By The “ECONOMY NEXT ” “Political Correspondent
Our political correspondent examines how Sri Lanka’s ex-defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has avoided arrest despite being implicated in the murder of Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga and several other crimes.
Economynext’s political correspondent says both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may want Gotabhaya to remain a free man, but the two leaders have different reasons for not making the high profile arrest.
President Maithripala Sirisena last week confirmed rumours that circulated in Colombo late last year that he had intervened to prevent the arrest of former top defence official of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
Speaking to senior editors, Sirisena for the first time admitted he saved Gotabhaya despite having repeatedly denied he ever blocked the prosecution of the one-time de facto head of state under brother Mahinda.
For President Sirisena, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could be a useful ally to rally hard-line Sinhala-Buddhists within the splintered Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and eventually to secure the leadership of the party.
Even though Sirisena is nominally the leader of the SLFP, he knows that a majority of SLFP members of parliament and the rank and file are with his predecessor Mahinda.
However, Sirisena could use the plethora of criminal cases pending against Gotabhaya to twist his arm into supporting him (Sirisena). Support from Gotabhaya could help Sirisena win over the hardliners within the SLFP.
Gotabhaya has emerged as a symbol of hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and his association with the extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) of Ven. Gnanasara is well-documented.
Any truck with Gotabhaya will cost Sirisena the support he received from the two main minority groups, the Tamils and the Muslims, but for Sirisena the most pressing issue is the leadership of the SLFP.
A drubbing at the February 10 local council elections could make Sirisena more desperate to cut a deal with Gotabhaya and other hardliners in the Rajapaksa faction. That is probably why he announced last week that he is ready to ditch the UNP and form an SLFP government if all SLFP MPs stood behind him.
Sirisena justified interfering in the imminent arrest of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in November last year saying that he did not want any action taken without a water-tight case prepared by the Attorney General.
Sirisena made it clear that he had no faith in the dossier prepared by the AG’s department and wanted private senior legal experts to re-examine the case file before proceeding to indict Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
With Sirisena pulling the handbrake with both hands, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has left the island last month and is conspicuously absent from his brothers’ local election campaign.
For Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too, not arresting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could be a blessing in the long run.
Wickremesinghe is hoping to run for the presidency in 2020. Any split in the main opposition SLFP could only help Wickremesinghe. To perpetuate a division within the SLFP, the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa factor could be vital for Wickremesinghe and the UNP.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a divisive figure. Many SLFP stalwarts such as Nimal Siripala de Silva, John Seneviratne and several other seniors believe that their positon in the party could be undermined by the former defence secretary.
Groups that support Gotabhaya Rajapaksa target the SLFP’s Maithripala faction more than the UNP. For Wickremesinghe, the challenge is to keep the SLFP split going till 2020 and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is an important cog in that strategy and for that he must be free to deepen the divisions within the SLFP.
There have been allegations that Wickremesinghe’s Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka, had a cosy relationship with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and that he too may have helped him evade arrest.
Political sources say former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has openly criticised Ratnayaka for the very slow progress in prosecuting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Minister Ratnayaka’s brother Kavan Ratnayaka is also known to be a close associate of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa has also secured interim court of appeal orders preventing the police from arresting him for the misappropriation of state funds to build a memorial for his late parents.
However, police investigators said there was nothing to prevent them from taking Gotabhaya Rajapaksa into custody in connection with several other more serious crimes, if not for political interference.