by Dr A.C. Visvalingam
The writer was among those who, from 2004 onwards, had opposed in the Courts and in the press certain unconstitutional acts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). It was in this context and in view of Venerable Madhuluwawe Sobhita Thero’s backing of the little-known Maithripala Sirisena (MS) that the writer voted for MS in January 2015.
The celebratory speech made by MS on 9 January 2015 was so refreshing and sincere-sounding that the writer, like hundreds of thousands of others in the country, was euphoric that a genuine era of good governance was about to dawn in Sri Lanka.
Indeed, at the beginning of MS’s term, a few important advances were made by the government headed by him, with the indispensable support of the UNP headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW), but it was not long before MS deviated in numerous ways from the path of rectitude to which he had so eloquently committed himself originally.
Before critics of RW get apoplectic about the writer “putting all the blame on MS and none on RW,” they may be assured that a similar narrative of RW’s promises, performance and shortcomings is planned to be published by the writer in the not-too-distant future.
There is no doubt whatever that the people of Sri Lanka presently enjoy a degree of freedom of expression that was denied to them for about a decade. The fear of being taken away without warning, most of the time in white vans, and being made to disappear for good has ceased. The obnoxious 18th Amendment was repealed and replaced by the incomparably superior 19th Amendment that so many opponents of the Government love, nevertheless, to criticise. The Right to Information Act was passed and the people are now slowly getting familiar with how to make use of it for the public good.
The status and security of the Judiciary has been notably improved, although recent controversies regarding the selection of judges may, if not nipped in the bud, become a cause for concern. The intensification of the war on drug-trafficking is encouraging even if there are some blind spots left that need corrective action.
The appointment of a Presidential Commission to investigate the Central Bank bond transactions of early 2015 was also a necessary and valuable intervention. The creation of Special High Courts to speed up cases by resorting to more-or-less continuous sittings has been of crucial importance. MS may deservedly take credit for the part that he has played in these valuable achievements.
The writer now turns to look at several areas where MS has not performed as pledged by him in January 2015.
Family before country
One of the earliest acts of MS was his nepotistic appointment of one of his brothers as Chairman of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority despite the latter’s obvious paucity of experience in this field, which is both a highly technical one and also controls the issuing of broadcasting and allied licenses that involve investments and turnovers that run into hundreds of millions or even billions of rupees. There would have been less room for criticism if MS had appointed an independent technocrat of established reputation to this position. How well his brother has performed in this post is also a matter for conjecture.
It was about that time, too, that MS attended what was perhaps his first visit to the UN General Assembly. On this occasion, he allowed his son to take the seat meant for Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative (SLPR). The remaining seats in Sri Lanka’s enclosure were occupied by other high officials, with the result that SLPR found himself without a seat in the official enclosure. The negative impact on public opinion of MS putting his family before the country in this manner can hardly be overstated.
Bribery and corruption
Dilrukshie Wickremasinghe, as soon as she was appointed Director-General of the Bribery Commission, had unearthed well over a thousand “sleeping” files pertaining to bribery and corruption charges that had been made over many years against a wide variety of politicians and public employees. She moved at great speed to get a few of the long-delayed investigations completed despite the relatively inadequate resources that were at her disposal, and got some prosecutions started.
It did not take MS long to sack her. Her arbitrary removal can only be interpreted as a move made by MS to protect those whom he wanted to shield from being exposed by whatever evidence was to be found in the aforesaid files. Her unjustified sacking is, in the writer’s view, a serious black mark against MS.
MS has made a copious number of official and State visits to other countries, accompanied every time by a small group of officials and by many others with no official tasks to perform. The cost of travel, hotels and transport, paid for by the State, was no doubt very substantial. In a few instances, various agreements appear to have been signed during these visits by officials while MS and his counterparts looked on.
As far as the public has been informed, not one of these agreements was of such importance that the Sri Lankan Ambassador in that country or a couple of responsible senior officials could not have signed these agreements without bringing in the heads of state or governments of the respective countries.
Adding to our dissatisfaction regarding the considerable expenditures incurred to little purpose by these visits, is the fact that has MS has not told the Sri Lankan people what useful ends he achieved by going on any of his overseas visits. Surely the people have a right to know at least in basic detail how the powers that they have delegated to the President and the funds that they have given him have been employed for the public good?
26 October attempt
MS and his supporters in the SLFP worked for nearly four years with the UNP and other parties in running the Government. On 26 October 2018, MS’s party members resigned from the Government, presumably on his orders, taking everybody by surprise. MS then dismissed unlawfully the functioning multi-party Government whilst retaining the position of the head of the Government. He then proceeded to appoint MR as Prime Minister and swore in an SLPP Government.
When he was doing these things, MS was more than aware that MR did not have a sufficient majority in Parliament to form a government but he declared falsely at a large public meeting that MR definitely had the requisite numbers. Later on, when MR failed in his efforts to persuade non-SLPP MPs to join him to reach the magic figure of 113, MS “explained” that MR’s lack of success was the result of MPs having become “too expensive”!
That MS condoned the efforts being made to bribe MPs to change their loyalties leaves the writer with no alternative but to conclude that he does not have the ethical integrity that citizens are entitled to expect from their President. Moreover, the writer finds it to be monumentally shocking that MS encounters no moral bar to co-operating so closely with a person who he feared would, in other circumstances, probably have buried him six feet underground.
The ill-intentioned effort to dismiss RW and install MR in his place was unconstitutional and we must be happy that our Supreme Court unanimously and emphatically declared it to have been so. Huge financial losses, serious loss of reputation internationally for Sri Lanka and incalculable commercial loss of confidence have followed from this dreadfully stupid conspiracy planned and executed by a coterie of unnamed “legal counsel” and MS.
LNG terminal issue
Prior to dropping the bombshell that MS delivered on 26 October 2018, there had been reports to the effect that MS had been persuaded by a South Korean firm to entertain an unsolicited offer from it for the construction of an LNG terminal a few kilometres northwest of Colombo Port. This proposal had apparently been objected to by RW for some months, making MS very annoyed about the matter. It is noteworthy that within a week or so after MR was sworn in as PM, the Cabinet gave its approval to this proposal!
A distinguished and highly-regarded Sri Lankan engineer has exposed these details in the local press and the writer, too, added his voice to condemn this proposal which would be highly damaging. There is still unrelenting pressure being applied, presumably by MS, to implement this proposal which, in this writer’s opinion, would be several times as disastrous as the bond scam and the oil hedging deal combined.
MS proclaimed on 9 January 2015 that he would limit his presidency to just one term and no more. He pledged that a new Constitution would be written within a year or less, eliminating the Executive Presidency. All these undertakings must have been made without any intention of complying with them because he has never publicly shown any interest in the efforts of the various committees of Parliament that have been working for over two years on what the contents of a new Constitution should be.
One of the most important features of a good Constitution would be the establishment of Independent Commissions (ICs) to look into various aspects of governance so that whatever is done can be shown to be the work of a carefully-selected group of reputed and qualified persons of probity from different interest groups to look into any issue that is brought before them. They may then come to a consensus on what should be done without leaving decisions to be made by a partisan individual or even an inevitably partisan Cabinet. It is more than disappointing that MS is carrying out an unconscionable, politically-motivated campaign against more than one IC that does not do what he would like them to do to suit his private agenda.
War on drug smugglers and drug dealers
MS has declared war on drug smugglers and drug dealers. However, he has taken no action to follow-up on the smuggling of a large quantity of drugs into the country some years ago in a container-load of grease tins. In fact, he and the politician who got this shipment released against the protests of Customs and other officials are seen sitting not far from each other in the front row seats on some public occasions. Is it MS’s position that political smugglers of drugs from parties with which he has long-time connections need not be hanged?
(The writer is a retired engineering consultant and can be reached via email at email@example.com.)