Pada Yathra hogs the limelight

*Police cause embarrassment for govt.
*Media NGOs silent about PM’s threats to journos
*Govt. gets plantation companies into debt to pay salary increase
*VAT on the agenda again


The Joint Opposition’s pada yathra kicked off in Kandy on July 28. The crowd that assembled in Kandy for the start appeared to be at least as large as the crowd that came for the first ‘Mahinda Sulanga’ rally in Nugegoda on February 18 last year, the organizers claimed. The UNP announced membership drives in Kandy town and in Mawanella to coincide with the pada yathra leading to a situation where the Magistrates of Kandy and Mawanella ordered the UNP to delay their Kandy event and the Joint Opposition to avoid moving through the Mawanella town. The Mawanella town had been decorated in green on July 28 to convey the impression that some UNP event was to be held in the town but no such event was actually held in Mawanella that day. Even at 2.30 in the afternoon there was no UNP presence in the Mawanella town and nothing thereafter either. After the Joint Opposition pada yathra ended in Mawanella that evening, blue shirted opposition participants in the march were seen relaxing under the green decorations.

It didn’t appear as if a UNP membership drive had actually been organized in Kandy town either. The Pilimatalawa town had some sparse decorations in green and a few more decorations near the Kandy general hospital but nothing else. In fact the news bulletins on Thurday (July 28) did not show any footage of any UNP event held in Kandy or Mawanella that day. The magisterial order prohibiting the pada yathra from starting in the Kandy town did have an impact on it on the first day. That magisterial order was more than justified because Kandy is an unbelievably congested place especially during the rush hours and a large crowd with the accompanying vehicles moving about in the town during the morning rush hour on a working day would have made things much worse.

On Thursday morning, this writer was parked near the Peradeniya gardens waiting for the pada yathra to start in order to move on ahead of it and to observe the procession coming down Kadugannawa. I expected the march to be an orderly affair with a pilot vehicle in front, contingents of bhikkus, and people walking behind banners representing various politicians and organizations with nagaslam bands and the like. But the lack of a suitable assembly point had not allowed the procession to get into proper formation. At around 9.30 am, groups of people started walking past my vehicle and I assumed they were going ahead to get into formation. I waited for the politicians to appear with their banners and entourages but not a single appeared. In the meantime the number of people going past my vehicle increased and it was only after well over 5,000 people passed with no MP or provincial councilor still in sight that I thought it would be advisable to get onto the Colombo road before I got stuck in the crowd.

But by that time it was too late and I got caught right in the middle of the crowd near the turn off to the Peradeniya university. The disorganizd crowd that I had seen moving past without banners or anyone leading them was the beginning of the pada yathra. After inching my way with the crowd across the Peradeniya bridge, the police directed me onto the Gampola road. Since I wanted to go towards Colombo, I doubled back and an hour later, still stuck in the traffic, I observed Udaya Gammanila and Chamal Rajapaksa moving in the procession. On the first day only the artistes appeared to be moving along in an orderly manner behind their banner. The usual nagasalam bands that appear in such events were not to be seen. Kandyan dancers in their costumes were seen running along the road looking for others in their troupe. Even the bhikkus were walking along amidst the laymen.

Misconceived police action

The second day however which started from Utuwankanda in Kegalle looked more like an orderly procession, with people moving behind banners, the bhikkus walking in orderly formation. The nagasalam bands had appeared, and slogans were being shouted and songs were being sung.  One incident that marred the pada yathra on the first day was the angry reaction of certain individuals in the crowd to an ambulance that was going through the entire length of the pada yathra towards Peradeniya with its sirens blaring. This ambulance passed this writer’s car and the discovery that there was no patient or even the usual paramedic team in the ambulance appears to have sparked off the angry reaction. However, there can be no excuse for reacting in that manner.

The suspicion may have been that empty ambulances were being sent by ‘the other side’ to disrupt the pada yathra but no owner of a private ambulance will endanger his income generating property by needlessly sending it into the middle of a politically charged crowd that was already angry at being sent from pillar to post. Be that as it may, the angry reaction to the ambulance gave the opponents of the pada yathra ample opportunity to portray the march in a bad light. That was a major slip up on the part of the JO. Not that there were no slip ups on the part of the UNP which was opposed to the pada yathra. Even though in Mawanella there was at least a pretense of having a UNP event, in Kandy there wasn’t even that pretense. It was painfully apparent that these supposed membership drives of the UNP were just a pretext to disrupt the opposition pada yathra. (A UNP rally was held in Mawanella the day after the pada yathra had passed that town.)

The fact that magistrate’ orders were taken out against the opposition’s pada yathra imposing various retrictions on the grounds that UNP events were to be held in Kandy and Mawanella and then for no UNP event to be held in those towns on that day, makes it look as if the UNP program had got washed out. All the news bulletins showed the pada yathra but no UNP membership drive. While the pada yathra was on the move on Friday, the police had tried to get orders from the Kegalle Magistrate’s court prohibiting the pada yathra from entering the Kegalle town and then from several other Magistrates’courts all along the route preventing the pada yathra from entering the towns of Warakapola, Nittambuwa, Kadawatha, Kiribathgoda and finally even Colombo on the grounds that it will cause a disturbance of the peace. But all these requests were turned down by the respective Magistrates. Nobody can accuse the courts of being partisan.

This scramble to get the pada yathra banned may have reated more negative publicity for the government than the pada yathra participants could have done themselves. To make things even worse, Hyde Park which had already been booked by the Joint Opposition to have their concluding janahamuwa has been dug up on the pretext of having ‘emergency reconstruction work’ done to the grounds. Shades of tarring the road outside Siri Kotha where a demonstration was planned in yesteryear! In 1991, when Mahinda Rajapaksa held a pada yathra against the Premadasa government, President Premadasa never tried to obstruct it and allowed them to walk all the way from Colombo to Kataragama. In fact one of the key participants in the 1991 pada yathra who is now a powerful minister in the present government told this writer at that time, that they walked and walked, thinking Premadsa would attack the pada yathra or do someting to stop it so that they could go home, but Premadasa did nothing and made them walk the entire distance!

Obviously the present government does not look at today’s pada yathra in the same way. From the conversations this writer has been having with politicians on both sides of the political divide, it is clear that there is a disconnect in the way the two sides see the pada yathra. To the Joint Opposition, the pada yathra is just a protest and the intention is only to protest against the postponement of the local government election, against ETCA, against the impending VAT increase, the actions against armed forces personnel, the intimidation of the media and several such issues. There is widespread awareness within the joint opposition that after the present government came into power, certain politically driven policies like the increase in government salaries and the halting of Chinese funded infrastructure projects has placed the economy under such strain that it would be foolhardy in the extreme for a new party to get into the driving seat at this stage.

They know that things have to come to a logical conclusion before a new set of people take over. So they wouldn’t shake the government down at this stage even if they could – that at least is the impression that this writer gets from what JO politicians say in private conversation. The pada yathra is for the limited purpose of registering their presence among the public. The Joint Opposition has not yet mastered the technique of organizing small scale events countrywide. They organized the Hyde Park rally against ETCA and the alteration of the fertilizer subsidy because they had fallen behind the JVP in taking up these two matters. The JVP’s method was to organize small protests all over the country.

For some reason the JO seems unable to adopt a similar strategy but they are certainly good at organizing large scale events which is what seems to have upset the government. The latter thinks that every event organized by the opposition is meant to overthrow the government. What happens if an avalanche of people descends on Colombo on August 1? They will have a big meeting and then disperse and the government will still be there. But what seems to be bugging the government is that every show of force that the opposition puts on chips away at their authority. The Hyde Park meeting, the May Day rally and now the Pada Yathra are some of these events.  

The situation in Jaffna

While the Joint Opposition’s pada yathra hogs the news channels, a very serious issue was not getting the attention it deserves. This was the unfolding situation in the Jaffna university. The Sinhala students have refused to return to Jaffna and it was reported in the media that the Higher Education Ministry has told other universities to admit those students. In the meantime, the police are said to have deployed uniformed and plainclothesmen in and around the Jaffna University to provide protection for the still absent Sinhala students. The obviously ethnically motivated clashes in the university has paved the way for police intervention, but is a police presence in the Jaffna university the way to go about it? One would think that the logical thing to do would be to arrest the students responsible after studying whatever footage of the incident is available and on the statements made by the victims instead of having policemen crawling all over the university and laying the foundation for a clash between the students and the police.

It is difficult to imagine why the police took the extreme measure of having police inside a university instead of taking the less potentially combustible option of arresting the miscreants. If the inaction in relation to the Jaffna miscreants is a way of not arresting students who obviously have something to do with the TNA – as the appearance of M.A.Sumanthiran for one of the ringleaders seems to show - it can be said with confidence that the fallout of having the police in the Jaffna university may turn out to be far greater than any fallout from arresting the few miscreants responsible. Who in his right mind will want to go to an educational establishment to study under police protection?

The statement issued by Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake, the Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister’s office, saying among other things that the pada yathra will not break the historic partnership between the UNP and the SLFP Sirisena faction indicates that the UNP segment of the government has been imagining various things. Though the UNP and the SLFP are supposed to be in a state of matrimonial bliss, there appears to be very little trust between the two partners with each suspecting the other of infidelity. Apart from Sagala Ratnayake’s statement, Minister P.Harrison was also shown on TV saying that the partnership between the president and prime minister will not break because of the pada yathra. There seems to be a nagging suspicion within the UNP that the SLFP half in the government may defect to the opposition as a result of the pada yathra.

Newspaper editors threatened

While all this was going on, the Prime Minister was once again threatening journalists specifically those working for the Daily FT and the Daily Mirror. The Media NGOs that were quick to scream blue murder at the slightest infraction on the part of previous government have taken a low key approach on this although the Working Journalists Association did issue a statement.

Prof G.L.Peiris said in a statement on behalf of the joint opposition last week that the Western embassies in Colombo had adopted double standards with regard to media freedom. When the previous government was in power, a supposed threat made by the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to the then editor of the Daily Mirror brought the then British High Commissioner to her office to express concern. To this date the then editor has not revealed to the public what actually was said to her because it had been a one to one conversation.  But according to the Free Media Movement, a media NGO which was very vocal about the previous government but is now silent about the infractions committed by the present government, what Gota is supposed to have told the then editor of the Daily Mirror is that the Karuna group had been angered by what had been written in the newspaper about them and that she should not be surprised if the Karuna Group turned its violence against her. If so, she shouldn`t expect government protection.

If Gota had said what the FMM said he had said, that is completely wrong. But how can anyone condone a government that came into power promising media freedom and good governance now issuing threats to newspaper editors in public? the  Prime  Minister  specifically stated  that,  if  the  Editor  of the Daily Mirror  question  does  not  quit his post, methods would have to  be found to get rid of  him. This furthermore was over an article written by Dayan Jayatilleke and not due to anything written by the editor himself. The threats against the Daily FT editor would have been something quite new to him. When was the editor of a business newspaper threatened by politicians? In normal circumstances, the business section is one of the safest niches in journalism.

More VAT agitation on the agenda

This columnist has always made it a point to stress is that the real Achilles heel of the government was not any of these events on the political front - the pada yathras or the threats to the media or the antics of the police; but the economy. Last week the Finance Ministery issued ‘letters of comfort’ to the State owned banks for them to release one billion rupees to the plantation management companies to increase worker’s salaries. When the plantation companies were asked by the Prime Minister to increase salaries of workers in line with the Rs. 2,500 increase pledged to private sector workers by the government, they had explained that were unable to do so because of the record low prices of tea and rubber which had adversely affected their incomes.

According to the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, there are over 183,000 registered workers in the plantations. It will cost well over Rs. 450 million a month to pay those workers just the increase of Rs. 2,500. The one billion rupees given by the State banks will be enough to pay the increase for two months. What happens after that? More letters of comfort from the state banks? The plantation companies had been making losses since 2014 due to the decline in tea and rubber prices and to saddle them with even more debt may mean that they will never get out of the red. The billion rupees that is to be given on credit will have to be paid back in three years after a grace period of one year. But this may not be the only credit the plantation companies will need to pay this salary increase.

It will cost well over Rs. 5.5 billion to pay the workers the salary increase for a whole year. Once you start paying a salary increase, you can’t stop it. The government started giving government servants a salary increase of Rs. 10,000 a month and they have had to borrow heavily to pay that salary hike. Now they are getting the plantation companies indebted to pay salaries. This is a economic catastrophe in the making. For many years, the plantation companies have been saddled with a system whereby wages are determined politically while income is determined by the market. This latest exaction may prove to be the most disastrous one yet.

On top of all this, the government has fixed the second reading of the VAT increase bill for August 11. Coming as it does after the hartals in towns across the country including Pettah and Colombo Fort, and the pada yathra, this is an invitation for more trouble. It should be borne in mind that the Pettah hartal was held not gainst the VAT itself because the SC had suspended the tax increase by that time. The Pettah merchants closed their shops to demand that no MP should vote for the VAT increase when it comes before parliament! The government is in an unenviable dilemma on this, as an increase in government revenue will have to be shown to the IMF if they are to get the next tranche of the loan. Getting shut out of the IMF program will have very serious consequences as that will result in the private credit market also closing their doors on SL. But if the VAT bill is passed, there will be more hartals and street protests to contend with. The month of August appears set to become a flashpoint.   

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