SPECIAL REPORT : Part 209March 13, 2018, 8:35 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, struggling for its survival in the wake of a humiliating drubbing the three-year-old coalition had suffered at the Feb. 10 local government polls, received a much needed respite, thanks to the massive ethnic violence, in the Kandy district.
President Maithripala Sirisena has promised to establish a presidential commission to inquire into the circumstances leading to the violence that couldn’t be contained until the Army moved in. The proposed commission will also examine various other aspects, particularly the failure on the part of law enforcement authorities to thwart organized attacks on Muslims.
The Kandy mayhem swiftly diverted public attention while Western powers reiterated their commitment to the fragile UNP-led government struggling to cope up with the crisis caused by the polls debacle. Influential civil society groups, one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), as well as the UK based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) insisted that the government stayed with the Geneva process or face consequences.
Parliament enacted the much opposed Enforced Disappearances Bill on March 8 amidst the Kandy mayhem. The Bill received 53 votes in favour while 16 voted against. Two-thirds of the 225-member parliament conveniently missed the vote. The passage of the Bill took place close on the heels of the setting up of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) in accordance with the ongoing Geneva process. In spite of the delay, the Geneva project seems to be on track.
The OMP is one of Sri Lanka’s four big transitional justice mechanisms – the others being an office to handle reparations, a truth commission and a judicial mechanism to address allegations of wartime abuses.
Sri Lanka, last March, received an additional two years to bring the project to a successful conclusion.
The government’s poor electoral performance dominated both print and electronic media with a section of the UNP demanding an immediate leadership change in the aftermath of the debilitating polls setback. An attempt was also made to explore the possibility of moving a no-faith motion against beleaguered Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe after the UNPer turned down President Maithripala Sirisena’s demand to quit the premiership. Intra-party trouble persisted regardless of a foolish attempt to deceive both public and party alike by changing some cabinet portfolios.
Interestingly, Digana erupted on March 5, over a week after Premier Wickremesinghe succeeded Sagala Ratnayake as the Law and Order Minister in a cabinet ‘reshuffle’ that State Minister of Foreign Affairs Wasantha Senanayake called a farce. Wickremesinghe gave up the Law and Order portfolio on March 8. He received it on Feb 25.
There had been a number of major incidents during the period Wickremesinghe held the portfolio. Tambuttegama erupted on Feb 28 over a violent protest against a move to introduce new drinking water distribution scheme at the expense of the people living in the area. Tambuttegama violence was followed by an eruption in Ampara, on Feb 26, as a result of false allegations pertaining to crushed birth control pills being mixed with food. But the Kandy violence was the worst.
The Kandy crisis diverted media attention. For over a week, the media largely ignored the crisis in the UNP, their failure to locate disgraced Central Bank Governor Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran wanted in connection with his role in the treasury bond scams that had been perpetrated by Arjun Aloysius, the owner of Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) and its CEO Kasun Palisena, in 2015 and 2016. Mahendran last week spurned a second opportunity given by Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne to surrender to the Criminal Investigation Department(CID).
The Geneva issue, too, hadn’t received the required media attention in spite of a treacherous government decision not to take up British wartime dispatches from its High Commission here to London, though Lord Naseby made representations on behalf of Sri Lanka. Those dispatches clearly show that the UN and other interested parties had levelled highly exaggerated war crimes charges against Sri Lanka pertaining to civilian casualties during the final phase of the war here to defeat the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation.
At one point, the Kandy crisis threatened to engulf the entire country, though it brought immense relief to those who had been severely weakened by former war winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa gaining ground at the recently concluded polls. Although, the government received relief, the yahapalana partners, much to the disappointment of their foreign sponsors, couldn’t reach consensus on Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s political future.
Defeated presidential candidate Fonseka has declared, in no uncertain terms, his keen interest in the Law and Order portfolio.
The relationship between the SLFP and the UNP further deteriorated due to the latter not being able to convince President Maithripala Sirisena to appoint Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as Law and Order Minister. The new crisis certainly gave President Sirisena an opportunity to consolidate the SLFP’s position vis-a-vis the UNP, at the expense of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Amidst the turmoil in Kandy, the UNP desperately tried to secure President Sirisena’s consent for Fonseka’s appointment, repeatedly asserting there couldn’t be a better choice than former war-winning Army Chief Fonseka, who, subsequently, declared that had he been in charge, he wouldn’t have allowed the Kandy crisis. But, finally Moneragala District MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara received Law and Order portfolio, much to the disappointment and anger of Fonseka, who condemned President Sirisena’s decision.
Imagine war hero Fonseka who had been the common candidate at the 2010 presidential election had been denied the Law and Order Ministry.
Having suffered a debilitating setback, as bad as the one suffered by the UNP, at local government polls, the SLFP worked overtime to overcome its own crisis at the expense of Wickremesinghe. Amidst political turmoil, the UNP leader undertook an investment promotion visit to Singapore
A Rajapaksa folly
National Freedom Front (FF) spokesman Mohammed Muzammil, who hails from Digana, last week explained to the writer how local police had turned a blind eye to threatening developments in the wake of 41-year-old H.A. Kumarasinghe, succumbing on March 3, to injuries caused by four Muslim men on Feb 22. Muzammil asserted that the situation could have been easily averted had law enforcement authorities called in military reinforcements to Digana, ahead of Kumarasinghe’s funeral.
It would be pertinent to examine the circumstances leading to the organized violence, directed at Aluthgama residents in, June 2014.
The then IGP N. K. Illangakoon received a timely warning on a planned Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) protest at Aluthgama, on the morning of June 15, 2014. The warning was given by National Unity Alliance (NUA) leader, M. Azath S. Salley, a strong critic of the then administration. Salley sent a letter, warning of BBS plans to go on the rampage, to the IGP, with a copy to senior DIG, in charge of the Western Province, Anura Senanayake.
The police had ample time to thwart the BBS protest. Police could have swiftly called in the elite Special Task Force (STF) as well as the Army. In spite of having the wherewithal to disperse the BBS, the then government allowed the situation to get out of hand. The local police turned a blind eye, believing the BBS had the backing of the then government.
The then Colombo Mayor, A.J.M. Muzammil, reacted angrily to the UPFA’s failure to rein in the BBS. Muzammil alleged the UPFA had caused irreparable damage to its relationship with the Muslim community. The Rajapaksa government would have to face the consequences, the veteran politician thundered, alleging that the BBS was pursuing an agenda extremely hostile to the UPFA, though it pretended otherwise. The Colombo Mayor alleged that the BBS had been specifically created to cause the downfall of the Rajapaksa administration.
The writer received a copy of Salley’s letter to Illangakoon. Then UNP Central Provincial Councillor, Salley, emphasized that the Alutgama mayhem could have been easily thwarted had Police Headquarters promptly responded to his request.
The then government allowed the BBS to storm the Trade and Commerce Ministry, in late April 2013.
The BBS was looking for Ven. Watareka Vijitha alleged to be close associate of the Trade and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen who developed a special relationship with a section of the Buddhist clergy to counter the threat posed by the BBS. Bathiudeen played an extremely dangerous game, though he realized the very existence of his relationship with the SLFP was at stake.
Salley asserted that the Alutgama violence could have been prevented if the police had heeded his plea to prevent a gathering of extremists at Alutgama. Unfortunately, the police, obviously acting at the behest of the government, allowed the gathering, leading to unprovoked attacks on the Muslim community. Responding to a query, Salley said that having urged Senior DIG Anura Senanayake to prevent the gathering, the situation was also brought to the notice of IGP N. K. Illangakoon. Asked whether he identified those planning to gather in Alutgama, Salley released a copy of his letter, addressed to the IGP, in which he accused the BBS, as well as Sihala Ravaya, of planning to go on the rampage. Salley warned the IGP that the gathering in Alutgama was nothing but a planned attempt to cause mayhem.
The previous government never bothered to find out the circumstances leading to the Aluthgama violence. Today, the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna have conveniently forgotten the then government’s failure at Alutgama.
Yahapalana debacle through the eyes of LSSP
Obviously, the yahapalana arrangement could have certainly collapsed if not for the swift intervention by a section of the international community. The civil society groupings, too, played a significant role in saving the yahapalana arrangement. Efforts to save the government received unexpected assistance by way of the Kandy turmoil that diverted public attention. But, it would be pertinent to mention that the government hadn’t addressed contentious issues. Yahapalana partner Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP/United Left Front) in the wake of Feb. 10 polls debacle reprimanded President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. In fact, the LSSP statement issued by its General Secretary Lal Wijenayake at a media briefing chaired by MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne flayed the President and PM for the defeat. The statement very clearly asserted that the yahapalana leaders were responsible for the present pathetic situation. In fact, the LSSP statement is the toughest issued by a coalition member in the wake of their defeat. The LSSP alleged that President Sirisena interfered in high profile cases involving monks, military officials and public servants while PM Wickremesinghe shielded the Rajapaksas. The LSSP pointed out that the yahapalana administration suffered the polls setback in spite of some significant constitutional reforms, including the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the Right to Information Act. But, unfortunately, the Sirisena-Wickrenesinghe duo subsequently had pursued a personal agenda in addition to following the strategies of their respective political parties. In a bid to facilitate their personal strategies they had reached deals with those corrupt elements at the expense of yahapalana principles. The LSSP asserted that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership failed to bring those defeated criminals and corrupt elements before court of law thereby contributed to the current unfavourable situation. The LSSP faulted the government for its failure to restore law and order as expected and desired by the public.
Obviously, the LSSP has cleared former Law and Order minister Sagala Ratnayake of any wrongdoing on his part. Those who had repeatedly accused Sagala Ratnayake and the Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya of continuous interference in police investigations and wrong decisions, respectively, should re-examine the original accusations. President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe had never responded to LSSP allegations in respect of the law and order situation and judiciary. Therefore, the decision to replace Sagala Ratnayake is questionable and misleading. Can anyone imagine Ranjith Madduma Bandara managing law and order against the backdrop of Premier Wickremesinghe’s deplorable failure, in his capacity as law and order minister to curb the Kandy violence. Battle hardened Fonseka would certainly have been a better choice and capable of meeting any eventuality. There cannot be any justification in depriving Fonseka of the Law and Order portfolio.
The LSSP also found fault with President Sirisena for being always critical of economic policies proposed by Wickremesinghe. Asserting that President Sirisena’s response to UNP economic policies, too, contributed to the current crisis and some presidential criticisms weren’t acceptable. The LSSP explained how the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna exploited President Sirisena’s statements in the absence of a government common economic strategy. The LSSP termed the failure on the part of the government to reach agreement on economic policy the second major reason for yahapalana defeat at the local polls.
The LSSP asserted that the treasury bond scams that had been perpetrated in 2015 and 2016 were the third reason for the yahapalana debacle. Pointing out that the treasury bond scam crisis erupted in the run up to the 2015 August parliamentary polls, the LSSP accused Wickremesinghe of shielding Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, a Singaporean of Sri Lankan origin alleged to have carried out the scam. Mahendran continues to evade the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in spite of a directive issued by Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne. The LSSP alleged that massive treasury bond scams had diverted public attention from corruption charges directed at the Rajapaksas and their associates. The LSSP also faulted President Sirisena for exploiting treasury bond scams for his/SLFP advantage at the Feb 10 local government polls at the expense of the UNP. The battle between the President and the Prime Minister caused immense damage to the coalition and boosted the Joint Opposition, the LSSP alleged that ill-fated strategies adopted by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo allowed the Rajapaksas-led extremists to make electoral gains. The LSSP, however, asserted that the gains made by the Rajapaksas hadn’t undermined the collective 2015 January 8 mandate. Dr. Wickremaratne’s group expressed confidence that the electorate had declared that it wasn’t ready to bring the Rajapaksas back to power though a red light was shown to the yahapalana leaders. The group called for a united effort to consolidate the yahapalana administration and tangible effort to defeat those threatening the 2015 mandate.