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Prelates’ uphill task



Tuesday 3rd May, 2022

All politicians representing the majority community huff and puff up the hills to Kandy all the way from Colombo, from time to time, and kneel before the Mahanayake Theras, seeking the latter’s advice on almost everything. They also present the first copies of their election manifestos to the prelates and receive blessings. But they neither scruple to renege on their election pledges nor follow the Maha Sangha’s counsel. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa are among those who often visit the Mahanayake Theras.

It is heartening that Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatte Chapter of the Siyam Maha Nikaya, Most Venerable Tibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, has decided not to meet politicians at his temple in protest against their refusal to heed a memorandum the Mahanayake Theras have sent them, spelling out how the present crisis could be resolved. Other prelates should emulate his example.

The Buddhist prelates and other religious leaders have come forward to help resolve the present crisis, and put forth several proposals, the main being the formation of an all-party interim administration, which they want to govern the country and stabilise the economy with the help of a committee of experts to be set up, before holding a general election for the people to elect a new government. Curiously, the politicians who called for an interim administration are now backpedalling instead of supporting the ongoing efforts to tackle the crisis.

The Mahanayake Theras have their work cut out to secure the support of the political leaders for the implementation of their proposals.

President Rajapaksa is reported to have agreed in principle to form an interim administration. Prime Minister Rajapaksa makes conflicting statements; he says he will continue to be the PM, but at the same time he says the President is free to appoint a new PM. Even if the President brings himself to form an interim administration at the expense of his elder brother, Mahinda, he is not likely to succeed in his endeavour; not all other parties are willing to join an all-party Cabinet.

Opposition and SJB leader Premadasa has said in no uncertain terms that his party will not join an interim government. The JVP has also rejected the idea of power sharing under President Rajapaksa. The position of these parties on the proposed interim government has been consistent unlike that of the SLFP, which seems to be blowing hot and cold.

One wonders whether SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is going to make an about-turn on his party’s call for the establishment of an interim administration, if what he said in his May Day speech, on Sunday, in Polonnaruwa, is any indication. After taking part in a protest march, where participants called upon the government to resign, Sirisena berated the incumbent administration, declared that his party was fully supportive of the protesting public, and added in the same breath that the people wanted the government leaders to step down so that they could elect a new government. Earlier in his speech, he said his intention was to form an SLFP government. Thus, reading between the lines, one may wonder whether Sirisena is now for a snap general election, which is the least desirable option at this juncture.

Sirisena has earned notoriety for policy U-turns, which are legion. Close on the heels of the Mirihana mayhem, the SLFP, on 01 April, called upon President Rajapaksa to appoint a caretaker government, and its position was endorsed by the 11-party dissident group of the SLPP. Thereafter, the SLFP wrote to the President calling for the establishment of an interim government, which it said, was the only way out. It warned that unless its demand was met within one week, all its 14 MPs would pull out of the government. The Cabinet save Prime Minister Rajapaksa resigned on 03 April. One week later, Sirisena himself told the media that if the President agreed to set up an interim administration without members of the Rajapaksa family in it, the party leaders could discuss ways and means of setting about forming it. On 30 April, Sirisena, after returning from a meeting with the President, announced at a media briefing that the latter had agreed to appoint an interim government with a new Prime Minister. Now, he seems to have changed his tune. A clarification is called for.

Buddhist monks have issued an ultimatum to President Rajapaksa. They want him to carry out the Mahanayake Theras’ proposals before 15 May. It takes two to tango. There’s the rub. If the Opposition refuses to be party to an interim government, the proposals at issue will be a non-starter.

The current situation is not conducive to an electoral contest. Even the Election Commission is reported to have said an interim government should be set up. What needs to be tackled urgently is the economic meltdown, which is the mother of all crises, and an election can wait. An interim government will help bring about political stability, which is a sine qua non of economic recovery. The Mahanayake Theras’ proposals are therefore pragmatic and sensible.

But how do the members of the Maha Sangha propose to make the Opposition, the SLFP, etc., agree to join the interim government to be set up. It looks as if they had to issue an ultimatum to all political leaders with parliamentary representation.

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JVP’s call to arms



Friday 1st July, 2022

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has sounded a call to arms. Speaking at a recent rally in Panadura, he unveiled his party’s strategy to resolve the present crisis. It consists of three phases, according to him—bringing down the incumbent government, forming an interim administration and holding a general election. He said his party was planning to oust the government, and would announce when the people should take to the streets in their numbers for that purpose.

There is no gainsaying that the present government is as dangerous as a dead man walking. Its grandees have ruined the economy, and are likely to inflict more damage on the country if they are allowed to exercise power any longer. Basil Rajapaksa continues to control the government as the eminence grise despite his resignation from Parliament. The sooner this administration is dislodged and a truly multi-party caretaker government is formed, the better.

It was reported yesterday that Israeli Parliament had voted to dissolve itself, bringing down the government and setting the stage for a fifth election in less than four years. This is an option available to Sri Lanka as well, but it is not desirable at this juncture. Therefore, the course of action the JVP has proposed may be considered acceptable, but the same cannot be said about the modus operandi as regards the first phase thereof, for it may be possible to dislodge the government without street protests, which should be the final recourse or pis aller and certainly not the first resort, given their potential to aggravate political instability or even unleash anarchy.

The Opposition and the SLPP dissidents ought to get themselves around the table urgently and reach a consensus on the formation of a caretaker government and a common agenda besides a timeframe for a general election, and then ask President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accede to their demand. If they take to the streets without a proper plan straightaway, they will only aggravate the crisis instead of helping overcome it.

In his above-mentioned speech, the JVP leader attributed the present forex crisis to the theft of the country’s dollars over the years. He said foreign currency in the state coffers had found its way into the offshore accounts of powerful politicians. True, the country is in this predicament mainly because the kleptocrats in the garb of political leaders and their kith and kin have helped themselves to huge amounts of public money and stashed it away overseas. They have also changed laws to facilitate foreign currency rackets. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) has said the Yahapalana government amended the Exchange Control Act in 2017 for the benefit of forex racketeers. FSP Spokesman Pubudu Jagoda was quoted by this newspaper yesterday as saying that the Exchange Control Act of 1953, which prevented forex rackets, had been amended in 2017, enabling exporters to keep their dollars overseas; violations of the foreign exchange laws had been criminal offences earlier, but the 2017 amendment had made them civil offences much to the benefit of racketeers, paving the way for the current crisis.

Curiously, the JVP, which is flaying the incumbent dispensation for the country’s forex woes, had no qualms about defending the Yahpalana government and even preventing its collapse in 2018. It is high time the Exchange Control Act was rid of the questionable amendments and strengthened to hold racketeers at bay.

The JVP leader claimed that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha and his fiancee had planned to have a photo session in Kashmir before their wedding, but a clash between Pakistan and India had put paid to the pre-shoot. Dissanayake said MP Namal Rajapaksa had confided that to him. Whether his claim is true or false, we do not know, but the fact remains that the sons and daughters of most political leaders are living high on the hog thanks to undisclosed sources of income. They must be made to disclose how they have amassed so much wealth. One can only hope that the interim administration the Opposition is planning to form will address this issue.

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EC chief tells home truth



Thursday 30th June, 2022

Some Opposition politicians would have the public believe that the present crisis cannot be resolved unless a general election is held. They insist that they can save the economy and deliver the people from suffering if they are given a popular mandate to govern the country. There is hardly anything Sri Lankan politicians do not capitalise on, and therefore it is not surprising that they are making the most of the crisis. Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Nimal Punchihewa has told them a home truth.

We have quoted the EC chief as saying that action must be taken to ensure that people’s basic needs are fulfilled before an election is held, for the public mood is not conducive to an electoral contest. One could not agree with him more. Even when there are no shortages of essentials and other such deprivations, people tend to turn aggressive and their tempers flare during election campaigns. How bad the situation will be in the event of the country having to go to the polls at this juncture is not difficult to imagine.

What the EC Chairman has not said is that people are so incensed that many politicians’ lives will be in danger if they come out for electioneering.

It will not be possible to hold an election in the foreseeable future owing to various shortages. The fuel crisis has crippled both public and private sectors. Schools have already been closed save those in some rural areas, and hospitals remain partially open with doctors, nurses and other health workers waiting in endless queues to obtain fuel. Teachers engaged in evaluating the GCE O/L answer scripts have run into difficulties for want of fuel. How can an election be held, given these conditions?

Some Opposition parties are labouring under the delusion that they will be able to sweep to victory if an election is held soon because the ruling SLPP has cooked its goose. But the entire Parliament has incurred the wrath of the public, who will not be so stupid as to vote overwhelmingly for any political party again. The economic crisis will not go away anytime soon and is bound to trouble a future government as well if an election is held before it is brought under control.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has torn into the government, which, he says, is using the crisis as an excuse to sell state assets. He has said legal action would be instituted against the culprits under an SJB administration. But protests alone will not prevent the current government leaders from striking questionable deals with foreign governments and firms. They are ready to do whatever it takes to save their skins and will not hesitate to compromise the national interest. They have already cut several shady deals with foreign companies in the power and energy sectors, and the only way to stop them is to extricate the country from their clutches.

If Premadasa is genuinely desirous of saving state assets, then he should join others in taking over the government. Many are the things that need to be done before the next election. The 21st Amendment has to be passed. The Parliament Election Act must be amended to prevent political parties from filling the National List vacancies with persons other than those whose names are submitted to the people before a general election. A constitutional provision must be introduced to enable post-enactment judicial review of legislation so that bad laws do not become faits accomplis. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption must be strengthened, and new laws introduced to tackle private sector corruption as well; it must be given back the power to initiate investigations on its own without waiting for complaints. A special probe must be launched to trace and recover stolen public funds which are believed to amount to billions of dollars. There will have to be laws to regulate campaign finance with provision for stringent punishment for noncompliance, and to make it mandatory to present all vital agreements between the state and foreign governments or companies, to Parliament for approval. There are many other such issues that need to be sorted out once and for all before a general election is held.

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When incompetence fuels crisis



Wednesday 29th June, 2022

What was feared has come to pass; the country has run out of oil to all intents and purposes. But the government’s lame excuses are not in short supply. It says it will restore the oil supply on 10 July, and until such time fuel will be issued only for essential services. What guarantee is there that enough dollars will be raised within the next two weeks for fuel imports? Are we being made to wait for Godot? It is very likely that on 09 July the government will ask for two more weeks to make fuel available.

Now that the government has closed the country owing to its inability to make fuel available, the question is whether it has any moral right to stay in power. Its leaders have only demonstrated their incompetence and shamelessness. If they continue to be in power, they will inflict far worse damage on the country. They are already conducting a fire sale of state assets, and all out to deprive the country of its energy sovereignty; they have invited multinational oil companies to commence operations here. Some of them will laugh all the way to foreign banks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have ordered that dollars be released for fuel imports urgently. Whom is he trying to fool? He cannot be unaware that there aren’t enough dollars for fuel purchases. Is he trying to deflect criticism by issuing such directives? The SLPP government bankrupted the country by stealing public funds, slashing taxes, granting massive pay hikes to some categories of public sector workers, throwing money around in the name of pandemic relief, and using forex reserves to defend the rupee in vain, despite repeated warnings from the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry officials. Various rackets such as the sugar tax scam have also taken their toll on the economy. The country is therefore without enough dollars to pay for essential imports including fuel, and there is no way either the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry could find foreign currency for fuel imports in a hurry simply because the President asks them to do so. Perhaps, the only way to pay for fuel imports immediately is to make the corrupt government politicians who have helped themselves to public funds, all these years, return part of their ill-gotten wealth hidden overseas.

SJB MP Champika Ranawaka has flayed the government for the fuel crisis. He has said the country’s image will have to be repaired before foreign assistance is sought. It will not be possible to overcome the present crisis so long as failed politicians continue to be in top posts, he has said. One cannot but agree with him. He is one of the few Opposition members capable of strategic thinking although he was a member of the failed yahapalana government. He has said he is willing to be actively involved in crisis management if a truly multi-party, interim government is formed with a timeframe set for a general election. He would have been able to take over the Power and Energy Ministry if the SJB had accepted the President’s offer to form a government, last month. He and other SJB MPs should have brought pressure to bear on their leader Sajith Premadasa to form a caretaker government together with other parties. They should do so, at least now. A new interim government may not be able to contain the crisis overnight, but it will help prevent the likes of Basil Rajapaksa from manipulating ministers to compass his ends. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the mercy of the Rajapaksa family, which controls the SLPP. The incumbent administration is a collective of self-seeking strange bedfellows who are willing to further the interests of the Rajapaksa family; the sooner it is got rid of, the better. That will be half the battle in managing the crisis.

Meanwhile, the government ought to find ways and means of holding racketeers at bay to ensure that fuel to be imported will be dispensed in an equitable manner. It has to devise a rationing system to prevent hoarding. Otherwise, a part of the next fuel shipment will also end up on the black market via hoarders’ dens, and the ordinary people will be left without petrol, diesel or kerosene.

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