‘If people have no bread…’

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Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), Queen of the last King of France Louis XVI, is purported to have said, “If the people have no bread, let them eat cake,” after she was told that the French peasantry had no bread.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Government’s apathy to the present socioeconomic problems facing the masses are similar to that of Marie-Antoinette’s.

This newspaper’s lead story of Friday, which quoted the Sri Lanka Immigration and Emigration Officers’ Association (SLIEOA) said, “SLIEOA expressed their disbelief and shock over the lukewarm conduct of both the Government and Parliament amidst the suffering of the public.”

“We are observing the situation where the rulers have completely ignored agitation and fair demand of the public with shock and disbelief. Instead of working to find solutions to address the current crises in the country, they have decided to turn a blind eye and let the people suffer more,” the Association said.

“In such a backdrop, we no longer accept politicians who depend on taxpayers’ money and those directly responsible for the tragic plight of the country should be permitted to enjoy special privileges,” they said and added, “VIPs continue to enjoy their perks while the public are struggling to make ends meet. Therefore, we have decided to suspend services at the VIP and CIP lounges at all airports including the BIA from Friday (6 May) until the Government and Parliament come up with a solid plan to address the current economic and social crises in the country.”

SLIEOA is a trade union (TU). BIA’s Duty Manager, clarifying the situation to this newspaper, said it’s only the SLIEOA which has suspended its services at the VIP and CIP lounges. All other services in those lounges are being carried out as usual.

SLIEOA’s indefinite work stoppage beginning from Friday coincides with that day’s ‘hartal’ launched by other TUs and ‘small businesses,’ for almost similar reasons, the difference being that the latter are clamouring for the resignations of at least both the President and the Prime Minister, the Rajapaksa brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda. Those ‘other TUs’ and ‘small businesses’ have further threatened that if they won’t resign, they will restart their ‘hartal’ indefinitely from the coming Wednesday (11 May).

Friday’s ‘hartal’ was partially successful with State-owned Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) buses continuing to ply on the road, though private buses kept away.

Forty-nine years ago in 1973 when Sri Lanka was facing a similar situation, then Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike writing to US President Richard M. Nixon said, “The food situation in Sri Lanka is aggravated by drought. Compared to the target set for the rice harvest in 1973, latest estimates indicate a shortfall of over 30 per cent. The magnitude of the drought is also seen from the fact that the power supply in this country which is largely hydro-generated had to be restricted for the first time in 40 years.

The price of food grains has risen considerably in the world market. It is in this context that the need for wheat flour becomes an urgent necessity. In relation to our mounting debt services burden and our current balance of payments difficulties it is necessary that these imports be made on easy financial terms such as those offered on Public Law 480 (Wheat Aid).”

Nixon in reply said, “Your letter of 10 July was a very persuasive description of Sri Lanka’s urgent need for food assistance. You can be sure that we appreciate the problems you face in this area and will try to be as responsive as we can.

These matters are currently under very active examination within our Government. Our Ambassador will keep in close contact with your Government as this process continues. Meanwhile, you may be sure that we want to be as helpful as we can and that the points raised in your letter will be taken carefully into account.”

The present situation of the island is similar to ‘Sri Lanka 1973.’

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