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Editorial

The current state of play

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A legend in his time, Galle’s W. Dahanayake who was briefly prime minister after the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination, attributed his unexpected elevation to the prime ministry to “fortuitous circumstances.” Former President Maithripala Sirisena, although he has not chosen to do so to date, can also say that his unexpected ascendancy to the presidential throne in 2015 was the result of similar good fortune. Sirisena, unlike Dahanayake, certainly aspired to the prime ministry during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. But he was overlooked despite his seniority in cabinet and parliament plus long years as party secretary. He seemed far from achieving that ambition when an opportunity to run for president, with the backing of the United National Party (UNP), dropped on his lap. Engineered by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga among others, Sirisena was offered an opportunity fraught with risk. He took the gamble and won a famous victory.

Thus the advent of the Yahapalana government which gave itself a catchy name which was later effectively used by opponents when it proved itself to be an exponent of anything but good governance. Sirisena has now gone on record telling parliament that his government was more sinned against than sinning and it was wrong to blame it for everything that went wrong. At the time of his election he was more than willing to play second fiddle to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who thrice sacrificed, if we may use that term, his presidential ambitions in favour of other candidates judged to stand a better chance than he to win the election. Thus it was that then General (now Field Marshal) Sarath Fonseka, the war winning army commander, ran against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the war winning president, in 2010 as a common opposition candidate. Then it was Sirisena’s turn in 2015 as it was calculated that with wholehearted green backing he could bring a UNP plus vote to the ticket. That happened thanks to factors like the support of Ven. Madulwawe Sobhitha’s National Movement for Social Justice, the JVP keeping out of the race and not splitting the anti-Rajapaksa vote, and the backing of minorities often a UNP ally. Finally Wickremesinghe conceded the ticket in 2019 to his deputy, Sajith Premadasa being a non-contestant at three consecutive presidential elections.

Although it was reported in the early days that Sirisena even went far as saying he as president would address Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as “Sir,” he went on to later assert his presidential authority and denied his prime minister earlier carte blanche. Events that followed are well known and require no restatement. They culminated in Sirisena’s October 2018 “coup” when he appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister while Ranil Wickremesinghe retained a parliamentary majority. Attempts to test that majority were denied and the country had two prime ministers until the Supreme Court determined Sirisena’s act unconstitutional. The uneasy coexistence lasted only till November 2019 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa comfortably won the presidency against Sajith Premadasa to whom Wickremesinghe was compelled to concede the UNP ticket while retaining party leadership. All that is now history with Sirisena, to whom the SLFP leadership was bequeathed by the defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa, back in parliament with a small party group of 14 MPs who ran under the ruling SLPP banner to ensure their election.

Sirisena believes that everything went wrong for the country because J.R. Jayewardene opened the economy. That is a debatable issue. Not everything Yahapalana did was wrong though there was a lot of that, the Central Bank bond scam being arguably the worst. The 19th Amendment to the constitution had much good that could have been retained instead of discarding it altogether. A new constitution is now being drafted, but the country is not privy to what it will contain. The process is not open and transparent such as the Republican constitution adopted by the Sirima Bandaranaike-led United Front government. Whether the right of dual citizen to sit in parliament, was a one-off measure under 20A to enable another Rajapaksa sibling, who didn’t want to emulate his president brother and renounce his US citizenship, to enter the legislature, will remain in the new constitution is yet to be seen. If it is done away with as promised to win over dissident votes for 20A, accommodating a single individual from the ruling family in the incumbent parliament will require much explanation.

As things now stand, it does not seem likely that the SJB and UNP will reunite although that would be best for both parties. The GOP would not have broken in the first instance if Wickremesinghe had conceded the party leadership to Premadasa and retired to an elder statesman role befitting a politician who has been prime minister of this country no less than five times. It also appears unlikely that the SLFP which would probably have done as badly as the UNP at the last election if it did not run under the SLPP banner will want to recreate the blue party of the Bandaranaikes. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, no doubt partly because of Covid, has lost his popularity quicker into his term than any predecessor. But there is no evidence of Rajapaksa opponents grouping to engineer any regime change though last week’s SJB rally against the teeth of government oppression has sent out new signals.



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Editorial

The Crab House

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Wednesday 1st December, 2021

An oft-heard complaint is that Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa is more absent than present in Parliament during the ongoing debate on Budget 2022. This, however, is not the first time Opposition MPs have complained of the absence of ministers in the House during important debates. The ordinary MPs are no better. The Speaker, more often than not, has a hard time, trying to have quorate sittings.

A budget debate without the presence of the Finance Minister in the House is like Sinhabahu without the Lion’s son, so to speak. Yesterday, only Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando was present in the front row of the government side when the House took up the issue of gas explosions reported during the last few days. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena asked Minister Fernando to ensure that the front-row members of the government were present, especially when the issues of national importance were discussed. One can only hope that the SLPP seniors and their counterparts in the Opposition will heed the Speaker’s concerns, and care to attend Parliament regularly.

Finance Minister Rajapaksa experienced some difficulties in reading out the Budget, last month. If the reading of the Budget is so difficult, how hard its implementation will be is not difficult to imagine. However, what really matters is not the Finance Minister’s speech as such but how the government proposes to implement its budget proposals and bridge the huge deficit. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was so averse to long-winded budget speeches, maybe because he had an axe to grind with the then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, that he famously said that even a taxi driver could present the national budget! Ironically, today, the economic downturn has been so bad during the past couple of years that even some educated private sector executives work as cabbies at night to augment their declining income; these ‘taxi drivers’ are knowledgeable enough to handle public finance or even present the country’s budget.

Finance Ministers are masters of subterfuge. They say so little in so many words, make ambiguous statements and, most of all, have got obfuscation down to a fine art. Therefore, after their lengthy budget speeches, there arise many questions that need to be answered. So, the Finance Ministers have to be present in the House during budget debates to field questions from the Opposition MPs, and elucidate budget proposals, government policies, etc. The same goes for other ministers, whose presence is required in Parliament when questions are raised about institutions under their purview, and vital issues concerning their subjects are debated. Yesterday, all the ministers should have been in Parliament, where the issue of gas explosions was taken up. Is it that the SLPP frontbenchers do not consider kitchen explosions serious enough to warrant their attention? Let them be warned that it will be a big mistake for them to ignore the so-called kitchen vote, which can make or break governments.

When the senior members of political parties themselves skip parliamentary sessions, how can they expect their juniors to carry out their legislative duties and functions properly? They are like the proverbial crab which, while moving sideways, urges its offspring to walk straight.

Colossal amounts of money are spent on parliamentary sittings which serve little purpose when ministers and MPs do not attend them. Public funds must not be sent down the gurgler in this manner while many people are struggling to dull the pangs of hunger. If Parliament can have a budget debate without most of its members present, the question is why the public should continue to pay through the nose to maintain as many as 225 MPs.

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Editorial

Gas bombs and Occam’s razor

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Tuesday 30th November, 2021

Sri Lankans have a remarkable ability to forget. That may be the reason why Prabhakaran failed to achieve his goal despite all his bomb blasts on civilian targets. Zahran, in his wisdom, emulated Prabhakaran, carried out bomb attacks, but got nowhere near his goal posthumously. The local gas companies have gone a step further; they charge for causing explosions that kill people and destroy property!

It is in fear and trepidation that every Sri Lankan woman steps into her kitchen to cook up a storm as the danger of a firestorm lurks there thanks to the gas companies run by Zahran’s fat-cat cousins who have turned gas cylinders into bombs. Unlike Prabhakaran and Zahran, the gas mudalalis have benefited from Sri Lankans’ collective memory lapse. The brouhaha over gas explosions seems to have fizzled out.

The government has taken steps to have a few gas cylinders tested to find out why they cause explosions, and reports thereon have been referred to a national university. The matter has ended there to all intents and purposes. People are being urged to apply soapy water to the valves of gas cylinders they purchase to see if there are leaks. The onus has thus been shifted to the consumer! In other words, in case of a gas explosion, the consumer concerned will be blamed for not checking the valve of his or her gas cylinder properly—caveat emptor!

Hitler, wherever he may be, would feel ashamed if he knew the Sri Lankan gas company honchos have found a much easier way to snuff out lives than his huge gas chambers. The process of destroying lives here is very simple. A person walks, half-asleep, into his or her kitchen in the morning, and switches on a light … a big bang, and he or she is gone!

There has been a debate on the causes of gas explosions. Scientists have adduced several reasons. It is believed that the gas composition has been changed arbitrarily and the valves of gas cylinders, regulators, etc., cannot take the pressure of the new mix, and therefore they develop leaks, endangering the lives of the people. But, we, as laymen, prefer to adopt the philosophical rule—Occam’s razor, or the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the best one—in dealing with the ‘gas bomb’ issue.

The real problem, in our book, is the leaky valves of gas cylinders. No gas cylinder with a defective valve or any other defect must be allowed to leave the factory, but many of them have entered the market. Obviously, there has been a very serious lapse on the part of those responsible for testing cylinders; they and their superiors must be held accountable for allowing safety standards to be compromised, and endangering the lives of consumers. What has really caused the gas cylinder valves to develop defects is a matter that should be dealt with separately.

What needs to be done urgently is to suspend the sale of gas and interdict all those in key positions of the state-owned gas company for their collective failure to ensure the safety of the gas cylinders they sell. Otherwise, they will cover their tracks, and it will be well-nigh impossible to figure out how the unsafe gas cylinders entered the market. The culprits must be prosecuted for criminal negligence or wilfully changing the butane-propane ratio, exposing the public to danger, as claimed by some experts.

The precedent created by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday blasts should be adopted in apportioning the blame for the kitchen gas bombs, as it were. The PCoI says, in its report, the entire yahapalana government including the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the blasts in 2019. Similarly, the incumbent government, which came to power promising to prevent blasts and save lives, the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the gas bombs that turn kitchens into infernos.

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Editorial

Zorro back to zero

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Monday 29th November, 2021

Maithripala Sirisena did not want to remain a Cabinet minister in the UPFA government, which he left in November 2014 mainly because the Rajapaksas were riding roughshod over him. He ran for President and became Zorro, as it were, in Sri Lankan politics by defeating President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But, a little over six years on, he has chosen to stomach many indignities at the hands of the Rajapaksas and remain an ordinary MP in the current SLPP administration. Zorro is back to zero.

Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa has gone on record as saying the incumbent dispensation has not done anything good for the people, and Budget 2022 is absolutely worthless. He has dubbed the government an edawela-tours administration—an outfit given to living from day to day. This is the general perception anent the government and its poor performance. Prof. Piyadasa has also said the SLPP MPs and ministers who are slandering SLFP leader Sirisena would not have done so without the blessings of the SLPP leaders, who, he says, could easily rein them in if they so desire. He seems to have read the situation accurately. Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has also asked the SLFP to leave the government, according to a report we publish today.

The SLPP’s popularity is on the wane, and the SLFP is trying to make the most of the situation to shore up its image and support base by criticising the government while being a part of it. The SLPP leaders have seen through the SLFP’s strategy, and it is obvious that their minions are carrying out a vilification campaign against the SLFP leader at their behest. The question is why the SLFP continues to be in the SLPP government?

Sirisena never misses an opportunity to boast that he had the executive powers of the presidency pruned down through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and received international recognition for his contribution to strengthening Sri Lankan democracy. He says he is the only leader in the world to have let go of some executive powers. But he unflinchingly allowed the SLFP to vote for the 20th Amendment, which nullified the much-flaunted 19th Amendment.

The main reason Sirisena publicly adduced in justification of his defection from the UPFA in November 2014 to run for President in January 2015 was his abhorrence of the dictatorial rule of the Rajapaksa family, which, he said, had become a metaphor for corruption as well as abuse of power. Paradoxically, he also claimed that he, as the SLFP General Secretary at the time, advised the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa not to advance the presidential election because conditions on the political front were not favourable to the UPFA at the time. If Rajapaksa had heeded his advice, the UPFA government would have completed its full term, and Sirisena would have remained in it for another year or so despite its ‘corruption and abuse of power’!

When Sirisena was asked in a recent television interview whether he had joined forces with the Rajapaksas again because the factors that had led him to break ranks with them were no longer there, he said the situation remained the same. If so, why did he close ranks with the Rajapaksas? He claimed he did not tell the SLFP what to do, and had allowed the party’s Central Committee (CC) and parliamentary group to make decisions, and they had decided to back the SLPP. This, however, is not true; he does not allow his MPs or the SLFP CC that kind of leeway. After winning the presidency and taking over as the SLFP leader in January 2015, he forced the party to opt for a political cohabitation with the UNP so as to consolidate his position in the new government. The UNP had only 47 seats as opposed to the SLFP-led UPFA’s 142. Having done so, how can he expect the people to buy into his claim that he does not force his decisions on the SLFP?

The SLFP has today become as politically promiscuous as the SLMC and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress; it gets enticed by political kerb crawlers. In 2015, it offered its services to the UNP, and about five years later it opted for living together with the SLPP. It seems to be looking for a new partner? This is the fate that awaits any party whose leaders act out of expediency rather than principle.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike would turn in his grave if he knew what has befallen his beloved party.

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