‘Lie-ing’ in State

There is no lie so good as a lie uttered with authority. And in the case of the People’s Alliance, Sri Lanka has voted itself into a government that lies with such casual ease that it really is rather shocking.

"That politician tops his part, who readily can lie with art," claimed the poet John Gay. But in the case of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s PA, there is little art in the lies, though as often as not they are as barefaced, bold and blatant as the best of them.

Calling the head of state a liar is no mean deed. It is certainly unparliamentary, and the rules of civilized debate constrain us to limiting ourselves to mere euphemism. But Kumaratunga is more than just "economical with the truth"; it is not with a jestful wink that she utters one untruth after another. The lies she utters, or has her henchmen utter on her behalf, are crass, bold, barefaced lies. Lies of the worst possible sort.

When it comes to the Lie Direct, our president ranks among the world’s best liars. Her promise of bread at Rs 3.50 was among the cheapest of her lies, to be reneged on within just months of it being implemented.

Her solemn promise to abolish the executive presidency - no ifs-no-buts - also proved within just one year to be a barefaced lie.

Then there were all the other lies of her manifesto, carefully framed to fool her would-be electors: offers of doles, houses, jobs, and a limit of 20 members of the cabinet.

It seems her capacity for mendacity knows no bounds.

Most recently we had two lies of the worst sort: the sort in which the liar gets caught.

First, was the episode now known as the South African Fiasco, where the high and mighty including Lakshman Kadirgamar, ever anxious to please his patron (after all, she picked him out of retirement from the UN’s humdrum bureaucracy and Hulftsdorp and put him in the political limelight, through an electoral device which circumvents popular election).

Kadirgamar and his merry men, proudly thumping their chests and claiming ‘I was there’, denied Kumaratunga made any statement to the effect that Tamils were not among the original inhabitants of this country. Why they were so anxious to deny this, we do not really know, for neither were the Sinhalese the original inhabitants of this country!

But it seems a lie was called for, and a lie we would have. Only to be caught out by the wily Kumar Ponnambalam, who had a videotape of the truth!

And now the CID has been set hot on Ponnambalam’s heels, seeking retribution for having shown Kumaratungar and Kadirgama up.

Which all goes to show that blood is not thicker than water, for Ponnambalam seems to think it conceivable that he is related to Kumaratunga - and who knows? Even Kadirgamar?

Not content with that, Kumaratunga did it again just last week on the issue of the Inland Revenue Department calling for details of depositors with more than Rs 100,000 in their accounts.

Addressing the party faithful in the South, she denied this hotly and called it a UNP plot, going even further to claim that it was a newspaper owned by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s uncle that had spread this falsehood. It was all done by the UNP, she claimed, to spread panic among investors.

She did not go on to mention that Wickremesinghe actually owns a number of shares in Lake House: that, after all, would have been telling the truth.

The Lake House group, ever anxious to please their mistress, ‘went to town’, little realizing that The Sunday Observer no less had published the same story on November 22.

The Commissioner General of Inland Revenue, ever anxious to please his boss, jumped into the fray and issued an equally subservient denial backing up Kumaratunga.

And then they both had to eat their words when G.L. Peiris went into the adjournment debate in Parliament last Wednesday and admitted that the Department had in fact sent out the letters, allegedly unknown to the Commissioner General.

Kumaratunga, never famed for her grace, has not come out and apologized to Wickremesinghe or his uncle for having accused them unjustly. For in her mind, it seems she can do no wrong, and if a lie is uttered and later shown to be a lie, so be it: until the next lie!

And when it comes to operating under false pretences, it is not just the political lie that Kumaratunga is adept foisting on her public: there are also the Lies Economic. Take for example the tax on soft alcoholic beverages (a Buddhist government’s euphemism for beer).

Two years ago, the PA very sensibly cut beer taxes drastically, bringing the beverage within reach of the common man’s purse. The hard liquor folk - including the kasippu kings - were dealt a blow, and everyone was happy. People had cheaper beer, revenue from beer taxes shot up and beer companies thrived. Not only did they thrive, but they pumped hundreds of millions of rupees by way of investment into expanding their production capacity. Two new breweries were poised to set up business.

And then, without so much as ‘by your leave’, Kumaratunga in the recent budget imposed a hike on beer taxes, sending the price through the roof. Taken together with her proposed ban on advertising, due to take effect next year, she has capriciously turned tables on an industry that she herself helped just two years ago to revive from near death.

Here, showing a clear lack of vision and a gross insensitivity to sound economic principles (our worthy president has claimed to have studied for her PhD in economics, which claim we are generous enough to admit as true until otherwise proved), Kumaratunga has turned an industry on its head.

It might well be a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, but such is definitely not the prerogative of a responsible minister of finance.

The recent budget did nothing to ease economic burdens heaped on the common man. With the cost of living shooting beyond control, and salaries lagging far behind, it is ironic that the PA has now proposed an enormous wage hike for parliamentarians. ‘Make hay while the sun shines,’ seems to be the maxim that guides the hand that rocks the cradle, or in Kumaratunga’s case, more aptly, the boat.

All very droll if not for the fact that she fools very few people for hardly any of the time. One can be sure the lies will not end here, and as the election campaigns near, the best is clearly yet to come. After all, why tell the truth when a lie would serve equally well? And when it comes to lying, the bolder the lie the better. Ask anyone. For that matter, ask Kumaratunga.

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Courtesy Sunday Leader 29 Nov 1998