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Editorial

Pay hikes, swings and roundabouts

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Wednesday 1st November, 2023

Trade unions usually go into overdrive to secure pay hikes in the run-up to the annual national budget. This time around, they have become desperate beyond measure for obvious reasons. They are demanding a substantial pay hike commensurate with the soaring cost of living. They have held several street demonstrations recently to pressure the government to grant them a 20,000-rupee salary increase from Budget 2024. They have even threatened to launch a strike unless the government considers their demand favourably.

Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena has said a pay hike for state employees is in the pipeline. Ironically, he has also announced that the Value Added Tax (VAT) will be increased from 15% to 18%. Upward revisions of indirect taxes lead to increases in the prices of goods and services, affecting all citizens. Thus, the government will give with one hand and take away with the other.

If the government resorts to excessive money printing by any chance to appease protesting state employees, inflation will increase, eroding the value of money and causing a decrease in real income across the board. It is, therefore, likely to be a case of swings and roundabouts for the state workers if they succeed in securing a pay hike, while others will be in a far worse situation without any means of cushioning the impact of the VAT increase on the cards.

The people are desperate for relief, and it is only natural that state employees are demanding a pay hike. In fact, they deserve what they are asking for, but obtaining salary increases at this juncture could be likened to drinking seawater to quench thirst. The protesting trade unions ought to take cognisance of this harsh reality when they make demands. An increase in the public sector salary bill will drive the government to boost its revenue at the expense of everyone.

Sri Lanka’s state sector is terribly overstaffed and inefficient. It has more than 1.5 million employees, whereas the country can manage with half that number. It is said that there is a public employee for every 14 Sri Lankans! Successive governments have blundered by using the state sector to provide employment to their supporters. The number of public sector workers has more than doubled during the past 15 years or so, as a result, according to media reports. The state is now struggling to pay their salaries, allowances, pensions, etc. Unless the number of state employees is brought down to a manageable level, the public will continue to bear the cost of maintaining excess workers.

Teachers are prominent among the state employees demanding a pay hike. The people maintain public schools and, at the same time, pay for their children’s private tuition. The growth of shadow education is such that one wonders whether it has rendered the state-run school system redundant. The Education Ministry has made attendance mandatory for students to apply for the GCE A/L as school candidates. But for this rule, the A/L classes in most government schools will be empty, with students opting for private tuition during school hours. There are some schools where teachers work conscientiously and students can sit competitive examinations confidently even without private coaching, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

The warring trade unions must be mindful of their duties and obligations while making various demands. The state sector consists of many shirkers and corrupt elements. Those characters also benefit from successful trade union battles. Trade unions do not seem concerned about this problem at all.

Trade unionists have a pivotal role to play in enhancing national productivity; they must ensure that their members earn their keep without being a burden on the public. It is with the help of trade unions that countries such as Japan have achieved their development goals.

Let the government and protesting trade unions be urged to act responsibly and fairly, heeding the interests of the public.



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Editorial

Duplicity of human rights champions

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Saturday 24th February, 2024

The West has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights and democracy in the world and meting out punishment to those who violate them. It has thus been able to weaponise human rights to compass its geopolitical interests. It manipulates the UN, especially the UNHRC, for that purpose. The western governments readily confer pariah status on the countries which they consider human rights violators; they even resort to extreme measures such as imposing economic sanctions and resorting to military action in the name of their human rights crusaders.

They went so far as to plunge Iraq and Libya into anarchy to oust Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, respectively, for human rights violations and endangering democracy, among other things. Strangely, they have done precious little to prevent genocidal violence Israel is unleashing against Palestinians in Gaza, where about 30,000 lives are reported to have already been lost due to Israeli attacks since 07 Oct. 2023.

The UK is at the forefront of the western crusade against the nations responsible for large-scale human rights violations and attacks on democracy. Given Britain’s much-advertised concern for human rights, one would have expected the British Parliament to make a unanimous call for a ceasefire in Gaza, where a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding.

But the British lawmakers are far from united in protecting the Palestinians’ human rights. On Wednesday, many of them stormed out of Parliament over a vote on a ceasefire in Gaza, throwing the House into turmoil. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle came under fire for being partial, and subsequently he apologised for the decision to go for a vote.

The Labour leaders said they could not support the motion moved by the SNP (Scottish National Party) calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, because it sought to condemn ‘collective punishment’ of the Palestinian people, and did not specify that the ceasefire it was asking for had to be observed by both Israel and Hamas. This, we believe, is an absurd argument.

If what is being inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza is not ‘collective punishment’ what is it? That all parties to a conflict have to observe a ceasefire goes without saying, and it defies comprehension why the Labour leaders made an issue of a non-issue. They should have mustered the courage to say that they did not want to antagonise Israel by supporting that motion.

Labour has been embroiled in an intraparty dispute over its policy towards the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and its MPs have been trying to serve self-interest rather than taking a principled stand and pushing for an immediate ceasefire to save lives in Gaza, where not even hospitals are safe. The Labour leaders, who are widely expected to win the next parliamentary election, are pandering to Washington, which is unflinchingly backing Israel to the hilt while paying lip service to human rights in Gaza.

Perhaps, the West has never been exposed for its duplicity in this manner, but it will not give up championing human rights and democracy, or rather using them as instruments to advance its geo-political agendas. It has no sense of shame.

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Editorial

Mystery Mansion of Malwana

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Friday 23rd February, 2024

The Mystery Mansion of Malwana is in the news again. Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe visited the supposedly ownerless palazzo, or rather the skeletal outlines thereof, the other day, and declared that it would be used to house a state institution after being renovated. The stately structure suffered an arson attack at the hands of violent protesters in 2022. The rebuilding project will be a drain on the public purse.

The story of the Mystery Mansion has all the ingredients for detective fiction. The imposing structure stood majestically on a 16-acre land almost overlooking the Kelani Ganga at the time of the 2015 regime change. The architect who designed the mansion and the person who paid for its construction are known, but its owner remains a mystery. The general consensus, however, was that it belonged to Basil Rajapaksa, who vehemently denied having anything to do with it.

The Yahapalana government did its best to trace the ownership of the manoir to Basil, but all its efforts were in vain. Not even the CID investigators handpicked by the Yahapalana leaders could prove that it was owned by a member of the Rajapaksa family. A case filed against Basil collapsed, and the ownership of the unclaimed mansion was vested in the state.

The news about nobody’s Mansion, as it were, could not have resurfaced at a more appropriate time, for it has evoked the people’s memories of the Yahapalana campaign against bribery and corruption and abuse of power by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. The Malwana chateau became a symbol of the acquisition of ill-gotten wealth, an issue that Yahapalana leaders, especially Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, flogged very hard in a bid to sway public opinion against the Rajapaksa family. Their efforts bore fruit; Sirisena became President and Wickremesinghe Prime Minister in 2015.

Those who voted the Yahapalana politicians into power, expected Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and their allies, including the JVP, to have the Rajapaksas punished for corruption, etc. But nothing of the sort happened, as is public knowledge, and the Yahapalana regime became corrupt instead and was exposed for the Treasury bond scams. The JVP continued to back the UNP-led government despite the latter’s corruption; it helped PM Wickremesinghe retain a parliamentary majority vis-à-vis attempts by President Sirisena to wrest control of Parliament with the help of the Rajapaksas.

Today, Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksasa are in the same government, savouring power and living the high life while the people are undergoing untold hardships. The JVP, which controlled the Yahapalana government’s anti-corruption committee to all intents and purposes but failed to fulfil its promise to have the Rajapaksas and their cronies thrown behind bars, is seeking a popular mandate to fight corruption! The SJB seems to think the public has forgotten that its leaders were Cabinet ministers in the UNP-led Yahapalana government and had no qualms about defending the Treasury bond racketeers and supporting PM Wickremesinghe.

The Mystery Mansion of Malwana, in our book, is a monument to the duplicity of the leaders of the current regime and the self-proclaimed champions of democracy, who denounce violence during the day but unflinchingly engage in it at night, and above all, the stupidity of the Sri Lankan public, who voted the Rajapaksas into power again in 2019/2020. Going by the barbaric manner in which an organised group of violent elements in the garb of democrats unleashed retaliatory violence countrywide in 2022, following an SLPP goon attack on Aragalaya protesters, one can imagine how aggressive they would turn in protecting their extremist interests if they succeeded in capturing state power by infusing the desperate public with false hope.

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Editorial

Schools closed; taverns opened

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Thursday 22nd February, 2024

Government politicians wax eloquent, to the point of queasiness, about their grand plans to develop the education sector and prepare the country for future opportunities and challenges. They claim to be on an ambitious mission to align education with job market requirements, both there and overseas, by modernising the state-run schools, universities and other seats of learning. But between saying and doing many a pair of shoes is said to be worn out.

There are 10,146 state-run schools in Sri Lanka. Of them 9,750 are under Provincial Councils; 396 are national schools. About 800 rural schools have been closed down in Sri Lanka during the past several decades, and many more are bound to face the same fate in the near future, we have reported, today, quoting Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin. There has been an alarming increase in the school dropout rate, he says. Instead of making a serious effort to prevent the closure of rural schools which cater to the poor, the incumbent government has chosen to open more liquor outlets throughout the country. It is under fire from the Opposition for having issued about 300 new liquor licences mostly to the ruling party MPs during the past one and a half years or so.

Former Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, MP, has said about 129,000 students have dropped out of school due to the current economic crisis; their parents find it extremely difficult to pay for their food, school supplies, transport, supplementary tuition, etc., he has said. This fact is borne out by the findings of a survey conducted by the Department of Census and statistics. But the government does not give a tinker’s cuss about this situation. Its priorities are different. While refusing to waive VAT (18%) on school supplies, it has slashed licence fees for taverns and liquor retailers!

Some government MPs frequently complain about high liquor prices and call for legalising cannabis cultivation. Never do these worthies take up vital issues such as the exorbitantly high cost of education, and the sad fate of underprivileged schools. Are the current rulers trying to overcome popular resistance to corruption and misgovernment on its watch by intoxicating the public? A pithy political slogan, which became popular during the J. R. Jayewardene government, comes to mind: ‘Amathilata kaar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—‘cars for ministers, liquor bars for their supporters and inebriation for the public’. It is hoped that the ruling party politicians will not push for the legalisation of the so-called zombie drug, which is said to cause hallucinations, delusions and a feeling of detachment from the world.

The closure of rural schools is said to be multifactorial. Some of the reasons for their predicament are prolonged neglect and the glaring urban bias in state resource allocation for education. Whatever the causes of the closure of underprivileged schools may be, the fact remains that proximity and easy accessibility help attract poor children to schools, especially today, when transport costs are prohibitive. If the rural schools are left to wither on the vine, the dropout rate among poor students will further increase, leading to various social issues.

It is time the government shifted its focus from opening taverns and slashing taxes, etc., for the benefit of liquor manufacturers to the need to develop the school system, which has been starved of funds. The opening of a school is tantamount to the closure of a prison, as a local saying goes. The government seems keen to open more prisons.

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