It has been now revealed that there was an attempt by the Rajapaksa Government to prevent the election results being announced on 9 January.
Although what really transpired in these fateful hours can only be known with certainty after the relevant mandated and legitimate institutions conduct a proper investigation, Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) would like to present an account of what its staff, observers and other stakeholders of the organisation observed in the late hours of 8 January and the early hours of 9 January.
Rumours of a military takeover
Two days prior to the election, several leaders of the Opposition and other reliable sources informed CaFFE that there is an attempt to deploy the Army to strategically important locations prior to the January 8 election. They claimed that they have received several documents of the said plan, leaked by officials who did not agree with the move.
On 6 January, Army units were dispatched to several strategic locations including Colombo city, Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), media institutions in Colombo and certain telecommunication towers in western and southern parts of the country.
Senior Police and Army officials informed political leaders and other election stakeholders about these developments, warning that the security forces were thus given the opportunity to deactivate all transmissions of media institutions and telecommunications towers.
The day before the election (7), one such unit, from Gajaba regiment, was sent to the Tripoli Centre, Colombo. They were sent without unspecified instructions and arrived there in civil clothing with firearms hidden inside their travelling bags. Several armed personnel carriers were deployed near the Colombo 7 residence of former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
On the same day there was a meeting at the office of Chief of Defence Staff, Jagath Jayasuriya. This was attended by senior Army and Police officers. They discussed how the Army would be deployed for ‘security purposes’ after the counting of votes began. However, senior Police officers who attended the meeting have strongly objected to what was being discussed at the meeting. A similar meeting was held on the day of the election, CaFFE was informed by various sources.
EC and IGP assert themselves
By that time Opposition leaders, election monitors and civil society actors had informed of these developments to the IGP, Elections Commissioner, foreign observers and foreign missions. The IGP and the Elections Commissioner, the two top officials regarding the holding and ensuring the security of the election, took steps to counter such a possibility.
CaFFE took up the issues with the Commissioner at a private meeting and the Commissioner assured that military deployment will not take place without his knowledge. The IGP and the DIG in charge of Elections instructed Policemen to carry out their duties according to laws and to maintain control. In addition they established a mechanism to issue direct orders to regional police chiefs, since in the weeks prior Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order has been bypassing the two men and had issued a number of orders which confused and disgusted Police officials.
Election day: Peaceful yet tense
The election day was relatively peaceful. However, CaFFE was informed of a possible attempt to smuggle in ballot boxes filled inside Kalpitiya naval base and the election monitor spoke to a number of civil society activists, journalists, foreign observers and politicians in the area to prevent that from happening. Thus on the election day thousands of people gathered near the base just before to the close of polling to prevent any irregularity from taking place.
Similar reports were heard in Trincomalee and the public kept a close eye to the naval base in the area and observers on high alert. This was a clear indication of the burning desire from the people to protect the integrity of the election.
Although CaFFE had initially deployed its observers and members of civil society groups that work with CaFFE near the naval bases, a number of concerned citizens, political party activists and others joined the CaFFE team preventing any possibility of replacing ballot boxes in Kalpitiya. We have never seen such dedication from the general public against possible election law violations. Thus, although the election day was peaceful, everyone was aware that there was a strong possibility of something ‘sensitive’ happening. In addition CaFFE noted that the public was also ready to prevent any election irregularities from happening.
Despite expectations that the military would attempt to prevent northern voters from exercising their franchise, the Army was inside the barracks on election day in the north and east. There were virtually no overt attempts to restrict people from voting in the north except for three explosions which had little impact on the voting.
Activities carried out by the Army to promote President Rajapaksa during the pre-election period was minimal on election day. This may be due to the international attention or the presence of election monitors, both local and foreign.
Counting period: Fears and expectations
Meanwhile the Police also carried out their duties efficiently, from two days prior to the election and apart from a few areas in Hambantota, Moneragala, Matara and Puttalam Districts, the junior and senior Police carried out the instructions of the Elections Department.
Policemen deployed to provide security for the counting centre at D.S. Senanayake College were ready to protect the ballot boxes and election officials under difficult circumstances. The IGP and SDIGs had by the election day had found a mechanism to override attempts to give instructions to regional policemen without consulting them.
Police officials held two press conferences on election day, one by the Police Media Spokesman and the other by the IGP, to convey the message to Police officers to maintain their grip. This was another clear indication that the Police were ready to uphold election laws. There were no incidents near counting centres or the Department of Elections until 00:30 a.m. on 9 January. However, a number of Army personnel arrived near the counting centre at DS Senanayake College, Colombo. No one was aware of which unit the soldiers were attached to and there were also rumours that armed groups were stationed near Royal College, Colombo.
Most people believed that the soldiers were attached to Gajaba Regiment, the former unit of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Reports also flooded in stating that soldiers were kept ready inside Rock House camp, Welisara naval base and Kadol Kele, Negombo. CaFFE has been informed that there were close to 1,000 soldiers, in nine detachments stationed around Colombo in uniforms and in civilian clothing.
Around 1:30 a.m. a representative of a retired senior Army official, now engaged in politics, requested CaFFE Executive Director to arrive at the Elections Department immediately. Several other representatives of political parties and a candidate who was at the Elections Department also made similar requests. Many were of the opinion that something ‘grave’ will take place.
At that moment Attorney-at-Law Champani Padmasekara, who was had represented Maithripala Sirisena for a long time, was the only representative from the UPFA stationed at the Elections Department. Many saw this as an ominous sign as usually as a number of high profile representatives of the UPFA could be found at the Department on an election night.
When the CaFFE Executive Director arrived at the Department there was a tense situation as reports were flooding in about the arrival of soldiers near DS Senanayake College. Only STF personnel in charge of security and Policemen attached to the Election Commissioner’s complaints centre were inside the Department.
Around 1:45 a.m., a senior Police official who arrived at the Department placed STF personnel at strategic positions in a bid to prepare for any potential threat in a very subtle manner without causing panic among civilians gathered at the Department.
At this point, highly-placed sources told CaFFE that a number of senior officials including the Chief Justice and Attorney General were summoned to the Temple Trees. According to information revealed by the media, the Attorney General categorically said that the President has to leave if he loses the election. There is no need for the Chief Justice to be present at the residence of a candidate when election results were being announced.
A not-so-smooth transition
After realising that he will have to hand over power, former President Rajapaksa telephoned the Commissioner of Elections. Although political parties and election monitors usually have to wait until results are announced by the media in previous elections, this time they were aware of the outcome by 2:15 a.m. on 9 January as political parties and CaFFE had representatives in all counting centres which reported the outcome to four different centres. Since election monitors were allowed in counting centres, CaFFE was aware of who had won the election by 2:37 a.m.
Coincidently, the computer system established for issuing election results at the Elections Department in Rajagiriya stopped functioning between 1:30-2:30 am. Although it is stated that it is a technical failure, there was no way to confirm what actually caused the malfunction. Fortunately the Commissioner had adequate technical and human resources to restore the system.
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived at Temple Trees a few hours later and even at that point the Chief Justice was present. There was a long discussion between Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe regarding security and it was agreed that the former President would be given two MI 17 helicopters to return to Medamulana, the home of former President Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka has always seen peaceful transactions of power through the ballot. That we would come near the verge of collapse but would pull off right at the edge of the abyss. If the EC, IGP and AG did not stand their ground and were ready to uphold the law, the days following the January 8 election would have been quite different. Thus CaFFE would like to commend and express gratitude to everyone who acted according to their conscience and upheld the laws of the land ensuring a peaceful election and a smooth transition of power. CaFFE strongly believe that a thorough investigation needs to be done regarding what transpired in the last hours of the Rajapaksa regime and that every stone should be turned to uncover the truth. The investigation should be just and impartial. The State officials present at Temple Trees in those fateful hours need to be questioned.