Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government’s greatest success has been to make the two most serious problems facing the country invisible and perhaps irrelevant to those at the top of the economic pyramid, including the international community. The government is able to show statistics that the economy has begun to recover. Growth in the last quarter is positive at 1.6 percent. It is anticipated that this growth will continue into the future. However, there is another set of statistics that tell the story that poverty levels have doubled to 25 percent, a quarter of the population, over this period. The signs of growth are visible in the Christmas décor that the Director of Customs has said is the highest expenditure on imports at present after the embargo on them was lifted. The suffering of hungry and malnourished people remains invisible.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphA group of Tamil Diaspora members from western countries have been in Sri Lanka for the past several days. They have been engaging in a series of meetings, with religious clergy in the main, but also with civil and political leaders and with their friends and relatives. The highlight of their meetings has been the one with Buddhist clergy and with President Ranil Wickremesinghe which has received a high level of positive publicity by the presidential media unit. There was a time when those from the Tamil Diaspora would have been viewed with suspicion and possibly even arrested had they visited the country as they would have been identified as supporters of the LTTE and promoters of terrorism. On this occasion they have come under the banner of the Global Tamil Forum which was a banned organization twice, once in 2014 and again in 2021. On both occasions the bans were lifted when President Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the reins of government and defunct peace processes were restarted.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphMinorities for the most part live in some apprehension of the power of the majority. At their worst, majorities can inflict violence on minorities, such as in the form of riots. While minorities may resist, they tend to be at the receiving end. In democracies, minorities will invariably face the problem of majority rule, as the majority’s view of what is important will tend to take precedence over what the minority thinks as being important. Therefore, concepts of rule of law and fairness are most important to minorities so that they are treated as equal citizens in practice. The 19th century political theorist John Stuart Mill, who warned against the “tyranny of the majority” also asserted that “The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government is facing an uphill task to rebuild the country which continues to be in a state of economic and moral decline which was evident in parliamentary proceedings last week. The initial hopes of a quick transition from the economic and moral decline that accompanied the pre-Aragalaya period ended with the accession of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to the presidency. The president made skillful use of the security forces in the first instance and the parliamentary majority thereafter to restore the old order, government rule and stabilize the economy, albeit at a much lower level of economic well being. But this won for him and the government the support of those sections of the population who could still live their regular lives and the international community who did not want Sri Lanka to fall prey to rival powers.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphAt a time when the two elected branches of government have little or no legitimacy the unelected branch is gaining in legitimacy. The government has lost much of its legitimacy on account of being constituted in the main by those who were forced to step down in the face of the Aragalaya mass protests of a year and half ago. The Supreme Court’s verdicts in recent cases have been little short of remarkable. The verdicts in the Online Safety bill case involving control over the social media, De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology-Regulation No. 1 of 2021, which would have permitted the government to send suspects off for compulsory rehabilitation without going through the courts, and the arrest of Mohamed Razik Mohamed Ramzy for hate speech being declared illegal have put the court solidly on the side of the democratic rights of the people.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe Port of Colombo is the largest and busiest transshipment port in the Indian Ocean. It has been operating at more than 90 percent utilization since 2021, signaling its need for additional capacity. The US government investment of USD 553 million in Colombo port has come as a surprise. There were no public indications of this massive investment in one of the country’s most strategic assets. The investment will be in the Western Terminal of Colombo port which was offered to the Adani Group in India after the joint Japan-India bid to obtain control over the long established Eastern Terminal was blocked by trade union protests. The trade unions took the position that they did not wish the workers to be put under new management and to sell a national asset to foreigners. But the hand of geopolitics was believed to be behind the protests as China too controls a major terminal in Colombo port.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe national priority ought to be reviving the economy, getting the production process underway, and distributing the costs of debt repayment in an equitable way among the rich and poor. Only those who are unscathed by the economic collapse would consider the national priority to be reform of the electoral system. With presidential elections due in less than a year President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken it upon himself to embark upon a course of electoral reforms of major proportions for which he has appointed a presidential commission of inquiry. He appears to have done so without consultations with opposition parties or civil society. A group of senior lawyers issued a statement which highlights the irrelevance and duplication inherent in this initiative. The Lawyers Collective said that, “according to the Constitution, the Elections Commission is already mandated to issue guidelines to the media and political parties for the proper conduct of elections. It has also prepared numerous reports on many of the matters outlined in the Gazette Notification.”

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government is coming up with many new laws, some of which have been positively viewed and others negatively. Among the positives have been the new anti-corruption law and the truth commission bill with the latest being the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) bill. The negatives, however, outnumber the positives with the Online Safety bill and the Anti-Terrorism Act heading the list. They are both meant to suppress protests, both verbal and on the ground. There are other controversial laws hovering in the background, including the NGO control bill and the electoral reforms bill that are still to be presented to the general public or to parliament. What is common to these laws is that they have been prepared without transparency by unknown figures who keep to the background.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThere is a time frame beyond which those in power may not go, except with the consent of the people. President Wickremesinghe’s appointment of a commission of inquiry to investigate existing election laws and regulations and recommend changes has come without prior discussion or warning. It was a carefully kept secret until brought to the notice of the general public by the president’s appointment of the commission. The commission has been tasked with examining all existing election laws and regulations and making recommendations to suit current needs. According to its terms of reference the factors to which special consideration would be given include increased women and youth representation, introduction of electronic voting using modern technology instead of printed ballot papers and providing facilities for voting by Sri Lankans overseas. These are commendable. But the timing gives cause for concern.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe oft repeated comparison between the economic and political chaos that prevailed before President Ranil Wickremesinghe took office and the stability thereafter is wearing thin. Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that preaching to a hungry man is not effective is becoming increasingly relevant in the present context in which government leaders and their supporters claim that conditions in the country are improving. This claim is giving rise to an argument that is subtly and not-so-subtly being made that elections at this time could pose a danger to these gains. But the reality on the ground contradicts these assertions. The economy has been shrinking from the time of the Aragalaya to the present. The economy has yet to make the turn. In the last quarter it shrank by 3 percent, adding to the 11 percent shrinkage the previous quarter. This was on top of the 7 percent shrinkage in the last year.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe government has allocated Rs 11 billion in the provisional budget for next year for the presidential elections due in September. This is a positive indication that the government intends to hold those elections. Free and fair elections being held when due is a core concept of a functioning democracy. This was called into question earlier in the year when local government elections were postponed. They were due in March but were postponed on multiple occasions and now have been cancelled. There is no indication when they might be held. The government justified its refusal to hold those elections on the ground that the country was facing an economic crisis and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe Channel 4 documentary that claims to give the story behind the Easter bombing has restarted the debate within the country about who was behind the foul deed and why. The answer is not proving to be simple. It has become the subject of anger, threat and controversy. The identities of the suicide bombers and their victims are known. Eight suicide bombers died. 269 innocent people also died. All of the bombers were Muslim. Some of them were highly educated and came from prosperous families. They would not have wished to sacrifice their lives except for a cause they believed in as being of the utmost importance. The identity of the victims is also known. Most of them were Catholic, both Sinhala and Tamil, and 45 were foreigners. The victims also included a large number of children including the three children of Scotland’s largest landowner.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe country to which President Ranil Wickremesinghe returned after his international successes in the Americas remains in dire straits. In both Cuba and New York, the president made his mark at the podium holding his own with giants on the world stage. Addressing heads of state at the G77 Summit in Cuba, the president spoke of the significance of science, technology and innovation in shaping the future of developing nations. He referred to the new technological divide emerging in the 21st century, necessitating the adoption of digitalization and new technologies, such as Big Data, IoT, AI, Blockchain, Biotechnology and Genome Sequencing, to bridge the gap. He also reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment to supporting the new Havana Declaration and called for the collective voice of G77 and China to be heard in international fora.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe system change the protest movement sought was focused on ending corruption seen as the main cause of the economic collapse that took place a year and a half ago. Those who joined the protest movement from all parts of the country and who came in improvised transport, including tractor trailers and lorries used for the transport of agricultural produce, came from a tradition in which the state was the benefactor of the people. What they were experiencing was suddenly the opposite. The shortage of dollars to purchase fuel, food and medicine, among other necessities was believed to have been caused by the theft of the dollars in the country and those dollars being shipped to other countries by corrupt leaders. The feeling that the leaders had left nothing for the people but had taken all the dollars to themselves caused outrage.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphThe increase in the price of petrol and diesel has been accompanied by the removal of the QR Code quota system for the purchase of fuel. The elimination of long lines of vehicles, and people, outside of the fuel stations that existed a year ago is one of the signs of normalisation that is credited to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. The tripling of fuel prices over the past year, which has now increased further, would be a key factor in reducing demand and eliminating the need for the quota system. The price hikes would also make it more attractive for foreign companies to sell fuel in Sri Lanka and make their profits. On the other hand, the impoverishment of the general population by the tripling, if not more, of most prices since the economic crisis commenced is a central feature of the present reality. The increase of petrol and diesel prices will impact on other costs which will impoverish the people still more.

Jehan Perera Colombo TelegraphIt is disappointing that the hopes that were generated a year ago by President Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding the solution to the ethnic conflict appear to be receding at present. Shortly after he was elected president, the president gave indications that he would prioritise national reconciliation. He asserted that the 13th Amendment that established provincial councils was a part of the Constitution that needed to be implemented. He also pledged to solve the ethnic conflict by the time the country was celebrating its 75th anniversary on February 4. More than six months later there has been no progress on this matter. On the contrary there has been a reversal with influential voices questioning the need for the provincial council system growing louder even as faith in the president’s power to effect change from the top continues to grow.

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