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Pay, perks and the National List



The ninth Parliament was formally opened by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday and all but handful of the 225 new MPs have now taken their oaths. The UNP remains divided about who will take its single slot. Veteran senior John Amaratunga has staked a claim while others believe that the position should be reserved for the yet-to-be-appointed new leader. There is a very public tussle going on for the prize between two well known Buddhist monks of the Apey Janabala Pakshaya (Our People’s Force Party) with a third layman lurking on the wings. The party’s secretary who had nominated himself for the place has disappeared and is not to be found. Social media was abuzz a few days ago with a Youtube recording of this monk alleging that he was running away from a kind of thuggery that would have done the underworld proud. Where the saga will end remains to be seen. A couple of other newly elected MPs, including one with a High Court death sentence hanging over him, were ‘no shows’ but one new MP arrived with a prison escort from jail where he is remanded on a murder charge. As a party leader, Pillayan as he was known in his LTTE days, made a speech congratulating the new speaker. He said he was able to be present for the inaugural session in the face of great difficulties. He had learned that the process would have to be repeated every single time for him to attend future sessions and he wanted the speaker to protect his privileges.

Readers may recollect a previous occasion when the secretary of a left wing political formation nominated himself for the single national list position won by his group. This group, comprising remnants of the old left wiped out by JRJ’s 1977 landslide, had unanimously agreed that the highly respected and accomplished Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva should take the slot. But he was terminally ill at the time and could not take his oaths. Colvin’s passing left the place vacant for several months before the party secretary of the day nominated himself for the vacancy. This is the way the game is played in what is formally proclaimed as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. We have set out this background in the context of the reality that membership of Parliament confers on both the elected and unelected MPs pay, perks and benefits of a sort that is clearly unaffordable in a country like ours. That, plus the illegitimate earnings easily possible, obviously attracts undesirables. Older readers might remember a cartoon by W.R. Wijesoma at the time the Sirima Bandaranaike government hosted the Non-Aligned Conference in Colombo in 1976. A group of visiting delegates were depicted at the entrance of their posh hotel watching the opulent limousines drawing up under the porch; one tell the other: “It’s hard to believe that this is a poor developing country.” That applies also to benefits heaped on our legislators forgetting what is made on the ‘fringe.’

Now that the government is committed to abolishing 19A and drafting a new constitution including changing the system of elections, the time is right for seriously considering whether we need as many as 25 National List MPs in our 225-member legislature. Time was when our Parliament had 101 members, 95 elected and six appointed to “represent unrepresented interests.” These included the (disgracefully) disenfranchised plantation Tamils, Burghers, Malays and the then remaining British interests in the country. Both Mr. S. Thondaman (Snr.) of the Ceylon Workers Congress and his bete noir, Abdul Azeez of the Democratic Workers Congress held these positions depending on who formed the government. But today’s 25-strong National List is absolutely unconscionable. It was stated that its purpose was to bring persons of repute and ability to Parliament but we can offhand think of only the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar who filled that bill. After the 2015 general election President Sirisena appointed a clutch of defeated MPs on the National List. He attempted to justify those appointments claiming that the SLFP from which party he defected, despite fielding them as candidates, had worked hard to ensure their defeat. What is galling about the National List is that it confers patronage opportunities to party leaders who did themselves no credit in choosing many of the candidates run by both sides at the last election.

There is a public demand that at least this time round, the powers-that-be dispense with the practice of distributing duty free vehicle permits to legislators. It is too early yet for any public pronouncement on this subject to made by those who matter right now. Given the size of the mandate and the flush of victory still on their faces, making enemies of your parliamentarians by making unpopular pronouncements makes no sense whatever. But that decision must be taken when the time is right. Doing the right thing entails many pitfalls, as President Premadasa learned when the impeachment motion hit him. That was a time hew set bloodhound on MPs selling their duty free vehicles on ‘open’ papers. Given the kind of customs duty charged on imported vehicles, we do not need to labour over what these permits are worth. The people are very well aware of the kind of bucks that have been made hawking them. Apart from legislators, various others ranging from higher level public servants, university teachers, government doctors and many more benefit from this confetti thrown around with gay abandon for a very long time regardless of the hardships ordinary people suffer on a daily basis. The inevitable covid virus-related economic downturn is yet to hit the nation’s solar plexus as hard as it will. When that time comes, it will present an opportunity for our leaders to demonstrate their caliber by themselves making the sacrifices they will ask of those who voted them into office.


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Trickery and duplicity



Wednesday 17th August, 2022

The SLPP MPs are said to be divided on provision in the 22nd constitutional amendment Bill for the dissolution by the President of Parliament two and a half years after the formation of a government. The ruling party MPs loyal to the Rajapaksas are reportedly demanding that the constitutionally prescribed period be extended to four and a half years, but the dissident SLPP MPs and the Opposition are said to be convinced otherwise; they reportedly favour the current time limit.

Adversity or expediency may make strange bedfellows but they do not necessarily trust one another in cloak-and-dagger politics. They see more devils than vast hell can hold, and are ready to sink their poniards in each other’s back if they feel that is the way they could protect their interests. What happened during the now infamous Yahapalanaya may serve as an example.

The political marriage of convenience between the SLFP and the UNP in 2015 brought a group of highly ambitious politicians together but these elements were suspicious of one another and had their long knives at the ready and put them to good use three years later. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, who won the 2015 presidential race with the help of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, sacked the latter as the Prime Minister and appointed their mutual enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa to that post in a bid to appoint an SLFP-led government at the expense of the UNP.

Sirisena went so far as to dissolve Parliament only to have his executive order quashed by the Supreme Court. He made that deplorable move because he felt that the UNP was undermining him politically.

The SLPP, which made Wickremesinghe the President, seems to fear that he might do a Sirisena in case he falls out with the Rajapaksas.

The 20th Amendment has strengthened the executive presidency, and President Wickremesinghe is far more powerful than President Sirisena was during the Yahapalana government. Ironically, most of the SLPP MPs who voted en bloc for the 20th Amendment, enabling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament after the expiration of two and a half years of its life, are all out to prevent President Wickremesinghe from doing so!

The Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe the President to keep him on a string and have caused the Sword of Medamulna to hang from a saataka over his head. They will not be able to control the President if he can dissolve Parliament, for he will not hesitate to leverage this power in case of the SLPP trying to undermine him. He will be able to use of the ruling party MPs’ fear of Parliament being dissolved to make them fall in line: most SLPP lawmakers know that their chances of re-election are remote.

The only way to prevent the President from exercising his or her power to dissolve Parliament is to move an impeachment motion against him or her. But it is highly unlikely that the SLPP will resort to such a course of action: it has lost its two-thirds majority in the House. Having witnessed the disastrous situation during the latter stages of the Yahapalana government, especially the neglect of national security and the resultant Easter Sunday carnage, one can only hope that the Executive and the ruling party will not be at loggerheads again.

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Heroes and villains



Tuesday 16th August, 2022

The government has delisted some expatriate Tamil groups considered sympathetic to the LTTE’s cause, and drawn heavy flak from a section of the ruling SLPP and the nationalistic organisations that backed it to the hilt at the past several elections. The SLPP leadership has chosen to remain silent on the issue, and it will be interesting to know its stance on the delisting of the Tamil groups that it once demonised. It made Ranil Wickremesinghe the President to do its bidding. Is the tail now wagging the dog?

Why were the aforesaid Tamil organisations banned? Have the factors that led to their proscription ceased to be, over the past few years, for them to be delisted under the present dispensation, which is an extension of the Rajapaksa rule in all but name? If not, what has prompted the government to delist them, and doesn’t its action amount to an admission that those outfits were wrongfully proscribed, or it has acted out of expediency rather than principle or any concern for the national interest, which it claims to protect?

It was the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) that initiated action to proscribe some expatriate Tamil groups, claiming that they posed a threat to national security. The SLPP led by the Rajapaksas campaigned on a national security platform at the presidential election (2019) and the parliamentary polls (2020) and secured huge popular mandates to govern the country in keeping with its national security strategy among other things. Does the SLPP think the delisting of the Tamil groups at issue is consistent with its mandates, on the basis of which it continues to rule the country?

The SLPP, which elected President Wickremesinghe, with whose blessings the delisting in question has been effected, owes an explanation to the public.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who represents the nationalistic forces that made the SLPP’s victory possible and are full of praise for President Wickremesinghe for having got tough with the Galle Face protesters and stood up to the Colombo-based western diplomats, to the government’s volte-face on the proscription of the pro-Eelam groups.

Needless to say, when a government does exactly the opposite of what it promises in its election manifesto, for which it obtains popular support, its mandate becomes delegitimised. The key pledges in SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy programme presented to the people and what the government is doing at present are like chalk and cheese, to say the least. One is reminded of a ruse in days of yore; some men, on their wedding days, much to their surprise, found that their brides were the elder sisters of the pretty women they had agreed to marry! Something similar has happened to the Sri Lankans who voted for Gotabaya; they have got Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President courtesy of the SLPP!

The leaders and members of the Tamil expatriate groups that have been delisted will now be able to visit this country. But war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya, who became the President, has fled the country and is in self-exile. President Wickremesinghe has gone on record saying that he does not think the time is opportune for Gotabaya to return home. Speculation is rife that some former LTTE members in detention will be released as part of a political deal the government has cut with the TNA. If the government carries out its pledge to the TNA, those ex-Tigers will walk free. Is it that Gotabaya, as the President, did something far worse than unleashing or supporting terrorism? All the SLPP politicians who were also responsible for bankrupting the country are still in the incumbent government, and some of them are Cabinet ministers although most of them should be behind bars. So much for the change the Aragalaya has brought about!

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To dock or not to dock



Monday 15th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is like a storm-tossed bark struggling to remain afloat in an ocean of economic trouble; it is lucky to have avoided a head-on collision with a massive Chinese vessel, Yuan Wang 5 (YW-5), a ballistic missile and satellite-tracking ship, which is on its way to Hambantota. Colombo has finally stopped dillydallying and decided to allow the vessel to make a port call. India and the US have softened their collective stance on the Chinese ship’s visit. It was thought that the YW-5 issue would lead to a bitter diplomatic row with India, and if what was feared had come to pass with New Delhi cranking up pressure on Colombo to deny YW-5 permission to dock, it would have been a double whammy for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the restructuring of Chinese debt to secure the much-needed IMF bailout package, and cannot afford to antagonise India, which is propping up its economy. All’s well that ends well.

There are lessons to be learnt from the ship controversy. Colombo was initially all at sea. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government seemed divided on the issue with vital information one needed to figure out the provenance of the issue being suppressed. So, the arguments and counterarguments anent the issue were based on surmises, hunches, assumptions, hearsay, etc. Thankfully, the Foreign Ministry has put the record straight albeit belatedly.

It behoves Sri Lanka to be mindful of India’s security concerns in handling maritime affairs. Perhaps, it is not the scheduled arrival of YW-5 as such that New Delhi was concerned about but the possibility of China continuing to use the Hambantota Port to berth more such vessels in the future. (China would not have secured a port in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean for nothing!) It is only natural that India and its QUAD allies think China is testing the water.

It is the voice of the QUAD that one has heard through the critics of the YW-5 voyage. There is reason to believe that they are promoting a US-led drive to isolate China internationally. YW-5 embarked on its current voyage amidst a Chinese naval exercise near Taiwan in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taipei notwithstanding objections from Beijing.

Colombo has acted tactfully by reportedly asking India and the US to specify the reasons for their misgivings about the Chinese vessel’s port call. However, it defies comprehension why Colombo requested Beijing to defer the arrival of YW-5 at Hambantota for replenishment, after granting permission.

Meanwhile, the argument that China is sending its survey vessel all the way to Hambantota to spy on South India does not sound tenable. In fact, it reflects naivety on the part of those who make that claim, for China is equipped to spy on its rivals without taking the trouble of deploying its ships and drawing international attention to such missions unnecessarily. In this day and age, technology is so advanced that information about even what lies at the edge of the universe, as it were, could be gathered without any craft ever getting anywhere near it.

Sri Lanka is already battered and bruised enough economically and certainly does not want any diplomatic rows to contend with. It has to get its foreign policy right. It had better take steps to avoid issues like the docking of YW-5 in the future lest it should become a victim of the big-power rivalry, which is intensifying; it ought to decide what types of ships will be allowed to berth at its ports, formulate a policy to that effect and make it known to the rest of the word so that unnecessary controversies could be averted, and hegemonic nations bent on projecting their power on a global scale will not be able to flex their naval muscles at the expense of Colombo.

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