COVID-19 accelerates Sri Lanka's slide into autocracy..! Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 6)

By The Alliance of Independent Professionals

(Lanka-e-News -30.June.2020, 11.30PM)

1. COVID-19 Response 

On 27th May 2020, the Ministry of Health rejected the contents of AIP's last report on the COVID-19 crisis. We stand by the contents of the report.

With the general election now scheduled for 5th August, the government has banned the reporting of new positive COVID-19 tests except under exceptional circumstances. Daily testing is largely limited to returnees, and the same group of approximately 1,200 health workers, security personnel, intelligence officers and government ministers, officials and their families. Politicisation of public health reporting is one of the key factors behind the European Union's decision not to include Sri Lanka in its whitelist of countries from which to allow travel. EU officials are unable to reconcile inconsistencies in the figures coming out of Sri Lanka, and the government is thus not seen as credible.

The President and Prime Minister have targeted the 3rd week of July to announce the eradication of COVID-19 from Sri Lanka as its core election campaign strategy. The Chinese government has agreed to seek support from the WHO to felicitate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Gen. Shavendra Silva for eradicating COVID-19, at the height of the election campaign.

The opening of the international airport has been delayed, as the government struggles with the inhumane conditions at quarantine camps. Several returnees who tested positive for COVID-19 have been taken to army camps where they have been placed in makeshift jail cells, with no ventilation, natural light, bed linen or toilets. They are forcibly required to remain in these conditions until they test negative and are denied food and beverages from the outside. Some returnees have complained that they are being housed along with criminals detained by the military on narcotics charges and in connection with underworld activities.

Doctors charged with overseeing health outcomes at these facilities are under incredible strain. One suffered a heart attack over the weekend. Several opposition politicians from the United National Party (UNP) and Samagi Jana Balaewgaya (SJB), as well as journalists from print and electronic media outlets, have been briefed on the conditions by returnees. None have chosen to highlight the plight of returnees in the press or on political platforms.

The Task Force forbade health officials from sharing information about new COVID-19 cases with the media or public without their prior permission. A surveillance unit from the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) has been assigned to each of the 23 regional health services departments to ensure that unauthorised information about community spread of COVID-19 is not leaked to the media or opposition prior to the general election. Each unit is led by a captain or major.

Meanwhile, public health inspectors, who are fighting on the frontlines to identify and trace new cases, have faced serious persecution and hardship at the hands of the government. They have not been credited for their successful strategies, which have instead been credited to the intelligence services. Major General S.H. Munasinghe, who was made Health Ministry Secretary in May this year, has refused to pay overtime or otherwise compensate health inspectors for the extraordinarily difficult conditions under which they have worked during the crisis, instead continuing to facilitate the military takeover of Health Ministry functions. In a bid to placate health inspectors and prevent a strike before the elections, the government has said it requires clearance from the Attorney General to meet their demands.

The GMOA had promised doctors that their efforts during the COVID-19 crisis would be recognised through increased monthly overtime payments of Rs. 75,000.00 to Rs.150,000.00 per month. Doctors have been allowed to import duty free vehicles from January 2021, which benefit has been denied to other public servants. Vocal sections of the GMOA have lobbied for trade union action to secure other benefits promised to doctors, but GMOA President Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya has insisted that a strike at this juncture would damage the government and President  during an election season and therefore insisted that strikes be postponed until mid-August.

As at 15th June 2020, at least 2,405 COVID 19 patients had been identified by health authorities, but the figure is undercounted as Army Commander Shavendra Silva, who heads the COVID-19 task force, has insisted on reporting only cases detected when testing returnees abroad, to avoid news of new patient clusters before the general election. However, between 15th May and 14th June, over 75 patients died of “unknown causes” in hospitals island-wide. Their corpses were cremated following COVID-19 protocols under military supervision.

The funeral of government Minister Arumugam Thondaman exposed the political calculations behind the government’s COVID-19 response and the way in which health officials trying to prevent community spread have been shouted down. The propaganda team of the SLPP used the event to launch their general election campaign in the Nuwara Eliya district. Prior to the funeral, the SLPP arranged for the late minster’s son to contest in place of his father, at a ceremony held at Temple Trees, the office of the Prime Minister.

Thondaman’s coffin was then brought to Parliament, an exercise that involved over 100 MPs, Parliament officials and staff. This event saw a gathering of over 1,000 together with several hundred military personnel providing security. At various places in the hill country, there were estate workers gathering without police intervention, and the SLPP were allowed to distribute their electoral propaganda material with pictures of the Prime Minister and Thondaman. None of these events observed health controls. On the day of the funeral alone, the government announced a nationwide curfew in response to public backlash.

2. Central Bank - China selects a member for the Monetary Board of Sri Lanka..

The President and Prime Minister were at odds over the selection of new members for the Monetary Board. Both leaders agreed on nominating businessman Samantha Kumarasinghe, who also serves on the Presidential Task Force for Poverty Alleviation and Livelihood Development. At the request of the Chinese government, the President suggested that the nominate Dr. Kenneth de Zilwa, who is a strong proponent of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and a senior consultant at the China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC) Ltd. CHEC has been identified through Central Bank and police investigations as a major donor to Rajapaksa election campaigns. The Prime Minister objected to Dr. de Zilwa, on the grounds that appointing two pro-China members would anger India at a time when relations are already volatile because of Sri Lanka’s increasing economic dependence on China.

Instead, the Prime Minister suggested nominating former Hatton National Bank head Ranee Jayamaha, who was once Deputy Governor of the Central Bank. With the President’s consent, the names were sent to the Constitutional Council, which approved the appointment of Kumarasinghe and Jayamaha. It has since transpired that Kumarasinghe also has extremely close links with the Chinese and Russian governments. His was one of the loudest voices lobbying to scuttle the Indo-Lanka Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2015. He is also an advocate of replacing the US dollar with the Chinese Renminbi as Sri Lanka’s reserve currency. Kumarasinghe is a close friend and business partner of the President’s right hand, businessman Dilith Jayaweera. The duo has long advocated for distancing Sri Lanka from India and western democracies, and supported strengthening economic and strategic ties with China, Pakistan and Vietnam.

3. Defamation campaign on Prof. Hoole and move to intimidate him..

In close coordination with the government, Hiru and Derana TV and the Mawbima media group have been leading a campaign to smear and tarnish the reputation of Election Commission Member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, to force his resignation.  He is known to be an independent and strong member who has displayed his commitment to rule of law, and he has been fiercely critical of all major political parties. The SLPP is working on several fronts to attack him. Within the government, the effort is led by Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Prasanna Ranatunga. Tiran Alles, an SLPP national list candidate and media mogul on trial for embezzling several million dollars of government funds, has given a platform in his newspapers to plant false allegations against Prof. Hoole, accusing him of association with the LTTE terrorist group and seeking his arrest. 

The Legal Advisor to the Commission, Nimal Punchihewa, is a close associate of the Prime Minister and classmate of EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. Punchihewa has sought material pertaining to Hoole from several EC officials, much of which has subsequently found its way to negative media articles and attacks against Hoole from SLPP campaign platforms. 

4. Presidential Task Force to militarise society..

The day after the Supreme Court dismissed the petitions filed by opposition parties and civil society groups that insisted that the President could not govern or spend public funds for more than three months without a Parliament, the President issued a proclamation appointing a task force to “build a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society”. The task force comprises the commanders and intelligence wing heads of the three armed forces, the acting IGP, the Director-General of Customs and the Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS), both of whom are also army officers, and two Deputy Inspectors General of Police who are considered loyal to the President. It is chaired by the Defence Secretary, General Kamal Gunaratna. Eleven of its thirteen members are military officers.

The President has empowered the task force to “curb the illegal activities of social groups”, curb the illegal narcotics industry in Sri Lanka, “take legal action against persons responsible for illegal and antisocial activities in Sri Lanka while located in other countries”, and “investigate and prevent any illegal and antisocial activities in and around prisons”. While “anti-social behaviour” is not defined in the mandate of the task force, the move is widely seen among officials as a way of formalizing the efforts of the intelligence services to stifle critical speech and dissent.

Several members of the task force have been personally involved in moves to identify and oust government servants and expatriates suspected of being associated with AIP. The Defence Secretary and Chief of National Intelligence, General Jagath Alwis, are advised in these efforts by Chinese officials who set up similar surveillance programs to police and spy on public servants in China and the Chinese diaspora.

The President has personally briefed the heads of several intelligence services on a list of Sri Lankans living abroad whose locations he wants traced and movements followed. The list includes police officers who fled the regime, former diplomats, Sri Lankan journalists and media executives in exile abroad, family members of murder victims who are campaigning for justice, and key witnesses in murder investigations involving the President. The President wants their locations and day-to-day activities publicised to intimidate them against speaking out against the regime. Chief of National Intelligence General Jagath Alwis is overseeing this initiative.

The Defence Ministry has also sought the technical assistance of the Chinese government to establish a surveillance technology unit, linking the databases of the new electronic national identity card (e-NIC), licensed drivers, and passport control records with social media profiles and intelligence reports to replicate China’s “social credit score” to identify dissidents and so-called anti-social activists and their associates. The new task force has been charged with the implementation of this system. The Task Force is seeking to install a variety of electronic surveillance devices acquired from China and Israel to monitor communications networks and the movements of some journalists and rights activists, but has been stymied by the lack of personnel with the appropriate technical training within the military and the police. The effort has been taken over from the police by Col. Karunarathne of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), whose team is receiving assistance from a delegation of officials from the Science and Technology Investigative Division of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS).

Among the first decisions of the Task Force was to deploy paramilitary police personnel to search prison cells of underworld figures who are not supportive of the government, and to transfer selected convicted prisoners to an island located off the coast of Batticaloa. This island has been previously used as a leprosy hospital. All police divisions been directed in writing by the Secretary Defence through the IGP to cooperate with the Task Force and to carry out the directives given by the Task Force.

The Defence Ministry has established another task force, empowered by the Cabinet to employ up to 100,000 "impoverished" Sri Lankans to do the bidding of the Defence Ministry. The program has been given a wide ambit, and there are no constraints on how the Ministry will select persons for employment, raising the likelihood of corruption and the use of the program for illicit activities.

5. Presidential Task Force on Eastern Archaeological Sites..

The President has appointed another task force to usurp the powers of the Department of Archaeology with regards to identifying heritage sites in the Eastern Province, where Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled less than 24% of votes in last year’s presidential election. Despite the fact that the East is predominantly populated by Tamils and Muslims, the monoethnic group is comprised exclusively of Sinhalese Buddhists, including monks, military officers, police officers, some public officials and the President’s close confidant, media mogul Dilith Jayaweera.

The task force has been charged with ensuring the publication of proclamations under Part III of the Antiquities Ordinance to seize lands occupied by Tamils and Muslims by declaring them as Buddhist heritage sites containing ancient monuments or trees, for the purpose of erecting new Buddhist temples and shrines. Two monks on the task force, Ellawala Medhananda and Panamure Thilakawansa, are close associates of President Rajapaksa who have long advocated seizing minority-owned lands in the East and populating them with Sinhalese from other parts of the country.

Dilith Jayaweera has a personal interest in the Task Force’s mandate, as he owns 105 acres of beachfront land in the Eastern Province, from which he has suffered a loss of almost Rs. 200 million due to his inability to build a hotel on the site due to antiquities restrictions. Jayaweera has lodged a criminal complaint against lawyer Prinsith Perera, for allegedly writing a false deed in connection with this land, causing a loss of over Rs.100 million to Jayaweera. The task force is empowered to release the encumbrance on Jayaweera’s land, or to pay him compensation for it.

Another task force member, Prof. Somadeva, is an archaeologist who has long advocated expelling Tamils and others from the East on the basis that they arrived in the area after the Sinhalese, a position refuted by the majority of independent scholars.

A senior official attached to the Sambuddha Viharaya told AIP that the Task Force has a goal of erecting at least 12 large Buddhist statues in the Eastern Province on state lands before the 2021 Wesak festival, to be held in the Eastern Province. Plots of land around the statues are to be granted to several hundred retired military personnel selected by the President, in appreciation of their service.

6. Foreign Ministry..

Foreign Secretary Ravinath Ariyasinghe has been promised that after the parliamentary election, he will be sent as Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Canberra. Ariyasinghe had sought to be posted in New Delhi, however the President has insisted that Pathfinder Association Chairman Milinda Moragoda will be sent to India. AIP learns that it is very likely that after the elections, Ariyasinghe may not receive a posting at all, and may be forced into retirement. One reason is that he has been behind a propaganda campaign seeking to dislodge his likely successor, Additional Secretary to the President Jayanath Colambage, by painting him as a “pro-West” acolyte. The other reason is that Canberra is a post sought after by several former military officers and Viyathmaga officials who did not receive nominations to contest at the general elections.

Ariyasinghe enjoys widespread support among the local and international media, due to his links with journalists cultivated over his many years of support in the foreign service, while Colambage has the ear of the President.

On 14th June, the President summoned Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Ariyasinghe to the Presidential Secretariat to discuss the impending vote for membership in the United Nations Security Council. Norway, Canada and Ireland were the three countries up for election to represent Western Europe and ‘other’ states (those not in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America or Western Europe). The President inquired whether Sri Lanka could vote against all three countries, as he said they were American puppets who were enemies of Sri Lanka and needed to be taught a lesson. Ariyasinghe advised the President that each vote must be for a country not against one, unless Sri Lanka chose to abstain.

The President then instructed that Sri Lanka abstain from voting, which instruction was conveyed to the Sri Lankan mission at the UN in New York. Sri Lanka was the only country to abstain from this vote. Going forward, the President instructed his foreign policy team to oppose any economic or security initiative put forward by Australia, Canada, New Zealand or Western European countries, so long as these nations remain aligned to the US and hostile to China, which the President considers Sri Lanka’s most important ally.

As at 10st June 2020, over 39,000 Sri Lankans employed in Gulf countries such as Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, had sought repatriation to Sri Lanka. The majority are employed professionals, not domestic workers. The Foreign Ministry is inundated with a backlog of over 1,500 emails and letters from those individuals and their families, but the Ministry is unable to take steps to repatriate them due to lack of quarantine centres. As at 25th June, 39 Sri Lankan workers have died in the Middle East while an unknown number have contracted COVID 19.

The Jetwing and Citrus hotel groups, with close links to the President, are now proposing to accommodate approximately 2,000 individuals at a time for luxury quarantine at a room rate of Rs.7,000 per night for double-occupancy on full board basis, so long as the military takes responsibility for deep cleaning of the rooms and other clerical services free of charge. Several other organisations and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had proposed to accommodate the Gulf Returnees at their cost but the government has instructed the Task Force not to engage anyone else in repatriation procedures. There is pressure from SLPP groups to expedite the repatriation of foreign workers to avoid any backlash during the election campaign.

Many Sri Lankans abroad have not been able to have their expired Sri Lankan passports extended or to obtain new passports due to inaction in Sri Lankan missions. Sri Lankan missions in Gulf Countries, the US, Germany, France, South Korea and Australia have failed to give efficient consular services and informed many applicants that their hands are tied due to the Ministry not facilitating the exchange of diplomatic pouches for almost three months.

The Foreign Ministry has received a list of 250 names for appointments as domestic workers at foreign missions, who receive only a meagre salary below the minimum wage of their host countries. The list has been prepared by the Presidential Secretariat. With the appointments being granted, over 108 other staff members already working in those stations will soon be recalled.

7. Attack on Protesters on 10th June to Avoid Protest against China on 11th June..

A Black Lives Matter protest organised by the left-wing Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a breakaway group of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), was surrounded and brutally attacked by a group of over 500 police and military personnel on 10th June. Over 40 protestors were injured. At least two dozen, including several women and elderly people, received treatment at the Colombo National Hospital. Police arrested 20 protestors at the scene, and also arrested two human rights lawyers, Nuwan Bopage and Swasthika Arulingham. The lawyers were arrested in retaliation after they identified themselves as attorneys and asked the police to state the basis for arresting the protestors.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), which has in the past been at the forefront of defending the rights of attorneys to make representations to authorities without fear of persecution, declined to intervene on behalf of the arrested lawyers, for fear of angering President Rajapaksa. While silent on the rights of attorney facing arrest, assault and intimidation, the BASL has remained vocal in its campaign to attack trade and aid agreements between Sri Lanka and the United States. With the BASL turning a blind eye, lawyers had to appeal to the President’s personal lawyer and national list candidate, M.U.M. Ali Sabry, to seek the release of the arrested attorneys.

The ruthless and excessive show of force by security forces was calculated, and intended to deter a COVID-19 protest planned for the next day outside of the Chinese embassy. Acting Chinese ambassador Hu Wei appealed to the President and his aide Admiral Jayanath Colambage to prevent any protests in Sri Lanka relating to China’s handling of COVID-19. The Defence Ministry thereafter directed the police to use force to disperse protestors on 10th June in order to deter protestors from gathering on the 11th.

8. Presidential Commission headed by Justice Abeyratne on Allegations of Political Victimisation..

The commission has continued its work, directly interfering with several ongoing high court trials, by seeking to intimidate, question and examine witnesses in those trials on behalf of several accused persons who have filed complaints of political victimisation with the commission. These accused include navy officers on trial for murdering 11 youth, a senior police officer on trial for helping a rape and murder suspect to evade arrest, a former judge on trial for elephant trafficking and several former military officers and civil servants on trial for charges of bribery, corruption and firearms misuse in connection with an illegal armoury operated from Sri Lankan waters.

Attorney-General Dappula De Livera has assigned Additional Solicitor General Rohantha Abeysuriya to assist the commission and has declined to protect or otherwise represent police officers who are being targeted by the commission. The AG has, however, vigorously protested the commission’s persecution of officers in his own department. In a blistering letter last week, the AG criticised what he framed as attempts by the Commission to overrule trial courts and grill witnesses on behalf of accused persons standing trial in the high courts.

Former Justice Minister and SLPP parliamentary candidate Wijedasa Rajapakshe is widely believed to be the architect of the commission’s activities behind the scenes. He has strong financial ties with the main accused in the Avant Garde floating armoury trial, Nissanka Senadhipathi. The accused in the elephant trafficking case  (interdicted Magistrate Thilina Gamage) was once a junior lawyer in Rajapakshe’s chambers and his brother, an active politician, is leading the campaign for SLPP for Maharagama and Avissawella for Wijedasa Rajapske.  Rajapakshe is also a close friend of several of the navy officers accused of abducting and murdering 11 children in 2008 and 2009. Rajapakshe and Commission Chairman Upali Abeyratne were responsible for the President's decision to sack Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara from his post as army Judge Advocate, on the basis that he was prosecuting the navy abduction and murder case and had publicly refused to help stall the trial.

9. Arbitrary arrests and targeting civil society..

Since Sri Lanka’s lockdown began, almost 60,000 people have been arrested for various alleged violations of curfew orders, although there is no legal framework for these curfews in place. Police have not arrested anyone who is connected to the ruling SLPP for curfew violations. The war victory against the LTTE was celebrated by the government with one main event and several other smaller events. The clergy, SLPP politicians and supporters and family members of select military personnel were invited. There was a brief embarrassment when Buddhist monks protested the front-row seat afforded to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who was asked to move to a less prominent seat.

No events were permitted in the North and East to commemorate the Tamil victims who lost their lives during the war. The police, accompanied by military intelligence officers, arrested three regional journalists for taking pictures of a mosque in the East on 30th May and disseminating information about a peaceful meeting in the north on 1st June.

A 14-year old Muslim child from Aluthgama suffering from autism was brutally assaulted by police in Kalutara in June. Following widespread social media outcry, two police officers were transferred out of Kalutara. The parents of the child were thereafter intimidated by police and men who identified themselves as CID officers, and were forced to withdraw the assault complaint.  

Community organisations and NGOs have come under a new surveillance regime since April. In the North, intelligence officers have stepped up regular visits while recruiting local staff to gain information on the organisations. The NGO secretariat has been brought under the Ministry of Defence. Military intelligence officers have been given carte blanche access to their files to identify persons and organisations whose activities are deemed to be politically at odds with the government. 

10. Militarisation of Police and CID..

Due to the inability of the CID to frame charges against former ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Rajitha Senaratne or Rishard Bathiudeen and former Director Shani Abeysekara within six months, the President ordered the removal of CID Director W. Thilakaratne, who he appointed in November 2019. The new CID Director, Prasanna Alwis, has been close to the President since the latter was defence secretary, when Alwis was the officer in charge of the Terrorist Investigation Division.

Alwis' CID was caught red handed last week by Colombo Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake, when they attempted to tamper with an identification parade being held to justify the arbitrary arrest of human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, by showing photographs of the lawyer to children who were to identify him at the parade. The magistrate subsequently cancelled the parade.

The new CID Director has also been implicated in destroying evidence to cover up the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Alwis also played a pivotal role in helping the Rajapaksa family cover up its financial dealings with the LTTE, after on-and-off Rajapaksa ally Tiran Alles exposed the terrorist payoff to the media in January 2010, following the destruction of his home by grenade launchers and other explosives. In his statement, he named Alwis and described his attempts to hush up the bribery allegations. Alles is now an SLPP national list candidate, while he is on trial for his role in siphoning millions of dollars in state funds to the LTTE as a payoff from the Rajapaksa family in 2006.

DIG SM Wickramasinghe, who was appointed as a Police Ombudsman at the President’s office, was instrumental in preventing series of investigations in respect of attacks by Budu Bala Sena in the Central Province. He has also been investigated for leaking investigation materials to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and military suspects in several murder cases, including the identities of confidential informants.

The President and Defence Secretary have planned significant structural changes to the police after the government secures a parliamentary majority and neuters the Constitutional Council. Specifically, they plan to appoint one of three short listed serving Major Generals as the next Inspector General of Police, and to reshuffle all divisional SSP positions effective from 15th August. Under the new administrative structure, a military liaison officer will be assigned to each territorial division. These officers will be colonels from the respective army areas, while functional divisions will be allocated to a brigadier general. In this manner, the CID is to be formally brought under the Director of Military Intelligence, and the Special Task Force under the Commando Regiment.

By The Alliance of Independent Professionals

(The Alliance of Independent Professionals consists of 28 Sri Lankan professionals and academics in both the public and private sector. The authors and members of the organisation remains anonymous due to the serious risk of reprisals by the government and military)

Related news:

* Assessing Sri Lanka's response to COVID-19 (Status Statement - 1)
* Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 2)
* Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 3)
* Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 4)
* Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 5)

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by     (2020-06-30 19:32:19)

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