When a President Fiddled While Country Burnt

By Buddhika Samaraweera | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 17 2020
Focus When a President Fiddled While Country Burnt

By Buddhika Samaraweera

It will by no means be an exaggeration to state that the Sri Lanka Police is the foremost body for maintaining law and order in the country. It is, therefore, imperative that the Inspector General of Police (IGP), who is the head of the Police Department, should be made a party responsible for safeguarding National Security. As we all know, the National Security Council (NSC) is the leading body in the country that takes decisions with regard to strengthening of National Security.

However, former President Maithripala Sirisena, who testified before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019 bombings, recently acknowledged that he had taken steps to prevent the IGP from attending NSC meetings from December 2018.

He said that he had to take that decision as he, as the President, had received various complaints regarding the conduct of the former IGP. However, if there was a problem with Jayasundara's behaviour or anything else, the necessary steps in that regard should have been taken by Sirisena, who was the Minister of Defence himself. Accordingly, it is highly questionable on what basis the former President believed that not taking proper action in this regard and not summoning the IGP to the NSC would solve the problems related to his (Jayasundara's) conduct.

It was also revealed before the Commission that Sirisena had not invited former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to the NSC since October 2018. When questioned on this, he claimed that the Prime Minister was not a permanent member of the NSC and therefore it was not a must for the Premier to be invited. However, during the same period, the former President had taken steps to summon several members of his party, who were not permanent members of the NSC, to its meetings since they were loyal to him.

The NSC is the body that takes the most important decisions regarding the security of the entire country. The former Premier, who testified before the Commission, said that it was very important for the Premier, the second citizen of the country, to know what is being discussed at the NSC meetings. The former IGP also said that he was barred from attending the NSC and had no idea what was being discussed there.

There have been many instances where the Police have not performed their duties properly. As the former President claimed, there may have been issues with the IGP's conduct. But, it is not the duty of a Head of State to endanger the lives of innocent people by allowing them to act as they please even when knowing about such things. Is it not the responsibility of any Head of State to take necessary action to rectify such shortcomings of any institution or official?

Giving an indication of the supervision that former President Sirisena had on officials under his purview, he said that all the Defence Secretaries who served during his tenure have neglected their responsibilities by not holding the Weekly Intelligence Coordination Meetings (ICMs) properly and that they had misled him in providing information about those meetings.

Initiating the hearing, an Additional Solicitor General (ASG) asked why three Secretaries to the President and five Defence Secretaries served from time to time between the period of 2015 and 2019.

Responding to this, the former President said, "P.B. Abeykoon was the first among the secretaries to the President. After some time, he said that he wanted to retire. Then Austin Fernando was appointed as the President’s Secretary and later he said that he liked to be appointed the Ambassador to India. Accordingly, he was appointed Ambassador of Sri Lanka to India, after which Udaya R. Seneviratne was appointed Secretary to the President."

Also, he said all five Defence Secretaries, who served under him, B.M.U.D. Basnayake, Engineer Karunasena Hettiarachchi, President's Counsel Kapila Waidyaratne, Hemasiri Fernando and General Shantha Kottagoda had all qualifications needed to be appointed to the post.

Testifying further, Sirisena said "the reasons for the appointment of each person cannot be stated separately due to the presence of the Media, but I will say in general. The Defence Secretary is one of the most important posts in the country, which includes the supervision of the Tri-Forces, the Chief of Defence Staff and the Department of Civil Defence, but one thing I have seen is that when those officers and institutions come under their control, the Defence Secretary loses his humanity and then there are some problems."

He also said that there were several grievances from the Tri-Forces commanders on a regular basis and that Defence Secretaries were removed due to such matters. Some others resigned due to health reasons and some resigned due to various institutional issues, he added.

Meanwhile, the former President secretly handed over several other reasons, in writing to the Commission, that led to the removal and appointment of the Defence Secretaries from time to time.

The ASG then asked the witness if he would accept if certain witnesses who testified before the Commission had said that the constant removals and appointments of the Defence Secretaries caused some problems for the Officers with regard to National Security.

In response, the former President said that such problems did and do not arise through the appointment of secretaries. As far as I know the ICM was held every Tuesday. Everything related to National Security was discussed there. They would be re-informed at the NSC again, he said. He also said that in addition to meeting at the NSC, he, as the President, had called the Defence Secretary at least once every two weeks to discuss issues related to the security.

"As you are aware, it has been more than a year since the Commission started recording evidence and various witnesses have given contradictory evidence with regard to what you mention. Well, as you say, do you think ICMs were held on Tuesdays as they were supposed to be?” the ASG asked the witness. In response, Sirisena said that as far as he knew it was held every week. I was told by the Defence Secretaries at the NSC that it was held, he said.

The ASG then drew the attention of the witness to a report on the dates of the ICMs held from 28 July, 2015 to 21 July, 2019, which had been given to the Commission.

In the said report, it was mentioned that no ICM was held weekly in any month, other than August in 2016. The report also stated that it was held for four consecutive weeks in May 2017, but was not held in that manner in other months.

In addition, the ASG drew the attention of the Commission to the fact that continuous ICMs had not been held in any month in 2018 and no ICMs had been held in a number of months in 2018 and 2019.

When asked what he thought of the facts contained therein, Sirisena said that he felt that his decision as the President to remove the Defence Secretaries from time to time was correct according to that report. The former Defence Secretaries had neglected the basics of National Security by not holding the ICMs properly.

"This shows that I am right to remove the Defence Secretaries. The non-holding of the ICM seems to have resulted in the failure to take basic steps that needed to be taken regarding National Security," he added.

However, it is on the day that he testified before the Commission, that he came to know that weekly ICMs have not been held as they were supposed to be. If the Minister in charge of the subject is not aware of the fact that the ICMs were not held properly during his tenure, does it not indicate that he had not properly supervised the officers under him and their functions?

Meantime, former Defence Secretary, Hemasiri Fernando who testified before the Commission recently said although former President Sirisena said he had instructed, at the NSC in January 2019, to arrest Zaharan Hashim, the leader of the National Thowheed Jama’at, he (Sirisena) had never given such instructions.

President's Counsel Shamil Perera, appearing for the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, asked Fernando why the NSC did not convene until 22 April after its meeting held on 19 February, 2019.

In response, the former Defence Secretary said he did not know the reason. The decision to convene the NSC is usually made by the President. I, as the Defence Secretary, only facilitate it. So I don’t know what the reasons were for not holding it, he said.

When asked why the information that a group including Zaharan could carry out terror attacks was not conveyed to the President, Fernando said informing the President on intelligence information was usually carried out by the Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS).

"According to legal background, the Secretary to the Ministry should inform the Minister about certain matters. But the then SIS Director and I came to an agreement that he would provide intelligence information to the President," he added.

Adding that Sirisena had never appointed a Minister to act when he was overseas, the Defence Secretary, referring to some previous incidents, said Sirisena had strictly advised him and the senior Police officers not to use water cannons to disperse protests without obtaining his approval, even when he was not in the country. 

Explaining the incident, he said "following an incident after riots squad dispersed a protest held in front of the Presidential Secretariat President Sirisena called me and asked who instructed to do so. Then, I said I was not aware of it and when I called the the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, he was also not aware of it,"

He had then informed the President that it was not done on instructions given by Jayasundara or himself, after which Sirisena had instructed him to call all senior Police officials for a meeting. At the meeting he blamed the officers and advised them not to use water cannons to disperse protests without his approval, he said. 

Testifying further, Fernando went on to say, "the former President did not give me adequate time to arrange the NSC meetings. It also affected the country's security situation. He used to call NSC meetings all of a sudden and it caused certain problems in inviting the attendees," he added.

Meantime, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe admitted that he was reluctant to ban Muslim women from wearing clothing that cover their faces, because he felt that doing so would deprive the Muslim community from providing information about Islamist extremism.

Adding that the communal riots of 1983 caused the Tamil people to not provide information on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organisation, Wickremesinghe said it took more than two years to get them back to provide the Government and security forces with information. Such a situation would have been created if Niqabs and other face- covering clothing of Muslim women were banned, he added.

He was testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the bombings on Easter Sunday, on 13 October.

Members of the Commission then asked the witness why the Sri Lankan intelligence services were not able to uncover the information on a possible terror attack in April 2019 if the Muslim community had provided such information about Islamist extremism.

In response, Wickremesinghe said that the Muslim community had provided a lot of information about Islamist extremism to security forces. However, he said that it was up to the security forces to act on the information.

When asked whether the inability to disclose information about the possibility of an attack was a weakness of the intelligence services, he said that it was clearly a weakness of the intelligence services.

Also, an ASG asked the former Prime Minister if there were any conflicts between the faction led by him in the previous Government and the faction led by former President Maithripala Sirisena. In reply, he said there were no serious conflicts. There were some problematic situations that can be seen in any Government in general. But there was no serious situation, he said.

By Buddhika Samaraweera | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 17 2020

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