In an opinion piece we run today, Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda, an accomplished scientist who had served the Tea Research Institute in a senior capacity and had also been the Director of the Coconut Research Institute and later Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Rome, has asked the question “What Next?” This relates to the Easter bombs that massacred 279 people in Catholic churches and high-end hotels about two years ago, permanently disabled many and injured many more. These suicide attacks occurred despite credible intelligence that was either ignored or not accorded deserved priority. The conventional wisdom is that these blatant acts of terrorism that attracted worldwide attention could have been avoided if only the available information was acted upon by those responsible for national security and loudly trumpeted allegiance to “good governance.”
Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected in November 2019 and the government headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that came into office a few months later campaigned on platforms largely focusing on the Easter terror and the failures of their predecessors to avert the massacre. At the time of the last presidential election, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCOI), appointed by then President Maithripala Sirisena in September 2019, was already at work probing these terrorist attacks. Its final report following two interim reports in December 2019 and March 2020 was presented to the president on Feb. 1. But for reasons that have not been properly disclosed these reports were not published or made available even to Parliament despite a great deal of pressure that was applied. Such non-disclosure naturally triggered public suspicion that something was being hidden.
The reports were said to contain “sensitive material,” presumably relating to national security that could not be disclosed. Eventually one volume containing conclusions and recommendations was presented to Parliament but with no summary of evidence. The Attorney General is being asked to prosecute those found culpable but without all the recorded evidence at his disposal. “How can he do so?” is a fair question. He has called for such information and on Friday his office confirmed that the remaining 22 volumes had been made available to him following a request he made to the Secretary to the President after he was given only one volume. The whole business is shrouded in secrecy and there has been no clear indication or explanation on why this is so. The report, or parts of which have been tabled, was debated in Parliament last week. The main criticism made in the legislature as well as in the wider public domain is that the mastermind behind one of the worst acts of terrorism the world has recently seen has not been identified.
Whether the evidence that was presented to the PCOI headed by a judge of the Court of Appeal, assisted by another Appeal Court judge, a retired Court of Appeal judge, a retired High Court judge and a former secretary to the Ministry of Justice was insufficient to reach that conclusion though not known is likely. Many believe that if Zaharan Hashim of the National Thowfeek Jamaath was the mastermind, he would not have killed himself in the first wave of attacks. This theory has been widely propounded but whether the commission agreed with it or not is not clear. During the months when the PCOI sat, most of it in public but with evidence led in camera at the request of witnesses or at the commission’s own discretion, what emerged clearly was that there were serious lapses within the state intelligence agencies and the tendency of its senior officers to indulge in finger-pointing to cover their own backs. Even cursory readers of news reports of the commission’s proceeding reached that conclusion.
The former president has flatly denied that he ever received intelligence warnings but the commission has concluded that the “balance of probability” is that he had been provided intelligence reports. The head of national intelligence has been found to have “diluted” Indian intelligence. The PCOI has recommended that the Attorney General “considers” instituting criminal proceedings against the former president who was only briefly present during the parliamentary debate last week but did not participate in it. Naturally the opposition stated that “it would have been good” if he was there (presumably for a longer time). But Sirisena has not demonstrated in his long political career, capped by the presidency he won under fortuitous circumstances as a common opposition candidate, that he had the mettle to confront the kind of situation he would have faced.
A great deal of public money has been spent in this effort to get to the bottom of a crime that has deeply scarred this nation. But whether that objective had been achieved, judging by what the people know so far from sections of the PCOI report that have emerged in the public domain, is not known. Most people believe that the total picture has not been revealed by what was obviously a painstaking inquiry. The commission report, although not all embracing, cannot be considered a total failure. Like the proverbial curate’s egg, it must be good and bad in parts. However that be, there must be much in it that would be useful to rectify existing deficiencies and keeping public figures, be they political or official, on their toes.
But whether the primary object of what has been attempted has been achieved can only be seen if the labours of the commissioners have resulted in the unearthing enough material to bring the perpetrators of the Easter horror to justice. Given that the successful prosecution rate in this country is woefully small, that seems improbable if not impossible. So we go back to the beginning of asking “What next?”
Honorable MP in the Customs net
Whether they will admit it or not, politicians in the country are well aware that they are not top of the pops where public opinion is concerned. Few people rate politicians positively although there are many exceptions. Last week’s gold and smartphone smuggling detection at the Bandaranaike International Airport served to aggravate this assessment. Puttalam District MP Ali Sabri Raheem arriving from Dubai was detected, on a tip off, by customs and found carrying contraband worth Rs. 75 million.
Telephones hummed and he was able to reach the highest in the land who reportedly promised to “go into the matter.” Thankfully, he got no respite, the contraband was confiscated and he was slapped with a fine of Rs. 7.4 million which was quickly paid. Raheem was free within hours and was able to be present in Parliament to vote against the government motion to sack Janaka Ratnayake, the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL).
He went over national television to plead his innocence blaming an unnamed golaya for the crime. This worthy, the MP claimed, had packed their bags and the politician said he did not know what went into them. That, of course, is a story that will be hard to sell. People are not as gullible as Raheem would like to believe. Though photographs of customs officers posing with the contraband detected have been widely published, the public is totally ignorant of many relevant details of this detection. In the first instance, who was this person who accompanied the MP? Was he a paid member of the MP’s staff? Was the contraband found only in the MP’s baggage or was it divided between the two passengers’ bags? If so, was the golaya, who the MP has publicly blamed for the scandal also been questioned and what did he say? Queries on all these matters and more remain unanswered and only the tip of the iceberg has surfaced.
Predictably there have been many developments since the smelly stuff hit the fan. It was reported on Friday that some 20 MPs, mostly belonging to opposition parties, have handed a letter to the speaker requesting an investigation. They have rightly said that a scandal of these proportions would result in all parliamentarians being tarred with the same brush in the court of public opinion. The cynic would say that they need ot bother on this score as this has already happened in the public mind, with politicians and not only parliamentarians, having been negatively viewed long before the newest scandal broke.
Be that as it may, we wonder whether the speaker has any role in such matters. MPs are very conscious of their rights and privileges and there have been occasions where the speaker’s permission – he is the custodian of such rights and privileges – were obtained before an MP is questioned by police in the case of an investigation. This has been demanded on occasions when need for such questioning arose. There is also a code of conduct for parliamentarians adopted in March 2018. Clearly the recent smuggling matter would (or should) be caught up it that.
People could well ask whether hurling missiles, throwing chilli flakes in the parliamentary chamber and not allowing the speaker to take his seat and perform his functions do not come within the ambit of the code. If it does, why did not what happened in the House during the “October Revolution” of 2018 when then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead, come under the glare of that well-intentioned but seemingly impotent code?
Apart from the demand that the speaker looks into Raheem’s conduct and take appropriate action, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has seen a deeper conspiracy. He alleged on Thursday that the MP, free of the customs clutches, rushing to parliament post-haste to vote against the resolution to remove the PUCSL Chairman from his post was a government plot to lump Raheem with the opposition! That worthy himself is on record saying he voted against the government as there was nobody to help when he needed assistance. “So why should I vote for that government?”, he asked
Criminals are usually not apprehended committing a first offence. The fact that somebody knew that something was going on and was able to tip off the customs suggests that this recent detection is not a one off. Why should Members of Parliament be issued diplomatic passports and accorded VIP facilities at the airport? What differentiates them from ordinary people whose votes catapulted them into positions of privilege with perks galore at the taxpayer’s expense? Tipping off customs is, of course, a lucrative business with fat reward entitlements. Whoever blew that whistle which felled the MP will benefit tidily. Let us hope that such a person does not get a bullet in his head from a motorcycle gunman for his pains as is becoming all too common today in this island of ours.
A question was also asked in parliament why the fine imposed was relatively modest considering the value of the contraband. We believe that the law permits a fine three times the value of the smuggled goods. In this instance it had been a mere 10 percent. State Minister of Finance Ranjit Siyambalapitiya had replied that the fine that was slapped was highest for such offences in recent times.
Admittedly a fine of over Rs. 200 million might never have been collected. Such fines seldom are. Of course the confiscation of the contraband would have cost somebody very big bucks. Couriers are widely used for smuggling via passenger baggage and how tight a hold the customs has on this business method that is widespread is anybody’s guess.
It’s asset disclosures, stupid!
Saturday 27th May, 2023
SJB MP Eran Wickramaratne has called upon the former Presidents of Sri Lanka to make public their asset disclosures and thereby set an example to others. He has said there are two ex-Presidents in the House––Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena––and they should lead by example. One cannot but endorse his call, which was made during yesterday’s parliamentary debate on proposed amendments to the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act. The question however is whether the ex-Presidents, or other politicians for that matter, will ever want to disclose their assets truthfully, and run the risk of landing themselves in trouble in the process.
There are said to be lies, damned lies, and statistics. One can replace ‘statistics’ with ‘the declarations of assets and liabilities’ where Sri Lankan political leaders are concerned. It is nothing but naïve to expect our politicians, to whom deception is second nature, to be truthful when they declare their assets, most of which are ill-gotten, as is public knowledge. Truthful asset disclosures will serve as self-indictments, given the sheer amount of wealth they are believed to have amassed and stashed away in offshore accounts.
Power and wealth are conjoined twins in this country. Politicians who savour power for a few years are set for life. One may recall that Rs. 17.8 million was found at the President’s House in the immediate aftermath of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, last year. This alone is proof that the Sri Lankan Presidents are never short of cash. Heaps of money were reduced to ashes in some ruling party MPs’ houses which came under arson attacks, last year, according to media reports. Therefore, it defies comprehension why the MPs and former Presidents should be given pensions. This is something that the Opposition should take up if it is genuinely concerned about state funds.
Sri Lanka may be the only country where the state looks after failed leaders even in retirement. The current economic crisis is not of recent origin; the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration only worsened it and precipitated the country’s bankruptcy. The economy deteriorated for decades under successive governments, which were characterised by waste and corruption. The blame for the country’s bankruptcy should therefore be apportioned to all Presidents, both elected and appointed, since 1978, albeit to varying degrees. Instead of being made to pay for their sins against the country, they are looked after at the expense of the public and provided with houses, vehicles and security by the state, when they leave office. They have the wherewithal to look after themselves, and public funds must not be wasted. Will the Opposition take up this issue as well?
Babes in arms!
Friday 26th May, 2023
Our honourable MPs would have us believe that they are as innocent as unborn babies and butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Ali Sabry Raheem, who was nabbed by the Customs, on Tuesday, for trying to smuggle in more than 3.5 kilos of gold and 91 mobile phones, and fined Rs. 7.4 million, has sought to protest his innocence! Blaming one of his assistants for the botched smuggling attempt, he has claimed that he did not know what was inside his bags. Why should he try to insult the intelligence of the public in this manner? The people do not vote wisely, but they are not so stupid as to buy into Raheem’s claim.
MP Raheem voted against the government’s move to remove Public Utilities Commission Chairman Janaka Ratnayake, in Parliament, on Wednesday. He said he had done so because the government had not responded to his appeal for help to clear his name when he was nabbed at the BIA the previous day. But we think he has left something unsaid. No MP in the good books of government leaders is ever made to undergo Customs checks, much less taken into custody in the BIA VIP lounge, of all places.
One may recall that even senior Tigers were allowed to bring in loads and loads of undeclared goods into the country via the BIA, during the UNP-led UNF government (2001-2004) because the LTTE had struck a deal with that regime. Those terrorists who had attacked the BIA and caused massive losses to the tune of billions of rupees were even treated to BBQ dinners by the then airport manager. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Mervyn of Kelaniya escorted a wanted drug lord called Kudu Lal through the BIA, and ensured that the latter emplaned to Dubai safely while the STF was looking for him.
The BIA being a place where even such dangerous criminals are given VVIP treatment thanks to the intervention of powerful politicians, a ruling party MP will never be nabbed by the Customs unless he or she has fallen out with the government. So, there is reason to believe that MP Raheem had planned to vote with the Opposition, on Wednesday; the government had got wind of it, and that is why he was left in the lurch.
MP Raheem cannot be the only politician involved in smuggling and other such illegal activities, and therefore, the need for thorough checks to be conducted on all those who use the BIA VIP lounge cannot be overstated. Entourages of government leaders are usually whisked past the Customs without any checks, we are told. This practice has to end forthwith.
There has been a severe erosion of public trust in Parliament, and the presence of lawbreakers among the MPs is one of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs. One wonders whether political parties handpick notorious characters such as smugglers, bootleggers, chain snatchers, cattle rustlers and killers to contest elections. The public votes for the lowest of the low in politics, and then takes to the streets, demanding a ‘system change’, and asking all 225 MPs to go home.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, as an Opposition MP, told the members of the current Parliament some home truths. In one of his speeches, he dwelt on anti-politics and the deterioration of parliamentary standards. In response to a call for all the MPs to be dumped into the Diyawanna lake, he jokingly said something to the effect that it would be a mistake to do so because even the waters of the Kelani Ganga would be polluted in such an eventuality.
Many a true word is said to be spoken in jest! He, as the President, is now in a position to take corrective action. There is no way the government could justify having within its ranks an MP fined for his involvement in a smuggling racket. There are many other racketeers in the incumbent regime and they, too, will have to be got rid of if public faith is to be restored in Parliament.
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