Controversy over tight security cordon around Colombo

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  • Troops were ready to cope with violence and  bloodletting but there was none
  • Tamil parties talk with President on interim measures but they provoke only heated exchanges
  • Uphill task for Ranil in resolving key issues relating to ethnic reconciliation based on 13th Amendment

 

By our Political Editor

Only the war with Tiger guerrillas is over. The other wars appear to continue, remarked President Ranil Wickremesinghe jokingly, during an informal chat with his advisors.

He was alluding to bickering that occurred among top brass in the defence and security establishment. The occasion was an informal discussion of last Saturday’s tough security cordon around the city of Colombo and its environs by security forces and the Police. Reports of a 1000 packets of meals ordered by university students had sparked fears of a major protest like the ones seen last year. That was to be on Sunday. Thus, troops and the Police were ready to cope with feared bloodletting and violence. There was nothing. Within some 72 hours there was a gradual withdrawal of the deployment.

It is not unusual for those in the defence and the security establishment to make assessments based on food orders. During the separatist war, intelligence officials kept a tab on bakeries in the guerrilla held north. Their attention would be triggered when an unusual volume of bread or buns was made. That made them suspect there was going to be an attack.

The 1000 packets of meals did raise questions about the ground assessment on the accuracy of reports of a crisis. If indeed there was one, the buildup of an unprecedented strength came as a deterrent and the hours passed by without incidents. Not even the shouting of slogans. So much so, when the most senior top brass met to take stock of the situation on Monday with government leaders, there was no need for a discussion. If indeed they had planned for a protest, it had fizzled out. So, they delved into other unrelated matters.

Nevertheless, the unprecedented security cordon around Colombo and the suburbs came in an interesting backdrop. After last year’s protests or aragalaya, which prompted then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country, there has been controversy over how troops and the Police acted last year. Before Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s humiliating exit from the country, was a probe he initiated. One of his primary concerns was the mob attack on his private residence in Pangiriwatte Road at Mirihana in Nugegoda. So, he named three top military officers fiercely loyal to him to a Board of Inquiry. It was headed by Fleet Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and included onetime Army Commander General Daya Ratnayake and Air Force Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke.

A tight security cover had been placed around the University of Colombo. Pic by Nilan Maligaspe

Their report was disclosed for the first time in these columns on March 5. Among other matters, it said: “Focus on the 17-page report, besides annexures, gained greater public attention after selected sections were leaked to the media. Those placed the blame on General Shavendra Silva for alleged lapses during the protests that drove Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office last year. A former Army Commander, Silva is now Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). He joined the Army on March 5, 1984, as an officer cadet in the 19th intake. He was born on June 22, 1964. In fact, as a serving military officer, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not only promoted him but also appointed him Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.”

The Board of Inquiry noted: “Although many factors contributed to this situation, the Board of Inquiry will concentrate on the military and intelligence lapses as per the terms and references. Even though the Police activities were not within the purview of this BOI, the Board was compelled to go into some of their decisions and activities that resulted in the declaration of emergency and mobilising the military to assist the Police in maintaining law and order.”

“The protest led by Hirunika Premachandra,” the Board of Inquiry said in its report, “had taken the President’s security detail by surprise.” It said: “The following day many discussions had been held including some chaired by the Defence Secretary to work out contingency plans to prevent such situations in the future. However, the contingency plans prepared were not properly executed by any intelligence agency although the peaceful protest that preceded it was known.”

“The mob activity at Mirihana had not been detected by any intelligence agency although the peaceful protest that preceded it was known. On instructions of the Secretary of Defence, the Air Force and the Navy reacted promptly and arrived at the location on time. However, it was observed that the Army had delayed in deploying their troops, which resulted in their inability to reach the required location on time due to the increasing numbers of protestors blocking the road. As a result of this, the Old Kesbewa road had been totally blocked by protestors from the directions of Mirihana and Embuldeniya.”

“The Secretary of Defence, Secretary of Public Security, Chief of Defence Staff, three Service Commanders and the IGP had rushed to the Army operations room in Akuregoda, to monitor, co-ordinate and direct operations. The mob violence escalated to a point where damage to public property took place in the form of burning a CTB bus and damaging walls and houses in the vicinity of the private residence of HE the President. At approximately 0100 hours on April 01, 2022, the STF (Special Task Force) supported by the Air Force had baton charged the violent mob and chased them towards the Embuldeniya junction. The situation has been brought under control by 0200 hours on April 01, 2022. The lack of professionalism leading to indecisive action displayed in handling the Mirihana situation had given confidence for mobsters to carry out a series of similar activities in other parts of the country thereafter.”

“On April 05, 2022, instructions had gone from the Army Headquarters to all Field Commanders to carry out reconnaissance of VIP residences and record the distances from the nearest Army camp to rush troops if the requirement arose……..”

The BOI report also said: “There had not been a proper command structure in place to command and co-ordinate HE the President’s security at Mirihana to deal with the situation that occurred on March 31, 2022. A comment on this is pertinent. Such a command structure should have been the responsibility of the Defence Ministry since it involves the co-opting of several fighting units from different security arms. The security of a President is as important as the security of the entire nation…..”

Firstly, the findings of the Board of Inquiry, particularly the absence of some security measures, had prompted those who planned the security cordon last week to factor them in. There was reconnaissance. There was a centralised co-ordination of activity by troops and Police. What were considered vulnerable points were identified and deployments covered by them. Yet there was no sign of resistance. If one were to quote a Shakespearean play, there was no Hamlet although the play was staged. Politicians of various hues had their own theories. Funnily enough, one of them spoke about students capturing the university. How could they have worked it? That is not all. By some coincidence there were also answers over why the security forces and the Police did not crack down on the protestors on the previous occasion. .

The man behind the move was former military strongman, who commanded troops to military victory against Tiger guerrillas. It was last Friday that the government leaders marked Victory Day. However, then President and Commander-in-Chief under whom the defeat came, Mahinda Rajapaksa was absent. Those who attended were mostly government leaders other than Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa.  Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, now a politician, has admitted that he told General Shavendra Silva, in a telephone conversation not to open fire at last year’s protestors. The disclosure, in a video interview FM Fonseka gave a social media outlet, has now become public.

Here are some of the highlights of what FM Fonseka has said: “A small number of senior officers are there in the Police and Army who would like to carry out errands of politicians. It is normal within our system. I did not go and ask my military and Police contacts why the security was placed at Colombo and put them in a difficult situation. I know of the laws which could affect them. It is not ethical to collect information like spices. Therefore, I don’t use efforts to learn such information.”

“At the time Army Commander Gen. Shavendra Silva called me twice during two instances where protestors were on the verge of breaking the barriers and barge into the Parliament after Gotabaya Rajapaksa had fled the country. They knew I had connections with the protestors. I am a Member of Parliament. There is no law that a person who oversees the Army cannot speak to others. I was also a powerful person in the Army. I was also there in the protests. The protestors knew I could work with some success due to my conduct in the past.

“He was also uneasy when he called. At that moment the Police and military were helpless. I was a politician of the Opposition party; the government ministers have life threats. His residence was also near the Parliament. His wife and mother-in-law were there. My only advice to him was not to allow anyone to shoot, and meanwhile try to remove politicians if possible. For a second time when things got escalated, he called me again. I gave him the previous advice and said establish your security. Ensure the safety of the politicians, if they breakdown barriers you cannot shoot. You cannot shoot civilians. If I was there, I would remove the politicians from there. That was the only option.”

“Gen. Shavendra Silva must take decisions for himself as he has his responsibilities and a position, but at that moment they were helpless. I did not speak because I was a former Army commander. I was also a Member of Parliament and a Field Marshal and they worked under me, they had no other place to get advice. He could ask another former army commander or if he saw fit that Sajith Premadasa could advise him, he could have asked for advice. He could not get it done but somehow the soldiers got it controlled. Though there was no shooting, they fought and got injured…..”

FM Fonseka’s remarks debunk claims by Wimal Weerawansa, who claimed in a booklet, about a conspiracy over why security forces and police did not crack down on the protestors. FM Fonseka was highly critical of Weerawansa.

Another event of significance this week was President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s meeting with Tamil political parties. The subject was a proposal for an interim arrangement to be put into operation until the fuller implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is acted upon. TNA stalwarts Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and Abraham Sumanthiran had heated exchanges with President Wickremesinghe. They were opposed to the interim arrangement.

Sumanthiran told , “Even though we had several rounds of talks with President Ranil Wickremesinghe in recent weeks, nothing substantial has been achieved so far, except one thing at the last meeting where a directive was issued to the Archaeology Department to stop land acquisitions.”

He also noted that few Tamil prisoners detained under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) have been released after several years in remand custody. The latest to walk free after being acquitted from all charges is Sivalingam Aaruran, an engineer who was in custody for more than 15 years this week over the case of an attempted assassination of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was Defence Secretary on December 1, 2006, in Kollupitiya.

One solution to the ethnic conflict,  Sumanthiran claimed, President Wickremesinghe had abandoned the principles. “We have been engaged in since last December and now prefer to discuss an interim administration proposal for Provincial councils. This was brought in by former Northern province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran. The proposal is a mechanism to govern PCs till fresh elections are held. We categorically rejected it since it was introduced as a temporary mechanism before the 13th amendment came into effect. The President proposed a committee to be appointed to study the proposal which we refused as well.”

Before the Presidential talks last week, the proposal for interim administration was circulated among the Tamil political parties. Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) out right rejected it and other parties Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELO) and Peoples’ Liberation Organisation Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) also followed suit.

Many Tamil MPs were surprised to see that the proposal was tabled at the talks with the President. Even President Wickremesinghe had one copy on his table as the talks went on. “At one point President Wickremesinghe shared his copy with me,” Sumanthiran said.

Former Supreme Court Justice and now Jaffna District Parliamentarian C.V. Wigneswaran presented a two-page memorandum incorporating an interim arrangement possibly until the Presidential elections were held. It had been drafted by a former bureaucrat, K. Vigneswaran. President Wickremesinghe offered to set up a committee to study the draft, but the TNA said it would not join in. The document had been signed by Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, Douglas Devananda, C.V. Wigneswaran, Ananda Sangari and K. Vigneswaran. This is what the memorandum addressed to President Wickremesinghe said:

MOVEMENT FOR DEVOLUTION OF POWER:

“The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 27 July was signed in Colombo after all the representatives of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka comprising the EPRLF, EROS, LTTE, PLOTE, TELO and the TULF gave their consent the previous night, in New Delhi. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was the outcome of that Agreement. However, when steps were taken to implement that Amendment, the unanimity that existed within the Tamil side had disappeared. Furthermore, the Sinhalese side became apprehensive about an end to the war with the implementation of the 13th Amendment. As a result, the 13th Amendment suffered a complete setback over the past 35 years.”

“The country is now in the midst of an economic crisis. The Tamil side has come to realise the urgency for the Full Implementation of the 13th Amendment for the moment. The Provincial Council elections have been put off for nearly 10 years. A few more months of delay in holding the elections will not matter very much.  But we are of the view that certain preliminaries must be attended to urgently prior to holding the elections.”

“Over the years, many powers devolved to the Provinces had been intruded upon by a section of the bureaucracy in Colombo. All such issues have to be rectified. For nearly 35 years, the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been discouraged to enact Statutes. Their independent administration had been interfered with. It will therefore be necessary to pass Provincial Statutes to rectify some of these matters. The 13th Amendment itself has provisions to enable the passage of Statutes even when an elected Provincial Council is non-functional. In India, such a situation is described as ’a period of President’s Rule in a State.’”

 

“The Governor of a Province has to report to the President that a situation has arisen in which the administration of the province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution (Article 154 L). Thereupon, the President by proclamation assumes to himself all or any of the powers vested in or exercisable by the Governor or any other body. He also declares that the powers of the Provincial Council shall be exercisable by or under the authority of Parliament. The Parliament is empowered to confer on the President the Power of that Provincial Council to make Statutes and to delegate the power so conferred to an authority specified by the President (Article 154M). That authority would be a Board of Advisors appointed by the President for that Province. In our view, such a Board must comprise representatives of each of the recognized political parties active in the Province, and which unequivocally have called for the Full Implementation of the 13th Amendment.”

“Representatives of recognized political parties nominated for the Board of Advisors shall not be members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Councils or elected members of any local authority, or any serving officer of the Government or a Provincial Council. The President shall delegate his powers of making Statutes to the Board of Advisors, and other functions that he may deem necessary. Such a Board would make Statutes as and when required and submit the same to the Governor for his assent.”

“The Chief Secretary of the Province shall be the Secretary to the Board of Advisors. He shall be an officer who would be able to understand records in the language of records of the province. Tamil is the language of records of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The President shall also appoint an Advocate General to the Province, or in the alternative appoint a Legal Advisor to the Governor of the Province. The main function of this officer will be to provide legal advice on the preparation of Statutes.”

“In the Annexure to this Memorandum, we give restructuring that need to be undertaken before any election is contemplated for the Provincial Councils of the North and East. It is our assessment that such a restructuring will take a period of around six months. We therefore urge that once the restructurings have been completed, the Elections Commission calls for nominations for the Provincial Council elections, may be, during the second half of January 2024, and conduct the elections with the procedures laid down.”

When the TNA declined to serve in a committee to study the interim arrangement, President Wickremesinghe warned he would have to go ahead without them. Moreover, he said he would have to make it known that the TNA was not willing to serve. It was C.V. Wigneswaran’s view that the enforcement of the interim measures would help the government to conduct Presidential polls early and the provincial council elections later.

There is little doubt that the government has gained complete control of the defence and security establishment, a sine qua non for any elections. However, resolving key issues related to ethnic reconciliation seems an uphill task for President Wickremesinghe.

Harrison and Vadivel hit out at Sajith in SJB crisis

 It was not so long ago that Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa, pooh poohed reports of crossovers from his party and declared none would go despite the offer of large sums of money.

The shock came days later when Pelisge Harrison, a former United National Party (UNP) Cabinet Minister and now Anuradhapura District MP declared he would leave the SJB. He said he would now support President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the United National Party (UNP).

On the same day as his announcement, Badulla District parliamentarian Vadivel Suresh, declared that he too would quit the SJB. However, in later remarks, he said he would remain in the SJB but would work with former SJBer and now Tourism Minister, Harin Fernando. He has had sharp differences of opinion with his leader Sajith Premadasa. It was triggered by a dispute over Premadasa not attending a rally organised by Vadivel at Madulsima in the Badulla district, allegedly claiming the need to be present in Colombo. However, Vadivel said he had taken part in an event on the same day in Welimada.

Pelisge Harrison

At the highest levels of the SJB, leaders were puzzled by Vadivel’s stance. “It amounts to having one foot in the ruling entity and another in the SJB for the Badulla District parliamentarian,” said one of them who did not wish to be named. He said it is up to the leader to define whether he is an SJB member or not. Otherwise, others could take up the same position, he said.

Vadivel told , “I have not left the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. I met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss solutions to issues faced by estate people. I did that as a trade union leader. If I do not do that, who will?”

“Yes, I told the media that the SJB leader should apologise to my people (plantation workers), for not visiting them during on May Day. That does not mean that I have left the party,” he claimed, and added that “there are certain issues, but I am still a member of the SJB.”

“I am a trade union leader as well as a politician who represents the plantation sector. It is my duty to address these issues with the President and find solutions. That is what I did,” Vadivel said.

He added: “There will not be an election these days, and we need to help our people and improve the economy of the country. Later when an election is called then we can take political moves and decisions.”

Harrisson answered questions posed to him by . However, efforts to reach SJB leader Premadasa for his responses to the answers given by Parliamentarian Harrison proved futile.

SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara claimed, “most allegations against our leader, made by Harrison, are baseless. When they want to go looking for greener pastures, they make up their own reasons.”

Vadivel Suresh

Though Harrison claimed that he had sent in his letter of resignation from the SJB as far back as January 27, this year, Madduma Bandara dismissed the claim as “a joke.” He added: “So far, he has not sent in his letter of resignation. As General Secretry of the party, it would have to come to me. You can see the kind of ploys they resort to.”

Here are highlights of the answers given by the Badulla District MP.

Q: Why did you resign from the SJB?

A: I was displeased with the SJB and its leadership. Mostly some actions which took place within the party with the knowledge of the leadership made an impact and drove me to take this decision.”

Q: What is your next move? 

A: I met President Ranil Wickremesinghe.  I am supporting him. I will work towards making Ranil Wickeremesinghe the victor of the upcoming Presidential election. I did not have discussions with the UNP but, as you can see, if I support the President anyone can understand which party I am supporting. I am highly impressed with the President who took on the premiership when there were the mass protests last year, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country.  He was alone. The UNP had one seat and that was of Ranil Wickremeinghe. Yet he showed what leadership is by taking on the challenge.

Q: What was the response of your party leadership to your resignation?

A: Several of my colleagues in the party asked me to remain and not to leave. My supporters in the electorate welcomed this move.”

Q: You were quoted in media reports saying there were several others planning to leave the SJB?

A: One can compile a list of the SJB members who are going to leave. The ones who are leaving the SJB are coming to meet the President. Three other names mentioned by him are withheld.

Q: Why have you said that you are discontented with the party?

A: There were setbacks caused by the leadership. The party leader is incapable of facing challenges. He can be described as “asai bayai” (likes power but is scared of taking responsibility). That is weakness. First Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked Sajith Premadasa to take the Prime Minister’s position. We can say that was an offering of the position of the Prime Minister on a silver platter. At that time, he refused to take the position and failed to make use of the opportunity. He followed the advice of his experts and did not take the opportunity.

However, Ranil Wickremesinghe who had only one seat of his party in Parliament took on the challenge. The country at that time was facing 15 hour power cuts, there were fuel queues, and there was a shortage of cooking gas. People were angry and protesting. The farmers had a shortage of fertiliser, and prices were high. There was a shortage of medicines in hospitals. After Ranil Wickremesinghe took on the challenge, Sajith Premadasa started to send letter after letter asking for the position he earlier refused.

Even when there was a vote in the Parliament to elect a new President, Sajith Premadasa did not contest as a candidate but supported Dullas Allahapperuma and opted to be Prime Minister. This was the turning point of the party. This led Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara to leave the party.

Q: How is the party treating you now?

A: They say that I am someone who was not important to the party, and someone who left the party in search of positions. But I have to point out, if I was useless why did they tolerate me for two and half years? They could have removed me. They cannot say anything against me as I myself tendered the resignation and left. I have been in politics for 35 years and held five ministries and also won five elections out of six from the Anuradapura district.

I held six ministries during the Yahapalana government, yet after that I had to face political setback as I lost the election as I was unable to support the people who supported me. As President Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickeremesinghe had a rift, we had only allocated budgets sent to ministries. The Ministry secretaries were president appointed people who did not allow us to work as we wanted. I was unable to give jobs or help people.

As I had five ministries and 148 institutes under me, I spent much time in Colombo.  I failed to take part in funerals and weddings in my electorate. That strained me from my supporters. That is the reason for my set back. I resigned well before the SJB started to say that I left it to obtain a governor appointment from the President.

I would work towards the victory of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and then contest and win the election and get a portfolio. Currently I am not in Parliament therefore they cannot say that I crave ministry positions. I will assure the support of my people to the President.

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