Sirisena and Wickremesinghe Should not Betray the People Who Elected Them to Power
All’s Well that Ends Well is the title of a humorous play (written between 1601 and 1608) by William Shakespeare about the relationship between the two main characters, Helena and Bertram. These days the expression is used to say that a difficult situation has ended with a good result.
The political turmoil and upheaval that gripped the Unity Government during the past few months have come to end with the defeat of the No Confidence Motion (NCM) moved by the United Opposition against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in parliament on April 4, 2018. The NCM was defeated by a convincing margin of 46 votes, 122 against and 76 in favour. Twenty- three MPs were absent. The SLFP/UPFA was badly divided, 16 MPs/Ministers voted in favour while 25 were absent.
When the NCM was handed over to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on March 10, it was signed by 55 MPS, 51 from the SLPP and 4 from the SLFP/UPFA. This number increased to 76 at the time of voting, that included 6 JVP MPs. Therefore, there was a net gain of 15 MPs all coming from the SLFP/UPFA. It was a pity, Sirisena faction of the SLFP/UPFA could not present a united front either to vote in favour or to abstain. It may be recalled that all the SLFP/UPFA MPs worked against President Sirisena during his presidential election campaign. They joined Sirisena for the sake of Ministerial portfolios and perks. They are like the fish, cannot survive without full or half Ministers!
Incidentally, in the history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, this was the 3rd NCM moved against a sitting Prime Minister. The first one was in 1957 against SWRD Bandaranaike in 1957, followed by an NCM against Srimavo Bandaranaike in 1975.
The stability of the Unity Government was shattered by the well publicised Treasury bond scam that took place on February 27, 2015. Questions arose as to the competence and integrity of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). There were also allegations of insider dealing. The allegations of insider dealing involved a private company named Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) owned (major shareholder) Arjun Aloysius, the son-in-law of the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. This family connection gave the critics a long stick to beat the Prime Minister under whom the Central Bank operated.
Arjuna Mahendran was a Singaporean citizen hand-picked by Wickremesinghe for the job of Governor. There was opposition to his appointment within his own party, but Wickremesinghe brushed it aside. He wanted a professional with wide experience in international financing to be placed in charge of the Central Bank.
However, the trust placed by Wickremesinghe was betrayed by Mahendran when he had a clear case of conflict of interest since his son-in-law was the major shareholder of PTL, a primary bond dealer which bought Rs.11.5 bn worth of bonds. It is claimed Arjun Aloysius offloaded the bonds to secondary dealers (state entities) earning huge profit out of the deal.
It was also alleged,
(1) The amount of debt accepted by CBSL at the auction was vastly in excess of the amount that had earlier been communicated to the primary dealers who would bid at the auction. Whereas the original announcement was for Rs. 1bn, the amount accepted at the auction was Rs 10bn.
(2) Why issue 30-year bonds as opposed to those of shorter tenor.
(3) The interest rate resulting from the auction was much higher than the rate indicated by CBSL to the primary dealers before the auction, thus the country sustained a very large debt at an unnecessarily high rate of interest.
(4) The reasonable suspicion Perpetual Treasuries acquired inside knowledge.
Prior to March 1997, the CBSL issued Treasury Bills to borrow funds. This was changed in 1997 when the CBSL switched from Treasury Bills to Treasury Bonds and only Primary Dealers (PDs) were allowed to place bids.
Out of sixteen PDs, nine were affiliated with banks and seven are private non-bank companies. Among these is Perpetual Treasuries, the company at the center of the storm.
At a meeting held on February 26 by Ministry of Finance, it was indicated the GOSL needs Rs.15 bn to pay off unsettled bills. But this was not conveyed to the CBSL officially. Therefore, on February 27, most dealers had made preparations to provide bids for the already announced Rs. 1.0b. When CBSL announced that it was accepting bids worth Rs. 10.0b at 9.50% – 12.50% whereas clients and most primary dealers had made bids between 9.50% and 10.50%, not in the 11% – 12% range. This was ten times the original offer and most PDs were unaware of the revised amount except for a few including PTL. A total of 73.5% of the bids were accepted with an interest rate of 11.5% or more were taken up by PTL and Bank of Ceylon. The longer the term the lower should be the interest rate. The Joint Opposition and critics argued that the bond issue raised interest rates causing a loss to the taxpayer.
Despite the obvious mess created by CBSL, Wickremesinghe defended the deal in parliament. He also, rather naively, refused to sack Arjuna Mahendran and when his term was over he tried to appoint him for a second term. Then he (Ranil) brought Arjuna as his economic advisor. A committee appointed by Wickremesinghe of lawyers loyal to the UNP exonerated Mahendran of any wrongdoing when facts are overwhelmingly against such conclusion.
So the NCM against Wickremesinghe was in effect his own un-doing due to bad judgment followed by his fervour to save the skin of Arjuna Mahendran his close friend. Tragically Wickremesinghe would have avoided this entire ordeal had he left the CBSL with the Finance Minister. And it is he who opted for auctions by the CBSL in favour of secret bids which he thought lacked transparency. Sometimes good intentions boomerang and have unintended consequences. This is a classic example.
An infuriated President Sirisena promised to go to the bottom of the scam. At public meetings, he promised to appoint Commissions to inquire into allegations of fraud and corruption. He appointed a Presidential Commission consisting of Supreme Court Judges Kankanithanthri T. Chitrasiri, Prasanna Sujeewa Jayawardena and former Deputy Auditor General on January 27, 2017. The Commission recorded evidence from several witnesses including Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Arjuna Mahendran, Arjun Aloysius and Kusan Palisena (CEO, PTL) and several others.
On December 30, 2017, the report compiled by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry was handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat. The Supreme Court judges clearly stated in their report that fraud had been committed since 2008. They wanted a forensic audit to be carried out covering the entire period.
Then all hell broke loose. The infighting and mudslinging between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe escalated. It continued during the Local Government Authorities (LGAA) elections and beyond. During the election campaign instead of swinging his sword against Mahinda Rajapaksa, he swung it against Wickremesinghe and the UNP.
On earlier occasions also President Sirisena stunned his friends as well as his foes by his strident comments questioning the integrity of the agencies carrying out investigations into cases of corruption, bribery, criminal and financial misconduct. He warned that he would take action against Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) for working to political agendas at the cost of justice.
Many saw his comments as an attempt to shield the corrupt Rajapaksas. Referring to the arrest of army intelligence officers accused of committing murder, abduction, ransom, Sirisena said courts should be moved to have them released or bailed-out pending court proceedings. One of those jailed and released on bail was Udalagama, an army intelligence officer accused of assassinating Lasantha Wickrematunga.
To be charitable to Sirisena he has been consistent in defending the armed forces against any attempt to charge them for crimes committed during the war. In fact, Sirisena stated that the army’s presence in the north should be maintained. He also said he would not allow the Rajapaksas or Sri Lankan military personnel to be tried in any hybrid courts for alleged war crimes.
According to him, they are war heroes who liberated the land occupied by terrorists. He was angered by the clause in UNHRC Resolution 30/1 of 2015 calling for a judicial probe by a hybrid court into alleged war crimes committed during the civil war. “No matter how much they criticise, oppose or attack me, I will never lose confidence in the armed forces and will always be committed to do the utmost for the welfare, honour, and dignity of the three armed forces and our heroic soldiers” remains his battle cry!
When the results of the LGAA came, it was as predicted. Sirisena’s SLFP/UPFA was placed a distant third. Wickremesinghe’s UNA came second in spite of bond scam allegations.
Results of LGAA Elections held in 2018 and 2011
The figures show that the SLFP/UPA plus UNA had among themselves 47.81% (32.61% + 8.94% +6.26%) votes compared to 44.69% for the SLPP – a difference of 3.12%. The local government election results are not materially different to the results of the January 2015 presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa would have lost a Presidential race on 10 February.
However, this time around in terms of popular vote Sirisena proved more unpopular than Wickremesinghe. Had Sirisena and Wickremesinghe struck an electoral pact, they would have obtained more votes, councillors and captured more councils. This they failed, because half of Sirisena’s faction of SLFP/UPFA was basically Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters as the voting on the NCM demonstrates. Those who are now with Sirisena are those who maligned and vilified Sirisena during the 2015 presidential election. Today, Sirisena is a captive in their hands.
During the election campaign, Sirisena tried to show himself as a full-blooded Sinhala – Buddhist and the number one enemy of the UNP. He attacked his own Prime Minister by calling him a thief. He portrayed his own Prime Minister as unfit to manage the economy. If anything has gone wrong, then Sirisena too is responsible since he who appoints Ministers and the allocation of portfolios. If Wickremesinghe as PM is accountable for the management of the economy, President Sirisena is also equally accountable as President.
Sirisena went to the extent of asking Wickremesinghe to resign or step down from his post on February 11 in the wake of UNF losing the LGAA the previous day! He tried to entice Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to take over the post of PM. During talks held between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the latter refused to resign or step down. Fortunately, none of his subterfuges and backstabbing succeeded. The voting on the NCM was as predicted. Right from the beginning, the SLPP knew they lacked the numbers, but the purpose of the NCM is to weaken the government.
The SLMC, ACMC, DPF/TPA after indulging in some sabre rattling statements against the UNP fell in line on April 04, 2018. In contrast, the TNA took a principled stand on the NCM despite Sirisena’s ominous warning that voting against the NCM will be counter-productive. Sirisena’s logic was seeking the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) by the UNP would adversely affect the Sinhala – Buddhist vote bank in the south. It appears Sirisena has forgotten so soon how the Tamil votes tipped the scales in his favour during the presidential election held in 2015.
Speaking on the NCM in parliament, R, Sampanthan, TNA leader, inter-alia, said:
In regard to the Central Bank Bond scam, consequent to investigations, two persons are presently in custody. There has been a warrant issued against another person and investigations are proceeding. No one should be spared. The rule of law should be applicable to everyone whoever he might be: the rule of law can be no respecter of persons.
I will now refer to the Motion before the House, which is the Motion of No-Confidence against the Prime Minister based substantially on corruption. The Motion of No-Confidence seeks to implicate the Prime Minister with the Bond scam. Statements of actions by the Prime Minister of a general nature are sought to be used in an attempt to implicate the Prime Minister with the Bond scam. The wording of the Motion and the timing of the Motion are indicative of the pursuit of a political agenda rather than fixing responsibility in regard to the Bond scam.
The question must be raised as to why the wording is so vague, lacking in any specific charge against the Prime Minister in regard to the fraud pertaining to the Bond scam per se. Why should this Motion be brought now, at this point of time, is another question that I would like to pose to the House. The wording is too loose and too general in nature. It could be that the Prime Minister is facing this situation because of the confidence he placed in someone who has betrayed him. But, where is the evidence or charge against the Prime Minister of involvement in the Bond scam per se? Is the wording of the Motion so loose and so general because of lack of specific material against the Prime Minister in regard to the Bond scam? And, if that is so, in my submission, the Motion lacks credibility.
In regard to the timing of the Motion, Sir, this Bond scam occurred three years ago. It has been the subject of total public focus for a long period of time, from early 2015. Why has this Motion of No-Confidence been brought against the Prime Minister only now? I have a duty Sir, to answer some of the questions I have raised. I want to pose the question whether this Motion against the Prime Minister is the first step in a plan to bring down totally and completely the present Government.
It was obvious the SLPP and the SLFP/UPFA wanted Wickremesinghe to resign or go on his own or removed through the NCM. Once Wickremesinghe is ousted then it is easy to destroy the UNP/UNA. That was their failed strategy.
Wickremesinghe also on his part gave enough ammunition to his adversaries to fire back. The media blamed him justly for the slow progress made in investigating the murders relating to Lasantha Wickrematunga and Wasim Thajudeen and the disappearance of Jegath Eknaligoda. He was also blamed for the Rs.10,000 salary increases of public servants, duty- free import permits for politicians and doubling the number of Councillors from 4,486 to 8,356 and messing up the LGAA election process that resulted in 160 hung Councils out of 340. The Rs10, 000 salary increase and issue of duty-free permits caused gaping holes in the national economy.
As mentioned already during the presidential election in 2015 both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe promised to deliver on three major issues facing the nation. They are (1) Abolishment of executive presidency (2) Reform of electoral process and (3) A solution to the national question. None of the issues have been fully tackled and the government has only two more years left.
It is time, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe both put the past behind them and work hard together to deliver on their key promises. They should not betray the people who elected them to power.