Saturday 16th January, 2021
The government has chosen to grasp the nettle after weeks of dilly-dallying and prevarication; it has admitted that there will be a joint venture between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and India’s Adani Group to run the East Container Terminal (ECT). According to the MoC (Memorandum of Corporation) Sri Lanka signed with India and Japan, in May 2019, on the ECT, the SLPA was to retain the ownership of the terminal and own 51% of the operating company with India and others holding the remaining shares. There is hardly any difference between this arrangement and what the present government has undertaken to do.
The yahapalana government failed to proceed with the controversial ECT deal as it was politically weak and could not square up to resistance from the powerful port unions. The situation changed last year following the election of a ‘strong’ government, which is using its two-thirds majority to bulldoze its way through.
Ironically, many of those who campaigned hard to bring the present government to power, claiming that a strong political leadership was a prerequisite for protecting the national interest and developing the country, are now protesting against the ECT deal! Some of the Buddhist monks who backed the SLPP to the hilt are condemning it for striking deals with foreigners at the expense of national assets. Their saviours have taken them for a ride—let them be asked to wake up and smell the coffee.
The JVP has launched a countrywide protest campaign, vowing to do everything in its power to torpedo the ECT deal. It should, in fact, ask for forgiveness from the people for what has befallen the ECT because it propped up the government which signed the MoC with India and Japan on this vital port facility. It may be recalled that in 2018 the JVP was instrumental in giving the yahapalana government a new lease of life on the pretext of safeguarding democracy when the latter was sacked by the then President Maithripala Sirisena. Having helped that beleaguered regime launch a successful counterattack, secure a majority in the House and remain in power, the JVP was backing it fully when the ECT deal was struck in 2019.
Only President Sirisena opposed the ECT deal during the yahapalana days; he even clashed with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Cabinet meetings, pointing out that it was detrimental to the country’s interests to have foreign powers as partners to manage national assets. He also warned that the port trade unions would fight tooth and nail to scuttle the deal. Following the ill-advised handover of the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease, Sirisena must have realised that the SLPA should operate the ECT without any foreign partners.
The present government claims that it cannot do away with the ECT agreement which the previous government entered into with India and Japan. If so, how come the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, which was inked during the yahapalana administration, has been put on hold? The current administration cancelled the light rail transit agreement Sri Lanka had signed with JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), claiming that the project was seriously flawed. But it has chosen not to act similarly anent the ECT deal. Why?
There seem to be several reasons. It may be that the government, which is considered overly pro-Chinese, is wary of scrapping the ECT agreement lest it should antagonise India. The SLPP grandees are under Indian pressure; the official announcement of the Indian investment in the ECT came close on the heels of Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s recent Sri Lanka visit. He is believed to have urged Colombo to finish the deal post-haste. The government also seems keen to curry favour with the Modi administration by having one of the latter’s cronies, Adani Group, as a partner to run the new terminal. Another reason may be that Adani Group has come under fire for unethical practices, and the Sri Lankan politicians love to do business with such companies for obvious reasons—the country’s loss becomes their gain.
A question of legitimacy
Saturday 26th November, 2022
Dissident SLPP MP and former Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana has said something noteworthy during the ongoing budget debate. He has argued that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who succeeded President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, does not have a popular mandate to govern the country and therefore should not make crucial policy decisions on national security, etc. He has offered to present a private member’s motion to enable the President to hold a snap presidential election and seek a mandate from the people.
The government stands accused of trying every trick in the book to postpone the local government polls, and never will it take a bigger electoral gamble. But the argument that the current administration lacks legitimacy holds water in that it is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP undertook to do in its election manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls.
The people voted the UNP out of power in 2020 because they did not approve of the way it handled national security and the economy, and elected the SLPP to make a difference. They handed over the reins of government to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa as they desired a clean break with the previous government.
Former President/Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, taking part in the budget debate, on Wednesday (24), said: “When we took over in 2019 the Yahapalana government had drawn huge loans. We have done all we can to help the country. We had to face the Easter Sunday attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic. We are still trying to overcome their adverse impacts.”
Now, the uphill tasks of managing the economy and protecting national security have been entrusted to the UNP, which worsened the country’s debt crisis, according to Mahinda, and was rejected by the public twice. The country has undergone a reversion to the Yahapalana rule in all but name without public approval. The SLPP leaders have not only betrayed public trust but also made a mockery of the will of the people.
Moreover, one of the key pledges that enabled the SLPP to obtain a popular mandate to govern the country was that it would never privatise state assets. President Wickremesinghe admitted in Parliament, the other day, that former Prime Minister Rajapaksa was opposed to the divestiture of state ventures. The current administration has reneged on this pledge against the wishes of not only the people who voted for the SLPP but also the leader of that party himself!
As for national security, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks, held the entire Yahapalana government accountable. The final report of the PCoI says, “The government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy” (p. 471). National security is now under the purview of Wickremesinghe!
What has led to sea changes in the current administration’s policies was a wave of public protests, which came to be known as Aragalaya. The manner in which the President and the Prime Minister were ousted was far from constitutional. Even incumbent President Wickremesinghe, who benefited from Aragalaya, has refused to accept it as something legitimate. Hence his recent vow in Parliament to prevent a recurrence of Aragalaya and even deploy the military and declare a state of Emergency to abort it. He would not have threatened to do so if he had not been convinced that Aragalaya lacked legitimacy. Thus, a radical departure from the SLPP’s policies endorsed by the people in a constitutionally-prescribed manner at two elections in 2019 and 2020 requires approval by the public either at a general/presidential election or a referendum. Why the Opposition has baulked at flogging this issue is the question.
Friday 25th November, 2022
Television is very educational, Groucho Marx has famously said, adding that every time somebody turns it on, he goes into another room and reads a book. Parliamentary sessions are also educational in that sense; whenever they are telecast, one’s gorge rises and one swiftly switches off the tube and reads a book. But the telecast of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech in the House on Wednesday (23) was different; it reminded us of a nineteenth century book, of all things—Vice Versa by F Anstey (pseudonym used by Thomas Anstey Guthrie). It is about body swapping—two persons exchanging minds and living in each other’s bodies—which is a common trope in sci-fi books and flicks. Politics and shape-shifting go together, but what has body swapping got to do with politicians?
On listening to President Wickremesinghe, who was going ballistic in the House, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Most of all, Wickremesinghe called himself Hitler, albeit tongue in cheek. It was Gotabaya who was expected to be a dictator like Hitler after being elected President. Basil Rajapaksa himself likened his elder brother, Gotabaya, to ‘Terminator’ before the last presidential election, and some prominent Buddhist monks said the country needed a leader like Hitler, and Gotabaya fitted the bill.
The UNP and other Opposition parties also described Gotabaya as Sri Lanka’s Hitler and warned that he would rule the country with an iron fist, if elected, but curiously he did what was expected of Ranil, who was considered a weak leader. Ranil is now doing what Gotabaya was expected to do!
Gotabaya, a former frontline combat officer, played a crucial role in defeating the LTTE, and stood accused of deploying the army to crush a protest against a factory which caused groundwater pollution at Rathupaswala, in 2013, but he meekly allowed anti-government protesters to march on the President’s House, and fled the country, a few moons ago. Ranil, who was wary of opening his mouth even for a dental examination while the LTTE was around, has made short work of the anti-government protesters who ousted Gotabaya, and warned that he will crush all protests aimed at engineering a regime change. How come such transformations are possible? Isn’t it natural that one wonders whether something similar to what one sees in Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk Altered Carbon series with a dystopian futuristic setting where consciousness is digitised and transferred between persons, has happened in this country with Gotabaya and Ranil swapping bodies?
Meanwhile, President Wickremesinghe’s declaration in Parliament that he will not allow any protests to be held at all unless the organisers thereof obtain permission from the police for such events is proof that the government is ready to go to any extent to retain its hold on power. He might as well slap a blanket ban on protests, for there is no way anyone could obtain permission from the police for an anti-government demonstration. The police offer their services as bouncers to the powers that be. The current administration is the outcome of a political marriage of convenience between the UNP, which has a history of crushing democratic dissent, and the SLPP led by the Rajapaksa family, which has got attacking democracy down to a fine art. It goes without saying that democracy is in grave danger.
One may recall that during the Premadasa government, a group of journalists covering a DUNF event were attacked by UNP thugs in full view of the police, and when the victims went to the Fort police station to lodge a complaint, the OIC stood his full height blocking the main entrance and declared that the place was closed for the day! When the media asked a servile police spokesman, during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, why dozens of pro-government thugs armed with clubs had been allowed to operate alongside the police riot squad at an Opposition protest, in Colombo, he had the chutzpah to claim that they had been carrying ‘sticks’ to ward off stray dogs. So much for the impartiality of the police, from whom the President wants the Opposition to seek permission for its protests!
Most of all, Chairman of the National Police Commission (NPC) Chandra Fernando is under fire for his presence at a ceremony the SLPP held recently at the BIA to receive Basil Rajapaksa. He has said he happened to be at the airport when Rajapaksa returned from the US, and met the latter. But the controversy over what he did has cast doubt on the NPC’s credibility and impartiality. A fish is said to rot from the head down.One can only pray for the safety of Sri Lankan democracy or what remains thereof.
A saree-clad non-issue
Thursday 24th November, 2022
Hardly a day passes without teachers’ trade unions kicking up a stink. Having ventured far afield on the political front and suffered several defeats at the hands of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government, they are badly in need of a victory to flaunt. They have chosen to embark on a mission that will benefit neither teachers nor students; they are demanding that the government recognise female schoolteachers’ right to be in clothes other than the saree during duty hours. They have cited factors such as huge increases in saree prices and the convenience of other dresses in a bid to justify their demand. Is it that only the saree prices have increased? Shoe prices have also gone into the stratosphere, and shouldn’t students be allowed to come to school in flip-flops?
Some female teachers reported for work, wearing smart-casual clothes, the other day, and posted their photographs on social media, causing quite a stir. They said they were following a circular issued by the Public Administration and Home Affairs Ministry on the state employees’ dress code. Curiously, they do not go out of their way to follow circulars the government has issued on other state employees’ working hours, etc. Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has taken steps to clear confusion created by the circular at issue, we are told. He is of the view that the most appropriate attire for female teachers is the saree. It is said that there’s no accounting for taste.
Minister Premajayantha ought to address the burning issues, which are legion, in the education sector, without being distracted by teachers’ attire. Teachers must also stop making issues out of non-issues and help solve the real problems affecting schools.
The Minister can help mitigate the economic woes of people if he gets his act together. Private tuition takes a substantial chunk of the income of every family with school-going children. Students, especially those preparing for competitive examinations such as the GCE A/L, are heavily dependent on shadow education owing to lapses on the part of their teachers and schools. There are, of course, some public schools which impart a decent education to students; they deserve praise, but sadly they are the exception that proves the rule. If the Education Ministry can ensure that teachers carry out their duties and functions properly in the state-run schools, the need for private tuition can be obviated much to the relief of parents who are paying through the nose for extra lessons.
Minister Premajayantha is given to show off his knowledge in Parliament. A few days ago, he wrong-footed a cantankerous Opposition MP, who raised questions about COP 27; the former only asked the latter what COP 27 was. There was no response! How does our learned Education Minister propose to improve the standards of school education and reduce students’ dependence on private tuition, which costs hapless parents an arm and a leg? A large number of underprivileged schools are facing the threat of closure due to what sociologists call the exit phenomenon; some schools have already closed down for various reasons. Schools must be easily accessible, especially in the rural and estate sectors where dropout rates are reportedly higher than elsewhere. How does the government propose to tackle the problem of school closures? What action has it taken to bring down the cost of schooling, which is extremely high due to soaring prices of stationery, etc? Malnutrition is also on the rise among students, and the government does not seem to be making a serious effort to tackle it.
Some Buddhist monks lost no time in sticking their oars in when the news about the teachers’ demand in question got around. They held media briefings, where they demanded that female teachers must not wear anything other than the saree to work, and accused the teachers’ unions of advancing what they called an NGO agenda. Their right to express their views on issues concerning teachers and education cannot be questioned, but shouldn’t they first ensure that young monks wear the saffron robe properly at least in public. The conduct of some Bhikkus who take part in protests is appalling. They are a disgrace to the Maha Sangha.
Let the government and the teachers’ unions be asked to stop wasting their time and energy on trivialities and concentrate on how to straighten up the education sector. The government ought to curtail waste, rationalise its expenditure and allocate more funds for education, and the warring teachers’ trade unions must tell their members to pull their socks up and live up to people’s expectations.
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