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Editorial

Traps and duplicity

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Friday 30th October, 2020

Smaller states located in strategic locations in the world are in the same predicament as poor damsels in rough neighbourhoods; they suffer abuse at the hands of big powers that masquerade as liberators. The US has come forward to liberate Sri Lanka from what it calls a Chinese debt trap!

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come and gone. He uttered some diplomatic sweet little nothings, as it were, in public, but the State Department had delivered its message to Colombo even before he landed here. Couched in diplomatese, it gave Sri Lanka a choice between China and the Western bloc; it can be paraphrased as ‘either you are with us or you are with our enemy’.

Opinion is divided on the much-propagated claim that Sri Lanka finds itself in a Chinese debt trap. The pro-western groups think it is trapped well and truly, and others are convinced otherwise; they maintain that the US and its allies are vilifying China, which poses formidable challenges to the US on all fronts, and has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance.

A trap by any other name is as constricting, one may say with apologies to the Bard. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which the US is keen to sign with Sri Lanka, can also be considered a trap, given its subtext and what is explicit in the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Anyone who believes that the US is driven by altruism to help Sri Lanka is being naïve.

Following talks with Pompeo, the government grandees are behaving like the proverbial mute who gulped down a bitter herbal concoction or kasaya. Discussions with Pompeo have apparently dumbed their tongues. Before the last general election, they had the public believe that they would not sign the MCC compact, which an expert committee appointed by them has said, should not be inked unless it is presented to Parliament and approved with amendments.

Sri Lanka was made to walk into a trap in the early noughties, when the Tokyo Co-Chairs tied an aid pledge (USD 4.5 billion) to progress to be made in peace talks between the then UNP-led government and the LTTE. Lured by the prospect of receiving a huge aid package, that administration compromised national security to keep the LTTE at the negotiating table, but in vain. Even after the LTTE had walked away from talks, the US and other Co-Chairs, to wit, the EU, Japan and Norway, made Sri Lanka stick to a fragile truce, which the LTTE violated with impunity. That peace process, which the LTTE made the most of it to prepare for Eelam War IV, ended in disaster.

Sri Lanka has been caught in a human-rights trap, which the US laid in the form of a country-specific resolution, in Geneva, and cannot extricate itself try as it might. This resolution has been used to besmirch the reputation of high-ranking military officers who were instrumental in defeating terrorism, making this country safe for all communities to live in, and helping rekindle democracy in the North and the East. The US has imposed a travel ban on incumbent Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva and his family, citing unsubstantiated allegations of human rights violations during the final stages of war.

Pompeo gave an evasive answer, on Wednesday, when he was asked to comment on the current status of US action against Lt. Gen. Silva. He said: “It is a legal process in the US. We always continue to review it. We want to make sure we get it technically, factually and legally right.” He has left us baffled. It is before imposing a travel ban that the State Department has to ‘get it technically, factually and legally right’. The act of slapping a travel ban in a hurry and then reviewing it is nothing but unfair.

Washington has earned notoriety for its duplicity anent travel bans related to human rights violations. In 2005, the US denied the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi a visa owing to his alleged involvement in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in his state. The US government insisted that the travel ban on Modi was based on the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ‘makes any government official who was responsible for or directly carried out at any time particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa’. But the White House rolled out the red carpet for Modi after he became the Indian Prime Minister! The US did so because it needed a formidable ally in Asia to support its campaign against China.

As for ‘getting it technically, factually and legally right’, didn’t the US care to consult its own defence expert, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, who was working at the US Embassy in Colombo as its defence attache during Eelam War IV, which ended in 2009? Having studied what had taken place during the war, Smith, attending an international defence seminar, in Colombo, in 2011, dismissed allegations of war crimes levelled against the Sri Lankan military. Forty countries were represented at that event. Is it that the State Department chose to ignore his evidence-based observations and embarked on a diplomatic witch-hunt? It is a shame that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry functionaries did not allow journalists to question Pompeo freely on this issue; they allowed only one journalist to raise questions.



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Editorial

The holy and the unholy

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Monday 5th December, 2022

The holier-than-thou frontbenchers of both sides of Parliament have been displaying their knowledge of Buddhism, of late, by quoting extensively from the Sutta Pitaka, the way drunkards use lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination. A discussion on Dhamma in Parliament is like a conference on animal rights at an abattoir, or a talk on chastity in a bordello. Our honourable representatives who are overflowing with religiosity, and moralising, ought to heed some home truths three prominent Buddhist monks have, over the weekend, told about the sorry state of affairs in the country and the politicians responsible for it.

Ven. Kumbalgamuwe Saranapala Thera of the Mutiyangane Raja Maha Viharaya, Badulla, has treated a group of dissident SLPP MPs to a brief lecture on the country’s predicament and what the people think of politicians. There have been media reports that many poor schoolchildren who skip meals faint at school assemblies. The government has sought to downplay the gravity of the situation and, true to form, torn into the media and international organisations for ‘blowing the issue out of proportion’. Saranapala Thera has highlighted the increase in malnutrition among children, and revealed that about 60 students of his temple’s Sunday Dhamma School faint every week due to hunger. He has told the SLPP dissidents that the people are fed up with politicians.

Saranapala Thera has struck a responsive chord with the public suffering in silence. There is a resurgence of anti-politics, which has been defined as the rejection of practices and attitudes associated with traditional politics; it causes public disengagement from mainstream politics. When this happens, people tend to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to articulate their grievances and bring about political changes. The Galle Face protest movement could be considered a manifestation of anti-politics, which is jet fuel for anarchic protests. It is only wishful thinking that the government will be able to quell a wave of protests fuelled by anti-politics with the help of the police and the military!

Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera has said, over the weekend, that all adult Sri Lankans should tender an apology to the youth and children for having bankrupted the country and ruined the latter’s future. One cannot but agree with him on this score. The blame for what has befallen the country should be apportioned to the elected as well as the electors including Buddhist monks, most of whom are supporters of various political parties responsible for abuse of power, attacks on democracy, bribery, corruption and the theft of public funds. A mere apology to young Sri Lankans will not do. It is incumbent upon the irresponsible adults to clean up the mess they have created. They must sink their political differences and unite to make a concerted effort to get rid of the failed leaders clinging on to power like limpets. That will be half the battle in straightening up the economy and ensuring a better future for the youth and children.

Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera, who represents an association that fights for schoolteachers’ rights, has torn into the government for trying to divest profit-making state-owned enterprises such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance. How does the government propose to meet the revenue shortfall the proposed divestiture of such cash cows will bring about? Will it jack up taxes and tariffs further? Sumangala Thera has rightly likened the government to a drug addict, who is desperate for money and therefore sells anything that he can lay his hands on.

This is an apt description of the cash-strapped regime, which is bent on selling state assets to overcome its current pecuniary woes while its leaders are enjoying high life. Drug addicts do not spare even their own parents. The day may not be far off when we can liken the government to a drug dealer; it is planning to take to drug dealing in all but name. Budget 2023 has proposed the appointment of a committee to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis, of all things, to earn forex.The country will benefit tremendously if the failed political leaders stop sermonising and listen to what religious leaders preach and mend their ways.

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Editorial

The parliamentary president

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Rajan Philips who brightens this page with his incisive and perceptive commentary has today called President Ranil Wickremesinghe a “parliamentary president.” RW, particularly during the ongoing budget debate, has indeed demonstrated this description to be most appropriate. He is a frequent presence in the parliamentary chamber, more so than any of his predecessors. As far as the budget debate goes, the fact that he wears the finance minister’s hat as did two other presidents, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes his presence in the House at this time most welcome. Who else but the finance minister should be present in the House during the budget debate? Basil Rajapaksa’s short tenure at the Treasury set a rank bad example in this regard.

Wickremesinghe, of course, like his uncle JR Jayewardene who created the executive presidency and was the first to wear the twin hats of head of government and head of state, is very much a parliamentary animal. Having had a long innings at the legislature including multiple terms as prime minister since 1977 until his ignominious exit from parliament in August 2020, he welcomes the hurly burly of its chamber without standing aloof in his presidential ivory tower. But JRJ as president or any other was never as frequently present in the parliament chamber as nephew Ranil. JRJ didn’t have to, having never presented a budget during his presidency.

Having long served as finance minister under the old Westminster order, Jayewardene saw no need to cling on to that portfolio, being content to hold the defence ministry, probably a necessity, and a few others largely for convenience. While we do not advocate presidents doubling as finance ministers, we do freely agree that it may be or is a necessity this time round given the unprecedented economic catastrophe the Rajapaksas have plunged our country into. RW, after all, wrote and presented this budget and who better than he to pilot it through the House? Thus his willingness to intervene in the debate is a welcome tradition although whether it will continue in the future remains to be seen.

His recent appearances in the legislature clearly demonstrates his enjoyment of being in the thick of things. Parliamentary watchers would not have missed his entry into the chamber to respond instantly to something he heard being said when he was in his office in the parliament building while the House was in session. We suspect he listens to the budget debate in situ as it were. So much to the good. Of course, as mentioned by our columnist Rajan Philips, it would have been appropriate if he had been more forthcoming in areas on which the people are thirsting for information. These include when the IMF bailout can be expected. There has been speculation that the earliest will be March next year though it had been optimistically forecast earlier that it might be by end December.

Wide open questions on the possibility of debt restructuring also remain. Are electricity consumers, both domestic and industrial, due for a double whammy with a further tariff increase in the short term? Although the petrol and gas queues are gone, there are eerie reports that timely coal procurement for the Norochcholai power plant is not assured. And there is scant comfort about the availability of dollars to keep the filling stations pumping even in the short and medium term. There are also compelling questions on how corruption is being dealt with. Given the surrounding context, the president has made a rank bad nomination to the Constitutional Council whether by choice or compulsion we do not know. Questions abound on whether this is the result of the president being a captive of his pohottuwa constituency. Nobody can be happy about that. RW may well feel that these are questions that can be dealt with by the concerned ministers at the ongoing committee stage of the budget debate. But given that he’s both the president and the finance minister, the people would have expected the big man himself to shed more light on these burning questions.

Sadly the news broke only on Friday that former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had spent hundreds of millions of tax rupees maintaining staggering numbers of personal staff. The information, previously withheld by the presidential secretariat, was made public thanks to an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had asked the questions and appealed the non-disclosure. The Daily Mirror reported on Friday that the two former presidents had together guzzled Rs. 1.48 billion on this account – Sirisena beating his predecessor with an expenditure of Rs. 850 million on his staff against MR’s Rs. 630 million. Whether these two former presidents will explain themselves either on the budget debate platform or elsewhere remains to be seen. We are sorry that this news did not break in time for the discussions on the president’s vote in the House. That would have been an opportunity for a searching probe and perhaps responses from those named and shamed.

James Carville, a strategist in President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush coined the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid” which resounded through Clinton’s successful campaign. Here in Sri Lanka right now what matters most is the economy and not enough focus on that has been seen thus far in the budget debate. Hopefully there will be a course correction in the remaining days.

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Editorial

A double whammy

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Saturday 3rd December, 2022

The current economic crisis has eclipsed many other serious issues the country is beset with, and among them is the drug menace. President of the Government Medical Officers’ Forum Dr. Rukshan Bellana has made a revelation, which is sure to send a chill down everyone’s spine; drug addiction is on the rise among hospital workers, he has told the media. The majority of these drug addicts are members of the minor staff, and they are involved in drug peddling as well, he has said. There seems to be no shortage of narcotics at government hospitals, where medicinal drugs are in short supply!

An oft-heard complaint in health circles is that minor staff members in the state-run hospitals have become a law unto themselves because they are recruited on the basis of their political connections. Gone are the days when every worker in the state sector was recruited on merit and properly trained, and made to face disciplinary action in case of transgressions. There have been instances where hospital workers even threatened and roughed up their superiors, and politicians intervened to protect the culprits. It is only natural that they use and sell narcotics in hospitals with impunity. The need for these elements to be severely dealt with cannot be overstated.

It is hoped that the Health Ministry will get cracking on ridding the hospital system of narcotics instead of taking action against Dr. Bellana for having exposed drug addiction among health workers. When a doctor released the findings of a survey on malnutrition among children, a few months ago, the health panjandrums took disciplinary action against him!

The narcotic trade seems to have thrived during the past several years. About 80 percent of private bus drivers in Colombo and its suburbs were addicted to drugs, State Minister Dilum Amunugama said, last year. President of the Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association Gemunu Wijeratne has gone on record as saying that about 50% private bus drivers are addicted to drugs, countrywide, and most of them have graduated from cannabis to ICE (crystal methamphetamine). No wonder they drive like bats out of hell! Drug addiction must be equally high among other heavy vehicle drivers as well. Last year, about 2,490 lives were lost in road accidents, which numbered 2,325, and left 5,263 seriously injured.

A programme to conduct roadside drug testing is to be launched in January, we are told. This is a long-felt need and will help reduce the number of fatal accidents significantly. At present, there is no way drug addicts behind the wheel could be detected although most bus and truck drivers are addicted to narcotics. The police can nab only drunk drivers. State Minister of Transport Lasantha Alagiyawanna has said about 5,000 drug screening devices have been distributed among the police. This is a worthwhile investment.

Worryingly, the drug Mafia has succeeded in spreading its tentacles to schools as well. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has revealed in Parliament recently that in the current year more than 81 schoolchildren have been sent for drug rehabilitation. The number of students addicted to drugs could be higher, as President of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Priyantha Fernando has said. The drug menace has not spared even rural schools, according to him. It is against this backdrop that the government’s budget proposal to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis for export should be viewed.

Who guards the guards? A survey conducted by the police headquarters has revealed that about 37 police personnel are addicted to drugs in the Western Province. The police are expected to conduct similar surveys in other provinces. Needless to say, addicts in uniform are a danger to society and have to be weeded out.

The government has many problems to wrestle with, but it must redouble its efforts to crush the drug Mafia, which is taking advantage of the current political situation, where the police are apparently doing full-time political work, to expand its operations.

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