Gotabaya loyalists call for Premier’s removal, while Namal pushes for abolition of executive presidency PM boycotts ceremony to swear-in new Cabinet after his nominations were rejected by the President SJB focuses on the No-Confidence Motion and the proposed 21st amendment; price issues, queues and growing public protests continue Beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now living in [...]


President, Premier differences widen


  • Gotabaya loyalists call for Premier’s removal, while Namal pushes for abolition of executive presidency
  • PM boycotts ceremony to swear-in new Cabinet after his nominations were rejected by the President
  • SJB focuses on the No-Confidence Motion and the proposed 21st amendment; price issues, queues and growing public protests continue

The President addresses the newly appointed ministers. Conspicuous by his absence was Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa

Beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now living in virtual isolation, has focused on elder brother and mentor, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, after their relationship turned toxic.

Parliamentarians loyal to the President, and today there are many of them in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), collected signatures to a letter. Ten of them want the President to remove the Prime Minister from office. The signatories were: K.P.S. Kumarasiri, Lalith Ellawala, Sudath Manjula, Udayana Kirindigoda, Wasantha Yapa Bandara, Dr Upul Galappatti, Karunadasa Kodithuwakku, Prof Gunapala Ratnasekara, Akila Saliya Ellawala and Udayakantha Gunatillake.

This is what the full text of the letter, translated from Sinhala, said: “As a group of newly elected Members of Parliament, we wish to bring to your attention our proposal in view of the threat of possible instability of the Government due to the current economic crisis and political uncertainty.

“The group submitting this letter has always accepted the leadership of yourself and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and continues to maintain that respect.

The views made by parties which have been working with us and the public protest campaigns have been underestimated. Our view is that we have still not assesses the actual public protests, the reasons for the protests and the public unrest while leaving aside the political, international, religious, and extremist readings in these protests.

“You need to put forward to the people clear proposals on overcoming the current economic crisis related to the ongoing political crisis. We would be submitting our proposals to you in this regard. Our priority should be to create a joint mechanism to manage the crisis within the Parliamentary democratic system and through constitutional amendments to ensure political stability.”

Parliamentarian Akila Ellawala told the Sunday Times, “Our proposals are aimed at keeping the government together and not to destabilize it. We have met the President on Wednesday and the Prime Minister on Thursday morning to discuss matters connected with our letter.”

Dullas strikes

In a separate two-page letter, former minister Dullas Allahapperuma, a most liked politician among government MPs, also called upon President Rajapaksa to remove Premier Rajapaksa and set up an interim government with members from all parties represented in Parliament. The letter dated April 21 was sent to the President with a copy to the Prime Minister. It noted, among other things, that “The confidence placed by the Public on us two years back has sharply eroded. We must identify the main causes for this situation.  We are experiencing the present economic catastrophe due to lack of foresight and irrational management of state finance followed in the past four decades for which we too are responsible.

“Commendable is your decision to appoint a Cabinet consisting of mainly youth for the first time in history, but the remedy has come too late. The remedy should be to appoint a small cabinet consisting of all party representatives for a maximum of one year. Also, the priority should be to create a stable situation for national unity and for the sovereignty of the state.

“Respecting the sovereignty of the people and listening to the public, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister should resign and pave the way to have an all-party government with a national agenda in mind, thereby allowing the Parliament to meet the challenges unitedly. Therefore, we should not hesitate to take correct and prudent decisions to protect the people and the democratic structure and restore the economic and political foundation at this critical juncture.”

Separately, the new Media Minister Nalaka Godahewa also resigned but the President did not accept his resignation. The reason he gave was that he wanted to help the President to set up an interim government.

The letter from the ten MPs was handed over to President Rajapaksa on Wednesday. The next day, the Premier sought a meeting with them at Temple Trees, his official residence. Attempts to persuade them to withdraw the move was not successful. These ten MPs kept away from a meeting of the government parliamentary group held in the Parliament premises on Thursday. It was chaired by Premier Rajapaksa. It is after this meeting that there were leaks to sections of the media that the group had unanimously endorsed a decision that they would work under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership. The exact number that took part in the meeting is not known. This, however, excluded the 42 MPs who had earlier backed the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led coalition and the ten MPs who signed the letter. If one is to go by the Government’s own claim, yet to be substantiated, that it held some 114 seats (after three Muslim MPs left its ranks), the number left would be some 62 MPs. The question is whether all of them attended.

Divisions between the two brothers — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — surfaced during a discussion last Sunday (April 17) night when they discussed the formation of a new Cabinet of Ministers. As revealed in these columns last week, the President sought to include young parliamentarians, who in his view, were not tainted with corruption. The Premier did reject some names with fresh ones being proposed by the President. At the end, the Premier insisted that there should be a mix of both older and new ministers — a proposal which the President was not inclined to accept.

The next day (Monday), a source at Temple Trees said, the Premier telephoned the President to make a last-minute appeal. That was of no avail. Among those whose inclusion the Premier sought, the source said, was that of Johnston Fernando, the highways minister, against whom there were a string of allegations over corruption involving road construction projects. He, however, flatly denies the accusations and has also filed action in courts against Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) member, Wasantha Samarasinghe, seeking a billion rupees in damages for making the same allegations in public.

Therefore, Premier Rajapaksa boycotted the swearing in ceremony at the Presidential Secretariat on Monday morning. He was oblivious to the fact that the new ministers who were being sworn in were to function under his leadership though constitutionally they came under the President. In fact, on Sunday evening, officials at Temple Trees, had telephoned nearly 100 members of the SLPP Lawyers Association for a meeting with the Premier at 10 a.m. on Monday.  He sat there, listening to the speeches that were being made whilst his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was swearing in the ministers. There were 17 of them besides 27 State Ministers.

SLPP Lawyers’ Association President W. Dayaratne appeared familiar with the political developments. He said that Premier Rajapaksa should not resign from the Premiership and praised him for liberating “us from terrorism.” He said the SLPP lawyers’ body had remained dormant for the past four years and noted that members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka were appearing in a large number for cases related to the ongoing protests. Later, Monday, Premier Rajapaksa had a meeting with the new ministers at Temple Trees. However, President Rajapaksa was not present.

SLPP insiders say Premier Rajapaksa has begun efforts to consolidate his position within the government parliamentary group though a sizeable number are not a party to his move. By doing so, they say, he was not only trying to bolster his now shaky position but also ensuring a line of succession to his son, Namal, whom he views as a future President. Even if that line up is not immediate, in years to come, the father would have paved the way for his son, they opine. An example they point out was the case of Ferdinand Marcos junior in the Philippines.

Though his father plundered that nation, engaged in corruption and nepotism, the son is being touted as a front runner in the May 9 presidential elections. However, others argue that Namal led a much more happy-go-lucky lifestyle of high-altitude sky jumping from aircraft over the skies of Dubai or taking part in water sports in the Maldives. To his credit, however, he maintained a secret relationship with some leaders of the previous yahapalana government. They helped him when in power. When the SLPP took over, he returned the favours. One such instance was when some former top yahapalana leaders were facilitated with anti-COVID 19 injections at the Army Hospital. The prelude was a tea party with cakes and kolikuttu plantains.

The young politician’s initiatives, now provocative and even abrasive from those before, are resonating in his utterances to close friends and in his twitter messages. If he did in the past defend the presidency and their actions, they are becoming increasingly different. A tweet from him on Friday said, “Any change to the Constitution should start with a total abolishment of the Executive Presidency as was promised to the people.”  That was another way of saying that his uncle Gotabaya Rajapaksa should go.  Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group is also likely to support the 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would include provision calling for the abolition of the executive presidency.

Another group of ruling party MPs met Premier Rajapaksa on Thursday to caution him about the dangers that lay ahead due to countrywide protests. He had responded that “such things have happened in the past too” and added that there was nothing to worry about. A former Cabinet minister, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, told the Sunday Times, “they (meaning the PM and his advisors which include close but politically inexperienced members of his family) do not see the seriousness of the situation. They are more worried about their own personal future than of the people or the country. This kind of situation should end. Enough is enough.”

President admits to making mistakes

Other than placing Premier Rajapaksa in his crosshairs, the retired Lieutenant Colonel turned President also triggered some landmark political acts this week. One was his speech to the new ministers. His media promoters projected it as a veritable address to the nation. In that, he admitted to making two mistakes. One was not seeking the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (FUND) much earlier. Though he did not say why, it was the result of advice from bureaucrats whom he chose — the then Presidential Secretary, P. B. Jayasundera, the then Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle and the then Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal. They were all called upon to resign.

Yet, he must take the responsibility for their actions when they served. Although he did not say so publicly, his brother and the then Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksa, the President knew, did not push for it either. He has had a revolutionary idea — with a vast amount of money printed, to first go for parliamentary elections and obtain a major victory for the SLPP. The cash would have been enough to buy over votes. He perhaps was unaware of a phenomenon called inflation or has not yet received its Sinhala translation. Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland (Washington) said this week that inflation in Sri Lanka is a total 120%. He tweeted on Thursday that “Following President Rajapaksa’s 2019 rise to power, Sri Lanka’s money supply surged, the rupee collapsed, and an economic crisis has engulfed the nation. Now, LK,’s begging for a 17th IMF bailout. Until LK adopts a currency board, IMF funds are money down the drain.”

The second mistake, the President said, was a ban on chemical fertiliser. It is pertinent to note that Premier Rajapaksa raised objections during a cabinet meeting. However, this was overlooked. The result: rice prices soared and remain high even today. Farmers are up in arms. After months, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now admitting that he was responsible. That he has erred in very important governance issues, first denied, is being admitted only now.

It was only on March 16 that he addressed the Sri Lankan nation. The speech was televised on all channels and published the next day in the print media. What did he say then? Here are some salient points:

* This crisis was not created by me. Those who contributed to the creation of this crisis are criticizing the government in front of the people today.

* By limiting the use of fuel and electricity as much as possible, the people too can extend their support to the country at this time. I hope that you will understand the responsibility that lies with you at this challenging time.

* I entered politics on your (public) invitation.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been a novice in politics. In the early hours of January 9, results of the previous day’s presidential election in 2005 were still pouring in. It became clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa was the winner. He was descending the staircase at Temple Trees when he ran into brother Gotabaya. It was there that he told him that he would be the new Defence Secretary. By this time, there were several claimants to the office including one from a retired senior military official who had earned the wrath of a previous J.R. Jayewardene administration. That office was his first exposure to politicians and remains a highly controversial phase in his career. At that time, neither President Rajapaksa nor others reigned him in and he had a free run. That may be a matter of regret for the Premier now.

SJB at receiving end

There is no gainsaying that the entire credit for forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to act should go to the country’s patriotic youth who have continued their protests with fellow countrymen for the past 12 days. They are committed and feel for their country and people unlike most politicians. The opposition political parties do not come even a poor second. Take for example the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the largest single opposition group in Parliament. Whilst struggling with a proposed No-Confidence Motion, which is yet to be finalised, it has come up with a draft 21st Amendment to the Constitution. It was followed on Friday by a private member’s motion from Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe MP, with another 21st Amendment. Whilst there is merit in these proposed amendments, the question that begs answer is whether they are of utmost priority. What about the fuel, food, cooking gas shortages, power cuts and other issues that have affected every man, woman, and child in Sri Lanka?

All one must do is to visit some of the areas where large scale protests are being carried out. They will discover the criticism levelled against SJB leader Sajith Premadasa was his laid-back approach to issues affecting the people. The SJB’s proposed No-Confidence Motion against the Government is caught up in controversies with former partners of the ruling coalition.

“We have so far had three rounds of talks with the SJB. We made clear to them that we will support the motion only if they extend their support for an interim government,” declared former Minister Udaya Gammanpila. He said the SJB would also have to make sure there were 113 MPs backing the motion and warned that it was bound to fail. The same question also arises where the SJB’s 21st Amendment to the Constitution is concerned: will it be able to muster a two-thirds majority in Parliament? That apart, the process itself would be time consuming. Details of the draft constitutional amendments appear elsewhere in this newspaper. Adding a degree of confusion is a reported intimation from President Rajapaksa to Speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. He has said that a new draft constitution prepared by a committee headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva was now ready. He had said that it would be sent to Parliament for discussion. If the proposed 21st Amendments speak of stripping the President’s powers, the new draft Constitution seeks to confer more on the President.

Also appearing elsewhere in this newspaper are detailed reports on the incident in which a protester died after Police opened fire. A matter of grave public concern is the comment made by Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ajith Rohana, the senior Police spokesperson. He declared that the victim was a suspect in a murder case. Is the police propaganda boy therefore suggesting that the shooting was justifiable? They had to fire 36 rounds from four T-56 assault rifles to snuff out one life. His remarks do no good to the Police Department which has produced many honest and dedicated officers. It is time that Police Chief Chandana Wickremeratne infuses some sense into these spin doctors, so they do not continue to insult the intelligence of the people and even his own officers.

Another who was playing the role of the police spokesperson was Foreign Secretary, Jayanath Colombage. In an April 22 dated confidential five-page report to heads of Sri Lanka diplomatic missions overseas, he has given his own findings. This is before the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had concluded its investigations or a magisterial inquiry now being conducted was concluded. This is what he says:

  • On April 19, 2022 at about 0100 in the morning a group of protestors started agitating demanding fuel. The location was the Petrol Shed near the railway crossing in Rambukkana.
  • Police intervened and got down two bowsers – one with 33,000 litres of petrol/diesel and, one with 26,000 litres of petrol.
  • But the protestors blocked one bowser on railway crossing removed the battery and deflated the tyres and blocked the railway. Many trains were unable to move and a large number of passengers were greatly inconvenienced.
  • In the afternoon of April 19, Police requested the crowd to disperse, repeatedly to move the bowser and restore fuel supply and allow the train to move,
  • Since the crowd was not dispersing, Police carried out a baton charge followed by firing tear gas. Some protesters dispersed, some re-grouped, started pelting stones and set fire to a three-wheeler.
  • Then the group tried to set fire to the fuel bowser which was stuck on the railway crossing. If the protestors succeeded in setting fire to the fuel bowser with 33,000 litres of petrol, it would have resulted in large scale destruction of property and even lives.
  • The protestors continued to attack Police personnel and even the Police who were guarding the fuel bowser.
  • Police in order to prevent a possible disaster and save lives, fired some shots into the air. Since the crowd was increasingly behaving violently, the Police ordered to fire below knees.
  • In the ensuring situation, nearly 17 protestors were injured and one ASP plus ten policemen were injured. One protestor succumbed to injuries.
  • Secretary/Law and Order has appointed a committee to conduct an immediate inquiry to ascertain the incident and to study whether the Police had used excessive force. Meanwhile the HRCSL has dispatched an independent team to carry out an investigation.
  • A Police curfew was in place for the Rambukkana Police area and the Police are requesting the public to remain calm.

Some of the seemingly factual accounts are questionable. In fact, lawyers of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have raised issue over them. Foreign Secretary Colombage may have forgotten the fact that envoys to almost all countries to whom the confidential document has been sent have representation in Colombo. Thus, in trying to manipulate the developments, he is casting further doubts in their mind. He seems blissfully unaware that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed a proclamation on April 21 to deploy troops countrywide after the shortcomings in the Police action. They have been tasked to maintain peace, law, and order. He also seems to have lost track of the next sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva where the issue is to figure. Why have enemies when the Government’s own men are doing this?

That Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was in a defiant mood was reflected in an interview he gave Neth FM radio. He said whoever forms an interim government, he would remain the Prime Minister.

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