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Editorial

Return the loot

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Tuesday 24th August, 2021

Several Opposition MPs have let out a howl of protest against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent statement that the public should be prepared to make more sacrifices if the current lockdown gets protracted. Politicians belonging to both the government and the Opposition are responsible for having caused the public coffers run dry by milking public funds over the years. It is they who must be made to make sacrifices before others.

Some ministers have decided to forgo their salaries in response to the national health crisis, we are told; their decision is welcome, and others must emulate them; but let them be told that they are not making any sacrifices, as such; they are only returning a fraction of what they have taken from the public. If they return everything they have stolen from the public purse and/or obtained at the expense of the country through corrupt deals, etc., perhaps there will be enough and more funds to feed and clothe the poor for decades. There are, of course, decent men and women in politics, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Most politicians, especially ministers, have risen from humble origins to amass immense wealth. They make it a point to speak frankly about their origins during election campaigns to identify themselves with the ordinary public and win popular support, but never do they explain how they have earned so much of money. Nothing is more farcical than the laws that require them to declare their assets and liabilities; they have not helped prevent the theft of public money. This is true of the Opposition politicians as well, although they have taken moral high ground. Their hands are as dirty as those of their ruling party counterparts because they also enriched themselves while in power.

The country would have had enough funds to look after the public during the pandemic but for the colossal losses the state coffers have suffered under successive governments. The Treasury bond scams during the yahapalana administration, and the sugar tax scandal under the present dispensation are some of the mega rackets that have deprived the country of billions, if not trillions, of rupees. The recent duty waiver for milk powder imports is also said to have caused a huge loss to the state. Massive losses the country suffers due to kickbacks politicians receive from development projects are simply incalculable. Those who have benefited from such corrupt deals will not mind donating their salaries, which are peanuts for them.

It will take many more years for Sri Lanka’s economy to recover even if the world succeeds in ridding itself of coronavirus or reducing the severity of Covid-19 to that of a seasonal flu. Therefore, those who have taken turns to plunder the public wealth and are leading the life of Riley will have to do much more than donating their salaries. They will have to return at least one half of their ill-gotten wealth. If the funds stashed away in their offshore accounts are brought back, the country’s forex woes will be a thing of the past, overnight. The yahapalana government undertook to do so, but instead of ‘catching thieves’, its leaders emulated their predecessors.

If the current ruling party MPs, and the yahapalana MPs and ministers in the present Opposition are genuinely desirous of sharing the suffering of the public and making some contribution towards the country’s economic recovery, they ought to stop being a burden on the people and follow their counterparts in countries like Sweden, where only the Prime Minister is given an official car. All ministers and the Speaker have to use public transport or travel in their private vehicles at their own expense. A Swedish MP’s salary is only twice more than that of an elementary school teacher, according to media reports, and the MPs’ official apartments are little boxes where they have to do their cooking and laundry themselves.

Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin found herself in the soup a few moons ago, having spent public funds on her family breakfast at her official residence. Finally, she had to reimburse the state for her breakfast expenses. This is how right-conscious, intelligent people treat their political representatives in advanced democracies.

The people who pay through the nose to maintain their representatives gain only when the latter are made to share the former’s woes, and stop wasting public funds. The MPs and ministers will never feel the need to develop public transport unless they travel in overcrowded buses and trains. Never will they care to do anything about the high cost of living unless they are paid less, and prevented from stealing from the public purse.

Thus, it may be seen that the Sri Lankan politicians have to do much more than forgoing their salaries during the pandemic. Let it be repeated that they have to return the loot or at least part of it.



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Editorial

Justitia in tears

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Thursday 28th October, 2021

Power befogs governments, and makes them muddle along, impervious to reason. When intoxicated with power, politicians think they cannot be wrong and resort to ill-conceived actions, and box themselves into a corner, in the process. This, we have witnessed under all governments with steamroller majorities.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is no stranger to controversy. This time around, he has triggered an avalanche of criticism by appointing General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, of all people, as the head of a 13-member Presidential Task Force (PTF) to ‘make a study of the implementation of the concept, One country; One law, and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose’. The PTF is also required to study the draft Acts and amendments prepared by the Ministry of Justice and submit a proposal, we are told.

The other members of the PTF are Prof. Dayananda Banda, Prof. Shanthinandana Wijesinghe, Prof. Sumedha Siriwardana, N.G. Sujeewa Panditharathna, Attorney-at-Law Iresh Senevirathne, Attorney-at-Law Sanjaya Marambe, Eranda Navarathna, Pani Wewala, Moulavi Mohamed, Mohamed Inthikab, Kaleel Rahuman and Azeez Nizardeen. Why hasn’t anyone been appointed to represent the Tamils? There should be members to look after the interests of all communities including the Veddas. The need for an outfit tasked with such a serious task to be inclusive cannot be overemphasised.

It defies comprehension why the President has handpicked as the head of the PTF a person who was granted a presidential pardon while serving a sentence for contempt of court, which in other words means causing an affront to the dignity of the judiciary. How come the President thinks a person sentenced to jail for violating the law is fit to carry out his one-country-one-law project?

Opinion may be divided on what led Gnanasara Thera to commit contempt of court, in 2016, and languish in prison. He has been hailed in some quarters for taking up the cudgels on behalf of some military intelligence personnel, but by no stretch of the imagination could this be cited in extenuation of the offence of disrupting court proceedings. If everyone starts doing so, courts will not be able to function. However, it will be remiss of anyone who is flaying Gnanasara Thera to turn a blind eye to a far worse incident that took place in the Colombo High Court about a decade ago. When the judgment in the White Flag case was delivered on 18 Nov. 2011, a group of lawyers and outsiders went berserk, smashing court furniture and threatening judges; the police had to rush in to protect them. Nobody was prosecuted for that ugly scene, which the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, and all those who are fighting for the independence of the judiciary chose to ignore. However, two wrongs do not make a right.

The idea behind the one-country-one-law programme is to ensure that the law of the land applies to everyone equally. So, a person who has shown disrespect for the law and the judiciary and been jailed for that is ipso facto disqualified from heading the PTF in question. This, however, is not the only reason why the President’s wisdom of making the controversial appointment stands questioned.

Hasn’t anyone in the government read the report put out by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks? The PCoI has, in Chapter 22 titled, Contributory Factors, recommended that the Attorney General consider whether criminal proceedings can be instituted against Ven. Gnanasara Thera. It has also recommended that the BBS be proscribed because its actions pose a threat to religious harmony. Observing that ‘some of Gnanasara Thera’s actions and utterances have contributed to Muslim youth taking to extremism and joining Zahran’, the PCoI says: “It was in evidence that Zahran used the speeches and actions of the Thero to rally support for his cause. In the final video made by Zahran spelling out the reasons for the attacks, reference is made to the actions of the Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero … The actions of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero resulted in reciprocal radicalization of Muslim youth.”

Is it that the President has not taken the PCoI findings and recommendations seriously? However, some recommendations have already been carried out. Criminal proceedings have been instituted against former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and ex-IGP Pujith Jayasundera.

Why weren’t the PCoI recommendations taken into consideration when the aforesaid controversial appointment was made? An explanation is called for.

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Editorial

Vroom dream!

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Wednesday 27th October, 2021

The government is behaving as if it had no problems to contend with. It is now talking about a proposal for the construction of a Formula One racing track, of all things, in Hambantota, of all places, while the country is struggling to replenish its oil supplies.

What has been proposed is a purpose-built circuit, according to media reports. The Cabinet will take up the proposed Formula One project for discussion soon, we are told. Don’t our ministerial worthies have any other important matters to concentrate on? The fertiliser crisis is far from resolved. Farmers are staging street protests and threatening to march on Colombo. Experts are warning of a drastic drop in the national agricultural output. Essential commodities are in short supply, and their prices have gone into the stratosphere. Public health experts have warned of another explosive spread of the pandemic in December and the possibility of another lockdown. The economy is in bad shape. But government politicians are living in cloud cuckoo land, dreaming of racing tracks!

The government should not be in a hurry to discuss the proposed F1 track, for there may not be any need for it. Unless funds are raised for oil imports urgently, or the petroleum prices are jacked up again, ordinary people will not be able to drive or ride, and the existing roads will be so deserted that it may be possible to hold car races on them.

It is said that the proposed F1 track will be a private sector project, which will bring in the much-needed forex, but we will have to wait for future Pandora Paper leaks to see who is really behind those who are said to be willing to invest in the racing track. There is the possibility of a fraction of the funds stolen from Sri Lankans returning to the country as investment. Private sector investors cannot be so naive as to invest in an F1 track in this country. They cannot be unaware how difficult it will be to have races held here, given the difficulties experienced by countries like Singapore, India, etc., with F1 tracks.

If the proposed F1 track is built by any chance, Hambantota will set a world record as the town boasting the highest number of white elephants. It already has an inland port with only a few ships. Hardly any summit has been held at the Hambantota International Conference Hall for years. The Sooriyawewa International Cricket Stadium is deserted, and its only attraction is said to be the bushmeat served in eateries in the neighbouring township. Then there is the Mattala International Airport, where deafening roars are heard more from wild jumbos roaming the area than from jumbo jet engines. Add an F1 track, and we will have a port without ships, an airport without planes and a racing track without cars! (Hambantota has an excellent road network which is almost deserted. Perhaps, the government may be able to use it as an F1 road/street circuit.)

Car racing is one of the main reasons for the collapse of the previous Rajapaksa government, which closed busy roads in Colombo and Kandy for races, and turned a blind eye to late-night drag races, which became a real nuisance to the residents of Colombo. The organisers of the racing events even disregarded protests by the Maha Nayake Theras. The rathagaaya (local slang for excessive desire for driving or racing) of the young members of the ruling family made that administration extremely unpopular.

Let the government be urged to concentrate on pandemic control to prevent lockdowns, take steps to eliminate corruption and make the country attractive as an investment destination by improving its ease-of-doing-business ranking. If the government leaders get their act together, foreign direct investment will flow in. This is what countries like Singapore have done to achieve progress. An F1 circuit has never helped develop a poor country.

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Editorial

Of that ‘hug in the ring’

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Tuesday 26th October, 2021

There is an uneasy truce between the government and the warring teacher-principal trade unions. What looks like a hug in the ring, however, is deceptive; the two parties to the current dispute are actually in a clinch, which they are likely to break from to resume throwing killer hooks at each other, given half a chance.

The government started reopening schools last Thursday, as previously announced, but most of the protesting teachers and principals did not report for work on that day. Instead, they resumed work yesterday. They obviously sought to teach the government a lesson by keeping school attendance extremely low on Thursday and Friday. Whether their action had any impact on the government is doubtful, but students lost two more days of schooling, as a result. Both sides to the conflict would have the public believe that they are trying to safeguard the interests of students, but they are obviously driven by self-interest.

One only hopes that schools will remain open, and the protesting trade unions and the government politicians, most of whom should be sent back to school, will work out a compromise formula. Losses that students and the country have already suffered due to prolonged school closures caused by the pandemic are unprecedented, inestimable, and irrecoverable, and, therefore everything possible must be done to ensure that schools will not be closed owing to a teachers’ strike.

Teachers and principals have warned that they will intensify their trade union action unless their demands are granted. The government has undertaken to solve their salary issues through Budget 2022, to be presented to Parliament next month. The rectification of teachers’ and principals’ salary anomalies is likely to make other categories of state employees resentful. The public sector salary structures are very complex; they are in fact a minefield. A decision is said to have been taken to make teaching a closed service, as a way out, but it is too early to say whether the proposed solution will be acceptable to others.

General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union Joseph Stalin has said teachers will confine themselves to teaching, and will not take part in school cleaning campaigns and other such activities. Teachers and principals carry out various tasks besides teaching for the benefit of their students without expecting or receiving anything in return, and their voluntary work should be appreciated. But, sadly, teaching is exactly what a considerable number of teachers do not do properly. Complaints abound that many teachers and principals neglect their duties; almost all students are dependent on supplementary education to prepare themselves for competitive examinations. The proliferation of private tuition centres throughout the country is an indictment of government teachers. This is something the teachers’ unions which are all out to win their demands ought to take cognisance of. They should ensure that each member of theirs earns his or her keep without being a burden on the taxpaying public.

Meanwhile, the government is sure to print more money to meet the protesting teachers’ and principals’ demands, causing inflation to rise further. An increase in the public sector salary bill, or other state expenses, generally leads to tax hikes. This will be a double whammy for the general public already struggling to make ends meet. But the government will have to fulfil its pledge to teachers if schools are not to be closed again.

No reasonable person will grudge teachers—or any other category of workers, for that matter—better pay, but the latter will have to work harder and help straighten up the education sector which is in decline. The least that the protesting trade unions can do is to make teachers carry out their duties and functions properly to obviate their students’ dependence on shadow education to pass competitive examinations.

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