In October 2009 I was arrested and charged with insider trading. I chose to fight the charges against me because I was innocent.
The prosecutors alleged that 0.01% of my trades between 2005 and 2009 were illegal.
I understood that in the US there is a 97% conviction rate (similar to China and Russia) and a punitive trial penalty for those who dare to go to trial. Empirical studies have shown that the trial penalty is just about double that handed to those who plead guilty. If a defendant agrees to become a cooperating witness, helping the government with testimony — irrespective of the truth — to convict another defendant, the co-operating witness gets a much-reduced sentence and in many cases just parole.
I understood the stakes. I chose to go to trial. Why? It’s a question I’ve since been asked hundreds of times. Why. Why jeopardize everything. Because to my core I believed I would get a fair hearing. And with a fair hearing and a rational exposition of the facts, the truth would have prevailed. Until my arrest I had the highest regard for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). I believed that most Americans felt that way in 2009. Since then, of course, the American public has become jaded about the sanctity of these institutions with multiple examples of overreach and excess.
Certain DOJ and FBI sections operate, each attempting to further its own agenda without regard for Constitutional checks and balances. The terms “fake news,” the “Dark State” are now bandied about with almost wild abandon, humor, and satire. The public now assumes the existence of “fake news” alongside “authentic” news with little effort towards journalistic integrity. During the time of my arrest and trial, information from the media, DOJ, and FBI was absorbed as unquestioned “Trust,” although some would argue that the dark state has existed for many years. While I still believe that the vast majority of those who work for the DOJ and the FBI are people of integrity, this book is an attempt to shed light on the corrupt few who act with impunity and destroy lives and families to further their career ambitions.
From the moment of my arrest, the narrative of my story was recast with a precise agenda, shaped to direct public attention away from the stark horror of the 2007-2008 financial crisis while promoting media idolatry of the publicity hungry and ambitious rookie US Attorney, Preet Bharara, who became a demi-God, the “Sheriff of Wall Street” riding into battle against myself, relentlessly personified as evil incarnate on the front pages of major newspapers around the world. Wanton disregard for the law, recognized by the judge at my trial, allowed a corrupt element within the FBI, Agent Kang, to falsify documents leading to my arrest and falsify testimony leading to my conviction.
I faced prosecutorial misconduct at its finest. The overzealous media, feasting on a human story they could sell every day, also profoundly prejudiced any hope of gathering an impartial jury by the time of the trial. These three institutions, ostensibly guardians of the public interest, charged with impartiality and integrity, bore down in a concerted campaign to make me the face of the financial crisis. My arrest and subsequent trial, a two-year process, deflected attention from a glaring fact: Not one major banker was held accountable for the 2008 global meltdown. No arrests. No searing prosecution. No jail time.
In the midst of a financial crisis which brought a multi-trillion-dollar world economy to its knees, these three institutions, independently and collectively, targeted a tiny slice of the US financial industry, hedge funds; honed in on a single hedge fund, Galleon; isolated only me, its CEO, who had recently become one of the few immigrants on Wall Street to be identified as a billionaire; and built a fabulous and intricate tale of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” to entertain the public and build their own reputations. Their two-year reality series was successful beyond measure.
Preet Bharara, the then-US attorney for the Southern District of New York, used my prosecution to launch an unprecedented press campaign to promote himself. Bharara ran roughshod over the truth, standard Department of Justice protocols, and the office’s own dignity in his extraordinary zeal to convict me. Time Magazine put Bharara on its cover, their headline proclaiming “this man is busting Wall-Street.” It was Preet’s finest moment. Bharara did not touch the real perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis – Wall Street’s top bankers. In a rare moment of public acknowledgement, both Preet and the influential New York Magazine observed in 2014 that Bharara was almost sheepish about the insider cases — “they made our careers, but they (didn’t) change the world.”
Bharara’s impotent and poisoned approach to the non-prosecution of criminal activity on Wall Street — ranging from the mortgage bankers who precipitated the financial crisis (Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers), the money-laundering of drug cartels (HSBC), and the encouraging of tax evasion by US citizens (UBS, CSFB) — would become the defining legacy of his tenure. Each of these firms settled civil charges by paying billions of dollars in fines using shareholder money, but no single person was criminally charged or individually fined. Every one of the insider trader prosecutions was criminal. The towering hypocrisy remains startling.
The prosecution under Bharara’s watch advanced a theory of trading to prosecute me and several others which the second circuit appeals court subsequently overruled, criticizing it for “doctrine novelty.” Soon after my trial in May 2011, the then-SEC commissioner Mary Shapiro gloated that “the beauty of insider trading laws is the flexibility in interpreting them.” The lead prosecutor in my case, Jonathan Streeter said in December 2012, “Insider Trading cases are confusing to investment professionals.” He went on to add, “There is incredible confusion on what is illegal and it’s a real problem. The law is very complicated and the lines are a bit murky.” A US Attorney, the prosecution in my trial, and the head of the SEC, all acknowledged their reservations about a “murky” set of laws but had no “murky” reservations using them liberally in my case and at my trial.
The FBI agent overseeing my case Special Agent BJ Kang lied on his sworn affidavit to obtain wiretap authorization of my phone. Recognizing there had been government misconduct, Judge Richard Holwell who presided over my trial case, issued a searing criticism of the wiretap application used by Agent Kang, reprimanding him for “reckless disregard for the truth with respect to both probable cause and necessity.” The Judge went on to add that “false and misleading statements and omissions pervaded the affidavit (submitted by Special Agent Kang) so extensively that it was impossible for the authorizing judge to have the constitutionally required determination for the issuance of the wiretap…rather than provide a full and complete statement as required by the law, the wiretap affidavit made full and complete omissions and included literally false information.”
Kang did not stop at blowing through truth on paper. He menaced and threatened my family and employees with prosecution, frightened away crucial defense witnesses, and routinely leaked false information to the media churning up an unabated feeding frenzy that shredded me in the court of public opinion. Kang took his cues from the playbook of the publicly reviled former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. I was tried, convicted, and sentenced in the press even before I fully understood the charges against me. The atmosphere was so toxic that my lead counsel, veteran defense lawyer John Dowd said “the prejudicial publicity orchestrated by the USA was so palpable in the courtroom…It was the most toxic atmosphere of any case I ever tried.”
My defense team led by John Dowd, along with expert testimony from a former SEC legal counsel, repeatedly highlighted that all the information discussed in the wiretaps was already in the public domain. Every bit of information was in the public domain. It did not matter. No amount of truth could overcome the false testimony trained into the co-operating witnesses by Streeter, his team of prosecutors, and Bharara, who sat on the sidelines, waiting in eager anticipation for any opportunity for a press conference. Each of the cooperating witnesses had committed his own set of crimes, unrelated to Galleon. Yet each chose to testify against me as an opportunity to reduce their probable sentences. That they were perjuring themselves was irrelevant; the government coerced them into an immediate mandate to take me down. Even the government’s star witness, Anil Kumar, offered damning testimony under oath in my case only to recant the very same sworn testimony three years later during the trial of my brother. My brother was subsequently acquitted as a result of the revised and opposite version of Anil Kumar’s testimony. A few newspapers picked up on this gross disparity, but that was it. The fact of perjury had no consequence. The cycle was vicious. “Innocent until proven guilty,” the cornerstone philosophy of the American judicial system was proving to be a farce.
I was convicted by a jury, sentenced to 11 years in jail, and paid fines of over $150 million. The irony is that even in setting the fines, the prosecutors working in tandem with the media kept up the unceasing drumbeat of punishment for the financial crisis. Never mind that I did not personally make any money from the alleged trades. And never mind that not one single investor sued me. Galleon went through an orderly process of closing down the firm and returned all the funds with a gain of 22%. Not a single investor lost money. Most important to me, personally, was that not one single investor sued me.
In July 2019, I was released after serving 7.5 years of my 11-year sentence under the First Step Act.
I wrote this book entirely in prison and by hand. I began by writing about an hour a day. Soon that increased to two hours. Then three. I am choosing to publish the book for two specific reasons: First, I want my peers, professionals who understand the nuances of managing money, to hear the facts of my case. I want them to judge me. It is my assertion that I was entrapped, framed, unlawfully wiretapped, surveilled, and then made to endure a brutal and very public media lynching.
Secondly and more importantly, I want to begin a public discussion by creating awareness of how certain corrupt prosecutors and FBI agents are allowed to get away with criminal behavior. There are no checks and balances in our Justice system. Recently there has been a lot of discussion as to whether the President should be above the law. The President is so closely scrutinized that doing anything against the law would ring alarms bells the world over. Instead, my assertion is that the focus should be on the corruption within the American judicial system, on a handful of corrupt US attorneys who live their lives exempt from the law by which they control the lives of others and the rest of the country. In this book I will show how ambitious prosecutors actively take advantage of murky laws and coerce testimony from government witnesses to obtain wrongful convictions. Winning at all costs, regardless of the truth appears at every level to be an operative mantra. I realize there is only one book I can write to set the record straight. This is it.
My story is also about greed. In all its forms, greed boils down to avarice, hunger, power, money, ambition. All of these are readily available and identifiable in the financial industry, by definition. In fact, I would say that in the financial industry, greed is effectively a cliché with fear being on the flip side of a pair trade. Fear and greed are easy to communicate, and the media hones in on these aspects of Wall Street. But what I would like to do in this book is to hone in on the excess and greed in the judicial system. Ambition in the judicial system also translates to power and money, a far more insidious and dangerous consequence to society because it goes unchecked. After I was convicted, the press had a field day speculating whether the “new sheriff” of Wall Street, Preet Bharara, was actually in line to succeed Eric Holder as the next US Attorney General when Holder stepped down. While Bharara was at first coy about his intentions, he eventually made clear his goal to secure the job based on his work prosecuting Wall Street. He may have wanted the job but did not get it.
The same ambitions were true for the three government prosecutors in my case – all three left government shortly after closing out my case for higher paying jobs as partners in leading law firms. They and their new employers spent considerable effort drumming up business on the heels of the skills honed during their time as former prosecutors to future defendants accused of insider trading. They had no problem making the transition from denouncing apparent “greed” in the financial markets to defending that same greed, switching sides in an effective demonstration of greed. As partners at leading law firms they would be highly compensated. The “protectors from greed” sold themselves to the highest bidder, all under the trusting gaze of an unaware public. The door meant to separate and maintain a balance between the public and the private sectors revolves efficiently and profitably.
It is important to understand context of the time and the prevailing mood of the country in October 2009 when I was arrested. In 2008 we had seen the near collapse of the financial system and the wiping out of trillions of dollars of home equity and life savings of the American middle class. The government was forced to bail out the major banks. Mortgages that were bundled up or securitized and sold by banks had contributed to the crisis. Millions of American homes went into foreclosure. Institutions such as Lehman Brother, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, AIG and Freddie Mac either filed for bankruptcy or lost over 90% of their market value. An estimated $7 trillion in US household assets were wiped out. And to add to the catastrophe, in late 2008, Bernie Maddoff admitted to running the largest Ponzi scheme under the very eyes of the regulators. Politicians and the public placed the blame squarely on Wall Street. The pubic was clamoring for blood and there was no blood forthcoming. From anywhere.
I had nothing to do with the housing crisis. I was an easy target for politicians, for prosecutors, for pundits, and for Bharara who had just been handed leadership of the Southern District of NY including a mandate for bringing Wall Street under control. I was a successful and expendable hedge fund manager who employed just 250 people. We obtained an overwhelming amount of information on a daily basis and my trading was 100% consistent with the written recommendations of my analysts. In ALL cases, I had a pre-existing position in the stock before allegedly receiving the “tip.” In 2009 and even today, insider trading laws are murky at best and often (intentionally) misinterpreted by prosecutors. The government painted our systematic, well-researched investing as being criminal. Theirs was an overreach of enormous proportions to show that “Wall Street fat cats” were being brought to justice. If I am guilty, then the entire investment business should be declared illegal.
As the Wall Street Journal noted insightfully, “Under standard rhetoric, the public is somehow cheated by all this, but the standard rhetoric is nonsense. The public isn’t damaged because another party wants to sell or buy (and most hedge funds strive to make sure their trading doesn’t affect prices anyway). But a cynic might note one thing: insider-trading law provides a bottomless reservoir of (supposed) financial ‘crime’ for Washington to investigate whenever it needs a Wall Street prosecution to flounce in front of the press.” [Endnote 1]
As a child, having gone to boarding school in a foreign country at the age of eleven, I learned quickly and early to be a fighter, a scrapper. This is a blessing and a curse. Over the years, I have learned that you don’t always have to fight. The kindness of many people has defanged and disarmed me to a large extent. However, when people try to take advantage of me, I have to respond. I don’t back down. And I am fortunate to have been blessed with the mental fortitude and financial resources to fight for my innocence. Too many people do not. They plead guilty to indictments they cannot challenge. In my experience about 10% of the inmates at the prison in which I spent seven-and-a-half years were innocent.
When I was researching the Justice Department while in prison, I came across a paragraph that struck a chord in me. Unfortunately, I did not write down the name of the author or the source. “Criminal punishment is the greatest power that governments use and wield against their own people. When employed justly and appropriately, it is vital to any safe and productive society. But when employed aggressively based on vague laws and personal agendas the criminal justice system unnecessarily destroys lives, livelihoods, and families.”
Oddly, my experience of the law has left me without rage or a sense of victimhood. While I would never say I am grateful for the experience, I can say with confidence that I like myself better because of it. When I finally broke through the wall of despair, I realized I had gained a sense of peace and awareness that had opened me up and cracked me free. I realized how incredibly strong the human mind is and that nothing can beat a person who refuses to be beaten.
Finally, I want to say that despite what happened to me as a result of a corrupt prosecutor, I love this country just as much as I did before I went to prison. I feel truly blessed to be one of the 5% of the world population who live in America. I do not see people lined up to emigrate to China, Russia, or Japan, for example.
As I reflect on my circumstances and my past, if God had arrived at my doorstep when I was 11 – with a crystal ball — and told me, “Raj, I will give you the wife and children you see here, these friends, and ensure that both your parents live long and happily and give you also the ability to help the less fortunate — But you need to sacrifice about seven years of your life,” I would have taken that deal in a New York second.
I feel very fortunate.
I am very fortunate.
Decolonising education and critical thinking
By Darshi Thoradeniya
I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.
Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.
As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.
Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.
This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.
History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.
When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.
Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.
The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.
If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.
(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!
Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.
In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.
Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.
It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.
Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!
The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!
Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.
The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.
There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”
Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology
By Jehan Perera
The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events. President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.
Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far. The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability. This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government. They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.
There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people. The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it. It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling. But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence. This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.
Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society. At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress. These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India. Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.
Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community. In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights. With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months. The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important. The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform. The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.
In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone. This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges. These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP. These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.
The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church. The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.
Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power. They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again. The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied. Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same. This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.
The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently. And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.
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