A front page report in Thursday’s The Island read “NL slot: Ranil still dilly-dallying.” Dilly-dallying was the right word for describing what Wickremesinghe is doing about filling the single National List slot his party won following its zero seat debacle at the last parliamentary election. The report under reference quoted UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena saying that Wickremesinghe had not yet decided to occupy this still vacant seat to which his party must make a formal nomination. Several weeks earlier the UNP had decided that Wickremesinghe must take that place. According to Abeywardena, the party’s “leader for life,” as some deride him, would decide on returning to parliament (or not, we presume) in a month or two. But recent weeks have shown Ranil showing his face in the political scene, though from outside parliament, via media interviews and public appearances signaling that he’s not yet past tense.
Soon after his party’s rout last August, Wickremesinghe went on record saying he will not accept the National List position, but he showed no signs whatever of giving up the UNP leadership. President J.R. Jayewardene, Ranil’s kinsman and mentor, crafted the 1978 constitution to ensure via a proportional representation (PR) system for future elections that no major party can suffer a landslide defeat. The UNP had suffered one under the old Westminster-style order in 1956 when late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike said that “the last nail had been driven into the UNP’s coffin.” The SLFP led by Bandaranaike’s widow suffered the same fate in 1977 when the once proud old left, comprising the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party (CP), suffered the same zero debacle that was the UNP’s lot at the last election. Under the previous order there were no National List straws for drowning political parties to clutch.
JRJ proved Bandaranaike wrong at the Colombo Municipal Council election that the followed the 1956 “people’s revolution” when the UNP, which governed the country since Independence, was stunningly swept out of office. By March 1960, after Bandaranaike’s tragic assassination, the greens were back in national office, albeit briefly. But five years later, the party served a full term under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake until a second debacle hit it in 1970. Such blows, no doubt, influenced Jayewardene to use the five sixth majority he won in 1977 under a constituency system to build constitutional safeguards against history repeating itself. But the best laid plans of mice and men can go awry as the contemporary political history of this country has amply demonstrated.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe did not wish to occupy the UNP’s only National List seat in Parliament when his party decided he should fill it, he should or could have said so. He did clearly say that he will not take that seat in the immediate aftermath of the last election resulting in other’s staking claims and John Amaratunga, a party heavyweight, believing he would be back in the legislature. Thereafter the weeks and months were allowed to roll by leaving the whole matter suspended in midair. Wickremesinghe, who has been prime minister of this country several times, has by his conduct both in and out of office shown that he is a believer in the beneficial effect of attending various poojas in South India and probably has astrological beliefs. As such, none can be blamed for wondering whether he is awaiting a propitious moment – a nekatha – to return to Parliament if such is his intention. Given his recent interviews, last week on the Colombo Port City which his coalition promised to scrap but only delayed at substantial cost to the nation, and his retention of the UNP’s leadership, he does not seem to want to cut and run or retire gracefully.
The western traditions towards which he had long tilted would have required him to quit after a debacle of the proportions of August 2020. This he did not do. As UNP leader, he thrice chose not to run for president, first conceding the opposition slot to Sarath Fonseka, then to Maithripala Sirisena and finally to Sajith Premadasa whom he wanted to field not as UNP leader but as deputy leader. Premadasa did not accept that, split the UNP taking most of its parliamentary group with him, leaving Ranil with a rump. Some analysts would say that the not running concessions were made in the belief that two of those candidate’s would not win. In Sirisena’s case, the common opposition candidature was structured in a manner that enabled Wickremesinghe to call the shots if victory was achieved.
But it must also be said in Wickremesinghe’s defence that he probably would have won the 2005 presidential election but for the LTTE’s intervention, closing exit points from territory the Tigers held to government-controlled areas where polling stations were located, preventing thousands of
Tamils from voting. It has been alleged that there was heavy rigging at the previous presidential race which Ranil narrowly lost. He’s among the most experienced among our politicians, thrice served as prime minister, had long stints as opposition leader and is widely acknowledged as man of ability. He is slightly older than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (both were born in 1949) but younger than Mahinda. Wickremesinghe catapulted to the UNP leadership as a result of the assassinations of Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranasinghe Premadasa.
JRJ once famously said that he had succeeded in climbing the greasy pole outliving his opponents. But none of them were assassinated. It’s difficult to figure out now what Wickremesinghe’s game plan is. He is keeping his cards close to his chest and fending off questions during occasional public appearances.
Unmasked by virus
Saturday 15th May, 2021
Coronavirus has both masked and unmasked the world, paradoxical as it may sound. It has frightened all humans into masking up and laid bare the true nature of global powers. The pandemic situation has somewhat improved in the rich countries, at long last, thanks to aggressive vaccination drives, but Covid-19 is surging in other parts of the world for want of vaccines, resources and proper political leadership, among other things.
International human rights organisations have expressed serious concern about the plight of the voiceless amidst the global health emergency. Amnesty International (AI) has called upon all States to remain focused on protecting the human rights of the marginalised and vulnerable groups at high risk, such as daily wage earners, prisoners, refugees and the internally displaced. Even when there are no health crises, the aforesaid sections of society, especially in the developing world, find themselves at a disadvantage; their voices and grievances go unheeded. They face a double whammy when health crises occur. The interventions of international human rights groups to have the rights and interests of the voiceless safeguarded are, therefore, most welcome. But these influential outfits must also address issues such as the inequitable vaccine distribution in the world, and the developed nations’ vaccine nationalism, which has put paid to the World Health Organization’s efforts to carry out an effective inoculation campaign across the world to achieve global herd immunity, the be-all-and end-all of humankind’s desperate fight against the pandemic.
Coronavirus seems to have iconoclastic tendencies, as it were; it has done to the so-called brand Modi what the entire Indian Opposition has failed to, all these years. Having totally mishandled the pandemic situation, PM Narendra Modi is struggling to shore up his image vis-à-vis the upsurge of Covid-19 and the failure on the part of his government to protect citizens, who are dying in large numbers. Coronavirus also brought the then US President Donald Trump, who thought no end of himself, down a peg or two, and has exposed leaders in several other countries, too, for what they really are––pathetic failures.
The developed world, which has taken upon itself the task of protecting human rights across the world and even bombs developing countries back into the Stone Age purportedly for that purpose, stands exposed for its hypocrisy. It has chosen to ignore the piteous appeals from other pandemic-hit nations for assistance and, worse, hoarded vaccines while tens of thousands of people are dying elsewhere. The pandemic situation in India would not have been so bad if the developed countries had responded to its appeal for jabs or vaccine raw materials.
AI has called upon the international community to fulfil its human rights obligations as regards cooperation and assistance by providing ‘lifesaving medical tools and removing legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede the production and supply of vaccines as the disease continues to ravage the region’. Its concerns and appeals on behalf of the poor nations should be appreciated, but mere words will not do.
The human rights outfits that bludgeon the developing countries at the drop of a hat out to mete out the same treatment to the rich nations that hoard vaccines and, thereby, endanger the lives of people elsewhere. UNICEF has urged the UK to share a part of its vaccine stockpiles with other nations. The US has pledged to part with 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, but its much-advertised promise is far from fulfilled. One main reason why the world is short of vaccine doses is that the rich countries maintain huge stocks thereof. The US does not use the AstraZeneca vaccine, but maintains massive stocks of the jab while other countries such as its Quad partner, India, are crying out for help. Let it be repeated that thousands of lives in India could have been saved if the US had lifted the ban on the export of vaccine raw materials and released the spare vaccine stocks in response to New Delhi’s appeal several weeks ago.
The task before the international human rights organisations such as AI is to crank up pressure on the developed world to respect the most sacred of all human rights—the right to life—by parting with a fraction of its vaccine stockpiles, not as charity but at affordable prices.
Syrup in mouth and egg on face
Friday 14th May, 2021
The incumbent government always finds itself up the creek, so to speak, by trying to delay the inevitable and defend the indefensible. The explosive spread of Covid-19, which has led to the current lockdowns, came about as the ruling politicians played politics with the pandemic prevention measures and baulked at imposing travel restrictions in April. Pressure is now mounting on the government from doctors to impose a quarantine curfew as the pandemic situation is taking a turn for the worse with the death toll increasing rapidly.
As if the current health problems were not enough, some SLPP politicians are trying to justify their campaign to promote the Dhammika peniya as a cure for Covid-19; their efforts have left the government with egg on its face. An expert committee has determined that the shaman’s herbal concoction has no therapeutic value, but State Minister of Indigenous Medicine Promotion, Rural and Ayurvedic Hospitals Development and Community Health, Sisira Jayakody, says he is convinced otherwise!
Most government politicians consider themselves more knowledgeable than doctors. Minister Jayakody cut a very pathetic figure, trying to defend the Dhammika peniya, in a television interview, yesterday. Claiming that the expert committee, which rejected the syrup as useless, had not selected samples thereof properly, he insisted that two physicians at a government hospital had vouched for the efficacy of the concoction and recommended it. He did not name them.
Minister Jayakody took the wily shaman and his peniya to Parliament, of all places, and presented it to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena himself; Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarchchi took a swig of it at a media briefing, thereby endorsing it to all intents and purposes. Thousands of people from different parts of the country converged on a village, where the shaman sold the syrup at Rs. 10,000 a bottle and made a killing! Those who jostled and shoved to secure the syrup must have contracted Covid-19 and caused the formation of peni clusters across the country. This aspect of the shaman’s syrup has gone unnoticed.
Now that Minister Jayakody has publicly stated that two government doctors conducted clinical trials, as regards the Dhammika peniya, at a state-run hospital and recommended it, it is incumbent upon the Health Ministry to initiate an investigation. These doctors have committed a serious offence by testing the shaman’s syrup on patients, endorsing it and misleading the government and the public.
Let Jayakody be made to name the doctors involved in the fraud. The government must explain why no action has been taken to prevent the shaman from continuing to the public into buying his syrup; he is still selling the concoction. Is it that the government has refrained from taking any action against the shaman because some of its politicians are benefiting from his largesse?
The health authorities are trying their best to prevent people from gathering in large numbers and to make them maintain physical distancing, but large crowds can be seen at vaccination centres, where no physical distancing is maintained. There are complaints of inordinate delays and politicians and their supporters jumping the queue, but nobody in authority seems to care.
A mass vaccination drive is no easy task, given the financial and logistical constraints. The frontline health workers conducting the national vaccination programme are overworked, and some lapses on their part are inevitable. But such problems are aggravated when all the people to be vaccinated in a Grama Niladari division are made to rush to their vaccination centre together and wait.
Why should hundreds of people be asked to gather at vaccination centres and stand in winding queues for many hours, exposed to the scorching sun, rain and, above all, the runaway virus, to receive the jab? People to be inoculated in a particular area can be divided into groups and time slots allocated to them so that all of them do not have to rush and wait for long hours.
The vaccination process should be streamlined for the benefit of the public as well as the health workers who are going beyond the call of duty to save lives. Politicians are another problem; they must be prevented from visiting the vaccination centres and becoming a public nuisance.
Beds and talkathons
Thursday 13th May, 2021
The government has bowed to the inevitable at last. Countrywide travel restrictions are now in force. Belated as this measure may be, it will go a long way towards curtailing the rapid spread of the pandemic. If only the government had summoned the political moxie to do so during the recent festive season. It is hoped that the unruly government politicians who think they know better than doctors will desist from bulldozing the health authorities into lifting movement restrictions in their constituencies purportedly for the sake of daily wage earners.
The ruling SLPP has undertaken to manufacture 10,000 beds for the Covid-19 treatment centres. This campaign has drawn heavy criticism from the Opposition and a section of the media; it is viewed as an exercise aimed at gaining political mileage and covering up the many failings of the ruling coalition. True, nothing is devoid of politics in this country, and the bed-manufacturing mission smacks of a political project intended to shore up the government’s crumbling image, but its importance and usefulness cannot be discounted. The demand for more beds is bound to increase exponentially as infections surge. What other political parties should do is to stop scoffing at the SLPP project and make a contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic. They can get together and provide pillows, bed sheets, pillowcases and other such materials for the benefit of the Covid-19 patients receiving residential treatment.
Meanwhile, there has been a call for an all-party conference to discuss ways and means of tackling the national health crisis. Parliament continues to meet, and it, we reckon, is the best forum for matters of national importance to be discussed and decisions thereon to be taken. After all, that is what those in the current Opposition demanded when the last general election was postponed for months on end due to the pandemic. They even demanded that the dissolved Parliament be re-convened to help solve the health crisis. A new Parliament was elected in August 2020, but the country’s problems have not been solved. So, the question is whether there is any need for an all-party conference, which, in our book, will end up being a political circus. The leaders of the political parties worthy of the name are in Parliament and have the ear of the Prime Minister. The President also visits Parliament and they can meet him there, if they care to.
Most political powwows are NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) events, where politicians who have got talking hind legs off a donkey down to a fine art display their oratorical skills to the point of queasiness. It may be recalled that nothing came of such gatherings even in the aftermath of the worst ever natural disaster that shook the country—the Boxing Day tsunami (2004). So, why waste time on talkathons?
There are however several other ways in which the main political parties and their leaders can help the public in this hour of crisis. They receive colossal amounts of funds for elections, and, as is public knowledge, only a small portion of them is spent on electioneering, and the balance simply disappears. The last parliamentary polls were held less than a year ago, and the main political parties that are making a public display of their concern for the public should contribute a part of their surplus campaign funds to the fight against the pandemic. They can help look after the needy.
Hospitals and quarantine centres require manpower, the demand for which is increasing, and it is not fair to overtax the military personnel, who are rendering a commendable service. Frontline health workers are also exhausted due to the increasing caseloads. Will the patriotic political party leaders and their backers volunteer to do whatever they can at these health institutions under severe strain? Having talked the talk, shouldn’t they now walk the walk?
If political parties can make their leaders and rank and file behave responsibly, that will be the greatest service they can render. They should also prevail on their supporters to follow the Covid-19 protocol strictly and help stop the spread of the pandemic.
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