How Ranil worked out power transition on that decisive morning.
Posted on January 12th, 2015

Courtesy Sunday Times

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in the military were plotting to resort to unlawful methods with their likeminded political bosses for whom force superseded any respect for the rule of law.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 Mi17 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

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