9th November, 2003 Volume 10, Issue 17

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POLITICS

Inside Politics

A Palace Coup that went bust 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

President Chandrika Kumaratunga

By Suranimala

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was happily in dreamland at the Presidential Suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Washington after a hectic but successful day's work when he was rudely awakened by the incessant ringing of the telephone in the wee hours of Tuesday morning - 1:40 a.m. to be exact.

The caller at the other end was Chairman, Sri Lanka Telecom and President, Sri Lanka Cricket, Thilanga Sumathipala, who had an urgent message to deliver.

Still half asleep, the Prime Minister's initial thoughts were that Sumathipala was about to be arrested following a CID investigation into his links with the underworld and was calling for help.

"What's it? asked the Prime Minister when Sumathipala identified himself, having first been accidentally connected to the room of the Editor, The Sunday Leader, with the receptionist at the hotel mistaking Wickremesinghe with Wickrematunge.

"Sir, the President has sacked Mr. Marapone as defence minister and I am told she is going to remove Ministers John Amaratunga and Imthiaz Bakeer Markar as well," Sumathipala told the Prime Minister quite agitated.

Quickly collecting his thoughts, the Premier fired two more questions to Sumathipala on the events leading up to the President's action and rang off.

Consultations with support staff

Completely unruffled, Wickreme-singhe clad in batik sarong and T-shirt then quietly got up and called in Ministers Tyronne Fernando and Milinda Moragoda who were occupying adjoining rooms for consultations together with his support staff.

Within moments thereafter walking into the Presidential Suite were Secretary, Foreign Ministry, Bernard Goonetilleke and Ambassador in Washington, Devinda Subasinghe who were immediately asked to move the wheels of the international community against Kumaratunga's actions.

It was the previous day, Monday, November 3, that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met with US Acting Secretary of State, Richard Armitage who pledged the fullest support of the United States to the ongoing peace process and the resumption of a dialogue with the LTTE based on the two sets of proposals on the table, which message had already made news in Sri Lanka and Wickremesinghe was astounded the President had without any consultation decided on the course of action she took.

He told Ministers Fernando and Moragoda, the President appears to have kicked an own goal and the government should move swiftly to draw the attention of the international community to her precipitous action aimed at destabilising the peace process and pushing the country back onto the brink of war.

Within minutes, Minister Moragoda and Fernando were on the phone as were Subasinghe and Goonetilleke making contact with the Norwegians, European Union, India, Great Britain and Japan, turning the heat on Kumaratunga.

At the same time in Colombo, the President was looking to Indian High Commissioner, Nirupam Sen for India's support but the response was far from encouraging though Sen did speak with several ministers urging for a compromise settlement.

By this time Colombo was a hive of activity with the President following her decision to sack the ministers moving swiftly to take control by appointing her trusted lieutenants to the key positions in the Defence, Interior and Media Ministries whilst also ensuring the gazette notifications giving effect to her decisions were printed by the Government Printer, Neville Nanayakkakara.

Printing of gazettes

This she did by sending the army to the Government Printer with her Assistant Secretary Thambugala directing the printing of two gazettes, first being the prorogation of parliament and second, the appointment of Cyril Herath and T. Ranaviraja as secretaries to the Ministries of Defence and Mass Communication.

The swift moves by the President in fact caught the UNP somewhat by surprise and initially there was a sense of panic and it took the Prime Minister to call for calm reminding members they faced a bigger crisis during President Premadasa's impeachment.

The President who was seeking legal advice from President's Counsel H.L. de Silva also moved to declare a state of emergency to justify her reasons for the take over of the ministries, namely a purported threat to national security, solely in the belief she would be able to muster a sufficient number from the UNP to form a government during the period of prorogation.

In fact Kumaratunga's strategy was to sack the Ministers and prorogue parliament, declare an emergency and cause panic among the UNPers and draw them into her fold to make up the magical number of 113 in parliament using the period of the prorogation to do the wooing.

In furtherance of this plan, she also sent a draft gazette notification dated November 4 to the Government Printer which however reached the printer only the following day, November 5.

The President of course knew only too well though parliament was reconvened for November 19, the declaration of emergency necessitated the resummoning of parliament within 10 days, that is by November 15, and was supremely confident she would have the required numbers by then to get it through parliament.

Indeed the likes of Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Amunugama, Anura Bandaranaike and Mervyn Silva led the President to believe the numbers were in the bag.

However, when the gazette notification reached the Government Printer on November 5, several spelling mistakes in addition to mistakes in the sections cited were observed and it was sent back to the new Defence Secretary, Cyril Herath for clarification and correction.

By then, however, it was clear the President had made a fatal blunder in her calculations with 130 MPs solidly extending support to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his government in addition to the messages of international support, forcing Kumaratunga to backtrack, fully realising she did not have a ghost of a chance in getting the emergency passed in parliament.

Mood change

The mood at President's House soon turned from one of euphoria to a funeral like atmosphere with the President now seeking to strike a compromise deal with the government and inviting UNP Deputy Leader and Power Minister Karu Jayasuriya for talks. The message was conveyed through President's Secretary B.J. Karunaratne on Thursday.

Jayasuriya was to quickly consult Party Chairman Malik Samarawick-rema and senior ministers of the cabinet and word was sent back to Kumaratunga the government was in no mood to meet with her and that she would have to wait for the Prime Minister's arrival and meet with him, if he so chose to do.

In fact, so desperate was she to get the numbers to climb out of the hole she had dug for herself through the disastrous course of action, former PSD Director, Nihal Karunaratne was sent to the houses of several UNP MPs with a message the President wanted to meet them but there were no takers.

One such member Karunaratne approached was UNP's Gampaha District MP, Edward Gunasekara, who politely told the former PSD director, he had no intention of leaving the UNP and to tell the President as much.

Pleaded Karunaratne - "No, no the President does not want you to do that. She wants to form a national government. It is for that she wants your support." Gunasekara however said he was not interested.

Another member approached by the President with an offer to send a vehicle for him to travel to Colombo was Anuradhapura District MP, Ekanayake. Naveen Dissanayake did not even come to the phone sending a message he was ill.

By this time it was abundantly clear the President had botched her copy book big time and turned her wrath on Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Amunugama, Anura Bandaranaike and Mervyn Silva, asking them where the promised numbers were.

The President quite agitated said these members promised the numbers and threatened to leave the country if she did not move to defeat the budget but have now left her vulnerable by their failure to get the numbers.

Faced with this stark reality, the President on the night of Wednesday, November 6, issued instructions not to proceed with the printing of the gazette notification, knowing fully well it would be defeated in parliament and accordingly the Defence Ministry called the Head Reader of the Government Printer, R. Jayewardena and directed not to proceed with the printing of the gazette notification.

Public Security Ordinance invoked

Instead, as a face-saving exercise, the President opted to invoke Section 12 of the Public Security  Ordinance whereby, under 'Special Powers of the President,' she called out the armed forces to maintain public order in the country.

Section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance reads thus - "Where circumstances endangering the public security in any area have arisen or are imminent and the President is of the opinion that the police are inadequate to deal with such situation in that area, he may, by order published in the gazette, call out all or any of the members of all or any of the armed forces for the maintenance of public order in that area."

But in doing so, the President obviously ruffled did not take into consideration the fact that that too needs a proclamation summoning parliament to approve it and to make matters worse, she has also put the armed forces in a pickle by listing the LTTE controlled Kilinochchi District also in the gazette, thus compelling the armed forces to go in and maintain law and order in the area.

In simple terms it is an invitation for war and if the armed forces fail to go in, the commanders would of course be opening themselves for challenge by any public spirited citizen for being remiss in their duties and defying a presidential directive.

And desperate to get out of the mess she created, the President Thursday telephoned Indian Premier Atal Behari Vajpayee and sought his assurance trying in the process to explain her actions.

During this 20 minute conversation, Vajpayee quite categorically told the President he was surprised at her actions and that he hoped it would not undermine the peace process.

Kumaratunga said she will ensure the peace process continues.

Vajpayee however advised Kumaratunga to avert a constitutional crisis and sort out the problem through dialogue with the Premier.

Thus, with her back to the wall despite public posturing, it is a compromise the President was by Friday looking for to save face and in that context, the strategy adopted by the Prime Minister to checkmate Kumaratunga makes interesting reading.

As indicated earlier, after the initial news reached him and the Premier got his troops in Washington to mobilise international opinion, a spate of calls came from Colombo with UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema the first to give details of the situation among the MPs and ministers.

Samarawickrema said the ministers and MPs were quite agitated and insisted on impeaching the President to prevent a dissolution of parliament by her after sacking the entire government and appointing a PA caretaker government.

In fact, moments after the prorogation was effected, Chief Government Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe handed over the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sarath Silva and the UNP MPs were ready to do likewise with the President, Samara-wickrema said.

Agitating for CBK's impeachment

By this time, practically all the ministers and a large number of MPs had arrived at Temple Trees and were agitating for the President's impeachment, blaming the Prime Minister of being soft on her during the last two years despite many a provocative act.

They said it was the Prime Minister's shortsighted policy of cohabitation with an "eccentric" like Kumaratunga that brought about this situation.

But the Prime Minister was unmoved and told Samarawickrema the members must be told to think of the final game plan rather than reacting to the situation emotionally.

Said the Prime Minister, "Just make sure you get all the MPs to sign a vote of confidence in the government and show our majority. Then the match is over. From thereon, we can decide what we are going to do with her. Just get the numbers in first. Tell Karu to summon an unofficial cabinet meeting and discuss the issue. The international heat is already on her."

By this time Ministers Karu Jayasuriya, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Jayawickrema Perera, W.J.M. Lokubandara, S.B. Dissanayake, Ravi Karunanayake, Bandula Gunawar-dena, G.L. Peiris, John Amaratunga and Rajitha Senaratne amongst others had arrived at Temple Trees and to a man were breathing fire on the President.

At the same time, the Prime Minister was in regular phone touch with Minister Choksy on the legal implications of the President's actions and directed him to prepare the vote of confidence for the MPs to sign.

The Premier also spoke to Minister Samarasinghe and told him to be in charge of obtaining the signatures of not only the UNP MPs but also those of the CWC, TNA  and SLMC, including the Athaullah group.

Fullest support for the PM

Wickremesinghe in fact personally spoke to CWC Leader Armugam Thondaman, SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem and TNA's R. Sambandan, all of whom pledged their fullest support and readily agreed to sign the vote of confidence.

With that done, the Prime Minister, who was informed the President was moving her people into the Defence, Media and Interior Ministries asked Ministers Fernando, Moragoda and Ambassador Subasinghe to draft a statement for him to release calling for calm and restraint by the people and the armed forces in the face of Kumaratunga's provocation.

This was accordingly done and Ambassador Subasinghe personally typed the handwritten draft at the media centre in room 627 of the Ritz Carlton and took it up for the Prime Minister's approval.

Nodding his assent at the draft, the Premier made one small change, that being to add the words 'Her Excellency' before Chandrika Kumaratunga. Even in the face of provocation, Wickremesinghe was determined to play statesman to the hilt.

And while the statement was faxed to Temple Trees for release to the media in Colombo, Samarawickrema was back on the phone to the Premier with Ministers G.L. Peiris, Samarasinghe, Karunanayake, Jayasuriya, Marapone, Choksy and Senaratne all standing by.

Samarawickrema told the Premier, the ministers and MPs present were overwhelmingly of the view the President should be impeached forthwith as a counterstrike and that it was the only way to keep their morale high in the wake of Kumaratunga's juggernaut.

Still, Wickremesinghe insisted, it was not the prudent course of action to follow but to little avail with minister after minister informing the Prime Minister during the same phone conversation failure to do so would have disastrous consequences to the government.

That was the overwhelming opinion of the cabinet of ministers and a draft of the impeachment was already under preparation, they said.

Presenting a strong case, Minister Peiris said, with the President moving in the troops and her people to strategic positions and the police taking instructions from the President on directives issued by the Acting IGP, Indra Silva appointed by her, the impression created was similar to a new administration taking over after an election. This he said could have a demoralising affect on the party members and cadre unless a counter strike is made.

But the Prime Minister stood his ground explaining once again that the primary focus should be to collect the numbers to show a majority in the house, thereby holding the high moral ground in the eyes of the public as well as the international community.

"She has acted recklessly and arbitrarily without any care for the consequences of her action on the country and the people. Let us take the high moral ground and show our strength on the floor of the House. I will handle the rest when I get back," he said.

Added he - "If we impeach her now, it will be counter productive and the sympathy will swing her way and she can then prorogue for a longer period and take over all the ministries."

Coming back on the line, UNP Chairman Samarawickrema inquired whether the Premier was cutting short his visit and returning to the island and Wickremesinghe responded in the negative. Said he, "I will keep to my programme and bolster more international support before my return. Get Mahinda to collect the signatures. Tell Karu to take overall charge till I return."

Vote of confidence

That said Samarasinghe got down to work and started working the phone lines and getting the MPs to call over and sign the vote of confidence, which by this time was all set. Karunanayake too spoke to several Tamil MPs and got them too to sign the motion.

The vote of confidence read thus:

We, the undersigned members of parliament, declare that we have full faith and confidence in Prime Minister Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe and the cabinet of ministers including Minister Tilak Marapone as Defence Minister, Minister John Amaratunga as Interior Minister and Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar as Mass Communication Minister, whom the President purported to remove from these offices today.

We also endorse and support the policies, programmes and actions of the Prime Minister, cabinet of ministers and the government both outside and inside parliament.

We further declare our support of the ongoing peace process and the efforts made by the Prime Minister to settle the conflict bearing in mind the interests of peoples of all communities and religions who inhabit Sri Lanka.

We are not prepared to support anyone else in the office of Prime Minister or in the office of other ministers other than those who held office in terms of the mandate given to the Prime Minister at the last general election.

We call upon all right thinking citizens to support the government in its efforts to restore peace and improve the economy and living standards of our people.

Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Thus it was to be made clear to the President not only did parliament have confidence in the Prime Minister and the government but also the three sacked ministers, namely Tilak Marapone, John Amaratunga and Imthiaz Bakeer Markar.

And within hours, the signatures started pouring in and by day's end, Wednesday, November 5, Samarasinghe had 127 signatures in the bag with at least four more expected from overseas by the weekend.

With that done, Leader of the House, W.J.M. Lokubandara forwarded a copy of the confidence motion together with 127 signatures to Speaker Joseph Michael Perera and sent a copy to the President with a covering note which spoke for itself.

Note to the President

The note to the President read thus:
Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga,
President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,
President's House,
Colombo 1.

Your Excellency,

I am forwarding herewith a letter signed by 127 Members of Parliament (from the UNP, SLMC, CWC, UPF, TNA and the DWC) expressing their unreserved confidence and support for Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister and his cabinet of Ministers inclusive of Hon. John Amaratunga, Minister of Interior, Hon. Tilak Marapone, Minister of Defence and Hon. Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, Minister of Mass Communication.

Which letters amply demonstrate confidence and support of the majority members of parliament for the Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister and his cabinet of ministers.

Several members who are presently either out of the island or out of Colombo have also indicated their confidence will sign a similar document on their arrival in Colombo. This will also be communicated to you.

The letters containing the original signatures have been forwarded to the Hon. Speaker.

W.M.J. Lokubandara, MP,

Leader of the House of Parliament.

The following day, Thursday, November 6, Lokubandara fired another letter with two more signatures making the total 129 and counting.

Thus with one colossal blunder, Kumaratunga united the entire government and earned herself the wrath of the people who were awaiting the budget bonanza for the festive season.

The Premier in the meantime continued to receive messages of support internationally with President Bush making it very clear the United States supported the Prime Minister's effort and reaffirmed his strong support for the peace process and the democratic institutions that are in place in the country.

It is in this backdrop Wickremesinghe returned to the country to a hero's welcome on Friday, November 7, even as the President was looking for the support of the international community to help her out of the crisis she had got herself into.

Interestingly, the President played her cards close to the chest before planning her offensive though it was clear to most political observers she would strike before the November 12 budget to take the public kudos away from the government.

This column last week exclusively reported details of the proposed budget benefits to the people and the President being poised to strike before November 12.

But even to her party seniors, other than the likes of Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Amunugama, Lakshman Kadirgamar and the soothsayer politico Mervyn Silva, she did not vouchsafe of her plan.

Secretive

In fact on the night of Monday, November 3, the President met the executive committee of the People's Alliance at President's House but did not utter one word of her intended plans. Among those present were Mahinda Rajapakse, D.M. Jayaratne, Mahipala Herath (SLFP), Dinesh Gunawardena (MEP) Raja Collure, D.E.W. Gunasekera (CP), Tissa Vitharana, A. Wimalanga (LSSP) and R. Navaratne (SLMP).

What the President did tell the members present was the need to oppose the LTTE's interim administration proposals and issue a statement outlining their objections but that did not materialise with the LSSP stating it must first study the proposals in depth before responding.

That same night she also met all party organsiers and urged them to get the grassroots activated for coming events without hinting of her intended plans the following day.

And the following day, Tuesday, November 4, Kumaratunga struck, propelling her towards a politically suicidal adventure with disastrous consequences for the country.

Early Tuesday morning she summoned the security forces commanders and the Acting IGP and disclosed her proposed course of action and requested security cover at the institutions she was to take over including the Government Printer where the gazette was to be printed.

With that and her orders issued, the President met with the PA parliamentary group where it was all fire and brimstone with the MPs believing they were on a roll having secured sufficient numbers to oust Wickremesinghe.

Even before the President walked in for the meeting, members started speaking out, starting with Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse and followed suit by Maithripala Sirisena, Athauda Seneviratne, Felix Perera and Dilan Perera.

Conquering heroine act

The mood was akin to the Normandy landing during the Second World War and on the President walking in to applause from the members, she chose not to disappoint speaking as a conquering heroine.

Referring to Ministers Mahinda Wijesekera, S.B. Dissanayake and G.L. Peiris as Usa Haraka (tall bull), Kota Haraka (short bull) and Kudha Haraka (stunted bull) respectively, the President said they have undermined the national security of the country prompting her to take decisive action.

What the three ministers had to do with the portfolios of Tilak Marapone, John Amaratunga and Imthiaz Bakeer Marker, the President did not shed light on.

The President said the LTTE was bringing weapons by the shipload and the proposals forwarded by the Tigers were disastrous for the unity of the country and she had no option but to act.

Why she chose to do so when the Prime Minister was out of the country without reference to him also she did not disclose to the MPs or for that matter when the budget presentation was fixed in agreement with all the party leaders in parliament for November 12.

Blue, red and green government

But added the President - "Don't say all of you want posts now. I am going to form a government comprising of blue, red and green," indicating thereby numbers from the UNP were also forthcoming.

In fact the PA MPs openly planted a story in the websites claiming 11 UNPers were joining the PA ranks to form a government.

Hardly 24 hours lapsed when the President realised she had not only been taken for a glorious ride by her own advisors but that she herself had made the costliest blunder in her political career which could well consign her to the dustbin of political history unless of course Wickremesinghe's benevolence was to yet again come to her rescue with a bit of pressure from India as well.

In fact that is one factor the Prime Minister will be hardput to concede given the hostility among his own ranks at the President's actions.

For, if he was to compromise in the face of her provocative action, the mass hysteria with which he was greeted on arrival on Friday could quickly turn to anger and disillusionment.

This mood of hostility was prevalent even on Wednesday, November 5, when the cabinet of ministers met with Karu Jayasuriya giving leadership. The President chose to duck the meeting, the national security crisis not sufficiently grave enough to warrant for her a discussion in cabinet.

Presenting an united front

Jayasuriya at the outset however read an earlier opinion of the Attorney General stating it was mandatory for the President to consult the Prime Minister before removing a minister and said the party must stand together and overcome this crisis to ensure the people's mandate is not thwarted.

Taking the cue, Minister Marapone, a former attorney general said all appointments made by the President were illegal since the proper procedures were not followed and legal action should be pursued against those usurpers of office under the Public Property Act.

Chipping in with his own contribution was Minister Rajitha Senaratne who said the appointment of Newton Gunaratne as ITN chairman was a blatant violation of the law and that he should be criminally prosecuted.

"ITN is under the Finance Ministry and the Treasury Secretary has not signed his appointment. He entered ITN with cover given by the security forces. Even the actions of the forces in this situation is illegal. Gyrika Perusinghe the chairman has already written to Newton notifying him of being subject to an offence under the Public Property Act."

Likewise Minister Karunanayake called for tough action against the President stating the government had in the name of cohabitation allowed her off the hook once too often.

"We allowed her to get away with a string of corrupt deals and questionable transactions in the name of cohabitation. Now that she is running for cover are we going to give her a fresh lease of life to recuperate and undermine us yet again? Look at the damage she has done to the country by her reckless actions. It can tantamount to treason," he charged.

Call to impeach CBK

Finally, after several other ministers also spoke, almost all calling for the President's impeachment, it was decided the Prime Minister should be asked to call upon the Speaker to resummon parliament and call upon the President to reappoint the sacked ministers.

This the government now intends doing if the President does not concede her palace coup has failed and the first line of attack will be to pass votes of no confidence on the Defence, Interior and Mass Communications Ministers viz Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Towards this end, Chief Government Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe on Thursday, November 6, wrote to the Speaker calling for a meeting of the party leaders to discuss the upcoming agenda.

He wrote thus:

Hon. Speaker of Parliament

As you are aware with the prorogation of parliament all business arranged for November 11, 2003, the day parliament was scheduled to next sit, stands indefinitely postponed.

Further the entire budget programme has also been indefinitely postponed.

In these circumstances, I will appreciate if you will summon a meeting of leaders of parties to discuss the future sitting days and the parliamentary programme.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP,

Chief Government Whip of Parliament.

That meeting has now been fixed for Monday, November 10.

And the very day the Premier arrived, he called for an emergency meeting of ministers to discuss the government strategy and the first move will be to have parliament resummoned and the budget approved.

General election

Thereafter, the Prime Minister is determined to force a general election and ask the people to end the political gridlock by giving him a clear mandate to proceed with the peace process and economic programme under the 'Regaining Sri Lanka' concept.

He has also assured the MPs and party organisers, all funds necessary to fight an election will be made available to them.

The question is, whether or not the President will get the message she's lost it or do the democratic thing and go to the hustings and plead her party's case, if indeed Wickremesinghe has compromised national security.

Failure to understand the ground reality following her colossal political blunder will of course make it impossible even for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to prevent his members from impeaching the President and cutting off all funds if she continues with her hardline.

Such is the mood in the green camp only Ranil Wickremesinghe stands between his parliamentary group and an impeachment of the President and how long he can hold will depend on Kumaratunga's next move, notwithstanding Indian pressure.

Will she concede defeat gracefully or allow the people to decide if indeed she has their support? That is the million dollar question but then again grace is not something you come to identify easily with the President when cornered and that was demonstrated in ample measure when she addressed the nation Friday night.

It is now then for Wickremesinghe to call the President's bluff or be damned.

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