House watchdog committees ascertain culpability of FM, Monetary Board
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Committee on Public Finance (COPF), inquiring into financial meltdown recently, called several former and serving officials to ascertain their culpability as well as that of the institutions they served for the developing crisis.
Among them were former Governors of the Central Bank Prof. W.D. Lakshman (Dec 2019- Sept 2021), and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Sept 2021-March 2022), Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera (Nov 2019-Dec 2021) and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle (Nov 2019-April 2022), Sanjeeva Jayawardena P.C. (received appointment as a member of the Monetary Board in Feb 2020) and Dr. Ranee Jayamaha (the retired CB Deputy Governor received appointment to the Monetary Board in June 2020). It would be pertinent to mention that Attygalle earlier served a short stint as the Treasury Secretary (Ministry of Finance) between Oct. 31, 2018 and Dec. 18, 2018 during the constitutional coup staged by ex-President Maithripala Sirisena.
The term of office of an appointed member of the Monetary Board is six years and in the event of vacation of office by the appointed member, another person shall be appointed in his or her place to hold the office during the unexpired part of the term of office.
The COPF meeting took place on June 08. Dissident SLPP lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa chaired the meeting. CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, were present.
Attygalle didn’t mince his words when he squarely blamed the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also served as the Finance Minister (Nov 2019 to July 2021) for the controversial fiscal policy that had ruined the country. Attygalle declared that the government implemented the first Cabinet paper, dated Dec 04, 2019 presented by Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The former Treasury Secretary, who also served in the Monetary Board till April this year, challenged the widely held view that abolition of a range of taxes, in line with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fiscal policies, triggered the crisis. Attygalle asserted that the import restrictions, especially the ban on the importation of vehicles imposed at the onset of the Covid-19 eruption, and the economic contraction, resulted in the meltdown.
The COPF should seek an explanation from Attygalle, himself a former top Central Banker, having last served there as Deputy Governor, regarding the failure on the part of the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board to review the decision to abolish taxes soon after the Covid-19 eruption. The Finance Ministry banned vehicle imports in March 2020 as part of the overall measures to manage the weak foreign currency reserves. Therefore, the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board cannot absolve themselves of the blame for failing to take remedial measures.
The COPF specifically asked whether the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board officials sought to advise the political leadership of the ground realities against taking such decisions. It emerged that they did nothing. The COPF proceedings revealed that in spite of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation, the Finance Ministry and Monetary Board mandarins failed to take remedial measures. The SLPP members in the COPF, too, should not forget that the change of tax policies had been in line with their 2019 presidential election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.
A disastrous manifesto
The SLPP made the following proposals:
a- Income tax on productive enterprises will be reduced from 28 to 18 percent.
b- The Economic Service Charge (ESC) and Withholding Tax (WHT) will be scrapped;
c- A simple value added tax of eight percent will be introduced, replacing both the current VAT of 15 percent and the Nation Building Tax (NBT) of two percent;
d- PAYE tax will be scrapped and personal income tax will be subject to a ceiling of 15 percent;
e- A five-year moratorium will be granted on taxes payable by agriculturists and small and medium enterprises;
f- Various taxes that contribute to the inefficiency, irregularities, corruption and lack of transparency of the tax system will be abandoned. Instead a special tax will be introduced for different categories of goods and services;
g- Import tariff on goods competing with domestically produced substitutes will be raised;
h- A simple taxation system will be introduced to cover annual vehicle registrations and charges for relevant annual services, replacing the cumbersome systems that prevail now;
i- Various taxes imposed on religious institutions will be scrapped;
j- A zero VAT scheme will be adopted in the case of businesses providing services to Tourist hotels and tourists, if they purchase over 60% of the food, raw materials, cloths and other consumer items locally;
k- Service charges levied on telephones and Internet will be reduced by 50%;
l- Special promotional schemes will be implemented to encourage foreign investments;
m- A tax-free package will be introduced to promote investment in identified subject areas;
n- A clear and uncomplicated system of taxing will be in place with the use of internet facilities, special software and other technological services;
O- Information Technology (IT) services will be totally free from taxes (Zero Tax), considering said industry as a major force in the national manufacturing process;
p- All the Sri Lankans and Foreigners, who bring Foreign exchange to Sri Lanka through consultancy services, are exempt from income tax.”
Dr. Athulasiri Kumara Samarakoon, Soosaiappu Neavis Morais and Dr. Mahim Mendis in a FR petition filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution listed the above-mentioned points, in that order, as one of the primary reasons for the current crisis. Among the respondents are Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr. P.B. Jaysundera and S.R. Atygalle.
All of them earlier appeared before the COPF where the incumbent Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe emphasized that officials should never engage in politics and should recognize the difference between them and politicians. Dr. Weerasinghe asserted that officials were duty bound to inform politicians if the decisions taken by the latter were wrong. The outspoken CBSL Chief declared that politicians alone shouldn’t be held accountable for the consequences of such wrong decisions. What Dr. Weerasinghe obviously meant was those who served in key positions at that time, too, were responsible for the current crisis. Dr. Weerasinghe, who had been asked to succeed Ajith Nivard Cabraal, in March, after the former suddenly announced his retirement, told the COPF, the officials’ claim that they had been unaware of the economy was on a wrong path for two years leading to the meltdown was not acceptable. Dr. Weerasinghe also strongly questioned the claim that economic policies had been implemented only on decisions taken by the political leadership.
Lawmakers present participating in the proceedings declared that the political leadership and the officials ignored their concerns as regards the economy raised at different occasions.
CBSL Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe before COPE on May 25, 2022. Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana is on Dr. Weerasinghe’s right.
The COPF proceedings should be studied along with revelations made by Dr. Weerasinghe before the COPF and the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) on May 24 and May 25, respectively as well as lawmaker Ali Sabry’s shocking declaration on May 02 as regards the origins of the crisis. President’s Counsel Sabry discussed the issue in his capacity as the Finance Minister after having led the government delegation for talks with the IMF.
Appearing before the COPF, Dr. Weerasinghe disclosed that those who had been responsible for preparing budget estimates over the years deliberately deceived even the Parliament by providing unrealistic and inaccurate revenue estimates. The CB Governor explained how such practices further weakened the economy as decisions and allocations were made on the basis of fraudulent estimates.
The whole process had been nothing but a farce. Lawmaker Sabry on May 02 in a live interview with Swarnawahini, and Dr. Weerasinghe on May 25, named those responsible for the current crisis that has ruined the economy with unemployment at an unprecedented high. Sabry alleged that the Secretary to the Treasury, Governor of the Central Bank, and senior economic advisors to the President, misled the Cabinet as regards the economic situation. The National List member revealed how they repeatedly assured that the situation was well under control, in spite of difficulties while expressing confidence that issues could be successfully dealt with.
By the time the Central Bank floated the rupee in March this year even without bothering to inform the Cabinet-of-Ministers of its decision, irreparable damage had already been caused, Sabry said.
The COPF and COPE proceedings and MP Sabry’s interview in which he questioned the role of the Finance Minister have revealed the pathetic situation as regards public finance.
The MP has alleged that those who managed the national economy had prevented the country seeking IMF’s intervention well over a year back. Had President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Cabinet-of-Ministers received proper advice, Sri Lanka would not have been in the current predicament, Minister Sabry said.
Dr. Weerasinghe named those who refused to heed IMF warnings when he appeared before COPE on May 25. The role played by Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and the Cabinet-of-Ministers were discussed during the proceedings with Finance Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana, too, helping to ascertain the environment in which the SLPP leadership operated.
Dr. Weerasinghe went to the extent of naming Dr. PBJ as the one who prevented the government seeking IMF’s intervention.
The Customs, Inland Revenue and the Excise Department responsible for revenue collection are run in a shoddy manner. In spite of the watchdog committees exposing glaring omissions and commissions by them that had caused revenue losses in billions of Rupees over the years, the political leadership hasn’t taken remedial measures. Committee reports paint an extremely bleak picture.
But what could be the most unforgivable sin is then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa joking about having himself used the illegal Havala/Undiyal system that completely shut down several billion dollars that should have legitimately come to Sri Lanka as in past years as remittances from our migratory workers, especially serving in West Asia. Even at the height of the COVID pandemic the country received about six to seven billion dollars from mainly those unappreciated poor Lankan workers slaving in those countries as mainly labourers and housemaids. Such money may not be enough to pay back the country’s USD 50 billion foreign debt. That money, however, would have ensured that the country had the few million dollars to clear a shipment of gas or other necessities, instead of having to beg all over the world.
Unfortunately, the Parliament seems incapable of taking corrective measures. The Parliament should explore the possibility of appointing, a smaller team, comprising members of COPE, COPF and the COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) to recommend remedial measures, including possible criminal prosecution of dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa for his many omissions and commissions, but especially for not applying the full weight of the law against those running the underground money transfer system, that has even robbed the education of our children.
Keeping the currency steady is the wish of any Finance Minister as otherwise in a country like Sri Lanka dependent on imports for many of its essentials, like milk food, wheat, etc., it would result in basics skyrocketing in price as experienced now and as former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel also learnt it the hard way after allowing the rupee to devalue almost overnight by over 40 percent in the aftermath of opening up the economy to market forces after the victory of the UNP in 1977 with a staggering 4/5th majority in Parliament. It led to government workers staging a general strike demanding a Rs 10 wage increase, but was ruthlessly crushed by that regime.
A corrupt ministry
The Parliament needs to take tangible measures to restore public faith in the system. The Finance Ministry should be overhauled. Perhaps, the IMF, currently engaged in negotiations with the government, should look into the current system in place. The government can formulate an action plan on the basis of findings and recommendations made by the parliamentary watchdog committees. Perusal of proceedings of these committees reveals that the government hadn’t acted on their findings. The inordinate delay in taking action regarding the mysterious decision to reduce the duty on a kilo of white sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents on Oct 13, 2020 without passing on its benefit to the people is a case in point as pointed out by the COPF Chairman Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, MP. It, however, cost the cash starved Treasury dearly in billions in lost revenue.
Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the Finance Minister at the time of the issuance of the relevant gazette notification. S.R. Attygalle had been the Finance Secretary. It would be pertinent to ask both MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and Attygalle who recommended the duty reduction.
Actually, the COPF should ask Attygalle to explain the circumstances leading to the issuance of that controversial gazette. As Dr. Weerasinghe pointed out recently the officials cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the highly questionable decisions taken by politicians.
Who benefited from the reduction of duty imposed on sugar? In fact, the parliamentary watchdog committees should undertake a comprehensive study. Perhaps, the Finance Ministry role in the Yugadanavi deal can be investigated. Sri Lanka finalized the Yugadanavi transaction with US based New Fortress Energy at midnight on Sept 17, 2021 against the backdrop of Basil Rajapaksa receiving the finance portfolio. The government also brought in retired controversial figure M.M.C. Ferdinando from Australia to assume the leadership at the CEB before making the final move. S.R. Attygalle played a critical role as the Secretary to the Finance Ministry. The SLPP had no qualms in going ahead with the agreement in spite of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila challenging the transfer of 40 percent shares of the power station held by the Treasury among other concessions not fully revealed to the public.
The President’s Media Division (PMD) defended the agreement with the US energy firm. On the invitation of the then Presidential Spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake, M.M.C. Ferdinando briefed the media of the usefulness of the US investment. It would be pertinent to mention that Ferdinando, who fled the country in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena’s triumph in 2015 returned from Australia after the change of government in Nov 2019. Ferdinando’s 2015, move should be examined against the backdrop of corruption accusations directed at him by civil society activists Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon and Attorney-at-Law Namal Rajapaksa. The lawyer lodged a complaint with the then anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat. There had also been a case in the Fort Magistrate Court regarding the import of coal for Lakvijaya coal-fired power plants at Norochcholai.
In spite of initial public interest, such major cases are often not pursued properly even by those initiating them possibly with ulterior motives. When The Island inquired, lawyer Namal Rajapaksa acknowledged not being aware of the developments of his own case. At the time of the Norochcholai project, Ferdinando had served as the Secretary to the Power Ministry. The unholy alliance between the Finance Ministry and monstrous institutions, such as the CEB, should be investigated and mechanism put in place to protect the public interest.
The controversy over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s alleged intervention on behalf of India’s Adani Group at PM Narendra Modi’s persistent request led to Ferdinando’s resignation recently. The disclosure made by Ferdinando at the COPE, his subsequent denial and a letter dated Nov 25, 2021 Ferdinando wrote to the then Treasury Secretary Attygalle exposing the horrific way business of the State is being conducted. Accountability and transparency seem to be the last thing in the minds of political leaders here.
Brecht’s Chalk Circle Again and Again
by Laleen Jayamanne
Soldier: Your Honour, we meant no harm. Your Honour, what do you wish?
Azdak: Nothing, fellow dogs. Or just an occasional boot to lick!
Fetch me wine, red wine, sweet red wine.
‘In a faraway and long-ago, dark and bloody epoch, in a sunburnt and cursed city, there lived a Duke…’ sang the storyteller. In the mid-’60s when Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed there, Colombo had ceased being dark and bloody. April ‘71 was yet a few years away. But the effects of the Sinhala Only Act of ‘56 were taking root in educational institutions, like the National School of Art and Crafts, creating a myopic, monolingual culture. In this context, Henry Jayasena and others in the Sinhala theatre who were interested in developing contemporary drama, began to translate modern European plays, originally written in German, Russian and Italian. Crucially, these Sinhala versions were drawn from English translations of the original languages of the plays. So English worked as the essential ‘link’ language without which we would not have had any access to world theatre and much else. Henry had a good command of English, learnt in high school and at Teachers’ College. Like his similarly brilliant contemporary Sugathapala de Silva, he was not a University educated artist. But Jayasena’s superb theatrical imagination allowed him to translate from English the Chalk Circle into a most wonderful colloquial poetic Sinhala idiom. So much so that it feels like the play was written originally in Sinhala! Reading the Sinhala script was a pleasure in itself and sections have remained in my old brain, as good poetry does. The epic techniques of supple shifts from the songs of the narrator, to the every-day racy, bawdy dialogue of the soldiers, to the lyrical love passages between Grusha and Simon Shashava, to the absurdist folk utterances of Azdak, are all memorably crafted and differentiated.
Bertolt Brecht’s Epic play written in 1944 while he was in exile in the US, fleeing Hitler’s fascist Germany, continues to be a vibrant part of Lanka’s living ‘theatrical epic-memory’. Also, as a text for the O’Level, a large number of Lankans must have become familiar with it. The play has a ‘play-within-a-play’ double structure but in scene 4, Azdak’s story, there is a further third level. That is, a ‘play-within-a play-within-a play’. The first play is set in the present postwar Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1945, where workers of two Collective Farms meet with a State official to decide, through discussion, as to who should have the stewardship of a particular valley. The Farmers who have been in the valley since birth claim it as their own for their goats to graze in, while the other group say that through irrigation they can make the valley more productive of fruit and wine. Its key question is, ‘who is good for the land?’
The play-within the play, set in the Imperial past of a fictional Georgia or Grusinia, at war with Persia. The folk parable of the Chalk Circle is performed as entertainment after the debate about the valley has been reasonably decided. The key question there becomes, ‘who is the good mother for the child?’ – (hadu mavada, vadu mavada? The third level of a play-within a play-within a play is a mock trial between a prince who wants to be the Judge and Azdak pretending to be the deposed Grand Duke, as the defendant. In all there are six or seven judgments that involve Azdak in one way or another. The intricacies of each of these legal cases and their differences from each other, make scene 4 a most fascinating aspect of the episodic structure of the play itself. In contrast, scenes 1-3 involving Grusha the kitchen-hand and her dilemma are expressed memorably and clearly by the narrator: “Terrible is the temptation to be good.” This is Grusha’s decision to save and nurture the Governor’s abandoned infant, without counting the terrible cost to herself. Her scenes, engaging as they are, do not have the kind of intricacy and complexity of the six or so episodes where Azdak plays with several ideas of Law and of Justice.
Animals’ Rights and the Folk Imagination
An Epic Contest is staged in the play, between the idea of The Law as a written code by absolutist rulers, and ideas of Social Justice, which include a sense of fairness towards the poor and powerless. This ample human feeling of fairness is encoded in folk tales of peoples across Eurasia where animals also have a claim on Justice from humans. For example, the Mahavamsa tells us of the remarkable sense of justice embodied by the Tamil King Elara when he ruled Anuradhapura. He had a bell hung at his palace gate, which anyone could ring to make a claim when an injustice had been committed. So, when a cow complained to Elara that his son in his chariot had run over and killed her calf, he did not hesitate to put his son to death. We are told that taking pity on them, both lives were restored by a god. According to my friend Amrit MacIntyre who is a lawyer and legal scholar that story is found in various forms in the Middle East to Europe. Each version of the story is about a king from the distant past who is known for his justice. Critically, in each version the person seeking justice was an animal, a serpent in Italy seeking justice from Charlemagne, and an ass in the Middle East seeking justice from an Iranian Emperor (Khusro I). What is intriguing in all of this is a common conception of justice equally applying to all, including animals, that forms part of the mental landscape across Eurasia from very early on. Interestingly, a 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of India referred to the story of Elara as part of its reasoning! The folk tale of the Chalk Circle is found in an ancient Chinese play, as well as in the Judgment of Solomon in the Old Testament, and both were points of reference for Brecht in radically rewriting the tale as a modern epic parable influenced by Marxist ideas.
Azdak, the town scribe and rogue judge, was played memorably by Winston Serasinghe in Ernest MacIntyre’s English production. Henry Jayasena played the same in his own production, also in the mid-60s. And MacIntyre also acted as the priest in Henry’s production – one of the earliest exchanges between English and Sinhala Theatre in the ‘60s. That is to say, between the Lionel Wendt and Lumbini theatres, respectively. Azdak was the village scribe who, when the State collapsed and the official judge hanged by the rebellious carpet weavers, was forcibly roped in to act as a judge by the illiterate soldiers. But it turned out that he had his own eccentric ideas of Justice and fair play and was a bit drunk, sexist and openly took money from plaintiffs. Though Azdak appears only in the last 2 scenes, he leaves a powerful impression in one’s memory as a character like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. But he is unlike Falstaff whose fall from grace, after rejection by his former buddy Prince Hal, is full of tragic pathos. Azdak is a creature of the folk imagination.
Sumathy Sivamohan concludes her recent article on the links between the two Republican Constitutions of Sri Lanka (‘72 & ‘78), by invoking Azdak as a figure relevant to this moment of the People’s Aragalaya, (The Island 8/8). Azdak is a Brechtian Epic-Character through whom the very ideas of Law and Justice are examined, played with, debated and put into crisis, theatrically. He is also a great comic figure introducing laughter into the court where it is thought to be unseemly. In this way Brecht’s Epic Theatrical practice offers us several unusual angles on the process of making Judgements, the reasoning behind them. Through these scenes, the idea of Justice appears paradoxical, not altogether just in one case, but also both reasonable and yet ‘unlawful’, if judged according to the letter of the Law, in another. And some downright absurd. This complexity, of plot lines and intricacy of comic procedural ‘legal’ detail, is significant in demonstrating the class basis of judgements and how they are reached. The hilarious comic absurdity of some of Azdak’s arguments and rulings parody seemingly rational, legalistic linguistic power-play in regular courts. ‘Demonstrability’ is a strong concept in Brechtian theatrical theory and is linked to the idea of the pedagogical function of Epic Theatre.
A Brechtian Parable for the Aragalaya?
The comedic demonstration of the interplay between the Law and Justice, appears to be relevant to Lankans now, poised in their struggle to make politicians accountable for their actions which have plunged the country into economic, political and existential chaos. Azdak is an epic construct and as such we don’t quite empathise with him or like or dislike him. Rather, we observe this comic figure with enjoyment, as he plays with a variety of judgments, with no rule book as guide. He excites our curiosity about the mechanics of the Law, its different avatars, (Totalitarian Law, People’s Law, a judgment without a precedent), which, in an Imperial regime, as in the world of the play within the play, seems invincible and arbitrary. The two lawyers of the Governor’s wife Natella Abashvili are, however, immediately recognisable social types aligned with social power, contrasting with Azdak’s Epic singularity. They argue for the right of the blood-line to obtain the child from Grusha, to return to his biological but callous and predatory mother, only so that she can claim the property bequeathed to the child.
A Palace Revolution
The Chalk Circle opens on a seemingly normal Easter Sunday, with the wealthy Governor and family attending church to great fanfare that soon turns violent – palace revolution creates chaos and soldiers go to war against distant Persia. The Governor is beheaded, his head impaled on a lance and displayed, nailed to a wall, while his wife flees forgetting to take their baby. The Grand Duke has also gone into hiding. The Carpet Weavers, taking advantage of the revolt, hang the Judge. So it comes to pass that the village scribe Azdak becomes the accidental Judge, under a state of emergency. Not knowing the Law is no impediment to Azdak. Some of these events and scenes of the play have an uncanny resemblance to the farcical misrule seen in the Lankan Parliament not too long ago. Before we look at Azdak’s celebrated Judgments it’s worth looking at Brecht’s original theatrical structure, which is Epic rather than Dramatic.
Epic Theatre vs Tragic Drama
Brecht’s play is not a tragedy, a genre he rejected as an Aristotelian Greek notion driven by an idea of Destiny and causality and heroic action. The presence of a singer-narrator who introduces us to the play is an epic device in that, as the story-teller, he conducts the action. He stops characters in their tracks and sings of what they feel, but cannot say. He explains the action when necessary and advances the story. The famous singer who knows twenty-one thousand lines of verse becomes the story-teller. He announces that the play consists of ‘two stories and will take two hours to perform’. The Soviet expert from the city is impatient and asks him, (after the disagreement between the two collective farmers is resolved), “can’t you make it shorter?” The singer responds with a firm ‘No’. Brecht offers a play, which is profoundly episodic in its construction. Each episode is autonomous, has a relative freedom from a tight causally driven dramatic structure. What Brecht wanted was a theatrical structure which didn’t have any inevitable causal links propelling events as in the case of, say, Oedipus Rex. In this way he demonstrates how History and its presentation in the Epic, hold alternative possibilities. The Epic form can reveal in its episodic structure ‘the many roads not taken’. Some academics in the Aragalaya have begun to examine Lanka’s post independent history and the many roads not taken in structuring the economy, in race relations and education and development policy, for instance.
Why do I think that a ‘close reading’ of Azdak’s judgements matter, especially now? Because he has a window of opportunity during a palace revolution, to play with and interrogate ideas of Law and Justice. It is quite by chance that he is made a judge because the official judge has been hanged, the Governor executed and the Duke has fled during the civil war. Now is a time when a large number of people in Lanka are feeling that the Laws that govern them and their sense of Justice are at variance. And Azdak’s idiosyncratic process of judging and his rulings offer several unusual angles on both. He is unprincipled and we can’t tell which way his Judgment will fall, regardless of his own precedent. He is inconsistent but not amoral, he shows feelings on the bench, he is not ‘Blind Justice’. He has a strong conscience. Guilt-ridden, he has himself arrested and shackled by Sauwa the cop, for having unwittingly given the fugitive Grand Duke refuge in his hut and helped him escape, during the palace revolution.
In the mock trial Azdak impersonates the Grand Duke. The soldiers who call the shots say they want to test if the Nephew is fit and proper to be a judge as recommended by his uncle Prince Kazbeki. So they create a legal play within the play by making Azdak play the role of the Grand Duke as the defendant and the Nephew the acting judge. Azdak as the Grand Duke is accused of losing the war and in his comic defense he demonstrates how the Princes actually won by war-profiteering and enabling the Persians victory. All this is done in a brilliant quick-witted, punchy question and answer session where Azdak twists words and wins the argument with relish. Proven guilty of embezzlement, the soldiers arrest the acting judge and Prince Kazbeki and plonk Azdak on the throne, unceremoniously throwing the cloak of the dead judge across his shoulders. It’s high farce with linguistic fireworks in court.
A judgement Azdak makes from the bench deals with a farmer’s complaint against his farmhand who is accused of raping his daughter-in-law, Ludovica. By contemporary feminist standards Azdak’s judgment that Ludovica by virtue of her seductive walk, seduced and thereby ‘raped’ the man, is idiotic and sexist. But the scene is more ambiguous. It might be the case that what was called rape by the father-in-law may have been consensual sex, which he happened to stumble in on. We are told by the narrator that the Ludovica’s speech was well rehearsed. The scene remains ambiguous, open to several readings especially because Azdak orders Ludovica to accompany him to examine the scene of the crime after the verdict has found her guilty! The narrator has called him, ‘Good judge, bad judge, Azdak.’
Another judgment shows that Azdak is indeed a ‘people’s judge,’ ruling in favour of a grandmotherly old woman, against the three farmers who accuse her of theft. The old woman wins the case by virtue of being poor, despite the fact that the items were stolen on her behalf by a relative who is a Bandit. The plea she offers in her defense is her belief in miracles. So, taking up her cue Azdak reprimands the Farmers for not believing in miracles! To save time, Azdak decides to hear two similar cases of professional negligence and blackmail, together!
The judgment of the Chalk Circle is what Azdak is most famous for. But the previous ones, with their pileup of parodic absurdity, are crucial for Brecht’s politics in Demonstrating how social class, wealth and power determine legal ritual. Once the normality of the Grand Duke’s authoritarian rule is restored, Prince Kazbeki is beheaded as a traitor. The chaos of the revolutionary moment (‘a Golden age’?) that saw Azdak become a judge, with his own unique sense of justice, is reversed with the return of the Grand Duke. He is now attacked by the illiterate soldiers, bloodied and humiliated, soon to be hanged. But at the last moment a messenger from the Grand Duke arrives with a document ordering Azdak to be exonerated and made judge for having saved the Duke’s life. It is jarring to register that the Grand Duke does have a sense of aristocratic honour (unlike Lanka’s rulers) despite his reputation as a swindler and butcher.
Azdak wipes the blood from his eyes as he finds himself plonked on the judges’ chair yet again, and makes the celebrated progressive modern judgment of the Chalk Circle. It is reached through an ingenious process based on an ancient wordless contest. Grusha repeatedly refuses to pull the child out of the circle lest he be injured and so she is deemed the ‘true’ mother and given custody of the child, against the predatory biological mother who pulls him out. The singer then concludes the epic parable with a poetic summary of how Azdak aligned a feeling of Justice with eminently reasonable new rules. In that legal thinking, human emotion becomes the sister of rational thought.
“The people of Georgia
Remembered him, and remembered
For a long time,
The times when he was judge
As a short, golden age
When there was justice – nearly.
Take to heart,
All you who’ve heard
The Tale of the Chalk Circle
And what that ancient song means.
What there is should belong
To those who are good at it.
Children to true mothers,
That they may thrive.
Carts to the good drivers,
That they may be driven well,
And the valley to the waterers,
So that it bears fruit.”
Sri Lanka is a country in which Chalk Circle has been seen and enjoyed for generations. Doing a close reading of the play, while following the non-violent political uprising and struggle of the people from afar, gives one hope that changes good for Lanka are imaginable so that the land may bear fruit.
Deferred China ship visit takes place amidst diplomatic row
” Sri Lanka cannot do without IMF’s support. Having declared its inability to service its foreign debt, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach a consensus with lenders and the IMF. Two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, India and China, locked horns over a port visit by a Chinese ship. Sri Lanka should be wary of these developments as they tend to influence other lenders as well.”
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Navy deployed SLNS Gajabahu (formerly USCG Sherman) to safely move then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Colombo to Trincomalee, in the wake of the massive public protests, apparently financed and instigated by hidden hands that brought the curtain down on his presidency. The President abandoned Janadhipathi Mandiraya, before 12 noon, on July 09.
The first couple disembarked at the Trincomalee harbour, on the morning of July 10, having left the Colombo port, on the evening of the previous day. First lady Iyoma like late first lady, JRJ’s spouse Elena, is a fine woman, the whole country can be rightfully proud of, under whatever adversity.
Sri Lanka took delivery of SLNS Gajabahu, formerly of the United States Coast Guard, in June 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty. The Vietnam War era vessel is one of the largest vessels, acquired by the Navy since Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in May 2009. Sri Lanka paid for the upgrading of USCG Sherman, about 50 years old (the Vietnam war ended in 1975 with the last Americans fleeing Saigon, in helicopters, with their local dependents), along with the required spares and training for the Lankan crew.
Against the backdrop of controversy over the Chinese research and survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 docking at the Hambantota port, leased to China, it would be pertinent to discuss the transferring of vessels, and other equipment, as well as supply of fuel by the Quad grouping, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan. In spite of China, and international shipping sites, recognizing the Yuan Wang 5 as a research and survey vessel, the Indian media referred to it as a dual-use spy ship.
The Chinese vessel, which was originally scheduled to reach Hambantota port, on August 11, and leave on August 17, finally docked therein on Tuesday (16). The Chinese Embassy invited former Public Security Minister and retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera to visit the vessel. The invitation was extended in the wake of lawmaker Weerasekera single handedly defending the right of the Chinese vessel to visit Sri Lanka, like vessels of other countries’ navies, at the government parliamentary group meeting, on August 08, to ensure the scheduled visit, while the other government MPs had kept mum.
Ambassador Julie Chung’s predecessor Alaina Teplitz, in a special message issued in 2019, to mark the 243rd Independence Day of the US, addressed several contentious issues, including the alleged setting up of an American base here, as well as transferring of the US vessel to Sri Lanka. Ambassador Teplitz is on record as having said: The sea lanes that pass beside Sri Lanka are important for many nations, which is why the United States is helping Sri Lanka’s capacity to protect its coast and waters. In June, I joined President Sirisena at the commissioning of SLNS Gajabahu, the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest vessel. A gift from the American people, the former US Coast Guard Cutter represents the United States’ commitment to strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to protect its security and prosperity….Just like the gift of the USCG Cutter, our military cooperation is open and mutually beneficial. Every joint exercise, training in disaster response, is done at the invitation of our Sri Lankan hosts. The United States has no intention of building a base here. Instead, we are building relationships that help keep both our countries safe”.
In addition to the US vessel, Sri Lanka took delivery of two new advanced OPVs, namely SLNS Sayurala and SLNS Sindurala, built in India. Advanced OPVs were built at the Goa shipyard in terms of an agreement signed in Feb 2014. India built them at a cost of USD 66 mn and were commissioned in Aug 2017 and April 2018, respectively. Sri Lanka paid for them.
In late Oct 2021, Sri Lanka took delivery of another US Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro, the third such American vessel.
The first was USCG Courageous (SLNS Samudura P 621) acquired during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency, in early 2005. SLNS Samudura took part in the hunt for LTTE arms smuggling vessels (floating arsenals) in the high seas.
In July 2019, Sri Lanka also took delivery of the ‘Jangwei’ class missile frigate, previously called the ‘Tongling’ in the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and served until 2015.
Controversial H’tota port visit
The controversial decision to suddenly rescind permission, granted on July 12 for the Chinese ship visit, due to lobbying by India and the US, caused turmoil in China-Sri Lanka relations. China questioned the very basis of Sri Lanka’s decision, at the behest of New Delhi. China rightfully asserted that the development was quite unacceptable and a hindrance to bilateral relations. The government group meeting, held at the Presidential Secretariat on August 08 evening ,revealed the failure on the part of the new administration to address the issue at hand, properly. One-time Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera didn’t mince his words when he strongly urged the government to go ahead with the already approved visit. The meeting, chaired by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was attended by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP.
The former Navy Chief of Staff challenged the very basis of cancelling the ship visit as a result of pressure exerted by India. Weerasekera didn’t receive any support from his colleagues. The Colombo district lawmaker was quite clear that Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and India shouldn’t be at the expense of all-weather friend China. Weerasekera reminded the gathering that Sri Lanka, over the years, conducted military exercises with the US, and India as well. However, the most pertinent question that had been raised by the naval veteran was the cancellation of approval given by the previous administration.
Sri Lankan ports, including Hambantota, receive warships from major powers. In spite of Hambantota port being leased to China, the port received warships, even from the US. Destroyer USS Spruance and large transport vessel USNS Millinocket had been at the Hambantota port at the time of the April 2019 Easter Sunday massacre. The 7th Fleet vessels were here for Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercise. The attacks compelled the US to cancel the planned exercise. According to US Navy statement, issued ahead of the suicide blasts, during CARAT’s Sri Lanka phase, the Navy and Marine Corps planned to work with Sri Lankan armed forces at sea, to test communication, coordinate and respond to scenarios, at sea, to include maritime patrol operations, maneuvering exercises, surface gunnery drills, visit, board, search and seizure drills, vertical replenishments operations, flight operations and search and rescue swimmer exercises.
There had never been opposition to US and Indian warships’ visit to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka even received Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, at the Colombo port, during the yahapalana administration. The visit, undertaken in late January 2019, marked a higher status in Indo-Lanka relations. INS Vikramaditya, one of the two aircraft carriers operated by the Indian Navy, was accompanied by missile destroyer INS Mysore.
In August 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena renewed the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) with the US that paved the way for unhindered access here to US forces. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration first signed the ACSA, in March 2007, that facilitated specific US intelligence on LTTE arms smuggling ships on the high seas. The US-Sri Lanka relationship cannot be examined without taking into consideration the solid US-India partnership meant to counter China. Obviously, vis- a-vis Sri Lanka, Indian and the US stands appear to be the same. Both countries are deeply resentful of China securing the Hambantota port for commercial purposes, on a 99-year-lease, in 2017.
Contrary to concerns expressed by various interested parties, even commercial vessels cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Harbour Master of SLPA and the Sri Lanka Navy. In addition, a naval vessel cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).
In fact, two Indian navy vessels visited the Hambantota port for replenishments, in March this year. Naval vessels from Japan, Indonesia, Russia and the USA have called at the port of Hambantota. But, the recent Chinese ship visit has caused such an uproar by the unfair intervention of India, egged on by the US to block it, that the public may tend to think that navies of other countries are not allowed to visit Hambantota.
Speaking on the occasion, High Commissioner Gopal Baglay emphasized
that induction of the aircraft would help in creating a peaceful environment for progress and prosperity of the people of India and Sri
Lanka. Gifting of Dornier aircraft underscored the cooperation
between the two maritime neighbours in the defence and security
spheres, Baglay declared, adding such cooperation is envisaged to add further capability and capacity to Sri Lanka and is in line with the
vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)
In keeping with India’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ New Delhi has provided critical financial and material support in the wake of the economic fallout. Although the Covid-19, and the war in Ukraine, contributed to the crisis, Sri Lanka must accept responsibility for her plight caused by years of financial mismanagement, waste, corruption and irregularities coupled with the failure of our intelligence to prevent outsiders from exacerbating matters here, like how the Galle Face protests were well financed from outside our shores and how it was allowed to be projected as a non-partisan and non-violent indigenous movement. All we can say is that all the masterminds there were very good paid actors.
Amidst controversy over the Chinese ship visit, President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday (15) accepted a maritime surveillance Dornier aircraft from India. Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral S. N. Ghormade, handed over the aircraft. Interestingly, Sri Lanka received the Dornier from the inventory of the Indian Navy while the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is in the process of building two Dornier aircraft for Sri Lanka. Once India delivered them, the aircraft Sri Lanka took delivery on Monday would be returned.
There had never been a previous instance of China and India publicly commenting on a situation involving their assets visiting Sri Lanka. India has rejected Chinese accusations that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the visit by Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota port. India declared that it would take decisions based on its security concerns.
External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi (former Indian Deputy High Commissioner) is on record as having said that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, made its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns, based on the prevailing situation in the 1region.
Sri Lanka must be mindful of India’s security concerns but that shouldn’t be at the expense of her relations with China. Former General Secretary of the Communist Party D.E.W. Gunasekera told the writer that there had never been a similar interference by a third party in Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with any country.
Wikileaks, in the past, disclosed a range of classified diplomatic cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. One quite interesting cable, that originated from the US mission, in New Delhi, dealt with India’s concerns over the planned Chinese building of an international port at Hambantota. The project got underway in January 2008 as the military was clearly gaining the upper hand as it battled the LTTE on the Vanni front.
Let me reproduce the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting a New Delhi-based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. At the time Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue, with the US, as revealed in the Wikileaks cable, he had been head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Kumar has discussed the Indian Navy stepping up patrols in the waters, between India and Sri Lanka, while expressing concern over the Chinese role in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense of India, and warned that the US pressure on New Delhi to take up democracy and human rights issues with the Burmese military leadership facilitated the Chinese project there. The US diplomat quoted Kumar as having told him “We’re getting screwed on gas”.
“The situation in Sri Lanka is bad, really bad – beyond bleak” in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community,
Kumar was skeptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which he estimated China was willing to spend $500 million to help develop. He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opinioning that Rajapaksa had a ‘soft spot’ for China, following his visit to Beijing on March 9″.
India worked overtime to thwart Chinese projects here. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa once alleged that Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval asked him to cancel the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project, the Colombo Port City. Declaring that demand shouldn’t have been made, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also quoted Doval as having called for the taking over of the highly successful Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is held by SLPA.
Rajapaksa further quoted Doval as having told him that India wanted all Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having said: Sri Lanka is a small country; you don’t need such development projects.
The Quad has dealt with Sri Lanka in a systematic way. Australia donated two large patrol vessels years ago and recently has been providing fuel for both the Navy and the Air Force as part of the overall support to ensure ongoing operations meant to thwart would-be asylum seekers. In spite of a change of governments, Australia has maintained strong links with Sri Lanka to derail would-be asylum seekers’ plans to smuggle themselves there in multi-day fishing craft, despite so many such odysseys being thwarted.
The other Quad member Japan entered into a comprehensive partnership with Sri Lanka in Oct 2015. The then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka whereas the late Shinzo Abe endorsed it for Japan. Japanese warships frequently visit Sri Lanka. Consequent to the signing of the comprehensive partnership agreement, the Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera even visited the Hambantota port.
Sri Lanka will have to deal carefully with Quad as well as China. The unprecedented economic crisis has weakened the country and exposed it to external interventions, in different forms. The failure on the part of those political parties, represented in Parliament, to reach a consensus on a far reaching political arrangement to restore public confidence as well as secure international backing for recovery efforts, might be all part of the overall plot by the West to destabilize us for being friendly with China.
As for New Delhi she must remind herself that going by history China never had any evil intentions against her unlike the West that plundered and enslaved much of the world, including India.
Blasphemy and Judgment
By Lynn Ockersz
The revenge-seekers bided their time,
Nursing self-righteous anger all the while,
Upholding, they claim, the good name of God,
But there’s this nugget in moral thought,
That needs to be held close to their hearts,
By those claiming the moral high ground,
And daring to take a judgmental stance,
In this bloody attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life;
‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’, says the Lord.
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