- President, PM outline different missions instead of common vision: Decision of renewal of MoU before December 31
- Sirisena tells party loyalists to be patient and confident, says that some JO members are in regular contact with him
- Ranil gears the party for local council elections, while party prepares to field him as 2020 presidential candidate
- Cabinet decides to shut down Anti-Corruption Secretariat and President expedites probes
Like in the previous week, where the discussion exposed cracks within the coalition, the mood was far from conciliatory this week too. Then, President Maithripala Sirisena accused the UNP of scuttling high profile investigations into allegations of bribery, corruption and fraud involving former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, members of his family, associates and officials.
This time again, he was insistent that the Secretariat should not be given a new lease of life. The extended term of the Secretariat expired on June 30. The subject of discussion was a ‘Note to Cabinet’ from Premier Wickremesinghe, asking ministers to take an “appropriate decision”. Varied views were expressed at last Tuesday’s meeting.
At one point, in a bid to reach a compromise, Wickremesinghe suggested that the Secretariat be brought under his purview — vesting it under his own Secretary. This was turned down by Sirisena. Until its term lapsed on June 30, the Prime Minister’s Secretary had exercised limited administrative control. Whilst the monthly pay for the Secretariat staffers came from the different departments they earlier served, a fifty per cent incentive payment, which was a ‘risk allowance,’ was met by the Premier’s office. So were emoluments for retired police officers including onetime intelligence operatives who were involved in fact checks on complaints. However, months earlier, relations between the Secretariat and the Premier’s office soured after an official there was reportedly miffed over an investigation directed by the Secretariat to the Police Chief.
At the ministerial meeting, Sirisena who did not favour the Secretariat being brought under the Premier’s Secretary said that would not be in the Premier’s own interest since it would lead to more accusations. He would have to face the same charges again. Sirisena noted that there were several independent state institutions which were capable of handling public complaints. He accused the Secretariat of not doing its job properly except to pick and choose some cases.
Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera opined that rather than closing down the Secretariat, it would be better to scale down its activities gradually. If that happens, he added, there would be no accusations or criticism. Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera who said he agreed with Samaraweera declared he had done some research on the matter. He has found out that the cases of State Minister A.H.M. Fowzie and the then Minister Priyankara Jayaratne were not handled by the Secretariat. They were the result of complaints made directly to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). Fowzie stands accused of misusing a special vehicle with monitoring devices. This was gifted by a foreign government (Denmark) for tsunami relief work. Jayaratne has been indicted for providing a job in his Ministry for his daughter. In referring to the two SLFPers, Sirisena made out during the previous week that they had to meet that fate because they were close to him.
“Dann nethi deval kathaa karanna epa” or do not speak of matters that you don’t know, exhorted Sirisena to Jayasekera. He said the complaints had gone from the Secretariat to the then Director General of CIABOC. Most ministers were by then in favour of shutting down the Secretariat. The decision was recorded accordingly. Ananda Wijepala, then Director of the now defunct Secretariat told the Sunday Times, “I can say categorically that we had no role in the probes into State Minister Fowzie and former Minister Jayaratne. Neither did we receive complaints at that time nor did we have contacts with CIABOC over these two cases.” Wijepala also refuted claims by Government spokesperson and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne that the Secretariat had wasted more than Rs 65 million of government funds in the conduct of its operations. “The annual allocation approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, upon a request from the Prime Minister, was Rs 7.5 million. Yet, we did not utilise more than Rs 1.2 million every month,” he said. Now, the former Secretariat staffers have filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act seeking a detailed list of expenditure incurred for their functioning. Another source at the former Secretariat alleged that they “had just begun investigations into a fishy deal by a powerful and vociferous politician in the government (who was a minister in the previous government as well) when the decision to close down came.”
After last Tuesday’s ministerial meeting, Senaratne told the media the Secretariat was “not set up to curb corruption.” It was established to provide the basic paper work to the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), he claimed. He added: “Now most of the complaints have been received. There are 14 other institutions to take action against corruption. The FCID is there, the Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery and Corruption (CIAOBC) is there, the CID and a Presidential Task Force too are there and there are several other state institutions that also carry out the task. The Auditor General, the Crime Intelligence Analysis Bureau (CIAB), the Financial Intelligence Unit and the Anti-Narcotics Department are also there — as well as the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), the State Intelligence Service (SIS), Colombo Crime Division (CCD) and the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). All of them investigate corruption which is why it was decided that there is no use in maintaining the anti-corruption unit any longer.”
If Senaratne’s argument, ostensibly the official position of the government, is correct, the question arises over why a special Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat had to be set up in the first place. After all, it is the Kalutara District MP’s own party leader and Prime Minister who had wanted it established. Would-be complainants could easily have been told to go to one of those state agencies. Despite their existence, the only reason for setting up the Secretariat was because the Government, as repeatedly declared, wanted to give priority to fighting bribery and corruption. Therefore, the official position for closure, articulated by him raises more questions than it answers.
Senaratne went on to say: “To investigate minor cases the Police is there. But what was happening to the FCID is that they were being forwarded all the complaints that the Secretariat received and they were forced to investigate all of them. The Secretariat was allocated Rs. 12.26 million each year; the unit has spent Rs. 26 million in 2015 and another Rs. 26 million in 2016 and another Rs. 12 million during the first six months of this year, totalling nearly Rs. 65 million.”
More details of why an Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat (ACCS) became necessary are clear from a decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers on January 21, 2015 – just two weeks after the presidential election. A memorandum from Premier Wickremesinghe that was approved said “….it was decided to establish an Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) to investigate large scale corruption and fraudulent activities that prevailed during the previous regime, initiate legal action against those responsible for same, and recommend measures to be adopted to prevent such occurrence in future…”
It added: “…. Accordingly, the Anti-Corruption Committee (chaired by the Premier) decided to establish a dedicated Secretariat for the Committee, to co-ordinate and direct the investigations of the allegations of serious frauds, financial crimes and corruption….” It is abundantly clear from what Premier Wickremesinghe told his cabinet colleagues in a memorandum that the government spokesperson Senaratne’s assertion that the Secretariat was “not set up to curb corruption” is wrong and grossly misleading. Such official pronouncements with little or no basis lead to more suspicion in the public mind about the Government’s intentions and further erodes its credibility.
Whilst giving approval for Premier Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet memorandum on January 21, 2015, ministers, also took a number of decisions on the course of action. In one instance, a decision said, “Recognising that corruption in the form of money laundering and illegal transfer of money is not confined to geographical boundaries but a transitional phenomenon that affects all economies, demanding international co-operation to prevent and control the same, the Hon. Prime Minister was authorsed to seek the assistance from institutions like the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Reserve Bank of India and other relevant international agencies to obtain the services of their experts to build the capacity of the government officers and the staff of regulatory agencies engaged in conducting inquiries on irregularities in the financial sector.”
On that same date (January 21, 2015) the Cabinet also decided to appoint a Ministerial Committee headed by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to make recommendations to formulate a Bill to provide for an institution with wide powers to deal with corruption. This was after ministers noted that “the current legislative framework has been found inadequate and also incorporating stringent provisions to deal with persons who have acquired wealth, the source of which cannot be established.” However, even after the Government has reached its mid-term, no such legislation has seen the light of day.
The fallout from these issues, particularly President Sirisena’s accusations against his governing partner the UNP, of stalling investigations against the Rajapaksas, has caused serious concerns for the party. A four-member team led by Premier Wickremesinghe met Sirisena for talks on Thursday afternoon in what appears to be a ‘damage control’ exercise. Others accompanying him were Ministers Malik Samarawickrema (UNP Chairman), Kabir Hashim (UNP General Secretary) and Mangala Samaraweera. Both sides remained tight lipped over details of their discussions.
One source familiar with the meeting, however, said the UNP team had raised issue over Sirisena’s accusations that the UNP was selectively stalling the anti-corruption drive. They had politely refuted the allegations. However, the President was both emphatic and assertive. He has said that he had to make those references since little or nothing had happened over probes into high profile cases. He has declared that the way forward is to deal with cases of corruption. A source close to the Presidency said Sirisena was unequivocal that the drive against corruption should continue and whoever responsible for it should be brought to book. The UNP delegation also seized the opportunity to invite Sirisena for the party’s 71st anniversary. Plans are afoot to have a major ceremony to mark this occasion on September 4. The UNP held a similar event at Campbell Park on September 10 last year and it was attended by Sirisena as chief guest.
The President’s accusations could not have come at a worse time than now for the UNP. Its leader Wickremesinghe is gearing the party machinery and is to embark on a re-organisation programme. The idea is to carry out a robust campaign for the local government and provincial council elections. Thereafter, the programme is to be intensified to prepare for the presidential election campaign. With doubts mounting over the likelihood of abolishing the Executive Presidency, the party wants to field Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate. Long term plans towards this are being made with even advice sought from foreign media firms to formulate strategy. If these were on the UNP’s drawing boards for many months, Sirisena’s verbal assault on the UNP two weeks ago has further widened the cleavage.
Part of the UNP plans played out on Thursday when its MPs took part in a seminar at the Colombo Hilton. Ministers and parliamentarians were briefed on the achievements made by the party, the current economic situation and creating public awareness.
Wickremesinghe told them that local council elections would be held later this year and there was a need to prepare. He said such preparations should be made bearing in mind the objective of forming a UNP government in 2020. He said Ministers and MPs should explain to the people the benefits delivered by the UNP-backed administration. Prices of medicinal drugs were reduced, public sector salaries were increased and fuel prices lowered. Road development projects were bringing about a transformation in the villages, increasing job opportunities. There have been achievements in the education sector too.
Local elections unlikely
However, contrary to Wickremesinghe’s claim, the ‘Joint Opposition’ believes that local elections cannot be held this year. The Government is now planning to amend laws governing local elections to bring down the number who will be elected from some 9,000 to 4,500. It also wants to incorporate the ratio of those who will be elected directly and through proportional representation. Provision is also to be made on the ratio of female members to be elected. Premier Wickremesinghe has called a meeting at Temple Trees today of leaders of political parties to discuss these issues. ‘Joint Opposition’ leader Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times, “We will not take part in this meeting. We have made our position very clear. We can see that the proposed amendments will take at least two more months pushing back local polls to next year.” He said the ‘JO’ had spoken to Election Commission officials who had made it clear that no local polls could be held in December this year. This was due to school examinations and other yearend activities.
Wickremesinghe told UNP Ministers and MPs that they should also tell the public about various loan schemes offered to increase income levels. Another scheme would be offered for school van services. It will be a loan of four million rupees to be paid back at a low interest of 3.5 percent to be paid back in five years. Treasury Secretary R.H.S. Samaratunga gave a presentation on the state of the economy, foreign loans obtained and the investments coming into the country. Wickremesinghe briefed the UNP Working Committee on Friday on matters discussed at the meeting of Ministers and MPs.
The campaign strategy of the UNP this time also has another key aspect – to project a strong image of Premier Wickremesinghe, who is completing 40 years in politics this year. At a meeting, Colombo District UNP parliamentarians decided to have a musical event at the Galle Face Green to mark the event. One of those at the meeting said that they should ensure a turnout which should be more than the opposition’s May Day rally. Cost is no matter, he said. Moves are afoot to invite artistes and film stars from India to take part in the event. A photo exhibition depicting the political life of Wickremesinghe is to be first held at the National Youth Centre in Maharagama and later taken to principal towns.
As pointed out last week, parting ways with its main partner, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) either in 2020 or before, is manifest with serious issues for the UNP. One is the Central Bank bond issue which UNP leaders fiercely defended both in and outside Parliament insisting that nothing was wrong. Now, the Commission of Inquiry probing the issues has unraveled voluminous evidence which runs counter to the UNP’s claims. In short, evidence unfolding so far and reported in the media indicates public funds have been plundered.
This week, the three Commissioners — Justice K.T. Chitrasiri (Chairman), Justice Prasanna Jayawardena and Velupillai Kandaswamay, a former Deputy Auditor General — met President Sirisena. It was to ask for an extension of the Commission’s tenure by another month to complete the inquiries. Sirisena has directed that the term of extension be published in the government Gazette immediately. The bond issue which has so far implicated the UNP of complicity comes amidst accusations by Sirisena that the UNP scuttled probes against Rajapaksa, his allies and officials over bribery, fraud and corruption. There is little doubt the UNP’s opponents would use that charge on an election platform.
SLFP members want to go it alone
It is not only in the ranks of the UNP that there is growing bitterness over their coalition partner. There is a similar, if not more intense, an equal degree of bitterness among those in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) too. This played out on Thursday when the SLFP parliamentary group met. Just hours ahead of his departure to Bangladesh, Sirisena chaired the meeting. SLFP Ministers and MPs declared they were unable to work with the UNP and were highly critical of the UNP leadership. They said they should go it alone.
Gampaha District MP Nimal Lanza, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, complained that he was unable to work with the UNP. He said there was no benefit for the SLFP and something had to be done about it. Labour Minister John Seneviratne disclosed that he had met Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and others on several occasions to discuss this situation. It was not their intention to leave the Government and support Mahinda Rajapaksa.
They had spoken of remaining as an independent entity in the Opposition since they could not keep watching what was going on. He said their biggest dilemma during the discussions was how to face President Sirisena if they left. They wanted to maintain the cordial relationship they have with him.
A string of other speakers who acknowledged that there was a crisis made clear “just because you cannot work with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, we cannot leave. It should be based on a principle or an important issue.” Those who endorsed this view and sought a cautious approach included ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe, Mahinda Amaraweera and Duminda Dissanayake.
There were discordant voices too. State Minister for Highways Dilan Perera said the government should not harass former President Rajapaksa or his family members every now and then. He claimed it was not fair. The remarks were to see a strong verbal exchange between him and Special Assignments Minister Sarath Amunugama.
There was pin drop silence for a while after Sirisena declared that a “lot of things were happening” and added that he could not disclose all of them now. He said that the SLFP ministers and parliamentarians should stay together and take a decision by December 31 this year. This is in marked contrast to his previous oft repeated remarks that this Government would continue till 2020.
Significant enough, December 31 this year, is the date before which the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the SLFP and the UNP requires renewal. According to SLFP ministers, provision for such a renewal on that date has been made in the MoU. That clearly means that Sirisena has through the remarks he made to his party MPs retained the option to decide on the future of the coalition on or before December 31. The remark assumes greater importance in the light of his other remarks.
He declared that quite a few ‘Joint Opposition’ members were in constant touch with him. Even that day (the day he was speaking), some had spoken to him. He appealed to his SLFP parliamentarians to remain patient until December 31. Until then, Sirisena declared, every effort should be made to win over members in the Opposition. He said he was confident that no one would leave the party. One must understand, he pointed out, that all political parties were in turmoil. The ‘Joint Opposition’ was in a huge crisis. It was his SLFP group that had the least amount of problems. Yet, they should not have any cause for worry, he added.
There were some concerns for Sirisena, who was in Bangladesh yesterday, over reports that a group of SLFPers planned to leave the government. This was particularly after remarks by a Minister that if the SLFPers wanted to leave the government, they could. He has declared that the UNP would then form a government.
Sirisena tried to reach the Minister in question but his calls went unanswered. Thereafter, he spoke to another Minister and asked him to urge UNPers not to make any remarks on such matters and he would address the situation upon his return.The result was a volley of SMS messages last evening to mobile phones of all UNP parliamentarians to resist from making any remarks relating to the SLFP.
Since he faulted the UNP for not proceeding with high profile cases, President Sirisena has taken the initiative to direct investigative arms to step up their probes. He has advised those directing the investigations to report to him directly if any undue influence is brought to bear on them. At a meeting with select ministers (one from UNP was absent though invited), Sirisena also discussed the situation. Another UNP minister more closely linked to the issue was not invited.
Files sent to AG’s Dept.
At least in the case of investigations carried out by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), a delay on the part of the Attorney General’s Department has been listed as the reason why no action has been taken. According to a note prepared by the CID, those cases include the following:
- Date of complaint; January 14, 2015 – Investigations into alleged conspiracy at Temple Trees in the early hours of January 10, 2015. File referred to AG on January 27, 2015. File No: CR /108/2015,
- Date of complaint: February 4, 2015: Investigations into assets of former Chairman of the Port Authority Priyath Bandu Wickremamunige. File referred to AG: May 5 2015. File No: CR/1/271/15
- Date of complaint: January 14, 2015: Investigations into missing vehicles of Presidential Secretariat. Date file referred to AG: January 6, 2016. File referred to AG: June 1, 2016: File No: CR/1/1/16
- Date of complaint: March 11, 2015: Investigations into Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Company. File referred to AG: March 11, 2015. File No: CR/1/91/2015
- Date of complaint: October 13, 2015: Investigation into ‘MV Avant Garde’ ship detected by Sri Lanka Navy with arms and ammunition on board off Galle Harbour: File referred to AG on February 2, 2016. File No: 1/08/2016.
- Acquiring illegal assets using criminal proceeds by former Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage. File referred to AG on July 21, 2016. File No: CR1/AMC/CFT/5/2016
- Date of complaint: February 4, 2015. Investigations against Sajin de Vass Gunawardena under the Money Laundering Act. File sent to AG on September 13, 2016. File No: CR01/AML/CFT/12/16
An FCID officer said some 80 files of investigations completed were now with the Attorney General’s Department. This is besides a large number of files that were returned to Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera at his request.
AG’s Department Officials have repeatedly insisted that some of the investigations though completed lacked sufficient details. Others lacked substantial evidence that would warrant an indictment, they pointed out. The AG”s Department works on the principle that an indictment must have a reasonably good chance of a conviction in a court of law. Otherwise, it should not proceed with a prosecution. Many files sent to the AG’s Deparment do not have that amount of evidence to launch a successful prosecution, they say.
The events in the past two weeks make clear President Sirisena is taking a hard line against Government members who allegedly scuttled or tried to scuttle investigations into high profile cases. He has admonished the UNP in the strongest terms. UNP leader and Premier Wickremesinghe has declared he wants his party to form a Government in 2020.
Thus, both leaders in the Government have made clear the directions they will tread. It has come as a disappointment to a few in the Establishment who were busy working out a possible Vision 2020 joint programme by the two leaders. Now that the missions of the two sides are changing, only the coming weeks and months will make clearer their two different visions.