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CaptureSome years back, when I thought Ranil was honest, I said he would have been an admirable politician had he entered politics under Dudley Senanayake rather than J R Jayewardene. Though I had welcomed Jayewardene’s opening up of the economy, I was increasingly worried about the authoritarianism he sought to entrench, using violence for the purpose.

The treatment of the July 1980 strikers, the violence in Jaffna and then countrywide in connection with District Council elections, the suppression of opposition during the 1982 referendum (as to which Chandrika has obviously forgotten her husband’s suffereing and also Ranil’s role in collecting the undated letters of resignation from MPs that J R demanded) the pogrom of July 1983, were mounting evidence of his contempt for decency, let alone democratic norms.

I had begun to understand Ranil’s role in all this through a remark of Henry Gunasekera, an old style UNP stalwart, unlike his younger brother D E W, the last representative of the old upper class commitment to social justice exemplified by the original pillars of the Communist Party, S A Wickremesinghe and Pieter Keuneman. The parallel with my oldest and youngest maternal uncles, Esmond who was for a long time J R’s intellectual right hand while Cyril Mathew was his coercive left, and Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, struck me after I came to know and appreciate D E W’s idealistic sincerity.

But Henry too was sincere and, unlike Esmond, was not willing to go along with the shenanigans of his party when it changed course. He told me, way back in 1980, that there were only two honest Ministers in the UNP. Rather naively I thought he was referring to my two relations in Cabinet, Ranjith Atapattu and Ranil Wickremesinghe. But his response was no: though Ranjith was one of them, the other being Gamini Jayasuriya, he said Ranil, though financially above board, was not honest in that he used thugs.

How true this was became clear as evidence emerged of his connections with individuals such as Gonawala Sunil and Kalu Lucky, who led demonstrations against Supreme Court judges who had found against the government in a fundamental rights case – which I recalled when Ranil’s cohorts decided to demonstrate against the bond commission. Read the rest of this entry »

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CaptureHomer’s Iliad, most memorable of epic poems, is full of stock phrases, used again and again to describe people and things throughout the poem. When scholars in the last century established that the poem developed orally, they noted that these phrases were used to fill up the metre as the poet thought of how to move his narrative forward.

But I believe too that they are literary devices, not merely functional, and they add to the impact of the tale. They entrench in the mind of the reader, as of the audience for the oral version, the defining characteristics of the person or object described. Thus I cannot now see the Mediterranean without thinking of it as a wine dark sea, just as goats are, in my mind’s window, always sure-footed.

Some such defining description would help in making clear what is going on in the long drawn out narrative of the Central Bank bonds. For instance, when there were references recently to Saman Kumara, it might have been forgotten that, on August 1st, it was reported that ‘Mahendran directed me… he threatened me to do that… (to put Saman Kumara in the front office)’. It would serve to keep the strange story clear in our minds if, whenever Saman Kumara’s name came up, it was noted in parenthesis ‘forcibly placed by Mahendran as chief dealer of the EPF’.  That would make things clear, though adding the term ‘millionaire’ would remind us too that ‘Saman Kumara and his family members own assets exceeding Rs. 80 million’.

This paper I think understands the need for this type of characterization for, in describing Anika Wijesuriya, it noted that she provided the testimony that Ravi Karunanayake ‘may have received gratification…from Arjun Aloysius’. Not entirely coincidentally, I have now written to the Bribery Commission about another incident involving Ravi Karunanayake and this time Anika’s father Nahil, involving cheques to the value of Rs 60 million given to the Prime Minister. Read the rest of this entry »

CaptureAmongst the more endearing explanations offered by Ranil’s friends for his involvement in the Bond Scam is that he was taken for a ride. The response then to the question why he defended Mahendran so vociferously is that Mahendran also was taken for a ride. Then the answer to the question why Mahendran went down to bully the Public Dept Department was that he was following instructions. I presume the same answer would have been given to the question why he insisted on appointments within the Bank that facilitated Arjuna Aloysius having his wicked way with bond issues and the EPF.

The fact that Aloysius was Mahendran’s son-in-law is considered irrelevant it seems in this account of why Mahendran acted as he did, to knowingly cause such a massive loss to the country. But even if one believes that all this was done under pressure, it is clear that we will not find out from him who applied the pressure since he can now employ the Aloysius stratagem of refusing to give evidence.

I believe the Commission set a bad precedent in permitting Aloysius to get away with this stratagem, given that it has no judicial authority and is a fact finding body only. But even if it is right in the stance it took, it does have a mechanism to promote justice by ordering Aloysius’ arrest on the basis of the information it already has. The case for this is strengthened by the fact that he has not just refused to testify but was actively involved in suppressing evidence. And doing this would send a message to Mahendran that the Aloysius stratagem will hasten rather than delay judicial procedures.

But the Commission also has a wider responsibility, to find out who pushed Mahendran and Ranil to behave the way they did, on the friendly interpretation, who helped them to fulfil their dishonest desires on a more rational view. Fortunately the evidence, or rather a direction in which to search, has already been provided by Ranil himself. He declared in Parliament, in his infamous statement claiming that Parliamentarians were not capable of judging the issue,  that Mahendran had acted in accordance with desires expressed by individuals who had unprecedentedly gone to the Bank to request vast amounts of money.

Amongst those individuals were two Cabinet Ministers who held office in the UNP. What Ranil did not say is also significant. He omitted the fact that Malik Samarawickrema, the Chairman of the UNP, had accompanied the group that gave Mahendran an excuse. Fortunately Mahendran himself if I recollect aright gave the game way in COPE in citing Malik too. It seems he thought that someone who held no executive office also had a role to play in dictating the financial policies and practices of the country – an understandable view given the massive financial obligations of the UNP at the time and the view that the interests of the country and the UNP were synonymous. Read the rest of this entry »

I was away during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister and, with internet limited in Turkmenistan, could not follow what happened nor what was said. But enough came through to remind me of what happened 30 years ago, at the time of the Indo-Lankan Accord.

The recently founded Liberal Party found itself in a unique position on that occasion, since we welcomed the Accord but regretted three elements in it. One was the proposed merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which we predicted would prove divisive. That regret is not my subject here, but it may be worth noting that, in addition to the practical problems we saw, we bewailed the fact that the whole concept of devolution was being perverted.

We had long promoted devolution on the grounds that government should be closer to the people. That is why we would have preferred District Councils, and why even recently we extolled the virtues of Divisional Secretariats for practical support to the people, given that Provincial Councils cannot now be abolished. In passing, I should note that the failure of the President to push through the commitment in his manifesto about Divisional Secretariats is another example of the sidelining of the structural changes this country so badly needs.

In 1987, President Jayewardene squandered the opportunity to streamline administration and, by proposing a merger, promoted the idea that devolution was about ethnic enclaves. That was a sure recipe for further dissension. Indeed what happened in the world afterwards has proved that. In the early eighties one could think of Federalism as a mechanism to bind different parts of a country closer together while allowing independent initiatives based on local needs (as with for instance the United States or Germany), But now it is seen as a precursor to separation, as has happened in the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – and which is why India needs to be careful, not least with regard to one of the largest of its component states to still remain undivided.

But all that is another story. More relevant here is another of our caveats about the 1987 Accord, namely the elements in the Annexures which placed Sri Lanka firmly under Indian suzerainty. We had previously argued that the adventurism of the Jayewardene government with regard to India was potentially disastrous, and the manner in which India responded – which included strong condemnation using Argentina at the then equivalent in Geneva of the Human Rights Council – ensured our subjugation.

The Liberal Party had no quarrel at all with the actual restraints put upon Sri Lanka, for Jayewardene’s games with Trincomalee (including leasing the oil tanks to a Singapore based company, having cancelled the tender which an Indian company had won on good grounds), and the setting up of a Voice of America station at Iranawila, were unnecessary provocations. Given the then unremitting hostility of America to India, seen as a Soviet ally – and hence fair game for the terrorists being trained in Pakistan to attack not just the Soviets in Afghanistan – our getting involved in this latest version of the Great Game was idiotic. Read the rest of this entry »

Dayan Jayatilleka’s current forceful advocacy of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the best possible future leader of this country has raised many hackles, but I believe he has answered the criticisms raised effectively. What he has not explored is the irony of there being two contradictory approaches adopted, one accusing him of inconsistency in that he was critical of Gotabhaya in the past, the other accusing him of having failed to be so critical.

What is even more strange is that it is somehow assumed that those critical of the current government cannot be allowed to change their minds, whereas those in the UNP who engaged in abject racism and authoritarianism in the past are allowed to begin with a clean slate as it were, with no examination of their past records. So Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appalling racism in 1983 is forgotten, his claiming that the attacks on Tamils were a mere bagatelle compared with what the Bandaranaikes had done to Sinhalese businessmen while privileging the minorities. Forgotten too is his claim, when he was last Prime Minister, that, as had happened in Korea and Taiwan, democracy could be delayed and what was important was development, even if it came through dictatorship.

This does not necessarily mean that Ranil cannot change, though the inductive evidence suggests increasing doubts about this, and one should therefore take care. I myself have twice assumed he would change, and indeed told my aunt Ena de Silva when I voted for the UNP in 2001 that I believed Ranil and Chari had become better. She being wiser was not so sure. And though what happened then should have taught me a lesson, I did not think it a mistake to support a slate in the 2015 election in which Ranil would be Prime Minister. Read the rest of this entry »

The election was held on August 17th, and four days later I learnt that I had not been put into Parliament. I had been on the UPFA National List, which I gathered had been with the approval of both factions of the SLFP. But it had become clear almost immediately that happened that the polarization that was taking place would leave no room for anyone trying to hold a balance.

I had not been able, before it was submitted, to see the President to check about whether I would be on the List. But I did see him on July 14th, along with Faizer Mustapha, who had also resigned as a State Minister early in the year, deeply upset that as the leading Muslim in the SLFP who had supported the President’s campaign he had not been put into the Cabinet. The President told us that he had been responsible for ensuring that we were on the list, and we thanked him, but Faizer was much more worried about the fact that he was low down on the list, and kept questioning the President about his chances of being nominated to Parliament.

Maithripala, with a touch of the gentle irony I had found attractive in my few dealings with him, noted that he had thought we had come to thank him, not to complain. But Faizer was not to be deterred in pressing his case, and proceeded to claim that the Rajapaksa camp was deeply hostile to him because of his devotion to the President. I found this odd, given that Faizer had been one of those who crossed over to support Sirisena only when it became clear that he had a chance of winning, and when it was obvious that the Muslims would vote for him en masse and the Muslims who remained in the Rajapaksa camp had, for the moment, no prospect of political success.

But it was precisely those who crossed over late, in pursuit of their own advantages, who had to convince the President of their undying loyalty. They had nothing else to put forward, since obviously they had no commitment to the principles on which for instance Vasantha Senanayake and I had moved to support Sirisena – having previously, unlike others in government with a few honourable exceptions, raised questions with Mahinda Rajapaksa when we thought his government was going astray. Read the rest of this entry »

I returned from Azerbaijan on June 23rd and had to go that morning to Parliament for a COPE meeting. The report on the Bond scam was being drafted, and it was clear that it would show that Arjuna Mahendran had interfered egregiously with bond placements to the great detriment of the economy. The Opposition was feeling quite confident, but this made it push its luck and indicate that it would press for a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, who had clearly been responsible for what had happened, as indicated by his spirited defence of his acolyte – and indeed the instructions he had given to less scrupulous members of COPE to delay proceedings.

But this was not the only issue of importance, and it should not I felt be allowed to detract from the reforms that had been pledged in the President’s manifesto. The most important of these, which had been ignored when the Constitution was amended in April, was electoral reform, but the President had promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until that was accomplished. I believe he was sincere, but I worried given the rumours that were circulating about an early dissolution. However Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the Opposition, assured me during this week that the President had again promised that he would ensure electoral reform before having an election.

One area that I had not been able to address in the Manifesto was the need for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. This had been pledged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 manifesto, and he had indeed appointed a Committee headed by Jayampathy Wickremaratne to draft one. But by 2007, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, this lay forgotten, with the President and Jayampathy clearly no longer trusting each other. I was sorry about this, and told Jayampathy he should proceed, but it was clear he did not think the effort worthwhile in the prevailing dispensation.

But when in 2008 I was appointed also to the position of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following a renewed pledge in Geneva that a Bill of Rights would be introduced, I felt I could press, and Jayampathy was persuaded to reactivate his committee. We used many of the people who were also working on the Human Rights Action Plan that had been promised in Geneva, and well before the end of 2009 we had good drafts ready.

The silly season however had set in by then, and the President was concerned now only about the election. He had said work on the HR Plan should only continue after the election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe was not willing to press, nor even to bring the Bill of Rights to his attention. I foolishly asked him whether I could put it on the Ministry website as a draft, which he forbade, whereas I should have gone ahead without asking him, so that he would not have got any flak. Read the rest of this entry »

COPE began its investigations on Friday June 5th, and we met every day the following week, except on the Friday – again my fault, for I had arranged another trip, our High Commission in Delhi having succeeded in getting visas for Azerbaijan. During the weekend I read the reports the Bank had prepared on the whole business, and found the situation even worse than I had thought. Because of Mahendran’s actions, the interest the country had to pay on bonds had shot up, so that not only had Perpetual Treasuries, the company associated with Mahendran’s son-in-law, made a massive profit, but also the interest payments Sri Lanka had to make on loans after February 2015 reached ridiculous heights.

Our questioning of bank officials revealed an even more sordid side to Mahendran’s machinations. The first Deputy Governor we interviewed seemed to me a very shady character, and not very bright. I actually asked Nivard Cabraal why he had promoted him, to which the answer was that he was good at some things, and had seniority on his side. But he knew nothing of debt, so it was suspicious that Mahendran had put him in charge of that area.

The Director in charge of that area also knew nothing of the subject, but my sister told me that she was known for her honesty. She had called my sister when she was transferred to that position, expressing worries about her capacity to handle the job, but my sister told her that integrity was vital and that was perhaps the reason for the move. Certainly she exuded decency, to the point of practically breaking down when we reprimanded her for not having told the Governor that it was wrong to take 10 billion worth of bonds when the advertised amount had been 1 billion, and the few bids for large amounts were at high rates of interest. She declared that they had told him this repeatedly and, though they stopped him from insisting on 20 billion being taken, he had been adamant about 10.

Her Deputy was a very smart young man, and it was clear that he had made the position clear to Mahendran, but they had been over-ruled. It transpired too that Mahendran had come down to the bidding floor twice that morning, and had interfered egregiously in the process. It was absurd therefore that the UNP lawyers had claimed that he had no direct responsibility for what occurred.

Other suspicious details included the fact that Perpetual Treasuries had obtained a loan from the Bank of Ceylon for its bid, and that this had been approved straight away with no proper assessment of the request. It was unprecedented that the Bank, which was also a primary dealer, should not have bid to any substantial degree for bonds, but had instead underwritten the bid of a private company. Read the rest of this entry »

Deciding that I would make it clear that I was no longer part of the government, made it easier for me to deal more firmly with the manoeuvers Ranil was engaged in with regard to the promised constitutional reform. Jayampathy Wickramaratne had produced a draft that affirmed that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister. I believe he had initially worked on his own, but later some party leaders had been consulted. I had not been asked and I complained to the President about this, so on Sunday March 15th I was duly invited to a discussion chaired by the President at his Secretariat.

I was blunt in my criticism of the underhand manner in which Ranil was trying to take full powers with no respect for the electoral process. I was backed by not only the SLFP representatives but also the JHU, which later commented on how forceful I had been. Ranil plaintively claimed that he had been promised this change, and that he would complain to Chandrika, but the President did not give in. The final decision was that Jayampathy would amend his draft, a task in which he was supposed to consult G L Pieris.

G L I fear did not check on what was going on, and the amended draft we received had changed the principal instrument of transferring power to the Prime Minister, but little else. We protested at the meeting to discuss the changes that was held in Parliament, but later we found that the gazetted version confirmed the primacy of the Prime Minister. Jayampathy claimed that this had been the decision of the Cabinet.

What had transpired in the interim was a sordid effort to in effect bribe those assumed to be the more malleable members of the SLFP. A week after the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, it was announced that the Cabinet had been expanded with the addition of several members of the SLFP. But it transpired that the leadership of the party had not been consulted, and it looked as though individuals had been selected principally by Chandrika. Having bitterly resented the fact that the senior leadership of the party had gravitated to Mahinda Rajapaksa after he had been made the Presidential candidate in 2005, she ignored them completely, which had dire consequences for the President.

Ironically one of those appointed to the cabinet was S B Dissanayake, who had fallen out with her dramatically after initially having been a favourite. S B was obviously someone who knew on which side his bread was buttered, but he was also an intelligent man, and indeed the only one in the 2001 UNP cabinet of those I met together with a German consultant trying to promote educational reform who was able to conceptualize. I asked him then why he had allowed Jayampathy to get away with a draft that stripped the President of his powers, but it turned out that he had not been at the crucial Cabinet meeting. So what Jayampathy tried to make out was an all party consensus was in fact the result of the second rank of the SLFP having been hurriedly elevated to unwarranted authority, quite in contravention of the promise on which the President had been elected.

Still, the Parliamentary group stood firm, and even those who had initially acquiesced in what Jayampathy had had gazette insisted on the President retaining his primacy. There was indeed strong resistance to supporting the constitutional amendment, but the President came to the group meeting in Parliament, and promised to address their concerns. In particular he granted that it was a pity the proposed 19th amendment did not introduce the electoral reforms he had pledged, and he solemnly promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until a 20th amendment that introduced a mixed system of election had also been passed. Read the rest of this entry »

The manifesto was launched at a ceremony at Vihara Maha Devi Park on December 19th. That was my grandmother’s birthday, and I thought, when I went to the cemetery afterwards, that she would have been pleased that I was working together with Ranil. At the same time, though I realized that was essential, and UNP support was of the essence if Maithripala Sirisena were to win, it was also clear that the UNP itself was in shambles, and had little capacity for effective coordination.

I had sensed this in the decline of Mangala Samaraweera, whom I had thought of as one of the more sophisticated members of the UNP. He had been instrumental in getting Vasantha Senanayake to be the first member of the government to announce publicly that he would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, though sadly for Vasantha he ignored the request that the Press Conference be held at an independent venue. Mangala instead dragooned Vasanth into making his announcement at Siri Kotha, which led to him being identified with the UNP, which had never been Vasantha’s intention. That was taken ruthless advantage of later to cut him down, tragically for both President Sirisena and also for the UPFA, which he could have contributed to immeasurably.

Twice after the common candidature was announced, Vasantha took me to see Mangala. But instead of the bright strategist I had assumed I would find, I had to deal with an amiable drunk, who wanted nothing better than to gossip over a drink, and then another. After the second such evening, in his delightful house in Ratmalana, I realized that this was yet another broken reed, his period out of power having deprived him of the capacity to focus which he had displayed earlier as a Minister.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2018
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