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Is the Auditor General the panacea for all our ills?

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by Avantha Munasinghe

One of the contentious issues surrounding the 20th Amendment seems to be the issue of the removal of Auditor General’s capacity to audit companies where the Government, Public Corporation or a Local Authority has a majority shareholding. Many critics seem to have picked on this issue, and most of them are resisting the proposed change. Their fear seems to be that if the Auditor General is not permitted to audit a certain government company, it is prone to be riddled with corruption and malpractices.

The audit by definition is a systematic and an independent review and investigation on certain subject matter, which in this case is the financial statements, management accounts, management reports, accounting records etc. of a company. In the case of a company, there is a statutory requirement for such review and investigation to be reported to shareholders annually. The review, is produced as an “opinion” of the “Auditor”.

Other than the shareholders, it is also customarily used by the tax authorities, banks, creditors, analysts or public for their respective decision-making and also to form their own opinion about the status of the company and its future. In all the government companies, the law required them to be audited by independent auditors, qualified to do so as specified by the Companies Act, until 2015. The 19th Amendment changed their auditor to be the Auditor General.

Auditing, just like Accounting, depends on certain commonly adopted set of principles. The audit of financial statements is normally done in accordance with International Standards on Auditing sometimes modified by local auditing standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, the Sri Lanka Auditing Standards are based on the International Standards on Auditing (ISAs) published by the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB) of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), with slight modifications to meet local conditions and needs. Thus, to begin with, whether it is the Auditor General or a private auditor, the standards applicable to the task are the same. It is the approach that is different.

There are a large number of companies in Sri Lanka whose shareholding in some way is linked to Government or quasi government entities for whom Auditor General has now become the Statutory Auditor. Some of these companies are merely an extension of government entities serving a function of the government. For example, Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited is a government-owned company, providing security services to government installations. Another is Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminal Ltd., whose only customers are its parent entities i.e. Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Lanka IOC PLC, only to whom it provides services. Such entities do not have to face competition to secure business.

However, there are also a large number of government-owned companies which do business in the marketplace competing with other local and international companies, which are publicly and privately owned. Lanka General Trading Company Ltd., Lanka Hospitals Ltd., Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation Limited and Milco (Pvt.) Ltd., are a few examples. Each of them has to compete for business with large segment of local and foreign companies which are purely driven by profit motive and enhancement of shareholders’ value.

These companies have very flexible systems and procedures. Their boards of directors can take appropriate decisions in a timely manner to make an urgent procurement or select suppliers to be more competitive and manage all their affairs just in time. They can buy their raw materials without calling for quotations if they think it is a profitable opportunity. Even a junior level executive of such a company may be able to decide a price discount to secure a sale.

The situation of a state-owned company in the marketplace in such scenarios is quite the opposite. They cannot do procurement as the situation demands. They have to dutifully follow the procurement rules, which even the board of directors cannot overrule. The officials have very little flexibility to seize a business opportunity. It is so easy for a private company to grab business from state-owned enterprises as the latter cannot be proactive. There is little surprise most such companies are loss-making and is a burden to the government and taxpayers.

The government officials and Ministers however want these quasi state organizations to be profitable or run at least without being a burden to the Treasury. The basic business model of these organizations is at a severe disadvantage to begin with. What 19th Amendment brought to such companies by way of auditing by the Auditor General was to push them from pillar to post. This is quite evident by the powers granted to the Auditor General in the National Audit Act, which even a crime investigator would envy. Some of the powers are:

(1) The Auditor-General shall…

… access or call for any written or electronic records or other information relating to the activities of an auditee entity;

… call any person whom the Auditor-General has reasonable grounds to believe to be in possession of information and documents, as he may consider necessary to carry on the functions under this Act, to obtain written or oral statements and require the production of any document, from any person, who may be either in-service or otherwise;

… examine and make copies of or take extracts from any written or electronic records and search for information whether or not in the custody of the auditee entity;

… after obtaining permission from the relevant Magistrate’s Court, examine and audit any account, transaction or activity of a financial institution, of any person, where the Auditor-General has reason to believe that money belonging to an auditee entity has been fraudulently, irregularly or wrongfully paid into such person’s account;

…require any officer of financial institutions to produce any document or provide any information relating to an account, transaction, dealing or activity of person referred to in paragraph (d) and to take copies of any document so produced, if necessary… There is a fundamental difference in the audit approach of a professional auditor and a Supreme Audit Institution such the Auditor General. In a private sector audit, the primary objective is to ensure the report’s recipient gets a true and fair view of the financial status of the company. While the professional auditor is supposed to report on adequacy of the controls in place and report any lapses to shareholders, the focus is primarily on the status of the shareholder’s investment.

The approach of Auditor General is more on ensuring the Compliance to rules, regulations and procedures. This is natural since the Auditor General is supposed to audit the manner in which a government organization has handled its allocation from the consolidated fund to provide a service to the public. The approach is, therefore, not focused on whether the organization is making adequate return on the government’s funds.

What the 19th Amendment did was to replace the professional auditor, who focused on performance of government companies by the Auditor General who is focused on compliance. The officers running such government-owned companies got a signal quite contrary to what the government officials and ministers were pushing them before. Compliance became the key. There is no better way to achieve compliance than to do nothing. The truth is in the last few years; these organization put profit motive in the back burner and wanted to escape from various audit queries raised by the Auditor General. The best way to do that is not to go that extra mile their competitors would go to make the organization profitable. Doing nothing became the modus operandi.

Some of the supporters of Auditor General’s auditing argue that his mere presence stops corruption. Stamping out corruption was the all-pervasive theme of the 19th Amendment. So many new entities were instituted under it to check corruption. Where are we today? Do we see any positive results? In the Corruption Perception Index published by the Transparency International in the year 2015, when the 19th Amendment was enacted, Sri Lanka’s scored 37 out of hundred. In 2019, our score was only 38. We rank 93 out of 198 countries, four places down. It is no secret that the public perceives state sector organizations as corrupt as ever and certainly more corrupt than any private sector organization in this country. The Auditor General has been auditing these state sector organizations for more than 200 years. If the cure against corruption is audit being done by the Auditor General, why are we in this situation today?

The truth is the Auditor General’s presence is a necessary evil in any government ministry or department, which does not have a commercial objective. His presence does ensure at least some level of corruption is made more difficult to accomplish. However, we must not come into the false conclusion that the presence of the Auditor General is the way to root out corruption. In a State-Owned Enterprise (SoE) with commercial objectives, his presence certainly does more harm than benefit.

There is a wrong perception that most public companies are loss making and, therefore, they should be subjected to an Audit by the Auditor General so that the “control” of public funds will put things right. As explained above, it is the business model and restrictions placed that is the very cause for loss-making SoEs to proliferate. If this argument is correct, we should see, out of more than 120 or so government companies, at last one which became profitable due to the Auditor General’s presence during last five years. There is none to show. In fact, this remedy will only make the patient even more sick.

Another untruth floated on the matter is that the financial statements of the government companies are not required to be submitted to Parliament unless they are audited by the Auditor General and that would undermine parliamentary financial oversight. The truth is that the entity, which is the shareholder in these companies, have to consolidate the company’s financial statements with that of the parent entity and the latter is certainly subjected to parliamentary oversight with financial statements of the company audited by a private auditor.

Another misconception is that supervision by COPE will put everything right in the public institutions. COPE’s examination carried out by set of parliamentarians, who on most occasions have no knowledge of the particular business, is not what is required to put these organizations right. In most cases it is the bad business model rather than lack of COPE’s oversight that fail these businesses.

SriLankan Airlines is a case of point. Many people say the bad procurement deals, continued losses and increased dependence on the Treasury by the airline would continue to happen if the Auditor General is not auditing the airline. It was making losses ever since it was set up with or without Auditor General as the auditor. The Airline business is one of the most competitive businesses globally. Even the largest airlines sometimes find it difficult to be in the black. The industry needs split second decisions to be made by professional management. As said before, this is not possible at SriLankan Airlines. We have seen Chairmen and Directors coming and going with every change of the subject minister. Nobody is having a long-term commitment to make it a success. Its competitors have boards, which are removed only if the airline makes losses, not if their political masters change. Without changing the business model, even if we have hundred auditors to audit SriLankan Airlines, nothing will change.

We all know that our country is suffering from a severe debt crisis. We invested on massive infrastructure projects, which were all debt financed. To balance that off, we desperately need to bring foreign equity into our economy. Further debt, while giving us temporary solace, will only aggravate the problem. The government is devising Public Private Partnership (PPP) programs to bring Foreign Investment from large global corporations. The government also needs to be in control of them. The 19th Amendment requires such PPP companies to have the Auditor General as its Auditor. Which global business entity would drop their global audit arrangements by the likes of KPMG, Ernst & Young or PwC and accept this arrangement? We can talk till the cows come home on how professional our Auditor General is and how independent he is, but the reality is that we live in a dream if we seriously want to promote PPP structures with this kind of legislation on.

The effective functioning of Superior Audit Institutions such as the Auditor General is definitely an essential requirement of a functioning democracy. However, let’s not fool ourselves – it is not a panacea for all ills.

Even in India where the previous Companies Act required the appointment of Auditors to Government Companies by the Controller and Auditor General of India, the arrangement has been questioned in the Report of the Expert Committee On Company Law, which said “The Committee discussed the application of the corporate law framework to Government companies on many occasions and took the view that in general, there should not be any special dispensation for such companies. …Therefore, the extension of special exemptions and protections to various commercial ventures taken up by Government companies in the course of their commercial operations along with strategic partners or general public should be done away with so that such entities can operate in the market place on the same terms and conditions as other entities. In particular, reflection of financial information of such ventures by Government companies and their audit should be subject to the common legal regime applicable. The existing delays are enabling a large number of corporate entities to evade their responsibilities and liability for correct disclosure of true and fair financial information in a timely manner. In this context, the relevance of the present section 619B of the Act was considered appropriate for a review.”

If the government needs its companies to compete with private sector, the way forward is to make their management more flexible. Throwing those decision-makers to the Auditor General is the last thing required to be done if we want them to compete effectively with the private sector. While the world is moving to embrace the scarce private capital by making things easier for such investors, some of our so-called professionals seem to be, while paying lip service for bringing more and more FDI, doing exactly the opposite by criticizing the removal of this disastrous piece of legislature brought in by the 19th Amendment.

(The writer is an Accountant based in New South Wales, Australia)

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Features

Beyond constitutional politics and polemics

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster greet one another upon Pompeo’s arrival at the airport in New Delhi on Monday. PTI

by Austin Fernando

All quandaries on constitutional amendments are now over with an impressive victory for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the country looks forward to the implementation of the 20th Amendment (20A), to serve the people more efficiently, effectively, and economically.

Although Minister of Justice Ali Sabry declared that all 20A provisions had been in the JR Jayewardene Constitution previously, there were a few differences. Considering the volume of amendments, this stance is passable, though not exact. My observation is that Presidents Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa performed effectively in comparison to attain their development objectives through the 1978 Constitution.

Governmental performance

Economic performance is an essential ingredient in political performance and management. It is because the economics of development under all regimes has been an evaluation yardstick and also publicly questioned.

Performance by Presidents, Prime Ministers and governments are not guided and determined only by Constitutions. If Constitutions could facilitate smooth performance, why didn’t it happen during tenures of all Presidents exercising power according to the 1978 Constitution? Until 2009, they had failed to defeat terrorism. Corruption increased. The economic morass continued.

The development of a country hinges on the quality of political and business leadership, national security/stability, research/ technological /educational standards, labour legislations, foreign direct investments, foreign assistance/aid, environmental soundness, diplomacy, international political behavior, and positive responses. The Constitution could boost development, but it alone is not sufficient.

Successes do not preclude criticisms that were aplenty against the aforesaid three Presidents. Some criticisms were even acceptable as regards the moral decadence due to the open economy, proliferation of dangerous drugs, or the construction of an unoptimizable port, airport and other such infrastructural projects and debt traps.

 

Human rights

One criterion for foreign assistance is a country’s respect for human rights. I may quote Rights watchdog Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch- South Asia, to prove this point. After the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, she said: “The Sri Lankan government needs to hear that other countries are watching and will respond to renewed abuses.” This threat has not gone away.

Such issues will be taken up when the UNHRC meets in early 2021. Britain has already decided to withdraw the LTTE ban. Additionally, anti-China attitudes could lead to the harassment of Sri Lanka even indirectly. Contrarily, the Chinese have given assurances of bailing us out.

Even after the passage of 20A, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot expect to be exempted from such attitudes, rules, and standards. I will highlight some immediate reactions experienced with selected internationals. The way foreign powers have responded to the incumbents after the presidential and parliamentary elections will be a guide to observe the trends.

 

India

Immediately after the presidential election, India showed up in Colombo. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also positively responded and the traditional first destination visit was to Delhi. Former President Maithripala Sirisena also did so, followed by another for the second inauguration of PM Modi.

Such visits provide opportunities to evaluate silently how foreign powers respond. I had the privilege of participating in all three visits by Presidents Sirisena and Rajapaksa. President Sirisena’s first visit was considered by Indians as a grand opportunity for novel openings and approaches, having experienced a deterioration of diplomatic relations under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.

However, the agreement signed by Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Sushma Swaraj in 2017, concerning several large-scale projects, apparently to spite Chinese political/economic interference in Sri Lanka, did not reach fruition. Indians did not forgive the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government although formal relations were maintained respectfully.

The difference in diplomatic relations is reflected in many ways. This was seen from how PM Modi responded when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India in November 2019. Their one-on-one meeting lasted 55 minutes, and India offered US dollar 450 million to Sri Lanka in assistance. Perhaps, body chemistry of the two leaders clicked. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa once criticised Indians for having contributed to his defeat in 2015. India has proved that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in foreign relations, and it is only the mutual interests that matter.

Indians expected the fast-tracking of projects related to the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), the Mattala Airport, and Trinco Petroleum Tanks. But there has been no positive follow-up even eleven months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s discussions with PM Modi. The COVID-19 pandemic could be one reason for this delay. But a fresh dialogue is necessary if India is to be kept in the development loops.

Recently, PM Modi offered a $15-million grant for the promotion of Buddhist cultural exchanges, but his officers are slow in finalizing requests for a debt moratorium and an additional $1.1-billion assistance discussed during the visits of Rajapaksa brothers in November 2019 and February 2020. Positively, the Reserve Bank of India signed a swap of $400 million. If such needs are not met, the vacuum will be filled by another.

For comparison, Indian External Affairs Minister committed a 100-million-dollar grant and a project loan of 400 million dollars to the Maldives in mid-August this year, showing assistance did not depend on demography, revenue generation, or socio-economy, but on other priorities. The swift assistance to the Maldives and the delay in responding to our request may be conveying a message that should be heard and understood by Sri Lanka.

I quote another Indian investment in Bangladesh for comparison. The Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority was ready (mid-2020) to start site development for an Indian Special Economic Zone, where billions of dollars in investment were expected from India. Sri Lanka was not so fortunate even though such potential was in the 2017 agreement. The government must learn from Bangladesh experience.

China

Quite the opposite response was shown by the Chinese who have already handed over 500 million dollars (March 2020). When the Chinese Minister Wang Yi met Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the latter thanked China for its consistent contribution to Sri Lanka’s development process as well as their support at numerous regional and international fora, like the UNHRC. China and Russia have been helpful throughout.

Chinese involvement in infrastructure development has drawn severe criticism. This is something common throughout the world as regards the Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Another Chinese intervention took place recently when Senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who reportedly said: “Sri Lanka will firmly commit itself to deepening friendship with China, and is willing to make every effort to press forward the key BRI cooperation projects such as the Colombo Port City and the comprehensive development of the Hambantota Harbour.” This would not have pleased the Indians and Americans, and even the Japanese, who recently lost a light rail investment project here.

When Yang met PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, just after the latter’s discussion with PM Modi, the PM thanked China’s support for combating COVID-19, adding that China’s strong support in various fields had helped Sri Lanka strengthen its capacity to resume work and production amid the pandemic.

Finally, it was revealed that China would also help mitigate the financial crisis faced by Sri Lanka.

The Framework of the Strategic Cooperative Partnership between China and Sri Lanka embarked on, in 2013, gave hope of advantages through development but achievements have been slow in coming. The recent high-level Chinese visit here points to a desire to accelerate it. It must be noted that such interventions with other countries (e. g. India) were slow. The delay between bureaucratic decision-making and politicized decision-making could be the reason.

 

USA, Quad, and influences

 

The incredibly positive relations build-up by Yang Jiechi is followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Colombo. While arrangements were being made for Pompeo’s visit, the US announced that it would urge Sri Lanka “to make ‘difficult but necessary choices’ on its economic relations”. The reference to difficult economic relations invariably meant the partnering with China. The MCC is another project the US is interested in.

The US spokesperson made it abundantly clear, saying “We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices.” Media reports show that this message was partially conveyed to several Ministers by the American Ambassador Toeplitz when she met them.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the comments as a manifestation of the “Cold War mentality.” Its spokesman Zhao Lijian responded, “Attempts to use coercion to obstruct normal cooperation between countries will not succeed.”

Concurrently, Mike Pompeo has recently suggested (after the Tokyo Quad meeting) that the Quad should be institutionalized: “We [Quad members] can begin to build out a true security framework” for the Indo-Pacific. He also described the Quad as the “fabric” that could “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents to all of us.” It is clear Pompeo is gathering support against China.

In this context, meeting Pompeo after Yang Jiechi will be an embarrassment for Rajapaksas. In fact, a few months ago CCP was considered as a guide for their political party. Yet, the US will see whether Sri Lanka is prepared to counter the CCP challenges and to what extent. This is not surprising especially after India agreeing to sign a military agreement with the USfor sharing of sensitive satellite data and conducting a dialogue to counter China’s growing power in the region. It may be appropriate for Sri Lanka to remain cautious.

As commentators say, Chinese behaviour and attempts to re-order the region have caused concern among the Quad members. They believe that Quad may have to discuss a rule-based big picture of the Indo-Pacific Region, especially how to reshape China’s behaviour, and under what conditions they would reassess China as a responsible stakeholder. Pompeo is here after the Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting in Tokyo. Given this situation, how Sri Lanka should deal with him is a challenge.

 

Diplomatic conflicts and us

Countries like Sri Lanka sometimes become playing fields for powerful countries. US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz recently said that the US goal “in responding to this request (MCC) is to alleviate poverty and to boost inclusive economic growth” and identifying Sri Lanka as “a sovereign leader in maritime security”, which are indisputably favourable recognition of Sri Lanka.

But her statement “Sri Lanka should engage with China in ways that protect its sovereignty” angered China, which responded directly. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo stated that “with great shock and strong discontent, the embassy learned about the US Ambassador’s interview with a local newspaper, in which a foreign envoy from a third country openly played off China-Sri Lanka relations and severely violated the diplomatic protocol.” The Chinese are extraordinarily concerned with the US violating Sri Lanka’s diplomatic protocols. Having been a High Commissioner myself, I await such bold statements from our Ambassadors in the US or China, even violating diplomatic protocols, when a situation arises with these two governments! Am I waiting for Godot!

Further, the Chinese statement said: “Both China and Sri Lanka as independent countries have full right to develop relations with foreign countries according to our own need and will.” This reminds me of a past Chinese intervention in Bhutan. It is an example where the Chinese while seeking to mend relations with Bhutan, to make India lose ground, dropped Chinese tourist arrivals after the Doklam standoff, because Bhutan did not stand with China. It was a warning to Bhutan about the country’s vulnerability. At that point, the “full right to develop relations” with India was tabooed by China for Bhutan!

Bhutan’s obligations to act according to the Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan (8-8-1949) calling for peace between them and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and the additional agreement by Bhutan to let India “guide” its foreign policy and consultative action on foreign and defense affairs were not considered by the Chinese, as the legal “need and will” of Bhutan.

Similarly, India’s wrath was unleashed (2012) when the then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit. India retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. New Delhi’s heavy-handed response was deeply resented by Bhutan.

We complain of powerful countries using the proverbial stick, but these examples show that anyone could be the perpetrator to satisfy his needs. Let us be realistic without resorting to rhetoric, which emanate from boisterous politicians mostly- even ministers.

The Chinese strongly suggested “the US quit the addiction of preaching others and applying double standards” and named four areas of misdeeds, i. e. slandering, pretending as the guardian of free trade while violating the WTO rulings, holding high the banner of transparency, and smearing others’ normal cooperation against sovereignty, while militarily misbehaving and imposing unilateral sanctions. Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines or Taiwanese in China Sea or Indians in Ladakh may blame the Chinese for not adhering to some of these principled behaviours and preaching to the US. Can Sri Lanka challenge President Xi on the same lines?

 

Conclusion

I quoted the aforesaid references to point out the difficulties faced by Sri Lanka in the big diplomatic picture. They are thrust on us. Sri Lanka must take informed positions due to practicalities.

With the Indians, the proximity, centuries old relationships, strategic location in the Indian Ocean region, which became a focused area due to Indo-Pacific Regional bias, India and Japan, etc., must be valued. The busines alliances between India and Japan on ECT and Liquified Natural Gas projects send another message. The potential/ possible Indian influence on other countries, some parliamentarians, demographic and political groups must be considered for internal political stability purposes.

The Chinese factor must be considered in the light of past transactions and potential investments that could be received faster than from borrowing agencies or formal lenders. Sri Lanka’s economic problems need immediate solutions. How far could the government wait for external interventions satisfying all criteria?

The above quoted financial requirements and responses received from India may help understand the reality of financing, for which China responds faster than any other country. Any political intervention should address this problem and adapt to systemic assistance. Of course, the disadvantages of Chinese interventions, even highlighted by the World Bank study, about procurement procedures could push countries like Sri Lanka into difficulties. What alternatives could evolve is an issue.

Immediate response to the statement by Dean Thompson was experienced with Sri Lanka’s government bonds falling heavily last week. This is the danger that could be created by big brothers. The African proverb, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’, is always valid.

It is time for those who yelled last week that restrictions on stability/development could be remedied by constitutional amendments to keep quiet because it is not the absolute truth. The 20A had other objectives as is obvious. They should look afresh realistically and consider whether ignoring the international developments is possible. Let saner counsel prevail.

Simply stated, it is time to ditch camouflaged rhetoric heard in the House last week and look incisively, realistically, logically, and face the international challenges caused by the financial crisis, COVID 19, political conflicts, etc. Being a small nation, we need everyone’s support.

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Features

Soon…a celebrity Doctor!

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Dr. Nilanka is a name to be reckoned with in the local showbiz scene – not as a doctor, but as a vocalist/entertainer.

Although she has not been in the vocal spotlight, on stage, in a big way, this awesome singer has been churning out some beautiful music, in the studio, and uploading them on social media – her Facebook page – and, especially, on YouTube.

When ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ was taking shape, in August, I came across a video clip of Dr. Nilanka singing the Roberta Flack hit ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Obviously, there are several versions of ‘Killing Me Softly’ (Frank Sinatra, Fugees, Lauryn Hill), but Dr. Nilanka’s version just blew me away.

Since I was in the ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ committee, I thought we should have this singer on our show and immediately sent her video clip to those concerned. And, they were all unanimous in their decision.

And…Dr. Nilanka was there, on stage, on the night of Saturday, August, 29th, 2020, impressing everyone with her version of ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Those who heard her sing, that particular night, had only superlatives to describe her performance.

Yes, and a star was born – Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe.

Her latest contribution, via a video clip, is The Bangles hit song, ‘Eternal Flame.’

Sohan Weerasinghe describes her as a singer with a marvelous voice and he did mention that he would feature her as a guest star, with The X-Periments, as often as possible.

He went on to say that she is in a class of her own. “A very talented singer with an absolutely seductive voice. Awesome talent, indeed.”

And, that means, we are going to see, and hear, a lot of Dr. Nilanka in the near future….

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Women in Power

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The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva,Doreen,Vivi and Srima

By Kusum Wijetilleke (kusumw@gmail.com) and
Rienzie Wijetilleke (rienzietwij@gmail.com)

(Continued from yesterday)

US President John F. Kennedy modified a policy on the release of US rubber stockpiles after Ms. Bandaranaike wrote to him explaining the consequences of the policy on Sri Lanka’s rubber export earnings. She exchanged further letters with JFK on the most critical issue of the period, nuclear proliferation, expressing her dismay at nuclear tests undertaken by the US. Citing her speech at the 1961 Non-Aligned conference, JFK wrote back stating “…although there may be some differences between us as to what constitutes ‘effective’ inspection and control, I am heartened that we seem not to differ over the need for it.”

The 1962 Sino-Indian War led to some 6,000 deaths and Ms. Bandaranaike, realizing how devastating war between the super powers would be for Ceylon’s economic aspirations, travelled between China and India seeking compromises. Her efforts were some time before the term “shuttle diplomacy” entered the lexicon of international relations. A team of six non-aligned nations led by Ms. Bandaranaike and Sri Lanka led to a dramatic de-escalation in hostilities and earned her further recognition on the international stage. Her close relationship with Indira Gandhi led to a negotiation between PM J.R. Jayawardena and Indian Diplomat J.N. Dixit, on the restoration of her civil rights and parliamentary membership, after she had been convicted of abuses of power in 1977.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career was full of peaks and valleys, but her ascension to power was not merely a twist of fate caused by the assassination of her husband. At the age of 19, she took up social work in rural areas of the country, distributing food and medicine to villages and joined the Lankan Women’s Association, the largest voluntary women’s organization and served as its Treasurer, Vice-President and President. It might be unfortunate that her performance as a leader is defined by the decline of the Sri Lankan economy during her stewardship. It diluted a ground breaking career as a woman of formidable intellect with unrivalled power in a new political frontier.

A similar fate would befall another pioneering woman of Sri Lankan politics, its first female cabinet minister; Ms Wimala Wijewardene, whose political career was inextricably linked to the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination.

Ms. Wimala Wijewardene contested the seat for Kelaniya in 1952, at the 2nd Parliamentary election, but was defeated by her nephew J.R. Jayewardene. She would enter parliament and become a Cabinet Minister in 1956, but her career would be overshadowed by her close association with the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and its Chief Priest, “Ven.” Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera. The Chief Priest had long been suspected of racketeering and other not so venerable business dealings. He was also the founder of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) which represented the politicized section of the clergy. Pamphlets, anonymously distributed, implied an affair between Buddharakkita and Sri Lanka’s first female Cabinet Minister. When Ms. Wimala urged SWRD to take action, he disregarded the request and allegedly retorted “Wimala, after all, aren’t some of these things true”. Investigations following the assassination of the Prime Minister revealed that Buddharakkita had convinced a fanatic nationalist monk to murder the PM and reportedly even provided the weapon. Further investigations revealed SWRD Bandaranaike’s wavering patronage to Buddharakkita and his business interests; the refusal of a shipping contract and a sugar manufacturing license, as prime motives for his assassination.

Ms Wijewardene was arrested along with Buddharakkita as a suspect in the murder assassination, but was later released. She did not return to politics but the dramatic events should not dilute a crucial political career which peaked with her appointment as the Minister of Health in 1956. Twenty years later, another equally skilled administrator would be appointed as the Minister of Health.

Sivagami Verina “Siva” Dassanaike and her husband James Obeysekere lll, were early supporters of the breakaway faction led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s. Thus, “Siva” became politically active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the age of 22 and contested the Mirigama seat in 1965 at the age of 36. Her victory as a first time candidate was even more impressive considering that she was an Anglican contesting a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist district.

As Health Minister, Siva formulated a National Health Programme that would be adopted by the United Nations as an international model, earning her a special award of appreciation from the United States Senator for Massachusetts: Edward Kennedy. However Ms Obeysekere’s career was characterized by more than an award from a Kennedy. Despite, or may be because of a privileged upbringing, she was ahead of her time in realizing that the poorest in Ceylon had no meaningful income through employment and what work they did do was often exploitative, both in deed and remuneration. During her visits to far flung villages around the island she noticed that local artists in rural towns and villages, many of them women, would lovingly create handicrafts and handlooms but received very low prices for their labour. That was until Ms Obeysekere created ‘Laksala’ to earn better prices for handicrafts, an income generator to this day. Ms Obeysekere’s work towards uplifting the poor earned her the title of “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Island); the first female recipient of the award.

Sri Lanka’s independence heroes are rightly revered, with monuments, institutes and street signs bearing their names. D.S. Senenayake, Henry Pedris, C.W.W. Kannangara, Leslie Gunawardena, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Colvin R. De Silva and the like are cemented in history, but there are others who deserve recognition. Sri Lanka’s independence movement was partly the result of the agitation of a broad coalition of leftist political parties, thus Sri Lanka’s original socialists deserve more than an honourable mention.

The country’s first political party was the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 by Colvin R De Silva and Philip Gunawardena on an anti-imperialist platform. The party aimed to dismantle the colonial government from within by fielding popular candidates to positions in the State Council. Yet the first leftist to be elected to the State Council was Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe (1931), who later founded the Communist Party of Ceylon, and had met the aforementioned Colvin R.de Silva and Philip Gunawardena many years earlier in the UK. Whilst socializing amongst the radicals in London, Dr. Wickramasinghe would also meet his future wife, Doreen Young, whose parents were ardent British socialists and ingrained in her a revolutionary streak that would serve Ceylon well in later years.

Ms. Young would relocate to Ceylon as Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya in Matara and made her mark almost immediately by launching a campaign of formal training for Ceylon’s predominantly female teachers, so they may obtain qualifications and improve their bargaining positions in the labour market. Her career as a revolutionary and radical in Ceylon had begun. She learnt Sinhala and proceeded to update the local curriculum to replace British history with Sri Lankan and world history. Her marriage to the leader of the Communist Party and their anti-imperialist campaigns led to the revocation of an employment offer from Vishaka Vidyalaya. She was later also removed as the Principal of Ananda Balika Vidyalaya in 1936, accused of spreading anti-British propaganda.

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