The appointment of ex-TRC Director General Anusha Palpitato high bureaucratic office in the Home Affairs Ministry and tolerance of senior officials publicly hobnobbing with sinister and notorious corporate entities like the Avant-Garde Chairman smacks of the new administration’s disdain for its own Yahapalanaya slogan and reinforces growing perceptions of Government complicity in stalling or delaying corruption cases against powerful sections of the ex-regime Deputy Minister of Social Empowerment and Welfare Ranjan Ramanayake received a rude shock during a VIP homecoming at the Hilton Colombo on 13 May. As the film star politician went from table to table greeting people at the reception, he suddenly caught the eye of a person he had no intention of being accidentally pictured with.
Ramanayake did an about-face, but he was not quick enough for Nissanka Senadhipathi, the controversial Chairman of Avant-Garde Maritime Services, the shadowy security firm under investigation for money laundering and weapons smuggling. Senadhipathi rounded on Ramanayake to say ‘no hard feelings’ about the UNP MP’s sustained attacks on corruption, and specifically Avant-Garde and its Chairman. “You’re only doing your job,” Senadhipathi said, patting the Deputy Minister on the shoulder before Ramanayake moved swiftly away.
Rakitha Rajapakshe, son of Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, married Lakna Adikari this month. The wedding was held at the Cinnamon Grand Colombo and the homecoming was at Hilton Colombo. VIPs in the Government and Opposition were invited to both ceremonies. Both were opulent affairs.
Ten years ago, Rakitha Rajapakshe, then an adolescent, reportedly accompanied his parents on a trip to the US. Photographs of this trip were exposed by Field Marshall and MP Sarath Fonseka, to highlight the connection between the Justice Minister and Senadhipathi, who appeared to have accompanied the Rajapakshe family on the tour.
The ‘other’ Minister
In November 2015, Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana was forced to resign his Cabinet portfolio after he declared Avant-Garde had been his client at one point, and then proceeded to defend the company in Parliament against serious corruption, weapons smuggling and money laundering charges levelled against it by State law enforcement authorities.
During the same debate on 6 November 2015, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe also launched into a passionate defence of Avant-Garde, saying he agreed with the Attorney General’s conclusion that there was no case to be filed against the security company, and claiming to have prevented the arrest of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in connection with the case.
Both Ministers were taken to task at the next Cabinet meeting and flayed by the Opposition and the media for their positions, but only one resigned. The other has continued to hold office as the Minister in charge of Justice in Sri Lanka, at a time when the Government is under heavy fire for delaying corruption probes and prosecutions against powerful sections of the former regime and allegedly making ‘compromises’ with notoriously corrupt individuals and entities.
A case in point was the appointment of former Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) Director General Anusha Palpita as Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs this week. Palpita and the former TRC Chairman and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga have been indicted in the Colombo High Court on charges of misappropriating TRC funds to the tune of Rs. 600 million to finance former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sil redhi distribution campaign ahead of the January 2015 presidential election.
In February this year, reading out the charges to the two accused, a Colombo High Court Judge said the Attorney General has named 21 witnesses and included 15 articles to be produced in court against Palpita and Weeratunga in the misappropriation case. According to the charges read out in Court, the pair was being indicted on charges of committing financial irregularities during the period between 30 October 2014 and 5 January 2015, just ahead of the last presidential poll. According to the charges filed in court, a sum of Rs. 600 million in cash belonging to the Sri Lanka Telecom Regulatory commission was transferred or to be transferred to account No. 7040016 maintained at the Taprobane branch of Bank of Ceylon in the name of a sil redhi program in violation of the SLT Commission Grants Act No. 25 of 1991.
Palpita, a Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) Officer who now holds a top bureaucratic position in the new administration, is no longer just a suspect in the corruption case, but one of the main accused. He is presently released on bail and the case was due to come up for hearing yesterday (25).
Public servants are governed by the Establishment Code, which sets out a code of conduct and stipulates disciplinary action for all members of the public service. According to the Establishment Code Chapter 48, Section 27 (10), "Where legal proceedings are taken against a public officer for a criminal offence of bribery and corruption the relevant officer should be forthwith interdicted by the appropriate authority.” Given the clarity of the stipulation in the E-Code, and the charges he is facing, it defies logic that Palpita has escaped suspension and thereby remains eligible and available to be appointed as an additional secretary to a Government Ministry.
Palpita, who has been indicted on corruption charges, has somehow escaped disciplinary action by the Public Service Commission, which is constitutionally empowered to discipline public officials. The former TRC DG merely got transferred into a ‘pool’ of officers previously serving the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, according to Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon, the Executive Director of elections watchdog CaFFE. His appointment as Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs is not only a violation of the Establishment Code, but a political decision that flouts every governance principle the Government is claiming to stand for. Not only has the PSC failed to hold Palpita to account under the provisions of the E-Code, the Commission appears also to have rewarded the official with this latest appointment.
Anusha Palpita has a chequered history, for more reasons than one. During his tenure as Director General of the TRC, Palpita executed the former Government's media repression policies, by illegally censoring websites that were publishing dissenting news items, including Colombo Telegraph, Lankaenews, Lankanewsweb and a host of others. Palpita used his position as DG of TRC to 'unofficially' instruct internet service providers operating in the country to block these websites on their servers, thereby removing access to these sites for hundreds of thousands of their customers.
Oddly enough this more recent political scandal also involved the same Government Minister who has been accused by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake of attempting to mend ties between Senadhipathi and the Government of President Maithripala Sirisena. In Parliament on 5 November 2015, Dissanayake claimed that Home Affairs Minister Vajira Abeywardane had arranged a meeting between Senadhipathi and President Sirisena on 10 January. Abeywardane never denied the charge, but President Sirisena claimed to have no recollection of the meeting, saying hundreds of people had flocked to his home to meet him after his election and inauguration in January last year.
Yesterday, as civil society and corruption watchdogs slammed the Government for Palpita’s appointment, Minister Abeywardane defended the former TRC DG, saying everybody was innocent until proven guilty. Abeywardane told several news websites that Palpita had never been suspended from work and nothing had been proven against him. He reportedly told Lankaenews that he had personally perused the case against Palpita and found that he was innocent and the case against him would soon be dropped. All of Abeywardane’s claims are preposterous and his interest in Palpita’s case casts serious doubts on the judicial process currently underway. The Minister’s claims are also indicative of how poorly learned in government regulations and the constitution members of Parliament can be.
During the tenure of President Rajapaksa, the opposition UNP was embroiled in internal crises that many party insiders felt were being fuelled by the ruling administration. Those years saw several key party members break from the UNP and join the Government for plum Cabinet posts. There were also others, party insiders long suspected, who were deliberately held back in the UNP despite their desire to crossover, in order to perform a crucial role for the Rajapaksa Government as moles inside the main Opposition party. These MPs were by far the most dangerous, party stalwarts would say back then, since their allegiances were murky and their loyalties to the Rajapaksa administration firm. These members are likely to have maintained close links with top rungs of the former administration; ties that have proved useful to members of the fallen regime in more recent times.
As the UNF-SLFP National Government inches closer to completing its first year in office, political observers say the month of June will be a key litmus test of its commitment towards governance reform. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, whose tenure has been blighted by a major bond scandal and an alleged Government cover-up of the incident completes his term in June. Mahendran was appointed to complete the term of former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal who resigned from the office after the fall of the Rajapaksa administration. Cabraal had 18 months left in his term which Mahendran completed.
Next month, President Sirisena will be called upon to make a decision on whether the Central Bank Governor will be reappointed for a further six year term. The decision hinges on which party will emerge winners in a major battle of wills between President Sirisena and the UNF Government. President Sirisena is the appointing authority, but senior presidential aides say he is strongly disinclined to reappoint Mahendran, who has remained under a cloud since the alleged bond scam last year. Reformers within the Government ranks are pushing hard to replace Mahendran, but the old guard will resist the moves tooth and nail. If the Central Bank Governor goes in June, the stage will be set for other heads to roll possibly in a Cabinet reshuffle expected later in the year, senior Government sources said.
The Government is complacent in the face of major criticism on the corruption front because senior leaders are confident that the 19th Amendment has insulated it from premature dissolution. The 19th Amendment which slashed the powers of the Executive Presidency, prohibits President Sirisena from dissolving Parliament until it completes four years of its current term. This perception that the Government cannot be shaken for four more years empowers Ministers and officials to conduct affairs in a less than transparent manner. The fact that the SLFP remains divided also bolsters the UNP’s confidence, since the President’s party will have to ally with the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition in order to unseat the UNF. This is a highly-unlikely scenario, and one in which the UNF will come out on top as the custodians of the anti-Rajapaksa mandate of 8 January 2015. All these calculations could prove deceptive in the end.
At one point, not so long ago, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa looked set for life in executive office. He ruled with an iron fist, gagging the press and giving dissent no quarter. His humiliating defeat at the January 2015 presidential election was precipitated by several fatal wounds Rajapaksa inflicted upon himself and his Government: The illegal impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake that pitted the might of the legal fraternity against him; the unchecked rise of violent and radical Sinhala Buddhist groups that alienated his Muslim and Christian constituencies; the crushing of civil disobedience on the streets of Weliweriya that displayed the brutal force the Government was willing to mete out in the north and the south ; the opulence of the first family and its unabashed nepotism and corruption.
Governments die by a thousand cuts, not a single wound. And finally, against all odds, even when the deck is stacked entirely its own favour, death can come swiftly. Suddenly.
For the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the wounds are not yet fatal but the bleeding has begun. Despite the pro-Rajapaksa faction’s sabre-rattling, political instability is still a long way off. More dangerously close is the abject disappointment and disillusionment of the populace that had been taught to hope for governance in the last election cycle. Every blow to the Government’s credibility strengthens the hand of the pro-Rajapaksa Opposition and justifies their rhetoric. Failure to check the conduct of its ministers, imperviousness to growing criticism about the abandonment of good governance principles, generic political dysfunction and an increasing tendency to view Government critics as Rajapaksa agents could quite quickly turn into malignant problems and pave the way for an eventual unseating.
The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s shining moment. Following the enactment of 19A, the Government ushered into office on 8 January 2015 was at the zenith of its popularity. It has been almost all downhill since then. If nothing else, the public euphoria at the passage of 19A should have made it clear to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe exactly how strong an appetite the country was showing for meaningful democratic and political reform. It should have forced them to act, to exploit the window of opportunity that opened on 8 January 2015 to overhaul the country’s political system and deliver on governance reform. Both leaders have done the opposite. President Sirisena appears willing to turn his back on his electoral mandate and do anything it takes to wrest back full control of the SLFP, at great cost to his presidential legacy. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe continues to adopt a see-no-evil approach while the actions of his party-men and advisors grievously damage and discredit his administration.
For both the President and the Prime Minister, this path is ultimately self-destructive. The benchmarks were set higher for them. Every deviation from their stated purpose is perceived as a grave betrayal. Their fall from grace will be steeper and more devastating. Elected as reformers, both men have made active choices to proceed with politics as usual. Rather than make difficult political decisions that would restore public faith in Government, they continue to pander and accommodate the most corrupt and inept within their ranks.
For now, at least from the perspective of the general public, the Government looks to have fallen short on making good on nearly every promise it made about good governance on the election trail. Ironically, the power to turn back that clock and extend the window for change still lies with the two men holding presidential and prime ministerial office. If they would only seize it.