Sri Lanka’s new regime faces major split over arms scandal
ECONOMYNEXT – Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s coalition faced the first major threat of a split Thursday as two key ministers threatened to either quit or bring down cabinet colleagues defending the Avant Garde arms scandal.
Clashes erupted at Thursday’s cabinet meeting which followed a parliamentary debate during which two government ministers made stunning declarations that were diametrically opposed to the government’s own stand on the issue.
Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana shocked both sides of the House on Wednesday by declaring that there was nothing illegal about Avant Garde’s operation that involved using government weapons and hiring them out to foreigners. Marapana said, contrary to police claims, Avant Garde did not require a licence as they were using weapons of the Sri Lankan state.
Marapana also accused the police, which is under his ministry, of trying to “score political points” and trying to ingratiate themselves with the new regime by raiding the arms ship, the M.V. Mahanuwara, that had been anchored at the Galle harbour soon after the change of the president.
The minister trashed the "B" report of his own police and praised Avant Garde for bringing millions of dollars into the country. By the ministers’ argument, all the allegations made by his own United National party (UNP) and his own leader Ranil Wickremesinghe are not only false, but malicious allegations made out of jealousy.
At Thursday’s cabinet meeting, ministers Champika Ranawaka and Rajitha Senaratne were livid to the point of going to blows with those who had "sold the government down the drain," a top political source said.
The reaction of Marapana and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe were not immediately known. Rajapakshe claimed it was he who intervened to stop the police arresting former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa over the alleged illegal transfer of weapons to Avant Garde.
Minister Ranawaka threatened to resign while Senaratne said he would fight the corrupt individuals within the government.
"We wil not allow these fellows to take us down," an exasperated minister said adding that as fireworks were going off inside the cabinet room, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had left the room. President Sirisena was forced to put off the discussion on Avant Garde and he promised to call a separate cabinet meeting to discuss future action.
President Sirisena who chaired the cabinet meeting was also furious with cabinet minister Vajira Abeywardena who was accused by the JVP of leading efforts to defend Avant Garde.
Top political sources said the current crisis in cabinet sparked by the Avant Garde issue could lead to greater polarisation within the so called unity government and degenerate into a regime change unless the regime changed its ways.
Strong Sirisena loyalists were already discussing the possibility of demanding the sacking of Marapana and Wijeyadasa.
In the alternative, they were ready to drum up support of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through a no confidence motion if he failed to take action.
Many were speculating that there would have been a re-play of Chandrika’s sacking of Ranil’s government if not for the 19th amendment that has taken away the president’s power to prematurely dismiss parliament.
"The president can’t dismiss parliament, but he can call for a resolution for the removal of the Prime Minister and have a new government of his choice," a top source close to Sirisena said. "We may be headed down that road."
President Sirisena ticked off UNP Galle district MP and minister Abeywardena for keeping quiet and tacitly confirming an allegation by JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake that Avant Garde boss had secretly met the president in his company.
‘Why didn’t Vajira deny this in parliament," the President had asked. A visibly angry President told ministers that he would get his media secretary to issue a formal denial that he ever met with Avant Garde boss.
-Avant Garde lawyer in the House-
Marapana, who now is responsible for the police as minister of Law and Order had been retained as attorney for Avant Garde before he became a minister. Cabinet colleagues pointed out a conflict of interest, but Marapana brushed it aside saying Avant Garde was no longer his client, but he was aware that they were innocent and it was only the fault of the police for carrying out a raid.
He expressed surprised over the action of police in Galle in raiding the Avant Garde floating armoury, the m.v. Mahanuwara, ship earlier this year after the fall of the Rajapaksa regime.
He called the police raid a political move and compared it to the "Millennium city" raid carried out by a UNP government that came to power in 2002.
Rajapaksa’s administration had subsequently criticised the raid as a betrayal of military intelligence units which had maintained a secret safe house within the Millennium City complex in Athurugiriya.
Although Marapana criticised the Millennium City raid, he neglected to mention that at the time, he was in fact the defence minister and the raid followed a claim by his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that claymore bombs had been stored at Millennium City to attack him and other UNP leaders.
Sustainable development minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera reminded his colleagues that he had complained about an alleged Avant Garde operation to terrorise his constituents during the election campaign.
Minister Perera was shocked by cabinet colleague Marapana’s amnesia.
Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake in a hard-hitting speech in parliament accused several in his own government of taking bribes to sweep corruption cases under the carpet.
JVP’s Bimal Ratnayake said both Marapana and Rajapakshe sounded like they were members of former president Rajapaksa’s cabinet, an allegation rejected by Marapana while Justice minister Rajapakshe was unavailable. (Colombo/Nov06/2015 – Update I)