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Midweek Review

Playing politics with disappearances

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A recent protest in Jaffna demanding justice for those who had been reported missing during the conflict and after the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009(pic posted by PEARL)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Washington-based People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) says it campaigns for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people, living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Identifying itself as a non-profit organization, PEARL says formation of the group took place in 2005 in the wake of volunteers visiting Sri Lanka – the year before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched the fourth phase of the war.

Having reignited the war, in August 2006, with devastating initial success, the LTTE, however, lost the entire Eastern Province, by mid-2007. The armed forces brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. Since then, various Tamil politicians, Diaspora organizations and suspicious bleeding hearts, in the West, have been alleging enforced disappearances on a mass scale.

“For too long, the plight of the families of the disappeared has been used as a talking point and a prop for politicians and the international community, but no concrete measures have been taken,” said PEARL’s Executive Director Tasha Manoranjan. “The international community contributed to the destruction of Tamil lives and Tamil aspirations in 2009 — it is now time for the same international community to meet the demands of the families of the disappeared,” she said, in a statement issued in solidarity with the Tamil families of victims of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, from the 1980s and during the entirety of the country’s armed conflict. PEARL estimated the number of disappearances at 60,000-100,000, during this period.

PEARL, too, alleges genocide and demands accountability on the part of Sri Lanka. The group admits that it twice revised its five-year strategic plan after wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the 2019 presidential election. The original plan, put out in 2018, has been revised in Dec 2019 and April-July 2020. Perhaps, PEARL will have to revise its strategic plan further in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party securing an unprecedented near two-thirds majority at the Aug 5, 2020 general election. PEARL anticipates rapid deterioration of the situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a result of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory. PEARL has conveniently forgotten Tamils living there overwhelmingly voted for General Sarath Fonseka at the 2005 presidential election. The group’s concerns over Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory obviously seemed baseless against the backdrop of Tamils’ backing for war-winning Army commander Fonseka’s candidature at the 2005 presidential election.

PEARL will also have to take into consideration the major setback suffered by one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), at the recent general election. Having championed hybrid war crimes court in terms of Geneva Resolution 30/1 ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’, co-sponsored by the yahapalana government, the TNA felt comfortable though the general election results proved otherwise. The TNA ended up with just 10 seats, its worst performance since winning 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with overt and covert help from the LTTE.

In addition to the TNA, two other political outfits, namely the Ahila Illankai Tamil Congress (AITC) and Tamil Makkal Theshiya Kutani (TMTK), led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C.V. Wigneswaran, respectively, have emerged at the expense of the TNA grouping, led by veteran Sampanthan. It was more a war of attrition, fought by the two, against the established TNA that resulted in the major electoral reversal by the latter.

It would be pertinent to remind how lawmaker Ponnambalam, on Aug 21, 2020 reiterated genocide allegations during the debate on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy statement, delivered on the previous day. While declaring their resolve for self-determination, Ponnambalam challenged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mandate, and that of the SLPP, received in Nov 2019 and August 2020. Many an eyebrow was raised when Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, in respect of C.V. Wigneswaran’s provocative speech, at the inauguration of the parliament, declared that lawmakers were free to say whatever they wanted to.

The writer felt the need to examine the contentious issue of missing persons, against the backdrop of PEARL’s latest statement, headlined “PEARL stands with Victims’ Families in Sri Lanka on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances”, with the strapline ‘Since the end of the war in 2009, thousands of Tamils have not been heard from, after surrendering to the government’

PEARL has estimated the number of disappearances at 60,000-100,000 during the conflict and after. If the number of disappearances has been estimated as much as 100,000, wouldn’t it be necessary to examine the number of killed? Did some of those, who had been listed among the disappeared were actually killed in the fighting, or perished after being caught in the crossfire. Before examining the missing persons issue, let me remind the reader what yahapalana Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said of those categorized as disappeared.

 

Ranil sets the record straight

The 2015 presidential election brought an end to war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule. The Rajapaksa administration was repeatedly accused of running secret detention facilities, both in the Northern and Eastern provinces. A section of the Western powers, too, subscribed to these unsubstantiated allegations. In spite of the change of the government, in 2015, accusations persisted. In the run-up to the 2015 Geneva sessions, Sri Lanka was accused of still operating secret detention facilities.

In 2015, Sri Lanka agreed to set up (1) a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international human rights law (11) Commission truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence (111) An Office on missing and (1V) An office for reparations.

In the run-up to the Geneva sessions, Premier Wickremesinghe chose to set the record straight, at a ceremony at Rukmale Sri Dharmaloka Vijayaloka Maha Viharaya, on March 01, 2015, to felicitate the newly appointed Maha Nayaka Thera Ven. Ittapane Dharmalankara. Among those present was Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo. Premier Wickremesinghe declared that as all those who had been taken into custody, during the war and the post-conflict period, were being held in legally run facilities, all detainees/prisoners could be accounted for. The UNP leader didn’t mince his words when he emphasized that those missing, but not listed among those in government custody, had either perished during the conflict or were living overseas ‘(Prime Minister denies existence of secret detention camps’. with strap line ‘Those not among prison population either perished during the war or living overseas, The Island March 04, 2015.’)

A couple of days later, Premier Wickremesinghe challenged the much-touted UN claim of over 40,000 civilians killed on the Vanni east front, in 2009. Wickremesinghe also stressed the urgent need to verify the UN claims, as well as various other accusations. Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe’s did nothing. Wickremesinghe handling of the post-war accountability issue, too, contributed to the humiliating defeat his party suffered at the recently concluded general election. Over seven decades old, the UNP ended up without an elected MP. Nearly a month after the general election, the UNP is yet to reach consensus on its solitary National List slot.

The UNP leader Wickremesinghe set the record straight in an exclusive interview with Indian Thanthi TV in which he insisted that figures, quoted by the UN or other organizations, couldn’t be accepted without being verified. The March 6, 2015, interview couldn’t have been conducted at a better time, though Wickremesinghe did nothing subsequently to examine the Vanni death toll. Instead, Wickremesinghe gave the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera the go ahead to co-sponsor the accountability resolution, in Geneva, on Oct 01, 2015. The rest is history.

When the interviewer, S.A. Hariharan, pointed out that the Tamil Diaspora had estimated the number of civilian deaths closer to 100,000, Wickremesinghe asserted that it wouldn’t even come up to 40,000. Wickremesinghe pointed out that, in addition to the PoE (Panel of Experts) report, there had been other official reports that dealt with accountability issues. The Premier emphasized the pivotal importance of verifying such accusations to establish the number of civilian deaths. The Premier said that some official reports placed the number of civilian deaths at 5,000. The UNP leader never called for the verification of the UN report until he was kicked out of parliament.

In spite of underlining the importance of verifying accusations, Wickremesinghe didn’t take any follow-up action. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government conveniently refrained from using heavy ammunition in our rightful defence, provided by Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, to counter the PoE report. The incumbent government, too, is yet to formulate a cohesive strategy to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure.

 

PEARL owes an explanation

During the conflict, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled the country. The war here gave them an opportunity to secure political asylum in Europe, the US, Australia and the Scandinavian region. The Tamil Diaspora provided a substantial amount of funding, required by the LTTE to continue its conventional military campaign. The LTTE, in turn, controlled the Diaspora groups. The LTTE maintained strict surveillance over them. The Diaspora groups lacked courage at least to request the LTTE not to use their own helpless people as human shields in 2009. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what PEARL did during the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka? Did PEARL intervene on behalf of the Vanni Tamils after the LTTE abandoned Kilinochchi, in January 2009? Did PEARL request the LTTE, at least privately, to let go of those who were being held as human shields on the Vanni east front at the behest of a megalomaniac?

PEARL’s Executive Director, Tasha Manoranjan, and a member of its board of directors, having alleged in their latest media release that the international community contributed to the destruction of Tamil lives and Tamil aspirations in 2009, demanded the same international community should meet the demands of the disappeared. As a Diaspora group seeking to influence Western policy, through legal and political advocacy and direct research and reporting, PEARL should know how Western powers prolonged the conflict. In fact, the LTTE wouldn’t have survived nearly three decades without Western support, if not overt, but definitely covert. Western powers allowed the funding required to procure arms, ammunition and equipment needed to wage war though some countries proscribed the group. Neither did they unmask the international Tiger terrorist network, which was also resorting to drug running, extortion, etc., to fund the war here. However, the US facilitated the destruction of the floating arsenals in secret naval operations undertaken by the SLN. This was at the onset of the Vanni offensive.

If PEARL is genuinely interested in knowing what really happened to those who had been reported missing, it would seek the assistance of Western powers, as well as India. A substantial number of those who had been categorized as missing is today living in various countries, in many cases under assumed names. If not for them, there wouldn’t have been so many Diaspora organizations still raising funds on behalf of their people living in the Northern and Eastern Province.

PEARL tweeted on August 14, 2020: “Today marks 14 years since the #SLAF dropped 16 bombs over the #Sencholai children’s home, killing at least 51 #Tamil schoolgirls and 4 teachers. We remember them, acknowledge the gendered dimension of genocide, and continue to call for justice and accountability.”

Tasha Manoranjan, who had been in the Vanni at the onset of the Eelam War IV, tweeted on the following day; “I visited Sencholai hours after the bombing. The wailing of the mothers and families of these slaughtered schoolgirls haunt me to this day.”

Now that Tasha Manoranjan had claimed that she was hours away from Sencholai at the time of the SLAF attack on August 14, 2006, how could she become the founder of PEARL, established in 2005.

Manoranjan certainly owed an explanation.

Let me produce the description of the PEARL official on its official website: “Tasha Manoranjan is the founder and director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL). She spent over a year documenting human rights violations committed against Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka, and remains committed to pursuing accountability for violations of international law. Tasha was previously an associate in Sidley Austin LLP’s Litigation Practice. Tasha received her B.A., magna-cum-laude, in Justice and Peace Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Tasha earned her law degree at Yale Law School, where she served as the Features Editor and Book Reviewer for the Yale Journal of International Law, Chair of the South Asian Law Students Association and Community Enrichment Chair of the Women of Color Collective. While at Yale, Tasha wrote a paper entitled “Beaten but not Broken: Tamil Women in Sri Lanka”, which was subsequently published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.”

According to the website, Manoranjan works as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Is she a Canadian passport holder?

From Vanni to the US

How could Manoranjan, who had been in LTTE held Vanni, on August 14, 2006, ended up in the US? Or had she been a member of the PEARL at the time she entered the Vanni? In other words, what was her status at the time she entered Vanni? Did she ever serve the LTTE? When did she leave the Vanni? And, most importantly, how did she leave the country? Depending on the duration of Manoranjan’s stay in the Vanni, she can surely shed light on the circumstances leading to the entire Vanni population being herded into accompanying the retreating LTTE fighting units. What was Manoranjan’s status in the Vanni? Had she been a displaced person? Did anyone of her family serve the LTTE or any other terrorist group? In Manoranjan’s brief description there is no reference to her being in the Vanni during the conflict.

PEARL board of directors includes Dr. Vino Kanapathipillai, Gajan Raj and Sadena Thevarajah. In addition to the PEARL board of directors, its team comprised Tasha Manoranjan (Executive Director), Mario Arulthas (Strategic Advisor / Sr. Advocacy Officer, US), Anji Manivannan (Legal Director), Vivetha Thambinathan (Research Director), Avi Selvarajah (Sr. Legal Officer), Sivakami Rajamanoharan (Sr. Advocacy Officer, UK), Sagi Thilipkumar (Sr. Advocacy Officer, CH), Archana Ravichandradeva (Sr. Advocacy Officer, CA), Abarna Selvarajah (Advocacy Officer, CA), Thevya Balendran (Advocacy Officer, CA), Ernest Rajakone (Advocacy Officer, US), Luxsiga Ambigaibagan (Research Associate / Education Coordinator), Brannavy Jeyasundaram (Operations Officer) and Athavarn Srikantharajah (Interim Project Manager).

In addition to Manoranjan, did other members of the PEARL board of directors, as well as the PEARL team, live in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, during the conflict? Had their parents been refugees during the conflict? Had their parents served the LTTE, or any other terrorist organization? As PEARL had secured the services of a capable team, it can probe how 60,000-100,000 people disappeared during the conflict. Let me remind multiple causes for disappearances/ cases where bodies were not found.

* Disappearances resulted from fighting among /between Indian trained terrorist groups.

* Abductions of civilians carried out by Tamil terrorist groups

* Disappearances during Eelam War 1 (1983-July 1987) blamed on Sri Lankan military and police.

* Disappearances blamed on the Indian military during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990).

PEARL should take into consideration the level of fighting between the Indian military and the LTTE as the former lost well over 1,300 officers and men and over 2,000 wounded.

* Those who disappeared /killed during weapons training in India

* Disappearances/deaths due to capsizing of boats taking youth to training facilities in India or while returning from India

* Those LTTE cadres killed by Indian security forces and police after the assassination of Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991 at Sriperumbudur, India.

* PLOTE cadres killed/disappeared during an abortive sea borne raid on the Maldives in early Nov 1988 and as a result of Indian military operations.

* Disappearances blamed on the Sri Lankan military during Eelam War II (June 1990 to 1994), Eelam War III ((April 1995 to Dec 2001) and Eelam War IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009)

* Those who perished while trying to reach Australia in boats.

* Clandestine movement of Sri Lankans facilitated by foreign missions in Colombo during the conflict and after.

* Issuance of new foreign passports to Sri Lankans under different names. One of the most glaring examples is Australia issuing a new passport to leader of the breakaway JVP faction Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Kumar Gunaratnam bearing Noel Mudalige, a Sinhala Buddhist. Many countries continue to issue passports under different names, even to former members of terrorist groups.

*Those taken refuge in India and other countries to avoid forced conscription by the LTTE.

* Bodies disposed of by Sri Lankan and Indian militaries due to their failure to establish identities of the dead. Those killed during clandestine operations in the South. And finally,

* Political asylum in industrial countries for bogus refugees on the false grounds of persecution in Sri Lanka?

Let me end this piece with a story of an ex-LTTE cadre who ended up being an internationally renowned actor. Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, the lead actor of French film ‘Dheepan’ which won the top Palme d’Or prize for director Jacques Audiard at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival in 2015 had been an ex-LTTE cadre who fled the country in early 90s. Jesuthasan is on record as having said that he wanted to reach the UK but had to settle for France. Perhaps, members of the PEARL board of directors/team should watch ‘Dheepan’ if they hadn’t already done so.

Those who had been killed in combat though their bodies were not recovered and those who fled Sri Lanka for various reasons and are leading comfortable lives overseas while Sri Lanka is under pressure to account for the dead and the missing. The vast majority are those who had secured political asylum, on bogus grounds, taking advantage of hostility of some countries towards Sri Lanka.



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Midweek Review

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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

By Shamindra Ferdinando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prez roadmap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

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

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

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

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

Populism

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

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

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

Polarisation

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

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

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

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

Post-truth

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

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

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

How to protect our freedom

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

The battle against the Big Lie

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

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

Battle against criminal regimes

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

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

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

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

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

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

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

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

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

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

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

Battle against illiberal narratives

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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