Monday 21st December, 2020
Public disillusionment with the incumbent government is palpable. Among its bitterest critics are many of those who ardently supported the SLPP and worked tirelessly to ensure its electoral victories; they include a number of prominent Buddhist monks. The consternation of the disillusioned laymen critical of the government reminds us of Nanda Malini’s popular song—Pem lovadi dutu ohumada me, ohutada ma anda une; it is about a rueful retrospection by a hapless woman who has become disenchanted with her spouse, having loved him madly during their passionate courtship. The SLPP backers also naively expected their government to be truthful and faithful to them only to be disillusioned.
Port workers have sunk their political differences in a bid to defeat what they call a government move to sell the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port to India. Before the last presidential and parliamentary polls, the SLPP condemned the yahapalana regime for selling state assets, and even vowed to take them over after forming a government. It has reneged on that promise.
The current administration says the ECT will not be privatised. Some ministers have said the government will opt for a partnership instead, and hold the majority stake in the venture because the country cannot afford to operate the terminal. They remain silent on the media reports that a Cabinet paper has recently been approved for a partnership with India’s Adani Group to operate the ECT.
Curiously, the SLPP leaders take pride in having built an inland port at Hambantota and never miss an opportunity rake their yahapalana counterparts over the coals for leasing it to China. The same grandees now claim that their patriotic government is not equal to the task of operating the newly built terminal under its own steam!
The government has blotted its copybook on the environmental front as well. Environmental degradation continues unabated. Some ministers are openly encouraging forest encroachments and the destruction of mangroves. Rishad Bathiudeen, who is responsible for destroying a section of the Kallaru forest reserve, is receiving kid-glove treatment. Instead of dealing with the destroyers of forests, the government has taken on the environmentalists, who are struggling to save the country’s rapidly receding forest cover. It has also opened the ‘residual’ forests for exploitation by removing them from the Forest Department’s purview and placing them under the District and Divisional Secretariats full of malleable officials.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa went out of his way to have cattle slaughter banned and received praise from the Maha Sangha and animal rights activists. Now, the government is reported to have allowed South Asia’s biggest meat processing factory to be set up here. It advertises its commitment to fostering Buddhism, and its leaders often fall at the feet of Buddhist monks, in public, and pay homage to sacred shrines. They took their oaths at Ruwanweliseya, Sri Dalada Maligawa and the historical Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, making a public display of their love of Buddhism. But they are apparently strong adherents of another ism—Machiavellianism. They are going by Machiavelli’s advice that the rulers should consider the promise given as a necessity of the past, and the word broken as a necessity of the present.
The JVP has demanded to know why the government has proposed a venture with the Adani Group instead of inviting investors if its claim that it is looking for foreign investment is true. The government is obviously under pressure from New Delhi.
Some commentators have argued that the meteoric rise of the Adani group has been possible due to its owner Gautam Adani’s friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Adani threw in his lot with Modi when the latter incurred opprobrium of the Indian business community over the anti-Muslim riots in Gujrat in 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of that state. They have since been inseparable friends. Adani has come be to be dubbed Modi’s Rockefeller.
There are various allegations of questionable business practices against Adani’s conglomerate. This year, the Central Bureau of Investigation of India booked the Adani Power Ltd. bigwigs and their counterparts from 25 other companies for allegedly causing a staggering loss to the state coffers. The Modi government has come under heavy criticism for the manner in which the Adani group was allowed to secure contracts for operating six Indian airports. It is said to have enabled companies without any experience in the field to bid so that the Adani group, which was among them, would benefit. The Adani Group has been fined in Australia for misinterpreting environmental approval conditions at its mine in central Queensland, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
The Colombo Port workers are not alone in protesting against the Adani Group. Indian farmers who are currently struggling to scuttle a set of draconian farm laws have accused it of exploiting them, a charge it has vehemently denied. Members of the ‘Stop Adani movement’ recently gathered outside the Sydney Cricket Ground during the first one-day international between Australia and India in protest against the company’s mining project, and two of them even invaded the pitch.
Are the Sri Lankan leaders trying to worm their way into Modi’s affections by offering the ECT to the Adani Group apart from reaping other benefits from the deal?
When the yahapalana government leased out the Hambantota Port to China, The New York Times said China had made Sri Lanka cough up a port. As for what is happening at the Colombo Port, will the western media say India is making Sri Lanka cough up a container terminal?
Contempt then and now
Dr. Asanga Welikala, legal academic and constitutional lawyer, has gone on record saying that while imprisonment over contempt of court is legal, it is increasingly seen as inappropriate and disproportionate. This observation has been made in the context of the jailing last week of Parliamentarian and film star Ranjan Ramanayake to four years rigorous imprisonment on contempt charges. Thanks to television, the country was able to see the actor, screaming and shouting that he had neither robbed, killed nor engaged in drug trafficking and will not apologize, being dragged into a prison vehicle to be taken away to serve his term. He was clearly playing to the cameras as he would have on a film set and put up quite a show.
Readers would remember the highly respected Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Ramanayake’s uncle, accompanying him to court every day at the early stages of the trial which began three years ago. This was before the late professor, frail even then, was physically unable to go to court. This case, as most of them do, dragged on for a long time as is common, or even inevitable, in this country. Most people know that contempt of court is a serious offence and refrain from trifling with the judicial system for fear of punishment. While the courts are not infallible, as demonstrated by higher courts sometimes overturning judgments from lower down, there is no bar on the criticism of judicial decisions. But this must be done, as the text books say, in “chaste language” without scandalizing the court.
It was decades ago that Mr. Herbert Hulugalle, then editor of the “Ceylon Daily News,” was convicted of a contempt offence by a three judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Sir. Sydney Abrahams, then Chief Justice, who later became a Privy Councillor. On the bench with the British CJ were two Ceylonese judges, Justice Akbar and Justice Koch. A fine of thousand rupees – not chicken feed at that time – and imprisonment till the rising of court was imposed on the editor over an editorial titled “Justice on Holiday” which Hulugalle did not write. But as editor, he had to take responsibility for what appeared in his paper. The editorial was written at the instance of D.R. Wijewardene, the legendary Lake House founder. Hulugalle, himself an advocate, sat with the lawyers in the courtroom after his conviction and spent the lunch adjournment with his friend, the Registrar of the court, in the latter’s chambers. Sir Sydney, ostensibly for Hulugalle’s benefit, adjourned court for the day earlier than usual. Wijewardene, no doubt at great expense, took the case right up to the Privy Council in a vain attempt to overturn the judgment.
More recently, Editor Fred Silva, also of the “Daily News” was imprisoned for six months for a newspaper column titled “Dress Sense” that appeared in his paper. This was a comment on different requirements of different courts on how persons appearing before them should be clad – a jacket and tie or national dress as the case may be. It was said there that while one court upbraided someone wearing trousers and an open neck shirt for not appearing in what we Lankans are fond of calling a “full suit,” a witness in another court was giving evidence neatly clad in a white shirt and pair of trousers. Although Silva was convicted and served his sentence, a reporter (subsequently editor) present in the courtroom said he clearly heard Justice Jaya Pathirana telling his brother judges “let him go” over the court public address system.
It was only a few months ago that Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, was convicted of what appeared to be a blatant act of contempt by making a fiery speech in a courtroom at Homagama where a case in which he was interested was being heard. The complainant in this matter was the judge himself. The monk was convicted on several counts preferred against him and sentenced to six years in jail. But he was pardoned by President Sirisena after serving a fraction of his sentence and subsequently ran for Parliament. Although there was a report that Ramanayake, speaking on the telephone to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after his conviction had said that he would seek a pardon, this was said to be “in lighter vein”. Given the hellholes that our prisons are, whether ‘One Shot’ as the MP was styled in one of his movies, will ask for a pardon remains to be seen. He will continue to be an MP for six months after which his seat will be vacated. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, under whose Samagi Jana Balavegaya ticket Ramanayake returned to parliament for his second term, said last week that “we will stand by him;” but what that means in practical terms is not clear. Whether the actor is made of similar stuff as General (now Field Marshal) Sarath Fonseka, who steadfastly refused to seek a pardon but soldiered through a part of his prison term until he was granted an unasked pardon, is debatable. Ramanayake stands to be disqualified from standing for election for seven years if he serves four years in jail. That can end his political career.
All things are impermanent as the Buddha said. How this particular drama will pan out remains to be seen.
Unions bellow, Adani guffaws
Saturday 16th January, 2021
The government has chosen to grasp the nettle after weeks of dilly-dallying and prevarication; it has admitted that there will be a joint venture between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and India’s Adani Group to run the East Container Terminal (ECT). According to the MoC (Memorandum of Corporation) Sri Lanka signed with India and Japan, in May 2019, on the ECT, the SLPA was to retain the ownership of the terminal and own 51% of the operating company with India and others holding the remaining shares. There is hardly any difference between this arrangement and what the present government has undertaken to do.
The yahapalana government failed to proceed with the controversial ECT deal as it was politically weak and could not square up to resistance from the powerful port unions. The situation changed last year following the election of a ‘strong’ government, which is using its two-thirds majority to bulldoze its way through.
Ironically, many of those who campaigned hard to bring the present government to power, claiming that a strong political leadership was a prerequisite for protecting the national interest and developing the country, are now protesting against the ECT deal! Some of the Buddhist monks who backed the SLPP to the hilt are condemning it for striking deals with foreigners at the expense of national assets. Their saviours have taken them for a ride—let them be asked to wake up and smell the coffee.
The JVP has launched a countrywide protest campaign, vowing to do everything in its power to torpedo the ECT deal. It should, in fact, ask for forgiveness from the people for what has befallen the ECT because it propped up the government which signed the MoC with India and Japan on this vital port facility. It may be recalled that in 2018 the JVP was instrumental in giving the yahapalana government a new lease of life on the pretext of safeguarding democracy when the latter was sacked by the then President Maithripala Sirisena. Having helped that beleaguered regime launch a successful counterattack, secure a majority in the House and remain in power, the JVP was backing it fully when the ECT deal was struck in 2019.
Only President Sirisena opposed the ECT deal during the yahapalana days; he even clashed with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Cabinet meetings, pointing out that it was detrimental to the country’s interests to have foreign powers as partners to manage national assets. He also warned that the port trade unions would fight tooth and nail to scuttle the deal. Following the ill-advised handover of the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease, Sirisena must have realised that the SLPA should operate the ECT without any foreign partners.
The present government claims that it cannot do away with the ECT agreement which the previous government entered into with India and Japan. If so, how come the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, which was inked during the yahapalana administration, has been put on hold? The current administration cancelled the light rail transit agreement Sri Lanka had signed with JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), claiming that the project was seriously flawed. But it has chosen not to act similarly anent the ECT deal. Why?
There seem to be several reasons. It may be that the government, which is considered overly pro-Chinese, is wary of scrapping the ECT agreement lest it should antagonise India. The SLPP grandees are under Indian pressure; the official announcement of the Indian investment in the ECT came close on the heels of Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s recent Sri Lanka visit. He is believed to have urged Colombo to finish the deal post-haste. The government also seems keen to curry favour with the Modi administration by having one of the latter’s cronies, Adani Group, as a partner to run the new terminal. Another reason may be that Adani Group has come under fire for unethical practices, and the Sri Lankan politicians love to do business with such companies for obvious reasons—the country’s loss becomes their gain.
Friday 15th January, 2021
What we witnessed in the US House of Representatives, on Wednesday, was a snap impeachment. It may even be called a legislative blitzkrieg. Its outcome came as no surprise because the Democrats control the House. Ten GOP members joined forces with them to secure the passage of the article of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
The person who is supposed to be the most powerful man on earth is in an unenviable position. The outgoing US President finds himself in a hole, well and truly. Finally, a swashbuckling Trump was at the mercy of Vice President Mike Pence, who resisted the Democrats’ determined bid to have him invoke Article 25 of the US Constitution and remove Trump as the President. Had Pence yielded to pressure from the House, Trump could have been removed, but the US would have been plunged into a bigger mess.
Pence, too, has blotted his copybook to some extent due to his fence-sitting. On the election night, he, in his wisdom, endorsed Trump’s claim of having won while votes were still being counted. Thereafter, he plucked up the courage in the face of pressure from Trump, who wanted the election overturned, to carry out his constitutional duty impartially, and certified Biden’s victory at a joint congressional session, which was disrupted by a violent mob. Thereafter, he turned down a request from the Democrats to remove Trump.
Trump has become the first twice-impeached US President. Less than one week remains of his term, which ends on 20 January, when Joe Biden will be sworn in as the new President. The Democrats’ plan to have Trump removed immediately has, however, gone pear-shaped because the Senate, where the GOP has a majority, does not want to act on the article of impeachment before the inauguration of President Biden. The Senate, however, will have to act thereon under the Biden administration to be installed shortly. Thus, trouble is far from over for Trump. Not even the GOP Congresspeople and Senators supportive of him have defended his actions during the last two weeks or so.
The manner in which Trump was impeached, on Wednesday, has left a bad taste in many a mouth. The House, in its hurry to see the back of him, telescoped the impeachment process into a couple of hours! True, Trump should be held accountable for the Capitol insurrection, but investigations are still being conducted into the riot. Most of all, the principle of natural justice should have been respected.
The battle plan of the political enemies of Trump is clear; they want to disgrace and demonise him so as to neutralise him politically and, thereby, ruin his chances of remaining active in politics and running for President in 2024 a la Grover Cleveland, who won two non-consecutive terms (1885–1889 and 1893–1897).
The US polity has split down the middle, and whether it will ever heal is in doubt. Some black Congresspersons gave the impeachment an ethnic twist by declaring that Trump had to be removed because he was a white supremacist. It would have been prudent for the Democrats to base their action against Trump on what he has said and done since the election day. Speculation is rife that Trump supporters will stage protests on the day of Biden’s inauguration. A visibly shaken Trump has called upon them to act with restraint. If only he had asked them to do so, on 6 January.
Perhaps, the Congress could have taken the wind out of Trump’s sails and prevented the unfortunate incidents at Capitol Hill if it had cared to appoint an ad hoc committee to conduct an emergency audit of the results in the disputed states in response to Trump’s call. If it had done so and been able to prove his allegations wrong, that would have helped prevent Trump from letting the far-right genie out of the bottle.
The Democrats may be able to neutralise Trump politically if their legislative action against him finds favour with the Senate before or after Biden’s inauguration. But the question is whether they will be able to tame the forces that have rallied around him all these years.
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