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UNP as a cat’s paw



Monday 18th September, 2023

Some henchmen of the Rajapaksa family, which is responsible for ruining the economy, have taken upon themselves the task of investigating the causes of the country’s bankruptcy! They are all out to absolve their political masters of wrongdoing in a bid to shore up the latter’s chances of winning future elections. Interestingly, their efforts have received a fillip from the UNP, of all parties. UNP Chairman Wajira Abeywardena, MP, has claimed that the declaration of the country’s bankruptcy was baseless, arbitrary, and conspiratorial. His stance is at variance with that of his party leader, President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Sri Lanka became bankrupt last year when its foreign reserves plummeted to USD 25 million, leaving it without forex to pay for even essential imports, especially fuel and medicine. People waited in long queues for days to obtain diesel, petrol, kerosene, cooking gas, milk powder, etc., which were in short supply. Protests erupted countrywide, and some of them turned violent. Besides, daily power cuts, which were extended to 13 hours, crippled industries, causing job losses. The country was left with no alternative but to resort to a soft default, utilise foreign earnings and aid for essential imports, and seek IMF assistance to straighten up the economy. That was the only way it could prevent its rapid slide into anarchy, with irate public taking to the streets. It has benefited tremendously from financial assistance from India.

If the announcement of the debt default had been unauthorised and unwarranted, as MP Abeywardena claims, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa or the Finance Minister Ali Sabry would have hastened to annul it. Instead, they based their economic recovery strategy thereon. So did Wickremesinghe after securing the presidency.

The UNP Chairman’s argument that the country was in a position to pay back debt at the time of the declaration of its bankruptcy runs counter to President Wickremesinghe’s oft-repeated claim that the country was bankrupt when he took over the reins of government and his attempts to achieve economic recovery are yielding results. About three months ago, President Wickremesinghe was quoted by his media division as having said, at the AGM of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) in Colombo: “I hope that by September Sri Lanka will be able to shed its bankruptcy status. (Emphasis added.)

It may be recalled that Wickremesinghe, after being appointed Prime Minister in 2022, admitted that the country was bankrupt. On 06 July 2022, CNN reported him as having told Parliament, “We are now participating in the negotiations [with the IMF] as a bankrupt country. (Emphasis added.) Therefore, we have to face a more difficult and complicated situation than previous negotiations [with the IMF].” Addressing Parliament on 08 Feb. 2023, President Wickremesinghe said, “If we continue according to this plan, we can rise out of bankruptcy by 2026 …” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, President Wickremesinghe said, announcing the IMF’s decision to grant Sri Lanka an extended credit facility: “I took over a country that was on fire, A country that was in chaos; a country that seems to be without an iota of hope for the future; a country that had officially declared itself bankrupt. (Emphasis added.) Thus, it is clear that President Wickremesinghe himself has deemed the announcement of the country’s bankruptcy ‘official’, and therefore how can anyone else consider it unauthorised and unwarranted?

It would have been far easier for President Wickremesinghe to declare that the country was not bankrupt and resume debt servicing than to beg for an IMF bailout, if someone had wrongfully declared the country bankrupt. Will MP Abeywardena explain why his boss, Wickremesinghe, has not done so?

The Rajapaksa loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group are busy cutting the ground from under President Wickremesinghe’s feet. That they do not want him to succeed in his efforts to stabilise the economy and thereby gain political mileage has become evident from SLPP MP Prof. Ranjith Bandara’s recent statement at the SLPP headquarters that all those who claim to have fared well on the economic front will have to face the harsh reality when debt repayment resumes. Reflected in his claim is the desire of the Basil Rajapaksa faction of the SLPP to see President Wickremesinghe’s economic recovery plan go awry. The UNP is unwittingly pulling political chestnuts out of the fire for the Rajapaksas.


Lawbreakers as judges



Wednesday 4th October, 2023

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, speaking in Parliament, yesterday, tore into the government for summoning some radio journalists before the parliamentary privileges committee over a news report. He accused the government of violating media freedom. His principled stand on the issue has struck a responsive chord with all those who are resisting the government’s determined bid to suppress dissent.

The MPs’ right to safeguard their privileges cannot be questioned, but the past several decades have seen many legislators leveraging their privileges to settle scores with the media. Most MPs are labouring under the misconception that their privileges grant them a blanket immunity, and anyone who criticises their actions must be hauled up before the privileges committee, and harassed. There is a pressing need to knock some sense into those worthies with deep pockets and shallow minds; they are the reason why public trust in the national legislature has eroded severely, and protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks, demanding that all 225 MPs go home.

The despicable practice of some MPs abusing their parliamentary privileges to harass journalists must be condemned unreservedly. Premadasa deserves praise for having addressed this issue, but there is a far worse problem that has gone unaddressed, and it warrants a serious discussion.

The MPs are vested with enormous powers. The Constitution allows Parliament to exercise the judicial power of the people directly in certain situations. Article 4 (c) of the Constitution says, “The judicial power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament through courts, tribunals and institutions created and established, or recognised, by the Constitution, or created and established by law, except in regard to matters relating to the privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and of its Members, wherein the judicial power of the People may be exercised directly by Parliament according to law ….” This constitutional provision enables the MPs to act as judges where their privileges are concerned.

Nobody can become a member of the judiciary, which interprets and applies the law, unless he or she has acquired necessary educational qualifications and professional competence. But no one has to go through any such sifting process to become a member of Parliament. Even a shady character who is wealthy enough to throw money around can win parliamentary elections, or secure a National List slot by greasing the palms of political party leaders, and sit on a committee that is empowered to summon even judges.

The incumbent government sought to summon some judges before the parliamentary privileges committee over a judicial order pertaining to the delayed elections. Its intention was to intimidate the judiciary. Worryingly, the parliamentary Committee on Ethics and Privileges, at the time, had, as one of its members, Ali Sabry Raheem, MP, who had been nabbed and fined by the Customs for trying to smuggle in gold and mobile phones, a few months before. For the past several decades, a large number of anti-social elements such as killers, pickpockets, extortionists, chain snatchers, bootleggers, cattle rustlers and drug dealers have entered Parliament. They can, by virtue of being elected representatives, exercise the people’s judicial powers directly and even have judges appear before them! One may recall that in 2012, a group of UPFA MPs, who had earned notoriety for bribery and corruption and various other offences, insulted the then Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, who appeared before a parliamentary select committee.

Thus, when the people exercise their franchise, they ought to vote for the candidates who are educated and competent enough not only to carry out legislative functions and duties but also to exercise judiciary powers directly. The problem of the lowest of the low entering Parliament must be tackled at source. It is incumbent upon all political leaders including Premadasa to nominate only decent men and women to contest elections. Equally, the public cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the deterioration of the national legislature. Parliament will continue to stink to high heaven as long as the people are swayed by party loyalties and other factors such as caste, religion, ethnicity and patronage, when they vote at elections. They must stop the practice of electing political dregs, and then trying to set Parliament on fire.

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From Esmond to Edmund and beyond



Tuesday 3rd October, 2023

Elaborate preparations have been made to felicitate a veteran editor, today. Edmund Ranasinghe is his name. He needs no introduction and deserves to be honoured for his outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan journalism. We extend our congratulations to him.

Today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be held under the patronage of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Secretariat, of all places. The fact that the President’s late father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, was also a colossus in Sri Lankan journalism makes today’s event even more significant. The felicitation of a nonagenarian print media great, we believe, is time for reflection.

Esmond died in 1985, and Edmund retired some years ago. They made their mark in two different eras, but the print media was without much competition then. The world of newspapers has since moved on at a rapid pace, and is facing numerous unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, some of which are of existential nature.

Technology keeps pushing the envelope, opening up new frontiers in human communication, and throwing up more challenges to the ‘traditional media’; the newspapers are the worst affected. The emergence of social media, and news portals with digital agility and ability has done to print media what T20 did to Test cricket. Due to the proliferation of web publications and the expansion of social media and instant messaging, news cycles have come down to minutes, if not seconds. Most newspaper readers have become netizens thanks to the rapid expansion of the digital realm, and their needs and expectations have undergone radical changes, as never before. Artificial Intelligence has revolutionised communication, and one may say, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, that for the print media it takes all the running it can to keep in the same place, and if it wants to get somewhere, it must run at least twice as fast as that. How would Edmund propose to overcome these challenges if he happened to be in active journalism at present?

The keynote address at today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be delivered by former Editor of the Divaina and the Rivira, Upali Tennakoon, who was Edmund’s understudy. Upali’s presence evokes our memories of a dark era, when he had to flee the country following an attempt on his life during an SLFP-led regime. That incident happened years after a grenade had been flung at Edmund’s house during a UNP government, which went all out to silence the Divaina and The Island, but in vain.

Today, the UNP has joined forces with those who were blamed for many crimes against journalists, such as the attack on Upali, the abduction of The Nation Deputy Editor Keith Noyahr, and the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The UNPers who alleged that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had a hand in Lasantha’s assassination, and went so far as to coin slogans like ‘saatakaya gaathakaya’ are on honeymoon with the Rajapaksas!

The Rajapaksa Brothers may be maintaining a low profile at present, but trouble for journalists is far from over; now, they have Big Brother to contend with! The SLPP-UNP regime is determined to steamroller the Online Safety Bill through Parliament despite vehement protests from the media, the Opposition, lawyers and many others who cherish democracy. Ironically, this draconian Bill, which reminds us of the plight of Winston Smith in Orwell’s, dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been crafted and is to be passed by Parliament on the watch of Esmond’s son, under whose patronage Edmund is to be felicitated today!

The highest honour that can be conferred on veteran journalists is to support the causes they have held dear and safeguard media freedom. One can only hope that the Online Safety Bill will be withdrawn forthwith, and the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media institutions, such as arson attacks on television studios and printing presses, brought to justice without further delay.

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Guilty until proven innocent?



Monday 2nd October, 2023

There are no signs of an early détente between India and Canada. The two countries continue to trade allegations. Other nations are divided along the lines of strategic alliances rather than anything else. Interestingly, the US government is seen to be tilting towards Canada.

What the ongoing diplomatic row of epic proportions, and Washington’s stance thereon signify is that India has not received full membership of the club of powerful nations. The US firmly stands behind India only when the latter locks horns with China, which the West is all out to keep at bay for economic and security reasons, but when India happens to cross swords with a western nation, it cannot depend on the US to have its six, so to speak. The US has no permanent friends, as has been the experience of Pakistan, which Washington used in the Cold War era and then discarded. Perhaps, the painful diplomatic knock New Delhi has received from Ottawa could not have come without Washington’s knowledge; it could be attributed to strong economic ties India continues to maintain with Russia, refusing to toe the western line over the war in Ukraine. The Indian refineries are reported to have snapped up discounted Russian oil since the West imposed sanctions against Russia.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may not have expected India to strike back with might and main, resorting to tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats when he went public with his ‘credible allegation’ of India’s involvement in the killing of a Khalistan activist on Canadian soil and ordered an Indian diplomat out of the country. Indian commentators have asked how an allegation could ever be considered credible. Whether the term ‘credible allegation’ is a contradiction in terms, as India has claimed in a bid to deride PM Trudeau, may be a moot point, but it can be used against Canada as well. One can argue that India’s allegation that Canada has become a haven for terrorists is credible, and therefore Canada should be dealt with in the same manner as the other countries that harbour terrorists and face hostile action at the hands of the West.

The Trudeau government’s judgement and its ability to engage in critical inquiry, which involves gathering facts, questioning assumptions, evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives and arriving at well-reasoned conclusions, are in serious doubt. It was only the other day that a nonagenarian Nazi veteran was mistaken for a Ukrainian freedom fighter, brought to the Canadian parliament and honoured during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit. (The Fuhrer would backflip in his grave in glee if he knew the Canadian government’s faux pas!)

An extreme course of action such as expelling diplomats is something that a country should resort to as pis aller, if at all, only after ascertaining irrefutable evidence to substantiate an allegation against another nation.

Whether India actually did what it is accused of having done in Canada, one may not know, but it behoves Canada, which PM Trudeau proudly calls a country that upholds the rule of law, and other nations which have taken upon themselves the task of protecting global democracy, to respect the cardinal principle of justice that every person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent unless and until his or her guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. Before crossing the Rubicon, Trudeau should have ascertained irrefutable evidence to support his claim that India had a hand in the killing of the Sikh activist.

Credibility is something subjective influenced by various factors including an individual’s beliefs, experiences, knowledge and biases. If ‘credible allegations’ are to be accepted as the basis of offensive action or casus belli, PM Trudeau would find himself on a sticky wicket; a former Indian diplomat named Deepak Vohra has accused Trudeau of having been high on drugs during his recent visit to India to attend the G20 summit, and claimed Trudeau’s plane was found to be full of cocaine. Trudeau’s office has denied this allegation vehemently. What if the Canadian public were to go by the inversion of the principle of presumption of innocence, buy into the former Indian diplomat’s claim and consider Trudeau guilty of drug abuse until he is proven innocent?

Trudeau may have thought India would take his ‘credible allegation’, and the diplomatic offensive based thereon, meekly, the way Sri Lanka did anent his genocide allegation. It is popularly said in this country that the woodpecker, which damages trees by drilling holes in them, finds itself in a bind when it sinks its restless beak into a fibrous banana trunk.

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