(Excerpted From Column By “Sunday Times” Political Editor)
When the brief but sombre private swearing-in ceremony ended last Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena made sure those from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) proceeded to an upper floor at the Presidential Secretariat. There, a worried looking Sirisena said he bestowed the much-talked-of Law and Order portfolio on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Premier, he said, would hold the position only for a short period.
This is whilst military strongman and Minister Sarath Fonseka, who was away in Indonesia, was widely touted to hold the position. Upon his return, he anxiously began looking for staff for the new ministry. When he met Wickremesinghe on Tuesday, the Premier, who was backing his appointment, explained that top level Police officers were opposed to his appointment.
An angry Fonseka was to accuse some of them, DIGs, as smugglers and drug peddlers who should be in jail.
The next day (Wednesday), Fonseka met the President to discuss his appointment. Sirisena made clear it was not possible to appoint him. Once again, Fonseka was angry. Outside the President’s residence at Paget Road, he told those present that he was seeking the post not for himself but to do a service to the country. He had wanted to clean up the Police Department and deal with those who were corrupt.
The Fonseka saga is not over. Wickremesinghe has so far written five letters to Sirisena. He is to now tell the President that his United National Party (UNP) and “the public at large” want Fonseka in that job. This is whilst politicians of different hues and organisations are speaking out in Fonseka’s support.
During meetings with Sirisena after the reshuffle, accompanied by UNP General Secretary Minister Kabir Hashim, the Premier raised issue again. Kalpana karala balamu or let us think about it, was Sirisena’s reply. The meeting was to discuss how to move forward with the Government now that they have chosen to go it together.
However, it is extremely unlikely that Sirisena would agree. “He has made up his mind not to have Fonseka as the Law and Order Minister,” a high ranking official source said. Yet, a change of mind, as demonstrated many a time during recent political events, leaves some serious doubt. He may relent under pressure, said a distraught SLFP Minister who did not wish to be named.
Sirisena gave no explanation to the bemused SLFP audience last Sunday why the much awaited ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffle ended in just a ‘minor’ shake-up. It was like the proverbial mountain labouring to bring forth a mouse. In this instance a tiny one. Ironically, there were rewards to those whom Sirisena warned he would deal with. The public who had expected Sirisena to carry out his assertions for change made in different rallies for the local polls were disappointed.
Yet, Sirisena’s about-turn and the remarks he made to SLFP Ministers, Deputy Ministers and MPs bared his uneasy predicament. His local polls campaign centred on fighting corruption. Days before the event, he vowed he would not work with those corrupt. Even to the most dim-witted, it was clear the reference was to frontliners of the United National Party (UNP). What made him change from fighting them to joining hands with rewards to work together again?
The once confident Sirisena, who wanted to exercise powers of the executive presidency, and use a ‘sword’ in the execution of his promise, has morphed into a weaker position and projected an even weaker image. The exact reasons for the sudden shift may not be known, not even to political analysts. However, the backdrop in which events unfolded gives a glimpse into his actions and food for thought.
Envoys of two countries, each powerful in its own way, called on Sirisena separately before the Cabinet re-shuffle. These were countries which did not favour the Rajapaksa administration and helped ensconce Sirisena in power in 2015. After his election, they assisted the new dispensation in many ways. Their projects took root and more were in the pipeline. The envoys were explicit that they did not in any way want to tell Sirisena what to do.
Yet, they sounded a note of strong caution. They made clear their serious concerns about the collapse of a Government which had won the people’s mandate for five years. They also made clear their respective Governments would find it difficult to co-operate with a new regime if the current disposition they had backed was not in place.
Added to it was a meeting Sirisena held earlier with Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA leader reminded Sirisena of the pledges made by him to make Constitutional changes to address Tamil issues. He had also referred to the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva and the consequences that could flow to the country if there was a change in Government. The United States backed resolution (co-sponsored by Sri Lanka) is due to come up for discussion.
In the light of this, the Government has been making hurried preparations. A seven member Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been appointed with attorney-at-law Saliya Peiris as chairman. The choice was made by Sirisena. Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana ordered the cancellation of a transfer order sent by a top Foreign Ministry official asking Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha to return to Colombo. This was on a directive from an angry President Sirisena who was told that the recall was when the UNHRC sessions were to take place. Minister Marapana also spoke on the telephone to Aryasinha in Geneva to ask him to ignore the recall order and stay behind.