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What next?



Given the raging Covid-19 pandemic threatening the entire country at present, Sri Lanka needs the current teachers protests ignoring all preventive protocols like a shot in the head. But there is no sign whatever, as this is being written, of any kind of truce between the teacher and the government. The rulers gave into pressure over the Kotelawela Defence University Bill last week by deferring its scheduled presentation to the legislature sine die. But there has been no backtracking on the teachers’ demands or the ban on the import of chemical fertilizers also attracting loud and crowded protests, Covid notwithstanding. The teachers are on record saying they will not back down. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pupils in government schools, already hurt by the pandemic restrictions, are not even getting the few distance learning opportunities the teachers say they were providing at their own expense.

Fortunately the government has abandoned its previous heavy-handed approach against teachers and other protesters that saw some teachers’ union leaders roughly arrested and hauled before the courts. They were bailed by the courts but not able to go home as the cops bundled them off to distant quarantine centers where delayed testing found them Covid negative. They were released just before the legal challenge they mounted over this issue was taken up by the courts, obviously because the government feared an adverse determination. The protests continue unabated, perhaps gathering fresh momentum with no signs whatever of any via media being achieved. The previous rough stuff telecast countrywide, perhaps somewhat helped the teachers as there is no formidable display of public anger over their Covid-endangering protests.

Our stablemate, The Island, last week carried a most thought provoking article by a senior retired public official, Mr. K.L.L. Wijeratne, branding the teachers’ pay hike demand “An Unjust Call.” He is eminently qualified to offer an opinion on the subject having long served the Salaries and Cadres Commission, both as Secretary (2006 to 2009) and Chairman from 2016 to 2019. All of us well know that teaching has been a poorly paid profession, perhaps the worst paid, for as long as anyone can remember. During the current wave of protest, teachers’ unions as well as their political backers have been loudly proclaiming that they are paid as little as between Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 1,500 a day. It wasn’t long ago that plantation workers were granted a thousand rupee daily wage in the teeth of protests by their employers that the industry just could not bear it and will surely be crushed.

We are also familiar with the fact that teachers, unlike most other employees, enjoy the school vacations thrice a year. They also had weekends off at a time the rest of the workforce had only half a day off on Saturdays. Mr. Wijeratne has given the cold, hard facts in his article saying that teachers work 180 five-hour days a year (around 900 hours) whereas other public servants work 240 eight-hour days (around 1,900 hours) a year. You don’t have to be a cynic to believe that the vast number of employees in our bloated public service, teachers or otherwise, put in far fewer hours into their workdays than they are supposed to. It is no doubt unfair to tar the entire public service with the same brush. But conceding that there are many exceptions, the rule is broadly true. We do not know whether there are any figures – though they must be available somewhere – on the gender balance between men and women in the teaching profession. But there is no doubt that a very large number of women have opted for teaching despite the poor compensation as it enables them to better balance their working and family lives.

Mr. Wijeratne has also given a telling example of how politicians, in this case President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the UNP’s late Srima Dissanayake, who was plunged into a presidential election following the tragic assassination of her husband, Gamini Dissanayake, during a presidential election campaign, drop more than a spot of dung into the pot of milk for political advantage. Here he quotes chapter and verse about CBK’s wise and proper approach to the teachers salary issue which has been simmering for the previous several decades. As finance minister, President Kumaratunga had in 1995 offered what the writer calls “well considered observations” on this subject. This was when she had in 1994 obtained cabinet approval for amending an earlier decision to establish a Sri Lanka Teachers’ Service with effect from October 1994 and implement the salary scaled proposed for that service from Jan. 1995. The amendment she proposed and was accepted required reference of the proposed salary scales to the Salaries and Cadres Committee “for a comprehensive examination and report before implementing the proposals.”

But voila what happened? Ms. Srima Dissanayake published a full page newspaper notice in October 1994 promising to implement the proposed salary scale for teachers and restructure the Principals’ Service, Teacher Education Service and Education Administrative Service. CBK gazetted the proposed salary scales the day her rival’s notice appeared, and as Wijeratne says, created the only instance “where salaries were gazetted before establishing a service!” This then was how the game was played and has continued to be played. The tottering economy cannot bear the weight of the demand which will trigger a myriad of similar demands from elsewhere. But seeing how others have won their demands, the teachers will not let go of the opportunity they have seized Covid or no Covid.

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Pledges and reality



Monday 20th May, 2024

The JVP-led NPP has fully endorsed its National Executive Committee member, K. D. Lalkantha’s controversial pledge that it would empower the people to exercise judicial powers at the village level if it formed the next government. Lalkantha created quite a stir by making that pledge, which he reiterated the other day at a public event. Given the JVP’s violent past, it is only natural that its critics have warned of a possible re-emergence of kangaroo trials in the event of the JVP-led NPP capturing state power. The JVP acted as the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner during its second uprising (1987-89). NPP leaders have sought to allay fears in the public mind, but it is doubtful whether they have succeeded in their endeavour.

According to Article 4 of the Constitution, it is the judicial powers of the people that ‘Parliament exercises through courts, tribunals … except in regard to matters relating to the privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and of its Members, wherein the judicial power of the People may be exercised directly by Parliament according to law’. But it is not possible to enable the people to exercise their judicial powers themselves. Even India’s Panchayats are without judicial powers; the Indian Supreme Court held in August 2010 that the rulings of Panchayats were devoid of legal sanctity. So, it will be interesting to see how the JVP/NPP is planning to ensure the exercise by the people of their judicial powers in villages.

Lalkantha insisted that under no circumstances would the JVPers arrogate to themselves the judicial powers in villages in the event of the JVP/NPP winning the upcoming election. But those who experienced the JVP’s reign of terror will not take such assurances seriously. He that hath an ill name is said to be half hanged.

Politicians who have torn into the JVP/NPP over the aforesaid pledge are no paragons of virtue. They themselves have a history of taking the law into their own hands and physically eliminating their rivals and even media personnel for being critical of them. All political parties that have been in power since 1970 have carried out extrajudicial executions with the help of their goons, and the rogue elements in the armed forces and the police. Others have defended those regimes or non-state actors responsible for terrorism. Perhaps, the UNP destroyed more lives than the JVP did in the late 1980s. The SLFP and the coalitions led by it, such as the People’s Alliance and the United People’s Freedom Alliance, also unleashed violence to suppress democratic dissent and retain their hold on power. Most of those who resorted to violence to achieve their political ends during the UPFA rule are currently in the SLPP.

One can only hope that the JVP/NPP will care to reveal how it proposes to enable the people to exercise judicial powers themselves. That is the only way it can help the people see what its plan is and draw their own conclusions. Some lawyers supportive of the NPP recently sought to discount growing criticism of its move to ‘grant judicial powers to villagers’. They only made some political statements, and their arguments did not leave one any the wiser. Nobody buys into arguments peddled by lawyers, especially those who work for political parties or are politicians themselves. They even defend the likes of ‘Harak Kata’, don’t they?

Lalkantha has also said that the JVP/NPP is planning to introduce recall elections in case of being voted into power so that it will be possible for the people to remove their MPs between elections. The UK has a recall procedure, which was introduced following the MPs’ expenses scandal (2010). If a recall mechanism were in place here, there would be no need for the people to ask all 225 MPs to go home; it would be possible to take action against only the rogues in the garb of MPs. There are some good men and women in the current Parliament. But recall elections cannot be held under the Proportional Representation (PR) system, which does not provide for by-elections. There’s the rub. How does the JVP/NPP propose to overcome this hurdle?

Changing the PR system is a complicated task that requires at least a special majority in Parliament. Most of all, will the JVP ever want to change the PR system, which has stood it as well as other smaller parties in good stead? In politics, talking the talk is one thing, but it’s quite another to walk the walk.

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The games they play



With the Elections Commission now on formal record that the forthcoming presidential election must be held on a date between Sept. 17 and Oct. 16, 2024, the attention of both the media and the electorate will inevitably become more focused on the upcoming contest. While incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is serving former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s balance term which ends on Nov. 19, has not yet declared his own candidature, his intimates have positively stated that he is a runner.

Much that is happening in the political space right now are pointers in that direction. The common perception at this point of time is that the three principal contenders will be Wickremesinghe, who is trying to cobble together a broad alliance to back him and is ulikely to run under UNP colours, Sajith Premadasa of the SJB and Anura Kumara Dissanayake to the NPP/JVP.

The ruling Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has remained remarkably shy of saying whether they are backing Wickremesinghe, who GR first appointed prime minister and SLPP then elected to serve GR’s balance term, or whether they have any other candidate in mind. Though MR has said that son Namal has “more time,” the dynastic ambitions of the Rajapaksas are no secret and Namal has not ruled himself out of the running. Other functionaries of the purple sataka (originally kurakkan) brigade often say they will reveal their candidate at the “right time.”

Billionaire businessman Dhammika Perera, who entered parliament taking Basil Rajapsksa’s national list seat and briefly served as GR’s Minister of Investment Promotion in June-July 2022 also harbors presidential ambitions. He has barely opened his mouth in parliament since his appointment to the legislature but recently made public appearances in the SLPP May Day rally and later at the opening of that partyt’s election office at Nelun Mawatha to which party organizers had been summoned. On both occasions he was clad in his trademark blue suit and red tie, looking quite the puduma satha among the political hoi polloi present at the events. Perera also appeared at one of his own DP Education events at the Nelun Pokuna theatre alongside both MR and RW. The presence of Wickremesinghe at a Dhammika Perera show was a rare occurrence.

As Dr. Nihal Jayawickrema, the respected lawyer and academic, wrote in this newspaper last Sunday, the constitution is very clear on when a presidential election must be held. As such he expressed puzzlement on why a widely viewed television news channel persisted with the refrain “When’s the election?” However that may be, the Elections Commission either on its own initiative or for some other reason like media inquiries, made a formal announcement of the period during which the presidential election must be held stopping short of naming a day. Observers point out that the Commission had stated the obvious despite not being under any obligation to do so.

One possible reason for this could be Mr. Basil Rajapaksa’s continuing pressure on the president to call a general election before a presidential contest. It is very well known that the constitution enables the president to dissolve an incumbent parliament two and a half years after its election. Given that the sitting legislature was elected in August 2020, and that time period has now elapsed, Wickremesinghe, if he wishes, can dissolve parliament and an election must be held thereafter. But he has been resisting the SLPP demand for an early parliamentary election.

It is fairly clear why Basil Rajapaksa, the founder of the SLPP wishes to have a parliamentary election before a presidential race. If whatever horse the SLPP backs, be it Wickremesinghe or any other, his/her defeat will cost votes at the parliamentary election due by August 2025. Of course any parliamentary election in the short term is possible not only by the grace and favor of the president but also by law. A resolution passed with a simple majority in the 225-member legislature any time now, that is with 113 votes, will compel an election.

The SLPP at present commands that majority. But the current picture is that a number of its MPs do not favor an early parliamentary election for various reasons. Among these is that first timers in the legislature will not qualify for a pension if they have not completed five years of parliamentary service. Also, there are those MPs who doubt their own re-election prospects and would prefer to serve the full term in the incumbent legislature rather than face a premature poll. So whatever Basil Rajapaksa’s wishes and calculations are, the required numbers will not be possible without the backing of sections of the opposition. That is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Apart from the three main contender identified earlier, there are other hopefuls who will throw their hats into the ring as demonstrated in previous presidential elections. Also, many ‘dummy’ candidates are usually run by serious contenders looking for their candidate privileges. Various formations are taking place at present, hints and speculation abound and there will be more to follow between now and the actual polling date which is likely to be announced some time in July.

While aspirants abound, most of them will do as badly as similar runners for the presidency have done in the past. But all kinds of games including some comedies are afoot and the country must await further developments in the not too distant future.

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Thugs and porters



Saturday 18th May, 2024

Lessons that the 2022 mass uprising provided have gone unlearnt if the ruling party politicians’ unruly behaviour is anything to go by. Those who went into hiding fearing aggressive mobs that pursued them have crawled out of the woodwork; they are exuding hubris and flexing their muscles, again. Old habits are said to die hard.

State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera (SLPP) has incurred much public opprobrium for slapping a baggage handler at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). He is seen in a video, which is doing the rounds on social media, roughing up the worker in full view of others.

He has sought to justify his violence by claiming that he accompanied his wife to the BIA, and the porter concerned refused to accept Rs. 700 for carrying her bags and demanded Rs. 1,000 instead. He has said he lost his temper but did not do anything other than giving the baggage handler a piece of his mind. However, the video clip belies his claim.

So, a thundering slap across his face was what the BIA worker got for demanding Rs. 300 more! This incident reminds us of the 1980 general strike, which a collective of trade unions launched, demanding that state workers be paid Rs. 300 more each per mensem. The then UNP government sacked tens of thousands of strikers, and issued a dire warning that the ‘elephant’ (meaning the UNP) had only swung its trunk.

The workers who lost their jobs demanded justice, which was never served. Similarly, the BIA worker who asked for Rs. 300 more and became a victim of a member of the SLPP-UNP government has been denied justice. He has not been able to have the police act against State Minister Ranaweera, according to media reports. Maybe the police are scared of confronting Ranaweera for fear of being assaulted or coming under a chilli powder attack.

A few weeks ago, the police swung into action, after watching a social media video where a fast food vendor is seen scolding a foreigner in Colombo, and arrested the culprit in double quick time. They did not wait for a complaint to be made. But that kind of high-octane performance was sadly lacking on the part of the police over Tuesday’s incident. Will they explain why they did not arrest Ranaweera?

That said, it needs to be added that the BIA porters, save a few, are a law unto themselves. They fleece passengers with impunity. They have the audacity to demand payment in foreign currency. Passengers have no one to turn to and therefore suffer in silence.

The BIA will have to be given a radical shake-up if Sri Lanka is to improve its image and promote tourism. However, nobody should be allowed to go about slapping and kicking baggage handlers. What is needed is disciplinary and/or legal action against them.

State Minister Ranaweera must be made to face the full force of the law for assaulting the BIA worker. He has a violent disposition as evident from his involvement in fisticuffs in Parliament, especially during the 52-day government in 2018. He was one of the pro-Rajapaksa MPs who wreaked havoc on the House, and even threatened Speaker Karu Jayasuriya with bodily harm, and attacked the police inside the chamber.

Similarly, action should be taken against the porters who are a nuisance to passengers at the BIA and disgrace to the entire country.

The ruling party politicians seem to think they are out of danger and can do as they please. But let them be warned that public resentment is welling up, and they might have to head for the hills again unless they learn from the 2022 political upheavals and mend their ways.

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