Gota’s human rights track record ‘very good’, disciples claim | Sunday Observer

Gota’s human rights track record ‘very good’, disciples claim

20 May, 2018

After the Viyath Maga 2018 Convention, Nalaka Godahewa former SEC Chairman and fervent loyalist of the ex-Defence Secretary denies the movement is a launching pad for a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential bid and claims allegations of corruption, abuse of power, white van abductions, attacks on journalists and suppression of dissent against the former official have never been proved.

Viyath Maga which styles itself as an outfit with an ‘efficient, competent and nationalistic’ vision for Sri Lanka – a country in recovery after nearly three decades of conflict and ethnic fractures – appeared to completely avoid questions about national reconciliation, democracy, equality and a rights-based society, playing into the narrative that the forces backing the ex-Defence Secretary prize clinical efficiency over democratic institutions and fundamental freedoms, and view state affairs through an ultra-nationalist security paradigm Last Sunday’s gathering of “intellectuals” and professionals at the plush Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo has ignited political discussions about the true motives of the Viyath Maga movement, chaired by controversial former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Attended by over 2,000 professionals and top business tycoons, the Viyath Maga ‘National Convention’ comprised presentations by IT professionals, academics and entrepreneurs. The highlight of the event was a 25 minute keynote speech by the former powerful official of the Rajapaksa administration, in which he laid out his 2030 economic and social vision for Sri Lanka. Addressing the large audience in Sinhala, Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for a ‘socialist market-economy’ in Sri Lanka, and spoke of national security and protecting the country’s sovereignty during his speech.

Viyath Maga speakers proposed indigenous economic solutions and a ‘people-centric’ economy, but academics pointed to the vagueness of these articulated policies. Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Colombo Siri Hettige quipped – “one cannot invent something from nowhere and call it ‘people centric’”.

“We have only limited options in terms of ideological perspectives. Basically we are talking of four ideological positions namely liberal, neo liberal, social democratic and nationalist. We have to choose one of these policies; all of them do not fit together,” Prof. Hettige explained. Prof. Hettige said that people could beat around the bush to win over a majority, but at the end of the day they would be compelled to settle for one of the four options, given that these policies would have not only economic consequences but grave social repercussions too.

But the Viyath Maga Chairman laid out his socio-economic vision for Sri Lanka, standing in front of a podium decorated with pink lotus buds – the flowers now synonymous with the party symbol of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the political party backed by his brother former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Political observers speculated that the Shangri-La event was the unofficial launch of the ex-Defence Secretary’s presidential bid in 2019.

Pioneers of the ‘professionals’ movement dismissed the idea, saying that the decision to contest would be a personal decision for Gotabaya Rajapaksa that would have to be backed by his political party.

Nalaka Godahewa, former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a director at the Urban Development Authority which was a subject under the Defence Ministry, is one of the ‘pioneer’ members of Viyath Maga, which he claims began after a conversation between a group of professionals and the former Defence Secretary back in 2015.

“Viyath Maga was established to create a forum for such intellectual discussion and not with a political motive or to further anybody’s political ambitions. It was a very innocent nationalistic intention,” the ex-SEC Chief claimed in an interview with the Sunday Observer. Godahewa himself was a speaker at the recent Viyathmaga Annual Convention and is considered to be a long-standing and loyal disciple of the ex-Defence Secretary.

“Whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa will contest in the next presidential election was a personal question and only he can answer that,” Godahewa said, evasively.

However, the former Rajapaksa era official acknowledged that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had the potential to be a good national leader since he had a “good vision” for the country. “He is a person who has delivered for the country when he took on leadership roles,” Godahewa said, referring to the Rajapaksa sibling’s controversial tenure at the helm of Defence and Urban Development during his brother’s presidency.

During the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, his Defence Secretary brother was the most-feared and most-powerful official in the administration, widely considered to be the true driver of all state affairs. Visiting foreign dignitaries tacitly acknowledged his position at the centre of the administration, with Foreign Secretaries and Senior administration officials from countries like India and even the US, including meetings with Gotabaya Rajapaksa during official visits to Sri Lanka, a consideration these countries would give no other bureaucrat within the system. Often, this would be the stormiest meeting in their schedules, with the senior official and presidential sibling berating foreign countries for their allegedly anti-Sri Lanka agendas.

At the helm of security affairs, the former Defence Secretary directed large security apparatus that kept growing even after the end of the war, and cast long and scarring shadows over nearly every aspect of civilian life in the country. Journalist abductions and murders, the disappearances of human rights activists and political opponents, most of which occurred during the Rajapaksa years, remain unresolved.

Known to be efficient and ruthless about the tasks he set about, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s UDA oversaw the forcible eviction of thousands of Colombo’s residents from low income neighbourhoods, to pave the way for a major beautification drive in the city. Often, these evictions happened overnight and under military guard.

But Gotabaya loyalists like Nalaka Godahewa believe that all these are aspersions cast on the former Defence Secretary that have never been proved. “As a citizen, I completely reject the allegation that he has a bad track record on human rights,” Godahewa insisted. Probed if he believed then that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a positive track record on human rights and the protection of civil liberties, Godahewa replied: “Yes, he has a good track record like anybody. The war, especially, the latter part of it was a totally humanitarian operation. Many lives of Tamils were saved and rehabilitated.” In fact, Godahewa says rehabilitated LTTE cadres had even performed at the Viyath Maga function last weekend.

“From a human rights perspective, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has done many positive things. The negatives are only complaints never proven,” he claimed.

Asked about the abduction of journalists like Keith Noyahr and the murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, Godahewa responded that investigations were still going on in those cases. “Shouldn’t we wait until those investigations are over before pointing fingers?” he responded.

According to followers like Godahewa, the corruption allegations against the former Defence Secretary were also frivolous. “Their lawyers have told me they have absolutely no case, and there is nothing to worry – the MiG case is not even in court – these are just allegations,” he scoffed.

The investigation into the purchase of MiG-27 aircraft in 2006 by the FCID has already resulted in an Interpol Red Notice against Rajapaksa cousin and former Ambassador in Ukraine Udyanga Weeratunge. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s lawyers went to Supreme Court earlier this year, to get injunctions to block his arrest in the MiG deal case.

Asked if he thought all corruption probes were political witch-hunts, Godahewa admitted that there were some genuine cases, but refused to name them. Acknowledging that corruption took place during the Rajapaksa regime, Godahewa said “it happens everywhere; in China they kill you for corruption. People always do wrong things. The law must apply and they must be punished. But a lot of what happened here were witch-hunts. That’s undeniable.”

Godahewa who also served as a director of the UDA and a director of Lanka Hospital while Gotabaya Rajapaksa chaired both organizations, is also in court over corruption charges, where authorities have charged him with misappropriating Rs 5 million from the SEC for Tharunayata Hetak – a youth political organization spearheaded by former President Rajapaksa’s eldest son, Namal.

Godahewa claims this was a board approved sponsorship to provide “training” for schoolchildren on the stock market.

The Viyath Maga Convention came as the Rajapaksa camp, now including the Joint Opposition and the SLPP continue shadow-boxing over its 2019 presidential candidate. Old Left party leaders aligning with the JO have already articulated a clear preference for ex President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s older brother Chamal, the former Speaker and Minister of Ports.

JO politicos like Vasudeva Nanayakkara see Chamal Rajapaksa as the perfect candidate for the ‘centre-left’ Government the JO wants to see brought to power at the next election. Other sections of the Rajapaksa faction are not so sure.

SLPP frontliner and former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, also garners significant support within the Rajapaksa camp, while the nationalist and hardline factions of the JO/SLPP clearly favour a Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy in 2019.

But even if the camp finds eventual consensus, the younger sibling of the former President must first surmount a big legal hurdle before he can seek election to public office. The same 19th Amendment to the Constitution that prevents Mahinda Rajapaksa from being a candidate at a future presidential election, also precludes Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a dual citizen of the US and Sri Lanka from contesting elections.

In a way, it is as if the drafters of 19A had just such a scenario in mind when the constitutional amendment was written. When he was last asked directly by a reporter two months ago if he would be appointed Prime Minister by the SLFP, Gotabaya Rajapaksa laughed off the question, saying he could not hold the office since he held dual citizenship and remains, to this day, a citizen of the United States. It was the second time the former Defence Secretary has publicly admitted that that he was a dual citizen.

The first time was in the Mount Lavinia District Court in 2014, when he was being cross examined in the defamation case he filed against the Sunday Leader newspaper. Under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution enacted in April 2015, persons holding citizenship in other countries are prohibited from contesting elections in Sri Lanka.

This remains Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s major conundrum and legal hurdle, but sources close to the former official say he may be willing to relinquish US citizenship – but only if he is certain of victory at a presidential poll since his only son lives and works in the US. Revoking US citizenship is not a difficult task, but experts say that at times procedural delays could result from outstanding tax issues or other types of federal investigations against persons who hold US citizenship.

Godahewa doesn’t believe the citizenship question would be a big deal, if Gotabaya decides to contest the presidential election.

“My understanding is that the US citizenship is not something permanent. If he decides to contest, that is something he will have to forego,” the Rajapaksa loyalist explained.