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The admission comes two years after Australian intelligence officials told The Australian that a senior government figure close to then president Mahinda Rajapaksa was directly complicit in the 2012 surge of asylum boats to Australia.
Rajiva Wijesinha, the one-time reconciliation adviser to Mr Rajapaksa who last week was appointed Minister of State for Higher Education in the national unity government, told The Australian evidence of corruption among some close to the Rajapaksa clan was emerging following this month’s shock election result.
Professor Wijesinha singled out an individual from the southern port electorate of Hambantota, which received billions of dollars in Chinese infrastructure loans during Mr Rajapaksa’s 10 years in office, as one who was “making money hand over fist”.
The number of asylum boats leaving from Hambantota, the home town of the Rajapaksas, as opposed to the Tamil-dominated east and north coasts, has risen notably in recent years.
“Certainly accusations against individuals (of people-smuggling) as opposed to government sounded plausible,” he told The Australian of widespread rumours, adding that there was no evidence of “institutional involvement”.
“One of the reasons the Australian government was probably the least unhappy with us in the world was that the government did try to put a stop to (asylum boats).”
In July 2012, the former president’s eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, addressed allegations of involvement in a human smuggling ring transporting asylum-seekers to Australia when he told Ceylon Today newspaper he had been falsely targeted by the Tamil diaspora seeking to bring his country into disrepute.
Five months later, The Australian reported that Australian intelligence agencies believed a “senior Sri Lankan government official” (not Namal) had been directly complicit in a surge in asylum-seeker boats the previous year and that it would be impossible for so many boats to leave the island without that individual’s direct involvement.
Sri Lankan asylum-seeker numbers surged to more than 6500 in 2012 from 211 the previous year, then dropped sharply following then foreign minister Bob Carr’s December 2012 visit to Colombo, which also marked the first wavering of Australian government support for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes by both sides in the last months of the civil war.
Last year, Australia reversed its support for a UN-backed inquiry.
Sri Lankan opposition party, People’s Liberation Front last week lodged corruption complaints against the former president, his son Namal and brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, who held the economic development and defence portfolios respectively.
While the complaints largely address vastly inflated costs for national infrastructure projects, including a Chinese-built railway costing $US18 million a kilometre and allegedly 12 times the actual price, there is scope to investigate alleged involvement in people-smuggling.
How Australia’s bilateral relationship will fare under the new government is still to be tested.
Mr Speaker, as the Former Chief Whip also said earlier today, it is an unusual pleasure to speak today as the Leader of the Liberal Party in Parliament. In that capacity I extend my congratulations to His Excellency the President on his strength of character in taking up what seemed an impossible challenge, and the eminently civilized way in which he has worked after his victory. We also congratulate the Prime Minister for understanding political realities and thwarting the game plan of the former President by supporting a common candidate. It is salutary that, in addition to being Prime Minister, he has taken charge of economic development, since I believe we need the careful planning and discipline that he will bring to this portfolio.
Mr Speaker, though the Liberal Party is a small one, we can take credit for having first identified the problems of this Constitution and this Electoral system which our government is pledged to change. Though I know the parties of the left objected to the 1978 constitution, they did so on the basis of a return to the Westminster model. This was foolish because they had been victims of excessive power in the hands of a Prime Minister under the Westminster system, during the previous few years.
We, or rather the Founder Leader of the Liberal Party, Dr Chanaka Amaratunga, was the first to clearly identify the dangers of excessive power, and to explain the way in which checks and balances could be introduced. In this regard I am sorry that I received very little support from other parties for the Standing Order changes I proposed over a year ago. Thought the Leader of the NLSSP did raise a question on my behalf, and the then Chief Whip tried valiantly to get some progress, no one else in authority seemed to care. In this regard I hope, Mr Speaker, that in introducing changes we work in terms of principles rather than engaging in ad hoc measures. We should make sure that Parliamentary Committees are constituted as happens in the rest of the world, with no authority to Ministers, but rather ordinary Members of Parliament being the Chairs. This should be mandatory for finance oversight committees and, while I am sorry that the TNA and the JVP are not in the cabinet, I believe their commitment to financial integrity should find full play in the chairing of those committees.
Hasty legislation was the reason for former President Chandrika Kumaratunga not acting in terms of the 17th Amendment and refusing to appoint the Elections Commission suggested by the Constitutional Council. I am glad therefore that, in getting rid of the 18th amendment, as to which I trust this house will be unanimous, we replace it with something based on constitutional practice in the rest of the world without blindly returning to the 17th amendment.
Similarly Mr Speaker, with regard to electoral reforms, we were the first to suggest change and to advocate a mixed system. We were then accused of trying to introduce foreign customs. However, soon enough all parties agreed on the need for the German system, though twice there were efforts to distort this. I remember discussing this in the nineties with the then Minister of Constitutional Affairs in this Parliament, and him admitting there were slight changes, changes that in fact distorted the principles of the German system. Late in 2002 I urged the Hon Karu Jayasuriya to act quickly, but he delayed, and the government was dismissed. I am glad therefore that the Hon Prime Minister made clear our commitment to swift reforms in this regard.
Mr Speaker, in celebrating the need for reform, the Liberal Party can be proud that alone in government it formally advocated reforms for the last two years. I should mention here though the debt owed also to the Hon Vasantha Senanayake, who along with me drafted a formal letter to the former President at the beginning of last year about the need for Reform. Had the former President listened to him and accepted, even with amendments, the constitutional change he tabled, perhaps things might have been different. But, instead of taking advice from moderates in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which I hope will return to its traditional moderation under its new leader, he was led astray by extremists and those who thought the state was theirs to plunder.
Mr Speaker, the Liberal Party told the President in writing in October that he should not have a hasty election but instead work on the reforms promised in the manifesto on which the UPFA had won the election. We told him we could not support him in an election without reforms. I know that the left parties had also advised him not to have a hasty election, and I am sorry that they, whose integrity I used to admire, did not also stand by their beliefs the way a few of us did.
I have been told I was courageous, but since as the former President said, I was someone without a political future, as a member of the Liberal Party, I had perhaps nothing to lose. The real heroes of today are His Excellency the President, the other members of the SLFP and in particular the Hon Vasantha Senanayake who spoke out so early, and the leader of the UPFA and the per minority members who left government in that tumultuous week after the Election was called. In wishing the government well, in hoping for opposition cooperation now for reform, I salute them for courage which I hope will not be necessary again in our political system after we get rid of the excessive authority of the Executive authority.
13 Jan 2015
Hon. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
Leader, Liberal Party of Sri Lanka
State Minister of Higher Education, Sri Lanka
Dear Hon. Wijesinha:
On behalf of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), let me extend our warmest congratulations to you on your appointment as State Minister of Higher Education. We are very pleased that the newly installed government of Maithripala Sirisena has placed its confidence in your capacity to make positive contributions to the Sri Lankan higher educational system.
Your recent appointment reminded us of the 2010 CALD Conference on Education in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where you made this important point on what should be the educational thrust of your country: “…commitment to education is unique, and I think bodes well for the enhanced efficiency we must aim at as education and advanced training become even more important. We need to ensure that all our citizens are able to embrace the opportunities a country finally at peace can provide. For that purpose I believe the liberal philosophy of education is the most suitable, and I trust we will be able to proceed on these lines to ensure excellence, choice and a wider effectiveness.”
We are also pleased that you and the Liberal Party are now in a better position to shape Sri Lankan higher education based on liberal principles. And that you will be accomplishing this in the context of an unprecedented election result that made it very clear that the Sri Lankan people wanted positive change means that you could most likely count on popular support for the educational reforms you foresee.
The Sri Lankan people have done their part in ensuring a peaceful transition of power. Now it is up to Sirisena’s government to ensure that power will never be abused again, and that it will be used to bring peace, democracy and prosperity to Sri Lanka.
It is an enormous task, but the Sri Lankan people deserve nothing less. We wish you the best, and we look forward to a brighter future for the people of your beautiful country.
There were many firsts in the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka: An incumbent president was defeated; parties specifically representing different races and religious groups — the Jathika Hela Urumaya for the Sinhalese, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress along with the All Ceylon Muslim Congress — came together on a common political platform; corruption was a major issue in the pre-poll campaign; and now a specific timeframe has been set for reforms.
However, the most important responsibility of the new government will be settling the national question. While the country owes him a debt of gratitude for eliminating terrorism from the country, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did nothing about the commitments he made in 2009 to ensure inclusive peace.
As a member of the Liberal Party, I urged Rajapaksa to implement the 13th Amendment, which created Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka, but met with no success. I understand that there could have been problems about some aspects of the amendment but those could have been resolved through discussions.
When we negotiated with the TNA, MA Sumanthiran and I found a solution to what had previously been considered the vexed question of powers over land. We met stakeholders, asked them about their apprehensions and assuaged those fears.
Unfortunately, two members of the government acted in bad faith, one even refusing to fulfil instructions the president gave us to act on what had been agreed with the TNA.
Reaching consensus on these matters is a priority and the new government should set a time table for this. Successive Sri Lankan governments failed because they allowed talks to drag on without any purpose.
When Neelan was assassinated, it was initially assumed that Jeevan Thiagarajah, a younger protégé to whom he had become increasingly close, and whom he had seen as his chosen successor, would take over. But Radhika came to a swift arrangement with Neelan’s widow Sithy, and between the two of them they ran ICES for the next few years. Sithy was given unlimited access to ICES funds and resources, and the finances suffered terribly. Radhika’s lame excuse when the problems were laid bare was that she had merely signed whatever the Financial Director laid before her, and it was only after she left that she realized he knew little about finance.
In 2006 Radhika took up a UN assignment but ensured that someone she had herself selected, Rama Mani, who was very much on the international NGO circuit, succeeded her as Executive Director. Rama managed to alienate most of the researchers at ICES and evaded queries about financial problems until finally Kingsley de Silva, who was still Chairman of the Board, dismissed her.
At this point all hell broke loose. Apart from the efforts at blackmail of Angela Bogdan, Radhika weighed in heavily from New York on Rama’s behalf, while Rama even got the UNDP Regional Director to sign a petition asking for her reinstatement. This turned out to be under false pretences, and he retracted apologetically, while in New York, after much complaining, Radhika agreed with the Secretary General that she would give up her continuing involvement with ICES, which she should indeed have done when taking up a UN involvement.
My own deep worry about ICES had begun when Gareth Evans, who had chaired the Committee that developed the R2P concept, had been invited by Rama to deliver the Neelan Tiruchelvam memorial lecture, and had engaged in wild attacks on the Sri Lankan government. Having refrained from any mention of who had killed Neelan, he basically suggested that the Sri Lankan government, while engaged in excesses in its efforts to suppress the Tigers, was essentially racist and becoming ripe for R2P intervention.
Gareth came to see me afterwards and I challenged his claims, in particular his assertions that there had been genocide and ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka, conditions which warranted exercise of R2P. The only instance of the former he could mention was what had happened in July 1983, and he granted that that was no reason for evoking R2P now. With regard to the latter, he could not remember his reasons for the claim, and had to turn to his assistant, Alan Keenan, who had worked for ICES and developed an insidious interest in Sri Lanka which he now exercised on behalf of the International Crisis Group which Gareth headed.
Keenan sanctimoniously referred to the expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE, which had happened in 1990. Neither the date nor the perpetrators had been mentioned in Gareth’s speech, which made clear the sleight of hand involved. I mentioned that there was other shoddy work in the speech, and he agreed to respond when I had written to him about this, but needless to say, I never received any answers.
Interestingly enough I met Gareth again the following year, in Geneva, and I reminded him that he had not responded. He first claimed to have done so, and then changed his stance and said that he had been told I was a difficult person to deal with. I was flattered, that a former Australian Foreign Minister should be nervous of me, but I persevered, and he told me to write to Alan again with the questions. Obviously this time too there was no response. Read the rest of this entry »
Dayan’s point then was that Lalith too was part of the group around Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, that had decided after the 2010 election that the President should not make too many concessions with regard to a political settlement. This did not mean Lalith would set himself up consciously against the President, as even Gotabhaya was to do with regard to the issues noted above. When he was ordered to move, he did so, as when he produced swiftly an Action Plan for the LLRC Recommendations, which Mohan had held up, presumably again on Gotabhaya’s instructions. But he did not see any need to embark on any initiatives on his own that would take forward the commitments the President had made with regard to devolution or accountability.
And on occasion he went even further than Gotabhaya in putting forward a mindset that seemed at odds with the official position of the government. Thus, at the launch of a book called ‘Gota’s War’, which suggested the primary responsibility of the Secretary of Defence for the victory against the Tigers, Lalith launched into a vast attack on India for its part in strengthening the Tigers during the eighties. And just before the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in 2014, having been sent to lobby in the West, Lalith attacked what he termed the excesses of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the eighties, and claimed that, were investigations of abuse in Sri Lanka to proceed, the IPKF atrocities too should be gone into.
Our High Commissioner in Delhi, the normally placid career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam, complained sadly about what seemed an unnecessary alienation of India at a crucial time. He did not tell me who was responsible, but Indian officials were more forthright. When they brought up the question of criticism of the IPKF which had come to Sri Lanka at the request of the Sri Lankan government, and fought against the Tigers, they met the excuse I made, that there were extremists in the government who did not represent the views of the President, with the information that the assertion had been made by the President’s own Secretary.
If Lalith thought that this was a way of pressurizing India to oppose any resolution that referred to War Crimes, he obviously had no idea of the way international relations worked. But I cannot believe that he had so crude a view of the world. Rather it would seem that, like those in the Ministry of External Affairs who still resented the Indian intervention of the eighties, he thought that old Cold War Games could still be played, and we should affirm our commitment to the West by indicating how different we were to the Indians. Read the rest of this entry »
In 2011 I had personal experience of how diffident Lalith could be. After the Darusman Report came out, with its excessive attack on the manner in which Sri Lanka had dealt with LTTE terrorism, I thought it necessary to warn the President about what was going on. I saw him in his office and said we had done nothing to fulfil our own commitments. When he asked me what I meant, I cited two clear examples.
The first was the negotiations with the TNA, which had shown no progress. He understood immediately what I meant, and acquiesced straight away with the suggestion that I be put on the negotiating team. Ordinarily I would have been wary of putting myself forward, but there seemed to be no alternative, and the President seemed to agree.
The second point I made was that there had been no progress whatsoever on implementing the interim recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He evinced surprise when I said this, and declared that he had appointed a Committee which was doing its job. But I told him I thought that Committee had never met, and that he should put me on it.
He agreed again, and immediately rang Lalith and told him to appoint me to both positions. He also told the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, who he thought knew about the work of the Committee, to send me all relevant papers, since I told him that I should see the minutes of meetings and find out what had been going on, if I were to contribute.
Lalith rang me in the car as I was leaving. He told me that the letter putting me on the negotiating team would be sent straight away, and added that he had spoken to Mohan Pieris, who chaired the Committee to implement the LLRC interim recommendations, and he had no objection to my appointment.
I only understood the implications of this after I had put down the phone. I realized that, when the President made a decision, there was no reason for Lalith to consult anyone else. Keeping Mohan informed as a courtesy that there would be a new member of his Committee was one thing, seeking his acquiescence was quite another.
I had every reason to worry. Lalith told me a few days later that it was felt inappropriate for me to be on the Committee since I was a Parliamentarian, and the other members of the Committee were officials. I called the President about this, but he told me he had been told it would not be proper. By then I had been told by the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs that there were no minutes of meetings. The only papers he had were those prepared when the Committee was first appointed, and a report was made to Geneva. Like me, he too suspected that the Committee had not done very much.
I told this to the President, who thereupon agreed that amongst my duties as his adviser on Reconciliation would be monitoring the work of the Committee and reporting to him on what was happening. Fortunately Lalith had failed for six months to send me my terms of reference (having it seems lost the original draft I had sent him, and then delayed further when I sent him a copy). So now he made no objection when I told him the President had agreed that this should be added.
I therefore duly got a fairly comprehensive list of duties. But I then found, as noted previously, that Mohan, having first admitted that the Committee had never met, but claimed he was waiting for a date from the Secretary of Defence, finally confessed six months later that the Secretary did not want there to be any meetings. There had certainly been some progress in matters pertaining to the work of the Ministry of Defence, but no measures had been taken to expedite action on other matters of urgency, such as restoration of lands, which the LLRC had highlighted. Read the rest of this entry »
On the old Bibilical adage that, from him to whom much is given, much is expected, the most reprehensible of those on whom the President relied was his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge. But in addition to his undoubted intelligence and administrative abilities, there was another factor which led to high expectations. This was that, whereas all the others whose influence has been described were exercising this to fulfil their own agendas, with Lalith it was never doubted that he saw himself as only serving the purposes of the President.
An exception could be made with regard to the Secretary of Defence, in that it could be argued his agenda was not intended for his own benefit, as opposed to the other five whose ambitions have been noted. But increasingly during the President’s second term in office Gotabhaya Rajapaksa began to see himself as fulfilling a purpose, albeit idealistic, that was at odds with what his brother intended. It was almost as though, having previously claimed that he could win the war but the political solution had to come from elsewhere, he had begun to think that his role was crucial for any acceptable political settlement. So he even directly criticized his brother, for instance by arguing that Northern Provincial Council elections should not be held, or by allowing crude attacks on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on the Defence Ministry website.
Lalith was different, in that he did not think the President’s essential vision was at fault. Indeed the closest he got to criticism was to declare that those around the President concealed from him what was really happening. His claim then was that he kept his ear to the ground and knew what the real situation was. But, though his primary allegiance to the President was never then in doubt, he too unfortunately failed to provide advice and assistance that would enable the President to pursue the objectives he had outlined in his manifesto, or to fulfil the commitments he had made with regard to pursuing a pluralistic political solution.
Thus for instance, he remained passive when the President failed to fulfil his promised to change the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province after the Provincial Council election in which the TNA had won a massive majority, towards the end of 2013. The TNA provocatively and unnecessarily passed a motion in the Council to the effect that the Governor, former General G A Chandrasiri, should be removed. But in conversation with the President the moderate Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, accepted that this could not be done immediately. It was agreed then that the President would make a change in that respect when Chandrasiri’s current term ended, in July 2014. However he agreed that the Chief Secretary, who had made it clear that her allegiance was to the Governor, rather than the elected Board of Ministers (on whose advice the Governor was meant to act) would be changed at once.
Lalith was instructed to make the change, and this mark of a willingness to compromise was conveyed to diplomats who had been positive about Sri Lanka. They felt betrayed then when action was not taken, and all Lalith could say in excuse was that his hands were tied. Even if this meant that the President had changed his mind, it was incumbent on Lalith to point out to the President the negative consequences of what would seem duplicity, and urge at least a further discussion with the Chief Minister. But nothing of the sort happened. Typically, in July 2014, General Chandrasiri was reappointed Governor for a further five year term.
Another earlier example of Lalith’s passivity, more reprehensible perhaps because it was with regard to a matter that was not contentious, was his failure to move on the President’s commitment to introducing a Second Chamber of Parliament. This had been a key feature of the Liberal Party’s proposals for Constitutional Reform, but I had found that the All Party Representatives’ Committee that met in my office when I was Head of the Peace Secretariat was not at all interested in the idea. The APRC was chaired by Prof Tissa Vitharna, of the old Trotskyist Party, the LSSP, and they looked on the concept in the light of their scorn for the British House of Lords. Read the rest of this entry »
What infuriated the President most, it seemed, about the attack on Chris Nonis was the information that Sajin had been rude about the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka and connected this with Chris, who was a Catholic and was therefore compared to the imperial power that had sought to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist identity. But instead of dealing with the actual problem, the President had called Chris up and accused him of conspiring against the re-election the President hoped to achieve in the very near future, following the Pope’s visit.
A Cabinet Minister who had been present when the conversation took place said he had never heard such language previously from the President, and expressed the fear that he was not in control of himself. Certainly his reaction suggested some sort of schizophrenia, since he himself had earlier expressed suspicion that those who wanted him replaced would soon engineer conflict between him and the Catholics.
This was in the context of his claim that the hostilities the Bodhu Bala Sena were provoking with Muslims were part of a conspiracy to reduce his popularity and make re-election difficult. He had told me then that the next step would be to sow dissension between him and the Catholics.
But instead of looking into what seemed a gratuitous insult to Catholics, the President contented himself with believing that Chris was to blame for having complained about the matter to the Cardinal. It seemed indeed that he thought Chris was making the story up, for he attacked Chris for not having mentioned this when they met at the Waldorf. The fact that Chris had been trying to make him take the assault seriously was evidently forgotten, and now the whole episode seemed to have turned into yet another reason for the President to feel sorry for himself as the victim of an international conspiracy, with no attention at all to the fact that his nearest and dearest seemed to be the principal conspirators.
Thus, as mentioned already, he excused Gotabhaya’s involvement with the BBS, and was ignorant of the manner in which the BBS indicated how it had been cultivating Gotabhaya – albeit at the behest of someone they described as a foreign sympathizer. And now he did nothing about Sajin stirring up a hornet’s nest, even though this was in line with the attacks on the Portuguese being propagated by the favourite propagandists of the Ministry of Defence. One of them even went so far as to claim that Joseph Vaz, whose beatification was on the agenda for the Pope’s visit, was a foreign spy.
Sajin himself brought up the derogatory reference to the Portuguese in explaining his actions to a friend. Though the source for this was a website in opposition to the President and his government, what it said echoed Chris’s own account of what had happened – ‘The controversial supervising MP of the external affairs ministry Sajin Vaas Gunawardena has told a wealthy Muslim businessman whom he meets frequently, “Don’t you be afraid. The boss will never sack me. Boss can’t do without me.”
He was responding to a question by the Muslim businessman, who asked, “What trouble you are getting into, boss?” Explaining the incident, Sajin Vaas has told him that together with Kshenuka, he had been planning for a long time to expel Chris Nonis. Making use of his closeness to the president, Chris had continued to disregard ministry orders, he said, adding that the anger within him for a long time exploded while he was under the influence of liquor.
“Chris thought the H.E. was treating him more than me. The man came to Sri Lanka whenenever he wanted for his business purposes. When we called for explanations, the man tried to show his might. I have been thinking about that. The Foreign Service should have no people whom I cannot control. I expelled all such persons. Who he is to show his might to me, even when the minister too, is under my control? I do not care whatever is published by websites. The boss doesn’t care either. We do not govern accoding to what they say.”
“If not for Prasad (Kariyawasam) and the political counsellor, Chris would have lost a couple of his teeth. They were the ones who restrained me. It was a good opportunity for me to make trouble for Chris as there weren’t many people at the party. When I ridiculed him by calling him a Portuguese, he acted as if he did not hear. It was a good thing that Lalith Weeratunga was not present. Majintha too, was not there. So did Suresh. I punched him saying that he cannot be the president’s lad, and that I am the president’s lad. On the previous day, I tried to provoke him. But, Nimal Siripala, Nirupama, Shavendra, Kohona all were there. So, I gave up. Chris is a Colombo aristocrat. I am a street fighter from Ambalangoda. I beat up Chris in order to teach a lesson to the others,” he boasted to his Muslim businessman friend.’ (http://lankanewsweb.net/news/9025-boss-won-t-sack-me-sajin-vaas)