By DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
Uditha Devapriya, uncannily close to a reincarnation of Ajith Samaranayake in the same vital social and intellectual role he plays as the Critic, reviews in The Island’s SatMag, Prof Rajiva Wijesinha’s indispensable book, or notebook, on Geneva, the UNHRC and Sri Lanka’s diplomatic trajectory of triumph and travails. He entitles it ‘Downhill All the Way’.
Devapriya closes-in on my contribution in a tightly framed ‘shot’, rightly embedded in a more sweeping recounting of Rajiva’s role:
“…Nothing epitomised these developments better than the removal of the man responsible for the 2009 diplomatic victory. Dr Wijesinha is justifiably nostalgic in his recollections of Dayan Jayatilleka…That this ploy succeeded tells us just how much the reversal of such strategies after 2009 cost the country. In that sense, the author is right in considering Dr Jayatilleka’s removal as ‘the silliest thing Mahinda Rajapaksa did.’ In effect, it marked the beginning of the end.” (Downhill all the way – The Island)
In his slim memoir, Rajiva Wijesinha opines:
“His [Dayan’s] appointment was apart from making Gotabaya Rajapaksa his Secretary of Defence, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most inspired selection. Where Gotabaya led the fight to overcome the LTTE, Dayan led the fight to overcome those who wanted to help them survive through international pressures.” (‘Representing Sri Lanka: Geneva Rights and Sovereignty’, p 13.)
UNHRC Geneva May 2009 remains the equivalent of our Cricket World Cup victory—unprecedented and unrepeated. There is more scholarly scrutiny internationally on that single period of Sri Lanka’s diplomacy (UNHRC 2007-2009) than on any other period or achievement of our diplomatic history. The central critical concern running through all those research reports, academic papers, undergraduate, post-graduate and post-doctoral dissertations, book chapters and books is the problem: “How did Sri Lanka evade R2P in 2009?”
I wasn’t shocked, or surprised, that I was sacked six weeks after we had won in Geneva. It had happened to my father, Mervyn de Silva, at the hands of earlier administrations. The late Izeth Hussain (NMMI Hussain), former Ambassador and literary critic, a few years my father’s senior at the university, put it best:
“…For here was a journalist widely recognised as exceptionally brilliant, a world-class journalist as we say, arguably even Sri Lanka’s greatest journalist, and he, of all people, gets sacked not once but twice, on both occasions from state-owned newspapers. That says a great deal about the vicissitudes of Sri Lankan journalism in our time…” (The Weekend Express, July 10-11, 1999)
Fifth Column? Sabotage?
What really shocked and disgusted me was the attempt to sack me earlier, when the war was at its height in its closing months and the West was closing in to forestall final victory. That attempt was thwarted by the build-up of public opinion especially in and through The Island, culminating in a decision by President MR. This attempt was in early 2009 and ended on March 30th 2009, just before the West began to collect signatures for its draft resolution on Sri Lanka and its call for a Special Session which we managed to delay till the war was over in May, and defeat when it was held.
Shamindra Ferdinando wrote a story in The Island, titled ‘President Extends Dayan’s Term Thwarting Moves to recall him’. It provides the timeline:
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ended a simmering controversy over the move to recall Sri Lankan Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka…Political sources said that the President had informed Jayatilleka of his decision on Monday, March 30th  in recognition of his significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s successful effort at last month’s Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva…”
In her book ‘Mission Impossible-Geneva’ (Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2017), Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka, my wife, recounts this attempt in the section ‘First Rumblings of a Sacking’ (pp. 73-84). She quotes extensively from veteran diplomat Ambassador Nanda Godage’s long letter to the Editor on February 26th 2009, urging my continued stay at the crease, in Geneva, despite efforts to secure my recall.
On February 19th 2009 Secretary/MFA Dr. Palitha Kohona had written a letter to me, titled ‘Termination of Contract’, when the war was still being fought, the West was trying to prevent the military victory by diplomatic means and the decisive battle was looming in Geneva, stating that “in accordance with your contract your services…will come to an end with effect from 31.05.2009.”
The attempt to remove me in wartime only ended with an official communication, dated March 26th 2009, also from Dr Kohona, which informed me that “H.E. the President has decided to extend your tour of duty till 31. 05. 2010”.
This was later rescinded by fax on July 16th 2009 six weeks after our diplomatic victory at the UNHRC, and I was instructed to quit by August 30th 2009, without even a cross-posting i.e., a lateral move to another state. But that is far from being my main point.
The historical record shows that powerful liberal-interventionist hegemonistic forces were closing in on Sri Lanka’s war effort from early 2009. Wikileaks disclosed that in April 2009, the UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, spent 60% of his time on Sri Lanka due to the “very vocal Tamil Diaspora in the UK”. Much more crucially, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State of the world’s sole superpower, had instructed in a personally signed cable dated May 4th 2009 that its Mission in Geneva was to throw its weight behind the move on Sri Lanka at the UN HRC Special Session:
“Mission Geneva is requested to convey to the Czech Republic and other like-minded members of the HRC that the USG supports a special session on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and related aspects of the humanitarian situation. Mission is further requested to provide assistance, as needed, to the Czech Republic in obtaining others, signatures to support holding this session…Mission is also instructed to engage with HRC members to negotiate a resolution as an outcome of this special session, if held. Department believes a special session that does not result in a resolution would be hailed as a victory by the Government of Sri Lanka. Instructions for line edits to the resolution will be provided by Department upon review of a draft.” [Cable dated 4th May 2009 from Secretary of State (United States)]
If I had been recalled in February-March 2009 or any time until the war and the diplomatic battle had been won, what would have ensued? Could any new Head of Mission have maintained the broad alliance that had been painstakingly built in 2007-2009 as described by Prof Wijesinha? The proof of the pudding being in the eating, the abject failure to do so in 2012, 2013 and 2014 when we were defeated by successive resolutions at the UNHRC, and then again in 2021, under Permanent Representatives of quite diverse politico-ideological orientations, answers that question.
If my recall had taken place in the 1st quarter of 2009, a UNHRC resolution—the UN mandate the West was seeking and couldn’t obtain in New York due to the Russo-Chinese ‘veto wall’—would have been secured, calling for a cessation of hostilities. Action is then likely to have been taken invoking R2P, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Secretary David Miliband doing the joint, concerted pushing, to stop the war from reaching its victorious conclusion. That this was the game-plan is evident from published western material including a Report archived in the House of Commons.
Had my recall by May 30th 2009 (as in Secretary /MFA Kohona’s Feb 19th letter) gone ahead and Mahinda Rajapaksa had not intervened to modify it—reversibly, as it turned out– I would have been packing to leave at the end of May 2009 and saying my farewells. No Ambassador would have been persuaded by what I said and voted with us because it would have been known that I was on my way out. With a May 30th departure date, I would have been unable to devote full attention to the Special Session—which in actuality I did with only one (just arrived) Foreign Service officer (Mr. Jauhar) to assist me, because the Ministry had overruled my request to keep my young de-facto deputy, Mr. OL Ameerajwad (now a superb Ambassador) until the Special Session, so vital to Sri Lanka, was over. My de jure deputy had left for Colombo weeks before for his sister’s wedding. He was later employed by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Geneva office.
GR and Geneva Redeployment
Dayan Jayatilleka as Chairman ILO, Geneva 2007-2008
It gets (arguably) worse. I had supported President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his re-election bid in late 2009, despite my sacking and to the surprise and disapproval of many. Much as I admired General Fonseka, I believed that the voters should not visit on MR what he had visited—or permitted to be visited– upon me: the injustice and unwisdom of dismissing someone from a post in which he had successfully defended and furthered his country’s interests against all odds. I also held—and in this I have been proven amply correct—that someone with no experience in governance should not be elected over someone who had.
In late-2009 when Lalith Weeratunga tracked me down at lunch at Prof GL Peiris’ and offered me the ambassadorship in Tokyo -which Ajith Nivard Cabraal had already congratulated me on at breakfast that day (to my confusion) — I politely told him that if my help was required in the presidential re-election campaign I was quite ready to extend it (which I did), but he needn’t bother to incentivize me with the offer of an ambassadorship. Instead, I went to the National University of Singapore as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow.
When Prof GL Peiris who was attending the Shangri-la strategic dialogue in Singapore in 2010, conveyed to me over dinner President MR’s puzzled remonstrance that I had suddenly disappeared from SL after his re-election, shared his concern about the forthcoming Darusman report, mentioned that Ambassador Kohona in New York had expressed apprehension about the stand of France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and communicated MR’s request that in that emerging context I return to diplomacy and serve in Paris, I agreed in principle but reminded Prof Peiris that I had a commitment to the ISAS/NUS. He said he had already cleared that up at breakfast that morning with the Institute’s Chairperson, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai. To Sanja’s dismay I pulled up stakes from the NUS. (We took the financial hit of having paid an advance for an apartment.)
During my tenure, Minister G.L Peiris arrived in Paris and the Embassy arranged a series of meetings including with the Foreign Minister of France, Alain Juppe. The relationship built up by me with the Quai d’Orsay was such that at Prof Peiris’ meeting with Alain Juppe the case of the killings of the 17 ACF employees did not come up.
Upon completing my two-year term in France, I returned home in January 2013. Sri Lanka had just commenced its losing streak in Geneva, with Delhi’s distancing from Colombo (which I had warned about while in Colombo in 2011; a warning dismissed by then High Commissioner to Delhi, Prasad Kariyawasam) and SL’s first defeat in 2012.
My immediate redeployment in Geneva was suggested but ignored by Foreign Minister GL Peiris and dismissed outright by Secretary/Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa. India’s High Commissioner Ashok Kantha, a friend of Sri Lanka who had served in Colombo from late 2009 to 2013, had told GL Peiris that things were going badly in Geneva and GoSL’s best bet was to follow the foreign policy advice in my columns, and also to send me back in. Prof Peiris had replied that he had received rather more optimistic reports from the Geneva end.
High Commissioner Ashok Kantha’s father was a high-ranking military-man who had been commanding officer of the famous Jungle Warfare Training School in Mizoram when Gotabaya Rajapaksa had trained there. This cemented the High Commissioner’s friendship with the Secretary/Defence. Travelling together on official business to Delhi he urged upon GR the same counsel he had given Foreign Minister Peiris: send Dr Dayan Jayatilleka.
GR’s response to Ashok Kantha’s recommendation had been quite decisively negative and for the most interesting reasons. He had expostulated with a gesture, that I was “on another plane” and furthermore, had sorely offended Israel by my stand while Ambassador to France and UNESCO to the extent that he had to fly to Tel Aviv to explain it. (With MR’s encouragement we had successfully supported Palestine’s entry to UNESCO securing a more-than-two-thirds vote while defying Hillary Clinton’s personally delivered warning of a Congressionally-mandated 60% budget cut. Prof Tissa Vitarana was witness and enthusiastic participant). But what did incurring Israel’s ire have to do with the ability to effectively defend Sri Lanka’s national interest?
Collaboration and Capitulation
In late 2009, when MR faced the electoral challenge from the Army commander who had won the war on the ground, he was not only the President who had given political leadership to the war effort in which his rival General Fonseka was the warrior who headed the miliary effort, he was also the leader who had led Sri Lanka as a country to the heights of overall achievement including internationally, as seen in the Geneva UNHRC victory under his hand-picked Ambassador.
After he had dismantled the Geneva team weeks after May 2009 and did not exercise the option of reassembling it after we had lost the first time (2012) or even the second (2013), it was the serial defeats of 2012, 2013 and 2014 that shattered the myth of invincibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa, emboldened his domestic opponents including critics inside the ruling SLFP, and gave momentum to the external push for regime-change. The triple Geneva defeats made landfall in the defeat of January 2015 (an election in which I stood by MR).
This opened the door to the abject capitulation by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Geneva in 2015. The recent testimony of John Sifton of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to the US Congress at the initiative of Congressman Tom Lantos, confirms the ugly truth about that betrayal of national sovereignty:
“…Sri Lanka joined a consensus resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in 2015, resolution 30/1, which included…justice through a hybrid mechanism including international investigators, prosecutors, and judges.” (hrw.org)
The Rajapaksas opened the gates for this capitulation by dismantling our successful May 2009 team, destroying our Geneva defences, and failing to give the effort to resist and reverse the triple defeats that followed at the UNHRC in 2012, 2013 and 2014 the (proven) best shot.
The Gotabaya administration’s March 2021 defeat in Geneva was the worst yet. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s written report of March 2022 will activate universal jurisdiction and international prosecutions, while providing caches of evidence for cases. These will dissuade foreign investors and tourists while shrinking demand for our products in Western markets. Protecting and promoting those found guilty could trigger unilateral sanctions. “Downhill all the way”, as Uditha Devapriya concluded.
Impact on Parliament
Landmark Nov. 14 SC ruling:
Parliament should look into how the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) a couple of months ago recognized the Finance Ministry as a high performing government institution for its performance in 2019 and 2020. The Finance Ministry in spite of being embroiled in 2019 tax cut (implemented without parliamentary approval) and 2020 sugar duty scam and unpardonable negligence that led to economic collapse were awarded the Silver prize for 2019 and 2020. Awards were given at an event attended by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current Finance Minister and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena. COPA Chief Lasantha Alagiyawanna owed an explanation as to how the Finance Ministry was chosen for the honours. The SC ruling must compel COPA and Parliament to evaluate the Silver given to the Finance Ministry. We do concede those two were trying years and the Finance Ministry maintained a semblance of normalcy after the devastating Easter Sunday Carnage and COVID-19 pandemic not seen before in our living memory, delivered body blows, especially to tourism and so many other economic arteries of the country. But the question is whether this is the time to pat ourselves in the back when most of the country’s people are literally gasping for life.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader and former Minister Udaya Gammanpila, MP, on Nov 16, 2023, said that the first warning of the impending economic crisis had been given by a section of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) in 2020.
The declaration was made in Parliament two days after the Supreme Court determined that ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Finance Ministers Mahinda Rajapaksa (Nov 2019-June 2021) and Basil Rajapaksa (June 2021-April 2022), Treasury Secretary S.R. Atygalle (Nov 2019-April 2022) and ex-Governors of the Central Bank Prof. W.D. Lakshman (Nov 2019-Sept 2021) and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Sept 2021-April 2022) bore responsibility for the current economic crisis. That determination was made in respect of several fundamental rights applications.
In addition to the above-mentioned politicians and officials, they found fault with Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the President, and the Monetary Board consisting of five persons. At the time of the crisis, the Monetary Board consisted of Governor CB Prof. W.D. Lakshman/Ajith Nivard Cabraal (ex-officio), Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle (ex-officio) and Samantha Kumarasinghe, Dr. Ranee Jayamaha and Sanjeeva Jayawardena, PC.
The SC, in a historic ruling, determined they violated the fundamental rights of the people by mismanaging the economy between 2019 and 2022.
Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, Justices Buwaneka Aluwihare, PC, Priyantha Jayawardena, PC, Vijith K. Malalgoda, PC, and Murdu N.B. Fernando, PC comprised the bench. Justice Jayawardena disagreed.
But the judgement has exonerated ex-Central Banker Dr. Rani Jayamaha and senior Attorney-at-Law Sanjeeva Jayawardena from any penalty. Why did Dr. Jayamaha and Jayawardena not resign if they disagreed with those wrong policies?
Four days after the SC declaration, the Central Bank, in a statement headlined ‘COMPOSITION OF THE GOVERNING BOARD (GB) AND THE MONETARY POLICY BOARD OF THE CENTRAL BANK OF SRI LANKA’ stressed that Dr. Jayamaha and Jayawardena were no longer members of the Governing Board of CBSL appointed in terms of the provisions of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Act, No. 16 of 2023. The new Act was passed on July 20, 2023. Dr. Ranee Jayamaha who had been a member of the Monetary Board (MB) since 29.07.2020, tendered her resignation from the MB with effect from 12.09.2023, and, therefore, was not a member of the GB. Jayawardena, who continued as a member of the GB, tendered his resignation with effect from 05.11.2023. Therefore, both Dr. Jayamaha and Jayawardena submitted their resignations before the Supreme Court made its final judgment.
Against the backdrop of the SC ruling, the role and the collective responsibility of the Cabinet-of-Ministers regarding the economic collapse should be thoroughly examined. Every member of the then Cabinet, including Attorney-at-Law Gammanpila, therefore bear the responsibility for the current crisis. the Members of the Monetary Board, too, should bear the collective responsibility.
In spite of the five-judge bench being divided 4 to 1 in favour of the decision, it is undoubtedly the most important judgment delivered since the enactment of the 1978 Constitution.
Many an eyebrow was raised when Namal Rajapakse, MP, addressing Parliament on Nov 20 questioned the right of the petitioners to challenge government policy in court. The former minister asserted that such was contrary to the Constitution.
Addressing the Parliament on Nov 16, on the third day of the Budget debate, Colombo District lawmaker Gammanpila said: “We warned in advance of the impending crisis. I’m happy, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, who served as a member of the then Cabinet, is here. We sought a meeting with the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss the deteriorating economic situation. Having repeatedly asked for a meeting we were finally granted an opportunity on Oct. 26, 2020. Dr. P.B.J, Treasury Secretary, Central Bank Governor and the then State Finance Minister Ajith Nivad Cabraal were among those present. The State Minister made the main presentation. We asked them to immediately decide on IMF intervention. All of us were of the view the country required IMF assistance to overcome the crisis. At that time Bangladesh experiencing a similar situation had taken steps to restructure their debt in addition to take a loan facility from the IMF. We stressed the need to restructure our debt. We proposed to seek IMF assistance. They didn’t pay attention to our request. Instead, we were told of them having a domestic solution.”
PHU leader Gammanpila explained how the government turned a blind eye to their repeated efforts to persuade the GR government to control fuel consumption by increasing prices or to introduce a quota system. Lawmaker Gammanpila recalled the SLPP attack on him after he declared on June 11, 2021 the immediate need to increase fuel prices due to the volatile economic situation. “Finally, a marginal increase of Rs. 7 and Rs 20 for a litre of diesel and petrol, respectively, was effected. The SLPP attacked me over the fuel increase even before the Opposition did.”
The SLPP owed the public an explanation why repeated warnings were ignored. Who actually convinced the Cabinet-of-Ministers of an impractical domestic solution? The bone of contention is whether someone deliberately thwarted counter measures, if taken, could have saved the country.
A callous approach
In spite of rapid deterioration of the economy, the Finance Ministry acted in a manner most unbecoming of one of the two most important ministries, the other being the Defence. Amidst the economic crisis triggered by the Corona epidemic, the Finance Ministry callously decided to issue duty free vehicle permits to 225 MPs of Parliament. That move went awry after print, electronic and social media mercilessly hammered the government.
Then the Finance Ministry shocked the country by slashing the Special Commodity Levy (SCL) on imported sugar. Special gazette notification, dated Oct 13, 2020, brought SCL on imported sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents a kilo. The then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa served as the Finance Minister while S.R. Attygalle functioned as the Secretary to the Treasury.
In August 2023, United Republican Front (URF) leader Patali Champika Ranawaka alleged that in spite of both the Committee on Public Finance and the Committee on Public Accounts recommendation that the government take measures to recover losses amounting to Rs 16 bn, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government is yet to do so.
By then, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government has caused irreparable damage to the economy by slashing a slew of taxes. That ill-fated decision taken at the first meeting of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Nov 2019, marked the beginning of the end. Who actually convinced the wartime Defence Secretary who courageously spearheaded the war effort, that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009, to gamble on economic-political-social stability?
In April 2021, amidst further deterioration on the economic front, Dr. PBJ declared his confidence in the overall strategy.
ECONOMYNEXT, in an online report posted on April 04, 2021, quoted Dr. Jayasundera as having said: “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa knew revenue will be lost by tax cuts but he considered it an investment, and an 8 percent tax rate slashed from 15 percent, will remain unchanged for 5 years.”
The report was headlined ‘Sri Lanka President knew revenues will be lost, VAT cut to remain for 5 years: Jayasundera’
ECONOMYNEXT further quoted Dr. Jayasundera as having told Colombo Development Forum in April, 2021: “The President promised this nation a new taxation strategy. He knew the revenue will be lost but he considers that lost revenue as an investment in the country. Therefore, outdated archaic taxes have been given up. Single rate VAT has been introduced. New corporate structure has been introduced.”
Jayasundera is also on record as having said the value added tax cut from 15 to 8 percent will stay for another 5 years and income taxes will not be changed, but the deficit will be brought down to percent in the medium term with economic growth.
“We are assuring the tax regime that what we have instituted will not change. For the next 5 years VAT is 8 percent. Income tax is whatever the rate we have gazetted. No other taxes will be brought in. Custom base taxes will be rationalized. We need much more efficient, transparent, compliance, friendly, tax regime and that is given. If you want to raise the turnover, raise the volume, raise the GDP. That is what this is all about. The Treasury Secretary is not allowed to make any changes in taxes.”
What really went wrong? Dr. PBJ. is certainly not a novice and certainly one of the most capable and experienced people having been a veteran Central Banker who had been seconded to the Treasury from as far back as during Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel’s time and retained by virtually all governments up to the last regime in various capacities. He managed the economy as the Treasury Secretary during the costly fourth phase of the Eelam conflict at a time Western powers sought to undermine the economy in a bid to throw a lifeline to the sinking Tigers.
CBSL Chief sets the record straight
Those who carefully listened to the Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe when he appeared before parliamentary watchdogs, namely Committee on Public Finance and Committee on Public Enterprises on May 24, and May 25, 2022, respectively, and his unparalleled attack on the political party system, also in Parliament, on August 31, 2022, clearly explained the circumstances leading to the current crisis. The August 31, 2022 speech must have been the strongest delivered by an official at any level in Parliament since independence (Change catastrophic strategies or face consequences – CB warns Parliament, The Island, Sept 07, 2022)
Unfortunately, political parties, represented in Parliament, and the media, didn’t pay sufficient attention to Dr. Weerasinghe’s views. Having perused the SC ruling on the economic collapse, the writer is of the view the SC judgment has justified the CBSL Governor’s declarations in Parliament over a year ago. The Island reported Dr. Weerasinghe’s bombshell revelation in a lead story, headlined ‘MR, ministers, CBSL Governor, Dr. PBJ ignored IMF warnings’ with strapline ‘Dr. Jayamaha says Monetary Board acted regardless of strong opposition’ (The Island, May 26,2022)
Dr. Weerasinghe didn’t mince his words when he declared that the government slashed taxes regardless of IMF advice and also disregarded the CB’s warning regarding the urgent need to secure IMF assistance
The GR government ignored Dr. Weerasinghe’s disclosure. At the time, the outspoken official appeared before the two parliamentary committees in late May 2022, Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained the President though the SLPP was in disarray in the wake of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe receiving the premiership. The Gajaba Regiment frontline combat veteran remained confident of overcoming the crisis. Dr. Weerasinghe’s declarations at watchdog committees didn’t receive the attention they deserved. By the time Dr. Weerasinghe lambasted the political party system on Aug 31, 2022 in Parliament, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was overseas, having fled the country.
Had the SLPP genuinely felt the need to take remedial measures, it could have invited the Opposition to head a Special Parliamentary Select (PSC) Committee to probe the origins of the crisis and to make recommendations. Instead, the SLPP did absolutely nothing. Finally, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government appointed a PSC in July, 2023, 15 months after Dr. Weerasinghe’s disclosure and a year after Wickremesinghe election by Parliament as the President to complete the balance portion of the ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.
Now that the Supreme Court has declared its verdict, the PSC is irrelevant. The PSC that has been rejected by the main Opposition SJB serves no purpose. The party leaders without delay should reach a consensus on the PSC, headed by SLPP General Secretary and Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam.
Perhaps, Prof. Charitha Herath, who has undertaken special assignment to produce a report on the economic ruination, should reconsider his project. The SC judgment must compel both the government and the Opposition to study the verdict.
SLPP lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa revealed how naïve he was when he recently declared that the Parliament is the best place to discuss the economic crisis and remedial measures. Had he listened to Dr. Weerasinghe’s declarations in Parliament in May and August last year, the former Sports Minister wouldn’t have said so. Lawmaker Rajapaksa should realize that having squandered previous opportunities to address the issues at hand, now the matter is certainly out of its hands. All political parties in Parliament should take the SC verdict seriously and appropriately address the issues raised therein.
The way forward
Let us hope all political parties represented in the current Parliament realize that they cannot overcome the crisis by political spin. The overall political environment is bleak. The continuing crisis in Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) has exposed all with accusations and counter accusations directed at the executive, legislature and the judiciary.
The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government’s response to Opposition backed Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe’s offensive against SLC has bared the fragility of even the parliamentary system. The SLC fiasco exposed all. Those who benefited from SLC ended with egg on their face. One thing is clear. The government hasn’t learnt from the catastrophic destruction suffered by the SLPP as a result of the SC judgment. The Supreme Court has given the public fresh hope that politicians and powerful officials aren’t immune to punitive actions. There is hope the SC judgment will strengthen the rule of law. Perhaps, the powerful attack on an utterly corrupt set up that destroyed the country may compel the executive, legislature and judiciary to take a fresh look at the situation on the ground.
The judgment underscored that no one is above the law. Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP, is on record as having said that those who had been faulted by the SC should be deprived of their civic rights. The former UNP State Minister is of the view that strongest possible measures should be taken against them all. The Anti-Corruption Movement affiliated to the SJB recently, in writing, requested President Ranil Wickremesinghe to suspend payment of pension, other facilities, security and vehicles to former Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The SJB also asked for suspension of pension to others named by the SC.
But, the breakaway UNP group SJB must be reminded that it owed an explanation regarding three matters namely (1) Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016 during the Yahapalana administration (2015-2019). Some of those MPs and several defeated candidates at the last parliamentary polls conducted in August 2020 actively supported bond racketeers. The two massive bond scams caused by that government is yet legally unresolved. For example, then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake who was termed by some overseas publication as the best such Minister, claimed, before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the first bond scam, he was not aware who paid for the costly penthouse he and his family occupied at the time in Colombo.
(2) Why as much as USD 12.5 bn were borrowed from the costly international bond market during the Yahapalana administration for inexplicable reasons without the country at the time either being in any financial crisis or undertaking any new major development projects.
(3) Finally what did the Yahapalana government intended to achieve by doing away with time-tested Exchange Control Act of 1953. The UNP and the SLFP voted for a new Foreign Exchange Act in 2017 that had been brazenly exploited by unscrupulous exporters and others. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and two of its experts on economic matters Dr. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremarathe remained conveniently silent on this issue. It would be pertinent to mention that the controversial Bill was presented in late July 2017 by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe though he didn’t vote. Parliament approved the new law with 94 votes whereas 18 voted against. Others skipped the vote. That decision alone has enabled flight of capital ever since and still not corrected. So no wonder unscrupulous exporters for instance have parked abroad billions of dollars that should have been brought back to the country. So the above could be termed as one of the root causes of the debt crisis that the country is yet trying to extricate itself out of.
‘The Cruelest Month’
By Lynn Ockersz
For the Isle’s Girl-Child,
October has emerged,
‘The Cruelest Month’,
For, dozens of them,
In ‘unwanted pregnancies’,
Have been trapped,
During the fateful month,
In the absence of mothers,
Slaving for dollars faraway,
Leaving open hearth and home,
To men riven with thwarted drives,
But even on this tragic front,
Relief cannot easily come,
For, maintenance case files,
Are rising in dusty mounds,
Within bodies lumbering under,
A delayed justice swollen cloud.
Justice Minister, NARA battle before SC: Case for National Hydrographic Bill to empower Navy
NARA has reiterated that the Justice Minister is at fault and accused him of basing his conclusions on wrong assumptions. It cited the much touted claim that USD 200 mn (Rs 60 bn) could be earned annually by selling ‘maps’ (Electronic Navigation Charts/Hydrographic maps) to 35,000 foreign vessels that passed through local waters. NARA pointed out that the total number of vessels couldn’t be countered as 35,000 as some vessels passed through Sri Lankan waters on more than one occasion in a given year. “They do not have to procure ENCs or hydrographic maps each time either. These maps can be obtained for a valid period of three, six or nine months or one year,” a senior NARA spokesperson told The Island.
The official pointed out that the ill-fated container carrier X-Press Pearl that visited Colombo in January and March 2021 and was destroyed during its third voyage in May/June 2021 as a result of a fire as an example. NARA declared that the total amount of annual revenue that can be earned by selling ENCs and hydrographic maps is very much less than the Minister’s calculations, based on seriously flawed information.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, recently lashed out at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) over its opposition to the proposed enactment of the National Hydrographic Bill.
Making a special statement in Parliament, the former President of the Bar Association questioned the apex national institute vested with the responsibility of carrying out and coordinating research, development and management activities of aquatic resources in the country regarding its bid to thwart the new Bill.
Dr. Rajapakshe was responding on Nov 08, 2023 to NARA statement issued at a media briefing held at its head office at Crow Island, Mattakkuliya, the previous day (NARA hits back at Justice Minister, alleges Navy making bid to take over its functions, The Island, Nov 08, 2023)
Displaying a copy of The Island, the outspoken politician didn’t mince his words when he questioned the motive of NARA Scientists’ Association President Upul Liyanage, its Joint Secretary Nilupa Samarakoon and D.V.S. P. Bandara, of its Technology Transfer Division, who alleged attempts were being made by interested parties to establish another setup similar to NARA at the expense of an institution that served the country for well over two decades. Bandara is the President of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS, NARA). The JSS has sought UNP leader President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s immediate intervention in late January this year as it realized the move to enact a new law. Nevertheless, the Cabinet, at a meeting headed by the President, has given approval to the Justice Minister to go ahead.
NARA has since declared that it has moved the Supreme Court against the Bill. The institution expressed confidence that the country’s apex court would do justice to their petition. Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapakse on Nov 07, 2023 announced in Parliament that Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena has received copies of three petitions filed in terms of the article 121(1) of the Constitution against the proposed National Hydrographic Bill.
Minister Rajapakshe raised the contentious issue of NARA employees pursuing an agenda beneficial to them regardless of consequences, especially to the country. Rajapakshe launched a no holds barred attack on NARA, an institution coming under the purview of Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananada, who still remains silent on the developments. Perhaps, he should state his position in Parliament. The Justice Minister emphasized that NARA, established by Parliament Act No 54 of 1981 and amended in 1996, had failed to achieve its primary objective, hence the urgent need to enact a new law.
Responding to NARA spokespersons, Minister Rajapakshe explained to the House how the proposed Bill, if enacted, could help Sri Lanka to stabilize the national economy. The Minister reiterated his original accusations against NARA and reiterated assertions pertaining to the losses suffered under the current dispensation and projected profits through the proposed Bill made at a media briefing held at his Ministry on Oct 31, 2023 (Justice Minister alleges NATA causes massive revenue losses, opposes remedial measures, The Island, Nov 1, 2023)
At the media briefing, as well as in Parliament, the Justice Minister emphasized that if the Navy is constitutionally granted an opportunity to prepare Electronic Navigation Charts (ENC) and Nautical Charts required by foreign vessels passing through Sri Lankan territorial waters, the bankrupt country could benefit immensely. The Minister estimated that as much as USD 200 mn (over Rs 60 bn) could be earned annually whereas at the moment only those who worked for NARA and their external benefactor made money – an extremely serious accusation that should be examined independently without delay. Dr. Rajapakshe asserted that NARA couldn’t be run for the benefit of its employees at the expense of the country’s national interest and economy.
In fact, Parliament should intervene in this matter especially against the backdrop of its pathetic failure to ensure transparency and accountability in the public sector and turning a blind eye to private sector corruption that finally compelled the government to admit bankruptcy. The recent suspension of the USD 2.9 bn bailout package primarily over Sri Lanka’s failure to meet revenue targets again highlighted the failure on the part of Parliament to meet its mandatory obligations.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in March 2023 approved a 48-month, USD 2.9 billion extended arrangement under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) to support Sri Lanka’s economic policies and reforms.
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State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon in May, 2023 declared that the Navy would undertake the task of providing ENCs and Nautical Charts – an assignment that would strengthen the national economy. The Matale District lawmaker declared that an annual revenue of USD 200 mn could be achieved. The Minister discussed this issue on the state-run Independent Television Network (ITN) after the Cabinet-of-Ministers received the draft National Hydrographic Bill. Since then, the Cabinet has approved the Bill, now hotly contested by NARA.
Obviously Justice Minister Rajapakshe and State Defence Minister Tennakoon are on the same page as regards the high profile project. Minister Tennakoon, in his interview with ITN declared that the Navy would be entrusted with the daunting task to be completed within two years.
Both ministers are confident that the Navy can undertake the challenge. Minister Rajapakshe pointed out that the Navy, with 37 qualified personnel, could carry out the project. NARA has questioned the Navy’s competency in this regard. The Institute insists that under the current arrangement where it provided data to UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) and which in turn sold the ENCs/Hydrographic maps, should continue.
The accusations and counter allegations and the move to enact the National Hydrographic Act should be examined taking into consideration an agreement between NARA and UKHO affiliated to the Defence Ministry there. The issues at hand seem quite complicated, and therefore need to be dealt with carefully.
Unfortunately, in a situation the country is trapped in political, economic and social chaos, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government seems incapable of addressing multiple crises. The Opposition, too, seems to be in a flux unable to cope up with rapid developments taking place. The Opposition is yet to pay attention to the continuing controversy over the alleged Navy bid to take over NARA’s functions.
Actually, the UKHO is the marine agency of the British Defence Ministry and plays a vital part in their overall strategy. On Oct. 11, 2019 during the last presidential polls campaign NARA entered into two bilateral agreements with UKHO for the production and distribution of Nautical Charts and Electronic Navigational Charts. The then NARA Chairman Eng. E.A.S.K. Edirishinghe and CEO of UKHO Rear Admiral Tim Lowe signed the agreements.
They first entered into an agreement in 2002. Dr. Rajapakshe should ask Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, whether NARA obtained the AG’s Department consent to sign the first agreement in 2002 and then the expanded pact in late 2019.
Professor M.J.S. Wijeyaratne succeeded Eng. Edirisinghe as NARA Chairman in early February 2022. Rear Admiral Tim Lowe was compelled to step down as the boss of the UK Defence Ministry marine agency in Sept. 2020 after the government found fault with him for exposing his Union Jack-emblazoned boxer shorts at the end of a work video call.
The British media reported how the decorated officer, who received CBE in 2017, stood up at the end of an online meeting with his colleagues to reveal his underwear. Lowe received the appointment in 2019, the year he visited Colombo to sign two bilateral agreements.
Rear Admiral Lowe was succeeded by Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes as the new Chief Executive and Accounting Officer.
The UK has sought to strengthen its bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka in the field of hydrography. After the change of government in July last year as a result of the elected president being forced to flee the country by violent protests, Rear Admiral Rhett Hatcher, the National Hydrographer and Deputy Chief Executive of UKHO and Tim Lewis the Head of partnering and engagement Middle East and Africa visited Colombo in the second week of Nov 2022. They met Rear Admiral Prasad Kariyapperuma, the joint Chief Hydrographer to the Government of Sri Lanka and Chief Hydrographer of the Sri Lanka Navy at Sri Lanka Navy Hydrographic Service. Colonel Paul Clayton, Defence Advisor to the British High commission was present on the occasion.
NARA seems to be on a collision course with the Navy though they work together. The establishment of the Naval Wing of National Hydrographic Office at NARA premises in early August 2017 was meant to enhance cooperation. Inquiries made by The Island in general as well as at the NARA media briefing revealed that the civil institute resented the Navy though its only research vessel RV Samudrika is now operated by the Navy. In addition to the agreement on RV Samudrika signed in 2019, NARA’s relations with the Navy is governed by an agreement they finalized in 2016.
These agreements have enabled NARA to provide data required by UKHO. As the only ‘authority’ here recognized by UKHO, NARA is able to furnish the required data. NARA received 12 percent of the sales done by the UKHO but following the Navy involvement in the project, revenue recorded a significant increase. Although NARA’s percentage increased to 17 percent, Minister Rajapakshe is of the view that the country should make a determined effort to significantly increase its share.
There cannot be any difficulty in NARA having a cordial relationship with the Navy and cooperating fully with the government’s efforts to streamline operations, especially against the backdrop of agreements with the British Defence Ministry outfit.
It would be the responsibility of the government to bring all local stakeholders to the negotiating table and thrash out all issues at hand. The powers that be should examine the circumstances leading to NARA moving the Supreme Court against a decision taken by the government. It would be a grave mistake on the part of those in authority to allow an issue that should be rationally discussed at the Cabinet level to end up in the apex court.
The government must also take into consideration that the British marine agency is directly affiliated to its Defence Ministry and headed by a senior officer holding the rank of Rear Admiral.
In the absence of a proper dialogue among those involved in the continuing controversy, The Island inquired into the circumstances a Multi-beam echo sounder (MBES), an advanced sonar that is used to map the seabed was discarded under controversial circumstances. Towards the end of the NARA media briefing, the institute stressed that the only MBES available to the country was damaged when the RV Sayuri mounted with this equipment was caught up in the Dec 2004 tsunami. NARA declared that its efforts to repair the MBES hadn’t been successful.
However, some claimed that the MBES had been mounted on RV Samudrika, now operated by the Navy. On a request made by NARA, the expensive equipment had been removed and the allegation is that it hadn’t been used at all and subsequently discarded. The government should establish what really happened to MBES and set the record straight.
Sri Lanka acquired the 25-metre long and six-metre wide RV Samudrika during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. The vessel was built in Taiwan.
The Navy Hydrographic Service in Feb 2019 declared that RV Samudrika is equipped with state-of-the-art survey equipment and technology including, MBES, Single Beam Echo Sounder systems, Sub-bottom Profiler, Side Scan Sonar, ADCP systems, DGPS system, etc. which could cater for hydrographic surveys, oceanographic surveys and scientific researches. If MBES that had been received from Germany as a grant was discarded following the Dec 2004 tsunami, there couldn’t have been similar equipment onboard RV Samudrika.
NARA has expressed fears that the proposed new law is meant to pave the way for an expanded role for India in the Ocean surveys in Sri Lankan waters. The government must act swiftly to discuss the entire gamut of issues with concerned parties here to prevent further deterioration of relations between NARA and the Navy. Of course, the overall Indian strategy pertaining to bankrupt Sri Lanka and ‘interventions’ should be examined against the backdrop of (1) Indo-Lanka bilateral engagement (2) India being a member of US-led ‘Quad’ which includes Australia and Japan (3) Sri Lanka’s growing dependence on India for financial/material support and critical assistance provided to the military and (4) the Chinese factor.
Let me remind the readers of the launch of joint hydrographic surveys by Indian and the US Navies during the Yahapalana administration (March 29, 2017 to May 12, 2017).
The Indian Navy Hydrographic Department spearheaded the survey from Colombo to Sangamankanda. This was during the then Vice Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne’s tenure as the Commander of the Navy. Indian Naval Survey Ship INS Dharshak carried out the surveying of ‘Colombo to Sangamankanda’ and ‘Weligama Bay’ within six weeks. The surveyed area covered approximately 41,600 square kilometres (12,150 square nautical miles).
The second phase of the survey was conducted (Oct 26– Dec 19, 2017) from Colombo to Galle. This was meant to identify changes in the wake of the Dec 2004 tsunami. The third phase was conducted in 2018 covering the area between Great Basses lighthouse off Yala and Sangamankanda.
In early February 2020 the Indian Navy Hydrographic Survey Ship, INS Jamuna (J 16) was deployed off the Southwest coast. The Navy had the opportunity to participate in the survey. And for the first time a helicopter was used in support of the survey. The vessel’s helicopter was utilized during the survey – the second Indian deployment here. Sandhayak-class INS Jamuna was here for a period of two months.
In the wake of the X-Press Pearl disaster off the Colombo port in May-June 2021, Sri Lanka sought immediate Indian intervention to survey three areas off Colombo in the vicinity of the ill-fated vessel. Sri Lanka lacked the capacity to undertake such an operation. NARA’s only research vessel simply couldn’t have undertaken such an operation. The Navy and NARA also participated in this effort conducted in late June 2021in line with India’s supposed vision of Safety and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).
The X-Press Pearl disaster is the single worst incident of plastic marine pollution in the world. The ship caught fire off Colombo on May 20, 2021 and sank, leaking its cargo that contained 25 metric tons of nitric acid and some 50 billion plastic pellets.
India has declared that its swift intervention has showcased India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. The Indian High Commission, in a statement dated July 2, 2021 explained the operation undertaken by INS Sarvekshak. “The vessel progressed 807 miles of Side Scan Sonar survey utilizing integral sensors and two survey boats in adverse weather conditions, which could have otherwise been delayed to post monsoon in October due to rough seas. The ship’s team worked overnight to process gigabytes of data collected during the day, to meet the timelines. Post the survey, the ship identified 54 underwater debris and also one ship-wreck. The survey data would be invaluable in issuing advisories to mariners and fishermen which would later assist in the removal of debris by the Salvior to achieve safety of navigation.”
The government, without further delay, should address this issue. Let us hope no one plays politics with such a nationally important issue and a firm decision is made taking into consideration all factors. The bankrupt government cannot delay taking prompt action on revenue generation measures.
Sri Lanka Cricket is not the only issue at hand. Unfortunately, the handling of high profile SLC issues exposed the government badly that its interests weren’t definitely those dear to the public.
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