Though Basil Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have resigned in that order, the Rajapaksa clan on the back of which much of Sri Lanka’s present woes are laid, remains alive and kicking and is very much a part of the country’s political equation. When then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed his first cabinet following GR’s stunning elevation of a one man show as the head of his government, there were no Rajapaksas in the new line up with several old faces dropped. But there was a reappearance of Shasheendra Rajapaksa among the recently appointed state ministers. Now there’s been a public statement by an SLPP grandee that heir apparent Namal baby is suitable for reappointment to the cabinet. There have also been calls for previous ministers to be taken back to the fold. With at least a semblance of normality restored on the fuel and gas front, those out in the cold seem to believe that the time is right to get back to business.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is all too aware of the national mood and the near unanimous public opinion on the Rajapaksas and the jumbo cabinets we have known too often in our contemporary political history. But these are realities he must live with. Gotabaya is back in the country although it wasn’t that long ago that Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think the time was right for GR’s return. Though Basil is out of the country for a few months, it is very well known that he continues to pull many of the SLPP’s strings. Mahinda shows up in parliament now and then although he seldom speaks on the public domain. And Namal is knocking at the door.
Though Wickremesinghe very much desires to show the country that he’s running a tight ship at minimum cost to the taxpayer, until the time comes after February 2023 when he is empowered to dissolve parliament, he is the prisoner of the SLPP. It is that party which elected him to office and the Rajapaksas are very much in control there. It is all too clear that he must do what the discredited Rajapaksa party wants him to do at this point of time. Having dragged his feet a little bit about the appointment of the state ministers, he succumbed a few days ago and appointed as many as 38 of them. No effort whatever has been made to justify such appointments. What has only been attempted up to now is to say that they will draw no salary outside their parliamentary emoluments.
Egg has been publicly rubbed on the collective face of the government both by mainstream and social media demonstrating that the difference of a few thousand rupees in salaries drawn is irrelevant compared to the cost of taxpayer paid perks and privileges they will enjoy. Now the president is on the verge of appointing new ministers to the present 20-member cabinet and this is likely to be completed in the short term. The constitution permits the appointment of 30 ministers, which can go up if we have a national government, and fishing expeditions by aspirants are already visible. It has also been said in public that the previous ministers, many of them anathema to the people, must be reappointed. We need not labour the fact that already there are bad hats in office.
Not very long ago we saw former Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, the public face of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s calamitous ban on chemical fertilizers, saying in parliament that he was not responsible for the ban. He said that fertilizer under his ministry was the subject of a state minister (Shasheendra Rajapaksa now back in office as State Minister of Irrigation). He even claimed that he had canvassed the ban with then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The whole country was privy to Aluthgamage’s passionate defence of the ban at that time and saw countless effigies on the minister torched by angry farmers. Yet he has the brass to attempt to distance himself from that action in which he fully participated, in what seems very much like an attempt to return to cabinet office.
President Wickremesinghe has made little headway in his attempt to form a National Government or Government of National Unity. There seems to be few buyers at political party level but individual defections for consideration of office is very much a part of this country’s political history. Already two Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs, Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara are in the cabinet. So also seniors of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) like Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. There are many more SLFPers who are state ministers and of the 14 SLFP MPs elected to the sitting parliament only five remain loyal to party leader Maithripala Sirisena. While some parties have begun domestic inquiries against rebels, few expect them to lose their seats in terms of existing anti-defection laws.
We will know very shortly what the new cabinet will look like and what the 2023 budget will bring for the country. It has already been made clear that the wealthy will have to suffer a major tax blow. Our contemporary history amply demonstrates that the tax administration is very good at squeezing already squeezed lemons and more of that will shortly be in evidence in the context of the prevailing massive tax evasion. That, together with the lack of equity which is a basic principle of taxation, is a long evident fact of life in this so-called democratic socialist republic ours.
Law and duplicity
Wednesday 7th December, 2022
The government has gained the upper hand over its political rivals by ruthlessly invoking some draconian laws such as the Offences against Public Property Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It is ready to do everything in its power to consolidate its hold on power. A few months ago, the ruling party politicians were running as fast as their legs could carry them to escape from the Aragalaya activists, but today the boot is on the other foot.
The government has succeeded in turning the Aragalaya agenda on its head, to all intents and purposes, and making its political opponents opt for defensive action. Earlier, the Aragalaya protesters staged street demonstrations in a bid to bring about a ‘system change’, and succeeded in ousting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself, but, today, they have had to fight to secure the release of their leaders languishing in remand prisons!
Two leaders of the university students’ movement—Galwewa Siridhamma Thera and Wasanatha Mudalige—who were arrested and remanded for damaging the main gate of the Education Ministry, Battaramulla, during a protest, were bailed out yesterday. Mudalige was however taken back to remand prison over another case, according to media reports.
Protesters have no right to inflict damage on properties, public or otherwise, and those who violate the law have to be severely dealt with. But the problem is that the Offences against Public Property Act is enforced selectively. It does not apply to the so-called lawmakers, who therefore can destroy public property with impunity.
One may recall that in October 2018, a large number of UPFA MPs, who had banded together as the Joint Opposition, went berserk in Parliament, and smashed up electronic equipment and furniture there. No action was taken against them, and most of them are in the current Parliament. Even more shocking is Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s claim that such incidents cannot be dealt with under the regular laws of the country! He reportedly said so at a media briefing in August. Does this mean that the legislature is above the law simply because it makes laws?
If what the Cabinet Spokesman has said about Parliament and its property is true, then the government MPs can even set Parliament on fire and get away with it, provided the Speaker, who represents their party, refrains from taking action against them. The ruling party troublemakers can get together and oust the Speaker if he tries to bring them to book! In other words, the government MPs enjoy legal immunity and can do anything in Parliament. This is a very serious situation. Let the Opposition be urged to take up this issue in the House and seek a clarification from the Speaker. If such a culture of impunity prevails in Parliament, new laws must be brought in forthwith to do away with it and ensure that the MPs are not ‘more equal than others’ where the law of the land is concerned.
The UNP let out a howl of protest when the then Opposition unleashed violence and damaged parliamentary property following the latter’s abortive attempt to grab power in 2018. It even lodged a complaint with the police against the troublemakers. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister at the time, is the President today; ironically, he is backed by the very MPs who ran amok in the House and even tried to harm Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who courageously stood up to them, and frustrated their attempt to capture power and then dissolve Parliament. The incumbent government consisting of such rowdies has had some protesters arrested and prosecuted for damaging the gate of a ministry!
Worse, while protesters are being pursued relentlessly, arrested and prosecuted for damaging gates, etc., the rogues who have ruined the economy, and carried out mega scams, causing staggering losses to the state coffers are given police protection! No wonder the people have lost faith in the legal system, and the country is descending into lawlessness.
Towards ‘No-Election Commission’?
Tuesday 6th December, 2022
NPP MP and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has fulminated against the Election Commission (EC), and with reason. Speaking in Parliament, he has demanded to know why the EC ever asked for an opinion from the Attorney General anent the Local Government (LG) elections instead of exercising its powers to initiate the process of conducting the much-delayed polls. He sought to cast a doubt on the impartiality of the EC, and took a swipe at its Chairman Nimal Punchihewa.
Some independent legal experts maintain that the EC is now constitutionally empowered to hold the LG elections. The PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair elections) has reportedly written to EC Chairman, urging him to announce the date of the LG elections without further delay as there is no legal barrier for him and his outfit to do so. The EC has chosen to remain silent, but its silence will not do.
There is a misconception that all it takes to ensure the independence of key public institutions is to put in place constitutional mechanisms to depoliticise them. Hence, the creation of the Constitutional Council (CC) and the Independent Commissions (ICs) has been acclaimed as a surefire way of strengthening the state institutions. The 21st Amendment has restored the CC, which is believed to have strengthened the ICs, scilicet (a) the Election Commission (b) The Public Service Commission (c) the National Police Commission (d) the Audit Service Commission (e) the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (f) the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (g) the Finance Commission (h) the Delimitation Commission, and (i) the National Procurement Commission.
Essential as such legal mechanisms may be, the CC and the ICs will become ineffective again if their heads and members stoop so low as to pander to the whims and fancies of the political authority, the way some of their predecessors did during the Yahapalana government. Under that regime, the CC became a mere rubber stamp for the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had most of its members on a string. Constitutional provisions cannot make the spineless stand upright.
National Police Commission (NPC) Chairman Chandra Fernando’s presence at a recent ceremony at the BIA, where former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was given a rousing welcome by his hangers-on, has called the independence of the NPC into question. Fernando has claimed that he happened to be at the BIA over some other matter and his meeting with Basil was not preplanned. But he should have known better than to be present at a political event.
It is unfortunate that the EC has got embroiled in a controversy, especially at this juncture. There has been a severe erosion of public trust in the electoral system, and anti-politics is manifestly on the rise, eating into the vitals of all public institutions. The task before the CC and the ICs is to restore public faith in the democratic process and arrest what is widely thought to be the country’s slide into anarchy.
Who guards the guards, or quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is the question the denunciation by the Opposition of the EC has prompted us to ask.
If the EC baulks at exercising its powers to safeguard the people’s franchise, it will forfeit its raison d’etre and be dubbed ‘No-Election Commission’. One can only hope that the EC will try to prove its critics wrong by plucking up the courage to grasp the nettle so that the people will have the pleasure of letting the government have a mega electoral shock, which it richly deserves.
The holy and the unholy
Monday 5th December, 2022
The holier-than-thou frontbenchers of both sides of Parliament have been displaying their knowledge of Buddhism, of late, by quoting extensively from the Sutta Pitaka, the way drunkards use lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination. A discussion on Dhamma in Parliament is like a conference on animal rights at an abattoir, or a talk on chastity in a bordello. Our honourable representatives who are overflowing with religiosity, and moralising, ought to heed some home truths three prominent Buddhist monks have, over the weekend, told about the sorry state of affairs in the country and the politicians responsible for it.
Ven. Kumbalgamuwe Saranapala Thera of the Mutiyangane Raja Maha Viharaya, Badulla, has treated a group of dissident SLPP MPs to a brief lecture on the country’s predicament and what the people think of politicians. There have been media reports that many poor schoolchildren who skip meals faint at school assemblies. The government has sought to downplay the gravity of the situation and, true to form, torn into the media and international organisations for ‘blowing the issue out of proportion’. Saranapala Thera has highlighted the increase in malnutrition among children, and revealed that about 60 students of his temple’s Sunday Dhamma School faint every week due to hunger. He has told the SLPP dissidents that the people are fed up with politicians.
Saranapala Thera has struck a responsive chord with the public suffering in silence. There is a resurgence of anti-politics, which has been defined as the rejection of practices and attitudes associated with traditional politics; it causes public disengagement from mainstream politics. When this happens, people tend to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to articulate their grievances and bring about political changes. The Galle Face protest movement could be considered a manifestation of anti-politics, which is jet fuel for anarchic protests. It is only wishful thinking that the government will be able to quell a wave of protests fuelled by anti-politics with the help of the police and the military!
Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera has said, over the weekend, that all adult Sri Lankans should tender an apology to the youth and children for having bankrupted the country and ruined the latter’s future. One cannot but agree with him on this score. The blame for what has befallen the country should be apportioned to the elected as well as the electors including Buddhist monks, most of whom are supporters of various political parties responsible for abuse of power, attacks on democracy, bribery, corruption and the theft of public funds. A mere apology to young Sri Lankans will not do. It is incumbent upon the irresponsible adults to clean up the mess they have created. They must sink their political differences and unite to make a concerted effort to get rid of the failed leaders clinging on to power like limpets. That will be half the battle in straightening up the economy and ensuring a better future for the youth and children.
Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera, who represents an association that fights for schoolteachers’ rights, has torn into the government for trying to divest profit-making state-owned enterprises such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance. How does the government propose to meet the revenue shortfall the proposed divestiture of such cash cows will bring about? Will it jack up taxes and tariffs further? Sumangala Thera has rightly likened the government to a drug addict, who is desperate for money and therefore sells anything that he can lay his hands on.
This is an apt description of the cash-strapped regime, which is bent on selling state assets to overcome its current pecuniary woes while its leaders are enjoying high life. Drug addicts do not spare even their own parents. The day may not be far off when we can liken the government to a drug dealer; it is planning to take to drug dealing in all but name. Budget 2023 has proposed the appointment of a committee to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis, of all things, to earn forex.The country will benefit tremendously if the failed political leaders stop sermonising and listen to what religious leaders preach and mend their ways.
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