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Sri Lanka President’s battle with smoke and mirrors

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena has tried to defuse tensions triggered by his public outburst against the country’s main anti-graft bodies, but hinted at risks from a restless military.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters at the weekly cabinet briefing that President Sirisena discounted reports of a serious chasm between him and the unity government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

"Reports of the government imploding are wildly exaggerated," Senaratne said. "Defeated sections are dreaming of taking power, but that will not happen even if they attain nirvana."

Despite Senaratne’ s staunch attempt to play down and differences, he admitted that the President was highly concerned about causing dissatisfaction within the ranks of the military.

The President told ministers on Tuesday that he did not approve of retired senior commanders being hauled up before courts accused of bribery and corruption.

Civil society groups at a press conference last week said the President was misled by military intelligence chief, Brigadier Tuan Suresh Sallay, an appointee of the former administration still holding the highly sensitive job.

Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya appealed to President Sirisena to remove Sallay who he alleged was involved in several other cases which are currently under investigation by the Criminal Investigation Division.

The state Attorney General told courts recently that the military was not cooperating with investigators probing the 2010 abduction of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda.

Police sources have said that Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga’s murder in January 2009 too had been carried out by the same team responsible for Eknaligoda’s abduction and the attack on another editor Upali Tennakoon.

Military intelligence officers have been implicated in all three cases. Two former Inspector Generals of police, several retired Deputy Inspector Generals, a retired top army general and several key figures will either be arrested or questioned in connection with the on-going investigations, according to official sources.

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Senaratne was asked Wednesday how the military that did not raise a murmur when their top war general Sarath Fonseka was publicly humiliated and jailed during the former regime could now be restless when retired admirals are prosecuted.

The minister said he did not see any reason for the military to be upset over on-going investigations.

However, political sources said the former Rajapaksa regime had tighter control over the security forces and had also carried out a major purge of all seniors as well as junior rankers believed to be loyal to Gen. Fonseka.

In contrast, the new government has allowed even the most sensitive positions to be held by those appointed by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary.

President shooting in the foot

President Sirisena told cabinet that he was angry over the bribery commission filing corruption charges against in connection with the Avant Garde case without proceeding with a criminal prosecution.

The President argued that the case filed against Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, three retired admirals was "weak" and would let them off the hook and keep them out of jail.

Senaratne said the Attorney General told the government that they could not proceed with a criminal prosecution against Avant Garde under illegal weapons law because the current defence secretary, Karunasena Hettiarachchi too had entered into an agreement with the controversial company last year.

Sirisena is also the defence minister and should have been told by his own secretary about the fresh deal with Avant Garde which the AG says has undermined any criminal prosecution, Senaratne said.

If the President blames heads of prosecuting bodies of not keeping him in the loop, then he should first take action against defence secretary Hettiarachchi for keeping him in the dark about the new government’s agreement with Avant Garde, sources close to both the president and the premier said.

Official sources said they expected several key changes in the administration after the return of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from Belgium.

The current political crisis is also seen as the result of an intelligence failure of the police and reforms are on the cards. (COLOMBO, Oct 19, 2016)

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