National List MP and State Minister Seetha Arambepola placed her finger right on the spot when she remarked in Parliament last week that “this is why people hate MPs.” She said so in the context of a bit of a shindig in the chamber about an official claim that a meal which cost three thousand rupees of public funds was served to parliamentarian at just two hundred rupees. The figures eventually turned out to be wide off the mark. The actual cost of a fish meal was Rs. 950 and a vegetarian meal, Rs. 629. Even these figures, no doubt, involves a substantial subsidy though not as abominable as originally made out.
As Ms. Arembapola admitted (or tacitly accepted) the public have long resented perks heaped on their elected representatives at taxpayer expense. The media has over the years taken delight (one might even say fiendish delight) in entertaining their readers/viewers with details of what our MPs are fed on in the parliament restaurant and what it costs each of them. Ordinary people relish that kind of information – soup and a fish or chicken course followed by dessert, or rice and curry (with fish or chicken), also with a soup to start with and a dessert to follow, cost the MP only such and such are stories long published with glee. This naturally enrages ordinary people who have to make do with rice, parippu and maybe a sambol, and even that at an often unaffordable cost.
Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s Colombo District MP S.M. Marikkar set the cat among the pigeons by raising, as a point or order, newspaper reports that MPs were eating a three thousand rupee meal for two hundred. The ensuing discussion revealed that 2,000 people on ordinary days and 3,000 during the budget eat in parliament. These include not only the 225 MPs but also parliament staff, policemen, CEB personnel and sundry others on duty there. MPs believe that the astronomical price tag has been calculated by dividing the total catering charge accruing to the parliament budget by 225. If that is so , it is obviously wrong and MPs are being undeservedly tarred. That seems very much the case. Marikkar piquantly said that the voters were asking whether they were eating gold. Added to that, the fish served that day was not fresh, he complained. The three thousand rupee figure had made Dr. Arambepola wonder whether a buffet was being served (as in the luxury hotels that charge around that) and she had found that such was not the case.
It is very likely that everybody, and not only MPs, lunching (and dining in parliament when sittings stretch out into night and late evening as is often the case during the budget debate) are eating subsidized meals. They probably pay a ‘below cost’ charge and benefit from the subsidy. This most likely was an evolving process in the wake of the necessity for a large operation to cater to the creature needs of parliamentarians; and the numbers benefiting would have increased over time. Given that the infrastructure was provided, courtesy the taxpayer, and a lot of food was being cooked, the numbers partaking of the subsidized grub (including the press, we admit) would have multiplied. This what happens in many areas like the government hospitals feeding a large number of patients. Attendants and sundry others also benefit. In fact, at a time the authorities were trying to do away with rice meals for patients, protests arose more from attendants etc. rather than the sick.
Time was, admittedly decades ago, when evening tea at the restaurant in the old parliament by the sea cost just a rupee. The repast included cake, patties, sandwiches and what have you in addition to, of course, the tea. A delectable beli juice from the Marketing Department, was also on offer. We remember an amiable MP of that era, the late Mr. Neale de Alwis of the LSSP, entertaining a constituent to tea and telling him that however much he ate, the host had to pay only a fixed price. “Ithin sahodaraya, hondata bada pirenna kanna” (So comrade eat your fill).
Those were more spacious days, and the parliament restaurant included a bar. Perhaps that helped some brilliant speeches to be made and a mellow convivial atmosphere to prevail; thank goodness no drunkenness then that we remember. That was discontinued later although senators enjoyed the bar facility at their restaurant in the Upper House for many years after the Lower House lost that privilege. However that be, it must be said that the MPs (“I speak for all 225 of us”, Marikkar said), were righteously indignant about the figures bruited. But the fact remains that there is deep public resentment about what our lawmakers, as Sir John Kotelawela once pithily said, are serving themselves while the ladle is in their hands. It sounded better in the original Sinhalese: “handa athey thiyanakang, bedaganilla.”
Quite apart from subsidized (sumptuous) meals, our elected representatives get a pension after just five years parliamentary service. That was later extended to their surviving spouses although that scheme was non-contributory, unlike the Widows and Orphans Pension Scheme of the public service. Last but not least, we must say that it is the duty free car permits lavished on MPs are what infuriates the general public most. One MP has earned brownie points for himself saying he will not take it. We think that Messrs. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya did not take them in the last Parliament and all honour to them. What the people want is not individual ‘sacrifices.’ They want the whole sorry business scrapped once and for all. In President Gotabaya Rajapaksa we have a leader who can do it. We hope he would.
C4, Grease Yaka and Trojan horse
Monday 25th September, 2023
Channel 4’s recent programme on the Easter Sunday attacks may have made the Rajapaksas squirm and landed President Ranil Wickremesinghe in an awkward position, but former President Maithripala Sirisena has become an unintended beneficiary thereof. It could not have come at a better time for him; he has had to pay Rs 100 million as compensation to the families of the Easter Sunday terror victims, as per a court order, and the government is coming under increasing pressure to ensure that he faces criminal action for his failure to prevent the 2019 terrorist bombings, which took place when he was the President and Minister of Defence.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena. He is now at the mercy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who can have him prosecuted anytime. He has therefore opted to hold out an olive branch to Wickremesinghe, whom he wronged very badly during the latter stages of the Yahapalana rule, and indicated his willingness to support the UNP; he has gone to the extent of ousting his sidekick, Dayasiri Jayasekera, as the SLFP General Secretary for opposing moves being made to bring the UNP and the SLFP together again.
Sirisena however has got one thing right. He has said an international probe into the Easter Sunday attacks will be fraught with the risk of adversely affecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and therefore what is needed is a thorough domestic investigation with foreign assistance and not a full-fledged international probe as such.
It is not possible that Channel 4 (C4) and those who are said to be behind its programme at issue are driven by a genuine desire to have justice served for the Easter Sunday carnage victims, for they had no qualms about backing Tiger terror, which claimed many more lives than the Easter Sunday attacks. Their real intention seems to be creating a precedent for international probes in Sri Lanka in a bid to achieve their goal of having a UN investigation conducted into alleged war crimes against the Sri Lankan military; C4 has craftily woven war crimes allegations into its programme on the Easter carnage. They have succeeded in making even the ardent opponents of the ongoing campaign for an international war crimes probe against Sri Lanka support their plan, albeit unwittingly.
The government however must not be allowed to use the possibility of the country having to face a UN war crimes probe, in case of an international investigation being held into the Easter Sunday attacks, to justify its unwillingness to have the carnage investigated afresh. Pressure must be amped up on it to launch a credible domestic probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy that shook the world. The Catholic Church and other campaigners for justice have had to call for an international probe because the unpardonable delay on the part of the government to complete the ongoing police investigations into the carnage, and implement the PCoI recommendations fully, is widely viewed as proof of a grand cover-up.
Sri Lankan politicians are adept at political escapism. They are as slippery as the so-called Grease Yaka (a naked voyeur or burglar, covered in grease, moving about at night), and capable of escaping capture when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Otherwise, by now, most of them would have been behind bars for their crimes. It is thanks to their escape artistry skills that they have avoided prosecution for their serious lapses that enabled the National Thowheed Jamaat terrorists to carry out the Easter Sunday attacks with ease. They have artfully turned the C4 programme to their advantage!
Sirisena has attempted another escape stunt amidst pressure mounting on the government to have criminal proceedings instituted against him in keeping with the PCoI recommendations. He has used the C4 allegations to assail the validity of the PCoI probe and recommendations; his call for a fresh investigation with international assistance is aimed at further delaying the legal and judicial processes pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage.
When the PCoI final report became public in 2021, we argued that ideally a fresh probe had to be held based thereon, or if the government chose to implement its recommendations it had to do so expeditiously. If a thorough investigation had been launched at that time, it would have been possible to get at the truth and have justice served many moons ago. At least, the PCoI recommendations should have been implemented fully. Instead, the Rajapaksas opted to let the grass grow under their feet and thereby unwittingly helped bolster the claim that they were attempting a cover-up because they had a hand in the terror attacks. An ill repute is said to influence judgments.
How we must play the game
We are all familiar with the famous lines of American sportswriter Grantland Rice that “When the Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes not if you won or lost but how you played the game.” Well as far as we Sri Lankans are concerned, we played the game abysmally badly last Sunday when we took on India at the Asia Cup final under overcast conditions at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
The lines quoted above, of course, refers to sportsmanship. We were by no means unsporting and have never been so in the international sporting arena. Where we fell flat on our faces was how badly our team played last week to be scuttled out for a mere 50 runs in 15.2 overs to be trounced by 10 wickets.
The records show that this is not our worst ever performance in the white ball game. In 2012, a team that included greats like Mahela Jayawardena, Kumar Sangakkara, Tilakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Mathews was bowled out for a mere 43 runs in 20.1 overs in South Africa. Given that the most recent defeat came days after a nail-biting victory over Pakistan a few days earlier, it was doubly devastating for Lankan fans who paid an unusually high price – not set by us but by Pakistan hosting the tournament – to witness a debacle.
We have to face the fact that our cricket fans are champion cheer leaders when things go right and are quite the reverse when they go wrong as happened in the game against India last week. However, they are not guilty of torching players’ homes as had happened elsewhere. Allegations like match fixing, without a shred of evidence, abounded over the social media and there were demands that Dasun Shanaka who led our team be replaced as captain.
There is no debate that the cricket administration in the country has in recent year sunk to their lowest depths. This is an admitted fact and some halfhearted attempts have been made over the past decades to correct this situation. Gone are the days when people like Robert Senanayake, the younger son of the late Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, ran the affairs of the then Board of Control of Cricket in then Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka Cricket).
But even then, old timers may remember, when two of the selectors (both good cricketers) picked themselves for the team. Political interventions in cricket have both been for the good like Mr. Gamini Dissanayake winning us the right to play Test cricket and much more and for the bad of which less said the better.
Right now there is very little to be said for the administration and the method of its election. Suffice it be said that Muttiah Muralitharan, our all time great bowler, once said that he could contest any seat in the whole of the country and get elected but it was doubtful that he would get a single vote in a Cricket Board election!
Some on the Interim Boards have been led by unexceptionable people who accepted office not because they hankered for position but because they wanted to do what they could for the game and the country they loved. We’ve had reputed banker, Rienzie Wijetillake, who ran a tight ship and team managers of the calibre of Michael Tissera. There were others like well like Hemaka Amarasuriya and Vijaya Malalasekera. The other side of the coin does not bear examination.
The squad for the 2023 event that will get underway in three weeks’ time is not out yet and we shall know what is to be this time around in a couple of days. On Tuesday, the selectors had met other key stakeholders of the sport and had decided to replace Dasun Shanaka as captain. On Wednesday Dasun visited the High Performance Center at the Premadasa Stadium and had told fellow players that he was quitting. Then he went to Maitland Place for a meeting with the selectors at noon and found that they had made a complete about turn. What prompted the selectors to overturn their original decision? Were there sound cricketing reasons or were they pushed to make the change?
There has been a lot of pressure, inevitably aggravated by out dismal performance on Sunday that the captain, who on his current batting form does not seem to merit a place in the team, must be changed. But as the head coach, Chris Silverwood, said after the recent debacle: “There is much more to being the captain than just scoring runs. Dasun is a very good captain. He is respected by everyone in the dressing room. He understands the players and shows them a lot of love and support and that love and support is returned.”
That’s quite a mouthful. Together with the ground reality that changing the captain at this late stage carries its own considerable downside risk, sensible people will endorse the selectors volte face in going back on their instant reaction to the debacle in the India match. The fans too must realize that lady luck plays a big part in sporting matters. If we had lost the toss and India had chosen to bat as she well might have, events may have rolled in a different direction. However that be, let us give our lads a chance and wish them the very best in India next month. That’s how the game should be played.
Of that nasty set-to
Saturday 23rd September, 2023
Sri Lankan political leaders are known to exude piety from every pore and make it a point to be on their best behaviour when they appear in public. Clad immaculately in white, they speak in a measured tone, pretending that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths and quoting from various religious texts. Perhaps, during parliamentary debates, the Dhammapada is more quoted than the Constitution, or Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice. But these self-righteous worthies show their true colours when they fly into fits of rage. We saw them in action the other day.
Thursday’s parliamentary proceedings descended into a slanging match, with SJB MP and former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and ex-President Maithripala Sirisena trading allegations and insults liberally. The nasty set-to erupted when Fonseka accused Sirisena of having let the Easter Sunday carnage happen despite intelligence warnings in 2019, when the latter was the President.
He got Sirisena’s goat. Springing to his feet, an otherwise mild-mannered Sirisena launched into a tirade against Fonseka, and the duo got down and dirty. They slung mud at each other, presumably in the hope that some would stick, and what we witnessed in the House was like a barney in a shebeen.
Fonseka did not mince his words when he accused Sirisena and ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of having masterminded the Easter Sunday terror attacks with an eye to the last presidential election (2019). He claimed Sirisena had left the country in time for the terror attacks, which, he said, benefited Gotabaya politically and electorally. Sirisena shot back, with guns blazing, letting out a stream of invectives, and in a bid to question the credibility of Fonseka’s assertions, he said Fonseka, as the Army Commander, had failed to protect the Army Headquarters against the LTTE.
Referring to the 2006 LTTE suicide attack inside the Army Headquarters, Colombo, he described how Fonseka had been rushed to hospital in a very serious condition. His speech, replete with gory details of Fonseka’s wounds, was antithetical to civility. Such being the manner in which political leaders try to settle political scores and silence their opponents during parliamentary debates, why election campaigns where they go all out to retain or regain power turn out to be bloody is not difficult to understand.
The irony of Thursday’s venomous exchange between Sirisena and Fonseka may not have been lost on keen political observers. They were comrades in arms in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, where Sirisena, who was the Opposition’s common candidate, came from behind to beat the then sitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Fonseka showed praise on Sirisena, and urged the public to vote for the latter to usher in good governance and have their lot improved. He played a pivotal role in the opposition alliance, which made Sirisena’s victory possible against tremendous odds. Sirisena hailed Fonseka as the best warrior Sri Lanka had ever produced and promoted him to the rank of Field Marshal amidst tut-tuts from the discerning public, who questioned the newly-elected President’s wisdom of creating such a high rank.
Thus, Fonseka, who was instrumental in having Sirisena elected President, cannot absolve himself of the blame for the latter’s serious lapses, including those which led to the Easter Sunday attacks, in 2019. Sirisena will have to explain why he elevated to the rank of Field Marshal someone who, he says, could not even protect the heavily-guarded Army Headquarters against the LTTE. They are apparently labouring under the mistaken belief that they can go on duping the public with their claims and counterclaims.
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