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  • Moves underway to amend the constitution, but questions over who will support whom
  • Ranil the frontrunner while SLPP is split over the candidature
  • Some sections push for Basil, but his dual US citizenship an issue
  • Stunning claims in Weerawansa’s book; probe by state agency

 

By Our Political Editor

The prospects of a presidential election by year-end, possibly November or December, are on the cards.

The move is to be preceded by the introduction of constitutional amendments to facilitate the task. Chapter VII (The Executive) 3 (a) says, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the preceding provisions of this Chapter, the President May (at any time after the expiration of four years from the commencement of his first term of office) by Proclamation declare his intention) of appealing to the people for a mandate to hold office.” (by election for a second term) Repealed

(ii)  Upon making a proclamation under sub paragraph (i) the Commissioner of Elections shall be required to take a poll for the election of the President.

(b)   If, at any time after the date of Proclamation referred to in paragraph (a) and before the close of poll at the election in pursuance of such Proclamation, the President in office dies, such Proclamation shall be deemed to have been revoked with effect from the date of and the election to be held in pursuance of such Proclamation shall be deemed to be cancelled. The vacancy in the office of President caused by such death is filled in accordance with the provision of Article 40……………….

Another provision elsewhere in the constitution (also dealing with the Executive Presidency) states “a person succeeding in the office of President under the provision of Article 40 shall not be entitled to exercise the right conferred on a President by sub paragraph (a) of this paragraph.”  President Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament under Article 40 by members of Parliament casting a vote.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has placed his hopes in the country’s economy on track by securing the International Monetary Fund’s Extended Credit Fund (EFF) to be followed by several resultant measures is working towards this goal. In working strategies in this regard, one need hardly say he wants to be returned to the office that he holds and feels opportunities are just right. It will come in the wake of the culmination of a few programmes and projects that will add muscle to economic recovery.

They include a tough new anti-corruption law and a revised anti-terrorism law. An effort is also being made to complete the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a major prelude to resolving matters related to the ethnic conflict. Already, the Swiss government is familiarising a group of different interests on the varied aspects of the Commission in one of its cities. The group includes representatives of the military, too.

However, how the political equations would play out seems still unclear though President Wickremesinghe, it is quite clear, will be a candidate himself. Of course, the main parties or alliances will be in the fray. That would include the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-led National People’s Front (NPF) among others.

Though Wickremesinghe will be a front-runner candidate, the question remains whether he would represent the United National Party (UNP). It is not because the UNP has no plans to be in the fray. On the contrary, there have been behind-the-scenes consultations with some important SJB players. As reported in these columns earlier, the process is said to be time-consuming. Besides, a segment of the SLPP, now staunchly backing President Wickremesinghe, will have to be added to this equation. However, the process seems time-consuming with some of the SJB key players still talking about the stakes. There does not seem to be an unusual hurry. The only formal denial to a break up of sorts has come from their leader Sajith Premadasa. Understandably is bound to draw in the denial of a leader but is that all to it? Would a leader be in the loop of what has been going on behind-the-scenes? If indeed it was so, would it not have been better for him to have had the players involved deny it?

Notwithstanding, the SLPP is also in a silent but debilitating crisis. Triggered by a swing in President Wickremesinghe’s favour, a crisis of leadership is slowly but surely developing. So much so, the party’s own candidate, it has made clear, will not be President Wickremesinghe despite the support he enjoys from some MPs in the party. None other than SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, widely known as the voice of SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa, (who paved the way for his becoming General Secretary of the party),  has made a categoric announcement that the SLPP would field a candidate. He would be none other than Basil Rajapaksa. At a news conference, he praised Basil Rajapaksa as a man of very high integrity and declared that he had a clean political record. Even the Attorney General’s Department, he declared, had not been able to make any indictments against him since there had been no basis. With Kariyawasam’s remarks, the dividing line has been defined but the formation of different sides is pending.

The question remains whether Kariyawasam’s announcement was only to make clear President Wickremesinghe will not be the SLPP candidate. The remarks do not seem to go beyond. One of the main reasons – Basil Rajapaksa is still a dual citizen, both of Sri Lanka and the United States. All one must be reminded of is the time taken by his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rescind his US citizenship to contest the presidential elections in 2019.

The question remains whether Basil Rajapaksa will be able to have Washington rescind his US citizenship before the yearend or for that matter even later next year. On top of that, a US-backed investigation of some of his alleged dealings and involvements is now underway by a Secretariat in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It is against this backdrop that he has lost broad support among SLPP parliamentarians with no role either in the Cabinet of Ministers or the government parliamentary group. Recent counts have set the numbers to anything between 21 and 26 from the SLPP strength.

Government sources also concede the strains between him and the ruling leadership. An example is the talking point about a message he sent through an emissary some months earlier seeking the inclusion of ten additional members to the Cabinet. It was not accepted. However, recently two new ministers were appointed not out of his choice or recommendation. A case in point was how he turned up for a government group meeting and exhorted the need to draw the largest crowds for May Day, but it turned out to be a flop. At the meeting, held at the government residence of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at Colombo’s Wijerama Mawatha, it was resolved to have the largest turnout. However, there were rows of empty chairs when the meeting took place at Campbell Park. See the photographs on this page and the video of the event .


The candidature of NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake for the presidency also raises some interesting questions. When the dates for local council elections were periodically speculated, his party was strongly tipped to be an overall winner followed by the SJB. This thrust his popularity to a high level but months and weeks later, there was a noticeable drop. There will of course be many other impending candidates wanting to join the fray but in the overall projections, they matter little. They will find it difficult to make an impact at the national level and thus end up as also-runners. Government thinking at present is for a parliamentary general election to follow the proposed presidential election. Thereafter the local council elections are likely. The prospects of Provincial Council elections, possibly staggered, is also likely ahead of the local council elections.

Weerawansa’s claims
being probed

In another development, some aspects of a 135-page booklet titled ‘The Hidden Story of Nine’, released weeks earlier by National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa have become the subject of a probe by a state agency. The idea, a government source said, is to ascertain the veracity of claims made on matters related to national security and similar issues. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa held office as President, Weerawansa was considered a confidant of his. Both he and his party were also opposed to the United States. A decisive beginning of the Aragalaya (protests) was the events that took place outside the residence of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on March 31, 2022. The clashes there left 40 persons including 24 policemen injured and 54 were arrested. Here are extracts of those aspects as claimed by Weerawansa in his book:

“President Gotabaya and the rest at home had felt the threat of death. The President’s Private Secretary Sugishwara Bandara had told his close friends and some members of the Rajapaksa family that they were risking death.

“By this time there was a close rapport between the US Ambassador Julie Cheng and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa . After the violence, the Ambassador called on the President. She had told him she sympathized with him about the pressure he had come under and said her prayers were with him. She went on to offer prayers in front of him. The President on the following day describing the incident to a Minster had given the impression that he was taken up by the gesture.

“Though President Gotabaya did not quit after the Mirihana incidents (involving his private residence) he moved to the President’s House on the advice of the security chief. The protests were spreading, and clashes were taking place near fuel stations. The US Ambassador in a twitter message on April 2, 2022, defended the right for peaceful demonstrations and said she was closely monitoring the situation and thereby set the stage for protests at Galle Face. The slogan here was Gota Go Home.  The question was posed by journalists as to who would replace Gotabaya, but the response was it could be thought of, after he is sent home.

“On April 8, 2022 there was another twitter message by the US Ambassador expressing happiness about the protests.

“On April 19, 2022, one person was killed in a police shooting incident in Rambukkana. Four policemen were remanded. About 100 lawyers appeared. Thereby the mentality of the police fell. This was an advantage for those who wanted to take the law-and-order situation into their hands. The US Ambassador followed up with another twitter message saying the Rambukkana investigations should be held in an impartial manner.  Regarding the Rambukkana incidents, the two sides have their own versions.  The process could be decided only by courts. The US Ambassador went on to meet with the Human Rights Commission.

“On another occasion the social media had pictures of trucks lined up at the Galle Face Green. The US Ambassador got activated. She told the President and another minister that talks with the IMF would fail if the trucks were not removed. In fact, it was a threat. The President ordered the trucks be withdrawn. The US Ambassador, in addition, also went on to meet with various officials. Among them were the Inspector General of Police, the Army Commander, and the Head of the State Intelligence Service. The President was made aware about the meetings by the Ambassador herself. She went to ask if the President had plans to remove a particular officer and when the President said ‘no’, she would say ‘He is a good officer. In fact, he had dinner with me on the previous night.” It is usually the practice that the President’s approval is sought for such meetings. But in this case the practice seemed to have not been followed.

“With these developments a proposal was made by political parties to form an all-party Government, but President Gotabaya was not too keen about the proposal initially. The worst took place on May 9. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had decided to have a meeting. The SLPP leadership had called their members to Temple Trees without looking into the consequences and the boost the ‘Aragalaya’ would receive.

“As protesters were marching from Temple Trees, the President directed Senior DIG Deshabandun Tennakoon not to allow them to proceed to Galle Face.  At that point the IGP spoke to him on the phone and said ‘the brothers will get friendly. You do not get into trouble. Do not try to use force on those coming from the Temple Trees towards Galle Face.’  As the dispute continued the protesters reached Galle Face leading to the attacks. Though some say the violence started after May 9, the crowds really got violent after the March 31 protests and the attacks on politicians’ residences started off on April 2.  An idea was created that all Parliamentarians are ‘rogues.

“One of the key features in the May 9 violence was that persons who usually shed crocodile tears on humanity, this time were sharing on Facebook addresses of houses of opponents and bus numbers they were travelling. Among those involved were university academics, actors and actresses, and civil rights, JVP and Peratugami activists. One of them mentioned that buses that had arrived should not be allowed to leave. Another post warned public sector employees while another included names and addresses of Hotel Galadari as the management had filed an action that their business activities were being disrupted due to the ‘Aragalaya’ (protest). Some posts tried to justify the attacks.

“The directions given by the Commander in Chief of the Armed forces and the Defence Secretary to the Army Commander and the Acting Defence chief of staff had not been conveyed to the commanding officers in time, no instructions were given for riot control and this could be considered a deliberate negligence of duties.

Empty chairs at SLPP May Day rally at Campbell Park show a marked difference between rhetoric and reality

“Due to this action, the lives of the Prime Minister and his family members, Cabinet and State Ministers and party supporters were endangered. The Army Commander prevented the commanding officers from initiating action. If the report submitted by State Intelligence Service on May 8, at 5.00 p.m. to the Defence Secretary had been implemented action could have been taken to minimize the May 9 incidents which led to the countrywide violence.

“After Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as the Prime Minister the support for the Galle Face protests started to reduce.  Even before Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down from the premier post, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been asked by the Indian authorities to appoint Basil Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. However, as the President believed that the public protests could increase, his choice too was Ranil Wickremesinghe.

“After Ranil Wickremesinghe was made the Prime Minister, he was asked by a close friend ‘Don’t you understand that you have been made the Prime Minister until the situation is normalised and thereafter you will be removed’ . Wickremesinghe’s response was, ‘I should know to become number one by that time.’ To become number one, the ‘Aragalaya’ needed to be intensified. Even after Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Prime Minister, the Aragalaya was not discouraged.

“The actual financial crisis in the country started during the 2015–2019 Yahapalana government. Of the foreign debts to be repaid, 76 percent were International Sovereign bond payments. The debt service payments, which were US$ two billion, had increased to US$ six billion.

On May 17, 2022, MP Champika Ranawaka met with the US Ambassador. The Ambassador in a Twitter message thanked Ranawaka for sharing his views on resolving the economic crisis. Before Wickremesinghe was named as the Prime Minister, Ven Dr Omalpe Sobitha Thera said that Mr Ranawaka’s name had been proposed as the Prime Minister to the President.

“Before the July 9 ‘Aragalaya’ events, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met with heads of security forces. Intelligence service chiefs had reported that a maximum of 20,000 would take part in the July 9 protests. Initially, a curfew was declared and later withdrawn with the belief that a protest of 20,000 could be controlled easily. But during this period groups backed by the US embassy as well as the Tamil Diaspora-backed social media activists and bloggers were very active. The numbers which turned up at Galle Face were higher than the crowds anticipated by the intelligence services either due to their ignorance or they have been given deliberately by them.

“A day before the July 9 events, the Army Commander proposed that the President’s House should be turned into the main Operations Centre. After the President accepted the proposal the President’s House was turned into the Operations Centre. On a sudden invitation received by the Army Commander from India, he left for India. Some sources say the visit was arranged at the request of the US ambassador here.

“The heads of Security forces had discussed steps to be taken to prevent the entry of protesters into the President’s House.  Each force was given the task of ensuring security on different routes. The route protected by the Police was well protected with a strong set of barriers, but the route protected by the Army was not secured well and the barriers could be easily toppled. The plan by the protesters was to storm the President’s House by 2.00 p.m., but as the barriers put up by the Army were not strong, they were able to break in before noon.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been promised that he would be given an aircraft by India to leave the country. (Note: Indian diplomats denied the claim and said there was no such promise). But as the President had failed to agree to that request the Indians were reluctant to provide the facility. However, eventually Gotabaya Rajapaksa only signed the letter of his own resignation.

“By July 9, there were also plans to surround the Parliament building. The JVP was giving leadership to this. Thereby they could take control of the legislature while the other plan was to take control over the judiciary which was not a difficult task to take control of the court complex as a symbolic gesture. So, by controlling the Executive, Legislature and judiciary a government would collapse.

“By that evening the Speaker had moved his family members to safety and he remained at the residence. He was met by religious leaders and their request was that the Speaker should take over. But the Speaker believed constitutionally that was not possible.

“As the Speaker remained at his residence, the US Ambassador called over without prior notice. The Speaker was surprised. Her request was that the Speaker should take over as the President. The Speaker believed it was not possible, constitutionally. A sense of insecurity crept into the Speaker. Looking out from the windows he noticed some 100 people from the Special Forces had been deployed. He called Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who was about to leave for the Army headquarters. The Speaker too left from the back gate to the Army Headquarters.

“Reaching the Army headquarters, he saw the officers were watching live tv coverage. The Prime Minister’s private residence was on fire. Though the Prime Minister requested to control the situation the security forces chiefs did not respond positively. The Premier left the place as an unhappy person.  The Army Commander requested the Speaker to ask the Prime Minister to step down. His opinion was that the situation cannot be controlled. But the Speaker said he could not make such a request. He in turn asked us to provide a safe place for his stay. The Air Force Commander had decided for his stay at a location close to Ratmalana Airport. All statements were issued from there.

“Meanwhile, the Army Commander was continuously receiving calls from a former security forces chief who is a Member of Parliament now. He was responding positively to the calls. One of the service commanders who had a problem with his vehicle had opted for a lift from the Army Commander as they were heading to the same destination. During that period as many as 13 calls were received from the MP. This information could be verified by appointing a Commission and calling for witnesses.

“The Prime Minister had requested the STF to get the protesters removed from outside Parliament. The protesters were confident in taking over parliament. But as the security forces moved in by dusk to remove them, their mission was unsuccessful. Wickremesinghe who had said he should move from number 2 to number one soon became the President through a Parliamentary vote. Soon after he removed the protesters from the Presidential Secretariat and President’s House…..”

One of the main aspects of the ongoing study by the state agency is to determine whether there were political motives behind Weerawansa’s assertions and if not, what were the real ground realities.

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