It is conventional wisdom that Minister Ravi Karunanayake should have resigned – or failing that be sacked -- after those earth shattering revelations that were made at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the bond scam. Instead, he has clung to his portfolio and foul-mouthed the Attorney General’s Department while his political superiors, when not blaming media for holding Karunanayake accountable, seem to be scratching their heads, rather than acting to salvage the government’s credibility.
Allegations levelled against Minister Karunanayake, which he has failed to answer convincingly, are not about some abstract high-flown ethical variety, like the ones that may require him to be judged on stricter grounds than the average folks since he is a politician. (There are countries where the ministers were forced to resign after being accused of paying for an expensive restaurant meal from the official credit card). But, that is not the case here. Minister Karunanayake’s case is clear-cut and simple. The evidence before the commission revealed that Arjun Aloysius, whose family owns the controversial bond trading company Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., had paid the monthly rental for the penthouse occupied by Minister Karunanayake and his family while he was the then Minister of Finance. During the same period, Perpetual Treasuries engaged in alleged dodgy bond transactions which resulted in the Treasury losing billions of rupees, according to a COPE report. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry has now revealed many incriminating details of Minister Karunanayake’s alleged collusion with Mr. Aloysius. The Foreign Minister Karunanayake’s answers to the commission were evasive at best and at worse were condescending. At one point, the commission asked him: “Do you seriously want us to believe that your family did not tell you there was no lease agreement?”
Other evidence have now been revealed and he was read text messages extracted from Mr Aloysius’ phone implying a conflict of interest. One such text from Mr. Aloysius’ Executive Secretary refers to a reminder requesting to obtain Monetary Board minutes from one hon MP RK.
"Arjun Aloysius, whose family owns the controversial bond trading company, Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., had paid the monthly rental for the penthouse occupied by the then Finance Minister Karunanayake and his family"
The Attorney General’s Department has also revealed that Mr. Aloysius and Minister Karunanayake had both made 13 visits to Singapore on coinciding dates during the period, September 2016 to April 2017. Minister Karunanayake said he could not recall any meetings with Mr. Aloysious during these visits. (Remember the Duminda Silva’s syndrome of blissful forgetfulness)
An undated letter produced to the Commission by former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s lawyers also came under scrutiny at the PCoI. Mr Karunanayake defended the omission of the date as an ‘oversight’ and remarked that the letter was sent in May 2016 at the request of Arjuna Mahendran to justify the discussion of a breakfast meeting on February 26, 2015. The letter implied that the funding requirements for Rs.75 billion was decided at the said meeting. However the Assistant Solicitor General who questioned Mr. Karunanayake suggested that the letter was created recently since when it was submitted to the PCoI was ‘crisp’.
The Prime Minister has vowed that the government would not protect thieves, but he wavered when insisting on a transparent and public investigation. He is procrastinating. Details that have emerged at the PCoI proceedings are scandalous enough for the government to act.
“It is like in America. There are so many investigations against President Trump by the media, Congress and so on. Upon receipt of reports, wrongdoers step down. It is same in England,” The Prime Minister has said at a public event during the weekend. He is wrong. In those democracies, anyone who is faced with allegations of the magnitude of Minister Karunanayake would have resigned by now -- though Donald Trump’s America may be an aberration. In the not so distant past Prime Minister Wickremesinghe suspended, rightly so, Duminda Silva from the party after he was charged with an alleged rape. The case was later thrown out by the then compliant attorney general and Silva was adopted by the Rajapaksas and later found guilty of killing Baratha Lakshman Premachandra and several of his bodyguards.
It is not indispensability of Karunanayake, rather it is his close association with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe that is holding the latter back. Yet the UNP is better off without Karunanayake is the emerging consensus among party stalwarts who had earlier approached the Prime Minister to urging him to act.
However, despite all this vacillation and wavering by his political bosses, Minister Karunanayake is unlikely to survive. Mr Wickremesinghe would be forced to come out of his complacency or he could seriously damage the UNP’s electoral prospects. Nor can the President pass the buck to the UNP and emerge unscathed. Government ministers and MPs, both from the UNP and the SLFP, would be compelled to speak up when they realize that defending Karunanayake would come at a heavy cost. Some have already expressed the desirability of Mr Karunanayake stepping down.
The real winner in this equation is the joint opposition, which has submitted a no-confidence motion against Minister Karunanayake. If motion is passed, it could claim credit and embarrass the government. But the bigger win would be the defeat of the motion, which would require the UNP to shepherd its parliamentarians to defend Minister Karunanayake. Such a gesture would come at an immense loss, not only to the integrity of the UNP MPs, but also to the entire political system in the country. That Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan and the TNA have kept mum throughout this fiasco would be of little or no help.
This need not happen. Minister Karunanayake should resign. Circumstantial evidence revealed at the PCoI has seriously compromised his position. He would compromise both the government, and the country, if he chooses to stick to his portfolio and Yahapalanaya will never be the same again. It has already lost a great deal. Only way to redeem its loss of credibility would be to act now and it is all too clear what it needs to do in relation to Minister Karunanayake.