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Midweek Review

The rise of the Bonapartists:

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A political history of post-1977 Sri Lanka (Part I)

By Uditha Devapriya

Viewed in retrospect, the yahapalanaya regime seems almost a bad memory now, best forgotten. This is not to underrate its achievements, for the UNP-SLFP Unity Government did achieve certain things, like the Right to Information Act. It soon found out, however, that it couldn’t shield itself from its own reforms; that’s how 2015 led to 2019. Despite its laudable commitment to democratic rule, the yahapalanists reckoned without the popularity of the man they ousted at the ballot box. November 2019, in that sense, was a classic example of a populist resurrection, unparalleled in South Asia, though not in Asia: a government touting a neoliberal line giving way to a centre-right populist-personalist.

What went wrong with the yahapalanist experiment? Its fundamental error was its inability to think straight: the moment Maithripala Sirisena reinforced his power by wresting control of the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa, he ceded space to the Joint Opposition.

Roughly, the same thing happened to the C. P. de Silva faction in 1970: after five years in power, it yielded to the same forces it had overthrown from its own party. The lesson de Silva learnt and the yahapalanists so far haven’t was that no progressive centre-left party can jettison its leftist faction while getting into a coalition with a rightwing monolith without having its credentials questioned at the ballot box. When voters responded by electing the leftist faction in 1970, the leader of the rightwing coalition, the UNP, faced electoral defeat. Dudley Senanayake had to step down, just as Ranil Wickremesinghe had to.

Deceptively conclusive as comparisons between 1970 and 2020 may be, however, there is an important distinction to make. The rightwing ideology the UNP under Dudley Senanayake, adhered to was qualitatively different to the rightwing ideology Senanayake’s successor J. R. Jayewardene embraced. The two Senanayakes, Jayewardene, and John Kotelawala lived and had been brought up in the shadow of the British Empire. Upon coming to power they oversaw a shift in their party ideology from Whitehall to Washington; this process reached its climax in the McCarthyist Kotelawala administration.

Jayewardene was the last of the Old Right leaders whose fortunes were tied directly to the plantation economy and whose ideology cohered with the Bretton Woods Keynesian Right of Richard Nixon and Ted Heath. The paradox at the heart of his presidency, and the shift to populism at the hands of his successors, has much to do with the transition from this Old Right to a New Right. I begin my two-part essay with that transition.

The New Right, or the neoliberal Right, came into prominence via the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on either side of the Atlantic. These two figures eschewed not only the leftist opposition, but also predecessors from their own parties; Ted Heath remained to the Left of Thatcher, for instance, while Gerald Ford criticised certain parts of Reagan’s reform programme (though eventually he extended his support).

In the industrialised economies of the West, to put it succinctly, the Old Right adhered as much to price controls, quantitative easing, and economic stimulus as did their rivals on the Left. By contrast, the New Right preferred low inflation even at the cost of full employment, the elimination of subsidies, and privatisation. Readers’ Digest called David Stockman “David the Budget Killer.” The epithet was not unjustified: at the Office of Management and Budget where he served as President during the first Reagan administration, Stockman oversaw the biggest rollback of the US state since the New Deal. Nixon famously claimed that we were all Keynesians, but Reagan enthroned monetarism. So did Thatcher.

How did that spill over to underdeveloped economies, particularly non-industrialised ones such as Sri Lanka’s? In the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, much of the Non-Aligned non-West suffered a full decade of unprecedented calamity in the form of famines, shortages, and inefficient, unresponsive bureaucracies. The governments of many of these countries opted for state-led industrialisation, which coupled with stagflation and incomplete land reforms at home failed to deliver on what it pledged and promised.

Indeed, laudable as Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s reforms were, they became mired in their own contradictions: as S. B. D. de Silva observed, they entrenched a class of intermediaries who benefited from the regime’s economic programme. “Nothing came out of [its] attempt to industrialise,” he recounted in his last interview in 2017, “because the industrialisation was really foreign exchange driven.” In other words, embedded in it were the seeds of its own electoral destruction, a fate accelerated by the jettisoning of the Left in 1975.

The transition from the Old to the New Right in the West led to the growth of finance capital, the deindustrialisation of Western economies and the shift to Free Trade Zones in the global periphery, and the enforcement of structural adjustment vis-à-vis the IMF, the latter revolving around four principles: economic stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation (Thomson, Kentikelenis, and Stubbs 2017).

Between 1970 and 1980, debt levels in Latin America alone rose by over a thousand percent. Structural adjustment, at the time lacking the kind of critique evolved by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty later, promised a way out of indebtedness which would lead to growth, development, low inflation, and free trade. The flip-side to these benefits, which its champions left out of the discussion, was widespread poverty, a widening income gap, high unemployment, and trade practices slanted and tilted heavily to the West.

Not unlike the World Bank prescription that preceded it, structural adjustment favoured the dismantling of local industry. But where the World Bank had prescribed the establishment of small cottage industries and continued emphasis on agriculture, the IMF recommended the privatisation of local industry AND agriculture to multinational corporations. This was in keeping with the new monetarist philosophy: reduce the money supply, lower marginal tax rates, maintain a minimal social safety net, and welcome the robber barons.

The East Asian economies grew against a different backdrop. Multinational companies until then were largely, if at all, limited to Central and Latin America: the United Fruit economies. In essence, the IMF and World Bank repackaged the United Fruit model and introduced it to countries newly embracing neoliberalism. Among these was Sri Lanka.

In a critique of Mangala Samaraweera’s maiden Budget Speech in 2017, Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out that inasmuch as the J. R. Jayewardene administration enacted open economic reforms, it did so within the framework of a centralised state. Therein lies a paradox I earlier alluded to of the Jayewardene presidency and, to an extent, of the Premadasa presidency: the dismantling of the economy did not follow from a dismantling of the state.

Yet this differed very little from what was happening in other countries enacting structural adjustment packages: economic liberalisation took place under the watch of a centralised, authoritarian state. Much of the reason for this has to do with the contradiction at the heart of structural adjustment itself: while it freed the economy, it shackled the majority, and to keep them from rising up in protest, it had to shackle dissent too.

It’s no cause for wonder, then, that many of the leaders of countries who would oversee the transition from state-led industrialisation to “export-oriented” MNC driven growth hailed from the Old Right. Jayewardene was no exception: an eloquent, shrewd populist, he made overtures to a virtuous society while entrenching a merchant class of robber barons.

Meanwhile, the rise of a civil society posing as an alternative to the private and the public sectors, but in reality aligned with the private sector, made it no longer possible for radical scholars, educated in the West, to get involved in policy implementation with the state. As Vinod Moonesinghe has noted in a paper on relations between civil society and government (“Civil society – government relations in Sri Lanka”), after 1983 there came about a steep rise in NGO numbers. Susantha Goonetilake (Recolonisation) has argued that the structures and relationships of power within and the activities of these enclaves came to reflect those of a private organisation more than of an institution affiliated to civil society.

In stark contrast to its earlier position of engagement with the public sector, civil society stood apart and aloof from the latter, inadvertently breaking away from its historical task of getting involved at the grassroots level in policy formulation and implementation. Ironically this served to speed up the government’s delinking from civil society: enmeshed in the private sector, NGOs ended up spouting postmodernist and post-Marxist rhetoric, offering no viable alternative to the UNP’s development paradigm.

Even more ironically, what that led to was a situation where, at the height of the second JVP insurrection, their most ubiquitous representatives took the side of the government over the rebels while taking the side of Tamil separatists over the government: a paradox, given that both groups were fighting the state over class as much as over ethnicity. The NGOs’ selective treatment of the JVP and the LTTE justifies the view that in the 1980s, ethnicity replaced class as the dominant topic of discussion by social scientists.

All this undoubtedly contributed to the separation of the state from the public sphere: a prerequisite of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation. Yet paradoxically, while that process of separation went ahead, it required as a lever an autocrat who could, and would, crack down on trade unions, appease a growing petty bourgeoisie and middle class, and in contradiction to the principles of nonalignment, ally with the West. This meant couching everything domestic in Cold War terms and slanting it to an anti-Marxist position: not for no reason, after all, did Jayewardene refer to the LTTE as a group of rebels fighting to establish a Marxist state in a BBC interview. Appeasing the middle-class with these methods was easy because the middle-class faced a dilemma: while it bemoaned the government’s authoritarianism, it was in no mood to revert to the autarkyism of the Bandaranaike era. It wanted more representation, while keeping the economy open.

At the heart of middle-class support for the Jayewardene presidencies, however, lay a fatal time bomb: its Buddhist constituency. When Jayewardene, in 1982, authorised the writing of a continuation of the Mahavamsa, he reaffirmed his regime’s commitment to a Buddhist polity. In an essay on the Jathika Chintanaya, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri argued that while in one way 1977 appeared to be “a symbolic marker of a new epoch”, in another it betrayed “a loss of something that is Sinhala Buddhist.” Supplementing this was the rift at the heart of J. R.’s reforms: political authoritarianism versus economic liberalisation. Both were viewed as betrayals of Buddhism, quoting Stanley Tambiah’s book; dharmista samajayak, after all, was as much the winning promise of Jayewardene’s campaign as it was the title of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s critique of his regime’s breach of that promise.

The suburban Sinhala middle bourgeoisie of artists, artisans, and professionals responded lukewarmly to Jayewardene. The results of the 1989 election confirmed the scepticism with which they viewed the achievements and failures of his administration: more than 46% of the UNP’s votes came from a third of the country’s electorate, none of which comprised Colombo’s suburbs (except for the city and the Catholic belt to the north of Colombo), while 38% of the SLFP’s votes came from, inter alia, those suburbs. The new UNP candidate they viewed cynically; “they were not convinced that Premadasa represented adequate change” (Samarasinghe 1989). The SLFP’s popularity among state employees, in particular, showed when it won 49.5% of the postal vote. A crucial litmus test for Premadasa would therefore be how his presidency would be viewed by the Sinhala Buddhist middle-class.

To be continued next week…

 

(The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)



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Midweek Review

Controversy over Katchatheevu ahead of Indian polls and Sirisena’s bombshell claim

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Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi at St. Anthony's Church, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 09, 2019. The then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is also seen. (pic courtesy India PM office)

Selection of targets, four in Colombo, one at Katuwapitiya, Negombo and one in Batticaloa, too, should have been investigated. The PSC never bothered to probe as to why the NTJ deliberately targeted a church in Batticaloa and the Tamil service at St. Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade. Over 60 Tamils worshippers perished in the Batticaloa and Kochchikade bombings. Over 100 received injuries. The deliberate targeting of the Tamil community was even ignored by the largest Tamil coalition, led by Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK). Its spokesman and Jaffna District lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, a Christian, went to the extent of justifying the Easter Sunday carnage. President’s Counsel Sumanthiran did so at a public event held on April 29, 2019, at the BMICH. Why did the NTJ target both Sinhala and Tamil communities?

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka shouldn’t have been overly surprised by Indian Premier Narendra Modi’s declaration that Congress callously gave away the Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka.

Obviously, Premier Modi, eyeing a third term at the forthcoming general election (April 19 to June 1, 2024), wants to influence the crucial Tamil Nadu state. Modi lashed out at the Congress on March 31.

“Eye opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away Katchatheevu. This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people’s minds – we can’t ever trust Congress,”

Modi wrote on X obviously playing to the gallery, especially in Tamil Nadu. So, like most politicians, PM Modi, too, will stoop to any level.

The Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) leader also accused the Congress of weakening India’s unity. “Weakening India’s unity, integrity and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting,” Modi added.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reiterated Premier Modi’s concerns on the following day.

The Indian media reported that the issue at hand reemerged after a media report, based on an RTI reply received by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai on the 1974 pact.

It was a meticulously planned propaganda project meant to influence the Tamil Nadu electorate, ahead of the general elections next week. Tamil Nadu goes to poll on April 19. The decision on the part of the BJP, in power since May 2014, to rake up this issue now, suggests that the BJP is under tremendous pressure.

Whatever errors the Gandhis may have committed during their long rule, yet no one can doubt their own zeal to hold a disparate country like India together, while still guarding its democratic foundations, unlike the unscrupulous West paying lip service to such ideals, while destabilizing any country that do not toe their domineering imperialist line. Nor can anyone deny the solid foundation they laid for India to become a global giant today in the fields of education, technology, industry, etc., despite its vast poverty.

The actual truth is that the BJP is clearly facing defeat once again in Tamil Nadu, where the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress alliance is expected to comfortably secure the majority of 39 Lok Sabha (Lower House) seats there and the one seat from Puducherry.

At the last general election, the DMK-led alliance won 38 out of 39 seats. Therefore, in spite of the Premier himself, and the much-respected and admired External Affairs Minister leading the BJP’s Tamil Nadu campaign, the outcome is very much unlikely to be in the ruling party’s favour.

India under Premier Indira Gandhi ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka, in 1974, when she had such a good working relationship with our then PM Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It was several years before it began recruiting, training, arming and deploying Sri Lankan Tamil community against us, obviously to spite our then leader J. R. Jayewardene, known as Yankee Dickie because of his ardent pro-American views. JRJ was so arrogant, with his party commanding a 5/6 majority in our Parliament, he became blind to emerging regional realities and foolishly offered the Strategic Deep water Trincomalee harbour to the US, while his government members mockingly compared Mrs. Gandhi and her son Sanjay to Mrs. B. and her son Anura. When finally New Delhi militarily intervened here with an airdrop to force a halt to the first big ground operation at Vadamarachchi by the Lankan security forces to crush the Tigers in what was considered their lair, the Yankees failed to lift even a finger to save the JRJ government from humiliation. It would be pertinent to mention that India intervened here years before Sri Lanka’s conflict exploded, following the killing of 13 Lankan soldiers at Thinnaveli, in Jaffna, in July 1983. The often repeated claim that the war erupted, following the killing of ordinary Tamils, consequent to the Thinnaveli attack, is nothing but propaganda meant to justify separatist Tamil terrorist campaigns that at one time threatened to overwhelm Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka should be ashamed of its failure to protect Tamil civilians. Instead of taking immediate measures to quell the violence, the then President J.R. Jayewardene, in his own wisdom, allowed killings and destruction of Tamil property.

The Indian intervention (Indian role in the killing of 13 soldiers by providing expertise and weapons) shouldn’t be used, under any circumstances, to justify attacks on the Tamil community, following the Thinnaveli attack, the first such ambush of a military patrol by Prabhakaran’s fast growing terrorist outfit, the LTTE.

Let me reproduce what late J.N. Dixit, who had served as Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1985-1989) at the height of the Indian intervention here, said in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’, launched in 2004, regarding the terrorist project here. Dixit didn’t mince his words when he found fault with the then Premier Indira Gandhi for two Indian foreign policy decisions. The relevant section verbatim: “…her ambiguous response to the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan and her giving active support to Sri Lankan Tamil militants. Whatever the criticisms about these decisions, it cannot be denied that she took them on the basis of her assessments about India’s national interests. Her logic was that she could not openly alienate the former Soviet Union when India was so dependent on that country for defence supplies and technologies. Similarly, she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils.” (emphasis mine).

Dixit, hailing from neighbouring Kerala state, like so many of India’s top bureaucrats, served as Foreign Secretary (1991-1994) and National Security Advisor (May 2004-January 2005) before his sudden death. Dixit was 68 years old at the time of his death.

In hindsight, Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka cannot be justified under any circumstances. India and Indira Gandhi paid a huge price for that foolish decision to train terrorists. Likewise, Indian rhetoric over Katchatheevu Island shouldn’t be condoned though all know the BJP is playing politics to woo the fishing community vote there.

The boycotting of the two-day annual St. Antony’s Church festival at Katchatheevu, in late February this year, by Indian devotees, perhaps was influenced by interested parties in Tamil Nadu. Who would benefit from Tamil Nadu fishermen’s boycott of the religious event?

An absolute bombshell

Maithripala Sirisena

Just over a week before Premier Modi’s attack on Congress over the Katchatheevu affair, former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena declared that he was aware of the identity of the masterminds of the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre.

Sirisena, now an MP who represents the SLPP, told the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), a few days later, that he believed India engineered the Easter Sunday attacks. Sirisena, notorious for various unsubstantiated claims over the years, has asserted that the Easter carnage was meant to influence the Indian electorate during the previous general elections, conducted from April 11 to May 19, 2019.

At the time of the near simultaneous Easter Sunday blasts, Sirisena, his wife Jayanthi Pushpakumari, and other members of the then first family, were in Singapore. Controversy still surrounds whether the President was on a holiday or visiting Mount Elizabeth Hospital for a medical check-up, or both.

The President and members of his family flew to Singapore following a private visit to Tirumala, in Andhra Pradesh, to offer prayers at the hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara Swamy. Sirisena visited the shrine in February 2015 and August 2016, and the 2019 visit was his third.

What really prompted MP Sirisena to accuse India of masterminding the Easter Sunday terror project? Or who influenced the now beleaguered SLFP leader to make that accusation in Kandy?

Now the matter is before Maligakanda Magistrate Lochana Abeywickrema, who, on April 4, directed the CID to report the progress of the investigation to her Court on May 10. Pending the investigation, the statement recorded by the CID will remain confidential.

Did the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks have a bearing on the Indian general elections? Perhaps an examination of the 2019 election results, and comparison with previous polls, may help us to understand the post-Easter Sunday developments. Against the backdrop of MP Sirisena’s still unsubstantiated allegation, shouldn’t we examine whether the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) suicide bombing campaign helped the BJP?

The NTJ struck amidst India’s staggered general election that began on April 11 and continued till May 19.

Did the NTJ operation influence the Indian electorate? Sri Lanka cannot afford not to examine every possibility to prevent the NTJ, or its affiliates, undertaking fresh terror projects. Who really provided the wherewithal to the perceived leader of the terror project Zahran Hashim?

The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that probed the Easter Sunday massacres conveniently failed to probe the external factors. However, the PSC had an opportunity to seek the opinion of those who provided evidence, in camera, as regards external factors. The PSC, perhaps, never bothered to vigorously inquire into external factors or it lacked the mandate or the capacity to do so.

The PSC consisted of its Chairman Ananda Kumarasiri (UNP/Moneragala District), Ravi Karunanayake (UNP/Colombo), Dr. Rajitha Senaratne (UNP/Kalutara), Ashu Marasinghe (UNP National List), Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka (UNP National List), LSSPer Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne (UNP National List), M.A. Sumanthiran (TNA/Jaffna District) and SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem (UNP/Kandy District).

The government proscribed the NTJ, on May 13, 2019 – 23 days after the Easter carnage. The Jamaathe Millaathe Ibrahim (JMI), and the Willayath As Seylani (WAS) were also banned in terms of regulation 75(1) of the emergency regulations.

The NTJ struck between the second and the third phases of the Indian elections. The first phase, conducted on April 11, covered 91 constituencies in 20 States. The second (95 constituencies in 13 States) and the third (117 constituencies in 15 States) were held on April 18 and April 23, respectively. The remaining four phases were held on April 29 (71 constituencies in 09 States), May 06 (51 constituencies in 07 States), May 12 (59 constituencies in 07 States) and May 19 (59 constituencies in 08 States).

Modi condemns

Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to condemn the Easter Sunday attacks. The Indian leader condemned the Easter Sunday attacks on the same day, two days before the Islamic State claimed responsibility. However, no less a person than Senior DIG Ravi Seneviratne, the senior officer in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), declared, before the PSC, that there was no evidence to link the Islamic State, thereby contradicting the much publicized government claims. Seneviratne appeared before the PSC on July 24. Perhaps, the CID’s opinion should be sought on this matter.

Addressing an election rally in the Western State of Rajasthan, just hours after the serial blasts in Sri Lanka, Narendra Modi played politics with the issue. The media quoted Modi as having said the electorate should give him a second term as only he could beat the terrorists threatening India.

“Should terrorism be finished or not?” he asked. “Who can do this? Can you think of any name aside from Modi? Can anybody else do this?”

“In our neighbouring Sri Lanka, terrorists have played a bloody game. They killed innocent people,” Modi said.

At another rally, in Rajasthan, also on Sunday, Modi again mentioned the attacks in Sri Lanka and said that India, too, continues to suffer because of militants.

“India has now ended its policy of getting scared of Pakistan’s threats,” Modi said, “‘We have a nuclear button, we have a nuclear button’ they used to say.”

“What do we have then?” he said, to cheers from the crowd.

The Easter Sunday carnage certainly influenced a section of the Indian electorate. Modi directly blamed Muslims for the Sri Lanka attacks.

Having comfortably secured a second term, Modi visited Colombo, on June 09, on his way to the Maldives. President Maithripala Sirisena is on record as having said that he requested Modi to visit in the wake of many countries issuing travel advisories. During his four-hour stopover, Modi visited St. Anthony’s Church, Kotahena, where many Tamils perished in the Easter Sunday carnage.

A week after Modi’s visit, the then Indian High Commissioner here, Taranjit Sandhu, assured the prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters India’s commitment to Sri Lanka’s security.

The Indian High Commission issued the following statement, following Sandhu’s visit to Kandy: “High Commissioner of India Taranjit Singh Sandhu paid respects at Sri Dalada Maligawa and received the blessings of the Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala Mahanayake Thera of Malwatte Chapter and Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Mahanayake Thera of Asgiriya Chapter in Kandy on May 17.

“High Commissioner conveyed greetings on the auspicious occasion of Vesak to the Most Venerable Mahanayake Theras and recalled the visit of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka for the International Vesak Day celebration in 2017 and the exposition of the sacred Sarnath Relics in Sri Lanka in 2018.

“High Commissioner also discussed the prevailing security situation with the Most Venerable Mahanayake Theras and offered India’s full support to Sri Lanka in dealing with the common threat of Jihadi terrorism.

“Both the Mahanayake Theras deeply appreciated India’s unconditional and strong support for Sri Lanka, including in the security sphere.

“High Commissioner Sandhu also reviewed the progress of the Kandyan Dancing School, being constructed with Government of India’s assistance of around 150 million SLR at the Sri Lanka International Buddhist Academy (SIBA) campus in Pallekele, Kandy.”

It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to assume Zahran Hashim and his band of brainwashed terrorists carried out the Easter Sunday attacks on their own. Zahran and his colleagues couldn’t have handled the logistics alone. Zahran was used by those who exploited the political chaos in Sri Lanka. In fact, the NTJ operation caused much more harm to the Muslim community, in Sri Lanka, than any other post-independence event.

The PSC proceedings revealed negligence on the part of the political leadership, law enforcement authorities, intelligence services and the Attorney General’s Department. The PSC proceedings also revealed how the Finance Ministry weakened the Central Bank vis-a-vis its regulatory powers in respect of foreign financial transactions. However, so far no effort has been made to inquire into possible external factors. Did the planners of the NTJ operation take into consideration the Indian election? That is an issue which required serious attention.

Let us hope the proposed three-day debate on the Easter Sunday carnage, in the last week of this month, would pave the way for all political parties, represented in Parliament, to reveal their position in the wake of Sirisena’s bombshell.

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Midweek Review

Ex-SLAF officer sheds light on developments leading to Aragalaya

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Against the backdrop of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s quite belated (but better late than never) public confirmation of external interventions in Aragalaya, that led to the overthrow of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government in mid-July 2022, former cashiered Flying Officer Keerthi Ratnayake, with a never-say-die attitude even when odds are overwhelmingly stacked against him, asserted that he was the first to alert the then government regarding the impending chaos.

Ratnayake disclosed that he realized the unprecedented threat and got in touch with Shermila Rajapaksha, the then head of Social Media at the Presidential Secretariat. She conveyed the information to the relevant authorities though, to the unfortunate detriment of the country, they chose to turn a blind eye to the stunning disclosure, Ratnayake said, in an interview with The Island last week.

Responding to the writer’s query as to how he obtained such information and whether he could verify the same, Ratnayake revealed that a female Indian diplomat, based in Colombo, explained to him how a frightening situation could develop over a period of six months in case Sri Lanka failed to procure the essentials. This happened in mid-2021 as the country was beginning to experience economic difficulties but the government remained adamant that it could overcome whatever the challenges ahead, Ratnayake said.

The Island decided to withhold the diplomat’s identity though Ratnayake had no objections to us disclosing her name. “I was flabbergasted when she explained how a sharp and simultaneous drop in foreign remittances from Sri Lankan workers employed overseas, income from tourism and exports could overwhelm the government of the day. Unfortunately, instead of acting on the information provided by me, the government targeted me,” Ratnayake claimed.

Ratnayake alleged that, ironically, the powers that be found fault with Shermila Rajapaksha for being in touch with him. “The government shifted her from the Presidential Secretariat to the National Zoological Gardens, in late Oct 2021, as those in authority discarded my timely warning,” Ratnayake said.

Asked to clarify, Ratnayake pointed out that telephone records didn’t lie. “I have passed the information regarding some high profile incidents/developments over the years to authorities. Whatever I have done can be easily verified with telephone records as well as recorded conversations, in addition to statements taken from me,” Ratnayake said.

The writer got in touch with Ratnayake on Good Friday (March 29) after having watched his explosive interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema that dealt with the sordid operations undertaken by a section of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

‘The Truth with Chamuditha’ discussed clandestine operations undertaken by certain corrupt powerful elements in the CID against the backdrop of an alleged plot to assassinate Fort Magistrate Thilina Gamage. Ratnayake revealed that the ongoing investigation into the targeting of the Fort Magistrate was prompted by information provided by him to Public Security Minister Tiran Alles regarding the alleged plot.

The issue at hand is whether the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government could have averted the political-economic-social crisis even if his administration acted on the information provided by Ratnayake. Why should a government react to such unsubstantiated claims? It wouldn’t be fair to find fault with the government for disregarding Ratnayake’s alert received in September 2021 but when violent public protests started on March 31, 2022, outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, someone in authority should have immediately realized the validity of the warning received six months earlier.

Unfortunately, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujuna Peramuna (SLPP), possibly overwhelmed by the snowballing situation, simply failed to inquire into the warning received in Sept 2021. Less than four months short of two years since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, the high profile operation remained uninvestigated.

CBK withdraws commission

Having passed out in 1998 from the SLAF training academy after he successfully completed training there, as an officer cadet, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s first tenure as the President, Ratnayake got into serious trouble quite early in his career after he exposed an unprecedented racket in gold smuggling allegedly carried out by corrupt elements in his own service, but the then President withdrew his commission for cooperating with the then Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan in the writing of ‘Chaura Rajina’ (Sri Lankan bandit queen), clearly accusing the then Head of State and the Commander-in-Chief of high level corruption.

Ratnayake justified the support provided to Victor Ivan. “I have no qualms about furnishing information at that time,” Ratnayake said, identifying himself as the one who was arrested over the death threats issued to The Sunday Times defence correspondent Iqbal Athas and W.G. Gunarathna of Lankadeepa in the Lankadeepa editorial in late August 2007. Ratnayake acknowledged that he did so over the inaccurate reportage of questionable acquisition of MiG-27s from Ukraine at the onset of Eelam War IV.

Ratnayake disclosed how the relevant MiG-27 file had been surreptitiously removed from Air Force headquarters by a senior officer (name withheld), now retired, during Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke’s tenure as the Commander of the Air Force.

Responding to queries, Ratnayake explained how he served the government in spite of losing his commission during Kumaratinga’s administration. The case was quietly settled by granting Ratnayake bail.

There had been a previous case involving Air Force personnel. The accused-appellants H.M. Rukman Herath (gunned down near his home) and Don Pradeep Sujeewa Kannangara who had been convicted for intimidating and assaulting The Sunday Times defence columnist Iqbal Athas and his family in 1998 were acquitted by the Appeal Court Justice S.I. Imam and Sarath de Abrew in Dec 2008.

They were earlier sentenced by the High Court for a period 10 years RI each and fined Rs. 10,000 each for intimidating and threatening them. They were found guilty, by the Colombo High Court on February 7, 2002, of several charges including intimidation and criminal trespass.

Reference was also made to para-military operations undertaken at the time by renegade LTTE field commander Karuna in support of the then government. Ratnayake complained bitterly how successive administrations conveniently failed to reinstate him though the Court of Appeal quashed the SLAF Commander’s decision to recommend the withdrawal of his commission following the exposure of gold and computer spare parts smuggling by some of its personnel.

An angry Ratnayake said that he asked for a Court Martial as he was confident of proving his innocence. “There were altogether 13 serious charges,” Ratnayake said, adding that the Court of Appeal observed that the procedure followed by the Air Force to withdraw his commission was entirely contrary to the stipulated process.

Ratnayake recalled how those who had been involved in the gold and computer spare parts smuggling operation made an attempt to do away with him. “Having abducted me, they assaulted me before making an attempt to drown me in the sea off Negombo in the first week of March 2022. But I was lucky to be rescued by some fishermen,” Ratnayake said, producing the front-page of the Lankadeepa report of March 3, 2002, revealing the incident.

“All print media, both Sinhala and English, reported the attack on me. They exploited Defence Ministry approval to deploy aircraft to fly in spare parts from abroad required by the Air Force to smuggle in gold and computer parts. We are a corrupt country. Corruption is a way of life here and both civilians and military alike rob at all levels,” he said as a matter of fact.

Developments in Aug 2021

Ratnayake said that several weeks after he passed the information to the Presidential Secretariat official regarding the impending economic catastrophe, a very interesting and significant development took place.

Having heard of a clandestine operation to attack Indian diplomatic mission in Afghanistan or in this region, including Colombo, Ratnayake sent a WhatsApp message to the Indian diplomat who shared information regarding the impending chaos in Sri Lanka. “As soon as I sent the message, internal security system incapacitated her phone. This happened on August 11, 2021, morning. Two hours later, the Kollupitiya Police contacted me and requested me to come over regarding an inquiry. However, the OIC there, at that time, wasn’t aware of what was going on. I then got in touch with Senior DIG (WP) Deshabandu Tennakoon and shared with him the developments taking place”.

Ratnayake asserted that the particular diplomat arranged a vehicle for him to safely reach the Kollupitiya Police where he found intelligence officers from different units, including State Intelligence Service (SIS) and Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) present. Asked why he first contacted the diplomat instead of local security authorities, Ratnayake explained that the information received by him suggested that the attack was to take place on August 15. Therefore, he first alerted the diplomat as the Indian interests were under threat and then the police at the highest level. Having questioned Ratnayake at the Kollupitiya Police station, a team of senior officers had put him into a white van and were on their way to Homagama to collect his laptop and some other personal belongings. “On the way to Homagama, one of the officers received a call. I was told of instructions received from higher authorities to take me into custody immediately. I sought an explanation and was told they couldn’t under any circumstances disregard the orders of their superiors.”

Later, Ratnayake had been taken to the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD), Dematagoda, where, after being held for several hours, arrangements were made to take him to Kandy around midnight. Ratnayake had opposed the move as he felt that the police were planning to get rid of him. Meanwhile, someone who had been at the CCD at that time contacted Saliya Peiris, PC, and the swift intervention made by him saved Ratnayake’s life.

Ratnayake said that he was granted bail on Feb 11, 2022, a few weeks before “staged” public protests erupted demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation.

Responding to Chamuditha Samarawickrema, Ratnayake revealed that during the time he was held at the Magazine Prison he was able to contact the Indian diplomat as two persons held in custody there had hand phones. The two were identified as a drug dealer and a politician. Following a short stint here, the diplomat received an appointment to a key Indian mission in a Commonwealth country. Her transfer happened just two days short of one year after the Pangiriwatte incident. “I could contact her freely and she knew what was happening,” Ratnayake said.

The Island sought an explanation regarding the current status of the investigation into the Aug 15, 2021, threat against the Indian mission here. Ratnayake said that the Indian High Commission never furnished a statement requested by the local police though its First Secretary, in a note simply identified my telephone number as the one from which warning was issued over an impending attack. The Indian High Commission owed an explanation why it didn’t assist an investigation, Ratnayake said, revealing the role played by the same diplomat during the Norway-led peace process though, at that time, she hadn’t been with the Indian Foreign Service.

An incident in Nov 2019

In spite of the eradication of the LTTE in the battle field, in May 2009, successive governments never sought to restore normalcy. In fact, they worked overtime to cause turmoil. The constitutional coup caused by then President Mairithipala Sirisena, in late October 2018, plunged the country into an unprecedented crisis. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed to be the legitimate Prime Minister, Ratnayake said, claiming that he was based in Dubai at that time. Ratnayake, with the intervention of an interested party, had received lucrative employment from an affluent Indian there.

During this period, widely described as a 52-day government, there had been talk of a military take-over and Ratnayake acknowledged that he played a role and was to explore ways and means of securing support from various parties. However, at the last moment, Ratnayake alerted President Sirisena as well as Basil Rajapaksa through an academic (name withheld) regarding the plot. Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, had been alerted and on the orders of the President the military guard at the President’s House was replaced by the Special Task Force (STF).

Ratnayake said that he believed a military take-over could have caused a catastrophe. The former Air Force officer said that the killing of two policemen at Vavunathivu, Batticaloa, in late Nov, 2018, destruction of several Buddha statues in the Mawanella police area, in Dec 2018, recovery of explosives at Lactowatte (Wanathawilluwa, Puttalam), and shooting of the then Minister Kabir Hashim’s Coordinating Secretary Mohamed Naslim at Danagama, Mawanella, in early March 2019, should have been properly investigated. Had that happened the Easter Sunday plot could have been averted, Ratnayake said, asserting that perhaps former President Sirisena, too, has now decided to reveal an external hand in the Easter Sunday carnage.

Sirisena’s statement to the CID that India engineered the Easter Sunday carnage has raised eyebrows. Perhaps Sirisena hasn’t anticipated a swift intervention by Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, thereby paving the way for the Maligakanda Magistrate to record Sirisena’s statement tomorrow (4). Did Sirisena seek political advantage for him and his party in the run-up to the presidential poll scheduled for later this year.

But the issue at hand is whether the 2019 Easter carnage here helped the BJP polls campaign in neighbouring India, Ratnayake queried, calling for an investigation with an open mind. Perhaps, the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) failed to go deep enough to ascertain foreign interventions.

Speaker Abeywardena’s recent declaration regarding direct external intervention to overthrow Gotabaya Rajapaksa and make him interim President as a patsy of the conspirators didn’t result in the anticipated response. The government and the Opposition alike simply ignored that statement whereas the Speaker himself asserted that there was no point in looking into that matter, obviously due to the influence and power of those behind it. Seeing what is blatantly happening in Palestine before the entire world since the October 07 attack on Israel by Hamas, we, too, won’t blame Speaker Abeywardena for his assertion.

It would be a grave mistake on Sri Lanka’s part to be influenced by assertions made by foreign governments regarding the 2019 terrorist attacks though there is absolutely no harm in securing their assistance.

President’s Counsel Dappula de Livera, who declared, on the eve of his retirement as the Attorney General, that the Easter Sunday massacre was a grand conspiracy for there is clear evidence of a grand conspiracy linked to Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter carnage, the privately owned NewsFirst network that quoted Attorney General Dappula De Livera as having said so on May 18, 2021.

In an exclusive comment telecast by it, the AG said that information by the state intelligence service, “with times, targets, places, method of attack and other information is clear evidence there was a grand conspiracy in place with regard to the April 21, 2019, attack.”

The identities of those involved in the grand conspiracy must come by way of evidence, the AG has said, adding that there were multiple suspects connected to the attack, including Maulavi (Islamic preacher) Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed Naufer, “the person that the Sri Lankan government ruled as the mastermind of the attacks.”

But, De Livera declined to be subjected to police investigation, having clearly recognized the peril he was putting his retirement into by being a party to any such investigation.

Five years after the Easter Sunday carnage, the country remains in the dark as to police investigations and legal proceedings as regards the heinous crime that claimed the lives of nearly 270 and wounded approximately 500 other innocent people. The dead and wounded included foreigners.

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Midweek Review

Peace and Plenty

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on

By Lynn Ockersz

Off the beaten track,

Amidst Nature’s bounty,

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’,

And spared thus far,

The calculating wiles,

Of the real estate magnate,

There thrive in glorious green,

In the Isle’s Southern wilds,

Places of heavenly refuge,

That afford the Pilgrim,

Trudging wearily back home,

Rest, renewal and Peace.

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