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President's fiery Speach: Taking bull by its hones - Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon

2016 Oct 15

The speech President Maithripala Sirisena delivered at the Foundation Institute, bringing certain allegations against the commissions created by the 19th Amendment, Wednesday (12) has shaken the political landscape of Sri Lanka. The speech, which was given wide publicity, has triggered various reactions.
My personal view is that the speech made by the President should not have been made at that occasion. However, we must attempt to identify what made the President to make this statement; this will also greatly assist one to understand what is transpiring in the government at this moment.
In my opinion, the speech made by the President during Sathviru Urumaya, which was attended by security force personnel, expressing his displeasure at taking former Defence Secretary and three former Commanders of the Navy to Court on a case filed by the Bribery Commission, was a 'shock treatment' aimed at a number of political and social actors.
I think it's a well-known fact that there is a cold war between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) regarding the administration of the State. There are disagreements on how to run the country, from policy decisions to how a ministry should operate, between members of the two parties. President Sirisena's speech marks a critical juncture of this cold war. There are many disagreements on how 'investigations' on the Central Bank Treasury Bonds issue, tenders and other deals which are taking place without any transparency, criminal investigations and how corruption investigations are being used to achieve political objectives.
There is now an opinion that the statement the President made will have a negative impact on investigations on bribery and corruption. However, we must critically analyze how the investigations on serious cases of bribery and corruption have progressed. Let's take investigations on Avant Garde for example. It is a well-known fact that the investigations on Avant Garde were disrupted mainly due to pressures exerted within the government. What should be a criminal investigation has now been reduced to an investigation on corruption. Most people agree that everyone is bound by the legal system of the country and as the Anti-Corruption Front (ACF) we have demanded that a number of persons should have been charged under the Firearms Ordinance when it comes to the Avant Garde case.
Political influence
The second part of the President's speech deals with the belief that the organizations that investigate bribery and corruption, i.e. CID, FCID and Bribery Commission, are being influenced by politicians and that these investigations are being used to fulfil political agendas. The President insists that he does not call the commissions or other investigative bodies but he also implies that some elements are influencing investigations. Who are these elements that attempt to influence these institutions? The President states simply that it is the leadership of the UNP that does such things. Given below are the factors which lead to such an allegation;
1. Basil Rajapaksa, who left the country soon after the January 2015 Presidential Election, has become a main political player in the country today. How can a man who faces serious charges of bribery and corruption like Basil Rajapaksa freely engages in politics without any fears?
2. The abrupt disruption of the COPE investigation on the Treasury Bonds issue and the transfer of the Officer-in-Charge of the investigation carried out by the Central Bank are serious concerns. When a whistleblower released the report on Central Bank's investigations on the Treasury Bonds issue, steps have been taken to uncover who leaked the report. But, those involved in the Treasury Bonds scam have escaped any punishment, some have even been granted senior positions.
3. Recently, the Bribery Commission filed a case against State Minister A.H.M. Fowzie for the alleged possession and use of a vehicle owned by the Disaster Management Centre, while serving in the capacity of Minister of Disaster Management. Fowzie is a close ally of the President and a number of SLFP MPs are angry at the fact that Fowzie has been targeted for a small (if we look at the issue in monetary terms) issue when it has been revealed that close to Rs 8 trillion has been embezzled during the previous government. SLFP MPs have repeatedly told the President that the progress made on investigations into serious financial crimes is painfully slow.
4. Daughter of Deputy Minister Priyankara Jayaratne has been transferred to his staff from another branch of the government on secondment basis. A secondment is where an employee temporarily transfers to another job for a defined period of time for a specific purpose, to the mutual benefit of all parties. This is a common practice in the government sector. An investigative body is attempting to take action stating that releasing her on secondment basis is illegal. SLFP MPs claim that it would be soon impossible to recruit people for their personal staffs.
Direct intervention
5. The President had intervened on 11 October to prevent the establishment of a payment gateway by the Finance Ministry and ICTA, to collect taxes bypassing the Central bank. The Central Bank has issued a statement on 12 October stating that the payment gateway should be implemented through the institution. The President's intervention prevented a potential financial disaster according to professionals like former Deputy Governor of Central Bank and renowned economist, Dr. W.A. Wijewardena.
These are the incidents which made the President to criticize the commissions appointed by the 19th Amendment. Although I have no personal opinion on the matter yet, what was noted above was widely discussed in political circles during the last few weeks. A member of a commission had met President Sirisena a day or two before some members of the Rajapaksa family were arrested. However, the person had not informed the President that such an arrest would take place. But, these meetings had given the impression that it was the President that directed the attacks on the Rajapaksas, the SLFP MPs believe.
The third part of the President's speech, regarding the judiciary, at a time when all the proposed restructuring initiatives have been stifled, is based on reality. Thousands of people, who face charges that can't be proven, are languishing in jails for years. The Ministry of Justice, Attorney General and the Judicial Services Commission have not done anything to address this situation. However, the example taken by the President to prove this point was not very judicious.
I believe that was what's unfortunate about the President's speech. The President's speech contained many salient points and that an open debate on the state of investigation, the role of the commissions implemented by the 19th Amendment and the state of the judiciary is vital. While admitting that the President used two bad examples to prove several excellent points should not mean that we must not start that debate.

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