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Editorial

They can’t breathe

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Tuesday 27th April, 2021

Several issues have troubled this country during the last several months, and eclipsed the most important one—the pandemic. The focus of the public has recently shifted from contaminated cooking oil to overpriced cooking gas. There has been a furore over the state-owned gas company duping and fleecing the public. This issue has to be sorted out fast, but cooking gas will be the least of Sri Lanka’s problems if the pandemic situation worsens, as feared. The country’s focus must now be on how to ensure a steady supply of oxygen to hospitals in view of the upsurge in the Covid-19 cases, and the increasing demand for the life-saving gas.

Fear is being expressed in health circles that the pandemic situation will spin out of control sooner than expected, and the next wave of infections will overwhelm the health sector, given the high transmissibility of the new variant of coronavirus, which is now killing the young and the old alike unlike in the past when the youth were relatively safe. Worryingly, neither the government nor the public seems to take the situation seriously. People do not follow the heath regulations properly, and the government baulks at adopting stringent measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Unless drastic action is taken to curb the spread of the pandemic, thousands of people will be gasping for oxygen, as is the case in India, which is experiencing a severe shortage of the life-saving gas; a cylinder of oxygen usually priced at INR 6,000 sells at INR 50,000 on the black market, according to media reports. Hospitals are overflowing with Covid-19 victims in New Delhi and several other big cities as well as their suburbs, and many patients have had to receive treatment in ambulances or private vehicles parked within hospital premises, or at their homes, but they are without enough stocks of oxygen.

Several countries have offered assistance to India. That is the way the world should take on the virus. A collective global effort is called for. As the World Health Organisation has rightly said, no country will be safe until every country is safe. India is known for its resilience, and one hopes that it will be able to overcome the present difficulties and beat back the virus decisively before long.

Ironically, shortages of oxygen for Covid-19 patients struggling to breathe are reported from several countries while NASA is trying to isolate and store oxygen on Mars ‘to help power rockets that could lift astronauts off the planet’s surface’. Humans who have embarked on such ambitious space missions cannot ensure that the sick receive enough oxygen on their own planet!

What India is battling to cope with can happen to any other country, especially Sri Lanka, where pandemic preparedness is far from satisfactory, and politics has taken precedence over science and expert advice. The government is still not doing what needs to be done as it lacks political moxie; it is not taking views of medical experts on board. It ought to listen to Minister Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopullle, an experienced medical professional capable of understanding the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done. Lockdowns may not be possible for economic reasons, but at least some travel restrictions have to be enforced strictly in all areas affected by a surge of infections. This is something long overdue; had such action been taken before and after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, the situation could have been kept under control. The present wave of Covid-19 can be attributed to the avurudu shopping sprees, travel and festivals.

The Government Medical Officers’ Association has, in response to a query posed by this newspaper, stressed the need for ensuring that the country maintains enough oxygen stocks to meet any eventuality. The views of the good doctors, leading the battle against the elusive enemy, from the front, must be heeded.

We can only hope that the health authorities and the government politicians have taken notice of the shocking situation in India, and are taking precautions to face the surge of coronavirus infections here. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who gasped for breath and fought for her life in an intensive care unit, after being afflicted with Covid-19, a couple of moons ago, must be knowing what it is like to be unable to breathe unassisted. Will she get cracking?



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Editorial

Third Reich in the making?

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Wednesday 8th February, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime is all out to derail the local government (LG) elections scheduled for 09 March. The Election Commission (EC) is determined to ensure that the country goes to the polls as scheduled, and the Opposition is bragging that the government’s plan to delay the mini polls has gone pear-shaped, and the SLPP-UNP combine will have to bow to the inevitable, but nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics, which is full of surprises. A beleaguered, shameless regime that fears elections will not baulk at anything to retain its hold on power.

The Cabinet is in overdrive to throttle the EC financially and scuttle the LG polls. It has adopted the zero-based budget technique, according to which no balances are carried forward and no pre-committed expenses permitted. Government Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena revealed, at a media briefing, yesterday, that the Cabinet had decided to appoint 10 committees comprising public officials to explore ways and means of rationalising the utilisation of budgetary allocations for 10 Ministries, and unsurprisingly the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government is among them!

Surprisingly, the government, which is desperate for funds, has not cared to recover the losses the state coffers suffered to the tune of Rs. 16 billion due to the sugar tax scam.

The Cabinet had also decided to release funds only for essential recurrent expenditure, given the country’s economic difficulties, Minister Gunawardena has told the media. The government obviously does not consider elections essential, and its game plan is clear.

Curiously, the government, which bewails the country’s pecuniary woes, has no qualms about allocating public funds with a generous hand for extravagant events such as grand ceremonies to boost the egos of its leaders. It also has enough funds to set up new ministries and pay for its leaders’ junkets. Perhaps, the fuel bill for the recent Independence Day and rehearsals for the event must have been higher than that for a general election!

President J. R. Jayewardene created conditions for a bloodbath in the late 1980s by doing away with the 1982 general election and denying the people an opportunity to vent their anger democratically. He held a referendum instead and had it rigged, thereby stoking people’s resentment, which became rocket fuel for the JVP’s spree of violence. Four decades on, his nephew, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, stands accused of trying to do something similar. Those who do not learn from history are said to be doomed to repeat it.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be unaware of the disastrous consequences of poll postponements. He was a member of the SLFP-led United Front government, which postponed a general election in 1975 by two years, and suffered an ignominious defeat, as a result. He lost his seat at the 1977 general election, where the UNP obtained a five-sixths majority, which it abused in every conceivable manner. Then, he fought against the scrapping of the 1982 parliamentary polls. He protested when the Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council elections in 2017, and rightly declared that it was an assault on democracy. But he was instrumental in postponing the LG polls last year, and is unashamedly supporting the government move to delay them further. Shame on him!

Germany is trying to wipe Hitler from its memory, but the current Sri Lankan leaders take pride in likening themselves to the Fuhrer, and, in fact, they are apparently busy putting in place something similar to the Third Reich, here. They are deploying their Brownshirts to suppress democratic dissent and deprive the public of their franchise and their right to protest; they also pamper vainglorious Generals, who are given gallantry medals in peacetime! The police are already acting like the Gestapo; they are hunting down anti-government protesters.

If the current regime is allowed to use the country’s economic woes as an excuse for postponing the LG polls, it will be emboldened to delay the parliamentary and presidential elections as well on the same grounds. The sooner the country is liberated from the clutches of the SLPP-UNP combine, the better. You do not keep a rape victim in the custody of the rapist, do you?

It is the fervent hope of everyone who cherishes democracy and wishes for a secure future for the country’s youth and children that the incumbent regime’s sinister plan to undermine people’s franchise and prolong its hold on power arbitrarily will come a cropper.

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Editorial

JVP’s volte-face

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Tuesday 7th February, 2023

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decision to implement the controversial 13th Amendment (13A) fully could not have come at a worse time for pseudo-patriots such as the SLPP leaders, who enabled him to realise his presidential dream, and are therefore responsible for his acts or omissions. They have refused to grant the Provincial Councils land and police powers, claiming that such measures are fraught with the danger of leading to secession. Now, they find themselves in a dilemma. They, however, did not resort to violence in a bid to scuttle 13A when it was introduced in the late 1980s. But the same cannot be said about the JVP.

The JVP has said it sees nothing wrong with efforts being made to implement 13A, which is now part of the Constitution. This is the very opposite of what it said in the late 1980s, when it went on a spree of violence, claiming that 13A would lead to the division of the country, and had to be torpedoed, at any cost. Its savage suppression of dissent left hundreds of people dead. Its victims included politicians, student leaders, trade unionists, traders, monks, public officials, police and military personnel and voters who defied its order to boycott elections. Among the state assets it destroyed were 240 agrarian service centres, numerous Paddy Marketing Board warehouses with stocks of paddy therein, countless CEB transformers, power cables and pylons, and hundreds of state-owned buses. It also disrupted universities and schools, insisting that one’s love for the motherland had to take precedence over one’s education. Due to its brutal anti-13A campaign, its founder, Rohana Wijeweera, and all its senior leaders save Somawansa Amaraweera, perished at the hands of the police, the military and the pro-UNP vigilantes during counterterrorism operations. The same fate befell thousands of its junior cadres as well. Now, it says 13A is a fact of life!

The JVP claims to be a Marxist outfit but Machiavellian thinking seems to have polluted its revolutionary ideology. It is apparently guided by the Machiavellian maxim anent its pledges — ‘the promise given was a necessity of the past, and the word broken is a necessity of the present’.

What characterises the JVP is a chronic lack of policy consistency, as we pointed out in this space, on 05 April 2021, when the quinquagenary of its first sanguinary revolution fell. The only thing consistent about the JVP is perhaps its modus operandi to gain political momentum periodically to propel itself. It honeymoons with the main political parties and then takes them on. It backed the SLFP-led United Front ahead of the 1970 general election. The following year, it took up arms against the government formed by that coalition. In the late 1970s, it went politically steady with the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene, who released Wijeweera and others from prison. A few years later it turned against the JRJ regime and caused another bloodbath. In 2004, it closed ranks with the UPFA led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and thereafter left her administration. In 2005, it backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential fray, making a tremendous contribution to his victory; subsequently, it fell out with him and tried to topple his government. In 2015, it threw in its lot with a UNP-led coalition, which fielded Maithripala Sirisena as its presidential candidate and captured power in Parliament after his victory. Its honeymoon with the UNP lasted several years before it took on the UNF government and Sirisena when they became extremely unpopular.

This kind of political promiscuity, as it were, has cost the JVP dear both politically and electorally, as can be seen from the number of seats it has secured at the general elections over the years: one MP (elected on the Sri Lanka Progressive Front ticket) in 1994; 10 MPs in 2000; 16 MPs in 2001; 39 (from the UPFA) in 2004; four MPs (from the Democratic National Alliance) in 2010; six MPs in 2015, and three MPs (from the NPP) in 2020. This time around, the JVP leaders seem to think there is a tide in their affairs, and it has to be taken at the flood, but let them be warned to tread cautiously, mindful of the fact that Brutus, who acted likewise, finally ran on his own sword in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It was a huge mistake for the JVP to try to march on Parliament last year.

As we have argued in a previous editorial comment, the JVP’s style of politicking smacks of demagogy like that of other political parties although it takes the moral high ground, and whether it will be able to charter a course and navigate the shoaly waters of national politics it has drifted into remains to be seen.

Everything undergoes change. The universe itself is said to be in a state of flux. Therefore, it is only natural that political parties evolve, and the cadre-based JVP is metamorphosing into a mass-based political entity. It has demonstrated its willingness to abandon its threadbare ideology and associated anachronisms such as dirigisme; it has come to terms with the current global economic reality and is wooing the local business community. Besides, its current leaders are known for their sartorial and tonsorial elegance and predilection for dernier cri. These are no doubt welcome signs. But the question is whether the heinous crimes that ‘revolutionary’ groups commit in the name of liberation should be allowed to go unpunished.

The JVP has to show that it feels remorse for having resorted to savage terror to compass its political objectives. The least it can do is to tender an apology to the public, especially to the victims of its terror, the families of its cadres who answered its call to arms, came forward to ‘save the country’ and perished in vain.

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Editorial

Return of state terror

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Monday 6th February, 2023

The spectre of state terrorism raising its ugly head again looms over the country. The Brownshirts of the incumbent regime, as it were, are now free to operate alongside the police to crush anti-government protests. Old habits are said to die hard. Those violent characters were seen in action on 03 February night at Maradana, where a group of people staged a peaceful protest against the government over the widespread waste of public funds, abuse of power, suppression of democratic dissent, economic mismanagement and the resultant hardships.

It was unfortunate that on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the country’s Independence, which was celebrated on a grand scale with public funds, the people were denied their right to protest.

The UNP has a history of unleashing state terror to silence its political opponents. In fact, it has got this down to a fine art. It did not spare even upright judges and human rights lawyers in its heyday. Its goons targeted independent journalists, and their violence left thousands of people dead in the late 1980s. They would swoop on polling centres, and stuff ballot boxes with the police looking the other way. Some senior police officers would stoop so low as to kowtow to the UNP thugs like Gonawala Sunil and Soththi Upali!

The Rajapaksa regimes also have had goon squads, which killed their political enemies, torched media institutions, and rigged elections with impunity. Their goons were free to crush Opposition protests in full view of the police. Friday night’s attack at Maradana reminded us of an incident that took place on the Independence Day in 2011, when the thugs working for the then Rajapaksa government attacked a protest march conducted by the UNP in Borella. Everybody knew that the goons were led by Mervyn of Kelaniya but no action was taken against him. The UNP condemned the Rajapaksa government for suppressing the Opposition’s right to protest. In April 2022, when the pro-SLPP goons attacked the peaceful Galle Face protesters, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe himself issued a statement, not only condemning the savage attack but also calling upon the entire government to resign. But he joined the repressive regime as its Prime Minister shortly afterwards! Today, the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe are cocking a snook at the people.

The fact that political stability is a prerequisite for economic recovery cannot be overstated. But the government does not seem keen to pacify the resentful people. What provokes the public into holding street protests is the government politicians’ cavalier attitude, cronyism, abuse of power, corruption and waste. Schools and hospitals are crying out for funds, but the government is spending public money on ceremonies, politicians’ junkets, etc. The SLPP and UNP are behaving as if they were deriving some perverse pleasure from people’s hardships. One wonders whether the ruling politicians are inflicting suffering on the people by way of punishment for rising against them. They robbed the country and bankrupted it and now they are trying to use its bankruptcy to stay in power without elections while suppressing people’s rights! What is playing out is like a gang of robbers punishing their victims with the help of the police and the armed forces!

The SLPP-UNP combine seems to be labouring under the delusion that it will be able to prevent another wave of political upheavals by crushing protests before they spread. Hence the deployment of thousands of police personnel at the drop of a hat. Let the government be warned that its strategy is bound to fail, and it is playing with fire. Public anger has already passed the tipping point, and the next wave of popular uprisings may be only a matter of time. When a tsunami of public anger makes landfall, there is no defence whatsoever for a repressive regime; the police and the military will not be able to defend it however pampered they may be.

Friday’s goon attacks at Maradana could be considered a dry run of what the government is planning to do on the day of the upcoming local government elections, which it cannot win. There is hardly anything that a beleaguered government that fears an election will not resort to avert a crushing defeat in midterm. The Election Commission, the Opposition, the media and election monitors should remain Argus-eyed. The SLPP local government politicians demonstrated what they were capable of when they took on the Galle Face protesters last year.

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