Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Schoolchildren gather at a House on fire with shocking revelations

  SPECIAL REPORT : Part 447

Published

  
Primary students visiting Parliament on Dec 01 (pics courtesy Parliament)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Narendra Fernando, Sergeant-at-Arms of the crisis-ridden Parliament, has declared that the largest number of students, in the post-independence era, visited the House on Thursday (Dec. 01).

Director, Legislative Services, Janakantha Silva, who is also the Acting Director of Communication, quoted Fernando as having said that approximately 5,000 students, from 32 schools, received permission to visit Parliament on that day. The top official was further quoted as having said that was a world record.

According to the statement, issued by Parliament, last Thursday, since the re-opening of Parliament for students on Sept, 19, 2022, the House received over 25,000 schoolchildren. Declaring that schoolchildren have been allowed, as per a decision taken by the Committee on Parliamentary Business, chaired by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the Parliament appreciated the support extended by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, for the initiative taken by the House.

President Wickremesinghe has also assured funds required to provide a free glass of milk for each school child, visiting Parliament from next month. The House declared that this move received the blessings of both the government and the Opposition.

The government and Opposition owed an explanation as to what they really expected to achieve by allowing schoolchildren to observe parliamentary and at times unparliamentary debates. The conduct of members of Parliament has deteriorated, over the years, to such an extent, the media, on several occasions, questioned why schoolchildren were exposed to the utterly disgraceful conduct of the people’s uncouth elected members.

The day after the statement, issued by the Serjeant-at-Arms, a clash between Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and State Wildlife Minister Wimalaweera Dissanayake proved again that the Parliament is certainly not suitable for schoolchildren. The exchange, triggered by the war-winning Army Commander’s disparaging comment on the Digamadulla District lawmaker, over the controversial digging of trenches, underscored the appalling status.

The Gampaha District Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP earned the wrath of Wimalaweera Dissanayake for being harshly critical of digging trenches at the latter’s behest to thwart marauding wild elephants causing havoc in peasant homesteads. Fonseka’s declaration that the State Minister’s strategy was foolish enraged the State Minister who called the five- star General Kalawedda (pole cat), Vel Vidane (a somewhat demeaning and distorted translation with not even a hint of military prowess of the term Field Marshal), etc.

How many schoolchildren had been in the gallery when the war-winning General was abused in such a manner because of his own provocation of a self-made man? Wimalaweera Dissanayake has even earned a university degree, through sheer personal perseverance, amidst much adversity. The insinuation by the Field Marshal that the digging of trenches is a ruse to carry out sand mining at an unprecedented scale cannot be ignored. Though in this particular instance cited, it may not have been the case, knowing Dissanayake’s true character. But the crux of the matter is that in a ‘land like no other’ whether anything can be done without the powers that be making money in such usual instances. How many schoolchildren witnessed the exchange between lawmakers Fonseka and Wimalaweera Dissanayake?

Safi Nagar affair

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena at the launch of Punchi Dupathe Kurulu Kathandaraya. Chief of Staff and Deputy Secretary General of the Parliament, Mrs. Kushani Rohanadeera, is next to the Speaker

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s attack on Environment Minister Nazeer Ahamed, also on Friday, over Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) authorization of a massive sand mining racket in Safi Nagar, in the East, exposed corruption from the highest level to the lowest rung in this vital government institution. The accusations were justified on the basis of a letter Secretary, Environment Ministry, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, has written to Director General, GSMB, Sajjana de Silva, late last month, demanding an explanation, within 14 days, regarding the issuance of an illegal permit for sand mining in Safi Nagar, in the Muttur electorate.

Those schoolchildren, visiting Parliament, must have got a firsthand opportunity to hear how politicians and officials abused their authority. The scale of corruption must have shocked them. Parliament should be ashamed of what is continuing to happen in this bankrupt country.

Environment Minister Nazeer Ahamed never disputed the shocking revelation that GSMB Chairman Dr. Senarath Hewage Prasad Manjula, as the head of a private mining company, called Uptown Ventures, had received a mining license. Manjula has received the appointment, as GSMB Chairman, in Feb. 2022, after the sacking of Prof. Anura Walpola under controversial circumstances.

Before further discussing the happenings, in Parliament, on Friday, let me recall what Manjula’s predecessor, Prof. Walpola, told Pamodi Waravita of ‘The Morning’, in an exclusive interview carried in its online edition, on March 02, 2022. The story, headlined ‘Removed GSMB Chair levels allegations against GSMB DG’, the writer dealt with the circumstances leading to Sajjana de Silva’s appointment as Director General of GSMB. Accordingly, Sajjana de Silva has received the appointment as DG during the Covid-19 lockdown, on the basis of his seniority.

Prof. Walpola has explained that the GSMB board made the appointment, on a temporary basis, as it couldn’t physically meet, due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Sajjana de Silva filled the vacancy created with the retirement of the person who served in that position. The new appointment took effect in March 2020. Walpola is on record as having said that when the GSMB board physically met in June 2020, Sajjana de Silva’s appointment was rejected. However, the DG produced a letter he had received from then Environment Minister S.M. Chandrasena that confirmed his appointment.

Prof. Walpola, who received appointment as Chairman, GSMB, in Dec. 2019, claimed that at the time Sajjana de Silva obtained confirmation he was under investigation by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).

In spite of a spate of complaints against the new DG, the Ministry refrained from taking action against him. Prof. Walpola was quoted as having alleged that the DG had the backing of six GSMB personnel, under investigation.

Perhaps, the most interesting disclosure, made by Prof. Walpola, was the issuance of a license to his successor, Prasad Manjula, by DG Sajjana de Silva, contrary to the Mines and Mineral Act. Obviously, the then Environment Minister, the incumbent Minister as well as successive Ministry Secretaries, chose to turn a blind eye.

It would be pertinent to stress that Prof. Walpola lost the chairmanship, of this vital state enterprise, less than two weeks before the GSMB board was to appear before the parliamentary watchdog committee.

Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) lawmaker Shanakiyan Rasamanickam first raised the issue at hand at a COPE meeting, on February 23, 2020. The Batticaloa District MP questioned the rationale behind accommodating the proprietor of a mining company as the Chairman of GSMB. Obviously, the COPE lacked the power to intervene. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration not only allowed the illegal transaction but also protected the wrongdoers.

Friday’s attacks on the government, over the Safi Nagar affair, should be examined against the backdrop of a despicable project that placed the GSMB in the hands of a person who had been engaged in large scale sand mining.

Those who allowed schoolchildren to observe parliamentary proceedings should be aware the Parliament has nothing to offer except educate them on unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement.

 Joint attack on Nazeer

Statements made by JVP leader Dissanayake, TNA MP Rasamanickam, and SJB MP Ajith Mannapperuma, as regards the Safi Nagar, bared an unbelievable state of affairs. The Parliament dealt with the matter, during the committee stage debate with the JVP, TNA and SJB, demanding why Minister Ahamed protected the culprits. The JVPer largely based his criticism on Dr. Jasinghe’s no nonsense letter, that demanded a plausible explanation, within 14 days.

Having contested the last general election, on the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) ticket, in August 2020, Deputy Leader of that party Ahamed, an engineer by profession, at the onset of the unprecedented political turmoil, switched his allegiance, in April 2022, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ahamed simply ignored party leader Rauf Hakeem warning of disciplinary action for what he called breach of party discipline.

With the advent of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the President, in July, the Batticaloa District MP received the environment portfolio. Ahamed seems to have so far stood by the GSMB operation. However, Dr. Jasinghe’s missive to DG, GSMB suggested that the Environment Ministry finally responded to continuing criticism over the Safi Nagar affair.

Both print, electronic, including social media, continuously attacked the government over the inordinate delay in taking action against both the DG and Chairman of GSMB. ‘Hiru’ spearheaded the media campaign with aggressive coverage of the developments continuously, until the damaging disclosure in Parliament on Friday.

Lawmaker Dissanayake asked why Uptown Ventures was granted a license to engage in sand mining, in state land, in a clear case of conflict of interest and regardless of a proposal made by another party. The MP has taken up the issue against the backdrop of Dr. Jasinghe’s allegation that DG, GSMB, discredited and abused his position.

MP Rasamanickam declared in Parliament that GSMB Chairman was the person who secured the license to remove 100,000 cubes of sand from Safi Nagar. The MP questioned how an official, who is supposed to ensure transparency and legality in sand mining, received a license for the same? The TNA representative declared his readiness to face any legal challenge. Declaring he had the required evidence to prove his accusations, MP Rasamanickam alleged the DG, GSMB, is responsible for all corrupt activities therein.

The Batticaloa District MP said that if necessary he would call an international press briefing regarding Minister Ahamed’s failure to act on the letter issued by Dr. Jasinghe, to DG, at the centre of the whole sordid deal. The TNA representative demanded the immediate interdiction of the official while warning of consequences in case his demand was not met.

At the onset of his statement, lawmaker Dissanayake asked Minister Ahamed to clarify Sajjana de Silva’s status. Responding to the JVPer’s query, Minister Ahmed said that though being appointed in an acting capacity, Sajjana De Silva has been confirmed in his position.

MP Dissanayake said: Sajjana de Silva received the appointment during S.M. Chandrasena’s tenure as the Environment Minister. The appointment didn’t have the required approval from the management committee of GSMB.

Minister S.M. Chandrasena: At the time, Sajjana de Silva was granted an acting appointment, he headed the seniority list.

MP Dissanayake: At the very beginning, I clarified this matter. I sought and obtained the status of the GSMB official. Though you said Sajjana de Silva was granted an acting appointment, your letter of appointment didn’t say so.

The Parliament was told how a license obtained by Uptown Ventures for the cultivation of chilies, in 3,000 acres of land, permitted the enterprise to engage in large scale sand mining. The project received government sanction for mining of 5,000 cubes of sand, on a monthly basis. The House was asked how the proprietor of Uptown Ventures ended up as Chairman of GSMB. The JVPer pointed out the absurdity in the GSMB Chairman’s defence that he was no longer the head of that venture. But, at the time the illegal sand mining took place, at Safi Nagar, Senarath Hewage Prasad Manjula-led Uptown Ventures, the JVPer declared, reiterating accusations pertaining to the Safi Nagar project.

Pointing out that Dr. Jasinghe’s report identified the GSMB Chairman as one of the persons involved in the corrupt transaction, MP Dissanayake declared the direct involvement of the political leadership in the Safi Nagar operation. Those responsible had been exposed and were now naked before the public. SJB MP Ajith Mannapperuma chided Minister Ahamed for remaining silent. Urging the Minister to come clean, the Gampaha District MP asked why he remained silent when such serious accusations were made against the two top officials of the GSMB. The former UNP MP asked whether Minister Ahamed lacked the backbone to set the record straight.

Minister Ahamed said that as regards DG, GSMB, the Ministry had already issued a charge sheet and that action was in progress. “Likewise, the Chairman’s issue with regard to Safi Nagar, complaint has been lodged with the CID, and the Auditor General Department is evaluating the whole thing. The report will be submitted. Once that is done, necessary action will be taken as per the advice given by all those institutions”, the Minister said.

Dissident SLPP MP Weerasumana Weerasinghe said that there was no need to await the Attorney General’s opinion to take action in respect of repeated disclosure made by ‘Hiru.’ The outspoken Communist Party representative said that Environment Secretary Dr. Jasinghe’s missive to the DG, GSMB, was more than sufficient to take punitive action against the culprits.

Having asked whether Secretary to the President, Saman Ekanayake, was present in Parliament, lawmaker Weerasinghe said there was no point in making grandiose statements at COP27 if the government could not take punitive measures against errant officials. The MP was referring to the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, more commonly referred to as COP27, held in Egypt last month. Weerasinghe asked Ahamed whether he chose to safeguard the ministerial portfolio or would handle the issue without fear or favour.

NDI funds House project

Amidst continuing political-economic-social crisis caused by failure on the part of the executive, legislature and judiciary to address issues at hand, the Parliament has launched a new project to educate primary school students. With the financial backing of the National Democratic Institute, the Parliament has launched ‘Punchi Dupathe Kurulu Kathandaraya,’ in Sinhala, Tamil and English to educate those who have even reached their teens of what the Parliament hadn’t called representative democracy.

The book launch took place at the children’s section of the Colombo Public Library with the participation of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. What really Parliament and NDI hoped to achieve by educating primary students is not clear. Likewise, ongoing efforts to set up ‘parliaments’ at schools, introduce electronic voting et al at a time Parliament failed in its mandatory responsibilities, such as public finance and enactment of laws, may not help restore public confidence in the political party system. Those struggling to make ends meet, as a result of the economic ruination, may be flabbergasted if they hear of silly projects undertaken by Parliament, using meagre resources at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil. May be that money could be better utilized to improve nutritional level of our schoolchildren.

Washington headquartered NDI operates in many countries through its partners and the operation here is no exception. Funded by the US taxpayer as well as other international sources propagating Western values, the NDI project should be examined against the backdrop of a range of US initiatives here. The controversial US role at the 2010 presidential election is a case in point. The US backing for war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka, at that election, is not a secret, thanks to Wikileaks revelations.

Remember, the USAID funded USD 13 mn (Rs 1.92 bn) project to enhance democracy, transparency and accountability in 2016. That three-year project was launched in the wake of the Central Bank bond scams, perpetrated in Feb. 2015 and March 2016. Did that high profile initiative produce desired results? Seven years after that US initiative and scores of other projects undertaken by successive governments and NGOs, Sri Lanka has ‘achieved’ bankruptcy status.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Prez makes headway amidst deepening turmoil

 SPECIAL REPORT : Part 446

Published

  
President Wickremesinghe with US Ambassador Chung at the Colombo harbour, on Nov, 22, at the commissioning of newly acquired Offshore Patrol Vessel, formerly of the US Coast Guard.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having comfortably won the vote on the Second Reading of 2023 Budget, two days earlier, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, on November 24, dealt with a spate of issues, including the responsibilities of the armed forces and the police, obviously indicating how a second Aragalaya, aimed at ousting his government from power, by way of violent protests, as was done to the previous President, would be tackled, as the country could not possibly afford any more turmoil.

The UNP leader stressed the responsibility on the part of the government to protect the armed forces and the police, who performed their legitimate duties and responsibilities.

The Parliament approved the Cudget, on Nov. 22, with 121 voting for and 84 against, as the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) reiterated its commitment to a political marriage of convenience with UNP leader Wickremesinghe whose party has only one seat in the 225-member Parliament. Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the Budget, on Nov. 14.

The SLPP secured 145 seats, at the last General Election, though three breakaway groups of lawmakers have since distanced themselves from the party.

Speaking on the continuing threats faced by his government, Wickremesinghe underscored the responsibilities of all, including Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Perhaps, President Wickremesinghe’s reference to responsibilities of those from Corporal to Field Marshal should be examined against the backdrop of perceived relationship between the war-winning Army Commander and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), accused of toppling Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe talked tough and didn’t mince his words when setting the tone for the remainder of his term, secured on July 20, courtesy the SLPP. Wickremesinghe seemed confident that the balance of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, won with a landslide at the Nov. 16, 2019, presidential election, could be completed.

Wickremesinghe received the appointment as the Acting President, on July 13, and was elected the eighth President on July 20. As the sole UNP National List MP, Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes, including his own, whereas his rivals Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) obtained 82 and 03 votes respectively.

Wickremesinghe delivered a clear message. The UNPer didn’t mince his words when he warned that unauthorized protests, meant to undermine his government, wouldn’t be tolerated, under any circumstances.

Wickremesinghe declared that trouble makers wouldn’t be allowed to take cover behind human rights and any attempt to adopt strategies, similar to those employed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be crushed, militarily. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s stand.

So, in case the FSP et al launched the second phase of ‘Aragalaya,’ targeting the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, they can expect the armed forces and law enforcement authorities unleashed on them.

 Immediately after taking oaths, as the eighth President, Wickremesinghe directed the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament). Ironically, President Wickremesinghe, who was always for protests against the government in power, when in the Opposition, overnight metamorphosed into ignoring protests by the NGO-led mafia against the deployment of the armed forces. It would be pertinent to mention that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave in to US pressure not to use the armed forces to evict those camping outside the Presidential Secretariat until it was too late.

Even on May 09 when a well-orchestrated wave of physical attacks, and torching of properties of government politicians, was unleashed across the country, as if in spontaneous response from the public at large, over the attack on the Galle Face protesters, the same evening the US Ambassador Julie Chung issued a statement, through the local media, warning the armed forces and the police not to crackdown on peaceful protesters. We all saw how peaceful these foreign-funded protesters were when the opportunity arose. On May 09, they even turned on a group of SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, when they visited the Galle Face protest site. Luckily for them, they beat a hasty retreat, with their security, sensing what was in store for them, after getting a few knocks.

During the campaign against Gotabaya Rajapaksa that commenced with violent protests outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, SLPP lawmaker Rear Admiral (ret.) Sarath Weerasekera told this writer, on a number of occasions, the danger of failing on the part of the then administration to deal with the growing threat efficiently. Weerasekera was one of the few who demanded tangible action against the protest campaign. By July 09, protesters forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee Janadhipathi Mandiraya by sea. Field Marshal Fonseka, MP, had been the only parliamentarian to address the protesters, near Janadhipathi Mandiraya, just a few hours before they forced their way into the presidential abode.

No one bothered to remind the Field Marshal of his obligations at that time. In addition to Sajith Premadasa, Fonseka, too, received an invitation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa to accept the premiership. Both declined for different reasons.

But, on the part of Wickremesinghe, there hadn’t been any wavering, as in the case of Premadasa, despite being the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP leader simply grabbed the opportunity and proceeded step by step, having evicted those occupying the Presidential Secretariat.

Lawmaker Weerasekera, who sided with President Wickremesinghe at the Budget vote, told The Island the UNP leader had dealt appropriately with those trying to undermine law and order. Unfortunately, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite being a distinguished former frontline combat officer, hesitated to meet the protesters’ violent challenge due to well hatched Western propaganda against his government, the MP asserted.

Prez steps up pressure on Opp. Leader

President Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to remind the House of the correspondence between his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in the run-up to him being sworn in as the Premier on May 12. During his Nov. 24 address to Parliament, the UNP leader tabled in House Sajith Premadasa’s letter, dated May 12, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate his position, faulted the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa for Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up the presidency. The President’s strategy seems clear. In addition to dealing with the economy, Wickremesinghe faces two primary challenges, namely rebuilding the UNP, now reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena), in preparation for future elections and the resolution of the national question (post-war national reconciliation)

The re-building of the UNP has to be achieved at the expense of Sajith Premadasa. There is absolutely no ambiguity in Wickremesinghe’s strategy. Wickremesinghe has no option but to relentlessly push SJB members to switch their allegiance to him. Although many believed Wickremesinghe could influence the majority of the main Opposition, the SJB, to switch sides, in the wake of his appointment as the Premier, it didn’t materialize. Of the 54-member SJB parliamentary group, Manusha Nanayakara (Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment) and Harin Fernando (Minister of Tourism and Land) deserted Sajith Premadasa when they accepted Cabinet portfolios, on May 20 from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The two SJB MPs, who spearheaded a high profile campaign, targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, had no qualms in receiving their letters of appointment from the very person.

The other SJB MP to accept state ministerial portfolios from Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, in April (Transport) and September (Tourism) was Diana Gamage, now at the centre of a simmering controversy over her allegedly being a British national. When there are probably at least half a dozen or so other dual citizen MPs in Parliament we wonder why just Diana Gamage is being targeted by so many.

President Wickremesinghe appears to be confident that some of those who had been elected on the SJB ticket, as well as some SLPPers, may accept Cabinet portfolios soon. Appointments are likely to be finalized immediately after the final vote on the Budget, scheduled to take place on Dec 08.

Wickremesinghe needs to reach a consensus with the top SLPP leadership, as regards Cabinet portfolios, as the latter wouldn’t, under any circumstances, tolerate appointments, sans its approval. However, Wickremesinghe will go out to engineer defections from the SJB. Will the UNP leader be able to influence a group large enough to cause the disintegration of Sajith Premadasa’s party, formed in early 2020, to contest the last General Election?

However, in spite of enjoying executive powers, Wickremesinghe would find it an extremely difficult task as the SJB, as a group, abhorred joining the SLPP-led government. On one hand, Wickremesinghe required the continuing support of the SLPP to sustain his government. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe’s dependence on the SLPP made him quite unpopular. The SLPP has so far refused to accept that it couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the economic fallout, caused by utter mismanagement of the national economy. Had the SLPP government sought the IMF intervention, soon after the 2019 presidential election, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have ended up as the President. The circumstances that compelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to invite Wickremesinghe to accept the premiership underscored the seriousness of the situation the country had fallen into.

Having failed to get elected, from Colombo, at the last General Election, Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament, in late June 2021, on its National List, at a time the national economy was rapidly deteriorating.

But, even Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have anticipated the turn of events that compelled the desperate Rajapaksas to invite him to accept the premiership, one month short of a year later. Having taken over the government, under an incomparable situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be hell-bent on pursuing his own agenda. The SLPP seems to be so far satisfied. The vote on the Second Reading of the Budget meant that the SLPP and Wickremesinghe are prepared to work together. though quite significant differences remain.

However, the SLPP has, in no uncertain terms, indicated that it didn’t bother about the mandates received at the 2019 Presidential and 2020 General Elections at which its candidate received 6.9 mn votes and the party obtained a staggering 145 seats, respectively.

Prez roadmap

SLPP National List MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, in two speeches in Parliament (delivered during the ongoing Budget debate) dealt with Wickremesinghe’s strategy. The leader of civil society group Yuthukama did it quite well. The first time entrant to Parliament discussed the issues at hand, including the alleged move to deliberately lose state control over land that may cause irrevocable consequences. At the onset of one speech, lawmaker Cumaratunga reacted somewhat angrily as some government members continued with their noisy private conversations, among themselves, as the MP dealt with contentious issues.

The MP asked whether Wickremesinghe was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance his own roadmap at the expense of the country. Cumaratunga raised the possibility of those enjoying the political power allowing further deterioration of the economy. The MP expressed fears of Wickremesinghe’s Budget causing a heavier debt burden at a time the country has suspended repayment of loans. The MP also slammed the government over the inordinate delay in amending the Exchange Control Act of 2017 to make it mandatory for importers to bring back massive amounts of funds ‘parked’ overseas, over a period of time, within a stipulated time frame.

In addition to Cumaratunga, Prof. Charitha Herath, as well as Prof. Channa Jayasumana ,made important contributions during the ongoing Budget debate. Both of them dealt with the land issue.

Herath, who earned public appreciation for his role as former COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman dealt with a number of issues, including an ‘operation’ meant to facilitate land grabs. The first time MP alleged that the move to place state land under the purview of Divisional Secretaries was nothing but a ruse to allow land grabs.

Participating in the Second Reading debate on the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath alleged that the move was meant to allow cronies of the ruling party to get hold of government lands. Declaring that LRC lands had been misappropriated for the political gains of successive governments, since 1977, Prof. Herath questioned the way state land were utilized. The 2023 Budget has proposed to legitimize wrong procedure, lawmaker Herath said, adding: “We summoned the LRC, two or three times before the Committee on Public Enterprises, and investigated the issues at hand. We found out that there had been many shortcomings in its land utilization process. We instructed the officials to take remedial measures. Now the 2023 Budget has proposed that these LRC lands should be placed under District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries and allow them to decide to whom those lands should be given for the purpose of cultivating them. The proposal would prune down the powers of the Lands Minister.

“We do not approve the status quo of the LRC because every Lands Minister has placed the LRC under his or her friends who, in return, placed the lands at LRC under the mercy of the Minister. This should come to an end but not in the manner that has been envisaged by the 2023 Budget, Prof. Herath said.

Prof. Jayasumana raised the legitimacy of crucial decisions taken by Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader didn’t have a mandate to do so from the people. Addressing the Parliament, during the Committee Stage of the Defence Ministry vote, the first time MP asked whether the President could take decisions pertaining to national security and policy matters as he was only entrusted with completing the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term.

The Anuradhapura District MP suggested the need to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as regards the ability of Wickremesinghe to call for a presidential election four years after the last poll. In this case the one held in Nov. 2019. Lawmaker Jayasumana declared that he would submit a private member’s proposal to enable Wickremesinghe to call for a fresh presidential poll after completion of one year in office. If consensus could be reached, a fresh presidential election could be held in July 2023, Prof. Jayasumana said, adding that if Wickremesinghe won he could implement whatever his proposals. Pointing out that as Wickremesinghe’s agenda had been rejected by the electorate in 1994, 2004 and 2019, the UNP leader could face serious public challenge unless he obtained a fresh mandate.

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a huge mandate at the 2019 presidential election to preserve Sri Lanka’s unitary status, Prof Jayasumana questioned the moves to even go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The academic reminded that the Supreme Court had been divided on the 13th Amendment.

The SLPP rebel reminded that the Supreme Court bench that decided on the 13th Amendment did so by a majority of just one judge.

Sri Lanka is heading for unprecedented political upheaval as Wickremesinghe pushes ahead with his agenda amidst further deterioration of political-economic-social situation. The much-touted USD 2.9 bn in emergency aid from the IMF, spread over a period of four years, seems wholly inadequate to remedy the situation. Impending political turmoil appears to be quite threatening and may even undermine the economic recovery efforts unless the Parliament addressed the issues at hand with the dedication such situations required.

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Post-war national reconciliation: Diaspora sets prerequisites

 SPECIAL REPORT : Part 445

Published

  
Justice Minister Rajapakshe and Panchalingam Kandiah, of the Canadian Tamil Congress, address the media at the Justice Ministry

Indian Premier Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Jaffna Cultural Centre, in March 2015, two months after the change of government in Sri Lanka, in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the presidential election. Retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran served as the Chief Minister of the Northern Province at the time. Since then he deserted the Tamil Alliance (TNA) and formed his own party Tamil Makkal Thesya Kootani. Narendra Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister and only the second foreign leader, after British Prime Minister David Cameron, to visit Jaffna since the conclusion of the war. It was the first official visit by an Indian Premier, since July 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi flew in to sign the disastrous Indo-Lanka peace accord foisted on hapless Sri Lanka.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) wants the Sri Lanka government to hand over the Jaffna Cultural Centre, built by the Indian government, to the Jaffna Municipality.

Danton Thurairajah, Executive Director, CTC, in a letter dated Nov. 01, 2022, requested that the Jaffna Cultural Centre, the tallest building in the Jaffna town, situated next to the Jaffna Public Library, be brought under the Jaffna Municipal Council (JMC). It was the sixth out of the 10 requests made by Thurairajah.

Panchalingam Kandiah, on behalf of the CTC, handed over the letter to Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, at his Ministry, on Nov. 16.

The following is the text of the letter released by the Justice Ministry:

Dear Minister,

We thank you for de-listing some of the Tamil Diaspora organisations, including the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). We feel this is a first step towards achieving improved ethnic relations and economic outcomes in Sri Lanka. While this is a step in the right direction, by the Government of Sri Lanka, we think that additional and meaningful actions are critical in continuing to build bridges with the Diaspora and help the island nation prosper.

Immediately after the de-listing by the Sri Lankan government, and given the current urgent need, CTC, as a responsible organisation, announced that it would provide critical life-saving medications to six hospitals in the Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces of Sri Lanka.

However, we strongly feel that the Sri Lankan government has not taken any meaningful actions which are long overdue.

These include, but are not limited to: Immediate steps in the short term:

1) Release all political prisoners

2) Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)

3) Release all private lands, occupied by the Sri Lankan military, and cease all illegal land grabs in the Northern and Eastern provinces

4) Allow Tamils to mourn and remember the dead, free of intimidation by Sri Lankan state authorities.

5) Support economic growth in the north, and foreign investment, by reopening the Palaly International Airport

6) Hand over the Jaffna Cultural Centre, funded by the Indian government, to the Jaffna Municipality

7) Comply with the UNHRC resolution 46/1 of 2021

8) Fully implement the 13th Amendment and immediately hold the provincial council elections

9) Reform the security sector, especially in Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, to the same levels as the rest of the country and stop all business initiatives in the Northern and Eastern provinces operated by the Sri Lanka military which makes it difficult for local farmers and businesses to compete (Farms, Hotels, and Bakeries, etc.)

10) Open the KKS and Mannar ferry services to India.

The CTC urges the Sri Lankan government to take some firm steps to help build trust and create a conducive environment for reconciliation. The work on a permanent long-term solution, acceptable to all Sri Lankan communities, is vital for the collective growth of the island.

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government delisted six Tamil diaspora organisations, including the CTC, and 316 individuals. The following organisations were delisted:

1) Australian Tamil Congress (ATC)

2) Global Tamil Forum (GTF)

3) World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC)

4) Tamil Eelam People’s Assembly (TEPA)

5) Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC)

6) British Tamil Forum (BTF)

The delisting was announced through an amendment to the List of Designated Persons under Regulation 4(7) of the United Nations Regulations No. 1 of 2012. The ban was imposed in 2014 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also held the defence portfolio. The ban covered 15 Diaspora groups. Rajapaksa now serves the incumbent government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, lifted the ban in 2015 to pave the way for talks with them. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa re-imposed the ban in 2021.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) issued a statement appreciating the decision. The TNA pointed out: “However, it must be noted that even others who remain on the list have been so named without any evidence, connecting them to terrorism, and by not following the prescribed procedure. We urge the government to at least continue this process of re-evaluating and de-proscribing all.”

Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, and the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, virtually inaugurated the Jaffna Cultural Centre, on March 28, this year, three days before public anger exploded at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, most probably a well-planned instigation rather than a spontaneous eruption that triggered a series of violent incidents, leading to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster. It was like the well-orchestrated attacks and torching of residences of then government politicians, across the country, on May 09, followed by more mindless violence on July 09.

The Jaffna Cultural Centre, built at a cost of USD 11 mn, on an Indian grant, with 11 floors and facilities, including an auditorium that can accommodate 600 persons, a conference hall, an amphitheater and a digital library, was completed in January 2020. Having signed the agreement for the facility, in 2014, construction took place during the Yahapalana administration, and the work completed close on the heels of the Nov. 2019 presidential election.

In terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by India and Sri Lanka in 2014, New Delhi was expected to hand over the facility to the government, which in turn would have handed it over to the Jaffna Municipal Council. Amidst concerns that JMC lacked the wherewithal to maintain the facility, New Delhi has offered to provide the required funds for a period of five years.

There are growing concerns that the building has been used only once,after the virtual opening in March.

The Jaffna-based Indian Consulate celebrated India’s 75th Independence Day, on August 15. Several hundred invitees were treated to Nadaswaram performance by Maestro Banu and group, a Bharatanatyam performance by the Natya KalaKendra institute Barathanatiyam group, and folk dance performance by the Kumara Narththanaalayam group. Earlier in the day, Consul General Raakesh Natraj and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General W.M.G.C.S.B. Wijayasundara paid respects at the IPKF Memorial in Palaly by laying a wreath, an annual event and a grim reminder of Indian intervention here and the heavy price it paid for the folly of heavy-handed interference in the affairs of a neighbouring country, in which powerful Western countries, too, were very much involved, but through covert subtle means, in instigating the turmoil here, from the early ’80s, most probably with the wish to break up India for being close to the former Soviet Union. The West then obviously wanted to fan separatist flames right across India by not only giving succor to Eelamists, but to others like separatists in Punjab, Assam, etc. New Delhi should be doubly wary of possible new plots for not blindly towing the Western line in Ukraine.

Post-war reconciliation

The CTC’s prerequisites for post-war national reconciliation underscored their refusal at least to repent the war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until terrorism was finally eradicated. If not for Sri Lanka’s successful campaign against terrorism, that brought the war to an end in May 2009, 15 years after the capture of Jaffna town, the Jaffna Cultural Centre would never have been a reality.

It would be pertinent to ask Justice Minister Rajapakshe, who received the CTC’s letter on behalf of the government, whether the government could accept those prerequisites. The CTC played a significant role in the overall campaign that led to the Canadian declaration of May 18 as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.

The CTC’s message this year stressed that (1) Not a single case on wartime atrocity allegations has been resolved in a court of law (2) Not a single Tamil victim of enforced disappearance has been found alive or the circumstances of their disappearance revealed to date and (3) Not even a single person was held accountable.

As usual, the CTC, like other Diaspora groups, and the TNA, conveniently forgot why Sri Lanka had no other option than to eradicate Tamil terrorism at any cost. The Tamil Diaspora should at least now prepare a list of dead and the disappeared, since 1983. (1) the number of people killed as a result of fighting among Tamil terrorist groups, trained by India (2) the number of people killed due to fighting within a particular terrorist group (3) members of rival groups killed by the LTTE (4) LTTE cadres killed by rival groups (5) killings within the LTTE (6) Tamil terrorists who fled their respective organisations and sought asylum in the West and those who went underground in India (7) Tamil civilians killed during the Indian Army operations (8) LTTE cadres killed in clashes with the Indian Army (9) PLOTE cadres killed in abortive bid to assassinate Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in Nov. 1988 (10) LTTE operatives killed by Indian security agencies after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 (11) Tamil civilians killed during military operations, particularly the last phase of the assault on LTTE human shields in 2009 and finally (12) how many Tamils received foreign passports during the war and since the conclusion of the war.

Where was the CTC when the LTTE forced the entire Vanni population to withdraw across the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road towards the Mullaithivu district where the group brazenly used them as human shields to deter the advancing Army? The CTC, like its counterparts in other countries, remained confident of the LTTE’s superior fighting skills to defeat the Army on the Vanni east front. They started protests in the Western capitals, in 2009, after the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army inflicted devastating battlefield losses on the LTTE and forced conventional fighting units to retreat towards the Mullaithivu coast.

Perhaps, the Diaspora should be reminded that the Tamil community voted overwhelmingly for Fonseka at the January 2010 presidential election, at the behest of the TNA after accusing him and his army of committing war crimes. Fonseka comfortably won all predominantly Tamil speaking northern and eastern districts, though Mahinda Rajapaksa routed the war-winning Army Commander in the South.

The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) never acknowledged Sri Lanka bringing an end to forcible conscription of children for the war. The LTTE deployed children as fighting depleted its units over the years and UN efforts to discourage conscription of teenagers in the late ’90s failed. Hope those who shed crocodile tears for war victims at least appreciate lives saved by the eradication of the LTTE.

The Army paid a huge price for trying to minimize loss of civilian lives. If not for U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who was sentenced in August 2013 to 35 years in a military prison for turning over more than 700,000 classified files to Wikileaks in the biggest breach of secret data in the US history, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have known what was happening behind the scenes. There was a spate of cables that dealt with the situation here. But one of the most valuable cables from our point of view originated from Geneva.

The cable, dated July 15, 2009, signed by the then Geneva-based US Ambassador Clint Williamson cleared the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) of crimes against humanity during the Vanni offensive. The cable, addressed to the US State Department, was based on a confidential conversation Ambassador Williamson had with the then ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio, on July 9, 2009, and several weeks after the war was brought to a successful end, that hardly anyone expected, with the annihilation of the LTTE in the battlefield.

Ambassador Williamson wrote: “The army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at an increasing risk.

So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of international humanitarian law,’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it didn’t amount to genocide. He could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when the ICRC informed them it was killing civilians.

In fact, the Army actually could have won the war faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded however, by asserting that the GoSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians, despite the approach leading to higher military casualties.”

The government should respond to CTC’s demands, as issues raised by other Diaspora groups are essentially the same though the writer hasn’t previously come across any group demanding that the Jaffna Cultural Centre be brought under the Jaffna Municipal Council. Their first demand for the release of political prisoners is silly. Minister Rajapakse has repeatedly denied that there were political prisoners and explained both here and abroad the circumstances in which they were held.