Thursday 1st December, 2022
We have been wondering, during the past few days, whether the ongoing parliamentary debate is on Budget 2023 or Buddhism. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa have been arguing over some Suttas, or different interpretations thereof. Yesterday, Premadasa treated the House to a brief lecture again on some Suttas in response to what the President had said the previous day.
Never a dull moment in the House when President Wickremesinghe is present. He has a remarkable predilection for thrusting and parrying with his rivals. An avid reader, he is au courant with Buddhism, and causes a stir now and then by making snide remarks about political monks. It was something uncomplimentary he said about some junior monks and their conduct that prompted Opposition Leader Premadasa to leap to the defence of the Maha Sangha and quote extensively from several Suttas in support of his arguments. One may not countenance the President’s choice of words at issue, but the conduct of some Buddhist monks is deplorable to say the least, and they are a disgrace to the Sangha. It is incumbent upon the Maha Nayake Theras to rein them in.
Some MPs have strayed into such lengthy digressions, parading their knowledge of Buddhism, that yesterday Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene happened to urge them to stop preaching Dhamma and concentrate on the purpose of the debate and the day’s business.
Politicians are known for smug moralising and fervent religiosity, and on listening to their arguments over Dhamma in the House we were reminded of a line Antonio utters in The Merchant of Venice: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” They are doing to the Dhamma what they do to the Constitution; they are interpreting it in such a way as to justify their actions and gain political mileage.
Curiously, while some laymen were arguing about the Dhamma in the House in a bid to score political points, MP monk, Rathana Thera, made no intervention. It is not clear from media reports on parliamentary proceedings whether he was present in the House while others were bandying words about Buddhism. He waxes eloquent on other subjects ranging from agriculture to foreign affairs, and even advises the Presidents on matters related to agrochemicals, but has chosen to remain silent on the ‘debate’ on the Dhamma, which is his province! We expected him to intervene when the budget debate took a religious turn, so to speak. Even Education Minister Susil Premjayantha stuck his oar in, yesterday. Is it that Rathana Thera considers it infra dig to make a contribution to a debate among laypersons on Buddhism?
It is Vanijja Sutta that Opposition MPs and the President should have discussed during the budget debate, if at all, more than anything else because the Buddha has basically said therein what types of business should be avoided.
The Constitution accords Buddhism the foremost place, but the State of Sri Lanka has, under successive governments led by Buddhist leaders, been doing exactly the opposite of what the Buddha has preached in Vanijja Sutta; he has asked people to abstain from engaging in business in weapons, business in living beings, business in flesh, business in intoxicants and business in poison’. Sri Lanka promotes slavery in all but name; it encourages its women to slave away in West Asia to earn forex; it is dependent on taxes collected from manufacturers of liquor and cancer sticks, and it has undertaken to develop fisheries and animal husbandry. The Chandrika Kumaratunga government sought to set up a factory to manufacture arms here, but its plan went awry. Budget 2023 has proposed to explore the possibility of growing cannabis, of all things, for export! The Sri Lankan state is not involved in the poison business as such, but allows the sale of food items and other commodities contaminated with harmful substances including carcinogens.
Can the rulers of Sri Lanka reconcile the constitutional provision that grants Buddhism the foremost place with the blatant violation by the State of the core tenets of Buddhism?
Now that our honourable representatives have amply demonstrated their knowledge of Buddhism, let them be urged to practise what they preach so that Parliament will be a better place. For this purpose, they do not have to study the Suttas or discourses; they only have to observe the Five Precepts and abstain from, at least, lying, killing and stealing.
Third Reich in the making?
Wednesday 8th February, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime is all out to derail the local government (LG) elections scheduled for 09 March. The Election Commission (EC) is determined to ensure that the country goes to the polls as scheduled, and the Opposition is bragging that the government’s plan to delay the mini polls has gone pear-shaped, and the SLPP-UNP combine will have to bow to the inevitable, but nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics, which is full of surprises. A beleaguered, shameless regime that fears elections will not baulk at anything to retain its hold on power.
The Cabinet is in overdrive to throttle the EC financially and scuttle the LG polls. It has adopted the zero-based budget technique, according to which no balances are carried forward and no pre-committed expenses permitted. Government Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena revealed, at a media briefing, yesterday, that the Cabinet had decided to appoint 10 committees comprising public officials to explore ways and means of rationalising the utilisation of budgetary allocations for 10 Ministries, and unsurprisingly the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government is among them!
Surprisingly, the government, which is desperate for funds, has not cared to recover the losses the state coffers suffered to the tune of Rs. 16 billion due to the sugar tax scam.
The Cabinet had also decided to release funds only for essential recurrent expenditure, given the country’s economic difficulties, Minister Gunawardena has told the media. The government obviously does not consider elections essential, and its game plan is clear.
Curiously, the government, which bewails the country’s pecuniary woes, has no qualms about allocating public funds with a generous hand for extravagant events such as grand ceremonies to boost the egos of its leaders. It also has enough funds to set up new ministries and pay for its leaders’ junkets. Perhaps, the fuel bill for the recent Independence Day and rehearsals for the event must have been higher than that for a general election!
President J. R. Jayewardene created conditions for a bloodbath in the late 1980s by doing away with the 1982 general election and denying the people an opportunity to vent their anger democratically. He held a referendum instead and had it rigged, thereby stoking people’s resentment, which became rocket fuel for the JVP’s spree of violence. Four decades on, his nephew, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, stands accused of trying to do something similar. Those who do not learn from history are said to be doomed to repeat it.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be unaware of the disastrous consequences of poll postponements. He was a member of the SLFP-led United Front government, which postponed a general election in 1975 by two years, and suffered an ignominious defeat, as a result. He lost his seat at the 1977 general election, where the UNP obtained a five-sixths majority, which it abused in every conceivable manner. Then, he fought against the scrapping of the 1982 parliamentary polls. He protested when the Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council elections in 2017, and rightly declared that it was an assault on democracy. But he was instrumental in postponing the LG polls last year, and is unashamedly supporting the government move to delay them further. Shame on him!
Germany is trying to wipe Hitler from its memory, but the current Sri Lankan leaders take pride in likening themselves to the Fuhrer, and, in fact, they are apparently busy putting in place something similar to the Third Reich, here. They are deploying their Brownshirts to suppress democratic dissent and deprive the public of their franchise and their right to protest; they also pamper vainglorious Generals, who are given gallantry medals in peacetime! The police are already acting like the Gestapo; they are hunting down anti-government protesters.
If the current regime is allowed to use the country’s economic woes as an excuse for postponing the LG polls, it will be emboldened to delay the parliamentary and presidential elections as well on the same grounds. The sooner the country is liberated from the clutches of the SLPP-UNP combine, the better. You do not keep a rape victim in the custody of the rapist, do you?
It is the fervent hope of everyone who cherishes democracy and wishes for a secure future for the country’s youth and children that the incumbent regime’s sinister plan to undermine people’s franchise and prolong its hold on power arbitrarily will come a cropper.
Tuesday 7th February, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decision to implement the controversial 13th Amendment (13A) fully could not have come at a worse time for pseudo-patriots such as the SLPP leaders, who enabled him to realise his presidential dream, and are therefore responsible for his acts or omissions. They have refused to grant the Provincial Councils land and police powers, claiming that such measures are fraught with the danger of leading to secession. Now, they find themselves in a dilemma. They, however, did not resort to violence in a bid to scuttle 13A when it was introduced in the late 1980s. But the same cannot be said about the JVP.
The JVP has said it sees nothing wrong with efforts being made to implement 13A, which is now part of the Constitution. This is the very opposite of what it said in the late 1980s, when it went on a spree of violence, claiming that 13A would lead to the division of the country, and had to be torpedoed, at any cost. Its savage suppression of dissent left hundreds of people dead. Its victims included politicians, student leaders, trade unionists, traders, monks, public officials, police and military personnel and voters who defied its order to boycott elections. Among the state assets it destroyed were 240 agrarian service centres, numerous Paddy Marketing Board warehouses with stocks of paddy therein, countless CEB transformers, power cables and pylons, and hundreds of state-owned buses. It also disrupted universities and schools, insisting that one’s love for the motherland had to take precedence over one’s education. Due to its brutal anti-13A campaign, its founder, Rohana Wijeweera, and all its senior leaders save Somawansa Amaraweera, perished at the hands of the police, the military and the pro-UNP vigilantes during counterterrorism operations. The same fate befell thousands of its junior cadres as well. Now, it says 13A is a fact of life!
The JVP claims to be a Marxist outfit but Machiavellian thinking seems to have polluted its revolutionary ideology. It is apparently guided by the Machiavellian maxim anent its pledges — ‘the promise given was a necessity of the past, and the word broken is a necessity of the present’.
What characterises the JVP is a chronic lack of policy consistency, as we pointed out in this space, on 05 April 2021, when the quinquagenary of its first sanguinary revolution fell. The only thing consistent about the JVP is perhaps its modus operandi to gain political momentum periodically to propel itself. It honeymoons with the main political parties and then takes them on. It backed the SLFP-led United Front ahead of the 1970 general election. The following year, it took up arms against the government formed by that coalition. In the late 1970s, it went politically steady with the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene, who released Wijeweera and others from prison. A few years later it turned against the JRJ regime and caused another bloodbath. In 2004, it closed ranks with the UPFA led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and thereafter left her administration. In 2005, it backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential fray, making a tremendous contribution to his victory; subsequently, it fell out with him and tried to topple his government. In 2015, it threw in its lot with a UNP-led coalition, which fielded Maithripala Sirisena as its presidential candidate and captured power in Parliament after his victory. Its honeymoon with the UNP lasted several years before it took on the UNF government and Sirisena when they became extremely unpopular.
This kind of political promiscuity, as it were, has cost the JVP dear both politically and electorally, as can be seen from the number of seats it has secured at the general elections over the years: one MP (elected on the Sri Lanka Progressive Front ticket) in 1994; 10 MPs in 2000; 16 MPs in 2001; 39 (from the UPFA) in 2004; four MPs (from the Democratic National Alliance) in 2010; six MPs in 2015, and three MPs (from the NPP) in 2020. This time around, the JVP leaders seem to think there is a tide in their affairs, and it has to be taken at the flood, but let them be warned to tread cautiously, mindful of the fact that Brutus, who acted likewise, finally ran on his own sword in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It was a huge mistake for the JVP to try to march on Parliament last year.
As we have argued in a previous editorial comment, the JVP’s style of politicking smacks of demagogy like that of other political parties although it takes the moral high ground, and whether it will be able to charter a course and navigate the shoaly waters of national politics it has drifted into remains to be seen.
Everything undergoes change. The universe itself is said to be in a state of flux. Therefore, it is only natural that political parties evolve, and the cadre-based JVP is metamorphosing into a mass-based political entity. It has demonstrated its willingness to abandon its threadbare ideology and associated anachronisms such as dirigisme; it has come to terms with the current global economic reality and is wooing the local business community. Besides, its current leaders are known for their sartorial and tonsorial elegance and predilection for dernier cri. These are no doubt welcome signs. But the question is whether the heinous crimes that ‘revolutionary’ groups commit in the name of liberation should be allowed to go unpunished.
The JVP has to show that it feels remorse for having resorted to savage terror to compass its political objectives. The least it can do is to tender an apology to the public, especially to the victims of its terror, the families of its cadres who answered its call to arms, came forward to ‘save the country’ and perished in vain.
Return of state terror
Monday 6th February, 2023
The spectre of state terrorism raising its ugly head again looms over the country. The Brownshirts of the incumbent regime, as it were, are now free to operate alongside the police to crush anti-government protests. Old habits are said to die hard. Those violent characters were seen in action on 03 February night at Maradana, where a group of people staged a peaceful protest against the government over the widespread waste of public funds, abuse of power, suppression of democratic dissent, economic mismanagement and the resultant hardships.
It was unfortunate that on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the country’s Independence, which was celebrated on a grand scale with public funds, the people were denied their right to protest.
The UNP has a history of unleashing state terror to silence its political opponents. In fact, it has got this down to a fine art. It did not spare even upright judges and human rights lawyers in its heyday. Its goons targeted independent journalists, and their violence left thousands of people dead in the late 1980s. They would swoop on polling centres, and stuff ballot boxes with the police looking the other way. Some senior police officers would stoop so low as to kowtow to the UNP thugs like Gonawala Sunil and Soththi Upali!
The Rajapaksa regimes also have had goon squads, which killed their political enemies, torched media institutions, and rigged elections with impunity. Their goons were free to crush Opposition protests in full view of the police. Friday night’s attack at Maradana reminded us of an incident that took place on the Independence Day in 2011, when the thugs working for the then Rajapaksa government attacked a protest march conducted by the UNP in Borella. Everybody knew that the goons were led by Mervyn of Kelaniya but no action was taken against him. The UNP condemned the Rajapaksa government for suppressing the Opposition’s right to protest. In April 2022, when the pro-SLPP goons attacked the peaceful Galle Face protesters, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe himself issued a statement, not only condemning the savage attack but also calling upon the entire government to resign. But he joined the repressive regime as its Prime Minister shortly afterwards! Today, the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe are cocking a snook at the people.
The fact that political stability is a prerequisite for economic recovery cannot be overstated. But the government does not seem keen to pacify the resentful people. What provokes the public into holding street protests is the government politicians’ cavalier attitude, cronyism, abuse of power, corruption and waste. Schools and hospitals are crying out for funds, but the government is spending public money on ceremonies, politicians’ junkets, etc. The SLPP and UNP are behaving as if they were deriving some perverse pleasure from people’s hardships. One wonders whether the ruling politicians are inflicting suffering on the people by way of punishment for rising against them. They robbed the country and bankrupted it and now they are trying to use its bankruptcy to stay in power without elections while suppressing people’s rights! What is playing out is like a gang of robbers punishing their victims with the help of the police and the armed forces!
The SLPP-UNP combine seems to be labouring under the delusion that it will be able to prevent another wave of political upheavals by crushing protests before they spread. Hence the deployment of thousands of police personnel at the drop of a hat. Let the government be warned that its strategy is bound to fail, and it is playing with fire. Public anger has already passed the tipping point, and the next wave of popular uprisings may be only a matter of time. When a tsunami of public anger makes landfall, there is no defence whatsoever for a repressive regime; the police and the military will not be able to defend it however pampered they may be.
Friday’s goon attacks at Maradana could be considered a dry run of what the government is planning to do on the day of the upcoming local government elections, which it cannot win. There is hardly anything that a beleaguered government that fears an election will not resort to avert a crushing defeat in midterm. The Election Commission, the Opposition, the media and election monitors should remain Argus-eyed. The SLPP local government politicians demonstrated what they were capable of when they took on the Galle Face protesters last year.
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