJ government, which had a five-sixths majority in Parliament, comes to mind.
Is Ranil capable of helping the government save the economy, as Ranatunga has claimed? If so, why couldn’t he straighten up the economy when he was the Prime Minister and de facto head of state? If he had developed the economy in keeping with his pre-2015 promises, the UNP would not have been in the current predicament. The blame for the failure of the yahapalana government cannot be laid entirely at the feet of former President Maithripala Sirisena.
True, Sirisena, as the President, sought to settle political scores with the UNP and threw a monkey wrench in the works towards the latter part of the yahapalana government, but the UNP had time from January 2015 to mid-2018, to develop the economy. Instead of doing so, it got embroiled in various frauds such as the Treasury bond scams, which led to its undoing.
All politicians look capable when they are in the Opposition. They tell governments what to do and how to do it, but when given mandates to govern the country, they fail miserably. The leaders of the current dispensation, during their Opposition days, ridiculed the yahapalana government for its failure to tackle the country’s burning problems, which are legion, and undertook to magic them away immediately after capturing power. People gave them three huge mandates at the local government, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. They are now ensconced in power, living high on the hog, but the country’s problems are far from over. They cannot even ensure that the gazettes they put out at a rate are implemented. It looks as if we had another NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) government.
Governance in this country has been a process of self-proclaimed messiahs becoming failures and vice versa. Regrettably, people have had to replace one set of failed messiahs with another, hoping for deliverance. Madness has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
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