By Laksiri Fernando –
It is becoming extremely difficult to trust politicians whether it is Ravi Karunanayake, Tilak Marapana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe (WR) or Rajitha Senaratne. The latter is stuck to SAITM, while others have exposed various other abusive business links. Many other dubious characters from the SLFP side are at present lying low as they don’t hold much of the reins of the present government. Among all the issues, the present key one is undoubtedly about WR.
There is no question that the way the discussions were held at the UNP meeting against WR cannot be condoned. In addition to the aggressive manner that he was cornered and questioned, he was not probably given a fair chance to express his views. The Deputy Minister Ajith Perera should take the main blame for this hostile behaviour as reported in many newspapers. If he is incapable of controlling his temper he himself should leave politics. He has demonstrated this character many times in open TV forums before. What is at issue here is internal democracy of political parties without coercion.
However, in view of the no-confidence resolution unanimously passed at the UNP Working Committee and its parliamentary group, there is no justification for the Minister WR to remain in the Cabinet any longer. He is in the Cabinet only as a member of the UNP in the national unity government. If the party does not have confidence in him, more so is the country or the people. Only some members in the Joint Opposition would like to keep him there to create trouble to the government. On many of the current issues in the country, his views have become very close to or supportive of the ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
WJ has been a controversial minister for some time now. His major business implication was related to the Avant Garde affair, along with Tilak Marapana, who was the law and order minister of that time. Marapana resigned but WJ didn’t, although Marapana is now appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Although WJ denied any connection to Avant Garde chairman, Nissanka Senadhipathi, there were many reports confirming his close relationship with the person and possibly the company.
WJ earned some popularity and liking being the Chairman of the parliamentary watchdog COPE. However, even that time there were some criticisms that he was rather soft peddling on some issues while pursing others. Nevertheless, his resignation from the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in 2006 and his support for Shirani Bandaranayake against the impeachment in 2012 earned him a reputation as a rebel politician. During that time, he was also serving as the President of the Sri Lanka Bar Association. In that capacity, he was instrumental in mobilizing the public opinion, among other civil society organizations, which culminated finally in the dramatic political change in 2015 that is popularly named as ‘yahapalanaya’ both truly and sarcastically.
As a Minister
After he was appointed as the Minister of Justice and Buddhist Affairs, he became controversial as he advocated the reimplementation of capital punishment as a deterrent against increasing crime in the country. While occasionally the President himself had expressed similar views, WR’s views were more vociferous and consistent in insisting the implementation. On this and many other matters, his views were quite conservative and detrimental to the internationally accepted norms on human rights and justice issues.
He was vociferously clamouring against crime, but not against corruption. Similarly, he was soft peddling on torture. It is true that the issues of torture, administered particularly by the police, came directly under the Minister for Law and Order. However, as the Minister of Justice, the cases against torture could have been expedited under his supervision or advice, and not interference. This is a matter that he has expressed a strange ‘hands-off’ attitude which effectively makes him redundant as the Minister of Justice.
WJ has recently revealed that he is still a practicing lawyer apart from his duties as a minister. This is a matter which is not acceptable for good governance. Apart from conflicting priorities and time constraints, there can be serious conflict of interest. A minister should be full time, and not part time or pastime.
It is possible that he has done a good service as the Minister for Buddha Sasana. That could be one reason why many monks are behind him even on the present controversy. This is apart from the most political Asgiriya prelates. WR has had a habit of making most of his controversial pronouncements before the Mahanayakes. It is because of these close links that one could suspect that even the recent Sangha reaction against a New Constitution is something that he has instigated.
It is a well-known fact that corruption investigations against the persons in the last government are unnecessarily delayed. A similar situation exists in respect of major crime investigations such as Lasantha Wickrematunge assassination or Thajudeen killing. It is difficult to say who was intentionally delaying these investigations and there can be many reasons for the delays. Obviously, the Attorney General’s Department is overwhelmed by many complicated cases and prosecutions in addition to the High Courts. The Department also can be under resourced.
There have been accusations that the present government is also not very keen in pursuing these cases for various reasons. There are ministers who were members of the last government who could be directly or indirectly complicit in some of these corruption cases or abuses. There are accusations even against the Prime Minister, according to reports, who do not like to completely discredit the Rajapaksas both for personal and political reasons. He would, it is alleged, like to keep the rift between the SLFP alive for his own political benefit by the next elections.
But from a citizen’s point of view, WR’s utterances and role as the Minister of Justice on corruption matters have been quite dubious. There was no reason otherwise for him to repeatedly say that ‘the President, the Prime Minister or him as the Minister of Justice cannot ‘interfere’ with the independence of the Judiciary or the Attorney General’s Department.’ No one has been asking him or the government to interfere with the judiciary. That is completely out of the question.
However, he is the Minister who is supposed to oversee the AG’s Department. If there were new laws required, he should have been the person who should have initiated them. In Australia, the title Attorney General itself for the Minister. In both Australia and Sri Lanka, AG is the chief legal officer to the government. As the website of the Department (in Sri Lanka) explains, “The Attorney General is the Chief Legal Advisor to the Government.…He conducts prosecutions in criminal cases and appears on behalf of the Government.”
Of course, under Section 111C (1) and (2) of the Constitution, interference with the judiciary is an offense. Independence of the judiciary is also guaranteed by Section 107. However, AG’s Department is not the judiciary. Even there is no special place given in the Constitution for the Attorney General, like for the Auditor General. This is said without any prejudice to the present AG or his Department. What the country wanted was a reasonably speedy procedure for the corruption cases and it was up to the Minister of Justice to look into the matter.
There were constructive ways that this could have been done, or still could be done. The Attorney General’s Department is structured with several divisions and units. Some of the divisions are on civil, criminal, supreme court, state attorney’s etc. Similarly, there are units on public petitions and child protection. What the Minister could have ‘persuaded’ the Department (if he was so concerned about interference!) was to open a division or at least a unit for corruption cases and expedited the matters. He has not done so. Instead he has been politicking on the subject quite detrimental to the public expectations.
Hambantota Issue and WR’s Future
It is possible that the stand that WR took on the Hambantota port issue, after an agreement was signed between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the Chinese company, approved by the Cabinet, was completely a ‘goodbye’ to the government. On this matter, he came very close to the Joint Opposition and the other Rajapaksas.
There is no question that the Hambantota port has been a controversial issue not only under the present government but during the past government as well. It was obvious that when the port was constructed, its main rationale was placed within the ‘one belt one road’ project of China. There is nothing principally wrong in Sri Lanka linking up its development efforts with both China and India. The concern however should be not to undermine the country’s interests to the interests of foreign countries or companies. Mutual benefit or a ‘win-win’ situation should be the objective. Foreign investments or projects should be in a moderate fashion and to the benefit of the country and the people. If someone is arguing that Sri Lanka should develop itself without any outside assistance, investments, aid or trade, that is quite primitive to say the least.
I have not seen WR expressing his views when the deal was being discussed in the country quite openly. The mistake on the part of the promoters was both conceptual and factual. When it was said that it is a ‘debt-equity swap,’ it was conceptually wrong. Based on that mistaken premise, when over 50 percent shares were given to the Chinese company for 99 years, it was practically disadvantageous. However, these are matters that there should be some bipartisan policies as much as possible.
As the agreement is now signed, what the country should try to achieve is the best possible outcomes through the present deal pragmatically. It could be hoped that the newly appointed National Economic Council could look into this and similar other matters. Therefore, in that context even WR’s opposition to the Hambantota deal cannot be considered genuine or beneficial to the country. To oppose or sabotage the Hambantota project would be against the interests of the country and the people.
WR has openly stated that he knows many of the ministers in the present government indulging in corruption. Therefore, he is duty bound to expose them for the benefit of the country and good governance. If he has left or rebelled against the government on that basis, he could have come out of the government as a people’s hero or as a progressive. However, his record has been to undermine the corruption investigations and not to promote them. Therefore, he remains extremely an unreliable political character.
As his party, the UNP, has resolved no confidence in him, as an appointee of the UNP in the national unity Cabinet, he should gracefully resign. He has no other (birth) right to remain in his ministerial position. Otherwise, he would be making a mockery of democracy. Only if he is stubbornly refusing to do so, the President would be compelled to remove him.