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Midweek Review

Celebrating independence under a cloud

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Geneva sessions: Lawmakers’ role in Western strategy

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka celebrates her 73rd Independence Day tomorrow (4) under a cloud, with a section of the international community pushing for intervention over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. The grouping has the support of three political parties, represented in Parliament, as well as some civil society organizations. Among the signatories to a petition, dated January 15, 2021 that sought the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council’s intervention was the Bishop of Trincomalee. The Catholic Bishop’s Conference owed an explanation whether the decision-making body approved the Trincomalee Bishop’s move.

Strangely none of the political parties, represented in Parliament, publicly opposed the Tamil parties stand. Their failure strengthened the moves against the country.

Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch backed the petition. They urged the UNHRC, at its Feb-March 2021 session, to implement the punitive recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in respect of Sri Lanka.

Last year, the US-based Human Rights Watch was nailed in style by a female anchor of the German national TV Deutsche Welle (DW) when she questioned the head of HRW, Kenneth Roth about them having taken money from a billionaire Saudi contractor not to report on a certain subject. Of course he claimed it was a mistake and the money had been returned. Leading Western media organisations, other than DW, refrained from raising the issue.

And HRW is also quite notorious for regularly raking up, internationally, the arrest here of a Lankan Muslim lawyer in connection with the Easter Sunday carnage even after the matter was placed before the highest court in the country.

US State Department spokesman, Ned Price declared recently the US was carefully reviewing Bachelet’s report (or report drafted by Washington for her) that targeted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration in addition to seeking action against war crimes, allegedly committed during the war. The report basically endorsed the Tamil parties’ stand.

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. In the absence of a cohesive plan to defend the country on the diplomatic front, treachery and lack of political will, the Western powers moved the UNHRC against Sri Lanka.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government cooperated with the Western powers. Although Sirisena repeatedly denied backing the co-sponsorship of the Geneva Resolution 30/1 in Oct 2015, he remained very much committed to it during his presidential term. SLFP leader Sirisena is now an MP, elected on the SLPP ticket. He represents Polonnaruwa. Sirisena will probably be in the first row along with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other dignitaries at the Independence Day celebrations in Colombo.

Sri Lanka allowed the Geneva situation to deteriorate over the years by turning a blind eye to developments, both here and abroad. Parliament never ever examined the accountability issues. Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the Geneva Resolution was never properly taken up in Parliament. All political parties, including the SLPP, now in power, play politics with the war crimes issue.

 

Sirisena’s stand

In mid-Nov 2017, the then President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Sirisena, explained his position, pertaining to post-war accountability issues, and alleged that attempts were being made by his opponents to exploit the situation, at the expense of political stability.

Sirisena made his position clear when he addressed the Army top brass at the auditorium of the Army Hospital, Narahenpita, as his Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera delivered the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s third budget. Sirisena’s decision to skip the budget speech highlighted the crisis with the UNP-led coalition against the backdrop of the massive Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016.

Among the audience were the then Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva (now Commander of the Army and Chief of Defence Staff) and Director General, Infantry, Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage (retired), both of the Gajaba Regiment.

In his address, Sirisena referred to some Western powers refusing to issue visas to both retired and serving officers on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. Sirisena emphasized the pivotal importance of rectifying the situation. The Commander-in-Chief called for tangible measures to change the Western governments’ decision. Sirisena, however, did absolutely nothing during the rest of his term, after uttering those lofty objectives.

Unfortunately, the situation remains the same, in spite of the change of government in Nov 2019. The recently released UNHRC’s report revealed the failure on the part of Sri Lanka to address any of the issues raised therein.

 

Fonseka’s predicament

Sirisena was reacting to reports pertaining to the Western powers refusing to issue visas to both retired and serving officers. Sirisena refrained from mentioning names. However, war-winning Army Chief, the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka, now Field Marshal, is among those who had been affected.

Field Marshal Fonseka, in September, 2017, alleged that he had been denied a visa to attend the UNGA because of unresolved war crime allegations against the Army. Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Commander said he was due to travel to New York but he was the only one in the Sri Lankan delegation not issued a visa by the US. Fonseka said he could not accompany President Sirisena to the UNGA.

In the heat of political cockfights, having caused irreparable damage by accusing his own Army of battlefield executions during the final phase of the assault in May 2009, Field Marshal Fonseka has repeatedly underscored the pivotal importance of a comprehensive investigation into accountability issues to clear Sri Lanka’s name.

Some senior officers, including those, who had never been in actual combat or directly involved in military operations, had been denied visas.

There is no need to remind the current Sri Lankan leadership that imposition of travel restrictions is based on the outcome of UN accusations. As long as Sri Lanka is unable to disprove UN accusations, travel restrictions will remain on those who had risked their lives for the country. Among those affected is General Shavendra Silva. The US issued restrictions on the first GOC of the celebrated fighting formation, the 58 Division in Feb 2020.

 

Gallage’s dilemma

In the wake of the recent damning Bachelet’s report, the writer sought retired Maj. Gen. Gallage’s opinion on the war crimes issue and his own dilemma. Gallage said that no one in authority bothered even to inquire from him when he was denied the Australian visa. The denial of visa was nothing but an affront to the war-winning Army, the one-time strategist said, condemning the failure on the part of Sri Lanka to set the record straight. Gallage said that he had been only to the Middle East since 2015. There cannot be a better example than that of Maj. Gen. Gallage, a key strategist who had earned the admiration of officers and men over the years, to highlight Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure on the ‘Geneva front.’

Australia deprived Gallage of an opportunity to visit his brother, an Australian citizen, after the change of government, in January 2015. Australia found fault with the Gajaba veteran for being in command of the 59 Division, from May 7, 2009, to July 20, 2009. The Australian High Commission in Colombo asserted that a visa couldn’t be issued as the Division, under his command, had certainly committed war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has extensively cited the Report of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) on Sri Lanka (OISL) to refuse Gallage a visa. On the basis of the OISL report, Geneva adopted Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism, though the UNP still defends its decision to co-sponsor the Resolution.

Geneva released the OISL report on Sept. 16, 2015. Sri Lanka co-sponsored the Geneva Resolution 30/1 on Oct. 1, 2015, in spite of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, rejecting the draft resolution. The government dismissed Ambassador Aryasinha’s concerns.

President Sirisena never intervened in the UNP’s strategy. He conveniently turned a blind eye to the project. The SLPP, in spite of SLFP treachery, had no qualms in accommodating the much weaker party in a coalition at the last parliamentary election for political expediency. The SLFP parliamentary group comprises 13 elected on the SLPP ticket and one on the SLFP ticket.

Australia also cited the UN PoE report on accountability issues released on March 31, 2011. The PoE accused Sri Lanka of massacring over 40,000 civilians and depriving the Vanni population of their basic needs. Canberra also cited a statement attributed to the then GOC 58 Division Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) real time footage had been made available to ground commanders marking targets, to justify its (Australia’s) decision. On the basis of Maj. Gen. Silva’s statement, it alleged that Maj. Gen. Gallage had been aware of artillery strikes on the third no fire zone. Can there be any justification in the Australian assessment? There hadn’t been specific allegations against Gallage before.

Contrary to the Australian assessment, the deployment of Israeli built UAVs was meant to direct accurate attacks on the enemy. Australia has accused Gallage of planning, implementing and supporting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Australia also held him responsible, as a serving officer, for failing to prevent troops, under his command, from committing war crimes. The Australian report, while identifying Gallage as ‘potential controversial visit’, alleged that the SLA committed atrocities, even after the conclusion of the war. Gallage has been screened by Australian authorities following him seeking a visa for a month long visit. The Australian stand on this visa matter meant that it believed the Sri Lankan Army carried out systematic attacks against Tamil civilians. Australia has identified the 59 Division, credited with wresting control of the LTTE Mullaitivu bastion, in late January 2009, as one of the formations responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Formed in Jan, 2008, the 59 Division, deployed on the Eastern flank, aka the Weli Oya front, fought under then Brig. Nandana Udawatte’s command, for one year, to cross the Anandakulam and Nagacholai forest reserves, which served as natural defences for the LTTE Mullaitivu stronghold.

Over the years, the US and some other countries have denied visas to senior commanders, on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations. In the case of Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe (now retired), the US refused to accommodate him on a programme as he commanded the elite 53 Division in peacetime. The 53 Division killed LTTE leader Prabhakaran.

The situation, faced by the Army, is nothing but a crisis. The bottom line is that any officer, attached to those formations, involved in operations, either in peace or wartime, can be denied a visa on the basis of unsubstantiated UN allegations. Western restrictions, now in place, can affect those who had served the 57 Division, Task Force I /58 Div, 59 Div, 53 Div, 55 Div as well as other Task Forces deployed on the Vanni front. The same unreasonable rule can be applied on those taking over command of the Divisions or Brigades or Battalions attached to them as part of UN measures directed at Sri Lanka.

 

A confused US stand

In spite of referring to the visa matter, the Office of the President, and the Foreign and Defence Ministries never bothered to take up the issue with Western powers. Those who had been in power ignored the threat. They never bothered to exploit Lord Naseby’s disclosure of the bogus Vanni death toll on the basis of wartime military dispatches from the British Embassy in Colombo. The shocking revelation that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had desperately tried to withhold information, sought by Lord Naseby, on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), underscored the need to revisit the Sri Lanka issue. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is yet to use Lord Naseby’s revelation though both the previous and current administrations made reference to the UK revelations.

The Army headquarters, too, failed in its responsibility. The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake never pushed the government to take tangible measures. Having pathetically failed to counter the lies, propagated by interested parties, since Gen Fonseka’s abrupt removal by the previous Rajapaksa administration, Army headquarters did nothing to rectify the failures. Instead, Senanayake took advantage of the humiliating failure to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks by claiming police never shared vital intelligence with the DMI despite Military Intelligence running one of the biggest contingents of spooks of its own and politically motivated violence directed at the Muslims weeks after the Easter carnage, to contest 2019 presidential election. Senanayake ended up in fourth place with less than 50,000 votes.

The US refusal to issue a visa to Field Marshal Fonseka should be examined against the backdrop of three critically important factors: (a) The US backed Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 January presidential poll. The US formed a political alliance that included the then four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by R. Sampanthan, now an ordinary member of Parliament. There cannot be any dispute over the US role in that poll in the wake of Wikileaks revelation, pertaining to secret discussions between a Colombo-based US diplomat and Sampanthan. Sampanthan gave into US pressure though he had initially resisted the proposal. Sampanthan must have been deeply embarrassed to publicly urge Tamils to vote for Fonseka, after having accused, out of thin air, his Army of killing thousands of civilians, raping Tamil women and disappearances. The Tamil electorate obliged. Fonseka was able to secure the predominantly Tamil administrative districts, including Jaffna, though he suffered a heavy defeat at the presidential poll. (b) The US picked Fonseka as the common presidential candidate in spite of the then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis calling him a war criminal along with the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Basil and Gotabaya (c) Colombo-based US Defence Attache Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith’s declaration in June 2011 (over two years after the conclusion of the war) that there had never been an agreement between the Army and the LTTE regarding an organized surrender on the Vanni east front. The US official disputed widespread claims of battlefield executions in spite of an arranged surrender of LTTE cadre to the advancing Army.

The US also denied visas to Majors General Prasanna Silva, wartime GoC, 55 Division and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Mahinda Hathurusinghe. The then Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva was denied entry into US War College though he functioned as Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York.

GoC, 57 Division Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias, and Military Secretary Sudantha Ranasinghe, too, were denied visas. Ranasinghe’s application was turned down in spite of him receiving command of the 53 Division after the end of the conflict. The then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa personally brought the situation to the notice of the US Embassy though he couldn’t achieve the desired policy change.

In late 2010, the Tamil Diaspora activists made a failed bid to secure a warrant, in the UK, to detain Gallage who was at that time the head of President Rajapaksa’s security. Although they couldn’t move the British judiciary against the officer, the move underscored the need to address the high profile international campaign meant to portray the Army as a criminal organization.

 

Sooka’s letter

A letter of protest, written by PoE member Yasmin Sooka (South African Tamil), to US multinational Coca Cola, for sponsoring the Gajaba Super-Cross 2017, organized by Shavendra Silva, in his capacity as the Colonel Commandant of the celebrated Regiment, should have jolted the Army and the government to take remedial measures. They did nothing. Having called the most successful GoC, a notorious war criminal, the NGO guru demanded explanation from Coca Cola why it financed a project undertaken by Silva. Sooka called both the Gajaba Regiment as well as the 58 Division criminal organizations on the basis of UN reports. She played a major part in one such report prepared by the so-called Panel of Experts, obviously cherry picked by the shameless world body. The Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry for some strange reason, turned a blind eye to Sooka’s attack.

Sri Lanka never took up the unfair decision to deny visas to senior military officers on the basis of the unsubstantiated OISL report and other accusations. Those who had accused the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government of betraying the armed forces should also accept responsibility for their pathetic failure to counter blatant lies. They owe an explanation to the nation.

President Sirisena’s Nov 9, 2017 address at the Army Hospital caused some concern among his advisors handling the media. They issued two separate media releases on Nov 10, with the second one leaving out some critically important sections pertaining to the Geneva intervention. The Island also compared the statements issued by the President’s Media Division with the one posted on the Army website. The Army website report headlined “No war hero would be subjected to appear before any foreign tribunals – President assures”

Basically, the first statement that had been issued by the President’s Media Division tallied with the Army headquarters post in respect of the Geneva issue. The second statement issued by the President’s Media Division conveniently left out sections that may attract the attention of the UN pushing hard at Sri Lanka to implement Geneva Resolution 30/1.

Sri Lanka, at least now, needs to take a clear stand in Geneva. The government should re-examine Sri Lanka’s strategy or absence of strategy so far and explore the possibility of initiating a dialogue with Geneva in respect of concerns raised by Lord Naseby and other sources, such as Wikileaks cables.

What really surprised the writer is Sisisena’s failure to take any concrete action on the basis of Lord Naseby’s disclosure during his tenure. Sri Lanka is yet to take appropriate measures to set the record straight in Geneva. Let us hope the powers that be examine the progress made/absence of progress since the change of government in Nov 2019.

 

 



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Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva recently questioned the failure on the part of the cash-strapped Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to provide electricity, without interruption, at least during the GCE Advanced Level examination.

The outspoken lawyer raised the issue with the writer, on January 23, the day the delayed examination began at 2,200 centres, with 331,709 students sitting the examination, countrywide. It was, originally, to commence on Dec. 05, 2022.

The constitutional expert pointed out how even in the implementation of daily power cuts, the CEB, obviously, discriminated against the population, at the behest of the political leadership, by excluding selected areas from, what he called, the daily scourge of living without electricity. Pointing out the responsibility of the media to take a strong stand on this issue, the President’s Counsel said that certain areas, categorized as ‘VIP,’ received a 24-hour, uninterrupted, power supply.

The CEB resorted to daily power cuts, last year, after a long time, during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time, as the economic crisis gripped the country, with the government unable to pay for the import of even basic needs, like gas, fuel, medicines, etc. At one time, there were 10- to 12-hour power cuts. The then Power and Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila, is on record as having said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ignored his plea for immediate small power cuts, to conserve what we had, at the beginning of the total breakdown, in January 2022, to lessen the full impact of the developing crisis hitting us at once down the road. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila pointed out that the President’s failure finally led to 12-13 hour power cuts, leading to the explosion of public anger, in the last week of March, 2022.

The continuing power crisis reflected the overall waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement, at every level, not only at the CEB, but the entire public sector, as well, over the past several decades.

The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) last Wednesday (25) to compel the CEB to ensure uninterrupted power supply, failed.

In spite of Commissioner, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, of the HRCSL, on its behalf, proudly claiming that it had secured a consensus with all stakeholders to suspend power cuts, ignoring all that, the CEB went ahead with the routine electricity supply interruptions.

The power crisis, coupled with an explosive cocktail of issues caused by Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its international loan commitments, contributed to the further deterioration of the country’s economy. The crisis affected Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2021, with the Easter Sunday carnage, and the pandemic, already having done much damage, especially to the vital tourism sector, among others, but President Rajapaksa’s government ignored the threat.

Appearing in a live programme, telecast simultaneously, both on stateowned and private television networks, the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged the then government hid Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before its inability to service foreign debt was officially acknowledged in early April last year. Having accepted the hot seat, in early April, last year, Dr. Weerasinghe announced suspension of repayment of loans, temporarily. In spite of progress made, the IMF USD 2.9 bn extended loan facility remained yet to be implemented.

What really caused the economic meltdown? Could President Gotabaya Rajapaksa averted public humiliation if he sought IMF’s intervention in early 2020? Who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from doing so, as Sri Lanka had knelt before the IMF on 16 previous occasions? His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the Finance portfolio, could have advised the President. Didn’t Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa advise his brother in this regard? And what was the role played by former Treasury Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, not just another run-of-the-mill economist. Having been seconded to the Treasury, from the Central Bank, from the time Ronnie de Mel was the Finance Minister, his exceptional talents were tapped by the Finance Ministry, even under President Premadasa, when R. Paskaralingam, of the Pandora Papers’ notoriety, was the Treasury Secretary. And he continued to serve the Treasury, under successive Presidents, thereafter, especially in the hot seat, as the Finance Ministry Secretary, in one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, during the final phase of the conflict, when it was a fight to a finish with the LTTE, especially after President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Couchner, to get lost when they went all the way down to Embilipitiya to tell Mahinda to stop the war to enable them to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran, and what was left of his terrorist movement, by a flotilla of vessels they were ready to dispatch to the coast of Mullaitivu. PBJ, no doubt, ensured that no expense was spared when waging the most costly war of attrition, while keeping the economy humming with massive infrastructure projects, like building expressways, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, etc. So it is quite puzzling why PBJ failed to guide President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the path of correct economic decisions. Surely it can’t be due to him past the retirement age.

After being Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during this turbulent period, Dr. PBJ was asked to go in Dec. 2021, when the former’s presidency had suffered irrevocable damage.

Leaving all the above aside, it must be stated here that whatever disagreements, or misunderstandings we may have had in the past, with New Delhi and Beijing, we should be eternally grateful to both India and China for being unwaveringly behind us in that most difficult final phase of the war.

Ex-CP Chief D.E.W. Gunasekera recently discussed the downfall of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes at the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. President Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022, in the wake of snowballing violent protests that began on March 31, outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana.

In a brief but fiery speech, the former Marxist minister explained how the wartime Defence Secretary caused the rapid deterioration of his government for want of a sound economic strategy. The retired public servant, who served as a lawmaker (2004-2015), found fault with President Rajapaksa for the ongoing political-economic-social crisis.

The veteran politician recalled how he suggested to the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to advice brother Gotabaya to seek Chinese assistance to overcome the impending financial crisis. The outspoken politician blamed it all on the economic reasons.

Gunasekera said so at the opening of Eastern School of Political Studies, at the newly renovated CP party office, at Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Borella, with the participation of Chinese International Department Vice Minister, Chen Zhou, and Acting Chinese Ambassador, Hu Wei.

Declaring that he himself warned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending crisis and provided a recovery plan in the run up to the last presidential election, held on Nov. 16, 2019, Gunasekera accused the fallen President of turning a blind eye.

The ex-minister placed the blame squarely on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A different interpretation

Derana Chief, Dilith Jayaweera, at one time, one of the closest associates of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a YouTube interview with Eraj Weeraratne, discussed political developments, since 2018, leading to a violent public protest movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Jayaweera, who is also the Chairperson of the George Steuart Group, as well as George Steuart Finance Limited, squarely blamed the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, for the turbulent end to his rule.

Responding to a Weeraratne’s query, Jayaweera, declared lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa had no political future. The outspoken entrepreneur was unhesitant. Asserting twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, currently a member of Parliament, representing one-time Rajapaksa bastion, the Hambantota district, has lost his bearings, Jayaweera questioned the young politician’s sincerity.

Jayaweera didn’t mince his words when he declared that having failed to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of an opportunity to contest the 2019 Presidential Election, the one-time first family worked overtime to undermine his authority at every level. The first family went to the extent of supporting the ‘GotaGoHome’ campaign that compelled the President to give up power, without a fight.

Jayaweera attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha (formerly of the Navy) with #GotaGoHome# hashtag that became the clarion call of the high profile protest campaign to oust the previous President.

That tagline doesn’t belong to Aragalaya, Jayaweera declared, alleging that it grew out of the former first family’s inability to stomach Gotabaya Rajapaksa exercising executive power.

The controversial political strategist revealed the ex-first family’s angry reaction to his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “They believed I was trying to move the President out of the family’s orbit. But, the people wanted a Rajapaksa who didn’t represent the interests of the family.” Jayaweera said.

The intrepid local entrepreneur is convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa couldn’t overcome the combined challenge posed by the Rajapaksa family.

Responding to another rapid-fire question, Jayaweera explained how the Rajapkasa family thwarted President Rajapaksa’s move to appoint senior public servant, Anura Dissanayake, as his Secretary. But, the Rajapaksa family forced their loyalist Gamini Senarath, who had been Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Secretary, on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following the exit of PBJ, Jayaweera claimed. According to him, that was definitely the worst example of the Rajapaksa’s family’s interference that rapidly weakened Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency.

The appointment of Dr. Jayasundera, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretary, should be examined against the backdrop of Jayaweera’s disclosure that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been so critical of any other individual during private conversations he had with him.

Cardinal sin

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cardinal sin was nothing but the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Jayaweera declared. That controversial piece of legislature created an extremely hostile political environment and gradually weakened President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority, Jayaweera said, recalling how Basil Rajapaksa forced his way into Parliament, on the SLPP National List, regardless of political consequences.

Jayaweera said that he received an assurance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presence of SLPP National List MP, Gevindu Cumaratunga, that enactment of the 20th Amendment at the expense of the 19th A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t keep his promise. Therefore, he should be accountable for the subsequent developments which preceded the demise of his political authority.”

Jayaweera explained how the Rajapaksas interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll for their advantage. “The family asserted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a staggering 6.9 mn votes due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. So, the family asserted that the new President should pursue their agenda. The family appointed Dr. Jayasundera as the Presidential Secretary.

Basil Rajapaksa believed he should be able to control Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa justified his overall political authority on the basis his SLPP secured a near 2/3 majority in Parliament, in addition to Opposition support that underlined their supremacy.”

Jayaweera described how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to take up residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, do away with gaudy practice of hanging pictures of the President in government buildings, excessive use of vehicles and, most significantly, approval of unsolicited bids, angered the former first family. Those who immensely benefited from such ‘unsolicited bids’ reacted angrily, he said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions jolted racketeers, Jayaweera alleged, pointing out that the new leader quickly lost support within the Cabinet-of-Ministers, by denying those corrupt elements an opportunity to make money, through the promotion of unsolicited bids. They couldn’t bear the shock of Cabinet papers submitted through the family or the intervention of the family being rejected, Jayaweera said, alleging that those who lived off such racketeering spearheaded the campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The ‘Aragalaya’ entered the scene much later and exploited the situation to the hilt as the government parliamentary group quite conveniently abandoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Those present in Parliament didn’t challenge SJB MP Harin Fernando when he ridiculed the President repeating the ‘Sir fail’ mantra, Jayaweera said.

The parliamentary group, particularly those corrupt in the Cabinet, felt there was no point in defending a President who didn’t allow them to make money.

Jayaweera also ridiculed the inclusion of four persons who wore kurahan satakaya (maroon shawl) among President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. Jayaweera questioned the justification of bestowing five Cabinet portfolios on Namal Rajapaksa.

Relationship with JVP

The Derana Chief discussed a range of other issues, including his long standing relationship with the JVP, subsequent disputes with the Marxist party, and differences with the current leadership.

Dilith Jayaweera seems to be on a collision course with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, especially over allegations directed at him as regards corruption in the procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denying any wrongdoing on his part in spite of his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jayaweera declared his readiness to battle it out on a public platform. While acknowledging that his enterprises handled procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process, Jayaweera challenged the JVP leader Dissanayake to prove publicly how he engaged in corrupt practices.

Jayaweera gave an open undertaking to personally lead JVP’s Local Government polls campaign if the record could be set straight by such a debate.

Recalling his close contacts with the JVP in the past and him having participated in their well-known five classes’ indoctrination programme to all new comers, Jayaweera disclosed how he spearheaded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 presidential election campaign in which the Marxist party played a significant role. Slain Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s residence had been their meeting point where they discussed political strategy. Wimal Weerawansa had been the JVP representative at such meetings on some occasions, Jayaweera said.

Reference was made to the JVP split in the wake of the then Somawansa Amarasinghe led party declaring its intention to vote against the 2008 budget. Had that happened, the military campaign would have been derailed, Jayaweera said, comparing the JVP’s political strategy with that of the UNP.

“At a time, the vast majority of Sri Lankans desired the eradication of the LTTE, the JVP adopted a strategy that clearly aligned with the UNP’s treacherous approach,” Jayaweera said. Reference was made to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his MPs, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and the late Mangala Samaraweera questioning the military strategy and even the competence of the then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Jayaweera commented on a possible deal the JVP had with some party while referring to the availability of large scale NGO funding for those who undermined the war effort.

Recalling the success of his high profile ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign in support of the war effort, particularly meant to attract the youth to join the armed forces, Jayaweera also criticized the JVP strategy towards the end of its second rebellion 1987-1990 when it targeted those in the socialist camp as it was being decimated by the then government death squads.

Answering questions regarding Derana coverage as well as editorial policy of his daily and weekly newspapers, Jayaweera emphasized that he never interfered with them under any circumstances. The media mogul pointed out how Derana TV and newspapers followed different policies while reminding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s angry reaction to their reportage of developments taking place. “Our reportage reflected the reality. We couldn’t save the government,” he said.

Jayaweera discussed how his strategy differed from that of late Raja Mahendran of the Capital Maharaja Group. Although TNL was launched before Sirasa, the latter received the attention, Jayaweera said, emphasizing Raja Mahendran’s steadfast policy that the owner of the private channel controlled the news content.

Pressed for further explanation, Jayaweera acknowledged that he always exploited situations and created an environment necessary to influence the media. “That strategy is meant to inspire all media, not only Derana,” Jayaweera said.

Jayaweera and Weeraratne also discussed the simmering controversy over the JVP having as much as Rs 8 bn in funds as alleged by Jayaweera, with Derana Chief stressing that whatever the counter arguments the fact remains the JVP had substantial amount of funding. Questioning the credibility of lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake against the backdrop of a section of the media highlighting lies propagated by the JVP leader, Jayaweera declared his readiness to help the party. But, that would depend on the JVPers willingness to appear with him in a live debate to clear the whole gamut of issues at hand.

Jayaweera also recalled the allegations pertaining to the procurement of antigen test kits directed at him by lawmaker Rajapaksa. Dismissing Namal Rajapaksa’s allegations as irrelevant, Jayaweera stressed that MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake should be given an opportunity to rectify his mistakes.

Jayaweera recalled his close association with Dissanayake at the time the latter served as the Agriculture Minister of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led UPFA-JVP ‘Parivasa’ government. A smiling Jayaweera said though the JVP wanted to build 1,000 new tanks, it couldn’t complete at least one properly. Declaring he accompanied Dissanayake to various parts of the country,

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

At the conclusion of perhaps the most important interview that dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unceremonious exit from politics, Jayaweera commented on an often asked query whether Aragalaya was a conspiracy?

External intervention

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to give up political power not because of him, Jayaweera recalled how he warned in 2008 of the impending economic crisis and Dr. Jayasundera’s role in it. That warning was issued at the launch of Sinhala translation of John Perkins’s ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman,’ Jayaweera said, declaring that the former first family initiated the conspiracy that was subsequently exploited to the hilt by various interested parties, including Western powers.

There cannot be any dispute over how Gotabaya Rajapaksa was derailed and who contributed to that despicable strategy. Perhaps, social media influencer, who interviewed him should have asked Jayaweera about a few other issues that ruined the once much respected Defence Secretary.

The crisis created cannot be discussed leaving out the ill-fated fertilizer ban (2021), catastrophic cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) project funded by Japan(2020), allegations directed at Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Prime Minister’s Secretary Gamini Senarath (both denied these accusations) pertaining to procurement of fertiliser from India and China, respectively and the failure on the government’s part to implement recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.

The writer remembers how he ran into Jayaweera and Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bishop’s House in the run up to 2019 presidential election when the latter visited Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to assure that justice would be done.

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

“Black cat, at the tip of my fingers pulsates poetry,

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

Asifa, a young girl, and her elderly mother, living in Kattankudy, Baticaloa, are two fictional characters at the centre of Ashfaque Mohamed’s quietly powerful first feature film, titled Face Cover, which just premiered at the 2023 Jaffna International Film Festival (JIFF). As the President of the international jury judging the films in this year’s debut film competition at the JIFF (but on zoom from Australia), I have seen some highly sophisticated films from Bangladesh and India (the winners), immensely enjoyable and informative, but have chosen, for the purposes of this article, to write on Ashfaque’s thought provoking film that didn’t make it into the debut film competition. My decision to do so is part of my own politics as a film scholar who has, over the decades, often highlighted and laboured over films that may not necessarily be popular, or current, or even easily understood, for that matter. Eye-catching films often are popular, and many critics spend a lot of energy writing about them as is their prerogative. I, too, do that when moved, as I have been by Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular ELVIS. But, it’s important to me, as a Lankan-Australian film critic/scholar, to focus also on work that at first may appear opaque, may not fit into my own limited viewing habits and preferences, first and foremost. This way, I learn to learn from film even as I grow old. Face Cover has uncovered for me micro-histories of ethnic relations in Lanka in astonishing and moving ways. It’s certainly a film for our times, and in my opinion, Ashfaque is a young Lankan filmmaker of great promise. It is also heartening to note that he is cine-literate and (as he says), is self-taught as a filmmaker.

While the opening and closing screenings of the festival were at the Cinemas Movie Theatre, the rest of the festival films were shown at the University of Jaffna, largely due to the ongoing grave financial crisis affecting the country as a whole. I gather it’s the only film festival held in Sri Lanka, continuously, since the civil war ended, after 30 years, and is an admirable institution, powered by its Director, and curator of film, Anoma Rajakaruna’s unceasing energy and vision, which builds bridges among the various ethnic groups and cinephiles from across the entire country and crucially South Asia and further afield, in that once war-ravaged city. The following is the film’s blurb.

“Taking the cataclysmic Easter Sunday Bombings of Churches and Hotels in April 2019, by ISIS inspired Islamists in Sri Lanka as the point of departure, the film follows the life of Asifa in Kattankdy, in Eastern Sri Lanka, as she navigates the complex social forces shaping her and other women’s stories. The film tells the story of the town, as a woman’s tale. The film is experimental in form and mixes genres and conventions.”

*****

The main fictional story line of the mother and daughter is interwoven with (what appears at first to be), documentary interviews and testimonies given by ‘real’ people, not fictional characters. However, towards the end of the film one realises that the demarcating lines between documentary and fiction have indeed been blurred. There are hints of this earlier, in the four scenes forming the large sequence ‘performed’ on a proscenium stage, as well. This blurring appears to be the result of an unusual aesthetic and political decision, which I wish to explore here. Perhaps the politics of the film are linked to this bleeding of the actual into the fictional and the reverse also. How does this device enable Face Cover to uncover subtle operations of power in a predominantly Muslim area of Lanka, in the post-war era, soon after the Easter Sunday bombings as well? The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ certainly gets elaborated quietly but quite decisively in exploring the agency of the young Muslim girl, Asifa, on the cusp of womanhood, as well. I am assuming here (as I think the film itself does), that a politics of cinema has to work on two fronts simultaneously, not only on the choice of subject/story, but also on HOW it is told, elaborated. For what’s at stake are, our powers of perception and understanding, through images and sounds, that touch us in unexpected ways. Film, I believe, can be our mentor, we can learn from film in the most enjoyable and unexpected of ways, to undo our prejudiced ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. Face Cover continues to be a revelation to me in this regard, even after multiple viewings, especially so.

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

, the title of Ashafque’s film, is in itself fascinating. Why didn’t he use the globalised Arabic word Niqab for instance? The words ‘Face Cover’ (I learn), are the same in Tamil, the English words simply transliterated and incorporated into the vernacular. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to the practice of partially covering a woman’s face, as required by some Muslim norms. A Tamil friend suggested that it connotes both the intimacy of a piece of cloth and a sense of distance of appropriated foreign words. Perhaps this sense of ambivalence is a unique Lankan invention not perceptible in the pure Arabic official word for the practice, which is Niqab. What’s fascinating to me is that, before I saw the film and learnt about the connotations of the title Face Cover, I thought it would be a ‘hot’, topical film on a subject that has caused a great deal of debate in the West (France for example), and protests, most recently in Iran which turned violent and then garnered supporters in some Western countries especially among some feminists. It’s a topic that the Western white media finds especially irresistible. But I was mistaken to take the title Face Cover at face value, as a sign of a polemical film. And what was most surprising to me about the film was that I wrote a long email to a friend, soon after I saw the film for the first time and realised the next day that I had said absolutely nothing about the ‘problem’ of the face cover, despite having discussed the film at some length.

When I realised what I had done, I resaw the film which brought up a lot of questions but no answers, so I saw the film yet again for the third time. This time round the film began to slowly open up to my attention. It is a film, I realised, that requires a quiet focus, an attentiveness, as when one enters an unfamiliar social milieu, like when one takes one’s shoes off to go into certain places of worship in Lanka, or as it happens to some houses in Australia. Similarly, while music is used, it does so very sparingly, so that when we do hear it, it speaks in a way that wall to wall music does not, cannot. In these ways our quality of attention is tuned like a musical instrument. In fact, the only time the face cover became a ‘hot topic’ in the film was when a Sinhala trader, in a shop, makes it so by shouting at a young woman wearing a face cover. He aggressively asks her why she has her face covered and the young girl responds forcefully, asking why he wants to see her face, etc. Apart from this verbal stoush, (the only time Sinhala is heard in the film), and one re-enactment on a stage, of an Army check-point scene, from the civil-war era, the face cover itself is not conceived as a ‘problem’ to be addressed by the film. In the staged check-point scene, a soldier, carrying a gun, orders a young woman, in Tamil, to unmask at the point of his gun and she simply obeys the command. The soldier is meant to be Sinhala speaking an accented Tamil. So apart from these two ‘dramatic’ incidents, instigated by hostile people with authority and power, the face cover is not a focus of the film, it’s simply a given. Though there is a strong criticism of the Muslim male undergraduate practice of erasing the faces of female office bearers on student council photographs, at several Universities. A young Muslim woman astutely refers to this gender discrimination as a ‘digital veiling,’ images of which are displayed. This kind of internal criticism is very forceful and one hopes that Muslim male undergraduates will reflect on it and mend their ways. The check-point scene does function as a parable. More on the use of dramatic parables later, in a film where there is very little ‘drama’ in this sense of confrontations. Instead, momentous events transpire on Television News of the Easter Sunday bombings which frames the film and dates it to be set in 2019. But previous violent histories are folded into every-day-life and narrated as recollections, and an inventive mix of techniques of staged interviews and testimonies and ‘real’ interviews, replace drama, understood as actions and reactions reaching a crescendo.

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

Often the interviews are played as voice-over while the person concerned goes about her every-day business, mute. This technique makes the film’s narration flexible, allowing room to play with our attention, an eye here and the ear there. I think that Ashfaque’s ethico-aesthetic sensibility evident here is a part of his film politics. I find myself listening attentively to the voice-over which rhetorically oscillates between answers to questions (which are themselves unheard), and an interior monologue. I found the texture, timbre, inflections and rhythms of the voices, especially those of the mother and daughter, very engaging, moving. Lankan cinema has not developed the autonomous potentialities of the sound track as much as it could, I think.

Face Cover

as a Lure

I was a bit slow to realise that the title, Face Cover, is a lure. It lures us into the film as a certain idea of the veil might. The veil is an alluring metaphysical idea in Kumar Shahani’s film Khyal Gatha for instance, which explores both Hindu Bhakti and Sufi Islamic traditions of spirituality as expressed in music, song and art in India which bypass both the priest and the religious institutions they control. ‘Khayal’ is an Urdu word derived from Persian which means ‘imagination,’ and is the name of a classical musical form. The idea of the ‘veil’ in Persian Sufi traditions is a complex idea, put very simply, it suggests that, reality itself is veiled (filtered, subtilised), and its perception depends on certain spiritual aesthetic practices, which reveal the imperceptible and the intangible, within the hum-drum of every-day existence. The veil as a spiritual idea, on the one hand, and the mask or ‘face cover’ socially mandated by certain Islamic patriarchal assumptions, on the other, are of course worlds apart in their conception and function and the feelings they evoke. As devout Roman Catholic girls, taught religion by Irish Catholic nuns at school, we always had to cover our heads modestly with veils when going to church.

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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