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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

Bridging vaccine divide

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Monday 12th April, 2021

Rich nations make a show of their commitment to defending human rights in the world. They harangue their developing counterparts, at every turn, about the need to protect human rights, and even threaten to meet non-compliance with punitive actions such as sanctions. They, however, do not seem keen to promote and protect humans’ right to vaccination vis-a-vis the prevailing global health emergency. The only way to safeguard this right is to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed utter dismay at what it calls a ‘shocking imbalance’ in the distribution of vaccines between the rich and the poor.

This kind of vaccine inequality could be attributed to what WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has rightly called a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. The COVAX initiative, which alone can ensure a well-coordinated global fight against the virus, has suffered a serious setback, with the high-income countries reportedly holding as many as 4.6 billion doses of vaccines, and the low-middle income nations only 670 million. One in four people have been inoculated in the high-income countries as opposed to one in more than 500 in the low-income countries, according to the WHO.

Unless the COVAX scheme, the most efficacious antidote to what has come to be dubbed ‘vaccine nationalism’, which has put the poorer countries at a distinct disadvantage, goes ahead as planned, a vast majority of the global population, in the developing countries, will be badly hit, and in the long-term, the world’s fight against the virus will be in jeopardy because the pandemic is no respecter of geographical boundaries; no country, however rich and powerful, will be safe in today’s interconnected world dependent on international trade and travel.

‘Vaccine nationalism’ may give the rich nations a sense of security in the short-term, but it will be counterproductive in the long-term, for no vaccine is believed to be able to ensure life-time immunity against COVID-19. The pandemic continues to throw up new challenges. Even if the rich nations achieve their vaccination goals while their poor counterparts are lagging far behind, they will be at the risk of being affected by new variants, against which, the currently available jabs might not be effective. This is why Dr. Ghebreyesus has said no country will be safe until every country is safe.

Some Asian nations are struggling to beat the virus despite some initial success in their battle against the pandemic, according to an Asia News Network article we publish today. The report informs us that India, which is grappling with its second wave of infections, has seen record increases of new cases, with more than 100,000 daily being reported on, at least, five days, last week. This being the predicament of a vaccine-producing nation, with a reasonably efficient vaccination rollout, the vulnerability of other countries is not difficult to guess. Similar unfortunate situations have been reported from other parts of the world as well. The US, which is among the nations with impressively high COVID-19 vaccination rates, is also troubled by a sudden increase in the number of pandemic-related deaths.

If the vaccine rollouts fail to reach a successful conclusion the world over fast, it may not be possible to achieve global herd immunity through vaccination, and the chances of beating the virus may be slim due to its mutations, experts warn. COVAX is scheduled to supply as many as two billion doses of vaccines to 190 countries within one year with 92 poorer nations gaining access to vaccines at the same time as their wealthier counterparts. This is a highly ambitious target, which, however, must be achieved if the world is to get on top of the pandemic. But help from the rich nations is not forthcoming, and it is only natural that the WHO is disappointed.

The WHO is hopeful that it may be possible to change the composition of the existing vaccines to deal with the mutations of the virus, but it is still trying to figure out what kind of impact new variants may have on the effectiveness of vaccines. Reuters reported yesterday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa had been found to be able to break through Pfizer/BitoNtech’s vaccine to a considerable extent. Some Indian epidemiologists interviewed by BBC yesterday said they feared that the emerging variants might even be able to escape the human immune system!

The need for all nations, which are currently at cross purposes as regards the global battle against the virus, to support and be guided by COVAX, which alone can make them work in unison to beat the virus, cannot be overemphasised.

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Editorial

Give And Take

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Sri Lanka heads into the Sinhala and Tamil New Year at a time of difficulty and hardship unprecedented in our contemporary history. Covid 19 has cost us much, as it has cost nearly all countries in the planet. There have been claims that the worst is over and we continue to hope that this is correct. But that is not something that can be said with certainty. However a semblance of normalcy has returned although sections of the community, such as those dependent on tourism, continue to suffer hardship. Nobody can claim that the economy is in good shape with the rupee plunging to a historic low of Rs. 200 to the U.S. dollar. This must reflect both on the import bill and on external debt servicing and repayment. But tea prices remain good and the weather has been fair. While we can take comfort that we have not yet defaulted on our massive debt servicing and repayment obligations, the situation is far from rosy with our ability to raise new loans at interest rates that are not exorbitant declining by the day.

Although the ever-rising cost of living continues to impose hardship on both the poor and the middle class, this has been something that has been always with us for a very long time. Although incomes have grown, prices have grown much faster and we know too well that the value of money is now a fraction of what it was. This has particularly hurt savings and the prevailing low interest rates have dealt a kidney punch to large numbers of retired people dependent on interest income for their livelihood. While grumbling continues, people have learned to cope as best as they can. Despite all the negatives, the rulers continue to project a bold front. But there is no escaping the reality that the government has rapidly lost popularity since the last elections, both presidential and parliamentary.

No ban on New Year travel has been imposed although there are inherent risks, in the covid context, of large numbers of people going home to their villages from crowded urban centers they work in. This has been a long-held tradition and it would be a brave government that would interfere however much prudence dictates otherwise. While most people wear masks while moving around in public places, enforcing social distancing in crowded public transport will be next to impossible. Thus the powers that be have resorted to the easier way of leaving the choice to the good sense of the people rather than enforcing strict rules controlling movement. Although other countries have seen spikes of infection by being lenient on holiday travel, Sri Lanka will hopefully have better luck post avuruddhu.

We run on this page today a contribution from the Pathfinder Foundation of Mr. Milinda Moragoda, our High Commissioner-designate to New Delhi cautioning the government against taking too strong a stance on import substitution – a direction in which it is clearly moving. Given Moragoda’s political orientation, Pathfinder may be seen to be sticking its neck out by advocating a hemin hemin policy. Nobody would reasonably object to government imposing certain import bans to encourage local production as in the recent case of turmeric. There is no debate that we must grow crops that we can rather than import them. But governments must always strike the right balance between the interests of producers and consumers. When Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake pushed a massive food production drive during his 1965-70 government, he used to say at public meetings in agricultural areas that enormous foreign exchange expenditure was being incurred for the import of potatoes that some foreign experts had once-upon-a-time said cannot be economically grown here.

But Welimada farmers disproved them. Thereafter potatoes have been successfully grown even in Jaffna although we have not achieved self-sufficiency. “Why should we pay farmers in potato growing countries for their produce when we can pay that money to our own farmers?,” the prime minister used to ask. “But when we enforce a policy to ensure that our cultivators got the money flowing abroad, our opponents accuse the government of kicking the poor man’s ala hodda.” This was also true of chillies and onions where import substitution policies worked to benefit local farmers although at a cost to consumers. Jaffna farmers garlanding one-time Agriculture Minister Hector Kobbekaduwa with onions and chillies when he ran for president against J.R. Jayewardene was testimony to this policy. But it has not worked as successfully as it might have where local sugar production was concerned. Despite this country being endowed by conditions enabling sugar cane growing, we are nowhere near self-sufficiency although different governments have used tariff barriers to ensure better prices to domestic cane growers. Unfortunately we have a local sugar industry which makes more money out of its potable alcohol byproduct than from its sugar.

We have to be always conscious of the trade balance and cannot forget that Europe and the USA are the biggest markets for our garment industry. The ongoing restrictions on motor vehicle imports has no doubt saved us much foreign exchange but we cannot butter our bread on both sides by adopting one sided trade policies. That there must be give and take is a fact of life and it would be useful for the concerned authorities to take note of the Pathfinder perception that “openness to trade improves the tgrowth, employment and income trajectories of economies.”

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Editorial

A tall tale told by cops

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Saturday 10th April, 2021

Thousands of military personnel who died in the line of duty to make this country safe would turn in their graves if they knew the way the state is treating their loved ones. Their widows and mothers were seen recently staging street protests in a bid to have some grievances redressed. On Thursday, while they were conducting a peaceful march from the Fort Railway station to the Presidential Secretariat, demanding that they be paid their spouses’ salaries instead of pensions until the time when their husbands would have reached the retirement age. Ven. Jamurewela Chandrarathana, described as the chief organiser of the event, and another person were arrested and subsequently granted police bail. The police claimed that the arrests had been made over a stone attack on two of their vehicles. This, we believe, is a tall tale.

No one in his proper senses dares to hurl stones at a police vehicle in full view of heavily armed cops, and run the risk of having to keep staring at the ceiling of an orthopaedic ward for weeks, if not months. There have been instances where even protesting students had their limbs broken and skulls cracked at the hands of the police riot squads. So, only agents provocateurs working for the government will carry out a stone attack on the police.

Two stone throwers, caught by some members of the public and handed over to the police, on Thursday, vanished while in police custody, only Chandrarathana Thera and another person were taken to a nearby police station, according to the organisers of the protest. This is a very serious allegation, which must not go uninvestigated. One of the attackers is seen in the CCTV footage of the incident, and the bold manner in which he threw stones in a place swarming with police personnel in uniform and civvies suggests that he was confident he would not have to face the consequences of his action. If the police cannot do their job properly, they must, at least, learn how to lie convincingly!

The government says it has sorted out the issue over which the widows of the slain military personnel took to the streets, and a gazette to that effect has been put out. If it is telling the truth, then the protesters had not been informed of what it had done. Why didn’t the defence top brass invite the protesters to a discussion and inform them that their problems had been solved? In fact, the government should have solved the salary issue much earlier.

The leaders of the incumbent dispensation never miss an opportunity to boast of having ended the country’s war on terror. They, no doubt, provided unwavering political leadership for the war effort, but the fact remains that it is the military, the police including the STF, and the Civil Defence Force that made the defeat of terrorism possible. One of the main election pledges of the present government was to look after the interests of the armed forces and police personnel. Its leaders, during their Opposition days, shed copious tears for the military and the police, the slain armed forces personnel and their families and gained a lot of political mileage. They, therefore, must not wait until the family members of the late military personnel stage protests, to act, and, most of all, ensure that the latter are treated with respect.

The government claims its political opponents were behind Thursday’s protest. This claim may be true. There is hardly any issue that does not get politicised in this country. Didn’t the SLPP politicise and exploit the Easter Sunday attacks to win elections? The problem of a bunch of bankrupt politicians and publicity-crazy elements including some priests exploiting the grievances of the family members of the slain warriors to compass their selfish ends would not have arisen if the government had cared to give the protesters a patient hearing instead of unleashing the police on them.

Damaging police vehicles is a serious offence, and the duo responsible for Thursday’s stone-throwing incident can be charged under the Offences against Public Property Act and denied bail. An investigation is called for to find out why the police allowed them to escape, as alleged by the protesters.

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