There was a babble of righteous indignation when new MPs elected to the incumbent Parliament were told during an orientation session that meals served to them at the Diyawanna restaurant cost the taxpayer a cool three thousand bucks per meal though they paid only a relative pittance for what they ate. The figure, which seemed highly unlikely, was later corrected to say that a fish meal cost Rs. 950 to provide while a vegetarian meal cost Rs. 629 with MPs charged Rs. 200 per meal. In a previous comment on this subject, we said that the chances are that the entire food bill in the legislature appears to have been divided by 225 (the number of MPs) to reach the astronomical figure although it is not only the legislators who eat in Parliament. Numerous officials, policemen, the press and sundry others eat there as well knowing that they are being treated to a highly subsidized meal. Although the
Speaker promised to go into the matter and report back, nothing further was heard on the subject. So the people remain ignorant on the true situation and quite willing to believe the worst.
Now the question of the security offered to parliamentarians has cropped up with a couple of Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs saying that two police guards assigned to them is insufficient. Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, now charged with the responsibility Irrigation, Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management seems to have struck a responsive chord in the public mind saying that policemen will not be deployed “to carry files and bags of MPs.” He might have added “or answer telephones” because that is also a common chore falling on those cops assigned to security details of parliamentarians. From what the Minister said, the previous four policemen per MP has now been reduced to two and the government did not seem inclined, rightly we believe, to increase this. But there were no questions asked about numbers assigned to “special cases” including ministers, opposition personalities, and former presidents. The minister will surely be embarrassed to reveal the facts as well as the names of the privileged few.
Rajapaksa explained that it was necessary to substantially increase the protection granted to MPs, during the JVPs second adventure in the late eighties when several MPs and other political activists were literally bumped off in cold blood. There were so many of them including several MPs from both sides of the fence and others like Vijaya Kumaranatunga who might have become President as his widow, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga, did some years later, Apart from the MPs there were well known trade unionists like PD Wimalasena of the LSSP and LW Panditha of the CP. Other names that readily come to mind include Nandalal Fernando, General Secretary of the UNP and that party’s Chairman Harsha Abeywardene. Older readers might remember the grenade which did not explode flung at Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva through a verandah grill at his Kollupitiya home late in the night.
Then came the LTTE threat which was much more fearsome than its JVP predecessor with the Tigers responsible for the assassination of no less than Rajiv Gandhi, President Premadasa, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, CV Gooneratne, Ranjan Wijeratne and many more including a large number of Tamil MPs including TULF leaders like Messrs. A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparam and Tamil Congress Leader Kumar Ponnambalam. Naturally, as Minister Chamal Rajapaksa said, huge resources had to be thrown into protect national leaders and other vulnerable persons at that time. President Chandrika Kumaratunga lost an eye and barely escaped with her life in the last campaign rally she addressed prior to her re-election. An icy chill will run down the spines of all those who remember those terror-filled days. Both the JVP and LTTE terror resulted in an ever ballooning security apparatus like the Presidential, Prime Ministerial and Ministerial Security Divisions of the Police. There are necessarily special units also, like diplomatic protection. Thousands of policemen are assigned for such duties at the expense of regular law enforcement.
The extent of VIP security is usually based on threat perception. But even with such perception going sky high, as in the case of Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, and the massive resources deployed, it was not possible to save him from the LTTE sniper who put a bullet through his head having patiently bided his time for probably months. The assassin had been holed up in the unused upper floor of a neighboring residence whose occupants did not know what was going on in a part of their house they never visited. Kadirgamar, typically, did not wish his neighbors harassed in any way and that resulted in his personal security personnel not running a fine tooth comb as they well might have had they not been prevented from so doing.
We say all this in the context of the reality that electors generally react adversely to the perks heaped on representatives sent by them particularly to Parliament. Thus the media is able to raise a great hoo haa about what their MPs are able to eat in the House restaurant and at what price. People naturally rile against security squads, sometimes converted to virtual private armies during extraordinary times, and white-gloved soldiers in VIP motorcades shooing people off the roads to make way for the high and mighty to speed by. The JVP insurrection and the civil war naturally bloated the security apparatus but does it need to remain so for all time now that the threats are gone?
Terrorism and hidden hands
Wednesday 28th October, 2020
The government is awaiting the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which is probing the Easter Sunday attacks, to effect changes to the national security apparatus, Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris has reportedly said. The yahapalana government neglected national security and jeopardised public safety as never before. Those who were at the helm of that administration are now blaming one another. The incumbent administration has apparently straightened up the defence establishment, but much more remains to be done.
Religious extremism is not the only threat Sri Lanka’s national security is faced with although it is a very grave one, which has to be tackled urgently. Security threats emanate from other quarters as well. Who actually masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks, which were carried out by the NTJ, is not known. It is claimed that there was an invisible hand behind those terror strikes. Who is responsible for the serious lapses that enabled the terrorists to strike with ease is now public knowledge. What needs to be found out is who was actually behind the carnage, which may have been part of a strategy to destabilise Sri Lanka.
SLMC leader and SJB MP Rauff Hakeem, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday attacks, said in September that the NTJ had not masterminded the attack, and it had been only a pawn. When the commissioners asked him to reveal who had been behind the attacks, he said he would do so in camera. He should have made his findings known to the public.
Hakeem is not alone in suspecting a hidden hand behind the attacks. In July 2019, no less a person than Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith said that the attacks were part of an international conspiracy, and the conspirators had used ‘misguided Muslim youth’ to carry them out.
The LTTE has not given up its struggle; its activists are all out to have its proscription lifted in the UK. Pressure is mounting on the British government to deproscribe the LTTE, and the pro-Tiger activists backed by their lawyers might succeed in preparing the ground for reviving the LTTE in Europe. There have been reports that the LTTE is active in Tamil Nadu; some of its activists have been arrested while trying to smuggle explosives here. In August 2018, the Rameswaram police took into custody seven suspects with 5,000 detonators which were to be smuggled to Sri Lanka by boat. In October 2019, a former LTTE cadre was nabbed by the army and handed over to the Serunuwara police, and a subsequent search of his house yielded several hand grenades, C4 explosives, 62 rounds of 9mm ammunition, a T-56 weapon, 154 rounds T-56 ammunition, one semi-automatic rifle, one magazine, two detonator cords, 62 different types of detonators, and a knife.
About 12,500 former LTTE combatants have been rehabilitated and released. However, there is no guarantee that all of them will never revert to their old habits simply because they have undergone rehabilitation. The former war zone is awash with lethal arms, ammunition and explosives. Worse, some politicians are openly espousing the LTTE’s cause and commemorating the dead Tiger leaders.
Sri Lanka has antagonised some powerful nations that do not hesitate to promote terrorism to further their geo-political interests. These countries did not want the LTTE defeated because the perpetuation of the war here would have served their interests; they even tried to throw a lifeline to a beleaguered Prabhakaran. Some of them went so far as to rush their foreign ministers here in a bid to stop the final battle and, thereby, save the LTTE leaders, albeit in vain.
In introducing national security reforms, the government ought to be mindful of the threats from not only the non-state actors but also the states that promote terrorism as an extension of their foreign policy.
US turning on soft targets
Tuesday 27th October, 2020
The US presidential election is only a few days away. Why does Washington think Sri Lanka is so important as to be visited by no less a person than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at this particular juncture? Reasons for this high-profile visit seem to be both domestic and international. Internationally, the US has its work cut out to counter the growing Chinese influence. Its military and economic prowess is of little use in overcoming formidable challenges that China poses. The US and its allies are without enough surplus funds to match China’s ability to grant loans or undertake development projects around the world. They are particularly troubled by a gnawing sense of insecurity vis-à-vis China’s ambitious Belt and Road project. Unable to take on China for obvious reasons, the US is turning on soft targets like Sri Lanka dependent on Chinese aid, and has forged alliances with other nations to shore up its diminishing power. Washington is also in a hurry to have the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact inked here. Pompeo is likely to give Colombo a Hobson’s choice, in this regard.
In the US, former President Barrack Obama, and Democratic Party vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris have apparently left nothing for Joe Biden to do in his electoral battle against Trump; they have torn President Donald Trump to shreds. If Trump could survive Obama’s campaign complete with extremely successful drive-in car rallies, and secure a second term, he could consider himself the luckiest man on earth. Having failed on all fronts, and being troubled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is ripping through the US, the only way Trump apparently can think of mustering enough electoral support is to do a Captain America on a mission to save the US from China. In fact, the GOP has asked its activists not to defend Trump but to attack China. Pompeo’s tour of South Asia could be considered as part of the GOP’s desperate efforts to drum up support for Trump at home by undertaking a mission to counter China’s influence in this part of the world.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Dean R. Thompson’s recent unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka as regards its dependence on China for financial assistance is of crucial import: “We urge Sri Lanka to make a difficult but necessary decision to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity, and we stand ready to partner with Sri Lanka for its economic development and growth,” he said. How does the US propose to help Sri Lanka? How much is it willing to grant Sri Lanka by way of financial assistance without expecting anything in return other than loan repayment? Can it match what Sri Lanka receives from China as loans and grants?
The US would not have had to throw its weight around in this manner if it had conducted itself as a true world leader and tried to win over other nations instead of resorting to hostile action against them on some pretext or the other. Libya, which used to be a land of prosperity, whose free education, free healthcare and welfare systems made the developed world turn green with envy, is now a hellhole thanks to the regime change engineered by the US-led forces in 2011 purportedly to restore democracy there. Rival factions have been at war for the last nine years or so, and the Libyans are going through hell. It has taken more than four decades for the people of Chile to undo what Augusto Pinochet did to their country after capturing power with the help of the US through a military coup. They voted overwhelmingly at a recent plebiscite for abolishing the existing Charter drafted by Pinochet, in 1980, and writing a new Constitution enshrining their rights and freedoms. Afghanistan and Iraq are still embroiled in internecine conflicts thanks to the US-led wars to further western interests. There is no end in sight to their suffering, and their wars have spawned terrorist outfits such as the ISIS and Al Qaeda threatening global peace.
As for the MCC compact, what the Rajapaksa government should do is to refer it to Parliament. That is the most democratic way to handle the issue. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa says his party is opposed to it. Most SLPP MPs including ministers, who wrap themselves in the flag, have condemned it. Thus, the Opposition and the government should be able to reject the compact with a two-thirds majority. The US never misses an opportunity to urge Sri Lanka to respect the authority of Parliament, doesn’t it?
Caesar, Antony, Diana and 20A
Monday 26th October, 2020
The Opposition MPs who voted for the 20th Amendment (20A) in Parliament, the other day, are making a vain attempt to justify their action. They would have us believe that they did so without expecting anything in return. There is no such thing as a free vote in the Sri Lankan Parliament. What took the cake was SJB National List (NL) MP Diana Gamage’s excuse. She said she had acted like (Mark) Antony, who, she said, had stabbed Caesar for the love of Rome.
Diana’s version of history has left us baffled. If Antony had stabbed Caesar, Brutus would not have had to flee and run on his sword in the end. Most of all, the question is why Caesar said, “Et tu, Brute?”, and not “Et tu, Antony?” (Diana is fully qualified to head the Office of the United National High Commissioner for Human Rights, for she has the knack for levelling baseless allegations.)
What one gathers from Diana’s statement at issue is that she thinks what she wrongly attributed to Antony—stabbing Caesar—was justifiable because, she thinks, he acted out of his love of Rome. She is apparently given to confusing wrong for right in making decisions. No wonder she voted for 20A!
The NL mechanism was introduced to bring in eminent persons as MPs. But thanks to our political party leaders who act out of expediency rather than principle, we have had some political dregs in the garb of NL MPs. One may recall that the Kumaratunga administration opened a new low in parliamentary politics by creating an NL vacancy and bringing in Mervyn Silva, of all people, to Parliament. The yahapalana government abused the NL to appoint a bunch of defeated candidates to Parliament and even made most of them Ministers. In so doing, it made a mockery of people’s franchise and sovereignty because the people had deemed them unfit to enter Parliament. One of the main arguments that the SLPP government put forth in support of its decision to abolish the Constitutional Council was that it had unelected members, making vital decisions. It remains to be seen whether the government will cause one of its NL slots to fall vacant so that it can appoint to Parliament an outsider who neither contested the last general election nor was an NL nominee, to Parliament, and make him a minister.
It is high time a constitutional amendment was introduced to prevent anyone whose name does not appear on the NL submitted to the people by recognised political parties or independent groups before a general election from being appointed an MP. The deplorable practice of catapulting outsiders to Parliament via the NL is antithetical to democracy and must be brought to an end urgently. True, it was the late President J. R. Jayewardene who surreptitiously inserted a provision into the Constitution to enable outsiders to be appointed MPs via the NL, but those who claim to be ready to lay down their lives to protect democracy can easily amend that provision, can’t they?
Meanwhile, Diana’s reference to ancient Rome reminds us of the danger a country faces when its leaders are torn by divided loyalty, which the present-day dual citizens in politics and key government positions are accused of. After Julius Caesar’s assassination, General Antony neglected his duties much to the consternation of Octavius (or Octavian) Caesar, betrayed his citizenship and forged an alliance with a foreign queen. Finally, he turned against the empire as he loved Cleopatra and Egypt more than Rome. He had this to say melodramatically when Rome summoned him while he was leading a decadent life with Cleopatra: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space/Kingdoms are clay …” – (Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra).
When MP Diana Gamage said in Parliament that she had emulated Antony in voting for 20A, the irony of her utterance may not have been lost on the students of world history and literature, for Antony was a member of the Roman Triumvirate upon which autocratic powers were legally conferred. The Triumvirate, according to some historians, had its opponents destroyed and their properties seized.
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