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Opinion

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

Remember Thalidomide!

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An unscrupulous politician (who shall remain unnamed in this article), is engaged in an opportunistic push to pressurize medical researchers and doctors in the United States, to produce an ‘instant’ vaccine to immunize people against the COVID-19 Virus. American medical experts such as Dr Anthony Gaucci are resisting, insisting that proper and thorough tests should be done first, and safety, NOT urgency, should be the priority.

They have forgotten Thalidomide.

In the 1960’s, a German pharmaceutical company sold a drug known as Thalidomide, as a treatment for pregnant women. It was supposed to be a medication for conditions ranging from ‘morning sickness’ to sleeping difficulties. (The company had been established as a soap maker after World War II, its leading Chemist being a known Nazi war criminal –according to Wikipedia).

It had been introduced to the market as a sedative and medication for morning sickness, without being tested on pregnant women. For women in 46 countries, where it was used, it became “the biggest man‐made medical disaster ever,” with over 10,000 children born with a range of severe deformities. Of the total number of people affected by the use of thalidomide during the mother’s pregnancy approximately 40 percent died .(Source-Wikipedia, and New York Times). Those who survived had limb, eye, urinary tract, and heart defects. “The most common form of birth defects from thalidomide is shortened limbs”.

In 1962, Food and Drug Administration pharmacologist Frances Oldham Kelsey received the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, for blocking the sale of Thalidomide in the United States. Later, the Thalidomide debacle led to greater drug regulation in many countries.

But not before the manufacturer was forced to pay compensation in the UK, the USA, Canada , France and Germany. But the number of countries where it was sold by that unscrupulous pharmaceutical company, was 46. It is very likely that Thalidomide victims in the Third World countries received no help at all!

Thalidomide is an example of why , where medicine is involved, caution and circumspection must take precedence over urgency. Under political pressure from an electioneering President in the United States, If a vaccine appears, ostensibly as a miracle cure for Covid 19, “Let the buyer beware! ” – especially if sold by Western Multinational Pharmaceutical companies to the Third World.

Remember Thalidomide!

JAYMAN

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Opinion

Plea for SL pensioners abroad

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Since New Zealand has no Sri Lankan embassy, the Sri Lankan embassy in Australia at Canberra, always sent my pension directly each month to the local ANZ bank. No commission was deducted either in Sri Lanka or the ANZ local bank at that time. I only had to send a life certificate, properly signed and certified once every three months, to the Canberra office. They made the necessary arrangements with the Sri Lankan Pensions Department. 

In 2015 things changed. Our pensions were unceremoniously stopped. I was asked to open an account in a Sri Lankan bank (four bank branches were chosen by the Yahapalana government) although I was living in New Zealand.  I was compelled to open this Sri Lankan bank account only in my name – no joint names were allowed, and it had no ATM facilities. I was asked to send the life certificates and money transfer form, each month to this Sri Lankan bank. For each transaction, the Sri Lankan bank deducts a commission, and when it arrives in New Zealand, the local ANZ bank takes NZ $15 also. I hardly had anything to my hand because I am an old pensioner who retired when government salaries were very low. Then I began to withdraw my pension every 3 months because I would then be able to save on the commissions from both banks. 

On top of this, I had to send 3 forms properly filled to the IRD (Sri Lanka) and only then would the IRD authorise the Sri Lankan bank to release my pension. This is pure harassment to old pensioners. The earlier system of receiving our pensions from the embassy existed even during the time of the war. My plea is to revert back to this. Then, us poor pensioners will receive our full pensions at the end of each month, with NO deduction from either bank.

Dealing with the Sri Lankan banks is very stressful. The bank into which my pension goes, only accepts forms posted from New Zealand with the New Zealand postal stamp. If it is lost in the post, when there are postal strikes in Sri Lanka, I have to send all documents all over again, which has happened many times to me. 

Please help the overseas senior pensioners and let us return back to the embassy system. 

PEARL S DASSANAYAKE 

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Opinion

Justice in the Street

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Justice in the street is not a given. Dignity, too, through justice, is not where it might be, in the air or on the ground. This comment arises from the article by Tassie Seneviratne (TS) in The Sunday Times 20th Sept 2020 over a person sworn in as an MP, despite a criminal conviction record.

Oath of public office: The swearing in and the oath administered, and witnessed, raise questions as to its validity in law and on its effect on Justice and Dignity of public office. Mainly, the question is the purpose whether it has serious intention of the oath, not reduced to a plain utterance. Even the oath of office, as for justice and dignity ,is now in effect empty. Oath without dignity does not bind. Killing is not a disqualification for public office as legislators. It is contemptible to even think of such disqualification to hold public office in the Police, the Public Service, and the Judiciary. Even a questionable reputation of a remote distant relation of a candidate to public office was unacceptable to hold office. Promotions in public service depended much on the reputation of the aspirant, apart from some conviction. The reason is that their social background was important to swear an oath, in law and in society. It is impossible to think of killers, bribe takers and wastrels, in our public and police service, to pledge their word, since they cannot discharge their functions with such a murky character background. Only the clear could take their oath. With MPP there is little let or hindrance to take oath from unclear social background. Oath of public office is therefore not easily administered.

Oath of public office and the Law. It is even said the oath can be sworn as a ghost may swear. The effect of law on the oath of office is now, perhaps, only little beyond nominal. Legality and morality are also at odds with justice on the streets, as one sees. But sight again is only as one sees. Many have seen it one way and are shocked. To many others as they see, it is business as usual with some profit thrown in, in the while. Legal arguments are a waste of time if the return is good. Moral public concerns are still trying their utmost best, in Parliament and outside, even with less profit and takings. This is however the drama unfolding to hold the public in the pay off.

Many questions yet arise which reflect on administer of the oath and the validity of its attestation. These may be legal issues which may be explained away in various ways; that the words and the action are separate and hardly related to each other. These arguments will soon be forgotten. Where the law which is for justice does not help, one may then look to religion, at least for the reason that the oath is vowed with a religious intonation.

Oath of public office and Religion. Oath is subscribed to solemnly with a religious intonation. Religion too may then lend its claims and enter the fray but, apparently, does not help dignity of office. Many an oath is administered in the cloak of religion that is yet not worth the breath exhaled. Such is also the matter of everyday life experience of oath taking in medicine, in ethics, in many other professions, even law, and now in Parliament. Yet religion is spread through far and wide for other good effect in this country. Somehow religion barely matters to push dignity. Religious preaching is not at a loss, not less, though its effect is doubtful. If religion speaks to promote dignity in public life, the reality in Parliament and outside, may do much to help dignity in public office. The fault is still not with religion, but with those who may use religion otherwise. Public life nonetheless goes on, that even religious places may, perhaps, have uses that serve them better.

Oath of public office with conviction and with previous conviction. Into this void of a legal and religious effect of the oath, comes a social video, just at this time. Bribery and corruption took place there, the video said, before the very eyes of the dignitaries in those identical precincts dedicated to law and justice. In another sense, the market place has come into Hulftsdorf with transactions in and around the very pillars of justice. They were all involved, leaving no exception. They all are those who had subscribed to a solemn oath for justice and dignity with conviction, with no previous conviction. For every turn then of the administration in the law offices, taking extracts, moving files, and in the myriad interactions among these who alone are admitted to these premises, the exchanges are transactions, the video said. These are reduced to commodities for exchange at a price. The video says this clear and loud in the presence of police and other dignitaries who held a stoic face.

Oath of public office in the market. A market place, as described, in these hallowed precincts, is therefore yet another exercise to deal with. A form of market society has perhaps taken hold where much is up for buy and sale exchange, notwithstanding oath of public office. This scene in the area of the halls of justice, around the pillars of justice, is not easily countenanced with. The wigs, the robes, the pinstripes, the khaki, the flowing white banian, the variety, they did not cover that within. And all this is but some distance away from the Pettah market. Many would shoot the messenger who brought it to the public eye, the video compeer, as the only means they can think of to contend with reality.

Sworn to public office. Law does not help. Religion probably has other purposes. Can the public service, the public office, then steer through this morass? That has been the recurring problem diagnosed variously as problems of life; of a structural, of a systemic nature, of that between those in the public service and those who consider themselves beyond those niceties, the MPP, none of them resolved.

The public service, the police and many others, have therefore only to depend on themselves, as best or otherwise as they may. The issue with them still remains one of Justice, Public good and Morality. Dignity of public office goes with it. With it, dignity governs the conduct of public officers. This is the continuing problem for Public officers who occupy public office. Public servants have even to discharge their duties in courts where his duty makes a high call on his dignity. As a witness in court, the public servant’s dignity comes to the fore in the reception of his evidence. The public servant’s dignity then stands on its own. MPP have their speeches in Parliament untested in any manner. They are delivered with some narcissi glee and glow.

MPP as Legislators hardly consider themselves to thus hold public office. Such constraints and niceties do not stay them. Inappropriate dress offends MPP dignity. Conviction for murder does not offend MPP sense of dignity. So there is confusion along the way, when dignity is, when dignity is not. The confusion is quite useful to some that there is space for manoeuvre to confuse many, of the validity of the oath, of their attire and much else, against dignity of public office. For much flows from dignity than from law and religion, and much else, now shows. Dignity of public office yet stands though it can be bulldozed away as one incident showed. The mangrove incident at Negombo showed the clash of the two interests and of the dignity of their respective offices. The dignity and the career of the public officer with the mangrove were razed away. The politician got his promotion.

Bribery and corruption are collectively the malady in the absence of justice and dignity. Waste and defalcation all follow in its train. In fact a series of other forms of misdemeanour have been vindicated in the political life of many in Parliament. None of the MPP stood up to protest their innocence or be exposed, when so challenged in Parliament. Dignity can wait the MPP said. But none of this rubbed on the body of the legislator. In Parliament all is different. Questionable conduct is even a proud distinction; it is a qualification. This apparently is the reason that none of the MPP who were dared to, did stand up and risk their conduct being exposed in Parliament. They only kept their seats wearing only a sheepish grin in contempt of the accusers. Speeches in Parliament are not restrained by oath or fraught by problematic social background, MPP are spared quandary.

Oath of public office then and now. Could an article, as this, have been written 50, 40, 30 years ago, then? Politicians, Judges, Lawyers, Police and Prison Commissioners, University dons, Election Commissioner (singular) Public servants, then, all were of repute and dignity. Do names need to be mentioned? What then and whence was the difference? Many reasons, now, are ascribed for the breakdown. The replacement of social values by market values in about 2008/09 with the financial crisis is given as the breaking point. That breakdown was ,however, coming, in slow change, before the crisis. Social institutions, political and religious organisations, law associations and traditions and much else, none excepted, were caught in the throes of this silent revolution. Money now mattered. None are clear. This opinion cannot be dismissed.

A matter of regret, then, is that much that is awry including law and order can be accounted so for this collapse. The dysfunction of law and order process has quite well set in now. Much of the malfunction though freely termed ‘laws delay’ is now, as in a market society, described even as a way of life! If one applies this same analysis around that is equally applicable to all.

Justice and dignity are yet in the street, not in the Hall.

 

Frank de Silva

Narahenpita.

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