Sri Lanka: Angry Sirisena and Easter Sunday fallout

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is desperate to reach a consensus with political parties in the Opposition. But the Opposition is very much reluctant to do so due to the SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena’s fickle past and now again under intense fire over the 2019 Easter Sunday attack.

11 mins read
Former president Maithripala Sirisena [File: Rishabh R Jain/AP]

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Chairman Maithripala Sirisena, MP, recently accused ousted General Secretary of the party, parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera, unceremoniously kicked out by him, of seeking to contest the next presidential election. The former President (2015-2019) claimed that the Kurunegala District lawmaker pursued political ambitions at his expense, regardless of the consequences. Therefore, as the Chairman of the Party he had no option but to thwart the conspiracy hatched by a group of conspirators.

The accusation was made during a live interview on Salakuna, anchored by Chamuditha Samarawickrema, who served the then President Sirisena as his Media Director. At one point, visibly upset Sirisena accused Samarawickrema of being part of the growing conspiracy to ruin his political career.

During the no holds barred interview, the Hiru panel relentlessly pressed the former President over his failure to prevent the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the simmering turmoil in the SLFP, with the focus on his battle with Jayasekera, and future plans. Jayasekera has been removed from the position of General Secretary and his party membership suspended at the same time.

Sirisena strongly defended repeated accusations that he caused the ruination of the SLFP from the commanding position of 144 MPs in 2010 to just one elected on the SLFP ticket at the last general election in August 2020, whereas the remaining 13, including himself, entered parliament on the SLPP ticket.

Sirisena attributed that victory to Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. The UPFA recorded a significant increase of 39 seats since the 2004 general election. The UNP-led UNF secured 60 seats, a decline of 22. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) obtained 14 seats, down from the 22 they won in 2004, and Sarath Fonseka-led DNA, contesting for the first time, won seven seats.

Responding to the Samarawickrema-led Hiru panel, Sirisena repeated a range of allegations against war-winning Army Commander Sarath Fonseka who was also accused of conspiring against the SLFP leader. Sirisena repeated accusations against Fonseka in Parliament recently that during the Army Chief’s much publicized visits to Kilinochchi during the war, the Sinha Regiment officer hid in a concrete bunker.

Perhaps the most astonishing declaration the embattled President made during that interview was his readiness to reach a consensus with UNP leader and incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sirisena indicated he was ready to cooperate with anyone as political parties sought alliances. Let me stop the comment on ‘Salakuna’ interview and examine the challenges Sirisena faced as he struggled to navigate choppy waters.

The ex-President exploded when Samarawickrema accused him of lying regarding his visit to Singapore in April 2019. The ex-presidential aide played a voice recording of Sirisena claiming that he was on holiday in Singapore soon after he told the interviewers of visiting Mount Elizabeth Hospital for a medical check-up. Saramawickrema pointed out that the bills were paid by the President’s Fund belonging to the people.

The reality is that the SLFP has been reduced to just one MP Angajan Ramanathan elected from the Jaffna district and may find it extremely difficult to finalize an agreement in time for the presidential election. Sirisena realizes the pathetic state his party is in as the seniors are keen to face the future under Wickremesinghe’s leadership. The growing criticism of Sirisena’s conduct in the run-up to the Easter Sunday carnage, and after, has caused irreparable damage to Sirisena. The bottom line is Sirisena is a liability. The SLFP cannot under any circumstances expect to reach an electoral alliance with any political party represented in Parliament as long as Sirisena remained the leader. That is the undeniable truth. Unfortunately, Sirisena seems to be in a dream world of his own incapable of comprehending the political environment or the utterly desperate situation he is in.

Kilinochchi concrete bunker

Did the Army Chief visit Kilinochchi often during the war? In spite of being a member of the Cabinet and Acting Minister of Defence on a number of occasions during the war, Sirisena seems to be clueless regarding even the basics in military strategy or what really happened. Kilinochchi, which served as the outward LTTE headquarters, where foreign and local visitors were entertained, was not liberated till January 2009. In fact, the then Lt. Gen. Fonseka hadn’t visited Kilinochchi until the Army brought the LTTE bastion under its control. He no doubt personally directed frontline operations from Colombo often bypassing many top officers in the command structure. He even had the habit of giving orders directly to small brigade-type operations led by lieutenant colonels using CDMA phones as he knew Tigers were monitoring all their radio communications. In one instance we can recall that when we reached the base camp of one such unit advancing north of Vavuniya, parallel to A-9 highway one evening, Fonseka came on line while we were meeting the lieutenant colonel leading that push and immediately attention was drawn to field maps on the improvised table there and the Army Commander without wasting any formalities started asking why they had not completed a certain task assigned to them that day, the poor Lt. Col. literally stammering said they had run into a minefield and immediately Fonseka shouted back and pointed out that there is a nearby trail used by lumber thieves and for them to advance along that to bypass the minefield. And that is how Fonseka, who knew the northern terrain like the back of his hand, won the war that many experts said was unwinnable by our security forces.

But the tragedy is that Field Marshal Fonseka has forgotten how that dream victory was made possible by the tremendous unstinted backing he had received from the then political and security forces leaderships. Earlier capable Generals like Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Wijaya Wimalaratne et al were handicapped by being sabotaged from within or having eccentric political leaderships at the apex, especially with the likes of Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, while the former was overly punctual, the latter basically had no sense of time.

A retired Special Forces officer holding middle-level rank confirmed that the Army Chief flew to Kilinochchi on the morning of April 16, 2009, along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Kilinochchi was brought under military control in the first week of January 2009. The Army Chief visited Vanni east again only after the successful conclusion of the war on May 19, 2009. Therefore, there couldn’t be any basis for Sirisena’s claim that the Army Chief sought to build his image by flying into Vanni often as that was simply not possible with a formidable enemy like the LTTE dominating Wanni, except for periodic strikes by the Army’s deep penetration units that eliminated some key Tiger leaders. After the Army Chief’s visit to Kilinochchi on April 16, 2009, the LTTE lasted less than five weeks.

The war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared in Parliament on May 19, 2009, “When I won the Presidential Election in 2005 there were LTTE police stations in the North and East. There were Tiger courts. What was missing was only a Tiger parliament. Today we have finished all that forever.”

Sirisena should be especially ashamed that he didn’t at least bother to verify such serious accusations before going public.

The SLFP cannot further delay making a proper assessment of the impact of Sirisena’s culpability as well as negligence on his part pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage. Sirisena, in addition to being the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Defence Minister, held the Public Security portfolio at the time the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) mounted a spate of suicide attacks.

In spite of repeated requests by the coalition partner UNP, Sirisena declined to swear in their nominee though he accepted Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier following the Supreme Court declaration of December 13, 2018. Sirisena hasn’t been able to explain his actions though he is bombarded with questions.

Political uncertainty caused by the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance, too, may have influenced the NTJ strategy. The Supreme Court ruled that Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament 20 months before the end of its term was unconstitutional. A full seven-judge bench unanimously declared that the President couldn’t dissolve Parliament until it completed a four-and-a-half-year term.

Sirisena’s actions should be examined taking into consideration three major developments in 2015. (1) The President being compelled to accept Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran as Governor of the Central Bank (2) Dissolution of Parliament in late June 2015 to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) from tabling special report on the first Treasury bond scam perpetrated in late February 2015, no sooner the Yahapalana government assumed office and (3) Sirisena, in his capacity as the Chairman of the SLFP delivered a knockout blow to his own party by declaring that Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed Prime Minister even if the UPFA won the election.

The last above declaration by Sisisena was meant to dishearten Mahinda supporters. The President obviously wanted to ensure the victory of those who fielded him as the common candidate at the 2015 presidential election. The coalition consisted of the UNP, TNA, JVP, SLMC and other smaller minority parties, all backed by an influential section of the civil society, well-funded by the West. Sirisena’s move restricted the UPFA total to 95 seats, including 12 National List slots whereas the UNP secured 106 seats. The UNP group included 13 National List seats. Sirisena allies TNA won 16 seats, JVP 06, EPDP 01 and SLMC 01. Today both the UNP and SLFP have been reduced to just one MP.

A debilitating setback

There is consensus among the Opposition that the SLFP cannot be part of a coalition against the backdrop of the Supreme Court ordering Sirisena to pay a sum of Rs 100 mn as compensation to the Easter Sunday victims. The apex court in a judgment delivered on January 12, 2023 ordered Sirisena, four officials and the State to pay compensation amounting to Rs. 311 million rupees.

That unprecedented move compelled the Opposition (SLPP rebels, including those in the Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya) to ask Sirisena to take the SLFP out of a coalition formed in January this year to contest indefinitely the postponed Local Government polls.

Sirisena is on record as having said that rebel SLPP lawmakers, Prof. G. L. Peiris and Dullas Alahapperuma visited him at his official residence in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling and requested him to quit the ‘Helicopter’ alliance. They wouldn’t have done so without consulting other constituents.

The ground reality is that the Opposition now found it difficult to accommodate the SLFP in a coalition at any level. The party lacked the strength to go it alone for obvious reasons. The continuing dispute between Sirisena and Jayasekera should be examined against the backdrop of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva’s success at the High Court of Civil Appeal.

The SLFPer thwarted bids made by Sirisena and Jayasekera, in their capacities as the Chairman and General Secretary of the SLFP, respectively, to prevent him from functioning as Senior Vice President of the party. Silva and the majority of those who had been elected to Parliament on the SLPP ticket, have pledged their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe. In fact, with the removal of Jayasekera, Sirisena appeared to have deprived himself of an apparatus capable of even basic organizational work.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday carnage, in its final report, made a damning recommendation pertaining to Sirisena. For some strange reason, Sirisena continued to downplay the severity of the PCoI recommendation. Declaring that Sirisena failed in his duties and responsibilities and his failure went beyond mere civil negligence, the PCoI advised the Attorney General to consider instituting criminal proceedings under any suitable provision in the Penal Code. (Final report, Vol 01, p 265).

Sirisena’s efforts to consolidate his position in the party with an eye on the next presidential election appeared to have collapsed due to the Easter Sunday fallout. Minister de Silva challenged in court the legality of constitutional amendments pertaining to the party. In his capacity as the Chairman, Sirisena sought the power to reconstitute the party Central Committee by nominating 35 members of his choice, increase the number of Vice Presidents to 14 and Senior Vice Presidents to seven. Sirisena also sought unilateral authority to remove any office bearer.

Sirisena appeared to have blundered by calling for UN intervention/assistance in the wake of Channel 4’s wild claims that the Easter Sunday carnage was facilitated by State Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) helped SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win last presidential poll conducted in November 2019. As that accusation had been made even before the presidential election, Sirisena owed the public an explanation why his party contested on the SLPP ticket at the subsequent general election held in August 2020. Sirisena appeared to have tied himself in knots with his illogical greedy strategy.

The former President lacked both time and space to address issues at hand, the latest being the accusations pertaining to the General Secretary of the party trying to oust him. Sirisena has refused to disclose the names of those involved in the alleged bid to oust him. Perhaps, Sirisena has quite conveniently forgotten how he betrayed Mahinda Rajapaksa in late 2014 just a couple of weeks before the presidential poll and morning after enjoying a sumptuous string hopper dinner with the Rajapaksas at Temple Trees.

Difficult road ahead

Sirisena needs to take stock of things. This should be done without further delay as pressure builds-up on his party to address issues arising out of the Easter Sunday carnage. The former President must realize that the party will continue to suffer as long as he remains as its leader. Wickremesinghe under any circumstances wouldn’t accept the SLFP as long as Sirisena served as its Chairman though the PCoI also strongly criticized Wickremesinghe’s own response to growing Islamic extremism here.

The PCoI observed that Wickremesinghe’s approach towards Islamic extremism was one of the primary reasons for the failure on the part of the government to neutralize the threat. Wickremesinghe’s approach facilitated the build-up of Islamic extremism and caused the Easter Sunday carnage (Final report, Vol 01, p 276-277). However, the PCoI refrained from making any specific recommendation in respect of Wickremesinghe. The Catholic Church has publicly questioned the failure on the part of the PCoI in this regard.

Of the politicians investigated by the PCoI and whose names transpired in the Easter Sunday coverage, Sirisena seems to be the only one really affected. Had Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka or a UNP member served as the Law and Order Minister at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, Sirisena could have exploited the situation. The civil society grouping that backed Sirisena’s candidature at the 2015 presidential backed Fonseka as the Law and Order Minister. Before Sirisena brought that portfolio under himself, Tilak Marapana, PC (not in active politics now), Sagala Ratnayake (Security Advisor to the incumbent President) and Ranjith Maddumabandara (General Secretary of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya) served as the Law and Order Minister.

Sirisena cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for political instability caused by the constitutional
coup that may have influenced the NTJ. The live interview with Samarawickrema has further weakened Sirisena’s position. The former President struggled to convince the interviewer that both the Presidential Security Division (PSD) and the Prime Ministerial Security Division (PMSD) hadn’t been aware of the warning given by the Indian intelligence service on April 04, 2019. But many others, like present Tourism Minister Harin Fernando, had been aware of the threat through other channels. In fact his late father had told him not to attend church on that fateful Sunday because of the pending threat. It being such an important date in the Christian calendar even many of those aware of the threat would have ignored the warning as a mere crying wolf.

The shocking revelation how SLFPer and ex-UPPA MP Shantha Bandara, in his capacity as an aide to the then President Sirisena, extended support to those who managed a factory where the suicide jackets were alleged to have been produced, further tarnished the SLFP’s image. Bandara is among the 13 SLFPers elected on the SLPP ticket in the current Parliament. Interestingly, Sirisena accommodated Bandara on the UPFA National List after M.L.A.M. Hisbullah resigned in the first week of January 2019 to receive appointment as Governor of the Eastern Province. This appointment was made just four months before the Easter Sunday blasts. Hisbullah was among those politicians who appeared before the PCoI after having been examined by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the Easter Sunday carnage. The PCoI, having asserted that Hisbullah facilitated the spread of ‘extremism within Kattankudy’ has now got back the massive building complex in the East meant to house a private Shariah University that had been built with no expenses spared, thanks to secret lavish funding from Arab donors!

Recently, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government handed back the Batticaloa University that had been brought under the military after the Easter Sunday killings to Hisbullah despite the skullduggery involved from the word go. Perhaps a separate article based on proceedings of PSC and PCoI relating to the private Batticaloa University may help those really interested in the issues at hand to understand how politics transcends ‘everything.’

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando is a Deputy Editor of a Colombo-based daily newspaper, The Island.

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