Parliamentary Select Committee
A Political War By Other Means
President Maithripala Sirisena took another swipe at his bete noire Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the other day. Addressing the media heads on Wednesday in Colombo, he described the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday carnage, which killed 258 people, including 45 foreigners, and wounded nearly 500, as a ‘drama’ scripted by Temple Trees. Stating that he had not been asked to testify before the PSC, the President declared that he would never appear before it even if he was summoned.
The President remains opposed to the PSc. He is aware that he has no control over the committee inquiring into a very serious security lapse on his watch as the Minister of Defence. He knows that if it can be proved that there has been criminal negligence on his part, he will not only suffer politically but also run the risk of facing legal action when he ceases to be the President. Hence he has looked down upon the PSC as a futile exercise and tried to block it citing national security reasons. He even threatened to suspend Cabinet meetings in retaliation and, in fact, refused to summon one. But the UNP-led government prevailed. The government alleges that the President attempted to manipulate the PSC through one or two committee members but in vain.
The committee, chaired by Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri, comprises ministers Dr Rajitha Senaratne, Ravi Karunanayake, Dr Jayampathy Wickremaratne, Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, Prof Ashu Marasinghe, Rauff Hakeem, MA Sumanthiran and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.
Field Marshal Fonseka, who is well versed in security affairs, has set his focus only on three main objectives—attacking President Sirisena, proving his contention that terrorist threats are not over and it will take at least three and half more years to eradicate them, and having the world believe that the Easter Sunday attacks would not have occurred if he had been the Minister of Law and Order.
Minister Karunanayake has been accused of being a stooge of President Sirisena, of all people, and attempting to manipulate the PSC process. Sumanthiran and Hakeem are also accused of trying to settle political scores with some of those summoned before the PSC to testify. JVP’s Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa is playing the role of an Opposition MP for the time being since his party has not taken any stand on the PSC process.
Chairman of the committee Deputy Speaker Kumarasiri stood his ground on several occasions with the help of Dr Wickramaratne to keep the PSC process on the track in keeping with the Terms of Reference assigned to the committee. Minister Senaratne is seen to be lenient towards the witnesses Fonseka grills.
The PSC, appointed on May 22, met for the first time in Parliament on May 29. It is for the first time that PSC proceedings have been opened to the media. The SLFP thinks the government has done so to inflict maximum possible damage on the President in retaliation for the bond probe commission and the ongoing special presidential commission of inquiry probing malpractices under the UNP-led government.
The PSC has been tasked with investigating and reporting back to Parliament whether the law enforcement authorities had received prior intelligence relating to the Easter attacks; whether there were deficiencies in the State machinery that led to the inability to prevent such attacks or mitigate their effects; whether any other factors contributed to such terrorist attacks; what action should be taken to prevent such attacks in the future; and any other matters connected or incidental thereto.
The PSC has been granted extensive powers. They include power to send for any persons, papers and records deemed relevant to its inquiry. It can summon any person to Parliament or before the committee, and order them to produce any paper, book, record or document in the possession or under the control of such persons. It also has powers to question witnesses under oath, conduct meetings outside Parliament in any part of the country and obtain the services of specialists and experts in the relevant fields to assist the committee. The committee has been given the authority to submit interim reports and to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of Parliament. The committee is tasked with presenting a report to Parliament within three months of the date of its first sitting or as such other or further time period as Parliament may grant.
President Sirisena has expressed his displeasure at the PSC on many occasions. UPFA MPs have boycotted it and the state media were initially debarred from giving live coverage to its proceedings.
A press release issued by the Speaker’s Office, on June 8, stated that the President had assumed that he could order Parliament to cease the PSC proceedings, on the basis of the Attorney General’s advice that the parliamentary process may prejudice the ongoing or impending judicial proceedings.
The release also stated that the President had no right whatsoever to interfere in parliamentary proceedings and the Speaker was right to ignore the presidential intervention on the basis of the established principles of parliamentary democracy.
Then the President summoned an emergency Cabinet on June 7 and demanded the discontinuation of the PSC and threatened non-cooperation with the government unless his demand was met. The Cabinet did not give in.
Evidence placed before the PSC by that time had cast President Srisena in a poor light, suggesting that he had failed to act on advance warning of the Easter attacks. The President cancelled the weekly cabinet meetings twice. The rift between the President and the Cabinet over the PSC has aggravated the conflict between them. The government then considered adopting a parliamentary resolution calling for President Sirisena to convene Cabinet meetings. Sanity prevailed and the President softened his stand.
One of the main reasons the President cited for opposing the PSC that it would put military and police personnel, connected to intelligence in danger as their identities would be exposed. The PSC thereafter decided not to permit the media to cover its sessions when serving military officers testified on sensitive issues concerning national security. Besides, the PSC decided not to make public the names and ranks of some servicemen to be summoned before it and when they would testify. Those sessions are held in camera. With that move by the PSC the President could no longer sustain his argument and had to remain silent.
It cannot be denied that the PSC proceedings have not had an adverse impact on the security establishment. The highest ranking military officer this country ever produced, Field Marshal Fonseka, insulted one of the units of Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, operating under the Directorate of Military Intelligence. While questioning a witness he described the group based in Athurugiriya Millennium City as a bunch of imbeciles. Many security experts were shocked by those remarks because the army long rangers played a pivotal role in defeating the LTTE.
What one who has been watching the PSC proceedings gathers is that some government bigwigs were aware of the possibility of the Easter Sunday attacks but did nothing to prevent them. This was clearly evident in the testimonies by the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Hemasiri Fernando and IGP Pujith Jayasundara, who is on compulsory leave, before the PSC. The impression they gave was that the national-security apparatus was being handled very incompetently.
The tug of war between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken a heavy toll on the entire country, especially the security establishment. Now, it is being alleged that the PSC probe into those terror attacks is being used to settle political scores. In the meantime, the country is not out of danger if we are to go by the testimony made before the PSC by Army Commander Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake, on June 26; he said there was still the possibility of terrorist attacks. He said: “There is still room for attacks similar to the Easter Sunday carnage. There is the possibility of what we call lone wolf attacks. Next time it might not be bombs and guns. They could use vehicles, knives, water or fire to strike a disaster and kill similar number. That threat is still there.”