Prof. Peiris, flanked by Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC (left) and State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal addresses the media at the Information department on May 29 (pic courtesy Education Ministry)
Worst ever ecological disaster a month after ship carrying radioactive uranium entered H’tota harbour
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman Prof. G. L. Peiris, MP, on May 29 reiterated the importance of the Colombo Port City project. National List MP Prof. Peiris, who is also the Education Minister, was responding to major concerns raised by those who moved the Supreme Court against the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill. Prof. Peiris was flanked by National List MPs, Justice Minister Ali Sabri, PC, and State Minister of Money & Capital Market and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal.
The briefing took place at the Information Department, amidst Sri Lanka’s worst ever ecological disaster that threatened the seas around the Colombo Port City and the welfare of thousands who eke out a living off the sea. Indian vessels and tugs, operated by Sri Lanka Shipping Company, and Salvos, fought a raging fire on the container carrier X-Press Pearl.
Controversy surrounds the delay on Sri Lanka’s part to call for Indian help for five days. Indian vessels and aircraft arrived in Sri Lanka on May 25th – five days after Sri Lanka was informed of the fire. The X-Press Pearl fire erupted exactly a month after Sri Lanka expelled a China-bound Antigua-registered vessel that entered the Hambantota port without revealing it carried radioactive uranium.
It would be pertinent to mention that the Information Department received a new head on April 09. Mohan Samaranayake, who previously held the post of Director General, Presidential Media, assumed duties on April 19. Samaranayake succeeded Nalaka Kaluwewa. With Samaranayake’s arrival at the Information Department, the government’s under-used media outlet has sort of enhanced its role.
After assuming new responsibility, veteran journalist and political commentator Samaranayake declared: “Every effort will be made to ensure the expected role of the Department of Government Information by properly publicizing accurate information.”
Samaranayake’s departure paved the way for former Swarnavahini presenter Sudeva Hettiarachchi who had been previously with Hiru, to be the new DG Presidential Media. The Presidential Secretariat also created a new post, namely the Presidential Spokesperson for Sirasa presenter Kingsley Ratnayake, who had done a regular wide-ranging interview with former minister and Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda. Interestingly, the late Bandula Jayasekera, one-time The Islander, having served as President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spokesperson, joined Sirasa after the 2015 presidential election.
The country is in such a crisis and in a far worse situation than during the 30-year war, daunting challenges cannot be overcome by media strategies alone.
Let me get back to the May 29 briefing, at the Information Department. Prof. Peiris was quite convincing in his explanation as regards the passage of the Bill on laws governing the China-backed Colombo Port city project. The one-time top law academic addressed, what he called, misconceptions and apprehensions pertaining to the contents and implications of the Bill, approved by Parliament on May 20th.
The ministerial briefing took place in the wake of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena ratifying the new Act. Shan Wijetunga, Director, Department of Communication, Parliament, issued the following statement on the afternoon of May 27. It was headlined: “Hon. Speaker signs blueprint of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill”. The following is the text of the Speaker’s brief statement: “Speaker Hon. Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has put his signature today (27) validating the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill which was passed in Parliament on the 20th May 2021.
The Speaker signed the blueprint of the act at around 11.30 am this morning.
Thereby the Colombo Port City Economic Commission act will be implemented, in full, from today (27).”
The statement made no reference to the Speaker’s decision to launch two inquiries into the failure on the part of Parliament to accurately count the number of votes received, in support of the Bill, at the May 20th vote.
The inquiries were initiated following complaints received from Minister Sabry and SLPP General Secretary Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam, PC. The Speaker called for a report from Jayantha de Silva, Secretary, Technology Ministry, pertaining to the failure of the electronic counting system and a comprehensive report in respect of the overall situation from former Secretary General Parliament Dhammika Kitulgoda.
The Communication Department statement also didn’t make any reference to the number of votes received for and against the Bill. However, the first post-war External Affairs Minister Prof. Peiris (2010-2015) didn’t mince his words when he declared at the Information Department that the Bill had received an overwhelming two-thirds majority. Prof. Peiris said that there had been an error in the counting process and the truth was established following an inquiry.
Interestingly, the Speaker’s own Media Division, headed by Indunil Abeywardena, too, hadn’t issued a statement regarding the revelation made by the SLPP Chairman, at the time of the Information Department meeting.
There cannot be any justifiable excuse for the pathetic failure on the part of Parliament to ensure an unquestionable counting process. Can there be any issue whatsoever in the electronic counting process? Parliament actually should be ashamed of its failure – the latest in a long list of let downs over a period of time.
Prof. Peiris responds to Opp concerns
The statement made by Prof. Peiris should be examined against the backdrop of the Opposition’s plea to the Supreme Court to order a Referendum, in addition to a two-thirds parliamentary approval for the Bill. The SLPP avoided the Referendum by agreeing for the amendments proposed by the Opposition whereas the SC declared the adequacy of a simple majority.
Prof. Peiris dealt with several contentious issues, including what he described as the perception of exclusivity. Appreciating China spearheading the mega project meant to ‘creating and adding to Sri Lanka’s territory’, Prof. Peiris declared that doors were open for all countries to invest therein. Prof Peiris emphasized that there is absolutely no basis for the assumptions as regards the new territory being Chinese and investments would be restricted.
Having dealt with the contentious issue over the alleged exclusivity, Prof. Peiris strongly countered accusations that the adoption of the Act would pave the way for creation of a mechanism (Colombo Port City Economic Commission) that would undermine basic democratic structures, therefore a threat to Parliament.
Prof. Peiris also explained how Parliament functioned in its supreme capacity and was responsible for the operation of the Colombo Port City project. The distinguished academic stressed that whatever tax concessions and other privileges afforded to investors would be strictly subjected to the parliamentary approval by way of powers exercised by the Auditor General. Minister Peiris asserted that there couldn’t be any controversy over the China-backed project as it would be subjected to regulatory authorities – the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, Inland Revenue Department, Attorney General, Customs et al.
Prof. Peiris dealt with accusations that the Colombo Port City would be utilised for money laundering operations. The Education Minister explained how the laws applicable to the new territory didn’t in any way undermine the systems in place to deter money laundering. The US publicly in April alleged that the Colombo Port City would be exploited by ‘nefarious actors’.
Finally, the SLPP Chairman scotched speculation regarding the police and the military not having access to the new territory. Perhaps, most interesting was the examination of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill with that of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) Law, introduced by President JRJ, and an amendment enacted by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1992. Referring to Premadasa’s amendment that transformed the GCEC to the Board of Investment (BoI), Prof. Peiris said that the then President deprived the Courts of authority to intervene in BOI matters.
Prof. Peiris ridiculed those who had moved the Supreme Court against the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, for having backed the GCEC Law and the 1992 amendment. Prof. Peiris said that President JRJ had been in such a hurry for the GCEC Law he got the National State Assembly to approve it before the promulgation of the 1978 Constitution.
Having explained the fundamental change in investments, Prof. Peiris called for what he called a ‘coherent statutory regime’ as part of overall efforts to attract foreign investments. Prof. Peiris quite vigorously emphasized the role played by the previous government in the China-led project.
Prof. Peiris recalled how the then Minister of Internal and Home Affairs and Provincial Councils and Local Government Vajira Abeywardena (Current UNP Chairman) issued a gazette pertaining to the Colombo Port City territory.
At the onset of the briefing, Prof. Peiris declared that apprehensions and misconceptions pertaining to the project could be easily resolved by a fuller discussion than we have seen in the recent days. Such discussions should have taken place in the run-up to the passage of the Bill. The government shouldn’t expect a consensus on the project having bulldozed its way through in Parliament.
Parliament, on July 23, 2019, passed a resolution that paved the way for the amalgamation of the reclaimed land of the Colombo Port City with the area coming under the purview of the Colombo Divisional Secretariat division.
The Resolution under the Administrative Districts Act was presented by Vajira Abeywardena, MP.
According to the Resolution, the land of the Colombo Port City in extent of 446 hectares will be annexed to the Colombo Divisional Secretariat’s Division of the Administrative District of Colombo. As per the plan prepared by the Surveyor General, the Colombo Port and Chaithya Road East will be a connecting point to the boundary of the Colombo Divisional Secretariat’s Division.
The newly reclaimed land’s connection point would be the western boundary of the Colombo Divisional Secretariat’s Division and its east coordinate would be 396913.476 from the northern connection point and 397077.037 from the southern connection point while its north coordinate would be 492847.74 from the northern connection point and 492290.222 from the southern connection point according to the Sri Lanka Grid 1999 reference coordinate system, according to the schedule of the resolution.
Having suspended the Colombo Port City project soon after the 2015 presidential election, the yahapalana government caused irreparable damage to long standing bilateral relations. The then Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said the China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC) project had been launched without relevant approvals from concerned institutions. The Minister alleged that the agreement had been finalized without following proper procedures and did not meet environmental standards. The yahapalana government, in August, 2016, however, despite earlier bitter criticism of it, paved the way for the resumption of the project after China twisted the then Sri Lankan leadership’s arm. China warned Sri Lanka of dire consequences unless it paid compensation for the losses caused by the abrupt suspension of the project. The CCCC estimated it was losing more than $380,000 a day as a result.
Sri Lanka’s foolish decision to suspend the Chinese project should be examined against the backdrop of the US role in the 2015 change of government. No less a person than the then Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the US made funding available for the political project to topple the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in addition to backing the regime change in Myanmar and Nigeria.
At one point, China lashed out at the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake (Karunanayaka, who contested the Colombo district along with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, lost his bid to re-enter Parliament at the last parliamentary election, in August 2020. Wickremesinghe, too, lost. The once all-powerful UNP won just a National List slot and it too remains vacant still).
The then Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang hit back hard at Karunanayake after he called Chinese funding as ‘expensive loans.’ The Chinese demanded to know why Karunanayaka sought more loans if he felt the Chinese were not being fair. The Chinese Ambassador reacted angrily to Karunanayake in Oct/Nov 2016. By then, both Karunanayake and the then government had been embroiled in Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016.
Having defended the flagship Chinese project to the hilt, the status of Prof. Peiris’ role in the overall government strategy cannot be ignored under any circumstances.
SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, in his written submissions submitted to the Supreme Court, in respect of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, challenged the legitimacy of the Bill. Perhaps, the bone of contention is that the Bill, presented to Parliament by the SLPP, hadn’t been consonant with the bilateral agreement between Sri Lanka and China, finalized in 2014, or the re-negotiated tripartite agreement (Sri Lanka, China and Urban Development Authority) following the change of government in 2015.
Lawmaker Rajapakse questioned the failure on the part of those who had access to those agreements but conveniently refrained from submitting them to the Supreme Court.
In his submissions, MP Rajapakse, who had represented both the UNP and the SLFP in the cabinet, alleged Prof. Peiris, along with Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the President, S.R. Attygalle, Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary to the Cabinet being silent on the previous agreements. The four had intervened in the case in support of the Bill.
Having appeared in the Supreme Court on behalf of Ven. Muruthettuwe Ananda Nayaka thera and Nagashenage Dasun Yasas Sri Nagasena, MP Rajapaksa skipped the vote on the Bill on May 20.
A big question mark over the role of Parliament
Prof. Peiris, as well as other government spokespersons, have repeatedly assured the public that the Colombo Port City project would be governed by Parliament. They guaranteed the project would be subjected to proper scrutiny therefore the public should be at ease. However, Parliament, having pathetically failed to fulfill its primary responsibilities namely (i) ensuring financial discipline and (ii) enactment of new laws expected to manage the Port City project. Parliament has, however, over and over again revealed its incompetence as waste, corruption and irregularities continued unabated. It would be a horrendous mistake on the part of the public to believe for a moment the Port City project would be within Sri Lanka’s purview simply on the basis of it being subject to parliamentary supervision.
Such claims should be discussed taking into consideration statements issued by the Communication Department of Parliament pertaining to the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee on Public Finance) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) proceedings. Parliament’s response to the Treasury bond scams, during the previous administration, as well as the massive sugar tax scam, perpetrated by the incumbent SLPP government, bared an unpalatable truth. Examination of COPE, COPA and COPF reports since the last general election revealed massive embezzlement at public sector enterprises as well as other institutions, such as Sri Lanka Cricket and Football Federation of Sri Lanka. In fact, waste, corruption and irregularities seemed almost acceptable to governments, whoever was at the helm, with Parliament struggling to cope up with corruption. Therefore, believing in parliamentary supervision of the Port City project can be quite a blunder.
Mandarin and Tamil – A historical perspective
By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan
The recent discovery of name- boards in public institutions which have omitted one of the national languages, namely Tamil, only to replace it with Mandarin Chinese has caused a furor with Tamil members of Parliament and other politicians voicing their protests. Certainly, this is most unfortunate but rather than blame the Chinese it is the Government Authorities in charge of the implementation of the Official languages policy who should be blamed. They have been remiss in this instance which is only a small part of the general malaise in respect of the implementation of the official languages policy. This however is not within the remit of this article. In this article, I would like to focus on another trilingual inscription on a stone tablet stele, left by the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, and dated 15th February 1409, in Sri Lanka. It was originally inscribed in Nanjing in China itself and discovered in 1911 in Galle, and now preserved in the Museum in Colombo. This stone tablet with inscriptions in Chinese, Persian and Tamil signals the arrival of the Chinese fleet and invokes the blessings of Buddha and the Hindu God Vishnu whom the inscription mentions as “Thenavaran Nayanar” and refers to an endowment that Zheng He, had presented to the Vishnu Devale at Devinuwara and to a Mosque. Prof. Sasanka Perera in a very interesting and historically researched article titled “Veera Alakeshvaras Phlight signals from the past,” published in The Island of 28th April 2021, to which I am indebted, refers to this inscription as a “Subtle but obvious way of appealing to the socio political sensibilities of large and important communities in The Island at the time”. So it would appear that the Tamils were an important community in the island at the time. Sinhala does not feature in the inscription. Veera Alakeshwarar’s clash with the Chinese which I refer to in my article is part of the historical perspective which I wish to draw attention to. It has many lessons for the present , and brings to light the Chinese presence in this country many centuries ago.
To continue with the purpose of Admiral Zheng He’s naval journey, it was part of what was known as the “Ming Treasure voyages”. To quote Prof. Perera, the seven voyages under this naval scheme took place between 1405 -1433 AD and was the brainchild of the Ming Emperor Yongle. These voyages were undertaken to expand China’s military, political and commercial Authority across the oceans and to find local allies and establish Chinese spheres of influence in different parts of Asia, parts of the Middle East and places like Mogadishu and Mombasa in Africa. Before arriving in Sri Lanka Zheng He’s fleet had visited other south east Asian countries where also steles were left behind. All these interventions were made to ensure the stability of maritime routes for Chinese vessels. This is very much in line with what is happening today, with the Chinese “Belt and Road initiative”. The Chinese of that era were aware of the Tamil language and culture both because of the maritime traditions of the Tamils during the era of the great Chola empire but also because Tamil Buddhist monks from Kancheepuram had brought Buddhism to China. The Chola empire in South India which held sway over Sri Lanka also included parts of south east Asia , and had a large maritime fleet and merchant navy. Furthermore, Tamil traders and merchant guilds were active in the Indian occean and in south east Asia. With the decline of the Chola empire the seas were open for a new naval power and we find the Ming emperor making a strategic move.
To turn to Sri Lanka and Veera Alekeshvara’s encounter with the Chinese, I will have to go back in time to the Alagakkonara/Allagakone family, of which he was a member. This feudal family originally from Madurai or Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, settled down in Lanka and became very powerful in the Gampola Kingdom. The father of Veera Alakeshvara also known as Alakeshvara became a Minister in the Kingdom. He fortified a marshy region around the present city of Colombo and called the fortress he built there Jayawardenepura, and the area around became known as Kotte, (which means ‘fort’ in Tamil). From his fortifications he drove out the northern army of the Arya Chakraverti, who ruled the kingdom of Jaffna, and the tax collectors from this kingdom who were raiding the south western region. Thus, he came to overshadow king Vikramabahu I11rd of Gampola. Subsequently after some infighting with family members Veera Alakeshvara his son became king of the Gampola kingdom as Vijayabahu VI , and ruled from 1397- 1411 AD.
However, Veera Alakeshvara like some of our present China critics, was hostile to Chinese intentions in Sri Lanka and launched piracy attacks on the Chinese fleet in Sri Lankan waters with the help of some Muslim chieftains. As a consequence, Zheng He, left Sri Lankan waters as he had other ports of call, but returned to take revenge on Alakesvara. In 1410/11 Zheng He and his troops attacked Kotte and captured Veera Alakeshvara and his family together with other key political figures allied with him. He was taken as a prisoner to China. In the collected works of Yong Rong 1515, his capture is described as well as his subsequent pardon by the Emperor as follows “thus the August Emperor spared their lives and they humbly kowtowed making crude sounds ( a reference to their language) and praising the sage like virtue of the Imperial Ming ruler.” But this was not the end of the matter. As Prof. Sasanka points out regime change was the object, and Parakramabahu the Sixth ascended the throne. Chinese records reveal that the new king was chosen by Sinhalese emissaries present at the Ming Court, nominated by the Emperor and installed by Zheng He, using the Chinese military and naval power at his disposal, as a ruler more amenable to Chinas intentions. He created a political alliance with the Chinese that allowed expansive political projects such as the Ming Treasure fleet easy access to local waters as well as local political support.” It is also of interest to note that Sembagha Perumal alias Sapumal Kumaraya an ethnic Tamil and adopted son of Parakramabahu the Sixth subsequently conquered the northern Jaffna Kingdom and built the Nallur Kandasamy kovil in Jaffna and his exploits are commemorated by the poet Sri Rahula thera in the Kokila Sandesaya and the Selahini Sandesaya.
Aside from the sense of ‘deja vu’, which Prof. Perera remarks upon, Alakeshvarar’s story has many lessons for us today. We learn that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was a powerful and respected one, hence the inscriptions in Mandarin along with Tamil and Persian. In the north the Kingdom of Jaffna under the Arya Chakravarti dynasty was as powerful as the other kingdoms and at that time was threatening kotte and even extracting taxes from regions in the South. Here too it was ethnic Tamils such as Alakeshvara senior who led the defense of the Kotte and Gampola kingdoms, and built Jayawardenapura, and it was Sembagha Perumal who later defeated the Arya Chacraverti and brought the Jaffna kingdom under the rule of Parakramabahu VI. The ethnic differences were subsumed, and Sinhalese and Tamils worked together as one people. The wars were for territory, with kings fighting kings and not between ethnic groups. It was only with the arrival of the western colonial powers starting with the Portuguese that ethnic differences surfaced, perhaps as a consequence of a divide and rule policy. Another lesson we learn is that the Chinese political presence i n the island is not something new. Furthermore Chinese trade was a key factor in the Sri Lankan economy as vindicated by the large collection of Chinese coins in Yapahuwe, which fact is adverted to in Prof. Perera’s article citing Prof. Sudarshan Senviratne. So, the resumption of Chinese political and economic activity in the island is not suprising. Chinese history records that after the great naval expeditions of Zheng He, there was a change in China’s policy and internal constraints made the Country turn inwards. It is now clear that China is resuming its old policy as evidenced by Admiral Zheng He’s naval expeditions, and is once again engaging in expanding its military, political and commercial authority across the globe vide the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Port City project in Sri Lanka is part of this grand design. The Port City project can bring benefits to Sri Lanka too, but it is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Government and people to see that Sri Lanka’s interests are adequately protected and they cannot fault China for any short fall as every country looks after its own interests. In the context of the lessons we learn from the Veera Alakeshvara episode, Tamil politicians would be well advised to be more mindful when making protests at what they perceive to be Mandarin taking precedence over Tamil. We do not have to kowtow to the new Emperor in Beijing, and protests must surely be made when called for, but made courteously, recognizing that our cultures Tamil and Chinese, have co -existed enriching each other over many centuries as in the spreading of Buddhism by monks from the Tamil country, and the extensive trade as in the exchange of cotton goods for silk between the two civilizations. We have seen from the Galle Inscription that China gave the Tamil language pride of place in Sri Lanka at a certain point of time, and I may mention similar inscriptions have also been left by them in other south Asian countries. At that time Tamil was a language of commerce and trade in the Indian ocean region and the Tamil Kingdoms of South India were powerful entities. Similarly, the Persian language held sway for these reasons. Interestingly we learn from the Moroccan Traveller of the 14th Century, Ibn Batuta, who visited the kingdom of Jaffna, that the king Arya Chackraverti held control of the trade in pearls, had contact with foreign merchants and could speak Persian. It remains to be seen whether the Tamil language once again regains its lost position and the respect that entails. The Trilingual stele in Galle invokes the blessings of the Hindu deity the “Thenavaran Nayanar” Vishnu, for a peaceful world built on trade. For the present we have to recognize that China has come to stay as a power in the region, in a world built on Trade. We can be proud that two Asian nations India and China are emerging as the super powers of the 21st century and go with the trend giving due consideration to both countries in our political and economic policies.
How public sector corruption withers national economy: RJ’s insight
June 29, 2001: The late Rajeewa Jayaweera with the then CEO Peter Hill in Chennai where he was SriLankan Airlines Manager, Southern India. Pic was taken the night before Rajeewa left for France to take over as Manager, France (pic courtesy Sanjeewa Jayaweera)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
One-time SriLankan Airlines senior management employee, the late Rajeewa Jayaweera (RJ), in a series of articles, dealt mercilessly with the national carrier. The series of articles, published in The Island and The Sunday Island, reflected what can be easily described as the pathetic state of affairs in public finance.
The explosive reportage of the deterioration of SriLankan Airlines, between Feb 2015 and March 2020, underscored the overall failure on the part of the country’s supreme legislature, Parliament, to ensure financial discipline, not only at the national carrier, but the entire public sector, as well. The Colombo Telegraph, too, carried quite a number of RJ’s articles during this period.
Having perused the 143 page e-book, comprising 41 articles, recently, the writer asked COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath whether the national carrier came under the purview of his outfit, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or COPF (Committee on Public Finance). Lawmaker Herath responded: “Yes. Under the parliamentary watchdog COPE. We are going to summon them soon.”
Perhaps, RJ’s series of articles can be quite helpful to the parliamentary watchdog committees, if they are genuinely interested in taking remedial measures, in respect of the national carrier. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ), himself a contributor to The Island, and other media outlets, as well, hadn’t been successful in publishing the series of articles on the national carrier, as a book, to coincide with the first death anniversary of his brother RJ.
SJ’s attributed his failure to secure consent of a leading publisher as he didn’t own the intellectual property rights. SJ’s efforts to publish RJ’s articles on foreign relations, too, has met with a similar fate.
RJ’s body was found at Independence Square, on the morning of June 12, last year. He was 64 years at the time of his death.
At the inquest into the death of RJ, before the Colombo Chief Magistrate, Lanka Jayaratne, on June 22, 2020, it transpired that it was a suicide. RJ committed suicide on the night of June 11. SJ assured court that he was certain RJ committed suicide. When the writer inquired about the circumstances leading to RJ’s suicide, SJ reiterated he never had any suspicions about quite the unexpected, but meticulously planned suicide.
In a country where the Central Bank has been ‘raided’ not once but twice and every public sector enterprise brazenly ‘raped’ by successive governments, a set of published articles cannot be launched, in book form, in the absence of intellectual property rights.
Focus on national carrier
Of over 300 articles, authored by RJ, only a section dealt with the national carrier. RJ’s relentless campaign against those who had been responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities at SriLankan must have angered many of those wrongdoers for being exposed after having got everything swept under the carpet, as happens so often in this country.
Having served SriLankan Airlines for over 15 years, RJ had been in a much better position, than many, to comment on the ruination of the national carrier.
However, thick-skinned politicians, and top officials, didn’t publicly react to RJ’s comments. If they really understood the implications of the continuing disclosures, RJ would have earned their wrath. In his first piece on the national carrier, titled ‘SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals UL loss is over Rs. 100 bn’ on Feb 6, 2015, RJ in one sentence explained what went wrong with the public enterprise. Referring to the launch of, what he called, the ‘Gulf Carrier of Dubai,’ with USD 10 mn investment made by the then Ruler there, in 1985, RJ declared; “The secret of their success was the Ruler never appointed relatives, his minions, civil servants, ex-army generals nor businessmen to run the airline.”
Having joined the national carrier, as a Marketing Executive, in June 1989, he received a promotion as Manager (Advertising and Promotions) and subsequently served as Manager Oman and Yemen, Manager Southern India, Manager France, Benelux, Scandinavia and Southern Europe before quitting in July 1995. Thereafter, RJ served Qatar Airlines (August 2005 to October 2009) as Regional Manager Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar. RJ rejoined Sri Lankan Airlines and served as Manager Germany from October 2010 till May 2011 (during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President)
RJ had been in touch with the writer, though the national carrier was never the subject of discussions. The focus had always been on the conflict and post-war issues, particularly Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability issues. RJ had been severely critical of the way the yahapalana lot responded to the growing Western threat and, essentially, there was consensus that the then administration deliberately discarded Lord Naseby’s strategy which could have been quite useful, if properly used. RJ took his life three months after the incumbent government withdrew from the 2015 Geneva Resolution. If RJ was alive today, he would have been quite disturbed over how the incumbent administration, too, handled the Geneva issue. RJ used to call the writer at the latter’s home. On many occasions, the writer’s wife, Dilhani, overheard our noisy exchanges and used to inquire as to what was wrong. We used to disagree on the response of the UNP-led government and Joint Opposition/SLPP as regards foreign policy and accountability issues.
Let me get back to the plight of the national carrier. In a follow-up piece, dated Feb 11, 2015, RJ stated that: “The general perception is that Air Lanka/SriLankan Airlines is an expensive toy of the rulers of the day, and a few of the elite – all at the expense of the taxpayer.” Having said so, RJ stated: “Even though there is some truth in it, it is indeed not the whole truth. Contrary to general perception, the national carrier has played a pivotal role, both in helping the nation’s economy and welfare of its people by bringing the world to Sri Lanka and taking Sri Lanka to the world.”
The writer is of the view that RJ made a futile attempt (Feb 11, 2015 piece) to restore the much tarnished image of the national carrier. One cannot find fault with RJ for being lenient in a way immediately after he initiated the onslaught on the national carrier. Subsequently, RJ meticulously addressed issues at hand, thereby exposed ‘white-collar crime.’
RJ exposed both the SLFP and UNP administrations. Catchy titles attracted, both print and online readers, including the writer, though going through all 41 articles at a stretch provided an entirely different insight. RJ didn’t mince his words when he zealously hammered those who undermined the national carrier, through waste, corruption, irregularities and outright mismanagement.
If RJ didn’t take his own life, perhaps he wouldn’t have ever thought of launching a book, at least on an e-form. Thanks to SJ, now the entire set of articles is available online and this writer believes, in addition to lawmakers, especially heads of the watchdogs (Prof. Charitha Herath/COPE, Prof. Tissa Vitharana/COPA and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa/COPF), leaders of the major political parties (the writer wants to consider the UNP a major political party though being reduced to one National List slot) and the media should access the material. Let me reproduce the catchy titles given to RJ’s articles (1) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn (2) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn: The unknown (3) What ails our national carrier (4) What ails our national carrier-continued (5) What ails our national carrier-iii (6) The passing of an aviation legend and lessons to be learnt (7) What ails out national carrier IV (8) National carrier’s Airbus story-going down the memory lane (9) All is not well @ SriLankan Airlines (10) SriLankan Airlines – a tale of state abuse and mismanagement, the ‘games’ Directors and VIPs played (11) SriLankan Airlines – exit strategy the need of the hour (12) Other side of the coin on Emirates deal – a comment (13) SriLankan Airlines – expensive toy of our politicians (14) A tale of two national carriers (15) Paris exit and Frankfurt exit by Airlines (16) Business Class divide at SriLankan Airlines (17) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry (18) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry-ii (19) What’s with 2015-16 annual report of SriLankan Airlines (20) Full time CEO to Part time CEO-pilot (21) No significant savings in procurement and fees paid to service providers (22) Brighter or darker skies over SriLankan Airlines (23) Total privatization only solution for SriLankan Airlines (24) SriLankan Airlines continues downward spiral (25) SriLankan Airlines total privatization or liquidation (26) More on SriLankan back on track (27) Saving the national carrier – a rejoinder (28) Minister Kabir Hashim’s hogwash (29) New brooms @ SriLankan Airlines (30) Who is managing SriLankan Airlines (31) Emirates remembers, the world remembers (32) More facts to remember on Emirates (33) India’s failed bid to disinvest Air India (34) Presidential air travel and the nut episode (35) Fleecing SriLankan Airlines (36) SriLankan violates Companies Act (37) Srilankan Airlines long overdue AGM (38) tale of woe continues @ SriLankan Airlines (39) SriLankan Airlines deal (40) USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines and (41) Evidence given before Presidential Commission of Inquiry
Absence of accountability
RJ’s series of articles highlighted a bleak picture not only at the national carrier but the entire public sector. In a way, the parliamentary committee system had pathetically failed in its responsibilities. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stands at a staggering Rs. 326 Bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses. A year after RJ’s suicide, the national economy is in tatters. The country would have been in a much stronger position, to weather the Covid-19 fallout, if not for waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Both former major political parties – the UNP and the SLFP – mercilessly abused the national carrier to their hearts’ content. Articles titled ‘SriLankan Airlines deal’ and USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines discussed how the Rajapaksa and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration ruined the national carrier. The accountability on the part of President Maithripala Sirisena, as he was the head of the cabinet, cannot be ignored.
RJ alleged: “The Rajapaksas appointed relatives (This is not the reality). The Yahapalanites appointed friends from their alma mater and party hacks. The following are the Directors appointed by the Yahapalana government in February 2015 and their connections.
Chairman Ajith Dias (Prime Minister’s friend and ex-Royal College). Chanaka de Silva and Mahinda Haradasa, (PM’s friends, ex-Royal College, and members of UNP Working Committee), Rajan Brito (former President CBK’s friend), Hadindra Balapatabandi (former President Sirisena’s friend), Rakhitha Jayawardena (PM’s relative and old Thomian), Lt. Col. (Retd.) Sunil Peiris (Ravi Jayawardene’s friend and old Thomian), and N. De Silva Deva Aditya (PM’s friend and MP in European Parliament).
CEO Suren Ratwatte, a pilot by profession, was the younger brother of the PM’s financial advisor. Ratwatte’s ill-advised appointment had far-reaching consequences. At the end of six months, some directors wished to extend his probation period and assign Key Performance Indicators for evaluation in a few months. However, both the Prime Minister and Minister Kabir Hashim instructed the directors to confirm him in his post without delay (Board Minute 2.6 dated April 28, 2016)”.
RJ meticulously addressed contentious issues pertaining to the national carrier. Controversial SriLankan CEO Kapila Chandrasena received RJ’s attention. The expose of Chandrasena before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry should be re-examined against the backdrop of the arrest and the subsequent bail out of Kapila Chandrasena and his wife, Priyanka Niyomali Wijenayake over receiving USD 2 mn commission from Airbus Industrie in a deal that had been discussed in the official residence of the then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on March 1, 2013. RJ quite aptly compared Speaker Rajapaksa’s initial denial of any knowledge of the meeting with that of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayke’s performance before CoI on Treasury Bond scams.
The government owed a public explanation as regards the status of the bankrupt national carrier. The ruination of the national carrier can be easily blamed on the top leaderships of the UNP and the SLFP. There cannot be any dispute over that or for anyone to be offended by the revelation of that fact. The then President’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickremesinghe conduct/misconduct received wide media coverage after the change of government. The Presidential CoI exposed the sorry state of affairs at the national carrier and how those at the helm caused irrevocable losses.
The shock return of Chandrasena
RJ, however, missed a crucial development in the national carrier close on the heels of President Sirisena sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.
Only a section of the media, including The Island, reported the unbelievable development pertaining to the national carrier. The change of government paved the way for the return of Kapila Chandrasena, though the shocking revelations made in the Presidential CoI were still fresh in public minds. In fact, Chandrasena was one of the first appointments made by the 50-day government.
Civil society activist Gamani Viyangoda was one of the few people to publicly question the appointment. In a brief interview with the writer, Viyangoda alleged that Chandrasena’s appointment as Chairman of the debt-ridden SriLankan, in spite of an ongoing investigation, indicated that those who had exercised executive power previously were back in business (Civil society seeks explanation on top Sri Lanka appointment made amidst probe, The Island, Nov 14, 2018).
In the wake of the growing storm created by his shock reappointment, the government removed Chandrasena. The question is whether Chandrasena acted alone?
Subsequently, a high profile criminal investigation undertaken by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), too, implicated top SriLankan management in the bribery scandal. In the wake of media revelations pertaining to Priyanka Niyomali Chandrasena, nee Wijenayake, being offered up to USD 16 mn in bribes to pave the way for a massive deal involving a dozen new Airbus planes, President
Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for an investigation. This was in the first week of Feb 2020.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered a comprehensive investigation into reports of allegations over financial irregularities said to have been committed during the deal between SriLankan Airlines and Airbus SE for the purchase of aircraft,” his office said.
Of the amount offered, at least USD 2 mn had been received by Chandrasena’s wife. Nothing has been heard of that investigation since then. In fact, examination of COPE, COPA and COPF proceedings reveal that greater the fraud/corruption/irregularity/negligence the chance in suppressing the wrongdoing is guaranteed.
SJ should ensure that even though the intellectual property rights law has deprived him of an opportunity to publish a book comprising an entire set of articles on the ruination caused to SriLankan Airlines, as many people as possible receive the 41 e-articles. If not for RJ, there wouldn’t have been such a collection of articles on the national carrier. It should be compulsory reading for lawmakers and the past and the incumbent presidents. Those who wielded political power should be ashamed of the way they allowed the deterioration of the once proud national carrier.
The top management, as well as a section of utterly corrupt employees, brought the national carrier to disrepute. Proper investigation would reveal how many SriLankan employees, past and present, lived well beyond their means.
RJ cleverly used his coverage of the SriLankan Airlines to expose the depth of corruption not only in the ‘land like no other’ but the public and private sectors as well. Such mega waste, corruption and irregularities cannot take place without the public and private sectors working together. Robber barons and their minions lived in luxury whereas the vast majority of people struggled to make ends meet. The Covid-19 virus has now made the situation even worse. Having sort of compared investigations into Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, and SriLankan Airlines, at different levels, RJ quite rightly asserted that they were ‘AN UTTER WASTE OF PUBLIC FUNDS.’ If proper investigations are conducted into waste, corruption and irregularities in public and private sectors, political parties will have to be disbanded.
Let me end this piece by repeating what one-time Justice Minister and BASL President Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, said, in June 2019, at a media briefing at the Sri Lanka Foundation. In response to a query raised by the writer, the lawmaker said: “Yes. Parliament is the most corrupt institution in the country.”
Having switched his allegiance to the SLPP, from the UNP, Dr. Rajapakse remains a member of the most corrupt institution in the country.
Do not abuse Sri Lanka Administrative Service and degrade university education
‘Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.’ – John Maynard Keynes
(The writer has not been a member of
either SLAS or of a university faculty.)
Parliament and government in our country in the 21st century so far have been dominated by persons with no post-secondary education and often with little secondary education. This has been accompanied by a lack of people with high level management experience. In contrast, parliaments in the 20th century have had a surfeit of persons with both university education and professional experience. There were Solomon Bandaranaike, Philip Gunawardene, S. A. Wickremasinghe, Pieter Keuneman, N. M. Perera, Colvin R.de Silva, G. G. Ponnabalam, S. J. V. Chelvanyakam, Dudley Senanayake, M. V.P. Peiris, W. Dahanayake, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjith Atapattu, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sarath Amunugama, G. L.Peiris, W. B.Wijekoon and several others. We have yet to elect a local university graduate as the President of the Republic. Recent governments have forsaken such men and women, except for two or three, or more likely, such men and women have forsaken political activity altogether. Viyath Maga is a new emergence, that has yet to be tested. Jaffna was once rightly reputed for its educated public who actively participated in its civic life, but no longer. These changes are strange in a society where education at all levels has grown markedly during the last 70 years, not only grown massively but also diversified, both geographically and content wise.
Governments were assisted by a senior management team first recruited as junior managers from among the brightest output of the universities. Only university teaching challenged the attraction of the Ceylon Civil Service to bright students from universities. They accomplished brilliantly tasks of management, though often not innovation. While Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia saw opportunities in a new world of electronics, shipping and aviation, our bureaucracy failed to free themselves of the politicians’ infatuation with Rajarata and to lead us into the brave new world. Our entrepreneurs were hopelessly lethargic. The exception was the collective of public servants under President Premadasa, who took the garment industry to all corners of the island. If any group of people accumulated wealth during these last 20 years, they were politicians who were in government and occasionally a few other men who collaborated with those politicians. And those politicians accumulated wealth more rapidly and in larger bulk than in their wildest imaginations. That they are not in prison tells its own story.
The present government has gone further than any other. There are all too few men of university learning in the government but the intellectual heavy lifting in government (not withstanding Viyath Maga) seems to be in the hands of men and women of little post-secondary education and even less of relevant professional experience. See the confusion in the administration of the vaccination programme; this, in a country whose healthcare workers nearly eliminated malaria 70 years ago with no help from the WHO, the World Bank, the Doctors without Borders, OXFAM or Bill Gates––Malaria still kills more than a million every year in Africa––and poliomyelitis two decades later and still later childhood diseases DPT. Grave is the danger that the government has placed the public in when they failed to read the danger in permitting a ship turned down by two ports on their voyage to come to harbour in Colombo. So, is the crisis that peasants face in planting seed designed to grow with inorganic fertiliser, now using miniscule amounts of organic fertiliser. There is a strong case for going back to using organic fertiliser; but it is also necessary that plant breeders develop seed that respond with productivity to that fertiliser. Otherwise, we must take the responsibility for pre-1965 yields (before the introduction of H-4, BG 111 and later seed) and the consequent necessity to import large quantities of rice. The price of cereals in world markets are already up. VP tea growers face the same hazard as those plants may not respond to organic fertiliser as they do to inorganic fertiliser. Nor can plantations, given the price of tea and of labour, any longer employ labour for weeding, in the absence of chemical herbicides. The government has given an Apple IIG desktop to growers and asked them to mine bitcoin.
There is a saying in our villages:
‘ekak kadatolu hada gannata gihin mata vu kariya;
dekak kadatolu hada dunnai induruve achariya’:
the smith to whom I handed over (an implement) to repair one defect returned it to me with two defects’. Apt, indeed!
Young men and women who enter the Administrative Service are among the brightest output of our schools. Usually, they come into the arts faculties at universities having been admitted entirely on merit, not subject to entitlements on the basis if quotas. Pundits often blame these students from rural schools for choosing the arts stream. They have not looked at the preponderance of 1C schools in rural areas when 1AB schools abound in urban areas. Truthfully, the only stream available for rural children to swim in that desert is the Arts Stream. It is a pity that, like Amu Darya and Syr Darya that end in the Aral sea, they end up in a desert. These students receive little private tuition, being too poor to buy it. In SLAS, the best of them end up as CEOs, Secretaries to ministries. They may be poorly taught in universities, but intelligence cannot be mottled by bad teaching and stupidity emblazoned with sophistication. The present government has appointed as Secretaries to ministries and as Chairmen of corporations senior military men (retired or in service) under whom members of the Administrative Service must work. Military men and women may excel on the battlefield. But public administration in a modern complex society is a different ball game, as chess is from American football. It must gall these civil servants near the end of their careers to be denied opportunities of occupying CEO positions for which they have been trained for long years from the time they joined as junior managers. One cannot expect deep commitment from them. It is wrong to deny SLAS men and women what is their right.
Some assume that there exists a strong association between the number of graduates in STEM subjects and the rate of economic growth in a society. Read a little bit of history. In 1890, when the United States toppled Britain off its pedestal of top dog in economic wellbeing, the US had less than two percent of its population as university graduates, most of them in Arts. In 1890, there were no motor cars in US but by 1929, every household there had a car. Cars were not imported from Britain or elsewhere. When Britain brought down the industrial revolution to this world 1760-1840, ‘Formal education in Britain before 1850 was, with the exception of a very small minority, confined to what we would consider today an elementary education.’
(Joel Mokyr.2009). The two English universities in Oxford and Cambridge, did not have departments of engineering. As the official historian of Cambridge University wrote ‘In 1870 the university of Cambridge was a provincial seminary enhanced by a traditional prestige, by expertise in a small range of disciplines ….’ The Cavendish Laboratory was still to come. The University of London had not begun to throw in its weight. Redbricks showed their colours later. Yet, Britain had completed the first Industrial Revolution!
Britain did not have its students enrolled in foreign universities (though much was learnt from Germany in late 19th century) or steal science and engineering secrets from other countries to become the factory to the world. They had none to steal from. If entrepreneurs, whether private or state, work under the right policies, economic progress takes place and university graduates find employment in those enterprises.
In 1975, there were no courses in computer programming in colleges and universities in US for an electronics industry to blossom in 1990. When did you first hear of Tsinghua University and the Harbin Institute of Technology? When industries grow, university graduates take up jobs offered. During the last decade of the 20th century, there were letters in The New York Times from Ph.D.s in mathematics that they drove taxis to make a living. (There was a huge exodus of mathematics men from the USSR after its collapse.) By 2005, Wall Street firms and banks could not find enough of them for employment.
The relationship between education and employment is not as simple-minded as our rulers imagine. Both administrators and scholars had learnt those lessons from manpower planning in the USSR and the forecast for manpower in Britain the early 1960s. The number of doctors trained according to manpower plans was so low as to create a problem of running NHS. The first large scale migration of Indian doctors (some doctors from Ski Lanka also joined in) to Britain took place in that milieu. Nor have we heard of successful economies that stacked up loads of trained manpower and waited for economic growth to take place. Literacy is another matter, altogether, as we have learnt from China and Vietnam, unfortunately belied in Sri Lanka. The wheel is an old invention; it is too costly to invent it again.
SLAS men (and women) have the know how to work government programmes. Military men excel in the battlefield. Let not the latter invade the former lest disaster should overtake us all. Universities do not stack up graduates waiting for industries to grow to give them employment. Promote the growth of industries; trained personnel will come in. Do not abuse SLAS and do not degrade university education.
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