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Editorial

Towering bud

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Friday 7th August, 2020

It is all over bar the shouting. The SLPP was on course for a resounding victory, at the time of writing, according to the general election results that had come in. Its performance was much better than pre-polls surveys had predicted. The country needs a stable government capable of making tough decisions to revive the economy and safeguard national security among other things. A weak administration dependent on political crutches is not equal to that task. One can only hope that there will be an active Opposition to act as an effective countervailing force.

The new government to be formed will have to act with responsibility, and the onus is on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ensure that it does so. The SLPP has made known its intention to change the Constitution or at least scrap the 19th Amendment. What it is mulling over is the political version of a brain surgery, and it had better tread cautiously. The best way to amend the Constitution is to adopt a consensual approach. The government will be able to muster the support of more than two-thirds of the MPs for its project if a consensus thereon can be reached.

Speculation is rife in political circles that an attempt is likely to be made to introduce something similar to the 18th Amendment, which was a total disaster. The Constitution must not be amended or repealed according to the whims and fancies of politicians or for the benefit of their parties. That previous leaders sought to further their personal interests and acted out of expediency and not principle is the reason why the present Constitution has become a real mess.

Ambitious politicians who have lost their seats must be eyeing the National List (NL) to creep into Parliament through the backdoor. The NL was introduced to enable distinguished citizens averse to active politics to enter Parliament and be of some service to the public. This mechanism was blatantly abused, in 2015, as never before, to bring in defeated candidates as MPs, and, worse, some of them were even appointed to the Cabinet. This practice, which is antithetical to democracy, must end forthwith, and only those named as NL candidates and presented to the public before the election should be appointed to Parliament. All the political parties that secure NL slots must desist from polluting Parliament again.

Polls observers inform us that as much as Rs. 77 million has been spent on electing a single MP. It costs the taxpayer at least Rs. 16 million a day to maintain Parliament. The cost of maintaining MPs has to be reduced drastically. Now that the government has imposed a blanket ban on imports to save foreign exchange, the duty-free vehicle scheme and concessionary loans for MPs must be suspended immediately. While on the hustings, all candidates had us believe that they were willing even to lay down their lives for the sake of the country. Having talked the talk, the newly elected MPs will have to walk the walk.

The country is in dire financial straits and finds it difficult to service debt, and President Rajapaksa should give serious thought to launching an austerity drive. A rupee saved is a rupee earned. The Swedish model is ideal for Sri Lanka. The President himself leads a very simple life without being a burden on the public, and, therefore, there is no reason why he cannot ask others to follow suit. The salary of a Swedish MP (a member of Riksdag) is only twice that of an elementary school teacher. MPs are not given official vehicles and have to travel in buses and trains. Only the Prime Minister can use an official car. As for accommodation, the Swedish Parliament provides its members with small apartments, where they themselves have to do household chores. They are not entitled to personal staff. Ministers are not considered demigods and have to maintain transparency and accountability in all transactions. One may recall that in 1995 Deputy Prime Minister Mona Sahlin lost her ministerial post as she was found to have used her official credit card to buy nappies for her baby.

Crises are the crucibles wherein real leaders are forged. One does not have to wield power to become a true leader; even Opposition politicians can provide leadership to the people in troubled times. An opportunity has presented itself for them to do so.

 

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Editorial

Subsidised meals and police guards

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There was a babble of righteous indignation when new MPs elected to the incumbent Parliament were told during an orientation session that meals served to them at the Diyawanna restaurant cost the taxpayer a cool three thousand bucks per meal though they paid only a relative pittance for what they ate. The figure, which seemed highly unlikely, was later corrected to say that a fish meal cost Rs. 950 to provide while a vegetarian meal cost Rs. 629 with MPs charged Rs. 200 per meal. In a previous comment on this subject, we said that the chances are that the entire food bill in the legislature appears to have been divided by 225 (the number of MPs) to reach the astronomical figure although it is not only the legislators who eat in Parliament. Numerous officials, policemen, the press and sundry others eat there as well knowing that they are being treated to a highly subsidized meal. Although the

Speaker promised to go into the matter and report back, nothing further was heard on the subject. So the people remain ignorant on the true situation and quite willing to believe the worst.

Now the question of the security offered to parliamentarians has cropped up with a couple of Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs saying that two police guards assigned to them is insufficient. Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, now charged with the responsibility Irrigation, Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management seems to have struck a responsive chord in the public mind saying that policemen will not be deployed “to carry files and bags of MPs.” He might have added “or answer telephones” because that is also a common chore falling on those cops assigned to security details of parliamentarians. From what the Minister said, the previous four policemen per MP has now been reduced to two and the government did not seem inclined, rightly we believe, to increase this. But there were no questions asked about numbers assigned to “special cases” including ministers, opposition personalities, and former presidents. The minister will surely be embarrassed to reveal the facts as well as the names of the privileged few.

Rajapaksa explained that it was necessary to substantially increase the protection granted to MPs, during the JVPs second adventure in the late eighties when several MPs and other political activists were literally bumped off in cold blood. There were so many of them including several MPs from both sides of the fence and others like Vijaya Kumaranatunga who might have become President as his widow, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga, did some years later, Apart from the MPs there were well known trade unionists like PD Wimalasena of the LSSP and LW Panditha of the CP. Other names that readily come to mind include Nandalal Fernando, General Secretary of the UNP and that party’s Chairman Harsha Abeywardene. Older readers might remember the grenade which did not explode flung at Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva through a verandah grill at his Kollupitiya home late in the night.

Then came the LTTE threat which was much more fearsome than its JVP predecessor with the Tigers responsible for the assassination of no less than Rajiv Gandhi, President Premadasa, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, CV Gooneratne, Ranjan Wijeratne and many more including a large number of Tamil MPs including TULF leaders like Messrs. A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparam and Tamil Congress Leader Kumar Ponnambalam. Naturally, as Minister Chamal Rajapaksa said, huge resources had to be thrown into protect national leaders and other vulnerable persons at that time. President Chandrika Kumaratunga lost an eye and barely escaped with her life in the last campaign rally she addressed prior to her re-election. An icy chill will run down the spines of all those who remember those terror-filled days. Both the JVP and LTTE terror resulted in an ever ballooning security apparatus like the Presidential, Prime Ministerial and Ministerial Security Divisions of the Police. There are necessarily special units also, like diplomatic protection. Thousands of policemen are assigned for such duties at the expense of regular law enforcement.

The extent of VIP security is usually based on threat perception. But even with such perception going sky high, as in the case of Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, and the massive resources deployed, it was not possible to save him from the LTTE sniper who put a bullet through his head having patiently bided his time for probably months. The assassin had been holed up in the unused upper floor of a neighboring residence whose occupants did not know what was going on in a part of their house they never visited. Kadirgamar, typically, did not wish his neighbors harassed in any way and that resulted in his personal security personnel not running a fine tooth comb as they well might have had they not been prevented from so doing.

We say all this in the context of the reality that electors generally react adversely to the perks heaped on representatives sent by them particularly to Parliament. Thus the media is able to raise a great hoo haa about what their MPs are able to eat in the House restaurant and at what price. People naturally rile against security squads, sometimes converted to virtual private armies during extraordinary times, and white-gloved soldiers in VIP motorcades shooing people off the roads to make way for the high and mighty to speed by. The JVP insurrection and the civil war naturally bloated the security apparatus but does it need to remain so for all time now that the threats are gone?

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Editorial

Shameless shirkers

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Saturday 26th September, 2020

Cynics pooh-poohed the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority’s boastful claim that Sri Lanka was the Wonder of Asia. But we are convinced of the veracity of that slogan. In fact, this country is not just the Wonder of Asia’; it is the Wonder of the World, for it survived the yahapalana government without becoming a hotbed of ISIS terrorism.

On seeing the shameful conduct of the former rulers and their erstwhile trusted lieutenants, blaming one another for their collective failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage, people must be feeling ashamed that they were once ruled by those imbeciles. Under the yahapalana government, national security became nobody’s business and the Defence Ministry a playpen of politicians and mandarins who knew next to nothing about defence; they even did not know what to do with vital intelligence.

Hemasiri Fernando would have us believe that during his tenure as the Defence Secretary, the then President Maithripala Sirisena purposely kept him out of the loop, and, therefore, he should not be held responsible for the circumstances that led to the Easter Sunday carnage. He thinks the blame for the terror strikes should be laid solely on his former boss, Sirisena.

Ex-IGP Pujith Jayasundera says former President Sirisena should take the full responsibility for the yahapalana lapses that enabled the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) terrorists to carry out the Easter Sunday carnage. He insists that he had written to all those below him, informing them of the intelligence warning of the impending attacks, and they should have taken action. He pretends that he did not have full control over the police, and Sirisena interfered with transfers. But as far as we can remember, he controlled the police with an iron fist, and there was no way anyone could bypass him or conceal anything from him. It may be recalled that he ensured that his sil campaign was a success, and went so far as to rough up an elevator operator at the Police Headquarters for not observing sil. It is not possible that anyone would have dared ruffle his feathers. The blame for his subordinates’ failure to take action on the warning should be apportioned to him.

Jayasundera has said his phone was tapped by the SIS, and he was under surveillance while he was the IGP. We thought the yahapalana government did not resort to such measures. No wonder the state intelligence agencies, stuck neck deep in political work, had little time to spy on terrorists and ensure public safety.

SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena claims that, as the State Intelligence Service Chief, he had conveyed the intelligence warning of the terror attacks to everyone in the Defence establishment except President Sirisena. Curiouser and curiouser! It has now been revealed he used to call President Sirisena almost daily.

The entire yahapalana government and the police top brass who stooped so low as to do dirty political work should be held responsible for having created conditions for the rise of Islamic extremism and terror. Their witch hunt against the military and intelligence personnel who had been instrumental in defeating LTTE terrorism brought about a situation where nobody in the intelligence community was willing to go beyond the call of duty to neutralise the NTJ. Time was when intelligence officers sprang into action, upon receiving information about possible terror attacks, and dealt with the terrorists without wasting time on writing memos. If those brave, efficient officers and men, who served the country faithfully, risking as they did life and limb, had not been arrested, harassed or hounded out of their jobs, following the 2015 regime change, Zahran would not have been able to explode even the Kanthankudy motorcycle bomb, which was a dry run of the Easter Sunday bombings.

The yahapalana shirkers responsible for their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks are lucky that they are not living in a country like Saudi Arabia, where a Sri Lankan girl—Rizana Nafeek—who worked as a housemaid was beheaded, in 2013, for the death of a baby, in her care, due to her negligence. Their lapses led to more than 250 deaths.

 

 

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Editorial

What’s in a dress?

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Friday 25th September, 2020

National Congress MP A. L. M. Athaulla caused quite a stir in Parliament on Tuesday. In he walked wearing a dress, which became something like a red rag to a bull for some MPs, who protested, demanding that he be removed from the Chamber. One of his fellow Muslim MPs shouted from the Opposition benches that his dress looked like the national costume of Afghan males, and demanded that he leave the Chamber forthwith. Athaulla complied, but subsequently the Speaker allowed him to return to his seat after he had said he was wearing a jacket as it was too cold inside the Chamber.

If it is freezing inside the Chamber, then the air conditioners can be set at a higher temperature so that the MPs will feel comfortable, and the Parliament electricity bill can be reduced significantly. However, the MPs protest against Athaulla’s ‘Afghan’ attire left us baffled. What’s in a dress? Do clothes make good MPs? Athaulla’s dress, in our book, was fine. In fact, he looked smart in it.

What matters in Parliament is not an MP’s attire as such but his or her conduct. Only the female MPs and some of their male counterparts act with decorum. Others are nattily dressed in the so-called kapati suit, which is de rigueur, but their conduct is no better than that of ruffians. We saw them in action during the failed constitutional coup in 2018. The Speaker had to be removed to safety when they ran amok, smashing furniture and throwing projectiles and chilli powder. Several MPs in the last Parliament admitted that they had taken money from Arjun Aloysius. According to MP Dayasiri Jayasekera, as many as 118 members of the last Parliament had received funds from Aloysius’ company, Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., which has become a metaphor for fraud owing to its involvement in the Treasury bond scams.

During heated arguments, allegations of drug dealing, etc., are traded liberally in Parliament. The Speaker has to close the public gallery for schoolchildren when MPs resort to fisticuffs and let out streams of raw filth. Among the derogatory terms they exchange freely are ‘gigolo’ and ‘procurer’. Worse, now, there is a murder convict in the House. (Luckily, he has not been made the Justice Minister!) Another MP is in remand prison over the killing of a former lawmaker. Some MPs have a history of backing terrorism.

Allegations of bribery and corruption are often traded across the floor of the House during debates. The new government accuses the Opposition of having within its ranks a bunch of crooks who helped themselves to public funds and were involved in corrupt deals while they were in power; the Opposition would have the public believe that the incumbent administration consists of dozens of rogues who amassed ill-gotten wealth and stashed it away overseas from 2005 to 2015. This being the situation, can anyone be faulted for concluding that our legislature is full of rogues? There are, of course, decent men and women in Parliament, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

The media reported a few years ago that several female members of the last Parliament suffered sexual harassment at the hands of some of their male counterparts. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised an inquiry, but no action was taken. One can only hope that those randy elements in the garb of MPs have not been re-elected. (Anyway, as people are said to be what they eat, food items known for boosting libido should not be served in the parliamentary canteen, as a precautionary measure, for the sake of the female MPs.)

Meanwhile, are the MPs who frowned on Athaulla’s ‘Afghan’ attire really proud of their Sri Lankan identity and passionate about safeguarding the dignity of Parliament? Computers used in Parliament have been sponsored by China. Only the first-timers in the current Parliament have not benefited from the generosity of China, which organises junkets for MPs (Provincial Councillors and local government members) from time to time. The MPs do not consider it infra dig to benefit from the Chinese largesse. Funds for the parliament information centre came from the US. Not even the MPs who claim to be opposed to the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, which, they rightly say, is loaded in favour of America, protested against that US-funded project.

When a person does something extremely shameful, it is popularly asked in this country how he or she could walk on the road with clothes on—reddak endan pare behala yanne kohomoda? This is the question that should be posed to those who made an issue of Athaulla’s foreign-looking dress but do not protest against the misconduct of MPs and the shameful practices such as living high on the hog at the expense of the public and panhandling for foreign aid.

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