Ravi under political spotlight

The biggest political development of the past week was the controversy surrounding Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake, relating to a Monarch Residencies penthouse transaction that had apparently taken place when he was holding the post of Finance Minister. The Minister gave evidence before the Presidential Commission probing the Bond issue, where he essentially denied having any knowledge of the purported transaction.

Political analysts were quick to point out that his appearance before the Commission in itself could be considered as a victory for the drive against corruption and the Government’s pledge for transparency. Under the previous regime, such an occurrence would have been unthinkable. There was one well-known case where a Minister was summoned before Court during the previous regime and the said Minister got away by saying he was bitten by a snake that very morning. Nothing much came out afterwards in that case.

It will be in the Government’s best interests to ensure that the Bond probe is taken to a logical conclusion where any guilty parties are punished in accordance with the laws of the land. In this case, Perpetual Treasuries, a Central Bank primary dealer, has been accused of benefiting through insider information during the governorship of Arjuna Mahendran whose son-in-law Arjun Aloysius is linked to the firm. The people expect nothing less from a Government which pledged to eliminate corruption when it came to power two years ago. The upcoming second anniversary of the National Unity Government (August 17) is a good occasion to remind the public that the Government is indeed committed to this core value.

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Minister Ravi Karunanayake

In this backdrop, speculation swirled that President Maithripala Sirisena has requested Minister Karunanayake to step down from his current duties as Foreign Minister. In fact, one Sunday Sinhala newspaper carried a banner headline to that effect. However, both the President’s Office sources and Minister Karunanayake swiftly rejected this report. This was to be expected since no one can be presumed guilty until the investigations are completed. It was reported that the President has requested the transcripts of the Minister’s evidence sessions at the Commission, though this was not confirmed by his office. The Prime Minister’s office has also rejected reports that the Minister has been asked to resign at this stage.

There have been growing calls for the Minister’s resignation from political and civil society circles. Many SLFP Ministers have publicly expressed the view that the Minister should resign, at least on a temporary basis until the investigations are completed. Several UNP Ministers too have expressed the same sentiment on several occasions, albeit privately with the exception of Minister Daya Gamage who told the media that in his opinion, the Minister should resign. He hastened to add that this was strictly his own personal opinion, and the party should take a collective decision on this matter. Minister of Housing and Construction Sajith Premadasa said over the weekend that he would resign from his Ministerial post if he were asked to vote in favour of corrupt people in Parliament, though he did not mention any names.

In the meantime, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has accepted a no-confidence motion against Minister Karunanayake. It was revealed that both former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his elder brother former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa have not signed the motion, a rough copy of which was circulated at the wedding of Ramith Rambukwella, former minister Keheliya Rambukwella’s son. Mahinda Rajapaksa was present at this wedding. Several websites which had obtained the signature list pointed out a major error – number 3 appears twice in the list. According to that list, only 32 numbers appear whereas, in reality, 33 members should have signed it.

Former President Rajapaksa later told the media that he would definitely vote for the motion once it is presented in Parliament. The Motion, a date for which is likely to be set this week, will be an acid test for the Government especially if a secret ballot is called for since some Ministers and other Members on both sides are likely to vote for the motion if that happens. However, the Motion itself is not likely to affect the continuation of the National Unity Government regardless of the outcome. A decision on this particular issue is however expected later in the year, after the SLFP’s Annual Convention in September.

Why just one man?

Adding to the controversy was a Facebook post by the Minister’s daughter Onella, who wrote: “Just ask yourself? Why only one man’s name comes up all the time in such a huge government? I see everyone very easily resharing content on many pages on social media but all have only one name. My father’s name. Does everyone really believe for the last couple of years everything in the government is just one man?” This drew many comments across the various social media sites and on newspaper websites, both supporting and opposing her views.

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Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reiterated that his Government would not tolerate corruption in any form. He said all allegations of corruption under his Government would be investigated and action will be taken depending on the outcomes. “There is no place for robbers in our government. We will remove them,” Wickremesinghe said in the hill town of Hatton. He said a senior minister’s quizzing for wrongdoing by the Attorney General reflected the freedom the Government has brought in.

“We have filed cases against the Rajapaksa Government’s corruption. The cases are going on. When the Central Bank Bond issue allegations were made against the Government, I appointed an internal probe and later it was referred to a Parliamentary Committee headed by an Opposition Member,” Premier Wickremesinghe said.

Another significant event reported from Parliament was that the Supreme Court has found that certain clauses of the proposed new Inland Revenue Act are not constitutional. Announcing the Supreme Court’s decision in Parliament, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said he has received the determination of the Supreme Court in respect of the Bill which has been challenged in the Supreme Court in terms of Article 121 (1) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The Supreme Court has determined that the Clauses 97, 98 and 100(1) (e) of the Bill are inconsistent with the Article 12 of the Constitution, and the Clause 167 is inconsistent with the Article 12, 13 and 14(1) (h) & (i) of the Constitution. These clauses may either only be passed by a special majority as per Article 84(2) of the Constitution or be amended as per the determination of the Supreme Court to remove the inconsistencies. The Joint Opposition has earlier cried foul over the proposed Bill. Joint Opposition MP Dinesh Gunawardena, a classmate of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe at Royal College, Colombo, has increasingly become the “face” of the Joint Opposition (JO) given the corruption scandals surrounding the other JO members. Dinesh, the Parliamentary Group leader of the JO, has the advantage of not being tainted by any corruption allegations and as such, some have come to regard him as a potential Presidential candidate or 2020. The major factor that can ruin his chances is that he is identified with the communal camp of the JO that opposes any solution to the national issue.

2020 Presidential candidate

It is early days yet, but one is tempted to study the dynamics in the light of the widely held belief that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could be a potential candidate for 2020 from the JO side. The former President is hampered by the reimposition of term limits via the 19th Amendment, so he cannot conceivably run for the Presidency again. However, he is eligible to run for any other position. Thus there is speculation that Rajapaksa is aiming for the Presidency by proxy, where he is likely to pull the strings behind the scenes if their candidate wins.

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Minister Mangala Samaraweera

Elections are on everyone’s mind these days, though not necessarily of the Presidential variety. A healthy debate is going on about the Provincial Council elections in the backdrop of the Government’s proposal to explore the possibility of holding elections to all nine PCs on a single day. There are several benefits of this proposal – it will save a lot of money at the end of the day because staggered elections can actually cost more money. But the biggest benefit is that the incumbent Government will be unable to pour all its resources to one or two provinces having the election. The best example of this scenario is the infamous Wayamba PC election in 1997, which was a black mark in the election history of Sri Lanka akin to the “Lampu-Kalagedi” referendum of December 22, 1982. Although some people in the Government as well in the opposition are not in favour of this proposal, latest reports indicated that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution containing this very propel has now been gazetted.

Moreover, there will be a new system which will change the present proportional system to include a mix of the first-past-the-post system and the Proportional Representation system. Under the latter provision, the Provincial Council Elections law would be amended to make way for the new system according to which 60 per cent of members would be elected by the first-past-the-post system and 40 per cent of the Proportional Representation systems. Accordingly, elections due for October for three Provincial Councils (North-Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern) have been postponed. Meanwhile, some PCs remain in a volatile situation. Northern Provincial Council’s Health Minister Pathmanathan Sathyalingam has resigned while a tense situation was reported at the North Central Provincial Council sessions after Joint Opposition members of the Council set fire to a copy of the agenda.

Given that the term of some provincial councils ends only in 2019, analysts will be closely watching the next moves with regard to PC elections. Several Opposition figures have declared this to be an illegal move unless accompanied by a referendum and a two-thirds majority. The two main elections monitoring bodies PAFFREL and CaFFE have also voiced their opposition to the move. Local Elections, on the other hand, are likely by end of this year.

Another reason for the postponement of the Provincial Council elections is to facilitate the incorporation of a women’s quota into the Provincial Council system as already introduced in the Local Government system. The proposal is to amend the Provincial Council law to make it binding on all political parties and independent groups to field at least 30 per cent female candidates in the PC elections. This is on the basis that the Government has taken a policy decision to increase female representation in all political decision-making bodies. The representation of women in Local Government is only about two percent, in provincial councils four percent and in Parliament, six percent, which is very low even by South Asian standards, leave alone the West.

Frequent talk of elections could leave a Government in a permanent campaign mode so it is important to concentrate on other pressing matters as well. Hot on the heels of the Hambantota Port deal, the Government is now gearing up for several other investments that could take the foreign debt burden off to some extent. Three airlines including Japanese Airlines are currently in negotiations with the Government, in efforts to divest 49% of the holding of the national carrier SriLankan Airlines, Minister Kabir Hashim said. Representatives of Japan Airlines, a fellow Oneworld Alliance member, have already visited Sri Lanka and met the Prime Minister. Initial discussions have commenced. This does not mean any deal or proposal has been established yet. The Minister did not wish to disclose the other two airlines. “They have asked for information and we want to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) after which we will submit information to pursue it further,” he said. Whichever airline SriLankan Airlines ends up partnering with, the rough framework of the agreement will be the same.

“The partnership will certainly be a Public Private Partnership (PPP) and we intend on divesting 49% of the holding to come in with equity while 51% will be held by the state. We would hand over the entire management of the company, as we don’t think we are the best at managing the airline business,” said the Minister. Since 2009, a year after its separation from Emirates Airlines, SriLankan Airlines has been operating at a huge loss. In the most recent fiscal year, which ended in March 2017, the company reported losses of Rs. 27.79 Billion, up from a loss of Rs. 12.08 Billion the year before.

SriLankan officials are looking at other means of cost cutting until a deal can be finished for a strategic partner. SriLankan has boosted its route network recently with new destinations in India and it will be flying to Melbourne from October 29 this year. SriLankan also received several new Airbus A320 family NEO (New Engine Option) aircraft, although the current Government cancelled the previous Government’s costly order for several Airbus A350 aircraft.

The Government is reassessing the security situation in the Jaffna peninsula following the recent attack on two policemen in Kopay by a gang of 12 knife and pole wielding thugs said to be from the infamous “Ava” gang which is known to have a few ex-LTTE cadres as well. The fact that some members of the group had been arrested in Colombo is likely to ruffle a few feathers in the security establishment.

The leader of the criminal gang ‘Ava Group’ has been arrested along with five other gang members, police spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara said. Three of the suspects, including Nishanthan have been arrested at Pettah bus stand. Another suspect has been arrested in Mattakkuliya while another two at Jaffna.

The gang leader Sathyavel Nathan Nishanthan, alias “Nisha Victor,” who is the main suspect in the recent attack on two police officers in Kopai, was taken into custody by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID).

While keeping an eye on the situation, the authorities have emphasized that there is no immediate threat to the security of Jaffna peninsula being affected, since the post-war security apparatus is basically intact. The day-to-day security affairs in Jaffna are now mostly handled by the Police.

On a related note, Interpol in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Police is to hold a top level regional conference in Colombo this week to discuss issues pertaining to countering terrorism and transnational crimes that affect South and Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka Police will host the three-day workshop which will be held under the patronage of the Interpol from August 8 to 10 at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). This event is significant in the light of global and transnational terrorism and crime concerns that have engulfed the region in the last few months.

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