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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

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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

By Shamindra Ferdinando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prez roadmap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

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

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

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

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

Populism

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

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

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

Polarisation

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

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

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

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

Post-truth

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

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

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

How to protect our freedom

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

The battle against the Big Lie

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

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

Battle against criminal regimes

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

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

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

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

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

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

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

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

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

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

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

Battle against illiberal narratives

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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