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The Rajavasala Box of Disaster

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Thinking Out of the Box is the catchline of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He gave this advice to the banking sector in May this year, and to the members of parliament in his opening address last month.

The need for new ways of thinking to overcome local and global challenges and revive the economy – out of the box thinking – is the declared stuff of his reasoning. The new ministerial structure was also with such thinking.

What is advocated with such emphasis for economic growth, has been wholly ignored for the progress and growth of democracy. It looks like economic growth has nothing to do with the advance of democracy. The rulers of the past, in many countries of the world, had their economic and wealth gains, with nothing to do with democracy or the sovereignty of the people. These were known as dictatorships, the power of colonialism, and Soveit and Communist power too.  

Are we rapidly making a retreat to the proper Rajavasala Buddhiya – the Thinking of the Ruler Reign, a rush back to the Box of Dictatorship?

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution now made public shows a complete retreat to a non-democratic situation, and thinking that is entirely within the Executive Presidential Box.

The 19th Amendment will be no more under this Rajapaksa Regime. It has the two-thirds power for that. Two items of the 19A will be kept – the reduced five-year term of the presidency and the two term limit for a President. Two items that don’t matter for Mahinda Rajapaksa anymore.  Everything else that matters, that came from out of the box thinking by Yahpalanaya in April 2015 will be no more.

The rush to the 20A is a mockery of the voters who, thanks to a divided and crooked UNP, enabled a two-thirds power to the Rajapaksas. It has nothing to do with the need to meet the economic and  social needs and demands of the people, in the post Covid 19 crisis. The 20A is the re-empowering of an Executive Presidency, even more than what JR Jayewardene forced on the people in 1978.

The ‘out of the box’ thinking of the Rajapaksas is very much ‘in the box’ of ensuring family power without even a semblance of democracy. The service of Independent Commissions in key areas such as the Judiciary, Elections. Human Rights, Police, Public Service, Bribery and Corruption, Finance, and many others are no more. The Constitutional Council is disbanded to empower a Parliamentary Council that  can only advise the president,  The Auditor General’s independence is forgotten. Appointments to key positions of the Judiciary are in the hands of the President (and politicians!) 

In a situation where the average age of MPs is reportedly in the late 60s, the 35 year age limit brought by 19A to a candidate for the presidency, has been reduced to 30 years. It is clear that the ageing Rajapaksas – from the late 60s to near 80 – have thought of their younger generation for the continuance of the Rajavasala domain.

What the 19A did was to give more power to Parliament and the Prime Minister, as elected representatives of the people, against the Executive President that was the singularly dominant power in the country. 20A will ensure the end of such recognition of the sovereignty of the people. The Prime Minister, even being an elder brother of the President, is wholly under him, who will chair the Cabinet, can hold any number of Cabinet portfolios, and can appoint any member to the Cabinet, without the approval of the PM. Sections of the media report that the PM is in a political trap, but let’s not forget that such traps are a necessity for wider family dominance over the demands of democracy.

Then comes the dual citizenry; what is seen by many as the key need of the 20A. It was the 19A that banned dual citizens from contesting elections to parliament and holding the country’s presidency. JRJ’s dictatorship had not banned this. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after being a US citizen for nearly three decades, gave it up, to contest for the presidency. But there is another Rajapaksa dual citizen who will not give it up. The 20A is the decorative path for Basil Rajapaksa to move to Parliament, Cabinet, even Prime Minister, and who knows even the President, come the proper time!

Let’s not bother to talk of the conflicting situation that prevails when a person who has pledged to serve the US as a citizen, fight for it, be armed against countries and forces that oppose it, or strongly disagree with it, can be a representative of the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan people, and or the independent policies of this country. We are moving to the dual Citizenship Box and not thinking out of it. It is the Box of the MCC deal which the Rajapaksas and Pohottuva were loudly against … but not so much today. This is a move to the Pathfinder Box that will see its leader as the High Commissioner to India, with a Cabinet ranking. Just think a little more of the other Pathfinders in key positions of government today. What a Box of American strategy to be caught in!

We are in the midst of a duality of thinking. The duality of those talk loud about protection of Sri Lankan citizenship, and also hugely support the benefits and advantages of the US Citizenship. Are we moving to a situation when a 21st Amendment will give dual – US and Sri Lanka citizenship – to all Sri Lankan, whether Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Aadivaasi too?

Thinking out of the box shows us the huge dangers of the 20A. In a country that thinks a lot about rebirth, this looks very much like a move towards the rebirth of JRJ. The rebirth of the dictatorial dominance that all parties in the opposition from the SLFP to the JVP – and the older LSSP and CP and breakaways – called for removal, by abolishing the 1978 JRJ Constitution.

Such thinking, once strongly supported in the Mahinda Chinthana in several elections, is now no more. We are taken back to the Jayewardene Box of political strategy, creeping into the new Rajapaksa Box of politics and governance. The rise of the Jayewardene – Rajapaksa Presidency. The Box of Disaster for Democracy, out of which no thinking is done by the Rajavasala Kattayas of today!



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Opinion

The lasting curse of Janasathu

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Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.

GEORGE BRAINE

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Opinion

Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions

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I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!

LIONEL RAJAPAKSE

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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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