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Midweek Review

The Order of the Rising Sun conferred on former Governor of Central Bank, Sri Lanka

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Governor, CBSL, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, responding to lawmakers. (From left:) Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Dr. Weerasinghe, SLFP MP Angajan Ramanathan and Deputy Secretary General of Parliament, Kushani Rohanadeera, who introduced the Governor, while acknowledging the parliamentary accountability for finance (pic courtsy Parliament)

For the first time in parliamentary history, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka has issued a dire warning to Parliament and political parties therein over the responsibility on their part to ensure financial stability and discipline. Their failure to do so would trigger public protests again, they were told. There hadn’t been such a public warning. The warning was issued by no less a person than Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, Governor of the Central Bank, when he dealt with ‘Sri Lanka’s current economic situation and way forward’ on Aug 31.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Government of Japan, on August 22, conferred ‘The Order of the Rising Sun,’ Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon’ on Deshamanya Prof. Weligamage Don Lakshman, former Governor of the Central Bank (Dec 2019-Sept – 2021). Prof. W.D. Lakshman received the Japanese honour at a ceremony held at the residence of Japanese Ambassador Mizukoshi Hideaki. Kalyani Siriseeli Lakshman, the spouse of the emeritus professor, was conferred ‘The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.’

The Japanese Embassy declared they were honoured for their distinguished contribution in promoting mutual understanding and friendship between Japan and Sri Lanka, through education.

‘The Order of the Rising Sun’ is awarded by the Emperor of Japan to foreign nationals who have made a distinguished contribution to enhancing friendly relations with Japan. The Japanese Embassy statement, dated August 22, also made reference to his tenure as the Governor of the Central Bank.

Before The Island dealt with Prof. Lakshman’s CBSL leadership, it would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations with Japan suffered irreparable damage during this tenure when the former unilaterally cancelled the Tokyo-funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, after much groundwork had been completed. Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, the then Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in September 2020, just weeks after the UPFA scored a landslide victory at the last general election, issued instructions to terminate the Japan International Cooperation Agency-funded LRT on the grounds that it was ‘very costly and not the appropriate cost-effective transport solution for the urban Colombo transportation infrastructure.’

Recently, the former Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Prof. Charitha Herath, MP, asserted, in Parliament, that the cancellation of the LRT project still remained a mystery. The SLPP rebel alleged that even the person (Dr. PBJ) who issued instructions, in that regard, is silent over the circumstances leading to the cancellation of the project. Did President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Cabinet-of-Ministers, the Finance Ministry, or Dr. PBJ, who functioned as the President’s chief advisor on economic affairs, consult Prof. Lakshman and then Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, before rushing to that decision?

The Governor of the Central Bank heads the five-member Monetary Board. At the time Dr. PBJ issued instructions, as regards the termination of the project, the Monetary Board consisted of Governor Prof. W.D. Lakshman, S.R. Attygalle (both ex-officio), Sanjiva Jayawardena, PC, Dr. Ranee Jayamaha and Samantha Kumarasinghe.

During the COPE proceedings, in May this year, chaired by Prof. Herath, the parliamentary watchdog committee established failure as well as the responsibility on the part of the Monetary Board, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (he held the finance portfolio at that time), the Cabinet-of-Ministers, and Dr. PBJ, for the current crisis. The incumbent Governor, CBSL didn’t mince his words when he, in response to questions posed by Prof. Herath and opposition SJB lawmakers, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Dr. Harsha de Silva, named those responsible. Soft spoken Dr. Weerasinghe didn’t hesitate at all when he identified Dr. PBJ as the one who blocked an early agreement between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Of course reform medicines, that the Fund prescribes, are very bitter to swallow for those seeking its assistance and it is not short of critics around the world. And many of its patients, especially in Latin America and Africa, are yet in dire straits after swallowing its medicines for years, if not decades. Many of those countries have got some glimmer of hope only after countries like China came forth with generous aid projects, especially in the form of massive infrastructure developments, like railways, housing, etc., often criticized by the West.

Playing politics with a bankrupt economy

 Recently some members of Parliament demanded an inquiry into the failure on the part of Dr. Weerasinghe to inform Parliament of the status of the economy. They found fault with him for declaring Sri Lanka’s inability to service foreign debt before bringing it to the notice of the House.

A section of the media reported that Dr. Weerasinghe is in a soup for not duly informing Parliament about the ground situation. Perhaps, the lawmakers had conveniently forgotten that the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had requested Dr. Weerasinghe to take over the leadership of the CBSL after the country became virtually insolvent, even unable to pay for basics from abroad. At the time Dr. Weerasinghe retired, in January 2021, he held the post of Senior Deputy Governor and received the top post on April 08, about a month before a humiliated Mahinda Rajapaksa quit the premiership. Just 72 hours later, the UNP leader succeeded Rajapaksa. Less than two weeks later, Wickremesinghe secured the finance portfolio, too.

In fact, by the time Prof. Lakshman quit, in September 2021, to pave the way for Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who previously served as the Governor CBSL from 2006 to 2015, to return to the same top post, the economy was in tatters. Cabraal’s much publicized six-month roadmap didn’t change a thing. The ruling SLPP continued to engage in silly propaganda as the situation deteriorated, rapidly; by the time President Rajapaksa’s government approached Dr. Weerasinghe in Australia, the crisis was beyond control.

The retired political appointee Prof. Lakshman cannot absolve himself of causing unprecedented destruction and current turmoil though he simply succumbed to political pressure. What Prof. Lakshman actually did was the overseeing of the destruction of the economy in his capacity as the Governor and head of the Monetary Board.

Of course matters were exacerbated by some unforeseen events, beginning with the unprecedented terror attacks by Islamic terrorists here on Easter Sunday 2019, supposedly in retaliation for terror attacks on Muslims, in places like Christchurch, New Zealand, that delivered a body blow to the vital tourism industry here. Then before we could recover from that, there came the pandemic fear from the beginning of the following year with resultant lockdowns that also crippled the entire economy. To the credit of our rulers, we did weather the pandemic storm better than most countries, including India, where unknown numbers perished. We were also hit, like every other country, by the war in Ukraine, which could have been easily defused, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis involving the then two super powers as now. But in our opinion what reduced us to being international beggars was the almost successful shutting down of our last lucrative foreign exchange earner, the remittances of our expatriate workers by illegal underground money transfer schemes, known as Hawala and Undiyal.

 It was also the fault of the authorities, going back to possibly the 1990s, for allowing private foreign exchange traders to operate with hardly any controls that led to the bleeding of vital foreign currencies from the country. It has been a known fact that proceeds from the lucrative drug trade had been easily repatriated abroad by drug dealers, thanks to the free availability of foreign currency with those dealers, where no questions are asked. We wonder whether such anti-national decisions were taken at the behest of economic hitmen at the IMF and the World Bank.

 Combination of these situations led to the country being reduced to an international beggar.

Hell-bent on appeasing his political masters, Prof. Lakshman, well past his prime, merely followed instructions. Those who remained as Monetary Board members, under Prof. Lakshman’s leadership, cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current crisis. Had Jayawardena, a highly successful lawyer, and Jayamaha, a retired top Central Banker, and even headed private banks, were so concerned and opposed the conduct of Prof. Lakshman and Treasury Secretary Attygalle, they should have quit the outfit. Instead, they remained. And they continued to do so. Their declarations at the COPE proceedings of their failed bids to influence Prof. Lakshman cannot justify their failure.

Of course, the Japanese Embassy, in Colombo, shouldn’t be faulted for recommending the Order of the Rising Sun for Prof. Lakshman in the evening of his life for services rendered during better days. However, the Japanese Embassy caused quite a stir when Senior Professor Sampath Amaratunga, Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) was conferred ‘The Order of the Rising Sun’ twice.

The academic received the award on 14 October 2021 from the then Japanese Ambassador in Colombo, Akira Sugiyama, at his official residence. For the second time, the UGC Chief received the same at Dharmavijayaloka Vihara in Rukmale in Pannipitiya at an event organized on January 22, 2022. The incumbent Japanese Ambassador Mizukoshi Hideaki and the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were present on the occasion.

Ali Sabry, PC, had the guts to defend Dr. Weerasinghe in Parliament. In fact, both Dr. Weerasinghe as well as Sabry, in his capacity as the Finance Minister squarely blamed those who had advised President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the economic meltdown. Having held talks in Washington with the IMF and the World Bank in late May, Sabry, in an exclusive interview with Swarnavahini in early June disclosed how the advisors (Dr.PBJ, Governors of the CBSL, Treasury Secretary et al) deceived the President and the Cabinet-of-Ministers until it was too late.

No one challenged Sabry over his shocking declarations. Actually, Sabry basically repeated what Dr. Weerasinghe told the COPE.

Formidable challenge

Dr. Weerasinghe, obviously has earned the wrath of some lawmakers/political parties for taking an uncompromising stand against irresponsible governance. Addressing the Mps, on the invitation of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, in Parliament, the day after President Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister presented an interim budget, Dr. Weerasinghe warned that the whole exercise, involving the IMF, could collapse if political parties didn’t change their strategies. Dr. Weerasinghe demanded a genuine acceptance of the agreement or warned political parties to prepare to face the consequences. Had the Parliament met its two primary obligations, namely financial responsibility and enactment of laws, the Speaker wouldn’t have found any justifiable reason to invite the Governor who indicated he would not stand any nonsense under any circumstances.

Whatever some unscrupulous politicians say, the vast majority of the public appreciated senior officials taking such a stand. It would be pertinent to mention the circumstances Dr. Weerasinghe received a six-year term on June 30 as the Governor, CBSL. Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, who succeeded Arjuna Mahendran in June 2016, in the wake of the second far bigger Treasury bond scam, was unceremoniously asked to leave after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s triumph at the Nov 2019 presidential election. Those who managed the President’s diary almost succeeded in depriving Dr. Coomaraswamy an opportunity to pay a courtesy call on the President before his retirement. Dr. Coomaraswamy’s six-year term was shared by Prof. Lakshman, Cabraal and Dr. Weerasinghe. Now that Dr. Weerasinghe has received a fresh six-year term, the government is not in a position to remove him, unless he left voluntarily.

At last a Governor of the CBSL has dared to take a principled stand vis-a-vis political interference. An utterly corrupt and reckless and irresponsible lot had been told in no uncertain terms that a bankrupt country couldn’t continue the way, those who represented the legislature wanted to exploit the electorate at the expense of the national economy.

The culpability of Cabraal, who represented Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be disregarded. As the State Finance Minister for Money and Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reform (Aug 2020 to Sept 2021) Cabraal played a significant role in the overall financial management. Dr. Harsha de Silva has repeatedly raised Cabraal’s culpability as regards the current financial turmoil.

Reappraisal of perks and privileges

 As the country struggles to come to terms with the growing difficulties, the government in consultation with all political parties represented in Parliament and trade unions representing key sectors should review the national economy. The need to reexamine and take tangible corrective measures cannot be delayed any further. Perks, privileges granted to all sectors, should be reviewed. If they are genuine, the issuance of much abused duty free vehicle permits can be examined as part of the overall measures to save foreign exchange. Thanks to anti-corruption campaigner, controversial Attorney-at-Law Nagananda Kodituwakku, the country got to know how our lawmakers brazenly abused the duty free permits. They had an absolutely wonderful scheme (wonderful to them and their associates) which allowed them to sell the ownership of the duty free vehicles imported by them to those not entitled to that facility the same day the vehicles were registered in their names.

Nagananda Kodituwakku has not been successful in his attempts to move Court against those lawmakers engaged in a lucrative trade/massive scam with the blessings of Parliament whoever won the general election. Only a few declined the offer to obtain a duty free permit for the sole purpose of financially benefiting at the expense of the national economy.

At the onset of the financial crisis in 2020, the Finance Ministry submitted a Cabinet paper to import duty free vehicles for all MPs. The move was later shelved amidst growing public resentment. Over the years, successive governments mercilessly exploited the country until the national economy deteriorated to such an extent, violent public protests erupted on March 31.

Incumbent CBSL Governor warned political parties represented in Parliament that public protests could erupt again if they repeated their habitual political strategies meant to win elections at any cost.

Dr. Weerasinghe quite cleverly used his speech to highlight how all political parties shamelessly undermined the national economy by promising relief in spite of the government whoever was in power lacking the financial strength to do so. The lawmakers were warned against undermining the economy by electioneering based on promises. There had never been such a fiery speech delivered by an outsider to members of Parliament since the shifting of Parliament, from Galle Face to Sri Jayewardenepura, 40 years ago. Members of Parliament, past and present would have been humiliated and ashamed of the way they managed the national economy, especially since 1977.

The Parliament released the link that gave access to Dr. Weerasinghe’s full speech. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the Cabinet-of-Ministers, leaders of political parties represented in Parliament, the media and the civil society should pay attention to the Governor’s talk. The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary should heed the concerns raised by the Governor. There had never been such a straightforward criticism of an utterly corrupt system that thrived at the expense of the public.

Dr. Weerasinghe response to reckless, corrupt and irresponsible system can be examined against the backdrop of advice given by Dr. Coomaraswamy several years ago. In Nov 2018, Coomaraswamy advised the electorate as regards parliamentary elections. Dr. Coomaraswamy made the appeal before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCol) on irregularities at SriLankan Airlines, SriLankan Catering and Mihin Lanka.

Dr. Coomaraswamy told the PCol almost prophetically that the country was facing a non-virtuous cycle of debt and it was a very fragile situation which could even lead to a debt crisis. “Of course my colleagues in the debt department have plans and capability to manage it. But it’s the duty of every citizen to act responsibly as regards the government policy”, he told the PCol. Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasized that people should elect MPs who were prudent enough to handle fiscal and monetary matters of the country. “I am not referring to any government, but it’s been the case ever since Independence”.

Obviously, the electorate didn’t heed Dr. Coomaraswamy’s call. Those who won the next general election in Aug 2020 simply allowed things to slip out of control. They couldn’t have done so without the support of those who managed the economy. Two of Dr. Coomaraswamy’s successors, Prof. Lakshman and Cabraal are under fire for their role in the current crisis. The Court has been moved against Cabraal.

Dr. Coomaraswamy is on record as having said that the failure on the part of successive governments to manage expenditure since the country gained Independence has caused the current economic instability.

Months later, in response to The Island query, Dr. Coomaraswamy declared Sri Lanka had been plagued by a toxic combination of populist politics and an entrenched entitlement culture among the people.

“Time and again, the electoral calendar has undermined fiscal discipline,” Dr. Coomaraswamy asserted.



Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva recently questioned the failure on the part of the cash-strapped Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to provide electricity, without interruption, at least during the GCE Advanced Level examination.

The outspoken lawyer raised the issue with the writer, on January 23, the day the delayed examination began at 2,200 centres, with 331,709 students sitting the examination, countrywide. It was, originally, to commence on Dec. 05, 2022.

The constitutional expert pointed out how even in the implementation of daily power cuts, the CEB, obviously, discriminated against the population, at the behest of the political leadership, by excluding selected areas from, what he called, the daily scourge of living without electricity. Pointing out the responsibility of the media to take a strong stand on this issue, the President’s Counsel said that certain areas, categorized as ‘VIP,’ received a 24-hour, uninterrupted, power supply.

The CEB resorted to daily power cuts, last year, after a long time, during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time, as the economic crisis gripped the country, with the government unable to pay for the import of even basic needs, like gas, fuel, medicines, etc. At one time, there were 10- to 12-hour power cuts. The then Power and Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila, is on record as having said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ignored his plea for immediate small power cuts, to conserve what we had, at the beginning of the total breakdown, in January 2022, to lessen the full impact of the developing crisis hitting us at once down the road. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila pointed out that the President’s failure finally led to 12-13 hour power cuts, leading to the explosion of public anger, in the last week of March, 2022.

The continuing power crisis reflected the overall waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement, at every level, not only at the CEB, but the entire public sector, as well, over the past several decades.

The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) last Wednesday (25) to compel the CEB to ensure uninterrupted power supply, failed.

In spite of Commissioner, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, of the HRCSL, on its behalf, proudly claiming that it had secured a consensus with all stakeholders to suspend power cuts, ignoring all that, the CEB went ahead with the routine electricity supply interruptions.

The power crisis, coupled with an explosive cocktail of issues caused by Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its international loan commitments, contributed to the further deterioration of the country’s economy. The crisis affected Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2021, with the Easter Sunday carnage, and the pandemic, already having done much damage, especially to the vital tourism sector, among others, but President Rajapaksa’s government ignored the threat.

Appearing in a live programme, telecast simultaneously, both on stateowned and private television networks, the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged the then government hid Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before its inability to service foreign debt was officially acknowledged in early April last year. Having accepted the hot seat, in early April, last year, Dr. Weerasinghe announced suspension of repayment of loans, temporarily. In spite of progress made, the IMF USD 2.9 bn extended loan facility remained yet to be implemented.

What really caused the economic meltdown? Could President Gotabaya Rajapaksa averted public humiliation if he sought IMF’s intervention in early 2020? Who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from doing so, as Sri Lanka had knelt before the IMF on 16 previous occasions? His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the Finance portfolio, could have advised the President. Didn’t Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa advise his brother in this regard? And what was the role played by former Treasury Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, not just another run-of-the-mill economist. Having been seconded to the Treasury, from the Central Bank, from the time Ronnie de Mel was the Finance Minister, his exceptional talents were tapped by the Finance Ministry, even under President Premadasa, when R. Paskaralingam, of the Pandora Papers’ notoriety, was the Treasury Secretary. And he continued to serve the Treasury, under successive Presidents, thereafter, especially in the hot seat, as the Finance Ministry Secretary, in one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, during the final phase of the conflict, when it was a fight to a finish with the LTTE, especially after President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Couchner, to get lost when they went all the way down to Embilipitiya to tell Mahinda to stop the war to enable them to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran, and what was left of his terrorist movement, by a flotilla of vessels they were ready to dispatch to the coast of Mullaitivu. PBJ, no doubt, ensured that no expense was spared when waging the most costly war of attrition, while keeping the economy humming with massive infrastructure projects, like building expressways, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, etc. So it is quite puzzling why PBJ failed to guide President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the path of correct economic decisions. Surely it can’t be due to him past the retirement age.

After being Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during this turbulent period, Dr. PBJ was asked to go in Dec. 2021, when the former’s presidency had suffered irrevocable damage.

Leaving all the above aside, it must be stated here that whatever disagreements, or misunderstandings we may have had in the past, with New Delhi and Beijing, we should be eternally grateful to both India and China for being unwaveringly behind us in that most difficult final phase of the war.

Ex-CP Chief D.E.W. Gunasekera recently discussed the downfall of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes at the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. President Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022, in the wake of snowballing violent protests that began on March 31, outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana.

In a brief but fiery speech, the former Marxist minister explained how the wartime Defence Secretary caused the rapid deterioration of his government for want of a sound economic strategy. The retired public servant, who served as a lawmaker (2004-2015), found fault with President Rajapaksa for the ongoing political-economic-social crisis.

The veteran politician recalled how he suggested to the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to advice brother Gotabaya to seek Chinese assistance to overcome the impending financial crisis. The outspoken politician blamed it all on the economic reasons.

Gunasekera said so at the opening of Eastern School of Political Studies, at the newly renovated CP party office, at Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Borella, with the participation of Chinese International Department Vice Minister, Chen Zhou, and Acting Chinese Ambassador, Hu Wei.

Declaring that he himself warned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending crisis and provided a recovery plan in the run up to the last presidential election, held on Nov. 16, 2019, Gunasekera accused the fallen President of turning a blind eye.

The ex-minister placed the blame squarely on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A different interpretation

Derana Chief, Dilith Jayaweera, at one time, one of the closest associates of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a YouTube interview with Eraj Weeraratne, discussed political developments, since 2018, leading to a violent public protest movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Jayaweera, who is also the Chairperson of the George Steuart Group, as well as George Steuart Finance Limited, squarely blamed the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, for the turbulent end to his rule.

Responding to a Weeraratne’s query, Jayaweera, declared lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa had no political future. The outspoken entrepreneur was unhesitant. Asserting twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, currently a member of Parliament, representing one-time Rajapaksa bastion, the Hambantota district, has lost his bearings, Jayaweera questioned the young politician’s sincerity.

Jayaweera didn’t mince his words when he declared that having failed to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of an opportunity to contest the 2019 Presidential Election, the one-time first family worked overtime to undermine his authority at every level. The first family went to the extent of supporting the ‘GotaGoHome’ campaign that compelled the President to give up power, without a fight.

Jayaweera attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha (formerly of the Navy) with #GotaGoHome# hashtag that became the clarion call of the high profile protest campaign to oust the previous President.

That tagline doesn’t belong to Aragalaya, Jayaweera declared, alleging that it grew out of the former first family’s inability to stomach Gotabaya Rajapaksa exercising executive power.

The controversial political strategist revealed the ex-first family’s angry reaction to his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “They believed I was trying to move the President out of the family’s orbit. But, the people wanted a Rajapaksa who didn’t represent the interests of the family.” Jayaweera said.

The intrepid local entrepreneur is convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa couldn’t overcome the combined challenge posed by the Rajapaksa family.

Responding to another rapid-fire question, Jayaweera explained how the Rajapkasa family thwarted President Rajapaksa’s move to appoint senior public servant, Anura Dissanayake, as his Secretary. But, the Rajapaksa family forced their loyalist Gamini Senarath, who had been Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Secretary, on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following the exit of PBJ, Jayaweera claimed. According to him, that was definitely the worst example of the Rajapaksa’s family’s interference that rapidly weakened Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency.

The appointment of Dr. Jayasundera, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretary, should be examined against the backdrop of Jayaweera’s disclosure that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been so critical of any other individual during private conversations he had with him.

Cardinal sin

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cardinal sin was nothing but the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Jayaweera declared. That controversial piece of legislature created an extremely hostile political environment and gradually weakened President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority, Jayaweera said, recalling how Basil Rajapaksa forced his way into Parliament, on the SLPP National List, regardless of political consequences.

Jayaweera said that he received an assurance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presence of SLPP National List MP, Gevindu Cumaratunga, that enactment of the 20th Amendment at the expense of the 19th A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t keep his promise. Therefore, he should be accountable for the subsequent developments which preceded the demise of his political authority.”

Jayaweera explained how the Rajapaksas interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll for their advantage. “The family asserted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a staggering 6.9 mn votes due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. So, the family asserted that the new President should pursue their agenda. The family appointed Dr. Jayasundera as the Presidential Secretary.

Basil Rajapaksa believed he should be able to control Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa justified his overall political authority on the basis his SLPP secured a near 2/3 majority in Parliament, in addition to Opposition support that underlined their supremacy.”

Jayaweera described how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to take up residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, do away with gaudy practice of hanging pictures of the President in government buildings, excessive use of vehicles and, most significantly, approval of unsolicited bids, angered the former first family. Those who immensely benefited from such ‘unsolicited bids’ reacted angrily, he said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions jolted racketeers, Jayaweera alleged, pointing out that the new leader quickly lost support within the Cabinet-of-Ministers, by denying those corrupt elements an opportunity to make money, through the promotion of unsolicited bids. They couldn’t bear the shock of Cabinet papers submitted through the family or the intervention of the family being rejected, Jayaweera said, alleging that those who lived off such racketeering spearheaded the campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The ‘Aragalaya’ entered the scene much later and exploited the situation to the hilt as the government parliamentary group quite conveniently abandoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Those present in Parliament didn’t challenge SJB MP Harin Fernando when he ridiculed the President repeating the ‘Sir fail’ mantra, Jayaweera said.

The parliamentary group, particularly those corrupt in the Cabinet, felt there was no point in defending a President who didn’t allow them to make money.

Jayaweera also ridiculed the inclusion of four persons who wore kurahan satakaya (maroon shawl) among President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. Jayaweera questioned the justification of bestowing five Cabinet portfolios on Namal Rajapaksa.

Relationship with JVP

The Derana Chief discussed a range of other issues, including his long standing relationship with the JVP, subsequent disputes with the Marxist party, and differences with the current leadership.

Dilith Jayaweera seems to be on a collision course with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, especially over allegations directed at him as regards corruption in the procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denying any wrongdoing on his part in spite of his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jayaweera declared his readiness to battle it out on a public platform. While acknowledging that his enterprises handled procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process, Jayaweera challenged the JVP leader Dissanayake to prove publicly how he engaged in corrupt practices.

Jayaweera gave an open undertaking to personally lead JVP’s Local Government polls campaign if the record could be set straight by such a debate.

Recalling his close contacts with the JVP in the past and him having participated in their well-known five classes’ indoctrination programme to all new comers, Jayaweera disclosed how he spearheaded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 presidential election campaign in which the Marxist party played a significant role. Slain Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s residence had been their meeting point where they discussed political strategy. Wimal Weerawansa had been the JVP representative at such meetings on some occasions, Jayaweera said.

Reference was made to the JVP split in the wake of the then Somawansa Amarasinghe led party declaring its intention to vote against the 2008 budget. Had that happened, the military campaign would have been derailed, Jayaweera said, comparing the JVP’s political strategy with that of the UNP.

“At a time, the vast majority of Sri Lankans desired the eradication of the LTTE, the JVP adopted a strategy that clearly aligned with the UNP’s treacherous approach,” Jayaweera said. Reference was made to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his MPs, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and the late Mangala Samaraweera questioning the military strategy and even the competence of the then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Jayaweera commented on a possible deal the JVP had with some party while referring to the availability of large scale NGO funding for those who undermined the war effort.

Recalling the success of his high profile ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign in support of the war effort, particularly meant to attract the youth to join the armed forces, Jayaweera also criticized the JVP strategy towards the end of its second rebellion 1987-1990 when it targeted those in the socialist camp as it was being decimated by the then government death squads.

Answering questions regarding Derana coverage as well as editorial policy of his daily and weekly newspapers, Jayaweera emphasized that he never interfered with them under any circumstances. The media mogul pointed out how Derana TV and newspapers followed different policies while reminding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s angry reaction to their reportage of developments taking place. “Our reportage reflected the reality. We couldn’t save the government,” he said.

Jayaweera discussed how his strategy differed from that of late Raja Mahendran of the Capital Maharaja Group. Although TNL was launched before Sirasa, the latter received the attention, Jayaweera said, emphasizing Raja Mahendran’s steadfast policy that the owner of the private channel controlled the news content.

Pressed for further explanation, Jayaweera acknowledged that he always exploited situations and created an environment necessary to influence the media. “That strategy is meant to inspire all media, not only Derana,” Jayaweera said.

Jayaweera and Weeraratne also discussed the simmering controversy over the JVP having as much as Rs 8 bn in funds as alleged by Jayaweera, with Derana Chief stressing that whatever the counter arguments the fact remains the JVP had substantial amount of funding. Questioning the credibility of lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake against the backdrop of a section of the media highlighting lies propagated by the JVP leader, Jayaweera declared his readiness to help the party. But, that would depend on the JVPers willingness to appear with him in a live debate to clear the whole gamut of issues at hand.

Jayaweera also recalled the allegations pertaining to the procurement of antigen test kits directed at him by lawmaker Rajapaksa. Dismissing Namal Rajapaksa’s allegations as irrelevant, Jayaweera stressed that MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake should be given an opportunity to rectify his mistakes.

Jayaweera recalled his close association with Dissanayake at the time the latter served as the Agriculture Minister of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led UPFA-JVP ‘Parivasa’ government. A smiling Jayaweera said though the JVP wanted to build 1,000 new tanks, it couldn’t complete at least one properly. Declaring he accompanied Dissanayake to various parts of the country,

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

At the conclusion of perhaps the most important interview that dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unceremonious exit from politics, Jayaweera commented on an often asked query whether Aragalaya was a conspiracy?

External intervention

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to give up political power not because of him, Jayaweera recalled how he warned in 2008 of the impending economic crisis and Dr. Jayasundera’s role in it. That warning was issued at the launch of Sinhala translation of John Perkins’s ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman,’ Jayaweera said, declaring that the former first family initiated the conspiracy that was subsequently exploited to the hilt by various interested parties, including Western powers.

There cannot be any dispute over how Gotabaya Rajapaksa was derailed and who contributed to that despicable strategy. Perhaps, social media influencer, who interviewed him should have asked Jayaweera about a few other issues that ruined the once much respected Defence Secretary.

The crisis created cannot be discussed leaving out the ill-fated fertilizer ban (2021), catastrophic cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) project funded by Japan(2020), allegations directed at Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Prime Minister’s Secretary Gamini Senarath (both denied these accusations) pertaining to procurement of fertiliser from India and China, respectively and the failure on the government’s part to implement recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.

The writer remembers how he ran into Jayaweera and Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bishop’s House in the run up to 2019 presidential election when the latter visited Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to assure that justice would be done.

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

“Black cat, at the tip of my fingers pulsates poetry,

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

Asifa, a young girl, and her elderly mother, living in Kattankudy, Baticaloa, are two fictional characters at the centre of Ashfaque Mohamed’s quietly powerful first feature film, titled Face Cover, which just premiered at the 2023 Jaffna International Film Festival (JIFF). As the President of the international jury judging the films in this year’s debut film competition at the JIFF (but on zoom from Australia), I have seen some highly sophisticated films from Bangladesh and India (the winners), immensely enjoyable and informative, but have chosen, for the purposes of this article, to write on Ashfaque’s thought provoking film that didn’t make it into the debut film competition. My decision to do so is part of my own politics as a film scholar who has, over the decades, often highlighted and laboured over films that may not necessarily be popular, or current, or even easily understood, for that matter. Eye-catching films often are popular, and many critics spend a lot of energy writing about them as is their prerogative. I, too, do that when moved, as I have been by Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular ELVIS. But, it’s important to me, as a Lankan-Australian film critic/scholar, to focus also on work that at first may appear opaque, may not fit into my own limited viewing habits and preferences, first and foremost. This way, I learn to learn from film even as I grow old. Face Cover has uncovered for me micro-histories of ethnic relations in Lanka in astonishing and moving ways. It’s certainly a film for our times, and in my opinion, Ashfaque is a young Lankan filmmaker of great promise. It is also heartening to note that he is cine-literate and (as he says), is self-taught as a filmmaker.

While the opening and closing screenings of the festival were at the Cinemas Movie Theatre, the rest of the festival films were shown at the University of Jaffna, largely due to the ongoing grave financial crisis affecting the country as a whole. I gather it’s the only film festival held in Sri Lanka, continuously, since the civil war ended, after 30 years, and is an admirable institution, powered by its Director, and curator of film, Anoma Rajakaruna’s unceasing energy and vision, which builds bridges among the various ethnic groups and cinephiles from across the entire country and crucially South Asia and further afield, in that once war-ravaged city. The following is the film’s blurb.

“Taking the cataclysmic Easter Sunday Bombings of Churches and Hotels in April 2019, by ISIS inspired Islamists in Sri Lanka as the point of departure, the film follows the life of Asifa in Kattankdy, in Eastern Sri Lanka, as she navigates the complex social forces shaping her and other women’s stories. The film tells the story of the town, as a woman’s tale. The film is experimental in form and mixes genres and conventions.”

*****

The main fictional story line of the mother and daughter is interwoven with (what appears at first to be), documentary interviews and testimonies given by ‘real’ people, not fictional characters. However, towards the end of the film one realises that the demarcating lines between documentary and fiction have indeed been blurred. There are hints of this earlier, in the four scenes forming the large sequence ‘performed’ on a proscenium stage, as well. This blurring appears to be the result of an unusual aesthetic and political decision, which I wish to explore here. Perhaps the politics of the film are linked to this bleeding of the actual into the fictional and the reverse also. How does this device enable Face Cover to uncover subtle operations of power in a predominantly Muslim area of Lanka, in the post-war era, soon after the Easter Sunday bombings as well? The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ certainly gets elaborated quietly but quite decisively in exploring the agency of the young Muslim girl, Asifa, on the cusp of womanhood, as well. I am assuming here (as I think the film itself does), that a politics of cinema has to work on two fronts simultaneously, not only on the choice of subject/story, but also on HOW it is told, elaborated. For what’s at stake are, our powers of perception and understanding, through images and sounds, that touch us in unexpected ways. Film, I believe, can be our mentor, we can learn from film in the most enjoyable and unexpected of ways, to undo our prejudiced ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. Face Cover continues to be a revelation to me in this regard, even after multiple viewings, especially so.

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

, the title of Ashafque’s film, is in itself fascinating. Why didn’t he use the globalised Arabic word Niqab for instance? The words ‘Face Cover’ (I learn), are the same in Tamil, the English words simply transliterated and incorporated into the vernacular. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to the practice of partially covering a woman’s face, as required by some Muslim norms. A Tamil friend suggested that it connotes both the intimacy of a piece of cloth and a sense of distance of appropriated foreign words. Perhaps this sense of ambivalence is a unique Lankan invention not perceptible in the pure Arabic official word for the practice, which is Niqab. What’s fascinating to me is that, before I saw the film and learnt about the connotations of the title Face Cover, I thought it would be a ‘hot’, topical film on a subject that has caused a great deal of debate in the West (France for example), and protests, most recently in Iran which turned violent and then garnered supporters in some Western countries especially among some feminists. It’s a topic that the Western white media finds especially irresistible. But I was mistaken to take the title Face Cover at face value, as a sign of a polemical film. And what was most surprising to me about the film was that I wrote a long email to a friend, soon after I saw the film for the first time and realised the next day that I had said absolutely nothing about the ‘problem’ of the face cover, despite having discussed the film at some length.

When I realised what I had done, I resaw the film which brought up a lot of questions but no answers, so I saw the film yet again for the third time. This time round the film began to slowly open up to my attention. It is a film, I realised, that requires a quiet focus, an attentiveness, as when one enters an unfamiliar social milieu, like when one takes one’s shoes off to go into certain places of worship in Lanka, or as it happens to some houses in Australia. Similarly, while music is used, it does so very sparingly, so that when we do hear it, it speaks in a way that wall to wall music does not, cannot. In these ways our quality of attention is tuned like a musical instrument. In fact, the only time the face cover became a ‘hot topic’ in the film was when a Sinhala trader, in a shop, makes it so by shouting at a young woman wearing a face cover. He aggressively asks her why she has her face covered and the young girl responds forcefully, asking why he wants to see her face, etc. Apart from this verbal stoush, (the only time Sinhala is heard in the film), and one re-enactment on a stage, of an Army check-point scene, from the civil-war era, the face cover itself is not conceived as a ‘problem’ to be addressed by the film. In the staged check-point scene, a soldier, carrying a gun, orders a young woman, in Tamil, to unmask at the point of his gun and she simply obeys the command. The soldier is meant to be Sinhala speaking an accented Tamil. So apart from these two ‘dramatic’ incidents, instigated by hostile people with authority and power, the face cover is not a focus of the film, it’s simply a given. Though there is a strong criticism of the Muslim male undergraduate practice of erasing the faces of female office bearers on student council photographs, at several Universities. A young Muslim woman astutely refers to this gender discrimination as a ‘digital veiling,’ images of which are displayed. This kind of internal criticism is very forceful and one hopes that Muslim male undergraduates will reflect on it and mend their ways. The check-point scene does function as a parable. More on the use of dramatic parables later, in a film where there is very little ‘drama’ in this sense of confrontations. Instead, momentous events transpire on Television News of the Easter Sunday bombings which frames the film and dates it to be set in 2019. But previous violent histories are folded into every-day-life and narrated as recollections, and an inventive mix of techniques of staged interviews and testimonies and ‘real’ interviews, replace drama, understood as actions and reactions reaching a crescendo.

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

Often the interviews are played as voice-over while the person concerned goes about her every-day business, mute. This technique makes the film’s narration flexible, allowing room to play with our attention, an eye here and the ear there. I think that Ashfaque’s ethico-aesthetic sensibility evident here is a part of his film politics. I find myself listening attentively to the voice-over which rhetorically oscillates between answers to questions (which are themselves unheard), and an interior monologue. I found the texture, timbre, inflections and rhythms of the voices, especially those of the mother and daughter, very engaging, moving. Lankan cinema has not developed the autonomous potentialities of the sound track as much as it could, I think.

Face Cover

as a Lure

I was a bit slow to realise that the title, Face Cover, is a lure. It lures us into the film as a certain idea of the veil might. The veil is an alluring metaphysical idea in Kumar Shahani’s film Khyal Gatha for instance, which explores both Hindu Bhakti and Sufi Islamic traditions of spirituality as expressed in music, song and art in India which bypass both the priest and the religious institutions they control. ‘Khayal’ is an Urdu word derived from Persian which means ‘imagination,’ and is the name of a classical musical form. The idea of the ‘veil’ in Persian Sufi traditions is a complex idea, put very simply, it suggests that, reality itself is veiled (filtered, subtilised), and its perception depends on certain spiritual aesthetic practices, which reveal the imperceptible and the intangible, within the hum-drum of every-day existence. The veil as a spiritual idea, on the one hand, and the mask or ‘face cover’ socially mandated by certain Islamic patriarchal assumptions, on the other, are of course worlds apart in their conception and function and the feelings they evoke. As devout Roman Catholic girls, taught religion by Irish Catholic nuns at school, we always had to cover our heads modestly with veils when going to church.

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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