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Sri Lanka: Gotabaya Credits Ranil for Law and Order Restoration

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Sri Lanka's former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, presenting his national statement during the World Leaders' Summit at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain November 1, 2021.

By the time President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had arrived in Singapore in the second week of July 2022, a few days after fleeing Sri Lanka, he firmly believed that then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was the only person capable of restoring the rule of law in the country.

In the chapter titled ‘The Politics of Regime Change’ in the recently launched ‘The Conspiracy’ that dealt with the circumstances leading to his ouster in July, 2022, Gotabaya Rajapaksa concedes recognizing the UNP leader as the ideal person to overcome, what he called, mob rule.

President Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister on May 12, 2022, after SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and SJB Chairman Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka declined to accept the premiership.

In spite of knowing that Wickremesinghe backed the sustained protest campaign that was launched on March 31, 2022, against him, Gotabaya Rajapaksa appeared to have had no qualms in handing over the country’s leadership and the all-powerful Presidency to the UNP leader.

Many an eye brow was raised when two UNPers/SJBers, Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando, who repeatedly accused the President of orchestrating the Easter Sunday carnage in April 2019, received key ministerial portfolios. They were the only SJB lawmakers who switched allegiance to Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Wickremesinghe’s behest, though interested parties propagated the lie that a large section of the main Opposition party would join the then government with an unknown future.

What really influenced Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s thinking that Wickremesinghe could restore law and order, after his own pathetic failure as the Minister of Defence, Commander-in-Chief of the war-winning armed forces, and the head of the National Security Council to thwart an unprecedented public protest campaign, was obviously engineered from both within and outside.

The author disclosed the disagreement between him and leaders of political parties represented in Parliament and the Committee on Parliamentary Business over the appointment of Wickremesinghe as the Acting President.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t mince his words when he declared that those represented in Parliament wanted Wickremesinghe to resign in a bid to appease the mobs. Gotabaya Rajapaksa seemed to have commended Wickremesinghe’s stand that he wouldn’t resign until a new government took over.

The decision on the part of the ruling SLPP to elect Wickremesinghe as the 8th President on July 20, 2022, should be examined taking into consideration Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s assertion that the UNP leader should be his successor.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa must have felt relieved when Wickremesinghe cleared government buildings of unruly elements occupying them, within 24 hours after being appointed President to complete the remainder of his predecessor’s five-year term. Those who were threatening to lay down their lives for a system change, while wrapping themselves in the national flag, simply melted away as if on cue, proving that it was all a charade.

Regardless of various machinations at different levels, the SLPP obviously had no option but to endorse Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s choice of Ranil as the President. A consensus between the SLPP and Rajapaksa who hadn’t at least obtained party membership caused a debilitating division of the party. A section, led by SLPP Chairman Prof. G. L. Peiris and Dullas Alahapperuma, switched their allegiance to the SJB and the former in turn voted for Alahapperuma at the presidential contest in Parliament. As Gotabaya Rajapaksa desired, Wickremesinghe emerged the winner by receiving 134 votes (including his own as the only UNP National List MP), Alahapperuma received 82, whereas JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake obtained just three votes.

Those who have read National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s ‘Nine: The hidden Story’ and award-winning writer Sena Thoradeniya’s ‘Galle Face Protest: Systems Change or Anarchy?, would find the ex-President’s narrative somewhat contradictory, pertaining to Wickremesinghe’s role during the protest campaign and after.

The ex-President and Messrs. Weerawansa and Thoradeniya differed sharply on the role played by the then Under Secretary of Political Affairs of the US State Department, Victoria Nuland, here. Neo-con Nuland, widely blamed for a high profile but seriously flawed US project in Ukraine that finally forced Russia to send in her Army, ironically received Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s commendation. Maybe it is all due to him still being a political neophyte.

Actually, the former President owed an explanation why he viewed his meeting with Nuland on March 22, 2022 on a positive note against the backdrop of accusations of the role played by the US in the overall operation. Both Weerawansa and Thoradeniya detailed repeated US interventions that deprived the government of an opportunity to suppress the violent public protest campaign that confounded problems.

However, all three found fault with the Bar Association for promoting mobs hell-bent on regime change.

Chung’s move

The former leader conveniently refrained from commenting on US Ambassador Julie Chung’s effort to convince Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to accept the presidency temporarily.

Speaker Abeywardena has never contradicted the accusations made by lawmaker Weerawansa and Thoradeniya though Ambassador Chung denied meeting the Speaker at his official residence on July 09, 2022, to make the unprecedented offer, a blatant act of interference in a sovereign state.

Why did Gotabaya Rajapaksa choose to remain silent on one of the most crucial issues that directly tied the Biden administration with the regime change operation in Sri Lanka?

Many found fault with Gotabaya Rajapaksa for alleging a Western role in the protest campaign that forced him out of office. Those skeptical of Western interventions here must be reminded how the US State Department report in 2016 declared how they spent USD 585 mn in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nigeria to restore democracy (meaning bringing about regime change to suit their agenda) in 2014/2015. And former Secretary of State John Kerry even openly crowed about it in public.

The US Embassy here declined to provide a breakdown of the allocation of USD 585 mn. The then MPs Kanchana Wijesekera and Shehan Semasinghe raised this issue but Sri Lanka never made a genuine effort to examine foreign interventions.

Thanks to Wikileaks, we know how the US, though unsuccessfully, intervened to help retired General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential elections. After having accused Fonseka’s Army of killing thousands of Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front, the US had no compunctions in getting the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to throw its full weight behind the war-winning Army Commander, who turned against his own Commander in Chief and the country’s sitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa no sooner the war ended, as it served Washington’s vile interests and his future ambitions.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa referred to external interventions here and exposure of their sordid operations in various parts of the world but, unfortunately, refrained from giving at least a few examples.

Another key omission in the book was the US refusal to issue Gotabaya Rajapaksa a visa after he decided to give up the presidency. The US refusal certainly revealed their hand in the operation here. Therefore, the author’s accusation regarding Indian interference should be examined in the proper context, taking into consideration the US-India common strategy pertaining to Sri Lanka.

Having reached the Maldives at around 3 am on July 12, 2022, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had wanted to leave for Singapore in a private plane but was forced to change plans due to Indian interference. Don’t forget that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t resigned and wanted to fly from the Maldives to Singapore as the President. He was accompanied by wife Iyoma and two bodyguards. This is what Gotabaya Rajapaksa said about Indian action: “The plan was to fly to Singapore in a private plane but Indian authorities had not allowed this private plane to fly to Male.”

Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as the Acting President while he was in the Maldives but took a firm decision to give the UNP leader the responsibility to complete the remainder of his term after he arrived in Singapore.

Who could have been keen to protect Gotabaya Rajapaksa as claimed by the author that he received an assurance from a major foreign power to ensure uninterrupted supply of essentials. But his great phobia of the combined power of the West and India perhaps prevented him from taking up that offer.

Failure of the armed forces

The author without hesitation found fault with Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Shavendra Silva, and Director of State Intelligence Service (SIS) Suresh Sallay for the security crisis that forced him out of office. The ex-President was not so harsh on the police.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa dealt with the issue in the chapter, titled ‘The Law and Order Debacle.’

The failure on the part of the armed forces and police on May 09/10, 2022, and July 09, 2022, should be carefully examined against the backdrop of how the government had handled the Rambukkana shooting on April 19, 2022.

It was the first police shooting since the almost daily protests began on March 31, 2022. Regardless of the police maintaining that they had no option but to open fire to prevent protesters from setting fire to a fuel bowser in Rambukkana town, the government gave in.

Ambassador Chung and the then UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy urged restraint from all sides and called on the authorities to ensure the people’s right to peaceful protest. Chung also called for an independent investigation into the shooting that claimed the life of one person. Nearly two dozen policemen and protesters received injuries.

The diplomats and the government ignored that the police had no alternative but to open fire to prevent protesters from setting the fuel bowser placed across the railway line there ablaze.

The government fell into the classic trap in trying to please the Western critics, when senior officer at the scene SSP, Kegalle, K.B. Keerthiratne, was arrested and remanded along with three other police personnel, despite them having done their job dutifully to avert a disaster and that callous act of the then government alone would have disheartened all police personnel, as well as the military, from doing their duty thereafter. The government response obviously had a demoralizing effect not only on the police but on the armed forces, as well.

No one in the government bothered to examine the circumstances the police opened fire in Rambukkana. Perhaps, the political leadership felt the situation could have been brought under control by appeasing the mobs. The arresting of policemen who, at the risk to their lives, thwarted the protesters’ bid to set fire to a fuel bowser there, must have caused apprehension among the police and armed forces. It was the first strategical lapse on the part of the government. The government’s failure, in a way, gave a turbo boost to the protest campaign.

The former President didn’t examine that issue at all though he simply mentioned the Rambukkana incident.

President Rajapaksa’s failure to thwart the Temple Trees project to somehow save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership created an environment conducive for the enemy camp, an opportunity they immediately capitalized on to unleash terror attacks against government politicians and their close supporters across the country, especially in torching all their personal belongings that they had acquired over a lifetime.

TT operation goes awry

Temple Trees brought in a huge crowd on the morning of May 09, 2022, on the pretext of felicitating the outgoing Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa though the actual plan was to unleash them on the protesters besieging Temple Trees and at Galle Face.

The police and the military didn’t intervene, thereby allowing the SLPP goons to go on the rampage. That was because it was considered a Temple Trees operation.

What they didn’t expect was a swift unprecedented readymade countrywide retaliation. The police and armed forces simply watched. No one dared to order the police, or troops, to open fire. Back of their minds must have been former Kegalle SSP Keerthiratne’s predicament who was languishing in jail at that time.

The killing of SLPP Polonnaruwa MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard in Nittambuwa town, several hours after the goons attack on Galle Face protesters, could have been averted if the police, backed by troops, intervened. Unfortunately they didn’t. Atukorale was on his way home after attending the Temple Trees meeting. Obviously, it was no spontaneous case of general public venting their anger as the entire thing was staged with very specific intelligence right across the country.

The gradual build-up against the President’s House should be viewed against the backdrop of the Rambukkana incident and violence on May 09/10, 2022 during which mobs even targeted senior police officers in Colombo.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa disclosed that in the run-up to the March 31, 2022, protest, outside his Mirihana residence, some members of the Rajapaksa family, during a powwow, proposed that except him and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa all other members holding positions in the government should resign. Chamal Rajapaksa, his son, Shashindra and Namal had declared their readiness to resign while assuring they would convince the then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa also to do so. Obviously Basil Rajapaksa dismissed the idea though the author refrained from saying so.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appeared to have accepted the proposal made by Chamal, Shashindra and Namal that resignation of all Rajapaksas, except him and the Premier, could ease pressure on the government. Unfortunately, they have failed to realize that quite a number of parliamentary group members, too, felt that Mahinda Rajapaksa should give up the premiership. Had that happened at an early stage, perhaps the SLPP could have addressed some of the growing public concerns. But, Temple Trees launched an operation of its own in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa as it tried in vain to consolidate the rapidly declining popularity of the warwinning President.

Dispute with Church and other matters

The author’s claim that he couldn’t comprehend why Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the Catholic Church went against him, after his triumph at the 2019 presidential poll, is quite surprising.

Although the ex-President called the Cardinal’s conduct a mystery, the Church has repeatedly declared that it only demanded the implementation of the recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that inquired into the Easter Sunday carnage.

The author quoted the then Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, as having told him that action couldn’t be taken on the basis of the findings/recommendations of the PCoI. Against the backdrop of the former President’s claim, the public have a right to know what the AG meant by that there was a grand conspiracy behind the Easter carnage. With Indians and others knowing of the entire plot in detail well in advance to even warn their local law enforcement counterparts, it appears Zahran and his followers were mere puppets dancing to the tune of their puppet master operating from abroad.

The Easter Sunday issue was dealt quite intensively with the author questioning the accusations directed at him that he used Muslim suicide bombers to create conditions conducive for him while accusing him of him being anti-Muslim due to alleged association with Bodu Bala Sena since President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. That argument certainly holds water. But Bodu Bala Sena, too ,was an obvious plot hatched by the West. After they went on a worldwide tour that included Washingtom, where its leader obtained a four-year American visa and it concluded in Oslo, Norway. And no sooner they returned to Sri Lanka they started agitating against Muslim extremists, while at the same time the West was winding up that community about excesses of Rajapaksas against their community, albeit with the help of BBS. What a winning formula!

Presidential aspirant Dilith Jayaweera is one of those who accused the Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Basil Rajapaksa and other members of the Rajapaksa family creating an extremely unfavourable environment for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. However, Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t really comment on the issue while leaving out the sugar scam that caused immense harm to his government within two months after the last parliamentary election.

The former President seemed to have disregarded the Supreme Court ruling on the ruination of the national economy as he strongly defended the handling of the economy by his team of experts.

However, it would be necessary to remind the former President that ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila didn’t drift away as he mentioned but were sacked by him over the controversy regarding the finalization of the Kerawalapitiya deal in Sept 2021. Weerawansa made a desperate effort to pressure the SLPP to accommodate the President in its hierarchy by creating a special position for him. One of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s main complaints was that in spite of being President, he lacked political authority.

Shamindra Ferdinando

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

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