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Ranil’s dilemma



When now President Ranil Wickremesinghe was made prime minister by then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country was presented with a candidly accurate picture of the economic predicament Sri Lanka was mired in. RW chose parliament as the forum to take the country into his confidence and convey the bad news not once but many times over. The people, of course, needed no convincing. The kilometers long fuel queues, gas queues, power cuts and rocketing food prices were evidence enough. Last week he went back to parliament, exercising his presidential prerogative to address the legislature at will, not only to tell the country that the situation was still bad, but also to declare as the state-controlled Daily News had in an unusually prominent front page banner headline that “Government (was) Ready To Overcome Worst Economic Crisis in History.”

 Half the front page of the paper was crammed with highlights of Wickremesinghe’s speech with a photograph of the president making his address. The news it conveyed was both good and bad. The good news included Japan’s agreement to play a lead mediator role in restructuring Sri Lanka’s debt; support from India and Prime Minister Modi; the commencement of restructuring massive loss-making state enterprises; the ADB’s willingness to provide us a USD 500 million loan; nobody having to stand in gas and fuel queues any longer etc. The bad news was the ignorance of some political parties assuming the country “is in a sound state;” and of some politicians thinking that if the economy collapses and people die, they can gain power over dead bodies.

Usefully, the president reminded  us that all citizen of this country pay taxes “without realizing it.” It needs to be pointed out, especially to income tax payers grumbling mightily about what they have to pay, that most government revenue come from general and not direct taxes. General taxes apply to all, both rich and poor alike. As one newspaper editor said decades ago, “every time you strike a match or flush the toilet, you are paying a tax.” The very popular Illustrated Weekly of India of yesteryear, once quoted a market vendor telling an affluent customer, “If I had your income, I’d be glad to pay your taxes.”

Wickremesinghe also said in his parliamentary address that at  “a time when no other political party or leader would accept the risk, I accepted it.” That certainly is the truth, but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is publicly known that the beleaguered Gotabaya Rajapaksa, compelled to get rid of brother Mahinda who enthroned him, after political goons were unleashed from Temple Trees on the Aragalaya protesters, offered the prime ministry both to Sajith Premadasa and the Field Marshal he imprisoned. But that offer was not open to all takers. RW, among the most experienced politicians now incumbent and among the few with the ability to do the job, accepted the offer to work with GR. This despite his reducing the UNP to zero (except for a single National List seat). He even lost his own Colombo Central seat, long a bastion of his party. GR’s eventual expulsion propelled Wickremesinghe to the presidency on the back of the parliamentary votes of the Rajapaksa controlled SLPP. None would believe that RW did not well know when he accepted the prime ministry that, like it or not, he was crowned to protect the Rajapaksa. That is the major part of the job he has been compelled to reluctantly do.

We for our part do not believe that Wickremesinghe relished the recent appointing of 38 state ministers, among them some known miscreants. They are now in office at considerable cost to the taxpayer. Claiming they are not drawing any emoluments outside their compensation as Members of Parliament would  have cut little ice with the thinking public at large. The people well know what the perks and staff accompanying such appointments mean to the tax exchequer. The president dragged his feet on appointing the new state minister and most likely caved into SLPP pressure as he had done before on cabinet appointments.

He’s also being pushed to add to the 20-strong cabinet which is pending business to be completed sooner rather than later. Already Minister Bandula Gunawardena, a co-cabinet spokesperson, is arguing the case for expanding the cabinet. He recently said in justification that existing ministers are overloaded with work. Given the country’s current predicament, the JVP assessment that the country does not need more than 25 cabinet ministers, a like number of deputy ministers and no state ministers at all will surely resonate with the people struggling to survive.

 The Rajapaksas, other than Gotabaya, crawled into the woodwork following MR’s resignation that dissolved the cabinet. One of them is back among the new state ministers in a portfolio previously held by his father. Namal Rajapaksa appears to be knocking at the door to make a comeback. What conditions Wickremesinghe stipulated, if any, to become prime minister is not known. GR, ensconced in a government bungalow with all the privileges of a former president has been receiving callers including at least one foreign dignitary. The SLPP is holding strategy meetings to plot a Rajapaksa comeback. Though Basil Rajapaksa is in the U.S. he is known to be pulling the strings in that party. There will be surely no move to get rid of Wickremesinghe ahead of the balance of the GR term. But he will remain a prisoner of the SLPP until next February when he’ll be empowered to dissolve parliament and hold an election the whole country yearns for.

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When ambition overtakes reality



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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PTA as a bludgeon



Wednesday 1st February, 2023

Colombo Chief Magistrate Prasanna Alwis, who heard a case against Convenor of the Inter-University Students’ Federation, Wasantha Mudalige, yesterday, ruled that the latter had not committed any offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Mudalige was cleared of the PTA charges, but taken back to remand prison over some other cases pending against him.

Why was the PTA ever used against Mudalige? The government, the police and the state prosecutor should answer this question.

There are situations where protesting university students turn unruly and even become a public nuisance. Troublemakers in the garb of students have to be dealt with according to the law, and the police cannot be faulted for doing so, but draconian measures such as the use of the PTA against them cannot be countenanced on any grounds. Ironically, the incumbent dispensation, which has the police arrest anti-government protesters under the PTA, has chosen to grant presidential pardons to several LTTE cadres serving jail terms for terrorist activities! It seems to think that anti-government protesters are more dangerous than terrorists!

Arrested about five months ago, Mudalige underwent tremendous suffering due to being charged under the PTA. This can happen to anyone who dares organise or take part in anti-government protests. Detention or a protracted stay in remand prison is tantamount to punishment in this country.

The police and all others responsible for having Mudalige arrested under the PTA and pressing trumped-up charges against him must be held to account. There is no way they could justify what they have done to him, and it is hoped that legal action will be instituted against them so that the government and its stooges in the police and the Attorney General’s Department will be deterred from using the PTA as a bludgeon against protesters; most of all, the police will be compelled to act within the confines of the law without overstepping their limits to humour their political masters.

Preaching while splurging

The government has been advertising its financial difficulties for the past few weeks apparently in a bid to bolster its claim that it is not in a position to allocate funds for elections. The Department of Government Printing has reportedly asked the Election Commission to settle its dues and make an advance payment for carrying out election-related printing!

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have directed all public officials not to obtain goods and services on credit. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said external debt restructuring is always at the expense of foreign taxpayers, and therefore the countries that have lent funds to Sri Lanka expect us to make sacrifices. One could not agree with him more, but will he explain why the government has not cancelled the Independence Day ceremony, which will cost taxpayers an arm and a leg? The cost of the grand event has been estimated at Rs. 200 million, according to media reports, but there must be other hidden costs. Let the government leaders who are grumbling about lack of funds be urged to learn from Tanzania how to rationalise state expenditure.

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan was considerate enough to cancel her country’s Independence Day celebrations, last month, and direct that the funds earmarked for the event be used to construct dormitories at schools for children with special needs. In 2015, the then President of Tanzania John Magufuli cancelled the Independence Day celebrations and allocated funds saved therefrom for the development of roads in Dar es Salaam. He did so again in 2020 and the money allocated for the Independence Day celebrations was used to acquire medical facilities. In this country, money that should be spent on treating and feeding poor children at state-run hospitals is being utilised for Independence Day celebrations!

Media reports say there have been no reductions in funds allocated for the offices of the President, the Prime Minister and others despite the current economic crisis. Don’t the government worthies who are wailing that they cannot meet state expenses think that they have to practise what they preach to others?

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A regime sans shame



Tuesday 31st January, 2023

The SLPP-UNP combine, which is taking great pains to delay the local government (LG) polls for fear of losing them, is all out to make the public lose interest in elections; it is trying to engineer a low voter turnout. Voter apathy is usually advantageous to unpopular regimes in power. Trotting out lame excuses to make a case for postponing the mini polls, the government claims that it is so broke that it cannot allocate funds for an election at this juncture. Curiously, it is not without such pecuniary difficulties where fund allocations for celebrations are concerned. If the country is to wait until the economy is turned around to go to the polls, it will have to wait until hell freezes over!

The government propaganda mill is in overdrive to deprive the ongoing electoral process of legitimacy. No sooner had it been reported that three members of the Election Commission (EC) were receiving death threats the Government Information Department issued a media statement, claiming that ‘the gazette notice with signatures of the Chairman and other members of the Election Commission required for the commencement of the Local Government election process has not been sent to the Government Press for printing.’ The EC has dismissed this claim as baseless.

The Information Department’s media statement reminds us of an ill-advised letter that Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Neil Hapuhinne, recently sent to the District Returning Officers in a bid to prevent them from accepting deposits for the LG elections. The EC reacted swiftly and Hapuhinne withdrew his letter. The EC assured the public that the electoral process was on track. Hapuhinne was lucky to get away with only a rap on the knuckles from the EC. Now, Director General of Government Information Dinith Karunarathna has done something similar.

We argued, in a previous comment, that Hapuhinne had to be dealt with in such a way that action against him would constitute a deterrent for others of his ilk bent on scuttling the LG polls. He should have been made to face the full force of the law for his high-handed action. It is never too late.

There is no way the government could avoid defeat by postponing elections. Such action is as injudicious and futile as ‘using a loincloth to control dysentery’, as a local saying goes. If the SLPP had plucked up the courage to face the LG polls, last year, instead of postponing them, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration would have suffered an electoral setback and realised the need to make a course correction, which might have helped prevent the current economic crisis.

The SJB, the JVP, the SLFP and some SLPP dissident groups are on a campaign to ensure that the LG elections are held as scheduled, but they, too, have sullied their reputations by helping put off elections. The SJB consists of former Yahapalana MPs; they, the SLFP and the JVP unashamedly joined forces, in 2017, to postpone the Provincial Council elections, which they knew they would lose. Their modus operandi was antithetical to democracy and parliamentary norms they claim to uphold. They helped the UNP-led Yahapalana government stuff the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Bill (2017) with some sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, and steamroller it through the House. The SLPP dissidents, who have taken up the cudgels for the people’s franchise had no qualms about supporting the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s decision to postpone the LG polls.

That the country needs alternatives to both the government and the Opposition, as evident from the phenomenal rise of anti-politics and the growing resentment of the youth cannot be overstated, but first of all, it has to be liberated from the clutches of the current regime, and the LG polls will help loosen their vice-like grip thereon—hopefully.

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