with President Rajapakse
War on corruption: Don't shut out media
Even if he did not profess, President Mahinda Rajapakse seemed a
firm believer in the motto of Sri Lanka Army's elite commandos -
when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.
is tough even if his unassuming, friendly demeanour betrays that
outlook. In his 35-year-old political career, the road to the country's
highest office for this rural lad from Giruwapattuwa (in Tangalle),
was studded with one battle after another. To become Prime Minister,
he had to assert himself and argue it out with then President, Chandrika
to become President, he had to once more battle against some formidable
opponents besides his rival at the presidential elections, Leader
of the Opposition and United National Party (UNP), Ranil Wickremesinghe.
That fifth column was led by former President Kumaratunga and her
brother, then Foreign Minister, Anura Bandaranaike. Despite all
the deadly political "guerrilla warfare" by the "holy
angel of Sri Lankan politics" and her coterie of "yes"
persons, Mr. Rajapakse became the nation's fifth president.
Tuesday night he was busy in his study at "Temple Trees."
On the wall, among the many portraits with world leaders and visiting
dignitaries that hung was one of his father, the late D.A. Rajapakse.
When the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike quit the UNP to form the Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), it was the late Rajapakse who joined
and stood by him. Ms. Kumaratunga, like her brother Anura, left
her late father's party to re-join later. Not President Rajapakse.
Yet, it was no cake walk for him. He had to fight all his way through.
It seemed as if the father was keeping a watchful eye on his son
as the President busied himself.
saw him at work with the two telephones on his table. If he was
not using one, he was speaking on the other. At one point, it was
Admiral Daya Sandagiri, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). In this top
most position he heads the Joint Operations Headquarters of the
Army, Navy, Air Force and Police. It is his prime responsibility
to co-ordinate the activities of all these security arms to counter
terrorism and the security threats posed to the nation.
Rajapakse's subject of discussion on the telephone was Monday night's
incident in Trincomalee where students of Sri Koneswara Hindu College
were killed. Claims made by the security authorities over the cause
of the incident were being contradicted by Tamil groups and the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Security authorities in
Trincomalee said the students were preparing to attack an armed
forces patrol. The latter denied the charge. They said a grenade
had been lobbed at the students by persons travelling in a three-wheeler
scooter taxi and later troops had opened fire. By Tuesday afternoon,
Dr. Gamini Gunatunge, Judicial Medical Officer, who held the post
mortem examination, shed light on the incident. He declared the
students had died of gun shot injuries.
Sunday Times learnt that a Chief Petty Officer of the Navy rushed
to the spot with some sailors from one road. He met up with a three-wheeler.
A Sinhala mother and her child were heading towards the town area.
He let them pass before reaching the spot. By then, a team of Police
Special Task Force (STF) commandos from a neighbouring location
arrived at the scene along another road. They allegedly opened fire.
The incident triggered off angry protests and a Hartal continues.
if a dispute continued over how the incident began, with the versions
of the security authorities and others differing, there was no debate
that there was gun fire. There was something highly disturbing too.
With little or no knowledge of the senior armed forces officials
in the Trincomalee district, a team of 24 STF commandos led by only
a Chief Inspector had been ordered for deployment in Trincomalee.
Responsible for this, The Sunday Times learnt, was a retired police
official who has now been named as an advisor in the Defence Ministry.
He is reported to have called upon the police commandos to act tough
against terrorist elements.
deployment had been ordered when Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse
was away in India accompanying his brother, President Mahinda Rajapakse
on the official four-day visit. The Defence Secretary lost no time
in politely reminding the retired policeman that all such actions
in the future should be with his express approval. He told him to
confine his role to offering advice and not to work at cross purposes.
Yet, the move drew a retaliatory attack from Tiger guerrillas. Shortly
after midnight yesterday, they rammed a suicide boat on a Navy Fast
Attack Craft (FAC) near the Trincomalee harbour mouth, killing two
officers and ten sailors. Two were rescued and a third was captured
by guerrillas. See box story on this page.
conduct of the retired police officer also figured at last Wednesday's
cabinet meeting. It was noted that the same advisor had given newspaper
and TV interviews in the recent weeks. In these he had spoken on
various matters that made it appear he was enunciating Government
policy. In one Sunday English newspaper he had expressed the need
to re-capture Government land in the north now held by Tiger guerrillas
- a suggestion that a war should be waged. The publication of this
interview prompted a response from former President Kumaratunga
who is now holidaying in the United Kingdom.
telephoned Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. "Apey Yaaluwa
anaagena nedha (our friend has messed up no!!)" she said in
an apparent reference to President Rajapakse. When queried about
what she meant, she asked Mr. de Silva whether he had not read the
retired police officer's interview in the Sunday newspaper. Ms.
Kumaratunga who for years publicly declared she never read that
paper seems to have now become its ardent fan. Even before the Cabinet
meeting, media interviews by armed forces commanders were causing
concern to President Rajapakse. Such interviews either exceeded
their brief or appeared as Government policy. There were also ones
that were provocative and threatened the peace process. All such
interviews have been without prior sanction of the Ministry of Defence.
the telephone that night President Rajapakse was discussing with
Admiral Sandagiri how to issue an official statement on the Trincomalee
incident. The Chief of Defence Staff was trying to dissuade the
President from making any references to his wish to take strong
action against those responsible. His argument was that it would
be bad for morale. "If there is wrong doing, I must punish
those responsible," declared Mr. Rajapakse. The conversation
continued. Later, he discussed the same issue on the telephone with
his brother, Defence Secretary Gothabaya. The outlines of a statement
Rajapakse then rang Police Chief Chandra Fernando. He asked him
to detail Asoka Wijetilleke, DIG Western Province (North) to travel
to Trincomalee and conduct a full investigation. The move meant
he did not want to rely on specialised investigation arms of the
Police. In his present official position, Mr. Wijetilleke is responsible
for the districts of Gampaha, Negombo and Kelaniya. He will now
conduct this special probe and forward a report to President Rajapakse
through the Police Chief.
On Wednesday morning the Ministry of Defence issued a two paragraph
statement. It said:
LAUNCHES FULL SCALE INQUIRY INTO TRINCOMALEE KILLINGS
Initial reports from Trincomalee earlier revealed that an accidental
explosion of a hand grenade held by a group of young men on the
beach killed five of those youths (sic) and injured two others on
Monday (02nd January 2006) night.
the Ministry of Defence (MOD) after the post-mortem inquiry into
their deaths disclosed that there were also wounds caused by gun
shots, has decided to hold a full scale probe into the incident."
The statement, as is clear, made no reference to President Rajapakse's
intention to punish those responsible for any wrong doing in the
was only a "full scale probe." Would not such an assurance
come as a message to the LTTE that the President did not condone
indiscipline or excesses whichever quarter it came from? In its
absence, sad enough, there were perceptions in Tamil quarters, though
wrongly, that he was encouraging them. Why did Admiral Sandagiri
dissuade him on grounds of morale when Sri Lankan leaders in the
past have made very strong statements over abuse of authority?
again President Rajapakse reached out to the telephone. This time
he spoke to Police Chief Chandra Fernando to ascertain the progress
of investigations into the assassination of former Foreign Minister,
Lakshman Kadirgamar. His wife Suganthie had made representations
about what she claimed was slow progress.
those chores over, President Rajapakse was clearly in a relaxed
mood. I was able to chat with him informally over a number of matters.
During the course of this, I asked what action he proposed to take
as Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of armed forces over
last week's disclosures in The Sunday Times. This newspaper revealed
how the Government cancelled a billion rupee deal where former Commander
of the Navy and now Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Daya Sandagiri
ordered 20-year-old guns for the Navy's Fast Attack Craft (FAC)
fleet on the grounds they were "brand new". He made an
advance payment running into millions for the weapons that were
not in production.
report disclosed that Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha
Karannagoda, has submitted a full report to Defence Secretary Gothabaya
Rajapakse. The Navy Chief warned that if this deal went through
"Sri Lanka Navy craft would have been fighting with weapons
of outdated technology against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE). This would have a serious bearing on national security."
Rajapakse replied that he did not want any investigation arm of
the Police to go into this matter. Evidently he did not appear to
have much confidence like in the case of incidents in Trincomalee
where five students were killed. He said he proposed to appoint
a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. But, he made clear it would
have been better for persons who possess such information to give
it to him directly instead of going to the media. "This is
not the time for it," he said.
next morning (Wednesday) President Rajapakse summoned Admiral Sandagiri
to "Temple Trees." He told him he could not ignore when
there were media reports of allegations against him for alleged
corruption and malpractices. He said he was going to appoint a Presidential
Commission of Inquiry to probe them. Also present at the meeting
was Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse.
some of the nuances arising from allegations against Admiral Sandagiri,
revealed in The Sunday Times last week, seem to have not registered
in the minds of those in the upper echelons of the Government. Admiral
Sandagiri is no ordinary person. As Chief of Defence Staff, he is
the custodian of Sri Lanka's national security. Besides allegations
over the sordid gun deal with the Israeli company, a front page
report in The Sunday Times made a far more serious revelation. Admiral
Sandagiri allegedly tampered with his assets declarations for year
after year contained in sealed envelopes deposited with Navy Headquarters.
ordinary policemen and peons are being arrested, and sometimes remanded,
for accepting a bribe of a few hundred rupees, here was the case
of the country's top most official facing accusations of a criminal
nature. This is over alleged tampering of his assets declarations.
That is in addition to allegations of abuse or misuse of state funds
running into billions. Not one government leader or state agency
thought it fit to initiate follow up action. Not even to ask Admiral
Sandagiri to step down whilst a probe is conducted. On the other
hand, Admiral Sandagiri did not consider it honourable enough to
step down from his exalted office after assuring the government
and the nation that he would return after his name is cleared.
admonishing Admiral Sandagiri, President Rajapakse chaired a meeting
of the National Security Council. There he told armed forces chiefs
that they should not provide the media with information relating
to bribery, corruption or such activity. Instead, he said, they
should be brought to his notice. Though no pointed reference was
made to The Sunday Times, there was reference to last week's reports.
At one point during the discussion, an angry Vice Admiral Wasantha
Karannagoda, Commander of the Navy, strongly denied veiled suggestions
he was responsible for providing the information. He said he had
already forwarded a copy to the Defence Secretary and another was
available with a senior official.
sequence of events after The Sunday Times revelations shows that
the issue now is not over the shocking disclosures. Instead, it
was over who would have made them available to The Sunday Times
and how to prevent such publications in the future. In any vibrant
democracy, the role of the media in exposing bribery and corruption
has taken a key place. This new unprecedented move means no media
in Sri Lanka will be encouraged to expose corrupt activity of those
in uniform and their cohorts bleeding the tax payer's money. Sad
enough, that is at the expense of the lives of the soldier, sailor
Rajapakse cannot be blamed. His predecessor, Ms Kumaratunga, did
not allow him to be associated with anything military or defence.
He was not invited to take part in the peace process, attend meetings
of the National Security Council or any conferences related to security.
But, what of his learned advisors and senior officials?
most Sri Lankans, I was encouraged by President Rajapakse's assurances
to the nation upon being elected. First was on November 19 during
his swearing in, telecast live to the nation. Just two days after
being elected President, he declared "…..The law of the
country should be just. Everybody including the President of the
country should obey and respect that just law. I would like to state
here that I will not allow anyone to subvert law and order using
political power and privileges.
"My Prime Minister, members of my Cabinet, the Armed Forces
and the Police, the entire public service from the highest officers
to the lowest rank should follow these good governance norms. Public
service should be a responsible and ethical service where there
is no room for fraud, bribery and corruption…."
days into his Presidency, Mr. Rajapakse made his first policy statement
to Parliament after the ceremonial opening. In that speech, also
telecast live nationwide, he said "The government is working
towards building a disciplined society by strengthening the rule
of law. We will not leave room for anyone to break the law by using
political or financial power or privileges. We will give priority
to stamp out bribery and corruption and empower new agencies for
now, with only 51 days into his presidency, Mr. Rajapakse has debarred
his armed forces commanders from divulging corrupt activity or bribery
in a vital sector - the security establishment. This is at a time
when national security interests are threatened and more of the
nation's resources would have to be diverted for military procurements
to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
The Sunday Times has periodically disclosed many of Admiral Sandagiri's
military deals, other private media too have bared some of them.
This is besides the Israeli gun deal involving over a billion rupees.
If the past history of Presidential Commissions of Inquiry and their
outcome is something to go by, moneys would be spent and recommendations
would be made after a lengthy period. Alas, very little has been
I am reminded of the words of US civil rights activist Martin Luther
King jnr. He said, "History will have to record that the greatest
tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident
clamour of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good
remarks ring true even today. It is not Admiral Sandagiri alone
who will be blamed for all his alleged misdemeanours. The blame
will fall equally on President Rajapakse if he does not honour the
pledges he has made to the nation to ensure those from "the
highest officers to the lowest rank " follow good governance
a politically battle-hardened politician who has to fight for what
he wanted, a war against bribery and corruption is waiting. He wants
to fight it alone after shutting out the media. He should act in
the national interest to prove to the nation that he means what
he said. He should show that he is, like in politics, fearless in
fighting corruption and will not succumb to any pressure from the
powerful guardians of bribery and corruption.
word sounds war bells
Tiger guerrillas rammed a Sri Lanka Navy Fast Attack Craft (FAC)
shortly after midnight yesterday with an explosive laden boat killing
two officers and ten sailors. Two sailors were rescued by fishermen
and a third was captured.
The incident came when two Israeli-built Shaldag class FACs P 473
and P 476, each with a length of 24 metres, set out on patrol duty
in the harbour mouth area near Foul Point. The two were far apart
though within visible distance.
Shortly after 12.30 a.m., P 476 had gone past a flotilla of fishermen.
Just then an explosive laden boat manned by a suicide cadre had
emerged from the flotilla to ram the FAC. The explosion wrecked
attack came within minutes after Naval authorities in Trincomalee
intercepted a guerrilla radio conversation in Tamil. It was a voice
saying "we are leaving for the liberation of Tamil homeland".
This prompted Eastern Naval Area Headquarters at the Dockyard in
Trincomalee to alert all naval installations under their command.
Soon after the stricken P 476 lost radio contact, the other FAC
(P 473) reported seeing the explosion. The loud noise had also been
heard at the Dockyard. Radio intercepts suggested the presence of
five more guerrilla suicide boats in the area thus impeding rescue
operations until crack of dawn. It was only thereafter that search
parties set out in numbers.
radio intercept about leaving "for the liberation of Tamil
homeland" has raised questions whether the LTTE has declared
war with the armed forces. During all previous incidents, the LTTE
has claimed that civilians groups were responsible for such acts.
Yesterday's incident is a direct retaliation for the deaths of five
students for which the guerrillas are accusing the armed forces.
The pro LTTE website Nidarsanam posted the picture of an Israeli
built Dvora Fast Attack Craft together with the photographs of the
five students killed in the Trincomalee incident. The message was
clear. This website is personally run by LTTE intelligence wing
leader Pottu Amman.
advent of Eelam War III came after guerrillas attacked naval craft
at the Dockyard on April 19, 1995. (See main article on this page.)
The Government is to raise issue with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission
over this incident.
attack on the Navy FAC comes as a guerrilla military build-up in
the Jaffna peninsula continues. The only exception has been the
re-opening of government departments and banks since Monday. This
is the direct result of a delegation of the Catholic clergy making
representations to the LTTE leadership in Wanni. They said that
the closures were causing tremendous hardship to the people.
The Sunday Times learns that emissaries speaking on behalf of the
government had also approached the LTTE to cool tensions in the
peninsula with the assurance that troops would act with restraint.
But efforts to establish a direct dialogue or to hold talks in another
world capital have not met with success. The LTTE insists that the
talks should be in Oslo.
the light of this, Jaffna remained virtually normal throughout this
week. This was whilst a hartal continued in the districts of Trincomalee,
Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Mannar to protest the killing of five students
of Koneswara Hindu College, Trincomalee.
the exodus of "Maveerar" (Great Heroes) families from
the Jaffna peninsula to guerrilla-controlled areas in the Wanni
continues. In another development, guerrilla military leaders in
the East, including Banu, Ramesh and Sornam, have all been summoned
to Kilinochchi. This is said to be for a meeting with the guerrilla
military leadership. There have also been reports of 300 trained
cadres infiltrating the Jaffna peninsula. Small arms fire and hand
grenade attacks on troops have continued during the week.
Colombo, the Government embarked on a programme to keep the Defence
Attaches of Colombo-based foreign diplomatic missions informed.
Displayed before them at a meeting at the Army Headquarters conference
room on Wednesday was the latest Tiger guerrilla weapon to attack
troops - remote-controlled claymore fragmentation mines. It was
mounted on two tripods and its directions could be changed through
a hand-held remote device.
claymore mine weighed 20 kilogrammes. Of this, there were ten kilogrammes
of explosives and ten kilogrammes of steel balls. Three claymore
mines had been seized by the Army in Mannar. The display put paid
to claims by guerrillas that reports of the recovery of these mines
were a deception.
In another move, President Mahinda Rajapakse armed himself with
special powers. In terms of this, the Secretary to the Ministry
of Defence or the Minister in charge of the subject of defence,
"may in consultation with the Commanders of (the Army, Navy
or Air Force) retain the services of an officer in any rank beyond
the period stipulated for that rank or beyond the age specified
in respect of that rank." This is "if in the opinion of
the President it is essential in the interests of" the Army,
Navy or Air Force.
Extraordinary Gazette notification on December 16 signed by President
Rajapakse gave effect to this new rule.