By The “Sunday Times”Political Editor
A well-known Sinhala adage refers to the plight of those who went to seek solace at a temple but found the roof collapsing on their heads.
That in essence appeared to be the dilemma of a high-powered three-member United National Party (UNP) delegation which had a meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena just last week. It was brief but had the undesired effect.
Their purpose was to convey the party’s deep disappointment that their leader and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe was being summoned before the Commission of Inquiry probing the bond scandal at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). They opined that the move would give the impression to the country and to followers of the UNP, the main partner in the coalition Government with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), that their leader was being arraigned for some suspicious activity.
The delegation comprised three Cabinet Ministers — UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, General Secretary Kabir Hashim, and Mangala Samaraweera, now a senior member. The trio told Sirisena that asking Premier Wickremesinghe to testify before the Commission also appeared a witch-hunt by the leadership and created the impression that the Government was targeting its own people. Ahead of the meeting, the Sunday Times learnt that the three ministers had discussed the issues they were to raise with their leader Wickremesinghe.
The UNP trio had pointed out that even before the coalition was formed, they had pledged together to bring to book those in the previous Rajapaksa administration for alleged bribery and corruption. Instead, they pointed out that their leader and Prime Minister had become the focal point. That, they believed, would give a wrong message to the country.
Sirisena remained non-committal over the issues raised. He had, however, pointed out that he had given the Commission of Inquiry an extension of its term until December 8. This was essentially to write its report and hand it over to him. He had learnt that the Commission was completing its task and more witnesses were being called.
Premier Wickremesinghe declared on October 15 that he was “prepared to offer clarifications” to the Commission. A statement from his office said he was willing to do this “at any time” in view of the references to him during the proceedings of the Commission. Later, he handed in a sworn affidavit to the Commission in response to questions raised. The Commission announced in a statement thereafter that it would issue notice on him to appear. It is not clear why there is now a change in the stance though understandably the UNP leaders fear the political repercussions particularly with the local polls ahead.
As for high profile cases involving former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family, Sirisena replied in Sinhala “don’t blame me.” He identified a UNP minister in the Cabinet by name and said he was responsible for passing information to members of the Rajapaksa family on matters relating to investigations. This minister had also allegedly brought pressure on the Police to slow down investigations.
This is not the first time that Sirisena made that disclosure. The first occasion was at a weekly Cabinet meeting on July 4. He pointedly accused the UNP of stalling investigations into allegations of bribery, corruption and other acts of fraud allegedly committed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family members, close associates and top officials. Sirisena declared that if he were given the Police and the Attorney General’s Department, he would have produced results within three months. Sirisena referred at this ministerial meeting to an incident on January 9, 2015, just a day after the presidential polls. When the results were declared, he said, both the Prime Minister and Malik Samarawickrema had together arranged for an Air Force helicopter for Rajapaksa and his immediate family to fly to his ancestral southern home in Medamulana. He then referred to Samarawickrema by name but did not use Wickremesinghe’s name only referring to him as Prime Minister.
Thereafter, during his two-day visit to Qatar last month, the matter surfaced again as reported in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) on October 29. The relevant reportage said: “….In the Qatari capital of Doha, President Sirisena, on a two-day visit this week, was having breakfast at the five-star Sheraton Grand. Seated with him were most members of his entourage. During an informal talk, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne noted that the situation would have been quite different if strong action was taken on investigations into high profile cases. There would have been no electoral threat. Senaratne, who himself has bribery charges against him pending, named a ministerial colleague who had allegedly been passing over details pertaining to investigations to the Rajapaksa family members. He named a member of the Rajapaksa family with whom the minister concerned was very close and had regular contacts with.
“The remarks by Senaratne in Doha prompted Sirisena to recall the occasion where he raised this issue at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers. The next morning, the minister in question and another important person (he named both during the conversation) called on him at his official residence at Paget Road and handed over “two or three” copies of files, he said.
“The files contained details of investigations and the matters reportedly pending before the Attorney General’s Department. Thereafter, he had been surprised when he received a phone call from a person holding high office in a province. He (the person holding high office) had said that a lady member of the Rajapaksa family had spoken to him about the files the President had received earlier that day. He had been asked by the lady why he was rushing to pursue action and an appeal had been made not to go ahead. Sirisena noted that the files had been given to him at the same time, the information had been passed on to the “other side” (anith peththata). He had later queried from the important person concerned how this could happen but there had been only silence. Senaratne also strongly criticised a very high ranking Police officer for his tardy role in pursuing investigations………”
Quite clearly, the role of one UNP cabinet minister allegedly undoing the public pledges made during presidential and parliamentary elections, has pitched Sirisena against his coalition partner, the UNP. Perhaps, understandably in many respects. Most criticism is being levelled against Sirisena over this. Foremost is his loss of face within the SLFP that forced him in the recent weeks to desperately initiate peace moves to bring together the feuding factions. He feels if action was taken on the high profile investigations, this would not have been necessary. More importantly, he believes that the serious lapses allegedly caused by the influential minister in question, paved the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa and some family members to make a strong political comeback. They had now formed their own political party and were forming branches at grassroots level.
Unfulfilled promises, mounting bribery, corruption within the Government and a steep climb in living costs have all seen a marked shift in public support for Rajapaksa. This has been compounded by the Government’s gross inefficiency in maintaining adequate buffer stocks of petrol leading to a massive shortage this week. All this has not been good news for Sirisena who seems boxed in largely due to the alleged misdemeanours of just one UNP minister. And that has also been the main cause for friction between the UNP and the SLFP.
That Sirisena is still livid was clearly demonstrated when he spoke at the second anniversary commemoration of Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera at Apey Gama (Our Village) at Battaramulla. The Thera was widely regarded as a champion of good governance and helped in the coalition between the two parties. Sirisena was a little late for the event on Thursday. Unexpectedly, Premier Wickremesinghe, who had prior knowledge of what was going to be said by another speaker at the event, told Sirisena he was unable to attend. He explained reasons including the fact that the intended remarks were to embarrass him, said an SLFP minister familiar with the discussion. He courteously excused himself, the minister said adding that Sirisena took note of the position but made no comments.
As expected by Wickremesinghe, the convenor of the National Movement for Social Justice, the body founded by the late prelate, Prof. Sarath Wijesooriya did make some remarks that referred to the Premier and his ministers. Here are excerpts from what he said: “I prepared this speech in advance and was hoping to make it before an audience in which the Prime Minister was present. Though he is not in the audience, I hope to go ahead.
“Prime Minister, you are a veteran politician with more than 40 years as a Member of Parliament. You did not engage in politics based on communalism or on religious differences. We have to honour the sacrifice you made at the January 8, 2015 presidential election (by not being a candidate). You have taken a bold step towards the formation of a consensual government and to go ahead with the Constitutional reforms.
Though a section of the SLFP criticises you, the support extended to President Maithripala Sirsisena is laudable. But on behalf of the people who followed Ven Sobitha Thera, there is something I need to say.
“You mentioned, prior to the 2015 change, that you will be committed to political reforms. It is true you played a key role towards that. It is sad to say that you have not been able to win the hearts of the public about political reforms. Due to actions of certain ministers of your party, there has been mistrust and fear among the public. It is an obstacle for political reforms. Do not take it lightly. It is your duty to dispel the mistrust and fear. The party’s future will depend on your actions. Your political future will depend on your actions.
“At times when you had an opportunity to be elected to govern the country the people did not give you a mandate. It may have been robbed from you. It is regrettable that you did not identify the reasons for that. You have become the Prime Minister, mainly because the law abiding citizens opposed the Rajapaksa regime. If not for the change, it should be accepted that you would not have become the Prime Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s destruction of democracy was the main reason. In short, you were made the Prime Minister because of the dedication of a section of the public. Have you understood this? It seems not.
“Ven Sobitha called for a mandate to vote for a corruption free country, to vote to create a country where people are not killed, to recover money which has been illegally acquired, for the freedom to live, to ensure justice. But what is the situation today? The persons who were accused of corruption then are now in turn making the same allegations. What fate is this? On an analysis of the January 8 revolution, this situation is bad for the government. Those who criticised the Rajapaksa Government had no right to live then. The present Government is not responsible for killing persons, but has failed to ensure justice for those murdered.
“The campaign by Ms Sandya Ekneligoda on behalf of her husband, the revelations made regarding ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen’s killing, Journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga’s killing, the Welikada prison killings, the killing of youths in Navy custody, the Avant Garde issue and the MiG-27 deal are among some of the main cases which were highlighted. They disturbed the public. Most of these cases have been investigated by the CID and the FCID. For three years we have been awaiting the results. The affected parties are awaiting justice. The people are unhappy about the failure to complete investigations and take action in courts.
“Our understanding is that the Rajapaksas are being protected. It is a crime. Anyone should get a mandate to implement the wishes of the masses, but not to take advantage of the poor or the uneducated. The Rajapaksas used wealth to gain power. But that was changed by law abiding citizens at the January 8 2015 presidential election. That methodology has no opportunity again.
Hope was created among the public by expediting the investigations regarding the murder of Bharatha Lakshaman and the Sil cloth case. But what is the message to the public by the transfer of the High Court judge who found guilty those responsible for the Bharatha Lakshaman killing? Is it through some divine power that the Rajapaksas can get their cases heard in the selected courts? Another former Minister charged in a case has said whatever judgement is given, he can resolve it in a higher court. Already Basil Rajapaksa’s attempt to get persons appointed to the Supreme Court according to his wishes is succeeding. Dates for cases are given a year later.
“Doesn’t it show that the law is not being implemented correctly? Why are the services of the efficient judges not being used? Is it not something similar to keeping away the efficient surgeons in smaller hospitals and giving over the serious operations to lesser qualified doctors? Going by what is happening is that persons charged for corruption and fraud are to be freed. Under this situation, the next leader could be a corrupt person and a murderer. If the judiciary is being misused, the situation should be changed. It is important to realise that the people gave a mandate to rule the country, but not to own the country.
“What we require is to have a country which is run according to the laws, before making it a Singapore. If reforms are not made in the judiciary, the same fate that bell the Rajapaksas will hit this government also. Protecting close friends and enriching them should be ended. The masses should be enriched with knowledge. If the two main parties which united to work together do not achieve the objectives which they planned for, the country will go astray.”
Sirisena who spoke later underscored his own thinking on the recent political developments. Here are relevant excerpts: “We should be dedicated to social justice and the rule of law among other issues. If anyone has committed an offence, action should be taken. My question too is why action is not taken. The ministers are aware what I have said in the cabinet.
“In the Government, a small section blames me for appointing the Commission of Inquiry to probe the Central Bank bond issue. A small section is giving a wrong interpretation. A small group in the Government is on a campaign against me on the Facebook and different websites. (Note: The Telecom Regulatory Authority last week blocked the website of the Lankaenews which has posted a number of highly critical stories on Sirisena). Money is spent to get stories written in weekend newspapers. Some people in the Government spend money to write against me for publications overseas.
“Why is this? This is because I appointed a Commission to investigate the questionable bond transactions in the Central Bank. Even if Ven. Sobitha Thera was alive, he will concede what I did was correct. What is the objective of coming to this place? Why did we change the Government? Did we come to fill our pockets? Did we come to rob? In appointing the Commission I did not target a particular person in the government or any ministers.
“We are well aware of the situation when the Commission was appointed. The public had voiced their concern. Political parties had raised concern that a serious case of corruption had taken place in bond issues. They called for the appointment of a Commission. Three months after I was sworn in, the bond issue took place. It is three months after the Government was formed this destruction took place. The persons responsible for that (bond issue) should also be responsible for this destruction. I am not greedy for positions. As I came in, I am waiting to leave. I am a person who came to leave, not to stay. I need the support to do what I am doing in the correct way.
“Many question why I cannot act when certain issues are raised. But it is a consensual government. We need to strengthen this consensus. The public and even legal experts have not experienced this type of government. It is a new experience. The UNP selected the SLFP General Secretary as the Presidential candidate. The two parties were at loggerheads for 60 to 64 years in the past. I was chosen as the ‘common candidate’ for the presidential election with some trust. I should maintain that trust. If anyone has committed any fault it should be considered as a fault, no matter whether that person is in the government or the opposition………”
After the event, Sirisena told an SLFP minister who queried him over why he made the remarks that he had agreed with the views expressed by Prof. Wijesuriya. He said he too had been entertaining the same views. Hence he had endorsed them when he spoke. However, the UNP leaders thought otherwise. A remark made by one of their backbench MPs, Chaminda Wijesiri, which was widely publicised on the front pages of newspapers Friday, called upon Sirisena to ascertain who in the Government had faulted him. They are seeking an appointment with him to clarify matters. Sources close to the presidency said such a meeting was not likely since the President had already raised issue over the matter with the Premier. He had alluded to a meeting at a resort hotel in Tangalle by a group of UNP MPs. It was arranged by former minister Ravi Karunanayake. They are reported to have levelled strong criticism against Sirisena. Thereafter, at a poorly attended UNP parliamentary group meeting the previous week, the Premier warned that there should be no such groups under his leadership. He said the MPs would require prior permission if they were to form any caucus or attend such events.
Adding to the UNP’s discontent were moves by the SLFP leadership to make peace with the feuding faction. The task had been undertaken by Minister Susil Premajayantha who had met the leaders of the two factions in a bid to narrow down differences. The dialogue continues but there are increasing signs that talks between the two sides may not reach fruition soon. A main reason is the division among the dissidents with one influential group saying they should not support. This notwithstanding, the SLFP appears to have found a way out which, it believes, may reduce the embarrassment in the event of a bad defeat at the upcoming local council elections.
It will form a new front and contest under the symbol of a chair or betel leaf. This was formally announced at a news conference last Tuesday by SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake and UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera. Interesting enough, this announcement comes just four days after a decision by SLFP MPs and Ministers at a meeting chaired by their leader President Sirisena declared that they should all contest under the Freedom Party ticket. The shift in the decision within four days, SLFP leaders believe, will obviate criticism of an SLFP loss. Furthermore, it is also likely that Sirisena may keep away from the local polls campaign.
It took another UNP backbencher to summon a news conference the previous Thursday. Speaking from Sri Kotha, the UNP headquarters at Kotte, Kurunegala District MP Thushara Indunil Amerasena said, “Whilst being in this government, enjoying all the privileges of it and participating in Cabinet meetings, Premajayantha is ‘exploding bombs’ at different times. He said the SAITM decision was wrong. He said Wimal Weerawansa’s remarks that Parliament should be bombed were misinterpreted by the Government. He holds opposing attitudes about the Constitution, too. I have to tell Mr Premajayantha that please do not do this dirty thing. I ask him to take a clear stand. If he wants to oppose the government, he could. If he wants to support, he could. He might have issues because his sons are also facing allegations.” Those remarks made clear the UNP did not want the SLFP to re-unite thus relegating its role to one less important.
These developments have led to political estrangement between the two main coalition partners, so much so their leaders are not making public speeches on development activity or public needs. They have extended to other issues. Premier Wickremesinghe told the 25th anniversary Teachers Day celebration of Catholic Schools at the St Joseph’s College auditorium on November 4 that “President Premadasa was educated at St Joseph’s, College Colombo. He told me that if he had not studied at this school, it would have been difficult for him to become the President. Since I worked with him, I know that, as like in Sinhala, he could prepare letters in English as well. He was able to correct the letters brought to him by officials. He used to point grammatical errors as well as mistakes in the use of words. He said that it is because of this school he got that ability. He entered politics from St Joseph’s. There are many others who developed in a similar manner….”
President Sirisena who declared open a Divisional Secretary’s office at Elahera (Matale District) the previous Saturday said, “If the president steals, others below him also steal. When the Minister steals, others below him do the same thing. That flows to the bottom. Even the Provincial Councils and Pradeshiya Sabha Members and officials do the same thing. Therefore fraud, corruption, theft and wastage are not ethical for politicians. They are unethical things. They should not be done. It is only then a political campaign strengthens, the administration of the country strengthens and one can work with purity.”
It is amidst this haggling that the Cabinet of Ministers met for their weekly session last Tuesday. The subject of discussion after the regular business on the agenda ended was about the countrywide shortage of petrol. Details of the public suffering appear elsewhere in this newspaper. Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, who together with his brother Dhammika, who preside over matters relating to the country’s petroleum distribution, were in the spotlight. Ministers criticised Ranatunga after they learnt that the main cause for the worst embarrassment for the Government was their inability to ensure adequate buffer stocks.
Ranatunga had earlier blamed the shortage on the Lanka-India Oil Company (LIOC). His arguments were countered by two previous petroleum ministers, Chandima Weerakkody and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Both said there were no shortages during their tenure. It was the latter who suggested that President Sirisena speak to Indian Premier Narendra Modi and ask for help. He even named a company from which such help could be obtained. After the meeting ended, Sirisena went to his upstairs office at the Presidential Secretariat for a meeting with India’s Deputy High Commissioner Arindam Bagchi. High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu was away in New Delhi. Premier Wickremesinghe got in touch with him on the phone in New Delhi. `
To Bagchi, Sirisena conveyed his wish to speak with Premier Modi to make a fervent appeal for very urgent supply of petrol. Ironic enough, here is the head of state of Sri Lanka appealing for help from his counterpart in India whilst his Petroleum Minister is wrongly blaming an Indian company for causing a nationwide petrol shortage. It is no secret that the remarks have ruffled feathers in Indian Government circles in New Delhi. Questions have been raised whether the Minister’s remarks were those of the Government. There were unconfirmed reports that India may seek clarification over the issue. Another Ranatunga remark that came as insult to the intelligence of Sri Lankans was his appeal for consumers to economise on the use of petrol. At least to him, it seemed petrol was a commodity of luxury. It was President Sirisena who asked him to tender a public apology for the shortage.
Ministers at their weekly meeting also decided to appoint a Cabinet Subcommittee to probe how the petrol shortage occurred. It is chaired by Sarath Amunugama and includes Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Arjuna Ranatunga. On Wednesday, the Committee interviewed top officials of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. They are expected to report their findings at next Tuesday’s ministerial meeting. Yet, in a nation which has a record of not dealing with those for wrong doings that hurt people’s lives, whether there would be deterrent punishment is unlikely. Like in the case of the Meethotamulla garbage dump that killed 23 people, it will go into a limbo of forgotten things.
As the ministerial subcommittee continued the probe, details emerging present a clear picture. It has also bared some unusual co-incidences such as a power failure at the Oil Refinery at Sapugaskanda. That meant a further 500 metric tonnes more per day were required for the market. The LIOC had purchased a stock of around 36,000 metric tonnes of petrol (92/95) from Total (TOTAL) Trading Asia (Pvt.). It had arrived in Colombo on October 17 and was due for discharge in the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee.
Both the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL) had carried out quality testing. They had discovered that the stock was found meeting chemical properties of petrol specification but contained some visible particles. Hence, the two organisations had refused to accept the stock. LIOC had then asked the supplier (TOTAL) to replace the stock.
Whilst this was going on, a stock due to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) was also delayed. Initially it was expected to arrive on November 2 but was delayed till November 8. The supplier (TOTAL) meanwhile flew in a representative to Colombo. He suggested that they can do ship to ship filtration and correct the stock. He explained that this was a standard practice when particles, surfacing to the top when the ship is moving, are corrected.
This offer was discussed at the Technical Specifications Committee (TSC) meeting of the CPC and the CPSTL on October 25. It had been pointed out that once the product is clearly filtered from one ship to another, it will amount to a new product in a new ship with a new Bill of Lading. It had also been discussed that the stocks will be allowed to be discharged at the two ports in question subject to specifications of the product being certified by CPSTL.
Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga who chaired the meeting had declared that the stock will not be accepted. LIOC Managing Director Shyam Bohra’s appeals, explaining that previously such practice had been allowed were turned down by Minister Ranatunga. Thereafter, the Technical Specifications Committee (TSC) is alleged to have changed its earlier stance that the LIOC had agreed to go by the Minister’s decision – reject the stock. However, the LIOC has strongly denied this assertion. By then, word had leaked and there was panic buying of petrol stocks. However, LIOC cancelled its contract with TOTAL and ordered another stock of 15,000 metric tonnes of petrol. This was due on November 9. The LIOC and Total are now in a court battle.
Did any local official try to create or seize the opportunity to make spot purchases of petrol, which is more costly? Would that mean more commissions? The matter is also now being examined. Making it worse was the fact that President Sirisena had not been briefed that there could be a shortage although some officials knew it. Nor was Premier Wickremesinghe briefed.
There is little doubt that this week’s petrol shortage, besides earning the wrath of the people, has other adverse effects. One is on the Government’s repeated calls for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Would-be investors will be discouraged by the Government’s failure making them believe fuel supplies could be interrupted at any time. Another is tourist arrivals with some of the tourists stranded in the outstations unable to visit Colombo for their departures. Utopian ideals of modernising Sri Lanka, venturing into state of the art communications, grandiose projects and promises of a million jobs among others are of no use if a Government cannot ensure there is no petrol shortage that badly disturbs the lives of almost every citizen. That it comes at a time when there is strained relations between the two coalition partners is even more worrying. More so, when one UNP minister had allegedly been responsible for most of the ills and no corrective action has been taken.