Tuesday 17th January, 2023
Former President Maithripala Sirisena has broken his silence about last week’s Supreme Court verdict. Speaking at a public event, he has referred to the historic apex court order that he pay Rs. 100 million as compensation to the Easter Sunday victims for his failure to prevent a series of terrorist bomb blasts, in 2019, when he was the President. He has said he respects the judiciary but has no money to pay as much as Rs. 100 million and will therefore seek his friends’ help to raise funds.
All Sri Lankan politicians, especially former Presidents, would have the public believe that they are in indigence, as it were, but the comforts of life are certainly far from lacking for them. They and their progeny continue to live high on the hog. They own palatial houses, here and overseas, and fleets of luxury vehicles. Their children are members of the leisure class and splurge on ultra-expensive vehicles, designer wear and fairytale weddings while the ordinary youth are working their fingers to the bone to make ends meet.
Sirisena’s claim at issue reminds us of something Basil Rajapaksa said years ago. Speaking at a local dairy farmers’ conference, during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Basil claimed that the only asset he had was a herd of milch cows! Pointing out that all members of the Rajapaksa family were wealthy, we asked editorially whether those animals were wish-granting cattle, and argued that the country’s poverty could be eradicated in next to no time if such cows were distributed among the needy. Basil must be the only small-scale Sri Lankan dairy farmer to live the life of Riley, owning properties in the US, flying first/business class and paying for VIP facilities at airports!
Sirisena says he has duly declared his assets and liabilities all these years and therefore anyone can see that he lacks the wherewithal to pay Rs. 100 million as compensation. But no one with an iota of intelligence expects the present-day politicians to declare their assets truthfully. Their asset declarations are like their election manifestos, which people do not take seriously. Sri Lankan politicians may not be intelligent enough to be able to develop the country but they are not so stupid as to have all their assets in their own names and declare them.
All Sri Lankan politicians have surplus campaign funds, which they invest through various fronts. Presidential candidates spend billions of rupees on their election campaigns, but not all the money they receive is spent on electioneering, as is public knowledge. Politicians help moneybags in numerous ways and benefit from the largesse of the latter in return. There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch, and that is especially true of presidential pardons. It is therefore hard to believe that political leaders, especially former Presidents, ever become penniless in this country.
Uruguay is perhaps the only country that has had a poor President. Jose Mujica, 87, is his name. He is currently in retirement. A former Tupamaro guerrilla, he led an austere lifestyle and donated part of his presidential salary to a charity, refused to occupy the official residence, and lived in his wife’s farmhouse. While serving as the President, he would wait in queues at government hospitals to receive treatment like ordinary people. The Sri Lankan leaders responsible for bankrupting the country and inflicting so much suffering on the public ought to emulate Mujica instead of living off the hapless public who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door.
Sirisena will have to beg, borrow or steal enough money to pay Rs. 100 million as compensation. That will however be the least of his problems, as it stands. The Catholic Church has said its struggle for justice will continue until criminal proceedings are instituted against him and others as per the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday terror strikes. The worst is yet to come for him.
Schools closed; taverns opened
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.
Acid test for JVP
Wednesday 21st February, 2024
Sri Lanka and India are planning to conclude the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) soon, according to media reports. The news about attempts being made to sign the controversial agreement expeditiously could not have come at a worse time for the JVP, which is mending fences with New Delhi and crowing about its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s recent India visit.
ETCA had to be shelved previously owing to vehement protests from Sri Lankan professional associations, civil society groups and political parties. Prominent among them was the JVP, which demonised ETCA, claiming that, if implemented, it would sound the death knell for Sri Lanka’s IT industry, etc.
There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch, and an all-expenses-paid junket is more so. One may argue that the invitation New Delhi extended to the JVP-led NPP, making the latter feel important, was aimed at furthering India’s economic interests more than anything else, given the JVP’s considerable trade union strength in the key sectors Indian ventures already have a presence in or are eyeing, such as ports, airports, power, energy and telecommunication and dairy farming. By smoothing over differences with the JVP, India has apparently sought to neutralise trade union resistance to the big fire sale the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is holding to dispose of Sri Lanka’s state assets that Indian business magnates, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rockefeller, Gautam Adani, have evinced a keen interest in acquiring.
Big powers have weaponised trade and commerce to further their expansionist interests. They also use chequebook diplomacy for that purpose. The JVP is trying to obfuscate the issue of its past terror campaign against what it termed Indian expansionism. Its current leaders have claimed no knowledge of their party’s initiating lecture on Indian expansionism! But in the late 1980s, the JVP brutally murdered quite a few traders for selling ‘Bombay’ onions in defiance of its blanket ban on goods imported from India so much so that the then Trade Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was compelled to rename Bombay onions ‘Lanka loku loonu’ (‘Lanka big onions’) to save lives. One may argue that those unfortunate incidents happened several decades ago, and the world has since changed. But the JVP’s opposition to ETCA cannot be dismissed as history.
Making a fiery speech at a seminar, ‘Trading, Sacrifice and ETCA’, in Colombo, on 20 Sept., 2016, JVP Leader Dissanayake said ETCA would pave the way for an influx of low-grade IT professional from India, causing the Sri Lankan youth to lose employment opportunities. He warned that if ETCA was signed, the future of the Sri Lankan youth would be in jeopardy. The JVP had launched a struggle to defeat the Yahapalana government’s efforts to sign ETCA, he said, vowing to go all out to achieve that goal.
The JVP claims to have a considerable following among the Sri Lankan youth, many of whom are employed in the IT sector, and therefore it will have to reveal its position on ETCA, which it considers a danger to Sri Lanka’s IT industry as well as other vital sectors.
What has become of the JVP’s struggle against ETCA? It will be interesting to see the JVP’s reaction to the signing of ETCA on the cards. Will the JVP leaders go all out to scuttle it in keeping with their pledge to do so, or will they choose to soft-pedal the issue lest they should antagonise India, which they are ingratiating themselves with? The possibility of the JVP putting up some resistance to ETCA half-heartedly and allowing the government to go ahead with the signing of the controversial agreement, cannot be ruled out.
Throttling democracy, the govt. way
Tuesday 20th February, 2024
The leaders of the SLPP-UNP government, troubled by the prospect of having to face elections, must be having sleepless nights. They are believed to be busy devising ways and means of putting off the presidential contest due in eight months or so. The President’s Office has however said the next presidential election will be held on schedule. The promises of governments in trouble are like pie crust; they are made to be broken.
Speculation is rampant in political circles that the government is planning to postpone the next presidential election on the pretext of abolishing the executive presidency. But there is no way the SLPP-UNP combine can muster a two-thirds majority for a bill seeking to scrap the executive presidency and have it approved by the people at a referendum. Is it planning to strangle elections financially, again? It stands accused of trying to halve the fund allocations for the presidential and parliamentary elections.
A statement issued by the Media Ministry, announcing the Cabinet decisions made on 05 Feb., 2024, said inter alia: “The Cabinet of Ministers considered that an allocation of Rs 10 billion has been made by the budget estimate for the year 2024, within the financial stamina of the government and those provisions have to be managed for covering the expenditure of the presidential election and general election (emphasis added).”
Executive Director of the Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies Manjula Gajanayake has pointed out that the Cabinet has halved the amount of funds needed for the presidential and parliamentary elections. We have quoted Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake as saying that the Election Commission needs Rs. 10 billion for the next presidential election, and Rs. 11 billion for the parliamentary polls due next year, and the two estimates were submitted to the government in August/September 2023.
The government has either revealed its hand unwittingly by making public the above-mentioned Cabinet decision or sent a trial balloon to gauge the reaction of the Opposition and the public to its move. Curiously, the Opposition has not taken up the issue.
The ministerial decision at issue could be considered an instance of the Cabinet overriding Parliament, which controls public finance. Gajanayake has rightly said President Ranil Wickremesinghe is using the Cabinet as a cat’s paw to postpone elections.
President Wickremesinghe has proved that he is no respecter of the separation of powers; he usurps the powers of Parliament, where he even tells the Opposition members to shut up. Checks and balances are the bulwark against the emergence of dictatorships. An unmistakable sign of a judiciary buckling under executive pressure, in any country, is the inexplicable postponement of judgements that are not favourable to those who are close to the powers that be.
Is it that the absence of stiff resistance to its refusal to allocate funds for the local government elections, in 2022, has emboldened the government to adopt the same modus operandi to put off other elections as well?
The government is keen to curtail its expenditure only when funds are required for elections! It is quite liberal with people’s money where its leaders’ spendthrift ways are concerned. The Treasury makes colossal amounts of funds readily available for the government politicians’ foreign junkets, perks, and state ceremonies, which are an utter waste of money.
Let the government be warned that by suppressing democracy, it is giving a big fillip to ultra-radical political forces with extra-parliamentary agendas, thriving on public resentment. It created conditions for Aragalaya, which was hijacked by extremists masquerading as saviours to compass their sinister ends; they almost succeeded in decapitating parliamentary democracy.
Unless the government mends its ways and stops throttling democracy, it will have a bigger uprising than Aragalaya to contend with sooner than expected. Public anger is reaching the tipping point, and it has to be defused through elections if disaster is to be averted.
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