For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
By Gayan Kumara Weerasinghe
Deputy Minister of Media Mervyn Silva has implemented law to the letter by banning smoking in enclosed public places in Kelaniya since last week. Sources close to him say if anyone is caught smoking in public, he would be meted out ‘severe punishment’. The minister has also issued another order to the people of Kelaniya; no garbage on the roads, and if anybody breaks that rule, ‘severe punishment’ awaits.
All liquor shops were allowed by him to reopen on April 21, 2010 in Kelaniya — the minister ordered them down shut earlier. Pressure was mounted by the shop owners on government officials to have them reopened, but Minister Silva plans to declare Kelaniya a “Sacred City” by obtaining Cabinet approval in order to ban the sale of liquor permanently in Kelaniya.
The minister had stated that there are no wine stores in the sacred cities of Anuradhapura and Kataragama and Kelaniya too should not have taverns or liquor shops.
After he won his seat, Mervyn Silva, went about with his goons and asked all the wine stores owners to shut down their shops on April 16.
According to our sources, Mervyn Silva had ordered that all liquor shops should be shut down by midnight April 16. He used loudspeaker attached vehicles to convey this message, and announced, “If anyone fails to carry out the order “there are ways and means of implementing it” — a direct threat. Knowing the minister’s violent nature of destroying anything that he does not like, the wine store owners surrendered to the law of Mervyn Silva, and closed their businesses. Even the Cargills and Keels supermarkets in Kelaniya stopped selling liquor.
Minister and liqour dealers
Apparently there are 37 wine stores in Kelaniya. There are many liquor shops operating without a license among them, and Mervyn has a ‘say’ over all liquor shops. It was with his recommendation that the owners of the liquor shops were given the opportunity to open their wine stores for business earlier regardless of time of day or holidays, flouting the law. The liquor shop owners were given that opportunity as Mervyn Silva restricted the freedom of the police to intervene and take legal action against proprioters. Using that ‘opportunity’, the owners of the liquor shops priced liquor products at whim and their stalls were open till midnight. In fact, the sources say, they reigned in the Kelaniya area with the blessings of Mervyn Silva and they were the ones who spent millions on Mervyn Silva’s election campaign, but yet did not have the slightest idea that Mervyn will close down their liquor shops after the polls victory.
But Mervyn Silva’s men aver that the decision to shut down liquor shops in Kelaniya is solely because it’s the place where Lord Buddha visited —- a sacred city.
Even though the liquor stall owners didn’t go against the minister due threats, they conveyed their objections to the officials in an organized manner using the media.
They complained, “It is the duty of the Commissioner General of Excise to carry out the task of closing down liquor shops” and “not the minister’s”.
When contacted Commissioner General of Excise D.G.M.V Hapuarachchi said though the media has given publicity to such news, just one liqour shop owner has complained about the ‘order.’ He stated further that necessary steps will be taken to protect that liquor shop owner, and he has briefed the Secretary of the Ministry of Finance Affairs about the issue.
“Excise licenses are given by the Department of Excise and the openings and the closures of the liquor stalls are decided by none other than the Department and Minister Mervyn Silva has no authority to do so,” stated the Commissioner General of Excise.
According to the report of the Central Bank, the total revenue of the excise duties alone was Rs. 34152 million in 2009. That was a considerable amount of the gross revenue of the state.
According to the Commissioner General of Excise, such large revenue is received from the annual liquor stall license fees. He stated that annually amounts of Rs. 225,000, Rs.150,000 and Rs.75,000 respectively are received from the liquor stalls at Greater Municipal, Municipal and Provincial Council sectors, as license fees.
Law of the jungle
Meanwhile, the opposition politicians took up the issue and spoke about ‘Mervyn’s law’. They took the view that there is no need for a parliament if the law of the jungle reigns in the country.
The ‘rumour’ behind Mervyn’s dispute with the liquor stall owners is that he turned against them when they “refused to donate money” to hold an avurudu utsavaya scheduled to take place on April 15 and 16. It is believed that the responsibility of organizing the New Year festival was assigned to the liquor stall owners but they refused donate cash, since they had spent large amounts for Mervyn’s election campaign.
The New Year celebrations were to be a grand event because President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to attend but due to the lack of support from liquor shop owners the event was cancelled. Thus, the MP had decided to close all the liquor stalls in the area.
However, Mervyn Silva’s close associates had a different story. According to them, there were no plans to hold a New Year festival in Kelaniya on April 15 and 16. The numbers 15 and 16 were the preferential numbers of Mervyn Silva and Minister Basil Rajapaksa respectively. Those numbers were publicized in the area to promote the two preferential numbers by Silva, and this is how the Avurudu celebration dates were decided.
Nevertheless, the truth is out there and it has created a big issue besides another hidden secret being revealed about the so called re-opening of the liquor stalls.
Minister Mervyn Silva has taken up the responsibility of whitewashing the Ruwanweliseya Stupa in Anuradhapura with contributions of the liquor stall owners. According to sources, it will cost around Rs.4 million to complete the project. The liquor stalls were opened again as Mervyn Silva managed to extract that amount of money from them. According to sources, Mervyn Silva has taken the decision to whitewash the Seya because of his childhood dream to worship in Ruwanweliseya with his mother. It is said that, the relevant funds for the task were granted by his friends. Yet, who these ‘friends’ are, is a top secret.