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Absolute Power



John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th and early 20th century famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…” Absolute power is what the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of the Rajapaksas won last Wednesday and the biggest challenge for President Gotabaya and brother Mahinda, who will continue as prime minister, is to ensure that Acton’s words do not come true in Sri Lanka. Theirs was a stunning victory belying even the wildest expectations of their most optimistic supporters. Conventional wisdom that nobody can obtain a two thirds majority under proportional representation, as JR Jayewardene intended, went with the wind with the SLPP and its allies tantalizingly close to that mark. One hundred and forty five was the official tally, seats won in the electorates plus the national least places – just five short of the magic number. But one must add Douglas Devananda’s two seats in the north to that total, as he is very much a part of the SLPP, having served even in the caretaker cabinet, and the single seat the SLFP won. Even former President Sirisena chose to run under the purple banner as did many other blues who knew the coming colour. No doubt the SLFP will be offered to the Rajapaksas and the UNP will strive to re-unite.

Who would believe that the greens would fail to get even a single MP elected? Most expected the Sajith Premadasa faction, which is also UNP, to do better than Ranil’s team notwithstanding the possession of Siri Kotha and the recent court judgment. Both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa must take the blame for the debacle they have suffered. It is not rocket science that united you stand and divided you fall. That is what has happened to both sides of the UNP. Ranil loyalists say Sajith was too greedy, having been anointed as the presidential candidate last November and been appointed the chairman of the Nomination Board.. He demanded the party leadership as well although his Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) had the UNP’s imprimatur. Premadasa chose not to remember that he had agreed to let Wickremesinghe lead the party till 2025. But Ranil also was greedy, having attained the party leadership by “fortuitous circumstances” (we borrow the words from W. Dahanayaka who used them when he succeeded SWRD Bandaranaike as prime minister) and continued for 27 long years through thick and thin.

He became prime minister and party leader following the assassinations of both Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. two UNP stars of the JR era, eclipsed by Ranasinghe Premadasa who first became prime minister and then president. Wickremesinghe had four innings at the prime ministerial crease, though he didn’t serve a full term on any these occasions. He was unlucky to have lost the presidency to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 as the LTTE closed entry to the polling stations at that election and prevented voters living in areas they controlled from exercising their franchise. These were votes that Ranil would have polled. But that was not to be. He must also be given credit for subordinating his own interests in 2015 and throwing the UNP’s weight behind Maithripala Sirisena who the combined opposition fielded against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common candidate. Siresena could and would not have won that election without UNP backing. Thereafter Wicremesinghe, whatever his own ambitions, conceded his party’s presidential ticket to Premadasa last November.

What the UNP would do with the solitary National List seat it has won has not been decided at the time of writing. A wag remarked that Wickremesinghe would appoint another one of those committees he’s famous for to decide who should take that place! A correspondent, in a letter we publish today quotes Mangala Samaraweera saying that Ranil was the best president we never had. Karu Jauyasuriya was also described as the best leader the UNP never had. That was Ranil’s doing. Despite his admiriation of Wickremesinghe, Samaraweera, notwithstanding his subsequent backdown, threw in his lot with Premadasa as did the vast majority of the UNP’s 106 MPs in the last Parliament. They eloquently expressed the overwhelming majority view within the party of who the better leader would be – at least to win the election. But Wickremesinghe chose not to listen. That he lost even his own seat at Colombo Central, one of the UNP’s strongest bastions, was the result.

What now? The leaders of the two main parties, the SLPP and both factions of the UNP, failed the people massively by nominating the vast majority of those who sat in the last Parliament for re-election. Most of them, certainly from the Pohottuwa, have been re-elected despite the questionable reputations of many. This is the nature of politics – especially landslides when herd instincts takeover. Will the Rajapaksas, faced with the stiffest possible economic challenge in the wake of the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, be willing to take the impossibly hard decisions that the situation demands? There is a strong conviction within knowledgeable circles that big business firmly believes that President Gotabaya is the country’s only hope. He has demonstrated ability to deliver not only as Defence Secretary during the war, but also as Secretary for Urban Development thereafter. There is optimism that he would do what is right leaving the politics to brothers Mahinda and Basil.

Constitutional change, or at least amendment by repealing 19A, was spoken of from most SLPP platforms during this campaign and the one before which propelled GR into office. This was despite a severely adverse minority vote. But the majority community ensured his comfortable election althopugh it did give the victory a racial tinge. Hopefully the baby will not be thrown with the bathwater and the two-term limit, the Constitutional Council, Right to Information, and the Independent Commissions will, with appropriate changes, remain in the statute. After all the Elections Commission ran a fine election, in the teeth of many difficulties, for which it must be congratulated. So also the different political parties and their hot blooded supporters for keeping this election violence free.


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Blinding ingratitude



Saturday 19th September, 2020

A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.

The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.

During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.

Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.

President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.

The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.

Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.



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Terrorists and ‘babies’



Friday 18th September, 2020

What is unfolding before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage reminds us of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Erik Solheim once called the Tiger chief a nonpareil strategist. In fact, during the Vanni war, he sought to discourage the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa from going all out to eliminate the LTTE’s military muscle; he told the latter, at a meeting, that Prabhakaran was blessed with superb strategic thinking and capable of springing huge battlefield surprises for the army. Solheim’s claim did not have the desired impact on Mahinda, who bluntly said he would fight the war to a finish, come what may. Prabhakaran perished several months later, and the war came to an end.

Solheim was not alone in mistakenly believing that Prabhakaran was trying to achieve his goal according to a well-thought-out strategy. They must now be convinced that the LTTE had no such plan, and Prabhakaran should have waited and launched his Eelam War IV under a UNP government. From what former intelligence bigwigs and defence officials have revealed before the aforesaid PCoI so far, it is patently clear that the UNP-led yahapalana government made a big mess of national security from 2015 to 2019, and if the LTTE had been around it would have been able to make the most of the situation.

The UNP government (2001-2004) undermined national security in a similar manner. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicrkremesinghe were at loggerheads during that period. The LTTE made use of a fragile truce to consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the South, take delivery of arms shipments, decimate the military intelligence network in areas under its control, and prepare for war. Prabhakaran, while being trapped in the shallows of Nandikadal, must have rued the day he had engineered UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat in the 2005 presidential race by ordering a polls boycott in the North and the East. If he had not meddled with that electoral contest, the UNP would have captured power and undermined national security big time.

Thanks to the PCoI, especially the probing questions its members and the Attorney General’s Department personnel pose to key witnesses, we know how lightly the yahapalana government took national security and public safety. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were busy fighting each other. Intelligence big guns were playing ping-pong over matters of crucial national importance. They worked in silos and, not to put too fine a point on it, behaved like a bunch of Montessori kids. They did not share foreign intelligence about impending Easter Sunday terror strikes with one another properly. Instead, they wrote letters about it to various others obviously in a bid to pass the buck. The State Intelligence Service (SIS), the President and the Prime Minister did not care a tinker’s cuss about national security, which became nobody’s business. The National Security Council became a joke.

The person who was the Chief of National Intelligence, in 2019, has recently told the PCoI that the SIS chief disconnected a call during a telephone conversation, on 20 April 2020, about the foreign intelligence pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks and never called back. Former President Sirisena has claimed that nobody had told him, prior to the terror strikes, that Zahran was a terrorist. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, he said he knew about a ‘golden horse’ and many other assets of the Rajapaksas, but he now claims that, as the President and Commander-in-Chief, he was not aware that Zahran was a terrorist!

Zahran was a kindergarten tot in the world of terror, compared to Prabhakaran, but national security was neglected to such an extent, during the yahapalana days, that even he could easily carry out a series of suicide blasts, which shook the world. What would have happened if Prabhakaran had been alive, or the LTTE rump had made a serious effort to regroup and make a comeback between Jan. 2015 and Nov. 2019?

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A shocking lament



Thursday 17th September, 2020

Perhaps, nothing hurts good judges more than having to acquit anti-social elements owing to flaws in cases and lapses on the part of the police and others responsible for prosecution. Colombo High Court Judge Vikum Kaluarachchi had this experience, on Tuesday. He had to acquit an accused produced before him for possessing drugs. He censured drug busters and prosecutors for their negligence, which had allowed the accused to go scot-free. His consternation is understandable. It is little wonder the conviction rate is said to be below 5% in this country.

The learned judge’s lament is an indictment on the police who conduct drug raids and those entrusted with the task of prosecuting the suspects taken into custody. This, however, is not the first time a drug baron has got away with his crimes. There have been many instances in the past, as we have pointed out in this space over the years. The police have botched up numerous probes, and drugs sent to the Government Analyst’s Department for testing have mysteriously become flour, of all things. Thanks to the arrest of over a dozen corrupt Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) sleuths for collaborating with the drug Mafia, the public knows why charges against some drug lords cannot be proved and the drug trade is thriving here.

Drug barons have colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth and huge slush funds which they expend generously to safeguard their interests, as is public knowledge. Drug lords have infiltrated all vital state institutions such as the legislature, the police and the Government Analyst’s Department. In 2012, late Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne told Parliament that politicians including some MPs were involved in the drug trade. He made no revelation, but other MPs let out a howl of protest. He stood his ground. Ironically, one year later, he was accused of having links to drug dealers because a haul of heroin was found in a container his office had sought to have cleared on priority basis. The Opposition demanded his resignation. The then UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera said in Parliament that some MPs were living on drug dealers’ money. He, however, stopped short of naming names. Mangala must be au fait with what is happening on the political front, where shady characters bankroll election campaigns of prominent politicians. More than a dozen PNB officers are in hot water for having allegedly sold drugs taken into custody and their deals with drug barons. It may be recalled that an IGP once attended the birthday party of a drug lord’s daughter, in a Colombo hotel, as a special invitee.

In the run-up to the last general election, some candidates were accused of being drug dealers, and they have been elected! So, one may argue that discrepancies and contradictions in police officers’ reports and testimonies and lapses on the part of prosecutors are not due to negligence. Is it that they craftily open escape routes for drug dealers on the judicial front?

The police and the Attorney General’s Department officials know what they are doing. They do not easily make mistakes. They ensure that ordinary lawbreakers get convicted and sentenced expeditiously. Curiously, investigators and prosecutors lack this kind of efficiency when wealthy drug barons happen to be caught and prosecuted.

Drug dealers are among the richest in the world. Colombian Pablo Escobar, who was ranked the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes, made a bonfire of cash worth USD2 million to keep his daughter warm and cook food while fleeing, his son revealed in 2009. Thankfully, he is not among the living. Sri Lanka drug dealers may not have wads of dollars or rupees to burn, but they are certainly wealthy enough to buy off venal police officers, politicians and state officials and get away with their crimes.

Some cricketers are notorious for spot fixing, and what they do at the behest of bookies are made to look slip-ups such as dropped catches, careless strokes and fumbling on the field. Are the police officers and others responsible for prosecuting drug barons ‘fixing cases’? Those whose ‘lapses’ help drug dealers go scot-free must be probed.

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