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Editorial

Why keep watchdogs behind curtains?

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Friday 11th December 2020

Tempers frayed during the budget debate, in Parliament, yesterday, with the Opposition MPs taking exception to the use of the parliament logo in some recent news reports on the proceedings of COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises). They asked Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to find out how that had happened and who was responsible. COPE Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath said information about the COPE discussion at issue had been taken from an official video. But the Opposition would have none of it.

Why the Opposition has seen red is obvious although some of its MPs have said their protest is not against the media coverage of the parliamentary committee proceedings as such, but the use of the parliament logo. The COPE is currently investigating some financial irregularities and the resultant losses to the state during the UNP-led yahapalana government.

Minister and Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando reiterated that the COPE proceedings should not be open to the media. The people have a right to know who is responsible for causing staggering losses to the state coffers through questionable deals, etc. There is no reason why the government or the Opposition should object to the media gaining access to the proceedings of COPE, etc., and disseminating it for public consumption if it has nothing to hide.

The people, in whom sovereignty is said to reside, have a right to know what Parliament or parliamentary committees do in their name. The election of a parliament is only a temporary arrangement for facilitating the exercise of the people’s sovereignty, and parliamentary privileges do not empower the MPs to subjugate the interests of the public to theirs. No restrictions should be imposed on the media coverage of the proceedings of parliamentary committees if people’s right to information is to be safeguarded.

In advanced democracies, the people are wise enough to ensure that their interests always take precedence over those of their elected representatives, who are denied special treatment, much less considered demigods. Sweden is perhaps the best example; its ministers are not entitled to official vehicles and have to travel in buses and trains just like the ordinary people. Not even the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament is given an official car. Only the Prime Minister can use an official vehicle. Such is the concern Swedes have about public funds, and no wonder politicians are not living high on the hog at the expense of the public in that country.

It is high time Sri Lankans woke up to the fact that they have to assert their right to hold politicians accountable to them and weed out the corrupt elements in the garb of elected representatives. This is not something easily attainable, but a serious effort has to be made to achieve it. One may recall that in Australia, Prime Minister of New South Wales Barry O’Farrell had to resign, in 2014, over his failure to declare a gift of wine from a businessman, after admitting to a ‘massive memory fail’. In this country, feigned memory losses help politicians get away with their involvement in mega scams.

Swedish politicians have to keep their place not because Sweden has achieved development and become a mature democracy; it is the other way around. No country can achieve its development goals so long as its public officials and elected representatives are not held accountable to the public.

Parliament, vested with powers to control public finance among other things, should carry out its fiduciary duties in a transparent manner, and granting the media unrestricted access to the proceedings of its watchdog committees is the way to ensure transparency, which is a prerequisite for bringing about the much-needed culture of accountability.



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Editorial

HRCSL in govt.’s crosshairs

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Saturday 28th January, 2023

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has placed itself in the crosshairs of the government by carrying out its duties and functions conscientiously. Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera has claimed that his ministry is contemplating legal action against two HRCSL members for having allegedly pressured two of his ministry officials to agree to suspend power cuts until the conclusion of the ongoing GCE A/L examination. He says the two mandarins were threatened with imprisonment, and he has brought the matter to President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attention and made a complaint to the Constitutional Council (CC).

Those who were present at the HRCSL meeting where an agreement was reached to suspend power cuts for the benefit of the students sitting the GCE A/L examination have said nobody was intimidated. Is the government trying to make a case for removing the HRCSL members.

There is reason to believe that the Power and Energy Ministry officials agreed to suspend power cuts at the aforesaid meeting but subsequently went back on their commitment because they incurred the wrath of the government for doing so. One may recall that in June 2022, the then Chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board M. M. C. Ferdinando told the Committee on Public Enterprises that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pressured President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to award the Mannar wind power project contract to India’s Adani Group. Ferdinando said President Rajapaksa had, after a meeting, told him that the latter was under pressure from Modi to ensure that Adani clinched the deal. It was obvious that Ferdinando, an experienced public official, was telling the truth; he had no reason to lie. But he withdrew his statement and resigned when President Rajapaksa took exception to his claim. No action was taken against Ferdinando because the government did not want to open a can of worms. This is how most public officials react under political pressure.

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe administration’s imperiousness knows no bounds. The Executive is doing everything in its power to keep all other institutions under its thumb. It has made a mockery of the Constitution by meddling with the independent commissions. President Wickremesinghe, who is the leader of the UNP, which is contesting the local government elections scheduled to be held in March, had a meeting with the members of the Election Commission (EC) and asked them to speak with one voice anent the announcement of the mini polls. The President cannot give such directions to the EC, especially when he/she happens to be a political party leader.

All Presidents save D. B. Wijetunga have bolstered the widely-held view that the executive presidency is a threat to democracy. All of them except Gotabaya secured the presidency while being members of Parliament and offered to strengthen the legislature and ensure the independence of the judiciary, but chose to undermine those two branches of government, and other vital state institutions to consolidate their hold on power.

The incumbent government also stands accused of trying to render the EC incapable of having quorate meetings by causing its members to resign as part of its strategy to postpone the local council polls. One EC member has already sent in her resignation letter. The newly-appointed CC has undertaken to reconstitute the independent commissions including the EC. Speculation is rife that the government is trying to have some pliable commissioners appointed so that it will be able to manipulate the EC.

It is hoped that all those who cherish democracy will unite to prevent the government from bulldozing the HRCSL and other independent commissions, which are the bulwarks against tyranny.

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Editorial

Heed their voice

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Friday 27th January, 2023

A group of Central Bank (CB) employees, on Wednesday, joined other professionals in protesting against the recently-introduced steep tax hikes. As part of the ongoing Black Protest Week campaign conducted by a collective of professional associations, those workers put up black flags and stood up to the police, who tried to disrupt their demonstration. Some police officers tend to go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with their political masters, and run the risk of being hauled up before court for fundamental rights violations. Some CB workers were seen protesting in Colombo yesterday as well.

The irony of the CB workers’ protests may not have been lost on political observers. The CB is spearheading the government’s efforts to secure a bailout package from the IMF, which has prescribed the huge tax increases at issue. But the CB employees themselves are opposed to that measure, and with reason! How could the government expect other workers to accept its tax policy?

Why professionals are so incensed as to take to the streets against tax increases is understandable. They are not refusing to pay taxes. Everybody agrees that taxes must be paid, for the state needs money to meet its expenditure, but they must be reasonable, and taxpayers need an assurance that their money will not end up in the pockets of politicians or will be used to support the high life of the rulers and their cronies, in some other way. Soaring inflation has taken its toll on their earnings, and needless to say, tax increases have aggravated their financial woes as never before. They have to look after their families and repay loans. What infuriates them more than anything else is perhaps the fact that politicians live in the lap of luxury at their expense and waste colossal amounts of public money, the allocation of more than Rs. 200 million for the Independence Day celebrations to be held early next month being a case in point.

Worse, all executive level employees in this country have had to contend with multiple taxation. Their salaries are taxed; they are affected by the taxes imposed on the Employees’ Provident Fund. When they retire, their terminal benefits are taxed. They have to pay taxes on their interest income as well. Thus, they live to pay taxes, and politicians are living off them.

Another factor that has exasperated professionals is the cavalier attitude of some government politicians who seem to think those who draw higher salaries deserve to be exploited. A Cabinet minister has drawn heavy flak from trade unions for saying something to the effect that anyone who earns Rs. 100,000 or more is ‘not innocent’. Is it that one loses one’s innocence when one begins to earn more than Rs 100,000 after studying hard, acquiring academic and professional qualifications and gaining experience? It is only natural that workers become resentful when they see semi-literate politicians living like Citizen Kane while they and their family members are suffering.

It will be a huge mistake for the government to ignore the voice of the professionals on the warpath and resort to coercion in a bid to neutralise their protests. They are different from the Aragalaya activists, who were dependent mostly on their numerical strength to win their demands.

The Aragalaya protest movement disintegrated owing to crackdowns, and the government has since embarked on a witch-hunt against its leaders. Notorious drug kingpin, Kanjipani Imran, secured bail and fled the country, but student leader Wasantha Mudalige, who was involved in Aragalaya, has been arrested and remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! The government will not be able to deal with the protesting professionals in a similar manner, for they possess trade union power, which they will not hesitate to use if push comes to shove.

It behoves the government to stop playing with fire and get the representatives of the warring professionals around the table without provoking them further. The sooner, the better!

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Editorial

Doublespeak and reverse speech

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Thursday 26th January, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is in overdrive to delay the local government (LG) elections while pretending that it is ready to face them. Experience is said to be the best teacher, and the public, having been taken for many a ride, tends to believe the obverse of what the ruling party politicians say. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has asked the UNP, which he leads, to get ready for the LG polls, and the UNP has given a lot of publicity to his directive, the subliminal message being that the government is intent on holding the mini polls, but those who have some acquaintance with reverse speech will argue that the SLPP-UNP combine is trying to mask its intent to postpone the polls.

Not all members of the government are adept at subterfuge and doublespeak unlike their leaders; most of them are blunt about their efforts to make a case for postponing elections. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya is prominent among them. Whenever he meets the press, he sounds like a broken record; he talks nineteen to the dozen about revenue shortfalls as if to have the public believe that the only way to overcome them is to postpone the LG polls and save the funds to be spent thereon! His latest claim is that during the current month there will be a shortfall of Rs. 10 billion in revenue from the Customs and the Excise Department. This particular figure is of interest; it is exactly the amount of money the LG elections are expected to cost! It is a pity that Secretary to the Finance Ministry, Mahinda Siriwardena, who was once widely considered an upright public official, has also blotted his copybook badly by becoming a ventriloquist’s dummy; when he speaks, one hears the voice of the Minister of Finance. One need not be surprised even if the government stoops so low as to create a fuel shortage and give the people a choice between petroleum imports and elections.

Meanwhile, the SLPP has reportedly launched its LG polls campaign from the precincts of Sri Dalada Maligawa, Kandy, where some of its leaders paid homage to the sacred tooth relic, the other day. That event could be considered an affront to the holy shrine, for the SLPP has become a metaphor for corruption and caused untold suffering to the public; its actions are antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha. Asked by a group of hectoring journalists to comment on the allegation that the government is trying to postpone the mini polls, SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa refused to be drawn in on the issue, claiming that he was not in the government. Paradoxically, his claim is true and false at the same time. It is true because he is not even a government MP. It is false because one does not have to be in a government to control it. That Basil is an eminence grise is public knowledge.

In the early 1920s, cynics used to say the Soviet Union did as the Communist Party said; the Communist Party did as its Central Committee said, and the party Central Committee did as Lenin said. Likewise, the incumbent government of Sri Lanka does as President Wickremesinghe says; Wickremesinghe does as the SLPP parliamentary group says, and the SLPP MPs do as Basil says.

In 1994, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said the entire Northern Province would be handed over to Prabhakaran for ten years without elections if he eschewed violence. Prabhakaran rejected the offer out of hand. About three decades on, those who boast of having defeated Prabhakaran are apparently trying to rule the entire country at least for ten years without elections on the pretext that electoral contests are far too expensive to be held due to the economic meltdown, which they themselves have caused. If they succeed in having their own way, they will perpetuate the economic crisis so that they and their kith and kin could stay in power without elections indefinitely and continue to live the high life while the people are suffering; in other words, instead of being punished for their economic crimes including that of bankrupting the country, they will be rewarded! It is like a rapist being given the custody of his victims so that he can continue to abuse them! Nowhere else in the world is such a thing possible! One can understand why this unfortunate country has come to be dubbed ‘a land like no other’.

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