President Maithripala Sirisena and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members within the government are desperately engaged in a damage-control process after the President’s October 12 outburst at the Sri Lanka Foundation that the government’s own anti-corruption process was flawed and politicised.
The President had stated in his speech that the three anti-corruption institutions, the CID, FCID and Bribery Commission, have been acting according to political agendas and that if these institutions continued to do so, he would have to take action. He had also berated the officials of these institutions for hauling up former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and three former navy commanders before courts.
The speech was seen by his friends as well as foes as a U-turn by the President in the drive against corruption that was initiated after he was elected to power last year. The civil society organisations that were instrumental in shaping the public opinion in favour of Maithripala Sirisena, the common Presidential candidate of the then opposition in 2014, and continued to extend their support to him in his administration, became furious and launched a scathing attack on the President during a media briefing and in media interviews.
The most ferocious reaction by his associates was boycotting a meeting with the President by civil society organisations on Friday. The situation was further complicated with Bribery Commission Director General Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe tending her resignation. Despite the fact that she had apparently not mentioned the President’s outburst against the Bribery Commission in her resignation letter, the country firmly believes that it was the President’s remarks on the Bribery Commission that led to her stepping down.
After feeling the heat of the aftermath of this speech, the President and his friends in the SLFP now strive to save the situation by making various statements. The President has reportedly stated at a Cabinet meeting that he had also told at the end of his controversial speech that this government would be in power till 2020, but the media had not reported that part.
The same point was brought forth by the Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne on Wednesday.
“What the President exactly said was that this government would not explode as expected by the joint opposition (JO), but the JO that attempted to make it happen would itself explode before long. He also said those who dreamt to remain in power until ‘Nirvana’ even after they were rejected by the people twice, would not survive in politics any longer,” Minister Senaratne said.
“The speech had been misinterpreted by the media, including the State media, and President Sirisena had been misquoted and the media removed certain parts of his speech. Thus, the end result was a totally distorted speech,” he said.
Needless to say that the situation might have been somewhat different had the media reported the President’s remarks on the stability of his government and his attack on the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa along with his onslaught on the Bribery Commission and other institutions at a stretch. However, even if the media had brought to light those ‘unreported’ points in its first story, the allegation by the President about the politicisation of independent commissions and the outburst on the hauling up of the former Defence Secretary and the former Navy commanders before the courts would anyway be a bombshell.
“The top officials of the respective bodies have a right and responsibility to inform me and the Defence Minister of these matters… Those who are in these commissions should know their subject areas. Those who are unaware of national security, military administration and management are arriving at various false decisions without thinking… Some people may say it should not be so as these are independent commissions. Even though commissioners were appointed by the Constitutional Council, it is I, the President, who appoints the Chairmen and the Directors General of these commissions,” the President had stated in his controversial speech.
True, he appointed the Chairmen and Directors General of the commissions, but does it warrant for the commissions to apprise the President of any action they intend to take? After all, they are ‘independent’ commissions. If the law did not provide for any such intimation, nobody could expect that to happen voluntarily. However, there is a point in the President’s claim. Since military matters are sensitive, especially since the ethnic conflict began and also there might be political repercussions if the things are mishandled, it would be advisable for the President as the Defence Minister to be enlightened about the important happenings that have anything to do with his ministry. Then again there should be a criterion for the authorities to decide that importance and all relevant institutions should also have been instructed to report the relevant concerns to the President. These things have to be resolved administratively. Nevertheless, the question about the politicisation of the CID, FCID and the independent commissions is a different concern altogether and it has to be substantiated.
“The CID, FCID and the Bribery Commission cannot function according to a political agenda. The law should be the same for everyone. If these institutions were acting according to some agenda, then I will have to take action. There are objectives and a policy in establishing independent commissions,” the President had stated.
It is a serious allegation as it naturally raises the question as to whose political agenda these institutions followed. The question was in fact raised by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa immediately after the President’s outburst. Many people took it as pointing finger at the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
However, it was Nishantha Warnasinghe, the National Organiser of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), who first came to the rescue of the President with somewhat a sound argument. He contended that it was the lethargic and lenient attitude of these institutions towards major fraudsters that had infuriated the President. And now the government’s official spokesman also echoes the same sentiment. However, this is what Minister Rajitha Senaratne had to tell the media on Wednesday:
“The President and ministers like Patali Champika Ranawaka and I were extremely disappointed over the pattern of investigation by the FCID, Bribery Commission and the CID, as only minor financial mismanagement had been probed and charges filed against perpetrators thus far. What about the billions of rupees and dollars swindled by the Rajapaksa family members, their acolytes and the inner circle of the Rajapaksa regime?”
“But they have only been charged for importing a carom board, bat or a dart board. Nothing has been done on illegal ethanol import, pilfering of billions of dollars out of the country and their Dubai bank accounts. The Bribery Commission, FCID and CID are extremely inefficient, lethargic and sluggish on their investigations and bringing big fish before courts. This government came to do those things and people have now started to question the genuineness of the government in those financial crimes. Why only these ‘sillara’ (retail) cases and not bulk ones? People like Basil, Namal, Johnston and Aluthgamage may be laughing in their beds over what is going on.”
This very face-saving effort, though desperate and not up to the mark, is an indication that the President has not let down his friends - the UNP and civil society organisations - in spite of the air being not cleared properly.