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Midweek Review

Sordid politics of environment and big money

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Container carrier X-Press Pearl on fire off the Colombo Port in late May 2021

Those genuinely keen on protecting the environment should without further delay launch a project to protect rain forests. The ongoing power cuts have underscored Sri Lanka’s dependence on hydropower. The continuing destruction of forest cover can cause irreparable damage to the country’s hydro power generation capacity, thereby causing a catastrophic situation. Perhaps the CEJ and the likeminded groups should exploit the current situation to pressure political parties, whoever in power, to take environment protection seriously or face the consequences. The bottom line is that the country cannot replace hydropower generation capacity with thermal, including coal, in the foreseeable future. Therefore, every endeavour should be made to protect the existing hydropower capacity.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Some of those activists at the round-the-clock ‘Go Gota Home’ protest, outside the Presidential Secretariat, at Galle Face, carried placards querying the delay on the part of the government to compensate the communities affected by the sinking of the Singapore registered cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl, off the Western coast, last year.

The Express Feeders’ owned fire stricken cargo ship, sank on June 02, 2021, during an attempt to tow it away to deep seas. Sri Lanka lacked the wherewithal to bring the fire on deck, that had been reported on May 21, under control. In spite of firefighting support provided by India and other foreign vessels, the vessel went down, causing the worst ever ecological disaster in busy local waters, outside the Colombo harbour.

MV X-Press Pearl sank 9.5 nautical miles, NorthWest of the Colombo port, the day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa directed that it be towed to deeper seas. The vessel went down where it had been since May 19 after entering Sri Lankan waters.

Controversy surrounds the way the relevant authorities probed the circumstances that led to MV X-Press Pearl stealthily carrying a leaking container, loaded with nitric acid, being allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters. The public have a right to know how the government dealt with the vessel’s local Agent, Presidential Award winner Sea Consortium Lanka of Setmil Group, accused of suppressing information about the acid leak.

The highly politically motivated ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign appeared to have attracted many groups, including those handling contentious environmental issues, which may have contributed to the overall deterioration of public confidence in the government. The handling of the X-Press disaster is a glaring example of an utterly corrupt system that protected the affluent at the expense of the hapless public.

The massive eruption of public anger against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the approach to his private residence, at Pangiriwatte Road, Mirihana, on the night of March 31, marked a new phase in politics. Having caused chaos at Pangiriwatte, the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign, overnight, targeted selected government members. Violent protests in several districts, particularly in the Anuradhapura district, underscored the growing public anger at those wielding political power.

At the same time while we do not wish to be paranoid conspiracy theorists, it must be noted that some of the present protests appear to be well coordinated and funded and quite possibly maneuvered by a hidden hand, as happened in the run up to the change of government in 2015, engineered by the US, about which it later crowed about publicly through its then Secretary of State, John Kerry. Though President Gotabaya is responsible for some controversial decisions taken hastily, like the abrupt decision to ban agrochemical imports or doing away with some key taxes no sooner he was elected, it must be stated that none of it was done for his personal benefit, but there has been far too many built up coincidences in the run up to the present conflagration, like the MT New Diamond sinking, X-Press Pearl disaster of epic proportion, the wrong composition of butane and propane in LPG shipped to Sri Lanka that caused needless explosions and even loss of life, etc. In the light of what has happened recently in Pakistan, and elsewhere, we believe the country needs to be extra alert to such foreign engineered plots.

The high profile campaign discarded all political parties, represented in Parliament, thereby denying the Opposition an opportunity to exploit unexpected political developments. The protest campaign that had been launched, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, received the backing of many groups with diverse objectives. Among the interested parties were civil society organisations, including the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) spearheading an intense legal campaign against the current dispensation.

The CEJ moved court over the X-Press Pearl disaster, in the absence of a genuine effort by relevant government machinery to obtain proper compensation. If those responsible for taking action had addressed the issue purposefully, the sinking of X-Press Pearl wouldn’t have been an issue at the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign.

It would be pertinent to examine the issues at hand against the backdrop of those seeking compensation for MV X-Press Pearl disaster being part of the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign. The current crisis has erupted at an opportune time as cash-strapped Sri Lanka struggles to meet the basic requirements of the public.

The ship disaster, off the Western coast, cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the massive fire onboard MT New Diamond, off the Sangamankanda coast in the East, in early Sept 2020.

The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) proceedings and an exclusive interview Sirasa anchor Asoka Dias, formerly of Upali Newspapers did with the first Dean of the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology, Ruhuna University, Prof. Ruchira Cumaranatunga exposed the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA).

MEPA and legal system exposed

COPE Chief and MP Prof. Charitha Herath recently lambasted the MEPA, at a recent committee hearing, over the handling of the fire onboard crude carrier MT New Diamond in early Sept. 2020 and the sinking of X-Press Pearl carrying chemicals off the Port of Colombo last year.

Prof. Herath questioned MEPA Chairperson Attorney-at-Law Dharshani Lahandapura, a Viyathmaga activist, as regards their response to the disastrous accidents.

The SLPP National List MP demanded to know why compensation hadn’t been so far secured from the owners of the MT New Diamond. His query was based on the Auditor General’s observations. Jagath Gunasekera, the Acting General Manager of MEPA, said that the court had decided on the fines to be imposed.

Prof. Herath asked why only Rs 51 mn out of estimated Rs 3,480 million, due from MT New Diamond as compensation, had been received. Attorney-at-Law Lahandapura said that though there had been an oil patch, the fire had not caused any environmental damage.

Prof. Herath asked why such a huge estimate in respect of damages had been made if no disaster had occurred. Gunasekera said Rs 51 million had been paid for firefighting operations and related matters.

According to Gunasekera an expert panel had recommended Rs 3,480 mn compensation and the relevant file had been submitted to the Attorney General’s Department.

Prof. Herath pointed out that the AG hadn’t responded to the MEPA so far, and asked what the MEPA would say if the COPE alleged that it had collaborated with the ship owners to help them reduce compensation payments for environmental damages caused.

When the COPE Chief questioned the role of MEPA’s Legal Officer in respect of the overall response, the MEPA representative at the hearing disclosed that she had been sidelined. The official revealed she hadn’t been allowed to participate in any of the discussions with the Attorney General’s Department on civil or criminal proceedings. Prof. Herath demanded to know why she had been sidelined. Lahandapura claimed that MEPA had assigned responsibilities to another official as the Legal Officer was not responsive to the MEPA’s requirements. Prof. Herath dismissed that claim, insisting that there couldn’t be a justifiable excuse for sidelining the legal officer.

Prof. Herath emphasised that the revelation that the MT New Diamond matter issue had been handled outside the purview of the MEPA Legal Section was a serious matter.

Prof. Herath pointed out that though the compensation in respect of X-Press Pearl had been estimated at USD 37 mn, the ship owners had agreed to pay only USD 2.9 mn. Lahandapura admitted that an organisation that had represented the ship owners/insurers had provided advice to MEPA, too. The COPE Chairman pointed out that the organisation concerned would have been able to manipulate the whole process to the advantage of the ship owners/insurers. The MP said that someone could easily level the charge that the MEPA collaborated with them to reduce the amount of compensation received by the country.

Sirasa interview

Prof. Cumaranatunga didn’t mince her words when she questioned the conduct of MEPA Chairperson as regards the two incidents – the one off the Sangamankanda coast and the other off the Colombo harbour. Responding to interviewer Dias, the academic, who investigated both high profile cases, accused Lahandapura of suppressing some sections of the report on MT New Diamond submitted by her team. She pointed out how the MEPA Chief claimed before the COPE that damages hadn’t been caused to marine life, contrary to the report submitted by the experts. An irate Prof. Cumaranatunga declared that MEPA Chief had insulted members of her team by propagating blatant lies. Asoka Dias couldn’t have conducted that interview at a better time. With the growing public protests, demanding a system change, the operation at the MEPA explains how interested parties pursued projects beneficial to them, regardless of the consequences. Prof. Herath should ask Prof. Cumaranatunga to make her position clear before his Committee and take whatever necessary action. The government cannot remain silent against the backdrop of the head of the expert team that probed the ship disasters, exposing MEPA.

Prof. Cumaranatunga revealed how she raised the issues at hand with Lahandapura soon after the COPE rapped MEPA over the controversial handling of the ship disasters. Declaring that Lahandapura’s response to her queries hadn’t been satisfactory, the academic exposed how MEPA manipulated the online process adopted in preparing the final report to secure the signatures of the members of the probe team without providing them the final draft.

The COPE and Sirasa revelations haven’t received sufficient public attention. The ruling coalition and the Opposition haven’t acted on sensational revelations made by the COPE as well as two other watchdog committees, namely the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Finance (COPF). MEPA should be held accountable for mishandling of two key investigations. Had they been deliberately handling the issues in a way to deprive the country adequate compensation?

Prof. Herath is in no mood to give up his strong stand in respect of the two

muddled investigations. The COPE should pursue this matter. The X-Press Pearl matter is now before the judiciary. It would be the responsibility of all concerned to ensure transparent proceedings. Punitive measures are a prerequisite for justifiable settlement of the X-Press Pearl case.

CEJ moves court

The CEJ and three others, including its Senior Advisor Hemantha Withanage, in a fundamental rights application filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution, in respect of the X-Press Pearl affair, has named its owner Express Feeders and its local agent Sea Consortium Lanka as 11th and 12th respondents, respectively. They are among 13 respondents, including the Attorney General.

At the time the CEJ moved SC against what the petition called the worst marine ecological disaster caused by the sinking of X-Press Pearl, the outfit hadn’t been aware of the local agent deleting e-mails received from the Captain of the ship.

According to the petition, in addition to 325 metric tonnes of bunker oil, the vessel carried altogether 1,486 containers – 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methylate, plastic, lead ingots, lubricant oil, quick lime and highly reactive and inflammable chemicals such as Sodium Methoxide, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) “Lotrene”, Vinyl Acetate, Methanol, bright yellow sulphur, urea, cosmetics, etc.

Petitioners stated that the Captain and the crew members of the MV X-Press Pearl knew of the nitric acid leak from about 11th May 2021, nine days before the blaze started and had deliberately failed to inform the Sri Lankan authorities of the impending grave risk. But, the CEJ had been in the dark regarding the treacherous actions of the local agent and the whole issue would take an unexpected turn against the backdrop of Prof. Cumaranatunga’s revelations.

The CEJ receives funding from both local and foreign sources, including the UN. Responding to The Island queries, Withanage explained the gradual growth of CEJ’s operations since its launch in 2004 following the breakup of the Environmental Foundation Ltd. Assuring transparency in the CEJ’s operations, Withanage alleged that the state agencies that had been tasked to protect the environment either connived brazenly with some of the corrupt elements who wielded political power regardless of the consequences or betrayed the country’s interest for personal gain. The sordid disclosures made during COPE proceedings and the Sirasa interview as regards the sordid behaviour of MEPA, responsible for the protection of marine environment should prompt the government to take tangible measures.

Unfortunately, MEPA as well as other agencies answerable for matters concerning the environment, are pursuing strategies acceptable to their political masters.

The much discussed court cases pertaining to clearing of Wilpattu jungles, releasing of elephants and the threat to Sinharaja forest exposed the corrupt political party system.

Withanage asserted that political parties exploited corrupt systems in place to raise funds. If those who exercised political authority addressed matters of serious concern there wouldn’t have been a need for CEJ to move the Supreme Court over the X-Press Pearl disaster. Withanage questioned the conduct of the premier government agency, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) now headed by ex-JVPer Siripala Amarasinghe. Withanage asserted that politicians and officials were equally responsible for the pathetic state of affairs.

There cannot be a better example than the importing of toxic garbage containers from the UK and simply dumping them here during the yahapalana administration. While Amarasinghe and then President and former Environment Minister Sirisena claimed at the time they were tackling the issue expeditiously, if not for the CEJ successfully moving the court, the British garbage would have been here still. Having blamed the Mahinda Rajapaksa tenure for large-scale environmental destruction, Withanage alleged that the current dispensation was the worst. The civil society activist cited the removal of restrictions on the mining and the transport of sand as one of the evil decisions taken by the current government. The move was obviously meant to allow those connected with the party to make money. The relevant authorities fully cooperated with politicians, Withanage alleged.

The court was told between 2017 and 2019, the UK shipped 263 containers of waste to Sri Lanka. The containers were labelled ‘used mattresses, carpets and rugs.’ But, amongst other things, authorities found bio waste from hospitals. It included radioactive clinical waste, rags, bandages and body parts from mortuaries. Thanks to CEJ’s action, the entire lot – altogether 263 containers – were shipped back by February 2021. It would be pertinent to examine the conduct of the environment ministry and the CEA with regard to the import of British waste. Contrary to expectations, the current dispensation didn’t take punitive measures against those responsible for the importing of dangerous cargo and kept them in specified areas pending disposal.

The government should be ashamed of its failure. The Parliament, too, should inquire into such glaring failures. Can those in authority now and then vouch that foreign waste didn’t end up at Aruwakkalu sanitary garbage dump in Puttalam as once alleged by top environmental scientist Dr. Ajantha Perera in an interview with this newspaper?

One-time top trade official Gomi Senadhira recently discussed how in spite of Sri Lanka’s success in sending back over 3,000 tons of British toxic waste, authorities allowed foreign garbage. Senadhira asked whether the Customs, Trade Ministry, the BOI, and the CEA deceived the public on garbage imports.

Senadhira raised two basic issues (verbatim) (a) How did the Customs detect the 3000 tonnes of “illegally imported foreign garbage”? Wasn’t it only when the containers that remained in the port for months without being cleared by the importer started to stink and leak? When were the tonnes of customs-cleared garbage in a clandestine garbage dump created inside the BOI discovered by the BOI and the CEA?

Wasn’t it only after a media exposure? Didn’t all this happen after the implosion of the Meethotamulla garbage dump? Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Methotamulla collapsed at the start of the yahapalana regime.

(b).During the four-year period 2017-2020, while struggling to ship back 3,000 tons of illegally imported stinking waste, the customs and the CEA had facilitated “legal” imports of a much larger quantity of garbage into the country. For example; Sri Lanka imported nearly 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste (HS391590) In addition, nearly 1000 MTs of plastic waste under HS 391530 was also imported every year.

Most of it, according to customs data, was imported from China. As far as I am aware, China does not export plastic waste”

Perhaps, the CEJ should speak with Senadhira to map out proper strategy to counter clandestine projects. Interested parties must have profited immensely at Sri Lanka’s expense.



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Midweek Review

How Lanka ended up receiving humanitarian assistance from an Indian state

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UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and PM’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake join CWC leader Senthil Thondaman and FM Prof. G.L. Peiris at a brief ceremony at the Colombo harbour where Indian HC Baglay handed over humanitarian assistance from Tamil Nadu (pic courtesy Indian HC)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The May 09 ‘operation’, whose father is yet unknown, meant to save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership, has tarnished the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the police as well as the armed forces.

The controversial Temple Trees project not only caused irreparable damage to the ruling coalition, it paved the way for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to regain the premiership for the sixth time, incredibly with just one seat in the 225-member Parliament.

With Wickremesinghe at the helm of the government parliamentary group, the UNP has begun playing an active role in the administration, though the party didn’t have any members in Parliament, other than its leader. However, Wickremesinghe has brought a selected group of UNPers into the administration while causing a division in the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) by winning over two of its vociferous members, namely Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara.

Having repeatedly accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of direct complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, both received ministerial portfolios from the President. Wickremsinghe is in the process of consolidating his position.

There cannot be a better example to highlight Wickremesinghe’s strategy meant to resurrect his party than involving two former ministers Vajira Abeywardena, incumbent Chairman of the party, and Sagala Ratnayake, in the delegation that received urgently needed food assistance from India.

Sri Lanka delegation received the assistance, standing next to Tan Binh 99, the Panama registered general cargo ship, at the Colombo harbour.

The following is the text of the statement issued by Eldos Mathew Punnoose, Head – Press, Information and Development Cooperation, as regards the handing over of humanitarian assistance at the Colombo harbour: “High Commissioner Gopal Baglay handed over a large consignment of humanitarian assistance worth more than SLR 2 billion from the people of India to Foreign Minister Prof. G.L Peiris, in Colombo, on 22 May 2022. The handing over function was attended by Minister for Ports and Shipping, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayaka, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Senthil Thondaman, Leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Food Commissioner Mrs. J. Krishnamurthy, among senior officials, and others.

The consignment consists of 9,000 MT of rice, 50 MT of milk powder and more than 25 MT of drugs and other medical supplies. It was flagged off from Chennai port by Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Thiru M.K Stalin on 18 May 2022. This is also the first consignment under a larger USD 16 million commitment of 40,000 MT of rice, 500 MT of milk powder and medicines by the state Government of Tamil Nadu.

Handed over materials shall be distributed among vulnerable and needy sections in various parts of Sri Lanka including Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces by Government of Sri Lanka in the coming days.

More humanitarian consignments and other forms of assistance from India shall follow. Multi-pronged endeavour by both the Government and the people of India underlines the importance attached to Sri Lanka and reflects their concerns for the well-being of its people. Support extended to Sri Lanka ranges from economic assistance worth around USD 3.5 billion, supply of vaccines, testing kits, close to 1000 MT of liquid oxygen to combat COVID-19, immediate response by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to mitigate marine disasters, etc.”

Sri Lanka’s utterly irresponsible political leadership has achieved the unthinkable. The country has been reduced to such a pathetic state, it has ended up receiving food assistance from the state government of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka should be ashamed of having to receive food assistance from an Indian state, 13 years after having proudly defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) considered impossible by many a pundit and against the wishes of the haughty West. Can that be the root of the unprecedented problems? Perhaps one day the truth will unravel through the work of an outfit, like WikiLeaks, on how Hawala or Undial underground cash transfer systems so successfully dried up foreign exchange flows into the country, leaving it unable to find even a few million dollars to clear an urgently needed shipment of cooking gas or lifesaving drugs. However much the deep state is entrenched in Western democracies with the open help of their ‘independent’ media controlled by the military-industrial complex, there are still plenty of people with clear consciences who want to do justice to the world.

R.K. Radhakrishnan, writing to India’s national magazine Frontline described the Tamil Nadu gesture as ‘a province in a developing country extending its assistance to another country.’ That line is sufficient to comprehend Sri Lanka’s plight. In spite of initial disagreement between Tamil Nadu and the Central Government of India regarding the humanitarian assistance offered by TN Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, they reached consensus on the matter. Four days before the despicable Temple Trees project, borne out of frustration caused by the government’s inability to end the sieges at Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat by so- called peaceful protesters, triggered mayhem in Sri Lanka. They were anything but peaceful by the way they tried to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pengiriwatte, Mirihana, in late March.

Then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, struggling to save his premiership, wrote to CM Stalin: “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than a problem concerning another country.”

Six days later Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to quit the premiership. The war-winning President and his family were compelled to take refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command after having abandoned Temple Trees, Kollupitiya, the nerve centre of the disastrous May 09 project, fearing a fate similar to that which met Libya’s Gadhafi, where, too, the truth was turned on its head.

An elder brother’s lament

Chamal Rajapaksa, 80, possibly serving his last term as a lawmaker, recently faulted younger brother and twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa for continuing in politics even after completing two presidential terms. The elder Rajapaksa attributed the current crisis to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continuation in active politics. Chamal Rajapaksa said that politicians should be prepared to give up power. Otherwise, they have to be prepared to face situations like this if they were greedy for power. The one time Speaker was commenting on his brother’s dilemma in the wake of him losing the premiership. Chamal Rajapaksa said: “Ranil Wickremesinghe is very lucky. In 2015, Wickremesinghe was able to secure premiership in spite of not enjoying a parliamentary majority. Now, the UNP leader secured the premiership without another MP in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is lucky and the country too is fortunate that we have him to take up the mantle of leadership despite all his shortcomings of the past, when all other politicians are playing their petty tricks to grab power while the country was literally going up in flames.

But, can Chamal Rajapaksa absolve himself of his share of responsibility for the crisis that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave his brothers, Chamal and Basil as well as nephews, Namal and Shashendra, out of the Cabinet of Ministers. President Rajapaksa, himself is under pressure to do away with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that gave him dictatorial powers. The abolition of the 20th Amendment enacted in Oct 2020 is part of the overall agreement sought by some of those who accepted ministerial portfolios in the current dispensation. Both PM Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, will push hard for the abolition of the 20th Amendment.

Before commenting further on ongoing moves to introduce the 21st Amendment at the expense of the 20A, it would be pertinent to examine Chamal Rajapaksa’s role as the Speaker (April 22, 2010-June 26, 2015) especially against the backdrop of his criticism of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conduct. Chamal Rajapaksa, who has represented the Hambantota electoral district since 1989, continuously has declared that his brother Mahinda should have called it a day after completing two presidential terms (2005-2010 and 2010-2015).

Having said so, lawmaker Chamal Rajapaksa owed an explanation as regards his role in the enactment of the 18 A to the Constitution at the expense of the 19 A. During Chamal Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Speaker, the Parliament passed the controversial 18th Amendment Bill on Sept. 8, 2010, with 161 MPs voting for and 17 against the Bill. The following are some of its key points:

(a) The President can seek re-election any number of times (earlier it was limited to two;

(b) The ten-member Constitutional Council replaced with a five-member Parliamentary Council;

(c) Independent commissions are brought under the authority of the President; and,

(d) The 18th Amendment enabled the President to attend Parliament once in three months and entitles him to all the privileges, immunities and powers of an MP other than the entitlement to vote. In short, it is all about arming the President with absolute power.

The 18th Amendment was meant to empower Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chamal Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Speaker, oversaw the operation. The impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, and her removal by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013 should be examined against the backdrop of enactment of the 18th Amendment. Chamal Rajapaksa served as the Speaker at the time Justice Bandaranaike was removed. She was accused of several charges, including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she categorically denied. But her husband was found guilty by courts over his shady dealings.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa ensured the implementation of the then UPFA government’s strategy. Having served as a minister till April this year and played a critical role in the manipulation of Parliament, it wouldn’t be fair to find fault with Mahinda Rajapaksa solely for being power hungry.

Chamal Rajapaksa also made reference to Wickremesinghe receiving the premiership in 2015 following the presidential election, in spite of not having at least a simple majority in Parliament. Chamal Rajapaksa appeared to have conveniently forgotten that he continued as the Speaker even after Wickremesinghe was appointed PM after having unceremoniously discarded the late D.M. Jayaratne. The UPFA leadership didn’t even bother to ask Jayaratne before reaching consensus with President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Wickremesinghe over the premiership following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election held ahead of schedule on the advice of an astrologer. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 in connivance with then Premier Wickremesinghe-led government.

The UNP-led government also betrayed the war-winning Sri Lanka military at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Chamal Rajapaksa absolutely had no issue in continuing as the Speaker until June 26, 2015 when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament to save the UNP. The dissolution of the House was meant to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) from submitting its report on the first Treasury bond scam to the House. Now again Chamal Rajapaksa has accepted Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier. Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Wickremesinghe in late Oct 2018 and then offered him the premiership back within two months following judicial intervention and the primary beneficiary of Oct 2018 constitutional coup Mahinda Rajapaksa, are also in the same parliamentary group now headed by Wickremesinghe.

Proposed transfer of executive powers

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is pushing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The BASL wants Premier Wickremesinghe to demonstrate as early as possible his ability to establish a consensus among the political parties in Parliament and endeavour to build a representative Government of National Unity to implement a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) in the public interest.

The BASL insists on a clear timeline to introduce critical constitutional amendments proposed by the outfit, including the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) is concerned about the BASL’s strategy. The nationalist outfit believes the SJB and the BASL are working on a similar agenda to do away with the Executive Presidency without changing the current electoral system or repealing the 13th Amendment.

If the ongoing joint high profile project to introduce 21 A to the Constitution succeeds, the UNP leader will receive powers at the expense of the Executive Presidency. Having received an overwhelming mandate at the last presidential election in Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands to lose executive powers to Wickremesinghe who accepted the challenging task of rebuilding the devastated national economy.

Those who launched the ‘Gogotahome’ campaign remained skeptical about the SLPP’s commitment to introduce the 21 A. They believe the architects of the 20 A would do whatever possible to sabotage efforts to do away with the executive presidency. They believe the SLPP founder Basil Rajapkasa, who still wields power over the party apparatus reeling under accusations pertaining to unprovoked attacks on the public demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

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Midweek Review

Flowers in Bloom

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By Lynn Ockersz

Though made somewhat anxious,

By the numberless crises in the Isle,

That have brought their elders down,

The youngsters clad in speckless white,

And heading for a make-or-break exam,

Are the only resplendent flowers,

In an otherwise benighted land,

But their Social Science Paper,

Is bound to give them some laughs,

For, though patriots, they are told,

Fought the good fight decades ago,

And rid the land of enslaving shackles,

All whom they have as current leaders,

Are fickle creatures of malleable material,

For whom pelf and power are all that matter.

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Midweek Review

Ranil takes premiership amidst BASL bid for all party-consensus

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A smiling Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe reacts to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after receiving the premiership. Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the President looks on. Mrs Maithri Wickremesinghe was present at the brief ceremony at the President’s House, Fort last Thursday evening (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Supreme Court Justice Rohini Marasinghe, in her current capacity as the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), directed the police to provide adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister while protecting the freedom of speech and assembly through necessary and proportionate measures.

Justice Marasinghe, who received the appointment in Dec, last year, would never have believed she would be compelled to issue such a statement.

The HRCSL statement, issued on April 26, 2022, over a month after the eruption of violent protests at the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at Pengiriwatta, Mirihana, that lasted for several hours, didn’t name the President and the Prime Minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa quit Temple Trees on May 10, less than 24 hours after he announced his resignation, in the wake of unprovoked violence directed at those demanding the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister and the so-called peaceful protesters who lay siege to his official residence Temple Trees virtually making, him a prisoner therein.

The first protest, targeting President Rajapaksa, was held at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, 2022. What began as a peaceful protest in the vicinity, quickly turned violent after the crowds made attempts to advance towards the President’s private home. The deployment of the Army, in support of the beleaguered police, failed to bring the situation under control.

Protesters set ablaze several vehicles, including two buses that brought Police and Army reinforcements to the scene of the unprecedented confrontation. Therefore, it would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances, Justice Marasinghe called for sufficient protection for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, over two weeks after the launch of the protest campaign, in front of the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, 2022.

Perhaps, the HRCSL should have also advised the Army, as well as the Special Task Force (STF), regarding adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister. The Army and the STF play an integral role in the protection of key leaders. The HRCSL cannot be unaware of the involvement of the Army and the STF in the protection of the President and the Prime Minister.

Justice Marasinghe called for ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ to meet the threat on the two leaders as those who had been demanding their resignation stepped up the campaign.

The HRCSL consists of five Commissioners, namely Justice Rohini Marasinghe (Chairperson), Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara and Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan. The President constituted the HRCSL in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Dec. 2020. Justice Marasinghe and Ven. Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera were brought in Dec. 2021 in the wake of the resignation of HRCSL Chairman Jagath Balasuriya and NGO, guru Harsha Kumara Navaratne taking up the post of Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Canada.

Did HRCSL make an assessment before Justice Marasinghe issued instructions to the police? The HRCSL intervened in the wake of the erection of a new protest site, opposite Temple Trees, as the government struggled to cope up with an unprecedented political-economic-social crisis that brought the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to its knees.

The writer, over the last weekend, sought a clarification from Justice Marasinghe. The HRCSL Chief said that instructions were issued as access to the residences of the President and the Prime Minister had been blocked. The HRCSL was also informed of possible threats to their lives, Justice Marasinghe said, adding that the issue at hand should be examined on the basis of equal protection of the law.

In spite of HRCSL’s instructions, the police, and at least an influential section of the SLPP government, appeared to have been caught napping. Was it due to the fear of the wrath of the HRCSL or they being under the so-called international community spotlight? In fact, the law enforcement authorities had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the situation to such an extent that mobs took control of roads. Had the police top brass realized the gravity of the situation, in the first week of May, they would have definitely advised the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa not to summon several hundreds of his supporters to Temple Trees. The failure on the part of the police to advise the ousted Premier was nothing but a monumental blunder.

In fact, the police appeared to have been part of a political project meant to dismantle those who had been protesting against the government, while laying siege to both Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat. The operation was meant to regain control. Therefore, a primary objective was to silence those who had been asking Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, has been of that view, in the wake of about one-third of the SLPP parliamentary group demanding Premier Rajapaksa’s resignation to pave the way for an all-party interim administration.

PM, family take refuge in SLN base

Just two weeks after HRCSL asked the police to ensure protection of the President and the Prime Minister through ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ the latter had to move out of Temple Trees, under heavy security escort. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to authorize the deployment of SLAF assets to evacuate the ex-Prime Minister and some members of the family. They took refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command premises, Trincomalee.

By then, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, the ousted PM’s second son and Chief of Staff and his wife, Nitheesha Jayasekera, had left the country. Interestingly, Yoshitha left for Singapore at 12.50 am on May 09 on Singapore Airlines flight SQ 469 several hours before SLPP activists started arriving at Temple Trees.

Yoshitha Rajapaksa couldn’t have been unaware of the meticulous plans underway to bring in hundreds of supporters from all parts of the country to Temple Trees where the Prime Minister was to address them. Those who believed Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was to announce his resignation were proved wrong. Instead, lawmaker Johnston Fernando and the then Premier Rajapaksa created an environment conducive for an ‘operation’ to evict those who had been protesting against the Prime Minister and the President. The operation boomeranged. The end result was the Prime Minister having to take refuge in the Trincomalee Navy base.

Two days later, the Fort Magistrate’s Court issued a travel ban on Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa and 16 others. They are Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon. The Senior DIG had been present at the time, SLPP goons broke through the police line, near the Galle Face hotel, to demolish the Galle Face protest camp.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded during the violence on the fateful Monday or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

President of the Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association Lakshman Perera told the writer that the Attorney General‘s Department moved the Fort Magistrate’s court amidst preparations made by his outfit to move the court. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Perera underscored the pivotal importance of ensuring the safety and security of all, regardless of whatever the accusations directed at them.

For how long would the ex-Premier have to live under the protection of the Navy? In response to media queries, Defence Secretary retired General Kamal Gunaratne told a hastily arranged press conference, at the Battaramulla Defence Complex, that as a former head of State Mahinda Rajapaksa was entitled to required security. When would the ex-PM be able to move freely as protests demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation continue amidst traffic disruptions on main roads, especially over shortage of cooking gas? The situation remains extremely dicey.

Politically-motivated mobs destroyed many properties belonging to the Rajapaksa family. Mobs set ablaze the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home at Medamulana, Hambantota, and did not even spare the memorial built for their parents also at Medamulana, while the former Premier’s home in Kurunegala, too, was destroyed.

Properties belonging to elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa and his son, Shashendra were also destroyed.

Gangs set fire to Green Ecolodge, situated very close to the Sinharaja rain forest. The hotel, situated close to the UNESCO heritage site, is widely believed to be owned by Yoshitha Rajapaksa, who recently warned JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake of legal action against the accusations made in respect of Green Ecolodge. But the JVP instead of backing their accusations regarding that prized eco-property (torched by the politically-motivated mobs early last week) with facts, issued a veiled threat to expose Yoshitha on some other issues if he dared to go to courts. Comrade Nalinda Jayatissa told the media that they would raise his fake qualifications, how he managed to enter the famed British naval college Dartmouth, etc., if he ventured to challenge them in court.

Well organized mobs also looted and set fire to properties of over 50 MPs, mainly of the government, across the country. They and their families were left with only the clothes on their backs.

Politicos under threat

The government should do everything possible to prosecute those responsible for incidents of violence, regardless of their status. Destruction of lawmakers’ properties should be denounced and punitive action taken against all those responsible. Who would take the responsibility for killing SLPP Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa? The slain MP was on his way home, after attending the Temple Trees meet earlier in the day. Did Atukorale open fire on those who blocked his path? Did his police bodyguard, too, open fire? The post-mortem revealed the MP had been lynched and contrary to initial reports there were no gunshot injuries. The post mortem also set the record straight that the MP didn’t commit suicide with his own weapon as initially claimed by interested parties over the social and mainstream media. Having allowed SLPP goons to go on the rampage, the police pathetically failed to intervene when the public retaliated. Politically-motivated groups obviously took advantage of the situation. At an early stage of the ongoing protest campaign, German Ambassador in Colombo Holger Seubert tweeted: “I’m impressed with how peaceful the proud people of Sri Lanka are exercising their right to freedom of expression. It reminds me of German unification back in 1989 when we experienced how powerful peaceful protests can be. Wishing all parties involved the strength to remain peaceful.”

During the second JVP inspired-insurgency, the then JRJ government issued firearms to members of Parliament. Some lawmakers formed their own death squads. The government accepted extra-judicial killings as part of the overall defence against the JVP/DJV violence perpetrated against the UNP and those connected with that party.

Members of the SLPP raised security issues at a meeting they had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House last Saturday (14). The government shouldn’t expect normalisation of the situation until tangible measures are taken to stabilize the national economy. Lawmakers wouldn’t be safe as long queues for diesel, petrol and cooking gas exist with the vast majority of the electorate struggling to make ends meet. The government should be mindful of interventions made by foreign powers and other external and internal players hell-bent on exploiting the situation to their advantage.

Recent demonstrations near the Parliament compelled the police to close several roads for traffic on May 05 and 06. The police closed the section from Diyatha Uyana junction (Polduwa junction) to Jayanthipura junction and from Jayanthipura junction to the Denzil Kobbekaduwa road to deter mass invasions by well organised demonstrators. The police asserted that closure of the roads were necessary, in spite of the inconvenience caused to the public, to prevent hindrance to lawmakers entering and leaving the parliamentary complex.

The police closed down the same sections of the roads yesterday (17) to facilitate parliamentary proceedings. Trade unions combine and the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) have vowed to lay siege to the Parliament. The warning that had been made several days before the May 09 mayhem should be reviewed. The trade union grouping and the IUSF affiliated to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the breakaway JVP faction, should be mindful of the crises the country is experiencing.

A tragedy

War-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa having to take refuge in the Trincomalee SLN base is a tragedy. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave resolute political leadership to Sri Lanka’s war effort at a time the vast majority of lawmakers felt the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. Therefore, many accepted peace at any cost. They were prepared even to give up Sri Lanka’s unitary status in a bid to reach a consensus with separatist Tamil terrorists mollycoddled by Western powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa had the strength and political acumen to take on the LTTE. The country should never forget how President Rajapaksa, in spite of strong objections from the military, flew into Kebitigollewa on June 15, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of a claymore mine attack on a passenger bus. The blast killed over 60 men, women and children. Having visited the survivors, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave an assurance that the terrorism would be eradicated. The promise was made two months before the LTTE resumed large-scale offensive action in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful end in May 2009. But, the President, who restored peace, has ended up virtually running for his life and had to seek refuge in a military installation for the time being as post-war policies and strategies take their toll with interested parties taking advantage of the tragedy facing the country.

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