By Rasika Jayakody
When President Maithripala Sirisena, former General Secretary of the SLFP, visited Paris before the Parliamentary election in 2010, the Paris Branch of his party was bitterly divided.
Both factions of the Paris Branch of the SLFP attempted to hold separate meetings with the then General Secretary of the party who was visiting France on an official matter. President Sirisena, who had been in the party for nearly three decades, did not take too long to realize that an internal power struggle was simmering in the party due to administrative flaws of the then leadership.
President Sirisena’s next visit to Paris was early last week. Although the visit was fixed months ago, the plan was altered at the last moment due to the terrorist attack France’s capital city. After the attack, the President decided to cancel his visit considering security threats. However, there were multiple requests from the French government to visit Paris and also to attend the Global Climate Change conference – an event that drew the attention of the entire world.
The President decided to visit France a few days before he left for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta. He confirmed to the French authorities that he would be visiting France after addressing the CHOGM as its outgoing Chairman. The President was also scheduled to deliver a three-minute speech at the Global Climate Change Summit, popularly known as ‘COP 21’.
President in Paris
Apart from the summit, the President also held a meeting with the Sri Lankan community in Paris on the first day of his visit. The meeting took place at the Sri Lankan Embassy and it was followed by a gala dinner at the official residence of Ambassador Thilak Ranaviraja. Only a select crowd was invited for the Ambassador’s dinner.
“How is your new Ambassador?” the President asked the members of the Sri Lankan community as he sat for the meeting at the embassy. Ranaviraja, a former Presidential advisor, assumed duties as the Ambassador in France in September, this year.
“It is still too early to say something about the Ambassador. He just started his work in Paris,” a member of the Sri Lankan community responded and the President seemed satisfied with his answer.
“I know that. But, such questions too should be asked!” the President said with his characteristic chuckle. First Lady Jayanthi Sirisena and Ambassador Ranaviraja sat alongside the President during this friendly discussion.
During the meeting, the President also shared his thoughts on the current political situation in Sri Lanka. Some Sri Lankan expatriates, who were present at the meeting, posed questions to the President about claims from some circles of ‘threats to national security’.
“I am more concerned about national security than most of the self-proclaimed patriots striving to create a fear psychosis among the public,” the President countered, pledging that he would never jeopardize national security.
“It is true that we have made some measures in the direction of accountability and reconciliation. But, that does not mean that we have betrayed the dignity of our own armed forces. I can assure that no action will be taken to harm the dignity of our war heroes,” the President assured. He also said the government would only probe into individuals who violated the law of the land.
While thanking Sri Lankan expatriates for supporting him at the last Presidential election, the President briefed them on the ongoing process of constitutional reforms – a key promise in his election manifesto early this year.
“We have embarked upon the constitutional reform process. To complete that, we will have to resort to a referendum. My government is ready to do that as well,” the President said, expressing his commitment to comprehensive constitutional and political reforms.
“We wanted to introduce broader constitutional reforms through the 19th Amendment to the constitution. But, we had to bow down to the Supreme Court decision. However, we transferred some amount of executive powers to the legislature through the 19th amendment,” he added.
“Over the past ten months,” President Sirisena said, “the government was very much focused on initiating social and political reforms. That was our main promise during the Presidential election campaign.”
“Had former President Rajapaksa won the Presidential election, the country would have faced more difficult problems. We were becoming an isolated state where international politics was concerned. We have reversed this situation now. Within two days, I met the heads of state of the UK, Australia and Canada. This has never happened before,” he said, briefing the Sri Lankan community on bilateral discussions he held on the sidelines of CHOGM.
The President also told the Sri Lankan community that he was not in a position to spend a long time in Paris due to the second reading vote on the Budget fixed for December 02. He said he wanted to rush back to Colombo before the vote.
Colombo’s political circles were overheating in the run up to the second reading vote of the Budget. Issues involving vehicle permits, fertilizer subsidy, pension schemes of government workers and taxation were causing ripples across the country.
Although the SLFP ministers backing President Sirisena supported the Budget, they had concerns about some Budget proposals affecting ministries given to the SLFP. One such instance was the Budget proposal on the fertilizer subsidy. The SLFP ministers were of the view that they were not consulted before formulating some proposals concerning their portfolios.
It was in this backdrop that the SLFP decided to propose last minute amendments to the Budget before its third reading vote. As the UNP and the SLFP have agreed to work together within the framework of a national government, the UNP will have to accept at least some of the amendments proposed by its coalition partner. At the same time, the party’s position on the Budget has created a strong division within the SLFP.
The President, addressing the Parliamentary group meeting of the party before the vote, urged his MPs to vote in favour of the Budget.
“If you can’t vote in favour of the Budget, at least refrain from voting. Don’t consider this as an order. This is only a kind request,” the President said. It was evident that the majority of MPs agreed to the President’s request.
However, some MPs, including former Minister Dulles Alahapperuma, said they could not support the budget due to multiple reasons. It was no secret that the MPs who did not support the President’s suggestions were MPs who strongly backed former President Rajapaksa.
Therefore, the outcome of the second reading vote demonstrated the true strength of the Rajapaksa factor in Parliament. While the government wielded the support of a two-thirds majority in the house, over 50 MPs voted against the Budget. Those who voted against the budget included the JVP and the UPFA ‘dissident group’ supporting Rajapaksa.
Nearly 45 MPs who are MPs of the SLFP voted against the Budget, turning down the President’s request. This number can be interpreted as the actual support base of the former President within the Parliamentary group of the UPFA. More than half of the UPFA Parliamentary group either supported the Budget or abstained from voting.
Three and a half months ago, those who voted for the UPFA at the Parliamentary election only elected candidates who openly supported the former President’s political campaign. While the UNP was short of 7 seats to form a government with an absolute majority, the UPFA had a strong Parliamentary group with 95 MPs the large majority of whom were ardent supporters of the Rajapaksas. Thus, immediately after the general election, it looked as if Rajapaksa, despite being a mere MP, would form a force to reckon with in the House.
The second reading vote on the Budget, however, showed the manner in which Rajapaksa’s political campaign had lost its steam in recent months. A sizable number of MPs had moved away from the pro-Rajapaksa camp and aligned themselves with President Sirisena accepting ministerial and deputy ministerial portfolios. Another group of MPs who were overlooked when offering ministries are now in the process of repairing their ties with the President.
Even Rajapaksa, the de facto figurehead of the UPFA dissident group who opposed the Budget, was not present in the House when the second reading vote was taken. It was a clear sign that the former President was not ready to take a strong stand against the Budget probably due to his waning Parliamentary strength.
Sources close to Rajapaksa told the Sunday Observer that the former President was unable to attend Parliament on December 02 as he had to attend two weddings. That ‘excuse’ however, raises a serious question about the former President’s official priorities. Surely, Rajapaksa has been in politics long enough to understand that the second reading vote of a budget is more important than attending weddings!
In fact, several other UPFA Parliamentarians too were invited for the same wedding which kept Rajapaksa away from the second reading vote. The wedding took place at the Cinnamon Grand, Colombo, and the bride’s father was a businessman who had strong political connections. Some UPFA MPs attended the wedding after casting their votes at the second reading vote of the budget and they met the former President at the event. It was crystal clear that Rajapaksa did not have political confidence to openly oppose the Budget.
Even some of his close associates, who were quite vociferous during the recent Parliamentary election, did not utter a word during the committee stage debate last week. Among them was former Minister and UPFA Parliamentarian Johnston Fernando. Some believed that the former Minister chose to keep mum during the debate as he was facing several court cases on charges pertaining to misappropriation of funds and abuse of power.
It was in this context that the rumour-mill in Parliament was agog with the news that four MPs of the UPFA would cross over to the UNP before the third reading vote of the budget. It was in the grapevine that some MPs, who were staunch backers of Rajapaksa during the last Parliamentary election, would be among the ‘crossover group’.
Another hot topic in the country’s political circles over the past few days was the JMO report on the death of Wasim Thajudeen, former rugby player who once led the Havelock Club.
The JMO report on Thajudeen’s death, which was presented to court last Thursday, was signed by Dr. Ajith Tennakoon, Chief Consultant Judicial Medical Officer, Colombo, and head of the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, Dr. Jean Perera, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and, Dr. S.P.A. Hewage, Additional Consultant Judicial Medical Officer.
The JMO report confirmed that the body exhumed on August 10 at the burial ground in Dehiwala was the body of Thajudeen and that it also tallied with DNA reports and other X-ray tests.
The fractures, according to the report, could only be seen in some upper and lower parts of the bones. Therefore, the report concludes, such fractures could not have happened as a result of a fatal car accident. The medical experts have opined that such damages to bones can only be caused by an assault.
The report says the bone below Thajudeen’s left knee was also broken as a result of an assault. It also referred to a blow to his head that left him unconscious during the attack.
Medical experts also state that it is impossible to believe that the injuries to his neck and chest were caused during a car accident, as the position of the steering wheel did not suggest anything of that nature. Their report said it was possible to speculate that the injuries were caused during an attack. The report also refers to a bleeding injury below his neck.
According to the findings of the CID, Thajudeen’s body was not in the front seat of the vehicle. It was recovered from the adjacent front seat of the partially burnt vehicle. It was hard to explain as to how Thajudeen, who was unconscious immediately after the ‘accident’, switched seats within a matter of a few minutes.
Ominously, the report concludes that Thajudeen was not in the vehicle when the ‘alleged’ accident took place. It says there is evidence to believe that an ‘accident scene’ was a set-up and Thajudeen’s body was put into the vehicle subsequently.
According to multiple Police sources, Thajudeen’s case has now come to a point of no return. The verdict of the magisterial inquiry into the Rugby player’s death is due on December 10 and the Magistrate, in his verdict, will ‘officially’ determine whether it is a murder. It will give the green light to the CID to proceed with the investigation and arrest the suspects in connection with the incident.
The Homicide Unit of the CID, one of the strongest units in the Police Department, played a key role in the investigation into Thajedeen’s death. Chief Inspector Geethika Bodhipakshe, who later worked with the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate and inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC), led the investigation during the initial stages.
The CID established Thajudeen’s death as a murder several months back and took measures to trace possible suspects in the case. That was how three ex officers of the President’s Security Division (PSD) came into the picture. However, the CID was not in a position to disclose the outcome of the investigations until the verdict of the magisterial inquiry.
It was in this backdrop that former President Rajapaksa sought a meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday. Many in the political circles speculated that the former President’s bid to meet the Prime Minister had something to do with the outcome of the JMO report on Thajudeen’s murder. Probably they believed that the former President was perturbed by the JMO report as his second son, Lieutenant Yoshitha Rajapaksa’s name was also linked to the case by some sections of media.
The meeting between the Prime Minister and the former President took place inside the Parliamentary complex on Friday afternoon. Both parties kept the agenda a closely guarded secret and therefore no one knew whether it had some connection with the Thajudeen investigation.
However, highly placed government sources told the Sunday Observer that both the President and the Prime Minister have already decided to make way for a free and independent inquiry into the popular rugby player’s death. “The President and the Prime Minister will never stand in the way of investigations. Culprits will certainly be arrested irrespective of their stature and family connections,” an authoritative government source told the Sunday Observer on Friday.
In fact, President Sirisena met the family members of Thajudeen soon before the Parliamentary election in August. Thajudeen’s family had fears that the rugby player’s death would be used as a vote catching device and the investigations would come to a standstill after the election. The President allayed their fears stating that he would not allow anyone to interfere with investigations after the elections.
Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake too was present at the meeting between the President and Thajudeen’s family members. Minister Karunanayake was another politician who stood by Thajudeen’s family in their time of need. For instance, soon before the exhumation of his body, a suspicious vehicle moved around the house of the Thajudeen family. The Finance Minister immediately took measures to inform the IGP of the development and lodge a Police complaint. He also assured the rugby player’s family that investigations would continue without any political pressure.
In addition, ruling party politicians such as Ajith P. Perera and Ranjan Ramanayake consistently took a strong stand with regard to Thajudeen’s death and the on-going investigations. Some of the politicians who supported Thajudeen’s family are expected to be present in Court on December 10.
Thajudeen’s case became a hot topic last Saturday during a meeting of the Sri Lanka Bar Council, a decision-making body of the Sri Lanka Bar Association. Some members of the Bar Council raised concerns that the transfer of former Colombo Additional Magistrate Nishantha Pieris would have an adverse impact on the Thajudeen’s case. They also expressed disappointment and displeasure over the transfer of former Colombo Chief Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya.
Both Pieris and Pilapitiya had earned reputation among the country’s legal fraternity as judges who did not bow down to political pressure. Nishantha Pieris was the judge hearing the Thajudeen case in the Colombo Magistrate Court.
A section of the Bar Council members discussed the possibility of sending a letter to the Judicial Services Commission against the transfers of Nishantha Pieris and Gihan Pilapitiya. However, another section was not in favour of the idea on the grounds that the JSC, headed by the Chief Justice, might interpret it as an attempt to interfere with the affairs of the judiciary.
It was common knowledge that the country’s judiciary and judicial appointments were heavily politicized during the tenure of former President Rajapaksa. The Bar Council members were of the strong belief that the recent transfers in the judicial service did not rectify ‘mistakes’ committed in the past.
They alleged that some judges who had strong links with the previous administration were given transfers within Colombo while some judges, who did not give in to political pressure under the previous government, were transferred out of Colombo. They also pointed out that most of the cases concerning top echelons of the former administration are being heard in Colombo.
Although the Bar Council meeting ended without a firm decision on Saturday, they agreed to take this matter up with the country’s political authorities.