Thursday 15th June, 2023
Sri Lanka Customs has reportedly informed the government that it will not be able to meet its revenue targets due to the existing ban on vehicle imports. It has suggested that a foreign credit line be opened for the import controls at issue to be eased. But the question is why a credit line should be opened for the importation of non-essentials? Such measures will only worsen the country’s debt crisis. The government must remain maniacally focused on shoring up foreign exchange reserves, which are still woefully low. The lifting of restrictions on essential imports has already taken its toll on the rupee, and what has been gained painstakingly over the past few months on the economic front is likely to be gone in a jiffy if vehicle imports are allowed to resume at this juncture.
Given rampant corruption in Sri Lanka Customs, the Department of Motor Traffic, etc., thousands of vehicles paid for via Undial and Hawala systems will find their way into the country in the event of import restrictions thereon being eased. Imported cosmetics and food items such as grapes, apples, oranges and fruit juice have never been in short supply in the country despite import restrictions; only their prices have increased. This alone is proof that a lot of forex has flowed out of the country through illegal channels. After all, Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena himself admitted at a media briefing on Tuesday that large stocks of imported goods paid for via Undial and Hawala systems remained in warehouses and that was why the prices of imports had not come down despite the appreciation of the rupee against the major foreign currencies in the recent past. How bad the situation will be if import restrictions on vehicles are lifted is not difficult to guess.
Efforts being made to straighten up the economy are showing signs of yielding the desired results, and they have to be sustained over a considerable period of time for full economic recovery to be achieved. No undue pressure must therefore be brought to bear on the government to lift import restrictions or do other such things that have the potential to deplete the country’s forex reserves; the task of easing import controls should be carried out carefully lest the economy should go into a tailspin again, causing shortages and socio-political upheavals. Dependent as the country may be on the US-dominated IMF to put its economy back on an even keel, in trying to achieve that goal, the government ought to follow the Chinese method of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’.
There is no gainsaying that import controls have caused the state revenue to decrease drastically. But there are some other ways of increasing the Customs revenue. One is to eliminate corruption, which deprives the state of a substantial amount of revenue annually. It must be found out how non-essentials have been brought in despite import restrictions, and a close watch should be kept on the Customs to prevent import rackets.
Besides, there is reason to believe that government politicians themselves cause huge losses to the Customs. The sugar duty racket is a case in point. The amount of money that the state coffers lost due to a duty waiver that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government effected for the benefit of an SLPP financier, who imports sugar, is said to be huge. The Opposition has, in Parliament, accused the Customs of having lowered a fine on a government MP, who was caught smuggling in 3.5 kilos of gold and about 90 smartphones recently; MP Ali Sabry Raheem, who made that abortive smuggling attempt, walked free after paying only Rs. 7.4 million though the Customs had decided to fine him as much as Rs. 22.2 million, initially. In other words, the Customs as well as the state coffers have suffered a loss of about Rs. 15 million due to political interference.
The government had better tread cautiously, avoiding pitfalls, and clean up the economic mess it has created. It must not undertake anything that is fraught with the danger of causing a further depletion of the country’s foreign currency reserves. Most of all, it ought to tell the Customs to get their act together without blaming their failure to increase revenue solely on the restrictions on vehicle imports.
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.
Foretaste of lawlessness?
Tuesday 26th September, 2023
It was reported yesterday that gun violence had snuffed out about 50 lives in Sri Lanka so far this year. A cold shiver runs down one’s spine when one reads local crime stories or watches television news bulletins that dish out graphic details about violent crimes. One fears whether at this rate Colombo and some other urban centres will soon be bracketed with Tijuana (in Mexico), which has come to be dubbed the ‘murder capital’ of the world, the main cause of death there being gang violence among dangerous drug cartels.
Commandant of the Special Task Force DIG Waruna Jayasundara has said in a recent television discussion that there are about 17 criminal gangs operating in the Western and Southern Provinces and their leaders are operating from overseas. Many hired guns are ready to carry out contract killings for about Rs. 100,000 each, according to him.
Criminals and reckless drivers destroy more lives daily than the Eelam war and the Covid-19 pandemic did, in this country. The police do not seem equal to the task of protecting the public against these killers. Hardly a day passes without shooting incidents and killer accidents being reported from various parts of the country. The police swing into action only after lives are lost instead of trying to prevent road accidents, which claim about eight lives a day, and organised crimes.
As for violent crimes, the situation has become so bad that a close relative of a prominent ruling party politician was gunned down, in Galle, on Saturday. The police attributed his killing to an ongoing gang war in the Southern Province. The next few weeks will see an increase in tit-for-tat killings in the South with rival gangs going all out to settle scores. It is being argued in some quarters that Saturday’s incident can be considered irrefutable proof of the nexus between persons with political connections and the netherworld of crime. When powerful politicians and their kith and kin become the targets of underworld killers, it goes without saying how vulnerable the ordinary people are.
The country may be free from organised terrorist outfits, but the rise of the underworld could pose a serious threat to national security in that the powerful crime syndicates are willing to do anything for anyone, for the right price, regardless of the consequences of their actions. These criminal outfits are equipped with sophisticated weapons and explosive devices and have well-trained military deserters in their pay, as evident from the arrest of several ex-armed forces personnel over contract killings during the past several months. One can only hope that the defence authorities will take cognisance of these aspects of the problem.
Drug cartels, which are responsible for most crimes, especially murders, have infiltrated even the CID. A notorious drug dealer known as ‘Harakkata’ almost succeeded in escaping from the well-guarded CID headquarters with inside help recently. He had his handcuffs unfastened on the sly, and tried to grab a firearm from a policeman. Luckily, he failed in his endeavour. However, a constable who is suspected to have collaborated with the drug dealer made good his escape, and is still at large. He cannot be the only dirty cop in league with the underworld. The infiltration of the law enforcement agencies will make the country’s fight against crime even more uphill.
The government is in overdrive to crush protests, claiming that it has to maintain political stability to enable economic recovery. It deploys thousands of heavily-armed police and military personnel for that purpose. But despite its braggadocio, it has pathetically failed to contain the scourge of crime. Being labelled a high-crime destination is what Sri Lanka needs like a hole in the head while trying its best to boost its foreign currency reserves by increasing tourist arrivals.
The need for a countrywide crackdown on the underworld to arrest the country’s rapid descent into lawlessness cannot be overstated. The government had better shift its focus from suppressing peaceful protests to fighting violent crimes. Rhetoric and excuses will not do.
C4, Grease Yaka and Trojan horse
Monday 25th September, 2023
Channel 4’s recent programme on the Easter Sunday attacks may have made the Rajapaksas squirm and landed President Ranil Wickremesinghe in an awkward position, but former President Maithripala Sirisena has become an unintended beneficiary thereof. It could not have come at a better time for him; he has had to pay Rs 100 million as compensation to the families of the Easter Sunday terror victims, as per a court order, and the government is coming under increasing pressure to ensure that he faces criminal action for his failure to prevent the 2019 terrorist bombings, which took place when he was the President and Minister of Defence.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena. He is now at the mercy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who can have him prosecuted anytime. He has therefore opted to hold out an olive branch to Wickremesinghe, whom he wronged very badly during the latter stages of the Yahapalana rule, and indicated his willingness to support the UNP; he has gone to the extent of ousting his sidekick, Dayasiri Jayasekera, as the SLFP General Secretary for opposing moves being made to bring the UNP and the SLFP together again.
Sirisena however has got one thing right. He has said an international probe into the Easter Sunday attacks will be fraught with the risk of adversely affecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and therefore what is needed is a thorough domestic investigation with foreign assistance and not a full-fledged international probe as such.
It is not possible that Channel 4 (C4) and those who are said to be behind its programme at issue are driven by a genuine desire to have justice served for the Easter Sunday carnage victims, for they had no qualms about backing Tiger terror, which claimed many more lives than the Easter Sunday attacks. Their real intention seems to be creating a precedent for international probes in Sri Lanka in a bid to achieve their goal of having a UN investigation conducted into alleged war crimes against the Sri Lankan military; C4 has craftily woven war crimes allegations into its programme on the Easter carnage. They have succeeded in making even the ardent opponents of the ongoing campaign for an international war crimes probe against Sri Lanka support their plan, albeit unwittingly.
The government however must not be allowed to use the possibility of the country having to face a UN war crimes probe, in case of an international investigation being held into the Easter Sunday attacks, to justify its unwillingness to have the carnage investigated afresh. Pressure must be amped up on it to launch a credible domestic probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy that shook the world. The Catholic Church and other campaigners for justice have had to call for an international probe because the unpardonable delay on the part of the government to complete the ongoing police investigations into the carnage, and implement the PCoI recommendations fully, is widely viewed as proof of a grand cover-up.
Sri Lankan politicians are adept at political escapism. They are as slippery as the so-called Grease Yaka (a naked voyeur or burglar, covered in grease, moving about at night), and capable of escaping capture when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Otherwise, by now, most of them would have been behind bars for their crimes. It is thanks to their escape artistry skills that they have avoided prosecution for their serious lapses that enabled the National Thowheed Jamaat terrorists to carry out the Easter Sunday attacks with ease. They have artfully turned the C4 programme to their advantage!
Sirisena has attempted another escape stunt amidst pressure mounting on the government to have criminal proceedings instituted against him in keeping with the PCoI recommendations. He has used the C4 allegations to assail the validity of the PCoI probe and recommendations; his call for a fresh investigation with international assistance is aimed at further delaying the legal and judicial processes pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage.
When the PCoI final report became public in 2021, we argued that ideally a fresh probe had to be held based thereon, or if the government chose to implement its recommendations it had to do so expeditiously. If a thorough investigation had been launched at that time, it would have been possible to get at the truth and have justice served many moons ago. At least, the PCoI recommendations should have been implemented fully. Instead, the Rajapaksas opted to let the grass grow under their feet and thereby unwittingly helped bolster the claim that they were attempting a cover-up because they had a hand in the terror attacks. An ill repute is said to influence judgments.
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