The petrol strike
Last week’s previously announced strike by employees of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) would surely have invoked memories of last year’s queue horrors outside filling stations and gas dealerships; this was not only in the minds of motorists and cooking gas consumers but also within a wider spectrum of the people subject to hours long power cuts. The success, if it may be so described, of the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency up to now predates last month’s deal with the IMF. His government, no doubt because the country had stopped paying off its foreign debt and servicing loan obligations, was able to end the never-before-seen scenes of miles long queues countrywide. If it had been unable to do that, Wickremesinghe would have been past tense by now.
But all is not on the plus side of the ledger. Although the queues near filling stations were largely absent despite the CPC employees’ trade union action, there were shortages attributed to the non-placing of orders by dealers who anticipated a downward price revision in April. That was to be expected in the context of Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera’s announcement to that effect. This was undoubtedly wrong speech on the part of the minister who projects an attractive picture in today’s political firmament. He is young, vigorous and speaks very fluent English and Sinhala. He minimizes appearances at press conferences often preferring to have his say through his twitter handle. His early announcement cost plenty.
At the height of last year’s fuel crisis when overnight waits in a queue was common, he introduced the eminently sensible fuel rationing system using a QR code. It may perhaps be argued that this arrangement could have been made earlier than it actually was. But better late than never. Undoubtedly there are some bucks being made by fuel pump attendants now fiddling the system in collusion with dishonest motorists; yet the scheme is working reasonably well and Wijesekera needs to be credited for that. Clearly the public is at odds with strikers causing them both massive inconvenience and hardship by work stoppages. This is most dramatic in the health sector beset with other problems, notably the shortage of essential medicines.
How far the standoff will go on now that the first shots have been fired remains to be seen. The minister has not ordered peremptory dismissal of strikers defying the Essential Service order now in force. Instead he has opted sending the union leaders, including one from his own Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), on compulsory leave. They will also not be permitted within CPC premises. Further action will follow due investigation. The cat is among the canaries with a Samagi Jana Peramuna (SJB) unionist, previously of the UNP, in the prohibited list. Nobody would object to the presence of troops and police within CPC installations as it is a common union practice to intimidate so-called blacklegs.
As this is being written on Friday, fuel distribution appeared normal with both CPC and LIOC (Lanka Indian Oil Corporation) filling stations operating without let or hindrance. Small queues were visible at some sheds on Thursday but these were not more than 10 -15 vehicles long and were quickly cleared. Notices declaring ‘No stocks’ that were ubiquitous the last time round were conspicuously absent. Some tankers on their delivery runs were escorted obviously for the sake of prudence although they were clearly not under threat.
President Wickremesinghe has not even hinted at the possibility of a July 1980-style heavy handed approach used by the JRJ regime of that time fresh from its 1977 landslide. Tens of thousands of strikers lost their job on that occasion and political parties, encouraging unions aligned to them to back a putsch against a government elected with an unprecedented mandate, learned a bitter lesson. Wickremesinghe’s opponents are vocal about his capacity to emulate his Uncle Dickie. He first entered parliament in 1977 and was a favoured nephew of the then president.
The government has explained the decision to bring three new players into the petroleum business was intended to create competition that would benefit consumers. When Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike nationalized the petroleum import and distribution business in the early sixties, there were three foreign players in the market selling under the brand names of Shell, Caltex and Esso with Shell dominating marketshare. But at that time all three western players in a profitable business priced their petrol at the same rate and there was no price competition. While there was claimed competition on the service front (eg. one player would wipe a motorist’s windshield with a damp cloth while his tank was being filled) there was no real competition. Today CPC and LIOC usually price their products at the same level but there have been aberrations when LIOC found it was profitable to sell diesel above the CPC price to discourage sales.
One argument for nationalizing the petroleum industry in the early sixties was the possibility of procuring Russian oil. The entrenched players had their own suppliers connected to the western oil industry and procurement from the Soviet bloc was non-existent. Eventually the CPC was vested with a monopoly which continued till 2003 when Colombo introduced limited competition by allowing India’s state-owned Indian Oil Corporation to enter the market. Lanka Indian Oil Corporation PLC, (LIOC) which is quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange will expand its footprint here with the entry of the new players. CPC employees, many holding sinecures and often recruited with political patronage, naturally resent the shrinking of the CPC monopoly and will resist it. That appears to be today’s state of play.
Diana Gamage and Ajahn Brahm
Tourism State Minister Diana Gamage, whose eligibility to remain a Member of Parliament has remained an open question for a long time now since she ceased her allegiance with the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) on whose National List she entered the legislature in 2020, was back in the news last week. The Appeal Court determination of an action challenging her continuance as an MP, that was due to be delivered on Tuesday, has now been postponed for July 25 by a two-judge bench. This made front page news nationally.
No reason for the delay has been publicly adduced. While it is not uncommon for the courts to sometimes reserve judgment sine die, it is less frequent for dates specified for delivery of such orders being further delayed. However that be, those anxious to know – and there are many such – whether a second glamorous lady MP was being ejected from the legislature (well know actress Geetha Kumarasinghe was the first) will now have to wait longer to get an answer.
Gamage, once called Princess Diana in parliament by her boss Minister Harin Fernando, has been a controversial figure. When UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his deputy, Sajith Premadasa, parted company before the last parliamentary election, the then unrecognized SJB had to acquire an already recognized party to field its candidates at those hustings.
This was provided by Gamage and her husband, Senaka de Silva, a retired military officer who was a key ally of General Sarath Fonseka when he ran for president. No doubt Gamage’s appointment to the House on the SJB National List and her appointment as Deputy Secretary or that party was part of that arrangement. As recently as last week, SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara claimed in parliament that Gamage does not hold party office citing the Election Commission’s website as evidence.
Madduma Bandara went so far as saying that the SJB made a mistake in acquiring a party “from people who make faked documents.” He said that buyers examine the pedigree “even before buying a dog.” But apart from admitting the “mistake,” he didn’t elaborate on his party’s failure if not culpability. However that be, the public are entitled to know in what manner the continuing problem of the long list of parties officially recognized by the election authorities is going to be resolved once and for all. There is no escaping the reality that the recognition of factually non-existent ‘ghost’ parties enable shady arrangements that have been made time and again for opportunistic reasons.
The SJB today no doubt wishes to see the back of Diana Gamage who claims “ownership” of that party not only from its list of office bearers but from parliament as well. Although there are provisions in the law to disqualify MPs who had entered the legislature under the proportional representation system from continuing to sit and vote in parliament after being expelled by their parties, this provision has not been successfully invoked for a very long time. The reason for this has been attributed to a past judgment of the Sarath Silva Supreme Court.
Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went through a long drawn process to renounce his U.S. citizenship to successfully run for president in November 2019. Given the way events played out and the difficulty he had in finding a permanent domicile after his unceremonious departure from office last year, he may well be regretting that decision or even enjoying that “one crowded hour of glorious fame” rather than an age without a name. In this case though he did have a long tenure as a war-winning Defence Secretary.
GR eventually returned home to the lavish pension and perquisites this bankrupt country accords its past rulers. There have been recent reports that Rajapaksa has now been assigned a second government bungalow, previously used by the foreign minister as his official residence. This was because the first at Malalasekera Mawatha was deemed “too noisy.” The aragalaya did get rid of Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the much yearned for system change was not to be. Business continues as usual as far as our politicians are concerned.
The headline for this commentary was purely applied to describe the content of this editorial and not compare two personalities. There obviously can be no comparison between the two personalities named. Ajahn Brahm is a highly accomplished Buddhaputra and this country was privileged to host him for nine days recently. His visit gave boundless joy to thousands of Buddhists able to benefit from both his wisdom and his presence. The spot of dung so often polluting the pot of milk in this country unfortunately turned up when Ajahn’s departure for Australia via Singapore was delayed for as long as 12 hours. This was as a result of the anxiety of officials to stooge political panjandrums at the expense of looking after the venerable monk.
His reaction to the incident over which the president is reported to have ordered an inquiry was typical of the bigness of the man. He didn’t want fault finding or punishment imposed on whoever culpable and advised focus on what really matters. We are sure that Ajahn did not seek VIP lounge facilities or privileges for himself. These were probably arranged without his knowledge. If he was not in the VIP lounge and not at the mercy of those responsible for his misadventure, he would most probably have not missed his flight. There are many lessons for all of us to learn from Ajahn Brahm. Among these are the spirit of generosity he has demonstrated and the ability not to dwell on irritants that are past.
Wrongs don’t cancel one another out
Saturday 10th June, 2023
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa crossed swords in Parliament, on Thursday, with the former reminding the House that the latter’s late father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, had violated people’s democratic rights blatantly. What one gathered from the Prime Minister’s line of reasoning was that he thought the Opposition Leader, as President Premadasa’s son, had no moral right to talk about allegations of human rights violations against the present government. Sajith responded that not everything his father’s government had done was acceptable to him, and he celebrated only its good deeds.
Premadasa’s presidential legacy has been an asset as well as a liability for Sajith, paradoxical as it may sound. The overall assessment of a departed political leader’s rule is usually influenced by various factors, and public perception of it evolves with biographers, researchers and historians providing fresh insights into discussions, debates and studies on their lives and careers. It is, in fact, a process that goes on for years, if not decades. However, posthumous remembrances of political leaders in this country tend to be shaped by basically what they did during the final phases of their tenures. Hence the need for the heads of state who want the people to have a positive impression of them posthumously not to wait until it is too late to retire or demean themselves by entering/re-entering Parliament after leaving high office.
The popularity of Premadasa Snr. was very low at the time of his untimely demise in May 1993 owing to the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali, who had broken away from the UNP together with several party stalwarts,following an abortive attempt to impeach the former, and founded the DUNF, which emerged as a formidable political force. The Premadasa government resorted to extremely oppressive measures to hold its political enemies at bay and was accused of killing tens of thousands of youth during the second JVP uprising in the late 1980s. It is the people’s dreadful memories of that phase of the Premadasa rule that PM Gunawardena craftily sought to evoke when he took on Sajith in Parliament, on Thursday, in a bid to defend the incumbent administration against the allegations of human rights violations.
PM Gunawardena specifically took up the issue of mass sackings and blatant violations of labour rights during the Jayewardene and Premadasa governments, which were antipathetic to unionised labour despite having its own trade union wing, the JSS. They turned hostile towards labour unions and did everything in their power to crush strikes. PM Gunawardena was right in pointing out the plight of the workers who took part in a general strike in July 1980; tens of thousands of them lost their jobs, and the JRJ government bragged that ‘the elephant’ had only shaken its tail; it was a dire warning that trade unions would have to face a far worse fate if they resorted to industrial action again.
What PM Gunawardena, however, left unsaid was that his current political boss, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was one of the diehard supporters of President Jayewardene and President Premadasa and served in their Cabinets. One may recall that when some UNP MPs led by Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, together with the Opposition, tried to impeach President Premadasa, Wickremesinghe solidly stood behind him in 1991, and remained ever faithful to him until his untimely demise about two years later despite numerous violations of human rights and attacks on democracy on his watch. Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the key campaigners against the Premadasa government. In fact, it was his public protest campaigns that helped him rise to national prominence and work his way up to become the President. Today, Mahinda has thrown in his lot with Wickremesinghe. So has PM Gunawardena!
It may be recalled that the SLFP, which was involved in the 1980 strike, promised to look after the interests of the terminated workers, some of whom were driven to suicide. But the unfortunate strikers’ problems remained unsolved even under the SLFP-led governments of Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gunawardena was a minister in those administrations, which did not honour the SLFP’s assurance to the July strikers that justice would be served. One cannot but agree with PM Gunawardena that democracy suffered tremendously under the Ranasinghe Premadasa government, but he needs to be told that the wrongs that previous regimes committed cannot be cited in extenuation of the incumbent dispensation’s undemocratic acts, which are legion. Let that be the bottom line.
Arrests and duplicity
Friday 9th June, 2023
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana finds himself in an unenviable position over the arrest of All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader and MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who was granted bail after being produced before the Kilinochchi Magistrate’s Court, on Wednesday. He is under fire from the Opposition, which says he did precious little to prevent Ponnambalam’s arrest, but the government MPs have endorsed police action. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has said he does not approve of what MP Ponnambalam is alleged to have done, but the latter should not have been arrested on his way to Parliament. He thinks there has been a breach of parliamentary privileges.
Speaker Abeywardana insists that he is without power or authority to prevent the police from making arrests. The question is whether the police would have been allowed to arrest a government MP for berating the police, or whether any action would have been taken against Ponnambalam if he had been supportive of the ruling coalition. When MP Ali Sabri Raheem, who has crossed over to the government, was recently nabbed by the Customs at the BIA, with 3.5 kilos of gold and nearly 100 smartphones, he was allowed to walk free after paying a fine amounting to only 10 percent of the value of the contraband goods, which were confiscated. Pointing out that a smuggler without political connections would have been made to pay a fine equal to the total value of the illicit goods taken into custody, the Opposition has asked why no action was taken against MP Raheem for violating the exchange control laws.
In a widely-circulated video, MP Ponnambalam is seen launching into a tirade against a group of policemen, one of whom pays him back in his own coin, in Vadamarachchi, recently. According to media reports, the incident took place near a GCE O/L examination centre; did it disturb the students sitting the exam, and if so, action should be taken against all those responsible for the commotion. Such behaviour is unbecoming to the so-called lawmakers and law-enforcement officers.
The Vadamarachchi incident would not have developed into a mega issue if MP Ponnambalam had made a statement to the police when he was asked to do so. In fact, there would have been no issue at all if he had refrained from confronting the police personnel, allegedly obstructing them in the process; the situation, we believe, could have been handled wisely. The matter, which is now before a Magistrate, is best left to the learned judge. We only discuss some political aspects thereof.
We usually do not have a kind word to say about the police, but they should be treated with respect, and must not be obstructed while on duty. All politicians, save a few, ride roughshod over the police albeit to varying degrees, but angry reactions from the latter are extremely rare. Will the police stand up to the unruly government MPs as well?
All MPs must be treated equally. What MP Ponnambalam is alleged to have done in Vadamarachchi pales into insignificance in comparison to charges against State Minister Diana Gamage; the CID did not arrest her even though the Colombo Chief Magistrate held that the police could take her into custody without a warrant. What made the police baulk at arresting her? Is it that the government thinks all MPs are equal before the law but the members of its parliamentary group are ‘more equal than’ others?
As for the clashes between the MPs and the police, one may recall that in late 2018, the Rajapakasa loyalists in the UPFA parliamentary group went berserk in Parliament in a bid to prevent the UNP and its allies including the JVP and the TNA from toppling the 52-day government, hurriedly formed by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a questionable manner.
They turned violent in the House, and even lunged menacingly at Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who had to be escorted to safety. They then damaged furniture and microphones in the House and threw chairs at the policemen protecting the beleaguered Speaker. It is a non-bailable offence to damage public property. But no cases were filed against those violent MPs.
What’s the world coming to when the MPs who throw projectiles at the police inside Parliament itself and smash up public property are let off the hook but legal action is taken against an MP for hurling verbal abuse against some police personnel and allegedly obstructing them? The government has made a mockery of its ‘one-country-one-law’ slogan, which it makes out to be its guiding principle. The aforesaid instances of duplicity make one wonder whether that catchphrase should be changed to ‘one-country-two-laws’.
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