It was a power struggle of a different kind, rarely seen in the country. It was not political. It was not a trade union struggle. It was not an armed struggle.
An Executive Presidency, a two-thirds parliamentary majority, a 20th Amendment that gave more powers to the President, even a state of emergency and the appointment of a military officer as the Commissioner General of Essential Services seemed no match to the power of the “rice mafia” as the Government was forced to back down from its gung-ho approach in fighting that mafia and reverse its gazette imposing a maximum retail price for rice.
The decision to rescind the gazette issued on September 2 by the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) was taken at the Cabinet meeting held on Tuesday. The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still in the United States of America.
The stated aim of imposing a maximum retail price was to bring down the soaring rice prices, the staple food of the masses right in the stomach. Many millers chose not to sell rice at the prices imposed by the CAA, leading to the imposition of a state of emergency and the appointment of Major General N.D.S.P. Niwunhella as Commissioner General of Essential Services.
The CAA then started raiding storehouses with camera crews where rice was being hoarded and forcibly buying the stocks at prices imposed through the gazette. On TV talk shows, a finger-wagging Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage asked the rice mafia to be warned that he was out to get them.
He assured the country that there was sufficient rice. “Not a grain of rice will need to be imported once he clears all the rice hidden in go-downs,” he said. The rice stocks confiscated from the raids were then distributed through state-run Lanka Sathosa outlets. But the whole exercise was all thunder and no (g)rain proving a thorough embarrassing failure, with a severe rice shortage prevailing in the country.
It was time to take stock — not only of the rice available, but of the Government’s flagging reputation. Just hours after the Government announced its intention to rescind the gazette on the controlled price of rice; the country’s leading rice millers fronted a media conference in the rice growing North Central Province town of Polonnaruwa. During the briefing, Dudley Sirisena, chairman of Araliya Group of Companies and brother of former President Maithripala Sirisena, announced the prices at which they, the millers, would be buying paddy from farmers and the retail prices that they would be selling rice at. It was they who were going to control the prices, not the Government.
The sight of Sirisena announcing rice prices decided among a group of millers was the climax of the humiliating saga involving the Government’s ultimately futile attempt to wage war on the so-called ‘rice mafia’. No sooner that the prices were announced by the millers, rice stocks which could not be found by the authorities started rolling out and transported to retail shops.
Government Ministers in charge of the issue refused to admit defeat. Appearing before media cameras and microphones they gave sound bytes, condemning the rice millers on their paddy and rice price announcement. Consumer Protection State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna issued a statement stating that these decisions of the millers were unjustified. Beyond a vague warning that the Government would be forced to step in if anyone abused the situation created by the rescinding of the gazette, he offered no explanation on what the Government could do.
At a news conference, Agriculture Minister Aluthgamage claimed it was the Government that determined the price of paddy, but offered nothing more. Asked by journalists whether he had no “shame” to be a minister in the Government and watch Dudley Sirisena dictate rice prices, Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said he actually felt the news conference given by the millers was a good thing since it showed the people that a rice mafia was indeed present in the country. Minister Fernando who is more familiar with the local brew than with the local diet claimed the Government knew how to lower rice prices.
The option the Government is looking at now to prevent rice prices from skyrocketing even further in the coming months is to import 100,000 metric tonnes as a buffer stock, contrary to the claim of the Agriculture Minister. His cabinet colleague Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardana is being empowered to import the stocks of rice. A senior government minister told the Sunday Times that the Government hoped to start importing the rice stocks within the next two weeks and claimed it would help to keep rice prices down. Others felt the imported stock was for a buffer stock in the case of a possible future failure of the rice yield due to a different issue — the fertiliser issue.
Any moves to import rice will not hurt the large scale rice millers. Namal Karunaratne, President of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) aligned All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation (ACFF), said: “Those who can afford to and are used to consuming rice produced by these large-scale millers will not consume imported low quality rice.”
Then the question that crops again and again is the rationale of bringing imported rice that had been grown with high levels of chemical fertilisers to the country when the stated aim of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Government is to ensure that the country’s citizens consume organically grown produce. “We know that the rice that they import is grown using large volumes of chemical fertiliser and chemical pesticides. The amounts are far more than local farmers ever use. This rice will be consumed by the poorest segments of our society who cannot afford anything else, and they’ll be the ones who will suffer. The Government has also continuously stated that the country has a foreign exchange crisis, yet it is spending millions of dollars to import rice,” said Karunaratne.
The ACFF would take its agitation against the Government to a new level, warned Karunaratne. Farmers are unhappy with the Government’s inept handling of the situation. The protest campaign can go beyond just street demonstrations, he added. “We are way past that,” he said, without elaborating. In this three-cornered fight between the millers, farmers and the Government, how the consumers will get cornered remains to be seen.
Indeed, even other trade unions apart from the farmers are preparing to re-launch their protest campaigns that had been put on hold owing to the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the country. They include teachers and principals who continue to engage in trade union action over their salary anomaly issue that has been pending, they say for 24 years. Many teachers have continued to stay away from conducting online classes for more than three months. Unions have reacted angrily to plans currently underway by the Education Ministry to reopen schools in stages from this month.
“It is mystifying that the authorities are holding talks on reopening schools without first consulting teachers and principals,” Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin said. He said teachers and principals would firmly oppose any effort to reopen schools without first resolving their long-standing salary anomaly issue. “We are still optimistic of a solution but we have already had talks with trade unions such as the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) and others on forming a far broader front to carry forward our struggle,” he added.
The state of emergency
A critical question that arises now that the Government has effectively conceded defeat in the struggle against the ‘rice mafia’ is whether it will continue to keep the prevailing state of emergency in effect and whether it will use emergency laws to crack down on the protests that are in the preparatory stage now and will surely take place in the days to come. Many trade union leaders currently at loggerheads with the Government are of the view that the Government imposed a state of emergency under the cover of a “food emergency” with a different and wider objective and that being quelling public agitation by the unions that would trigger mass protests due to escalating cost of living issues.
Just after the CAA gazette rescinding the gazette on maximum retail price of rice was published, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa issued a gazette authorising the import of white sugar. Hence, the Government is turning to imports in a bid to reduce the severe shortages and rising prices in essential food items.
The Central Bank also released USD 50 million on the orders of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to two state banks on Wednesday in a bid to facilitate the clearance of some 800 containers of essential food items that had been stuck at the Colombo Port awaiting clearance for want of dollars to importers to pay foreign banks and settle their Letters of Credit. Given the claims made by government higher-ups that the state of emergency was necessary to control the prices of essential food items, the question is why the state of emergency was not rescinded along with the gazette in control prices.
The Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has a different take on the Government’s weakness in tackling the ‘rice mafia’. Its General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said: “the Government didn’t ‘give in’ to the rice mafia. It was in bed with them all along”. It is obvious to everyone now that the only reason the Government is keeping the state of emergency operative is to crack down on dissent,” he said.
A reactive opposition
Not all SJB members are happy, however, with what they see as a reactive strategy by the party rather than coming up with a long-term programme to bring down the Government. These frustrations are especially prevalent among the party’s backbenchers. Badulla District MP Chaminda Wijesiri, for instance, voiced these frustrations during a news conference on Tuesday. “As the opposition, if our only strategy is to keep pointing out the many failures of this Government, it will be our downfall, too. We need a proper long-term political programme,” he said. Mr Wijesiri added that if Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa’s plan was to rely on the failures of the Government to bring the SJB victory at the polls, the party would be seen as a joke by the people. We need a vision to rebuild the country and come out of this mess. We should lay down that vision before the people.”
Mr Wijesiri’s comments in the media naturally did not sit well with the SJB hierarchy. Without referring to the MP directly, the SJB leader Sajith Premadasa hit back on Wednesday during an event held to hand over letters of appointment to electoral organisers. “When in the opposition, any party would naturally try to come to power. We are doing that too. However, we are also doing work that no other party has ever done while in opposition,” he told the gathering, pointing to the social work the party has done during the pandemic, where he said they have handed over medical equipment amounting to more than Rs. 83 million to hospitals in 28 stages.
“None of you should be swayed by the statements of various individuals. I will accept any constructive criticism that is meaningful and good for the people. But I will not give attention to meaningless criticism, which to me is not even worth the consideration given to the dust I tread on,” he told those present.
Mr Premadasa’s comments were uploaded to his official Facebook page, along with a video of him addressing the participants. The implication was clear; since Wijesiri’s comments were made publicly, the response would be made public too. Party General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara too was critical of the young MP’s statement. “A political party has certain policies. We are the same and our policies are laid down clearly in the party constitution,” he emphasised.
Part of the opposition’s duty is to speak out against the wrongs of the Government and hold it to account, Madduma Bandara said. “That is something we are obligated to do. That should not be confused with an election strategy. That will come later.” It was only a few weeks ago that Premadasa called for an election saying the Government ought to be defeated, a comment that attracted barbs from other opposition parties for the timing of the call for an election during a raging pandemic.
While some reports stated that the SJB intends to call for explanations from Wijesiri regarding his comments in the media, the SJB General Secretary said on Friday that he had not decided to do so. As for Wijesiri, a clash between him and the SJB leadership was the furthest thing on his mind on Friday as he and his wife happily welcomed the birth of their third child.
UNP’s membership drive
The United National Party (UNP) meanwhile, is planning to launch a new membership drive on October 20, coinciding with the birth anniversary of party founder and the country’s first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake.
“We have not finalised the agenda for the programme. However, our plan is to issue digitalised identity cards for the new members,” UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara said.
Despite its electoral drubbing at the last general election with supporters defecting to the newly formed Premadasa-led SJB enmasse, the UNP still has lofty ambitions of returning to high office in the near future or at least going by what Range Bandara believes. “We are a strong party which is working towards the betterment of people. We are trying to secure a victory at a presidential election while working with a vision to develop the country at least by 2047. This is why we as party, with a strong framework decided to follow the four principles of securing economy, health, education and environment.”
The event on October 20 would be mainly focusing on new memberships, how to protect and identifying new members. The new memberships can be obtained online as well as with area members. A special honorary membership of the party is also given if a member could Pay Rs 1,000 a month. The party, however, has opted not to appoint new electoral organisers for 2021, given that organisers are appointed annually. With just three months left till the end of the year, the exercise would be futile, it has been pointed out.
Friction in Pohottuwa
And what of the ruling coalition of the Pohottuwa itself? Friction continues between the main Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its minor constituent parties over various issues, the most recent being the opposition by the smaller parties to the Government’s move to sign an agreement this week a few minutes after the witching hour of midnight on September 17 with the US-based New Fortress Energy Inc. to supply Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to West Coast Power Plant in Kerawalapitiya and to build an LNG terminal off the coast of Colombo.
Energy Minister and Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila, who has been pushing for an ambitious project aimed at setting up oil and gas drills in the Mannar Basin, could barely contain his anger during a news conference on Thursday. He had already complained that he and his officials were left out of the negotiating process that seemingly was unilaterally undertaken by Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. None of his officials had been included in any of the committees that studied the proposals submitted by the US company.
Even the Cabinet had been kept in the dark about this midnight dalliance between the Government and the US company. “The agreement with New Fortress Energy will come into force in 2023 and see them supply LNG to our power plants for five years till 2028. We believe that if we can hold our auction (for gas exploration blocks in the basin) at the end of this year, we can produce gas in this country within three years, so if we start in 2022, we should be able to start producing LNG by 2025.”
Mr Gammanpila who had just toured the United Arab Emirates to drum up support for the ambitious Mannar gas exploration project said in this scenario, the agreement now signed with New Fortress Energy to supply LNG to power plants till 2028, was “an obstacle” towards attracting foreign investors to set up gas drills in Sri Lanka. “I have submitted my observations on this to Cabinet as the Energy Minister. Whenever, this topic was discussed, our ministry has submitted our observations on the matter in writing to the Cabinet,” he stressed. The minister said their problem was not that the Government has signed an agreement giving a 40% stake in the power plant to a US firm, since many power plants in the country have private investment. “Our problem is that one US firm has been given a monopoly on supplying LNG to power plants for five years. This is a matter of energy security.”
At a well prepared TV talk show on a private channel during the week, a lot of sordid details came out on the credentials of the US company with which the Government signed this agreement in the middle of the night. One expert who has worked abroad and knew what he was talking about went as far as saying this deal was “dubious and ambiguous”. He went on to say the company initiated discussions in January this year, by March the deal seemed to have been wrapped up because their shareholders were told of the profits they could make from the Sri Lankan exercise and everything had been signed, sealed and delivered to them by September. He said the financiers were “ruthless risk takers” and go-getters.
This was the second, if not third, snub for Gammanpila within the last three months. The first was when the Government took a decision to raise the fuel prices and fathered it on him alone.
And to add insult to injury, the party officialdom asked him to quit his portfolio for what he purportedly had done in raising the fuel prices. Clearly, Gammanpila is not catching the hint.
Addressing a question on leaving the Government owing to continued disagreements, Gammanpila likened the role of their parties to that of a household dog. “The dog would bark at night and the house owner chased it away saying it was a nuisance. But why did the dog bark at night? It is because it sensed the house was in danger. If the inmates in the house opt to chase away the dog instead of looking at what it is barking, then that will be the end of them”. Apart from comparing himself to a canine, which is not necessarily a bad thing, his message was clear to the powers-that-be in Government gunning for him. Be warned, he was saying.
The SLPP General Secretary, Sagara Kariyawasam, who has been at loggerheads with Minister Gammanpila over several issues in the recent past, and had, in fact, asked him to quit his job was unmoved by the ministerial warning. “If we work according to what these parties say the country will never develop. We will get nothing done,” he told the Sunday Times. “We promised the people, especially the youth that we will develop the country in a manner that they can be proud of, but that can’t be done if we keep listening to what these parties say. We intend to go on our path. Those who do not want to follow can always leave”.
That Kariyawasam was echoing the sentiments of those who are actually running the country is a given. He warned that succumbing to the dictates of minor parties that were acting in conflict with the SLPP’s vision for the country risked the Government being booted out by the people come election time. “Look at what happened to the previous government. All it did was talk for five whole years. We can’t make the same mistake.” Outside the apparent differences within the ruling SLPP-led coalition Government, the view was that this was a mere political pantomime and that the Government was also playing the role of a fake opposition for the time being.
Garlic scam: CID goes after journalists
In the midst of all of this drama, the stench of corruption emanating from the now infamous “garlic scam” involving Lanka Sathosa officials took a bizarre and troubling turn this week when the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) went after editors and journalists, who had reported on the scam, rather than the crooks.
CID officers turned up at the editorial of our sister paper “Lankadeepa” on Tuesday to question the editor and several journalists over articles that the CID was allegedly “investigating.” They were turned away by the chief editor, who informed them that neither he nor his journalists were prepared to give statements to the CID at that time. The officers then left saying they would visit the newspaper’s office on another day to record statements.
During the Cabinet media briefing held the same day, Media Minister Dullas Alahapperuma apologised to editors and journalists over the ham-handed work of the CID. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara has now ordered Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana Wickramaratne to probe why CID officers went to the Lankadeepa office to question the editor and journalists.
The incident betrays to what depths the CID has fallen from the once esteemed pedestal it was on in the Police Service. When asked by a Minister to “jump”, all it does is ask: “How high, sir”. Where is the Police Commission in this sorry saga? It is deaf and dumb. What the 17th Amendment to the Constitution did in trying to depoliticise the Police was undone by the 18th, and then the 19th reintroduced the 17th which was undone by the 20th Amendment. Yes, there was interference under the 19th Amendment with Police investigations but the 20th has made them a mere adjunct of the party in power. The whole system needs an overhaul. The CID has yet to question the whistleblower who made public the ‘garlic scam’ and he has yet to be asked for the details to even begin what has been a billion rupee scam under the nose of this Government.