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Editorial

What next?

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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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Editorial

Independence, democracy and franchise

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Saturday 4th February, 2023

The SLPP-UNP regime is celebrating ‘Independence’ on a grand scale today while trifling with people’s sovereignty, which includes the power of government, fundamental rights and franchise. It makes no bones about the fact that it is all out to delay the local government elections and deprive the public of an opportunity to exercise their franchise. It is pulling out all the stops in a bid to throttle the electoral process by denying the Election Commission funds for conducting the mini polls scheduled for 09 March.

The government is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP promised in its manifestos presented to the public before the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary polls. It does not heed public opinion at all and bulldozes its way through. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, and therefore they must be able to exercise their right to vote and thereby express their opinion on how the country is being governed. A regime that undermines people’s power of government and franchise cannot be considered democratic.

The SLPP-UNP government also stands accused of violating people’s fundamental rights. Convener of the Inter-University Students’ Federation Wasantha Mudalige, who was released on bail recently, has levelled a very serious allegation against the government. He says an attempt was made to kill him while he was in police custody. Besides, it has now been revealed that he was wrongfully arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); the Colombo Magistrate’s Court has cleared him of charges pressed against him under the PTA. He is planning to file a fundamental rights violation petition against the police and others responsible for pressing trumped-up charges against him and his illegal detention under the PTA.

The incumbent dispensation has thus proved that it does not care two hoots about the people’s fundamental rights, power of government and franchise. It is therefore without any legitimacy to exercise people’s legislative, executive and judicial powers.

Mudalige’s serious allegations against the police evoke one’s dreadful memoires of the reign of terror in the late 1980s, when abductions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings were the order of the day. The politicians and their hired guns who committed heinous crimes in the name of counterterrorism, in that era, and some former southern terrorists and their hit squad members are still around.

Old habits are said to die hard. It is being argued in some quarters that the wave of retaliatory violence that swept across the country following SLPP goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters on 09 April 2022 bore the hallmarks of southern terrorism the country witnessed in the 1987-89 period; widespread arson attacks on the ruling party politicians’ properties were well-coordinated and swift; they were far from spontaneous, and the same is true for the abortive attempt to take over Parliament in July last year. The UNP, which unleashed barbaric counterterrorism, is in power, and the JVP is threatening to launch a wave of protests if the mini polls are postponed.

It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The J. R. Jayewardene government made a colossal blunder by doing away with the 1982 general election, and holding a heavily-rigged referendum, instead, to retain its five-sixths majority in Parliament. Its interference with the country’s electoral process intensified public anger, which the JVP effectively tapped to fuel its second insurrection. The youth were resentful and rose against the repressive regime. Mahinda Rajapaksa took up the cudgels for the rights of the victims of state terror and returned to national politics in the late 1980s. But today, his party, the SLPP, and the UNP have closed ranks, and are apparently creating conditions for another conflagration.

If a general election had been held in 1982, that would have helped defuse tensions and release pressure in the polity, and the JVP would not have had a casus belli to take up arms and mobilise the youth.

One can only hope that the local government polls will be held as scheduled and the people provided with an opportunity to give vent to their anger democratically and jolt the government into making a course correction so that the country will not witness another catastrophe.

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Editorial

‘Slave Island’

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Friday 3rd February, 2023

Sri Lankan political leaders exude ‘patriotism’ from every pore. These rotund grandees never miss an opportunity to suck in their stomachs, puff out their chests and sing the national anthem with gusto, making as they do a public display of their brand of patriotism. We will see them in action again tomorrow, when they are celebrating what the country does not have—independence—on a grand scale.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has, in what may be considered an outburst of patriotism with nationalism thrown in for good measure, ordered that the use of the place name, ‘Slave Island’ for ‘Kompagngna Veediya’ be discontinued immediately on account of the country’s 75th anniversary of Independence. He has decreed that ‘Kompagngna Veediya’ be used in all three languages—Sinhala, Tamil and English. Curiously, it seems to have escaped the Prime Minister’s attention that successive governments have turned the entire country into a ‘slave island’ of sorts. The incumbent dispensation has presided over the completion of the process of the country’s enslavement, which gathered momentum after the 1977 regime change and received a boost from every government thereafter.

PM Gunawardena is known for wrapping himself in the flag and his fiery oratory replete with patriotism and nationalism. He has, in his wisdom, defended the government’s decision to spend the country’s scarce resources to the tune of Rs. 200 million on tomorrow’s Independence Day extravagance in the name of patriotism. These funds could have been utilised to buy medicines and food for the sick in government hospitals.

The PM finds himself in the exalted company of a bunch of politicians who made preparations for a grand ceremony to mark the quincentennial of the arrival of the Portuguese here. Thankfully, the UNP-led UNF government was dislodged in 2004, and the event did not come to pass. So much for the present-day leaders’ love for the country and its independence!

Thanks to decades of economic mismanagement, waste, corruption, abuse of power and reckless borrowing under successive governments led by the ‘patriotic’ leaders of all political hues, the country has become a bankrupt vassal state, which has to take orders from other nations. It has to do what is good for others at the expense of its national interest and is now under Indian pressure to ensure the full implementation of a constitutional amendment that New Delhi rammed down its throat in late 1980s. When President Ranil Wickremesinghe undertook to implement the 13th Amendment fully, at a recent party leaders’ meeting, Gunawardena, who was present there, chose to remain silent!

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in which Gunawardena was a key figure, stood accused of turning the country into a ‘Chinese colony’ much to the consternation of India and the western powers that are averse to the rise of the Dragon. The current administration has made it a lackey of the US-led Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). When China got the Hambantota Harbour in return for a loan, the US media said Sri Lanka had been made to cough up a port. But the country has since been made to cough up a container terminal, an oil tank farm, etc., in return for financial aid, but those deals have not made headlines internationally!

Has the SLPP-UNP government, which is averse to a part of the Colombo City being called ‘Slave Island’, forgotten that the country is heavily dependent on remittances from its women reduced to slavery in West Asia. It is also the sweat and tears of women slaving away for paltry wages on estates and in factories here that fuel the export sector, bringing in much-needed forex, with which the super luxury vehicles carrying the government politicians to the venue of the Independence Day ceremony, today, have been purchased.

Let the self-proclaimed patriots in the current regime be told that they cannot hoodwink the public.

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Editorial

When ambition overtakes reality

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Thursday 2nd February, 2023

The UNP and the SLFP have started talking about the next presidential election even before the long-overdue local government (LG) polls are held. UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has recently said President Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election. Former President Maithripala Sirisena himself has told the media he will run for President again, and is confident of securing the presidency as he is the leader of the SLFP and the people are with him. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa has not made any such announcement, but it is clear that he will be his party’s presidential candidate. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake will not allow anyone else to contest the next presidential election and overshadow him. The SLPP is in total disarray. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest a presidential election again, and it is highly unlikely that ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will face a presidential contest ever again. So, who will be the SLPP’s presidential candidate?

Interestingly, three of those who are expected to contest the next presidential election have been held to account by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks. The COI has recommended criminal proceedings against Sirisena. It says in its final report (p 265), “Based on the evidence, the COI is of the view that there is criminal liability on his part for the acts or omissions explained above. The COI recommends that the Attorney General consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code.” The report (pp 470-471)) says, “The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy.” Thus, Wickremesinghe cannot say he is free from blame for the serious security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday attacks. Premadasa and several other SJB seniors were Cabinet ministers in the Yahapalana government, and there is no way they could absolve themselves of the blame for the acts or omissions of that administration.

Sirisena himself may not have thought he would be able to secure the coveted presidency in 2015. He failed pathetically as the President so much so that he decided against seeking re-election and opted to re-enter Parliament, instead. The political forces that enabled him to realise his presidential dream are no longer with him, and most of the SLFP MPs have joined the SLPP-UNP government. Above all, there is the possibility of criminal proceedings being instituted against him over the Easter Sunday carnage unless he toes the government line. Thus, it is doubtful whether he will be able to contest the next presidential election.

Wickremesinghe is like a passenger who has undertaken to attempt a talk-down landing due to the incapacitation of the pilot and the co-pilot of the aircraft he is travelling in. He is not doing anything on his own; he is only following instructions from others. He no doubt deserves thanks for the risk he has taken and his effort, and it is the fervent hope of everyone that he will manage to make a safe emergency landing. But it is too early to say whether he will succeed in his endeavour. Everyone is on a wing and a prayer. Before facing a presidential election, Wickremesinghe will have to steer his party to victory at the LG polls and get the economy back on an even keel. These tasks are as uphill as the twelve labours of Hercules.

Premadasa, too, will have to ensure that the SJB wins the LG polls before facing the next presidential election, if he is to be seen as a winner, and whether he will be able to do so remains to be seen. Now that Dissanayake has talked the talk, very eloquently at that, he will have to walk the walk. The NPP was able to secure only 3.84% of the total number of valid votes at the last general election, and the challenge before Dissanayake will be increasing it to at least 30% at the next election for him to be considered a formidable presidential candidate.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Rajapaksas to Range Bandara’s declaration at issue. Last year, they wanted someone who was not a political threat to them to complete the remainder of Gotabaya’s presidential term, doing as they said, and fade away so that they could buy time to make a comeback for one of them to run for President. Has the nephew of the Old Fox outfoxed the Medmulana clan?

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