By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
A recent article by Dharisha Bastians in Daily FT titled ‘Revolution Betrayed’ begins with an evocative paragraph.
“On 8 January 2015, once he had cast his vote in Polonnaruwa, Maithripala Sirisena and his family made their way to remote coconut estate in Kurunegala. The movement occurred at dusk, when the waning light helped to hide the small convoy of vehicles carrying the future first family to their refuge for election night. When he made the decision to contest Mahinda Rajapaksa for the presidency, Sirisena knew he had placed his life and the lives of his family in the gravest danger.”
Not only the first paragraph but the entire article aims at poignancy. My article intends to explore whether it achieves that or merely ends up generating hypocritical schmaltz. One thing has to be made clear. If Sirisena thought at that time that he and his family were in danger, no one, not even his worst critic would have been justified in dismissing his fears as unfounded and ridiculous. Politically motivated killings had started in post independent Sri Lanka way before the LTTE or the JVP. Even in the relatively halcyon and innocent days of 1959, stalwarts of his own party and government were charged with and convicted of conspiring and bringing about the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike. Even now that the LTTE and the JVP had been eliminated from the equation as armed bodies, Sri Lankans continue to be plagued by fears of political assassinations.
I heard one such ‘fear’ anecdote from Malinda Seneviratne, the Editor of The Nation. It is associated with the 2010 Presidential Elections and the ‘fear’ in it emanates from Sarath Fonseka, the common candidate of the UNP led coalition against the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In Malinda’s own words, this is the story;
“During the campaign a correspondent for an Indian newspaper regularly called to ask if I was fine. I was a freelancer then and I picked MR over SF simply because I thought (and still think) SF would be the greater disaster. At no point did I say ‘vote for MR’. Neither did I say ‘don’t vote for MR’.
The day after the results were announced (or the day after that) I was invited for a party by Dilith Jayaweera. I asked who else was invited. He said ‘some friends who helped in the campaign’. I thought it would be a party of marginal people not different to me. There were lots of people…probably about 50 including Lalith Weeratunga, Cabraal and Gotabaya. At one point LW asked ‘Malinda do you know these people?’ I said ‘One or two I know, some I know of but most I don’t know’. He said ‘you didn’t understand the question….none of these people would be here had SF won’. I didn’t make much of this…thought that the campaign hype had got to them and they were believing their own propaganda.
The following day I was invited to another party. A couple Indian correspondents and a few Sri Lankan friends. Small gathering of less than 10 people. The same person who would check up on me now and then asked ‘what would you have done had SF won?’
I said: ‘I waited up only until they announced the first electoral result…i.e. not the postal votes…[I mentioned the electorate…I think it was Deniyaya or Akuressa]. Mahinda won by a big margin. I went to sleep.’
‘What if it had gone to SF?’
‘I would have given myself an hour to lose myself somewhere…’
‘That’s about all the time you would have had,’ he said. He was serious. He was also present when SF was holed up in Cinnamon Lakeside and was arrested. He is not like Charles Havilland or any of those fly-by-night journalists writing for European media houses. The guy had been in and out of SL and probably works closely with RAW.”
Given that such an established and acknowledged climate of fear permeated the 2010 Presidential Elections, no one would have been justified in dismissing the 2015 Common Presidential candidate’s fears. But is Dharisha Bastians’ first paragraph a realistic representation of those fears?
First, ironically due to the massive infrastructure development drive engaged in by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, there are no longer any remote coconut estates in Kurunegala. The Kurunegala district itself is not remote from Colombo and carpeted roads have invaded even the innermost corners of the district. Secondly a convoy of vehicles moving at dusk would not be ‘hidden’. A convoy of vehicles to be hidden, would have to move in the dead of night without headlights. Thirdly, a convoy of vehicles would suggest that the aspiring President still had his security detail, which alone would be sufficient to ensure that the Ministry of Defense and the Government are aware of his whereabouts.
There is a precedent for a Sri Lankan Head of State being implicated in the assassination of a high profile political opponent. On 23 April 1993, Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated at a political rally held in Kirulapone. Shortly afterwards, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, one of the most popular presidents of the UNP made an emotional appeal at a rally again held in Kirulapone. “Assassinate my body. But do not assassinate the character which I have managed to preserve since my childhood”. It was an answer to allegations which were surfacing even then that he was responsible for Athulathmudali’s death. Less than a week after this fateful appeal to ‘assassinate his body’, on 1 May 1993, President Premadasa was assassinated in a bomb blast, believed to be by the LTTE.
On 7 December 1994, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, appointed a special Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the murder of Athulathmudali. She instructed the Commission not only to inquire into the ‘whodunit’ aspect, but also into “whether there was a failure to provide, or intentional withdrawal of security by the authorities at the meeting held at Kirulapone on April 23, 1993, at which the late Lalith William Athulathmudali was assassinated and if so, the person or persons responsible for such failure or intentional withdrawal; and whether there was failure by the authorities concerned to provide adequate personal security to late Lalith William Athulathmudali despite repeated requests by him, for such security.”
The Commission submitted its report to President CBK on 7 October 1997. The Commission expressed the view that President Premadasa was himself directly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Athulathmudali and that others did his bidding. The Commission also implicated Sirisena Cooray, the General Secretary of the UNP under President Premadasa, Ajith Cooray, his son, Sottthi Upali, a famous underworld kingpin, U. L Seneviratne, a UNP Western provincial councilor and various high profile police officers who aided and abetted the conspiracy. According to the Commission, President Premadasa had the strongest possible motive to eliminate Athulathmudali. He was badly insulted by the contents of the so-called impeachment motion, his place as head of state publicly ridiculed and undermined, a political force headed by Athulathmudali was developing against his continuance as president.
The Commission found that underworld gunmen and thugs killed Athulathmudali and the ‘fall guy’ Ragunathan, a Tamil youth who had come to Colombo to go abroad. According to the Commission the acceptable evidence implicates Sotthi Upali as conspiring with others to abduct Ragunathan, receive him as a prisoner, keep him in secret wrongful confinement, starve him of food and water and have him killed by probably secret administration of poison, to wit, cyanide and then make up false scene as if he committed suicide by biting on a cyanide capsule, when he faces imminent capture. All this was done to suggest that Ragunathan was a member of the LTTE, who assassinated Athulathmudali. The Commission also found that various Police officers were implicated in the Athulathmudali assassination. They shifted the venue of the meeting and withdrew police strength from the meeting. Some officers were closely associated with Sotthi Upali and called him ‘chief’. Two officers were even found to have visited Ragunathan in his captivity under Sotthi Upali in Gothami Road. The killings were elaborately planned, the need for deception being of paramount importance. (My source for the findings of the Commission is: “Sri Lanka: The Untold Story”, K.T Rajasingham, Chapter 58: Premadasa indicted )
I have presented two stories; one of terror and death officially traced to Ranasinghe Premadasa, an elected head of state, and the other of terror that was widely anticipated from Sarath Fonseka, a would be head of state. These stories were intended as perspective. It is my contention that in a seasoned state like Sri Lanka the killing or incarceration of an entire family of peaceful citizens outside of a theatre of war would not be carried out in the naïve manner envisaged by Bastians. She says “The broken state of Sri Lanka’s democracy, battered by nine years of Rajapaksa rule, ensured that any direct challenger of President Rajapaksa’s tight grip on power, even in an election he himself had called, was dancing with death. The Sirisena family’s retirement to a remote corner of the Kurunegala District on election night was tacit acknowledgement of this terrible threat. The time it would take to locate the family the morning after could well have meant the crucial hours between life, death or incarceration for Maithripala Sirisena and his immediate family.”
That they went in a convoy of vehicles to a coconut plantation in the entirely un-remote and accessible Kurunegala is in fact the best admission that they saw no such threat. The only credible acknowledgement of such a terrible threat would have been if they had ditched the government security detail and camped out in a Western embassy in Colombo for the election night.
@ http://ratnawalli.com / and firstname.lastname@example.org