President Maithri trapped between Yahapalanaya and Maha Sangha

President Maithri trapped between his commitment to Yahapalanaya and Maha Sangha

As the Unity Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe completed reaching its second milepost without much ado, accusation and resignation seem to be the only options left with the two leaders to keep the unity within.

In the aftermath of ‘forced’ resignation of Ravi Karunanayake from his post as Foreign Minister due to alleged links with the main suspect of Central Bank Treasury Bonds Scam, Arjun Aloysius at the time Karunanayake functioned as the Finance Minister, next in line to be sacked, resign or be relieved of his duties is the Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.

Rajapakshe came under attack by his own colleagues in the United National Party, for allegedly criticizing government decisions and violating collective responsibilty of the Cabinet.

With Karunanayake’s resignation, President Sirisena was in trouble finding a suitable, yet untainted candidate to hold the position of country’s Foreign Minister, as he was hesitant to appoint Minister of Development Strategies Tilak Marapana to the post as was suggested to him by some. Marapana was the first to resign, under the Unity Government, from his earlier post as the Minister of Law and Order for defending the controversial Avant Garde floating armoury.

Both Marapana and Rajapakshe defended the establishment stating there was nothing illegal about the formation of Avant Garde.

It became quite evident that the UNP was rounding up Minister Wijeyadasa when a group of UNF backbenchers asked President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to clarify their stand on specifically named senior officials of the Attorney General’s Department.

The group handed over a letter of demand to this effect, to the office of the Prime Minister. This comes after the conduct of two senior most officials of the Attorney General’s Department, who are on the Presidential Commission inquiring into the Treasury Bonds affair, were criticised and their conduct questioned by many Government MPs and Ministers after former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ravi Karunanayake gave evidence before the Commission.

Soon after Karunanayake announced his resignation in Parliament, several Government MPs started accusing these senior officials of being arrogant and biased.

This group of government MPs met the Prime Minister the previous week at the Parliament complex and complained about the conduct of the AG’s Department alleging that it is acting in a biased manner. Karunanayake, in his speech also directly and indirectly attacked the representatives of the AG’s Department.

Matters turned from bad to worse when, Justice Minister Rajapakshe came under fire at the United National Party’s Parliamentary Group meeting last week.

The UNP Working Committee and its parliamentary group unanimously decided to hold Rajapakshe responsible for violating the collective responsibility of the Cabinet.They have also given the Prime Minister the authority to make a decision on what action should be taken against Rajapakshe by Monday (21).

Rajapakshe however, remained unbowed and did not tender any apology for any of the allegations levelled against him.

Meanwhile, it has been discussed at length in the Cabinet about setting up a special court to expedite corruption and murder cases against the former administration. However, President Sirisena at this point sought the opinion of Minister Marapana as he was a former Attorney General.

Marapana has pointed out that the government is not in a position to do so without going for a Constitutional amendment.

President Sirisena was under pressure since last year by civil society activists to remove Rajapakshe stating that it was him who delays any prosecution against the members of the former First Family.

While this is only an accusation, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa openly said he will not support any move against Rajapakshe.

While, President Sirisena had voiced his concerns about Karunanayake and, in fact, had requested the latter to resign in the name of good governance, he seems to have opted to remain silent on the matter of Rajapakshe. Many view the President’s stance was due to massive support Rajapakshe is getting from the Sinhala Buddhist community and the Maha Sangha.

The Asgiri Sangha Sabhawa, meanwhile, is opposed to any move by some politicians to bring a No-Faith Motion against a minister actively engaged in Buddhist activities.

Issuing a statement, the Asgiriya Chapter said Minister Rajapakshe has already done a great service to the Buddha Sasana organizing the World Buddhist Congress.

The prelate said in consideration of his service to the Buddhism the honorary title of ‘Dharma Neethi Visarada’ was conferred on him by the Asgiri Viharaya.

“The views expressed by the minister and safeguarding the natural resources of the country have displeased some individuals and they are attempting to victimize him,” they said, adding that the minister could not be blamed for the delay by the Attorney General’s Department to file action, against corrupt politicians.

“Some MPs are unhappy about his views on leasing the Hambantota Harbour to a Chinese Company.

Rajapakshe meanwhile, did comeback hard on those who are opposing him – mainly Minister Rajitha Senaratne and Deputy Minister Ajith P. Perera.

Rajapakshe, responding to remarks made by Deputy Minister Ajith P. Perera, said that neither the President, Prime Minister nor the Justice Minister had powers to intervene in judicial matters.

He said the possibility of appointing a special court had been discussed in the Cabinet and added that the Attorney General had also given written advice to the government on the matter.

“We are acting on the advice of the Attorney General,” the minister said.

He said the government was given a mandate in January 2015 to ensure an independent judicial system in the country and added that Independent Commissions were set up under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to uphold the independence of the judiciary under Yahapalanaya principles.

“The judiciary and the Attorney General’s Department act as independent institutions, today. The Attorney General’s Department has the complete independence to act on the reports given by the Police on their investigations based on the principles accepted by the world,” he said.

Minister Rajapakshe said in a video posted on his Facebook that, according to the Constitution, the judiciary and the AG’s Department were functioning on two basic principles such as equality before law and the accused is considered not guilty until he is convicted by a court of law.

The Minister said no one who had read the Constitution at least once would make allegations against him and added that if someone doing so was only exhibiting his ignorance before the world.

“We can do nothing other than pity the people who make such allegations. Some politicians who come before the media and television cameras try to show they are Mahaushadas but the viewers know they are actually playing the role of Kewattayas, he said.
Taking a dig at Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne while addressing a public gathering in Rambewa, Minister Rajapakshe said that Health Minister is more concerned about controlling the Attorney General’s Department despite not being able to control Chronic Kidney Disease and Dengue taking lives of hundreds of innocent people.

While, political sources are confident that Rajapakshe will only be relieved from his ministerial portfolio and will be given another, in the event the President and Prime Minister come under pressure, sources close to Rajapashe said that he is determined not to give in.

Solheim breaks silence

Controversial Norwegian Peace Broker Erik Solheim, in what appeared to be a ‘long awaited explanation’ on Norway’s involvement in Sri Lankan conflict has said that they were invited to Sri Lanka in absolute secrecy by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
“At the time, only two people in Colombo knew, she and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. It stayed like that for one-and-a-half years. Only later, it became public,” Solheim said while noting that even then Prime Minister was unaware of his first meeting with the LTTE Leader.

In an exclusive interview with Senior Foreign Editor at WION Padma Rao Sundarji, Solheim said they regret not being able to spend more time with LTTE Leader V. Prabhakaran at the time.

“If we had spent more time with him, we would probably been able to influence him more. We did try to establish a more personal relationship with him by speaking about issues he really cared about — he was interested in films for sure, in food, he was known to be a good cook himself, he took some interest in nature. But it was hard to build a personal relationship, because we had limited time and were not allowed to go up to the warring North by the Sri Lankan Government too often. Then there was also a language barrier — his speaking in Tamil meant we needed an interpreter. And finally, he was the kind of a character who was not obviously open. Charismatic but more closed and cautious,” he added.

He also said that even though New Delhi was sceptical about Norway’s involvement at the beginning, it turned out well later as he went to India to report about Norway’s achievements.

“There was a lot of scepticism in Delhi. What will these pink, Christian Europeans with no real knowledge of South Asia make of problems on this continent? But at the end, we were not only acceptable to India, we had the closest relationship. After every visit to Sri Lanka, I went to New Delhi to inform the political leadership and the Indian intelligence about what I’ve achieved or not achieved,” he added.

Following are some interesting questions and answers:

PRS: Take us back to your first and earliest effort at peace mediation in Sri Lanka. When was that and what was the result?

Solheim: It was when I went to meet Prabhakaran for the first time. Again, that was not known to anyone in Sri Lanka; not even the PM was aware that we were allowed to go there by the President. We met him in an area controlled by the Tigers. We went by helicopter. Flying low over the fields and up again if it was mountains, it was kind of scary. Because neither the Army nor the LTTE cadres on the ground knew we were there, they could have easily shot us down. Then we met with Prabhakaran. It was a good meeting. They confirmed their interest in the peace process. But it was a little bit difficult to understand how Prabhakaran got this enormous standing among Tamils, how he could be seen as their god, creator and saviour at the time. He had this huge following.

But we couldn’t really understand why people were following him like that.

PRS: What proved to be the biggest hurdles during all the years of peace mediation?

Solheim: The first of two main hurdles was the fact that the Sinhala community was divided into two main parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). Through independence, these two parties fought for power and both were much more consumed by the power struggle than with outreach to the Tamil community. Whenever one party was in power, the other party would oppose whatever the rival party did. Then the power would shift and so would positions. That was a huge problem.

The Tamil community couldn’t really place any confidence in any single offer from the Sinhala leaders because they didn’t know whether it would last. And then the more important issue: Everyone knew that the only solution would be not a separate State but a federal organization of Sri Lanka; in which the Tamils would have a lot of say and self-rule in the Tamil-dominated area but within one Sri Lankan State. And then, was Prabhakaran really ready for anything but a separate State? Could he embrace federalism? The LTTE did that in one meeting in Oslo in 2002. But Prabhakaran was not consistent on acceptance of federalism. Still we do not know whether he would have later accepted it. So, working with that was difficult. These were the two main difficulties.

PRS: There are a lot of allegations against the Norwegian mediators. One is that even though the LTTE, within years of the struggle, were acknowledged to be an armed separatist group, the Norwegians turned a blind eye to that fact. And that the Norwegians to date maintain connections with many overseas ex-LTTE groups like the ‘Transnational government of Tamil Eelam’ that sprung up even after the war ended. Could you address some of those allegations?

Solheim: Remember that during our many years in Sri Lanka, we never ever did anything which we were not asked to do by the Government of Sri Lanka. We worked with the government and the Tamil Tigers. We did not come with a lot of Norwegian opinion, because we realized that our knowledge of Sri Lanka is limited. I don’t speak Tamil, I don’t speak Sinhala. I am not a Buddhist, I am not a Hindu, how can I really understand Sri Lanka? So what we could do is to see what the government wants, what the Tigers want and — bring that together. That was our role.

PRS: I remember speaking to your successor, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, the evening the Norwegians decided to pack their bags and leave the peace process. What was the last straw for the Norwegians? When you finally threw up your hands and said look we’re not touching this anymore…

Solheim: We actually never did that. We said till the last day that if we can be useful to the Government of Sri Lanka, to the Tamil Tigers, we are there for you. And we were being criticized for that attitude. People were telling us: You should have stayed, you should have done more and that we had the wrong attitude. Here is a small nation, trying to assist two communities — the Tamils and the Sinhalese, in a country where thousands are dying every month and every year, there is no way you can give up, you mustn’t give up — as long as they want your support, you should support them. That was the one constant message from Delhi and from Washington (but Delhi was more important to us): please don’t give up, please continue, never give up. Even if you can’t do anything big, if you can do something small, please continue. I remember during my first visit to Delhi. Jaswant Singh was the Foreign Minister. After a long chat he said: I have only one question. Are you patient? I said, no, no, I’m not patient, how can we be, when people are dying in Sri Lanka every month? Mothers are crying, children are dying, how can we be patient? To that, Singh said:

do you know the way to Indira Gandhi International Airport? Go. Buy a ticket — making sure it’s a one-way ticket — to Europe.

Because if you’re not patient, you’ll only run into problems here. If you take a 10-15- year perspective on the Sri Lankan conflict, then you may do something good. Of course, he was right, I was wrong. We learned our lessons and became patient. But still, the fundamental issues in Sri Lanka — the status of Tamils, and the influence of Tamils within the State of Sri Lanka are not resolved.

PRS: Tell us more about your relationship with LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. I remember you told me once that you went fishing together. Was it a friendship or more of a business relationship?

Solheim: What I regret with the benefit of hindsight is that we could not spend more time with him. I met him more often than any other foreigner did in the world because basically he just met Tamils, only once met a Muslim delegation in Sri Lanka, met with a few Sinhalese but nearly always just met with Tamils. If we had spent more time with him, we would probably been able to influence him more. We did try to establish a more personal relationship with him by speaking about issues he really cared about — he was interested in films for sure, in food, he was known to be a good cook himself, he took some interest in nature. But it was hard to build a personal relationship because we had limited time and were not allowed to go up to the warring North by the Sri Lankan government too often. Then there was also a language barrier — his speaking in Tamil meant we needed an interpreter. And finally, he was the kind of a character who was not obviously open. Charismatic but more closed and cautious.

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