Friday 27th May, 2022
What was widely expected of the SLPP and the Opposition, by way of their contribution to resolving the current economic crisis, was the formation of a national unity government. Religious dignitaries and civil organisations campaigned hard to bring the warring parties together, and political leaders had the public believe that they were making a serious effort to form a multi-party Cabinet, but the mountain that laboured has brought forth a mouse—a deformed one at that.
Some of the newly-appointed ministers are at daggers drawn. They have turned hostile towards even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara continue to inveigh against the President. Fernando has, at a recent media briefing, repeated some of the allegations he levelled against the President and other members of the Rajapaksa family while he was in the Opposition. He and Nanayakkara are obviously trying to remain in the good books of the irate public by criticising the President and the SLPP while being members of the Rajapaksa government. But the problem with running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is that there comes a time when the person doing so does not know whether he/she is running or hunting.
It is hoped that the ongoing uneasy political cohabitation between the SLPP and a section of the Opposition does not exemplify a local saying about connubiality –– ‘even the shadow of a doomed marriage is crooked’. There should be a healthy relationship between the President and the Cabinet if the government is to be prevented from becoming a two-headed donkey that tries to pull in two different directions simultaneously. A toxic relationship between the President and the Cabinet or some members thereof takes its toll on the performance of a government, as has been our experience. We have witnessed such scenarios twice during the past two decades, or so.
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the UNF ministers including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe fought bitterly from 2001 to 2004. President Kumaratunga had to stomach many indignities at the hands of the UNF ministers. Their enmity stood the LTTE in good stead. President Kumaratunga finally sacked the UNF administration. There was a similar situation from 2015 to 2019; President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNF Cabinet including PM Wickremesinghe hardly did anything other than fighting so much so that the former sought to dislodge the UNP-led government and hold a general election only to be left with egg on his face courtesy of a landmark Supreme Court ruling against his rash executive action. Their clashes rendered the yahapalana government dysfunctional and led to national security being severely compromised; a group of terrorists struck with ease on 21 April 2019, destroying more than 270 lives in churches and hotels, as a result.
Meanwhile, Ministers and high-ranking state officials must not be at loggerheads. The need for a healthy relationship between the Cabinet and the bureaucracy for the country to face challenges, overcome crises and achieve progress cannot be overemphasised. When Basil Rajapaksa was the Finance Minister, it was reported that the then Central Bank (CB) Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal had not been able to meet him for months to discuss vital issues concerning the economy.
The Finance Minister and the CB Governor are like two aerialists who perform flying trapeze; they must have absolute faith in each other, and be adept at synchronised movements if disaster is to be averted. In the case of Sri Lanka’s economic circus, there is no safety net. A government must not expect the CB Governor to perform monetary pole dancing. One may recall that a CB chief who chose to display his skills on the pole in a bid to entertain his political masters, during the yahapalana government, had to flee the country, in the buff, as it were.
CB officials have recently revealed before the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) that they warned of an economic meltdown about two years ago, but their efforts to convince the government of the need to take urgent action to straighten up the economy were in vain. One could only hope that a similar situation will not happen again, and the political authority will listen to expert advice and do what needs to be done urgently to save the economy, and grant relief to the public calling out for help.
Guns in wrong hand
Recent news on the results of inadequate gun control laws in the United States of America reminds us Lankans in this so-called Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka, of the gun control here we have known in the past and what applies at present. Older readers would remember the redoubtable C. Sutheralingam who sailed into the then coveted Ceylon Civil Service and then resigned saying he was “tired of signing gun licences and dog licences” in various kachcheris. A mathematical genius, he reverted to academia as Professor of Mathematics in the University College and later served as a Minister of the first D.S. Senanayake government of then Independent Ceylon.
From the British colonial era, Ceylonese as we were then, were not permitted to own firearms without a licence. These were issued by the government at various kachcheris after a careful evaluation of whether the permit holder was a fit and proper person to hold a firearm. In the early days gun licences were not easy to obtain but not as difficult as later; for example during the JVP’s first and second insurrections and during the civil war. Those of us who are old enough remember that the JVP commandeered a large number of shotguns issued to permit holders mainly for crop protection. Guns then had to be surrendered to police stations so that they were safe from marauding insurgents. Ironically many police stations were overrun and their own armouries as well as firearms surrendered for safe custody were taken away. This is history.
In the past few weeks we have seen a series of brazen daylight murders by gunmen on motorbikes blazing away at their victims in offences most likely connected to the narcotics trade that is rampant in the country. Automatic weapons have been used in several of these killings. Obviously the weapons used are not licenced. One little remembered aspects of our long drawn civil war was that there was leakage of military hardware imported into the country to fight the northern insurgency. The military trained a large number of youth, many from rural areas, in the use of firearms. There has been no proper accounting of firearms lost from military armouries during the war years and thereafter. Deserters often took away arms that were never recovered. There are also firearms the JVP robbed during its two adventures that remain unaccounted. Then there are the guns issued to politicians for self-defence at a time there was a very real threat to their lives. Many of these were not returned by those to whom they were issued.
We believe that even today politicians, or at least their personal security officers, are issued firearms. The recent killing of an MP and mob attacks on, homes of politicians and their property is evidence enough of their need to be armed. However that be, it is obvious that a great number of ‘leaked’ firearms are possessed by the not inconsiderable underworld operating with near impunity in this country. Such arms are frequently used in acts of crime and seldom recovered. It is necessary for the concerned authorities to take cognizance of this reality. Many of us, rightly we believe, are convinced that this bankrupt country, in addition to its bloated public service, extravagantly incurs defence expenditures totally unrelated to our needs since the war ended. But getting rid of military personnel, trained in using firearms, into an economy that cannot offer jobs is positively dangerous. Bangladesh discovered this to its cost with its Mukti Bahini created at the time of the liberation war. Releasing trained and often armed soldiers or para militaries into the civilian world without proper employment available to them can mean buying trouble.
Many of us have strong opinions that the new gun control regulation, first in three decades, recently passed by the U.S. Congress is too little, too late. The U.S. has been bedevilled over a very long period of time by wanton killings enabled by lax gun laws in that country. The National Rifle Association (NRA), an immensely wealthy organization known to fund the Republican Party has for decades successfully lobbied against vitally needed gun control laws. This was most recently illustrated by the brutal massacre of 19 toddler and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But it must be acknowledged that the bill recently enacted by Congress is significant in that it received an unprecedented level of support from Republicans. All 50 Democratic Senators and 15 Republicans endorsed the bill in a 65-33 vote.
President Biden is on record saying, “After 28 years of inaction, bipartisan members of Congress came together to heed the call of families across the country and passed legislation to address the scourge of gun violence in our communities”. Although these new regulations fall far short of the controls required to contain the “scourge of gun violence” in the USA, a scourge that has claimed the lives of close to 40,000 lives per year for decades, it’s still a start. As far as we are concerned, our problem is nowhere near that of the U.S. where guns can be easily and freely purchased. While this is not so in Sri Lanka, far too many military weapons imported for use in the war continue to be in the wrong hands.
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.
JVP’s call to arms
Friday 1st July, 2022
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, has sounded a call to arms. Speaking at a recent rally in Panadura, he unveiled his party’s strategy to resolve the present crisis. It consists of three phases, according to him—bringing down the incumbent government, forming an interim administration and holding a general election. He said his party was planning to oust the government, and would announce when the people should take to the streets in their numbers for that purpose.
There is no gainsaying that the present government is as dangerous as a dead man walking. Its grandees have ruined the economy, and are likely to inflict more damage on the country if they are allowed to exercise power any longer. Basil Rajapaksa continues to control the government as the eminence grise despite his resignation from Parliament. The sooner this administration is dislodged and a truly multi-party caretaker government is formed, the better.
It was reported yesterday that Israeli Parliament had voted to dissolve itself, bringing down the government and setting the stage for a fifth election in less than four years. This is an option available to Sri Lanka as well, but it is not desirable at this juncture. Therefore, the course of action the JVP has proposed may be considered acceptable, but the same cannot be said about the modus operandi as regards the first phase thereof, for it may be possible to dislodge the government without street protests, which should be the final recourse or pis aller and certainly not the first resort, given their potential to aggravate political instability or even unleash anarchy.
The Opposition and the SLPP dissidents ought to get themselves around the table urgently and reach a consensus on the formation of a caretaker government and a common agenda besides a timeframe for a general election, and then ask President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accede to their demand. If they take to the streets without a proper plan straightaway, they will only aggravate the crisis instead of helping overcome it.
In his above-mentioned speech, the JVP leader attributed the present forex crisis to the theft of the country’s dollars over the years. He said foreign currency in the state coffers had found its way into the offshore accounts of powerful politicians. True, the country is in this predicament mainly because the kleptocrats in the garb of political leaders and their kith and kin have helped themselves to huge amounts of public money and stashed it away overseas. They have also changed laws to facilitate foreign currency rackets. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) has said the Yahapalana government amended the Exchange Control Act in 2017 for the benefit of forex racketeers. FSP Spokesman Pubudu Jagoda was quoted by this newspaper yesterday as saying that the Exchange Control Act of 1953, which prevented forex rackets, had been amended in 2017, enabling exporters to keep their dollars overseas; violations of the foreign exchange laws had been criminal offences earlier, but the 2017 amendment had made them civil offences much to the benefit of racketeers, paving the way for the current crisis.
Curiously, the JVP, which is flaying the incumbent dispensation for the country’s forex woes, had no qualms about defending the Yahpalana government and even preventing its collapse in 2018. It is high time the Exchange Control Act was rid of the questionable amendments and strengthened to hold racketeers at bay.
The JVP leader claimed that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s youngest son, Rohitha and his fiancee had planned to have a photo session in Kashmir before their wedding, but a clash between Pakistan and India had put paid to the pre-shoot. Dissanayake said MP Namal Rajapaksa had confided that to him. Whether his claim is true or false, we do not know, but the fact remains that the sons and daughters of most political leaders are living high on the hog thanks to undisclosed sources of income. They must be made to disclose how they have amassed so much wealth. One can only hope that the interim administration the Opposition is planning to form will address this issue.
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