x

Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 January 2019

A shadowy plot to assassinate the president was at the heart of Sri Lanka's political crisis

Although the crisis seems resolved it was soaked in hearsay reports of Indian spies, Tamil snippers and a criminal underworld planned attempt against the president

Sri Lanka Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel stand guard near the Supreme Court in Colombo on December 14, 2018. Sri Lanka's Supreme Court opened the way for potential impeachment proceedings against the president on December 13, ruling that he broke the law by dissolving parliament last month. / AFP / LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI
Sri Lanka Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel stand guard near the Supreme Court in Colombo on December 14, 2018. Sri Lanka's Supreme Court opened the way for potential impeachment proceedings against the president on December 13, ruling that he broke the law by dissolving parliament last month. / AFP / LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI

A plot to kill the president, links to foreign intelligence, a rogue police officer and a missing sniper: the snippets of news emerging from Sri Lanka in recent weeks seem plucked from the pages of paperback fiction.

But the allegations have had real enough consequences for the island nation, contributing to upending its politics, undermining its currency and credit rating, and affecting relations with giant neighbour India.

President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October, just weeks after a little-known social activist alleged he had heard of a plot to assassinate the president from a police officer.

Reuters has learned that investigators have not found any substantial evidence to back up the claim, although Mr Sirisena said in a newspaper interview this month that the refusal of Mr Wickremesinghe to take the plot seriously was the final straw leading to his dismissal.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was reinstated on Sunday. Reuters
Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Reuters

A spokesman for Mr Sirisena did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr Sirisena said in the interview with Ceylon Today: "I was completely disappointed by the way things were moving."

Referring to the assassination plot, he added: "They [the authorities] displayed utter lethargy."

Mr Wickremesinghe has said he never interfered with the investigations and kept Mr Sirisena informed of their progress.

Sri Lanka has a long history of political assassinations in decades of civil war, making Mr Sirisena's allegations all the more explosive.

"It is hard to know what the truth is and many people are sceptical [of the plot]," said a senior Western diplomat in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo. "It's part of the politics," he added.

What is clear is the drama paralysed the island nation and left it without a functioning government for months until Mr Sirisena agreed on Friday to reinstate Mr Wickremesinghe.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man the president had wanted to appoint to replace Mr Wickremesinghe, bowed out to end the deadlock after it became clear that MPs wouldn't stand for the president's actions or his appointment.

epa07232409 Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the signing of his letter of resignation from the Prime Minister's post at his official residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 15 December 2018. Mahinda Rajapaksa has resigned as Sri Lanka's prime minister on 15 December 2018. President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the 225-member Parliament headed by United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place on 26 October. President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa called for a snap general election on 05 January 2019. However, the UNP and several civil and other organizations filed as many as 13 petitions before the Supreme Court challenging the dissolution as being unconstitutional. A seven judge-bench of Sri Lanka's Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Gazette notification issued by President Maithripala Sirisena dissolving Parliament was inconsistent with the constitution and such a dissolution could be made only when Parliament completes its four-and-a-half year term. Making a special statement before stepping down, Mahinda Rajapaksa said he does so since the premiership was useless without a general election being held and hence to make way for the President to take future necessary steps. EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa signs his letter of resignation as the contested prime minister at his official residence in Colombo. EPA

The Plot

The alleged plot first came to light on September 12, when self-styled anti-corruption activist and police informant Namal Kumara gathered a few local journalists and made a series of accusations against a senior police officer.

The most alarming of those claims was that the officer had told him about a plot to assassinate Mr Sirisena using agents of the criminal underworld.

Mr Kumara said he had deleted the recording of the conversation about the plot against Mr Sirisena out of fear, but to back up his allegations he released recordings of other conversations with the deputy inspector general of police, Nalaka de Silva.

Ruwan Gunasekara, a police spokesman, said there was evidence in those recordings of a plot to kill another senior officer. But he added that in nearly three months of investigations, police had found "no substantial evidence" of an assassination threat to Mr Sirisena beyond Mr Kumara's claims.

On Saturday, police sent Mr Kumara's phone to Hong Kong to see if any deleted recordings could be recovered. Mr De Silva remains in custody and could not be reached for comment.

Speaking via a video call from a town in Sri Lanka's eastern province, a relaxed, bare-chested Mr Kumara said the police were now showing little interest in his story.

"The way they [investigators] take action is very poor. I'm ready to help them if they ask," he said, adding that he had further information to reveal to authorities but declined to elaborate.

From the outset, there were doubts over Mr Kumara, who runs a private anti-corruption campaign group that he says is funded by himself and a few other activists.

"All what he said was nonsense," Rajitha Senarathne, the cabinet spokesman in the former government of Mr Wickremesinghe said.

Even one of Mr Sirisena's closest aides acknowledged that Mr Kumara may not be reliable.

"That informant may not be credible but you can't just brush it [the plot] away," Shiral Lakthilaka, the president's coordinating secretary and adviser, said.

In an interview with foreign correspondents late last month, Mr Sirisena alleged that former cabinet minister and army chief Sarath Fonseka may be involved in the plot. He also said a missing man described as a former Tamil militant sniper could be involved.

Mr Gunasekara from Sri Lanka's police said there was no investigation into Mr Fonseka "at the moment" and that he "was not aware" of the incident involving the missing sniper. Mr Fonseka has denied the allegations and called for Mr Sirisena to be prosecuted.

_______________

Read more:

Sri Lanka's Tamils fear bloody return of 'Lord of the Rings' Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan press freedom crushed following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return

Colombo on edge as Sri Lanka faces constitutional crisis

Inside Temple Trees: Prime minister’s bungalow becomes Sri Lanka’s seed of resistance

_______________

Indian Connection

Police have said they arrested an Indian national named Marsili Thomas in connection with the case on information provided by Mr Kumara.

Rumours started to swirl around social media that Mr Thomas was working for the Indian secret service - which Mr Sirisena later referred to in a cabinet meeting, according to officials present, threatening a diplomatic furore.

India, the regional superpower, is an ever-present bogeyman for Sri Lankans. Many blame India for supporting Tamil Tiger separatists during the civil war.

Asked if Mr Thomas was linked to India's intelligence, the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka did not respond. Mr Thomas is still in custody in Sri Lanka and so could not comment.

India's foreign ministry has said Mr Sirisena spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the issue to ensure it didn't lead to a diplomatic crisis.

As the rumours and conspiracy theories swirled around Colombo, Sri Lanka's government was in limbo. Mr Wickremesinghe's replacement, Mr Rajapaksa, was the former president but lost two confidence motions in parliament and been prevented from assuming office by a court order.

Mr Sirisena ordered the parliament dissolved and called for fresh elections, but Sri Lanka's top court ruled the move unconstitutional on Thursday.

Mr Sirisena called the impasse "a storm in a teacup."

"These issues will be settled soon and no one needs to worry," he said in the newspaper interview.

But he has refused to reinstate Wickremesinghe.

He told the foreign correspondents: "Leave the law and order aside, isn't it a duty of a prime minister at least to ask the president who is facing an assassination threat? There was nothing like that ... How can I go forward with Ranil Wickremesinghe?"

An official at the president's office confirmed Mr Wickremesinghe would be again taking the oath of office on Sunday and returning to the post after Mr Sirisena agreed to reinstate his former prime minister.

Updated: December 16, 2018 08:32 AM

SHARE

SHARE