A high-ranking Indian official was in Colombo for talks with government leaders last Monday.
Samant Kumar Goel, head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, met President Ranil Wickremesinghe for wide-ranging talks. Associated with them were the President’s Senior National Security Advisor Sagala Ratnayake, and Milinda Moragoda, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in India.
Traditionally, the head of India’s external intelligence agency is also designated as Secretary (Research) in the Cabinet Secretariat and is under the authority of the Indian Prime Minister. It is not subject to parliamentary oversight. Goel took over as head of RAW in June 2019.
The visiting high-ranking intelligence official also had a separate meeting with Basil Rajapaksa, the ideologue and strategist behind the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Why he chose a meeting with him, now a person who has reached the status of a virtual non-entity is not clear but is significant. Is there a message that India would deal with two persons from the ruling party? Is it on the basis that President Wickremesinghe is from the United National Party (UNP) and the predominant player in the government is the SLPP? Basil Rajapaksa had been contacted for the engagement whilst he was away from Sri Lanka. He returned to Colombo only last Sunday and the meeting took place on Monday.
Rajapaksa last held the post of Finance Minister, a position that led to regular interactions with India. It was he who negotiated the first loan from the Indian government and maintained close ties with political leaders in New Delhi. He was removed from the finance portfolio by his brother and then President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Later, he resigned as a National List MP amidst controversy over whether dual citizens could become parliamentarians. The passage of the 22nd amendment to the Constitution debarred dual citizens thereafter. At present he does not hold any position.
In fact, his return using the VIP Lounge at the Bandaranaike International Airport generated controversy. Besides, Chandra Fernando, a former Police Chief and now a member of the ‘independent’ Police Commission’ together with another colleague took part in the arrival ceremonies. However, he explained that he was at the airport and had heard some commotion. He had only gone to see what it was. Nevertheless, it is known that Fernando worked from the SLPP office in Battaramulla. The Airport and Aviation Services Chairman, retired Major General G.A. Chandrasiri, too, was present on the occasion. The VIP Lounge comes under the Authority’s purview.
Fuller details of the Indian VIP’s discussion were not immediately available. However, a source familiar with the talks said RAW Chief Goel raised several security-related issues with President Wickremesinghe. One of them related to Yuan Wang 5, described as one of China’s latest generation space-tracking ships meant to monitor satellite, rocket, and intercontinental ballistic missile launchers. The vessel was allowed to originally dock into the Trincomalee port on August 11 but was not allowed entry following protests raised by India. Authorities in New Delhi had provided the government in Colombo with documentation to claim that the ship’s visit was to allegedly monitor Indian military establishments. Despite that, India alleged permission had later been granted for the vessel to berth at the Trincomalee port from August 16 to 22, a move, it is argued, led to the ignoring of issues raised by them. Also raised in this discussion were other naval visits to Sri Lanka including those planned and the criteria to be adopted for those visits due.
Other than that, RAW Chief Goel also had a string of other queries from President Wickremesinghe mostly on the security front and broadly on the economic front. They encompassed ports in Sri Lanka and other installations. President Wickremesinghe had assured that his government would not do anything harmful to Indian interests. Goel will now report to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
Those developments earlier, it is known, placed a strain on relations between Colombo and New Delhi. It fell on High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda to play the role of an interlocutor in the past several weeks. This is to place relations on a cordial track and ensure a more friendly and enhanced dialogue. Towards this, he has been mostly engaging NSA Doval, who was initially to have come to Sri Lanka. He had earlier provided the rationale for the recent developments.
However, the task later fell on RAW Chief Goel. He has now been briefed on the trajectory of Colombo’s relations with New Delhi. It comes at an important moment in the country’s history. President Wickremesinghe has already declared that his government would formulate an ethnic reconciliation package, a move sought by India and now welcomed by the main player, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Other Tamil political parties are yet to accept it.
The surprising turn of the TNA in this regard is noteworthy. Its frontline parliamentarian Abraham Sumanthiran, in a speech in Parliament, noted: “All members of the Tamil National Alliance criticized the budget. Every one of us for various reasons. I don’t need to repeat that. And ordinarily, we would have had to, therefore, vote against the budget at the second reading. However, we took a decision not to cast our votes against the budget at the second reading, for one reason and that is because the President has on numerous occasions, in the last few days, repeatedly said that he wants to resolve the Tamil national question. He has invited the Tamil parties to have discussions with him. We have publicly expressed our skepticism about this invitation. Nevertheless, when there is a hand that is stretched out from the President himself, we thought we must reciprocate in some way and, therefore, would not vote against the budget as a signal of our bona fides in this matter.” The stance that despite “scepticism” the TNA would not back off from voting against the government is indeed something new. Other Tamil political parties in the north, however, have not concurred. In fact, they turned down an invitation for a meeting with TNA leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, ahead of meeting President Wickremesinghe.
Moves to destabilise Govt.
The TNA’s assertion also enhances President Wickremesinghe’s position in other areas. In the past many weeks, the security establishment has been reporting to him about moves by groups to “destabilise” the government. The subject came up for discussion at meetings of the National Security Council on several occasions. Attention was focused on one student group and its specific plans. Against this backdrop, a strong statement made by President Wickremesinghe not only received wider coverage but also triggered different reactions. First the highlights of what he said since it turns out to be the most important statement after assuming the office of the presidency. If they were made on Thursday in Parliament, a repeat of it on Friday (also in Parliament), underscores President Wickremesinghe’s mood. More importantly, the remarks also reflect a statement of government policy though not expressly titled. In view of that, the edited highlights, which are somewhat lengthy, are quoted below:
“Before I talk about this subject, I must remember two things that I mentioned yesterday (i.e. Wednesday). MP Mujibur Rahuman said that three fears have arisen in the President’s mind. I want to tell you that a person cannot have three fears. The three fears occurred in Vishal Mahanuwara. Fear of disease, fear of inhumanity, and fear of death can occur in a group of people. I ask him to listen to the Rathana Sutra to clarify that point. A person never has three fears. Even if there is fear of Marikkar, even if there is fear of Hirunika, and even if there is fear of Rosie, it is not three fears.
“Also, my friend Vijitha Herath said that Ranil Wickremesinghe, who sat in the presidential chair thanks to the Aragalaya (protestors) is suppressing the same Aragalaya today. Not because of the merit of the Aragalaya; if the president of this country goes, the Prime Minister should take that position. Besides, according to the law, I should have been the acting president. My house was set on fire, I was told to get out. But I didn’t quit, that’s why I’m here.
“Our Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa also said today that I asked for this presidency. I didn’t ask for this. I accepted this because of the situation in the country. The Mahanayake Theras also requested me. I didn’t go and ask them. I didn’t write letters. Today, the Leader of the Opposition has forgotten the letter he sent to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on May 12.”
Mr. Premadasa: “Mr President, I declare that I have decided to accept the post of Prime Minister as the leader of the Samagi Jana Bala Sandanaya to form a short-term government under the leadership of the SJB alliance as the main party of the opposition. After my speech, I request that this entire letter be included in the Hansard.”
President Wickremesinghe: “Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. If you want, you can see it in the party constitution. A disciplinary investigation can be held. Don’t blame me. He is the one who agreed to resign from the presidency within a specific, period. So, he left two months after I took the oath. It was you who told him to leave. What do I do?
“When talking about the army, some people said the expenditure of the army has increased. According to some people, the allocations for the military cannot be reduced in 24 hours. The 25,000 employees cannot be put on the road at once. We are planning now. It should be done accordingly. The army had to bear more expenses this time. We cannot stop it. Although the number of troops has decreased, promotions have increased. Such facts have also affected this.
(Note: Defence Ministry votes were taken up on Friday. When it came to the votes of the Army, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) members were not present in the House.)
“The other thing is that now we have deployed the army for food security programmes. Also, we get a lot of income from military farms, and I have told them to use the army as much as necessary for the transportation of those goods. We need to look at the future of the army. We are working according to the Security 2030 report for that. We must plan our defences. It is impossible to say that there is no threat in the world. These conditions are changing. Not the 1971 threat, the ’80s, or the Easter Sunday incident. These threats happen in different ways. We must remember that. We must look at global conditions. We need to focus on the Indian Ocean. Our naval forces should be increased by 2030. The army may decrease. The Air Force may have more fighter jets. Drone technology is needed. By 2040, this situation will increase even more. We want to see how this will continue. We need to reduce our defence expenditure to maintain 3%-4%. If we can, we have enough money to bring our economic growth rate to 8%. This situation was created in Singapore with an 8% economic growth for many years. We need to think anew.
“Also, those who leave the army should have the opportunity to contribute to society. Today, professionals are leaving this country. That gap can be filled by training our armed forces personnel and sending them to those places. That is why we have reduced the retirement age of military service from 22 to 18 years. Others have no problem. We must plan these anew. We must think anew. I wish we could manufacture a new warship in Sri Lanka. We have that power. Only the money must be found.
“I saw that Britain has made these plans until 2035. We need to bring new laws. We will establish the Security Council by law. It is planned to establish the post of National Security Adviser, as well as a National Security Secretariat. Similarly, a tri-forces committee will be appointed for those offices. I will discuss all this and present it to this House. We want to create a new army in Sri Lanka. To do that, a rapidly growing economy is needed. We have also paid attention to the police. We are getting a report called “Public Security Report” to find out how to improve the police in the next 10 years. I informed the Minister about it.
“Now the Police Ordinance has reached the stage where it must be sent to the museum. We are now working on preparing a new Ordinance.
“There are many problems like drug trafficking and human trafficking today. We must move forward in solving all these issues. I would especially like to thank all the armed forces personnel who worked to protect this parliament from the violent mobs that day. If they were not there, there would be no parliament in this country today. We would not be able to sit and discuss matters as we are doing today.
“Article 3 of our Constitution states that sovereignty belongs to the people. Section 4 states how it works. Legislative power, executive power, and judicial power as well as fundamental rights.
“Also, the referendum is the only opportunity where the people can participate directly. No one can go out on the street and cause trouble. There is no room for violence. The military has the responsibility of protecting these rules. When it comes to overthrowing governments, the army cannot stand aside. We cannot sit idly by when our Mahanayake Theros are being threatened. According to Article 9 of the Constitution, the army has the power to stop them. Such acts of violence cannot be tolerated. We should stop creating chaos by employing clerics. I do not want to allow this at all. Today, some members of the clergy are protesting and causing a disturbance. The Sangha has religious activities to attend. They should engage in those activities. It is a different matter that lay people are involved in protests.
“I would like to remind the Education Minister that not a single university student is in custody. Wasantha Mudalige was a university student for 8-9 years. This is very important. I left university at 21. Although Mudalige is 31 years old, he is still a university student. A student can only be given one extra year. After that, they should have to leave the university.
“I want to say something. I also want to protect human rights. Anarchy and violence cannot be allowed to encroach on human rights. Human rights cannot be used to create violence and anarchy. Those who cause violence in the name of human rights cannot be protected. Article 14 of the Constitution outlines our fundamental rights. They can be implemented especially to ensure state security, within the limits prescribed by law, for public safety, including clauses on the protection of the Constitution. All these are in articles 15/1, and 15/2. These limits cannot be exceeded.
“Some claim today that they are the ones who protect human rights. What have they done? At least we have done these in practice. We have established independent commissions. Before that, the government had brought the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.
“These people claim to protect human rights but live off the money sent from abroad. That is the reality. Can anybody stand up and tell me they didn’t? I know about these people. I have worked with them. I protected them. They are shouting at me today. We cannot allow chaos in the country in this way.
“Do anything within the law. The Leader of the Opposition has said that I will adjourn parliament. I will not procrastinate. I have no right to adjourn parliament. I am not going to dissolve parliament just because I was shouted at on the street. The majority is not those who shout. The majority is silent. Those silent people have the right to live and get their rights. We must act according to those rights.
“Now they are trying to arrest the police officers under the guise of human rights. Perhaps, the police have violated human rights. If some have done so, we are ready to act against them if they file cases and are found guilty.
“Human rights cases are filed against the police to stop them from acting against those who create emergencies and riots. This is not done because of human rights, but to stop the police from acting against them. So, I asked the Attorney General to investigate this. If they do that, the law should be implemented. This game cannot be allowed to continue forever. Everyone in the security forces has a responsibility to protect the government if such a situation arises. Everyone from a Corporal to Field Marshal should work together to protect these institutions. I would like to express my thanks to the three-armed forces and the police who are committed to this service.”
In a reiteration of his speech on Friday, President Wickremesinghe included a few more new elements. He said “I will not allow any Dinh Diem or those around him. Now they say they are going to start the “Dinh Diem Aragalaya” again. Anyone can hold meetings, the JVP had meetings. The TNA is holding meetings in the North.” (Dinh Diem was the American-backed leader of South Vietnam between 1954 and November 1963. Diem and his regime were notorious for their corruption, rigged elections and persecution of political opponents and religious groups. He was captured and killed in November 1963.)
“Anyone can hold protests or meetings legitimately. You can shout as much as you want and call me a dictator. I don’t mind. However, I must say one thing. Get your permit to protest before you take to the streets. Don’t obstruct vehicular movement and get onto a side of the road and protest. That’s all I am asking. Yet, if anyone thinks that they can engage in another struggle without obtaining a licence, stop it. I have instructed the police. If anyone tries to stage a protest to topple the government, I will not allow it. I will impose emergency law and deploy the military. There is no room for Dinh Diems in this country.
”Who will go with Kumar Gunaratnam now? If he is accepted, then no one can speak against Basil Rajapaksa. People will not stand with them just because they shout every day. Let’s see which media created these forces. Let’s see which media asked people to set fire to certain places. I intend to appoint a commission to investigate this incident.
“We appointed a commission following the Easter Sunday bombings. I could have also gone to it and given evidence. Then we need to appoint a commission for this incident, too. We brought in the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. We appointed all these commissions. Now we are ready to open the Parliament Budget Office. We have drafted a bill to limit election expenditures. Many more things have been implemented. Now that these commissions are functioning, let the opposition and the ruling party decide who will choose those five young people. Before the end of this December, take some of their names and arrange to appoint them by January.
“We have to make a difference. I am not going to dissolve parliament. There is a big problem in the economy of this country. Now many people in the country are fed up with elections and political parties are also fed up. Even if I go to the SJB meeting today, there will only be faces I know.”
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa responded to President Wickremesinghe’s statement. He said, “The President told the house that there will not be an election. However, we don’t need to be surprised. He came to the position as a single national list MP who was not elected from an election. He came to parliament and was appointed as the Prime Minister, that too was a decision by the president (the president chose him). Afterwards, he obtained a majority from 225 members in parliament and became the president. Therefore, he does not have a lot of trust in the universal franchise system; he has no trust in the voting rights of people. None of us should be worried about him saying that there will not be an election recently.
“When it was said that elections were not going to be held, some “slaves” in the House clapped for that as well. What kind of public representative cheers when it is said that the elections will not be held? Now they have skipped from one form of slavery to another. I am telling the ones who are staying in a comfort zone without an election can stay that way and we don’t have any problem with that. I am making a request from the president who values democracy. I call him to change his view expressed yesterday and hold an election and change the abnormality and work together towards a true public view with transparency.
“He spoke about Aragalaya (Struggle). If he knows gratitude, he should be thankful to Aragalaya as it paved the way for him to become president. Aragalaya was the reason why the president at the time had to step down and resign. It is sad to say because as usual he has got mixed up about it. We should not get Aragalaya mixed up. Aragalaya is the struggle to win the people’ basic rights through people’s strength. They got together when they were denied obtaining gas, diesel and fertiliser and when everything needed for humans including health and education was denied to them. The Aragalaya of the people is just, and democratic; it was void of violence, and barbarism. The violence started from Temple Trees by the direction of Mahinda Rajapaksa. That is the bitter truth. I am not defaming anyone.
“We heard that Aragalaya was suppressed by forces and emergency law. We will not allow that. There is space in this country for Aragalaya. We will help and be the strength to any peaceful Aragalaya. We will give leadership so that nobody can stop that. “Action should be taken against violence; the forces can act against them but when people are standing up against families which caused corruption and driven the country towards bankruptcy no one can stop it. We will also not allow anyone to stop it.”
There is little doubt that President Wickremesinghe’s remarks will embolden the police to deal with protestors. Though in principle he will not sign Detention Orders (under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in his capacity as the Minister of Defence), he expects the Police to crack down on protestors. The security forces will extend their support whenever required since a substantial strength has been deployed. It also turns the focus on whether local council elections, which the opposition demands, will be ceded. This is until the Delimitation Commission that has been appointed concludes its task.
The vote on the second reading of the Budget was passed by a majority of 31 votes last Tuesday. A total of 121 voted in favour and 84 against, giving a firm indication that the vote on the third reading on December 8 would go through. Only one member, C.V. Wigneswaran, abstained.
Of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP’s) 14 MPs, nine voted in favour of the Budget: They are: Nimal Siripala De Silva, Mahinda Amaraweera, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Jagath Pushpakumara, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Shantha Bandara, Suren Raghavan, Chamara Sampath Dasanayake and Duminda Dissanayake.
Five SLFP MPs, however, voted against the Budget: Maithripala Sirisena, Dayasiri Jayasekara, Angajan Ramanathan, Shan Wijayalal De Silva and Sarathi Dushmantha. Three Independent MPs — Nimal Lanza, A.L.M. Athaullah and Ali Sabri Raheem — also voted in favor of the Budget:
Two CWC (Ceylon Workers Congress) members Arumugam Thondaman and M. Rameshwaran also voted in favour of the Budget, though they sit with the opposition.
Thirteen SLPP (Dullas Group) – MPs sitting as an independent group with the opposition and known as the “Nidahasa Jathika Sabhawa.” voted against the Budget: They are:
Prof. G.L. Peiris (SLPP Chairman), Dullas Alahapperuma (SLPP Treasurer), Prof. Charitha Herath, Dilan Perera, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Prof. Channa Jayasumana, Dr. Upul Galappatti, Dr. Thilak Rajapaksha, Lalith Ellawala, K.P.S. Kumarasiri, Wasantha Yapa Bandara, Gunapala Rathnasekera and Udayana Kirindigoda.
Twelve SLPP (Wimal Group) – MPs sitting as an independent group with the opposition. Known as the “Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya. (ULS), they voted against the Budget: Wimal Weerawansa (ULS Chairman), Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Udaya Gammanpila, Prof. Tissa Vitharana, Gevindu Kumaratunga, Jayantha Samaraweera, Mohomad Muzammil, Weerasumana Weerasinghe, Gamini Waleboda, Uddika Premaratne and Nimal Piyatissa.
Six SLPP MPs who are known as the Anura Priyadarshana Yapa Group were divided with two voting against, two voting in favour and two others were absent.
Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Chandima Weerakkody voted against while John Seneviratne and PriyankaraJayaratne voted in favour. Dr. Sudarshani Fernadopulle and Jayarathna Herath were absent.
SJB MPs in Government — Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara, Diana Gamage and Aravindh Kumar voted for the Budget. SJB Independents – Patali Champika Ranawaka, Kumara Welgama and Ishak Rahuman — voted against the Budget.
TMTK Leader C.V. Wigneswaran was the lone opposition MP who abstained.
Eighteen members were absent: Government – Bandula Gunawardena and Janaka Tissakuttiarachchi (Both Sick); SJB – Vadivel Suresh and Velu Kumar; Independents – Asanka Navarathna and H.M.M. Harees; TNA – All ten MPs were absent. So were Dr. Sudarshani Fernadopulle and Jayarathna Herath.
In other developments, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry is leaving for Washington DC for talks with leaders there. The three-day visit will begin on November 30 and the highlight of the programme will be a meeting with the United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Washington DC has also lined up meetings for him with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.
The US has been one of the prime movers of the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. In this backdrop, diplomatic sources say Washington would try to persuade Sri Lanka to heed the provisions of the resolution. Moreover, a Secretariat under the UNHRC is now probing allegations against political leaders in Sri Lanka for alleged human rights violations and ‘economic crimes.’