Has Sirisena's Sri Lanka said goodbye to good governance?

The civil society and anti-Rajapaksa leaders have already been peeved at the slow progress in bringing to book scam-tainted leaders.

 |  6-minute read |   02-11-2016
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Those who overwhelmingly voted the president Maithripala Sirisena-prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe alliance into power expecting it to fulfil their promise of yahapalana (good governance) have been shocked by president Sirisena's strident comments questioning the integrity of the agencies carrying out investigations into cases of corruption, bribery, criminal and financial misconduct.

The president, speaking at a function at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, warned he would take action against Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) for working to political agendas at the cost of justice.

The president seems to have been irked at the agencies, giving cause to the opposition to accuse him of a political witch hunt; this, obviously, referred to the large number of ongoing corruption and criminal investigations against politicians and armed forces officers.

According to the Island newspaper, the Sri Lankan president also said that the government was hauling up former naval chiefs and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa before the court in connection with the Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS) case, involving the arms storage company.

He accused those in charge of investigations of misleading him. Referring to the indefinite custody of members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) held in connection with the disappearance of cartoonist Ekneligoda and the killing of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, the president said the courts should be moved to have them released or bailed out pending court proceedings. It is significant that soon after the president's tirade, the court released on bail Udalagam, an army intelligence officer accused of assassinating Lasantha Wickrmetunge.

rajapaksa_110216045523.jpg Any crack could provide an opening for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a political comeback. Credit: Reuters

President Sirisena's reference to cases connected with the armed forces was perhaps made to reaffirm his support to the armed forces, which have been perturbed ever since Sri Lanka agreed to conduct a judicial probe into alleged war crimes committed during the Eelam war. The war crimes issue would again come up at the UN Human Rights Council meeting, in March 2017.

In a stinging attack on "certain media organisations, journalists and NGOs" and "traitorous forces," president Sirisena reaffirmed his confidence in armed forces. "No matter how much they criticise, oppose or attack me, I will never lose confidence in the armed forces and will always be committed to do the utmost for the welfare, honour and dignity of the three armed forces and our heroic soldiers."

He added that "he was not ready to compromise national security in order to please NGOs".

The president said though the government had successfully promoted reconciliation between the communities to create an environment that strengthens inter-communal harmony during the last one-and-a-half years, certain groups and organisations ideologically in favour of separatism have not been destroyed.

And that as they were waiting for an opportunity to create trouble for Sri Lanka, citizens must be on guard.

Reacting strongly to president Sirisena's stinging criticism, the CIABOC director general Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe tendered her resignation. In an interview, she denied the commission was politicised. She said there were 90 politicians under investigation and none of the case files have been closed as alleged by some of the politicians. She added that she did not select any investigation or interfere with the investigations.

President Sirisena's statement has been in direct contradiction with his own stand in the past on corruption and financial misappropriation; other leaders of the ruling alliance - including prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe - have been plugging the line of corruption-free governance.

The civil society and anti-Rajapaksa leaders have already been peeved at the slow progress in bringing to book scam-tainted leaders who thrived during the previous regime.

They see the president's strident statement as an effort to cover up the acts of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) cronies involved in scams. This could also test the durability of the cohabitation rule of the SLFP and the UNP unity government. Serious doubts have been raised about the government sincerity in cleaning up governance where corruption has become part of life, in keeping with what seems to be South Asian tradition.

Slipping into a damage-control mode, the Cabinet spokesman and health minister Rajitha Senaratne said president Sirisena never raised objections about Gotabaya Rajapaksa or former military chiefs being questioned over fraud or corruption allegations. He accused the media of misreporting facts and asked them to make amends. He further said the president was not happy about some serious allegations of corruption going ignored.

Perhaps, as yet another damage-control measure, the government tabled the report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) on the alleged scam in the Central Bank Treasury Bond issue in February 2015 to fulfil a long-standing political and civil society demand. PM Wickremesinghe had been accused of shielding former Central Bank governor Arjuna Mahendran, considered the PM's protégé, when the latter was suspected of being involved in a scam.

The investigation report ruled that Arjuna Mahendran was "directly responsible for the transaction", which allowed a company linked to his son-in-law to rake in large profits from the auction. The PM has assured further action would be taken upon the advice of the attorney general.

In another shocking incident, the president's claim of good governance and successful promotion of ethnic reconciliation to strengthen inter-communal harmony came under serious threat after the police shot and killed two young Jaffna undergraduates riding a motorcycle in Kokkuvil (in the Jaffna peninsula).

According to the police, they opened fire when the youth did not obey their order to stop. The incident triggered protests not only in Northern Province, but also the whole nation, which has been living with police excesses for long. University students all over the island protested in solidarity with Jaffna university students, who went on a strike, indicating the issue was beyond the ethnic divide.

Though the five policemen involved in the incident were remanded to custody, the crude police attempts to cover up the criminal act indicated that police reforms are still a work in progress.

PM Wickremesinghe has promised that an impartial inquiry would be carried out. Unless the government swiftly follows up, the incident could provide yet another opportunity to separatist elements to build up their support among Tamils.

President Sirisena, as a shrewd politician, had probably made his statement with much deliberation to reinforce his constituency within the SLFP and to retain the support of some of the leaders targeted in various investigations. He also appears to be on the move to rebuild his fractured relations with the army, which had been under stress for some time.

In a bid to put to rest speculations about the survival of the cohabitation government, PM Wickremesinghe reiterated its importance to complete the reforms process as agreed upon by the leaders.

In any case, the SLFP and UNP - the two major cohabitation partners - have internal as well as external compulsions to maintain their cohabitation. Any crack could provide an opening for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a political comeback.

The unity would also help Sri Lanka's cause to face the international community with confidence at the UNHRC. It could also enable the European Union to favourably consider Sri Lanka's request - now under consideration for restoration of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) for duty waiver to Sri Lankan exports. The EU had cancelled the GSP+ concession to Sri Lanka for aberrations in governance during the Rajapaksa regime.

Writer

Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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