Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - 2021-11-21


Opposition SJB defies ban and holds protest march amid blockade by nervous Govt.


By Our Parliamentary Lobby Correspondent

Sajith says police action shows ruling coalition afraid of SJB, vows to form corruption-free administration Panic over fuel shortages points to lack of public trust in ruling coalition; dissent within Govt. grows As Govt. mulls economic bailout, Cabinet divided over IMF option; Vasu against the move; Ranil pushes for it Govt. antagonizes public servants, its key vote base, more trade union action by state-sector employees “You all from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) should be proud, because the Government is afraid of us,” Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told the assembled crowd to loud cheers, as he addressed them at the conclusion of the SJB’s protest at the Galle Face Roundabout in Colombo on Tuesday. He was speaking while standing on the hood of a jeep, which served as an impromptu stage that was rather fitting for the occasion since the roundabout was not the original venue that the party was planning to hold their protest. Supporters from all over the country were due to gather at Hyde Park at 2 pm, but the Public Health Department of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) revoked the approval it had earlier given for the meeting. The CMC’s approval was revoked citing a rise in COVID-19 cases in Colombo and a new gazette issued by the Health Minister restricting public gatherings. The revoking of the approval given to the SJB was the first sign that the protest was going to face difficulties, yet the party’s Vice Chairman Harin Fernando told the this column last week they would still go ahead with the protest, though supporters would not be gathering at Hyde Park. The SJB saw the new restrictions on public gatherings as a not so subtle attempt to stifle its protest. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara too warned that he would take action to prevent the protest from going ahead. Meanwhile, a complaint had also been filed by Mr Premadasa’s Chief Security Officer with the Cinnamon Gardens Police on November 9 stating that an unidentified person had handed over a slip of paper to a staff member at the gate of the Opposition Leader’s office and left. The slip of paper had claimed there would be a bomb attack targeting the SJB rally. A suspect was later arrested over this incident, with police stating that he seemed to be suffering from a psychiatric illness. Police filed requests with more than a dozen magistrate’s courts asking them to prohibit Tuesday’s protest. They claimed it could worsen the COVID situation with thousands of people converging on Colombo from many parts of the country and then going back to their homes. The warning of a bomb attack was also mentioned in several cases. Some courts, including the Hulftsdorp Magistrate’s Court 05, the Mahara Magistrate’s Court 01 & 02, the Kaduwela Magistrate’s Court and the Homagama Magistrate’s Court issued orders preventing the protest. Others, however, refused such police requests, stating that the right to protest was guaranteed under the Constitution and that police could take legal action against anyone who violated the health guidelines issued by the Director General of Health Services. Among the courts that rejected the police’s request were the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Courts, the Maligakanda Magistrate’s Court, and the Gangodawila Magistrate’s Court. Police Chief Chandana Wickramaratne issued orders on Monday evening directing police to ensure that those coming to the protest did not travel across provinces. Accordingly, police set up road blocks at provincial borders from early Tuesday morning and started turning away busloads of SJB supporters who were trying to make their way to Colombo. In many instances, SJB politicians and supporters reacted angrily when police obstructed them. Some accused police of hypocrisy. They claimed that while officers were turning back buses on their way to the rally where the number of passengers did not exceed the number of seats, they were allowing normal passenger buses that were jam packed and openly violating COVID guidelines to go through. In some places such as Ampara, Matara, Ibbagamuwa, Tangalle and Benthota, angry protesters staged sit-ins in the middle of the road. Some dashed the coconuts they were hoping to take to Colombo for a symbolic ritual against the Government. Former Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and his supporters staged their own protest in Kiribathgoda after being prevented by police from travelling to Colombo. SJB Kaduwela organiser and former MP Hirunika Premachandra and her supporters, meanwhile, decided to walk to Colombo after police prevented their bus from going through. At Nochchiyagama, a group of SJB supporters led by former Anuradhapura District MPs P. Harrison and Chandrani Bandara tried a different strategy after being stopped. They told police they were on their way to worship at the Kelaniya Temple and asked that they be allowed to go through. In Kandy, supporters claimed they were trying to go to Kataragama to worship at the Kirivehera. Police were unmoved. Despite the efforts of police, several thousand SJB supporters still managed to gather near the Opposition Leader’s office along Marcus Fernando Mawatha by late afternoon. Once Mr Premadasa joined them around 2 pm, they all started marching towards Kollupitiya Junction amid pouring rain. It was at the Galle Face Roundabout that the rally formally ended with Mr Premadasa’s speech. “They (Government) have an Executive President. They managed to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament after bribing MPs. They also obtained near unlimited power through the passage of the 20th Amendment,” Mr Premadasa said, before saying that SJB supporters should be proud of themselves because all the obstructions made by the Government to try and thwart their protest rally meant the Government was clearly afraid of them. He noted that the country was currently facing a situation similar to that which prevailed from 1970-1977 when queues for essential items were a daily part of life. “Aren’t you fed up of this curse?” he asked. Mr Premadasa also pledged to soon form an SJB Government that was devoid of fraud and corruption and manned by skilled individuals. Such pledges are of course a matter of routine for those in the Opposition, only to be forgotten once in power. Speaking in Parliament earlier that day, the Opposition Leader had raised issue with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa over the Government’s alleged attempts to intimidate protesters using the police. He charged that police had visited households of known SJB supporters with “name lists” asking if they were going to the protest and that supporters who had been on their way were being ordered off buses at roadblocks. They were then being photographed and had their National Identity Card numbers taken, he further claimed. “This is a democratic country which has fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. This is not a police state,” he asserted. Mr Premadasa called on the Government to halt its “repression against the people.” Death of SJB supporter at Panamure police Tempers were further inflamed in Parliament on Wednesday over the death of a 38-year-old father of three from Embilipitiya who had been arrested by the Panamure Police. He had allegedly been found unconscious in his cell after being arrested over a complaint of domestic abuse and was declared dead on admission to hospital. Angry residents who laid siege to the Panamure police station alleged he had been beaten by officers at the station and disputed claims made by police that he had taken his own life. SJB MPs alleged in Parliament on Wednesday that the victim had earlier tried to travel to the SJB rally in Colombo. Party MPs carrying placards staged a protest in Parliament on Wednesday against actions taken by police to turn back their protesters and over the custodial death at the Panamure police station. SJB Ratnapura District MP Hesha Withanage told the Sunday Times that the victim had been arrested by police on Tuesday night over a previous complaint after he allegedly had a heated exchange of words with officers earlier in the day when stopped while trying to travel to join the SJB protest. “It is true that his wife had made a complaint against him earlier, but we maintain that the arrest over the earlier complaint was motivated by the exchange of words he had with officers on the day of the protest. Police also claim he hung himself inside the cell. How could that happen?” A constable and a sergeant who were on duty at the time of the incident have been interdicted, Police Spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said. He added an investigation into the incident was proceeding. Regarding the SJB protest, he said police would take legal action against the protest organisers for violating health guidelines. “Our actions on Tuesday were taken under the Quarantine Ordinance. It is our duty to enforce the guidelines and ensure people adhere to them. We have been enforcing the law with regard to travel restrictions imposed earlier and even now; we arrest violators of health guidelines on a daily basis,” SSP Thalduwa said. He added the IGPs instructions to police were issued based on the directions given by the Health Services Director General regarding COVID prevention guidelines. “We are talking about an event where many people were going to converge on Colombo and then leave for their homes, potentially carrying the virus with them. If a COVID cluster were to emerge from this leading to another COVID wave, it is the police that the public will blame for not enforcing the law.” Government MPs for their part are already talking about a potential “Sajith Cluster” or “SJB Cluster” emerging from the protest. Some have even accused the SJB of being behind a “conspiracy” to increase the spread of COVID19 again in the country; compelling the authorities to again impose a lockdown and heaping even more misery on the people. Health officials have also expressed fears that the protest might lead to more patients being identified after about two weeks. SJB MP Hesha Withanage, though, accused the Government of trying to use the pandemic to mask its many failures and crackdown on dissent. “The Government always says ‘COVID’. We cannot keep raising the many issues faced by the people simply by holding news conferences. That was why we took to the streets.” The Government’s claim that the SJB’s protest would increase COVID numbers may resonate with the public better if it did not open itself up to accusations of hypocrisy with events that also flout the very same health guidelines issued by its own Health Ministry. On Thursday, Il Full Moon Poya Day, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa attended as chief guests at the ceremony held to unveil the “Sandahiru Seya” in Anuradhapura. Construction of the Stupa began in 2010 under then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Stupa was built to commemorate the security forces personnel who made the supreme sacrifice during the war. The occasion was doubly special for the two Rajapaksa brothers. November 18 marked two years since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected to office. The day also happened to be the 76th birthday of PM Mahinda Rajapaksa. The ceremony saw hundreds of dignitaries and members of the Maha Sangha in attendance and did not adhere to social distancing guidelines issued by health authorities. Ironically, among the worst offenders was the President himself, who inexplicably remained maskless throughout the ceremony lasting several hours. Referring to the event in Parliament on Friday, SJB Matale District MP Rohini Kaviratne queried if the virus was “observing sil” during the ceremony. Fuel queues It was not just the SJB protest that dominated the headlines this week. On Monday (15), Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila announced the closure of the Sapugaskanda oil refinery for 50 days owing to the prevailing foreign exchange crisis. He said the decision was taken to manage the limited foreign exchange reserves so that the Government could use that foreign exchange to import essential items and petrol and diesel. The minister assured that there were adequate fuel stocks in the country and insisted that the temporary closure of the oil refinery would not result in a fuel shortage. Earlier, however, Ananda Palitha, Leader of the SJB affiliated Jathika Seveka Sangamaya’s branch at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), had sounded alarm in the media over the country’s fuel situation. Minister Gammanpila’s insistence that there would be no fuel shortage did nothing to allay the public’s fears, as within a few hours after his announcement on the closure of the oil refinery, long queues had formed outside many filling stations as panicked motorists rushed to fill up their tanks. With many opting for “full tanks” over shortage fears, a large number of filling stations soon ran out of fuel. Obviously, the public’s anger was directed against both the minister and the Government over fiasco. Over this past week, daily news telecasts have included segments where members of the public vent their fury against the Government after having to wait for hours in yet another queue and experience the shortage of another essential commodity in their daily lives. Some of the worst affected have been the farmers, already reeling from a severe fertiliser shortage; they have now found it difficult to find fuel to operate the tractors needed to plough their fields. Some analysts have noted that the creation of a fuel shortage, though it might be artificial due to panic among consumers, point to how much the public has lost confidence in the Government’s ability in the face of daily shortages of essential items. Water Supply Minister Vasudewa Nanayakkara, though, disputed this argument. “The queues for fuel were totally unnecessary. What happened was that one fool made a statement to the media and then even worse fools went and queued up to purchase fuel. There are no long queues for fuel now, which shows how unnecessary it (panic) was,” he claimed. The IMF option Minister Nanayakkara, meanwhile, was among those who argued against going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout when the matter was discussed at the Cabinet this week. Two camps have now emerged in the Cabinet regarding whether to go for an IMF bailout in the face of the worsening foreign exchange crisis. Several ministers spoke in favour of going to the IMF when the matter was discussed at the Cabinet this week while some others strongly opposed the move. United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe again appealed to the Government on Tuesday in Parliament to go to the IMF, saying he did not believe that the Fund would impose crippling conditions on the country that would result in large scale job losses. “However, they will ensure some sort of fiscal discipline. That much is necessary,” he asserted. Minister Nanayakkara, though, said that the Government would not go to the IMF “even if we die.” Mr Nanayakkara told the Sunday Times he would fight any attempt by the Government to seek an IMF bailout as it would “destroy the masses.” “Even if the Government is destroyed, we should not go the IMF,” he emphasised. Noting that the current crisis largely stemmed from a lack of US dollars, he opined that the best solution would be to work to revive the country’s tourism industry. The minister acknowledged that people were facing severe financial difficulties and there were long queues for essential items. “Yes, there might be some queues in the short term, but we are confident we will be able to get through this period (without the IMF).” Mr. Nanayakkara, who leads the Democratic Left Front (DLF), was among leaders representing 10 Government coalition partners that met again on Wednesday to discuss the current situation. The parties have been increasingly at odds with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) over a number of issues relating to governance. Among the matters that were discussed at the meeting were the “sheer unpreparedness” of the Government on the fertiliser issue and the agreement on the supply of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) with the US-based New Fortress Energy, the DLF leader said. Representatives also discussed the situation created by the Government’s decision to withdraw price controls imposed on a variety of essential items, a move which has “led the markets to have a field day,” Mr. Nanayakkara remarked. As part of measures to rectify the situation, the coalition parties have drafted a number of proposals. They include a proposal for the Government to also become extensively involved in wholesale trade and entering into trade agreements on government-to-government basis. The proposals are expected to be submitted to senior government figures in the next few days. The coalition partners are not the only ones who are continuing to voice frustration against the Government’s conduct. Even some senior SLPP figures continue to openly criticise their party. State Minister Susil Premajayantha used his speech during this week’s Budget debate to again hit out at the lack of consultation within the Government ranks. “How many gazettes (on price controls) did we publish? We withdrew all of them. So, under which economic principle are we functioning now? If this had been discussed, subjected to a dialogue and our views obtained beforehand, we wouldn’t have had a situation where we published and withdrew gazette after gazette,” he pointed out. Mr Premajayantha added that the people had suffered severely as a result of Government decisions taken without proper discussion. This is not the first time that the state minister had lashed out at his own Government. He recently used another of his Parliamentary speeches to speak out at how laws were allegedly being drafted elsewhere and being presented to the legislature with instructions to Government MPs to raise their hands to pass them. “The people didn’t elect us to become signal poles,” he said at the time. TU actions by state-sector employees As the Budget debate continues, the Government is now facing yet another potentially serious trade union action; this time by government officers. The Sri Lanka Government Officers’ Trade Union Association (SLGOTUA) wrote to the President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister this week expressing disappointment that the Government had not provided a salary increase or an increase in allowances to Government officers in next year’s Budget. SLGOTUA Secretary Gamini Hettiarachchi said that according to the survey conducted within the Government Service, about Rs. 58,000 is currently needed on a monthly basis to maintain a family of four. Given this situation, he said they expected the Government to provide a salary increase of at least Rs. 18,000 for Government employees. Mr Hettiarachchi stated that if the Government failed to heed their demands and grant such a salary increase, they would be forced to initiate trade union action “without prior notice.” He claimed about 37 unions in the Government sector comprising some 1.2 million of the total 1.5 million workforce had already joined their struggle. “We have not decided what form our trade union action would take; but we will definitely initiate action if this demand is not met as the cost of living has become unbearable,” he further said. Government officers are also unhappy over comments made by Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa during the media briefing the day following his Budget speech, where he claimed that the Government Service has become “a burden on the country.” He ruled out giving any relief to public servants at taxpayers’ expense next year, insisting that the country could not afford it. “We are obviously not happy over those comments. If you look at the way the country tackled the COVID-19 pandemic so far, it would have been impossible without the dedication and commitment of Government officers,” Mr Hettiarachchi stated. Postal voting results show that public servants overwhelmingly voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 Presidential Election. The situation was the same for the SLPP during the 2020 General Election. Yet, it is those same public servants who have now become angered by their policies and are threatening trade union action. They join groups such as teachers, farmers and a multitude of others. As President Rajapaksa completes two years in office, he and his Government continue to struggle to prevent their once considerable support base from eroding by the day.


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