January 8: The Promise and the Pain

President Sirisena’s outburst last week only reinforced public perception that two years after they swept into office on a wave of hope and change, the Government’s only commitment was to the restoration of the political status quo and the corrupt business of politics as usual. In ways that will become apparent only years from now, President Sirisena has inflicted grievous damage to his political legacy irrespective of how this crisis now plays out. His credentials as a political leader committed to combating the scourge of political corruption has been badly wounded this week. Politically, Sri Lankans are a deeply unfortunate people.

by Dharisha Bastians, ‘FT.lk,’ October 20, 2016


When Maithripala Sirisena decided to contest against Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential poll, he took his life in his hands. He was not the only one, but as Rajapaksa’s direct challenger, Sirisena would be most-hated, and therefore, most at risk.

With the fate of Rajapaksa’s last challenger still fresh in Opposition memory, precautions were taken to protect the ‘Common Candidate’ from instantaneous reprisals the morning after the election, should the results favour the incumbent. Opposition strategists believed that the few hours the Rajapaksa regime would be forced to spend locating the common candidate could mean the difference between life and death for Sirisena. So once he had cast his vote in Polonnaruwa on 8 January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena and his family went into hiding for the night, in a remote coconut estate in Kurunegala. To conceal the movement of the future first family, the small convoy of vehicles carrying the Opposition candidate moved into the property under the cover of darkness. untitled-3

Less than two years into his presidency, Maithripala Sirisena appears to have forgotten who he was hiding from on that dangerous day in January, 22 months ago. He has forgotten the fear that gripped the Common Opposition camp when campaigning ended 48 hours before the election.

Tipped off about a potential threat to the candidate, the Opposition campaign changed plans at the last moment, hiring a helicopter to transport Sirisena to his final rallies. The Rajapaksa military complex had sprung leaks, and information was flooding into the Opposition campaign as the days wore down to the election. The tip-off about serious threats to Sirisena’s security ahead of the polls indicated vague plans being hatched to use professional snipers to attack the candidate at his rallies, or while he was travelling. Candidate Sirisena climbed up to the stage of his final campaign rally in Maligawatte minutes before midnight, making a quick stump speech to wind up his campaign. Opposition strategists claim the delay was aimed at ensuring the candidate had the shortest possible time on stage, when he would be most vulnerable to an attack.

In Maligawatte that day, Sirisena, a small-made man, was hidden from view by a bullet-proof enclosure and a ring of broad-shouldered private security personnel and STF. The bulge under his signature white tunic revealed that he was also wearing a bulletproof jacket.

In the January 2015 presidential election, Sri Lankan voters did not just defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa. They defeated a powerfully oppressive State machinery that was threatening life and liberty in the country. They defeated the authoritarian tendencies that placed the life of an Opposition candidate in grave peril, for daring to stand in a democratic election. The 8 January electorate – specifically 6.2 million voters – rejected the Rajapaksa military industrial complex, the Orwellian police state it had fostered and the nepotism and corruption that accompanied the regime’s casual brutality and repressive policies.

Executor in chief

Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the bespectacled, shrill-voiced former army lieutenant colonel, pet of the Rajapaksa brood, was the executor in chief of that brutality and oppression. His shadow fell on every aspect of Governance during his brother’s presidency, from the impunity regime loyalists and lackeys enjoyed for heinous crimes, to the Government’s dismal human rights record, its anti-minority policies and its lack of progress on healing the wounds of a protracted civil war. untitled-1

It was the powerful Defence Secretary who struck fear into the hearts of political opponents and critics. It was an age when critics and dissidents were disappeared, when journalists were slain on the streets, and no one was held responsible for those crimes. Fear gripped the nation as a pervasive ‘white van’ culture took hold. He was responsible for the militarisation of the State, from bestowing colonel rank to school principals to making a ‘military leadership programme’ mandatory for university entrants.

Recent investigations into high-profile assassinations and disappearances cases have revealed the explicit use of the military to silence political opponents, including journalists Prageeth Ekneligoda and Lasantha Wickrematunge. As for shady deals, allegations abound about the former Defence Secretary’s involvement in the controversial MiG-27 purchase, the military establishment’s connections to the shadowy Avant Garde maritime security operation and the alleged abuse of State resources for the construction of the D.A. Rajapaksa memorial in Hambantota.

While President Sirisena may have suffered short-term memory loss, the public have not forgotten the fear and repression the former defence secretary’s iron rule embodied. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the most powerful symbol of everything that was so terribly wrong with the Rajapaksa regime.

It is this man and the politics of impunity and repression that he embodies, that President Sirisena chose to champion, when he launched a scathing attack on anti-corruption agencies at a military event last Wednesday (12). By accident or design at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute that day, President Sirisena held a brief for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the powerful official accused of allegedly hunting journalists, ordering the military to shoot civilian protestors and backing the group leading the worst ethno-religious riots in Sri Lanka since 1983. He is also the official accused by the Bribery Commission of causing a loss of revenue to the tune of Rs. 11.4 billion to the State, by his decision to permit the private security firm Avant Garde to operate a floating armoury.

Powerful influences 

If as President Sirisena’s aides say, he was only trying to send a message to Government agencies battling corruption, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a poor example to cite and the worst possible reason to abandon the anti-corruption, good governance platform that swept him to power last year. Worse still, the President’s remarks came amidst a whirl of speculation over the past several months that bridges were being built between the President’s Office and the former Defence Secretary.

A coterie of powerful Presidential advisors and confidants, led by a former UNP member who rebelled against the UNP leadership when the party was in Opposition, are allegedly trying to orchestrate the rapprochement. Members of the JHU are also part of this group but it is not clear if the Sinhala nationalist party supports the idea of rapprochement with the former Rajapaksa regime official.

The President’s outburst last week also comes in the wake of reports that he was increasingly displeased by the conduct of the Bribery Commission, the FCID and the CID. Since the fall of the Rajapaksa regime, these three agencies have been at the vanguard of anti-graft investigations and prosecutions, especially against members of the former Government.

Slow and selective

Despite campaign pledges to make combating corruption a major governance priority under the new administration, progress on investigations against powerful members of the former Government have been slow and allegedly selective. President Sirisena is reportedly irked by the pace of these investigations and attempts to safeguard selected members of the former regime who have made inroads with the newly installed Government.

A former Additional Secretary and chief of staff to President Rajapaksa, against whom there are numerous allegations of corruption and fraud, has rarely been brought before the three agencies even for questioning about the complaints. The powerful and now wealthy former official is believed to have leveraged significant influence with members of the UNF administration, relationships that have ensured he remains largely immune from investigation into his past activities.

Another case that was contributing to the President’s displeasure was the lethargic attitude towards the Malwana land case. Complaints that former Minister Basil Rajapaksa was the rightful owner of the 16-acre property and luxury villa constructed on the premises had been made to the FCID. Land registry deeds had been secured, showing that Rajapaksa kinsman and businessman Thirukumar Nadesan was the one-time purchaser of the property. Both Basil Rajapaksa and Nadesan have denied ownership and the property is soon to be auctioned by the State. Yet despite progress in the case, the businessman in question was never interrogated by the FCID. The interrogation and subsequent arrest and bail finally occurred on Monday (17).

This was after the subject came up during heated discussions about the President’s speech at SLFI between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last Thursday (13). But if these were factors that caused the President’s justifiably righteous indignation, his other grievances were far more problematic in light of his pledges to tackle corruption indiscriminately when he assumed office.

The Bribery Commission recently initiated action against two members of the SLFP – A.H.M. Fowzie and Priyankara Jayaratne. Both SLFPers are ministers in the Sirisena Administration. The complaints deal with alleged offences committed when they were still ministers in the Rajapaksa Government. Both cases annoyed President Sirisena, who told confidants after his outburst last week, that he believed the Bribery Commission was acting selectively against members of his own party.

The Commission, the President believes, was actively ignoring several complaints lodged against UNP Ministers and had avoided acting on the controversial Treasury Bond scandal. All this has given rise to a perception that the anti-corruption agencies were being driven by a UNP agenda.

The director general 

Additional Solicitor General and President’s Counsel Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe was handpicked from within the Attorney General’s Department to serve as Director General of the Bribery Commission. The Joint Opposition, comprising the former President’s loyalists, alleged that Wickremesinghe was a close personal friend of the Prime Minister. The President’s wrath therefore was skillfully directed towards the Director General. Dias Wickramasinghe, who assumed office before the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed the independence of key commissions was set a Herculean task.

Battling commissioners and sleuths appointed to the Commission by the Rajapaksa administration who consistently championed the cause of their old masters, the Director General was able to hold the fort until the Bribery Commission was reconstituted with independent commissioners led by former Supreme Court Justice T.B. Weerasuriya after the passage of the 19 Amendment. Strong-willed and hailed as a no-nonsense officer, Dias Wickramasinghe won the confidence of the independent commissioners.

In the wake of her shocking resignation, Ministers and officials in the Government hailed Wickramasinghe as an official of “enormous courage and intellect”. During her brief stint as Director General, Wickramasinghe spearheaded a top secret sting operation to nab three Customs officials soliciting a bribe to the tune of Rs. 125 million – the largest bribe ever detected in Sri Lanka.

Corruption watchdogs and civil society representatives acknowledge that Dias Wickramasinghe was an official deeply committed to strengthening the local legal framework to deal with corruption and tackling systemic corruption in political and bureaucratic spheres.

Wickramasinghe was in Malaysia when the President’s remarks were made public, and her first instinct was to tender her resignation immediately. However, several interventions by Government officials and even the Speaker of Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, appeared to have changed her mind, highly placed sources with access to the Director General told Daily FT.

As of Friday last week, Wickramasinghe appeared to have decided to remain in her position. However by Monday, hours before President Sirisena was scheduled to return from the BRICS summit in Goa, Wickramasinghe tendered her resignation. It is still unclear what development precipitated her resignation.

Fragile coalition politics had dictated that both the UNP and SLFP remain silent about President Sirisena’s speech, lest it cause further tension between the two parties and their leaders. This lack of defence from any quarter, may have hastened Dias Wickramasinghe’s decision, some sources implied. Others said messages had been sent to the Director General through a third party that the President was expecting her resignation.

Yesterday Cabinet Spokesman Dr Rajitha Senaratne further reiterated President Sirisena’s position, telling the cabinet briefing that the Director General had botched up investigations into the alleged Rajapaksa accounts in Dubai and leaked sensitive letters containing President Sirisena’s signature to the former President. A few hours later, Government sources confirmed that Wickremesinghe’s resignation had been had been accepted by the President. Ending the radio silence from the Presdient’s quarter on his devastating speech, Minister Senaratne also explained that President Sirisena was in no way implying that action should not be taken against the former Defence Secretary, and was only objecting the humiliation of former navy chiefs in court by throwing them into a detention cell. Senaratne insisted that President Sirisena’s frustration stemmed from the failure of these anti-corruption agencies to nab top members of the Rajapaksa regime.

System integrity compromised

Wickramasinghe’s resignation in the wake of the President’s remarks last week was a major blow to public confidence in the Government’s commitment to combating corruption. Both the President’s onslaught and the Director General’s resignation put the integrity of the entire system dedicated to dealing with corruption into question.

Independent commissions created under the 19th Amendment are fledgling institutions that are still in the process of winning the public trust and confidence. Given the battering these and other democratic institutions have taken under successive Governments, and most especially during President Rajapaksa’s nine-year reign, the culture of resistance that must be part of independent commissions will take years to build.

But while the system may still be fragile only one year since the enactment of 19A, the President’s outburst last week provided an unique opportunity for the commissions to assert their independence from political interference, says Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL).

TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeysekere told Daily FT in an interview earlier this week that the legitimacy of independent commissions do not spring from the perceptions held by the executive. “The core of independent commissions should be that they do not bow to political pressure in any way,” Obeysekere noted.

The TISL Executive Director observed that independent commissions grow stronger through friction with Government authority figures, and standing strong against political interventions would boost its credentials. Other analysts pointed out that if independent commissions were irritating the executive or other sections of the Government, it was proof that the commissions were getting something right.

According to some Government insiders, the crisis precipitated by President Sirisena’s remarks last week, held the potential to escalate and cause serious fractures in the coalition Government. More disturbingly however, President Sirisena appears to be increasingly in the grip of a powerful security establishment that is directing his policy on key matters of State.

Military imprints

This trend first became apparent when the defence establishment reached out to the President on the Government’s decision to sign the landmine treaty that was announced in Geneva in March this year. In spite of the announcement made at an international forum, the Government is now backtracking on its commitment, highly placed sources said, due to pressure from the military.

The military is concerned that if Sri Lanka accedes to the treaty, it will make bases vulnerable since they would no longer be protected by landmines. The military is also concerned that a lack of access to anti-personnel mines would serious hamper its operations in the event of a recurrence of war.

More recently, the shadowy hand of the defence establishment has been seen in the first leaked draft of the new Counter-Terrorism legislation aimed at replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Military experts are opposing attempts to bring the new legislation in line with international best practices, authoritative sources told Daily FT.

While the draft is by no means final, the first leaked draft bears the strong military imprint, with activists charging that its provisions are more draconian than the heavily criticised PTA. The draft is currently before a Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee for scrutiny.

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest failures of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has been its unwillingness or inability to dismantle a sprawling national security apparatus carefully constructed under the former Defence Secretary’s leadership. After years in the Opposition, the new Government had extensive knowledge of how the military establishment, especially its more shadowy sections, was used as political tools of the Rajapaksa regime. The apparatus comprised vast intelligence units operating without any Government oversight, massive funding and complete autonomy over its own affairs. These units remain in operation today, still filled with officers steadfastly loyal to the old political guard.

None of this was news to the new Government that assumed office on 9 January 2015. In fact, the scale of the problem raised coup fears in the early months of the administration, and caused the Government to tread carefully in its dealings with the security establishment.

Developments in the intelligence sector 

Nearly two years later, intelligence and counter-terrorism units are still run by loyalists of the former regime, and essentially operate outside the ambit of the ruling Government. Government ministers and officials look increasingly helpless, as these units continue to chart their own course, detaining human rights defenders, arresting activists operating in the North and continuing oppressive surveillance in the former war zones. Developments this past week in the intelligence sector, should have sent a collective chill down the spine of the Government. A former military intelligence officer from Kegalle was found dead inside his home apparently having committed suicide with a piece of plastic wire. His phone records were wiped clean and there are reports he visited a local army camp in the weeks preceding his death. He left a ‘to whom it may concern’ suicide note – a letter containing no trace of regret or emotion, and admitting to having killed Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. “Please release my friend Malinda Udalagama” the note said. Udalagama presumably referred to the suspect currently in custody over Wickremetunge’s murder and the assault on Rivira Editor Upali Tennakoon in 2009. His name, however, is Premananda Udalagama. The circumstances of the military officer’s death are profoundly suspicious, and the CID has commenced a major investigation into the alleged suicide. The CID is also now reportedly investigating an alleged ‘intelligence slush fund’ that was used to pay military officials that the former Government retired early, to make them available for private political contracts.

It is in this backdrop, that another theory about the President’s outburst is being floated. As the tussle continues between the military and law enforcement agencies investigating their activities during the previous regime, the military has decided to make an ally of President Sirisena. Top Government officials believe that President Sirisena is now the victim of a major military psy-ops. He is being plied with allegedly concocted intelligence reports indicating that the President was deeply unpopular among military personnel. The report was handed over by Military Intelligence, the unit that has been badly implicated in several high profile killings and disappearances. It is also the unit that has repeatedly refused to cooperate with investigations into these cases, the CID has reportedly complained to court. Highly placed sources said President Sirisena was upset by the intelligence analysis and these concerns may have prompted his outburst before a largely military audience last Wednesday, in a bid to boost his national security credentials. President Sirisena’s defence of ex military commanders and a former defence secretary, and his apparent frustration over the prolonged incarceration of military intelligence personnel in the Ekneligoda disappearance case, may have been part of this effort. The exposure of this link between the President’s outburst and the intelligence report, has prompted calls for the removal of intelligence chiefs by civil society groups that convened a press conference last week to denounce Sirisena’s remarks. In light of concerns being raised within the Government about the role being played by the intelligence agencies, some insiders said decisions could be taken in the coming days with regard to a shake up in the intelligence apparatus.

Politics as usual

None of this justifies the President’s outburst against independent institutions or his decision to turn his back on the mandate he received to take a hardline on corruption. The same President Sirisena who pledged to act indiscriminately against corruption, told the military event last week that the Bribery Commission and police units investigating corruption had no business “hauling” former military chiefs who had executed the war against the LTTE to court, even when they are charged with defrauding the state. He implied that he was ready to politicize the investigative and prosecutorial process, when he insisted on being “kept informed” about high profile arrests and prosecutions. And when he lambasted the police for holding military intelligence officials in custody for 16 months, President Sirisena implied that investigating journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance since 2010 was somehow less important than keeping the military happy.

President Sirisena’s outburst last week only reinforced public perception that two years after they swept into office on a wave of hope and change, the Government’s only commitment was to the restoration of the political status quo and the corrupt business of politics as usual. In ways that will become apparent only years from now, President Sirisena has inflicted grievous damage to his political legacy irrespective of how this crisis now plays out. His credentials as a political leader committed to combating the scourge of political corruption has been badly wounded this week. Politically, Sri Lankans are a deeply unfortunate people.

On 8 January 2015, the electorate took its life in its hands and used ballot papers to deliver the strongest possible protest against the Rajapaksa regime’s brutality, abuse of power and corruption. Those votes were cast under the watchful eyes of a police state and amid fears that the secrecy of the ballot or the counting could be compromised. Those votes were cast in spite of the Rajapaksa juggernaut commissioning the full might of the state machinery to win the election. Disregarding the mantra that the Rajapaksa regime could never be defeated, Sri Lankans voted. In polling stations around the capital, from College House where the elites cast their ballots, to the tiny school in the suburbs, one word reverberated, falling with smiles from the lips of voters, their fingers inked as they left the centres. It was also the slogan the common opposition fielding Maithripala Sirisena as candidate had chosen: “Change”. Last week’s speech was in many ways President Sirisena’s second betrayal, the first being complete when he failed to former President Rajapaksa from contesting Parliamentary elections on the SLFP ticket. He conceded to the Rajapaksa camp then, in order to safeguard his party. His statements last week also smacked of a burning desire to appeal to the military and ultra nationalist Sinhala-Buddhists, constituencies that Rajapaksa has monopolized even after his defeat. In pandering to this group, President Sirisena is actively turning his back on the constituency – and the platform – that won him the presidency. Over two years his actions have consistently proved that protecting the SLFP and his position within the party take precedence every time over building a presidential legacy based on his campaign pledges.

Keepers of the flame

The 8 January election was the first time the electorate looked beyond personalities and political parties. The Common Opposition, championed by activists like the late Ven. Sobitha Thero, intellectuals, lawyers and civil society inspired the political imagination with an idea.

Decades of political strife, insurgency and civil war and casual authoritarianism had left the fabric of our democracy in tatters. The Common Opposition offered a glimmer of hope that there was a way out of the mess. That governance based on the principles of ‘yahapalanaya’ could fix a broken political system and halt the democratic recession.

In the magic of this idea, Maithripala Sirisena was only a vessel. In the Rajapaksa regime, both before and after its fall, everything centres on a single personality. Conversely, the whole Opposition premise was that its campaign for change was not about personalities. Personalities are disposable. For the moment, in the post-January 8 psyche, the idea is not. If President Sirisena chooses to continue on this path, to turn his back on his mandate and throw his lot in with the ideas that were defeated in last presidential election, his political legacy will be in tatters and all the forces of 8 January will align against him. Beyond this betrayal, the clamour for change can continue as long as the citizenry remains engaged and vigilant, and unwilling to brook deviation from promised political reform.

Still, the idea of tearing of it all down and rebuilding again so soon is daunting. As Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda posed during a lecture in Colombo last week, as disappointment sets in and the promise of Yahapalanaya begins to slip away in earnest, where do the reformist and reconstructivist constituencies of the 8 January election go from here?  There is another question that also seems to resonate in this age of disillusionment: Is Sri Lanka’s political system too broken to fix?

Uyangoda believes the danger is if political disappointment turns to political despair. Despair has a disempowering effect, and could necessitate another cycle of repression, violence and social mobilisation to create a new opportunity for change, many years down the road. The time for despair is still some way off, the political scientist asserts.

Politicians fail. The idea must not. Three years ago, in dusty auditoriums only half full, Sobitha Thero lit a spark that set the public imagination on fire. The movement that awakened the citizenry lives on, in the civil society representatives, lawyers, academics, artistes, human rights activists and trade unionists who continue to hold a faltering Government to account and keep influencing public policy. And there lies the greatest hope. That the idea kindled by an aging priest who was unafraid to speak truth to power, who believed in a richer democracy, in a greater country, has taken hold.

Political personalities will come and go, they will promise and betray, but the change movement can live on, making incremental progress, until some distant day, the promise is fulfilled. That is, if the forces of 8 January and the people that mobilised behind the movement can be counted upon to remain keepers of the flame.

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