Whether they will admit it or not, politicians in the country are well aware that they are not top of the pops where public opinion is concerned. Few people rate politicians positively although there are many exceptions. Last week’s gold and smartphone smuggling detection at the Bandaranaike International Airport served to aggravate this assessment. Puttalam District MP Ali Sabri Raheem arriving from Dubai was detected, on a tip off, by customs and found carrying contraband worth Rs. 75 million.
Telephones hummed and he was able to reach the highest in the land who reportedly promised to “go into the matter.” Thankfully, he got no respite, the contraband was confiscated and he was slapped with a fine of Rs. 7.4 million which was quickly paid. Raheem was free within hours and was able to be present in Parliament to vote against the government motion to sack Janaka Ratnayake, the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL).
He went over national television to plead his innocence blaming an unnamed golaya for the crime. This worthy, the MP claimed, had packed their bags and the politician said he did not know what went into them. That, of course, is a story that will be hard to sell. People are not as gullible as Raheem would like to believe. Though photographs of customs officers posing with the contraband detected have been widely published, the public is totally ignorant of many relevant details of this detection. In the first instance, who was this person who accompanied the MP? Was he a paid member of the MP’s staff? Was the contraband found only in the MP’s baggage or was it divided between the two passengers’ bags? If so, was the golaya, who the MP has publicly blamed for the scandal also been questioned and what did he say? Queries on all these matters and more remain unanswered and only the tip of the iceberg has surfaced.
Predictably there have been many developments since the smelly stuff hit the fan. It was reported on Friday that some 20 MPs, mostly belonging to opposition parties, have handed a letter to the speaker requesting an investigation. They have rightly said that a scandal of these proportions would result in all parliamentarians being tarred with the same brush in the court of public opinion. The cynic would say that they need ot bother on this score as this has already happened in the public mind, with politicians and not only parliamentarians, having been negatively viewed long before the newest scandal broke.
Be that as it may, we wonder whether the speaker has any role in such matters. MPs are very conscious of their rights and privileges and there have been occasions where the speaker’s permission – he is the custodian of such rights and privileges – were obtained before an MP is questioned by police in the case of an investigation. This has been demanded on occasions when need for such questioning arose. There is also a code of conduct for parliamentarians adopted in March 2018. Clearly the recent smuggling matter would (or should) be caught up it that.
People could well ask whether hurling missiles, throwing chilli flakes in the parliamentary chamber and not allowing the speaker to take his seat and perform his functions do not come within the ambit of the code. If it does, why did not what happened in the House during the “October Revolution” of 2018 when then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead, come under the glare of that well-intentioned but seemingly impotent code?
Apart from the demand that the speaker looks into Raheem’s conduct and take appropriate action, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has seen a deeper conspiracy. He alleged on Thursday that the MP, free of the customs clutches, rushing to parliament post-haste to vote against the resolution to remove the PUCSL Chairman from his post was a government plot to lump Raheem with the opposition! That worthy himself is on record saying he voted against the government as there was nobody to help when he needed assistance. “So why should I vote for that government?”, he asked
Criminals are usually not apprehended committing a first offence. The fact that somebody knew that something was going on and was able to tip off the customs suggests that this recent detection is not a one off. Why should Members of Parliament be issued diplomatic passports and accorded VIP facilities at the airport? What differentiates them from ordinary people whose votes catapulted them into positions of privilege with perks galore at the taxpayer’s expense? Tipping off customs is, of course, a lucrative business with fat reward entitlements. Whoever blew that whistle which felled the MP will benefit tidily. Let us hope that such a person does not get a bullet in his head from a motorcycle gunman for his pains as is becoming all too common today in this island of ours.
A question was also asked in parliament why the fine imposed was relatively modest considering the value of the contraband. We believe that the law permits a fine three times the value of the smuggled goods. In this instance it had been a mere 10 percent. State Minister of Finance Ranjit Siyambalapitiya had replied that the fine that was slapped was highest for such offences in recent times.
Admittedly a fine of over Rs. 200 million might never have been collected. Such fines seldom are. Of course the confiscation of the contraband would have cost somebody very big bucks. Couriers are widely used for smuggling via passenger baggage and how tight a hold the customs has on this business method that is widespread is anybody’s guess.
Grave diplomatic issue
Thursday 21st September, 2023
The recent killing of a prominent Sikh activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Canada, has triggered a diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi. Canada lost no time in ordering an Indian diplomat out of the country, accusing India of having had a hand in the assassination. Denying Canada’s allegation, New Delhi reacted with a tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion.
The so-called great powers have carried out numerous assassinations on foreign soil over the past several decades, with the US and Russia leading the pack. So, it is only natural that the spy outfits of powerful nations become the prime suspects when the people who are hostile to them happen to be murdered in other countries.
The diplomatic fallout of Nijjar’s assassination shows how concerned powerful nations such as Canada and India are about what they consider threats to their sovereignty. In a hard-hitting statement on the expulsion of its diplomat, the Indian External Affairs Ministry said Canada’s allegations sought to ‘shift focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided with shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’. Referring to Ottawa’s allegation against India, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said, “If proven true, this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other.” (Emphasis added.)
Curiously, going by the Canadian Foreign Minister’s statement, the basis of Ottawa’s angry reaction is a mere allegation that has not been proved yet. Shouldn’t Canada have investigated the allegation against India thoroughly and made an informed conclusion instead of plunging head first into lighting the diplomatic blue touchpaper, as it were?
Whether India had a hand in the assassination at issue, one may not know, but what it has said about Canada stands scrutiny; Canada harbours foreign terrorists of all sorts, and, worse, it allows terror fronts to influence its policies simply because they are capable of delivering block votes and campaign funds to the Canadian political parties and politicians, who are no better than their Sri Lankan counterparts notorious for looking after the interests of lawbreakers in return for votes and campaign funds. This, Canada is doing while claiming to be promoting democracy and human rights globally. Can a country that allows terrorist groups and their fronts to use its soil and institutions to raise funds and drum up international support for violent conflicts in other countries expect the world to buy into its claim of being a champion of democracy?
Meanwhile, the US has called for an investigation into the assassination of the Sikh activist in Canada, according to foreign media reports, but one should not be so naïve as to think that Washington is driven by a genuine desire to get at the truth and ensure that justice is served. While making much-publicised calls for investigations for the consumption of the world, Washington is likely to intervene to reconcile Canada and India, for they are its strategic allies, and it does not want them to be at loggerheads.
The US is no respecter of human lives when it comes to safeguarding its interests. How it handled the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a case in point. The US intelligence agencies concluded that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in 2018, but Washington did not target Salman with sanctions, financial or otherwise.
India has realised that it is really hurtful to have other countries harbouring terrorist groups who pose a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ironically, it once did to Sri Lanka exactly what it has accused Canada of doing at present; it sheltered Sri Lankan terrorists.
If only the great powers heeded the Golden Rule, and did unto others as they would have others do unto them.
House of hypocrites
Wednesday 20th September, 2023
Opposition politicians are making the most of Channel 4’s recent claim that the Easter Sunday attacks were part of a political conspiracy, and the Rajapaksa family and its loyalists in the state intelligence agencies were behind it. They are flogging the issue really hard in a bid to gain political mileage, which they are badly in need of, on the pretext of trying to have justice served for the victims of the carnage.
The past few days have seen the Opposition top guns going ballistic in Parliament, condemning the government and demanding an international investigation into the Easter Sunday terror attacks. Curiously, while calling for a fresh probe, they are demanding that criminal proceedings be instituted against certain individuals on the basis of the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which investigated the Easter Sunday bombings. They find themselves in a contradiction. If they consider the PCoI findings credible enough to be the basis for criminal proceedings or any other form of punitive action against the persons they are hauling over the coals, why should they ask for a fresh probe, international or otherwise?
The Opposition yesterday renewed its call for legal action against Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, who was the Head of the State Intelligence Service at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks. Speaking in Parliament, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella vehemently protested against a government decision to hold a meeting where Jayawardena was scheduled to brief the MPs on the ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. He called for an explanation, condemning the government for having promoted Jayawardena.
The government should have implemented all PCoI recommendations, especially the one that former President Maithripala Sirisena and those who held key positions in the state intelligence agencies at the time of the 2019 terror attacks be prosecuted. But it found itself in a dilemma because Sirisena had closed ranks with the SLPP. It must be regretting its decision not to have him prosecuted because he has welcomed Channel 4’s allegations against the Rajapaksas and called for an investigation thereinto. He seems to consider them credible evidence, which will help prove his innocence! He is trying to wriggle out of trouble at the expense of the Rajapaksas!
The Opposition is right in condemning the government for having promoted the police officers whom the PCoI has asked the Attorney General to prosecute for their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. But it should not be selective in calling for action against those the PCoI has held accountable. Let the Opposition bigwigs be urged to read at least the pages 470 and 471 of the PCoI’s final report, wherein it is clearly stated that the entire Yahapalana government was accountable for the tragedy. The PCoI has said: “Since 2015 the Government did not give priority to national security … failed to properly appreciate the magnitude of the threat faced by the country due to IS and Islamic extremism and other forms of extremism. This was aggravated by the breakdown in trust between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe …. The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy. (Emphasis added.)
Thus, as we argued in a previous comment, it is clear that all those who were in the Yahapalana Cabinet in 2019 are also accountable for the tragedy, and have no moral right to condemn others. They are currently in the UNP and the SJB.
The SJB MPs, who held Cabinet posts in the Yahapalana government ought to explain why they did not press for criminal action against the police and military officers concerned or an international investigation into the carnage, while they were in power. Equally culpable are those who backed the crumbling Yahapalana government, which neglected national security and did nothing to neutralise threats to the country; they include the JVP and TNA politicians.
Tuesday 19th September, 2023
It is customary to avoid speaking ill of the dead and instead focus on their positive qualities and accomplishments. That may be the reason why those who recently spoke or wrote about the late President J. R. Jayewardene (JRJ), on the occasion if his 117th birth anniversary, paid him glowing tributes and overlooked the dark side of his rule. Prominent among them were President Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jaysuriya. The former reportedly went to the extent of claiming that if Sri Lanka had sustained the socio-economic reforms initiated by his uncle, JRJ, it would have been a developed nation today.
We thought all governments since 1977 had followed JRJ’s economic policies. The UNP and the SLFP/the SLPP see eye to eye on economic liberalisation; they are the purveyors of crony capitalism in this country.
The JRJ presidency no doubt served as a catalytic force for economic, political and social change, but it was far from messianic or benevolent. In 1977, JRJ did the right thing, the wrong way on the economic front, paradoxical as it may sound. Dirigisme has become an anachronism in the modern world; it can exist only in a hermit kingdom like North Korea. The Sri Lankan economy had to be opened up in the late 1970s in keeping with emerging global politico-economic realities, but that task should have been carried out cautiously. Instead, JRJ flung the economy open.
JRJ was known for what may be called free market fundamentalism, which led to the ruination of some vital local industries and public enterprises. If only JRJ had cared to cross the river by feeling the stones, as the Chinese say, and heeded the oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’). Some economic commentators have traced the origin of Sri Lanka’s debt crisis to the JRJ rule, which led to a sharp increase in external borrowings.
On the political front, JRJ did not scruple to subjugate all democratic institutions to self-interest, and they have not recovered yet. The Constitution he introduced is replete with serious flaws, which have stood the unscrupulous in good stead. He was no respecter of the doctrine of the separation of powers and had the legislature under his thumb and did his damnedest to suppress the judiciary, albeit without much success. He once had the houses of the Supreme Court judges who refused to kowtow to him stoned, and openly shielded the police personnel who blatantly violated the fundamental rights of his political opponents at his behest. Political violence took a turn for the worse on his watch. He started the practice of giving presidential pardons to criminals. Ironically, all those who opposed his dictatorial actions and subsequently had themselves elevated to the executive presidency, which they promised to abolish, have been emulating him.
Curiously, Jayasuriya, who, as the Speaker, intrepidly defended the legislature vis-à-vis President Maithripala Sirisena’s deplorable efforts to wrest control of it, in 2018, and is championing democracy, has spoken highly of JRJ, who reduced Parliament to a mere appendage of the Executive and had barbaric violence unleashed against the Opposition, trade unions, etc.
The SLFP-led United Front government made a mockery of its commitment to democracy, in 1975, by abusing its two-thirds majority to extend the life of Parliament by two years. JRJ went a step ahead and replaced a general election with a heavily rigged referendum. His nephew has overtaken him posthumously! Today, it is the President who decides whether to hold elections!
Blunders that JRJ made were legion. He turned the country’s foreign policy on its head, sought to punch above his weight, and antagonised India in the process. His government also did precious little to stop the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983; its goons were accused of organising and carrying out savage attacks on Tamil civilians. If JRJ had acted prudently and democratically, respecting the rule of law, perhaps, the country would not have had to fight a protracted terrorist war. He also blundered by falsely blaming the JVP for ethnic violence and proscribing it in 1983. He did so because the JVP had legally challenged the outcome of the referendum, which he used to retain his five-sixths majority in Parliament. The JVP went underground and took up arms again, plunging the country into a bloodbath in the late 1980s. Ironically, the JVP opted for a honeymoon with the UNP about three decades later and propped up the crumbling Yahapalana government; it has proved that politics is all about expediency and not principles.
The JRJ administration was not without some positives. The country is reaping the benefits of the development projects that the JRJ government launched despite criticism thereof in some quarters. It brought about an economic revival, which unfortunately the UNP itself failed to sustain due to corruption, mismanagement and cronyism.
When political leaders are commemorated, their policies and actions should be dispassionately appraised for the benefit of younger generations.
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