By Shamindra Ferdinando
The controversy over the Finance Ministry submitting a Cabinet paper for purchasing 228 Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs for members of Parliament has taken a new turn with the SJB, the TNA and the JVP/JJB denying that they ever asked for SUVs or any other vehicles.
SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran and JJB National List MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya yesterday (16) told The Island that their parties, or individual members, had not requested vehicles from the Finance Ministry or the Office of the Speaker. The SJB parliamentary group consists of 54 MPs, including seven National List members; the TNA and the JJB comprise 10 and three lawmakers, respectively.
When The Island sought an explanation from the SJB, the TNA and the JJB yesterday, lawmakers, de Silva, Sumanthiran, PC, and Amarasuriya emphasized that their parties or individual members had never requested vehicles, in writing or verbally.
Sumanthiran said that they had not been aware that vehicles had been ordered for MPs until the media reported the issue.
Former JVP MP Sunil Handunetti in conversation with ‘Sirasa Pathikada Presenter Asoka Dias yesterday alleged that SUVs had been ordered for lawmakers, in appreciation for their vote for the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill (CPCECB) enacted in May. Altogether 149 members voted for the bill and 58 against.
One-time Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Handunetti said that the SLPP was the major beneficiary of the move. Among the beneficiaries are former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, both elected members of the SLPP.
The SJB, the TNA and the JJB voted against the Bill though several SJM members representing the SJB, SLMC and ACMC voted with the government. The Island asked JVPer Handunetti for an explanation why SUVs had been ordered for those who voted against the bill. The former lawmaker said that the decision to place the order hadn’t been taken in parliament. The government ordered SUVs for all MPs as SLPP members alone couldn’t have been offered the perk, Handunetti said, pointing out that the Finance Ministry submitted the original cabinet paper for SUVs in the wake of the passage of the CPCECB. It was cancelled the following week, Handunetti said. Responding to another query, the former MP pointed out that the government owed an explanation if 225 vehicles had been ordered for MPs who were the intended recipients of the three remaining Toyota Land Cruisers.
The government felt the need to appease its 145 member parliamentary group regardless of rapidly deteriorating economic situation, Handunetti said.
Finance, Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal yesterday told The Island that proper protocols had been followed when the government placed the original order for vehicles. The former Governor of the Central Bank said so when we asked him whether the Finance Ministry had received requests from political parties or individual members for SUVs or Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena made a request on behalf of all political parties.
Handunetti emphasised that the real issue was not the circumstances under which the government put on hold or cancelled the SUV order but why Letters of Credit were opened for SUVs in the first place.
SJB MP Mujibur Rahman told The Island that foolish strategies adopted by the SLPP worthies should now be examined against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila’s shocking declaration that the country lacked financial resources even to pay for its fuel. The SLPP has proved that it was not fit to govern the country under any circumstances, the former UNPer said, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Tell people the truth. The rapidly developing crisis cannot be suppressed by the SLPP parliamentary group staging silly dramas,” MP Rahman said.
sought an explanation from Colombo District SLPP lawmaker Madhura Withanage yesterday how he ended up in the list of those entitled for SUVs as he had personally assured President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the run-up to the last general election in last August he wouldn’t take a duty free vehicle under any circumstances. MP Withanage said that he still remained committed to the assurance given publicly. The first time entrant to parliament said that he didn’t ask for a government vehicle. The MP recalled the funds received for a vehicle at the time he served as Kotte Mayor were utilized to acquire several vehicles for the health sector.
Civil society activist and attorney-at-law Nagananda Kodituwakku said that all political parties represented in parliament should take the responsibility for brazen abuse of parliamentary privileges. Former senior Customs officer Kodituwakku said that he hadn’t been successful in preventing massive concessions at the expense of the Treasury though he lodged a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) and subsequently moved the Supreme Court.
Examination of court proceedings would reveal how the Treasury had been deprived of billions of rupees by way of duty free concessions to MPs over the years, the lawyer said, emphasizing that every government installed after 1977 should accept responsibility for the situation. The Treasury lost billions of rupees as members were allowed to sell duty free vehicles to those who could have afforded to pay duties/taxes, Kodituwakku, who gave up his British nationality to contest the last presidential election, said. However, he couldn’t join the fray as he couldn’t meet the stipulated condition to receive the backing of a registered political party.
The Island didn’t receive answers from the Speaker’s Office to the following questions submitted yesterday morning:
(i) Did Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, in writing request Finance Ministry to place an order for SUVs for all MPs
(ii) Did he receive requests for the same from political parties and individual members and (iii)Did Speaker on his own requested Finance Ministry to order SUVs for all MPs.
In addition to the SLPP, the SJB, the TNA and the JJB, the parliament is represented by 11 other political parties. Of them, the Ahila Illangai Tamil Congress (AITC) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) have two members each in parliament. Other parties have one seat each.
Gymnastics Ireland ‘deeply sorry’ to Black girl ignored at medal ceremony
Ireland’s gymnastics federation has apologised for the allegedly racist treatment of a young Black gymnast who was skipped by an official handing out medals to a row of girls last year.
Footage posted on social media last week of an event in Dublin in 2022 showed the official appearing to snub the girl, the only Black gymnast in the lineup, who looked bewildered.
“We would like to unreservedly apologise to the gymnast and her family for the upset that has been caused by the incident,” Gymnastics Ireland (GI) said in a statement posted on its website on Monday.
“What happened on the day should not have happened and for that we are deeply sorry,” said the statement. “We would like to make it absolutely clear that [GI] condemns any form of racism whatsoever,” it added.
The video posted on Friday soon went viral and drew widespread condemnation of the girl’s treatment, including from star United States gymnast Simone Biles, who said she sent the girl a private video message of support.
“It broke my heart to see the video. There is no room for racism in any sport or at all,” Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, said Saturday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Biles’s US teammate Jordan Chiles described the incident as “beyond hurtful on so many levels”.
In an earlier statement, GI defended the official who it said had made an “honest error” but acknowledged it received a complaint from the parents of the girl alleging racist behaviour in March 2022.
GI said an independent mediation had led to a “resolution agreed by both parties in August 2023”, that the official had written an apology and that the girl had received her medal after the ceremony.
However, the Irish Independent on Sunday anonymously quoted the girl’s mother as saying GI had failed to publicly apologise and that she would take the issue to the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation in Switzerland.
Welcome to Ireland where people get away with racism! This little black girl broke my heart. Don’t skip this post without leaving a million heart for her. Make her famous… pic.twitter.com/YYMIP1IALZ
— Mohamad Safa (@mhdksafa) September 22, 2023
SJB: State audit vindicates no-faith motion against Keheliya, remedial measures urgently required
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Opposition MP Harshana Rajakaruna yesterday (25) said those who had defeated the no-confidence motion (NCM) against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella should peruse the latest State audit report on the Health Ministry.
The Gampaha District SJB MP said the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) at a recent meeting chaired by State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna had strongly criticised the Health Ministry over the continuing waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement exposed by the National Audit Office (NAO). The Parliamentary Watchdog Committee emphasised that Health Ministry explanations/responses to the issues at hand were not acceptable.
Dr. G. Wijesuriya, Deputy Director General (Medical Services 11) at the Health Ministry had cut a pathetic figure by trying to defend politicians and officials responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the health sector, MP Rajakaruna said, adding that Dr. Wijesuriya failed to explain how 97 doctors had been allowed to serve in the Health Ministry though the cadre was only 37.
The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government acted as if the defeat of the NCM by a majority of 40 votes had been an endorsement of Health Minister Rambukwella’s actions, MP Rajakaruna said.
A total of 113 MPs voted against the NCM while 73 MPs voted in favour. Thirty-eight lawmakers skipped the vote taken on 08 September.
The NAO report should be examined against the backdrop of the dismissal of Opposition concerns over the continuing deterioration of the public health sector, the former UNPer said. That report was nothing but an indictment of a vital ministry, lawmaker Rajakaruna said, pointing out massive waste particularly at a time of unprecedented financial crisis was an unpardonable crime.
Minister Rambukwella, Health Secretary Janaka Sri Chandragupta and Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Asela Gunawardena owed an explanation how they allowed such waste and corruption as the government struggled to maintain basic and essential services. Referring to the damning NAO report, MP Rajakaruna said that Rs 349,025,664 worth medicine, equipment and other items had been discarded during 2022 due to low quality while all state hospitals experienced severe shortage of drugs. According to the report, the use of medicine, equipment and other items worth Rs 31,751,024 had been temporarily stopped due to concerns over quality but by the time the Health Ministry took a decision in this regard, such medicines were already issued to patients.
During COPA proceedings, SJB MP Hector Appuhamy questioned the Health Ministry top management why the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) continued to make emergency purchases thereby wasting precious public funds.
COPA Chairman Alagiyawanna and Attorney General W.P.C. Wickremaratne, who is also the ex-officio Chairman of the Audit Service Commission (ASC), appointed after the change of government, censured the top management of the Health Ministry for its failures at all levels, MP Rajakaruna said.
The Opposition lawmaker said that the ACS should vigorously pursue this investigation. The ASC consists of W.P.C. Wickramaratne, retired Justice Nihal Sunil Rajapaksa, Mrs. Nandaseeli Godakanda, Gnananantharajah Thevagnanan and A M Dharmajith Nayanakantha.
MP Rajakaruna said that the Health Ministry also admitted before COPA that 957 doctors had left the country between the period of August 2022 and August 2023. Of them, 526 had taken long leave, 163 resigned and 197 vacated their posts, the lawmaker said, adding that instead of addressing the issues at hand taking tangible measures to reassure medical professionals, the government played politics with the developing crisis.
The SJB spokesperson recalled how Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, during the three-day debate on the NCM, stressed that the Opposition accusations directed at Minister Rambukwella were unsubstantiated. The Premier had no qualms in declaring that there was no basis for the NCM and the Opposition was making an effort to deceive the public, MP Rajakaruna said, urging MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena to examine the NAO report. President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Premier Gunawardena should deal with the crisis in the health sector without further delay, the MP said, warning the failure to do so would result in a catastrophe.
MP Rajakaruna asked Premier Gunawardena to read his declarations during the debate. The NAO report has endorsed the NCM regardless of the outcome of the vote, MP Rajakaruna said.
Bishop Valence Mendis accuses govt. of playing games
By Norman Paliahawadane
Kandy Diocese Bishop and Chilaw Apostolic Administrator Rt. Rev. Dr. Valence Mendis says it is ludicrous that the government has chosen to appoint more committees to probe the Easter Sunday terror attacks instead of implementing the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the carnage. Delivering his sermon at the Holy Mass offered at the Holy Cross, National Shrine, Marawila last week, Bishop Valence Mendis said the government authorities for the past four and half years had engaged in futile exercises wasting time and public funds in the name of probing the Easter Sunday attacks. Now, it was very clear that the government had no genuine desire to find the truth or deliver justice to the victims and their family members. Just another committee was the latest joke of a series of such gags. “If they are genuinely concerned about delivering justice then they should implement the recommendations of the PCoI. We are sure that authorities did nothing about more than 80 percent of recommendations of the PCoI to ensure justice,” the Bishop said.
Treasurer of the Kandy Diocese Rev. Fr. Nelson Samantha, Rev. Fr. Peter Charles, and Administrator of the Shrine Rev. Fr. Niranjan Dayalal were present.
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