How Premadasa paved the way for first Parama Weera Vibushanaya, posthumously
The Army unveiled a special war hero memorial opposite the new TV transmission tower at Kokavil after the conclusion of the war. It was put up in honour of those who made the supreme sacrifice at Kokavil in June 1990
By Shamindra Ferdinando
One-time Army Commander Gen. Daya Ratnayake (2013-2015) recently joined a special event on Zoom in honour of those who made the supreme sacrifice at Kokavil, 31 years ago. Prof. Raj Somadeva and writer Charith Kiriella delivered special lectures on the occasion. Those who defended the isolated Kokavil base – Officer Commanding, Kokavil transmission complex, Saliya Aladeniya, an old Trinitian who was posthumously promoted Captain of 3 Battalion, Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (3 SLSR), and his men, perished in the battle. The LTTE didn’t hand over their bodies.
Aladeniya, the first recipient of the country’s highest gallantry award, Parama Weera Vibushanaya, sacrificed his young life, serving on underprepared and poorly equipped Army. Opportunistic politics of the day made matters worse.
Against the backdrop of renewed interest in Kokavil, in the wake of the recent commemorative event, and Derana ‘Big Focus’ featuring Gen. Ratnayaka , the writer felt the need to examine the then security-political environment. Let me stress that the June-July 1990 Kokavil battle was nothing but a debacle that caused a humiliating setback. Kokavil remained in the hands of the LTTE till 2009.
A comment on the recent print media reportage of Kokavil heroism by academic Michael Roberts, too, underscored the pivotal importance of a better understanding of the then situation. Author Roberts didn’t mince his words when pointing out the inadequacies in the coverage, though he appreciated the effort.
What went wrong at Kokavil? Why did the Army abandon the isolated detachment? Who created an environment conducive for the LTTE? And how the Kokavil debacle/tragedy transformed the entire Vanni landscape overnight to the LTTE advantage?
Having won the Dec 19, 1988 presidential election, UNP strongman Ranasinghe Premadasa (RP polled 2,569,199/50.43%. Sirimavo Bandaranaike polled 2,289,860/44.95%) then led the party to victory at Feb 15, 1989 parliamentary election. The UNP secured 125 seats whereas the main Opposition SLFP managed 67. It would be pertinent to mention that the UNP earlier, by way of a fraudulent referendum, conducted on Dec 22, 1982, extended the life of Parliament by six years. It was the only referendum held in Sri Lanka so far. The referendum resulted in the UNP continuing till 1989, after having won the 1977 general election, with a 4/5 landslide.
As requested by President Premadasa, rather bluntly, India brought its high profile military mission, in the North and East, to an end, in March 1990. India deployed troops, in July 1987, in terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord, forced on President JRJ. The writer was among a small group of journalists taken to Trincomalee harbour to see the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) quit Sri Lanka, following a 32-month deployment here (The IPKF is off – The Island, March 25, 1990). At the time India completed the withdrawal, the LTTE had been engaged in negotiations with a gullible Premadasa for over a year. The LTTE exploited direct negotiations with President Premadasa, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. By the time the IPKF ended its mission here, the LTTE was ready to resume hostilities. However, the LTTE delayed the resumption of hostilities, till the second week of June, 1990.
The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe hadn’t been prepared to fight the battle hardened LTTE. Having inflicted heavy losses on the IPKF, and gained valuable battlefield experience, the LTTE was ready to strike the Army. Having literally crushed the second JVP insurrection, by early 1990 by wiping out its entire leadership, barring Somawansa Amerasinghe, who managed to escape to India in the nick of time, before security forces could get at him, the Army, too, was cocky and probably didn’t anticipate a large scale LTTE offensive, in less than three months, after the IPKF pullout, because of the ostensible honeymoon with President Premadasa, who even gifted it arms and other wherewithal.
The Kokavil debacle should be quite rightly examined against the backdrop of Premadasa’s folly. Then State Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, Army Chief Gen. Wanasinghe, the then advisor to the President, Gen. (retd.) Cyril Ranatunga, and IGP Ernest Perera, couldn’t absolve themselves of the catastrophe caused by political-military miscalculations. All of them were made to look like utter fools. Premadasa made some ludicrous attempts to persuade the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The President’s utter failure to comprehend the LTTE strategy is still a mystery. The top brass remained silent. Obviously, no one had the courage to advice the President, whose Chief Negotiator Minister A.C.S. Hameed’s desperate last minute attempt to keep the talks with the LTTE going led to him nearly paying with his life. Premadasa’s idiocy was such that he had no qualms in sacrificing the lives of several hundred police officers and men who were ordered to surrender to terrorists in an attempt to mollify the LTTE.
LTTE seizes A9 north of Vavuniya
The attack on the Kokavil detachment took place in the wake of the massacre of police officers. Gen. Wanasinghe’s Army lacked the wherewithal to meet the threat. The Army could have made an attempt to neutralise the impending LTTE threat by reinforcing isolated detachments along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, north of Vavuniya. Unfortunately, the Army lacked the wherewithal to meet the LTTE threat in the Eastern theatre, Vanni and the Jaffna peninsula, simultaneously. Even if the Army had realised the rapidly growing danger, on multiple fronts, the top brass feared to warn Premadasa. Actually, Premadasa never believed in consensus on security matters. Premadasa simply threw caution to the winds.
The Army was under pressure in the northern theatre, with the Jaffna Fort under attack. Kokavil was almost forgotten as it came under intensified attack, following the massacre of nearly 600 policemen in the East. In the North, the Army found it difficult even to evacuate the wounded. The Jaffna Fort, too, was under siege.
Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa was placed in charge of the Northern region on July 11, 1991, exactly a month after the eruption of hostilities. Army Chief Wanasinghe never explained why Kobbekaduwa hadn’t been brought into the scene until it was too late. Did Gen. Wanasinghe fail to convince Premadasa of the urgent need to change the Northern Command? By the time Kobbekaduwa received command, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent, his appearance didn’t make any difference. Just two days after, Kobbekaduwa received the Northern Command, the LTTE overran Kokavil held by two platoons. It was the first major setback on the A9. The Kokavil debacle highlighted the absence of a strategy either to reinforce isolated detachments or evacuate them. The SLAF lacked required strike capability. The SLAF struggled to cope up with increasingly heavy commitment with just the Italian built Sia Marchettis (propeller driven light ground attack aircraft hardly sufficient even for counter-insurgency operations). Volunteers deployed at isolated Kokavil detachment never had a chance against strong LTTE units. Sinha volunteers turned down an earlier directive to abandon the base, leaving behind seriously wounded men. The LTTE executed those captured during the battle for Kokavil. Two men who crawled through the LTTE cordon managed to reach Mankulam detachment situated north of Kokavil.
Let me stress that those killed defending detachments along the A9 North of Vavuniya, had to be buried there as the Army lacked the wherewithal to take back the dead and the wounded overland. Isolated detachments could be supplied by air and within a month after resumption of hostilities, following the 14-month Premadasa-Prabhakaran honeymoon, the A9 aka Main Supply Route (MSR) north up to strategic Elephant Pass, was lost. The SLAF carried out risky missions to supply isolated bases and evacuate the wounded.
Four years after the combined security forces brought the war to a successful end, the then Brigadier Maithri Dias, recounted how the Army planned to evacuate Kilinochchi, even before the resumption of hostilities. Having vacated both Valvettithurai and Point Pedro detachments on the LTTE’s request, the President wouldn’t have minded the Army giving up more camps. The planned evacuation of the Kilinochchi detachment obviously is a case in point. What was really shocking was the Army seeking the assistance of a Catholic priest, based in Kilinochchi, to evacuate the personnel along with arms, ammunition and equipment.
Who wanted Kilinochchi evacuated?
The then Capt. Maithri Dias, of the 6th Battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR), arrived in Kilinochchi several days before the LTTE resumed hostilities, on June 11, 1990, with the massacre of hundreds of policemen in the Eastern Province. Dias was responding to a directive from Lt. Colonel H. R. Stephen, the then Coordinating Officer, based in Kilinochchi (Lt. Col. Stephen was killed on the morning of Aug.8, 1992, at Araly point, Kayts. He was one of the officers killed along with war veterans, Maj. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne. The dead included Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha, Lt Colonel G.H. Ariyarathne, Lt Colonel Y.N. Palipana, Commander Asanga Lankathilaka, Lt Colonel Nalin de Alwis, Lt Commander C.B. Wijepura and Private W J Wickremasinghe). Only one survived the blast.
Dias, the then General Officer Commanding 54 Division, got in touch with the writer immediately having read ‘Eelam War II: LTTE takes upper hand at the onset – The Island Feb 22, 2013).
Brigadier Dias recounted the situation in Kilinochchi, leading to the Army headquarters directive to vacate the town in the last week of July 1990. Dias said: “I was tasked to function as a staff officer in Kilinochchi under Lt. Colonel Stephen. The deployment therein comprised one platoon of 6 SR, another platoon of 3 SR (Volunteer) as well as support personnel (3 SR volunteers were based at Kokavil, south of Mankulam) There were altogether about 90 personnel at Kilinochchi. As the then government was having talks with the LTTE, we never expected any serious trouble. Along the A9 road, north of Vavuniya, we had several camps. North of Kilinochchi, troops were positioned at Elephant Pass, Jaffna Fort and Palaly. South of Kilinochchi, troops held Mankulam and Kokavil. Immediately after arriving in Kilinochchi, I was told by Lt. Col. Stephen to prepare to evacuate the troops. On the instructions of the Coordinating Officer, I met a Catholic priest in Kilinochchi to discuss transport arrangements for my men. Lt. Col. Stephen was away in Palaly. He was to go on leave following a conference in Palaly. Following the conference I received further instructions from Lt. Col. Stephen regarding the planned withdrawal. I was told to prepare a plan for an immediate withdrawal. As earlier discussed, I went out to meet the Catholic priest, who promised to help us move men and material from Kilinochchi to Elephant Pass. The sudden disappearance of the priest made me uneasy. The following day (June 11, 1990), the LTTE started attacking the police and the Army in the Eastern Province.”
Dias retired in 2016 after serving as the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 53 Division after having been promoted to the rank of Maj. Gen in 2014.
It was evident that the then government had decided to abandon Kilinochchi, even before the outbreak of hostilities in the second week of June 1990. At that time Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nanmunai had served as Security Forces Commander, Jaffna.
Saving Kilinochchi troops
In spite of the much deteriorated situation at Kokavil, troops at Mankulam couldn’t intervene. The entire Army had been under tremendous pressure as the LTTE advanced on bases in the Vanni theatre. Brig. Dias recalled the crises the Army faced: “We heard heavy gunfire from the direction of Kokavil, where troops were fighting a desperate battle. The Kokavil debacle had a devastating impact on the Army. A section of troops based, at Kilinochchi, declared their intention to vacate the camp, regardless of the consequences. Having calmed them, I took measures to further strengthen the defences until a large force could intervene to facilitate our withdrawal, northwards. Pushing towards Kokavil seemed unrealistic and suicidal.”
However, those deployed at Kilinochchi had been extremely lucky as the Jaffna Command managed to muster sufficient troops to reach the beleaguered base in the last week of July. The 6th Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (6 GR) and the 5th Battalion of the Gemunu Watch (5 GW) advanced from Elephant Pass to Kilinochchi to save those trapped at the Kilinochchi camp.
During the rescue mission, troops at Kilinochchi had almost lost communications with those coming to their rescue. Brig. Dias said: “We ran out of fuel needed to maintain communications. Luckily, the two Land Cruisers, which we removed from the Kilinochchi police station at the onset of trouble, had fuel in their tanks and it was adequate to meet our immediate requirement.”
Interestingly, Brig. Dias is the first GOC of the re-established 54 Division. Army headquarters restored the Division on Sept 10, 2010. The LTTE literally wiped out the 54 Division headquartered at Elephant Pass in late April 2000. Heavy losses suffered by the Division compelled Army headquarters to disband the formation. It was the worst battlefield defeat experienced by the Army during the entire conflict.
In September, 1990, the Army vacated isolated bases at Jaffna Fort and Mandaitivu. In the third week of Nov, the LTTE overran the Mankulam detachment on the A9. Premadasa’s security advisor, retired Gen. Cyril Ranatunga remained mum. Ranatunga played it safe. Just within four weeks after the eruption of Eelam War II, on June 11, 1990, the Army lost Kokavil and Kilinochchi. Mankulam was abandoned in the third week of Nov, 1990, thereby giving the LTTE unhindered access across Kandy-Jaffna A9, between Vavuniya and Elephant Pass.
The Army abandoned Mankulam under heavy fire just weeks after carrying out a heli-borne mission to consolidate the base. In the absence of an overall contingency plan, the Army responded to LTTE operations over a wide area.
Premadasa lacked even basic interest in security matters thereby allowing unpardonable deterioration of the security situation. Perhaps, the threat the President faced within the UNP, with a powerful section more or less discarded by him, working with the SLFP to impeach him, unsettled Premadasa. Premadasa remained immobilised in the wake of the LTTE directive in late Oct/Nov 1990 for the Northern Province Muslims to vacate the region. The government actually did nothing to avert the unprecedented crisis. The courageous efforts made by troops, under Captain Aladeniya’s command, underscored the Army’s failure. Even though the Army discussed the possibility of mounting a heli-borne mission to break the siege on Kokavil detachment in June it never materialised. Troops called in to carry out that mission were eventually deployed for the rescue of those who had been trapped at Mankulam. But, the Army subsequently withdrew a section of the troops, including commandos sent to Mankulam. Overnight, Mankulam became vulnerable and eventually the LTTE overran it in Nov 1990. Within eight months after the IPKF withdrawal, Premadasa lost the entire Vanni region with troops confined to few coastal areas. In the Jaffna peninsula, the Army had been confined to Palaly, Kankesanthurai and Elephant Pass where troops received supplies from air and sea. The Navy struggled to move supplies required by the Army to the North from the eastern port city of Trincomalee whereas the SLAF, too, operated flights to Palaly under difficult circumstances. However, in the absence of missile threat, during the Eelam War II, facilitated supply missions to the North. But, overall supplying troops based in the Jaffna peninsula had been a tremendous challenge faced by the military.
Strategic Elephant Pass base was almost overrun in mid-1991. If not for the successful sea borne assault by troops of Operation Balavegaya led by Gen Denzil Kobekaduwa and Brig. Wimalaratne, Elephant Pass too would have been overrun.
Premadasa caused an unprecedented catastrophe by pursuing an utterly foolish political agenda at the expense of national security. His failure as well as that of Gen. Wanasinghe to prepare for any eventuality following the IPKF withdrawal allowed the LTTE to take the upper hand in the Vanni region. By the time the LTTE assassinated Premadasa on May Day 1993, the LTTE achieved superiority in the North with all bases under pressure and the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The LTTE gradually pressed the Army in the North with Palaly under siege at the time of 1994 parliamentary elections followed by presidential polls in Nov 1994.
Growing foreign dependency and India’s USD 4 bn lifeline
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Japanese embassy and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund, previously known as United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), on 16 March, 2023, issued a joint statement that dealt with the impact the developing political-economic-social crisis is having on the poor in Sri Lanka.
The statement focused on the suffering of the children and measures taken by UNICEF, in consultation with the Governments of Japan and Sri Lanka, to provide relief to the needy.
However, what really captured public attention was the declaration made by the Japanese Ambassador, in Colombo, Mizukoshi Hideak, that with the latest contribution, amounting to USD 1.8 mn, the total Japanese financial assistance, provided through UNICEF alone, exceeded USD 3.8 mn, since the beginning of last year. That is definitely a significant package provided through a single UN agency, particularly against the backdrop of the unceremonious cancellation of the Japan- funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, in late Sept., 2020, by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government.
The directive, in this regard, was issued on 21 Sept., 2020, by Dr. P. B. Jayasundera, in his capacity as Secretary to the President, to the then Transport Secretary, Monti Ranatunga. That move ruined Sri Lanka’s relations with Japan.
Whoever advised the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to terminate the project, without consulting Japan, as head of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, he couldn’t absolve himself of the responsibility for the ruination of vital relationship with Tokyo. Had it not been the case, Japan, most probably, would have delivered a substantial assistance to Sri Lanka, at the onset of the ongoing unprecedented crisis.
Sri Lanka made a failed bid to secure as much as USD 3.5 bn loan from Japan, during the tenure of Sanjiv Gunasekara as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo. Gunasekara, a close associate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned in the wake of the 09 May, 2022, violence, that gave a turbo boost to the campaign against his government.
Unlike Japan, India provided direct aid in various forms to Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with what became an insurmountable crisis to overcome on our own. India has repeatedly declared that the continuing assistance is in line with Premier Narendra Modi’s much touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Sri Lanka received concessional credit facility, amounting to USD 1 bn, in March last year. In addition to that, by the second week of March this year, Sri Lanka received other lines of credit, worth over USD 3 bn. Therefore, the total Indian assistance is worth over USD 4 bn, a staggering amount as Sri Lanka’s debt before the Japanese and Indian interventions stood at over USD 53 bn. Indian intervention cannot be compared, under any circumstances, with assistance provided by any other country.
The Indian assistance is of immense importance as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after much deliberation, promised USD 2.9 bn over a period of four years. The delay on the part of China to provide an assurance as regards debt-restructuring support, hindered the finalization of the tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, creditors and IMF. Finally, China gave that assurance, in writing, early this month.
The situation was so precarious, Sri Lanka couldn’t have even provided the free text books that have been given, annually, to the student population ,from the time of the JRJ regime. Those who had been at the helm of political power, over the past three decades, to varying degrees, ruined the economy, and, by 2021/2022, Sri Lanka was unable to provide even the basic requirements, like cooking gas, kerosene, petrol, etc., as even remittances from our expatriate workers, which in the past amounted to about seven billion dollars per year, dropped drastically due to the illegal underground banking system, hawala/undiyal, hijacking much of it from the normal banks. The government didn’t have the means to provide school text books for the 2023 academic year. In consultation with India, of the USD 1 bn concessional credit facility, over USD 10 mn was utilized by the State Printing Corporation, and private importers, to procure printing paper and other material from India. India met 45% (four mn students) of the total requirement. Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay visited the SPC, on 09 March, 2023, to dispatch a consignment of textbooks to schools. Education Minister Dr. Susil Premjayantha joined Baglay. The Indian High Commission statement, issued two days later,, was aptly titled ‘India’s support for text books investment in Sri Lanka’s future.’
The government and the Opposition should be ashamed of their failure to provide for the children’s need.
Perhaps, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should be appointed to examine the circumstances leading to Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status. Decades of utterly irresponsible management of the economy, coupled with an explosive mixture of causes – waste, corruption and irregularities – caused the current crisis.
Political parties, represented in Parliament, are responsible for the continuing crisis, to varying degrees.
Controversy over ISBs
The Island discussed some of the issues at hand in last week’s midweek piece, headlined ‘All praise for Lanka’s saviours!
What Dr. Coomaraswamy didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 bn from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?
Our comment on the basis of recent claims that the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Coomaraswamy (2016-2019), only told one side of the truth, attracted responses from several parties, including the Central Bank.
Consequently, the writer discussed the borrowing of USD 12.5 bn, and related matters, and was told the following: First, it is important to point out that the Governor, Central Bank, has no authority to approve or undertake any borrowing on behalf of the government. The borrowing limit, in any given year, is set by Parliament. Therefore, the government cannot borrow beyond the limit set by Parliament. In addition, all external borrowing has to be approved by the Finance Minister, and the Cabinet of Ministers. The Governor and the CBSL only have an advisory role. On ISBs, they have marketing and issuance as additional responsibilities once the Cabinet approved the transaction.
It is also important to recognize that ISBs are only one channel for external commercial borrowings. Others include short-term SWAPs, foreign term loans/syndicated loans and external flows into government rupee securities. The article dealt with only one instrument, having ignored the switching that was undertaken during 2015-19 to increase the maturity and reduce the cost of foreign borrowing.
As regards the USD 10 bn increase in ISBs outstanding during 2015-19, USD 5 bn of this increase can be attributed to switching away from shorter term (one year or less) and more expensive SWAPs and highly volatile foreign portfolio investment (hot money) in Government rupee securities to longer term (5 and 10 years) and less costly ISBs. SWAPs were reduced from approximately USD 2.5 bn to USD 500 mn.
Volatile and foreign investment in government rupee securities was reduced from USD 3.5 bn to USD 600 mn. In addition, during the course of 2019, a second ISB of USD 2 bn was issued to create a stronger buffer of external reserves to address the inevitable increase in uncertainty going into elections due shortly thereafter. (The money required for 2019 had been raised through an ISB, issued in March 2019.)
So about USD 7 bn of the USD 10 bn increase in the stock of ISBs outstanding, during 2015-19 may be attributed to increasing the stability and reducing the cost of the ISBs outstanding by switching instruments and raising the buffer provided by external reserves prior to a period of uncertainty, associated with elections.
The remaining increase of USD 3 bn may be partly attributed to the fact that borrowing incurred earlier had not resulted in a sufficient increase and/or saving of foreign exchange. Hence money had to be borrowed to repay debt incurred earlier. In fact, Verite Research found that 89 percent of external debt, repaid during 2015-19, could be accounted for by liabilities incurred prior to 2015.
The adverse debt dynamics were recognized and the Medium Term Debt Management Strategy was published in April 2019 to chart the way to sustainability. In addition, the Active Liability Management Act (2018) was introduced to expand the tools available to the CBSL for managing external debt sustainably. The CBSL, as the economic adviser to the Government, also advocated that there should be a primary surplus in the budget and that non-debt creating inflows (such as exports, remittances, tourism proceeds, FDI, inflows into the CSE and government securities) should be increased to enhance the capacity to service debt while supporting the level of imports necessary to achieve the growth potential of the economy.
They also pointed out that only one of the ISBs, issued during 2015-19, has been settled to date. This amounted to USD 500mn. They expressed the view that it is not possible to sustain the argument that servicing ISBs, incurred during 2015-19 ,led to the standstill in debt repayments in April 2023.
Treasury bond scams and tax cuts
Sweeping tax concessions to the rich and reduction of VAT, that had been introduced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to encourage business in 2019/2020, escalated the financial crisis, leading to the declaration of the state of bankruptcy, two years later. No one in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet dared to challenge such far reaching tax concessions and VAT reduction.
How the loss of as much as Rs 600 bn in revenue, as alleged by the Opposition ,due to tax concessions and reduction of VAT, contributed to the current crisis, should be examined, also taking into consideration (1) Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb, 2015 and March 2016 at a time the CBSL has been under the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs (2) Enactment of new Foreign Exchange Act in 2017 in the wake of Treasury bond scams. Critics say the repealing of time-tested exchange control law that has been in place for decades paved the way for exporters to ‘park’ export proceeds overseas. Of the 225 MPs, 94 voted for the new law whereas 18 voted against. In spite of Justice Minister, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, taking up this issue, both in and outside Parliament, remedial measures hasn’t been taken, to date. The Finance Ministry owed an explanation as to how it intended to compel the exporters to bring back export proceeds (3) Continuing public-private sector partnership in corrupt practices, particularly mis-invoicing (under invoicing and over invoicing of imports/exports) (4) Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila, MP, has moved the Supreme Court against the Central Bank Bill. The Attorney-at-Law alleged that the new law violated Article 3 and 4 of the Constitution hence needing the approval of the people at a referendum. In addition to Gammanpila, Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera and Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leader Wimal Weerawansa, too, moved the Supreme Court in terms of the Article 121 against the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ Former JVP MP Wasantha Samarasinghe, on behalf of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB), too, moved the Supreme Court in this regard.
A warning from Hanke
The country is in a bind. In spite of the execution of the agreement with the IMF later this month, the situation remains dicey. The absence of economic recovery plan continues to cause further instability.
Therefore, the government and the Opposition should seek a consensus on a national action plan, even if Local Government polls cannot be conducted in late April, regardless of the Supreme Court intervention.
Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics, at Johns Hopkins University, in the USA, recently issued a dire warning to Sri Lanka. Appearing on CNBC’s ‘Squawk Box Asia,’ Prof. Hanke declared Sri Lanka needs institutional reforms in order to achieve long-term debt sustainability.
Referring to Sri Lanka and what was described as emerging markets (Argentina and Montenegro), where he played a key role in establishing new currency regime, former economic advisor to US President Ronald Reagan warned “Unless you change the institutions and the rules of the game, governing these countries, they’re always going to remain in the same … situation that they’ve been in for a long time.”
Prof. Hanke added: “In fact, most of the personalities, involved in Sri Lanka ,at the high level, are exactly the same as they’ve been for years. So nothing has changed.”
In other words, those who have ruined Sri Lanka are spearheading the economic recovery process. The American is spot on. Sri Lanka is in a pathetic situation. Those who had systematically brought Sri Lanka to its knees, by pursuing ill-fated policies, emerged as its saviours. That is the bitter truth. The role of the executive, legislature, and judiciary, needs to be examined. Those who have moved the Supreme Court against the Bill, titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka,’ have quite conveniently forgotten how the Yahapalana government, and Central Bank, twice perpetrated Treasury bond scams. What would have Prof. Hanke said if CNBC raised Treasury bonds scams during ‘Squawk Box Asia.’
If not for Deepa Seneviratne, the then head of Public Debt Department, Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s role couldn’t have been proved. Former Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe said so at an event organized by the Colombo Municipal Council years ago.
Sri Lanka cannot forget Prof. Hanke’s remark in the CNBC programme. “You have to remember that we have a country that since 1965 has had 16 IMF programmes and they’ve all failed. You get temporary relief in anticipation of a bailout. But in the long run … none of these IMF programmes work.”
It would be pertinent to briefly examine how interested parties brazenly protected perpetrators of the Treasury bond scams.
Having named Mahendran as the Governor, regardless of the opposition from President Maithripala Sirisena, those planning to commit the first daylight robbery of the Central Bank moved Deepa Seneviratne to the Public Debt Department as its head, in spite of her not having had any previous experience in the particular division. It seems they had obviously felt comfortable in having a lady officer there they thought they could manipulate her to suit their need. But Seneviratne turned tables on the bond thieves by putting up a note to register her strong opposition to Mahendran’s move. She should have been rewarded for her fearless stand with at least a national honour if not an international one, even from bodies like the UN, the Transparency International, Amnesty International, etc. But it seems that even these international busy bodies have their own political angles.
It would be of pivotal importance to keep in mind that President Sirisena appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in January 2017, about 10 months after the second robbery, and two years after the first.
The Commission comprised Justice K.T. Chitrasiri, the late Justice P S Jayawardena and retired Deputy Auditor General V. Kandasamy. Sumathipala Udugamsuriya functioned as its Secretary. CoI issued a devastating report that implicated Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in the Treasury bond scams.
President Sirisena went to the extent of dissolving Parliament, in June 2015, to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) tabling its report on the first bond scam. SLFP leader Sirisena owes an explanation. Justice Chitrasiri’s CoI didn’t inquire into that aspect. Sri Lanka’s response to waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement is baffling. Let me end this piece reminding how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) secured a substantial sponsorship from Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) deeply mired in a bond scam, in 2016, for the Law Asia Conference during the tenure of its then President Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC. The BASL never explained why it obtained PTL sponsorship even after the exposure of Treasury bond scams. That partnership also escaped the CoI. The rest is history.
Knowing what is now happening to the US economy with a string of bank failures and unprecedented bailouts, especially due to hoodoo economics it introduced in recent decades, like repeated quantitative easing (blindly printing trillions of dollars leading many to say the dollar is now only good as toilet paper) that has been practiced to ensure its world hegemony, the whole world might be hit with bank failures and even by a depression worse than the one that befell with the stock market crash of 1929. Already the contagion has spread to Europe with some leading banks there also requiring help.
Washington’s debt now stands at USD 31 trillion and climbing, but our own debt burden is still under USD 55 billion. So if we can get our exporters, who have stashed export earnings abroad, to bring them back, the picture here will not be as scary as it is made out to be. Even Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse has said that our export proceeds that have been parked overseas is in the region of USD 55 billion.
Soonwe will start receiving the IMF bailout, but our economic whiz kids have not done anything to plug the massive foreign exchange leak that has been freely draining foreign currency from the country, since the nineties, by way of private foreign exchange dealers who have been allowed to sell foreign exchange to any Tom, Dick and Harry, including drug dealers, to take their sales proceeds out of the country!
We would also like to ask the relevant authorities what they have done to recover monies stashed abroad by Lankans illegally that were exposed in great detail by the likes of Panama Papers and Pandora Papers.
A Miscellany of Thought
N. A. de S. Amaratunga (2022)
A Review by G. H. Peiris
I cannot claim to have the scholarly competence to place under critical scrutiny all items in this collection of writings authored by Professor N. A. de S. Amaratunga, and published in The Island from time to time since the early years of the present century. Accordingly, this ‘review’ is no more than an attempt to convey to a wide readership my gratitude for what I have learnt from Professor Amaratunga’s insights on a series of metaphysical and secular issues that have figured prominently during the recent past in the arena of debate and discussion among our intellectual elite, my appreciation of his rational perceptions and his subtle banter in responding to bizarre elements in our public affairs.
As a brief introduction to the author I should state that Professor Amaratunga’s career record is featured by several decades of distinguished and dedicated service to the University of Peradeniya in teaching, research and clinical work. Acquiring advanced skills in the field of ‘Maxillofacial Surgery’, he has provided physical and psychological relief of life-long impact to thousands of patients. He is also credited to have trained several of his junior colleagues in the Faculty of Dental Science, had has served as its Dean. The offer he received from the Peradeniya University of the Prestigious Award of the ‘Degree of Doctor of Science’ is testimony to his eminence in Sri Lanka’s community of scholars and professionals.
What probably enhances Professor Amaratunga’s status among the intellectual elite of Sri Lanka is the fact that his talents, interests, and concerns have not been confined to professional expertise. He has authored several creative writings in Sinhala which the cognoscenti place at par with the best works of that genre. More relevant than all else to the present ‘commentary’ is his capacity for elucidating the essence of certain complex metaphysical issues – especially those of Buddhist philosophy ‒ with the same clarity of thought seen in his contributions to media forums on current affairs.
In his ‘Introduction’ to the volume Professor Amaratunga makes a categorical statement regarding the paradigmatic guidelines of his ‘thoughts’. They are rendered below in abridged form as follows:
(a) The distinctive elements of our island civilisation are derived from Theravada Buddhism and the Sinhala language.
(b) The leadership of Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics since the termination of British rule in the mid-20th century has continued to be impaired by a cultural duality – on one side of the divide, the ‘alienated’ whose behavioural values and norms bear the imprint of subservience to values prescribed by the ‘West’, and, on the other side, those who treasure our civilisational heritage and understand the needs and aspirations of the majority of our people.
(c) His standpoint is that of an ardent ‘nationalist’, in the sense that he is unequivocally committed to safeguarding and promoting Sri Lanka’s national interests.
On literature, Professor Amaratunga adds that he is inclined towards the need for ‘social relevance’ of the fine arts, and believes that the paradigm of ars gratia artis (‘art for art’s sake’) is inappropriate for Sri Lanka, especially in creative writing.
The ‘miscellany’ of this volume is structured to constitute four ‘Sections’ – titled as: 1. ‘Literature and Culture’; 2. ‘Religion’; 3. ‘Economy’; and 4. ‘Health’. The first two of these ‘Sections’, consist respectively of 25 and 19 essays of unequal length. In these ‘Sections’ the reader could pick out from different points of the temporal sequence in which they are arranged items that constitute a mutually cohesive group from the viewpoint of content. For example, in the first ‘Section’, there are six such items, each serving as a contribution to an ongoing media debate, but when considered as a group would be seen as an invaluable enrichment of understanding on a significant feature of the educational system of the country – such as, say, the impact of the nation-wide ‘Fifth-standard Scholarship Examination’ or ‘The general decline of standards in higher education’. Likewise, in the total of 18 articles in ‘Section’ 2, thirteen items could be considered as a mutually cohesive group of thoughts that illuminates certain vitally significant aspect of Buddha Dhamma and Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka.
The forgoing observations do not detract from the intrinsic value of the short contributions referred to. Indeed, in my amateur assessment, in Section 1, the items titled ‘Quality of University Education’, ‘Purpose of the Novel and its Appraisal’, and the twin items titled ‘Darwinian Evolution vs. Intelligent Design’; and in Section 2, ‘Truth in Buddhism and Realism in Literature’, and ‘Mind, Matter and Nirvana in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism’, are examples of the author’s extraordinary depth of understanding and his skill of disseminating that knowledge in a lucid form.
It is in the 3rd Section of the volume titled ‘Politics’ that the real ‘miscellany’ of Thought is found, consisting of 78 items, and accounting for well over half the total page-length of the volume. Since they have been presented in a chronological order ‒ with the first item published in 2001, and the last in 2021‒ the list of items, at first glance, looks like a total mess which, indeed, is how our politics look. But a closer scrutiny show that all items in this list could be placed in one or another of 6 ‘Sub-Sections’ titled as ‘Ethnic Relations’, ‘Foreign Affairs’, ‘Electoral Politics’, ‘Development Plans and Projects’, and ‘Constitutional Issues’, with the chronology of the list providing the vicissitudinous background of each contribution which Professor Amaratunga has made, and each discussion or debate in which he has participated.
Once again I should emphasise that foregoing observation does not imply that the ‘Thoughts’ in this section, read individually, are either uninteresting or irrelevant to our present concerns. On the contrary they offer ideal readings both as reminders of the volatile scenarios we have passed though during the past two decades as well as the unshakable faith our politicians appear to have on the widespread dementia among the voter-population and on their own ability to hoodwink the electorate. Professor Amaratunga’s thoughts could re-kindle fading memories, especially on repeated failures to fulfil campaign pledges, the large-scale losses due to financial malpractices, the allegations of ‘war-crimes’ and of ‘violation of human rights’ in the counter-attack by the major powers of the North Atlantic alliance in retaliation to Sri Lanka’s close relations with the People’s Republic of China, the ingredients of success in the US-sponsored ‘regime change’ effort culminating in the establishment in 2015 of a puppet government in Colombo, the betrayal of our national interests by our own self-seeking representatives at the protracted Geneva inquisitions, the constitutional fiasco of August 2018, the euphoric Gotabhaya victory about a year thereafter, and then, the stunning exposure by the pandemic of the fundamental weakness of our dependent economy.
In the 4th Section of the volume titled ‘Health’, most of the items are devoted to diverse experiences witnessed globally and in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in an unconventional manner in the sense that they emphasise significant aspects that have not received adequate attention in the analytical writings on the pandemic. In my view the most significant issue highlighted in this section is the need for Sri Lanka to adopt development strategies towards self-reliance, especially in the availability of medicinal drugs and on food-security. Implicit in several items of this section is a forewarning of the risks entailed in the pursuit of development policies that enhance Sri Lanka’s macroeconomic dependence on the major global and regional powers.
Many items in this miscellany of thoughts contain a prominent element of dissent and disagreement with other participants in the media debates and discussion for which The Island has served as a major forum. But that dissent has all along been featured by a laudable sense of “civilised intelligence”. As a professional whose skills have an intense demand, his interests and concerns have not remained confined to his professional expertise – a feature often seen among other ‘specialists’ including those of the university community.
This volume is, first of all, a demonstration of intense and well-informed concern on a wide range of issues of vital importance to Sri Lanka. Had that quality been more widespread it is unlikely that those earning six-figure incomes would threaten collective action to bring the economy to a standstill to express their dissatisfaction on a relatively marginal erosion of monthly emoluments at a time of unprecedented national crisis, attempting to conceal their avarice with a façade of safeguarding democracy, or eliminating public corruption, or on grounds of their capacity to earn higher incomes outside Sri Lanka.
Yet another exemplary feature I discern in this ‘Miscellany of Thoughts’ is that its contents are not angry knee-jerk reactions when provoked by thoughts different to his own. Professor Amaratunga’s dissent is entirely free of the crude clashes often seen in the so-called social media. Nor are his thoughts based on a hurried consumption of internet ‘short-eats’. In his thoughts that extend beyond brief corrective interjections of ‘common sense’, what we see is an extraordinary depth of knowledge acquired through serious reading and a thorough understanding of the issues on which he had focused.
Loneliness of the Bottom Half
By Lynn Ockersz
There you crouch by your hearth,
Seeing your fires sputtering out;
Your hopes of a bubbly pot of rice,
Ending in inflationary smoke spirals,
Leaving you with the painful thought,
That your dignity as mother and wife,
Is gravely harmed and beyond repair,
For, a turn of events not of your making,
Has reduced you and yours to penury,
So much for that Trickle-down Theory,
That Pundits say will end your misery,
But they tell you not to stop dreaming,
Because soon you will be bailed out,
Of your State of longsuffering;
Thanks to Princely tips from ancient Italy.
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