Last Wednesday was the International Day of the Migrant Worker. Sri Lanka has more than a million migrant workers, many of them women, toiling mostly in West Asia, but also in countries like Italy and South Korea. They must surely be the unsung heroes and heroines of this country today. Their foreign exchange remittances total [...]


Heroes, heroines and heroin


Last Wednesday was the International Day of the Migrant Worker. Sri Lanka has more than a million migrant workers, many of them women, toiling mostly in West Asia, but also in countries like Italy and South Korea. They must surely be the unsung heroes and heroines of this country today.

Their foreign exchange remittances total a staggering average of US$ 6 billion (Rs. 785 billion) annually, which is as much as 65% of the total foreign exchange earned by this country. In sharp contrast, the sum allocated in the Budget for the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare — Rs. 561 million which is less than a mere 0.5% of the total Budget — is one of the lowest votes for any ministry. Even adding the allocations from the Labour and External Affairs Ministries for the welfare of these workers, it is a pittance.

This is the chronic mismatch between the massive benefits that accrue to the country’s purse from the migrant workers and what the country gives in return for the welfare of these helpless souls working often in inhospitable conditions, far from friends and family. Repeated pleas for the strengthening of Sri Lanka’s missions in these countries have fallen on deaf ears as harebrained ideas like opening new missions in African countries take precedence in the Government’s weird foreign policy.

The only commemoration of the Migrant Workers Day in Sri Lanka was a full page advertisement in the newspapers on “The Economic Saviours of the Nation” placed by the Ministry glorifying the work of the Minister and the Ministry’s “rg Viru” programme that is already rocked by scandal.

Reports keep coming in from Sri Lankan embassies in West Asia to both the Foreign Office and the Ministry that the ‘rg Viru’ programme has been riddled with a heroin smuggling scam. In the middle of this year, when the first news broke, there was a promise to investigate; yet the reports keep coming. What then, is the truth? The Minister owes the people an explanation as it discredits not just a government-sponsored programme, but a government now reeling under a cloud that its own members have been made part and parcel of a massive heroin network.

Govt. on a ‘high’; now in a ‘fix

The Media Minister made a rare disclosure this week in admitting that the aborted heroin smuggling attempt in which the Prime Minister is in the eye of the storm has caused the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa “huge and serious” damage. Then, he slipped up by saying that there are “bigger fish” involved. Who then could be a ‘bigger fish’ than the Prime Minister?

When the Prime Minister’s Office is implicated in the attempt to bring in heroin into the country — a container full of 261 kilos (with a street value of Rs. 2.5 billion), there are no ifs and buts; it is something for which the Prime Minister must take moral responsibility – even if he had no personal knowledge of it. Whether advantage was taken of his ill health, or misplaced trust in his officials, there is no escaping the fact that he must carry the can. That is what public office is all about. He must therefore do the proper thing — and do what is expected of those holding high public office.

Back in the State Council days, six members charged with bribery were asked by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the founder of the Prime Minister’s party, the SLFP, to resign. The Hansard of the day shows that a State Councillor interjected to ask him; “Even if they are innocent?” and Mr. Bandaranaike replied; “Even if they are innocent”. Those were the high standards expected from members holding elected public office.

The consequences of a resignation of the Prime Minister may well trigger a constitutional crisis. Once a Prime Minister resigns, the Cabinet of Ministers ceases to exist and the President needs to reconstitute it. But that is no big deal for a Government well entrenched in Parliament. The President cannot remain passive looking askance at what is happening under his watch. There is already widespread talk that members of his government are engaged in the narcotics trade. Furthermore, when drug combating agencies report a manifold increase in narcotics usage among the youth in urban and rural areas, in drug related crimes and in the number of arrests of those in the possession of both local and imported narcotics, it is not a matter that the President can choose to ignore.

Our INSIGHT story on Page 8 today on the ongoing investigations into the abortive incident involving an official from the personal staff of the Prime Minister shows how the seeds of this relationship began in Kuwait among migrant workers from South Asia, what we referred to in our editorial above. It also shows how vulnerable our political leaders can be to big money; how their progeny have sold their parents’ name — and the public office they hold — to win elections and assume public office themselves; it shows how election laws are made a mockery despite the headline grabbing utterances before polls that the assets of candidates must be declared and election expenses monitored.

This particular incident is a textbook case of a shady businessman worming his way into the pockets of politicians and eventually having them in his pocket. In the late 1970s, the UNP’s Hewaheta Parliamentarian, Anura Daniel, was caught for aiding and abetting a smuggler. It was a sad tale of a young MP from the backwoods of the Kandy district entrapped by mudalalis to do their bidding in return for funding. Eventually, the MP lost not only his political career but also his self-respect.

From the evidence so far gathered, the Pakistani king-pin involved in sending this huge stock of heroin into Sri Lanka had hired more than a hundred vehicles for the PM’s son’s campaign at the recent Provincial Council elections. While politicians cannot go into every detail of who gives what donation, this level of funding could not have escaped the personal knowledge of both the PM and his son.
The greed — and the need for money bags to win elections today, quite apart from the amassing of personal wealth by political families — is at the root of this sordid saga.

After some dilly-dallying, the PM’s coordinating Secretary who wrote to the Customs has resigned but it seems strange that neither the PM nor his son has yet been interviewed about the matter.

Equally unsavoury are the machinations behind moves to crucify the Prime Minister by certain elements within the Government, so that they can step into his shoes, and on the other hand, moves to defend him by certain Opposition members in a bid to drive a wedge within the Government benches. Yet the investigations must not be pre-judged and must not be politicised. This is a serious question of public morality of those holding elected office however highfalutin – or irrelevant it may sound today.

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