President, UNP discuss crisis at late night meeting: Sirisena vows no one can topple Government

Public outburst on CIABOC has chilling effect on judiciary, police and international community

Civic action groups question credibility of Government’s anti-corruption drive, JVP also condemns Sirisena’s remarks

By Our Political Editor

For the first time in his 21-month tenure as President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena fired strong salvos at his own United National Front (UNF) Government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

He warned he would take action if the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Bribery Commission were working on a “political agenda.”

He said he was displeased and even disgusted at the manner in which former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and three former Commanders of the Navy were hauled up before the courts recently.

Sirisena, however, when on Thursday night. He met Premier Wickremesinghe and a group of UNP ministers and a deputy who went to see him to seek clarification on his public remarks. Sirisena said his speech had been reported “out of context” by the media. The UNP delegation trooped into the President’s Paget Road residence around 9 p.m. after the President and Premier had together attended a religious ceremony at the ancient Walukaramaya temple in Kollupitiya. The UNP-President meeting ended at 1 a.m. the next day. During the discussion, Sirisena insisted that he had not called for either Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the three former Commanders of the Navy be absolved of charges. He said the investigations against them should continue though the meeting saw some tense moments of raised voices. Sirisena insisted that during the concluding stages of his speech at the SLFI, he had in fact asserted that no one would be able to change the present Government. He had only taken exception to the manner in which CIABOC had conducted investigations involving two former ministers and probes in general by the CID and the FCID. As Minister of Defence he had not been kept informed, was his complaint, he said.

The President and the Prime Minister seen at the Walukarama Temple on Thursday night. Soon after that they had a late night meeting to settle the dispute over the President’s outburst on Wednesday.

 

The self-inflicted crisis for Sirisena really began last Tuesday evening. In addition to the weekly meeting of ministers that morning, he had summoned another session with a select group of ministers at the Presidential Secretariat in the evening. It was to discuss a wide range of subjects including constitutional reforms, the upcoming budget, local elections, dealing with demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), alleged war crimes by troops, ongoing investigations into bribery and corruption, the proposed referendum and related issues. Representing the SLFP were ministers Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Mahinda Amaraweera, Nimal Siripala de Silva, S.B. Dissanayake and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.

Led by Premier Wickremesinghe, the UNP was represented by Mangala Samaraweera, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Navin Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa. Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who had just returned from the annual joint sessions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington D.C. joined in later. He had arrived in Colombo barely two hours earlier. Representing the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) was Patali Champika Ranawaka. Parliamentarian Jayampathy Wickremeratne who is spearheading the constitutional reform process for the UNP was also present.

Sirisena noted that they would have to make decisions on a number of key issues. One was keeping to IMF demands to maintain the expenditure and revenue gap within 4.7 per cent of the GDP. Local Government elections would have to be held in addition to Provincial polls in the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Measures to be taken with regard to the November 10 budget appear in a front page story in today’s issue. On Constitutional refroms, Wickremeratne told the ministers there were six different committees that had formulated reports. He said these reports could be placed together in a compendium. However, the move met with opposition from some SLFP ministers on the grounds that it would create the impression that the document was coming from the Government.
On the subject of a probe into alleged war crimes by troops and Tiger guerrillas, the result of the US resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Sirisena made reference to new developments in Britain. He noted that Prime Minister Theresa May had told her senior commanders to stop British soldiers from falling victim to “abuse and legal system” by lawyers representing Iraqis who allege they were victims of war crimes during the occupation of their country.

An account in the British Guardian newspaper explained that “it comes amid mounting criticism of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat), which was set up to investigate allegations of murder, abuse and torture by British forces. Former soldiers have claimed they have been hounded through courts on unfounded claims and there are growing calls for the Ihat to be shut down…..A Downing Street statement said ‘The Prime Minister spoke of her pride in the UK armed forces, and praised the work they do to keep our nation safe. She said that every effort must be made to prevent any abuse of the legal system, and restated her determination to protect the armed forces against any instances of vexatious complaints.”

Sirisena drew a parallel from the developments in Britain. He declared that the United Nations should adopt a single standard and not apply different ones for different countries. If there was an insistence on probes into alleged war crimes, he pointed out, he would write to all world leaders expressing the need for a unified approach and adopt the same principle. He suggested he would also follow Premier May’s example. A source at the meeting said Sirisena then turned to Foreign Minister Samaraweera and asked him to take cognisance of what he was saying. He said that the victory of the security forces, police and the resultant peace in Sri Lanka cannot be disturbed. The remarks are another strong indication that Sirisena is distancing himself further away from moves to initiate a UN backed war crimes inquiry in Sri Lanka no matter whether they are with local or foreign judges.

Then Sirisena touched on the issue of ongoing investigations into bribery, corruption and other misdeeds during the previous regime. Referring to the CIABOC’s charges against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the three former Commanders of the Navy, he opined that it was a weak case and might not succeed. He noted that criminal charges should have been preferred instead. He said the manner in which the former Defence Secretary and the three former Commanders of the Navy were hauled to courts was deplorable. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, one-time legal adviser to Avant Garde, the company responsible for the floating armoury, for which the former Defence Secretary and the retired service chiefs were charged, was to intervene at this stage to say the Navy chiefs should not be produced in courts. He claimed that they were merely “employees” — meaning those who served the state. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said some Opposition members were boasting that the photographs of the suspects inside the cell were worth more than Rs. 500 million for them but had been delivered free.

Most of Sirisena’s criticism was centred on the CIABOC. He said former SLFP Minister A.H.M. Fowzie was facing charges of misusing or abusing state vehicles. However, an official circular, in this instance, had allowed the use of such vehicles by ministers, he argued. Former SLFP Civil Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratne, Sirisena said, was being charged with providing a job to his daughter. “Who would not find employment for one’s own daughter,” he asked. Sirisena lamented that neither the CIABOC nor the CID or the FCID kept him informed when arrests were made – a charge which sources in the two agencies insist is not a requirement and point out that it would have only invited pressure on them not to proceed with some cases. As for the CIABOC, it is an autonomous body and is not legally bound to keep any political leader informed.

Having spoken in anger at the special meeting of selected ministers on Tuesday, Sirisena went public with his remarks the next day. The relevant parts of his speech in Sinhala appear on http:www.sundaytimes.lk. Here is an English translation:

“Last year we had summoned the service commanders for an investigation. I cannot recall the particular incident. At that time I expressed my displeasure over their being summoned. They were responsible for ending the war. Two weeks back the former Defence Secretary and three former Commanders of the Navy were brought to courts. I wish to express my total displeasure and disgust over the incident.

“There were objectives in setting up independent commissions in this country. There was a policy in setting up of the Commissions. Those in the Independent Commissions should be aware of the scope of their subject. Those who do not have an idea about national security, military administration, military management or those who do not have the capability of thinking about them, come out from some corner and act in a wrong manner. As the President of the country and the Minister of Defence I wish to express my displeasure and disgust over hauling the former Commanders of the Navy to courts.

“If there is an investigation regarding an issue between the Defence Ministry and the Avant Garde there is a procedure to be followed. There are steps to be taken. Under the Constitution, as the Executive of the country, it is the duty of the heads of the Commissions to inform the President who is the Defence Minister. Somebody can argue that the Independent Commissions are not required to do so. But each of the Commissions has members appointed by the Constitutional Council. Under the Constitution there is a Secretary and a Director General of the Commission. The Secretary is appointed by the President. Like the appointment of the Commission members are done by the Constitutional Council appointed by Parliament, under the Constitution, the President has the powers to appoint the Secretary and the Director General as special consideration needs to be given in the management of the state taking into consideration special situations.

“There are persons trying to gain political advantage from the incident of the Bribery Commission taking the former Commanders of the Navy to courts. The former President too has spoken.

“I wish to openly state I did not become the President of the country to give telephone calls to courts. I will not do anything to weaken the military. I will not allow the military to be weakened.

“There are certain cases pending in courts where military persons have been arrested. There is one case where some military intelligence persons have been custody for the past ten months. I have advised the persons in charge of these. They initially told me it will be one week, then one month, thereafter three months, now it has been 16 months. Therefore if there is some fault, file action. If they cannot be charged, they should be released. If not continue the case, after granting bail. Releasing persons, filing cases, granting bail are civilized actions. Those are basic fundamental rights, they are human rights. Those are qualities of freedom.

“In the past I have not spoken in public regarding actions taken from various corners. But I have been forced to talk regarding them in public. I will have to initiate action as well openly. I had a special discussion with the Prime Minister and the government members. I made it very clear. I will have to take action if the CID, FCID or the Bribery Commission is working according to a political agenda. I made it very clear. Therefore these institutions cannot work according to a political agenda. Justice should be equal to all. Fundamental rights and human rights should be equal to all. If a person is held in remand custody he should have the fundamental and human rights.”

Sirisena’s public remarks on Wednesday not only took the country by surprise, but reverberated in all corners of the world. Most Colombo-based diplomats reported Sirisena’s remarks to their home governments. Some were then talking of their perception that his assertions may be a marked shift in his policies. This was based on the premise that, after prolonged political isolation, he was making amends and embarking on efforts to re-unite the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Some bounced off their thoughts with the media. This was the talking point in Colombo’s social clubs where imagination had no bounds. The most adventurous among them spoke of a split in the Government and its imminent fall and the chances of a Mahinda Rajapaksa comeback.

Social networks representing Tamil interests branded Sirisena as an extremist. Websites that were staunch supporters of Sirisena turned against him. One such website ran a vulgar headline to declare that those responsible for the January 8, 2015 victory for Yahapalanaya (good governance) have been betrayed. National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa declared that what the Opposition has been saying all this while – that the ‘so called investigations into bribery and corruption’ were on a political agenda – has now been confirmed by Sirisena’s statement. Weerawansa said it was now up to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to respond. There were also local media editorials that welcomed Sirisena’s statement in the “country’s interest” and heaped praise on him for speaking on behalf of former service commanders.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has supported the Government’s anti-corruption drive, said it condemned Sirisena’s statement. Its position was spelt out in a statement which said the remarks could discourage officers involved in probes. The JVP charged that it also challenges the mandate Sirisena received from voters in January 2015. The investigators themselves said that it was up to the Government to decide for itself what it wants to do with the anti-corruption drive.

A distraction to the drama came from Nimal Bopage, Attorney at Law who is Secretary to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media. He sent out a two-page ‘directive’ to all media saying that reporting on “the commotion” would “have far reaching implications even relating to the future of the country.” “Therefore”, he said, “I would like to bring to your attention some factors so that you can display your maturity and discipline to the maximum level in dealing with the media.” Highlights of his unprecedented and unsolicited advice to the media, appear in a box story on this page for the amusement of our readers.

On Thursday afternoon, Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake met Police top brass for their weekly conference. He urged senior DIGs Ravi Samaraweera (CID) and Ravi Waidyalankara (FCID) not to be deterred and to continue their investigations. The issues arising from recent political developments, he assured, would be resolved.

Even as Ratnayake was assuring the Police, arrangements were under way for a meeting between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. When they met on Thursday night at the Walukaramaya temple, where the annual perehera was held along the Galle Road — the temple was close to the Wickremesinghe residence — it was Wickremesinghe who broke the silence and raised the issue by referring to Sirisena’s speech. Probably anticipating the question, the President said he had been “misquoted” by the media.

Thereafter, the President and the PM adjourned to Sirisena’s official residence. Joining Wickremesinghe were ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema, Kabir Hashim, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Sagala Ratnayake. Also present was Ravi Samaraweera, State Minister of Labour and Trade Union Relations.

At this meeting, Sirisena struck to his original position he spoke of on Tuesday, reiterating that an “injustice” has been done to former ministers Fowzie and Jayaratne. He was even more critical of the CIABOC that night. He said many had not read his speech in the proper context. It had in fact been reported by sections of the media out of context. He asked a Minister present whether he had read his entire speech. When he replied he had not, Sirisena said he had in fact ended it with the remarks that he would not allow anyone to topple this Government. “Why isn’t anyone reporting about this,” he asked. He insisted that the comments he made were no reflection on the Prime Minister. He said he was very careful.

Two UNP Ministers were outspoken and raised a string of questions. Yet, Sirisena was emphatic about the remarks he had made on the CIABOC. Though its Director General Dilrukshi Wickremesinghe was tipped to send in her resignation, a UNP source said it would not materialise. Moves are afoot to persuade her not to quit and thus embarrass Sirisena, particularly when the issues involved have been resolved. Sources close to Sirisena, however, said he had not changed his stance vis-à-vis CIABOC. The Commission’s Chairman Justice T.B. Weerasuriya is also expected to step down.

Sirisena told Wickremesinghe and his UNP group that he would ensure the ongoing inquiries were expedited and those responsible brought to book. The same sources said there were, however, still more issues to be resolved. That had included matters related to the Police. At midnight on Thursday, as talks at Paget Road continued, Police in the Western Province were on full alert. Leave of all Police officers had been cancelled ostensibly in an exercise to combat drugs. The matter figured at Thursday’s four-hour discussion.

Other than political parties, the civil society groups who were at the forefront in their campaign to bring Sirisena to power were perturbed. They held a news conference but turned down a request by Sirisena to meet him on Friday. They said they would meet him on another date in view of the news conference. Here are comments made by the key members of these groups:

Gamini Viyangoda, Convenor Puravesi Balaya: “We are being questioned about what the President said. Even Wimal Weerawansa has questioned us about our position. The people who listened or read the speech are of the opinion that the President has taken the same line of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Some of those remarks should have not been made as the President of the country. He said he condemns with disgust the hauling up of three former Commanders of the Navy before court. How can the President be unhappy about the former Defence Secretary and the three commanders being hauled up before court for action taken? The former Commanders were serving in a private company. This too for a salary after their retirement. Does the President mean the four should not be taken before court if there was wrong doing?

“We have spoken of the Independent Commissions with enthusiasm. But the President in his speech complained that he was not informed. If the President expects that he should be informed in advance, that is contrary to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. As civil society we will continue our efforts to keep the Government on track to ensure it sticks to the mandate it received from the people at the last elections”.
Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, Convenor National Movement for Social Justice: “One of the pledges made during elections was to deal with those involved in corruption. In a book published it has been mentioned that a Minister soon after the Presidential election met the President and sought an assurance that the Rajapaksa family should be protected. Some of the events taking place show that this is taking place now. Another Minister has pledged that the Rajapaksa family would be protected until he was there. There were certain incidents including the murder of ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen, the disappearance of journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda, murder of parliamentarian Raviraj and incidents mentioned on public stages during the election campaign. The investigations carried out by the officers were extraordinary. In some of these cases, the files were buried, but have been unearthed. Some 95 per cent of the investigations have been completed now. A particular intelligence officer is not allowing the conclusion of the investigations.

“The President speaks in pain that some of the officers are in remand with investigations pending. But the President can expedite the investigations. However, this officer is blocking the way. The President also has been pained by an investigation about the misuse of a vehicle by former Minister A.H.M Fowzie. This is an investigation about a vehicle donated by Denmark with special equipment with a tsunami warning system. What is wrong in carrying out such investigation? We also wish to tell the Prime Minister not to protect persons who have been responsible for corruption. We wish to tell the President and the Prime Minister to work together”.

The dust has not quite settled over the remarks made by President Sirisena this week. At least for the moment though, both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have decided to continue their alliance. As a senior UNPer said “at no stage was the alliance in any danger.”

Yet, there is no gainsaying that Sirisena’s public assertions have had a chilling effect on the judiciary, the Police investigation arms, the public and even the international community. The best way to have handled the issue was to have a closed door meeting of those concerned in his Government – as he did on the Tuesday. How he corrects the major dent to his own credibility, with little or nothing being said on his behalf except the remarks from an official from a ministry that overlooks the media.

Today, neither the President nor the Prime Minister is in the country as the country reflects on what happened to the Government of National Unity this week.

‘Advice to the media’On Friday, Nimal Bopage, Secretary to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, issued some unsolicited advice to the media stressing the “importance for all media institutions to show their maturity.”He notes in his statement that; “if there is some agreement within two parties and one side fails to fulfil obligation by avoiding doing things in terms of the agreement, in such situation there can be various actions and reactions and the media should go and look at the hidden truth in such situation and ensure there is a just and fair use of the media.”However, he does not say what the agreement is and which party had failed to fulfil its obligation.
Here are highlights of his unprecedented and clearly unprofessional ‘directive’;“Any issue is placed before the public through the media. A journalist will grasp its implications, positive or negative on the country and the people and will decide his or her stance on the issue. In the absence of such a weighing of news, even if there is no fire, a whole country can be set ablaze. As at present as there is such a foreboding, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Media I would like to bring certain factors to your attention, so that all of in the media sector would not be party to any future sinful happenings.

“There has been some commotion created after the media reported the observations made by the President at an internal meeting in relation to some matter that comes under his purview as Defence Minister. Notice has been given that there are several press conferences to be conducted… First I would like to draw your attention to the need to report on this matter in a way that no harm is done to the image of either the President or the Prime Minister.

“As such matter can have far reaching implications even relating to the future of the country, I would like to bring to your attention some factors so that you can display your maturity and discipline to the maximum level in dealing with the media. I hope you will take into consideration following matters.

“I wish to quote the scientific theory that ‘every action has a reaction’. Hence in order not to have a reaction, one can avoid certain actions while what is seen from the outside is always not the reality.

“The recent media reports that have centered around the President’s observation are a reaction to his action, What must be done is not to jump to conclusions but to carefully examine what preceded the action and its aftermath and have a meaningful discussions on it. Otherwise the end result could be a dangerous situation.

“In the second instance if there is some agreement within two parties and one side fails to fulfil its obligation by advoiding doing things in terms of the agreement, in such situation there can be various actions and reactions and the media should go and look for the hidden truth in such situation and ensure there is a just and fair use of the media.

“Thirdly it is important to avoid situations that can arise due to narrow interpretations. By using the few words used by the President out of context, it is indeed unfortunate that much is being read into his words. In the past one and half years, both in the country as well as internationally, the President’s vision has consolidated but by indulging in narrow interpretations by the media, there can be a serious danger to the country‘s future.,,,,”

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