Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Visa to Ibiza

By Saliya Weerakoon

In Sri Lanka, a land marked by its lush landscapes and rich history, the political climate often mirrors the tempestuous weather of the monsoon season – intense, unpredictable, and sometimes devastating. This past week has been emblematic of such chaos, a tableau vivid with scandals and public outcries that, while significant, scarcely pierced the threshold of shock in a country seasoned by political turmoil.

At the eye of this storm was Public Security Minister Tiran Alles, whose presence in the corridors of power has always been accompanied by a maelstrom of controversy. Even as he underwent routine health checks at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, far from home, in Singapore, his influence loomed large back in Sri Lanka, underscored by the latest uproar involving changes to the nation’s e-visa system.

This controversy ignited when a young Sri Lankan’s vocal disapproval of the new e-visa management by VFS Global, an international immigration service provider, spread like wildfire across social media platforms. The youth’s outburst, captured on a mobile phone purportedly by an Immigration officer, went viral and resonated deeply with the masses, sparking a debate that soon engulfed the digital realm. 

For Alles, a man whose career has spanned the realms of business, media, and politics, such scandals might seem routine. Yet, this issue cuts to national concerns about governance and transparency. The digital outcry was ignited on X and quickly reached Facebook; in hours, YouTube stepped in. It started on digital media and mainstream media took the next phase. 

The youth’s statement of anger that Indians are running the Immigration services and the digital media conversation took an anti-Indian sentiment. The Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka quickly squashed the narrative that VFS was an Indian company, stating that India had nothing to do with the transaction. 

The reaction was swift and fierce. Digital media critics did not have the time and patience to check the authenticity of the youth’s statement, so people took sides as usual. However, many influential and independent voices stayed away from commenting, as now Sri Lankans are circumspect enough about what’s transpiring in digital media and even in mainstream media. 

The e-visa issue had wings, primarily due to the increasing tourist fee. Initial reports suggested a 100% visa fee increase. As the Government sought to boost Sri Lanka’s tourism sector – a vital artery pumping economic life into the nation – the decision to increase e-visa fees was met with immediate backlash. Stakeholders across the tourism industry, from small tour operators to large hotel chains, united in opposition. Their livelihoods were at stake, so they appealed directly to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, urging a reconsideration of the policy. The various industry associations united against the new norm and increased e-visa fees. 

Tourism Minister Harin Fernando, a politician equally familiar with the harsh spotlight of controversy, was initially blamed for this unpopular decision. However, it soon emerged that he was not the architect of the fee hike. The real question then emerged, echoing loudly: who was behind this move?

Alles and his legacy

Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Minister Alles addressed the nation, asserting that his decision was backed by Cabinet approval. His attempt to clarify did little to quell the discontent. Criticism mounted as the public and media dug into his track record, marked by controversial decisions and bold assertions of authority. From his aggressive dispersal of ‘Aragalaya’ protesters after President Wickremesinghe’s ascendancy to the Executive, to his unabashed influence over the Police force, Alles’ tenure as Public Security Minister has been anything but tranquil.

His role in passing the Online Safety Act, his directive for Police to use lethal force against those disrupting drug raids, and his reputed establishment of a ‘deep state’ using his ministerial powers have all been focal points for his detractors. His expansive influence is further bolstered by alliances with influential Buddhist monks and a sophisticated media operation, positioning him as one of the most influential figures in the current Government. 

The legacy of the Public Security Ministry, a pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s Cabinet, has been fraught with challenges. Each minister who held this position has faced intense scrutiny, none more so than Alles. His predecessors – John Amaratunga, Sagala Ratnayaka, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, and Sarath Weerasekera – were always in hot water.

The role of the Police especially came in for heavy questioning after the 21 April 2019 Easter attacks. Alles was given the Public Security Ministry at a crucial time when many wanted a strongman for the job. His first important job was dismantling the ‘Aragalaya’ protesters and the movement. He was hailed as a hero by some but was the most hated among activists for how it was done.

There had been a few public security ministers before, but Alles had a different blend than others. A businessman, former public official, powerbroker, media mogul, and now a powerful minister are rare combinations and dangerous for anyone to possess. As the Public Security Minister, he controls and executes law, order, and border control through Immigration. 

Further, the NGO Secretariat, registration of persons, and controlling dangerous drugs are under his control. Read again! The Minister of Public Security could be one of the country’s most underrated yet influential persons. And Alles, with a shrewd and calculative brain, understands the power. When you have power, you are responsible for doing the right thing. The right thing can be subjective from the lens you look at it. 

Alles was always a behind-the-stage actor and shunned the limelight. However, he revealed a different side when he took over the Public Security Ministry. Alles has a close relationship with presidential aspirants Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD). Premadasa used X to mark his protest, but AKD was uncharacteristically silent. Premadasa quickly asserted that the annual payment to VFS was Rs. 13.5 billion. 

Alles debunked what was said before by many. He showcased different unit pricing, 30-day, six-month, one-year, five-year, and 10-year visa validity periods, dates of Cabinet approvals, and the process of Cabinet approvals. Also, he brought rumours and dragged President Wickremesinghe and Premadasa’s names into the story, categorically stating that the rumours were absolute lies. That was his media brain at play; he created his own narrative at his own playground. 

A few days later, Premadasa took on Tourism Minister Fernando for the e-visa decision and justification, and Alles was spared. Premadasa and Fernando, once comrades in arms, are now political enemies. 

AKD, running his presidential campaign on an anti-corruption narrative, failed to point to Alles. President Wickremesinghe quickly resorted to his old trick of appointing a committee to mitigate the reputation risk. The other declared presidential aspirant in the race, Dilith Jayweera, did not name Alles but took on the VFS deal hard at a public rally in Matugama. None of the Rajapaksas cried foul, either. 

How did this happen?

The previous vendor of the e-visa technology, the Government-owned SLT-Mobitel, was silent on the remark by Alles that the previous system was not conducive to the requirement. A simple statement from the organisation explaining the situation could have brought more clarity to the public discourse. As Alles explained, he saved a minimum of Rs. 12 million per annum by moving the operation to VFS, which would work on an OPEX model and zero cost to the Government. 

Also, Alles revealed that the VFS deal was tabled in Parliament and no one opposed it; the Cabinet approved it after a careful evaluation from a committee consisting of public officials from different ministries, including the Treasury. Committee on Public Finance (COPF) Chairman Dr. Harsha de Silva had summoned the public officials and the meeting was not opened to the media. He considered X, stating that nothing would be revealed due to the subject’s sensitivity. 

The question is, how was this deal sanctioned by all stakeholders? Did all of them miss a crucial cost benefit analysis? 

Most mainstream media avoided projecting Alles as a wrongdoer; he had ample airtime to explain his side of the story. His late entry into the media helped him, as by that time, many statements from the Tourism Ministry, the President’s Media Division, and critics had different versions of the story. Most of the online news portals refrained from reporting this story negatively. 

It was revealed that Sri Lanka provides free visas to India, China, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Thailand, and Indonesia. In the good year of tourism in 2018, Sri Lanka welcomed 2.3 million tourists to the country. The above seven countries had an arrival share of approx 34% of the total arrivals. India led with 18.22% and China had 11.54%. In January to April this year, 700,000 arrivals were led by 123,000 Indians, 106,000 Russians, 71,000 Brits, and 24,000 Americans. If major corridors are given free visas, what the commercials would be under the VFS deal would be a critical question. 

Think differently, act diligently

In 2023, the average duration of stay in Sri Lanka for tourists was approximately nine days and the average spend per day was $ 164. It will be interesting to understand how many would be visas of under 30 days and how many would spend six months in Sri Lanka, and so forth. If someone wants to spend six months in Sri Lanka, without working, there could be another insight for tourism. 

On inbound tourism, approximately 48% of the tourists are under the age of 39. The higher visa costs primarily would impact the under-39 segment with low disposable income and looking for less expensive destinations. Why wouldn’t Sri Lanka give a free visa for those under the age of 39? 

It’s easy to configure demography-based pricing. Sri Lanka should be the place to start a journey for youth in the world. This is why a digital nomad visa is key. If Sri Lanka wants to be a premium destination, the product should be premium. 

The youth proposition could provide an amplification of the Sri Lanka narrative to the world free of charge while filling home stays, railway, buses, taxis, hotels, and restaurants. After all, approximately 80% of tourism industry employees are from hotels and restaurants. Let this visa fiasco be a pivot to think differently and act diligently. 

No one has clearly articulated the real impact of the e-visa procedure, the impact on the operation, the exact role of VFS, and the role of Immigration officials. Also, it is simple to articulate what is free, what is not free, and what cost, and borne by who. 

In addition, the Government communication machinery is probably at the lowest and communicates sensitive matters in an ad hoc manner and vaguely, without proper thought process and data. If Alles had made the decision, others should have left him to handle the crisis. 

Need for greater transparency

This fiasco reveals an important deficiency in the system. The Government machinery works in silos and there is no or little stakeholder management. If this e-visa procedure, impact, and the reason had been discussed with relevant stakeholders, things could have been different. 

Now the matter is part of the COPF led by Opposition MP, economist Dr. de Silva. If there is nothing to hide, it should be discussed in the public domain when it’s ready. At the same time, Alles should engage the media and stakeholders together with Tourism Minister Fernando. Perhaps Immigration officials can also step in to address even technical details, so the public discourse can be shaped accordingly.

The VFS and health scandals, as they unfolded, highlighted the need for greater transparency in Governmental affairs. Accusations of backdoor deals and financial improprieties have led to calls for a thorough investigation, with the media playing a crucial role in holding the Government accountable. 

Despite risks associated with reporting such sensitive issues, many journalists have persisted, showcasing the resilience and importance of a free press in a democratic society. There are no reports that journalists or columnists who criticised Alles have been intimidated, as even an influential daily newspaper carried a scathing attack on Alles. 

Saved by Diana

Alles made news for one week. That’s the news cycle in Sri Lanka. You have to survive for one week. That’s it. Alles’ saviour was Tourism State Minister Diana Gamage. She was the next hot topic as simultaneously, the Judiciary of Sri Lanka showcased its impartiality and commitment to the rule of law through another landmark decision. 

Gamage was ousted from Parliament after it was determined that she had failed to establish her Sri Lankan citizenship – a prerequisite for parliamentary office in Sri Lanka. This case, brought forward by the tenacious activism of Oshala Herath, not only highlighted issues of eligibility and integrity within the Government but also reaffirmed the Judiciary’s role as a guardian of constitutional mandates. 

Gamage, a vociferous parliamentarian, once the owner of the original Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), fought a four-year-old court case. It took four years, but as per the Supreme Court decision, the three-member bench was unanimous that she had failed to establish her Sri Lankan citizenship, thus vacating her seat in Parliament. 

She eloquently whacked her former boss, Premadasa, and SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara for her downfall. Some of her statements at the press conference can be considered as being in contempt of court. Especially given previous incidents of contempt of court, Gamage’s statement could lead to a place she doesn’t want to be in. It will be interesting whether Herath or anyone else could file another case on this, as Gamage has created too many enemies in the last four years. 

She took the high moral route and said her problem was the problem of all women in Sri Lanka. I would like to correct her. Actually, there are many problems for women in Sri Lanka; this issue of hers is not a problem for women in Sri Lanka; all of them can provide evidence of their citizenship when required. Providing evidence of your citizenship should be easier than providing educational or marriage certificates. Gamage took four years, yet failed. 

The victim card will not always work and there is a lesson in Gamage’s rise and fall. Power comes with great responsibility, so use it wisely. Gamage can be vengeful, but she does not hide it. Anyone can use her personal nature to unsettle Premadasa and the SJB now. She has nothing to lose now and everything to gain. You have to be careful when you fight with people who have nothing to lose. 

Ugly debate

Moving on, I have witnessed many ugly media political debates in my life, but I witnessed the ugliest media debate of my life last week. State Minister Chamara Sampath Dasanayake and senior TV host Chamuditha Samarawickrama entered into a brawl and used words that should not have been used even in a private conversation. They challenged each other to a physical fight. Had Samarawickrama played a gentleman’s hand, he would have exposed the politician. But he was equal to the politician.

I grew up watching the legendary Premakeerthi de Alwis, and Sri Lanka always had amazing journalists and TV anchors. Some were way too amazing; they paid the price with their lives. While Sarawickrama is in question, young TV anchor Kalindu Karunaratne amazed me with his talk show with AKD. Karunaratne is young but mature; he plotted AKD effortlessly with back-to-back intelligent questions. It was a decent conversation and the young man won the day. 

AKD was in damage control mode. He had to answer tough questions. He could not betray his own party men, K.D. Lalkantha and Sunil Handunetti. The young Karunaratne exposed the JVP/NPP’s contradictory statements. To AKD’s credit, he was calm and composed, but his defence was weak over Lalkantha’s remark to allow power for village folks to decide on law and order in the village. 

I have written about Lalkantha many months ago. He is uncontrollable. He is impulsive. If the JVP/NPP believes in giving power to the village, that’s the biggest form of power devolution. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my neighbours to decide what’s wrong and right. 

If AKD can clear out Lalkantha’s idea of power sharing with different words, he should be able to be much clearer on the 13th Amendment and power devolution at the national level. If Lalkantha’s words had come from another person, either Rasamanickam, Bathiudeen, Ganesan, or a Thondaman, would the JVP/NPP be so tolerant? If Wickremesinghe, Premadasa, or Jayaweera had mooted the idea of giving power to the village, would AKD spin his words like this? 

Presidential Election

In the meantime, President Wickremesinghe addressed Parliament to provide a forward-looking statement. Even today, many believe he will contest the next Presidential Election due before 17 October. 

Wickremesinghe continues to play cat and mouse without revealing his hand. However, he got his trusted lieutenant, an Australian, to devise his political and campaign strategy for the Presidential Election. Both have established a close relationship over the years and it will be interesting to see the pathway to the presidency once again – this time to get a public mandate. 

As the week drew to a close, the ongoing political saga of Sri Lanka continued to unfold, reflective of a broader struggle for reform and stability. The challenges are manifold and the road to resolution is fraught with obstacles. Still, the enduring spirit of the Sri Lankan people and the steadfast vigilance of its institutions suggest a ray of hope. For a nation at a crossroads, the path forward lies in embracing transparency, the rigorous enforcement of law, and an unwavering commitment to democratic principles.

The world is watching and it is incumbent upon Sri Lanka’s leaders to act cautiously, especially as they prepare for a Presidential Election. 

(The Morning)

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