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Editorial

Viands and red herring

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Monday 31st August, 2020

It is wrong to say that the government MPs and their Opposition counterparts are perennially at daggers drawn and go for one another’s jugular at the drop of a hat. There are moments of unity, when they get on like a house on fire. We have recently witnessed such a moment. The SJB and SLPP MPs sank their differences and took exception to a newspaper report that a meal costing as much as Rs. 3,000 was sold at Rs. 100 in the parliament canteen. They let out a howl of protest, in unison, alleging that such claims caused an affront to the dignity of Parliament and cast the MPs in a poor light.

We loathe discussing what other people eat, but Parliament must be careful with people’s money. The MPs should share the suffering of their electors, who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a large number of job losses and many people are in penury.

The least the MPs can do is to emulate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who leads a very simple life. The parlous state of the economy warrants frugal economic management and sacrifices. The Opposition has rightly pointed out that the powers anent public finance have been vested in the legislature. Parliament, therefore, ought to set an example to others by paring the cost of its maintenance to the bone.

The parliament food issue is a red herring, we reckon. It is not the cost of the assortment of choicest viands the MPs partake of, at heavily subsidised rates, that has turned public opinion against Parliament. No outsider could ever bring Parliament into disrepute more; the MPs themselves have tarnished the image of the legislature beyond repair over the last several decades.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has said he will put the food issue to rest by revealing the actual costs of meals served in the parliament canteens. Welcome as his pledge may be, more information should be divulged about Parliament and its members.

How much does a parliamentary sitting cost the taxpayer? Various amounts are being bandied about, and an official figure is called for. What has been the MPs’ turnout during the last 10 years or so? How long is an MP required to be in his seat or at committee meetings? Public officials paid with state funds face disciplinary inquiries and punishment for not reporting to work without prior notice. What action is taken against the MPs who scoot away or do not turn up in Parliament without applying for leave? Import restrictions have caused numerous hardships to the public, who, however, faces them without grumbling, given the country’s balance of payment woes. There is a pressing need to shore up the country’s foreign reserves. The outflow of foreign exchange has to be curtailed. Will the MPs be allowed to import duty-free vehicles at this juncture? How much is the duty concession an MP is entitled to? How much do the MPs get by way of bank loans for importing their vehicles? What is the interest rate as well as the payback period? Have the members of previous Parliaments paid back their vehicle loans in full? How many MPs have sold their duty-free vehicle permits and how much have they raised therefrom? What are the educational qualifications of the members of the current Parliament, especially the ministers? How many MPs have criminal charges against them? There were allegations that some elderly MPs sexually harassed their female counterparts in the last Parliament. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised to look into them and requested the victims to make formal complaints. Was an inquiry held?

Meanwhile, the incumbent Speaker finds himself in an unenviable position. There are some new faces in the House, but most of those who incurred public opprobrium due to their misconduct in the last Parliament have been re-elected. The gargantuan task before the new Speaker is to make them fall in line. Easier said than done because of the steamroller majority the government has secured! Let the good Speaker be wished good luck.



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Editorial

Cops and robbers

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Friday 19th August, 2022

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Ukraine Udayanga Weeratunga has been questioned by the CID on the infamous MIG deal for the umpteenth time. Police investigations in this country tend to go on until the cows come home when the suspects happen to be powerful politicians and their kith and kin. The MIG probe is likely to go on until or the suspects go the way of all flesh. No wonder corruption has eaten into the vitals of Sri Lankan society.

Weeratunga stands accused of having received kickbacks from the controversial purchase of fighter jets for the Sri Lanka Air Force under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. A close relative of the Rajapaksa family, he has reportedly said former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should also be questioned on the issue. He has been critical of Gotabaya of late, maybe because he thinks he had to languish in a remand prison as the latter did not go all out to protect him. But one should not be so naïve as to expect Udayanga to disclose anything that can be used against Gotabaya; his swipes at the latter are only for public consumption.

Politicians and their allies remain loyal to the oath of omerta, as it were, no matter what; never do they divulge information which could lead to mutually assured destruction, so to speak. Court cases against them are like third-rate mega teledramas, which are an insult to people’s intelligence. Full of dramatic twists and turns, they drag on and have highly predictable ends. They are only a form of public entertainment.

Show trials against the powerful invariably collapse in this country, as is public knowledge. One of the main election pledges made by the Yahapalana camp ahead of the 2015 regime change was to throw the Rajapaksas behind bars for the theft of public funds and corrupt deals, among other things. Those who undertook to act as cops were caught with their hands in the till. Then, there occurred a role reversal with the robbers becoming cops, and vice versa. Today, the cops and the robbers are together, sharing power, protecting each other, and cocking a snook at the gullible people, who try to ‘set a thief to catch a thief’ by changing governments.

The theory of the circulation of elites has gained currency in social science, and is used to explain regime changes and how elites and non-elites become rulers from time to time. As for Sri Lanka, we see a kind of circulation of rogues as well; they acquire and enjoy power almost alternately. The Rajapaksa loyalists who went into hiding following the 2015 regime change owing to charges of bribery and corruption, etc., against them are back in action, protesting their innocence, feathering their nests and even having cases against them dismissed on questionable technical grounds rather than the merit of legal arguments in defence of them. They have proved that they are capable of manipulating legislative and legal processes to protect their interests.

Crooks who defaulted on loans from state banks to the tune of billions of rupees, got off scot-free and chose to lie low after the 2019 regime change, are currently sighted in the exalted company of the powers that be at UNP events. They are now safe and can make up for lost time. At this rate, one need not be surprised even if former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, who fled the country before being hauled up before courts over the Treasury bond scams, returns to Sri Lanka. He has told CNN how he thinks the Sri Lankan economy could be straightened up! When the Rajapaksas during their Opposition days vowed to bring Mahendran back to stand trial for the bond racket, we argued in this space that he would be safe under a Rajapaksa administration and no serious attempt would be made to have him extradited because the Rajapaksas were protected by the UNP-led Yahapalana government. Nobody was sent to prison for the murders of newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, and ruggerite, Wasim Thajudeen, and no action was taken to trace the ill-gotten wealth of the bigwigs of the Rajapaksa administration.

The police had five years from January 2015 to complete the probe into the MIG deal. Having let the grass grow under their clumsy feet, while the suspects were out of power, the long arm of the law is now pretending to go hell for leather to complete the investigation. Let the Police be urged to fish or cut bait!

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Editorial

Gota coming?

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Thursday 18th August 2022

Speculation is rife that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is planning to return to Sri Lanka. The question, however, is not whether he is coming, but what he is doing overseas. The anti-government protesters who engineered his ouster called upon him to ‘go home’; they did not ask him to flee the country. Interestingly, they themselves have gone back home! Gotabaya certainly helped defuse tensions by leaving the country in the aftermath of the 09 July uprising, without ordering a military crackdown on protests, whatever the reason, but it defies comprehension why he has chosen to be in self-exile for so long.

All other SLPP politicians who pauperised the country while claiming to empower its people have not fled the country; they are going places, instead. The protesting public demanded a system change, no less, but what they have got is the same rotten system with some cosmetic change; there is a ‘new’ government consisting of the same old failures and political rejects. So, Gotabaya’s return will not make much of a difference.

Gotabaya ruined the economy. He alone? The economic crisis no doubt worsened, on his watch, but it is not of recent origin. When a nation consumes more than it produces, and spends more than it earns, it asks for trouble and its bankruptcy is only a matter of time. Gotabaya could have delayed the country’s slide into pauperism if not for his obduracy, incompetence, inexperience, the wrong advice he received from a coterie of self-styled experts, and some circumstances beyond his control.

The government would have the public believe that the economy nosedived due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected the country’s productivity, exports and the foreign currency inflow, and the Ukraine war, which has led to massive increases in the costs of imports. It is only causing an affront to the people’s intelligence by peddling this argument. The country could have withstood unprecedented pressure from the pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict, albeit temporarily, but for the Gotabaya administration’s economic mismanagement. Politically-motivated tax cuts took a heavy toll on the state revenue, compelling the government to resort to money printing. The situation took a turn for the worse owing to the distribution of cash handouts by way of pandemic relief. Excessive money printing led to an exponential increase in inflation and the devaluation of the rupee. The government also made a fatal mistake by continuing to defend the tumbling rupee until the depletion of the scarce dollar reserves, and allowing a currency free float thereafter, instead of seeking IMF assistance at the first sign of trouble. Corruption has also cost the state coffers dear, the fallout of the mega sugar tax scam being a case in point. Gotabaya’s disastrous organic agriculture policy backfired because what should have been done over several years cautiously was telescoped into a few months.

Trouble began for Gotabaya with the emergence of two more competing power centres in the SLPP in the form of the Mahinda and Basil camps after the last general election. One may recall that Gotabaya performed reasonably well as the President until the formation of the SLPP government in August 2020. Mahinda, after securing the premiership, reverted to his old ways, which had led to his downfall as the President, and Basil began to leverage his position as the handler of the SLPP to control the government.

Gotabaya was keen to form an all-party government towards the latter stages of his rule. It may be argued that he was only making a virtue of necessity, but the fact remains that he was willing to share power with the Opposition. The SLPP was against any such power-sharing arrangement, and the political crisis worsened, leading to the ouster of Gotabaya. Most of those who contributed to the country’s bankruptcy are back in business and the Aragalaya has withered on the vine. Gotabaya alone is on the run—of his own volition.

Some LTTE sympathisers who funded terrorism, which destroyed tens of thousands of lives and properties worth billions of rupees, and ruined the economy, here, are now free to come back because the current administration has delisted their outfits for political expediency. Gotabaya, the former Defence Secretary, who played a pivotal role in prosecuting the country’s successful war against the LTTE, became the President and resigned, fears to return home!

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Editorial

Trickery and duplicity

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Wednesday 17th August, 2022

The SLPP MPs are said to be divided on provision in the 22nd constitutional amendment Bill for the dissolution by the President of Parliament two and a half years after the formation of a government. The ruling party MPs loyal to the Rajapaksas are reportedly demanding that the constitutionally prescribed period be extended to four and a half years, but the dissident SLPP MPs and the Opposition are said to be convinced otherwise; they reportedly favour the current time limit.

Adversity or expediency may make strange bedfellows but they do not necessarily trust one another in cloak-and-dagger politics. They see more devils than vast hell can hold, and are ready to sink their poniards in each other’s back if they feel that is the way they could protect their interests. What happened during the now infamous Yahapalanaya may serve as an example.

The political marriage of convenience between the SLFP and the UNP in 2015 brought a group of highly ambitious politicians together but these elements were suspicious of one another and had their long knives at the ready and put them to good use three years later. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, who won the 2015 presidential race with the help of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, sacked the latter as the Prime Minister and appointed their mutual enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa to that post in a bid to appoint an SLFP-led government at the expense of the UNP.

Sirisena went so far as to dissolve Parliament only to have his executive order quashed by the Supreme Court. He made that deplorable move because he felt that the UNP was undermining him politically.

The SLPP, which made Wickremesinghe the President, seems to fear that he might do a Sirisena in case he falls out with the Rajapaksas.

The 20th Amendment has strengthened the executive presidency, and President Wickremesinghe is far more powerful than President Sirisena was during the Yahapalana government. Ironically, most of the SLPP MPs who voted en bloc for the 20th Amendment, enabling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament after the expiration of two and a half years of its life, are all out to prevent President Wickremesinghe from doing so!

The Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe the President to keep him on a string and have caused the Sword of Medamulna to hang from a saataka over his head. They will not be able to control the President if he can dissolve Parliament, for he will not hesitate to leverage this power in case of the SLPP trying to undermine him. He will be able to use of the ruling party MPs’ fear of Parliament being dissolved to make them fall in line: most SLPP lawmakers know that their chances of re-election are remote.

The only way to prevent the President from exercising his or her power to dissolve Parliament is to move an impeachment motion against him or her. But it is highly unlikely that the SLPP will resort to such a course of action: it has lost its two-thirds majority in the House. Having witnessed the disastrous situation during the latter stages of the Yahapalana government, especially the neglect of national security and the resultant Easter Sunday carnage, one can only hope that the Executive and the ruling party will not be at loggerheads again.

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