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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Sri Lanka: Will Gota’s grand anointment ceremony turn out to be a farce?


As the heir apparent to the House of Medamulana, now that the old squire of the estate had decided to untie his laces and hand the jackboots to his younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stayed in the shadowy wings till his brother had ended his valedictory speech where he heaped endless praise of psalms on himself before finally proceeding to heap praise on his successor, extolling his virtues and singing hosannas.

For months the nation had waiting with bated breath as to who the Pohottuwa candidate would be but Mahinda had kept his lips sealed and none knew whether Mahinda would announce the name of someone outside the Rajapaksa family circle. But no sooner had Mahinda begun his speech and said that what the country now needed was a strong man, the bets were off; the surprise ceased to exist and it was obvious to all that the bloodline would continue unabated.

And as the approach of the climactic hour Mahinda declared to the party’s feudal gathering that had been invited to witness the party’s historic hour “I now give you my brother to be your brother” and as Gota walked through a side door to take his curtain call and step onto the family stage where one brother passed the crown, the throne, the sceptre and the family jewels to be stashed in the family vault to the other brother, the crowds roared. If Mahinda was now history, Gotabaya is now the future: The Rudyard of the Rajapaksa fortunes, fame and power.

Two Sunday’s ago at the Sugathadasa Stadium at the well choreographed tinsel show, the Rajapaksa family band wagon arrived on stage from which alighted the family members to pat each other on the backs and give each other bear hugs in a show of unity; and to wow the audience with their utopian political promises. And if that were not of enough euphoria for the day, the audience were treated to the spectacle of girls popping out of lotus leaves in the extravagant manner New York’s greatest showman P. T. Barnum made men put their heads inside the jaws of lions which made Mark Twain quip ‘A sucker is born every minute.’

The followed the moment for the Pohottuwa presidential candidate to make his maiden speech.

In a twenty-three-minute speech he said: “I assure you that I have the strength and the will to face any challenge as I had done in the past.” Recalling his two-decades-long military career as well as his decade-long tenure as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Gotabaya declared that he wouldn’t go beyond accepted norms but would fulfil obligations.

But though he said he would not go beyond ‘accepted norms’, he made it clear that he is one who would go beyond the call of duty. In fact, he stated that thirty-five years ago he had received a letter of commendation from the senior most military officer at that time.

Gotabaya recalled a letter of commendation received 35 years ago from the then senior most military officer Gen. Cyril Ranatunga who had referred to him as ‘an officer who takes initiative over and above the normal call of duty.’ That must certainly be true for during the last years of the Eelam war he amply displayed this rare trait to go beyond the call of duty again and again for he, like Machiavelli who wrote in his book ‘The Prince’, firmly believed ‘the end justifies the means.’

And no doubt, if he is elected he will do so again, even though he now says he ‘wouldn’t go beyond accepted norms’. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot act within accepted norms and still venture beyond what one individually and personally perceives – using one’s own patriotic yardstick – as an instance that justifies one to go ‘beyond the call of duty’. Beyond the pale of accepted norms.

And however so much the Pohottuwa Party may have consecrated Gotabaya as their presidential candidate in the belief that a man of iron is what people need and want at this hour, he has a drawback. He does not have the natural charm, the all pervasive charisma his elder brother Mahinda possesses in abundance. Gotabaya may wear the jackboot but it’s Mahinda who tugs the heartstrings of the people. Gotabaya may command fear, a reputation that preceded the second advent of a Rajapaksa on the stage two Sunday’s ago whereas Mahinda elicits his supporters’ love even though it’s no mean an iron fist he bears beneath his velvet glove that lovingly pats children’s heads. And if not for the tragic Easter carnage four months ago, Gota’s elevation to be the guardian deity of Lanka’s security with his signature tune that he is the only man capable of ensuring it, would have fallen flat and left him bereft of a an enticing and captivating slogan to calm the hearts of a fear stricken populace, gone berserk with terror over a single extremist incident.

But for the grand show staged at the Sugathadasa Stadium on August 11, for all the posters raised by the minions on cue, for all the dance and girls blooming out of lotus petals, for all the fanfare surrounding his anointment as the party’s new star of hope, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still not out of the woods yet.

But beneath the glitzy glamour and the razzmatazz of the Pohottuwa’s no-expense-spared maiden convention to announce its ‘sangavunu amuttha’ or the surprise candidate, aren’t there a few valid questions for the discerning mind to raise? Whilst all appeared hunky-dory and went off very well to the letter as planned, whether there was no semblance of deception involved in the whole extravaganza, that while the audience were mesmerized by the cabaret, there was an attempt to pull the wool over the people’s eyes?

Consider the following.

FIRST: At the convention, the first item on the agenda was for Pohottuwa chairman G. L. Peiris to announce Mahinda Rajapaksa as the party leader. No mention was made as to whether he was a member of the party. Presumably not. He is still a member of the SLFP. To become a member of the Pohottuwa party would mean that he would first have to resign from the SLFP and that might risk him not only his position as leader of the opposition but even his seat in Parliament. But according to the Lankan constitution, there‘s nothing to prevent him being the leader of another party whilst being a member of the SLFP. Like no man can serve two masters, no member of Parliament can be a member of two parties. So what an ingenious way to overcome a legal conundrum.

As long as the SLFP dos not object to his double stance, and the SLFP has shown no inclination to object to this dual status, no fuss. Clever, isn’t it? He hasn’t burnt his boats and can always row back to the SLFP bank, if things go awry in the future. Perhaps it’s the first time in the history of Lanka’s politics since independence that a political party has a leader who is not a member of the party. One who can eat the cake and have it too. Perhaps the gathered card-carrying Pohottuwa faithful missed this point completely or simply didn’t care in that euphoric moment whether he had joined the membership as its first citizen as long as they had Mahinda as their party mascot, member or no.

SECOND: According to the Lankan Constitution, Article 31 lists out who are eligible to contest the presidency of Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has never been a member of parliament. Neither is he, it seems, a member of the SLPP, for no public show was performed for the nation to see him being handed over membership of the SLPP, unless, for some inexplicable reason, it was done in secret.

Article 31(1) of the Constitution states that ‘any citizen who is qualified to be elected to the office of President may be nominated for such office. Article 31(1)(a) states ‘by a recognized political party’. There is no mention that the person thus nominated must be a member of the party nominating him or her. And that’s exactly what the SLPP did on August 11when it nominated Gota as its presidential candidate. This is another first, for since independence no party perhaps has nominated a person for the top job who has not been a member of the party nominating him or her.

This gives Gota the added advantage of being his own man, his own master. And should the Pohottuwa ship on which he travels as a passenger and not as a member of the crew should sail him safe home to Port Victory, he can disembark without being governed by its rule book or even listening to its captain’s commands. As things stand, it seems Gotabaya is not a member of the Pohottuwa for, no doubt, the party would have made a great song and dance of it and a public show of it on August 11 of party chairman G. L. Peiris presenting membership and Gota accepting the visa card to power with both hands.

If, however, if Gota is a card carrying member of the SLPP, perhaps it’s best he reveals his membership to the public for the public to know that, if in the event of the Pohottuwa vessel landing him on triumph’s shore, whether Gota will be an island unto himself as he can be if not a member; or if a member he will be answerable for his future actions, to some minute degree at least, to the captain, the senior deck hands and the crew that took him safe to Avalon. This then is another first.

THIRD: The SLPP is the first party to field a presidential candidate with much criminal baggage manacled to his ankle. He faces charges in Sri Lankan courts over his alleged role in various incidents under investigation by the CID, FCID and Bribery Commission, including the ‘MiG Deal’. He is indicted in the courts for his role in the D. A. Rajapaksa museum Rs. 33 million fraud case, which is presently before the courts and which will come up for hearing again on October 1. He has been fortunate enough for the law’s delay that has served to continuously postpone his cases’ He also faces a barrage of accusations over his alleged involvement with white van abductions, the killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the disappearance of Pradeep Ekneligoda and the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, all media men. Furthermore, the Bribery Commission last year charged Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Nissanka Senadhipathi and others with corruption to the tune of Rs 11.4 billion in connection with the operation of a floating armory by Avant Garde Maritime Services. Gotabaya later obtained a stay order.

Thus this is another first time instance when a political party has nominated as its presidential candidate a man who faces criminal cases in court.

It must also be mentioned that should Gota win the presidential election, all the cases that have been instituted against him would be suspended for the constitution grants complete immunity and states that no case criminal or civil shall be instituted or continued in any court while he is president by virtue of the immunity the constitution grants him.

FOURTH: If the Lankan court cases were not enough, he also faces cases in his adopted country, the United State of America where on June 26 this year the daughter of slain Editor Wickrematunge filed a civil case against him claiming damages for “instigating and authorising” the extrajudicial killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge. On the same day, a Canadian citizen of Tamil origin named Roy Samathanam who claimed he had been subjected to torture. Roy Samathanam made the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Mr. Rajapaksa. Since then a further ten cases have been filed alleging torture against Gotabaya.

FIFTH: On June 27 Gotabaya Rajapaksa filed a motion in the California Central District Court seeking to dismiss the case filed against him by Ahimsa Wickrematunge. Rajapaksa’s motion to dismiss the case was accompanied by a lengthy declaration filed in court on his behalf by former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Lanka Asoka De Silva.

When judges are promoted to the Appeal Court it’s a great honour. When they are promoted to the Supreme Court it’s even a higher honour. But the honour comes at a price. Upon their retirement they are disbarred from practising the law. Thereafter it’s the knackers’ yard for them.

According to Article 110(2) of the Lankan Constitution, ‘no judge of the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals shall perform any other office (whether paid or not) or accept any place of profit or emolument except as authorised by the Constitution or with the written consent of the President.’

This is obviously to maintain the dignity of the apex court. Funny, isn’t it that the former Chief Justice himself, no less, should flout this provision in the constitution and cheapen his judicial stature by filing papers on behalf of a of client in an American Court when Article 110(3) expressly states that ‘No person who has held office as a permanent judge of the Supreme Court or of the Court of Appeal may appear, plead, act or practice in any court, tribunal or institution as an attorney-at-law at any time without the written consent of the President.’

If he does not have the necessary written consent or has the document but prefers to keep it secret for some inexplicable reason, then, his action in filing documents on behalf of a client whether for pay or not, whether in this country or abroad for ‘any court or tribunal encompasses courts and tribunals the world over; and as the constitutional wording make it crystal clear it’s not limited to courts or tribunals in Lanka only but to all courts and all tribunals wherever they are found, will only serve to invite opprobrium on himself in the eyes of his peers and the public for the ignominious precedent set.

SIXTH: But Gota’s biggest obstacle still stares him in the face. The issue of dual nationality. Article 92 of the constitution, incorporating the 19th Amendment states ‘Every person who is qualified to be an elector shall be qualified to be elected to the office of President unless he is subject to any of the following disqualifications – ((b) if he is not qualified to be elected as a Member of Parliament under sub-paragraph (d), (e), (f) or (g) of paragraph (1) of Article 91.

Article ‘91 (1) states, ‘No person shall be qualified to be elected as a Member of Parliament or to sit and vote in Parliament. Article 91(d) (xiii) states if he is a citizen of Sri Lanka who is also a citizen of any other country.

Thus what disqualifies a person to be elected as a member of Parliament equally applies to a person who intends to be a presidential candidate.

The question whether a member of parliament can be a dual citizen has already been decided by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in the case of Geetha Kumarasinghe whose dual citizenship only came to light after she was elected to Parliament in 2015. When her status was questioned in court the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the principle that a dual citizen cannot be a member of Parliament and she lost her seat as a result.

SEVENTH: The operative word here is that a dual citizen cannot be ‘elected’ to Parliament or to the office of President. In that case the question rises whether a dual citizen can even hand over nomination papers to contest the presidential election? For, pray say, what’s the use of handing over nomination pages to contest the election if one is a dual citizen for if by some chance he is elected he will automatically be disqualified. It will be like running a stallion in a fillies race for if the stallion wins he would be disqualified for taking part in a mares race. It would not be worth putting him at the starting gate. It would be a redundant exercise.

EIGHTH: Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced before that he had renounced his citizenship of the USA on April 17th this year. Every quarterly the US government publishes a list of the people who has been granted their request. The latest list issued this month on the 15th did not contain Gotabaya as having successfully abandoned his US citizenship. The US Ambassador however said the list is not exhaustive and the name of those who had applied for renunciation and has been granted it may appear in a future list. But when? After the deadline for nomination has passed?

On Thursday presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterated that he renounced his US citizenship on April 17, and said that he had informed the Immigration and Emigration Department about the renunciation and obtained a new passport mentioning that he is a citizen of Sri Lanka. He said, ‘the Immigration and Emigration Department released a new passport which mentions I’m a Sri Lankan citizen. However, the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration said recently, the issuance of passport doesn’t necessarily mean a citizen has or has not renounced his dual citizenship.

NINTH: If Gota indeed has the original document confirming his request for renunciation has been granted, then why on earth does he not reveal it to the public and lay at rest all nagging doubts as to his eligibility to contest. For while he basks in the sunshiny hour of his being nominated as the Pohottuwa presidential candidate, he should not forget that there can be many a lisp between the cup and the lip and turn his grand anointment ceremony into a farce

Sunday Times


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