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Midweek Review

Lanka exposed on eve of Geneva sessions for being taken for a USD 6.5mn ride in trying to influence US

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

 

One-time Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations at Geneva Tamara Kunanayakam says the country has no other option, but to oppose the Core Group’s Resolution by calling for a vote when it is tabled at the 46th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The Core Group, led by the UK, includes Germany, Canada, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Malawi. Kunanayakam, who served in Geneva (2011-2013) emphasized: “If the Resolution is adopted with Sri Lanka accepting, either directly by co-sponsoring or indirectly by not calling for a vote, it will reinstate the notorious HRC Resolution 30/1. By doing so, Sri Lanka will validate its underlying logic that legitimizes the use of illegal unilateral coercive measures against sovereign states; undermine Sri Lanka’s own sovereignty and the UN Charter-based multilateral order, guarantor of that sovereignty; deprive our allies in the Global South of the opportunity to express their views on a precedent-setting resolution that threatens their own sovereignty; and, isolate Sri Lanka, making it more vulnerable than it already is to foreign intervention and aggression. And that will only benefit Washington’s global ambitions for a unilateral world order under US hegemony.”

The then UNP-led coalition co-sponsored the Resolution on Oct 1, 2015. The then Sri Lanka’s PR there Ravinatha Aryasinha was ordered by Colombo to accept the Resolution on Sri Lanka’s behalf after he initially raised objections to it.

Kunanayakam, who had been Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Havana (2009-2011) asserted: “In fact, under today’s conditions, such a resolution will be worse than the 2015 resolution which could easily be dismissed on the basis that the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera had acted without authorization and there had been widespread opposition within the country, especially from political parties. This time, it will be interpreted as there having been not only an international consensus, but a national consensus, with the added argument that the Government in place was elected with a near two-thirds majority.”

The foreign affairs analyst was responding to the writer’s query as to what should be Sri Lanka’s response? And how could the country avoid a vote on the Core Group’s resolution?

 

UK succeeds US

The UK took command of the Core Group in the wake of the US quitting the UNHRC alleging the Geneva body was a cesspool of political bias. Having succeeded the US, the UK, prodded on by an influential Tamil group of Sri Lanka origin, has mounted a despicable political project meant to humiliate post-war Sri Lanka. The failure on Sri Lanka’s part to counter Western propaganda facilitated their operation. The current administration is no exception. Sri Lanka pathetically failed to exploit disclosures made by Western ‘sources’ since the successful conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 to the chagrin of the oft repeated Western refrain that the Sri Lankan security forces were incapable of crushing the almost invincible military machine of the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s pitiable handling of the Geneva affair certainly made the British project easier.

Sri Lanka should be eternally grateful to Lord Naseby for exposing the British project. The Conservative Party member recently revealed how the British conveniently suppressed information which might have helped the UNHRC to establish the truth. The UK withheld information in spite of it being a member of the 47-nation UNHRC. The availability of such information was made known to the world on Oct 12, 2017 thanks to Lord Naseby.

A parliamentary query raised by Lord Naseby recently revealed the suppression of diplomatic cables from the UK High Commission in Colombo in 2009. If revealed, the cables could have disputed the very basis of the unsubstantiated war crimes allegations leading to Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the 2015 Geneva Resolution against itself.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Feb 16 answered Lord Naseby’s written parliamentary question, tabled on Feb 4.

Question:

Lord Naseby asked the government whether the UK supplied to the UN Human Rights Council any (1) censored, and (2) uncensored, copies of dispatches written by Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Gash, the former Defence Attaché of the British High Commission in Sri Lanka about events in that country between 1 January and 18 May 2009, relating to the civil war.

Answer:

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said that the UK Government had not received any request from the UN Human Rights Council for copies of dispatches written by the former Defence Attaché at the British High Commission in Sri Lanka, Lieutenant Colonel Gash, about events in Sri Lanka related to the civil war, and had not provided any.

 

British duplicity

Appearing on ‘Face the Nation’ anchored by Shameer Rasooldeen on Feb 15, defence analyst and lecturer Nilanthan Niruthan explained the British duplicity in handling accountability issues. Responding to Rasooldeen, Niruthan didn’t mince his words when explained the rule of law meant that those responsible for crimes should be promptly and fairly prosecuted. Yet the UK government, while seeking to punish the Sri Lanka military, was pushing for a new law – the Overseas Operations Bill – that would make it nearly impossible to prosecute British soldiers for torture and other war crimes committed overseas, Niruthan said. The British actions showed contempt for the rule of law, violation of the UK’s international commitments to prosecute the worst crimes, and risks creating impunity for grave abuse, the programme was told.

The writer on Monday (22) sought a further clarification from Chennai, born Niruthan as regards the British position to the accountability issues. “The British position,” Niruthan, whose parents fled the Jaffna peninsula sometime after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, said: “… is like a rat accusing a squirrel of being a pest. The UK has been found responsible for systematic war crimes by the ICC prosecutor but the court could not proceed because the UK refused to cooperate with any further investigations. Worse, the UK is now working on a law that will make its own soldiers immune to the very same international prosecutions they are trying to push against the Sri Lankan military. The fact that they are leading the charge against Sri Lanka is evidence of how hypocritical and corrupt the system is. There is a difference between justice and politics. The UK sponsoring the resolution makes it undeniable that all this is much more about politics than anything related to justice. I hope Sri Lankans of all communities are paying attention to these double standards.”

Niruthan contributes to ‘The Journal of Military Operations and Small Wars’ as well as Asia-Pacific magazine called ‘The Diplomat’. Questioning the response of some countries with vested interests to terrorism and post-conflict Sri Lanka, Niruthan referred to the assassination of his grandfather Rajasundaram Vaithalingam, of Vaddukottai, Jaffna by the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization). At the time of Vaithalingam’s assassination in 1985, he had been the SLFP organizer for Jaffna.

Western powers turned a blind eye to Indian intervention causing mayhem here in the 80s. India sponsored terrorist groups, including the TELO, engaged in terrorist acts with impunity. They created an environment conducive for the deployment of the Indian Army here (July 1987-March 1990). India lost nearly 1,500 officers and men during the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) deployment. Nearly 3,000 others received injuries and the rest is history.

Today India represents the UNHRC. Foreign Secretary retired Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage on Feb 19 revealed to Hiru TV Sri Lanka’s request to Indian PM Narendra Modi’s backing at the UNHRC. India never bothered at least to apologize for causing massive death and destruction in Sri Lanka though New Delhi from time to time reminded Colombo of its obligations towards the Tamil community.

 

Indian role in bringing war to an end

Ironically, we have to acknowledge the support provided by India during the Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009) as it became patently unable to stomach Tiger insolence to its former patron, for turning its guns on the IPKF and especially after the assassination of its ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It would be pertinent to underscore what one-time Indian High Commissioner J, N. Dixit stated in 2004. Dixit, in his memoirs, ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy,’ says that he preferred to call India’s interference in Sri Lanka during 1980-1990 period as ‘Indian involvement.’ Dixit asserted that the decision to give active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants could be considered one of the two major foreign policy blunders made by the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But Dixit strongly defended the Prime Minister’s action, while asserting Gandhi couldn’t have afforded the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils [Chapter 6:An Indo-centric Practitioner of Realpolitik-Makers of India’s Foreign Policy].

Dixit failed to explain how the Prime Minister hoped to achieve her twin objectives by recruiting, training, arming and deploying thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil youth. India also helped Sri Lankan terrorists establish contact with international terrorist groups.

Indian action caused irrevocable damage to Indo-Lanka relations. The Maldives, too, suffered due to Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Dixit totally ignored the Maldivian factor, though Indian trained PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) was responsible for a coup attempt in the Maldives in Nov. 1988. India had to send in troops to thwart sea borne Sri Lankan terrorists, who mounted the attack on Male. The UNHRC (previously Commission) or Western powers never showed any interest in the suffering of the northern public until the Sri Lankan military eradicated the LTTE.

However, the war could never have been brought to a successful conclusion without New Delhi’s backing. Sri Lanka also needs to understand the US-Japan-India-Australia axis to meet the growing Chinese challenge as it walks a diplomatic tightrope against the backdrop of Colombo’s continuing dependence on Beijing. The Western moves in Geneva, in a way, reflect their overall strategy to undermine China.

Since the end of the conflict in May 2009, the Western powers pushed hard for an accountability process that enabled them to bring Sri Lanka under their domination. They exploited a joint statement issued in the wake of UNSG Ban Ki moon’s visit to Colombo to initiate a direct intimidation process that kicked off with the accusation of killing 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front by a virtual kangaroo court handpicked by the UNSG and called the Panel of Experts, whose findings neither could be questioned nor can the accusers be cross examined at least for two decades or more. (Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka released on March 31, 2011).

 

Gathering evidence the UN way

In the absence of a steady stream of complaints, the Centre for War Victims and Human Rights launched an online campaign to gather war crimes complaints. The petition was launched about a week before the expiry of the first deadline (Dec 15, 2010). The deadline was subsequently extended to Dec 31, 2010. The organizers posted a detailed communication from the Secretariat to PoE/PoE on a website named ‘Stop Sri Lanka State Terrorism’, obviously giving away the ultimate aim of the project. Interestingly, those who had complained cannot be examined in view of a confidentiality clause that prevented scrutiny of such for a period of 20 years (from March 2011 to March 2031). What is really surprising is that Sri Lanka never challenged the confidentiality clause. Sri Lanka owed an explanation why it continuously failed to take up contentious matters, such as the confidentiality clause or wartime US Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith’s defence of the Sri Lankan military at the first post-war defence seminar conducted in 2011. Let me reproduce verbatim what the US official said. Smith was responding to Maj. Gen. (retd) Ashok Mehta (IPKF) who queried about the alleged battlefield executions. Query directed to the then Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, No 2 in New York was answered by the American.

This is what the American had to say: “Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the Defense Ataché here, at the US Embassy, since June 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict – from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender that, I am aware of, seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.

“So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content, hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real.

“And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders, at various levels, that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up.

“But, I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble. “

The US State Department disassociated itself from Lt. Col. Smith’s statement. State Department’s Deputy Spokesman Mark C. Toner responded to questions raised on the basis of The Island report.

QUESTION:

I have one on Sri Lanka. The senior Defense Attaché at the U.S. Mission in Sri Lanka went public in the newspapers (inaudible) that he questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders who was the head of the (inaudible) last year. Does this reflect any change in the U.S. position on the war crime victims?

TONER:

Right. You’re talking about remarks that were made at a conference in Colombo?

QUESTION:

Yes. Yeah.

TONER:

Well, just to clarify, the U.S. did decline invitations to participate in that conference as either a conference speaker or panelist. My understanding is that the Defence Attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.

QUESTION:

So that was a personal opinion?

TONER:

Personal opinion. The United States – and just to reiterate that policy – remains deeply concerned by the allegations in the panel of experts report, and we’re committed to seeing a credible accounting of and accountability for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. And we believe that the Sri Lankan Government must act quickly and credibly to address these allegations.

QUESTION:

Who was the attaché?

TONER:

I don’t have his name.

QUESTION:

Is he still the attaché? (Laughter.) Was there any discussion —?

TONER:

I believe he’s still there, but I’ll try to get an update.

Smith’s statement contradicted the very basis of the war crimes allegations. For a decade, Sri Lanka conveniently failed to exploit US statements whereas resolutions were moved in Geneva on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. Resolutions were passed against Sri Lanka in 2012, 2013 and 2014 before the US backed change of the Rajapaksa administration that paved the way for the US to move the 2015 resolution. Sri Lanka never took any notice of the US State Department declaration that the US spent USD 585 mn to restore democracy in Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. If just one third of that amount had been allocated for the Sri Lanka project in addition to funds made available by the USAID in 2015, who were the recipients? The Geneva project can never be really examined without studying the US political designs here. Backing of General Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at 2010 and 2015 presidential polls exposed the US strategy. Wikileaks proved that.

 

Zuberi affair

The writer had an opportunity to discuss the accountability issue on ‘Sirasa’ ‘Pathikada’ anchored by Asoka Dias. The programme aired live, hours before Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena addressed the 46th sessions of the UNHRC, dealing with the failure on the part of successive governments to respond properly to the Western strategy. The squandering of a staggering USD 6.5 mn in 2014 for a harebrained project to prevent the US pushing Sri Lanka on the human rights front captured front-page attention of some print media a few days before the beginning of the Geneva sessions. The absence of overall strategy, too, was highlighted with scheduling of Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s visit to Colombo amidst Geneva sessions and ongoing controversy of cremation of Muslim victims of Covid-19. But, the cancellation of Khan’s address to Parliament on the alleged fears of him raising the Kashmir issue after making a grand announcement underscored the pathetic state of affairs.

American of Indian and Pakistani origin Imaad Zuberi, who had donated heavily to Democrats before former President Donald J. Trump’s election, pleaded guilty to charges related to a $900,000 donation to Trump’s inaugural committee, the US media reported last week. Having promised to save Sri Lanka for a sum of USD 8.5 mn, Zuberi received USD 6.5 mn in a deal negotiated through the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington. In the following year, the US not only played a key role in the change of government in Colombo, it got the UNP-SLFP administration to co-sponsor a Resolution against Sri Lanka’s wartime political leadership and the military.

In 2019 New York Times quoted Zuberi as having said: “To open doors, I have to donate. It’s just a fact of life.”

The smooth operator had donated heavily to Democrats, including committees supporting President Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, before abruptly switching allegiance to Republicans in the wake of Trump’s victory.

The Yahapalana government never made a genuine effort to probe the controversial deal with the American. Investigations revealed that the political agent who had received a 12-year jail term spent vast amounts of Sri Lankan taxpayers’ money to sustain his luxurious lifestyle. Those who had benefited at the expense of Sri Lanka perhaps will never be punished though the military is in the dock. US declaration of Army Chief Gen. Shavendra Silva a persona non grata in the US is a case in point. The same fate befell Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage.



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Midweek Review

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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President Wickremesinghe with US Ambassador Chung at the Colombo harbour, on Nov, 22, at the commissioning of newly acquired Offshore Patrol Vessel, formerly of the US Coast Guard.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having comfortably won the vote on the Second Reading of 2023 Budget, two days earlier, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on November 24, dealt with a spate of issues, including the responsibilities of the armed forces and the police, obviously indicating how a second Aragalaya, aimed at ousting his government from power, by way of violent protests, as was done to the previous President, would be tackled, as the country could not possibly afford any more turmoil.

The UNP leader stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to protect the armed forces and the police, who performed their legitimate duties and responsibilities.

The Parliament approved the Cudget, on Nov. 22, with 121 voting for and 84 against, as the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) reiterated its commitment to a political marriage of convenience with UNP leader Wickremesinghe whose party has only one seat in the 225-member Parliament. Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the Budget, on Nov. 14.

The SLPP secured 145 seats, at the last General Election, though three breakaway groups of lawmakers have since distanced themselves from the party.

Speaking on the continuing threats faced by his government, Wickremesinghe underscored the responsibilities of all, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe’s reference to responsibilities of those from Corporal to Field Marshal should be examined against the backdrop of perceived relationship between the war-winning Army Commander and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), accused of toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe talked tough and didn’t mince his words when setting the tone for the remainder of his term, secured on July 20, courtesy the SLPP. Wickremesinghe seemed confident that the balance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, won with a landslide at the Nov. 16, 2019, presidential election, could be completed.

Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Acting President, on July 13, and was elected the eighth President on July 20. As the sole UNP National List MP, Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes, including his own, whereas his rivals Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) obtained 82 and 03 votes respectively.

Wickremesinghe delivered a clear message. The UNPer didn’t mince his words when he warned that unauthorized protests, meant to undermine his government, wouldn’t be tolerated, under any circumstances.

Wickremesinghe declared that trouble makers wouldn’t be allowed to take cover behind human rights and any attempt to adopt strategies, similar to those employed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be crushed, militarily. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s stand.

So, in case the FSP et al launched the second phase of ‘Aragalaya,’ targeting the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, they can expect the armed forces and law enforcement authorities unleashed on them.

 Immediately after taking oaths, as the eighth President, Wickremesinghe directed the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament). Ironically, President Wickremesinghe, who was always for protests against the government in power, when in the Opposition, overnight metamorphosed into ignoring protests by the NGO-led mafia against the deployment of the armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave in to US pressure not to use the armed forces to evict those camping outside the Presidential Secretariat until it was too late.

Even on May 09 when a well-orchestrated wave of physical attacks, and torching of properties of government politicians, was unleashed across the country, as if in spontaneous response from the public at large, over the attack on the Galle Face protesters, the same evening the US Ambassador Julie Chung issued a statement, through the local media, warning the armed forces and the police not to crackdown on peaceful protesters. We all saw how peaceful these foreign-funded protesters were when the opportunity arose. On May 09, they even turned on a group of SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, when they visited the Galle Face protest site. Luckily for them, they beat a hasty retreat, with their security, sensing what was in store for them, after getting a few knocks.

During the campaign against Gotabaya Rajapaksa that commenced with violent protests outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, SLPP lawmaker Rear Admiral (ret.) Sarath Weerasekera told this writer, on a number of occasions, the danger of failing on the part of the then administration to deal with the growing threat efficiently. Weerasekera was one of the few who demanded tangible action against the protest campaign. By July 09, protesters forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Janadhipathi Mandiraya by sea. Field Marshal Fonseka, MP, had been the only parliamentarian to address the protesters, near Janadhipathi Mandiraya, just a few hours before they forced their way into the presidential abode.

No one bothered to remind the Field Marshal of his obligations at that time. In addition to Sajith Premadasa, Fonseka, too, received an invitation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the premiership. Both declined for different reasons.

But, on the part of Wickremesinghe, there hadn’t been any wavering, as in the case of Premadasa, despite being the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP leader simply grabbed the opportunity and proceeded step by step, having evicted those occupying the Presidential Secretariat.

Lawmaker Weerasekera, who sided with President Wickremesinghe at the Budget vote, told The Island the UNP leader had dealt appropriately with those trying to undermine law and order. Unfortunately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite being a distinguished former frontline combat officer, hesitated to meet the protesters’ violent challenge due to well hatched Western propaganda against his government, the MP asserted.

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

President Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to remind the House of the correspondence between his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to him being sworn in as the Premier on May 12. During his Nov. 24 address to Parliament, the UNP leader tabled in House Sajith Premadasa’s letter, dated May 12, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate his position, faulted the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up the presidency. The President’s strategy seems clear. In addition to dealing with the economy, Wickremesinghe faces two primary challenges, namely rebuilding the UNP, now reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena), in preparation for future elections and the resolution of the national question (post-war national reconciliation)

The re-building of the UNP has to be achieved at the expense of Sajith Premadasa. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s strategy. Wickremesinghe has no option but to relentlessly push SJB members to switch their allegiance to him. Although many believed Wickremesinghe could influence the majority of the main Opposition, the SJB, to switch sides, in the wake of his appointment as the Premier, it didn’t materialize. Of the 54-member SJB parliamentary group, Manusha Nanayakara (Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment) and Harin Fernando (Minister of Tourism and Land) deserted Sajith Premadasa when they accepted Cabinet portfolios, on May 20 from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The two SJB MPs, who spearheaded a high profile campaign, targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, had no qualms in receiving their letters of appointment from the very person.

The other SJB MP to accept state ministerial portfolios from Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, in April (Transport) and September (Tourism) was Diana Gamage, now at the centre of a simmering controversy over her allegedly being a British national. When there are probably at least half a dozen or so other dual citizen MPs in Parliament we wonder why just Diana Gamage is being targeted by so many.

President Wickremesinghe appears to be confident that some of those who had been elected on the SJB ticket, as well as some SLPPers, may accept Cabinet portfolios soon. Appointments are likely to be finalized immediately after the final vote on the Budget, scheduled to take place on Dec 08.

Wickremesinghe needs to reach a consensus with the top SLPP leadership, as regards Cabinet portfolios, as the latter wouldn’t, under any circumstances, tolerate appointments, sans its approval. However, Wickremesinghe will go out to engineer defections from the SJB. Will the UNP leader be able to influence a group large enough to cause the disintegration of Sajith Premadasa’s party, formed in early 2020, to contest the last General Election?

However, in spite of enjoying executive powers, Wickremesinghe would find it an extremely difficult task as the SJB, as a group, abhorred joining the SLPP-led government. On one hand, Wickremesinghe required the continuing support of the SLPP to sustain his government. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe’s dependence on the SLPP made him quite unpopular. The SLPP has so far refused to accept that it couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout, caused by utter mismanagement of the national economy. Had the SLPP government sought the IMF intervention, soon after the 2019 presidential election, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have ended up as the President. The circumstances that compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Wickremesinghe to accept the premiership underscored the seriousness of the situation the country had fallen into.

Having failed to get elected, from Colombo, at the last General Election, Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament, in late June 2021, on its National List, at a time the national economy was rapidly deteriorating.

But, even Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have anticipated the turn of events that compelled the desperate Rajapaksas to invite him to accept the premiership, one month short of a year later. Having taken over the government, under an incomparable situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda. The SLPP seems to be so far satisfied. The vote on the Second Reading of the Budget meant that the SLPP and Wickremesinghe are prepared to work together. though quite significant differences remain.

However, the SLPP has, in no uncertain terms, indicated that it didn’t bother about the mandates received at the 2019 Presidential and 2020 General Elections at which its candidate received 6.9 mn votes and the party obtained a staggering 145 seats, respectively.

Prez roadmap

SLPP National List MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, in two speeches in Parliament (delivered during the ongoing Budget debate) dealt with Wickremesinghe’s strategy. The leader of civil society group Yuthukama did it quite well. The first time entrant to Parliament discussed the issues at hand, including the alleged move to deliberately lose state control over land that may cause irrevocable consequences. At the onset of one speech, lawmaker Cumaratunga reacted somewhat angrily as some government members continued with their noisy private conversations, among themselves, as the MP dealt with contentious issues.

The MP asked whether Wickremesinghe was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance his own roadmap at the expense of the country. Cumaratunga raised the possibility of those enjoying the political power allowing further deterioration of the economy. The MP expressed fears of Wickremesinghe’s Budget causing a heavier debt burden at a time the country has suspended repayment of loans. The MP also slammed the government over the inordinate delay in amending the Exchange Control Act of 2017 to make it mandatory for importers to bring back massive amounts of funds ‘parked’ overseas, over a period of time, within a stipulated time frame.

In addition to Cumaratunga, Prof. Charitha Herath, as well as Prof. Channa Jayasumana ,made important contributions during the ongoing Budget debate. Both of them dealt with the land issue.

Herath, who earned public appreciation for his role as former COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman dealt with a number of issues, including an ‘operation’ meant to facilitate land grabs. The first time MP alleged that the move to place state land under the purview of Divisional Secretaries was nothing but a ruse to allow land grabs.

Participating in the Second Reading debate on the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath alleged that the move was meant to allow cronies of the ruling party to get hold of government lands. Declaring that LRC lands had been misappropriated for the political gains of successive governments, since 1977, Prof. Herath questioned the way state land were utilized. The 2023 Budget has proposed to legitimize wrong procedure, lawmaker Herath said, adding: “We summoned the LRC, two or three times before the Committee on Public Enterprises, and investigated the issues at hand. We found out that there had been many shortcomings in its land utilization process. We instructed the officials to take remedial measures. Now the 2023 Budget has proposed that these LRC lands should be placed under District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and allow them to decide to whom those lands should be given for the purpose of cultivating them. The proposal would prune down the powers of the Lands Minister.

“We do not approve the status quo of the LRC because every Lands Minister has placed the LRC under his or her friends who, in return, placed the lands at LRC under the mercy of the Minister. This should come to an end but not in the manner that has been envisaged by the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath said.

Prof. Jayasumana raised the legitimacy of crucial decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader didn’t have a mandate to do so from the people. Addressing the Parliament, during the Committee Stage of the Defence Ministry vote, the first time MP asked whether the President could take decisions pertaining to national security and policy matters as he was only entrusted with completing the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

The Anuradhapura District MP suggested the need to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as regards the ability of Wickremesinghe to call for a presidential election four years after the last poll. In this case the one held in Nov. 2019. Lawmaker Jayasumana declared that he would submit a private member’s proposal to enable Wickremesinghe to call for a fresh presidential poll after completion of one year in office. If consensus could be reached, a fresh presidential election could be held in July 2023, Prof. Jayasumana said, adding that if Wickremesinghe won he could implement whatever his proposals. Pointing out that as Wickremesinghe’s agenda had been rejected by the electorate in 1994, 2004 and 2019, the UNP leader could face serious public challenge unless he obtained a fresh mandate.

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a huge mandate at the 2019 presidential election to preserve Sri Lanka’s unitary status, Prof Jayasumana questioned the moves to even go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The academic reminded that the Supreme Court had been divided on the 13th Amendment.

The SLPP rebel reminded that the Supreme Court bench that decided on the 13th Amendment did so by a majority of just one judge.

Sri Lanka is heading for unprecedented political upheaval as Wickremesinghe pushes ahead with his agenda amidst further deterioration of political-economic-social situation. The much-touted USD 2.9 bn in emergency aid from the IMF, spread over a period of four years, seems wholly inadequate to remedy the situation. Impending political turmoil appears to be quite threatening and may even undermine the economic recovery efforts unless the Parliament addressed the issues at hand with the dedication such situations required.

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

It is vitally important to value our freedom more than anything else, as Patrick Henry did and declared: “Give me liberty or give me death. My humanity diminishes the less I am free; my humanity is enhanced the more I am free.” Moises Naim has written a book that every freedom loving human being must read to become aware of the treacherous dangers to his/her freedom.

The book is about how our freedom won with so much trouble, toil, blood and sacrifice is being corroded today, not from outside forces, like in the past such as tribal chiefs, kings and dictators, but more insidiously from within, subtly and deceptively, with something that looks like truth or democracy.

The mortal enemy of freedom is power. The gradual defeat of power by freedom and democracy we enjoy is being slowly strangulated by power returning to battle in unsuspecting hidden ways and means. That is why the book is titled “The Revenge of Power”.

The book is about the 3-P autocrats who steal our freedom and kill democracy. The three Ps are populism, polarisation and post-truth. The corrosive and corrupting consequence of the trio – populism, polarisation and post-truth – is a criminal and complete takeover of the state.

Populism

Populism is a set of practices and strategies. Through this, the autocrats become not only the sole voice and face of the government but also of the state. It empties the meaning of the authentic exercise of the will of the people as it weakens popular and civic organisations, and eliminates the function of political parties as channels of alternative ideologies.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) perfectly fits the bill for a populist leader. He came to power through democratic and legal means unlike Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) who became the President through trickery. No autocrat can beat the executive powers of the President of Sri Lanka, thanks to J. R. Jayewardene, who introduced the 1978 Constitution. Slowly, MR began to show traces of an autocrat. Even the few checks and balances that were in existence were disregarded. Self-promoting useless extravaganzas increased. He openly became nepotistic. He began to interfere in the judiciary by removing Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Shirani Bandaranayake, and brought in 18th Amendment in a bid to become the President for life. In the meantime, more and more allegations of huge commissions on mega projects, robberies, scams and crimes of family members, relatives and cronies increase. Pandora Papers disclosures as regards Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband has revealed only a fraction of what the Rajapaksa family has amassed.

MR’s younger brother, Gotabaya, entered politics in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre declaring that he alone could protect the country’s national security. He said at the very beginning of his presidency that his word took precedence over government circulars. He banned agrochemicals. His idiotic economic decisions bankrupted the country.

Polarisation

Polarisation is the age-old idea of divide and rule. The autocrats generate intense hatred against the rivals and neutralise them. Since they exploit the atavistic fears and prejudices of and the social cleavages and divisions among people, they have a huge fan-base, and hence emerge as Messiahs.

Creating an enemy, the Other, is the speciality of our politicians. The Tamil minority was the first enemy. JR, the autocrat deliberately organised the 1983 July riots, and the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Then, we had the 30-year civil war. They demonised the Tamils in the North and the East. GR came to power after Easter Sunday tragedy, promising to ensure national security and making the Muslims, the Other or the enemy.

Creating and accusing the Other, the enemy is part of the political practice in Sri Lanka. Rulers speak of imperialist conspiracy, Tamil separatism, Muslim Wahabism, NGO betrayals, Christian conversions or what not. They make ‘others’ monsters ready to pounce on the hapless majority, destroy them and conquer Sri Lanka.

Divide and rule is the name of the autocrat’s game. RW has called the Aragalaya youth fascists making them The Other. By using the PTA he has made the university students terrorists. Anti-riot police in full gear with tear gas masks, water cannon trucks and hundreds of men and women armed with batons and shields are sent to suppress the fundamental rights of the people to protest of small groups of unarmed non-violent civilians.

Post-truth

Post-truth is the confused conceptualisation and uncontrollable diffusion of fake news that distorts reality. It has such a power that it can systematically block the knowledge and diffusion of the truth. It is not simply spreading lies. It is about muddying the waters to such a point that it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. Post-truth is the baby of the modern mass communication media.

“Post-truth has been defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth.” It is a condition that arises in public life when the dividing line between facts and knowledge, on one side, and belief and opinion, on the other, withers away, or at least when they are used interchangeably so often that the dividing line between them is no longer widely agreed upon.” (Quoted from the aforesaid book)

With easy access to millions, social media, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc., we are inundated with facts and messages that can be true, partially true, false or fake. Often contrary facts and news are presented to us and we are confused as to what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. This weakens our democracy. A country of confused citizens is easy prey of the rapacious populist autocrat.

How to protect our freedom

The author has proposed methods of fighting the 3-P autocrats by battling against their five most used tactics.

The battle against the Big Lie

The Big Lie was the slogan given by Trump to his election loss. Here are some of our Big Lies. “Dharmishta Samajaya” sounds so pious and nice but the reality of the JR presidency was just the opposite. Then MR presented the vision of “Suba Anagathayak.” Now, we are in the Rajapakses’ ‘Anagathe’, you can decide whether it is ‘suba’ or ‘kalakanni’. “Yahapalanaya” was another fantastic goal to be achieved, but the UNP and its cronies carried out the Treasury bond scams, and the SJB footnote gang shamelessly tried to protect the culprits. Finally, we have the “Saubagya” of GR, well, the country is bankrupt and economically bogged down and ruined. The sweet dream of ‘Saubagya’ has become for the people a nightmare! These are the Big Lies of Sri Lankan politics. There are many small lies that are brazenly proclaimed in public like when Namal R said that “No Rajapakse has robbed anything. Take us to courts and prove the charges.” Of course, GR had “Nidoskota nidahas” all the cases against the Rakapakses and their crony murderers and thieves. Or take the television channels that promoted the Dammika Peniya as a cure for Covid-19.

Now for the battle. Democracy and freedom can be saved only if the citizens are well informed of how the government works. Ways of educating the youth and even the elderly must be found and implemented. They must be taught to check always the myriads of facts, figures and information they receive and even double check them before using them to make decisions or sharing them with others. The perpetrators of the Big Lie must never be allowed to win an election again. Even the supporters and promoters of the Big Liar must be dealt with similarly. The electorate must be made to feel seriously responsible for the election results.

Battle against criminal regimes

There are countries where criminals are no longer underground but very much above ground and in the highest places of power. Since the 1970s, Sri Lanka has also joined the club or the mafia of such countries. A good example of where it started is when JR made the notorious criminal, Gonawala Sunil, a Justice of the Peace after pardoning and releasing the latter from prison! We have a person convicted of “Kappan” as the Chief Whip of the government and most others are all thieves or at least collaborators of thieves. It is not for nothing that people call them Ali Baba and the 225 thieves.

As every government deal, whether oil, gas, sugar, medicine, vaccines or other essentials, is suspected to be a scam and the allegations are never investigated or admitted, we sure have a kleptocracy consisting of the politicians, top administrative officers and their crony businessmen openly robbing the wealth of the nation. The kleptocrats robbed and bankrupted the country. They have taken out the wealth of the country and stashed it away in black tax havens.

When the people of Aragalaya led by the youth, protest publicly against the criminal government, they are arrested and jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Saving democracy and freedom from a criminal regime is going to be a war of attrition. Then we must investigate the route of the stolen money and confiscate it. So far, nothing has been done in this regard. All that we know about Nirupama Rajapaksa, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, Udayanga Weeratunga, Air Bus scam, etc., has been revealed by investigations conducted overseas. We cannot expect a criminal government to conduct such investigations. It will have to be the work of NGOs, journalists, detectives and lawyers. Anybody, even charities that receive funds from autocrats who need character laundering must be named and shamed.

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

Powerful autocracies and even some democracies competing for global domination have always interfered in the smaller democracies. It is clear how funding for elections is received. It is no secret that China funded Rajapaksas or the US funded some others. There were allegations that North Korea funded the old JVP and India funded the LTTE. Funds apart, now they use the social media on a global scale to disinform, mislead and tarnish the images of politicians who are undesirables, or support their favourites. They have found that Russia has interfered in the Trump election and in the Brexit referendum.

The only defence of the democracies against such onslaughts depends “on three priorities: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.”

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

Democracy is a way of organising political competition. In a democracy, those unhappy with the current state of affairs can change things, but only if they can persuade enough fellow citizens to vote for them. Ensuring fair and lawful political competition is the central purpose of democratic checks and balances. (Quoted from the book)

But political cartels that include the judicial, administrative and military sectors unleash anti-competitive pressures to stifle freedom and democracy. They are rigging the game to stay in power. The autocrats become political monopolists. In Sri Lanka, the practice of bribing MPs to switch sides is part of anti-competition.

“To defeat them, we need a kind of political anti-trust doctrine, one designed to protect the competitive dynamic at the heart of democracy. Whether dealing with campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, or media regulation, policymakers must squarely confront one question: Do the current rules foster fair and constructive competition? Where the answer is no, a strong prima facie case exists for intervention and reform.” (Quoted from the book)

Battle against illiberal narratives

The autocrats create the Big Lie that they are the saviours of the people harassed by poverty, and the elites are insensitive to the people’s plight. They cater to the people’s gut level feelings and make their adrenalin work. But the democrats find difficult to achieve such results as they will offer only abstract principles of truth and fair play; freedom and competition. Usually, the democrats are always at a disadvantage.

“The populist frame is too powerful to be defeated permanently. Like a virus, it reappears in outbreaks again and again throughout history. But the rhetoric is hollow. And pointing out that hollowness gives us an opening we must exploit to sell people once more on the promise of democratic life.” (Quoted from the book)

In our country, Aragalaya has opened the eyes of people as never before and now many of them can see how they have been deceived and abused by populist autocrats.

“Sobriety is in order. The fact that democracy has survived over the last three centuries in no way guarantees that it will prevail against its enemies once more. But if we can defeat the Big Lies, sideline criminalized governments, parry the attempts at foreign subversion directed at democratic elements, face down the political cartels that stifle competition, and beat back the illiberal narratives that sustain autocratic onslaughts, we’ll have won the war to preserve democracy.” (Quoted from the book)

Conclusion

As I finished reading the book, I realised that we had found the local antidote to the 3-P autocrats. It is our own way of dealing with our own variety of 3-P autocrats. It is what emerged as Aragalaya in April this year, climaxed in July and is still simmering like live coals in the ashes. Proudly, I called it the Beautiful Revolution. However much its detractors howl against it, it is now a historical fact. Aragalaya happened and nobody can deny, delete or forget it. Our youth led it and were responsible for it and all, their mothers, fathers even little children joined them whole heartedly. The world was stunned by its success. Not a drop of blood was shed by the protesters.

I gauged them at the Galle Face Gotagogama. Aragalaya can be defined with the three words they always use, Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraya. Nirpakshika means they are not followers or slaves of anybody, any party or any ism. They are strong free adults; they think for themselves and they decide for themselves. Nirprachanda means non-violence stemming from human solidarity. Aragalaya was an experience of solidarity; not the narrow solidarity of groups of the same race, religion, language, class, caste or political party but the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race. At Gotagogama there was open trust and friendliness among all sorts of people. I remember one incident clearly; when the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu said that he was going to send food-aid to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, a young Tamil took the mike at Gotagogama and sent a message to the Chief Minister; Sir, either send food-aid to Sri Lankans or don’t send at all. Yes, we are Sri Lankans, period. Finally, they called their movement Aadaraye Aragalaya. I suppose it is inevitable; nirpakshika and nirprachanda leads naturally to the peculiar ethos of Aragalaya; an ethos of love, peace, friendship and brotherhood.

Aragalaya led by the new generation revealed what is truly necessary for democracy. It was democratic as it never had a clear leader. All were welcome to come forward and share their opinion. Various individuals were spokespersons for it but Aragalaya went on, a common project of the people. Everybody shared equal responsibility for the spontaneous project, in such a way that all were leaders. Aragalaya formed free citizens fit for true democracy. And this is the best antidote to the 3P autocrats. Democracy, not just in name but in practice, is possible in Sri Lanka. The good news of Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraye Prajatantravadaya must be spread island wide. This is the foundation for the system change we are looking for. And this is what frightens the enemies of Aragalaya, Ali Baba and the 225 thieves. They know their evil system is in its death throes. With PTA, emergency, suppression, new alliances, new parties, fake news and all kinds of crooked deals they are fighting for their survival. They will be vanquished.

Let us keep in mind; the price of sweet freedom is the hard work of eternal vigilance or a sort of permanent Aragalaya.

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