Kudos for Election Commission and Police for relatively less violence Entered politics as a “male virgin” and leaving as “male virgin” – Sirisena National Security is priority for Gota Putting the economy right is Sajith’s main task Sri Lankans voted yesterday to elect the country’s eighth President after a 38-day campaign that has seen less [...]


The challenges for the new president


Kudos for Election Commission and Police for relatively less violence

Entered politics as a “male virgin” and leaving as “male virgin” – Sirisena

National Security is priority for Gota

Putting the economy right is Sajith’s main task

Sri Lankans voted yesterday to elect the country’s eighth President after a 38-day campaign that has seen less violence, more acrimony and a flourishing “fake news” industry.

As the day grows, whether the victor is the Opposition’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the ruling coalition’s Sajith Premadasa, the two main front-runners, will be known. The remaining 33 candidates are sure to poll much less. Yet, significant among them would be the numbers to be garnered by two of them – Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake. This is because their totals would impact on the numbers to be gained by the main contenders.

The credit for a relatively violence free polls yesterday should go both to the Police and the Election Commission. The police enforced the law in conjunction with the EC. A case in point about Police co-operation came from Weeraketiya, the ancestral homestead of the Rajapaksas. A pandal across the road, barely 25 metres from the mausoleum of the late D.A. Rajapaksa, had the portrait of candidate Rajapaksa partly covered by black polythene sheets. So were some wordings. Left open were that of former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa. The Weeraketiya Police said it was against the polls law to display cutouts.

President Maithripala Sirisena accompanied by his wife, family members and supporters arriving at a Polonnaruwa polling booth yesterday to cast his vote. Pic by Karunaratne Gamage

Of course, it was somewhat different with the main investigation arm of the Police, the fledgling Criminal Investigation Department (CID).  They were unusually busy filing indictments in courts hurriedly over incidents that took place during the previous Rajapaksa administration. This is ahead of yesterday’s polls.  It took them five long years. Some officers even discussed such cases not in their air-conditioned rooms but  obtained guidance from interested parties.

There was a supreme irony in this. Not all the accusations hurled against opposition figures, including very important leaders, were caused by them. Ironic enough, a few influential persons turned the tide. Some ministers of the ruling coalition had ‘special’ news conferences last week to speak of ‘white van’ abductions and wrongful allocation of land by the previous regime.  They failed to mention something important – why the so-called National Unity government, in power for nearly five years, did not take action then. Were they not soft pedalling it with help from some UNP politicians? What they said now was a repeat of utterances from election platforms before the January 2015 presidential election. It was not only laughable but came as an insult to the intelligence of most people.

Gotabaya’s citizenship controversy

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna and its opposition allies were also paying heavily for their blunders before yesterday’s elections. This is in respect of the renunciation of candidate Rajapaksa’s United States citizenship. They failed to hold a news conference for the local and foreign media, print and electronic, and declare he was no longer a US citizen. They could easily have released the certificate there and thus disproved naysayers. There is absolutely no doubt that he has renounced his US citizenship though there is nit-picking now over irrelevant issues. A copy of the certificate was only leaked to a media outlet with little or no reach countrywide and they forgot about it.  Suspicions began to grow. Of course, candidate Rajapaksa was not a politician before and did not see through the highly damaging nuances.

An issue that arose before the polls yesterday is the claimed absence of candidate Rajapaksa’s name in the US Federal Register which publishes the names of those renouncing their citizenships. United States Embassy spokesperson in Colombo Nancy van Horn told the Sunday Times, “Due to U.S. privacy laws, we cannot comment on specific visa or citizenship cases. In general terms, once an individual has completed the process of renouncing his or her citizenship with the U.S. Department of State at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate overseas, the Department of State sends that person’s name to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.  The Federal Register is produced by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (the U.S. tax agency).  The IRS is a separate entity from the Department of State.  There may be a lag between when the Department of State sends the name and when it is published in the Federal Register.” As is the practice, US citizens are required to apply to the Department of State through a diplomatic mission overseas for the renunciation of citizenship.

The spokesperson has, as is clear from her remarks, spoken in general terms of how delays occur in the Federal Register. She has not referred to candidate Rajapaksa’s case pointedly in the light of US laws prohibiting it. Yet, it is noteworthy that the remarks come amidst the controversy that is raging mostly in the social media about candidate Rajapaksa’s renunciation of US citizenship. To that extent, her remarks make clear there need not be any doubts about the name of a person, who has renounced his or her citizenship, to appear in the Federal Register. Contextually it means he has renounced his US citizenship but the appearance of his name in the US Federal Register takes time. That is the truth. In the light of the US law, she cannot be expected to comment on the US citizenship renunciation per se. During election time, fallacies are also passed off as facts.

Commenting on the same matter at a news conference on Wednesday, Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said a candidate’s lawyer met him. He had spoken about the “citizenship of a candidate.” He said he had handed in an affidavit and other documents to show the US citizenship had been renounced. “We were not interested in that document. We went through it and returned it. We did not certify whether this was aesthetic or not. Our view is that is a matter to be resolved by courts,” he pointed out.

Chairman Deshapriya is legally correct. Though the Constitution lays down that a Sri Lankan with dual nationality cannot contest elections, no enabling legislation has been passed in Parliament in respect of other related laws. This includes the Presidential Elections Act which has no provision at present to reject those holding dual nationality. Thus, it behoves on the courts to determine the matter. An example is Galle District MP and actress Geetha Kumarasinghe. The Court of Appeal (CA) held that she was not qualified to be an MP since she held dual nationality. She appealed to the Supreme Court, but it upheld the order made by the CA. The opposition candidate’s media campaigners had made many a costly mistake due to their little knowledge in communications.

On Friday, there was more “fake news”. Circulated in the social media on Friday was a purported letter from the Chief of Policy, Office of Law and Policy in the Department of Justice. It was dated 11th November 2019 and addressed to Director, Office of Overseas Citizen Service, Department of State. The subject is “Guidance on the denaturalisation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” It was later officially confirmed as a fake document. It is relevant to note that the date of the document – November 11, 2019 – is a federal holiday (Veteran’s Day) and government offices are not open in the United States.

Hours later, circulating in the social media was another doctored video attributing purported critical comments against the candidature of Rajapaksa. The “fake news” campaign against him was easily at its peak barely 24 hours before polls day. As US Embassy spokesperson Nancy van Horn pointed out, in terms of US privacy laws, one “cannot comment on specific visa or citizenship cases.” How then did the ‘manufacturers’ of the “fake news” believe they could get away by fooling Sri Lankans. It was obviously a desperate attempt.

National security

For SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is backed by a coalition of opposition parties, one key priority, if he wins, is national security. That he can rise to that task is in no doubt though the ruling party campaigners have been harping on some past allegations which they have failed to act on whilst in power. In at least one serious case, the allegations are untrue and amounted to belling the wrong cat. That he, as Defence Secretary, built a robust military machine helped by brother Mahinda is all too well known. He facilitated Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka through that to lead troops to militarily defeat of the Tiger guerrillas. Such a machine included a modernised Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and to a lesser degree a functioning State Intelligence Service (SIS).

However, these institutions suffered a severe blow to their peak level performance under President Maithripala Sirisena, the Minister of Defence and Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Under pressure from his so-called National Government partners, these units were left to wither away to a point of becoming incompetent. The argument, effectively used, was the fact that the war was over, and the military had no more role to play. Deep-rooted prejudice had festered from the days of the Police raid on the Millennium City housing complex in Athurugiriya in January 2002. The Army had used a unit there as a safe house for the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs). The team carried out targeted assassinations deep inside guerrilla held territory then and caused havoc. The UNP leaders, with little or no proof, claimed the military hardware found by Police in the housing complex was meant to assassinate them. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa reversed this situation. Of course, there were some serious allegations of abuse, but the MI performed their assigned tasks exceptionally well.

From then, the onus for intelligence fell on the SIS, the national intelligence agency like what the CIA is to the United States. During the separatist war, they were unable to operate independently in the north except under security cover provided by the military. Thus, they depended only on human (from citizens in the area) and open source intelligence (from media and other publicised accounts). The authorities in Colombo had to depend on the MI for credible intelligence, one of the key elements that led to the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. Of course, there was substantial foreign intelligence inputs and support too. The MI was able to verify them for operational purposes. This is how weapons dumps and floating armouries in the deep seas far off were destroyed.

The SIS changed remarkably with the advent of the coalition in January 2015. It is no secret that it became more and more politicised, spying on leaders in the opposition, their political activities and even their personal lives. It reached new heights after Pujith Jayasundera, took over as Police Chief. President Sirisena was so incensed he was only reporting to some UNP leaders that he debarred him from attending the National Security Council (NSC). That relations between the two of them have remained very sour is publicly known. Jayasundera’s alleged partiality towards the UNP leadership was a thorn in the flesh for outgoing President Sirisena.

Thus, the SIS intelligence mechanism was in disarray was proven when IS backed Muslim extremists attacked three churches and three luxury tourist hotels on Easter Sunday April 21. The snowballing effect of those dastardly incidents is being felt countrywide even today. Starved of tourists, hotels have little or no business and have been forced to retrench employees. The government is spending millions of dollars to win them back but the fears the attacks have caused has led to trepidation.

One is not sure whether to laugh or cry at the events that took place at the SIS offices in Cambridge Place this week. Some 60 selected officers were issued certificates of appreciation from the President.  The reason – for their ‘excellent work’ in uncovering the Zahran group responsible for the April 21 Easter Sunday massacres. Yet, despite the availability of specific warnings, the SIS was unable to prevent the massacre of 268 innocent men, women and children.

Funny enough, after the awarding ceremony was over, all the certificates handed down by Nilantha Jayawardena, DIG and Director, were hurriedly collected from the recipients. This is when some found that their certificates had not been signed. There were other officers who were livid they were not considered despite the good work they claimed to have put in. Some senior officers in the SIS are already clearing their desks after fears they would be moved out.  Whoever wins yesterday’s polls, it would be in the national interest to probe both the SIS and the CID to determine how much of the country’s interests have been served by them.

Presidential pardon

Rewarding state officers and releasing murder convicts were among the final duties of outgoing President Sirisena. By the end of September, this year, 483 convicted prisoners were waiting in the death row. He thought it fit to grant a presidential pardon to one of them – Jude Shramantha Jayamaha. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of 19-year-old Yvonne Jonsson. It transpired during his trial that Jude, then addicted to drugs, had banged the teenage girl’s head many times on the railing of the staircase at Royal Park Apartment in Rajagiriya. It is President Sirisena who wanted death penalty re-imposed for drug barons. When public opinion grew, which included NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa, Sirisena claimed it to be a request from some members of the clergy. One of them, the Bishop of Galle, the Rt. Rev Raymond Wickremasinghe, denied the accusation.

It will be Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s priority to put things right in the national security front. That is to lay to rest fears that have grown among the people even a decade after the defeat of Tiger guerrillas. This is one of the key reasons why big time businessmen — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims — involved in the corporate sector have funded his campaign and want him to win. They fear, otherwise, their businesses would be at stake having to face security threats by the week. It is clear they are seeking an element of confidence and safety — absent after the Easter Sunday incidents.

As revealed in these columns, further proof of deterioration of intelligence mechanisms is clearly demonstrated in the north. The military and the police have placed roadblocks and checkpoints literally blockading the Jaffna peninsula. Previous occasions were when the guerrillas were in control of the town and its environs. This time, it is the result of April 21 massacres and proves a lack of intelligence. Resultantly, the measures have become a sore wound for the residents. It is pertinent to note that no warlike items have been found since these barriers were set up. The National Security Council decided to temporarily withdraw the roadblocks and checkpoints. However, Police alleged that the Army had not done so in two specific areas. The matter was later resolved.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made clear he would re-vitalise the intelligence services. That will be an absolute necessity and a prelude, no doubt, to identify what the threat now is and who the enemy is. Of course, the extension of global terrorism to Sri Lanka is in his mind. Would huge deployments become necessary or is there a need for re-location or even downsizing? Whilst there is a need for greater vigilance, is there a need for units like a Civil Defence Force? Will their purpose be better served if the strength is merged into the country’s Police and posted to various stations both for intelligence and maintenance of law and order? That way, fighting the drugs menace becomes easier.

He would also have to look at deployment of personal security to those against whom there are no threats. Another area where plenty of cleaning becomes necessary is the Police Department where some once trusted top brass have made it filthily rich “collecting their dues” from both the complainant and the accused. They have their moneys in Sri Lanka and abroad like the corrupt politicians. They have bought property worth millions of rupees using their official position to “weaken” indictments by recording “less” evidence and passing that information to those being probed. An entire dossier on such activity is now available.

In the unlikely event of losing the presidency, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and even members of his family would face serious challenges. Taking over defence and security then would be his archenemy now, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who himself faces serious accusations. It can lead to turbulence in the opposition parties as well as the SLPP itself posing a dominant threat to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political leadership.

Other than matters related to national security, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his side are well equipped to cope with different issues like economy and related matters. That they will go beyond the advertisements of the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) to deal with bribery and corruption, particularly among present coalition ministers, is clear. SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, due to take over as Prime Minister, sooner than later is sure to share with brother Gotabaya his expertise and experience as President for two terms.

There are also serious challenges Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have to face. Changes in the national security apparatus would have to be made within the democratic space that has been created by the current administration. Even if it is not by design, such a climate has emerged. He also must be mindful that such measures blend harmoniously with Sri Lanka’s foreign policy initiatives, so the country remains friendly with all.

Sajith’s expectations

For Sajith Premadasa, contesting under the New Democratic Front (NDF), this is his first foray into a presidential election. Having followed in his father President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s footsteps, he had then remained focused on one of the late leader’s dreams – providing shelter to the homeless. He excelled in this task and created different housing estates countrywide. He was a good orator and his ability to play a variety of musical instruments – piano, guitar and drums – added to his popularity, particularly at his party’s grassroots levels. Colombo based western diplomatic missions have been full of praise for Premadasa’s “rapid” assimilation of leadership qualities.

What is most creditworthy since the nominations on October 6 is the remarkable political maturity he has developed. Contrary to others around him, he has made no acrimonious references his rival candidates, particularly Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Even more important is the public demonstration of his capability to take the right decisions as a leader. Just last week, he forbade Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera from signing the MCC deal with the United States. The deal involves a US $ 480 million grant. He assured the country that the matter would be studied after the polls. It is no secret that the absence of such leadership has cost the country a great deal in the past nearly five years.

One instance is Samaraweera, when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. He co-sponsored a US backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The resolution called for a probe into alleged war crimes by Sri Lankan troops. There was no leader to stop him when this move, which compromised the country’s interests, was agreed upon without consultation with the Cabinet or armed forces commanders. His ministerial colleagues only complained privately that he was acting unilaterally beyond his powers.

President Sirisena was to later remark that he had not been consulted. How did one Cabinet minister have such unhindered recourse to decide for a government and the country without any consultation? Another is when Premadasa unreservedly condemned President Sirisena’s move to pardon a convicted murderer of a young girl. He has publicly asserted that persons tainted with corruption, there are quite a handful, will not serve in his Cabinet of Ministers. Some senior UNPers noted that since the late J.R. Jayewardene, no other leader has displayed courage publicly to checkmate ministers on his own side. The absence of this gave them a virtually free run and their corrupt activity was not checked. It became a major issue.

However, there are other far-reaching challenges for him too if he does win. Though he is favoured generally by the west, his other ally who won that recognition through different means, is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Now that he has said that there would be a new Prime Minister, unless Premadasa backtracks, this would come as his first major issue.

National Security issues are not his forte. However, Premadasa has made up for that by naming Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to handle such matters as a Cabinet Minister. A victory for him can be considered a great personal gain for him judging by the circumstances under which he became a candidate and the anti-government sentiments in the country. However, he has an arduous task particularly in raising funds to meet the variety of election promises he has made.

The Wickremesinghe factor

Naming a premier, if he wins the presidency is also an issue. What happens if he does not? Here again, there is an issue for him. That is on the question of the post of Leader of the Opposition. Wickremesinghe has arguably made himself qualified for that office if the premiership does not materialise. This is based on the decision of the UNP convention where Premadasa was picked as the candidate. The convention adopted a resolution that Wickremesinghe would be party leader and premier till 2024.

Arguments on who is right and who is wrong are not the issue. It would rather depend how much each leader will be able to garner members to support them. There is also another issue though some UNPers discount as “unlikely.” That is on whether Premadasa and his backers, in the event of a defeat, stake a claim for the UNP leadership. This issue has surfaced in the light of the many UNP seniors and juniors now backing him. If Wickremesinghe succeeds in continuing as leader, there are fears, the guillotine will fall on their necks before the parliamentary elections. Whatever happens, there are clear signs that the UNP will weaken further and would face a major threat at the parliamentary elections.

New cabinet

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake contested yesterday’s election as the candidate for the National People’s Power. As is known, he did not contest largely with the aim of a victory. To the contrary, he used yesterday’s election as a launching pad for the next parliamentary elections. An interesting feature in some parts of the country is an unusual voter response. Groups of voters not disposed towards either Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa wanted to cast their votes to Dissanayake. Together with this, some are also inclined to vote for National People’s Party’s General Mahesh Senanayake. This is the reason why the number polled by them would impact on the votes of Rajapaksa or Premadasa.

Whether it is a victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa, there are strong prospects of a new Cabinet of Ministers. If it is the former, some sections of the political spectrum raise the issue of a majority in Parliament. However, SLPP leaders are confident they could turn things around. On the other hand, if it is Premadasa, it will see a new crisis over a new prime minister.

Outgoing President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe made brief statements at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting and shook hands with each other. Sirisena was to note that they were able to restore democracy and ensure a better law and order situation. Earlier, on Monday night, Sirisena met provincial governors. Two of them turned up late for the meeting. Referring to one, he noted that he had appointed him earlier to two different state institutions. He regretted that despite this, he was unable to persuade him to resign so that it would pave the way for him (Sirisena) to return to Parliament. The Governor concerned, the source said, remained silent.

President Sirisena will end his term any time after the results of yesterday’s polls are announced. On Friday, he hosted a lunch at Janadipathi Mandiraya (President’s House) for his staff. It turned out to be an emotional event. Presidential Secretary, Udaya Ranjith Seneviratne, was so saddened that he cried during the farewell speech to his boss. He had to use his handkerchief to wipe the tears and clear his nose as he went on.

Outgoing President Sirisena, who was touched by the move, declared he would not make a similar speech and bring tears to officials. He kept his composure but was in a sombre mood. He told his audience that he took to politics as a “male virgin” (kumara bambasara) and was giving up the Presidency as a “male virgin.” There had been several attempts by different groups to destroy him politically or destroy that virginity. However, he had withstood all this, he claimed. Virgin or otherwise, one great legacy Sirisena is leaving behind is highly laudable.

He has not been abusive with the media though he had, in his own right, criticised them on occasions. He is sure to do some soul searching on whether his failures outweigh his successes or vice versa. One can only hope that the new President will follow in Sirisena’s path, in respect of the media and the people’s right to know.

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