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Ministers abroad during home crisis: Entitled holidays or sense of entitlement?

23 Dec 2021

  • People’s views on MPs’ role and absence during an economic crisis
BY Sumudu Chamara Although the terms economic crisis and health crisis are often used to describe Sri Lanka’s situation, there is a question as to whether they actually describe what the people are going through.  There is a great deal of fear and uncertainty about the future, and also what the cash-strapped Government can do to address these crises. As some Opposition politicians have said, “the situation is such that the people cannot stay home because the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder can explode at any moment, and they cannot go out because there is a fast-spreading pandemic”. The people are awaiting answers and solutions. However, so far, the essence of the Government’s response has been “stay hopeful; we are looking into this”.  The Minister in charge of the county’s Finance, Basil Rajapaksa, however, has been absent for some time, and reports claim that he has left for the US after the Parliament was prorogued. His absence at a time like this has been criticised by many, and according to unofficial reports, the number of parliamentarians who have made plans to go for vacation in Sri Lanka and abroad, is close to 60. To know more about what the general public feels about the economic situation, Rajapaksa's trip, and the future, The Morning spoke to several persons. Luxuries Kasun Chamara, an employee of a private firm, pointed out differences between the living conditions of the politicians and the working class, noting: “I don’t think that this is the biggest disaster that can befall the country. The worst thing that can happen is not politicians going abroad for vacation, but them leaving the country for good when they realise that they cannot save the country, or continue to steal from or deceive the people. In fact, what is happening in the country at present suggests that day is not very far. The Government’s failures have put the people’s health, economy, and also future in jeopardy. The people are forced to live in deplorable living conditions. We cannot even go to our own kitchen because LPG cylinders explode. However, politicians have the time and money to take a break from their job even though they have not delivered anything significant as public representatives. These politicians, both in the ruling party and in the Opposition, still live in the country because they don’t feel the increasing burden of the cost of living. Once they start feeling it, it is just a matter of time before they leave. They have already made all the arrangements for their future.” Moreover, he said that the people do not have the opportunities or perks politicians are entitled to, and that the people’s future is not as promising as that of politicians. “They get various kinds of allowances and privileges afforded to very important persons (VIPs). They get the pension very easily. They have a lot of opportunities to start a business. They have followers in all parts of the country and abroad, and therefore, most of them can get the citizenship of another country very easily. So their future is safe, whereas our tomorrow is not safe in the least,” he added. A better future G.R. Mihiranga, a taxi driver, expressed concerns about the future of the country and the people, and also the fact that Sri Lanka has achieved little progress when compared to the past. He also said that going abroad is not a big deal for politicians, even though it is to the general public. He added: “For example, so many politicians from many parties go abroad for various reasons, including leisure and medical treatment. It is a very normal thing for them. But, if a normal person has to go abroad, let us say for medical treatment, it is an extremely costly and stressful process. What I am trying to point out is that they can go abroad anytime for any reason, most of the time, spending public money. They don’t have to worry about issues, like the US dollar shortage which, when it comes to the general public, are huge issues. However, normal people like us don’t have that luxury. We spend half of our lives wondering how we are going to manage next month’s or the next day’s expenses, and we expect those we voted for, to make our lives better.  “During the past 10 years, I have not voted more than once, because I don’t see any politician who has a genuine intention to do something for the country and the people, instead of for themselves. Sri Lanka has a proud history. That is true. However, politicians encourage the people to live in that past instead of learning from it and creating a better future, because they know that they cannot create a better future. If we really want to see a better future, at least for our children or grandchildren, we will have to leave the country.” Stating that Sri Lanka’s future is in danger, he opined: “Not only do we not have a better future in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka itself does not have a future with India, China, the US, religious extremists, and the diaspora representing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists trying to take a piece of the country. But politicians don’t seem to be concerned about any of this; they just want to manage issues as they arise. Therefore, leaving the country is the best option.” Critical time Kanthi, a housewife, meanwhile, disapproved of Rajapaksa leaving the country while the country is going through an extremely difficult economic and health crisis. She said: “Rajapaksa leaving the country at this critical moment is not acceptable at all. He is the Finance Minister, and therefore, he is actually more important than other ministers at this moment. The prices of goods have soared to an unbearable level, and even if we had the money, it is extremely difficult to purchase certain goods such as milk powder. It is true that traders increase the prices of goods during the festive season every year. However, this year, the situation is different as there has been a shortage of goods and a rise in prices for several months. At the same time, we cannot import the goods which are scarce or expensive, because we don’t have US dollars. Now, fuel prices have been increased, which will certainly cause sellers to increase the prices of almost everything. On top of everything, the Covid-19 pandemic is getting worse.” She opined that the only good thing at the time is, people not having any time to worry about the Covid-19 pandemic, because they are too busy thinking about how to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. “But even these celebrations we may have to forego, as we need to at least be able to buy some groceries,” she stressed. Speaking of the responsibilities of the Government and politicians in general at this moment, she further said: “What this shows is that the country is going downhill. However, at such a time, the most important Minister has gone abroad for personal reasons. Not only Rajapaksa; so many other politicians also go on vacation. Is this really a time when those who caused this mess, and are responsible for resolving the same, can go on vacation? Even the President should not have prorogued the Parliament at this moment, and instead, should have discussed what steps can be taken to address this situation. This is not a time anyone can take a break. If the people cannot take a break, why should politicians, who beg for votes to serve us, have that opportunity? This is the perfect time for them to show some commitment and their abilities that they have bragged about. This is not a time to take a break to ignore people’s issues, but instead a time when they should forget about their personal wellbeing for some time.” Leaving the country  How politicians act when the country is in an economic and health crisis calls for a change in the way people elect politicians, according to N. Anuradha Kuamra, also an employee at a private firm. He also pointed out the people’s responsibility of choosing the right leaders and learning from the past.  He explained: “I don’t blame politicians; I instead blame myself and everyone who voted them in. When we elect people who have not shown any accountability or selflessness in the past, this is obviously what we get. To get a better service, we have to choose better leaders. There are a few who genuinely want to serve the country and the people, but they don’t have a future in Sri Lanka’s political system. See what happened to former Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Opposition MP Ranjan Ramanayake. Sri Lanka’s political system does not have room for politicians who love the people. I don’t think that there is anything sillier than hoping for these selfish politicians to save us or the country. They have never made any commitments for the country, and they will not do so in the future as well.  “I am of the opinion that instead of regretting the decision made to send corrupt and useless politicians to the Parliament, we should either leave the country or make better decisions at the next election. I am seriously considering leaving the country. I just don’t have the resources yet, and it is difficult to save any money in this economic crisis. It is obvious that there is no future here. I love my country; this is where I grew up and this is where I want to die. But now I think that I don’t deserve to die in a country like this, and my children don’t deserve to grow up in or live in a country like this.  “Earlier, I thought that once the war was over, the country would prosper, because the Governments had to spend a massive amount of money for the war. But, instead of saving money, the Government keeps taking loans. In the future, the Government will need more and more loans to repay loans, and that is why I have no hope. I think that leaving the country is the best option. Politicians always have that option. But we have to plan in advance and save money to do that.” He also expressed concerns about those who don’t have adequate professional or educational qualifications to get better opportunities in other countries, adding that they will have to suffer more in the future than those who can somehow leave the country. MPs’ role Meanwhile, Rahman, a freelance writer, said that while the presence or absence of MPs may not make a significant difference, it can certainly have an impact on how the public views the Government and the MPs’ performance.  He explained: “We should not be surprised because at the end of the day; we know that a lot of the work is not done by the MPs. It is mainly done by their secretaries and other officials, especially those working at the ground level. MPs are basically the face of the organisation, and they just give statements to the media and engage in the planning of activities when there is a need. A lot of the work done by ministries or public institutions comes from qualified individuals at the ground level. It is not wise of us to expect that MPs staying in the country would make any difference.  “At the same time, MPs need to understand that if they are the representatives of their areas or of a public institution, by leaving the country, they are giving a really bad signal. If there is someone else doing the work and if the MPs are supposed to represent them, the least the MPs can do is play their role properly at a critical time like this, especially in a context where the cost of living is rising. When the Government MPs leave the country for holidays in a context where the people cannot do the same, it provides for very poor optics. Most Opposition MPs can be seen talking about the issues faced by the people, even though we don’t see Government MPs talking about these issues with the same enthusiasm.” While every person has a right to do whatever they want during their free time, to which politicians are also entitled, the public are concerned about their absence, especially the absence of Minister Rajapaksa. At the same time, some also question the decision to prorogue the Parliament at this moment. The biggest issue here is the uncertainty the people are living with, and the Government’s responsibility to address it. When nothing concrete seems to be happening, the people questioning the MPs’ freedom is justifiable.

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