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Editorial

Pressure group in the making

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Today’s journalists carry more than a notebook and a pencil as their predecessors did. Thus we’ve had no “I was misquoted/misreported” or “I was reported out of context” claim from Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa who set a cat among the canaries in the country’s political firmament the other day.

The minister who leads the National Freedom Front did not deny his controversial statement for obvious reasons. His entire interview with the Sunday Lankadeepa was recorded and he could not take the well-worn route of blaming the media. He therefore chose to clarify that what he intended to say was not that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should replace Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as SLPP leader, but that a “suitable position” in the party should be created for him.

Observers of the political scene well know that Weerawansa is not disloyal to either the president or the prime minister. He owes them a lot for being where he is. They believe that he was targeting another Rajapaksa – who he thinks brought in Rear Admiral (Retd.) Sarath Weerasekera to run from the Colombo district at the last election rather than from Ampara he previously represented. That cost the onetime JVPer his coveted position of the top preference vote-getter in the district. It is unlikely that the prime minister took umbrage at Weerawansa’s unsolicited proposal, or if he did preferred to keep quiet about his feelings. Although opponents of the government would wish to see aiya – malli differences within the ruling coalition, there is no credible evidence that such is the case. But that did not stop SLPP General Secretary, National List MP Sagara Kariyawasa, from clearly rebuking Weerawansa. There was no angry denunciation, but the message was clear. It was totally unacceptable that the leader of another party, even though a member of the ruling alliance, should make proposals on who should lead the SLPP.

The president and prime minister have refrained from making any comment on this flutter. Doing so would have further muddied the waters. The always sharply dressed and immaculately groomed minister, whose eloquence in the official language must be acknowledged even by the ranks of Tuscany, has reined his tongue for once. He is not obliging the media chasing him with any sound bytes or quotable quotes to get himself into more trouble. His supporters predictably accuse his detractors of fishing in troubled waters and assure them that they will not bite. It wasn’t long ago that Weerawansa hosted a group of leaders from the smaller parties of the ruling coalition at his official residence to resist the government’s proposal on the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo port. The government wanted to run it on a 51-49 percent arrangement with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority holding the controlling stake and Indian, Japanese and other investors taking the balance.

That meeting was summoned when a great deal of dust was being kicked up by those who strongly supported the election campaigns of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as the SLPP-led government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that followed. The protesters included a formidable section of the Buddhist clergy that nationalist sections of the polity would not want to offend as well as port unions that hinted at strike action. It is doubtful that even old warhorses like Vasudeva Nanayakkara or newcomers like Udaya Gammanpila who has demonstrated rapid upward mobility in the political picture would have been able to get elected outside the SLPP umbrella and they well know it. Prof. Tissa Vitarana of the once-proud LSSP and Mr. Gevindu Kumaratunga of the Yuthukama Organization had to content themselves with SLPP National List seats. The Communist Party did not get even that and Mr. Dew Gunasekera is in retirement. While the SLFP is not down to zero like the UNP from which Mr. Bandaranaike broke away, it may have suffered a similar or near-similar fate but for its alliance with the SLPP. Even giant-killer Maithripala Sirisena, while retaining the leadership of the blue party, had to succumb to realpolitik and ally with the lotus bud to make sure he was returned to parliament from his Polonnaruwa stronghold.

After winning the ECT battle by trimming their sails to the direction in which the wind was blowing, the minor partners of the ruling alliance, sometimes called “name board parties,” appear to be in the process of setting up some kind of ginger group within the ruling party in the style of backbenchers in Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government of the middle sixties. But in this instance many of the movers and shakers are frontbenchers and not backbenchers. Gammanipila is on record saying that they planned to meet periodically obviously to take a collective stand on issues within the government. The leadership would normally be wary of the development of a pressure group signaling possible trouble down the road. But right now there does not appear to be any major differences within the ruling coalition.

To get to another subject, few will buy the feeble attempt to pretend that the Prime Minister did not last week say that the burial of Muslim Covid-19 victims would be permitted. Since he made this statement in Parliament, winning the accolades of deeply distressed Muslims both inside and outside the legislature, there have been attempts to change gear with Dr. (Mrs.) Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of Primary Health Services, Pandemics and Covid Prevention saying that a scientific committee is looking into the matter which was not one for an individual decision. Another woman government MP, Kokila Gunawardena, said that what the PM said was that burial will be permitted but did not say of Covid victims. Who is fooling whom?



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Editorial

Independence, democracy and franchise

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Saturday 4th February, 2023

The SLPP-UNP regime is celebrating ‘Independence’ on a grand scale today while trifling with people’s sovereignty, which includes the power of government, fundamental rights and franchise. It makes no bones about the fact that it is all out to delay the local government elections and deprive the public of an opportunity to exercise their franchise. It is pulling out all the stops in a bid to throttle the electoral process by denying the Election Commission funds for conducting the mini polls scheduled for 09 March.

The government is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP promised in its manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls. It does not heed public opinion at all and bulldozes its way through. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, and therefore they must be able to exercise their right to vote and thereby express their opinion on how the country is being governed. A regime that undermines people’s power of government and franchise cannot be considered democratic.

The SLPP-UNP government also stands accused of violating people’s fundamental rights. Convener of the Inter-University Students’ Federation Wasantha Mudalige, who was released on bail recently, has levelled a very serious allegation against the government. He says an attempt was made to kill him while he was in police custody. Besides, it has now been revealed that he was wrongfully arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); the Colombo Magistrate’s Court has cleared him of charges pressed against him under the PTA. He is planning to file a fundamental rights violation petition against the police and others responsible for pressing trumped-up charges against him and his illegal detention under the PTA.

The incumbent dispensation has thus proved that it does not care two hoots about the people’s fundamental rights, power of government and franchise. It is therefore without any legitimacy to exercise people’s legislative, executive and judicial powers.

Mudalige’s serious allegations against the police evoke one’s dreadful memoires of the reign of terror in the late 1980s, when abductions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings were the order of the day. The politicians and their hired guns who committed heinous crimes in the name of counterterrorism, in that era, and some former southern terrorists and their hit squad members are still around.

Old habits are said to die hard. It is being argued in some quarters that the wave of retaliatory violence that swept across the country following SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters on 09 April 2022 bore the hallmarks of southern terrorism the country witnessed in the 1987-89 period; widespread arson attacks on the ruling party politicians’ properties were well-coordinated and swift; they were far from spontaneous, and the same is true for the abortive attempt to take over Parliament in July last year. The UNP, which unleashed barbaric counterterrorism, is in power, and the JVP is threatening to launch a wave of protests if the mini polls are postponed.

It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The J. R. Jayewardene government made a colossal blunder by doing away with the 1982 general election, and holding a heavily-rigged referendum, instead, to retain its five-sixths majority in Parliament. Its interference with the country’s electoral process intensified public anger, which the JVP effectively tapped to fuel its second insurrection. The youth were resentful and rose against the repressive regime. Mahinda Rajapaksa took up the cudgels for the rights of the victims of state terror and returned to national politics in the late 1980s. But today, his party, the SLPP, and the UNP have closed ranks, and are apparently creating conditions for another conflagration.

If a general election had been held in 1982, that would have helped defuse tensions and release pressure in the polity, and the JVP would not have had a casus belli to take up arms and mobilise the youth.

One can only hope that the local government polls will be held as scheduled and the people provided with an opportunity to give vent to their anger democratically and jolt the government into making a course correction so that the country will not witness another catastrophe.

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Editorial

‘Slave Island’

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Friday 3rd February, 2023

Sri Lankan political leaders exude ‘patriotism’ from every pore. These rotund grandees never miss an opportunity to suck in their stomachs, puff out their chests and sing the national anthem with gusto, making as they do a public display of their brand of patriotism. We will see them in action again tomorrow, when they are celebrating what the country does not have—independence—on a grand scale.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has, in what may be considered an outburst of patriotism with nationalism thrown in for good measure, ordered that the use of the place name, ‘Slave Island’ for ‘Kompagngna Veediya’ be discontinued immediately on account of the country’s 75th anniversary of Independence. He has decreed that ‘Kompagngna Veediya’ be used in all three languages—Sinhala, Tamil and English. Curiously, it seems to have escaped the Prime Minister’s attention that successive governments have turned the entire country into a ‘slave island’ of sorts. The incumbent dispensation has presided over the completion of the process of the country’s enslavement, which gathered momentum after the 1977 regime change and received a boost from every government thereafter.

PM Gunawardena is known for wrapping himself in the flag and his fiery oratory replete with patriotism and nationalism. He has, in his wisdom, defended the government’s decision to spend the country’s scarce resources to the tune of Rs. 200 million on tomorrow’s Independence Day extravagance in the name of patriotism. These funds could have been utilised to buy medicines and food for the sick in government hospitals.

The PM finds himself in the exalted company of a bunch of politicians who made preparations for a grand ceremony to mark the quincentennial of the arrival of the Portuguese here. Thankfully, the UNP-led UNF government was dislodged in 2004, and the event did not come to pass. So much for the present-day leaders’ love for the country and its independence!

Thanks to decades of economic mismanagement, waste, corruption, abuse of power and reckless borrowing under successive governments led by the ‘patriotic’ leaders of all political hues, the country has become a bankrupt vassal state, which has to take orders from other nations. It has to do what is good for others at the expense of its national interest and is now under Indian pressure to ensure the full implementation of a constitutional amendment that New Delhi rammed down its throat in late 1980s. When President Ranil Wickremesinghe undertook to implement the 13th Amendment fully, at a recent party leaders’ meeting, Gunawardena, who was present there, chose to remain silent!

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in which Gunawardena was a key figure, stood accused of turning the country into a ‘Chinese colony’ much to the consternation of India and the western powers that are averse to the rise of the Dragon. The current administration has made it a lackey of the US-led Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). When China got the Hambantota Harbour in return for a loan, the US media said Sri Lanka had been made to cough up a port. But the country has since been made to cough up a container terminal, an oil tank farm, etc., in return for financial aid, but those deals have not made headlines internationally!

Has the SLPP-UNP government, which is averse to a part of the Colombo City being called ‘Slave Island’, forgotten that the country is heavily dependent on remittances from its women reduced to slavery in West Asia. It is also the sweat and tears of women slaving away for paltry wages on estates and in factories here that fuel the export sector, bringing in much-needed forex, with which the super luxury vehicles carrying the government politicians to the venue of the Independence Day ceremony, today, have been purchased.

Let the self-proclaimed patriots in the current regime be told that they cannot hoodwink the public.

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Editorial

When ambition overtakes reality

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Thursday 2nd February, 2023

The UNP and the SLFP have started talking about the next presidential election even before the long-overdue local government (LG) polls are held. UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has recently said President Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election. Former President Maithripala Sirisena himself has told the media he will run for President again, and is confident of securing the presidency as he is the leader of the SLFP and the people are with him. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has not made any such announcement, but it is clear that he will be his party’s presidential candidate. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake will not allow anyone else to contest the next presidential election and overshadow him. The SLPP is in total disarray. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest a presidential election again, and it is highly unlikely that ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will face a presidential contest ever again. So, who will be the SLPP’s presidential candidate?

Interestingly, three of those who are expected to contest the next presidential election have been held to account by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks. The COI has recommended criminal proceedings against Sirisena. It says in its final report (p 265), “Based on the evidence, the COI is of the view that there is criminal liability on his part for the acts or omissions explained above. The COI recommends that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code.” The report (pp 470-471)) says, “The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy.” Thus, Wickremesinghe cannot say he is free from blame for the serious security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday attacks. Premadasa and several other SJB seniors were Cabinet ministers in the Yahapalana government, and there is no way they could absolve themselves of the blame for the acts or omissions of that administration.

Sirisena himself may not have thought he would be able to secure the coveted presidency in 2015. He failed pathetically as the President so much so that he decided against seeking re-election and opted to re-enter Parliament, instead. The political forces that enabled him to realise his presidential dream are no longer with him, and most of the SLFP MPs have joined the SLPP-UNP government. Above all, there is the possibility of criminal proceedings being instituted against him over the Easter Sunday carnage unless he toes the government line. Thus, it is doubtful whether he will be able to contest the next presidential election.

Wickremesinghe is like a passenger who has undertaken to attempt a talk-down landing due to the incapacitation of the pilot and the co-pilot of the aircraft he is travelling in. He is not doing anything on his own; he is only following instructions from others. He no doubt deserves thanks for the risk he has taken and his effort, and it is the fervent hope of everyone that he will manage to make a safe emergency landing. But it is too early to say whether he will succeed in his endeavour. Everyone is on a wing and a prayer. Before facing a presidential election, Wickremesinghe will have to steer his party to victory at the LG polls and get the economy back on an even keel. These tasks are as uphill as the twelve labours of Hercules.

Premadasa, too, will have to ensure that the SJB wins the LG polls before facing the next presidential election, if he is to be seen as a winner, and whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen. Now that Dissanayake has talked the talk, very eloquently at that, he will have to walk the walk. The NPP was able to secure only 3.84% of the total number of valid votes at the last general election, and the challenge before Dissanayake will be increasing it to at least 30% at the next election for him to be considered a formidable presidential candidate.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Rajapaksas to Range Bandara’s declaration at issue. Last year, they wanted someone who was not a political threat to them to complete the remainder of Gotabaya’s presidential term, doing as they said, and fade away so that they could buy time to make a comeback for one of them to run for President. Has the nephew of the Old Fox outfoxed the Medmulana clan?

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