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Midweek Review

Failed 2015 political project may have triggered Easter Sunday attacks

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A statue of Jesus amidst debris at St Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, Negombo following the Easter Sunday bombing

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Brigadier Chula Kodituwakku, on April 26, 2019, attributed the Easter Sunday carnage to four specific reasons, namely (1) battlefield setbacks suffered by ISIS (2) ISIS directing Zahran Hashim’s outfit to carry out the high profile attacks (3) massacre of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, in 2019, and (4) domestic reasons.

Kodituwakku, in his capacity as the Director of Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), addressed editors of national newspapers, and journalists, as well as representatives of television stations, on the invitation of the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake.

Seated at the head table, were the then President Maithripala Sirisena, flanked by Lt. Gen. Senanayake, and the then Northern Province Governor Dr. Suren Raghavan, and the venue, the Janadhipathy Mandiraya. (Senanayake retired in the third week of Aug 2019.

The retired Army Chief exploited the crisis caused by the Easter carnage to launch a short-lived political career. His effort ended disastrously. Having failed to obtain at least 50,000 votes at Nov 16, 2019 presidential election, Senanayake left the country, subsequently, for employment overseas. Dr. Raghavan secured a slot on the SLPP National List.

Neither Brig. Koditiwakku, nor any other person, at the head table, responded, though the media sought a clarification as regards what these domestic reasons were. The writer was among those present at the meeting summoned by President Sirisena, his (President) first encounter with the media, following the Easter Sunday attacks. Much to the surprise of those who had been there President Sirisena, who had been in Singapore at the time of the attack, claimed that he got to know about the incident, through social media. Reference was made to a friend who showed the relevant post to him (Politicos’ links to terrorist grouping: Prez promises no holds barred probe with strapline ‘Terror mastermind influenced by India-based ISIS’ April 27, 2019 The Island) (Close on the heels of Shavendra Silva being appointed the Commander of the Army, Kodituwakku was replaced.)

But when Sirisena recently appeared before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI), in his capacity as the former President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, he claimed, on the day of the Easter attacks, he was hospitalized and, therefore, didn’t have access even to his Chief Security Officer. Obviously, P CoI hadn’t sought an explanation from the former President as regards the contradictory answers as it was probably not aware of the President’s initial claim of a friend alerting him. Let us also hope that he won’t be given kid-glove treatment, like the way then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was treated when being questioned before the Treasury Bond Commission, despite him having been in the thick of it.

In addition to the on-going P CoI, there were two other investigations, (1) a three-member committee, headed by Supreme Court Judge, Vijith Kumara Malalagoda, and (2) eight-member Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), led by the then Deputy Speaker, Ananda Kumarasiri. In addition to them, PSC member, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, submitted a report, of his own, on the Easter attacks. However, concluded inquiries, as well as the ongoing PCoI and CID investigations, hadn’t really probed domestic reasons that may have contributed to the Easter attacks. Although Brig. Kodiruwakku included domestic reasons among four specific causes; there hadn’t been any genuine discussion/attempt to examine what these could be.

 

‘Deep State’ faulted

Dr. Rajan Hoole’s thought provoking ‘Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State gets out of its Depth,’ discussed the circumstances leading to the Easter carnage – the worst single terror attack carried out, in Sri Lanka, against undefended targets. The author is the more even-handed brother of Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, member of the Election Commission who caused quite a number of controversies, in the run up to the Presidential election. Ratnajeevan Hoole had always responded swiftly to whatever issues raised by the media, regardless of the accusation made and the origins of it.

The writer recently had an opportunity to peruse the Sinhala translation of Dr. Rajan Hoole’s ‘Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State gets out of its Depth,’ launched several weeks before the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. Translated by Mahinda Hatthaka (Movement for Defense of Democratic Rights), the Sinhala translation is an immensely readable tome that the writer believes shed light on the complex web of secrets/situations/relationships that led to the Easter carnage. Dr. Hoole, who authored ‘The Arrogance of Power: Myths, decadence and murder,’ in January 2001, quite clearly blamed the State elements for the attack. A founder member of the daring and pioneering University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) Jaffna, that stood up to the once mighty LTTE, albeit clandestinely, Dr. Hoole is explicit in his accusation that those who backed SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa created an environment to deprive the Muslims of an opportunity to vote at the Nov 2019 presidential election. The author asserted that attempt failed while making reference to the plantation Tamils being disenfranchised in 1949, consequent to the 1948 Citizenship Act.

Interestingly, the author conveniently desisted from recalling how the LTTE-TNA combine denied the Northern community the opportunity to vote at the Nov 2005 presidential election. The calculated move definitely cost UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe the election. Wickremesinghe lost by 186,000 votes.

Kumaran Pathmanathan, aka ‘KP,’ in an exclusive interview with the writer, in August 2010, asserted that the LTTE felt comfortable in having Mahinda Rajapaksa as the President as he could be dealt with much more easily than Wickremesinghe. The Rajapaksas proved Velupillai Prabhakaran wrong, four years after that decisive election. At the time of the interview, ‘KP’ was in the custody of the DMI.

Let me get back to Dr. Hoole’s work. In Chapter 4, the academic briefly discussed the possibility of the failure on the part of the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) to secure representation in parliament at the August 2015 general election. Had the NTJ succeeded in securing a foothold in parliament, the Easter Sunday carnage might not have happened, Dr. Hoole speculated, asserting that the NTJ adopted an aggressive strategy, in the wake of the electoral failure. Dr. Hoole based his quite controversial assessment on an electoral agreement, involving the NTJ, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah of the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) and Abdul Rahuman and Shibly Farook (both members of SLMC-Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a constituent of the UNP-led coalition).

On similar lines, many have earlier pointed out that if not for old JRJ’s greed and incessant political intrigue to retain absolute power, whether it be through a by-election, or even in the highly rigged referendum to postpone the general election, in the early 80s, and had the UNP instead allowed room for greater pluralism, in parliament, by allowing the likes of the JVP to enter the August assembly, in a more level playing field, there wouldn’t have been a second southern blood bath, in the late 80s.

Dr. Hoole, without hesitation, whatsoever, likened the attempt made by Kattankudy-born Zahran Hashim to have some of his nominees, in parliament, to that of Prabhakaran’s successful arrangement with R. Sampanthan of the TNA. In terms of the agreement, the TNA acknowledged the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, two years after the high-profile assassination of TULF lawmaker, Neelan Thiruchelvam, in 1999.

The UNP secured 106 seats, whereas the UPFA managed 95, at the August 2015 general election. A section of the SLFP-led UPFA backed the UNP to form the government in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that facilitated the despicable political project.

President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the SLFP, had no qualms in accommodating defeated M.L.A.M. Hizbullah on the UPFA National List. Hizbullah was among over half a dozen defeated UPFA candidates, accommodated on the National List. National List MP Hizbullah functioned as the Batticaloa political lord until he resigned in January 2019 to pave the way for President Sirisena loyalist, Shantha Bandara, to enter parliament. Hizbullah was rewarded with the appointment as the Eastern Province Governor. At the time of the Easter attacks, Hizbullah served as the Eastern Province Governor and Chairman of the Batticaloa Campus (Pvt) Limited. In a report presented to the Parliament Sectoral Sub-Committee on Higher Education and Human Resources, the scandalous politician identified himself as Dr. M.L.A.M. Hizbullah. In spite of failing to get elected, did Hizbullah serve the interests of Zahran Hashim?

 

Nexus between political parties

and terrorists

Dr. Hoole dealt with complexities experienced by both Tamil and Muslim political parties represented in parliament, due to them having to deal with the LTTE and the NTJ, respectively. The author, in no uncertain terms, censured TNA leader R. Sampanthan for shielding the LTTE, accused of killing civilians trying to flee the area dominated by the group. The author, while acknowledging the inexcusable use of civilians as human shields, lambasted Sampanthan for misleading the media.

The particular media briefing, attended by journalists representing international media organizations, where Sampanthan alleged the government lied regarding the LTTE killing those trying to seek refuge in the government-held area, according to the author, took place on Feb 17, 2009. The military brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 2009.

Dr. Hoole also referred to an alleged SLFP attempt to exploit the JVP, in the run-up to the Dec 19, 1988 presidential election and the Feb 15, 1989 general election. One cannot dispute Dr. Hoole’s contention that the SLFP remained silent on the JVP killings, while condemning extrajudicial operations carried out by security forces to justify claim the SLFP sought political power with the help of the JVP.

The author examined the gradual rise of the LTTE and the registration of the NTJ, in 2015, as well as basic differences between Tamil terrorism and the operation undertaken by Zahran Hashim, meant to be the Supreme Leader of the Sri Lankan Muslim community. How he expected to achieve such a feat by leading nearly simultaneous coordinated suicide attacks is still a mystery. Perhaps that mystery can be solved if Pulasthini Rajendran, alias Sarah, the wife of Achchi Mohammdu Mohammadu Hasthun, the suicide bomber who blew himself up at St. Sebastian’s Church, at Katuwapitiya, close to Negombo town, could be found. She most likely fled to India, by sea, in September 2019. In spite of claims Sarah is alive, the government is yet to establish the truth. The claim by some that she was the RAW mole in the Zahran’s terror camp might be the reason why she found ready refuge in India after being part of such a vicious carnage here.

Dr. Hoole ascertained that unlike Zahran Hashim, Prabhakaran’s violent career hadn’t been so meticulously planned, but the latter’s project lasted for more than three decades. However, the main thrust of ‘Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State gets out of its Depth’ is to blame the heinous crime on what the author described as ‘Deep State’ comprising influential sections of political parties, civil administration and the military. The readiness of ‘Deep State’ to undertake operations at the expense of the rules of the land, regardless of political consequences, is certainly a frightening prospect. Perhaps, the P CoI should request Dr. Rajan Hoole to help in the examination of the Easter Sunday attacks.

Although, there hadn’t been a single NTJ-linked incident, following the Easter attacks, it would be of pivotal importance to verify Dr. Rajan Hoole’s assertions. Did Zahran Hashim decide to mark NTJ’s emergence with a suicide bombing campaign, in the wake of his abortive bid to get three parliamentary seats? Perhaps, Dr. Rajan Hoole is wrong. But, can P CoI disregard an opportunity to establish the truth.

There was reference to Pol Pot’s Cambodia in relation to the weakening of the judiciary, communal violence and annihilation of JVP-inspired insurgencies et al.

 

Did JRJ plan riots before Thinnaveli killings?

Dr. Rajan Hoole, in his latest work, repeated accusation levelled in ‘The Arrogance of Power: Myths, decadence and murder,’ that the July 1983 violence had been pre-planned and was unleashed immediately after the LTTE attack on an army patrol at Thinnaveli, Jaffna, on July 23, 1983. The first executive President had been accused of directing the power of the State and the UNP trade union setup (Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya) against the Tamil community. Reference was made to JRJ seeking US and Israeli assistance to establish a security apparatus.

Amusingly, Dr. Hoole asserted that Indian intervention took place in the wake of JRJ inviting/seeking US and Israeli security cooperation following the anti-Tamil riots, where the President deceitfully blamed the JVP.

Nothing can be further from the truth than the assertion that the Indian intervention took place in 1987. India forced President JRJ to accept deployment of the Indian Army, in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, in July 1987, several years after New Delhi created an environment conducive for military occupation in the guise of restoring peace. In fact, the Thinnaveli ambush couldn’t have taken place, if not for India or some other party providing the expertise and the technology to half a dozen terrorist groups, including the LTTE, over a period of time.

Indian strategists obviously triggered violence by providing the LTTE the required expertise to take it to the next level. The LTTE proved its capacity and capability to exploit Indian training when Prabhakaran took on the Indian Army, in Oct 1987. By the time New Delhi was forced to call off its Sri Lanka mission, at the behest of Premadasa, 1,300 Indian officers, and men, were killed, and over 2,500 wounded. Indian trainers can be really happy about their success in training foreign terrorists. Perhaps, the Indian misadventure can be blamed on ‘Deep State’ in India.

Sri Lanka should be grateful to the late one-time India’s High Commissioner in Colombo, J.N. Dixit, for setting the record straight in his memoirs, ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy’, published in 2004.

Dixit asserted that the decision to give active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants could be considered one of the two major foreign policy blunders made by the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But he strongly defended the Prime Minister’s action, while asserting Gandhi couldn’t have afforded the emergence of Tamil separatism, in India, by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils [Chapter 6:An Indocentric Practitioner of Realpolitik-Makers of India’s Foreign Policy].

However, Dixit failed to explain how the Prime Minister hoped to achieve her twin objectives by recruiting, training, arming and deploying thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil youth against an elected government. India cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for helping Sri Lankan terrorists establish contact with international terrorist groups. The Indian action caused irrevocable damage to Indo-Lanka relations. The Maldives, too, suffered due to Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Dixit totally ignored the Maldivian factor, though India was responsible for the coup attempt in the Maldives by way of providing training to those who mounted a sea-borne raid, in early Nov 1988. The raiders belonged to Indian-trained PLOTE, now represented in parliament.

Three years later, a Sea borne LTTE team executed a top secret plan that led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who ordered the deployment of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka.

 

Muslim extremism-military links

Dr. Hoole’s allegations, pertaining to the role played by Muslim youth in Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE, too, should be examined against the backdrop of allegations that renegade LTTE Commander, Karuna Amman, provided them weapons training. Can claims that Muslim youth, and those ex-LTTE cadres loyal to Karuna, fought in high-risk battles/took part in risky operations, during 2004-2007 period, be substantiated? No less a person than the wartime Army Commander, the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, while acknowledging the support received from the breakaway LTTE faction, however, denied any high-profile role being played by them in crushing the LTTE militarily. In the absence of proper official account of the involvement of Tamil groups, as well as the LTTE breakaway faction, in ‘operations’ against the LTTE, the public can be easily deceived. Ex-members of Tamil groups ‘worked’ for the military in various capacities. That cannot be denied. There is no harm in acknowledging their contribution, though such open admission might not be acceptable to some.

The P CoI can inquire into Dr. Hoole’s findings as part of its overall efforts to unravel the mystery. Can there be any rational explanation for lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran to publicly justifying the Easter Sunday massacre, in spite of at least 70 of those perished being totally innocent Tamils. So, any price is not too high for political expediency?

Dr. Hoole made no reference to Sumanthiran’s declaration though he commented on various developments and the situation. The author indicated that he didn’t desire to respond to The Island queries as regards Sumanthiran’s shocking statement at an event organized by the Sinhala weekly Annidda to celebrate its first anniversary at the BMICH. The President’s Counsel, and then TNA mouthpiece, alleged that the Easter Sunday carnage was a result of Sri Lanka’s failure to ensure certain basic values. The TNA heavyweight warned of dire consequences, unless Sri Lanka addressed the grievances of the minorities.

Sumanthiran said that no conversation took place today without reference to the Easter Sunday attacks. The lawmaker said that the public was asking what was going to happen because the country was stunned by what happened on that day. Sumanthiran said: All of us were so complacent we lived in a fool’s paradise imagining that the country was in peace in the absence of violence. As there had been no fighting for 10 years, people assumed the country had attained peace. “

Such an attack would have happened some day because the country had not laid the foundation for peaceful co-existence in this country, the TNA heavyweight said. “What we saw was a false edifice. And we were quite happy to carry on with that. Three decades of violent conflict that emanated from the North and East kept us on our toes and those days we actually saw the need to address those issues in a very deep and meaningful way”.

Sumanthiran alleged that once the war was brought to a conclusion, in May 2009, those responsible assumed there was no requirement to address those issues. They continued to pay lip service, the lawmaker alleged, adding: “Whenever issues were raised, they say they must resolve those issues. But deep down, they didn’t feel those issues had to be addressed.”

Referring to the Easter Sunday carnage, Sumanthiran said it was most unfortunate that something like that had to happen for the country to reflect and realize that it necessarily had to go back to certain basic values by which all could live together as a country. Sumanthiran warned: “Unless we agree on those basic values we are doomed.”

Declaring that there wouldn’t be any future for the country unless consensus could be reached on what those basic values were, Sumanthiran called equality a key value.

The Easter Sunday carnage remains a mystery, though pathetic failure on the part of law enforcement and military, as well as the political leadership, to thwart the NTJ operation, has been established beyond doubt.



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Midweek Review

How bankruptcy paves way for exploitation of Sri Lanka

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First row (from left) Chief Financial Officer, Ports and Shipping Ministry Sandhya Pushparani, Director J.R.U. de Silva, Ports and Shipping Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra, and Chairman, SLPA Dr. Prasantha Jayamanna. Director, SLPA Isuru Balpatabendi,and Chairman Jaya Container Terminal Attorney-at-Law Lakmal Ratnayake on the second row (pics courtesy Parliament)

Mismanagement of cash cow SLPA, where still it’s carry on as usual

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The United States is keen to further enhance and consolidate its role in Sri Lanka. The current turmoil that has been caused by waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement of the economy over the years as well as a spate of ill-advised decisions taken by the incumbent administration would facilitate the US strategy here. The global fuel and food crises caused by Russia rushing into a quagmire in Ukraine, essentially tailor made by the West, as happened to its predecessor the Soviet Union in Afghanistan earlier, has further debilitated the Sri Lankan and many other economies.

The failure on the part of the ruling SLPP and the Opposition to reach a consensus regarding a common action plan to face the daunting economic challenges, has assisted the U.S. and common ‘Quad’ approach towards Sri Lanka. The organization consists of the U.S. Japan, Australia and India, the last now more or less a reluctant bride.

The U.S. wants to strengthen Sri Lanka’s accounting and auditing sectors as part of its overall measures to improve the public sector here. Other ‘Quad’ members are pursuing combined as well as individual strategies pertaining to Sri Lanka. India is now in a position to dominate Sri Lanka in every aspect. The push to expand network of Lanka IOC service station is a case in point.

Speculation is rife of New Delhi seeking to further enhance its share of the oil market here in a situation of utter economic turmoil caused by unprecedented shortages.

The recent announcement that the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) would partner the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (CA Sri Lanka) and the Association of Public Finance Accountants of Sri Lanka (APFASL) to toughen Sri Lanka’s accounting and auditing sectors was amidst the worst ever economic turmoil. The US project, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, is meant to train approximately 600 public sector accountants and audit professionals and 1,200 officers on IT applications and other platforms that support strategic decision-making.

U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung declared at the launch of the project the partnership with CA Sri Lanka and APFASL would contribute towards greater accountability in the public sector. The Embassy, in a statement issued on June 15, 2022, quoted Chung as having said that as one of Sri Lanka’s longstanding development partners, the U.S vision was to help the country to emerge from crises stronger than before.

The statement also quoted Sanjaya Bandara, President of CA Sri Lanka, as having said that “Strong public financial management is very critical for Sri Lanka to achieve its long-term goals. President of APFASL V. Kanagasabapathy profusely thanked the USAID for the recognition of its efforts. The U.S. Embassy quoted Kanagasabapathy as having said that APFASL’ vision was to lead the public financial management to excellence while helping the sector to continue to play a pioneering role in Sri Lanka.

The countrywide U.S. project, according to the statement, is meant to provide a framework for the preparation and presentation of financial statements in compliance with international best practices for quality financial accounting and reporting. Having published the US statement, the writer asked the Embassy whether it would be possible to know the total cost and duration of the project and who would receive the funding?

The Island received the following response: “This initiative is a series of trainings supported by the United States. The training will be attended by public sector accountants and audit professionals to strengthen oversight and accountability capacity in Sri Lanka.”

The Island again asked the U.S. Embassy whether it would be possible to know the total cost of the project. We received the following second response: “This initiative includes 24 training programmes over the course of two years. Training programmes will take place in all 9 Sri Lankan provinces.”

After having thanked the U.S. Embassy, The Island once again repeated the question how much the project would cost the US? The Embassy didn’t respond to that query. That was nearly two weeks ago.

Question mark over 2016 US project

The latest project can be examined taking into consideration the high profile USAID funded three-year project launched in late Nov. 2016. Budgeted at USD 13,000 mn (Rs 1.92 bn), the project launch that took place in Parliament under the auspices of the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and USAID Mission Director Andrew Sisson, the gathering was told the Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) would improve strategic planning and communication within government and Parliament, enhance public outreach, develop more effective policy reform and implementation processes, and increase political participation of women and underrepresented groups in Parliament and at local levels.

Had that project achieved stated goals, Sri Lanka wouldn’t be in the current predicament. It would be pertinent to mention that the U.S. finalized the project over eight months after the then Central Bank Governor Singaporean national Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated the second far bigger Treasury bond scam. So were all those American efforts nothing more than a smokescreen for other agendas?

The CBSL perpetrated the first scam in February 2015, just few weeks after the US-backed campaign installed Maithripala Sirisena as the President, which they shamelessly crowed about publicly with none other than then Secretary of State John Kerry announcing it to the world. Mahendran carried out the second bond scam in late March 2016, half a year after the UNP won the general election.

The release of the unedited video footage of the examination of public enterprises undertaken by the parliamentary watchdog, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) under the leadership of Prof. Charitha Herath MP has exposed unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement of state enterprises. Unfortunately, the media and the civil society hadn’t taken advantage of the availability of such video footage released by the Parliament to educate the public. The press releases issued by the Parliament on proceedings at the COPE, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee of Public Finance) quite clearly helped the media, but video footage provided much clearer picture of the developments taking place.

The video footage of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) top management appearing before the COPE on June 22, 2022 is a case in point. The proceedings revealed not only a pathetic state in public sector finance but the failure on the part of the executive, legislature and the judiciary to address these issues at hand. Prof. Charitha Herath flanked by Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne and Secretary to the COPE Nishanthi Wickramasinghe examined the top SLPA management. Ports and Shipping Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra, flanked by Chairman, SLPA Dr. Prasantha Jayamanna, Director J.R.U. de Silva and Chief Financial Officer, Ports and Shipping Ministry Sandhya Pushparani. They were on the first row. Isuru Balpatabendi, Director sat in between Chairman, Jaya Container Terminal Attorney-at-Law Lakmal Ratnayake, and its Managing Director Upul Jayatissa. Director General Customs Maj. Gen. (ret.) G.V. Ravipriya also sat on the second row as a Director of the cash cow.

The COPE didn’t raise any queries from Isuru Balpatabendi nor did he offer any explanations. Balapatabendi’s presence among the eight-member Board of Directors should be examined taking into consideration of him being the Secretary of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). Having offered solutions to overcome the current political, economic and social crisis, the BASL cannot turn a blind eye to continuing waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement in the public sector. The SLPA can be a case study for the BASL.

The bottom line is that Sri Lanka is currently in such a desperate situation the US may find the environment conducive for a fresh attempt to force SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) on Sri Lanka. The US succeeded in securing Sri Lanka’s consent for ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in Aug 2017. Interestingly both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena who approved ACSA that gave US military access to Sri Lanka are now with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.

Importance of internal audit

At the onset of the COPE proceedings, Prof. Herath sought an explanation as regards the status of the internal audit. Obviously, Chief Internal Auditor, SLPA, Gayani Liyanage responses as well as that of the SLPA Chairman to specific questions didn’t appease Prof. Herath, who asserted that poor internal audit could be one of the reasons for the current issues. Prof. Herath asked the SLPA Chairman not to assign tasks to the 53-strong internal audit unit outside their legitimate duties.

Herath raised several contentious issues with COPE members Patali Champika Ranawaka (PCR), Madura Vithanage, Jagath Pushpakumara, D.V. Chanaka, Eran Wickramaratne and Premanath C. Dolawatta making valuable contributions. PCR was particularly spot on. The former JHU heavyweight dealt firmly and expertly with contentious issues while Vithanage targeted the Finance.

The following are the main points of contention:

(1) The loan obtained from China to build Hambantota port has been removed from all government financial statements. As at Dec 31, 2021, Sri Lanka owed China Rs 165.4 bn (USD 1.89 bn). USD 1.2 bn received from China for 99-year lease of the strategic port hadn’t been utilized to settle the loan. Instead, the USD 1.2 bn had been spent though the COPE was not told of the allocation of USD 1.2 bn. The Treasury now services the loan. Prof. Herath requested Ports and Shipping Ministry Secretary Ruwanchandra to submit a comprehensive report on this matter.

(2) The COPE sought an explanation from the SLPA why the state enterprise failed to market the Hambantota port the way the Chinese did after the finalization of the USD 1.2 bn agreement on the 99-year-lease on the commercially strategic port.

(3) Massive losses suffered as a result of procurement of a stock of oil at a cost of USD 24.3 mn (Rs 8,000 mn) that had to be sold for USD 3.5. COPE questioned Niroshan Siriwardena, Managing Director, Magampura port over the circumstances the outfit unwisely utilized the loan obtained from a bank on the advice of a consultant. COPE recommended the SLPA and the Secretary Ports and Shipping Ministry to take legal measures against the consultant. Proceedings revealed Magampura port operation is nothing but an absolute waste of public funds. The failure on the part of those responsible to take tangible action in this regard stressed.

(4) The inordinate and continuing delay in equipping the ECT (East Container Terminal) thereby giving advantage to the China owned CICT (Colombo International Container Terminal) and SAGT (South Asia Gateway Terminal). The SLPA owned 15 percent each of both CICT and SAGT. The negligence and the failures on the part of those responsible for transformation of the ECT seemed, in a way, deliberate. The parliamentary watchdog questioned the possibility of some interested party purposely undermining the operation. The fault seemed to be at the level of Cabinet of Ministers as well as successive SLPA administrations. The issue of taking delivery of gantry cranes before constructing specific positions they were to be installed shocking and disappointing. The COPE took notice of the fact that such equipment took one and half years to be built after an order was placed. It transpired that the cost of the civil works component was USD 198 mn (65% local currency) and equipment installation cost USD 282 mn. However, the installation has been delayed due to the failure on the part of the SLPA’s state bank to provide the required financing. The shocking revelation that the ECT hadn’t been expanded for five years after the completion of the 400 m stretch is evidence that successive governments failed public expectations. Lawmaker PCR emphasized the pivotal importance of revisiting the ECT project as the ground situation has changed. The MP reminded the SLPA and the COPE of the government’s admission of bankruptcy.

(5) Dispute over the SLPA’s stated profits. The SLPA challenged the Auditor General’s estimate that the state enterprise earned Rs 45 bn in 2021. The SLPA placed annual profits at Rs 62 bn. The COPE also made reference to the SAGT returning to the SLPA in 2019 and the government’s responsibility in that regard.

(6) The loss of revenue as well as foreign shippers’ faith in the SLPA as a result of the strike launched on June 10, 2020.

(7) Construction of Adani Group-led CWIT (Colombo West International Terminal). Comparison of the CICT and the SAGT workforce with that of the SLPA and the sharp difference in the number of the private sector workers and the SLPA. The SLPA seemed a law unto itself with the disclosure that the highly profitable venture operated to a certain extent outside the purview of the Management Services Department though the total number of employees remained well under the stipulated figure 9,900. The COPE stressed the need to ensure that the SLPA under any circumstances didn’t go beyond the stipulated number of workers. The current work force comprised 9,300.

(8) Rohitha Abeygunawardena who served as the Ports and Shipping Minister of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa till April 2020 raised the contentious issue of recruitment beyond the approved cadre. The lawmaker stressed the need to compare the private sector operations and that of the SLPA. The COPE was told that though the total approved cadre hadn’t been exceeded, recruitment has been carried out in an irregular and extremely shoddy manner.

(9) Big question mark over the transfer of just Rs. 600 mn out of 69,686 mn profits (2016-2021) period and the pathetic failure on the part of the Finance Ministry to address the issue.

(10) Absence of a cohesive and efficient system to charge CICT and SAGT for certain services rendered by the SLPA.

(11) Growing overtime Bill with 2021 recording a staggering Rs 5.8 bn in extra payments. Scandalous disclosure some workers earned overtime for 400 hours and unskilled work assistants numbering 1,500 continued to be a heavy burden.

(12) Controversy over so-called collective agreement that ensured salary increase every three years. The COPE stressed the need to have guidelines formulated by the Management Services Department to prevent exploitation of collective agreements as the process threatened financial stability.

The SLPA, in spite of being a profit making state enterprise, remains in an utterly chaotic situation. The SLPA hasn’t been a burden on the taxpayer though the national carrier SriLankan, the CEB and the CPC bled the country dry. But casual examination indicates regardless of the financial status a section of public servants continued to enjoy perks and privileges while the entire country suffered as a result of local and some external factors beyond Sri Lanka’s control.

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Midweek Review

The Bonhomie of the Ages

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By Lynn Ockersz

Ignoring aching hearts and limbs,

And unmindful of days passing,

The men slumped in their Tuk-Tuks,

Continue their lonesome vigil,

In queues snaking into the distance,

For those never-coming cans of fuel,

Promised by smooth-talking Sires,

That could help fetch a few more coppers,

And delay the onset of starvation,

But thanks to the age-old wisdom,

Handed to them by their humble elders,

The only inheritors of the pristine Dhamma,

The men are not bereft of compassion,

So much so, they share the frugal meals,

The Sweat of their Brows has yielded.

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Midweek Review

Economic meltdown

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S.R. Attygalle (extreme left) before COPFon June 08,2022. Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Dr.PBJ and Prof. W.D. Lakshman look on

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.

Culprits identified

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.

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