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Midweek Review

How Shangri-La made Akuregoda Defence Complex a reality

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Front view of Akuregoda Defence Complex

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who made a new Defence Complex a reality, visited the sprawling building in his capacity as the President, Defence Minister and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on the morning of August 3. It was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s maiden visit to the Army Headquarters, located within the partially completed Defence Complex.

In addition to the Army Headquarters, the Defence Ministry, too, has been moved to the Defence Complex whereas the work on the Navy and Air Force Headquarters are underway. The reportage of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit didn’t take into consideration how such a massive project came into fruition.

The war-winning Mahinda Rajapaksa government laid the foundation for the building project on May 11, 2011, two years after the eradication of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a military threat that was tearing apart the nation for nearly 30 years. The high profile project, on a 77 acre land, at Akuregoda, Pelawatta, was meant to bring the Army, Navy, and the Air Force headquarters, and the Defence Ministry, to one location.

The project is the largest single building venture undertaken by the government after the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009, and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s a landslide victory at 2010 presidential, beating war-winning Army Commander the then General Sarath Fonseka.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the 2015 presidential election, and the still raging Covid-19 epidemic, caused considerable delay. It would be pertinent to mention that the 19th Amendment enacted by now estranged Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 deprived the former’s successor from holding the defence portfolio. Having won the presidency in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa brought in the 20thA in Oct, 2020 at the expense of the 19thA to eliminate legal impediments preventing him from taking over the Defence portfolio.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to Akuregoda would have definitely taken place much earlier, under a very different environment, if not for the eruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, just a few months after his victory at the Nov 2019 election. The worst post-World War II crisis that had caused devastating losses to national economies, the world over, and delivered a staggering blow to Sri Lanka, heavily dependent on tourism, garment exports and remittances by its expatriate workers. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t minced his words when he publicly acknowledged the catastrophe caused by the plunging of the national income and the daunting challenge in debt repayment amounting to as much as USD 4 bn annually.

The decision to shift the tri-forces headquarters and the Defence Ministry (The Defence Ministry situated within the Army Headquarters premises) caused a media furor with the Opposition alleging a massive rip-off. The then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterated his commitment to the project. If not for the change of government in 2015, the Akuregoda Defence Complex would have been completed during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s third term. Had that happened, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wouldn’t have emerged as the then Opposition presidential candidate at the 2019 poll. The disastrous yahapalana administration and the overall deterioration of those political parties, represented in Parliament, and the 19thA that barred Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting the presidential election, beyond his two terms, created an environment conducive for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s emergence as the newly registered SLPP’s candidate.

On his arrival at the new Army headquarters, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was welcomed by General Shavendra Silva, who is also the Chief of Defence Staff. Thanks to the incumbent President’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, the then Maj. Gen Shavendra Silva was promoted to the rank of Lt. Gen and appointed the Commander of the Army on Aug 18, 2019, just three months before the presidential poll. The appointment was made in spite of strong opposition of the UNP leadership and US criticism.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promoted the Army Commander to the rank of a Four-Star General on Dec 20, 2020.

The Army moved into new headquarters on Nov 8, 2019, about its a week ahead of the presidential election, in the wake of President Sirisena declaring it open before he went out of office, though work on the rest of the defence complex was far from over.

Shangri-La move

During the presidential election campaign, SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa strongly defended his decision to vacate the Army headquarters during Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency to pave the way for the Shangri-La-Hotel in Colombo. Shangri-La was among the hotels targeted by the Easter Sunday bombers – the only location targeted by two of them, including mastermind Zahran.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is on record as having said that vacation of the site had been in accordance with first executive President J.R. Jayewardene’s decision to move key government buildings away from the city.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that a despicable attempt was being made to blame him for the Army Headquarters land transaction. “I have been accused of selling the Army Headquarters land to the Chinese.”

Rajapaksa explained that Taj Samdura, too, had been built on a section of the Army headquarters land, previously used to accommodate officers’ quarters and the Army rugger grounds. Although President Jayewardene had wanted the Army headquarters shifted, successive governments couldn’t do that due to the war and lack of funds, he said.

The Rajapaksa administration brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared open Shangri-La Colombo on Nov 16, 2017. Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Asia invited Gotabaya Rajapaksa for dinner the following day after the opening of its Colombo hotel. Shangri-La Chairperson, Kuok Hui Kwong, the daughter of Robert Kuok Khoon Ean, was there to welcome Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had cleared the way for the post-war mega tourism investment project. Among those who had been invited were former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, former Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and President’s Counsel Gamini Marapana, PC.

The Cabinet granted approval for the high profile Shangri-La project in Oct 2010 and the ground-breaking ceremony was held in late Feb 2012.

Rajapaksa said that the Shangri-La proprietor, a Chinese, ran a big operation based in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Another parcel of land was given to the mega ITC hotel project also during the previous Rajapaksa administration.

Following the change of government in January 2015, the remaining section of the Army headquarters land, too, was handed over to Shangri-La.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa emphasised that the relocation of the headquarters of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as the Defence Ministry, had been part of JRJ’s overall plan. The change of government, in January 2015, had caused a serious delay in completing the project and it was proceeding at a snail’s pace, Rajapaksa said. Even Parliament was shifted to Kotte in accordance with the JRJ plan, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, explaining his move to relocate all security forces’ headquarters and Defence Ministry into one complex at Akuregoda.

Acknowledging that the Army headquarters had been there at Galle Face for six decades, Rajapaksa asserted that the Colombo headquarters wasn’t tactically positioned.

Rajapaksa blamed the inordinate delay in the completion of the Akuregoda complex on the Treasury taking hold of specific funds allocated for the project.

New Defence Complex

Army Chief Gen. Shavendra Silva welcomes President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Major Gen. Udaya Nanayakkara had been the first Director, Project Management Unit, with overall command of approximately 5,000 tri-forces personnel assigned to carry it out. The Shangri-La transaction provided the wherewithal to implement the Akuregoda project though the change of government caused a setback. Nanayakkara, who had served as the Military Spokesman, during Eelam War IV, oversaw the military deployment, whereas private contractors handled specialised work such as piling, AC, fire protection and fire detection et al. The then MLO (Military Liaison Officer) at the Defence Ministry Maj. Gen Palitha Fernando had laid the foundation for the project and the work was going on smoothly when the yahapalana administration withheld funds. Political intervention delayed the project and by Sep 2015, Nanayakkara was replaced by Maj Gen Mahinda Ambanpola, of Engineer Service.

In spite of President Sirisena holding the Defence portfolio, he couldn’t prevent the top UNP leadership from interfering in the Akuregoda project. However, the Shangri-La project had the backing of A.J.M. Muzammil, the then UNP Mayor and one of the close confidants of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Muzammil was among those present at the ground breaking ceremony held on Feb 24th, 2012 with the participation of Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Having identified the invaluable land, where the Army Headquarters and Defence Ministry were situated, for its project, Shangri-La made its move. Those who had been aware of Shangri-La’s plans were hesitant and certainly not confident of their success. They felt fearful of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa’s reaction.

But, following swift negotiations, they finalised the agreement on Dec 28, 2010. Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya was the then Commander of the Army, with his predecessor General Fonseka in government custody after having been arrested within two weeks after the conclusion of the 2010 January 26 Presidential poll.

Addressing the annual Viyathmaga Convention at Golden Rose Hotel, Boralesgamuwa, on March 4, 2017, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, perhaps for the first time publicly discussed his role in the Shangri-La project. Declaring that Sri Lanka suffered for want of what he called a workable formula to achieve post-war development objectives, the war veteran stressed the pivotal importance of swift and bold decision-making.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa explained how the government had acted swiftly, and decisively, to attract foreign investment though some such efforts were not successful. There couldn’t be a better example than the government finalising an agreement with Shangri-La Hotels, he said.

Declaring that the bureaucratic red tape shouldn’t in any way be allowed to undermine investments, Rajapaksa recalled Chairman/CEO of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Robert Kuok Khoon Ean, wanting the Army headquarters land for his Colombo project. In fact, the hotels chain, at the time, had proposed to build hotels in Colombo, Hambantota and Batticaloa, and was one of the key investors wanting to exploit Sri Lanka’s success in defeating terrorism.

“Khoon-Ean’s request for the Army headquarters land caused a serious problem for me. It was a serious challenge. How could I shift the headquarters of the war-winning Army? The Army had been there for six decades. It had been the nerve centre of the war effort for 30 years,” said Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa went on to explain how he exploited a decision taken by the first executive president J.R. Jayewardene to shift the Army headquarters to Battaramulla, many years back. “Within two weeks, in consultation with the Secretary to the Finance Ministry, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, and the Board of Investment, measures were taken to finalize the transaction. The project was launched to shift the Army, Navy and Air Force headquarters to Akuregoda, Pelawatte, in accordance with JRJ’s plan.”

The Hong Kong-based group announced the purchase of 10 acres of state land, in January 2011. Shangri-La Asia Limited announced plans to invest over USD 400 mn on the 30-storeyed star class hotel with 661 rooms.

The hotel is the second property in Sri Lanka for the leading Asian hospitality group, joining Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa, which opened in June 2016.

Rajapaksa said that the top Shangri-La executive had referred to the finalisation of their Colombo agreement to highlight the friendly way the then administration handled the investment. Shangri-La had no qualms about recommending Sri Lanka as a place for investment, Rajapaksa said.

The writer explained the move to shift the Army headquarters and the Defence Ministry from Colombo in a lead story headlined ‘Shangri-La to push MoD, Army Hq. out of Colombo city: Army Hospital expected to be converted into a museum’ (The Island, January 4, 2011).

In the wake of the January 2015 change of government, the new leadership caused chaos with the suspension of the China-funded Port City Project, a little distance away from the Shangri-La project. Many an eyebrow was raised when the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake declared, in March, 2015, that funds wouldn’t be made available to the Akuregoda Defence Complex project until the exact cost estimation of the project could be clarified.

Media quoted Karunanayake as having said “Presently, this project seems like a bottomless pit and we need to know the depth of what we are getting into. From the current state of finances, allocated for this project, it seems as if they are building a complex that’s even bigger than the Pentagon!”

The insinuating declaration was made despite them having committed the blatant first Treasury bond scam in Feb 2015 that shook the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.

In June 2016, Cabinet spokesperson, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne announced the suspension of the Akuregoda project. Citing financial irregularities and mismanagement of funds, Dr. Senaratne alleged that all Cabinet papers on the project had been prepared according to the whims and fancies of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The suspension order was made public a few months after the second far bigger Treasury bond scam, in 2016 March. As sharp differences emerged between President Sirisena and the UNP, the former threw his weight behind the Akuregoda project. President Maithripala Sirisena on Sept 5, 2017, inspected the Akuregoda Defence Complex, as well as the Lotus Tower, under construction.

Within weeks after President Rajapaksa’s defeat, the new administration made its move against the Akuregoda project.

The following is The Island front page story, dated January 19, 2015: “Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, in the third week of January, said that Rs 13.2 billion, in an account maintained at the Taprobane branch of the Bank of Ceylon had been transferred to Consolidated Fund of the Treasury. The matter was being investigated as the account belonged to the Ministry of Defence, he added.

The Finance Minister stressed that the MoD had no right to maintain such an account in violation of regulations and therefore the opening of the account was being investigated. The Minister alleged that several illegal transactions, including one involving Samurdhi, had come to light. He estimated the Samurdhi transaction (now under investigation) at Rs. 4 billion.

Responding to the allegation, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that the funds received from the Shangri-La transaction had been deposited there and the funds utilised for the construction of Akuregoda Defence Complex.

The former Defence Secretary said that the chief accountant of the Defence Ministry could explain the matter. Insisting that the particular account hadn’t been in his name, Rajapaksa said that a detailed response would be issued shortly (Ravi K orders Rs 13.2 b in MoD account transferred to Treasury, with strapline, Funds were meant for Defence Complex – Gotabaya).

The writer obtained the above statements from Karunanayake and Rajapaksa in the wake of the former’s statement that the Akuregoda Defence Complex was even bigger than the US Defence Headquarters Pentagon.

Yahapalana

role in Shangri-La expansion

In spite of strongly objecting to almost all projects launched by the previous government, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration pledged their commitment to them. Yahapalana support extended to Shangri-La is a case in point. Having secured 10 acres from the previous Rajapaksa administration, Shangri-La purchased an additional three and a half acres, also on a 99-year lease, recently.

However, The Sunday Times reportage of the second Shangri-La land deal prompted President Maithripala Sirisena to direct Cabinet spokesman, Dayasiri Jayasekera, to clarify the transaction. In other words, President Sirisena contradicted Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema for alleging that the President gave three and a half acres, situated between the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel and Beira Lake.

Jayasekera explained the circumstances under which Shangri-La, through its Singapore based subsidiary Perennial Real Estate Holdings acquired three and a half acres adjoining its latest hotel, situated on 10 acres, abutting the Galle Face promenade, in Colombo.

On the day before the opening of Shangri-La by President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe, Jayasekera explained how the government had re-negotiated with the Shangri-La Group what he called a much better deal than the one struck by the previous administration.

Jayasekera confirmed that the lease was for a period of 99 years. The government leased three and a half acres of land at a rate of Rs. 13.1 mn per perch whereas the previous administration agreed to Rs 6.5 mn per perch. According to Jayasekera the previous government had leased 10 acres at a rate of Rs 9.5 mn (with taxes) per perch.

The bottom line is in spite of opposition, the UNP backed controversial projects. The UNP’s opposition to the Shangri-La project, in a way similar to the campaign carried out against the Chinese investment in the Hambantota port. The UNP in 2017 handed over the Hambantota port on a 99-year-lease to China.



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Midweek Review

Govt. in dilemma over anti-terrorism law:

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Tamil speaking people protest in Batticaloa on Feb 23, 2019 against the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) and the proposed CTA (Counter Terrorism Act). They demanded the abolition of anti-terrorism laws.

No letup in Int’l, civil society pressure

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Under any circumstances, post-war Sri Lanka cannot ignore international concerns as regards the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (No 48 of 79).

A section of the international community wants Sri Lanka to amend the PTA without further delay. The civil society organisation, One-Text Initiative (OTI) has pointed out repealing the PTA is a necessity underscored by the European Union and the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as well as by Western-funded civil rights organisations and international agencies. It would be pertinent to mention that the OTI came into being in 2003 in the wake of the Norway arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). The CFA, too, made reference to the PTA. The following is the relevant section 2.12: The parties agree that search operations and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act shall not take place. Arrests shall be conducted under due process of law in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code. Therefore, the public should know the PTA had been an issue for the LTTE, too.

Following the 5th Meeting of the European Union – Sri Lanka Working Group on Good Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights on Sept. 29, 2021, they issued a comprehensive statement.

Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim: “Sri Lanka provided an update on the action in process to review the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and reiterated its commitment to bring it in line with international norms and standards within a time bound process. The EU and Sri Lanka agreed to take stock of the progress in this regard by the next meeting of the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission in early 2022. The need to uphold international norms and standards of human rights while countering terrorism and violent extremism was also underlined.”

OTI last Monday (25) arranged a discussion on the PTA and its impact with the participation of lawyer Chrishmal Warnasuriya, Dr Paikiasothy Sarawanamuttu, UK-based Amal Abeywardene and the writer. Harindra B Dassanayake moderated the two-hour discussion. All agreed with Dr. Sarawanamuttu’s call for a moratorium of the PTA until the government and those engaged in discussions on the future of the security law reached a consensus. The civil society guru also suggested until consensus could be reached on the issue at hand, the Attorney General should be authorised to facilitate bail to those held under the PTA. That proposal, too, should be seriously considered. OTI raised specific issues relating to the PTA. Why does the reforming/ repealing of PTA matter? , What is the situation now, and what is likely to happen? Are there options for Sri Lanka, and with what consequences? What hinders change? And what paths and steps are recommended? The OTI initiative should be appreciated.

Western powers are eternally interested in accountability issues and related matters here. However, there is no such enthusiasm to correct far worse continuing wrongs in places like Egypt, Israel or for that matter the continuing genocide in Yemen, thanks to Saudi Arabia and UAE or against international drug rings freely operating from capitalist citadels, like Dubai!

Since the end of the war in May 2009, the GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) has been under tremendous pressure to either abolish the PTA or amend it in line with laws in place in other parts of the world. Do we need anti-terrorism laws? Do they serve any purpose or strengthen Sri Lanka’s response to terrorist challenge? Sri Lanka should have examined how PTA facilitated the country’s overall response to terrorism.

Unfortunately, successive governments conveniently failed to do so just to appease the West fearing a greater orchestrated outcry against the country, thereby contributed to some international efforts to discredit the Sri Lankan military as well as the law enforcement apparatus.

The country experienced two terrorist campaigns in the South in 1971 and 1987-1990 and the 30-year-old war spearheaded by the LTTE. Sri Lanka defeated all three attempts through military means. The country had no option but to deal militarily with terrorism and conventional military challenge, regardless of opposition. Some sections of the international community oppose the PTA. But no one talks about draconian anti-terror laws in place for example in the USA or the UK since 9/11 and thereafter.

They always boast about a rules-based order followed by the international community. What is this international community? It is nothing but a self-appointed handful of countries in the West that earlier plundered much of the world at their will.

Interestingly, almost all those countries demanding abolition or amendments to the PTA provide refuge to those who should have been dealt with in terms of anti-terrorism laws. Those countries swiftly accept accusations that the PTA is used widely and indiscriminately at the expense of public freedom and also against political opponents.

Focus on PTA cases

Let me briefly refer to four recent cases that had attracted international attention due to some of those involved being arrested in terms of the PTA, as well as accusations relating to Sri Lankans seeking political refuge overseas: (i) Arrest of Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah in April 2020 over his alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage (ii) the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) statement on the arrest and the subsequent release of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and MP representing the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Rishad Bathiudeen. The MP was also taken into custody in terms of the PTA over the Easter Sunday attacks blamed on National Thowheed Jamaat. It would be pertinent to mention that the IPU represents altogether nearly 180 Parliaments all over the world (iii) New Zealand police killing Ahamed Adhil Mohamed Samsudeen, 31, who had secured political asylum therein in Dec 2013 on the basis of him being under threat in Sri Lanka. No less a person than New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has admitted how the man from Kattankudy, who knifed several persons in an Auckland shopping mall received inspiration from ISIS (iv) New Zealand granting political asylum to a Sri Lankan wanted in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks. The suspect also wanted under the PTA received New Zealand protection soon after the mayhem in the shopping mall.

Hizbullah’s arrest was also taken up by the UK-led Sri Lanka Core Group at the UNHRC as well as by HRC Michelle Bachelet. In spite of Hizbullah personally knowing two of the Easter bombers and their father, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, he should be considered innocent until found guilty in a court of law.

Hizbullah knew them as he had represented the wealthy family in court and his right as a lawyer to represent anyone should never be questioned whatever the accusations directed at his clients. The UN, foreign government and the civil society, too, should have the right to represent the interests of anyone regardless of the accusations. In the absence of own legal representation or the inability to procure legal services, suspects, whatever the accusations directed at them, reserved the right to obtain legal support from the Attorney General’s Department.

Similarly, the State, in this case the Sri Lanka State shouldn’t give up its right to take security measures deemed necessary to protect the public. The government cannot forfeit its right to defend the public against acts of terrorism. However, every effort should be made to address concerns of the UN and the EU as regards the PTA.

Most importantly, the government should respond to concerns raised by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and all other political parties representing the Tamil speaking people as well as the civil society such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

The incumbent government in June this year appointed a high powered committee chaired by Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne to examine the PTA. The Committee has been asked to recommend whether to suitably amend the current law or introduce new counter-terrorism law.

Prez wants PTA examined

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to examine the Counter Terrorism Act (CAT) prepared on the instruction of former Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe should be appreciated. Gen. Gunaratne’s committee received specific instructions to study the CAT. The government should be ashamed of its failure to undertake a comprehensive study on the PTA before foreign powers intervened. Having examined the CAT, the writer is quite convinced it addressed concerns of all.

Prepared by the previous government in consultations with the British, French, EU et al, the CAT can be the basis for proposed new law or facilitate required amendments to the existing PTA.

Sri Lanka should seek a guarantee as regards comprehensive cooperation from Western governments to address threats posed by terrorism. They cannot ignore such a request on the basis of their domestic laws. A lot depends on international cooperation to fight terrorism. Western powers no longer can deny their response to terrorism elsewhere, in a way, promoted terrorism on their soil. How many Sri Lankan terrorists received political asylum in those countries, particularly in the UK, Canada and Germany? Sri Lanka cannot forget the fact that Western powers at least do not share information regarding missing persons. How many thousands of those categorised as missing or disappeared Lankans live overseas under different names.

The recent assassination of ruling party British lawmaker David Amess, 69, is a case in point. The police arrested 25-year-old Ali Harbi Ali, British passport holder of Somali origin over the stabbing in a church east of London. Hope the British investigate the circumstances under which the assassin received British nationality. Having declared the MP’s killing an act of terrorism, the British should conduct a no holds barred investigation. The British media reported the suspect has been detained in terms of additional powers under anti-terrorism laws.

In June 2016, another terrorist, who believed in white power, assassinated 41-year-old Jo Cox. She was shot thrice and then stabbed 15 times. The British cannot turn a blind eye to the growing threat posed by terrorism. Perhaps, law enforcement authorities require wider powers to deal with new threats.

Incidents in New Zealand, Norway, France, Germany and other countries must influence governments to take sufficient measures to ensure public protection. The civil society as well as international organisations, such as IPU, too, should be accountable for campaigns they do. They should be mindful of their actions.

The IPU’s right to be concerned over MP Bathiudeen’s detention should be respected. There shouldn’t be any issue over IPU’s response to the Sri Lankan politician’s arrest. Let the IPU closely examine MP Bathiudeen’s case. Perhaps, the IPU should make its position public on the assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and clandestine meeting the Norwegian government had with the LTTE’s British advisor Anton Balasingham in the UK to discuss ways and means of managing the fallout.

Those who want Sri Lanka to adhere to international standards in the formulation of anti-terrorism laws should be reminded how Commonwealth heavyweight India destabilised Sri Lanka. The transformation of Sri Lanka’s ceremonial armed forces to one of the best fighting forces in the world should be studied against the backdrop of Indian intervention. Sri Lanka needed the PTA as part of the overall measures against terrorism. Can anyone honestly declare that clandestine LTTE operations in Colombo and its suburbs could have been thwarted without the PTA.? Sri Lanka had no option but to fight back. The PTA had been part of the overall defence. The PTA should be discussed taking into account high profile terrorist operations in the South that resulted in political assassinations. Perhaps, the PTA hadn’t been enough to neutralise the LTTE. They succeeded in assassinating President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993, made an abortive bid to assassinate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at the final PA rally ahead of the 1999 presidential election, blew up over 50 people, including UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in late Oct 1994, suicide attack on the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in April 2006 and Oct 2009, respectively. All those responsible for the above-mentioned terrorist attacks came to the South as innocent civilians until the moment they transformed themselves into human bombs.

Those who demand that the government treat terrorist suspects with respect did nothing when the LTTE blasted civilians outside the war zone while mingling with ordinary people. Interestingly, years before the ISIS influenced terrorists, the LTTE inspired Norway’s worst ever terrorist attack. The far–right Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people, including dozens of children, is on record as having explained how LTTE terrorism directed at Muslims inspired him.

International interventions

The EU’s strong push against Sri Lanka’s current anti-terrorism law should be examined taking into consideration its demand to do away with the death penalty.

The EU-Sri Lanka joint statement issued following the Sept. 21, 2021 meeting also dealt with the death penalty, even though the death penalty had not been carried out in the country since the mid-’70s. The relevant section is as follows: “The EU reiterated its opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances. Welcoming the continued moratorium, the EU encouraged Sri Lanka to take steps towards the formal abolition of capital punishment.”

How is it that the EU is so concerned about Sri Lanka’s dormant death penalty, but didn’t lift a finger to spare the life of Saddam Hussein or the cold blooded killing of Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi, both deaths instigated by the West?

The abolition of the PTA or enactment of new anti-terrorism law should be discussed with push for a new Constitution. The successful conclusion of the war over 12 years ago opened up a new front. The Geneva Human Rights Council got involved with the move to draft a new constitution here. Premier Wickremesinghe spearheaded that effort, too, the way he had handled unfinished project to introduce new anti-terrorism law. In fact, co-sponsorship of the 2015 Geneva resolution had been in line with the overall game plan that brought Maithripala Sirisena into power in January 2015. Following the August 2015 general election, Wickremesinghe enjoyed a commanding position in Parliament with which he could have had achieved major political objectives if not for the Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. That is the undeniable truth.

Having lambasted the UNP, both in and outside Parliament, for planning to do away with the PTA at the behest of Western powers, the SLPP is working with the same lot to either amend or introduce new anti-terrorism laws.

The government seems incapable of at least presenting Sri Lanka’s case before the international community properly. Sri Lanka should discuss application of anti-terrorism laws during the deployment of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). Did the world care about what really happened in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces during the IPKF deployment? Having destabilised Sri Lanka, India forced the then government to ‘accept’ the IPKF in terms of the Indo-Lanka accord signed on July 29, 1987.

Those who had been detained by the IPKF on suspicion were not handed over to Sri Lanka police for investigations. Therefore, the PTA didn’t matter. The IPKF hadn’t been accountable at all in respect of operations conducted here and those who want Sri Lanka hauled up before foreign judges over alleged war crimes /accountability issues are conveniently silent on the period India had been responsible for Northern and Eastern districts.

Easter Sunday carnage

If not for the Easter Sunday carnage, the UNHRC and the EU would have definitely demanded the abrogation of the PTA. The Western funded civil society, too, would have pushed for the same. Sri Lanka would have found it extremely difficult to justify the need for continuation of anti-terrorism laws. However, the Easter Sunday massacre proved that a country cannot take security for granted. Sri Lanka’s failure to deal with specific intelligence provided by India pertaining to impending terrorist attack, too, should be dealt in terms of the PTA.

Accusations that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) benefited at the presidential and parliamentary polls, respectively, as a result of the Easter attacks cannot be ignored. No less a person than Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has repeatedly raised that issue against the backdrop of the incumbent government’s failure to implement recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that inquired into the Easter attacks.

Interestingly, the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe used the Easter attacks to justify his government’s bid to replace the PTA with a new counter-terrorism law.

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Midweek Review

Modern view of the Island’s ancient past

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Under the guidance and influence of Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thera, King Kirti Sri Raja Singha successfully invited Bhikkus from Siam, led by Upali Thera, to revive the higher ordination of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.

Ruminations – II

By Seneka Abeyratne

The Sinhalese refer to themselves as ‘Indo-Aryans’ and to the Tamils as ‘Dravidians’. Implied in this distinction is the notion, conditioned by the ideas of the chauvinists and populists, that ‘Aryan’ blood is somehow superior to ‘Dravidian’ blood. Most historians now agree that the terms ‘Indo-Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ refer to a family of ancient languages originating in North India and South India, respectively, and that they have nothing to do with race or its physical attributes, such as complexion, height, build and facial features. Indeed, in terms of physical appearance, it is often difficult to distinguish between a Sinhalese, a Tamil and a South Indian.

When it comes to facial features and complexion, there is as much variety among the Sinhalese as among the Tamils, suggesting that both groups are ethnically far more diverse than is commonly assumed. The same is probably true of the smaller ethnic groups, such as Moslems and Burghers. The traditional view of supposed racial and cultural uniqueness, based on facile one-dimensional theories of migration and pure descent, is no longer considered valid.

It is not implausible to argue that over time the Tamil community, which is mainly of South-Indian origin, absorbed ethnic groups from other parts of India who shared certain cultural affinities with the Tamils, such as religion, caste, food habits, and traditional customs and practices. This may explain why some Ceylon Tamils look more like northern, western or eastern Indians than southern Indians.

The Sinhalese likewise are ethnically diverse. While it may be true that the early settlers came from northwestern or northeastern India, later settlers likely came from other parts of India, including southern India. It is also possible that some synthesis occurred between early settlers and indigenous elements. Since it was common practice for ancient Sinhala kings and noblemen to marry into South Indian dynasties, we could assume that Sri Lanka and South India had close cultural and political ties from a very early age.

Even Vijaya, the purported founder of the Sinhala race, is believed to have married a princess from Madurai. Many of the Sinhala-speaking people in the Vanni region, north of Anuradhapura, are probably descendants of the Vanniyars, who are reputed to have migrated to the island from southern India. The periods 1056-1236 and 1473-1815 correspond to the Polonnaruwa and Kandyan kingdoms, respectively. During the former, there was a significant infusion of Pandyan blood into Sinhala royalty and during the latter, a similar infusion from Madurai.

The last line of kings to rule Kandy was the Tamil-speaking Madurai Nayaks, a Telugu dynasty. Given that Madurai is situated in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to imagine there was no commingling of Sinhalese and Tamil blood during this time. The Cheras, who came during the Portuguese period, injected a large dose of South-Indian blood into the southern littoral of Sri Lanka. The ethnic links between the Sinhalese and the South Indians are probably far more extensive than is commonly assumed.

Though the subcontinent figures prominently in Sri Lanka’s ethnic equation as per the periodic influx of settlers to the island from various parts of India during the Late Protohistoric to Early Historic Period (600 BCE-300 CE), we should not ignore the fact that the Sri Lankan gene is extremely diverse. There is evidence to suggest that in ancient times, people from Malaya and Indonesia migrated as far as Madagascar and the East African coast. It is therefore plausible to argue that while crossing the Indian Ocean, some of the boats carrying these people would have landed on our shores. Similar migrations would have occurred even in historic times. One has only to note the distinct Malay-Indonesian features of many a Sri Lankan to realise there must have been a continual migration of Southeast Asians to the island during historic and prehistoric times.

Melting Pot

A keen observer strolling through Kandy town, having noticed that some Kandyans resemble Malays or Javanese while others resemble Thais or Burmese, may arrive at the conclusion that Sri Lanka is and has always been a melting pot of different cultures. Some Kandyans also resemble the Burghers in respect of complexion and features. Hence one wonders how much ‘white’ blood seeped into the Sri Lankan gene pool during the four and a half centuries of western colonial rule.

It is a curious phenomenon that, despite its proximity to India, the island has more in common with Southeast Asia than with India in respect of climate and vegetation, as well as certain cultural practices. Duriyan, rambutan and mangosteens are found in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka but not elsewhere in South Asia. The food habits of Sri Lanka also demonstrate a strong Southeast Asian influence. Sri Lankans cook curries in coconut milk like the Malays and Indonesians and use lemongrass for flavouring certain dishes, as do the Thais. There is also a similarity in the peasant dress of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, especially in respect of females. The Malayo-Polynesian outrigger fishing boat (catamaran) is found in Sri Lanka but nowhere else in South Asia.

The only country practising Theravada Buddhism in South Asia is Sri Lanka but in Southeast Asia, there are many, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The Buddhist factor figures prominently in the strong cultural and diplomatic ties that have existed between Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia for centuries.

From 1581 to 1591, Kandy was ruled by the Sitawaka king, Rajasinha I, who had converted to Hinduism. During this period Buddhism almost perished in the Kandyan kingdom due to the machinations of the Buddhist-turned-Hindu monarch. From 1591 to 1604 Kandy was ruled by Vimaladharmasuriya I, also known as Konappu Bandara, who succeeded in ousting Rajasinha I and reviving Buddhism with the assistance of ordained Burmese monks.

For the next hundred years or so, the Kandyan monarchs continued to protect and foster the religion. After the reign of Vimaladharmasuriya II ended (1687 to 1707), Buddhism again went into serious decline but was revived by Kirti Sri Rajasinha, who ruled from 1747 to 1782. This time it was a Thai monk named Upali Thera who came to the rescue. The Theravada monastic order known as Siam Nikaya was founded by him in Kandy in 1753 with the full support of the king. The other two main Theravada monastic orders in the island are the Ramanna Nikaya (Payagala) and the Amarapura Nikaya (Balapitiya). Both were founded by Sri Lankan bhikkhus who had been ordained in Myanmar.

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Midweek Review

These games are dangerous

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By Usvatte-aratchi

The games that the President, his government and the leader of the Opposition play are fraught with grave danger to the wellbeing of our people and to opportunities to change, grow and the preserve this society. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as a presidential candidate held out the prospect of a land in prosperity – saubhagyaye dekma. His advisors in viyath maga, in their wisdom, saw that as a clear path to victory against a hopelessly divided government in office, poorly led and with no viable plan of action. Neither the SLPP nor the SJB wanted to inform the public of the parlous state of the economy and very bleak prospects for another two years or more. True, that is not the kind of story that a winning party would carry to the electorate. However, there was ample ammunition against the incumbent government on other accounts to knock it down with a feather. The SLPP made a serious error in not revealing the black picture and making the government 2015-2019 completely responsible for the dire situation in the country and in not pointing out the difficulties they would experience in bringing prosperity to the people, all thanks to the ineptitude of the yahapalanaya government. Instead, they were cock-a-hoop that they had ample resources and claimed that the alleged impending scarcity of resources was a fig leaf to cover the incompetence of the yahapalanaya government, so badly bared. They did not use the first opportunity in the new parliament to make a statement on the state of the economy and the deprivations that the public may suffer when policies were adopted to bring back stability. Instead, the SLPP government went on in jubilant fashion until a few weeks ago, when both Minister Bandula Gunawardena and Minister Udaya Gammanpila talked openly about the economic and financial difficulties the government faced.

Gotabaya and the SLPP avoided that trope perhaps because there was the strong possibility that SJB would have come back with the dark history of the creation of a debt problem. The spate of infrastructure projects from roads in the Hambantota district to the column by the Beira was financed mainly with loans from China, some of which jumped out of a Pandora’s Box, as it were.

It is hard to believe that planners in China were so naïve as to erroneously estimate the flow of income from the roads in Hambantota from the column near the Beira and from the Nelum Pokuna theatre in Colombo and believe that they must remain white elephants a decade after the investment began. They are likely to remain so for quite some time with the public obliged to pay back the loans. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters often said that daily a 100 ships passed our shores and we were failing to collect revenue from them because there was no port in Hambantota. More than hundred ships pass by Hambantota now and we have failed to collect revenue from them. One asset has already been leased back to the lender. The Covid epidemic only aggravated the situation which was ab initio bad, and to argue that the Chinese did not foresee this scenario is to insult their manifest ingenuity.

Consequently, the factors that motivated the investment must be sought elsewhere. The full suite of politicians and public officers that advised Mahinda Rajapaksa government to design and approve those projects and their financing are again fully in charge of economic and financial policy with the advantage of a Minister of Finance, who is as short of relevant experience as his sibling the President of state craft. Everyone, beware: the Greeks are coming with gifts.

The leader of the SJB goes around the country, promising the public that when he forms a government, he will give all sorts of benefits (sahanaya) to the public. This is pie in the sky and a poisonous pie at that. There will be no resources to play those games, for at least five years from now and that not without a heavy load of good luck. Take a lesson from present day Greece. The Opposition, as well as the government, for once, must tell the public the truth about the economic situation. (Everyone, especially ministers of government, had better learn that all and any benefits (sahanaya) that a government can give the public must come out of the income of some section of the taxpayers. Governments in this country do not earn more than three percent of their revenue; the rest is from taxes. (Many here confuse themselves and mislead the public by calling government revenue (labeem) with government income (aadayama). Income is what an enterprise earns from revenue after it meets all its expenses. Government income is what it earns by way of interest, profits and dividends. When a government borrows to give you sahanaya, it is asking yet unborn generations to pay for your benefits now. How fair is that? A politician announced on 17 October, in parliament, “We (pointing to himself) will compensate farmers for any crop losses consequent upon the implementation of the new fertiliser policy’. He, in fact, was announcing that his government would be taxing the public more to compensate farmers for crop losses resulting their unwise policies of his government. Nobody would pay to replace its lost output to the nation.

In the crudest form, our society, over the years, more conspicuously in the years 2005 to 2014, used substantially more resources than it earned. (June Robinson remarked in 1958 that we consumed the fruits before the tree had grown.) The way to do that is to borrow from anyone who is willing to lend. It is no different from a man who spends well beyond his earnings and borrows, even from a money lender, no matter the terms of the loans. A time comes when the lenders say, ‘It is time to pay up chum, and if you do not have cash, I will accept your wife’s jewellery and even the furniture and the house you live in’. This society, through its incompetent and corrupt agent, government, can default payment and become a pariah in capital markets or plead with the people that there is an alternative route to credibility. That route requires this society to cut resources use, undergo austerity.

Many made a bogeyman of the IMF presenting a programme of austerity with assistance to support the balance of payments. What we now live in is austerity, with no balance of payments support. The Minister of Finance promises us an austerity budget. There is already a freeze on completing projects. Many employees clamour for and are on strike seeking wage increases. Prices of essential commodities are rising daily. Prices of most commodities, except labour, have risen and will keep on rising. That is another way of imposing austerity. When your daily wage would buy only two cans of dried milk powder today compared to three last month for the same wage, austerity is imposed on you. (There was once the case of Argentina, where employees asked for their wages to be paid in the morning rather than at the end of the day. They bought cigarettes with their wages in the morning and sold them at a higher price in the evening to buy provisions for the home.)

What you go through now is what an austerity programme the IMF would have put you through. Besides, that programme would have been better articulated and more openly discussed. In our circumstances, budgetary support would have been inevitable. And they would have set up a structure to reschedule debt repayment. The IMF is not the only institution that can function in that manner. Any agency that enjoys international credibility and offers balance of payments support and budgetary support can perform those functions. Our government itself can do it except that it lacks the will to do so and does not enjoy international credibility. There is no escape from the requirement that our society must save (refrain from using all that it produces) and with those savings repay international debt. Leaders of neither the government nor the Opposition can hide those compulsions from the public and yet claim legitimacy. What they do now is far too dangerous a game to play.

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