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Transparency on trial: Was Udayanga Weeratunga story ‘sexed up?’

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Nobody can be blamed for being confused about what’s going on in government these days. The debate has mostly revolved around two issues – the 20th amendment for electoral reform, and the dissolution of parliament. All political factions would seem to be in support of the 20th amendment, going by the statements made. Similarly, all political factions (including Dinesh Gunewardena’s pro-Mahinda group) say they are ready for the dissolution of parliament and, by implication, ready to face elections – going by the statements made. Yet neither of these two projects seems to be progressing with any great speed..

Much instability has arisen from the peculiar circumstance of a minority government trying to push through various reforms in a legislature dominated by the Opposition. And that Opposition seems to be discovering, with every passing day, that it has more leverage than it initially thought, owing to its overwhelming superiority in numbers.

No Confidence motion or dissolution?

The Opposition now has a better idea as to how to seize power, than going for elections with a favourable 20th amendment in place. UPFA coalition members have succeeded in getting their No Confidence motion against the PM onto the order paper of parliament, though no date has been fixed for debate. The motion reportedly has 112 signatures (just one short of a simple majority) including SLFP front-liners and two former prime ministers (D M Jayaratne and Ratnasiri Wickremanayake). Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will no doubt pull out all stops to block this motion because there is a good chance it could be carried.

The UPFA’s position is that in the event the PM is removed through a No Confidence motion, the cabinet will be dissolved and the president will be obliged to appoint a new prime minister – one who commands the confidence of the majority of the legislature. A new government can then be formed with the UPFA in control, UPFA’s former foreign affairs minister G L Peiris explained to a foreign correspondents’ forum last week.

In its bid to neutralise this rear-guard attack by the Opposition in the form of a No Confidence motion, the government has carried out yet another round of ‘MP-shopping.’ All four UPFA MPS recently appointed as deputy ministers, and the two ex-prime ministers now elevated to positions of ‘Senior Political Advisors to the President,’ were among the signatories of the No Confidence motion.

The case of former prime minister D M Jayaratne’s appointment as Presidential Advisor is of particular interest, because of the manner in which he was replaced by new prime minister Wickremesinhe soon after Sirisena took oaths as president. The constitutionality of that appointment was always a subject of some speculation. According to Pieris, Jayaratne never resigned. The president wrote a letter dismissing him from office, but it was never served on him, he said. Will the issue now fade into oblivion?

20th Amendment fast-tracked

Caught in the middle of the tug-of-war over dissolution of parliament is the 20A. President Sirisena recently signaled that he means business in getting these electoral reforms passed into law. We are told that on Monday cabinet had ‘approved the 20A.’ This came as a surprise considering that only four days earlier, Pieris said there was no agreement on the various proposals, and no draft bill in place. It was the UNP’s set of proposals that the cabinet approved.

While there is broad agreement that the infamous preferential voting system needs to be done away with, the nitty-gritty of ratios – between MPs appointed on first-past-the post basis and those appointed on proportional representation basis – remains to be hammered out. It may take time to arrive at a
draft that’s acceptable to all, that will allow smooth passage, but that’s a necessary process.

It is interesting that Sirisena’s renewed push to have the 20A quickly approved by cabinet and gazetted came on the heels of a phone call from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who, in his conversation, urged its speedy enactment. The UNSG’s interest in Sri Lanka’s law-making, which one would have thought is a purely internal matter, does not seem to have raised any eyebrows in government. Earlier we had US Secretary of State John Kerry suggesting a new role for Sri Lanka’s military in ‘protecting vital sea lanes’ etc. Shortly after that we had Human Rights Watch’s Brad Adams finding fault with the government’s appointment of Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias as Army Chief of Staff. One wonders if these officials spend their time offering similar gratuitous instructions to other democratically elected governments around the world on their domestic affairs – or is it just Sri Lanka that’s being micro-managed from abroad?

CBK and UN Peacebuilding funds

The Secretary General had also pledged funding for the government’s measures towards reconciliation, from the UN Peace-building Fund, we are told. This ties up with UN Resident Coordinator Subinay Nandy’s statement earlier that $3 million would be made available for reconciliation efforts. This initiative is being jointly developed by the Foreign Ministry and the UN, according to reports, and would presumably include the ‘domestic mechanism’ to address war crimes allegations. In the area of ‘inter-ethnic trust building and reconciliation’ the UN would be working with the recently established Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, the Daily News reported Nandy as saying last week. Does this refer to the ‘National Unity Office’ headed by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, announced by government some weeks ago?

There is a lack of clear information relating to these developments, raising questions of transparency. Are decisions relating to the UN input (nature of mechanisms, conditions involved in accepting funds etc) discussed at cabinet level, or are they made unilaterally by the Foreign Minister on behalf of the government? Is Parliament aware of what is going on? More often than not it seems that information trickles out to the media only after the event.

Here is what the UN Peace-building Fund website says about the Fund’s purpose:

“In accordance with its Terms of Reference, the PBF was created to support countries recovering from conflict or considered to be at risk of lapsing into conflict, while also supporting efforts to address immediate needs in countries emerging from conflict at a time when sufficient resources are not available from other funding mechanisms that could provide support to peacebuilding activities.”

How does Sri Lanka become subject to UN intervention under these criteria? Sri Lanka’s conflict ended six years ago, and while it is true that it still needs to resolve power-sharing issues between communities through a political solution, wouldn’t it be quite a stretch to describe it as being ‘at risk of lapsing into conflict?’

Kiev contradicts Colombo

Another issue that has raised questions of transparency relates to the Foreign Ministry’s version of events relating to Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Ukraine Udayanga Weeratunga. The story doing the rounds has been that Weeratunge had supplied weapons to pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine, and that he was under investigation for his conduct.

At a media briefing two weeks ago, spokesperson for the foreign ministry Mahishini Colonne said: “The Ambassador of Ukraine had informed the Sri Lankan officials that Ukrainian authorities are in the process of investigating the alleged transfer or handing over of weapons, and that further details will be shared with the Government of Sri Lanka, in due course. He had also said that any action on the matter would need to await the outcome of the investigation that is underway, in Ukraine.”

Casting doubts on the accuracy of this version of events, BBC Ukraine has reported that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis had denied that there was an investigation, saying “this information is not confirmed.” The BBC report of 23.03.15 appeared online in the Ukrainian language. The following computer translation into English, while it contains some grammatical errors in translation, gives the gist of the Ukrainian report:


“Foreign Ministry: Ukraine did not complain to the former Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Russia”


“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied common Sri Lankan media reports of complaints that the Ukrainian government has filed over the activities of the former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga.

“This information has not been confirmed,” – said the BBC Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis. Earlier, Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Times Sri Lanka referring to the local Foreign Minister Samaraviru Mangal said that “the government of President Poroshenko submitted a complaint to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo” to the activities of Mr. Weeratunga.

He was accused of being involved in arms sales “separatists” who fight in Ukraine.

Sri Lankan newspaper adds that Mr. Weeratunga is the nephew of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of this country. Current whereabouts unknown former ambassador, said The Sunday Times Sri Lanka.”

The BBC Ukraine report may be found at:

http://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/rolling_news_russian/2015/03/150323_ru_n_sri_lanka

No doubt the story and the controversy surrounding Weeratunga buttress the perception that the government is ‘dealing with the Rajapaksas and their corrupt relatives and cronies.’ The problem is that all details supplied so far have emanated from only one source – the foreign ministry. Hassina Leelarathna, a Los Angeles-based journalist who highlighted the BBC Ukraine report, says she “recruited the help of a native Ukrainian speaker to do extensive internet searches” (on this story) “but other than the BBC report mentioned above, the search yielded nothing.”

She comments: “The upshot is that there’s only one Ukrainian version of the story available to the public and it pokes a gaping hole in Samaraweera’s accusations against Weeratunge.”