How Ranil Pre-empted a Coup Attempt by Mahinda and Facilitated a Peaceful Transfer of Power to Maithripala

PM Ranil WickramasingheBy The “Sunday Times”Political Editor

Millions of Sri Lankans learnt only by late Friday morning that the major thrust by Opposition political parties brought an end to the near ten year rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As the counting began in centres countrywide after polls ended on Thursday, families and friends sat around their television sets for the results. There was fear in the minds of most.

Only a day earlier, in the main cities, shops and supermarkets were crowded by people panic buying stocks of food to cope with a possible post-poll curfew on Friday, marred by violent incidents. There was no cause for such a move. The reason – there were brave men in the security forces, the judiciary, the Department of Elections and other establishments — who literally placed their lives on the line of fire to make a free poll possible.

Yet, the week was fraught with fear among those who wanted a change for Sri Lanka — the leaders who formed the National Democratic Front (NDF). Barely a day passed without reports, some credible, that smaller but powerful sections in the military were plotting to resort to unlawful methods with their likeminded political bosses for whom force superseded any respect for the rule of law.

In one instance, legal advice was sought on whether the announcement of results could be suspended to pave the way for Rajapaksa to continue to remain in office. At least two ministers were strongly opposed to the move. “We were on the fringe of a pre-poll coup of sorts,” said a leading attorney who was concerned over what was going on.

If most Sri Lankans were unaware of all this, they were still conscious that Thursday’s presidential poll came amid one of the most acrimonious and vicious campaigns by state-run media. For them, all the Opposition leaders were “traitors.” “rapists” or simply “crooks.” That included Maithripala Sirisena, now the sixth Executive President of the Republic of Sri Lanka. If Rajapaksa, who assumed the presidency in 2005, promised the nation a new media culture, nearly ten years later, this is what it had spawned. That is amid a frightening fear psychosis where media practitioners also became censors of what they wrote. Those considered sacrosanct because of the unbridled power they wielded could not be subjected to any criticism for fear of reprisals. The issue was serious enough for President Sirisena to tell the nation, in his very first address from Independence Square after taking his oaths on Friday, that he faced the worst form of character assassination from the state media.

That the lapdogs and their laptops (or i-Pads) were used to paint anyone with a dissenting view black became a culture. Even daily special radio programmes indulged in this despicable propaganda. Worse enough, on polls day the national broadcaster Rupavahini gave so-called breaking news that UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa had joined the UPFA Government. A courageous Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, who withstood many a pressure and earned the ire of some UPFA top leaders, drove up to Rupavahini offices to warn that he would order the shut down of the transmissions. Within two hours, a correction issued by Mr. Premadasa was read out and an apology made by Rupavahini. After noon on Friday the same SLRC was singing all the virtues of President Sirisena.

It is against this backdrop that a string of events which many Sri Lankans are unaware played out. The most stirring chapter was when the official results were being announced. The UPFA leaders had their own ‘Operations Room’ at Temple Trees to monitor results. Similarly, there was one at Siri Kotha, the headquarters of the United National Party (UNP), the main partner in the National Democratic Front (NDF) coalition. Their respective agents were among those at the Counting Centres. They gave regular calls on their mobile telephones to their respective ops rooms about the voting trends. Hours ahead of dawn on Friday, it became clear that President Rajapaksa was going to lose. The agents reported that the vote counts of Rajapaksa could not match that of Sirisena.

It was around 4.30 a.m. Friday when President Rajapaksa, who until hours earlier was the most powerful man in Sri Lanka, telephoned UNP National Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. When he began to speak, Wickremesinghe said it would be better if he drove to Temple Trees and met Rajapaksa personally. The UNP leader informed Sirisena and other NDF leaders and drove there. Security men opened the gates and he had reached the inner sanctorum after driving past three different barriers. A sight that surprised Wickremesinghe was the presence in Temple Trees of Chief Justice 44 Mohan Peiris, that too before the crack of dawn when polls results were still coming.

There, a discussion ensued. Talking to Wickremesinghe was Rajapaksa, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former President, according to a UPFA source, alleged that his predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, now a key player in the NDF had made some reportedly serious remarks at a cocktail party hosted by a Colombo based diplomatic mission. She had, he claimed, said that Rajapaksa and his brothers would soon be placed under arrest because they had allegedly detailed troops from a ‘favourite regiment’ of a defence official to carry out “illegal tasks.” Kumaratunga was to later deny the purported accusations when she discussed the issue with NDF leaders.

This is where Wickremesinghe, who has long maintained a working dialogue with Rajapaksa and more so in the past weeks over election related matters, turned a Henry Kissinger of sorts. He said he could on behalf of the NDF assure “full protection to Rajapaksa and members of his family” if they would help in a smooth transition of power where Sirisena could take over. Talks led to the evolving of a formula. Security measures, including President Rajapaksa’s present personal protection details which he had sought would be allowed to remain.

In addition, a protection unit will also be assigned to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa asked for the use of ‘Acland House’, the stage guest house located opposite JAIC Hilton at Kompannavidiya, as his official residence, in accordance with the Constitution. He said that ‘Acland House’ had an outer perimeter that would ensure his security. He told Wickremesinghe he gave political leadership for the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had therefore remained an important target since then.

The other topic of discussion was about former General Sarath Fonseka, the man who led troops to victory. President Rajapaksa wanted to ensure that Fonseka was not allowed in any way to harass him, his family, particularly brother Gotabaya. This was amidst Fonseka’s own agreement with NDF leader Sirisena that he would be restored all his ranks and other perks, withdrawn by Rajapaksa (as Minister of Defence), promoted as Field Marshal and his request that he be made at least the Deputy Minister of Defence. Constitutionally, the President must be the defence Minister according to an earlier interpretation of the Constitution by the Sarath Silva Supreme Court.

This indeed is a tragic irony. The pre-dawn discussion at Temple Trees centred on the one time Commander of the Army, who Rajapaksa described as the “best in the world” after the Tiger guerrillas were militarily defeated. Until then, the Rajapaksa administration including Defence Secretary Gotabaya stoutly defended accusations against Fonseka over alleged ‘illegal’ actions outside his official responsibilities. Now, the Rajapaksas were seeking protection from their own one time Army Commander, the man whom they promoted and encouraged — and then stripped of his rank, medals and honour. Wickremesinghe was to defend Fonseka and assure President Rajapaksa that there need be no fear since that would not happen.

Wickremesinghe also said that it was President Rajapaksa who had invited Pope Francis to visit Sri Lanka. Moreover, the first lady Shiranthi was a Catholic. Therefore, he said, he should receive the Holy Father when he arrives on Tuesday.

The meeting took place in the conference area that adjoins the main ‘Temple Trees’ building. As he was leaving following the discussions on the transition of power, and Wickremesinghe had got into his car, he received a telephone call on his mobile phone. President Rajapaksa was walking across the pathway to the main building after seeing Wickremesinghe off. Wickremesinghe then alighted from his parked car and beckoned to Rajapaksa. It was Sirisena on the line.

Wickremesinghe gave his mobile phone to Rajapaksa. He had told Sirisena about Rajapaksa’s request for the use of ‘Acland House’. Sirisena explained to Rajapaksa that his request for the use of ‘Acland House’ for his residence in Colombo could not be granted. He said that building was required for other purposes. Hence, a suitable bungalow would be found for his use.

President Rajapaksa decided to put down his requests in writing. One was to continue to retain 11 Sri Lanka Navy drivers for use by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was catching up on his sleep on Friday afternoon at his official residence at Bauddhaloka Mawatha when websites claimed he had fled the country. This letter was addressed to the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development and dated January 9 though a person had not been named to that office.

It was announced yesterday that B.M.U.D.Basnayake, will be the new Defence Secretary. He was earlier Secretary to the Ministry of Environment and Renewable Energy. It has been signed by a Colonel R.M. Ranasinghe. In addition the personnel of the President’s Guard have been retained by President Rajapaksa while his brother Gotabaya continues to have a detail from the Commando Regiment of the Army.

President Rajapaksa also sent in a letter requesting that two helicopters be made available for him on Friday (January 9) at 1.30 p.m. to fly to his private residence at Tangalle. Wickremesinghe contacted the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) which placed two Russian built Mi-17 helicopters for the flight which took off from the Defence Ministry grounds separated from the Presidential Secretariat by the Beira Lake.
At 6.30 a.m. on Friday, Rajapaksa said his farewells at ‘Temple Trees’ to weeping personal staff and drove out in one of his bullet proof BMWs to the Janadipathi Mandiraya (President’s House) in Fort.

There, staff were helping his son Yoshitha, a naval officer, pack a collection of souvenirs. Earlier, President Rajapaksa had issued orders decommissioning his son from being a Lieutenant in the Sri Lanka Navy. Other staffers were also packing household items. Rajapaksa sat there receiving a small coterie of visitors. They included Western Provincial Council (WPC) Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, Lakshman Hulugalle, now Deputy High Commissioner in Australia, Kshenuka Seneviratne, External Affairs Ministry Secretary, Majintha Jayasinghe, Additional Secretary in the EAM, Gamini Senarath, President’s Chief of Staff, Bandula Padma Kumara, Chairman of Lake House and Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera.

Padma Kumara told Rajapaksa that Karunaratne Paranavithana who was in Sirisena’s media team (having crossed over from UPFA) had wanted him and the board of directors to continue in office. However he resigned on Friday. Paranavithana had also reportedly told him that he would become the Secretary of the Media Ministry. Rajapaksa told a visitor that he lost the polls because Muslims and Tamils had voted against him. He said among them, the Muslims had voted most against him.

During another brief conversation, he asked one of them “Mokkada Hitthaney? Mang parliamenthuwata avanang? (What do you think if I come to Parliament). He then added “Ey Gaaney nathnam pakshey allaa ganee neda? (Otherwise that women will capture the party, won’t she?) he asked. He was alluding to the prospects of his predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga taking control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). That again seemed ironic. Rajapaksa has been engaged in a power struggles with Kumaratunga even before he became President in 2005. It was a long verbal war of attrition between the two. Once he assumed office, in what was seen as a move to oust Kumaratunga, his supporters moved a resolution at the party – that the President, if he is from the SLFP, should also be President of the party.

That effectively saw the exit of Kumaratunga as President of the SLFP and being given the ceremonial office of Patron. By that resolution, it would now mean that Sirisena could stake his claims to the SLFP presidency. Even if he does not, the centre of political gravity has now shifted to the Kumaratunga-Sirisena combo and most MPs aspiring to become SLFP candidates at a future parliamentary election would turn to her. That would be a double blow to Rajapaksa. Being ousted as President, he faces the fearsome prospect of being isolated in his own party.

The departure from Janadipathi Mandiraya was an emotional one. Soldiers there came before Rajapaksa, stood to attention and saluted him. Some had tears pouring down their cheeks. In a pensive mood, he told one of his visitors that Sirisena won because the Muslim and Tamil minorities had voted in large numbers for him. He opined that there were more Muslim votes including from the Colombo district and that was clear from the results. Having made those remarks, he twisted his lower lip and stared at the ceiling for a while, said one eyewitness. Before leaving the historic premises, he walked around in the garden stopping at some places and looking at the surroundings, even a bird cage. No one knew what he was thinking. Then he boarded the BMW and drove to a rather poorly attended meeting of the Government Parliamentary Group at the Presidential Secretariat. Only yards away, workmen were putting the finishing touches to structures for the visit by Pope Francis, a glory Rajapaksa wanted to crown himself with. Arrangements were also underway in his home turf of Weeraketiya for the National Day on February 4 but the venue is now likely to be changed.

Rajapaksa’s feelings after a bitter defeat and his possible political future emerged at the remarks he made at the parliamentary group meeting. There, he moved a resolution that members of the group should remain united and face the political challenges of the future. A Minister who was present but did not wish to be identified declared, “He has plans to remain in active politics by having control of the party. Hence, he moved the resolution.” UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha was not present at the meeting. However, earlier on Friday, he represented Rajapaksa when Elections Commissioner Deshapriya officially announced the results. Premajayantha congratulated Sirisena and had a brief conversation where the latter said they would meet again. With that over, Rajapaksa and his immediate family took the SLAF chopper ride to Tangalle.

In Colombo, Sirisena was encountering a problem. He had requested the Rajapaksa Cabinet of ministers to send in their letters of resignation. This was to pave the way for a new Cabinet. However, Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, who at first agreed had refused to do so. He had told interlocutors that if Sirisena wanted, he could remove him from office. This is exactly what Sirisena did. Obtaining legal advice of his powers under the Constitution, Sirisena wrote to Jayaratne informing him that he had been removed as Prime Minister. This paved the way for Sirisena to appoint Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister in accordance to the original plan with the joint Opposition.

Wickremesinghe’s lawyers had in the meantime contacted Justice K. Sripavan to administer Sirisena’s oaths at the auspicious time of 6.21 pm on Friday and the venue was picked as Independence Square. Under the Constitution a President can take his oath of office before any Supreme Court judge and not necessarily the Chief Justice. There already was precedence where President J.R. Jayewardene took his oaths for his second term before Justice Parinda Ranasinghe because he was having strong disagreements with then Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon, whom he later pushed out of office.

Justice Sripavan was described as “the senior-most Supreme Court judge”. This was seen as an exclusion of Chief Justice 44 Mohan Peiris, the nominee of President Rajapaksa, following the controversial impeachment of Chief Justice 43 Shirani Bandaranayake. Immediately after swearing-in, President Sirisena’s first act was to swear-in Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister, also at Independence Square.
Barely an hour after the swearing in, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena were among NDF leaders who discussed cabinet formation. A decision on the team is not expected until the coming week. Today the duo will leave for Kandy to visit Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth and also call on the Mahanayake Theras. Sirisena will address the nation from there.

Just a week ahead of Thursday’s presidential poll, the spectre of a possible military involvement by some personnel at the behest of an official was cause for concern for Opposition leaders. So much so, Wickremesinghe telephoned the Army Commander, Lieutenant General Daya Ratnayake, to urge that troops be prevented from engaging in any ‘illegal activity.’ He also telephoned Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon, whose department came in for considerable praise for enforcing the law despite pressures from former IGP Mahinda Balasuriya, who was brought in on the eve of the election as Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order in place of Maj-Gen. Nanda Mallawarachchi (Ret.), to ensure there was calm.

The NDF Secretary, Shyamala Perera, wrote a string of strong letters to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya. One dated January 7 (a day before the polls) alleged that retired security forces officers with the help of those serving in neighbouring camps were planning to interfere in polling. She said the NDF had reliable information that it was to take place at polling centres in Thoppur, Kinniya, Verugal and Mutur.

In another letter dated January 5, the NDF Secretary listed 14 different polling booths in the Jaffna peninsula where they had “credible information” about attempts to disrupt polling. Deshapriya raised issue with the security forces. Police Chief Ilangakoon directed Ravi Waidyalankara, DIG (Jaffna), to adopt immediate preventive measures. Similar calls also went to the Police in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts.

But what raised alarm were moves for troop deployment even ahead of the polls. It is customary that troops are engaged to help the Police under accepted procedures. Main among them is the requirement that they come on the streets only after the polling ends. Deployment of the required number of troops is sought by the Inspector General of Police on the basis of the numbers of his men he engages for polls work. It also receives the concurrence of the Commissioner of Elections. Commissioner Deshapriya was livid that an operational order had been issued by the Joint Operations Headquarters wherein the different strengths to be deployed in different towns were specified.

It had been signed by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Jagath Jayasuriya. A Police Headquarters source said the IGP had not been consulted about the planned early troop deployment, which, it was feared, would in the least create a coercive atmosphere among voters. A military spokesperson tried to justify the move by saying important installations had to be guarded. However, the question did arise why such guards were only taking position just for the polls day and before.

Commissioner Deshapriya insisted that no troop deployment should take place until the polls closed at 4 p.m. on Friday. He also urged that adequate protection be given to counting centres so the work there is not interrupted. Even if he earned the wrath of some at the highest levels of the UPFA, Deshapriya and his team earned plaudits from those who were aware of what was going on including senior security forces officials. In fact, some of them kept the relevant authorities always briefed.

Similarly, a large number of police personnel, ranging from senior officers to constables, did their duty without fear though some worked as appendages of the UPFA machinery. It was well known that during the campaign, Deputy Minister Nishantha Muttuhettigama forcibly secured the release of arson suspects who had burned an Opposition election platform. Despite an open warrant, he was on a stage singing and later flew to Singapore. Another Deputy Minister (Premlal Jayasekera) opened fire at an Opposition crowd in Kahawatte. One of those present died in hospital. The Deputy Minister who was evading arrest after Police obtained an arrest warrant and impounded his passport, was arrested at Alutgama yesterday.

Some Police officers have recorded instances where they claim Law and Order Ministry Secretary (former IGP) Balasuriya had issued what they call illegal orders to them. In another instance, in a bid to swing votes at the eleventh hour, a programme titled Janadipathi Janahamuwa (a People’s meeting with the President) was to be aired on most television channels including Rupavahini and ITN from 10 pm to midnight on Monday January 5th, the last day for campaigning. All time slots were reserved by campaign staff of Rajapaksa thus denying any possible responses from the Opposition. The vote swinger programme was to present Rajapaksa, his ministers and other top officials to field questions from viewers, an exercise that had caught the Opposition off-guard in 2010.

That morning, President’s Counsel Ronald Perera, a member of the UNP Working Committee, swung into action moving for, and obtaining an enjoining order from the Kaduwela District Judge Vasantha Jinadasa stopping this programme from being telecast. After fiscal officers found it difficult to serve the order since the gates to the two state broadcasters were closed, the enjoining order was faxed. Judge Jinadasa, had been unanimously elected as President of the Judicial Officers Association only a fortnight ago.

The order banned “any other programme” also from being telecast as Sirisena had told Perera that there was also to be an address to the nation by President Rajapaksa during the 48 hour ‘silent period’ during which campaigning is banned. The ban applied to Swarnavahini and Derana stations also which were also prevented from giving the cassette to other stations. Judge Jinadasa held that the denial of an equal opportunity for the rival candidate was a violation of the media guidelines set by the Commissioner of Elections.

Rajapaksa’s counsel then tried to have the order overturned by the Civil Appellate High Court in Hulftsdorp where High Court Judges Leon Seneviratne and Ruwan Fernando were sitting. Perera took up legal arguments and said that the matter should also have been canvassed in the original court. The higher court rejected the appeal and Rajapaksa’s Counsel went back to the Kaduwela court. In the meantime, Judge Jinadasa had received telephone calls from an official of the Judicial Services Commission and a very senior Supreme Court judge to tilt the scales in favour of the Rajapaksa camp.
Contingency measures were taken by the UPFA team to go to the Supreme Court, where they were assured of a fair and acceptable hearing if the Kaduwela court rejected their appeal. Instead, Judge Jinadasa fixed hearing for January 12th (tomorrow), where the case will now be of academic interest putting paid to a desperate bid by the Rajapaksa camp to swing any last minute ‘floating voters’.

A detailed statistical analysis of the voting figures will reveal the many facets of the patterns or the lines on which the main contenders fared during Thursday’s polls. It reveals that Sirisena’s victory is largely made up of Tamil and Muslim votes. By Rajapaksa’s own admission, they were mostly Muslim votes. The turning point for the Muslims to oppose the Rajapaksa Government came after the incidents in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Beruwala and surrounding areas in June last year. That same animosity extended to Muslim areas in the south, east and even the Colombo District. Yet, in areas regarded as Sinhala majority constituencies, Sirisena trailed behind Rajapaksa mostly by smaller margins, a development that showed he was beneficiary of the Sinhala votes too. The turnout at Thursday’s poll was a relatively high 81.52 per cent. Rajapaksa won in 90 of the 160 electorates and in 10 of the 22 districts. However, he failed to gain sufficient majorities for an outright win. Sirisena, won in 70 electorates and 12 districts, but still managed to reach the required rate to be elected as the President. He received 51.28 per cent or more than 6.2 million of the votes while Rajapaksa received 47.58 per cent or more than 5.7 million of the votes.

This eventually gave Sirisena a victory by a majority of 449,072 votes or 3.7 per cent. Rajapaksa secured victories mainly in districts which have a majority of Sinhalese voters. They were Kalutara, Matale, Kurunegala, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Galle, Matara and Hambantota districts. But in some instances, like in the case of the Kurunegala District, the majority was narrowed compared to the 2010 presidential polls.

In contrast, Sirisena mostly won in districts which have a majority of minority voters or where there is a mixed population. They included Colombo, Wanni, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Digamadulla, Badulla, Puttalam, Batticaloa and NuwaraEliya. In addition he also recorded a marginal victory in Gampaha and of course his hometown district Polonnaruwa.

In Polonnaruwa, Sirisena’s constituency, a high voter turnout of 80 per cent was recorded in 2010 as well, but the difference was that Rajapaksa received 65 per cent of these votes last time and it was Fonseka who got 33.6 per cent. In contrast this time it was Sirisena who received 62.8 of the 80 per cent and only 36.1 went for Rajapaksa.

Sirisena received 73.1 per cent in the Jaffna district where there was a turnout of 66.28 per cent. He got the highest from the Jaffna electorate with 70 per cent of the votes. Mahinda Rajapaksa obtained only 21.85 per cent. In the Wanni district too Sirisena gained 78 per cent of the votes while Rajapaksa gained only 19 per cent. Quite clearly, the support extended to Sirisena by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had paid dividends. Those who canvassed in his favour pitched their campaign by saying Rajapaksa had done little for the Tamils. Hence, why not give Sirisena a chance to see if he will.]]]

In the eastern Batticaloa district, Sirisena received the highest majority of 167,000 votes. He gained 209,422 votes while Rajapaksa won only 41,000 votes. Sirisena gained the highest votes in the Kalkudah electorate where he captured 83 per cent. He also benefited from a high turnout in the Trincomalee district where he was able to get 71 per cent against 26 per cent for Rajapaksa.

In addition to the votes from Tamil populated areas in the Eastern Province, Sirisena was able to caputure a high per cent in the Muslim predominant electorates in the Ampara (Digamadulla) district. They came from Kalmunai (89 per cent), Samanthurai (84) and Potuvil (77 per cent) whilst in the Ampara electorate Sirisena was beaten.

Sirisena’s majority was also boosted from votes in the Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya electorate where he gained a majority of 127,000 votes. The return of P. Digambaram to the UNP and the crossover of ex-minister Naveen Dissanayake to the Opposition were seen as the major reasons for the increase. The area is represented in the UPFA by former Minister Arumugam Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers Congress. However, that appears to be not the only reason. “The estate workers have complained that the Government has failed to give them a flour subsidy. This too affected them,” a trade unionist in the area said.
Thursday’s presidential election is an exercise that showed that there are still many Sri Lankans who want to stand by the law for the benefit of their people so they may live lives without fear or intimidation. The votes for Sirisena showed how they aired their grievances. There is a lesson in this for all politicians and officials — one can take the law into their hands only for sometime and not all the time.

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