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Editorial

The ‘new normal’ budget

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The run-up to the 2021 budget which Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, wearing his finance minister’s hat, presented to parliament last week was obviously “new normal” as the post-covid minted cliché goes. There was no dramatic build-up to it with people rushing to buy vehicles, electronics, appliances or whatever as was often the rumor-fuelled case in the past. As has been inevitable in every past budget in the medium, if not the long term, the price of arrack and cigarettes routinely thrashed with a price stick, will go up once more. But nobody knows by how much and smokers and imbibers continue to pay the old price for their bad habits. But they have the certain knowledge that Christmas will soon be over on the authority of the budget speech.

This 2021 budget was crafted, as Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, head of the Institute of Policy Studies, said in a post-budget commentary, “under an exceptional level of uncertainty.” Obviously the crisis measures now in force will remain with us for a long time and it will be unrealistic to assume that fiscal policy will revert to its “pre-crisis setting anytime soon.” This must influence both spending priorities and what Weerakoon called “the slow burn scenario for revenue generation.” It is common knowledge that revenue has already slumped, and not only because of covid and its consequences. Assurances of boosting the country’s growth rate and narrowing the budget deficit, which has for too long burdened the country’s fiscal policy as well as its macro economy, have been repeated. These are old stories that have been heard before and few will buy them.

A persistent criticism of the budget is that it did not say enough about how the government is going to deal with the covid crisis, and the consequences arising from it, by taking the people into its confidence. This, more than all else, is the greatest danger confronting not only Sri Lanka but also the whole world. Neighboring countries is South Asia, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been much more transparent than we with Pakistan even going as far as labeling her next year’s budget as a “covid budget.” Former Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal, now the deputy in the finance ministry, who will be the key speaker for the government in the budget debate, has already said at one of the regular remotely held post-budget seminars that the timing was not right for declaring a covid-19 austerity year. But belt-tightening all round will be inevitable. Protecting the very large numbers of daily wage earners and others deprived of their livelihoods by the present crisis must remain high priority. Money printing alone to tide over cannot be the solution. Budgetary provision would have been appropriate.

There was a lot of old wine in new bottles in the 2021 budget speech including self-serving (or should we say government politician serving) measures announced. One of these is the raising of the private sector retiring age to 60-years for both men and women. Currently women working for private employers can retire at 50-years of age and men at 55 and gain access to their EPF benefits. Now both genders will have to wait longer – as many as 10 years in the case of women and five where men are concerned. There is no need to labour the harsh reality that the EPF is the only social security net that private sector workers have for their retirement. Government servants have had their pension benefits from colonial times, a cushion that served them well over a long period and a major attraction of a government job.

This raising of the retirement age of private sector employees also has the undisclosed benefit for the government of slowing EPF payouts and enhancing available funds for government borrowing. We all know that the EPF is the major captive lender to the government and the billions or trillions in its books is always on call for government expenditure. Given the overload of foreign borrowing that has long burdened this country and made the possibility of repayment default an ever-growing risk, postponing the payout of a looked forward to EPF nest egg to private sector employees, confers a substantial benefit on big brother. The private sector generally did not enforce the minimum retirement age rule but allowed employees to formally retire and gain access to their EPF with the assurance of an employment contract to keep them in harness post-retirement.

Let us not forget previous efforts made to convert the EPF to a pension fund that was abandoned due to massive resistance. Even if these attempts succeeded, the new pensioners paid from a contributory scheme – both employer and employee make monthly contributions to the EPF – would not have received the same benefits as their government counterparts enjoying non-contributory pensions. These matters, no doubt, will be raised during the ongoing budget debate which has been abbreviated because of the covid issue. It has up to now been lacklustre with the press and public galleries closed when the prime minister made his budget speech, a necessary precaution in the present context. But it has elicited, as budget debates must do, matters of widespread public interest. One of these relates to Dr. Anil Jasinghe, the previous Director General of Health who was highly regarded for his leadership in handling of the covid emergency. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi told parliament on Thursday that Jasinghe, currently Secretary Environment, was now attending covid meetings at her ministry. That sounded apologetic to most people not appeased by the suggestion that ‘kicking him upstairs’ was just a promotion issue.

It is clear from the budget that policies of curtailing inessential imports and import substitution would continue and a conscious effort appears to have been made not to heap new burdens on ordinary people for revenue reasons. But the impact of the Goods and Services Tax that has been announced have not yet emerged. It is unlikely that this will not leave people altogether unscathed. And that too not only with regard to their booze and fags.



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Editorial

Diyawanna battles

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Friday 23rd April, 2021

Parliamentary sessions, at times, can be far more entertaining than cable TV programmes like Animal Fight Club. On Wednesday, our honourable MPs almost came to blows during a debate on the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the alleged instances of political victimisation under the previous government. The Opposition accused the government of having adopted an ad hoc method to open an escape route for the SLPP MPs and supporters with court cases against them.

The SJB argued, in Parliament on Wednesday, that all 90 cases mentioned in the PCoI report could not be considered instances of political victimisation as they had been filed by the person, who currently holds the post of Chief Justice, when he was the Attorney General. Its line of reasoning has left us puzzled. The SJB’s argument is apparently based on the assumption that the legality of actions taken by an Attorney General who goes on to become the Chief Justice cannot be challenged. But one may recall that in 2018 the Supreme Court rejected all arguments that the person, who is the current Chief Justice, put forth, in his capacity as the Attorney General, in defence of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and formed a new government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, before dissolving Parliament, unable to muster a simple majority therein. The UNF government was reinstated, and, interestingly, the following year the Attorney General, whose defence of the presidential actions did not stand up to judicial scrutiny, became the Chief Justice. The rest is history.

That the SJB’s argument at issue is flawed cannot, however, be used to justify the government’s claim that all those against whom the aforesaid cases were filed during the yahapalana government have been politically victimised.

Political victimisation is part of Sri Lanka’s rotten political culture. Many people have been politically victimised under successive governments, and they need redress. The yahapalana government also manipulated the police and the Attorney General’s Department to compass its political ends while claiming to be on a mission to restore the rule of law and usher in good governance. But the fact remains that after every regime change, lawbreakers in the garb of government MPs pretend to be victims of political witch-hunts and some of them succeed in having their cases terminated. The Opposition is, therefore, right in having challenged some decisions of the PCoI on political victimisation although the arguments it has put forth to bolster its position are specious.

Meanwhile, among those affected by political victimisation are two former Heads of the Judiciary—Dr. Shirani Bandaranayke and Mohan Peiris. The impeachment that led to the ouster of Dr. Bandaranayake in 2013 was politically motivated. The then Rajapaksa government got rid of her because it considered her an impediment to its political project which it sought to have legitimised judicially. Two years later, the yahapalana government righted the wrong, but the method it employed for that purpose was wrong. Instead of having Parliament correct what it had done to her, it had President Sirisena reinstate her by ‘vapourising’ Chief Justice Peiris. The presidential decree that Dr. Bandaranayke’s removal was unlawful; the post of the Chief Justice had not fallen vacant and, therefore the appointment of Peiris as the head of the judiciary was null and void ab initio, made an already bad situation worse. The yahapalana government should have taken action against either Peiris or former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who appointed him the Chief Justice or both of them, if it had really believed in its claim that he (Peiris) had been functioning as the Chief Justice unlawfully; that was the only way it could have justified the defenestration of Peiris. There were reports that some yahapalana goons had threatened him to resign.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry recently declared in Parliament that the removal of Peiris as the Chief Justice had been illegal, and promised to take remedial action. This issue, too, should be debated in Parliament.

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Editorial

Carnage and boru shows

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Thursday 22nd April, 2021

The Opposition MPs attended Parliament, wearing black, yesterday, when the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday terror attacks fell; their ruling party counterparts wore black armbands, instead. Did they do so as a sign of sympathy and condolence, or by way of a political statement? Christians traditionally wear black while in mourning, but when aggressive men who resort to fisticuffs, at the drop of a hat, wear black, they look minatory. How frightening Parliament would have looked if those with a history of throwing projectiles and chilli powder at their political rivals in the House and even threatening the Chair had also been dressed in black?

The members of both sides did not care to behave themselves at least on the day when the country remembered the victims of the Easter Sunday tragedy. They invaded the Well of the House, yesterday, trading obscenities, according to media reports. What a way to remember the dead!

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) which probed the Easter Sunday attacks has held the yahapalana government including the President (Maithripala Sirisena) and the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) accountable for the tragedy. Most of the current Opposition MPs were in that administration at the time of the carnage (2019), and, therefore, cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the serious lapses that made the terror strikes possible. The fact that they have left the UNP, which was in power at the time, does not help diminish their culpability.

If the former UNF MPs currently in the Opposition think they can pull the wool over the eyes of the public with the help of gimmicks such as wearing black, they are mistaken. The least they can do to diminish their guilt, if at all, is to tender a public apology for their failure to heed the warnings of attacks and ensure public safety in 2019. Some of the maimed victims have said they have been forgotten, and the former yahapalana MPs are duty bound to take up cudgels for these hapless people they failed to protect.

The government grandees, who made a comeback by flogging the issue of the Easter Sunday terror and promising to punish the perpetrators thereof, also cannot dupe the public by bellowing empty rhetoric and wearing black armbands. They have to fulfil their promise at issue while granting relief to the terror victims. A small girl who suffered injury in the bomb attack on the Zion Church, Batticaloa, on 19 April 2019, is in need of funds to have her eyesight restored. Her family cannot afford the cost of surgery. So, the government MPs ought to reach out and help such victims. Boru shows won’t do.

Most of all, everything possible must be done to ensure that there will be no more terror attacks. There is no guarantee that the country is safe, for the masterminds behind the Easter carnage have not been identified. So long as they are at large, threats will persist and nobody will be safe. The incumbent government is full of politicians who brag that terrorism will not be allowed to raise its ugly head again, on their watch. True, they were instrumental in defeating northern terror, but let them be advised not to be cocky. It is said that terrorists only have to be lucky once, and their targets have to be lucky always.

The general consensus is that the government cannot summon the political moxie to go all out to have the masterminds behind the Easter Sunday attacks traced because it does not want any more problems to contend with on the diplomatic front; it is also accused of having cut secret deals with some politicians with links to extremists to muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament and secure votes at future elections. It will have a hard time trying to prove its critics wrong.

Only a fresh probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy will help find out who handled Zahran and Naufer. If the government fails to reveal the truth, the SLPP will have its MPs occupying the Opposition benches in the next Parliament, fully dressed in black, which, in our book, is the colour of failure and duplicity, where Sri Lankan politicians are concerned.

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Editorial

April carnage and murky waters

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Wednesday 21st April, 2021

A series of near-simultaneous terrorist bombings shocked the country on this day, two years ago. More than 250 persons including children perished in the attacks, which also left hundreds of others injured. It is equally shocking that no one has yet been punished for those heinous crimes and the masterminds behind the attacks have not been identified. The government would have the public believe that an extremist preacher named Naufer masterminded the attacks, but there is no credible evidence to prove its claim. True, Naufer indoctrinated the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) cadres and had some influence over Zahran, who led the suicide bombers, but he, too, is believed to have had a handler.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has unearthed some valuable information about the incidents, but much more remains to be done. It has held the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the yahapalana government responsible for the serious security lapses that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike with ease. It has also recommended legal action against several police and intelligence officers who failed to act on repeated warnings. It should have named the members of the yahapalana Cabinet and recommended that they also be prosecuted.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith must have struck a responsive chord with all right-thinking Sri Lankans, on Monday, when he said, some political deals that helped the government secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the 20th Amendment may have influenced the outcome of the Easter Sunday carnage probe. ‘He that has an ill name’ is said to be half-hanged; the present-day leaders have earned notoriety for political horse-trading, and it is only natural that they stand accused of having cut secret deals with those with alleged links to the Easter Sunday terrorists.

The government is in a dilemma. Pressure is mounting on it to initiate legal action against Sirisena. The SLFP is likely to pull out of the ruling SLPP coalition if Sirisena is prosecuted; such a breakaway will threaten the stability of the government to a considerable extent and, therefore, the SLPP is not in a position to throw Sirisena to the wolves. How will the government wriggle out of this catch-22 situation?

Legal action can be instituted, on the basis of the PCoI findings and recommendations, against those whose dereliction of duty and criminal negligence helped the NTJ terrorists destroy so many lives, but the country will not be safe unless the real masterminds behind the attacks are traced and dealt with. The PCoI has not dug deep enough in this regard as can be seen from the perfunctory manner in which it has treated the alleged foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The bulky PCoI report has only eight pages on this vital issue, and the views of key witnesses who suspect a foreign hand have been rejected as mere ipse dixits. These witnesses, according to the PCoI report, are Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Minister Rauff Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Asath Salley, Mujeebur Rahuman, MP, former Director SIS SDIG Nilantha Jayawardene, former Commandant of the STF SDIG M. R. Latiff, former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral (retd.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Senior DIG/CID, Ravi Senevirathne (retired) and former CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera. So, if a fresh probe gets underway to identify the terror masterminds, the aforesaid witnesses will be able to furnish more information.

The Easter Sunday carnage should be investigated from all angles. The PCoI report says Zahran’s original plan was to attack the Kandy Perahera, but it was advanced due to the detection of explosives in Wanathawilluwa, international factors such as the IS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and Zahran’s fear that he might be apprehended. It needs to be found out whether there was an attempt to use the NTJ terror to trigger a backlash against the Muslim community and drive the Muslims, especially those in the strategically important Eastern Province, into the hands of the separatists, or other such elements bent on destabilising the country.

 

 

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