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Editorial

Virus and Big Brother

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Monday 16th November 2020

Whoever would have thought, a few years ago, that a runaway virus would upend the modern world in this manner? Coronavirus has brought about an unprecedented situation where everyone, across the globe, feels just like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s dystopian novella, ‘1984’. Winston is troubled by his omniscient party leader, Big Brother, watching him and monitoring even his thoughts.

Surveillance as a pandemic control measure has become the order of the day. It is a necessary evil, given the severity of the global health emergency. More than 54 million people have been afflicted with COVID-19, which has snuffed out as many as 1.3 million lives, in the world. The global economy is screaming. The worst is yet to come, according to international health experts, who warn of a much more destructive third wave of infections.

The world is at war with the highly contagious virus, and the response of some countries to the health emergency is said to be becoming increasingly militarised. Sri Lanka is among the first few countries that deployed their militaries to battle the virus at the very early stages of the pandemic. It looks as if other countries had to follow suit.

The Sri Lanka army has unveiled a newly acquired capability in the war against the virus, which is as elusive as terrorists; it has set up a drone brigade and embarked on a mission to trace quarantine law violators in the city. Military intelligence has been tasked with tracing infection clusters and deal with those who defy the anti-pandemic health regulations. Now, there are unsightly military drones hovering overhead and spying on people! Gone are the days when children could play and adults meet in alleys in housing schemes freely during curfews. Those who do so now run the risk of being traced and even prosecuted.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of the much-dreaded community transmission stage, and drastic measures have had to be adopted to contain the pandemic. The need for the deployment of military drones and Air Force choppers in the city would not have arisen if the people had acted responsibly; COVID-19 is spreading fast in housing schemes and areas full of slums and shanties.

It is believed that humans will have to learn to live with COVID-19, which will not go away anytime soon. There is also the possibility of surveillance and other such draconian measures currently being employed to tackle the health emergency coming to stay in some parts of the developing world even after the pandemic is brought under control.

Coronavirus has landed the democratic world in a dilemma. Democracies have their work cut out to battle the virus in that they have to be mindful of the rights of their citizens, who resist any measure that curtails their rights and freedoms even if it is aimed at ensuring their own safety. China has been able to beat the virus effectively as it is not in the least concerned about individual freedoms and is free to do whatever it takes to control the disease.

Difficulties some countries are faced with in overcoming resistance from their citizens to the steps being taken to battle the virus remind us of the theory of social contract, according to which humans had go give up some of their freedoms to bring order out of chaos; they exercised their natural reason and gave up their natural freedom to reap the benefits of an organised society as they did not want to continue to live a life, which was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. The current pandemic also poses an existential threat to humans. They have a choice; they can do without some of their freedoms and rights temporarily to help beat the virus, or they can refuse to do so and endanger their own lives in the process. The challenge before democratic governments and those who are staging protests to safeguard individual freedoms at this hour of crisis is to find a middle ground if disaster is to be averted.



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Editorial

Cops rise from deep slumber

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Saturday 20th August, 2022

The police have risen from a deep slumber like Rip Van Winkle. They have arrested Mervyn Silva for storming the state-owned Rupavahini Corporation headquarters in 2007 and roughing up a news director there. He was accompanied by some underworld characters during that incursion, which turned out to be a misadventure. They got their just deserts; the Rupavahini workers retaliated, and took them hostage. The police had to intervene to secure their release. Mervyn returned the worse for wear with his tail between his legs! It is puzzling why the police have resumed the probe into that incident all of a sudden. Has Mervyn ruffled the feathers of the leaders of the current dispensation. He has been letting out streams of invective against the Rajapaksas, whose sandals he used to lick until 2015.

Interestingly, when Mervyn was produced in court, the Judge, who released him without bail, happened to mention the fact that the latter had banned cattle slaughter in Kelaniya. True, Mervyn did so, and perhaps that is about the only good thing he has done as a politician, and he has benefited from the merit thereof in this life itself! If only he respected the rights of humans as well and refrained from harming them!

Mervyn is lucky that his sordid past is now almost forgotten, and only his intervention to save the poor bovines is remembered. He used to terrorise the public and treat the police like a doormat. He would openly issue orders to high-ranking police officers, who meekly did as he said. He once tied a public official to a tree in full view of the police as ‘punishment’ for being late for a meeting he had summoned! He would threaten media personnel and even damage their cameras, etc., in public, with impunity. He should have been arrested for his alleged involvement in attacks on television stations during the previous Rajapaksa government.

From 2005 to 2015, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa protected Mervyn, who rose above the law as a result. A group of newspaper editors, at a meeting with President Rajapaksa, in the aftermath of the Rupavahini incident, asked why no legal action had been taken against Mervyn, and Rajapaksa had the chutzpah to claim that there was no need to do so because the Rupavahini workers had meted out punishment to Mervyn!

Rajapaksa was dependent on Mervyn for crushing anti-government protests and taming the Opposition and the media, and following his re-election in 2010 he went so far as to appoint the latter the Deputy Minister of Media! Journalists had to fight quite a battle to have him stripped of that post. We argued editorially that it was the Arachchi who incurred the wrath of the people if he did not care to keep his ferocious pet dog on a tight lease, and Mahinda was asking for trouble by giving Mervyn free rein.

Behind every successful criminal in this country there is a politician. Kalu Lucky, Gonawala Sunil, Soththi Upali, Beddegana Sanjeewa, Wambotta and other savage killers would not have been able to place themselves above the law but for the politicians who protected them. Ironically, those who used those underworld characters to do dirty political work are today pontificating to their rivals on the virtues of democracy and the rule of law. Maithripala Sirisena, who realised his presidential dream, by promising good governance, has had no qualms about granting Mervyn SLFP membership!

Now that the police are awake and busy probing Mervyn’s Rupavahini raid, let them be urged to resume investigations into the many crimes committed during the Rajapaksa government, the killings of journalists, land grabs, arson attacks on media institutions, and violence against the Opposition politicians. Terrible things that Mervyn is alleged to have done at the behest of his political masters must also not go uninvestigated.

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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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