By Malinda Seneviratne –
First they offer help and then they enslave
‘First they had the book and we had the land. Then they said “close your eyes, let us pray”. When we opened our eyes, we had the book and they had the land.’ — Bishop Desmond Tutu on the relationship between invader and missionary in the conquest of Africa.
It all began innocently enough, not too dissimilar to the Europeans who upon ‘discovering’ new lands obtained first the goodwill of native peoples with bead in return for temporary shelter and later spilled their blood and robbed their lands. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was at the beginning full of promises and generosity. It began when Upul Jayasuriya was the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). Money was offered and accepted to refurbish the old auditorium.
As of now, the agency notorious for its covert operations to destabilize countries it purports to help, is involved in numerous other projects including the development of the District Court Library, improving the BASL Library, BASL system networking project, public forums, trafficking program, ethics issues, BASL research unit and the ICT project.
Most of these projects are in the ‘in progress’ category with some having little or no progress to show. Some of them are partly funded by BASL but are conveniently referred to as ‘USAID projects’.
Interestingly apart from the BASL President, Geoffrey Alagaratnam the rest of the Bar seems to be clueless about projects, duration, budget lines and such. Such information is known almost exclusively to Prakalathan Thuraisingham (also known as ‘Prabha’), who is the on-the-spot point-man for USAID in BASL offices and activities. Thuraisingham works closely with Nayomi Wickramaratne who was the previous Administrative Secretary (Acting) of BASL.
Interestingly, she held that post even as she worked for USAID, obtaining two salaries, a fact that the then Treasurer Upul Deshapriya vehemently objected to. Whether or not Upul Jayasuriya knew this is unclear. What is clear is that through her, USAID had access to the personal files, the accounts, system information and details of the management structure, all of which could easily be used to manipulate the BASL for whatever ends. Whether this happened, we don’t know, but the opportunity was there and indeed was created either knowingly or due to gross neglect and incompetence on the part of whoever was responsible for creating these conditions.
USAID does pay a rent for the space occupied, but nothing is paid for the use of other BASL resources including employees. What might have begun in cordial terms had within the space of 18 months transformed into a situation where USAID officials operate as though they own the BASL. USAID officials are reported to be poking their fingers into administrative operations of the BASL. Thuraisingham is reported to strutting around as though he is a member of the BASL, even being present that election of Bar Council Members. The truth is he is neither member nor an employee. Whether or not he had the blessings of the BASL President and the rest of the BASL membership is not known.
Most disturbing (for lawyers) is the fact that through the ‘networking project’ funded by USAID the details of all BASL members, court cases against lawyers, projects etc., can be accessed by an outside agency. Considering the sway of the BASL in the political life of the country (it played a key role in the eviction of Mohan Peiris and the reinstating of Shiranee Bandaranayake as Chief Justice, for example), the benefits for a rogue outfit operating for a country that does not subscribe to the ethics one expects in matters that are described as ‘friendly’, are pretty obvious.
Information is key. Documentation, historically, is often a necessary first step that is followed by either purchase or outright capture. Perhaps the affairs of the BASL are not that dramatic, but a body that purports to be independent of political control (a fact seriously compromised by the election of Upul Jayasuriya, a known UNPer and an immediate beneficiary of the January 8 result) should not only steer clear of political parties but all other bodies, especially agencies that have a history of meddling and indeed subversion.
It doesn’t look as the membership of the BASL has a clue about what’s happening. The current President and the Executive Committee, for example, are contemplating a change in the BASL structure which could very well make the ‘USAID takeover’ official for all intents and purposes.
The envisaged restructuring will see the appointment of an Executive Director who will function as the Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Registered Lobbyist. This would severely diminish the discretionary powers of the Secretary, Treasurer and Administrative Secretary.
The project is the brainchild of USAID which is to provide relevant funds.
The person appointed to the position will have wide powers which include implementing programs regardless of management changes, developing income generating plans and linking the bar with other professionals and organizations. In addition he/she will be involved in education, communication, data base and community through policy, reporting and programming.
He/she will also develop strategic plans and implement the action/operational plan and micro donation strategies, advice on all BASL activities, act as official spokesperson of the bar, represent BASL and supervise day to day operations of the BASL.
Thuraisingham’s name (Surprise! Surprise!) is being tossed around as the possible first ‘Executive Director’. BASL members would know the nature of the organization’s relationship with the Chief Justice and the Attorney General. The potential for involvement in unwarranted and dangerous ways in the affairs of justice needs no elaboration.
The proposal does not mention eligibility criteria, opening the post to people who are not members of BASL and therefore technically to people who have no understanding of the judicial system of the country, its history and traditions, or the role of the BASL. The problem then is not about Thuraisingham. If not him, then someone else, that’s the logic that can be drawn from the absence of specification. And if USAID is funding it, there’s no reason to believe that USAID will not have a say in who gets the job.
The membership needs to ask questions. Alagaratnam needs to answer questions. Will he inform the membership of all that has happened, including the role of the USAID, the operations of Thuraisingham, the status of BASL vis-à-vis USAID and what the possible appointment of an USAID-handpick would mean for the BASL?
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com