Kath Noble

A problem of power

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 6, 2013

On the reshuffle and what it tells us about how the country is being run 

Harry JayawardenaThat MPs have lost interest in democracy was clear from the impeachment of the Chief Justice. But even the rewards given to those who played important roles in that process reveal just what a state Parliament is in.

Last week’s reshuffle was very limited in scope. The major changes were the elevation to the position of Minister of Petroleum Resources of Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who headed the Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated the charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, and the promotion of Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who led the group of five MPs who handed over the impeachment motion to the Speaker, as Minister of Power and Energy.

They have been rewarded for their service to Mahinda Rajapaksa. But just look at their rewards! The only way in which these positions can be considered rewarding is in terms of the potential they offer for corruption – bribes and jobs for hangers-on.

In every other sense, they are god-awful jobs.

The incumbents are blamed for the regular and egregious failures of the institutions within their purview, which are brought to public notice whenever the prices of electricity and fuel are increased, and then again when these price increases are used to justify increases in the prices of pretty much every other necessity. But the ministers are usually near powerless to make any important changes.

Both sectors are totally mired in corruption, of a kind that only a concerted effort by the Government as a whole could hope to tackle.

When the ministers are from the SLFP, they don’t even get to decide who to appoint to key posts such as the chairmanships of the CEB and the CPC. The President gives the orders, and the appointees know it. They don’t bother about what their ministers say.

Susil Premajayanth, who lost the portfolio of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources last week, faced a lot of criticism over the import of substandard oil, which is estimated to have cost the country hundreds of millions of rupees. Perhaps he was indeed to blame. But it is rather more likely to have been the work of the CPC Chairman at the time, Harry Jayawardena.

Ravaya has alleged that this same man used his position to extract a similarly large amount from the CEB – he withheld oil from the CEB so that it could not operate its own power plants and instead had to purchase electricity from private power producers.

Coincidentally, he is the director of a company that generates as much as 10% of the country’s total power requirement!

Appointing people with such obvious vested interests demonstrates the complicity of the President.

Champika Ranawaka was slightly better off at the Ministry of Power and Energy, as he did at least get to pick his own people. But in a rather unique development in the history of trade union agitation, he was compelled to withdraw them following a strike by engineers.

While this is the kind of activism that the Government is usually very eager to crack down on, including with the use of the military, it for some reason felt that this was a special case.

If the minister is not even in a position to decide who should be the CEB Chairman, what chance does he have of tackling the endemic corruption in the sector, which Ranawaka said when he was appointed was his main priority? (He also claimed that he was determined to make Sri Lanka an energy hub, but we can pretend that we have forgotten that since it was a very silly idea.)

Engineers are now ruing his departure, interpreting it as a sign that the Government is planning on privatisation.

The UNP claims that the reshuffle was done at the behest of India, since Ranawaka was seen as the main obstacle to starting work on the Sampur coal power plant. He probably was delaying it, but there is a bigger story here.

It was not only with regard to Sampur that Ranawaka was raising objections. Ravaya has also reported that he was opposing the handover of the Norochcholai coal power plant to China.

Although China built Norochcholai, it is the Government that owns and operates it. China lent Sri Lanka the money to pay for it, but that loan will soon have to be repaid. The suggestion is that rather than repaying, the Government could hand over the plant instead. As far as China is concerned, this would be great news, since it would have employed its own people, equipment and materials in building a plant that would not need to concern itself with the cost of its output since it would be to Sri Lankans and not Chinese that it would be sold. Meanwhile, its company has positioned itself very nicely to secure a whole range of other projects, many of which may be happening only because it has ‘somehow’ managed to convince officials that they would be a good idea.

It has already been given a maintenance contract for Norochcholai because there didn’t seem to be any other way of stopping the plant breaking down on a regular basis, so it is not hard to imagine the Government deciding that it would be easier still to let China have the whole thing.

The trouble with the power sector is that there is always a lag between when foolish mistakes are made and when the public feels the impact. Price increases of recent years are the result not of what this administration has done but of what its predecessors did or failed to do, in particular the decision to allow private power producers and the terms of the agreements signed with them.

Such concerns are behind opposition to the handing over of Norochcholai to China. It may give relatively cheap power now, but who knows what it will ask for later.

As a joint venture, Sampur is less of a problem, but Ranawaka told the Sunday Times last month that India was demanding an excessive return on its investment and also an excessive rate of interest on the loan that it is giving the Government for its part of the project.

Whether it is to private power producers or foreign countries, relinquishing control of a strategic sector like power is inherently risky.

Just a week before the reshuffle, Minister of International Monetary Cooperation and Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning Sarath Amunugama spoke in favour of privatisation, and Ranawaka shot him down. But now Ranawaka is gone.

Time will tell if that too is a coincidence.

It would seem that his successor at the Ministry of Power and Energy, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, has no particular views about anything, which is fortunate for her, since she would anyway not be allowed to act on them!

The reshuffle has been criticised for adding to the already unbelievably heavy burden Sri Lanka has to bear due to the proliferation of ministers, which is certainly fair. Surely no other country in the world has a cabinet consisting of nearly one third of MPs! The cost is far more than the Rs. 32 million that the Government admits to spending monthly on each one, since this amount is only to pay their salaries and allowances and to provide them with basic facilities.

But while ministers are proliferating, power is continuously being concentrated and centralised. They are there literally only to make up the numbers in Parliament.

The question is when MPs will remember that their emasculation is possible only because they agree to it.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 6th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Calling in the marines

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 30, 2013

Why struggles for justice and the independence of the judiciary cannot be outsourced to the international community

20130130_Calling in the marinesAs I said last week, it is easy to become disheartened with the way that things are moving in Sri Lanka. One disappointment follows another, and each is more extraordinary than the last.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice was particularly disturbing. It demonstrated just how little space there is for dissent. Even the mild disturbance created by Shirani Bandaranayake when she ruled that the Divi Neguma bill had to be referred to the provincial councils or passed with a two thirds majority was intolerable to the administration. She had to go. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing on her part. She was removed on the grounds that she might try to cover up the corruption of her husband, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa claims to have done himself!

Since very few of us are willing to agree with everything that the Government says all of the time, it was appalling to see the lengths to which it is ready to go to impose its will.

No doubt that was the objective of the exercise.

Our distress was compounded by the failure of the Opposition under Ranil Wickremasinghe, who appeared to be far too busy plotting his next move against Sajith Premadasa to bother with something as mundane as the independence of the judiciary. Having successfully ousted his rival from the deputy leadership of the party – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen – he finally managed to pen an article on the impeachment for the Sunday Times this week, but readers may not have had the stamina to get past the rather laborious exposition of his knowledge of the history of English country houses and meetings of the Commonwealth to locate his point.

Once again, the widespread information campaign that was so badly needed to counter the propaganda put about by the Government has been left to others.

Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalising’ what must be a national struggle.

Honestly, who cares about the Commonwealth?

If Ranil Wickremasinghe tries very hard, it may decide to move the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting away from Sri Lanka. But what use is that? I don’t believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be in the slightest bit upset.

Quite the reverse, he is at his most comfortable when under fire from abroad.

No doubt the Government is totally hypocritical when it calls people traitors for taking their problems to international fora. We all know that Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing in the late 1980s, when the UNP administration was butchering Sinhalese youth.

It is also wrong. There is nothing traitorous in informing the world about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

It can even be useful in some circumstances.

I don’t believe that it had any impact on the anti-JVP campaign. The architects were either convinced that Sri Lankans would never prosecute them for their excesses or too desperate to care about what might happen once it was all over. On the whole, they were right – not morally but factually. If they were punished, it was almost exclusively by extra-judicial means.

Even today, as the JVP calls for an inquiry into the discovery of a mass grave from that era in Matale, there is little chance of it being granted and no chance whatsoever of that resulting in jail time for the politicians who ordered such activities.

The JVP will not push on the issue, for to do so would be to remind people of its own role in the slaughter.

But imagine what would happen if it did. Imagine it calling on the international community to investigate, as many people are doing today with regard to the deaths of Tamils in the Government’s war against the LTTE. Would justice be done?

No.

Even after the passage of more than twenty years, and with an SLFP-led coalition in power, there is nothing the international community could do about it.

Why? Because the international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka.

It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremasinghe wouldn’t do it.

The international community has zero moral authority, as everybody in Sri Lanka is very well aware.

We know that other countries have dirty wars of their own. Indeed, if we needed reminding that some things remain the same even after the replacement of George Bush by Nobel Peace Prize winning Barack Obama at the top of the world’s greatest democracy, Dirty Wars is the name of a documentary that premièred at the Sundance Festival in Utah last week.

Sri Lankans love to blame the Western media for focusing on abuses in this country while remaining silent about what their own governments get up to, but this is rather myopic. Everything we know about the crimes of Western nations has been brought to our attention by Western journalists.

According to an interview with the producers, the documentary looks at how the War on Terror, which started overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now become covert. We know everything there is to know about the night raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which has even been made into a rather captivating Hollywood film, but there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan that year. Nobody talks about them. The documentary recounts the story of one in which an elite squad of American soldiers killed a senior policeman and his family while they were in the middle of a birthday party, and tried to cover it up. While the survivors watched, they dug the bullets out of the bodies, then announced to the world that they had stumbled onto the aftermath of an honour killing.

How very honourable!

The American ‘kill list’, which had only seven names on it after 9/11, now includes thousands. That is thousands of people that Barack Obama has said that it is perfectly acceptable to murder, never mind whether they are holding up white flags.

It also talks of the American drone programme, which allows them to do so without getting close enough to see a white flag. Indeed, George Bush established a policy, which Barack Obama has endorsed, of dropping bombs on people even when they aren’t on the ‘kill list’. In certain areas of Pakistan and Yemen – countries with which the United States is not at war – all young men are assumed to be terrorists and can be killed as and when convenient.

This is also top secret. Barack Obama personally intervened to stop the Yemeni government releasing a local journalist who photographed the remnants of American cruise missiles that he says regularly kill civilians.

American funded warlords in Somalia are shown on camera saying in a completely matter-of-fact manner that they execute foreign prisoners on the battlefield.

The War on Terror goes on in another equally repugnant form.

Given this well known background, if the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response.

There really is no short cut.

To succeed in the pursuit of justice, it is the minds of Sri Lankans that have to be changed. If they start to want prosecutions, it will happen.

It is a national struggle, and trying to involve the international community can only make it harder.

Likewise, ‘internationalising’ the effort to restore the independence of the judiciary is also going to create more problems than it solves.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed how uninterested he is in the opinion of the international community by announcing the impeachment of the Chief Justice just days before Sri Lanka faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Deceiving ourselves may make us feel better, at least for a while, but it isn’t going to result in any actual change.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 30th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The wilderness of the Western Province

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 23, 2013

What Mervyn Silva has to teach us about the role of thugs in politics in Sri Lanka   

hasitha madawela killingLast week, I discussed the campaign of a tiny fraction of the majority community against Muslims, and the way in which the Government is creating space for them by neglecting sensitive issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam.

Some people claim that groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya are only defending the interests of Sinhalese. If not for their ‘activism’, we are asked to believe, Buddhists would soon have to meditate in secret or risk having their heads chopped off on Galle Face Green (while being force-fed slightly overpriced meat products through the slit in the uncomfortably warm piece of black cloth that they would be compelled to don over their sarees or sarongs!).

This is obviously unbelievably foolish. Not only can they not see that at the moment in Sri Lanka their community is not in any danger whatsoever, they also fail to think ahead to what would happen if the hatred that they are encouraging boiled over into a riot. Saying that they would not participate is not enough. Their arguments may persuade others to take the law into their own hands, and they have a responsibility to take an equally strong stand against that. Violence is clearly inherently bad, but it also has an impact on how people understand the situation in the country. Sinhalese would feel responsible as a community if any such thing were to happen – and others would hold them responsible too – so that raising even legitimate grievances would be virtually impossible thereafter.

If they thought that garnering support to defeat the LTTE was difficult, let them imagine how hard it would have been if there had been a repeat of Black July. Also, let them remember how Black July led to increased support for the LTTE (including actual foreign conspiracies, not just the ones that the Government now routinely invents to divert attention from criticism of its actions!).

Even the perception of a threat can be enough to encourage young people to turn to militancy.

This has to be avoided at all costs. Even members of the 75% of the population of Sri Lanka that are Sinhalese who for some mysterious reason think that Muslims are on the verge of taking over should understand the implications of violence between communities.

Let those who speak up in support of monks who lead mobs think again. Let them look at the way in which such people behave and ask themselves whether this is really how we should go about resolving disputes.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can mull over another important question.

I said that the Government is encouraging communal violence by neglecting sensitive issues, but we have come to a point where it is no longer clear that this is an oversight.

Many ‘oversights’ are actually deliberate.

Consider Mervyn Silva.

Literally hundreds of articles have been written by people from across the political spectrum condemning the actions of this man. There is virtual consensus. Even ardent supporters of the Government have called for his removal, on the grounds that he is a thug.

The latest incident is the shooting of Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawela on January 5th.

On January 8th, one of Silva’s organisers from Kelaniya was arrested at the airport as he was attempting to leave the country. The Police also charged several other people and recovered from them a number of guns, including what is suspected to be the murder weapon. They say that it was provided by Silva’s coordinating secretary, who is also the main suspect’s uncle. The following day, a raid on the SLFP office in Kelaniya discovered swords and a hand grenade.

Madawela’s colleagues in the Pradeshiya Sabha have since accused Silva of masterminding the killing.

On January 11th, he resigned from his position as the SLFP’s organiser for Kelaniya, but we know from past experience that this doesn’t mean anything.

After the infamous case of the Samurdhi officer who was tied to a tree as a punishment for not attending a dengue eradication programme in Kelaniya, Silva was sacked from his post as Deputy Minister of Highways and suspended from the SLFP. Trade unions protested and this was an easy way to get them to stop. The SLFP then conducted an ‘inquiry’, which found that it was all a misunderstanding and the Samurdhi officer had actually volunteered to be humiliated, despite video evidence to the contrary (never mind common sense!). Within a month, Silva had returned to the Cabinet with a promotion as Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs.

Given that he has not yet been relieved of that position, we must assume that the Government believes that crimes involving trees are more serious than those in which bullets have been used.

We had already understood the Government’s position on knife crimes, since nothing much was done about the various stabbings of staff of the Rupavahini Corporation after they took Silva hostage for assaulting the News Director.

After so many incidents, this cannot be an ‘oversight’.

We can only conclude that the Government needs Mervyn Silva.

Indeed, the man demonstrated his utility during the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since it was reported that the crowds who gathered in support of the Parliamentary Select Committee were also from Kelaniya. They roamed the streets with iron rods and sticks, intimidating people who came to join the march organised by Shirani Bandaranayake’s lawyers.

Kelaniya has become the place to go for thugs.

Of course the interconnection of violence and politics is hardly new, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it.

In the case of Mervyn Silva, the country may eventually get lucky. The Sunday Leader alleges that Hasitha Madawela’s killing was the result of a kind of falling out among thieves. It says that a group from the Pradeshiya Sabha got into a dispute with Silva last month after another of Silva’s aides was abducted and told the authorities about a whole range of illegal activities going on in Kelaniya. They felt that Silva was going to abandon them.

Let us hope so, and let us hope that the Government in turn decides to abandon Mervyn Silva.

This may be a systemic problem, but targeting an individual can still be useful in sending a signal that change is coming.

We must also hope that change doesn’t come in the same form as it did for Hasitha Madawela. The Sunday Leader claims that he was one of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha members who was involved in the attack on the Sirasa media network, for which he was arrested but later released without charge. If the legal process had been allowed to run its course, he might still be alive.

While it is extremely tempting not to worry about the deaths of people who attack journalists, we should remember that lawlessness doesn’t tend to be so discriminating.

Contempt for the rule of law is at the bottom of many of the problems that Sri Lanka is facing today.

Since the Government is constantly strengthening its grip on the institutions that are supposed to tackle lawlessness, it is easy to become disheartened.

I must say that when I saw yet another posse of monks laying siege to a clothing store in Maharagama at the weekend, I didn’t feel very optimistic. This time it was not the Bodu Bala Sena or the Sinhala Ravaya but a group calling itself the Budhu Hiru (most likely the same handful of very foolish people under a different banner!).

We await with bated breath their explanation of what appalling national calamity they have averted.

Waiting for the Government to intervene in such matters may be almost equally as foolish, so Buddhists who don’t like to see their religious leaders shouting and running amok in the streets must get together with representatives of the minority communities to resolve contentious issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam before they can be misappropriated by such people.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 23rd January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A wish for the New Year

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 9, 2013

Why Sri Lanka must join the 90-strong league of nations that recognise the right to information

right to informationRajiva Wijesinha has been attracting attention in recent weeks due to his unfortunately rather lonely stand from within government ranks against the impeachment of the Chief Justice. It would have been easy to keep quiet, so he deserves a round of applause.

But it is the effort that he has been making to engage with people in the North and East to find out what they need or want to rebuild their lives that is even more important. Unlike other government politicians, who meet this constituency only when they are laying a foundation stone for an infrastructure project that they are hoping to take credit for – or get a cut of – without the slightest concern as to whether it is actually a priority, Rajiva has been listening to them and communicating what he has been told to the rest of us through his column in the Daily News. Of course what people feel confident to share and what that newspaper cares to publish can be nowhere near the whole story, but even a very partial account is valuable in understanding the ground situation in the former conflict areas.

One conclusion that he has come to as a result of this experience is that to get things done there is a desperate need for transparency in government operations. In one of his recent articles, he has urged action on a Right to Information Act, which he points out was one of the recommendations of the LLRC.

We’ll soon find out whether being included in the much referred to LLRC Action Plan means anything!

A Right to Information Act is long overdue.

The LLRC Report notes that such laws have been adopted by virtually every other country in the region, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives.

Senior politicians in those countries have realised that it is only way to ensure that their policies are implemented. Bureaucracies throughout South Asia – and indeed worldwide – suffer from inertia and corruption, and they are subject to many other influences and pressures than those coming from the top. Interference by juniors is also an issue, and it can be difficult to embark on an initiative to discipline them when their indiscipline has become part of the political culture. As a result, people get disenchanted, either with their party or with the system as a whole. Of course a Right to Information Act makes it easier for citizens to expose the wrongdoings of ministers and presidents as well, but it is now generally recognised that the benefits outweigh the costs, even for them.

From the point of view of citizens, this is wonderful news, since the legislation can be an extremely powerful tool in challenging budding dictators, never mind democrats.

The need in Sri Lanka is clear.

There is no longer any such thing as ‘information’ in this country. There is only hearsay.

Consider the rather innocuous matter of expenditure on Deyata Kirula. Last week, the UNP blamed the Government for spending Rs. 26.5 billion on what they dubbed a carnival when so many people have been affected by flooding. The money should be used for their rehabilitation, a spokesman argued, since it is clearly not possible to build a house within the allocated sum of Rs. 100,000. So far, so easy to follow. But then the Government claimed that the exhibition would cost only Rs. 40 million, with the remainder of the allocation of Rs. 60 billion being for development work in the four districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa. And the JVP added that of the Rs. 25.5 billion spent on Deyata Kirula last year, in Anuradhapura, only a single building remained, supposedly a paddy store, but it was located so far away from paddy areas that it could not be used.

And we are lost!

As things stand, there is absolutely no reason to trust the Government and absolutely no reason to believe the Opposition.

Whoever happens to be near a microphone says whatever comes into their head, never mind whether it is true or even whether it corresponds with what they said yesterday. And tomorrow they will have no qualms in telling us the exact opposite.

Most people respond by closing their minds, no longer willing to try to separate fact from fiction.

A Right to Information Act can help to get out of this dangerous rut.

Properly formulated, it would do a great deal towards restoring the category of ‘information’, by forcing the Government to give truthful answers to questions put to it by citizens or face the consequences in court.

At the risk of sounding like a spokeswoman for the Indian High Commission, having suggested in my last column of 2012 that its National Rural Employment Guarantee Act could be a model for Sri Lanka, I shall dare to suggest in my first column of 2013 that its Right to Information Act is also worthy of emulation. (Since I can already picture a small army of over-sensitive nationalists hyperventilating at their keyboards, I would like to offer as some kind of compensation my sincere belief that India has even more need of these progressive laws than Sri Lanka!)

A key feature of the legislation is the penalties that it imposes on officials for failing to respond within given deadlines, for giving incorrect or incomplete replies and for destroying evidence, including fines to be paid by them personally.

That this is effective may be seen in the growing number of activists who are being harassed or attacked.

Researchers who have compared the laws of the 93 countries that have adopted a Right to Information Act to date consider India’s to be the second best. By comparison, the UK is ranked 25 and the US 39. (See http://rti-ranking.org/)

This is not a matter of the enlightenment of its leaders, although it is surely not a coincidence that both the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act were passed in 2005, just after the return to office of Congress with the support of the Left Front. Rather, India does well in the global ranking because its Right to Information Act was the result of a sustained and well-supported campaign by civil society, and civil society is strong enough to prevent Manmohan Singh from succeeding in his now regular attempts to water it down.

Sri Lanka must take note.

I recall writing in support of a Right to Information Act in 2010, when it was reported that the Ministry of Justice was preparing a draft. But nothing emerged, with no constituency pushing for it.

Now the LLRC Action Plan says that it is the responsibility of the Media Ministry.

Even if the Government finally makes up its mind to pass the legislation, without proper scrutiny, Sri Lanka is bound to end up with the world’s worst example.

For a long time, the category of ‘civil society’ in Sri Lanka was practically non-existent, since all space was occupied by NGOs and they were totally discredited by the positions they took during the war, among other things. There was little hope of them bringing pressure to bear on the Government. Indeed, although people in other countries were ever ready to listen to them, they didn’t seem to have much idea of how to use the vast sums of money they were getting to influence Sri Lankans.

The Government would have us believe that nothing has changed. All dissent – even very mild disagreement – is said to be connected to NGOs and foreign plots, usually terrorist-inspired.

But the more extraordinary its actions, the more obvious it is that this is not the case. With the impeachment of the Chief Justice, another segment of ‘civil society’ has risen up in protest – lawyers. Like academics before them, whose three month long trade union action was the most effective challenge to the Government since the end of the war, in the sense of starting a debate on an issue of genuine importance, they are part of the mainstream. It isn’t easy to dismiss them. When they come out onto the streets, unlike free trade zone workers and fishermen, they are not subject to live firing by the Police. At least, not yet. And their real strength lies in convincing people, not in waving banners. They enjoy considerable respect among the rest of the population, and they have the capacity to lead them, if they so wish.

Let’s hope that they also take up the cause of a Right to Information Act, since it is clear that Rajiva Wijesinha alone cannot make it happen.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 9th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Slaves to slogans

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 29, 2012

A few thoughts on the UNP’s criticism of flood relief efforts

sajithAs I concluded last week, it is the failure of the Opposition that has put Sri Lanka into its current mess. This political system requires competition between the two main parties, since it is only fear of being thrown out of office that limits the behaviour of the Government. When the Opposition is weak, the Government doesn’t take it as an opportunity to solve the long-term problems of the nation, free from the compulsions of electoral politics – it focuses on its own future and how it can further strengthen its grip on power. It becomes dictatorial.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has been defeated so many times that his name must surely be entered in the Guinness Book of Records. People don’t like his policies, and he refuses to change them.

His economic agenda is no more popular than his conflict resolution strategy. Indeed, they are very similar. He wants to hand over responsibility for the well-being of the Sri Lankan people and the resources that belong to them to unelected individuals with a record of exploitation.

My point was that the country seems to be doomed to undergo more spectacles like the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since the Opposition is apparently determined to remain ineffective. Eighteen years in any position should be enough. But the UNP has agreed to give Ranil another six as its leader, guaranteeing his grip on the party until well after the next presidential and parliamentary elections. (Anybody who thinks that Ranil would run the country more democratically than Mahinda Rajapaksa is an idiot – wearing a suit and tie doesn’t make him a ‘gentleman politician’!)

One really begins to wonder whether there is anybody in the UNP who is up to the job. Several of its politicians have been agitating for reforms in the party, but their campaign has now been going on for more than half a decade without any results.

And this week offered a look into the thinking of Sajith Premadasa.

Addressing the media on the floods that have afflicted Sri Lanka in recent days, he attacked the Government for its response. The Security Forces had done a good job of rescuing people, he said, but the relief being provided was condemnable. In particular, he questioned the offer of Rs. 5,000 in exchange for ten days of work, which he said amounted to ‘enslaving’ the victims.

Now, I am sure that the affected people could do with rather more than Rs. 5,000. According to the Disaster Management Centre, by Sunday, 35 people had been killed and 22 injured. A total of 44,901 people had been displaced, while 3,136 houses had been destroyed and 7,693 partially damaged. These problems obviously cannot be solved with such a small sum of money, and they are only part of the burden the victims will have to bear – the Disaster Management Centre has not collected data on the impact of the floods on livelihoods. Since the Government regularly wastes a lot more than Rs. 5,000 on totally useless activities, Sajith was right to be critical.

The people of his own district would surely prefer a bit more assistance to a Rs. 4 billion cricket stadium, for instance!

If that amount had been divided among the 66,299 families reported to have been affected by the floods, they would have each received a little over Rs. 60,000.

This is an important argument, but it is not the point that Sajith was making. He was concerned not so much with the amount as with the way in which it is to be provided – in exchange for labour. Apparently, even if the Government gives Rs. 60,000, it must be a gift.

Of course gifts are very nice. But they limit the amount that people can be given.

If the victims each need Rs. 1 million, it would require a genuinely impossible allocation, taking up the budgets of several ministries.

The idea of offering employment in exchange for assistance has already been used to good effect in this year’s drought, with farmers who couldn’t cultivate their fields due to lack of water being paid to rehabilitate local tanks instead.

The Government claims to have spent almost Rs. 5 billion for this purpose. The advantage is that instead of being cast as victims, unable to do anything to help themselves, the affected people were involved in productive work that should contribute to avoiding a repetition of the drought, or at least to reducing its severity.

Farmers will benefit from their own work, and so will the country.

We should remember that natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent. Climate change is a reality, and Sri Lanka is now facing drought and floods on a regular basis.

It is important to be prepared, and I believe that the Disaster Management Centre has done some work in that direction. But the Government should also have a clear and consistent policy on the assistance that it is going to offer to people affected by natural disasters – their fate shouldn’t be decided according to the whims of politicians.

Of course the Government doesn’t like to guarantee anything.

In lieu of such a promise, it has started to push insurance schemes.

Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in the budget speech that farmers who receive chemical fertiliser from the Government at a subsidised rate will now have to pay Rs. 150 per 50 kilo bag towards crop insurance. No doubt the motivation behind this move is not what is best for farmers but how to reduce the cost of the fertiliser subsidy, on which the Government spends more than Rs. 30 billion. Instead of providing bags at Rs. 350, they will be given for Rs. 500. This is not very honest, but perhaps one should not complain too much since the fertiliser subsidy is clearly not the best way to support farmers. (In addition to the now widely accepted impact on the environment, and hence on our health and the economy as a whole, the fertiliser subsidy is totally inefficient. To cultivate one acre, farmers use three bags of chemical fertiliser. These are sold to them for Rs. 350, when the market rate is Rs. 6,500. For the amount that the Government thus has to hand over to the manufacturers to support a single individual – nearly Rs. 20,000 – it could have bought them an indigenous cow! And such an animal would have fertilised as many as 30 acres for several years, without any of the disadvantages of chemical fertiliser. Why is it not done? Because the fertiliser companies are enthusiastic sponsors of a whole range of activities of both officials and academics.)

The problem with ulterior motives is that things don’t generally work out as we expect. One would have to see how easy it is to make a claim, since it is well known that the other major intervention in agricultural markets – purchasing at a minimum price – is largely ineffective, with the Government purposely making it difficult for farmers to take advantage.

Better than insurance schemes, or at least as well as them, would be a guarantee of work in exchange for a minimum income.

My advocacy of this idea is inspired by the experience of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, passed in 2005, which guarantees 15 days of employment at the minimum wage to Indians living in rural areas willing to do manual labour. Despite being plagued by corruption, as most things are in India, it has made a vital contribution to the development of the country.

The situation in rural areas in Sri Lanka is nowhere near as difficult as in India, except perhaps in the former conflict areas, but the country could still think of such a scheme islandwide.

Alternatively, this could also work as a Disaster Recovery Scheme.

It would be the opposite of enslavement, since it would confer on the Sri Lankan people a new right that they do not as yet enjoy, without imposing on them any new duties.

And that is bound to be popular.

Sajith Premadasa had better give it some more thought.

Of course Ranil Wickremasinghe cannot be expected to approve. His neoliberal handbook says that it is only a matter of time before we are all as rich as him, so long as the Government doesn’t try to help the process along.

He must love being in the Opposition!

This article was published in The Island on 28th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The limits of the budget debate

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 17, 2012

What sloganeering misses about the budget and what the budget tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity

chamal rajapaksaParliament has become a place where its members go for a free lunch when they have no better offer. And it would seem that MPs receive plenty of attractive invitations, since most of them are rarely to be seen in the chamber, even for a nap on the comfy recliners the Sri Lankan people have so thoughtfully funded, assuming that their representatives would be spending long hours debating the future of the nation.

The Speaker admitted as much last week. There is no point in holding the budget debate, he said, when the responsible ministers are not present.

In principle, he was quite right. Why bother to ask questions about the allocation for higher education when SB Dissanayake is not there to answer or at least to hear what is being said? Suggestions cannot be taken into account in formulating policy if the person taking the decisions is ignorant that they have even been made. And on the day Chamal Rajapaksa made his statement, only four out of the scheduled twenty-two ministries were represented!

However, practically speaking, we should probably breathe a sigh of relief when ministers stay away.

Consider the Parliamentary Select Committee that has been impeaching the Chief Justice. Ministers enthusiastically attended every one of its sittings. But what did they contribute? When they were not calling Shirani Bandaranayake names, they were justifying a very obviously unjustifiable process on the pathetically simplistic grounds that what Parliament says goes. There was no debate about the decision to require the Chief Justice to reply to more than 1,000 pages of ‘evidence’ literally overnight. It was simply declared by the ministers present. Likewise, once she had walked out of the proceedings in protest at her treatment, there was no debate about calling the ‘witnesses’ they had previously said would not be available for cross-examination. They arrived within minutes, once the coast was clear. And by the following day, the Parliamentary Select Committee had managed to finish its ‘deliberations’ and prepare a lengthy report (including references to cases from as long ago as 1852!) – more work than any of the ministers had done in the previous year.

But what Parliament says goes. And in this case it said that it didn’t care to give the Chief Justice a fair trial according to the principles that Sri Lanka applies to everybody else (including ministers!).

In any case, the budget debate is generally used by MPs not so much for commenting on the Government’s plan for the following year as for presenting what they hope will be a headline-catching soundbite, on whatever subject happens to take their fancy.

And this time was little different.

The Opposition quickly latched onto a catchy slogan. The budget was summed up with the phrase ‘lamborghinis for politicians, badagini for the people’, which no doubt resonates with the middle class in Colombo. However, it is not really accurate. If things were that simple, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be a lot less popular than he is with the masses.

Of course the war victory is important in explaining the support he enjoys among the majority Sinhalese, but it can no longer be the only factor.

We need to understand the secret of his success. For if the President were even somewhat more unpopular, his capacity to use the powers that he has won would be considerably restricted. He would not be able to control Parliament to the extent that he does today.

And then the Chief Justice might just stand a chance.

As the Government’s plan for the following year, no matter how many changes are bound to be made later, when nobody is paying attention, the budget gives us an idea of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal.

The lamborghini-badagini slogan is not really accurate, but it is not completely inaccurate either. As the UNP’s chief economist MP Harsha de Silva pointed out, the budget maintains taxes on food such as milk powder and tins of salmon while exempting racing cars. He called it a budget for the 0.1%, no doubt consciously evoking parallels with the popular campaign of the Occupy Movement in the United States and elsewhere that talks about 1% of the population controlling an ever greater share of the country’s wealth. His point was that only the richest of the rich can afford racing cars, which are now going to be cheaper thanks to the Government’s proposals, while the price of basic food items is of most concern to the poor.

The Treasury issued a totally ridiculous statement in response to this criticism. It seems that it is not lamborghinis but go-karts that are being exempted from tax. Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? People are constantly complaining about the cost of go-karts!

Of course tax exemptions for racing cars of whatever kind are completely misguided.

The proliferation of such random concessions is one of the many things that are wrong with the Government’s tax policy. The more complicated the system, the easier it is to avoid paying one’s dues. At the same time, exemptions mean less revenue for the Government.

Far too little attention is paid to the appallingly low level of tax revenue being collected in Sri Lanka. Taxes amounted to only 12% of GDP in 2011, far below the international benchmarks of 25% for a Middle Income Country and 18% for a Low Income Country, as noted by Anushka Wijesinha in a recent article on the Institute for Policy Studies ‘Talking Economics’ blog. And rather than improving with average incomes, the ratio is getting worse. This is a massive anomaly.

In the absence of sufficient tax revenue, the Government resorts to borrowing, which tends to push the country ever further into debt.

Another huge problem is the extraordinary dependence on indirect taxes, meaning taxes that fall not directly on incomes but indirectly through consumption.

There are two issues here. First, the two forms of taxation are not substitutes. Indirect taxes create inflation, since they add to costs – if a company has to pay taxes on its inputs, it will simply increase the price of its output to compensate. By contrast, direct taxes have no inflationary effect. And so long as the Government spends the money it collects, taxing corporate profits actually increases the level of profits in the economy and thus also the national income. This is counterintuitive, but non-economists should try to understand that this is often the case in economics. Something that is true at the level of an individual is often not true at the level of the economy as a whole. A company might believe that taxes reduce its profits, but it does not exist in a vacuum – the effect of spending by the Government increases economic activity and generates increased profits, albeit not necessarily for that particular company. (This idea should be more easily accepted now, since it was such a fallacy of composition that Keynes pointed out at the time of the Great Depression, saying that if individuals all saved more then aggregate demand would fall, which would mean a lower national income and thus less savings in the aggregate – the ‘paradox of thrift’. The Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath have repopularised his ideas regarding the need for what is now called a ‘fiscal stimulus’ to get out of an economic downturn.)

Secondly, the poor bear more of a burden than the rich when taxes are collected indirectly rather than directly, since consumption forms a larger share of their income. They may spend half of what they earn on food, but it would be physically impossible for Bill Gates to do likewise – even throwing so much food away would be a challenge!

In Sri Lanka, direct taxes constitute only 20% of the total, with the remaining 80% being indirect taxes. This compares extremely badly with other countries.

Totally ignored by just about everybody, the Government is busy making things worse. Last year, when it finally restored income tax liability to public servants, it managed to ensure that this resulted in no overall increase in tax collection by significantly reducing tax rates and doubling the tax-free allowance. And this year it has introduced a whole range of additional concessions, such as reducing the income tax rate for IT professionals to 16%, organic tea exporters to 12% and large scale poultry farmers to 10%. Meanwhile, companies that list on the stock exchange are to be given a three year half tax holiday. And these are just the new measures. Some time ago, the Institute of Policy Studies estimated that concessions offered by the Board of Investment to foreign companies cost Sri Lanka 1% of GDP, in the process of attracting investment that amounts to no more than 1.5% of GDP – and this money would likely have come anyway, since foreign companies openly state that they are not primarily interested in the level of taxation. Soon it will cost the Government more to administer the tax system than it actually collects!

Many of these issues were undoubtedly highlighted by the Presidential Commission on Taxation, which spent about a year working solidly on the issue, submitting its report in October 2010. But Mahinda Rajapaksa has declined to publish it.

When presenting the budget, he highlighted the fact that the Government has not resorted to privatisation, a recruitment freeze in the public sector, cuts in subsidies or neglect of infrastructure development, even though it is short of revenue. But what the President was hiding is that he has nevertheless cut expenditure. Or rather he has prevented expenditure on certain items – education and health in particular – from going up in line with the national income.

Why? Because he wants to meet the fiscal deficit target set by the IMF.

I would argue that there is absolutely no need to follow the advice of the IMF, but even doing so would not have been a problem if Mahinda Rajapaksa had got a grip of tax policy.

All that said, even if we limit ourselves to discussing tax policy, Harsha de Silva’s analysis of the budget is tellingly off the mark.

He wants to abolish taxes on milk powder and tins of salmon, but these are not just a matter of revenue. They are an integral part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s programme for the development of agriculture in Sri Lanka. Backed up by a whole range of other interventions, including through the much criticised (including by me) Divi Neguma, they provide incentives to farmers and fishers to boost production, since they increase the price of imported goods. And they are working.

Sri Lanka has become self-sufficient in rice, maize and black gram, and will soon be in green gram, onion, sugar and milk.

This is a good thing, since the prices of food on the international market are now subject to speculation by financiers, who regard it as just another commodity. They are volatile and increasing at a faster rate than ever before.

It is also one of the reasons why Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular with the Sinhala masses. For he has put a lot of money into rural areas.

Rural areas have also benefited from what I would describe as his other major economic policy – maintaining a large army and putting them to work in all manner of ways. I have written at length against this on political grounds, but economically speaking it has been a key source of growth. And the budget shows that there will be no change in approach. It justifies a significant increase in spending on the police on the basis that they will take on some of the responsibilities that the army handled during the war, while making no proposal to reduce spending on the army.

An addition this year is the plan to establish twenty technical colleges catering to the requirements of jobs in other countries.

Of course there are many other things to be said about the budget, but they will have to be left for another opportunity. For the moment, let us simply realise that things are not as clear cut as Harsha de Silva made out.

The UNP’s problem is that it has no coherent alternative to present to the people. Its policies under Ranil Wickremasinghe were tremendously unpopular, and he does not appear to have changed his mind about them. What is worse, the UNP does not appear to have changed its mind about him. He has been given another six years to accomplish what he could not do in the last eighteen. And the country’s problem is how to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa in check when the Opposition seems so determined to remain ineffective.

Until that question is answered, any debate in Parliament is bound to be a waste of time.

This article was published in The Island on 17th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Overkill

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 5, 2012

One of the many reasons Sri Lanka needs to retain its independent Supreme Court

jaffna protestWe really should have learned by now that suppressing the peaceful activities of young people, however much we disagree with them, never actually works. There are always repercussions.

The Indian police created a massive public outcry a couple of weeks ago when they arrested a 21 year old girl for making a totally innocuous comment on Facebook. Why, she asked, should the city of Mumbai shut down for a day to mark the death of a politician? A friend who ‘liked’ the post was also indicted. They were first accused of ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’, then ‘statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes’. After spending a night in a cell, during which time the cops were presumably scouring their legal textbooks for something a bit less obviously untrue, the students were finally charged with ‘sending false and offensive messages through communication services’.

The objective of the exercise was to let people know that some opinions are simply not acceptable. They will not be allowed to pass, and the response will not come only in the form of words. There will be action too.

Followers of the politician mobilised both official and unofficial agencies to get their point across to Maharashtrians. An angry mob gathered outside the police station in which the girls were being held and goons attacked a hospital owned by one of their relatives.

They counted themselves lucky to be locked up.

Such is the legacy of Bal Thackeray, founder of the Shiv Sena. The man was never so much as Chief Minister, but he was tremendously influential in Maharashtra. And he was even more controversial. A populist in the style of Adolf Hitler, who he sometimes professed to admire, he continually railed against outsiders, and he openly encouraged violence against them. After his first Dusshera rally in Mumbai in 1966, his supporters went off to burn South Indian shops and restaurants, and they never looked back. They were responsible for the first political assassination in the state after Independence too – the 1970 killing of communist party leader and trade unionist MLA Krishna Desai. And in 1974 they murdered Dalit leader Bhagwat Jadhav, announcing yet another target group.

Mumbai is now best known for the 26/11 attacks, but there have been many worse atrocities in the city. For example, riots killed several times as many people in 1992 and 1993. And a commission set up by the state government blamed the Shiv Sena for the worst of the crimes – its MLAs even testified that Bal Thackeray had personally called them and ordered them to get Muslims killed.

Analysts have suggested that his frequent obnoxious outbursts were not sincere – unlike Adolf Hitler, he did not really believe what he said, only exploited sentiments that he knew would make him popular. But that is unlikely to be much comfort to the victims.

The Shiv Sena has converted an awful lot of people to its cause over the years, including police officers.

Fortunately, Maharashtra is still part of India. And public anger in the rest of the country at the arrest of the girls had a near immediate effect. Responding to a petition filed in Delhi, the Supreme Court called for an explanation from the state, and the responsible central ministry issued new guidelines on the use of legislation designed to limit freedom of speech.

This is long overdue, since the Indian police are renowned for their eagerness to wilfully misinterpret the law when it happens to suit the powers-that-be.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is busy dispensing with such checks and balances.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice has been proceeding at top speed in the last few days, presumably because the Government has realised that the whole episode is going to be deeply embarrassing and had better be completed as soon as possible. Indeed.

Since we are prevented from commenting on the proceedings in the interests of fair play – ha! – let us simply hope that we do not forget Shirani Bandaranayake the moment she is ejected from her post.

For the Supreme Court has a lot of work to do.

The Sri Lankan defence establishment is renowned for its achievements on the battlefield, but even its supporters agree that it doesn’t always understand how to handle ordinary people.

Its opponents are convinced that it is intent on genocide.

I am reminded of its attempt in 2007 to evict from Colombo all migrants from the North and East. The Government argued that it was very difficult to identify terrorists, so in order to stop bombs going off in the city they had to impose restrictions on Tamils. Numerous measures were generally accepted as reasonable in the circumstances, such as mandatory registration and regular search operations, but then the Government decided to start sending people away. Several hundred Tamils were loaded onto buses in the middle of the night and sent to Vavuniya, on the basis that they had no ‘valid reason’ to be in Colombo. It was appalling discrimination of a kind that was also very unlikely to be of any use in the campaign against the LTTE. Worse, it pushed Tamils further into Prabhakaran’s open arms. Acting on a submission by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Supreme Court put a stop to it, and the Government apologised for what it admitted had been a huge mistake.

This was vital recognition that security matters cannot be exempt from oversight, even during times of war.

In peacetime, such reviews of Government action can and must be intensified. And the Supreme Court must start with the recent attacks on students in Jaffna.

The Government continually tells the world that complaints about militarisation in the peninsula are hugely exaggerated. It says that the military can and must be present throughout the island, and that it is taking steps to reduce the number of personnel in Jaffna. This may well be the case, but statistics are not the only thing that matters. Even a single unit can be a problem if its members do not behave appropriately.

And it is clear that the powers-that-be in Jaffna have no idea about appropriate behaviour.

According to the eyewitness report of MP E Saravanapavan, on the night of November 27th, the Army and Police forced their way into two hostels of the University of Jaffna, claiming that they suspected students of preparing to light lamps to mark the deaths of LTTE cadres on Heroes’ Day. Some of the young people called their parents, and the message got through to the parliamentarian that trouble was brewing. When he arrived at the scene, he found army officers in the process of beating up the editor of Uthayan, who he promptly took to the hospital. The situation calmed down and the crowd dispersed. Then on November 28th, the students reassembled in the campus to protest the crackdown. They sat holding posters, some with their mouths covered with black cloth to imply that they were being gagged. Saravanapavan states that when they moved from the gate in a procession, they were set upon by the Army and Police. Seven students were seriously hurt. Four were arrested.

Opinions vary over whether the students were even marking Heroes’ Day, as the defence establishment asserts, or whether they were simply celebrating the Hindu Festival of Lights, Karthikai Theepam, which happened to fall on the same date this year.

That is hardly the point.

Of course it would be preferable if Jaffna youth broke from practices begun by and associated with the LTTE. Heroes’ Day is not the best time to remember the dead, at least not without proper acknowledgement of how the LTTE contributed to their passing.

But there is absolutely no chance that simply telling young people that they should not do it is going to work.

In a politically charged atmosphere like post-war Jaffna, when the defence establishment issues orders, it only succeeds in further alienating people from the Government. And when its orders are accompanied by the use of force, the result is even worse. Instead of supporting deradicalisation, as is needed to ensure that Nanthi Kadal really was the end of the Tamil insurgency, it is playing into the hands of the extremists, giving them plenty of material to use in their propaganda.

Let us remember that this was about lighting lamps!

If the Government does not recognise that it was wrong to intervene, it needs to be told. The public may already be on the verge of losing its voice due to the sheer number of reasons it is being given to cry out, but this one is just as important as the others.

The youth are a special category in any society, as this country knows only too well.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 5th December 2012. The online version may be accessed here.

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A bloody riot

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 14, 2012

Reflections on twenty-seven extraordinary deaths 

There was one thing that everybody was sure of on Friday afternoon as news of the riot at Welikada prison broke – there would be a lot of bodies.

And so it happened. Twenty-seven deaths had been announced by Saturday morning. The stand-off lasted for an hour, as inmates somehow managed to get the better of not just their regular guards but 200 fully-armed members of the STF. They battled their way through clouds of tear gas to break into the armoury, then made their way up to the roof with a haul of more than 80 guns, from where they proceeded to shoot at passers-by. Some escaped, somehow.

This story is in itself fairly extraordinary.

But so too was our reaction. We knew very well that a lot of people would end up dead.

Some said it approvingly. Prisoners may be human beings, as the sign on the wall declares, but human beings can behave worse than animals. Welikada houses convicted rapists and murderers, amongst others, and some people wouldn’t mind seeing them knocked off, legally or otherwise.

This constituency is behind the intermittent attempts to revive the death penalty, which they regard as cheaper and easier than keeping criminals in prison. And cheap and easy is all the rage these days.

It doesn’t matter to the Government whether restarting executions really does reduce the crime rate, since the objective is not to achieve anything but just to look like it is trying. That is, when it can’t persuade us that it is only media coverage of crime that needs to be reduced! Its representatives say the funniest things. Like when a minister explained how criminals are needed for election campaigns. Well, then we’ll just have to put up with crime!

Even cheaper and easier than executing prisoners is shooting them in a riot, of course.

This group argued that we need not worry about how a simple search got so out of control since the deaths are to be welcomed. They aren’t interested in investigating what happened.

I fear that after three decades of war, there are rather more people in this camp than ‘normal’.

The question for Sri Lanka is how to ‘normalise’ – how to get back to being a society that in general abhors killing in all its forms. (Before picking up their pens to complain that Western nations kill people all the time, readers might consider checking on how many occasions I have said exactly that in these pages. Such knee jerk reactions are another element of the war mentality that has to go – we need more thoughtfulness and less shouting at each other.)

The other reaction to the riot was even less encouraging. These were the people arguing that the incident was the result of a plot by the Defence Ministry, either to create an excuse to bring prisons under its purview, or even more disturbingly to get rid of a few inconvenient underworld leaders. Excessive violence was thus part of the plan. For them, it was never supposed to be a simple search.

They won’t believe the findings of any investigation, since they are already convinced that it won’t be conducted properly.

Part of ‘normalcy’ is citizens generally having confidence in the Government, or rather in the checks and balances to which it is subject. They should believe that elections are free, that the police can be trusted to maintain law and order, that courts give people a fair trial and that officials and politicians do their duty, and that when this isn’t the case, there are mechanisms that can be used to put things right. They should trust that they can effect change when it is needed.

But rather than moving towards this ideal, now that it is free of the pressures of war, Sri Lanka seems to be gradually slipping away in the opposite direction.

It is not a matter of popularity. Mahinda Rajapaksa would still win a re-run of either presidential poll, whether against Sarath Fonseka or Ranil Wickremasinghe. A lot of people like him, or at least prefer him to the alternatives on offer. The problem is power.

Even his own voters can see that he has too much of it.

I would like to think that the impeachment of the Chief Justice will be a turning point – that it will prove to be an outrage too far. The charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, which finally emerged last week, certainly encourage such an outcome, especially in combination with her letter of refutation that was sent to media outlets who published them. If it proves accurate, they boil down to being married to somebody who has been named in a complaint to the Bribery Commission – a case that is being pursued primarily to be able to argue that Shirani Bandaranayake must be impeached!

(Of course her husband shouldn’t have been holding the position that has got him into trouble in the first place, but that’s another matter. Let’s drop it – her predecessors haven’t had husbands.)

However, there is probably still a long way to go. The Government won’t really mind how it looks so long as the Opposition remains in disarray.

While they recover, the only thing the rest of us can do is continue to apply pressure.

The Chief Justice must argue her case, and the media should ensure that the public hears as much about her defence as it does from the Government.

And the Government must be pushed to investigate what happened at Welikada.

Killing twenty-seven inmates in a prison riot cannot be practically unavoidable, and it should not be allowed to pass as either morally acceptable or sadly inevitable. The Government will no doubt try to put the blame on the guards, who are already being accused of having incited or assisted their wards. The rumours may even be true, since we know that some of them are doing very good business in contraband, most disturbingly phones via which some underworld leaders are said to be continuing to run their criminal networks from their cells.

But even if the guards helped, the inmates were stuck inside four walls that were quickly surrounded with armoured vehicles, and they had limited ammunition.

There is certainly a need to clean up prisons, but this incident cannot justify giving more power to another person who already has plenty. That is, the Defence Secretary.

In the end, this would bring more problems than it solved.

Regular guards can do only limited damage. They can take money in exchange for allowing contraband to get into prisons, but at least they cannot let the inmates out!

I am reminded of an expose about goings-on in prisons in India that appeared in the press there a few months ago. A journalist filmed a well-known gangster politician from Uttar Pradesh (where Mervyn Silva wouldn’t last long!), who had finally been convicted of the murder of his mistress after dozens of cases had been dropped due to the curious disappearance of evidence and witnesses, walking out of the jail in which he was supposedly being held for what turned out to be his daily turn around town. Assembly elections had thrown out the administration that had locked him up, and he was to all intents and purposes a free man, albeit keeping up appearances by returning to the jail to sleep. His luxury car, complete with driver and personal assistant, not to mention his laptop and mobile phone, picked him up in time for a hearty lunch. And having eaten, he proceeded to his meetings. More than 100 people came to see him in what was essentially his office on each and every afternoon, to submit petitions as if to their MP, to make deals and – allegedly – to organise crime.

The same piece listed a most impressive array of criminals the new administration had in its ranks, having unofficially helped them to get out of prison, one way or another.

This is ‘normal’ for Uttar Pradesh.

Sri Lanka must do better. And we should help the country to get back on the right track by trying to understand why we all knew in advance that the Welikada prison riot would end so bloodily.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on 14th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The good news and the bad news

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 7, 2012

On the attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice and the calls for the repeal of the 13th Amendment

The good news is that there is nothing illegal about impeaching the Chief Justice. If one third of MPs sign a petition requesting it and one half approve the petition once it is presented in Parliament, the Constitution says that she has to go.

That’s reassuring isn’t it?

It is what the Government has been claiming, in any case.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that if Mahinda Rajapaksa can remove the Chief Justice for doing nothing more than failing to support him wholeheartedly, tomorrow it may actually be illegal to fail to support him wholeheartedly. For who is to stop him passing a bill to that effect? It won’t be MPs, that’s for sure. They are firmly stuck under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thumb. And the Chief Justice would by then know better than to rule the legislation in violation of the Constitution, since to do so would be to guarantee early retirement.

The matter of proving ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘incapacity’ is totally insignificant in the circumstances, as the administration has demonstrated that it has absolutely no shame.

International scrutiny is laughably ineffective – the Government was perfectly happy to announce the impeachment attempt as its representatives were preparing to defend its record at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where it was bound to attract condemnation.

Indeed, it seemed determined to antagonise its critics, as just days before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had once again raised the prospect of repealing the 13th Amendment.

Let this be a warning to those who look overseas for solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems.

The only opinions that matter are those of voters.

This is good news for the judiciary, since people can relatively easily be persuaded of the importance of the law and judges who apply it judiciously. The attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice has already drawn a forthright and near universal response in the media. Public opinion will eventually follow, and we will soon find out whether or not this will happen in time to save the current incumbent. Let us hope so, whatever we think of Shirani Bandaranayake.

Although the Government hasn’t deigned to explain what she has done to attract its ire, we can assume that it has to do with the Divi Neguma Bill, which I discussed in these columns some months ago.

Curiously enough, the same dispute has also been used to justify the repeal of the 13th Amendment.

The Chief Justice delayed the Divi Neguma Bill by insisting that it first be approved by the provincial councils, since its subject falls in the concurrent list. Hence both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice must go? It is ridiculous. Even supporters of the Divi Neguma Bill must admit that it is not more important than the Constitution.

The bad news for minorities is that it is very difficult to persuade the majority in Sri Lanka of the importance of devolution.

This is ironic, since both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice are means of distributing power away from the President. Everybody accepts that it is dangerous to make one person all powerful. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the now often quoted saying goes. Thus a little power is entrusted to the Chief Justice, and much less is given to the provincial councils. I stress, we are not talking about a lot of power. That still remains with the President.

But the 13th Amendment was a response to war, and people struggle to separate it from the suffering Sri Lanka has undergone in the last three decades.

I have argued for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment on too many occasions already, and I struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to do so again, since the level of debate is frankly pathetic. The argument that India foisted it on Sri Lanka so it must be rejected is totally unconvincing. That was then and this is now. Sri Lanka can very well judge the 13th Amendment on its own merits. Just as it can very well re-demarcate its provinces if it wants, rather than complaining that the ones that it has were defined by the British. This is simply a distraction.

The same goes for the alleged waste of money. I am quite sure that everybody reading this article can write a list of at least ten things that cost the Government more than the provincial councils that are definitely more wasteful. Let them first save that money before they start getting rid of institutions that minorities want.

This is what matters. As Mano Ganesan reminded us the other day, all Tamil parties want the 13th Amendment, whether they are in the Government or with the Opposition. The only group that didn’t want it was the undemocratic one that perished with Prabhakaran in Nanthi Kadal. And why did the LTTE not want it? Because Prabhakaran realised that it wasn’t going to bring him a separate state, now or later, and that’s what he was committed to achieving, extremist that he was. The most vociferous in calling for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, ignoring the views of minorities, used to argue that Prabhakaran did not represent them and that people should pay attention to those who were willing to use the ballot box rather than bullets and bombs. It seems that they prefer terrorists after all.

I do not say that the 13th Amendment is the best solution to any problem, just that it must not be abandoned unless the minorities can be persuaded that something else would be an improvement.

But unusually for a post-conflict nation, Sri Lanka has not a reconciliation policy but a policy of antagonism.

The only people with whom the Government is keen on reconciling are those who can help it to remain in power.

Hence the ‘release’ of KP. It is of course highly unusual that official spokesmen cannot agree on whether or not the man the Government abducted from Malaysia is still in custody or not. But the fact is that he is definitely not in jail, as are hundreds of people who participated in a much smaller way in the LTTE’s terror campaign. He is back in Kilinochchi, running an NGO.

Justice does not require his prosecution, but surely it demands an even-handed approach?

(The Government is now promising to bring cases against members of the Security Forces accused of excesses. Why on earth should they suffer more than KP?)

Perhaps this is Plan B.

If Plan A of repealing the 13th Amendment cannot for some reason be implemented, the Government will want to do everything possible to keep control of the provincial councils. It has managed to delay elections in the North for a very impressive three years already, but it may eventually have to call them. It is currently talking about September 2013. Plan B may be to use KP to collect votes for the Government, to supplement the support enjoyed by Douglas Devananda.

This may not be illegal either. But it is probably more bad news than good.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 7th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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