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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

Mahadenamutta and his golayas

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Tuesday 9th August, 2022

Sri Lanka is no doubt a land like no other. Nowhere else in the world are intellectually-challenged, self-important characters are allowed to go places as leaders, causing irreparable damage to vital sectors, especially the economy. Sri Lankans have earned notoriety for not only suffering fools gladly but also electing and deifying them.

Mahadenamutta, a self-proclaimed pundit who always comes out with stupid solutions which turn out to be worse than the problems he undertakes to sort out, is a character we come across in local folk stories, the most interesting being the one where he has a goat beheaded to save a pot, which its head is stuck in, and then gets the pot smashed to extricate the poor animal’s head. But going by what is unfolding in this country, one wonders whether Mahadenamutta actually lived here and his descendants are holding responsible positions in politics and in the state service.

Some Wildlife Department officers have proved that they are proud descendants of Mahadenamutta by carrying out a rescue operation in Hatton. In a bid to save a leopard, they felled a tall tree, on which the animal had got stuck while escaping from a wire trap. The falling tree crushed the poor creature, and then the officers removed the trap! Minister Mahinda Amaraweera lost no time in ordering an investigation into the incident, and this is a baby step in the right direction. Much more needs to be done to save wild animals that stray into villages and estates.

Leopards continue to perish in traps and at the hands of villagers and hunters in the hill country; these endangered creatures must be protected and those who harm them severely dealt with. Leopards invade villagers as their natural habitat is fast shrinking owing to human activity. Instead of conserving forests, the government has, in its wisdom, introduced a scheme where their buffer zones are released for agricultural purposes. If this disastrous policy is followed and the ruling party supporters are allowed to clear the areas necessary for the recovery and natural expansion of forests, people will have more wild animals roaming in their villages, and the Wildlife Department will go on cutting down many more trees with animals trapped thereon!

Wildlife officers are not alone in emulating Mahadenamutta. It is also thanks to the Mahadenamutta in the garb of political leaders and servile panjandrums that the national economy has collapsed on the hapless public, crushing them, so to speak. They slashed taxes recklessly to win elections, and threw around billions of rupees by way of pandemic relief for political reasons, printed colossal amounts of money, defended the rupee at the expense of the country’s foreign currency reserves and then opted for a free float of the rupee. They refused to seek IMF assistance last year despite warnings by the Central Bank experts and other economists. A blanket ban was imposed on agrochemicals in the name of green agriculture, which should have been implemented in stages; it was lifted after it had ruined the agricultural sector and incensed the farming community beyond measure. Having thus caused the economy to collapse, the ruling party Mahadenamuttas are now trying to resurrect it by undoing what they did.

The Wildlife officers responsible for the leopard’s death are now up a gum tree, but the Mahadenamuttas in kapati suit and their bureaucratic golayas or pupils have got off scot-free, to all intents and purposes despite having ruined the economy and reduced the country to penury.

When Parliament was prorogued the other day, the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) had begun questioning some government officials responsible for bankrupting the country. The COPE now stands dissolved and will have to be reconstituted fast. It will become compliant and stop investigating how the economy was ruined unless its former members are reappointed with Prof. Charitha Herath as its head. One can only hope that all those who have caused the people to be crushed under a heavy economic burden just like the poor leopard in Hatton will be brought to justice.

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Editorial

Noble effort, and roadblocks

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Monday 8th August, 2022

The past few days have seen a surge in efforts to form an all-party government. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has so far held a spate of meetings with other political leaders and civil society activists on the matter, but nothing definitive has come of them. They are not likely to reach a consensus any time soon.

Almost all stakeholders have so far met the President, who has given them a patient hearing and agreed to take their views on board. They have spoken well of the proposed national government and said they are sanguine about the prospects of it becoming a reality. But politicians are those who do not mean what they say and vice versa, and their minds are too elusive for anyone to get inside. All of them have expressed willingness to form a unity government because the people are asking them to make a concerted effort to save the economy, but what they have up their sleeves is anyone’s guess.

The task of roping in politicians to do anything good for the public is more difficult than that of keeping frogs in a lidless container, as they say. If an all-party administration is to be set up to restore politico-social stability and help repair the economy, every stakeholder will have to make a genuine effort. But as for collective action, our political leaders only pay lip service to the national interest; they do just as the seven proverbial wayfarers who agreed to put a fistful of rice each into a pot to make some porridge, but cheated and had to settle for hot water for dinner.

President Wickremesinghe has evinced a keen interest in making all parties represented in Parliament partners in governance, and his efforts are to be commended. But the ground reality is such that the task of forming an all-party administration is beyond the President’s power, for he has only a single MP on his side. Therefore, even if the SJB, the SLFP, the TNA, the SLPP dissidents, etc., are genuinely desirous of forming a national government, they and the President will have a massive hurdle to clear in their path; the SLPP leadership is not well-disposed towards the idea of all-party government because such an arrangement will lead to the loosening of its grip on power.

The SLPP is trying every trick in the book to cling on to power, recover lost ground and be fighting fit politically in time for the next election. It is obviously ready to go to any extent to safeguard its interests. The Rajapaksas have demonstrated that they know more than one way to shoe a horse. The Aragalaya succeeded in ousting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and pressuring Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down as the Prime Minister, but it has been swings and roundabouts for the anti-government protesters; the Rajapaksa family continues to control the government.

A few moons ago, the Basil Rajapaksa faction of the SLPP was accused of scuttling the then President Rajapaksa’s efforts to set up an all-party government. It serves the interests of the Rajapaksa family to have two persons heavily dependent on the SLPP for their political survival as the President and the Prime Minister, besides a Cabinet consisting of SLPP members and some crossovers.

Powerful as President Wickremesinghe is constitutionally, the fact remains that in reality he is only a big fish in Basil’s pond. The same goes for Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. He who controls the party that has a majority in Parliament is more powerful than both the President and the Prime Minister. Basil can pull the rug out from under both the President and the Prime Minister, at will. So, it is highly unlikely that they will resort to anything that is not to Basil’s liking. It will be interesting to see the effect of ongoing efforts to form an all-party government on the SLPP’s group dynamics.

Meanwhile, what the country needs is an interim, all-party government with a timeframe for an early general election, and not the continuation of the current dispensation with the participation of some more parties.

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Editorial

Where are we headed?

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Where the country is headed remains very much in the air as this is being written. The frightening fuel queues remain a fact of life although there was some respite after the QR code became effective from last week. The long lines have by no means evaporated and it is obvious to the simplest mind that whatever scheme is enforced – be it the last digit of the registration number for a small entitlement on specific days of the week or the newest method now in operation – the fuel must come in for the distribution to continue. And for that we must find the dollars to pay for the shipments as and when they come in. Therein lies the rub. Having run down our reserves to zero there is no sign of the bridging finance that was hoped for to tide over until an arrangement with the IMF is finalized hopefully sooner than later. However what is in force today is more equitable than what prevailed previously in that distribution is fairer.

The gas supply situation seems to be assured for the next couple of months. But gas, like fuel. also cannot be purchased for printed rupees. While the gas queues are now gone, when they will reappear is anybody’s guess. We have a new president and his maiden policy statement delivered last week was welcomed by many quarters. It was several decades ago that British economist Joan Robinson said that people in then Ceylon were used to eating the fruit before the tree was planted. The president used a similar idiom talking about his 25-year plan saying he wouldn’t be around when the tree he is planting begins to bear. Whether Mr. Wickremesinghe, now 73-years old, plans to seek a new term after serving out the balance tenure of the former president is not clear. In any case that’s all pie in the sky. He’s first got to make almost instant delivery on many fronts and external factors control that ability. His policy statement suggested confidence but whether this is misplaced or not remains to be seen.

Obviously an all party government, which the former president also sought to form, is still proving elusive although some support appears to have been won. GR eventually ended up with a new prime minister from the zero-scoring UNP replacing his discredited brother before fleeing the country and installing Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president. That the UNP did not win a single seat at the last parliamentary election and gained its solitary representation via the National List on the basis of its all- island poll did not really mean that the greens were totally wiped out. What the election result demonstrated was that Sajith Premadasa with his new Samagi Jana Balavegaya polled those votes that would otherwise have gone to the UNP if the party remained intact. The majority of the UNP’s previous MPs preferred Sajith’s leadership to Ranil’s. While Wickremesinghe conceded the losing presidential election slot to Premadasa in 2019, he clung on to the party leadership and that resulted in the break-up leading to disaster.

The new president right now is busy trying to secure as much support as he can from parties already represented in parliament for a broad based government. National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa, never a friend of Wickremesinghe or the UNP, last week voted for the State of Emergency saying that the near anarchy that prevailed in recent weeks cannot be allowed to continue. He is most probably wide open for a ministry in the Wickremesinghe government. Many others too are knocking at the door and the numbers game will ensure that some of them will be admitted. This has for too long been the state of play in this so-called Democratic Socialist Republic. The present administration is clearly going to abjectly fail in ensuring that the new government will be confined to a competent cabinet of around a dozen ministers. It is not even likely that the best available talent in the incumbent parliament, leave alone expertise from outside, is going to be drawn into the effort to get the country out of the present mess. The promised executive committee system, giving a role to all MPs in the business of running the government, is poor compensation.

It is said that politics is the art of the possible. Given the scramble for political plums it has proved impossible during the past many decades to confine the cabinet to a reasonable number. The political will to so is sadly lacking. Already a convict carrying a suspended sentence for extortion is in the cabinet. A minister asked by GR to step down following a bribery solicitation complaint has been reappointed following lightening swift clearance by a government appointed committee. There is no public confidence in such whitewashes. The people have no confidence whatever in lukewarm prosecutions that have resulted in a spate of acquittals. While promises of stamping out corruption are a dime a dozen delivery has been totally lacking.

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