Though not surprising, the campaign for the April 8 parliamentary elections has been lacklustre. The only political heat it has generated is from the internecine rivalry within contending factions of all parties over preference votes or manape, the term familiar to most voters.
The reason for the relative lack of public interest is most obvious. It stems from the outcome of the January 26 presidential election where Mahinda Rajapaksa won with a majority of more than 1.8 million votes, despite unsubstantiated questions of polls rigging. The only piece of hard evidence provided by the opposition was the burnt ballot papers found in Embilipitiya marked for his chief challenger, retired General Sarath Fonseka, which the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) is still investigating. To most, the outcome of the parliamentary polls has thus become a foregone conclusion. It would be victory for the UPFA.
However, in marked contrast to previous polls, the guessing game, surprising enough, is on a negative factor - the number of seats the main Opposition parties would win. That is particularly the United National Front (UNF) and its erstwhile ally, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). High on the list is the question whether the ruling UPFA would end up with a 2/3rd majority in the next Parliament.
|DNA supporters staging a ‘free-Fonseka’ demonstration opposite the Colombo Fort station. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
The UPFA has declared that its manifesto is an updated version of Mahinda Chinthanaya (Thoughts of Mahinda) of 2005. It was formulated for the presidential election in November that year. It has now been titled 'Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dekma' (thoughts of Mahinda - Forward View). Both the UNF and the DNA have come out with different manifestos. Yet, none of the pledges made in these three documents have taken centre stage in the polls campaign, which some candidates are waging with wads of money and others with weighted worries.
The not so lucky from major political parties have even raised money on interest to pay the day-to-day expenses. That includes feeding supporters, costs for posters, buying fuel on 'tick', and even paying poor voters. This, ironic enough, is the beginning of a vicious circle that tempts a politician, upon being voted to office, to resort to bribery and corrupt practices. The funds raised by mortgaging property or borrowing money on interest have to be paid back. Some of those who had followed the circle, however, are rich enough to wage an extravagant campaign.
For the UPFA, the issues have varied from district to district. It seemed paradoxical that for both the UNF and the DNA, the arrest and detention of retired General Sarath Fonseka has become a major issue. The UNF manifesto declares, "We will take immediate steps to release General Sarath Fonseka from illegal detention in military custody."
Adds the DNA, "We will release General Fonseka and all other political prisoners." That the one-time allies are resolved in their commitment to have the former Commander of the Army released is no surprise. After all, they functioned under retired General Fonseka's leadership during the January presidential election.
Now that they have parted ways, for both parties, it has become increasingly clear; wooing the voters on the General Fonseka issue has become important. Even if their leaders have remained cautious enough not to criticise each other, but direct their political venom at the UPFA, signs of friction emerged this week. UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake fired the first salvo. He said, "Only the UNP is capable of getting Gen. Sarath Fonseka released from custody. Therefore, voting for the Democratic National Alliance or Gen. Fonseka will be a waste of votes. Hence, voters should vote for the UNP." During a news conference at the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha last Wednesday, he opined that people would not rally around a person but a political party. That seemed to be a marked shift in thinking amongst UNP leadership. It was in the belief that people would rally round Gen. (retd.) Fonseka, since he gave military leadership to the conclusion of the separatist war, that the UNP staunchly backed him at the presidential poll. However, Attanayake said, "There is no use voting for the Kusalanaya (the trophy) or the DNA.
The move was to anger the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the main constituent of the DNA. During a hurried discussion, JVP leaders felt there should be an immediate response to Attanayake. One time joint spokesman for General Fonseka and JVP frontliner, Anura Kumara Dissanayake hurriedly summoned a news conference at the DNA office in Rajakeeya Mawatha. "The campaigns organised by the UNP to secure the release of Gen. Fonseka have come to a halt. Earlier, the Government was worried about him. And now, it seems the UNP too is scared of him," declared Dissanayake.
He criticised Attanayake for his comments that people should not vote for DNA. "Mr. Attanayake's claim that people do not rally around individuals is not correct as ours too is an alliance made up of several political parties," he said. His remarks came as the DNA had stepped up its campaign to seek the release of Gen. (retd.) Fonseka. Last Tuesday, the party held a protest outside the Fort Railway Station with demonstrators holding placards that said the arrest was "illegal." In effect, for the DNA, the Gen. Fonseka issue has become the main plank of its polls campaign.
On Friday, the UNF's new recruit, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, President's Counsel and candidate from the Colombo district came up with a draft piece of legislation to provide and ensure for the rights of officers and men of the regular Sri Lanka Army; the aim being to exempt the Commander of the Army and all officers and men who have retired from the Army to be exempt from Military Law. The law, if passed is to have retrospective effect in that it will come into operation on 9 July, 2009.
This special provisions bill is to be introduced as a private members bill, but is aimed at showing that the UNF has not abandoned Gen (retd.) Fonseka. It also wants to show that it is the only party that has a realistic chance of setting free the war hero from Army custody and an on-going Court Martial with the new Parliament, which the UNF wants to be under its control to pass the legislation.
Gen. (retd.) Fonseka is no issue, however, for the UPFA and has never been a factor, said Basil Rajapaksa, its Campaign Manager and candidate for Gampaha. "At the last presidential polls, I thought Ranil Wickremesinghe would have been a better candidate. He got 4.7 million votes without TNA (Tamil National Alliance) supporting him. People have totally rejected Gen. Fonseka," he told the Sunday Times. He added, "If you take out the TNA and SLMC votes, I think JVP's Somawansa Amerasinghe would have got more votes than Sarath Fonseka. The wisest decision the UNP has taken in recent years is to contest under its own symbol."
Rajapaksa was asked to comment on the public perception that Gen. Fonseka led troops to the defeat of Tiger guerrillas and was now the object of persecution. He replied, "The law must be equal to everyone. There have been children of Ministers remanded under President Rajapaksa's tenure. The son of a Minister has gone to jail. The President can give a pardon only when one is sentenced to jail. The law has to be implemented. I know the President does not interfere in judicial matters. He has given clear instructions to officials not to get involved in judicial matters, embassy matters and school admissions."
It was days earlier that Anura Kumara Dissanayake was called upon to make a statement to the CID. Detectives said they questioned him regarding the ongoing probe on how Gen. (retd.) Fonseka received funds for his campaign. This follows the discovery of money amounting to more than Rs 70 million in four vaults in a private bank in Thimbirigasyaya. Detective say two vaults were in the name of Ms Asoka Tillekeratne whilst two others were in the name of close relatives. The relatives had said in their statements that they consented to obtain the vaults for Ms Tillekeratne since a customer is allowed only two such units. The amount found in the vaults had included US $ 527,000.
Detectives investigating the source of origin of US dollars have widened their probe. This was after they stumbled on financial statements and other information saved in computers seized from the office of Gen. (retd.) Fonseka at Rajakeeya Mawatha. It came after his arrest on February 8.
CID detectives are now interviewing several persons named in those statements to ascertain the veracity of the payments they are reported to have received. Detectives claim this is part of ongoing investigations to determine sources of funding including whether there was any foreign involvement.
The Sunday Times learnt that CID detectives questioned DNA's Anura Kumara Dissanayake on whether the JVP received any funding from Gen. (retd.) Fonseka for the presidential election campaign. He is learnt to have said that no funds were given to his party. He has said that he was even unaware of the amounts collected. Of course, Dissanayake had flatly denied questions put to him about a possible conspiracy to overthrow the Government.
This is on the basis that Fonseka and his campaign staff had developed a network of retired Army officers, mostly middle level, to be in charge of districts and electorates during the presidential election campaign. Such an apparatus, it is claimed, had functioned without the knowledge of the parties that backed him. Dissanayake, detectives said, had denied any knowledge of such a network.
Earlier, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, made a similar statement to the CID. He said that neither the UNP nor the UNF received any funds from retired General Fonseka, as exclusively revealed in the front page lead story of the Sunday Times of March 14. He added that that his party as well as the UNF had used their own resources to meet expenses during the presidential elections. CID detectives also interviewed Attanayake for a second time last week. This time, he had told CID that his party was unaware that an infrastructure involving retired Army officers were functioning as Co-ordinating Officers for districts to conduct the polls campaign.
Thus, the detectives have established one fact. It was Gen. (retd.) Fonseka and his campaign staff who had disbursed the funds received. According to a CID source, one of the lists found in computers used at the Rajakeeya Mawatha office, had a list of moneys paid out by S.H.A. de Silva, who was Campaign Manager and Personal Assistant to Gen. (retd.) Fonseka. It later turned out that de Silva was a convicted criminal.
The list of payments made by De Silva includes Rs 72 million to two retired Major Generals. From this amount, Rs 50,000 each had been spent on retired officers, mostly those who held the rank of Major and reportedly functioned as 'Co-ordinating Officers' in most districts. A one time key player in a constituent party of the UNF and now a staunch backer of the DNA received two different payments amounting to ten million rupees.
Others included a journalist, who once served the state media. A close associate of retired Gen. Fonseka, he is listed as receiving sums amounting to over Rs 3.4 million. A close family member received Rs 8.8 million and a campaign staffer of the UNP Rs 10 million. The UNP has declared that the party received no funds. A UNP source said this staffer had been paid for the tasks he had undertaken together with those who supplied material. The total amount on this list, detectives said, was almost Rs 150 million.
The Sunday Times learnt that CID detectives interviewed Anoma Fonseka, wife of the retired General, last week. This was over another list saved in the computers seized from his office. This list contains details of several other payments reportedly made to various parties. It had included a reported payment of Rs 3.6 million for the rent of a house off Queen's Road. A further payment of Rs 400,000 had been made reportedly for furniture for the premises. Other payments listed include Rs 24.7 million to a woman described as S.H.A. de Silva's girl friend, campaign expenses from November to December 2009 - Rs 9.9 million, conduct of a news conference Rs 75,000 and purchase of computers reportedly worth Rs 300,000.
At present, Gen. Fonseka faces charges before a General Court Martial (GCM) for having established contacts with two then opposition parliamentarians (one later crossed over to the Government). It is headed by Major General Harsha Weeratunga, Director General, Financial Management at Army Headquarters. The two other members are Major General Lalith Wijetunga, Quarter Master General and Major General Aruna Jayatilake, Commandant, Sri Lanka Army Volunteer Force (SLAVF).
During their first sitting on March 16, they over ruled objections from Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's lawyers over the constitution of the Court and adjourned further hearing until April 6.
The charges before this GCM, contained in Charge Sheet 1 issued to retired General Fonseka, relate to telephone conversations the former Commander of the Army had with Johnston Fernando, one time UNP MP.
Fernando has since crossed over to the Government and is now the Minister of Land Development. The legality of him holding such a cabinet portfolio is now an issue because his status as a Member of Parliament is in question. Retired General Fonseka had also had telephone conversations with former UNP Badulla District parliamentarian, Lakshman Seneviratne. On both occasions, according to CID investigations, playing the role of intermediary had been journalist Ruwan Weerakoon, a one time defence writer for the Nation newspaper.
General Fonseka had been seeking the support of the two former MPs to become the presidential candidate.
Both former parliamentarians have, in statements made to the CID, bared details of how Weerakoon, brought with him CDMA telephones to different locations to help them speak with the General. The two former parliamentarians had met regularly at the residence of Gamini Abeyratne ('Taxi Abey'), a one time staunch backer of the UNP and a former Chairman of Lanka Aviation and Airports Services Ltd. Abeyratne has in a statement told CID detectives that he advised the two former parliamentarians to tape-record their conversations with Gen. (retd.) Fonseka since they were discussing "highly sensitive" matters.
The Sunday Times learnt that Johnston Fernando has told the CID that he acted on the advice of Abeyratne. He tape recorded a conversation he had with Fonseka when the General telephoned him from the United States. In that he has made some highly sensitive and damaging statements, Fernando has said. Similarly, Seneviratne has said he too tape recorded conversations with the General. However, journalist Weerakoon, in his statement to the CID, had denied his role as intermediary. He has said he had once lent his mobile phone for use by Fernando at a restaurant they had met at, when the MP found the battery in his phone had run down. Weerakoon says that he didn't know the content of the conversation between Fernando and Fonseka as he was not listening. Weerakoon is now held under Emergency Regulations on a detention order issued by the Ministry of Defence.
The broader details of these phone conversations between Fonseka and the two former parliamentarians will play out when the GCM resumes on April 6. The same three members of the General Court Martial were to sit again on March 17 to hear allegations contained in Charge Sheet 2. They relate to alleged fraudulent activity by retired General Fonseka. However, the GCM refrained from sitting on that day. Instead, in a sudden turn of events, they wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces requesting him to constitute another Bench.
Last week, President Rajapaksa named a new General Court Martial to hear allegations of fraudulent activity against Gen. (retd.) Fonseka. Our front-page story today gives the details.
In the meanwhile, Gen. (retd.) Fonseka, has through his lawyers, filed a Habeas Corpus application in the Court of Appeal on the grounds that his arrest is illegal. Among other matters, he has said that as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), he was not subject to the orders of the Commander of the Army; in fact, the said Office was higher in status than that of the Commander of the Army, Commander of the Navy, Commander of the Air Force and placed General Fonseka in a sui generis category of his own. The term is a Latin expression, literally meaning of its own kind/genus or unique in its own way.
The case was taken up by the Court of Appeal on Thursday. Attorney General Mohan Peiris appeared on behalf of the State, arguing that an existing order of the Supreme Court should not be reviewed in the Court of Appeal. He said that the Supreme Court had at the outset taken into consideration the complaint of illegal arrest, illegal detention, arbitrary treatment, discrimination, inhumane and degrading treatment. He said that the Habeas Corpus application suppressed the fact that the Supreme Court had refused the request for interim relief on February 23.
Romesh de Silva, senior counsel for Gen. (retd.) Fonseka argued that his client had not been liable to military law, at the time of his illegal arrest, on February 8. The first charge sheet for a General Court Martial was for an offence committed in October/November 2009. But he had retired from the Army on July 14, 2009.
The second charge sheet for a GCM was for an offence committed in August/October 2007. However, the arrest had been made in February 2010 and was beyond the prescribed period of six months. Hence, he argued, that both charge sheets were wrong in law. The arrest under military law was illegal. Hence, he said, he should be released from detention. The Appeal Courts sittings before a bench comprising Justices Satya Hettige (President), Anil Gooneratne and Ranjith De Silva will resume on March 30.
Nothwithstanding the fact that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka is now under detention, the political campaign on his behalf in the media has equalled almost that of the UNF. However, some of the slogans on religious themes have run into trouble. The first reaction came from the Archbishop of Colombo, Reverend Father Sriyananda Fernando. He said the Catholic community of the Archdiocese have expressed grave concern and disapproval of the newspaper advertisements together with the election symbol of the party concerned, which appeals to the public to vote for General Sarath Fonseka. "Jesus Christ, who became man and came down to earth, is the Son of God, the Creator of the whole universe. Hence, he is a universal personality. He does not belong to any political party," a statement said.
In the immediate wake of this came another advertisement. TV viewers heard the first few words of Azan or the Islamic call for prayers. Then came a locked padlock to suggest that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka was in custody. There were printed advertisements in the Tamil media, largely read by the Muslim community. The move angered Muslims, particularly larger numbers in the Eastern Province. Following strong protests they raised, the advertisements were withdrawn. Religon, it appears, is not a strong point with Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's new campaign bosses at Rajakeeya Mawatha.
Yet, the JVP has drawn in members of the Buddhist clergy for its demonstrations not only to seek the release from custody of the former Army Commander and war hero, but also to ensure he wins in the Colombo district. The focus of the DNA candidates has been to ask voters to cast one vote for the retired General and the remaining two for other DNA candidates.
One disturbing feature about the impending polls, however, has been an accusation by the main Opposition party, the UNP, against Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake. In a writ application filed last Wednesday, General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, has challenged the conduct of the Commissioner and accused him of making contradictory statements.
Dissanayake has also been lampooned by cartoonists in the Sinhala media. One website quoted his erstwhile legal counsel Elmo Perera challenging Dissanayake to publicly disclose his whereabouts between 3.30 p.m. on January 26 (day of presidential elections) till 4.45 p.m. on January 27. He said he was prepared for a public debate on the issue on television. Perera was Dissanayake's legal counsel in a case where former President Chandrika Kumaratunga's administration filed court action over the use of stickers on official poll cards.
In a news item in this issue Election Commissioner Dissanayake comes out in poor light in what appears to be a move by him to scuttle an election monitoring mission from the European Union, and at the same time pass the blame elsewhere for this faux pas.
Another development is a decision by the UNP to urge voters in the Moneragala district not to cast their preferential votes to two of its own candidates, Ranjit Madduma Bandara and Ananda Kumarasiri. Bandara was UNP parliamentarian for the district while Kumarasiri is the chief opposition whip in the provincial council. Madduma Bandara is being accused by the party leadership for using Tippex to erase from the nomination list the name of Janaka Tissakuttiaratchchi who was one of the UNF candidates. The matter of erasure prompted Tissakuttiaratchchi to go to courts to seek the inclusion of his name in the ballot paper.
If the outcome of the April 8 parliamentary polls is to be a foregone conclusion, some UPFA leaders are over confident. They do not rule out a victory by a two thirds majority, an extremely unlikely possibility judging by the way voting in the proportional representation system is structured. Yet, UPFA's Campaign Manager, Basil Rajapaksa, believes "two thirds is achievable."
He told the Sunday Times "We are not asking for two thirds. Before the 2005 presidential elections people thought a lot of things cannot be done. No one believed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could be defeated. No one thought the country would not bow down to international pressure. The President did it. No one thought subsidies could be provided to fishermen and farmers but the President did it. No one thought we can increase expenditure in the Government sector and still receive IMF/World Bank aid. We did. No one thought we can get two thirds at some Provincial Council elections. We did. We have only sought a clear mandate from voters to carry forward Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dekma."
Yet, the Opposition parties say two thirds is highly unlikely. "It's a day dream," declared Mangala Samaraweera, one of the UNF leaders. The wait is not long to find out.