Columns - Political Column

What was Fonseka's plan if he won?

  • Inside story on what the former commander wanted to do, while the UNP and JVP discussed plans for the transitional government
  • Rajapaksa's swearing-in on grand scale, cabinet will continue with portfolio for Hakeem
By Our Political Editor

A special dais in front of the flight of steps to the Presidential Secretariat or the former parliament building, once walked by royalty and local leaders who won independence for then Ceylon, will be the cynosure of Sri Lankans on Friday, November 19.

At the auspicious time of 10.14 a.m., Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa will stand there before Chief Justice Asoka de Silva. He will "solemnly declare and affirm" that he will "faithfully perform the duties and discharge the functions of the office of the President in accordance with the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka." He will swear that he will be faithful "to the Republic of Sri Lanka and the law," and that he will to the best of his ability "uphold and defend the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka."

Religious blessings and chanting of Jayamangala Gathas will follow. After a tri-services guard of honour, Rajapaksa will address the nation from the same dais. The ceremonies will end after a traditional drum recital and floral tributes.

Weeklong nationwide celebrations

With that over, Rajapaksa will begin his second term as President. Weeklong nationwide celebrations for the event get under way tomorrow. They begin with a campaign to plant more than a million trees countrywide. A number of other events arranged both by the state and the private sector will be held in several parts of the country. This is besides religious ceremonies.

One bank has directed its more than 300 branches and 600 pawning centres to place two large illuminated portraits each of President Rajapaksa in all their establishments. The lettering on the portraits lauds Rajapaksa as the person "who gave guidance to unite Sri Lanka and transform the country into the emerging miracle of Asia." In a bid to ensure vandals do not destroy these illuminated portraits, the Bank has directed that watchers be hired to protect them round the clock.

Sarath Fonseka at a Presidential election campaign in January this year

Various Ministries have launched their own programmes including publishing newspaper supplements and souvenirs. A Health Ministry publication for the event says Rs 15 billion worth of projects will get under way beginning November 19. At the Bandaranaike International Airport, hoardings of President Rajapaksa are to be placed in the arrival area. Some will also depict development programmes to educate tourists and other visitors. Divisional Secretaries have been told to launch at least one development project in each of their areas on November 19.

The fence around the Presidential Secretariat is being dismantled to give invitees a clear view of the nationally televised ceremonies. Tents are being pitched outside and large TV screens will carry images to those seated farther away. A highlight will be the tri-services parade and a fly past.

Cabinet changes

The swearing-in ceremony on Friday has given rise to speculation that cabinet changes would take place. However, government sources said the present cabinet would continue until "a few new additions were made." This would include a portfolio for Rauf Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congres (SLMC) that has decided to join the government. Present ministers will continue to function in office and will not be required to be sworn in again. Such a requirement, government officials say, arose only during situations where the Prime Minister tenders his resignation.

Friday's ceremonies are in marked contrast to the first occasion when Rajapaksa was sworn in as President on November 19 2005 before then Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva. It was held inside the Presidential Secretariat sans the military ceremonies that accompany such an inauguration. This came after Rajapaksa won the presidential election on November 17 2005 by polling 50.29 % (4,887,152 votes) against the United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The latter polled 48.43 per cent (4,706,366 votes). The victory was by a wafer thin margin of 180,786 votes.

A decree by the now militarily defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) barring Tamil voters from casting their votes deprived a substantial volume of votes to the UNP presidential candidate.

Wickremesinghe lost what could have been a considerable Tamil votebase in the north and the east. In the years that followed, President Rajapaksa toughened his stance against Tiger guerrillas who spurned his peace initiatives. He even abandoned the Norwegian brokered Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 when he found the LTTE disinterested in peace talks or a politically negotiated settlement.

Rajapaksa gave political leadership to a concerted military campaign that defeated the guerrillas in May last year. If that was a landmark in the country's military history, it was also a significant milestone in Sri Lanka's political firmament. He became the most popular political leader and a grateful nation gave him a resounding victory at the January 26 presidential election this year. He convincingly defeated his one time Commander of the Army despite accusations of the abuse of state power and an admission by the Elections Commissioner no less that he was under intense pressure, whatever he meant by that.

Rajapaksa secured 57.88 per cent (6,015,934 votes) against Sarath Fonseka who polled 40.15 per cent (4,173,185). The latter was the candidate of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), an alliance mainly of the UNP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The overwhelming majority for Rajapaksa was 1,842,749 votes.

His partner in the military defeat of the guerrillas and rival presidential candidate, former General Sarath Fonseka is now at the Welikade prison. He is serving a 30 month jail term. That is after a General Court Martial (GCM) found him guilty of "disgraceful conduct" in military procurements. Earlier, another GCM stripped him of his title, military decorations and his right to a pension. Fonseka now faces a string of other cases in civil courts.

Protest campaign by JVP

Today, the two main parties that foisted Fonseka as their presidential candidate have gone their own ways. On Thursday, just a day ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, the JVP plans to hold a protest campaign outside the Fort Railway Station. Police reports say the JVP wants to muster a large crowd, including university students, to deliver a strong message to the government - release Fonseka as well as the convenor of the Inter University Students' Federation (IUSF) who is now in remand custody. Security forces and the police are making preparations to ensure such a protest does not in any way mar the weeklong events for the swearing-in.

In marked contrast, the UNP has dissociated itself from protests planned for Thursday. It will continue with its Seth Kavi religious programmes at Buddhist temples during the Grama Charika programme, a brainchild of UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya. Two such programmes were held in Horana and Matara. The third began yesterday in Kundasale. Yet, both the JVP and the UNP will boycott the swearing-in ceremony. The former has already declared its intention to do so. The UNP will formally decide when its Working Committee meets tomorrow.

Forming a transitional government

Some hitherto unknown details about Fonseka's presidential election campaign unfolded this week as some UNP seniors, discussing Friday's swearing-in ceremonies, reminisced about events behind the scenes. Confident that Fonseka would be elected President, both the UNP and the JVP were locked in consultations to form a transitional government. A key player who did not wish to be identified, related the details.

"We were sure Fonseka would win. One of us spoke with him about the urgent arrangements required for the transition. However, he was reluctant to discuss specific issues. He said wait until the election is over. He said decisions could be taken only thereafter. However, the UNP leadership felt that while he (Fonseka) continued campaigning, a mechanism should be evolved by the UNP together with the JVP. There was concurrence from the JVP too.

Preparations being made at the old Parliament building for the swearing-in ceremony of President Rajapaksa. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

"The first task was to find a Secretary to the President-elect. A former senior public service official, who had served in several positions including the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Public Administration, was approached. He was told of the urgent need to assume office as Secretary to the President. He was persuaded to agree. The former bureaucrat sought an assurance that his name would not be divulged until it became necessary. Both the UNP and the JVP reached accord on this appointment though there was no endorsement from Fonseka.

"The question of the Cabinet of Ministers followed. The UNP dusted off an old report lying in its shelves. It had been formulated then by a German NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) recommending the outlines of a Cabinet of 20 ministers. A professor who headed the controversial outfit in Colombo had even spelt out the parameters of each Ministry and how they should be set up. Spending considerable amounts of money, the Professor in question had developed a strong clout with those in the UNF government then. "

Note: The same NGO also funded various overseas trips for members of the then UNF Government. One of its highly questionable acts was the funding of a seminar at a five star hotel in Colombo where reforms in the defence establishment were also discussed. Such reforms contained in a report formulated by a committee that included senior military officers remained confidential until the conduct of that seminar. Even senior officials of the then Ministry of Defence took part in these discussions. All expenses related to the exercise were paid for by this German NGO. The report to the UNP on how the Cabinet should be formulated revealed that the NGO in question had made inroads into some of the vital organs of the state during that period. The fault lay not on the NGO alone but on the officialdom that allowed it a free run. Top rungers in the then government had become tools in their hands.

The key player added, "The JVP was unaware of the NGO report. The UNP (Acting on the recommendations contained in it) proposed that the cabinet should not be more than twenty members. The JVP wanted three ministries including agriculture and the media. The UNP was opposed to the subject of media being given to the JVP. The dialogue continued and no finality was reached. On one occasion, a suggestion to include the subject of media under the Cultural Affairs Ministry to be assigned to the JVP was also discussed."

The self-confession in retrospect by this key player this week was most interesting. He said, "By hindsight, most of us, at least in the UNP, know our plans would never have worked. In all of UNP's dialogue with Fonseka during the presidential election campaign, he evaded discussing impending issues. This happened on many occasions. He did not want to even discuss the appointment of a Secretary to the President if he were to win. We became aware that an inner circle of retired military people were also talking to him and making their own plans for a transitional government formation. We now feel he would not have changed. It would have been the UNP and the JVP that would have had to face the changes and even the fallout. I am relieved it did not happen. That is now history."

Those revelations by an insider, no doubt, provide a frightening insight into how things would have played out if Fonseka were to have been elected President. Little wonder, one opposition top runger was forced to tell Rajapaksa during a one-on-one after the presidential election "Api dennama dinun" (we have both won). The fact that this top runger found it increasingly difficult to meet Fonseka during the days close to the presidential election is no secret.

If the campaign in January to make Fonseka the president saw greater unity between the UNP and the JVP, seeking his release from jail has forced the two parties to go their own ways. Sections of the UNP want to express their solidarity to Fonseka by being present in the Court of Appeal tomorrow. A three-member bench is to rule on the question of an interim order seeking to restore Fonseka's seat in Parliament. This is until his writ application contesting the verdict of the General Court Martial is heard by court. Meanwhile the JVP is stepping up its efforts to ensure a larger turnout for its protest rally outside the Fort Railway Station on Thursday. Despite these efforts, the Fonseka issue is receding and running out of steam.

Illegal casinos

Last Wednesday morning, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, had just walked into his office in Parliament when his telephone rang. It was President Mahinda Rajapaksa on line. He had called to thank Wickremesinghe after his party members had raised issue over a casino that has been set up in a government owned building, once part of Ceynor - a joint project of Sri Lanka and Norway. Rajapaksa said he welcomed such constructive criticism from the opposition. Later that night, Rajapaksa told his ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting that he had telephoned Wickremesinghe and thanked him and his party for raising the issue. He noted that an opposition should engage in such constructive criticism instead of simply abusing the government.

Speaking on the debate on the Gaming (Special Provisions) Bill, Dayasiri Jayasekera (UNP-Kurunegala District) had told Parliament on Wednesday ; "There is an illegal casino operating on D.R.Wijewardena Mawatha. Who is the owner of this casino? There is a hidden hand behind it and even Ministers are unaware as to who is operating it. There is a powerful force behind it and we want to know who that is."
Rajapaksa, the Sunday Times learns, ordered an immediate investigation into the matter.

Police visited the casino at the Ceynor premises at D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha. It transpired that a local casino operator had collaborated with a foreign national to obtain a licence from the Colombo Municipal Council to operate this casino. He had paid a fee. The Colombo Municipality's Special Commissioner Omar Kamil, was directed to immediately cancel the licence of the casino concerned. Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, under whose purview the Ceynor project came, had said he was unaware of the casino deal.

Interesting enough, the issue surfaced when Parliament was debating a bill, which would legalise casinos and other gaming centres. Two Ministers - Felix Perera and Nimal Siripala de Silva and Deputy Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama, spoke in favour of the bill. However, at voting time at least 13 cabinet ministers and a number of deputies were absent.

In terms of the new gaming law, no person shall, after January 1 2011 engage in the business of gaming other than under the authority of a valid licence issued in that behalf by the Minister, and within an area to be designated by the Minister by order published in the Gazette. Any person who carries on the business of gaming in contravention of the new law will be liable to be punished with imprisonment up to five years or to a fine of Rs five million or both. The wording may seem as if no gaming business can be permitted without the Minister's approval, but in effect it means that the Minister can also give a licence to anyone to open a gambling den anywhere he so designates for such purpose.

Grama Charika in Matara

The UNP's Grama Charika programme last weekend in Matara, the second in the series, was a political paradox for Mangala Samaraweera, a one time Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) strongman and former cabinet minister. Other than the presidential and parliamentary elections this year, Samaraweera had waded in blue decorations in the Matara town. He made sure there was little room for the UNP to engage in political activities.

However, last weekend Matara literally turned green for the Grama Charika event organised there by Samaraweera. UNP deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya and Samaraweera went in a procession. Leading it with a placard on hand was a woman UNP stalwart in the southern town. In the past, she was known for tearing down Samaraweera's SLFP posters and removing buntings.

Yet, the green decorations came down on Sunday morning. Able bodied UPFA supporters did not want VIPs passing through for an event in Medamulana, the President's hometown to drive past the Matara area decorated in green. They removed most of them. The Police removed the remaining decorations before it was noon Sunday. It soon left the impression that no opposition political activity had taken place in Matara last weekend. In the coming weeks, all events will be overshadowed by the swearing-in and related events. The government has ensured there are no spoilers with a decree that only posters or portraits of Rajapaksa could be displayed in any part of the country. Thus, the opposition has to make way, at least this week.

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