Friday 25th September, 2020
National Congress MP A. L. M. Athaulla caused quite a stir in Parliament on Tuesday. In he walked wearing a dress, which became something like a red rag to a bull for some MPs, who protested, demanding that he be removed from the Chamber. One of his fellow Muslim MPs shouted from the Opposition benches that his dress looked like the national costume of Afghan males, and demanded that he leave the Chamber forthwith. Athaulla complied, but subsequently the Speaker allowed him to return to his seat after he had said he was wearing a jacket as it was too cold inside the Chamber.
If it is freezing inside the Chamber, then the air conditioners can be set at a higher temperature so that the MPs will feel comfortable, and the Parliament electricity bill can be reduced significantly. However, the MPs protest against Athaulla’s ‘Afghan’ attire left us baffled. What’s in a dress? Do clothes make good MPs? Athaulla’s dress, in our book, was fine. In fact, he looked smart in it.
What matters in Parliament is not an MP’s attire as such but his or her conduct. Only the female MPs and some of their male counterparts act with decorum. Others are nattily dressed in the so-called kapati suit, which is de rigueur, but their conduct is no better than that of ruffians. We saw them in action during the failed constitutional coup in 2018. The Speaker had to be removed to safety when they ran amok, smashing furniture and throwing projectiles and chilli powder. Several MPs in the last Parliament admitted that they had taken money from Arjun Aloysius. According to MP Dayasiri Jayasekera, as many as 118 members of the last Parliament had received funds from Aloysius’ company, Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., which has become a metaphor for fraud owing to its involvement in the Treasury bond scams.
During heated arguments, allegations of drug dealing, etc., are traded liberally in Parliament. The Speaker has to close the public gallery for schoolchildren when MPs resort to fisticuffs and let out streams of raw filth. Among the derogatory terms they exchange freely are ‘gigolo’ and ‘procurer’. Worse, now, there is a murder convict in the House. (Luckily, he has not been made the Justice Minister!) Another MP is in remand prison over the killing of a former lawmaker. Some MPs have a history of backing terrorism.
Allegations of bribery and corruption are often traded across the floor of the House during debates. The new government accuses the Opposition of having within its ranks a bunch of crooks who helped themselves to public funds and were involved in corrupt deals while they were in power; the Opposition would have the public believe that the incumbent administration consists of dozens of rogues who amassed ill-gotten wealth and stashed it away overseas from 2005 to 2015. This being the situation, can anyone be faulted for concluding that our legislature is full of rogues? There are, of course, decent men and women in Parliament, but they are the exception that proves the rule.
The media reported a few years ago that several female members of the last Parliament suffered sexual harassment at the hands of some of their male counterparts. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised an inquiry, but no action was taken. One can only hope that those randy elements in the garb of MPs have not been re-elected. (Anyway, as people are said to be what they eat, food items known for boosting libido should not be served in the parliamentary canteen, as a precautionary measure, for the sake of the female MPs.)
Meanwhile, are the MPs who frowned on Athaulla’s ‘Afghan’ attire really proud of their Sri Lankan identity and passionate about safeguarding the dignity of Parliament? Computers used in Parliament have been sponsored by China. Only the first-timers in the current Parliament have not benefited from the generosity of China, which organises junkets for MPs (Provincial Councillors and local government members) from time to time. The MPs do not consider it infra dig to benefit from the Chinese largesse. Funds for the parliament information centre came from the US. Not even the MPs who claim to be opposed to the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, which, they rightly say, is loaded in favour of America, protested against that US-funded project.
When a person does something extremely shameful, it is popularly asked in this country how he or she could walk on the road with clothes on—reddak endan pare behala yanne kohomoda? This is the question that should be posed to those who made an issue of Athaulla’s foreign-looking dress but do not protest against the misconduct of MPs and the shameful practices such as living high on the hog at the expense of the public and panhandling for foreign aid.
Lessons from Libya
Angry protesters have set the Libyan Parliament building on fire. They have been calling for elections. Continuing power cuts, soaring prices, months of political deadlock, etc., have driven the Libyans to extreme action although their demands have been endorsed by the interim Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who has also agreed in principle to the need to overhaul all state institutions. Libya is in chaos today with rival parties vying for power and killing one another because of the western-backed regime change in 2011.
Muammar Gaddafi was an eccentric dictator, who had to be made to uphold democracy, but the West had other plans and destabilised Libya by supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces that included Jihadist fighters. Until the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya had boasted not only political stability but also excellent living standards, which were the highest in Africa and easily compared with those in the developed countries; it had one of the best social welfare schemes in the world. The Arab Spring has turned out to be a winter of despair for Libyans.
Prevailing economic, social and political conditions in Sri Lanka are similar to those in Libya at present in some respects, and have the potential to plunge the country into lawlessness just like the north African nation in depths of anarchy. This is something both the government and the Opposition should take cognisance of.
The government is groping in the dark. The Opposition parties are pulling in different directions, demanding that they be allowed to govern the country. They have said they will join forces to hold a continuous protest in Colombo, seeking the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The removal of the President may be the most effective way of extricating the country from the tentacles of the Rajapaksa family, which is aggravating the crisis by leveraging Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dependence on Basil Rajapaksa’s SLPP. Now, some Basil loyalists such as SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, are crawling out of the woodwork. But the ground reality is that President Rajapaksa cannot be ousted so easily. Unless he resigns, he has to be impeached. The process of impeaching the President is a tedious one, and the Opposition is without sufficient numbers in Parliament for that purpose. A sustained protest campaign backed by a general strike may be considered an option, but such a course of action will be tantamount to collective suicide in that political upheavals will destroy the economy and deprive the country of the much-needed foreign assistance. The way out, in our book, is to crank up pressure on President Rajapaksa to appoint a truly national government so that all political parties will have to stop protesting and make a contribution towards crisis management.
Sri Lankans are a credulous lot. They swallowed Dhammika peniya (syrup), which was touted as a cure for Covid-19. Gotabaya offered a political peniya, (read the Vistas of Prosperity) claiming that it was the cure for all ills of Sri Lanka, and the people fell hook, line, and sinker for it only to be disappointed. Now, they are being offered the Sajith peniya and the Anura Kumara peniya. The SJB consists of a bunch of politicians who were in the yahapalana government, which failed. The country is paying the price for having elected, as its President, a person without any experience in statecraft. The JVP, which could not run even a local government institution properly, is now demanding the reins of government. Its ideology is an anachronism in the modern world, and its utopian dream may be marketable but is not attainable.
The Opposition parties must be prevented from using the present crisis to hoodwink the public, capture power, and thereafter go on asking for time to find a solution while blaming their predecessors. No single party is equal to the task of helping straighten up the economy under its own steam, and there will have to be a concerted effort. That is why all political parties must be made to form a unity government and carry out their promises collectively pending a general election. They have to make necessary laws and policies to enable the technocrats of the Finance Ministry, the Central Bank, etc., to resuscitate the economy. Nobody will be safe if the country slides into anarchy with the irate public marching on Parliament.
Guns in wrong hand
Recent news on the results of inadequate gun control laws in the United States of America reminds us Lankans in this so-called Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka, of the gun control here we have known in the past and what applies at present. Older readers would remember the redoubtable C. Sutheralingam who sailed into the then coveted Ceylon Civil Service and then resigned saying he was “tired of signing gun licences and dog licences” in various kachcheris. A mathematical genius, he reverted to academia as Professor of Mathematics in the University College and later served as a Minister of the first D.S. Senanayake government of then Independent Ceylon.
From the British colonial era, Ceylonese as we were then, were not permitted to own firearms without a licence. These were issued by the government at various kachcheris after a careful evaluation of whether the permit holder was a fit and proper person to hold a firearm. In the early days gun licences were not easy to obtain but not as difficult as later; for example during the JVP’s first and second insurrections and during the civil war. Those of us who are old enough remember that the JVP commandeered a large number of shotguns issued to permit holders mainly for crop protection. Guns then had to be surrendered to police stations so that they were safe from marauding insurgents. Ironically many police stations were overrun and their own armouries as well as firearms surrendered for safe custody were taken away. This is history.
In the past few weeks we have seen a series of brazen daylight murders by gunmen on motorbikes blazing away at their victims in offences most likely connected to the narcotics trade that is rampant in the country. Automatic weapons have been used in several of these killings. Obviously the weapons used are not licenced. One little remembered aspects of our long drawn civil war was that there was leakage of military hardware imported into the country to fight the northern insurgency. The military trained a large number of youth, many from rural areas, in the use of firearms. There has been no proper accounting of firearms lost from military armouries during the war years and thereafter. Deserters often took away arms that were never recovered. There are also firearms the JVP robbed during its two adventures that remain unaccounted. Then there are the guns issued to politicians for self-defence at a time there was a very real threat to their lives. Many of these were not returned by those to whom they were issued.
We believe that even today politicians, or at least their personal security officers, are issued firearms. The recent killing of an MP and mob attacks on, homes of politicians and their property is evidence enough of their need to be armed. However that be, it is obvious that a great number of ‘leaked’ firearms are possessed by the not inconsiderable underworld operating with near impunity in this country. Such arms are frequently used in acts of crime and seldom recovered. It is necessary for the concerned authorities to take cognizance of this reality. Many of us, rightly we believe, are convinced that this bankrupt country, in addition to its bloated public service, extravagantly incurs defence expenditures totally unrelated to our needs since the war ended. But getting rid of military personnel, trained in using firearms, into an economy that cannot offer jobs is positively dangerous. Bangladesh discovered this to its cost with its Mukti Bahini created at the time of the liberation war. Releasing trained and often armed soldiers or para militaries into the civilian world without proper employment available to them can mean buying trouble.
Many of us have strong opinions that the new gun control regulation, first in three decades, recently passed by the U.S. Congress is too little, too late. The U.S. has been bedevilled over a very long period of time by wanton killings enabled by lax gun laws in that country. The National Rifle Association (NRA), an immensely wealthy organization known to fund the Republican Party has for decades successfully lobbied against vitally needed gun control laws. This was most recently illustrated by the brutal massacre of 19 toddler and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But it must be acknowledged that the bill recently enacted by Congress is significant in that it received an unprecedented level of support from Republicans. All 50 Democratic Senators and 15 Republicans endorsed the bill in a 65-33 vote.
President Biden is on record saying, “After 28 years of inaction, bipartisan members of Congress came together to heed the call of families across the country and passed legislation to address the scourge of gun violence in our communities”. Although these new regulations fall far short of the controls required to contain the “scourge of gun violence” in the USA, a scourge that has claimed the lives of close to 40,000 lives per year for decades, it’s still a start. As far as we are concerned, our problem is nowhere near that of the U.S. where guns can be easily and freely purchased. While this is not so in Sri Lanka, far too many military weapons imported for use in the war continue to be in the wrong hands.
Rulers and unionists from hell
Saturday 2nd July, 2022
What possessed the railway trade unions to launch a lightning strike yesterday causing hundreds of thousands of commuters to be stranded? Their leaders said they were protesting against the non-availability of fuel for their members to travel to work. Do they think fuel will be made available to railway workers simply because they resort to trade union action? What about other workers, especially those in the health sector, who are also experiencing the same problem? Doctors and other health workers languish in fuel queues, but hospitals remain open at least partially to treat the sick and save their lives. True, some railway workers cannot travel to and from work for want of fuel, but a serious effort must be made to operate as many trains as possible with the available workers. All other public and private institutions are managing with minimum staff. A strike is certainly not the way out. What would be the situation if the workers in other vital sectors such as power and energy, health, port, telecommunication, etc., emulated the striking railway unions?
Railway workers have legitimate grievances and so do all other workers, and they must be redressed. Fuel has to be made available on a priority basis to those who are engaged in the provision of essential services. Until the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation receives fresh oil shipments, arrangements could be made to provide fuel to those workers with the help of the Lanka Indian Oil Company. But the incumbent government is all at sea, and its leaders are running around like headless chickens; they are labouring under the delusion that their hare-brained token system will help sort out the fuel problem!
Strikes will only accelerate the country’s slide into anarchy, the signs of which are already visible. Hence the need for all trade unions to act responsibly and be different from failed political leaders. The Opposition also has a pivotal role to play in preventing anarchy from descending on the country; it has to go beyond making noises, and do something constructive.
The government has manifestly failed; it has not been able to make a dent in the crisis despite its leaders’ braggadocio and promises. The Opposition has also failed. It seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the people’s suffering and making the most of the situation. Its leaders are only walking and talking, so to speak, instead of coming forward to make a serious effort to form a multi-party interim government and implement their roadmaps, if any, for economic recovery. Protesting is the easiest thing to do during a crisis; a responsible Opposition needs to do much more for the sake of the people undergoing immense suffering.
The holier-than-thou Opposition politicians have declared that the government has failed––and rightly so––but, curiously, in the same breath they ask the failed regime to deliver! The need of the hour is a surgical procedure, as it were, in Parliament. What the Opposition grandees ought to do is to stop flogging a dead horse, close ranks, work out a common agenda with time-frames for the next general and presidential elections, and demand that the reins of government be handed over to a caretaker government consisting of all political parties represented in Parliament. Their coming together, however, will not help resolve the crisis overnight. But such a power-sharing arrangement will help bring about political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, and go a long way towards instilling hope in the hapless public, rekindling investors’ confidence, making progressive laws, formulating much-needed national policies, and, above all, convincing the rest of the world that Sri Lanka is serious about resolving its crisis and therefore deserves a helping hand. If all political parties could get together for the sake of the people and prepare a five-year plan, spelling out how the country will come out of the crisis, attain its development goals and repay its loans, that will make the task of having external debt restructured and obtaining foreign assistance easy.
Let it be repeated that trade unions must act with restraint. They have to be different from undergraduates who protest at the drop of a hat. Industrial action tends to snowball, and the unions that down tools at this juncture are likely to trigger a wave of strikes, which will deliver the coup de grace to the economy on oxygen support. That is something we need like a hole in the head.
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