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Editorial

What’s up Ranil’s sleeve?

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Wednesday 9th June, 2021

Glorious uncertainties are not confined to cricket alone; nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics as well. Whoever would have thought that the mighty Rajapaksa government would collapse, in 2015, like a house of cards? Likewise, not many expected the Rajapaksas to make a comeback so soon, following such a disastrous defeat, much less recapture power after five years. Similarly, it was widely thought that the UNP’s ignominious defeat in 2020 would spell curtains for former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who even failed to retain his parliamentary seat, and that the UNP’s whitewash would ensure plain sailing for the SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa, who became the Opposition Leader. But less than one year on, Premadasa now sees his bête noire, Wickremesinghe, in the rearview mirror.

Wickremesinghe has proved once again that he cannot be written off. Those who left him for politically dead last year have made a mistake.

The SJB sought to pooh-pooh reports that some of its MPs were likely to rally around Wickremesinghe in case of his appointment to Parliament as the UNP’s National List MP. But its parliamentary group held what looked like an emergency meeting, on Monday, to discuss the issue, and claimed in a media statement that all its MPs had reaffirmed their allegiance to Premadasa. But one doubts that everything is rosy in the garden for the SJB, which is experiencing dissension in the ranks. Wickremesinghe, being the shrewd politician that he is, must be planning to cash in on this situation.

There are said to be neither permanent enemies nor permanent friends in politics, which is full of strange bedfellows. Wickremesinghe will be more than happy to be sworn in as an MP with a couple of SJB members on his side; he is adept at clawing his way up the treacherous political cliff face. He did so in 2001, when he toppled the Kumaratunga government to become the Prime Minister; in 2005, he came close to beating Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential race, and 10 years later, he engineered the downfall of the Rajapaksa government, which did not know what hit it. This time around there is a difference, though; he has become a threat not to the government in power as such but to the main Opposition party.

What basically facilitated Wickremesinghe’s political rebound was the government’s bungled pandemic control effort. Carpenter turned quack Dhammika Bandara’s herbal syrup widely touted as a cure for Covid-19 may not have worked for the hapless pandemic victims, but it did work for Wickremesinghe, a victim of the 2015 political tsunami. It provided him with the much-needed opportunity to come in from the cold and make a hard-hitting statement, ridiculing the government, which in its wisdom, chose to promote the untested concoction. In his inimitable style, he urged the people not to swallow ‘engine oil’ (read Dhammika peniya). His statement went down well, and began to receive media attention, again.

The SLPP MPs were in seventh heaven yesterday in Parliament, deriving as they did a perverse pleasure from the SJB’s trouble. They seem to be labouring under the delusion that the Opposition’s woes will help them deflect people’s attention from their failure, shore up the government’s crumbling image and win future elections. But the SLPP has its share of internal problems with even some ministers joining the ginger group in the government, and several of its constituents are expressing dissent openly. Those who are in power today should recall that they won the presidential election and the parliamentary polls very impressively in 2010, and even mustered a two-thirds majority in Parliament; the Opposition was in totally disarray. But they lost power after five years because they became too cocky and did not care two hoots about public opinion. They do not seem to care to learn from history.



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Editorial

Poaching: Grasp the nettle

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Saturday 19th June, 2021

India has denied media reports that its Navy recently assaulted a group of Sri Lankan fishermen, who claim the attack took place on the high seas. We cannot either confirm or deny these claims. Both sides cannot be expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Fishers are notorious for fish tales, and so are diplomats, who are said to lie abroad for the good of their countries. But the question is who actually set upon the Sri Lankan fishermen, whose torsos and limbs are wealed and raw. (It is not possible that they assaulted themselves or came under an alien attack.) Sometimes, Indian fishermen also complain of attacks by the Sri Lanka Navy, and Colombo promptly denies such allegations.

The real issue here is poaching, and not the complaints that the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen are occasionally assaulted at sea. Sri Lankan fishers are not entirely blameless; there are times when some of them get arrested for illegal fishing in Indian waters. But the number of these poachers pales into insignificance in comparison to that of their Tamil Nadu counterparts who frequently swarm the territorial waters of this country.

The Indian poachers seem to think they have a legitimate right to enter Sri Lankan waters for fishing. Hence their chutzpah to oppose Sri Lanka’s efforts to create new fish breeding grounds by sinking old buses in its territorial waters; these contraptions will damage their boats, they have argued. They have admitted, albeit unwittingly, that they fish in Sri Lankan waters! The actual reason for their protests is their fear that the submerged buses will damage the nets they use for bottom trawling, which is illegal, as Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda has pointed out. Many more old vehicles must be sunk in the sea to prevent bottom trawling.

Poaching is a far more complex issue than it looks, and the politics of it has not been factored into the efforts being made to resolve it. On 04 December 2013, the then Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne disclosed that certain Tamil Nadu politicians were behind the illegal fishing operations in Sri Lankan waters. He said they owned boats, which they made available to Indian fishers on the condition that they fished in Sri Lankan waters. These elements are bent on belittling Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and pitting the Central government of India against this country.

The issue of poaching has remained unsolved all these years because Sri Lanka and India have been seeking a diplomatic solution to a legal problem. Their interventions, purportedly on humanitarian grounds, only encourage poachers, who know their governments will get them off the hook when they get into hot water.

When Indian poachers are taken into custody, Tamil Nadu politicians pressure the Central government to make interventions, and Colombo meekly releases them. Illegal fishing is a punishable offence under the internatioanl law, and must be treated as such. If Sri Lankan fishers enter India’s territorial waters purposely, they must be brought to justice, and the Indian poachers caught in Sri Lankan waters must be dealt with in a similar manner.

The weak-kneed Sri Lankan leaders release the Indian trawlers taken into custody for illegal fishing. This practice must end. All the vessels used for poaching must be confiscated and serious thought must be given to sinking them in the sea as part of the ongoing project to create new fish breeding grounds. This is the way to make the Tamil Nadu politicians stop promoting illegal fishing. India can do likewise to safeguard its interests. Then only the poachers of both countries will realise that they are not above the international law and feel the need to act with restraint. Half-hearted attempts to solve the problem will never reach fruition. Let the nettle be grasped.

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Editorial

Cheers and tears

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Friday 18th June, 2021

The government is behaving like an inebriated nitwit, doing exactly what it should not be doing during a grave health crisis. The ruling party pundits seem to think the only thing people lack in these troubled times is alcohol; it permitted online liquor sales. Thankfully, doctors succeeded in derailing the ill-conceived scheme. But there is no guarantee that it will not be reintroduced during or after lockdowns.

There is a catchy political slogan popular among Sri Lankans: emathilata caar, golayanta baar, janathawata soor—cars for ministers, bars for their henchmen and intoxication for the general public. This political aphorism has held true, over the decades, under successive governments, and the thinking of the present-day leaders exemplifies it.

What possessed the government to permit online liquor sales? Doctors have rightly pointed out that as many as 63 Sri Lankans die of various diseases related to alcoholism daily; this is more or less the number of lives the pandemic is snuffing out at present, here. They argue that the state expenditure on treating alcohol-related diseases is much higher than the revenue from liquor taxes.

The government has failed to ensure that the supplies of essential commodities reach the public efficiently during lockdowns. It has introduced a mobile delivery system, which is not working properly, and there are many complaints of the captive consumers being fleeced by vendors. Allegations abound that even some established supermarket chains abuse the online delivery system to cheat consumers who are made to pay for rotten onions, fruits, etc. Instead of streamlining the existing distribution system and providing economic relief to ensure that the people are fed, the government, in its wisdom, sought to introduce online liquor sales to quench the thirst of tipplers, of all people. Are the SLPP leaders themselves three sheets to the wind?

Problems, nay miseries that lockdowns bring about affect everyone. There is hardly anyone who is not troubled by the lockdown blues. Online liquor sales are certainly not a solution to any of these issues. They, if permitted, would have worsened the suffering of many families with their heads using credit cards for liquor purchases and racking up more debt in the process. The bigwigs of the government who conceived this crazy idea certainly need help from the men in white coats.

Some Excise Department grandees have reportedly sought to justify online liquor sales by claiming that owing to the temporary closure of licensed liquor outlets, bars, etc., bootleggers are having a field day. If so, then it is the fault of the Excise Department and the police. Illicit breweries and shebeens must be raided regularly and the culprits brought to justice. That is what the Excise officers and the long arm of the law are there for. The country is awash with illicit brews of all sorts because bribery and corruption are rampant among Excise officers and police personnel. They have allowed the illegal artificial toddy industry to thrive although extremely harmful materials such as old batteries and urea are used to manufacture the illicit brew, as SJB MP Buddhika Pathirana has revealed in Parliament.

Meanwhile, it is prudent to make all pandemic-related relief programmes female-oriented, for women husband financial resources much better than most men, and selflessly look after their families. Not that all men are selfish, pleasure-seeking creatures who neglect their families, but many males are addicted to alcohol, smoking and even narcotics in some cases and do not scruple to buy intoxicants at the expense of their families. This is why swarms of desperate men jostle and shove near liquor outlets when lockdowns are lifted, and unflinchingly waste their money, which could otherwise be used to meet the nutritional requirements of their families, especially children.

What should be given priority during lockdowns is feeding the public and looking after their health needs. Nobody dies due to being without alcohol for a couple of weeks; in fact, during ‘dry’ lockdowns tipplers’ health improves significantly as their vital organs get some rest. This is the best time for unfortunate dipsomaniacs to kick the habit. About 48 percent of smokers have done so, according to a recent news item in this newspaper. Lockdowns thus have the potential to control three pandemics—Covid-19, smoking and alcoholism. Let the government be urged to heed doctors’ advice.

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Editorial

No faith and no sense

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Thursday 17th June, 2021

The SJB is apparently trying to justify its existence. It is planning to move a motion of no confidence against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila over the recent fuel price hikes which have made the public scream. It is eager to see the back of Gammanpila. Interestingly, it has taken the same position as SLPP General Secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam, who accuses Gammanpila of having aggravated the economic woes of the public and made the government unpopular by jacking up fuel prices, and called for the latter’s resignation. The SJB politicians and Kariyawasam are sworn enemies, but it just so happens that they are singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, as regards the allegations against Gammanpila.

The SJB’s move to oust Gammanpila from the Cabinet will lead to an interesting situation; the government will defeat the no-faith motion in question for its own sake rather than Gammanpila’s, but in so doing it will give the lie to Kariyawasam’s claim that Gammanpila alone should be held responsible for the fuel price hikes. Thus, the SLPP’s vote against the no-faith motion will become an indictment of its own General Secretary! Whether MP Kariyawasam, who is out for Gammanpila’s scalp, will eat his words and vote against the SBJ’s motion remains to be seen.

The SJB knows that its vote of no confidence will flop and give the government an opportunity to score another win in Parliament. Why is it tabling the motion, then? It is apparently trying to put the government on the defensive at least temporarily, and divert the attention of Parliament as well as the public away from the problems it is expected to face after the swearing-in of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is said to be eyeing the post of the Opposition Leader; the SJB is apparently trying to get all anti-government political parties to vote for the no-faith motion against Gammanpila, who is immensely disliked by the JVP and the TNA as well, in a bid to claim that its leader Sajith Premadasa commands the support of the entire Opposition. Maybe, the SJB is also trying to prevent the anti-government forces that are disappointed with its poor performance as the main Opposition party, from rallying around Wickremesinghe.

The SJB is barking up the wrong tree. The government has stood by Gammanpila and taken responsibility for the fuel price hikes, and therefore the no-faith motion at issue should be moved against the government instead of Gammanpila.

Fuel price hikes presage only the beginning of trouble for the public; the worst is yet to come. Speculation is rife that the prices of several other commodities including wheat flour and cooking gas will increase soon. The government is desperate for funds and does not care where they come from; it is like a bull in a pandemic treatment centre, goring hapless Covid patients.

There is no gainsaying that the government has to boost the state revenue, which has dropped due to lockdowns, etc., but it would have been able to do so without hurting the public so much if it had acted prudently in April, when the country should have been closed to prevent an explosive spread of Covid-19. A stitch in April, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, would have saved nine each in May and June. The government played politics with pandemic control in a bid to shore up its crumbling image by allowing the public to revel and forget their worries during the avurudu season. Some television channels keep calling the massive cluster of infections that formed in April ‘avurudu pokura—New Year cluster. Instead, it should be called the pohottu pokura—(lotus) bud cluster—because the government created conditions for its formation.

It is surprising that the Opposition has not moved a no-faith motion against the government for ignoring health experts’ repeated calls for lockdowns in April to prevent the rapid transmission of the virus, exposing the public to danger, mismanaging the vaccination campaign, causing economic hardships to the pandemic-hit people, and trying to import luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst the current crises.

The Opposition does not seem to be with it.

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