Face-to-face 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.

He 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 Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Then 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.

Last 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.

I 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.

President 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.

The 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.

Even 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.

This 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.

The 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.

She 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.

On 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 thus emerged.

President 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:

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.

However, 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 incident.

here 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?

Once 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.

With 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.

This 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."

President 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.

The 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

If 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.

After 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.

The 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 and airman.

President 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?

Like 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…."

Eight 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 the purpose."

And 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.

If 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 done thereafter.
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 people."

Those 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 norms.

As 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.

Code 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 it.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

However, 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.

In 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.

Each 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.

An Extraordinary Gazette notification on December 16 signed by President Rajapakse gave effect to this new rule.

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