A failing government


Today is January 1 and it would have been better if we had been able to say positive things on a day like this. But if we did, we would have been practicing self deception. The year 2011 was a bad year for the government and the opposition alike and bad therefore for the country as well. The present government which was arguably the most efficient and dynamic regime in post independence history, suddenly began to lose the plot in 2011. And it was not in major matters of policy that the government was failing but in pedestrian matters pertaining to the day to day running of the country.

 We have never had a situation like this. Usually, even if a government was blundering big time in policy matters and in the general direction the country was being taken in, still the day to day running of the country went as scheduled, moving along well-worn grooves. But under this government, we ended 2011 and began 2012 with the messing up of the A/L examination results by the Examinations Department.  In the past, the Examinations Department conducted examinations and issued results without precipitating a national crisis. Most people were not even aware that such a mess could be made of an examination.

That was not the only instance where the government botched day to day operations. There was the case of the introduction of plastic crates in the transportation of fruits and vegetables to market. This was undoubtedly an essential changeover and will have to be done at some stage. Nobody would ever think that an issue of that nature could precipitate a national crisis but it did, with no fruits or vegetables coming into the market for a few days. The resistance of the farmers and the vegetable sellers to the changeover was unexpectedly fierce. It is easy to pontificate after everything is over, but one does wonder whether the plastic crates issue could not have been handled in a better way.

An assessment could have been done of the possible resistance to the new move and the quarters from which that resistance would have come. Any new practice will always be opposed by some sections who prefer to do things the old way. Perhaps a programme to educate both farmers and traders in the benefits of using plastic crates should have been carried out while addressing some of their concerns such as the limited quantities that can be packed in plastic crates and the cost of the containers. Steps should also have been taken to co-opt or neutralize individuals or organizations who could offer resistance. Perhaps a pilot project over a period of time, to convince the unconvinced would also have been in order.

What however took place was a confrontation between the minister and the fruit and vegetable traders. The president had to intervene personally to settle the matter by taking a step backwards. It was the same when it came to the pensions issue earlier on in the year. Introducing a pension scheme for the private sector was a good move and one that should have been welcomed by many. Yet even this too was botched in a situation where schemes similar to the one proposed were already functioning in the country as for example in the universities. The people were not educated about the proposed scheme. Leaving aside the people, even the Minister of Labour, Gamini  Lokuge, did not know what the proposed scheme was about. He had turned up for a TV debate without a copy of the bill or even an inkling of what the proposed scheme was about. Lokuge had in fact asked Nishantha Warnasinghe, the representative of the JHU at the same debate whether he has a copy of the proposed pensions bill. Warnasinghe did not have a copy either and he too had been in the dark about the whole scheme but the JVP had a copy of the bill and they seemed to know what it was all about.

On the pensions issue, the plastic crates issue and now the examination issue, the president had to intervene personally to avert a national crisis. Can anyone remember a single instance where JRJ, Premadasa, DBW or even CBK had to intervene personally to settle matters of such nature? They all bungled the big issues, not pedestrian matters like the above. Clearly, this government has a blind spot that needs to be dealt with.

 There should perhaps be a media unit attached to the cabinet office which will scrutinize all cabinet decisions and assess their public impact and possible fallout after which the spin and the sales pitch can be worked on to sell the issue to the public. The same unit should also brief government politicians about the issue so that they would know what to say to the media.

 The year 2011 was jinxed for the government in other respects as well. The Norochcholai power plant is still not fully operational and the government made a mighty mess of trying to deny that there was a problem of a subterranean rock in the approach to the Hambantota harbour. Dayasiri Jayasekera demolished the government’s arguments in what was his finest TV appearance to date. It may have been better for the government to have squared with the public and told them that there was indeed a subterranean rock and that it will be got rid of at some additional cost and that miscalculations do occur in planning major development projects.

The subterranean rock in the Hambantota harbour has now been got rid of and had the government told the public the truth, they would have come out without much damage. Of the three mega projects the Hambantota harbour, the Norochcholai power plant and the Southern highway, only the latter can be described as a clear success story. Perhaps the government’s fault was in trying to sweep things under the carpet, rather than squaring with the public. Even the southern highway had problems with parts of some structures collapsing due to poor workmanship. Those things are however forgotten today and all we hear now is how much money the highway made on a given day.

Apart from these there was the shootout between Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and Duminda Silva which embarrassed the government no end. The only positive thing about that episode was the both the antagonists have been removed from the scene saving the government from further embarrassment. After that incident, everybody thought the government would take steps to ensure that something like that would not happen again. But what did we have on Christmas day but a gang led by a government PS chairman in the south shooting dead a British tourist and badly injuring another, placing the entire tourist industry in jeopardy and this on the president’s own turf. 

Thus we see a government that is failing on all fronts – failing in the day to day running of the country, failing in getting development projects off the ground and failing in keeping the less intelligent members of their government under control. All this occurred only in 2011. Before that blighted year, this government could be described with much justification as the most successful government in post independence history. Were we seeing the beginning of an end to all that?


Dead bodies to fuel


 The only thing that is going in the government’s favour is the fact that the opposition too was in as much trouble as the government with both the JVP and the UNP experiencing unprecedented intra-party strife. In fact during the year 2011, everybody was busy establishing new benchmarks in failure and collapse. In  the JVP’s case, the exodus of activists from the party is worse than any they had experienced earlier.

 In the past whenever the JVP faced a mass exodus of members, those who left often banded together to form separate organizations, some of which like the Janatha Sangamaya existed parallel to the JVP for years before fizzling out. Ex-JVP types are conditioned to band together in little conspiratorial organizations and the habit dies hard.

One 1971 JVP veteran told the present writer recently that he had got together a group of ex-1971 insurgency veterans to form a kind of ex-insurgents association mainly to look into their welfare. The insurgents of 1971 are now old, some approaching the Biblical three score years and ten and many of them are now white haired, toothless old grand fathers. The purpose of the ex-insurgents association was to organize funerals of ex-insurgents who may die in indigent circumstances, and to look after their next of kin, to help in the marriage of their children, to lobby the government to get employment for their offspring and other such welfare measures. After the 1971 veterans had come together, some of these ageing men had actually been trying to organize a revolutionary party! Such is the allure that conspiratorial organizations have for those schooled in the JVP way of life.

Even the latest dissidents to leave the JVP have followed that old pattern by organizing outside the JVP as the Jana-Aragala Kandayama. Even JVP dissidents of the 1980s like Nandana Marasinghe had their own little groups for a while. But what is different this time is that the dissidents are giving much better account of themselves than any other group to leave the JVP. history. In fact the JVP dissident group had been even more in the public eye than the JVP itself with demonstrations and slogan shouting.

The alleged abduction of two members of the dissident group in Jaffna gave them an added fillip by providing them with an issue to stake a claim to news coverage and publicity. An abduction or a disappearance always provides an opportunity to get into the news and the JVP dissidents are working on it for all they are worth.

With this allegation of the abduction of two of the JVP rebel members, the present writer phoned Udul Premaratne of Inter University Student’s Federation fame who is now a leading light of the Jana Aragala Kandayama and asked whether it could not have been the JVP that had abducted their activists. The Jana Aragala Kandayama had blamed the government. We pointed out that the JVP began their second insurrection in December 1986 with the abduction of Daya Pathirana and another student outside the Colombo university pretending to be the CID.

 Their plan was to kill Pathirana and dump his body in the Bolgoda lake so that he would have disappeared without a trace. If their plan had succeeded, the Independent Students Union of which Pathirana was the leader, would have blamed the government for the disappearance. But the JVP’s plan went wrong and the other student who was abducted with Pathirana survived to tell the tale. It was through him that we came to know that Pathirana had been abducted and killed by a JVP hit squad and not the government.

 So our question to Udul Premaratne was that given the usual modus operandi of the JVP and their standard practice of deeming those who have been with them and left to be greater enemies than the class enemy, whether it was not possible that the JVP abducted their two activists so that the blame falls on the government? What Udul said however was that they have a pretty good idea of the capacity of the JVP and that the latter just did not have the ability to do something of that nature in the north. Be that as it may, it is the abduction and possible death of their two activists that has given life to the Jana Aragala Kandayama and increased stress for the JVP.


Is Karu in or out?

 While the JVP was thus stewing in its own juice, the UNP fared no better, having to face the most damaging episode ever in the history of the party with the riot outside Sirikotha on the day elections to party posts was held.  The Friday before last, RW met Tissa Attanayake, Ravi Karunanayake, Jayalath Jayawardena, John Amaratunga, Ananda Kularatne and Srinath Perera and discussed post-riot repairs to the party headquarters. The reconstruction committee is headed by former Hambantota district MP and bitter Sajith Premadasa rival Ananda Kularatne who got pushed out of parliament due to Sajith’s domination of the district. RW suggested that at least a part of the money be collected from party members to repair the party headquarters. Ananda Kularatne will be in charge of collecting the money.

 At the same meeting, Srinath Perera was appointed to prepare a report into the incidents that occurred on that day and to identify those who had organized and participated in the attack. The report is to be submitted to the party general secretary within three weeks. RW said that once the report is in, he will present it to the working committee and initiate disciplinary action against those responsible.

 That same night Mangala Samaraweera held a dinner for journalists which was attended by the party leader among others. (The present writer was not invited to Mr Samaraweera’s party.) The newly appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and deputy leader Sajith Premadasa attended a meeting to commemorate A.C.S. Hameed held in Kandy, where RW told the audience that Hameed had steadfastly stood by J.R.Jayewardene in 1972 at the height of the Dudley-JR fallout. He was stressing the importance of being loyal to one’s leader.

Perhaps what RW did not know about Hameed was that the latter had been absolutely scandalized when RW appointed a cub reporter from Lankadeepa, Dinesh Dodangoda, as a national list MP in 1994. That was one of the first decisions made by RW after he took over the party and given the things said by Hameed to another UNP stalwart who in turn recounted the story to the present writer, Hameed was one of the first to recognize that the party was going to be driven into the ground by RW.

What now of Karu Jayasuriya who dared to challenge Ranil Wickremesinghe for the party leadership? Karu lost the position of party deputy leader when he challenged RW and lost. Now he is out of the working committee as well. Ravi Karunanayake too is out of the working committee after losing to Sajith Premadasa. However, many feel that RW will appoint Ravi K to the working committee although balancing it by bringing back Karu too to the working committee would be a plus for RW suggesting that he’s willing to overlook personal factors for the greater good of the party.

There is in fact one slot that Ranil Wickremesinghe has kept vacant in the 20 he is allowed by the party constitution to nominate to the working committee and Ravi K may be given that slot. According to the party constitution, there have to be 92 members in the working committee. But the list put out by the UNP general secretary on the 22nd December names only 86 appointees, which means that there are six more vacancies. Among the available vacancies most are either ex officio or representational positions. For example, there is no northern provincial council group leader because there is no northern PC yet.

But according to the constitution there have to be nine provincial council group leaders in the working committee. Then there are district leaders for Mannar, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi who have not yet been appointed by the advisory committee. Obviously, neither Karu J nor Ravi K can be appointed to such vacancies. The district representative for Colombo has not been appointed yet and that can be given to Ravi K as he is the Colombo district leader. Mangala Samaraweera too sits on the working committee as the representative of the Matara district.

While there is the expectation that the party leader will appoint both Ravi K and Karu Jayasuriya to the working committee, there are only two slots that Karu can be nominated to. It is very unlikely that RW will appoint him as the last of his 20 nominees on the working committee. That leaves only the position of  senior vice chairman that Joseph Michael Perera vacated when he was appointed Assistant Leader of the party. But the question is whether RW will be in a mood to appoint Karu J as a senior vice chairman of the party after all that happened.

Some feel that if RW appoints Ravi K to the working committee, he may also appoint Karu J as well just to show that he is not favouring anybody. But why would RW be under any obligation to show that he is not favouring anybody? On the contrary, he will be under obligation to do exactly the opposite. All those who stood by Ranil will be watching how he treats Ravi Karunanayake who stood by him steadfastly. He will have to demonstrate that he treats Ravi K better than he treats Karu J. There can be no question of the two being treated equally.


Daya Pathirana 25 years later

 The 25th death anniversary of Daya Pathirana fell on the 16 December. Many readers would have no idea as to who Daya Pathirana was. Those who have heard of him may know him only as the first victim of the JVP’s second insurrection. But to those of us who knew him, he was an inspiring leader who had a pivotal impact on all those he associated with. Daya Pathirana was the leader of the Independent Students Union of the University of Colombo in the 1980s. The students who first formed the ISU were originally members of the communist party.

As such the Marxist tradition ran deep within the ISU. The ISU was always truly an independent organization of students not being affiliated with any organization outside the university. In fact, in less than a decade it changed leaders four times with one leader being replaced by another as they graduated and went out into the wider world. Over the past forty years, only the ISU was able to stand up to the JVP’s hegemony in the universities in the 1980s. The University of Colombo was the only university the JVP did not have control over at that time. Pathirana was seen more often than not with a copy of Lenin’s selected works important passages of which he would underline with a fingernail. 

 Despite his interest in Marxist theory, Pathirana was of a practical bent of mind and when confronted with a problem, he would deal with the problem first without trying to theorize the issue away.  Holding a view different to the JVP in the universities in the 1980s meant that you had to be prepared to meet the strong arm tactics of the JVP. The JVP killed Daya Pathirana in December 1986 because they wanted to establish a hegemony over the student movement before launching their second insurrection. Pathirana thus became the first victim of the insurrection.

 Twenty five years after that killing, members of the ISU met to commemorate him. Seeing our former university colleagues after quarter of a century was a strange experience. Many of us now have offspring of the same age as we were when we were in university. Some had not changed much but others had changed beyond recognition and it was only through the gait and other mannerisms that they could be recognized as the person they claimed to be. Some were now bald, others had hair growing out of their ears due to age. Yet they came together to commemorate Daya Pathirana, a testimony to the impact that he had on all of us.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...