SPECIAL REPORT : Part 284August 20, 2019, 8:02 pm
Gotabaya and wife, Ayoma at Atamastanaya, Anuradhapura, following his nomination as SLPP prez candidate (pic by Kamal Bogoda)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Wartime Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in early 2016, emerged as the Rajapaksa Camp’s leading presidential election aspirant, thanks to yahapalana grandees causing unprecedented political chaos. The trouble erupted, within the UNP-SLFP coalition, within weeks after the January 08, 2015 presidential election, consequent to the unprecedented treasury bond scam.
The yahapalana leadership, comprising UNP-SLFP chiefs, paved the way for the tough-talking retired Lieutenant Colonel to formally receive SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) nomination on Aug 11, 2019. The yahapalana administration caused so much destruction, turmoil and uncertainty, since the last presidential election, the public cried for a person capable of restoring normalcy.
If not for them, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wouldn’t have got an opportunity to contest the presidency that his older brother Mahinda held twice with distinction, as he did not waver one bit while the country defeated the most ruthless terrorist outfit, the LTTE, which many a pundit claimed could not be defeated, coupled with an unprecedented worldwide economic crisis of 2008 and unannounced Western sanctions unofficially imposed for defeating the Tigers against the advice of the so-called international community The unofficial sanctions were in the form of delayed IMF credit lines, withdrawal of GSP Plus etc. Against all such odds Rajapaksas somehow carried on with the economy humming in all fronts, till Mahinda decided to go for early elections probably fearing greater sanctions by the West on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes.
Yahapalana heads worked overtime to destabilize their own government. Their scandalous conduct allowed the Rajapaksa Camp to make swift headway, in spite of the previous administration, too, being tainted. Although the previous government didn’t rob the Central Bank, it was as corrupt as the yahapalana administration. That is a fact. The previous administration was so corrupt; it blocked the National Audit Bill meant to empower the Auditor General.
Having repeatedly promised transparency and accountability, the UNP caused immense harm to the administration by robbing the Central Bank, on Feb 27, 2015. The unprecedented fraud, involving primary dealer Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL), caused irreparable damage to the party. The main suspect, the then Governor of the Central Bank, Arjuna Mahendran, being a Singaporean and a close associate of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, made matters worse for the UNP. Unfortunately, the top UNP leadership refused to change its style. President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved parliament, in late June, 2015, to prevent COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman DEW Gunasekera from submitting the explosive report on the treasury bond scam to the House. The UNP ignored continuing protests over the treasury bond scam, both in and out of parliament. Those responsible for the Feb 2015 treasury bond scam perpetrated a bigger fraud, in late March 2016. Having saved the UNP from the first COPE report, President Sirisena paved the way for the second fraud, following the August 2015 parliamentary election. President Sirisena owed an explanation as to why he waited till January 2017 to appoint a Presidential Commission of Inquiry.
The yahapalana administration never recovered from the treasury bond scams. The current dispensation also earned the wrath of the vast majority of people by co-sponsoring a resolution against the country, on Oct 01, 2015, at the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) in Geneva. The Geneva betrayal turned the country against the yahapalana administration. The yahapalana chiefs bent backwards to appease the TNA (Tamil National Alliance), Western powers, the civil society and the foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The current dispensation neglected national security to such an extent that a group of Muslim extremists, under the leadership of Zahran Hashim, triggered seven suicide blasts in six locations, in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo. The PSC (Parliamentary Select Committee), inquiring into the Easter Sunday attacks, revealed as to how those responsible for the safety and security of the people caused the deaths of nearly 270 perosns and injuries to approximately 500 others. Reportage of the Easter Sunday massacre caused immense damage to the UNP government. Although, the SLFP quit the government, on Oct 26, 2018, the party cannot absolve itself of the responsibility due to its leader President Sirisena being the head of the cabinet, as well as the National Security Council (NSC). The bottom line is that the electorate felt the need for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, because of the prevailing instability. The deployment of armed forces, at schools and churches, countrywide, in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, is a grim reminder of uncertainty. The continuing presence of armed forces, on the streets, is nothing but free promotion for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature.
Gotabaya made his first deliberate move to attract the public, in early 2016. On February 04, 2016, at an informal gathering at his Mirihana home, a decision was made to launch Viyath Maga (The Intellectual Path). Among those present were former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, one-time Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).The Viyath Maga concept was Godahewa’s, who played a pivotal role in the overall project. Those present at Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home included Prof. Janitha Liyanage, Manouri Unambuwa, Shermila Rajapaksa, Indika Liyanahewage, Damitha Wickremasinghe, Sandamali Fernando, Theshara Jayasinghe, Nivantha Fernando, Devalochana Ranasinghe and former Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera. One-time lawmaker Weerasekera is one of those outspoken officers who played a significant role in naval operations during the conflict.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa launched Eliya (Light) in early Sept 2017 amidst deepening political turmoil. Both Viyath Maga and Eliya attracted professionals, including many high-ranking ex-military personnel. Retired Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema and retired Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri are two of those seniors who made valuable contribution to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s project. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader and attorney-at-law, Udaya Gammanpila, and National Freedom Party leader, Wimal Weerawansa, threw their full weight behind the project. As the situation rapidly deteriorated, the majority of UPFA lawmakers, aligned with the Joint Opposition (JO), also pledged their support.
The yahapalana grandees, with the support of the UPFA/JO on the advice of President Sirisena, enacted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The much publicized 19th Amendment disqualified Mahinda Rajapaksa from entering the presidential fray again by bringing back the two-term limit. The new law also disqualified Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the basis of him being a dual citizen. Gotabaya Rajapaksa renounced his US citizenship, in mid-April 2019.
Basil Rajapaksa, in early Nov 2016, registered the SLPP against the backdrop of SLFP leader Sirisena joining the UNP-led government. One-time External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris accepted the challenging task of being the SLPP’s first Chairman, while former State Counsel, attorney-at-law Sagara Kariyawasam, functioned as its Secretary. The SLPP turned the tables on both the UNP and the SLFP at the first election it faced. It became the most powerful political force, less than two years after its inception. Having comfortably won the last Local Government polls, in Feb. 2018, the SLPP named Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its 2019 presidential candidate, whereas the leading UNP candidate, its Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, is still struggling to secure nomination. The crisis within the UNP is also helping Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a big way.
It would be pertinent to mention that as to how Basil Rajapaksa, having secured control of the Sri Lanka Jathika Peramuna (SLJP), re-registered it as Ape Sri Lanka Nidahas Peramuna (ASLNP) in preparation to contest the 2015 general election. Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva strongly opposed the move, on the basis the Rajapaksa Camp could sort out problems with President Sirisena. The decision to contest the last general election, in 2015 August, was taken on the basis that problems could be ironed out. But, once that effort went awry, the ASLNP was again registered as the SLPP, on Nov 01, 2016. Kariyawasam’s father, Albert Kariyawasam, served the SLFP as an MP, from 1960 till he lost the Benthara-Elpitiya seat in March 1965. However, he re-entered parliament, in July 1965, having won the by-election for the Benthara-Elpitiya seat, and remained a member of parliament, till 1977. Those astrologers consulted by the leadership of the newest party overwhelmingly approved its name. They were of the view Basil Rajapaksa couldn’t have opted for a better name.
The overall political project achieved success or, in other words, prepared a solid platform for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In spite of claims that Basil Rajapaksa, too, aspired for the presidency, the former SLFP National Organizer categorically denied plans to renounce his US citizenship.
Gotabaya leaves Army
Those opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeking Office of the President, attacked him over his early retirement. They depicted him as a deserter. The writer sought an explanation from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in June 2013, as to why he quit the Army. The Island dealt with the issue in an article titled Ayoma wins the day (The Island, July 01, 2013)
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been under heavy pressure from his wife, Ayoma to quit the Army for quite some time. With the war taking a turn for the worse, with the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), in March 1990, Ayoma wanted to migrate to the United States, where her parents were living. In spite of Gotabaya’s reluctance to quit the Army, Ayoma relentlessly raised the issue with senior officers, particularly the then Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne, who was at that time in Colombo.
Ayoma, like the wives of many other officers, had been quite adamant that Gotabaya should leave the SLA to pursue some other career.
Ayoma had stepped up her efforts to convince her soldier husband to leave the Army, following the outbreak of Eelam War II, in June 1990, with devastating attacks on the security forces. The Army faced a heavy defeat in the Jaffna peninsula in the wake of the LTTE making significant battlefield gains, within the first couple of months in the Jaffna and Vanni theatres.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "The LTTE resumed hostilities during the second week of June 1990. During the latter part of 1990, we moved to the married quarters at the Summit Flats. My apartment was situated opposite the residence of Brig. Wimalaratne. Our families were close. During that period, Wimalaratne was attached to the Joint Operations Command. He was one of the most influential officers whose opinion was taken seriously by those in power."
Gotabaya Rajapaksa recollected the then State Minister for Defence ,Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, angrily reacting to a brief front page news item published by The Sunday Island, titled Lt. Col. Gotabaya Rajapaksa to retire. Minister Wijeratne had been furious as he felt Gotabaya’s brother, SLFP Hambantota district MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was responsible for the move. Minister Wijeratne had inquired from MP Rajapaksa why he wanted his brother to quit the Army. Mahinda Rajapaksa had denied Minister Wijeratne’s allegations, insisting that he wasn’t in anyway responsible for Gotabaya’s decision.
Brig. Wimalaratne in bid to thwart Ayoma’s plans
Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "Later, I came to know that it was Brigadier Wimalaratne, who got The Sunday Island to publish the news item. Wimalaratne was reacting to my wife constantly requesting him to release me, as we wanted to migrate to the United States. The Brigadier probably felt that the news item would cause a major scene, leading to government intervention to get me transferred to Colombo. At that time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s battalion––The first battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR)––was deployed in the Weli Oya region. Both Minister Wijeratne and Brigadier Wimalaratne went out of their way to prevent me from leaving the Army."
One day, the then Lt. Col. Rajapaksa received a call from Lt. Gen. Wanasinghe directing him to meet Minister Wijeratne, immediately. However, Rajapaksa pointed out that he couldn’t leave for Colombo immediately as his Area Commander, Brigadier Janaka Perera was away. The I GR commander asserted that he couldn’t take the risk of leaving Weli Oya in the absence of his superior officer. Having heard Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s excuse for not responding to his summons, Minister Wijeratne decided to visit Weli Oya.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "Suddenly, army headquarters alerted me to the arrival of Minister Wijeratne to Weli Oya. I was really surprised. Obviously, Minister Wijeratne felt that my brother was somehow responsible for my decision to quit the Army. Minister Wijeratne flew into Weli Oya. The then Northern Commander, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa accompanied Minister Wijeratne. Brigadier Janaka Perera, too, was present at the briefing given to Minister Wijeratne. Having had lunch, Minister Wijeratne wanted to speak to me privately. As he walked out of the premises, I followed him."
Gotabaya Rajapaksa quoted Minister Wijeratne as having told him: "I know you are tired. You have been in the field for a long time. I’ll get the Army Commander to move you out of Weli Oya. Don’t worry; you’ll receive an appointment in Colombo."
In spite of Minister Wijeratne’s offer for a posting away from the operational area, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he wanted to serve with his battalion, wherever it was deployed.
At the behest of Minister Wijeratne, army headquarters appointed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa as the Deputy Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA), in late 1990.
Gotabaya quits SLA
Gotabaya. Rajapaksa was at the Summit flats when he heard a massive blast. The former Defence Secretary said: "The entire area shook. We felt the blast. Soon afterword’s, I heard the target was Minister Wijeratne."
Minister Wijeratne was killed on the morning of March 2, 1991, along with six of his police commando bodyguards. Shortly after Minister Wijeratne’s assassination, Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent in his retirement papers. Army headquarters swiftly endorsed Lt. Col. Rajapaksa’s retirement. Much to Ayoma’s relief, Gotabaya quit the Army on November 1, 1991.
It was the writer who contributed that short piece to The Sunday Island on the basis of information provided by Brig. Wimalaratne. Obviously, it was a psychological operation initiated by Brigadier Wimalaratne to compel Lt. Col. Rajapaksa to remain with the SLA. Although Brigadier Wimalaratne had been successful in prompting Minister Wijeratne to intervene, his assassination changed the ground situation.
Commenting on the events leading to the resumption of hostilities in the wake of the Indian pullout, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: "Many officers were disgruntled with the situation. Although we felt the then government was wrong and acting in a manner detrimental to the national interests, the security forces were unable to intervene. The military was supposed to act on political directives. Although the LTTE was preparing for war, we did absolutely nothing to discourage them from resuming hostilities. Had we bolstered our military strength, it would have been a powerful deterrent. Unfortunately, the government weakened the military presence in the northern and eastern districts, instead of increasing the strength."
In his inaugural address, on Aug 11, 2019, as the SLPP presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa assured he would ensure the security of the State and its people. Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed that he wouldn’t, under any circumstances, succumb to terrorism and extremism. The former Defence Secretary made no reference to the much-touted slogan in previous presidential elections that the executive presidency would be scrapped. With the country in turmoil and administration in total disarray, abolition of the executive presidency is unlikely to be the priority for Gotabaya Rajapaksa whose style of governance will certainly differ from his predecessors.
Recalling his two decades long military career, as well as his decade long tenure as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Gotabaya declared that he wouldn’t hesitate to go beyond accepted norms to fulfill obligations.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa recalled a letter of commendation received 35 years ago from the then senior most military officer Gen. Cyril Ranatunga referring to him as ‘an officer who takes initiative over and above the normal call of duty.’
The ex-infantry officer said that he had been able to provide strategic guidance and administrative support to wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa as he always acted out of principle which earned him Gen. Ranatunga’s praise.
The LTTE, obviously, considered Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s strategic thinking a serious threat hence an attempt on his life at the onset of Eelam War IV. Had the LTTE suicide cadres succeeded in their attempts to eliminate the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on April 25, 2005, and Dec 01, 2006, respectively, the LTTE would have still retained its conventional military power and a key influencing factor in the forthcoming presidential election – the third since Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE, in May 2009.
The UNP fielded Sarath Fonseka, at the2010 January presidential election, to deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa of the advantage of war victory. Fonseka lost by a staggering 1.8 mn votes. The UNP, obviously, miscalculated the electorate. Having underestimated Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strategies, the UNP suffered a major setback, though Fonseka won all the predominately Tamil-speaking electoral districts, including Digamadulla. The TNA backed Fonseka’s candidature to the hilt, counter the main war crimes allegation directed against the Rajapaksa government that it killed over 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front in 2009.