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Do autocracy & kleptocracy go hand-in-hand?



JR’s despotism, Chandrika’s kleptomania; What’s the next variant?

by Kumar David

If you have not read or reread Victor Ivan’s Queen of Deceit recently it might be an idea to do so because of forebodings that the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presidency will be an autocracy post 20A and anticipation that the constitution to be enacted thereafter will set this in stone. An allied concern is that autocracy is usually a stepping stone to kleptocracy; but is this an inevitable corollary? I make the distinction because JR was an autocrat who he did not rob the country dry; conversely Chandrika did not enjoy as formidable a stature as JR but if you accept even a part of what Victor Ivan says a better title for his book would have been ‘The Bandit Queen’. The original Sinhala is Chaura Rajna; the English version is available from Amazon, and presumably Ravaya has both.

The charge of dictatorship levelled against JR is an open and shut case. He reigned like a monarch, was venerated as a sage and worshipped by an all-stooge press. He expelled the Tamil party from Parliament, revoked a general election, egged on and rejoiced in the 1983 communal riots and drove the country to neo-liberal economics which widened inequality. He stripped Mrs B, Felix Dias and Nihal Jayawickrema of their civil rights desecrating fundamental rights but no one dared say boo to his goose. Supreme Court judges and Chief Justices who did not toe his line were shooed out. Repeated bouts of racism in Sri Lanka have removed ideological checks on the abuse of power; JR removed the institutional constraints as well. Post 20A we will have neither institutional nor ideological checks.

Re Chandrika, the first question is “To what extent should we place confidence in Victor’s indictment?”. My short answer is I believe most but not all of it. Let me state upfront, one point that is sloppy in Victor’s storyline is Chapter II (p.49-65) “Who Orchestrated the Town Hall Bombing?”. It is speculation without real evidence; it can’t stand scrutiny or challenge. He makes out that Chandrika arranged the bombing to win sympathy and turn around a flagging presidential election (December 1999), but the plan misfired and she suffered damage to an eye. Victor Ivan would have brought much credit to himself and to his book had he left out this hare-brained conspiracy theory. Another huge deficiency is that nowhere does Victor recognise that after the LSSP and CP succumbed to racism in 1965-66, Chandrika was the only national leader who made an effort – unsuccessful because of Ranil and the UNP – to go that extra mile and revisit Tamil anxieties and address legitimate demands.

It is charges of corruption – bribery, kick-backs, abuse of state facilities – that I think ring true and accusations of complicity in criminality and murder are convincingly argued. It is amazing that neither Chandrika nor her numerous explicitly named crooked partners sued or received retraction or apology for numerous stunning allegations. The implication is that none dared take the witness stand. Exposés by many people against a well known accountant, to pick an example at random, are that he masterminded on behalf of Chandrika the privatisation of Kotagala Estate where, in effect, the state was defrauded of Rs 198 million, presumably shared between the miscreants. There are many more examples; Water’s Edge for example.

Chandrika’s Presidential Security Division (PSD) was a known Mafia led by a notorious criminal Baddegana Sanjeewa and his associates; all conveniently bumped off later (shades of the Oswald-Ruby episode in the Kennedy assassination). The PSD, Victor boldly asserts, bumped off Kumar Ponnambalam and Rohana Kumara (a foul-mouthed TV producer). No election in this country has been as vile as Wayamba Provincial Council 1999, virtually run by the PSD. I do not intend to pursue criminality since my focus today is on kleptocracy. And I do believe that there was huge corruption during Chandrika’s reign. Worst perhaps were private-power projects. From friends and engineers, I know of multi-million-dollar kick-backs. Isn’t it legitimate to ask whether criminality on this scale could have transpired without connivance and benefits for the boss?

I have used these two examples to suggest that constitutional autocrats are not necessarily kleptocrats and conversely that Mafia-presidents deep into robbing with gross reputations for financial misconduct may not be formidable dictators. The Executive Presidents of Lanka have all wielded excessive power and done so unwisely but Chandrika is not the worst case of abuse of formal constitutional power; that nefarious honour goes to JR and Mahinda. Nevertheless, it is fair that I give readers access a point of view contrary to mine. Please seen an essay by Martin Sandbu in the 22 September 2020 issue of the Financial Times (UK) “Populists and kleptocrats are a perfect match”. ( It says in summary: ‘Autocracy and kleptocracy – the capture of political power for the purpose of theft and embezzlement – go together; oligarchic networks (family clans) have privatised the state for their own benefit. Use of public funds for private benefit is rife; lucrative state contracts are handed out to personal associates. Then there is the opposite problem; use of dirty money to manipulate democratic politics. Political fecklessness causes the worst damage; failure to crack down not only condones wrongdoing but also signals that it is of no great priority’. I (KD) think this is true as a generalisation but there are variations.

I am sure readers know where I am heading: What expectations should we have of the post-20A Gotabaya Presidency? Yes, you are right if you guessed that I am leaning to the view that this Presidency will be autocratic but not kleptocratic. That seems to be the style of the man – that is of course not counting hordes of venal parliamentarians and disreputable family. The downside of GR’s style lies elsewhere, it is his penchant for issuing peremptory ill-advised commands. I need to dwell on this. Yes indeed, he recognized and stuck with sound advice on COVID, but on some other matters he has not been so wise. Verbal instructions are to have the same import as formal government texts; this will lead to chaos. The President, thanks to his hare-brained advisers could end up in Mugabesque bedlam. Ex-President Tambo Mbeki of South Africa in the face of ridicule by every medical learned-society, the WHO and specialist opinion, decreed that AIDS was not caused by the HIV virus or concupiscence! This fruitcake president is responsible for 350,000 preventable deaths. The very day that he left office, the new Health Minister Barbra Hogan declared “The era of denialism is over in South Africa”. But the damage had been done!

Then for example if instructions are issued to the CEB that 80% of electrical energy shall be from renewable sources by 2030 it’s like running after a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. If no more thermal plant is commissioned and if those in operation are switched off one by one to keep thermal below 20%, it will be pandemonium in power supply and in industry. GR is fixated on 80% renewable electricity by 2030 while the CEB long-term plan puts it at 35%; an unbridgeable gap. (In my view 35% is too high, but my two-cents worth is irrelevant). This controversy is a huge techno-economic uncertainty. We can’t go on like this. Gota needs to put his money where his mouth is. May I suggest, only partly in jest, that if he is to have any credibility, he must dismantle the CEB planning unit – engineers can transfer to other branches and should welcome the move (sic!), otherwise when things flop, they will be accused of sabotaging Presidential targets.

The Cabinet, Power Minister, unschooled MPs and CEB Chairman Herath a Viyathmaga person, dare not oppose the boss. Therefore, all must put their money where their mouths are and demand that the unit be re-staffed with “experts” foresworn to upholding the 80% decree – though full-page article alternative-experts in the local press don’t even have the foggiest notion what a rolling-plan is! This lot must be instructed to commission 2,000 GWh of additional renewable energy each year starting now – every month sans action is 30 days lost! An 80% target by 2030 means increasing renewable electricity to 26,000 GWh/annum by then. Current renewable production is about 6,300 GWh/annum, consisting of 4,500 major-hydro and 1,800 novel sources – mini-hydro (1,100), wind (450), solar (150), bio-mass (100). These numbers are not exact but acceptable; I have no access to real-time data. This is the marathon these new “experts” will need to run and let’s see how President Gotabaya bridges the 35% versus 80% handicap!

Autocracy may provide cover for kleptocracy, but it may instead provide cover and immunity for irrational decision making that none dare question. Hence my expectation differs from what most others say. It is very likely that we will get much autocracy, hand-in-hand with frequent illogical decision making, but not big time kleptocracy. Insofar as the title of this essay goes, JR was a tyrant who brooked no challenge, Chandrika a base kleptocrat, MR a populist who wore a coat of many colours, and the last incumbent only half executive but surely more than half deranged. The next, after 20A and/or the new constitution will be a novel, a very novel variant on the ever-turbulent executive-despot-autocrat theme.



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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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