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Only Committees  and Commissions, NO RESULTS

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During the Yahapalanya Government, Sri Lanka suffered multiple scandals involving both the public and private sectors with colourful individuals playing their roles to perfection in the political theatre of the absurd. As we know, the former President and Prime Minister were famous for their love of committees and commissions to investigate allegations of corruption or mismanagement of funds. Sometimes this is done with the best of intentions, yet it is regretful that the majority of the reports of these committees and commissions do not show any meaningful results. After much time and public resources spent, the reports simply wither away with the public none the wiser and without the country benefiting.

A Dereliction of Duty

The Easter attacks left hundreds dead, many more injured, and the economy devastated with the crucial tourism industry halted, due to the complete negligence of officials at every level in the national security apparatus. All this was in the immediate lead up to the Easter Bombings. However if we look back further, we will observe even more startling revelations.

An arrest warrant against the main perpetrator was issued as far back as 2018 but never followed through. Indian intelligence services had provided atleast three warnings, including one on the eve of the attack with specific information regarding the sites predicted for an attack.

As far back as 2016, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka filed police complaints, alleging that the “National Thaweed Jamat” (NTJ) was preaching violence and extremism. These complaints were not followed up adequately. In January 2019, 100 kilograms of explosives and 100 detonators were found near the Wilpattu National Park. The police even stated that they belonged to an Islamist group. The detonation of explosives in a motorbike during a lightning storm, also in the East of the country, should have provided further clues that something was brewing in the East. Yet there was no prior warning, the public was never made aware of the danger posed. The level of gross negligence in these matters is astonishing, and surely there should be manslaughter charges brought against officials that failed our country.

The writing was very much on the wall leading up to the Easter Sunday attacks. Successive officials representing the Central Government in the Eastern province had been virtually asleep at the wheel while a dangerous and extremist ideology was being spread. The NTJ held meetings and prayer services, attacked and threatened citizens and rival mosques and moderate muslim leaders. Foreign money from dubious sources flowed into the provincial coffers in the form of charity and grants. The Justice Minister at the time stated that foreign forces were trying to infiltrate and radicalize muslim citizens in Sri Lanka, particularly in the east. Information regarding foreign elements connected to the Islamic State (ISIS) was available to the security apparatus. Still – authorities that should have acted promptly were in a deep slumber – astounding!

During the Parliamentary Select Committee proceedings, a witness produced several Islamic textbooks and Islamic teaching materials published by the Department of Educational Publications stating that the Islamic punishment for apostasy (renouncing religion) was death. The material in these books was being taught even to children in Grade 9 and these books were first published in 1982 and republished in 1984 and 2017! It beggars belief that no one had seen this coming.

The Prime Minister had the gall to state that he was not being invited to security briefings, that he was willfully kept out of the loop and did not take any responsibility. Surely the PM should have taken this up immediately. The fact he did not shows a complete lack of interest in national security affairs and thus we can start to imagine how such a catastrophe was allowed to occur.

Sri Lankans watched on, bewildered at the lack of foresight and action from officials at every level of the government and the security and intelligence apparatus. Since the attack, we have witnessed a myriad of theories and accusations levelled at any and all members of the previous regime as well as the current regime. Senior MPs and politicians stated that they had not received the intelligence memos. Police officials and intelligence officers stated that the recommendations of their investigations were not followed through. What did the government do next? You can probably guess. Numerous investigations through Committees! Including a Presidential Commission of Inquiry and a Parliamentary Select Committee. A convenient and often used tool to brush serious lapses aside.

A Family Bond at the Central Bank

Imagine basing an entire presidential campaign on the promise of eliminating corruption and bringing legal action against thieving government officials. Then being embroiled in a classic case of insider trading within two months of winning said campaign. The Yahapalanaya Government had a sense of irony if little else. In what has to be considered the most poorly planned and executed case of insider trading, between family members no less, the UNP-SLFP government of 2015 was over before it had begun.

As a banker I am well aware of the many restrictions in place to prevent insider trading and other forms of fraud at financial institutions. The fact that, as the regulator, the CBSL is directly responsible for compliance and yet found itself caught up in such flagrant and criminal behavior is scarcely believable and totally unacceptable.

If you are going to engage in criminal activity you may want to at least seek to cover your tracks and make it a little challenging for the authorities to investigate. Alas, using the then CBSL Governor’s son-in-law’s company to carry out the transaction was not the work of a criminal mastermind. During the recent General Election, the former Prime Minister claimed that there was no material loss to the country despite the protests of many experts and in spite of the 2016 Report from the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). Of course, the former PM is famous for forming numerous committees and commissions to buy time and sweep issues under the proverbial carpet. The CBSL bond scam was the start of a long list of commissions and committees, assembled at a high cost to the tax payer, and with no results to speak of.

Aside from the obvious financial implications, this blatant act of corruption, which the COPE report suggests had been carrying on for some time before the Yahapalanaya Government, had dire effects for the country’s image. Successive governments have tried every which way possible to attract FDI to our country. Considering the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interest in Sri Lanka, attracting FDI should not be so difficult. Numerous tax holidays, promises of ‘one-stop shops’, easing restrictions on foreign ownership of land and even relaxing the rules on foreign exchange brought in to Sri Lanka has not had a significant impact on the levels of FDI.

Perhaps a simple process of getting our house in order might help more than convoluted tax structures. A foreign investor that pays any attention at all, would be shocked to hear that the Governor of the Central Bank was being put under investigation. Further still, the fact that this official was a close friend of the sitting PM, was handpicked by him and is now hiding in Singapore, would send any potential investor running for the hills.

The economic minds in the current cabinet and hopefully beyond must surely realize that financial governance and rule of law are two absolutely non-negotiable pre-requisites for any investment decision.

The Citizenry holds its collective breath….

The aforementioned commissions and committees spend large sums of money and meander through its processes and procedures. All the while, Sri Lankan citizens, who must collectively carry the burden of the financial damage, await real progress and appropriate punishments for those found guilty and the implementation of suitable laws to prevent recurrence.

The recent explosion at the port of Beirut in Lebanon shows what can happen when the state machinery fails in its basic duties. We cannot afford to have state officials exist in a state of hibernation while the wheels are left to turn. The previous administration made a mockery of its own ‘Yahapalanaya’ manifesto, simply kicking the can down the road and hoping that no one notices. Certainly, the Sri Lankan electorate did notice, judging by the complete decimation of the UNP at the 2020 polls.

The People deserve better than this. The current President and Prime Minister have received a clear mandate, they are considered to be people of action, of providing results. I implore them to take the above matters to heart and seriously consider how we approach the next phase of our country’s development. When the state makes miscalculations of such magnitude, when there is a lack of due diligence in decision making, when there are no consequences faced for inaction, the country and its people become the ultimate losers.

Even as recently as this past week, we saw the PCoI on the Easter Sunday attacks once again ask the former President Maithripala Sirisena to visit its offices to provide yet more testimony. On the 17th of August the entire country was plunged into darkness due an issue at the power station and what was the response of the newly appointed Minister of Power? He has appointed a ‘special committee’ to look into the matter.

I urge the print media to periodically devote a special page or even a separate supplement to show the progress of the investigations of the various committees and commissions. In these pages, the mainstream media must make a list of all the commissions currently active as well as those that have completed their investigations. The reports submitted should be regularly summarized in print so that the public can stay informed. The media and the public must maintain pressure throughout so that we do not simply move from one controversy to another. Why should the proceedings of these committees be held in private, why can they not be televised so that the tax payer can hear the testimonies and study the evidence for themselves? The media must ensure that it does its duty as part of this democracy.

Rienzie Wijetilleke & Kusum Wijetilleke

Colombo 7

 

 



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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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Opinion

A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka

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Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.

Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!

They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.

Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.

Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.

The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.

Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.

What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.

Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.

Priyantha Hettige

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Opinion

Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW

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It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.

These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.

Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:

* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees

* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees

* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.

These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.

As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!

Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.

UPULl P Auckland

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