Kath Noble

The Jaffna air

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 2, 2013

Why so many people are still living in IDP camps in the North

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHaving emphasised in last week’s column the importance of land in the Northern Province, I headed for the area in which it is most under dispute – Jaffna.

Unlike Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, Jaffna is densely populated. Jaffna has 553 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared to 81 and 25 for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu respectively.

Another difference is that most land is privately owned in Jaffna, while there is still a lot of land that is vested in the state in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

That land disputes are most serious in Jaffna was made clear earlier this year when hundreds of people protested against the acquisition of their land to regularise the High Security Zone around the Kankesanturai port and Palaly airport. The Security Forces have occupied the area for decades, but it was never gazetted and their continued presence became a legal problem for the Government when the Emergency Regulations were allowed to lapse in 2011.

Cases have been filed in the Supreme Court by high profile individuals such as the Bishop of Jaffna and the son of the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, as well as by many of the remaining 30,000 IDPs.

The rationale for taking over people’s land in Jaffna was to facilitate the activities of the Security Forces in fighting the LTTE. They wanted a buffer around their key bases, forward defence lines and main supply routes at least as big as the reach of Prabhakaran’s most powerful weapons.

The Government claims to agree that the requirements must be different now that there are no longer any MBRLs trained on the Security Forces.

It quite correctly points out that the extent of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone has been reduced already.

The state and other media regularly report on ceremonies to hand back land, usually accompanied by statistics that seem to demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction. For example, on September 7th, the Daily News quoted Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe of the Jaffna Security Forces Headquarters as saying that they had returned 136 houses and 175 acres of land to their owners the previous month, making a total of more than 4,200 plots since 2009.

They say that they are doing their best to reduce their presence to the minimum possible.

However, as the TNA points out, the 6,300 acres of land that is now being acquired as the final area of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone is equivalent to more than two thirds of Colombo city. It says that the maximum that it can agree to is zero.

It is not clear how progress is going to be made if the two sides continue in the same pattern.

Debates that centre around the needs of the Security Forces are generally very difficult in Sri Lanka, as a result of the generation long conflict and the losses incurred in it.

I would not attempt to contribute here.

Anyway, I believe that it is not only or even really primarily a matter of the extent of land being occupied by the Security Forces.

It is at least equally important to see what is being done in the occupied land and what has been done for the people who have been displaced from it. After all, if they were perfectly happily settled elsewhere, there would be no dispute or at least whatever dispute there was could not be very emotive.

And since the country is supposed to be working towards reconciliation, this would seem to be the most crucial issue.

To that end, I visited both the High Security Zone and a camp of IDPs last week.

Of course it is not possible to roam freely around the High Security Zone. But the Army has built and is operating a hotel in the middle of it, and anybody who is willing and able to spend between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 8,000 for a night can get a sense of what is going on in the brief journey from the gate at Maviddapuram to the beach.

Dinouk Colombage has said in an article published in Groundviews that only Sinhalese can stay in the resorts run by the Security Forces – there are now at least 15, of which about half are in the North and East. However, I found more Tamils than Sinhalese at Kankesanturai.

Among them was a young couple from Jaffna and a family of expatriates who had come to inspect their property near Tellipallai, which has been released from the High Security Zone.

(Incidentally, since he has also stated that there were multiple checks on the A9 in the run-up to the election, given what I said last week about not having been asked what I was doing or where I was going at any stage of my journey to Kilinochchi, I should point out that there were none at all for people who travelled as I did by train. Whether this was an oversight on the part of the Security Forces, since the train had only just started to run beyond Omanthai, I cannot yet say. I hope not.)

The hotel at Kankesanturai is of course very nice. As I was told within a few minutes of my arrival, Mahinda Rajapaksa has stayed there five times already.

Ridiculously, it even has a jogging track!

I must say that I didn’t feel much like going for a jog or even a bath in the undeniably beautiful ocean with an audience of dozens of soldiers.

The hotel is in fact staffed entirely by soldiers, from the ladies at reception to the waiters and the cleaning staff. Soldiers are also in the process of building an extension to the existing building, to add a billiard room, gym, spa and a number of luxury suites.

They live in the homes of the IDPs.

It is difficult to decide which must be most disturbing for them – living in the midst of abandoned buildings, which must serve as a constant reminder of the war and what people have lost, or renovating the ones that they have taken over for themselves. Travelling through the High Security Zone, there seem to be as many houses newly plastered and painted with new roofs, windows, doors and other fittings including regimental placards as there are houses in ruins with trees growing where their owners used to live.

For the IDPs, that soldiers are getting so comfortable there is clearly worse.

It doesn’t cost anything to stay in an IDP camp.

I had wondered with all the talk of surveillance whether the IDPs would be ready to accommodate a foreigner, but they did not hesitate except to worry about my comfort. Indeed, my sharing their experience was a source of considerable entertainment, as they made jokes about their ‘attached bathrooms’ – the piece of bare earth outside their huts to which they carried a bucket of water for me to wash my face before going to ‘bed’.

Of course I was given one of the very few actual beds in the camp, in the smartest of its huts.

It was better made than the temporary shelter I stayed in last week near Kilinochchi, since many of the men although originally also farmers as IDPs have been working as masons, carpenters and labourers in the construction industry, but it was about two thirds of the size, while it had to accommodate three times the number of people.

The camp is seriously overcrowded.

For nearly 100 families, there are ten toilets and one somewhat private bathing area.

There is virtually no open space at all, and I don’t believe that anybody could visit and not become utterly depressed at their plight.

As the women told me, in such circumstances, they cannot do the kind of work that would be possible in their own places to bring in extra income, such as stitching, growing a few vegetables or raising chicken. Women-headed households, which are quite common in Jaffna, face major problems in making a living.

Men can earn about Rs. 1,000 per day for 20 days per month, they said.

They have lived here since 1990.

Ironically, they are now under pressure from the owners of the land on which they established the camp to leave, so that it can be sold for development. They too desperately want to go.

The Government has offered them plots near Keerimalai, but they say that it is no good.

As I played ‘football’ with a boy of about six in the narrow alley between his family’s hut and the next – what we were kicking actually looked more like a very old, deformed plastic box – I wondered what these people would make of the Army’s hotel at Kankesanturai. In a way, I hope that they never see it. That so much effort has been put into it while they have been left to languish in such a miserable camp would surely be too devastating for them.

I was completely disgusted.

I believe that the Security Forces should not get involved in economic activities, because amongst other things they have a major unfair advantage – their salaries do not have to be recovered from the income earned.

In the North, it is even more reprehensible, when people are struggling so hard to rebuild their lives.

Despite various statements in the media to the contrary, the Security Forces are still running even tea shops outside key tourist attractions in Jaffna.

They must give it up. Such opportunities should be left for IDPs.

If the Government insists on maintaining the current numbers in the Security Forces, which is what makes it important to find new ways to occupy them with no LTTE to fight, it should understand that when the Security Forces do business on land that belongs to other people, they are going to create even more resentment than ever.

The only way to avoid the very reasonable anger of the IDPs is to resettle them in much better conditions than they could expect in their original villages.

Unfortunately, the Government is both heartless and mindless.

This article was not published by The Island.

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A view from somewhere near Kilinochchi

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 25, 2013

Reflections on the first election to the Northern Provincial Council

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACampaigning for the Northern Provincial Council was so miserable that I decided to spend election day as far away from politicians as possible.

Both the UPFA and the TNA disappointed. Two months ago, I wrote a piece saying how bright the future would be if the totally useless discourse of patriots versus traitors could be done away with, as seemed to be happening with the TNA having nominated Justice Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate and the UPFA talking of putting forward Daya Master. But within days of publication, the UPFA had done a u-turn and declared that no former members of the LTTE would be included in its list, leaving it free to equate the TNA with the LTTE and argue that a TNA victory was bound to lead to the establishment of a separate state.

The TNA behaved no better, doing its best to restore the links with the LTTE that it had so successfully severed during the nomination process, with Justice Wigneswaran going to the extent of calling Prabhakaran a hero – very heroic, wasn’t it, shooting people who weren’t willing to die shielding him from defeat?

As I watched television the night before the election, almost every other sentence referred to the LTTE.

Yet there is no such organisation in Sri Lanka today.

What can be found are Tamils, and they are worse off as a community than they were three decades ago. The LTTE failed them, whether they realise it or not, and it is up to those of us who care about the country to ensure that the TNA does not do the same.

I am hopeful, but the election campaign was a reminder of how dangerous politics can be.

With that in mind, I spent election day trying to understand what life is like for the people who suffered the most in the war.

Because it is this same group who will suffer if the TNA cannot sustain the peace.

A couple of around the same age as my parents welcomed me for the weekend in their home a few miles outside Kilinochchi.

They don’t yet have a house, but they have managed to put together a fairly decent makeshift structure from whatever they could find or were given. They have built dry walls from the bricks of their old home around a new wooden frame, and covered it with a roof of tin sheets, palm leaves and plastic. Inside there are three ‘areas’ – a space roughly four foot by ten foot for cooking on an open fire, around ten foot by ten foot arranged as a ‘living room’ and six foot by ten foot for sleeping. (During my stay, much to my embarrassment, they slept in the ‘kitchen’.)

In their four acre property they have a well, which needs to be repaired but is still offering up water, albeit not of a very enticing colour. Anyway, we drank from it. They don’t yet have a proper toilet either, so we also carried water from the well to another makeshift but quite reasonable arrangement some distance away in the bush.

They are still waiting for help with basic infrastructure, but their situation is not desperate.

Incongruously, they already have electricity, and a television and a fridge and various other ‘luxuries’ provided by their children, who have lived near Colombo for years.

This support from relatives is vital, since they have very little income. They make a ‘living’ by running a vegetable shop in the Kilinochchi market, but I saw for myself that there is not enough custom to sustain all of the traders. How they are going to continue even this poor existence as they age further and are unable to cycle the quite considerable distance into town on a daily basis, I don’t know. They hope to clear their land and start cultivation when the rains come next month, but that too is no life for the elderly, and all of the youth of the area are busy looking for opportunities to get out.

Starting to build their lives again at 70 years of age is a pretty appalling prospect.

In terms of basic infrastructure, many of their neighbours are better off, with numerous newly constructed houses to be seen in the surrounding area.

Almost everybody seems to have received bicycles and household items from NGOs.

Some have also been given farming equipment and animals.

It is interesting to note that while the husband believes that the reason they have not yet received many of these things is that allocations are being made according to the number of members in the family, the wife feels that they are being discriminated against by their local government official, curiously enough for not having given their children to the LTTE.

They voted for EPDP.

A friend of mine living abroad wanted me to ask them why they support a party that according to allegations made to the American Embassy ran or runs prostitution rings for the Army. I told him that these people have never heard of Wikileaks – the source of the story. They don’t know English and they had never used the internet before I helped them to have a chat with one of their sons over Skype.

For me, such questions are tantamount to harassment.

Neither he nor I paid more than a brief visit to the Vanni when it was under the control of the LTTE. We did not experience the fighting up close. And we did not live in Manik Farm.

These people went through all of that.

Anyway, in those days, the TNA was supporting the LTTE, which is proven to have done much worse.

The suggestion seemed rather intolerant, and indicative of the politics of people like us who are generally quite ungrounded in the various realities of Sri Lanka.

It was a real pleasure to see the old couple go out to vote on Saturday, and to talk to many others who found time in their days to do the same. The mood in Kilinochchi seemed upbeat, as indeed it had on Friday and did again on Sunday. People went about their business as usual after voting.

The Government must be congratulated for accepting the inevitability of a TNA victory and ensuring that election day passed more or less without incident. In Kilinochchi, the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections reported that thugs attacked one of its monitors who objected to food being given to voters by EPDP, but otherwise there was very little to complain about. Of course something like 90% of the posters on view in Kilinochchi were for the SLFP, plus another 5% for EPDP and only 1% for the TNA. But that just goes to show how useless it is to ruin the environment and spend money that generally has to be earned via untoward activities trying to win over the public with posters. The result in Kilinochchi was almost the exact opposite – the TNA received 82% of the vote and got three councillors elected, while the UPFA received 17% of the vote and got one councillor elected.

There were more serious incidents elsewhere in the Northern Province, but even they compared favourably with the norm in Sri Lanka and with the experience in the other two provinces that went to the polls on Saturday.

The result itself, combined with the high turnout – 73% in Kilinochchi – did more to demonstrate the return to normalcy than any of the Government’s rather silly propaganda.

Indeed, I was very happy to note on my way from Colombo that no member of the Security Forces attempted to find out where I was going or what I was doing – as they should have understood long ago, this only reinforces the feeling that they have something to hide.

The Omantai checkpoint was a symbol of the disunity of the country.

The major problem in Kilinochchi would seem to be the shortage of business, largely due to the fact that the entire population was displaced and in the process lost everything they owned.

That is why land is so important – it is the only capital that people have, and very few of them are in a position to buy anything other than the ‘essentials’ that it produces. Acquisition by the Security Forces for their quite bewildering array of camps in the North is bound to be a major source of ongoing conflict so long as no reasonable alternatives are found by means of a genuinely consultative process. This should also include some effort to assess the environmental impact, since the camps must at the very least place an additional burden on water supplies in what is a relatively dry area. The impact on the livelihoods of the people affected by them must also be considered.

The TNA position on the military presence in the North is clearly ridiculous – they insist on a return to pre-1983 levels – but the Government should understand that it is in its best interests to settle the issue once and for all.

Even they can’t possibly believe that all of the land they are occupying is genuinely needed.

Not far from where I spent the weekend, the Security Forces have set up a training camp – an assault course is visible from the road. Obviously that need not be in the outskirts of Kilinochchi.

(Incidentally, the only minor road to be paved in the area leads right up to the gate.)

But land alone is not enough, and the TNA must immediately get going on its promised comprehensive plan for the development of the Northern economy. The UPFA did not get much beyond transportation, which is useful but certainly not sufficient – at the moment, it is mostly used to transport goods from the rest of the country into the North and people from the North out.

Fortunately, Justice Wigneswaran and his colleagues will soon realise that they have no future as politicians if they can’t persuade Tamils to continue living with them.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Yet another despicable act

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 14, 2013

How the Government is encouraging Sinhalese extremists to attack Muslims

Ravana BalayaIt doesn’t take many people to destroy a country. This is a lesson that we have to learn, and we have to do it fast, while the hard won peace in Sri Lanka is still more or less intact.

On Saturday night, a mob attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo. The respected journalist DBS Jeyaraj has said that he believes that it was carefully planned. According to his report, thugs from outside the area met at the local Buddhist temple, then made their way clandestinely through land occupied by Sinhalese to the back of the mosque. On hearing the bells of the temple being rung, they started throwing stones and bottles at the building. Another group – led along the main road by monks, shouting that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country and Muslims should be thrown out – joined the attack.

The temple continued ringing its bells, drawing an even bigger crowd of Sinhalese from the neighbourhood, who were told by their local priests that the mosque was in the process of being destroyed. They went along to help.

By this time, the gates of the mosque had been torn down.

The Police – who had been assigned to protect the mosque in the wake of a demonstration by the Ravana Balaya – stood and watched. DBS Jeyaraj says that they may even have encouraged the mob.

The mosque was saved by the arrival of local Muslims, who were determined to protect their place of worship.

This is when the authorities decided to intervene.

What concerned them was not the prospect of the destruction of a mosque, even though the Government had agreed after the dispute with the Ravana Balaya that it should be allowed to remain – thanks to the intervention of Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha, president of the SLFP’s Muslim unit and the SLFP’s co-organiser of the Colombo Central electoral division. (Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was party to the discussions, along with Prime Minister and Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs D.M. Jayaratne.) Instead, they were worried about the safety of the Sinhalese gathered outside the mosque.

A very similar thing happened again on Sunday afternoon.

Although on Saturday night the authorities had promised the Muslim community that prayers could be conducted in the mosque on Sunday itself, they did not keep their word. The Police closed access to the area.

Local Muslims had planned to gather and march to the mosque at 3.00pm in protest.

However, by 2.30pm, a group of Sinhalese outsiders had managed to enter the area without being stopped by the Police, and they started attacking Muslim homes and residences. Individuals too were targeted.

This resulted in clashes between the two groups.

At that point, the STF got between the Muslims and Sinhalese, preventing the violence from escalating. The Sinhalese group decided to back down, and they were escorted out of the area.

Meanwhile, thugs had arrived in neighbouring Maligawatte. They smashed threewheelers belonging to Muslims and started to make threats against the mosque, saying that Muslims should go to the one in Grandpass instead. Again, when Muslims heard what was happening and rushed to the scene in large numbers, posing a threat to the Sinhalese, the STF appeared to calm the situation.

No doubt the situation needed calming, but this should have been done at a much earlier stage.

Remember that it was on July 9th that the Ravana Balaya insisted that the Grandpass mosque should be closed within a month, so there was every reason to expect an attack this weekend.

Sinhalese extremist organisations try to hide their involvement in specific acts of violence after they take place, but they are quite open about their support for what they describe as ‘taking the law into their own hands’ – even the statements that they issue to deny knowledge of an incident refer to the failure of the authorities to deal with problems like unauthorised construction of places of worship, unethical conversions and uncontrolled funding of NGOs. They often talk of acting as ‘unofficial law enforcement officers’.

That a mob turned up to destroy the Grandpass mosque on August 10th was no surprise.

Of course the Government is to blame.

Every country has its lunatics. Last week, one of the most popular videos circulating on the internet was an interview by an Australian television channel with a candidate in their upcoming general election. The woman – a member of the fringe One Nation Party – managed to expose her ignorance and utter foolishness in a matter of just a couple of minutes. She said, ‘I don’t oppose Islam as a country, but I do feel that their laws should not be welcome here in Australia.’ Hopefully she is not interested in ‘visiting’ Islam either, because she is going to find it difficult to get a ticket!

She rose to prominence after being arrested for sticking labels on Nestle products in a local supermarket that said, ‘Beware! Halal food funds terrorism.’

On being asked about this in the interview, she said, ‘Only 2% of Australians follow haram.’ According to her, halal certification is very different from the actually virtually identical system of labelling kosher food for Jewish Australians, which she believes is perfectly acceptable. She said, ‘Jews aren’t under haram – they have their own religion that follows Jesus Christ.’

The lunatics of the Ravana Balaya are probably no more idiotic than this woman.

The difference is that the Australian government is not helping her. Indeed, she is being prosecuted and on being convicted she would not have been allowed to contest, but this is now a formality – the outcry generated by the interview has forced her to withdraw from the race.

She would be sent to prison if she even just talked about destroying a mosque.

In Sri Lanka, such people are invited for tea with the President.

The country is very fortunate that Muslim leaders have responded so responsibly to these provocations, but it would be a mistake to assume that they will be able to contain the anger and frustration of their community indefinitely. We have to do everything we can to stop this campaign immediately.

This article was not published by The Island.

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How did it come to this?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 7, 2013

A look at why the people of Weliweriya came onto the streets in the first place

Dhammika PereraOnce again, the Government is desperately seeking an excuse. The Army has shot dead at least three people on the streets of the Gampaha district in the process of breaking up a protest. Dozens of others are still undergoing treatment for their injuries.

Unsurprisingly, it has been doing its best to put the blame on what it calls ‘subversives’ – the new terrorists. Ministers have told the press that the villagers of Weliweriya were on the verge of calling off their agitation, with the Government having agreed to close the factory that they say is responsible for polluting their water pending the outcome of tests. The Government claims that the confrontation with the Army took place only after the arrival of outsiders, who instigated the crowd to attack.

To support this version of events, we have been ‘informed’ that some months ago more than 100 workers associated with a JVP trade union were sacked by Dipped Products.

So far, so utterly predictable.

A certain section of society is ever ready to believe such conspiracy theories, and to accept that the use of massive force is either unavoidable or actually roundly deserved.

This we know for sure by now, since there have been a number of very similar incidents in the recent past – one man was killed when workers from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone took issue with plans for a pension scheme for the private sector in May 2011, and another died when Chilaw fishermen protested against the increase in fuel prices in February 2012.

Of course it is unacceptable to deploy the Army to manage demonstrations, but after the war victory there is a tendency to think that soldiers are the only ones who can get things done – in the same way as some people want the Defence Secretary to be in charge of everything from garbage collection to university curricula and teacher training to agricultural development, tourism, the reconstruction of the Vanni, the preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage and the future of the Buddha Sasana. What naivety! But this is not the most important argument, since the Police have shown that they are equally capable of killing unarmed demonstrators.

Taking issue with the absolutely extraordinary use of live ammunition seems largely pointless too, the same thing having been said many times already.

Instead, let’s think about why there was a protest in the first place.

Even if the story of JVP intervention were true, it could not have happened if the Government had responded to the concerns of the villagers in the proper manner – they would not have come onto the streets.

The complaint against Dipped Products for releasing chemicals into the environment was not made last week. The villagers have been concerned about their water supply for some time, and they had petitioned the authorities on several occasions.

If a timely and transparent investigation had been conducted, the accuracy of the charge would have been ascertained long ago. Action could have been taken.

Why was it not done?

Well, one cannot help but think that it is because the factory is owned by Hayleys, which is controlled by Dhammika Perera.

All regimes have their favourite millionaires, but the current administration with its utter lack of concern for even keeping up appearances has blurred the boundaries between the public and private sectors more than ever before. Dhammika Perera – a man who by his own admission controls 10% of Sri Lanka’s publicly listed companies – was in 2007 appointed as the Chairman of the Board of Investment. In his first press conference, he declared that the Board of Investment had been too focused on attracting foreign investors. He said that he wanted to give locals the same benefits. No kidding!

How can we be surprised at the pathetically low level of tax revenue in Sri Lanka when corporate bosses are put in charge of deciding who gets tax holidays?

And please don’t dare to imagine that these are the only capable people in the country!

Dhammika Perera once explained to this newspaper how he started off in business. It was 1987, he was 19 years old and his mother had given him Rs. 500 to buy a pair of shoes. Instead, he spotted an opportunity to ‘invest’. He lent the money to a pavement hawker who used to sit outside his uncle’s restaurant in Pettah in return for a share of his profits. According to Dhammika Perera, this brought him Rs. 200 per day for months – a total of Rs. 74,000.

What is this if not appalling exploitation?

He used his windfall to acquire the slot machines that eventually made him a ‘casino king’ – he now owns three of the four licensed outfits in Colombo, for whose further development Beira Lake is soon going to be made into a no-go area for us ordinary mortals.

The fourth casino is the one that is going into partnership with billionaire James Packer, who apparently can’t afford to pay taxes either.

No wonder Sri Lanka can’t afford to maintain its free health and education systems!

Meanwhile, by the way, Dipped Products has recorded an increase in profits of a massive 40% in the first quarter of this year.

On what basis did it sack more than 100 workers, as the Government has been telling us to make its excuse for the crackdown by the Army a little more credible? Isn’t it illegal to get rid of employees simply because they are members of a trade union, whether associated with the JVP or otherwise?

Why wasn’t it prevented?

Dhammika Perera claims that the secret of his success is that he personally looks into all plans before deciding on investments. Yet despite owning a couple of dozen of the nation’s biggest companies, he still has time to be Secretary to the Ministry of Transport – a position that he has held since he left the Board of Investment in 2010.

Of course he’s not the only businessman to have become so unhealthily close to the Government. There are many.

The neglect of the complaint against Hayleys that brought the people of Weliweriya onto the streets was no aberration. It has become the rule.

Unlike with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the prioritisation of corporations over citizens is not ideological. The Government doesn’t bother to think about what it is doing. It simply asks who are its friends and who are its enemies, and decisions are taken accordingly. There isn’t really any such thing as ‘policy’ – Mahinda Rajapaksa believes above all in flexibility. That means that he decides what to do on the basis of what he thinks that he can get away with.

This sounds democratic, but it is a very dangerous thing so long as politics in Sri Lanka remains uncompetitive.

Tragedies can keep happening. The people of the Gampaha district may be appalled by the way in which they have been treated, but they will probably still vote for the Government.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Sweeping thugs under the rug

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 31, 2013

Why campaigns for justice have to be honest if they are to be successful

Khuram ShaikhAn awful lot of effort is being put into bringing the killers of Khuram Shaikh to trial. The British aid worker died in Tangalle in December 2011, having been set upon by a group of men at a party in the hotel in which he was staying. His girlfriend was raped.

Of course the people who did it should be punished. His brother is doing what is both right and natural in using every opportunity to press the Government to move ahead with the investigation. And his MP, Simon Danczuk, should be congratulated for taking his job as a representative of the British people seriously – in addition to speaking and writing about the case, he has now visited Sri Lanka a number of times, most recently last week as a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation.

It is also virtually guaranteed that they are correct in thinking that without this pressure, very little would happen. The main suspect is the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha – a member of the UPFA.

But what is everybody else doing?

The British government is pretending to think that this incident suggests that Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for foreigners, having incorporated it into their travel advisory in an extremely dubious manner. It says, ‘Organised and armed gangs are known to operate in Sri Lanka and have been responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence. While there is no evidence to suggest that British nationals are at particular risk, gangs have been known to operate in tourist areas. A British national was killed during a violent attack by a gang in a tourist resort in December 2011.’

All of these sentences are factually accurate, but they don’t go together – Khuram Shaikh died because he got between some drunkards and a woman, as happens on a regular basis throughout the world, including in Britain.

What is specific to Sri Lanka is that when they have political connections, they expect to get away with it.

This is what the British government would say if it were genuinely interested in justice.

It is what the international media should say too.

The case has generated significant coverage, particularly in British newspapers. They are most concerned about what they describe as the extraordinary delay in the prosecution of Sampath Chandra Pushpa Vidanapathirana and his associates – 18 months on, proceedings have yet to get underway in the High Court.

Actually, this is completely normal in Sri Lanka. But nowhere do journalists attempt to put the incident in the proper context.

Last week, a short film on the murder of Khuram Shaikh was published by The New Yorker. Mysteriously, it spent most of the 15 minutes suggesting that his parents are racists, on the basis that they didn’t attend his brother’s marriage to a white woman, while his family have avoided telling them that Khuram Shaikh spent his last minutes trying to defend his girlfriend – another white woman. Surely there are better ways to raise such issues than exposing people who have lost a child to violence!

In the brief interlude in which it touched on the actual case, the documentary implied that cover-ups are a result of the war victory, whereas Sri Lankans know very well that this is hardly a recent phenomenon, even if it has been getting worse under Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Why worry about these details? Why not just be happy that the Government is being forced by all this attention to take action against at least one set of thugs?

Well, dishonesty begets dishonesty.

The Government is really quite stupid. It should have realised from the beginning that doing nothing was not an option, given that Khuram Shaikh was British.

But now that it has understood the situation, it is certain that the trial will go ahead eventually. What is not at all sure is whether the perpetrators will be found guilty, what sentences they will be given, under what conditions these will be served and whether they will at some point be given pardons – the traditional method of getting out of such fixes.

Finally, this is also what is going to happen with regard to war crimes.

When the Government realises that it is going to be impossible to avoid the issue altogether, it will decide which handful of incidents are the least problematic for it to look into, a few scapegoats will be identified and prosecutions will commence. If they are lucky, the accused may even be offered some kind of compensation for the inconvenience.

This is not justice.

Nor does it help to ensure that exactly the same fate doesn’t befall somebody else.

At some point, the international community will either get distracted or profess to be satisfied with what is bound to be an unsatisfactory outcome if the real nature of the problem is not exposed, and that will be the end of the matter.

In this way, something can actually be worse than nothing.

Khuram Shaikh’s case is the tip of a huge iceberg – politics in Sri Lanka is riddled with thugs, and the Government’s tolerance of their antics is legendary. Keeping up with developments in Kelaniya alone is enough to drive a person to despair. Most recently, we have been informed that former DIG Vaas Gunawardena extorted several million rupees from Mervyn Silva’s parliamentary secretary – who is apparently at the top of the Police hit list of drug traffickers – to refrain from pursuing him on drugs and firearms charges. Meanwhile, still ongoing is the investigation into the murder of Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawala, allegedly by the same parliamentary secretary’s nephew, using a gun supplied by his uncle. Mervyn Silva’s coordinating secretary is also alleged to have been involved.

Surrounded by such characters, no wonder the man is so keen to attack journalists!

And like almost all Sri Lankan politicians, he is as at home in the UNP as in the SLFP, having served as an MP under Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremasinghe as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What politicians and their hangers-on get up to in the North and East is rarely even brought to our attention.

This is the proper context to the murder of Khuram Shaikh, without which there is no hope of doing anything more than encouraging thugs to check the passports of the people they are thinking of beating up to be sure that they are not British.

He deserves a better legacy, and that is not the responsibility of his family.

This article was published in The Island on 31st July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Where is the code of ethics for MPs?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 12, 2013

On the Government’s unethical treatment of the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda

sandhya ekneligodaIt would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting. In the week that the Government distributed a code of ethics for journalists, one of its MPs made possibly the most unethical statement of the year, from the safety and comfort of Parliament.

I am of course talking about Arundika Fernando and his claim to have seen missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in France.

I don’t know about you, but if I had been introduced to the man who has become the symbol of the Sri Lankan media’s descent into hell – thanks to the extraordinarily courageous campaigning of his wife Sandhya – I would remember where it happened. I would make a note of it, maybe even take a photo. I would certainly ask the person who introduced us how on earth Ekneligoda had found his way out of the country undetected, what he was doing now, and why it was that he felt so amazingly confident in his disguise as to join Sunanda Deshapriya (wearing an oh-so-discreet turban, as Fernando has since added by way of supposedly reassuring detail!) in trying to disrupt a pro-Government rally outside the United Nations. I would also tell somebody to investigate further, because such a huge deception should not be allowed to pass.

And I am not even a Government supporter.

Fernando, he would have us believe, didn’t bother with any of that. He just forgot about it, then several months later when MPs got together to talk about the amount they should charge newspapers by way of registration fees, he dropped it into the debate.

This after the Government’s name has been dragged through the mud at the international level, not only because of the disappearance of Ekneligoda but also for the admission in a Sri Lankan court by former Attorney General and now Chief Justice Mohan Peiris that his statement to the Human Rights Council that Ekneligoda is alive and well rather than murdered by the State or forces associated with it was based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

Frankly, if Fernando is telling the truth, he should be prosecuted for treason.

And if he is lying, he should be prosecuted for torture. Because that is what it would be, telling a woman that she should continue to hope for the return of her husband without good reason. (Good reason doesn’t include trying to browbeat Sandhya Ekneligoda into giving up her protests against the Government.)

Either way, it is definitely irresponsible.

Indeed, this is exactly the kind of irresponsibility that the Government has suddenly decided has to be dealt with in journalists.

Apparently, journalists report things that simply aren’t true and poor old politicians don’t have any means of redress – some idiot has made it illegal to kill them, and I think beating them up and burning their presses and studios is probably outlawed as well. (Maybe that’s something Mahinda Rajapaksa could look into while he still has his two thirds majority in Parliament?)

To be honest, I didn’t realise that the Government had such a frightful burden to bear. I was sure that it had plenty of even perfectly lawful ways of setting the record straight, not least its own massive media empire.

In any case, there is already a code of ethics for journalists, adopted by the Press Complaints Commission with the approval of all of the major media organisations.

What is different about the one that was circulated last week?

The original document prepared by journalists includes all of the necessary elements, like the need for accuracy in reporting and for verification of stories prior to publication. It calls for the issue of corrections and apologies where appropriate, and specifies the conditions under which people must be offered the right to reply. It urges restraint in covering issues of a particularly shocking nature, such as violence and obscenity, requires care to be exercised to avoid promoting communal or religious discord, and lists details that should not be included in a story, such as the identity of the victims of sex crimes and repetition of methods of suicide. It also states that journalists should not use financial information that they become aware of before it is published.

One of the most useful parts explains what constitutes the public interest, in the pursuit of which a certain degree of invasion of privacy or the use of methods such as secret recordings may be acceptable. It also encourages investigative journalism in the public interest.

Whether journalists stick to these guidelines is not the point. That is a matter of compliance, not the code of ethics itself.

As The Island has pointed out editorially, if the Government really feels the need to act, it had better start by ensuring the good behaviour of its own publications and broadcasters, and only then consider developing rules for others.

However, back to the new draft.

What the Government has done is add to the existing very sensible document a set of totally ridiculous criteria that it would like to use to rule out altogether the publication or broadcast of a whole lot of things. Included here are stories that ‘offend against the expectations of the public’, whatever those may be, and stories that ‘may promote anti-national attitudes’ or ‘contain criticism affecting foreign relations’. Since the term ‘anti-national attitudes’ is nowhere defined, experience suggests that this would be interpreted by the Government to mean any and all criticism of its actions. And whatever the definition, the stories need not even promote ‘anti-national attitudes’ – this only has to be a possible outcome. Vaguer criteria are almost impossible to imagine. As for the clause expressing concern about foreign relations, there can be no doubt whatsoever about the Government’s intentions, since even the reproduction of transcripts of its own announcements at press briefings would damage its standing in the world.

In addition to these extraordinary criteria, the new draft also outlaws stories that ‘contain materials against the integrity of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature’. Again, what on earth does this mean?

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this whole exercise is that the Government is quite happy to look keen to crush the media (and pretty thick, incidentally!).

It is apparently completely unconcerned at the prospect of looking keen to trample on Sandhya Ekneligoda.

Arundika Fernando made this even clearer when he addressed the media, accusing her of behaving in an unpatriotic manner in calling on the Government to bring her husband home, as if that were not the obvious course of action in the circumstances. Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared just days before the last presidential election, in preparation for which he had been working for the common candidate of the Opposition, Sarath Fonseka.

Whatever his politics, it is the Government’s job to explain what happened to him, not by making wild assertions but with the use of actual proof.

This article was published by The Island on 12th June 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A few thoughts for the Opposition

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on June 5, 2013

Why the UNP needs to do better in its analysis of what’s wrong with the economy

share of exportsThis is hardly news, but the Opposition continued to be uninspiring last week. If a country is going to change its constitution, it really ought to be worth the bother. But the most encouraging thing about the draft published by the UNP on Wednesday is its support for provincial level devolution within a unitary state, which is exactly what is already in place thanks to the 13th Amendment to the existing constitution.

It is also one of the few commitments to which voters would trust it to stick in the unlikely event of Ranil Wickremasinghe being elected.

The Government should grasp this opportunity to confirm its own position and forge a consensus of what should be the vast majority of the country, rather than using it as an excuse to change direction and side with a few extremists in the form of the JHU and the NFF. There is a lot of space in the centre of the political spectrum in Sri Lanka, and Mahinda Rajapaksa should see the importance for the long term future of the SLFP of occupying it.

Sadly, by comparison with its attempts to challenge the Government on the economy, this rather underwhelming move by the UNP is absolutely brilliant.

The strike against the electricity tariff hike was pathetic. It was either too little too late or too much too soon. Even though this was an issue that had caused a major stir in the country, particularly with the urban middle class who should be the least attached to the Government, participation was extremely limited. And of course this is not so surprising since the action was really very badly timed, coming well after the President had stepped in to give the impression that he was rolling back some of the increase. It made the Opposition look ineffective – or I guess I should say even more ineffective – when it should have been gaining strength from its successful protest the previous week.

Having made a mess of that, it is now back to the business of trying to make less important problems look both vital and urgent. Thus Harsha de Silva has been deployed to ‘expose’ the possibility of an impending debt crisis.

To do this, he has been employing the recently published report of the IMF on its annual consultations with the Government. He says that the IMF has ‘revealed’ figures that the Government wanted to hide, in the form of the consolidated budget deficit. This stands at 8.6% of GDP, compared to a budget deficit of 6.4%. The claim is that the Government is trying to hoodwink the public into believing that the economy is in better shape than is the reality.

This being something people tend to be quite willing to accept, no doubt he thinks that he’s onto a winner.

The trouble is that the more often you predict disaster and it doesn’t happen, the less you look as though you know what you’re talking about.

The fact is that there are several different versions of the budget deficit, and they are used for different purposes. Harsha de Silva would know this, being an economist. And Ranil Wickremasinghe would know it, because the UNP too talked of the budget deficit and not the consolidated budget deficit in the brief period when he was Prime Minister. In any case, even if we all agreed that the consolidated budget deficit is ‘best’, the data to calculate it from the budget deficit is in the public domain.

This doesn’t mean that the Government isn’t trying to deceive people. It means that the Opposition has no idea whether the Government is trying to deceive people.

It means that the Opposition has no idea whether the country is overburdened by debt.

And that’s a pity, since a debt crisis wouldn’t be much fun.

Interestingly, the IMF seems to think that the Government is moving in the right direction, and that the prospect of such an unfortunate eventuality is diminishing. The major problem, according to the IMF, and as I have said on numerous occasions, is the very low level of tax revenue in Sri Lanka. The Government having decided that the IMF is correct to insist on cuts in the budget deficit, shortfalls in tax revenue mean that expenditure has to be curtailed, which even the IMF now accepts is detrimental to economic growth.

The UNP has been making some noise about taxation in recent weeks, which is long overdue. But if it is to make a serious contribution, it must say how it would raise more tax.

Who should pay?

Taxation obviously isn’t the only issue, since a significant amount of the debt that administrations in Sri Lanka have incurred over the years is due in foreign currency, which means that even more foreign currency has to be earned by the country to make the repayments of the capital plus interest. As demonstrated as recently as the beginning of last year, when reserves of foreign currency fell to the equivalent of 3.2 months of imports – three months being the usual point at which panic sets in – this is not so easy. Towards the end of the war, they reached 1.2 months of imports and the Government had to agree to an emergency loan from the IMF, with all its associated conditions.

The IMF being particularly obsessed with the ‘losses’ of the CEB and the CPC, this is clearly a situation that the Government would like to avoid if at all possible.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Sri Lanka’s increasing dependence on workers’ remittances, which now bring in $6.0 billion, compared to $4.0 billion from exports of textiles and garments, $1.4 billion from exports of tea and $1.0 billion in tourism receipts. In the context of a downturn in the country’s key export markets in the US and EU, it is easy to understand why the Government is happy to see remittances take on such an important role in the economy. Not only do they flow primarily from other parts of the globe, but so long as those countries remain willing to accept migrants, they also tend to be more stable than export earnings, since they are generally sent by individuals to their families.

However, as I said, this is clearly not a happy situation, since most people don’t want to have to travel thousands of miles to earn a decent living. I asked what the Government’s plan was for generating proper jobs at home.

Connected to that should be the question of what it is doing to boost exports.

Both the share of exports in GDP and Sri Lanka’s share of world exports are falling. If that were only the result of lower demand in the US and EU, it would be reasonable to do what the Government appears to be doing and borrow abroad to cover the shortfall. The debt could be repaid when exports recovered.

However, one of the infinitely more important facts highlighted by the IMF report is that these figures have been falling since 2000. In other words, it is not a temporary glitch.

A very useful recent article by Verite Research on the electricity tariff issue has shown exactly what can happen when the Government acts on what it hopes the future will bring and it is wrong. They say that the extraordinary ‘losses’ of the CEB in 2012, which surely contributed to the recent hike, were to a large extent the result of a gamble. They show how over the last decade the CEB has been relying much more heavily on hydro power, which is cheapest, assuming that low rainfall in one year will be compensated in the next, and how this strategy was employed to an even greater – by implication reckless – extent in 2010 and 2011, because the authorities thought that they had the Norochcholai coal power station as a back-up. What actually happened was that Norochcholai broke down, as it does regularly, and because reservoirs were already so close to empty, the CEB had to resort to expensive oil generation by the private sector.

This is also why the country was subject to major blackouts, which would have cost the economy a lot more than the CEB had to spend.

In a sense, this is not much different to the oil hedging fiasco that got the CPC into trouble in 2008. The Government thought that it would be a good idea to enter into contracts that would save it money if oil prices continued to go up, but failed to consider the impact of a collapse in the market.

As these examples demonstrate, the Government isn’t very good at managing risk.

In fact, as various commentators said after oil prices plummeted from nearly $150 per barrel to well under $50, that doesn’t seem to be its objective. Rather, it would appear to be speculating, which is all very well when it is right, but otherwise potentially disastrous.

No wonder people worry about a debt crisis.

The Opposition plays on their fears in the hope of generating a reaction. With every new loan the Government takes, it gives the impression that the world is about to end. No doubt that is simpler than trying to understand whether that particular deal makes sense, working out what it would do instead and explaining the whole thing to the electorate. But that is what the UNP would have to do if it were running the country.

It’s about time it started to look like it could.

This article was published in The Island on 5th June 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Target practice

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on May 22, 2013

On the attempt by the Minister of Higher Education to get rid of one of his most consistent and effective critics

sb dissanayakeDealing with ‘inconvenient’ people is one of the Government’s main talents. Upset somebody important and you will be made to suffer. It is only the form of punishment that is to be decided, according to who you are and what the Government imagines you will do to save yourself.

Last week, it was the turn of Anuruddha Pradeep, a lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura.

Pradeep was sacked for not completing his Masters within the specified amount of time after his appointment. Except that the only thing standing between him and the completion of his Masters is the university, since he has submitted his thesis and is waiting for them to approve it. Indeed, he submitted it nearly three months ago.

Every other lecturer in this position – probably in the entire history of the university if not also throughout the university system in Sri Lanka – is granted a temporary appointment until the matter can be sorted out. Once their thesis is approved, their permanent appointment is backdated to the date of submission. Even people who haven’t finished their research are granted this facility, since it is commonly accepted that universities should help their young researchers to develop their capacities, rather than obsessing over deadlines.

Given the difficulties in retaining talent, this is understandable.

The Government is desperate to encourage the thousands of academics who have left the country in despair at the state of the university system to come back, to establish its as yet purely imaginary ‘knowledge hub’, so why does it want to get rid of Pradeep?

To facilitate his removal, the university has even stooped to the level of falsifying the submission date of his thesis in the papers the Vice Chancellor presented to its council meeting.

Why go to such lengths?

Because the Minister of Higher Education is obsessed with establishing private universities, and Pradeep has consistently and very effectively raised doubts about the policy and the manner in which it is being implemented.

Of particular importance is the Malabe Medical College.

Towards the end of last year, Pradeep and FUTA president Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, together with Dr Sankalpa Marasinghe and Dr Upul Gunasekara of the GMOA, filed a fundamental rights petition against SB Dissanayake regarding the Malabe Medical College, otherwise known as the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine.

Curiously, when it was established in 2008/9, it was called the South Asian Institute of Technology and Management.

At least they both start with an ‘M’.

The Board of Investment approved the project on the condition that the approval of both the Sri Lanka Medical Council and the Ministry of Health would be obtained prior to starting any courses related to health, but they are yet to get around to that ‘detail’. They are also yet to fulfil any of the targets included in the gazette notification issued by the Ministry of Higher Education when it granted the Malabe Medical College the right to award degrees under the University Grants Commission.

In any case, it is not clear whether this gazette notification was legal, since the rules of the University Grants Commission require the approval of the relevant professional body for all of its courses, and this has not been given.

Silly doctors, not yet convinced by SB Dissanayake’s master plan.

How very irresponsible of them, for example, to think that medical students should be trained in an established hospital so that they can see for themselves how the most important ailments in Sri Lanka present and gain experience of treating actual patients.

The Malabe Medical College has managed to turn out seven batches of young people without troubling itself with such concerns.

The case was dismissed by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it was brought more than a month after the gazette notification, but the petitioners argue that the violation is ongoing and progressive in nature, albeit having begun some time ago. They also stress the fact that the issue is of widespread public interest, in the sense that it affects the two vital social services of health and education.

It would certainly seem to indicate how ineffective regulation of private universities is likely to be.

Pradeep has written a very useful book on private universities (‘Private Universities: Fashion and Reality’, Ravaya Publishers 2011) that explains the likely fate of the university system if SB Dissanayake is allowed to continue his crusade unchecked. He has studied the situation in other countries, concluding that many have no or very few private universities (e.g. the UK), while in places where they are common they are often almost exclusively not-for-profit institutions (e.g. the US). Where for-profit institutions are significant, a strong oversight mechanism is essential to prevent corruption.

But SB Dissanayake is confident that corporations – both domestic and foreign – have people’s best interests at heart, so why all this fuss?

It’s only education and health.

These were among the issues stressed by FUTA during its three month long strike last year, and Pradeep was one of its more visible participants.

The Minister of Higher Education made his displeasure absolutely clear in an article in Lakbima, in which he announced that ‘Pradeep can be expelled from the university any time’.

How exactly, when universities are supposed to be autonomous?

Well, SB Dissanayake has packed their councils with his supporters, including both his relatives and people eager to set up private universities. At Sri Jayawardenapura, the Minister of Higher Education appoints nine members, while eight come from the university. Even the university representatives are under tremendous pressure.

FUTA has issued a media statement condemning the dismissal of Pradeep, complaining of political interference. It says that it has received reports from several other universities of similar incidents, especially in the North and East. Perhaps the willingness of Pradeep to come forward and challenge his treatment stems from the fact that he is also an office-bearer of the JHU, giving him some protection from the full weight of the administration. He is fortunate. If he were a member of the TNA, he would have been labelled a Tiger and that would have been the last of him.

According to FUTA, political interference in the university system is now reaching unprecedented levels, as Shanie reported in these columns on Saturday with special reference to recent developments at Peradeniya.

This is hardly surprising.

The one thing that the Government is absolutely committed to is getting its own way. It doesn’t matter what you do, only total commitment to its goals and to the specific objectives of its key personalities will be enough to keep you out of trouble.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Getting Sri Lanka to work

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on May 15, 2013

Why the Government must find a better solution to the country’s unemployment and foreign exchange problems than sending hundreds of thousands of its people overseas 

Rizana NafeekJust when sanity seemed to be prevailing over the Bodu Bala Sena, following the various vigils, rallies and protests that have been organised in the last month, the Government found yet another imaginative way to agitate people – it had Azath Salley arrested. Apparently, the Police are so busy scouring the pages of limited circulation magazines in other countries for potentially disturbing statements by Sri Lankan Muslim politicians that they don’t have time to listen to the bilge that some Buddhist monks are repeating at full volume on a daily basis on the streets of Colombo.

Fortunately, Mahinda Rajapaksa was in a good mood on Friday and Salley was released.

Salley says that he was misquoted. He asserts that he would never advocate or support the taking up of arms against the State since he is all too aware of the consequences, Sri Lanka having only just come out of its three decade long war. Very wise.

Meanwhile, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has proclaimed that there was more to it than an interview – we await his efforts to prove as much beyond our absolutely reasonable doubts.

When people are not so agitated, they focus on their immediate problems.

The electricity tariff hike was enough of a shock to generate a reaction, and the strike planned for next week should give us an indication of how much trouble the cost of living is going to be for the Government.

But what of other issues?

I was bemused the other day to read an article by a prominent economist suggesting that there was no shortage of jobs in the country. He was arguing that the Government might soon have to ban migration, on the basis that the Sri Lankan economy is near full employment. He was concerned about the implications of such a decision on the Balance of Payments, since remittances from workers overseas are the most important source of foreign exchange for the country.

Of course the Government couldn’t ban migration even if it tried. People would continue to leave the country with or without its blessing.

Why? Because they aren’t satisfied with the employment opportunities at home.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the unemployment rate in Sri Lanka was over 15%. In the 1990s, it was over 10%. Now it is under 5%. However, the most important reason for this ‘improvement’ is the departure of hundreds of thousands of people. In 1990, only 50,000 people left the country for work. Now the figure is 280,000.

The 1.8 million workers currently overseas correspond to 22% of people employed in Sri Lanka. Every year, more people migrate for work than enter the labour market.

If this were to stop, the country would be firmly in the grip of unemployment again.

The Government no doubt understands this very well indeed, and I am quite sure that it has no intention of banning migration. That would lead to a serious increase in dissatisfaction, especially among young people, which the Government knows is dangerous.

But not doing something unhelpful is not the same as doing something helpful. Where are its plans to generate decent jobs at home?

At the moment, the Government’s idea of job creation is maintaining an unnecessarily large military and periodically recruiting unemployed graduates to do anything and everything – or most likely nothing at all – in the public service. Keeping people in non-jobs may be good for them and good for the country in some ways, in the sense that they are less likely to get involved in any more uprisings if they are employed by the State, and they will probably spend their salaries on goods and services produced at least in part in Sri Lanka, but this is not good for the country in other ways. While non-jobs occupy so many people, the economy simply cannot reach full employment.

And the country’s development suffers.

While the reconstruction of the conflict areas has generated a certain amount of employment, this won’t last. And it is clear that the Government’s plans don’t go beyond the building of infrastructure to considering how people in the North and East will actually use it to make a living.

What happens if Sri Lankan refugees come home? That’s another hundred thousand people in Tamil Nadu alone.

The Government doesn’t need to recruit them, but it should ensure that they will be able to work.

In the Vanni, the only businesses that seem to be growing at anything like the required rate are banks, which primarily exist to channel remittances from migrants.

Very few people would go overseas to work if there were satisfactory alternatives. The difficulties that migrants face are well known. Even more importantly, everybody understands that families do better when they are together. Tragedies like the execution of Rizana Nafeek have pushed the Government to introduce more checks and balances in the recruitment process, raising the minimum age for migration – especially for women – and to negotiate agreements with receiving countries that try to guarantee better working conditions. However, while these steps are clearly necessary, they are nowhere near sufficient. Most people would rather the Government made it possible for them to live at home.

Although the Government may think that it can safely ignore this issue, since Sri Lankans are now used to the idea of travelling thousands of miles if they want to earn a reasonable income, doing so is putting the country in a vulnerable position.

In 2009, remittances became the single most important source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka, overtaking exports of textiles and garments. Now textiles and garments exports earn only $4.0 billion compared to $6.0 billion in remittances, with exports of tea accounting for a mere $ 1.4 billion and tourism receipts amounting to just $ 1.0 billion.

Banning migration is not on the Government’s agenda. But what if it were adopted as an objective by receiving countries?

The Indian press has been full of such concerns in the last month, following the implementation by Saudi Arabia of stricter laws on what it calls ‘Saudisation’. Passed in response to the Arab Spring, which made the authorities in Middle Eastern countries think a bit harder about the well-being of their people, they require all companies to employ a minimum percentage of their citizens, as well as to pay them a fairly substantial minimum wage – exemptions for companies with under ten employees have been removed. Also, a new system that may do better at ensuring compliance has been established.

Kerala expects to be badly hit, with an unusually large share of its population working abroad, and its Chief Minister is already talking about establishing a rehabilitation package.

This is probably an overreaction, but at least they are aware that they are exposed.

With 2.3 million workers abroad out of a population of just 33.4 million, Kerala’s numbers are similar to Sri Lanka, except that it has the rest of India to back it up if required.

Although keeping people’s minds off such problems is no doubt awfully time consuming, it would be nice if Mahinda Rajapaksa could spare one or two members of his administration to come up with a few solutions.

However, the rest of his followers will have to intensify their search for the next Azath Salley. The way things are going in Sri Lanka, the Government is going to need to create a lot more demons if it is to continue distracting people, since every distraction is a reminder of just how far off the right track it has swerved. And each demon has to be more extraordinary than the last. Only a few months ago, people were thinking that it couldn’t get much worse than the absolutely reckless impeachment of the Chief Justice, and then along came the Bodu Bala Sena.

This article was published in The Island on 15th May 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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On the not so natural rise in electricity prices

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 24, 2013

How the Government is making the masses pay

Handing over Presidential Taxation Commission reportOne of the many conspiracy theories that has emerged with regard to the anti-Muslim campaign of the Bodu Bala Sena and others is that it is an attempt by the Government to distract people from other concerns, primarily the state of the economy.

If so, it isn’t working. Last week’s increase in electricity tariffs hasn’t been overlooked by anybody in Sri Lanka.

However, the Government has succeeded in convincing a fair share of the electorate that it isn’t really its fault. Keheliya Rambukwella summed up its argument at the regular media briefing on Thursday. He explained that the tariff increase was unfortunate but unavoidable, since ‘no administration can subsidise utilities forever’.

This sounds reasonable, but it isn’t actually true.

The concept of ‘breaking even’ doesn’t make sense when discussing a public enterprise. The CEB is not a company. We have come to talk of its ‘losses’, but this is to accept the neo-liberal logic that the Government claims to reject. The Ministries of Health and Education also spend more than they earn, but we don’t consider them to be ‘indebted’.

In that sense, the Opposition is right in pointing out that the Government is neo-liberal, as its economic affairs spokesman Harsha de Silva did in response to the hike. Of course he should have said ‘also neo-liberal’, since the credentials of the UNP as the vanguard of neo-liberalism in Sri Lanka are unquestionable, thanks to Ranil Wickremasinghe. Unfortunately, he combined that accurate observation with a totally misguided suggestion as to what to do about it, saying that if the economy is in so much trouble, what is needed is austerity.

Even the IMF is having second thoughts about ‘cuts’ as a response to a downturn, as its advice to the UK just days ago shows, with that country on the verge of an unprecedented ‘triple dip recession’.

Austerity isn’t the same as tackling waste and corruption. There is a difference between ensuring that expenditure is productive and targeting an overall reduction in expenditure.

In the same way, there is a difference between targeting subsidies so that the right people benefit and reducing the level of subsidies.

This is not to suggest that there is no problem with the amount that the Government spends on the CEB. It comes to 0.8% of GDP, which is an awful lot in comparison with the 1.9% that it allocates for education and the 1.3% that it gives to health.

Efforts should certainly be made to reduce this amount.

In terms of costs, Tilak Siyambalapitiya has produced a very succinct analysis (‘Talk sense about electricity costs and prices’, The Island, March 6th). He says that the approved cost of Rs. 2.56 for distributing a unit of electricity, which includes the cost of investment and maintenance of the distribution network and the supply of electricity, including metering and billing, is comparable with international norms, but could be brought down by 1% per year in real terms. A similar conclusion is reached for the transmission of a unit of electricity, with an approved cost of Rs. 0.73. He makes the same assumption as Keheliya Rambukwella that expenditure should be met by income to conclude that a unit of electricity has to be generated for Rs. 10.74, taking into account 12% losses and a total income of Rs. 15.50 per unit (10.74 = 0.88 x [15.50 – 2.56 – 0.73]), which is the case only for the CEB owned hydro and coal power stations.

An equally helpful discussion of prices is needed. The Rs. 15.50 per unit charged by the CEB is an average, and the way in which the burden should be shared is not obvious.

In response to the hike, everybody from bakers to the manufacturers of bathroom tiles have said that they will have to increase the prices of their products to compensate. This has to be taken into account in deciding who should pay how much.

Unfortunately, this is not going to happen by itself.

The Government carefully avoids debate of ‘zero-sum games’. It doesn’t want to admit that it makes choices between different groups in society, since that would mean alienating somebody. It prefers us to believe that all situations are ‘win-win’ or at least ‘lose-lose’.

This is equally true of taxation, and we should remember that the 0.8% of GDP that the Government spends on the CEB is only a problem because the share of taxation is so low and falling.

We may assume that the reason the Government has still not published the report of its Presidential Commission on Taxation, submitted to Mahinda Rajapaksa way back in 2010, is that it doesn’t want to upset people who really ought to be paying more. It thinks that it can get away with collecting almost everything from taxes on goods and services, rather than taxes on incomes, which is very bad news for people with low or no incomes.

High income earners not only pay relatively little in taxes on goods and services, they also pay relatively little for electricity.

The JVP raised another important point with regard to the electricity tariff hike. Its spokesman asked why the Public Utilities Commission bothered to hold a ‘consultation’ when it paid absolutely no attention to the opinions of anybody who participated.

Its report makes amusing reading. An unfortunate employee clearly wasted a very long time summarising the suggestions of the 275 people who either sent a written submission or made a presentation at the public hearing. Every single one of them is marked ‘no’ or ‘no comment’. Even proposals to ‘reduce corruption in the CEB’ are ruled out.

Given that the public has to pay for the opportunity to express their ideas, this is more than a little disappointing.

However, it is hardly surprising.

The Public Utilities Commission was established by the administration of Ranil Wickremasinghe, as part of its effort to privatise the CEB.

By now, everybody knows that this is a policy that has failed in many countries.

Even the Government has accepted that the private sector cannot help with electricity. At the media briefing, Keheliya Rambukwella also confirmed that it would be progressively reducing its purchases from the private sector, in favour of CEB owned power stations. If only it had worked this out earlier!

Also, it doesn’t seem to have understood why, since it is cheerfully pursuing exactly the same policy of privatisation in even less appropriate sectors of the economy.

Most extraordinarily, last week it was reported that the Government is to sign agreements with companies interested in investing in medical equipment such as MRI and CT scanners to be installed in public hospitals. The Secretary to the Ministry of Health was careful to explain that these services would continue to be free at the point of use – the Government will pay the owners of the machines according to the number of patients treated. How on earth they can’t see that this will end up in the Government spending more than if it had bought the machines itself is a mystery.

It may not be long before the Government thinks that the country’s health needs can just as well be met in private hospitals, in much the same way as it is so eager to have private universities cater to its education needs.

A little more attention to the state of the economy is therefore most certainly needed.

That doesn’t mean that the Bodu Bala Sena and others can be neglected, since they present a very serious immediate danger to society. However, what could very easily be ignored are the rest of the conspiracy theories that surround the anti-Muslim campaign. Far more likely than it being the work of Norway or Israel or India or the United States or any other country is that Sri Lankans have created this problem all by themselves. In any case, nobody else is going to solve it.

This article was published in The Island on 24th April 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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