Ventriloquists, dummies and pepped-up politicians

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If the opposition MP who posed an important question the other day to the Speaker of the country’s renowned Parliament (renowned for what could be said on another occasion) expected a revealing and enlightening answer, he is living in that dream world of bloated optimism inhabited by those who regurgitate promises of a Sri Lanka in the upper-bracket of nations in the next 25 years or earlier.

That is if this whole Resplendent Isle is sold wholesale along with the family silver and stolen assets to a single country such as Vietnam with adept and honest rulers and hard-working and committed people barely touched by the curse of corruption, instead of bits and pieces to a modi here and a modaya there.

Perhaps even a State-run TV channel or two to Lycamobile, as some media speculated, in the hope that Goebbelsian agitprop could convince some diaspora Tamils to come rushing and dump their monies in the north or east as a token of genuine camaraderie.

Alas, former banker Eran Wickramaratne banked on the wrong horse — well, as it were. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is made of “sterner stuff” than even Julius Caesar as Mark Antony would have confessed.

The other morning Speaker Abeywardena made a highly contentious ruling which some opposition MPs claimed not only tested his respectability and reputation but also his commitment to the Executive.

His ruling was denounced as an attempt to pre-empt a judicial hearing later that day on fundamental rights applications that challenged a motion concerning the government’s Domestic Debt Optimisation (DDO) which the Ranil Wickremesinghe (not Ranil Rajapaksa if you please) executive is determined to push through to satisfy our other creditors with little concern it seems for our people contributing to the EPF and ETF.

Wickramaratne wanted to know the names of those who provided him with legal advice to reach that ruling which many believed is seriously flawed.

Never mind if Speaker Abeywardena had not heard of Julius Caesar or Antony. He certainly had heard of Junius—that is Junius Richard Jayewardene—for Abeywardene was a member of the United National Party (UNP) called Uncle Nephew Party for very obvious reasons and proving ever more accurate with the passing time.

Abeywardena had earlier surveyed the country’s political party landscape as many of today’s Sri Lankan politicians have done before long jumping or high jumping from one party to another and who the hell cares for principles and policies as long as they have a portfolio to take home. That must include several holding ministerial posts right now.

Abeywardena was in the UNP at that critical moment when Rajiv Gandhi and Junius “Yankee Dicky” Jayewardene signed the Indo-Lanka
Accord in 1987.

The intrepid UNPer was one of two party members to defy his leader “JR”, vote against the Accord in parliament and be sacked for his trouble.

The truth is Eran Wickramaratne got it wrong—that is if he ever expected the answer he sought. The man who stood up against Uncle Junius must perhaps feel some kind of obligation to Dicky’s nephew who is trying to resurrect an already comatose party. Hopefully, the nephew is not relying on some of the untested and unapproved medicines that Health Minister Rambukwella and his ministry cohorts import as “emergency” purchases which are more likely to send the UNP into rigor mortis.

The man who would not “yes” to Junius is not going to reveal it all to poor Eran especially when the Anti-Corruption law threatens whistleblowers who leak information even more severely than those who dip into the privy purse or demand a fair share from a potential investor—like 25% or more—for fiddling with some billion-dollar contract or stealing some cars from the presidential secretariat.

All this brouhaha started just two weeks back when Tourism Minister Harin Fernando told the Speaker who doubtless would bring great glory and respect to our parliamentary democracy and indeed set records that would remain permanently etched in the history of parliamentary procedure, that his parliamentary privilege has been violated.

Why those who claim to be representatives of the people have privileges when the very people who elected them to be their representatives are having their rights and privileges violated or denied often, is the kind of logic that even the ancient Greeks would be unable to fathom.

Tourism Minister Harin Fernando’s rather athletic political history might make interesting reading on some other occasion, but right now one would expect him to have eyes peeled on the inflow of tourists who are not really coming to view the elephants at Pinnawala or the marauding mammals around Minneriya but the big tuskers at their gathering place in Kotte trying to build a bigger herd.

The other day he talked of a permanent tourism plan that his successors wouldn’t tamper with. If he is still working on it, perhaps we might throw in a thought or two.

Why not link arms with his loquacious state minister Diana Gamage who is determined to transform Sri Lanka into a Sri Ganja or something now that she no longer talks of the Disney land in the wilds of Hambantota so that visiting Chinese in their ‘survey’ (spy?) ships could enjoy the pleasures of a night economy and Thai-style hospitality.

Now that Minister Harin is back in the fold of the UNP along with his companion Labour Minister Manusha Nanayakkara, a great contributor to workers’ rights that should win the applause of the ILO, could stand at the departure lounge and gift two kilos of Gamage Ganja to each departing tourist wishing a quick return if they want more of the same.

In what he might have considered a stinging retort to Wickramaratne, the Speaker told a newspaper “It is from State counsel that I seek advice. I am not duty bound to reveal their names”.

Well Mr Speaker you are not duty bound to pack your personal staff with your family members—three brothers, one son and one brother-in-law—but you have done so, haven’t you, at the last media count way back in October 2020. And what of their perks, pray, all out of the public purse.

One can quite understand your refusing to reveal the names of your legal advisors. If I was getting such advice from State Counsels, I would do the same. The Attorney-General’s Department does not have much of a reputation as lawyers seeing the cases withdrawn due to bad indictments or fear of filing charges against politicians as some allege.

Watching Sri Lanka’s political scene, one recalls those happy and remarkable days when the country had upright, educated and scrupulous politicians. They were the days when most Colombo schools held carnivals and fun fairs to raise funds. Among the many attractions were magic shows in a college hall or a long corridor.

What intrigued us as school boys was not the acts of magicians for we knew it was expertly contrived but the performance of ventriloquists with their dummies which seemed to speak instead of the man holding the puppeteer prop.

Today, we have far more ventriloquists and even more dummies who have turned to be their Master’s voice or noise, as the case may be.

Personally one prefers the pleasant past when one encountered far less subservience and more rectitude and incorruptibility.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later, he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)



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