Shocks and disappointments came as an anti-climax in a week that promised hopeful expectations for Sri Lankans.The main shock was a decision at a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday night to substantially increase fuel prices. Hit by a rise in prices of cooking gas, milk powder and now fuel, living costs are expected to spike [...]


President in tough position, rumblings continue in UNP

Sirisena faces task of reforming his shrinking party and reviving the economy - Shock and disappointment in week of hope; hikes in gas and fuel prices send Cost of Living skyrocketing - Much was expected from policy statement, but little came of it, except an appeal for political unity - Fonseka hits out repeatedly at President; other than the Law and Order portfolio there may be another reason for it

Shocks and disappointments came as an anti-climax in a week that promised hopeful expectations for Sri Lankans.The main shock was a decision at a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday night to substantially increase fuel prices. Hit by a rise in prices of cooking gas, milk powder and now fuel, living costs are expected to spike further. That will push the prices of consumer items, goods and services to a record high. Among the areas likely to be worst hit — for second time after cooking gas shot up — are food, transport and a variety of services.

President Maithripala Sirisena seated on the Speaker’s chair making the policy statement in Parliament on Tuesday. Pic by Indika Handuwela

This decision, inevitable in the wake of rising crude oil prices in the world market, and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation losing heavily each day on subsidised fuel, was put on hold until after May Day. The day to commemorate the working class had to be observed a week later by major political groups due to Vesak celebrations the week before. In recent months, prices have been rising in the world crude oil market. There were sections in the Cabinet of Ministers who believed that a price revision was long overdue and that the government had come under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund (Fund) not to delay a revision. The discerning people also seemed to realise the Government could not go on talking of new pricing formulas as a ruse to putting off the inevitable. The Treasury was complaining of the bleeding of the coffers. The rupee was slipping vis-a-vis the US dollar to make matters worse. The next tranche of some $ 165 million dollars is now pending from the IMF.

Beginning this week, the partners in the ruling coalition – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) – are embarking on what they call further reforms to their parties. How the two, which have already hit a new low in their popularity, could win the hearts and minds of the people for the 2020 elections will be a critical challenge.

On Thursday, President Maithripala Sirisena chaired a meeting of the SLFP parliamentary group meeting where matters relating to re-structuring the party were discussed. In the UNP, the reforms have seen the creation of a politburo. For the first time, the otherwise right of centre party is using the nomenclature of left wing parties. The origin of politburo as the principal policy making committee of the party was in the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and China. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has named senior members to the politburo and more are due. One suggestion before him is to appoint a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the party. On the other hand, this is a designation given to a modern capitalist private sector entity. A young southern politician left out of the recent party changes is making a pitch for the job. However, the recent weeks have seen some of the UNP members including back benchers locked in dialogue with key figures in the ‘Joint Opposition’. Whether such discussion will bear fruition is yet to be seen. But they are said to be discussing broader parameters of how they could agree on contentious issues including the role of some personalities in the main Opposition grouping.

It is now clear that President Sirisena will be the SLFP candidate at the presidential elections in 2020, should there be one. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is seeking to bring in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish the Executive Presidency before 2020. Confirmation of Sirisena’s intentions came when he told a well-attended SLFP rally in Eravur near Batticaloa that he wished to serve the people even after 2020. As for the UNP, the newly appointed General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam has publicly announced that the party’s candidate would be Wickremesinghe.

A one-time staunch ally of Wickremesinghe, a member of the so-called ‘footnote’ gang which added their own dissenting thoughts to the report of the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) over the Central Bank bond scam reacted publicly. The presumptuous young state minister, who lost his own seat in the recent local government elections told a newspaper interview that if Wickremesinghe was to be the UNP candidate, he would contest the UNP leader as an independent candidate. That leaves the ‘Joint Opposition’ where the front runner is former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His Viyath Maga organisation is the vehicle by which he will test the waters for a prospective campaign for the country’s top job. It is a grouping of professionals, some businessmen who made good during the previous administration and will hold their annual sessions at the Shangri La Hotel today. His point is that people around the world are getting tired of traditional politicians and are looking elsewhere for leadership. An example is US President Donald Trump.

One of the areas for some disappointment was expectations that President Sirisena planned to make pledges during his policy statement after the ceremonial opening of Parliament on May 8. Almost the entirety of his speech was focussed on identifying some of the achievements of his government. However, he did set out 15 “broad criteria” which he said “will make the foundation of a truly people oriented programme to fulfil their expectations.”

Sirisena added, “It must be noted that the country is not in a situation where it is appropriate for different parties and groups to test their political power, but in a situation where the challenges faced by the nation should be overcome with a collective effort. In order to make this a reality, the power struggle among the parties in the National Unity Government as well as the power struggle between the government and the opposition must be contained. It is the people who are affected by all forms of conflicts over power.”

That was a strong message from Sirisena to his coalition partner, the UNP and its leaders. Ahead of his policy statement, Sirisena was livid about the remarks made by UNP Minister Sarath Fonseka at a special news conference at his Ministry. Whilst making the remarks against Sirisena, Fonseka urged his staff to remove a chair next to him which was for use by his Deputy Minister Palitha Thevarapperuma. Fonseka bitterly criticised Sirisena for not appointing him as the Minister of Law and Order despite assuring him that he would do so.

He claimed that he had addressed 100 presidential election rallies whilst his wife had spoken at 30 rallies. He also claimed that the UNP had proposed to Sirisena that he be appointed Minister of Law and Order. He had been on a private visit to Indonesia. Minister Rajitha Senaratne had telephoned and intimated to him that he would get an important Ministry and to return immediately. He said he refused to return in a hurry. Upon his return, he had asked the President why he was not appointed to the Law and Order portfolio. Sirisena had said five Deputy Inspectors General (DIGs) had asked him not to appoint him, Fonseka said. So had a group of Buddhist monks though Sirisena had declined to give their identities to him. He declared that several government officials had asked him to take over the Law and Order Ministry. They had opined that he could then attend international events in countries where he is now being refused a visa. One such country is the United States.

Fonseka also claimed that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had confessed to him that she had not been able to speak or meet Sirisena despite many efforts during the past three months. He charged that the President was responsible for not dealing with Mahinda Rajapaksa and members of his family. He also blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for what he called the setback the government and the UNP suffered at the February 10 local polls.

Fonseka’s tirade did not stop there. On May6, at the UNP’s May Day rally chaired by Premier Wickremesinghe at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, Fonseka said that it was a mistake to have picked Sirisena for the January 8, 2015 presidential election. Fonseka’s repeated comments prompted Sirisena to raise issue with Minister Malik Samarawickrema, former Chairman of the UNP. Samarawickrema who has played broker between the SLFP and the UNP on many a crisis situation, in turn, raised issue with Premier Wickremesinghe.

Fonseka led troops to victory in the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, though he had been in China on the final days. It prompted the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to declare that Fonseka was the “best Army Commander in the World.” However, in later months Rajapaksa ordered the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to probe his alleged involvement in military deals. He received a prison sentence and was stripped of his title as a full General of the Sri Lanka Army.

Elected President in 2015, Sirisena issued a proclamation granting a full pardon to Fonseka. He was restored his military title and related perks. During the presidential election campaign, as reported in these columns, Fonseka sought and obtained an assurance from Sirisena that besides restoring his position, he would also be promoted to the rank of a Field Marshal. Thus, it was the first time a serving politician has been named as a Field Marshal. Since there was no such rank in the Army, Fonseka designed his own attire for a Field Marshal. He also got the Army to import from two specially designed batons at a cost running into millions of rupees. The first one at a lower cost was imported from India earlier. The second was from Britain.

If Fonseka’s verbal barrage against Sirisena is on the grounds that he did not appoint him Minister of Law and Order, there is another story. Days ahead of his strong criticism, Fonseka had a meeting with President Sirisena. There he sought his help for the release of now retired Major General Amal Karunasekera, who was Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) at Army Headquarters. This was when Fonseka was the Commander of the Army and Karunasekera was under his direct command.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detectives who are probing the killing of Lasantha Wickremetunga, Editor of the now defunct Sunday Leader, and the abduction and assault on journalist Keith Noyahar have arrested Karunasekera. He is in remand custody whilst investigations are ongoing. With the defeat of the Tiger guerrillas in 2009, Karunasekera was to be posted as Sri Lanka’s envoy to Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa surrounded by Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. However, the Asmara government did not favour the request. It came to light that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was then operating a transit base there to stock military hardware before being smuggled to Sri Lanka.

Thereafter, he was posted to the Egyptian capital of Cairo from where he reported on Eritrea. When parting of the ways between the former government and Fonseka intensified amidst investigations against Fonseka, Karunasekera was recalled to Colombo. Detectives who questioned him said he did not divulge any details and strongly denied military intelligence personnel were engaged in any illegal operations. Karunasekera’s arrest came when he was to leave Sri Lanka on a foreign assignment with a letter signed on behalf of the Defence Secretary by an official of the Ministry of Defence. He was stopped on a court order and later entered the Military Hospital just before his arrest.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Fonseka may have slipped while naming Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the one responsible for the dreaded ‘white van syndrome’ of yesteryear. Asked by the reporter about that period during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration and who was responsible for the abduction of journalists, activists and terrorist suspects, Fonseka put the blame fairly and squarely on the former Defence Secretary. When asked if those in the army were not responsible for some of these abductions, Fonseka said that they were not because he had “tight control over the military”. In saying so, and if any officers and men are compromised in the abductions under investigations, Fonseka’s comments might have compromised himself.

As Fonseka claimed at his press conference, a group of DIGs did meet Sirisena and urged him not to appoint the former Army Commander as Law and Order Minister. However, what has not been revealed is the fact that state legal arms also expressed serious reservations on the grounds that his name has surfaced in respect of a few inquiries. Hence, they contended that it would be difficult for them not to carry out orders issued by Fonseka if he took over the law and order portfolio. They also pointed out that some such matters were still under investigations. Thus, Sirisena had decided he would not confer that portfolio on Fonseka, though the move could have had political implications – and soon after the local government polls drubbing Sirisena began making overtures to the Rajapaksa clan – sworn enemies of Fonseka.

Despite the ongoing investigations into the attack on journalists, whether indictments will take more time remains a critical question. However, most details linked to the incidents have been pieced together by the detectives and a few key persons still remain to be questioned.

In respect of other high profile cases now being handled by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), efforts are being stepped up to bring down to Colombo two most wanted persons – Udayanga Weeratunga, former Ambassador to Russia during the previous government and Arjuna Mahendran, Governor of the Central Bank during the current government. The FCID Director who reached his retirement age of 60 has been given a year’s extension following a Cabinet decision on Wednesday.

Whether stepped up investigations at this juncture would be viewed by the public as a political vengeance in the wake of the rising unpopularity of the government cannot be ruled out. That would further erode the Government’s credibility. On the other hand, inaction, despite promises in 2015 will continue to remain a minus factor. That such a dilemma confronts the Government at a time when there is the all-important issue of rising prices is the moot issue.

Even during May Day rallies this week, the point was made by de facto ‘ Joint Opposition’ leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. He told the Sunday Times yesterday “the poorer sections of the people will be worst hit by these price increases. The Government has done nothing to ameliorate their living conditions. LPG gas prices have gone up. Milk food prices have been increased. The people are suffering untold hardships.”

Rajapaksa said that the Government should take a lesson from the recent elections in Malaysia where the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was re-elected to power. People were suffering severe hardships and they gave their verdict. In Sri Lanka, the suffering people, particularly those poorer sections were waiting to tell this government to “Go”, the former President said.
Sirisena, who lost 16 of his SLFP parliamentarians this week, is in an unenviable position. He has the task of reforming both his shrinking party and the country’s shaky economy. For the UNP, the internecine warfare, which one thought would be over with the defeat of the no-confidence motion on the Prime Minister is not over. Rumblings continue as silent, insidious campaigns get under way.

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