Wednesday 11th August, 2021
New Zealand is having ‘labour pains’. Midwives are on the warpath there. They struck work, the other day, demanding better pay, and some of them even took to the streets. Their trade union struggle is not likely to end until their demands are met, according to media reports. They have rejected out of hand a revised pay offer, claiming that it is not adequate.
No country should be complacent when coronavirus makes a retreat, for the elusive enemy is capable of making a comeback at will. New Zealand is apparently resting on its laurels, having declared itself Covid-19 free. True, no active cases have been reported there for some time, but the fact remains that all it takes to plunge a country into chaos is a single infection cluster that goes unnoticed. Sri Lanka also declared victory in its war against Covid-19 prematurely, to all intents and purposes, and lowered its guard, only to have a rude awakening.
Mass gatherings are fraught with the danger of facilitating the spread of Covid-19 even in countries that have not detected any infections for months. However, the New Zealand health workers, to their credit, waited until their country overcame the health crisis and the economy bounced back to make their demands. They refrained from resorting to ca’canny, sick-note campaigns, strikes or street protests while the pandemic was spreading, unlike their counterparts elsewhere. Nurses have also conducted protests, in New Zealand, demanding pay hikes. All these protesting health workers toiled under trying conditions to beat the virus. They know their country can afford what they ask for because of its early economic recovery.
While the health workers in the Land of the Long White Cloud are trying to win their demands, having achieved the goal of containing the pandemic, we have seen in this land like no other, during the past several months, various trade unions and student groups performing the hongi with coronavirus in the streets while the pandemic is raging. We are already witnessing thick plumes of smoke billowing from many crematoria kept open round the clock to dispose of the remains of pandemic victims. Mass burials cannot be far off—absit omen!
Having suspended their street protest campaign, except in the North, teachers’ unions are threatening further trade union action and enlisting the support of other workers. The impact of their street demonstrations on public health will be seen in a few days. The pandemic death toll has already reached 118. Health experts fear that it will continue to climb steeply.
The government has appointed a Cabinet sub-committee comprising a former education minister—Dallas Alahapperuma—to study teachers’ problems and propose ways and means of solving them. Not many Sri Lankans take the appointment of such committees seriously; it is widely considered a dilatory tactic, but if the government had cared to get the protesting teachers around the table earlier, perhaps, the super-spreading events like street protests could have been avoided.
SLPP propagandists call the infection clusters caused by teachers’ protests guru pokuru. But the government’s contribution thereto should not go unrecognised. Let these clusters be called guru-aandu pokuru.
Agitations have apparently come to pass for trade unionism in this country. Responsibility is something alien to the present-day trade unions here unlike in other countries such as Japan, whereunionised workers are mindful of their duties and obligations, and keen to enhance their productivity while taking action to improve conditions of employment; never do they allow political parties to use them as a cat’s paw. Similarly, successive governments have acted irresponsibly in handling workers’ problems; they have sought to wear strikers down or crush their trade union struggles.
It is hoped that workers and the government will behave at least until the pandemic is over.
Singer and different UN tune
Friday 17th September, 2021
State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour inside two prisons has drawn widespread condemnation from the civilised world—and rightly so. The government has stooped so low as to shield him, and in so doing it has brought not only itself but also the entire country into disrepute.
Popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake, given to making a melodrama out of everything in life, is serving a jail term for having said something that the judiciary deemed an affront to its dignity; he lost his parliamentary seat as a result. But Ratwatte, who forcibly entered two prisons and held some Tamil prisoners at gunpoint in one of them, on Sunday, is moving about freely, and, worse, remains a State Minister. The least the government can do by way of damage control is to sack Ratwatte and ensure that he will be arrested and prosecuted without further delay, as we argued yesterday. With the likes of him within its ministerial ranks, the government needs no enemies.
Meanwhile, no sooner had Ratwatte’s despicable behaviour come to light than the UN pontificated to Sri Lanka on the need to look after prisoners. UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said that it was the duty of the State to protect the rights of prisoners. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” Singer tweeted on Wednesday. One cannot but agree with her. The state of Sri Lanka is duty bound to protect all prisoners.
If only the UN had shown the same concern for its own workers taken prisoner by the LTTE. At the height of the Vanni war in 2007, the LTTE abducted two UN workers, accusing them of having helped the Tamil civilians flee the areas under its control. The captives were kept in a dungeon, badly beaten and questioned. The UN chose to keep the incident under wraps, and held clandestine talks with the LTTE to secure the release of the victims, but in vain. On 20 April 2007, we reported the capture of the UN workers. The LTTE again held a group of UN personnel and their families as part of its human shield in the Vanni, but the UN did not condemn the outfit or call upon the big powers to intervene to pressure the LTTE to release them. So much for the UN’s concern for human rights and the safety of prisoners! This kind of duplicity on the part of the UN and the world powers has stood in the way of the global efforts being made to protect human rights.
What Minister Ratwatte is reported to have done in the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday is an act of terrorism. No civilised person can condone such brutality. Similarly, all acts of terrorism must be condemned unreservedly if human rights are to be protected. The TNA is also out for Ratwatte’s scalp. It has every right to do so, and the government must heed its concerns about the Tamil prisoners, whose safety must be ensured. But the TNA owes an apology to the Sri Lankan public for having defended the LTTE and acted as the outfit’s mouthpiece in Parliament as well as elsewhere despite its heinous crimes against civilians. The TNA, which is currently on a crusade to defend human rights, has not even condemned the LTTE for assassinating its own leaders, child abductions, civilian massacres, political killings, running illegal prisons, and the violent suppression of dissent, among other things.
Let it be repeated that the government must strip Ratwatte of his ministerial post immediately, make him face the full force of the law and ensure that the SLPP takes disciplinary action against him. It must also stop fielding murder suspects at elections, accommodating killers in Parliament, pardoning convicted murderers and appointing those who should be behind bars as ministers.
Thursday 16th September, 2021
Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)
It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!
Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.
A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.
Crush Health Mafia!
Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?
The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.
The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.
The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!
The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.
The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.
If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.
This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.
Donations tainted with politics
Wednesday 15th September, 2021
The Chinese Embassy in Colombo is reported to have handed over a consignment of medical equipment to the UNP for distribution among the state-run hospitals. China has made the donation at the request of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, we are told. It defies comprehension why any foreign government should hand over medical equipment, meant for the Sri Lankan public, to local political parties instead of the Health Ministry. As a popular Sri Lankan saying goes, why should a donkey be entrusted with a task that is best left to a dog?
What are the criteria that China adopts in determining the eligibility of Sri Lankan political parties to handle some of its donations to Sri Lankans? There are 70 registered political parties in this country, and 15 of them are represented in Parliament. What if all of them, or the ones with parliamentary representation, ask for medical equipment from the Chinese government to be handed over to the government hospitals and gain some political mileage? Will China oblige? If not, why? Is it that kissing goes by favour? (China got a port from a UNP-led government, didn’t it?)
China has been looking after Sri Lankan politicians very well, as is public knowledge, and therefore does not have to do anything more for them. It offers junkets even to the local government members. But for the pandemic, by now, all the MPs and most local councillors would have been to China on pilgrimage. Even the most vociferous critics of China in Parliament have no qualms about benefiting from the Chinese largesse.
Political parties should not be allowed to gain political mileage from donations that come from the people of other countries to their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is an affront to the kind-hearted foreigners for their donations to be tainted with partisan politics at this end. When foreign governments make donations through local political parties, they are seen to be helping further the agendas of the latter. Is it fair for foreign governments to use their taxpayers’ money for such purposes?
JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, is raking Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa over the coals for having asked the government to hold a snap election. Those who call for elections while people are dying of Covid-19 need psychiatric care, Dissanayake has declared. True, there is absolutely no need for an election at this juncture, and the country’s top priority should be fighting the pandemic, and everything else can wait. But Premadasa should not be singled out for criticism; all politicians see opportunities in crises. If the present-day leaders had been in the Opposition today, they would also have asked for an election; they made the most of a national security crisis in 2019 to floor the yahapalana government and capture power.
The JVP is not acting out of principle when it opposes Premadasa’s call for polls; it is scared of facing elections. It, however, has a history of trying to topple a government while the country was in a bigger crisis. It joined forces with others in a bid to defeat the Rajapaksa administration’s budgets in 2007 and 2008 while the country’s war against the LTTE was raging. Had they succeeded in their endeavour, the government would have fallen, and an election would have had to be held; Prabhakaran would have been given ample time to have international pressure ratcheted up on Sri Lanka to halt or abandon military operations against the LTTE; the armed forces, too, would have been greatly demoralised in such a situation.
In this country, politicians think of everything in terms of elections. It is said that a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. Sri Lanka’s biggest problem is that it has not had statespersons.
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