Talking Point: Petitioners Gamini Viyangoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara | Sunday Observer

Talking Point: Petitioners Gamini Viyangoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara

On September 27, the filing of a writ application challenging Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan citizenship threw a major spanner in the works of his candidacy. Over a three-day hearing, dozens of damning facts came to light about the discrepancies to do with his application for dual citizenship in 2005, missing files at the Department of Immigration, and major contrasts between his certificate of dual citizenship and the computer data records that were created in January 2014. On October 3, Sunday Observer spoke to the two activists behind the legal action that took the political world by storm this past week, shortly before the Court of Appeal decided to dismiss their petition.

It is about upholding the law, not politics – Gamini Viyangoda

By Maneshka Borham

Q. Addressing court, lawyers for SLPP presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed your writ application was politically motivated. Is this the case?

A. If my decisions are politically motivated, then I am favourable to the SLPP fielding Gotabaya Rajapaksa as candidate. Politically that is my preference. The reason is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the candidate from that camp that we could easily defeat at the upcoming polls. For example, compare his elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa to him. If Chamal is put forward as a Presidential candidate, then we have fewer facts to present. Gotabaya is a man against whom allegations enough to fill a wardrobe, have been levelled.

To defeat him politically, all we have to do is open the cupboard door slightly.

But, our writ had no connection to this. If the courts agree with facts we have presented, then, politically, we would be at a disadvantage in the upcoming elections with the entry of a new Rajapaksa camp candidate who is less polarising. That would be disadvantageous to democratic forces at an election whichever candidate we decide to support. 

Q. So why pursue this legal action just before the election?

A. The reason we filed the petition so late is because we only found out about the facts of his citizenship after the CID reported facts to the Magistrate’s Court. The findings shocked us. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship file is missing – no Government authority seems to be able to locate it. Comparisons of computer data records and the physical dual citizenship register shows discrepancies. And even worse it seems that in 2005 his certificate was signed at a time when there was no secretary and no Minister in charge of citizenship. His application was approved over a weekend. To our mind, this is a huge problem. His very citizenship is in doubt. That is one of the core aspects of eligibility to contest elections in this country. Are we supposed to let it slide? The CID investigation even at such an early stage shows that from the day his brother gained power in this country, Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have violated laws. It appears that even in the past four years, despite not being in power, he may have enjoyed some leverage in documentation matters. As members of the public in a free and democratic society we have an obligation to question these things. It should not be construed as a political motive. Every citizen should ask him these questions. He is trying to hold the highest office of the land. He owes us these explanations. All we want is to ensure the rule of law is upheld.

Our main aim behind the petition is to ensure that the rule of law in the country is protected and upheld.

Q. They say you’re carrying out a UNP contract to ensure Sajith Premadasa’s victory. What is your response to that?

A. No politician has an involvement in this legal action. We filed a complaint with the IGP nearly two months ago, long before Sajith Premadasa was even named as candidate. Therefore, these allegations against us are baseless and childish. My complaint and petitions have been filed to merely protect the democracy and rule of law in this country and to prove these exist at least under the current government.

Q. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not conclusively proved that he has renounced his US citizenship and now apparently there are no documents to prove he is a Sri Lankan citizen either. Where does this leave him?

A. Let us leave the missing files aside for the moment and assume they have been lost. But, based on these files and documents, there is a certificate issued stating one’s citizenship. In the writ, we are also questioning the authenticity of this certificate. We seek to find out when this was issued, by whom, and if there were provisions at the time to issue such a certificate. Therefore, even if the files exist or not, our queries cannot be invalidated. There is a certificate with a specific date and two signatures.

Q. Recently, it also came to light that, despite Gotabaya being a US citizen at the time, his name continued to appear in the Mulkirigala electoral register from 2004 onwards. Should this not be closely looked at?

A. The complete blame for this lies with the head of the household. Normally, when names are entered into a householders list, it continues that way for years to come. But the head of the household must update this list on a yearly basis. The head of the household must be held accountable for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name continuing to appear in the householder’s list while being a US citizen. We did not focus on this matter in the petition as it cannot be proved that a vote was cast under his name during the time at any election held despite the name appearing on the register.

Q. Your critics question your silence on the appointment of former Central Bank Governor who was a Singaporean citizen. Yet you are questioning the validity of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s citizenship status. Is this a fact?

A. We have criticized the appointment of Arjun Mahedran many times on various platforms. We even held over 10 seminars on the Bond scam across the country. We not only criticized Mahendran at these events but also Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, there is a difference. Mahendran didn’t fraudulently try to appear as a Sri Lankan citizen when appointed to the Bank. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is attempting to appear as a citizen of the country through allegedly fraudulent means. It also must be noted that there have been non-Sri Lankan governors in the history of the Central Bank. According to the law, there is no legal bar for a Singaporean citizen to become the governor of the Central Bank. Just like there is no impediment to a non citizen being appointed Secretary of Defence. However, it is mandatory that a person contesting to be president of Sri Lanka is a Sri Lankan citizen. His total allegiance must be to Sri Lanka. That is not an optional matter.

Q. A massive hate campaign appears to have been launched against you and Prof. Thenuwara, especially on social media. Are you perturbed by this?

A. We know who is around him. Most of them are ex-military men. Gotabaya also knows us both. In the 10 years he was in power, there were many lessons to be learnt. We saw the fate that befell Lasantha Wickramatunge, Waseem Thajudeen, Prageeth Eknaligoda, Poddala Jayantha and Keith Noyahr. So when we file a case against these persons and are subsequently targeted by a hate campaign of this scale, we must take this threat seriously. The only difference is that, today, they do not wield State power. But, one does not need State power to get revenge.

Q. What happens if he wins the election and becomes president? What happens to your safety and the safety of Prof. Thenuwara then?

A. Of course, we are worried. History is going to repeat itself if he comes to power and on a much larger scale. His presidency will mean that the democratic victories and freedoms we won since 2015 will be overturned. When he was Defence Secretary, and we took part in media programmes where we discussed the culture of fear and growing authoritarianism, we were cautious as we returned home. We were afraid that we may have earned his wrath. We would check our side mirrors to see if we were being followed. That is the era we may return to if he comes to power. And back then, he was only the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.

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A non-citizen getting elected is dangerous – Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara

By Anurangi Singh

Q. Why did you and the other Petitioner decide to take on this matter?

A This is not something that we thought of doing overnight and, at the time I saw this article and discussed with Gamini Viyangoda, it was as far back as in August on the Daily FT newspaper. We saw there had been several irregularities that were reported. In fact, we had not even decided to file a case on this. All we wanted was to make a complaint to the IGP so that a proper investigation would begin. When investigations started, it became obvious that there were more irregularities. At the same time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had also placed a deposit with the Elections Commission as a candidate. Then we realized that something more needs to be done. Irrespective of how many times you speak of this, he carried on without taking steps to address this citizenship issue. Therefore, even the passports and the NIC appeared to be tainted with irregularities and discrepancies. We are of the view that a non-citizen being elected as the president can pose a grave threat to this country. The rights of the people would be affected. That is why we decided to pursue legal action. Given the time constraints, the only option before us was to go to court. Whichever way the court ruling goes, we knew this was our last and best hope. He has managed to evade justice many times, we hope this time will be different, because we believe our case is strong.

Q. Are you politically motivated? This question comes to you especially in the light of certain submissions made on behalf of Gotabaya Rajapaksa where pictures were shown of you together with the Prime Minister at a meeting.

A If that is their interpretation of that meeting, then what about the fact that I went to the same school as Mahinda Rajapaksa? He was my senior. In 2005 we worked for his election. That should mean that I have a connection with him as well. My meeting with leaders of the country, which I have done throughout with former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the President and even the Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, is something that I do as a civil society activist. That is our rights as citizens. Their politics is of no concern to us.

This is not the first cause that I have taken up. I started to express my dislike of the war through my art. At a time where the country was battling a severe war, I continued to express my views against the war. People at that time, who were blind with ‘patriotism’, saw me as a terrorist. But as a Buddhist, as a person who values culture and humanity, I have the right to express my views against the war. Any citizen, irrespective of their political affiliations, can stand up for their socio-political rights. These are the rights that we fight for. Bringing down the cost of living has not been our slogan, but the Rule of Law and social justice and even constitutional matters. I have expressed my views against this constitution from the time I was a university student back in 1978. As a person who obtained primary and secondary education at the expense of the taxpayers of this country, I have a social responsibility. This applies to both me and Gamini. For anyone to even think that this is for personal reasons is absurd. Also, there are attempts to send out an opinion that we are backed by NGOs. My income is what I get paid from the tax-payers money. I have bought a vehicle for which I still pay the lease. Never in my life have I been used in politics and by politicians or NGOs. Our fight is for the voiceless.

Q.. Surely this act of yours will benefit Sajith Premadasa’s campaign?

A The whole reason for this to gain so much media attention was due to the court action. But we started this process back in August. That was a time when there were internal matters in the UNP and there was an obvious clash between the UNP hierarchy. They had not even decided who to put forward as a candidate or if there will be a candidate at all. Someone can then also argue this the other way. That it will benefit Mahinda Rajapaksa. If Mahinda Rajapaksa feels that his brother is usurping his power, then someone can argue that he is behind this, in order to stop his brother from taking power from him.

Q. Your own brother has heavily criticized you, saying that you have become a political pawn. What is your response to that?

A I am embarrassed. Just as Mahinda Rajapaksa has brothers, I too have mine. What to do? We have to accept them for who they are, since they are our own. I feel that he has been brought out all of a sudden to come forward and make a comment. It looked that way. He will come to his senses later, hopefully.

Q. As you mentioned earlier, and also in the submissions made on your behalf, you have said that appointing a non-citizen as president will be a serious threat to national security. However, his lawyers questioned how a person can make such an assertion of a person who almost gave his life for the security of this country, going so far as to say that those who are ungrateful towards Gotabaya lack gratitude in their Sinhala blood. What is your response to this?

A We must remind ourselves of who left the country back in 1994. We have stayed in this country through even the most difficult times. We paid our taxes, criticized the war when necessary, and kept silent when we didn’t want to disturb the process. If he had that passion, I don’t understand why he left the country. He didn’t retire but gave an excuse to obtain early retirement. That is sufficient for us to judge his patriotism. General Sarath Fonseka has spoken about this at great length. There are more than enough people who have made their own personal sacrifices to this country during the war. Even the taxpayers played a big role during that time. Different people have made different sacrifices during the war, although they were not at the war front.

Except for the ones that left the country. Not only did he leave the country, but also pledged his allegiance to another, stating that he will take up arms against any other country, including Sri Lanka. I have not taken any pledge to protect another country. I have only one passport. I am proud to call myself a Sri Lankan. People who call themselves patriots of this country should take these factors into account. These are things that he needs to clarify to the people of this country before asking for their vote. My only hope is that the people, which has an over 90 percent literacy rate, will come to an understanding of these issues.

We say this in our petition in a broader sense. What we want to highlight is the danger in a non-citizen getting elected. This sets a bad precedent. Not only will it amount to a flouting of law, but it can also be a threat to national security.

Q. There have been many criticisms against you, especially on social media. Are you worried about your safety?

A Yes. Most of the comments come with threats. Clearly, there is a threat to our lives. That is how they operate. It is sad to say that even some media institutions are on board with this, without being independent. Journalists are more respected than media moguls, but even the journalists are now being used. Some do so to safeguard their jobs.

We have not used soldiers to clean drains and clean gardens and acted in a way that degrades the soldier. We have duly paid our taxes and maintained soldiers of this country as the working class.

Q. If court grants the interim order, it will render him stateless and that will be on your account. How do you feel about that?

A We don’t know what the decision will be. Whatever it is, we will accept it and we are known for an independent judiciary. We are not aware that he has renounced his US citizenship. I don’t think it will be on my account, if he becomes stateless. That will be his own doing. He ought to have been mindful of that before flouting the law.

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