The government, troubled by a surfeit of issues, now has some more seemingly intractable ones to contend with. One of them has the potential to sour relations between the SLFP and the UNP further.
One may have expected the allegation that there was a plot to assassinate President Maithripala Sirisena and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be treated sceptically by one and all. The person who revealed the alleged plot is not a prominent figure with credibility. He is a police informant doubling as an anti-corruption campaigner. Namal Kumara (NK) is his name. Having worked for the Head of the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) DIG Nalaka Silva, he suddenly accused the latter of a conspiracy to kill the President and Gotabaya.
A question that naturally arises in one’s mind is whether a seasoned police officer, heading a powerful anti-terror outfit, had any reason to confide to a lesser minion that he was planning to kill the President, of all people. But the signs are that the allegation at issue is beginning to have the effect NK and others who are thought to be behind him desired.
Recordings of some conversations between NK and DIG Silva, wherein the latter allegedly discloses the assassination plot, have been submitted to the CID and they are being examined. NK has been questioned extensively. The DIG has been sent on compulsory leave. NK would not have gone public with his damning allegation without meeting President Sirisena or someone in the latter’s kitchen cabinet before meeting the press.
NK’s claim is too serious to be taken seriously, so to speak. It cannot be taken lightly either. The UNP is in a dilemma. It cannot dismiss the alleged plot as baseless in that it does not want to be seen to be partial to the DIG concerned. The claim that the plan was to eliminate both the President and a prospective formidable presidential candidate has made the UNP the prime suspect. Namal has said that the DIG Silva’s sympathies are with the UNP. So, the UNP has had to get the allegation probed.
Prez and Gota bracketed together
The veracity or otherwise of NK’s claim has not yet been established, but what is of interest is that the President and Gotabaya have been bracketed together as the targets of a common enemy. If one goes by NK’s claim, then the ‘conspirators’ want to eliminate the duo as they are thought to be mulling over rapprochement. So, logically, if the President and Gotabaya are to defeat the common enemy they have to get together. The Joint Opposition (JO) and the UPFA MPs loyal to the President joined forces in Parliament the other day to call for tough action against the conspirators. Can this be the first step towards the coming together of the SLFP/UPFA and the JO/SLPP?
The police did not swing into action over the alleged plot when it was first revealed. No prompt action was taken against DIG Silva and this fuelled speculation that there was an attempt at a cover-up. When UNP ministers were asked by the media why the DIG had not been interdicted, they claimed such action could not be taken on the basis of a mere allegation. But his removal from the TID gave the lie to its claim. On Wednesday, he was sent on compulsory leave.
Co-Cabinet Spokesman, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, on Wednesday, fielding a question from a journalist, at the weekly Cabinet press briefing, sought to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of people as regards to NK’s motive. He made a not-so-subtle attempt to have the public believe that the alleged plot had been fabricated by a disgruntled stool pigeon, who had not been paid his dues for helping arrest the key suspects wanted in connection with the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy. Leader of the Mahason Balakaya was among them. NK has, however, told the media, he was paid for the job.
The UNP’s problem is that people love grassy knoll theories. The incumbent government has employed them to discredit its political enemies. The Rajapaksa government, too, made the best use of them to paint a black picture of its critics as conspirators handled by foreign powers.
Of that forgotten coup
The UNP claimed, immediately after the change of government in 2015, that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had tried to remain in power despite his defeat through a coup by imposing a state of emergency under the Public Security Ordinance. Minister Mangala Samaraweera lost no time in making a complaint with the CID, calling for action. Wide publicity was given to the government’s claim that President Rajapaksa had not left office gracefully and he had made an abortive bid to cling on to power after being defeated. Samaraweera accused the outgoing President, his sibling Gotabaya and the then Chief Justice Mohan Peiris of being behind the coup attempt.
It was widely thought the CID would get cracking and make some high profile arrests. The Rajapaksas’ were still licking their wounds and their camp was in total disarray. The new government could have done anything to anyone without much resistance. But no investigation was launched into Samaraweera’s complaint, which has now been forgotten completely.
Following the JO’s recent protest in Colombo, Minister Vajira Abeywardene said, without naming names, that some JO leaders had booked several rooms at a five star hotel and hatched a plot to topple the government, albeit in vain. Some JO leaders declared before the protest that they would converge on Colombo and fight on until the government was ousted. The government, however, stopped short of making a formal complaint against its opponents. Abeywardena’s tale reminded political observes of the allegation the Rajapaksa government had levelled against the defeated candidate in the 2010 presidential race Gen. Sarath Fonseka. He was accused of having turned a section of a Colombo hotel into a command centre in a bid to capture power regardless of the outcome of the election.
Ironically, the yahapalana government which did not follow up on a formal complaint, made by one of its senior ministers, of a failed coup it in Jan. 2015, has had to act on a mere claim by an ordinary police informant. This is an indication that the government is rattled though it has sought to put a bold face on the issue.
JO’s bark worse than its bite
Why hasn’t the JO taken to the streets demanding action against those who were allegedly behind the plot to kill Gotabaya (and the President)? If it had taken NK’s claim seriously, it would not have acted with restraint. Strangely, it has limited its campaign to rhetoric media briefings and shouting in Parliament. It is apparently weighed down by a sense of scepticism though it is flogging the plot issue hard to gain some political mileage and cast the UNP in a bad light.
The JO, however, wants to keep the issue of the alleged plot alive regardless of the outcome of the judicial investigation. Calling the integrity and impartiality of IGP Pujith Jayasundera into question, it has said it cannot expect a credible investigation into the complaint.
JO heavyweight Vasudeva Nanayakkara, MP told Parliament, on Tuesday, that the police chief had joined DIG Silva in performing a Bodhi Pooja at the Kelaniya Temple to invoke blessings of the Triple Gem on the latter. He demanded to know whether the IGP could be expected to act impartially in handling the case against Silva.
Some of the JO MPs are also trying to ridicule the IGP as a square peg in a round hole. They are all out to make him out to be a jester. Their campaign against the police chief may serve their purpose but will cause further erosion of public confidence in the police.
Police and the underworld
In his complaint against DIG Silva, NK has claimed that the support of a drug baron and underworld kingpin, known as Madush, was to be enlisted to assassinate the President and Gotabaya. One may not readily buy into this claim, but one is aware that some police officers have links to the underworld. This is one of the reasons why some criminals cannot be brought to justice and the rule of law has suffered a crippling blow.
The alleged plot has received international media attention and NK’s claim that the Head of the TID had underworld connections will tarnish the country’s image further at a time it is faced with war crimes allegations. Military personnel given UN assignments are made to undergo a vetting process and the police will face a similar fate unless they clear their name by probing NK’s claim and taking remedial action if it is found to be true.
The penny drops
The executive presidency is still considered as powerful as it was under the previous Presidents. The fact that it has been stripped of the vital powers which once prompted the late J. R. Jayewardene to boast that the only thing he could not do as the executive president was to make a man a woman and vice versa are no longer there.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution has weakened the executive presidency as never before. The Prime Minister is more powerful than the President to all intents and purposes though the UNP does not acknowledge this fact for political reasons. It does not deny President Sirisena the pleasure of considering himself a powerful executive head of state so that he will not resort to hostile action to assert himself. The government’s popularity is on obviously on the wane and it is advantageous for the UNP to let Sirisena function as the head of the government and draw the flak.
It defies comprehension why some ambitious politicians are still eyeing the presidency. If it is power that they seek, they have to secure the premiership. When the JO claimed a few weeks ago that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) could seek another presidential term owing to a loophole in the 19th Amendment, we questioned their wisdom.
A couple of weeks on, Mahinda himself has admitted that the Prime Minister is more powerful than the President. (President Sirisena also said something similar.) Rajapaksa’s realisation of the political reality is of crucial import and likely to cause the JO’s strategy to undergo a radical change.
That President Sirisena is desirous of seeking a second terms is only too well known. However, he cannot achieve his goal, on his own. He has to enlist the backing of either the UNP or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) for that purpose. If he continues to be in the current coalition, his vote base will further erode though he will be able to secure the support of the TNA and the SLMC, provided the UNP agrees to field him as the common presidential candidate again. The JVP will not back him to avoid the risk of losing more votes. If he sides with the JO/SLPP on the condition that he be made the next presidential candidate, he may be able to win the presidency again, provided he is as lucky as Mahinda Rajapaksa was in 2005.
Rajapaksa has proved twice that a presidential election can be won without the support of the TNA and the SLMC. A possible coming together of the UPFA and the SLPP/JO under Rajapaksa’s leadership will greatly enhance the unofficial Opposition’s chances of winning a general election and having a person of its choice appointed the PM. It will be interesting to see what President Sirisena’s choice will be.
Nothing is so certain as the unexpected in politics, where adversity and expediency make strange bedfellows. So, no one should be surprised if the SLFP/UPFA leaders and their JO/SLPP counterparts choose to smoke the peace pipe. The possibility of President Sirisena and the UNP ironing out their differences and putting up a united front again cannot also be ruled out.
‘Rupee on ventilator’
The rapid depreciation of the rupee could not have come at a worse time for the government, which is gripped by the fear of having to face an election early next year. It is feared that the rupee will tumble further, causing the economy to go into a tailspin unless the government leaders bite the bullet and allow the Central Bank make an intervention without further delay. Such ad hoc measures may work in the short-run, but the government will have to find the means of strengthening the rupee as a long-term remedy. Easier said than done!
The government was hoping to get its act together on the economic front, grant the electorate some relief and treat the public to a spate of development gimmicks while postponing election until time was opportune for facing an electoral contest. But its plan has manifestly gone awry owing to the unprecedented rupee depreciation.
Cynics say the rupee is on a ventilator and the dollar on an escalator. The worst is yet to come. Petroleum prices have gone through the roof and balance of payment woes are worsening by the day. Instead of increasing its spending to impress the electorate through vote-catching projects, the government will have to curtail its expenditure and restrict imports while jacking up petroleum prices further. Runaway inflation is the worst enemy of a government in power.
True, the US dollar is appreciating the world over and some other countries are in the same predicament as Sri Lanka. The Indian rupee is also struggling. But the fact remains that that Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s poor economic management has also contributed to the present situation. When frustration sets in, people become impervious to reason. They find the incumbent government responsible for their economic woes and take it out on the latter. That is the way the cookie crumbles.