By Kumar David –
A review of where this government has arrived at, as we approach its mid-term point, will have to be done in segments. Today I will deal with seven controversial embroilments originating in the first span of the Sirisena-Ranil (S&R) duumvirate. In the order in which they surfaced they are:-
- Sidelining the war-crimes/human-rights UNHRC processes.
- Lack of success in prosecutions of alleged Rajapaksa clan mega-sleaze culprits and inner circle murders. A dead-end in the Lasantha and Ekneligoda cases and ‘white-van’ investigations.
- The Central Bank bond “scam”.
- Dumping the Sampoor coal power-plant.
- Fraud in a coal purchase deal that appalled even the Supreme Court.
- A proposal for an economic development zone in Hambantota cum 99-year harbour and land lease; maybe another economic zone proposal with India in Trinco.
- The private medical college, Medical Council, Appeal Court and GMOA fracas.
There are other contentious issues in which S&R are enmeshed but either they are inherited or will blow over. Two mountains Lanka needs to scale before it get can anywhere are the deadlock on the constitution and hither-and-thither vacillation on economic fundamentals, but they belong to a different genre from the seven bulleted above. I have packed my comments tight and importune readers to reflect on and unpack the multiple underlying implications.
Most Sinhalese refuse to contemplate prosecution of military personnel for war-crimes and human-rights violations be the judges foreign, or locals who may bring negative verdicts. The masses would rather forget about any tribunal and insist there is nothing to investigate as only terrorists were bumped-off. Privately they say that those caught in the cross-fire deserved it and in any case “We killed only our Tamils, it’s our sovereign right and no business of outsiders”. Nothing will come of the UNHRC tribunal so long as Sirisena remains president – three more years – and Sinhala opinion stays dyed in the wool – the foreseeable future. Cosponsoring the Geneva resolution was to sideline it and the 34-th UNHCR session next month will be another whitewash. Diaspora importuning is futile since Lanka has achieved regime change, the international community’s priority. Lanka’s masses are more backward and reactionary than R&S so it’s not fair to cut too much from the duumvirate’s mid-term grading since we must distinguish between forced and unforced errors.
Though this is not surprising, the stasis on the second bullet point does take me by surprise.
Prosecution without teeth
In January and August 2015 I thought more would have been achieved by now. The riddle is why not? There are three theories, all plausible. I no longer buy the yarn that these are complex matters and it takes much time to prosecute successfully; maybe a case or two, but not all. One theory is that state investigative and prosecutorial bodies are riddled with Mahinda scum who undermine action; a second is that President Sirisena is beholden to “his” SLFP Ministers; many are known crooks and fear that the law will reach them. A third reason is a presumed tacit compact between the Rajapaksas and the Wickremesinghes not to go after each other or their immediate families. Ranil you will recall was spared during the Rajapaksa killing spree. The reason for quietus in successful prosecutions is presumably a combination of all three. Marks must be cut as most errors are unforced.
I am taking a rain check; so much is in the public domain, the Auditor General and SCOPE have intervened, and the President has appointed a commission of inquiry. Let us wait. My gut feeling is that there was a scam and its purpose may have been to repay monies borrowed to fund Sirisena’s January and the UNP’s August election campaigns. Morally wrong you say! OK, but then like Casabianca the boy on the burning deck, enjoy a monster as your president for another term.
Dumping the Sampoor joint venture between CEB and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation underwritten by the Indian government, was an unpardonable unforced error by President, Cabinet and line ministry (Energy Resources etc). I have expertise and long experience in power planning and from this vantage I say the cancellation is a blunder. Oil fired power plant will have to be rushed in to minimise shortages in 2018-2022. The additional cumulative (for this period) cost of not having Sampoor is about Rs 220 billion – twenty times the purported loss on the bond scam, not counting economic loss from power cuts. I was on a committee and the signed report and that submitted to the authorities was different in significant respects. Some technically educated members seemed beholden to bureaucrats with vested interests or the LNG commercial lobby. The duumvirate’s marks must be cut big.
Coal tender fraud
I have read every word in the press and the sobriquet fraud is unavoidable. I am in good company if you peruse the Supreme Court judgement or read the statement of the fired-for-whistle-blowing Lanka Coal Chairman Maithri Gunaratne. The key player is Secretary Batagoda, but he is too small a potato to get away with mega-fraud (estimated at Rs 4.5 billion) or to line his own pocket on this scale. I am at a loss whose tune he is dancing to. A cut of S&R grades is justified.
Hambantota development zone
Creating joint ventures, facilitating development zones and using Chinese President Xi Jinping’s advice at Davos – “go forward and globalise” – is correct. In principle collaboration with China and leasing Hambantota harbour to the China Merchant Ports Holding Company (CMPHC) is necessary. (I say in principle, because specifics are being challenged in courts – the acreage contemplated, the duration of lease and some terms and conditions. Shortcomings need to be rectified). It is however incontestable that if the national economy is to get anywhere joint development with China and India is sine qua non. Bypassing international tendering and entering direct negotiations with CMPHC is also correct in the circumstances. Manik Samarawicks’ ministry statement “Rationale and way forward” is persuasive.
It is necessary to go much further. Harbour development is only a fraction of what needs to be done. The debts incurred by Mahinda madness (passive harbour, mothballed airport and vehicle-less roads) totals about $3 to $4 billion and the annual debt servicing charge on all is close to $200 million. Current returns added together are about a tenth of this. What is needed is development zone encompassing harbour, airport and industries (manufacturing, processing and servicing). The airport is a sepulchre, dead as a doornail; it has to be turned into an aviation servicing, repair and maintenance hub. The navigational attraction of the harbour is overrated – modern ships don’t need intermediate bunkering and Hambantota will never be match Singapore as a transhipment point. It is only a huge industrial zone using the harbour and aircraft maintenance that may be able to pull Mahinda’s madness up by its shoe strings. If the government gets this right I am prepared to award lots of bonus points.
Private medical degrees
I have no sympathy for the GMOA and its campaign to run a closed-shop of medical practitioners – vide its attempts to scuttle ECTA and to restrict opportunities for medical education. I have confidence in Prof Carlo Fonseka and do not believe that he intends to harm private students – you just can’t do that after a lifetime teaching young people. My experience in similar situations in engineering (I have been on both sides of the table many times) is that the accrediting body lays out bridging course requirements when a programme is not up to the spec, the university designs top-up programmes in consultation, and things fall into place even if graduation is delayed by a semester.
I accept the ruling of the Appeal Court, unless and until it is reversed by the Supreme Court. This is not to say that SAITM is good or bad or its degrees worthy or otherwise. What I mean is in principle there is nothing wrong with encouraging private educational institutions. A lot needs to be done to regulate standards, regularise accreditation and bring Medical and Higher Education Ordinances into alignment. What I oppose is the threat by the GMOA to limit or withdraw service or to hassle patients.
If the government caves in and fails to stand firm it is finished! S&R can earn brownie points from me if they stand firm. In the event of strike action the working age limits should raised and retired or diaspora doctors brought; consideration should be given to enlisting Indian and Cuban medics on contract. It is time to bring the GMOA to heel. There will be disruption, but better now than after chaos and black-mail have multiplied.