Palace Coup that went bust
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
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.
caller at the other end was Chairman, Sri Lanka Telecom and President,
Sri Lanka Cricket, Thilanga Sumathipala, who had an urgent message to
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.
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
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
collecting his thoughts, the Premier fired two more questions to
Sumathipala on the events leading up to the President's action and rang
with support staff
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the likes of Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Amunugama, Anura Bandaranaike
and Mervyn Silva led the President to believe the numbers were in the
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.
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Security Ordinance invoked
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
said she will ensure the peace process continues.
however advised Kumaratunga to avert a constitutional crisis and sort
out the problem through dialogue with the Premier.
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.
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.
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
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.
for CBK's impeachment
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.
said it was the Prime Minister's shortsighted policy of cohabitation
with an "eccentric" like Kumaratunga that brought about this
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
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
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 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.
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.
support for the PM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
was the overwhelming opinion of the cabinet of ministers and a draft of
the impeachment was already under preparation, they said.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
vote of confidence read thus:
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.
also endorse and support the policies, programmes and actions of the
Prime Minister, cabinet of ministers and the government both outside and
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
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
call upon all right thinking citizens to support the government in its
efforts to restore peace and improve the economy and living standards of
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
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.
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.
to the President
note to the President read thus:
Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga,
President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,
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.
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.
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.
letters containing the original signatures have been forwarded to the
of the House of Parliament.
following day, Thursday, November 6, Lokubandara fired another letter
with two more signatures making the total 129 and counting.
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.
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.
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.
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
column last week exclusively reported details of the proposed budget
benefits to the people and the President being poised to strike before
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.
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).
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.
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.
the following day, Tuesday, November 4, Kumaratunga struck, propelling
her towards a politically suicidal adventure with disastrous
consequences for the country.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
the three ministers had to do with the portfolios of Tilak Marapone,
John Amaratunga and Imthiaz Bakeer Marker, the President did not shed
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.
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.
red and green government
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.
fact the PA MPs openly planted a story in the websites claiming 11
UNPers were joining the PA ranks to form a government.
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.
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.
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.
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.
an united front
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
to impeach CBK
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.
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.
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.
Speaker of Parliament
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.
the entire budget programme has also been indefinitely postponed.
these circumstances, I will appreciate if you will summon a meeting of
leaders of parties to discuss the future sitting days and the
Government Whip of Parliament.
meeting has now been fixed for Monday, November 10.
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.
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.
has also assured the MPs and party organisers, all funds necessary to
fight an election will be made available to them.
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
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.
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
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.
is now then for Wickremesinghe to call the President's bluff or be