9 August, 2020

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Pinwheels Of Fortune

By Dharisha Bastians –

Dharisha Bastians

If there is one thing the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa loves, it is to put on a grand show. Domestically and internationally, the regime has excelled at marketing its smallest successes to great effect. As it prepares to strut upon the global stage for the performance of a lifetime, the ruling administration is pulling out all stops to showcase Sri Lanka’s paradise potential, economic promise and political stability. Blown away by the pomp, pageantry and red cement sidewalks, who will stop to look just beneath the surface of the CHOGM beautification?

Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzammil has appealed to the patriotic sensibilities of the city’s residents. A special notice issued by him kindly requests Colombo residents with homes facing main roads in the capital to break down boundary walls where possible, paint the exteriors and grow flower gardens. The Mayor, the main opposition UNP’s sole elected head of a local government authority, also appealed for residents to illuminate their homes or offices with electric bulbs while CHOGM is in progress, to “display the Sri Lankan pride”.

The City of Colombo, where heads of Government of dozens of Commonwealth countries will meet in just over three weeks, is in the throes of an unprecedented overhaul. The Government appears resolute in its decision to ensure every major road in Colombo that will accommodate VIP motorcades next month will look its best. To that end, for the next three weeks, Sri Lankan citizens will endure gridlock traffic conditions caused by gaping holes, yellow construction tape and men at work on virtually every road leading in and out of the city.

Uneven concrete blocks are being replaced with red and grey paving stones to give urban sidewalks a contemporary, clean, and most of all, uniform look. The upgrade is part of a World Bank-funded Metro Urban Colombo Development Project, carried out under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. It is being accelerated ahead of the biggest global conference the city has seen since the Non Aligned Movement Summit in 1976.

CHOGM insignia

On finished roads, illuminated water features have emerged and the CHOGM branding is already up. The five-hued CHOGM pinwheel decorates every big round-about in the city, occasionally catching a passing breeze. It’s not really a pinwheel of course. The CHOGM 2013 logo is a blue water lily, Sri Lanka’s national blossom, with its coloured petals symbolising the unity and diversity of the Commonwealth membership. At the heart of the flower, a chequered globe drawn from the Commonwealth logo gels nicely with the summit slogan: CHOGM Sri Lanka – A world within.

But the pinwheel seems a more apt description, given how President Rajapaksa made winning the summit for Colombo in the face of stringent international opposition look like child’s play.

Against all odds and at great cost to the Commonwealth in general and the Secretary General’s office in particular, Sri Lanka will play host at the organisation’s biennial summit on 15 November. The regime’s own brand of shrewd backroom diplomacy, coercion and its remarkable capacity to win over officials at the Commonwealth Secretariat put the organisation’s Western lobby to shame in the months of wrangling over the summit venue.

Crowning glory

That the Commonwealth’s biggest meeting takes place in a State that 11 months ago unconstitutionally impeached its Chief Justice, shot dead protestors at a demonstration for clean water, permitted the meteoric rise of violent extremist groups threatening religious minorities and boasts the highest number of outstanding disappearances in the world next to Iraq, might damage the credibility of the 60-year-old organisation. But for the Rajapaksa Administration, four years after it won a massive victory over the LTTE, CHOGM is going to be its crowning moment. It is the regime’s first real international victory in years.

In the final month before the summit, the stage-setting for this grand performance is underway. CHOGM visitors will enter the capital on a new expressway from the airport and be treated to views of well-lit streets, manicured islands, flowerpots and pinwheels at every street corner. As with any major international event in Sri Lanka, beggars, shanty dwellers and stray dogs are the first casualties of the mop up. Beggars are being shooed off the streets and will likely be given a temporary home at the Welikada prison. On the Katunayake Expressway, shanty covers have been deployed to shield VIP travellers from a view of Colombo’s unsightly underbelly, lurking always at the corners in spite of the Government’s best efforts. The dogs are much less fortunate.

The Khuram Shaikh case

Of course the cosmetic physical arrangements were not quite adequate to sway the majority of the Commonwealth in an age when Sri Lanka is facing intense criticism on its governance and rights record. This past year the Government has made it a point to roll out certain metaphorical covers weeks or days ahead of a major international event. These are valiant yet blatantly transparent attempts on the part of the Rajapaksa Administration to demonstrate progress on those fronts the international community is being particularly bothersome about.

Ahead of a visit by the UN’s Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, the regime made heady progress. The President set up a Disappearances Commission comprising eminently respectable commissioners, the Government announced the reopening of an investigation into the killing of 17 aid workers in Muttur and his administration arrested 12 suspects – all of them security forces personnel – in connection with the murders of five young boys in Trincomalee in 2006.

The latter was a case of particular interest to High Commissioner Pillay, who has raised the Trinco-5 murders in every report to the UN Human Rights body on Sri Lanka. Oddly enough, the names of the 12 Special Task Force officers were never revealed. The Government merely announced that there were 12 suspects remanded in connection with the case, one of them an Assistant Superintendent of Police. But at least the non-summary proceedings into what is almost certainly a case of summary execution were reportedly underway.
In the past six months or so, with CHOGM looming, multiple steps were taken to ensure summit organisers would not get jittery. Swift action has been assured on several fronts and the conduct of the northern election in September was a major concession to the Commonwealth and the UN. But CHOGM also required one grand gesture – one that would speak straight to its heart. With Britain chomping at the bit over the Government’s rights record, the Khuram Shaikh murder case became the perfect bait.

Indictments

As early as July 2013, reports were swirling around Temple Trees that indictments would be filed against suspects in the Christmas Day murder of the British tourist and the brutal rape of his girlfriend in Tangalle in 2011. The chief suspect in the murder is ruling party strongman and Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Sampath Vidanapathirana; the violence took place in the Rajapaksa heartland. The punishment of loyalists and cronies has never come easy to the administration, no matter how grave the crime. The Vidanapathirana indictment was a bitter but inevitable pill that had to be swallowed. The only silver lining was to ensure it could be done to exact maximum mileage internationally.

In these columns on 1 August, it was reported that Shaikh’s murderers would be indicted days or weeks ahead of the Commonwealth summit in Colombo. This week, the Attorney General referred the indictments to the Tangalle High Court, which will in turn transfer the high profile case to the Colombo High Court, according to Additional Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath. The indictments are still pending but likely before the end of week, according to sources at the AG’s Department. The indictments will be served up as a special gift to the British Government which has decided in the face of unprecedented opposition from every quarter, to send its Prime Minister to attend the Colombo summit.

By the time CHOGM opens on 15 November, Sampath Vidanapathirana may be facing trial for his grotesque crime. The real question though is what his fate will be once the CHOGM wagon packs up and leaves these shores late next month.

Two steps back

Weeks after Pillay’s departure from Colombo, the Trinco-5 STF suspects were released on bail, with stern warnings by the Trincomalee Magistrate to refrain from intimidating witnesses in the case. Following the initial announcement in July, there has been no word from the Government about the investigation into the death of 17 aid workers in Muttur. The military report on Weliweriya was never made public. Hardline Sinhala groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, quiet for months leading up to the Pillay visit, are flexing their muscles again, readying for another anti-Muslim onslaught euphemised as an ‘Anti-Halal campaign’.
After the impeachment of a Chief Justice independent Commonwealth jurists found had violated the organisation’s own Latimer House Principles on judicial independence and removal of senior judges, the Supreme Court headed by a former Government advisor moves to deny the fundamental rights of suspects arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Ganeshan Nimalaruban, the Vavuniya prison inmate who died in custody following a prison riot, bruised and bloody from assaults to his limbs, was arbitrarily pronounced a terrorist in the Supreme Court, even though he was never found guilty of the charge in any court of law.

In the post-CHOGM era, it is not difficult to guess what Sampath Vidanapathirana’s fate might be.

The ruling administration’s hyper development drive has been roundly criticised for being showpieces with little impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, with some exceptions to the rule. The regime has borrowed billions to construct an idling airport, a southern port that ships must be legally compelled to call at and convention halls in the middle of nowhere. The economic peace dividend is yet to reach the ordinary citizen; if anything, post war the financial burden has increased phenomenally. Investments in the health and education sectors are few and far between; what is the point in investing in areas that cannot be crowed about since the results are – at least in the short term – intangible?

Beautification

CHOGM beautification is not very different. Communities of less-desirables will be evicted from the city and social injustice, the erosion of civil liberties, impunity and institutional breakdown continues apace. But the roads will be paved, pretty fountains erected and visitors to the country will see Colombo residents walking on sidewalks paved in bright red.

Renowned artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara produced a gripping portrayal of this strange duplicity in an exhibition aptly titled ‘Beautification’ in June this year. On fresh paving stones coloured red and grey, Thenuwara depicted a decapitated goddess of justice, her scales broken and discarded; he embossed human bones, long forgotten and glossed over under the fresh cement stones. In some sections of the paving, Thenuwara had painted camouflage; in others he had embossed barbed wire. His artistic rebellion was a poignant story of contemporary Colombo, where cosmetic changes lapped up by urbanites are steadily erasing the memory of victims and injustice.

Crown Sri Lanka

Sometimes of course, even the well-laid plans of an all-powerful Government are subverted. Plans to enact legislation to permit the construction of a mega casino complex in the heart of Colombo by Australian casino mogul James Packer were shelved by the Government this week amid protests from within its coalition and strong opposition to the move from the UNP, the JVP and the Congress of Religions.

The victory is a significant one for the Opposition and civil society, but despite these early setbacks, there is little doubt that Crown Sri Lanka will get its massive tax holiday and open its doors in 2017. While the proposed income tax cuts for a gaming establishment defies logic and must be checked, at the heart of the casino controversy is the regime’s duplicity. It is not only in gross violation of its polls promises to usher in a ‘dharmishta’ , it is also apparently willing to offer tax breaks to the world’s richest businessmen, all the while taxing the life out of the citizenry.

Crown Sri Lanka’s official promotional video if anything highlights this disparity in a capital city that is increasingly serving only the interests of the super rich. Moving to the soundtrack of a popular patriotic song by performers Bhathiya and Santhush, the clip features the proposed resort facility with water effects on the Beira Lake to rival any Las Vegas gaming centre. Across the lake, ordinary Sri Lankans, strolling near the Gangaramaya Seemamalakaya with children on their shoulders, stare in awe at the amazing water effects in front of the resort.

With no major Government revenue likely from Packer because of the offered tax breaks, the ostentatious gaming resort will result in no significant improvement in the lives of Sri Lankan citizens. On the contrary, the Packer deal may make matters worse for all but a handful of individuals who stand to profit from the deal-making prospects the mega project has to offer.

Inadvertently, Crown Sri Lanka’s promoters have cottoned on to exactly the kind of capital Colombo is becoming, all lights and sound, always with ordinary citizens on the outside looking in.

But the plight of ordinary folk will not weigh heavily on a Government that is looking forward to playing gracious host to high profile world leaders three weeks from now. Starting on 15 November, Sri Lanka will assume the chair of a major international organisation. It will face another tumultuous session at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next March as chair of the Commonwealth. There might be some bad press overseas, but at home, CHOGM will portray President Mahinda Rajapaksa as being at the pinnacle of the world community as his Government goes into a year of likely national elections.

As far as the President is concerned, the lucky pinwheel is spinning firmly in his favour.

Courtesy Daily FT

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Latest comments

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    The problem is too many Tamilians living in Colombo.

    They are always against SL. Whatever SL tries they try to disrupt.

    Send them to TN before CHOGM (or at least after).

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      So true Fathima Fuskushima. Are you related to me? Tamilians and Muslims and also the Sinhala Colombo elite are always against this democratically elected king when he tries to do something good. Our king is doing his best his countrymen but they dont apprciate him. If those Casinos are open how many our Sinhala Buddhist youth will be provided with jobs. Hundreds of our Sinhala girls can earn quick bucks selling their body. All these are thanks to one family.

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      Khuram Shaikh case tells it all, UK parliamentarian had to visit Sri Lanka to get the judicial proceeding started on this day time Murder/Rape case, in front of dozens of eyewitnesses & Price Charles recent outburst made this mad Govt. to think of a sort of “trial at bar” situation, perhaps a show-off just for the CHOGM, later on charges would be withdrawn for lack of witnesses etc.

      So even the justice is done in this way, any wonder Ms Navi Pillay had guts to say in Colombo , SL slipping towards dictatorship ?? simply because of impotent UNP, without a proper leader.

      Where is justice to 03 citizens killed when asked for Drinking water in Weliweriya ??

      Rampant Corruption, that too on mega White Elephants is the hall mark of Govt. surviving due to War victory , but should know Churchill won the war & lost election , perhaps days are numbered.

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        Do english tourists deserve a different justice than the Sri Lankans get ? . Really . the systems is slow for everybody .

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      Fathima Fukishima, I am Zahira College. Well Casino will recruit Anandian Nalandian and Gothami and Balika Budhist pupils…. :) we Muslims are Dummy as per Sinhala people as they say. Well All the best

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    Canada has seen through the web of deceit created by Rajapaksa and is making noises and staying away. Britain, despite knowing the facts, is trapped in a difficult situation because of its position as the leader of the commonwealth. Australia has struck a deal with the regime to curb illegal immigration and New Zealand has a lot to lose economically if it stays away. Many of the third world countries in the Commonwealth have dictators like Rajapaksa ruling their countries and CHOGM for them is an opportunity to have a grand tamasha. They don’t care about democracy or good governance, are they?

    However, Rajapaksa is not going to get away scot free. The worldwide clamour for accountability and justice has been so loud that Canada, Britain and some other countries are going to ask some difficult questions from the regime and spoil the party for Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa’s charm may not save him this time.

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      Pranha, Well Said… yes indeed

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    A lot of show without substance. A facade of prosperity and affluence but the hollow reality of people submerged in poverty and debt. The regime caters for a few families, sycophants and henchmen. They hobnob with the international mafia and crooks. Nothing in this for the ordinary people. They can spin their pin wheels at Gall Face, walk on the expressway for a couple of days and thats it.

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    James Packer’s Casino and the John Keels venture are expected to have the potential to increase the number of tourists by 50 to 100% and most of them in the rich category.

    The income tax breaks are for the construction and profits from the operation after paying the 5% turnover tax on betting, applicable for all pioneering ventures exceeding the stipulated minimum investment . Vat of 20% from all the hotel and travel expenses is a significant source of revenue. Sri Lanka with a business takeover act that enables the government to takeover any business, can only get 5% betting tax on this pioneering venture, while Singapore, Malaysia and Macau get up to 40%. I hope the agreement allows the government to increase the betting tax at the end of the stipulated period.

    It was a mistake to introduce the bill without including all the restrictions imposed by Malaysia and Singapore on restricting the use of the facility by resident Sri Lankans.

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    In a lighter vein, holding an international conference every two years, each in a different city in Sri Lanka, may in addition to beautifying these cities, also ensure better governance and dispensation of justice in the country!

    Thank you, Dharsha Bastians, for a well written story that portrays the pretence, hypocrisy and falsehood that are being enthroned as the new religion of Sri Lanka. Paint the front of the houses and not the back! Request to light up houses, when people are forced to have only one or two bulbs burning, due to the cost of electricity! Request to break the front walls, when even school principals are not safe in their office and 41 years old mothers are not safe from the depradation of teenage boys, on our streets!

    How divorced can the ruling class be from ground realities? They are indeed assuming the visiting heads of state and their entourages are as stupid as the Sri Lankan citizens are taken to be,

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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      Agree with you. I think they should bring the Commonwealth Secretariat to Colombo,Sri Lanka, where the wealth is not common at all.

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      Seems a generation ago that you were lauding the regime for “development”

      I wonder what changed? Did you get discarded like karuvapillai (curry leaves) after usage?

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        Dev,

        I was ‘Lauding’ even a few days back! I am sad you did not notice it. I will continue to “laud’ until the ‘Lord’ takes me away!

        Dr.RN

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          The good Lord will call us all ! When he calls…he really calls !

          I guess you are continuing to look for “perks” from the regime !

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            Thanks to the ‘ Lord’ I have no need to do so! I do not need any perks and can live with the pricks from you and others. I have with age become indifferent to both praise and pricks. I will continue to laud and applaud what I see are right and point out and deride what I see are wrong.

            Dr.RN

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    When I read your articles it is hard to say that there is no press freedom in Sri Lanka. Many independent readers and observers may like to know who is fooling whom?????

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      The smarter conclusion would have been that there are still a handful of gutsy journalist around DESPITE the lack of press freedom

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    Why bother. The government has displayed enough of it.

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    Richmond Peries may i correct you. Please remember that Colombo Telegraph is banned by the regime. Press freedom exists in its duplicity. Must i recall how many journalists have fled this country. You may be one who is short sighted and gets carried away by the paved walkway. I recommend you go and live in the real world out there where poverty is rampant and people are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea which is sadly an impotent opposition. You may not be a victim of blatant injustice having to see your child raped by a savage politician who then makes sure the victim does not enter school. Experience reality and then you would see how free this country is. I dare you to file a case against any powerful politician who abuses public property. I therefore urge you to live in the real world and not the world of snow flakes that this country is put through since the bravery of the foot soldier saved it from the clutches of a war mongrel . Whether that sacrifice has brought the people of this country true happiness and prosperity i leave you to ponder over a pot of pure ceylon tea.

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    Thank You Dharisha for this well crafted article. Michael has given an excellent caution to the comment of Richmond. The psychopathic Rajapaksa’s and their opportunistic regime are indeed making hay on the naivete of the ordinary Sri Lankan – the wellspring of their much touted democratic licence. Now MR’s crowning glory will be the CHOGM and his following chairmanship of this moribund organistion – one that he will make maximise use for local consumption.

    The Commonwealth leaders who do turn up will not worry; none of what will happen in Colombo is utimately likely to have any long term impact on their local standings and in the nature of these events everyone will have ‘a nice time’.

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      Yes Kolla (Naakiyenda danneth nahe but its OK)you damn right. These people are so jealous with our Boss. They know nothing about the secret connection our Lokka has with USA UK & India. What if we pull out all our family funds invested in the US which is already in serious trouble with its economy. The jealous people think that our lokka hiding the Gold and Money in Swaziland or in China hik hik hik….
      USA or UK will do nothing to us. As long as we take care of them they will keep our lokka in power while Ranil Rajapaksa, Sajith Rajapaksa & Karu Rajapaksa involved in a trangular love or kill each other ..hik hik hik….

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    Darisha:
    Alhough James Packer is considered a Casino Mogul it looks his fortunes are truning the other way. Here’s a report in a news website last week:
    (quote)
    Las Vegas, known as ‘Sin City’ and tolerates all forms of adult entertainment has a casino center owned by James packer.
    However, foreign media reports that Packer is finding himself in the same financial trouble that plagues so many and is cutting back. The Sunday Telegraph has reported that Packer has put his $50 million 165-foot luxury yacht the Z Ellerston up for sale, has pushed back the purchase of a private Boeing jet and has held up construction of the huge backyard pool complex planned for Ellerston, the family property near Scone. Packer has also put a three-level apartment in London’s Mayfair area up for sale. He also recently sold his stake in Consolidated Pastoral Company for about $425 million.
    Also, the Crown Las Vegas, the tallest casino in Las Vegas, was set to build by James Packer has been scrapped due to financial hardships (Unquote
    Since he is in great financial difficulty, he wants to move in his business to Sri Lanka to enjoy the tax-breaks no other country/ government would offer other than Mahinda Rajapakse regime. This is unwritten part of “Mahinda Chinthana” and “Mahinda Chinthanaya Idiridekma”

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    An exellant analysis of the situation today. However it is obvious by the recent election results that the average srilankan citizen is carried away by the grandiose shows staged by the Rajapaksha regime. Their psyche is such that what appeals to them is not thrift, honesty and a rule of law but antics for cheap popularity;singing on election platforms, caressing and fondling babies are examples.Therefore people like us who are a minority are compelled to grin and bear with their ridiculous behavior of the Rajapaksha brothers and their cohorts as the average citizen who are a part of the majority seem to revel in it.
    I am waiting for the day when the taxes of all essential items are increased to cover up the expenses of the CHOGUM. Lets see who will have the last laugh.

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    Thanks Micheal. This is my reply to your comments.
    1. I am sure Dharisha Bastians lives in Sri Lanka and appears on other news media as well. As long as a journalist knows her/his journalistic limitations s/he can critique and criticize anything and anyone (particularly in advanced democracies). Transplanted democracies like that of Sri Lanka need a lot of improvements and adjustments in order to expand those limitations. Under any circumstances, you won’t get a Carte Blanche to attack opponents unfairly while covering behind journalistic freedom, especially on matters, dubious, unsubstantiated, probable, and unjustifiable. Journalism is a sacred profession; if you criticize, do it with discipline, compassion and full knowledge of facts and circumstances.
    2. Your 2nd point is a question: “how many journalists have fled the country” You could also expand it by asking how many had been murdered! However, after the war against LTTE was over in May 2009, these numbers have dwindled to a comparatively negligible level. (Please correct me if I’m wrong but do not bring up dubious cases). It is also not justifiable to mix the numbers of pre-war period with those of the post-war. However, if you are eyeing on an ‘international’ journalism award or political asylum in the West you need to bash SL President. We know very well that MR or his government is not the favorite of the West!
    3. 3rd point is poverty and the ‘impotent Opposition’. I agree. However, is it fair to criticize only this Government for all ills? At least this government took key decisions on eradicating terrorism, infrastructure development, tourism, resettlement, northern PC and the most important: free movement within SL. Just like the ‘impotent’ Opposition, you may criticize all these by pinpointing some of their negative aspects, but how would that help? Anybody has a tailor-made comprehensive national development plan handy for Mother Lanka?
    4. Your 4th point is the injustice to children or child rape. It is fair to say that Sri Lanka is not an exception in this inhuman act. Have you read the plight of Aboriginal teenagers (both boys and girls) and women in Canada, not in the distant past but in this 21st century? Do you know that certain religious establishments were at the forefront of these abuses with blessings from Canadian authorities? Just like Sri Lanka, Canada is trying to find out a solution for this complex and controversial issue which has ethnic underpinnings.
    5. Your last point: politicians’ abuse of public property is obviously a plague in Sri Lanka. Elected politicians are entitled to hefty salaries, perks, tax-free vehicles and a staff that do their private work all paid by tax-payers! They and their cronies engage themselves in illicit activities related to drugs, intimidations, bribes, and plundering natural resources. Their unethical justification is that they protected the MR Government from internal and external enemies at various levels on various occasions particularly when the President was in need of a majority vote. Here, MR seems to be playing a tactful game with them and he knows he would need a majority vote in the future too. Can you blame him or do you have an over-night solution for him under the current volatile circumstances? Even in Canada, Prime Minister Harper is struggling with a Senate scandal involving Pamela Wallen and Mike Duffy: 2 prominent journalist-turned senators who have allegedly swindled public money. Remember that’s not in Sri Lanka, but in Canada: an advanced, developed, stable and ‘transparent’ democracy!

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