Wednesday 20th April, 2022
The youth protesting in Colombo have shown what they are capable of. They have taken the bull by the horns. Instead of taking up arms, they gathered in large numbers peacefully and raised a great shout, and the Walls of Jericho, as it were, protecting the ruling family collapsed. The Rajapaksas who roared, refused to listen to anyone else, and bulldozed their way through, are now cooing; they are even willing to do away with the 20th Amendment, which was intended to enable them to consolidate their grip on power, but became their undoing because the draconian powers therein went to their heads, and made them take leave of their senses.
The youth uprising has not only caused many heroes in the government to go into hiding but also made the Opposition grandees walk in the scorching sun for days. One may say the Opposition politicians have had to suffer in this manner by way of penance for their contribution to the ruination of the country and their failure to be an effective countervailing force against the Rajapaksa juggernaut.
What is this world coming to when even the Opposition politicians who call themselves progressive and honest fear the youth, who are demanding the ouster of the present-day rulers, and action to recover stolen public wealth and make this country a better place for everyone? Elated as one may be to see the government leaders cringe and cower, one feels sorry for the Opposition worthies who are making a desperate effort to hitch their wagons to the youth protesting at the Galle Face Green in a bid to gain some political mileage. None of them dare go anywhere near the protesting youth.
Pity the land whose political leaders fear the progressive youth fighting for their rights!
The significance of the intelligent, educated, patriotic youth from all ethnic and religious communities, protesting opposite the Old Parliament building, which is considered the cradle of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy, and demanding that all 225 MPs go home, may not have been lost on political observers. Their protest is tantamount to an indictment of all those who have ruled this country since Independence. However, it may not be fair to lump all leaders together; Sri Lankans have benefited tremendously from the altruism of great statesmen like C. W. W. Kannangara, who died penniless. The youth should not tar all politicians with the same brush; there are some good men and women in the current Parliament as well, and the baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater.
Protesters should also be pragmatic. But their call for a radical change is timely and should be heeded. A general election is the least desirable option at this juncture, given the deteriorating economic situation, the need for political stability without which the economy cannot recover, and the possibility of the next Parliament being hung in case of the country going to the polls soon. Therefore, the safest way to effect the radical change the youth seek, in our book, is the resignation of the government, followed by the appointment of a multi-party interim administration to calm down the incensed public and facilitate the work of those who are trying to save the economy.
The government has not stopped playing tricks on the protesting people. It has appointed a new Cabinet, most of whose members lack experience and expertise to tackle the present crises.
Meanwhile, protesters and politicians ought to learn from the youth who are occupying the Galle Face Green how to ratchet up pressure on the powers that be, without being a public nuisance or playing into the hands of the government, which is looking for an opportunity to unleash violence to crush protests.
One person was killed and several others were injured when the police opened fire on a group of protesters who were blocking a level crossing in Rambukkana, yesterday. The incident must be condemned unreservedly. Let the government be warned that no amount of police or military brutality will help neutralise People Power.
Challenges seemingly insurmountable
An internet blogger put it very well when he said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a man nobody wants and Ranil Wickremesinghe, a man nobody elected, are in command. We would add that the former obviously assured the latter, possessed of a parliamentary group comprising himself, that he would have the support of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to form a government. But things are clearly not moving the way GR intended – if he was sincere in his assurances – or the way Wickremesinghe expected when he agreed, as some commentators have said, to place his head on the chopping block. The president could not have been unaware that he does not control the SLPP and it will not necessarily bend to his will. Mahinda Rajapaksa remains influential and Basil Rajapaksa seems to be emerging from the shadows.
There are people who believed that GR expected RW to buy him time for a dignified exit perhaps via a constitutional amendment to abolish the executive presidency. This would take time and require a referendum. He obviously would not have selected a successor to his brother baying for his own blood. What shape the 21st Amendment, due to be examined by party leaders as this is being written, will eventually take nobody knows.; but the required give and take is lacking. The Bar Association and the opposition are clearly opposed to the prepared draft. Whether an acceptable compromise is possible remains dicey at the present moment. As Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, whose name was bandied about as a possibly acceptable prime minister, said last week any further delay in presenting the 21st Amendment will enrage the people. Jayasuriya did not seek the prime ministry but was reportedly willing to accept it for a limited period until the executive presidency was abolished and an election held.
The Galle Face protest is entering its 50th day and there are no signs whatever that its principal demand, GotaGoHome, is close to fruition. The protest did succeed in ensuring that Mahinda Rajapaksa quit. But not before the hopelessly botched attack on the protesters both outside Temple Trees and on the Galle Face green set the country ablaze. Nobody in his right mind will claim that the arson and looting unleashed on SLPP politicians both at national and provincial level were spontaneous. There was clearly an organization behind it and the law enforcers remained bystanders allowing the mayhem. Whether they supported the rioting or merely wanted to distance themselves in the aftermath of the Rambukkana incident where attempts to blame the police were made.
There is little doubt that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment was welcomed by the western nations and their allies. There has been tangible support, notably from India, and pledges of assistance from elsewhere. But there are no free lunches and readers will note a New Delhi datelined report on attempts to ‘solve’ the Katchativu issue.’ Whether the immediate problems of the fuel and gas shortages plus the impending food shortage will be effectively addressed remains to be seen. There have been promises – but who believes them? – of supplies and some positive signs that the queues outside filling stations and gas dealerships are easing. Laugfs is on record saying it was able to open letters of credit and it will be resuming supplies. Litro too is better placed than it was. While there is no magic wand for anybody to wave, there will be massive public relief if there are visible signs that at least the petrol/diesel and gas queues have eased.
The urgency accorded by the administration to prioritize compensation payable to the political victims of the post-Galle Face riots is deeply resented by the public. Questions are asked how many of those whose property was destroyed amassed the resources to acquire them. It is common knowledge that massive corruption in the country’s political class has long been endemic. In such a context, public resentment at what appears to be an unseemly hurry to compensate the victims is natural. The state undoubtedly bears a responsibility of compensating victims as the rioting was a result of a failure of law enforcement. But promised compensation for other sectors of the populations, farmers who suffered crop losses due to the government’s disastrous fertilizer policy for example, have not been paid. Little is done to compensate abjectly poor people whose huts, passing for homes, are destroyed by elephant attacks. So why the hurry to compensate politicians?
Many analysts and commentators are convinced that the country’s economic problems deserve priority over its political difficulties. But the two issues are interconnected. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is credited by many to possess the ability to better address the economic issues and some favourable movements in the right direction have been discerned since he assumed office. The appointment of the new Central Bank Governor, who like the PM, has laid bare the whole grim scenario has been widely welcomed. So also the ongoing engagement with the International Monetary Fund. But there is going to be no quick fix. Bridging finance to fund essential imports is urgently needed and we have to make our massive debts sustainable. There’s a long haul ahead, worse inflation compelled by continued money printing in the short term and the a clear lack of willingness by our bloated public sector to take a cut in their emoluments in the teeth of the country’s dire predicament.
Political compulsions vs rationality
Saturday 28th May, 2022
Reports that the public sector workers will be given a pay hike from the budget to be presented in a few weeks have stirred up a lot of controversy. One cannot bring oneself to be critical of a pay hike for workers, but the question is whether the government which is even without funds to pay the public workers their salaries will be able to grant them a pay hike. Is it planning to print more money? The government seems to have got cold feet due to adverse criticism of the alleged offer of a pay hike to the state sector, if a claim attributed to it is anything to go by; it has said the reports of the salary increase at issue are not true. One could only hope that it is telling the truth, for once, and will act sensibly without ruining the economy further.
One of the main reasons why the economy is in a tailspin is excessive money printing, which is the only thing the Rajapaksa government has done efficiently. Some leaders of the present dispensation and their officials went so far as to argue that money printing did not cause an increase in inflation! No wonder the economy deteriorated under the watch of these pundits. The current crisis has come about mainly due to economic mismanagement during the past few years. No less a person than IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has said the crisis here is owing to mismanagement, and therefore the most important thing to be done is to put the country back on a sound microeconomic footing. Massive tax cuts and duty waivers have caused a steep decline in state revenue. Therefore, besides the worst-ever foreign currency crunch the country is experiencing, there is a huge rupee crisis.
Colossal amounts of money already printed have caused soaring inflation and currency devaluation. Prices increase almost daily, and essentials are prohibitively expensive for most people, who are protesting. It is high time the government stopped printing money haphazardly for politically-motivated programmes, and heeded expert advice. The Central Bank (CB) is struggling to tame the runaway inflation by absorbing excess liquidity; it has increased interest rates by an unprecedented 700 basis points. Such measures are bound to make the economy contract, and adversely impact the private sector with about six million workers, in the short run, however essential they may be to contain inflation and ensure the country’s long-term economic wellbeing. What the CB is performing is a balancing act.
The business community has already warned of job losses in the private sector, and asked for a debt moratorium to prevent the collapse of many small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Yesterday, we quoted Chairperson of the Sri Lanka United National Businesses Alliance, Tania Abeysundara, as having said that around 4.5 million Sri Lankans employed in SMEs might lose their jobs in the coming months unless the government stepped in and assisted the businesses in trouble. This is a frightening proposition.Most workers deserve better pay. But pay hikes must not be politically determined, especially amidst an economic crisis, if further trouble is to be averted. The yahapalana government made the mistake of promising a huge salary increase to the public sector workers before the 2015 presidential election, and implementing its pledge to win the parliamentary polls a few months later, thereby causing an unnecessary stress on the economy. The incumbent administration has already increased the salaries of some categories of public sector employees including teachers and given a special allowance to all state sector workers besides distributing cash by way of relief for political reasons. A general election may have to be held sooner than expected. Let the government be urged to ensure that political compulsions do not overtake rationality in preparing the budget to be presented. The least it can do to help resolve the economic crisis is to leave the task of managing the economy to experts and give them a free hand. Everything it touches turns into a mess.
Running, hunting and flying trapeze
Friday 27th May, 2022
What was widely expected of the SLPP and the Opposition, by way of their contribution to resolving the current economic crisis, was the formation of a national unity government. Religious dignitaries and civil organisations campaigned hard to bring the warring parties together, and political leaders had the public believe that they were making a serious effort to form a multi-party Cabinet, but the mountain that laboured has brought forth a mouse—a deformed one at that.
Some of the newly-appointed ministers are at daggers drawn. They have turned hostile towards even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara continue to inveigh against the President. Fernando has, at a recent media briefing, repeated some of the allegations he levelled against the President and other members of the Rajapaksa family while he was in the Opposition. He and Nanayakkara are obviously trying to remain in the good books of the irate public by criticising the President and the SLPP while being members of the Rajapaksa government. But the problem with running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is that there comes a time when the person doing so does not know whether he/she is running or hunting.
It is hoped that the ongoing uneasy political cohabitation between the SLPP and a section of the Opposition does not exemplify a local saying about connubiality –– ‘even the shadow of a doomed marriage is crooked’. There should be a healthy relationship between the President and the Cabinet if the government is to be prevented from becoming a two-headed donkey that tries to pull in two different directions simultaneously. A toxic relationship between the President and the Cabinet or some members thereof takes its toll on the performance of a government, as has been our experience. We have witnessed such scenarios twice during the past two decades, or so.
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the UNF ministers including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe fought bitterly from 2001 to 2004. President Kumaratunga had to stomach many indignities at the hands of the UNF ministers. Their enmity stood the LTTE in good stead. President Kumaratunga finally sacked the UNF administration. There was a similar situation from 2015 to 2019; President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNF Cabinet including PM Wickremesinghe hardly did anything other than fighting so much so that the former sought to dislodge the UNP-led government and hold a general election only to be left with egg on his face courtesy of a landmark Supreme Court ruling against his rash executive action. Their clashes rendered the yahapalana government dysfunctional and led to national security being severely compromised; a group of terrorists struck with ease on 21 April 2019, destroying more than 270 lives in churches and hotels, as a result.
Meanwhile, Ministers and high-ranking state officials must not be at loggerheads. The need for a healthy relationship between the Cabinet and the bureaucracy for the country to face challenges, overcome crises and achieve progress cannot be overemphasised. When Basil Rajapaksa was the Finance Minister, it was reported that the then Central Bank (CB) Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal had not been able to meet him for months to discuss vital issues concerning the economy.
The Finance Minister and the CB Governor are like two aerialists who perform flying trapeze; they must have absolute faith in each other, and be adept at synchronised movements if disaster is to be averted. In the case of Sri Lanka’s economic circus, there is no safety net. A government must not expect the CB Governor to perform monetary pole dancing. One may recall that a CB chief who chose to display his skills on the pole in a bid to entertain his political masters, during the yahapalana government, had to flee the country, in the buff, as it were.
CB officials have recently revealed before the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) that they warned of an economic meltdown about two years ago, but their efforts to convince the government of the need to take urgent action to straighten up the economy were in vain. One could only hope that a similar situation will not happen again, and the political authority will listen to expert advice and do what needs to be done urgently to save the economy, and grant relief to the public calling out for help.
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