Maithri-Mahinda deal kept a top secret; SLFP stalwarts learnt of Sirisena’s shocker only post facto President in address to nation today to reveal unity govt’s alleged large-scale corruption and details of plot to assassinate him Law and Order Ministry to come under President, Police Chief faces axe Ranil to prepare affidavits to show he has [...]


Friday night political bombshell: The breaking point of Yahapalana regime


  • Maithri-Mahinda deal kept a top secret; SLFP stalwarts learnt of Sirisena’s shocker only post facto
  • President in address to nation today to reveal unity govt’s alleged large-scale corruption and details of plot to assassinate him
  • Law and Order Ministry to come under President, Police Chief faces axe
  • Ranil to prepare affidavits to show he has the numbers, but Sirisena loyalists insist they are confident



A Maithri-Mahinda deal, wrapped up early this week, remained a closely guarded secret.

Not even the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs who met President Maithripala Sirisena at his official residence on Friday evening were told what was in store for them. “I want to form a new government and want to assure you I will look after all of you,” he declared. There are 24 SLFP MPs supporting Sirisena.

Those who hold portfolios will retain the same ones, he said and added that some may even have more subjects.

The meeting which began at 5 p.m. and ended around 7.30 p.m. on Friday was hardly noticed as Colombo prepared for another weekend. Yet, a few among the MPs knew it was important though they were unaware of what was to unfold. Even Lasantha Alagiyawanna, the State Minister of Finance, who was in Germany, hurriedly boarded a flight to Colombo on Thursday night.

When the meeting ended, Presidential aides promptly telephoned ‘Joint Opposition’ de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to come over to President’s House or Janadipathi Mandiraya in Colombo Fort. The former President was then at a wedding at the nearby Shangri La hotel. When he arrived, he was sworn-in as the fifteenth Prime Minister of Sri Lanka replacing Ranil Wickremesinghe. The SLFP MPs learnt only thereafter who would lead the new government. Some even rushed to the President’s House but the swearing-in was over by then.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who was in Galle, rushed back to Colombo when he heard the news. He insisted that he was still the Prime Minister and it was “unconstitutional” to remove him since he had the confidence of the majority in Parliament. He spent Friday night at ‘Temple Trees’. A handful of UNP parliamentarians also stayed there. Earlier, Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Rajitha Senaratne and his son Chatura, an MP, were prevented when they tried to enter Rupavahini, the national television broadcaster, to air claims that both Wickremesinghe was still Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers remained in office. Supporters of the Rajapaksas had stormed the area and police personnel had to evacuate the UNP MPs from an abusive crowd.

Later in the night, Wickremesinghe chaired a meeting of his parliamentary group where nearly 60 MPs were present. The move is a prelude to calling upon UNP parliamentarians to sign affidavits expressing support for Wickremesinghe. That is to prove that he had the confidence of the majority of the House – over 113 from the 225 member Parliament. Such affidavits would also be handy should Wickremesinghe go to the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of his ouster.  However, a source close to President Sirisena said matters relating to the Constitution as well as the question of a majority in Parliament were given “careful consideration” before he took the decision to form a new government. “We are confident we are on strong ground,” said the source who did not wish to be named.

In his speech to the group of SLFP MPs, President Sirisena made no mention of how the new government would be formed or made any reference to Mahinda Rajapaksa. A larger part of his speech was devoted to the alleged plot to assassinate him. The tenor of his speech when he made reference to the alleged plot was sombre. He declared that there had been “heavy political interference” into the investigations and accused Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera of not acting properly. “They are trying to take the investigation in another direction,” he charged. The removal of Jayasundera has become one of his high priorities. He is to be replaced by Senior DIG S.M. Wickremesinge, who was asked on Friday night to return to Colombo immediately and monitor President Sirisena’s security.

President Sirisena also directed strong criticism at Minister and onetime military strongman Sarath Fonseka. “How can I sit in a Cabinet with people like that?” he asked. The meeting concluded with the SLFP MPs “unanimously” endorsing President Sirisena’s decision to withdraw from the coalition and form a new government. Then the administrative machinery went into action.

The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera wrote to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, saying the UPFA was withdrawing from the “national government” with the UNP. On Friday night, Udaya R. Seneviratne. Secretary to the President, signed a Gazette notification which said, “It is hereby notified that His Excellency the President under Article 42 (4) of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka appointed Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Member of Parliament, to the Office of the Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, with effect from October 26, 2018.”

Frenemies: President Maithripala Sirisena and newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa are seen greeting each other after the former president was sworn in as Prime Minister in a top secret move that has created a constitutional crisis.

One of the immediate outcome of Friday’s swearing-in of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister is that there will be no budget proposals presented in Parliament on November 5. In fact, President Sirisena prorogued Parliament till November 16 and a Vote on Account may be presented by the new government if it survives a vote of confidence when Parliament meets, and a budget to be presented early next year. Preparations for this year’s budget were being made by Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Just last week, he was at his private residence overlooking the Bolgoda Lake in Moratuwa formulating proposals with senior Treasury officials.

If Friday’s developments are a milestone in the country’s political history, more related issues are to surface next week. President Sirisena will address the nation this morning and will lay bare the various events that prompted him to appoint a new Prime Minister and a new government. Among matters he is expected to reveal are instances of large-scale corruption that had been reportedly suppressed or ignored as well as matters relating to the alleged plot to assassinate him. Sirisena is likely to bring under his own fold the Law and Order Ministry to which is assigned the Police Department, and also the Attorney General’s Department.

Soon after taking his oaths, Premier Rajapaksa went to the Abhayaramaya temple in Narahenpita and took part in a religious ceremony. He also visited the Gangaraamaya temple at Hunupitiya. Large crowds had gathered when he returned to his Wijerama Residence. Police Chief Jayasundera, a group of DIGs, security forces top brass and even officials were among those present. There were also a stream of visitors from the Buddhist clergy.

Since his meeting with Rajapaksa on October 3 at the Battaramulla residence of S.B. Dissanayake, a onetime minister, on October 3, President Sirisena has continued his dialogue both with his newly appointed Premier as well as the principal ideologue of the Sri Lanka Podujana (People’s) Party (SLPP), Basil Rajapaksa.

The newly appointed Prime Minister Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times “I have taken over a new challenge to help the people of Sri Lanka who are suffering from untold hardships due to the worsening economic situation. The rupee is depreciating to the US dollar and the cost of living is rising leaps and bounds. The UNP government has shown no concern.”

At last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, After President Maithripala Sirisena accused India’s RAW of plotting to assassinate him and recanted it, it was business as usual. It did create the feeling that the coalition partners, have kissed and made up. It also led to the belief that it portended crisis-free governance till the next presidential and parliamentary elections.

Behind the façade of seeming normalcy and a make-believe air of peace, a proxy war heated up between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. In cricketing terms, it was much like a T-20 series where one side or the other is winning every other moment. The game went on like that.

President Sirisena, the leader of the SLFP, had his plate full. He was in search of a new Prime Minister to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe. The question for him this week was from where such a new Premier would emerge. Is it from the UNP or the Opposition leaders with whom, contrary to his flat denials, he had opened a dialogue? The first option turned uneasy from the outset with would-be candidates see-sawing between “yes” and “maybe later.” They were hesitant.

Events this week bared that President Sirisena was more inclined towards a new Premier from the ‘Joint Opposition.” The Maithri-Mahinda dialogue had seen a convergence of thoughts on many issues. He remained in touch with his predecessor and SLPP de facto leader (albeit the ‘Joint Opposition’) Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Though Dissanayake denied the meeting in a statement, it has now come to light that he had told both Rajapaksa brothers to arrive at his residence only after President Sirisena had reached there. The event was a little delayed. Though Sirisena was to drive from Parliament where he took part in the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, he chose to travel to his official residence first. Thus, the meeting followed by dinner did not begin until past 8 p.m.

Both, the SLPP and the Joint Opposition gave a mandate to Mahinda Rajapaksa to talk to President Sirisena. It was clear that a UNP government under a new Premier (from the UNP) was certain to win a vote of confidence in Parliament. The alternative, should efforts to seek a new UNP Prime Minister fail, was even more interesting. Rajapaksa has opined that the ‘Joint Opposition’ will be able to raise the numbers required – 113 or more MPs in the 225 member Parliament and form a caretaker government. It is not immediately clear how they would work this out but one source insisted “we are very confident.”

Yet, both options appeared to be formidable tasks for President Sirisena, who seems to be under political siege just over three years after assuming office.  Yet, he seemed determined. He dismissed overtures last Sunday by a cabinet minister who referred to Sirisena as his ‘comrade-in-arms’ for rapprochement. Despite calling the Police Chief Jayasundera a big “Joker” at a cabinet meeting, he has still not been able to remove him. That was cause for serious worry for him. Just this week, a defiant Jayasundera told a conference of senior police officers that “some people are trying to remove me but I will not go until I complete my term in 2020.”

Jayasundera made friends with senior officers with whom he was at odds. One such case was that of Palitha Siriwardena, SSP in charge of Kilinochchi, who has been fighting a Supreme Court case over his promotion as Deputy Inspector General (DIG). “Palitha, parana tharaha amathaka karala daanna. Mang oyata path weemak dunna,” or Palitha, forget the past anger. I have now given you an appointment,” he told him on the telephone. Siriwardena was posted this week as DIG in charge of Kegalle and Avissawella divisions. However, when the Police Chief turned up at the Presidential Secretariat to meet Sirisena he was not successful. It is known that sections of the UNP had asked the Police chief to stay on and fight. To another senior DIG, he declared on Friday night “Machang, wadey evarai ney” or Chum, it is over now. This senior DIG told a colleague that “the boss” had not spoken to him for over six months.

For Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, any peace with President Sirisena or the SLFP, and to continue with the coalition, became not only daunting but almost impossible. The divide sharpened after the cabinet meeting of October 16. This was after Sirisena accused India’s intelligence agency Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW) of being involved in the plot to kill him. The story was widely leaked in the media acutely embarrassing Sirisena and prompting him to deny it. He was forced to speak on the telephone to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reiterate that denial. The other was Premier Wickremesinghe’s move to enter into joint collaboration over the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port with India. As reported in these columns, Sirisena exclaimed that the ECT would not be given to “any outside party.”

It was just a day after the heated cabinet meeting that Wickremesinghe flew to New Delhi for a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The events that followed further incensed President Sirisena and added to other prevailing controversial issues. One was the statement issued in Colombo by Premier Wickremesinghe’s office which said Premier Modi had expressed “regret” over delays in joint Indo-Lanka development programmes in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in April 2017.

President Sirisena was of the view that former Premier Wickremesinghe should have first briefed him as Head of State and Head of Government before issuing such a statement. This is particularly in the light of Premier Modi making only veiled references that needed to be read between the lines in the statement issued by his office. President Sirisena believed that the gravamen of Wickremesinghe’s own statement was to “embarrass him and place him in bad light” vis-à-vis India.

However, Wickremesinghe did brief Sirisena last Monday morning at a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat. He was accompanied by Ministers Malik Samarawickrema, Arjuna Ranatunga and Sagala Ratnayake. Sources familiar with the discussion said Modi had wanted to know whether Sri Lankan leaders (both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe) had any dislike towards him and did not wish to work with his government. If indeed that was the position, the Indian Premier had said he would extend his apologies for any lapses if they existed since that was far from his mind. He declared that in the conduct of foreign relations, he had spent most of his time devoting attention to Sri Lanka.

Premier Modi’s displeasure did reflect at Tuesday’s weekly cabinet meeting. High on the agenda was Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe’s memorandum titled “Operationalisation and Full Development of East Container Terminal of SLPA.” It sought the development of the East Container Terminal (ECT) by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) “as the Hub port for South Asia’ and help sustenance of SLPA “as a viable and profitable enterprise.” When it came up before Cabinet on October 16, former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in his observations that the ECT should be converted into a tripartite venture amongst Sri Lanka, India and Japan. The matter was put on hold until last Tuesday. However, no decision was taken this week, too. The response of Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu, who was in New Delhi for Modi-Wickremesinghe talks, is now being awaited.

Contrary to claims by Premier Wickremesinghe that the joint collaboration for the development of the ECT with India was mentioned in the MoU of April 19, 2017 with New Delhi, a copy of this memorandum obtained by the Sunday Times refers only to the development of “a Container Terminal in Colombo Port as a Joint Venture, which includes Indian investments considering that majority of transhipment in the Colombo Port is related to India.” Whether there are other arrangements worked out together with Japan remains in writing, is not clear. This MoU was signed in New Delhi by Minister Malik Samarawickrema and India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Other areas of agreement, in terms of the MoU are;

=   A Regasified Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) fired 500 megawatt capacity LNG Power Plant, for which GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) will issue a Letter of Intent to GOI (Government of India) or to GOI representative by end May 2017.

=   AN LNG Terminal/floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Colombo/Kerawalapitya, a pipe gas distribution system; retail outlets for supply of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) to the transportation sector, and conversion of liquid fuel-based power plants to R-LNG fired power plants in Sri Lanka. GOSL will issue a Letter of Intent for the FSRU and the LNG package to GOI by mid May 2017. For the LNG Terminal/Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Colombo/Kerawalapitiya, a joint venture will be formed from among entities of Sri Lanka, India and Japan which modalities will be worked out by end July 2017. A Joint Working Group (JWG) will be constituted and will meet in the first half of May 2017. GOI will submit a Detailed Capital Project Report (DTR) to GOSL by end August 2017 on the pipe gas distribution system and retail outlets for supply of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) to the transportation sector.

=   A 50 MW (extendable to 100 MW) Solar Power Plant in Sampur, for which GOSL will issue a Letter of Intent to GOI or to GOI representative by end of May 2017.

=   Upper Tank Farm in Trincomalee will be jointly developed by India (Lanka-IOC PLC or LIOC) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon Petroleum Corporation). The joint venture (JV) project between LIOC and CPC will be set up by the end of July 2017 and Business Development proposals will be prepared by the JV by September 2017. As part of the Business Development Plan, the JV will prioritise the development of ten tanks in the Upper Tank Farm for exclusive use of the Government of Sri Lanka.  The land of the Upper Tank Farm which is currently in possession of Sri Lanka–IOC-CLC pursuant to the 2003 Agreement will be leased to the JV through Lanka-IOC-CLC. The land of the Lower Tank Farm which is also in possession of Lanka-IOC-CLC, pursuant to the 2003 Agreement, will be leased to Lanka IOC directly. The period of all the leases will be 50 years, extendable up to a maximum of 99 years by mutual consent.

=   A Port, Petroleum Refinery and other industries in Trincomalee, for which GOSL and GOI will set up a Joint Working Group by end June 2017.

=   Industrial Zones/Special Economic Zones in identified locations in Sri Lanka, details of which will be submitted by GOSL to GOI starting May 2017.

=   Roads in Sri Lanka including Mannar-Jaffna and Mannar-Trincomalee Highways and Dambulla-Trincomalee expressway under Indian investments, to facilitate which GOSL will submit to GOI a list of road projects to be considered for joint development.

=   The railway sector development in Sri Lanka including new projects of track upgradation and purchase of rolling stock, for which GOSL will submit to GOI a list of railway projects to be considered by end June 2017.

=   Agricultural sector and livestock development in Sri Lanka including through techno-economic cooperation, water management and promotion of agro-based industries, to facilitate which the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare of India and the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Rural Economic Affairs of Sri Lanka will hold discussion and bring out a Concept Paper by end June 2017.

As is clear from the above project, most of the time frames set out have not been kept. It now falls on the new government of Prime Minister Rajapaksa to pursue them should he win the support of Parliament.

Though the atmosphere was calm at last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, frictions did erupt. One was when former Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera had earlier presented a memorandum and obtained approval to privatise Colombo Hilton — a venture which President Sirisena once declared he would never allow to be privatised. When official business was over and it came to “any other business,” President Sirisena questioned Samaraweera why only a time frame of just two weeks had been given to prospective bidders and who was responsible. Samaraweera said that it was Thilan Wijesinghe, Chairman of the National Agency for Public-Private partnership in the Finance Ministry, who had done so.

Pointing out that this was not acceptable, President Sirisena disclosed that he had received complaints from many bidders. Most had asked for at least six weeks’ time. He said wrong impressions could be created that the exercise was being rushed through only because the successful bidder had been already selected. Samaraweera replied that some 30 bidders have shown interest. Sirisena shot back that it did not matter whether it was 30 or 100 but the issue had now become the talking point and added that the government was opening itself to criticism.

President Sirisena and Minister Samaraweera agreed thereafter that the time limit should be one month. In the light of this, Premier Wickremesinghe this week directed that a US$ 37 million second phase of a refurbishment programme for Colombo Hilton, which was to begin, to be halted immediately. He was of the view that it would be a huge waste of public funds since the new developer could do so to their own liking. In the forefront of the Hilton joint development deal is said to be a wealthy Hong Kong businessman with strong local political connections. Strong lobbying is also under way on behalf of local business entrepreneurs who claim they could match or even exceed foreign bids.

Heightening further tensions in President Sirisena’s relationship with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were Sirisena’s remarks at a public event at the Bandaranaike Convention Centre to mark the birth anniversary of independent Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister late D.S. Senanayake. It was arranged by the Western Provincial Council together with the Province’s Governor, Hemakumara Nanayakkara.

Sirisena declared; “In November 2014, when I came out to contest as the common candidate for the Presidential elections, I thought I was joining the D.S.-Dudley Senanayake UNP. It was later that I knew that it was not the same party.  D.S. Senanayake was known to be a person with gratitude, a patriot, a nationalist who protected the interests of the country. They were not tainted with bribery, being involved in robbery or corruption. The UNP developed as a very strong party. I respect my party the SLFP and hope that a UNP with persons like the late Senanayake or his son are reborn.”

Ministers supporting former Premier Wickremesinghe hit back at President Sirisena. Late D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Minister Sarath Fonseka said, belonged to an “elite class and engaged in politics when the British were intervening in Sri Lankan politics. Thereafter, there had been leaders like the late Ranasinghe Premadasa and D.B. Wijetunge who were not from the elite class,” he told a news conference at Sri Kotha, the UNP headquarters, last Tuesday. “If someone tries to engage in that type of politics today, people will think they are insane,” he said. The fact that Sri Kotha has been the launching pad for select UNP MPs for tirades against President Sirisena has irked him. A close aide argued such attacks had the concurrence of Premier Wickremesinghe but a UNP source flatly denied the claim. He said “we cannot stop them from reacting. What is wrong in their defending the party from their own headquarters?”

With the appointment of a new Prime Minister in Mahinda Rajapaksa ensconced in power, President Sirisena is expected to swear-in a new Cabinet. As it is a new government, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution permits only 30 Ministers. Constitutionally, President Sirisena remains the Head of Government as well, not Prime Minister Rajapaksa. But who will call the shots in governing the country is yet to be seen. Meanwhile sitting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe summoned a press conference at Temple Trees yesterday, the day after his removal, with all his coalition partners to insist he is still constitutionally the Prime Minister. It was interesting to note that Temple Trees is the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

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