President Maithripala Sirisena last week generated a political storm by declaring that he was unhappy with state agencies that took the former Defence Secretary and three former Commanders of the Navy to court.
The President’s comments have been given many interpretations. In response, the Director General of the Bribery Commission, Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe has already submitted her resignation.
President Sirisena is not known as an impulsive politician who resorts to political rhetoric on a whim. His public speeches are usually well- thought-out and measured. Yet, when he made those allegations that have now snowballed into a political crisis, he was visibly annoyed.
The President accused investigating agencies of carrying out a ‘political agenda’. Opposition stalwarts, such as Wimal Weerawansa were quick to ask who was responsible for this political agenda.
It was evident that the Joint Opposition (JO) was out to make maximum political capital out of the President’s statement. They were attempting to infer that the political impetus for the work of these agencies came from the United National Party (UNP) faction of the government.
The President did affirm that he was not the type of person to telephone judges and influence the judiciary. What he was complaining about was that he, as Minister of Defence, is not informed of suspects being taken to courts, especially when they happen to be former defence secretaries and navy commanders.
It is also important to note that in the same speech, President Sirisena clearly re-iterated his commitment to the government of National Unity between the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). That there were mischief makers was evident from the fact that this part of his speech didn’t receive any publicity.
Of course, there are always two sides to the story. The Bribery Commission – or other investigating agencies – should have been investigating everyone suspected of alleged wrongdoing. The general perception was that cases against stalwarts in the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp were being prioritised.
For instance, there were complaints that former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran was not being probed, despite the many allegations levelled against him. It will be recalled that it was President Sirisena who took the initiative to prevent Mahendran from being re-appointed as Governor for a second term. As such, it is difficult to question the President’s commitment to a corruption-free government.
There was also speculation that charges against politicians who were ministers, first under Rajapaksa and now under President Sirisena, were not being probed with alacrity.
Thus, the work of the independent commissions is a complex matter. There are hundreds of complaints that need to be probed and a dearth of resources to do so. Hence, some complaints need to be prioritised.
Whichever way this is done, there will be complaints. The Rajapaksa camp will always accuse the government of carrying out a witch-hunt. Ministers in the current government, if they are being probed, will be aggrieved that they are being targeted while those in the previous regime get off lightly. In any event, the public complain even now that no one has been tried and convicted despite the many campaign promises that were made.
What has happened since President Sirisena’s statement is that the statement itself has become the focus of all attention, with different parties offering different explanations about what was said and why it was said.
In the ensuing melee, many seem to have missed the bigger picture: the future of the National Unity government.
This government is the first government in post-independent history where substantial numbers from the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, are working together.
The country is also at a critical juncture, having ended a thirty-year-war against terrorism with a crying need for a political solution that would resolve the grievances of all communities.
These differences can be settled only by extensive constitutional reforms which require a two-thirds majority in Parliament which only a government of National Unity can provide.
Those who wish to upset the political apple-cart either do not realise this or deliberately want the government to fall before constitutional changes are brought about-for their own political survival.
Hopefully, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, being the mature statesmen that they are, will not be distracted by the current hullabaloo and will be able to work together to realise their dream of a united and peaceful nation.