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Sri Lanka: When Democracy Stood Upon a Razor’s Edge


Dharisha Bastians-

‘By all accounts, Asia’s oldest democracy stood at grave risk one week ago. The courage of a few public servants and military chiefs, who decided at the eleventh hour that the time was right to speak truth to power, may have saved the day. Without their determination, Sri Lankans may well have woken up in a very different country on 9 January. From palace intrigue to the high stakes involved in victory and defeat, this was surely one of Sri Lanka’s landmark elections”

“They called us terrorists, traitors and thieves; we called ourselves citizens” – CPA statement on the presidential election 2015

Sometime around 8 p.m. on 8 January, the Rajapaksa twitter-sphere went deathly still. The next time we heard from them was at 6:30 a.m. the next day, when a spokesman said defeated President Mahinda Rajapaksa had departed from his official residence at Temple Trees.
The last public tweet on election day by the sons of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a photograph. It showed Namal Rajapaksa, looking relaxed and casual in a red t-shirt, and his sibling Yoshitha having dinner at Carlton House, Tangalle, the Rajapaksa family home. Earlier that day, as citizens around the country cast their votes in one of Sri Lanka’s most crucial elections, Namal and Yoshitha Rajapaksa celebrated their youngest sibling Rohitha’s first vote with a selfie and took a dip in the ocean.

The Rajapaksa sons also posed with the Maithripala Sirisena look-alike, a dummy candidate fielded by the Government to confuse voters. The ‘other’ Sirisena chatted amicably with President Rajapaksa as the pair strolled over to the booth to cast their votes at Beliatta. All this was unveiled to the world – on Twitter.
Over the past few years, the Rajapaksa family had mastered the art of celebrity tweeting. Using verified or authenticated Twitter accounts, President Rajapaksa and his sons made their presence felt online and tirelessly pushed their political agendas.

Namal Rajapaksa, undisputed king of the Twitter-selfie, often used his account to humanise his privileged family, regularly tweeting pictures of his ‘mallis’ and parents, relaxing at home or participating in wholesome family activities. Namal Rajapaksa was prolific on Twitter. He always seemed confident and magnanimous; just a wholesome ‘every-boy’ with a famous father.

So the silence on election night was strange and unnerving. Regime mouthpieces, often loud and obnoxious on Twitter, also seemed to have disappeared into the virtual nether.

Postal vote results for the Ratnapura District were the first to be officially released by the Elections Department at 11:30 p.m. last Friday. But by this time, unofficial results were being reported from counting centres around the island. The trend was clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa was going to lose the postal vote. In the north and east and southern districts favourable to the Opposition, Sirisena was winning big. Mahinda Rajapaksa was still winning the bulk of the southern districts, but here the margins of victory were much narrower. This trend would ultimately emerge even in the national vote, sweeping the Opposition candidate to victory over the incumbent.

President Rajapaksa returned to Colombo at about 7 p.m. from Tangalle where he cast his vote and retired for a few hours. By the time he resurfaced a few hours later, the Operations Room at Temple Trees was buzzing with the news that the incumbent was probably going to lose the election.

Living in a bubble
For most of the election season, President Rajapaksa had lived in a bubble. If his advisors had seen the writing on the wall, they were loath to tell the President, fearing his face would tell the story on the campaign trail.

Surveys that were giving the Rajapaksa campaign real figures were annoying the President, so the numbers were tweaked to show a marginal victory for the incumbent. Survey firms contracted to conduct the polling had little choice but to project a favourable outcome or lose the remaining payment once they finished the job. UPFA campaign manager Basil Rajapaksa told confidants in the final week before the vote that he believed hope was diminishing that the President would secure a third term.

The trouble was Mahinda Rajapaksa himself may only have faced this truth when the results started to pour into Temple Trees from the Kachcheris on election night. Political parties have agents inside every counting centre in every district, feeding updates to command centres back in the capital. The UNP Headquarters Sirikotha, also running an ‘Ops Room,’ was receiving the same updates.

All the trouble started when both command centres in Colombo began to realise around 1 a.m. that the game was up for President Rajapaksa. With less than a third of the count released, it was clear there was no way the incumbent could bridge the leads his challenger was taking in all districts of the North and East, Polonnaruwa, Colombo, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy.

In some ways, this was the eventuality the regime had been planning for since the Christmas holidays.

Military build-up?
Reports that a military build-up was taking place across Colombo, many other ‘battleground’ districts and the vulnerable Northern Province provided glimpses into the regime-thinking. But Army deployment is also routine at major installations and television stations pre-election, when thousands of Police officers usually charged with protecting those places are called away for election duty.

On 1 January, the Opposition revealed a leaked UPFA campaign document – a blueprint of a plan to put ex-senior military officials in overall charge of electorates in the Colombo District.

Exclusively revealed in Daily FT on 2 January, the extensive plan contained a preamble, which alleged that President Rajapaksa had put Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in charge of the campaign in the Colombo District. The District was divided into 17 sectors, with each sector supervised by a retired ‘trusted’ senior serviceman. These officers would command operational troops deployed to each electorate. In overall charge was a retired Major General, who also held a top position at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. This official would liaise with the Defence Secretary, the document claimed.

The Opposition campaign ensured the document would reach all diplomatic missions in Colombo and the foreign election monitors on the ground. They also briefed Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya extensively and provided him with him with copies of the document.

The second leak
The second such revelation occurred two days before election day. Standby orders issued by the Chief of Defence Staff – the highest ranked serving officer in the military – on 24 December 2014 indicated a build-up of troops in the north and around vital institutions. Once again, the document was leaked to the Opposition campaign.

The second document, signed by Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, also reached the Elections Commissioner and the foreign and local observer groups. An enraged Commissioner told a pre-election press briefing that he had received a complaint about the standby orders and was investigating.
In election time, the Army can only deploy on the specific request of the Polls Chief, who must first inform the IGP of his need. Needless to say, both Deshapriya and IGP N.K. Illangakoon were completely in the dark about the standby instructions. The ‘top secret’ document was however copied to the Army Commander, the Defence Secretary and President Rajapaksa.

Suddenly the military was forced to issue denials and play down the orders. Military Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya insisted the orders were ‘routine’ at election time, but he could not explain why Elections Commissioner Deshapriya had been in the dark about the mobilisation. The second leak also proved invaluable to ensuring the Opposition camp, the Elections office and the Police were on high alert.

Ultimately, this was the Rajapaksa campaign’s biggest problem. The regime had sprung leaks everywhere, politically – from the wing run by Basil Rajapaksa and the President himself, to the defence establishment, where Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been thought to rule with an iron fist.

One step ahead
These revelations and the continuing flow of information from within the regime’s inner circles ensured that the Commissioner of Elections and the IGP were constantly one step ahead.

While unofficial results flowed out of the districts from 7 p.m., IGP Illangakoon hastily summoned a press briefing at 9 p.m. at Police Headquarters. Since the police spokesman had already held a press briefing after polls closed at 4 p.m., this second Police briefing raised eyebrows. IGP Illangakoon maintained that the Police would remain strong, independent and protect the counting centres.

Now that the events of the night of 8 January are more widely known, questions have arisen as to whether the IGP, by summoning that second late night media briefing, was under pressure and trying hard to get a message across. It is also clear that the IGP and the Elections Commissioner had earned each other’s confidence and were determined to work together. After former Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake walked into the counting centre at D.S. Senanayake College just before midnight claiming to be a polling agent, Commissioner Deshapriya reportedly reinforced security around the perimeter of the counting centre.

Frantic text messages doing the rounds in Colombo, which pointed to a heightened presence of armed guards at D.S. Senanayake College, may in fact have been the additional STF guard called in by the election authorities to protect the counting centre that night. The Elections Department relies heavily on the elite Police guard or Special Task Force to protect counting centres on election night. STF personnel are armed Policemen with the power to arrest that the military does not command.

Palace intrigue
Details about events at Temple Trees in the earliest hours of 9 January remain sketchy. But it was clear that the Rajapaksa administration was scrambling for options, as it realised it could lose its grip on power by dawn.

The former Defence Secretary, who has proved his credentials as President Rajapaksa’s ‘fixer’ over the past nine years – often with disastrous consequences – stepped up to the plate. The main accounts about the intrigue at Temple Trees indicate that President Rajapaksa, a man who could count over 40 years of political experience, seemed better able to deal with defeat than his family members. In a queer twist, Chief Justice Mohan Peiris also happened to be at Temple Trees on election night. His presence at what was clearly a political campaign office for the night was unorthodox. That he should have been at hand when the attempted coup was allegedly discussed is also cause for concern.

At 3 a.m., Attorney General Yuvanjan Wijethilake was reportedly summoned to Temple Trees. It was at about 3 a.m. that UPFA polling officials from the counting centres were sending word to Temple Trees that President Rajapaksa had lost the election.

According to the Sirisena campaign, the AG was called in for an opinion on whether a state of Emergency could be declared under the Public Security Ordinance to suspend the issuing of election results. The Daily FT reliably learns that the Attorney General only advised that such a course of action by a defeated candidate could have potentially-dangerous repercussions.

According to the plaint filed at the Criminal Investigations Department by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya, Chief Justice Peiris, former Minister G.L. Peiris and Udaya Gammanpila had been planning the illegal attempt to stay in power using military force.
Minister Samaraweera’s complaint notes that a large number of soldiers in the Panagoda Cantonment had been issued orders by the former Defence Secretary to standby to prevent the issuing of election results once Emergency was declared. It is unclear whether Emergency regulations specifically empower a president to suspend the count during an election. But sweeping powers the regulations confer upon the president could empower him to overturn or suspend the operation of any law on national security grounds. Presumably, this would also apply to election laws.

The parallel reality
Undoubtedly, if the plan being hatched at Temple Trees before dawn on 9 January had been successful, several arrests would have been made before sunrise. Maithripala Sirisena and Commissioner Deshapriya would have been prime targets. Opposition activists would have been hunted down.

The military would have then moved into the counting centres around the island, after being strategically placed earlier in districts that would prove particularly problematic – the biggest ‘special’ security plan in place was for Colombo. Securing the capital would be key to any attempt to hold power, with its broadcasting towers, central Government administration and foreign diplomatic corps.

This could have been the parallel universe Sri Lankans woke up in, if IGP Illangakoon, Attorney General Wijeyatilake and Army Commander Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake had failed to stand their ground. The decision of the Army Chief was vital, since his refusal to comply with illegal orders would necessitate splitting the military and issuing orders through officers loyal only to the Rajapaksa family. With the STF deployed across the city, any attempt to take over by force, without the concurrence of the Head of the Army, could have ended with blood on the streets, authoritative sources explained.

In remarks made to reporters, Lt. Gen. Ratnayake refused to comment on whether he had been approached by officials of the former regime to participate in a takeover. The Army Commander also insisted he would cooperate with any investigation undertaken by the new administration regarding the alleged coup attempt at Temple Trees on election night.

Much of what unfolded in the ‘palace’ that night remains the subject of hearsay and intense speculation. The truth of all these claims will only be revealed once the new administration completes a full investigation into the allegations. So far, several facts have already been corroborated. Attorney General Wijeyatilake was definitely summoned to Temple Trees at 3 a.m., Samaraweera’s statement says. The Attorney General had informed a Deputy Solicitor General in his department before answering the summons.

Playing the devil’s advocate, one could speculate on the claims and allegations being made by the new administration. Perhaps it is an attempt to make the defeated President seem power-hungry and brutal, to take away the gloss of his early departure before full results were declared on 9 January. Still, questions persist. Why did the regime allow the military build-up in Colombo before election day? And since its defeat, the Rajapaksa camp is yet to answer why the Attorney General and the Chief Justice were both present in the Temple Trees ‘operations room’ on election night.

Minister Samaraweera argues that close circuit television recordings from Temple Trees will provide a fuller picture of exactly who was present and involved in discussions that night. At a press conference at which he denied any discussion about an attempt to stay in power following President Rajapaksa’s defeat, former Minister G.L. Peiris admitted he had been present at Temple Trees that night. Lt. Gen. Ratnayake’s measured remarks and refusal to comment on if he was issued orders also tell a story. At 1 a.m., Temple Trees was a hive of activity, with military vehicles and tinted cars moving through the gates.
At a press conference at which he denied any discussion about an attempt to stay in power following President Rajapaksa’s defeat, former Minister G.L. Peiris admitted he had been present at Temple Trees that night.  Lt. Gen. Ratnayake’s measured remarks and refusal to comment on if he was issued orders also tell a story. At 1 a.m., Temple Trees was a hive of activity, with military vehicles and tinted cars moving through the gates.
Ranil steps in
Around 4 a.m., the discussions suddenly ceased, according to reports by insiders. President Rajapaksa appeared to have heard enough from his ‘counsel’. He walked out of the operations room and reportedly made a telephone call. Mahinda Rajapaksa had insisted on speaking ‘only to Wickremesinghe’.
On high alert all night, the Opposition was anticipating trouble of some kind. Forty-eight hours before election day, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe reached out to the Rajapaksa regime to begin ‘soft’ transition talks. The latest polling data strongly indicated an opposition victory on 8 January and with the campaigning ended, the Sirisena campaign began to focus on the next hurdle. It speaks to the character of the Rajapaksa regime that nobody expected the defeated President to go ‘quietly into the night’.

In the 48 hours to polling day once campaigning ended at midnight of 5 January was when the Opposition campaign began to focus all its energies on facilitating a smooth transition of power. President Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe had been colleagues in Parliament for several decades, and over the years the pair had built something of a friendship despite being on different sides throughout their political careers.
President Rajapaksa could not be certain of his former Health Minister or other players in the Opposition camp, especially his former Army Chief and political rival, Sarath Fonseka. The Rajapaksa regime believed that if Ranil Wickremesinghe assured their safety, he would keep his word. Over two days, this is exactly the kind of trust the Opposition campaign had hoped would be built betweenPresident Rajapaksa and the UNP Leader.

 Safety assured
President Rajapaksa was willing to have the discussion over the phone, but Wickremesinghe insisted it was ‘better’ for him to drive over to Temple Trees. It has already been reported that the Opposition Leader had been stunned to see the Chief Justice inside the official residence of a candidate while results were still being released. When Wickremesinghe asked him what he was doing there, Peiris muttered that he had come over to give ‘a legal opinion’ and then stepped out.

At the pre-dawn meeting with Wickremesinghe, President Rajapaksa and the Defence Secretary wanted assurances that they would be allowed to leave their official residences peacefully. They also wanted an assurance that Fonseka would have no role in their post-election fate. Wickremesinghe was able to meet both conditions.

It had been Sirisena’s campaign pledge, also articulated in private, that he wanted to end the politics of revenge. No opposition leader was willing to give the previous regime assurances of immunity from legal processes against corruption and abuse of power, but the Sirisena campaign was adamant that political witch-hunts were strictly off the table.

Wickremesinghe arrived at Temple Trees around 5 a.m. By 6:30, with results in only a few districts still being reported, Presidential Media Unit Director Vijayananda Herath notified the media that President Rajapaksa had taken leave of Temple Trees. Shocking pictures of President Rajapaksa stepping out of the residence were accompanied with the message that the defeated incumbent had ‘bowed to the verdict of the people’.

‘A complex man’
Political Scientist Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda noted later the same day that the departure seemed quite contrary to the macho strongman image President Rajapaksa had built, particularly in the past five years. Mahinda, Prof. Uyangoda observed, was a ‘complex man’.
In the first shock of his quiet exit, political observers like Prof. Uyangoda wondered whether the move signalled President Rajapaksa’s return to an older avatar in his final hours in office. Perhaps the defeated President was thinking of the future of his family, Prof. Uyangoda observed. “As a ruler he was autocratic, but at this particular moment he seemed to return to his former self, portraying himself as a democrat,” the political scientist explained.

Perhaps the defeated leader had feared resistance or violence if he played out his final hours any other way, Prof. Uyangoda argued. “But people can’t believe it, that he would give up power easily,” he explained.

One week later, allegations about the regime’s more sinister agendas abound. No longer is it possible to believe that President Rajapaksa bowed out like a statesman; rather that he was only willing to go after every avenue was exhausted. Once more, he fell prey to the machinations of his family, the high officials, ministers and offspring that have proved his undoing these past nine years.

Minister Samaraweera is demanding a CID investigation into the attempted coup, citing sections 115 and 120 of the Penal Code. Charges under Section 115 carry sentences of life imprisonment or 20 years in prison and heavy fines for conspiring to “deprive the People of the Republic of Sri Lanka of their Sovereignty in Sri Lanka or any part thereof, or conspires to overawe, by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force, any of the organs of Government”.

Section 120 of the Penal Code, under which Samaraweera is also demanding CID action, stipulates that any person who “by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs; or by visible representations, or otherwise, excites or attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the President or to the Government of the Republic, or excites or attempts to excite hatred to or contempt of the administration of justice, or excites or attempts to excite the People of Sri Lanka to procure, otherwise than by lawful means, the alteration of any matter by law established” and carries a two-year prison term if found guilty.

Political observers and opposition activists say Ranil Wickremesinghe would be the only person in full possession of facts regarding Mahinda Rajapaksa’s alleged attempt to cling to power. Sketchy reports have also emerged that Wickremesinghe had to talk President Rajapaksa down when he was contemplating the unthinkable and threatening to bring a violent end to a shocking election cycle. But the new Prime Minister plays his cards close to his chest and remains unwilling to address the coup d’etat allegations.

It is Wickremesinghe’s contention that excessive discussion about the events of election night could create political instability soon after the new administration took office. True to their word, Wickremesinghe and President-elect Sirisena allowed President Rajapaksa and his family to depart peacefully, their security intact and Air Force helicopters still at their disposal.

Opposition security plans
By contrast, the Opposition campaign had taken massive precautions to protect themselves in the event of defeat or an illegal attempt by the regime to remain in power after losing the election. On 7 January, several key Opposition strategists moved into safe-houses and hotel rooms around the city.
In a unique twist in this election, civil society activists and lawyers had taken a lead in strategy and advocacy for the Sirisena campaign. Politicians had party backing, Parliamentary privilege and security that comes with membership in the Legislature. Ad hoc activists who had composed the soul of the Sirisena campaign’s ideas for change had the least protection in the event of a Rajapaksa re-election. They were, effectively, marked men.

Several such activists moved their families into different houses or apartments on election eve. They stopped travelling alone. Meetings took place at designated hotel rooms around the city that were turned into special operations centres. Since it was impossible to speak freely on mobile phones, the campaign resorted to using the smart phone application Viber.

Codes were designated and shared to refer to specific individuals or activities. Face-to-face meetings were always preferred over telephone conferences. Civil society activists moved over to encrypted messaging services to share information with journalists. With the extent of electronic and physical surveillance unknown, the Opposition took excessive precautions.

This was life in Rajapaksa-controlled Sri Lanka, where political opposition to overthrow a regime through democratic means constituted treason. Opposition activists were ‘conspirators’; their imprisonment imminent in the event of the incumbent’s re-election.

Now that the events of election night are unfolding, it is clear none of these fears were unfounded. For several hours on the morning of 9 January, the Republic stood upon the edge of a knife. Any small loss of courage and fortitude in any one of the officials who reportedly turned down orders that night could have altered the character and soul of democratic Sri Lanka. It would have been the Rajapaksa regime’s crowning glory.

For nearly a decade, the regime presided over the worst erosion of democratic traditions and institutions since independence. An election night coup d’etat to take over power through armed force would have been the final destination on the dangerously authoritarian path the Rajapaksa regime had been determined to travel.

Ballot box revolutions
Analysts argue that it takes a certain familiarity with military rule and faith in the armed forces as being the only stable institution in a country for citizens to be accepting of military coups. This was the fear too for Sri Lanka, that the systemic militarisation of the polity, with soldiers made to stand out as the only effective force in a sea of inept politicians and bureaucrats, would ultimately alter citizen mindsets.

Eight more years of Rajapaksa rule may have ensured the entrenchment of the military in ways that would fundamentally alter the democratically inclined psyche of the Sri Lankan citizen. Fortunately, 2015 was too soon. Flashes of independence and democratic spirit were still alive and well in the bureaucracy and armed forces.

Since independence, Sri Lankans have made a habit of throwing out their rulers every two or three years. After nearly a decade of rule by a larger-than-life, wildly popular President, there were fears that faith in the ability to change governments regularly had been eroded somewhat in the citizen’s psyche.
But on 8 January, Sri Lankan voters proved that their democratic instincts had survived the onslaught of nine supremely oppressive years. For a decade, the Rajapaksa regime feared being overthrown through international conspiracies, foreign meddling, or Arab spring type citizen uprisings. They warned that this would be a dangerous road, leading to instability and collective subjugation to the Western powers. In the end, none of that was to prove necessary. Sri Lankans went to the polls one week ago, to overthrow the shadow of tyranny, oppression and downright bad governance the way they have for the past 60 years. Through the ballot box.

Fortunately for the republic, a peaceful transition was effected on 9 January and Sri Lanka was hailed for the maturity and strength of its democracy.

President Maithripala Sirisena was sworn-in at the historic Independence Square, with rows upon rows of National Flags fluttering in the wind. The dusk inauguration was an emotional moment for Sirisena supporters and celebration for the wider citizenry. In the historic square, the simple ceremony was replete with symbols of restitution and the reclamation of citizens’ space.

In victory, the Opposition deliberately overlooked Chief Justice Peiris, whose appointment to office was so controversial it would have sullied President Sirisena’s oath-taking. Instead, President-elect Sirisena swore his oath of office as Sri Lanka’s first citizen, before the most senior Judge of the Supreme Court, Justice K. Sripavan.

Former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, jailed and stripped of military honours for the crime of having contested the presidency against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, was greeted to an uproarious welcome by the crowd and took his place among other leaders of the Opposition campaign at the swearing-in ceremony.

Winds of freedom
For journalists and civil society activists, this first week since Sirisena’s election has brought a taste of freedom that had been almost entirely forgotten over the past decade. For however brief a time, there is relief in the lifting of oppressive State control.

By 12 midnight on 9 January, the private telecommunications provider Dialog lifted its censorship of the Colombo Telegraph and other illegally-banned websites on its network. Two days later, the Government ordered the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to lift the ban on dozens of websites that had been inaccessible without proxy servers in Sri Lanka for years. Suddenly, it was safe to speak freely on the telephone and mention high officials of the previous regime by name in unencrypted text messages.

Adversarial politics appear to have taken a backseat on political talk-shows, with all party representatives talking about 100 days of change. On the Satana talk-show that created waves during the presidential election campaign, last week there were poignant moments that proved revealing about how much had altered within a space of five days.

The Satana moderators asked TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran why moderate Tamil leaders no longer tried to engage with the Sinhalese political leadership on talk-shows and debates as they used to. Sumanthiran, one of the few MPs in the TNA who can speak Sinhalese, replied that language was a major impediment.

“Only I and Mr. Sampanthan can speak a little Sinhalese, and my Sinhalese is also very weak,” the TNA MP explained. The moderators were quick to assure the Tamil politician that they saw no weakness in the way he spoke the language and thanked him for his participation in the show and constant engagement in TV debates.

Just before the commercial break, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne spoke up. He expressed his sadness about how moderate Tamil politicians had been wiped out over time, including MP Raviraj and Joseph Pararajasingham. Thanking Sumanthiran for his participation, the new Minister added: “You say your Sinhalese is weak. But it is my eternal shame that I cannot speak five words in Tamil to you.”

Undoubtedly, something has altered in the mood of the country. Impunity, perpetuated by the top echelons of the previous regime, proved contagious. It filtered down to the smallest village. The politics of racism and hate also percolated down to the grassroots from the highest levels of the defeated administration. They steered the racist discourse. The country followed suit. Racism and intolerance only enters mainstream political discourse when it is actively endorsed and encouraged by the political leadership. At all other times it tends to be relegated to the fringes of the political debate.

The defeated Rajapaksa regime may try hard to engage in racist rabble-rousing, but the mainstream has quietened down. Without the State media to propagate their messages and wild allegations about attacks on Army outposts in the north, their arguments are no longer binding on the electorate.

Steps in the right direction
The new Government also took an important step to foster reconciliation, by removing Northern Governor and former military commander Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri just one week into assuming office. Governor Chandrasiri’s reappointment last year was a major blow to already fragile relations between the Rajapaksa administration and the TNA. The Tamil party has repeatedly emphasised the need to normalise life in the former war zone by reverting to a civilian administration in the Northern Province.

The appointment of retired diplomat H.M.G.S. Palihakkara as Northern Governor is seen as an important confidence-building measure between the new Government and the TNA. Palihakkara’s credentials are good, both as an efficient bureaucrat and an agent of reconciliation. In 2009, while the Sri Lankan Government engaged in the final military thrust against the LTTE, it was Palihakkara who served as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. Working 18 hours or more a day, as he liaised between Colombo and New York, Ambassador Palihakkara fought tooth and nail to keep Sri Lanka off the agenda of the UN Security Council when serious concerns were being raised about the extent of civilian casualties in the final phase of the war.

A former Foreign Secretary, Palihakkara also served on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Government-appointed truth commission that strongly advised a credible domestic investigation into allegations of grave human rights abuses during the last months of the war and a political solution to the ethnic conflict. The LLRC also recommended a series of confidence building measures between the Government and the Tamil people of the north and east to prevent the re-emergence of conflict.

The previous Government’s disdain for the LLRC report’s most serious recommendations have turned the document into a blueprint for the international community, which repeatedly called on the Sri Lankan Government to implement the suggestions of its own commission. The LLRC is widely believed to have been Palihakkara’s brainchild, as he correctly feared the escalation of international involvement in Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation and accountability processes if residual matters arising from the end of the conflict were not effectively addressed domestically.

Similarly hopeful signs include the appointment of former career diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala as Presidential Advisor on Foreign Policy and Jayampathy Wickremeratne PC as Presidential Advisor on Constitutional Affairs. The decision to appoint Sri Lanka’s most senior career diplomat as Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also signals a return to the status quo and the shunning of the previous administration’s tendency to make appointments based on political loyalty rather than merit.

A long-forgotten injustice has also been redressed, with President Sirisena handing Temple Trees over to his Prime Minister and deciding to occupy only President’s House in Colombo Fort. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was the last occupant of Temple Trees. After his election as President in 2005, Rajapaksa simply continued to retain the Prime Minister’s Residence, while also laying claim to President’s House a few kilometres away. Neither Prime Ministers Ratnasiri Wickremanayake nor D.M. Jayaratne were ever permitted to take up residence at what should have been their official premises in Colpetty.

Reservations persist about certain appointments to the Cabinet of Ministers and the bureaucracy, but the overall report card for President Sirisena’s first week in office is cause for cautious optimism. He appears still, to be listening to advisors and willing to correct mistakes along the way. In the first hours and days of his presidency, he relied heavily on Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s considerable experience and constitutional expertise to guide him in decision-making about affairs of state, aides say.

Every administration has its honeymoon period. The electorate is full of hope that change will be delivered. There is euphoria and optimism in the air. Obviously, all this could be short-lived.

‘Unknown angel?’
President Sirisena, as his incumbent challenger infamously put it at a rally in Jaffna, is an ‘unknown angel’. Clearly the dark horse candidate in this presidential race, the Sri Lankan public know him only as a Minister in SLFP Cabinets. By all indications his first months will be a test of his skill as a consensus builder, as he strives to hold an unwieldy and ideologically diverse coalition together to fulfil his 100-day pledges.
The decision of his predecessor to hand over the reins of the SLFP also poses different questions, about how much longer he will need the support of his mish-mash coalition when he is assured support from over 100 UPFA members in Parliament. He also has a large family, waiting in the wings.

At first glance, he appears sober and tempered in his emotions. In victory he has shown humility and an understanding of the burden of hope he carries. Yet the executive presidency has a proven track record. It corrupts the seemingly incorruptible and makes monsters of men. The forces that swept President Sirisena into office are far from being only political. This was a citizens’ movement for change – from the lawyers to the academics, to the student and trade unionist. Having got a taste for demanding accountability as the space for revelations about corrupt Government deals and excesses opened up during the election campaign, now expectations are justifiably high and delivery by the new clan will be monitored.

Against all odds, Sri Lankan voters created history by ousting an incumbent for the first time in the history of the executive presidency.  The overthrow of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration was never about a change of faces. It was about changing a system, to ensure that the past nine years can never happen again.

The first images and video that emerged from Tangalle showed a defeated but bombastic President Rajapaksa addressing floods of supporters at his Medamulana home. The all-powerful incumbent from only a few days ago, who hologrammed himself into campaign events and used remote controlled drones to film his rallies, sits upon a simple wicker chair, addressing his supporters in a large hall using a crude, plastic microphone or loudspeaker.


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