June 29, 2001: The late Rajeewa Jayaweera with the then CEO Peter Hill in Chennai where he was SriLankan Airlines Manager, Southern India. Pic was taken the night before Rajeewa left for France to take over as Manager, France (pic courtesy Sanjeewa Jayaweera)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
One-time SriLankan Airlines senior management employee, the late Rajeewa Jayaweera (RJ), in a series of articles, dealt mercilessly with the national carrier. The series of articles, published in The Island and The Sunday Island, reflected what can be easily described as the pathetic state of affairs in public finance.
The explosive reportage of the deterioration of SriLankan Airlines, between Feb 2015 and March 2020, underscored the overall failure on the part of the country’s supreme legislature, Parliament, to ensure financial discipline, not only at the national carrier, but the entire public sector, as well. The Colombo Telegraph, too, carried quite a number of RJ’s articles during this period.
Having perused the 143 page e-book, comprising 41 articles, recently, the writer asked COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath whether the national carrier came under the purview of his outfit, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or COPF (Committee on Public Finance). Lawmaker Herath responded: “Yes. Under the parliamentary watchdog COPE. We are going to summon them soon.”
Perhaps, RJ’s series of articles can be quite helpful to the parliamentary watchdog committees, if they are genuinely interested in taking remedial measures, in respect of the national carrier. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ), himself a contributor to The Island, and other media outlets, as well, hadn’t been successful in publishing the series of articles on the national carrier, as a book, to coincide with the first death anniversary of his brother RJ.
SJ’s attributed his failure to secure consent of a leading publisher as he didn’t own the intellectual property rights. SJ’s efforts to publish RJ’s articles on foreign relations, too, has met with a similar fate.
RJ’s body was found at Independence Square, on the morning of June 12, last year. He was 64 years at the time of his death.
At the inquest into the death of RJ, before the Colombo Chief Magistrate, Lanka Jayaratne, on June 22, 2020, it transpired that it was a suicide. RJ committed suicide on the night of June 11. SJ assured court that he was certain RJ committed suicide. When the writer inquired about the circumstances leading to RJ’s suicide, SJ reiterated he never had any suspicions about quite the unexpected, but meticulously planned suicide.
In a country where the Central Bank has been ‘raided’ not once but twice and every public sector enterprise brazenly ‘raped’ by successive governments, a set of published articles cannot be launched, in book form, in the absence of intellectual property rights.
Focus on national carrier
Of over 300 articles, authored by RJ, only a section dealt with the national carrier. RJ’s relentless campaign against those who had been responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities at SriLankan must have angered many of those wrongdoers for being exposed after having got everything swept under the carpet, as happens so often in this country.
Having served SriLankan Airlines for over 15 years, RJ had been in a much better position, than many, to comment on the ruination of the national carrier.
However, thick-skinned politicians, and top officials, didn’t publicly react to RJ’s comments. If they really understood the implications of the continuing disclosures, RJ would have earned their wrath. In his first piece on the national carrier, titled ‘SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals UL loss is over Rs. 100 bn’ on Feb 6, 2015, RJ in one sentence explained what went wrong with the public enterprise. Referring to the launch of, what he called, the ‘Gulf Carrier of Dubai,’ with USD 10 mn investment made by the then Ruler there, in 1985, RJ declared; “The secret of their success was the Ruler never appointed relatives, his minions, civil servants, ex-army generals nor businessmen to run the airline.”
Having joined the national carrier, as a Marketing Executive, in June 1989, he received a promotion as Manager (Advertising and Promotions) and subsequently served as Manager Oman and Yemen, Manager Southern India, Manager France, Benelux, Scandinavia and Southern Europe before quitting in July 1995. Thereafter, RJ served Qatar Airlines (August 2005 to October 2009) as Regional Manager Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Myanmar. RJ rejoined Sri Lankan Airlines and served as Manager Germany from October 2010 till May 2011 (during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President)
RJ had been in touch with the writer, though the national carrier was never the subject of discussions. The focus had always been on the conflict and post-war issues, particularly Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability issues. RJ had been severely critical of the way the yahapalana lot responded to the growing Western threat and, essentially, there was consensus that the then administration deliberately discarded Lord Naseby’s strategy which could have been quite useful, if properly used. RJ took his life three months after the incumbent government withdrew from the 2015 Geneva Resolution. If RJ was alive today, he would have been quite disturbed over how the incumbent administration, too, handled the Geneva issue. RJ used to call the writer at the latter’s home. On many occasions, the writer’s wife, Dilhani, overheard our noisy exchanges and used to inquire as to what was wrong. We used to disagree on the response of the UNP-led government and Joint Opposition/SLPP as regards foreign policy and accountability issues.
Let me get back to the plight of the national carrier. In a follow-up piece, dated Feb 11, 2015, RJ stated that: “The general perception is that Air Lanka/SriLankan Airlines is an expensive toy of the rulers of the day, and a few of the elite – all at the expense of the taxpayer.” Having said so, RJ stated: “Even though there is some truth in it, it is indeed not the whole truth. Contrary to general perception, the national carrier has played a pivotal role, both in helping the nation’s economy and welfare of its people by bringing the world to Sri Lanka and taking Sri Lanka to the world.”
The writer is of the view that RJ made a futile attempt (Feb 11, 2015 piece) to restore the much tarnished image of the national carrier. One cannot find fault with RJ for being lenient in a way immediately after he initiated the onslaught on the national carrier. Subsequently, RJ meticulously addressed issues at hand, thereby exposed ‘white-collar crime.’
RJ exposed both the SLFP and UNP administrations. Catchy titles attracted, both print and online readers, including the writer, though going through all 41 articles at a stretch provided an entirely different insight. RJ didn’t mince his words when he zealously hammered those who undermined the national carrier, through waste, corruption, irregularities and outright mismanagement.
If RJ didn’t take his own life, perhaps he wouldn’t have ever thought of launching a book, at least on an e-form. Thanks to SJ, now the entire set of articles is available online and this writer believes, in addition to lawmakers, especially heads of the watchdogs (Prof. Charitha Herath/COPE, Prof. Tissa Vitharana/COPA and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa/COPF), leaders of the major political parties (the writer wants to consider the UNP a major political party though being reduced to one National List slot) and the media should access the material. Let me reproduce the catchy titles given to RJ’s articles (1) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn (2) SriLankan Airlines: Parliament reveals loss is over Rs 100 bn: The unknown (3) What ails our national carrier (4) What ails our national carrier-continued (5) What ails our national carrier-iii (6) The passing of an aviation legend and lessons to be learnt (7) What ails out national carrier IV (8) National carrier’s Airbus story-going down the memory lane (9) All is not well @ SriLankan Airlines (10) SriLankan Airlines – a tale of state abuse and mismanagement, the ‘games’ Directors and VIPs played (11) SriLankan Airlines – exit strategy the need of the hour (12) Other side of the coin on Emirates deal – a comment (13) SriLankan Airlines – expensive toy of our politicians (14) A tale of two national carriers (15) Paris exit and Frankfurt exit by Airlines (16) Business Class divide at SriLankan Airlines (17) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry (18) Independent Inquiry at SriLankan Airlines goes awry-ii (19) What’s with 2015-16 annual report of SriLankan Airlines (20) Full time CEO to Part time CEO-pilot (21) No significant savings in procurement and fees paid to service providers (22) Brighter or darker skies over SriLankan Airlines (23) Total privatization only solution for SriLankan Airlines (24) SriLankan Airlines continues downward spiral (25) SriLankan Airlines total privatization or liquidation (26) More on SriLankan back on track (27) Saving the national carrier – a rejoinder (28) Minister Kabir Hashim’s hogwash (29) New brooms @ SriLankan Airlines (30) Who is managing SriLankan Airlines (31) Emirates remembers, the world remembers (32) More facts to remember on Emirates (33) India’s failed bid to disinvest Air India (34) Presidential air travel and the nut episode (35) Fleecing SriLankan Airlines (36) SriLankan violates Companies Act (37) Srilankan Airlines long overdue AGM (38) tale of woe continues @ SriLankan Airlines (39) SriLankan Airlines deal (40) USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines and (41) Evidence given before Presidential Commission of Inquiry
Absence of accountability
RJ’s series of articles highlighted a bleak picture not only at the national carrier but the entire public sector. In a way, the parliamentary committee system had pathetically failed in its responsibilities. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stands at a staggering Rs. 326 Bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses. A year after RJ’s suicide, the national economy is in tatters. The country would have been in a much stronger position, to weather the Covid-19 fallout, if not for waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Both former major political parties – the UNP and the SLFP – mercilessly abused the national carrier to their hearts’ content. Articles titled ‘SriLankan Airlines deal’ and USD 16.8 mn bribe at SriLankan Airlines discussed how the Rajapaksa and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration ruined the national carrier. The accountability on the part of President Maithripala Sirisena, as he was the head of the cabinet, cannot be ignored.
RJ alleged: “The Rajapaksas appointed relatives (This is not the reality). The Yahapalanites appointed friends from their alma mater and party hacks. The following are the Directors appointed by the Yahapalana government in February 2015 and their connections.
Chairman Ajith Dias (Prime Minister’s friend and ex-Royal College). Chanaka de Silva and Mahinda Haradasa, (PM’s friends, ex-Royal College, and members of UNP Working Committee), Rajan Brito (former President CBK’s friend), Hadindra Balapatabandi (former President Sirisena’s friend), Rakhitha Jayawardena (PM’s relative and old Thomian), Lt. Col. (Retd.) Sunil Peiris (Ravi Jayawardene’s friend and old Thomian), and N. De Silva Deva Aditya (PM’s friend and MP in European Parliament).
CEO Suren Ratwatte, a pilot by profession, was the younger brother of the PM’s financial advisor. Ratwatte’s ill-advised appointment had far-reaching consequences. At the end of six months, some directors wished to extend his probation period and assign Key Performance Indicators for evaluation in a few months. However, both the Prime Minister and Minister Kabir Hashim instructed the directors to confirm him in his post without delay (Board Minute 2.6 dated April 28, 2016)”.
RJ meticulously addressed contentious issues pertaining to the national carrier. Controversial SriLankan CEO Kapila Chandrasena received RJ’s attention. The expose of Chandrasena before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry should be re-examined against the backdrop of the arrest and the subsequent bail out of Kapila Chandrasena and his wife, Priyanka Niyomali Wijenayake over receiving USD 2 mn commission from Airbus Industrie in a deal that had been discussed in the official residence of the then Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on March 1, 2013. RJ quite aptly compared Speaker Rajapaksa’s initial denial of any knowledge of the meeting with that of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayke’s performance before CoI on Treasury Bond scams.
The government owed a public explanation as regards the status of the bankrupt national carrier. The ruination of the national carrier can be easily blamed on the top leaderships of the UNP and the SLFP. There cannot be any dispute over that or for anyone to be offended by the revelation of that fact. The then President’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickremesinghe conduct/misconduct received wide media coverage after the change of government. The Presidential CoI exposed the sorry state of affairs at the national carrier and how those at the helm caused irrevocable losses.
The shock return of Chandrasena
RJ, however, missed a crucial development in the national carrier close on the heels of President Sirisena sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government.
Only a section of the media, including The Island, reported the unbelievable development pertaining to the national carrier. The change of government paved the way for the return of Kapila Chandrasena, though the shocking revelations made in the Presidential CoI were still fresh in public minds. In fact, Chandrasena was one of the first appointments made by the 50-day government.
Civil society activist Gamani Viyangoda was one of the few people to publicly question the appointment. In a brief interview with the writer, Viyangoda alleged that Chandrasena’s appointment as Chairman of the debt-ridden SriLankan, in spite of an ongoing investigation, indicated that those who had exercised executive power previously were back in business (Civil society seeks explanation on top Sri Lanka appointment made amidst probe, The Island, Nov 14, 2018).
In the wake of the growing storm created by his shock reappointment, the government removed Chandrasena. The question is whether Chandrasena acted alone?
Subsequently, a high profile criminal investigation undertaken by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), too, implicated top SriLankan management in the bribery scandal. In the wake of media revelations pertaining to Priyanka Niyomali Chandrasena, nee Wijenayake, being offered up to USD 16 mn in bribes to pave the way for a massive deal involving a dozen new Airbus planes, President
Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for an investigation. This was in the first week of Feb 2020.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ordered a comprehensive investigation into reports of allegations over financial irregularities said to have been committed during the deal between SriLankan Airlines and Airbus SE for the purchase of aircraft,” his office said.
Of the amount offered, at least USD 2 mn had been received by Chandrasena’s wife. Nothing has been heard of that investigation since then. In fact, examination of COPE, COPA and COPF proceedings reveal that greater the fraud/corruption/irregularity/negligence the chance in suppressing the wrongdoing is guaranteed.
SJ should ensure that even though the intellectual property rights law has deprived him of an opportunity to publish a book comprising an entire set of articles on the ruination caused to SriLankan Airlines, as many people as possible receive the 41 e-articles. If not for RJ, there wouldn’t have been such a collection of articles on the national carrier. It should be compulsory reading for lawmakers and the past and the incumbent presidents. Those who wielded political power should be ashamed of the way they allowed the deterioration of the once proud national carrier.
The top management, as well as a section of utterly corrupt employees, brought the national carrier to disrepute. Proper investigation would reveal how many SriLankan employees, past and present, lived well beyond their means.
RJ cleverly used his coverage of the SriLankan Airlines to expose the depth of corruption not only in the ‘land like no other’ but the public and private sectors as well. Such mega waste, corruption and irregularities cannot take place without the public and private sectors working together. Robber barons and their minions lived in luxury whereas the vast majority of people struggled to make ends meet. The Covid-19 virus has now made the situation even worse. Having sort of compared investigations into Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, and SriLankan Airlines, at different levels, RJ quite rightly asserted that they were ‘AN UTTER WASTE OF PUBLIC FUNDS.’ If proper investigations are conducted into waste, corruption and irregularities in public and private sectors, political parties will have to be disbanded.
Let me end this piece by repeating what one-time Justice Minister and BASL President Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, said, in June 2019, at a media briefing at the Sri Lanka Foundation. In response to a query raised by the writer, the lawmaker said: “Yes. Parliament is the most corrupt institution in the country.”
Having switched his allegiance to the SLPP, from the UNP, Dr. Rajapakse remains a member of the most corrupt institution in the country.
GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations
By Shamindra Ferdinando
President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva recently questioned the failure on the part of the cash-strapped Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to provide electricity, without interruption, at least during the GCE Advanced Level examination.
The outspoken lawyer raised the issue with the writer, on January 23, the day the delayed examination began at 2,200 centres, with 331,709 students sitting the examination, countrywide. It was, originally, to commence on Dec. 05, 2022.
The constitutional expert pointed out how even in the implementation of daily power cuts, the CEB, obviously, discriminated against the population, at the behest of the political leadership, by excluding selected areas from, what he called, the daily scourge of living without electricity. Pointing out the responsibility of the media to take a strong stand on this issue, the President’s Counsel said that certain areas, categorized as ‘VIP,’ received a 24-hour, uninterrupted, power supply.
The CEB resorted to daily power cuts, last year, after a long time, during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time, as the economic crisis gripped the country, with the government unable to pay for the import of even basic needs, like gas, fuel, medicines, etc. At one time, there were 10- to 12-hour power cuts. The then Power and Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila, is on record as having said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ignored his plea for immediate small power cuts, to conserve what we had, at the beginning of the total breakdown, in January 2022, to lessen the full impact of the developing crisis hitting us at once down the road. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila pointed out that the President’s failure finally led to 12-13 hour power cuts, leading to the explosion of public anger, in the last week of March, 2022.
The continuing power crisis reflected the overall waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement, at every level, not only at the CEB, but the entire public sector, as well, over the past several decades.
The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) last Wednesday (25) to compel the CEB to ensure uninterrupted power supply, failed.
In spite of Commissioner, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, of the HRCSL, on its behalf, proudly claiming that it had secured a consensus with all stakeholders to suspend power cuts, ignoring all that, the CEB went ahead with the routine electricity supply interruptions.
The power crisis, coupled with an explosive cocktail of issues caused by Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its international loan commitments, contributed to the further deterioration of the country’s economy. The crisis affected Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2021, with the Easter Sunday carnage, and the pandemic, already having done much damage, especially to the vital tourism sector, among others, but President Rajapaksa’s government ignored the threat.
Appearing in a live programme, telecast simultaneously, both on stateowned and private television networks, the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged the then government hid Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before its inability to service foreign debt was officially acknowledged in early April last year. Having accepted the hot seat, in early April, last year, Dr. Weerasinghe announced suspension of repayment of loans, temporarily. In spite of progress made, the IMF USD 2.9 bn extended loan facility remained yet to be implemented.
What really caused the economic meltdown? Could President Gotabaya Rajapaksa averted public humiliation if he sought IMF’s intervention in early 2020? Who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from doing so, as Sri Lanka had knelt before the IMF on 16 previous occasions? His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the Finance portfolio, could have advised the President. Didn’t Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa advise his brother in this regard? And what was the role played by former Treasury Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, not just another run-of-the-mill economist. Having been seconded to the Treasury, from the Central Bank, from the time Ronnie de Mel was the Finance Minister, his exceptional talents were tapped by the Finance Ministry, even under President Premadasa, when R. Paskaralingam, of the Pandora Papers’ notoriety, was the Treasury Secretary. And he continued to serve the Treasury, under successive Presidents, thereafter, especially in the hot seat, as the Finance Ministry Secretary, in one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, during the final phase of the conflict, when it was a fight to a finish with the LTTE, especially after President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Couchner, to get lost when they went all the way down to Embilipitiya to tell Mahinda to stop the war to enable them to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran, and what was left of his terrorist movement, by a flotilla of vessels they were ready to dispatch to the coast of Mullaitivu. PBJ, no doubt, ensured that no expense was spared when waging the most costly war of attrition, while keeping the economy humming with massive infrastructure projects, like building expressways, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, etc. So it is quite puzzling why PBJ failed to guide President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the path of correct economic decisions. Surely it can’t be due to him past the retirement age.
After being Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during this turbulent period, Dr. PBJ was asked to go in Dec. 2021, when the former’s presidency had suffered irrevocable damage.
Leaving all the above aside, it must be stated here that whatever disagreements, or misunderstandings we may have had in the past, with New Delhi and Beijing, we should be eternally grateful to both India and China for being unwaveringly behind us in that most difficult final phase of the war.
Ex-CP Chief D.E.W. Gunasekera recently discussed the downfall of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes at the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. President Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022, in the wake of snowballing violent protests that began on March 31, outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana.
In a brief but fiery speech, the former Marxist minister explained how the wartime Defence Secretary caused the rapid deterioration of his government for want of a sound economic strategy. The retired public servant, who served as a lawmaker (2004-2015), found fault with President Rajapaksa for the ongoing political-economic-social crisis.
The veteran politician recalled how he suggested to the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to advice brother Gotabaya to seek Chinese assistance to overcome the impending financial crisis. The outspoken politician blamed it all on the economic reasons.
Gunasekera said so at the opening of Eastern School of Political Studies, at the newly renovated CP party office, at Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Borella, with the participation of Chinese International Department Vice Minister, Chen Zhou, and Acting Chinese Ambassador, Hu Wei.
Declaring that he himself warned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending crisis and provided a recovery plan in the run up to the last presidential election, held on Nov. 16, 2019, Gunasekera accused the fallen President of turning a blind eye.
The ex-minister placed the blame squarely on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
A different interpretation
Derana Chief, Dilith Jayaweera, at one time, one of the closest associates of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a YouTube interview with Eraj Weeraratne, discussed political developments, since 2018, leading to a violent public protest movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Jayaweera, who is also the Chairperson of the George Steuart Group, as well as George Steuart Finance Limited, squarely blamed the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, for the turbulent end to his rule.
Responding to a Weeraratne’s query, Jayaweera, declared lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa had no political future. The outspoken entrepreneur was unhesitant. Asserting twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, currently a member of Parliament, representing one-time Rajapaksa bastion, the Hambantota district, has lost his bearings, Jayaweera questioned the young politician’s sincerity.
Jayaweera didn’t mince his words when he declared that having failed to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of an opportunity to contest the 2019 Presidential Election, the one-time first family worked overtime to undermine his authority at every level. The first family went to the extent of supporting the ‘GotaGoHome’ campaign that compelled the President to give up power, without a fight.
Jayaweera attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha (formerly of the Navy) with #GotaGoHome# hashtag that became the clarion call of the high profile protest campaign to oust the previous President.
That tagline doesn’t belong to Aragalaya, Jayaweera declared, alleging that it grew out of the former first family’s inability to stomach Gotabaya Rajapaksa exercising executive power.
The controversial political strategist revealed the ex-first family’s angry reaction to his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “They believed I was trying to move the President out of the family’s orbit. But, the people wanted a Rajapaksa who didn’t represent the interests of the family.” Jayaweera said.
The intrepid local entrepreneur is convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa couldn’t overcome the combined challenge posed by the Rajapaksa family.
Responding to another rapid-fire question, Jayaweera explained how the Rajapkasa family thwarted President Rajapaksa’s move to appoint senior public servant, Anura Dissanayake, as his Secretary. But, the Rajapaksa family forced their loyalist Gamini Senarath, who had been Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Secretary, on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following the exit of PBJ, Jayaweera claimed. According to him, that was definitely the worst example of the Rajapaksa’s family’s interference that rapidly weakened Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency.
The appointment of Dr. Jayasundera, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretary, should be examined against the backdrop of Jayaweera’s disclosure that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been so critical of any other individual during private conversations he had with him.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cardinal sin was nothing but the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Jayaweera declared. That controversial piece of legislature created an extremely hostile political environment and gradually weakened President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority, Jayaweera said, recalling how Basil Rajapaksa forced his way into Parliament, on the SLPP National List, regardless of political consequences.
Jayaweera said that he received an assurance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presence of SLPP National List MP, Gevindu Cumaratunga, that enactment of the 20th Amendment at the expense of the 19th A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t keep his promise. Therefore, he should be accountable for the subsequent developments which preceded the demise of his political authority.”
Jayaweera explained how the Rajapaksas interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll for their advantage. “The family asserted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a staggering 6.9 mn votes due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. So, the family asserted that the new President should pursue their agenda. The family appointed Dr. Jayasundera as the Presidential Secretary.
Basil Rajapaksa believed he should be able to control Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa justified his overall political authority on the basis his SLPP secured a near 2/3 majority in Parliament, in addition to Opposition support that underlined their supremacy.”
Jayaweera described how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to take up residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, do away with gaudy practice of hanging pictures of the President in government buildings, excessive use of vehicles and, most significantly, approval of unsolicited bids, angered the former first family. Those who immensely benefited from such ‘unsolicited bids’ reacted angrily, he said.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions jolted racketeers, Jayaweera alleged, pointing out that the new leader quickly lost support within the Cabinet-of-Ministers, by denying those corrupt elements an opportunity to make money, through the promotion of unsolicited bids. They couldn’t bear the shock of Cabinet papers submitted through the family or the intervention of the family being rejected, Jayaweera said, alleging that those who lived off such racketeering spearheaded the campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The ‘Aragalaya’ entered the scene much later and exploited the situation to the hilt as the government parliamentary group quite conveniently abandoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Those present in Parliament didn’t challenge SJB MP Harin Fernando when he ridiculed the President repeating the ‘Sir fail’ mantra, Jayaweera said.
The parliamentary group, particularly those corrupt in the Cabinet, felt there was no point in defending a President who didn’t allow them to make money.
Jayaweera also ridiculed the inclusion of four persons who wore kurahan satakaya (maroon shawl) among President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. Jayaweera questioned the justification of bestowing five Cabinet portfolios on Namal Rajapaksa.
Relationship with JVP
The Derana Chief discussed a range of other issues, including his long standing relationship with the JVP, subsequent disputes with the Marxist party, and differences with the current leadership.
Dilith Jayaweera seems to be on a collision course with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, especially over allegations directed at him as regards corruption in the procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Denying any wrongdoing on his part in spite of his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jayaweera declared his readiness to battle it out on a public platform. While acknowledging that his enterprises handled procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process, Jayaweera challenged the JVP leader Dissanayake to prove publicly how he engaged in corrupt practices.
Jayaweera gave an open undertaking to personally lead JVP’s Local Government polls campaign if the record could be set straight by such a debate.
Recalling his close contacts with the JVP in the past and him having participated in their well-known five classes’ indoctrination programme to all new comers, Jayaweera disclosed how he spearheaded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 presidential election campaign in which the Marxist party played a significant role. Slain Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s residence had been their meeting point where they discussed political strategy. Wimal Weerawansa had been the JVP representative at such meetings on some occasions, Jayaweera said.
Reference was made to the JVP split in the wake of the then Somawansa Amarasinghe led party declaring its intention to vote against the 2008 budget. Had that happened, the military campaign would have been derailed, Jayaweera said, comparing the JVP’s political strategy with that of the UNP.
“At a time, the vast majority of Sri Lankans desired the eradication of the LTTE, the JVP adopted a strategy that clearly aligned with the UNP’s treacherous approach,” Jayaweera said. Reference was made to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his MPs, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and the late Mangala Samaraweera questioning the military strategy and even the competence of the then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Jayaweera commented on a possible deal the JVP had with some party while referring to the availability of large scale NGO funding for those who undermined the war effort.
Recalling the success of his high profile ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign in support of the war effort, particularly meant to attract the youth to join the armed forces, Jayaweera also criticized the JVP strategy towards the end of its second rebellion 1987-1990 when it targeted those in the socialist camp as it was being decimated by the then government death squads.
Answering questions regarding Derana coverage as well as editorial policy of his daily and weekly newspapers, Jayaweera emphasized that he never interfered with them under any circumstances. The media mogul pointed out how Derana TV and newspapers followed different policies while reminding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s angry reaction to their reportage of developments taking place. “Our reportage reflected the reality. We couldn’t save the government,” he said.
Jayaweera discussed how his strategy differed from that of late Raja Mahendran of the Capital Maharaja Group. Although TNL was launched before Sirasa, the latter received the attention, Jayaweera said, emphasizing Raja Mahendran’s steadfast policy that the owner of the private channel controlled the news content.
Pressed for further explanation, Jayaweera acknowledged that he always exploited situations and created an environment necessary to influence the media. “That strategy is meant to inspire all media, not only Derana,” Jayaweera said.
Jayaweera and Weeraratne also discussed the simmering controversy over the JVP having as much as Rs 8 bn in funds as alleged by Jayaweera, with Derana Chief stressing that whatever the counter arguments the fact remains the JVP had substantial amount of funding. Questioning the credibility of lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake against the backdrop of a section of the media highlighting lies propagated by the JVP leader, Jayaweera declared his readiness to help the party. But, that would depend on the JVPers willingness to appear with him in a live debate to clear the whole gamut of issues at hand.
Jayaweera also recalled the allegations pertaining to the procurement of antigen test kits directed at him by lawmaker Rajapaksa. Dismissing Namal Rajapaksa’s allegations as irrelevant, Jayaweera stressed that MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake should be given an opportunity to rectify his mistakes.
Jayaweera recalled his close association with Dissanayake at the time the latter served as the Agriculture Minister of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led UPFA-JVP ‘Parivasa’ government. A smiling Jayaweera said though the JVP wanted to build 1,000 new tanks, it couldn’t complete at least one properly. Declaring he accompanied Dissanayake to various parts of the country,
Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.
At the conclusion of perhaps the most important interview that dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unceremonious exit from politics, Jayaweera commented on an often asked query whether Aragalaya was a conspiracy?
Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to give up political power not because of him, Jayaweera recalled how he warned in 2008 of the impending economic crisis and Dr. Jayasundera’s role in it. That warning was issued at the launch of Sinhala translation of John Perkins’s ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman,’ Jayaweera said, declaring that the former first family initiated the conspiracy that was subsequently exploited to the hilt by various interested parties, including Western powers.
There cannot be any dispute over how Gotabaya Rajapaksa was derailed and who contributed to that despicable strategy. Perhaps, social media influencer, who interviewed him should have asked Jayaweera about a few other issues that ruined the once much respected Defence Secretary.
The crisis created cannot be discussed leaving out the ill-fated fertilizer ban (2021), catastrophic cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) project funded by Japan(2020), allegations directed at Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Prime Minister’s Secretary Gamini Senarath (both denied these accusations) pertaining to procurement of fertiliser from India and China, respectively and the failure on the government’s part to implement recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.
The writer remembers how he ran into Jayaweera and Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bishop’s House in the run up to 2019 presidential election when the latter visited Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to assure that justice would be done.
Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:
‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed
“Black cat, at the tip of my fingers pulsates poetry,
Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine
In the soft light of the moon
The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”
Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)
by Laleen Jayamanne
Asifa, a young girl, and her elderly mother, living in Kattankudy, Baticaloa, are two fictional characters at the centre of Ashfaque Mohamed’s quietly powerful first feature film, titled Face Cover, which just premiered at the 2023 Jaffna International Film Festival (JIFF). As the President of the international jury judging the films in this year’s debut film competition at the JIFF (but on zoom from Australia), I have seen some highly sophisticated films from Bangladesh and India (the winners), immensely enjoyable and informative, but have chosen, for the purposes of this article, to write on Ashfaque’s thought provoking film that didn’t make it into the debut film competition. My decision to do so is part of my own politics as a film scholar who has, over the decades, often highlighted and laboured over films that may not necessarily be popular, or current, or even easily understood, for that matter. Eye-catching films often are popular, and many critics spend a lot of energy writing about them as is their prerogative. I, too, do that when moved, as I have been by Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular ELVIS. But, it’s important to me, as a Lankan-Australian film critic/scholar, to focus also on work that at first may appear opaque, may not fit into my own limited viewing habits and preferences, first and foremost. This way, I learn to learn from film even as I grow old. Face Cover has uncovered for me micro-histories of ethnic relations in Lanka in astonishing and moving ways. It’s certainly a film for our times, and in my opinion, Ashfaque is a young Lankan filmmaker of great promise. It is also heartening to note that he is cine-literate and (as he says), is self-taught as a filmmaker.
While the opening and closing screenings of the festival were at the Cinemas Movie Theatre, the rest of the festival films were shown at the University of Jaffna, largely due to the ongoing grave financial crisis affecting the country as a whole. I gather it’s the only film festival held in Sri Lanka, continuously, since the civil war ended, after 30 years, and is an admirable institution, powered by its Director, and curator of film, Anoma Rajakaruna’s unceasing energy and vision, which builds bridges among the various ethnic groups and cinephiles from across the entire country and crucially South Asia and further afield, in that once war-ravaged city. The following is the film’s blurb.
“Taking the cataclysmic Easter Sunday Bombings of Churches and Hotels in April 2019, by ISIS inspired Islamists in Sri Lanka as the point of departure, the film follows the life of Asifa in Kattankdy, in Eastern Sri Lanka, as she navigates the complex social forces shaping her and other women’s stories. The film tells the story of the town, as a woman’s tale. The film is experimental in form and mixes genres and conventions.”
The main fictional story line of the mother and daughter is interwoven with (what appears at first to be), documentary interviews and testimonies given by ‘real’ people, not fictional characters. However, towards the end of the film one realises that the demarcating lines between documentary and fiction have indeed been blurred. There are hints of this earlier, in the four scenes forming the large sequence ‘performed’ on a proscenium stage, as well. This blurring appears to be the result of an unusual aesthetic and political decision, which I wish to explore here. Perhaps the politics of the film are linked to this bleeding of the actual into the fictional and the reverse also. How does this device enable Face Cover to uncover subtle operations of power in a predominantly Muslim area of Lanka, in the post-war era, soon after the Easter Sunday bombings as well? The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ certainly gets elaborated quietly but quite decisively in exploring the agency of the young Muslim girl, Asifa, on the cusp of womanhood, as well. I am assuming here (as I think the film itself does), that a politics of cinema has to work on two fronts simultaneously, not only on the choice of subject/story, but also on HOW it is told, elaborated. For what’s at stake are, our powers of perception and understanding, through images and sounds, that touch us in unexpected ways. Film, I believe, can be our mentor, we can learn from film in the most enjoyable and unexpected of ways, to undo our prejudiced ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. Face Cover continues to be a revelation to me in this regard, even after multiple viewings, especially so.
, the title of Ashafque’s film, is in itself fascinating. Why didn’t he use the globalised Arabic word Niqab for instance? The words ‘Face Cover’ (I learn), are the same in Tamil, the English words simply transliterated and incorporated into the vernacular. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to the practice of partially covering a woman’s face, as required by some Muslim norms. A Tamil friend suggested that it connotes both the intimacy of a piece of cloth and a sense of distance of appropriated foreign words. Perhaps this sense of ambivalence is a unique Lankan invention not perceptible in the pure Arabic official word for the practice, which is Niqab. What’s fascinating to me is that, before I saw the film and learnt about the connotations of the title Face Cover, I thought it would be a ‘hot’, topical film on a subject that has caused a great deal of debate in the West (France for example), and protests, most recently in Iran which turned violent and then garnered supporters in some Western countries especially among some feminists. It’s a topic that the Western white media finds especially irresistible. But I was mistaken to take the title Face Cover at face value, as a sign of a polemical film. And what was most surprising to me about the film was that I wrote a long email to a friend, soon after I saw the film for the first time and realised the next day that I had said absolutely nothing about the ‘problem’ of the face cover, despite having discussed the film at some length.
When I realised what I had done, I resaw the film which brought up a lot of questions but no answers, so I saw the film yet again for the third time. This time round the film began to slowly open up to my attention. It is a film, I realised, that requires a quiet focus, an attentiveness, as when one enters an unfamiliar social milieu, like when one takes one’s shoes off to go into certain places of worship in Lanka, or as it happens to some houses in Australia. Similarly, while music is used, it does so very sparingly, so that when we do hear it, it speaks in a way that wall to wall music does not, cannot. In these ways our quality of attention is tuned like a musical instrument. In fact, the only time the face cover became a ‘hot topic’ in the film was when a Sinhala trader, in a shop, makes it so by shouting at a young woman wearing a face cover. He aggressively asks her why she has her face covered and the young girl responds forcefully, asking why he wants to see her face, etc. Apart from this verbal stoush, (the only time Sinhala is heard in the film), and one re-enactment on a stage, of an Army check-point scene, from the civil-war era, the face cover itself is not conceived as a ‘problem’ to be addressed by the film. In the staged check-point scene, a soldier, carrying a gun, orders a young woman, in Tamil, to unmask at the point of his gun and she simply obeys the command. The soldier is meant to be Sinhala speaking an accented Tamil. So apart from these two ‘dramatic’ incidents, instigated by hostile people with authority and power, the face cover is not a focus of the film, it’s simply a given. Though there is a strong criticism of the Muslim male undergraduate practice of erasing the faces of female office bearers on student council photographs, at several Universities. A young Muslim woman astutely refers to this gender discrimination as a ‘digital veiling,’ images of which are displayed. This kind of internal criticism is very forceful and one hopes that Muslim male undergraduates will reflect on it and mend their ways. The check-point scene does function as a parable. More on the use of dramatic parables later, in a film where there is very little ‘drama’ in this sense of confrontations. Instead, momentous events transpire on Television News of the Easter Sunday bombings which frames the film and dates it to be set in 2019. But previous violent histories are folded into every-day-life and narrated as recollections, and an inventive mix of techniques of staged interviews and testimonies and ‘real’ interviews, replace drama, understood as actions and reactions reaching a crescendo.
Often the interviews are played as voice-over while the person concerned goes about her every-day business, mute. This technique makes the film’s narration flexible, allowing room to play with our attention, an eye here and the ear there. I think that Ashfaque’s ethico-aesthetic sensibility evident here is a part of his film politics. I find myself listening attentively to the voice-over which rhetorically oscillates between answers to questions (which are themselves unheard), and an interior monologue. I found the texture, timbre, inflections and rhythms of the voices, especially those of the mother and daughter, very engaging, moving. Lankan cinema has not developed the autonomous potentialities of the sound track as much as it could, I think.
as a Lure
I was a bit slow to realise that the title, Face Cover, is a lure. It lures us into the film as a certain idea of the veil might. The veil is an alluring metaphysical idea in Kumar Shahani’s film Khyal Gatha for instance, which explores both Hindu Bhakti and Sufi Islamic traditions of spirituality as expressed in music, song and art in India which bypass both the priest and the religious institutions they control. ‘Khayal’ is an Urdu word derived from Persian which means ‘imagination,’ and is the name of a classical musical form. The idea of the ‘veil’ in Persian Sufi traditions is a complex idea, put very simply, it suggests that, reality itself is veiled (filtered, subtilised), and its perception depends on certain spiritual aesthetic practices, which reveal the imperceptible and the intangible, within the hum-drum of every-day existence. The veil as a spiritual idea, on the one hand, and the mask or ‘face cover’ socially mandated by certain Islamic patriarchal assumptions, on the other, are of course worlds apart in their conception and function and the feelings they evoke. As devout Roman Catholic girls, taught religion by Irish Catholic nuns at school, we always had to cover our heads modestly with veils when going to church.
Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire
By Lynn Ockersz
The war tanks are battle-ready,
Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,
At the first call to arms,
By a strong arm gentry,
Eyeing its spoils of power and office,
Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,
But those whom it sees as subjects,
Are now hitting their mats at night,
On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,
Left very much on their own to die,
Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.
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