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Youth, and sombre presage of trouble



Saturday 2nd January, 2021

The present Parliament is not without cultured, intelligent members who fight for the rights of the public. SJB National List MP Imtiaz Bakir Marker has recently told the media that the Sri Lankan youth have been denied a fair deal anent political representation. He has called for increasing the number of young representatives in political institutions. One could not agree with him more. There is no gainsaying that the youth who account for nearly one fourth of the country’s population deserve a better deal.

The electoral system should be changed to have many more young members in political institutions, but that alone will not help solve the issues affecting the youth. We have had a considerable number of young MPs all these years, but how many of them have taken up the cudgels for the rights of the youth? Most leaders of the political parties currently represented in Parliament entered politics while they were still young, but have done little for the country’s youth; they have only looked after their offspring and relatives. Therefore, besides increasing the representation of the youth at all three tiers of government—Parliament, the provincial councils and the local government institutions—governments ought to work hard to develop this country so that opportunities will be available for the youth to achieve their goals.

Most youth are reluctant to live in this country, which they will leave, at the first opportunity. This is the sad truth successive governments have chosen to ignore. All these decades, other countries have benefited from Sri Lanka’s free education system in that the best brains produced here have served them. We have been feeding the proverbial cow, which other nations have been milking. Many Sri Lankan professionals sent overseas for further education or training have neither returned nor paid for violating their agreements with the state.

The youth are politically conscious and active albeit on a different plane, which is basically digital. If one studies popular social media posts, one will realise how creative the youth are in expressing their frustration. Iconoclasm is associated with the rebellious youth, who are known for calling anyone on the carpet at the drop of a hat, but these posts are indicative of a deep-seated antipathy towards politicians and political institutions. The vast majority of young social media activists are cynics. Their cynicism is symptomatic of their disenchantment with the system and fraught with the danger of finding expression in popular uprisings like the Arab Spring, which turned out to be a winter of despair for the countries where it was staged. Pent-up anger of the youth gives a turbo boost to the sinister outfits with extra-parliamentary agendas. This may explain why the JVP succeeded in making the youth take up arms, plunge the country into a bloodbath and perish in two abortive insurrections.

One may recall that the wall art spree that followed the 2019 regime change; thousands of young artists turned the country into an art gallery. They acted on their own and received public assistance; it was a form of catharsis. But they lost interest in their artistic endeavour after a few weeks probably because the new government failed to live up to their expectations, and the promised new beginning became yet another false dawn.

The yahapalana government apparently thought the youth lived on data. Hence its offer of free Wi-Fi in public places. The present dispensation seems to think ball games will keep the youth happy. It is not only the old birds that cannot be caught with chaff; the young birds are also wise in this country and cannot be easily fooled. They need opportunities to pursue education and secure employment. The majority of students who qualify for university admission are left out as the universities lack facilities and resources to accommodate them. Only the progeny of the rich could afford private education. The local job market is almost saturated, and most of the educated youth are either unemployed or underemployed.

The present-day leaders had better secure copies of the report of the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990) and read and understand its findings and recommendations. (Imtiaz has referred to this valuable document, which he must have read as a young MP at the time.) Only a few of the commission recommendations have been implemented.

The Youth Commission was appointed following the brutal suppression of the second JVP insurrection (1987-89). Three decades have elapsed since the publication of its report, and the incumbent government should give serious thought to appointing a new youth commission to ascertain the views of the youth on the various issues they are faced with and how they think they can be tackled. The frustration of their wishes has made the youth resentful and their consternation is palpable. This, we reckon, is a sombre presage of trouble.

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EC chief tells home truth



Thursday 30th June, 2022

Some Opposition politicians would have the public believe that the present crisis cannot be resolved unless a general election is held. They insist that they can save the economy and deliver the people from suffering if they are given a popular mandate to govern the country. There is hardly anything Sri Lankan politicians do not capitalise on, and therefore it is not surprising that they are making the most of the crisis. Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Nimal Punchihewa has told them a home truth.

We have quoted the EC chief as saying that action must be taken to ensure that people’s basic needs are fulfilled before an election is held, for the public mood is not conducive to an electoral contest. One could not agree with him more. Even when there are no shortages of essentials and other such deprivations, people tend to turn aggressive and their tempers flare during election campaigns. How bad the situation will be in the event of the country having to go to the polls at this juncture is not difficult to imagine.

What the EC Chairman has not said is that people are so incensed that many politicians’ lives will be in danger if they come out for electioneering.

It will not be possible to hold an election in the foreseeable future owing to various shortages. The fuel crisis has crippled both public and private sectors. Schools have already been closed save those in some rural areas, and hospitals remain partially open with doctors, nurses and other health workers waiting in endless queues to obtain fuel. Teachers engaged in evaluating the GCE O/L answer scripts have run into difficulties for want of fuel. How can an election be held, given these conditions?

Some Opposition parties are labouring under the delusion that they will be able to sweep to victory if an election is held soon because the ruling SLPP has cooked its goose. But the entire Parliament has incurred the wrath of the public, who will not be so stupid as to vote overwhelmingly for any political party again. The economic crisis will not go away anytime soon and is bound to trouble a future government as well if an election is held before it is brought under control.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has torn into the government, which, he says, is using the crisis as an excuse to sell state assets. He has said legal action would be instituted against the culprits under an SJB administration. But protests alone will not prevent the current government leaders from striking questionable deals with foreign governments and firms. They are ready to do whatever it takes to save their skins and will not hesitate to compromise the national interest. They have already cut several shady deals with foreign companies in the power and energy sectors, and the only way to stop them is to extricate the country from their clutches.

If Premadasa is genuinely desirous of saving state assets, then he should join others in taking over the government. Many are the things that need to be done before the next election. The 21st Amendment has to be passed. The Parliament Election Act must be amended to prevent political parties from filling the National List vacancies with persons other than those whose names are submitted to the people before a general election. A constitutional provision must be introduced to enable post-enactment judicial review of legislation so that bad laws do not become faits accomplis. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption must be strengthened, and new laws introduced to tackle private sector corruption as well; it must be given back the power to initiate investigations on its own without waiting for complaints. A special probe must be launched to trace and recover stolen public funds which are believed to amount to billions of dollars. There will have to be laws to regulate campaign finance with provision for stringent punishment for noncompliance, and to make it mandatory to present all vital agreements between the state and foreign governments or companies, to Parliament for approval. There are many other such issues that need to be sorted out once and for all before a general election is held.

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When incompetence fuels crisis



Wednesday 29th June, 2022

What was feared has come to pass; the country has run out of oil to all intents and purposes. But the government’s lame excuses are not in short supply. It says it will restore the oil supply on 10 July, and until such time fuel will be issued only for essential services. What guarantee is there that enough dollars will be raised within the next two weeks for fuel imports? Are we being made to wait for Godot? It is very likely that on 09 July the government will ask for two more weeks to make fuel available.

Now that the government has closed the country owing to its inability to make fuel available, the question is whether it has any moral right to stay in power. Its leaders have only demonstrated their incompetence and shamelessness. If they continue to be in power, they will inflict far worse damage on the country. They are already conducting a fire sale of state assets, and all out to deprive the country of its energy sovereignty; they have invited multinational oil companies to commence operations here. Some of them will laugh all the way to foreign banks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have ordered that dollars be released for fuel imports urgently. Whom is he trying to fool? He cannot be unaware that there aren’t enough dollars for fuel purchases. Is he trying to deflect criticism by issuing such directives? The SLPP government bankrupted the country by stealing public funds, slashing taxes, granting massive pay hikes to some categories of public sector workers, throwing money around in the name of pandemic relief, and using forex reserves to defend the rupee in vain, despite repeated warnings from the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry officials. Various rackets such as the sugar tax scam have also taken their toll on the economy. The country is therefore without enough dollars to pay for essential imports including fuel, and there is no way either the Central Bank or the Finance Ministry could find foreign currency for fuel imports in a hurry simply because the President asks them to do so. Perhaps, the only way to pay for fuel imports immediately is to make the corrupt government politicians who have helped themselves to public funds, all these years, return part of their ill-gotten wealth hidden overseas.

SJB MP Champika Ranawaka has flayed the government for the fuel crisis. He has said the country’s image will have to be repaired before foreign assistance is sought. It will not be possible to overcome the present crisis so long as failed politicians continue to be in top posts, he has said. One cannot but agree with him. He is one of the few Opposition members capable of strategic thinking although he was a member of the failed yahapalana government. He has said he is willing to be actively involved in crisis management if a truly multi-party, interim government is formed with a timeframe set for a general election. He would have been able to take over the Power and Energy Ministry if the SJB had accepted the President’s offer to form a government, last month. He and other SJB MPs should have brought pressure to bear on their leader Sajith Premadasa to form a caretaker government together with other parties. They should do so, at least now. A new interim government may not be able to contain the crisis overnight, but it will help prevent the likes of Basil Rajapaksa from manipulating ministers to compass his ends. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is at the mercy of the Rajapaksa family, which controls the SLPP. The incumbent administration is a collective of self-seeking strange bedfellows who are willing to further the interests of the Rajapaksa family; the sooner it is got rid of, the better. That will be half the battle in managing the crisis.

Meanwhile, the government ought to find ways and means of holding racketeers at bay to ensure that fuel to be imported will be dispensed in an equitable manner. It has to devise a rationing system to prevent hoarding. Otherwise, a part of the next fuel shipment will also end up on the black market via hoarders’ dens, and the ordinary people will be left without petrol, diesel or kerosene.

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Lanka’s crisis and NATO leaders



Tuesday 28th June, 2022

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has proved that it is incapable of controlling the runaway economic crisis, which has taken a turn for the worse with pumps running dry at most filling stations. Neither President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe nor Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera knows when or whether the next fuel shipment will arrive. The country is grinding to a halt for want of fuel. Schools have been closed, and many other state institutions including hospitals are on the verge of closure. The day may not be far off when the food supply chain also collapses, and food riots erupt.

Instead of finding solutions to the power and energy crises, the government has resorted to the divestiture of state assets. It has already agreed to hand over an unspecified number of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation filling stations to the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) if what Minister Wijesekera has recently told the media is any indication. He has admitted that the LIOC influenced the government decision to effect the latest fuel price hike. The Electricity Act has been amended to allow India’s Adani Group to construct a wind power plant. The government has also cut a questionable deal with a US company over the Yugadanavi power station. The country is thus losing control over the power and energy sectors while the Rajapaksas are wrapping themselves in the flag and bellowing rhetoric.

Sri Lanka finds itself in the current predicament, defaulting on foreign debt and begging for dollars because of its NATO (No Action Talk Only) leaders. President Rajapaksa summons experts and treats them to long lectures instead of learning from them. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has become a crisis commentator, as it were; he gives ball-by-ball commentaries with ominous warnings thrown in for good measure. Minister Wijesekera is all at sea, and most other ministers are a bunch of somnambulists. Opposition top guns are laying it on too thick.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa would have us believe that the world is eagerly waiting for the formation of an SJB government to help straighten up the Sri Lankan economy. Speaking at a ‘Project Leopard’ event in March, he declared that three West Asian countries had agreed to supply fuel at concessionary rates to Sri Lanka for two years under a future SJB government. If so, the blame for untold hardships the people are undergoing owing to the fuel crisis should be apportioned to the SJB, for it spurned an opportunity to form a government last month. Premadasa turned down President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to take over as the Prime Minister. He remained intransigent, demanding that the President step down. Subsequently, he had a change of heart, but the President had already decided to appoint Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. However, it’s never too late, as they say.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has declared over the weekend that his party is capable of saving the battered economy and granting the people much-needed relief. He wants the reins of government offered to the JVP on a platter for that task to be accomplished. It was only the other day that he said his party was ready to join others in making a concerted effort to resolve the ever-worsening economic crisis. At the same time, it is pushing for a general election!

Supposing Parliament resolves to hold a snap general election, will any Opposition party be able to form a strong government? The SLPP is bound to suffer a humiliating defeat, come the next election; it is in fact the political version of a dead man walking, but the possibility of the next Parliament being hung cannot be ruled out. Political instability will continue to elude the country in such an eventuality. IMF assistance will be further delayed in the event of a general election being held before the end of this year. So, the best time for all the parties that claim to be able to help the country overcome the crisis to walk the walk is now. The current administration has failed and has to step down. If the SJB helps others, especially the SLFP and the SLPP dissidents, to form a truly multi-party interim administration, joins it and brings down the promised oil shipments at concessionary prices, besides helping enlist international support, the country will gain tremendously. Soapbox oratory will not do.

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