The “Sunday Times” Political Editor
(Following are excerpts from the political column appearing in the “Sunday Times” of December 31st 2017)
The three-member Commission of Inquiry to probe the Central Bank bond scam handed over its report to President Sirisena last afternoon at his Paget Road residence in Colombo. During a nine month period, the Commission held 117 days of sittings into what is easily the biggest, single financial scam in Sri Lankan history. It was headed by Supreme Court Justice Kankanithanthri T. Chitrasiri and includes Supreme Court Justice Prasanna Sujeewa Jayawardena, and retired Deputy Auditor General Vellupillai Kandasamy.
With local polls due on February 10, the contents of the report will be the cynosure of the public – if it is made public. More so when the proceedings of the Commission where startling disclosures surfaced, sharply contrasted with what transpired before a parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). This has drawn greater public attention. Questions were raised on the veracity of many assertions. Similarly, it also brought into question the findings of an official committee and the remarks UNP MPs made in Parliament based on them. In essence, the overarching question at issue is how much the Commission’s findings would contrast with the UNP claim that there was ‘no wrong doing.’
The Commission’s report, finalised after Chairman Chitrasiri returned from a visit to London, is being held a closely guarded secret for now. Yet, speculation is rife that at least nine politicians have been named for their role in the scam. However, this could not be independently verified.
Sources associated with the Commission said strong indictments have been made against the Central Bank’s former Governor Arjuna Mahendran. He is now in Singapore, of which country he is a citizen. It is no secret that the Cabinet of Ministers decided on his appointment as Governor despite objections at the time from some senior ministers over his nationality.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, under whom the Central Bank was assigned, pressed for his appointment. Mahendran told close friends recently that he had no plans to visit Sri Lanka since testifying before the Commission. That will set a poser when investigations into the Commission findings begin.
Similarly, these sources said, strong indictments have also been made against Mahendran’s son-in-law Arjun Aloysius who’s Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., it is alleged, drew unlawful financial benefits running into billions of rupees. References have also been made to former Foreign Minister, Ravi Karunanayake. The same sources said that included the need to probe further his acquisition of an apartment of Monarch Residencies in Kollupitiya.
In the light of Commission’s findings reaching President Sirisena, the vital question is whether he would approve the public release of the report before February 10 polls. Some senior SLFP ministers strongly believe he would. They argue that the President wants to tell voters that “he was unwavering when it comes to bribery or corruption” and “he won’t condone it wherever it comes from.” Those remarks assume significance in the light of the recent utterances by SLFP cabinet ministers. President Sirisena also declared at a meeting of SLFP organisers at Janadipathi Mandiraya on December 22 (Friday) that he would appoint a Commission of Inquiry to probe both SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka.
Three different SLFP politicians went public with the same remarks. First was Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva followed by Minister Susil Premjayantha. Both alleged corrupt activity at these two state concerns which came under State Enterprise Development Minister Kabir Hashim, a UNP Minister and General Secretary of the party. The latter was to add to the dilemma after the Sunday Times reported last week that the Board of Directors, with the exception of one, had offered to resign. Hashim, who has been complaining earlier that he was being sidelined by the Board said he was “unaware” of the “offer’ by board members to resign. The worse part came when Hashim’s deputy, the State Minister for Public Enterprise Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene from the SLFP told a news conference that Credit Suisse would grant a short term loan of US$ 50 million and a long-term loan of US$ 175 million for SriLankan. He declared that the money would be given to a newly appointed Board of Directors.
And on Friday, Minister S.B. Dissanayake, who addressed both SLFP and UPFA candidates at a meeting at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium declared, “Why did the President take over the responsibility to stand as the Common candidate, despite death threats? He did so to create a Government free of corruption and fraud. Therefore, President Sirisena has the responsibility to get rid of rogues, if they were in the Government. It is well known who is responsible for the great robbery in the Central Bank. Therefore strengthen the hands of the President to get rid of rogues in the government.”
Increasingly, more SLFP ministers have become vocal about bribery and corruption. Many of them have bribery and corruption charges against them as well. Even if the others did not take a direct swipe at the UNP that Dissanayake did so on Friday is significant. It highlights that there is a positive anti-UNP thrust in the SLFP albeit UPFA campaign and portends what is to come. Other key issues like the cost of living and an acute shortage of fertilizer for farmers have not received any mention. Thus, the SLFP campaign has already assumed an aggressive character against the UNP. It is clear that public agitation at continuing bribery and corruption under the present government is going to be placed at the door-step of the UNP. That raises the all-important question – how long more can the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government continue with the bickering reaching new levels? It comes at a time when President Sirisena has failed in his efforts to unite the rival faction of the SLFP and seek their support. The compulsion for such unity is the estrangement with Sirisena’s main coalition partner, the UNP.
However, there are a handful of SLFP ministers who say that Sirisena may not go public with the report until the local polls are over. This is in keeping with the principle that it was the main partner in the Government that has fielded candidates under the United National Front (UNF) and this would hurt their campaign. Yet, one of them said there were nevertheless“overriding factors.” He pointed out that Sirisena had failed in his efforts to bring unity within the SLFP. His appeals to the rival factions met with a snub, politically isolating him. “Thus, everything counts when fielding candidates and steering a polls campaign. He has to come number one or at least two and that means a lot,” said the SLFP minister.
Sirisena is not hiding the fact that he is very livid about not being able to re-unite the SLFP. He told SLFP organisers at the Janadipathi Mandiriya meeting that the main cause was Basil Rajapaksa, to whom he even spoke on the telephone through a Buddhist monk, as a last ditch attempt. He charged that Basil Rajapaksa’s stubbornness led to the party remaining split. However, Sirisena declared Hebei, Mama Basil Rajapaksata hungak isthuthi wantha venawa or I am very thankful to Basil Rajapaksa. He said it was Basil who had, by his conduct, helped him to win the January 2015 presidential election.
Relations between the now chief strategist of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and President Sirisena had remained strained even when the duo were in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet, it now transpires. Basil Rajapaksa made this disclosure to a friend and declared that till he received the telephone call, they had not spoken to each other for over two years.
Evidently Basil Rajapaksa had become aware of Sirisena’s remarks. Speaking to SLPP supporters at a meeting in Battaramulla he declared, “There would have been no need for SLFP unity if Maithripala Sirisena did not divide the party. He did this before the presidential election of 2015 when he received the backing of the UNP.”
Sirisena did not stop at that. He made clear that disciplinary action would be taken against those from the SLFP, who support any other party in the local polls. The name of the first likely casualty came up at the meeting. He directed party officials to consult lawyers and initiate disciplinary inquiries against former Minister Johnston Fernando. He had accompanied SLPP candidates to the Kurunegala District Secretariat for handing over of nomination papers.