Retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Merril Gunaratne quoted the then Air Force Commander Air Marshal Walter Fernando as having said at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, chaired by the then President JRJ, in the mid-80s: “It is not a laughing matter for me.” Fernando was responding to the late Lalith Athulathmudali, the then National Security Minister whose comment on an incident in Vavuniya that claimed the lives of several airmen dismayed the Air Marshal. Gunaratne had been there as the top intelligence representative.
Fernando served as the Commander of the Air Force from May 1, 1986, to July 1, 1990. Fernando retired a few weeks after the eruption of Eelam War II. It would be pertinent to mention his only son Squadron Leader A.P.W. Fernando, was among those killed when the LTTE brought down the Chinese-built Y8 flying over the Elephant Pass area, on July 5, 1992.
The revealing anecdote was one among many such disclosures in Gunaratne’s latest book ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this month. Gunaratne asserted that the Air Force Commander resented the Minister’s comment that apparently belittled the service.
The author of two previous books ‘Dilemma of an Island ‘ and ‘Cop in the Cross Fire,’ released in 2001 and 2011, respectively, the outspoken retired top cop couldn’t have launched his third at a better time than when the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PcoI), into the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, is on the verge of concluding its high profile inquiry. Gunaratne certainly didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the PCoI last year.
The question is whether perhaps the worst ever intelligence failure facilitated the coordinated suicide attacks on six targets on the morning of April 21, 2019? Or could it have been thwarted if the Attorney General’s Department acted swiftly, and decisively, when the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) brought the growing threat, posed by the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) leader Zahran Hashim, to its notice, in July 2017?
Kudos from retired Maj. Gen.
In his latest work, Gunaratne, whose illustrious career spanning 35 years included a significant period with the premier intelligence service, dealt with precision the deterioration of the once proud police service. In spite of ‘Perils of a Profession’ being rather short, the revelations, therein, are certainly explosive. There hadn’t been such disclosure in the past, by any other retired law enforcement officer.
Gunaratne’s writing skills received the acclaim of retired Maj. Gen. Lalin Fernando, an admirable writer himself. In a brief commendation of Gunaratne’s third book, Fernando asserted: “No gazetted police officer has shown his ability to write as lucidly on real concerns of the police, from professional competence to welfare of the beat constable.”
Having joined the police, in July 1965, Gunaratne served the department during a turbulent time, before leaving the service, as a Senior DIG. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion nine years after the author’s retirement, in 2000.
‘Perils of a Profession’ dealt aggressively with the deterioration of the service, over the years, resulting in an unprecedented crisis. The writer, without hesitation, blamed the politicians and the police for the degeneration of the department to such a pathetic state that today the once proud Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) is under investigation for dealing in heroin.
Retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, now in charge of the police, in his capacity as the Public Security Minister, should peruse ‘Perils of a Profession’ without further delay. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the police coming under a retired military officer, though the last government made a desperate bid to secure the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Law and Order Minister. The senior partner of the yahapalana administration wanted Fonseka to replace Sagala Ratnayake, one of the beleaguered UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s close associates. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not only brought the police under a retired Rear Admiral, he named retired Gen. Jagath Alwis, his first choice as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), as the new Secretary, Ministry of Public Order.
Against that background, another disclosure made by Gunaratne, regarding certain law enforcement officers thwarting Minister Ratnayake’s efforts at reforming the police, should be examined. That particular anecdote revealed how serving officers resented Ratnayake’s bid to secure the retired intelligence officer’s expertise. Perhaps Ratnayake hadn’t been aware of Wickremesinghe’s resentment towards Gunaratne whose controversial assessments on matters of national importance exasperated him.
‘Cop in the Cross Fire’ revealed how Wickremesinghe’s own views on national security matters clashed with those of Gunaratne during the latter’s tenure as an ‘advisor’ – 2002-2004. Gunaratne’s bold assessment, in his capacity as an ‘advisor’ on the rapid increase in the fighting cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after the signing of the highly controversial Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), finalized in Feb 2002, without the knowledge of President Kumaratunga, and much of his own government, quite angered the then Premier Wickremesinghe.
Gunaratne questioned security/intelligence strategies that had been in place, or were in the process of development when the NTJ struck in April 2019, in spite of receiving specific information from neighbouring India. The writer dealt expertly with the weakening of the police, including the premier intelligence apparatus over the years under whatever name it was called. In Chapter 7, titled ‘Moving into intelligence from normal police work,’ Gunaratne disclosed how Athulathmudali re-named what was then called Intelligence Services Division (ISD). Whatever, the country’s premier intelligence network was called, a senior policeman had been always at its helm.
In Gunaratne’s assessment, the Special Branch (SB) of the CID and the Military Intelligence (MI) played a relatively lower role when compared with that of the premier apparatus, called the State Intelligence Service (SIS), at the time the NTJ struck. That resulted in the SIS being placed under Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally, formerly of the MI. Interestingly, the then Premier Wickermesinghe found fault with the then Brigadier Sally for the writer’s reportage of the recovery of explosives in the north and the arrest of some suspects in the early 2016. The premier intelligence service had always been under a senior police officer. At the time the NTJ struck, SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena had been at the helm of the SIS. The proceedings undertaken by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the on-going PCoI revealed the existence of a special relationship between the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the SIS Chief.
Did the close association between the Commander-in-Chief and his spy chief, too, contribute to the overall deterioration of the security setup? The PSC, in its report tabled in Parliament on Oct 23 found fault with Jayawardena for the pathetic handling of the available Indian intelligence until the NTJ terrorists went on the rampage.
Gunaratne blamed an appointment of a novice as the head of the premier intelligence service, after the 1994 presidential election, for the rapid deterioration of the apparatus. Although, the author refrained from naming the officer, the recipient of the coveted post of Director, SIS, was the late retired Senior Superintendent of Police T.V. Sumanasekera.
Nilantha Jayawardena, who is now literally on the mat for the Easter Sunday intelligence failure, too, had served the SIS even then. Gunaratne’s reference to SIS having wiretapping apparatus is certainly not necessary as the premier intelligence outfit couldn’t perform its legitimate duties without that particular capacity.
The deterioration of politics can be certainly compared with the current political setup. Having read, utterly contemptuous account of the top political leadership and members of the Parliament, the police and the Parliament seemed to be in the same predicament.
According to Gunaratne, the rot had set in the wake of the UNP landslide, in 1977. The author compared his experience as SSP, Kelaniya and SSP Kurunegala during the period 1977-1978 and how some of those who were represented in parliament violated the laws of the land, misused police and political interference made at the highest levels. Among those miscreants who had been named by the retired cop was the late Minister Cyril Mathew. Gunaratne explained how the UNP cleverly used and abused the police in its diabolical project. An influential section of the police, for obvious reasons, cooperated with the then political leadership much to the dismay of those who struggled to thwart constant and belligerent political interference. Gunaratne earned the wrath of some UNP lawmakers for refusing to cooperate with the ruling party’s strategy. Some took up Gunaratne’s conduct with no less a person than JRJ and in some instances with Premier Ranasinghe Premadasa.
With the UNP enjoying an unprecedented 5/6 parliamentary power, the dictatorial UNP administration expected the police to fall in line. They largely did. The situation deteriorated further in the wake of the 1982, more or less, rigged referendum, that allowed the UNP to retain a monstrous overwhelming 2/3 majority, till 1988.
The late Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s short tenure as the President during the period 1993-1994 in the wake of Ranasinghe Premadasa’s May Day 1993 assassination, never really received much public attention. Wijetunga oversaw the party in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential polls in August and November, 1994, respectively. Wijetunga thwarted Wickremesinghe by facilitating the return of rebel Gamini Dissanayake back to the party. The author refrained from discussing Wijetunga’s political moves though he dealt harshly with the President’s destructive policy as regards the police. Gunaratne explained how the successful Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF), the late Lionel Karunasena, failed to prevent Wijetunga’s interference. The author examined Karunasena’s failure against the backdrop of his success in convincing JRJ and Premadasa not to interfere with the elite unit.
Gunaratne’s allegation, with regard to the shortsighted increase of the DIG cadre, from 11 to 30, overnight, and the number of Senior DIGs, from three to five, contributed to the overall deterioration of law enforcement, should be thoroughly examined. The accusation that Wijetunga lacked even the basic understanding of law enforcement thereby caused chaos in the overall administrative setup, by constant interference, should prompt a reappraisal of the whole department. Successive governments played politics with the police to varying degrees. After the change of governments, those who even vacated posts, or were moved out on disciplinary grounds, manipulated the utterly corrupt system to return to the service and secure backdated promotions. Backdoor promotions were routine and so widespread, higher ranks could be secured outside, what Gunaratne called, eligibility criteria.
A righteous IGP
‘Perils of a Profession’ explained how successive governments, since the 1977 general election, contributed to the ruination of the police department. Backdoor promotions had been a major cause of concern. Having dealt how he personally took up an alleged move to overtake him in the seniority line to pave the way for another, with President Premadasa, at an STF circuit bungalow, Gunaratne paid a glowing tribute to Cyril Herath, as the only IGP who had the strength to quit the service than play politics.
Gunaratne claimed he was present when Herath turned down an offer of an ambassadorial post from the then Defence Secretary Gen. Sepala Attygalle in the wake of the former’s decision to resign.
Gunaratne has quoted Herath as having told Attygalle: “Sir, I have not come to you with my resignation letter to canvas for an ambassadorial post.”
During PSC and PCoI proceedings, the alleged offer made by President Sirisena to the disgraced IGP Pujith Jayasundera to accept the responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage in return for a diplomatic posting, transpired. Obviously, Jayasundera declined the treacherous offer. The previous Rajapaksa administration named Mahinda Balasuriya, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Brazil, after he accepted responsibility for the police firing at a group of protesting Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FRZ) workers.
There certainly cannot be any other instance of a senior retired police officer coming out so strongly against the system at his own expense. Have you ever heard of any retired public servant objecting to a scheme that certainly benefited him at the taxpayers’ expense? Gunaratne discussed the controversial move to assign police personnel to retired IGPs and SDIGs for what the Association of Police Chiefs (APC) described as an effort to ‘maintain their reputation and dignity.’ The APC proposal that had been approved by the National Police Commission (NPC) on April 23, 2020, was the brainchild of retired SDIG Gamini Navaratne. The whole exercise was meant to provide a controversial facility on the basis that senior retired military officers enjoyed such a privilege.
Gunaratne’s thought-provoking opinions on law enforcement operations should be seriously examined. If the Public Security Ministry is genuinely interested in reforms, perhaps the Minister and Secretary can seek a Presidential Commission to make recommendations. Actually, Gunaratne has made some excellent proposals, first to arrest the decline and then improve the service. The police service has deteriorated to such an extent, it would be a herculean task to restore the standards to the pre-1977 period.
In fact, the blatant role the Office of the President had played, since the introduction of the JRJ Constitution in the ruination of the once public friendly service, shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. The deterioration of the police should be examined, taking into consideration extremely serious lapses on the part of the Attorney General’s Department in the run up to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. Although, Gunaratne never referred to the AG’s Department lapses that may have given the NTJ the time and the space to mount near simultaneous suicide attacks on six unprotected targets.
A shocking injustice
‘Perils of a Profession’ is the story of incredulity. Having suffered in the hands of the UNP as a result of him being dubbed an SLFPer, Gunaratne, in the wake of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s victory in 1994, was targeted over his alleged role in the Batalanda torture chamber. In spite of Gunaratne being cleared by way of an investigation carried out by the police at the behest of the Presidential Commission that probed Batalanda, the top cop was placed on compulsory leave. Gunaratne speculated whether the then government sent him on compulsory leave to pave the way for Lucky Kodituwakku to succeed retiring IGP Rajaguru. Gunaratne questioned how Kodituwakku, having resigned, following a rather short career, returned in the wake of the People’s Alliance (PA) victory to take the top post.
Gunaratne had no qualms in discussing perks and privileges enjoyed by the senior officers. The top layer seems to be having a good time. With a section of the department given special status, the others appear to be going ahead with their own projects. Last year’s exposure of the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) dealing in heroin is a grim reminder of the appalling state of affairs. The releasing of Easter Sunday terror suspect, Riyaj Bathiudeen, held by the CID in late Oct 2020, raised many an eyebrow. Let us hope the ‘Perils of a Profession’ really jolts the Public Security Ministry.
However, some may not buy Gunaratne’s narration. Critics may find fault with Gunaratne simply because some of the people he is now freely writing about are no longer alive. The author cannot deny the fact that he enjoyed the ride as the head of intelligence, under the UNP, for quite a long period, at a time the NIB was dubbed No Information Bureau.
The police top brass cannot absolve themselves of their failure to prevent the ‘83 riots. Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for that dastardly violence. Were the police taking orders from outside interests to cause a calamity here? The same thing happened in the run up to the Easter Sunday carnage and thereafter when Sinhala mobs went after ordinary Muslims. Both the police and the Army simply did not act even when mobs came in their hundreds on motorcycles from outside to places like Minuwangoda. Did the cops fire a single shot towards those rampaging mobs? Even our then big talking Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake did nothing.
Police had been always bumming those in power and this was a practice coming down from the colonial period. They were no angels prior to ‘77.
Whatever the shortcomings of President Wijetunga, he should receive the kudos for refusing to fix the election against Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in 1994. Normally the UNP was famous for stealing elections up to then.
Former President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, MP, was a notable absentee at the Government Party Leaders’ meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, on Dec 25th. Twice President, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the meeting. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who hadn’t obtained the membership of the SLPP (though he was that party’s nominee for 2019 presidential poll) was present at the three-hour long discussion that dealt with the current situation.
Tackling the Covid-19 situation, both local and foreign debt obligations and restoration of financial stability are formidable challenges, the government and all other political parties represented in the parliament should be concerned about. They cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current instability in every sector.
The Dec 25th discussion covered the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic, the simmering crisis over the cremation of Covid-19 Muslim victims, long-delayed Provincial Council polls, fresh threat posed by armyworm, how some officials exploited the absence of PC polls et al. Over two hours into the meeting, former CPSL General Secretary and ex-Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera sought approval from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to speak on a couple of issues.
Gunasekera received an invitation to the important government group self-evaluation in spite of him giving up the Communist Party General Secretary post on August 30, 2020 to pave the way for Dr. G. Weerasinghe.
The veteran Communist didn’t mince his words when he drew the attention of the top government leadership to the growing danger in Western powers exploiting the cremation of all Covid-19 victims as part of their overall strategy meant to undermine Sri Lanka, the rapidly deteriorating economic situation here, and the need to take the public into confidence and what the electorate expected from the SLPP government in the wake of the sweeping 2019 presidential election victory. Gunasekera also questioned how Asanga Abeygoonasekera, a civilian attached to the Defence Ministry, took an extremely hostile stand on China in a recent article carried in the state media. Gunasekera alleged that such a hasty stand could be severely detrimental to the country against the backdrop of continuing US-China confrontation at regional and global level.
None of those present therein responded to Gunasekera’s concerns. The warning issued at the party leaders’ meeting was nothing but a stark reminder of the daunting challenges the country faced in 2021.
Gunasekera’s awakening call should jolt the government to take stock of the situation and take tangible measures to address the issues. One-time COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Gunasekera’s unpalatable advice to explain the dire economic situation, to the people, must have caused quite a stir among those present.
No less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, without hesitation, has acknowledged the difficulties faced by the country as a result of the Covid-19 eruption. It would be pertinent to point out that the President, on April 29, 2020, told the then Acting Ambassador and Chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy, in Colombo, Hu Wei, that due to the nose-diving of the global economy Sri Lanka lost its key income generating sources, like the apparel industry and tourism. The President’s Office quoted Rajapaksa as having said that it might take a considerable time for the global economy to recover, hence the long-time impact on Sri Lanka.
At the time President Rajapaksa made that statement, the country was coping with the first Covid-19 outbreak better than most countries, due to prompt military-like reaction to it.
The situation was brought under control by June. However, former Minister Gunasekera has issued the warning at a time the country was struggling to overcome the far more deadly Covid-19 second wave. The economy is in tatters with the bankrupt Opposition seeking to exploit, even the good work being done by the government, to its advantage. Despite the national economy having suffered irreparable damage, all political parties continue to play politics with the issue at hand.
The second Covid-19 eruption happened in the first week of October 2020. The government owed an explanation to the public as to how the second outbreak happened. In the absence of proper inquiry into widespread allegations that Covid-19 eruption may have originated at Brandix apparel facility in Minuwangoda, Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, issued specific instructions to the then Acting IGP C.D. Wickremaratne on Oct 27, Oct 29 and Nov 05 as regards the inquiry. The President’s Counsel directed the police to investigate negligence on the part of Brandix, and government officials, in what he called the creation of the ‘Brandix cluster.’
The public is yet to be informed of the outcome, or at least progress, of the investigation. Public Security Minister, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera should look into the status of the CID probe. A deeply concerned AG went to the extent of personally briefing the investigation team before the commencement of the inquiry. Most importantly, the AG stressed to the Acting IGP his (AG’s) legitimate duty and responsibility to issue instructions to the investigators, personally.
Against the backdrop of a much deteriorated economy, the government should establish how the second wave started. The government cannot turn a blind eye or conveniently forget the origins of the Covid-19 eruption. A really silly attempt was made by interested parties to blame the Covid-19 eruption on Ukrainian nationals. They also tried to pin the blame on members of a private airline crew who stayed at Hotel Ramada, Seeduwa, as well as group of technicians invited by the Air Force to inspect its AN 32s before them being dispatched to Ukraine for overhaul.
Let there be clarity and genuine understanding in this matter. The Opposition, the civil society and the media should push the SLPP government to bring the investigation to an early successful conclusion. The inordinate delay in finalizing the inquiry, or attempts to sweep it under the carpet, will only make matters worse.
Before we move onto other matters, the SLPP’s thinking on Provincial Council polls, too, should be examined. Several ministers, including Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Dayasiri Jayasekera, emphasized the need to conduct the much-delayed PC polls. However, some sections of the government are strongly opposed to the PC polls, in addition to the nine-member Expert Committee, headed by Romesh de Silva, PC, entrusted with the far more important and crucial task of formulating a new Constitution for the country. The proposal to conduct the PC polls under the ‘old system’ by moving an amendment in Parliament as suggested by the Chairman of the Election Commission, Nimal Punchihewa, can be quite disastrous as far as the formulation of constitutional proposals is concerned.
New Year wishes
Hiru’s main news bulletin on January 1, 2021, included statements issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and various others. Among them was President’s Counsel de Livera, who had followed an unprecedented path never even dreamt by any of his predecessor Attorneys General. Have you ever heard of a previous AG, on both print and electronic media, so much?
Addressing the AG Department employees, in Sinhala, De Livera said that as a functioning institution the department should definitely make a difference. But, making a difference wasn’t sufficient. The people should be able to realize and feel the difference. Livera emphasized the need to perform their duties and responsibilities in such a way, the public would know what was going on.
The New Year portends a series of challenges. The Office of the President, the Legislature and Judiciary face the daunting challenge of navigating a safer passage as the country faces both external and internal obstacles. Former Minister Gunasekera, in his own style, has reminded the powers that be of the need to identify major issues at hand and take remedial measures without delay. But, will there be political will to tackle the contentious issues?
The much-touted 20th Amendment, enacted in late Oct. 2020, hadn’t restored the desired political stability. The SLPP repeatedly assured that the 20th Amendment would be the panacea for all ills caused by the 19th Amendment, passed with an overwhelming 2/3 majority, in Parliament, on April 28, 2015. All those who had voted for the 19th Amendment, voted for the 20th Amendment whereas Maithripala Sirisena skipped the vote.
A silly strategy
Having backed the 19th Amendment to the hilt and prevailing on doubters in the UPFA to back it, Sirisena, now an ordinary lawmaker representing the Polonnaruwa District, excused himself from voting. However, 13 other SLFP lawmakers elected and appointed (Dr. Suren Raghavan) voted for the 20th Amendment. The SLFP group in the SLPP government is the second largest in the coalition. The SLFP is quite displeased over the way the SLPP managed coalition politics. As part of the SLFP strategy, the party sounded to the SLPP that it might go it alone at the next PC polls. Sirisena explained his party’s stance on several issues, including the possibility of contesting PC polls on its own devolution and the rights of the minorities, in an interview with Meera Srinivasan, The Hindu correspondent in Colombo. Even if the SLFP finally decides to go it alone, it is unlikely to pose a threat to the powerful SLPP, now in control of the vast majority of Local Government bodies, the Parliament and the Office of the President. The SLPP is unlikely to succumb to the SLFP tactics, regardless of Sirisena’s rhetoric and that of its General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera.
Let us reproduce the relevant section from The Hindu interview, posted on Dec 30, 2020, and updated on the following day. The Hindu Q: You recently remarked that the SLFP faced a “huge injustice” in the parliamentary elections and have hinted at possibly contesting the Provincial Council elections separately. Would you do that?
“We were treated unfairly when the candidates were picked ahead of the general elections in August 2020. Our party didn’t get a slot in either Kalutara or Nuwara-Eliya districts. In Gampaha, we were given only one. In Kurunegala, we were given only two slots. In the districts we are strong, we weren’t given a fair number of slots. We had asked for 30 candidates. Had we been given 30 slots in the last general election, we would have got at least 25 in Parliament. They [ruling party] organized political attacks on our candidates who had been nominated. So, while we still look forward to contesting the Provincial Council elections as a coalition, we insist on the fair share of seats due to us. If we get that, we will have no problem going to polls together with the government. If there is no fair treatment, our party will decide on a solo journey. We are ready for both options.”
The SLFP is in a pathetic situation. Formerly the major alternate political power, the SLFP, though being represented by 14 lawmakers in the current Parliament, is desperate. Of the 14-member group, only one is elected from the Jaffna District (Angajan Ramanathan) contested on the SLFP ticket (hand symbol). In other words, both the SLFP and the UNP, the two major political parties in the country, are reduced to one lawmaker each, elected under their own symbol. The humiliating and debilitating electoral setbacks suffered by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, caused permanent damage to the two parties. The emergence of the SLPP (145 elected members) and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB/54 members) should be examined against the backdrop of dilution of the UNP and the SLFP. Would it be too harsh, if one called for examination of the demise of those parties? The failure on the part of the UNP to resolve its leadership crisis, even five months after the last embarrassing defeat, is a grim reminder of its plight. The continuing disagreement on who should fill the only National List slot secured by the party at the last general election has further undermined the party. The party Constitution is silent on filling National List vacancies. In other words, if Wickremesinghe is so desired, he can keep the vacancy till the current term ends. The Expert Committee formulating the new Constitution should propose remedial measures.
The main Opposition SJB, too, is divided over policy. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and its partner Rauff Hakeem are struggling to cope with dissidents. Over half a dozen lawmakers, elected on the SJB ticket, and one of its National List MPs Diana Gamage, voted for the 20th Amendment, much to their embarrassment.
The SLPP must realize though the disillusioned political Opposition doesn’t pose a challenge, the Covid-19 and a plethora of other issues threatened to overwhelm the administration.
Destabilized by debt
The China-US clash is perhaps one of the major issues Sri Lanka should be seriously worried about. With the growing US-India nexus entering a new phase, vis-a-vis Chinese challenge, Sri Lanka is under heavy pressure to join the US-led strategic coalition. Indo-Pacific Defense FORUM, in a recent edition, extensively dealt with the Chinese challenge and counter measures that were being taken (Volume 45, Issue 1, 2020). The edition is a must read for our decision makers and members of Parliament. Under a section titled Setbacks to OBOR (One Belt, One Road), the US Indo –Pacific Command categorized Sri Lanka and the Maldives as countries destabilized by debt.
The MOC (Memorandum of Cooperation) entered into in late May 2019 by the yahapalana administration with India and Japan on the ECT (East Container Terminal) at the Colombo harbour should be examined against the US-led global coalition built against China. Contrary to promises made in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls, the SLPP is inclined to go ahead with the project. Against the backdrop of what can be certainly described as an economic downturn, even far more serious than during the height of the war, and intense pressure over the 99-year leasing of the H’tota port to China, the SLPP government may not have a way out of what can be safely called ECT imbroglio.
National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa MP, raised the finalization of the proposed agreement on ECT at the recent government party leaders’ meet. Weerawansa strongly opposed the deal on the ECT. His erstwhile colleagues in the JVP, too, are at least ostensibly opposed to the Indian role. They have quite conveniently forgotten that the original agreement was moved by President Sirisena’s government, which the JVP helped to install in 2015 and thereafter the comrades propped up that government nicely from behind the scene. The current crop of JVP Leaders no doubt came up in the aftermath of the then UNP government and its death squads wiping out the cream of the party and its leadership barring one, who managed to escape to India at the time.
A hard hitting statement issued by the National Joint Committee (NJC), carried in the Dec 30, 2020 edition of The Island, took a pretty hard stand on the SLPP move. Finely drafted statement flayed the government, the strongest warning issued by the NJC since the last presidential election.
Regardless of the US leaving Sri Lanka out of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact recently over the latter’s hesitant approach, Washington continues to eye the country firmly. The US has already finalized ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in August 2017 though it was not successful with SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).
In spite of repeated assurances given by Sri Lanka, Western powers remained seriously concerned about growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. In addition to the H’tota port, secured during the Yahapalana administration, China runs a major operation within the Colombo harbour. Set up during the UPFA administration, Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd., (CICT) is a joint venture Company between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CICT is a listed blue chip company in the Hong Kong stock exchange. While H’tota lease covers a 99-year period, CICT agreement is for a 35-year Build Operate and Transfer operation. China holds 85% of the partnership while the balance pittance of 15% is being held by SLPA.
The Geneva sessions, in late February-March, can turn nastier with Western powers stepping up pressure on Sri Lanka over her decision to quit the 2015 Geneva Resolution. It would be important to keep in mind that those countries might gang up against Sri Lanka over her relationship with China and adopt a common stand in Geneva. That is the undeniable truth. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned human rights issue is nothing but a key element in their overall strategy meant to browbeat the country.
Some key recent happenings in Europe like the departure of the UK from the EU obviously with the intention to firmly align with its colonial cousins, like the US, Australia and Canada, the determination of Europe to complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia despite dire warnings from Washington (once completed, it is set to significantly increase Russian gas supplies to Germany), and even the recent signing of a free trade deal by EU with China despite Trump trying to line them up against Beijing are worthy fissures that might stand in good stead for us.
The growing hostility between China and India as well as the latter joining the US project against China certainly increase pressure on Sri Lanka, now in an unenviable position. Waste, corruption and irregularities in every sector and the failure on the part of Parliament to ensure financial discipline surely weakened the country, thereby paving the way for aggressive foreign interventions.
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, MP, recently told The Island that Sri Lanka had no option but to involve India in the development of the deep water facility, the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, which has been built to accommodate the largest container ships that ply around the world carrying as many as 16,000 containers (TEUs), like its competing Chinese-run Colombo International Container Terminal also in the more recently built and what is known as the Colombo South harbour.
The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Kandy District lawmaker said so in response to the writer seeking an explanation as regards his stand on the issue at hand in the wake of his quite controversial statement on Derana ‘Wadapitiya’, anchored by Chathura Alwis.
In response to The Island assertion that the SLMC leader took a bold but factual stand on the matter and responded: “Why beat around the bush? That is the truth.”
He hit the nail on the head, when Attorney-at-Law Hakeem declared that due to the Colombo harbour’s very heavy dependence on Indian transhipment cargo, there was no choice.
Having first entered Parliament in 1994 on the People’s Alliance (PA) National List, Hakeem took over the leadership of the SLMC soon after its founder leader M.H.M. Ashraff was killed in a helicopter crash in September 2000.
Amidst a simmering dispute over alleged Indian investment in the ECT that had engulfed the SLPP administration, Hakeem is the only lawmaker to publicly come out with the somewhat unpalatable truth that the bulk of Colombo port’s business come from Indian transhipment cargo. Hakeem, who has been in the PA, UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) and the UNF (United National Front) governments as a Cabinet Minister didn’t mince his words and quite surprised the other participants, Wasantha Samarasinghe (former JVP MP and its current Anuradhapura District leader) and State Ministers, D.V. Chanaka (Hambantota District) and D.B. Herath (Kurunegala District).
Hakeem joined the programme after its commencement but lucidly explained his stand on a number of matters, including the simmering dispute over cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and the high profile ECT transaction. The SLMC group, within the 54-member SJB, consists of five lawmakers, including Hakeem. Hakeem recently suffered a severe setback when his four other MPs in Parliament voted for the SLPP’s 20th Amendment last October, while he alone from his party voted against it.
Besides the yahapalana regime, in which Hakeem’s SLMC was a full partner, had already muddied the Lankan waters by giving away the Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease. So it is only natural for New Delhi to have a foothold in Colombo with the ECT. Even our comrades, the JVP, though now making lots of noise over ECT going to the Adani Group of India, hardly murmured a word in protest when it was cavorting with the yahapalana regime at the time of the virtual sale of Hambantota to the Chinese.
The Kandy District MP, who had previously held the Ports and Shipping portfolios, said that the SLPA (Sri Lanka Ports Authority) owned JCT (Jaya Container Terminal) in addition to Unity Container Terminal. The SLMC leader emphasized the need to further develop JCT whereas CMPH (China Merchant Port Holdings) managed Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) and Keells-led conglomerate owned South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT) conducted their operations successfully.
Amidst the simmering ECT issue, the former Minister declared that though some opposed foreign investment in such strategic projects, the country facing a daunting financial crisis had no option but to accept the Indian investment.
Ironically when the SLPA advertised the Colombo South Harbour for investment after it built its breakwater with a USD 300 million loan from the Asian Development Bank after the end of the war, India was not interested and for that matter no one else made any worthwhile offer other than the Chinese. However as in the case of Hambantota, New Delhi awakened to its value when the China Merchant Port Holdings singlehandedly bid and obtained the CICT berth on a 35-year Build, Operate and Transfer agreement after 2010, with the SLPA holding a mere 15 per cent stake in the venture.
Lawmaker Hakeem asserted that the situation here could be stabilized by Indian involvement in the expansion of the overall Colombo Port operations. The SJB constituent took up the position that the country was in such a desperate situation, the incumbent government couldn’t afford to antagonize India.
How Indian investments can stabilize Lanka
Hakeem took a very clear stand on ECT as well as overall foreign investment in the ports and shipping sectors. The former Ports Minister articulated that against the backdrop of foreign investment in SAGT, the first public private partnership container terminal in Sri Lanka and also CICT, there couldn’t be any issue with regard to the agreed Indian investment.
SAGT launched operations in 1999. According to the SAGT: “The Company is a Board of Investment flagship entity with approximately 60% of Sri Lankan shareholding, and is backed by John Keells Holdings, APM Terminals, SLPA and Peony investments (subsidiary of Evergreen Marine Corporation).”
State Minister Herath interrupted MP Hakeem to raise a question though the former ignored the SLPP politician.
Hakeem declared that under no circumstances he would say not to accept Indian investment though the final decision lies with the incumbent government. The former Shipping Minister made reference to current Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena declaration that 49 per cent of the ECT ownership would be foreign and the remaining 51 owned by the government. SLPA holds just 15 per cent each of SAGT and CICT. The SAGT deal is for a 30-year period on BOT (Build Operate and Transfer basis) whereas the agreement on CICT covers 35 years.
Hakeem’s stand drew opposition from all other participants, including Chathura Alwis. However, Hakeem stood firm on his stand regardless of consequences. The SLMC leader asserted that Sri Lanka couldn’t turn a blind eye to the need to appease India. Declaring that Sri Lanka had appeased India before, Hakeem, turning towards Wasantha Samarasinghe emphasized the country should come to terms with the reality.
State Minister Chanaka asked Hakeem whether the previous yahapalana government entered into a MoC (Memorandum of Cooperation) with India in respect of the ECT. Hakeem however conveniently side-stepped the query, while JVPer Samarasinghe said that was finalized in May 2019.
After having been an active team player in the much muddied yahapalana rule, MP Hakeem however had the nerve to ridicule the incumbent government’s much touted ‘neutral’ foreign policy. “I haven’t the slightest idea what this government meant by neutral or balanced foreign policy. If we took a non-aligned stand, the public can clearly understand what the government intended. How one can balance the foreign policy,” MP Hakeem said.
Hakeem silent on inter-terminal transport crisis
Trade union leader Samarasinghe alleged that one-time Ports and Shipping Minister Hakeem conveniently failed to mention the crisis caused by what the JVPer called inter-terminal transport.
Samarasinghe alleged that the inter-terminal transport was in a mess. For want of sufficient space within the harbour area, vessels couldn’t be unloaded. Samarasinghe claimed that successive governments caused unprecedented deterioration due to giving the relevant contract to immensely politically influential people outside proper tender procedures.
MP Hakeem without hesitation acknowledged the crisis within the harbour, in addition to the simmering issue over the ECT.
State Minister Herath sought MP Hakeem’s opinion on the leasing of the Hambantota Port for a period of 99 years to CMPH in late July 2017. Having been a partner to that pact, MP Hakeem naturally defended the agreement on Hambantota Port to the hilt. Hakeem had been a member of the Cabinet of the yahapalana government that finalized the controversial deal on the Hambantota Port. The then Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga strongly opposed the deal. UNPer Ranatunga’s stance finally led to him being replaced by SLFPer Mahinda Samarasinghe. Ranatunga was replaced on May 22, 2017. The former national cricket Captain received the Petroleum Resources Development Ministry as a consolation prize.
Both the Minister and his brother, Dhammika objected to the deal whereas Vasudeva Nanayakkara on behalf of the Joint Opposition, moved the Supreme Court against the port transaction.
President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe ensured the finalization of the controversial transaction following the delay caused by the opposition.
Panelist Samarasinghe asked Hakeem whether the yahapalana government used USD 1.2 bn received from CMPH to settle what we owed China. Warning Sri Lanka would run out of foreign reserves next year once debts were settled, MP Hakeem predicted an unprecedented financial crisis.
The SLMC leader asserted that except China all other countries were in deepening financial turmoil. The MP categorized Sri Lanka with Angola, Liberia and Lebanon. While acknowledging the economic deterioration started during the yahapalana administration, MP Hakeem faulted the incumbent government for not being able to tackle the situation.
Hakeem warned that unless the government and the Opposition worked together, the country would have to go down on its knees to international lenders as Sri Lanka had done before on many occasions. In spite of big boasts by some, those in power and others should be realistic and be aware of the challenges faced by the country. Hakeem predicted a massive tragedy. He expressed the view that against the backdrop of the incumbent government asking for foreign investments, it should be ready to consider investments in sectors preferred by those having the wherewithal. “We have to be realistic.”
Emphasizing the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to exploit the country’s strategic position in the East-West route on the Indian Ocean, the SLMC leader explained how the two strategic harbours in Colombo and Hambantota could be utilized.
Now that Sri Lanka had given controlling shares to one terminal at the Colombo harbour to China why not another to India, the SJB lawmaker asserted, demanding that Sri Lanka adopt a realistic approach as the country is desperately in need of foreign investment.
Subsequently, Hakeem suggested that the controlling shares of the ECT should be given to India, Japan though JVPer Samarasinghe insisted the SLPA could handle it. “With the installation of three gantry cranes, 400 m long ECT is in operation now. A further 800 m has to be built,” Samarasinghe said, asserting USD 400 mn investment was required. With the three cranes, ECT in op even now with the 440m already built, now had to build 800 m more, which required USD 400 mn.
Declaring the SAGT and CICT generated an annual income of USD 160 mn and 250 mn, respectively,
Samarasinghe asked why investors could not build a terminal in the remaining Western side. “It can be bigger than all existing facilities. Why do we have to give up lucrative ECT?”
Samarasinghe predicted in spite of claims that SLPA would receive 51 per cent and the investor 49 holding per cent, finally ECT, it too, was expected to be eventually shared in the proportion of 15 per cent to the SLPA and 85 per cent to the investor.
ECT aggravates Prez, PM dispute
The then President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe clashed over the ECT. The dispute caused rapid deterioration of yahapalana relationship in the run-up to the sacking of Wickremesinghe’s government on Oct 26, 2018. Wickremesinghe insisted on Indian investment whereas Sirisena rejected it. But, Wickremesinghe went ahead with the project regardless of the President’s intervention. Amidst deepening turmoil, Wickremesinghe brought in Japan into the picture.
On the instructions of Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka, Japan and India signed a MoC on the ECT on May 28, 2019. According to an SLPA statement issued following the signing of the MoC, the GoSL through the SLPA retained 100% ownership of the ECT, while the Terminal Operatiing Company, is jointly owned. Sri Lanka will hold a 51 per cent-stake in the project and the joint venture partners will retain 49%.
The ECT is positioned about 3 km away from the China-funded Colombo Port City on reclaimed land on Colombo’s sea front.
“Japan is likely to provide a 40-year soft loan with a 0.1 percent interest rate,” The Hindu quoted Sudarshana Gunawardana, Director of Development Communications at the Prime Minister’s office as having said. The SLPA then termed the “envisaged Japanese loan” as “one of the best loan terms Sri Lanka has obtained”.
What is not yet clear is whether the incumbent government intends to go ahead with the MoC finalized by Wickremesinghe or change it.
JVP, SJB on ECT deal
The JVP played a significant role in paving the way for the disastrous Maithripala Sirisena presidency. The likes of trade unionist Samarasinghe have conveniently forgotten how the JVP backed UNP’s presidential candidate Sirisena, the longstanding General Secretary of the SLFP. Having installed Sirisena, the UNP-led coalition comprising one-time LTTE mouthpiece Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the JVP, the SLMC pursued an agenda of its own. One shouldn’t be surprised by lawmaker Hakeem standing as a UNP breakaway faction the SJB still followed UNP strategies though Wickremesinghe obviously had no say in its affairs.
Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella’s recent declaration that the government should take advantage of the constitution making process undertaken by the previous yahapalana government is a case in point.
Lawmakers Kirieilla and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake recently flayed the government over the decision to involve India’s biggest ports and logistic company Adani Group in the operation. Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited seems to be confident of overcoming the obstacles. The project that had been delayed due to labour protests launched ahead of the last parliamentary polls in August drew stepped up condemnation of the SJB and the JVP.
It would be pertinent to ask whether the SJB and the JVP opposed only the involvement of Adani Group in the ECT development or disputed the MoC finalized in May 2019 in the run-up to Nov 2019 presidential polls by the previous regime, in which JVP and present day SJB members were partners?
SJB heavyweight Kiriella speculated whether the government intended to win over Indian Premier Narendra Modi by giving control of the ECT to billionaire Gautam Adani. Kiriella asserted that Sri Lanka couldn’t appease India by giving ECT to a close friend of Modi. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Obviously, the SJB hasn’t taken into consideration the roles played by India and Japan as well as Australia in the overall Indo-Pacific US strategy meant to counter the growing Chinese challenge. The US led coalition is still struggling to cope up with the vastly strengthened China relentlessly pursuing an anti- China policy.
A ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan
JVP leader Dissanayake is on record as having said that a director and a local shareholder of Shangri-La who had been involved with Viyathmaga, too, promoted the deal with Adani Group. The JVPer also alleged that the same person immensely benefited from recent government decisions to change import levies on sugar and coconut oil.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to New Delhi and Colombo highlighted their strategy. There is no doubt the Adani Group’s move on the ECT had been approved by the highest level of political leadership and the talk of Sri Lanka trying to appease India by involving Gautam Adani is nothing but bunkum.
The public should not forget the then Premier Wickremesinghe entered into a ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ with Japan in early Oct, 2015. In the following year on Oct 09, the training squadron of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) was in Colombo to underscore the strengthening of the partnership. The writer had an opportunity to visit JS Kashima on the invitation of the Japanese Embassy in Colombo. Asked for a clarification as regards growing Japanese military role in Asia in support of the US as well as joint military cooperation among the US, Japan and India in response to the Chinese Challenge, Commanding Officer of the squadron Rear Admiral Hidetoshi Iwasaki explained the circumstances under which the Japanese forces could be deployed overseas along with the US.
Sri Lanka-Japan ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ should be examined taking into consideration three agreements sought by the US, the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement finalized in early August 2017), stalled MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact and SOFA (Status of Forces) agreement. The recent US declaration that Sri Lanka wouldn’t be accommodated in the MCC Compact is unlikely to be the end of the US efforts to bring Sri Lanka under its control.
As part of overall Western strategy, the US seeks a government receptive in Colombo. The US wants to deny China access to Sri Lanka. The US made an abortive bid to install the then General Sarath Fonseka as the President in January 2010. However, the US project succeeded at the January 2015 presidential election. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime initially took a hardline stand on China. Some members of that administration responsible for Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 alleged corruption couldn’t be tackled here unless Chinese investments were drastically pruned. Having accused China of promoting corruption here, the yahapalana administration ended up handing over the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease to China.
In the run-up to the July 2017 Hambantota Port deal, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa accompanied by ex-External Affairs Minister and Chairman of the SLPP Prof. G.L. Peiris visited Beijing where the issue was discussed. During the weeklong visit in late 2016, they also visited Southern China. They urged the Chinese to stick to the original Hambantota development project to avert possible protests. They suggested it would be better to utilize 750 acres as originally planned. This suggestion was made against the backdrop of the then Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema’s revelation that the Chinese wanted 15,000 acres of land in the Hambantota district for large scale development projects. In the second week of January 2017, Wickremesinghe launched the Hambantota project in spite of President Sirisrena’s objections. Wickremesinghe ignored Sirisena’s claim that the agreement hadn’t been finalized yet. Having launched the Hambantota project, Wickremesinghe declared that negotiations were underway with India and Japan for the development of the strategic Trincomalee Port.
With US-China hostility on the rise, Sri Lanka shouldn’t expect breathing space from either party. A much weaker economy as a result of the rampaging corona epidemic when compared with the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2019, should prompt Sri Lanka to adopt an austerity drive.
Let that begin at the Parliament, dubbed the most corrupt institution in the country by no less a person than one-time Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa, PC.