By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, MP, recently told The Island that Sri Lanka had no option but to involve India in the development of the deep water facility, the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, which has been built to accommodate the largest container ships that ply around the world carrying as many as 16,000 containers (TEUs), like its competing Chinese-run Colombo International Container Terminal also in the more recently built and what is known as the Colombo South harbour.
The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Kandy District lawmaker said so in response to the writer seeking an explanation as regards his stand on the issue at hand in the wake of his quite controversial statement on Derana ‘Wadapitiya’, anchored by Chathura Alwis.
In response to The Island assertion that the SLMC leader took a bold but factual stand on the matter and responded: “Why beat around the bush? That is the truth.”
He hit the nail on the head, when Attorney-at-Law Hakeem declared that due to the Colombo harbour’s very heavy dependence on Indian transhipment cargo, there was no choice.
Having first entered Parliament in 1994 on the People’s Alliance (PA) National List, Hakeem took over the leadership of the SLMC soon after its founder leader M.H.M. Ashraff was killed in a helicopter crash in September 2000.
Amidst a simmering dispute over alleged Indian investment in the ECT that had engulfed the SLPP administration, Hakeem is the only lawmaker to publicly come out with the somewhat unpalatable truth that the bulk of Colombo port’s business come from Indian transhipment cargo. Hakeem, who has been in the PA, UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) and the UNF (United National Front) governments as a Cabinet Minister didn’t mince his words and quite surprised the other participants, Wasantha Samarasinghe (former JVP MP and its current Anuradhapura District leader) and State Ministers, D.V. Chanaka (Hambantota District) and D.B. Herath (Kurunegala District).
Hakeem joined the programme after its commencement but lucidly explained his stand on a number of matters, including the simmering dispute over cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and the high profile ECT transaction. The SLMC group, within the 54-member SJB, consists of five lawmakers, including Hakeem. Hakeem recently suffered a severe setback when his four other MPs in Parliament voted for the SLPP’s 20th Amendment last October, while he alone from his party voted against it.
Besides the yahapalana regime, in which Hakeem’s SLMC was a full partner, had already muddied the Lankan waters by giving away the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease. So it is only natural for New Delhi to have a foothold in Colombo with the ECT. Even our comrades, the JVP, though now making lots of noise over ECT going to the Adani Group of India, hardly murmured a word in protest when it was cavorting with the yahapalana regime at the time of the virtual sale of Hambantota to the Chinese.
The Kandy District MP, who had previously held the Ports and Shipping portfolios, said that the SLPA (Sri Lanka Ports Authority) owned JCT (Jaya Container Terminal) in addition to Unity Container Terminal. The SLMC leader emphasized the need to further develop JCT whereas CMPH (China Merchant Port Holdings) managed Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) and Keells-led conglomerate owned South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT) conducted their operations successfully.
Amidst the simmering ECT issue, the former Minister declared that though some opposed foreign investment in such strategic projects, the country facing a daunting financial crisis had no option but to accept the Indian investment.
Ironically when the SLPA advertised the Colombo South Harbour for investment after it built its breakwater with a USD 300 million loan from the Asian Development Bank after the end of the war, India was not interested and for that matter no one else made any worthwhile offer other than the Chinese. However as in the case of Hambantota, New Delhi awakened to its value when the China Merchant Port Holdings singlehandedly bid and obtained the CICT berth on a 35-year Build, Operate and Transfer agreement after 2010, with the SLPA holding a mere 15 per cent stake in the venture.
Lawmaker Hakeem asserted that the situation here could be stabilized by Indian involvement in the expansion of the overall Colombo Port operations. The SJB constituent took up the position that the country was in such a desperate situation, the incumbent government couldn’t afford to antagonize India.
How Indian investments can stabilize Lanka
Hakeem took a very clear stand on ECT as well as overall foreign investment in the ports and shipping sectors. The former Ports Minister articulated that against the backdrop of foreign investment in SAGT, the first public private partnership container terminal in Sri Lanka and also CICT, there couldn’t be any issue with regard to the agreed Indian investment.
SAGT launched operations in 1999. According to the SAGT: “The Company is a Board of Investment flagship entity with approximately 60% of Sri Lankan shareholding, and is backed by John Keells Holdings, APM Terminals, SLPA and Peony investments (subsidiary of Evergreen Marine Corporation).”
State Minister Herath interrupted MP Hakeem to raise a question though the former ignored the SLPP politician.
Hakeem declared that under no circumstances he would say not to accept Indian investment though the final decision lies with the incumbent government. The former Shipping Minister made reference to current Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena declaration that 49 per cent of the ECT ownership would be foreign and the remaining 51 owned by the government. SLPA holds just 15 per cent each of SAGT and CICT. The SAGT deal is for a 30-year period on BOT (Build Operate and Transfer basis) whereas the agreement on CICT covers 35 years.
Hakeem’s stand drew opposition from all other participants, including Chathura Alwis. However, Hakeem stood firm on his stand regardless of consequences. The SLMC leader asserted that Sri Lanka couldn’t turn a blind eye to the need to appease India. Declaring that Sri Lanka had appeased India before, Hakeem, turning towards Wasantha Samarasinghe emphasized the country should come to terms with the reality.
State Minister Chanaka asked Hakeem whether the previous yahapalana government entered into a MoC (Memorandum of Cooperation) with India in respect of the ECT. Hakeem however conveniently side-stepped the query, while JVPer Samarasinghe said that was finalized in May 2019.
After having been an active team player in the much muddied yahapalana rule, MP Hakeem however had the nerve to ridicule the incumbent government’s much touted ‘neutral’ foreign policy. “I haven’t the slightest idea what this government meant by neutral or balanced foreign policy. If we took a non-aligned stand, the public can clearly understand what the government intended. How one can balance the foreign policy,” MP Hakeem said.
Hakeem silent on inter-terminal transport crisis
Trade union leader Samarasinghe alleged that one-time Ports and Shipping Minister Hakeem conveniently failed to mention the crisis caused by what the JVPer called inter-terminal transport.
Samarasinghe alleged that the inter-terminal transport was in a mess. For want of sufficient space within the harbour area, vessels couldn’t be unloaded. Samarasinghe claimed that successive governments caused unprecedented deterioration due to giving the relevant contract to immensely politically influential people outside proper tender procedures.
MP Hakeem without hesitation acknowledged the crisis within the harbour, in addition to the simmering issue over the ECT.
State Minister Herath sought MP Hakeem’s opinion on the leasing of the Hambantota Port for a period of 99 years to CMPH in late July 2017. Having been a partner to that pact, MP Hakeem naturally defended the agreement on Hambantota Port to the hilt. Hakeem had been a member of the Cabinet of the yahapalana government that finalized the controversial deal on the Hambantota Port. The then Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga strongly opposed the deal. UNPer Ranatunga’s stance finally led to him being replaced by SLFPer Mahinda Samarasinghe. Ranatunga was replaced on May 22, 2017. The former national cricket Captain received the Petroleum Resources Development Ministry as a consolation prize.
Both the Minister and his brother, Dhammika objected to the deal whereas Vasudeva Nanayakkara on behalf of the Joint Opposition, moved the Supreme Court against the port transaction.
President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe ensured the finalization of the controversial transaction following the delay caused by the opposition.
Panelist Samarasinghe asked Hakeem whether the yahapalana government used USD 1.2 bn received from CMPH to settle what we owed China. Warning Sri Lanka would run out of foreign reserves next year once debts were settled, MP Hakeem predicted an unprecedented financial crisis.
The SLMC leader asserted that except China all other countries were in deepening financial turmoil. The MP categorized Sri Lanka with Angola, Liberia and Lebanon. While acknowledging the economic deterioration started during the yahapalana administration, MP Hakeem faulted the incumbent government for not being able to tackle the situation.
Hakeem warned that unless the government and the Opposition worked together, the country would have to go down on its knees to international lenders as Sri Lanka had done before on many occasions. In spite of big boasts by some, those in power and others should be realistic and be aware of the challenges faced by the country. Hakeem predicted a massive tragedy. He expressed the view that against the backdrop of the incumbent government asking for foreign investments, it should be ready to consider investments in sectors preferred by those having the wherewithal. “We have to be realistic.”
Emphasizing the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to exploit the country’s strategic position in the East-West route on the Indian Ocean, the SLMC leader explained how the two strategic harbours in Colombo and Hambantota could be utilized.
Now that Sri Lanka had given controlling shares to one terminal at the Colombo harbour to China why not another to India, the SJB lawmaker asserted, demanding that Sri Lanka adopt a realistic approach as the country is desperately in need of foreign investment.
Subsequently, Hakeem suggested that the controlling shares of the ECT should be given to India, Japan though JVPer Samarasinghe insisted the SLPA could handle it. “With the installation of three gantry cranes, 400 m long ECT is in operation now. A further 800 m has to be built,” Samarasinghe said, asserting USD 400 mn investment was required. With the three cranes, ECT in op even now with the 440m already built, now had to build 800 m more, which required USD 400 mn.
Declaring the SAGT and CICT generated an annual income of USD 160 mn and 250 mn, respectively,
Samarasinghe asked why investors could not build a terminal in the remaining Western side. “It can be bigger than all existing facilities. Why do we have to give up lucrative ECT?”
Samarasinghe predicted in spite of claims that SLPA would receive 51 per cent and the investor 49 holding per cent, finally ECT, it too, was expected to be eventually shared in the proportion of 15 per cent to the SLPA and 85 per cent to the investor.
ECT aggravates Prez, PM dispute
The then President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe clashed over the ECT. The dispute caused rapid deterioration of yahapalana relationship in the run-up to the sacking of Wickremesinghe’s government on Oct 26, 2018. Wickremesinghe insisted on Indian investment whereas Sirisena rejected it. But, Wickremesinghe went ahead with the project regardless of the President’s intervention. Amidst deepening turmoil, Wickremesinghe brought in Japan into the picture.
On the instructions of Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka, Japan and India signed a MoC on the ECT on May 28, 2019. According to an SLPA statement issued following the signing of the MoC, the GoSL through the SLPA retained 100% ownership of the ECT, while the Terminal Operatiing Company, is jointly owned. Sri Lanka will hold a 51 per cent-stake in the project and the joint venture partners will retain 49%.
The ECT is positioned about 3 km away from the China-funded Colombo Port City on reclaimed land on Colombo’s sea front.
“Japan is likely to provide a 40-year soft loan with a 0.1 percent interest rate,” The Hindu quoted Sudarshana Gunawardana, Director of Development Communications at the Prime Minister’s office as having said. The SLPA then termed the “envisaged Japanese loan” as “one of the best loan terms Sri Lanka has obtained”.
What is not yet clear is whether the incumbent government intends to go ahead with the MoC finalized by Wickremesinghe or change it.
JVP, SJB on ECT deal
The JVP played a significant role in paving the way for the disastrous Maithripala Sirisena presidency. The likes of trade unionist Samarasinghe have conveniently forgotten how the JVP backed UNP’s presidential candidate Sirisena, the longstanding General Secretary of the SLFP. Having installed Sirisena, the UNP-led coalition comprising one-time LTTE mouthpiece Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the JVP, the SLMC pursued an agenda of its own. One shouldn’t be surprised by lawmaker Hakeem standing as a UNP breakaway faction the SJB still followed UNP strategies though Wickremesinghe obviously had no say in its affairs.
Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella’s recent declaration that the government should take advantage of the constitution making process undertaken by the previous yahapalana government is a case in point.
Lawmakers Kirieilla and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake recently flayed the government over the decision to involve India’s biggest ports and logistic company Adani Group in the operation. Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited seems to be confident of overcoming the obstacles. The project that had been delayed due to labour protests launched ahead of the last parliamentary polls in August drew stepped up condemnation of the SJB and the JVP.
It would be pertinent to ask whether the SJB and the JVP opposed only the involvement of Adani Group in the ECT development or disputed the MoC finalized in May 2019 in the run-up to Nov 2019 presidential polls by the previous regime, in which JVP and present day SJB members were partners?
SJB heavyweight Kiriella speculated whether the government intended to win over Indian Premier Narendra Modi by giving control of the ECT to billionaire Gautam Adani. Kiriella asserted that Sri Lanka couldn’t appease India by giving ECT to a close friend of Modi. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Obviously, the SJB hasn’t taken into consideration the roles played by India and Japan as well as Australia in the overall Indo-Pacific US strategy meant to counter the growing Chinese challenge. The US led coalition is still struggling to cope up with the vastly strengthened China relentlessly pursuing an anti- China policy.
A ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan
JVP leader Dissanayake is on record as having said that a director and a local shareholder of Shangri-La who had been involved with Viyathmaga, too, promoted the deal with Adani Group. The JVPer also alleged that the same person immensely benefited from recent government decisions to change import levies on sugar and coconut oil.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to New Delhi and Colombo highlighted their strategy. There is no doubt the Adani Group’s move on the ECT had been approved by the highest level of political leadership and the talk of Sri Lanka trying to appease India by involving Gautam Adani is nothing but bunkum.
The public should not forget the then Premier Wickremesinghe entered into a ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan in early Oct, 2015. In the following year on Oct 09, the training squadron of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) was in Colombo to underscore the strengthening of the partnership. The writer had an opportunity to visit JS Kashima on the invitation of the Japanese Embassy in Colombo. Asked for a clarification as regards growing Japanese military role in Asia in support of the US as well as joint military cooperation among the US, Japan and India in response to the Chinese Challenge, Commanding Officer of the squadron Rear Admiral Hidetoshi Iwasaki explained the circumstances under which the Japanese forces could be deployed overseas along with the US.
Sri Lanka-Japan ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ should be examined taking into consideration three agreements sought by the US, the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement finalized in early August 2017), stalled MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact and SOFA (Status of Forces) agreement. The recent US declaration that Sri Lanka wouldn’t be accommodated in the MCC Compact is unlikely to be the end of the US efforts to bring Sri Lanka under its control.
As part of overall Western strategy, the US seeks a government receptive in Colombo. The US wants to deny China access to Sri Lanka. The US made an abortive bid to install the then General Sarath Fonseka as the President in January 2010. However, the US project succeeded at the January 2015 presidential election. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime initially took a hardline stand on China. Some members of that administration responsible for Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 alleged corruption couldn’t be tackled here unless Chinese investments were drastically pruned. Having accused China of promoting corruption here, the yahapalana administration ended up handing over the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease to China.
In the run-up to the July 2017 Hambantota Port deal, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa accompanied by ex-External Affairs Minister and Chairman of the SLPP Prof. G.L. Peiris visited Beijing where the issue was discussed. During the weeklong visit in late 2016, they also visited Southern China. They urged the Chinese to stick to the original Hambantota development project to avert possible protests. They suggested it would be better to utilize 750 acres as originally planned. This suggestion was made against the backdrop of the then Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema’s revelation that the Chinese wanted 15,000 acres of land in the Hambantota district for large scale development projects. In the second week of January 2017, Wickremesinghe launched the Hambantota project in spite of President Sirisrena’s objections. Wickremesinghe ignored Sirisena’s claim that the agreement hadn’t been finalized yet. Having launched the Hambantota project, Wickremesinghe declared that negotiations were underway with India and Japan for the development of the strategic Trincomalee Port.
With US-China hostility on the rise, Sri Lanka shouldn’t expect breathing space from either party. A much weaker economy as a result of the rampaging corona epidemic when compared with the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2019, should prompt Sri Lanka to adopt an austerity drive.
Let that begin at the Parliament, dubbed the most corrupt institution in the country by no less a person than one-time Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa, PC.
A deeper scrutiny of ‘intelligence related matters’ needed
Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera Monday, 18 at his ministry met Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to discuss ways and means of strengthening law enforcement operations. Public Security Ministry Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickremaratne participated in the discussion.
Former Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) of Police H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, having read our last week’s column, further elaborated on the revelation by retired SDIG Merril Gunaratne pertaining to what he called the unprecedented expansion of the DIG cadre during Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s tenure as the President (May 1993 to Nov 1994).
Kotakadeniya, one of the most outspoken senior cop, while in service (if one had cared to canvas his opinion) and now in retirement, said Wijetunga’s intervention had been far worse than mentioned and caused the further deterioration of the service. The retired Senior DIG sent us the following statement in the wake of the writer’s comment on Gunaratne’s latest work ‘Perils of a Profession’, titled ‘Perils of a Profession jolts scandal- ridden police’ published in the January 13, 2021 edition of The Island:
“In the chapter, titled ‘Violation of the line of seniority – a major cause for decline,’ it is stated President Wijetunge ordered the DIG cadre to be increased from 19 to 30 and that there was speculation about this increase benefitting an officer who was a favourite of the President. I would like to add two relevant facts regarding this issue.
“Shortly after Wijetunga assumed office as the President, in 1993, he summoned me to the Presidential Secretariat. At that time I was based at Police Headquarters as DIG Headquarters and DIG Administration. My parents and I had the privilege of being acquainted with Wijetunga from my childhood as we were from the same village.
“When I met the President, he told me that the welfare of Police officers hadn’t been given the due importance and, therefore, to redress the situation he had an idea to appoint a DIG to handle welfare work in each DIG Range. He inquired from me whether I would endorse the proposal.
“I reflected for a few seconds and replied that the subject of welfare in each range was being looked after by an Inspector, and therefore the appointment of an officer of a rank of DIG was not quite necessary. The President did not appear to be pleased with my response.
“If few days, after this meeting, with the President, I was transferred as the DIG Logistics on 1.10.1994 and thereafter to Chilaw on 4.10.1994. I felt that the move by the President, to appoint several DIGs’ in charge of ‘welfare’, was meant to fulfill his desire to expand the DIG cadre to allow his favourite officer who was very junior, to also become a DIG.
“The other matter was that the DIG cadre increase was not from 19 to 30, but much above 40 since the officer concerned was at that time 44th in the list of Senior Superintendents. “
Kotakadeniya refrained from mentioning names. The Island inquiries revealed that ironically highly respected Frank Silva had been the IGP at that time and Mahinda Balasuriya the beneficiary.
Kotakadeniya, who had served as Defence Ministry advisor during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President following the 2005 November Presidential election, was the only retired officer to respond to The Island piece.
Deterioration of the public sector
The deterioration of the police should be addressed at the highest level. Unfortunately, successive governments, in spite of their grandiose plans to restore the dignity of the once proud service caused further deterioration. Political parties cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current predicament.
But at least it is no longer a runaway rogue force, hand in glove with the underworld, due to the current government’s no nonsense line on law enforcers. Yet the current dispensation, too, is still struggling to cope with the situation against continuing revelations on the depth of its rot. The revelation of the clandestine dealings involving the elite Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) and heroin Mafia sent shock waves through the entire security establishment. Gunaratne, however, hadn’t at least made a reference to the PNB fiasco or the controversial release of Easter Sunday massacre suspect Riyaj Bathiudeen who had been held in CID custody in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
Mahinda Balasuriya received the appointment as the IGP in early November 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President. Balasuriya resigned in early June 2011 following the killing of a 21-year-old worker, during a protest, by police fire at the Katunayake Export Processing (EPZ).
The government rewarded him with a diplomatic appointment. Balasuriya, perhaps is the only retired IGP to receive an appointment as head of a diplomatic mission in spite of stepping down under controversial circumstances. Balasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Brazil. With the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, chaired by the Speaker, nothing but a rubber stamp for successive governments to accommodate their favourites, at the taxpayers’ expense, without any difficulty.
Balasuriya received significant media coverage when he was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that Inquired into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC). The yahapalana outfit probed why Balasuriya provided armed police security for members of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), who hadn’t been at least members of Parliament.
The Commission sought clarification on what grounds Balasuriya provided security in the period 2010-2015.
The Commission estimated the exercise could have cost the taxpayer approximately Rs 30 mn.
Gunaratne dealt with officers with political patronage at different levels exploiting the much abused system to secure promotions. In the chapter referred to by Kotakadeniya, Gunaratne depicted an extremely negative picture of the service.
Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section that referred to the pathetic situation of some influential persons securing key posts and promotions for stooges at the expense of the deserving: “The pattern, so monotonous since 1977, had seriously demoralized the service. Some have been adept not only in the ‘long jump,’ but also in ‘hop, step and jump,’ by obtaining more than one promotion outside the eligible criteria.
Backdoor entry into Parliament
But should we be surprised by irregular police promotions? In a country where defeated candidates can be accommodated in Parliament through the backdoor or ruling party perpetrated Treasury bond scams twice in 2015 and 2016, ‘rape of the seniority line’ as underscored by Gunaratne seemed not so serious an issue. In fact, the rot in the police is just one symptom of the overall deterioration of both public and private sectors.
In spite of the creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the 19th and the recently introduced 20th, the crisis-ridden department is in bad shape. The PNB’s alleged involvement in drug dealing, Riyaj Bathiudeen’s sudden shock release, alleged attempts to undermine police investigation into Easter Sunday attacks, handling of the probe into negligence on the part of Brandix and government officials in respect of the second Covid-19 eruption highlighted fundamental flaws in law enforcement.
Police continue to play politics and politicians continue to play with the police. Both parties engage in ‘politics’ at the expense of truth and credibility. The Parliament remains indifferent. Yahapalana IGP Pujith Jayasundera, in the wake of the Oct 26, 2018 constitutional crisis caused by the sacking of Wickremesinghe government, immediately switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Jayasundera returned to the fold as President Sirisena’s ambitious project collapsed.
Over the years, politicians have set up systems that took care of problems. Actually, Gunaratne in ‘Dilemma of an Island’ (2001), ‘Cop in the Crossfire’ in 2011 and the latest ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this January dealt with perhaps some broader issues though a fully-fledged Presidential Commission as suggested by the author is required to reach consensus on genuine remedial measures.
Former Sub Inspector and defeated candidate at the August 2020 general election Palitha Range Bandara recently received the appointment as the General Secretary of the demoralized UNP. Bandara succeeded Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who was rewarded with the post of Assistant Leader.
Beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe picked Bandara in spite of him being accused often of divided loyalties. But in relation to ‘Perils of a Profession,’ it would be pertinent to mention that Bandara received backdated promotion to the rank of ASP in Dec 2017, courtesy the NPC.
The NPC recommended promotion for cop-turned-politician Bandara to the rank of ASP on the grounds the previous Rajapaksa administration victimized him, politically, though he had left the police long before Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. The NPC made the recommendation to the Law and Order and Southern Development Ministry. The NPC responded to Bandara’s appeal and recommended that MP Bandara be reinstated in the Police Service from 24 August 2000 and promoted to the ASP rank on the 27th of the same month and sent him on retirement. Promoting an SI to the rank of ASP cannot be an issue for those yahapalana grandees who brought back Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake from retirement to name him the Commander of the Army. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the Easter Sunday attacks during Senanayake’s tenure as the Army Commander. Instead of accepting responsibility for the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military (DMI) to thwart the NTJ project, Senanayake exploited the police lapses to contest the last presidential election. Senanayake couldn’t poll even 50,000 votes. The results of the Nov 2019 presidential poll placed Senanayake fourth behind JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
The yahapalana administration also brought back Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah from retirement to place the Navy under him. However, it is pertinent to mention that Sinniah led some of the most successful operations on the high seas against the LTTE arms smuggling vessels.
Need for clear cut procedures
The government will have to set up specific mechanisms to deal with both law enforcement and military officers claiming political victimization, rightly or wrongly, instead of looking at them through a political lense as has been happening under various governments. Gunaratne mentioned several instances of how retired senior officers brazenly exploited the political setup for their advantage. In the absence of procedures, any wrongdoer can secure benefits at the expense of the truth.
The author dealt with an attempt made by a Colombo-based diplomatic mission to recruit a police intelligence officer in the early 70s. Having named the officer concerned as Ananda Jayasekera, who passed away in 2019, Gunaratne discussed the case that ended up with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike being alerted to the foreign mission’s bid to run an agent within the State Intelligence setup.
During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second presidential term, the US Embassy made an abortive bid to recruit Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe. The offer was made at a party hosted by the then US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith on January 20, 2011, in honour of a senior officer from the US Pacific Command.
Samarasinghe not only turned down the offer to secure permanent residency in the US for him and his family by betraying the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he promptly brought the US bid to the latter’s notice.
Against the backdrop of foreign powers stepping up their clandestine activities over the years, the circumstances under which Inspector Nishantha Silva of the CID secured political asylum for himself and his entire family a week after the last presidential poll underscored the pivotal importance of the intelligence services keeping a track of developments. Did the State Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena know of the connection between Nishantha Silva and the Swiss Embassy?
Subsequent inquiries revealed a much wider conspiracy involving Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis, (former Siriyalatha Perera), the Swiss Embassy and the police officer who prominently figured in the leaked audio tapes of the then UNP State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. Did SIS at least know the controversial CID investigator’s plan to flee the country in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential poll? Did the then Director, CID SSP Shani Abeysekera know of his subordinate’s plan?
If the Swiss government succeeded in evacuating Garnier Francis in an air ambulance amidst accusations that government personnel molested her and threatened her with death, immediately after Inspector Silva fled the country, the issue would have been raised in Geneva at the forthcoming 46th UNHRC sessions as if it was the gospel truth. However, the possibility of the matter still being raised during the Feb-March 2021 sessions cannot be ruled out as the West is quite capable of making an untruth a truth, especially through their ‘independent’ media as happened with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the maligning of Gaddafi just before his ouster and gruesome killing in public.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa placed the SIS under intelligence veteran Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally. The SIS had never been under a military officer before. The crisis-ridden police are now placed under retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Minister of Public Security with retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis as the Secretary to that Ministry. The Office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), too, has been placed under retired Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulathunga. In spite of the much tighter hold on the intelligence setup, the government was caught flat-footed when the demolition of the LTTE war memorial on January 8, 2021 in the Jaffna University triggered chaos. The incident placed both Sri Lanka and India in an embarrassing position as the demolition of the memorial took place close on the heels of Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s high profile visit to Colombo.
Although the author made reference to the failure on the part of the police to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, an issue as important as how the Indian intelligence managed its operations aimed at the NTJ hadn’t received due attention.
Did India alert SIS regarding their NTJ hunt or just provided the finished intelligence product on April 4, 2019, regarding the planned operation? Sri Lanka should be really worried about foreign intelligence services engaged in clandestine activities here, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, with the former receiving the backing of India, Japan and Australia.
PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran killing outside the Maldivian HC in Colombo in July 1989 revealed the possible involvement of the Indian intelligence. The killing took place in the wake of the PLOTE bid to overthrow the then Maldivian President Gayoom at the behest of a Maldivian businessman. The sea borne PLOTE raid went awry even before Indian troops landed there to bring the situation quickly under control.
A deeper scrutiny of ‘developments’ is required as China-US hostilities take a turn for the worse with both seeking to enhance their spheres of influence. The need for the intelligence services to be prepared to face multifarious threats on different levels is of paramount importance. The Easter Sunday carnage is certainly not the first intelligence failure and it wouldn’t be the last.
The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993 exposed the entire intelligence setup. The infiltration of President Premadasa’s inner circle by the LTTE is perhaps the worst single intelligence failure that proved the importance of the intelligence services being on top of the ‘political game,’ too. For intelligence services, there cannot be a worse period than President Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993). An ignorant President played pandu with national security leading to the Eelam War II in June 1990 with disastrous consequences. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the LLRC. Seneviratne explained how President Premadasa’s interventions caused debilitating losses at the onset of the Eelam War II. The rest is history.
The Royalty and its ‘Yes’ Men
By Lynn Ockersz
The air is thick once again,
With the familiar refrain,
That you, the ‘Sovereign People’,
Are at centre stage,
In this wearying racking of brains,
On how the notoriously Nodding Land’s,
Primal law must take shape,
But here’s the truth none can escape:
You have descended from wage labourer,
To an alms-seeker of the street,
And your hearth’s flames,
Are sputtering to an ominous end,
But the timeless moral remains:
You are hapless pawns,
In a decades-long power game,
Featuring dynastic heavyweights,
And their 225 ‘Yes’ men.
From Jaffna library to University – politics of identity
By Harim Peiris
A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.
Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.
Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.
Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.
Memorialising and remembering the dead
Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.
Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.
It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.
Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.
(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17)
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