By Col. R. Hariharan
The Sri Lankan people who overwhelmingly voted the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe alliance to power expecting it to fulfil their promise of yahapalana (good governance) have been shocked by President Sirisena’s strident comments questioning the integrity of the agencies carrying out investigations into cases of corruption, bribery, criminal and financial misconduct.
The Lankan President, speaking at a function at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, warned that he would take action against Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) for working to political agendas at the cost of justice. He seems to have been irked at the agencies giving cause to the opposition to accuse him of a political witch hunt; obviously, this referred to the large number of corruption and criminal investigations now going against politicians and armed forces officers.
Sirisena accused those in charge of investigations of misleading him. Referring to the indefinite custody of members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) held in connection with the disappearance of cartoonist Ekneligoda and the killing of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, he said the courts should be moved to get them released or given bail pending court proceedings. It is significant that soon after his tirade, the court released on bail Udalagam, an army intelligence officer accused of assassinating Lasantha Wickrmetunge.
Sirisena’s reference to cases connected with armed forces was perhaps made to reaffirm his support to the armed forces which have been perturbed ever since Sri Lanka agreed to conduct a judicial probe into alleged war crimes committed during the Eelam war. The issue of war crimes issue would again come up at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2017.
Sirisena said though the government had successfully promoted reconciliation between the communities to create an environment that strengthens inter-communal harmony during the last one and half years, certain groups and organisations ideologically in favour of separatism have not been destroyed. And they were waiting for an opportunity to create trouble for Sri Lanka and people must be on guard.
Sirisena’s statement was in direct contradiction of his own stand in the past on corruption and financial misappropriation; other leaders of the ruling alliance including Ranil Wickremesinghe have been plugging the line of corruption free governance. The civil society and anti-Rajapaksa leaders have already been peeved at the slow progress in bringing to book scam-tainted leaders who thrived during the previous regime. They see the Lankan President’s strident statement as an effort to cover up his cronies in SLFP involved in scams. This could also test durability of the cohabitation rule of the SLFP and the UNP unity government. Serious doubts have been raised about the government sincerity in cleaning up governance where corruption has become part of life, in keeping with what seems to be South Asian tradition.
In another shocking incident, the President’s claim of good governance and successfully promoting ethnic reconciliation to strengthens inter-communal harmony has come under serious threat after the police shot and killed two Jaffna youth undergraduates riding a motorcycle in Kokkuvil (Jaffna peninsula). According to the police, they opened fire when the youth did not obey their order to stop. The incident triggered protests not only in Northern Province, but in the whole nation which has been living with police excesses for long.
University students all over the island protested in solidarity with Jaffna university students who went on a strike, indicating the issue was beyond the ethnic divide. Though the five Tamil policemen involved in the incident were remanded to custody, the crude police attempts initially to cover up the criminal act indicated that police reforms are still a work in progress. PM Wickremesinghe has promised an impartial inquiry would be carried out. Unless the government swiftly takes follow up action the incident could provide yet another opportunity for separatist elements to build up their support among Tamils.
Sirisena, as a shrewd politician, had probably made his statement with a lot of deliberation to reinforce his constituency within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and to retain the support of some of the political leaders targeted in various investigations. He also appears to be on the move to rebuild his fractured relations with the army, which had been under stress for some time. In a bid to put at rest speculations about the survival of the cohabitation government, Wickremesinghe reiterated its importance to complete the reforms process as agreed upon by the leaders.
In any case, the SLFP and UNP - the two major cohabitation partners - have internal as well as external compulsions to maintain their cohabitation. Any crack could provide an opening for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a political comeback. Unity would also help Sri Lanka’s cause to face the international community with confidence at the UNHRC. It could also enable the European Union to favourably consider Sri Lanka’s request now under consideration for restoration of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) scheme for duty waiver to Sri Lankan exports. The EU had cancelled the GSP+ concession to Sri Lanka for aberrations in governance during the Rajapaksa regime.