Relations between SLFP and UN accused of blocking probes and
Three senior ministers meet Sirisena to express concern over PM being summoned by the Bond Commission Senior civil society activist attacks Government for delaying probes on major corruption
Awell-known Sinhala adage refers to the plight of those who went to seek solace at a temple but found the roof collapsing on their heads. That in essence appeared to be the dilemma of a high-powered three-member United National Party (UNP) delegation which had a meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena just last week. It was brief but had the undesired effect.
Their purpose was to convey the party’s deep disappointment that their leader and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe was being summoned before the Commission of Inquiry probing the bond scandal at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). They opined that the move would give the impression to the country and to followers of the UNP, the main partner in the coalition Government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), that their leader was being arraigned for some suspicious activity.
The delegation comprised three Cabinet Ministers -- UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, General Secretary Kabir Hashim, and Mangala Samaraweera, now a senior member. The trio told Sirisena that asking Premier Wickremesinghe to testify before the Commission also appeared a witch-hunt by the leadership and created the impression that the Government was targeting its own people. Ahead of the meeting, the Sunday Times learnt that the three ministers had discussed the issues they were to raise with their leader Wickremesinghe.
The UNP trio had pointed out that even before the coalition was formed, they had pledged together to bring to book those in the previous Rajapaksa administration for alleged bribery and corruption. Instead, they pointed out that their leader and Prime Minister had become the focal point. That, they believed, would give a wrong message to the country.
Sirisena remained non-committal over the issues raised. He had, however, pointed out that he had given the Commission of Inquiry an extension of its term until December 8. This was essentially to write its report and hand it over to him. He had learnt that the Commission was completing its task and more witnesses were being called.
Premier Wickremesinghe declared on October 15 that he was “prepared to offer clarifications” to the Commission. A statement from his office said he was willing to do this “at any time” in view of the references to him during the proceedings of the Commission. Later, he handed in a sworn affidavit to the Commission in response to questions raised. The Commission announced in a statement thereafter that it would issue notice on him to appear. It is not clear why there is now a change in the stance though understandably the UNP leaders fear the political repercussions particularly with the local polls ahead.
As for high profile cases involving former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family, Sirisena replied in Sinhala “don’t blame me.” He identified a UNP minister in the Cabinet by name and said he was responsible for passing information to members of the Rajapaksa family on matters relating to investigations. This minister had also allegedly brought pressure on the Police to slow down investigations.
This is not the first time that Sirisena made that disclosure. The first occasion was at a weekly Cabinet meeting on July 4. He pointedly accused the UNP of stalling investigations into allegations of bribery, corruption and other acts of fraud allegedly committed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family members, close associates and top officials. Sirisena declared that if he were given the Police and the Attorney General’s Department, he would have produced results within three months. Sirisena referred at this ministerial meeting to an incident on January 9, 2015, just a day after the presidential polls. When the results were declared, he said, both the Prime Minister and Malik Samarawickrema had together arranged for an Air Force helicopter for Rajapaksa and his immediate family to fly to his ancestral southern home in Medamulana. He then referred to Samarawickrema by name but did not use Wickremesinghe’s name only referring to him as Prime Minister.
Thereafter, during his two-day visit to Qatar last month, the matter surfaced again as reported in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) on October 29. The relevant reportage said: “….In the Qatari capital of Doha, President Sirisena, on a two-day visit this week, was having breakfast at the five-star Sheraton Grand. Seated with him were most members of his entourage. During an informal talk, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne noted that the situation would have been quite different if strong action was taken on investigations into high profile cases. There would have been no electoral threat. Senaratne, who himself has bribery charges against him pending, named a ministerial colleague who had allegedly been passing over details pertaining to investigations to the Rajapaksa family members. He named a member of the Rajapaksa family with whom the minister concerned was very close and had regular contacts with.
“The remarks by Senaratne in Doha prompted Sirisena to recall the occasion where he raised this issue at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers. The next morning, the minister in question and another important person (he named both during the conversation) called on him at his official residence at Paget Road and handed over “two or three” copies of files, he said.
“The files contained details of investigations and the matters reportedly pending before the Attorney General’s Department. Thereafter, he had been surprised when he received a phone call from a person holding high office in a province. He (the person holding high office) had said that a lady member of the Rajapaksa family had spoken to him about the files the President had received earlier that day. He had been asked by the lady why he was rushing to pursue action and an appeal had been made not to go ahead. Sirisena noted that the files had been given to him at the same time, the information had been passed on to the “other side” (anith peththata). He had later queried from the important person concerned how this could happen but there had been only silence. Senaratne also strongly criticised a very high ranking Police officer for his tardy role in pursuing investigations……...”
Quite clearly, the role of one UNP cabinet minister allegedly undoing the public pledges made during presidential and parliamentary elections, has pitched Sirisena against his coalition partner, the UNP. Perhaps, understandably in many respects. Most criticism is being levelled against Sirisena over this. Foremost is his loss of face within the SLFP that forced him in the recent weeks to desperately initiate peace moves to bring together the feuding factions. He feels if action was taken on the high profile investigations, this would not have been necessary. More importantly, he believes that the serious lapses allegedly caused by the influential minister in question, paved the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa and some family members to make a strong political comeback. They had now formed their own political party and were forming branches at grassroots level.
Unfulfilled promises, mounting bribery, corruption within the Government and a steep climb in living costs have all seen a marked shift in public support for Rajapaksa. This has been compounded by the Government’s gross inefficiency in maintaining adequate buffer stocks of petrol leading to a massive shortage this week. All this has not been good news for Sirisena who seems boxed in largely due to the alleged misdemeanours of just one UNP minister. And that has also been the main cause for friction between the UNP and the SLFP.
That Sirisena is still livid was clearly demonstrated when he spoke at the second anniversary commemoration of Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera at Apey Gama (Our Village) at Battaramulla. The Thera was widely regarded as a champion of good governance and helped in the coalition between the two parties. Sirisena was a little late for the event on Thursday. Unexpectedly, Premier Wickremesinghe, who had prior knowledge of what was going to be said by another speaker at the event, told Sirisena he was unable to attend. He explained reasons including the fact that the intended remarks were to embarrass him, said an SLFP minister familiar with the discussion. He courteously excused himself, the minister said adding that Sirisena took note of the position but made no comments.
As expected by Wickremesinghe, the convenor of the National Movement for Social Justice, the body founded by the late prelate, Prof. Sarath Wijesooriya did make some remarks that referred to the Premier and his ministers. Here are excerpts from what he said: “I prepared this speech in advance and was hoping to make it before an audience in which the Prime Minister was present. Though he is not in the audience, I hope to go ahead.
“Prime Minister, you are a veteran politician with more than 40 years as a Member of Parliament. You did not engage in politics based on communalism or on religious differences. We have to honour the sacrifice you made at the January 8, 2015 presidential election (by not being a candidate). You have taken a bold step towards the formation of a consensual government and to go ahead with the Constitutional reforms. Though a section of the SLFP criticises you, the support extended to President Maithripala Sirsisena is laudable. But on behalf of the people who followed Ven Sobitha Thera, there is something I need to say.
“You mentioned, prior to the 2015 change, that you will be committed to political reforms. It is true you played a key role towards that. It is sad to say that you have not been able to win the hearts of the public about political reforms. Due to actions of certain ministers of your party, there has been mistrust and fear among the public. It is an obstacle for political reforms. Do not take it lightly. It is your duty to dispel the mistrust and fear. The party’s future will depend on your actions. Your political future will depend on your actions.
“At times when you had an opportunity to be elected to govern the country the people did not give you a mandate. It may have been robbed from you. It is regrettable that you did not identify the reasons for that. You have become the Prime Minister, mainly because the law abiding citizens opposed the Rajapaksa regime. If not for the change, it should be accepted that you would not have become the Prime Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s destruction of democracy was the main reason. In short, you were made the Prime Minister because of the dedication of a section of the public. Have you understood this? It seems not.
“Ven Sobitha called for a mandate to vote for a corruption free country, to vote to create a country where people are not killed, to recover money which has been illegally acquired, for the freedom to live, to ensure justice. But what is the situation today? The persons who were accused of corruption then are now in turn making the same allegations. What fate is this? On an analysis of the January 8 revolution, this situation is bad for the government. Those who criticised the Rajapaksa Government had no right to live then. The present Government is not responsible for killing persons, but has failed to ensure justice for those murdered.
“The campaign by Ms Sandya Ekneligoda on behalf of her husband, the revelations made regarding ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen’s killing, Journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga’s killing, the Welikada prison killings, the killing of youths in Navy custody, the Avant Garde issue and the MiG27 deal are among some of the main cases which were highlighted. They disturbed the public. Most of these cases have been investigated by the CID and the FCID. For three years we have been awaiting the results. The affected parties are awaiting justice. The people are unhappy about the failure to complete investigations and take action in courts.
“Our understanding is that the Rajapaksas are