Evidently, these are not the best of times for President Sirisena. As he surveys the horizon, he can only expect to see the ominous prospect of fast gathering clouds further darkening the twilight sky, with thunder’s rumble starting to resound in the distance, portending bad, bad, bad stormy weather. One that will blow without respite. [...]


President’s make-believe world comes a cropper and falls apart


Evidently, these are not the best of times for President Sirisena. As he surveys the horizon, he can only expect to see the ominous prospect of fast gathering clouds further darkening the twilight sky, with thunder’s rumble starting to resound in the distance, portending bad, bad, bad stormy weather. One that will blow without respite.

Sadly, and that is to put it mildly, that’s what the weather forecast holds for President Maithripala Sirisena for the remainder of his term, however optimistic he maybe of basking in sunshine come 2020. One cannot help but feel sorry for him for he’s a decent man: A man who came forward three and half years ago when the nation was in crisis, when democracy was imperiled and corruption rife.

A man who did not chicken out of the challenge to venture without fear, as the Biblical David did to do battle with Goliath and flay him in his own lair. A man who, not only placed his own neck but the necks of his wife and three children on the Rajapaksa rail track, for the singular purpose of liberating the nation from corruption, from dictatorship, from family bandyism; and to restore the basic values of the citizenry’s democratic life and to erect once more the fallen pillars of democracy and sweep the cobwebs in the nation’s court rooms. And to ensure no spider would henceforth be allowed to weave its web to snare justice and have it for breakfast. No mean task.

But today, with fates tripping him at every step and turn he takes, one would hate to be in his presidential shoes — unless, of course, one is a masochist crying out for more excruciating punishment and inviting more ridicule. For the star that shone on January 8th 2015 is in danger of fast losing its glow and turning to a black hole where the gravitation pull of space time ensures light itself is trapped.
What dawned on January 9th 2015 blessed with so much hope and promise now faces its bleakest hour and stands poised to end accursed with so much disappointment and betrayal.

April New Year’s presidential pot of prosperity’s milk may have bubbled, brimmed and spilled over, but it seems it has only done so to stain the white carpet in the presidential household. Exactly ten days before the Aluth Anuruddha dawned, he had seen his strategy of not marshalling the remaining few troops of his disintegrating party and ordering them to vote against the failed no-confidence motion brought by Rajapaksa’s Pohottuwa party against his own Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, backfire on him. In an attempt to wash his hands of the affair, he had allowed the residual 39 left to vote as they pleased, fearing, perhaps, they will desert him. Sixteen voted for the motion and then deserted him by resigning from their ministerial positions. It was a precursor to bad times ahead.

He had lost a contingent of his troops by giving them free rein to fire at will who resigned en mass a week later after realising their sixteen individual bullets had failed to hit the mark and with their aim gone awry, their position in a coalition government of which Ranil was the prime minister was no longer tenable. They were the first rat pack to flee the sinking ship and now wait treading the water for the Rajapaksa luxury liner to pass by to jump aboard.

Worse, he had lost the trust and faith of his prime minister who emerged unscathed after running the no-confidence gauntlet, thanks to the human shield provided by his own UNP 106 strong cadre, with some help from another 16 friends in the official opposition who rushed to his aid. They succeeded in transforming the arrows of fire designed to set Parliament aflame into harmless lotus bud stalks that drooped in mid air; and were doused in mid flight long before it fell to the surrounding Diyawanna waters.

And then shortly after the Sinhala New Year, came the grand announcement of a major cabinet reshuffle. One that would give the coalition government a new look, one that would signal a new direction, one that would herald a dramatic change, one that would meet the needs of the people, unlike the cabinet before which had been scraping coconuts these last three years.

On May 1st the composition of the new look cabinet was announced. But to the nation it was nothing more than touch up job: An act of coquetry, a complete cosmetic farce that beguiled no one. Though 18 cabinet posts were shuffled, what the people found to their disappointment and dismay were the same old flaccid faces ensconced in different soft seats in the so-called new dynamic cabinet which had been hailed as one that would infuse new blood to give new impetus to the Government to arrest the tide of decay and turn things round.

RIGHT ROYAL WELCOME: Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, warmly greets the First Lady and President Maithripala Sirisena as he arrives to deliver his throne speech

It was nothing of the sort and served only to further dent the president’s crumbling credibility. Like folks at a New York swinger’s club, all that had been done was to have indulged in a bit of post swapping. The sequel appeared worse than the earlier work which, too, had been bad enough.

The only new face in the cabinet, albeit another old familiar face, was the former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who was forced to resign last year after attacking the Government; and who said it goes against his grain and revolts his conscience and it’s an abject shame to be a minister of this Government that is bent on selling national assets, made a surprise comeback — just eight months after his exit — to the cabinet as the new Minister of Higher Education and Minister of Culture.

Those two appointments were the only two that were made according to the new government criteria of appointing ministers ‘scientifically’. Not that his elevation from the backbenches to those high offices of state would have in any measure changed the Government’s fortunes but it must be said his doctorate qualifies him to hold the Higher Education portfolio and his eligibility is beyond question to be the Minister of Lanka’s Culture. Especially considering that it has become the political culture and norm of the land today for politicians of all sides and of all hues to make solemn declarations one day and swear by the opposite and change their tune the following night in the belief that the masses have short memories whilst they possess nine lives and can thus risk losing a life or two by perjuring through their teeth to achieve their political goals. Changing conscience to suit the times has become as commonplace as changing kamisays even as changing places in a game of musical chairs has become the political pastime of Lanka’s new ‘kulture’.

Take for instance, Mahinda Rajapaksa. After losing the presidency on January 9th 2015, he, in accordance with the amendment to the SLFP constitution he had introduced with retrospective effect, in the first year of his first term in office — to deny his predecessor Chandrika the right to hold the chairmanship of the SLFP — which amendment stated that in the event of an SLFP member becoming President of the country, the chairmanship of the party would automatically devolve on that person, he duly handed over his official letter of resignation as party chairman to the then SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa on 16th January 2015. In it he said, “With effect from today, I will be handing over the leadership of the party to President Maithripala Sirisena.”

However, addressing a media conference on August 21st 2017 at the Pohottuwa party headquarters in Battaramulla, he had this to say when asked by a television reporter who the present chairman of the SLFP was: “I, I am still the chairman. I never resigned, no one sacked me so how can anybody from outside say he is the chairman. That cannot be.”

Perhaps Mahinda, even with proof to the contrary staring at his face, believed such a white lie was worth risking one political life and was necessary to boost the morale of his Pohottuwa supporters who were still card carrying members of the SLFP and wanted to believe that Rajapaksa still wore the SLFP crown.

Then consider the case of the present president. Moments after the swearing-in ceremony as the new President, Maithripala Sirisena in his inaugural address to the nation declares he will not seek a second or another term,. He says: “I have no intention whatsoever to seek a second term or another term again.”

Then a few days later, in the hallowed precincts of the Sri Dalada Maligawe, he confirms his pledge. He says: “I make this pledge to work honestly and compassionately to fulfill the promises given to the nation. I make this pledge at the sacred site of Dalada Maligawa, in front of the Maha Sangha, before the people of this country that I will serve the nation with dedication. I wish to state that we do not need a king, we want a real man. As I promised on the day I took oaths as President, this will be my first and last term as President.”

This week on May 7th, addressing the SLFP May Day rally in Batticaloa it was clear he had second thoughts. But what were those second thoughts. He said: “Some ask me whether I am going to retire in 2020. It’s reported on many social media web sites. I will not retire in 2020. There is a lot more to be done. I ask, how many honest politicians are in the country? I ask how many are there who haven’t committed murder, who haven’t robbed the country. I say what we need is a new plan. For that programme, political rogues are not necessary, political thugs are not vital, political murderers are not essential. All that the country needs are political leaders who love the country.”

Though some interpreted the president’s statement that he has ‘no intention of retiring from politics in 2020’ as a statement of his intention to contest the 2020 presidential election, it was nothing of the sort. The president, keeping his cards close to his chest, only said that he would not retire in 2020. He did not throw down the glove and say he would be contesting the presidential election in 2020. That was all. Nothing more.

Perhaps he will gracefully end his first term of presidential office and keep his word to the nation and instead forward his nomination to his party to contest the general elections — to enter Parliament as the MP from Polonnaruwa. Nothing wrong in that, is there? Especially when there is the Kurunegala precedent. After all, he will be seeking entry to the House as a President who, even though he was eligible to seek another term, had gracefully bowed out after his term of office had expired. Not as a defeated one.

And perhaps he had to make the statement that he will not retire in 2020 merely to keep the remaining troops loyal to him for had he said otherwise, he would have found the remainder of his party still with him, had already fled to the other side out of fear being left orphaned, even before he returned from Batticaloa to Colombo. The following day, May 8th, another grand spectacle the masses were earnestly asked to wait for was the opening of the second session of the eight parliament by the President. But it was an inauspicious start. For minutes before his arrival at Parliament’s door to be greeted by the Speaker of the House and escorted to the Speaker’s chair to deliver the ‘throne speech’, sixteen members of his own party, some of them who had been ministers of his cabinet, had already made their Diyawanna crossing to the opposite bank. And, surely, as he made his speech, his eyes would have even fleetingly rested upon the empty seats on his side of the House before flicking his glare upon the swelling number on the other side. How much more can mortal man take?

During the last three years as President of the country and chairman of the SLFP and the UPFA, he has witnessed how his power base had been hijacked from him, the presidential carpet pulled under his feet. Fifty four SLFP and UPFA members had, while parroting the line that they would not do anything to create divisions within the SLFP, even as Mahinda Rajapaksa had said in his resignation letter as chairman of the party dated January 16th 2018, “I am taking the decision as I have a great dislike to see the SLFP face the danger of division. It is the responsibility of all of us who love the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to ensure the unity of the party,” had walked out even without a by your leave.

The splinter group had formed their own party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna with the lotus bud as their symbol, one still to bloom from the mud from whence it had arisen. They had called themselves the joint opposition in Parliament. They had even fielded candidates to contest the local government elections under the SLPP banner against the SLFP and UPFA. And had won the popular vote in no uncertain terms.

But, funnily enough, when it came to the crux, they were still card carrying members of either the mother ship SLFP or the UPFA which were under the chairmanship of Sirisena. Even G.L. Peiris who was the chairman of this new political Pohottuwa front was still an SLFP member. They enjoyed the best of both worlds with the driving force behind the grouping, the mastermind Mahinda nonchalantly claiming to be the undisputed king of the SLFP. They were having the cake and eating it too, claiming dual citizenship of both parties.
Both Sirisena and the SLFP’s General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake had repeatedly threatened to strip the dissidents of their party membership. But the joint opposition called their bluff. The Secretary had sent many paper rockets to the dissidents, warning them of the consequences that would follow their truancy, but the rod had been spared and the child remained spoilt. Most probably, the letters had ended up in the dustbin, even as the President’s sword, which Sirisena had threatened to raise to crackdown on corruption, had remained sheathed in its scabbard and left at home to chop jak.

Just when he may have thought his spell of bad luck had run its course and spent its force, what did he find last Thursday eve: corruption on his own doorstep. Nay, inside his office. The arrest of his chief of staff for bribery would have shaken him to the core. That would be the ammunition the opposition would use to discredit him, to tar his good name to camouflage their own mega corruption and pronounce to the people, all are of the same ilk.

But in that dark cloud, there is a silver lining. The fact that the president’s own chief of staff was arrested by the CID in a massive sting operation is proof that Yahapalanaya is no respecter of persons, however powerful. Unlike the former president’s chief of staff whose alleged multimillion frauds were never exposed but only came to light during Sirisena’s term of office and the FCID obtained warrant from courts for his arrest.

For all his warts and failures, for all his procrastinations and indecisiveness, the nation should count its blessings that it has in Maithripala Sirisena a president who came at the opportune time to reverse the trend towards the total eclipse of all it holds sacred. And takes for granted until usurped,

Maithripala is not a Bodhisattva by any means but a man containing many strengths coupled with many weaknesses. And those who welcomed his advent and now shout him down and blame him for all the nation’s ills, should not lose sight of exactly who did not let the man do his job but placed hurdle after hurdle not in the nation’s interest but merely to safeguard their own in order to delay probes into their own corrupt past, postpone Nemesis’s arrival at their doors.

But if Maithripala does not change his Hamlet ways in the two years left to him; if he does not get his act together and show he means business; if he fails to demonstrate he’s not all talk but has the spleen and backbone to take action and execute the 2015 mandate given to him by the people in good faith and trust that he would deliver the goods before his time is up, then the 2020 budget will have to accommodate the cost of providing the welfare dole to one more pensioner.

Two faces of the same coin
Phew! How ironical life can turn out to be sometimes. One day you poke your finger in another’s eye only to get poked in both eyes.
Ever since February 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been dogged by the accusation of being involved in the biggest bank robbery the country has ever known: the multibillion bond scam. The specific charge levelled against him was that he recommended Arjuna Mahendran to the post of Governor of the Central Bank.
But on what basis the recommendation to the president was made has been generally glossed over by Ranil’s foes once the bond scam was exposed.

To recount: Arjuna Mahendran was a Royal College old boy who had graduated from Balliol College, Oxford. He had served for ten years in the Central Bank from 1983 to 1991. Then served as the Managing Director and Chief Investment Strategist-Asia at HSBC Private Bank. He was responsible for research and analysis of markets in the Asia Pacific. He served as Chief Investment Officer-Wealth Management division at Emirates NBD. He then led the analytics team in interpreting market economics and developing investment strategies for HSBC’s clients in the region. From 2001 to 2004 – during the period Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister in President Chandrika Kumaranatunge’s government — served as Chairman and Director-General of the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka. Thereafter, he served as Chief Economist & Strategist – Asia Pacific at Credit Suisse Group AG and was its Head of Research for Asia Pacific since October 2006. He became a Singapore citizen the same year.

It was with such a CV that moved Ranil to recommend to the President that Mahendran be appointed the nation’s banker. And President Sirisena duly appointed Mahendran to the post. Who could have imagined at that hour, that Mahendran, backed with such a pedigree, would turn the Central Bank into his own piggy bank and, in three years to come, will be on the run wanted by Interpol?
After all, no crystal ball was in the prime minister’s possession or powers of clairvoyance hidden deep in President Sirisena’s psyche to foretell what the future held when the fateful appointment was made.

Once the bond scam was exposed, the President appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The Prime Minister gave evidence and was absolved of any involvement in the crime of the century. The Presidential Commission only faulted him for making the appointment and for lack of judgment in doing so. But then again, who can tell the future, who can read the mind of a man one appoints in trust? Especially when he comes armed with impeccable credentials and qualifications for the job interview? Yet, Ranil Wickremesinghe had to face a no-confidence motion against him in Parliament for that one blunder.

One month ago President Sirisena appointed a certain Dr. Mahanama, who had recently retired from his post as the Secretary of the Land Ministry, as the President’s Chief of Staff, a powerful position. If Mahendran had been the nation’s banker, Mahanama was the President’s Man Friday.

Last Thursday evening, the CID arrested him at the Taj Samudra car park counting Rs 20 million in Rs 5000 notes received as a bribe — the first installment of Rs. 100 million — from an Indian businessman who had an eye on investing in the defunct Kantale Sugar factory. Also arrested was his partner Dissanayake, the Chairman of the State Timber Corporation, another Sirisena appointee.

This week, the president appointed a certain Anuruddha Polgampola as the new chairman of the State Timber Corporation. But no sooner was the appointment announced it came to light that this Polgampola’s past record cast doubts on his eligibility to head such an important institution and he was sacked forthwith on Thursday. Born on May 4th. Gone on May 10th. At least it shows the Government is willing to admit its mistakes when it is brought to their notice. But that’s no excuse. The people’s trust must be discharged by those upon whom it is reposed with due diligence.

So whilst Ranil’s appointee Mahendran is on the run with Interpol searching for him, while Sirisena’s two appointees Mahanama and Dissanayake in remand custody and Sirisena’s third appointee Polgampola sent home, funny isn’t it how life can indeed be ironical? Or not what it seems to mean.

Perhaps, next time round, both Prime Minister and President should do well to consult the crystal ball in the possession of the state intelligence services before rushing in to make important appointments on the strength of the certificates the hopefuls bring with them to the casting couch or the infectious charm they carry in their countenance and smile.

Like charity begins at home, like corruption stems from public office, accountability must start from the desks at which the bucks stops. Crystal ball or no.

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