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Editorial

Virus in hellholes

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Friday 27th November 2020

Former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, who was taken into custody a few weeks ago, has been released on bail. His counsel, asking for bail, brought to the notice of the court that COVID-19 was spreading fast in prisons. Prisoners are a high-risk group. Life is precious, and nobody must be exposed to COVID-19. Bathiudeen’s safety should be ensured. But what about the other suspects, numbering thousands, held in overcrowded remand prisons, and convicts serving sentences?

Prisoners have held protests, claiming that their lives are in danger due to the spread of the pandemic. Their rights must also be respected. Will the suspects currently languishing in remand prisons also be released on bail to save them from the virus? Or, is it that all prisoners and remandees are equal, but politicians amongst them are ‘more equal’?

Bathiudeen was arrested and remanded for violating the Presidential Elections Act, but if the allegation against him—misusing public funds to transport voters in state-owned buses during a presidential election—is anything to go by, then he should be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act, as well. It is a non-bailable offence to violate this particular Act, which the yahapalana government used to have some of its political rivals remanded. Bathiudeen has not yet been prosecuted for destroying forests although the Court of Appeal has recently determined that he cleared a section of the Kallaru forest reserve illegally and ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the area. He is lucky that the present-day leaders who helped him launch his political career and gave him free rein to do whatever he wanted are wary of pressing for his prosecution over the destruction of forest land. They apparently do not want to open up a can of worms. The rape of the Wilpattu forest began during a previous Rajapaksa government, which benefited from Bathiudeen’s block vote until late 2014, when he decamped and threw in his lot with the common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.

Bathiudeen evaded arrest, following Attorney General’s order that he be taken into custody and produced in court; he apparently hoped that he would be able to get away like the bond racketeers who went into hiding and obtained an interim injunction staying their arrest warrants. The CID was obviously under pressure not to arrest those elements with political connections, but it became too embarrassing for Bathiudeen’s mentors in the present regime to go all out to prevent his arrest owing to tremendous media pressure.

COVID-19 is spreading in the Sri Lankan prisons as it is not easy to contain the highly contagious coronavirus in overcrowded environments. Precautions should therefore have been taken to prevent its spread. The first wave of COVID-19 ripped through the US prisons, which are much more spacious and have better facilities than the Sri Lankan jails, and left hundreds of inmates dead. Prisoners and their family members staged protests in some parts of the US.

Sri Lanka did not learn from others’ experience; only a committee was appointed some moons ago to find ways and means of easing prison congestion. The Attorney General himself has evinced a keen interest in ensuring the safety of prison inmates. But the situation has taken a turn for the worse, and how the government is planning to make prisons safe is not clear.

Prison overcrowding, however, is not a problem endemic to the developing world. It has come to plague even the developed countries, which have been compelled to experiment with technological solutions. Years ago, some nations including the UK adopted the electronic tagging system, which allows non-violent prisoners to be tagged, released and monitored. Opinion may be divided on this method, but it seems to have worked where it is employed and is worth a shot.

Whatever the methods the government is planning to adopt to make prisons safe, it has to act fast. The clock is ticking.



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Editorial

Of that presidential monkey wrench

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Thursday 7th July, 2022

The Opposition has, after weeks of dillydallying, agreed to form an all-party caretaker government. The JVP remains noncommittal but it will have to make common cause with other Opposition parties if it is not to be branded a spoiler. The SLPP, however, has not taken kindly to the Opposition’s move; it is seeking to have one of its MPs appointed Prime Minister.

Some Opposition parties have claimed that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is against the proposed all-party interim government. If so, he is asking for more trouble. It was to oust him that the people took to the streets, first. Their main slogan was ‘Gota Go Home!’, but the President managed to deflect them from their purpose and save his skin by throwing others including his elder brother, Mahinda, to the wolves. First, he got the entire Cabinet except Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign, but as pressure continued to mount, he had Mahinda resign and appointed a new Cabinet with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Those measures have not helped contain the crisis and grant relief to the public, and it is only natural that the people’s anger is rising. If the President tries to prevent an all-party interim government from being formed, the people, and the Opposition will go all out to oust him. He will be without any defence.

President Rajapaksa has failed; he has made colossal blunders on his own admission, and they have inflicted irreparable damage on the country. The current economic crisis would not have come about if assistance had been sought from the IMF about two years ago, and the rupee floated much earlier without being defended at the expense of the country’s scarce foreign reserves. Ill-advised, politically-motivated tax cuts led to the prevailing rupee crisis and excessive money printing, which has led to hyperinflation, and the rupee devaluation. The President’s disastrous experiment with organic farming has taken a heavy toll on the agricultural sector. That is why the people launched the ‘Gota Go Home’ campaign. Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister, undertaking to play a messianic role, and the UNP made him out to be a miracle-man capable of attracting billions of dollars in next to no time because he was in the good books of the developed world. But the crisis has taken a turn for the worse since his appointment as the PM. It has now been revealed that an amendment to the Exchange Control Act in 2017, when he was the Prime Minister, stood forex racketeers in good stead and paved the way for the present dollar crisis. Newly-appointed Minister Dhammika Perera, who was brought in as a National List MP to promote foreign investment, has declared that PM Wickremesinghe is obstructing the country’s efforts to bring in foreign exchange, which is the be-all and end-all of any economic recovery programme. He has called for the latter’s resignation as the Finance Minister. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera does not seem to know whether he is coming or going. The only thing he does efficiently is to increase the prices of fuel, which is in short supply.

The incumbent government has manifestly failed and is not capable of resolving the crisis. There is a massive build-up of public anger in the polity, which is a simmering volcano. The Opposition is planning to go on protesting until the President steps down, and such a course of action will plunge the country into anarchy, and let the genie out of the bottle. The only way to defuse tension, and foreclose protests that are bound to debilitate the economy further is to form a multi-party interim government so that the Opposition will have to stop protesting and put its shoulder to the wheel to help turn around the economy and ameliorate people’s suffering. The formation of a national unity government will also go a long way towards regaining the confidence of foreign investors, lenders and well-wishers. It will be plain political suicide for President Rajapaksa to try to throw a monkey wrench in the works.

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Editorial

All bark and no bite

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Wednesday 6th July, 2022

Parliament was thrown into turmoil once again yesterday, when a group of Opposition MPs staged a boisterous protest against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presence in the House. They shouted themselves hoarse, asking the President to step down. The whole country has been asking the President to go home, but he carries on regardless. Politicians who savour power never give it up of their own volition; they are like limpets. So, no amount of shouting will help the SJB, the other Opposition parties in Parliament, and the public see the back of the President, as it stands. It looks as if the Opposition had to change its strategy.

The government still has a working majority in Parliament; it therefore has the edge in shouting matches in the House and can secure the passage of bad laws. Yesterday, there were dozens of government MPs shouting in support of the President. The Opposition has its work cut out as regards its plan to topple the government by mustering enough numbers in Parliament, and this may be the reason why it has taken its battle to the streets. A similar situation arose towards the latter stages of the yahapalana government. The UNP-led UNF retained an absolute majority in the House with the help of the JVP and the TNA although it was losing popular support rapidly. The SLPP intensified its campaign outside Parliament and turned the tables on the yahapalana regime; it won the presidential and parliamentary polls with huge majorities. But this time around, there is neither an election in sight nor a guarantee that the next government to be elected would be a stable one, and the present crisis would go away even if Parliament resolved to dissolve itself and a snap general election was held anytime soon. There’s the rub. The SJB, other anti-government forces, and the country will stand to gain only if all parties get together to break the back of the crisis before the next general election.

It has been reported that the Opposition is planning to launch a continuous protest soon to pressure the President to resign. The President is not likely to step down due to protests, but if he happens to find himself in a situation where he is left with no alternative but to sacrifice Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint a new government with someone else as the PM, to save his skin, he will not scruple to do so. After all, he had his own brother, Mahinda, step down as the PM, didn’t he? In fact, he offered the premiership to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa before appointing Wickremesinghe PM. Anything is possible in politics.

The Opposition may have thought yesterday’s protest against the President would go down well with the irate public, languishing in queues and skipping meals, but such gimmicks will not help solve their problems. People are so indignant that they may love to see the President and other government grandees being ridiculed, but that does not serve their purpose. The interests of the public will be served only if all political parties, which are responsible for the mess the country has got into over the years, albeit to varying degrees, speak with one voice and act unitedly to resolve the crisis.

President Rajapaksa may have sought to prove MP Wimal Weerawansa wrong by attending Parliament yesterday. The latter said on Monday that the President was nowhere to be seen, the implication being that he was in hiding. But the President’s presence only led to a serious disruption to parliamentary proceedings in a time when the national legislature should remain maniacally focused on how to contain the crisis. The IMF and foreign governments have told Sri Lanka with one voice that it has to get its act together to qualify for financial assistance, but its political leaders are jousting for supremacy instead of sinking their differences and working out a common agenda to save the economy.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe threw down a challenge to JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who claims to be able to revive the economy in six months. He said he would resign, allowing Dissanayake to take over as the PM if the latter could present to Parliament a workable plan to resolve the crisis so fast. Will Dissanayake take up the challenge or continue to protest? The SJB also can reveal to the House how it intends to sort out the economy, and thereafter ask for the reins of government to implement its economic recovery programme. Such a course of action will be much more effective, and beneficial to the country than shouting.

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Editorial

A dangerous trend

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Tuesday 5th July, 2022

Fossil fuel is highly inflammable and has to be handled with care, as is known to everyone. Shortages thereof could also be so, in a manner of speaking, as evident from how tempers flare in fuel queues, igniting violence. There have been countless untoward incidents at filling stations, some of which even had to be closed temporarily as a result. The situation has recently taken a turn for the worse. Now, protesters are clashing with the police and security forces personnel directly. An armed soldier was stabbed at a fuel station in Embilipitiya, the other day, and an army officer was seen kicking a protester elsewhere. This is an extremely dangerous trend. When the armed forces are deployed to control angry crowds, violent encounters are to be expected.

In May, the country witnessed a spate of violence in the aftermath of the SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters. Organised gangs wearing full-face helmets carried out arson attacks in a very systematic manner as if they had rehearsed for those destructive acts. Luckily, they failed to sustain the wave of violence, but they may be able to compass their anarchical ends if clashes between the people and the armed forces erupt.

The best way to defuse widespread tensions is to make fuel freely available, but given the prevailing forex crunch and the attendant shortages of essential imports, the government must at least make a serious effort to ration fuel to be imported and bring profiteers to justice. Cynics say Sri Lanka has become an oil rich country of sorts although pumps at its filling stations have run dry. This situation has come about thanks to hoarders who are making a killing while the ordinary people have been left without any fuel. At this rate, the government might not be able to solve the fuel shortage even if a dozen ships carrying oil were to arrive in quick succession. Raids continue to yield huge amounts of hoarded diesel and petrol, but we believe that the police are only scratching the surface of the problem. If handsome rewards are offered for information that leads to the seizure of hoarded fuel, and raids are stepped up with more decoys being deployed, the police will be able to seize at least a shipload of fuel from hoarders.

What characterises the petroleum sector is utter chaos with racketeers having a field day. Most vehicles, especially trishaws, do not leave queues even after being refuelled; they keep returning and obtaining diesel and petrol continuously at the expense of others, who are left without any fuel as a result. Most trishaws are not available for hire these days, for it is much more lucrative to wait in queues, obtain fuel and sell it on the black market, where a litre of petrol or diesel fetches as much as Rs. 2,000. The success of any strategy to dispense fuel equitably will hinge on the government’s ability to hold unscrupulous elements at bay until fuel supplies are restored to the pre-crisis level. The recently-introduced token system has manifestly failed, and it is only natural that the government has dissociated itself from this harebrained scheme.

The government should introduce fuel rationing urgently. Perhaps, it should seriously consider adopting the odd-even rationing and having fuel stations stamp a mini calendar on the reverse of the revenue licence of every vehicle so that dates on which fuel is issued can be cancelled, at the pump, preferably by the police. This scheme, we believe, may help halve the number of vehicles waiting in fuel queues, infuse the public with confidence and thereby thwart speculation, which results in hoarding.

Meanwhile, when diesel is issued, priority has to be given to vehicles engaged in public transport and tourism, trucks transporting essentials, fishing craft, etc. This does not happen at present; even the owners of super luxury SUVs that do not do more than four to five kilometres to a litre of petrol or diesel have unlimited access to fuel. Many such gas guzzlers have been sighted at the CPC’s Kolonnawa storage terminal, where fuel is said to be issued to the so-called VVIPs, while the majority of private buses cannot operate for want of diesel.

The root cause of the fuel crisis is the shortage of forex, but the government’s cavalier attitude and inability to introduce a proper rationing system have aggravated it and are likely to plunge the country into anarchy with people clashing with the police and the armed forces, much to the glee of the so-called Helmet Brigade waiting in the wings for another opportunity.

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