Local council polls: Where do we go from here?

Questions whether Sirisena’s election tirade against corruption will result in action or remain mere words

Unexpected turnout at yesterday’s local govt. polls

President severely rebukes Foreign Secretary for suspending military attaché in Britain with Ranil’s approval without consulting him

The nation today awaits the victor and the vanquished at the local polls which took place yesterday. As the hours tick by, that there will be surprises galore, in the first test of strength for the ruling coalition, has become clearer. One such instance is the clear emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The new party is poised to make a strong footprint in local politics with a noteworthy victory. That no doubt will impact both on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). To a lesser degree, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will be the beneficiary of the voters, who were tired of the mainstream parties and left with no choice. Thus, by tonight the new directions the country’s political firmament is headed will begin to unfold. More so with a large turn out at yesterday’s polls.

Yet, that may not be the major highlight of the local polls. Instead, it is the fait accompli already left behind by President Maithripala Sirisena in his arduous campaign trail. He has clearly defined the battle lines between the two major partners in his coalition Government – the UNP and the SLFP. From being a colourful ‘rainbow’ alliance just three years ago, the UNP, or at least some of its front liners, now stand accused by Sirisena of corruption. He is livid about it.

This is why he has been repeatedly exhorting that he is not willing to govern with “those who are corrupt.” He has been directing these barbs repeatedly during the polls campaign showcasing the findings of the Commission of Inquiry that probed the bond scandal at the Central Bank. He is not ready to work with corrupt politicians, said a news release from the Presidential Secretariat at a rally he addressed in Kaduruwela near Polonnaruwa. Asked by an interviewer on a television programme on Sunday whether he would form an SLFP Government, he replied “yes” promptly and added “heta nevei, aniddha” or not tomorrow but the day after.” He did not elaborate.

A novel feature of his campaign this time was to focus only on the Sinhala media advising his staff not to arrange interviews for their English counterparts. He declared he was focused on the Sinhala electorate and was keen his message should go to them. He said he was not worried about what the English media had to say. Of course, he has never been known to give interviews to the English media. By this he seemed to dismiss the need to win minority votes. So much was his concern for the Sinhala speaking voters, a large segment of whom once formed a bulwark of the SLFP. Now, they are divided. His message was to win over as many as possible. If coping with the UNP in the coming weeks and months is now his first challenge, earlier it was the SLFP (or SLPP) votes. This was after he failed in his unusual efforts to reunite with the Rajapaksas.

There will be another two weeks before the elected local councils are constituted. Additional Elections Commissioner M.M. Mohamed told the Sunday Times, “once the results are announced, we need to work out the women representation in each council. That will take us till Thursday. Then the secretaries of political parties and leaders of independent groups will have to submit to the Election Commission the names of those elected under the Proportional Representation system. It is only thereafter that a Gazette notification could be issued.”

Coalition cracks
Just this week, a completely unrelated incident was to highlight the sharp and heightening divisions within Sirisena’s coalition. Naturally this fuelled wide speculation of a split with the two parties going their own way. However, there were clear and strong indications that Sirisena does not want such an eventuality. He does not want to be accused as the man who wrecked the coalition. That would, he fears, place him in bad light with backers here and abroad who were stakeholders in the defeat of Rajapaksa. On the other hand, UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been reiterating at local poll meetings that his party would continue in the Government until 2020 when presidential and parliamentary elections are due. That tactical move would naturally cushion or could even ward off greater criticism against his party. Given the fast developing scenario, this appears a safe option than a confrontational approach.

Of course there are differences and they are increasing. This week, Wickremesinghe declared that the civic rights of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be withdrawn if he was found guilty of corruption. A Sirisena confidant, Minister Mahinda Amaraweera shot that down by saying in Parliament that the SLFP had no such plans. Not even when a Presidential Commission of Inquiry had recommended such a course of action. During his television interviews and public speeches, Sirisena prefaced references to Rajapaksa by calling him “Magey Mithra” or my friend. Amidst the increasingly hardening stance towards the UNP, there seems a somewhat milder softening towards the Rajapaksas. This week has seen a dialogue at a lower level between the two sides. Whether this is with an eye on results that may lead to hung local councils in some areas remains to be seen. The doors are not shut for the two SLFP factions jointly taking control.

First to the unrelated incident. It came after Britain’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris lodged a strong protest with the Foreign Ministry in Colombo over the conduct of Brigadier Priyantha Fernando, the Sri Lanka Defence Attache in the High Commission in London. A group displaying flags of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was demonstrating on February 4 outside the mission premises in Hyde Park Gardens. Videos of how these demonstrators also threw the Sri Lanka national flags on the ground and trampled them have gone viral. They lay as floor mats when they moved around. They also carried photographs of the slain leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Some even had it printed on the front side of their T-shirts. This was on the 70th anniversary of Independence. Brigadier Fernando, who was among High Commission officials present outside watching the goings on, had made gestures with his finger around his neck that mimicked throat slitting.

In his interactions with the Foreign Office in Colombo, Dauris had hinted imperially at the likelihood of Brigadier Fernando being declared persona non grata and deported to Colombo. This was if no action was taken against him, including his recall. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was being pressured by expatriate Tamil groups and British parliamentarians supporting them. Though it is seven decades since Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) received Independence from British colonial rule, some things have changed and others have not. Whitehall seemed interested in continuing to give orders to Colombo.

Britain banned the LTTE 17 long years ago calling it a “terrorist group”, along with the rest of the European Union nations in the aftermath of the assassination of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The British Government turned a Nelsonian-eye at the protestors carrying not only the flag of that banned organisation, but portraits of the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran during protests. These acts are offences under the ban. London argues it is freedom of expression. One wonders whether the same “freedom” would apply if protestors were marching the London streets with ISIS flags on long poles or whether they would end up en masse to languish in the Belmarsh prison. In 2016 British Prime Minister Theresa May told British troops “we are on your side” and “no lawyers will be able to chase British soldiers with ‘vexatious’ claims of human rights offences. She declared that “human rights could be suspended in the battlefield.” That is exactly what she did.

A clear case of what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. Since Independence, many a British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka have been men of great humanity and humility. They have acted with the full knowledge that Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation. Alas, some others seem to appear different, just unable to kick their imperial attitudes despite masking themselves as friends of the natives. Not that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London has changed its approach to former colonies or their citizens. It is more a case of some of their men feigning diplomacy to arm twist. A sad lament came from a senior minister conversant with matters of foreign policy. He declared “our bane is trade, aid and political support from them. We have to stomach a little bit of arrogant colonialism every now and then though it is not a declared policy of their Government. We are not to follow what they do but only what they tell us.”

This is by no means to say that the reported conduct of Brigadier Fernando, an officer of the Sri Lanka Army, was in any way right. For a member of a disciplined force, it brings disrepute to his organisation and gives credence to weird stories. Discipline is the bedrock of any military organisation. After engaging in a near three-decade-long war, through lessons learnt, the Army has become a respected, disciplined and professional force for militarily defeating Tiger guerrillas. The United Nations have recognised this role and given them peace keeping assignments in trouble spots around the world. More countries have opened out training opportunities.

It is a known fact that the British Government had put on hold hundreds if not thousands of asylum applications from Sri Lankans. It has declared that “things are normal now” and told asylum seekers to “go back to your country.” That position is true but such conduct could easily be misunderstood as the Army’s attitude towards civilians, particularly Tamils. However, the biggest blunder over this incident is imposing punishment on the officer without so much as an inquiry. Ironically, there are still big bureaucrats who ask “how high” if they are told to jump by a diplomat of a big power. Even in militarily most advanced countries like the United States or Israel, the complaint against a military officer over violating Rules of Engagement (ROE) or other forms of misconduct are inquired into before punishment is meted out. It goes without saying that it is one of the principles of natural justice.

The comedy of errors that followed after the Dauris protest and veiled warnings highlights this syndrome clearly. After he received the British High Commissioner’s complaint, Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam contacted the Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne. The latter, as is clear, is in charge of the Sri Lanka Army at the bureaucratic level. The Foreign Secretary is learnt to have insisted that his defence counterpart issue a suspension order on Brigadier Fernando. Defence Secretary Waidyaratne later explained to President Sirisena that he had asked for the conduct of an inquiry first but the Foreign Secretary had insisted on the suspension before that.

The Foreign Ministry also hurriedly distributed a news release. This is what it said:
“Alleged incident involving the Minister Counsellor (Defence) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London
“Authorities in Sri Lanka have taken serious note of videos being circulated on social and web-based media of an alleged incident involving the Minister Counsellor (Defence) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London behaving in an offensive manner.

“In this connection, instructions have been sent to Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London today, 6 February 2018, to suspend the Minister Counsellor (Defence) from work, with immediate effect. Authorities in Sri Lanka including the Sri Lanka Army will initiate inquiries on the incident immediately.

“Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“Colombo
“6 February 2018 “
The actions of the Foreign Ministry infuriated President Sirisena. He asked Presidential Secretary Austin Fernando for information and summoned Foreign Secretary Kariyawasam to his residence at Paget Road and questioned him why he decided to seek a suspension order on Brigadier Fernando without an inquiry. A source familiar with the dialogue revealed that Sirisena used some strong language to underscore his disapproval. When queried on whose authority he chose to issue the suspension order, President Sirisena learnt that he had obtained it from the Defence Secretary after Premier Wickremesinghe had approved the move. This angered the President further.

He noted that as Minister of Defence, the Sri Lanka Army was one of his subjects. He should first have been consulted before any action was taken. Sirisena said he was now ordering the Foreign Secretary to immediately send a directive revoking his own order and show it to him promptly thereafter. If he was unable to do so, Sirisena asserted, he should bring along with him his letter of resignation from the post of Foreign Secretary. Kariyawasam assured that he would send the revocation order immediately and copy it to the President. Then a Foreign Ministry statement declared that the suspension order on Brigadier Fernando has been withdrawn but claimed an investigation was under way. However, on Thursday, the Commander of the Army Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake told the media there would be no action against the Army officer.

That the Premier gave a directive on a matter relating to the Ministry of Defence, a subject constitutionally vested with the President, without formally informing him, was cause for serious concern for Sirisena. That he did not mince words over this with his own Foreign Secretary, as expected, brought issues to newer levels of acrimony. On Thursday, at the last rites of the Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera, though seated next to each other, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe exchanged few words.

Earlier, winding up the local election campaign in his home town of Polonnaruwa for the SLFP, Sirisena told a crowded rally that he left the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government in 2014 “because of its corruption, fraud, waste, nepotism and dictatorship.” He declared, “I am astounded when I see what is happening. Because of that, I say to you clearly that I have decided that I am not prepared to govern with the corrupt, wherever they maybe.” He added, “I will not allow room for corruption, whether it is being committed by SLFP, UNP, relatives or friends. I state clearly that I will never hesitate to impose punishment. We need to go on a good journey to build a good country. For that, let us all come together. We will have a resounding victory at this election. Don’t have any doubts about that.”

As is expected, Sirisena’s bitter criticism of the UNP over corruption issues gave rise to wild speculation that he was laying the foundation to part ways from the UNP and install a new Prime Minister. This naturally led to pollsters playing the numbers game, how much he would be able to muster either from the rival faction of the SLFP (or SLPP) and the UNP to form a new Government. However, they appear farfetched and furthest from Sirisena’s thoughts.

Instead, those familiar with Sirisena’s initiatives say that beginning the coming week, Sirisena will “assert more authority over governance and over leadership matters.” This will mean he will have more direct control over matters of policy, action into high profile cases of bribery, corruption as well as the country’s economy and finances. Together with that move, he is expected to effect a ministerial reshuffle placing some important portfolios in the hands of people whom he expects could deliver results. Herein lay the crunch. If he chooses to give portfolios now held by the UNP to those in the SLFP, that would come as a blow to the UNP. In such an event, will it meet the approval of the UNP leader who has vowed to remain in the Government till 2020? The two sides can no longer make any claims to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) they signed. It expired last year. A renewal will only come if they can agree to return to the negotiating table, a highly unlikely prospect with disagreements, some old, others new and growing. In Parliament the issue whether the cabinet can have more than 30 Ministers without an MoU between the UNP and the SLFP in a National Government remains outstanding.

In a spate of television interviews ahead of the local polls, Sirisena made no secret about why he believes some of the high profile investigations have stalled or not progressed, a charge he once levelled at a ministerial meeting. This appears to be the main cause for Sirisena being livid with the UNP. He named two Cabinet Ministers — Sagala Ratnayake (Minister of Law and Order) and Talatha Athukorale (Minister of Justice) in these interviews and said they were from the UNP. However, Minister Ratnayake then explained that papers were either at the Attorney General’s Department or the probes were incomplete. Athokorale has come into focus after the bond scam where CID detectives have already started investigations. Here again, how Sirisena wants to change UNP ministers remains unclear. If indeed he is to replace them, he would have to consult Premier Wickremesinghe and obtain his concurrence. This is more out of courtesy than a legal or constitutional requirement. At least in respect of Ratnayake, the Premier has resisted previous moves by Sirisena to shift him. Only a change of two portfolios, Mangala Samaraweera (from Foreign Affairs to Finance) and Ravi Karunanayake (vice versa) materialised. The shifting of Arjuna Ranatunga from Ports and Shipping to Petroleum seems to have been at the insistence of the UNP to facilitate the Hambantota Port project agreement going through.

A new ministerial team may also see newcomers. If the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) does perform well in the hill country areas, one such entrant is expected to be Arumugam Thondaman. He has already received escorts from the Special Task Force (STF), the commando arm of the Police, for his security and was active in the polls campaign. That is not good news for his rival parties that are backing the UNP. National Union of Workers leader Palani Digambaram is the Minister for Upcountry, New Villages, Estate Infrastructure and Community Development.

There is no fetter on the President from appointing ministers in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. In terms of Article 43 (1), The President shall, in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation to be necessary, determine the number of Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers. In the event of his choosing ministers, he could take up the position that there was no necessity for a consultation. The only rider to this is the maximum number of Cabinet Ministers permitted provided the MoU exists.

Udayanga Weeratunga saga
Sirisena’s tirade against corruption received a major jolt this week and turned the spotlight again on the Law and Order Ministry. The Police Department functions under it. This was after local Interpol officials at the Dubai International Airport detained Udayanga Weeratunga, former Sri Lanka Ambassador to Russia, who is a prime suspect in the investigations into the procurement of MiG – 27 fighter jets in 2006 – a matter that was exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times at the time. The detention was on the basis that there was an Interpol ‘Blue Notice’ issued on him. This notice is an international alert circulated by Interpol to communicate information about crimes, criminals, and threats from police in a member state to their counterparts.

An arrest, however, is normally carried out only when Interpol Headquarters in Lyons, France, issues a ‘Red Notice’. There were conflicting reports. On Thursday, Weeratunga, in a facebook post claimed he had been released since there has been “no international” charges against him. A seven-member team that went from Colombo to Dubai to take charge of him has reported to Colombo that he was still “somewhere” in Dubai. Of course, the Government conceded he has been released though a probe is underway.

The incident lays bare very serious shortcomings and raises a multitude of questions over how high profile cases have been handled. Tragic enough, after detectives have made a major breakthrough to establish that Sri Lanka never “purchased” the fighter jets in question. Thus, even the agreement binding the deal was found to be fraudulent and authored by a retired military officer living in Canada. The jets came to Sri Lanka only from a third party and how the monies, almost double the amount spelled out in the fraudulent agreement, were remitted was even more startling. The original agreement has also been unearthed with the help of foreign agencies. Ironic enough, what seems lacking in such circumstances is accountability. No one is identified or taken to task for stalling or delaying action.

Elsewhere in the Sunday Times details of the debacle in Dubai are revealed. It comes at a time when Government’s legal advisors are examining how they could legally seek means for former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran to return to Sri Lanka from Singapore and assist in the bond scam investigations. The Fort Magistrate’s Court has already directed that he should make a statement to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) before February 15.

Another case which has drawn the attention of Government leaders at the highest levels is a complaint to the Commission to Investigations Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC) by Janaka Ranawaka, a former SLFP Mayor of the Kotte Municipal Council. He has alleged that the The Urban Development Authority (UDA), without approval has, on a 99-year lease granted 10.3321 hectares of land to Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema. This was under deed No; 680 dated August 15, 1994.

Under the ownership gained through this deed, he has alleged that a company known as Speviln (Pvt) Ltd of which Samarawickrema was a director had operated from this land and he enjoys the privilege of using 36 perches of UDA land located adjoining the above land. The land is located adjoining the Welikada Police located in the Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte MC area and the government has estimated that the value is five million rupees and thereby the total value is Rs 180 million. Therefore, the land is being used without any payment to the UDA or the Government. The UDA, despite being challenged, has failed to provide any legal document about handing over the 36 perch land to Samarawickrema, he claimed.

Minister Samarawickrm strongly denied the accusations. He told the Sunday Times, “I have nothing to do with that property any longer. If he (Janaka Ranawaka) is of the view that there had been financial malpractices, why did he fail to take action when he was the Mayor of Sri Jayawardenepura? Why did he wait all these years? There is no truth in these allegations levelled against me. I have made a comprehensive statement in Parliament.” However, CIABOC will investigate the complaint, a source said.

Three years after becoming President, Sirisena has switched his anti-corruption drive into high gear. This is whilst his previous pledge (during the presidential election campaign) to bring to book those involved in high profile cases remains in suspense. Now he is embarking on a second vigorous course. He will have to ensure there is accountability when efforts are stymied by other powerful forces. Otherwise what he does will continue to be undone. He is maintaining silence on other promises he made, main among them the promise to abolish the Executive Presidency. He could leave behind a galactic gap between what he says and does confining the words “bribery” and “corruption” only to the dictionary.