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Editorial

The funny side of the fuel price hike

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The post-announcement drama that followed the fuel price increase announcement would have been funny but for its ripple effect on the poor and not-so-poor. The rich and the well-to-do are one cup of tea; and the rest of the population another. The three-wheeler operator, whether he hires his own vehicle or that belonging to a mudalali, can and will increase his rate, but at the price of the number of hires he gets per day. A bus fare increase must follow, although how high that would be has not yet been worked out or announced. The haulage cost of essentials must rise and this will have a pervasive effect across the gamut of goods and services; and they will all come home to roost on the consumer. No wonder then that what many economists call a long delayed but essential measure has kicked up as much dust as it has and the government is already bleeding.

That’s one side of the coin. The other was the stunning statement of SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, harshly condemning the price increase and demanding the resignation of Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila. Journalists cutting their teeth in the trade (they prefer it to be called a profession) are taught that in writing a news story, unlike in sex, the climax comes first. Kariyawasam’s statement was near enough to Gammanpila’s announcement for the script to conform to the pyramidal structure of a news story. There the least important or interesting material or information comes at the tail with the juicy stuff at the top. That makes it easier for the sub-editor to trim the ‘copy’ to fit into the available space; or for that matter for the reader not to wade through a long article. Kariyawasam, who is often presented in the media as an attorney-at-law, cannot be so naive as to believe that Gammanpila announced his own decision a few days ago. Obviously something this important has to have the concurrence of the president, prime minister and the hierarchy of the government. In this instance it was approved by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Cost of Living, headed by the president and including the prime minister.

But Kariyawasam ignored all that and demanded Gammanpila’s resignation. The latter who seized the opportunity to earn himself some brownie points said he volunteered to be the bearer of the bad news to spare the president and prime minister of the resulting flak. He also had the temerity to ask “Who is Sagara Kariyawasam?” JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, gave him the answer. “He is the person who signed your nomination papers,” he replied. All that apart, Kariyawasam like Gammanpila, would not have fired the missile (or missive), ironically bearing the PM’s photograph on the letterhead, on his own volition. He was obviously instructed to do what he did by somebody powerful – very powerful. It has been widely suggested that this was dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa now sojourning in the USA, his first (or second?) home. He’s been away now for several weeks and no date of return has yet been mentioned although as head of a very powerful Task Force, his presence in the country is important.

There have been some feeble responses to this allegation. One of these was the assertion that if Basil, a powerful member of the Royal Family, wished to make his point, he could easily have spoken to either of his brothers, the president or the prime minister or even nephew, Namal. Instead why did he choose Kariyawasam to fire off a controversial statement if he indeed did so? The latter, of course, has a National List seat in Parliament together with a lifetime pension (for himself and his widow), courtesy of the taxpayer. For this he has to thank a powerful patron. This, some have it, is Basil Rajapaksa. But that, of course, remains an unproven and probably never to be proven allegation. It was Basil after all, who created the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), aka Pohottuwa, which leads the ruling coalition. Thus, apart from his position as an immediate family member of the leaders of the ‘Double Paksa’ government, as our regular columnist, Kumar David, delights in calling the ruling Establishment, he is much more. He created the party that won the last election and is its National Organizer. His influence then on cabinet making and National List choices would have been pervasive.

It is also pertinent to ask why the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) chose to bring a vote of no confidence against Gammanpila rather than against the government. The Sajith Premadasa party, obviously knows as well as everyone else that the fuel price increase was a government decision rather than one unilaterally made by the energy minister. Why then is it training its guns at the loquacious Gammanpila rather than the government itself? We are told that it’s all a matter of strategy debated in the inner councils of the major opposition party. The thinking is that if a no confidence motion was moved against the government, all its components will unitedly fight it. But if it is aimed at Gammanpila, there will be those deeply embarrassed about the price increases and its effect on their constituents who may be tempted to break ranks. Sagara Kariyawasam, for instance, will find it difficult to express confidence in Gammanpila. But he has an easy way out. He can be absent at voting time like so many have done before. Hopefully, Ranil Wickremesinghe would have taken his National List seat before the forthcoming debate. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say.



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Editorial

A flaw in jab drive

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Friday 23rd July, 2021

The national vaccination campaign is gaining momentum with more vaccine doses coming in and a significant number of them being administered daily. It has received a tremendous boost from the armed forces’ involvement in the inoculation process. A senior medical doctor, in a letter published on the opposite page today, pays a glowing tribute to the Army, which deserves accolades for its good work. Government health personnel are also working tirelessly to inoculate as many people as possible to help the country achieve the much-needed herd immunity.

There is however a flaw in the ongoing vaccination drive and it needs to be rectified urgently. Thanks to the vaccine war the western bloc has declared on China, etc., the Sri Lankans who have not received the vaccines produced by western multinationals have to pay through the nose for quarantine when they travel to the developed countries.

The government has, with the help of the Army, launched a programme to give Pfizer and Moderna jabs to the students scheduled to migrate to the countries that refuse to recognise the efficacy of other vaccines. This is a welcome move, which has stood thousands of students in good stead. But, curiously, there is no such scheme for the Sri Lankans who migrate for foreign employment. They will have to pay colossal amounts of forex for quarantine in the host countries unless they are given Pfizer or Moderna jabs at this end.

Sri Lanka is facing a grave foreign crisis, as is public knowledge, and restrictions have been imposed on the outflow of foreign currency, and, therefore, there is no way those who are scheduled to migrate for foreign employment can carry the required amounts of foreign exchange even if they are ready to pay for quarantine after reaching their destinations. If they are given Pfizer/Moderna jabs here, the government can prevent millions of dollars being taken out of the country for quarantine.

Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on remittances from its expatriate workers. Therefore, the Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment should be given Pfizer or Moderna jabs on a priority basis. Why the government has not realised the need to do so is puzzling.

It is said that a proposal has been submitted to the Health Ministry for including the Sri Lankans to be employed overseas also in the category of those eligible for receiving Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. If so, the Health Ministry must act fast. Perhaps, a presidential intervention may be necessary because some health bigwigs are not well disposed towards the military involvement in the vaccination campaign, which they consider their preserve.

Meanwhile, it defies comprehension why the developed world has chosen to promote the vaccines produced by some western pharmaceutical corporations that have earned notoriety for questionable business practices. In September 2009, The Guardian (UK) reported that Pfizer had been hit with the biggest criminal fine in US history as part of a $2.3 bn settlement with federal prosecutors for ‘mispromoting’ medicines and paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. Pfizer pleaded guilty to misbranding the painkiller Bextra, withdrawn from the market in 2004, by promoting the drug for uses that were not approved by medical regulators. Besides, it took 15 years for Pfizer to make the first compensation payment to the families of the Nigerian children who died or were disabled in a disastrous meningitis drug trial in 1996. This tragedy has made the Nigerians express serious concerns about the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine rollout at home.

One of the main reasons why the world has failed to end the Covid-19 pandemic is the hypocrisy of the Global North. The People’s Vaccine Alliance has said that the self-interest of the G-7 countries is the biggest obstacle to overcoming the Covid-19 crisis, for these nations block proposals for waiving patents and sharing life-saving technology. They have also stockpiled vaccines, causing a jab shortage in the rest of the world. The prevailing world order reflects the law of the jungle.

The developing world is left with no alternative but to follow the vaccine rules set by the rich nations. One only hopes the Sri Lankan government will act wisely and ensure that all Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment receive the jabs acceptable to their host countries so that they will be spared the trouble of paying huge amounts of dollars for overseas quarantine.

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Editorial

Do they want bodies to pile high?

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Thursday 22nd July, 2021

Protests against the Kotelawala Defence University (Amendment) Bill continue. Media reports that Parliament will take up the bill for debate soon seem to have made its opponents intensify their agitations. Mass gatherings are sure to give a turbo boost to the spread of Covid-19. Nobody seems to care two hoots about the dire warnings medical experts have been issuing about an explosive spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus. The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) and several senior physicians have urged the government and the public to do their utmost to prevent the community level transmission of the Delta variant, which is capable of sending the pandemic-related death toll through the roof, as evident from the destruction it wreaked on India.

The government remains maniacally focused on securing the passage of the KDU bill, and its opponents are making a determined bid to shoot it down. Mass protests are super spreader events, but the organisers thereof do not give a tinker’s cuss about the danger they expose the hapless public to.

Ironically, all universities remain closed because of Covid-19, which has also caused the closure of schools. The GCE A/L examination has also been postponed. But the government and its rivals are clashing over the defence university. Teachers expressed grave concern about their own safety and wanted themselves vaccinated on a priority basis before the reopening of schools. But they are seen conducting protests in violation of the health guidelines! The government is asking the people to adhere to Covid-19 protocol, but at the same time, it drives them to protest. Both parties to the KDU dispute seem to be emulating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who reportedly said, ‘Let the bodies pile high!”

What possessed the government to take up the KDU bill amidst the worst ever health crisis, and trigger street protests? It may have duped itself into believing that the pandemic situation could be used to prevent the opponents of the Bill from staging public protests, or it would be able to make use of the quarantine laws to detain them. Its plans fell through. Even those who are not opposed to fee-levying university education will take exception to the haste with which the government has chosen to proceed with the KDU bill.

Australia promptly placed about one half of its population under lockdown, the other day, following the detection of some Delta variant cases in Victoria (13 infections) and New South Wales (98 infections). Melbourne and Sydney were closed. This shows how concerned other countries are about the Delta variant. In Sri Lanka, the Delta variant accounts for about 30% of the new Covid-19 cases detected in some areas, but the government, the public and trade unionists do not care. What we are witnessing could be considered a case of fools backflipping where angels fear to tread.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Sri Lanka cannot afford protracted lockdowns, given its economic difficulties. Such restrictions may help hold the virus at bay, at least temporarily, but starvation may drive the poor to suicide. The only way to curb the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to lockdowns that make the economy scream is for everyone to follow the health guidelines strictly. But public support for pandemic control remains woefully inadequate.

Clausewitz has famously said that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The current Sri Lankan government seems to think that politics is a continuation of war by other means, if its confrontational approach is any indication. There would not have been so many mass protests if the government had acted wisely without trying to rush controversial Bills through Parliament much to the consternation of other stakeholders.

Whether we should promote private universities is not an issue that can be sorted out with the help of special parliamentary majorities; nor can it be resolved through trade union muscle-flexing. It is far too serious to be left to politicians and trade unions alone. The public must have a say in such matters. But one thing is clear. This certainly is not the time for sorting out the issue. The focus of everyone must be on curbing the spread of the pandemic, especially the tranmission of the much-dreaded Delta variant. Everything else must wait.

As for the KDU bill, both the government and protesters must step back for the sake of the public, whose rights they claim to champion.

 

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Editorial

SJB’s own goal

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Wednesday 21st July, 2021

 

The defeat of the SJB’s no-faith motion against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila yesterday in Parliament came as no surprise. As for winning the vote, the Opposition had the same chance as a cat in hell. The SJB may have sought to give a boost to its anti-government campaign with the help of its no-confidence motion. It has to remain politically active and be seen to be so to bolster its supporters’ morale. It also held a protest near Parliament on Monday. But its no-faith motion was ill-timed and ill-advised; it was an own goal.

The SJB’s no-faith motion reminds us of an apocryphal story of a cop who undertook to shoot a dog which a group of hospital workers had tied to a tree because they thought it had rabies. The policeman with a flair for melodrama came, and having ensured that all eyes were on him, knelt, took aim and fired. Much to everyone’s surprise, the dog sprinted away. The bullet had hit the rope holding the animal to the tree! The cop cut a pathetic figure.

The government has once again demonstrated that is has a two-thirds majority, and must have been more than happy to do so because it has been left with hardly anything else to flaunt, at present. However, parliamentary majorities do not necessarily translate into popular support where vital issues affecting the public are concerned.

The yahapalana government also consolidated its power in Parliament so much so that it could torpedo the illegally formed Mahinda-Maithri government in the latter part of 2018. It secured the passage of all its bills in Parliament with ease. But it was highly unpopular outside Parliament, and the UNP could not win a single seat at the last general election; the JVP and the TNA also lost a considerable number of seats as they had been supportive of the UNP-led UNF government. Sajith Premadasa was wise enough to break ranks with the UNP and form the SJB.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) also had a two-thirds majority, which it abused to steamroller its controversial bills through Parliament. It was also thought to be popular among the voters, but the truth was quite otherwise, as evident from the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.

The government’s victory in Parliament yesterday is an indictment of the SLPP grandees whose allegations against Gammanpila became the basis of the SJB’s motion of no confidence. They held Gammanpila responsible for the fuel price hikes, and demanded his resignation for having embarrassed the government and caused difficulties to the public.

Curiously, even the SLPP MPs who condemned the fuel price increases and raked Gammanpila over the coals, yesterday voted against the motion of no-confidence against him. Thus, it may be argued that in so doing these MPs voted against themselves. They also claimed that the fuel prices would not have been jacked up if Basil Rajapaksa had been in the country at the time of the price revision. Basil has come back and been appointed the Finance Minister, but there has been no fuel price reduction. Is it that the government is actually capable of reducing the fuel prices but does not care to do so?

The SJB’s political strategists do not seem to know what they are doing. But for their no-faith motion, Minister Gammanpila and SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam would have continued to fight at the expense of the government’s unity. In a way, the Opposition did the government a big favour by bringing the warring SLPP MPs together, albeit unwittingly. This is why we argued in a previous comment that the SJB leaders apparently had not read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, wherein it is said that one should not interrupt one’s enemy when the latter is making a mistake.

It behoves the government, which is cock-a-hoop at its latest win, to bear in mind that it may be able to make short work of the Opposition in Parliament, but the issues over which parliamentary battles are fought will not go away. What really matters in electoral politics is not the ruling party’s parliamentary majority but public opinion, which can make or break governments.

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