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Midweek Review

Closure of Norwegian Embassy in Colombo and other matters (Part II)

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Sept 22, 2022, Trincomalee: Norwegian Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal at the closing ceremony of a Norwegian funded training programme conducted by the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS). The UN-backed training programme meant to tackle a wide range of crimes taking place via sea routes got underway in early May 2016. Among the participants were 07 male and 01 female officers of the Maldivian Coast Guard as well as 01 male and 01 female officers of the Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries (pic courtesy SLN)

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one of those who strongly believed that the LTTE could be defeated. The Gajaba Regiment veteran didn’t mince his words when he met Norwegian officials on April 06, 2006 in the run-up to the closure of the Mavil-aru sluice gates in the third week of July 2006. According to a NorwegianForeign Ministry document in the public domain: “On April 06, 2006, Hanssen-Bauer and Brattskar had a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems in Sri Lanka could be solved by military means, Gotabaya answers, ‘yes’. The LTTE launched Eelam War IV in August 2006. Within two years and 10 months the Sri Lankan military brought the war to a successful end.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Colombo-based Norwegian diplomats burnt their fingers by seeking information from the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo as regards an Indian fishing craft (Sri Krishna) that had been commandeered by Sea Tigers and was intercepted and sunk by the Maldivian Coast Guard in May 2007.

The Norwegian Embassy reached the Maldivian HC soon after the Maldivians intercepted ‘Sri Krishna’ that was reported missing several days before while fishing in Indian waters.

The Island last week dealt with the Norwegian decision to close down its diplomatic mission in Colombo next year, two decades after Oslo arranged a highly controversial secret Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) (Not even the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga was aware of it till it had been signed) between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The US, EU, Japan and Norway functioned as Co-Chairs to the peace process.

The Norwegian effort received the backing of New Delhi though the Indians were skeptical. Nevertheless, they fully cooperated.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, one year and three months after the signing of the CFA. But, the Norwegians went out of their way to appease the LTTE regardless of the consequences. The diplomatic intervention made on behalf of the Tigers involved in the incident in the Maldivian waters is a case in point. In a way, the LTTE and its sidekick the Tamil National Alliance failed to utilize the Norwegian effort to advance the peace process, whether sincere or not. Instead, the LTTE exploited the Norwegian initiative so much that the negotiating process finally collapsed. Their strategy undermined the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who meekly towed the Norwegian line. On the other hand, their actions bolstered the nationalist groups and those opposed to the Norwegian questionable initiatives.

Dissolution of Parliament and calling for fresh parliamentary elections in April 2004 should be examined against the backdrop of utterly irresponsible LTTE strategy and its appeasers. However, the elections allowed the TNA, with the LTTE openly stuffing ballot boxes in areas it controlled, to secure the lion’s share of seats in the then amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provinces. Peace Co-Chair EU in its Election Observation report declared that the TNA colluded with the LTTE. Unfortunately, Co-Chairs, including the EU didn’t take the report into consideration.

The incident in the Maldivian waters should be examined basically against the backdrop of the overall deterioration of the situation for want of clear guidelines to handle the peace process.

The Norwegians wouldn’t have intervened without being asked by the LTTE with a nod from a powerful Western interest. We must also note that Norwegian peacemaking efforts in Palestine with obvious American backing that brought about the Oslo Accord with much promise fared even worse with the Palestinians continuing to be humiliated and pasted by the Israelis almost on a daily basis. Where the hell is UNHRC? No war crimes there on your watch Michelle Bachelet? At least the UN should have given her a Nelsonian eye patch.

The Norwegian mission here definitely cleared its move with Oslo. However, by the time they got in touch with the Maldivian HC, Male had cleared Sri Lankan Navy intelligence to interrogate the apprehended LTTE cadres in the custody of the Maldivian. The Island reported the Norwegian intervention in its May 26, 2007 edition. The LTTE had used the ill-fated vessel to transfer weapons from its floating armories to Wanni and was on such a mission when the Maldivians intervened.

At the time the Maldivians sank Sri Krishna, Tamil Nadu had accused the Sri Lanka Navy of destroying that particular vessel. What Tamil Nadu as well as India never expected was another country intervening in the clandestine LTTE arms smuggling operation.

The Maldivian Coast Guard made the intervention on May 16, 2007. The Maldivian Coast Guard engaged a vessel carrying the Sri Lankan flag after the latter fired at a Maldivian fishing craft.

Following a 12-hour standoff, the Maldivians sank the craft flying the Sri Lankan flag.

Interestingly, there had been some Indian naval personnel onboard the Maldivian craft engaged in the operation against the Tiger commandeered vessel.

The LTTE would have never expected its cadres who commandeered the vessel to surrender as they are noted for biting their cyanide vials to prevent capture. The Maldivians however rescued five Tigers who jumped overboard from the sinking vessel, subsequently identified as Sri Krishna. The rescued men told the Maldivians and their Indian instructors (The Indians were helping the Maldivian Coast Guard personnel to familiarize with CG vessel Huravee, gifted by New Delhi to Male) the circumstances under which they were found in Maldivian waters, while engaged in transferring armaments from a floating warehouse.

Sri Krishna’s skipper, Simon Soza had been among the five rescued by the Maldivians. The Sea Tigers admitted that the remaining Indians were being held in a camp in the Vanni (Maldives sinks Indian craft hijacked by Sea Tigers – The Island May 18, 2007).

The sinking of the Sri Krishna was the second high profile incident involving an Indian trained terrorist group in the Maldivian territory. The raid on Male during the first week of November, 1988 by sea borne PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists at the behest of a Colombo-based Maldivian businessman, Abdulla Luthufee was the first. Interestingly, the Indian Navy sank MV Progress Light commandeered by Luthufee’s mercenaries while trying to reach Sri Lankan waters.

Former Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who led the then UNP government’s negotiating team for talks with the LTTE in 2002-2003 period, appreciated the role played by the Scandinavian country.

GL, Palihakkara, Salter,Jehan comment

Mark Salter

Prof. Peiris, now a leading member in one of the SLPP rebel groups said: “The Norwegian government was significantly involved in the economic development of Sri Lanka, long before its association with the peace process. In particular, there had been substantial Norwegian support for infrastructure development, especially rural roads in the South of Sri Lanka, in addition to assistance in the fisheries sector, human resources development and community work of various kinds.

In the aftermath of its facilitation role in the peace process in the late 1990s and early in the present century, the government of Norway commissioned an independent evaluation of their role here with a view to ascertaining its strengths and weaknesses. I believe this study led to more useful insights.

We regret the decision to close down the embassy in Colombo for the time being, but understand that it is part of a worldwide evaluation process.

The government of Norway has announced its commitment to and support for the people of Sri Lanka will continue. We appreciate this assurance.”

In response to The Island query regarding the Norwegian pull out, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera has sent us the following statement: “The departure of the Norwegian Embassy from Sri Lanka is a big loss to us. This is a time when we need all the assistance and friendship we can from the international community, especially those who have helped us in the past. The Ambassador has stated that Norway will continue to provide Sri Lanka with assistance and will engage in development activities. However, Sri Lanka will lose out because remote support is not the same as in-country support where Norwegian diplomats and embassy staff are in constant interaction with Sri Lankan people. We also need to acknowledge the huge investment Norway made to help us resolve our ethnic war through negotiations and a political solution. They supported organisations such as the National Peace Council to build bridges between the communities, which we continue to do. Norwegian support for peace-building work got reduced after the failure of the ceasefire agreement and peace process. NPC did not receive Norwegian financial support over the past decade. But the capacity for peace-building work that Norway supported us to achieve, and which continues to remain with us, is a cause for gratitude and we regret very much the closure of their embassy.”

The author of ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ Mark Salter said: “The closure of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo ends an important chapter in relations between the two countries. At the joint invitation of the government and the LTTE leadership, in 1999-2000 Oslo accepted the role of peace facilitator between the two parties. To their great credit, over the following decade the Norwegians stuck at their appointed ‘peace diplomacy’ task through thick and thin – possibly the most sustained instance of external engagement with a peace process to date. And this including when, in the aftermath of the return to war in autumn 2006 and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) the Norwegians brokered in 2002 looked increasingly dead in the water, they became the subject of increasing domestic attacks, notably by both the government itself and Sinhala nationalists who tarred them with the brush of ‘White Tigers’.

As we know, theirs (and other) peace efforts ultimately failed. A messenger, however, is only as good as the message they carry – a fact that often seems completely lost on the legions of Lankan critics of the Norwegian’s ‘messenger’ role. As Erik Solheim and others have long since acknowledged, Oslo undoubtedly made mistakes along the way – notably the failure to foster an initial bipartisan Sinhala political consensus in support of the peace process. Ultimately, however, the failure of the peace process comes down to the failure in their different ways of both parties to continue to engage seriously with the process itself.”

For those who are genuinely interested in knowing the Norwegian-led process, perusal of Salter’s work is a must. Former BBC journalist and analyst, Mark Salter who launched ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ in Colombo several years after Norway released ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ meticulously addressed the issues. Salter’s work help the readers to understand what really went wrong if the official Norwegian examination didn’t achieve what was expected. Chr. Michelsen Institute and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, jointly put out that report. The team responsible for the official version comprised Gunnar Sørbø, Jonathan Goodhand, Bart Klem, Ada Elisabeth Nissen and Hilde Selbervik. The Wikileaks revelations should be of pivotal importance for those keen to know the developments here.

One-time Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara who served as the Governor of the Northern Province during the Yahapalana administration, has sent us the following statement in response to a query posed to him: “It does not look like a singular decision by one country, at least optics-wise, since both countries announced the intended closures within a space of a few months this year, Sri Lanka being the first in April and Norway following in September. Embassy closing of course is news one can hardly celebrate esp. in bilateral diplomacy. The notion that reciprocity is the first lesson in diplomacy still has some currency. And that factor may have weighed in at some stage of this decision-making process. However, speculating on that won’t help either side.

What is of promise is that both countries have been quick to emphasize that the decisions are derived from ‘structural’, rather than bilateral considerations and will not impinge on relations.

Sri Lanka has further qualified closure as ‘temporary’ while Norway has recommitted itself to ‘further the constructive and friendly relations’. It would be reasonable to say these relations have endured many decades and vicissitudes including a complicated and even controversial ‘peace process’ with the LTTE through a vain facilitation effort by Norway.

The Norwegian envoy in Colombo, Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal in her media comments has quite professionally put these positives at a higher notch saying ‘ We will continue to maintain our warm bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and development assistance will also continue.’ So the ‘distancing’ signified by these closures at first glance, may be more apparent than real. The fact remains that SL has benefitted from several billions of NKR bilateral ODA for projects ranging from the well-known Cey-Nor in the North to extensive rural development in the South. Since modern diplomacy is often about building on what you have rather than imagining the ideal, it is up to both sides to do just that-build on the positives.”

Whatever the views expressed by interested parties regarding the planned Norwegian closure of its embassy here the fact remains the move is detrimental to Sri Lanka, especially at a time the country is experiencing its worst post-independence economic crisis. Norway spent lavishly on its Sri Lanka project. Civil society groups benefited immensely. A simmering dispute between the Norwegians and the late Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, one of the largest beneficiaries of the Norwegian funding highlighted the controversial relationship between the embassy and the civil society. The Norwegians ended up squandering their taxpayers’ money even on the LTTE and its front organizations. That is the undeniable truth.

But, perhaps their biggest mistake that had been influenced by interested parties here was the assertion as acknowledged in ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ that the LTTE cannot be defeated.

The Norwegians as well as other Co- Chairs operated on the premise the Sri Lankan military couldn’t match the LTTE’s strategy or the fighting will. Those who benefited from the Norwegian largesse propagated that myth wherever possible like their Western pay masters. That assessment was proved wrong in May 2009 when a soldier shot Velupillai Prabhakaran on his head on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.­



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Midweek Review

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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President Wickremesinghe with US Ambassador Chung at the Colombo harbour, on Nov, 22, at the commissioning of newly acquired Offshore Patrol Vessel, formerly of the US Coast Guard.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having comfortably won the vote on the Second Reading of 2023 Budget, two days earlier, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on November 24, dealt with a spate of issues, including the responsibilities of the armed forces and the police, obviously indicating how a second Aragalaya, aimed at ousting his government from power, by way of violent protests, as was done to the previous President, would be tackled, as the country could not possibly afford any more turmoil.

The UNP leader stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to protect the armed forces and the police, who performed their legitimate duties and responsibilities.

The Parliament approved the Cudget, on Nov. 22, with 121 voting for and 84 against, as the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) reiterated its commitment to a political marriage of convenience with UNP leader Wickremesinghe whose party has only one seat in the 225-member Parliament. Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the Budget, on Nov. 14.

The SLPP secured 145 seats, at the last General Election, though three breakaway groups of lawmakers have since distanced themselves from the party.

Speaking on the continuing threats faced by his government, Wickremesinghe underscored the responsibilities of all, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe’s reference to responsibilities of those from Corporal to Field Marshal should be examined against the backdrop of perceived relationship between the war-winning Army Commander and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), accused of toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe talked tough and didn’t mince his words when setting the tone for the remainder of his term, secured on July 20, courtesy the SLPP. Wickremesinghe seemed confident that the balance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, won with a landslide at the Nov. 16, 2019, presidential election, could be completed.

Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Acting President, on July 13, and was elected the eighth President on July 20. As the sole UNP National List MP, Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes, including his own, whereas his rivals Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) obtained 82 and 03 votes respectively.

Wickremesinghe delivered a clear message. The UNPer didn’t mince his words when he warned that unauthorized protests, meant to undermine his government, wouldn’t be tolerated, under any circumstances.

Wickremesinghe declared that trouble makers wouldn’t be allowed to take cover behind human rights and any attempt to adopt strategies, similar to those employed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be crushed, militarily. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s stand.

So, in case the FSP et al launched the second phase of ‘Aragalaya,’ targeting the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, they can expect the armed forces and law enforcement authorities unleashed on them.

 Immediately after taking oaths, as the eighth President, Wickremesinghe directed the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament). Ironically, President Wickremesinghe, who was always for protests against the government in power, when in the Opposition, overnight metamorphosed into ignoring protests by the NGO-led mafia against the deployment of the armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave in to US pressure not to use the armed forces to evict those camping outside the Presidential Secretariat until it was too late.

Even on May 09 when a well-orchestrated wave of physical attacks, and torching of properties of government politicians, was unleashed across the country, as if in spontaneous response from the public at large, over the attack on the Galle Face protesters, the same evening the US Ambassador Julie Chung issued a statement, through the local media, warning the armed forces and the police not to crackdown on peaceful protesters. We all saw how peaceful these foreign-funded protesters were when the opportunity arose. On May 09, they even turned on a group of SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, when they visited the Galle Face protest site. Luckily for them, they beat a hasty retreat, with their security, sensing what was in store for them, after getting a few knocks.

During the campaign against Gotabaya Rajapaksa that commenced with violent protests outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, SLPP lawmaker Rear Admiral (ret.) Sarath Weerasekera told this writer, on a number of occasions, the danger of failing on the part of the then administration to deal with the growing threat efficiently. Weerasekera was one of the few who demanded tangible action against the protest campaign. By July 09, protesters forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Janadhipathi Mandiraya by sea. Field Marshal Fonseka, MP, had been the only parliamentarian to address the protesters, near Janadhipathi Mandiraya, just a few hours before they forced their way into the presidential abode.

No one bothered to remind the Field Marshal of his obligations at that time. In addition to Sajith Premadasa, Fonseka, too, received an invitation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the premiership. Both declined for different reasons.

But, on the part of Wickremesinghe, there hadn’t been any wavering, as in the case of Premadasa, despite being the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP leader simply grabbed the opportunity and proceeded step by step, having evicted those occupying the Presidential Secretariat.

Lawmaker Weerasekera, who sided with President Wickremesinghe at the Budget vote, told The Island the UNP leader had dealt appropriately with those trying to undermine law and order. Unfortunately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite being a distinguished former frontline combat officer, hesitated to meet the protesters’ violent challenge due to well hatched Western propaganda against his government, the MP asserted.

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

President Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to remind the House of the correspondence between his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to him being sworn in as the Premier on May 12. During his Nov. 24 address to Parliament, the UNP leader tabled in House Sajith Premadasa’s letter, dated May 12, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate his position, faulted the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up the presidency. The President’s strategy seems clear. In addition to dealing with the economy, Wickremesinghe faces two primary challenges, namely rebuilding the UNP, now reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena), in preparation for future elections and the resolution of the national question (post-war national reconciliation)

The re-building of the UNP has to be achieved at the expense of Sajith Premadasa. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s strategy. Wickremesinghe has no option but to relentlessly push SJB members to switch their allegiance to him. Although many believed Wickremesinghe could influence the majority of the main Opposition, the SJB, to switch sides, in the wake of his appointment as the Premier, it didn’t materialize. Of the 54-member SJB parliamentary group, Manusha Nanayakara (Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment) and Harin Fernando (Minister of Tourism and Land) deserted Sajith Premadasa when they accepted Cabinet portfolios, on May 20 from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The two SJB MPs, who spearheaded a high profile campaign, targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, had no qualms in receiving their letters of appointment from the very person.

The other SJB MP to accept state ministerial portfolios from Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, in April (Transport) and September (Tourism) was Diana Gamage, now at the centre of a simmering controversy over her allegedly being a British national. When there are probably at least half a dozen or so other dual citizen MPs in Parliament we wonder why just Diana Gamage is being targeted by so many.

President Wickremesinghe appears to be confident that some of those who had been elected on the SJB ticket, as well as some SLPPers, may accept Cabinet portfolios soon. Appointments are likely to be finalized immediately after the final vote on the Budget, scheduled to take place on Dec 08.

Wickremesinghe needs to reach a consensus with the top SLPP leadership, as regards Cabinet portfolios, as the latter wouldn’t, under any circumstances, tolerate appointments, sans its approval. However, Wickremesinghe will go out to engineer defections from the SJB. Will the UNP leader be able to influence a group large enough to cause the disintegration of Sajith Premadasa’s party, formed in early 2020, to contest the last General Election?

However, in spite of enjoying executive powers, Wickremesinghe would find it an extremely difficult task as the SJB, as a group, abhorred joining the SLPP-led government. On one hand, Wickremesinghe required the continuing support of the SLPP to sustain his government. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe’s dependence on the SLPP made him quite unpopular. The SLPP has so far refused to accept that it couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout, caused by utter mismanagement of the national economy. Had the SLPP government sought the IMF intervention, soon after the 2019 presidential election, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have ended up as the President. The circumstances that compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Wickremesinghe to accept the premiership underscored the seriousness of the situation the country had fallen into.

Having failed to get elected, from Colombo, at the last General Election, Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament, in late June 2021, on its National List, at a time the national economy was rapidly deteriorating.

But, even Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have anticipated the turn of events that compelled the desperate Rajapaksas to invite him to accept the premiership, one month short of a year later. Having taken over the government, under an incomparable situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda. The SLPP seems to be so far satisfied. The vote on the Second Reading of the Budget meant that the SLPP and Wickremesinghe are prepared to work together. though quite significant differences remain.

However, the SLPP has, in no uncertain terms, indicated that it didn’t bother about the mandates received at the 2019 Presidential and 2020 General Elections at which its candidate received 6.9 mn votes and the party obtained a staggering 145 seats, respectively.

Prez roadmap

SLPP National List MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, in two speeches in Parliament (delivered during the ongoing Budget debate) dealt with Wickremesinghe’s strategy. The leader of civil society group Yuthukama did it quite well. The first time entrant to Parliament discussed the issues at hand, including the alleged move to deliberately lose state control over land that may cause irrevocable consequences. At the onset of one speech, lawmaker Cumaratunga reacted somewhat angrily as some government members continued with their noisy private conversations, among themselves, as the MP dealt with contentious issues.

The MP asked whether Wickremesinghe was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance his own roadmap at the expense of the country. Cumaratunga raised the possibility of those enjoying the political power allowing further deterioration of the economy. The MP expressed fears of Wickremesinghe’s Budget causing a heavier debt burden at a time the country has suspended repayment of loans. The MP also slammed the government over the inordinate delay in amending the Exchange Control Act of 2017 to make it mandatory for importers to bring back massive amounts of funds ‘parked’ overseas, over a period of time, within a stipulated time frame.

In addition to Cumaratunga, Prof. Charitha Herath, as well as Prof. Channa Jayasumana ,made important contributions during the ongoing Budget debate. Both of them dealt with the land issue.

Herath, who earned public appreciation for his role as former COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman dealt with a number of issues, including an ‘operation’ meant to facilitate land grabs. The first time MP alleged that the move to place state land under the purview of Divisional Secretaries was nothing but a ruse to allow land grabs.

Participating in the Second Reading debate on the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath alleged that the move was meant to allow cronies of the ruling party to get hold of government lands. Declaring that LRC lands had been misappropriated for the political gains of successive governments, since 1977, Prof. Herath questioned the way state land were utilized. The 2023 Budget has proposed to legitimize wrong procedure, lawmaker Herath said, adding: “We summoned the LRC, two or three times before the Committee on Public Enterprises, and investigated the issues at hand. We found out that there had been many shortcomings in its land utilization process. We instructed the officials to take remedial measures. Now the 2023 Budget has proposed that these LRC lands should be placed under District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and allow them to decide to whom those lands should be given for the purpose of cultivating them. The proposal would prune down the powers of the Lands Minister.

“We do not approve the status quo of the LRC because every Lands Minister has placed the LRC under his or her friends who, in return, placed the lands at LRC under the mercy of the Minister. This should come to an end but not in the manner that has been envisaged by the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath said.

Prof. Jayasumana raised the legitimacy of crucial decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader didn’t have a mandate to do so from the people. Addressing the Parliament, during the Committee Stage of the Defence Ministry vote, the first time MP asked whether the President could take decisions pertaining to national security and policy matters as he was only entrusted with completing the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

The Anuradhapura District MP suggested the need to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as regards the ability of Wickremesinghe to call for a presidential election four years after the last poll. In this case the one held in Nov. 2019. Lawmaker Jayasumana declared that he would submit a private member’s proposal to enable Wickremesinghe to call for a fresh presidential poll after completion of one year in office. If consensus could be reached, a fresh presidential election could be held in July 2023, Prof. Jayasumana said, adding that if Wickremesinghe won he could implement whatever his proposals. Pointing out that as Wickremesinghe’s agenda had been rejected by the electorate in 1994, 2004 and 2019, the UNP leader could face serious public challenge unless he obtained a fresh mandate.

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a huge mandate at the 2019 presidential election to preserve Sri Lanka’s unitary status, Prof Jayasumana questioned the moves to even go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The academic reminded that the Supreme Court had been divided on the 13th Amendment.

The SLPP rebel reminded that the Supreme Court bench that decided on the 13th Amendment did so by a majority of just one judge.

Sri Lanka is heading for unprecedented political upheaval as Wickremesinghe pushes ahead with his agenda amidst further deterioration of political-economic-social situation. The much-touted USD 2.9 bn in emergency aid from the IMF, spread over a period of four years, seems wholly inadequate to remedy the situation. Impending political turmoil appears to be quite threatening and may even undermine the economic recovery efforts unless the Parliament addressed the issues at hand with the dedication such situations required.

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

It is vitally important to value our freedom more than anything else, as Patrick Henry did and declared: “Give me liberty or give me death. My humanity diminishes the less I am free; my humanity is enhanced the more I am free.” Moises Naim has written a book that every freedom loving human being must read to become aware of the treacherous dangers to his/her freedom.

The book is about how our freedom won with so much trouble, toil, blood and sacrifice is being corroded today, not from outside forces, like in the past such as tribal chiefs, kings and dictators, but more insidiously from within, subtly and deceptively, with something that looks like truth or democracy.

The mortal enemy of freedom is power. The gradual defeat of power by freedom and democracy we enjoy is being slowly strangulated by power returning to battle in unsuspecting hidden ways and means. That is why the book is titled “The Revenge of Power”.

The book is about the 3-P autocrats who steal our freedom and kill democracy. The three Ps are populism, polarisation and post-truth. The corrosive and corrupting consequence of the trio – populism, polarisation and post-truth – is a criminal and complete takeover of the state.

Populism

Populism is a set of practices and strategies. Through this, the autocrats become not only the sole voice and face of the government but also of the state. It empties the meaning of the authentic exercise of the will of the people as it weakens popular and civic organisations, and eliminates the function of political parties as channels of alternative ideologies.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) perfectly fits the bill for a populist leader. He came to power through democratic and legal means unlike Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) who became the President through trickery. No autocrat can beat the executive powers of the President of Sri Lanka, thanks to J. R. Jayewardene, who introduced the 1978 Constitution. Slowly, MR began to show traces of an autocrat. Even the few checks and balances that were in existence were disregarded. Self-promoting useless extravaganzas increased. He openly became nepotistic. He began to interfere in the judiciary by removing Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Shirani Bandaranayake, and brought in 18th Amendment in a bid to become the President for life. In the meantime, more and more allegations of huge commissions on mega projects, robberies, scams and crimes of family members, relatives and cronies increase. Pandora Papers disclosures as regards Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband has revealed only a fraction of what the Rajapaksa family has amassed.

MR’s younger brother, Gotabaya, entered politics in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre declaring that he alone could protect the country’s national security. He said at the very beginning of his presidency that his word took precedence over government circulars. He banned agrochemicals. His idiotic economic decisions bankrupted the country.

Polarisation

Polarisation is the age-old idea of divide and rule. The autocrats generate intense hatred against the rivals and neutralise them. Since they exploit the atavistic fears and prejudices of and the social cleavages and divisions among people, they have a huge fan-base, and hence emerge as Messiahs.

Creating an enemy, the Other, is the speciality of our politicians. The Tamil minority was the first enemy. JR, the autocrat deliberately organised the 1983 July riots, and the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Then, we had the 30-year civil war. They demonised the Tamils in the North and the East. GR came to power after Easter Sunday tragedy, promising to ensure national security and making the Muslims, the Other or the enemy.

Creating and accusing the Other, the enemy is part of the political practice in Sri Lanka. Rulers speak of imperialist conspiracy, Tamil separatism, Muslim Wahabism, NGO betrayals, Christian conversions or what not. They make ‘others’ monsters ready to pounce on the hapless majority, destroy them and conquer Sri Lanka.

Divide and rule is the name of the autocrat’s game. RW has called the Aragalaya youth fascists making them The Other. By using the PTA he has made the university students terrorists. Anti-riot police in full gear with tear gas masks, water cannon trucks and hundreds of men and women armed with batons and shields are sent to suppress the fundamental rights of the people to protest of small groups of unarmed non-violent civilians.

Post-truth

Post-truth is the confused conceptualisation and uncontrollable diffusion of fake news that distorts reality. It has such a power that it can systematically block the knowledge and diffusion of the truth. It is not simply spreading lies. It is about muddying the waters to such a point that it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. Post-truth is the baby of the modern mass communication media.

“Post-truth has been defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth.” It is a condition that arises in public life when the dividing line between facts and knowledge, on one side, and belief and opinion, on the other, withers away, or at least when they are used interchangeably so often that the dividing line between them is no longer widely agreed upon.” (Quoted from the aforesaid book)

With easy access to millions, social media, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc., we are inundated with facts and messages that can be true, partially true, false or fake. Often contrary facts and news are presented to us and we are confused as to what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. This weakens our democracy. A country of confused citizens is easy prey of the rapacious populist autocrat.

How to protect our freedom

The author has proposed methods of fighting the 3-P autocrats by battling against their five most used tactics.

The battle against the Big Lie

The Big Lie was the slogan given by Trump to his election loss. Here are some of our Big Lies. “Dharmishta Samajaya” sounds so pious and nice but the reality of the JR presidency was just the opposite. Then MR presented the vision of “Suba Anagathayak.” Now, we are in the Rajapakses’ ‘Anagathe’, you can decide whether it is ‘suba’ or ‘kalakanni’. “Yahapalanaya” was another fantastic goal to be achieved, but the UNP and its cronies carried out the Treasury bond scams, and the SJB footnote gang shamelessly tried to protect the culprits. Finally, we have the “Saubagya” of GR, well, the country is bankrupt and economically bogged down and ruined. The sweet dream of ‘Saubagya’ has become for the people a nightmare! These are the Big Lies of Sri Lankan politics. There are many small lies that are brazenly proclaimed in public like when Namal R said that “No Rajapakse has robbed anything. Take us to courts and prove the charges.” Of course, GR had “Nidoskota nidahas” all the cases against the Rakapakses and their crony murderers and thieves. Or take the television channels that promoted the Dammika Peniya as a cure for Covid-19.

Now for the battle. Democracy and freedom can be saved only if the citizens are well informed of how the government works. Ways of educating the youth and even the elderly must be found and implemented. They must be taught to check always the myriads of facts, figures and information they receive and even double check them before using them to make decisions or sharing them with others. The perpetrators of the Big Lie must never be allowed to win an election again. Even the supporters and promoters of the Big Liar must be dealt with similarly. The electorate must be made to feel seriously responsible for the election results.

Battle against criminal regimes

There are countries where criminals are no longer underground but very much above ground and in the highest places of power. Since the 1970s, Sri Lanka has also joined the club or the mafia of such countries. A good example of where it started is when JR made the notorious criminal, Gonawala Sunil, a Justice of the Peace after pardoning and releasing the latter from prison! We have a person convicted of “Kappan” as the Chief Whip of the government and most others are all thieves or at least collaborators of thieves. It is not for nothing that people call them Ali Baba and the 225 thieves.

As every government deal, whether oil, gas, sugar, medicine, vaccines or other essentials, is suspected to be a scam and the allegations are never investigated or admitted, we sure have a kleptocracy consisting of the politicians, top administrative officers and their crony businessmen openly robbing the wealth of the nation. The kleptocrats robbed and bankrupted the country. They have taken out the wealth of the country and stashed it away in black tax havens.

When the people of Aragalaya led by the youth, protest publicly against the criminal government, they are arrested and jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Saving democracy and freedom from a criminal regime is going to be a war of attrition. Then we must investigate the route of the stolen money and confiscate it. So far, nothing has been done in this regard. All that we know about Nirupama Rajapaksa, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, Udayanga Weeratunga, Air Bus scam, etc., has been revealed by investigations conducted overseas. We cannot expect a criminal government to conduct such investigations. It will have to be the work of NGOs, journalists, detectives and lawyers. Anybody, even charities that receive funds from autocrats who need character laundering must be named and shamed.

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

Powerful autocracies and even some democracies competing for global domination have always interfered in the smaller democracies. It is clear how funding for elections is received. It is no secret that China funded Rajapaksas or the US funded some others. There were allegations that North Korea funded the old JVP and India funded the LTTE. Funds apart, now they use the social media on a global scale to disinform, mislead and tarnish the images of politicians who are undesirables, or support their favourites. They have found that Russia has interfered in the Trump election and in the Brexit referendum.

The only defence of the democracies against such onslaughts depends “on three priorities: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.”

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

Democracy is a way of organising political competition. In a democracy, those unhappy with the current state of affairs can change things, but only if they can persuade enough fellow citizens to vote for them. Ensuring fair and lawful political competition is the central purpose of democratic checks and balances. (Quoted from the book)

But political cartels that include the judicial, administrative and military sectors unleash anti-competitive pressures to stifle freedom and democracy. They are rigging the game to stay in power. The autocrats become political monopolists. In Sri Lanka, the practice of bribing MPs to switch sides is part of anti-competition.

“To defeat them, we need a kind of political anti-trust doctrine, one designed to protect the competitive dynamic at the heart of democracy. Whether dealing with campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, or media regulation, policymakers must squarely confront one question: Do the current rules foster fair and constructive competition? Where the answer is no, a strong prima facie case exists for intervention and reform.” (Quoted from the book)

Battle against illiberal narratives

The autocrats create the Big Lie that they are the saviours of the people harassed by poverty, and the elites are insensitive to the people’s plight. They cater to the people’s gut level feelings and make their adrenalin work. But the democrats find difficult to achieve such results as they will offer only abstract principles of truth and fair play; freedom and competition. Usually, the democrats are always at a disadvantage.

“The populist frame is too powerful to be defeated permanently. Like a virus, it reappears in outbreaks again and again throughout history. But the rhetoric is hollow. And pointing out that hollowness gives us an opening we must exploit to sell people once more on the promise of democratic life.” (Quoted from the book)

In our country, Aragalaya has opened the eyes of people as never before and now many of them can see how they have been deceived and abused by populist autocrats.

“Sobriety is in order. The fact that democracy has survived over the last three centuries in no way guarantees that it will prevail against its enemies once more. But if we can defeat the Big Lies, sideline criminalized governments, parry the attempts at foreign subversion directed at democratic elements, face down the political cartels that stifle competition, and beat back the illiberal narratives that sustain autocratic onslaughts, we’ll have won the war to preserve democracy.” (Quoted from the book)

Conclusion

As I finished reading the book, I realised that we had found the local antidote to the 3-P autocrats. It is our own way of dealing with our own variety of 3-P autocrats. It is what emerged as Aragalaya in April this year, climaxed in July and is still simmering like live coals in the ashes. Proudly, I called it the Beautiful Revolution. However much its detractors howl against it, it is now a historical fact. Aragalaya happened and nobody can deny, delete or forget it. Our youth led it and were responsible for it and all, their mothers, fathers even little children joined them whole heartedly. The world was stunned by its success. Not a drop of blood was shed by the protesters.

I gauged them at the Galle Face Gotagogama. Aragalaya can be defined with the three words they always use, Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraya. Nirpakshika means they are not followers or slaves of anybody, any party or any ism. They are strong free adults; they think for themselves and they decide for themselves. Nirprachanda means non-violence stemming from human solidarity. Aragalaya was an experience of solidarity; not the narrow solidarity of groups of the same race, religion, language, class, caste or political party but the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race. At Gotagogama there was open trust and friendliness among all sorts of people. I remember one incident clearly; when the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu said that he was going to send food-aid to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, a young Tamil took the mike at Gotagogama and sent a message to the Chief Minister; Sir, either send food-aid to Sri Lankans or don’t send at all. Yes, we are Sri Lankans, period. Finally, they called their movement Aadaraye Aragalaya. I suppose it is inevitable; nirpakshika and nirprachanda leads naturally to the peculiar ethos of Aragalaya; an ethos of love, peace, friendship and brotherhood.

Aragalaya led by the new generation revealed what is truly necessary for democracy. It was democratic as it never had a clear leader. All were welcome to come forward and share their opinion. Various individuals were spokespersons for it but Aragalaya went on, a common project of the people. Everybody shared equal responsibility for the spontaneous project, in such a way that all were leaders. Aragalaya formed free citizens fit for true democracy. And this is the best antidote to the 3P autocrats. Democracy, not just in name but in practice, is possible in Sri Lanka. The good news of Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraye Prajatantravadaya must be spread island wide. This is the foundation for the system change we are looking for. And this is what frightens the enemies of Aragalaya, Ali Baba and the 225 thieves. They know their evil system is in its death throes. With PTA, emergency, suppression, new alliances, new parties, fake news and all kinds of crooked deals they are fighting for their survival. They will be vanquished.

Let us keep in mind; the price of sweet freedom is the hard work of eternal vigilance or a sort of permanent Aragalaya.

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