In 2009, some months after the war ended, media personnel were offered military tours of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s ‘luxury’ bunker and swimming pool deep inside his hideout in Mullaitivu by the defeated regime. Subsequently, the bunker was turned into a special exhibit on the ‘war tourism’ trail, for first time visitors from the island’s south to marvel at the slain Tiger Leader’s opulent lifestyle.
Today the regime’s own extensions inside the premises – traditionally used as the Prime Minister’s official residence – are being opened up to curious journalists and visitors. Enthusiastic security personnel escort journalists to the former President’s private brick-lined, kidney-shaped pool completely obscured from view by 25 feet of tall aluminium fencing all around it. A small tiled sauna and massage room still smells of herbal oil and flowers.
The ‘Rajapaksa Wing’ of the old colonial residence is several storeys high and has no windows. Built for a President who was paranoid about security, the dark and narrow corridors running through the building have gaps along the wall, covered with sliding metal gates, to ensure a quick exit for VIPs if the need arose.
A banquet hall has been constructed on the side of this building, to hold up to 7000 people, according to officials, five-foot long chandeliers, thick carpeting and regal doors. The wings of this banquet hall have walls lined in brocade and large winged arm chairs along a corridor that leads to elegant washrooms. Extensions to this section for the Commonwealth Summit include a new set of washrooms, many of which are no longer functional, according to signs hung askew on many of the doors.
The same bunker-style building has three spectacular cabinet rooms, each of them sporting wall-to-wall wood panelling, wooden floors and stunning wood and leather furnishings. Off to the side, even the bathroom walls are panelled in wood. Several other sophisticated meeting rooms also lie inside the building, with plush sofas, recliners and chairs, featuring a head table and pictures and wall-hangings. Dutugemunu at war and Adam’s Peak appear to have been firm favourites of the previous occupant of Temple Trees. The famous ‘Elections Ops Room’ also lies within this new wing, a long office room filled with computers in zones demarcated for each polling division in the country.
Discarded larger-than-life cut-outs of President Mahinda Rajapaksa face away from the door, like a child sent to the corner for punishment. Outside this building is the permanent marquee the former regime erected to host their famous campaign meetings for officials, academics, trade unions and students. Countless offices for President Rajapaksa’s large staff and advisors, including a special office for former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, with mirrors lining walls and ceilings, also occupy sections of the new wing.
The skeleton of a new building specially for the ex-President’s security contingent is already under construction on the boundary of the compound. A posse of chefs and serving stewards have been dismissed by the new Prime Minister who does not reside on the premises.
Not much of the ‘Rajapaksa Wing’ could be called outrageously opulent, but the extension holds little rationale for so much public spending. President Rajapaksa occupied two official residences already, including the sprawling Presidential mansion or former Queen’s House in Fort.
Deep in the jungles of Mullativu, where he hid for decades, the sight of Prabhakaran’s extravagance – air conditioning and swimming pools – had a jarring effect because he had sent countless Tamil youngsters to die for him in a brutal war, while he and his family lived in relative safety and comfort.
The story of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s extravagance holds a strange resonance.
The previous regime’s opulent lifestyle, largely lived on the public dime, evokes an angry and emotional response from the ordinary citizen because the President of Sri Lanka and other elected rulers represent a vast majority of very poor people who are struggling to feed their children. The rejection of Rajapaksa opulence by the voter on 8 January has kept the new regime in check, at least for appearances sake, about how it utilises state resources.
For the moment, 47 days after the new Government took office, the extension remains unoccupied, eerily silent and plunged into semi darkness. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe occupies two rooms in the old colonial building and uses the old cabinet room for meetings with ministers and officials.
Both the President and the Prime Minister are mulling opening up the two residences to the public twice a week for guided tours. The massive banquet hall may be hired out for cultural performances at a nominal fee.
Of course, what to do with the Rajapaksa modifications to Temple Trees is the least of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s problems.
In anticipation of a parliamentary election in just over two months, hardliners on both sides of the ethnic divide are moving in for the kill, threatening to derail a fragile process of reconciliation the new Government has pledged to undertake and bring back an autocratic leader ousted in January.
The 20,000 strong rally in Nugegoda, organised by smaller parties within the UPFA coalition – famously called ‘The Rising’ by former diplomat and political scientist Dayan Jayatilleka. Jayatilleka, who openly campaigned for the defeated leader in last month’s election, theatrically read a message from the former President to participants and forever etched his place in the fringe Sinhala nationalist movement that is coalescing around Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Appropriately, the Sinhala hardline Bodu Bala Sena movement – accused of spearheading a spate of attacks against the Muslim community including the riots in Aluthgama, urged people to attend the Nugegoda rally.
The controversial monk Elle Gunewansa Thera, with his chequered role in the 1983 ethnic riots, was also in attendance. Over enthusiastic organisers insist that the Nugegoda rally drew a 500,000-strong crowd. The figure is ludicrously over-inflated, but 20,000 is no number to scoff at, since they were gathered to salute a defeated President.
Crowds were brought into the meeting in 212 buses hired for the purpose and parked on High Level Road for the duration of the rally. The rally proved to be an important wakeup call for the new Government which appeared to have got complacent about an opponent in the shadows, as it set about establishing itself in office.
Deprived of the SLFP leadership, any attempt by President Rajapaksa to craft a post-January 8 political future will have to include the most rabidly hardline sections of the southern polity – a group that could also include the BBS and other like-minded groups.
“What we are experiencing today is not defeat but the result of a conspiracy,” the ousted President said in a message to ‘his people’, delivered with aplomb by Jayatilleka. Encapsulated in that one sentence is the Rajapaksa camp’s perception of the January 8 election.
The conspiracy of ‘Eelam Tamils’ and other minority groups, a sell-out UNP and Chandrika Kumaratunga, aided and abetted by the neo-imperialist West. In a vicious attempt to de-legitimise Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the largely UNP Cabinet, the Nugegoda organisers effectively sought to erode the legitimacy of the Maithripala Sirisena presidency. It was not a victory. It was the successful fruition of a conspiracy.
In essence then, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the undefeated President of Sri Lanka. Except that the Rajapaksa backers have no interest in the presidency any longer. In the post-constitutional reform set up, the current President (and he alone) will hold some executive power, but primacy will be afforded to a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system.
Wimal Weera-wansa’s National Freedom Front, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by Dinesh Gunewardane, and a host of other small parties know that in the battle for premiership in a June 2015 election, Mahinda Rajapaksa will face off against Ranil Wickremesinghe. This is a battle they believe the ousted President can win.
Obstacles to Rajapaksa renaissance
In the 8 January election, Mahinda Rajapaksa won 90 of 160 polling divisions, even though he lost the election. In a general election, unlike in the presidential poll when the entire country polls as a single constituency, that number will translate to a majority of seats under the proportional representation system. This is far from an inaccurate calculation. But two things could stand in the former President’s way.
Firstly, in order to win the nomination to contest seriously as a prime minister candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have to wrest back control of the SLFP. Following Rajapaksa’s defeat, chairmanship of the party passed to President Maithripala Sirisena as stipulated in the SLFP constitution, amended, ironically by the former President himself to prevent Chandrika Kumaratunga from controlling the party. Assuming SLFP seniors get behind the Weerawansa-Gunewardane-Nanayakkara bandwagon and call for his return – unlikely in the present context – the former President would still need President Sirisena’s nod to win the nomination.
Failing this, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be relegated to being a candidate of a hodgepodge coalition of tiny political parties with no grassroots organisation network and no bloc vote. The Rajapaksa candidacy could lend star power to even such an alliance, but the crucial question remains whether that power will prove sufficient to rout a newly energised UNP base.
To make matters worse, any alliance thus forged will lead to the inevitable split of the SLFP, reducing the party’s chances in the general election. Such a division would only serve to bolster a UNP majority and could even see the re-forging of the rainbow coalition to ward off the Rajapaksa threat, that will contest under the swan symbol.
Senior SLFP members are aware of this threat and seek therefore to postpone Parliamentary Elections as long as possible.
Secondly, the Rajapaksa support base within the UNP deludes itself that Mahinda Rajapaksa will command the support of 5.8 million voters in a fair parliamentary contest. Without the state power he has always commanded to win electoral contests at the national level, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be only another candidate in the fray, with a great amount of money at his disposal.
Against mounting corruption scandals involving his family members and closest aides, will campaign funds and a right wing base, now largely relegated to the fringes of society and without the active support and patronage of the state, prove sufficient to sway the election and make him Prime Minister? If that prospect is unlikely, then the fundamental question remains: Will Mahinda Rajapaksa contest an election in which he could end up being just another Member of Parliament?
In all likelihood, Mahinda Rajapaksa is pandering to his former alliance partners because a clamour for his return plays well into the long game for his eventual political comeback. In essence, Mahinda Rajapaksa could be offering crumbs to this unwieldy coalition in order to keep hope alive among the ardent sections of his support base, that he will eventually come back and restore the status quo.
The opportune moment for his return to active politics, will not be in June or July this year, when public memory is still alive with the excesses of his family and the corrupt and authoritarian tenor of his regime. It could be several years down the line, when memory has faded, when the new rulers are well past their honeymoon period and making mistakes of their own or in a time of major national crisis, still unforeseen.
A crisis, precipitated by shadowy forces, may in fact have hastened the reshuffle in the military establishment this past week, and the appointment of the new Army Commander.
The new Government has been aware for several weeks now that sections of the military remain fiercely loyal to former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. These sections grew accustomed over nine years of Rajapaksa rule to a Government policy of viewing every problem through the lens of security. Militarisation and the dominance of the security paradigm in all aspects of the Rajapaksa State has in a sense changed perspectives within the military establishment about the primacy of democratic rule.
This is a problem the new Government encountered early on. The early gaffe by newly appointed Defence Secretary Basnayake, who sought to justify irregular financial activity by his predecessor, was an indication of the seriousness of the problem.
Within the security establishment, the influence of the previous powerful regime runs deep. Civil servants had learned to obey the dictates of military, even though they were technically higher in the command chain. In democratic societies, civilians both political and bureaucratic, take precedence over military high command. But in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka the country’s most powerful civil servant, was in fact a fundamentally military man.
As these lines blurred, as the security state grew immense in structure and size, the civil administration was weakened and its confidence was seriously eroded.
These were the problems within the security apparatus that President Sirisena, as Minister of Defence and Ruwan Wijewardene, his State Minister for the subject, inherited, when they took office in January. An expose last week by our sister publication, The Sunday Times, revealed the extent of the concern when it said the Government had been warned about an assassination plot against President Sirisena during the Independence Day ceremony earlier this month.
Needless to say, the question of whom to trust within the security establishment became a major issue for the new Government. The dilemma was compounded by the new administration’s decision to actively discourage the creation of a paranoid state, by slashing security contingents and escorts for Ministers and opening up former high security zones in the capital.
Reports that certain military officials were training junior officers to create the illusion of problems in the Northern Province – presumably under shadow orders – may have hastened the decision-making with regard to the military.
The Government took the most cautious course. There were no summary removals or swift shuffles that could be perceived as reprisals or witch-hunts. Chief of Defence Staff, Jagath Jayasuriya, under whose hand dubious standby orders were signed on 24 December 2014, and troop movements were allegedly made two days ahead of the presidential election, remains in place.
While the military dismissed the orders as ‘routine’ at election time, a position Jayasuriya has repeatedly noted in private, nevertheless they perturbed the Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya enough to mention that he was investigating the complaint at a press briefing on the eve of the election. Deshapriya said that no troops could be mobilised without the express knowledge of the Elections Commissioner and the IGP, and he said he was in the dark regarding the movement.
Uneasy military relations
In late January, Jayasuriya was to pay a call on the Prime Minister and other senior members of the Government, to deny his ‘involvement’ in the ‘coup story’ of election night last month. Wickremesinghe is reported to have played the issue down during the meeting.
But with questions persisting as to why Jayasuriya continues to be CDS, given his intense loyalties to the former regime (Jayasuriya was appointed Army Commander, after the Rajapaksa regime began to suspect that Sarath Fonseka was wielding too much control over the military after the war ended in 2009), it remains unclear whether his retention is part of the Government’s strategy to ensure they do not rock the boat and provoke a potentially devastating response from the security establishment.
Insiders say there remains a degree of tension and suspicion between the new Government and the security establishment. This was evidenced by an incident a few weeks after the election, political observers say.
It was an open election promise of this Government that they would return land to former owners in the formerly embattled regions of the North and East. There were two key phrases they kept using on the campaign trail. The campaign leaders for the Opposition said the army was building “swimming pools” and “golf courses” on private lands.
But on 29 January, former Army Chief now General Daya Ratnayake, travelled to Jaffna to ceremonially open a swimming pool inside the army-run Thalsevana resort. He was hosted by Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis, who had controversially been appointed Security Forces Commander of the Northern Province by the previous regime just ahead of the presidential election.
The question of whether the Army Commander, who the new Government was treating with kid gloves following his alleged refusal to participate in the attempt to hold power by force on election night, had engaged in an act of defiance or whether it was a mere coincidence remains a question.
But finally last week, Army Commander Ratnayake retired without extension and was promoted to the rank of General.
The Government is aware however, that parts of the military could still be uneasy with the new setup and any seeming erosion of its strength or capacity, especially in response to TNA demands, would be viewed with significant hostility.
Naturally, this puts the new administration in a supremely awkward position, as it attempts to balance security concerns with pledges made to promote reconciliation with the Tamil people during the election.
Hardline sections of the TNA are breathing fire against the new Prime Minister for the Government delays in releasing lands seized by the military in war time back to its original owners in the North and East.
The two major regions being contested are Valikamam North in the Jaffna District and Sampur in the Trincomalee District. In Valikamam North, the army holds 6000 acres of land, originally belonging to private citizens. The Government announced two weeks ago that it would release 1000 acres back to the original owners. Since the announcement there is little progress. It appears the 1000 acres is the present compromise the Government has been able to exact from the military.
The frustration over the delays has resulted in a spate of protests by families of the disappeared, student activists and land owners, against both the new Government and the more moderate leaders of the TNA.
Last Thursday, a stormy meeting ensued when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met with a TNA delegation for talks about the release of land and detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Several TNA MPs, including EPRLF Leader Suresh Premachandra, were harsh with the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe reacted by urging calm. “Can’t we have a civilised discussion – don’t shout at me. I understand your issues,” he said, after which the meeting proceeded calmly.
One TNA MP from Jaffna said even the usually civil TNA Leader R. Sampanthan had been palpably angry at the meeting. The return of land and the release of political prisoners held under PTA were major verbal promises made by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe before the election. At the TNA’s first meeting with the new President, they raised two key issues, says MP M.A. Sumanthiran: the disappeared people and the release of land. At Thursday’s meeting, Wickremesinghe asked the TNA to give him two more weeks to allow the new Army Commander to settle into office.
The new Government has also annoyed the TNA by refusing to discuss the UNHRC process and strategies with them. The reaction came in the form of the infamous ‘Genocide’ resolution passed by the Northern Provincial Council, with a green light from Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, widely believed to be a moderate and rational Tamil politician.
The resolution has not been well-received in the South of the island. In light of what are seen as the Government’s genuine efforts to advance reconciliation and build bridges – even though progress might be slow – the NPC reaction appeared to be over the top and needlessly aggressive.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera believes the NPC resolution indicates the continuing lack of trust between the northern council and the Centre. “It was a surprising statement,” Samaraweera acknowledged to the Daily FT. “It shows the trust deficit between the North and the Centre and shows that building trust is of paramount importance,” he said.
Minister Samaraweera insists that requesting the deferral of the UN report was not a time-buying measure. The Government would explore the possibility of setting up a truth commission with the aid of South Africa, while also establishing a domestic accountability mechanism with technical assistance from the UN, its international partners and even human rights groups.
While the hardening positions in the North could also be put down to electoral compulsions, the trend is a dangerous one and could easily derail any real moves to build trust between the communities in the long term. In order to keep the moderates relevant within the TNA, the Government must ensure a consensus driven, consultative process on issues pertaining to the Tamil minority.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new Prime Minister certainly faces a unique dilemma. Unpopular with nationalist sections of the south, who view him as having ‘sold out’ to the LTTE with his Ceasefire Agreement and Peace Talks in 2001-2004, he faces an uphill task winning large chunks of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
But hardliners on the other side of the ethnic divide continue to perceive him as the Sinhala leader who heralded the defeat of the LTTE by effecting the defection of Karuna after the peace talks broke down. Now hardline sections of the TNA are convinced Wickremesinghe is engaged in a similar game to end the party’s political future.
Five days before the presidential elections in 2005, several members of the TNA visited Wickremesinghe at his Fifth Lane residence. It was close to midnight and the then Opposition Leader had been campaigning in Ratnapura. The alleged pre-election pact between his opponent’s campaign and the LTTE had already been made. But the Tigers had been convinced by certain Tamil politicians to bring their conditions to Wickremesinghe.
In April 2003, peace talks with the Wickremesinghe Government had broken down after the Prime Minister refused to give into LTTE demands to create an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) in areas of the North and East which were under their control.
In November 2005, the TNA carried the message to Wickremesinghe from the Tigers that they would allow the Tamil people to vote in the election on 17 November 2005, if he agreed to give into the ISGA condition. Wickremesinghe, whose presidency was effectively stolen from him only five days later, refused.
With that election, the man who had paid the LTTE Rs. 500 million to effect a polls boycott, became the supra-patriot in an end-justifies-the-means argument. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had refused to give into the Tiger’s political demands, became a traitor. And so the status quo has remained, largely as a result of the UNP’s own communication failures and Wickremesinghe’s own refusal to engage in public discussions about the matter.
If Wickremesinghe must in a June election, face off again against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the question of patriot and traitor will be front and centre again. The Sinhala nationalists will rally against the Prime Minister and the hardliners in the North will spew nationalistic rhetoric against him to keep any UNP attempt to secure seats in the region at bay and hold on to large majorities in the province.
To overcome the challenge, Wickremesinghe will need to carry the moderates with him, ward off any attempts to communalise the political debate surrounding the election and act swiftly to clip the wings of the former regime waiting in the shadows, by indicting them for misdeeds and corruption.
– Daily FT