Somebody — I cannot quite remember who — once said that hypocrisy is the audacity to preach integrity from a den of corruption. The more I read the evidence presented before the Presidential Commission inquiring into SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Lanka and connected issues, the more I am reminded of the words quoted above by whoever [...]


The terrible mess that politics makes


Somebody — I cannot quite remember who — once said that hypocrisy is the audacity to preach integrity from a den of corruption. The more I read the evidence presented before the Presidential Commission inquiring into SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Lanka and connected issues, the more I am reminded of the words quoted above by whoever had the prescience to foretell the disgraceful conduct of some of our leaders and their cohorts.

A couple of days ago, the Commission was told that SriLankan had ordered a VIP kit that was to be fitted to aircraft during the refleeting stage somewhere in 2013. SriLankan Airline officials had made out that this US$ 15 million VIP kit was a gift from Airbus the manufacturer. It was supposedly a gift from Airbus as a tribute to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It was not stated whether the then president was aware of this supposed gift. But evidence that emerged last week indicated that it was SriLankan that ordered the kit. This is but a microcosm of the shady goings-on at the airline which at the time was headed by a brother-in-law of Mahinda Rajapaksa and one whose name has cropped up time and again with acts and activities that seemed to have bypassed rules and regulations and brought discredit to an airline that was already struggling to stay afloat.

The fact that nobody in the then government took the trouble to censure the management and take up the numerous issues at Cabinet meetings is a further sign that the closer one is to the seats of power the more skullduggery one can engage in without fear of retribution. Take for instance, the evidence that emerged, also last week, that senior management of the airline signed an MoU in May 2013 with Airbus without Cabinet approval.

Strangely, though, the Board of Directors of the Airline had only a couple months earlier decided that such a step should be taken only with Cabinet approval. So it appears that the Cabinet did not move a whisker to take whatever action was possible to cancel that MoU despite the obvious irregularity of the act. It would be sheer nonsense to say in defence that nobody in the Cabinet had any knowledge of what had happened, unless, of course, the Cabinet was full of dolts.

How was it possible for the chairman to go ahead and break rules and regulations with impunity — including diverting planes on scheduled flights which presumably he does not have the powers to do? Was it because of his close connections to the then President? If that is so, as knowledgeable people in official and professional circles believe, then it is further proof that our own post-Einstein version of the theory of relativity is one of the most noxious elements that spread in the body politic with cancerous effect.

One other thing: While Maithripala Sirisena, as a Cabinet minister in the Rajapaksa government would surely have been aware of some of the goings on at the airline and the subject of SriLankan Airlines had been mentioned at pre-presidential and parliamentary election platforms, why did he wait three years and more to appoint a commission to look into the unpardonable actions of the airline’s chairman and some of its senior management such as its CEO, not to mention Mihin Lanka’s solo flight with Sajin Vaas Gunawardena at the controls with joystick in hand, flying virtually at will?

Was the delay in appointing a belated commission because President Sirisena was more intent on trying to pin the new management under Ajith Dias and Suren Ratwatte to trap the UNP when his relations with his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, began to sour and reach a stage of intolerance? But once he had set the process in motion the more unpalatable evidence came from the period when Nishantha Wickramasinghe chaired SriLankan Airlines.

At the time when Sirisena was making overtures to the Rajapaksa clan trying to find an ally that would support him in his quest for a second fling at the presidency, which he had rejected even before he was elected, the presidential hopeful was more intent on nailing the Wickremesinghe cronies. He had an opportunity of doing so earlier when the new UNP-appointed board of directors discarded Attorney-at-Law Weliamuna’s initial inquiry into the workings of SriLankan Airlines.

He did not, and that report which had elicited curious information, such as that a female cabin staffer had been assigned to do political work for Namal Rajapaksa and was paid by the airline although she did not work for it.

But now President Sirisena went for the new board of management under the Wickremesinghe administration but the timing was atrocious. Much of what is emerging as evidence pertains to the Nishantha Wickramasinghe days.

So now Sirisena has turned on the Constitutional Council (CC), not so much because it had faltered on the way but rather because Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is head of the CC, had stood firm in parliament against the President’s constitutional antics. Jayasuriya was the target not only because he did not relent under opposition thuggery and violence but equally because he was of the UNP.

What is worse is that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa nexus suddenly forged suffered the ignominy of being unceremoniously rejected by the Supreme Court, which found the interpretation of the constitution by two persons that some thought were experts, was seriously flawed. So, now, Sirisena has turned on the CC using every opportunity such as statements to parliament to try and save his reputation and argument.

One argument the President has adduced as a criticism of the CC is that the Council does not provide the reasons why a particular nominee recommended by Sirisena is rejected. The more I listen to or read the outpourings of Sirisena wisdom, the more I am reminded of the bumbling and fumbling of the mad Don at the White House. He has sacked or edged out enough officials that he himself brought into the place that would fill a ballroom in the White House.

For a person preaching morality and transparency we are still to hear Sirisena provide a reason for appointing his brother who was GM of the Timber Corporation to head the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. And so shortly after he was elected president and had pledged to stop nepotism and family clannishness. I am sure there are many who would like to hear the reason for that appointment. Or for that appointment of some Liyanage chap as ambassador to Qatar and his conduct there.

It was difficult to believe — at first — the stories one heard of Sirisena’s incompetence, his tendency to weaponise political naiveté and to take arms against those who are not ready to accept every uniformed individual as a war hero worthy of the Victoria Cross for gallantry. When we see the number of uniformed personnel from different services arrested for alleged crimes, some very serious ones said to have been committed during and after the war, one begins to question some of the accolades offered by politicians.

It is not surprising seeing the attempt of high-powered parliamentarians trying to exonerate their colleagues for the vulgar behaviour they so clearly displayed during three days in the chamber of the House last November. Some have pleaded that they are covered by parliamentary privilege. That seems a strange kind of privilege. I have never heard of any parliament where privilege extends to physical violence, damage to property, injury to person etc.

I believe it was Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa that came up with that defence. Maybe he would enlighten us all by citing which parliament provides liberal privileges that allow MPs to clobber others and throw chilli powder and furniture at MPs, police and staff.

If I remember correctly Parliament, including members of the current opposition, approved a Code of Conduct for MPs that particularly banned physical violence against MPs and others. So what has happened to that Code of Conduct approved just two years or so ago?

The attempt to stop a police inquiry is surely because most of those named in report of an internal inquiry are members of the opposition. This is an attempt to prevent the opposition members named from being hauled up before the police.

Law and order is vulgarised when politicians intervene and let slip the dogs of war, as Mark Anthony said.  One wonders what Gotabaya has to say about the conduct of the elected representatives who has just torn, metaphorically speaking, the Code of Conduct for MPs and drawn up their own privileges acts.  AX

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