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Two-thirds majority and responsibility

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It was widely believed that under a proportional representation system, it was difficult, if not impossible, to get a simple majority. A 2/3rd majority under the circumstances would be an extraordinary victory. Therefore, this phenomenon has to be carefully discussed because it reflects a total loss of confidence and trust in a party that had been a major political force since Independence.

People have watched its decline in the last five years, particularly the UNP’s servility to foreign powers at the expense of the country’s sovereignty and the treachery of cosponsoring a UNHRC Resolution against the country, and twice cleaning up the Central Bank. People were determined to teach it a good lesson and, if possible, relegate it to the political dustbin. The author of the above betrayal had capitulated and withdrawn from the contest knowing well the fate that would befall him. This is a good lesson for all politicians who think the masses are asses and take their political party loyalty for granted. It is also a lesson for small communal parties who hold the major parties to ransom and ask for the impossible.

The main reason for this victory, however, was confidence and trust that the new President has earned, first as Defence Secretary and then, in these few months, as the President of the country, with his no-nonsense approach to governance and the efficiency he demands, as shown in the way the Corona pandemic has been controlled. The Prime Minister’s personal charisma and proven ability and leadership has also contributed quite significantly. Their team consisting of several talented Rajapaksas, each with different expertise, had helped to create history in the political arena, and in this sense it is unparalleled anywhere in the world. They must, however, remember they cannot afford to fail; people have placed so much faith and trust in them. Serving the people would be their holy vow and they must remember the mistakes they did in the 2010 – 2014 period that brought about their downfall and avoid repeating them. They could fall again, however big their victory may be.

What is of importance now is to consider what the voters want from a government with a 2/3rd majority. First, what they don’t want to happen, yet which has always happened, has to be remembered. This aspect of the problem assumes greater importance as most of the old faces known for various evil deeds, misdemeanor, ill decorum, and even serious crime are back. They have to be kept on a short leash, if the new President is to steer the country away from the precipice that has opened up in its path, due to the ills of the previous government and the coronavirus pandemic.

Corruption and waste

It is well known that poverty in this country could not be alleviated mainly due to the rampant corruption and waste. The country is blessed with a clement climate, fertile soil, rain in good time, ample sunshine, good literacy and an intelligent workforce. What we lack for development is honest, capable, decent politicians, who are not in politics to make money, but for the satisfaction of developing the country. If corruption and waste in government institutions, beginning from the Parliament could be controlled, the present leadership would have won half the battle. It is the top that must show the way. If there is corruption and waste at the top there is no one who could stop it at the bottom. Cannot they spend less on Parliament sessions to begin with. Cannot they do away with the commission racket at the top before they pick on lesser rogues. Cannot they punish the Central Bank robbers to begin with. Cannot bribery, drug dealing, and crime be stopped at the top so that the police can look after the bottom.

People have hope in the new President, the present political leadership and the government that the miscreants who may have been swept in with the political tsunami would be kept in check. Some new faces also have come in and the voters expect them to contribute meaningfully in the Parliament to keep things under order and control. They owe it to the people and the youth to save this country from the corrupt, the criminal, the drug dealer and the commission crook. They must form themselves into a group who would stand up for fairness and justice, integrity and honesty, decorum and behaviour. Decency in dress, beard and hair style. They must not allow the thick-skinned seniors to have their way and bungle and bumble for five years and go down yet again. These young new faces have their entire political career in front of them. They must not squander this opportunity by living it up, having a good time, nightclubbing and running around in fast cars, while their brothers and sisters, who voted for them, suffer without education and employment. They must make an effort to educate themselves on good governance, parliamentary procedure, basic economics and also develop patriotism and a love for the country so that they will develop into good leaders and statesmen.

The responsibility of the 2/3rd majority would be to change the political culture in this country, which has become so dirty that there are people, including the former Prime Minister who would like to throw politicians into the Diyawanna Oya. Fortunately, he would be spared of the watery inconvenience, courtesy the Colombo voters. Another responsibility is to see that politicians, rejected by the people, are not brought into the Parliament, via the national list.

Constitution

The two-third majority provides an opportunity to reform the constitution which has been badly mutilated by the 19th A, and which was introduced mainly to clip the wings of the then President and strengthen the hands of the then Prime Minister. It was not meant to improve the rights of the people, strengthen democracy, and attain balance between the three arms of the government. Further it has brought in confusion into the constitution when what is needed is clarity.

While the 19th A has to be gotten rid of, the presidential powers, which perhaps may be excessive, as the former President, the late JRJ famously claimed, may have to be appropriately changed taking care not to render the executive presidency meaningless, which the 19 A does. The electoral system, which has been muddled up by the previous government, also has to be revamped, to enable the voters to elect a stable government while reflecting the will of the people. Due to this muddling, the last local government elections produced almost double the number of members it was meant to elect. The independent commissions, which the 19th A introduced, may have to be retained, but a mechanism to restrict political appointments into these commissions may have to be worked out, as experience shows these units are full of LTTE sympathisers, which may have been one of the reasons for the defeat of political leaders responsible for it.

The 2/3rd majority is a clear endorsement of the need to preserve the unitary state and single sovereignty of the country. Communal politics, which unfortunately form the basis of existence for ethnic based political parties, have held the mainstream parties to ransom and taken the country to the threshold of ethnic federalism and secession. Those mainstream political leaders who colluded with these minority parties, hopefully have been relegated to history. Hence it is time the minority parties realized their mistake of overestimating themselves and believing that no major party could win without their support. They have found that if they push too hard the majority community will close rank. It is this myth that had all along prevented them from participating more actively in the governance, and also denied their people the opportunity to contribute more towards the country’s development.

The 13th A, with the threat of its full implementation in relation to land and police powers, is the Sword of Damocles that great India hung over the tiny head of Sri Lanka. This sword could cut the neck of Sri Lanka given the right conditions. The conditions were right, during the last four years, and they almost succeeded. The 13A is an incongruity in a unitary constitution. If fully implemented – there is no reason why it should not – it would give more powers to the periphery than the states of federal India have. It was forced on Sri Lanka as a solution to the ethnic problem of the Tamils, but their leaders did not make use of it to develop the North. The Tamils seem to be in a state of transition, if the results of the 2020 election is an indication. The North, East and the Central hills are showing signs of change and a disillusion with the parochialism of their leaders. Moreover, the Tamils seem to be getting on fine without any devolution, the Provincial Councils were non-existent for the last two years, yet the Tamils were not complaining.

The Provincial Councils do not serve any useful purpose other than being another obstacle that people have to overcome to solve their problems. All the communities are called upon to carry this burden for the sake of devolution of power, which in a poor tiny country is unnecessary and ill-affordable. Sri Lanka has four tiers of political administration; president, parliament, provincial councils and local government councils with thousands of members whose emoluments, perks, and corruption would be a huge burden on the poor people. Such a huge system of political administration, and representation is superfluous and unnecessary for a country of Sri Lanka’s size and population, leaving alone the cost. The aspirations of the Tamils, for political power sharing, should be addressed by more realistic means, and with opportunity for greater integration and participation both at grass-root level and the centre. The failure of Tamil leaders to realize this need has been the bane of the Tamil community and the country too.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation cannot be forced on people. It must come naturally. It had existed in early times and had been destroyed by politicians in the pursuit for power. It cannot be achieved by foreign intervention or UNHRC Resolutions that seek to investigate and punish one community. It cannot be achieved by the establishment of the Office for Missing Persons, Commission for Truth and Justice, and Commission for Reparation, etc., which are packed with supporters of terrorists and separatists. It can only be achieved by allowing people to forget the past and come together in a natural process. Tamil politicians, western powers, and their local stooges do not want people to forget the past for which one side only could not be blamed. The new President did the right thing in withdrawing from the co-sponsorship of the treacherous UNHRC Resolution 30/1. He has also said he will not hesitate to withdraw from any other world body that engages in activity detrimental to Sri Lankan interests.

The 2/3rd majority gives all communities the opportunity to work together to overcome the problems caused by Covid-19 and develop their country. Such an attitude would help them to forget the past.

In Lord Naseby’s words: “This is a new dawn for Sri Lanka, a fresh era creating the opportunity for the country to come together and finally put to bed the idea of any Tamil Eelam independence movement.

“Now is the time for the West to understand the new mood in Sri Lanka; the desire on all sides for reconciliation to become realistic without any interference from the West or the UN Rights Council”.

N.A.de S.AMARATUNGA

 



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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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