Governments not infrequently prorogue parliament when they are in trouble. Perhaps the best example of that in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history was President Premadasa’s prorogation of the legislature when he was confronted with an impeachment resolution in September 1991. That enabled him to buy some time to fight the effort to dethrone him. There is no escaping the reality that the present dispensation is in trouble, massively unpopular in the country within two years of its comfortable election with a two thirds majority in 2020. This after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had, also comfortably, won the presidency the previous November.
But the recent prorogation cannot by any stretch of imagination be considered a time buying exercise. With the budget concluded and carried with a two thirds majority, parliament went into regular recess until Jan. 10 next year. Subsequent to the current prorogation at midnight on Dec. 12, the date of its reconvening has been put off till Jan. 18. So if there was time buying, it was a mere seven days. Undoubtedly, parliament not sitting right now has spared the government a great deal of embarrassment.
Despite that hard reality, critics have been quick to seize the opportunity to allege among other matters that government has resorted to a prorogation strategy to halt the work of parliamentary watchdog committees like COPE, COPA and the PAC with a view to reconstituting them when sittings resume in January. Some of these committees have been making embarrassing revelations and more can be expected in the future. They are all headed by government MPs, some of them disgruntled about being deprived of long-held cabinet positions.
The gas explosions continue unabated and the authorities are hard-pressed to explain what they are going to do about it; or why nothing has been done for this long. A formidable opposition has developed within the government to the New Fortress Energy deal, allegedly concluded in a clandestine and questionable manner. That is presently under challenge in the Supreme Court. Three cabinet ministers are among the petitioners thumbing their noses at the government. They continue in office and to hell with collective cabinet responsibility. Despite the many strident “go if you don’t agree” demands at various levels of government, they have not resigned and the government has not dared to sack them.
The cost of living has gone through the roof to unprecedented highs. So much so, UNP Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene went public with the remark a few days ago that people are paying Rs. 15 for a single bean pod and Rs. 25 for a carrot! Covid, the weather and, not least, the ill-conceived ban on chemical fertilizers, weedicides and insecticides has obviously contributed to the scarcity and high prices of vegetables. Foreign reserves have plummeted to unprecedented lows and the country’s ability to meet its debt repayment obligations remains in doubt with Sri Lanka risking its non-default reputation.
So parliament, where the opposition can tub-thump on all these matters and more, not being in session is a distinct advantage to the government. No wonder then that the prorogation is perceived by many to be a defensive strategy of a government with its back to the wall.
Lest we forget
The people of this country to a man (and also woman and child) reacted with horror to the brutal murder of a Lankan manager of a garment factory in Pakistan a couple of weeks ago. His offence was alleged blasphemy. The atrocity occurred in the midst of a strike in the factory he was employed in and the brutality of that act of mob violence grabbed headlines not only here, but also in other parts of the world.
Pakistani Prime Minster Imran Khan reacted quickly and correctly expressing deep distress about what had happened, swiftly activating his country’s law enforcement agencies that have already made over a hundred arrests. He also conferred his country’s second highest national honour on a brave Pakistani individual who risked his own life in an abortive bid to save the victim from a savage mob of religious zealots.
We refer to this subject that has now retreated to the back burner in terms of news value in the context of an article we run in this issue of our newspaper. The writer, who is a regular and valued contributor to our columns, has reminded that we ourselves, while condemning what happened in Pakistan recently, must never forget Black July 1983 when similar events were widespread in this country. They were as horrible as what happened in Sialkot; more so in that such terror was not unleashed on a single individual but on an entire community of our own people in many parts of this country.
The law enforcers closed their eyes to what was happening and a president with a reputation for nerves of steel – the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and minister of defence – did nothing to stop the mayhem and accord to our Tamil citizen the protection that was rightfully theirs.
Many of those reacting to the recent event in Pakistan were not even born when the 1983 riots occurred, driving some of our best and brightest out of the country and strengthening the LTTE both at home and globally. This prolonged the civil war that stretched for nearly three decades. It blackened our image and cost our country hugely both in human and economic terms. Nearly 20 years after the war ended, we have not been able to recover the ground we lost and the price we paid while being ruled by a government that shamelessly called itself dharmishta.
Aiya’s wisdom and Malli’s folly
Former Minister Chamal Rajapaksa has told Parliament that his younger brother, Mahinda, should have quit politics after completing his second term as the President. This is something Chamal Aiya could have told Mahinda Malli in private. Why did he make such a statement on the floor of the House, of all places?
Mahinda is not alone in trouble; all members of the Rajapaksa family find themselves in hot water. Their properties have come under mob attacks, and they cannot move about freely. Worse, they have had to suffer indignities at the hands of angry protesters, who include many of their erstwhile supporters. Whoever would have thought, about a year or so ago, that such a fate would befall the powerful ruling family?
The Rajapaksa family is in the current predicament mainly because it took the masses for asses. The Rajapaksas thought the country was their fiefdom, and laboured under the delusion that they could ride on the sataka of Mahinda, who used to be a political magnet, win elections and continue to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. They did not learn from their humiliating defeat in 2015, and became cocky and arrogant when the people, fed up with the yahapalana rule, elected them again in 2019/2020, for want of a better alternative; they started making up for lost time. Their current rule is like a replay of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015), and what they are facing today would have played out if President Rajapaksa had succeeded in securing a third term in 2015.Chamal’s admonition, as it were, for Mahinda has come too late in the day although one cannot but fully endorse it. He should have prevailed on Mahinda not to introduce the 18th Amendment, which did away with the presidential term limit and restored the executive powers of the President. He was the Speaker at the time. The 18th Amendment became a curse for not only the Rajapaksa family but also the entire country.Did Chamal make a serious effort to dissuade his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR), from introducing the 20th Amendment, which is as draconian as the 18th Amendment, and has boomeranged? President GR has given in to pressure from the protesting public and undertaken to do away with the 20th Amendment and reduce his executive powers.
As a seasoned politician, Chamal should also have protested against the appointment of his younger brother, Basil, as the Minister of Finance. The task of running the Finance Ministry requires a real maven. If a well-versed person had been appointed the Finance Minister and given a free hand to address the economic crisis with the help of experts from the Central Bank, the Finance Ministry and elsewhere, the country would not have gone bankrupt, and the Rajapaksas would have been safe.Chamal should have guided President GR, who apparently thought he could run the country with the help of some retired military officers, whose pathetic performance as public officials makes one wonder how they succeeded in defeating the LTTE, which was described as the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world. The so-called intellectuals who rallied behind GR and made his victory possible at the 2019 presidential election have their critics visiting mockery upon them. Has Chamal admonished the incumbent President as well?
The Rajapaksa family has not given up its efforts to retain its grip on power, as can be seen from the way it is manipulating numbers in Parliament, and causing divisions among its rivals. It has appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and engineered several crossovers from the SJB, and the SLPP dissident group. But what really matters is not dosh-induced defections but public opinion, which is obviously not in favour of the Rajapaksas.
Address cause of mob justice
Friday 20th May, 2022
There has been a call for the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the alleged complicity of some defence and police bigwigs in goon attacks on a group of anti-government protesters in Colombo on 09 May. This call should be heeded. The SLPP goons who went on the rampage, and others who made use of the Galle Face attacks to set the country ablaze must be severely dealt with, according to the law.
No one should be allowed to attack peaceful protesters, or destroy anyone else’s property under any circumstances, and Monday’s SLPP goon attacks and the ensuing spate of mob violence amounted to an assault on the rule of law. There should be zero tolerance for mob justice, which is a manifestation of savagery, and antithetical to democracy.
Questions have been raised in Parliament about the government decision to provide the MPs, affected by mob violence on 09 May, with houses in a state-run housing scheme. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said it was only a temporary arrangement, and there was a precedent. He got it right when he said that unless steps were taken to look after the lawmakers affected by mob violence, good men and women would be wary of entering Parliament. Most members of the current Parliament cannot be considered decent, but indiscriminate attacks on the MPs, and a sustained hostile campaign against the legislature, which some politicians and their parties have unfortunately brought into disrepute, will make decent people avoid politics like the plague; Parliament might end up having only trigger-happy characters as its members, in such an eventuality, as the PM said.
Most of the problems the country is beset with boil down to one thing—the breakdown of the rule of law. Parliament ought to address this issue and sort it out urgently if further trouble is to be averted. Given the country’s rapid descent into lawlessness, nobody will be safe. If the rule of law had prevailed, the Galle Face protesters would have been safe on 09 May, and there would have been no retaliatory attacks.
The breakdown of the rule of law is also one of the main reasons for the present economic crisis. Anti-graft laws are not properly enforced, and powerful politicians and their cronies are free to amass huge amounts of ill-gotten wealth at the expense of the state coffers, and even make a vulgar display of it with impunity. Election laws are blatantly flouted; candidates are free to receive and spend colossal amounts of undeclared funds, and even anti-social elements like drug lords can bankroll election campaigns. Massive tax cuts and import duty waivers that the current administration effected immediately after the presidential election in 2019 were intended to benefit the moneybags who lavished funds on the SLPP politicians for electioneering and other purposes. They led to a sharp drop in the state revenue, and a huge increase in money printing, which contributed to soaring inflation and unprecedented currency devaluation.
The current economic meltdown has been blamed on a coterie of politicians and their kith and kin who have earned notoriety for bribery and corruption. They would not have been able to return to power, much less ruin the economy, if they had been made to pay for their crimes, after their defeat in 2015. They could have been dealt with while they were in the Opposition during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime (2015-2019). But the yahapalana leaders struck various deals with them. This is the price the country has had to pay for allowing the rule of law to be subjugated to the interests of the politicians in power.
Meanwhile, the government is planning to compensate the MPs whose properties were destroyed by violent mobs last week, we are told. Before that, the taxman should be made to ask the victims how they raised funds for the acquisition of the properties that have been either damaged or destroyed. If they cannot provide satisfactory answers, public funds must not be utilised to compensate them.
Thursday 19th May, 2022
Dissident SLPP MP Wimal Weerawansa has hinted that goon attacks on a group of anti-government protesters on 09 May were due to a clash between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the Prime Minister at the time. He went ballistic in Parliament, on Tuesday, while decrying the attacks on the Galle Face protesters. He laid the blame for the incidents of violence at the feet of those who had organised a meeting of local government members at Temple Trees, on that day. Calling for legal action against all of them, he revealed that the police had not carried out President Rajapaksa’s order that the SLPP goons be prevented from marching on the Galle Face Green. He claimed someone had prevented the police from using force to disperse the mob.
Most of the pro-government goons were sozzled to the gills and staggering, and a high velocity stream of water would have swept them off their unsteady feet, and sent them crawling whence they had come, but the police did not use water cannon on those characters. The CID has questioned Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon, who was present at the Galle Face Green, and he should be able to reveal what actually happened. The person who ordered the police to give kid-glove treatment to the SLPP rowdies must be traced and brought to justice.
Weerawansa also claimed that there had been a delay on the part of the Army in reaching the Galle Face Green to prevent the goon attacks although the President had called for immediate action. The allegation must be probed.
Accusing the police of having done nothing while his house was being attacked, Weerawansa claimed that the police had been asked to look the other way. He called for action against the police and security forces top brass responsible for the breakdown of law and order on 09 May.
The police have arrested some SLPP MPs and their supporters for the Galle Face attack, but it is the masterminds behind the incidents who have to be taken in for questioning. Let the police be urged to arrest those who organised the Temple Trees meeting, and incited violence.
Make MPs wait in queues
Arrangements have been made for the members of Parliament to refuel their vehicles at the police filling station in Colombo while hundreds of thousands of people are waiting in long queues for petrol, diesel and kerosene, in all parts of the country. Why should the MPs be given this kind of special treatment? They do not carry out their legislative duties and functions properly, and it defies comprehension why special arrangements should be made to make fuel available to them.
Parliament wasted its time on Tuesday. The government and the Opposition should have elected the Deputy Speaker unanimously instead of resorting to a political battle. The vote on the Opposition’s motion for suspending Standing Orders for a motion of censure against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be advanced was an exercise in futility. The entire country has censured the President so much so that he has even agreed to strip himself of some of his executive powers, and taken steps to appoint an interim government. Therefore, the question is whether there is any need for Parliament to censure the President separately at the expense of what needs to be done urgently to stabilise the economy and grant relief to the public. Perhaps, Parliament should consider passing a motion to censure itself for its callous disregard for the suffering of the hapless public.
The MPs must be made to undergo the same hardships as the ordinary people who maintain them; their perks and privileges will make even their counterparts in affluent countries green with envy. In Sweden, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, the MPs and ministers are not entitled to vehicles or fuel allowances; they are given only bus and train passes. If they use private vehicles, they have to do so at their own expense. Only the Prime Minister is given an official vehicle there. But in this country, which politicians and their kith and kin have bankrupted, the MPs get first dibs on everything, and live in the lap of luxury while the ordinary people are suffering.
The MPs must be made to wait in queues to refuel their vehicles.
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