Manic Monday sends Government alarm bells ringing on the eve of the New Year dawn, Mahinda Rajapaksa grandly declared that he would topple the Government in 2017.  In his own New Year message to the nation delivered through a group of Colombo-based foreign correspondents over a breakfast of crispy hoppers, he announced with aplomb: “I [...]


Course change mooted for YP after near national meltdown


Manic Monday sends Government alarm bells ringing on the eve of the New Year dawn, Mahinda Rajapaksa grandly declared that he would topple the Government in 2017.  In his own New Year message to the nation delivered through a group of Colombo-based foreign correspondents over a breakfast of crispy hoppers, he announced with aplomb: “I will topple the Government in 2017. When I said I would defeat Prabhakaran I did it. I have the same confidence.”
Then this month, 12 days before the dawn of the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, he asked for more time to fulfil his pledge to oust the Government the people elected to office at the general elections just one year and seven months ago. “They ask whether we would be able to topple the Government this year itself. If we can do so, we will do it. All the possible measures will be taken,” he declared at a meeting at Dehiwela, nonchalantly extending the timeframe to 2018. “If I cannot do it this year, I will achieve the target by next year. Before two more Vesak moons, I will topple this Government.”

The Prime Minister’s reply the following day to this request for extra time to topple the Government was terse and simple. He said: “Mahinda Rajapaksa, who declared he will topple the Government this year, will actually have to weep before Vesak in 2018 as the results of this Government’s development plans will begin to show around that time.”
But neither the former president nor the present prime minister could have known how airy fairy bravado promises can suddenly come within a whisker of being fulfilled or how the best laid plans of mice and men can come a cropper unexpectedly. Neither could have foreseen how the workings of the inscrutable hand of fate this week brought Lanka to the brink of national meltdown and the Government perilously to its knees. Not two Vesak moons away but before this Vesak moon itself.

On April 14th, even as the nation was celebrating the New Year dawn, after having lit the hearth at the auspicious hour and, along with Meethotamulla residents, brought the pot of milk to the boil and let prosperity liberally spill over to the ground, Mount Garbage came crashing down to bury the people living at its foot in tons of the city’s rubbish. As Meethotamulla mourned its dead and a nation’s anger was stirred over the incompetence of the past regime and this Government to have prevented a tragedy that was waiting to happen; and politicians on both sides played pass the blame game, the only solution the authorities could come up with was to pass the rubbish to another area.
The Government earmarked many places to dump the rubbish. But every attempt to unload the dirt was met with strong protests with the people taking up positions to prevent garbage trucks from entering those areas
Faced with such stubborn resistance, the President had no alternative but to sign an executive order last Thursday declaring waste disposal as an essential service. This was after Karadiyana residents had defied a court order issued by the Kesbewa chief magistrate giving permission to dump 350 MT of garbage up to April 28, taking into consideration the sudden disaster situation when the garbage yard in Meethotamulla had collapsed. Then last Friday the Kesbewa additional magistrate issued an order banning protests in the Piliyandala police division for fourteen days.

This order was issued when the police informed court that a protest had been planned by a group against the dumping of garbage collected from Colombo at the Karadiyana garbage dump near the said site and requested for an order under the Criminal Procedure Code restraining such protests. The police stated to court that this same group had staged a protest on the 19th near the Karadiyana garbage dump, resulting in the obstruction of removing the garbage collected by the Colombo Municipality, and it has been reported that this same group was planning to stage a similar protest on the 22nd morning.

One can well understand the Government’s duty to dispose of the garbage somewhere, somehow. Incinerators cannot be installed overnight. But having looked askance at the garbage mountain the Rajapaksa regime started to build in 2010 and adding many more stories to it during these last two years, the Government was placed in a dilemma of its own making. Armed with an extraordinary presidential gazette giving it legal power to bulldoze its way over a people’s just demand not to dump rubbish on their doorstep, its only solution was to use force, if necessary to unload the garbage. And today, despite the people’s protest, it continues to deposit the trash in Karadiyana, Piliyandala.

The protests the residents of the areas that had been identified as possible dumping sites, namely Karadiyana, Kirindiwela, Wattala, Dompe, Pamunugama, Kotikawatte were not the sort of protests that are usually held by trade unions clamouring for wage increases or public interests groups to highlight some particular cause. Though Colombo has been inundated with a plethora of protests these last few months causing great inconvenience to the public at large, these are but signs of a healthy democracy, with people exercising their freedom to stage peaceful protests to bring to the attention of both the Government and the public their grievances and to seek redress.
But when otherwise peaceful residents of areas spontaneously take to the streets justifiably objecting to their neighbourhoods being turned into wastelands, in marked disobedience to the law, in open defiance of court orders, it does not portend well for the Government, wedded as it is to just governance, to employ the full force of its gazetted power and the police to overcome the residents objections. On the contrary, it behoves the Government to tread wisely and cautiously to handle a situation created by its own two year apathy towards finding a solution to the Meethotamulla Mountain of Muck.

But instead of dousing the flames of anger of the residents who fear for the health of their families by the presence of disease ridden garbage — not to forget the nauseating stench — Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne this Monday put both his foot and mouth into the trash dumping controversy and added more fire to a people’s heartburn. He said: “The Government had the power to dump garbage at any location found suitable for the purpose and none could oppose that action.”

Earlier that day, the Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Ranjith had said that it would be counterproductive for a government to use police and military personnel to force the public to allow the dumping of garbage in their environs. “The Government once tried to dump garbage in Ja-Ela. That was prevented due to public protests. We, too, took part in those protests. Now, the Government tries to dump garbage at various places. People have taken to the roads protesting against the Government’s move. The problem has been shifted to Muthurajawela marsh. One does not need to have expert knowledge to realise the damage garbage causes to a wetland. That would lead to the pollution of water resources, paving the way for another health hazard.”

Health Minister Rajitha was quick to fire back. His reply, which only served to irk and increase the ire of a nation by his seeming callous disregard toward the health hazard garbage dumping, posed to residents and his seeming willingness to use the full force of Governmental power to override any justified objections was to state:

“None could protest against this move by way of a solution to the garbage crisis in the capital. It is illegal. The Government decision has been backed by the courts, too. The Government has decided to dispose garbage collected in the city at several selected places. We have selected those places after studying the suitability of the locations for the purpose. Now, those with vested interests and working for their political survival cannot come and tell us that those places are not suitable.”

Perhaps a little bit more prudence, a lot more understanding as to a peoples’ genuine concern about the health of their families should have been expressed by the Health Minister in dealing  with this volatile situation. But, alas, the straight talking minister did not flash his ivory and reveal even a glimpse of warmth. For this dentist, the garbage had to be filled in some cavity whether or not the patient could stand the painful drill.
But if last week caused the Government to spend some anxious moments when people defied even the courts, then Sunday night’s sudden announcement by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) trade unionists that they will be launching an indefinite strike and cripple fuel distribution as of midnight would have kept the Government awake the whole night through.

MANIC MONDAY: How the unwarranted CPC unionists’ strike caused misery to thousands and nearly brought the nation to a standstill

And what were they striking over? Their grouse was the Government’s proposal to transfer operational rights of Trinco’s oil tanks to India. Were they justified in making such a demand? Consider the following. The tank farm in Trincomalee, was built by the British during World War II to store the oil required for their South East Asian operation and provided fuel for Royal Navy warships and aircraft that roamed the Indian Ocean during the war. After the war ended it had remained unused for over fifty years. In 2003, some of the tanks were leased to the Lankan IOC, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation.

The CPC unionists objected to the Trinco oil farm being given to Indians under a joint development agreement between the Lankan and Indian Government. Instead they demanded the Government ‘to renovate the Sapugaskanda oil refinery and bring Hambantota oil refinery under the CPC.” Fair enough. But what has Trinco’s oil tanks got to do with the matter?

First they are not oil refineries. Second 99 of the tanks set in an 850 acre site have been idle – except the 14 leased to IOC – since the Second World War ended. Thirdly the Indians are not set to employ them as filling stations to distribute fuel to Lanka but as transshipment storage tanks where Middle Eastern giant oil tankers will fill them and the Indians will then freight it on feeder vessels to Indian ports to satisfy India’s demand for oil. CPC workers jobs will in no way be affected. But still they are against a project which will bring in much needed foreign revenue to the nation. So why the objection? What right has a trade union to strike and bring the nation to a stop and dictate to the Government to stop entering into a joint economic agreement that will benefit Lanka and thus her people?

But when the CPC unionist struck work at midnight Monday, the first rumblings of a national meltdown began to sound ominously and began to shake the very foundations of the topmost towers of power. The Government soon realised that if the strike continued it would bring the nation to a grinding halt. Thanks to Prime Minister Ranil Wicremesinghe meeting the union leaders late Monday evening — on the eve of his Indian visit — and assuring them that he would not enter into an agreement with India on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm on his Indian visit, the strike was called off and the Government’s bacon was saved — saved for the day.

But even as there were audible sighs of relief heard all round, it also led to the realisation that it was merely a temporary grant of reprieve. With people on the streets protesting in defiance of court orders, with GMOA doctors obsessed with SAITM threatening they will stage a nationwide strike again in May and with the issue of the Trinco oil farms bound to crop up when Indian Prime Minister Modi arrives in Colombo to attend the Vesak festivities and to finalise the Trinco oil tanks agreement which would surely lead to another crippling fuel strike, the scene is set for a nation shutdown in the days to come.

In the face of the fuel strike threat dangling over the Government’s head like the Damocles’ Sword, the Government has realised its fragile, shaky hold on power; and determined that some of the principles of Yahapalanaya may well have to be temporarily abandoned to meet the threat that awaits not merely governing justly but governing at all.

For the last two years, the Sirisena Government had creditably shown remarkable restraint in handling unprecedented protests and strikes in the country. It had, in the name of just governance, allowed the people to expend their frustrations by exercising their limbs on public roads at rush hour. The CPC indefinite strike — which would have turned the country into a ghost town and laid the Government prostrate in impotence had it not been temporarily resolved within 24 hours — was the last straw on the Government’s back but, instead of breaking it, it only served to straighten the vertebra and strengthen its resolve to strike back whatever the cost.

On Wednesday, Cabinet spokesman Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne announced that the Government has decided to strike back to show all that, in spite of opposition claims of weakness, the Government had the backbone to stand up and fight and to crush the brewing rebellion of strikers. “We will show them how law and order can be maintained,” Senaratne declared.

He revealed that the man to lead the fight back was the same man who had led his forces to defeat Prabhakaran and crush the Tigers and end the nation’s 30-year terror war: Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.
Minister Senaratne said: “To deal with unruly situations created by bankrupt politicians who were behind disruptions to essential services, President Maithripala Sirisena had, on Tuesday, proposed to the Cabinet of Ministers that Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who was also Regional Development Minister, be put in overall charge of the Security Forces and the Police.”

In an interview with the Daily Mirror that same day, Minister Senaratne exclaimed: “Security forces asked us what was this joke happening in the country. They questioned if investors and tourists would come here if this situation went on. They said “Give us more powers. We will take care of Colombo”. He also accepted that the people say that the civil administration has collapsed under this Government. And that the people are asking the Government to take the necessary action.

On Thursday, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka confirmed that President Maithripala Sirisena instructed him to take responsibility in carrying out essential services when they were disrupted and that he accepts the job offer even if it mean having to relinquish his position as minister. “The President made the request at the last Cabinet meeting and it was approved. I told at that moment a discussion is needed to draft a mechanism to implement this program. I realise the intentions of the President and expect to fulfil them. I will put the country first,” he said, no doubt with a gleam in his eyes at shedding his muftis and getting back to uniform and putting his jackboots on.

Drastic situations need drastic measures. And perhaps the mooted appointment of Sarath Fonseka as the head of an anti-strike unit maybe justified, even though Minister S. B. Dissanayake said he thought the President was only joking when he made the proposal to appoint Fonseka to head such a division. Minister John Seneviratne has thought it a joke too. But no word that the president was in jocular mood when handling such a serious subject has so far come from the president’s office. And one cannot go by individual interpretations. One man’s joke is another’s serious meat.

But joke or no joke, the question must be asked. Fonseka excelled on the battlefield and annihilated a terrorist organisation. Will he be as successful in a civilian park, tasked with crushing trade union strikes permitted by the laws of the land?
Will he send a military force to squash civilian protests asking the Government not to dump garbage on their doorstep in the manner the Rajapaksa regime ordered the STF to storm Rathupaswala where people were only asking for clean chemical free drinking water after their wells were poisoned by industrial effluence?

Will he order a police battalion to rush to a site where a people’s protest over increased cost of living is being held, even as the Rajapaksa regime deployed the police in Chilaw in 2012 to quash a fishermen’s protest over increased fuel costs which resulted in the death of a fishermen after the police opened fire? In the case of CPC unionist striking and crippling fuel distribution, he can order the forces to do the job but in the face of other strikes and boycotts there seems little or nothing he can do. For instance what can he do when the GMOA launch its monthly strike which is now becoming as regular as a woman’s menses?

This Government came to power on its promise that it will protect and enhance the fundamental freedoms of the people. Creditably it has kept its words to a great extent on that front. The introduction of the Right to Information Act is one such instance. There are no white vans moving about and operating in the fog and making people mysteriously disappear. On the foreign front it has reestablished its credentials and once more earned its credentials as a fit member to take seat among the world’s civilised nations. It has walked on a tightrope, adroitly balancing India with China and, instead of tilting towards one to the point of falling totally in to the arms of either China or India, it is friends with both. It has won the support of the European Union which this week voted to restore GSP status to the country it lost due to human rights violations by the Rajapaksa regime. So tragic, isn’t it,  that when the nation is placed on the threshold of economic boom, that a certain perverse section of society is hell bent on casting its shadow and preventing the dawn of Lanka’s good fortune merely to scuttle the promised crackdown on the past regimes mega corrupt politicians.
And perhaps in order to forestall their day of judgement, they have also started using the power of major trade unions to topple the Government at any cost so that they can  bask in the bliss of a Vesak moon, this year or next, without fretting the prospect of sweating it out in a Welikada cell.

All these insidious actions have forced the Government to set its Yahapalana sails to the political gales that blow. But where such an unpredictable course will lead the ship of state is anyone’s guess. If not navigated carefully on the stormy sea of selfish politics, it may well flounder on the rocks of anarchy and doom just governance to an early grave.

May Fools Day
From time immemorial the First of May had been celebrated in many countries for a great variety of reasons. For the Romans, it was the Festival of flowers, Forelia the Roman Goddess of flowers. For the Greeks it was the spring festival, with May taking its name from Mais, the goddess of fertility. It was only in 1886 when more than 40,000 workers struck work in Chicago on May 1st demanding for a maximum eight hour working day without loss of pay that the first of May became known as the day of the workers.In Lanka too, the Samasamajist party and the Communist parties also cottoned onto the tradition of celebrating May Day as the day of the working class. Preaching Red Russia’s utopian communist ideology by day and imbibing the golden waters of Scotland by night, they sought to ride to power on the backs of the labourers. But at least, the slogans they shouted on the streets were dedicated to advancing the interests of the workhorses of the nation.
No more. Today all political parties have hijacked workers day; and in the name of the sweating, toiling workman, are bent on nothing more than advancing their own political agenda. For some years there was at least some semblance of marching in the name of the working classes. Now the pretence is off and no attempt is made to disguise the true intent and purpose.Take this year’s May Day for instance. According to self appointed SLFP spokesman Dilan Perera, that failed Badulla politician, who managed to creep into parliament through the national list, the main objective of holding the SLFP May Day rally at the Getambe Mahanama grounds in Kandy is to convince party leader Maithripala Sirisena that he is the president of the country.
For JO leader Mahinda Rajapaksa it’s a day to show people power. He called on the people to bring the Government to its knees by thronging in their thousands to the Galle Face Green on May Day where the Joint Opposition is scheduled to hold its May Day Rally.

Not to be outdone the UPFA Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera said a total of 2,000 buses had been reserved to transport SLFP supporters to the party’s May Day rally in Kandy. “We believe that hundreds of thousands of SLFP supporters will join with us at Getambe, This year the rally will break last year’s record,” he boasted.
They never learn, do they?

Like April 1st gives license to all pranksters to make fools of their fellow comrades, the 1st of May has given liberty to all political parties in Lanka to take the public for a ride.  But in their bid to make the rest of  the nation believe that superiority of numbers who are brought by busloads to their respective rallies after coaxing them with a lunch packet and a bottle of arrack, purely to show the nation that the masses  are with them, they little realise that the joke is on them; and that unwittingly they have become the true May Fools

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