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Midweek Review

Solving the Human-Elephant Conflict

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By Rajitha Ratwatte

I am told that our new President is going to make another attempt to handle the burning issue of the human-elephant conflict (HEC). I have nothing but good wishes for his attempts and to those well qualified academics who have been appointed to a committee to handle the task. Engaging the groves of academe in the task is well and good, but please remember that practical experience in handling elephants is essential.

The following are extracts from my book; they deal with HEC as I see it and the hard problem of how we are going to reduce the wild elephant population of our country. It is undisputable that the Pearl has too many wild elephants and since reducing humans is not really possible; the elephant numbers have to come down.

Fortunately, we have a proven method, that needs some improvement for sure but is a real alternative to culling entire herds which is the method followed in the African countries. Happy reading dear readers!

“The human-elephant conflict in a country with a growing population and a level of politically patronized corruption that does not allow the implementation of conservation laws. A Chena cultivator stakes his future and the future of his entire family on a crop that gets raided by a marauding elephant a few days before harvest. The entire crop is ruined, and the farmer faces destitution. Can the farmer be blamed for trying his best to keep the elephants out? This leads to horrendous wounds on both sides and slow lingering death from gangrene or poison, for the elephants.

“The fact that the cultivation is inside a buffer zone of a national park or in some cases actually inside the demarcated zone for a national park can be blamed on local vote grabbing political patronage …. but what else is new!

In such a situation we have a real alternative to culling. We in this land that has been thrice blessed, have an ancient art that has been passed down for thousands of years. We know how to domesticate elephants and these elephants can support up to two families each. The people who look after elephants learn a trade, they are not unskilled workers and they have a life of dignity. If they take any pride in their craft the elephant too lives free of gunshot wounds, semi starvation and trauma and lack of sleep.

“Why are the politicians and the greenies blocking this? It can’t be lack of knowledge. Some of the leading politicians of this country come from families that have had elephants. Surely, even though their skills and aptitudes turned them towards one of the more questionable professions in this world, they have some memories? Anyone who has had the privilege of earning the trust of an elephant will never ever forget that. If they have never experienced it how can they speak with authority and make decisions if they don’t know the subject?”

Next is an extract from some actual trapping of elephants that I was privileged to watch and participate in:

“This herd lived in a tiny pocket of jungle surrounded by rice fields. The land had been cleared without getting the elephants out and therefore the animals had to compete with humans for food and water. The only way the elephants could live was to raid the cultivation and during the rice harvesting season it was an absolute nightmare. First, we went to the area and set up camp. There was no sleep in the night! All you heard was the shouting of men, the exploding of firecrackers and gunshots and the screams of angry elephants. It was like the soundtrack for Dante’s description of hell. Everyday there were reports of human and elephant casualties and some of the methods used by farmers to defend their crops were unbelievable. May I hasten to add that when one saw the conditions under which those farmers lived and realised that one raid from a herd of elephants meant the total loss of a crop for that season, a farmer was perfectly justified in defending his corp. My opinion is that it should have been the politicians’ who settled farmers on those lands in order to garner votes that should have been poisoned and shot!

“Poisoned fruit, trap guns that maimed horribly, pouring acid and boiling oil onto the backs of elephants from watch huts on top of trees and using six-inch nails driven into planks that when lodged in an elephant’s foot caused gangrene, were only some of the methods used. All this because the elephant was a “protected” animal and most of the guns that belonged to farmers had been confiscated by the authorities with the advent of war. To any sane man it was obvious that actually culling those elephants would have been much more merciful that subjecting them to what was and is still happening. We, in our country actually had an alternative. We knew how to trap, and train elephants and these elephants would provide a vocation and a means of livelihood for two families per elephant but there was politics and the “greenies” to consider. This was the only occasion that something would be considered on these lines and since it had a rather sticky ending, I fear those elephants are condemned to die slowly. It still pains me to think of what was done to us and how the project ended but I will not bore the reader with another anecdote of politics from the third world. This is supposed to be a book dedicated with love to elephants and I will describe the methods used by the traditional elephant trappers of Ceylon.

“The trappers arrived (not in loincloths) with their trusty ropes and we accompanied them on their initial recce of the territory. We were fortunate enough to encounter the herd of elephants resting in a small forest area and immediately the Pannikyars’ were transformed. “Civilised” attire vanished and loincloths appeared like magic. The oldest among them a gnarled veteran of indiscriminate age, said he would go in among the herd and come back to us with a report of how many animals were there and if there were any animals that were suitable for capture. We had permission to capture a few cow elephants to form the nucleus of a team of Monitor elephants that would be used in future plans to translocate pocketed animals. We needed half grown cows around 4-5-foot-tall as these were the best for training. The old man disappeared, and we sat in the shade, in the growing heat, waiting for a report. We all had one ear cocked for an elephantine scream, followed by a nasty thud and the resulting mayhem. Just as we were beginning to get worried the old man materialised, seemingly from the foot of the tree and he had good news, there were suitable animals and we could set our traps.

“We had a further advantage because this herd of wild elephants was actually trapped inside this pocket of forest because (can you believe it!) There was a musical concert going on in the adjoining village and the elephants’ only exit route was blocked by a noisy screaming bunch of music fans.

“The trap itself is basically a noose made of specially cured Sambhar hide. One end of which is tied securely to a stout tree and the noose end is connected to a weighted pulley which hangs from a branch of the same tree and buried in a shallow trench the size of the foot of the animal you wish to capture; remember the formula is 2xcircumferance of the fore-foot gives you the height at the shoulder). All this is then cleverly camouflaged and covered with thin twigs and earth. This ensures that when the elephant’s foot goes in the twigs give way, this then releases a crude spring mechanism that lifts the noose up the leg of the animal and tightens the noose. The elephant is then effectively tied to the tree and unable to free itself. The rope is so strong that even though elephants are known to have knelt down and bitten it with their immensely powerful jaws, it has held up.

“I followed the old man because I knew that he was the master. Everyone used the elephant paths to locate their traps in because when a herd is moving the majority of animals use the well-beaten path and consequently your chances of success increase. While assisting the old man, we got talking and he told me, “There is a lovely young princess (a high caste calf) and she even has tushes (very rare among female elephants in our country) shall we set a trap for her?” I couldn’t believe my ears. To get a female with tushes from whom it was possible to breed that most valuable of animals a tusker, was a fantastic bonus and I said, “Let’s do it,” thinking to myself that I would somehow arrange for permission because it was vital to save those genes from the terrible fate they were destined to. I was also a little skeptical as to how this man was going to set a trap for a specific animal although I didn’t dare ask.

“The old man selected a stout teak tree that grew in the middle of the elephant path. It had a fairly low branch about four feet of the ground on one side and no low branches on the other side. The path went around this tree and there was thick thorn bush on either side of the path at this point. Sulaiman selected a point under the low branch and began to set his trap. I couldn’t contain my curiosity anymore and was about to ask him why he had selected that spot when he began to explain. I think he was reasoning out to himself more than telling me. I was just a fortunate bystander. “The mother leads the herd and she will come first”. “The calf (or the child as he called it) will be close at heel and the adult will pick the easy path and not go under the low branch. The calf trying to keep at heel and getting jostled by the rest of the herd will take the route under the short branch as it is no obstruction to her and then she will be ours.” This is how this now dead master of his art put it. That is exactly how “Kiri” came into our lives!

“Rani and Khadira (two tame elephants) had been brought to the camp to assist in moving the captured animals as we still did not accept the use of tranquilizers. It was the age-old belief that a couple of good monitor elephants did the job with the least trauma to the new captives. Rani adopted Kiri immediately and although she didn’t have a calf at the time she actually came into milk and was feeding Kiri with mother’s milk (not really necessary at Kiri’s age) during her training and initiation into our lives.”

Below is an account of the training:

“We picked a coconut estate that belonged to my uncle, in a fairly remote area with good access to a river and plenty of room for stabling elephants to introduce Kiri to living with humans. We found Kiri in a terrible state. She was riddled with ticks and full of internal parasites. This little elephant calf had also been shot at and there was buckshot all over her body. She was so weak that when she lay down, she needed help to get up again and when she got any food, she ate so fast that it was obvious that she had been brought up on a diet of food snatched from angry cultivators. Kiri would probably have died if she had remained in the wild under those conditions. Even though we had Kiri forcibly removed from us by the politicians of the day, it was nice to know that we had rescued even one of that ill-fated herd of elephants.

“The first thing to do was to simply sit with Kiri and talk to her some of the “pannikayar” sang to her and get her to realise that all humans didn’t hate her. Of course, we also fed her with all kinds of tasty morsels, the treacle from the “kithul” flower and the “juggery”, which is the solidified form of this same product, were the most popular. Having Rani was also very helpful because she was able to communicate, and no doubt explain a few things to Kiri once her initial terror wore off. Rani, as mentioned earlier, was imminently sensible and although all elephants long for the wild—it is so obvious when working with elephants in the vicinity of wild herds—they do form a very good relationship with humans and more often than not adapt and settle down very well. The way I look at it is how we humans (originally hunter gatherers) have adapted to the “rat race”. It is essential to have good (sensible) monitor elephants when training wild ones as this makes a huge difference to the end product. I feel that ‘sensible’ monitor elephants explain the situation to their charges in the correct way and shape a correct attitude by the trainee. Rani however went silly over her charge. She, practical, sensible, down to earth Rani started lactating and decided that the calf was hers. Kiri was quick to realise that she could manipulate Rani and took advantage of every opportunity.

“Kiri hated bath time. Very strange in elephants because they usually relish bathing. This could only have been attributed to the fact that the pocketed herd that Kiri was part of, had to share their water source with humans and bathing was always fraught with danger. Usually, if you let an elephant off in a river it would “dive” straight in and lie down and roll around and it would be very difficult to get the elephant out again. With Kiri it was different. She would stand in the water petrified and try to find a way of getting out as soon as possible. However, to keep an elephant fit and healthy it is necessary to have them lie in water and we also used to give them a good scrub when they did lie down. This was the way to keep parasites off their bodies. Kiri wouldn’t lie down, and we had to make her do it. What ensued was the equivalent of a rugby union ruck, followed by a rolling maul and a total collapse. We had to physically tackle Kiri and get her down on her side, of course she resisted strongly and would accompany her struggles with loud bellows and Rani in spite of all her good sense would get up and come running to help with loud cries of her own.

 

Bath time would attract the whole village and we even had a request from the local school principal to have bath time after 1.30 PM as this was the time his school sessions were over for the day and he was having terrible trouble with truancy during the last period … Rani was so well trained and we were so sure of her that in spite of the noise and her physical presence she never actually intervened and, therefore, she was no threat. However, Khadira had to be used for the actual training because there was little room for sentimentality when training a good working elephant.

“Initially, Kiri was tied to Khadira by a rope attached to both elephant’ shoulders. This meant that Kiri was compelled to do everything Khadira did and she also learned to associate the commands that Khadira obeyed with the relevant action. They would go off on long walks in the countryside and Kiri did try her charms on her venerable teacher but the “old man” would have none of it. She tried everything, wriggling under the bull’s stomach and trying to entangle the guide rope on his legs and maybe trip him up. Kiri soon learnt that it was a waste of time to try to go the other way when Khadira was obeying an order and standing still really meant STANDING STILL. If the bull wanted to, he could easily have jerked the little calf off her feet and some have been known to strike them with their trunks and even kill them. Khadira was the best of the best. Wonderfully patient and so obedient! He just stood there with just the correct resistance on the rope and his trunk tucked into his mouth so that even if he was tempted… he could resist. Soon this attitude filtered down to the trainee and all unnecessary activities ceased and we had an obedient controlled young elephant so much so that after only a week or two we had Kiri walking all over the town and holding her own on the roads with buses horning at her and of course people falling in love with her. Kiri must have been fed by one in two people who saw her, and they would have little offerings of bananas and other fruit waiting for her when she went on her walks. The hill country villages of Ceylon love their elephants and some even worships them as elephants are associated with the Hindu god Ganesh.

“Kiri and Khadira got so used to each other that on the first occasion that Kiri was taken to have a look at what working was all about she went hitched to Khadira in the usual way and at the place of work she was unhitched and Khadira wheeled off to the right to get to work. The little trainee didn’t realise that she had been unhitched, for it was Khadira’s end of the rope that had been removed and she wheeled in perfect time keeping an even pressure on the guide rope! Of course, we all fell about laughing and Kiri looked rather hurt.

Politics intervened, and our project was deemed another elitist venture and we were accused of murdering some elephants in a cruel manner. One day the long arm of the law came to our estate and ordered us to load Kiri onto a lorry for transport to a life of drudgery in an “elephant orphanage”. Kiri wouldn’t go, and it was I, with a breaking heart and Rani, who had to guide her onto the lorry and she bellowed and cried as the lorry was driving away. Rani’s cries that day were so terrible, and I never want to hear an elephant cry like that ever again. There was nothing I could do, so I hugged her trunk and I wept unashamedly until I found Rani comforting me with the gentle rumbling call that a cow elephant makes to her calf to tell it that “things will be alright because mother knows best”. It took the wisdom of this matriarch of elephants to point out to a humble human that life is cruel and sometimes we have no control of what is to happen to us”.

fromoutsidethepearl@gmail.com

 



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Midweek Review

President’s agenda on track

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the inauguration of the Cephalosporin Injectable Plant and the unveiling of the "Meldol" Reliable Relief Manufacturing Facility at Ekala, Ja-Ela, on June 06. During his address, Wickremesinghe declared his intention to introduce the Economic Transformation Bill which he called the first step in economic revitalization (pic courtesy PMD)

In the wake of the SLPP reiterating its commitment to President Wickremesinghe, two groups of MPs – New Alliance and the SLFP among the ruling party – announced their partnership at a meeting held at Ambalantota on Saturday (08). Among the lawmakers present were Leader of the House Susil Premjayantha, Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, Trade Minister Nalin Fernando, SLFP leader (Chairman) and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Nimal Lanza, who spearheaded the move, along with Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Their common agenda is obviously for the Wickreemsinghe’s benefit and at the expense of the SLPP, the Opposition, as well as the Maithripala Sirisena camp, now more or less a spent force due to his own doings, especially when it came to betrayals.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The outcome of the recent vote on the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill proved that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s agenda cannot be reversed as long as the Sri Lanka Podujuna Peramuna (SLPP) continued to back him for whatever reasons.

Of the 225 MPs in Parliament, 103 voted for the Bill on June 06. Only one UNPer (Wajira Abeywardena) was among them. The government was deprived of one vote by Kandy District MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage who sent fellow Kandy district lawmaker Gunatilleke Rajapaksa to the Military Hospital on the evening of June 03. The alleged assault on Gunatilleke Rajapaksa received front-page attention of all print media, while the electronic media, particularly the social media, thrived on the incident.

On the following day, the Public Debt Management Bill was passed without a division. Posting on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe declared that the Bill will provide for Public Debt Management, including the authorization to borrow, issue and to service the public debt. It would also enable issuing guarantees, on-lending, enter into suppliers’ credit and financial lease agreements for the establishment of the Public Debt Management Office and for matters connected therewith.

In spite of having just one MP, President Wickremesinghe ensured the enactment of new laws with the SLPP’s support. If National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s recent declaration that under Wickremesinghe’s watch 75 new laws had been enacted is true, the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill is the 76th law pushed through by the Wickremesinghe-led regime.

However, the one-day debate and the vote on the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill – the first division shown after SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s declaration on May 12 against rushing through with new legislation on the eve of a major national election and despite grave shortcomings pointed out by the Supreme Court determination – demonstrated that the SLPP would stand by President Wickremesinghe.

No less than twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa voted for the controversial Bill that the SC determined is inconsistent with the Constitution as a whole. Against the backdrop of the Rajapaksa-led move on June 06 in Parliament, his May 12 two-page declaration against ‘The sale of national assets and state-owned enterprises’ is irrelevant. In other words, the SLPP has discarded its own declaration.

What really compelled the Rajapaksas to vote for the Bill, in spite of allegations that the new law is intended to facilitate the Adani Group, led by billionaire Gautam Adani, whose Adani Green Energy, the renewable energy unit secured approval in February 2023 to invest $442 million and develop the 484 megawatt wind power plants in Mannar and Pooneryn.

Jathika Jana Balawegaya MP Vijitha Herath during the June 6 debate alleged that the new law was introduced to facilitate Adani operations here.

Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and his son Shashendra Rajapaksa voted for the Bill whereas SLPP’s National Organizer Namal Rajapaksa quite conveniently skipped the vote. The lawmaker, aspiring to be party leader and their presidential candidate, owed the discerning public an explanation why he missed that vote. Having skipped the June 06 vote, Namal Rajapaksa appeared on stage at an SLPP meeting held in Rattota on Saturday (08) where he vowed to pursue the SLPP strategy. The National Organizer was surrounded by SLPP MPs who voted for Wickreemsinghe’s Bill a few days before. In the run-up to the June 06 vote, MP Namal Rajapaksa declared that Wickremesinghe was appointed as the President only up to the time for the next national election.

Regardless of the SC finding fault with the Bill, President’s Counsels – Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse and several other lawyers in the SLPP group voted for that Bill.

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa should be seriously concerned over his failure to ensure all his MPs, excluding Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara, voted against that Bill. If not for the SLPP dissidents and the three-member JJB group, the Opposition would have been embarrassed by an extremely poor show. The SJB won 54 seats, including seven National List slots at the last General Election. But over one fourth of them were missing at the time of the vote.

The Opposition should realize that President Wickremesinghe needed that Bill enacted at any cost, regardless of the consequences, as his political agenda depends on it. That is the truth. Let me name those MPs who voted against President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Bill. The list prepared by the Chief Opposition Whip’s Office has been divided into three sections namely dissident SLPP MPs, JJB MPs and SJB MPs.

The list of SLPP dissidents: Prof. G. L. Peiris, Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Jayantha Samaraweera, Wasantha Yapa Bandara, Chandima Weerakkody, Shan Wijeyalal de Silva, Dallas Alahapperuma, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, Dr. Upul Galappaththy, Thilak Rajapaksha, Gunapala Ratnasekera, Jayaratna Herath, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Prof. Channa Jayasumana, Sarath Kumara Siri, Dilan Perera, Gevindu Kumaratunga and Prof. Charitha Herath (altogether 20)

The list of JJB members: Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Vijitha Herath and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya (20+3)

The list of SJB members: Sajith Premadasa, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Mano Ganeshan, S.M. Marikkar, Ajith Mannapperuma, Kavinda Jayawardena, Harshana Rajakaruna, Lakshman Kiriella, Abdul Haleem, Velu Kumar, Rohini Kaviratne, Palani Digambaram, V. Radhakrishnan, M. Udayakumar, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Buddhika Pathirana, Dilip Wedaarachchi, Imran Maharoof, M.S. Thawfeek, Asoka Abeysinghe, Thushara Indunil Amarasena, Nalin Bandara, Niroshan Perera, Hector Appuhamy, Kings Kumar Nelson, Varuna Priyantha Liyanage, Thalatha Atukorale, Hesha Vithanage, Kabir Hashim, Sujith Sanjaya Perera, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Eran Wickremaratne, Mayantha Dissanayake and Mujibur Rahuman (23+3+36=59).

The entire 10-member Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in spite of being divided over various political and personal issues, backed Wickremesinghe’s Bill by skipping the vote. That group included another President’s Counsel. Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran is his name. The TNA, too, owed an explanation regarding its decision to be absent. Did India, in any way, advise the one-time LTTE’s partner to keep away from the crucial vote?

SLPP National List MP and business tycoon Dhammika Perera, widely believed to be interested in contesting the Presidential Polls, didn’t vote along with SLPP MP Maithripala Sirisena and SJB Chairman Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.

Prez tightens his grip on SLPP

Wily President Wickremesinghe, like his late uncle and mentor JRJ, dubbed the 20th Century Fox, cannot be faulted for exploiting the SLPP to the hilt. Wickremesinghe’s strategy is certainly not rocket science. Having offered Wickremesinghe the premiership (in April 2022), Finance portfolio (May 2022) and Presidency (July 2022), the SLPP created an environment in which it simply has no option but to cohabit with the UNP leader.

How could the SLPP take a different stand on any bill presented on Wickremesinghe’s directives after having accepted him as the leader of its parliamentary group, head of the Cabinet and their saviour in the face of the murderous onslaught launched by Aragalaya. So is it the fear of another instigated Aragalaya, where they would be defenceless with the police and security forces turning the other way, that is holding them back, as happened on May 09, 2022?

In fact, opposing Wickremesinghe’s agenda is ridiculous against the backdrop of the party having accepted Cabinet portfolios, with MEP leader and PM Dinesh Gunawardena being the leader of the severely compromised SLPP parliamentary group. Two Finance State Ministers, namely Shehan Semasinghe and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, are part of the Wickremesinghe team. Both obviously voted for the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill.

Last week’s high profile vote proved beyond doubt that at least for the time being Wickremesinghe and the SLPP are inseparable. MP Namal Rajapaksa, being the SLPP’s National Organizer, under no circumstances can absolve himself of the responsibility for the passage of the Bill. In a way, in the case of the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill, avoiding such an important Bill is, perhaps, far worse than voting for it. Why do MPs fail to turn up for important Bills that are of national significance? At the time of last week’s vote, 61 MPs hadn’t been present in Parliament, whereas SLPP MP Udayakantha Gunatilleke’s vote (Kegalle district) though being present was not marked.

The overall deterioration of the country can be gauged by the conduct of political parties represented in Parliament. The systematic decline over the past couple of decades has eroded public confidence in the House to such an extent, unless immediate remedial measures are taken, collectively, those now wielding power can expect an Aragalaya-type uprising. Dissident SLPP MP Gevindu Cumaratunga gave such a warning during the debate on the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill.

The SLPP vote, on June 06 ,can be confidently declared as an outright rejection of the massive mandates that had been received at the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls. The SLPP’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa handsomely won the contest by polling a staggering 6,924,255 (52.25%) whereas at the parliamentary election the party secured an overwhelming 145 seats. Regardless of their much touted assurance to reverse the Yahapalana economic policies, against the backdrop of Aragalaya, the SLPP has teamed-up with Wickremesinghe.

The SLPP’s bid to empower Wickremesinghe as a stopgap measure has backfired and now is threatening the very basis of the party. The June 06 vote has tied-up the SLPP with Wickremesinghe who seemed to have taken hold of the party, regardless of tough talk by some lawmakers over the past several months. The SLPP has suddenly realized that the entire political environment changed with Wickremesinghe vigorously pursuing an agenda at the SLPP’s expense. But, the top SLPP leadership (the Rajapaksas) fearing that a large chunk of their parliamentary group would switch allegiance to Wickremesinghe and voted for a controversial Bill to avert a damaging split.

Daunting challenge

The Opposition seems to be in disarray. The leader of the main Opposition party should muster all his MPs or be prepared to face the consequences. Wickremesinghe’s triumph in Parliament, on June 06, proved yet again that highly critical SC determinations in respect of controversial Bills that had been presented to Parliament cannot be efficiently exploited by the Opposition, primarily due to the SLPP-Wickremesinghe tie-up. That is the reality.

The SLPP’s stand on Wickremesinghe’s controversial Economic Transformation Bill (ETB) is clear. There is no ambiguity in the ruling party’s position on ETB though dissident SLFPers have been vigorously campaigning against it.

State Finance Minister Semasinghe’s recent declarations, in and outside Parliament, underscored the SLPP’s support for that Bill. While the Parliament voted for the Sri Lanka (Electricity) Amendment Bill on June 6 late afternoon, Wickremesinghe had been at Ekala, Ja-Ela, at the opening of a medicine producing facility where he emphasized the importance of ETB. SJB heavyweight Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, contemplating his next move in a dicey political environment, was with Wickremesinghe. Another SJB dissident, Harin Fernando, now a Cabinet Minister, participated at the event. Both Dr. Senaratne and Harin Fernando were among those who missed the vote.

Wickremesinghe and the SLPP have stayed together though many speculated of a break-up of the alliance over the President’s refusal to accommodate a list of MPs in the cabinet – a request made in July 2022, immediately after he was sworn in as the President to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term. Relations further deteriorated in the wake of Wickremesinghe turning down the SLPP’s plea to advance the General Election ahead of the Presidential Poll. But, the fear of the Opposition exploiting a break-up has compelled the SLPP to remain committed to Wickremesinghe. As the Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatuga declared on many occasions, the SLPP should throw its weight behind Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Poll.

Against the backdrop of the SLPP’s June 06 vote, there cannot be any other reason whatsoever not to officially declare support for Wickremesinghe.

With the Presidential Poll now inevitable, though Wickremesinghe’s Camp sought to influence speculation on a referendum on holding of the poll, political parties, and even MPs, seem busy in seeking arrangements with the powers that be. SJB MP A.H.M. Fowzie’s stand on Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Bill is a case in point.

Among the 103 MPs who voted for Wckremesinghe’s Bill were several elected on other party tickets. Colombo District lawmaker Fowzie, who entered Parliament early last year to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Mujibur Rahuman, voted with the SLPP parliamentary group.

In spite of Nazeer Ahmed of SLMC losing his Batticaloa district seat in Oct last year, on SC judgment, MPs still continue the despicable practice. SC faulted Ahamed for voting for the SLPP Budget 2021, regardless of an SLMC decision to vote against. Wickremesinghe rewarded him with comfortable office-Governor of the North Western Province.

President Wickremesinghe is on record as having said that the ETB intends to ensure the political parties do not deviate on economic policy that had been forced on the incumbent government due to economic fallout. Then there must be a consensus on members switching sides at will for their convenience, at the expense of those who voted for them and the parties they represented.

MP Cumaratunga’s June 06 speech in Parliament highlighted the pathetic state in the House. The first time entrant to Parliament pointed out the failure on the part of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to provide an opportunity for MPs to express their views on this piece of legislation. Cumaratunga fiercely attacked the Speaker for not extending the debate by another day. The Yuthukama leader questioned the chair whether he, Cumaratunga, was allocated five minutes to silence him.

However, the dissident MP must be told that even if the debate on that particular Bill had been extended by another day, the outcome wouldn’t have been any different. The SLPP has been compelled to go along with Wickremesinghe, at least for the time being. No one should be surprised if the SLPP declared its support for Wickremesinghe soon after the Election Commission announces the Presidential Election in a few weeks.

The inordinate delay in the SLPP’s announcement indicated that the party remained unsure of its strategy and may go along with Wickremesinghe, as repeatedly suggested by Minister Prasanna Ranatunga.

It would be pertinent to mention that among those who voted for Wickremesinghe’s Bill were another group of dissident MPs seeking to reach an agreement with the President in respect of both presidential and parliamentary polls. That group includes Nimal Lanza, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Education Minister Susil Premjayantha who is also the Leader of the House and Trade Minister Nalin Bandara.

The SLPP initially backed Wickremesinghe without hesitation. Some even went to the extent of finding fault with Gotabaya Rajapaksa for being inexperienced. The party felt confident of Wickremesinghe’s leadership as he was expected to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term and leave. Obviously, the SLPP didn’t expect a political threat from Wickremesinghe. In fact, some even asserted that Wickremesinghe would be grateful to the SLPP for choosing him. Ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his memoirs declared Wickremesinghe as the best person to restore law and order.

But a slew of new laws enacted over the past two years has strengthened Wickremesinghe’s hands and tied the SLPP to the UNP leader. The passage of the Online Safety Bill, the Domestic Debt Optimisation (DDO) Bill and the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Act No. 14 of 2023 were among the laws that couldn’t have been approved without the SLPP’s backing.

Regardless of challenges, Wickremesinghe has succeeded in maintaining tight control over his partnership with the SLPP. That is a situation some cannot stomach but they cannot do anything about it, for the moment.

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Midweek Review

Sellasamy’s Sorrow

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By Lynn Ockersz

Sellasamy is broken with grief,

These long, weary decades,

Over his son’s Disappearance,

In the isle’s Longsuffering,

But there’s no hatred in him,

Towards any living being,

Except that he’d like to know,

The Truth behind his great loss,

So that his agonized heart,

Could finally be at peace,

But what he’s being promised,

By smug Sires at center Stage,

Is a little bit of scrub jungle,

In the badly mistaken notion,

That Reconciliation is tradable,

For a Mess of Pottage.

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Midweek Review

Ranil reveals bid to get rid of him while GR was fleeing to Trinco on board SLNS Gajabahu

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President Wickremesinghe participates in the “What’s New” dialogue on legal reforms with young legal professionals at a workshop held at the Presidential Secretariat (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attempts had been made to compel UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to give up the premiership immediately after the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had left Janadhipathi Mandiraya in the early afternoon of July 09, 2022.

That had been the devious Aragalaya strategy meant to pave the way for Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to assume executive powers as a mere figurehead and with them easily controlling him with the threat of further upheaval. Obviously Aragalaya strategists wanted to force Wickremesinghe out of office before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit the presidency.

However, they may not have expected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee President’s House immediately after protestors breached its main gates.

As we recall the law enforcers simply did nothing to halt the advance of the mob right into the President’s House, as people like US Ambassador Julie Chung openly prevailed on law enforcers not to act against what she repeatedly termed “peaceful protesters”, even after they, in a preplanned operation, meticulously burnt down more than hundred properties of government politicos and loyalists, across the country, on May 09/10, 2022. So they were on the whole the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing working with the Western regime change project here as was previously done in places like Libya and Iraq.

President Wickremesinghe discussed the challenge faced by him at the time of the Aragalaya, when he addressed a group of young legal professionals at the Presidential Secretariat on May 28.

Among those who had been at the head table was Colombo District SLPP lawmaker Premanath C. Dolawatte, an Attorney-at-Law and now widely believed to be one of those pursuing the UNP leader’s agenda.

Stressing the importance of the executive presidency in restoring stability, President Wickremesinghe recalled the situation as Aragalaya forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of Janadhipathi Mandiraya. The President said that some persons had asked him to resign as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was on board a ship and on his way to Trincomalee.

The President’s Media Division (PMD) quoted him as having told the young professionals how he declined to resign unless an MP, who commanded the confidence of the majority in Parliament, emerged against the backdrop of chaos. The President said that even if he wrote a letter of resignation, he couldn’t have handed it over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was on his way to Trincomalee in a ship or flying to the Maldives to escape mob justice.

The President said that if he resigned, due to pressure brought on him by a particular person, or due to the destruction of his residence, at the top of 05th Lane, in Colombo 07, near Royal Primary, also on July 09, 2022, someone would have secured power outside the democratic process.

The President’s comments on Aragalaya didn’t attract sufficient media attention. In fact, the coverage of the Presidential Secretariat event had been influenced by the PMD media release. Both print and electronic media focused on the President pointing out that none of those contesting the forthcoming Presidential poll had assured so far that executive powers would be done away with.

Actually, at the 2019 Presidential election, SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa never referred to the abolition of the Executive Presidency or further dilution of executive powers. The wartime Defence Secretary aspired to be an all-powerful Executive President and, in fact, further enhanced the presidency with the enactment of the 20th Amendment, enacted in late October 2020. The move to introduce a new Constitution was also meant to further enhance the Executive Presidency. That report, prepared at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer, is gathering dust, probably at the Presidential Secretariat. Perhaps Gotabaya Rajapaksa should inquire from his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe what he intended to do with it. The former President has every right to seek an explanation, not only from the President, but the Cabinet-of-Ministers as well.

Let us get back to President Wickremesinghe’s disclosure of the bid to force him out of office soon after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa boarded SLNS Gajabahu (formerly Sherman of the US Coast Guard), at the Colombo harbor, to escape the pursuing mob.

Now that President Wickremesinghe again made reference to Aragalaya’s bid to get rid of him, who could have asked Premier Wickremesinghe to resign on July 09, 2022? Had there been similar demands/requests in the run-up to Wickremesinghe receiving the appointment as President on July 14?

Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe would never reveal the identities of those who demanded his resignation, obviously on more than one occasion during July 09-14 period.

Political party system in a bind

Post-Aragalaya political leadership conveniently refrained from inquiring into the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Nearly two years after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, there hadn’t been an effort, at any level, to conduct a thorough investigation into Aragalaya.

No holds barred investigation into Aragalaya shouldn’t be mixed up with individual cases, such as the killing of SLPP lawmaker Amatakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard, at Nittambuwa, on the afternoon of May 09, 2022, or the killing of a protester at Rambukkana on April 19, 2022. A proper probe into Aragalaya should focus on the circumstances leading to the eruption of violent protest campaign, outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on the night of March 31, 2022, and the period till President Wickremesinghe deployed the military and the police, including the Special Task Force (STF), on July 22, 2022, to clear the Presidential Secretariat of protesters. And all those who were threatening to die for the “system change,” they were ostensibly clamouring for, simply vanished into thin air. How convenient! And how conveniently Julie Chung’s trap, too, shut on behalf of Aragalaya?

Had Wickremesinghe lacked the courage to do so, regardless of “international “condemnation”, the Aragalaya could have been still in control of the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat, etc. Wickremesinghe acted swiftly and decisively as he realized the danger in failing to bring back the situation under control, within a short period of time. Or was that all a show to hoodwink the country? May be he knew too much about JVP shenanigans, especially with the West for them being the principal mover of the demand for system change, too, to go silent, like obedient kittens, with Ranil at the helm.

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, MP, in April 2023, named outgoing US Ambassador Julie Chung as one of the key Aragalaya conspirators. The former JVP heavyweight went to the extent of alleging that Ambassador Chung personally met Speaker Abeywardena at the latter’s official residence in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing Janadhipathi Mandiraya.

Speaker Abeywardena never denied Weerawansa’s claim, though Ambassador Chung dismissed the allegation. However, President Wickremesinghe latest disclosure should be examined, taking into Speaker’s declaration in March this year that those who spearheaded Aragalaya even threatened him unless he cooperated with them. Speaker Abeywardena declared that Aragalaya wanted him to accept the presidency, though the Constitution stipulated that the Premier should succeed the President.

Then, obviously, those who demanded Wickremesinghe to resign, and Speaker Abeywardena to accept the Presidency in July 2020, must be the same. There cannot be any dispute whatsoever regarding the Aragalaya strategy. Obviously, ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his widely read book ‘The Conspiracy to Oust Me from Presidency’ failed to properly deal with external intervention, particularly the interventions made by Ambassador Chung.

The US, through Ambassador Chung’s interventions, ensured protection for Aragalaya throughout the high profile project as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s control rapidly eroded. The then government never really comprehended the grave implications of the April 19, 2022 Rambukkana incident. The senior police officer in charge of Kegalle, Senior Superintendent of Police K.B. Keerthiratne, had to undergo the humiliation of being arrested and remanded over a police shooting that claimed the life of a protester. Had Keerthiratne failed to order that shooting, the protesters would have set ablaze a fully loaded bowser, carrying petrol, strategically placed across the rail tracks there to create chaos and disrupt rail transport By the time the SSP and three other policemen received bail, in August, Wickremesinghe was the President.

The former President should have dealt with the Rambukkana issue in his memoirs. There cannot be any doubt, or dispute, that the utterly irresponsible government response to police firing at Rambukkana discouraged the military from taking tangible measures to thwart the overrunning of Janadhipathi Mandiraya.

The Aragalaya opened Janadhipathi Mandiraya and Presidential Secretariat for the public and they remained in their hands until President Wickremesinghe regained control on July 22, 2022.

Prez draws sharp criticism

Sri Lanka couldn’t have continued with chaos caused in the wake of the political-economic-social crisis that threatened the ruination of the war-winning country that also successfully undertook so many development projects, like building expressways in the country for the first time, badly needed new international airport and even an international harbour, that became the envy of even our giant neighbour. Speaker Abeywardena, whatever his shortcomings and failures, should receive the respect and gratitude of all for saving the country from a horrible fate. Sri Lanka’s unitary status had been at stake and the country faced the risk of disintegrating.

Having been elected as the 8th Executive President on July 20, 2022 by the SLPP parliamentarians, who had the majority in the House, the UNP leader moved swiftly to regain control. Since then, Wickremesinghe, in spite of being reduced to just one National List MP in Parliament, never looked back as he advanced his agenda.

The President’s decision to do away with the Galle Face protest site earned the wrath of those who hoped for a different outcome. They expected Speaker Abeywardena, as Head of State, at least for a brief period, pending post-Gaddafi-style Libyan administration.

The following are some of the statements issued by the “usual suspects” who blindly tow the US line, in the wake of President Wickremesinghe’s directive:

UN Human Rights Commission:

“We are alarmed by the unnecessary use of force by security forces to break up a protest camp near presidential offices in Colombo. We condemn reports of beatings of protesters, journalists and lawyers and urge authorities to halt the use of force.”

The UNHRC Sri Lanka Core Group (consisting of Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the USA and the UK):

“peaceful protest is fundamental to any democracy and dismayed at the violence which took place at Galle Face on Friday.” The grouping called for full respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Amnesty International South Asia:

“…the attack on ‘GotaGoGama,’ the peaceful protest site in Colombo by the police and the military is unacceptable and authorities must stand down immediately. The right to protest must be protected. Sri Lankan authorities must immediately cease these acts of violence and release those arrested unlawfully in this manner. Authorities must also protect the freedom of the press. Journalists must not be barred from ‘GotaGoGama’. Blocking journalists from doing their jobs directly violates freedom of the press.”

Human Rights Watch South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly said:

“President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been telling donors and friends that he is committed to resolving the economic crisis, and yet among his first acts was to deploy a midnight security forces raid to disperse the peaceful protesters. The international community needs to act now, send a strong message that the global efforts are directed to support the people of Sri Lanka, and not to prop up abusive political leaders who undermine fundamental freedoms.”

UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said she was gravely concerned by the use of force to disperse protesters.

“Journalists and human rights defenders have a right to monitor demonstrations and their functions should not be impeded. Actions that stifle protests and right to peaceful assembly can worsen economic and political stability in Sri Lanka. Peaceful solutions in accordance with broad public consultations is the only way forward.”

The European Union:

“Freedom of expression proved essential to Sri Lanka’s current transition. Hard to see how severely restricting it can help in finding solutions to the current political and economic crises.”

UK High Commissioner Sarah Hulton expressed concern over the attack and said:

“We have made clear the importance of the right to peaceful protest.”

US Ambassador Julie Chung:

“Deeply concerned about actions taken against protestors at Galle Face in the middle of the night. We urge restraint by authorities and immediate access to medical attention for those injured.”

Canadian High Commissioner David McKinnon:

“It is crucial the authorities act with restraint and avoid violence.”

The Presidential Secretariat remained in the hands of protesters till midnight July 22, 2022, out of the three State properties they took control of on July 09. Protesters evacuated from the other two – the President’s House and Temple Trees ahead of any confrontation with the military tasked to remove them!

In the absence of proper investigations…

Chief Government Whip Prasanna Ranatunga is one of the few lawmakers to question the failure on the part of relevant authorities to investigate organized attacks on government MPs. When the writer raised this issue with Minister Ranatunga a few moons ago, the Gampaha District SLPP strongman expressed serious disappointment over the status of the investigations.

Declaring that his properties at Udugampola, Gampaha, had been set ablaze in the presence of law enforcement officers, Urban Development and Housing Minister Ranatunga said that he was still awaiting the conclusion of the investigation undertaken by the Human Rights Commission. None of those who had been identified as responsible for systematic destruction of houses and other properties belonging to government members and in some cases supporters hadn’t been dealt with.

President Wickremesinghe’s recent disclosure of efforts to force him out of the Premier’s Office revealed that there hadn’t been a proper investigation into the Aragalaya at all. What is the mysterious evil hand preventing justice being done to victims of mob justice by Aragalaya? But the evil West leaves no stone unturned in seeking “justice” on behalf of the LTTE and its sympathisers, who tried to break up this country through sheer raw terror.

It would be interesting to know the status of the investigation promised by the Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, into the May 9/10 attacks on politicians’ properties. A case filed by a group of politicians, demanding an investigation into these incidents, had been withdrawn in late May, 2023 on an assurance given by the Attorney General.

The State Counsel appearing on behalf of the Attorney General assured Court that the AG had received an assurance from the Public Security Ministry that there would be a formal investigation into the incidents and secondly, the Secretary to the President promised that the Wasantha Karannagoda Committee report on the May 2022 incidents would be brought to the attention of the President.

What is the status of the promised investigation? President Wickremesinghe cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for ensuring a comprehensive investigation into violence perpetrated during 2022.

In spite of allegations that the JVP instigated an attack on Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa at the Galle Face protest site on the afternoon of May 09, 2022, the main Opposition party never pushed hard for an investigation.

Recently MP Premadasa confirmed the alleged JVP plot when the writer sought his response to SLPP MP Johnston Fernando’s declaration that Premadasa would have been lynched if his driver failed to reverse the vehicle at high-speed after the JVP mob surrounded Premadasa. Sunil Handunetti declared that both Johnston and Sajith should have their heads examined. But JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was virtually received with open arms by the same Aragalaya activists on the same day at the same venue

Another matter for serious concern is that all suspects arrested in connection with the killing of MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale were granted bail without the AG being consulted. The accusation has been made by the AG in respect of the decision taken by the Trial-at-Bar of the Gampaha High Court. We would refrain from commenting on the issue at hand as the matter is pending before the court.

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government has completely ignored ex-President’s allegations that the military deliberately failed to thwart the public protest campaign that was launched on March 31, 2022. Gotabaya Rajapaksa went to the extent of alleging that Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General (retd.) Shavendra Silva and Defence Secretary General (retd.) Kamal Gunaratne may have failed to take tangible measures as they were under pressure due to war crimes accusations directed at them by the US. However, it must be pointed out that General Silva hadn’t been at the helm of the Army at the time Aragalaya overran Janadhipathi Mandiraya with ease.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa replaced General Silva on June 1, 2022, following the May 09 incidents which shook his government with Vikum Liyanage, also of the Gajaba Regiment as the Commander of the Army, though various interested parties found fault with Silva, who headed the celebrated 58 Division that in way spearheaded the war victory, for not protecting Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.

The UNP also provided muscle to Aragalaya. Former MP and current presidential advisor Ashu Marasinghe and SJB MP and Minister Harin Fernando had declared the UNP’s direct role in Aragalaya whereas the JVP and its breakaway faction the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP/Peratugami Pakshaya) played a significant role. However, the vast majority of those who provided the real strength to the protest campaign were not members of any political party but angry Sri Lankans influenced by the collapsing of the economy. They also engaged in looting in some instances but there were organized groups which caused massive destruction, systematically at the behest of Aragalaya masterminds operating from behind the scene.

President Wickremesinghe should name those who had asked him to give up the premiership. Speaker Abeywardena, too, should reveal who threatened to harm him unless he fully cooperated with the Aragalaya.

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