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A Dysfunctional Government Brings Out a Controversial Acting Top Cop

By Arjuna Ranawana

The deep shadow of conspiracy that allegedly created the conditions for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to become President through the Easter Sunday massacre continues to darken many aspects of Sri Lankan life.

Governance is in disarray, and the government’s inability to pick an officer of high calibre, whose reputation is intact, to fill the post of Inspector General of Police, is a glaring example of that.

Most countries groom successors to such high-level posts well in advance, enabling a smooth transition. Malaysia is a good example.

That country, which has a colonial legacy much like ours, saw a change of guard at the top in the Police department when IGP Acryl Sani retired on June 22, 2023. His successor, Razarudin Husain, who had been groomed for the top job for months, took office the next day, and the government announced that Ayob Khan would be Husain’s successor. That announcement coincided with Husain’s taking office.

Not so in troubled, dysfunctional Sri Lanka.

The appointment of an IGP was akin to a circus act; President Ranil Wickremasinghe displayed his inability to withstand the pressures brought upon by those wanting their favourites to the top chair. Instead, in true form he simply kept extending outgoing IGP C D Wickremeratne’s term, finally caving in to appoint Deshabandu Tennekoon, a senior DIG as acting IGP.

It's an appointment that has met with much disappointment and despair. Tennakoon, according to the many reports on him seems to have a chequered history. So much so, that even the Constitutional Council was divided, with three members vetoing the appointment.

Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa told Parliament that he and fellow SJB MP Kabir Hasheem and another member he did not name had voted against Tennekoon. “It was five to three,” Premadasa said.

Dogged by allegations of improper conduct, including connections to the underworld, and the alleged cover-up of official involvement in the Easter Sunday massacre, Tennakoon’s copybook is blotted.

Amongst the many posts on social media on Tennakoon, is a video showing him, then Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of the Western Province accompanying controversial SLPP strongman, State Minister Sanath Nishantha who led a mob of Rajapaksa supporters to attack the Aragalaya in May 2022.

Except for a handful of individuals, the strongest objections to Tennakoon’s appointment come from the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka. Pointing to Presidential and other reports on the Easter tragedy, where Tennakoon is named for negligence in preventing the attack, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith said “We strongly reject the appointment as the biggest insult to the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks.”

At a press conference soon after the appointment, the Catholic Church’s spokesman Fr. Cyril Gamini told reporters that according to investigative reports. Tennakoon had instructed police officers to release unchecked, a lorry that had been stopped by them on suspicion. The log entered by the police officer, states Fr Cyril Gamini, shows he received a phone call from Tennakoon, instructing the lorry be released. Tennekoon is yet to explain his actions, says Fr Cyril Gamini.

Media reports, which the Church also cites, point to Tennakoon’s clear partisanship to the Rajapaksa’s.

The Catholic Church points to two incidents; the first is Tennakoon accompanying Sanath Nishantha who led the attack on the aragalaya, and the second is his intervention involving the Rs 17.8 million in cash, aragalaya protestors found in the President’s House after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled. Though the monies were handed over to the Officer-in-Charge of the Fort Police Station, Inspector Sagara Liyanage, is on record stating that Tennakoon instructed him over the phone to hand over the money to Public Security Minister Tiran Alles.

The correct procedure is to deposit such funds in a trust account in a State Bank until ownership is resolved.

Sadly, political interference and an overall drop in standards, where government officers think nothing of openly displaying their partisanship, has left Sri Lanka with a paucity of Officers and Gentlemen who could be appointed to top positions.

The current pool of officers, in order of rank for the IGPs post, is in itself limited;

the other leading candidate is Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, again, like Tennakoon named for the negligence of duty, despite having prior knowledge of the Easter attack and ordered by the courts to pay compensation to the victims.

Tennakoon has an influential Sinhala Buddhist group, the Pavidi Handa on his side. In an attempt to stir up religious disharmony, its members accuse the Church of opposing Tennekoon’s appointment because he is a Buddhist. The group is led by a strong Rajapaksa supporter, and Nurses Union President, Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero.

A younger monk at the press conference also linked the church to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), stating it was the ‘military arm of the Catholic Church.’ That is as good as accusing the Church of fomenting terror.

Tennakoon, accompanied by some other police officers visited the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter, begging for intervention, because they were named in the Presidential Commission on the Easter Sunday bombings. The visit, in 2021, evoked a tweet by Ambika Satkunanathan, a former Human Rights Commissioner, “In a supposed democracy, the police appeal to Buddhist clergy to influence govt to escape legal consequences for their (in) action. Illustrates influence of Buddhist clergy/Sinhala Buddhist nationalism on government, politicization of police and sense of impunity and entitlement of police.” (Colombo Telegraph, Top Cop Begs Asgiriya Chief Prelate to Save Them from Prosecution Over Easter Attacks)

In the days following the Easter attack, Buddhist priests visited the churches that were damaged and even helped in cleaning up the debris. The country was awash with never-before-seen banners, not even when the LTTE carried out attacks on the Shri Maha Bodhi or the Central Bank, condoling with the Christians. Though that gesture is appreciated, it is clear, it was the anti-Muslim rhetoric at the time, that fuelled that ‘sympathy.’

Tennakoon is a controversial figure, as is his appointment as Acting DIG, and comes at a time when the country seems to be gearing up for an election.

Despite a majority in parliament, recent polls show the SLPP is hugely unpopular.

For the Rajapaksa led SLPP, which is on the back foot going into the hustings, and Wickremasinghe too, having an IGP, who, in past actions has displayed partisanship, is indeed helpful.

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