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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

Schools closed; taverns opened

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Thursday 22nd February, 2024

Government politicians wax eloquent, to the point of queasiness, about their grand plans to develop the education sector and prepare the country for future opportunities and challenges. They claim to be on an ambitious mission to align education with job market requirements, both there and overseas, by modernising the state-run schools, universities and other seats of learning. But between saying and doing many a pair of shoes is said to be worn out.

There are 10,146 state-run schools in Sri Lanka. Of them 9,750 are under Provincial Councils; 396 are national schools. About 800 rural schools have been closed down in Sri Lanka during the past several decades, and many more are bound to face the same fate in the near future, we have reported, today, quoting Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin. There has been an alarming increase in the school dropout rate, he says. Instead of making a serious effort to prevent the closure of rural schools which cater to the poor, the incumbent government has chosen to open more liquor outlets throughout the country. It is under fire from the Opposition for having issued about 300 new liquor licences mostly to the ruling party MPs during the past one and a half years or so.

Former Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, MP, has said about 129,000 students have dropped out of school due to the current economic crisis; their parents find it extremely difficult to pay for their food, school supplies, transport, supplementary tuition, etc., he has said. This fact is borne out by the findings of a survey conducted by the Department of Census and statistics. But the government does not give a tinker’s cuss about this situation. Its priorities are different. While refusing to waive VAT (18%) on school supplies, it has slashed licence fees for taverns and liquor retailers!

Some government MPs frequently complain about high liquor prices and call for legalising cannabis cultivation. Never do these worthies take up vital issues such as the exorbitantly high cost of education, and the sad fate of underprivileged schools. Are the current rulers trying to overcome popular resistance to corruption and misgovernment on its watch by intoxicating the public? A pithy political slogan, which became popular during the J. R. Jayewardene government, comes to mind: ‘Amathilata kaar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—‘cars for ministers, liquor bars for their supporters and inebriation for the public’. It is hoped that the ruling party politicians will not push for the legalisation of the so-called zombie drug, which is said to cause hallucinations, delusions and a feeling of detachment from the world.

The closure of rural schools is said to be multifactorial. Some of the reasons for their predicament are prolonged neglect and the glaring urban bias in state resource allocation for education. Whatever the causes of the closure of underprivileged schools may be, the fact remains that proximity and easy accessibility help attract poor children to schools, especially today, when transport costs are prohibitive. If the rural schools are left to wither on the vine, the dropout rate among poor students will further increase, leading to various social issues.

It is time the government shifted its focus from opening taverns and slashing taxes, etc., for the benefit of liquor manufacturers to the need to develop the school system, which has been starved of funds. The opening of a school is tantamount to the closure of a prison, as a local saying goes. The government seems keen to open more prisons.

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Editorial

Acid test for JVP

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Wednesday 21st February, 2024

Sri Lanka and India are planning to conclude the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) soon, according to media reports. The news about attempts being made to sign the controversial agreement expeditiously could not have come at a worse time for the JVP, which is mending fences with New Delhi and crowing about its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s recent India visit.

ETCA had to be shelved previously owing to vehement protests from Sri Lankan professional associations, civil society groups and political parties. Prominent among them was the JVP, which demonised ETCA, claiming that, if implemented, it would sound the death knell for Sri Lanka’s IT industry, etc.

There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch, and an all-expenses-paid junket is more so. One may argue that the invitation New Delhi extended to the JVP-led NPP, making the latter feel important, was aimed at furthering India’s economic interests more than anything else, given the JVP’s considerable trade union strength in the key sectors Indian ventures already have a presence in or are eyeing, such as ports, airports, power, energy and telecommunication and dairy farming. By smoothing over differences with the JVP, India has apparently sought to neutralise trade union resistance to the big fire sale the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is holding to dispose of Sri Lanka’s state assets that Indian business magnates, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rockefeller, Gautam Adani, have evinced a keen interest in acquiring.

Big powers have weaponised trade and commerce to further their expansionist interests. They also use chequebook diplomacy for that purpose. The JVP is trying to obfuscate the issue of its past terror campaign against what it termed Indian expansionism. Its current leaders have claimed no knowledge of their party’s initiating lecture on Indian expansionism! But in the late 1980s, the JVP brutally murdered quite a few traders for selling ‘Bombay’ onions in defiance of its blanket ban on goods imported from India so much so that the then Trade Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was compelled to rename Bombay onions ‘Lanka loku loonu’ (‘Lanka big onions’) to save lives. One may argue that those unfortunate incidents happened several decades ago, and the world has since changed. But the JVP’s opposition to ETCA cannot be dismissed as history.

Making a fiery speech at a seminar, ‘Trading, Sacrifice and ETCA’, in Colombo, on 20 Sept., 2016, JVP Leader Dissanayake said ETCA would pave the way for an influx of low-grade IT professional from India, causing the Sri Lankan youth to lose employment opportunities. He warned that if ETCA was signed, the future of the Sri Lankan youth would be in jeopardy. The JVP had launched a struggle to defeat the Yahapalana government’s efforts to sign ETCA, he said, vowing to go all out to achieve that goal.

The JVP claims to have a considerable following among the Sri Lankan youth, many of whom are employed in the IT sector, and therefore it will have to reveal its position on ETCA, which it considers a danger to Sri Lanka’s IT industry as well as other vital sectors.

What has become of the JVP’s struggle against ETCA? It will be interesting to see the JVP’s reaction to the signing of ETCA on the cards. Will the JVP leaders go all out to scuttle it in keeping with their pledge to do so, or will they choose to soft-pedal the issue lest they should antagonise India, which they are ingratiating themselves with? The possibility of the JVP putting up some resistance to ETCA half-heartedly and allowing the government to go ahead with the signing of the controversial agreement, cannot be ruled out.

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Editorial

Throttling democracy, the govt. way

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Tuesday 20th February, 2024

The leaders of the SLPP-UNP government, troubled by the prospect of having to face elections, must be having sleepless nights. They are believed to be busy devising ways and means of putting off the presidential contest due in eight months or so. The President’s Office has however said the next presidential election will be held on schedule. The promises of governments in trouble are like pie crust; they are made to be broken.

Speculation is rampant in political circles that the government is planning to postpone the next presidential election on the pretext of abolishing the executive presidency. But there is no way the SLPP-UNP combine can muster a two-thirds majority for a bill seeking to scrap the executive presidency and have it approved by the people at a referendum. Is it planning to strangle elections financially, again? It stands accused of trying to halve the fund allocations for the presidential and parliamentary elections.

A statement issued by the Media Ministry, announcing the Cabinet decisions made on 05 Feb., 2024, said inter alia: “The Cabinet of Ministers considered that an allocation of Rs 10 billion has been made by the budget estimate for the year 2024, within the financial stamina of the government and those provisions have to be managed for covering the expenditure of the presidential election and general election (emphasis added).”

Executive Director of the Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies Manjula Gajanayake has pointed out that the Cabinet has halved the amount of funds needed for the presidential and parliamentary elections. We have quoted Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake as saying that the Election Commission needs Rs. 10 billion for the next presidential election, and Rs. 11 billion for the parliamentary polls due next year, and the two estimates were submitted to the government in August/September 2023.

The government has either revealed its hand unwittingly by making public the above-mentioned Cabinet decision or sent a trial balloon to gauge the reaction of the Opposition and the public to its move. Curiously, the Opposition has not taken up the issue.

The ministerial decision at issue could be considered an instance of the Cabinet overriding Parliament, which controls public finance. Gajanayake has rightly said President Ranil Wickremesinghe is using the Cabinet as a cat’s paw to postpone elections.

President Wickremesinghe has proved that he is no respecter of the separation of powers; he usurps the powers of Parliament, where he even tells the Opposition members to shut up. Checks and balances are the bulwark against the emergence of dictatorships. An unmistakable sign of a judiciary buckling under executive pressure, in any country, is the inexplicable postponement of judgements that are not favourable to those who are close to the powers that be.

Is it that the absence of stiff resistance to its refusal to allocate funds for the local government elections, in 2022, has emboldened the government to adopt the same modus operandi to put off other elections as well?

The government is keen to curtail its expenditure only when funds are required for elections! It is quite liberal with people’s money where its leaders’ spendthrift ways are concerned. The Treasury makes colossal amounts of funds readily available for the government politicians’ foreign junkets, perks, and state ceremonies, which are an utter waste of money.

Let the government be warned that by suppressing democracy, it is giving a big fillip to ultra-radical political forces with extra-parliamentary agendas, thriving on public resentment. It created conditions for Aragalaya, which was hijacked by extremists masquerading as saviours to compass their sinister ends; they almost succeeded in decapitating parliamentary democracy.

Unless the government mends its ways and stops throttling democracy, it will have a bigger uprising than Aragalaya to contend with sooner than expected. Public anger is reaching the tipping point, and it has to be defused through elections if disaster is to be averted.

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