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Editorial

The finger on the spot

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A television interviewer last week asked Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda what is to be done when a robber enters your home? Is he not to be chased off? The program in which the minister appeared was dealing with the long festering problem of a South Indian fisheries fleet brazenly crossing the International Maritime Boundary (IBM) and entering Sri Lanka waters. These illegal fishermen are not just poaching in our waters. They engage in bottom trawling, using large vessels with powerful engines, destroying the marine environment and seriously eroding the replenishment capacity of this country’s fish stock, a process affecting the livelihood of our fishermen in the short, medium and long term.

The minister responded with a question of his own. What do you do when the robber is armed?, he countered. Devananda put his finger on the spot; perhaps not literally in that the Indian fishing fleet routinely crossing the IBM is not armed to its teeth though its quite probable that there are a gun or two in individual trawlers or boats. What he was in effect saying is that the poachers are backed by the might of India and there is very little that we can do about it. What the minister said evoked painful memories of Operation Vadamarachchi of May and June 1987 when the Sri Lankan forces were on the verge of defeating the Tamil Tigers waging war on the Lankan state.

What did India do? Alleging that the people living in the war-wracked area were starving, several Hercules transport planes escorted by Mirage jet fighters intruded into this country’s sovereign airspace for a claimed “humanitarian operation” – the infamous parippu drop as we came to know it. The signal was unmistakably clear. Either halt the military operation or face the consequences. That would be an Indian invasion of this country. Then President J.R. Jayewardene, fighting an insurrection in the South and a civil war in the North was in a tight bind from which there was no escape. The rest is history. The Indo – Lanka Agreement between Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was signed and the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. But there was no disarming of the LTTE as promised. Thanks to what India did then, the civil war raged till 2009 when the Tigers were eventually defeated.

This country’s predicament over the rape of our marine resources, grievously affecting the livelihoods of our fishermen eking out a precarious livelihood, and also endangering the very existence of the fisheries industry in the North of this country, is very similar to the parippu drop of not so long ago.

During the decades of the war, the imperatives of fighting the separatist-terrorists required long periods where our fishermen were banned from venturing out to deep sea. They were confined to a coastal fishery and this left expanses of our territorial waters wide open to Indian fishermen to exploit. Those years and what happened then deeply ingrained in the Indians the conviction that they could fish as they like, wherever they would, regardless of the International Maritime Boundary and the Law of the Sea. There were rich picking to be had and the opportunity was seized.

After the war ended and normalcy – or at least some semblance of it – was restored, there was no keeping the Indian fishermen, often manning trawlers owned by Tamil Nadu politicians and their patrons, to their side of the IBM. For several long years efforts at resolving this problem have been made. There have been some placatory noises from the Indians but little attempt, leave alone a serious effort, to tackle this issue. Contacts have been made at the highest levels of government and all they have produced are platitudes about adopting a “humanitarian approach” to the problem. The humanitarianism is all about allowing Indian fishermen to enhance their livelihood, never mind the super profits made by capitalist politically-backed trawler-owners hiring those fishermen to crew their vessels. Nary a word about our own fishermen, long left to fend for themselves as best as they can while the Indians rob what is rightfully theirs.

No end to this situation is in sight. There are occasional reports of poachers and their vessels taken to custody by the Sri Lanka Navy. More often than not, after a little fuss, bother and diplomatic niceties, the fishermen and (emphasis ours) their craft are returned so that they can poach another day. Earlier this year there was was an incident when an Indian fishing vessel poaching in Lankan waters reacted aggressively to a naval craft attempting to arrest it. This resulted in the sinking of the trawler and the death of one of its crewmen. Predictably there was a blaze of publicity and protest in the Tamil Nadu press about the Sri Lanka Navy killing Indian fishermen. Such incidents are clear indications of the sensitivity of the problem at hand. We have to live with the reality that we cannot wield the big stick to protect what is ours. But the government is under pressure from fishermen North and South to do something about it. Devananda has talked about issuing passes for a limited number of Indian fishing vessels, excluding big trawlers, to enter our waters.

But as one northern politician said in a television program, 500 will come if 50 passes are issued. Indian fishery interests are saying “why exclude the trawlers?” In any case do we have the capacity (or the political will) to effectively police our waters, protect the interests of our fishermen and the sustainability of our marine resources against a monster predator from across the Palk Strait? D we always have to bow down to Big Brother?



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Editorial

Third Reich in the making?

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Wednesday 8th February, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime is all out to derail the local government (LG) elections scheduled for 09 March. The Election Commission (EC) is determined to ensure that the country goes to the polls as scheduled, and the Opposition is bragging that the government’s plan to delay the mini polls has gone pear-shaped, and the SLPP-UNP combine will have to bow to the inevitable, but nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics, which is full of surprises. A beleaguered, shameless regime that fears elections will not baulk at anything to retain its hold on power.

The Cabinet is in overdrive to throttle the EC financially and scuttle the LG polls. It has adopted the zero-based budget technique, according to which no balances are carried forward and no pre-committed expenses permitted. Government Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena revealed, at a media briefing, yesterday, that the Cabinet had decided to appoint 10 committees comprising public officials to explore ways and means of rationalising the utilisation of budgetary allocations for 10 Ministries, and unsurprisingly the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government is among them!

Surprisingly, the government, which is desperate for funds, has not cared to recover the losses the state coffers suffered to the tune of Rs. 16 billion due to the sugar tax scam.

The Cabinet had also decided to release funds only for essential recurrent expenditure, given the country’s economic difficulties, Minister Gunawardena has told the media. The government obviously does not consider elections essential, and its game plan is clear.

Curiously, the government, which bewails the country’s pecuniary woes, has no qualms about allocating public funds with a generous hand for extravagant events such as grand ceremonies to boost the egos of its leaders. It also has enough funds to set up new ministries and pay for its leaders’ junkets. Perhaps, the fuel bill for the recent Independence Day and rehearsals for the event must have been higher than that for a general election!

President J. R. Jayewardene created conditions for a bloodbath in the late 1980s by doing away with the 1982 general election and denying the people an opportunity to vent their anger democratically. He held a referendum instead and had it rigged, thereby stoking people’s resentment, which became rocket fuel for the JVP’s spree of violence. Four decades on, his nephew, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, stands accused of trying to do something similar. Those who do not learn from history are said to be doomed to repeat it.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be unaware of the disastrous consequences of poll postponements. He was a member of the SLFP-led United Front government, which postponed a general election in 1975 by two years, and suffered an ignominious defeat, as a result. He lost his seat at the 1977 general election, where the UNP obtained a five-sixths majority, which it abused in every conceivable manner. Then, he fought against the scrapping of the 1982 parliamentary polls. He protested when the Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council elections in 2017, and rightly declared that it was an assault on democracy. But he was instrumental in postponing the LG polls last year, and is unashamedly supporting the government move to delay them further. Shame on him!

Germany is trying to wipe Hitler from its memory, but the current Sri Lankan leaders take pride in likening themselves to the Fuhrer, and, in fact, they are apparently busy putting in place something similar to the Third Reich, here. They are deploying their Brownshirts to suppress democratic dissent and deprive the public of their franchise and their right to protest; they also pamper vainglorious Generals, who are given gallantry medals in peacetime! The police are already acting like the Gestapo; they are hunting down anti-government protesters.

If the current regime is allowed to use the country’s economic woes as an excuse for postponing the LG polls, it will be emboldened to delay the parliamentary and presidential elections as well on the same grounds. The sooner the country is liberated from the clutches of the SLPP-UNP combine, the better. You do not keep a rape victim in the custody of the rapist, do you?

It is the fervent hope of everyone who cherishes democracy and wishes for a secure future for the country’s youth and children that the incumbent regime’s sinister plan to undermine people’s franchise and prolong its hold on power arbitrarily will come a cropper.

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Editorial

JVP’s volte-face

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Tuesday 7th February, 2023

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decision to implement the controversial 13th Amendment (13A) fully could not have come at a worse time for pseudo-patriots such as the SLPP leaders, who enabled him to realise his presidential dream, and are therefore responsible for his acts or omissions. They have refused to grant the Provincial Councils land and police powers, claiming that such measures are fraught with the danger of leading to secession. Now, they find themselves in a dilemma. They, however, did not resort to violence in a bid to scuttle 13A when it was introduced in the late 1980s. But the same cannot be said about the JVP.

The JVP has said it sees nothing wrong with efforts being made to implement 13A, which is now part of the Constitution. This is the very opposite of what it said in the late 1980s, when it went on a spree of violence, claiming that 13A would lead to the division of the country, and had to be torpedoed, at any cost. Its savage suppression of dissent left hundreds of people dead. Its victims included politicians, student leaders, trade unionists, traders, monks, public officials, police and military personnel and voters who defied its order to boycott elections. Among the state assets it destroyed were 240 agrarian service centres, numerous Paddy Marketing Board warehouses with stocks of paddy therein, countless CEB transformers, power cables and pylons, and hundreds of state-owned buses. It also disrupted universities and schools, insisting that one’s love for the motherland had to take precedence over one’s education. Due to its brutal anti-13A campaign, its founder, Rohana Wijeweera, and all its senior leaders save Somawansa Amaraweera, perished at the hands of the police, the military and the pro-UNP vigilantes during counterterrorism operations. The same fate befell thousands of its junior cadres as well. Now, it says 13A is a fact of life!

The JVP claims to be a Marxist outfit but Machiavellian thinking seems to have polluted its revolutionary ideology. It is apparently guided by the Machiavellian maxim anent its pledges — ‘the promise given was a necessity of the past, and the word broken is a necessity of the present’.

What characterises the JVP is a chronic lack of policy consistency, as we pointed out in this space, on 05 April 2021, when the quinquagenary of its first sanguinary revolution fell. The only thing consistent about the JVP is perhaps its modus operandi to gain political momentum periodically to propel itself. It honeymoons with the main political parties and then takes them on. It backed the SLFP-led United Front ahead of the 1970 general election. The following year, it took up arms against the government formed by that coalition. In the late 1970s, it went politically steady with the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene, who released Wijeweera and others from prison. A few years later it turned against the JRJ regime and caused another bloodbath. In 2004, it closed ranks with the UPFA led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and thereafter left her administration. In 2005, it backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential fray, making a tremendous contribution to his victory; subsequently, it fell out with him and tried to topple his government. In 2015, it threw in its lot with a UNP-led coalition, which fielded Maithripala Sirisena as its presidential candidate and captured power in Parliament after his victory. Its honeymoon with the UNP lasted several years before it took on the UNF government and Sirisena when they became extremely unpopular.

This kind of political promiscuity, as it were, has cost the JVP dear both politically and electorally, as can be seen from the number of seats it has secured at the general elections over the years: one MP (elected on the Sri Lanka Progressive Front ticket) in 1994; 10 MPs in 2000; 16 MPs in 2001; 39 (from the UPFA) in 2004; four MPs (from the Democratic National Alliance) in 2010; six MPs in 2015, and three MPs (from the NPP) in 2020. This time around, the JVP leaders seem to think there is a tide in their affairs, and it has to be taken at the flood, but let them be warned to tread cautiously, mindful of the fact that Brutus, who acted likewise, finally ran on his own sword in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It was a huge mistake for the JVP to try to march on Parliament last year.

As we have argued in a previous editorial comment, the JVP’s style of politicking smacks of demagogy like that of other political parties although it takes the moral high ground, and whether it will be able to charter a course and navigate the shoaly waters of national politics it has drifted into remains to be seen.

Everything undergoes change. The universe itself is said to be in a state of flux. Therefore, it is only natural that political parties evolve, and the cadre-based JVP is metamorphosing into a mass-based political entity. It has demonstrated its willingness to abandon its threadbare ideology and associated anachronisms such as dirigisme; it has come to terms with the current global economic reality and is wooing the local business community. Besides, its current leaders are known for their sartorial and tonsorial elegance and predilection for dernier cri. These are no doubt welcome signs. But the question is whether the heinous crimes that ‘revolutionary’ groups commit in the name of liberation should be allowed to go unpunished.

The JVP has to show that it feels remorse for having resorted to savage terror to compass its political objectives. The least it can do is to tender an apology to the public, especially to the victims of its terror, the families of its cadres who answered its call to arms, came forward to ‘save the country’ and perished in vain.

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Editorial

Return of state terror

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Monday 6th February, 2023

The spectre of state terrorism raising its ugly head again looms over the country. The Brownshirts of the incumbent regime, as it were, are now free to operate alongside the police to crush anti-government protests. Old habits are said to die hard. Those violent characters were seen in action on 03 February night at Maradana, where a group of people staged a peaceful protest against the government over the widespread waste of public funds, abuse of power, suppression of democratic dissent, economic mismanagement and the resultant hardships.

It was unfortunate that on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the country’s Independence, which was celebrated on a grand scale with public funds, the people were denied their right to protest.

The UNP has a history of unleashing state terror to silence its political opponents. In fact, it has got this down to a fine art. It did not spare even upright judges and human rights lawyers in its heyday. Its goons targeted independent journalists, and their violence left thousands of people dead in the late 1980s. They would swoop on polling centres, and stuff ballot boxes with the police looking the other way. Some senior police officers would stoop so low as to kowtow to the UNP thugs like Gonawala Sunil and Soththi Upali!

The Rajapaksa regimes also have had goon squads, which killed their political enemies, torched media institutions, and rigged elections with impunity. Their goons were free to crush Opposition protests in full view of the police. Friday night’s attack at Maradana reminded us of an incident that took place on the Independence Day in 2011, when the thugs working for the then Rajapaksa government attacked a protest march conducted by the UNP in Borella. Everybody knew that the goons were led by Mervyn of Kelaniya but no action was taken against him. The UNP condemned the Rajapaksa government for suppressing the Opposition’s right to protest. In April 2022, when the pro-SLPP goons attacked the peaceful Galle Face protesters, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe himself issued a statement, not only condemning the savage attack but also calling upon the entire government to resign. But he joined the repressive regime as its Prime Minister shortly afterwards! Today, the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe are cocking a snook at the people.

The fact that political stability is a prerequisite for economic recovery cannot be overstated. But the government does not seem keen to pacify the resentful people. What provokes the public into holding street protests is the government politicians’ cavalier attitude, cronyism, abuse of power, corruption and waste. Schools and hospitals are crying out for funds, but the government is spending public money on ceremonies, politicians’ junkets, etc. The SLPP and UNP are behaving as if they were deriving some perverse pleasure from people’s hardships. One wonders whether the ruling politicians are inflicting suffering on the people by way of punishment for rising against them. They robbed the country and bankrupted it and now they are trying to use its bankruptcy to stay in power without elections while suppressing people’s rights! What is playing out is like a gang of robbers punishing their victims with the help of the police and the armed forces!

The SLPP-UNP combine seems to be labouring under the delusion that it will be able to prevent another wave of political upheavals by crushing protests before they spread. Hence the deployment of thousands of police personnel at the drop of a hat. Let the government be warned that its strategy is bound to fail, and it is playing with fire. Public anger has already passed the tipping point, and the next wave of popular uprisings may be only a matter of time. When a tsunami of public anger makes landfall, there is no defence whatsoever for a repressive regime; the police and the military will not be able to defend it however pampered they may be.

Friday’s goon attacks at Maradana could be considered a dry run of what the government is planning to do on the day of the upcoming local government elections, which it cannot win. There is hardly anything that a beleaguered government that fears an election will not resort to avert a crushing defeat in midterm. The Election Commission, the Opposition, the media and election monitors should remain Argus-eyed. The SLPP local government politicians demonstrated what they were capable of when they took on the Galle Face protesters last year.

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