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Editorial

When heroes cower

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Thursday 30th September, 2021

It looks as if a cartel of rice millers were running the country. The government has withdrawn the Gazette that stipulated the much-publicised maximum retail prices (MRPs) of rice, and thereby conceded defeat in its half-hearted fight against the Millers’ Mafia. When it ordered the Consumer Protection Authority (CAA) to conduct raids and seize hoarded paddy/rice stocks, the public may have thought the millers had met their match in the leaders of the current regime, which is full of military veterans in key positions. Alas, the Millers’ Mafia struck back, and the heroes have made a tails-between-legs retreat.

Adding insult to injury, the powerful millers have announced the new retail prices of rice much to the embarrassment of the ruling party toughies who take pride in having defeated the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit!

The government has threatened to import rice to counter the arrogant millers’ sinister moves. This method is bound to fail; when rice imports arrive, the Millers’ Mafia will release some of its stocks to the market, bringing down the prices of rice. The locally produced rice will sell as it suits Sri Lankans’ palates, and the imported rice will remain unsold in Sathosa warehouses and be disposed as animal feed in the end. This, we have witnessed on numerous occasions. Sathosa is full of thieves, who collude with the wealthy millers, and public funds spent on rice imports will go down the gurgler again.

If the government is really keen to tame the Millers’ Mafia, it should strengthen the small and medium mills and thereby make the paddy and rice markets competitive; they lack the wherewithal to compete with their big counterparts and cannot obtain bank loans before the commencement of the harvesting to purchase paddy because of the skullduggery of the Millers’ Mafia, which sways the banking sector; by the time they receive funds, there is hardly any good quality paddy left for them to buy.

The task of determining the MRPs of rice must be carried out by the state, and not the Millers’ Mafia responsible for exploiting farmers and consumers alike. That is what a government is there for.

Learn from chaos in UK

Fuel pumps have run dry in most parts of the UK, plunging supply lines into utter chaos. Out of sheer desperation, the British government has had to deploy military drivers to operate tankers. The demand for fuel is increasing in the UK, and panic buying rampant. Fuel shortages have left supermarket shelves empty due to supply chain breakdowns, according to media reports.

Sri Lanka ought to learn from the UK’s experience and take steps to avert a similar situation. The fuel crisis in Britain is due to a shortage of drivers to distribute oil. A large number of tanker drivers working in the UK were from the EU countries, especially Romania, and they have left for Germany and France since Brexit.

In Sri Lanka, there is no fuel shortage as such, but rumours are being floated that the government is not in a position to pay for petroleum imports owing to the present forex crunch, and, therefore, the possibility of panic buying cannot be ruled out.

In the UK, there has been panic buying of fuel during the past several days, aggravating the fuel shortage, and there is the danger of Sri Lanka facing such a problem when it fully reopens soon. All it takes to trigger panic buying is a single social media post with a doctored picture of a long line of vehicles near a fuel station.

Fuel pumps, it bears recall, almost ran dry a few weeks ago here after an Opposition trade union leader had warned of an imminent fuel shortage, but an assurance from the government, albeit belatedly, helped bring the situation under control. It may also be recalled that following the X-Press Pearl ship disaster, some social media activists duped the public into panic-buying salt, of all things, causing an unprecedented shortage thereof.

Governor of the Central Bank Ajith Nivard Cabraal has assured the public that the government will release enough funds for fuel imports for the remaining quarter of the current year. Salutary and reassuring as his pledge may be, it is doubtful whether his message has reached the public at large. The government should not only ensure a steady supply of fuel but also seriously consider keeping people informed of the availability of petroleum stocks regularly to keep scaremongers at bay.



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Editorial

Problem of being POTUS Biden

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Saturday 13th July, 2024

US President Joe Biden is in the news for all the wrong reasons, ranging from his backing for Israel, which is wreaking havoc on Gaza, and his unconditional support for Ukraine, which is ruining itself by fighting a proxy war against Russia at the behest of NATO. Pressure is now mounting on him to leave the presidential race owing to a string of gaffes and other signs of memory lapses, the latest being his slip-up during a presser, where he spoke to reporters about continued NATO support for Ukraine; he referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as President Putin much to the astonishment of all those present. Biden promptly corrected himself, saying jokingly that he was so focused on beating Putin that he had erred, but the press and the US public were far from amused. His accidental falls, which are many, confused state of mind, gaffes, etc., have prompted the Americans to ask if he is mentally and physically fit enough to serve another term. Even the Democrats have expressed serious doubts about his eligibility to recontest.

Chances are that the Democrats will find it extremely difficult to allow Biden to run for President again, and they may even be compelled to opt for some other candidate, given his appalling performance in a recent debate with his arch rival, Donald Trump. Paradoxical as it may sound, Biden has become an invaluable political asset to Trump; his signs of failing mental and physical health have distracted public attention from Trump’s deficiencies and wrongs, which are legion. If Trump had faced a Democrat of the calibre of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in the debate, his fate in the presidential race would have been sealed then and there.

Biden is determined to contest, but he is coming under increasing pressure to undergo detailed cognitive and neurological testing. He has the same determination as Sri Lankan politicians to cling on to power. Obviously, his kitchen Cabinet does not want him to call it quits.

The real question however is not whether Biden is mentally and physically fit enough to seek re-election; instead, it is whether the US would have done differently on his watch if he had been free from the mental issues he is allegedly grappling with. Whenever one watches, on television, the ongoing carnage of Palestinians in relentless Israeli attacks, one wonders whether all those who support the Gaza invasion are of sound mind, much less of good moral character which they claim to possess. Would any other US President have stepped in to stop the massacre of civilians including children, in Gaza? Biden’s predecessors were no different. Bloody military coups and wars that the US has engineered to further its geo-strategic and economic interests at the expense of tens of thousands of lives in other countries make one wonder whether the American Presidents who presided over them were of sound mind. Even Clinton and Obama, who was given the Nobel Peace Prize even before he was ensconced in office, unflinchingly backed the destruction of life and property on the pretext of protecting democracy and combating terrorism.

Most of all, if Biden is not mentally fit enough to seek re-election, as many Americans including Democrats are said to believe, the question is whether it is advisable to allow him to continue to serve as the President of the most powerful nation on earth until November 2024. There are situations where Biden confuses wars. He has recently referred to the Ukraine war as the Iraq war. A wag asks what would happen if he ever mistook the nuclear button, which is said to be on his desk, for some other switch?

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Editorial

Forgotten flaws in laws

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Friday 12th July, 2024

The government is going hell for leather to resolve some constitutional ambiguities as regards the length of the presidential term, etc. Now that the Supreme Court has determined that the duration of the President’s tenure is five years, the matter could be considered closed.

The government is apparently trying to use the constitutional amendment on the anvil to bolster its claim that it had nothing to do with the abortive fundamental rights petition that sought to delay the next presidential election on the basis of a non-existent constitutional issue. However, there is a pressing need to rectify some real flaws in the Constitution and make new laws to safeguard democracy. The Parliamentary Elections Act should also be amended to prevent it being used to circumvent a vital constitutional provision pertaining to the people’s franchise.

A chronic flaw in the Constitution allows political party leaders and their cronies to undermine the people’s franchise. It enabled Ranil Wickremesinghe, who lost his seat in the 2020 general election, to enter Parliament via the National List (NL) and become the President. Even a person who has never contested a parliamentary election can enter Parliament by having an NL vacancy created; worse, it is possible for him or her to become the President in a situation like the one we experienced in 2022. Hence the need for a constitutional amendment to prevent the misuse of the NL mechanism.

A questionable change effected to the parliamentary election laws about 36 years ago has had a corrosive effect on the Constitution, especially the people’s franchise, which is a fundamental component of representative democracy. That abominable provision has enabled the political parties to bypass the Constitution and appoint individuals of their choice to Parliament as NL members.

As we have pointed out in a previous editorial comment, Article 99A of the Constitution allows only the persons whose names are included in the lists submitted to the Commissioner of Elections or in any nomination paper submitted in respect of any electoral district by political parties or independent groups at elections to be appointed to Parliament via the NL. In 1988, the then UNP government introduced Section 64 (5) of the Parliament Election Act, inter alia, as an urgent Bill, eroding the essence of the constitutional provisions pertaining to the NL and the people’s sovereignty.

The Parliament Election Act of No 1 of 1981, as amended in 1988, allows ‘any member’ of a political party to be appointed to fill an NL vacancy. After parliamentary elections, political parties appoint their NL members as prescribed by the Constitution, and thereafter engineer NL vacancies to bring in persons of their choice as MPs. Attempts to have this highly undemocratic practice terminated by judicial means have been in vain. This ‘smuggling tunnel’ must be closed once and for all.

Worse, it has now been revealed that the words, ‘any member’, were smuggled into the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act after its ratification by Parliament! Strangely, there has been no sustained campaign for the abolition of this legal provision, which allows virtually anyone to enter Parliament without contesting a general election or being nominated as an NL candidate, and even become the Prime Minister, who takes over as the Acting President in case of the popularly elected President’s death, removal or resignation.

The aforesaid legal provision has become a fait accompli because the Constitution does not provide for the post-enactment judicial review of legislation. In a country like Sri Lanka, the need for the judiciary to be empowered to review laws after their ratification cannot be overstressed, given the devious methods that governments employ to subjugate even the Constitution to their political interests. It may be recalled that the UNP-led Yahapalana government stuffed the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill with questionable sections at the committee stage before rushing it through Parliament, in 2017, to postpone the Provincial Council polls indefinitely.

The vociferous members of both sides of the House, given to talking hind legs off a donkey, have not cared to take up the aforesaid issues which undermine the integrity of the Constitution and the electoral process. No wonder public confidence in Parliament is at a low ebb; anti-politics is on the rise, and protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks.

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Editorial

Grusha and Ayesha

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Thursday 11th July, 2024

The SLPP-UNP government has become an epitome of absurdity. Its leaders made frantic efforts recently to grant Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam a service extension amidst protests. They even strove to manipulate the Constitutional Council to compass their end. Thankfully, their plan went awry. Rajaratnam, however, should consider himself lucky; if they had succeeded in extending his term, he would have ended up having to pull a lot of political chestnuts out of the fire for them. Now, those worthies who went all out to give Rajaratnam what he did not deserve are denying Solicitor General Ayesha Jinasena what she richly deserves—the post of Attorney General. They are dragging their clumsy feet on the appointment of the AG.

SJB MP Rohini Wijerathne, speaking in Parliament, on Tuesday, asked the government why Ayesha had not been elevated to the post of AG. Her question went unanswered. She accused the government of discriminating against Ayesha in spite of having passed new laws to ensure women’s empowerment. She has struck a responsive chord with the public.

A request made by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) to President Ranil Wickremesinghe that the seniority principle be honoured in appointing the next AG has elicited a negative response. Saman Ekanayake, Secretary to the President, has reportedly informed the BASL that it should not advocate for the claims of a single candidate, and there is a need for a broad consideration of all potential candidates to ensure the appointee commands the confidence of the President and the Cabinet. It is the adoption of this criterion in making appointments to high posts that has ruined the state service as well as the country; most public officials command the confidence of the powers that be but are square pegs in round holes; they consider it their duty to please their political masters, and never do they serve the interests of the public. The country needs upright, capable officials in key positions in the state service.

Self-important Sri Lankan politicians want to have all others, including judges, on a string. They have succeeded in reducing the AG’s Department to a mere appendage of the government in power, over the years, to all intents and purposes, and the time has come for it to be liberated from their clutches. Despicable attempts are made in Parliament to launch witch-hunts (read Parliamentary Select Committee probes) against the judges who do not pander to the whims and fancies of the politicians intoxicated with power. Some MPs and ministers abuse parliamentary privileges to vilify the members of the judiciary to their heart’s content. Public confidence in the AG’s Department has eroded severely over the decades thanks to political interference and the subservience of some of its bigwigs. There are intrepid officials who carry out their duties and functions without fear or favour, and it is they who can restore public trust in the AG’s Department. Hence the need to ensure that the government will not catapult one of its lackeys to the post of AG.

President Wickremesinghe never misses an opportunity to liken himself to Grusha, the protagonist in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and expects the public to act like Azdak, the wise judge. Grusha embodies justice, righteousness, goodness, and leads a life of selfless moral rectitude. How come Ayesha has been denied her due place?

We are told in The Caucasian Chalk Circle: “Things should belong to those who do well by them; children to motherly women that they may thrive, wagons to good drivers that they may be well driven and the valley to those who water it that it may bear fruit.” There is no reason why the post of the Attorney General should not go to Ayesha. We, like many others, cannot think of a better person. If Azdak were around, he would definitely nod approvingly.

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