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Focus

The President and the people


Meet two peas in a pod


Jeyaraj Fernandopulle
and Basil Rajapakse

By Sonali Samarasinghe

One is entitled to blanch a little at the words of Chief Government Whip, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle of a morning. It is not that the long suffering public is not indebted to the Minister for his political gaffes. There comes a time when Fernandopulle's facetious remarks serve as the only ray of light on a dark day.

Last Tuesday, Fernandopulle told parliament with genuine regret the government could not appoint Labour Minister, Mervyn Silva to the Constitutional Council despite the fact Mervyn Silva was a 'man of integrity with an unblemished record.' Whether his tongue was lodged in his cheek at the time it was hard to tell.

According to the 17th Amendment a member of the Constitutional Council must be a person of integrity with an unblemished record.

Pulle's criteria

Fernandopulle said that Silva fits the criteria for good character and integrity but could not be appointed due to the fact he was a member of a political party. Earlier, the government had rejected the nomination of Former Auditor General, S.C. Mayadunne to the Constitutional Council on the basis he was already serving as parliament's special projects consultant. This despite the fact Mayadunne had said he was willing to give up his present post in order to take up the Constitutional Council appointment.

Mayadunne was a consultant on COPE and PAC, two very sensitive issues for the present government with damning reports from both bodies implicating several members of the present cabinet.

Therefore, while Fernandopulle was able to say with some confidence when asked, that Mervyn Silva will not be appointed to the CC, he hedged by saying he could not answer on behalf of the President, on the matter of appointing Mayadunne.

Perhaps for Fernandopulle to whom the UN Special Envoy, John Holmes is nothing but a terrorist and to whom the Alan Rock report on child recruitment is merely an object for ridicule, the likes of Mervyn Silva are paragons of virtue that deserve the highest verbal accolades.

Privileged

Then again, perhaps the knowledge that he enjoyed absolute parliamentary privilege made it easier for him to talk shop.

One is also entitled to be a little curious as to the basis on which the government assesses integrity and an unblemished record. Certainly it can be said that Mervyn Silva has an unblemished record of abusing the independent media and his political opponents. On December 27, 2007 he created a black spot in his own abusive escutcheon by assaulting a member of the government Rupavahini Corporation. He soon made up for it however by immediately bashing the Maharajah Organisation once again.

Aspirations

Mervyn Silva's aspirations to sit on the Constitutional Council (CC) are based on ageism but nobody taught Silva to be politically correct. At the Parliamentary Group Meeting last Wednesday, President Rajapakse with the ease and panache of one who does not find it offensive, was to say that Mervyn had told him the members of the CC were all over 70 years old, and that he should appoint Mervyn to the post.

By this time Mervyn had already sown some fertile seeds in the media, letting it be known that his name was up for nomination as well. He also let it slip that he would resign his ministerial post. Certainly if he were to be appointed to the CC it would be imperative that he did so.

However Mervyn quite forgot to look at the balance sheet and count the pennies. The CC may give one prestige but it surely doesn't put one among the chinks. No official vehicle, no official allowance or salary.and soon no doubt Mervyn realised the folly of it all and changed his mind.

But Jeyaraj Fernandopulle is not the only clown in the Rajapakse circus. A daily paper carried an interview with Presidential sibling, Basil Rajapakse last Wednesday. The interview contained questions asked by members of the public.

Surpasses siblings

In some ways Basil surpassed even Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapakse in his choice of answers. Asked to explain why the economy was doing badly with the cost of living sky rocketing, Basil was to say he did not agree the economy was doing badly.

Not for him obviously. This mind you despite the fact that inflation is now 26.5%, Sri Lanka's trade deficit has widened by nearly six percent to 3.56 billion dollars in 2007 and Fitch Ratings project Sri Lanka's growth rate slipping to 5.8 percent for the first time since 2004. The country according to Fitch has also been given a BB- negative outlook due to increasing interest rates and astronomical inflation strangling the economy and pushing out private investment.

In the dumps

Basil says this despite the fact the Rajapakse government is compelled to call for proposals from foreign banks to raise another 300 million dollars from a syndicated loan similar to the controversial 500 million dollar five-year bond issue it raised at 8.25 percent with the help of JP Morgan, Barclays and HSBC in October last year. These loans are taken on the basis of infrastructure development but are then used up for debt repayment and other recurrent expenditure including salaries of government servants.

Also last week, Standard and Poor's slashed the outlook on Sri Lanka's B+ rating to negative from stable. Basil is perhaps unaware of all this as he swishes around in his bullet proof vehicle.

However he has to only visit a Sunday pola or a wayside fish stall to know if the economy is doing well.

There is a limit to bamboozling the public even if it is on behalf of Mahinda Aiya.

On asked why the army is taking a long time to capture terrorist held areas, Basil says that the government policy is one of zero tolerance on civilian casualties and to also 'see to the humanitarian side on operations.'

Perhaps Basil should go tell that to the marines, or better still Gotabaya. Also to the parents of the 11 school children killed recently, and the 300,000 IDP in the north and east. He should go tell that to the Tamils who were summarily evicted from Colombo last year and to the Tamils who are constantly rounded up and dumped in detention camps for no other reason than they bear a Tamil name.

Perhaps however like Jeyaraj Fernandopulle when on the subject of Mervyn, Basil when on the subject of human rights also lodges his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Hallucinations

Be that as it may and most interestingly Basil Rajapakse when asked, 'There is an opinion that the President is acting like a dictator,' says 'Definitely not. If what he is doing is called dictatorship, then I think the people like it.'

One is entitled to be a little puzzled. Does Basil mean that his brother is a dictator and loved by one and all or that he is not a dictator. Basil Rajapakse, the de facto Minister of Nation Building et al will do well to remember that whether it was Mussolini, Hitler or Idi Amin, these were dictators and megalomaniacs who till the end harboured in their breasts the false notion that their subjects loved them. Hallucinations of this nature often follow despots and dictators.

Perhaps Basil should tell this to the women whose husbands are abducted in white vans, to the children who are killed by aerial bombardment, to the women whose husbands are shot on New Year's day in places of worship. But then again Basil perhaps is right. What's not to like!

Basil is also asked by a member of the public how he assesses Mahinda Rajapakse as President. Pat comes the answer 'very very good.' No doubt for him.

Question of access

Perhaps the Rajapakse brothers are to be pitied rather than censured. Earlier, one of them, Gotabaya wanted the constitution of the country amended to make it mandatory that the brother of the President should be appointed Defence Secretary on the basis that it is a brother that would have the easiest access to the Executive. He quite overlooked the fact that it would be more appropriate on such criteria to make Shiranthi the defence secretary as she would almost have 24 hour access to her husband.

In two separate interviews to the Indian press, President Mahinda Rajapakse first gave a time frame to end the war and said he would talk to Pirapaharan, whether he laid down arms or not. In the first interview he was to ask the opinion of the interviewer where Sri Lanka should send the Tiger leader if captured. He later changed his stance in another interview to another newspaper saying he wanted Pirapaharan alive. Mind you, Gotabaya the Defence Secretary with immediate access to the President had by that time already given an interview to the Lankadeepa saying he wanted the Tiger supremo dead.

Dead AND alive

Basil at least was more ambiguous in his answer to the question of Pirapaharan's elimination. "I don't know about eliminating him," he said circumspectly. Basil also did not give a time frame for defeating terrorism.

Good thing too.


The President and the people


President Rajapakse at the 60th Independence
Day commemoration reiterated his determination
to wipe out terrorism but avoided speaking
about the economic cost

By Bala Tampoe

President Mahinda Rajapakse's New Year message to the nation requires consideration in relation to the prospects that he has held out to the people of this country for this year. This is what he has said: "We hope changes that would occur in this new year will have a favourable impact on the lives of all our people. There is the expectation that we will come closer to overcoming the main problems that face us as a nation. Our foremost wish this new year is success in the efforts to defeat terrorism in all its forms, bringing freedom and democracy to all Sri Lankans; and beginning new processes for the sharing of power within a single undivided country, assuring equality for all." (writer's emphasis)

The President has made no mention at all of inflation and the high cost of living in his message, although he must know that substantial reductions in the prices of food and other essential commodities and public services would have a favourable impact on the lives of most of our people, and is undoubtedly their foremost wish. His foremost wish for this year, on the other hand, is for "success in the efforts to defeat terrorism in all it forms."

High cost of living

He probably expects our people to put up with uncontrolled inflation and the insufferably high cost of living as best they can, till his wish is realised. In the meantime, the rate of inflation and the cost of living continue to rise.

The very high cost of living, of course, is not a problem for President Rajapakse and his huge cabinet of ministers. They can live in luxury, at public expense. Their excuse for the high rate of inflation is that it is mainly due to the rise in crude oil prices and other imported commodities in the world market.

What they cannot admit is that massive and wasteful public expenditure and flagrant corruption in that regard is a major contributory factor to inflation. The UNP and the JVP keep denouncing the government for this, in and outside parliament; but they do not mention the colossal expenditure on "defence and national security" in this connection.

They have also pointed out, as the Central Bank has done, that the printing and issue of billions of rupees in two thousand rupee currency notes, without proper fiscal control, has also been a significant inflationary factor. What the President and his government also cannot explain, in any case, is why the rate of inflation in this country is the highest in Asia.

Highest inflation in Asia

Our union, the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU) drew public attention on May Day 2007, to the fact that the rate of inflation in this country was 20% or more, whereas the average for the rest of the countries of Asia was 5%, and the highest rate of inflation in Europe was only 5%.

As the other countries in Asia and Europe consume crude oil, and also import food products and other commodities from the world market, like Sri Lanka, we pointed out that the exceptionally high rate of inflation in this country could not be attributed primarily to those factors.

Most wage earners in the private sector cannot get adequate wage increases from their employers to cope with the rapid deterioration in their real wages. The Rajapakse Government is not ready to assist them by introducing legislation to compel employers to grant such wage increases, as trade unions have demanded. In the public sector, the government has refused to increase cost of living allowances and has reduced previously existing financial benefits.

On the other hand, it is not prepared to reduce wasteful public expenditure and to cut down on the colossal sums allocated for 'defence and national security,' in order to grant adequate subsidies on all essential food commodities and transport and other public services, to provide relief to all sections of the working people, in urban and in rural areas.

Not bothered

We believe that most people wish for an end to the war that has been resumed in the north and east, and for the restoration of peace throughout this country. The fact that the war is causing death and destruction in the north may not bother the President, while he is looking forward to the military defeat of the LTTE by the armed forces under his command.

He cannot overlook the fact, however, that the escalation of the war is accompanied by increasing terrorism in other parts of the country, besides contributing substantially to inflation and the rise in the cost of living throughout the country.

It is probably for this reason that he has held out the prospect of "the defeat of terrorism in all its forms," this year. What he has implied thereby is that if and when the armed forces are able to take control of all areas that are still under the control of the LTTE, by defeating its armed forces militarily, he will be able to put an end to terrorism throughout the country. While that may be the President's foremost wish for this year, we do not think it can be realised by military means.

We think it is necessary to appreciate the distinction between 'terrorism' and guerilla warfare or territorial warfare, which were the means whereby the LTTE had gained and maintained military control in large areas of the north and east, under previous governments.

Guerilla warfare

Even if the Army Commander succeeds in defeating the LTTE militarily and re-establishing state control in those areas, as he confidently expects, the LTTE could well resume guerilla warfare against the state forces and their military installations in those areas, and elsewhere, as they have done in the past. The guerrilla attack on the Anuradhapura Airforce Base, after the LTTE had withdrawn their forces from the east, was the most recent illustration of this.

Apart from this probability, the re-establishment of state control even in the entirety of the north and east, will not end 'terrorism' there or elsewhere in this country. The LTTE forces are not likely to lay down their arms, if they are defeated militarily, as the President may hope. They might not only be dispersed to carry out guerilla attacks on the armed forces in small groups, but also to carry out more terrorist attacks on the civilian population in urban and in rural areas, with claymore mines or by individual suicide bombers, as they have been doing increasingly this year in different districts.

We also do not consider that a military defeat of the LTTE will pave the way for President Rajapakse to achieve a political settlement in the north and east, on his terms, with the assistance of Tamil or Muslim collaborators with his government. We thus have no reason to believe that he will be able either to eliminate terrorism or to establish genuine peace in this country by military means.

The Iraq example

It should be borne in mind that President Bush has been unable to suppress terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Musharraf has failed to do so in Pakistan. Long after the army of President Saddam Hussein was completely defeated in Iraq, and he was captured and hanged, President Bush is still trying to eliminate terrorism in that country, with the powerful armed forces he commands and the assistance of the forces of his Iraqi Government collaborators.

He and the NATO forces have failed likewise to suppress guerilla attacks in Afghanistan, after the complete military defeat of the Taliban army and the establishment of a collaborator government in that country. Life in both those countries has become miserable for their unfortunate peoples meanwhile.

We hope that the same fate will not befall the people of our country, while President Rajapakse continues his efforts to "defeat terrorism in all its forms" by military means, with aid from President Musharraf and other like-minded Asian governments. Profiting by its bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, even the US Government has advised the President to negotiate a political settlement of the north east problem on a basis that will be acceptable to the Tamil and Muslim peoples, and has stressed that this cannot be achieved by military means.

Apart from this vital national question, the fact that terrorism is not confined to the LTTE should not be overlooked. The power struggle that has erupted between rival Tamil political paramilitary forces that support the government in Batticaloa, after the withdrawal of the LTTE from that district, shows this.

Other forms of terrorism

Another matter that we cannot overlook, though President Rajapakse has made no mention of it, is that the abductions, murders and robberies by armed gangs that are taking place from week to week in various parts of the country, are also forms of terrorism, which his security forces seem to be powerless or unwilling to prevent. On the other hand, some of their personnel and numerous deserters from those forces are actually engaged in such activities themselves, as is well known.

Intimidatory attacks upon and several murders of media personnel who are critical of the Rajapakse regime have also become a matter of serious concern and been condemned, not only in this country, but internationally.

Though the recent brazen thuggery at the Rupavahini Television Station has been widely denounced, even by government ministers, it does not seem to have been regarded by President Rajapakse as a form of terrorism that he wishes to suppress. Thuggery, be it noted, has been followed by an open criminal attack on a Rupavahini employee, whilst the earlier incident is still being "investigated."

For the above-mentioned reasons amongst others, we do not believe that a military defeat of the LTTE will serve, in any case, to bring freedom from racial discrimination and oppression to the long-suffering Tamil and Muslim peoples in the north and east. It will certainly not bring "democracy to all Sri Lankans" let alone "equality for all." This would require fundamental changes in the present undemocratic constitution of Sri Lanka, established by J.R. Jayewardene's UNP Government in 1978.

Abolish executive presidency

An essential democratic change in the constitution would be the elimination of the executive presidency in the first place. This is what our union has declared and demanded ever since the executive presidency was established. It is what President Rajapakse himself undertook to do in his Mahinda Chinthanaya, before he was elected President.

The constitution would also have to be amended to provide for the exercise of the democratic right of self-determination by the Tamil-speaking peoples, both Tamil and Muslim, in those parts of the north and east in which they have lived for centuries, and where they constitute the overwhelming majority of the population.

Such democratic changes would help to establish peace in this country, and be of real benefit to our people. Unfortunately, they are inconceivable under the present virtual military-police dictatorship of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Subsidies

Under the prevailing circumstances, our union will take whatever joint action may be possible in this new year with other trade unions and organisations of the working people, to demand and secure appropriate state subsidies for a substantial reduction in the costs of essential food, fuel and other commodities, as well as in electricity and transport costs, and also to support genuine efforts to secure a democratic political settlement of the north-east conflict.

Whatever President Rajapakse and his government may say, our union has no confidence that their present war policy will result in peace and a better life for our people. On the contrary, we have reason to consider that in this New Year 2008, life could well turn out to be even worse for the working people than it was last year.

The writer is General Secretary, Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU), one of the oldest and most active trade unions in the country. 


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