It is obvious that the next few days are going to be a torrid time in Sri Lanka politics. Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake’s appearance before the Presidential Commission appointed to probe the Central Bank bond scam triggered a deluge of sensational reporting for which the media cannot be faulted for the simple reason that the disclosures were sensational. Of course none of the allegations that were made or material elicited has yet been proven. That must await the final report of the commission. Its term has already been extended at least twice and there is a lot more work to be done before the proceedings can be concluded. It is clear that the commissioners are determined to complete their work as quickly as possible even at the cost of personal sacrifice. One of the commissioners has decided that he would not attend a scheduled assignment abroad as he considers the work of the commission more important. The two Supreme Court judges who are in the three-member commission must also get back to their regular judicial duties.
The calls for Karunanayake’s resignation now being heard are inevitable. There were reports yesterday that the president had talked to him about this at a ‘Temple Trees’ dinner marking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 40th anniversary in politics. How correct these reports are we do not know but it is quite obvious that differences between the UNP and the SLFP have sharpened as a result of what is going on. Whether the minister will resign and retire gracefully to the backbench or whether he will stay put in his present ministry remains to be seen. Karunanayake hinted very broadly that his exit from the finance ministry was a result of the efforts of an unelected colleague in his own party. There are wheels within wheels in what is going on now and it will be dangerous for firm conclusions to be reached on the basis of sensational disclosures that are dime a dozen. Although the fact is that ordinary people are reaching such conclusions, a commission of inquiry that includes two serving judges of the Supreme Court and a former deputy auditor general will not do the same. They will undoubtedly act within the framework of their mandate and the law.
The basic fact is that Karunanayake was summoned before the commission to testify on the undated letter he had written regarding the money the government required to pay some road building contractors. He has testified that the letter lacking a date and a reference was an oversight. While different people can have a different take on whether this is correct or not, the fact is that it has not been proved that it is otherwise. So also his testimony that he was not aware that a Perpetual company paid the lease rent for the apartment he and his family occupied while their own home was being renovated. The minister’s position is that when he assumed public office in 2015, he severed connections with his various businesses and these were handled by his wife and daughter. He says he did not know that Perpetual had paid the rent which had since been refunded. A company connected with the Karunanayakes had later bought the apartment. Belief and proof are entirely different matters. Whether this matter will evolve under a strict legal frame or whether external commotion will influence the outcome are open questions.
President Sirisena has the power to remove a minister if he judges that this is necessary. The 19th Amendment did not make any change on this power previously vested with the president. But whether he will do that without the concurrence of the prime minister is also uncertain. He well knows that but for the votes that the UNP brought him, he could not have defeated his predecessor two and a half years ago. He has always been at pains to consult his prime minister on matters relating to the government instead bulldozing his way through at will. When Karunanayake was removed from the finance ministry, he was compensated with the equally prestigious foreign ministry. This arrangement was obviously a compromise between the president and the prime minister who wanted his party colleague’s feathers ruffled as little as possible. But recent developments have made such compromise less possible. We will see how the papadam crumbles in coming days.
Observers also note that the noisy Joint Opposition that seizes every opportunity to wade into the government was slow in presenting a vote of no-confidence against the foreign minister until the smelly stuff hit the fan last week. When the debate on this motion will be fixed and whether it will be relevant when the due date comes around if the minister resigns earlier, are also factors in the equation. We must also not forget the fact that there are many serious allegations against a number of active politicians being investigated by various agencies including the Bribery Commission, FCID and others. Although some of them have gone into remand and been bailed out and some arraigned before the courts, they have not been subject to the same trauma as Karunanayake and are well into the game of pot calling the kettle black. They did not suffer the misfortune of being hauled before a Presidential Commission of Inquiry and were not subject to intensive interrogation under the full glare of publicity as Karunanayake was.
It is unlikely that the commission would go into matters that are not subject to its mandate. If there are complaints against Karunanayake, these must be made to the properly constituted authorities tasked with investigating such matters. If evidence that can sustain a prosecution is unearthed, then the suspects must be brought to court under due process. That is how those alleged of wrongdoing under the previous dispensation are being treated. If there are wrongdoers under the present regime, and the public perception is that there are many, they too must be dealt with in the same manner. Karunanayake cannot be made an exception to that rule merely because a loud hullabaloo has been made at the proceedings of the ongoing inquiry.