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Midweek Review

Govt. erupts over US energy deal, crisis threatens SLPP’s near 2/3 majority

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Rebel SLPP lawmakers and Ven. Athureliye Rathana, MP of 'Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya' at last Friday's meet at Solis hall

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The top government leadership last Thursday night (28) made a last ditch attempt to thwart an influential section of ruling party lawmakers from going ahead with the planned public meeting at the Solis Hall, Pitakotte, against the controversial energy deal with the US-based New Fortress Energy.

The meeting, held at the main hall of Temple Trees, with the participation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena, failed to convince the dissident members. In spite of the Prime Minister’s Office declaring that a consensus had been reached on how to address the issue at hand, the rebel group went ahead with their meeting.

Of the 145-member Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentary group, the following members, Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa (leader, National Freedom Front/Colombo district), Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila (leader, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya/Colombo district), Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara (leader, Democratic Left Front/Ratnapura district), SLFP General Secretary and State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera (Kurunegala district), LSSP General Secretary Prof. Tissa Vitharana (National List), National Congress leader A.L.M. Athaulla (Digamadulla district), United People’s Party leader Tiran Alles (National List) and Yuthukama civil society group leader Gevindu Cumaratunga (National List) participated at the launch of a public protest campaign. All of them had been present at last Thursday’s Temple Trees over three-hour long inconclusive discussion that actually appeared to have aggravated the situation.

In addition to them, Ven. Athureliye Rathana thera, MP, represented the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya at Friday’s meet at Pitakotte. National List lawmaker Ven. Rathana, facing possible expulsion from parliament, over a dispute with his party, in spite of frequent participation at SLPP events, is not a member of the government parliamentary group. Interestingly, Ven. Galagodatte Gnanasara, recently named as the head of the Presidential Task Force (PTF), assigned to make recommendations in respect of the ‘One Country, One Law’ project, is widely believed to be a frontrunner for the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya National List slot. The Ven thera’s new status has deeply disappointed the Muslim community, with Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, declaring his intention to quit the justice portfolio.

In the absence of the sole Communist Party member in Parliament, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, their General Secretary Geeganage Weerasinghe joined the head table. When the writer sought a clarification from lawmaker Weerasinghe as regards his absence at the vital meeting, he assured his commitment to the protest campaign. “I had to attend a previously organised event,” the Matara District lawmaker said, adding that he represented the party at Thursday’s meeting at Temple Trees.

At Friday’s meeting, the rebel group declared that it wouldn’t accept the US energy deal, under any circumstances. The group, in no uncertain terms, alleged the brazen manipulation of Cabinet procedures, in respect of the energy deal with the US Company. One-time JVP firebrand Weerawansa, on behalf of the group, emphasised that their effort was to save the government and not in any way promote the bankrupt Opposition. The dissident group alleged that the agreement would create, what Minister Gammanpila called, a permanent US monopoly in the supply of gas to Sri Lanka. The MPs vowed that they wouldn’t give up their opposition to the deal for perks and privileges.

While former President Maithripala Sirisena, who attended the meeting at Temple Trees, was represented by Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader and Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena, and Ceylon Workers representative Jeevan Thondaman, MP, weren’t present, though they attended the Temple Trees meet.

SLPP remains in control

In spite of the latest crisis, triggered by the rebel group that included the SLFP, the second largest party in the ruling coalition (14 members), the dominant power SLPP retains the most powerful group in Parliament. The SLPP group, in the government parliamentary grouping, comprises 117 members and strongly remains committed to the incumbent government at least for now.

The only exception is Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakha, PC, who broke ranks with the SLPP over the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, in May, 2021. However, the one-time Justice Minister refrained from voting against the Bill, though he appeared for the Chief Incumbent of the Narahenpita Abhayaramaya, the Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda, in the fundamental rights case against the Bill. Minister Weerawansa’s NFF consists of six members and is the third largest group therein. Although Dr. Rajapaksha didn’t join Friday’s meet, he is very likely to support the cause. Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda delivered anusasana at the commencement of the event.

Did the top SLPP leadership anticipate the SLFP, NFF, PHU, and several other political parties taking a common stand on the US energy deal? The crisis couldn’t have erupted at a worse time for the government, struggling on several fronts, ahead of the presentation of Budget 2022, on Nov 12. The government shouldn’t take the developing situation lightly. Over two dozen lawmakers, many of whom zealously rallied the nation behind Rajapaksas after they suffered the shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election, taking a contrary view to that of the SLPP, as regards the US energy deal, should be a matter of serious concern. In other words, the government’s near two-thirds majority is at risk. Unless the SLPP reaches some sort of consensus with its constituents as soon as possible, the overall government strategy can be undermined. It would be a grave blunder, on the government’s part, to go ahead with its plans, regardless of the growing opposition, within the parliamentary group.

Many an eyebrow was also raised over the presence of SLPP lawmaker Attorney-at-Law Premanath Dolawatte with the rebels, as he once called himself a lawyer for the Rajapaksas.

The public is quite likely to be concerned about the rebel group’s declaration that the US energy deal would betray the country’s future. Would this crisis undermine the much-touted government promise to enact a brand new Constitution? The SLPP’s predicament, due to a section taking a public stand on a contentious foreign and economic policy matter, should be examined against the backdrop of the Jathika Sanvidhana Ekamuthuwa (JSE) seeking Court of Appeal intervention as regards the US energy deal. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, who threw his weight behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during a high profile campaign for the one-time Defence Secretary to secure the SLPP candidature, for the 2019 presidential election, spearheaded the JSE petition against the highly questionable energy deal.

Another one time major SLPP backer Ven. Elle Gunawansa, joining hands with Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, to move the Supreme Court against the US deal, should be a matter for concern to the government.

Minister Weerawansa questions brazen manipulation of cabinet procedure in controversial New Fortress deal.

SLPP constituent taking neutral stand

However, the MEP refrained from taking a public stand either way on the New Fortress deal. The rebels gathered at the Solis Hall, whereas the Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena and his son, Yadamini, of the SLPP National List, took that time to pay courtesy calls on the Chief Prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters. MEP leader Gunawardena, who served as the first Foreign Minister under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in August this year, was made to switch portfolios with Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the SLPP.

The MEP parliamentary group consists of Dinesh Gunawardena and Yadamini. The MEP has largely refrained from being part of the group that initially took up a public stand against the move to go ahead with the previous government’s plan to involve India and Japan in the East Container Terminal (ECT). Subsequently, the group defended member Gammanpila when the SLPP demanded his immediate resignation over the increase in fuel prices in the second week of June this year. As anticipated, political eruption over the US energy deal is likely to be far worse than previous disputes.

The SLPP onslaught, directed at Minister Weerawansa, over his call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to play an active role in the party, cannot be ignored. Weerawansa recently reiterated his call for President Rajapaksa’s direct involvement in the political decision-making process. Weerawansa’s stand has caused quite a serious issue in the SLPP and the latest developments are likely to cause further deterioration.

Obviously, whatever the consequences, both sides are not in a position to take a step backward. Outgoing US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, who intervened on behalf of New Fortress Energy, and swiftly brought about the agreement, paid a courtesy call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the Presidential Secretariat, the day before the rebel onslaught. Can the agreement be rescinded? Is there a remedy for the political crisis, caused by the Cabinet decision that had been quite interestingly titled ‘Investments into the West Coast Power (Private) Limited (WCPL) to reduce the Cost of Electricity Generation?’ Who actually prepared that Cabinet memorandum, dated Sept.06, 2021, that had been adopted through fraudulent means? And, most importantly, what can the rebels do in case the government went ahead with the Project irrespective of consequences? Would Sri Lanka be compelled to honour the agreement, whatever the fallout? The answer might be in the hands of the highest courts in the land as several petitions challenging the deals are already pending before them.

The rebels’ claim that the Cabinet approval hadn’t been secured properly should be examined, taking into consideration the Cabinet memorandum that revealed Secretary to the Treasury S.R. Attygalle entered into the agreement on July 07, 2021, in line with Cabinet approval, granted on July 05, 2021. In terms of the framework agreement with New Fortress Energy, listed in the NASDAQ: (i), the US company will receive 40 percent of WCPL shares held by the Treasury for USD 250 mn (ii) execution of the terminal project (floating storage regasification unit, mooring system and the pipelines) and (iii) supply of liquefied natural gas.

At the centre of this developing drama no doubt is the Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, a dual Sri Lankan/US citizen being the its prime mover. The SLPP that made quite a uproar over Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran helping to stage broad daylight robberies of the central Bank twice during the previous yahapalana regime as the Governor of the Central Bank, has nothing to shield it if the courts uphold the challenges to the more or less secret deals.

Political, financial imbroglio

A catastrophic political dispute, over the energy deal, with the US, has placed the government in an extremely difficult position, at a time a spate of other issues continue to undermine the ruling coalition. The whole gamut of issues should be examined against the backdrop of the much-deteriorated financial situation. The government seems satisfied with the Central Bank’s response to Moody’s Investors Service (Moody’s) further downgrading Sri Lanka. Expressing ‘strong displeasure’ on the recent assessment, the Central Bank declared: “Once again, Moody’s irrational rating action with regard to Sri Lanka comes a few days before a key event, namely the announcement of the Government Budget for 2022, and this apparent hastiness and the view expressed during discussions with Moody’s analysts that the nature of the Budget is irrelevant to the financing plans of the Government clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding of such analysts.”

The US deal has dealt a severe blow at a time the government is struggling to cope up with growing farmers’ protests against the shortage of fertiliser and agro-chemicals, unprecedented dispute with China over the refusal to accept a consignment of alleged contaminated carbonic fertiliser and remit payment that led to the blacklisting of the People’s Bank, controversy over the mode of payment for liquid nano-nitrogen fertiliser, ordered from India, continuing protests against the inordinate delay in implementing the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) recommendations, in respect of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, failure to reverse accountability process, initiated by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, Indian push for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, enacted in Nov 1987, in line with the Indo- Lanka Accord, of July 29,1987, Pandora Papers revelations pertaining to former PA and UPFA lawmaker Nirupala Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan, shocking corruption charges in respect of the payment of over Rs 4 bn to a Chinese company given the Gin-Nilwala project during the previous Rajapaksa administration, dismissal of several high profile cases filed by the Attorney General and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), shortage of essential food items, including rice etc.

There is no point in denying the fact that the public stand taken by the SLPP rebel group, as regards the US energy deal, has severely undermined the government. In fact, the allegations, pertaining to the manipulation of the Cabinet process, should attract the attention of Parliament. Parliamentary watchdog committees, COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPF (Committee on Public Finance) and COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) should pay attention to the rebel accusations.

Now that three Cabinet ministers have publicly challenged the Cabinet process, they owe the country an explanation as to how the group would proceed, whatever the outcome of the judicial response be to cases filed in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. The cash-strapped government is experiencing a very fluid political situation.

Strategic political miscalculation

Perhaps, it would be pertinent to recall the political developments, in July 2014, that set the stage for the 2015 political change. The crisis began after lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa invited the convener of the Movement for Just Society, the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, to discuss far reaching constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the executive presidency.

At the conclusion of the talks, Ven. Sobitha, spearheading a high profile campaign against the executive presidency and Weerawansa, agreed to continue their discussion. The media gave wide coverage to the unexpected. Weerawansa flexed his muscles, ahead of the Uva Provincial Council poll. Weerawansa, the then Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities Minister, warned the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government to meet his demands or face the consequences. Weerawansa threatened to throw his weight behind Ven. Sobitha’s campaign, unless the SLFP accepted his demands, meant to bring in far reaching constitutional reforms. Among Weerawansa’s other demands had been an immediate halt to, what was called, the South African initiative meant to help the post-war national reconciliation process and the cancellation of the foreign investigative mechanism to inquire into accountability issues. The SLFP simply ignored Weerawansa’s demands.

Having caused a debilitating setback, Weerawansa threatened to go it alone, at the last Uva Provincial Council poll, in September, 2014. At the eleventh hour, Weerawansa’s NFF contested Badulla district, on its own, while contesting the Moneragala district on the UPFA ticket.

Subsequently, Weerawansa distanced himself from Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, while the like-minded Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) teamed up with Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha. Their alliance quickly gained ground, in spite of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s efforts to reach an understanding with the influential monk, in the run-up to the January 8, 2015, presidential poll. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha and Ven. Athureliye Rathana thera, on behalf of the JHU, spearheaded a campaign that undermined the SLFP-led administration.

The Maithripala Sirisena seeing a chance to be king exploited Weerawansa’s attacks on the SLFP, and the Rajapaksa family, in the run-up to the 2015 presidential poll. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha played a critical role in the formation of an alliance that brought an end to President Rajapaksa’s rule. Weerawansa, as well as JHU stalwart Udaya Gammanpila, who switched his allegiance to the former President, accused those Buddhist monks, backing Maithripala Sirisena, of being involved in a foreign-led conspiracy to divide the country, on ethnic lines. Obviously, the Sinhala electorate didn’t take them seriously. The country overwhelmingly voted Maithripala Sirisena into power.

The then General Secretary of the Communist Party and senior minister, D.E.W. Gunasekera strongly opposed an early presidential poll. Having realised the President was hell-bent on securing a third term, two years before the scheduled date, Gunasekera, along with his colleagues, senior Minister Prof. Tissa Vitharana, and Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, urged Rajapaksa not to call an early poll.

Unfortunately, the former President had been convinced of a comfortable victory, regardless of poor showing at the Uva Provincial Council poll. The President’s astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, predicted an easy win for the twice President , while several other astrologers echoed Abeygunawardena, who held two lucrative posts as Director of Independent Television Network (ITN) and the National Savings Bank (NSB). The astrologers cheated the SLFP leadership in style. Both state-run and private television stations, as well as the print media, gave them time and space to hoodwink the masses. They did it in style.

DEW Gunasekera, Nanayakkara and Vitharana almost in unison briefed the former President regarding the danger in having an early election. Regrettably, their plea, made in early October, 2014, was ignored.

Constituents of the SLPP should initiate a genuine discussion among them without further delay or be prepared to face the consequences as in 2015.



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Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship with JVP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

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

External intervention

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

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

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

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

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

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

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

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

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

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

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

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

*****

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

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

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

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

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

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

Face Cover

as a Lure

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

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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