Unlearning Mahinda

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Coinciding with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declaring both health and electricity as ‘essential services’ on Wednesday, the country suffered a power outage the following day (yesterday), outside the scheduled power cuts, daily implemented for several months, as Sri Lanka doesn’t have adequate US dollars to import coal so as to provide the country with an uninterrupted electricity.

CEB Acting General Manager Dr. D.C.R. Abeysekara was not immediately available for comment. An ‘SMS’ sent to his mobile phone also went unanswered. However, ‘Ceylon Today’ (CT) yesterday reported that there could be an indefinite power outage from yesterday against the proposed amendment to the Electricity Act, which proposes to hand over the wind farms in Mannar and Pooneryn to the Indian based Adani Group. Consequently, yesterday’s power outage was due to trade union action by the CEB, it is learnt.

State-owned CEB, wreaked with inefficiency and corruption, has no right to dictate to the Government, what should and should not be done to that institution at the expense of the masses, who elected the Government and not the CEB to decide on their political and economic destinies.

Nonetheless, trade unionism in Sri Lanka grew with the advent of the Marxist LSSP in the 1930s. The power of the unions were such, that Sirima Bandaranaike, after she was appointed Premier in 1960, following the electoral victory of her party the SLFP at the July 1960 Elections, said, Mage swami purushayawa no mara maruwa, (“My husband was killed, without being killed).”

 She was referring to the LSSP- led, then the main opposition, strikes which crippled the economy after her husband SWRD was elected to power in 1956. SWRD was assassinated in 1959 allegedly for refusing to give a shipping contract to the brother of one of his powerful supporters.

But politics makes strange bedfellows. As the saying goes, “There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests.” Four years after Sirima’s SLFP won the July 1960 Polls, she formed a coalition Government with the LSSP in 1964, the very party she accused of politically assassinating her husband by the strikes organised by it.

Knowing the destructive power of strikes, then UNP leader President J.R. Jayewardene introduced the Essential Public Services Act (EPSA) in 1979 to curb its power. Some of the salient features of the EPSA are that in the event of absence of work, or refusing to perform one’s duty or indulges in acts of sabotage or violence, vocal or physical, such an employee will be liable to rigorous imprisonment for a term not less than two years and not exceeding five years or to a fine not less than two thousand rupees and not exceeding five thousand rupees or to both such imprisonment and fine and all property, movable or immovable, of the person convicted shall be forfeited to the Republic.

Jayewardene, together with the EPSA, also invoked special emergency regulations, where a person illegally engaging in a strike would be deemed to have vacated his employment, to counter the July 1980 strike, which he did with good effect, by sacking 40,000 striking public servants. Currently President Rajapaksa, other than the EPSA, hasn’t also invoked emergency laws to counter the CEB strike.

However, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Sirima and SWRD.’s second daughter, gave a new lease of life to the July 1980 strikers, where, when she was elected to power in 1994, she reemployed them, together with back wages.

Not to be outdone, Kumaratunga’s then Labour Minister, the President’s elder brother, two times President and immediately preceding Premier, Mahinda (MP), encouraged strikes among Prima Ceylon and Ansell Lanka workers, no sooner the Kumaratunga Alliance won the 1994 Parliamentary Poll. Prima Ceylon is headquartered in Singapore, while Ansell in headquartered in Australia.

 Unions, which lost their power for 14 years from 1980 to 1994, were thereby given a new lease of life by Kumaratunga, backed by her successor Mahinda, the cause for the current CEB strike. If Gotabaya wants to end his term not as a failed President, he will have to first unlearn  all what he learnt from Mahinda.