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Plea bargain helps Jaliya to get off lightly



Rogue ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya, first cousin of Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil and Chamal Rajapaksa, has got off lightly in a Washington court where he, on a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and escaped with a fine of USD 5,000 and five years probation. The very light sentence was because he had pleaded guilty to the charge and returned the money he had defrauded from the Sri Lanka taxpayer in purchasing a new building for Colombo’s Embassy in a posh Washington neighborhood very close to where Bill and Hillary Clinton live.

The Politico magazine, in an article we reproduce in today’s issue of this newspaper reported that eight spectators were present when Judge Tanya Chutkan handed down the sentence saying: “Even though this was not millions of dollars, it represents a serious theft from the people, and by a person they entrusted to represent their interests in the capital of the most powerful country in the world.” On hearing these words, the accused is reported to have said with a break in his voice, “I am sorry.”

We would beg to differ with the judge on one point. It was not the people of this country who appointed Wickramasuriya to represent their interests in Washington. It was his cousin Mahinda Rajapaksa. Worse, even after Wickramasuriya had been caught with his hands in the till and made to return the money he had stolen, an effort was made to send him as High Commissioner to Canada. Fortunately, Colombo was unable to win Ottawa’s Agrément for his accreditation. The Canadians didn’t say ‘no.’ Very diplomatically they said nothing as they did in the case of former Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva who too failed to get a posting to Ottawa. There was also a failed attempt to invoke diplomatic immunity in Wickramasuriya’s case.

De Silva, of course, was no crook. But he had been Defence Secretary during the civil war and the strong presence of a Tamil diaspora in Toronto was responsible for the denial of Agrément. However, strangely, that did not apply to Gen. Tissa Weeratunga, a former army commander, who served a term as high commissioner in Ottawa. Gen. Weeratunga had been sent to Jaffna by President J.R. Jayewardene with explicit orders to finish off the Tiger menace in the early days when the LTTE was first baring its fangs. Most likely, the Tamil diaspora in Canada then was not as numerous or as influential as they later became.

When Wickramasuriya’s shameful conduct first became public, MR is reported to have said “This fellow has rubbed soot on my face.” Despite that he wanted to send him to Canada after the fraud had been bared and the culprit had admitted the crime by returning the loot. A storekeeper at Merril. J. Fernando’s Dilmah group, Wickramasuriya on being named ambassador published a brochure on himself falsely claiming he had been trained as a tea taster by Fernando. He even had the brass to give Fernando a copy of this publication. The disgraced ambassador’s only claim to the appointment was that he ran a tea import business in the U.S. and had lived there for some time.

There was also a similar appointment of another Rajapaksa cousin, Udyanga Weeratunga, who served as ambassador in Russia. Apart from the kinship, his one qualification would probably have been that he had been living in what was the former USSR and spoke the language. A businessman, he was accused by the Ukrainian government of arms sales to the LTTE. At a point of time his diplomatic passport was withdrawn by the Colombo government which was investigating the arms sales allegations.

An Interpol warrant for his arrest was requested by the Financial Crimes Investigations Division, but not received in 2016 when the Yahapalana government was in office. As many as 16 of his bank accounts were suspended by the courts in 2017. His name was mentioned over questionable purchases of MIG-27 jet aircraft during the war and his whereabouts were unknown during a period. But he’s known to have met MR, then out of office, in Thailand. Eventually he was arrested in Dubai by international police based on a request made by the authorities in 2018. Wikepedia has quite a chunk on this worthy who was back here and working to bring tourists from Ukraine to Sri Lanka at a time the political winds were blowing in a direction favorable to him. A common factor between Wickramasuriya and Weeratunga, apart from their kinship to the Rajapaksas, was their fortunes teetered depending on who was in office in Colombo at various periods of time. Wickramasuriya’s diplomatic immunity was at one stage not upheld during Yahapalana rule. When its successor tried to invoke it later, Washington refused to oblige.

Questionable appointments to Sri Lanka missions overseas from ambassador/head of mission down to the lowest levels like drivers have been endemic during governments of all political complexions. Progeny, spouses, friends, relatives and whoever were being accommodated out of a patronage pork barrel that seemed bottomless for a poor developing country like Sri Lanka. This is ancient and not contemporary history. Even agents of security services in hot water over various acts of commission and omission have been found safe havens in this country’s overseas missions. The number of such missions is way above actual need and the costs incurred are astronomical. Efforts at downsizing and economizing have at best been perfunctory. Can anybody tell us why we opened an embassy in the Seychelles of all places. Possible answers can only be in whispers.

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The brainless and brain drain



Friday 29th September, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government continues to be at loggerheads with irate professionals, who are demanding solutions to their problems. Many of them have already left the country never to return thanks to the government’s callous disregard for their grievances.

University teachers staged a protest in Colombo the other day in a bid to jolt the government into addressing the various issues that affect the education sector, but it is doubtful whether they succeeded in their endeavour. Instead of heeding the voice of the educated Sri Lankans on the warpath, the government has chosen to unleash its propaganda hounds on them.

One of the main issues that drive resentful professionals to street protests is the unbearable personal taxes. They have made it abundantly clear that they are not refusing to pay taxes; they are only demanding some relief, given the unexpected circumstances that have left them struggling to make ends meet. They are also demanding that the country’s tax revenue be properly utilised.

The government does not care to curtail the waste of state resources, as can be seen from the sheer number of politicians and officials junketing overseas at the expense of the public. Why should millions of dollars be spent on their pleasure trips which are made out to be official visits? The Health Ministry has become a metaphor for corruption, but the government continues to defend the Health Minister and corrupt officials. The same goes for all other ministries.

The government is sure to use the IMF’s recent statement that Sri Lanka’s tax revenue is very low to justify its refusal to grant any relief to the protesting professionals. But if it streamlines tax collection, it may be able to increase its tax revenue without squeezing the fixed-income earners dry.

Parliament has reportedly decided to take up the multi-faceted problem of brain drain for debate––at last. The fact that it has not already had an extensive discussion on brain drain, much less striven to find a solution thereto, is proof of the appallingly low priority it has assigned to this vital issue, which will have a bearing on the country’s future.

Regrettably, some government members do not seem to have realised the gravity of brain drain. If their unintelligent utterances in Parliament are anything to go by, they are labouring under the misconception that the exodus of Sri Lankan professionals is not something bad; they have said it will help boost the country’s inward remittances! They have mistakenly equated the mass emigration of the country’s best brains for good with the migration of unskilled workers. Figuring out the gravity of a problem is half the battle in finding a solution.

The worst that can happen to a country is for its educated youth to think they have no future at home, for their disillusionment manifests itself in brain drain, reduced innovation and socio-political unrest. True, brain drain is a global phenomenon that affects all countries to varying degrees, but it becomes a crisis when it assumes exodus proportions, as has been Sri Lanka’s experience. The ever-increasing human capital flight, which has adversely impacted all sectors here, is bound to make the task of resolving the country’s economic crisis even more uphill.

The task of having a comprehensive debate on so complex an issue as brain drain, with emphasis on its causes, consequences and a potential solution, requires brains.

What the so-called people’s representatives on both sides of the House, maintained with public funds, ought to do is to have a decent debate on the issue, confess collectively to having ruined the economy, show some remorse for their wrongful actions and dereliction of duty, resolve to avoid their past mistakes and make a concerted effort to sort out the economy.

If they are going to play the blame game once again, resort to slanging matches replete with invectives and raw filth, and drag one another’s names through the mud, as they often do, they might as well forget about the debate they are scheduled to have on brain drain.

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Stats, confusion and contradictions



Thursday 28th September, 2023

Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera is reported to have said at a conference held by the Finance Ministry, on Tuesday (26), that there are more than 4,000 vacancies in the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). According to media reports quoting him, the vacancies at the CEB and the CPC number 1,192 and 3,000, respectively. He is said to have added, in the same breath, that both institutions can manage with the current workforce; his statement must have struck a responsive chord with the public, who must not be made to pay through the nose to maintain overstaffed, inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Minister Wijesekera has left us puzzled, though. In August 2022, he tweeted that there were basically eight reasons for losses incurred by the CPC, and one of them was that it was overstaffed and inefficient, and its workers were overpaid. He reportedly said in a separate tweet that 500 workers could manage the work done by 4,200 workers at the CPC and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL), and the CEB did not need more than 50% of the workers currently on its payroll to function efficiently. In April 2023, the media, quoting from an Auditor General’s report, said the CPC and the CPSTL had 4,200 workers whereas the need was for only 500.

How could an institution which is overstaffed have vacancies? Is it that the CEB and the CPC/CPSTL have recruited workers haphazardly for political reasons instead of hiring personnel for the posts that fell vacant? An explanation is called for.

Minister Wijesekera said at the aforesaid conference that he could take advantage of the situation and employ about one thousand people from his home district, Matara, in the CPC/CPSTL and the CEB, but he would not do so. Let him be told that the public is not so naïve as to buy into his claim; he and other government politicians, especially the members of the Rajapaksa family, would have provided employment to their henchmen in the debt-ridden institutions but for the IMF strictures, and the fear that such action would stand in the way the restructuring of the SOEs. Even the worst critics of the IMF must be happy that it has put the government in a straitjacket of sorts.

Surplus staffing in the public sector is a drain on the state coffers, as is obvious. The COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) has recently revealed that the Health Ministry has more than twice the number of doctors required for administrative work while many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of doctors. It is hoped that the government will have the cadre requirements of all state institutions properly assessed and take action to sort out the issue of overstaffing.


A request to Susil

Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has said early childhood education will be made compulsory for all children above the age of four. This, we believe, is a welcome move. According to UNESCO, early childhood education ‘provides learning and educational activities with a holistic approach to support children’s early cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and introduce young children to organised instruction outside the family to develop some of the skills needed for academic readiness and to prepare them for entry into primary education’.

The adverse impact of the neglect of early childhood education on Sri Lankan society is reflected in the behaviour of some adults, especially those in key positions, the deplorable conduct of the Members of Parliament being a case in point. If the behaviour of most MPs during the past few months is any indication, something has gone wrong with their cognitive, social and emotional development. Otherwise, they would have behaved well at least during the country’s worst economic crisis, which they themselves have contributed to, albeit to varying degrees. They cannot even have a decent debate on a national tragedy such as the Easter Sunday terror strikes, which claimed more than 270 lives and left over 500 people injured. They have turned parliamentary debates into slanging matches and punch-ups. There are some decent politicians, but sadly they are the exception that proves the rule.

Thus, we request Education Minister Premajayantha to take steps to ensure that our elected representatives, save a few, are provided with early childhood education, which they have missed. Better late than never. That may be considered what is known as ‘second chance education’ for them.

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Lessons unlearnt



Wednesday 27th September, 2023

It is heartening that justice has finally caught up with a retired top cop, albeit after a lapse of more than eight years. The Ratnapura High Court, on Monday, sentenced former Senior DIG Lalith Jayasinghe to a five-year jail term for having ordered the OIC of the Kahawatte police station not to arrest the then UPFA MP Premalal Jayasekera alias Choka Malli over a shooting incident in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election. The victim of gun violence succumbed to his injuries. He was an Opposition activist.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government attempted a cover-up, and the prevention of Choka Malli’s arrest was part of it. But its plan went awry due to the regime change that followed soon afterwards.

The Yahapalana government ensured that Jayasekera was arrested and prosecuted. He was sentenced to death by the Ratnapura High Court, but he successfully appealed against his sentence after being elected to Parliament as a member of the ruling SLPP, in 2020. In this country, the acquittals of politicians in power come as no surprise!

Today, Choka Malli is a free man, but the SDIG who prevented his arrest in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 killing has been sentenced to jail!

It is hoped that Ex-SDIG Jayasinghe’s predicament will serve as a lesson for all police personnel who enter into Faustian bargains with crafty politicians, and abuse their positions to please their political masters. This unholy alliance is one of the reasons why public trust in the police has eroded severely and the rule of law is crippled.

Several former senior cops have had to pay for their past sins. In 2010, ex-SSP Nihal Karunaratne was sentenced to a five-year jail term by the Kandy High Court for having issued death threats to the OIC of the Hanguranketha police station, in the run-up to the 2001 general election; he was the Director of President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s security division at the time. The following year, the Colombo High Court sentenced Karunaratne to two years RI suspended for 10 years and fined him Rs. 25,000 for having obstructed a police officer, in 2000, when a police team entered the house of notorious criminal called Beddegana Sanjeewa to arrest some underworld figures hiding there. (Having been appointed a Reserve Sub Inspector of Police, Sanjeewa served in Kumaratunga’s security division until he was killed by an ‘unidentified gunman’.)

In 2016, the then IGP Pujith Jayasundera was caught on camera, at a public meeting, answering a telephone call from someone, whom he reverentially called ‘sir’ and assuring that a certain person would not be arrested. A fish is said to rot from the head down, and this may explain why the Police Department is full of stooges. Jayasundera’s obsequiousness, however, did not prevent the politicians he served very faithfully from throwing him to the wolves after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019.

The person who died at the hands of the goons of the Rajapaksa regime, in Kahawatte, ahead of the 2015 presidential election, was one of the UNP supporters who, at the behest of their party leadership, stuck their necks out to enable Maithripala Sirisena to secure the presidency. Three years later, Sirisena sought to dislodge the UNP-led Yahapalana government. He thereafter closed ranks with the Rajapaksas, whom he had blamed for election violence in 2015, among other things, and threatened to throw behind bars; he had no qualms about being in the same parliamentary group as Choka Malli after the 2020 general election. Worse, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe joined forces with the Rajapaksas, who were accused of unleashing their goons on UNP activists, and realised his presidential dream. He stands accused of protecting the interests of the Rajapaksas. In a turn of events replete with irony, Jayasekera was sworn in as a state minister before President Wickremesinghe, last year!

One can only hope that the public will realise that nothing is stupider than to risk life and limb for the sake of politicians or political parties. Unfortunately, many lessons go unlearnt in this country.

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