• Awaits Certificate of Loss of Nationality
  • Will civil suits against him delay its release?
  • Major political parties prepare for May Day

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary, handed in documents to the United States Embassy in Colombo on Wednesday to relinquish his United States citizenship. That included the surrender of his US passport and signing an oath of renunciation.

Unlike other aspects of the relinquishment, it is accepted by the US government that the loss of citizenship occurs when the US citizen meets the Consular Officer at the Embassy by prior appointment. This is only for “immigration purposes” or is travel related. However, The Certificate of Loss of Nationality, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sought will take time. Hereafter, he would have to utilise his Sri Lanka passport to travel overseas and will require a valid visa to enter the US.

The Opposition Leader and the SLPP’s de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa along with the party’s probable presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa being anointed with oil at the Bellanwila temple. This took place at the auspicious time of 7.40 am on Wednesday April 17.

He had his first interview at the US Embassy on March 6, just before flying to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of a friend. This interview was a requirement in terms of US laws for a Consular Officer to ensure that the renouncing of a citizenship is not being carried out by an applicant under duress. Upon his arrival in Colombo last Friday, he declared publicly that his visit was mainly to consult his lawyers. Pictures and videos of his taking part in musical events in Los Angeles with friends circulated widely in Colombo.

US Justice Department move

His US passport, which has now ceased to be valid, documentary proof of citizenship in Sri Lanka, an Expatriation Information Statement and Tax payments details among others, handed over to the US Embassy will now go to the Department of State in Washington D.C.  There, the different state agencies including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department will examine his case and provide their own reports. It is only thereafter that the Certificate of Loss of Nationality is issued with a final endorsement by the Secretary of State. Usually, this process is said to take two months in cases where there are no issues or other causes for delays.

This is where the crunch comes. There are two civil lawsuits against Gotabaya Rajapaksa pending in the US courts. They were both filed barely two weeks ago. Such court action has been initiated when he was still a US citizen. One is by Ahimsa Wickremetunge, daughter of slain editor (of the now defunct Sunday Leader) Lasantha Wickremetunge. She has accused Gotabaya Rajapaksa of complicity in the murder of her father in 2009. Another is a lawsuit by Roy Samathanam, now a Canadian national. He was arrested in Colombo in January 2007 and has alleged he had been detained and tortured for three years without access to lawyers at the behest of the former Defence Secretary. These cases are pending.

An important question that arises is whether the Justice Department would give clearance for a US citizen to renounce his or her citizenship when there are serious accusations in a court of law? Or, would they see these as frivolous complaints with ulterior motives to frustrate someone with agendas in mind. Would, therefore, the US Department of Justice seek a delay until the legal process is over for the issue of the Certificate of Loss of Nationality? This is important in the light of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature for the presidential elections now due in six months. That is if President Sirisena does not declare it on an earlier date. In high political quarters, there has been some speculation that President Sirisena would make an announcement in the coming days on these elections. He flew together with his wife Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari to Tirupathi for a pilgrimage last Monday. From there, he returned to the South Indian city of Bengaluru and flew to Singapore on a private visit with his family. He is due in Colombo today.

Last afternoon, President Sirisena and his family were entertained to lunch by Bernard Sack, Managing Director of Oriental Connection Pte. Ltd. at his Singapore residence. He has business interests in Sri Lanka.

May Day show of strength

There is, however, no confirmation about the proposed statement. This notwithstanding, Sirisena is under pressure from some of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) loyalists and members of his own family to contest the presidential election. In the light of zero prospects of contesting jointly with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led Joint Opposition, he would be left with no choice but to go it alone. This is one of the main reasons why he is asking his party loyalists to muster as large a crowd as possible for th SLFP’s May Day rally at the Miriswatte Grounds in Gampaha in ten days. The message is to underscore the party’s strength and thus the power it wields. In today’s politics, mustering crowds and garnering votes do not dovetail each other. The crowd puller is not party loyalty but the culture of a thousand rupees (or more) together with a bottle of arrack and a pack of lunch. A corollary for it is money — and a hat collection from businessman is under way to offer the package to participants. It also includes free transport. A few businessmen have already coughed out large sums not for reasons of charity but for favours in return.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Wednesday visit to the US Embassy in Colombo ended weeks of speculation and even rumours over renunciation of his US citizenship. The Sunday Times also came into focus, first for saying he handed in his documents on March 6 and later reporting that it was done so in Washington D.C. Both were based on disclosures by highly placed sources though they cannot be identified. It can still be said that they believed, or were made to believe, what they revealed. As has always been the practice of this newspaper, errors are rectified when they are known in keeping with the commitment to truth and credibility.

In a brief statement he made to the crowds upon his arrival in Colombo, as revealed in these columns last week, Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a significant revelation — he had NOT handed in his papers yet for the renunciation. He said he had gone to the US mostly to consult his lawyers over the renunciation of his US citizenship. He said he did this successfully and would move towards this soon — a clear indication that the civil law suits have been filed in the US courts ahead of his handing in documents to end his US citizenship. Rajapaksa said it was unfortunate court action was being initiated ahead of a presidential election and emphasised that it was civil action. He made no reference to receiving the process (summons) directly but said he received them through Sri Lanka’s Consul General in Los Angeles.

A power centre within the government claimed that a US citizen cannot hand in his or her papers for renunciation of citizenship other than outside the United States. In narrow circumstances, which are very restricted, they could formally renounce US nationality through the Department of Homeland Security within that country. It, however, does not apply to cases like that of the former Defence Secretary. This is enabled by the US Immigration and Nationality Act (Section 349 (a) 7). So much for the boasts and chest thumping by sad sacks hiding behind other names and a few jaunty bunnies. Their slip in the “undercover operation” like last week was showing again.

After his Wednesday hand over of the US passport and other documents, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at least technically, has lost his American citizenship. Notwithstanding the civil suits against him, can he hand in his nominations, when called, for the next presidential election? As is clear, pro-Opposition legal experts argue there would be no impediment. Others, however, contend he would have to adduce proof that his request for renunciation has been formally accepted by the US government. Until then, they claim, he remains a US citizen for all purposes and argue that is the US law.

Either way, there is no provision under local election laws for an election official at the nominations to reject papers of an applicant on the grounds that he or she holds foreign nationality. The National Elections Commission Chairman, Mahinda Deshapriya, was away in Indonesia. He went there for that country’s elections held on Wednesday.

What the EC checks

A senior official, who did not wish to be identified, said “At the time of handing over the nominations there are few things which are checked. One is if the candidate is from a recognised political party and whether the Secretary of that party has signed the nomination papers. If there are any other disputed issues regarding nominations, they should be challenged in courts and resolved there. Even if it is a dispute about holding dual citizenship the matter has to be taken up in courts.” For any candidate holding dual citizenship, that would be like walking on a razor or a highly risky proposition. After handing in nominations, if someone were to challenge it in courts, the party that nominated him or her would have to be without a candidate thus placing the party at a severe disadvantage.

A case in point was that of actress turned politician, Geetha Kumarasinghe who was elected at the August 2015 parliamentary elections from the Galle District. At that time, she held Swiss and Sri Lankan citizenships. Earlier this month, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court held unanimously that she was disqualified to be elected as MP since she had dual citizenship.

The SC was in effect upholding a Court of Appeal judgment of May 3 last year that she was disqualified in the first such case involving dual citizenship. The ruling was on the grounds that it was a violation of provisions in the 19th Amendment. The Court of Appeal directed the Attorney General to take necessary steps to formulate a mechanism to recover expenses caused to the State by Geeta Kumarasinghe while she functioned as a Parliamentarian, sit and vote in Parliament in accordance with the Parliamentary Election Act. Among proof that was adduced that she was a Swiss citizen was an affidavit from the Commissioner General of Immigration and Emigration who produced details including the citizenship registration number. This makes clear that the Commissioner General becomes privy officially when a Sri Lankan is conferred a second citizenship or when it is relinquished. Kumarasinghe appealed to the Supreme Court, and lost – her seat in Parliament.

An important requirement for those relinquishing their US citizenship is the payment of certain taxes besides a relinquishing fee of US$ 2,350 or around Rs 409,581.50. It had to be paid at the time of the interview by a Consular Officer in the Embassy. This is considered one of the highest renunciation fees in the world. In 2010 the amount stood at US$ 450.  An Exit Tax is also payable thereafter when the applicant has net assets worth US$ 2 million or more. All property is subject to gift tax and all property where one holds a use right is included for purposes of the net worth test.  Most importantly, the renunciation cannot be cancelled or set aside. Renouncing citizenship does not free one from US tax obligations either.

This new development, no doubt, delays the formal announcement of a presidential candidate by the SLPP and its Opposition allies for this year’s presidential election. Though Gotabaya Rajapaksa has handed in his passport and renunciation documents, he will not receive the Certificate of Loss of Nationality from the US government until the process is completed. Both, for the SLPP and its Joint Opposition allies, this has set a poser. How long would they have to wait to resolve two important political measures? One is for the SLPP de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to formally announce the presidential candidate. The other is also to formally inform President Maithripala Sirisena that the SLPP has decided on such a candidate. Every passing week is causing them concern.

Nevertheless, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already launched his political campaign. Eliya, the group of professionals he heads, held a meeting in Dehiwela yesterday to support him.

After the national New Year, the SLPP and its opposition partners will meet for the first time tomorrow. Other than sharing kavun and kiribath, they are due to focus on final arrangements for their May Day rally at Campbell Park. The focus is on drawing large crowds to outnumber their rivals – the SLFP at Gampaha and the UNP at the Town Hall grounds.

That Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been lined up for the candidature by the SLPP and its Opposition allies is no secret. Yet, they have to wait until Gotabaya Rajapaksa receives his Certificate of Loss of Nationality. This is why Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly declared that their choice will be “a winning candidate” without mentioning names. Any mention of Gotabaya Rajapaksa would amount to nominating a US national though he now holds only a Sri Lanka passport. SLPP leaders and their allies are due to meet in the coming weeks to assess the current situation and examine whether an alternative plan ‘B’ would become necessary. This is if there are fears that there would be long delays and is also prompted by the necessity that a decision would have to be made well ahead of the launch of a campaign.

The presidential tussle in the UNP

It seems that the SLPP and its allies are not the only ones to be afflicted with “who is the presidential candidate?” crisis syndrome. In equal measure, if not more, the contestant from the other major grouping is slowly but surely being hit with the same issue. That is the United National Party (UNP) led United National Front (UNF). The tussle is now spilling over to the public domain. Groups are at work to promote a candidate other than Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The cynosure of some sections of the party is Minister Sajith Premadasa, deputy leader of the UNP.

Once a staunch UNPer and now a confidant of President Maithripala Sirisena, Krishantha Prasad Cooray is spearheading a move within the party to back deputy leader Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate. He is being backed by at least one minister and some MPs, whilst a sizeable number are in favour of Premier Wickremesinghe.  The Premier returned to Colombo from a holiday in Nuwara Eliya and discussed the issue with his confidants.  Those backing Wickremesinghe complained to him that Cooray, Chairman of Lake House and Chairman of Hilton, has been acting as interlocutor between President Sirisena and Premadasa and voiced fears it could cause a serious rift in the party. He has been approaching party MPs, they complained.

Both President Sirisena and Minister Premadasa have been praising each other almost every week. Wickremesinghe has already dropped Cooray from the Working Committee.  “I know what has been going on. I will take appropriate action,” Wickremesinghe told a group of confidants including three ministers. The discussion ended there.

Formally, the UNP is yet to decide on its presidential candidate though Wickremesinghe has made clear he remains the front runner. “The decision will be made by the Working Committee and UNP parliamentarians,” former UNP Chairman and Minister Malik Samarawickrema told the Sunday Times. One of the closest associates of Premier Wickremesinghe, he said that “what we need in the party is unity. It is only then that we can move forward as a strong party.” He added that there was still more time to think about a candidate.

The on-going developments prompted Minister and House Leader Lakshman Kiriella to insist that Wickremesinghe should be the UNP’s presidential candidate.  At a National New Year function in Kandy on Friday, he told reporters: “We select a candidate by convening the Working Committee and our parliamentarians. Therefore, we expect that he will contest.”

However, Minister Mangala Samaraweera told an event in Matara yesterday that the UNP will field a candidate who would gain the highest number of votes after Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. This UNP Candidate is emerging after 24 years. He did no name the Presidential candidate.

Sajith-Karu battle

While the UNPers await the naming of their presidential candidate, two senior ministers are publicly sparring with each other. Though they have not pointedly identified each other, it was obvious. Premier Wickremesinghe had, one party source said, spoken to Minister Ravi Karunanayake to refrain from making public attacks on deputy leader Sajith Premadasa. Some UNPers even believe Karunanayake would have received the endorsement of the UNP leadership to criticise Premadasa in the light of his alleged tie-up with President Sirisena. However, the UNP leaders have strongly denied this. They said Premier Wickremesinghe was now awaiting the return to Colombo of Premadasa, now in Hambantota, to speak with him.

Addressing a news conference in Batticaloa last Monday, Minister Karunanayake said that the UNP had only one leader. “He is Ranil Wickremesinghe. He will never be changed.  We know some people are engaging in underhand activities and expressing opinions by selling the names of their parents,” he said.

Karunanayake declared, “The party can’t move forward by selling names of the parents of some people. The party can move forward only by engaging in politics with a policy. People who cannot even win their own electorate are trying to show they can win. The time that we kept quiet is over. We will openly say the party should correct the mistake of keeping quiet. We are not going on this journey to bloat up one or two characters, I would like to straight forwardly tell this. We are keeping mum not because we are weak. We are trying to create unity within the party. If they are trying to go off track, we are ready to answer that too.”

Karunanayake’s assertions that Premadasa was using the names of his parents to promote himself are clearly uncharitable. Premadasa has undoubtedly built for himself a political base in the deep south and commands a substantial following. Those are clearly the votes for the UNP. Of course, in terms of promotion, Premadasa has found a clever way. As Housing and Construction Minister, he has been in the footsteps of his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Periodically he opens housing projects for 25 to 100 families and chooses them.

Why is the tirade by Minister Karunanayake against Premadasa? Is it his newly developed affinity to President Sirisena? Does he believe that he (Sirisena) would, as a last option back Premadasa on some understanding? Though who will play which role is not clear, there are UNPers who believe so.

Last Tuesday, Premadasa hit back at Minister Karunanayake. The occasion was the opening of the Udagammana housing scheme comprising 75 houses. What he said reflects the view of the UNP deputy leader and the thinking of his backers in the UNP. He declared:

Najaja wasalo hothi, Najajja hothi Brahmano. Kamano wasalohothi Kammano hothibrahmano.”  Lord Buddaha has preached that a person does not become a “Brahmana” (noble) or a “Wasalaya” (an outcast) from birth. Only with actions of a person that someone can determine whether a person is a noble or an outcast.

All the Sri Lankans must follow Lord Buddha’s preaching, must try to be a clean with a character of a Brahmana in this New Year. People are making different statements at different places; the people of the country who have heard those statements are waiting for replies. I would like to tell the people that we should not come to conclusions by listening to statements of others. We should come to conclusions by observing the actions of people.

“Lord Buddha has also preached that people can be judged on whether they are nobles or outcasts through their actions. A person who broke a bank is really a “Wasalaya” , the one who build the bank is really a “Brahamana.”  The one who engages in development is a “Brahamana” while the other who works against development is a really a “Wasalaya.”  The one who steals funds, money, takes bribes and commissions from people can be identified from his actions as a “Wasalaya” (outcast). Meanwhile the person who works for the betterment of the people is truly a “Brahmana.” People who are engaging in undignified activities which are done by the outcasts (“Wasala Kriya”) saying that helping the people by giving concessions is a bad activity. Those people are talking about their parents and make themselves look like big shots, However, Lord Buddha preached that no one should come to conclusions thinking about one’s birth and nationality.

“People are expecting light but receiving darkness.  Then the people of the country would decide whether that person is Bhramana or a Wasalaya. You can never be a Bhramana by robbing banks, never can you call yourself noble by taking Commissions, never can you involve yourself or your wife to take bribes. Those actions can’t be considered as actions of a Brahmana. We don’t care about the person’s father, mother or about his grandparents, Is the person who gives darkness to the people a Wasalaya or a Brahmana?

UNP chairman Kabir Hashim told the Sunday Times, “The tussle between Sajith Premadasa and Ravi Karunanayake is not a major issue; time to time arguments can spark among MPs and Ministers. That can normally happen. There is no major issue within the party. They are engaging in arguments but they are in control. Yet the party unity is remaining strong. The party believes such issues must be solved at the level of the ministers concerned. The party will not get involved solving the issue because there is no issue.” It is indeed laughable that a former General Secretary and now Chairman of the UNP should choose to play down a major rift that has drawn attention of the party leader himself.  Such remarks in the past have contributed to the lowering of public esteem for the UNP. His own party leader has already raised issue. Contradictory reactions from different UNPers, including their leaders, are much more than in the case of other political parties.

The National New Year season is now behind. The upcoming May Day will see political parties displaying their strength and flexing their political muscle — a precursor to the presidential election that will follow. The suspense among them is growing. There is only 24 more weeks to go.

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