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Editorial

Port City and wisdom of past leaders

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Wednesday 2nd June, 2021

The Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) members have been appointed. They are from diverse backgrounds and considered capable, but to expect them to be free to act according to their conscience is to be overoptimistic. Freedom is a luxury that even judiciaries lack in this part of the world. Most committees and commissions have become mere rubber stamps here.

Resistance continues to mount against the Port City project, with the US leading the charge. Now, there are no legal barriers for China, but problems are far from over for Sri Lanka, which will have to face another turn of the human rights screw in Geneva or other such hostile actions on various fronts. The opponents of China’s increasing presence here in the form of investment projects should realise that they are also responsible for this situation. They have, in fact, pushed Sri Lanka into what they have chosen to call the Chinese debt trap.

Sri Lanka would not have been dependent on China so much, if the western powers had responded to its distress calls, over the years. Their attempts to use the armed conflict here to further their geo-political interests on the pretext of helping resolve it through negotiations made Sri Lanka still more dependent on China. Had they helped defeat the LTTE and used their taxpayers’ money to assist the state of Sri Lanka instead of lavishing it on their wine-and-cheese brigade in the NGO sector, the situation here would have been different. It was also their callous disregard for Sri Lanka’s appeals for assistance that paved the way for the first historic trade pact between Sri Lanka and China.

In the early 1950s, Sri Lanka’s efforts to secure a loan of USD 50 million from the US besides favourable prices for its rubber exports and rice imports, during a severe shortage of rice and an economic crisis came a cropper. The Dudley Senanayake government was left with no alternative but to turn to China for help. In 1952, the then Minister of Commerce, R. G. Senanayake, successfully negotiated the now famous Rubber-Rice pact with China amidst stiff resistance not only from the US and its allies, but also from some government members such as Finance Minister J. R. Jayewardene. The current hostile campaign spearheaded by the US against the Colombo Port City and other Chinese investment projects in Sri Lanka reminds us of the situation here about seven decades ago. The US and other western powers should take notice of what R. G. Senanayake said in Parliament (as quoted by the late Dr. J. B. Kelegama in his keynote address at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rubber-Rice pact): “We waited for foreign aid, foreign assistance. As you know Sir, over and over again, we made appeals for Point Four aid, we waited four long years. We have got in the form of assistance only a cook for the Kundasale Girls’ School. Therefore, in these circumstances, it was necessary that we should go where it was possible to get our requirements.”

The 1952 trade pact was a win-win situation for both nations—China got rubber and Sri Lanka rice. Some economists are of the view that the agreement was more favourable to Sri Lanka in that China supplied rice at lower prices and purchased rubber at higher prices. Dr. Kelegama has referred to this agreement as the first instance of South-South economic cooperation.

China has always stood by Sri Lanka, but as for the pacts signed between the two nations in recent years, it is doubtful whether the spirit of cooperation has remained the same. Dr. Kelegama has pointed out that (R. G.) Senanayake praised China in a Cabinet paper thus: “We noted on the Chinese side the absence of the spirit of bargaining and haggling on comparatively small points. On the other hand, they gave us the impression of being large-minded and forthright in their dealings”. This, we are afraid, cannot be said of China anent the deals it has struck with Sri Lanka in recent years; these agreements are loaded in favour of China. The original draft of the CPCEC Bill contained about 25 sections that were inconsistent with the Constitution; the government must have prepared the controversial document at the instance of China, or with a view to humouring it. Thankfully, a judicial intervention helped get rid of those sections, which have however left a bad taste in many a mouth and become grist for the anti-China campaigners backed by the US.

If the present-day Chinese and Sri Lankan leaders are desirous of preventing prejudice against Chinese investment here being whipped up to the point of public opinion turning against them, they had better emulate their far-sighted, illustrious predecessors who were wise and considerate enough to ensure that their actions were mutually beneficial to both nations.



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Editorial

When villains guffaw and heroes whine

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Wednesday 23rd June, 2021

A sardonic witticism attributed to Einstein describes insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How successive Sri Lankan governments have sought to solve the problem of periodic rice shortages created by a group of powerful millers is a textbook example of insanity in the Einsteinian sense. Their modus operandi has been to import rice. Theoretically, this method should work, but it has failed to be a remedy due to market manipulation by the unscrupulous millers, as we have argued in previous comments.

A cartel of millers was making huge profits at the expense of the public to the tune of Rs. 20 a kilo of rice, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage told Parliament yesterday, claiming that the government was left with no alternative but to import 100,000 MT of rice immediately to bring down prices. He said the government’s paddy stocks had run out.

Aluthgamage, however, made no revelation. That some powerful millers exploit both the farmer and the consumer with impunity is public knowledge.

When the shipments of rice arrive, the big-time millers release some of their stocks, causing prices to fall before the next harvest period. Imported rice does not suit the local consumer’s palate and, therefore, most of it remains unsold in warehouses. Thereafter, the millers’ cartel buys paddy from farmers at extremely low prices, and hoards it causing prices to rise, again. Thus, they get the best of both worlds. The imported rice rotting away in government warehouses goes for a song as animal feed in the end, and those responsible for rice imports laugh all the way to the bank.

The previous government is alleged to have caused a loss of about Rs. 10 billion to the state coffers due to rice imports. Farmers’ associations have accused some key public officials of colluding with the millers’ mafia. How much the state coffers will lose due to rice imports under the present dispensation remains to be seen.

The government must take action to prevent the hoarding of rice and have the hoarded rice released to the market forthwith. Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena has gone on record as saying that in dealing with hoarders, the government cannot act like a thug. Curiously, some of the present-day leaders are believed to have a history of having television stations, newspaper printing presses, etc., burnt down and their rivals including journalists killed. How come they act with restraint in handling the rice Mafia? Anyway, if the existing laws lack teeth and do not provide for tough action needed to prevent hoarding, let new ones be made fast to tame the exploitative millers. After all, the government keeps bragging about its two-thirds majority in Parliament, and, therefore, legislating for the people’s interests to be safeguarded should be child’s play for it. The Opposition will have to support such a move or incur much public opprobrium.

The task of taming the millers’ cartel requires urgent action to develop the Paddy Marketing Board, as a national priority, rid it of bribery and corruption, and ensure that small-time millers receive loans to purchase paddy without undue delays. They complain that banks, at the behest of some wealthy millers, delay their loans, and by the time funds are made available, there is hardly any paddy for them to buy.

What makes governments baulk at adopting stern action to tame the rice Mafia is that influential politicians benefit from the largesse of the wealthy millers, who have huge slush funds.

Two of the big-time millers who stand accused of manipulating the prices of rice through hoarding, etc., are closely connected with the present dispensation. They are Dudley Sirisena, younger brother of SLPP MP and former President Maithripala Sirisena, and State Minister Siripala Gamlath, who is related to the Sirisena family. This may explain why the heroes in the current government are all hat and no cattle or ‘float like bees and sting like butterflies’ when they ‘take on’ the rice Mafia.

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Editorial

Witch-hunt begins?

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Tuesday 22nd June, 2021

 

Old habits are said to die hard. Some SLPP leaders have reverted to their old ways even before the government has completed one year in office. They do not seem to learn from their past blunders that cost them dear politically; they are busy settling personal scores with one another, the way they did towards the latter part of the previous Rajapaksa government, whose leaders committed political hara-kiri by trifling with some UPFA seniors and even trying to smoke them out.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam is openly clashing with some Cabinet ministers. He has audaciously demanded Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s resignation over the fuel price increases. Minister of Industries Wimal Weerawansa’s wings are being clipped, to all intents and purposes; his ministry has been stripped of Lanka Phosphate Ltd. (LPL). The government has sought to justify its action by claiming that the institutions involved in fertiliser production should be under the Agriculture Ministry.

Now that LPL has been placed under the Agriculture Ministry, one can only hope that it will not face the same fate as the so-called peripheral forests, whose management the government craftily removed from the purview of the Forest Department and placed under the District and Divisional Secretaries, on the pretext of helping the people engaged in traditional agriculture. This move enabled the SLPP henchmen to encroach on forests, pretending to be farmers.

The Auditor General and others on a mission to protect vital state assets should keep a watchful eye on LPL, which is said to be making profits at present; Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage must be held accountable if LPL backslides. It is no secret that various racketeers have been eyeing this state-owned venture for a long time; there are some government cronies among them. They must be licking their chops. The sky is the limit for these elements, as evident from the manner in which the government reduced import duty on sugar to help one of its financiers make a killing at the expense of the state coffers, which suffered colossal losses amounting to billions of rupees, as a result. MONLAR (Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform), which is at the forefront of protecting farmers’ rights, has warned of a sinister move to divest LPL in the long run. This warning should be taken seriously.

The Opposition is not playing its cards well where the government’s political woes are concerned. The SJB leaders do not seem to have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which says, among other things, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” They seem to be convinced otherwise; they have resorted to offensive action while their political enemies are clashing, and in so doing, they have only prompted the SLPP dissenters to make common cause. They have undertaken to move a no-faith motion against Minister Gammanpila, and unwittingly provided the government with a fresh rallying point. Now, even the SLPP MPs who are desirous of seeing the back of Gammanpila will have to support him when the motion of no confidence against him is put to the vote in Parliament. In 2018, the Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa made a similar mistake by trying to oust the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had become extremely unpopular among the UNF MPs. Their betise turned out to be a lifeline for the crumbling yahapalana government; even the bitterest critics of Wickremesinghe in the UNP circled the wagons, and he emerged stronger.

The government is in the same predicament as a person afflicted with an autoimmune disease; it has turned against itself. It is harming itself in such a way that the Opposition does not have to do anything. So, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa can relax, or devote his time and energy to devising a way to ward off threats former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is expected to pose to the SJB after entering Parliament as a National List MP.

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Editorial

Dan sepada?

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Monday 21st June, 2021

Sri Lanka police, more often than not, draw heavy flak from the public as well as human rights activists for inaction. Complaints abound that they cite their involvement with pandemic control as the reason for their failure to carry out their regular duties and functions properly. But they have proved their critics wrong––for once. On Friday, ink was barely dry on a complaint against a person when they swooped on him and bundled him into a paddy wagon. What was the offence he had allegedly committed? He had asked Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando, over the phone, “Dan sepada?” (This is a rhetorical question Sri Lankans ask someone who, they think, has got his comeuppance.) The suspect has been described as one of Fernando’s many critics.

Mayor Fernando recently got his just deserts after kicking up a stink at a vaccination centre in Moratuwa, where he turned aggressive and tried to impose his will on a group of health workers, who refused to give first dibs on the jab to those who carried ‘chits’ issued by him. Exasperated and piqued, he barked at the health officials obstructing as he did their work. It became too embarrassing for his political masters to shield him, and he was arrested when he surrendered to the police. He was remanded and bailed out. A person who obstructed a group of Public Health Officers engaged in pandemic control, at Atalugama, last year, was sentenced to jail. Whether Mayor Fernando will face the full force of the law similarly remains to be seen.

The police just looked on while Fernando was ranting and raving, and obstructing the state officials engaged in administrating the life-saving vaccine. Thereafter, they patiently waited until he came to the police station of his own volition. But they arrested in double-quick time, the person who called him!

What is the law under which the aforementioned caller has been arrested? This is something the Bar Association of Sri Lanka should take up with the police, whom it has rightly urged not to abuse the law to suppress the people’s democratic rights.

If it is an offence that warrants arrest to ask ‘dan sepada?’ from someone over the phone or otherwise, then the question is why no action has been taken against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who kept on asking the people the same question, in public, from 2015 to 2019, while they were suffering under the yahapalana government, which blundered on every front. In fact, it is he who popularised this rhetorical question, which became the main campaign slogan of the SLPP to all intents and purposes. The boot is now on the other foot, and the current Opposition is asking it from the people, who are facing numerous hardships, having voted the SLPP into office.

Interestingly, the person who asked the public, ‘Dan sepada?’ went on to become the Prime Minister, and the elector who asked the same question from a local government politician has got arrested!

It is evident from the arrest in question that the police can act stunningly fast if they choose to do so. If only there had been the same high-octane performance, which smacks of selective efficiency, on their part when they received warnings of the impending Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, or at least when they launched a probe after the tragedy. If they had arrested Zahran, the leader of the National Thowheed Jamaath, when they were informed that he would lead a group of terrorists on a suicidal mission to attack churches, etc., the tragedy could have been prevented. The mastermind of the carnage is believed to be at large, and the police are groping in the dark, and making false claims.

People had very high hopes when they elected the present government, whose leaders promised them the moon. But today they cannot even ask their beloved representatives a question over the phone without getting arrested. The aforementioned poor elector from Moratuwa is lucky that the person he telephoned is only a glorified local government politician. Had he asked that question from someone in the top echelons of government, perhaps fighter jets would have been scrambled. So much for the people’s ability to exercise their democratic rights including the freedom of expression under the current regime, which has got stuck in the same rut as the yahapalana dispensation and lost direction.

Dan sepada?

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