Tuesday, 14 July 2020

‘Forward, Not Backward’

Fresh civil society project launched ahead of Aug 2020 polls


Former lawmaker Mangala Samaraweera at an event oganized by new civil society grouping Freedom :People’s Collective at the Town Hall on July 8 (pic by Thushara Atapattu)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Former lawmaker Mangala Pinsiri Samaraweera’s presence at a recent event, at the New Town Hall, where the newly formed civil society grouping, ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’, vowed to derail President Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government’s bid to do away with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, should be examined against the backdrop of Samaraweera quitting the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) ahead of the August 5, 2020 parliamentary polls.

Samaraweera pulled out of the contest after obtaining nomination from the SJB’s Matara District list in the second week of June.

Samaraweera sat in the first row of seats. Samaraweera, who held top ministerial portfolios in the governments of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (PA), Mahinda Rajapakasa (UPFA) and Maithripala Sirisena, was the only former lawmaker in the audience. On stage, among others activists, was former Jaffna District parliamentarian, M.A. Sumanthiran, who is also the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman.

Having deserted the SJB, Samaraweera has obviously thrown his weight behind the new political movement.

Some sections of the society, and the powers that be, tend to be suspicious, always, of some sections of civil society activists’ intentions. However, there is nothing secret about ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ primary objective. Consisting of prominent civil society activists, ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ declared in July 8, that it would campaign to thwart the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) project to rescind the 19th Amendment. The grouping warned of dire consequences, in case the government was allowed to succeed. The government also received the backing of some civil society groups and, in return, accommodated them on the SLPP nomination lists, as well as the National List, at the forthcoming general election.

Professor of Sinhala, Sarath Wijesooriya (National Movement for Social Justice), Gamini Viyangoda (Purawesi Balaya), Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, and Manu Tissera, rallied public support for the project. In addition to them, Attorney-at-Law Javid Yusuf, an outspoken member of the Constitutional Council, delivered a brief but highly critical statement, perhaps not in keeping with his status as a member of the all-important Constitutional Council. Yusuf, one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador, in Riyadh, strongly opposed the SLPP move. Yusuf is one of the three civil society members, in the Constitutional Council, chaired by ex-Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. In spite of the dissolution of parliament, on March 2, 2020, the Constitutional Council functions. Yusuf claimed that there would be disastrous consequences if the SLPP was rewarded by voters with a 2/3 majority, in parliament, and the 19th Amendment was done away with. Over 200 voted for the new law, enacted in 2015, that restricted a President from seeking a third term. The 19th Amendment also introduced far reaching other changes.

Having covered the event, the writer, a few days later, sought an explanation from Viyangoda as regards the project. Viyangoda said: "Freedom is the foremost legacy of modern democracy. That freedom is likely to be threatened, we suspect, going by the intentions of the present ruling political leadership. Democracy, as we perceive, is institutes, rule of law and accountability, not just holding elections. All three conditions, mentioned above, will be in danger if the 19th Amendment is done away with to pave the way for an authoritarian presidential system. This would even go further than the 18th, we suspect. No, we will not be working with any political party for this election. But we ask the voter to choose one party in the pro-democracy camp, namely, Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB), Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Jana Balavegaya) and the TNA, to strengthen the next Parliament with democratic forces. We ask voters to also choose most suitable persons, corruption-free, etc., from whatever group. This time we are not insisting on any particular party or person, but on a camp."

Viyangoda urged the electorate to vote for those candidates seriously committed to a democratic constitution, democratic institutions and democratic traditions.

Strangely those who talk so much about democracy, and the rule of law, seem to have no qualms about the yahapalana lot having robbed the country’s Central Bank, in broad daylight, and virtually ensured the easy escape of the chief culprit the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, personally hand-picked by PM Wickremesinghe for the job, despite that man not even being a citizen of this country.

Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera has clearly joined the latest project. Having served the cabinets of ministers during the tenures of Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa, Samaraweera was kicked out of the cabinet, in January 2007. An irate Samaraweera formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana) Wing, which merged with the United National Party, in 2010. Samaraweera seems to be confident he could influence political developments through ‘civil society’ actions. Can the SJB, UNP, JVP and TNA deprive the SLPP a two-thirds majority in the next parliament? Securing two-thirds is certainly an uphill task, even if the civil society didn’t undertake a special operation to derail the highly ambitious project. Since the introduction of the PR system, two-thirds hadn’t been achieved by any political party, or coalition. The best was the UNP and the UPFA obtaining simple majorities at the 1989 and 2010 general elections, respectively.

Victor Ivan wants Mangala to play revolutionary role

Former Ravaya editor, Victor Ivan, in a piece in the Ravaya on June 21, 2020, explained the circumstances leading to Samaraweera taking an unprecedented path, having served parliament since 1989. According to the former JVPer, Samaraweera had summoned a meeting to discuss the situation after having signed nominations to contest the parliamentary polls, on the SJB ticket. Among the few participants at the discussion were two economists (they weren’t named), Victor Ivan and two Central Committee members of civil society group Punarudaya. There had been general consensus as the continuing crisis, in Sri Lanka, couldn’t be brought under control, a collapse of political and economic systems were inevitable.

Subsequently, there had been another meeting to discuss a strategy, pertaining to the role of the particular civil society grouping, and especially that of Samaraweera in the face of the SLPP trying to consolidate its hold with overwhelming victory at the parliamentary polls. There had been a general consensus of the need to build a strong public project, capable of winning structural adjustments. The discussion covered what Samaraweera’s role should be, with Victor Ivan strongly pushing for Samaraweera to quit the parliamentary polls contest. Ivan urged Samaraweea to play a radical role in the civil society project. However, some of those present asserted that the former minister could play such a role even without wholly quitting the existing political system.

Having listened to different suggestions, Samaraweera decided to quit the SJB to serve, what Ivan called, a public campaign to save the country. Samaraweera pledged to commit himself fully to the latest project. Ivan asserted that the current crisis couldn’t be addressed by corrupt political parties.

Instead of promoting one political party, ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ intends to promote an

Opposition coalition capable of challenging the SLPP expected to win 2020 parliamentary polls comfortably. Their success depends on the denial of a two-thirds majority to the SLPP. For that, whatever the differences among the SJB, UNP, JVP and the TNA, their priority should be to obtain more than 75 seats out of the 225-member parliament. The SLPP is likely to fail in its endeavour to obtain a 2/3 majority. However, in the absence of constitutional means to block crossovers, the winning party can always engineer crossovers. ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ faces the challenge of thwarting crossovers. It wouldn’t be an easy task. Former President Maithripala Sirisena is on record as having said, in the wake of the failed Oct 2018 constitutional coup, that the project failed as lawmakers sought as much as Rs 500 mn each to switch allegiance.

Manohara challenges

Yusuf’s role

Acknowledging the right of the civil society to engage in a political project, whatever its consequences, President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva challenged Constitutional Council member Attorney-at-Law Javid Yusuf’s claim that the incumbent government would have conducted parliamentary polls as originally scheduled for April 25 regardless of the threat posed by the coronavirus, if not for the timely intervention made by the Election Commission, established in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Civil society members, in the CC, cannot, under any circumstances, play politics, the top lawyer emphasized.

Manohara de Silva, a civil society activist, himself, faulted political parties/groups opposed to such projects for not taking a strong stand. Subsequently, SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris took up this matter on Monday (13) at the weekly briefing at the SLPP party office, at Nelum Mawatha.

Calling the situation very unfortunate, the President’s Counsel said: There is also an ethical issue. Is it proper for a CC member to express a political opinion, in public and, if so, can CJ do the same? CC approves appointment of judges. Shouldn’t they be more independent than judges? All the people Javid sat with are federalists, sharing a common political ideology. The important thing is that an expression of a prejudicial view, in public, can harm the institution’s independence. At a time of an election, is it correct to express an opinion against one political group. Article 41A (5) says that a CC member cannot be a member of a political party. Isn’t he going against the spirit of the law? De Silva asked.

Manohara de Silva added: Javid’s issue is a system error. This is what happens when NGO representatives are appointed to CC, as well as Commissions established in terms of the 19th Amendment. The inclusion of Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole in the Election Commission is another example. There are many more I can cite. All these parties supported this system and now they are embarrassed. All these people benefit from this system, so they are not critical of them. Just imagine Chief Justice and other judges being appointed /recommended by those promoting civil society ideals at the expense of the Sri Lankan State."

Contentious role of

the civil society

Among those present, at the New Town Hall event, were the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, former President of the Bar Association Upul Jayasuriya, and Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing media personality, Prageeth Ekneligoda, and award-winning author and poet Shakthika Sathkumara, who had been arrested and remanded on charges of inciting religious hatred. The Executive Director of the National Peace Council, Dr. Jehan Perera, was also in the audience. In spite of being invited to promote the project, polls monitoring bodies PAFFREL (Rohana Hettiarachchi), CAFFE (Ahamed Manas Makeen) and CMEV (Manjula Gajanayake) refrained from participating for obvious reasons of not wanting to tarnish their status as ostensibly independent polls observers. They, however, received the appreciation of the organizers. Former Ravaya editor K.W. Janaranjana, now the editor of the political weekly Annidda, at the onset of the programme, briefly explained the short, as well as, long term objectives. Polls monitors quite clearly understood the implications of their participation at such a political event, though CC Yusuf felt otherwise. Yusuf’s slip has been showing for quite some time and to be fair, by him, he has never hesitated to respond to a query when the writer sought his views on contentious matters. Yusuf has always been outspoken on controversial matters. The CC needs to examine Yusuf’s matter rationally, without further delay, as ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ stepped up its campaign with the crucial general election just four weeks away.

Those involved in the latest campaign played a crucial role in the 2015 presidential polls campaign to help Maithripala Sirisena win the presidency. They backed the UNP at the 2015 August parliamentary polls. In spite of repeated interventions, they couldn’t save the yahapalana partnership for want of a common programme. President and SLFP leader Sirisena’s decision to accept the leadership of the party made matters worse, though the real setback was caused by the UNP, by perpetrating the massive Treasury bond scam, in late February 2015. It was followed by a far bigger Treasury bond scam, in late March 2016. In between, the yahapalana lot betrayed the war-winning armed forces in Oct 2015, by way of co-sponsoring a US resolution at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Instead of facing the electorate, the yahapalana leadership delayed Local Government polls till February 2018 only to suffer a debilitating setback. Yahapalana partners never recovered from the humiliating defeat at the Local Government polls though they through manipulating parliament managed to avoid the Provincial Council polls rout later.

Regardless of yahapalana partners repeated failures finally leading to the devastating 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the civil society played a significant role in a well-organized counter attack. They promoted Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as the presidential candidate while moving court against presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A deeply rattled SLPP had no option but to get Chamal Rajapaksa to pay his deposit to contest the 2019 Nov polls in case the court verdict went against the former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

But, the Court of Appeal dismissed a case seeking the cancellation of the citizenship of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, clearing the way for him to register as a candidate.

Civil activists, Gamini Viyangoda, and Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara, asked the Court of Appeal to annul Rajapaksa’s citizenship, saying he renounced it in 2003 to become a citizen of the United States and regained it two years later in an irregular manner. The three-judge panel unanimously rejected the case, saying that the case had no merit. The civil society quite rightly exercised their right to take legal recourse. Earlier, those opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entering politics, at the highest level, believed the former Gajaba Regiment veteran could be blocked on the basis of him being a US citizen. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 2015, with the backing of the Joint Opposition was meant to block dual citizens from contesting parliamentary, or presidential polls, though a foreign passport holder could receive the position as Governor, Central Bank of Sri Lanka, and yet another foreign passport holder could be a member of the independent Election Commission.

Recently, EC member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole caused controversy by urging the electorate in Jaffna not to vote for the SLPP, according to a complaint lodged by that party with the EC. Prof. Hoole said that he made no reference to any political party, though strongly endorsed the stand taken by the March 12 movement, comprising civil society organizations, including the PAFFREL, CAFFE and CMEV, not to vote for unscrupulous elements. Perhaps, Yusuf, too, should quit the Constitutional Council, like Samaraweera quitting the SJB, to concentrate fully on the ambitious civil society project. Former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Moscow, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke, last Friday (10), strongly criticized the SLPP project to abolish the 19th Amendment. Jayatilleke, who at one-time declared President Gotabaya Rajapaksa-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa combination was the best for Sri Lanka, flayed the incumbent government, warning of dictatorship unless, what he called, the despicable project was reversed. However, Dr. Jayatilleke is not formally involved with the Freedom-led civil society project though he contributed to that overall operation. Dr. Jayatilleke attacked the SLPP project at the CSR, Maradana.

Fresh initiatives, failures

The civil society alleges that the SLPP, under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would terminate what ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ called the democratic form of government, enjoyed by the people, for over 70 years. The civil society alleged that the SLPP would unceremoniously do away with the 19th Amendment to pave the way for the return of the dreaded executive presidential system, introduced by the UNP government, in 1978, in which current UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was a full-fledged Minister. The grouping is of the view that in spite of the UNP split, those opposed to authoritarian rule can work both in and outside parliament to thwart the government project. Declaring their commitment to uphold democracy, the ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ stated in its first official document, distributed at New Town Hall on July 8: "…the most crucial political responsibility of the voters of our country at the parliamentary election, on the 5th of August, is to make sure that it will not mark the beginning of the end of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy."

Although former President Maithripala Sirisena had been repeatedly faulted by the civil society for the collapse of the yahapalana arrangement, perhaps the real reason is nothing but the first Treasury bond scam, staged within weeks of coming to power that caused a sharp split in the government. In spite of that, President Sirisena dissolved parliament, in late June 2015, to save the UNP from the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) damning report on the first scam, an even more audacious UNP committed second Treasury bond scam, eight months, after the 2015 August parliamentary polls. Those who talk disparaging of former President Sirisena, never bothered to inquire into the crisis caused by co-sponsoring the Geneva resolution, in Oct 2015, against its own armed forces, on unsubstantiated allegations, and then turning a blind eye to Lord Naseby’s revelations, in Oct 2017, that could have been efficiently used to clear the bogus allegations. The civil society, instead of taking tangible measures to rectify those shortcomings, and mistakes, pursued the same strategies, at the expense of their own project.

Their call to place Defence and Law and Order, under Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, after him having accused his own Army of killing thousands of Tamils, seemed as ridiculous as the TNA voting for the war-winning Army Chief at the 2010 presidential poll. Politics and NGOs, in this country, are obviously dabbled in by many an opportunist and scoundrel. The forthcoming parliamentary poll is no exception. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Wijeyadasa’s revelation: How a Bill to ‘abolish and repeal’ H’tota port agreement stymied


SLPP Colombo District candidate Wijeyadasa Rajapakse leaving Presidential Commission on ‘Political Victimization’ at the BMICH recently (pic by Sujatha Jayartne)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time Justice Minister, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, recently questioned serious shortcomings in the parliamentary as well as political party system to address contentious issues which may have major security implications.

Against the backdrop of recent trouble, at the Colombo port, over the handing over of the East Container Terminal (ECT) to India, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Colombo district candidate Wijeyadasa Rajapakse discussed the controversial and highly dangerous deal with China over the Hambantota port. The outspoken politician emphasized the responsibility on the part of the next parliament to inquire into those inadequacies and take remedial measures.

Alleging that the country’s security is at stake, the former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) PC Rajapakse called for a thorough public discussion on what he referred to as a matter that may cause further instability due to external interventions. The Easter Sunday carnage should be thoroughly investigated, taking into consideration a possible external role in the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) terror project now being examined by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI).

The former Justice Minister asserted that debilitating Western interventions would continue as long as the Hambantota port remained in the hands of the Chinese. Having realized further threats posed by powerful enemies, the then UNP lawmaker sought to introduce a Private Members’ Bill to abolish the agreement on the Hambantota port. Rajapakse told the writer: "Several months after I handed over the Bill to the Office of the Secretary General of Parliament, I was informed of the Attorney General Department’s decision with regard to my Bill. It is certainly an unfortunate situation."

AG on Wijeyadasa’s Bill

The SLPP candidate made available a copy of a letter he received from Tikiri K. Jayathilake, Assistant Secretary General (Legislative Services).

The following is the text of Jathilake’s letter dated Feb 27, 2020: A Bill to abolish and repeal the concession agreement for the establishment of a Public-Private Partnership for Hambantota Port by and among Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Government of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited, Hambantota International Port Group (Private) Limited and Hambantota International Port Services Company (Private) Limited.

This has reference to the request made by you to introduce the above Private Members’ Bill in Parliament. The above Bill had been referred to Hon. Attorney General on 2nd Oct 2019 to obtain his opinion under Standing Order No 52 (3). As per the opinion of the Hon. Attorney General, repealing of the Concession Agreement will have an impact on the funds of the Republic, thus it attracts the provisions of Article 152 of the Constitution. In terms of the said Article such a Bill can only be introduced by a Minister unless such Bill or motion has been approved either by the Cabinet of Ministers or in such manner as the Cabinet of Ministers may authorize.

Therefore, I would like to inform you that a Private Member could not introduce a Bill in parliament, which attracts the provisions of Article 152 of the Constitution (end of letter).

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse handed over the Bill to Parliament on July 30, 2019. Rajapakse wanted to abolish and repeal the Concession Agreement entered into on July 29, 2017. The former minister cited four reasons for his decision to move a Private Members’ Bill against the Concession Agreement (1) The agreement hadn’t been endorsed by two thirds majority in parliament (11) in terms of Sri Lanka Ports Authority Act, the ownership, control and operation of all Sri Lankan ports are vested with SLPA, therefore the Concession Agreement is illegal (iii) the Concession Agreement has exposed Sri Lanka to severe danger and (iv) foreign powers continuously interfered and threatened Sri Lanka’s defence thereby exposing the country and its people to grave danger.

In case the parliament endorsed a Bill to abolish and repeal the Concession Agreement, gazette bearing No 2044/20 dated 66.11.2017 and gazette No 2048/32 dated 66.11.2017, too, would be abolished and void in law.

PCoI on Easter carnage proceeds

The police, attached to the PCoI inquiring into the Easter Sunday carnage, recently recorded a statement from the writer as regards several articles on NTJ operations published in The Island in 2019. The former UNP lawmaker’s unsuccessful move to take up the Hambantota port matter in parliament, in 2019, was brought to the notice of the PCoI by the writer. Copies of the Bill, in Sinhala and English, too, were handed over to the PCoI, along with a copy of the letter received by the former minister from Parliament Assistant Secretary General (Legislative Services) Tikiri K. Jayathilake.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse entered parliament following the 2004 parliamentary polls during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. Kumaratunga accommodated Rajapakse on the National List. The new entrant received the appointment as the Chairman of the parliamentary watchdog committee COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises). Rajapakse took the COPE to new heights. The newcomer to parliament was soon on a collision course with the top SLFP leadership, following moves to accommodate a group of dissident UNPers in the government parliamentary group. Trouble began in the wake of UPFA moves in this regard, following the 2005 November presidential polls. The SLFP-led coalition went ahead with the questionable move, in spite of Wijeyadasa’s objectives. The MP declared his intention to function as an independent candidate in Nov., 2007, as some of those accommodated happened to be the ones exposed by Wijeyadasa’s COPE report. Wijeyadasa contested from the Colombo District at the 2010 parliamentary polls on the UNP ticket. The high profile politician was re-elected at the 2015 parliamentary polls. The former SLFPer received the Justice and Buddha Sasana portfolios. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse earned the wrath of the top UNP leadership for strongly opposing the politically motivated project directed at the wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and similar investigations, as well as challenging the controversial Hambantota port deal.

The SLPP candidate told The Island: "The Concession Agreement violated the Constitution. In terms of Article 157 of the Constitution, such a pact cannot be finalized without having two-thirds parliamentary approval. The cabinet collectively violated the Constitution by handing over the strategically located port on a 99-year-lease to China, the emerging Super Power. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against China or any other country. My constant stand that angered an influential section of the UNP is the opposition to privatization of state assets."

Wijeyadasa sacked

Interestingly, the UNP found fault with Wijeyadasa Rajapakse for breaching the collective responsibility as a member of the cabinet. On the UNP’s request, the then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wijeyadasa Rajapakse in August 2017. The candid parliamentarian caused quite an uproar in the previous year (2016 Nov.) by openly declaring that Sri Lanka faced a serious Muslim extremist threat, with some in the UNF government even accusing him of having a tribal mentality. The yahapalana lot simply ignored the then Justice Minister’s timely warning. In May 2017, the UNP, in consultation with President Sirisena, brought in SLFPer Mahinda Samarasinghe as Ports and Shipping Minister. Samarasinghe replaced Arjuna Ranatunga, who rejected the Hambantota port deal. Ranatunga took a stand very much similar to that of Wijeyadasa Rajapakse. Minister Samarasinghe finalized the obviously illegal port deal prompting Rajapakse to go on the offensive. The then government brought in UNPer Thalatha Atukorale as the Justice Minister.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse said that the port deal should be examined taking into consideration the entire range of issues - NTJ attacks, possible external links to that heinous project and regional and global political-economic and security aspects. "We should seek a thorough inquiry," the former minister said, appreciating efforts made by the incumbent government to ascertain the truth.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, on July 30, 2019, explained the threats faced by the country. Addressing the media, at the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF), the President’s Counsel declared that the Attorney General’s Department owed an explanation as to why it sat on hardcore NTJ member Zahran Hashim’s file for nearly two years. The AG’s Department lapse was revealed during the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) proceedings from May 2019-Oct 2019. The PSC consisted of Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri (Chairman), Ravi Karunanayake, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Rauff Hakeem, M.A. Sumanthiran, Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, Ashu Marasinghe and Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa.

The writer, in his statement to the police unit, assisting the PCoI, pointed out the inclusion of the President's Counsel in the PSC as he, just a week after the Easter Sunday carnage, at an event at the BMICH (where the PCol sits), publicly justified the NTJ operation. Later, Hakeem meeting Zahran Hashim and visiting the latter’s brother, in hospital, while receiving treatment for a bomb blast injury, transpired. The inclusion of two Easter Sunday bombers’ father in the JVP National List, at the 2015 parliamentary, didn’t discourage the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya from accommodating the JVP in the PSC (Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa represented the JVP).

Nearly 270 perished in seven separate suicide blasts, and another 500 were wounded with the Colombo Shangri-La targeted by two persons, including Zahran. And quite a number of the wounded are maimed for life.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse said that the AG’s Department couldn’t remain silent in the wake of shocking revelations made before the PSC.

Pointing out that the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) had sought the AG’s approval, in June 2017, to take action against Zahran Hashim, in terms of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), Rajapakse said the then AG Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, had handed over Zahran’s file to Deputy Solicitor General Azad Navavi and then to State Counsel Malik Aziz.

Referring to the incumbent AG Dappula de Livera moving court against suspended IGP Pujith Jayasundera and the then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando over their failure to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, Rajapakse asked who would indict AG’s Department officers.

He underscored the importance of ascertaining why those who were authorized to decide whether Zahran could be arrested, as he posed a grave threat to the society, had refrained from doing so.

Rajapakse acknowledged that the PSC was quite useful, though he had written a letter to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya requesting him not to constitute it.

He, at the same time, however, insisted that the PSC was meant to clear All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen, in addition to saving Pujith Jayasundera et al and placing the blame squarely on President Maithripala Sirisena.

AG’s Department role questioned

At the onset of his briefing, Rajapakse alleged that western powers had undertaken a high profile destabilization project here, consequent to the incumbent government handing over the Hambantota port on a 99-year-lease to China. The former Justice Minister alleged that the Muslim community and the Islamic State were used by interested parties (Easter Sunday attacks: UNP MP blames AG, H’tota port deal - The Island, July 31, 2019).

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse should seek an explanation from parliament regarding the delay in seeking Attorney General’s advice. Having received the then MP’s Bill, on July 30, 2019, why did parliament refer Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s Bill to the Attorney General, only on Oct 2, 2019? When did the Secretary General’s Office receive the Attorney General’s Office response to the query from parliament? By the time Wijeyadasa Rajapakse was informed, by Assistant Secretary General Tikiri K. Jayathilake, about the Attorney General’s Department decision, there was consensus among all stakeholders, regarding the dissolution of Parliament on March 2.

The process took seven months. Parliament owed an explanation as to how such matters of public interest are conveniently ignored at the expense of the country’s well-being. Interested parties seemed hell-bent on subverting the parliamentary system of governance, though the former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, is on record as having claimed that Sri Lanka’s parliament rated among some top 170 Parliaments.

The previous government seemed to have pathetically failed in its responsibilities, in spite of boasting of a mega US-funded project, implemented during 2016-2019, to improve state standards at a cost of staggering Rs 1.92 billion (USD 13 mn) .

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse questioned the dismissal of his Bill on the basis of the provisions of Article 152 of the Constitution that the repealing of the Concession Agreement would have an impact on the funds of the government. The former Justice Minister emphasized the pivotal importance of establishing the truth. Perhaps, the SLPP Colombo District candidate should seek a copy of the Attorney General’s opinion on the Hambantota port deal, in terms of the Right to Information Act, without delay. Did the Attorney General endorse the Hambantota transaction?

Did AG grant approval to MCC Compact?

It would be pertinent to mention that the Finance Ministry, on Oct 31, 2019, claimed to have received the Attorney General’s consent for the implementation of the MCC agreement. There is absolutely no reason to question the validity of the Finance Ministry’s statement as it was issued rather emphatically, just the day after Wickremesinghe declared his intention, at a Temple Trees briefing, to sign the MCC agreement in a rather cavalier fashion, in the run up to the last presidential election. Minister Samaraweera, in a statement, titled ‘MCC agreement drafted with the consent of AG will be presented in Parliament’, justified the project.

Samaraweera insisted: "The whole process and the final Agreements were done under the guidance of the Attorney General and well within the legal framework. The Attorney General is in the opinion that the Agreements are in order and there exists no legal impediment to execute same". The agreements, referred to therein, were the Compact Agreement and the Programme Implementation Agreement.

Responding to The Island queries, Wijeyadasa Rajapakse asserted that his Bill needed to be endorsed by a simple majority in parliament. As the quorum was 20, the Bill could have been approved with just 11 votes if taken at a time only 20 members were present. But, obviously there was probably a wider agenda, the President’s Counsel charged, pointing out that the police didn’t file a ‘B’ report in court as regards the Easter Sunday carnage, carried out by a group of Islamic extremists, a minority among a minority in this predominantly Buddhist country, with sizeable Hindu and Christian populations, till April 28 - a good seven days after near simultaneous suicide attacks sent shock waves through the country, and even the world. The UNF government sacked Justice Minister, for being forthright, pointed out that the ‘B’ report referred to his complaint as the cause for the police to bring the Easter mayhem to the attention of the court. The police should at least now explain the inordinate delay in initiating investigations, the former Justice Minister said. The PSC as well as the on-going PCoI revealed the staggering extent of the law enforcement establishment’s failure, leading to the worst ever single coordinated attack carried out in Sri Lanka.

Alleging that the parliament lacked authority to inquire into the Easter Sunday attacks, against the backdrop of judicial process, Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa asserted that the external angle needed to be thoroughly investigated. At the time of the attacks, President Sirisena held both Defence and Law and Order portfolios, following the Oct 26, 2018 short-lived constitutional coup perpetrated by the SLFP-Joint Opposition combine.

ECT controversy

The continuing controversy over the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal cannot be ignored. Hope the government remembers the battle between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe over the UNP’s agreement with New Delhi to handover the ECT to the nuclear armed neighbour that has been behaving often like a bully towards our country, from the time of the JRJ’s regime. May be Mrs. Indira Gandhi was justified in her behaviour at the time as Junius Richard Jayewardene, dubbed Yankie Dicky, because of his open admiration and support for the USA, having even wanting to give Trincomalee to Washington, while India, at the time, was firmly in the Non-Alignment Camp, but seen by the West as being more pro- Soviet Union

Subsequently, Japan was also brought into the ECT agreement. Recent protests at the Colombo harbour revealed discontent and suspicions among various trade unions over the incumbent government’s intentions. The crisis at the Colombo port should naturally be discussed, taking into consideration the rushed ‘illegal’ agreement between Sri Lanka and China as there’ll be no further discussions on the 99-year agreement, finalized in 2017.

With China aiming high, the US-India-Japan coalition is likely to pursue what can be described as their containment or ganging up policy against Beijing in respect of Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia. Finalized ACSA (Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement) as well as MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) sought by the US are grim reminders of entanglements waiting to happen that could prove to be extremely beyond the country’s capacity to handle in the days to come for want of consensus among political parties, represented in parliament, without the government having a sound majority there. National security and foreign policy shouldn’t be part of the political agenda as the government and the Opposition battled for control of parliament, which the former Justice Minister once called the most corrupt institution in the country and to this day he has not retracted one bit.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Wartime, post-conflict foreign funding of local groups, political parties, etc.


Lawmakers at the launch of 3-year USD 13 mn project in Nov 2016 in paliament to strengthen what the USAID called Sri Lanka's Parliament’s accountability and democratic governance

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Over a decade after the conclusion of the war some civil society groups/Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have taken up new challenges.

In the wake of the unprecedented crisis caused by coronavirus, the National Peace Council (NPC) had an opportunity to provide relief to the needy courtesy foreign donors.  The writer sought an explanation from the NPC’s Executive Director, Dr. Jehan Perera, soon after the Canadian High Commission in Colombo announced a substantial grant for the organisation for corona relief work.

The issue was raised on April 23, 2020, after Canadian HC announced CAD $56,000 (approximately 7.5 million LKR) to the NPC.

Asked as to why the NPC was given a Canadian grant to help Covid-19 affected communities, Dr. Perera said: "Even before the Canadian HC gave us this grant, our inter-religious committees, at the community level, were doing their own COVID relief work and this made us ask our donors to permit us to reallocate some of the funds given to us for educational and advocacy purposes to enable humanitarian work to be done.  Canada has gone one step further and also given us additional funds to distribute dry rations through our network of inter-religious committees and partner organizations, at the district and divisional levels.

A Canadian grant

The Government of Canada has provided over CAD $56,000 (approximately 7.5 million LKR) to support Sri Lanka’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, through targeted relief to some of those most affected, in vulnerable communities, the Canadian HC said in a statement, headlined ‘Canada supports communities impacted by the Covid-19 crisis in Sri Lanka’

The April 23 datelined statement, issued in Colombo said that the funds were granted to the NPC, through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).

"The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka is part of the Civil Society Committee of the Presidential Covid-19 Task Force. With an established network, around the country, consisting of district level NGOs and inter-religious committees, the NPC will provide dry rations to many districts, nation-wide. As the lockdown and 24-hour curfew proved to be a serious challenge to many, the NPC will assist those in dire need, the mission said.

The statement quoted David McKinnon, High Commissioner of Canada to Sri Lanka, as having said: "I am impressed by the resolve of individuals, organizations and the various levels of government, in Sri Lanka in responding to this unprecedented global crisis".  HC McKinnon continued, "Through Canada’s support, we hope to assist the most vulnerable communities as they combat this disease and its severe economic impacts. I am glad we could work with the NPC to respond quickly to an identified need, working across communities and around the country".

The HC said: "As a response to the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic – and to continue its mission to build trust in society and strengthen relations between ethnic and religious communities – the NPC will engage in crisis mitigation interventions by supplying dry rations to institutions, marginalized individuals and families identified by its partner network and state officials nation-wide. This will include persons with disabilities (PWDs), female-headed households, orphanages, long-term care facilities as well as elders’ homes."

The Canadian statement quoted Dr. Jehan Perera as having said; "There is a need for solidarity at this time across people, ethnicities, religions, regions and countries.  We are happy to be a part of this process to look after the most affected with Canada’s assistance."  

The NPC believes that engaging in these activities will strengthen collaboration across ethnic and religious divides, and encourage future integration. As always, Canada is honoured to work with local organizations for a prosperous, inclusive and healthy Sri Lanka, the HC concluded the statement.

According to the Canadian HC statement, received by the writer, Canada wouldn’t fund activities, related to the direct medical needs and interventions related to the pandemic. The NPC website listed help provided to different communities so far with the funds received from Canada.

The NPC, established in Feb 1995, as part of the overall efforts/protests against violence in the run-up to the 1994 presidential polls, subsequently transformed the group to a premier peace-making organization. The NPC played a significant role in President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarat-unga’s failed peace initiative in 1994-1995 and the high profile, but disastrous, Norway peace mission during Kumaratunga’s second term. 

A Norwegian donation

PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections), too, received a Norwegian grant in support of its efforts. The project was meant to help PAFFREL follow health and safety regulations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, during the parliamentary polls period and also to facilitate more women, involved in the election process and elections monitoring procedure. Having received confirmation of the agreement between Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of PAFFREL, and Ms. Monica Svenskerud, Chargé d’affaires of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo, the writer requested the Oslo mission here to reveal the funding made available to the civil society group. According to the Embassy, NOK 300,000 (or Rs 5.6 million) had been provided to PAFFREL, to facilitate its initiative. Norway funded PAFFREL, at the 2019 presidential polls, as well. At the moment, PAFFREL remains the only recipient of Norwegian grants for poll monitoring work.

PAFFREL has been engaged in polls monitoring work, since 1987. Having registered in terms of the Companies Act No 17 of 1982, and re-registered under the Companies Act No 07 of 2007, PAFFREL’s original objectives were to prevent malpractices and violence before, during and after elections, as mentioned by the group in its website.

Civil society/NGOs received substantial foreign funding during the conflict. The end of the conflict in May 2009, with the eradication of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the gradual transformation of the electoral process/electioneering, compelled interconnected PAFFREL, NPC el al to explore ways and means of new initiatives.

In spite of their much-touted determination, to conduct free and fair elections, both PAFFREL and NPC conveniently refrained from commenting on LTTE/TNA (Tamil National Alliance) directive to the northern electorate not to exercise their franchise in support of UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, or PA candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Nov 17, 2005 presidential poll. The LTTE/TNA move helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to defeat Ranil Wickremesinghe by 186,000 votes. The result swiftly created an environment conducive for the LTTE to resume large scale hostilities, in August 2006. To make a long story short, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP told the writer in an exclusive interview (the first while the LTTE’s one-time chief arms procurer was in the custody of the Directorate of Military Intelligence); the LTTE believed Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election would make things easy for the group. KP was brought to Colombo, in August 2009, in agreement with Malaysia - certainly the highest point of cooperation received from an influential country in Sri Lanka’s battle against the LTTE.  The rest is history.

A contentious issue

Irony of all this is that though most who work in these organisations must be honourable men and women, but what legitimacy do they have to be appointed as guardians of this country by alien interests and even to get aid that had been ostensibly declared as given to the country, while the legitimately elected government just has to watch such theatrics with its hands virtually tied behind its back. Lo and behold you know what happens to governments that would even dare to question such world order established by the self-appointed international community of the West.

 Foreign funds are granted/received on various pretexts. Funding is always meant to promote objectives, values and overall strategies of sponsors, regardless who the recipient is, but the question is are they in the interest of the country concerned. Sponsors strategies are always the same, whether the recipient happened to be a government or an NGO/civil society. Even political parties may have received substantial funds, over the years, though parliament, Election Department/Election Commission and polls monitoring groups never bothered to inquire into allegations. Instead, they focus on ‘minor’ matters. Complaining about displaying of posters and banners seems ridiculous in a country where those rejected by the electorate are routinely accommodated, in parliament, through the back door – the respective National Lists of political parties.

A section of the international media recently reported how Canada spent over Canadian Dollars 2 mn in its failed and humiliating bid to secure one of the rotating slots in the UN Security Council. Norway and Ireland obtained the required two-thirds of vote. Documents secured by CBC News, in terms of Access to Information law, revealed how Canada lavishly spent taxpayers’ money to win a place among group of 10 elected on a rotating basis at the Security Council. Five are permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Canada lost two previous bids, in 1946 and 2010. The media reported Canada spent a staggering USD 10 mn in its last successful bid in 1998. Who benefited from Canada’s generosity? 

 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government refrained from voting for Norway, Canada or Ireland. The decision not to vote for Norway and Canada reflected the incumbent government’s disapproval of the stand taken by them as regards the accountability issue. It would be pertinent to mention that foreign powers respond to a particular situation as part of their overall efforts to appease the electorate. Large groups of voters, especially of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and their extended families influence Western powers. Canada is a case in point. Over a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, some Canadian politicians continue to play ball with those who had backed the macabre LTTE separatist project.

A failed civil society project

During the war, foreign powers pumped massive amounts of money, through various civil society groups/NGOs as part of their efforts to discourage Sri Lanka from seeking a battlefield victory. The operation was meant to influence successive governments, and the electorate by way of costly projects undertaken with foreign funding. Such projects continued, even after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military power. The civil society was given access even to the military. The civil society was accommodated in the Government delegation to Geneva Human Rights Council sessions.

"Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)" released in Sept. 2011 revealed the extent of the Norwegian operation here. Of NOK 2.5 bn spent here, during the 1997-2009 period, NOK 100 mn had been allocated in support of the peace process, including the Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and Peace Secretariats of the government and the LTTE. Substantial funds were made available to the NPC, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). In addition to them, the then darling of the Norwegians, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s two groups, namely the Foundation for Co-existence, and the National Anti-War Front, received a significant amount of Norwegian funding. There had been several other projects by FLICT (Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation) and One-Text initiative. Foreign donors went to the extent of providing funding to the LTTE by way of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO). The Norwegian report revealed allocation of NOK 210 mn (USS 28 mn) to NGOs et al between 2001 and 2004 in support of the high profile peace project. According to the report, of that amount, NOK 200 mn had been shared by 10 NGOs, with Dr. Rupesinghe’s Foundation for Co-existence receiving the lion’s share (NOK 35 mn or USD 6 mn).

The report identified Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US, as other major donors.

Norway revealed the exact amount allocated to Dr. Rupesinghe in the wake of them clashing over what the NGO guru claimed was the failure on the part of the sponsor to honour the agreement between them. The NGO project went awry primarily, due to the LTTE's mistaken belief that the armed forces could be defeated in a conventional conflict. The NGO project couldn’t convince the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government that the LTTE was invincible. Once the LTTE resumed large scale hostilities, in August 2006, the government launched a combined offensive of its own. Sri Lanka sustained the offensive until ground forces cornered the LTTE leadership, on the Vanni east front.

Absence of efficient mechanism to

monitor foreign funding

Sri Lanka lacked a proper mechanism to keep track of foreign funding. In spite of Sri Lanka civil society/NGO sector being a major recipient of foreign funding, the country is yet to put in place an efficient system to monitor foreign funding. In the absence of such a system, various interested parties exploited situations to receive funding. Those who bitterly complain about the military assigned specific targets in support of civil administration, appreciate the civil society/NGO role. They cleverly exploit shortcomings on the part of successive governments to pursue strategies, sometimes inimical to the country. The NGO community is good at what it does. It benefits from the failures of those elected governments. That is the unpalatable truth.

Sri Lanka never bothered to examine the US State Department declaration that funds to the tune of US 585 mn were spent on restoring democracy in Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, in 2014/2015.  Sri Lanka also ignored the revelation that US funding had been made available between the 2015 January presidential poll and the 2015 August parliamentary polls. There had been a number of other projects, including funding three-year programme worth USD 13 mn(Rs 1.92 bn) as well as funding provided to the Election Commission (EC).

One-time Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, recently questioned criticism of his decision to seek Diaspora funding in support of the Thamizhi Makkal Tesiya Kootani or the Tamil People’s National Alliance (TPNA), in the run-up to the August 5, 2020 parliamentary polls. Addressing the media, at the Jaffna Press Club, on June 23, 2020, the retired Supreme Court judge justified his call for Diaspora funding on the basis major political parties and politicians in the South received plenty of funding from various sponsors. Wigneswaran underscored his right to secure funding from sponsors overseas.

Sri Lanka should, without further delay, establish a mechanism capable of monitoring funds received by various organizations and individuals. During the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) proceedings, in respect of the Easter Sunday attacks, the then Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy revealed how parliament weakened its regulatory powers by way of the Finance Act 2017. The shocking revelation was made on July 26, 2019. Dr. Coomaraswamy didn’t mince his words when he declared that the then government didn’t even bother to consult the Central Bank on the matter. Dr. Coomaraswamy set the record straight as regards the Finance Act of 2017, after the PSC member and the then Power, Energy and Business Development Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, challenged CBSL condemnation of the Finance Act during investigations into the controversial Batticaloa Campus Limited and the Heera Foundation had received funds from Saudi Arabia on seven and 15 occasions, respectively.

A failed Parliament

Have you ever heard of a parliament deliberately weakening regulatory powers and the privileged status enjoyed by its Central Bank? Having perpetrated massive Treasury bond scams, in Feb 2015 and March 2016, what else the public could expect from those who had the majority in parliament. Recently, Defence Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne talked in disparaging terms of Prisons Department employees accused of serving the underworld. The war veteran urged them not to spend heroin dealers’ money on their families. Perhaps, that appeal should be made to lawmakers as well. Can anyone who represented the last parliament care to explain why the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on Treasury bond scams was, conveniently not taken up in parliament?

Taxpayers, including those struggling to make ends meet, fund political party system based costly administration. The administration consists of President, Parliament (225 members), Provincial Councils (455 members) and Local Government (8,600 members) and the judiciary.

The failure of successive administrations had paved the way for unhealthy interventions, both at domestic level and external. External powers interfere through administrations. They also use civil society and NGOs to influence the decision makers as well as the electorate. The media are routinely used and abused in politically motivated projects much to the detriment of the public and the well being of the country. The parliament, instead of being the institution to lead the country to the next level, allowed the rot to set in. The influence gained by civil society and the NGO circuit should be examined against the deterioration of parliament. So much so, one-time Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse PC admitted that the parliament was the most corrupt institution in the country. The former BASL Chief said so in response to a query raised by the writer at a press conference, addressed by him at the Sri Lanka Foundation, in the run up to the last presidential poll.

Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Gampaha District candidate Ranjan Ramanayake, who had immensely contributed to the deterioration of the political party system, recently alleged that one of those lawmakers taking narcotics was dead now. Referring to a speech, he delivered in parliament and statement in Supreme Court???, former MP Ramanayake reiterated of the 100 lawmakers in the last parliament 100 had liquor licenses, 75 had permits for sand mining and transport, and some faced murder and narcotics charges. Of them, one is dead. "Now don’t ask me for his name," Ramanayake said. Having stood solidly by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ramanayake switched his allegiance to the then UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa quite late in the leadership battle. Politics is certainly a ‘game’ for opportunists.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Status of US project as country goes to polls


Several days after the last presidential poll on 2019 Nov 16, US Ambassador Aliana Taplitz met President Rajapaksa along with Deputy Chief of Mission Martin Kelly and Head of Political Affairs Anthony Renzulli at the Presidential Secretariat. The UD declared its readiness to work with the new leader, who renounced US citizenship to contest the election (pic courtesy President’s Office)
By Shamindra Ferdinando

UNP leader and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe boldly declared, on Oct 30, 2019, that an agreement on the USD 480 mn MCC grant would be finalized before the presidential poll, on Nov 1, 2019. The then Premier said so in response to a query, posed by the writer, at a media briefing called by Temple Trees. Wickremesinghe met the media; a day after the cabinet approved the implementation of the controversial project in spite of growing protests against it. Surprisingly, UNP Deputy Leader and presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa hadn’t been present at the Temple Trees briefing, though there were several lawmakers, as well as members of a civil society group.

Responding to another query, the UNP leader confidently declared that he would be the PM again (‘Agreement with US on MCC grant will be signed before Prez poll’ - Ranil with strapline ‘I will be PM again’-The Island, Oct 31, 2019). Wickremesinghe was proved wrong.

The then Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, the darling of the US, too, threw his weight behind the MCC project. Both Samaraweera and the US Embassy declared that the programme would go ahead, with the required approvals. They seemed confident in securing parliament approval. They were proved wrong.

Today, Wickremesinghe leads a badly depleted United National Party (UNP). Premadasa is in command of the UNP offshoot, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), while the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), having comfortably won both the Local Government polls in Feb 2018, and the presidential polls in Nov 2019, stands a much better chance in securing victory, though its repeated boasting on winning a two-thirds may prove to be nothing but rhetoric.

The UNP’s stand on the MCC, as well as two other controversial agreements with the US, namely ACSA (Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement/ formerly known as ‘NATO Mutual Support Act’) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), too, contributed to Sajith Premadasa’s defeat at the last presidential poll. SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Camp exploited the proposed US agreements to the maximum.

AG approved MCC agreements - FM

The day after Wickremesinghe declared his intention to sign the MCC agreement, Minister Samaraweera, in a statement, titled ‘MCC agreement drafted with the consent of AG will be presented in Parliament’, justified the project. Samaraweera emphasized: "The whole process and the final Agreements, were done under the guidance of the Attorney General and well within the legal framework. The Attorney General is in the opinion that the Agreements are in order and there exists no legal impediment to execute same."

The agreements, referred to therein, were the Compact Agreement and the Programme Implementation Agreement. The Constitutional Council appointed tough-talking Dappula de Livera, PC, as Attorney General, on May 7, 2019. Livera, who led the AG’s Department team at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) that probed into the Treasury bond scams, served as the Acting AG, since April 29, 2019. De Livera succeeded Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, who received appointment as the Chief Justice.

According to Samaraweera, negotiations, initiated in 2016, on Sri Lanka’s request, had been finalized in Oct 2018. The agreement followed, what Samaraweera called, a study undertaken by the MCC to identify ‘constraints to economic growth analysis.’ The agreement focused on the land and transport sectors, identified as constraints to growth. Interestingly, Samaraweera, having handed over nominations to contest Matara District, at the Aug 5 parliamentary polls, recently quit the SJB, complaining about the split in the UNP. Although, SJB was certainly guarded about its response to Samaraweera’s move, Field Marshal Fonseka, who is contesting from the Gampaha District on the SJB ticket, welcomed the former minister quitting the battle. If Samarawera remained, he would have said something disparaging about the Maha Sangha to the SJB’s disadvantage, a smiling Fonseka declared.

US stand before 2019 prez poll

Amidst controversy over the project, with those backing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature stepping up their ‘No to US’ campaign, the US Embassy sought to set the record straight (from their point of view). It would be pertinent to mention that Alaina B. Teplitz was sworn in as Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, on October 22, 2018. Teplitz taking over of the mission coincided with the finalization of talks on the MCC agreement. She served as U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, from 2015-2018, before moving to Colombo. In a statement, issued close on the heels of Wickremesinghe’s vow to finalize the agreement before the presidential poll and Samaraweera’s claim that the AG cleared the agreements (Compact Agreement and the Programme Implementation Agreement), the US said that parliamentary approval could be obtained once Sri Lanka signed the agreement. Wouldn’t it be better if a consensus was reached before the agreement was signed?

The US Embassy, in a statement issued on Nov 1, 2019, stated: "Consistent with the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s worldwide policy, in all partner countries, once the grant assistance agreement is signed, the Government of Sri Lanka will send it to parliament for approval. Inasmuch, Parliament will have ample opportunity to review the grant assistance agreement.

"During that review period, the Government of Sri Lanka will develop plans to implement the grant assistance agreement and design projects to improve transportation and land administration. This grant assistance agreement will directly benefit over 11 million Sri Lankans and meaningfully stimulate economic growth.

"Parliamentary review and approval are required by MCC to ensure the grant assistance agreement has the support of the government and the people."

US congratulates Gotabaya

Soon after the presidential poll, the US congratulated Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who gave up US citizenship to seek the highest office in Sri Lanka. The US could have impeded Gotabaya Rajapaksa though it chose not to do so. In fact, those who opposed the SLPP candidate fervently hoped for a US declaration that one-time Defence Secretary couldn’t renounce his citizenship in time for nominations. In terms of the 19th Amendment, enacted in 2015, with the overwhelming support of parliament, dual citizens were prohibited from contesting parliamentary or presidential polls. Two days after the presidential poll, the US declared its readiness to work with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The US Embassy, in Colombo, issued the following statement on Nov 18, 2019: "The United States congratulates the people of Sri Lanka on their democratic presidential election and looks forward to working with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka has continued to show the strength and resilience of its republic with a free, fair, and transparent presidential election befitting Asia’s oldest democracy. We commend the Elections Commission, civil society and government authorities for promoting a peaceful election. We are ready to continue our work with the new President and with all the people of Sri Lanka in supporting the country’s sovereignty through heightened good governance, expanded economic growth, the advancement of human rights and reconciliation and in fostering an Indo-Pacific region where all countries can prosper."

A warning ahead of prez poll

A couple of months, before the presidential poll, the US warned Sri Lanka of consequences if the latter sought to cancel agreements signed between the two. The US move was obviously meant to influence the electorate, ahead of the crucial polls. The US message was given through a selected group of journalists. A top Colombo based US diplomat told them, representing both privately and state-owned media, the US expected Sri Lanka to remain committed to agreements between the two, regardless of the outcome of the poll. Leaders of our political parties never reacted to the US statement. At the time, the warning was given, two major parties, the SLPP and the UNP were yet to officially announce their respective candidates. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature was endorsed in August 2019, several weeks after the US warning whereas Sajith Premadasa received the UNP’s endorsement much later.

The US emphasized that domestic politics shouldn’t in anyway undermine the overall US policy. The US reference to the Indo-Pacific region, in its Nov 18, 2019, statement, underscored the importance the solitary superpower attached to its global, as well as regional strategies.

US awaits House decision on MCC

US Ambassador Teplitz recently declared that a decision on the MCC agreement would be taken after parliamentary polls on Aug 5, 2020. The US ambassador said so in an online discussion with a group of selected journalists. Ambassador Teplitz acknowledged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s desire to have the MCC agreement reviewed. The top envoy said that the project had been stalled following the Oct 2018 constitutional crisis and a decision could be taken once the Government, now in a transition period, completed the process with the parliamentary election.

MCC grants USS 10 mn

However, according to Ambassador Teplitz, in terms of the MCC, substantial funding had been provided during the previous administration. In an interview with Daily FT, posted on the US Embassy website, on Dec 10, 2018, at the height of the constitutional crisis, Ambassador Teplitz said: "Via the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), we are focusing on how to improve the infrastructure in Sri Lanka. MCC’s initial grant, worth Rs. 1.2 billion ($7.4 million), was provided in July 2016 to support feasibility studies needed to develop a high-quality, evidence- based, and sustainable programme, and in 2017, an agreement was signed to provide an additional Rs. 413 million ($ 2.6 million) grant to finalize compact development. All our assistance is grants, and not loans which have to be repaid. We do this because we want to be a friend and partner, where we share mutual interest. Unfortunately, the MCC has been paused for the moment, until the resolution of the political crisis."

The UNP-SLFP coalition owed the country an explanation as regards the Ambassador’s claim that Sri Lanka had received substantial grants, twice in 2016 and 2017, in terms of the MCC. The Finance Ministry statement that had been issued on Oct 31, 2019, in support of Premier Wickremesinghe declaration, never made reference to the funding received twice, to the tune of USD 10 mn, within two years. Who conducted such expensive feasibility studies? Who finalized ‘compact development’? Did the US or Sri Lanka jointly choose the organization/s responsible for feasibility studies and compact development?

The Finance Ministry declaration that the MCC grants and assistance were provided to countries, what the ministry called having ‘rigorous standard for good governance’ and fighting corruption, should be examined against the backdrop of the then top political leadership overseeing Treasury bond scams  perpetrated by the Central Bank, with the connivance of Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL). The US, or other Western backers of the treacherous yahapalana administration, had never been bothered about waste, corruption and irregularities. Had the US intervened, perhaps the second Treasury bond scam, perpetrated in March 2016 could have been thwarted. In spite of interfering in various domestic matters, the US never bothered to instill financial discipline among lawmakers, pursuing US strategies here.

Overall US projects

Having helped the UNP-led Opposition to bring war-winning twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reign to an end, in 2015 January, the US sought agreement on three projects, ACSA, SOFA and MCC. The US State Department has revealed the funding made available to Nigeria, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to the tune of USD 580 mn, in 2014/2015, to pave the way for political change. The US push for closer political-military – economic ties with Sri Lanka should be discussed, especially taking into consideration heavy US investment here. Sri Lanka Parliament, or the Election Commission (EC), never raised the issue though lawmaker Shehan Semasinghe made a statement, in parliament, on US funding. In spite of the then President Maithripala Sirisena vowing not to allow US agreements, as long as he was in the Office of the President, later it was revealed that in his capacity as the Defence Minister, he authorized ACSA in August 2017.

However, President Sirisena, in June 2019, at a meeting with journalists at Janadhipathi Mandiraya, declared that he was opposed to military agreements with the US.

When the writer asked President Sirisena, who would take the responsibility for ACSA as he was opposed to military agreements with the US, President Sirisena said that someone should accept the responsibility for ACSA. He said the signing of ACSA had taken place in August 2017.

Sri Lanka first entered into ACSA, in March 2007, during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as Defence Secretary. The US sought agreement on ACSA, way back in 2002, close on the heels of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as the Prime Minister. The move coincided with the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on Feb 21, 2002, between Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. NATO member Norway arranged the CFA. Years later, Norway revealed its operation here had the backing of NATO by way of intelligence provided by the world’s most powerful military alliance (Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka).

The US revealed its desire to secure ACSA on Aug 22, 2002, in Colombo. The then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, having visited Jaffna earlier in the day, followed by meetings with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s envoy, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Premier Wickremesinghe, declared the US intention to finalize the agreement.

The announcement was made at Temple Trees. Armitage was the senior most US official to visit Colombo since Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ visit, five decades ago. The Temple Trees announcement was made over a month after Premier Wickremesinghe met US President George W. Bush in Washington. The ACSA was to be finalized in July 2002.

Teplitz reassures Mahanayakes

During the yahapalana administration, the US stepped up its involvement here. The US continuously pushed for both MCC and SOFA. In the wake of the 2019 April Easter Sunday carnage, Ambassador Teplitz assured the Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters that SOFA was not meant to take advantage of Sri Lanka. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a US Ambassador, or any other foreign envoy, for that matter, making representations to the Mahanayakes as regards security and political issues.

US-Parliament accord

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat, at the 2015 presidential polls, paved the way for unprecedented US intervention here. Having helped the UNP-led coalition to form the government, the US expeditiously sought closer relationship with Sri Lanka parliament. The revelation, in June 2019, that the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had an advisor paid by the USAID should be examined against the backdrop of high profile agreement between the US-Sri Lanka Parliament, finalized in 2016. Many an eyebrow was raised over one-time Ambassador in Washington who subsequently served as Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam’s role as the Speaker’s advisor.

Kariyawasam played a significant role in finalizing the ACSA in 2017 August, having received the post of Foreign Secretary, in late July 2017. It would be pertinent to mention that career diplomat Kariyawasam had been Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Washington when the then TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran in June 2016, revealed extraordinary tripartite agreement among yahapalana government, the US and the TNA to establish hybrid war crimes court in line with Geneva accountability resolution of Oct 2015.

Sri Lanka should seriously inquire into three – year ‘Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) worth Rs 1.92 bn (USD 13 mn) launched in 2016 November. The project implemented by Maryland headquartered Development Alternatives, Inc (DAI) was the first of its kind executed in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka and the US finalized the agreement on SDGAP, in Sept 2016. On behalf of Sri Lanka, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is also the Chairman of the Constitutional Council, signed the agreement whereas Peter J. Roskam, Chairman of the House Democracy Partnership, represented the US. DAI operates in Asia, the Pacific, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, West Asia, North Africa as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.

Jayasuriya’s delegation consisted of Ajith P. Perera, Deputy Minister of Power and Renewable Energy (now with the dissident UNP group ‘ Samagi Jana Balavegaya’, in the 2020 parliamentary polls fray), Karunaratne Paranavithane, Deputy Minister of Parliament Reform and Mass Media (Still with the JHU, in the 2020 parliamentary polls fray on the UNP ticket), Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of City Planning and Water Supply (parliamentary polls fray on the SLPP ticket) and Dhammika Dassanayake, Secretary General of Parliament. The delegation was joined by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States of America, Prasad Kariyawasam.

Did Sri Lanka, in anyway benefit from such projects? Don’t forget that the parliament owed the public an explanation how 13.7 mn in US taxpayers’ money was utilized by the yahapalana government. Most importantly, did parliament consult the government as regards the SDGAP? It would be certainly interesting to know how the decision on SDGAP was made. In spite of Sri Lanka’s eternal appreciation of US backing, particularly intelligence support that enabled Sri Lanka to bring the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, by eradicating the LTTE sea supply route, the country cannot be ignorant of what is happening. Beginning with direct US intervention, at the 2010 January presidential election, Uncle Sam gradually stepped up its role at subsequent national level elections, pushing and influencing political parties as part of its overall strategy. Ambassador Teplitz’ recent declaration, as regards the 2020 parliament taking up MCC, reflects US confidence in the project.