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Laws made to be broken



Monday 11th September, 2023

The effective date of the new Anti-Corruption Act––15 Sept. 2023––was announced on Saturday (09). The timing of that announcement could not have been more inappropriate. The gazette notification came less than one day after the government had made a mockery of its much-advertised commitment to eliminating bribery and corruption.

On Friday, the government defeated the Opposition’s no-faith motion against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella over various malpractices including questionable pharmaceutical and surgical equipment deals in the state health sector. Now, the corrupt in the Health Ministry must be over the moon because the government has declared in Parliament that there is nothing wrong with their actions; they will be emboldened to do more of what they have been doing, much to the detriment of the country’s interests, and the collapse of the publicly-funded health service might come sooner than feared.

New anti-corruption laws are said to be aimed at establishing a culture of integrity by honouring Sri Lanka’s obligations under the UN Convention against corruption and adopting international best practices. A new anti-graft commission will be set up with more powers than the existing CIABOC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption), we are told. But is there anything stupider than to expect a government notorious for corruption to make an earnest attempt to eliminate bribery and corruption? Hunters cannot be expected to prevent poaching, can they?

The CIABOC has failed to live up to its raison d’etre mainly due to political interference. All political parties that are currently campaigning for good governance had no qualms about joining forces, under an SLFP-led regime in the early 1990s, to emasculate the CIABOC by denying it powers to carry out investigations on its own initiative without having to rely on external complaints of bribery or corruption. Every government has since kept it under its thumb.

It may not be too cynical a view that Sri Lanka at present has a government of the corrupt by the corrupt for the corrupt. In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe won elections by campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. Claiming that the Rajapaksas were corrupt, and had stashed away billions of dollars in offshore accounts, the Yahapalana politicians undertook to bring back the stolen money and throw the culprits behind bars. On 07 May 2015, the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (UNP) declared at a media briefing that foreign intelligence agencies were assisting in the Yahapalana government’s efforts to trace Sri Lanka’s stolen funds, and the Rajapaksas held assets worth over USD 18 billion overseas.

The Rajapaksas and their cronies undertook to bring the Yahapalana politicians and their allies involved in the Treasury bond scams to justice, and sought a popular mandate for accomplishing the task. But after returning to power in 2019, they made up for lost time, and committed the sugar tax fraud, which caused a loss of billions of rupees to the state coffers. There have been numerous corrupt deals, especially in the power and energy sector. Today, the Rajapaksas, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have closed ranks and are savouring power together, and their government is promising to rid the country of corruption!

The new commission to be set up to fight bribery and corruption is made out to be the proverbial silver bullet that will help get rid of the corrupt. But with so many corrupt politicians around, it is bound to be as impuissant as the CIABOC. They are not worried about the anti-corruption laws, which, they think, are made to be broken like pie crust. It is doubtful whether the situation will improve even in the event of a regime change, for the current Opposition worthies are no better. The SJB consists of former members of the corrupt Yahapalana government; some of them shielded racketeers and went so far as to dilute the second COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) report on the Treasury bond scams by having a slew of footnotes incorporated thereinto.

The self-righteous SLPP dissidents, who have taken moral high ground and are pontificating about the virtues of good governance, benefited from the current regime before breaking ranks with it for their own sake rather than that of the public. The JVP was part of the corrupt UPFA government under President Chandrika Kumaratunga; it helped Mahinda Rajapaksa secure the presidency in 2005, and backed the UNP-led Yahapalana government thereafter. The SLMC has been in all corrupt governments during the past three decades or so. The TNA backed the Yahapalana regime to the hilt despite the latter’s corrupt deals.

A country needs tough laws to battle the twin evils of bribery and corruption. The recently-passed Anti-Corruption Act is therefore welcome. But an inescapable condition for making it work is to get rid of the politicians who indulge in corruption and protect corrupt officials. This, we believe, is a task for the people, who unfortunately get swayed by political allegiances, patronage and other factors such as caste, religion and ethnicity, and elect political dregs, and then protest. Hence the need for a robust social reform movement that transcends partisan politics to enlighten the public on their rights and persuade them to vote intelligently. There is no workaround.

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Junketing failures



Friday 22nd September, 2023

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa yesterday created quite a stir in Parliament by demanding to know why President Ranil Wickremesinghe had taken some SLPP MPs to New York. Premadasa said those who were responsible for bankrupting the country must not be allowed to junket at the expense of taxpayers. He must have struck a responsive chord with the irate public, but going by his line of reasoning, the question is whether any member of the current Parliament can be considered eligible to accompany the President during his foreign visits. All the MPs are responsible, albeit to varying degrees, for the country’s bankruptcy caused by unsustainable debt, which accumulated under successive governments.

All governments, after 1977, borrowed heavily from both domestic and foreign sources, making the country’s debt unsustainable, and mismanaged the economy. They allowed their members and cronies to indulge in corruption and steal public funds, and did nothing to prevent the waste of state resources. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, which was characterised by mismanagement, inefficiency, corruption and waste, precipitated the economic collapse, which would otherwise have taken a few more years to manifest itself.

Thus, all those who were members of the governments led by the UNP or the SLFP, and the SLPP MPs are responsible for the current economic mess. The same goes for the MPs who supported terrorism, which bled billions of rupees, if not dollars, from the national economy for years, and drove investors and foreign tourists away, thereby severely retarding the country’s economic growth.

Most MPs, including those who craftily marketed Gotabaya as a messiah and duped the public into voting for him, have sought to absolve themselves of the blame for the current economic crisis by claiming that they were not aware that the country was heading for bankruptcy, and nobody warned them. But is there any need for anyone to provide these self-proclaimed mavens with such information? They are known for their economic punditry, aren’t they?

On listening to our legislators, who speak very authoritatively on virtually anything either in Parliament or elsewhere, one wonders whether they are omniscient. Some of them would have the public believe that they have found out what the police and special committees and commissions have failed to ascertain all these years; they claim to be aware of who masterminded the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks!

Besides, they play the roles of prosecutors and judges and conduct trials in the House, to all intents and purposes, although the Constitution says the judicial power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament through courts, tribunals, etc., except in regard to matters relating to the privileges, immunities and powers of Parliament and of its Members. While claiming to be so knowledgeable and usurping the powers of other institutions, these worthies have had the audacity to claim that they were not aware that the economy was nosediving and the country was heading for bankruptcy!

Even some SLPP dissidents including former Cabinet ministers have claimed that they had been kept in the dark about the state of the economy, and the declaration of the country’s bankruptcy came as a surprise to them! Among them are some experts who never miss an opportunity to parade their knowledge of economic and financial affairs. Their claim is tantamount to a confession that they neglected their legislative duties and functions, and did not keep a watchful eye on the economy. Will they be able to convince the public that they are capable of managing the economy better?

One cannot but fully endorse the Opposition Leader’s demand that no MP who is responsible for the country’s bankruptcy be allowed to spend public funds on foreign junkets.

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Grave diplomatic issue



Thursday 21st September, 2023

The recent killing of a prominent Sikh activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Canada, has triggered a diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi. Canada lost no time in ordering an Indian diplomat out of the country, accusing India of having had a hand in the assassination. Denying Canada’s allegation, New Delhi reacted with a tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion.

The so-called great powers have carried out numerous assassinations on foreign soil over the past several decades, with the US and Russia leading the pack. So, it is only natural that the spy outfits of powerful nations become the prime suspects when the people who are hostile to them happen to be murdered in other countries.

The diplomatic fallout of Nijjar’s assassination shows how concerned powerful nations such as Canada and India are about what they consider threats to their sovereignty. In a hard-hitting statement on the expulsion of its diplomat, the Indian External Affairs Ministry said Canada’s allegations sought to ‘shift focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided with shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’. Referring to Ottawa’s allegation against India, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said, “If proven true, this would be a great violation of our sovereignty and of the most basic rule of how countries deal with each other.” (Emphasis added.)

Curiously, going by the Canadian Foreign Minister’s statement, the basis of Ottawa’s angry reaction is a mere allegation that has not been proved yet. Shouldn’t Canada have investigated the allegation against India thoroughly and made an informed conclusion instead of plunging head first into lighting the diplomatic blue touchpaper, as it were?

Whether India had a hand in the assassination at issue, one may not know, but what it has said about Canada stands scrutiny; Canada harbours foreign terrorists of all sorts, and, worse, it allows terror fronts to influence its policies simply because they are capable of delivering block votes and campaign funds to the Canadian political parties and politicians, who are no better than their Sri Lankan counterparts notorious for looking after the interests of lawbreakers in return for votes and campaign funds. This, Canada is doing while claiming to be promoting democracy and human rights globally. Can a country that allows terrorist groups and their fronts to use its soil and institutions to raise funds and drum up international support for violent conflicts in other countries expect the world to buy into its claim of being a champion of democracy?

Meanwhile, the US has called for an investigation into the assassination of the Sikh activist in Canada, according to foreign media reports, but one should not be so naïve as to think that Washington is driven by a genuine desire to get at the truth and ensure that justice is served. While making much-publicised calls for investigations for the consumption of the world, Washington is likely to intervene to reconcile Canada and India, for they are its strategic allies, and it does not want them to be at loggerheads.

The US is no respecter of human lives when it comes to safeguarding its interests. How it handled the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a case in point. The US intelligence agencies concluded that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in 2018, but Washington did not target Salman with sanctions, financial or otherwise.

India has realised that it is really hurtful to have other countries harbouring terrorist groups who pose a threat to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ironically, it once did to Sri Lanka exactly what it has accused Canada of doing at present; it sheltered Sri Lankan terrorists.

If only the great powers heeded the Golden Rule, and did unto others as they would have others do unto them.

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House of hypocrites



Wednesday 20th September, 2023

Opposition politicians are making the most of Channel 4’s recent claim that the Easter Sunday attacks were part of a political conspiracy, and the Rajapaksa family and its loyalists in the state intelligence agencies were behind it. They are flogging the issue really hard in a bid to gain political mileage, which they are badly in need of, on the pretext of trying to have justice served for the victims of the carnage.

The past few days have seen the Opposition top guns going ballistic in Parliament, condemning the government and demanding an international investigation into the Easter Sunday terror attacks. Curiously, while calling for a fresh probe, they are demanding that criminal proceedings be instituted against certain individuals on the basis of the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which investigated the Easter Sunday bombings. They find themselves in a contradiction. If they consider the PCoI findings credible enough to be the basis for criminal proceedings or any other form of punitive action against the persons they are hauling over the coals, why should they ask for a fresh probe, international or otherwise?

The Opposition yesterday renewed its call for legal action against Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, who was the Head of the State Intelligence Service at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks. Speaking in Parliament, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella vehemently protested against a government decision to hold a meeting where Jayawardena was scheduled to brief the MPs on the ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. He called for an explanation, condemning the government for having promoted Jayawardena.

The government should have implemented all PCoI recommendations, especially the one that former President Maithripala Sirisena and those who held key positions in the state intelligence agencies at the time of the 2019 terror attacks be prosecuted. But it found itself in a dilemma because Sirisena had closed ranks with the SLPP. It must be regretting its decision not to have him prosecuted because he has welcomed Channel 4’s allegations against the Rajapaksas and called for an investigation thereinto. He seems to consider them credible evidence, which will help prove his innocence! He is trying to wriggle out of trouble at the expense of the Rajapaksas!

The Opposition is right in condemning the government for having promoted the police officers whom the PCoI has asked the Attorney General to prosecute for their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. But it should not be selective in calling for action against those the PCoI has held accountable. Let the Opposition bigwigs be urged to read at least the pages 470 and 471 of the PCoI’s final report, wherein it is clearly stated that the entire Yahapalana government was accountable for the tragedy. The PCoI has said: “Since 2015 the Government did not give priority to national security … failed to properly appreciate the magnitude of the threat faced by the country due to IS and Islamic extremism and other forms of extremism. This was aggravated by the breakdown in trust between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe …. The dysfunctional Government was a major contributory factor for the events that took place on 21st April 2019. The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Wickremesinghe] is accountable for the tragedy. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, as we argued in a previous comment, it is clear that all those who were in the Yahapalana Cabinet in 2019 are also accountable for the tragedy, and have no moral right to condemn others. They are currently in the UNP and the SJB.

The SJB MPs, who held Cabinet posts in the Yahapalana government ought to explain why they did not press for criminal action against the police and military officers concerned or an international investigation into the carnage, while they were in power. Equally culpable are those who backed the crumbling Yahapalana government, which neglected national security and did nothing to neutralise threats to the country; they include the JVP and TNA politicians.

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