Sirisena torn between his promise of 19A and SLFP’s 20A

President gets tough with Rajapaksa faction to maintain control of the party amid reports of conspiracy to oust him — Dissolution of Parliament and next general election likely to be further delayed because of dispute over constitutional and electoral reforms — Four days before the 100-day deadline, probes drag on against those involved in plunder of national resources

The ruling coalition will cross a milestone on Wednesday when it ends 100 days in office with some promises and pledges remaining unfulfilled and triggering an erosion of its support base in such short a time. Nowhere is it reflected more than in the solemn pledge to deal with bribery, corruption and misrule. Though such a pledge was not in the 100-Day Programme of Work where a promise was made to even pass laws “swiftly to put a stop to ill-treatment of animals,” the issues nevertheless formed the main plank of the ruling coalition’s presidential election campaign. Speaker after speaker at TV talk shows turned up with bulky files to speak of politicians who were drug and liquor barons. Others shouted hoarsely from political platforms about bribery and corruption in practically all spheres — road construction, tourism projects, transport sector, state procurements and social welfare programmes, to name a few.

They spoke of how parliamentarians imported ethanol. It was mentioned in Parliament that there were four lawmakers who were involved. As the Avurudu ended this week, there is little doubt that hundreds of thousands would have consumed spirits laced with ethanol and cheaper than the local brew: Arrack. Needless to say, the local liquor industry had a windfall. Adding to that was a new record. The UNP-dominated Government imposed excise taxes on liquor and beer manufacturers leading to a price rise. The result, a premium brand of 18-year-old Arrack which was earlier priced at just over Rs 3,000 had shot up to Rs. 5,000 for a 700 ml bottle. It was the equivalent of US$ 39, a dollar less than the duty free price of a litre bottle of Black Label Scotch whisky. The local market price of a 750 ml bottle of Red Label whisky is only Rs 5,285. Even lesser priced popular brands of Arrack had gone up in price. Thus, the tax increases have helped the ethanol mudalalis to make a killing. The burden on the country’s health sector would grow when those affected by poor quality liquor seek treatment in the months and years to come. Despite all this, not one case has been brought to Court if indeed there were such abuses by ethanol importers as claimed. Similarly with narcotics where the syndicates operating in Sri Lanka had their tentacles spread to even the office of the former Prime Minister. By default, these criminal elements get a clean bill certificate by the Government’s inaction.

Just last week the Sunday Times (political commentary) revealed how members of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family and some of his ministers had abused assets of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). BBC’s Sinhala service Sandeshaya broadcast contents of the report quoting our newspaper with remarks from former Minister Wimal Weerawansa that funds for those trips should be paid by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). He was cheekier later when he made remarks to local television channels. He told the TNL network that the fares for the SLAF flights should be paid by President Sirisena, the leader of the SLFP and General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. He has been campaigning for ‘their’ party. However, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake told the Sunday Times, “We will call upon the passengers who used the SLAF aircraft and helicopters to pay for the trips. We will also investigate how only selected persons were allowed this facility.” His remarks came before he left for Washington DC for meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Karunanayake said his Ministry would institute legal action against persons who did not pay up.

One could count on the fingers of one hand the indictments before courts in the past 96 days. Former Monitoring MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena has been charged by the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) for non declaration of assets. Duminda Silva MP has been charged by Police with the alleged murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, a former parliamentarian, trade unionist and presidential advisor. Two others indicted by the CIABOC are former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and one time Deputy Minister Sarana Gunawardena. Other cases are of a different nature, like for example Kalutara District UNP parliamentarian Palitha Thevarapperuma. He is charged with assaulting a local councillor. The other is Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP) for allegedly forging a document. The wife of Wimal Weerawansa was nabbed for obtaining a passport by giving false information. In real terms, the coalition has only ended up charging three persons linked to the former Rajapaksa regime for bribery or corruption. This is in marked contrast to the vast volume of high pitched propaganda before and after the presidential election. Making it worse are claims by high ranking Police sources who insist some cases involving former VIPs had been conclusively investigated and prima facie cases established.

While Government leaders have declared publicly that it was essential that the law should take its course, privately they have also been talking of other reasons. One of them who is high ranking sought the assistance of the head of a powerful diplomatic mission in Colombo to train local investigators. This was on the grounds that financial and other related crimes were of a complex nature and required expert technical skills not only to investigate but also to ensure the successful conclusion of cases in courts. In fact assistance from that country to train Police officers from Sri Lanka was mooted. However, senior Police officials in Colombo did not share the view. They declared that with the proper guidance of prosecutors it was possible to investigate some of the complex cases before them. One such instance these officers point out is the VAT scam which they described as Asia’s biggest scandal. CID detectives who investigated successfully prosecuted some of those involved. “The buck passing will go on. If we wait till officers’ return after training, it would be years before cases could be investigated. By that time some witnesses and even the evidence may not be available,” said one of them. He added “Some cases are politically sensitive and others are ones that require a Governmental nod for further probing. That is holding us up,” he added. The troika running the country — President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga — had discussed this issue many a time. However, a firm decision seems to have not emerged.

BUP(EW)_City-DM-8-2(1)Other than these, the Government is also confronted with two important issues. One is the three-member committee of lawyers that probed allegations against Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran for alleged ‘insider trading’ and helping his son-in-law Arjun Aloysius. The focus is on a Central Bank Bond issue for one billion rupees at 9 per cent interest. It had thereafter been increased to Rs 10 billion at 12.5 per cent interest rate. Rs. 5 billion had been given from this to Perpetual Treasuries, a firm which the Governor’s son-in-law Arjun Aloysius owned. Mr, Aloysius resigned from the company amidst the controversy. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe appointed three lawyers — Gamini Pitipana (Chairman), Mahesh Kalugampitiya and Chandimal Mendis — to conduct a probe. He assured that their report would be tabled in Parliament. Now, the Committee, whose expertise to handle the task came under severe criticism from the financial sector, along with the fact that they were all ruling UNP lawyers, has handed in its report. Its findings, the Sunday Times learnt, is not all very good news for the UNP. Word was out that the committee had found a prima facie case for further investigation for which they had no mandate. It comes as a major blow to the credibility of the Government speaking of good governance on the one side. However, Government leaders remained tight-lipped and declined to comment. How soon the findings will be in the public domain remains a question although the report was due in Parliament before Avurudu. Why the Government was delaying in making the report public added to the speculation that the Central Bank Governor Mahendran was in trouble after he had been questioned by the Bribery and Corruption Commission on Thursday and immediately thereafter his Singaporean passport was impounded on the orders of the Commission.

The other issue is the Colombo Port City Project, which is easily the largest venture in Sri Lanka’s history, bigger than even the Mahaweli programme, costing Rs. 8.45 billion (US$ 263 million at the exchange rates that prevailed then). It has been initiated by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to reclaim land next to the Colombo Port to expand the City of Colombo for what the Ministry of Investment Promotion then said was “to meet the growing demand for land.” An extent of 88 hectares (over 217 acres) of reclaimed land was to be given to China on a 99 year lease.

The Port City Development Project, which is an unsolicited proposal made to the previous Government, entailed the reclamation of 233 hectares (575.756 acres) of sea overlooking the Galle Face Green at a cost of US$ 1,337 million (or over Rs. 177 billion). Of the land to be reclaimed, 170 hectares have been classified as saleable land and the remaining extent for waterfront roads and parks for public use. The project was begun by China Harbour Engineering Company (the holding company of China Communication Construction Company). Though work was formally suspended on March 6 after a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, the CHEC has been carrying out an expensive media campaign to win back the project and resume operations.

It is no secret that the Colombo Port City Project raised concerns for the Indian Government. It was triggered by the presence of Chinese submarines and warships at the Chinese built International Container Terminal (ICT) of the Colombo Port. It adjoins the site of the port city. The granting of land also to China, the Government in New Delhi contended, threatened India’s security interests.

This was while a Technical Review Committee appointed by the Government said in its final report that the proposed development area — 233 hectares (or over 575 acres) — has expanded by more than 200 per cent in land reclamation. This includes 150 per cent in total footprint (which covers a canal, lagoon and offshore breakwater areas) from 325 hectares (over 803 acres) to 485 hectares (over 1980 acres). The excessive expansion which extends beyond the shadows of the Colombo South Port breakwater, has been interpreted as ‘geometrical enlargement of the original plan,’ the Committee has noted and added that it has been unjustifiably concluded that ‘hence no serious environmental impacts’ from this large development project. While affecting the Beira Lake, the Committee has also said that the reclamation of Galle Face Green for improved public beach amenities and construction of a beach strip up to Kollupitiya “has apparently been deleted from the project scope in the expanded layout.” The Committee feels that a full project feasibility study including technical, financial, socio-economic viability be undertaken. This final report awaits presentation in Parliament.

The Committee comprised Ajita de Costa (Chairman) and included Prof. Ruchira Gunaratne, Dr.N.P. Wijyananda, Dr. Anil Premaratne, Channa Fernando – Engineer, Sunela Jayawewardene, A.S. Obeysekera, Shaheed Barrie, Bimba Thilakarathne, President’s Counsel, and H.N.R. Perera, Engineer. Earlier Prof. Samantha Hettiaratchchi resigned on grounds of conflict of interest.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared by the developer, the Technical Review Committee has noted, contained a number of discrepancies. Noting that no sensible EIA report can be prepared without a feasibility study and a detailed construction methodology, the Committee has faulted the Coastal Resources Management Department for granting conditional approval. This Department has not said that the EIA does not address impacts during construction or operation phases, is not accompanied by a land use plan nor identified a ‘project impact zone,’ an essential prerequisite. In addition social and community consultation that should have been carried out in a project of this magnitude that could affect the livelihood of many strata of the city community and suburbs had been grossly inadequate, the Committee has pointed out.

The Technical Review Committee has reached six different conclusions. Among them, it has said, that there appear to be many lapses in the supporting documents to the EIA done by the University of Moratuwa on behalf of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the project company. Among them is the potential blockade of the Beira Lake outfall. It has also held that the project developer/project company has used various project footprints for regulatory approvals.

In its concluding remarks the Committee has noted that there was an unprecedented urgency in acquiring regulatory clearances and approvals to start the project. This, it has noted, is evident from the “inspection of correspondence made by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) with various agencies, and deliberations made by some agencies” to the Committee itself. It has added that an “ad hoc approach has been adopted in the implementation of the project, perhaps due to the political blessings at the highest levels.”

Though the Committee says “the project could still be streamlined and an appropriate scale of development could be identified,” it has raised two questions:

(1) Whether this is the opportune time to initiate the Port City development, considering the wider perspective of the Colombo Megapolis Development (in accordance with Regional Structure Plan 2030 of the Western Province Megapolis).
(2) Whether the current scale of massive development is the most appropriate scale of development.

Thus a final decision on the Colombo Port City Development Project now rests in the hands of the Cabinet of Ministers and President Sirisena. In deciding on the matter, they would also have to factor in the findings of the Cabinet Sub Committee that studied the political and national security aspects. Whether such a decision would be made before the upcoming parliamentary election seems unlikely. This is particularly in the light of a number of priority issues to which President Sirisena would have to focus on.

There was a minor distraction last Sunday night (April 12). Sirisena, who was in Polonnaruwa had to be hurriedly airlifted to Colombo by the Sri Lanka Air Force. This was when he fell sick after attending the Asgiriya Mahanayake’s funeral in Kandy earlier in the day. He was admitted to the Army Hospital at Narahenpita for medical checks and left there on Avurudu day when it was declared that he was well enough to attend some scheduled Avurudu festivities in his hometown of Polonnaruwa. He was in Polonnaruwa on Wednesday (April 15) for the oil anointing ceremony for Avurudu.

Earlier this week, Sirisena asserted himself as the party (SLFP) leader by removing five MPs from the Central Committee. They were T.B. Ekanayake, Bandula Gunawardena, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Salinda Dissanayake and S.M. Chandrasena. At least ostensibly the reason was their attendance of a public rally in Ratnapura in support of a call to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime Ministerial candidate. However, a source familiar with Sirisena’s action said the President had received ‘credible’ reports of a meeting at the residence of a onetime VIP in a Colombo suburb where a ‘conspiracy’ to oust him (the President) from the party leadership had been discussed. The move drew appeals from those affected. “Kalabala wenna epa. Mama Salakala balannam or don’t be upset. I will consider your appeals,” he replied. At least one replacement to the Central Committee has been formally confirmed. That is Minister Arjuna Ranatunga who is now SLFP organiser for Attanagalla. Though three other names have been mentioned, there has been no formal confirmation so far. They are Nandimitra Ekanayake, Hirunika Premachandra and Prasanga Solanga Arachchi.

The sacking of the five CC members had its sequel within days. Most SLFP parliamentarians were conspicuous by their absence for New Year festivities at the Rajapaksa residence in south Sri Lanka. In the past nine years, simultaneous live telecasts were aired by television networks from his residence at Tangalla giving a minute by minute commentary on the rituals the first family went through. Visitors had bowed before Rajapaksa to wish him for Avurudu. Cabinet ministers, the then Chief Justice, armed forces chiefs and all other VIPs were there to mark their presence and be seen on TV. This time however, Rajapaksa found there were no VIP visitors. There were only groups of his supporters including only two UPFA parliamentarians visiting him. They were Wimal Weerawansa and Johnston Fernando.

Rajapaksa loyalists in the UPFA were miffed by the “no show.” They soon canvassed a UPFA group. They paid a visit to him on Thursday. Those who joinedwere forty one (41) in total of whom were 35 parliamentarians from the SLFP and six others from the UPFA coalition. They were Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Gamini Lokuge, Kumara Welgama, Dullas Allahapperuma, Bandula Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena, G.L. Peiris, T.B. Ekanayake, S.M.Chandrasena, Keheliya Rambikwella, Namal Rajapaksa, Sunny Rohana Kodituwakku, Sriyanai Wijewickrama, Jayantha Katagoda, Nishantha Muttugittigama, Sajin Vaas Gunawardene, Mohan P. de Silva, Shanuka Vidanagamage, Arundika Fernando, Sarath Weerasekera, Johnston Fernando, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Salinda Dissanayake, Sarath Kumara Gunaratne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Ranjith Soysa, Chamika Buddhadasa, S.C.Muthukumarana, Weerakumara Dissanayake, Janaka Wakkumbura, V.K. Indika, Roshan Ranasinghe, Manusha Nanayakkara, Uditha Lokubandara, Geetanjan Gunawardena, Lohan Ratwatte, Y.G. Pathmasiri, Chamika Buddhadasa, and Lakshman Wasantha Perera.

These parliamentarians include three from the National List. Sirisena loyalists say the number includes those who were under investigation for corruption allegations and others who would not receive nominations to contest the next parliamentary elections. Whether the pro-Sirisena SLFPers together with MPs of the United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could ensure the passage of 19A is now a matter of conjecture. The Government needs 150 votes or the two-thirds of votes of the 225-member House to pass the 19A. In addition, a bigger obstacle with many ramifications lies ahead.

This is the move by the SLFP to incorporate provisions for electoral reforms through constitutional amendments ahead of a parliamentary election — a position which President Sirisena has now agreed to. Earlier, he concurred with Premier Wickremesinghe, the UNP national leader, to make provision for the establishment of an Electoral Reforms Commission. The parliamentary elections were to be held under the existing system and the Government elected thereafter was to get the electoral reforms in place within two months. This highlights Sirisena’s indecisiveness on the issue for fears he would lose control of the SLFP.

As the reforms sought by the SLFP are still under formulation, the SLFP has agreed to now debate the 19A on April 20 and 21. There were proposals before President Sirisena to take a vote in the later weeks together with the 20A. This is because the electoral reforms are to now follow thereafter in the form of a 20th Amendment. A provision is to be made in the 19A Bill that it would become effective on the date on which the 20A too would come into effect. This clearly means that President Sirisena’s plans to dissolve Parliament in early May and go for polls in late June will be delayed by a few weeks or more. Late this week the draft 20A bill was printed by the Government Printer containing a convoluted new electoral system marrying the present proportional representation (PR) system with the old first-past-the-post system in a new Parliament of 260 members (see news item on page 1) and presented to party leaders.

This is notwithstanding the discontent of the UNP which is seeking an early election and had set a deadline of April 23 earlier. It will not materialise on that date even if both the 19A and the 20A are passed by Parliament. It would take time for the Speaker to place his assent on the amendments passed. Despite political sabre rattling, the UNP would have little choice but to fall in line. Yet the question remains – for how long?

In consultation with the Commissioner of Elections and technical support from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the SLFP is now formulating an electoral reform package. The task has fallen on a four-member Committee headed by the Leader of the Opposition Nimal Siripala de Silva. The Commissioner has proposed what is being described as a “simple delimitation process” which would not be time consuming. He has noted that out of the 160 electorates, there were five to six where the voter strength was less than 50,000. This was particularly in the Northern Province. Similarly, there were electorates where the voter strength was over 150,000. These were mostly in the Western Province. The merger of “under strength” electorates and “break up” of larger electorates were now being studied. Some such electorates are also to be turned into multi-member constituencies. That is to form the highlight of the proposals for 260 seats.

Experts from the University of Sri Jayawardenapura are assisting the parties by collecting statistical data and other inputs. “The reforms will not be to the disadvantage of any political party. At the end it will reflect the same kind of representation by political parties currently in Parliament,” said a member associated with the reform process. However, the member added “a lot is going to depend on how the UNP and the SLFP will agree on these reforms. If an accord can be reached early, time would be saved. Otherwise there is bound to be delays,” added the source.

As revealed in these columns last week, the four-member SLFP Committee formulating the reforms met Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya last week. Besides Opposition Leader de Silva, the other members are Mahinda Samarasinghe, Dilan Perera and G.L. Peiris. They were told by Deshapriya that the reforms he suggested could be given effect in two months. That would mean two months from the date the 20A becomes law. Since it is being presented separately, the question of whether the 20A Bill would have to be gazetted and time allowed for the public to challenge its provisions in the Supreme Court arises. It is only thereafter that the SC will rule on the constitutionality of the latest amendment. Assuming that the process takes the whole of May, the time the Department of Elections wants to give effect to the delimitation would push the deadline for parliamentary elections to August. The only way out would be a fast tracked delimitation process and that seems highly unlikely.

Though still within a deadline of sorts, the move is causing some unease at the highest levels of the UNP-dominated coalition. An unlikely delay in the polls spilling over to September or beyond may cause difficulties on the external relations front. According to western diplomatic sources, the United States, which sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolution on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, agreed to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s appeal for more time to table the inquiry team’s report on Sri Lanka on the grounds that parliamentary elections were due. This was after Mahinda Rajapaksa has been defeated at the presidential elections. With the conclusion of the upcoming elections, he had declared, that the Government planned to name a “credible” domestic investigation to probe alleged war crimes during the concluding stages of the separatist war in May 2009.

The report of the inquiry team led by Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Silvia Cartwright, a former Governor-General and High Court judge of New Zealand, and Asma Jahangir, former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was due to be presented at the March sessions. However, as a result of Samaraweera’s request, it was put off for September. An official announcement to this effect was made by UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein who declared there would be no more extensions.

Thus, parliamentary elections — and a new Government that comes to power would have as one of its first tasks the appointment of a “credible” domestic inquiry. The matter gains even more significance in the light of the early visit to Sri Lanka by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. The visit will possibly come off before the parliamentary elections. It is only the appointment of the local inquiry mechanism which diplomatic sources believe would mitigate the fallout from a strong and damning report against Sri Lanka for alleged violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. A delay in the time table could turn out to be too costly.

President Sirisena is torn between the 19A which he promised at the polls and a hurried 20A thrust on him by the SLFP. It is in this backdrop he is fighting to wrest total control of the SLFP. He has to ensure that his party is in harmonious accord on the electoral reforms with the UNP. Smaller parties are also watching these amendments like hawks, and how they would impact on them electorally. Disagreements will only delay the process and keep pushing both dissolution and parliamentary elections back. Ahead of that, Sirisena has fired his first salvo against Rajapaksa by removing five members from the Central Committee. The message is clear. He has, though at a woefully slower pace, got working to keep away Mahinda Rajapaksa. His words “Api Bahinawa” (we will get down to work) to the National Executive Council (NEC) seems to have begun. If that was only a curtain raiser, what follows, if anything does, remains to be seen. Yet, it has raised concerns about stability and the direction he and the Government are headed just 100 days after people voted Sirisena to power and enabled Wickremesinghe to be Premier. There is a great deal at stake for them beneath the seemingly calm political atmosphere.