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The Lazarus heist: How North Korea almost pulled off a billion-dollar hack

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In 2016 North Korean hackers planned a $1bn raid on Bangladesh’s national bank and came within an inch of success – it was only by a fluke that all but $81m of the transfers were halted, report Geoff White and Jean H Lee. But how did one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries train a team of elite cyber-criminals?

It all started with a malfunctioning printer. It’s just part of modern life, and so when it happened to staff at Bangladesh Bank they thought the same thing most of us do: another day, another tech headache. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

But this wasn’t just any printer, and it wasn’t just any bank.

Bangladesh Bank is the country’s central bank, responsible for overseeing the precious currency reserves of a country where millions live in poverty.

And the printer played a pivotal role. It was located inside a highly secure room on the 10th floor of the bank’s main office in Dhaka, the capital. Its job was to print out records of the multi-million-dollar transfers flowing in and out of the bank.

When staff found it wasn’t working, at 08:45 on Friday 5 February 2016, “we assumed it was a common problem just like any other day,” duty manager Zubair Bin Huda later told police. “Such glitches had happened before.”

In fact, this was the first indication that Bangladesh Bank was in a lot of trouble. Hackers had broken into its computer networks, and at that very moment were carrying out the most audacious cyber-attack ever attempted. Their goal: to steal a billion dollars.

To spirit the money away, the gang behind the heist would use fake bank accounts, charities, casinos and a wide network of accomplices.

But who were these hackers and where were they from?

According to investigators the digital fingerprints point in just one direction: to the government of North Korea.

SPOILER ALERT: This is the story told in the 10-episode BBC World Service podcast, The Lazarus Heist.

That North Korea would be the prime suspect in a case of cyber-crime might to some be a surprise. It’s one of the world’s poorest countries, and largely disconnected from the global community – technologically, economically, and in almost every other way.

And yet, according to the FBI, the audacious Bangladesh Bank hack was the culmination of years of methodical preparation by a shadowy team of hackers and middlemen across Asia, operating with the support of the North Korean regime.

In the cyber-security industry the North Korean hackers are known as the Lazarus Group, a reference to a biblical figure who came back from the dead; experts who tackled the group’s computer viruses found they were equally resilient.

Little is known about the group, though the FBI has painted a detailed portrait of one suspect: Park Jin-hyok, who also has gone by the names Pak Jin-hek and Park Kwang-jin.

It describes him as a computer programmer who graduated from one of the country’s top universities and went to work for a North Korean company, Chosun Expo, in the Chinese port city of Dalian, creating online gaming and gambling programs for clients around the world.

While in Dalian, he set up an email address, created a CV, and used social media to build a network of contacts. Cyber-footprints put him in Dalian as early as 2002 and off and on until 2

013 or 2014, when his internet activity appears to come from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, according to an FBI investigator’s affidavit.

The agency has released a photo plucked from a 2011 email sent by a Chosun Expo manager introducing Park to an outside client. It shows a clean-cut Korean man in his late 20s or early 30s, dressed in a pin-striped black shirt and chocolate-brown suit. Nothing out of the ordinary, at first glance, apart from a drained look on his face.

But the FBI says that while he worked as a programmer by day, he was a hacker by night.

In June 2018, US authorities charged Park with one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud (fraud involving mail, or electronic communication) between September 2014 and August 2017. He faces up to 20 years in prison if he is ever tracked down. (He returned from China to North Korea four years before the charges were filed.)

But Park, if that is his real name, didn’t become a hacker for the state overnight. He is one of thousands of young North Koreans who have been cultivated from childhood to become cyber-warriors – talented mathematicians as young as 12 taken from their schools and sent to the capital, where they are given intensive tuition from morning till night.

When the bank’s staff rebooted the printer, they got some very worrying news. Spilling out of it were urgent messages from the Federal Reserve Bank in New York – the “Fed” – where Bangladesh keeps a US-dollar account. The Fed had received instructions, apparently from Bangladesh Bank, to drain the entire account – close to a billion dollars.

The Bangladeshis tried to contact the Fed for clarification, but thanks to the hackers’ very careful timing, they couldn’t get through.

The hack started at around 20:00 Bangladesh time on Thursday 4 February. But in New York it was Thursday morning, giving the Fed plenty of time to (unwittingly) carry out the hackers’ wishes while Bangladesh was asleep.

The next day, Friday, was the start of the Bangladeshi weekend, which runs from Friday to Saturday. So the bank’s HQ in Dhaka was beginning two days off. And when the Bangladeshis began to uncover the theft on Saturday, it was already the weekend in New York.

“So you see the elegance of the attack,” says US-based cyber-security expert Rakesh Asthana. “The date of Thursday night has a very defined purpose. On Friday New York is working, and Bangladesh Bank is off. By the time Bangladesh Bank comes back on line, the Federal Reserve Bank is off. So it delayed the whole discovery by almost three days.”

And the hackers had another trick up their sleeve to buy even more time. Once they had transferred the money out of the Fed, they needed to send it somewhere. So they wired it to accounts they’d set up in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. And in 2016, Monday 8 February was the first day of the Lunar New Year, a national holiday across Asia.

By exploiting time differences between Bangladesh, New York and the Philippines, the hackers had engineered a clear five-day run to get the money away.

They had had plenty of time to plan all of this, because it turns out the Lazarus Group had been lurking inside Bangladesh Bank’s computer systems for a year.

In January 2015, an innocuous-looking email had been sent to several Bangladesh Bank employees. It came from a job seeker calling himself Rasel Ahlam. His polite enquiry included an invitation to download his CV and cover letter from a website. In reality, Rasel did not exist – he was simply a cover name being used by the Lazarus Group, according to FBI investigators. At least one person inside the bank fell for the trick, downloaded the documents, and got infected with the viruses hidden inside.

Once inside the bank’s systems, Lazarus Group began stealthily hopping from computer to computer, working their way towards the digital vaults and the billions of dollars they contained.

And then they stopped.

Why did the hackers only steal the money a whole year after the initial phishing email arrived at the bank? Why risk being discovered while hiding inside the bank’s systems all that time? Because, it seems, they needed the time to line up their escape routes for the money.

Jupiter Street is a busy thoroughfare in Manila. Next to an eco-hotel and a dental surgery is a branch of RCBC, one of the country’s largest banks. In May 2015, a few months after the hackers accessed Bangladesh Bank’s systems, four accounts were set up here by the hackers’ accomplices. In hindsight, there were some suspicious signs: the driver’s licences used to set up the accounts were fakes, and the applicants all claimed to have exactly the same job title and salary, despite working at different companies. But no-one seemed to notice. For months the accounts sat dormant with their initial $500 deposit untouched while the hackers worked on other aspects of the plan.

By February 2016, having successfully hacked into Bangladesh Bank and created conduits for the money, the Lazarus Group was ready.

But they still had one final hurdle to clear – the printer on the 10th floor. Bangladesh Bank had created a paper back-up system to record all transfers made from its accounts. This record of transactions risked exposing the hackers’ work instantly. And so they hacked into the software controlling it and took it out of action.

With their tracks covered, at 20:36 on Thursday 4 February 2016, the hackers began making their transfers – 35 in all, totalling $951m, almost the entire contents of Bangladesh Bank’s New York Fed account. The thieves were on their way to a massive payday – but just as in a Hollywood heist movie, a single, tiny detail would catch them out.

As Bangladesh Bank discovered the missing money over the course of that weekend, they struggled to work out what had happened. The bank’s governor knew Rakesh Asthana and his company, World Informatix, and called him in for help. At this point, Asthana says, the governor still thought he could claw back the stolen money. As a result, he kept the hack secret – not just from the public, but even from his own government.

Meanwhile, Asthana was discovering just how deep the hack went. He found out the thieves had gained access to a key part of Bangladesh Bank’s systems, called Swift. It’s the system used by thousands of banks around the world to co-ordinate transfers of large sums between themselves. The hackers didn’t exploit a vulnerability in Swift – they didn’t need to – so as far as Swift’s software was concerned the hackers looked like genuine bank employees.

It soon became clear to Bangladesh Bank’s officials that the transactions couldn’t just be reversed. Some money had already arrived in the Philippines, where the authorities told them they would need a court order to start the process to reclaim it. Court orders are public documents, and so when Bangladesh Bank finally filed its case in late February, the story went public and exploded worldwide.

The consequences for the bank’s governor were almost instant. “He was asked to resign,” says Asthana. “I never saw him again.”

US Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney remembers clearly where she was when she first heard about the raid on Bangladesh Bank. “I was leaving Congress and going to the airport and reading about the heist, and it was fascinating, shocking – a terrifying incident, probably one of the most terrifying that I’ve ever seen for financial markets.”

As a member of the congressional Committee on Financial Services, Maloney saw the bigger picture: with Swift underpinning so many billions of dollars of global trade, a hack like this could fatally undermine confidence in the system.

She was particularly concerned by the involvement of the Federal Reserve Bank. “They were the New York Fed, which usually is so careful. How in the world did these transfers happen?”

Maloney contacted the Fed, and staff explained to her that most of the transfers had in fact been prevented – thanks to a tiny, coincidental detail.

The RCBC bank branch in Manila to which the hackers tried to transfer $951m was in Jupiter Street. There are hundreds of banks in Manila that the hackers could have used, but they chose this one – and the decision cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The transactions… were held up at the Fed because the address used in one of the orders included the word ‘Jupiter’, which is also the name of a sanctioned Iranian shipping vessel,” says Carolyn Maloney.

Just the mention of the word “Jupiter” was enough to set alarm bells ringing in the Fed’s automated computer systems. The payments were reviewed, and most were stopped. But not all. Five transactions, worth $101m, crossed this hurdle.

Of that, $20m was transferred to a Sri Lankan charity called the Shalika Foundation, which had been lined up by the hackers’ accomplices as one conduit for the stolen money. (Its founder, Shalika Perera, says she believed the money was a legitimate donation.) But here again, a tiny detail derailed the hackers’ plans. The transfer was made to the “Shalika Fundation”. An eagle-eyed bank employee spotted the spelling mistake and the transaction was reversed.

And so $81m got through. Not what the hackers were aiming for, but the lost money was still a huge blow for Bangladesh, a country where one in five people lives below the poverty line.

By the time Bangladesh Bank began its efforts to claw the money back, the hackers had already taken steps to make sure it stayed beyond reach.

On Friday 5 February, the four accounts set up the previous year at the RCBC branch in Jupiter Street suddenly sprang to life.

The money was transferred between accounts, sent to a currency exchange firm, swapped into local currency and re-deposited at the bank. Some of it was withdrawn in cash. For experts in money laundering, this behaviour makes perfect sense.

“You have to make all of that criminally derived money look clean and look like it has been derived from legitimate sources in order to protect whatever you do with the money afterwards,” says Moyara Ruehsen, director of the Financial Crime Management Programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “You want to make the money trail as muddy and obscure as possible.”

 

Even so, it was still possible for investigators to trace the path of the money. To make it completely untrackable it had to leave the banking system.

The Solaire sits on the waterfront in Manila, a gleaming white palace of hedonism, home to a hotel, a huge theatre, high-end shops and – its most famous attraction – a sprawling casino floor. Manila has become a big draw for gamblers from mainland China, where the pastime is illegal, and the Solaire is “one of the most elegant casino floors in Asia”, according to Mohammed Cohen, editor-at-large of Inside Asian Gaming Magazine. “It’s really beautifully designed, comparable to anything in south-east Asia. It has roughly 400 gaming tables and about 2,000 slot machines.”

It was here in Manila’s glitzy casino scene that the Bangladesh Bank thieves mounted the next stage of their money laundering operation. Of the $81m that washed through the RCBC bank, $50m was deposited in accounts at the Solaire and another casino, the Midas. (What happened to the other $31m? According to a Philippines Senate Committee set up to investigate, it was paid to a Chinese man called Xu Weikang, who’s believed to have left town on a private jet and never been heard of since.)

The idea of using casinos was to break the chain of traceability. Once the stolen money had been converted into casino chips, gambled over the tables, and changed back into cash, it would be almost impossible for investigators to trace it.

But what about the risks? Aren’t the thieves in danger of losing the loot across the casino tables? Not at all.

Firstly, instead of playing in the public parts of the casino, the thieves booked private rooms and filled them with accomplices who would play at the tables; this gave them control over how the money was gambled. Secondly, they used the stolen money to play Baccarat – a wildly popular game in Asia, but also a very simple one. There are only three outcomes on which to bet, and a relatively experienced player can recoup 90% or more of their stake (an excellent outcome for money launderers, who often get a far smaller return). The criminals could now launder the stolen funds and look forward to a healthy return – but to do so would take careful management of the players and their bets, and that took time. For weeks, the gamblers sat inside Manila’s casinos, washing the money.

Bangladesh Bank, meanwhile, was catching up. Its officials had visited Manila and identified the money trail. But when it came to the casinos, they hit a brick wall. At that time, the Philippines gambling houses were not covered by money laundering regulations. So far as the casinos were concerned, the cash had been deposited by legitimate gamblers, who had every right to fritter it away over the tables. (The Solaire casino says it had no idea it was dealing with stolen funds, and is co-operating with the authorities. The Midas did not respond to requests for comment.)

The bank’s officials managed to recover $16m of the stolen money from one of the men who organised the gambling jaunts at the Midas casino, called Kim Wong. He was charged, but the charges were later dropped. The rest of the money, however – $34m – was leaching away. Its next stop, according to investigators, would take it one step closer to North Korea.

Macau is an enclave of China, similar in constitution to Hong Kong. Like the Philippines, it’s a hotspot for gambling and home to some of the world’s most prestigious casinos. The country also has long-established links to North Korea. It was here that North Korean officials were in the early 2000s caught laundering counterfeit $100 notes of extremely high quality – so-called “Superdollars” – which US authorities claim were printed in North Korea. The local bank they laundered them through was eventually placed on a US sanctions list thanks to its connections with the Pyongyang regime.

It was also in Macau that a North Korean spy was trained before she bombed a Korean Air flight in 1987, killing 115 people. And it was in Macau that Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam, lived in exile before being fatally poisoned in Malaysia in an assassination many believe was authorised personally by the North Korean leader.

As the money stolen from Bangladesh Bank was laundered through the Philippines, numerous links to Macau started to emerge. Several of the men who organised the gambling jaunts in the Solaire were traced back to Macau. Two of the companies that had booked the private gambling rooms were also based in Macau. Investigators believe most of the stolen money ended up in this tiny Chinese territory, before being sent back to North Korea.

At night, North Korea famously appears to be a black hole in photos taken from outer space by Nasa, due to the lack of electricity in most parts of the country – in stark contrast to South Korea, which explodes with light at all hours of the day and night. North Korea ranks among the 12 poorest nations in the world, with an estimated GDP of just $1,700 per person – less than Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, according to the CIA.

And yet North Korea has produced some of the world’s most brazen and sophisticated hackers, it appears.

Understanding how, and why, North Korea has managed to cultivate elite cyber-warfare units requires looking at the family that has ruled North Korea since its inception as a modern nation in 1948: the Kims.

Founder Kim Il-sung built the nation officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a political system that is socialist but operates more like a monarchy.

His son, Kim Jong-il, relied on the military as his power base, provoking the US with tests of ballistic missile and nuclear devices. In order to fund the programme, the regime turned to illicit methods, according to US authorities – including the highly sophisticated counterfeit Superdollars.

Kim Jong-il also decided early on to incorporate cyber into the country’s strategy, establishing the Korea Computer Centre in 1990. It remains the heart of the country’s IT operations.

When, in 2010, Kim Jong-un – Kim Jong-il’s third son – was revealed as his heir apparent, the regime unfurled a campaign to portray the future leader, only in his mid-20s and unknown to his people, as a champion of science and technology. It was a campaign designed to secure his generation’s loyalty and to inspire them to become his warriors, using these new tools.

The young Kim, who took power in late 2011 upon his father’s death, called nuclear weapons a “treasured sword”, but he too needed a way to fund them – a task complicated by the ever tighter sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after the country’s first tests of a nuclear device and a long-range ballistic missile in 2006. Hacking was one solution, US authorities say.

The embrace of science and technology did not extend to allowing North Koreans to freely connect to the global internet, though – that would enable too many to see what the world looks like outside their borders, and to read accounts that contradict the official mythology.

So in order to train its cyber-warriors, the regime sends the most talented computer programmers abroad, mostly to China.

There they learn how the rest of the world uses computers and the internet: to shop, to gamble, to network and to be entertained. It’s there, experts say, that they are transformed from mathematical geniuses into hackers.

Scores of these young men are believed to live and work in North Korean-run outposts in China.

“They are very good at masking their tracks but sometimes, just like any other criminal, they leave crumbs, evidence behind,” says Kyung-jin Kim, a former FBI Korea chief who now works as a private sector investigator in Seoul. “And we’re able to identify their IP addresses back to their location.”

Those crumbs led investigators to an unassuming hotel in Shenyang, in China’s north-east, guarded by a pair of stone tigers, a traditional Korean motif. The hotel was called the Chilbosan, after a famous mountain range in North Korea.

Photos posted to hotel review sites such as Agoda reveal charming Korean touches: colourful bedspreads, North Korean cuisine and waitresses who sing and dance for their customers.

It was “well-known in the intel community”, says Kyung-jin Kim, that suspected North Korean hackers were operating from the Chilbosan when they first broke on to the world stage in 2014.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese city of Dalian, where Park Jin-hyok is believed to have lived for a decade, a community of computer programmers was living and working in a similar North-Korea-run operation, says defector Hyun-seung Lee.

Lee was born and raised in Pyongyang but lived for years in Dalian, where his father was a well-connected businessman working for the North Korean government – until the family defected in 2014. The bustling port city across the Yellow Sea from North Korea was home to about 500 North Koreans when he was living there, Lee says.

Among them, more than 60 were programmers – young men he got to know, he says, when North Koreans gathered for national holidays, such as Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

One of them invited him over to their living quarters. There, Lee saw “about 20 people living together and in one space. So, four-to-six people living in one room, and then the living room they made it like an office – all the computers, all in the living room.”

They showed him what they were producing: mobile phone games that they were selling to South Korea and Japan through brokers, making $1m per year.

Although North Korean security officials kept a close eye on them, life for these young men was still relatively free.

“It’s still restricted, but compared to North Korea, they have much freedom so that they can access the internet and then they can watch some movies,” Lee says.

After about eight years in Dalian, Park Jin-hyok appears to have been anxious to return to Pyongyang. In a 2011 email intercepted by the FBI, he mentions wanting to marry his fiancee. But it would be a few more years before he was allowed to do this.

The FBI says his superiors had another mission for him: a cyber-attack on one of the world’s largest entertainment companies – Sony Pictures Entertainment in Los Angeles, California. Hollywood.

In 2013, Sony Pictures announced the making of a new movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that would be set in North Korea.

It’s about a talk show host, played by Franco, and his producer, played by Rogen. They go to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, and are persuaded by the CIA to assassinate him.

North Korea threatened retaliatory action against the US if Sony Pictures Entertainment released the film, and in November 2014 an email was sent to company bosses from hackers calling themselves the Guardians of Peace, threatening to do “great damage”.

Three days later a horror-film image of a blood-red skeleton with fangs and glaring eyes appeared on employees’ computer screens. The hackers had made good on their threats. Executives’ salaries, confidential internal emails, and details of as-yet unreleased films were leaked online – and the company’s activities ground to a halt as its computers were disabled by the hackers’ viruses. Staff couldn’t swipe passes to enter their offices or use printers. For a full six weeks a coffee shop on the MGM lot, the HQ of Sony Pictures Entertainment, was unable to take credit cards.

Sony had initially pressed ahead with plans to release The Interview in the usual way, but these were hastily cancelled when the hackers threatened physical violence. Mainstream cinema chains said they wouldn’t show the film, so it was released only digitally and in some independent cinemas.

But the Sony attack, it turns out, may have been a dry run for an even more ambitious hack – the 2016 bank heist in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is still trying to recover the rest of its stolen money – around $65m. Its national bank is taking legal action against dozens of people and institutions, including RCBC bank, which denies breaching any rules.

As skilful as the hacking of Bangladesh Bank was, just how pleased would the Pyongyang regime have been with the end result? After all, the plot started out as a billion-dollar heist, and the eventual haul would have been only in the tens of millions. Hundreds of millions of dollars had been lost as the thieves had navigated the global banking system, and tens of millions more as they paid off middlemen. In future, according to US authorities, North Korea would find a way to avoid this attrition.

In May 2017, the WannaCry ransomware outbreak spread like wildfire, scrambling victims’ files and charging them a ransom of several hundred dollars to retrieve their data, paid using the virtual currency Bitcoin. In the UK, the National Health Service was particularly badly hit; accident and emergency departments were affected, and urgent cancer appointments had to be rescheduled.

As investigators from the UK’s National Crime Agency delved into the code, working with the FBI, they found striking similarities with the viruses used to hack into Bangladesh Bank and Sony Pictures Entertainment, and the FBI eventually added this attack to the charges against Park Jin-hyok. If the FBI’s allegations are correct, it shows North Korea’s cyber army had now embraced cryptocurrency – a vital leap forward because this high-tech new form of money largely bypasses the traditional banking system – and could therefore avoid costly overheads, such as pay-offs to middlemen.

WannaCry was just the start. In the ensuing years, tech security firms have attributed many more cryptocurrency attacks to North Korea. They claim the country’s hackers have targeted exchanges where cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are swapped for traditional currencies. Added together, some estimates put the thefts from these exchanges at more than $2bn.

And the allegations keep coming. In February the US Department of Justice charged two other North Koreans, whom they claim are also members of the Lazarus Group and are linked to a money-laundering network stretching from Canada to Nigeria.

Computer hacking, global money laundering, cutting edge cryptocurrency thefts… If the allegations against North Korea are true, then it appears many people have underestimated the country’s technical skill and the danger it presents.

But this also paints a disturbing picture of the dynamics of power in our increasingly connected world, and our vulnerability to what security experts call “asymmetric threat” – the ability of a smaller adversary to exercise power in novel ways that make it a far bigger threat than its size would indicate.

Investigators have uncovered how a tiny, desperately poor nation can silently reach into the email inboxes and bank accounts of the rich and powerful thousands of miles away. They can exploit that access to wreak havoc on their victims’ economic and professional lives, and drag their reputations through the mud. This is the new front line in a global battleground: a murky nexus of crime, espionage and nation-state power-mongering. And it’s growing fast.

Geoff White is the author of Crime Dot Com: From Viruses to Vote Rigging, How Hacking Went Global. Jean H Lee opened Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau in 2012; she is now a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington DC.

– BBC News



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Features

Antics of State Minister and Pohottu Mayor; mum on chemical fertiliser mistake; The Ganga – a link

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Reams have been written in all local newspapers; much comment has traversed social media and persons have been bold to call for justice on two absolutely unrestrained and yes, evil, SLPP VIPs who have recently been dancing the devil as the saying goes. These evil doers seem to be pathologically unable to control themselves and behave as human beings: heads outsised with hubris and apparently bodies often pickled with liquor.

Very succinct comments have been made on Lohan Ratwatte, one being: “a leopard never changes his spots” referring to the many crimes supposed to have been committed by him, and the other that he is a gem of a man who may make a jewellery heist soon enough. He has the audacity to say he did nothing wrong in barging into two prisons; in one to show off to pals the gallows and in the other, to brandish a gun and place it against the heads of two shivering Tamil prisoners. All done within the week when world attention was focused on Sri Lankan human rights violations directed by the UNHRC

Cass’ comment is that Lohan Rat was committing hara-kiri (minus even a trace of the Japanese spirit of self sacrifice) and taking the entire country on a suicidal mission through his inability to hold his drinks and destructive hubris and murderous inclination. Cass particularly favoured Don Mano’s summation in his comment on the unlawful prison intrusions in the Sunday Times of September 19. “Any semblance of a shabby cover-up to enable Lohan Ratwatte to retain his position as State Minister of Gems and Jewellery will not only endanger the economy by depriving the nation’s dollar bare coffers of a GSP benefit of nearly 2.7 billion dollars, but will risk putting 21 million Lankans from the frying pan into the fire and test their tolerance to the core.”

The visit to the Welikada prison by the State Minister of Prison Reform and … was said to be with some men and one woman. Identities were kept under wraps and confusion raised by making the dame a beauty queen or cosmetician. But who she was, was soon known along the vine of gossip. One report said the person in charge of the prison or its section with the gallows, cautioned Lohan Rat and tried to dissuade his advance with friends in tow since the lady companion was in shorts and them walking through where prisoners were, would cause a commotion. But no, the State Minister advanced to show off the gallows with his short-shorts wearing woman companion and imbibing mates.

Cass is actually more censorious of this woman than even of the State Minister himself. Is she a Sri Lankan, so vagrant in her woman-ness? Doesn’t she have even an iota of the traditional lajja baya that decent women exhibit, even to minor level nowadays? Is associating with a State Minister and his drinking pals such a prized social event? Shame on her! She, if people’s assumption of identity is correct, has boasted political clout and been elevated by it too. Such our young girls! Do hope they are very few in number, though this seems to be a baseless hope as social events unroll.

Pistol packing – correction please – toy pistol packing Eraj Fernando is aiding the ex State Minister of Prison Reform to deface, debase and deteriorate Sri Lanka in the eyes of the world. He is interested in land and not in gallows or scantily clad gals. With thugs in tow he trespassed a property in Bamba and assaulted two security guards. Repetition of an incident he was embroiled in – a land dispute in Nugegoda a couple of weeks ago. He was taken in by the police and before you could say Raj, he was granted bail. What quick work of police and courts.

As the editor of The Island opined in the lead article of September 20: “The Rajapaksas have created quite a few monsters who enjoy unbridled freedom to violate the law of the land.” A convicted murderer known for his thug ways was presidentially pardoned a short while ago.

The good thing is that people talk, write, lampoon, and draw attention to these heinous crimes and do not seem scared for their necks and families. White vans have not started their rounds. And very importantly the memories of Ordinaries are not as fickle as they were. Wait and see is their immediate response.

New fad – jogging lanes on wewa bunds!

Some monks and men gathered recently on the partly torn up bund of Parakrama Samudraya and had the foolish audacity to say the bund needed a jogging lane. Tosh and balderdash! Then news revealed that other wewas too were being ‘attacked and desecrated’ to construct jogging lanes. In such remote rural areas which even tourists do not visit? Is there illicit money-making in this activity? Otherwise, no explanation is available for this sudden interest in farmers’ and toilers’ physical well being. They get enough exercise just engaging in their agriculture, so for whom are these jogging lanes?

Sharply contrasting persons

As apposite to the former two, are superb Sri Lankans up front and active and giving of their expertise, albeit unobtrusively. Consider the medical men and women and their service to contain the pandemic; farmers who protest to ensure harvests are not damaged too severely by false prophets who won the day for the banning of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. The latest blow and justification of what so very many agriculturists, agrochemists, have been saying all along – organic is good but to be introduced very slowly; without importing compost from overseas, is the Chinese import containing evil microorganisms. Experts have categorically stated that chemical fertilisers are sorely needed for all agriculture; more so paddy and tea; and if used prudently cause no illness to humans or injurious side effects.

The four experts who comprised the panel at the MTV I Face the Nation discussion monitored by Shameer Rasooldeen on Monday September 20, agreed totally on these two facts and went on to say that it must be admitted a hasty decision was taken to stop import of chemical fertilizers. We listened to the considered wise opinions backed by true expertise of vibrantly attractive and articulate Dr Warshi Dandeniya – soil scientist, of Prof Saman Seneweera from the University of Melbourne, Prof Buddhi Marambe – crop scientist, and Dr Roshan Rajadurai – media person of the Planters Association. Listening to them, Cass swelled with pride and told herself see what sincerely-interested-in-the-country’s welfare eminent scientists we have in this land of rowdy politicians and uneducated MPs. They labeled the sudden banning of chemical fertilisers and insecticides and pesticides as “very dangerous and causing irreversible harm. It is not too late to reverse the decision, even if admitting fault is not possible.”

Garlic

Oh dear! The stench! Never ending series of scams; executed or approved by politicians and all for illicit gains. Even the tragedy of the pandemic and suffering of much of the population does not seem to have curbed selfish lust for money.

Focus on the Mahaweli Ganga

Interesting and deserving of thanks. Chanaka Wickramasuriya wrote two excellent articles in the Sunday Islands of September 12 and 19 on the Mahaweli Ganga, imparting invaluable facts of the present river and its history, as for example which king built which wewa or anicut. He ended his second article by hoping the waters of the great river will feed the north of the island too: “Maybe then this island will be finally uplifted. Not just from north to south, but across class and caste, language and philosophy, and political partisanship. Hopefully driven by a newfound sanity among its denizens, yet symbolically attested to by the waters of the Mahaweli.”

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These humans are Crazy!

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Those of us who grew up reading the “Asterix” comics by Goscinny and Uderzo will no doubt remember the resonant words of Obelix, the menhir delivery man. So many times, he has observed the actions of characters ranging from Roman Emperors to Goths and made the statement “these humans are crazy” often accompanied by a few taps from his forefinger to his ample brow. These words remain a universal truth and valid even today when looking at what is going on around us.

Let’s start in Aotearoa – New Zealand with the continuing saga of the young man of Sri Lankan origin who went berserk in a supermarket and stabbed so many innocent people. Despite many assurances from the government and almost all the Kiwi friends and even acquaintances we have in this country that we Lankans are not responsible, we feel deep down inside us that we are in some way, shape or form, responsible for this person’s behaviour. Articles not only from people of my (archaic) generation but young upstanding millennials and those even younger have expressed this emotion in their own characteristic fashion. Also, we feel responsible that our network of ex citizens of the Pearl living in Aotearoa have been unable to offer any support or counselling to this person or others of his ilk.

Just as we start clawing our way out of this mire of guilt somewhat reduced by finding out just how greatly the immigration and refugee systems of New Zealand have been duped, we are now told how a currency smuggler has been granted refugee status. Now currency smuggling happens all the time, mainly due to the punitive profits taken from customers by those licenced daylight robbers the banks, but more on that later. Apparently, a currency smuggler who arrived on a forged passport, evading arrest by the authorities in the Pearl has been granted refugee status! REFUGEE seems to be the magic word as far as the NZ authorities go. Those of us who have gone through the legal immigration channels and filled reams of forms and waited years for replies are left gasping at how those worthies in the government departments of Aotearoa have one set of rules and standards for us and another completely if one puts the word REFUGEE on one’s documents.

We move on to the pearl, if I were to attempt to apologise for the “offensive actions” of members of my family (bearing my “sir” name and direct relatives) that would take up a series of tomes resembling the encyclopaedia Britannica! It may also feature my name in a few volumes as well! The current antics of a kinsman with regard to using his position and power calls for a level of responsibility, on my part. The only caveat being a request to the fourth estate to use the person’s first name. Frequent displays of a family name which some have treasured and tried to bring enhancement to, associated with behaviour of this kind, brings dismay at a level that can only be understood by those who have tried to live up to the standards set by ancestors who held high office with honour in the past. There have been many articles some ranging from biting sarcasm (unfortunately not understood by the majority) to others simply parroting what they have read on the internet. The bottom line is standby O denizens of the Pearl, this maybe just another episode in the teledrama that is Lanka under Paksa rule! There are possibilities of scripting to distract the majority and even a wider spectrum involving human rights issues in Geneva. Also, scrutinize yourselves and remember that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?!

In Aotearoa, we call our Prime Minister by her first name and a PM that has gained the utmost respect of the people not to mention the world! Isn’t it time the Pearl followed suit? Of course, comments by the leader of the opposition like “Opposition Leader Premadasa said he vehemently condemned the disgraceful and illegal behaviour” reiterates the comments of Obelix. Especially when allegations and witnesses exist to “disgraceful and Illegal” behaviour by the person who uttered those very words. It may have been in a different context and “only” to do with the decimation of a national park in the Pearl but the behaviour had the same connotations. Looks like social media is the mitigating factor, as in those days, too, the fourth estate had to take care of continuing to exist and survive! Being the first party to spotlight such actions usually led to the “death of the messenger”.

As promised, back to the licenced daylight robbers of today, the banks. There is a “Robin Hood” tax in effect in some of the leading economies of Europe. The most “interesting” aspect for me being taxes on the profits of banks. The billions it could raise every year could give a vital boost to tackling poverty and climate change around the world and definitely in the Pearl. We call upon the “genius” in charge of the Central Bank as he is the “acknowledged” financial maestro of the Pearl (although he is never going to take RESPONSIBILITY for our plight) to look at this aspect if he has the cohunes to do it! But then again levels of corruption and obligations to high profit-making organisations that fund election campaigns, have to be taken into account in countries such as the Pearl.

Powerful efficient and successful economies like Germany and modern Demi-Gods like Bill Gates endorse this tax. Here is an idea for the government of the Pearl. Tax the banks on their huge profits and give some of that money back to the people without burdening an already insufferably burdened people! I fear ideas expressed in this column will meet their usual end either in the oblivion chaos and mayhem or the lack of mental fortitude that exists in the Pearl and her officials.However, one can only hope that people who wish the Pearl renewed status in the Indian Ocean region if not the world, continue to survive in these circumstances, as the village of indomitable Gauls in the face of the mighty Roman empire. We need an “Asterix” brave and quick-thinking warrior, armed with some magic portion from “Getafix” the druid. Instead, we seem to have plenty of pseudo “Getafix’s” concocting “dammika Pani” and such portions and far too many “Vitalstastix’s”- muddle-headed incompetent chiefs!

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Policy quandaries set to rise for South in the wake of AUKUS

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From the viewpoint of the global South, the recent coming into being of the tripartite security pact among the US, the UK and Australia or AUKUS, renders important the concept of VUCA; volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA has its origins in the disciplines of Marketing and Business Studies, but it could best describe the current state of international politics from particularly the perspective of the middle income, lower middle income and poor countries of the world or the South.

With the implementation of the pact, Australia will be qualifying to join the select band of nuclear submarine-powered states, comprising the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and India. Essentially, the pact envisages the lending of their expertise and material assistance by the US and the UK to Australia for the development by the latter of nuclear-powered submarines.

While, officially, the pact has as one of its main aims the promotion of a ‘rules- based Indo-Pacific region’, it is no secret that the main thrust of the accord is to blunt and defuse the military presence and strength of China in the region concerned. In other words, the pact would be paving the way for an intensification of military tensions in the Asia-Pacific between the West and China.

The world ought to have prepared for a stepping-up of US efforts to bolster its presence in the Asia-Pacific when a couple of weeks ago US Vice President Kamala Harris made a wide-ranging tour of US allies in the ASEAN region. Coming in the wake of the complete US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the tour was essentially aimed at assuring US allies in the region of the US’s continued support for them, militarily and otherwise. Such assurances were necessitated by the general perception that following the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, China would be stepping in to fill the power vacuum in the country with the support of Pakistan.

From the West’s viewpoint, making Australia nuclear-capable is the thing to do against the backdrop of China being seen by a considerable number of Asia-Pacific states as being increasingly militarily assertive in the South China Sea and adjacent regions in particular. As is known, China is contending with a number of ASEAN region states over some resource rich islands in the sea area in question. These disputed territories could prove to be military flash points in the future. It only stands to reason for the West that its military strength and influence in the Asia-Pacific should be bolstered by developing a strong nuclear capability in English-speaking Australia.

As is known, Australia’s decision to enter into a pact with the US and the UK in its nuclear submarine building project has offended France in view of the fact that it amounts to a violation of an agreement entered into by Australia with France in 2016 that provides for the latter selling diesel-powered submarines manufactured by it to Australia. This decision by Australia which is seen as a ‘stab in the back’ by France has not only brought the latter’s relations with Australia to breaking point but also triggered some tensions in the EU’s ties with the US and the UK.

It should not come as a surprise if the EU opts from now on to increasingly beef-up its military presence in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with the accent on it following a completely independent security policy trajectory, with little or no reference to Western concerns in this connection.

However, it is the economically vulnerable countries of the South that could face the biggest foreign policy quandaries against the backdrop of these developments. These dilemmas are bound to be accentuated by the fact that very many countries of the South are dependent on China’s financial and material assistance. A Non-aligned policy is likely to be strongly favoured by the majority of Southern countries in this situation but to what extent this policy could be sustained in view of their considerable dependence on China emerges as a prime foreign policy issue.

On the other hand, the majority of Southern countries cannot afford to be seen by the West as being out of step with what is seen as their vital interests. This applies in particular to matters of a security nature. Sri Lanka is in the grips of a policy crunch of this kind at present. Sri Lanka’s dependence on China is high in a number of areas but it cannot afford to be seen by the West as gravitating excessively towards China.

Besides, Sri Lanka and other small states of the northern Indian Ocean need to align themselves cordially with India, considering the latter’s dominance in the South and South West Asian regions from the economic and military points of view in particular. Given this background, tilting disproportionately towards China could be most unwise. In the mentioned regions in particular small Southern states will be compelled to maintain, if they could, an equidistance between India and China.

The AUKUS pact could be expected to aggravate these foreign policy questions for the smaller states of the South. The cleavages in international politics brought about by the pact would compel smaller states to fall in line with the West or risk being seen by the latter as pro-China and this could by no means be a happy state to be in.

The economic crisis brought about by the current pandemic could only make matters worse for the South. For example, as pointed out by the UN, there could be an increase in the number of extremely poor people by around 120 million globally amid the pandemic. Besides, as pointed out by the World Bank, “South Asia in particular is more exposed to the risk of ‘hidden debt ‘from state-owned Commercial Banks (SOCBs), state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and public-private partnerships (PPPs) because of its greater reliance on them compared to other regions.” Needless to say, such economic ills could compel small, struggling states to veer away from foreign policy stances that are in line with Non-alignment.

Accordingly, it is a world characterized by VUCA that would be confronting most Southern states. It is a world beyond their control but a coming together of Southern states on the lines of increasing South-South cooperation could be of some help.

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