Sri Lanka’s coalition govt in deep water over arms ship scandal

A controversial deal between the brother of Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a maritime services company in 2012 is creating deep rifts within the new coalition government with several ministers facing corruption allegations and a minister even forced to resign over conflict of interest.

Avante garde

The controversy began in October this year when authorities seized a floating armory belonging to Avant Garde Maritime Services, a private security company which struck a deal in 2012 to provide maritime security with the defense secretary of the time Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Although the vessel was authorized to carry only 100 guns and 60,000 rounds of ammunition, it had as many as 816 guns and over 200,000 rounds of ammunition. Avant Garde’s “illegal” operation raised security alarm.

Soon after the discovery of the floating armory, several ministers, who were sworn in following the August parliamentary elections, have been accused of soft peddling the issue and protecting the company in question for various reasons.

On November 10, Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana, a lawyer by profession, resigned from his ministerial portfolio amid mounting allegations that he tried to shield Avant Garde from a full-scale investigation over its controversial gun-running activities.

Marapana was at the receiving end as he had represented Avant Garde in court on a similar matter before Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party, the United National Party, was elected to power.

Sri Lanka’s incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed a special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the floating armory, which is docked in the Southern Galle Port.

The operations by Avant Garde were deemed illegal and Sirisena went on to revoke several agreements signed between Avant Garde and Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited, a Sri Lanka Government-owned business which comes under the purview of the ministry of defence (during Rajapaksa’s regime), and hand back all maritime security matters to the Sri Lanka Navy.

Addressing a news conference in Colombo on November 11, government spokesman and minister Rajitha Senaratne said the President has also instructed the Inspector General of Police to carry out a comprehensive investigation with the support of the Attorney General’s department about possible corruption and illegal activities related to the company, and take strict action against the wrong-doers.

The government spokesman said a number of activities carried out by the private maritime security firm were deemed highly suspicious and illegal.

Despite various accusations, Avant Garde Maritime Services says it has always conformed to national and international laws and therefore the accusations on the company are baseless.

Meanwhile, while the special Commission of Inquiry obtained statements from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several other senior government ministers have also come under flak from various quarters including opposition parliamentarians for allegedly trying to shield the controversial company.

The Avant Garde Maritime Services website discloses that it operates three floating armories, strategically placed in 3 key locations around the High Risk Area (HRA) in the Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and Galle, Sri Lanka.

Leader of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Anura Kumara Dissanayake told Parliament that the government was not paying enough attention to the matter and also accused ministers of trying to cover up and protect the company. Sri Lanka’s justice Minister Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe has also been accused of siding with the company, an accusation he has flatly denied.

Several other ministers in the government including power and renewable energy deputy Minister Ajith Perera had gone on to say that the Avant Garde investigation was moving at a slower pace than other cases.

In another development, three ministers in the current coalition government have written to the IGP asking him to investigate allegations made against them by the chairman of Avant Garde, Nissanka Senadhipathi.

The chairman claimed that Minister of Health Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Ports and Shipping Arjuna Ranatunga and Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka had solicited bribes which he had refused to pay.

In a letter addressed to the IGP on November 24, the ministers said the allegations were baseless and that their credibility has been tarnished after Senadhipathi’s accusation.

In the meantime, India’s Hindu newspaper in an article (‘MV Avant Garde raises alarm in India’ Nov. 20) quoted Lt. Gen. (Retired) Prakash Katoch, a veteran of special military operations, as saying that the vessel’s route through the territorial waters of India was disturbing.

Katoch said Sri Lanka should take India into confidence so that the destination and real intentions behind the boat’s cargo and the details of the Avant Garde Maritime Services are known to India.

“The presence of such a large number of arms on a single ship is unusual and naturally raises suspicion. India should ask Sri Lanka for whom were these arms exactly meant for,” he reportedly said.

Munza Mushtaq is a senior journalist based in Sri Lanka, and former news editor of The Nation and The Sunday Leader newspapers.

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