UNP-SLFP coalition to continue despite bumpy road ahead

  • Sirisena rules out any reunion with Rajapaksa faction; tells UNP ministers the two parties should work together
  • PM to appear before bond commission tomorrow, UNPers to hold demonstration to express solidarity with him
  • Three special high courts to hear high-profile cases of fraud, corruption and other crimes; committee to review every month on progress of every probe

For a second week in succession, the dialogue between the United National Party (UNP) and President Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the two main coalition partners continued. This time, representing the UNP were Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and General Secretary Kabir Hashim. The former had returned to Colombo only hours earlier from Singapore together with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The meeting had been sought by Samarawickrema in a telephone call to Sirisena from Singapore. It had been fixed for 8 p.m. and another meeting for Wickremesinghe had been slotted in at 9 p.m. last Sunday, just hours after the two returned to Sri Lanka.

With the SLFP and the UNP deciding to kiss and make up, President Maithripala Sirisena is seen having a friendly chat with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament on Friday

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When they met, the UNP duo had wished to know from Sirisena whether any decision has been reached by him with their dissident faction led by Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the upcoming local elections. More pointedly, they asked whether the President was getting together with Rajapaksa. “Mey sarama andagena eka karanna puluwangda” or can I wear this sarong (pointing to the one he was wearing) and do that, he asked. Yet, it was he who had given the nod weeks earlier for Minister Susil Premajayantha to play the role of a mediator to reunite the factions. They wanted to contest the local polls together. For a UNP that was worried about these moves which would marginalise it, the President’s remark was good news. It signalled strongly that differences notwithstanding, the coalition of the National Unity Government would continue.

With that out of the way, the UNP duo were happy to declare they would work together. They noted that if Rajapaksa turns out to be an obstacle there were options to overcome such situations. One suggestion was to prohibit persons who have served as Presidents from becoming Prime Ministers through constitutional amendments, one of the UNP ministers declared. Sirisena did not react. Fuller details of other issues discussed were not available.

Another area of concern for the UNP leaders who were then in Singapore was a report in a foreign website hosted by a onetime Sri Lankan. It was grossly false and claimed that Premier had been told by Sirisena to step down ahead of testifying before the Commission of Inquiry probing the Central Bank bond scam. They charge that an official had ‘planted’ this report to cause mischief. He is being named. When talks on other issues were under way, it was time for Premier Wickremesinghe’s one-on-one with Sirisena. He had already arrived at the latter’s Paget Road residence. The two ministers withdrew.

Like the earlier talks, fuller details of the one-on-one between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are not available. However, a source familiar with these talks said this was a ‘follow up’ of discussions three UNP leaders – Samarawickrema, Kabir Hashim and Mangala Samaraweera – held earlier with Sirisena, as revealed in last week’s the Sunday Times (Political Commentary). It was two-pronged. One was to convey the UNP’s disappointment over Premier Wickremesinghe being summoned before the Commission of Inquiry probing the Central Bank bond issue. The other was the President’s charge that a UNP minister was mainly responsible for delays in high profile cases of bribery and corruption.

The source said there was a “free and fair exchange of views in a very friendly atmosphere.” President Sirisena had re-iterated that it was not his intention to target any person or persons when he appointed the Commission of Inquiry to probe the bond issue. He “politely reminded” the Prime Minister that Arjuna Mahendran, the Governor of the Central Bank, was the Premier’s own nominee and had been appointed to that position despite reservations expressed by some ministers, the source revealed. It was the same Mahendran who had told the Commission, when questioned, that he had acted on the instructions of the Premier. Hence, Wickremesinghe has been summoned so he may clarify matters, Sirisena had declared, according to the source. Wickremesinghe will appear before the Commission tomorrow. The UNP has made plans to hold a demonstration tomorrow outside the Commission premises to ‘express solidarity’ with Wickremesinghe.

On the matter of a UNP minister slowing down or stalling altogether high profile investigations, Wickremesinghe was assiduous in pointing out that the minister concerned was not responsible. He explained there were a multitude of other reasons and assured that matters over probes would be expedited whilst determining the exact reasons for delays. Wickremesinghe thereafter raised issue before his party’s Working Committee during a lengthy discussion last Wednesday. Various views were expressed after which the party issued a statement. It said: “The Resolution passed at the UNP Working Committee on November 15.

“While thanking Minister of Finance, Mangala Samaraweera and Minister of Foreign Employment and Minister of Justice Thalatha Atukorale, we appreciate the proposal made through the budget to set up three new high courts to probe court cases on frauds and corruption. Police and FCID after completing 92 investigations about frauds and corruption have handed over them to the Attorney General’s Department for judicial actions but so far the Attorney General’s Department has filed 13 court cases.

“Since under the current judicial process the average time period that takes to finish probing a court case is around 10 years and around another seven years for two appeals, the Working Committee emphasises that reducing the time taken for these investigations and court cases is a requirement of the era and we propose the following immediate steps should be taken.

  • Appointing 3 judges for all the anti-corruption courts.
  • Allowing to appeal directly to the Supreme Court against the High Court decisions.
  • To establish a separate unit for filing court cases that is responsible to the Attorney General.

“In addition we propose to establish a Sub Committee, to report to the Working Committee once a month about the investigations and the progress of the filing court cases regarding frauds, corruption and abductions, disappearances and murders while discussing regularly with Minister of Foreign Employment and Minister of Justice Thalatha Atukorale and Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development, Sagala Ratnayaka.”

During the discussion, Justice Minister Athukorale proposed that Krishantha Cooray, Chairman of Lake House and also Chairman of Hotel Developers Ltd., the owning company of Colombo Hilton, be included in the Committee. However, Premier Wickremesinghe noted that he was a journalist and had other responsibilities. Hence, he could not serve in the Committee, he said. Cooray is also a member of the Working Committee.

Even before the Working Committee met on Wednesday, other measures have been put in place. Law and Order Minister Ratnayake had directed Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera to carry out a probe into the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). This was to determine whether there was any inaction on its part that delayed taking action over high profile cases. This was also to include why there was a delay in arresting Gamini Sedera Senarath, Chief of Staff of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was after the Deputy Solicitor General Thusith Mudalige (on behalf of the AG) had written to the FCID Director on October 24. He had said that the statements of Senarath and two others be recorded under clause 15 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1979 and extracts be submitted. He also directed that steps be taken to provide before the Magistrate Courts a certificate of public property in accordance with clause 8 (1) of the Public Property Act No 12 of 1982.

The FCID has defended its position saying teams deployed for the purpose were unable to track Senarath down. A source claimed it had transpired he had allegedly been kept at the Colombo residence of a minister from the Galle District who has strong connections with the Opposition leadership.

Police Chief Jayasundera, who has been highly critical of the FCID in the past many months, detailed his Special Investigation Unit (SIU) headed by Mevan Silva SSP to act on Minister Ratnayake’s directive. On Wednesday, the SIU recorded a statement from FCID Director P.K.D. Priyantha, for eight and half hours, from 9 a.m. till 5.30 p.m. It had run into more than 35 pages. Later, three Assistant Superintendents of Police (ASPs) and a group of Inspectors were called upon to make statements. It was on Wednesday night when the news reached President Sirisena. He ordered the Police Chief to immediately stop this SIU assignment and had observed that internecine rivalry at the highest levels of the Police was causing serious problems. Sirisena had said he hoped to soon address the senior Police officers on this matter. The investigations were called off immediately thereafter.

However, on Friday Premier Wickremesinghe set in motion machinery for a more far reaching probe. This is in keeping with his assurance to Sirisena that he would go into the reasons why high profile cases were being delayed, said an official. A three-member official Committee has been appointed to probe delays at the FCID and the Attorney General’s Department. It is headed by Prime Minister’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake and includes Justice Ministry Secretary Padmasiri Jayamanne and Law and Order Ministry Secretary Jagath Wijeweera.

The move came as President Sirisena, also on Friday afternoon, visited Parliament where the budget debate is now under way. There, he chaired a meeting of UNP Cabinet Ministers. “We have to work together,” he said and added that he was “helpless” when it came to matters relating to the Commission of Inquiry. He said both UNP Chairman Samarawickrema and General Secretary Hashim had appeared before the Commission and “cleared their names.” He said Premier Wickremesinghe also should appear before the Commission and clarify matters since he could do nothing on the matter. He noted that the Commission’s probe has gone beyond his control.

The remarks seemed an indication that Sirisena, whose efforts at unity with the feuding SLFP faction had failed so far, wanted to go along with the UNP. Of course, he appeared cautious and the meeting with the UNP ministers was an indication of where he stood vis-à-vis the bond issue. More so, when three ministers had met him earlier and expressed the party’s disappointment over Premier Wickremesinghe being summoned before the Commission. Sirisena’s current dilemma is unenviable. His latest effort to go it together with the UNP has also caused ripples among SLFPers who back him.

Yet, he has little choice and this raises the all-important question whether his recent actions were the result of a planned strategy or ad hoc responses. That naturally raises the issue of his advisors, particularly the SLFP and UPFA General Secretaries whose performance, to say the least, has been lacklustre. This, no doubt, has been one of the main causes for a slow degeneration of the party machinery at the grassroots level. So much so, finding formidable candidates for the local council polls has become a difficult task. The long-term prospects, electorally speaking, thus appear very bleak for them. Conversely that would have meant a bountiful political harvest for the UNP. However, like a cyclone, it had been battered and bruised by the bond scam.

Even amidst the latest ‘kiss and make up’ moves within the coalition, differences do exist. They surface from time to time over issues of policy. Last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting saw this play out when there was a heated exchange of words between Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe and Mangala Samaraweera. Even Premier Wickremesinghe had to intervene and assert that policies laid down in the budget would stay without change.

It all began when Samarasinghe raised issue over Samaraweera’s proposal to liberalise the shipping and freight forwarding trade. He charged that neither he as Minister of Ports and Shipping nor stakeholders in the industry were consulted before the budget proposal was announced. He urged that if a change is to be made, foreign investors in the field should infuse a minimum of US$ 100 million. He said otherwise the move would result in the industry losing US$ 800 million. Samarasinghe was backed by Ministers Rauff Hakeem, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Dayasiri Jayasekera.

Premier Wickremesinghe defended Samaraweera by pointing out that his proposal was a precursor to making Sri Lanka a maritime hub. According to Samaraweera, the shipping industry at present remains a transhipment one. To develop, he said, it was necessary to see the development of broader services in shipping and logistics. Samarasinghe’s argument was those wishing to come in should bring in the money. Sirisena suggested that Samaraweera meet the relevant stakeholders and discuss issues.

After the ministerial meeting was over, SLFP ministers attended a meeting chaired by President Sirisena. There, the subject came up for discussion. Sirisena named a team of ministers to meet Premier Wickremesinghe and represent matters. Headed by Nimal Siripala de Silva, the team included Sarath Amunugama, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Susil Premajayantha, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mahinda Amaraweera and Duminda Dissananayake. He directed that Minister de Silva should contact the Prime Minister to seek an appointment and set out the SLFP’s position.

On Thursday, the SLFP delegation met Wickremesinghe. Associated with him was Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake. The SLFP ministers insisted that an FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) of US$ 100 million should be invested by any new entrants to the shipping and freight forwarding industry. They said the changes they were recommending were the official view of the SLFP. Interesting enough, the SLFP holds the key towards the implementation of this specific proposal. The issue of Gazette notification to give effect to it, once it is passed by Parliament, is the responsibility of the Minister of Ports and Shipping.

Wickremesinghe said he would appoint an SLFP–UNP Joint Committee to discuss economic issues and ‘fast track’ them. Wickremesinghe also said that the shipping trade should also meet Minister Samaraweera. After placing their party’s position on the issue, the discussion centred on the Port of Colombo. Wickremesinghe explained that President Sirisena had also stated that the port would not be given to anyone else except the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. He was, however, examining a joint India–Japan project at the Trincomalee port. He said he would travel to India on November 22 for an official engagement. He would take that opportunity to discuss the project too. Wickremesinghe is likely to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to PM’s office.

Earlier, on Monday night President Sirisena met representatives of shipping and freight forwarding industry. There, they provided him details of the changes they were seeking. The SLFP now expects Samaraweera to make the necessary changes.

What seemed a political circus in the past many months has again reached status quo ante — the coalition will continue however bumpy the road ahead would be. Perhaps the biggest hump they would have to cross would be the sittings of the Commission of Inquiry tomorrow.

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