After last month’s local government election debacle if the government suffered the belief that appointing Harin Fernando as the new Minister of Foreign Employment or making Ministers Laksman Kiriella and Kabir Hashim exchange their respective portfolios like swingers at a wife-swapping party, formed the stuff of the dramatic change the Government had announced a week [...]


What’s new pussycat after resurrection shuffle farce?

FINAL WAKE UP CALL TO GOVT: IT'S NOW OR NEVER OR NEVER, NEVER, NEVER AT ALL - If this Govt is keen on turning the corner and redeeming Yahapalanaya, then enough of this pussyfooting: Time to get cracking fighting corruption

After last month’s local government election debacle if the government suffered the belief that appointing Harin Fernando as the new Minister of Foreign Employment or making Ministers Laksman Kiriella and Kabir Hashim exchange their respective portfolios like swingers at a wife-swapping party, formed the stuff of the dramatic change the Government had announced a week ago would win its lost credibility, it was much mistaken.

On the contrary, instead of earning the applause of the people by making radical changes to the Cabinet’s composition and demonstrating that the February 10th election verdict had lifted the Government out of its complacency, had made it turn its lethargic plod into a determined dash to the 2020 finishing line, spurred it to stand and deliver in the face of the people’s ballot the promises it had made three years before, last Sunday’s insipid reshuffle only served to further earn it the people’s contempt.

The only significant change was the appointment of the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new Law and Order Minister. But even that, as it transpired later in the evening, was to be only for a week or two, a mere stop gap appointment, a temporary posting.It was clear that Sunday’s resurrection shuffle had become a burlesque performance of the worst order. A farce. One that did not provoke laughter but only evoked mockery.

And that disdain did not come from the public alone but rose from a state minister of the Government too. On Monday the State Minister of Foreign Affairs Vasantha Senanayake of D. S. Senanayake fame who returned to his great grandfather’s party in 2014 gave voice to the people’s opinion when he declared that the whole exercise of the much vaunted cabinet reshuffle was nothing more than a joke.

He may have upset the Government. For in the final analysis, he was criticising the President who has the sole power to appoint ministers. The prime minister does not have the constitutional right to demand the appointment of any minister but plays the role of a consultant only, though armed, perhaps, with a right to veto any appointment. Under article 43(2) the President shall on the advice of the Prime Minister appoint ministers, under Article 43(3) he does not need to consult the prime minister if he wants to reshuffle his Cabinet pack and wishes to make a Jack a King or a Queen a Knave or the Joker the Ace.

When it comes to the appointment of state ministers or deputy ministers, the same applies. He shall do so on the advice of the Prime Minister. However when it comes to determining their assignments and functions to ministers, he may do so in consultation with the prime minister only if he thinks such consultation is necessary. Thus there is no getting away from the constitutional fact that last Sunday’ s shuffle was done with the President holding the pack and dealing the cards.
Vasantha Senanayake may have placed his neck on the UNP block to be guillotined. For whatever the constitutional position is, he may have struck a raw nerve by insinuating it was a Ranil special shuffle. But there was no doubt he gave voice to what was on everyone’s lips. That the Cabinet reshuffle projected for long as the means through which the Government will reach the light at the end of the tunnel was nothing more than yet another shattered hope of great expectations from a government that had abdicated its duty to act in the people’s best interest. And act on time.

SARATH FONSEKA: Waiting in the wings to come in from the cold to assume law and order command

Even as the sands of the hour glass were fast running out, the whole pathetic episode only served to reveal in surreal light, a government still fumbling in the dark, trapped in the middle of a burrow, clueless as to whether it was struggling to get out of the warren or digging deeper to find its own grave. The State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vasantha Senanayake, described the reshuffle as a comedy, which had made the government the laughing stock. “No sensible person could say anything positive about it,” he said, “It’s a joke’.

“I am critical of this because it is a very bad move. The people of the country know it is a joke and this has made us the laughing stock. I don’t know how people would react — whether they would laugh it off or pelt stones at us.”And he is probably right. If it was a joke, it was a cruel one: waged against the people who had reposed their faith in the coalition Government to herald the rainbow dawn they had been so extravagantly promised on the eve of the January 2015 election. They had reconfirmed their faith in the promise at the general elections in August the same year. But to what avail?

And Vasantha was not alone. He was soon joined by UNP Minister and cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne who said this Tuesday, “We accept that the reshuffle was not completely successful, we wanted changes in some ministries which were underperforming, and we expected changes. But there are some elements that were good, but yes, it was not all successful.”

Even the President’s SLFP national organizer, Minister Susil Premajayantha, declared on Friday his own reservations. He said: “Without changing the policies of the Government, merely changing heads would not bring about the results that were needed. It is a failure to understand the message delivered by the people at the recently concluded Local Government election that has resulted in there being no way forward for this Government. These election results showed that there was a clear need to change the policies of the Government and that things cannot be solved just by a change of personnel.”

It was more than a comedy of errors. It was a tragedy of follies. It had led to a people’s disenchantment with a government they had expected so much from. It had promised so much but given so little. All talk but no action. The President himself on countless occasions had warned he would raise his presidential sword and crackdown on corruption but it had remained sheathed in his scabbard and confined to his closet. The Prime Minister had promised an economic miracle that would bring unimaginable benefits to the masses but the miracle of Lanka soon to dawn had been but a mirage.

And even now when the bells toll to signal this Government’s inevitable doom if it does not change its erratic ways, if it does not feel the indispensable need to transcend its present fate but chooses instead to wallow in the bog of self deceit, procrastinating as if tomorrow will never come, then woe betide the nation and the government.

If it still dilly dallies, if it still vacillates, if it still persists to engage in an internecine war, if it still remains uncertain what road to take to recover lost ground: if it still acts indecisive which path to take, even though the straight and narrow lights up before them and beckons them to follow its blazing trail, then, alas, both parties will have none but themselves to blame when the ordained wrath the people have coiled within come to visit them at election time.

The path the people bade them take, the promised path they did forsake to take, the path of broken vows they made, evidence of a nation betrayed now starkly stare in the Government’s face as irrefutable proof of its own disgrace, with the masses demanding with their strident call that it be trod now or never at all.
Yet none is so blind as those who refuse to see reality writ with a cross on a people’s ballot, none so deaf who plug their ears and vehemently refuse to hear the people’s voracious cry for action, who fail to see, hear and answer the masses’ just demand that the Government places its foot on the path it promised to traverse. Failure to trek its course for the last three years in earnest, saw the Government receive punishment at last month’s hustings.

Staw of hope
But all is still not lost. Even at this eleventh hour, some straw of hope remains for the Government to clutch at and climb to safety and trumpet triumph from the banks. Long odds at this late hour, no doubt, but may still be worth a long shot. The coalition Government was mandated by the people in 2015 to not only serve a term of five years but also to honour, during that period, the promises it had made to gain that mandate.

VASANTHA: ‘It’s a joke’

And what were these main promises: to abolish the presidency and bring in a new constitution; to crackdown on corruption and bring the guilty to justice; to develop the economy and bring down the cost of living. And how far has the Government come to keeping them?

As far as abolishing the executive presidency is concerned, that remains a pipe dream and the people no longer clamour for it. As far as a new constitution is concerned, the master chefs are still arguing in the kitchen as to what ingredients to use and in what quantity before the cake is baked in the oven and made ready for the people to swallow it whole. The only significant change to the constitution was the 19th Amendment which the President, to his credit, successfully got enacted with over a five sixth majority in Parliament four months after assuming office. It did indeed clip presidential wings but not enough to ground the bird: for the eagle still flies.

But no matter. Abolishment of the presidency and abolishment of the constitution itself or constitutional reform, whatever that may mean, no longer hold the nation riveted. The people know that mere constitutional tinkering will not hammer, upon the anvil of a government’s promise, the base metal of their impecunious plight and turn it to gold. Faith in alchemy has long since been abandoned.

For the farmer ploughing his field, for the fisherman in his catamaran braving the sea to catch his yield, and for million others toiling day after day to earn by the sweat of their brow their daily bread, constitutional reforms are the last thing on their mind. As the farmer raises his ploughshare on land; as the fisherman casts his rod and net at sea, they both, together with millions of others working in many different activities of life, must wonder why they are not the heirs to this nation’s resources, why only a corrupt few are privy to its bounty. Why they who toil to fill the nation’s granary, why they who dare the dangers of the sea to draw the haul onto the shore, why they who work in many fields of human life and fill the nation’s coffers have shrunk to skin and bones whilst those who claim to represent them and wield power have bloated to bursting point that nothing but ship like luxury vehicles can bear their weight and accommodate their size?

Therein lies the correlation between the economy and corruption. One the Government vowed to develop. The other the government swore to eliminate and bring its perpetrators to justice. On both fronts it has failed. And as a result the Unity Government’s leaders Maithri and Ranil now find that they have stepped on quicksand.
Four ropes are thrown to salvage them from the muddy fate that waits them both. If they fail to grasp them now, it will be a matter of time before they are sucked into that deep mass loose sand and breathe their last in its unfathomable depth. But which one will they take?

But even as they raise a hand to clutch even one, they should first grasp each other’s hand. For mutual survival at this present hour they both must rise to together. Failure to do so would certainly doom them to that muddy bed and they will soon disappear from the face of Lankan politics.

The first two ropes of the abolition of the presidency and a new constitution they can afford to ignore. That will help them to rise from the quick sand but its strands will soon break loose and return them to the mud for the people have long lost their faith in politicians to give up their tenacious hold on power. But if they grab firmly to the other two ropes, then it will see them placed on solid ground. The economic rope and the anti corruption rope.

Hand in hand and forming again a united front to fight the common foe, the Government must take all measures possible to develop the economy. And apart from setting the stage for long-term investments, the focus should be on how the people will gain the benefits of its economic policies now. If this Government wishes to survive, it’s useless to promise an economic Eldorado for generations still unborn. Its benefits must flow now to those present.

Steps must also be taken to cut down on waste and needless expenditure. For the last three years the Government has been pontificating on the virtues of sacrifice, exhorting the masses to bear the hardships piled upon them on the basis that the country had been hocked to the hilt by the Rajapaksa regime for over 9 billion US dollars and a period of austerity must be endured to service the interest on the loans taken. That is true.

But sacrifices, tightening of the belts around increasingly shrinking stomachs, living on one meal a day even, can be borne if the called for sacrifice is shared by all. But wouldn’t it light the fire in an empty belly, when the masses see the government ladle serving out billions of the people’s money to ministers and MPs to live a life of luxury and drive in vehicles that cost over Rs 30 million each? When it comes to pandering to the politicians’ wishes, gone is the message given to the people: that sacrifices must be made in order to service the interest on the 9 billion dollar debt.

Neither does it serve to convince the masses that the government is following an austerity programme of its own when it points at the presidential palaces built by the Rajapaksa in Jaffna, in Panama and elsewhere lying idle and holds it as prime examples of extravagant squander of the nation’s wealth when the present Government’s agricultural ministry has rented a building in Rajagiriya in April 2016 at a cost of Rs. 21 million a month for five years with the total lease payment amounting to Rs 1.3 billion and which still remains unused even after two years of the tenancy?

As the SUNDAY PUNCH commented on 17th December last year:
“When the agricultural ministry’s votes were taken up in the budget debate last month, and the issue popped up like a Jack in the box as it has done regularly these last twenty months, Parliamentary MP Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, had a few pertinent statements to make in the House and put the Agriculture Minister in the dock. About how the delay had cost the nation and how the money needlessly spent could have financed so many other projects in the meantime. He spoke of opportunity costs, of the lack of proper planning, of mismanaging government funds and squandering the people’s money.

He said of what could have been done with the monthly rent paid for this unoccupied building,

  • two months’ rent paid for the Agriculture building was equal to the money allocated to build a maternal and child health care unit at Polonnaruwa;
  • two months’ rent paid for the building is equal to the amount allocated by the budget 2017 to build the biggest Buddhist Library in the country;
  • the rent paid for 12 days for the building is equal to the amount allocated to provide a medical insurance cover for artists;
  • the funds allocated to solve the issue of disposal of solid waste is equal to two months’ rent of the building;
  • the funds allocated to thousand nurseries of cinnamon, pepper saplings as a project to give relief to women entrepreneurs and to build an institute for cinnamon industry is equal to two months’ rent of the Agriculture building.”|

Perhaps if the Government had used the money to have provided the above mentioned benefits to the masses, it would not have suffered February’s ignominious defeat. On top of that now comes the news that the Health Ministry is to rent out a privately owned building at Sangaraja Mawatha, Colombo 10, to house its Ministry for two years at a monthly payment of Rs. 9.07 m, the total for two years amounting to over 200 million.

Why the sudden rush to rent buildings to ministerial offices? Can you imagine if other government ministries too demanded they need new buildings to house their staff what the total cost will be? And all this while the masses are asked to go on a diet? Sacrifices must begin at each and every government ministry first, starting from the cubbyhole of the minster’s car.

It’s not that cutting corners and saving a few million, even a few billion bucks here or there will do the trick. It’s that the Government must lead its austerity campaign from the front and set the example for the public to follow. It must demonstrate that it shares on equal terms the grave hardships the people endure without murmur today awaiting the day they break their silence.

And of course, there is that most important thing. It’s not the cost of living, which is perennial that brought down the Rajapaksa regime. It’s the allegation of corruption on a mega scale. It’s on that anti corruption platform, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe swore to the nation they will bring the rogues to justice no sooner they come to power. They have been in office for three years now and the honeymoon has long been over. But what have they got to show for their three year union? What choice fruit has their marriage bed produced except iron clad evidence of non consummation, to deliver the promised goal?

The Ministry of Law and Order was established by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the August 16, 2013. The police and the STF were brought under its purview. It was born out of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation that policing be transferred to a separate ministry.
Jinxed ministry

Its first minister was the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa. He occupied the post for only a year and four months till his presidential election defeat in January 2015. With the election of the Sirisena regime, UNP’s John Amaratunga was appointed its minister. He lasted only seven months. Then it fell upon Tilak Marapona to hold the post. He did so for only two months, from September 4th to November 9th 2015. Sagala Ratnayake held it for two years and two months when he, decent man he is, resigned last week to pave way for a new minister. Considering its short history and the short tenures of all who held office as its minister, it seems to be some sort of a jinxed ministry. And when last Sunday the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was appointed to that post by the president and it was later announced he would hold it for only a week or two till a new one was found, the jinx appeared to be confirmed.

So who is to be its next victim? On the cards is the name of a man who has already announced his willingness to dare the voodoo to strike him. Two Sundays ago, on February 18, the nation’s war hero who had vanquished the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran on the battlefield, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka stepped forth from the wings to volunteer his services in the interest of the nation dressed in civvies.

Once described by the former President Rajapaksa as the ‘best army commander in the world’, the present Minister of Regional Development Fonseka boldly declared he could show quick results in apprehending wrong-doers if he is appointed as the minister of Law and Order. He said: “I will show results in six months if I am given the portfolio of Law and Order”.

But not all are happy at the prospect of seeing him in command at the Law and Order Ministry. Those against him say it will be like giving the monkey the razor. They say he has revenge crush on the Rajapaksas and that it will colour his actions. Human Rights activists point out that he is listed on the UNHRC manifest as a war criminal whilst those who canvass him for the post counter it by stating they forget that the former president too is on that list.

Those for Fonseka maintain the position that you cannot send a sheep in sheep’s clothing to bring down a pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing howling for the Government’s blood. That one must fight fire with fire and that if the procrastinating President Sirisena was to choose a lamb to fend off the wolves on his doorstep, if he did not borrow and play the one trump card up the UNP sleeve, if he did not unsheathe the sword he had promised to raise to fight corruption and entrust his Excalibur in Sarath Fonseka’s hand at this moment in time and order him to use his fencing mastery to crackdown on the common foe at this eleventh hour, then all will be lost: curtains for the President and the Prime Minster and burial for Yahapalanaya, democracy by another name.

The President needs to act now, base his decision on the need of the hour, to meet the peril that threatens his presidency, to keep his promise to the nation to crackdown on corruption. Less than two years remain for him to do the job he promised to do three years ago. And time is running out. And already the skies show signs of darkening.

And if the president and anyone else harbour fears of Fonseka running amok, the Law and Order Ministry jinx will ensure it will not be for long.

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