The year that was: How ill-advised, reckless decisions ruined GR’s mandate
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Seat of learning at the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA) at Diyatalawa where 352 fully fledged Cadet Officers, to the Sri Lanka Army, joined the war-winning Army (pic courtesy PMD)
About a year before violent protests erupted outside the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Mirihana residence, over the crippling shortages of essential services and supplies, possibly exacerbated by some hidden hands, like the way Aragalaya was mainly bank rolled from abroad, or the mysterious forces who torched several dozen private homes of the then government politicians across the country, in a very systemic manner, on the night of May 09, the seventh executive President said that the people would decide whether he contest the next presidential election.
President Rajapaksa was addressing a gama samaga pilisandara programme at Yombuweltenna, Walapone, where he declared that only 14 months had been completed of his 60-month term. The President said that as he had plenty of time no one should be concerned about him not contesting again.
The then Senior Presidential Advisor, Lalith Weeratunga, sat on the President’s right. A confident Gotabaya Rajapaksa wore a light purple t-shirt, black trousers and a facemask as Covid-19 was raging. Referring to the last presidential election, in Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that the next time, too, the public would decide the outcome. It was not to be.
President Rajapaksa launched the gama samaga pilisandara programme on Sept 25, 2020, in the Badulla district. Yombuweltenna was the venue for the 15th programme in President Rajapaksa’s ambitious political project, meant to consolidate the electorate by going to the people at the grassroots. It was not to be.
Having won the presidency comfortably, just over a year earlier, President Rajapaksa was on a powder keg as a result of the rapidly deteriorating financial situation, primarily caused by the unprecedented pandemic in living memory, and some foolhardy and hasty decisions. Slashing of taxes, running into billions, after the presidential election, to give an impetus to the private sector to make the economy roar, drying up of Lankan worker remittances, for the first time, and the failure on the part of the government to initiate talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an urgently needed loan facility, had caused irreparable damage. Had President Rajapaksa realized the implications of that disputed decision, he could have avoided the humiliating exit from the Presidency. It was not to be.
About five weeks after the Walapane programme, President Rajapaksa imposed ban on the importation of fertiliser and agro chemicals. That move was perhaps meant to save USD 300-400 mn annually spent on the importation of fertiliser thereby ease pressure on the Treasury. It was not to be.
By then the Finance Ministry has perpetrated a scam reducing the duty on the importation of white sugar by a big margin without passing on the benefit to the consumer. It may have been a case of paying back the import mafia for financing the previous election campaign of the SLPP. Such shenanigans had been resorted to by virtually all past governments. Even the two massive bond scams would have been to reboot the UNP’s war chest that had been badly depleted due to the long recess in the opposition. Last November State Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya confirmed that sugar scam caused Rs 1.6 bn revenue loss.
The culpability of the then immensely powerful and once very talented Presidential Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundera for the economic fallout should be investigated. One-time Treasury Secretary Jayasundera, who quit in Dec 2021 amidst a simmering controversy over the crisis, has been blamed for the unprecedented and continuing crisis. But can the Cabinet of Ministers chaired by the President absolve itself of the responsibility for Sri Lanka’s predicament? Regardless of ill-fated decisions that had been taken on the advice of Dr. P.B. Jayasundera et al, ministers cannot pass the buck. The Cabinet of Ministers should be held responsible for the continuing crisis. The responsibility of Governors of Central Bank Prof. W.D. Lakshman (Dec 2019-Sept 2021) and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Sept 2021-March 2022) as well as the five-member Monetary Board should be examined. Two of those who had served the Monetary Board during the tenures of Prof. Lakshman and Cabraal remained therein. Can Dr. Ranee Jayamaha and Sanjeewa Jayawardena, PC, absolve themselves of the decisions taken/not taken during Dec 2019-March 2022. The role played by the then Finance Secretary S.R. Attygalle, too, should be examined. Surely the country will not believe that they were all simply awestruck by the all-powerful presidency.
President Rajapaksa brought in Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe and Mahinda Siriwardena as the Governor and the Finance Secretary, respectively in early April this year.
By then, the economy was in ruins. Unprecedented protest at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on the night of March 31 may have been the test run to launch the high profile campaign that forced President Rajapaksa to flee the country and handover the reins to Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier. Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa’s refusal to accept the premiership when it was offered to him will remain a political mystery. Perhaps lawmaker Premadasa who also served as the Opposition Leader never expected the SLPP’s hare-brained strategy to hand over power wholesale. Offering the premiership to the United National Party (UNP) that had just one National List seat in parliament seemed so ludicrous perhaps no one really expected the strategy to succeed. But at least he had the backbone or received the signal from hidden puppet masters to take it with both hands. And for all purposes aragalaya was snuffed out overnight contrary to what its activists claimed before cameras earlier.
President Rajapaksa wouldn’t have anticipated in his wildest dreams having to reach a consensus with UNP leader Wickremesinghe as regards the presidency.
Wickremesinghe has achieved the unthinkable. Having failed to re-enter parliament at the last parliamentary election in the backdrop of the party being unable to win a single seat but avoided a complete whitewash by scraping a National List slot. Wickremesinghe has turned the political environment upside down. The ruling SLPP, struggling to cope up with internal dissent, has been compelled to play ball with Wickremesinghe, who shrewdly changed the political landscape. The elevation of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardene, Wickremesinghe’s school buddy at Royal College, to the position of Premier wouldn’t have happened under a Rajapaksa administration. There hadn’t been a previous instance since the introduction of the Proportional Representation system of an MP with just two other members in parliament receiving the premiership. The MEP parliamentary group consists of Premier Gunawardena, Gampaha District MP Sisira Jayakody and the premier’s son, Yadamini Gunawardena accommodated on the SLPP National List.
SLPP ignores stern warning
Amidst a much deteriorated economic situation, a major internal crisis erupted in the ruling SLPP over the shady finalisation of a disputed agreement with the US based New Fortress Energy in respect of a new LNG terminal, the Yugadanavi power plant as well as gas supply to Sri Lanka’s power plants caused irrevocable damage to its relationship with its partners, the National Freedom Front (NFF), Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) and Democratic Left Front (DLF). In spite of NFF, PHU and DLF being represented by 06, 01 and 01 MPs, respectively, the extraordinary clash between the arrogant SLPP and Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara quickly developed into a deadly political battle. The developing political and economic crises-a lethal cocktail quickly destabilised the Rajapaksa administration.
President Rajapaksa allowed the situation to develop. In the wake of fierce attacks on the New Fortress Energy deal, strangely concluded in the dead of the night. The President’s Office threw its weight behind those who had been accused of manipulating the Cabinet process to sell 40 percent stake in the Yugadhanavi power station held by the Treasury along with the related other above deals.
It would be pertinent to ask whether President Rajapaksa authorized the then Presidential Spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake to arrange disgraced CEB Chairman M.C.C. Ferdinando to defend the deal. Struggling to cope up with the crisis caused by its own incompetence, the administration brought in Ratnayake and Sudewa Hettiarachchi of Sirasa and Swarnawahini, respectively, to turnaround the situation. The government seemed to have wrongly recognised the crisis as an issue to do with not having the required media hype.
The powers that be until the very end believed costly media projects could turn around the situation. They refused to take remedial measures.
The Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Nanayakkara trio took on the government courageously in spite of the growing threat to them. Having failed to convince President Rajapaksa to reverse the controversial decision on the US energy deal, they moved the Supreme Court against the Cabinet of Ministers. They created history. In spite of the swift dismissal of the case by the SC, they pursued the campaign that commenced in Oct 2021. President Rajapaksa sacked Weerawansa and Gammanpila in early March 2022, several weeks before the eruption of public anger at Pangiriwatte.
Unfortunately, none of the other cabinet ministers had the guts to stand by their colleagues. Instead they reassured their commitment to a corrupt system that was on the verge of being toppled. The likes of Ali Sabry, PC, and Bandula Gunawardena remained silent though they disclosed the ugly truth in June 2022 (exclusive interview with Swarnawahini) and Dec 2022 (parliament), respectively. President Rajapaksa had to pay a very heavy price for allowing a corrupt cabinet to have its way. Those who had President’s or was it Basil’s ear pursued their own agenda regardless of the consequences.
Media and Transport Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s Dec 09 disclosure in parliament pertaining to the sugar duty scam that deprived cash-strapped Treasury of at least Rs 1.6 bn underscored the need to overhaul the system of governance. Minister Gunawardena has pinpointed those who perpetrated it. Thereby, the Colombo District lawmaker has implicated President Rajapaksa. Let us hope the former trade minister wouldn’t take cover behind parliamentary privileges to cover up those responsible. Should the so-called collective responsibility of the Cabinet of Ministers and parliamentary privileges be allowed to hinder investigations into the sugar scam?
Let us hope the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) inquiring into the sugar duty scam perpetrated on the issuance of a gazette notification that brought the tax on a kilo of sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents goes the whole hog.
Weerawansa’s failed bid
The then Minister Weerawansa made a desperate but determined bid to convince President Rajapaksa to take remedial measures. The former JVP er earned the wrath of the SLPP by urging President Rajapaksa to play an active role in politics. Weerawansa declared that President Rajapaksa should immediately intervene in the political decision making process. The SLPP launched a scathing attack on Weerawansa who retaliated regardless of the consequences. An irate Weerawansa, in a statement issued on Oct 10, 2021 set the record straight as regards comments made at a Cabinet meeting attributed to him. Alleging that his comments had been correctly interpreted and were in the public domain, particularly social media, lawmaker Weerawansa declared (1) the public lost faith in the government not because the administration didn’t do what was expected of it but did what was not expected, (2) hasty cabinet decisions taken at a single sitting without proper consultation among members, and finally (3) President Rajapaksa should participate in the decision making process, attend party leaders’ meetings and play an active role in politics.
Over Weerawansa’s public declarations SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam clashed with him on a number of occasions.
Weerawansa appeared to have quite conveniently forgotten that in spite of not holding any position in the SLPP, President Rajapaksa took decisions on behalf of the government. But that shouldn’t be misconstrued. There had been serious issues as the Rajapaksas pulled in different directions. The crisis at Litro gas owned by Sri Lanka Insurance exposed unbelievable trickery. The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) vigorously opposed Litro halting the state audit process contrary to basic financial rules and regulations. Litro hired two President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva and Sanjeewa Jayawardena to defend its controversial decision. Then COPE Chairman Prof. Charitha Herath is on record as having said that Litro spent over Rs 20 mn on lawyers.
Finally, President Rajapaksa removed Litro Chairman Anil Koswatte and brought in Viyathmaga activist Theshara Jayasinghe who pointed to high profile large scale corruption at the enterprise.
Investigations into hundreds of gas-related explosions revealed that the mystery change in the composition of gas was the primary reason for these incidents. Maybe it was a case of some outside party staging a “mission impossible” type of plot, probably at the point of export. Prof. Shantha Walpolage, the Chairman of the Committee that had been appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to probe the recent gas explosions made this revelation. Prof. Walpolage contradicted Theshara Jayasinghe claim that the composition remained unchanged. The Litro chairman made this declaration at a media briefing arranged by Kingsley Ratnayake on Dec 20, 2021. The government never revealed the truth. Gas-related explosions remains a mystery like so many other mysteries of that government.
The government again exposed itself by trying to deceive the public over its decision to increase the price of fuel in June 2021. Arrogant SLPP leadership clashed with Udaya Gammanpila, who hit back hard when SLPP
General Secretary Attorney-at-Law Kariyawasam lambasted the minister over the decision to increase fuel price marginally. The SLPP propagated the lie that fuel prices wouldn’t have to be increased if Basil Rajapaksa served in the cabinet as the finance minister.
Following a sustained campaign Basil Rajapaksa re-entered parliament in June 2021 on the National List. President Rajapaksa in spite of strong objections by some SLPP constituents cleared the way for his brother’s re-entry by doing away with the clause on dual citizens. The stage was set for the CEB deal with New Fortress Energy signed close to midnight on Sept 17, 2021. By then, M.M.C. Ferdinando has returned from retirement in Australia to be the CEB Chairman and worked overtime to finalise the deal to the satisfaction of then US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz.
A flawed Temple Trees project
The overall failure on the part of the Rajapaksa government to address the issues at hand should be examined against the backdrop of a despicable Temple Trees project to save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership. Temple Trees engaged in a desperate bid to consolidate Premier Rajapaksa’s position amidst calls even by a section of the SLPP parliamentary group for the twice President to step down as the Prime Minister. Finally, Temple Trees gave a turbo boost to the public protest campaign by unleashing violence on Galle Face protesters and those camping outside Temple Trees.
The May 09 attacks followed by fiery speeches delivered by SLPP leaders were outdone by counter attacks by so called aragalaya activists, which included a physical assault on DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon on the streets. But, the losses inflicted by well organised gangs that went on the rampage as the military and police just looked on, were staggering.
They had the tacit support of some political parties. For about 72 hours gangs roamed the streets. The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government never really probed those attacks. But, within 24 hours after being elected as the President on July 20, UNP leader Wickremesinghe ordered the military to clear the Presidential Secretariat. The President repeatedly warned that unauthorised protests wouldn’t be tolerated under any circumstances.
The May 09 incidents should be examined taking into consideration Temple Trees repeatedly declaring that there was no need for the Premier to resign. Temple Trees issued a spate of statements reassuring the public the Premier was in control and measures were being taken at his behest to restore normalcy.
But the May 09 explosion of mobs even overrunning Temple Trees brought that silly effort to an end, thereby paving the way for the UNP to secure the presidency after 28 years.
However, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government faces an uphill task of facing the electorate at Local Government polls early this year. The government will do whatever possible to put off Local Government polls though the Opposition is pushing hard to prevent any delay in the election. Putting off the election seems as important as securing USD 2.9 bn early this year. Having bragged about the IMF facility, now it is clear that funds wouldn’t be available as expected within the next few weeks.