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Midweek Review

Thico ‘investments’, money laundering and related matters

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Violence cannot be justified, under any circumstances. Therefore, the practice of referring to the JVP bids to topple the governments of the late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (April 1971) and JRJ and Ranasinghe Premadasa (1987-1990) as southern insurrections should be stopped. The armed forces and police defeated the JVP and LTTE terrorism. Several other Tamil terrorist groups gave up violence in 1989/1990.

Today, some groups are represented in Parliament. The author of ‘Terrorism & the Criminal Law of Sri Lanka’, Attorney-at-law Asela Seresinghe, who researched at the University of Sydney, under the Australia Awards Scholarship Programme for LL.M, dealt with relevant and related issues. Accountability issues cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the immense sacrifices made by the armed forces and police to ensure the continuation of democratic way of life and the utterly reckless and irresponsible conduct of the corrupt political party setup that has brought the country to its knees. Continuation of Sri Lanka’s pathetic performance, at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where the country is under heavy pressure to rescind the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), reminds the public of the recurrent failures on the Geneva front, especially in light of the fact the USA and the UK have much more draconian laws in place to tackle the problem of terrorism.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The recent high profile arrest of Thilini Priyamali, over the misappropriation of massive amounts of money, underscored the need for a no holds barred investigation into her nefarious activities, as well as those of her ‘investors,’ and her employees. But, it wouldn’t be fair to tar all with the same brush.

In spite of quite an extensive coverage of the case, with the focus on Priyamali’s clandestine transactions, and that of her ‘husband’ Isuru Bandara, several contentious issues remains to be properly addressed and investigated.

However, Sri Lanka’s record in investigating high profile cases is pathetic. As examples, we can site quite a few: corruption charges pertaining to the multi-billion dollar aircraft purchase, involving the national carrier SriLankan Airlines, and the Europe-based Airbus consortium, black money stashed abroad, exposed by Panama Papers, Pandora Papers, and 99 percent of revelations about waste, corruption, irregularities, and mismanagement made by parliamentary watchdog committees, have not been pursued to a proper conclusion by those responsible for doing so.

Perhaps, one of the major concerns is whether Priyamali, and those who invested money through what was advertised as a well-diversified duly registered Thico Group of Companies, were involved in money laundering. For a woman, from an ordinary low income family, in Kalutara, with an education only up to eighth grade, there has to be something more to this whole scam.

Priyamali’s enterprise, that claimed to have been established in a range of industries, including construction, entertainment, gem and jewellery, real estate and trading, operated from the 34th floor of the World Trade Centre, situated within walking distance of the Central Bank, and, virtually, under its nose. What is the Bank’s supposed top intelligence unit doing? The couple even exploited the current economic crisis to seek short term foreign currency investments, on the pretext of procuring the much needed crude oil.

It would be pertinent to ask whether the Central Bank has initiated an inquiry into the Thico affair or looked into the lapses on its part. The Central Bank has repeatedly failed to effectively intervene to stop scams operated by various influential groups who preyed on both the corrupt and the naive. Prima facie Thilini Priyamali’s operation seems no exception but a basic much repeated scam, but on steroids.

The One Transworks Square (Pvt.) Ltd. Chief Executive Officer and Director, Janaki Siriwardana, has been accused of facilitating Priyamali’s operation. In the wake of the CID taking Isuru Bandara into custody, on Monday, now the focus is on Siriwardhana. Former Governor Azath Sally is on record as having said that Janaki Siriwardhana, who introduced him to Priyamali at the former’s office, was involved in the alleged scam. Sally said that altogether he and his associates handed over Rs 226 mn to the Priyamali-Siriwardhana duo. The former UNPer questioned the right of the public to ask how they got so much money, according to an interview he gave to Hiru.

Money laundering is meant to disguise criminal proceeds, particularly their illegal origin. One of the primary objectives of money laundering, under whatever circumstances, is to conceal ill-gotten wealth.

Kamal Hassen’s disclosure

The Trico Group controversy should be vigorously examined, taking into consideration the extremely serious accusations and allegations made by prominent businessman Kamal Hassen, the first to seek the intervention of law enforcement authorities. Having lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), several weeks ago, with the help of Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon, the senior officer in charge of the Colombo Range. Utterly frustrated with the system in place, Hassen discussed how Thilini Priyamali and Isuru Bandara swindled him of AUD 100,000, USD 60,000 and 136.75 gold sovereigns. Hassen’s exclusive interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema (Truth with Chamuditha) should certainly help the CID to ascertain the truth.

Hassen accused the Officer-in-Charge of the Fort police station of interfering in his case, on behalf of the suspect.

The intrepid businessman also questioned how the Thico Group proprietor obtained approval for her bodyguards to carry automatic weapons, in a high security zone. Clearance has been received during the previous administration (before the change of the government in July this year).

Responding to Samarawickrema, Hassen revealed that he was inquiring into the alleged involvement of a well-known person whose identity he declined to reveal. Pressed for an answer, Hassen identified the culprit as a man. At one point, Hassen disclosed how Thilini Priyamali received a call from former first lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa, in response to a call she made two minutes before. Hassen alleged that it was all part of the fraudster’s strategy to unnerve those who had been targeted.

When the writer requested Hassen to clarify some of his accusations therein, the businessman stressed that lawyers, appearing for the fraudster recently, tried to convince him, at the Fort Magistrate Court, where the case is heard, to settle it out of Court.

Hassen repeated what he told Samarawickrema that he was offered Rs 10 mn as the initial payment to drop the case. “The culprits have a right to retain lawyers of their choice. There is no dispute over that. Lawyers, too, cannot be faulted for accepting cases. That is their undisputed right.” Hassen said.

He said that he rejected the disgraceful proposal made by a lawyer, on behalf of the accused, as he wanted to pursue the case. In spite of the interviewer pressing Hassen to name the lawyers, he declined to do so.

However, according to Hassen, the alleged fraudster was represented by two President’s Counsels and four other lawyers. Hassen insisted that he talked to the lawyer who made, what he called, an indecent proposal.

Thilini Priyamali is expected to be produced in the Fort Magistrate Court today (19) from remand. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) can inquire into this. But, as always the BASL would conveniently say it wouldn’t do so unless the outfit received a complaint. (The writer received that response when an explanation was sought regarding the high profile Aeroflot case in which the conduct of Attorney-at-Law Aruna de Silva received the attention of the Justice Ministry. The lawyer represented the plaintiff the Ireland-based Celestial Aviation Trading Company Ltd., with Avindra Rodrigo, PC, (litigation) of FJ & G.de Saram, leading law firm from colonial times. The Justice Ministry found fault with lawyer De Silva for accompanying a fiscal officer of the Commercial High Court of the Western Province to deliver a court ruling given by High Court Judge S. M. H. S.P. Sethunge in next to no time on 02 June. The government owes an explanation.

Perhaps the Justice Ministry should explain the current status of that particular investigation in the wake of the Office of Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, being informed of the issue at hand.

Terrorism & Criminal Law

Attorney-at-Law Asela Seresinhe

Attorney-at-Law Asela Seresinhe couldn’t have launched ‘Terrorism & the Criminal Law of Sri Lanka’ at a better time. Seresinhe dealt with a range of issues, including money laundering (Prevention of Money Laundering Act No 05 of 2006/page 112). Would the Thico Group of Companies be subjected to a comprehensive inquiry? Only time will tell.

Former Attorney General, Palitha Fernando, PC (2012-2014) in his foreword, recommended Seresinhe’s work for students of international law, the academics as well as the general public, including politicians.

Fernando suggested that ‘Terrorism & The Criminal Law of Sri Lanka’ be translated for the benefit of Sinhala and Tamil speaking people.

Former AG Fernando recollected the time Asela and his wife, Maheshika, served as young officers at the Attorney General’s Department at the time he served as the AG. During his tenure as the AG, at the behest of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Parliament impeached Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice. She was removed in January 2013. Seresinhe served as a State Counsel in the Criminal Division of the AG’s Department (2007-2017).

Draconian anti-terrorist laws

Seresinhe has quite rightly acknowledged that in the absence of awareness and understanding, a section of the public distrusted anti-terrorism laws (Prevention of Terrorism Act), the Public Security Ordinance and Emergency Regulations. The operation of the criminal justice system, too, is a matter of concern, author Asela Seresinhe has said, while profusely appreciating the contribution made by his father-in-law Anil Silva, PC, in overall enhancement of his legal knowledge.

Seresinhe has examined the issues at hand against the backdrop of the enactment of the PTA (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Act No 12 of 2022 in March this year before violent public protests erupted against the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Having acknowledged the absence of universally acceptable Convention relating to terrorism, the author discussed a wide range of issues and related matters taking into consideration both domestic and international developments/situations as well.

The author mentioned 19 specific international instruments, relating to terrorism (Sri Lanka is a party to 11,out of 19). Seresinhe also made reference to the ‘SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism’ finalised in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Nov 04, 1987, meant to battle domestic and regional terrorism, as well as Law of Armed Conflict/International Humanitarian Law. It would have been better if the author briefly discussed the Indian destabiliation project that was meant to pave the way for the deployment of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka. By the time SAARC finalized the anti-terrorism law, the Indian Army was deployed in the Northern and Eastern regions, in Sri Lanka, in terms of the Indo-Lanka accord, forced on the then JRJ government. Actually, successive governments had pathetically failed to address accountability issues, raised by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in respect of Sri Lanka’s response to separatist Tamil terrorism. The UNHRC has focused on the fourth phase of the war (2006-2009), while turning a blind eye to the Indian destabilization project, in the run up to the deployment of the Indian Army here (July 1987-March 1990) and atrocities committed by the Indian Army. India never acknowledged the grave violations committed by its Army.

Actually, Sri Lanka never dared, at least, to refer to the status of the Indian Army deployment here. Geneva, too, conveniently ignored the contentious issue. The undeniable truth is that the Indian Army hadn’t been really subjected to Sri Lanka’s domestic laws, nor the Indian sponsorship of terrorism here ever probed. But, India, now a close ally of the US, vis-à-vis China, served as a member of the UNHRC. India abstained at the vote, on the latest resolution, moved in Geneva, against the war-winning Sri Lanka that pulled off an incredible victory despite all odds stacked against her, especially by the West. Altogether 20 countries abstained. Twenty countries voted for, whereas seven voted against.

The UNHRC is seriously concerned about the PTA. Geneva wants the law abolished. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is under heavy pressure, by Western powers, to do away with the PTA with a section of the Opposition, too, finding fault with the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government for using the PTA to suppress those still protesting against the government. Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law has become a huge issue, with those represented in Parliament sharply divided over the incumbent government’s response. But it is a fact that some key Aragalaya activists, while claiming to be peaceful protesters, when the opportunity arose they put into operation their sinister plans, as on May 09 when they looted and torched properties of government politicians, right across the country. Likewise, they stormed the PM’s office and even chased the President out of the country, and also torched the private residence of Mr. Wickremesinghe, by taking the law into their own hands. Luckily for the country, President Wickremesinghe took timely counter measures, after taking office, and, thereby, prevented the overrunning of Parliament, as well, in nick of time.

Whatever various interested parties, especially foreign funded NGOs propagated, all countries are vulnerable and should be prepared to face any eventuality. Some of those who advise Sri Lanka on accountability issues are the worst violators of international laws. The US-UK led invasion of Iraq on ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports on the growing threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), or other Western interventions, as in Libya and Syria, never received genuine attention of the UNHRC. That is the reality. Ruination of Iraq is just one example of the murderous Western strategies meant to annihilate those who didn’t fall in line with their agenda.

UK example

Lawyer Seresinhe asserted that Sri Lanka’s PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) Act No 48 of 1979 that had been influenced by the UK legislation, introduced in 1974, to face the challenge posed by IRA terrorism. The lawyer underscored the need for substantial changes to the PTA in view of the continuing threats. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) mounted the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks at a time the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was busy planning to replace the PTA with new anti-terrorism law. The yahapalana lot pushed for the enactment of the new law, citing the Easter Sunday carnage which could have been thwarted if the government acted on specific intelligence received from the government of India. Obviously, the then President Maithripala Sirisena, and the top UNP leadership, were too preoccupied in fighting an internecine war of their own in the yahapalana government, and its bureaucracy, by their dithering, facilitated the NTJ terror project, by sitting on high value intelligence provided by New Delhi.

The author faulted the political party system for undermining what he called ‘truth seeking’ process. This comment has been made as regards the assassination of one-time National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, in April 1993, and the contradictory positions taken by the police, backed by Scotland Yard, and a Commission appointed, in 1995, by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in terms of the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry Law No 07 of 1978. It would have been better if the author, at least, briefly discussed the assassination, widely believed to be one of the most controversial political killings.

The police pointed the finger at the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), primarily on the basis of the recovery of the body of Appiah Balakrishnan alias Ragunathan, an undercover LTTE operative. The body was found on the following day on Mugalan Road, at Kirulapone. Both the Sri Lanka police and Scotland Yard asserted that Ragunathan, having been shot by an Army deserter (Tilak Shantha), employed by Lalith Athulathmudali, in spite of injuries suffered, scaled over the nearby wall and ended up on Mugalan Road.

The bullet fired by Tilak Shantha was found on Ragunathan’s body. Having ridiculed and dismissed the Scotland Yard report, the Presidential Commission held that the late Sirisena Cooray and the late Ranasinghe Premadasa ordered the assassination.

‘Terrorism & the Criminal Law of Sri Lanka’ is a must read for those interested in contemporary security issues, including law students, general public, including politicians as suggested by Palitha Fernando, PC.

Against the backdrop of the US, the UK and India exerting pressure on Sri Lanka over accountability issues, the US imposition of travel ban on Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Shavendra Silva and his family, in Feb 2020, and the UK considering action against one-time commander of the celebrated Task Force 1/58 Division, the Chapter 8 that dealt with anti-terrorism laws, in the UK, India and the US, is perhaps one of the most interesting sections.



Midweek Review

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

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President Wickremesinghe with US Ambassador Chung at the Colombo harbour, on Nov, 22, at the commissioning of newly acquired Offshore Patrol Vessel, formerly of the US Coast Guard.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having comfortably won the vote on the Second Reading of 2023 Budget, two days earlier, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on November 24, dealt with a spate of issues, including the responsibilities of the armed forces and the police, obviously indicating how a second Aragalaya, aimed at ousting his government from power, by way of violent protests, as was done to the previous President, would be tackled, as the country could not possibly afford any more turmoil.

The UNP leader stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to protect the armed forces and the police, who performed their legitimate duties and responsibilities.

The Parliament approved the Cudget, on Nov. 22, with 121 voting for and 84 against, as the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) reiterated its commitment to a political marriage of convenience with UNP leader Wickremesinghe whose party has only one seat in the 225-member Parliament. Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the Budget, on Nov. 14.

The SLPP secured 145 seats, at the last General Election, though three breakaway groups of lawmakers have since distanced themselves from the party.

Speaking on the continuing threats faced by his government, Wickremesinghe underscored the responsibilities of all, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe’s reference to responsibilities of those from Corporal to Field Marshal should be examined against the backdrop of perceived relationship between the war-winning Army Commander and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), accused of toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe talked tough and didn’t mince his words when setting the tone for the remainder of his term, secured on July 20, courtesy the SLPP. Wickremesinghe seemed confident that the balance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, won with a landslide at the Nov. 16, 2019, presidential election, could be completed.

Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Acting President, on July 13, and was elected the eighth President on July 20. As the sole UNP National List MP, Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes, including his own, whereas his rivals Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) obtained 82 and 03 votes respectively.

Wickremesinghe delivered a clear message. The UNPer didn’t mince his words when he warned that unauthorized protests, meant to undermine his government, wouldn’t be tolerated, under any circumstances.

Wickremesinghe declared that trouble makers wouldn’t be allowed to take cover behind human rights and any attempt to adopt strategies, similar to those employed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be crushed, militarily. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s stand.

So, in case the FSP et al launched the second phase of ‘Aragalaya,’ targeting the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, they can expect the armed forces and law enforcement authorities unleashed on them.

 Immediately after taking oaths, as the eighth President, Wickremesinghe directed the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament). Ironically, President Wickremesinghe, who was always for protests against the government in power, when in the Opposition, overnight metamorphosed into ignoring protests by the NGO-led mafia against the deployment of the armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave in to US pressure not to use the armed forces to evict those camping outside the Presidential Secretariat until it was too late.

Even on May 09 when a well-orchestrated wave of physical attacks, and torching of properties of government politicians, was unleashed across the country, as if in spontaneous response from the public at large, over the attack on the Galle Face protesters, the same evening the US Ambassador Julie Chung issued a statement, through the local media, warning the armed forces and the police not to crackdown on peaceful protesters. We all saw how peaceful these foreign-funded protesters were when the opportunity arose. On May 09, they even turned on a group of SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, when they visited the Galle Face protest site. Luckily for them, they beat a hasty retreat, with their security, sensing what was in store for them, after getting a few knocks.

During the campaign against Gotabaya Rajapaksa that commenced with violent protests outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, SLPP lawmaker Rear Admiral (ret.) Sarath Weerasekera told this writer, on a number of occasions, the danger of failing on the part of the then administration to deal with the growing threat efficiently. Weerasekera was one of the few who demanded tangible action against the protest campaign. By July 09, protesters forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Janadhipathi Mandiraya by sea. Field Marshal Fonseka, MP, had been the only parliamentarian to address the protesters, near Janadhipathi Mandiraya, just a few hours before they forced their way into the presidential abode.

No one bothered to remind the Field Marshal of his obligations at that time. In addition to Sajith Premadasa, Fonseka, too, received an invitation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the premiership. Both declined for different reasons.

But, on the part of Wickremesinghe, there hadn’t been any wavering, as in the case of Premadasa, despite being the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP leader simply grabbed the opportunity and proceeded step by step, having evicted those occupying the Presidential Secretariat.

Lawmaker Weerasekera, who sided with President Wickremesinghe at the Budget vote, told The Island the UNP leader had dealt appropriately with those trying to undermine law and order. Unfortunately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite being a distinguished former frontline combat officer, hesitated to meet the protesters’ violent challenge due to well hatched Western propaganda against his government, the MP asserted.

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

President Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to remind the House of the correspondence between his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to him being sworn in as the Premier on May 12. During his Nov. 24 address to Parliament, the UNP leader tabled in House Sajith Premadasa’s letter, dated May 12, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate his position, faulted the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up the presidency. The President’s strategy seems clear. In addition to dealing with the economy, Wickremesinghe faces two primary challenges, namely rebuilding the UNP, now reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena), in preparation for future elections and the resolution of the national question (post-war national reconciliation)

The re-building of the UNP has to be achieved at the expense of Sajith Premadasa. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s strategy. Wickremesinghe has no option but to relentlessly push SJB members to switch their allegiance to him. Although many believed Wickremesinghe could influence the majority of the main Opposition, the SJB, to switch sides, in the wake of his appointment as the Premier, it didn’t materialize. Of the 54-member SJB parliamentary group, Manusha Nanayakara (Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment) and Harin Fernando (Minister of Tourism and Land) deserted Sajith Premadasa when they accepted Cabinet portfolios, on May 20 from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The two SJB MPs, who spearheaded a high profile campaign, targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, had no qualms in receiving their letters of appointment from the very person.

The other SJB MP to accept state ministerial portfolios from Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, in April (Transport) and September (Tourism) was Diana Gamage, now at the centre of a simmering controversy over her allegedly being a British national. When there are probably at least half a dozen or so other dual citizen MPs in Parliament we wonder why just Diana Gamage is being targeted by so many.

President Wickremesinghe appears to be confident that some of those who had been elected on the SJB ticket, as well as some SLPPers, may accept Cabinet portfolios soon. Appointments are likely to be finalized immediately after the final vote on the Budget, scheduled to take place on Dec 08.

Wickremesinghe needs to reach a consensus with the top SLPP leadership, as regards Cabinet portfolios, as the latter wouldn’t, under any circumstances, tolerate appointments, sans its approval. However, Wickremesinghe will go out to engineer defections from the SJB. Will the UNP leader be able to influence a group large enough to cause the disintegration of Sajith Premadasa’s party, formed in early 2020, to contest the last General Election?

However, in spite of enjoying executive powers, Wickremesinghe would find it an extremely difficult task as the SJB, as a group, abhorred joining the SLPP-led government. On one hand, Wickremesinghe required the continuing support of the SLPP to sustain his government. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe’s dependence on the SLPP made him quite unpopular. The SLPP has so far refused to accept that it couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout, caused by utter mismanagement of the national economy. Had the SLPP government sought the IMF intervention, soon after the 2019 presidential election, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have ended up as the President. The circumstances that compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Wickremesinghe to accept the premiership underscored the seriousness of the situation the country had fallen into.

Having failed to get elected, from Colombo, at the last General Election, Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament, in late June 2021, on its National List, at a time the national economy was rapidly deteriorating.

But, even Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have anticipated the turn of events that compelled the desperate Rajapaksas to invite him to accept the premiership, one month short of a year later. Having taken over the government, under an incomparable situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda. The SLPP seems to be so far satisfied. The vote on the Second Reading of the Budget meant that the SLPP and Wickremesinghe are prepared to work together. though quite significant differences remain.

However, the SLPP has, in no uncertain terms, indicated that it didn’t bother about the mandates received at the 2019 Presidential and 2020 General Elections at which its candidate received 6.9 mn votes and the party obtained a staggering 145 seats, respectively.

Prez roadmap

SLPP National List MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, in two speeches in Parliament (delivered during the ongoing Budget debate) dealt with Wickremesinghe’s strategy. The leader of civil society group Yuthukama did it quite well. The first time entrant to Parliament discussed the issues at hand, including the alleged move to deliberately lose state control over land that may cause irrevocable consequences. At the onset of one speech, lawmaker Cumaratunga reacted somewhat angrily as some government members continued with their noisy private conversations, among themselves, as the MP dealt with contentious issues.

The MP asked whether Wickremesinghe was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance his own roadmap at the expense of the country. Cumaratunga raised the possibility of those enjoying the political power allowing further deterioration of the economy. The MP expressed fears of Wickremesinghe’s Budget causing a heavier debt burden at a time the country has suspended repayment of loans. The MP also slammed the government over the inordinate delay in amending the Exchange Control Act of 2017 to make it mandatory for importers to bring back massive amounts of funds ‘parked’ overseas, over a period of time, within a stipulated time frame.

In addition to Cumaratunga, Prof. Charitha Herath, as well as Prof. Channa Jayasumana ,made important contributions during the ongoing Budget debate. Both of them dealt with the land issue.

Herath, who earned public appreciation for his role as former COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman dealt with a number of issues, including an ‘operation’ meant to facilitate land grabs. The first time MP alleged that the move to place state land under the purview of Divisional Secretaries was nothing but a ruse to allow land grabs.

Participating in the Second Reading debate on the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath alleged that the move was meant to allow cronies of the ruling party to get hold of government lands. Declaring that LRC lands had been misappropriated for the political gains of successive governments, since 1977, Prof. Herath questioned the way state land were utilized. The 2023 Budget has proposed to legitimize wrong procedure, lawmaker Herath said, adding: “We summoned the LRC, two or three times before the Committee on Public Enterprises, and investigated the issues at hand. We found out that there had been many shortcomings in its land utilization process. We instructed the officials to take remedial measures. Now the 2023 Budget has proposed that these LRC lands should be placed under District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and allow them to decide to whom those lands should be given for the purpose of cultivating them. The proposal would prune down the powers of the Lands Minister.

“We do not approve the status quo of the LRC because every Lands Minister has placed the LRC under his or her friends who, in return, placed the lands at LRC under the mercy of the Minister. This should come to an end but not in the manner that has been envisaged by the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath said.

Prof. Jayasumana raised the legitimacy of crucial decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader didn’t have a mandate to do so from the people. Addressing the Parliament, during the Committee Stage of the Defence Ministry vote, the first time MP asked whether the President could take decisions pertaining to national security and policy matters as he was only entrusted with completing the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

The Anuradhapura District MP suggested the need to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as regards the ability of Wickremesinghe to call for a presidential election four years after the last poll. In this case the one held in Nov. 2019. Lawmaker Jayasumana declared that he would submit a private member’s proposal to enable Wickremesinghe to call for a fresh presidential poll after completion of one year in office. If consensus could be reached, a fresh presidential election could be held in July 2023, Prof. Jayasumana said, adding that if Wickremesinghe won he could implement whatever his proposals. Pointing out that as Wickremesinghe’s agenda had been rejected by the electorate in 1994, 2004 and 2019, the UNP leader could face serious public challenge unless he obtained a fresh mandate.

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a huge mandate at the 2019 presidential election to preserve Sri Lanka’s unitary status, Prof Jayasumana questioned the moves to even go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The academic reminded that the Supreme Court had been divided on the 13th Amendment.

The SLPP rebel reminded that the Supreme Court bench that decided on the 13th Amendment did so by a majority of just one judge.

Sri Lanka is heading for unprecedented political upheaval as Wickremesinghe pushes ahead with his agenda amidst further deterioration of political-economic-social situation. The much-touted USD 2.9 bn in emergency aid from the IMF, spread over a period of four years, seems wholly inadequate to remedy the situation. Impending political turmoil appears to be quite threatening and may even undermine the economic recovery efforts unless the Parliament addressed the issues at hand with the dedication such situations required.

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Midweek Review

Cracks in the Fortress

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By Lynn Ockersz

Defiant hearts throng the streets,

Tugging tirelessly at their chains,

Taking on the Iron Fist face-to-face,

Which cannot afford to relent,

Since for it too much is at stake,

And the world may not call this,

Iran and China’s Bastille moment yet,

Since the fire power of the state,

Remains formidable and lethal,

But chinks emerge in the armour,

Of those holding the reins,

And this could spell epochal change.

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Midweek Review

The Revenge of Power

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by Fr J.C. Pieris

It is vitally important to value our freedom more than anything else, as Patrick Henry did and declared: “Give me liberty or give me death. My humanity diminishes the less I am free; my humanity is enhanced the more I am free.” Moises Naim has written a book that every freedom loving human being must read to become aware of the treacherous dangers to his/her freedom.

The book is about how our freedom won with so much trouble, toil, blood and sacrifice is being corroded today, not from outside forces, like in the past such as tribal chiefs, kings and dictators, but more insidiously from within, subtly and deceptively, with something that looks like truth or democracy.

The mortal enemy of freedom is power. The gradual defeat of power by freedom and democracy we enjoy is being slowly strangulated by power returning to battle in unsuspecting hidden ways and means. That is why the book is titled “The Revenge of Power”.

The book is about the 3-P autocrats who steal our freedom and kill democracy. The three Ps are populism, polarisation and post-truth. The corrosive and corrupting consequence of the trio – populism, polarisation and post-truth – is a criminal and complete takeover of the state.

Populism

Populism is a set of practices and strategies. Through this, the autocrats become not only the sole voice and face of the government but also of the state. It empties the meaning of the authentic exercise of the will of the people as it weakens popular and civic organisations, and eliminates the function of political parties as channels of alternative ideologies.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) perfectly fits the bill for a populist leader. He came to power through democratic and legal means unlike Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) who became the President through trickery. No autocrat can beat the executive powers of the President of Sri Lanka, thanks to J. R. Jayewardene, who introduced the 1978 Constitution. Slowly, MR began to show traces of an autocrat. Even the few checks and balances that were in existence were disregarded. Self-promoting useless extravaganzas increased. He openly became nepotistic. He began to interfere in the judiciary by removing Chief Justice of Sri Lanka Shirani Bandaranayake, and brought in 18th Amendment in a bid to become the President for life. In the meantime, more and more allegations of huge commissions on mega projects, robberies, scams and crimes of family members, relatives and cronies increase. Pandora Papers disclosures as regards Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband has revealed only a fraction of what the Rajapaksa family has amassed.

MR’s younger brother, Gotabaya, entered politics in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre declaring that he alone could protect the country’s national security. He said at the very beginning of his presidency that his word took precedence over government circulars. He banned agrochemicals. His idiotic economic decisions bankrupted the country.

Polarisation

Polarisation is the age-old idea of divide and rule. The autocrats generate intense hatred against the rivals and neutralise them. Since they exploit the atavistic fears and prejudices of and the social cleavages and divisions among people, they have a huge fan-base, and hence emerge as Messiahs.

Creating an enemy, the Other, is the speciality of our politicians. The Tamil minority was the first enemy. JR, the autocrat deliberately organised the 1983 July riots, and the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Then, we had the 30-year civil war. They demonised the Tamils in the North and the East. GR came to power after Easter Sunday tragedy, promising to ensure national security and making the Muslims, the Other or the enemy.

Creating and accusing the Other, the enemy is part of the political practice in Sri Lanka. Rulers speak of imperialist conspiracy, Tamil separatism, Muslim Wahabism, NGO betrayals, Christian conversions or what not. They make ‘others’ monsters ready to pounce on the hapless majority, destroy them and conquer Sri Lanka.

Divide and rule is the name of the autocrat’s game. RW has called the Aragalaya youth fascists making them The Other. By using the PTA he has made the university students terrorists. Anti-riot police in full gear with tear gas masks, water cannon trucks and hundreds of men and women armed with batons and shields are sent to suppress the fundamental rights of the people to protest of small groups of unarmed non-violent civilians.

Post-truth

Post-truth is the confused conceptualisation and uncontrollable diffusion of fake news that distorts reality. It has such a power that it can systematically block the knowledge and diffusion of the truth. It is not simply spreading lies. It is about muddying the waters to such a point that it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. Post-truth is the baby of the modern mass communication media.

“Post-truth has been defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “the disappearance of shared objective standards for truth.” It is a condition that arises in public life when the dividing line between facts and knowledge, on one side, and belief and opinion, on the other, withers away, or at least when they are used interchangeably so often that the dividing line between them is no longer widely agreed upon.” (Quoted from the aforesaid book)

With easy access to millions, social media, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc., we are inundated with facts and messages that can be true, partially true, false or fake. Often contrary facts and news are presented to us and we are confused as to what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. This weakens our democracy. A country of confused citizens is easy prey of the rapacious populist autocrat.

How to protect our freedom

The author has proposed methods of fighting the 3-P autocrats by battling against their five most used tactics.

The battle against the Big Lie

The Big Lie was the slogan given by Trump to his election loss. Here are some of our Big Lies. “Dharmishta Samajaya” sounds so pious and nice but the reality of the JR presidency was just the opposite. Then MR presented the vision of “Suba Anagathayak.” Now, we are in the Rajapakses’ ‘Anagathe’, you can decide whether it is ‘suba’ or ‘kalakanni’. “Yahapalanaya” was another fantastic goal to be achieved, but the UNP and its cronies carried out the Treasury bond scams, and the SJB footnote gang shamelessly tried to protect the culprits. Finally, we have the “Saubagya” of GR, well, the country is bankrupt and economically bogged down and ruined. The sweet dream of ‘Saubagya’ has become for the people a nightmare! These are the Big Lies of Sri Lankan politics. There are many small lies that are brazenly proclaimed in public like when Namal R said that “No Rajapakse has robbed anything. Take us to courts and prove the charges.” Of course, GR had “Nidoskota nidahas” all the cases against the Rakapakses and their crony murderers and thieves. Or take the television channels that promoted the Dammika Peniya as a cure for Covid-19.

Now for the battle. Democracy and freedom can be saved only if the citizens are well informed of how the government works. Ways of educating the youth and even the elderly must be found and implemented. They must be taught to check always the myriads of facts, figures and information they receive and even double check them before using them to make decisions or sharing them with others. The perpetrators of the Big Lie must never be allowed to win an election again. Even the supporters and promoters of the Big Liar must be dealt with similarly. The electorate must be made to feel seriously responsible for the election results.

Battle against criminal regimes

There are countries where criminals are no longer underground but very much above ground and in the highest places of power. Since the 1970s, Sri Lanka has also joined the club or the mafia of such countries. A good example of where it started is when JR made the notorious criminal, Gonawala Sunil, a Justice of the Peace after pardoning and releasing the latter from prison! We have a person convicted of “Kappan” as the Chief Whip of the government and most others are all thieves or at least collaborators of thieves. It is not for nothing that people call them Ali Baba and the 225 thieves.

As every government deal, whether oil, gas, sugar, medicine, vaccines or other essentials, is suspected to be a scam and the allegations are never investigated or admitted, we sure have a kleptocracy consisting of the politicians, top administrative officers and their crony businessmen openly robbing the wealth of the nation. The kleptocrats robbed and bankrupted the country. They have taken out the wealth of the country and stashed it away in black tax havens.

When the people of Aragalaya led by the youth, protest publicly against the criminal government, they are arrested and jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Saving democracy and freedom from a criminal regime is going to be a war of attrition. Then we must investigate the route of the stolen money and confiscate it. So far, nothing has been done in this regard. All that we know about Nirupama Rajapaksa, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, Udayanga Weeratunga, Air Bus scam, etc., has been revealed by investigations conducted overseas. We cannot expect a criminal government to conduct such investigations. It will have to be the work of NGOs, journalists, detectives and lawyers. Anybody, even charities that receive funds from autocrats who need character laundering must be named and shamed.

The battle against autocracies that seek to undermine democracies

Powerful autocracies and even some democracies competing for global domination have always interfered in the smaller democracies. It is clear how funding for elections is received. It is no secret that China funded Rajapaksas or the US funded some others. There were allegations that North Korea funded the old JVP and India funded the LTTE. Funds apart, now they use the social media on a global scale to disinform, mislead and tarnish the images of politicians who are undesirables, or support their favourites. They have found that Russia has interfered in the Trump election and in the Brexit referendum.

The only defence of the democracies against such onslaughts depends “on three priorities: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.”

The battle against political cartels that stifle competition

Democracy is a way of organising political competition. In a democracy, those unhappy with the current state of affairs can change things, but only if they can persuade enough fellow citizens to vote for them. Ensuring fair and lawful political competition is the central purpose of democratic checks and balances. (Quoted from the book)

But political cartels that include the judicial, administrative and military sectors unleash anti-competitive pressures to stifle freedom and democracy. They are rigging the game to stay in power. The autocrats become political monopolists. In Sri Lanka, the practice of bribing MPs to switch sides is part of anti-competition.

“To defeat them, we need a kind of political anti-trust doctrine, one designed to protect the competitive dynamic at the heart of democracy. Whether dealing with campaign finance, redistricting, voter registration, or media regulation, policymakers must squarely confront one question: Do the current rules foster fair and constructive competition? Where the answer is no, a strong prima facie case exists for intervention and reform.” (Quoted from the book)

Battle against illiberal narratives

The autocrats create the Big Lie that they are the saviours of the people harassed by poverty, and the elites are insensitive to the people’s plight. They cater to the people’s gut level feelings and make their adrenalin work. But the democrats find difficult to achieve such results as they will offer only abstract principles of truth and fair play; freedom and competition. Usually, the democrats are always at a disadvantage.

“The populist frame is too powerful to be defeated permanently. Like a virus, it reappears in outbreaks again and again throughout history. But the rhetoric is hollow. And pointing out that hollowness gives us an opening we must exploit to sell people once more on the promise of democratic life.” (Quoted from the book)

In our country, Aragalaya has opened the eyes of people as never before and now many of them can see how they have been deceived and abused by populist autocrats.

“Sobriety is in order. The fact that democracy has survived over the last three centuries in no way guarantees that it will prevail against its enemies once more. But if we can defeat the Big Lies, sideline criminalized governments, parry the attempts at foreign subversion directed at democratic elements, face down the political cartels that stifle competition, and beat back the illiberal narratives that sustain autocratic onslaughts, we’ll have won the war to preserve democracy.” (Quoted from the book)

Conclusion

As I finished reading the book, I realised that we had found the local antidote to the 3-P autocrats. It is our own way of dealing with our own variety of 3-P autocrats. It is what emerged as Aragalaya in April this year, climaxed in July and is still simmering like live coals in the ashes. Proudly, I called it the Beautiful Revolution. However much its detractors howl against it, it is now a historical fact. Aragalaya happened and nobody can deny, delete or forget it. Our youth led it and were responsible for it and all, their mothers, fathers even little children joined them whole heartedly. The world was stunned by its success. Not a drop of blood was shed by the protesters.

I gauged them at the Galle Face Gotagogama. Aragalaya can be defined with the three words they always use, Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraya. Nirpakshika means they are not followers or slaves of anybody, any party or any ism. They are strong free adults; they think for themselves and they decide for themselves. Nirprachanda means non-violence stemming from human solidarity. Aragalaya was an experience of solidarity; not the narrow solidarity of groups of the same race, religion, language, class, caste or political party but the all-inclusive solidarity of the human race. At Gotagogama there was open trust and friendliness among all sorts of people. I remember one incident clearly; when the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu said that he was going to send food-aid to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, a young Tamil took the mike at Gotagogama and sent a message to the Chief Minister; Sir, either send food-aid to Sri Lankans or don’t send at all. Yes, we are Sri Lankans, period. Finally, they called their movement Aadaraye Aragalaya. I suppose it is inevitable; nirpakshika and nirprachanda leads naturally to the peculiar ethos of Aragalaya; an ethos of love, peace, friendship and brotherhood.

Aragalaya led by the new generation revealed what is truly necessary for democracy. It was democratic as it never had a clear leader. All were welcome to come forward and share their opinion. Various individuals were spokespersons for it but Aragalaya went on, a common project of the people. Everybody shared equal responsibility for the spontaneous project, in such a way that all were leaders. Aragalaya formed free citizens fit for true democracy. And this is the best antidote to the 3P autocrats. Democracy, not just in name but in practice, is possible in Sri Lanka. The good news of Nirpakshika, Nirprachanda and Aadaraye Prajatantravadaya must be spread island wide. This is the foundation for the system change we are looking for. And this is what frightens the enemies of Aragalaya, Ali Baba and the 225 thieves. They know their evil system is in its death throes. With PTA, emergency, suppression, new alliances, new parties, fake news and all kinds of crooked deals they are fighting for their survival. They will be vanquished.

Let us keep in mind; the price of sweet freedom is the hard work of eternal vigilance or a sort of permanent Aragalaya.

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