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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

Failed messiahs

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Wednesday 25th November 2020

The UNP has not yet been able to appoint its National List MP. There are many contenders for the post, but the UNP old guard wants party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed; he, however, seems to be in two minds.

Former Minister Arjuna Ranatunga has said the country will gain if Wickremesinghe enters Parliament via the National List because the latter will be able to help the government save the economy. The immediate task before Wickremesinghe is to save the party and not anything else. Charity, they say, begins at home. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Wickremesinghe is an experienced politician, and, therefore, better qualified than anyone else to represent the UNP in Parliament.

Even if Ranil were to be brought back to Parliament as the Opposition Leader, he would not be able to influence the government’s economic policy. The current regime, intoxicated with power, is obdurate and impervious to reason; and not even Sakra will be able to knock any sense into its grandees who are full of themselves.

The Opposition, however, may benefit if Ranil returns to Parliament, for it is short of good debaters to take on the government. The Opposition is apparently all at sea; it could have scored heavily in the ongoing parliamentary debate on Budget 2021, which has some gaping holes, which need to be highlighted. Most of its MPs have been barking up the wrong tree; it is doubtful whether they have even read and understood the budget properly. They, save one or two, confine their remarks to generalities instead of addressing specifics, and the vital aspects of the budget have, therefore, gone unaddressed. What really matters in parliamentary debates is not the numerical strength of a party, but the quality of arguments its members put forth. How legends like Sarath Muttetuwegama held out against the mighty JRJ government, which had a five-sixths majority in Parliament, comes to mind.

Is Ranil capable of helping the government save the economy, as Ranatunga has claimed? If so, why couldn’t he straighten up the economy when he was the Prime Minister and de facto head of state? If he had developed the economy in keeping with his pre-2015 promises, the UNP would not have been in the current predicament. The blame for the failure of the yahapalana government cannot be laid entirely at the feet of former President Maithripala Sirisena.

True, Sirisena, as the President, sought to settle political scores with the UNP and threw a monkey wrench in the works towards the latter part of the yahapalana government, but the UNP had time from January 2015 to mid-2018, to develop the economy. Instead of doing so, it got embroiled in various frauds such as the Treasury bond scams, which led to its undoing.

All politicians look capable when they are in the Opposition. They tell governments what to do and how to do it, but when given mandates to govern the country, they fail miserably. The leaders of the current dispensation, during their Opposition days, ridiculed the yahapalana government for its failure to tackle the country’s burning problems, which are legion, and undertook to magic them away immediately after capturing power. People gave them three huge mandates at the local government, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively. They are now ensconced in power, living high on the hog, but the country’s problems are far from over. They cannot even ensure that the gazettes they put out at a rate are implemented. It looks as if we had another NATO (No-Action-Talk-Only) government.

Governance in this country has been a process of self-proclaimed messiahs becoming failures and vice versa. Regrettably, people have had to replace one set of failed messiahs with another, hoping for deliverance. Madness has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

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Editorial

Govt. gazettes and Jothi’s cassettes

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Tuesday 24th November, 2020

The present government has so far published more gazettes than the total number of cassettes released by H. R. Jothipala (Jothi) during his lifetime, as someone has rightly said, but most of them have not had the desired impact, at all. The recent one stipulating maximum retail prices (MRPs) for some varieties of rice is a case in point. Trade Minister Baundula Gunawardena has recently told the media, in Dambulla, that the consumer should exercise patience and wait until the commencement of the next harvesting season to reap the full benefits of the gazette at issue. Been there, done that, Citizen Perera may say, gnashing his teeth. Many harvesting seasons and gazettes announcing MRPs have come and gone, but he has never had rice at the prices determined by governments. He knows he is in for a big disappointment once again. The reason? The government is too impotent to enforce the MRPs, and the powerful rice millers who control the rice market always have the last laugh.

Minister Gunawardena has said the present administration, unlike its predecessors, does not intend to import rice and distribute it at lower prices as it feels for the paddy farmer. The government must not import rice at this juncture. If it does, it will play straight into the hands of unscrupulous rice millers who want it to do just that. The present shortfall in the supply of rice is due to market manipulations and nothing else. The Millers’ Mafia, creates a shortage of rice and drives governments to import rice ahead of harvesting seasons, thereby causing prices to drop, so that they can buy paddy at lower prices. After collecting paddy for cheap and storing it in their silos, they release some of their old stocks to the market, making the public stop consuming imported rice, which does not suit their palates. Thereafter, they jack up prices slowly, and the imported rice remains in government warehouses to be sold as animal feed in the end. This is the name of the game, and we have written extensively about the strategy adopted by the Millers’ Mafia, but the powers that be do not care to do anything about it because the wealthy millers have political connections and are known to bankroll election campaigns.

The government would have us believe that it refrains from importing rice because it wants to protect the interests of the local farming community. It has also stopped turmeric imports for the same reason, we are told. If so, will it explain why it slashed the import levy on big onions, recently, bringing down their prices while onions were being harvested here? Local onion cultivators are in tears as their produce fetches low prices, as a result. Was the government move aimed at helping its cronies engaged in onion imports?

If Minister Gunawardena or any other government grandee, bellowing pro-people rhetoric, is desirous of making rice available at reasonable prices, he ought to take steps to stop the big-time millers from hoarding paddy and manipulating the market; the Consumer Affairs Authority must be given clear orders and a free hand to conduct raids to prevent hoarding. Paddy farmers find themselves in a debt trap, as we argued in a previous comment, citing research findings. They have to sell their produce at very low prices to the millers who give them loans for cultivation purposes. They are also exploited by other loan sharks such as micro finance companies. The state banks must take the lead in liberating these hapless cultivators from the clutches of usurers. Many small rice mills have gone belly up, unable to compete with the stony-hearted buccaneers in the garb of rich millers. They should be given a financial leg-up urgently, and the Paddy Marketing Board developed as a national priority.

The government, which is not short of politicians who wrap themselves in the flag, ought to listen to all stakeholders, especially those fighting for the rights of the farming community, and work out a strategy to protect the interests of consumers and farmers.

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Editorial

Who handled Zahran?

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Monday 23rd November 2020

Investigations are still being conducted to ascertain whose lapses helped the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) carry out the Eastern Sunday terror attacks with ease. All indications are that they will go on until the cows come home. What we have witnessed all these months is a shameful blame game. Some politicians, former defence officials and police officers have been trying to absolve themselves of criminal culpability for failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage though they had been warned of possible terror strikes, days, if not weeks, in advance. They were as thick as thieves during the early days of the yahapalana rule, but they have now fallen out and are accusing one another. All those who failed to prevent the terrorist attacks, despite intelligence warnings, must be prosecuted. But that alone will not help ensure national security, for it is believed that Zahran Hashim, who led the NTJ and died in a suicide bomb attack, was not the real mastermind of the carnage. A prerequisite for ensuring national security is to find out who handled Zahran.

Former SDIG Ravi Seneviratne, who was in charge of the CID, has told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), probing the Easter Sunday attacks that the person who got Zahran to launch the suicide attacks has to be traced if threats to national security are to be neutralised effectively. He, however, is not alone in arguing that Zahran had a handler.

Testifying before the PCoI, intelligence bigwigs who were in service at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, have said the NTJ was planning a second wave of attacks. In July 2020, a senior intelligence officer, whose identity was not divulged, said the NTJ had planned to attack the Kandy Dalada Perahera, in 2019. No less a person than former Director of State Intelligence Service, SDID Nilantha Jayawardena, has told the PCoI that the real mastermind of the Easter Sunday bombings was not Zahran, but his mentor, Naufer Moulavi, who has been living in Qatar for several years and is known to have various foreign links.

One may argue that the police as well as state intelligence officials, having failed to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks, are now trying to have the public believe that they succeeded in thwarting a second wave of terror, which would have been far worse than the first one. But if their claim that Zahran had planned a second wave of attacks is true, then the question is why he opted to die in the first wave. If he had been the real mastermind of the Easter Sunday attacks, he would not have blown himself up in the first wave of bombings because he would not have been unaware that his death would render his outfit rudderless and too demoralised to carry out attacks ever again. He had seen that following Prabhakaran’s death, the LTTE suicide cadres who survived the war did not carry out any attacks.

SLMC leader and former Minister of Justice Rauf Hakeem has told the PCoI that the mastermind of the Easter Sunday attacks was a different group that wanted to destabilise the country, and they achieved their objective. Insisting that Zahran and the NTJ had been used as pawns by that group, he said he would name the outfit, in camera. In fact, he is reported to have done so. The public has a right to know what that group is.

One can only hope that a separate probe will be launched to find out who handled Zahran and whether there was a foreign hand in the attacks, as claimed in some quarters. Whoever handled Zahran, the fact remains that all those who had links to the NTJ, which carried out the terror attacks, must be brought to justice. Unfortunately, dirty politics has taken precedence over the legal process; under the incumbent government, which came to power, promising tough action against the backers of the NTJ, some suspects are receiving kid-glove treatment despite incriminating evidence against them.

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