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Midweek Review

Pompeo follows Jiechi to Colombo

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense chief Mark Esper meet Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval (pic courtesy Hindustan Times)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Yahapalana President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe hadn’t been able to reach a consensus on almost all major issues – ranging from economic policy to making available tabs to undergraduates. In spite of forming an administration, on the basis of the 19th Amendment, enacted in early 2015, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe didn’t see eye to eye on many matters. On many occasions, the former President publicly criticized Wickremesinghe’s approach to the Treasury bond scam,s allegedly perpetrated by the then Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Majendran, handpicked by the then PM, being the primary bone of contention.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Austin Fernando, who had been Secretary to Sirisena (July 2017-July 2018), quite rightly pointed out that the unprecedented Treasury bond scams caused a major rift between the yahapalana leaders. Fernando endorsed the appointment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) to probe the Treasury bond scams. What the one-time Defence Secretary Fernando didn’t say was that the appointment of the P CoI took place in January 2017- nine months after the second Treasury bond scam, and 22 months after the first.

Saman Ekanayake, who had served as Secretary to Wickremesinghe, in another interview, also published in the Oct 18, 2020 edition of the ST, asserted that the Treasury bond scams hadn’t been the major cause of the conflict between the yahapalana leaders.

Fernando and Ekanayake discussed a range of issues, and controversies, that led to the collapse of the much-touted yahapalana arrangement. As a result, the UNP ended up with one National List seat, whereas the SLFP managed to secure 13 seats on the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) ticket, and one on its own, at the last General Election.

The UNP parliamentary group consisted of 106 lawmakers, in the last parliament (2015-2020). In addition to the 106-member group, there was one elected on the SLMC ticket. The SLFP led UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) commanded 95 lawmakers. The UPFA is no longer represented in parliament.

Fernando and Ekanayake, who enjoyed a ringside view, deliberated the yahapalana downfall. The discussions were quite useful and essential to understand the circumstances leading to Sirisena sacking Wickremesinghe, on Oct 26, 2018. Sirisena made his move, having failed to convince Wickremesinghe to give up the premiership, close on the heels of the debilitating setback the UNP and the SLFP suffered at the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls. However, the former officials failed to discuss the crucial and weighty US intervention here that facilitated Maithripala Sirisena’s emergence as the common candidate, at the 2015 presidential poll. The US intervention, both overt and covert, by way of the unpalatable Geneva accountability resolution, also contributed to the ultimate downfall of the yahapalana arrangement. Interestingly, there hadn’t been any reference to the Geneva resolution at all.

 

Pompeo here in the wake of Jiechi

 

Let us now discuss the US role here against the backdrop of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit this week, close on the heels of former Chinese Foreign Minister and the current Communist Party Politburo Member Yang Jiechi meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Earlier, Pompeo was scheduled to arrive in Colombo on June 27, 2019, on a short visit, during the yahapalana administration. Although the cancellation took place, amidst the SLPP and nationalist groups protesting against the finalization of SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) agreements, the US Embassy in Colombo, however, gave this excuse: “Due to unavoidable scheduling conflicts during his upcoming visit to the Indo-Pacific region that includes accompanying President Donald J. Trump to the G20 Summit in Japan, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo is unable to visit Sri Lanka as previously announced.”

Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival, the US threatened Sri Lanka, struggling to cope up with the deadly coronavirus, over its close relationship with China. “We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity,” attributed to Dean Thompson, the top diplomat in charge of South Asia, is nothing but a threat. The message is clear.

Obviously, in spite of the change of government, in Nov 2019, the US expects Sri Lanka to remain committed to a hidden agenda, reached with the previous yahapalana administration. With China quite stubbornly pursuing its strategies, at both regional, as well as global level, the US seems hell-bent on subverting Sri Lanka, now experiencing the worst ever financial crisis, since independence.

The US warning reminds us of the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s demand, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, that Sri Lanka terminate/take back all major Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, including the Colombo port city, as well as the Hambantota port. The US-India-Japan coalition is determined to thwart China’s growing strength, at both regional and global level.

Australia joining India, the US and Japan, in the Malabar naval exercises, in the Indian Ocean, in Nov 2020, should be examined in the context of the US-led confrontation with China.

Carried out annually, since 1992, the strategic manoeuvres have grown in size, and complexity, in recent years, to meet what the US Navy has termed as a “variety of shared threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia Pacific.”

The participation of Australia means that all four members of the Quad aka Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will be participating in the exercises, amidst growing Indo-China and China-US tensions.

Pompeo is the second US Secretary of State to visit Colombo. in 50 years. John Kerry was here in the first week of May 2015. amidst the deepening turmoil over the first Treasury bond scam. Having called on Sirisena, at the Presidential Secretariat, Kerry held bilateral talks with the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among those on Samaraweera’s team, at the talks, were the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake (embroiled in the first Treasury bond scam), Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, who was later sacked by Sirisena, at the behest of Wickremesinghe, and then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington Prasad Kariyawasam, who, years later, turned up at the Parliament as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s advisor, paid by the USAID. Kariyawasam served as the Foreign Secretary before taking up the USAID paid controversial appointment. Wickremesinghe hosted Kerry for lunch at Temple Trees.

Five years later, Pompeo’s visit takes place against the backdrop of the political setup here undergoing an unprecedented change. The UNP is irrelevant in today’s political context with its leader Wickremesinghe failing, at least to regain his Colombo seat. Samaraweera and Karunanayake are no longer members of parliament either, with the latter under investigation by the CID over the Treasury bond scams. Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapakse represent the SLPP and one-time US citizen, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. With the passage of the 20th Amendment, the way is now cleared for the President to assume duties as the Minister of Defence, properly.

 

US interventions in 2010 et al

 

In the wake of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE in May 2009, the US feared the Rajapaksas forging closer ties with Beijing. The US pushed one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to throw its weight behind the then common candidate, the war-winning Army Chief, General Sarath Fonseka, at the January 2010 presidential election. The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK)-led TNA had been reluctant to participate in the high profile political project and was really embarrassed by what it was asked to do. But, the US insisted on the TNA participation. The US had no qualms in backing Fonseka, despite having accused him and his Army of war crimes.

Thanks to Wikileaks revelations, the US role in the formation of the UNP-led coalition, to back Sarath Fonseka, is in the public domain. A confidential cable from the US Embassy, in Colombo, dated January 1, 2010, leaked by Wikileaks, revealed how Samapanthan provided a copy of an agreement signed by Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the UNP leader and the common candidate Fonseka to implement, what the then US Ambassador here Patricia A. Butenis called, a genuine power sharing agreement acceptable to all communities. The JVP, as well as the SLMC, backed Sarath Foneka’s candidature. In spite of winning all predominantly Tamil and Muslim districts, in the Northern and Easter Provinces, comfortably, Fonseka suffered a humiliating defeat as a result of the majority Sinhala community rejecting him. The war hero lost by a staggering 1.8 mn votes.

Five years later, a very much similar US clandestine project, with the active participation of India, succeeded here. The same coalition successfully backed Sirisena’s candidature, at the 2015 presidential election. Having installed Sirisena, as the Executive President, the UNP implemented its programme. Former top aides to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe explained how Wickremesinghe pursued his objectives, though the Geneva issue didn’t receive attention at all.

In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, the UNP-led coalition repeatedly warned that Sri Lanka faced international sanctions if Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a third term. The yahapalana coalition repeated, like a mantra, that Western powers would impose crippling sanctions over war crimes accusations, unless Sirisena’s victory paved the way for a negotiated settlement with the Tamil community. In the wake of Sirisena’s victory, the UNP moved swiftly and decisively to reach consensus with the US over accountability issues.

As a result of negotiations, Sri Lanka, on Oct 1, 2015, co-sponsored the despicable Geneva resolution against one’s own country, sponsored by the US and its pliant allies. The war-winning Rajapaksa government, in no uncertain terms, declined to co-sponsor a resolution against its own armed forces, regardless of the consequences. The yahapalana government finalized the Geneva resolution, just over a week after Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha strongly advised against the move at the first informal talks on the draft proposal in Geneva. The UNP dismissed his objections

Less than a year later, TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran revealed the existence of an understanding among Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US as regards the Geneva resolution, inclusive of foreign judges and other experts in a proposed war crimes court. The revelation was made in Washington, with the then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador there, Prasad Kariyawasam, by his side. Although the Sri Lankan mission, and the Foreign Ministry here, conveniently refrained from making any reference to Sumanthiran’s shocking disclosure, in their media statements, the TNA released the MP’s full speech.

A government appointed Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanism (CTFRM), too, recommended the participation of foreign judges in war crimes courts, to be established in accordance with the 30/1 Geneva Resolution, adopted in Oct 2015. The CTFRM, headed by Manouri Muttetuwegama ,comprised Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu (its Secretary), Gamini Viyangoda, Visaka Dharmadasa, Shantha Abhimanasingham PC, Prof Sitralega Maunaguru, K.W. Janaranjana, Prof. Daya Somasundaram, Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe and Mirak Raheem.

 

Sirisena saves UNP

 

In spite of the bad blood, between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, over the first Treasury bond scam, blamed on the latter’s choice as Governor of the Central Bank (Arjuna Mahendran), the President went out of his way to save Wickremesinghe, and the UNP. Wickremesinghe quite easily forgot how Sirisena ensured the support of the UPFA parliamentary group, sans that of Sarath Weerasekera, for the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Wickremesinghe was able to secure over 200 votes for the 19th Amendment, though the UNP had less than 50 members in parliament at that time. This was in spite of the perpetration of the first Treasury bond scam, several weeks before the vote on the 19th Amendment.

The UPFA backed the UNP initiative, though, by then, on Sirisena’s directive, the SLFP had lodged a complaint regarding the first Treasury bond scam with the CIABOC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption). Sirisena dissolved parliament on the night of June 26, 2015 to deprive COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Dew Gunasekera of an opportunity to present its devastating report on the first Treasury bond scam, though some blamed the President for not dissolving the parliament on the third week of April 2015 on the completion of the 100-day programme.

 

UNP-SLFP alliance

 

If not for the hasty dissolution, the COPE report would have been presented to parliament, ahead of the general election. Had that happened, the UNP would have suffered a major setback. Sirisena not only saved the UNP from an extremely difficult situation, but also delivered a stunning blow to his own party, the SLFP, a couple of weeks before the election. Sirisena declared that even if the SLFP-led UPFA won the general election, Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed the Prime Minister, under any circumstances.

There had never been such a treacherous statement by a leader of a political party, in the post-independence era, though treachery and duplicity were all part of the game. But Sirisena did just that!

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe ensured that the 19th Amendment provided constitutional foundation for the UNP-SLFP coalition. They exploited the very law meant to restrict the number of ministers and non-cabinet ministers to 30 and 40, respectively, to authorize the expansion of the cabinet as well as non-cabinet positions. Member of the UNP-led coalition, R. Sampanthan, who had betrayed democracy by recognizing the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils, in late 2001, was chosen as the Opposition Leader, and accommodated on the Constitutional Council.

The US and its allies, who shout so much about transparency, conveniently turned a blind eye to what was happening in parliament. They wanted a situation in parliament, conducive for the implementation of their overall sinister strategy. By Sept 2016, the US had reached an agreement worth Rs 1.93 bn (USD 13 mn) to influence the decision-making process here, whereas Wickremesinghe pursued a new constitution making process as part of that strategy.

Parliament owed the public an explanation as to how the US-funded project was implemented and the benefits received by Sri Lanka. It would be pertinent to mention the UPFA Joint Opposition Group (now SLPP), too, cooperated with the UNP in the constitution making process. The National Freedom Front (NFF) quit the process, in mid-2017. However, its efforts to persuade the rest of the JO to discontinue its participation failed.

Having formed the government, with Sirisena’s help, following the August 2017 general election, the UNP perpetrated the second much bigger bond scam, in late March 2016. Still, the UNP pushed hard for the extension of term for the Singaporean as the Central Bank Governor, who was under heavy fire over the Treasury bond scams. At the time of the fraudulent transactions, the Central Bank was under the purview of UNP leader Wickremesinghe, who held the policy planning and economic affairs portfolios. Within two weeks, after the January 8, 2015 presidential election, Wickremesinghe, by way of a gazette, brought the Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission under him. They had been under the Ministry of Finance, a portfolio held by UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake at the time Wickremesinghe stepped in. The Public Utilities Commission, too, was brought under Wickremesinghe.

If not for the Treasury bond scams, perhaps Wickremesinghe could have succeeded in bringing the Geneva-backed constitution making process to a successful conclusion. Contrary to some disagreements, the yahapalana leaders basically agreed with the script written by the US.

Sirisena quietly allowed the finalization of the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) in early August 2017. The ACSA, first signed by the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during Mahinda Rajapakas’s first tenure as the President, received the President’s approval, though the President subsequently vowed he wouldn’t allow any agreement inimical to Sri Lanka as long as he enjoyed executive powers. This declaration was made at a meeting with editors of national newspapers and senior representatives of both print and electronic media at the Janadhipathi Mandiraya. When the writer sought a clarification regarding the ACSA, Sirisena acknowledged the finalization of the agreement, in the first week of August 2017. The UNP never found fault with Sirisena for giving the go ahead for the ACSA finalization. As far as the yahapalana policy, vis-à-vis the US, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe took one stand though sometimes, Sirisena tried to distance himself from Wickremesinghe’s Geneva policy.

Don’t ever forget, the yahapalana government never took tangible measures to use Lord Nasby’s disclosure, in Oct 2017, in the House of Lords, to save the country from the Geneva trap. Sri Lanka did nothing even after the US, in June 2018, quit the Geneva body, alleging it was nothing but a cesspool of political bias. For some unknown reason, the SLPP administration, too, is yet to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure properly to clear its name. Now that Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has alleged that Army Chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva was black listed by the US, as a result of the Geneva resolution, the government should take appropriate measures to have the country cleared of war crimes. Lt. Gen. Silva cannot get out of the US listing as long as Sri Lanka didn’t successfully challenge the Geneva resolution, based on unsubstantiated allegations.

The incumbent government is yet to adopt comprehensive measures to deal with the Geneva resolution. In spite of various declarations, made by the government, the Geneva resolution remains active, with the UK in charge of the project. The US, though being out of the Geneva body, continues to back the Geneva process to pressure Sri Lanka to accept its combative proposals. The recent US State Department statement is a case in point. Pompeo’s visit further amplifies the danger Sri Lanka is in as already the economy is in a tailspin, due to the rampaging coronavirus. The possibility of those eyeing Sri Lanka, exploiting weaker economic conditions and creating further complexities, cannot be ruled out. It would be important to keep in mind how the yahapalana government made an attempt to cut off China, by halting the Port City project, in 2015, but ended up not only rescinding that directive but handing over the Hambantota port, on a 99-year-old lease, to Beijing.



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Midweek Review

Queues, Cues and More Queues

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By Kalinga Tudor Silva

One of the important ways, the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka has directly impacted our lives is having to go through long and seeming unending queues, to access petrol, diesel, kerosene and even our dear passports. Queues have multiplied, sprung up on either side of the road and across the road in some instances adding to traffic jams, accidents and related road risks and public grievances stemming from the economic crisis. Frustrations arising from the failure at the end of the queues to secure what they were queuing for long hours have also become an important driver of public protests and clashes between different groups of public, consumers and fuel station staff and the public and law enforcement personnel. This is not the first time that scarcities hit consumers in Sri Lanka, but this is the first time in our memory that queues have become a routine and blatantly visible sign of the desperate position we are in with our foreign reserves nearly exhausted and essential imports like fuel, consumer goods and medicines severely curtailed in consequence. While the rising cost of fuel in the wake of the war in Ukraine may have partly contributed to this situation, the totally irresponsible and reckless way our foreign reserves were handled and high-risk international credit using International Sovereign Bonds were obtained by our political leaders and their hand-picked bureaucrats at the top largely contributed to the economic meltdown producing heavy scarcities and the resulting queues. I am writing this short reflection based on my personal experience of long stays in petrol and LP gas queues and brief conversations I had with different stakeholders in the supply chain and the fellow victims in the queues.

Queue Jumping

While Sri Lankans are notorious for jumping the queues and doing so shamelessly at times wearing ties and all the external trappings of modernity, they have also found ingenious ways of blocking queue jumping. I came across two such devices in the two sets of queues in which I joined. One was the bumper-to-bumper vehicle parking in overnight queues blocking any big enough empty space to be occupied by intruders big or small. The other was tying of empty gas cylinders to one another forming their own queues using a metal chain to prevent any forcible insertions in between, with chains and empty gas cylinders serving as actants in this instance, as the social theorist Latour would identify them within his actor-network framework. In adaptation to the circumstances as well as in outsmarting the habitual queue-jumpers, it is as if queues take cues from one another. That said I find these multiple queues imposed upon us a total waste of our time and resources. For instance, some people exhaust the limited fuel stocks they have in their vehicles in the slow-moving vehicle queues, only to find when they reach their destination that there is no more fuel to be sold. This is the point at which some people get into serious conflict with either the fuel station employees or other parties perceived to be manipulating the supply lines. These confrontations have sometimes ended in serious injuries or even manslaughter.

It must be stated here that while some fuel stations have done a reasonable job of handling this difficult situation, others have made a mess of distributing the limited supplies. In one fuel station that I visited I came to know that there was one long queue to secure tokens for the next day and another even longer queue using the tokens to access fuel. Despite all the seemingly logical efforts such as allocating different days for accessing fuel according to the last number in the license plate, and the introduction of the QR code system, they have further complicated the distribution of fuel and made life difficult for the consumers. The token system was introduced to do away with the queues, but it has in fact multiplied queues, with queues for obtaining the tokens superimposed upon separate fuel queues. It appears to be the case that there is no monitoring or follow up of the various interventions made by the Energy Ministry to make sure that these interventions work in the way expected and fix any inevitable mistakes in the system. As of now some of the interventions such as the token system has only served to make life difficult for the consumers simultaneously hit by the scarcities on the one hand and sharp and repeated escalation of commodity prices on the other. Where yesterday’s queues end, today’s queues begin in anticipation of tomorrow’s uncertain supplies. In the meantime, the number of people collapsing and instantly dying in the queues has recorded an all-time high in this land of prosperity and splendour!

Black Market

Another unhealthy development we are witnessing currently is the emergence of a black market for fuel and perhaps other commodities in short supply. This black market has several manifestations. One is that the fuel issued for one legitimate purpose such as operation of mechanised fishing boats essential for the fishing industry being diverted to the black-market catering to the motorists. The relevant boat operators perhaps make a good income by illegally selling their fuel supplies instead of catching any fish. Another is that hired vehicles such as three wheelers being used for securing fuel supplies for the black market, these vehicle operators making more money illegally selling their fuel stocks than by hiring their vehicles as expected. This also perhaps partly explains why the fuel queues keep extending despite the supply chain being in operation and replenished from time to time. The police have successfully caught some of these illegal operators, but the number caught may simply be the tip of the iceberg. Some black-market operators reportedly dilute their fuel supplies with whatever bubbling substances at their disposal causing havoc in the vehicle engines to which they are introduced. This again may be a lucrative income avenue for the expert mechanics, but a serious risk faced by the motorists compelled to turn to the black market to obtain fuel supplies during emergencies. Thirdly charges by commercial vehicles such as trucks, taxis and three wheelers have risen so much because of the fuel scarcity and the black market in fuel supply that they rely on to an extent that many users have virtually given them up. The QR code introduced to overcome the resulting problems such as diversion of fuel supplies to the black market, is yet to be implemented across the board and adopted by all parties concerned. Obviously, the ground situation has not been properly assessed in respect of availability of devises and the competence of the fuel station staff and the latter have not been prepared for adoption of this intervention prior to its introduction.

Muscle Power

Another parallel development to the black market is the control of certain terminal points in the fuel distribution system by a mafia-like local group with muscle power, heavy street presence and possible connections to the long arms of the law and at times law makers themselves. This group obviously benefits from the black market and perhaps tries to perpetuate it because it serves their interests. This will make it difficult to go back to a free market of the type that prevailed prior to the onset of the economic crisis even when economy has recovered, and the fuel supplies are back to normal. This group can either subvert the efforts to regularise the fuel supply or manipulate them for maximising their own benefits in ways that entrench the black market and enhance their control over it.

Considering the adverse effects of this black market and its potentially irreversible social consequences, it is essential that innovative approaches are pursued in order to prevent it from advancing to the next stage. While the queues may be here to stay for some time, we must find ways and means to ensure that they do not get out of control and destabilise the entire social system and the market economy connected with it. Allocating different types of motor vehicles for fuel supply on different days or to different fuel stations, proper implementation of the QR codes having done the necessary groundwork and preparations, fuel supply for essential services through approved government outlets with required police protection are among the steps that can be introduced on a pilot basis and expanded to the whole system if they prove to help overcome the current crisis. Finally, a systematic assessment of the current situation must be made by a team of competent people also getting feedback from the public with a view to identify the way forward.

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Midweek Review

Orwellian Isle Ordeals

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By Lynn Ockersz

‘Big Brother’s’ surveillance lens,

Is now at greatly magnified strength,

In the Isle thrashed by crisis waves,

Piercing every prospect of the land,

With scorching interrogatory rays,

Aiming to cow into silence,

Citizens demanding real change,

And the deliverance of Justice,

To crime victims long forgotten by time,

But all that would be left in the end,

We are compelled but sorry to say,

Is a fear-driven, straitjacketed state,

Where ‘Big Brother’, with his all-seeing eye,

Will be the power with which to contend.

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Midweek Review

Proposed all-party govt: Prez wins support from unexpected quarters

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The secret vote on the new President as well as the Emergency sharply divided the SLFP. In spite of talks among members of its parliamentary group, the party, led by one-time President Maithripala Sirisena, has not been able to reach a consensus on a strategy to deal with the new President. Of the 14 SLFPers, including National List MP Dr. Suren Raghavan, five have thrown their weight behind Wickremesinghe’s move to impose the Emergency rule. The remaining SLFPers abstained at the vote on the Emergency, though all 14 members exercised their freedom at the secret vote to elect the new President by parliament. The SLFP parliamentary group was reduced to 09 in the wake of 05 switching their allegiance to Wickremesinghe. Even out of the 09, Lasantha Akagiyawanna, Duminda Dissanayake, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and Jagath Pushpakumara wanted to vote for the Emergency, whereas Maithripala Sirisena, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Angajan Ramanathan, Shan Wijelal and Sarathi Dushmantha felt the party should vote against.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lawmakers sharply differ on a solution to developing the political-economic-social crisis. Election of UNP National List MP Ranil Wickremesinghe as the 8th Executive President and the vote on Emergency on July 20 and July 27 respectively further highlighted the growing differences among political parties, represented in Parliament, as well as individual members.

The Parliament consists of 196 elected and 29 appointed (National List) members. They have entered Parliament on the ticket of political parties mentioned below: The parties are Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (145 seats), Samagi Jana Balavegaya (54), Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (10), Jathika Jana Balavegaya (03) Ahila Illankai Tamil Congress (02), Eelam People’s Democratic Party (02), United National Party (01), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (01), Our Power of People Party (01), Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (01) Muslim National Alliance (01), Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kutani (01), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (01), National Congress (01) and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (01).

In the wake of the UNP leader receiving parliamentary blessings to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has emerged as one of the leading demanders of an immediate parliamentary election, notwithstanding the perilous state of the country. The MEP with just three members (Dinesh Gunawardena, his son Yadamini (National List) and Sisira Jayakody) received the premiership.

The three-member Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) parliamentary group, comprising JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Colombo district), Vijitha Herath (Gampaha district) and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya (National List) campaigns for an early general election. The JVP leader, one of the three contestants, received just three votes, including his own, at the July 20 vote.

Having backed Dullas Alahapperuma (Matara district) at the presidential contest, the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), too, campaigns for an early general election. The 54 member SJB parliamentary group is obviously divided over its political strategy, though its leader, Sajith Premadasa seems confident an early general election can resolve the crisis. The SJB group includes seven National List members.

The SJB and the JVP believe an early general election is the panacea for the worst-ever crisis that has brought Sri Lanka to its knees, thereby facilitating external interventions at an unprecedented level.

The rapid developments and the growing uncertainties should be examined, taking into consideration President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stand on an early general election and that of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Both Wickremesinghe and the SLPP are unlikely to accept the holding of a hasty national election, under any circumstances, in the current situation. They agree on Wickremesinghe finishing his predecessor’s five-year term and the Parliament continuing its stipulated period. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fielded by the SLPP won the last presidential election, conducted in mid-November 2019, and the general election in August, 2020.

Dissident SLPP National List member Gevindu Cumaratunga discussed the issues at hand on ‘Thulawa’, anchored by Sudarman Radaliyagoda, on the Independent Television Network (ITN) on July 28.

Responding to former JVP MP Nalinda Jayatissa’s declaration that general election was nothing but a prerequisite as bankrupted Sri Lanka struggled to cope up with an unprecedented economic crisis, lawmaker Cumaratunga strongly argued for an all-party government as the urgent need to restore the gravely ill country.

The outspoken nationalist politician stressed the need for a consensus on what he called an ‘all-party-arrangement’ and the responsibility on the part of President Wickremesinghe to take tangible measures to achieve the desired objective. Civil society group ‘Yuthukama’ leader Cumaratunga explained how a dissident group of SLPP MPs and others tried to convince the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to dissolve the Cabinet-of-Ministers to pave the way for an all-party government.

Cumaratunga asserted that consensus on an ‘all party arrangement’ was required as a fresh general election couldn’t guarantee a stable government. The civil society activist asked whether anyone could guarantee how long a government elected at a hastily called general election will last.

Referring to the fate of world leaders, such as the UK’s Boris Johnson, elected in 2019, but forced to announce his resignation recently, Cumaratunga stressed that political parties should be mindful of the impact the corrosive and highly manipulated (especially by foreign interests) social media was having on the entire political party system here.

The MP was obviously commenting on the fate that befell elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with an overwhelming majority and the SLPP. The first time entrant to Parliament pointed out that today posters weren’t required. The MP explained how social media platforms could influence the electorate to topple any elected administration by poisoning the minds of the people against it. Therefore, it would be sensible to have a consensus among those political parties represented in Parliament than going for a fresh election that may not facilitate a solution at all.

Rebels divided over political strategy

Lawmakers Cumaratunga and ‘Yuthumaka’ activist Anupa Pasqual (Kalutara district) elected on the SLPP ticket at the last general election, voted for the Emergency, the day before the live telecast of ‘Thulawa.’ Of those lawmakers representing 10 political parties and groups affiliated with the SLPP, Gevindu Cumaratunga and Anura Pasqual joined Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila in backing the continuation of the Emergency rule.

However, regardless of a decision taken at a meeting of the group held at the Communist Party office, on the previous day, Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Democratic Left Front), Prof. Tissa Vitharana (Lanka Samasamaja Party), Weerasumana Weerasinghe (Communist Party) and Ven. Athureliye Rathana (Our Power of People Party) skipped the vote. The proposal to continue with the Emergency received 120 votes whereas 63 voted against the move. Quite a number of others abstained. Some of those who voted for Dullas Alahapperuma, at the presidential contest, voted for the Emergency, while some of his other supporters abstained. The dwindling Dullas Alahapperuma-Prof. G.L. Peiris camp voted against it though some of its members suffered in the hands of the protest movement. Did they quietly and conveniently forget the killing of MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale on May 09?

Appearing on ‘Thulawa’, MP Cumaratunga questioned the JVP strategy as regards an earlygeneral election, in spite of sensible assertions that an ‘all-party arrangement’ was required to deal with the current unprecedented situation.

The ‘Yuthukama’ chief recalled how the JVP intervened during CBK’s presidency to avert external interventions (reference was to the Pariwasa government) and how the party helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the 2005 presidential election at a time the UPFA candidate lacked the wherewithal. But, the JVP squandered the opportunity to achieve the desired objectives due to ill-fated decisions, the ardent nationalist MP asserted.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga didn’t mince his words when he accused the JVP of being part of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s murderous strategy in the late 80s. The reference was to the second JVP-inspired insurgency, which was eventually crushed by the Premadasa regime itself by outmatching its mindless violence after all attempts made by him to appease its demands failed, after having come to power with some help from their brute violence that had been unleashed, especially in the aftermath of the forced Indo-Lanka accord.

MP Cumaratunga reiterated his call for the JVP et al to change their strategies as part of the overall measures to overcome the daunting challenges faced by the country.

Responding to the interviewer, lawmaker Cumaratunga declared that their proposal for an ‘all-party government’ handed over to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still valid. Urging President Wickremesinghe to initiate action required to achieve consensus on an action plan, MP Cumaratunga referred to two instances of US interventions. The lawmaker questioned the circumstances one-time Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam ended up as an USAID paid advisor to yahapalana Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MP, and how the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), too, benefited from USAID funding.

Before voting for the emergency on July 27, the MP reminded the House how the military top brass, at a meeting chaired by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena at the parliamentary complex on July 13, sought a clear cut direction from the political leadership regarding the ways and means of countering the threat posed by those who sought to undermine the country’s democracy.

MP Cumaratunga said that attacks on SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and several of his MPs on May 09 afternoon near Taj Samudra, assault on MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne at a different location and threats on JVP trade union activists, whether staged or not, revealed the dangerous intentions of those who masqueraded as peaceful protesters.

The Yuthukama leader urged President Wickremesinghe to go beyond the UNP’s thinking and take appropriate measures required to restore public confidence in his administration. He expressed confidence and faith in the new Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena whose appointment was described as the most apt at a time of crisis.

Protest movement slams Fonseka

SJB MP Sarath Fonseka’s declaration in Parliament on July 27 before the House extended the Emergency that a campaign, similar to the one that ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa on July 09, would be mounted in Colombo on August 09, angered the protest movement. The Sinhala Regiment veteran urged the military not to interfere with the protest movement.

The protest movement appeared to have been quite surprised and angered by the Field Marshal declaration.

Though the Field Marshal has openly spoken sympathetically towards the protest movement, in actual fact he has no stomach for violent blood thirsty brutes conveniently wrapping themselves in the national flag to hoodwink the nation and the world.

Sarva Parkshika Aragalakaruwo in a hard hitting statement dated July 29 alleged that the Field Marshal’s declaration was meant to cause harm to the protest movement. They called the war-winning Army Chief’s action part of the government conspiracy. The grouping urged the public to be cautious of those seeking to exploit the developments to their advantage at the expense of the overall objectives of the protest movement. Obviously, since Wickremesinghe, on the invitation of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa accepted the premiership on May 12, differences have emerged among those who backed the protest movement. Various parties have questioned the role played by the UNP and its leader Wickremesinghe in the protest movement.

While acknowledging the right to dissent, President Wickremesinghe has sought to consolidate government authority, regardless of serious concerns expressed by Western powers. President Wickremesignhe’s decision to clear the Presidential Secretariat and its environs of protesters on July 22 underscored the new President’s resolve. In fact, the UNP leader won the appreciation and the admiration of many, even from usually unlikely quarters, like perennial ardent critic of Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador in Myanmar Prof. Nalin de Silva, for his prompt action.

At the same time President Wickremesinghe shouldn’t risk causing further turmoil by any overhasty actions. Last Friday’s raid on the Nugegoda party office of the breakaway JVP faction, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), at least on the surface, seems an utterly idiotic move on the part of law enforcement authorities. Such actions wouldn’t help President Wickremesinghe’s efforts to secure cooperation of all political parties represented in Parliament. Instead, overzealous law enforcement operations might undermine the President’s efforts and result in pressure on those lawmakers who voted for the Emergency. Rethinking of strategy is required, urgently to prevent creation of an environment conducive for those hell-bent on ruining the country to come back to saner thinking. Maybe an iron fist in a velvet glove might be the answer.

However, we cannot blame the security apparatus for not taking any more chances. As not only Field Marshal Fonseka who warned of turmoil, but many in the JVP/FSP hierarchy have publicly vowed to drive out President Wickremesinghe the same way they chased out Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In fact just early this week IUSF leader Wasantha Mudalige vowed to bring Wickremesinghe to Galle Face on his knees.

The country has seen enough of those masquerading as non-partisan and non-violent protesters going on the rampage since March 31, when the opportunity permits. We were shocked to see how the US ambassador Julie Chung had the audacity to issue a statement urging the security establishment here not to use force against protesters on May 09, as well-prepared anti- government violent mobs were going on the rampage across the country. Maybe she should issue such statements to the US marines!

Civil society activist Chirantha Amarasinghe has released a taped conversation he had with President Wickremesinghe soon after the police and the military chased out protesters from the environs of the Presidential Secretariat. Amarasinghe questioned the rationale in President Wickremesinghe advising him to seek an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremeratne as regards the July 22 incident against the backdrop of him personally briefing Colombo-based diplomats. Declaring their intention to mount an ‘operation’ in Colombo on August 09, Amarasinghe representing an origanisation called ‘Freedom Defenders’ insisted that the SLPP should be defeated for once and for all !

WW ready to cooperate with Prez

Having voted for the Emergency, considering the gravity of the situation facing the country, obviously instigated by his erstwhile colleagues in the JVP/FSP, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa has offered the support of his party, comprising six parliamentarians, to the government depending on the new President’s readiness to pursue a strategy meant to counter external interventions.

The former firebrand JVPer declared his support for President Wickremesinghe’s all-party government depending on the latter’s response to their proposals. Lawmaker Weerawansa’s stand should be appreciated especially against the backdrop of long standing animosity between the UNP leader and the NFF leader. MP Weerawansa, in his letter dated July 28, has warned President Wickremesinghe that whether he accepted it or not, he too, had only two options namely (i) be part of the despicable Western operation meant to transform Sri Lanka to Haiti’s status and (ii) take tangible measures to address the issues at hand by taking advantage of the current political-economic-social crisis to reach consensus on what the former minister called a social contract.

Weerawansa lost his ministerial portfolio in early March this year. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila, too, lost his ministerial portfolio at the same time. The then President sacked them in response to their leading role in a high profile campaign against the controversial Yugadanavi deal finalized in Sept 2021 under highly questionable hasty circumstances.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to pay a very heavy price for not recognizing serious concerns expressed by SLPP constituents. Instead, the former President sought to justify the actions of those who exploited an utterly corrupt system to finalize the US energy deal. Many an eyebrow was raised when the then CEB Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando defended the Yugadanavi deal at a media briefing arranged by the then presidential spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake at the President’s Media Division (PMD). Ratnayake conveniently took leave before the cultivated public anger exploded at the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana. The former President’s Director General Media Sudewa Hettiarachchi quit several days before the protest movement overran the President’s House on July 09.

Weerawansa made a 12-point set of proposals including a mechanism to accommodate representatives of the protest movement. Amidst fears expressed by some that interested parties would take advantage of the crisis to appoint a jumbo-sized Cabinet, MP Weerawansa’s party has proposed that the Cabinet-of- Ministers should be restricted to 30 and they be deprived of current ministerial perks and privileges (suggestion number 09).

The readiness on the part of the likes of Wimal Weerawanwa and Gevindu Cumaratunga to explore ways and means of reaching a consensus on a recovery plan should be appreciated. The country is in such a desperate situation no one can stick to old policies and strategies unless they want the bankrupt country to collapse, thereby suffering irrevocable damage.However, MP Weerawansa’s recent response to Wickremesinghe invitation for talks indicated the extreme difficulties in reaching consensus on matters at hand. What all, including the President should keep in mind is that they need to address the concerns of the IMF or face the consequences.

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