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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

President’s Security and a Failing Police

by Sunday Times Political Editor.

Taking part in last week’s Vesak ceremonies in different parts of the country dotted President Maithripala Sirisena’s diary.

One such event was the opening of a giant pandal in Pepiliyana on the eastern outskirts of Nugegoda. The annual event has been organised by the group of apparel and construction companies owned by Daya Gamage, Eastern Provincial Councillor, known to be one of those bankrolling the United National Party (UNP). He is the party’s National Organiser now. This time he had invited two distinguished guests — President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Crowds watched Sirisena switch on from a console the wide array of colourful lights. He later mingled with the guests, took a few steps towards an ice cream booth and walked to a Mercedes Benz parked on the nearby roadside. There he opened the door, got in and sat waiting to be escorted away to his Colombo residence. Moments later, Premier Wickremesinghe opened the door of that vehicle and declared “Sir, you have got into my car. Your one is ahead.” It is only then did Sirisena realize he was in the wrong Benz, not the one assigned to him.

That none of the Presidential Security Division personnel was on hand to guide him to his limousine laid bare a serious security lapse. That Sirisena could have been thus vulnerable for an attack is common knowledge even to a junior school student. That is why personal protection groups surround their subjects. This is just eight days after an even more serious lapse occurred in the southern paddy farming village of Angunukolapelessa. It is barely 22 kilometres from Medamulana, the ancestral village of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Bala Mandalaya or local party apparatus for the area was meeting at the Urban Council hall. Sirisena was to address it. In a seeming bid to avoid embarrassment, Rajapaksa went off for ‘engagements’ in Nuwara Eliya.

His son Namal, an MP from the Hambantota District chose to take part. He first walked towards an entrance meant for VIPs but was not allowed in. Then he walked towards the public entrance. Men from the commando arm of the Police, the Special Task Force (STF) were keeping an eye at that entrance. A person walking abreast with Namal, they noted, had something bulging from the right side of the bush shirt he wore. Something had also bulged outwards from his back pocket, again covered by the shirt. Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Malwalage of the PSD allegedly waved Namal and his consort through without a body check.

STF Sergeant Rajapaksa and Constable Sampath who were on the outer cordon of the UC premises became suspicious. They rushed into the building and frisked the young man accompanying Namal. Hanging from the right side, they said, was a holster with a fully loaded 9 mm pistol inside. Bulging out of the left back pocket was a bottle of water. The man was identified as Corporal Senaka Kumara from the 4th Battalion of the Commando Regiment. The weapon he carried had a range of 25 metres. He was just eight metres from a seat President Sirisena was to occupy; a sitting duck for any would-be assassin. The two STF men handed over the commando soldier to Sergeant Nissanka of the PSD, a member of ASP Malwalage’s team, withdrew to their positions and made notes of their findings. Colonel Mahendra Fernando, in charge of the Army unit, identified by the Army as the Presidential Guard, has been questioned by the CID and a statement recorded. The Commander of the Army Lt. General Crishanthe De Silva has taken prompt action by immediately disbanding the Presidential Guard. Personnel have been posted to other units. A further investigation is under way by the Military Police.

Things took a mysterious turn thereafter. Corporal Kumara was released within hours by men from the PSD. Some staffers said that it was “Namal Babage ekkenek” or he was one of ‘Namal baby’s’ persons. Thereafter, a new theory was floated by some staffers to play down the incident which clearly proved that security has been breached. It was made out that Corporal Kumara was only carrying a bottle of water. Former President Rajapaksa declared in a statement, even before the investigations were concluded, that the Army commando had left his weapon in the vehicle before he accompanied his parliamentarian son for the event.

It is only after the STF brought this to his attention and the incident was receiving wide publicity that Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon ordered an investigation. It was placed under the charge of ASP Shani Abeysekera of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). He has earned a reputation for his unshakeable integrity. In their statements, Sergeant Rajapaksa and Constable Sampath have confirmed that they did detect the loaded pistol. They have said that the bottle of water was in the back pocket. He has already forwarded an interim report to the Police Chief and is continuing his probe. The commando soldier was arrested, produced before the Angunukolapelessa Magistrate and remanded. ASP Malwalage has been temporarily transferred to the Police Field Force Headquarters.

The situation has been confounded for another very important reason. Since being elected President in January, Sirisena, though an astute politician, is not well conversant with the nuances of matters related to defence and security. His relative innocence in this field prompted him to accept the same Presidential Security Division (PSD) his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had put in place and operated for nine long years. Only a few were moved out. That the PSD was accused of many an extra legal actions as well as performing tasks which were not a part of its official duties during Rajapaksa’s tenure is all too well known. One of Rajapaksa’s former henchmen, Mervyn Silva MP in a complaint made to the CID also accused the PSD of trying to abduct his son after allegedly assaulting him in a leading shopping mall at Colombo’s Ward Place-Town Hall junction. He named the men reportedly involved.

For nine long years, Senior Deputy Inspector General S.M. Wickremesinghe served former President Rajapaksa as head of the PSD. He hails from Polonnaruwa, Sirisena’s home town, and secured the current President’s approval to continue in office. It raised eyebrows in both security and political circles. When the leader of a party supporting the Government’s anti-corruption drive asked why SDIG Wickremesinghe, a staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, was picked, Sirisena replied “he told me he had been very badly treated by the former President. In the past several weeks before elections he had been sidelined and never spoken to.” However, Rajapaksa said in an Agence France Presse interview, which was published in a number of countries, that SDIG Wickremesinghe was a spy providing information to Sirisena. So were the tea (or food) tasters in the PSD, he charged. These tasters sample food and drinks before Rajapaksa consumes them on visits outside his residences. “Ethula indagena apey beli kepuwa,” or (whilst being inside, they slashed our necks), Rajapaksa told AFP’s Colombo Bureau Chief Amal Jayasinghe.

If President Sirisena is correct, he has simply believed SDIG Wickremesinghe’s story and trusted his life as well as that of his family in this senior Police officer’s hands. It is no secret that he is the senior most DIG and was tipped all along to become the next Police Chief. On the other hand, if Rajapaksa’s claim that he was playing a ‘double game’ and was spying when he was serving him, it raises an even more serious question. Here is a onetime President who had a tight grip on the Police, security and intelligence apparatus, but was still unaware of the very man who protected him. If Rajapaksa was right, then Senior DIG Wickremesinghe was the first security threat to him before all others though Rajapaksa was unaware. That a man of such questionable integrity has not been seen through by Rajapaksa and his tale of woe had been believed by Sirisena is no joke. It simply underscores the highly worrying reality that political considerations supersede matters of personal security. Ironically, there does not seem to be anyone in overall charge to advise Sirisena and guide him in the right direction over his own safety. If that was a task for the Inspector General N.K. Illangakoon, it is no secret that he was heavily dependent on SDIG Wickremesinghe when Rajapaksa was President. So much so, even the incorruptible Illangakoon had to tacitly encourage the Police force to support Rajapaksa at the presidential election. He put out a colourful brochure printed at the expense of the Department. In that he listed the many things the Rajapaksa administration had done for the Police.

The SDIG Wickremesinghe-IGP Illangakoon link led to favourite top officers being posted to important divisions at the former’s request. That was also at the behest of then President Rajapaksa. It was the same even in the case of Officers-in-charge of Police Stations or other gazetted cadres. Though reluctantly, I am compelled to cite an event to highlight this equation. I was at dinner at Temple Trees with then President Rajapaksa just days before nominations for the presidential election. It was arranged by one of his media savvy confidants. He was part of the campaign team and wanted “Rajapaksa’s thinking on issues projected.” Rajapaksa said that in the next day or two he was planning to address all Police gazetted officers at a meeting in ‘Temple Trees’. I told him people were now frightened to visit Police Stations and went looking for anyone influential, like MPs, to get their grievances addressed through officers they knew.

I said that at 2 a.m. one morning, a group had stoned my residence. There was no inquiry. A month later, a Police officer visited to request me to withdraw the complaint. It seemed they did not wish to have unsolved cases on record. When I told this to the senior officer in charge of the division and pointed out it was bad for the image of the Police, he replied, “About the image, you go and tell that to the IGP (or ara Policeeye lokkata kiyanna)…..” Rajapaksa asked a security officer standing a few feet away from the dinner table to get SDIG Wickremesinghe on the telephone. He then handed over a cordless handset. He asked his DIG in charge of security who the officer was. When he was named, Rajapaksa exhorted “Aaah!! Eya apey minihek da? Ehamanang eyata warn karanna,” (Aaah!! He is one of our men. Okay, then warn him).” The officer concerned later apologised. After the presidential election, this “apey miniha” or “our man” has got into an even higher position, in charge of an institution where politicians of all hues meet. He is now responsible for all their lives.

This encounter, like the other recent developments, underscores a disturbing reality. Little has changed with the Police though the new President and the new Government have pledged good governance or yahapalanaya. The rot that set in is now continuing to threaten even the life of the President. The UNP-dominated Government took over the Police Department and placed it under John Ameratunga, Minister of Public Order and Christian Religious Affairs. There is concern in some sections that this controversial politician known for his close dealings with the Rajapaksa administration should not have been given the Public Order portfolio. However, what is undeniable is the fact that he is an elected parliamentarian. He has been named by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to that portfolio. If previously Illangakoon took the advice of Rajapaksa (directed through Wickremesinghe or personally by him) in making appointments to top slots, it became somewhat different. The Police Chief once complained to President Sirisena about lists containing “transfer orders” and was advised to “do the correct thing.” Sirisena was perhaps right. But that was not what he mostly did before. Making matters worse is that a selected cabal are still in control.

Complaints that only some groups of officers are being favoured by Illangakoon have been reaching the Public Order Ministry. The IGP could not be contacted but his officials deny this. Yet, the Police Chief has sent out a circular that no Police officer could visit the Public Order Ministry without his prior permission. If they are summoned, he has decreed, that they should once they finish their task report to him what transpired. As a result, Minister Ameratunga has now decided to allot a day every month to listen to the grievances of Police officers. As Minister, he feels that is his right to look into the welfare of the Police. This is particularly to hear those who say they cannot obtain an appointment with the IGP to speak about issues they face. Nor is there an Ombudsman to whom they could make representations. No doubt, reports from them if they heed the circular would be voluminous. On the other hand, such an unhealthy situation should have been cropped at the beginning when an arbitrary order was issued. Since such meetings would be in open defiance of the Police Chief’s unusual decree, it exposes the subordinate officers for disciplinary action. Evidently no one in authority has done anything so far to rectify this situation.

These developments make it imperative that the trio who run the country — President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga — take a serious look at the Police Department, the one that comes into daily contact with the people. It is even more important that they should closely review VIP and VVIP security by cleaning up the rotten areas and placing matters in the hands of efficient, competent officers whose integrity is not in question in any way. They should not allow room for personal power play or empire building that can threaten the life of a President. New measures should include a clear definition of the chain of command. At present, the Presidential Security Division is supplemented by those from the Army (Presidential Guard) and the Navy. However, their command responsibility lies elsewhere. Thus, there is a need for one person to hold overall responsibility. Another issue is whether an MP is entitled personal security from Army commandos.

In terms of directives issued by the Police Headquarters, an MP is assigned two persons from the Ministerial Security Division (MSD). The security at their residences becomes the task of the area Police Stations.  Government officials claim that the Commando security has been given to the former President to protect him and his family. From yesterday, this responsibility has been given to the Police Special Task Force. Even if Sirisean is blissfully unaware of the implications of having a weak and vulnerable security mechanism to protect him, he is mindful about the threats he faces. On the night of the presidential elections on January 8, he confessed that he was in a coconut estate in Dodangaslanda until the results were known. If he lost, he said, he was aware he would be six feet under. It would be wrong to assume that such threat factors diminish particularly as the activities of the corrupt and the inept are being exposed by the day, fuelling venomous enmity towards political leaders. Their embarrassment and resentment are growing. It is only a strong, well informed and efficient security mechanism that could be a good shield as President Sirisena grapples with many political issues. Premier Wickremesinghe is no exception to this situation.

Political editor / ST


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