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Midweek Review

US exposes Lanka over Zuberi, Wickramasuriya affairs

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Jaliya Wickramasuriya with President George W. Bush in July 2008

The ongoing protest campaign in the wake of eruption of violence at Mirihana underlines the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to address issues – economic and political at hand. Successive governments have encouraged waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanaged the national economy. The bottom line is the current balance of payments crisis, the cumulative effect of mismanagement and corruption at every level over the years and exacerbated by two colossal blunders — the doing away with key taxes at the beginning of President Rajapaksa’s term, which deprived government coffers several hundred billion rupees per year and the abrupt decision by him to halt chemical fertiliser imports. But the culpability for the situation must be borne by the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. There is more than a grain of truth in what big mouth Ranjan has been saying. Then of course there was a worldwide calamity in the form of the pandemic and some foolish measures taken not only here but worldwide like turning to the printing press for easy cash is now haunting almost the entire world.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Political appointee Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya, 61, of Arlington, Virginia, served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States and Mexico from July 2008 to May 2014. Wickramasuriya, on April fool’s Day, 2022, pleaded guilty to diverting and attempting to embezzle $332,027.35 from his employer, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The attempt had been made when the GoSL acquired a new embassy building in Washington D.C. in 2013.

Having repeatedly denied his involvement, in spite of returning the stolen money, Wickramasuriya, a cousin of the ruling Rajapkasas, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court in Washington DC (District of Columbia) to a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The charge carries a statutory maximum sentence of five years in prison and potential financial penalties.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan is scheduled to sentence Wickramasuriya on July 20, 2022.

Wartime Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama didn’t mince his words when he declared Wickramasuriya’s conduct as nothing but a disgrace, though the then Minister’s conduct, while in office, was anything but stellar, especially when it came to matters relating to his family, personal and political life. Bogollagama, who handled the matters relating to the war effort well, said that Wickramasuriya caused irreparable damage to the Foreign Service and humiliated the country.

Interesting, Bogollagama, who succeeded Mangala Samaraweera following a dispute that led to the Matara MP’s sacking, had been the Minister in charge of foreign affairs at the time the US-based Wickramasuriya received the ambassadorial post at the behest of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Wickramasuriya succeeded top career diplomat Bernard Goonatilleke in Washington.

The Parliamentary High Post Committee (PHPC), chaired by the Speaker, cleared Wickramasuriya’s appointment pronto. In fact, PHPC over the years cleared almost all appointments recommended by successive governments. At the time Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2005, the US-based Wickramasuriya had been engaged in the tea export business and was first appointed the Consul General in Los Angeles, California.

Bogollagama lost at the April 2010 parliamentary election. Prof. G.L.Peiris took over the Foreign Ministry as External Affairs Minister but no change was made in Washington for obvious reasons. The then Monitoring MP of the Foreign Ministry Sajin Vass Gunawardena wielded immense power over the ministry. That was the time R. Duminda Silva functioned as the Monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry. In the absence of proper supervision at all levels, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The fraud perpetrated by the Ambassador while purchasing a new building for the Sri Lankan Embassy, in Washington, should be examined in that context.

The US compelled Sri Lanka to recall Wickramasuriya in July 2014 following investigations conducted by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about six months before Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election. Career FS officer Asela Weerakoon took over the mission, temporarily, before another FS senior Prasad Kariyawasam moved in. Before inquiring into the tax fraud further, it would be pertinent to discuss how Wickramasuriya held such a diplomatic appointment for seven years. Wickramasuriya was on a contract.

FS officers serve a particular mission for a period of three years whereas retired FS officers and political appointees receive contracts for two to three years. But, Wickramasuriya, having served as Consul General in Los Angeles, received the topmost diplomatic appointment and held it until the US exposed him.

The yahapalana administration waived the diplomatic immunity granted to Wickramasuriya.

The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, in a statement dated April 01, 2022, based on documents furnished to the court, declared from in or around late 2012 through November 2013, Wickramasuriya devised a scheme to defraud the GoSL during its 2013 purchase of a new Embassy building in Washington, D.C. by inflating the price of the real estate transaction by $332,027 and, at closing, diverted those funds from the government to two companies which had no role in the real estate transaction. After the January 2013 closing, Wickramasuriya directed these payments to the two companies. Later in the same year, Wickramasuriya redirected an equal amount of funds back to government accounts, leaving the Sri Lankan government with no loss.

From Wyoming Avenue to Whitehaven

Why did Wickramasuriya return the money? The man in Washington had no option but to do so after President Mahinda Rajapaksa raised the issue with him. Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa administration quite conveniently refrained from initiating action against him and Wickramasuriya was allowed to continue. Obviously, President Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t want his cousin penalised regardless of the grave offense committed while serving as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Washington.

Did Wickramasuriya make the move to shift the Sri Lankan mission based at Wyoming Avenue, N.W, Washington DC, 20008 to 3021 Whitehaven, St. N.W., Washington DC, 20008 with specific intention of stealing money. The decision to purchase the property was made in Oct 2012 by the GoSL and the funds transferred to the HSBC Bank account in Washington DC. The Ambassador and others involved in the conspiracy devised a plan to swindle the GoSL. Having finalised the agreement to procure the new building at a cost of USD 6.25mn, the Ambassador obtained USD 6.6 mn from the GoSL. Having paid the sellers real estate company and the buyers real estate company USD 187,500.00, each, Wickramasuriya directed the title company and the closing attorney to transfer USD 332,027.35 to Embassy consultant company A (USD 82,027.35) and Sri Lankan company incorporated in Sri Lanka (USD250,000). US investigations revealed that the Embassy consultant had been a lawyer and a close associate of Wickramasuriya. The lawyer has operated Embassy consultant company A and Embassy consultant company B and in spite of no involvement in the transaction received part of the funds provided for the acquisition of the new building.

The US court was told how several attempts were made by the Title Company to carry out instructions given by Wickramasuriya after the bid to wire USD 250,000 to the Sri Lankan company on January 17, 2013 failed as a result of an intermediary bank rejecting the move. Finally, USD 250,000 has been wired to the Sri Lankan company’s Sri Lankan bank account on March 20, 2013.

US investigators exposed the sordid embezzlement carried out by the then Sri Lanka’s top envoy in the US. Although Wickramasuriya paid back the entire sum by late October 2013, the US investigated the fraud and brought the judicial proceedings to a successful conclusion.

The Foreign Ministry owed an explanation regarding the Wickramasuriya episode. When The Island raised this issue with the Foreign Ministry recently, the writer was told that the case was pending in the Fort Magistrate court. Now dismantled Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) investigated Wickramasuriya’s case after he was arrested in Nov 2016 at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

The writer had been in touch with Wickramasuriya after he was granted bail and reported on the matter. Claims made by Wickramasuriya at the time have to be examined against the backdrop of him pleading guilty to the attempt to defraud the GoSL.

Those who served the Rajapaksa administration claimed that they were targeted for political reasons. Speaking to the writer from the US in April 2018, Wickramasuriya claimed that US authorities prevented him from leaving the US to appear in the case heard in the Fort Magistrate court.

Wickramasuriya said that he first realized restrictions placed on him when he tried to leave Atlanta for Chile late last year. “I got my boarding pass and was about to get in when Homeland Security personnel stopped me. They wanted to question me at the airport. I was taken to a room where they explained the reasons for my detention.”

Shavindra Fernando, PC, has represented Wickramasuriya, who was deprived of diplomatic immunity though he was assured of protection. Wickramasuriya said that he hadn’t been able to leave the US though he was ordered to appear in court over the alleged embezzlement of funds. The former diplomat quoted Homeland Security officers as having told him that the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) had wanted the Embassy transaction probed.

Commenting on his Nov 2016 arrest, Wickramasuriya said. “I was in Sri Lanka for two years. They never wanted to record my statement. Although I have travelled overseas about 10 times since returning from the US in May 2014, the police stopped him as he was leaving for the US in the early hours of Nov 17, 2016.”

Udayanga Weeratunga presenting his letter of credentials to Russian President Putin at the Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow

Inconsistency in GoSL reaction

Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) lawmaker Dr. Harsha de Silva pointed out the discrepancy in the US and GoSL response to the Wickramasuriya affair. The US action in respect of Wickramasuriya should be examined taking into consideration the dismissal of several dozens of cases filed against the Rajapaksas and their acolytes.

Referring to a group of lawyers mounting a protest at the Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam’s Office during the ongoing campaign demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down, Dr. de Silva said that a foreign court was able to carry out the judicial process to a successful conclusion. “How strange. All the high powered and connected crooks are found not guilty in local courts. We have a huge responsibility to do all we can to ensure the institutions are strengthened so that the corrupt are dealt without fear or favour.”

The Wickramasuriya affair has exposed the pathetic way overseas appointments are made at a time cash-strapped Sri Lanka is in the process of pruning diplomatic missions. Sri Lankan mission in Oslo is among those missions.

Successive governments have used diplomatic missions to accommodate those who served the interests of the powers that be. The incumbent dispensation is no exception. Although the appointment of non-career diplomats as heads of missions cannot be totally discontinued under any circumstances, no one can dispute the need for a balance. Over the years, diplomatic posts have been offered to various persons for a variety of reasons. There cannot be a worse example than misusing political authority in respect of diplomatic postings than former President Maithripala Sirisena offering an overseas posting to disgraced former IGP Pujith Jayasundara. Appearing before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed 2019 Easter Sunday massacres, Jayasundara claimed that the President offered him a diplomatic post if he accepted the responsibility for those multiple suicide attacks. Jayasundara also claimed that he received an assurance he would be cleared by an inquiry that was being conducted at that time.

Corruption accusations

Against the backdrop of one-time Sri Lankan head of mission found guilty by a foreign court and the verdict to be delivered on July 20, in spite of Sri Lanka’s failure to do so, the need for a fresh look at the high profile case of Imaad Shah Zuberi, a Los Angeles-based venture capitalist and political fundraiser receiving 144 months in federal prison for defrauding Sri Lanka. Zuberi was sentenced in Feb 2021.

A US court found him guilty for cheating the Sri Lankan government millions of dollars promising to rebuild the country’s image following the end of the war with the crushing victory over the LTTE. The court was told Zuberi received USD 6.5 mn in 2014 following discussions initiated during Wickramasuriya’s tenure as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington.

Zuberi operated Avenue Ventures LLC, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, and solicited foreign nationals and representatives of foreign governments with claims he could use his contacts in Washington, D.C. to change U.S. foreign policy and create business opportunities for his clients and himself.

US skullduggery

The US moved the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka in Oct 2015 after playing a significant role in the then Opposition campaign against President Mahinda Rajapaksa. No less a person than US Secretary of State John Kerry declared US funding for regime changing projects in four countries in 2014/2015, including Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The Justice Department said: “Zuberi promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses, and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of $8.5 million over the course of six months in 2014. Days after Sri Lanka made an initial payment of $3.5 mn, Zuberi transferred $1.6 million into his personal brokerage accounts and used another $1.5 million to purchase real estate.”

In total, Sri Lanka wired $6.5 million pursuant to the contract, and Zuberi used more than $5.65 million of that money to the benefit of himself and his wife. Zuberi paid less than $850,000 to lobbyists, public relations firms and law firms, and refused to pay certain subcontractors based on false claims that Sri Lanka had not provided sufficient funds to pay invoices.”

It has to be stated that the then government spent money on such foolish attempts to lobby Washington as the country was being hounded by the West for militarily crushing the LTTE, as their experts had been repeatedly telling us over the years our security forces were incapable of achieving such a task.

The Foreign Ministry here acknowledged that payments made to Zuberi had never been investigated at any level. The ongoing protest campaign demanding the government to quit also focused on corruption during the previous Rajapaksa administration. There is no point in denying waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement caused irreparable damage to the national economy.

Sri Lanka never investigated the Wickramasuriya affair and the role played by the Sri Lankan mission in Washington in hiring Zuberi, an American of Pakistani and Indian descent. A proper investigation would have probably revealed the involvement of certain politicians and officials there in the scam perpetrated by Zuberi.

The yahapalana administration never made a genuine attempt to investigate the Wickramasuriya affair though he was arrested. However, the then government facilitated the US investigation by waiving diplomatic immunity. But, the payments made to Zuberi via the Central Bank never received the attention of the yahapalana lot.

Once the writer raised this issue with Arjuna Mahendran, the then Governor of the Central Bank, a Singaporean national who fled the country in the wake of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Treasury Bond scams handing over its report to President Maithripala Sirisena in late Dec 2017. Mahendran didn’t indicate any interest. In fact, he did nothing.

Udayanga Weeratunga, a first cousin of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, received appointment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation. Weeratunga presented his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow, on Nov 16, 2006, a year after Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency. Weeratunga served in Moscow till Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the 2015 presidential election. Having enacted the dictatorial 18th Amendment to the Constitution at the onset of his second term, the war-winning President sought a third term but was defeated.

In January last year, SJB lawmaker Chaminda Wijesiri, raised concerns in Parliament regarding key diplomatic posts offered to those with political affiliations and to friends and relatives of political leaders. The MP questioned the manipulation of the whole process for the benefit of a few.

The then Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena denied MP Wijesiri’s accusations. The MEP leader who is also the Leader of the House claimed that appointments hadn’t been based on political relationships. The Foreign Ministry followed the recruitment procedure and the appointments made to the Foreign Service had to be approved by the PHPC headed by the Speaker of Parliament. Of course, both Wickramasuriya and Weeratunga had been out of Foreign Service by 2014. Whatever the accusations directed at Weeratunga, he should earn the respect of the public for helping Sri Lanka enhance its firepower with the acquisition of Ukrainian MiGs for the SLAF at the onset of the Eelam War IV. Weeratunga secured the contract for the acquisition of four MiGs and the overhaul of four other MiGs that had been in service with the Air Force. However, controversy surrounds the 2006 deals with those who never believed in Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE, causing media furore.



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Midweek Review

How Lanka ended up receiving humanitarian assistance from an Indian state

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UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and PM’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake join CWC leader Senthil Thondaman and FM Prof. G.L. Peiris at a brief ceremony at the Colombo harbour where Indian HC Baglay handed over humanitarian assistance from Tamil Nadu (pic courtesy Indian HC)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The May 09 ‘operation’, whose father is yet unknown, meant to save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership, has tarnished the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the police as well as the armed forces.

The controversial Temple Trees project not only caused irreparable damage to the ruling coalition, it paved the way for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to regain the premiership for the sixth time, incredibly with just one seat in the 225-member Parliament.

With Wickremesinghe at the helm of the government parliamentary group, the UNP has begun playing an active role in the administration, though the party didn’t have any members in Parliament, other than its leader. However, Wickremesinghe has brought a selected group of UNPers into the administration while causing a division in the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) by winning over two of its vociferous members, namely Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara.

Having repeatedly accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of direct complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, both received ministerial portfolios from the President. Wickremsinghe is in the process of consolidating his position.

There cannot be a better example to highlight Wickremesinghe’s strategy meant to resurrect his party than involving two former ministers Vajira Abeywardena, incumbent Chairman of the party, and Sagala Ratnayake, in the delegation that received urgently needed food assistance from India.

Sri Lanka delegation received the assistance, standing next to Tan Binh 99, the Panama registered general cargo ship, at the Colombo harbour.

The following is the text of the statement issued by Eldos Mathew Punnoose, Head – Press, Information and Development Cooperation, as regards the handing over of humanitarian assistance at the Colombo harbour: “High Commissioner Gopal Baglay handed over a large consignment of humanitarian assistance worth more than SLR 2 billion from the people of India to Foreign Minister Prof. G.L Peiris, in Colombo, on 22 May 2022. The handing over function was attended by Minister for Ports and Shipping, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayaka, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Senthil Thondaman, Leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Food Commissioner Mrs. J. Krishnamurthy, among senior officials, and others.

The consignment consists of 9,000 MT of rice, 50 MT of milk powder and more than 25 MT of drugs and other medical supplies. It was flagged off from Chennai port by Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Thiru M.K Stalin on 18 May 2022. This is also the first consignment under a larger USD 16 million commitment of 40,000 MT of rice, 500 MT of milk powder and medicines by the state Government of Tamil Nadu.

Handed over materials shall be distributed among vulnerable and needy sections in various parts of Sri Lanka including Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces by Government of Sri Lanka in the coming days.

More humanitarian consignments and other forms of assistance from India shall follow. Multi-pronged endeavour by both the Government and the people of India underlines the importance attached to Sri Lanka and reflects their concerns for the well-being of its people. Support extended to Sri Lanka ranges from economic assistance worth around USD 3.5 billion, supply of vaccines, testing kits, close to 1000 MT of liquid oxygen to combat COVID-19, immediate response by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to mitigate marine disasters, etc.”

Sri Lanka’s utterly irresponsible political leadership has achieved the unthinkable. The country has been reduced to such a pathetic state, it has ended up receiving food assistance from the state government of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka should be ashamed of having to receive food assistance from an Indian state, 13 years after having proudly defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) considered impossible by many a pundit and against the wishes of the haughty West. Can that be the root of the unprecedented problems? Perhaps one day the truth will unravel through the work of an outfit, like WikiLeaks, on how Hawala or Undial underground cash transfer systems so successfully dried up foreign exchange flows into the country, leaving it unable to find even a few million dollars to clear an urgently needed shipment of cooking gas or lifesaving drugs. However much the deep state is entrenched in Western democracies with the open help of their ‘independent’ media controlled by the military-industrial complex, there are still plenty of people with clear consciences who want to do justice to the world.

R.K. Radhakrishnan, writing to India’s national magazine Frontline described the Tamil Nadu gesture as ‘a province in a developing country extending its assistance to another country.’ That line is sufficient to comprehend Sri Lanka’s plight. In spite of initial disagreement between Tamil Nadu and the Central Government of India regarding the humanitarian assistance offered by TN Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, they reached consensus on the matter. Four days before the despicable Temple Trees project, borne out of frustration caused by the government’s inability to end the sieges at Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat by so- called peaceful protesters, triggered mayhem in Sri Lanka. They were anything but peaceful by the way they tried to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pengiriwatte, Mirihana, in late March.

Then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, struggling to save his premiership, wrote to CM Stalin: “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than a problem concerning another country.”

Six days later Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to quit the premiership. The war-winning President and his family were compelled to take refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command after having abandoned Temple Trees, Kollupitiya, the nerve centre of the disastrous May 09 project, fearing a fate similar to that which met Libya’s Gadhafi, where, too, the truth was turned on its head.

An elder brother’s lament

Chamal Rajapaksa, 80, possibly serving his last term as a lawmaker, recently faulted younger brother and twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa for continuing in politics even after completing two presidential terms. The elder Rajapaksa attributed the current crisis to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continuation in active politics. Chamal Rajapaksa said that politicians should be prepared to give up power. Otherwise, they have to be prepared to face situations like this if they were greedy for power. The one time Speaker was commenting on his brother’s dilemma in the wake of him losing the premiership. Chamal Rajapaksa said: “Ranil Wickremesinghe is very lucky. In 2015, Wickremesinghe was able to secure premiership in spite of not enjoying a parliamentary majority. Now, the UNP leader secured the premiership without another MP in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is lucky and the country too is fortunate that we have him to take up the mantle of leadership despite all his shortcomings of the past, when all other politicians are playing their petty tricks to grab power while the country was literally going up in flames.

But, can Chamal Rajapaksa absolve himself of his share of responsibility for the crisis that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave his brothers, Chamal and Basil as well as nephews, Namal and Shashendra, out of the Cabinet of Ministers. President Rajapaksa, himself is under pressure to do away with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that gave him dictatorial powers. The abolition of the 20th Amendment enacted in Oct 2020 is part of the overall agreement sought by some of those who accepted ministerial portfolios in the current dispensation. Both PM Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, will push hard for the abolition of the 20th Amendment.

Before commenting further on ongoing moves to introduce the 21st Amendment at the expense of the 20A, it would be pertinent to examine Chamal Rajapaksa’s role as the Speaker (April 22, 2010-June 26, 2015) especially against the backdrop of his criticism of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conduct. Chamal Rajapaksa, who has represented the Hambantota electoral district since 1989, continuously has declared that his brother Mahinda should have called it a day after completing two presidential terms (2005-2010 and 2010-2015).

Having said so, lawmaker Chamal Rajapaksa owed an explanation as regards his role in the enactment of the 18 A to the Constitution at the expense of the 19 A. During Chamal Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Speaker, the Parliament passed the controversial 18th Amendment Bill on Sept. 8, 2010, with 161 MPs voting for and 17 against the Bill. The following are some of its key points:

(a) The President can seek re-election any number of times (earlier it was limited to two;

(b) The ten-member Constitutional Council replaced with a five-member Parliamentary Council;

(c) Independent commissions are brought under the authority of the President; and,

(d) The 18th Amendment enabled the President to attend Parliament once in three months and entitles him to all the privileges, immunities and powers of an MP other than the entitlement to vote. In short, it is all about arming the President with absolute power.

The 18th Amendment was meant to empower Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chamal Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Speaker, oversaw the operation. The impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, and her removal by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013 should be examined against the backdrop of enactment of the 18th Amendment. Chamal Rajapaksa served as the Speaker at the time Justice Bandaranaike was removed. She was accused of several charges, including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she categorically denied. But her husband was found guilty by courts over his shady dealings.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa ensured the implementation of the then UPFA government’s strategy. Having served as a minister till April this year and played a critical role in the manipulation of Parliament, it wouldn’t be fair to find fault with Mahinda Rajapaksa solely for being power hungry.

Chamal Rajapaksa also made reference to Wickremesinghe receiving the premiership in 2015 following the presidential election, in spite of not having at least a simple majority in Parliament. Chamal Rajapaksa appeared to have conveniently forgotten that he continued as the Speaker even after Wickremesinghe was appointed PM after having unceremoniously discarded the late D.M. Jayaratne. The UPFA leadership didn’t even bother to ask Jayaratne before reaching consensus with President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Wickremesinghe over the premiership following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election held ahead of schedule on the advice of an astrologer. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 in connivance with then Premier Wickremesinghe-led government.

The UNP-led government also betrayed the war-winning Sri Lanka military at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Chamal Rajapaksa absolutely had no issue in continuing as the Speaker until June 26, 2015 when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament to save the UNP. The dissolution of the House was meant to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) from submitting its report on the first Treasury bond scam to the House. Now again Chamal Rajapaksa has accepted Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier. Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Wickremesinghe in late Oct 2018 and then offered him the premiership back within two months following judicial intervention and the primary beneficiary of Oct 2018 constitutional coup Mahinda Rajapaksa, are also in the same parliamentary group now headed by Wickremesinghe.

Proposed transfer of executive powers

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is pushing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The BASL wants Premier Wickremesinghe to demonstrate as early as possible his ability to establish a consensus among the political parties in Parliament and endeavour to build a representative Government of National Unity to implement a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) in the public interest.

The BASL insists on a clear timeline to introduce critical constitutional amendments proposed by the outfit, including the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) is concerned about the BASL’s strategy. The nationalist outfit believes the SJB and the BASL are working on a similar agenda to do away with the Executive Presidency without changing the current electoral system or repealing the 13th Amendment.

If the ongoing joint high profile project to introduce 21 A to the Constitution succeeds, the UNP leader will receive powers at the expense of the Executive Presidency. Having received an overwhelming mandate at the last presidential election in Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands to lose executive powers to Wickremesinghe who accepted the challenging task of rebuilding the devastated national economy.

Those who launched the ‘Gogotahome’ campaign remained skeptical about the SLPP’s commitment to introduce the 21 A. They believe the architects of the 20 A would do whatever possible to sabotage efforts to do away with the executive presidency. They believe the SLPP founder Basil Rajapkasa, who still wields power over the party apparatus reeling under accusations pertaining to unprovoked attacks on the public demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

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Midweek Review

Flowers in Bloom

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By Lynn Ockersz

Though made somewhat anxious,

By the numberless crises in the Isle,

That have brought their elders down,

The youngsters clad in speckless white,

And heading for a make-or-break exam,

Are the only resplendent flowers,

In an otherwise benighted land,

But their Social Science Paper,

Is bound to give them some laughs,

For, though patriots, they are told,

Fought the good fight decades ago,

And rid the land of enslaving shackles,

All whom they have as current leaders,

Are fickle creatures of malleable material,

For whom pelf and power are all that matter.

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Midweek Review

Ranil takes premiership amidst BASL bid for all party-consensus

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A smiling Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe reacts to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after receiving the premiership. Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the President looks on. Mrs Maithri Wickremesinghe was present at the brief ceremony at the President’s House, Fort last Thursday evening (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Supreme Court Justice Rohini Marasinghe, in her current capacity as the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), directed the police to provide adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister while protecting the freedom of speech and assembly through necessary and proportionate measures.

Justice Marasinghe, who received the appointment in Dec, last year, would never have believed she would be compelled to issue such a statement.

The HRCSL statement, issued on April 26, 2022, over a month after the eruption of violent protests at the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at Pengiriwatta, Mirihana, that lasted for several hours, didn’t name the President and the Prime Minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa quit Temple Trees on May 10, less than 24 hours after he announced his resignation, in the wake of unprovoked violence directed at those demanding the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister and the so-called peaceful protesters who lay siege to his official residence Temple Trees virtually making, him a prisoner therein.

The first protest, targeting President Rajapaksa, was held at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, 2022. What began as a peaceful protest in the vicinity, quickly turned violent after the crowds made attempts to advance towards the President’s private home. The deployment of the Army, in support of the beleaguered police, failed to bring the situation under control.

Protesters set ablaze several vehicles, including two buses that brought Police and Army reinforcements to the scene of the unprecedented confrontation. Therefore, it would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances, Justice Marasinghe called for sufficient protection for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, over two weeks after the launch of the protest campaign, in front of the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, 2022.

Perhaps, the HRCSL should have also advised the Army, as well as the Special Task Force (STF), regarding adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister. The Army and the STF play an integral role in the protection of key leaders. The HRCSL cannot be unaware of the involvement of the Army and the STF in the protection of the President and the Prime Minister.

Justice Marasinghe called for ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ to meet the threat on the two leaders as those who had been demanding their resignation stepped up the campaign.

The HRCSL consists of five Commissioners, namely Justice Rohini Marasinghe (Chairperson), Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara and Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan. The President constituted the HRCSL in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Dec. 2020. Justice Marasinghe and Ven. Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera were brought in Dec. 2021 in the wake of the resignation of HRCSL Chairman Jagath Balasuriya and NGO, guru Harsha Kumara Navaratne taking up the post of Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Canada.

Did HRCSL make an assessment before Justice Marasinghe issued instructions to the police? The HRCSL intervened in the wake of the erection of a new protest site, opposite Temple Trees, as the government struggled to cope up with an unprecedented political-economic-social crisis that brought the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to its knees.

The writer, over the last weekend, sought a clarification from Justice Marasinghe. The HRCSL Chief said that instructions were issued as access to the residences of the President and the Prime Minister had been blocked. The HRCSL was also informed of possible threats to their lives, Justice Marasinghe said, adding that the issue at hand should be examined on the basis of equal protection of the law.

In spite of HRCSL’s instructions, the police, and at least an influential section of the SLPP government, appeared to have been caught napping. Was it due to the fear of the wrath of the HRCSL or they being under the so-called international community spotlight? In fact, the law enforcement authorities had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the situation to such an extent that mobs took control of roads. Had the police top brass realized the gravity of the situation, in the first week of May, they would have definitely advised the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa not to summon several hundreds of his supporters to Temple Trees. The failure on the part of the police to advise the ousted Premier was nothing but a monumental blunder.

In fact, the police appeared to have been part of a political project meant to dismantle those who had been protesting against the government, while laying siege to both Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat. The operation was meant to regain control. Therefore, a primary objective was to silence those who had been asking Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, has been of that view, in the wake of about one-third of the SLPP parliamentary group demanding Premier Rajapaksa’s resignation to pave the way for an all-party interim administration.

PM, family take refuge in SLN base

Just two weeks after HRCSL asked the police to ensure protection of the President and the Prime Minister through ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ the latter had to move out of Temple Trees, under heavy security escort. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to authorize the deployment of SLAF assets to evacuate the ex-Prime Minister and some members of the family. They took refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command premises, Trincomalee.

By then, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, the ousted PM’s second son and Chief of Staff and his wife, Nitheesha Jayasekera, had left the country. Interestingly, Yoshitha left for Singapore at 12.50 am on May 09 on Singapore Airlines flight SQ 469 several hours before SLPP activists started arriving at Temple Trees.

Yoshitha Rajapaksa couldn’t have been unaware of the meticulous plans underway to bring in hundreds of supporters from all parts of the country to Temple Trees where the Prime Minister was to address them. Those who believed Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was to announce his resignation were proved wrong. Instead, lawmaker Johnston Fernando and the then Premier Rajapaksa created an environment conducive for an ‘operation’ to evict those who had been protesting against the Prime Minister and the President. The operation boomeranged. The end result was the Prime Minister having to take refuge in the Trincomalee Navy base.

Two days later, the Fort Magistrate’s Court issued a travel ban on Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa and 16 others. They are Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon. The Senior DIG had been present at the time, SLPP goons broke through the police line, near the Galle Face hotel, to demolish the Galle Face protest camp.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded during the violence on the fateful Monday or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

President of the Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association Lakshman Perera told the writer that the Attorney General‘s Department moved the Fort Magistrate’s court amidst preparations made by his outfit to move the court. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Perera underscored the pivotal importance of ensuring the safety and security of all, regardless of whatever the accusations directed at them.

For how long would the ex-Premier have to live under the protection of the Navy? In response to media queries, Defence Secretary retired General Kamal Gunaratne told a hastily arranged press conference, at the Battaramulla Defence Complex, that as a former head of State Mahinda Rajapaksa was entitled to required security. When would the ex-PM be able to move freely as protests demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation continue amidst traffic disruptions on main roads, especially over shortage of cooking gas? The situation remains extremely dicey.

Politically-motivated mobs destroyed many properties belonging to the Rajapaksa family. Mobs set ablaze the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home at Medamulana, Hambantota, and did not even spare the memorial built for their parents also at Medamulana, while the former Premier’s home in Kurunegala, too, was destroyed.

Properties belonging to elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa and his son, Shashendra were also destroyed.

Gangs set fire to Green Ecolodge, situated very close to the Sinharaja rain forest. The hotel, situated close to the UNESCO heritage site, is widely believed to be owned by Yoshitha Rajapaksa, who recently warned JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake of legal action against the accusations made in respect of Green Ecolodge. But the JVP instead of backing their accusations regarding that prized eco-property (torched by the politically-motivated mobs early last week) with facts, issued a veiled threat to expose Yoshitha on some other issues if he dared to go to courts. Comrade Nalinda Jayatissa told the media that they would raise his fake qualifications, how he managed to enter the famed British naval college Dartmouth, etc., if he ventured to challenge them in court.

Well organized mobs also looted and set fire to properties of over 50 MPs, mainly of the government, across the country. They and their families were left with only the clothes on their backs.

Politicos under threat

The government should do everything possible to prosecute those responsible for incidents of violence, regardless of their status. Destruction of lawmakers’ properties should be denounced and punitive action taken against all those responsible. Who would take the responsibility for killing SLPP Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa? The slain MP was on his way home, after attending the Temple Trees meet earlier in the day. Did Atukorale open fire on those who blocked his path? Did his police bodyguard, too, open fire? The post-mortem revealed the MP had been lynched and contrary to initial reports there were no gunshot injuries. The post mortem also set the record straight that the MP didn’t commit suicide with his own weapon as initially claimed by interested parties over the social and mainstream media. Having allowed SLPP goons to go on the rampage, the police pathetically failed to intervene when the public retaliated. Politically-motivated groups obviously took advantage of the situation. At an early stage of the ongoing protest campaign, German Ambassador in Colombo Holger Seubert tweeted: “I’m impressed with how peaceful the proud people of Sri Lanka are exercising their right to freedom of expression. It reminds me of German unification back in 1989 when we experienced how powerful peaceful protests can be. Wishing all parties involved the strength to remain peaceful.”

During the second JVP inspired-insurgency, the then JRJ government issued firearms to members of Parliament. Some lawmakers formed their own death squads. The government accepted extra-judicial killings as part of the overall defence against the JVP/DJV violence perpetrated against the UNP and those connected with that party.

Members of the SLPP raised security issues at a meeting they had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House last Saturday (14). The government shouldn’t expect normalisation of the situation until tangible measures are taken to stabilize the national economy. Lawmakers wouldn’t be safe as long queues for diesel, petrol and cooking gas exist with the vast majority of the electorate struggling to make ends meet. The government should be mindful of interventions made by foreign powers and other external and internal players hell-bent on exploiting the situation to their advantage.

Recent demonstrations near the Parliament compelled the police to close several roads for traffic on May 05 and 06. The police closed the section from Diyatha Uyana junction (Polduwa junction) to Jayanthipura junction and from Jayanthipura junction to the Denzil Kobbekaduwa road to deter mass invasions by well organised demonstrators. The police asserted that closure of the roads were necessary, in spite of the inconvenience caused to the public, to prevent hindrance to lawmakers entering and leaving the parliamentary complex.

The police closed down the same sections of the roads yesterday (17) to facilitate parliamentary proceedings. Trade unions combine and the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) have vowed to lay siege to the Parliament. The warning that had been made several days before the May 09 mayhem should be reviewed. The trade union grouping and the IUSF affiliated to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the breakaway JVP faction, should be mindful of the crises the country is experiencing.

A tragedy

War-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa having to take refuge in the Trincomalee SLN base is a tragedy. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave resolute political leadership to Sri Lanka’s war effort at a time the vast majority of lawmakers felt the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. Therefore, many accepted peace at any cost. They were prepared even to give up Sri Lanka’s unitary status in a bid to reach a consensus with separatist Tamil terrorists mollycoddled by Western powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa had the strength and political acumen to take on the LTTE. The country should never forget how President Rajapaksa, in spite of strong objections from the military, flew into Kebitigollewa on June 15, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of a claymore mine attack on a passenger bus. The blast killed over 60 men, women and children. Having visited the survivors, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave an assurance that the terrorism would be eradicated. The promise was made two months before the LTTE resumed large-scale offensive action in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful end in May 2009. But, the President, who restored peace, has ended up virtually running for his life and had to seek refuge in a military installation for the time being as post-war policies and strategies take their toll with interested parties taking advantage of the tragedy facing the country.

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