By Sandun Jayawardana
Bombshell revelations contained in phone recordings allegedly involving United National Party (UNP) MP Ranjan Ramanayake largely overshadowed this week’s House debate on the policy statement of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
As one alleged phone conversation after another leaked onto social media and some even making their way to mainstream media, the matter was raised again and again in Parliament during the two day debate on Tuesday and Wednesday. Government MPs gleefully latched onto the scandal, which is causing endless damage to the UNP’s already battered public image.
During the past week, several recordings of alleged phone conversations between Mr Ramanayake and various individuals, including judges and senior police officers, have become public.
Ministers such as Wimal Weerawansa and Nimal Lansa used their allocated time in this week’s debate to hammer the previous Government and the UNP over the recordings rather than speak on the subject of the debate. They pointed out that the scandal raises serious questions regarding the independence of law enforcement authorities and the judiciary.
UNP MPs meanwhile, charged that the Government was trying to use the recordings to divert attention from pressing issues faced by the people such as the rising cost of living, spiraling vegetable prices and shortage of fertilizer.
There were however, indications that even some of his UNP colleagues are clearly incensed by Mr Ramanayake’s behaviour. During the second day of the debate, UNP MP Sidney Jayaratne insisted they did not condone Mr Ramanayake’s “low acts” and added there was no point in remaining in the UNP if it did not take disciplinary action against him.
There was speculation that the man at the centre of the storm would show up during Parliamentary sessions sometime in the week to answer the allegations heaped on him. Mr Ramanayake however, was conspicuous by his absence, leaving the UNP leadership and his Parliamentary colleagues to do what they could to deal with the fallout of the scandal.
Meanwhile, State Minister of Power Mahindananda Aluthgamage told the House on Wednesday that one such alleged recording circulating involved Mr Ramanayake, a then Deputy Minister of the Yahapalana Government conspiring with former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to assassinate him.
Mr Aluthgamage claimed that the recording contained Mr Ramanayake telling Mr Wickremesinghe that he was training to shoot him (Aluthgamage) and that the former Premier is heard approving the plot. He noted that a UPFA MP brought to the attention of the Speaker, an incident in February 2016 at the official residences of MPs in Madiwela where Mr Ramanayake was found practicing shooting with live rounds. “The recording has Mr Wickremesinghe advising Mr Ramanayake to tell police that his weapon misfired. What is the meaning of this? We have raised our voices against the Central Bank bond scam and other acts of corruption. Are we to be killed for that?” he asked the Speaker.
The State Minister claimed that there were some 121, 000 phone recordings belonging to Mr Ramanayake and only a handful had become public. He urged newly appointed Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa to speak on the issue.
Refuting the allegations against him later in the day, former Premier Wickremesinghe insisted he is “not one to get involved in conspiracies,” but questioned how recordings of the alleged phone conversations, which were reportedly seized by police when they raided Mr Ramanayake’s Madiwela residence last week, were finding their way to social and mainstream media. He urged the Speaker to ask the police for copies of the CDs containing the phone conversations to see if any MP was involved in acts of wrongdoing.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa pointedly avoided referring to the phone recordings during the debate, choosing to focus on President Rajapaksa’s policy statement alone. He told the House that the “modern, practical, progressive Opposition” which he heads would support all progressive proposals of the new Government and urged it to present the proposals listed in President Rajapaksa’s policy statement as a Budget instead of waiting till after general elections in April or May.
“We will help the Government get the 2/3 support it needs to fulfill the aspirations of the 6.9 million who voted for them,” he said.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) meanwhile noted that the statement on Government policy as laid out by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signals “an important paradigm shift from the general direction successive Governments have pursued in the last three decades.” TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran urged President Rajapaksa not to “regress into naked majoritarianism” as it was such a mindset that saw the country spiral into armed hostilities that lasted over three decades.
Referring to the Tamil national question, Mr Sumanthiran stated that the Tamil people “are still ready and willing to settle this question on the basis of a united, undivided, and indivisible country that recognizes the diversity and equality of its different peoples,” and welcomed the President’s proposal to enact a new Constitution.
In other developments, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya informed the House that the Attorney General had requested him not to release the forensic audit reports on the Central Bank bond scam among MPs. Mr Jayasuriya stated that the AG had noted that some court cases had already been filed over the matter while several more were due to be filed and as such, had informed him that it would not be prudent to release the reports at this juncture.
Opposition MPs urged the Speaker to release the reports as he was not bound to follow instructions from the AG. Raising strong objections over the matter, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MP Bimal Rathnayake noted that Rs 900 million in taxpayer funds had been spent to compile the audit reports and the public had a right to know the names of those responsible for the bond scams. In answer to the objections, the Speaker said he too wanted the reports to be released quickly and would consult the AG again on the matter.
This week also saw five Private Member’s Bills, including one aimed at repealing the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and another to introduce a minimum age of marriage presented to Parliament by Parliamentarians Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera and UNP Kegalle District MP Dr Thusitha Wijemanne.