Sirisena explains issues to ministers and claims again his speech was misquoted; media staff blamed for not clarifying position At Cabinet news briefing, Senaratne gives long explanation of controversial speech, adding to the confusion By Our Political Editor President Maithripala Sirisena’s broadsides at his own United National Front (UNF) Government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe just [...]


Oct. 12 comments: President goes into damage-control mode


  • Sirisena explains issues to ministers and claims again his speech was misquoted; media staff blamed for not clarifying position
  • At Cabinet news briefing, Senaratne gives long explanation of controversial speech, adding to the confusion

By Our Political Editor
President Maithripala Sirisena’s broadsides at his own United National Front (UNF) Government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe just days ago and the resultant fallout still seemed uppermost in his mind.
Within hours of his return from India last Monday where he attended a joint BRICS-BIMSTEC summit, he went into a ‘damage control’ mode with some of his confidants. Present at his Paget Road official residence were Skills Development and Vocational Training Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Science, Technology and Research Minister Susil Premajayantha, Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) National List MP Malith Jayatilleke and Co-ordinating Secretary to the President Shiral Laktilleke.
As reported in these columns last week, Sirisena warned that he would take action if the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Bribery Commission were working on a “political agenda.” He said he was displeased and even disgusted at the manner in which former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and three former Commanders of the Navy, whom he praised as war heroes, were hauled up before court recently.
President Sirisena was livid at Monday’s meeting which began at 4.30 p.m. The fallout from his remarks had by then drawn widespread criticism against him from civil society groups and in postings on social media. It also caused concern among UNP stalwarts and western diplomatic missions which have backed his presidency since the January 8, 2015 election. Sirisena re-iterated that his remarks had been taken out of context by the media. He faulted his own media staff for not acting promptly by delivering the full transcript of his speech. He said that as declared in his speech, he was against three former Commanders of the Navy being hauled before court. He had also in particular explained the manner in which two former ministers – A.H.M. Fowzie (now State Minister for National Integration and Reconciliation) and Priyankara Jayaratne MP were being probed by the Bribery Commission. He said that in the case of Fowzie it was over a charge of misusing a vehicle belonging to the state. This charge, he argued, was not valid since an official circular had enabled ministers then to use vehicles of their colleagues. Civil society groups, however, charged that Fowzie was using a high-end vehicle donated by the Danish government for early tsunami warnings. In the case of Jayaratne, it was over a charge of giving his daughter a job in the state sector. “Who won’t do that”, Sirisena justified. If the Bribery Commission were to bring forth a charge like that, he said, everyone should be guilty. Sirisena said he had made no reference to former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his speech. The transcript of his speech was now available, he said. (Listen to audio of speech).

He also disclosed that before his departure to India last Saturday, he had advised Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to talk to all members of the several Independent Commissions. He said Jayasuriya should explain the sequence of events and the correct misgivings of the speech he delivered. Jayasuriya who led a parliamentary delegation to China returned only last Saturday. The President asked the Speaker to assure those from the Independent Commissions that there would be no interference in their work. Sirisena argued again that as the Minister of Defence, he should have been kept informed of any arrests. Even in the case of Fowzie, he declared that he was one of his ministers. He needed the support of all his parliamentarians and ministers to ensure constitutional reforms were passed in Parliament. “Like the Speaker of the House being informed ahead of the arrest of an MP, I should be kept informed about my ministers,” he argued.

State Minister Fowzie told the Sunday Times, “ I have not done any wrong. When I was Minister of Disaster Management, I was given a vehicle that was meant for the Chairman of the Disaster Management Council. I used this throughout when I served as minister. When I was made Senior Minister, again under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he allowed us (in writing) to take the vehicle to our new ministries. No new vehicles were available to us. This was used by me as the official vehicle. I had a lot of travelling to do. They (CIABOC) did not accept my explanation. I was questioned in a room where 15 trainees were present. This was very humiliating for me. I have been in politics since 1960. Now I have to go before court on October 28. It is only after I received summons that I made representations about the unfair situation I confronted”.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had also telephoned the Speaker on Saturday, the day before flying out to Brussel. He had also appealed to Jayasuriya to talk to members of the Independent Commissions, particularly those dealing with bribery or corruption and prevent any resignations. Those whom Jayasuriya met individually last Monday represented the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), the Elections Commission, the Police Commission, the Procurement Commission and the Finance Commission. He also met separately with members of the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

During the meeting with CIABOC representatives, its Director General Dilrukshi Dias Wickremesinghe revealed that she had sent in her letter of resignation. However, she told the Speaker she was willing to serve if called upon to do so. The response came when Jayasuriya, an official source said, raised the issue in keeping Premier Wickremesinghe’s appeal, to not let her or other CIABOC members send in their resignations. The same source said Wickremesinghe had also made an appeal from Brussels to place the issue on hold until his return to Colombo. It was he who was responsible for Dilrukshi Dias Wickremesinghe being named the Director General of the CIABOC. However, P.B. Abeykoon, Secretary to the President, who had informed President Sirisena of the receipt of the resignation letter from the Speaker had been told to accept it.

As a result, Ms Dias Wickremesinghe reverted to her substantive position at the Attorney General’s Department as Additional Solicitor General. The same source said she was away in Malaysia when Sirisena had made his speech. It was only upon her return that she handed in her letter of resignation. These sources said one of the files she had been attending to before she quit related to Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Health, the official Government spokesperson and close political confidant of President Sirisena.

It was in the aftermath of Sirisena’s ‘damage control’ session that the weekly meeting of ministers took place on Tuesday morning at the Presidential Secretariat. Sirisena was to re-iterate his position once again and strongly criticise the media reporting “out of context’ his speech to war heroes. He said it was not only some of the private media that were criticising him but also the ITN (Independent Television Network) and newspapers of the Lake House group. He said that the Media Ministry was very inactive. The Media Minister has no control over it, he said. Those at the Information Department were advising him that he should rein in Shiral Laktilleke (his Co-ordinating Secretary). Yet, those in the Media Ministry cannot control those in the Information Department. They were so ineffective. He turned to Media Minister Gayantha Karunatilleke and declared at least now, take control of the ministry. The UNP Minister did not respond and merely smiled.

It was Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who rose to thank President Sirisena for briefing the ministers a second time. Of course, this was the first occasion when almost an entire Cabinet received Sirisena’s brief. Samarasinghe went on to second Sirisena’s position saying that no one had mentioned the name of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the event at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. He read out from what he called an official transcript of what Sirisena had said in that controversy-ridden speech. The Minister also strongly criticised the state-run media. He alleged that one state-run newspaper was publishing even planned engagements of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He claimed that front page prominence was given to the former President’s activities almost daily. The discussion on the subject was almost coming to a close when Regional Development Minister Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka raised a question. He wanted to know whether the three former Commanders in the Navy in question were wearing uniform. Then Fonseka declared that commanders who were retired from service in the armed forces were debarred from wearing uniform. “I don’t know about that,” replied Sirisena. One of the Commanders of the Navy had in fact, gone to Court with his medals pinned to his civilian coat. No uniforms were used. However, when he was leaving, the medals had been removed.
A Defence Ministry official said for retired officers to wear uniform, they require the permission of the Commander-in-Chief who is the President. He said only those serving are entitled to wear uniform. Yet, upon the death of an officer, their bodies are clothed in their ceremonial uniform and are entitled to military honours during funerals.

Amid continuing tension over his October 12 speech, President Sirisena went to India last weekend for a meeting with world leaders at the BIMSTEC summit.

However, Fonseka is an exception to this rule. Since he is Field Marshal for life (no retirement), there are occasions when he visits his ministry with full ceremonial regalia. One such occasion was when the new Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy called on him at his office just two weeks ago. Hours ahead of Sirisena’s return from India, the SLFP parliamentary group also met at the auditorium of the Disaster Management Ministry. They discussed the budget proposals they would forward to Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. Upon Sirisena’s return, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, State Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Minister Susil Premajayantha handed their proposals over to President Sirisena in the presence of Finance Minister Karunanayake. Also present was Finance Ministry Secretary R.H.S. Samaratunga. The SLFP proposals centre largely on how to lower the cost of living and create job opportunities. They also make clear that no profit making state ventures should be privatised. The only exceptions, they have declared, were SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Air, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and the Magampura Port in Hambantota. Karunanayake told the Sunday Times, “The joint themes of the budget will be war on poverty and social inclusion.” He added, “As I declared earlier, the budget will have the joint support of both the SLFP and the UNP, the two main partners in the Government.”

There has also been an unexpected development as a result of the President’s statement on the former war heroes being brought to court. A strong section in the SLFP are now demanding that state investigative agencies should be called upon to probe some of the actions including alleged corruption and other irregularities among current ministers. At an informal discussion, one of the issues that came up was the alleged amassing of over five billion rupees as post-tax profits by Perpetual Treasuries Limited, a company once closely associated with Arjun Aloysius, son-in-law of former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. This is allegedly through bond issues by the Central Bank when Mahendran was in charge of the Bank. One of those who took part in the discussion pointed out that only the bond issue of February 27, 2015 for Rs 1.6 billion was being probed. He added that those responsible for this allegedly ‘irregular transaction’ should be called upon to return the money to the Central Bank and further criminal action be taken against them. This, he said, is particularly so in the light of their alleged involvement where they had reportedly interfered and even brought pressure on those responsible.

Elaborating on the Government’s position further in the aftermath of President Sirisena’s statement was Rajitha Senaratne, the official spokesperson of the cabinet. Here are highlights of the answers he gave at Wednesday’s news briefing.
Q: The statement made by the President has been damaging to himself, as well as to the Prime Minister and the Government. What is your response?

A: “What the media has been commenting is not about the speech said to be made by the President. The President’s speech is on the internet. Some have edited the speech and published it.
“The President, in fact made a statement to the Cabinet regarding what he said during his 45 minute speech. Nobody had read the full speech. Instead, they were going by what has been reported in the media. He said even the state run media had not reported it correctly.

“He (President Sirisena) made three points in his original speech. He had said that some of them say the Government will collapse, but his opinion was that the persons who say so will collapse or end. The second point was that some who have lost, still dream of power and that they will eternally have this dream of returning to power. The third point was that the former Defence Secretary and former Commanders of the Navy were taken to court. Thereafter, he speaks only about the former commanders. Read the speech carefully. He says the former Defence Secretary and three former commanders were taken to court. He goes on to say that taking of the three commanders to court was wrong. What the media did was to bring in the former Defence Secretary into it, causing a problem.

“It was based on that. The former Defence Secretary and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa were happy about. The President was referring only to the former Commanders of the Navy. He said the question was about putting the former Commanders of the Navy in the cell meant for suspects. They were those involved in the war. If there are faults, take them to court, but you have to treat them with dignity as these are the persons who were responsible for making life comfortable to us by ending the war. As the President, he faces questions which the members of civil society or the Media do not face. He said he has to rule the country and work with the Forces as the Defence Minister.

“The biggest responsibility is with the Defence Minister who is responsible for security. He asked how he can keep the Security Forces loyal to the Government and work with them. They will begin to think that the former President Rajapaksa and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa are better persons who can take care of them. We feel the difference between then and now. Certainly we enjoy some freedom. “He (President Sirisena) said that if action is being taken against security forces personnel, it is the duty of somebody to inform him. You can imagine the mental stress by those in the Forces when you see their former chiefs in uniform with their medals shown in court in the night news bulletins. How will they feel if the Commanders are treated in that manner, what will befall them. They will start to think who would protect them and will begin to think as to why they went to war.

“The other point is when Ministers are taken in (for questioning) he should be informed. He said when Minister (A.H.M.) Fowzie was taken in for questioning, as the President, he was unaware. The President questioned about the consequences by taking Fowzie. How would they get the two thirds majority to pass new Constitutional Amendments in Parliament? Some say that he is with the SLFP. The question is as to why you need the SLFP. Without the SLFP how do you keep a National Government?

“It was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who wanted a National Government. It is in the manifesto. It is mentioned that even if a two thirds majority is obtained he will go on to form a National Government. All were happy about the formation of a National Government as it was useful to pass the amendments and will also be necessary to pass the Constitutional changes. If he has taken charge of the party, he (President Sirisena) needs to give leadership. If the Ministers in the government are being treated in that manner, will anybody join them? How do you maintain the two thirds majority?

“Fowzie is also a Muslim leader. The Muslims will think they are being discriminated. The President says that the Director General (Bribery Commission) came to him and wanted a letter addressed to the Emir of the U.A.E. She came to his house and had a cup of tea and got the letter signed to get the records on the Dubai accounts (of family members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa). An hour after she left the place, former President Rajapaksa had called him (President Sirisena) and asked him whether such a letter had been signed. The President could not deny it. The President was helpless. The President said only she and the lawyer or the person who accompanied them were aware of it. Therefore who leaked it? There were other instances. Where are the bank accounts now? They just wrote a letter and left it at that. Do banks in Dubai give out details for the sake of a letter? Who will deposit money there, if such details are released in that manner? Where are the bank accounts today?

“In the 2015 Bribery Commission report there is no mention about the expenditure incurred on the search for the Dubai accounts. How did that happen? The President cited the Avant Garde Maritime Services Limited case. The Navy is protecting the vessel detained at state expense for the last year. He (President Sirisena) said take into consideration the Government Analyst’s report regarding the weapons in the vessel. The report says the serial numbers of the weapons have been erased by the weapons rubbing against each other. This is the type of reports we get.

“The President was voicing his concern about these matters. See the cases filed. One is against former Minister Johnston Fernando about the purchase of carom boards. What happened to the Ethanol case? There’s nothing about that? The only fault was purchasing carom boards. The charges against Keheliya Rambukwella are also over distributing pipes. Even the case against Mahindananda (Aluthgamage) is about carom boards. Where is the investigation about the MiG- 27 procurement deal? The President is on the same line which you are thinking on.

“The President also spoke about the behaviour of the state Media. The persons appointed are those picked by the Government. The Cabinet’s opinion was that if the Media minister appointed persons to these position the situation would not arise. The persons appointed to these positions have been selected by the Government, therefore, they should reflect the thinking of the Government.

He (President Sirisena) spoke of the Ekneligoda case as well. The suspects taken into custody were held on Detention Orders signed by the President. Initially, he was told the D/O was needed for one week, then two weeks and thereafter three months. Now it is 16 months since the arrests were made. The suspect is still in custody and the person not found guilty or innocent of the offence, but the case is pending. What the President says is the fact that the cases against these military persons are prolonging.

“He also said that there is no dispute between the President and the Prime Minister or between the SLFP and the UNP. He said that he will discuss the issues with the Prime Minister on his return. The President has told Minister Mangala Samaraweera to brief the diplomatic community”.

Q: You mentioned that the officers appointed are only investigating smaller cases. But who appointed those officers?

A: We have had several discussions on this issue. About four ministers made their observations. Thereafter, a discussion was held and orders were given not to waste time on minor investigations. The President and Prime Minister summoned officials for the discussion and said they should consider major cases. Ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen’s alleged murder case is still being investigated.

Q: The President seemed to be talking about a section of the UNP?
A: It is not a political issue, but about the Institutions. I am not sure who is behind them.

Q: But, isn’t it the problem because the President made the comments.
A: There’s nothing wrong in the comments made. You should correct your reports. Your reports quoted the President saying it was wrong to take the former Defence Secretary and the former Commanders of the Navy.

Q: He mentioned that he was condemning the taking of the former Defence Secretary and the Commanders of the Navy to courts.
A: No, that’s not what he said.

Q: But, even the President’s Media said it in the statement.
A: The speech is available. You can listen to it. We cannot take the speech which appeared in the Daily News or the ITN. We have to listen to the President’s speech.

Q: You seem to be speaking with lot of emotion?
A: That is not your problem, you can ask the questions.

Q: What about the Bribery Commission Director General. Has her resignation been accepted?
A: You will have to check with the President.

Q: The Bribery Commission is inactive now
A: That is wrong.

Q: Because of the statement by the President, hasn’t it led to a dispute between the President and the Prime Minister?
A: No there is no such issue.

Q: Was there a scare that the military will get involved in a coup?
A: No, nothing like that will happen. But, we should not work in a manner assuming that nothing like that will happen. Particularly, when the former Defence Secretary is still around making statements. There are former military chiefs who have gone canvassing for the former President. Even if there was no conspiracy, there can be people who are unhappy.”
One would have thought that the controversy arising out of President Sirisena’s speech was resolved somewhat amicably when Premier Wickremesinghe and a UNP group met him at his residence on the night of October 13. This was just before President Sirisena emplaned to India and the next day Premier Wickremesinghe, to Belgium.

Official Government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne’s remarks, if they were to be taken seriously, do as much damage as the claimed remarks of President Sirisena. Firstly, he has forgotten the fact that the man who led troops to military victory against Tiger guerrillas, was imprisoned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government for alleged corrupt activity. This was done after then Lieutenant General Fonseka was praised as the best Army Commander in the world by the Rajapaksas and both, Sirisena and Senaratne were serving in the Rajapaksa administration.

When Fonseka was first thrust into a makeshift cell at Navy headquarters, he had to see the fly past of Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) aircraft over Galle Face Green where Victory Day celebrations were going on through a wide gap in the door of the Navy cell. During his arrest, a group of red beret commandos, unquestionably one of the elite units in the Sri Lanka Army, were ordered to kneel on the road opposite the present Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel as hundreds of onlookers watched. If indeed sections of the Intelligence community claim there was uneasiness now, they do not seem to know there should have been unrest then too. After all, it was the hero of the troops who was thrown into that Navy cell. The scaremongering by Military Intelligence continues with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration though it formed the subject of a recent top level closed door meeting. Some were asked to wait out until key matters connected to this issue were discussed. The outcome is now being awaited.

Senaratne said that parliamentarians including ministers should be dealt with carefully so the Government will continue to retain a two thirds majority to pass constitutional reforms. And arrests of military officers, for bribery and corruption, would have to be done cautiously lest they demoralise the troops. That effectively means that two categories of those to be investigated would have to be treated with velvet gloves. In Senaratne wanting a “go soft” approach on bribery and corruption gets tainted when he himself is wanted by the Bribery and Corruption Commission for questioning. Will the investigative agencies simply grant exemptions to them and Muslim political leaders? The latter because their votes are needed. The vast majority of the troops themselves wish corrupt elements are dealt with.

There are a number of other woes for them, but the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence is unable to address them. The reason – they do not know such woes exist. This is where the Government’s efforts require even greater commitment when their priority now is reconciliation. The notion that troops are distressed when corrupt activity of some at a higher level are dealt with is not the cause for alarm or serious concern. It is the inaction on many other fronts that is sadly lacking.

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