Soured relationships between the top echelons of the Executive reached highest levels recently with Head of the State President Maithripala Sirisena calling off his participation in two important events in the penultimate hour.
The discomforts, if there were any, were not made obvious by President Sirisena or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the past twelve months, yet the things seem to slip from the grip as two parties made their animosity obvious on few occasions recently. The first such that gave out this developing remorse to the outer world was during the much talked about visit of George Soros to the economic summit.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe making a special statement in Parliament on 5 November 2015 said billionaire businessman George Soros would be invited to visit Sri Lanka and this drew protest by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Joint Opposition.
The JVP pointed out that Soros, the Hungary born US businessman, is accused of being responsible for the financial crisis that occurred in Eastern Asia in the ’90s.Former President of Malaysia Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had publicly accused him of bringing down economies of countries in Eastern Asia by instantly withdrawing money invested in these countries.
In his native Hungary, Soros is accused of supporting illegal migration. Soros also wants more power for groups such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. A large part of Soros’ multibillion-dollar fortune has come from manipulating currencies. In Thailand he was called an ‘economic war criminal.’
They also said Soros, known as ‘The Man who broke the Bank of England,’ initiated a British financial crisis by dumping 10 billion sterling that forced the devaluation of the currency.
While their protest was made public, what was not known to many was that half of the Cabinet of Ministers, were also having their doubts about inviting Soros to the country and his would be involvement in the country’s economic matters.
Foreign media reported recently, that Russian authorities have burned more than 50 books and removed more than 500 other volumes from university libraries on the grounds they contain sentiments ‘alien to Russian ideology’.
The books, most of them textbooks, were published with money from the Soros Fund, which in November was declared an ‘undesirable agent’ and forced to stop its work in Russia.
The books were removed from libraries in two universities in the north-western Komi region and some were later burned.
The Komi Education Minister said in a letter dated Wednesday that the books were destroyed to fulfil an order from a presidential envoy requesting that books published with funds from the Soros Fund be removed from circulation.
It is in the midst of this that Soros attended the high-level economic forum in Colombo on 7 January of which the President Sirisena was also expected to deliver a speech.
By this time, President Sirisena was aware of all negative images of Soros and was already having second thoughts about attending the opening ceremony of the economic forum. However, after having consultations with Sri Lanka Freedom Party Ministers in the Cabinet and several other parties of whom the majority believed that the President should attend the opening ceremony, President Sirisena finally decided to make an appearance.
However, he informed the organizers that he would be there only for ten minutes. Keeping his word, the President was there only for ten minutes and left without making a speech even though there was a speech scheduled.
It was Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who was in touch with Soros from the beginning and it seemed like President Sirisena had no hand in this infamous multi-billionaire’s visit to the country. Soros who had no chance to share cordialities with President Sirisena due to his quick exit however, managed to garner a one on one meeting with the President the next day when all first anniversary celebrations were scheduled for.
President Sirisena, with much reluctance, however offered to meet Soros at the Presidential Secretariat in the morning on 8 January, as he was advised by many to do so. However, the drama unfolded only after agreeing to the meeting.
As soon as the Prime Minister’s Office got to know there was a one-on-one meeting scheduled between President Sirisena and Soros, Wickremesinghe through his officials informed that he too will be attending this meeting.
They convened this meeting at around 7 p.m. on 7th night and as soon as the President got to know this bit of information he was annoyed. However, known for his ability to guard his feelings President had not given a hint of being angry about this ‘arrogance’ shown from the side of the Prime Minister.
He attended the function to launching the ceremony of Janapathita Kiyanna programme at the Presidential Secretariat, the first of such range of events and programmes held to celebrate the first anniversary of his being in office.
By the time Soros had arrived and was waiting at one of the rooms until President Sirisena arrived for the meeting and news about his visit was also conveyed to the President.
Officials, who had no idea about what was coming, were caught completely off-guard when President Sirisena refused to go down for the meeting. He in fact told officials to inform that he will not be attending the so-called ‘one-on-one’ meeting between the two which would also be attended by Premier Wickremesinghe.
Repeated attempts by officials to convince the President to meet Soros as it would reflect negatively on the Head of the State and the country alike was not paid heed to by Sirisena who adamantly informed officials to convey to Soros that it was enough for him to meet with the Prime Minister.
Officials who approached Soros who waited at the Presidential Secretariat for about 30 minutes apologetically informed him that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was also planning to come but was unable to make it at the time thus the meeting would not take place.
However, in what seemed like a patch up to what took place earlier, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe arranged a luncheon meeting between President, Soros and himself at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel at which the President attended after Prime Minister Wickremesinghe personally invited him.
The meeting was made completely closed door with the interpreter of Soros who is allegedly suffering from unilateral hearing loss being sent out. According to speculations, Soros had given a message not to the liking of Wickremesinghe Government but had also offered to function as an NGO person.
Maithri’s Cabinet Paper rejected
Adding salt to the already wounded relations, a Cabinet memorandum forwarded by President Sirisena was rejected by the Finance Ministry. Though this also angered the President he while trying his best not to lose his cool asked Finance Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, as to what led to the rejection.
The Cabinet paper was for the extension of the Colombo-Kandy Highway to Polonnaruwa.
However, several Ministers did not let this slip easily as they pointed out that the tradition was never to say no to a Cabinet paper moved by the President. Karunanayake, in his feeble attempt to avert the verbal attacks had said that the Cabinet observation committee of the Treasury had rejected the Cabinet paper on the grounds that it lacked transparency.
However, in his haste Karunanayake had mentioned that highways are used for various underhand dealings, and as a responsible government, open tenders should be called for contractors.
President Sirisena, demanded that officials be summoned for a meeting soon after the Cabinet was over and he had not made any more attempts to hide his annoyance when he told officials that he is not a man who had earned through underhand deals.
At this meeting where Karunanayake was also present, President Sirisena had demanded to know whether the constructions of Colombo-Kandy Highway was offered in a transparent manner or whether the contractors were selected by calling open tenders.
He also pointed out that he moved the Cabinet paper as a move to fulfil a pledge given to the people during last Presidential Election that the Kandy Highway will be extended to Polonnaruwa.
When contacted, a senior official of the Treasury confirmed that even though a Cabinet paper moved by the Head of the State may not be given approval due to lack of funds, it is very unlikely that it is actually happening.
As a respect for the office he or she holds, the approval will be given in most cases and in a situation where it is completely not feasible it would be conveyed to the President giving him the chance to withdraw the Cabinet paper instead of rejecting it.
The National Thai Pongal ceremony was to be held under the patronage of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe in Jaffna for the first time. All preparations were in place and even the programme schedule was sent to media institutions for the coverage by the President’s Media Unit.
The stage was set as usual and even the podium with the President’s Emblem was in place, while personnel of the Presidential Security Division were deployed for security purposes.
While, it was only Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran attended the event none of the TNA Provincial Councillors or Ministers were present at the national celebrations. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom, Hugo Swire also attended the event, and both media personnel and organizers were in for a major disappointment when the President’s Emblem was removed from the podium giving the message that the President would not be attending the event.
Many speculations started circulating with this ‘fail to appear’ by the President as some said, this was due to a previous warning by United National Party Jaffna District Organizer Thiagaraja Thuwarakeswaran of a secret plan to murder President Sirisena on 22 December 2015.
The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) was directed by IGP N.K Ilangakoon to investigate the incident soon after his comment was telecast via the news. The IGP ordered the CID to scrutinize all TV footage relating to the incident, to ascertain the accuracy of the allegation.
When contacted, Director General of President’s Media Unit Dharmashri Ekanayake said the President could not attend the function as he was unwell. However, at this function Prime Minister Wickremesinghe did not forget to take media to task including his uncle’s paper Daily Mirror.
“I’m telling the Daily Mirror which was a scab when journalists were killed in the North and South, to at least change now, since the Sun God has arrived. I’m not ready to make the Constitution with G.L. Peiris’ junta like how the 18th Amendment was created. Those who were defeated today cry about the importance of transparency. So I’m saying will make it openly with the 225. President Maithripala Sirisena said not to make it with a junta,” he said.
Cabinet heats up
A proposal to close down the Sri Lankan mission in Baghdad led Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to face strong resistance from his Cabinet colleagues. After heated verbal exchanges during the meeting, President Sirisena decided to defer the decision pending further review.
Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen raised major objections to Minister Samaraweera’s Cabinet proposal, saying Iraq was the fifth largest importer of Ceylon tea, and had a demand for skilled migrant labour.
He insisted that this was the time for Sri Lanka to expand its ties in the Middle East. He asserted that despite the problems in Iraq, the country had continued to import tea and skilled labour from Sri Lanka.
Several other Ministers including Thalatha Atukorale, Sarath Amunugama, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Rajitha Senaratne, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Faizer Mustapha also followed Bathiudeen’s lead and voiced their opposition to the shutdown of the embassy in Baghdad.
Minister Bathiudeen insisted that, if the Cabinet proposal was going to be approved, a minute be included in the paper that he had strongly opposed the moves.
Minister Samaraweera was recommending the shutdown of the Sri Lankan Mission in Baghdad over concerns with continuing instability in Iraq. The last Sri Lankan Ambassador to serve in Baghdad was Sumith Nakandala, who ended his tenure there in 2014. The embassy was shut down after the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and reopened in 2012.