C. A. Chandraprema
The banning of the Lanka e News website indicates a new development in the internal politics of the yahapalana coalition government. Lanka e News is foremost among the website that worked to bring Maithripala Sirisena into power. What distinguished Lanka e News from the other websites that also were on the offensive against the Rajapaksa government was that after the yahapalana government came into power it functioned almost like the party paper of the UNP whereas the other websites while being pro-yahapalana, may not have espoused the specific UNP cause in the same manner.
Given the role that LeN played to get Maithripala Sirisena the chosen candidate of the UNP elected President, for Sirisena to order the banning of LeN is equivalent to Ranil Wickremesinghe banning the Sunday Leader after becoming Prime Minister in December 2001. LeN was not by any stretch of imagination a website that practiced ethical journalism. They never hesitated to personally vilify anyone who failed to toe their line.
This was a website that was plugging a political line. If a judge failed to deliver a judgement that was not to the liking of LeN, they would respond by talking about the sexual preferences of that judge. Mixing fact and fiction was also not a problem for LeN. On a positive note what could be said about LeN was that it displayed great energy. This was one website that was always updated daily sometimes several times a day with lengthy pieces that take a lot of work. While ethics were wanting or totally absent, the energy was certainly there and what LeN offered was a sustained attack on its enemies day after day, week after week and year after year. This was the factor which made LeN a valuable ally for the UNP. Given the fact that LeN has vilified everybody, there will be many people on both sides of the political divide exulting at this website being banned.
However it should be noted that LeN was the only yahapalana stakeholder that consistently stood to get the executive presidency abolished just as Sirisena pledged at the 2015 presidential elections. All other yahapalana stakeholders including the UNP itself retreated in the face of Sirisena’s refusal to relinquish his position. The NGOs that supported the yahapalana project changed their tune after the presidential elections and brought the prosecution of the Rajapaksas to the fore as the main project instead of the abolition of the executive presidency. Their attitude was that while the previous dictator was bad, the dictator they had made President was OK. Just last week, at a meeting held to commemorate Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, the abolition of the executive presidency was only mentioned in passing while the failure to prosecute the Rajapaksas for alleged corruption was the main topic of discussion as if that was the main pledge given at the last presidential elections.
LeN was refreshingly free of that kind of dishonesty and while of course making the usual demands that the Rajapaksas should be put in jail, LeN also consistently stood for the abolition of the executive presidency and was the yahapalana outfit that most often reminded Sirisena what he had pledged to do. What now seems to have happened to LeN is what happened earlier to parliamentarian Kumara Welgama. Some time ago, Welgama had attended an SLFP central committee meeting where speaker after speaker had spoken against the abolition of the executive presidency. Some fawning parliamentarians had said that the president himself wanted to abolish the executive president but that they were against any such move. Welgama alone had said that he agrees with the president and that it should be abolished. Thereafter he had not been invited to any meetings of the SLFP central committee! That seems to be what has happened to LeN as well. They seem to have reminded Sirisena of his main election pledge once too often.
Another reason for the banning of LeN is said to be the revelations it had been publishing about the purchase of a Russian warship by the government and the commissions that someone was going to collect. It was LeN that revealed that Navy commander Travis Sinniah was going to be sent on retirement because he had opposed the purchase of an old warship from Russia. The question raised by LeN was why did Sri Lanka need an old warship when there was no war? One would think that what Sri Lanka needed were smaller craft for coast guard duties. LeN obviously had touched a raw nerve with these revelations. It was also surprising that Sinniah who had been recently appointed Navy Commander had been given his marching orders so soon by a government that was anxiously promoting reconciliation between the ethnic groups. Sinniah was the first Tamil officer in a long while to head a branch of the armed forces and to send him on retirement so soon after his appointment leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Sinniah is a Naval officer who had distinguished himself in the war against terrorism. He was one of the senior-most officers in the long range operation launched by the navy to destroy LTTE supply ships in international waters off Australia in 2007. His loyalty to the country while he was in service was unquestioned. After the war however he decided to retire voluntarily from the Navy and take up a job with the American Embassy in Colombo. A vacancy for a position that had to be filled by a local recruit with an armed forces background had opened up at the American Embassy and the then American Ambassdor Patricia Butenis had handpicked Sinniah for the job and she had even asked the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to release Sinniah for the job. Had he remained in the navy, Sinniah would have been in line to be made Navy Commander in the natural course of things. But his voluntary retirement, and subsequent employment in the American Embassy disqualified him from being appointed navy commander. After having worked at the American Embassy in Colombo Sinniah migrated to Australia. When the government changed he was reinstated in the navy on the grounds that the previous government had hounded him out of the navy – which certainly was not the case.
If he wanted to come back to serve out his remaining period, perhaps there would have been nothing wrong in being taken back into the navy if he had not been an employee of the American Embassy. However since he had in fact worked at the American Embassy, he should never have been reinstated in the navy. An officer of Sinniah’s seniority would have to hold important positions in the navy. In fact after being reinstated, Sinniah’s first posting was as the Eastern Commander – one of the most important postings in the navy. He was in due course made navy commander and has the distinction of having occupied that position for the shortest time in the history of the Sri Lanka Navy. The question is, if he was only going to be commander of the navy for just a matter of weeks, why was he given that appointment at all? While it is true that he became navy commander with just weeks to go for retirement, once he was appointed to that post, one would think that he should have been allowed to hold that position for a few months at least, before being sent on retirement.
The manner in which this whole disreputable episode played out seems to indicate that LeN was right about the purchase of the ancient Russian warship. In any event, the banning of LeN has brought the feud between the UNP and Sirisena out into the open in a way that no one thought possible. LeN had done so much to bring Sirisena into power that no one thought it would be possible for Sirisena to turn on LeN despite any criticism they may aim at him. According to Colombo Telegraph, LeN had been getting a revenue of around Rs. 600,000 a month in advertising fees from the Lotteries Board and Sri Lanka Telecom which has also been stopped by Sirisena. We said last week that the UNP was far better off under the Rajapaksas than they are under Sirisena and we can now say that LeN was also far better off under the Rajapaksas than they are under Sirisena. The latter is a creation of LeN (and others as well) whereas the Rajapaksas were at least the enemy. It hurts more when your own creature turns against you than when the enemy turns on you.
The bond commission took backstage to the petrol crisis last week. But now with things limping back to normal and the final gazette notification necessary to kick off the local government elections having been issued, the undeclared war within the ruling coalition is due to recommence with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe scheduled to appear before the bond commission. Given the contents of Sirisena’s speech at the Ven. Sobitha commemoration meeting last week, it appears that the SLFP group is seeking to do the utmost damage to the UNP before the local government elections probably in the hope that a section of the yahapalana vote especially the floating vote will gravitate towards them.