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Absolute Power



John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th and early 20th century famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…” Absolute power is what the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of the Rajapaksas won last Wednesday and the biggest challenge for President Gotabaya and brother Mahinda, who will continue as prime minister, is to ensure that Acton’s words do not come true in Sri Lanka. Theirs was a stunning victory belying even the wildest expectations of their most optimistic supporters. Conventional wisdom that nobody can obtain a two thirds majority under proportional representation, as JR Jayewardene intended, went with the wind with the SLPP and its allies tantalizingly close to that mark. One hundred and forty five was the official tally, seats won in the electorates plus the national least places – just five short of the magic number. But one must add Douglas Devananda’s two seats in the north to that total, as he is very much a part of the SLPP, having served even in the caretaker cabinet, and the single seat the SLFP won. Even former President Sirisena chose to run under the purple banner as did many other blues who knew the coming colour. No doubt the SLFP will be offered to the Rajapaksas and the UNP will strive to re-unite.

Who would believe that the greens would fail to get even a single MP elected? Most expected the Sajith Premadasa faction, which is also UNP, to do better than Ranil’s team notwithstanding the possession of Siri Kotha and the recent court judgment. Both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa must take the blame for the debacle they have suffered. It is not rocket science that united you stand and divided you fall. That is what has happened to both sides of the UNP. Ranil loyalists say Sajith was too greedy, having been anointed as the presidential candidate last November and been appointed the chairman of the Nomination Board.. He demanded the party leadership as well although his Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) had the UNP’s imprimatur. Premadasa chose not to remember that he had agreed to let Wickremesinghe lead the party till 2025. But Ranil also was greedy, having attained the party leadership by “fortuitous circumstances” (we borrow the words from W. Dahanayaka who used them when he succeeded SWRD Bandaranaike as prime minister) and continued for 27 long years through thick and thin.

He became prime minister and party leader following the assassinations of both Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. two UNP stars of the JR era, eclipsed by Ranasinghe Premadasa who first became prime minister and then president. Wickremesinghe had four innings at the prime ministerial crease, though he didn’t serve a full term on any these occasions. He was unlucky to have lost the presidency to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 as the LTTE closed entry to the polling stations at that election and prevented voters living in areas they controlled from exercising their franchise. These were votes that Ranil would have polled. But that was not to be. He must also be given credit for subordinating his own interests in 2015 and throwing the UNP’s weight behind Maithripala Sirisena who the combined opposition fielded against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common candidate. Siresena could and would not have won that election without UNP backing. Thereafter Wicremesinghe, whatever his own ambitions, conceded his party’s presidential ticket to Premadasa last November.

What the UNP would do with the solitary National List seat it has won has not been decided at the time of writing. A wag remarked that Wickremesinghe would appoint another one of those committees he’s famous for to decide who should take that place! A correspondent, in a letter we publish today quotes Mangala Samaraweera saying that Ranil was the best president we never had. Karu Jauyasuriya was also described as the best leader the UNP never had. That was Ranil’s doing. Despite his admiriation of Wickremesinghe, Samaraweera, notwithstanding his subsequent backdown, threw in his lot with Premadasa as did the vast majority of the UNP’s 106 MPs in the last Parliament. They eloquently expressed the overwhelming majority view within the party of who the better leader would be – at least to win the election. But Wickremesinghe chose not to listen. That he lost even his own seat at Colombo Central, one of the UNP’s strongest bastions, was the result.

What now? The leaders of the two main parties, the SLPP and both factions of the UNP, failed the people massively by nominating the vast majority of those who sat in the last Parliament for re-election. Most of them, certainly from the Pohottuwa, have been re-elected despite the questionable reputations of many. This is the nature of politics – especially landslides when herd instincts takeover. Will the Rajapaksas, faced with the stiffest possible economic challenge in the wake of the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, be willing to take the impossibly hard decisions that the situation demands? There is a strong conviction within knowledgeable circles that big business firmly believes that President Gotabaya is the country’s only hope. He has demonstrated ability to deliver not only as Defence Secretary during the war, but also as Secretary for Urban Development thereafter. There is optimism that he would do what is right leaving the politics to brothers Mahinda and Basil.

Constitutional change, or at least amendment by repealing 19A, was spoken of from most SLPP platforms during this campaign and the one before which propelled GR into office. This was despite a severely adverse minority vote. But the majority community ensured his comfortable election althopugh it did give the victory a racial tinge. Hopefully the baby will not be thrown with the bathwater and the two-term limit, the Constitutional Council, Right to Information, and the Independent Commissions will, with appropriate changes, remain in the statute. After all the Elections Commission ran a fine election, in the teeth of many difficulties, for which it must be congratulated. So also the different political parties and their hot blooded supporters for keeping this election violence free.


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Gesture of solidarity



Thursday 25th February, 2021

Nothing could be more reassuring and uplifting in times of trouble than a true friend’s presence. Sri Lanka has only a few generous, altruistic friends, and Pakistan certainly is prominent among them. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit, albeit brief, could not have come at a better time for Sri Lanka, a badger facing a pack of growling mastiffs in Geneva; what it needs most at this juncture is moral support.

Many are the nations that have proffered loads and loads of unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka on how to protect democracy and human rights. But none of them helped remove the scourge of terror, the gravest threat to democracy and humankind. Pakistan stood unwaveringly behind Sri Lanka during the latter’s war on terror and helped the latter in numerous ways. It was the multi-barrel rocket launchers Pakistan rushed here in the aftermath of the fall of Elephant Pass garrison, in 2000, that enabled the Army put the brakes on the ‘unceasing wave’ of the LTTE. Otherwise, the Tigers would have laid siege to Jaffna with ease, forcing the Army to withdraw its troops. (Some countries even offered ships for ferrying soldiers to Colombo!) Today, Sri Lanka is free from political assassinations, massacres, child conscription, etc., as LTTE terrorism has been neutralised. If it had given in to pressure from the Western bloc and spared the LTTE’s military muscle, thousands of lives would have been destroyed during the last 12 years or so.

There were calls, in some quarters, for PM Khan to take up the issue of ‘forced burials’ with Colombo. They were obviously aimed at creating a media feeding frenzy and thereby giving the anti-Sri Lankan campaign in Geneva a boost. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have their own way of sorting out problems; never do they resort to megaphone diplomacy. But, the fact remains that mandatory burials have hurt the Muslim community beyond measure mostly because those who die of COVID-19 are allowed to be buried in other countries including those notorious for their antipathy towards Muslims. Some prominent Sri Lankan medical experts are of the view that the burial of pandemic victims should be permitted, provided the health regulations in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic are strictly followed. Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a sensible leader, must have gone by expert opinion including that of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, when he said in Parliament recently that the burial of COVID-19 victims would become an option. Sadly, he was overruled.

It is significant that the Head of State of a prominent Islamic nation has been to Sri Lanka while the pro-LTTE groups are exerting a considerable pull on a section of the Muslims community who courageously stood up to LTTE terror and thwarted Prabhakaran’s efforts to extend his control over the Eastern Province. Some of the Muslims who became the target of a hate campaign following the Easter Sunday carnage have joined forces with the pro-LTTE political groups masquerading as crusaders for democracy, in the Eastern Province, which is of pivotal importance to the countries that seek to counter increasing Chinese presence here. This is something Sri Lanka and its Islamic allies such as Pakistan should take cognizance of.

Meanwhile, there are many areas where Sri Lanka and Pakistan can partner to realise their full potentials as developing nations. Besides trade, commerce and investment, they can concentrate more on agriculture, construction, science and technology, education, medicine, tourism, etc. PM Khan’s ‘Global Initiative on Debt Relief’ is something that Sri Lanka, as well as other nations in the Global South, should fully support.

There are some issues that Sri Lanka and Pakistan should address jointly. One of them is the narcotic trade, which has affected both countries badly. Drug cartels have established a supply route via Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which has become a narcotic transit point of sorts.

It is a pity that the Sri Lankan Parliament did not have the honour of being addressed by PM Khan, a brilliant orator and trusted friend.

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Should SL follow UK?



Wednesday 24th February, 2021

The Gash reports are in the news again. They are the diplomatic dispatches filed by Lt. Col. Anthony Gash, who was the Defence Attache of the British High Commission, Colombo, on the final stages of Sri Lanka’s war on terror. The UK, which leads the Sri Lanka Core Group in Geneva, has suppressed the Gash reports, whose revelations run counter to the claims, on which the war crimes resolution against Sri Lanka is based.

Surprisingly, Sri Lanka has not done enough to bring the Gash reports to the notice of the UNHRC. One should not be so naïve as to believe that facts will make either the so-called Core Group or UNHRC chief Michelle Bachelet change their minds. Their agenda is determined by the US, which uses human rights as a bludgeon to beat the nations that refuse to do its bidding. But placing the Gash reports before the UNHRC will help unmask the Core Group members and the US.

The UK is not alone in suppressing facts. The US, too, has chosen to ignore the facts that Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, who was its Defence Attache in Colombo, during the final phases of the Vanni war, placed before an audience at an international defence seminar in Colombo in 2011; he disputed the claim that the Sri Lankan military had committed war crimes. He would not have said so without evidence to support his claim.

Old habits die hard. The UK and the US have a history of falsifying reports to suit their geo-strategic interests. They produced fake intelligence dossiers to justify the invasion of Iraq although the British intelligence had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in that country. They have adopted the same method in their war crimes campaign against Sri Lanka. Gash has said not more than 7,000 persons, including LTTE combatants, died in the war zone between 01 January and 18 May 2009. This number is in sharp contrast to the claim by the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts that more than 40,000 people perished during the final phase of the war. None of the UN experts were here during the war, unlike Gash and Lawrence, but the UK and the US have chosen to ignore facts their military experts have furnished. Why should the UK and the US have defence attaches at all in their foreign missions if they do not take their military experts’ views seriously?

What Lord Naseby managed to secure in the UK was a redacted version of the Gash reports. The UK has got redacting reports related to wars down to a fine art. In 2016, it released the Chilcot report on the Iraqi war. What observers have found interesting about that inquiry is it took longer to conclude than the war. What was released after a protracted delay was a heavily redacted version of the report, but it contains enough evidence to prove that the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, together with US President at that time George W. Bush waged an illegal war and, therefore, were responsible for war crimes.

Having taken upon itself the burden of protecting human rights and ensuring that crimes do not go unpunished in the developing world, the UK should set an example. Before levelling war crimes allegations against others and calling for action thereon, shouldn’t it bring Blair to justice for invading Iraq and causing deaths of millions of civilians, including more than 500,000 children, in an illegal war for oil?

Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?

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The rape of forests: Govt. in the dock



Tuesday 23rd February, 2021

The government has apparently achieved what it set out to when it issued a gazette removing the peripheral forests from the purview of the Forest Department and placed them under the Divisional and District Secretariats, purportedly to promote traditional agriculture. Its supporters are encroaching on thousands of acres of forest land with absolute impunity. Nobody takes gazettes seriously, and the government is also not keen to deal with noncompliance; the declarations of maximum retail prices, and minimum purchasing prices are a case in point. They are flouted blatantly. But the gazette pertaining to the peripheral forests took effect immediately! Such is the high-octane performance on the part of the government when it wants to help its supporters.

We have argued, in this column, previously that the government entrusted the District and Divisional secretariats with the task of looking after parts of forests because administrators are scared of ruling party politicians and do the latter’s bidding. We reported, the other day, that a Divisional Secretary had accompanied a group of government supporters who grabbed land in the Somawathiya National Park. The public service is full of such servile officers, and what is in store for the country’s forests is not difficult to imagine.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, speaking at a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak event, last Saturday, faulted the Forest Department, the Wildlife Department, the environmental authorities and others for being involved in a tug of war, which, he said, had rendered the public confused and helpless. True, these institutions work in silos, and not all their personnel are honest and conscientious, but the real problem is not their rivalries; it is that public administrators are helping the ruling party backers grab forest land, and the government is doing nothing about it. If the government is really desirous of ensuring coordination among the state outfits responsible for protecting the environment, it should bring all of them under one umbrella, vest them with more powers and give teeth to the existing laws.

There are some sand deposits inside the Somawathiya sanctuary, according to environmentalists, and what prevents government politicians and their associates from exploiting them is the absence of a road. This is why some ruling party worthies are trying to pressure the Wildlife Department to permit cattle grazing inside the national park. When cattle and cowherds enter the forest, footpaths appear with the passage of time, and these tracks can be used by the politically-backed racketeers to access the sand deposits.

What is reported from the Somawathiya National Park is a textbook case of irony; perhaps, it also represents, in microcosm, the fate that befell the country after the successful conclusion of its war on terror. When the LTTE was around, nobody dared enter the national park for fear of terrorist attacks, and the place was safe, thanks to the absence of human activity. The present-day rulers liberated the area from the clutches of the LTTE more than a decade ago, but, unfortunately, the liberators are now supporting those who destroy the sanctuary.

The President has called for action against those who encroach on forests on the pretext of engaging in traditional agriculture. Defence Secretary General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne has said that he had found that some Divisional Secretaries were issuing licences to clear forest lands and the practice had to be stopped. We have published pictures of some land grabbers responsible for the rape of the Somawathiya sanctuary. They can be identified and hauled up before courts.

Now that both the President and the Defence Secretary are convinced that some errant state officials and encroachers responsible for destroying forests have to be stopped, the question is what prevents them from going the whole hog to have the racketeers brought to justice forthwith. For those who pride themselves on having killed Prabhakaran, stopping the destroyers of forests should be child’s play.

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