If their gloves came off last week, now, covert and overt battles among political parties are intensifying. Nowhere is it reflected more than in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-United National Party (UNP) coalition government, which euphemistically continues with the name National Unity Government. The on again and off again relationship took another blow, this [...]


Friction continues between coalition Govt. partners

Cabinet Decision was taken on pricing formula but President was not informed of the fuel price latest hike - - Ranil-Mahinda nexus also breaks down; former President accuses PM of being Pol Pot’s brother while UNPers continue tirade against Gotabaya’s Hitler image - -Mystery deepens over NY Times report; CID denies it probed the charges earlier, but Police SIU did so and dropped the case; questions over who did what

If their gloves came off last week, now, covert and overt battles among political parties are intensifying. Nowhere is it reflected more than in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-United National Party (UNP) coalition government, which euphemistically continues with the name National Unity Government. The on again and off again relationship took another blow, this time over the Thursday midnight increase of fuel prices.

Most Sri Lankans, including President Maithripala Sirisena, woke up to the bad news only on Friday morning. He telephoned the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) Chairman Dhammika Ranatunga and ordered that they revert to the old prices. Within minutes, CPC area managers countrywide began telephoning fuel distribution outlets to direct them not to sell at the new rates. Some obliged whilst others insisted that they be issued a written directive. Some who overcharged found customers queuing up to demand a refund of additional amounts they paid.

Amid growing speculation that he may contest the next presidential election, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, for the first time, on Wednesday visited the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna head office at Nelum Mawatha in Battaramulla. He is seen with his brothers, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former minister Basil Rajapaksa. Pix by Indika Handuwala

By Friday afternoon, some indecisive outlets put up shutters. The Lanka India Oil Company (LIOC) declared it would only sell fuel products at the new increased prices. The Friday morning circus over new fuel prices led to confusion and chaos with the far from pleased public, displeased with the way the Yahapalanaya government was serving them. It only brought more scorn and anger. And it all ended on Friday afternoon with old prices and a CPC circular that could make even its emblem, a man with a burning torch, run faster. It asked area managers not to give effect to price increases based on media reports. This is when the media had no role to play except report on what was going on. It seems the CPC has learnt the fine art of spin from its cricketing hero Minister Arjuna Ranatunga.

The truth is far different. It was related by Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera in a statement on Friday night. It said: “A pricing formula was introduced to determine fuel prices according to a decision approved by Cabinet on May 9, 2018. As per this decision, a committee was appointed to revise fuel prices after every two months. This revision will take place on the fifth of the third month. The prices of petrol and diesel were revised on July 5 using the powers vested with this committee.

“According to this scheme, fuel prices will fluctuate based on world oil prices. While prices will rise along with world crude oil prices, consumers will also benefit when fuel prices reduce in line with world prices. Accordingly, institutions engaged in selling fuel can change their selling prices in line with this price revision. A decision on CEYPETCO fuel prices will be taken at the next Cabinet meeting.”

The statement does raise some important questions. If indeed the decision to enforce a fuel pricing formula was decided at the ministerial meeting on May 9, the question arises why the President was not kept abreast of the new developments. More importantly that a price revision was due on Thursday midnight. The situation was better encapsulated in a cartoon that went viral in social media. A man is shown to query why someone waited till the President went to sleep at 10 p.m. to give effect to fuel price increases.

The lack of communication between the two coalition partners made Sirisena unaware the price increase was coming on Thursday midnight. This is not withstanding the fact that he had been a party to the decision to link fuel prices to a new formula. Some argued that, with such a decision already made there was no need to keep the President informed each time the price was revised.

Nevertheless, most of the initial public criticism, even resentment, fell on his shoulders. And the man who is not used to the accumulation of pressure cracked and ordered that the old prices be reverted to. Some Sirisena aides also saw enemies behind the bush, those wanting to embarrass and even corner him with a shock move. Here is proof again that the UNP leadership’s dialogue with Sirisena continues to falter.

Even before the latest fuel price rise, close Sirisena loyalists have been calling for some decisive action against the UNP. This is after the accumulation of several events which are rightly or wrongly being conceived as anti-Sirisena. However, they remained tight-lipped over countermeasures he was now examining. No details are known except that some tid bits have fallen on the ears of some in the diplomatic community. They have seized on them to offer advice against such covert moves only to be reminded that there was none. Yet, sources familiar with the developments this week insist that a plan of action is under way but decline to say what they will be. “Wait and see how it unfolds,”said one. However, there were sceptics too. These are events which do not cast their shadow before, said one of them jokingly. The inference was that tough measures contemplated may not materialise for different reasons.

One reason attributed for this situation is the continuing weakening of the Sirisena-led SLFP. Efforts by two different prime movers in the group of 16 — who now sit in the Opposition benches — came a cropper. One was a news conference that was arranged by former Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala. None of the others turned up. S.B. Dissanayake, who was in Australia returned this week and sent out SMS messages to summon a meeting of the 16. It was an outright snub for him. Former Minister Chandima Weerakkody, sought permission from the de facto ‘Joint Opposition’ leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. The latter explained that it was with great difficulty he had convinced the ‘JO’ to take them as members. Any move now to go back to the SLFP would only place them and even him in a difficult situation, Rajapaksa explained. Weerakkody decided not to attend. Similarly, former minister Susil Premjayantha turned down Dissanayake’s invitation.

It is now clear that with the exception of three – S.B. Dissanayake, Thilanga Sumathipala and Dayasiri Jayasekera – the remaining 13 in the group of 16 would serve as members of the JO’, and no longer the SLFP. Most of them even attended last Monday’s ‘JO’ parliamentary group meeting chaired by Mahinda Rajapaksa at his Wijerama residence. At least one of those not joining the ‘JO’ has drawn attention after making efforts to take over a registered political party held in the name of A.S.P. Liyanage, a property developer who is now Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Qatar. It is not immediately clear whether the move has the blessings of President Sirisena who is the leader of the SLFP. However, what appears certain is that Liyanage will not part with his party to anyone hostile to Sirisena. At least, not as long as he is ambassador.

That SLFP–UNP friction is at the fore again comes in the backdrop of another development. That is the relationship between the UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is largely made up of former SLFPers. It is no secret that the two of them were widely believed, after the parliamentary elections, to have developed a close nexus. This, as is known, was attributed to the soft approach by the UNP over high profile cases involving bribery, corruption and other misdemeanours of the previous regime. So much so, the matter even drew accusations from President Sirisena during cabinet meetings. There are increasing signs that this détente is now over.

The first public divide came when former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa held a sanghika dana at his Nugegoda residence to mark his 69th birthday. The most venerable Wendaruwe Upali, Anunanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter called upon Gotabaya Rajapaksa to come forward and re-build the country even by assuming the position of another Hitler. Delivering his anusasana, he said that the Maha Sangha would like to call upon the former Defence Secretary to build this country even by means of a military takeover.

The event came just weeks after the former Defence Secretary’s professional group Viyath Maga held its annual meeting at the Hotel Shangri La in Colombo drawing a large turnout, including pro-UNP businessmen. Gotabaya Rajapaksa drew the ire of UNPers for what they claimed were the repetition of their (UNP) economic policies at the event. UNP leaders criticised Gotabaya Rajapaksa for ‘lifting their policies’ and its members let off a tirade over the Hitler issue. Premier Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader, referred to Mahinda Rajapaksa as “Hitler’s brother.” The latter in return branded Wickremesinghe as “Pol Pot’s brother”, Pol Pot being the political leader whose communist Khmer Rouge government led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. One detention centre was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. The Khmer Rouge, in their attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society, took particular aim at intellectuals, city residents, ethnic Vietnamese, civil servants and religious leaders. And so, went the slanging match between Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The build-up against Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in the wake of the popular belief that he would be the ‘Joint Opposition’s’ candidate at the next presidential election. Of course, he would then have to renounce his United States citizenship before that, a process that could last three months or more.

The divide became wider as the government moved to set up special courts to hear bribery, corruption and related cases and exacerbated after a New York Times report alleged that Mahinda Rajapaksa received funds from China for his January 2015 presidential election campaign. According to the report, at least US$ 7.6 million was dispensed from China Harbour Engineering Company’s account at Standard Chartered Bank to affiliates of Rajapaksa’s campaign. The report cited a document from an active internal government investigation. The document details China Harbour’s bank account number — ownership of which, it said, was verified — and intelligence gleaned from questioning of the people to whom the cheques were made out.

The report added: “With 10 days to go before polls opened, around US$ 3.7 million was distributed in cheques: $678,000 to print campaign T-shirts and other promotional material and $297,000 to buy supporters gifts, including women’s saris. Another $38,000 was paid to a popular Buddhist monk who was supporting Mr. Rajapaksa’s electoral bid, while two checks totalling $1.7 million were delivered by volunteers to Temple Trees, his official residence. Most of the payments were from a sub-account controlled by China Harbour, named “HPDP Phase 2,” shorthand for Hambantota Port Development Project.

“During the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, large payments from the Chinese port construction fund flowed directly to campaign aides and activities for Mr. Rajapaksa, who had agreed to Chinese terms at every turn and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia. The payments were confirmed by documents and cash checks detailed in a government investigation seen by The New York Times. Though Chinese officials and analysts have insisted that China’s interest in the Hambantota port is purely commercial, Sri Lankan officials said that from the start, the intelligence and strategic possibilities of the port’s location were part of the negotiations.

“Initially moderate terms for lending on the port project became more onerous as Sri Lankan officials asked to renegotiate the timeline and add more financing. And as Sri Lankan officials became desperate to get the debt off their books in recent years, the Chinese demands centered on handing over equity in the port rather than allowing any easing of terms.”

The Sunday Times has learnt that Chinese funding to different political parties was the subject of investigation in early 2015 by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) which functions under the Inspector General of Police. This unit took over the probe after the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) functioning under the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) first discovered the induction of funds. Details of why the probe was altogether stalled or slowed down are not immediately clear and the matter remains shrouded in mystery. There are claims, unconfirmed, that a once powerful top official in the CBSL called a halt to the probe. Also unconfirmed are claims that a report from the SIU in this regard has been sent to the Attorney General’s Department.

A high ranking source in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) confirmed yesterday that they had not previously investigated this case. They were now awaiting written instructions to undertake a new probe which will focus on disclosures made by the New York Times. The source declined to comment when asked about a report in the state run Daily News of July 22, 2015 headlined, “CID bust massive money transaction during Presidential election.”

“I can only say we did not conduct such an investigation,” the source add. The report does contain some similar facts reported in the NYT though the amounts of money referred to are different. Here are highlights:

“The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is investigating a case where the China Harbour Engineering Company has allegedly handed over a staggering Rs 149 million to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election campaign, last year.

“China Harbour Engineering Company was a company involved in a number of key construction projects in Sri Lanka – including the Hambantotal International Harbour – when former President Rajapaksa was in power. The company is an international contractor that is a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company Ltd. (CCCC).

“The CID has found that money has been obtained from HTPD Phase 02 013359190/19 account of the company, maintained at Standard Chartered Bank, Colombo. A person by the name of V.H.R.H. Francisco had obtained Rs 89 million on December 12 2014 and January 7 2015 in three cheques, CID sources said.

“The Police had found evidence that the money had been handed over to a person named Hema Madiwela, who was involved in election operations at Temple Trees, to produce 245,000 T-shirts and 125,000 caps containing the picture of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“T-shirts, caps and wrist watches sporting the badge of Rajapaksa were distributed among voters across the country during the last Presidential election.

“Meanwhile, in a separate transaction, Rs 58 million had been obtained from a person by the name of Priyantha Samarasinghe from the same account in two cheques……..”

Since the CID claims it had not conducted a previous investigation, the question is whether it would also review the SIU team’s findings and whether indeed a report was sent to the Attorney General’s Department. More so since Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera has placed the probe in the hands of the CID. This is notwithstanding the fact that UNP parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake had made a complaint to the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).

Reacting to the NYT report, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said; “they claim that not me but my so called affiliates and campaign aides had got money and that so called volunteers have delivered the cheques to Temple Trees. This has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy and comes at a time when people, unable to suffer the hardships imposed on them, are turning to us.”

Rajapaksa accused the UNP of “increasingly becoming an advocate of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE.” He told the Sunday Times “one of the UNP ministers, D.M. Swaminathan wanted compensations paid to the terrorists and their next of kin. Even Tamil and Muslim civilians have not received any compensation so far. This is worse than the remarks of State Minister at the time Vijayakala Maheswaran who wanted a return of the LTTE in the North. We will not allow such things to happen. Our troops have sacrificed life and limb to protect the nation.”

The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of June 17 revealed exclusively that Minister Swaminathan placed a memorandum before the Cabinet of Ministers recommending payment of compensation to Tiger guerrillas and their next of kin. He said it was a recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). However, it turned out that the move was totally misleading since the Commission had said that “providing compensatory relief cannot be considered in isolation. The specific role of compensatory relief has to be seen against the overall resettlement and development strategy that is being operationalised in the areas that has been the centre of conflict….”

Parliamentarians in the north, notwithstanding the embarrassment caused to the UNP by their actions and remarks (never to be formally disassociated by their leaders) are also angry over another move – the unlikelihood of the Provincial Council elections. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has told the UNP that it should ensure the conduct of the PC polls. Premier Wickremesinghe did tell Parliament that elections would be held but only after procedural issues, including electoral reforms, were formulated. Yet, as revealed in these columns last week, there are serious doubts. Throwing more light on the issue in a Q & A with the Sunday Times is National Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. See box story.
The internecine war of political parties intensifies at a time when the Government wants to set up a trial at bar to hear cases of bribery, corruption and related issues. Contrary to earlier expectations, the first case to be heard a legal source said, relate to two officials over alleged misappropriation of funds involving a southern port. Some of the other high profile cases are to be further delayed.

Thus, pledges made at the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, will continue to drag on whilst the political parties, particularly the ruling coalition, fight it out. This is amidst a worsening economic situation, a deteriorating law and order situation and reports of mounting bribery and corruption. Other than advertising coming attractions, political leaders appear to have become numb over key issues. That is the dilemma of a public who voted them to office.

PC polls: Deshapriya says ball is in Parliament’s court

During an hour long meeting I asked National Election Commission (NEC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, an experienced public official and man gifted with a sense of humour, how he would cope if Provincial Council and Presidential elections come one after another in January next year.
This was on the premise that the President, in accordance with the Constitution, chooses to call presidential elections after January 8, 2019 (though his term runs till January 8, 2020) and the PC polls are delayed this year.

“Only Gods know”, replied the man who has successfully conducted a string of elections in Sri Lanka much to the relief of contesting parties. The prevailing political complexities and the periodic change of mind by politicians were even impeding his judgement. Here is a revealing Q & A:

Some have unfortunately reported that the elections can be held if the Elections Commission (EC) wants to. No EC in the world has the power to do so. The entire Provincial Council (PC) Election system has been changed. We have to hold the election according to a mixed-member proportionate system.
To do that, we need to find out what the wards are. We can’t hold an election without finding out about the wards first. Last year, we planned to call for nominations at the end of September or the beginning of October. But, they changed the system in September. The Act itself stipulates that after changing the system, the report of the Delimitation Commission (DC) must be approved by a 2/3 majority in Parliament for it to be valid. But the report was never presented to Parliament. The Act also says that if there are deficiencies in the report, the Prime Minister can revise it within a period of two months by appointing a committee. Even that wasn’t done. Now, all the deadlines have expired and we have a deadlock. The issue is who is going to resolve this?

National Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya.

You cannot only blame the Government. This should have been on the agenda of the party leaders’ meeting, but it was missing. It was not taken up. The Speaker (Karu Jayauriya), however, is very keen to have the elections. He summoned members of both the Election Commission and the Chairman of the Delimitation Commission for a discussion. We were told that there were two different ideas among political parties. It was whether to hold the elections either under the old system or the new one. Thus there was a deadlock. We said that it was up to Parliament to resolve it. Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha was also there. He said they were going to prepare a “road map”. We hope that there will be some visible progress within this month. So, I told the Speaker that we would place our confidence with him, the Minister and with Parliament.

With an electoral register ready in October, we only have two days available for PC elections this year; December 22 and 29 December (Saturdays). However, December 22 is a Poya Day. According to the Act, we can’t hold an election on a Poya Day or on a Sunday. It will also be difficult to conduct an election on December 29 as the financial year comes to an end on December 31. That means Heads of Departments, their close subordinates, accountants and even Divisional Secretaries may be busy as it is the end of the year. If the government can solve this issue, we can have the election on January 5, next year. To do that, we would have to announce nominations in October. So, in effect, whatever outcome will depend on Parliament’s decision.

No. They have to either pass the Delimitation Commission’s report with a special majority or revise it through a committee to be appointed by the Prime Minister. They also have the choice of amending the Act and going back to the old electoral system. A fourth option available to them is that they can change the 50/50 system if they are unhappy with it. This system is fifty per cent first-past-the-post and the rest through proportionate representation.
The legislators are the lawmakers and according to the Constitution, they are the representatives of the public. The ball is not in our court. The ball is firmly in the court of Parliament, but they keep dodging it.

The Delimitation Commission’s report is finished, but it has to be legalised by Parliament. We were of the opinion that according to Section 17 of the 2017 Act, this has to be done within two months, but unfortunately, it did not happen. We expected the legislature to act according to the legislation it passed. So, what are we to do?

Even the courts have ruled that Parliament is supreme and it cannot be challenged. This however, is an extremely sad situation. We are talking about universal adult franchise. The foundation of the Declaration is the people’s will. The people’s will must be reflected through credible, free and fair elections that are held on schedule.

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