The Political Column
14th June 1998
Politics of corruption and civic rights
By our Political Correspondent
More than one year after the crisis erupted, the backstage political bat tle over the Permanent Commission on Bribery and Corruption came into the open last Tuesday, with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga throwing a challenge to the UNP, and the opposition party hitting back hard.
By the end of the week the dispute over resignations and reconstitution of the Commission was still deadlocked, while the core issue was left unaddressed.
For more than two years the Commission has not investigated or brought to court even a single important case, while more than Rs 120 million in public money has been spent on maintaining it. Many analysts are asking whether it is now a case of corruption within corruption.
In the latest development, the President last Monday moved decisively to reconstitute the crisis-plagued Commission.
In a widely-publicised letter to the Leader of the Opposition, she asked the UNP whether it would co-operate in introducing an amendment to the present bribery and corruption laws, if the offence of corruption were to be effective retrospectively.
The President also solicited the co-operation of the UNP to reconstitute the Commission.
The initial UNP response came from its spokesman Karunasena Kodituwakku who said that the UNP would not support such a move since it felt it was not so much a matter of the Commissioners being incompetent, but more so whether they were allowed to carry out their functions properly and effectively.
President Kumaratunga's letter to the Leader of the Opposition was published in the Daily News of Tuesday, June 9, with reasons why she is seriously considering the reconstitution of the Commission.
The President, apparently perturbed by the present inaction of the Commission thinks that it is a waste of large amounts of public funds, if the Commission is not capable of functioning to the satisfaction of the people.
In the circumstances, she is of the opinion that it is time to reconstitute the Commission with the help of the opposition UNP.
Simultaneously, the President has chosen to explain the present situation of the Commission thus:
"This situation can be explained only on the basis of one of two hypotheses
(1) There is no corruption in Sri Lanka at present or
(2) The Commission is incompetent and is therefore, incapable of successfully detecting, investigating and prosecuting instances of corruption.
In a contrary statement, Commission Chairman T.A. de S Wijesundera told the media that there were deliberate attempts by the state to stifle the smooth functioning of the Commission.
"There were 84 police officers attached to the Commission, and they have been gradually withdrawn. At present there isn't a single policeman," he lamented.
"When the recent complaints were made, I wrote two letters to the Inspector-General of Police, but there was no response," he said.
Under these circumstances it is doubtful whether one could justify the President's indictment against the Commission.
The UNP has drafted a reply to the President's letter, after a lot of hard work and references to the Hansard reports on the debate in 1994 on the setting up of the Commission, for which the UNP gave its fullest co-operation.
The UNP has also studied the annexure sent with the reply, where the President had urged the Commissioners to resign purely on the grounds of disunity among themselves.
The last paragraph, however, reads that her request has nothing to do with recent investigations by the Commission.
Although the President wants the Commissioners to resign, it appears that she wants to steer clear of allegations that she interfered with the functioning of the Commission.
The UNP's plan is to say a firm "no" to both requests of the President.
Responding to the President's first query, the UNP is likely to say it would not support retrospective legislation at this stage. The UNP's position is that it offered support earlier when the bribery laws were brought in, but now it appears that the government is going on a political witch-hunt and, hence, the UNP support would not be forthcoming.
At the same time the UNP is likely to say that it would not extend its co-operation to the government to have another weapon which could be used for political purposes.
The UNP feels that the government's track record is bad and thus it is reluctant to support any legislation that would boomerang on it. It also appears that the UNP will not support the reconstitution of the Commission, since it feels that the government would do it all alone if it wanted to do so.
The Commissioners, in the meantime had written to the President that it would reflect badly on the government if they resigned their posts.
Hence, there is a deadlock, but the government is determined to remove the Commissioners.
As a sequel to this, 80 government MPs have signed a resolution, addressed to the Speaker to remove the Commissioners.
The resolution would go before a Select Committee of Parliament, and the Commissioners would be given an opportunity to make legal representations.
Once the Select Committee report is submitted to Parliament, the Commissioners could be removed by a simple majority.
This appears to be a long and painstaking procedure. It would take at least six months for the government to remove the Commissioners, if at all.
It is also likely that the UNP members of the Select Committee would write a dissenting report since they believe that the Commissioners have not conducted themselves contrary to standing practices.
What the UNP sees is a different picture — that the government is trying to stifle a legally-constituted Commission.
Instead of reconstituting the Commission, all that the government has to do is to appoint a new Director-General and a third Commissioner to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Siva Selliah in January 1997.
It appears that the government is perturbed over the legal advice sought by the Commissioners from former Attorney General Tilak Marapana.
Challenging Mr. Marapana's conduct, the President states:
"I was firmly of the view that this unacceptable development should be arrested and suggested to the Commissioners a way out of the difficulty that the Commissioners and the DG resign and enable the reconstitution of the Commission — with a minimum of embarrassment. The DG complied, whilst the Commissioners declined. After a long and friendly discussion the Chairman agreed to resign by May 15. But on that day, he informed me on the telephone, that his lawyer Tilak Marapana had advised him to do otherwise. At this point I informed the honourable gentleman that there was no further point in continuing our discussion if he sought advice from Mr. Marapana who is an active member of the UNP Ex-Co and is the legal advisor to the Leader of the UNP and that serious doubts have been cast on the conduct of Mr. Marapana on the conspiracy to defraud the election process of August 1994 by the improper introduction of ballot boxes in some parts of the country, as revealed in the report of the Commission of Inquiry into certain matters relating to the Parliamentary General Election of 1994 and the Local Government Election in the Eastern Province and the Vavuniya Urban Council in March 1994." It is true that the Commissioners sought legal opinion from Mr. Marapone who advised them on the legal implications. But the decision not to resign was entirely their own.
When asked for comments on the President's reference to him, Mr. Marapana said he did not want a certificate from the President.
However, it is evident that the government is now trying to discredit the Commissioners by implying they are in the UNP camp. But this cannot be justified since all the Commissioners were initially appointed by the government in agreement with the UNP. Many people think it is time to investigate the affairs of the Commission.
It is no secret that former Auditor General P.M. Wijayasuriya who was appointed to a high post in the Commission, resigned a few months later.
Though he did not give a reason it is said that he was not happy that a report he sent to the President on the conduct of a General Manager of a state bank had not received the attention it warranted.
Thereafter, Director General Nelum Gamage had to resign, and all these matters should be brought to the notice of the people who expect good governance and transparency from any government.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting, the President hit out at any moles and warned that her patience was running out. She said she would take necessary steps to stem Cabinet information from leaking to the media.
If this trend continues, she warned she would have to form an inner circle comprising her confidantes to discuss sensitive issues.
The President said that she had carefully read the Sunday newspapers during the past few weeks and found that Cabinet proceedings were reported in detail.
She called for a high sense of collective responsibility in the Cabinet which was the highest executive body of the state.
The President said she has an idea of having Cabinet meetings in the presence of the national media so that they could report matters more accurately.
However, she stressed she would discuss highly sensitive matters only with the inner circle whom she could trust.
"I have no time to find out who is leaking information to whom. In short, I do not know who these 'Cabinet reporters' are?" she said.
The President, reminding the ministers that the government had only two more years in a six-year term, said they should move full steam ahead towards greater national growth and prosperity for the people. Thus all should act with more responsibility.
Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, butting in at this stage, said he agreed fully with the President's comments about the dangers in Cabinet leaks. He referred to a Sunday Sinhala newspaper report on what the Cabinet discussed regarding the Trincomalee oil tank deal.
He charged it was a deliberate attempt to scuttle the government's plan.
He said the information seemed to have been leaked out with an ulterior motive.
Thereafter, the Cabinet discussed the upcoming provincial elections.
Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle referring to the spate of bomb explosions in the south said the people were seeking a full explanation from the government.
Visibly upset by the two explosions in his generally peaceful electorate of Negombo, Mr. Fernandopulle said the people were wondering whether the state intelligence agencies were fast asleep.
The President, agreeing with Mr. Fernandopulle, said, "I have told the agencies concerned to carry out an independent probe. One school of thought is that neither the JVP nor the LTTE is behind these explosions. The people are aware of the other fascist organizations in the country."
She said she was awaiting a full and final report from investigators and she would tell all to the people before the provincial elections.
"We can do a lot using that report," she added.
At this point, Minister Ratwatte revealed plans to post special security personnel to protect transformers, which have been the principal target of attack in recent months..
The question that arises is whether the government is implying that the UNP is behind these explosions.
But UNP sources are of the opinion that the attacks might be a state-sponsored job to put off provincial elections.
Even some ministers are not too sure whether the government would go ahead with the elections.
A minister said there are various ideas and suggestions. "We still don't know whether the elections would be held as planned."
As for the UNP, the party hierarchy is finalising plans for the elections.
In most of the provinces, the UNP hopes to field the incumbents of the office of chief minister. However, in the North Central Province, the party is yet to decide on its chief ministerial candidate.
It could either be Themiya Hurulle or A.M.S. Adhikari. But party sources say it is unlikely Mr. Adhikari would sacrifice his parliamentary seat at this stage. According to reports from Anuradhapura, things are not too rosy for the UNP, since criticism is coming mostly from within the party itself. Attacks are coming mainly from firebrand Somachandra Rajapakse, who at one stage supported party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, but is now hitting out at him. At the Anuradhapura District Committee meeting Mr. Rajapakse criticised the UNP hierarchy for having a close relationship with the Lalith Front, while ignoring former general secretary Sirisena Cooray.
This received wide publicity in the government media and the UNP leader reportedly asked Mr. Adhikari why he could not stop Mr. Rajapakse's outburst at the meeting. Mr. Adhikari said he had tried but Mr. Rajapakse had gone on regardless.
Mr. Rajapakse is now planning to go countrywide attacking the UNP on this issue.
The other important matter for the UNP is the civic rights issue of former minister Wijeyapala Mendis.
The two committees appointed on the issue have submitted their reports to the decision-making Working Committee which is scheduled to meet this week.
It is likely that the party would remove Mr. Mendis from his party responsibility and subsequently from the party itself.
Meanwhile, party leaders in Parliament have agreed to debate the Mendis issue again on June 23 and 24.
Of the 16-hour debating time Mr. Mendis is to be given five hours to present his defence.
But the government move to have the adjourned debate on Mr. Mendis on June 23 is viewed as a shrewd political manoeuvre.
Political analysts believe this is a calculated move as the government seeks to drive a wedge within the UNP and place it in an embarrassing position on the eve of Provincial elections. The UNP has now hardly two weeks to take what could be its most critical decision since Mr. Wickremesinghe assumed the leadership. It is difficult to predict how he would tackle the problem. He has already within a mandate from the working committee to deal with the situation as he deems fit, but some are of the view that he would want to take the report of the Sub-Committee headed by Gamini Atukorale to the Working Committee. Whatever it is, the decision to have the debate on June 23 is a shrewd political move by the government.
When the Party Leaders met on Thursday to discuss the work programme for the next sitting of Parliament Wijeypala Mendis also had a bomb for the government.
A.C.S.Hammed said Mr. Mendis had requested 5 hours of speaking time to explain his position. The government, however was not happy with it and this led to a serious discussion. House leader Ratnasiri Wickremanayake was not present and the government was represented by Ministers Lakshman Jayakody and Jayaraj Fernandopulle.
Mr. Fernandopulle opposed the provision 5 hours, but Mr. Mendis stood firm in his demand, and finally it was agreed that there would be a two day debate. There was a lot of discussion on the sharing of the time, Minister Jayakody said the government must have sufficient opportunity to reply Mr. Mendis.
Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the upcoming debate would be an occasion where parliament sat as a Court of Law. Thus it would be wrong to view this debate as a normal one.
Mr. Hameed said it was the inherent right of an MP to explain his position to the House and the country and therefore the member concerned must decide on the amount of time he requires and if that opportunity was not available to a member, Parliament ceases to be the custodian of the Parliament system.
While the issue dragged on, a tired Speaker asked "Should we not at least inquire from the House of Commons what the tradition is in a situation like this? Mr. Wickremesinghe quipped, "Well, we could sort that out easily if you provide me with a ticket to go to Westminster and verify it."
Finally, Mr. Hameed suggested that the 11 hours available after providing Mr. Mendis the required five hours, should be equally split between the government and the opposition.
The Speaker supported this proposal and the matter ended there with this definite assurance. The question of televising also was discussed but the Secretary General of Parliament said Rupavahini had informed him it already had commitments to screen the Independence Cup Cricket matches. Mr. Wickremesinghe said this also was an important issue, and it should have the same focus. It was agreed that full debate on both days would be telecast.
However the government is not likely to get the required 2/3 majority to expel Mr. Mendis from Parliament since the UNP is formally adopting the findings of the committee headed by Tyronne Fernando.
The committee said the state should introduce an alternative mechanism to deal with cases of abuse of power and similar offences. It recommended that the Special Presidential Commission system be scrapped.
Meanwhile the UNP hierarchy is assessing its image in preparation for the Provincial Polls
A program telecast recently on ITN (Janatha Adikaranaya) "Peoples Court" has perturbed the UNP leadership due to the inability of the debater to provide a sufficient reply to President Chandrika Kumaratunga who phoned in when the programme was in progress.
The UNP was represented by Karunasena Kodituwakku and Gamini Lokuge while Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Western Province's Chief Minister Susil Premajayantha represented the government.
Minister Samaraweera at this debate showed his skill as a seasoned debater and prevailed over the UNP, the UNP could not give a sufficient reply to President Kumaratunga's query about her son's entry to the Royal College during the UNP regime.
She said the College authorities rejected her application though she was resident at Rosmead Place during that time.
The UNP has said that in the formal application she made, she had furnished a Kynsey Road. address. But this was denied by the President.
The UNP was trying to verify the truth about this but had given up pursuing that since it would lead to other complications.
In another development three key minority political parties met other Tamil groups to form a common lobby to pressurise the government in finding a political settlement to the ethnic problem.
The leaders S. Thondaman, M.H.M. Ashraff, R. Sampanthan, Douglas Devananda and several others who attended the meeting arrived at a consensus that they should push the government to have a bi-partisan approach with the UNP to resolve the conflict.
At the same time a consensus emerged that the government should initiate talks with the LTTE with the intervention of a third party.
The decision taken by this alliance is likely to gather momentum, when they meet the leaders of both the government and the UNP shortly.
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