Govt. responds in kind to Thuyacontha’s salvo
At the behest of the then late President Ranasinghe Premadasa way back in 1989, the then Election Commission recognised the PFLT (People’s Front of Liberation Tigers) as the political arm of the LTTE. The late Gopalswamy Mahendraraja aka Mahattaya, the LTTE Deputy Leader was its founding leader (He was executed in Dec 1994 on the orders of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran after being in captivity for 16 months). The then government was ready to give the LTTE an opportunity to contest elections.
By then all other Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorist groups had entered mainstream politics. Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda (EPDP leader) is just one of them.
The UNP brought him to politics. In fact, the UNP brought several other ex-Tamil terrorist groups, including the PLOTE into mainstream politics. The PLOTE received international attention when it mounted an abortive bid to seize control of the Maldives in early Nov 1988. It too, is represented in parliament today.
The parliament during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure had no qualms in accepting LTTE battlefield commander Karuna Amman responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers. Karuna also received a top position in the SLFP while his associate another ex-terrorist Pilleyan serves as a Deputy Minister now.
The JVP itself was allowed to re-enter mainstream politics regardless of its murderous past. Therefore, why consider a retired AVM a threat to national security?
The issue at hand is that those who governed this country in the past three decades had caused so much destruction, they fear the emergence of a political power other than them.
That is the crux of the matter.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
On behalf of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, State Defence Minister Premitha Bandara Tennakoon last Friday (24) reacted to accusations over the blacklisting of retired Air Vice Marshal Sampath Thuyacontha.
The Matale District MP declared that Air Force headquarters had no other option but to resort to legitimate counter measures against the threat posed by AVM Thuyacontha.
The officer concerned also served as Sri Lanka’s Defence Attaché in Islamabad after the successful conclusion of the war in May 2009, retired in Nov 2021. His retirement took place a few months before public protests erupted against the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over disruption of essential supplies consequent to an unprecedented debt and balance of payment crises.
The former Lieutenant Col. Rajapaksa was caught up in the crisis that had been caused by mismanagement of the economy over the years and especially during the tenures of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (1994-2005) and she left office leaving a negative growth rate, Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015) and Maithripala Sirisena (2015-2019). However, during the Yahapalana administration the finances were under the UNP control.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa contributed to the calamity by slashing taxes, including VAT with the idea of encouraging growth, but at the worst possible time in the aftermath of debilitating suicide attacks by terrorists on Easter Sunday 2019 and the onset of the COVID pandemic, stubbornly failing to seek IMF help with clear signs of economic trouble and ruination of the agriculture sector by his hasty decision to ban the import of chemical fertiliser and other agro chemicals. The 2019 Easter Sunday carnage debilitated the vital tourism sector and covid-19 pandemic caused further deterioration. However, to be fair to President Mahinda Rajapaksa he achieved much during his tenure. In addition to winning the 30-year war, which many pundits said was something our security forces were incapable of achieving, he successfully embarked on a series of massive development projects with Chinese assistance, including building expressways as never before, an international airport, etc., while fighting the costly war to a finish.
Tennakoon, the youngest ever to serve as the State Defence Minister found fault with the SLAF veteran for causing dissent among the SLAF. The State Defence Minister is an SLPP Matale District MP and one-time minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon’s son.
Premitha Bandara Tennakoon received ministerial appointment from President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Sept. 08, 2022.
The bone of contention is a fiery speech the AVM delivered on March 05 in Gampaha. Referring to the debarred SLAF officer’s previous speeches, the State Minister declared the Gampaha speech was not acceptable at all.
The State Minister discussed how the retired officer’s actions were in line with the overall JVP-led Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) political strategy that could cause further turmoil in the country by inciting hatred on the government.
MP Tennakoon dealt with the issue at hand against the backdrop of the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa following unprecedented mob violence, which were painted as peaceful protests by interested parties.
The State Minister in particular pointed to the culpability on the part of the JVP in inciting the public against the then government and security forces. The State Minister was responding to JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who raised the issue at hand. Let me leave the JVPer’s rhetoric and just concentrate on the primary issue. The Colombo District MP essentially asked whether ex-military personnel could engage in politics only if they aligned with the incumbent government or those acceptable to the regime.
The JVPer also questioned restrictions imposed on Maj. Gen. Aruna Jayasekera, who led the group of ex-military personnel affiliated to the JJB.
Lawmaker Dissanayake challenged the government over the degrading treatment of a retired senior officer while comparing the latest development with the high profile role played by Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election and war winning Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s role.
Obviously that is the bone of contention. A decorated pilot, who commanded the celebrated No 09 Attack Helicopter Squadron, Thuyacontha is the senior most retired SLAF officer to declare his support directly to the JVP. The move may have caused alarm among the top government leadership as well as the intelligence community in light of the fact the JVP had been responsible for two abortive violent rebellions in the country and both of which had to be crushed by the elected governments then in power after much bloodletting. That is an undeniable fact. Directorate of Provost, SLAF, in a confidential missive, dated March 10, 2023, addressed to all stations blacklisted four personnel (three retired, including Thuyacontha and one discharged). In addition to the renowned pilot, the other blacklisted were Warrant Officer R.H.A. Indika, Sergeant H.A.U.A. Premaratne and Corporal W.A.P.C. Perera. The JJB has vowed to move the Supreme Court against the government move.
Unfortunately, the issue erupted during a UN inspection of the Sri Lankan Army’s capacity to enhance its deployment in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa.
Restrictions imposed on war winning Sri Lankan military leadership by the UN as well as individual countries such as travel ban on General Shavendra Silva should be examined alongside the other contentious matters. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, is on record as having said (in response to a query raised by the writer at a Foreign Ministry media briefing) that entire fighting divisions had been targeted by the international community, meaning the Western camp led by the US.
Nalin Siriwardhana formerly of the Navy in a Facebook post strongly backed measures taken against AVM Thuyacontha on the basis that those serving and retired officers engaged in politics for their personal benefit.
Australia-based dual citizen Siriwardhana without hesitation declared that the likes of AVM Thuyacontha should engage in politics without wasting time in a bid to deceive the public. One-time Sri Lanka Telecom employee emphasised that the officer concerned couldn’t have been unaware that such disciplinary measures were routine in the case of those retirees who engage in politics.
Siriwardhana stressed that as there couldn’t be any exceptions, the AVM shouldn’t expect special treatment under any circumstances. The Commander-in-Chief, in this instance, President Ranil Wickremesinghe who also holds defence portfolio enjoys the right to appropriately respond to such unacceptable conduct on the part of retired officers and men.
Retired Lieutenant Siriwardhana figured in a previous Midweek piece (A forgotten episode: Black Sea Tiger raid on Colombo port, published on Oct 12, 2022 /https://island.lk/a-forgotten-episode-black-sea-tiger-raid-on-colombo-port/).
The former Navy officer’s stand should be carefully examined taking into consideration the duplicitous response of successive governments to military men dabbling in politics. That was the issue raised by the JVP leader in Parliament. Before that let me briefly discuss Thuyacontha’s contribution to defeat the LTTE.
A daring pilot
The Aerial Tribute: The Role of Air Power in Defeating Terrorism in Sri Lanka authored by Dr. Nirosha Mendis at the request of Air Marshal H.D. Abeywickrama
(Feb 27, 2011-Feb 27, 2014). Without doubt, Dr. Mendis’s work is the only available complete account of SLAF’s role in the war with excellent analysis of the role played by different formations and units. The author skillfully dealt with the No 09 Attack Helicopter Squadron and the overall impact the daring unit had on the war.
One of the most thought-provoking brief episodes mentioned therein is serious battle damage suffered by Mi-24 helicopter gunship piloted by the then Wing Commander Thuyacontha, the daring Commanding Officer of the No 09 Squadron, headquartered at Hingurakgoda. This was during Close-Air-Support (CAS) mission over the LTTE stronghold of Mulliyaweli, Mullaitivu during the final phase of the offensive action.
Thuyacontha’s fighting machine was hit 32 times during that battle, one of the fiercest during the Eelam War IV. On the paqrticular day the daredevil CO of the No 09 Squadron flew on the mission from China Bay, Trincomalee and found it difficult to return to the base due to heavy battle damage. Thuyacontha told The Island: “We were short of rockets, therefore Mi-24s couldn’t engage targets from somewhat a safe distance but move closer to engage targets with guns.”
Having received the command of the elite Squadron in 2005, the year before the Eelam War IV erupted with simultaneous LTTE offensives in the North and East, Thuyacontha relinquished command in Sept 2009.
Ex-military role in GR’s strategy
During yahapalana dispensation (2015-2019), ex-military officers openly campaigned for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Initially, the wartime Defence Secretary didn’t have the anticipated support from some sections of his own family as well as the SLPP but gradually he turned around the situation. Retired officers played a significant role in the overall campaign, but to varying degrees. The writer wouldn’t under any circumstances deny backing the high profile campaign from the very beginning. The yahapalana government never tried to dissuade ex-military personnel from campaigning for Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri and Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema went a step further by launching a book titled ‘Conflict and Stability’ in support of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The book launch organised by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brainchild Viyathmaga was held in Nov 2016. One-time Northern Province Governor Chandrasiri received the appointment as Chairman, Airport and Aviation Services on Dec 18, 2019. Among those present on that occasion were Vice Admiral Mohan
Wijewickrema, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke and Anura Fernando (Later received appointment as Sri Lanka’s Counsel General in Shanghai, China).
Wijewickrema assumed duties on June 12, 2020 as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Pakistan whereas Roshan Gunatileke received appointment as Governor, Western Province on March 24, 2020.
Retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who made a valuable contribution to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign, received appointment as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence on Nov 19, 2019.
The author of Road to Nanthikadal spearheaded the propaganda campaign with appearances on television as well. Gunaratne, the former General Officer
Commanding (GoC) of 53 Division was re-appointed Defence Secretary by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Former Army Chief of Staff Nanda Mallawarachchi, too, received an appointment from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa while ex-Army Chief Daya Ratnayake was appointed Chairman Ports Authority (SLPA). Post-war commander Ratnayake was unceremoniously removed from that post in June 2021.
Former Navy Commander Admiral Jayanath Colombage received appointment as Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August 2020. Currently, the post-war Navy Commander is Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Indonesia, while retired SLAF Commander Air Marshal Sumangala Dias serves as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Malaysia.
It wouldn’t be realistic to list all ex-military personnel who received government appointments both here and overseas.
After Sri Lanka’s triumph over LTTE terrorism in May 2009, the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government opened the doors for more-ex military personnel to enter politics. The government brazenly exploited the situation to its advantage. The UNP-led Opposition, too, likewise, brought in the then General Fonseka into the political ring in late 2009. Fonseka received the backing of a coalition that included both the JVP and the TNA, despite it having recognised the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people way back in 2001 and then having blamed Fonseka and his war winning army of committing war crimes after the crushing defeat of the Tigers.
The UNP led move received the blessings of the US. Thanks to revelations made by the Wikileaks, the direct US involvement in the project that brought forward Fonseka as the common presidential candidate cannot be denied.
The US intervened on behalf of Fonseka after he was incarcerated. Sustained US pressure contributed to Fonseka’s subsequent release but he couldn’t come to terms with the UNP subsequently though he received their support at the 2010 presidential poll.
Washington well-known for playing Dr. Jakyl and Mr. Hyde roles world over to maintain its world hegemony, it would be interesting to know the US reaction to the Thuyacontha affair, particularly against the backdrop of perceived US readiness to work with the JVP too. US Ambassador Julie Chung paid a rather unusual courtesy call on JVP leader Dissanayake, MP, and Vijitha Herath, MP, at their Bataramulla headquarters on May 14, 2022. That visit was made at a time when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was struggling to regain control of the rapidly deteriorating situation. The US Ambassador had no qualms in meeting JVP leaders in spite of accusations the party influenced the campaign directed against the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the military and the ruling party.
State Defence Minister Tennakoon didn’t mince his words when he questioned the JVP’s role in May’s gory violence in the aftermath of a SLPP goon attack launched from Temple Trees on protesters outside it and at Galle Face.
Recent declaration made by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando in Badulla that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spearheaded the campaign at the Presidential Secretariat (old parliament), too, cannot be ignored.
President Wickremesinghe has lambasted Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) for being responsible for violence, a charge vehemently denied by the breakaway JVP faction.
Wickremesinghe went to the extent of naming FSP General Secretary Kumar Gunaratnam as the mastermind in the violent political project.
JJB makes headway
AVM Thuyacontha’s unexpected move received quite a significant public response. The government and the main Opposition still appeared to have failed to comprehend why the public appears to be increasingly appreciative of the JJB. Actually, the JJB with just three MPs including one National List MP in the current parliament is politically insignificant in terms of parliamentary strength. Having ruined the economy over the past several decades leading to declaration of bankruptcy early last year, the major political parties should accept responsibility for creating a perfect environment for the JJB. The JVP/JJB had never been attractive to the military or ex-military though perhaps just an insignificant number of officers and men may have sympathized with their cause.
AVM Thuyacontha or Maj. Gen. Jayasekera wouldn’t probably at least considered voting for the JVP/JJB if not for the ruination caused by major political parties.
Instead of taking remedial measures, at least now, the government has decided to confront the perceived threat from the growing opposition.
The composition of parliament possibly doesn’t reflect the present public sentiment at all. The unceremonious exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in last July may have proved that the electorate no longer respected the two mandates received by the ruling SLPP at Nov 2019 presidential and August 2020 parliamentary elections. But the question is whether the entire ouster was instigated and executed from scratch by the West with the help of local quislings as has happened in so many other countries where they have successfully instigated regime changes or attempted them from Chile to Bolivia, Iran, Libya, Syria etc, etc. And they have the audacity to threaten regime change even in Russia!
In spite of incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe being legitimately elected by parliament in last July, discontent among the electorate is growing as claimed by the opposition. A major propaganda effort to depict the finalisation of the USD 2.9 bn and the immediate availability of USD 333 mn as a massive victory for the government went awry when State Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya admitted that within 24 hours USD 121 mn was paid to India. The government seems to be trapped in its own propaganda and being silly.
Those who are rattled by the JVP/JJB drawing support of the ex-military should pressure the government and the main Opposition to address issues at hand. The only way to thwart the JVP/JJB is to take tangible measures to drastically curb waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement. If they bother to peruse proceedings of
Parliamentary watchdog committees, COPE, COPA and COPF, action could be initiated to reverse the situation. Unfortunately, the government and the main Opposition seemed to be driving more people to the JVP/JJB by giving corruption a free hand.
Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act jolts Opposition
New laws contemplated by the government appears to have caused much concern among Opposition political parties for obvious reasons. The constitutionality of the proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill is expected to be challenged in the Supreme Court. The whole process of law making raised quite a stir in the wake of the recent shocking Supreme Court determination that one-third of the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka’ is contrary to the Constitution and several dozens of amendments are required to pave the way for its passage with a simple majority. It also shows that our judges have a backbone and are not easily swayed by the incumbent all-powerful Executive President, who is only there on a ‘contract’ to complete the remainder of the previous President Gatabaya Rajapaksa’s term after he was ousted by violent protests instigated from outside.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, continuing to struggle on the economic front, is keen to consolidate its position, both in and outside Parliament.
The media has emerged as the major challenge to the government due to the failure on the part of the Opposition to adopt a cohesive political strategy.
Both the government and the Opposition seem to be in disarray and unable to come to terms with the continuing political-economic and social crisis, fuelled by external forces.
The move to introduce a controversial Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act should be examined, taking into consideration current political and economic challenges faced by the incumbent administration.
Did the Justice Ministry or the Media Ministry, at least, informally consult President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Minister of Defence, in addition to being the Finance Minister and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, on the proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act, at least after being so thoroughly educated by the highest court in the land on the ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka’ Bill? A section of the Opposition believes the President hadn’t been aware of this move.
However, former External Affairs Minister and SLPP rebel Prof. G. L. Peiris and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) spokesman Pubudu Jayagoda didn’t mince their words when they alleged the whole exercise was for the benefit of President Wickremesinghe. Prof. Peiris has alleged that the President intended to rein in media in line with his overall political strategy to consolidate his power whereas Jayagoda explained how the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government launched the project soon after the UNP leader’s election as the President in late July last year. Jayagoda insists that the Cabinet has cleared the Bill.
The Broadcasting Regulatory Commission and the committee tasked to investigate complaints against television and radio stations would be dominated by the President’s men to such an extent, it couldn’t be expected to discharge its responsibilities in an impartial manner. Jayagoda pointed out how two persons of the Regulatory Commission could take far reaching decisions regardless of the consequences. In case any member failed to carry out directives received from the President, he or she faced the axe.
Jaygoda questioned the absurdity in appointing the commission for a period of five years in line with the five-year presidential term. Both Prof. Peiris and Jayagoda emphasized the grave danger posed by the President exercising power over the media regardless of some sections of the media pursuing politically motivated agendas.
Against the backdrop of fierce criticism of the proposed law, Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, on 02 June came up with the face saving reply that no final decision has been taken in this regard.
The former President of the Bar Association said that the issue at hand was still under discussion and a set of proposals, pertaining to the proposed Broadcast Authority Act, were in the public domain. The Minister insisted that the relevant bill is yet to be prepared.
The Colombo District lawmaker said so in his capacity as the Chairman of a Cabinet sub-committee tasked with preparing a regulatory mechanism in this regard. The Cabinet-sub-committee consists of Media Minister Bandula Gunawardena, Labour Minister Manusha Nanayakkara, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella and Ports and Shipping Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.
The media raised the proposed Bill with Minister Rajapakse at a briefing in the Justice Ministry especially called to address issues pertaining to the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) established in 2016 during the Yahapalana administration.
Dr. Rajapakse has assured that media organizations would be given an opportunity to make representations in this regard.
The latest controversy over the proposed Bill with a set of proposals outlining its possible content already in the public domain, should be examined against the backdrop of strong opposition to the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill and Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ In addition to those disputed and much discussed Bills, a major debate is likely over the proposed Budget Office. The text of the Bill meant to specify the powers, duties and functions of the Budget Office is now in the public domain. The government certainly owed an explanation as to why it cannot seek a consensus with the Opposition at the relevant consultative committee/sectoral oversight committee in this regard. The country is in such a desperate situation, it cannot under any circumstances afford further political turmoil.
Unfortunately, the government appears to be hell-bent on bulldozing its way through the legislature, regardless of whatever consequences.
The recent sacking of Janaka Ratnayake, the outspoken and highly ambitious Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission underscored the government strategy.
Ratnayake is on record as having said before a parliamentary watchdog committee that he received the influential position for serving the Rajapaksas. But, he was removed by the Rajapaksas’ SLPP at the behest of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Altogether 123 lawmakers voted for the motion to remove Ratnayake whereas 77 opposed. Government member Ali Sabri Raheem voted against the motion to protest against the failure on the part of President Wickremesinghe and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena to intervene on his behalf after he was caught with undeclared gold and smartphones worth Rs 74 mn and Rs 4.2 mn, respectively, while coming through the VIP/VVIP channel at the BIA, where such people are normally whisked through without any checks.
Rebel SLPP lawmaker Prof. Charitha Herath mounted a no holds barred attack on the proposed Broadcasting Authority Act. At his regular briefing at Nidahasa Jathika Sabhawa (NJS) office at Nawala. The one-time Media Ministry Secretary explained how the proposed law could be utilized against television and radio stations which refused to toe the government line.
The NJS comprises 13 MPs elected and appointed on the SLPP ticket/accommodated on its National List.
Acknowledging the need and the responsibility on the part of the government to introduce the Broadcasting Authority Act, National List lawmaker Herath questioned the intention of those behind what he called a despicable move.
The country’s radio and television stations are allowed to operate in terms of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation Act (No 37 of 1966) and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Act (No 06 of 1982), respectively. Herath also explained how the Telecommunications Act applied to broadcasting operations.
The MP said that no one could dispute the need to introduce a new law to regulate radio and television stations. But the proposed Bill now in the public domain revealed the government’s intention to suppress those who would dare to challenge it on whatever issue, lawmaker Herath said, warning the government of dire consequences if it pursued such a strategy.
Asked to explain, MP Herath alleged that the proposed Act dealt with radio and television stations in a manner that they were yet to be established in Sri Lanka. The architects of the new law conveniently ignored the fact that radio and television stations were in operation here for several decades and couldn’t be subjected to a new law the way it dealt with a new entrant.
“The bottom line is that the proposed Broadcasting Authority Act completely ignored Article 14 of the Constitution that guaranteed the freedom of speech and expression, including publication. If the enactment of the proposed Broadcasting Authority Act takes place as it is, that will deliver a deadly blow to democracy. We do not want a North Korea type situation here.”
Referring to the composition of the commission, MP Herath questioned the rationale in restricting the total number of members to five and the quorum three. Pointing out that of the five members of the proposed commission, two – a Secretary to a Ministry (most probably Media Ministry) and the Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were ex-officio, the lawmaker said the President would name three remaining members subject to the approval of the Constitutional Council.
Alleging that this commission would be nothing but a highly dangerous tool in the hands of those at the helm of political power, lawmaker Herath said that it could be used selectively against any media organization that took a stand contrary to that of the government in respect of any issue – ranging from national security to what the architects of this destructive piece of legislation called the national economy. The operations of the offending media could be either suspended or permanently closed down, the academic said, urging the print and electronic media to vigorously take up this issue.
MP Herath lambasted the government for seeking to prohibit the media taking up economic issues. Alleging that such provisions were political, the lawmaker said that the issue is who would interpret the term ‘national economy’ in an economically ruined country. Would it be President Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe or the International Monetary Fund, he asked
Prof. Herath expressed serious concern over the proposed committee consisting of three persons headed by the Director General, TRC, to investigate complaints directed at radio and television stations. Pointing out that there is ambiguity pertaining to the appointment of such a committee, the MP questioned how two out of the three-member committee could decide either to suspend or permanently close down operations of an ‘offending’ broadcaster.
Impact on Parliament
However, MP Herath didn’t discuss how the proposed new law could even hinder the coverage of parliamentary proceedings as well as the reportage of shocking disclosures at parliamentary watchdog committees. Depending on the stand taken by the government on a particular issue, in terms of the Broadcasting Authority Act, action can be initiated against a television station for its reportage on a matter even discussed in Parliament.
The UNP may use the new law to suppress reportage and discussion on Treasury bond scams perpetrated in 2015 and 2016 under its watch. The SLPP may find the new law useful to pressure the media over the reportage of circumstances leading to the economic ruin due to a spate of ill- advised decisions taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The committee tasked with investigating complaints against media organizations may find even the exposure of serious lapses on the part of the bureaucracy offensive. A case in point is the shocking disclosures made in the relevant parliamentary watchdog committees how the officialdom addressed critical issues at hand. The recent revelation that taxes, interest and penalties amounting to Rs 904 bn hasn’t been collected by the Inland Revenue underscored the need to address this issue urgently.
During the media briefing lawmaker Herath explained how the media could be targeted on the basis of alleged abuses in the coverage of issues. In the absence of interpretation of the term abuse of power, the committee headed by the Director General, TRC would be able to find fault with any broadcaster to appease his/her political master. It would be pertinent to mention that just two out of a three-member committee is authorized to decide on the fate of a media organization. Even the criticism of the controversial postponement of the much delayed Local Government polls indefinitely may attract the attention of the Broadcasting Authority as the government propagated the myth that economic recovery should be given priority, therefore election process can wait.
Prof. Herath explained how members of the commission can be removed in case they didn’t toe the government line. Instead of the very purpose a Broadcasting Authority is required to primarily have a level playing field, the one proposed can be a threat to media freedom. In the hands of politicians who pursue destructive self-aggrandizing strategies regardless of consequences, therefore the proposed Broadcasting Authority can be a tool to harm the free media. Prof. Herath regretted that the previous attempts to establish a Broadcasting Authority hadn’t been successful.
Harsha takes a strong stand
Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) front liner Dr. Harsha de Silva is another MP who came out strongly against the proposed law. The former UNP non-Cabinet minister flayed the government over the move at a media briefing held at the Opposition Leader’s Office on Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha.
The top SJB spokesman warned that this legislation, touted as an effort to advance the mass media, actually would serve as a tool for the government to crack down on and manipulate the media to suit its own agenda.
According to Dr. de Silva, the proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill contained provisions that enabled the government to exert pressure on and control media outlets that do not align with its ideology. Such measures, the economist argued were fundamentally incompatible with the principles of a democratic society.
“One of the cornerstones of a democracy is the freedom to hold differing opinions. The media cannot be subject to the whims of a particular authority that operated at the behest of the government. The media should enjoy the independence to express their views”, Dr. de Silva asserted. “This right to free expression is a fundamental tenet of any democratic society. The proposed Broadcasting Authority Act aims to stifle the media, and we will not stand for it”.
Dr. de Silva further cautioned that the government’s motives behind this legislation mirror its previous attempts to suppress the media through the failed Anti-Terrorism Act. The MP asserted that, having faced resistance to their oppressive measures, the government is now seeking alternative avenues to fulfill its objective of muzzling critical voices, and the Broadcasting Authority Act is their latest attempt to do so.
The concerns raised by Dr. Harsha de Silva who was once widely tipped to be the Finance Minister of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, underscored the need for a robust and independent media, one that could act as a vital check on governmental power and foster a thriving democratic society. The MP stressed the pivotal importance policymakers and citizens alike closely examine the proposed legislation and its potential implications on press freedom, ensuring that any changes made to media regulations did not infringe upon the democratic principles that underpin our society.
SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has alleged that the government’s latest bid was meant to create an environment in which only those who propagated the government line could operate.
Lawmaker Premadasa has said that the move to throttle the media seemed to be a critical part of the government’s overall strategy and should be considered as an extremely dangerous move against the backdrop of indefinite postponement of Local Government polls. MP Premadasa, like his opposition colleagues Prof. Herath and Dr. de Silva, alleged the licenses were to be issued on the basis of the media organizations’ loyalty to the government.
Several decades ago, Sri Lanka exercised censorship to control the media, at a time television posed no real challenge.
Having joined The Island in June 1987, the writer remembered how print media had to submit all ‘copies’ that dealt with security and political issues to the government censor for approval. Successive governments imposed censorship to cover up military reversals in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and part of the overall strategy to deal with the second JVP-led insurgency 1987-89.
Successive governments harassed the print media and attacks directed at journalists and private media institutions over the years were part of that despicable strategy. Whatever the provocations, the assassinations of journalists cannot be condoned. Perpetrators of such heinous crimes had never been arrested. The assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunga on January 08, 2009 is perhaps the case that attracted the most media coverage though there were many other attacks.
Keith Noyahr, Defence correspondent at the now defunct The Nation newspaper earned the wrath for his critical weekly column titled ‘Military Matters.’ His abduction and subsequent release in May 2008 exposed the then government though the investigation was never brought to a successful conclusion even after the defeat of that government in January 2015!
The proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill has taken the government’s battle (whichever party in power) to a new level. Now political strategy is aimed at closing down whole television or radio stations.
Jayantha Dhanapala (1938 – 2023)
By Tissa Jayatilaka
The splendid career as well as the many glittering prizes won by Jayantha Dhanapala is common knowledge and does not require reiteration here. Rather I wish to focus on the man himself in this tribute to an exceptional person whom I had the privilege of getting to know personally at the tail end of the 1980s. I had of course heard of Jayantha and his many accomplishments long before our first meeting. Having read a newspaper review of North-South Perspectives, an international affairs journal that I edited, which focused on the promotion of greater understanding between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ world, Jayantha telephoned me to ask if we could meet. I readily agreed and thus began a friendship that lasted until his death a few days ago.
Although I had not known at the time of that first meeting of ours, I soon learnt that encouraging those of the younger generation to contribute their mite to the betterment of Sri Lanka and the world outside of her shores was a priority for Jayantha. In the process, he enabled those of us who came into contact with him to better ourselves in order to continue to give of our best. In his appreciation of Jayantha ‘s life and career, former diplomat A.L.A. Azeez (who joined the Sri Lanka foreign service in 1992) talks at length of the marvellous role of guide and mentor of younger colleagues, including himself, that Jayantha played throughout his days in the foreign service. In the same spirit, after his retirement from the UN and upon his return to Sri Lanka, he served as a Trustee and member of the Board of Advisers of Sri Lanka Unites, mentoring a local youth movement dedicated to the transformation of Sri Lanka to a land free of religious and ethnic strife. He was involved from the inception in the establishment of the Friday Forum, an informal and self- financed group of older citizens dedicated to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law.
Our friendship grew over the years, I happen to think, because we shared much in common. We both schooled and spent our formative years in Kandy– he at Trinity in the 1950s and I at Kingswood in the 1960s. Later he and I both entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya at different times, given that he was a decade older, where we both read for the Special Degree in English. His extra-curricular activities at Peradeniya, like mine, included sports– rugger in his case and cricket in mine– and theatre. We both took part in plays, held office and were participants in the diverse activities of the University Drama Society (DramSoc).
Jayantha and I also shared a fondness for the spoken and written word and, not infrequently, combined our resources in this area. We jointly edited A Garland for Ashley: Glimpses of a life celebrating the life of Ashley Halpe and His 50 Years of University Teaching (2008). He was instrumental in making me the editor of SIRIMAVO – Honouring the world’s first woman prime minister (2010) for which publication he wrote an excellent essay on The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. He contributed a chapter titled, A City Upon a Hill for Excursions and Explorations Cultural Encounters Between Sri Lanka and the United States that I put together in 2002. He reviewed Peradeniya: Memories of a University (1997) that I jointly edited with K.M. de Silva. Jayantha served as keynote speaker while I introduced the publication at the launch of the late Tissa Abeysekera’s collection of essays on culture and the arts titled, Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences (2007). A couple of years ago, Jayantha and I teamed up one more time to write an essay titled, A Study in ‘Creative Compassion’ for The Fourth Lion – Essays for Gopalkrishna GANDHI (2021) edited by Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan.
In the 1990s, when our friendship had matured to an extent that I could ask the Dhanapalas for a personal favour, I would on certain of my regular visits to the United States, stay with Maureen and Jayantha whenever they were free of pressing official commitments. I stayed with them in Washington while he was our ambassador (1995-1997) and later in New York when he was serving as Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003). In New York, they would book tickets in advance for plays on Broadway to make my visits even more enjoyable. Their friendship and warm hospitality knew no bounds. I also recall a visit to the UN with my wife Lilani and our daughter Lara when Jayantha hosted us to lunch at a restaurant in the premises of the UN headquarters.
No account of Jayantha would be complete without a reference to the solid and sensitive supporting role played by Maureen in his life and career. She was a superb fellow-traveller who had known Jayantha from a very young age and were fellow undergraduates at Peradeniya as well. If marriages, as we are told, are indeed made in heaven, then theirs undoubtedly would be one of them. They were an extremely compatible and congenial pair to the very end. After their return to Sri Lanka, we had the opportunity to meet Jayantha and Maureen in more relaxed settings over food and drink, either at our home or theirs or in the homes of common friends.
Lilani and I went up to Kandy to spend a long- promised weekend with our senior colleagues and intimate friends Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere at April’s end. Knowing of our strong desire to meet Jayantha and Maureen during our visit and, as all of us were close mutual friends, our kind and thoughtful hosts invited the Dhanapalas to lunch at their lovely home. It was when we sat to lunch that it struck me that all six of us around the table, belonging to different eras, had been through the Department of English and read for the Special Degree in English at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya which later became the University of Peradeniya. Little did we know that one of us would be gone in less than a month and not be around for another meeting over lunch! Impermanence is all.
My one-time teacher (he taught Lilani too, in later years), senior colleague in Peradeniya’s Department of English and close friend, Professor Thiru Kandiah, and his wife Indranee, have shared a friendship of much longer standing with the Dhanapalas. Thiru was a year senior to Jayantha at Peradeniya while Indranee and Maureen, who had been schoolmates and close friends at Girl’s High School, Kandy, resumed their friendship at a later date at Peradeniya. Their fathers had been members of the Trinity College staff, very close friends and neighbours. Trinity’s Lemuel House was founded when Jayantha was a student at the school with Indranee’s father, the illustrious teacher and Head Master Mr. R.L Kannangara in charge. Jayantha was one of the most outstanding students of Lemuel and Indranee’s father soon came to respect and, also like him very much.
The Kandiahs now live in Perth, Australia and realising that they may be unaware of Jayantha’s passing, I wrote to inform them of the sad event. Soon there was a flurry of emails exchanged amongst the three of us and I found myself in total agreement with their assessment of the Dhanapalas.
Here is Thiru on Jayantha:
Jayantha was held in especially high esteem and regard by absolutely everybody. This was not least for the obvious brilliance of his mind. But closely allied with that, there was in addition this very distinctive way in which he tended to come across to people in his interactions with them- as of his very nature a signally intellectual sort of person: always impeccably reasoned, and very definitely and firmly so, if in an unostentatious and quietly unassertive, also exemplarily courteous, manner that lent him great dignity; with the unmistakable integrity of the positions he adopted on matters and what he stood for adding considerable power to the strikingly impressive impact he had on people.
Indranee’s pertinent observation is that Maureen is as good natured as she is beautiful and gentle and that the school, “could not have found a better head prefect than her”. She goes on to say that Maureen’s father was a very caring and helpful person and her mother, a gentle and gracious lady. These are sentiments that deserve to be widely shared and hence my doing so.
All in all, Jayantha Dhanapala was a formidable personality, though, never aggressive or unapproachable. He was friendly and unfailingly courteous at all times. I wish to end this tribute with another most appropriate quote from Thiru Kandiah:
Much will, I am sure, be said and written of Jayantha at this time of his leaving us. But the man we were fortunate to know and whom we had such affection and respect for will remain in our hearts and minds as long as we are around.
By Lynn Ockersz
It’s been over four decades,
Since the torching and gutting,
Of the Jaffna Public Library,
That venerable Beacon of Light,
For Asia and the world at large,
And the shame continues to well,
In the hearts of the righteous,
Over the fascist-inspired tragedy,
But it’s not too late, it’s plain,
To put things right fully,
By offering a hand of humanity,
To the people thus savaged,
And telling them that never again,
Will bigotry be allowed to reign,
In this isle of a plural identity….
And this is no formidable task,
For nation-builders genuine,
Who must stand up and be counted.
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