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The Stretch Run – Election 2020

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

The final week before the most important election in the history of the United States started on Monday, October 26, with both campaigns gearing up for their final appeals to the electorate.

The big news on Monday was the swearing in of Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court of the United States at a reception at the White House, shortly after her nomination was confirmed 52/48 by the Senate. Justice Barrett’s Constitutional Oath was administered by Justice Clarence Thomas at the White House event, and her Judicial Oath by Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday.

Justice Barrett is the third conservative Justice nominated to the Supreme Court by an impeached president elected to the presidency with the support of less than one-third of the electorate. A decision by an unpopular president, which will ensure a conservative dominance of the highest court in the land for decades to come.

While the pandemic remains the central issue of the presidential election, the White House of Science and Technology issued a statement on Wednesday listing “ending the Covid-19 pandemic” as one of Trump’s top achievements of his presidency. A spectacularly deceptive statement, even for this White House. The Covid-19 pandemic shows no sign of ending. In fact, the virus had reached a record daily total of over 81,000 cases on Thursday, and the number of fatalities have exceeded 228,000. Mark Meadows, White House Chief of Staff, admitted during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that the administration had “lost control” of the pandemic. This startling admission means that Trump will continue to ignore the advice of the scientific community about face-masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds. He will take no substantive action to combat the virus, relying instead on therapeutic measures and vaccines, which are nowhere near the time frame falsely projected by Trump. Trump has been lying all along that the virus is “rounding the bend,” and that he is in complete control. A lie that is obvious to all except hard-core members of his cult.

The reality is that the Trump administration is going for “herd immunity” – the unrestricted infection, by taking no preventive measures to combat the virus, of at least 80% of the population which will ultimately provide immunity for all. The downside to this plan is that over two million Americans, especially the aged, the poor and minorities, will get infected by the virus and die. A minor consideration for Trump, as he is interested only in the welfare of himself, his family and his wealthy friends who will be able to take the necessary measures to avoid infection. Even if they do contract the virus, they will have access to the best medical treatment that money can buy, treatment not available to the vast majority of the American people.

Trump and Vice President Pence persist in holding numerous “super spreader” rallies during the final week, before audiences of tens of thousands of fans not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, evidence of their callous disregard for health of even their own supporters. As a contrast, Biden’s rallies are held less often and in strict accordance with scientific guidelines.

Trump, cognizant of the fact that his mishandling of the virus may cost him his re-election, has started to mock the virus at these rallies. He accuses the media of “over-covering” the virus, while “they remain silent if an airliner crashes, killing 500 people”. Trump chooses to forget that no airliner has crashed for the media to report, while twice the number of passengers in an airliner die every day from his incompetence in handling the virus.

Vice President Biden has given his plan to mitigate the virus from Day One of his presidency. He will act in accordance with scientific guidelines, mandate masks, social distancing and avoidance of crowds. He will give premier preference to the health of the people, and will re-open the economy when it is absolutely safe to do so.

An admirable and optimistic statistic has emerged during this last week, when over 80 million Americans had cast their votes by Thursday, October 29, either by standing in long lines or by mail-in votes. Remarkable for a nation which has been largely apathetic to elections – Americans have rarely reached voter participation of 60% in past elections. The early voting numbers represent more than 50% of the total votes cast in 2016, with five more voting days till Election Day. Generally, the great majority of voters turn out on Election Day, so the 2020 election seems to be well on the way to breaking all voting records.

The staggeringly high early voting numbers seem to be favoring the Biden campaign two to one, and put extreme pressure on Trump to have a big Republican turnout on Election Day. The election seems to depend on the ultimate result in Florida, which shows Biden with a razor-thin majority. Trump has to win Florida to have a realistic path to re-election, while a Biden loss in Florida will still leave him with many other alternatives to reach that magic number of 270 Electoral College votes.

Trump began the final week touting his Big Lie, that the greatest economy which he singlehandedly created was rocketing in spite of the pandemic. Wrong on both counts. He inherited a booming economy from the Obama administration, with 72 months of continuous economic growth and shrinking unemployment. The economy is in tatters today because of his incompetent handling of the Coronavirus. Over 20 million people are unemployed, with no hope of government help in the way of a second stimulus payment due two months ago. Millions are facing homelessness and over 20 million more will lose their health insurance, when Trump’s new-found majority in the Supreme Court is scheduled to repeal Obamacare on November 10. All this in the face of a long, dark winter.

Biden is currently enjoying a healthy lead in national polls of 12 percentage points. More to the point, Biden has slender leads in battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which Trump won with small margins in 2016, and cannot afford to lose on Tuesday. Translated into Electoral College votes, these numbers project that Biden will garner at least 300 electoral votes; the magic number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency is 270.

Tuesday saw the continuation racial unrest with the murder of another young black man, Walter Wallace Jnr., 27-years-old, in Philadelphia. Wallace, who had a history of mental disease and a criminal record, was brandishing a knife during a manic episode, and his mother was trying to restrain him when the Philadelphia cops arrived on the scene. His mother pleaded with the cops that her son was suffering from an episode, but the cops, when Wallace did not drop the knife as instructed, fatally shot him. There is no doubt that Wallace had to be stopped before he caused any harm; but it is sad that he was executed in front of his mother who was begging for restraint. The cops could have restrained him and taken him alive with less than lethal means, like a Taser or rubber bullets. There is no doubt that a white man would have been taken alive, given similar circumstances.

Biden’s campaign brought out the big guns in the final week, with President Obama campaigning for his Vice President of eight years. Obama slammed Trump for lying about ending the virus and belittling it, and for whining that the media was giving the virus too much coverage.

Melania Trump and the Trump children continued on the Trump campaign trail, though their efforts provided no new strategies, and were hollow echoes of hatred and fear, the hallmarks of the Trump strategy.

There is only one certain consequence of the 2020 presidential election. A close election will be disputed by Trump, who will refuse to surrender the White House. And he will use his suppliant Supreme Court and, worse, post-election violence instigated mainly by the Trump militia, to steal the presidency.

Winston Churchill once famously said, “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else”. Americans have now tried the extreme option of four years of a captive and sycophantic administration run by a malignant, ignorant, lying sociopath. Hopefully they will wake up from this nightmare, realize how their choice of 2016 has nearly destroyed their democracy, finally come to their senses on November 3 and do the right thing. If, however, the American voter chooses, either by ballot or bullet, to continue on the slippery slope they embarked on four years ago, I can do no better than echo the condescending warning issued to Sri Lanka by Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a statement before his one-day visit to the island on Wednesday.

Pompeo has stated that the US “will ask Sri Lanka to make ‘difficult’ choices on its growing relationship with China amid criticism that the island is sliding toward authoritarianism.” Sri Lanka will make “difficult” choices, those which will best help meet her socio-economic needs, within the framework of her fledgling democracy. Sri Lanka needs no warnings as to the friends she should choose; that is her sovereign privilege.

However, the administration of the United States of America, the greatest democracy in the world, the vaunted cradle of freedom which Secretary Pompeo represents, would do well to recognize the slide towards authoritarianism they have embarked on since 2016, on a slope much more slippery than the one faced by Sri Lanka. Notably, its own strangely servile relationship with its main adversary, Russia, while throwing long-standing friends and allies under the bus; its flouting of the First Amendment by condemning an independent media, which its president has called the “enemy of the people”; its state sponsored racist violence against minorities; its partisan politicization of the judiciary; its government-sponsored voter suppression and election rigging; the rise of extra-military cadres of armed goons ready “to stand back and stand by” to act on Trump’s command. Secretary Pompeo would do well to be aware of “slide toward authoritarianism” of the world’s most powerful nation before handing out gratuitous and sanctimonious advice/warnings to a small, developing, sovereign nation.



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Features

Why record export earnings may not be good news

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By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at senadhiragomi@gmail.com)

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Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts

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by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.

ECONOMIC STABILISATION

Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.

POLITICAL STABILITY

The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

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Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’

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I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

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