Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A dossier on corrupt deals



Lalith Weeratunga leaving Dharmayathanaya after receiving dossier on corrupt deals from Ven Elle Gunawansa, chiefincumbent of the temple on June 21, 2006.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

On the late afternoon of June 21, 2006, Presidential Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga, arrived at the Dharmayathanaya, situated close to the BMICH, on the invitation of its chief incumbent, Ven. Elle Gunawansa. The writer was one of the few journalists invited by Ven. Gunawansa, on that day, to report what the outspoken monk called a significant intervention made by a group of civil society activists. Staff photographer, Jude Denzil Pathiraja, accompanied the writer to cover Ven. Gunawansa handing over a dossier that dealt with a spate of corrupt deals to Weeratunga (Dossier on fraudulent deals handed over to President’s Secy, The Island, Thursday June 22, 2006).

 A smiling Weeratunga accepted the report that dealt with corruption, involving the previous SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) politicians and officials, assuring the outspoken monk that President Rajapaksa would take tangible measures to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities. Weeratunga promised to make representations to President Rajapaksa on their behalf.

 Weeratunga also acknowledged corruption within the defence services. Although, Weeratunga assured Ven. Gunawansa that the dossier, furnished by the Ven. Thera, would be investigated by the Special Presidential Investigation Unit, and then cases handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Rajapaksa administration simply forgot the promise given. 

The visit to Dharmayathanaya took place close on the heels of the Auditor General’s Department revealing what was then called the country’s biggest tax fraud, amounting to a staggering Rs 360 bn. The detection made by officers, who had been engaged in a confidential inquiry. It sent shock waves through the government. The investigation revealed the alleged involvement of senior officials of the Inland Revenue, Customs and the Department of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles in the scam (Auditors reveal tax fraud of Rs 360 billion-The Island, June 11, 2006).

Obviously, the then President Rajapaksa lacked courage to take punitive measures against those who had been involved. There had been a spate of allegations, directed against the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) since it ousted the UNP, at the Aug 1994 parliamentary polls, and then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga secured presidency, in Nov 1994.

Having succeeded Kumaratunga, in Nov 2005, Rajapaksa thwarted an attempt to transfer a massive sum of money fromthe President’s Fund before she gave up office.

 Having strongly stood by the then Premier Rajapaksa, who had been under a cloud over what was dubbed as the Helping Hambantota scam, Weeratunga received appointment as Secretary to the President.

There hadn’t been a previous occasion where a leading monk directly requested the government to tackle corruption, before Ven. Gunawansa stepped in.

 Ven. Gunawansa told the writer that corruption was threatening the entire society and the failure to address the issue could have had a detrimental impact on the war effort as well. Although a full scale Eelam War IV hadn’terupted yet, the government knew it was only a matter of time before the LTTE resumed its offensive.

In July, the LTTE the blocked sluice gates of Mavil-aru, in the Eastern Province, to trigger a large scale conflict. But, an all-out war was still several weeks away. In the second week of Aug, 2006, the LTTE resumed Eelam War IV with simultaneous attacks on the northern and eastern fronts.

The writer raised the failure on the part of the Rajapaksa administration to tackle corruption with Weeratunga, a few days after he received Ven. Gunawansa’s dossier and received an assurance that President Rajapaksa would give the required political backing to investigate corruption accusations (President’s won’t be soft on colleagues, officials-Presidential Secretary, The Island, June 26, 2006).

Obviously, the Rajapaksa administration had no intention to rein in politicians and officials, and financial regulations, at every level, were violated with impunity.

Political project

With the change of government, in January 2015, Weeratunga, who had been Chairman of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), was investigated and subsequently found guilty by the Colombo High Court in respect of transferring Rs 600 mn from the TRC, in late Oct 2014. The HC faulted him for making available funds to distribute sil redi among Buddhists around the country, ahead of the January 8, 2015 presidential polls. At the onset of the investigation, interested parties referred to misappropriation of TRC funds amounting to Rs 600 mn though the allegation was proved wrong.

Obviously, distribution of sil redi, mugs, wall clocks and money, during Dec 2014-Jan 2015, had been all part of a costly project to secure a third term for war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Distribution of sil redi had been a key part of the Rajapaksa political strategy implemented at the expense of public funds though the then Election Secretariat warned the then government not to go ahead with the project. Those at the helm of the campaign weren’t in a mood to deviate from their strategy.

Weeratunga, obviously had no option but to authorize the massive payment or face the consequences. If Weeratunga was allowed to quit, in early 2010, he wouldn’t have ended up in Welikada. Wouldn’t it be pertinent to examine, urgently, whether cash cow TRC should remain under the executive president in the wake of Colombo HC ruling on the sil redi case. It would be the responsibility of the President and parliament to take remedial measures to thwart future transfers for political purposes.

The Colombo HC found Weeratunga and Director General, TRC, Anusha Palpita, guilty of making available funds for the specific purpose of promoting the candidature of the then President Rajapaksa. The circumstances under which the funds had been transferred weren’t examined.

Had TRC not been under the then President, Weeratunga wouldn’t have had to undergo the humiliation of a prison term. The former President had repeatedly declared that he issued instructions to Weeratunga to release the money therefore he was responsible for the transaction.

Would he have dared to make such a declaration if not for presidential immunity?

Let me briefly discuss the circumstances leading to President Rajapaksa seeking a third term, two years ahead of time. President Rajapaksa called for presidential polls, on the morning of Nov 19, 2014, three weeks after the transfer of the TRC funds. Those who had accused the government of political vendetta on the basis the TRC funds been transferred, before the announcement of the presidential poll, quite conveniently forgot that the then administration was exploring the possibility, since early 2014. No less a person than the then General Secretary of the SLFP Maithripala Sirisena, UPFA MP, in early 2014, officially requested Rajapaksa to drop plans for presidential polls. At that time, Minister Sirisena hadn’t reached an agreement with the UNP though he was seriously unhappy over him being overlooked for the premier’s post.

The Opposition feared the worst when President Rajapaksa forced the UPFA to endorse the 18 Amendment to the Constitution in Sept, 2010. Communist Party Chief Dew Gunasekera, National List MP and Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, National List MP, declined to vote for the 18 Amendment. But, it was passed in parliament with a majority of 114 votes. The required 2/3 majority was obtained with 161 members voting for it and 17 against it. Six UNP MPs Upeksha Swarnamali, Earl Gunasekara, Abdul Cader, N. Wijesinghe, Lakshman Seneviratne and Manusha Nanayakkara crossed over to the government, in Parliament, during the debate on the 18 Amendment to the Constitution, for obvious reasons. Some of them switched their allegiance to President Sirisena after the Aug 2015 parliamentary polls.

The 18 Amendment to the Constitution removed the two-time limit on executive presidents.

In January 2013, President Rajapaksa impeached Chief Justice 43, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake to clear the way for his political project.

Today, even the Joint Opposition had been forced to forget how President Rajapaksa’s right hand man weakened the then administration.

Weerawansa’s project

 Many an eyebrow was raised during the second week of July, 2014, when Weerawansa invited the convener of the Movement for Just Society, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, to finalise far reaching constitutional reforms, including the abolition of the executive presidency.

The breakaway faction of the JVP caused irreparable damage to President Rajapaksa. Weerawansa, the then Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities Minister, warned the Rajapaksa government to meet his demands or face the consequences. Weerawansa threatened to throw his weight behind Ven. Sobitha’s campaign, unless the SLFP accepted his demands, meant to bring in far reaching constitutional reforms. Weerawansa’s strategy caused mayhem at the Uva PC polls, in late 2014.

In early Oct, 2014, Dew Gunasekera requested President Rajapaksa drop plans for early polls. Gunasekera’s appeal was supported by his Socialist Alliance (SA) colleagues, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Prof. Tissa Vitharana. Gunasekera told the writer at the time: "Calling for either presidential or parliamentary polls, nearly two years ahead of the scheduled dates, can cause a catastrophe. As the last presidential and parliamentary polls were held in January and April, 2010, there is absolutely no need to engage in a risky political venture now." (Dew makes strong case against snap national polls with strap line calls for thorough examination of ground realities before holding elections two years ahead of scheduled, The Island, Oct 4, 2014).

The SA subsequently, urged the SLFP to abandon its plans for an early presidential poll (SLFP told early presidential poll not required, The Island, Oct 8, 2014).

Their sound advice was simply ignored. The SLFP’s chief strategist Basil Rajapaksa firmly believed his elder brother could secure a third term.

The Island was the only print media to report it whereas the electronic media refrained from giving coverage. However, the writer exercised his franchise for President Rajapaksa at the presidential poll.

Prof Wijesinha was certainly the only UPFA MP who had guts to write letters to President Rajapaksa, the then UPFA General Secretary Susil Premjayantha, as well as Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena. Premajantha switched his allegiance to President Sirisena after the last parliamentary polls, in Aug 2015. Dinesh Gunawardena functions as the leader of the JO.

Prof. Wijesinha is one of the few politicians to take on corrupt politicians, regardless of who perpetrated fraud. His criticism in respect of the Central Bank bond scams, involving primary dealer, Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL), is an example to all those in parliament, and outside.

Prof. Wijesinha, who had played a pivotal role as the wartime administration’s Peace Secretariat Chief, told the writer recently that the previous government could have had taken advantage if Northern PC was held soon after the conclusion of the war in May 2009. The wartime Defence Secretary Rajapaksa had subscribed to that view whereas Basil Rajapaksa thought differently.

Northern PC poll was finally held in Sept. 2013.

Prof. Wijesinha’s letters

Let me reproduce Prof. Wijesinha’s letter addressed to President Rajapaksa: "At the last meeting of the Executive Committee of the Liberal Party, it was decided, as requested by them, to support the request of the Left Parties (Dew, Vasu and Tissa) that national elections not be held in the short term. We, too, feel that it would be better, instead, to embark on the reforms that have been pledged in Your Excellency’s manifesto, as well as in other contexts.

These reforms should be based on the vision Your Excellency used to express, regarding bringing government closer to the people, and ensuring greater responsiveness and accountability in respect of local needs. The need for devolution is something the Liberal Party has always stressed, but we have also been conscious of the need for national security. However, as we have often pointed out, giving greater responsibility to the people, and to local communities, for matters that affect them closely, on the principle of subsidiarity, is quite feasible, whilst also ensuring the security of the nation.

But devolution must also be accompanied by empowerment. So we also need to move towards developing a technologically competent younger generation, and pay much greater attention than now to maximizing human resources.

In this regard Bills that need to be expedited include the following, which are pledged or planned

a) A new Universities Act that provides meaningful training that promotes employability free to those who need it, whilst facilitating the establishment of other centres of excellence through private/ public partnerships

b) A new Education Act that ensures holistic education, with greater stress of skills and competencies that are developed through extra-curricular activities such as Sports and Social Service and Cultural Activities

c) A new Local Government Act that increases the power of local authorities in specific fields whilst also entrenching consultation mechanisms with provision for feedback

d) An Act to change the Electoral system so as to enhance the accountability to specific electorates of Members of Parliament, whilst also preserving proportional representation without the distortions of the current system

We must also revise Administrative and Financial Regulations, as has been agreed is essential in response to strictures made by the Committee on Public Enterprises on which I have had the honour to serve. Such Regulations should establish consultation mechanisms such as the Jana Sabhas you mentioned, but these must be vehicles for the people, not tools for politicians. The initial steps taken by the Ministry of Public Administration in this regard should be strengthened.

It would also help to fast forward action on the National Human Rights Action Plan, as well as on the LLRC Recommendations, all of which have been approved by Cabinet. I believe the position of the government would also be immeasurably improved if the National Policy on Reconciliation were adopted.

Without such measures the decline in popularity that we have recently witnessed will continue. A hasty election will be seen as evidence of panic, and this can be easily exploited. On the other hand, unless there is evidence of change, the people will have no reason to continue to vote for this government, since the economics and social benefits of peace that were anticipated are no longer evident.

It would be tragic if the tremendous achievement of 2009 were to be squandered. Though it may be claimed that the Liberal Party is not in touch with electoral reality, it must also be recognized that our analyses of political developments, based on wide knowledge and established principles, have generally been accurate. Given our initial contribution to the international dimensions of the victories of 2009, we too have reason to argue for measures that will allow us to build positively on that foundation, rather than stand back and see it destroyed.

Yours sincerely."

The following is the text of hitherto unpublished Prof. Wijesinha’s letter to then UPFA General SecretaryPremjayantha: "Thank you for your letter of 10th Octoberregarding offices for any forthcoming national election.

The Liberal Party is deeply appreciative of the UPFA having appointed a representative of the party to Parliament on the National List. We take pride in the success of the war against terrorism during the preceding Parliament, and the speed with which the government engaged in resettlement and rehabilitation thereafter. We will continue to support the government for the term of this Parliament, and trust the government will move on these matters even more effectively before its mandate is concluded.

However we have taken a decision to urge the President to engage in reforms before holding any national election. If reforms do not occur, we may not be able to support his candidature. We continue to wish the UPFA, and the SLFP and its traditional allies, well for the future in fulfillment of the Middle Path of the late S W R D Bandaranaike which accords with the liberal philosophy."

The same letter was also copied to then Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena.

The decision to utilize TRC funds, at the expense of Weeratunga, should be examined against the backdrop of above mentioned events and the pathetic failure to thwart organized violence directed at the Muslim community at Aluthgama and neighbouring areas in June 2014. Had President Rajapaksa triumphed, TRC would have been at the mercy of the executive.

Weeratunga, played a pivotal role as a member of troika comprising Basil Rajapaksa, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Weeratunga during the Eelam War IV. The Indian ‘troika’ member Shivshanker Menon, the then Indian Foreign Secretary in his memoirs Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy referred to Weeratunga’s role.

Let political parties take immediate measures to deprive politicians’ power to exercise power over funds at the expense of parliament, where the ultimate responsibility for public funds lies.