18 September, 2020

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Executive Presidency: Single Issue Or Non-Issue?

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The law of presidential terms seems to work in funny ways in Sri Lanka.  A limited term system usually turns an incumbent into a lame duck in his final term. President Rajapaksa’s unlimited term seems to have turned him into a permanent lame duck, but more in its executive sense than in its political sense. Mahinda Rajapaksa is presiding over a government that is abusing its power even to the extent of trying to change the intent of legislation through extraordinarily surreptitious gazette extraordinaire. That is what the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education is alleged to have done in regard to the University Act of 1978. By substituting the word “may” for “shall” the Secretary tried to remove the mandatory requirement that higher education institutions granting professional degrees must be accredited by the respective professional bodies. Administrative purists would consider this to be a far more heinous white collar crime than what the PM’s office pipsqueak did writing to the customs to clear for his buddy a shipment of heroin from Pakistan.

The FUTA and the GMOA had to ask Prof. Carlo Fonseka to intercede with the President, and the good Professor did and got the President to order “cancellation” of the gazette notification. As has happened on so many other instances, rather than the government and the President being given a tongue lashing, the President is given credit for listening and changing. And the Secretary, who is supposed to have been behind the sneaky tweaking of the gazette, continues in his position without any question or reprimand.  Government officials have got used to making mischief knowing there will be no consequences, no accountability, because the interminable presidency has become permanent lame duck – in the executive sense.

In the American system, being a lame duck applies in the political sense – to a President in his second and final term, who is unable to get anything done through Congress. Worse still, he might be unable to get his own party to support his initiatives. But the system of government and administration continues, regardless of political paralysis. If President Obama is not able to help his Party win, or at least hold its current seats, in the mid-term elections to the House and a third of the Senate, in November this year, his presidential effectiveness would be all but dead for the remaining two years of his second term.

President Rajapaksa doesn’t face any such political problem. There is no mandated mid-term election in Sri Lanka, but President Rajapaksa makes up elections (Local, Provincial, parliamentary, or presidential) as he goes, and wins them handily. Come March, he has two (Western and Southern) Provincial Council election victories to savour, almost the day after tasting a likely third defeat in Geneva. Like two weddings after a funeral. Like, as well, the two faces of the Rajapaksa regime: electorally invincible at home, isolated and exposed abroad.

The creation surpassing the creator

To the extent a lame duck presidency presupposes imminent succession Sri Lanka’s permanent lame duck presidency is inspiring permanently tentative challengers. It is as if everyone wants to be a candidate but nobody wants to contest. The next presidential election has long been touted as the election of the single-issue candidate, the sole issue being the abolishment of the executive presidency, now formally abbreviated as EP. In one sense, every serious candidate will be running on a single-issue: Victory.  That at least would be the sole issue for the Rajapaksa clan, if not the President himself, who being human might be getting close to the point of being tired of the presidency. But he will not be allowed to retire by those close to him, because they need him – as President. Otherwise, they are nobodies.  Their days under the Sri Lankan sun as somebodies will be permanently over when there is no President Rajapaksa.

It used to be said of President Mugabe that he was willing to step down many times but those close to him would hear none of it. The reality of authoritarianism is that the cabal becomes more powerful than the boss. In Sri Lanka, Colombo’s Tuesday Tea-threesome are more consequential than the President’s Thursday Cabinet. The hangers-on are in charge at every level, the president is a permanent lame duck at the centre. The Chief-Secretary in Jaffna is irremovable, but the elected Northern Provincial Council is dispensable.

In another sense (of the single issue), every potential candidate in the next presidential election is formally committed to abolishing the EP. The list starts with Mahinda Rajapaksa, for he too ran in 2005, if not in 2010, on the promise to abolish the EP.  Apparently, according to those who bothered to read it, the Mahinda Chinthanaya enshrines Mahinda’s commitment to abolish the presidency. His predecessor was even more dramatically committed to abolishing the EP, but she ended up becoming the President of dramatically broken promises. Ranil Wickremasinghe is the latest political leader to join the bandwagon of abolishment.  It is an indication of the state of his Party that it should decide after thirty six years to dump its most signal creation, the Executive Presidency. The funny thing is the UNP has no way of getting rid of the EP. The EP has become much stronger and more durable than the UNP. The creation has surpassed the creator.

Although there is considerable truth in the assertion that the Executive Presidency is the main source of most of our current predicaments, there is no matching groundswell of opinion asking for its abolishment. The reason for the mismatch is the gap between the abstraction of pundits and analysts, on the one hand, and the concrete experiences of the people on the other. I have reminded before that neither the 1972 Constitution nor the 1978 Constitution resulted from popular demands for constitutional change, but were created by governments who used their massive electoral victories based on people’s economic dissatisfactions to create new constitutions. On the other hand, Chandrika Kumaratunga expressly campaigned for the abolishment of EP, but chose to benefit under it rather than abolish it.  Mahinda Rajapaksa has turned the UNP’s creation into his personal instrument.

To their eternal discredit, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremasinghe, fighting like overgrown juvenile delinquents, botched the one opportunity they had in 2000 to constitutionally end the EP in parliament. Is it too late now? As things are, the only person who is capable of abolishing the EP through constitutional means is Mahinda Rajapaksa.  But why would he do it when there is no advantage to him, either politically or personally, in abolishing the presidency. He will perforce consider it if there is an unstoppable groundswell of opinion demanding the abolishment of EP. He will definitely abolish EP just to spite Chandrika Kumaratunga, if there is even half a chance that she could become President for the third time, contesting the next election.

Enter Sobitha Thero: Single Issue or Non-Issue?

There has been a stubborn mainstream media silence over the reported announcement of Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thero – of his willingness to come forward as a presidential candidate for the sole and limited purpose of abolishing the Executive Presidency. The seemingly curious silence, to my mind, is partly indicative of the media’s inclination to treat the issue of the Executive Presidency, not as the Single Issue, but a Non-Issue.  To make things ‘curiouser’ the Ven. Thero chose a Tamil newspaper to make the announcement. While political pundits are waiting for the ‘reverse translation’ (from the formerly unofficial language to the always official language), the good Monk himself has not approached the broader media to make his intentions clearer, and less ‘curiouser’.  However, it is known that Sobitha Thero has since confirmed the accuracy of his interview and his intentions to his group of advisers who see no salvation for Sri Lanka without the good riddance of the bad presidential rubbish.

Political news can bandy itself even without media coverage, and that is why formal or informal censorship never works.  While the mainstream media has chosen to ignore Sobitha Thero, there is lively debate over his interview and its implications in the electronic alleyways. But the stubbornness of the media establishment to ignore Sobitha Thero came across eloquently in a national newspaper editorial that chose to refer to his announcement only in passing and that too without mentioning him by name. It does not matter whether the omission was out of religious reverence or political dismissiveness. Or, rather it does.

It does in the sense that political success has become the primary consideration in taking a political stand. In a society whose official ethos is supposedly based on that most chastening Buddhist principle of impermanence, political permanence has taken a stranglehold on people’s minds. If one is not assured of success against Mahinda Rajapaksa, there is no point paying attention. Your candidate cannot muster a million votes, so you are wasting my time making a case for her or him. Because one is not convinced by the worthiness of the alternatives, goes the argument, there is no alternative but to cheer the President and damn everyone around him.

Alternatively, too, the commonplace advice is to the leaders of the opposition parties to get their act together and get a common candidate, and the considered prediction is that the next presidential election would be more like the 1982 presidential election, that was also the first presidential election. In other words, a full slate of candidates will unsuccessfully run against the incumbent. The comparison to 1982 may not be a subliminal allusion to the horrors of 1983, but rather a conscious acceptance that the Executive Presidency has come to stay.

The more worrisome development is the new argument tying the Executive Presidency to the defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. For all its adverse and unintended consequences, the EP was often defended for the opportunity it is said to have given the minority nationalities to have a direct say in the election of the country’s Head of State and Head of Government. That argument has now fallen by the wayside of experience. The new argument, emanating from a person who should know better, unnecessarily positions the Sinhalese people by venturing that they will not countenance the abolishment of the Executive Presidency because they will instinctively understand that the EP is the principal bulwark in the defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. What we have in the making is a dangerous companion to the ludicrously insistent ‘unitary state’ argument! It will not be long before the new argument is appropriated by the Rajapaksas and they will have no compunction at all in taking the country’s future back to the 1980s, if not even further back. But the country deserves better.

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Latest comments

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    This is a brilliantly written piece and the author should be commended.
    It is also a clarion call to the disjointed forces in the opposition to get themselves and their act together to present a credible (and lasting) solution to the absolute farcical state of governance we see today.

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      Bend over Ben Dover. You deserve punishment for supporting this crouching Tiger in civilian garb.

      They are still fighting for elam under different banners – anti-sovereignty (so that the former colonial masters they served through espionage and betrayal can come to help their project – and anti-unitary state.This Tiger Phillips is dreaming.

      The Tiger days are gone and the patriotic Sri Lankans (including reasonable Tamils and Muslims) will never allow this nonsense to ruin our country.

      Philips can rush to Geneva with that Terrorist woman who is complaining that her Tiger murderer-husband was killed in war! She has some front!

      She has gone to Geneva with Sumanthiran at government expense. According to reports they are discussing issues very late in to the night in the freezing winter over there!

      So much for Tamil independence.

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        Abolition of the executive presidency is and should be merely the means to an end, and NOT the END in itself.
        The end goal is or should be getting rid of CORRUPTION and cleaning up POLITICAL CULTURE which is rotten to the core (and Sinhala Buddhist RACISM in Sri Lanka).

        The movement for abolition of EP must identify the Mahinda Rajapaksa extended family’s CORRUPTION and mal-governance as the SINGLE ISSUE! This is the way to also check mate the claim that the EP is the best thing in town to defend the Sinhalaya Modayas and their nation-state!

        The joint opposition must get this message across – that Rajapaksa nepotism and corruption are the reason for the CRASHING ECONOMY that will soon be manifest with the water and energy crisis as the El Nino drought bites. Corruption is the platform to fight all future elections on the single issue of Rajapaksa Regime CORRUPTION. For this a proper voter education campaign is necessary.. and Sobith Thero has already pointed this out… This message will be easier to deliver as the drought bites and economy crashes with debt soring and people out of water and energy costs soaring.. questions will be asked about the Jarapassa cronies Casino Lifestyles…
        Sri Lanka is in for a long hot summer roasting! Its sad to say but Sinhala Modayas must SUFFER TO BE WISE!

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        Show me anything in any of my writings that would give credence to your calling me ‘Tiger’.

        Obviously, you have no clue about sovereignty or unitary state, except parroting them as political mantra.

        Your last two paragraphs show that your culture is worse than your intelligence.

        Rajan Philips

    • 0
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      Yes good piece but very bad title. It conveys the impression that the author doubts the efficacy of a SI common challenge to EP. We know from other writings that this is not Philip’s position. He has made a bit of a cock-up with a bad title.

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    Dr. DJ doubted Sobitha Thero getting at least a million votes. He laughed at abolishing EP, which for him is the only weapon to keep the sovereign state intact.

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      Even in an unlikely case of Ven Sobitha is chosen as the joint opposition candidate for the coming up presidential election, he is unlikely to get even as much votes as Fonseka. Right now, vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists are benefitting and enjoying the peace dividends after a 33 year war. No wonder Cameron and his so-called International Community who propose a war crime investigation is an anathema for them. Those that supported the war against terrorists knew if not for executive presidency the war would never have been won. For that reason, Sobitha’s so called single issue is a no issue in today’s context for the vast majority in Sri Lanka.

      Being a Buddhist monk, Ven Sobitha will not get even 10% vote of the Sinhala Buddhist. For one, neither he has been a popular monk in the caliber of Ven Soma nor has he being backed by a Buddhist political party like JHU. For another, he is following Fonseka’s path of yesteryear. Like for Fonseka, its a common knowledge that Sobitha is sponsored and backed by the likes of those who oppose the war, proxies of LTTE and those who backed them to the hilt. Patriotic Sinhalese Christians are also very much aware of the aims the war criminals of Iraq, Afghanistan and etc. Sobitha has shot himself in the foot when he said he is agreeable for war crimes investigations hypocritical Cameron and co.

      Right now, Ven Sobitha is in no position to be a factor to change a popular president.

  • 0
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    The Governor of the NPC campaigned in the last provincial election – a gross violation of election laws – and carries on regardless,without any reprimand by his superior,the president himself.
    Now Gota is reported to have taken part in an election meeting of a candidate in the pending provincial election in the western province, and it is said that he is not a ‘public servant’ but only a ‘political appointee’ and is entitled to take part in the election campaign.

    Under this wonderful Executive Presidency,anything is possible.

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      Gotha spoke at Udaya Gamanpilla’s election meeting; so this information is correct. Among other things, he strongly advised NP CM Wigneswaran to closely follow the example of Gamanpilla. Heaven help!

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    Present Executive President has empowered and conferrred immunity to Racist Monks, Drug mafia, Ethanol Mudalalis, Real Estate Grabbers, Stock Market Manipulators, Corrupt Judiciary, Military Junta, Central Bank Accountant etc EP has become a Hydra multi-headed monster, a tool in the hands of many corrupt family members and officials.

    MR approves gazzete and then cancels it. In other words he doesnt know what he is doing. He doesnt do anything other than PR, his minions do the rest.

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    An outstanding article which make us feel good. The writer seems to be of the same calibre of Prof Kumar David.
    The stubborn mainstream media silence over the reported announcement of Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thero shows how scared the Rajapaksas are about the stand taken by the Thera. The Laptop journalists do not reply to our enquiries about this conspicuous silence. Now that Lanka News Web(Sinhala) has published the Sinhala translation of the interview people will be able to understand the email circulating regarding this matter. It is sad that only a few people in Sri Lanka and abroad read Colombo Telegraph or Lanka News Web. It is also sad but true that the majority of Sinhala Buddhists living in developed countries considers Rajapaksa as a saviour and not as a person who is destroying the country.

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      All that Rajan, David and co want right now is to rid Mahinda Rajapakse from the Presidency.

      This time around however, I doubt very much the opposition could be united to present a common candidate like the last time. Being united to oppose Rajapakse on a single issue is one thing but forming a government with two third majority in parliament to change the constitution is another thing altogether.

      We have seen from experience that hypocrites that were united to fight an election with a single issue (throw out Rajapakse) couldn’t at least stay together at subsequent elections (parliamentary or otherwise) for they have drastically different aims and policies: TNA, the LTTE proxy has an inherent separatist aim. JVP has an inborn radical policies. The neo-con backed UNP under RanilW is full of anti Buddhists. Such an unholy alliance will never can have a common platform to win a two third majority that is absolutely necessary to change the constitution/presidency.

      So, David, Rajan and co knows that their hypothetical president Sobitha would be in not just for a short six month job but for a long haul. And that is exactly what they and their sponsors/backers the TNA want. They think that’s the way they can get what they couldn’t with war and putting pressure to President Rajapakse.

      I say to them; 75% Sinhalese are no stupids.

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    The voters want the executive presidency abolished. But unless the opposition unites, it will only be a dream.

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    Mr Philips. Abolishing the Executive Presidency seems to be on every body’s lips.I am for it, however do you think that this call is after a deep study or just an ornamental issue.Both the UNP and Rev Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero seem to taken only a superficial look at the problem.The Rev Thero may have done it due to lack of foresight but in the case of the UNP it looks as if they want to perpetuate the EP under a different guise.The problem arose with the 1972 Constitution of Dr. Colvin R de Silva so called liberal ( incidentally it is his birth day toady) constitution. He laid the ground for our ruination.The post of the Permanent Sec, which was a based on the constitution, who was expected to stand by the constitution was abolished and a Secretary reporting and existing on the goodwill of the Minister / President was appointed. This led to all the damage that was caused to the economy.Unless the position of the Permanent Secretary bound by the constitution is created whatever changes that are made to the EP and the electoral system will be cosmetic and the Tax Payer will continue to be robbed.

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      Your points are well taken. It is true that the 1972 Constitution did remove with the Independent Public Services Commission, but that did not do away with Senior Civil Servants (whether Perm Sec or Secretary)having to function professionally within the political parameters set by parliament and cabinet. I don’t think there has ever been a case, before or after 1972, when a Secretary tried to monkey with gazette notification. I did not quite say it, but obviously the Secy was not acting on his own.

      By the way, the 17th Amendment tried to back independent service commissions. Rather than implementing it, the government rescinded it with its 18th Amendment.

      RP

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        Mr. Philips;I do not want to accuse you of defending the indefensible, the constitution of the LSSP.The removal of the PSC was the basic cause of the problem.That opened the gates for JRJ to manipulate further.The permanent Secs acted as a bulwark to bring the fancy schemes of the politicians to naught.The first job that the UNP did in 1977 was to close down the Fertilizer manufacturing Corp. and today we are paying for it.Today any two bit politician can get the public service to waste tax payers money with impunity.Let me sight an example. There are two public grounds at matara – Uyanwatte and the ground next to the bus stand. Today uyanwatte is not a patch of what it was.There are constructions all over. It is place where more than one football match could have been played concurrently.Today that space is built up.Take the ground next to the Bus stand. This was developed during Mr Mangala’s Sams period prior to 2001 election spending millions of rupees.Then came the 2001 change and Mahinda Wijesekara pulled it apart.Take the case of the privatizations,what was the rational for majority of the sales. Of the 145+ Govt Owned enterprises sold not even 5 are functioning.
        The priority is to get the rules right.The Secs should have protested when these things happened, but can they?

        take the problems associated with the CEB. Today the engineers are accused of corruption.There may be substance in that accusation, but is not the basic problem with the Ministry of Planning, which was emasculated since the day of PBJ’s appointment.To my knowledge Norochcholiai is bad technology. ( I can provide you with references to that).

        Look at the antics of Bandula gunawardena and SBD.If the public service existed with all the powers the two secs could have been brought to book for allowing the Ministers to play hell.Take the case of the VAT deal.Under the present dispensation ie dispensation under PBJ, the DST is a joke,but the constitution had determined that the he overlooks the Excise, the Customs and the IR.Because of the lax nature of public administration, a fly by night called the Director General Fiscal policy is over looking it.The DGFC exist at the goodwill of PBJ.

        No excuses this has to change.We cannot be made paupers for the politicians and the corrupt Heads of Depts to enjoy the luxutries of life.
        Bring in this control and you will find the rif raf that goes as politicians, some body described some of them as protitutes and pimps will no longer be interested in politics.
        If the facility to protect the Tax payer’s funds are in place what is needed is to emasculate the EP.Remove the protection afforded to the EP he should be subject to the normal laws of the country.

  • 0
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    In the american system, every president is a LAME DUCK unless he does not work according to the system.

    Every presidential candidate when they become contenders are briefed about security issues. Since they work in a different mind set.

    Sri Lanka does not have a system. It has only a good constitution and Rule books are neglected.

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      you are absolutely Sri Lanka does not have a system. The constitution is worth the paper it’s written on and there are no rule books.

      In the USA there is another house to keep check on the president.
      Currently it’s majority is republicans. That is why Obama is called a lame duck president.

      Mahnida becoming a lame duck president due to burnout as he face presure from UN, USA, UK, India, the IC, TNA, BBS , JVP, etc.

      Mahinda has no intellectuals to advise him only hangers on. As evident from the promotional video that was put together by his hangers on as evident from the handling of the UN and IC since the end of the war.

      Mahinda is tired and running out of ideas. He is resorting to clutching a Talisman in his palm and hugging bow trees to reassure himslef

  • 0
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    “There has been a stubborn mainstream media silence over the reported announcement of Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thero – of his willingness to come forward as a presidential candidate for the sole and limited purpose of abolishing the Executive Presidency”

    I am not sure if Single issue candidacy would work. The Sri Lankan elctorate is not sophisticated to understand. JR won the referandum with a landslide and stayed in power without calling an election.

    Perhaps going to the country as a single unifying candidate may be more appealing. The dead woods Sarath, Ranil, CBK etc neeed to be got rid of.

    A single unifying candidate can offer a broad politcal agenda. Inflation, cost of living, corruption, reconciliation, mega white elephant projetcs, etc.

    The first agends of the single unifying if elected is to abolish the EP.

  • 0
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    Mr.Philips; Incidentally, what is your view on the other odious aspect of Colvin’s constitution – the removal of the limits of legislation, which prevented legislation being introduced pin pointing specific groups of people and not for the country as a whole – the so called section 29. Eagerly awaiting your response Sir!

    “Your points are well taken. It is true that the 1972 Constitution did remove with the Independent Public Services Commission, but that did not do away with Senior Civil Servants (whether Perm Sec or Secretary)having to function professionally within the political parameters set by parliament and cabinet. I don’t think there has ever been a case, before or after 1972, when a Secretary tried to monkey with gazette notification. I did not quite say it, but obviously the Secy was not acting on his own.”

    You are avoiding the question.If I remember it right, either NMPerera or Colvin made a statement in the Parliament/ constitutional council about clipping the wings of the swollen headed govt officials. JRJ called them Boorucrats. Two sides of the same coin.

    What about the removal of Justice T.S.Fernando as the Chairman of the Constitutional Court.la removal of Shirani Bandaranayake.

    Let us face facts Mr Philips,the UNP, the SLFP, the LSSP, the CP, The JHU,the SLMC,The CWC,Rajaratne’s party, the MEP, the LPP ( Dahanayake) all contributed to our ruin, severally and jointly.

    The LSSP had the best oppurtunity to place everything in the proper perspective by not carrying a tray full of flowers when they joined the SLFP to the Dalada Maligawa when they formed the coalition.By that very act where NM, Colvin and Munasinghe participated that they were another bunch of opportunists, willing to sell everything for power. That is what EP, proportional voting,etc etc means.

    If you had avoided that visit, that would have helped to erase all damage done by the SLFP to coalesce the State and the Temple which has now become our bane.

    I understand that, recently, over a matter of paternity the Buddhist priest escaped on the basis that the case was bringing Buddhism to disrepute.I do not know the accuracy of this matter, but I understand that it was a stand taken by a Sec to a ministry.

    This is corrupted too much Mr. Philip.

  • 0
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    Mr Philip you are right. You have never even spoken in favour of the tigers.These are the jokers who are ruining our country

  • 0
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    Mr.Editor, why is it that comments made after 24th or so does not appear in the comments section.Are you censoring the comments. You were very free once. What is the contact address of Colombo Telegraph?

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