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Why people hate MPs



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 Even these figures, no doubt, involves a substantial subsidy though not as abominable as originally made out.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.

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Blinding ingratitude



Saturday 19th September, 2020

A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.

The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.

During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.

Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.

President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.

The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.

Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.



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Terrorists and ‘babies’



Friday 18th September, 2020

What is unfolding before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage reminds us of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Erik Solheim once called the Tiger chief a nonpareil strategist. In fact, during the Vanni war, he sought to discourage the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa from going all out to eliminate the LTTE’s military muscle; he told the latter, at a meeting, that Prabhakaran was blessed with superb strategic thinking and capable of springing huge battlefield surprises for the army. Solheim’s claim did not have the desired impact on Mahinda, who bluntly said he would fight the war to a finish, come what may. Prabhakaran perished several months later, and the war came to an end.

Solheim was not alone in mistakenly believing that Prabhakaran was trying to achieve his goal according to a well-thought-out strategy. They must now be convinced that the LTTE had no such plan, and Prabhakaran should have waited and launched his Eelam War IV under a UNP government. From what former intelligence bigwigs and defence officials have revealed before the aforesaid PCoI so far, it is patently clear that the UNP-led yahapalana government made a big mess of national security from 2015 to 2019, and if the LTTE had been around it would have been able to make the most of the situation.

The UNP government (2001-2004) undermined national security in a similar manner. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicrkremesinghe were at loggerheads during that period. The LTTE made use of a fragile truce to consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the South, take delivery of arms shipments, decimate the military intelligence network in areas under its control, and prepare for war. Prabhakaran, while being trapped in the shallows of Nandikadal, must have rued the day he had engineered UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat in the 2005 presidential race by ordering a polls boycott in the North and the East. If he had not meddled with that electoral contest, the UNP would have captured power and undermined national security big time.

Thanks to the PCoI, especially the probing questions its members and the Attorney General’s Department personnel pose to key witnesses, we know how lightly the yahapalana government took national security and public safety. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were busy fighting each other. Intelligence big guns were playing ping-pong over matters of crucial national importance. They worked in silos and, not to put too fine a point on it, behaved like a bunch of Montessori kids. They did not share foreign intelligence about impending Easter Sunday terror strikes with one another properly. Instead, they wrote letters about it to various others obviously in a bid to pass the buck. The State Intelligence Service (SIS), the President and the Prime Minister did not care a tinker’s cuss about national security, which became nobody’s business. The National Security Council became a joke.

The person who was the Chief of National Intelligence, in 2019, has recently told the PCoI that the SIS chief disconnected a call during a telephone conversation, on 20 April 2020, about the foreign intelligence pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks and never called back. Former President Sirisena has claimed that nobody had told him, prior to the terror strikes, that Zahran was a terrorist. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, he said he knew about a ‘golden horse’ and many other assets of the Rajapaksas, but he now claims that, as the President and Commander-in-Chief, he was not aware that Zahran was a terrorist!

Zahran was a kindergarten tot in the world of terror, compared to Prabhakaran, but national security was neglected to such an extent, during the yahapalana days, that even he could easily carry out a series of suicide blasts, which shook the world. What would have happened if Prabhakaran had been alive, or the LTTE rump had made a serious effort to regroup and make a comeback between Jan. 2015 and Nov. 2019?

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A shocking lament



Thursday 17th September, 2020

Perhaps, nothing hurts good judges more than having to acquit anti-social elements owing to flaws in cases and lapses on the part of the police and others responsible for prosecution. Colombo High Court Judge Vikum Kaluarachchi had this experience, on Tuesday. He had to acquit an accused produced before him for possessing drugs. He censured drug busters and prosecutors for their negligence, which had allowed the accused to go scot-free. His consternation is understandable. It is little wonder the conviction rate is said to be below 5% in this country.

The learned judge’s lament is an indictment on the police who conduct drug raids and those entrusted with the task of prosecuting the suspects taken into custody. This, however, is not the first time a drug baron has got away with his crimes. There have been many instances in the past, as we have pointed out in this space over the years. The police have botched up numerous probes, and drugs sent to the Government Analyst’s Department for testing have mysteriously become flour, of all things. Thanks to the arrest of over a dozen corrupt Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) sleuths for collaborating with the drug Mafia, the public knows why charges against some drug lords cannot be proved and the drug trade is thriving here.

Drug barons have colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth and huge slush funds which they expend generously to safeguard their interests, as is public knowledge. Drug lords have infiltrated all vital state institutions such as the legislature, the police and the Government Analyst’s Department. In 2012, late Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne told Parliament that politicians including some MPs were involved in the drug trade. He made no revelation, but other MPs let out a howl of protest. He stood his ground. Ironically, one year later, he was accused of having links to drug dealers because a haul of heroin was found in a container his office had sought to have cleared on priority basis. The Opposition demanded his resignation. The then UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera said in Parliament that some MPs were living on drug dealers’ money. He, however, stopped short of naming names. Mangala must be au fait with what is happening on the political front, where shady characters bankroll election campaigns of prominent politicians. More than a dozen PNB officers are in hot water for having allegedly sold drugs taken into custody and their deals with drug barons. It may be recalled that an IGP once attended the birthday party of a drug lord’s daughter, in a Colombo hotel, as a special invitee.

In the run-up to the last general election, some candidates were accused of being drug dealers, and they have been elected! So, one may argue that discrepancies and contradictions in police officers’ reports and testimonies and lapses on the part of prosecutors are not due to negligence. Is it that they craftily open escape routes for drug dealers on the judicial front?

The police and the Attorney General’s Department officials know what they are doing. They do not easily make mistakes. They ensure that ordinary lawbreakers get convicted and sentenced expeditiously. Curiously, investigators and prosecutors lack this kind of efficiency when wealthy drug barons happen to be caught and prosecuted.

Drug dealers are among the richest in the world. Colombian Pablo Escobar, who was ranked the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes, made a bonfire of cash worth USD2 million to keep his daughter warm and cook food while fleeing, his son revealed in 2009. Thankfully, he is not among the living. Sri Lanka drug dealers may not have wads of dollars or rupees to burn, but they are certainly wealthy enough to buy off venal police officers, politicians and state officials and get away with their crimes.

Some cricketers are notorious for spot fixing, and what they do at the behest of bookies are made to look slip-ups such as dropped catches, careless strokes and fumbling on the field. Are the police officers and others responsible for prosecuting drug barons ‘fixing cases’? Those whose ‘lapses’ help drug dealers go scot-free must be probed.

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