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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

The galloping stock market

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The Colombo stock market has been galloping like nobody’s business these past several days with little or no rational explanation of why this is so in the context of a pandemic-hit business downturn. Among the reasons that have been proffered by brokers and analysts for this surge in confidence of market players, and they have increased substantially in recent months according to the CSE, is that interest rates are plunging. Investors who could earn as much as 12 or 13 percent or more on fixed deposits not so long ago, have to be now satisfied with marginal returns way below the prevailing rates of inflation. They are thus attracted to a stock market which is now performing better than most others in the region.

But the surge on the Colombo market is not supported by foreign or institutional buying which knowledgeable people say is necessary to sustain the current momentum. In fact there has been a steady outflow of foreign funds from Colombo in recent months and there has been no stemming of this flow. Although various authorities have more than hinted that institutions like the Employees Provident Fund and the Insurance Corporation will be back in the market in the short term, this does not appear to have come to pass.

Little wonder. There have been a plethora of allegations about pump and dump and market manipulation that institutional fund managers will be reluctant to open themselves to fresh accusations. This would mean a safe ‘do nothing’ philosophy unless they are ordered to enter the market. We do not know whether there is political or any other directions on what state-controlled entities should do with regard to stock market investment today. But we do know that this has happened in the past. It has been rightly urged that the EPF is only the guardian of the private sector retirement fund it manages, and not its owner. The fund belongs to its members who, together with their employers, make monthly contributions to it as a retirement saving. It must therefore refrain from speculative investments like stock trading is the conservative viewpoint.

The contra-argument has also been adduced. The EPF has long been a captive lender to the government. Government borrowing would naturally ease as the economy grows and there was official thinking within the Central Bank that it made sense to invest in private sector growth areas through the stock market as a long-term strategy. This was done to some degree that was admittedly small. Those who read the annual reports of listed companies, and even their quarterly financial reports listing their top twenty shareholders, will know that that the EPF has substantial stakes in many blue chip companies. There must be a lot of unrealized capital gains in the EPF portfolio where the pluses will outweigh the minuses although the fund cannot always back winners. If its members get an annual dividend ahead of inflation on their individual holdings in the fund, nobody can reasonably complain.

The benchmark All Share Price Index of the CSE has already topped its all time high and the upward momentum continued as this is being written on Friday. Where it will end, nobody can say. It is certainly a good thing for the country that many small investors are entering the stock market which is now retail driven. A completely new class of investors have today entered a field which not so long ago was the exclusive preserve of the rich. Massive turnovers in the billions are being recorded on the CSE every day and stockbrokers who had a lean time as the Easter bomb and the pandemic hit forcing market closure for a long period, would now be laughing all the way to the bank. While the market and its players can bask in the current sunshine, it is very necessary to attract foreign investors back to the CSE. This will undoubtedly be a formidable tasks but a bull run such as that which ongoing can be a factor that can prove persuasive.

 

Ranjan Ramanayake

 

The Chairman of the Elections Commission went on public record that Ranjan Ramanayake, the actor politician, who has now begun serving his term of four years rigorous imprisonment will not lose his parliamentary seat for six months. But the attorney general has said otherwise and the elections boss has subsequently stated that what he had expressed is a personal opinion. However that be, the Ramanayake issue remains very much alive in parliament where his Samagi Jana Balavegaya colleague, Harin Fernando sported a black shawl last week and said he will continue to wear it until Ranjan returns. Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, who defended Ramanayake in the Supreme Court also spoke up for the actor saying he was privileged to appear in court “for a clean, honest politician and I’m proud of that.”

The Speaker is yet to rule whether the convicted MP is entitled to attend parliament and promised to announce his decision in three weeks. Readers know that other prisoner-parliamentarians have previously attended sessions, but what will happen in this instance remains an open question in the short term. While most people believe that there is no appeal from a Supreme Court determination and a presidential pardon is the only way out, a contrary view relative to this matter has also been expressed in the context of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sri Lanka is a signatory.

In parliament last week Sumanthiran drew attention to the fact that Sri Lanka has failed to enact legislation for contempt of court although some work in that regard had been done. Expressing the view that the term imposed on Ramanayake was unprecedented and exceptionally severe, he drew attention to a serious lacuna in the law which has resulted “in an unprecedented injustice to an honest Member of Parliament.” Ramanayake has consistently refused to apologize for the offence over which he was charged; his parliamentary colleague, Lakshman Kiriella, also last week referred to the conduct of two former chief justices, although under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Such reference had obvious implications in the context of what Ramanayake said.

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Editorial

When sugar tastes bitter

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Saturday 23rd January, 2021

Many a yahapalana politician made a spectacle of himself, in the last Parliament, by trying to defend the indefensible after the lid had been blown off the Treasury bond scams. The UNP MPs argued, until they were blue in the face, that there had been no wrongdoing, and the bond scams were a total fabrication. However, the truth like oil came to the surface, and the defenders of the bond scammers are now in the political wilderness. Some SLPP politicians are doing likewise in the current Parliament; they are making a futile bid to counter various allegations against the government, the latest being that it slashed import duty on sugar to help a crony make huge profits.

The Opposition has claimed that the sugar importer involved in the racket is one of the SLPP financers; he sponsored Viyathmaga events among other things, we are told. The government has not denied this claim, and one can, therefore, conclude that the person who is said to have benefited from the duty reduction on sugar is a financial backer of the SLPP.

Hardly anything comes free in this money-driven world, especially in the lucrative business of politics. Moneybags do not part with their dosh for nothing. Funding political parties is an investment for them, and they expect returns thereon. It is now payback time for those who bankrolled the SLPP’s election campaigns, etc., and their interests always take precedence over those of the ordinary electors.

Financial backers of ruling politicians have all the luck across the globe. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trusted lieutenant, Gautam Adani, is so powerful that he can have the Indian government make Sri Lanka cough up even a port terminal! Barack Obama, who during his first election campaign, pledged to end cronyism, also stood accused of favouring his cronies; he made quite a stir by appointing one of his financial backers, Louise Susman, who had little experience of foreign affairs, as the US ambassador to the UK. Quid pro quo is the name of the game in politics.

The SLPP politicians are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public as regards the import duty controversy. They claim that some importers had bought huge stocks of sugar, especially from India, which gave concessions to its exporters, by the time the import duty was reduced here, and refused to sell sugar at the new price determined by the government. Cooperative Services, Marketing Development and Consumer Services State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna told the House, the other day, that those sugar importers had resorted to market manipulation and frustrated the government’s effort to bring down the sugar price. He claimed that a private company had taken advantage of the duty reduction to import sugar at a lower cost while other importers were left with huge stocks of sugar in their warehouses, which were packed to the rafters. There had been no racket whatsoever, the State Minister claimed. Market watchers are convinced otherwise, though. Their position is that the duty reduction was timed in such a way that it benefited the SLPP’s crony. Their argument that the government purposely waited until the warehouses of other sugar importers were full to slash the import duty on sugar so that its backer would stand to gain, holds water.

The problem with the Opposition is that it generally does not raise pointed questions in Parliament. Its members make a lot of noise but little sense during the question time in the House, and regrettably this allows the ministers to obfuscate vital issues. Only the JVP poses some sensible questions.

The government may beat the weak Opposition in parliamentary debates and wriggle out of difficult situations by muddying the water, but it cannot hoodwink the public. As for the political health of any government what really matters is public opinion. The sugar import controversy has left a bad (or sour) taste in many a mouth.

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Editorial

Of those walls

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Friday 22nd January, 2021

Walls are meant to ensure safety. Most houses in this country have boundary walls that are as tall as those around prisons, for there are more criminals at large than behind bars, and the law-abiding people fear for their safety. But walls can also be a source of danger if they are jerrybuilt or happen to sit in the wrong places like the one along a section of the perimeter of the Ratmalana Airport near the Galle road. A veteran Sri Lankan pilot, who writes to this newspaper under a pseudonym, has been striving for the last 10 years or so to have this wall pulled down because he believes it poses a danger to aircraft. He has written many articles putting forth solid arguments for the demolition of the wall, but in vain; the last one appeared yesterday. One may argue that the airport wall has caused no accidents so far and, therefore, one should not worry, but anything that is a potential danger to aircraft should not be permitted in or around airports.

Walls could cause trouble on the political front as well. Donald Trump was left with egg on his face when he, as the US President, tried to have a wall built along the US-Mexico border. That wall never came up, and Trump has had to leave the White House. Walls that political leaders allow to be built around them could also be problematic.

Many of those who campaigned really hard to bring the incumbent Sri Lankan government to power are now climbing the walls. Their frustration knows no bounds. They think a favoured few have built a wall around President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and are misleading him. This is what, some prominent Buddhist monks who led the SLPP’s election campaigns from the front say, has happened.

Several senior Buddhist monks flayed the government at a religious function held on Wednesday to invoke blessings on Ven. Omare Kassapa Thera on his birthday, at Abayaramaya, Colombo. Ven. Murutettuwe Ananda, Ven. Medagama Abhayatissa and Ven. Elle Gunawansa Theras, in their speeches decried the way the government was mismanaging state assets which it had undertaken to protect. They said their voice had gone unheeded as some persons had built a wall around the President. Medagama Abhayatissa Thera recalled how a group of Buddhist monks had protested when Hambantota Port was leased to the Chinese; he said the Maha Sangha would go all out to save the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port.

One may recall that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister of the yahapalana government, derisively called Abayaramaya ‘Mahindaramaya’ because it was there that ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa successfully rallied forces to make a comeback following his defeat in the 2015 presidential race. Today, staunch SLPP supporters are raking the government over the coals at the very temple, which served as the cradle of their anti-yahapalana campaign.

Gotabaya, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, once demonstrated a deep antipathy towards walls. He had some of them pulled down in the Colombo city as part of his urban yuppification programme. But he is now under fire from government supporters for having allowed a wall to be built around him.

The wall of mistrust that has come up between the SLPP and its supporters, who show signs of utter disillusionment and frustration, presages trouble for the government, which has earned notoriety for signaling left and turning right, so to speak. The questionable ECT deal which has irked the forces that propelled it to power could be its undoing.

Defensive walls could fail to be effective in politics as in football, where skilled players know how to curve the ball past them into the goal. What Maithripala Sirisena did to his boss, Mahinda, in the 2015 presidential contest, is a case in point. It was a real kicker for the latter.

Most political leaders tend to forget, after being ensconced in power, that walls around them are no match for the power of people’s voice. They ought to remember that all it took to bring down the Wall of Jericho was a great shout people raised in unison.

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