Rulers and unionists from hell
Saturday 2nd July, 2022
What possessed the railway trade unions to launch a lightning strike yesterday causing hundreds of thousands of commuters to be stranded? Their leaders said they were protesting against the non-availability of fuel for their members to travel to work. Do they think fuel will be made available to railway workers simply because they resort to trade union action? What about other workers, especially those in the health sector, who are also experiencing the same problem? Doctors and other health workers languish in fuel queues, but hospitals remain open at least partially to treat the sick and save their lives. True, some railway workers cannot travel to and from work for want of fuel, but a serious effort must be made to operate as many trains as possible with the available workers. All other public and private institutions are managing with minimum staff. A strike is certainly not the way out. What would be the situation if the workers in other vital sectors such as power and energy, health, port, telecommunication, etc., emulated the striking railway unions?
Railway workers have legitimate grievances and so do all other workers, and they must be redressed. Fuel has to be made available on a priority basis to those who are engaged in the provision of essential services. Until the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation receives fresh oil shipments, arrangements could be made to provide fuel to those workers with the help of the Lanka Indian Oil Company. But the incumbent government is all at sea, and its leaders are running around like headless chickens; they are labouring under the delusion that their hare-brained token system will help sort out the fuel problem!
Strikes will only accelerate the country’s slide into anarchy, the signs of which are already visible. Hence the need for all trade unions to act responsibly and be different from failed political leaders. The Opposition also has a pivotal role to play in preventing anarchy from descending on the country; it has to go beyond making noises, and do something constructive.
The government has manifestly failed; it has not been able to make a dent in the crisis despite its leaders’ braggadocio and promises. The Opposition has also failed. It seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the people’s suffering and making the most of the situation. Its leaders are only walking and talking, so to speak, instead of coming forward to make a serious effort to form a multi-party interim government and implement their roadmaps, if any, for economic recovery. Protesting is the easiest thing to do during a crisis; a responsible Opposition needs to do much more for the sake of the people undergoing immense suffering.
The holier-than-thou Opposition politicians have declared that the government has failed––and rightly so––but, curiously, in the same breath they ask the failed regime to deliver! The need of the hour is a surgical procedure, as it were, in Parliament. What the Opposition grandees ought to do is to stop flogging a dead horse, close ranks, work out a common agenda with time-frames for the next general and presidential elections, and demand that the reins of government be handed over to a caretaker government consisting of all political parties represented in Parliament. Their coming together, however, will not help resolve the crisis overnight. But such a power-sharing arrangement will help bring about political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, and go a long way towards instilling hope in the hapless public, rekindling investors’ confidence, making progressive laws, formulating much-needed national policies, and, above all, convincing the rest of the world that Sri Lanka is serious about resolving its crisis and therefore deserves a helping hand. If all political parties could get together for the sake of the people and prepare a five-year plan, spelling out how the country will come out of the crisis, attain its development goals and repay its loans, that will make the task of having external debt restructured and obtaining foreign assistance easy.
Let it be repeated that trade unions must act with restraint. They have to be different from undergraduates who protest at the drop of a hat. Industrial action tends to snowball, and the unions that down tools at this juncture are likely to trigger a wave of strikes, which will deliver the coup de grace to the economy on oxygen support. That is something we need like a hole in the head.
Arrests and duplicity
Friday 9th June, 2023
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana finds himself in an unenviable position over the arrest of All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader and MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who was granted bail after being produced before the Kilinochchi Magistrate’s Court, on Wednesday. He is under fire from the Opposition, which says he did precious little to prevent Ponnambalam’s arrest, but the government MPs have endorsed police action. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has said he does not approve of what MP Ponnambalam is alleged to have done, but the latter should not have been arrested on his way to Parliament. He thinks there has been a breach of parliamentary privileges.
Speaker Abeywardana insists that he is without power or authority to prevent the police from making arrests. The question is whether the police would have been allowed to arrest a government MP for berating the police, or whether any action would have been taken against Ponnambalam if he had been supportive of the ruling coalition. When MP Ali Sabri Raheem, who has crossed over to the government, was recently nabbed by the Customs at the BIA, with 3.5 kilos of gold and nearly 100 smartphones, he was allowed to walk free after paying a fine amounting to only 10 percent of the value of the contraband goods, which were confiscated. Pointing out that a smuggler without political connections would have been made to pay a fine equal to the total value of the illicit goods taken into custody, the Opposition has asked why no action was taken against MP Raheem for violating the exchange control laws.
In a widely-circulated video, MP Ponnambalam is seen launching into a tirade against a group of policemen, one of whom pays him back in his own coin, in Vadamarachchi, recently. According to media reports, the incident took place near a GCE O/L examination centre; did it disturb the students sitting the exam, and if so, action should be taken against all those responsible for the commotion. Such behaviour is unbecoming to the so-called lawmakers and law-enforcement officers.
The Vadamarachchi incident would not have developed into a mega issue if MP Ponnambalam had made a statement to the police when he was asked to do so. In fact, there would have been no issue at all if he had refrained from confronting the police personnel, allegedly obstructing them in the process; the situation, we believe, could have been handled wisely. The matter, which is now before a Magistrate, is best left to the learned judge. We only discuss some political aspects thereof.
We usually do not have a kind word to say about the police, but they should be treated with respect, and must not be obstructed while on duty. All politicians, save a few, ride roughshod over the police albeit to varying degrees, but angry reactions from the latter are extremely rare. Will the police stand up to the unruly government MPs as well?
All MPs must be treated equally. What MP Ponnambalam is alleged to have done in Vadamarachchi pales into insignificance in comparison to charges against State Minister Diana Gamage; the CID did not arrest her even though the Colombo Chief Magistrate held that the police could take her into custody without a warrant. What made the police baulk at arresting her? Is it that the government thinks all MPs are equal before the law but the members of its parliamentary group are ‘more equal than’ others?
As for the clashes between the MPs and the police, one may recall that in late 2018, the Rajapakasa loyalists in the UPFA parliamentary group went berserk in Parliament in a bid to prevent the UNP and its allies including the JVP and the TNA from toppling the 52-day government, hurriedly formed by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a questionable manner.
They turned violent in the House, and even lunged menacingly at Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who had to be escorted to safety. They then damaged furniture and microphones in the House and threw chairs at the policemen protecting the beleaguered Speaker. It is a non-bailable offence to damage public property. But no cases were filed against those violent MPs.
What’s the world coming to when the MPs who throw projectiles at the police inside Parliament itself and smash up public property are let off the hook but legal action is taken against an MP for hurling verbal abuse against some police personnel and allegedly obstructing them? The government has made a mockery of its ‘one-country-one-law’ slogan, which it makes out to be its guiding principle. The aforesaid instances of duplicity make one wonder whether that catchphrase should be changed to ‘one-country-two-laws’.
BAB irredeemably bad
Thursday 8th June, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration has earned notoriety for trying to defend the indefensible. Cabinet Spokesman and Media Minister Bandula Gunawardena made a vain attempt at Tuesday’s weekly press briefing to defend the proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill (BAB) and dispel fears being expressed about it. Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who was present there, stuck his oar in; he said there was no reason for the media organisations that neither committed any transgressions nor intended to do so in the future to fear the BAB. His argument is seriously flawed in that dealing with errant media outfits is not the primary purpose of the BAB, which is aimed at facilitating the suppression of the media in their entirety. It is also intended to have the same intimidating and unsettling effect as the sword of Damocles on journalists and media owners; if it is enacted, all electronic media institutions will be at the mercy of the government, which will exercise control over the renewal of their transmission licences among other things. The BAB will inhibit journalists from being critical of the government and exposing its corrupt deals, etc.
Why is the government in a mighty hurry to introduce broadcasting regulatory laws at this juncture? Its focus should be on stabilising the economy, resuming debt repayment and granting some relief to the public. One of the tasks that the SLPP publicly entrusted President Ranil Wickremesinghe with following the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was to bring order out of chaos. He succeeded in doing so—credit where credit is due. He acted decisively and saved Parliament with the help of the military, who aborted an attempt by a mob to march on it, last year. If the hordes had been able to storm Parliament, the country would have been plunged into anarchy. Considering the positive impact the President’s bold action had on democracy and efforts being made to bring about political stability and revive the economy, only a hypocrite of the worst order will deny him credit for that. Unfortunately, a few months on, the government on his watch is trying to bring ‘chaos out of order’ by undertaking missions that are bound to endanger democracy and the semblance of political stability that has come about, and, worse, negate whatever gains the country has made on the economic front during the past several months.
The country has managed with the existing broadcasting regulatory laws during insurrections, a protracted war, and numerous socio-political upheavals including Aragalaya. So, why should the government make haste to bring in new media laws at present? It had better get its priorities right without biting off more than it can chew and inviting trouble.
It may be that the government is trying to make the most of the current situation and introduce oppressive laws to consolidate its hold on power. One may recall that in the early noughties, Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister, endeared himself to the media by doing away with criminal defamation laws and received praise from journalists, and deservedly so. But all the good he has done will be gone in a jiffy if the proposed broadcasting laws are enacted.
The UNP has a history of suppressing media freedom. It had journalists assaulted and murdered. The Jayewardene and Premadasa governments even did not allow the privately-owned television stations to carry local news bulletins. It was President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who granted the electronic media that freedom, soon after the 1994 regime change. The UNP lost and opted to avoid presidential elections for about three decades, and having secured the presidency fortuitously, it is apparently reverting to its old totalitarian ways, ably assisted by its partner in crime, the SLPP, whose leaders had journalists killed and media institutions torched.
There is no way the government can justify its efforts to introduce the BAB. Some ruling party politicians have said there could be an extensive discussion thereon before it is presented to Parliament, but what is there to be discussed about an irredeemably bad Bill?
The media continues to draw public criticism, and calls are being made for new laws to enable better regulation thereof, especially in view of the phenomenal expansion of social media. But introducing oppressive laws as envisaged in the BAB is certainly not the way to set about it.
Pressure must be cranked up on the government to deep-six the BAB. Journalists and all others who cherish media freedom and democracy must not rest until that goal is achieved. Boot, saddle, to horse, and away!
An indictment of SLPP leaders
Wednesday 7th June, 2023
The easiest task in Sri Lanka is perhaps to distract the public. In ancient Rome, the patricians used bread and circuses to take the plebeians for a ride, but there is no need for bread to hoodwink the masses in this country, where a mere political circus can make them forget even the pangs of hunger. In fact, not even circuses as such are necessary here to divert public attention from the many burning issues that the government has failed, or not cared, to solve; only a propaganda gimmick will do the trick. A stand-up comedienne, who is far from outstanding, a self-styled prophet, and a cantankerous Buddhist monk have found themselves up a creek for having failed to exercise control over their tongues, and the SLPP-UNP government has undertaken to protect Buddhism for political reasons. Besides, everybody is now talking about the next presidential election, which cannot be advanced without a constitutional amendment; the much-delayed local government and Provincial Council polls have apparently been forgotten. The SJB has already named its presidential candidate, and the SLPP remains indecisive with a section of its MPs offering to throw in their lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, the UNP has said, will run for President.
State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe has, in a television interview, declared that President Wickremesinghe is the best leader around and deserves to be popularly elected at the end of his current term. Politicians know which side their bread is buttered, and never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. So, it is only natural that Semasinghe is fawning over the President, but his statement at issue is proof that the SLPP has become so politically bankrupt that it considers none of its own leaders fit to be the next President! His statement therefore serves as an indictment of the SLPP leadership.
We don’t intend to discuss the possibility or otherwise of a snap presidential election, but Semasinghe’s statement is of interest and much political significance. What it signifies is that the SLPP stalwarts have had to hitch their wagons to Wickremesinghe, whom they condemned vehemently until mid-2022, and even had gone all out to oust as the Prime Minister in 2018, albeit in vain. The claim that the UNP-led Yahapalana government had compromised national security and ruined the country became the SLPP’s rallying cry at the last presidential and parliamentary elections. The SLPP leaders vilified Wickremesinghe and condemned his policies as being detrimental to the country’s interests, and the popular mandate they are flaunting at present to legitimise their hold on power despite their many failures was obtained to ‘save the country from the UNP’. The SLPP has made a mockery of its mandate by elevating the person it used as a foil to promote its leaders as capable patriots, to the highest position in the country. More importantly, it is doing the very obverse of what it undertook to do in its election manifestos. Inveighing against the Yahapalana regime for the sale of state assets, the SLPP leaders declared that never would they resort to the divestiture of public enterprises, which they promised to protect and develop. Today, the SLPP has made a volte-face and is going hell for leather to sell state ventures and other public assets at fire-sale prices.
By making Wickremesinghe the President and helping him carry out his economic policies, the SLPP has unwittingly caused the people to conclude that the UNP-led Yahapalana government would have done what the current dispensation is doing and therefore should not have been voted out. It has thus forfeited its raison d’etre, delegitimised itself well and truly, and lent much weight and credibility to the Opposition’s call for an early general election. In fact, it lost its right to wield power, the day it declared the country bankrupt and began inflicting unprecedented suffering on the people, especially those who had reposed their trust in it, expecting a better future for their children. Efforts being made to straighten up the ailing economy with the help of the very politicians who bankrupted it are as futile and stupid as enlisting Lalith Kotelawala’s support to revive Golden Key and grant relief to its depositors crying out for justice!
Whether Semasinghe has rendered any noteworthy service to the public, as the State Minister of Finance, may be debatable, but he certainly deserves praise for his indictment of the SLPP leadership, unintended as it may be.
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