India-Funded Democratic Odyssey: Speaker Yapa’s Team in Delhi

Speaker Abeywardena’s delegation didn’t include at least one member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), represented in the current Parliament by 10 MPs, nor the smaller Tamil parties. Perhaps, India conducts a separate dialogue with them for obvious reasons.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after the inauguration of the new parliament building, in New Delhi, India, Sunday, May 28, 2023.

Amidst deepening political turmoil over the suspension of nearly 150 Opposition members, following an unprecedented Parliament security breach in India, on December 13, a group of Sri Lankan parliamentarians, led by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, MP, visited the scene of chaos.

A total of 146 MPs in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) have been suspended for the rest of the winter session. Of them, 100 represented the Lok Sabha.

The Sri Lankan delegation was the first parliamentary group, from any country, to visit the new India Parliament, opened under controversial circumstances on May 28, 2023. The Opposition boycotted the inauguration, alleging that the BJP leader and Indian Premier Narendra Modi violated the constitution by opening the new triangular-shaped building, built at an estimated cost of $120m. The Opposition insisted that it should have been opened by the President.

The 22nd anniversary of the attack on the Indian Parliament fell on December 13, 2023. Gunmen attacked the building on Dec 13, 2001. They killed more than a dozen persons. India blamed Pakistan-linked terror groups for that attack, plunging relations between the two neighbours further, while also pushing the two nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of war.

Speaker Abeywadena’s delegation arrived in New Delhi on December 16 as the ruling BJP and the Opposition battled over the Parliament security breach. The first visiting foreign delegation, included Environment Minister Keheliya Rambukwella (SLPP), now under a cloud over the procurement of fake Immunoglobulin vials, as well as other medicines, during the continuing economic-political-social crisis here. The former UNPer has been accused of taking cover behind a life-saving Indian credit line, at the time he served as the Health Minister, even though the massive amounts involved in the scam, in fact had, been settled immediately in cash. In addition to the Speaker and Minister Rambukwella, there had been nine MPs and a few other officials, including the Secretary General of Parliament Kushani Rohanadeera.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested Janaka Sri Chandragupta, who had served as the Health Secretary, as well as the head of the procurement committee at the time the Health Ministry allegedly perpetrated the massive frauds, as was unraveled during the probe, as the Sri Lankan delegation was visiting the Indian Parliament on Dec 18.

The revelation that the proprietor of Isolez Biotech Pharma AG, Sugath Janaka Fernando alias Aruna Deepthi, who had been remanded for supplying fake medicine in connivance with those tasked with procurement process falsely claimed that they were obtained from a Gujarat based company, made matters worse.

Collaboration in pharmaceuticals

The Indian High Commission in Colombo, the Foreign Ministry here, as well as Sri Lanka Parliament, dealt with the visit (Oct, 16-20) in separate media releases. Reference was made in the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry statement to enhance collaboration in trade, investment, tourism, pharmaceuticals, education, defence and cooperation in the international fora.

Reference to collaboration in pharmaceuticals seemed ridiculous against the backdrop of the shocking exposure of the procurement of fake Immunoglobulin, a life-saving drug. Former State Health Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana told the writer that the country’s once proud health service had suffered irreversible damage and deteriorated to such an extent there seemed to be no hope.

The Sri Lankan delegation called on Indian Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar on December 18. They were received by the Speaker of Lok Sabha Om Birla also on the same day. In addition, the Indian Speaker hosted a banquet lunch in honour of the visiting Sri Lankan delegation.

The delegation separately met the External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S. Jaishankar. The visiting Parliamentarians from Sri Lanka witnessed the proceedings in both Houses of the Indian Parliament and also engaged in productive discussions with several MPs, cutting across party lines, during the visit, according to the Indian HC statement.

Soon after the delegation’s return from New Delhi, Minister Rambukwella called a media briefing at the Information Department where he declared he was not involved in the corruption case. The Minister explained his version of the procurement process and how he intervened to stop payments for fake products when the matter was brought to his notice.

But what he failed to say was that payments for the particular fraudulently obtained tenders had already been made by his Ministry in a rather haste manner in cash on the instructions of Chandragupta, even though they all claimed the drugs were procured on the credit line.

Sri Lanka Parliament couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the continuing crisis in the health sector, particularly against the backdrop of a three-day debate on health sector corruption in early Sept this year, failed to produce the desired result. The ruling SLPP comfortably defeated an Opposition moved no-faith motion against then Health Minister Rambukwella on Sept. 08 in Parliament. The SJB-led effort failed to muster the required support. However, the SJB bid was definitely destined to fail. Altogether 113 MPs voted against, 74 voted for and the rest were absent. Obviously, those who had manipulated the entire process went ahead with the ‘project’ in the wake of the SLPP’s victory in Parliament.

Deputy Solicitor General (DSG) Lakmini Girihagama appearing with Senior State Counsel Heshani Wijesinghe making submissions on the progress of the CID investigations has told the Maligakanda Magistrate Court that prior to the Cabinet decision, taken in October 2022, tenders had been called in September 2022 and the 1st suspect Aruna Deepthi selected as the successful tenderer for human Immunoglobulin and Rituximab.

The DSG said according to the Ministry Chief Accountant Savidra Cooray the 1st suspect’s company Isolez Biotech Pharma had requested for payments for Rituximab supplied and the Secretary Health Chandragupta had approved the payment of Rs 107,799,481/= in three payments to the 1st suspect, directing it to be paid on a priority basis.

When the writer raised the issue with Minister Rambukwella, the bespectacled MP declined to comment on payments authorized by Chandragupta. The lawmaker claimed that he got to know about the matter through the media reportage of the DSG’s representations before the Maligakanda Magistrate.

The bottom line is that the Health Ministry made payments to a disgraced local company while deceiving the public by claiming the procurement had been made under the Indian credit line. The allocation for health sector procurement, according to Minister Rambukwella, has been USD 235 mn (USD 200 +USD 35) whereas the overall unprecedented assistance amounted to USD 4 billion extended in 2022. Whatever the criticism and concerns of India’s intentions and clandestine involvements here, if not for her prompt intervention, Sri Lanka could have gone up in flames under the then prevailing local circumstances. That is the unpalatable truth.

Against that background, perhaps India didn’t need to squander public funds on a visit by the Sri Lankan parliamentary delegation.

What Sri Lanka can gain from such a visit by a small group of its legislators is not clear though political parties here never declined opportunities for foreign jaunts on any flimsy excuse. During the Yahapalana administration (2015-2019) over 200 parliamentarians and parliamentary officials received the opportunity to visit China. China arranged group visits on a request made by the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MP. As usual, political parties grabbed the opportunity without raising questions. The recently concluded visit to India, too, is no exception. That is the ugly truth.

Speaker mum on Wimal’s accusations

The big delegation was also the first since Foreign Ministry veteran Kshenuka Senewiratne recently succeeded Milinda Moragoda as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi.

Post-Aragalaya Indo-Lanka relations cannot be discussed without taking into consideration high profile accusations that had been directed at India regarding her role in last year’s crisis. India never responded publicly to unsubstantiated accusations that the Modi government refused to evacuate the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife, Ayoma, over his refusal to sack Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe to pave the way for Speaker Abeywardena to assume duties as the caretaker President, as was the wish of Washington as well.

Sri Lanka Constitution doesn’t permit the Speaker to move up as long as the President, or the Premier, remained in office.

Speaker Abeywardena, too, never publicly contradicted National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s narrative based on the often repeated assertion that the outgoing US Ambassador Julie Chung asked Speaker Abeywardena, on the night of July 09, 2022, to assume presidency. Lawmaker Weerawansa first made the unprecedented accusation on April 25, 2023 at the launch of 09: Sengawuna Kathawa (09: The Hidden Story) at Sri Lanka Foundation.

The former minister repeated the accusation in public on several occasions ever since, though the Speaker has chosen to remain eerily silent, though it being even a matter of global interest as the American Ambassador in Sri Lanka had allegedly attempted to stage a midnight behind the scene constitutional coup here.

Ambassador Chung immediately contradicted the allegation though Speaker Abeywardena never responded to her stock denial or the former JVPer’s public allegation, in or outside Parliament. However, Speaker Abeywardena is widely believed to have privately acknowledged the US Ambassador’s uncalled for and unscheduled visit to his official residence, hours after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife boarded an SLN warship formerly of the US Coast Guard at the Colombo Port. They were taken to Trincomalee. The rest is history.

Sri Lanka needs to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, obviously instigated by outside forces in a campaign that lasted just three and half months, following the massive eruption of staged violence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on the night of March 31, 2022, outside the President’s private residence.

While appreciating prompt life-saving assistance provided by India and ongoing efforts to foster closer relations at all levels, including between the two parliaments, Sri Lanka should do whatever necessary to ascertain the truth. The people have a right to know. Remember the adage those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it!

In spite of NFF leader Weerawansa’s damning accusations in respect of India’s alleged role in the US-led project to change the government here, undemocratically, his colleague Mohammed Muzammil (NPP National List) was ironically a member of Speaker Abeywardena’s delegation. The other members were Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa, Deputy Chairman of Committees Angajan Ramanathan (SLFP), Keheliya Rambukwella (SLPP), Niroshan Perera (SJB), Varuna Liyanage (SJB), Weerasumana Weerasinghe (CP), M. Udayakumar (SJB), M. Rameshwaran (SLPP) and Jagath Samarawickrema (SLPP). Interestingly, MP Weerawansa, criticized US and Indian interventions during a speech he delivered in London on Dec 17, while his longtime parliamentary colleague was on a tour of India, courtesy the Indian External Affairs Ministry.

Speaker Abeywardena’s delegation didn’t include at least one member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), represented in the current Parliament by 10 MPs, nor the smaller Tamil parties. Perhaps, India conducts a separate dialogue with them for obvious reasons.

Sri Lanka needs to examine the whole gamut of issues, taking into consideration widening US-India relations in response to perceived Chinese threat. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka seems to be incapable of addressing the issues at hand. The failure on the part of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government to inquire into external funding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster is a case in point.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had been elected in July 2022, by Parliament, to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, never ordered an inquiry though he acknowledged the conspiracy meant to oust him as the Premier thereby depriving him of the presidency.

The bone of contention is whether interested parties perpetrated the economic collapse to pave the way for the change of government and IMF intervention, thereby tying Sri Lanka to overall US and US-India strategies.

July 2022 bid to storm Parliament

Indian Parliament took stringent action against Opposition MPs for a security breach in Parliament, though they weren’t involved in the ‘raid’ at all. The BJP-led government found fault with the Opposition for relentless attacks over the ‘raid,’ particularly claims that the security breach was meant to highlight growing unemployment due to Premier Modi’s policies. Of course, no one can find fault with the Indian Opposition for seeking advantage at the expense of the BJP seeking a third consecutive term at the parliamentary polls scheduled for next year.

It would be pertinent to discuss the threat to the Sri Lanka Parliament last year. The violent protest campaign that had killed eight persons, including a ruling party MP, and destroyed several dozens of valuable properties belonging to those elected on the SLPP ticket in May 2022, in the aftermath of utterly stupid attacks on Galle Face protesters that was used as the continuing raison d’être by foreign sponsored rioters, for even an abortive bid to seize the Parliament.

Had they succeeded in taking over the Parliament in the immediate aftermath of setting fire to the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Kollupitiya residence and forcing him to resign, the situation today could have been far worse. Had that succeeded, we wonder what the rest of the plot would have been? Would we be ruled now by cardboard comrades, remotely controlled from Washington and New Delhi? But, as Weerawansa also claimed, plan ‘A’ went awry due to Speaker Abeywardena’s refusal to join the US-led plot, thereby paving the way for the implementation of plan ‘B’ under President Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

Let me reproduce three media statements issued by the Indian HC in Colombo to help the reader recollect the protest campaign that was brought to an end by UNP leader Wickremesinghe within 24 hours after he was elected the President by Parliament. Wickremesinghe achieved that by chasing those who occupied the Presidential Secretariat and other government properties as he declared he wouldn’t succumb to those who sought to remove him from politics.

On April 02, 2022, just 48 hours after the staged explosion of public anger outside the President’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, the IHC stated: “High Commission strongly denies blatantly false and completely baseless reports in a section of media that India is dispatching its soldiers to Sri Lanka. The High Commission also condemns such irresponsible reporting and expects the concerned to desist from spreading rumours.

On May 07, 2022, two days before goons ,unleashed from Temple Trees, attacked Galle Face protesters, possibly in an utter act of desperation over the failure of law enforcers to clamp down on so-called “peaceful” protesters, who had by then even commandeered the President’s office, IHC issued the following statement: “We have seen reports that a water cannon vehicle was imported by the Government of Sri Lanka, under a credit line extended by Government of India. These reports are factually incorrect.

No water cannon vehicles have been supplied by India under any of the credit lines extended by India to Sri Lanka. Credit line of USD 1 billion to Sri Lanka is intended to help the people of Sri Lanka with availability of food, medicines and other essential items required by the people of Sri Lanka in the current situation. Such incorrect reports don’t make any constructive contribution to the cooperation and efforts undertaken to address the ongoing challenges faced by the people of Sri Lanka.

On May 11, 2022, in the wake of destruction of lawmakers’ houses and killing of an MP, IHC stressed: “The High Commission would like to categorically deny speculative reports in sections of media and social media about India sending her troops to Sri Lanka. These reports and such views are also not in keeping with the position of the Government of India. The Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs of India clearly stated yesterday that India is fully supportive of Sri Lanka’s democracy, stability and economic recovery.

Two months later, India denied the evacuation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his wife. The IHC categorically denied what it called ‘baseless and speculative media reports’ that India facilitated the recent reported travel” of Rajapaksa and his brother, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, out of Sri Lanka.

“It is reiterated that India will continue to support the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realise their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values, established democratic institutions and constitutional framework.”

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando is a Deputy Editor of a Colombo-based daily newspaper, The Island.

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