By R Hariharan –
People who overwhelmingly voted the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe alliance to power expecting it to fulfill their promise of yahapalana (good governance) have been shocked by President Sirisena’s strident comments questioning the integrity of the agencies carrying out investigations into cases of corruption, bribery, criminal and financial misconduct.
The President speaking at a function at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute warned that he would take action against Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) for working to political agendas at the cost of justice. The President seems to have been irked at the agencies giving cause to the opposition to accuse him of political witch hunt; obviously, this referred to the large number of corruption and criminal investigations now going against politicians and armed forces officers. According to the Island newspaper, the President also said that hauling up the former naval chiefs and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa before the court in connection with the arms storage company Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS) case.
He accused those in charge of investigations of misleading him. Referring to the indefinite custody of members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) held in connection with the disappearance of cartoonist Ekneligoda and the killing of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, the President said the courts should be moved to get them released or given bail pending court proceedings. It is significant that soon after the President’s tirade, the court released on bail Udalagam
a, an army intelligence officer accused of assassinating Lasantha Wickrematunge.
President Sirisena’s reference to cases connected with armed forces was perhaps made to reaffirm his support to the armed forces which have been perturbed ever since Sri Lanka agreed to conduct a judicial probe into alleged war crimes committed during the Eelam war. The issue war crimes issue would again come up at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2017.
In a stinging attack on “certain media organizations, journalists and NGOs” and “traitorous forces,” President Sirisena reaffirmed his confidence in armed forces “no matter how much they criticize, oppose or attack me, I will never lose confidence in the armed forces and will always be committed to do the utmost for the welfare, honour and dignity of the three armed forces and our heroic soldiers.” He added that “he was not ready to compromise national security in order to please NGOs.”
The President said though the government had successfully promoted reconciliation between the communities to create an environment that strengthens inter-communal harmony during the last one and half years, certain groups and organizations ideologically in favour of separatism have not been destroyed. And they were waiting for an opportunity to create trouble for Sri Lanka and people must be on guard.
Reacting strongly to President Sirisena’s stinging criticism, the CIABOC Director General Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe tendered her resignation. In an interview, she denied the Commission was politicized. She said there were 90 politicians under investigation and none of the case files have been closed as alleged by some politicians. She added that she did not select any investigation or interfered with the investigations.
President Sirisena’s statement was in direct contradiction of his own stand in the past on corruption and financial misappropriation; other leaders of the ruling alliance including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been plugging the line of corruption free governance. The civil society and anti-Rajapaksa leaders have already been peeved at the slow progress in bringing to book scam-tainted leaders who thrived during the previous regime. They see the President’s strident statement as an effort to cover up his cronies in SLFP involved in scams. This could also test durability of the cohabitation rule of the SLFP and the UNP unity government. Serious doubts have been raised about the government sincerity in cleaning up governance where corruption has become part of life, in keeping with what seems to be South Asian tradition.
Going on a damage control mode, the cabinet spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said President Sirisena never raised objections to Gotabaya Rajapaksa or former military chiefs being questioned on fraud or corruption. He accused the media of misreporting it and asked them to correct it. He further said the President was not happy at some of the serious allegations of corruptions being ignored.
Perhaps as yet another damage control measure, the government tabled the report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) report on the alleged scam in the Central Bank Treasury Bond issue in February 2015 to fulfill a long standing political and civil society demand. PM Wickremesinghe had been accused of shielding the former Central Bank governor Arjuna Mahendran’s, considered the PM’s protégé, suspected of involvement in the scam. The investigation report ruled that Arjuna Mahendran was “directly responsible for the transaction” which allowed a company linked to his son-in-law to rake in large profits from the auction. The PM has assured further action would be taken on the advice of the Attorney General.
In another shocking incident, the President’s claim of good governance and successfully promoting ethnic reconciliation to strengthens inter-communal harmony has come under serious threat after the police shot and killed two Jaffna youth undergraduates riding a motorcycle in Kokkuvil (Jaffna peninsula). According to the police, they opened fire when the youth did not obey their order to stop. The incident triggered protests not only in Northern Province, but in the whole nation which has been living with police excesses for long. University students all over the island protested in solidarity with Jaffna university students who went on a strike, indicating the issue was beyond the ethnic divide. Though the five policemen involved in the incident were remanded to custody, the crude police attempts initially to cover up the criminal act indicated that police reforms are still a work in progress. PM Wickremesinghe has promised an impartial inquiry would be carried out. Unless the government swiftly takes follow up action the incident could provide yet another opportunity for separatist elements to build up their support among Tamils.
President Sirisena as a shrewd politician had probably made his statement with a lot of deliberation to reinforce his constituency within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and to retain the support of some of the political leaders targeted in various investigations. He also appears to be on the move to rebuild his fractured relations with the army, which had been under stress for some time. In a bid to put at rest speculations about the survival of the cohabitation government, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe reiterated its importance to complete the reforms process as agreed upon by the leaders.
In any case, the SLFP and UNP – the two major cohabitation partners – have internal as well as external compulsions to maintain their cohabitation. Any crack could provide an opening for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a political comeback. Unity would also help Sri Lanka’s cause to face the international community with confidence at the UNHRC. It could also enable the European Union to favourably consider Sri Lanka’s request now under consideration for restoration of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) scheme for duty waiver to Sri Lankan exports. The EU had cancelled the GSP+ concession to Sri Lanka for aberrations in governance during the Rajapaksa regime.
Written on October 31, 2016
*Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: http://col.hariharan.info