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What Next?



In an opinion piece we run today, Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, an accomplished scientist who had served the Tea Research Institute in a senior capacity and had also been the Director of the Coconut Research Institute and later Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Rome, has asked the question “What Next?” This relates to the Easter bombs that massacred 279 people in Catholic churches and high-end hotels about two years ago, permanently disabled many and injured many more. These suicide attacks occurred despite credible intelligence that was either ignored or not accorded deserved priority. The conventional wisdom is that these blatant acts of terrorism that attracted worldwide attention could have been avoided if only the available information was acted upon by those responsible for national security and loudly trumpeted allegiance to “good governance.”

Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected in November 2019 and the government headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that came into office a few months later campaigned on platforms largely focusing on the Easter terror and the failures of their predecessors to avert the massacre. At the time of the last presidential election, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCOI), appointed by then President Maithripala Sirisena in September 2019, was already at work probing these terrorist attacks. Its final report following two interim reports in December 2019 and March 2020 was presented to the president on Feb. 1. But for reasons that have not been properly disclosed these reports were not published or made available even to Parliament despite a great deal of pressure that was applied. Such non-disclosure naturally triggered public suspicion that something was being hidden.

The reports were said to contain “sensitive material,” presumably relating to national security that could not be disclosed. Eventually one volume containing conclusions and recommendations was presented to Parliament but with no summary of evidence. The Attorney General is being asked to prosecute those found culpable but without all the recorded evidence at his disposal. “How can he do so?” is a fair question. He has called for such information and on Friday his office confirmed that the remaining 22 volumes had been made available to him following a request he made to the Secretary to the President after he was given only one volume. The whole business is shrouded in secrecy and there has been no clear indication or explanation on why this is so. The report, or parts of which have been tabled, was debated in Parliament last week. The main criticism made in the legislature as well as in the wider public domain is that the mastermind behind one of the worst acts of terrorism the world has recently seen has not been identified.

Whether the evidence that was presented to the PCOI headed by a judge of the Court of Appeal, assisted by another Appeal Court judge, a retired Court of Appeal judge, a retired High Court judge and a former secretary to the Ministry of Justice was insufficient to reach that conclusion though not known is likely. Many believe that if Zaharan Hashim of the National Thowfeek Jamaath was the mastermind, he would not have killed himself in the first wave of attacks. This theory has been widely propounded but whether the commission agreed with it or not is not clear. During the months when the PCOI sat, most of it in public but with evidence led in camera at the request of witnesses or at the commission’s own discretion, what emerged clearly was that there were serious lapses within the state intelligence agencies and the tendency of its senior officers to indulge in finger-pointing to cover their own backs. Even cursory readers of news reports of the commission’s proceeding reached that conclusion.

The former president has flatly denied that he ever received intelligence warnings but the commission has concluded that the “balance of probability” is that he had been provided intelligence reports. The head of national intelligence has been found to have “diluted” Indian intelligence. The PCOI has recommended that the Attorney General “considers” instituting criminal proceedings against the former president who was only briefly present during the parliamentary debate last week but did not participate in it. Naturally the opposition stated that “it would have been good” if he was there (presumably for a longer time). But Sirisena has not demonstrated in his long political career, capped by the presidency he won under fortuitous circumstances as a common opposition candidate, that he had the mettle to confront the kind of situation he would have faced.

A great deal of public money has been spent in this effort to get to the bottom of a crime that has deeply scarred this nation. But whether that objective had been achieved, judging by what the people know so far from sections of the PCOI report that have emerged in the public domain, is not known. Most people believe that the total picture has not been revealed by what was obviously a painstaking inquiry. The commission report, although not all embracing, cannot be considered a total failure. Like the proverbial curate’s egg, it must be good and bad in parts. However that be, there must be much in it that would be useful to rectify existing deficiencies and keeping public figures, be they political or official, on their toes.

But whether the primary object of what has been attempted has been achieved can only be seen if the labours of the commissioners have resulted in the unearthing enough material to bring the perpetrators of the Easter horror to justice. Given that the successful prosecution rate in this country is woefully small, that seems improbable if not impossible. So we go back to the beginning of asking “What next?”

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Unions in govt.’s crosshairs



Friday 24th March, 2023

Hardly a day passes without a labour dispute reported from the state sector. There are signs of public opinion turning against the warring trade unions that resort to strikes at the drop of a hat. The government has sought to make the most of public ire to settle political scores with the trade unions that pose a threat to its interests.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken a swipe at the education sector trade unions that are perennially on the warpath. Speaking at a public event, on Wednesday, he warned that if trade unions continued to ‘hold students to ransom’, the government would be compelled to declare the education sector an essential service. This could be considered a veiled threat.

The most effective way of keeping trade unions with political agendas at bay is to redress workers’ genuine grievances expeditiously. Instead, governments drive them to swell the ranks of trade unions with links to ultra-radical political outfits. So, the blame for chaos in the public sector due to frequent labour disputes should be apportioned to governments.

Workers must fight for their rights. If they don’t, who else will? But they must not ignore their responsibilities. Most of all, they must not test people’s patience. Sri Lanka’s trade union movement has a proud history. Its achievements are many. But it has gone the same way as all other institutions, over the years, owing to politicisation. More often than not, trade unions tend to overstep the line at the behest of their political masters.

The bane of Sri Lanka’s labour movement is that it is dominated by trade unions affiliated to political parties, which use workers as a cat’s paw to advance their hidden agendas at the expense of the public. There are some trade unions that are independent of political parties but they are the exception that proves the rule. They, too, act in an irresponsible manner at times with no consideration towards the public.

Everybody flays politicians for dereliction of duty—and rightly so. But trade unions are no better. It is doubtful whether labour leaders ever make a serious attempt to persuade their members to work hard and help enhance national productivity. The phenomenal growth of shadow education, or private tuition, as it is popularly known, is an indictment of the state sector teachers. Parents have to spend huge amounts of money for their children’s supplementary education. There are many exemplary teachers who are like candles, which burn so that others can get light, but overall there is much to be desired from the public school system.

All political parties including the UNP led by President Wickremesinghe himself have politicised and polluted the trade union movement so much so that politicians steal the limelight on the International Workers’ Day, when workers shamelessly offer their services to political leaders as palanquin bearers, as it were. Politicians craftily use workers to compass their ends when they happen to be in the political wilderness but after winning elections and being ensconced in power, they suppress trade unions. This is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics.

Trade unions in this country are apparently playing the role traditionally assigned to the political Opposition, which is too meek to take on the government the way it should. Why trade unions are in the government’s crosshairs is not difficult to understand. The ongoing battle between government leaders and irresponsible trade unionists is, in our book, a case of sinners casting stones at one another.

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Is Sri Lanka ready?



Thursday 23rd March, 2023

The IMF is ready to help Sri Lanka tackle its economic crisis, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has told Parliament. This is good news. But is Sri Lanka ready to help others help it? Its bilateral creditors are united in trying to assist it in restructuring its staggering debt, and rebuilding its economy, we are told but, sadly, the domestic stakeholders, especially politicians, are at daggers drawn, and their clashes will only erode the confidence of prospective investors, and put paid to efforts being made to revive the economy.

President Wickremesinghe, making a special statement in Parliament, yesterday, did not forget to pat himself on the back for having come forward to bring order out of chaos while the country was teetering on the verge of anarchy, last year. He deserves praise for that. But for his decisive action, violent hordes would have marched on Parliament and set the place on fire. He ordered the military to stop them, and Parliament, nay the country was saved. (If he had acted similarly in the early noughties, when a UNP-led government was in power, and ordered the military to take on the LTTE with might and main, he would have been elected President in 2004!)

President Wickremesinghe spelt out how the government intended to resolve the economic crisis, and his speech was devoid of rhetoric, theatrics and animosity. He sounded conciliatory and serious about enlisting everyone’s help to revive the economy. He invited the Opposition to work with the government to enable the country to resolve the economic crisis. This, we believe, is the way forward, but the government should not hold out an olive branch with one hand to the Opposition and deliver killer hooks with the other. There are some contentious issues that have stood in the way of a rapprochement between the government and its political rivals, and they should be sorted out.

President Wickremesinghe yesterday promised action to eliminate corruption, which is bound to impede the country’s economic recovery. He will have his work cut out, for he is dependent on a bunch of corrupt politicians for parliamentary support, and it is only natural that he is seen to be defending them and serving their interests. Perhaps, the Opposition can lessen his dependence on the corrupt by offering support for his programmes that are beneficial to the public.

Trade unions are on the warpath. Most of their grievances are legitimate, and they deserve a patient hearing and reassurance from the government. They must not be driven to take industrial action, which adversely impacts the ailing economy and political stability. They are resentful that the government politicians are living the high life at their expense while they are paying high taxes. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has announced that his ministers and their special advisers will forgo their salaries and perks in view of their country’s economic situation. If the members of the SLPP-UNP administration emulate their Pakistani counterparts, perhaps the protesting workers will simmer down. These politicians and their kith and kin have amassed colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth and bankrupted the country, and there is no reason why they cannot make some sacrifices. The government can increase the state tax revenue without increasing the PAYE tax exponentially, some Opposition economists have argued, and their views should be taken on board.

The government must stop suppressing the people’s rights and freedoms if public resentment is to subside. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy, and must not be put off for political reasons. There is a public outcry over the postponement of the local government polls. This is not an issue the government can wish away or tackle by resorting to strong-arm tactics. It has to talk to the Opposition and other stakeholders, and explain its position instead of riding roughshod over its political opponents, the judiciary and the Election Commission. The SLPP-UNP combine has made a huge blunder by summoning some Supreme Court judges before a parliamentary committee over an interim order they have issued. The judiciary is the linchpin of democracy, and must not be trifled with in this manner.

Only a course correction will enable the government to secure the much-needed support of other stakeholders for its efforts to sort out the economy with IMF assistance.

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Celebration of debt



Wednesday 22nd March, 2023

The SLPP-UNP administration is cock-a-hoop at the unlocking of an IMF bailout package. What is the world coming to when a government which has bankrupted a country, defaulted on debt and visited untold miseries on more than 22 million people, paints the town red after obtaining another loan on constricting conditions?

At the height of Eelam War IV, Lakshman Kiriella, who was a UNP MP at the time, audaciously claimed that onema goenkuta yuddha karanna puluwan (‘any fool can fight a war’). Similarly, one may say ‘onema goenkuta loan ganna puluwan (’any fool can obtain loans’. The government has been able to secure the IMF bailout package because it readily agreed to all loan conditions, some of which have not been made public yet, according to the Opposition. No less a person than ex-Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has inveighed against the IMF for causing riots in the countries that have had to follow its programmes. In Sri Lanka, too, a perfect storm is brewing on the horizon with workers taking to the streets in large numbers. However, it is our failed, corrupt leaders who should be blamed for our predicament.

Ironically, the IMF happened to announce its decision to release Sri Lanka’s credit facility, on the eve of the World Puppetry Day! The grandees of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime claim to be managing the economy themselves but they are only a set of puppets controlled by the IMF. They have to do as the IMF says, and it does not require much grey matter to do so. But care will have to be taken to ensure that they will not help themselves to the dollars to flow in. It behoves the IMF, and the nations that have been considerate enough to part with substantial amounts of their citizens’ money to help ameliorate the suffering of Sri Lankans to ensure that the government of Sri Lanka handles financial aid in a transparent manner.

It’s one thing to obtain an extended credit facility, but it’s quite another to put an ailing economy back on an even keel, and repay loans that have been defaulted on. That the IMF has agreed to provide assistance is no guarantee that Sri Lanka will achieve economic recovery. There are countries that have failed to straighten up their economies fast despite IMF help, Greece being a case in point.

Greece is vastly different from Sri Lanka in that its bailouts came from a powerful troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Still, it has been struggling to achieve realistic primary surpluses and return to investment grade. Needless to say, Sri Lanka’s task will be even more difficult, given the fact that a failed, corrupt government continues to be in power.

The failed politicians who bankrupted the economy by mismanaging it, indulging in waste and corruption and stealing public funds, are still at the levers of power. They must be salivating at the prospect of being able to line their pockets again when forex begins to flow in. Doomed will be the economy if it continues to be in the clutches of these failed, corrupt elements who have not mended their ways and are all out to gratify their insatiable appetite for power and public funds.

Now that the IMF bailout has become a reality, the people must be given an opportunity to exercise their franchise and indicate whether they have faith in the current regime, which has inflicted so much suffering on them and ruined the economy. Hence the need for the local government polls to be held without further delay. There is a massive build-up of public anger in the polity and it has to be defused if the country is to be prevented from being plunged into chaos again. Expenditure on an election is a worthwhile investment in that it helps make the irate public simmer down and bring about political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery.

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