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Midweek Review

Sri Lanka’s collective failure on the Geneva front

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

Successive governments facilitated a high profile treacherous Geneva process by conveniently or incompetently refraining from exploiting former RAF pilot Michael Wolfgang Laurence Morris or Lord Naseby’s shocking disclosure in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017 to set the record straight as regards unsubstantiated war crimes.

The real issue is not defeat suffered by Sri Lanka at the UNHRC yesterday (23) but the failure on the part of successive governments to properly defend the armed forces.

Sri Lanka defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was widely considered to be invincible and the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world, following a nearly three-year long combined security forces campaign. The war was brought to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009.

Sri Lanka’s collective failure to take advantage of Lord Naseby’s revelation as well as other related credible information in the public domain is nothing but betrayal of the war-winning armed forces. Lord Naseby provided the much needed ammunition to expose the Geneva lie two years after the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government betrayed the armed forces at the UNHRC in Oct 2015.

On behalf of Sri Lanka, the then Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinghe accepted the ‘Accountability Resolution 30/1’ on a specific directive from Premier Wickremesinghe-FM Mangala Samaraweera. Aryasinghe, who had earlier strongly opposed the US-led resolution at the informal discussions with the Core Group of Sri Lanka, is our Ambassador in Washington now.

A controversial US statement

The first indication that unsubstantiated war crimes accusations can be successfully countered was received at the first ever Colombo Defence Seminar conducted in late May-June 2011 during Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya’s tenure as the Commander of the Army (July 2009-July 2013). Jayasuriya succeeded war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka in the wake of an unprecedented dispute between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka. The Sinha Regiment veteran ended up as the common candidate at the 2010 presidential election challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa his Commander in Chief only a few months before.

Thanks to Wikileaks, the US role in making Fonseka the common candidate as well as ensuring the one-time LTTE proxy, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) extending support to him is in the public domain. The day the TNA declared its support to Fonseka, the unsubstantiated war crimes accusations should have been unceremoniously discarded. But, unfortunately, the war crimes accusations persisted even after the predominantly Tamil speaking northern and eastern electoral districts overwhelmingly voted for him.

At the first Defence Seminar, the then US Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt. Col. Lawrence questioned the very basis of allegations, including the execution of surrendered terrorists directed at the Army (58 Division/formerly Task Force I). The US official was responding to a query posed by retired Major General Ashok K. Mehta, formerly of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) deployed here, to Major General Shavendra Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division. Silva, the incumbent Army Chief was there in his capacity as Sri Lanka’s then No 02 at the UN. Smith’s voluntary and spontaneous revelation, made weeks after the UNSG’s Panel of Experts (PoE) aka the Darusman report accused Sri Lanka of killing as many as 40,000 (paragraph 137) embarrassed the US (Sri Lanka Defence Symposium: Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer with strap line…dismisses KP, Nadesan as ‘mouthpieces’ with no real authority – The Island, June 3, 2011)

The US State Department had no option but to claim Lt. Colonel Smith hadn’t represented the US at the seminar. The political leadership and Army Headquarters never exploited the US official’s statement. In fact, Smith’s statement made six years before Lord Naseby’s disclosure based on the then British Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Anthony Gash’s wartime dispatches, should have been the basis for Sri L:anka’s defence. It would be pertinent to examine why the first Rajapaksa administration never bothered to examine the US official’s statement. In fact, the Army never really pursued the matter during the tenure of Army Commanders – Daya Ratnayaka (Aug 2013-Feb 2015), Chrishantha de Silva (Feb-2015-June 2017) and Mahesh Senanayake (June 2017-August 2019) as Commander of the Army. Lord Naseby made his disclosure during Mahesh Senanayake’s tenure as the Commander. But, the Army never examined/exploited Lt. Col. Smith’s statement and that of Lord Naseby as part of Sri Lanka’s overall defence in Geneva.

The politically motivated US decision to slap a travel ban on incumbent Army Commander in Feb 2020 should be examined against the backdrop of the criminal negligence on Sri Lanka’s part to counter lies propagated in spite of having powerful ammunition. Actually a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) is necessary to ascertain the shocking lapses on the part of political and military leaderships that led to ‘Accountability Resolution 30/1’ in 2015 and the expansion of relentless and continuing Western campaign.

 

Yahapalanaya rejects Naseby disclosure

Treacherous politicians, some sections of the media and diplomatic community and the civil the society worked overtime to suppress Lord Naseby’s disclosure that threatened to undermine the devious Geneva project. The Geneva operation was meant to introduce a new Constitution that did away with Sri Lanka’s unitary status in the guise of addressing accountability issues. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration spearheaded the despicable project. The then Joint Opposition (now SLPP) co-operated in that endeavor by being part of a parliamentary process to draft a new Constitution, spearheaded by Premier Wickremesinghe. President Sirisena remained an onlooker whereas his parliamentary group participated in the process. Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) subsequently quit the process though his efforts to convince the JO to do so failed.

Lord Naseby’s disclosure threatened to weaken the yahapalana project. The Foreign Ministry under Ravi Karunanayake (RK received the appointment in the wake of Samaraweera’s removal as FM in May 2017) ridiculed Lord Naseby’s statement.

Did the Sri Lanka High Commission in London bring Lord Naseby’s statement to the Foreign Ministry’s attention? For want of a Foreign Ministry response to Lord Naseby’s very important statement, even a week after it was made, the writer, on Oct 20, 2017, sought an explanation from the Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry response really disappointed a vast majority of people, who expected the government to use the House of Lords disclosure to counter lies that had been propagated by various interested parties. Instead of taking advantage of Lord Naseby’s statement, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mahishini Colonne declared: “The Government of Sri Lanka remains committed to the national processes, aimed at realizing the vision of a reconciled, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation. Engaging in arguments and debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues, in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other.”

The writer also raised Lord Naseby’s disclosure with the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), one-time mouthpiece of the LTTE and the main Opposition in Parliament. The TNA refrained from responding to The Island queries submitted to TNA leader R. Sampanthan. In spite of over a dozen calls/sms to Raghu Balachandran of Sampanthan’s Office, The Island never received the TNA’s response. You may want to know when the set of questions regarding TNA’s response to Lord Naseby’s disclosure was submitted to that party. The Island submitted the following questions to TNA and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan on Nov. 27, 2017 and repeatedly reminded the Opposition Leader’s Office of the delay on its part to respond: Have you (TNA) studied Lord Naseby’s statement made in the House of Lords on Oct. 12, 2017? What is TNA’s position on Naseby’s claims? Did TNA leaders discuss Naseby’s claim among themselves? Did TNA respond to MP Dinesh Gunawardena’s statements in Parliament on Naseby’s disclosure? And did TNA take up this issue with the UK High Commissioner James Dauris?

 

UK plays politics with Gash reports

The British HC too side-stepped the issue. When the writer raised the issue with Lord Naseby soon after his explosive Oct 12, 2017 disclosure, the Conservative Party member said that he received an assurance from the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mark Field, that the issue at hand would be examined (FCO to study Naseby’s proposals – The Island, Oct 26, 2017). However, when the writer sought an explanation from the British HC in Colombo on the same matter, the mission dismissed Lord Naseby’s statement on the basis he was not speaking for the British government (Naseby’s call doesn’t reflect UK’s stand – HC, The Island Dec 6, 2017).

The UK never hesitated to praise Channel 4 News that propagated accusations that the Sri Lankan military massacred over 40,000 civilians. The then UK Prime Minister David Cameron went out of his way to praise the Channel 4 team accompanying him to Colombo for CHOGM 2013 when he addressed the media at the BMICH. Questions at this peculiar press conference were only fielded from a handpicked lot, especially from his retinue of embedded reporters from the UK brought with him. Is that another display of “British sense of justice and fair play”? But one plucky Lankan journalist Rajpal Abeynayake clearly shouted out “bloody hypocrites” as Cameron got up and left without taking any questions from independent journalists.

 The UK should really examine its role here, how it had intentionally contributed to terrorism much to the disappointment of the majority of Sri Lankans. Let me remind you of a statement made by one-time UK High Commissioner in Colombo David Tattham in 1996 soon after the armed forces brought the Jaffna peninsula under the government control. Tattham, during a visit to Jaffna, urged the Diaspora not to fund the LTTE. But the UK didn’t take any notice of Tattham’s appeal. The LTTE was allowed to operate there with impunity.

 

Relevance of Offord’s speech

Despite being up to all types of villainy around the world (for example what did the ICC say recently about the behviour of her troops in Afghanistan and how London shamelessly passed hasty legislation to save their skins), the British are now championing human rights here in its new capacity as leader of the Sri Lanka Core Group without even examining the post-war situation. Perhaps a statement delivered by Matthew Offord, the current Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka (Lord Naseby is the Honorary President and Founder) on March 18, 2021 in the House of Commons debate on UK’s commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka underscored the need for a fresh examination of the war, post-war and related matters.

The following is the text of elected member Offord’s speech: “I start by highlighting my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s relationship with the rest of the world has been strongly shaped since the end of the conflict by allegations that the Army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war.

“A UN panel of experts reported in April 2011 that there were credible allegations of those crimes by both Government and Tamil Tiger forces. It remains my opinion that both sides were at fault. However, I regret the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to withdraw support for UNHRC resolution 30/1 and note that previous domestic initiatives have failed to deliver meaningful accountability. I therefore urge the Sri Lankan Government to engage in a process that has the confidence of all on the island.

“But it would be remiss to state that the current Sri Lankan Government has failed to act. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations are to be retained and strengthened, so that communities may build trust. It will be good to see reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and progress on the release of political prisoners. We must act as a critical friend to the country. We need to help strengthen democratic institutions, and we must trust Sri Lanka to develop its own judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.

“Since the end of the conflict, reconciliation has occurred among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. People are able to live wherever they wish. They benefit from state resources, such as free education and health services. Private land that was occupied by the military has been returned, former conflict areas have been de-mined with assistance from the United Kingdom, and more than 12,000 ex-LTTE— Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—cadres have been rehabilitated. There is greater connectivity throughout the island and globally, and all of this has transformed the business sector and the lives of everyone in the country.

“But we should remember that a fresh resolution and accountability are not a panacea for addressing underlying tensions. Questions about how to address the legacy of the Sri Lankan conflict must be answered: what kind of justice is attainable? How should the victims of violations be treated in the process? What might punishment look like, and how can justice play a constructive role in forging a lasting peace?

“Draft legislation for a truth and reconciliation commission had been prepared under the previous Sri Lankan Government, and that could be revisited. If it gains universal support in Sri Lanka, truth seeking among all stakeholders, including the diaspora in many of our communities and constituencies could make a lasting difference. When these issues have been resolved, a sustainable and acceptable peace will endure. Given the goodwill between our two countries, I ask the Minister: how can the UK help to facilitate a TRC mechanism that is unique to the needs of Sri Lanka?”

 Offord took a sensible and impartial stand on the Sri Lanka issue at the poorly attended debate.

Unfortunately, Offord has either deliberately or inadvertently been silent on the need to examine Gash reports pertaining to the Vanni war. The elected House of Commons member owed the public an explanation. Why shouldn’t the Conservative party member ask his government to release the entire set of Gash reports to help ascertain the truth?

Recently, former Sri Lanka Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva told the writer that examination of wartime dispatches from Colombo-based defence advisors and defence attaches would help Geneva to establish the truth. Those who had been pushing Sri Lanka on the human rights front are silent on their own records and tend to depend on faceless accusers. The CJ, 41 was referring to PoE declaration that war crimes accuser wouldn’t be examined till 2031. If Offord is really keen on post-war Sri Lanka reconciliation he should push for a thorough inquiry. By depriving access to wartime British HC dispatches from Colombo, one cannot help with the reconciliation.  

The writer is sure Offord understands the British lost credibility by offering sanctuary to LTTE activist Adele Balasingham, wife of Anton Balasingham, British citizen of Sri Lankan origin. Did the British ever inquire into the possibility of Adele’s direct involvement with women suicide cadres? The possibility of Adele knowing the woman suicide bomber who targeted former Indian PM and Congress I leader Rajiv Gandhi can never be ruled out. If New Delhi is really interested in finding the truth it should be the first party to pick up this line of thinking.

 

How Sri Lanka helped enemy strategy

Sri Lanka facilitated Western strategy against the country by allowing anti-Sri Lanka propagandists a free hand. One-time Deputy Minister and retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera addressing a media briefing organized by civil society organization ‘Eliya’ backing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature at the 2019 presidential poll said that Lord Naseby’s disclosure could be the basis for Sri Lanka’s defence at the Geneva body. The Navy veteran was flanked by the then The Island political columnist C.A. Chandraprema (our present Permanent Representative in Geneva) and Ven. Medagoda Abhayatissa. Weerasekera, now the Public Security Minister, faulted the yahapalana government for not exploiting Lord Naseby’s revelation to Sri Lanka’s advantage (Lord Naseby’s call to revise Vanni death toll: Parliament faulted for not taking up vital issue – The Island Nov 8, 2017).

The SLPP government certainly owed the public an explanation how it used/failed to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure along with other credible information such as Lt. Col. Smith’s stand at the 2011 Colombo Defence seminar, Wikileaks revelations and still confidential UN report that dealt with the Vanni conflict and placed the total number of dead at 7,721 to build up a strong case.

The writer during separate media briefings during the Yahapalana administration raised the accountability issue and was told by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Dayasiri Jayasekera the cabinet had never discussed Sri Lanka’s response to alleged war crimes allegations. Fonseka’s colleagues in Nov 2017 (Dayasiri Jayasekera in his capacity as the Cabinet spokesperson) and Aug 2018 (Mahinda Samarasinghe in his capacity as the SLFP spokesperson) revealed a pathetic situation. They acknowledged that the Cabinet of ministers had not discussed Sri Lanka’s defence nor examined the Geneva Resolution. Jayasekera reacted angrily when the writer queried about the lapse on the part of the government. Jayasekera declared that a statement made by Lord Naseby in the House of Lords would be used by the government appropriately at the right time, though the Cabinet was yet to discuss it.

Jayasekera said that they wouldn’t take up issues pursued by The Island the way the newspaper wanted. It had not been taken up by the Cabinet on the basis it wasn’t considered a grave matter, the Minister said. The Minister initially asserted that Lord Naseby’s statement wasn’t directly relevant to the Geneva issue (Cabinet spokesman provoked by query on govt response to Naseby move – The Island Nov 16, 2017).

When the writer asked the then Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva whether Lord Naseby’s disclosure could be used at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s human rights record at Geneva, the then UNPer said that the matter was not directly relevant to the UPR. He was responding to a query by The Island in his capacity as the leader of the country’s delegation to the UPR (The issue never discussed at cabinet: House of Lords statement not directly relevant to UPR-Dr. De Silva – The Island, Nov 14, 2017)

In spite of the change of government in Nov 2019, the country is yet to take tangible measures to expose the Geneva lie. The handling of the 46th Geneva session proved again Sri Lanka’s failure. Those responsible should keep in mind Geneva lie cannot be exposed by propaganda alone.



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Midweek Review

Pandemic Policies and Politics in South Asia:

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A Book Review

By Kalinga Tudor Silva

Jayathilake, N., De Silva, S. and Amarajeewa, A. eds. Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives. Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in collaboration with Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2021.

This edited volume published by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on various countries in the South Asian region. This volume differs from much of the emerging body of literature on politics and governance of the pandemic in that it seeks to capture civil society perspectives relating to this public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, with South Asia emerging as a major hotspot of the global pandemic. This is timely and particularly relevant as the pandemic is still unfolding in many parts of South Asia and the related horror stories triggered by the humanitarian crisis in India are presently making global media headlines. As of now, we in Sri Lanka have our own struggle against the virus, with the so-called ‘new year cluster’ attributed to related cultural festivities and the emergence of a more virulent new strain of the virus, triggering a possible third wave of the pandemic. Given all these considerations, this new book deserves our close attention and critical reflection.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with broader regional and multilateral issues relating to containing the pandemic in South Asia. The remaining chapters review specific country experiences in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, respectively. The book sets the tone for the volume as follows:

“COVID 19 pandemic is perhaps the most daunting challenge that South Asia has confronted so far in the new millennium. With the outbreak of the pandemic, many unprecedented developments are in motion in South Asia, affecting almost all aspects of social, economic and political life in the region…… South Asia will never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic.” (p. ix).

Opening chapter by Uyangoda, traces the retreat of democracy and rise of what he calls “executive authoritarianism” particularly in India and Sri Lanka along with the onset of the pandemic. It highlights the systematic way the new regimes in the two countries have consolidated their power deploying exigencies relating to the containment of the pandemic as an excuse to advance authoritarian tendencies, suppress democratic opposition and curtail minority rights in these two of the oldest democracies in Asia. Citizenship Act in India passed immediately before the onset of the pandemic and 20th amendment in Sri Lanka introduced during the pandemic are clear examples of the authoritarian turn in the two countries. Subsequent developments, however, show that playing politics with pandemics, is a rather dangerous game as failures, mismanagement and the resulting public anger can turn against the same rulers who emerged through the pandemic as clearly demonstrated in the outcome of recent elections in India. Also, it must be noted here that the social and political history of epidemic outbreaks indicate that they do not necessarily promote the advancement of autocratic tendencies. They can also result in mass mobilization accompanied by increased democratic participation. For instance, the famous malaria epidemic of 1934-35 did contribute to the politicization of rural masses in Sri Lanka through the mediation of both nationalist and leftist political leaders and the development of the Sri Lankan welfare state as pointed out by several researchers (Jones 2015, Silva 2014, Jayasuriya 2000).

In the second chapter, Joseph and Pandey examine how far the pandemic has contributed towards development of regional cooperation for addressing a formidable common challenge. In their view even though some efforts at multilateral cooperation were made by the South Asian leaders through zoom meetings held at the onset of the pandemic, in the end “each country continued to battle the virus on its own” (P. 31) due to structural problems in SAARC and a variety of unresolved bilateral issues. Even though the chapter says that “there is a realization that COVID-19 is a collective crisis and combating this required coordinated action”, it has not been translated into a concrete program of action at the regional level. The subsequent chapter by Suba Chandran and others argue that the pandemic has served to reinforce conflict dynamics in the region, whether we are talking about bilateral issues between the countries or internal conflict dynamics within each country such as ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

Country-specific analysis in chapters four to nine provide empirical support to many of the arguments provided in the previous chapters. Chapter Four on Sri Lanka by Senanayake and others, for instance, points to the militarization of the pandemic response in Sri Lanka and its implications for engagement with minorities and civil society. While the military did play a useful role in terms of expanding health infrastructure and managing quarantine facilities at a time when the state encountered serious resource constraints, the use of military intelligence in contact tracing, the privacy issues encountered by suspected patients and their contacts and any resulting stigmatization processes particularly where socially marginalized vulnerable people on the other side of the law such as substance users are exposed to the pandemic, pose serious problems from the angles of human rights, trust building and compliance. The chapter notes that the pandemic response in Sri Lanka involved the formation of three different task forces set up under section 33 of the constitution. The members of these task forces were handpicked by the president through his inner network of allies and were directly reporting to him with no clear guidelines about the tasks assigned to them and with no accountability to the public at large. What the chapter does not point out is that these politically constituted task forces totally exclude experts in several relevant fields such as social sciences, social work, law and gender relations or any credible representatives of civil society. As a result, when it came to sensitive issues such as addressing the legitimate demand for burial rights by Muslims, task forces did not have any knowledgeable persons who could express their professional opinions on the subject and address the problem sympathetically and following appropriate public health guidelines, also countering unfounded claims by the so-called ‘patriotic scientists’ (Rambukwella 2020).

Chapters on other countries in the region clearly illustrate that civil society is engaged in the struggle against COVID-19 side by side with the state agencies and the private sector in a variety of challenging circumstances and under different political regimes. It is increasingly evident that the struggle against the pandemic is multi-pronged, carried out at economic, social, political, and epidemiological fronts at the same time, long-term and needs to be regularly updated and adapted to changing circumstances. The role of civil society organizations ranges from fund raising, relief services targeting underserved communities in particular, rights-based interventions, advocacy work on behalf of affected people such as women, people with disabilities, migrant workers, urban poor and people in different stages of exposure to the disease, treatment, quarantine and recovery processes. While law enforcement and policing do have a role to play in disease prevention and control, a community-based approach informed by evidence and supported by community leaders at various levels is necessary to promote community mobilization and preparedness, healthy behaviours, compliance, and satisfactory adjustment to the new normal. A purely statist approach to contain the pandemic carried out with a cohort of loyalists, political henchmen and yes men and not guided by a critical reflection on evidence and community responses is bound to fail at this crucial moment when decisions made can make or break the future of humanity.

References

Jayasuriya, L. (2000). Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka: Experiences of a Third World Welfare State. Perth: University of Western Australia.

Jones, M. (2015). Sri Lankan Path to Health for All from the Colonial Period to Alma Ata. In A. Medcalf et al. eds. Health for All: The Journey of Universal Health Coverage. Hyderabad: Blackswan.

Rambukwella, Harshana. (2020). Patriotic Science: The Coronavirus Pandemic, Nationalism, and Indigeneity. University of Zurich Political Geography blog, June 3, 2020.

Silva, K.T. (2014). Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

 

 

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Midweek Review

Gammanpila’s proposal for ‘grading system’ for Ministers timely

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) is a constituent of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led coalition. The PHU is represented in the Cabinet of ministers by its leader and Attorney-at-Law, Udaya Gammanpila. One-time Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight Gammanpila secured recognition for the breakaway faction, PHU, on Oct 14, 2020, two months after the last general election. The Election Commission altogether recognised six political parties, including the PHU. They were registered in terms of the powers vested in the Commission, under Section 7(4) and (5) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 01 of 1981.

The JHU contested its first general election, in April 2004, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The JHU secured nine seats. After switching sides, on multiple occasions, it is now a constituent of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party in the Parliament. The former JHU representative in the cabinet, Patali Champika Ranawaka, now spearheads ‘hathalisthunwani senankaya’ (43rd Division) – a political movement meant to challenge the incumbent government.

Ranawaka, who had served the cabinets of Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, quit the JHU, in early Dec 2020, four months after the last general election.

In the run-up to the general election, in August 2020, Patali Champika Ranawaka’s one-time JHU colleague, PHU leader, Gammanpila, called for a system to grade ministers. Minister Gammanpila asserted that a grading system was required to ensure the proper functioning of the Cabinet of ministers.

Let me reproduce what lawyer Gammanpila said, in Sinhala, on July 14, 2020:

“The people believe a Cabinet of ministers, capable of serving under the leadership of hard-working President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, will be installed. Ministers must work. People should also know about that. Those unable to work should lose their ministerial portfolios. Therefore, I propose to introduce a grading system for ministers and release of the results every three months. If a minister became the last, in the grading system, for five consecutive times, it means the politician concerned failed to rectify the mistakes. In such a scenario, the minister should either resign or be removed by the President.”

Lawmaker Gammanpila further proposed: “The grading system should be based on handling of capital expenditure, recurrent expenditure, swift handling of problems, faced by the people, cooperation with public servants, timely response to audit queries, filling vacancies, conducting the public day, attending parliamentary sessions, participating in debates relevant to portfolios handled by the respective ministers and responding to media queries. People should propose new recommendations for the proposed grading system.”

At the time lawmaker Gammanpila made the above declaration, he hadn’t been a member of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first Cabinet of ministers, appointed immediately after the 2019 presidential election. On Nov 21, 2019, MP Gammanpila asked President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to consider him for a Cabinet portfolio as he realized the serious difficulties experienced by the new administration.

Gammanpila, in a brief letter, dated Nov 21, addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, copied to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that 38 former ministers sought Cabinet portfolios in the caretaker government. In addition to them, there were several district leaders expecting Cabinet portfolios, MP Gammanpila said finalising the list of 15 as agreed wouldn’t be an easy task.

Gammanpila added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s original plan was to name a 10-member caretaker Cabinet. At the end, the new government appointed 16 ministers. Of them, the SLPP received 10 slots.

The remaining six positions were shared among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), receiving two positions, and one each for the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Gammanpila received a Cabinet portfolio in the wake of the last general election. The PHU leader holds the Energy Portfolio and is also the co-cabinet spokesperson.

Since the July 14, 2020 declaration, lawmaker Gammanpila hasn’t referred to the grading system for ministers. His cabinet colleagues hadn’t mentioned the matter Either. Obviously, the divisions it would cause in the government has kept everyone mum.

 Perhaps, there should be a wider grading system, not only for ministers, but for political party leaders, and even those wielding power in other tiers of government, like the Provincial Councils, and local authorities. There shouldn’t be any dispute over PHU leader’s proposal that the grading system he proposed for ministers covered the concerned lawmakers conduct, both in and outside Parliament. However, the need for accountability, on the part of all lawmakers, even for their conduct before they entered Parliament, is of pivotal importance.

 

Prof. Herath responds to Ambanwela

Let me give you an example of how closely a section of the public followed issues at hand. Recently, the writer received a paper cutting of a story headlined, ‘SLC funds amounting to Rs 29 mn in US bank: SLC caught lying before COPE, ‘authored by him. The story published on April 9, 2021 dealt with how COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Chritha Herath pursued inquiries into corruption in the SLC. Along with that paper cutting, the writer also received paper cutting of an interview done by Tharindu Uduwegedera with former Additional Auditor General Lalith Ambanwela for the April 11 edition of ‘Anidda’. The sender, who didn’t identify himself/herself, questioned the integrity of incumbent COPE Chairman on the basis of his conduct as the Secretary to the Media Ministry.

Ambanwela, who was attacked with acid, in May 2002, over an audit investigation in respect of corruption, involving a Central Province Education Director, levelled quite a serious allegation at Prof. Herath. Ambanwela questioned the rationale in making Prof. Herath Chairman of the Parliamentary Watchdog Committee, in spite of him turning a blind eye to specific corrupt activities brought to his notice by the Auditor General’s Department, over a period of time. Ambanwela accused Prof. Herath of not taking action as regards serious cases of corruption at the State Printing Corporation. He much respected retired public servant alleged that Prof. Herath did nothing when the then Chairman of the State Printing Corporation transferred over Rs 40 mn to an account of a relative.

The Island raised the issue at hand with Prof. Herath, who strongly denied Ambanwela’s accusation. Prof. Herath said: “I didn’t keep quiet about revelations made by the Auditor General’s Department. Within a week after COPE brought the matter to my notice, the Chairman concerned was removed. The then COPE Chairman Dew Gunasekera was informed of the action taken. Further information can be obtained from former COPE Chairman Gunasekera.”

 Prof. Herath said that he deeply regretted the unsubstantiated accusations made by Ambanwela. Prof. Herath, in a twitter message, issued in Sinhala, denied Ambanwela’s claims. Prof. Herath’s swift response to the retired public servant’s accusations should be appreciated. A person with questionable past cannot, under any circumstances, chair COPE or COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or PFC (Public Finance Committee).

Regardless of Prof. Herath’s denial of Ambanwela’s accusation, let me briefly discuss how the latter explained political interference, in relation to the audit process. Ambanwela’s explanation, given in response to Tharindu Uduwegedera’s query, should be examined against the backdrop of lawmaker Gammanpila’s once proposed grading system for ministers. Successive governments had done precious little to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities.

Alleging that some politicians participated in COPE and COPA proceedings with a view to dilute the Watchdog Committee’s reports, Ambanwela claimed that some represented the interests of those promoting various deals. Ambanwela cited the deal on leasing out a building owned by Upali Jayasinghe (former actress Sabitha Perera’s husband) at No 288, Rajagiriya-Kotte, Jayewardenepura Road, as a notorious example to prove politicians/governments colluding with business interests. Ambanwela made a no-nonsense assessment of the deal as the senior AG Department official who handled that particular inquiry.

The Auditor General’s Department report on the building deal, prepared by Ambanwela has been submitted to the COPA before the finalisation of the controversial agreement. Ambanwela, in the course of COPA proceedings, chaired by the then Chairman Lasantha Alagiyawanna warned Agriculture Ministry Secretary B. Wijeratne not to sign the agreement until COPA addressed the issue at hand. Ambanwela had warned of dire consequences if the Agriculture Ministry went ahead with the agreement. Ambanwela quoted the then lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake (JVP National List) as having said that the proposed agreement was a serious case of corruption. However, when Ambanwela urged Alagiyawanna, who represented the SLFP, not to finalize the deal, the lawmaker asserted such a decision couldn’t be taken as the Cabinet of ministers already had approved it.

Ambanwela revealed that in spite of him being an official, he had no qualms in declaring in the audit report pertaining to the Jayasinghe building deal that it was a decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers without critical analysis. If Lasantha Alagiyawanna, in his capacity as COPA Chairman, made the right intervention, losses could have been avoided. The total value of the deal was over Rs.1.3 bn.

COPE, COPA and PFC reports issued since the last parliamentary election proved, without uncertainty, that successive governments ruined the national economy. The country would have been in a far stronger position to face the Covid-19 challenge if successive governments ensured financial discipline. If one examines all reports issued by the above-mentioned Watchdog Committees, all governments, including the incumbent administration failed pathetically to follow laid down procedures, thereby causing massive losses to the national economy.

 

Evaluating an administration

The last presidential election was conducted in Nov 2019. The parliamentary election followed in August 2020. The electorate overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP, in both instances, with the SLPP securing a staggering 145 seats – just five short of a two-thirds majority. Without doubt, the SLPP’s performance is the best since the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The UNP obtained 5/6 of the seats at the 1977 general election under the first-past-the-post system. As lawmaker Gammanpila called for public proposals as regards a grading system for ministers, perhaps it would be pertinent to rank governments/political parties on the basis of points scored by ministers and members of Parliament in terms of a grading system. In other words, a proper grading system should reflect genuine public opinion.

Let me examine the conduct of Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge in the wake of Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena’s May Day declaration of Piliyandala as an isolated police area due to the growing Covid-19 threat there. Within hours, Lokuge got the isolation order removed. Subsequent to his intervention, the isolation order was restricted to just five grama sevaka areas.

One-time UNP Minister Lokuge switched his allegiance to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. Since then, he remained with the UPFA/SLPP and received the Transport portfolio, following the last general election.

Minister Lokuge got away with his high handed actions. Lokuge jeopardized the government counter measures against the spread of Covid-19 purely for parochial reasons and, in spite of widespread condemnation, he continued to defend his right to intervene on behalf of the Piliyandala electorate. The deployment of police in Covid-19 protective gear to carry away those in public places, not wearing face masks and other violations, on the basis they posed a threat to the community, seemed silly when the likes of Minister Lokuge walked freely about even after some of his staff tested positive.

Where would Minister Lokuge be if he was subjected to a proper grading system? In quite a revealing interview with Panuka Rajapaksa, of Hiru TV, on Sunday (9), the Minister reiterated his callous response to the growing Covid threat. Declaring his right to intervene, the Colombo District lawmaker faulted officials responsible for implementing Covid-19 counter measures. The Minister blamed it all on the DGHS. Thanks to a section of the media, particularly Hiru TV, the public are fully aware of how Piliyandala strongman Lokuge, and those under his political command, brought the entire government into disrepute. Unfortunately, the government refrained from taking remedial measures. Perhaps, the SLPP didn’t want to admit how irresponsible its senior members are. The DGHS never explained how his isolation order on Piliyandala/Kesbewa was unceremoniously removed by Minister Lokuge through his clout. The Minister’s actions, and the failure on the part of the government to take tangible measures to protect residents of Piliyandala/Kesbewa, proved beyond doubt the government still played politics with the issue at hand.

Having cancelled May Day rallies, citing the Covid-19 threat, the government succumbed to Minister Lukuge’s, what can be termed as, reckless politics. There is no harm in calling the same politics of Idiocy. However, Lokuge’s reckless behaviour should be studied, also taking into consideration the highly contentious decision to allow Indians into the country, both on holiday and for quarantine purposes, until the Covid-19 situation here took an extremely dangerous turn. The government announced plans to block Indians crossing the maritime boundary while allowing visitors through the Bandaranaike International Airport. What did the government expect to achieve by much publicised religious ceremonies in support of Covid-19 fight, especially in the wake of the likes of Minister Lokuge jeopardizing the overall effort?

 Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Health Minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi and other big shots, who set an extremely bad example by consuming ‘Dhammika Peniya’, depicted as a tonic prepared with the intervention of the Gods, issued instructions to members of Parliament as regards the Covid-19 counter measures. Close on the heels of the Speaker’s instructions for members to adhere with health guidelines, both in and outside Parliament, the government acknowledged the tonic touted as a miracle cure, is not so. The Health Minister and all her parliamentary colleagues who shared Kali amma’s tonic in Parliament should be ashamed of themselves. Their actions provided tacit approval for the ‘Dhammika Peniya.’

Perhaps the Energy Minister and co-cabinet spokesperson should grade those who accepted the miracle tonic of fraudster Dhammika Bandara of Hettimulla, Kegalle.

Throwing pots, containing what faith healer Eliyantha White called miracle water, by Minister Wanniarachchi, as well as her colleagues Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga, late last year didn’t have the promised impact. White, who claims to have mystic powers with many VIP clients, including foreigners, got Wanniarachchi to smash a pot, containing his special water, into the Kalu Ganga to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, footage on the social media showed.

At the time of White’s intervention, the number of infections was over 11,000 and 22 deaths.

Gamnmanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga  were both filmed throwing pots into the Kelani River at two different locations. White also dropped a pot containing his own miracle water.

Now, the number of infections is at over 125,000 cases and over 800 deaths. The government engaged in some quite ludicrous projects as the situation deteriorated. Those responsible for the overall government effort against the rampaging epidemic never ensured a proper investigation into the second Covid-19 eruption. Did they suppress the investigation even after outgoing Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, ordered no holds barred investigation into what he called the ‘Brandix cluster,’?

Livera issued specific instructions on Oct 27, 2000, in the wake of a 39-year-old female worker, at the Minuwangoda Brandix facility, being detected on Oct 4, 2020, as the first detected in a random test as the origin of the second wave of COVID-19 after almost five months since the countrywide curfew was lifted. Later, an attempt was made to fault Ukrainians for the second eruption. In their haste to suppress the investigation, a group of Ukrainian personnel, here on the invitation of the Air Force, to inspect AN 32 transport aircraft, too, was falsely implicated. What happened to the criminal investigation sought by AG de Livera?

The deterioration of the national economy is not an overnight development. Careful examination of Watchdog Committee reports, pertaining to state institutions, revealed how unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence over the years deteriorated the national economy to such an extent, the country is facing unprecedented challenges. The Covid-19 crisis, in a way, has come in good stead for those responsible to blame it on the raging pandemic.

 Why isn’t the government pursuing a criminal case against those responsible for the swindle, costing over a billion rupees to the state in the leasing of the Jayasinghe building? Is it because of another hidden deal between government and Opposition politicians? Is it because the same political mastermind behind the bond scams was also behind the Jayasinghe building lease deal?

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Midweek Review

The Re-defining Moment

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By Lynn Ockersz

The Human caring to look at himself,

Draws back in great dread,

From the bruised face that presents itself:

‘Is this me, whom they said,

From society is never

separate?’,

In anguish he asks himself;

‘Didn’t they say that humanity,

Is my defining essence?’

‘What stuff and nonsense’,he tells himself:

‘For, isn’t the rampaging plague,

That’s taking lives in the millions,

Teaching me that I must live,

Only for mine and myself?,

Don’t I see everyone else,

As a cadaver of sorts in a diseased state,

Whom I must avoid like the Black Death?

By doing this am I not standing,

The famous social being theory on its heads?’

 

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