Editorial/Opinion

MS outfoxes RW?

Black Box by Capt. Vasabha

President Maithripala Sirisena it seems has managed to outfox United National Party (UNP) Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at his own game.

Since the Easter Sunday attacks, it was evident that Wickremesinghe was engaged in a play to checkmate Sirisena from the announcement made that he was not “invited” for the National Security Council (NSC) meetings since the end of the 51-day coup late last year to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe the Easter Sunday attacks.

The statement made by Wickremesinghe hours after the Easter Sunday attacks led to the first and second citizens of the country engaging in a blame game much to the chagrin of the country’s citizens.

The blame game reached its peak with the Wickremesinghe-led Government mooting the PSC to probe the Easter Sunday attacks.

Wickremesinghe’s modus operandi through the PSC was to get officials of the defence establishment to make public statements implicating the President on his prior knowledge of the possible threat of an extremist terror attack.

Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe did not understand the cascading effect such a mechanism would have on the Government as well as the compromising of the country’s intelligence network.

There’s no doubt that the nation deserves to know the truth about how an attack like that on Easter Sunday could have taken place in the country, but it should not be done with the intention of mere politicking.

Nevertheless, the President for his part, failed to take up the role of a statesman and started lashing out and threatening more unconstitutional actions. In fact he fell hook, line, and sinker to Wickremesinghe’s plan. Sirisena’s actions, while further implicating him in the ongoing crisis, also helped Wickremesinghe divert all attention on the Government and his party on to the “failures” of the presidency.

It is no secret that it is only a matter of time before Wickremesinghe has to face yet another showdown with the party’s rank and file on the issues of party leadership and the presidential candidacy. Therefore, Sirisena has become the best diversion Wickremesinghe could find to keep his worries at bay, at least for the time being.

Summoning an emergency Cabinet meeting on Friday (7), Sirisena after expressing his displeasure at the manner in which the PSC was being conducted, threatened not to convene Cabinet until the issue was resolved.

The Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet ministers had explained that the Cabinet did not have the powers to stop the PSC proceedings and it was a matter for the legislature to decide.

However, last Tuesday (11), the President made good on his threat and refrained from convening the Cabinet, setting the path for yet another constitutional crisis.

The Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers of Monday (10) decided to discuss the issue of not holding the weekly Cabinet meeting with the President.

Ministers Ravi Karunanayake, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, and Malik Samarawickrama were named to meet with Sirisena to iron out matters. However, Samarawickrama had refused to participate in the meeting, leaving Karunanayake and Senaratne to meet with the President.

PSC woes

When Karunanayake and Senaratne met with the President on Monday evening, Sirisena once again expressed his displeasure at the PSC and said he was unable to work with the Government.

The two ministers had then explained to the President that it was imperative for the President and Government to work together since it is a team that came to power together.

After agreeing to the statement, Sirisena said he was supportive of any mechanism set up to probe the Easter Sunday attacks, but it had to be done in a sincere and professional manner without making it a scheme to hunt one individual.

The President has once again noted that the questioning of military officials would have an adverse impact on the country’s intelligence units.

After discussing the issues for a little bit longer, the two ministers had proposed that the President meet with the PSC, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament to break the current deadlock.

Accordingly, a meeting between President, Prime Minister, Speaker, and the PSC was proposed to be held on Tuesday (11) morning.

However, the Prime Minister refused to participate in such a meeting saying he did not want to be seen as scuttling the PSC, and upon hearing Wickremesinghe’s refusal to attend the meeting, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya also refused to attend the meeting.

Upon being informed of the decision of the Premier and Speaker, Sirisena has said he understood the reason and there was no issue over the cancelling of the meeting.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday evening, UNP Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa, following a discussion with the President, had informed the party leaders meeting of the United National Front (UNF), held under the patronage of the Prime Minister, that the President’s concerns were not the functions of the PSC, but the manner in which defence officials were being questioned.

Also, the PSC reconvened on Tuesday afternoon to continue with its proceedings.

The following day, Wednesday (12), Karunanayake and Senaratne met with Sirisena again.

The President has then explained that the Attorney General (AG) had said that it was difficult for him to face the cases before courts when the PSC proceedings made public details relevant to the cases prior to court hearings.

The ministerial duo has responded saying that even if matters are taken before court, it becomes public knowledge, whereas the legislature could take steps to prevent the media from covering the PSC when defence officials testified before it.

The President has finally agreed.

“The whole issue is that there’s mistrust and there needs to be trust,” the President has said, and the ministers have agreed.

Be that as it may, it was finally decided to discuss with the PSC the possibility of calling officials who are not part of the country’s defence establishment as much as possible.

Delaying summons

Meanwhile, two officials who are members of the President’s committee probing the Easter Sunday attacks were summoned to testify before the PSC.

The President had then called Minister Senaratne and explained that summoning the officials before they compiled their final report would hinder its proceedings.

Sirisena had then informed the Speaker of his concerns as well.

Finally, after discussing the matter with the PSC, it was decided to summon those officials on a later date.

Also, the PSC converted towards getting Muslim politicians and other public officials to testify before the PSC, leaving aside defence and other related officials.

Last week, the PSC summoned the former Governors of the Western and Eastern Provinces Azath Salley and A.L.M. Hizbullah as well as the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration.

Summoning Cabinet

With the President and the Government reaching a middle ground on the PSC, Sirisena was advised by his legal experts as well as the Cabinet Secretary that his decision not to summon Cabinet meetings would have constitutional implications that could eventually result in a Supreme Court case being filed against Sirisena.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back, during his tour to India to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration, the President had told several members of the Government that while he would not contest at the next presidential election, he would not retire from politics, giving the impression that Sirisena was looking at following the path of his predecessor, former President and current Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“Politics is in me. So I will not contest at the presidential election, but I will not retire from politics. I might enter parliamentary politics once again,” Sirisena has told a senior government minister.

Given Sirisena’s plans to continue his engagement in politics, a case filed against him before the Supreme Court on a constitutional violation would not bode well for his future political career.

Besides, Sirisena was also aware that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was creating a chaotic situation on many fronts to partly put him (the President) in difficulty as well as to control the growing dissention against him within UNP ranks.

Saner counsel then prevailed and Sirisena decided to diffuse a possible constitutional crisis and to checkmate Wickremesinghe by removing the distractions being used by him to keep his UNP issues at bay and announced that the Cabinet will be convened this Tuesday (18) at 9.30 a.m. at the Presidential Secretariat.

He informed the Presidential Secretary to make the necessary arrangements to convene Cabinet before his departure to Tajikistan last Thursday.

The UNF Government on the other hand was planning to pass a motion in Parliament, calling on the President to summon the Cabinet meeting, using certain provisions in the Constitution.

Several senior ministers had commenced work on preparing a motion to be presented to Parliament this week under Article 42 of the Constitution.

The Article states that “The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance, and discharge of his powers, duties, and functions under the Constitution and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security,” with Article 43 (1) of the Constitution which states “there shall be a Cabinet of Ministers charged with the direction and control of the Government of the Republic, which shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament” to compel the President to hold Cabinet meetings as per normal practice.

On the virtue of this motion, the Prime Minister would be empowered to convene Cabinet without the President.

However, Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka has said that in the event the President suspends the scheduled Cabinet meeting on the 18th, the Government should move ahead with the motion and resort to legal action against the President.

Illegal appointments

Amidst all the PSC and Cabinet drama, another key issue surfaced last week. That was the controversy over the appointment of acting ministers in place of three Muslim cabinet ministers – Kabir Hashim, Rishad Bathiudeen, and Rauff Hakeem – who resigned the previous week stating they needed an assurance from the Government that the Muslim community would be protected and to assist in the ongoing investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks.

The President appointed Anoma Gamage, Buddhika Pathirana, and Lucky Jayawardena as acting ministers to the portfolios held by Hashim, Bathiudeen, and Hakeem.

However, all hell broke loose a few hours later with the Prime Minister’s confidantes coming out with the news that the appointments made by the President were illegal on several grounds.

These statements were soon backed by several legal experts who claimed that an acting minister could be appointed only when the minister in-charge was out for health reasons or overseas.

Besides, news then surfaced that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had sent a letter to the President recommending the names of Ministers Malik Samarawickrama, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, and …….. for the vacant ministerial portfolios.

In this scenario, the acting appointments made by the President are deemed illegal for several reasons. Firstly, because an acting minister cannot be appointed following the resignation of a cabinet minister and secondly, because the President has ignored the Prime Minister’s recommendations.

Be that as it may, Sirisena being advised by his legal experts that there indeed is a legal issue, has then refrained from issuing the gazette notification on the acting appointments and also called on the three new appointees to refrain from signing any official documents.

The President has informed them that the legal implications shall be discussed upon his return from an official visit to Tajikistan.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe meanwhile, on Wednesday (12), prior to his departure to Singapore, had sent a letter to the President, objecting to the President’s appointments, stating they were done in contravention to the Constitution.

The Prime Minister has called on the President to immediately rectify the situation.

However, the President had not responded to the Prime Minister’s letter since he left for Tajikistan the following day (13).

After returning to the country on Friday (14), the Premier convened a meeting of UNF party leaders at Temple Trees.

During the meeting, the Prime Minister has reiterated that the appointments of the three acting ministers were illegal and that the matter needs to be taken up with the President.

The group had then discussed the necessity for the Government to take charge of the Law and Order portfolio that is currently under the purview of the President.

However, it was unanimously decided that the Government needed to work with the President and bring stability back to the country without showing any negative issues within the governing ranks to the public.

The meeting had concluded with the decision that these issues should be taken up at the Cabinet meeting on the 18th.

Reappointment calls

Meanwhile, pressure was in full force for the Muslim ministers to re-enter the Cabinet.

There was also a fresh push to get the former Muslim ministers of the UNP to be reappointed. Yesterday (15) saw a massive gathering in Kegalle calling of UNP Chairman and former Minister Kabir Hashim to re-assume duties as a Cabinet Minister.

However, The Sunday Morning learnt that despite calls for Muslim ministers to be re-appointed to Cabinet, Wickremesinghe has informed Anoma Gamage, who was appointed by the President as Acting Minister of Petroleum and Highways, that he would work to get her appointment made permanent.

The reason for the Prime Minister to make such a statement to Gamage was to pacify the Gamage duo (Daya and Anoma) in order to ensure their support when the UNP reaches decision making point on the next presidential candidacy as well as party leadership.

However, Hashim, who previously held the portfolio, is being forced by his constituency as well as other party members to re-accept his portfolio.

Interestingly, since the three new acting appointments have not been gazette by the President, Hashim and the other cabinet ministers could be re-appointed to their portfolios.

In the event Hashim is re-appointed to his portfolio due to pressure by the party membership, Wickremesinghe would have to face an unhappy Gamage duo.

Prez and PM overseas

Apart from the drama that unfolded throughout the week, it was interesting to see the first and second citizens of the country going overseas almost at the same time.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe left for Singapore on Wednesday on a private visit. It is learnt that Wickremesinghe’s main purpose for the visit was a medical check-up that had been due for several months.

However, during his Singapore visit, the Premier met with several Singaporean officials – Minister of Law K. Shanmugam, Foreign Affairs Minister Balakrishnan, and Singapore’s non-resident High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Chandra Das – during his brief stay. The discussion was based on developing bilateral ties and enhancing co-operation.

Meanwhile, President Sirisena left for Tajikistan to attend the fifth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushnabe on Thursday (13).

The CICA is an international forum to strengthen co-operation, established to ensure peace, security, and stability in Asia. It was set up in 1992. Sri Lanka received its observer status in 2012 and became a member in 2018.

The member states of the CICA include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Russia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

CICA membership covers about 90% of the territory and population of Asia. It has another eight states and five international organisations, including the UN, with observer status.

CICA membership would further enhance Sri Lanka’s bilateral economic and trade co-operation, as well as people-to-people contacts with other CICA member states. CICA is different from other security mechanisms, which are commonly dominated by super powers. It has the characteristics of an “Asian initiative”, which values equality among members, and is led by small countries.

President Sirisena was scheduled to address the CICA Summit yesterday (15).

Country first for Muslim MPs

The Muslim MPs are engaged in a faith building exercise by meeting with political leaders as well as the mahanayakes.

During the meeting with the mahanayakes, the Muslim leaders have explained the manner in which the Muslim community had harmoniously co-existed and how the Muslims supported the armed forces in the East during the war with the LTTE until a few extremist fanatics had ruined it following the Easter Sunday attacks.

The Muslim politicians have also said that they were supportive of changing any laws that harm the country or its national security. “We say that face covers should be removed if it hampers the country’s security,” one of the Muslim leaders had said.

Another Muslim leader had explained that while a majority of the Muslim community condemned and stood against extremist elements, action also needed to be taken against extremist Sinhalese elements.

Interestingly, the Muslim political leaders have kept Salley and Hizbullah away from their current mission.

Be that as it may, the Muslim MPs have decided to take some time to re-assess the current situation before meeting with the diplomatic community.

Diplomats from the Indian High Commission and the US and Chinese embassies were scheduled to meet with the Muslim MPs on Thursday (13).

However, since a few MPs were out of Colombo, it was decided that meetings with the diplomatic community should be differed to a later date since the existing issues of the Muslim community in the country should be first addressed internally.

Another reason for the decision by the Muslim political leaders was due to the statement issued by the European Union (EU) the previous day, highlighting issues of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.

“We want to first try and resolve whatever issues there are internally before speaking to the international community. We are Sri Lankans and our country comes first,” a Muslim political leader told The Sunday Morning.

Crucial SLFP-SLPP meeting

The Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) are scheduled to meet for its sixth round of talks tomorrow (17) to decide on the formation of a political alliance.

The discussion tomorrow is expected to be a crucial one for both parties since it is expected to reach a final decision on whether or not to form the much discussed political alliance.

It is learnt that with the SLPP planning its convention in September, the party is expecting a positive response from the SLFP on the key areas discussed by the two sides during the past few meetings.

However, the SLPP is disgruntled with the statement made by Sirisena that he was not convinced by the SLPP and that he felt it did not have a proper programme.

Nevertheless, the letter handed in by the SLFP parliamentary group to the President asking him to come forward as the next presidential candidate of the party, states that Sirisena should give leadership to a broad political front that is anti-UNP and a nationalistic force.

Be that as it may, the SLPP has on many occasions stated that the presidential candidate backed by the party would be one of its members.

Therefore, tomorrow’s discussion would be an interesting as well as a decisive one for the SLFP and the SLPP.