Lasantha and friction in ruling camp

The investigation into the Lasantha Wickramatunga assassination has taken many twists and turns, some of them bizarre like yesterday’s suicide of a retired Sergeant Major of the Military in Investigation Unit who has taken the blame for the killing and asked that his friend now in custody, also a member of military intelligence, be released. Ordinary people still do not know for sure whether Wickramatunga was shot dead, bludgeoned or stabbed with pointed instruments. News reports at various times have reported these to have been the cause of death. Hopefully, the ongoing forensic investigations following the recent exhumation of the body will at least accurately establish the cause of death. Given that Wickrematunga was killed as far back as Jan. 8, 2009, there were many who had (and have) doubts that evidence hard enough to secure a conviction may not be findable. Nevertheless, there has been a much more serious effort to gather what evidence is possible following the regime change.

 

Wickrematunga’s brother Lal, now serving as a Sri Lankan consul in Australia, has freely gone on record alleging that the former president had told him not once but several times that a named senior military officer was responsible for the killing. Whether Lal Wickrematunga had asked the president if this was the case why necessary action had not been taken, we do not know. Nor do we know what response if any there was to this question. As far as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is concerned, General Sarath Fonseka was once “the best army commander in the world.” That changed after Fonseka chose to run against him for the presidency. It must be said in fairness to Rajapaksa that arresting a senior commander over Wickrematunga’s assassination at the closing stage of the war when victory was in sight would have shattered military morale and was not an option that could have been considered. But the fact that the more serious and committed investigation following the change of government appears to have unearthed useful material is obvious. Perhaps the bloodhounds are now within reach of establishing who the actual killers were. But is there a serious effort to establish who unleashed them to do the dirty, to our minds more important than who did the job, been launched?

 

The week that has passed saw President Maithripala Sirisena launching a strong attack on several law enforcement agencies of the government saying that they seem to be acting according to somebody’s political agenda. He was clearly angered by former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and three former navy commanders being hauled before the courts on Avant Garde connected matters and “humiliated”. Sirisena’s widely publicized speech at an event in Colombo sparked inevitable speculation that the honeymoon between him and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP has ended. Analysts and observers wondered whether Sirisena was moving towards taking over the law and order ministry responsible for the agencies he fired at, currently held by Wickremesinghe loyalist Sagala Ratnayake, either under his own wing or under a minister of his SLFP faction. There were reports that retired Justice T.B. Weerasuriya, Chairman of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC) is likely to resign and so also its Director General Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe.

 

But the signs yesterday were that a fence-mending exercise between the president and prime minister were afoot and that there will be no boat rocking until both return from overseas visits later this week. There had been a meeting between the president and prime minister, who was accompanied by the law and order minister, on Thursday and some of the heat resulting from the president’s remarks appeared to have dissipated. The chances are that some kind of committee in which both the president and prime minister will participate with representation both from the SLFP (Sirisena faction) and the UNP will be set up to avoid a repetition of past history. We cannot forget what happened when President Chandrika Kumaratunga took over some key UNP ministries in 2004 toppling the then Ranil Wickremesinghe government. Obviously both sides are well aware that differences at the top bodes neither of them any good and the obvious beneficiary will be the former president and his joint opposition.

 

While several forces that backed Sirisena’s bid for the presidency have been vocally critical about his attack on state agencies probing corruption, nobody can deny the public perception that such investigations that Rajapaksa and his backers have labeled “witch hunts” have not focused on misdoings of the current administration. The so-called bond scam stands out from among these with no anti-corruption agencies investigating these. The president certainly earned brownie points by holding out against re-appointing Mr. Arjuna Mahendran as Governor of the Central Bank. The appointment of Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy to this important position was widely welcomed across the political spectrum. With information coming out of the staggering profits earned by companies owned by Mahendran’s son-in-law hitting the public domain, the demand that these matters are meticulously investigated is gathering steam. The prime minister made no secret of his backing for Mahendran, taking him along to Singapore on an official visit soon after the whole business blew up. Whatever the truth or otherwise of the allegation that continue to be widely bruited, they must be properly investigated perhaps by a Commission of Inquiry as has been suggested.

 

There are only weeks to go before the budget for next year is presented. Government’s revenue needs are huge and additional taxes, some of them unpopular like the VAT proposals, are inevitable. Obviously the government is dragging its feet on holding the long overdue local government elections. The only reason that can be adduced for this is that at least some of its constituents do not relish their prospects. Within such a scenario, political chess games such as engineering defections to secure a parliamentary majority would be unwise. Not even the former president will claim that his administration was lily white. It is imperative that the big rogues are exposed but gathering the necessary evidence unlike proving smaller cases (like misuse of vehicles or non-declaration of assets) is not an easy task. Winning even relatively small cases in the courts than trying to first set off a bang by landing a big fish down the road will not be the most sensible course of action. There is no argument that the president must be kept in the loop on these matters. So also wrongdoers must not be protected, whoever they are. Let us also not antagonize and lose people doing difficult jobs by attributing motives to them. Both president and prime minister must know best that good people are hard to find for the jobs that must be done.