Defence Secretary was tipped-off of plan similar to the assassination of Egyptian President Sadat Sweeping changes in Army; new commander takes over today Ven. Sobitha Thera calls for postponement of parliamentary elections till electoral reforms in place Sirisena moves to consolidate his position as SLFP leader amid attempts by some UPFA parties to bring Mahinda [...]


Credible reports of bid to harm new Govt. leaders at National Day military parade


Defence Secretary was tipped-off of plan similar to the assassination of Egyptian President Sadat
Sweeping changes in Army; new commander takes over today
Ven. Sobitha Thera calls for postponement of parliamentary elections till electoral reforms in place
Sirisena moves to consolidate his position as SLFP leader amid attempts by some UPFA parties to bring Mahinda back

The talking point in a section of the National Unity Government this week was an intelligence warning President Maithripala Sirisena received ahead of the National Day celebrations on February 4.

Though sketchy, the warning spoke of a possible assault on a leader or leaders of the Government when they attended the military parade held outside the parliament complex at Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte. It was to take the form of an incident similar to the one in which Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was killed in 1981 when soldiers at a military parade got down from their vehicles and started shooting at the VVIP dais.

Defence Secretary B.M.U.D. Basnayake who received the intelligence warning apprised President Sirisena and chaired meetings to plan counter measures. “Immediate precautionary measures were taken to ensure nothing untoward happened,” said a Government source privy to the warning and the events that followed. The warning, however, did not say who the exact target or targets were and from which specific quarter the threat emanated.

The source declined to elaborate except to say that the information “appeared credible.” Even ahead of the warning of such a surprise attack on Government dignitaries, President Sirisena had sought to have a ceremony to mark the 67th anniversary of independence on a low key. He felt there was no need to display neither the many weapons the military had acquired nor a fly past of fighter jets. He also did not wish the participation of hundreds of schoolchildren. The previous Government had formulated elaborate plans for the celebrations to be held in Weeraketiya, the home ground of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The new venue was chosen by Sirisena.

On October 17, 1981, Egypt was holding an annual victory parade to celebrate Operation Badr (1973), the surprise attack on Israel by Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal and taking back the Sinai Peninsula during the Yom Kippur War. The tide in the war later turned in Israel’s favour after the United States airlifted weapons. Egypt and Israel thereafter reached a settlement viewed as a victory for President Sadat. He was viewing a flypast of French built Mirage jet fighters as they soared above Cairo. Several soldiers jumped off from the trucks they were travelling in, moved towards the reviewing stands, opened fire and hurled grenades. Sadat was dead upon admission to hospital.

President Sirisena, who is both Commander-in-Chief and Minister of Defence,this week looked at naming persons to top slots in the armed forces. His first task was the appointment of a Commander of the Army. It took at least two days after his return from New Delhi. He consulted some of the Government leaders. They included Democratic Party president General Sarath Fonseka who led troops to military victory against Tiger guerrillas. The former Army Commander also recommended some names for the post. However, Sirisena who gave ear to the suggestions made his own choice. He decided that the new incumbent should be Major General Crishanthe de Silva an old Royalist. He was then the senior most officer in the Army but was not appointed by the previous regime to that position. Instead, he was posted to Russia as Deputy Ambassador. The present incumbent is Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake. Other top level changes are expected shortly.

Even ahead of naming a new Army Commander, changes have been made in some top level postings. Among those who have taken over positions from February 16 are those widely regarded as close to General Fonseka. Among them is Maj. Gen. Amal Karunasekera, the new General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Wanni region. He was earlier Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) and was posted to Egypt to overlook Eritrea. This was after the Asmara Government, which is known to have backed Tiger guerrillas, refused to accept a Sri Lankan diplomat. Maj. Gen. Karunasekera resisted moves urging him to cooperate with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) during its investigations against Gen. Fonseka after he announced his candidature for the presidential election in late 2009. Others include Major General Mahesh Senanayake who has been named Military Secretary and Brigadier D.C. Keppetiwalana, who will be promoted as Major General as the Director Operations.

The duo are among 14 officers — five Majors General, five Brigadiers, a Colonel, a Lieutenant Colonel and two Captains — sent on compulsory leave by the previous Government in 2010. The action against them was unprecedented and was carried out under the Army Officers’ Regulations 1992, which allows the President to ask an officer to “retire or resign” for “misconduct or in any circumstance that in the opinion of the President requires such action.” The officers concerned were denied their pensions. These regulations were applied only once before, in 1999 to punish officers held responsible for Tiger guerrillas overrunning a number of military camps.

Whose political future in danger? Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila at the Nugegoda rally. Pic by Indika Handuwela

Ten of these officers, including those who were living abroad, returned to Sri Lanka after the presidential election last month. They were accompanied by Gen. Fonseka for a meeting with President Sirisena. The President ordered their re-instatement to the Army and the restoration of their rank, pensions and other perquisites. Other major changes were the appointment of Major General Nandana Udawatte as Security Forces Commander Jaffna and Major General Janaka Walgama as General Officer Commanding (GOC) East. No changes have yet been made in the higher rungs of the Directorate of Military Intelligence which has grown in strength from one to seven battalions in the past years. The DMI has been at the centre of many a controversy particularly in the north. Heavy criticism was focused on its duplicating the role of the civilian State Intelligence Service (SIS), the country’s main intelligence arm, in many spheres. They are now outnumbered by the DMI. The SIS is made up of Police personnel and was almost relegated to a secondary role.

IGP’s order
The new Government wants to develop the armed forces further. With this in mind, more training opportunities are to be sought with western countries besides those in the region. Whilst in no way curbing their development, the Government wants to ensure that the Police Department is further strengthened and organised. This has come as an item of high priority for the Government to ensure that the law and order situation in the country is restored to acceptable levels where the public can expect a service without seeking the intervention of politicians or others who wield influence. It is no easy task. In the recent years, the Department has been hit by a serious malaise, a command and control issue.

The hierarchy has over the years permitted or had to permit, smaller but powerful ‘cartels’ within the service with strong political connections to extend their influence so much that those at the helm are finding it difficult to restore the proper link. On the other hand, there are senior officers who blame the hierarchy insulating themselves with their own set of cronies and providing them favoured treatment over others. Even if things are seemingly hunky dory in and around Police Headquarters, they point out, it is not the case in the immediate outskirts and beyond. Either way, it would become incumbent on the new Government to not only examine this issue but also take steps to ensure such power games within do not affect the public at large. Even more, they would have to ensure that the Government’s own 100-day programme and other pledges to the public are not hampered.

Needless to say a greater responsibility in this regard lies with Inspector General N.K. Illangakoon. Just this month the Police Chief renewed his earlier call for his officers not to visit the Ministry of Public Order, Disaster Management and Christian Affairs without his permission. This is what an English translation of his latest circular dated February 14 had to say: “It has been observed there have been frequent and unauthorised visits by police officers including gazetted officers without the permission of Police Headquarters to the Ministry of Public Order, Disaster Management and Christian affairs leading to disruption of the proceedings in the ministry as well as in the Police Headquarters.

“The attention of the Minister of Public Order, Disaster Management and Christian Affairs was drawn to this matter and it was ruled that no police officer should visit the ministry without authorisation given by the Inspector General of Police. Consequently, any police officer visiting the ministry must do so only after obtaining approval from the IGP.

“If a police officer has been requested to be present at the ministry for an official appointment he should inform the IGP before leaving, and after the meeting he should produce a report of the discussions or regarding the proceedings back to the IGP.”

The IGP’s directive has raised concerns in sections of the new Government. “The Police Department comes under the purview of the Ministry of Public Order. Going by his decree, the Ministry under which the Police Department comes cannot summon an officer for urgent business. He would have to await the IGP’s clearance,” said a senior official who did not wish to be identified since he is not authorised to talk to the media. The official added, “If it’s a case of officers going for political purposes, to seek transfers or promotions, it is up to the IGP to identify them and take action and not to suspect everyone in the service. This is a case of the tail trying to wag the head. This could impede the implementation of policies of the new Government besides raising other issues.” Earlier, soon after one time Police Chief, Mahinda Balasuriya was appointed Secretary to the then Ministry of Law and Order, Illangakoon sent out a similar directive. This came weeks ahead of the January 8 presidential election.

Anti-corruption drive
A priority area for the National Unity Government is its promised battle against bribery and corruption. Much to the discontent of the public at large, the probes have been moving at a snail’s pace. Government leaders have explained that the due process of law should be applied on those under investigation. They argued that this was necessary since those involved in bribery, corruption and other malpractices have to be charged in court. The issue figured prominently at a largely attended anti-government political rally in Nugegoda. Speakers pointed out that during the presidential poll campaign, leaders of the new Government spoke of Lamborghinis and thoroughbred horses used by the former President’s siblings. They also referred to ethanol mudalalis. More than a month after the poll, they said, such utterances have become empty rhetoric with a variety of excuses being trotted out. They asked why such matters had not been dealt with if they were indeed true.

However, the move to combat corruption took a significant turn on Thursday. A new Anti-Corruption Secretariat was set up in Bambalapitiya. The Director of this Secretariat will be Ananda Wijepala, who is on secondment from his post as Deputy Director of the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority. Attached to this Secretariat will be Co-ordinators from the Attorney General’s Department, the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption, the Police Department and one representative of other institutions. They will all go under the designation of Deputy Directors. Besides this, accountants and other professionals have also been assigned.

The public will be required to direct all complaints of corruption to this Secretariat, which will sift through such complaints and direct them to the relevant authority for investigation. Every two weeks, the Secretariat will re-examine the progress of the investigation that are being conducted and raise questions from the state agency involved in the investigation.

Creditably, kudos for the setting up of this new mechanism should go to Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). He has been in constant touch with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to ensure that the new Secretariat and a separate Division under Police Headquarters are established to investigate serious financial crimes, abuse of public funds and property. He picked some of the top level managerial staff for the Secretariat from those serving in the state sector. Periodically Dissanayake has also been raising questions in Parliament on corruption issues as a part of a move to keep the new Government under check. Not surprisingly, the past weeks have seen a number of those under investigation using emissaries to seek meetings with him to place “their side of the story.” His response to them has been that they should tell the country their own position and “I will do so myself.” Wickremesinghe chairs the Anti-Corruption Committee, an offshoot of the National Executive Council headed by President Sirisena. The JVP leader Dissanayake is a member of this Council as well as the Committee.

Premier Wickremesinghe told ministers in a memorandum recently that the Anti-Corruption Committee would “investigate large-scale corruption and fraudulent activities that prevailed during the previous regime, initiate legal action against those responsible and recommend measures to be adopted to prevent such occurrences in future.” The dedicated Anti-Corruption Secretariat, for which an initial allocation of Rs 7.5 million has already been made for operational expenses, is now in place to receive complaints. It operates from No. 101 R.A. de Mel Mawatha, Colombo 3. Tomorrow, it will make official announcements inviting complaints from the public.

The main unit that will work with the Anti-Corruption Secretariat is the new Police Division to investigate matters relating to Serious Financial Crimes, Public Funds and Property. This division will come under Ravi Waidyalankara, Deputy Inspector General of Police. A veteran officer with 35 years of experience, Waidyalankara is a lawyer and was once DIG in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). He has held a number of other positions in the Police Department. There will be six Assistant Superintendents of Police, ten Chief Inspectors/Inspectors, 20 Police Sergeants and 40 Police constables in the new division.

However, the new Division has come up against a serious difficulty. It is unable to locate a building to house its offices. The task of locating a building has been given to Tillekeratne Ranaviraja, a staunch backer of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and now Advisor to President Sirisena. He was earlier Defence Secretary when Kumaratunga held office.

The objectives of the new Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) would be to:

  • Conduct inquiries on public complaints on corruption and on serious financial crimes and unsolicited mega projects. 
  • Conduct investigations into financial crimes committed against public funds and properties. 
  • Conduct investigations into financial frauds affecting national economy, national security, health and environment. 
  • Conduct investigations into unlawful enrichment and abuse of power.
  • Conduct investigations with regard to money laundering, terrorist financing and large-scale illegal financial transactions.

A February-13 Gazette notification issued by the Inspector General of Police outlined the terms of reference, mandate and legitimate authority of the proposed division.

One of the first complaints to the Anti-Corruption Secretariat is from the JVP. It wants the secretariat to investigate the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine in 2007 to determine if any malpractice had occurred and whether large commissions had been earned by anyone. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has sent in the same complaint it made earlier to the Department of Inland Revenue to probe the alleged accumulation of assets by Gamini Senarath, former Chief of Staff of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The United National Party (UNP) is to complain on the apportioning of Divineguma funds by former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. This week Parliament granted three weeks leave for him. Basil Rajapaksa slipped away from Sri Lanka to his house in Los Angeles soon after the January 8 presidential election.

From Nugegoda to Kandy
Giving leadership to an anti-corruption drive, though slow, is not the only issue that is preoccupying President Sirisena. Yesterday, he inaugurated a workshop for his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarians. The event came amid a strong show of strength by a group including Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila. Their meeting last Thursday at the Ananda Samarakoon open-air stadium in Nugegoda, Police estimates said, drew a crowd of more than 14,000. According to reports reaching the Government at least 212 buses drew in crowds from different places including Matara, Galle, Hambantota, Tangalle, Moneragala, Gampaha, Ratnapura and Kalutara. The aim of the event was to urge the President to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime Ministerial candidate at the next parliamentary elections. Government leaders have learnt that a similar meeting is now being planned to be held in Kandy by UPFA parliamentarians Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Lohan Ratwatte. The idea is to pressure Sirisena into agreeing to Rajapaksa becoming the prime ministerial candidate, a move that is being resisted by most of the seniors in the SLFP.

Yet, the fact that several members, including Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, Salinda Dissanayake, T.B. Ekanayake, Kumar Welgama and Manusha Nanayakkara took part in the Nugegoda meeting defying the party leadership is an indication of a rift within the SLFP. Yesterday’s workshop at a Negombo hotel and his interaction with top rung SLFPers in the past days were aimed at consolidating Sirisena’s leadership position in the party. Sections in the UNP viewed the developments as a sign that would be advantageous to them at the parliamentary elections. “A split SLFP would place us ahead at an election,” said a senior UNPer. Such a claim again hinges on when the elections would be held. Yet, both for the SLFP and the UNP, a bitter pill remains their rapidly evaporating popularity, a position which neither side is willing to accept.

It is that element that the groups that backed the Nugegoda event are exploiting and will continue to do so in Kandy. The Government is aware of the identities of at least two rich businessmen who have been funding the event by paying for the buses, for posters produced at a printing press at Athurugiriya and other related expenses. In marked contrast, the absence of a focused mechanism to respond to charges levelled at the entirety of the Government on issues surfacing, including action taken or delays on different fronts, without doubt, is creating a credibility question in the public eye. That gulf is slowly but surely widening.

This is at a time when there are serious doubts whether Parliament, as declared in the 100 day Programme of Work, would be dissolved on April 23. It is only the UNP leadership that has been repeatedly asserting this position on the basis that the matter had been agreed upon when the ruling rainbow coalition was formed. However, the mood appears to be changing. For the SLFP leadership, including Sirisena, an area of concern appears to be the need to consolidate their positions in the SLFP and at the same time expose to the public the wrongdoings of the previous Rajapaksa administration including the former President and members of his family. As the process seems to be slow, not to mention the pressures within to stall or delay matters, it is felt that the time taken would be long. It is in that midst that the campaign for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa has got under way. In the light of this, assertions by UNP leaders that there would be dissolution of Parliament on April 23 become a critical question. Firstly, they could only resolve to dissolve but a decision lies in the hands of the President. Thus, any call by the UNP could lead to the unlikely prospect of an SLFP Government since it holds the majority in Parliament.

One of the frontliners in the campaign not to dissolve on April 23 is Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, a key player in the Government. The Ven. Sobitha Thera, who is the convenor of the National Movement for Social Justice told the Sunday Times, “We have signed the MOU with President Maithripala Sirisena on three main points. They are to reduce the executive powers of the President, reactivate the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and effect electoral reforms. We see there has been no problem in implementing the first two. However, regarding electoral reforms there has been issues as the Government is caught up in a 100-day programme. We feel that period is not sufficient to implement the proposal. Therefore they should not be caught up in the 100-day limit. Instead they chould even take six months to implement the proposals.

“The people have given a mandate to implement the electoral reforms proposal as well. If the next election is held under the proportional representation system it would not be correct from the people’s point of view. That will be damaging. What we urge the President and the government is to take their time, even six months and implement the electoral reforms. That is why we say that the April 23 deadline may not be realistic.” The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), another partner of the Government, is also of the similar view.

Balancing foreign relations
Another area of priority for Sirisena appears to be balancing Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. With this in mind, he will pay a four-day official visit to China from March 26. From the Chinese capital of Beijing he will fly to Pakistan. He is expected to arrive in Islamabad for an official visit beginning March 30. Ahead of these visits, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due in Sri Lanka on March 13 on a three-day visit. He will travel to Jaffna and Kandy too. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera will leave for Beijing on Friday.

With only some six weeks in power, the new Government appears to be facing challenges on a number of fronts. How it would move forward in the coming weeks and months hinges on how it performs while retaining or arresting the evaporating public confidence remains a critical question. That is amidst some security concerns too.

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