The political blind-spot
Posted on October 13th, 2016

Darisha Bastian Courtesy FT


In September 2015, a furore erupted when President Maithripala Sirisena decided to take his son to the UN General Assembly session in New York


During the visit, the President’s son also sat in on arguably Sri Lanka’s most important bilateral on the sidelines of the UNGA session with Indian PM Narendra Modi


Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the India Economic Summit with former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran in tow

When it comes to excesses of friends and family, do President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have what it takes to shut it down? Or will they stake the survival of their Government on a desire to protect their own? 

Maithripala Sirisena has a problem that pre-dates his presidency. It’s a ‘problem’ that first manifested on the white sand beaches of Passikudah in February 2013. The sequence of events bore uncanny resemblance to the events at a popular nightclub in Union Place, Colombo last weekend. A perceived slight led to a vicious assault by a gang of unruly, inebriated boys, led by the son of powerful minister in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. The victim, who was critically injured in the assault was the son of DIG Ravi Waidyalankara, then in charge of the Batticaloa area. Waidyalankara, now a Senior DIG, presently heads the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) that is probing some of the biggest corruption cases against leaders of the Rajapaksa Government.


The Passikudah case took a predictable turn. Thirteen boys, including Daham Tharaka Sirisena, the son of then Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, were arrested on assault charges by the Kalkudah Police and granted bail. The suspects were granted bail even though the victim of the assault was still in ICU, being treated for critical injuries. The 13 suspects faced a single Court date one month later, with the Valaichenai Magistrate giving an order to have the case transferred to a Mediation or Reconciliation Board, a quasi judicial body that ‘settles’ minor disputes. Out of the glare of the public eye, the assault case fell off the radar. There was speculation that the Waidyalankara family was reluctant to pursue the case too vigorously, given the political climate prevailing at the time.

In his first remarks to the press about the incident at Passikudah, then Minister Sirisena adopted a ‘boys will be boys’ approach. Boys fight on beaches, this is a normal thing. It was not as if the other person involved was just meditating on the beach,” he said dismissively at a media briefing a few days after the alleged assault. Privately, the Health Minister adopted a different approach. Over the telephone, Sirisena advised his son to go to the Kalkudah Police station with the officers who had arrived on the scene. The Minister then travelled to Batticaloa. One of his first stops was to the Batticaloa hospital where the DIG’s son was receiving treatment in the ICU. There the Health Minister expressed his regrets to the DIG and the victim about his son’s conduct, and promised that the injured young man would receive the best possible treatment at the Government hospital. Sirisena promised that the Police would be free to take any action they wished to against his son and his friends.

But events that followed would tell a different story. Medical reports were obtained indicating that the 13 suspects were not under the influence of alcohol. Statements given to the Police by the suspects said that the DIG’s son had provoked the boys by getting aggressive. Eye-witnesses on the Passikudah beach, and the victim himself, contradicted this claim.

Last weekend, history seemed to repeat itself.

Nightclub brawl

Much of the information surrounding the attack on the Clique nightclub last weekend remains murky and unverified. CCTV footage shows several attackers but none of them match the description of the President’s son. Venue Manager of Clique, Christopher Kern claimed in a video released earlier this week that a group had smashed up the front of the club and inflicted some injuries, but vehemently denied the presence of a VVIP’s son” during the attack. Dismissing those claims as rumours, Kern said such speculation would be damaging even to business operations of the club.

According to sources close to the management of Clique, Daham Sirisena and his friends, including a group of boys from Polonnaruwa, had arrived at Clique last Saturday night. The President’s son had been permitted entry with his bodyguards from the Presidential Security Division (PSD). The club was full that night, and security was reluctant to let the large group of men who had accompanied the President’s son entry into the premises. However, following an intervention by top management, the group was allowed entry on a staggered basis. A short while later, the President’s son, his PSD guards and most of the group that entered with him left the club. It was a few hours after their departure that the attack took place.

Multiple sources confirmed that the President’s son was not present at the time of the assault, and that the attackers were not members of the PSD. CCTV footage appears to corroborate these claims. They had however allegedly been part of the group that entered the club earlier that night with Daham Sirisena, reportedly young men from the Sirisenas’ home district of Polonnaruwa. In any event, the incident at the Passikudah beach in 2013 and this latest altercation at a nightclub in the capital seem to indicate that the President’s son runs with a dangerous crowd.

Reports have also surfaced, unconfirmed by the President’s Office so far, that Daham Sirisena’s PSD guard has been removed on the orders of President Sirisena himself. Attempts to reach Presidential aides to confirm the reports failed yesterday. The President and his wife Jayanthi were in Thailand on an official visit when the incident at Clique took place. Yesterday, Deputy Minister of Media Karunaratne Paranavithana told the weekly Cabinet briefing that President Sirisena had ordered separate inquiries into the attack on the nightclub by the Police and the PSD.

The lack of arrests so far, four days after the attack and in spite of video footage, is spurring speculation of high-level political involvement in glossing over the case. Social media posts about the incident almost universally denounce President Sirisena for failing to take action against his son, despite repeated misdemeanours. Public outrage is also apparent on the Facebook walls of many Government Ministers over the nightclub brawl. The lack of an official response from the President’s Office regarding the incident, either confirming or denying the claims that Daham Sirisena was involved or implicated in the incident, is fuelling speculation and public anger.

First fears

When Maithripala Sirisena was picked as the Common Opposition candidate to stand against Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election, there were only two major concerns about his past that were raised in the first flush of his exit from the ruling Government. One concerned the conduct of certain family members engaging in business in his home district of Polonnaruwa. The other concerned the unruly conduct of his son Daham and Sirisena’s continued tolerance of his antics. Within months, both these fears were confirmed and President Sirisena’s family baggage threatened to sully his presidential legacy. Badly discrediting Sirisena’s claims about ending family rule in Sri Lanka, his sibling took over arbitrarily as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom and his son Daham would begin to assume an important place in State affairs.

In September 2015, a furore erupted when President Sirisena decided to take his son to the UN General Assembly session in New York, and permit him to sit with the official Sri Lankan delegation inside the main hall. With Daham Sirisena occupying one of six seats reserved for the Sri Lankan delegation inside the chamber, Lankan Envoy to the UN in New York, Dr Rohan Perera had to sit the session out. During the visit, the President’s son also sat in on arguably Sri Lanka’s most important bilateral on the sidelines of the UNGA session with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The only other official of note in the room during the bilateral meeting was Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Quizzed about his decision to include his son on the Lankan delegation by the BBC’s Sinhala Service in an interview earlier this year, President Sirisena trotted out a cryptic response. The decision was centred on ‘humanity and a father’s love for his son’ that he said only parents with children could understand. There was plenty of room for Daham Sirisena on the delegation to the UN, the President averred, even though Sri Lanka’s top diplomat in New York had to be shunted aside to make room for the presidential offspring.

New York take II

Last month, President Sirisena attended the UNGA in New York for the second time in his tenure. A little-known fact is that Daham Sirisena also travelled to New York again this year. In 2015, official photographs were released of President Sirisena’s visit to the UN which heavily featured his son. This year, officials wisened up. Daham Sirisena did not feature in any of the official photographs released by the President’s Office. Furthermore, members of the Sri Lankan delegation would only see the President’s son occasionally, at breakfast. The rest of the time, he made himself scarce. With the First Lady skipping the New York visit even this year, President Sirisena appeared to have picked his son to accompany him again. Away from the glare of the media and official photographers, the controversial presidential offspring continues to accompany his father to important State and diplomatic events to which access is usually limited.

Having assumed office on a wave of public anger over the excesses of the former ruling family and their ubiquitous interference in affairs of State, it is ironic that President Sirisena does not read the signs. Lately President Sirisena has taken on the role of ‘moraliser-in-chief’, expressing dismay at the drinking habits of Sri Lankan women and advocating corporal punishment with ‘stingray tails’ against the bra-throwing, culture-eschewing masses at a musical show last year. Yet somehow, the moral codes the President is advocating for the rest of the island’s citizens do not seem to extend to his own children. Or worse still, President Sirisena’s hold over his son is tenuous at best.

As far as the political leadership goes, he is not the only one with a blind spot either.

The Premier and the ex-Governor 

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the India Economic Summit with key ministers and former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran in tow. The former Governor has been appointed Head of the Five-Year Economic Planning Unit run by the Premier’s Office. Mahendran’s continuing presence in the economic sphere has been public knowledge for some time, but his appearance in India during a high-level engagement implied the Government’s continued tolerance of the controversial official in key economic matters.

A COPE report on the Central Bank Bond controversy will be made public over the next two weeks, and by all accounts contains a damning indictment against the ex-Governor and his role in the scandal that rocked the financial sector last year. Arjuna Mahendran’s presence on the Prime Ministerial delegation also comes in the backdrop of windfall profits recorded by Perpetual Treasuries, the primary dealer that trades in Government bonds that is associated with the former Governor’s son-in-law. In an official declaration issued last month, Perpetual Treasuries shocked the markets again with its whopping post-tax profit of over Rs. 5 billion in the year ending March 2016. The firm has courted controversy repeatedly, even during the term of the Rajapaksa Government when opposition members now in the ruling coalition claimed the company was responsible for problematic transactions on the stock exchange and financial markets.

Yet, in a strange twist, when the Government-sponsored Sri Lanka Investment Summit was held in Singapore in March this year, with former Governor Mahendran taking the lead, Perpetual Treasuries was named as one of the lead sponsors of the summit. Independent analysts argue that Mahendran may have cost the United National Front an outright majority in Parliament in the August 2015 election. At the time, the alleged bond scam was the only major controversy to plague the ‘Yahapalanaya’ administration, which was riding high after the successful passage of the 19th Amendment. Analysts claim the UNF lost a minimum of five to a maximum of 10 seats in the August 2015 election because of inaction against the Central Bank Governor over the alleged bond scam.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s Mr Clean” image takes a severe beating each time he is seen to be tolerant of controversial officials like the ex-Central Bank Governor. An astute political analyst himself, the Prime Minister cannot be ignorant of public disdain for Mahendran, and what his survival as Head of the Central Bank for a year after news broke of the alleged bond scam had cost the Government. But when it comes to the former Central Bank Governor, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is hampered in his judgment by a major blind-spot.

Lessons from Rajapaksa

The decline and fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa holds valuable lessons with regard to ignoring the damage inflicted upon political legitimacy by the excesses of family members and cronies. Drunk on power and deluded by his own invincibility, Rajapaksa repeatedly underestimated public indignation about the excesses of his family, particularly his youngest sibling Gotabaya and his three sons.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the shrewd politician, allowed himself to be swept up in the nationalism advocated by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sinhalese hardliners in his Cabinet, alienating minority communities almost entirely by the end of his nine-year reign. Being blinded by love for his family and his desire to keep them close cost Rajapaksa dearly at the January 2015 election. Tamils and Muslims voted en masse for his opponent, after the Rajapaksa regime turned a blind-eye to the rise of ethno-religious fascist groups in the country that were posing serious threats to the security of ethnic and religious minorities.

In the January 2015 presidential election, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, fighting the battle of his life against an unlikely opponent and former ally, tried to exploit the history between DIG Waidyalankara and presidential candidate Sirisena. The Rajapaksa campaign tried hard to convince the Police official to allow his son to tell his side of the Passikudah tale on state media, to discredit Sirisena, whose campaign platform was focused on cleaning up Government and ending family rule in Sri Lanka. The victim, Asela Waidyalankara, refused to be used as a political pawn, after his attackers had evaded justice under President Rajapaksa for nearly two years.

The DIG’s example

Convinced that the enmity between the Waidyalankara family and Sirisena ran deep, the Rajapaksa Government transferred DIG Waidyalankara as the officer in charge of Jaffna early in the presidential election campaign.

With the TNA endorsing the Opposition candidate, the northern vote was likely to break overwhelmingly in favour of Sirisena. The Rajapaksa campaign felt that placing a Police officer with a natural antipathy towards Maithripala Sirisena would be useful both in the run up to the election and on polling day, when certain measures would be taken to disenfranchise or disrupt voters in the Northern Province. They were gravely mistaken. DIG Waidyalankara became a force to reckon with in the Jaffna District during the presidential election. Careful not to rile the authorities in Colombo, Waidyalankara worked to keep the peace in Jaffna during the polls campaign.

Predictably on election day attempts were made to block voting in several electorates in Jaffna. When large trees were moved across roads to obstruct vehicular traffic on the way to polling booths, reportedly by the military, DIG Waidyalankara used Police personnel to clear the obstructions. After a minor grenade explosion near a polling booth in Point Pedro, Waidyalankara dispatched Police mobile units with loudspeakers to assure voters that the security situation was under control, and polling was continuing peacefully. In other words, as he discharged his duties in that make-or-break election, the senior Police official managed to rise above the personal. In doing so, he may have played a pivotal role in safeguarding the integrity of the Jaffna vote. After watching the Rajapaksa Government’s excesses over the past nine years from a unique vantage point, the DIG may have decided that some battles were bigger than his own.

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe owe it to officials who have shown integrity and courage in the face of tremendous risk, to rise above their own personal prejudices. To their voters, they promised an end to family bandyism and crony capitalism that benefited only the ruling elite and their near and dear. On the campaign trail and with their victory in successive elections, the ruling coalition gave the people reason to hope again in the promise of corruption-free governance and a society free from fear and oppression. Hope is a flickering flame, and in light of Sri Lanka’s political history, it is easily extinguished. Over the past two years, every step forward by the ruling coalition on reform and re-establishing rule of law has been matched with three steps back. The trajectory is frustrating and disillusioning. In light of moves to draft a new constitution, and a referendum on those proposals that must surely follow, the current path is also fraught with danger for the UNF coalition.

Nearly two years on, the shine has worn off considerably for the Yahapalanaya Government. A sense of betrayal is mounting, as Government leaders renege on their campaign pledges to alter the country’s political culture and fail to act on corruption within their own ranks.

The fall of the Rajapaksa regime is proof positive that no Government is too big or too strong to fail. The ruling coalition and the two leaders at its helm would do well to learn from recent political history. If their blind spots turn into Achilles’ heels, there will be no coming back.

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