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Midweek Review

leaves out Gash dispatches, Swiss embassy abduction drama and India’s accountability

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

Veteran journalist Tim Sebastian interviewed Foreign Secretary, retired Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage, in the immediate aftermath of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopting accountability resolution in respect of Sri Lanka.

Twenty-two countries voted for the resolution, 11 against, whereas 14 abstained. The vote on Sri Lanka took place on March 23. Among those who abstained was India whose intervention here in the 80s caused a war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009. But Sebastian was only interested in accountability on Sri Lanka’s part. He wasn’t concerned about Adele, who played a significant role in building a female fighting cadre for the LTTE, either.

“In the last few days, the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution highlighting your government’s failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations and mandating UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings. They did that Mr. Secretary because your abject failure to do it yourself and because of the worsening human rights climate in your country. Aren’t you ashamed of that?”

It was internationally acclaimed Sebastian’s opening question to Foreign Secretary Colombage in ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview titled: Is Sri Lanka on the brink.

Admiral Colombage responded: “Well, Tim let me say the World War ended 78 years later… earlier and we still see the residual effects on the environment on the physical things and the Good Friday agreement was in 1998 and there are 116 walls which is called peace walls. Still…”

Sebastian interrupted Colombage. “We are not talking about Northern Ireland; Mr. Secretary We are talking about Sri Lanka and your failure to ensure accountability for human rights violations… which you have denied in other interviews.”

One-time Navy Commander, and the Additional Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Foreign Relations, Prof. Colombage received appointment as the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry following the last general election.

Admiral Colombage, who had served the SLN for 36 years, was its 18th Commander. He received the command in 2012, three years after the end of the war. Following his retirement, Colombage served as the Director of the Centre for India-Sri Lanka Initiatives and Law of the Sea Centre at the Pathfinder Foundation. At the time of his appointment, as Foreign Secretary, Colombage was the Additional Secretary to the President on Foreign Relations and the Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL).

 

Relying on a backbencher’s speech

Let me examine the latest Geneva resolution against the backdrop of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview and the Daily Mirror interview, titled ‘Govt. committed two mistakes’, with one-time Permanent Secretary to the Justice Ministry Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama published on March 27, 2021.

Responding to a query, Dr. Jayawickrama asserted: The mistake that the government appears to have made was to think that it was all about “40,000 deaths”, and to rely on a backbencher’s speech made in the House of Lords. It was never about that. Another mistake that the government appears to have made was to convince itself that the Resolution was initiated by “Diaspora Tamils” when it was not.”

Tamil Diaspora, based in the UK, Australia, and Canada, vigorously circulated the article in the wake of accusations the government compelled the newspaper to ‘kill’ it. The paper denied the accusations. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson Suren Surendiran tweeted: “Remarkably honest replies from Dr. Jayawickrama to some pertinent questions from the “Daily Mirror” Surendiran posted the entire text alleging government-imposed censorship.

Dr. Jayawickrama referred to Lord Naseby as a backbencher whereas Sebastian never referred to the Conservative Party politician’s disclosure in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017 or Admiral Colombage cared at least to mention it. If the government relied on Lord Naseby’s revelations, as Dr. Jayawickrama asserted, the former could have exploited the disclosure. The incumbent government conveniently refrained from taking advantage of Lord Naseby’s ‘work’ much to the dismay of the former Royal Air Force pilot who exposed the British duplicity.

 

A fresh Geneva initiative

Sebastian’s reference to fresh authorisation for UN investigators to collect and preserve data that can be used in the future judicial proceedings should have prompted Admiral Colombage to remind British television journalist and novelist how the UK government suppressed wartime dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo (January-May 2009). The proposed inquiry is scheduled to take place over a period of 12 months, commencing Sept 2021. In fact, during the entire interview, Sebastian conveniently never referred to how the UK suppressed dispatches from Colombo. Lord Naseby obtained some sections of the dispatches after nearly a three-year struggle. He had to seek the intervention of the UK Information Commission to lay his hands on those dispatches.

Leader of Sri Lanka Core Group in addition to being UNHRC member, the UK still refuses to release dispatches despite Geneva authorising a new Inquiry Team, led by a Senior Legal Advisor, to collect all available evidence pertaining to the war and post-war events. Those desperate to prevent the full disclosure of British dispatches from Colombo, obviously advantageous to Sri Lanka, call it a political statement. It was certainly not. Former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva, in an interview with ‘Get Real’ anchor Johnney Mahieash, and subsequent queries from the writer, asked why the UK wanted to suppress dispatches from its own man in wartime Colombo Lt. Col. Anthony Gash who served as the British Defense Attaché throughout the Vanni war. The former CJ was of the view that Geneva should seek access not only to the UK dispatches but from other major countries, particularly the US, India, Germany and Canada. He pointed out that the wartime US Defense Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith contradicted war crimes accusations in 2011, six years before Lord Naseby revealed the existence of British wartime dispatches.

 

NPC and GTF back thorough inquiry

The Island sought National Peace Council (NPC) Executive Director Dr. Jehan Perera’s views on the following query: “Geneva set up a new inquiry mechanism at a cost of USD 2.8 mn to gather and examine evidence and information pertaining to the whole gamut of war crimes allegations and current developments. What is your stand on SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris public call to the UK to submit Gash reports against the backdrop of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya MP Dr. Harsha de Silva, who once led the government delegation to the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) of Sri Lanka’s human rights record at Geneva backing the government call? Dr. de Silva’s all available info should be made available to the new Geneva inquiry team.”

Dr. Perera responded: “All evidence should be placed before the UN investigation unit and this includes the dispatches of Lt Col Anthony Gash as revealed by Lord Naseby.  The UN unit needs to seek that information itself to get a rounded perspective on the problem.

 “On the other hand, if the government formally makes a request for the Gash reports it will be accepting the legitimacy of the UN unit which is not its current position. Instead I would wish that the government resolves the issues laid out in the various UN reports through internal mechanisms that have the support of the political parties, including the minorities, within the country. 

“It is only if the country is internally united that we can go on the path of development that the government intends and respond successfully to international pressures. Otherwise it looks like our country is locked in a vicious cycle.”

Dr. Perera represented the country at the Geneva sessions during the yahapalana administration. 

The writer posed the same question to GTF’s Surendiran, who, too, backed examination of all evidence and information available. Surendiran said: “Of course all available evidence should be made available to the investigative team that will collect and analyse this evidence. No one should hinder that process of collection of evidence, be it the UK Government or the Government of Sri Lanka. In that regard, Sri Lanka if it has nothing to fear about should allow the investigators free access so that the collection process can be comprehensive and complete.”

 In fact, Wikileaks revelations pertaining to Sri Lanka, too, should be examined along with submissions received by the UNSG’s Panel of Experts’ (PoE/Darusman Report) that paved the way for the 2015 co-sponsorship of an accountability resolution. Would the new Geneva re-visit previously collected information, particularly by the PoE, covered by UN a 20-year confidentiality clause (2011-2031)?

 

UK bending backwards to protect

relations with Lanka

The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), in its objections filed with the Information Commission, following Lord Naseby’s bid to gain dispatches from Colombo, stated; “Lt. Col. Gash was the FCO’s defense attaché at the British Commission in Colombo during the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Many of his dispatches contain information provided directly to him by his contacts in the Sri Lankan government, the Sri Lankan Army or other military sources. His reports indicate, he had access to reports on troop movements, Sri Lankan military strategic thinking, the movements of the LTTE and assessments of casualty figures. The effective conduct of international relations depends upon the free, frank and confidential exchange of information such as this. If the UK does not respect these confidences, then its ability to protect and promote UK interests through international relations will be hampered which will not be in the public interest.

Subsequently, the FCO asserted that it was of the view that releasing the information redacted on the basis of section 27(l) (a) would be likely to prejudice the UK’s relationship with Sri Lanka and would negatively impact on the information that they would be willing to exchange with the UK in the future. It further stated, the disclosure of the withheld information, in this case, was not in the public interest as it would be likely to damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Sri Lanka. This would have the effect of reducing the UK government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests through its relations with Sri Lanka.”

 The Information Commissioner, on June 26, 2016, dismissed Naseby’s appeal for full disclosure of the Gash dispatches.

So, according to the FCO, disclosure of Gash dispatches would harm the UK’s relations with Sri Lanka. In the absence of proper examination of British role in promoting terrorism in Sri Lanka, successive UK governments allowed the LTTE a free hand. Wikileaks exposure of a secret meeting between the Norwegians (handling disastrous peace process) and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in the immediate aftermath of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination in August 2005 underscored the privileged status enjoyed by the LTTE. Balasingham, one-time British High Commission employee who received British citizenship for services rendered to Her Majesty’s government lived freely there until his death due to natural causes in Dec 2006.

Over the years, the UK provided the wherewithal required by the LTTE to wage war in Sri Lanka. The British. contribution grew over the years in the wake of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991. It must be noted that the UK only removed the LTTE International Secretariat, established in London for many years, only after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi for the obvious reason that its presence there was becoming too embarrassing even to the British. In fact when a visiting journalist from The Island, accompanied by a group of media persons from several countries, raised the issue of the LTTE having a big presence in the British capital during a visit to BBC Headquarters at Bush House in Central London around the time of the Rajiv assassination that year, he was given the lame excuse that the Tigers had not violated any UK laws. Despite the much-publicised British proscription of the LTTE, the latter operated a major fund-raising project that funded their war until the very end.

Perhaps, Foreign Secretary Colombage, during the interview with Sebastian, should have referred to the Wikileaks revelation of the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner making a desperate bid to halt the military offensive on the Vanni east front. Towards the end of the ‘CONFLICTZONE’ interview, Sebastian queried about Inspector Nishantha Silva fleeing the country in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 presidential election.

 

Focus on Shani, Nishantha

Referring to the arresting of SSP Shani Abeysekera, Director, Criminal Investigation Division (CID) who inquired into several key human rights cases, Sebastian said: “…and another Nishantha Silva from the same Division had to leave Sri Lanka because of threats immediately after the last presidential election and you tell me that is the way a democracy which you claimed to have pursues justice does not look like it? Does it? Questioning how Nishantha Silva left the country suddenly, Prof. Colombage alleged it was all part of a conspiracy while strongly denying Sebastian’s accusation the officer was threatened. “All these things were planned. They were probably given lots of money to do these things…” Sebastian insisted: “You do not know that Mr. Secretary…”

It would have been better if Prof. Colombage pointed out that the Swiss Embassy involvement in the Nishantha Silva affair against the backdrop of one of its employees Garnier Francis (former Siriyalatha Perera) falsely accusing government agents of abducting her outside the mission and sexually abusing her. Sebastian conveniently refrained from referring to Garnier who had been Silva’s contact at the Swiss mission. The Swiss went to the extent of trying to evacuate Garnier and her family in a special air ambulance after their project meant to smear President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went awry. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opposed the move to evacuate them. If not Garnier, too, would have ended up in Switzerland and a key campaign issue against Sri Lanka.

At one-point Sebastian chided Prof. Colombage whether he was proud of living in a country where child killers get presidential pardon? Sebastian was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa releasing a soldier convicted of killing several persons, including children in the Jaffna peninsula. Colombage responded well, pointing out how post-war, Sri Lanka rehabilitated 12,000 terrorists, including children. Colombage posed a pertinent question whether presidential pardon is available only in Sri Lanka. Sebastian insisted he focused on Sri Lanka and not the rest of the world. Perhaps, Prof. Colombage should have reminded Sebastian how funds made available by those living in the UK prolonged the war in Sri Lanka. None of those shedding crocodile tears today bothered to protest when the LTTE used children as cannon fodder. The fact that children were used in suicide attacks, too, cannot be forgotten. Didn’t Rajiv Gandhi perish in a suicide attack carried out by a female Tiger cadre? A proper inquiry is required to ascertain and identify those members of Sri Lankan terrorist groups living in the UK and the rest of the world. The proposed new Geneva probe can facilitate Sri Lanka’s efforts to track down those living overseas, under assumed names, while they continued to be categorized as war disappeared.

Sebastian also raised the issue of disappearances and missing. In fact, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explained the cases of missing and disappearances during the yahapalana administration. Wickremesinghe pointed out how the so-called disappeared either died in combat or were now living overseas.

Prof. Colombage responded: “…most of the human rights defenders are receiving money from the West. We know their bank accounts. We know how much they have received.” The Foreign Secretary alleged they were not bona fide human rights defenders. Sebastian hit back: “You just smeared the whole lot of them in one sentence…”

Now that Prof. Colombage has quite rightly raised funding received by NGOs/civil society groups, let there be a public disclosure of the funding secured over the years. A Norwegian examination of its involvement in Sri Lanka released in 2011 revealed substantial funding made available to various civil society groups. The Norwegian report revealed how generous Oslo had been to those who facilitated its Sri Lanka project. As Geneva stepped up pressure on the country, the government should approach the issues at hand sensibly. Geneva should be priority No 1. The government cannot forget that no less than Commander of the Army Gen. Shavendra Silva, earlier the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division/formerly Task Force I was blacklisted by the US. Sebastian warned Prof. Colombage of dire threats posed by targeted sanctions imposed by individual countries. Member states might start applying targeted sanctions, asset freezers and travel bans against your state officials and others…. Are you ready for that?

Prof. Colombage responded: “If individual countries have a separate agenda not necessarily human rights but using human rights as a weapon there is very little we can do. Let us wait and see.” However, the former Navy Commander missed a golden opportunity to ask Sebastian what he thought of the Tamil community overwhelmingly voting for war-winning Army Chief the then General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll. Fonseka won all predominately Tamil speaking electoral districts in the northern and eastern districts, including Jaffna. In fact, bogus human rights campaign should have ended the day, Tamils declared their support to tough talking Fonseka, who survived a suicide attack in April 2006 to finish off the LTTE. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka and the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2006, terrorism would have triumphed. But fortunately for Sri Lanka both survived two separate LTTE suicide attacks targeting them in Colombo itself. That is the undeniable truth.



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Midweek Review

Pandemic Policies and Politics in South Asia:

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A Book Review

By Kalinga Tudor Silva

Jayathilake, N., De Silva, S. and Amarajeewa, A. eds. Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives. Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in collaboration with Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2021.

This edited volume published by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on various countries in the South Asian region. This volume differs from much of the emerging body of literature on politics and governance of the pandemic in that it seeks to capture civil society perspectives relating to this public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, with South Asia emerging as a major hotspot of the global pandemic. This is timely and particularly relevant as the pandemic is still unfolding in many parts of South Asia and the related horror stories triggered by the humanitarian crisis in India are presently making global media headlines. As of now, we in Sri Lanka have our own struggle against the virus, with the so-called ‘new year cluster’ attributed to related cultural festivities and the emergence of a more virulent new strain of the virus, triggering a possible third wave of the pandemic. Given all these considerations, this new book deserves our close attention and critical reflection.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with broader regional and multilateral issues relating to containing the pandemic in South Asia. The remaining chapters review specific country experiences in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, respectively. The book sets the tone for the volume as follows:

“COVID 19 pandemic is perhaps the most daunting challenge that South Asia has confronted so far in the new millennium. With the outbreak of the pandemic, many unprecedented developments are in motion in South Asia, affecting almost all aspects of social, economic and political life in the region…… South Asia will never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic.” (p. ix).

Opening chapter by Uyangoda, traces the retreat of democracy and rise of what he calls “executive authoritarianism” particularly in India and Sri Lanka along with the onset of the pandemic. It highlights the systematic way the new regimes in the two countries have consolidated their power deploying exigencies relating to the containment of the pandemic as an excuse to advance authoritarian tendencies, suppress democratic opposition and curtail minority rights in these two of the oldest democracies in Asia. Citizenship Act in India passed immediately before the onset of the pandemic and 20th amendment in Sri Lanka introduced during the pandemic are clear examples of the authoritarian turn in the two countries. Subsequent developments, however, show that playing politics with pandemics, is a rather dangerous game as failures, mismanagement and the resulting public anger can turn against the same rulers who emerged through the pandemic as clearly demonstrated in the outcome of recent elections in India. Also, it must be noted here that the social and political history of epidemic outbreaks indicate that they do not necessarily promote the advancement of autocratic tendencies. They can also result in mass mobilization accompanied by increased democratic participation. For instance, the famous malaria epidemic of 1934-35 did contribute to the politicization of rural masses in Sri Lanka through the mediation of both nationalist and leftist political leaders and the development of the Sri Lankan welfare state as pointed out by several researchers (Jones 2015, Silva 2014, Jayasuriya 2000).

In the second chapter, Joseph and Pandey examine how far the pandemic has contributed towards development of regional cooperation for addressing a formidable common challenge. In their view even though some efforts at multilateral cooperation were made by the South Asian leaders through zoom meetings held at the onset of the pandemic, in the end “each country continued to battle the virus on its own” (P. 31) due to structural problems in SAARC and a variety of unresolved bilateral issues. Even though the chapter says that “there is a realization that COVID-19 is a collective crisis and combating this required coordinated action”, it has not been translated into a concrete program of action at the regional level. The subsequent chapter by Suba Chandran and others argue that the pandemic has served to reinforce conflict dynamics in the region, whether we are talking about bilateral issues between the countries or internal conflict dynamics within each country such as ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

Country-specific analysis in chapters four to nine provide empirical support to many of the arguments provided in the previous chapters. Chapter Four on Sri Lanka by Senanayake and others, for instance, points to the militarization of the pandemic response in Sri Lanka and its implications for engagement with minorities and civil society. While the military did play a useful role in terms of expanding health infrastructure and managing quarantine facilities at a time when the state encountered serious resource constraints, the use of military intelligence in contact tracing, the privacy issues encountered by suspected patients and their contacts and any resulting stigmatization processes particularly where socially marginalized vulnerable people on the other side of the law such as substance users are exposed to the pandemic, pose serious problems from the angles of human rights, trust building and compliance. The chapter notes that the pandemic response in Sri Lanka involved the formation of three different task forces set up under section 33 of the constitution. The members of these task forces were handpicked by the president through his inner network of allies and were directly reporting to him with no clear guidelines about the tasks assigned to them and with no accountability to the public at large. What the chapter does not point out is that these politically constituted task forces totally exclude experts in several relevant fields such as social sciences, social work, law and gender relations or any credible representatives of civil society. As a result, when it came to sensitive issues such as addressing the legitimate demand for burial rights by Muslims, task forces did not have any knowledgeable persons who could express their professional opinions on the subject and address the problem sympathetically and following appropriate public health guidelines, also countering unfounded claims by the so-called ‘patriotic scientists’ (Rambukwella 2020).

Chapters on other countries in the region clearly illustrate that civil society is engaged in the struggle against COVID-19 side by side with the state agencies and the private sector in a variety of challenging circumstances and under different political regimes. It is increasingly evident that the struggle against the pandemic is multi-pronged, carried out at economic, social, political, and epidemiological fronts at the same time, long-term and needs to be regularly updated and adapted to changing circumstances. The role of civil society organizations ranges from fund raising, relief services targeting underserved communities in particular, rights-based interventions, advocacy work on behalf of affected people such as women, people with disabilities, migrant workers, urban poor and people in different stages of exposure to the disease, treatment, quarantine and recovery processes. While law enforcement and policing do have a role to play in disease prevention and control, a community-based approach informed by evidence and supported by community leaders at various levels is necessary to promote community mobilization and preparedness, healthy behaviours, compliance, and satisfactory adjustment to the new normal. A purely statist approach to contain the pandemic carried out with a cohort of loyalists, political henchmen and yes men and not guided by a critical reflection on evidence and community responses is bound to fail at this crucial moment when decisions made can make or break the future of humanity.

References

Jayasuriya, L. (2000). Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka: Experiences of a Third World Welfare State. Perth: University of Western Australia.

Jones, M. (2015). Sri Lankan Path to Health for All from the Colonial Period to Alma Ata. In A. Medcalf et al. eds. Health for All: The Journey of Universal Health Coverage. Hyderabad: Blackswan.

Rambukwella, Harshana. (2020). Patriotic Science: The Coronavirus Pandemic, Nationalism, and Indigeneity. University of Zurich Political Geography blog, June 3, 2020.

Silva, K.T. (2014). Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

 

 

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Midweek Review

Gammanpila’s proposal for ‘grading system’ for Ministers timely

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) is a constituent of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led coalition. The PHU is represented in the Cabinet of ministers by its leader and Attorney-at-Law, Udaya Gammanpila. One-time Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight Gammanpila secured recognition for the breakaway faction, PHU, on Oct 14, 2020, two months after the last general election. The Election Commission altogether recognised six political parties, including the PHU. They were registered in terms of the powers vested in the Commission, under Section 7(4) and (5) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 01 of 1981.

The JHU contested its first general election, in April 2004, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The JHU secured nine seats. After switching sides, on multiple occasions, it is now a constituent of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party in the Parliament. The former JHU representative in the cabinet, Patali Champika Ranawaka, now spearheads ‘hathalisthunwani senankaya’ (43rd Division) – a political movement meant to challenge the incumbent government.

Ranawaka, who had served the cabinets of Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, quit the JHU, in early Dec 2020, four months after the last general election.

In the run-up to the general election, in August 2020, Patali Champika Ranawaka’s one-time JHU colleague, PHU leader, Gammanpila, called for a system to grade ministers. Minister Gammanpila asserted that a grading system was required to ensure the proper functioning of the Cabinet of ministers.

Let me reproduce what lawyer Gammanpila said, in Sinhala, on July 14, 2020:

“The people believe a Cabinet of ministers, capable of serving under the leadership of hard-working President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, will be installed. Ministers must work. People should also know about that. Those unable to work should lose their ministerial portfolios. Therefore, I propose to introduce a grading system for ministers and release of the results every three months. If a minister became the last, in the grading system, for five consecutive times, it means the politician concerned failed to rectify the mistakes. In such a scenario, the minister should either resign or be removed by the President.”

Lawmaker Gammanpila further proposed: “The grading system should be based on handling of capital expenditure, recurrent expenditure, swift handling of problems, faced by the people, cooperation with public servants, timely response to audit queries, filling vacancies, conducting the public day, attending parliamentary sessions, participating in debates relevant to portfolios handled by the respective ministers and responding to media queries. People should propose new recommendations for the proposed grading system.”

At the time lawmaker Gammanpila made the above declaration, he hadn’t been a member of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first Cabinet of ministers, appointed immediately after the 2019 presidential election. On Nov 21, 2019, MP Gammanpila asked President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to consider him for a Cabinet portfolio as he realized the serious difficulties experienced by the new administration.

Gammanpila, in a brief letter, dated Nov 21, addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, copied to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that 38 former ministers sought Cabinet portfolios in the caretaker government. In addition to them, there were several district leaders expecting Cabinet portfolios, MP Gammanpila said finalising the list of 15 as agreed wouldn’t be an easy task.

Gammanpila added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s original plan was to name a 10-member caretaker Cabinet. At the end, the new government appointed 16 ministers. Of them, the SLPP received 10 slots.

The remaining six positions were shared among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), receiving two positions, and one each for the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Gammanpila received a Cabinet portfolio in the wake of the last general election. The PHU leader holds the Energy Portfolio and is also the co-cabinet spokesperson.

Since the July 14, 2020 declaration, lawmaker Gammanpila hasn’t referred to the grading system for ministers. His cabinet colleagues hadn’t mentioned the matter Either. Obviously, the divisions it would cause in the government has kept everyone mum.

 Perhaps, there should be a wider grading system, not only for ministers, but for political party leaders, and even those wielding power in other tiers of government, like the Provincial Councils, and local authorities. There shouldn’t be any dispute over PHU leader’s proposal that the grading system he proposed for ministers covered the concerned lawmakers conduct, both in and outside Parliament. However, the need for accountability, on the part of all lawmakers, even for their conduct before they entered Parliament, is of pivotal importance.

 

Prof. Herath responds to Ambanwela

Let me give you an example of how closely a section of the public followed issues at hand. Recently, the writer received a paper cutting of a story headlined, ‘SLC funds amounting to Rs 29 mn in US bank: SLC caught lying before COPE, ‘authored by him. The story published on April 9, 2021 dealt with how COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Chritha Herath pursued inquiries into corruption in the SLC. Along with that paper cutting, the writer also received paper cutting of an interview done by Tharindu Uduwegedera with former Additional Auditor General Lalith Ambanwela for the April 11 edition of ‘Anidda’. The sender, who didn’t identify himself/herself, questioned the integrity of incumbent COPE Chairman on the basis of his conduct as the Secretary to the Media Ministry.

Ambanwela, who was attacked with acid, in May 2002, over an audit investigation in respect of corruption, involving a Central Province Education Director, levelled quite a serious allegation at Prof. Herath. Ambanwela questioned the rationale in making Prof. Herath Chairman of the Parliamentary Watchdog Committee, in spite of him turning a blind eye to specific corrupt activities brought to his notice by the Auditor General’s Department, over a period of time. Ambanwela accused Prof. Herath of not taking action as regards serious cases of corruption at the State Printing Corporation. He much respected retired public servant alleged that Prof. Herath did nothing when the then Chairman of the State Printing Corporation transferred over Rs 40 mn to an account of a relative.

The Island raised the issue at hand with Prof. Herath, who strongly denied Ambanwela’s accusation. Prof. Herath said: “I didn’t keep quiet about revelations made by the Auditor General’s Department. Within a week after COPE brought the matter to my notice, the Chairman concerned was removed. The then COPE Chairman Dew Gunasekera was informed of the action taken. Further information can be obtained from former COPE Chairman Gunasekera.”

 Prof. Herath said that he deeply regretted the unsubstantiated accusations made by Ambanwela. Prof. Herath, in a twitter message, issued in Sinhala, denied Ambanwela’s claims. Prof. Herath’s swift response to the retired public servant’s accusations should be appreciated. A person with questionable past cannot, under any circumstances, chair COPE or COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or PFC (Public Finance Committee).

Regardless of Prof. Herath’s denial of Ambanwela’s accusation, let me briefly discuss how the latter explained political interference, in relation to the audit process. Ambanwela’s explanation, given in response to Tharindu Uduwegedera’s query, should be examined against the backdrop of lawmaker Gammanpila’s once proposed grading system for ministers. Successive governments had done precious little to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities.

Alleging that some politicians participated in COPE and COPA proceedings with a view to dilute the Watchdog Committee’s reports, Ambanwela claimed that some represented the interests of those promoting various deals. Ambanwela cited the deal on leasing out a building owned by Upali Jayasinghe (former actress Sabitha Perera’s husband) at No 288, Rajagiriya-Kotte, Jayewardenepura Road, as a notorious example to prove politicians/governments colluding with business interests. Ambanwela made a no-nonsense assessment of the deal as the senior AG Department official who handled that particular inquiry.

The Auditor General’s Department report on the building deal, prepared by Ambanwela has been submitted to the COPA before the finalisation of the controversial agreement. Ambanwela, in the course of COPA proceedings, chaired by the then Chairman Lasantha Alagiyawanna warned Agriculture Ministry Secretary B. Wijeratne not to sign the agreement until COPA addressed the issue at hand. Ambanwela had warned of dire consequences if the Agriculture Ministry went ahead with the agreement. Ambanwela quoted the then lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake (JVP National List) as having said that the proposed agreement was a serious case of corruption. However, when Ambanwela urged Alagiyawanna, who represented the SLFP, not to finalize the deal, the lawmaker asserted such a decision couldn’t be taken as the Cabinet of ministers already had approved it.

Ambanwela revealed that in spite of him being an official, he had no qualms in declaring in the audit report pertaining to the Jayasinghe building deal that it was a decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers without critical analysis. If Lasantha Alagiyawanna, in his capacity as COPA Chairman, made the right intervention, losses could have been avoided. The total value of the deal was over Rs.1.3 bn.

COPE, COPA and PFC reports issued since the last parliamentary election proved, without uncertainty, that successive governments ruined the national economy. The country would have been in a far stronger position to face the Covid-19 challenge if successive governments ensured financial discipline. If one examines all reports issued by the above-mentioned Watchdog Committees, all governments, including the incumbent administration failed pathetically to follow laid down procedures, thereby causing massive losses to the national economy.

 

Evaluating an administration

The last presidential election was conducted in Nov 2019. The parliamentary election followed in August 2020. The electorate overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP, in both instances, with the SLPP securing a staggering 145 seats – just five short of a two-thirds majority. Without doubt, the SLPP’s performance is the best since the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The UNP obtained 5/6 of the seats at the 1977 general election under the first-past-the-post system. As lawmaker Gammanpila called for public proposals as regards a grading system for ministers, perhaps it would be pertinent to rank governments/political parties on the basis of points scored by ministers and members of Parliament in terms of a grading system. In other words, a proper grading system should reflect genuine public opinion.

Let me examine the conduct of Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge in the wake of Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena’s May Day declaration of Piliyandala as an isolated police area due to the growing Covid-19 threat there. Within hours, Lokuge got the isolation order removed. Subsequent to his intervention, the isolation order was restricted to just five grama sevaka areas.

One-time UNP Minister Lokuge switched his allegiance to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. Since then, he remained with the UPFA/SLPP and received the Transport portfolio, following the last general election.

Minister Lokuge got away with his high handed actions. Lokuge jeopardized the government counter measures against the spread of Covid-19 purely for parochial reasons and, in spite of widespread condemnation, he continued to defend his right to intervene on behalf of the Piliyandala electorate. The deployment of police in Covid-19 protective gear to carry away those in public places, not wearing face masks and other violations, on the basis they posed a threat to the community, seemed silly when the likes of Minister Lokuge walked freely about even after some of his staff tested positive.

Where would Minister Lokuge be if he was subjected to a proper grading system? In quite a revealing interview with Panuka Rajapaksa, of Hiru TV, on Sunday (9), the Minister reiterated his callous response to the growing Covid threat. Declaring his right to intervene, the Colombo District lawmaker faulted officials responsible for implementing Covid-19 counter measures. The Minister blamed it all on the DGHS. Thanks to a section of the media, particularly Hiru TV, the public are fully aware of how Piliyandala strongman Lokuge, and those under his political command, brought the entire government into disrepute. Unfortunately, the government refrained from taking remedial measures. Perhaps, the SLPP didn’t want to admit how irresponsible its senior members are. The DGHS never explained how his isolation order on Piliyandala/Kesbewa was unceremoniously removed by Minister Lokuge through his clout. The Minister’s actions, and the failure on the part of the government to take tangible measures to protect residents of Piliyandala/Kesbewa, proved beyond doubt the government still played politics with the issue at hand.

Having cancelled May Day rallies, citing the Covid-19 threat, the government succumbed to Minister Lukuge’s, what can be termed as, reckless politics. There is no harm in calling the same politics of Idiocy. However, Lokuge’s reckless behaviour should be studied, also taking into consideration the highly contentious decision to allow Indians into the country, both on holiday and for quarantine purposes, until the Covid-19 situation here took an extremely dangerous turn. The government announced plans to block Indians crossing the maritime boundary while allowing visitors through the Bandaranaike International Airport. What did the government expect to achieve by much publicised religious ceremonies in support of Covid-19 fight, especially in the wake of the likes of Minister Lokuge jeopardizing the overall effort?

 Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Health Minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi and other big shots, who set an extremely bad example by consuming ‘Dhammika Peniya’, depicted as a tonic prepared with the intervention of the Gods, issued instructions to members of Parliament as regards the Covid-19 counter measures. Close on the heels of the Speaker’s instructions for members to adhere with health guidelines, both in and outside Parliament, the government acknowledged the tonic touted as a miracle cure, is not so. The Health Minister and all her parliamentary colleagues who shared Kali amma’s tonic in Parliament should be ashamed of themselves. Their actions provided tacit approval for the ‘Dhammika Peniya.’

Perhaps the Energy Minister and co-cabinet spokesperson should grade those who accepted the miracle tonic of fraudster Dhammika Bandara of Hettimulla, Kegalle.

Throwing pots, containing what faith healer Eliyantha White called miracle water, by Minister Wanniarachchi, as well as her colleagues Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga, late last year didn’t have the promised impact. White, who claims to have mystic powers with many VIP clients, including foreigners, got Wanniarachchi to smash a pot, containing his special water, into the Kalu Ganga to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, footage on the social media showed.

At the time of White’s intervention, the number of infections was over 11,000 and 22 deaths.

Gamnmanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga  were both filmed throwing pots into the Kelani River at two different locations. White also dropped a pot containing his own miracle water.

Now, the number of infections is at over 125,000 cases and over 800 deaths. The government engaged in some quite ludicrous projects as the situation deteriorated. Those responsible for the overall government effort against the rampaging epidemic never ensured a proper investigation into the second Covid-19 eruption. Did they suppress the investigation even after outgoing Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, ordered no holds barred investigation into what he called the ‘Brandix cluster,’?

Livera issued specific instructions on Oct 27, 2000, in the wake of a 39-year-old female worker, at the Minuwangoda Brandix facility, being detected on Oct 4, 2020, as the first detected in a random test as the origin of the second wave of COVID-19 after almost five months since the countrywide curfew was lifted. Later, an attempt was made to fault Ukrainians for the second eruption. In their haste to suppress the investigation, a group of Ukrainian personnel, here on the invitation of the Air Force, to inspect AN 32 transport aircraft, too, was falsely implicated. What happened to the criminal investigation sought by AG de Livera?

The deterioration of the national economy is not an overnight development. Careful examination of Watchdog Committee reports, pertaining to state institutions, revealed how unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence over the years deteriorated the national economy to such an extent, the country is facing unprecedented challenges. The Covid-19 crisis, in a way, has come in good stead for those responsible to blame it on the raging pandemic.

 Why isn’t the government pursuing a criminal case against those responsible for the swindle, costing over a billion rupees to the state in the leasing of the Jayasinghe building? Is it because of another hidden deal between government and Opposition politicians? Is it because the same political mastermind behind the bond scams was also behind the Jayasinghe building lease deal?

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Midweek Review

The Re-defining Moment

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By Lynn Ockersz

The Human caring to look at himself,

Draws back in great dread,

From the bruised face that presents itself:

‘Is this me, whom they said,

From society is never

separate?’,

In anguish he asks himself;

‘Didn’t they say that humanity,

Is my defining essence?’

‘What stuff and nonsense’,he tells himself:

‘For, isn’t the rampaging plague,

That’s taking lives in the millions,

Teaching me that I must live,

Only for mine and myself?,

Don’t I see everyone else,

As a cadaver of sorts in a diseased state,

Whom I must avoid like the Black Death?

By doing this am I not standing,

The famous social being theory on its heads?’

 

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