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Editorial

Reopening schools

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Saturday 21st November, 2020

Schools are scheduled to reopen for Grade Six to Grade 13, next Monday. Opinion may be divided on this move as COVID-19 is spreading fast, but schools cannot remain closed indefinitely. There are no signs of the virus going away anytime soon, and the World Health Organisation has said humans will have to learn to live with coronavirus for want of a better alternative. In fact, living with the virus is less dangerous than crossing Sri Lankan roads, where about eight lives are snuffed out daily. (In 2019, as many as 2,829 people were killed in 2,641 accidents.)

Parents and teachers will have their work cut out to ensure that carefree schoolchildren adhere to the health guidelines that have been given legal effect to prevent the transmission of coronavirus. Children are known for throwing caution to the wind and trying to do exactly the opposite of what they are instructed to do. There is hardly anything they do not share, and physical distancing is something they loath when it comes to their friends.

On the other hand, schools are overflowing with students. Most of them have about 50 students each crammed into classrooms, and it is well-nigh impossible to observe the physical distancing rule in such an environment. Many schools are without proper sanitary facilities, and this may also lead to the transmission of COVID-19 among students.

It is not only at school that students are exposed to infections; they may get infected while travelling to and from school. Private transport is a luxury most of them cannot afford; they are dependent on trains, buses and school vans. Lucky are the ones who can travel in private vehicles or use Shanks’s pony or cycle to school.

School vehicles sans proper ventilation are chock-a-block with students, as is public knowledge. Not even cattle are allowed to be transported in this manner, but nobody has taken up the plight of students travelling in overcrowded vans.

Students are left with no alternative but to travel in school vans suffering in silence and exposing themselves to infections. These vehicles travel in circuitous routes, and most students have to board them at dawn and spend hours in them before reaching school. They suffer again after school. The government says it will take action to have the school van operators adhere to the health guidelines, but it is highly unlikely that they will do so; they are bent on squeezing as many children into their vehicles and, thereby, maximize profit.

Only some half-hearted attempts have been made to ensure the roadworthiness of school vehicles, whose operators have become a law unto themselves. They hold parents to ransom, and exact fees even during school vacations.

Successive governments have set for themselves ambitious goals as regards education. We have heard many a Finance Minister wax eloquent about what they call their contribution towards the development of the education sector, and promise to develop the school system further. That all of them have failed is evident from the state of the government schools, most of which lack even basic facilities.

It is high time the government made a meaningful intervention to solve students’ transport problem and took steps to launch a countrywide programme to provide all schools with facilities to ensure the safety of students.



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Editorial

Cops rise from deep slumber

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Saturday 20th August, 2022

The police have risen from a deep slumber like Rip Van Winkle. They have arrested Mervyn Silva for storming the state-owned Rupavahini Corporation headquarters in 2007 and roughing up a news director there. He was accompanied by some underworld characters during that incursion, which turned out to be a misadventure. They got their just deserts; the Rupavahini workers retaliated, and took them hostage. The police had to intervene to secure their release. Mervyn returned the worse for wear with his tail between his legs! It is puzzling why the police have resumed the probe into that incident all of a sudden. Has Mervyn ruffled the feathers of the leaders of the current dispensation. He has been letting out streams of invective against the Rajapaksas, whose sandals he used to lick until 2015.

Interestingly, when Mervyn was produced in court, the Judge, who released him without bail, happened to mention the fact that the latter had banned cattle slaughter in Kelaniya. True, Mervyn did so, and perhaps that is about the only good thing he has done as a politician, and he has benefited from the merit thereof in this life itself! If only he respected the rights of humans as well and refrained from harming them!

Mervyn is lucky that his sordid past is now almost forgotten, and only his intervention to save the poor bovines is remembered. He used to terrorise the public and treat the police like a doormat. He would openly issue orders to high-ranking police officers, who meekly did as he said. He once tied a public official to a tree in full view of the police as ‘punishment’ for being late for a meeting he had summoned! He would threaten media personnel and even damage their cameras, etc., in public, with impunity. He should have been arrested for his alleged involvement in attacks on television stations during the previous Rajapaksa government.

From 2005 to 2015, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa protected Mervyn, who rose above the law as a result. A group of newspaper editors, at a meeting with President Rajapaksa, in the aftermath of the Rupavahini incident, asked why no legal action had been taken against Mervyn, and Rajapaksa had the chutzpah to claim that there was no need to do so because the Rupavahini workers had meted out punishment to Mervyn!

Rajapaksa was dependent on Mervyn for crushing anti-government protests and taming the Opposition and the media, and following his re-election in 2010 he went so far as to appoint the latter the Deputy Minister of Media! Journalists had to fight quite a battle to have him stripped of that post. We argued editorially that it was the Arachchi who incurred the wrath of the people if he did not care to keep his ferocious pet dog on a tight lease, and Mahinda was asking for trouble by giving Mervyn free rein.

Behind every successful criminal in this country there is a politician. Kalu Lucky, Gonawala Sunil, Soththi Upali, Beddegana Sanjeewa, Wambotta and other savage killers would not have been able to place themselves above the law but for the politicians who protected them. Ironically, those who used those underworld characters to do dirty political work are today pontificating to their rivals on the virtues of democracy and the rule of law. Maithripala Sirisena, who realised his presidential dream, by promising good governance, has had no qualms about granting Mervyn SLFP membership!

Now that the police are awake and busy probing Mervyn’s Rupavahini raid, let them be urged to resume investigations into the many crimes committed during the Rajapaksa government, the killings of journalists, land grabs, arson attacks on media institutions, and violence against the Opposition politicians. Terrible things that Mervyn is alleged to have done at the behest of his political masters must also not go uninvestigated.

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Editorial

Cops and robbers

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Friday 19th August, 2022

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Ukraine Udayanga Weeratunga has been questioned by the CID on the infamous MIG deal for the umpteenth time. Police investigations in this country tend to go on until the cows come home when the suspects happen to be powerful politicians and their kith and kin. The MIG probe is likely to go on until or the suspects go the way of all flesh. No wonder corruption has eaten into the vitals of Sri Lankan society.

Weeratunga stands accused of having received kickbacks from the controversial purchase of fighter jets for the Sri Lanka Air Force under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. A close relative of the Rajapaksa family, he has reportedly said former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should also be questioned on the issue. He has been critical of Gotabaya of late, maybe because he thinks he had to languish in a remand prison as the latter did not go all out to protect him. But one should not be so naïve as to expect Udayanga to disclose anything that can be used against Gotabaya; his swipes at the latter are only for public consumption.

Politicians and their allies remain loyal to the oath of omerta, as it were, no matter what; never do they divulge information which could lead to mutually assured destruction, so to speak. Court cases against them are like third-rate mega teledramas, which are an insult to people’s intelligence. Full of dramatic twists and turns, they drag on and have highly predictable ends. They are only a form of public entertainment.

Show trials against the powerful invariably collapse in this country, as is public knowledge. One of the main election pledges made by the Yahapalana camp ahead of the 2015 regime change was to throw the Rajapaksas behind bars for the theft of public funds and corrupt deals, among other things. Those who undertook to act as cops were caught with their hands in the till. Then, there occurred a role reversal with the robbers becoming cops, and vice versa. Today, the cops and the robbers are together, sharing power, protecting each other, and cocking a snook at the gullible people, who try to ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ by changing governments.

The theory of the circulation of elites has gained currency in social science, and is used to explain regime changes and how elites and non-elites become rulers from time to time. As for Sri Lanka, we see a kind of circulation of rogues as well; they acquire and enjoy power almost alternately. The Rajapaksa loyalists who went into hiding following the 2015 regime change owing to charges of bribery and corruption, etc., against them are back in action, protesting their innocence, feathering their nests and even having cases against them dismissed on questionable technical grounds rather than the merit of legal arguments in defence of them. They have proved that they are capable of manipulating legislative and legal processes to protect their interests.

Crooks who defaulted on loans from state banks to the tune of billions of rupees, got off scot-free and chose to lie low after the 2019 regime change, are currently sighted in the exalted company of the powers that be at UNP events. They are now safe and can make up for lost time. At this rate, one need not be surprised even if former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, who fled the country before being hauled up before courts over the Treasury bond scams, returns to Sri Lanka. He has told CNN how he thinks the Sri Lankan economy could be straightened up! When the Rajapaksas during their Opposition days vowed to bring Mahendran back to stand trial for the bond racket, we argued in this space that he would be safe under a Rajapaksa administration and no serious attempt would be made to have him extradited because the Rajapaksas were protected by the UNP-led Yahapalana government. Nobody was sent to prison for the murders of newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, and ruggerite, Wasim Thajudeen, and no action was taken to trace the ill-gotten wealth of the bigwigs of the Rajapaksa administration.

The police had five years from January 2015 to complete the probe into the MIG deal. Having let the grass grow under their clumsy feet, while the suspects were out of power, the long arm of the law is now pretending to go hell for leather to complete the investigation. Let the Police be urged to fish or cut bait!

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Editorial

Gota coming?

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Thursday 18th August 2022

Speculation is rife that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is planning to return to Sri Lanka. The question, however, is not whether he is coming, but what he is doing overseas. The anti-government protesters who engineered his ouster called upon him to ‘go home’; they did not ask him to flee the country. Interestingly, they themselves have gone back home! Gotabaya certainly helped defuse tensions by leaving the country in the aftermath of the 09 July uprising, without ordering a military crackdown on protests, whatever the reason, but it defies comprehension why he has chosen to be in self-exile for so long.

All other SLPP politicians who pauperised the country while claiming to empower its people have not fled the country; they are going places, instead. The protesting public demanded a system change, no less, but what they have got is the same rotten system with some cosmetic change; there is a ‘new’ government consisting of the same old failures and political rejects. So, Gotabaya’s return will not make much of a difference.

Gotabaya ruined the economy. He alone? The economic crisis no doubt worsened, on his watch, but it is not of recent origin. When a nation consumes more than it produces, and spends more than it earns, it asks for trouble and its bankruptcy is only a matter of time. Gotabaya could have delayed the country’s slide into pauperism if not for his obduracy, incompetence, inexperience, the wrong advice he received from a coterie of self-styled experts, and some circumstances beyond his control.

The government would have the public believe that the economy nosedived due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected the country’s productivity, exports and the foreign currency inflow, and the Ukraine war, which has led to massive increases in the costs of imports. It is only causing an affront to the people’s intelligence by peddling this argument. The country could have withstood unprecedented pressure from the pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict, albeit temporarily, but for the Gotabaya administration’s economic mismanagement. Politically-motivated tax cuts took a heavy toll on the state revenue, compelling the government to resort to money printing. The situation took a turn for the worse owing to the distribution of cash handouts by way of pandemic relief. Excessive money printing led to an exponential increase in inflation and the devaluation of the rupee. The government also made a fatal mistake by continuing to defend the tumbling rupee until the depletion of the scarce dollar reserves, and allowing a currency free float thereafter, instead of seeking IMF assistance at the first sign of trouble. Corruption has also cost the state coffers dear, the fallout of the mega sugar tax scam being a case in point. Gotabaya’s disastrous organic agriculture policy backfired because what should have been done over several years cautiously was telescoped into a few months.

Trouble began for Gotabaya with the emergence of two more competing power centres in the SLPP in the form of the Mahinda and Basil camps after the last general election. One may recall that Gotabaya performed reasonably well as the President until the formation of the SLPP government in August 2020. Mahinda, after securing the premiership, reverted to his old ways, which had led to his downfall as the President, and Basil began to leverage his position as the handler of the SLPP to control the government.

Gotabaya was keen to form an all-party government towards the latter stages of his rule. It may be argued that he was only making a virtue of necessity, but the fact remains that he was willing to share power with the Opposition. The SLPP was against any such power-sharing arrangement, and the political crisis worsened, leading to the ouster of Gotabaya. Most of those who contributed to the country’s bankruptcy are back in business and the Aragalaya has withered on the vine. Gotabaya alone is on the run—of his own volition.

Some LTTE sympathisers who funded terrorism, which destroyed tens of thousands of lives and properties worth billions of rupees, and ruined the economy, here, are now free to come back because the current administration has delisted their outfits for political expediency. Gotabaya, the former Defence Secretary, who played a pivotal role in prosecuting the country’s successful war against the LTTE, became the President and resigned, fears to return home!

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