Repo facility with US Fed amidst diminishing exports big risk
Militarisation of public administration system will not be permitted
by Zacki Jabbar
Former Prime Minister and leader of the UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe is hoping there will be a high voter turnout at the forthcoming general election, which, he believes, will prove advantageous to the UNP.
“The higher the number of votes cast, the better for the UNP,” Wickremesinghe said in an interview with The Island, while travelling across the country to address a series of public meetings.
Asked how the UNP would perform with the Samagi Jana Balawegaya vying for a share of its vote base he said, “We are the largest party. It all depends on how many come to vote. No party is sure of that. If there is no fear of the Coronavirus, more people will go to the polling booths. We hope a large number of persons would cast their votes. The higher the percentage, the better for the UNP.”
Wickremesinghe said the people, in a short period of eight months, had got fed up with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, due to the problems they were facing on many fronts including the home economy, as a direct result of leaders in what he called the Family Party––Podujana Peramuna, pulling in different directions.
The government had since last November been unable to secure any tangible international assistance, having isolated itself on the world stage due to the lack of an economic vision and plan, the UNP leader said. It is only the UNP that has a track record of raising the required finances through developing international relations. Economic mismanagement by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government was the main cause for the suffering people were undergoing and not the Coronavirus pandemic, the UNP leader stressed.
The politicisation or militarisation of the public administration system would not be permitted under a UNP government, Wickremesinghe said when asked about the appointment of Special Task Forces packed with former military officers to run the government. The recent practice of delegating functions of the Police to the military would also be stopped and the military given its rightful role.
Q: How do you see the governments decision to pledge USD 1 billion worth of US Treasury Bonds held by the Central Bank and enter into a repo facility with the US Federal Reserve ?
A: It is illegal without parliamentary approval. Parliament is vested with the control of public finances. The monetary law does not make specific arrangements for this repurchase agreement. The government should explain the need for such an arrangement, how it would be repurchased and what would happen if Sri Lanka defaulted. How does a country with a shortage of USD 7 billion in export earnings repay over USD 1 billion to recover the pledged U.S securities. In this scenario the possibility of default is extremely high, with the country facing the likelihood of losing ownership of the assets pledged. Meanwhile, the MCC agreement has been finalised. The government has a duty to reveal the truth prior to the General Election.
Wickremesinghe said that new laws would be introduced to help protect businesses from bankruptcy due to lockdown caused by COVID-19 and steps taken to ensure that every citizen was able to own a piece of land and a home. It is estimated that the population of the Indian Ocean region would increase by 500 million by 2050. Our long-term goal for Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector is to see the county being positioned to produce the food requirement of the region. Local agriculture will be strengthened to ensure we are modernized and competitive on the global stage.
The UNP has always worked with the intention of developing the country as an operational hub in the Indian Ocean region. It will be with this plan in our sights that Colombo will be transformed into a financial centre, for which, legislation on financial cities will be enacted, he explained.
Highlighting the importance of ethics, Wickremesinghe said that a Parliamentary Standards Act would be enacted to ensure that Members of Parliament and Ministers were governed by a Parliamentary code of ethics. An independent commissioner to ensure the high standards of the legislature would be appointed to inquire into complaints made against parliamentarians.
“In order to minimise the level of corruption – a by-product of the existing Parliamentary electoral system, we will abolish the preferential voting system and replace it with a mechanism that will be a mixture of the proportional representation system and the first past-the-post system to elect members to the 225 seats in Parliament. Laws will also be introduced to control and limit the expenditure of politicians and political parties during election time. Similar laws that exist in the United Kingdom and other countries will be taken into account when formulating the relevant legislation.”
Explaining measures that would be taken to overcome the Corona virus challenge, the UNP leader said steps would be taken to prevent an economic downfall by implementing measures to revitalise the economy. The government’s attention would also be focused on minimising the adverse economic impact a second or third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic could have on the country.
“5,000 PCR tests will be carried out daily. At least 10 million facemasks will be provided to schools, higher education institutions and other such facilities.2,000 ventilators will be purchased for hospitals.”
Wickremesinghe says that under a new programme a special compensation payment would be made to any worker who died while engaged in battling COVID-19. Such individuals will be offered the same facilities offered to military personnel killed during the war. Personal Protection Emergency kits will be made freely available. The number of ICU beds will be increased. A special laboratory to conduct tests on diseases will be established and the Public Health (Emergency) Act will be enacted to legalize lockdown mechanisms and provide the required powers for disease control.
Asked what his government which served four and a half years had achieved, the UNP leader said that period had been marked by economic prosperity and strengthening of democracy by introducing independent judicial, police, elections, anti corruption, human rights and media commissions amongst others.
Wickremesinghe pledged to build on the economic achievements of his government such as improved relations with global superpowers, regained GSP+ resulting in concessionary duty for 6600 export items, increased import earnings by 35 percent by negotiating to lift the ban on fish imports to the European Union, enabling the country to pay off debts by working with Development Banks, enabling better fiscal management, ensuring the timely repayment of debt to avoid rollover risk, regained Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the Colombo Port City by converting freehold rights given to China by the Rajapaksa government into a leasehold agreement, transformed the Hambantota Port from a failure to a sustainable venture, free trade agreements to strengthen access to export markets, increased tourist arrivals to over two million by establishing the country as a safe destination, powered the boom of the tourist industry by increasing rooms by 30 percent, oversaw Sri Lanka being named best destination” by Lonely Planet. Steered Sri Lanka to be graded as an upper middle-income country, achieved a Primary Surplus for the first time since 1954, powered the highest ever direct investment in 2018 and ensured good governance and transparency.
He also promised to build on the last UNP-led government’s contribution to strengthening democracy such as curtailing the powers of the Executive President by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which included reducing the maximum term limit of the incumbent to two terms, ensuring that suitable persons were appointed to high posts by establishing the Constitutional Council and establishment of the various Independent Commissions that ensured the independence of the judiciary, free and fair elections, restoring the independence of the State sector, ending political interference in the Police service, withstanding the Constitutional coup and restoring the supremacy of Parliament, challenging the President’s right to dismiss a Prime Minister elected by Parliament, successfully challenging the Presidents right to unlawfully dissolve Parliament, introducing the Right to Information Act improving transparency, establishing the rule of law, whereby politicians and their families were subject to investigation, granting citizens the right to protest and voice their opinions, ensure media freedom with no journalist being killed or made to disappear as happened under the previous Rajapaksa government. A future UNP administration would rectify this tragedy as well, he stressed.
The UNP leader said that Sri Lanka was faced with the gravest economic crisis since independence and it was only the UNP that had the vision, a plan and the capability to address the present crisis, protect the people and the country, safeguard the nation and ensure a prosperous future. “We have a proven track record time and again undoing economic mismanagement by others and reviving our economy. In 1977, 2001, 2015 and again in 2019 after the Easter Sunday attacks, it was the UNP that led the country’s economies recover.
“It is estimated that Sri Lanka will lose USD 7 billion in foreign revenue this year having to pay USD 3 billion for debt servicing. We have revealed the need for USD 6 billion for the next two years of which USD 3 billion is required immediately. Many countries have already received international assistance to fund their immediate financial requirements. Countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Maldives, Egypt and Kenya have begun the process of securing financial support from the International Monetary Fund. We will raise US$ 6 billion utilising the assistance of the IMF and other financial sources including friendly governments.
(Continued on page 6)
Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective
by Harshana Rambukwella
Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).
Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.
Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.
Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.
But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.
Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.
However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.
Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies
No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment
by jehan perera
The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.
There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.
The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.
The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.
In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.
In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.
Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.
It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.
To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.
Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity
By Hema Arachi
T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.
This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.
President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”
A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.
During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.
I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”
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