Former President Maithripala Sirisena emerged a few days ago from a long hibernation, interrupted only by his participation in the last parliamentary election to retain his long-held Polonnaruwa district seat. He recently awoke from his slumber sharing a platform with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Yoshide Suga of Japan at an international symposium on Shared Values and Democracy in Asia organized by the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation. The event was necessarily held under virtual technology in these Covid-wracked times, and our former president, who chose not to ride gracefully into the sunset at the end of the presidential term, was no doubt flattered to receive the invitation to participate in a prestigious international event. He became president as the common opposition candidate under “fortuitous circumstances,” if we may borrow the expression used by Mr. W. Dahanayaka, the veteran politician of yesteryear, on attaining the prime ministry after Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination.
So much for the background of Sirisena, who retains the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) he deserted in 2014, to run for president the following year. His speech at the Vivekananda symposium received considerable publicity, both here and abroad. Ironically, its theme was a concept to which politicians worldwide pay lip service, but is sadly something that is commonly discarded upon attaining office. Sirisena is no exception to this actuality and the people of Sri Lanka who voted him into power on high expectations have not forgotten what happened in October 2018 even if the former president has let that sorry episode slip out of his memory. If we may remind him, that was when he committed the impeachable offence of dismissing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government and appointing Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man he defeated in 2015, as the new prime minister. Rajapaksa, at Sirisena’s invitation, formed an illegal short-lived government despite being a minority in the legislature and Sirisena, the prime mover of those machinations, was forced to eat humble pie by a unanimous decision of the country’s highest court.
At the start of his speech into which he must have had considerable input, but was surely ghost-written
as far as the English version he read out was concerned, Sirisena quoted from the familiar Pali stanza which appears at the end of the Pirit Pota. Certainly Raja bhavatu dhammiko was not what happened in October 2018; nor Yahapalana post-2015. It may be correctly said that the then prime minister asked for what was done to him by the man whose United National Party anointed as president in 2015. The evocative Sinhala idiom illagena parippu kewa says it all. Sri Lanka’s political history vividly demonstrated in the past, certainly up to the last election when the GOP was reduced to zero, that a common opposition is a sine qua non to topple a powerful government in this country. There is no need to labour the fact that Maithripala Sirisena would not have been elected president in 2015 but for the UNP support of his candidature. Even if 1956 when Mr. Bandaranaike’s SLFP-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) scored a landslide victory, the MEP had a no-contest agreement with the two old left parties, the LSSP and CP, then a formidable presence in the country’s political firmament. The elections of March and July 1960 best illustrate this point. The UNP led by Mr. Dudley Senanayake won in March and formed a minority government which was defeated in the very first Throne Speech presented to Parliament.
Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake recommended dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new general election to Sir. Oliver Goonatillake, the Governor-General in the then prevailing order. The arithmetic of the March 1960 electoral result clearly showed that many seats the UNP carried there would have been lost if the anti-UNP vote was not divided between the SLFP and the left parties. It is commonly said that it was the entry into politics of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, widely described as the “weeping widow” during that campaign, that made the difference. She replaced Mr. C.P. de Silva as the leader of the SLFP and prime minister-designate. Mrs. Bandaranaike, then not even a Member of the House of Representatives (she chose not to run at that election), became the world’s first woman prime minister as a member of the then Senate. It was the ‘No Contest’ Pact between the SLFP and the old left parties that benefited both sides that enabled the SLFP victory. The blue party was not the sole beneficiary; the reds too won more seats than they otherwise would have. The SLFP having enough seats to form a government of its own did not invite its electoral allies to join the new administration and the LSSP and CP joined the UNP in the opposition.
We return to Maithripala Sirisena now that we are done with the short capsule of post-Independence political history. Predictably Sirisena outlined at the symposium some of the achievement of his tenure including the shedding of certain presidential powers and the Right to Information Act. Some of the presidential powers removed by the 19th Amendment have been restored by the 20th recently enacted. Sirisena voted in its favour although he boasts of trimming presidential power in his day. He also supported the 18th Amendment which abolished the presidential term limit but did not in any way seek to abolish the presidency which all holders of that office, with the exceptions of Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, pledged to do. All of them, Sirisena included, welshed on that promise. Let us not deny him his moment in the limelight following the end of his glory days. But let us not forget the contradictions of his actions as president and the virtues he preached at the symposium.
Of those walls
Friday 22nd January, 2021
Walls are meant to ensure safety. Most houses in this country have boundary walls that are as tall as those around prisons, for there are more criminals at large than behind bars, and the law-abiding people fear for their safety. But walls can also be a source of danger if they are jerrybuilt or happen to sit in the wrong places like the one along a section of the perimeter of the Ratmalana Airport near the Galle road. A veteran Sri Lankan pilot, who writes to this newspaper under a pseudonym, has been striving for the last 10 years or so to have this wall pulled down because he believes it poses a danger to aircraft. He has written many articles putting forth solid arguments for the demolition of the wall, but in vain; the last one appeared yesterday. One may argue that the airport wall has caused no accidents so far and, therefore, one should not worry, but anything that is a potential danger to aircraft should not be permitted in or around airports.
Walls could cause trouble on the political front as well. Donald Trump was left with egg on his face when he, as the US President, tried to have a wall built along the US-Mexico border. That wall never came up, and Trump has had to leave the White House. Walls that political leaders allow to be built around them could also be problematic.
Many of those who campaigned really hard to bring the incumbent Sri Lankan government to power are now climbing the walls. Their frustration knows no bounds. They think a favoured few have built a wall around President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and are misleading him. This is what, some prominent Buddhist monks who led the SLPP’s election campaigns from the front say, has happened.
Several senior Buddhist monks flayed the government at a religious function held on Wednesday to invoke blessings on Ven. Omare Kassapa Thera on his birthday, at Abayaramaya, Colombo. Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda, Ven. Medagama Abhayatissa and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Theras, in their speeches decried the way the government was mismanaging state assets which it had undertaken to protect. They said their voice had gone unheeded as some persons had built a wall around the President. Medagama Abhayatissa Thera recalled how a group of Buddhist monks had protested when Hambantota Port was leased to the Chinese; he said the Maha Sangha would go all out to save the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.
One may recall that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister of the yahapalana government, derisively called Abayaramaya ‘Mahindaramaya’ because it was there that ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa successfully rallied forces to make a comeback following his defeat in the 2015 presidential race. Today, staunch SLPP supporters are raking the government over the coals at the very temple, which served as the cradle of their anti-yahapalana campaign.
Gotabaya, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, once demonstrated a deep antipathy towards walls. He had some of them pulled down in the Colombo city as part of his urban yuppification programme. But he is now under fire from government supporters for having allowed a wall to be built around him.
The wall of mistrust that has come up between the SLPP and its supporters, who show signs of utter disillusionment and frustration, presages trouble for the government, which has earned notoriety for signaling left and turning right, so to speak. The questionable ECT deal which has irked the forces that propelled it to power could be its undoing.
Defensive walls could fail to be effective in politics as in football, where skilled players know how to curve the ball past them into the goal. What Maithripala Sirisena did to his boss, Mahinda, in the 2015 presidential contest, is a case in point. It was a real kicker for the latter.
Most political leaders tend to forget, after being ensconced in power, that walls around them are no match for the power of people’s voice. They ought to remember that all it took to bring down the Wall of Jericho was a great shout people raised in unison.
Virus and moral failure
Thursday 21st January 2021
The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned, at a recent WHO Executive Board meeting, adding that more than 39 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in about 49 high-income countries while only 25 doses have been administered in one lowest-income country. We believe that the catastrophic moral failure has already set in. The WHO chief is right in insisting that equitable access to vaccines is not only a moral imperative but also an economic and strategic imperative, and failure to ensure it will only lead to the prolongation of the pandemic. However, he has not mentioned that not a single dose of vaccine has been administered in most countries, Sri Lanka being one of them.
Ghebreyesus has not named the lowest-income country where only 25 doses of the vaccines have so far been administered. It must be in the African continent if one hazards a guess by using GDP per capita as a yardstick. Paradoxically, the African countries are the richest in the world in terms of the value of their mineral deposits and other natural resources. They remain poor due to the plunder of their resources, which find their way into the West. The African nations have the world’s largest amount of gold, but this fact is not reflected in their currencies which are amongst the weakest in the world. Industries and banks in the developed world are heavily dependent on the exploitation of resources in Africa and funds generated therefrom. If the illegal trade of diamonds, gold, coltan, etc., is stopped, many corporations and banks in the West will go belly up. Exploiters are having the first dibs on the vaccine, and their victims have been left to their fate.
Meanwhile, one interesting aspect of the current global health emergency is that it has brought about a situation where the people of the Global North have become guinea pigs for Big Pharma. Time was when their counterparts in the developing world were used as experimental groups. It may be recalled that Pfizer had to pay millions of US dollars as compensation to the parents of a group of Nigerian children who died due of one of its drug trials. Today’s controversy over Pfizer products is reported from the developed world; in Norway, 29 elderly people have died after receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Given this situation, the Sri Lankan government, which is trying to procure the COVID-19 vaccines from several sources, had better heed the opinion of the Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum (VIDF) of Sri Lanka, consisting of reputed medical experts, if disaster is to be averted. The VIDF has said in a media statement: “With the current dilemma of vaccine efficacy and safety issues and the uncertainty of the claims made by individual vaccine manufacturers, we fully understand the need to strictly apply the standard procedure of approval of any medicinal product in this country for approving a vaccine for COVID-19 in Sri Lanka too and wish to endorse the need for our regulatory authorities to act accordingly.” (See page five for the VIDF statement.)
The developed world is promoting human rights globally and resorts to punitive action such as sanctions to make others respect and protect them. The right to life takes precedence over everything else. Humans are faced with an existential problem due to the pandemic, which snuffs out thousands of lives daily. It is, therefore, up to the nations that have taken upon themselves the task of protecting human rights to practise what they preach, and help save lives by ensuring equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine across the world.
It is hoped that the absence of equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and the developed world’s inoculation frenzy at the expense of a vast majority of the global population will be taken up at the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva. What we are witnessing is discrimination against the poor on a global scale. It could even be considered a form of apartheid. The outspoken WHO Chief should be invited to address the UNHRC so that there will be at least one useful item on the outfit’s agenda, which reeks with prejudice and duplicity.
ECT, Port City and Potemkin village
Wednesday 20th January, 2021
The East Container Terminal (ECT) dispute remains unresolved. Protesting port workers have rejected a government condition for negotiations as a Hobson’s choice; they have said the government has offered to discuss the issue, provided they agree to consider the proposed joint venture between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and India’s Adani Group as non-negotiable. Having further talks on the government’s terms will be tantamount to an endorsement of the ECT deal, the protesters have said.
The warring port workers are likely to harden their position further and even flex their trade union muscles. This is something the country cannot afford at this juncture, but the government has sought to play a game of chicken. The economy cannot take any more shocks, and a port strike will send it into a tailspin.
Praise for the government has come from an unexpected quarter. Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera, one of the bitterest critics of the government, has commended it for having struck the ETC deal with India; in the former’s eyes the latter can never do anything right, but both of them are on the same wavelength where the questionable joint venture is concerned! Bashing the government is the raison d’etre of most NGOs, which are all out to have pariah status conferred on the present-day leaders for the country’s successful war on terror, but curiously they too have showered praise on the government for the proposed ECT joint venture with Adani Group as a partner!
Interestingly, the forces that propelled the SLPP to power are now berating the government for the ECT deal, which, they say, is detrimental to Sri Lanka’s interests. Those who did their darnedest to have the SLPP defeated at the last two elections and are hell bent on demonising its leaders as enemies of democracy are supporting it on the ECT agreement. Thus, the government is receiving praise from its enemies and brickbats from its allies! What has caused this strange realignment of forces?
Adani Group, which is the Modi government’s most favoured company, has come under heavy criticism for the rapaciousness of its business practices both at home and abroad. Protesting Indian farmers have blamed it for their woes, and in Australia it stands accused of employing environmentally destructive methods in mining. In India, the Central Bureau of Investigation has booked the Adani Enterprises Ltd, which is considered the flagship company of Adani Group, for securing a government contract for supplying imported coal in an allegedly fraudulent manner. Sri Lankan politicians love to do business with such companies!
One of the main election pledges of the SLPP was to form a ‘patriotic government and undo what the yahapalana administration had done. But it has chosen to jettison its patriotism and follow the yahapalana policy on state assets, as evident from its decision to partner with a foreign company to operate the ECT, which the Sri Lanka Ports Authority is capable of managing on its own as a profitable venture. As for the ECT, the incumbent government has done exactly what the yahapalana regime did anent the Chinese Port City. The previous administration vowed to scrap the Chinese project, condemning it as an environmental disaster, but approved it in the end.
The government has said it will attract foreign investment without either selling or leasing the ECT; this is only an impressive façade that hides an unpleasant situation, or Potemkin village as political scientists call it.
If the SLPP leaders ignore the fate that awaits those who strike deals with companies notorious for questionable business practices, they will do so at their own peril. They ought to learn from the predicament of the UNP leaders who had dealings with Perpetual Treasuries, which carried out the Treasury bond scams.
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