Who’s Rattling Whom?

For the past five months plus several days the people of Sri Lanka have lived in a political abyss of despair. The 100-day government has delivered some price cut, achieved a very watered down version of the 19th Amendment, got itself embroiled in an epic battle of wits over “Bond gate” the infamous 30-year treasury bond and is struggling with the 20th Amendment to the constitution. The electoral reforms envisaged therein have led to acrimonious mini battles between the minority parties and the somewhat bigger mainstream parties. The people appear to be at sea whilst legislators too struggle to find a rational explanation to sell the idea to the people of Sri Lanka. One lot are in agreement with the 20th Amendment in principle but do not wish to have the immediately forthcoming parliamentary poll under the amended system.

112

The people of course will be at a loss to comprehend just why it is that there is an all mighty hue and cry about passing the 20th Amendment and enacting it into law when they – in almost the same breadth – do not wish to have the next election under the ‘new’ system.

The outspoken and vociferous Rajitha Senaratne finally gave some clarity on Mahinda Rajapaksa. He communicated to the press that the former president would not receive the prime ministerial candidacy, he would not receive a place on the national list, he would not receive nominations or anything else. Senaratne explained, “He has been a MP, Leader of the Opposition, Minister, Prime Minister and even President” what else is there?

These and other sentiment given by President Sirisena and others has led to a tightening of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resolve to offer himself to the electoral process and contest the next parliamentary poll under a different symbol and party. The former president will need to be mindful that in so doing and ending up as a member of the parliament, he stands to lose out on the extensive security detail he commands by virtue of having been the Executive President. If he is a MP he will receive the two police constables being provided for all MP’s. He will stand to lose out on the benefits he accrues as a former President. Privately the former strongman is livid at what he calls ‘that woman’s pettiness” remarking on what he perceives as former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s handiwork in not giving him a proper house to live in. He of course has forgotten the treatment that he meted out to CBK when he was in power. She was taken to Court that ruled against her and thereafter the matter was quietly laid aside which meant that she lived there within the ambiance of ‘a little more’ and lots of uncertainty.

Politically with the UNP looking to persuade President Sirisena to dissolve parliament and the SLFP members seeking to secure their vote base and party unity, the UNP may well have their work cut out. However the SLFP membership are intensifying their efforts to ensure that Sirisena places party loyalty first and does not play ball with Ranil. The best planned plans do not usually plan out quite the way it was envisaged – but harsh political realities have played a key role.

In this context there is a school of thought that the no confidence motion against Ranil Wickremesinghe be debated and that the Prime Minister will then be ‘squeezed out’. In this analysis Sirisena will invite his long time friend Karu Jayasuriya to bring some members from the UNP and help form a national government. Many analysts feel that this is a highly unlikely version of events before we examine how very close Maithripala and Karu are. Another analyst noted that “Sirisena has the benefit of having been largely mediocre under the Rajapaksas. Therefore he now plays all his cards very close to his chest. So it is impossible even for those closest to him to know what is going on in his grey matter”

This past week saw the return to Sri Lanka of the Singaporean born, Thailand based, millionaire businessman, Joe Sim. Mr Sim had arrived in Sri Lanka not to look into the opening of casinos but instead to meet some old friends with whom he had extensive dealings in the past. In the late ‘80’s Joe Sim was a pioneer gaming operator and by the time he was 24, he owned his own casino. At one stage he operated four casinos in Colombo and a string of restaurants. A change in government policy in 1991 meant that Mr Sim exited Colombo minus his casinos and other businesses. Although he privately estimates these losses to have been very significant at the time, he has learned from the mistakes and made his fortune all over again, based out of Thailand. Our intelligence reports that Mr Sim was in Sri Lanka to pursue opportunities in low cost housing and mixed developments.

The investigation surrounding the former Defence Secretary is on-going with the Defence Secretary now having challenged the existence of the FCID in the Supreme Court. In the meantime he has been assured his freedom in order that he can fully prepare himself.

Close examination of all the facts surrounding the purchase of the Mig fighter aircraft reveals that the fundamental problem was that the Ukraine government’s constitutional inability to provide an enhanced credit period to finance purchases of the aircraft by Sri Lanka. Instead the Ukraine government has in place a process by which the extended credit is placed with a financier. This process then makes the agreement in essence a Tri party one -the manufacturer, the financier and the Government.

What is not widely known is that in the short government of Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2003, then Defence Minister Thilak Marapona too received offers from the same company in Ukraine. For the same aircraft. At the same terms.

However the prices differ – the ‘Marapona quote’ was to acquire the aircraft on an ‘as is’ basis. The aircraft however would have needed a complete overhaul. At further cost. The total price on the Marapona offer in comparison to the offer received by Defence Secretary Rajapaksa was more expensive than the price paid by the Rajapaksa government. The Marapona offer came via an agency based in Singapore called DSA. The Rajapaksa offer was conducted directly with the Ukraine offices.

The government’s decision to reintroduce the granting of dual citizenship to those of Sri Lanka descent and origin has served to highlight what appears to be a deliberate attempt at creating a two-tier system of citizenship. This obviously runs counter to the stated aim of peace and reconciliation and equality for all irrespective of caste creed and religion. The conundrum or anomaly is thus: on the one hand we have a government who proclaims the all inclusiveness of the just and pluralistic society they seek for Sri Lanka, on the other hand the same government have through the 19th Amendment to the constitution barred dual citizenship holders from seeking political office.

Whether this was just a poorly thought out and badly timed piece of legislation not properly looked at but merely hastened on its way forward or whether it was a draconian piece of law designed to keep the likes of Gotabhaya and Basil Rajapaksa out of the political arena is anyone’s guess. It of course is not necessarily the end of the road for either Gotabhaya or Basil Rajapaksa: should they wish to make an entry into local politics the renunciation of their American citizenship is a straightforward task marked for its simplicity. Loss of citizenship does not necessarily mean loss of permanent residency or as the US would say Green Card status.

President Sirisena appears to be in no hurry to dissolve parliament having previously stated that he will do so after the matter of the 20th Amendment is attended to. However, President Sirisena is insistent that the next election be held under the provisions of the 20th and not the older system. His rationale is quite simplistic: the people he says (privately) gave him the mandate. That was for a comprehensive change. He intends to achieve that as he is focused on ensuring he keeps his word. Promises are for keeping he appears to be saying and that he is not in the business of misleading his flock.

The vexed question of whether Mahinda will return appears to be on most people’s minds. A senior member of the Rajapaksa extended family told us that ‘not even Mahinda knows what he will do’. He is being encouraged by those around him to come forward. The family are wondering and wondering whether this encouragement for Mahinda to come forward is genuinely in the interests of Mahinda or whether the encouragement is merely to ensure that the supporters have a chance of re-election and therefore to keep for themselves a modicum of power.

 

Caveat Emptor

In most developed countries rules governing donations made to politicians are part of their electoral process. In Sri Lanka although there is a basic requirement in place that requires all candidates to provide an account of their election campaign, the requirement has been ‘quietly dropped’. In essence however the people of Sri Lanka have evolved from promises of rice from the skies to real amendments in the form of the 19th amendment to the constitution.

It would pay for our people to realise that in the pre-January 9th election period, the western powers like the United States, United Kingdom of Great Britain, Norway, India, Australia and Canada never permitted anything remotely undemocratic happening in Sri Lanka to go by unnoticed and without commentary.

In the post January 9th period however, various undemocratic moves by the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena combine has been met with a somewhat macabre silence. The silence is so glaringly obvious that it borders disbelief.

It is always a good idea to start at the beginning. It is almost always a good barometer of what the future holds. In the appointment of one Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister the Sirisena presidency got off to a rather questionable start. To begin with, there was a prime minister in place. He refused to resign and he wanted the President to remove him from office by giving him his marching orders. We were treated to a rare show: where the president from the same party was forced to sack his fellow party man from the post and appoint a man from the opposition as the prime minister. Next followed the removal of Mohan Peiris as the Chief Justice. The island watched befuddled as Shirani Bandaranyake was brought in for a few hours as Chief Justice. She promptly retired from her position and a new Chief Justice was then installed.

If that was insufficient to awaken the conscience of the western powers – those bastions of democracy – consider that the new government caused the Police Department to create a new unit to deal with specialist financial crimes, the now infamous FCID. The powers and laws and procedures available permit the Inspector General of Police to setup such specialist divisions. The people of Sri Lanka are blessed to have a written constitution and nowhere in that does it permit the Prime Minister (or anyone else for that matter) to usurp the peoples’ rights. With a classic line that all complaints made to the FCID must go via a prime ministerial sub-committee, the peoples’ ire – if not that of those who are targets of investigation by the FCID – has been raised. The matter has been taken to court and no doubt the people of this nation will await that order with some anticipation.

The appointment of Sarath Fonseka as a ceremonial Field Marshall is fraught with difficulties and a potential problem appears not to have been addressed. Whilst the only official document is the gazette announcing the appointment, Field Marshall Fonseka’s own document lays claim to comparison of that position as equivalent to cabinet rank and that he is considered to be a serving officer. If that is so the Military Act will apply and the former Commander will be precluded from engaging in politics. He of course is engaging in politics – sending mixed signals to others serving in the forces. His request to address the troops in the Ambepussa camp created a particular difficulty. Was he addressing the troops as a politician or as a serving military officer? These matters amongst others require clarity.

The new government criticised the halting of dual citizenship and with some fanfare restarted the process. On the other hand the new government has stopped those with dual citizens from engaging in politics by precluding their entry to parliament. Again mixed signals leading to the feeling that dual citizens do not enjoy full rights. Was this a mere device to stop some individuals from seeking parliamentary office or was it a half-baked process, ill thought out and hurriedly implemented?

The people of Sri Lanka must now realise that in matters of politics it is caveat emptor: let the voter watch out, especially because there is no warranty on how good a service they will receive.