By Kumar David –
President; Untried criminals; Electricity chaos; PM & bonds; Budget
Open any newspaper, enter any conversation, pause for a chat between sips at the bar, it’s always the same; grumble, grumble, bitch and mumble. People with contrary views converse freely tearing into the GMOA, yahapalana, or the Opposition using similar words but meaning opposites. “SAITM, what a mess” moan those who oppose private medical education and those who know the GMOA is a greedy bunch of closed-shop brigands. “The duo at the top has no spine” exclaim citizens who want political murderers prosecuted and billion-rupee thieves thrown into prison; but others who wish the blackguards would away scot-free echo the same refrain. In this piece, for better for worse, I will take an unambiguous stand on some of these issues and perhaps inspire others to state what they mean without six-of-this and half-a-dozen-of-that ambiguity.
The chameleon president
The Supreme Court has ruled that the term of office of President Sirisena is five years. That’s it, full stop, matter closed. Speaking for the UNP, Lakshman Kiriella said the President should have consulted the UNP before approaching Court. Rubbish, why does he need UNP blessing to clarify his term limits? A second issue: Is Sirisena morally obliged not to seek a second term in view of the pledges he gave? Yes. Is he legally debarred from backpedalling? Of course not. What if the public disapproves of a second term? Well, it will declare its verdict at the polling booth. That’s it; cut and dry. I hope you are with me thus far.
But Sirisena is also a peddler of bogus religiosity. Who gave him the right to decide whether adult female persons can buy a bottle or have a shot, unaccompanied, at a bar? Humbug, vote catching, outdated, cultural hypocrisy! Sirisena is intent on forcing his bigotry down other people’s throats. If my mother, aunts, wife or daughter want to buy a bottle or have a shot, it’s nobody else’s business, the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka included. My formidable grandmother in Jaffna gulped two-fingers of ‘Old Stuff’ every Sunday after a gingili oil rub and well-side head-bath. She would purchase the bottle herself; nobody dared obstruct her. And which nincompoop issued the 20-10-17 Gazette notice prohibiting the tapping of coconut trees for toddy w.e.f. 5-1-18?
We have watched bigotry inflicted as policy by Sirisena for three years. It’s time to say “We’re Fed Up!” Hope Mangala keeps up the fight, parochial male chauvinism must be castrated. Sirisena hopes to syndicate patriarchy with Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism in his bulath-kole versus poroppaya battle, but that’s his problem. Let the rest of us be forthright and not soft peddle criticism of obscurantism; this country needs to move forward. Oh, for a Ceylonese Kemal Ataturk!
To give credit where credit is due, despite the odd rumour or two, I have no reason, to the best of my knowledge, to doubt that the President, in contrast to some predecessors, is honourable in financial/monetary matters. When he bares a sword to decapitate the corrupt, I support and only ask: “What took you so long?”
Criminality and corruption
Murders, indictable rights violations and mega-scale corruption under the previous regime. Let there be no ambiguity; the perception on all sides is that no action is taken because the top does not want to. The Lasantha murder inquiry could not have stalled unless President or Prime Minister, or both, wanted it that way. No intelligent person buys “the Attorney General’s Department is slow”, “unavoidable delays” and such poppycock. There is no way so many murder and graft prosecutions against top Rajapaksas could be so long delayed, or stalled, without explicit, obviously verbal, instructions from the top. The public is fed up and will not be duped any longer.
A telling example is DBS Jeyaraj in the Daily Mirror of 13 Jan 2018 where he makes a damning indictment. He says, briefly; the murders are known to the police and have been questioned; the telephone from which the order to kill went has been identified; the chain of command is known; the hit squad operated out of Manning Market; the commanding officer has been questioned. Hence Jeyaraj argues that Lasantha’s murder could not have happened without orders from top; the then top triumvirate in defence-military was Mahinda-Gota-Fonseka. Now Gota “enjoys a special relationship” with Sirisena and Fonseka is a minister in the government. Jeyaraj leaves nothing to the imagination.
The point is that sleuths and prosecutors have the evidence they need and ready to prosecute but cannot get a green light from the top. This is all known to journalists but no one has made such an explicit indictment and exposé of the highest levels. Neither President nor Prime Minister have denied the story though it is obvious where the finger points.
I have devoted two paras to this not only because it is a heinous crime and an example of state collaboration in the perversion of justice, but also because it is the story of other criminal and corrupt acts the government is unwilling to pursue – Ekneligoda, Podddala, Trinco-5, 17 ACF aid workers and the killing of Jaffna journalists. The operative word is unwilling, not unable or lacking evidence. The blockage is not in the CID, nor the Commercial Crimes Division, nor the AG, not even in a lack of political will; rather a decision has been taken not to pursue these cases. Three reasons; political leaders protect each other and their families, prosecuting criminals in uniform will create a Sinhala backlash, and thirdly, other heads in Cabinet will be loped-off when the tumbrils begin to roll.
Chaos in the electricity sector
I am tired of explaining that dumping Sampur was a blunder that will drive us into darkness and billions (not millions) in losses. Pandemonium has reached Cabinet; darkness may strike in 2018 and worsen in 2019-23. Two panicky Ministers have abruptly proposed 1200 MW of coal power in lieu of 500 MW of coal power at Sampur which was dismissed as too polluting! Sampur could have been made as “clean” as any “clean-coal” alternative. And there is also a push to rush 300 MW of immensely expensive oil-fired power. I warned over and over that the Sampur cancellation will lead to a Rs 220 billion cost overrun. I was conservative, it’s going to be more.
A panic-stricken government is flustering like a headless chicken, if the front pages of the Sunday Times of 14 Jan and Ceylon Today of 15 Jan, are believed. The two Ministers somersaulted and changed tack to 1000MW of gas-fired power and a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal of one million tons capacity. The floating LNG terminal, when all gets done, will cost about $600 million. A 1 GW (1000 MW) gas-fired power plant will be another $1000 million ($1 billion). Yes, the capital cost of coal is higher than gas, but fuel is cheaper so overall electricity is cheaper. Having thrown away a fully designed and financed option at Sampur, it will take 5 to 6 years to conclude a $1.6 billion financial agreement, and design, award tenders and build. And then, a floating regassification facility is only a stop gap, a fixed LNG harbour-terminal is essential if we are serious about gas.
Ms Namini Wijedasa and Ms Niranjala Ariyawansha, authors of the stories, say Cabinet has approved and the line Ministry instructed CEB to use a strange, rarely used mechanism called Swiss Challenge. This is where a favoured vendor puts up a proposal and competitors have to bid to lower the price of that plant and design. In-house CEB led designs and alternative proposals are locked out. You can buy any colour of petticoat, provided it is orange! But this is not the worst. The CEB will be locked into a one-million tons per year take or pay gas purchase contract at seller’s (project counter-partner and financer) price, the stories say. LNG prices fluctuate but if we use prevailing rates the CEB will be locked into a (say) $500 million per annum take or pay contract. That is, take the full quota, a part, or none at all, but always cough up the full amount.
Another term of this is ‘sucker’s contract foisted on a mutt who has been taken for ride once before on an oil hedge’. Why oh why can’t the government make use of competent expertise and transparent technical and economic processes? We are in for another cock-up, perhaps unintended (I am not alleging corruption), that will make the bond scam look like seenibola.
PM and bond scam
So much has been said in the media and so many heads broken in parliament that I have little to add. I will repeat my pet refrain in three sentences. I do not believe the Prime Minister is corrupt. I do believe that he has shown lousy judgement in appointing and defending Mahendran. And third, how would the UNP and Sirisena-supporters have found the money for a presidential election to match Rajapaksa’s golden horde of loot? Would you rather have had Rajapaksa for a third term? No thanks, not this correspondent. Sometimes Lenin got the Bolsheviks to break banks. Debts have to be repaid; I promised to be frank and am keeping my word.
My refrain on the correct economic direction for Lanka has been: A state directed strategy, with foreign state-assistance, private-public partnerships, and ample space for domestic and foreign private capital. That’s a generalisation; the short sharp question in line with the style of this piece is “What do I make of Mangala’s budget”. The, constraint that this government can only offer a liberal bourgeois road-map is taken as given. Then Mangala’s budget is forward looking and sensible; in the context of this characterisation of the government, the budget should be supported. Ranil hallucinates neoliberalism, Mangala envisions private enterprise led expansion. Poppycock, the state is running the show (Colombo Harbour City, Hambantota Economic Zone, Indian, Japanese and Korean state-financed power plants, proposed ECTA and Trinco economic zone, highway and rail modernisation, an LNG terminal). FDI, what FDI! Where is it? Hotels and luxury apartments! Ranil and Mangala, in their imagination, court free enterprise; in real life they have no option but to walk the plank. Dream on, just stick with a dirigisme strategy in practice; you have no choice anyway.