The All Party Conference (APC) that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa summoned last week was predictable anything but All Party. The president may have been pleased that the TNA, a major party in the opposition, was there despite their failure to have a one-to-one meeting with him since his election. He could not have expected the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Vasudeva alliance to come apart though Vasu was spared decapitation unlike his two axed colleagues. The veteran warhorse retains his portfolio although he doesn’t attend cabinet or his ministry. He has (rightly) returned his official residence and vehicle/s but there’s been an eloquent silence on whether or not he draws his official salary. Prof. Tissa Vitarana and Ven. Athuraliye Rathana, both National List MPs, represented the so-called “rebels.” attended. So did senior statesman Ranil Wickremesinghe, five times prime minister, although his UNP today is no more than a rump of Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balavegaya; though the SJB itself opted out. The president clearly was keen on keeping Wickremesinghe happy, apologizing and smoothing ruffled feathers when Central Bank Governor Cabraal (ex of the UNP lest anybody has forgotten) got Ranil’s goat with a reference to what happened during the 2015-19 period.
Also, some members of parties like the SLMC and some smaller Tamil parties turned up despite their parties’ decisions to boycott. But other ruptures surfaced with the Thondaman-led CWC, for example keeping away. There was a report on Friday, whether right or wrong we don’t know, quoting and unidentified party source saying they have lost confidence in the president. It would undoubtedly been the height of optimism for anybody to expect the APC to be a magic wand which will conjure political consensus on hard but necessary measures to combat what is unarguably the worst economic crisis this country has faced since independence. Last week’s parliamentary proceedings, for example, showed that normally belligerent government frontbenchers have lost much of their fire, no doubt because of the public opprobrium they see all around them with the masses convinced that the rulers have led the country into the unholy mess it is in. The massive JVP rally earlier in the week, where a large crowd was mustered, would surely have added to their woes.
Appearing on a television talk show on the night of the APC, the LSSP’s Tissa Vitarana went on record that the conference was an opportunity for participating politicians to keep the president apprised of their thinking. To this extent, he saw the event as a success. But the president had himself in his recent address to the nation told the country that he was aware of the predicament the country was in. Given the evidence around him, nobody with eyes to see or ears to hear can be unaware of the situation. The queues for fuel, gas, milk powder and more are unending with no end in sight. The scarcities of essentials have reached unprecedented levels and the ripple effects are pervasive. Ordinary people are expressing their anger in unmistakable terms in language not usually thrown at national leaders. They are loudly and clearly heard in homes countrywide via the various television news bulletins. Even government friendly stations are not pulling their punches. The agriculture minister who stridently defended his boss’s fertilizer policy not long ago has now admitted crop losses but nary a squeak about promised compensation.
Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa (BR), branded an ‘Ugly American’ by his cabinet colleague (until recently) Udaya Gammanpila is seldom seen in parliament. Perhaps Mr. Gammanpila has forgotten that he along with others like Wimal Weerawansa etc. who see Basil R. as the chief culprit for the country’s current woes voted for the 20th Amendment that allowed dual citizen to sit in parliament. It is being freely alleged that BR had not been there since December and not uttered a word in the legislature with all hell breaking out in the country. There was a halfhearted by an SLPP MP to say that the minister was busy with important business and cannot spend time in parliament. But it behooves on the government to explain to the country why its finance minister is a scarce commodity in the legislature. As a former Speaker, Sir. Albert. F. Pieris, exhorting that MPs behave, once said “everything flows from here.”
The finance minister was a front row presence at the APC and he did not perform very credibly according to live telecasts. For example, he said no IMF report on the national economy had been received. Pushed by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, he admitted that only a draft report had been received. This had to be finalized once comments from the Sri Lanka side are sent in. “You know IMF procedures better than I,” he told the five times prime minister. An initial statement of the fact that only a draft report has been received would have been much more transparent and allayed suspicions of obfuscation. But that was not to be. BR also made public at the APC his willingness to present a new budget, if the cabinet approves, to address the current situation. The pros and cons of this proposal must await further discussion and debate.
Subsequent to the APC there has been an almighty shindig in parliament about the Central Bank Governor and the monetary board not answering a summons by the Parliamentary Committee on Public Finance (CoPF) to attend a meeting on Thursday. A fax had been received at 10.45 a.m. stating inability to be present. It was later explained that Treasury Secretary SR Attygalle, an ex officio member of the Monetary Board, could not be there as he was engaged in discussions with the World Bank at the time set for the CoPF meeting. Could not the Governor and other four members of the five-member Monetary Board have attended, rather than plead inability, and explained Attygalle’s absence? Given parliament’s wide ranging oversight powers over the manner in which the country is governed, the people would join MP Harsha de Silva in asking mey mona kehel malakda? Is parliament supreme or not?
Of that presidential monkey wrench
Thursday 7th July, 2022
The Opposition has, after weeks of dillydallying, agreed to form an all-party caretaker government. The JVP remains noncommittal but it will have to make common cause with other Opposition parties if it is not to be branded a spoiler. The SLPP, however, has not taken kindly to the Opposition’s move; it is seeking to have one of its MPs appointed Prime Minister.
Some Opposition parties have claimed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is against the proposed all-party interim government. If so, he is asking for more trouble. It was to oust him that the people took to the streets, first. Their main slogan was ‘Gota Go Home!’, but the President managed to deflect them from their purpose and save his skin by throwing others including his elder brother, Mahinda, to the wolves. First, he got the entire Cabinet except Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, but as pressure continued to mount, he had Mahinda resign and appointed a new Cabinet with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Those measures have not helped contain the crisis and grant relief to the public, and it is only natural that the people’s anger is rising. If the President tries to prevent an all-party interim government from being formed, the people, and the Opposition will go all out to oust him. He will be without any defence.
President Rajapaksa has failed; he has made colossal blunders on his own admission, and they have inflicted irreparable damage on the country. The current economic crisis would not have come about if assistance had been sought from the IMF about two years ago, and the rupee floated much earlier without being defended at the expense of the country’s scarce foreign reserves. Ill-advised, politically-motivated tax cuts led to the prevailing rupee crisis and excessive money printing, which has led to hyperinflation, and the rupee devaluation. The President’s disastrous experiment with organic farming has taken a heavy toll on the agricultural sector. That is why the people launched the ‘Gota Go Home’ campaign. Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister, undertaking to play a messianic role, and the UNP made him out to be a miracle-man capable of attracting billions of dollars in next to no time because he was in the good books of the developed world. But the crisis has taken a turn for the worse since his appointment as the PM. It has now been revealed that an amendment to the Exchange Control Act in 2017, when he was the Prime Minister, stood forex racketeers in good stead and paved the way for the present dollar crisis. Newly-appointed Minister Dhammika Perera, who was brought in as a National List MP to promote foreign investment, has declared that PM Wickremesinghe is obstructing the country’s efforts to bring in foreign exchange, which is the be-all and end-all of any economic recovery programme. He has called for the latter’s resignation as the Finance Minister. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera does not seem to know whether he is coming or going. The only thing he does efficiently is to increase the prices of fuel, which is in short supply.
The incumbent government has manifestly failed and is not capable of resolving the crisis. There is a massive build-up of public anger in the polity, which is a simmering volcano. The Opposition is planning to go on protesting until the President steps down, and such a course of action will plunge the country into anarchy, and let the genie out of the bottle. The only way to defuse tension, and foreclose protests that are bound to debilitate the economy further is to form a multi-party interim government so that the Opposition will have to stop protesting and put its shoulder to the wheel to help turn around the economy and ameliorate people’s suffering. The formation of a national unity government will also go a long way towards regaining the confidence of foreign investors, lenders and well-wishers. It will be plain political suicide for President Rajapaksa to try to throw a monkey wrench in the works.
All bark and no bite
Wednesday 6th July, 2022
Parliament was thrown into turmoil once again yesterday, when a group of Opposition MPs staged a boisterous protest against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presence in the House. They shouted themselves hoarse, asking the President to step down. The whole country has been asking the President to go home, but he carries on regardless. Politicians who savour power never give it up of their own volition; they are like limpets. So, no amount of shouting will help the SJB, the other Opposition parties in Parliament, and the public see the back of the President, as it stands. It looks as if the Opposition had to change its strategy.
The government still has a working majority in Parliament; it therefore has the edge in shouting matches in the House and can secure the passage of bad laws. Yesterday, there were dozens of government MPs shouting in support of the President. The Opposition has its work cut out as regards its plan to topple the government by mustering enough numbers in Parliament, and this may be the reason why it has taken its battle to the streets. A similar situation arose towards the latter stages of the yahapalana government. The UNP-led UNF retained an absolute majority in the House with the help of the JVP and the TNA although it was losing popular support rapidly. The SLPP intensified its campaign outside Parliament and turned the tables on the yahapalana regime; it won the presidential and parliamentary polls with huge majorities. But this time around, there is neither an election in sight nor a guarantee that the next government to be elected would be a stable one, and the present crisis would go away even if Parliament resolved to dissolve itself and a snap general election was held anytime soon. There’s the rub. The SJB, other anti-government forces, and the country will stand to gain only if all parties get together to break the back of the crisis before the next general election.
It has been reported that the Opposition is planning to launch a continuous protest soon to pressure the President to resign. The President is not likely to step down due to protests, but if he happens to find himself in a situation where he is left with no alternative but to sacrifice Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint a new government with someone else as the PM, to save his skin, he will not scruple to do so. After all, he had his own brother, Mahinda, step down as the PM, didn’t he? In fact, he offered the premiership to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa before appointing Wickremesinghe PM. Anything is possible in politics.
The Opposition may have thought yesterday’s protest against the President would go down well with the irate public, languishing in queues and skipping meals, but such gimmicks will not help solve their problems. People are so indignant that they may love to see the President and other government grandees being ridiculed, but that does not serve their purpose. The interests of the public will be served only if all political parties, which are responsible for the mess the country has got into over the years, albeit to varying degrees, speak with one voice and act unitedly to resolve the crisis.
President Rajapaksa may have sought to prove MP Wimal Weerawansa wrong by attending Parliament yesterday. The latter said on Monday that the President was nowhere to be seen, the implication being that he was in hiding. But the President’s presence only led to a serious disruption to parliamentary proceedings in a time when the national legislature should remain maniacally focused on how to contain the crisis. The IMF and foreign governments have told Sri Lanka with one voice that it has to get its act together to qualify for financial assistance, but its political leaders are jousting for supremacy instead of sinking their differences and working out a common agenda to save the economy.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe threw down a challenge to JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who claims to be able to revive the economy in six months. He said he would resign, allowing Dissanayake to take over as the PM if the latter could present to Parliament a workable plan to resolve the crisis so fast. Will Dissanayake take up the challenge or continue to protest? The SJB also can reveal to the House how it intends to sort out the economy, and thereafter ask for the reins of government to implement its economic recovery programme. Such a course of action will be much more effective, and beneficial to the country than shouting.
A dangerous trend
Tuesday 5th July, 2022
Fossil fuel is highly inflammable and has to be handled with care, as is known to everyone. Shortages thereof could also be so, in a manner of speaking, as evident from how tempers flare in fuel queues, igniting violence. There have been countless untoward incidents at filling stations, some of which even had to be closed temporarily as a result. The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse. Now, protesters are clashing with the police and security forces personnel directly. An armed soldier was stabbed at a fuel station in Embilipitiya, the other day, and an army officer was seen kicking a protester elsewhere. This is an extremely dangerous trend. When the armed forces are deployed to control angry crowds, violent encounters are to be expected.
In May, the country witnessed a spate of violence in the aftermath of the SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters. Organised gangs wearing full-face helmets carried out arson attacks in a very systematic manner as if they had rehearsed for those destructive acts. Luckily, they failed to sustain the wave of violence, but they may be able to compass their anarchical ends if clashes between the people and the armed forces erupt.
The best way to defuse widespread tensions is to make fuel freely available, but given the prevailing forex crunch and the attendant shortages of essential imports, the government must at least make a serious effort to ration fuel to be imported and bring profiteers to justice. Cynics say Sri Lanka has become an oil rich country of sorts although pumps at its filling stations have run dry. This situation has come about thanks to hoarders who are making a killing while the ordinary people have been left without any fuel. At this rate, the government might not be able to solve the fuel shortage even if a dozen ships carrying oil were to arrive in quick succession. Raids continue to yield huge amounts of hoarded diesel and petrol, but we believe that the police are only scratching the surface of the problem. If handsome rewards are offered for information that leads to the seizure of hoarded fuel, and raids are stepped up with more decoys being deployed, the police will be able to seize at least a shipload of fuel from hoarders.
What characterises the petroleum sector is utter chaos with racketeers having a field day. Most vehicles, especially trishaws, do not leave queues even after being refuelled; they keep returning and obtaining diesel and petrol continuously at the expense of others, who are left without any fuel as a result. Most trishaws are not available for hire these days, for it is much more lucrative to wait in queues, obtain fuel and sell it on the black market, where a litre of petrol or diesel fetches as much as Rs. 2,000. The success of any strategy to dispense fuel equitably will hinge on the government’s ability to hold unscrupulous elements at bay until fuel supplies are restored to the pre-crisis level. The recently-introduced token system has manifestly failed, and it is only natural that the government has dissociated itself from this harebrained scheme.
The government should introduce fuel rationing urgently. Perhaps, it should seriously consider adopting the odd-even rationing and having fuel stations stamp a mini calendar on the reverse of the revenue licence of every vehicle so that dates on which fuel is issued can be cancelled, at the pump, preferably by the police. This scheme, we believe, may help halve the number of vehicles waiting in fuel queues, infuse the public with confidence and thereby thwart speculation, which results in hoarding.
Meanwhile, when diesel is issued, priority has to be given to vehicles engaged in public transport and tourism, trucks transporting essentials, fishing craft, etc. This does not happen at present; even the owners of super luxury SUVs that do not do more than four to five kilometres to a litre of petrol or diesel have unlimited access to fuel. Many such gas guzzlers have been sighted at the CPC’s Kolonnawa storage terminal, where fuel is said to be issued to the so-called VVIPs, while the majority of private buses cannot operate for want of diesel.
The root cause of the fuel crisis is the shortage of forex, but the government’s cavalier attitude and inability to introduce a proper rationing system have aggravated it and are likely to plunge the country into anarchy with people clashing with the police and the armed forces, much to the glee of the so-called Helmet Brigade waiting in the wings for another opportunity.
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