Maithripala Sirisena is a man of many surprises. Sri Lanka’s sixth executive President has a penchant to make controversial remarks and startling revelations on more than one occasion. Most of these sensational disclosures explode in the public domain with a powerful bang and then fizzle out into pathetic whimpers. The latest in this series were some comments purportedly made by President Sirisena at the Cabinet ministers meeting last week concerning an alleged conspiracy to assassinate him and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The remarks which seemingly insinuated that India’s overseas espionage agency known as ‘RAW’ (research and analysis wing) was involved in the plot, naturally struck a raw nerve in New Delhi. This could have caused a major dispute between India and Sri Lanka but thankfully a potential crisis seems to have been averted for the moment due to diplomatic damage control done adroitly by our big neighbour across Palk Strait. And in Sri Lanka, once again sections of the media were made the scapegoats!
It all began with a news story in English appearing in the website ‘Economy Next.’ The website run competently by experienced professionals has built up a solid reputation through its interesting and informative reports. Several national newspapers in Sri Lanka re-produce news stories appearing in Economy Next, sometimes even as lead stories.
Sri Lanka’s Cabinet of ministers chaired by the President usually meets every week on Tuesdays. The current week’s Cabinet meeting was held on October 16 and was presided over by Maithripala Sirisena himself. Two items of interest in the Cabinet meeting were a heated discussion between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over the issue of awarding the East Port Terminal at the Colombo Harbour to India and President Sirisena complaining that the government had not taken any constructive action about the alleged plot to assassinate him and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was the assassination affair that caused the big stir later on. Earlier, a media conference had been scheduled at noon on 16th where details of the conspiracy to assassinate President Sirisena were to be revealed. However, this was postponed. It is surmised that the press conference was timed to coincide with the Cabinet meeting revelations. However, the expected to be explosive media meet did not take place as planned on October 16. But verbal fireworks did explode at the Cabinet meeting on the same day.
Two items of interest in the Cabinet meeting were a heated discussion between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over the issue of awarding the East Port Terminal at the Colombo Harbour to India and President Sirisena complaining that the government had not taken any constructive action about the alleged plot to assassinate him and Gotabaya Rajapaksa
POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT IN ‘ECONOMY NEXT’
In journalist parlance ‘Economy Next’ had a scoop about what transpired on the Cabinet meeting. The website posted a news story written by its political correspondent at 9.24 p.m. on October 16 under the heading ‘Sri Lanka President drops bombshell, accuses India.’ Following is the news story in full –
“Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena shocked his Cabinet on Tuesday by accusing neighbouring India of plotting to assassinate him on the eve of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi, a ministerial source said.
A visibly upset Sirisena accused his senior coalition partner, the United National Party (UNP), of not taking an alleged conspiracy to kill him as well as former secretary to the ministry of defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, seriously.
“The President said that RAW (India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing) was behind the plot,” a minister, who declined to be named, said.
Sirisena also said he was unhappy with the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inquiry into the plot and faulted the Law and Order Minister for what he called the “very slow progress of the inquiry.”
A ministerial source said the Prime Minister was unusually assertive at Cabinet on Tuesday and appeared to be irritated by Sirisena’s barrage against his government. The premier had also retorted in annoyance, much to the surprise of some of the juniors in Cabinet.
The alleged plot was disclosed by a paid employee of the presidential secretariat earlier last month. He had also worked as an informant of the police. Based on his testimony, the police have suspended a Deputy Inspector-General Nalaka de Silva who is said to have been involved in the alleged assassination plot.
Weeks after the so called whistle blower identified as Namal Kumara went public about the plot to kill Sirisena and Rajapaksa, the President’s office issued a statement denying he was in their pay and called for a separate investigation into his conduct.
However, media reports said the Presidential Secretariat had issued letters to Namal Kumara confirming his employment with an anti-narcotics task force directly under the President.
Official sources close to the investigation said they have not found any evidence to support Namal Kumara’s claims of a plot, which also involved an Indian national who was resident in Sri Lanka pending an asylum application with the UN agency for refugees.
The ministerial source said the President did not give details of how India was involved in the plot and several Cabinet ministers were aghast at his claim. “I think it was uncalled for (to accuse India) because he did not provide any evidence to support his claim,” the source said.
“So far, what we have is the figment of someone’s imagination of an assassination plot,” the source said. “What can now be done is to look at the genesis of this story and how it came about.”
The Presidential Secretariat scheduled a press conference at noon on Tuesday to disclose what it called the details of the assassination plot, but cancelled it at the eleventh hour. The President’s former Coordinating Officer and the current Senior Advisor Shiral Lakthilaka was to preside at the press conference.
In the meantime, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has lodged a formal complaint with the police over media reports of the twin assassination plot. When he was asked if he suspected any credible plan to kill him, the former official had said he was making the complaint to have the media reports investigated.
The atmosphere in Cabinet had been unpleasant when they were discussing the awarding of the East Terminal of the Colombo Port to India, those at the Cabinet said. Sirisena is opposed to granting India access to develop the terminal just next to the China-run Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT).
The CICT was at the centre of a diplomatic spat with India during the last year of the Rajapaksa administration when the then government allowed Chinese submarines to dock there without New Delhi being in the loop.
Wickremesinghe travels to New Delhi on Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speed up Indian-backed projects in the island, including the East Terminal project.
On the cards is also the development of the currently unused oil tank farm at China Bay in Trincomalee.”
The Sri Lankan Government issued an elaborate denial of the report and clarifications came from the highest level. Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera slammed it as a “disinformation campaign”, urging reporters to be responsible
MEERA SRINIVASAN IN ‘THE HINDU’
A few hours after the Economy Next report, the Indian English newspaper ‘The Hindu’ also posted a news story on its web edition filed by its Colombo Correspondent Meera Srinivasan. The news item was posted at 11.04 p.m. on October 16. It was subsequently updated at 3.44 p.m. on October 17. The news story by Meera Srinivasan in ‘The Hindu’ headlined “Sri Lankan President Sirisena alleges that RAW is plotting his assassination” read as follows –
“In a charge that might seriously impair New Delhi-Colombo relations, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday accused India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of plotting his assassination.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting, Mr. Sirisena told ministers that the Indian intelligence agency was “trying to kill” him, but “Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not be aware of the plan,” The Hindu has learnt from sources present at the discussion.
“We were just shocked when he said it,” a source said, requesting anonymity.
When contacted for verification, a senior officer at the President’s media unit said: “We will verify this and revert.” However, there has been no response till Tuesday night.
President Sirisena’s claim comes days before Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s scheduled visit to New Delhi, meet Mr. Modi and discuss bilateral matters, including key, India-assisted projects on the island.
This is not the first time a Sri Lankan leader has accused the Indian agency of interference. Following his poll defeat in 2015, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa held RAW among those responsible for the change in regime.
Mr. Sirisena’s allegation, the sources said, came when he raised concerns over the government’s “indifference” to an assassination plot targeting him. Reports of the said plot emerged last month when an individual named Namal Kumara, part of an anti-corruption outfit, claimed he was aware of a plan to assassinate Mr. Sirisena and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The CID interrogated Mr. Kumara. The police subsequently arrested an Indian national late in September. Local media reported that the Indian, identified as M. Thomas hailing from Kerala, claimed he knew of the plot.
However, the Sri Lankan Government issued an elaborate denial of the report and clarifications came from the highest level. Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera slammed it as a “disinformation campaign”, urging reporters to be responsible.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Sirisena reportedly said “the Indian national must be a RAW agent trying to kill me. The Indian PM may not be aware. That is often the case. Trump may not be aware of CIA’s similar moves.”
The Hindu, on Tuesday evening, spoke to multiple sources in government — across political parties — who attended the meeting, and they confirmed this.
Tuesday’s meeting also saw a heated argument between President Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe, when a Cabinet paper on developing the Colombo Port came up for discussion. Sources said Mr. Sirisena vehemently objected to any Indian involvement in upgrading its east container terminal – a project that New Delhihas been keen to take up.
However, Mr. Wickremesinghe is said to have countered by saying Colombo had promised New Delhi on collaborating on the project, and it was important to rope in India at the terminal, given that about 80% of the cargo handled at the transshipment hub was meant for India. He reportedly sought a week’s time to sort out the issue, since he would be meeting Mr. Modi soon.
Meanwhile, the President’s media unit on Tuesday called off a scheduled press meeting by Mr. Sirisena’s advisers on the reported assassination plot.
When contacted, Presidential Adviser Shiral Lakthilaka told The Hindu: “We cancelled it because we are awaiting more information”. Asked if it was connected to Mr. Sirisena’s reported remarks at the Cabinet, he said: “No, it had nothing to do with that.”
SPOKEN TO TWO CABINET MINISTERS
The Hindu’s Colombo correspondent Meera Srinivasan made it a point to emphasise in her report that she had spoken “to multiple sources in government — across political parties — who attended the meeting,” and they had confirmed it. Subsequently, in an Editor’s note published in ‘The Hindu’ it was said the correspondent had spoken to two Cabinet ministers and got indirect confirmation from two others before filing the report after extensive checking and cross-checking.
Apart from Economy Next and The Hindu several Sri Lankan newspapers including the ‘Daily Mirror’ also reported details in different degrees of the controversial Cabinet meeting. The London-based ‘Lanka e-news’ website had also carried a news story with some interesting details about the Cabinet meeting. At least one Colombo newspaper re-published the ‘Hindu’ story as its lead story. Although Economy Next had ‘broken’ the news first, it was the news story appearing in the ‘Hindu’ that had greater impact particularly in India. Economy Next was only a recently begun website whereas ‘The Hindu’ celebrated its 140th anniversary a few weeks ago. The newspaper has acquired a reputation over the years of being the most authoritative voice on Sri Lanka related issues in the Indian media. Therefore a Hindu story on Sri Lanka was effectively credible. Besides the news story had a significant Indian dimension to it.
Taranjit Singh Sandhu however cancelled the trip in order to meet President Sirisena on Wednesday. This he did and secured an appointment at very short notice to meet Sirisena. By this time President Sirisena too was fully aware of serious concerns in New Delhi about the remarks allegedly made by him at the Cabinet meeting. The President was prepared to explain what had happened to the envoy
‘The Hindu’ news story sent alarm bells ringing in India’s “South Block.” The Central Secretariat in India is situated on Raisina Hill in New Delhi. The Central Secretariat comprises two symmetrically constructed identical buildings known as North and South blocks on either side of the ‘Rajpath’ boulevard leading to ‘Rashtrapati Bhavan’ or Presidents House. The North block houses the key Finance and Home Affairs Ministry while South block has the Prime Minister’s office and Ministries of Defence and External Affairs.
With India’s South block being alerted by the news in the ‘Hindu,’ events began to move rapidly. It may be recalled that President Sirisena during his trip to the USA in late September had in a speech to an audience of Sri Lankan origin in New York stated that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were planning to launch air strikes from an airport in Tamil Nadu and bomb Colombo during the final phase of the war in May 2009. This implied that India was harbouring and aiding the LTTE on Indian soil to attack Sri Lanka. Sirisena’s assertion was outrageously false. Yet, New Delhi ignored it without any diplomatic query seeking clarification. One reason for that was due to the speech being available only in YouTube and a few websites. It was not reported in any major Sri Lankan or Indian media outlet.
RESEARCH AND ANALYSIS WING (RAW)
President Sirisena’s purported reference to RAW at the Cabinet meeting however was different. It had been allegedly made at the all important Cabinet meeting. It had been reported in an important Indian newspaper and other media organs. Moreover, it could not be taken lightly as India’s external agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had been directly implicated. Although President Sirisena had reportedly given a clean chit to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying Modi would not have known, the reality was that Maithripala’s remarks amounted to an affront to Premier Modi. This is because the RAW is an adjunct of the Cabinet Secretariat coming under the direct purview of the Prime Minister.
The RAW or R&AW set up in 1968 during the prime ministerial tenure of Indira Gandhi is currently headed by Anil Dhasmana. The chief of RAW is designated as a secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat under the direct command of the Indian Prime Minister. The RAW chief reports administratively to the Cabinet Secretary who in turn reports to the PM. So President Sirisena’s reference to the Indian espionage agency placed Narendra Modi in a difficult position. On the one hand it implied that the Indian Prime Minister may have had a hand in the alleged assassination plot. On the other hand if the RAW was acting independently of Modi it meant that the premier was not in control of a key agency under his direct command.
What agitated South block officials further was the personal interest displayed by Premier Narendra Modi in this matter. After being informed of this ‘news’ the Indian PM told key officials in the External Affairs Ministry and Prime Minister’s Secretariat that this matter if true was “ very serious” and instructed them to give top priority to it. The Indian PM urged his officials to “find out the full truth” and brief him as soon as possible.
VIJAY KESHAV GOKHALE
India’s South block therefore was understandably concerned over President Sirisena’s purported remarks about a RAW hand in the alleged assassination conspiracy. In fact it struck a ‘raw nerve’ (pun intended) in the upper echelons of the Indian establishment. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj who was in Belaurus was informed of what happened. Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale contacted Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Taranjit Singh Sandhu and was briefed. The Foreign Secretary told the High Commissioner that this allegation against the RAW was a ‘slur’ on India’s national external intelligence agency and that Prime Minister Modi was ‘hurt’ by this. High Commissioner Sandhu was instructed to meet President Sirisena as early as possible and seek clarification.
Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale also communicated with his Colombo counterpart Prasad Kariyawasam. The Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary a seasoned official who has served in New Delhi realised the gravity of the situation at once. He in turn communicated with Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana who contacted the President and briefed him of the seriousness of the situation. Minister Marapana also informed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. As a result of all these efforts certain damage control initiatives were taken. Colombo went into a defensive mode. Statements were issued by the Cabinet Secretary and President’s Secretariat. The Sri Lankan External Affairs Ministry also issued a statement.
Meanwhile, High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu got cracking. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was scheduled to visit India this week and the Indian envoy was to go to New Delhi on October 17 as advance party to finalise the itinerary. Taranjit Singh Sandhu however cancelled the trip in order to meet President Sirisena on Wednesday. This he did and secured an appointment at very short notice to meet Sirisena. By this time President Sirisena too was fully aware of serious concerns in New Delhi about the remarks allegedly made by him at the Cabinet meeting. The President was prepared to explain what had happened to the envoy.
TARANJIT SINGH SANDHU
Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu met with President Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on October 17. The President was scheduled to meet with several political party delegations on Wednesday. Some of these appointments were put on hold or delayed in order to accommodate the Indian High Commissioner.
After respectfully explaining the ramifications and implications of Maithripala Sirisena’s reported Cabinet meeting remarks, the Indian High Commissioner sought specific clarity from the Sri Lankan President on three counts. Firstly what was the basis on which the President suspected an Indian link in the alleged conspiracy to assassinate him? Secondly what was the basis on which the President suspected the involvement of the research and analysis wing in the plot to assassinate him? Thirdly was there any explicit reference to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the President’s purported remarks?
Mr. Sirisena told ministers that the Indian intelligence agency was “trying to kill” him, but “Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not be aware of the plan,” The Hindu has learnt from sources present at the discussion
President Sirisena recounted in detail the information received so far about the alleged assassination conspiracy. The President said he was deeply disappointed by the lack of concern or interest shown by the Prime Minister or other UNP ministers in probing the alleged conspiracy. He pointed out that Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera had cast negative aspersions on the credibility of the alleged conspiracy. Members of his own government seemed lethargic to take action and investigate an alleged threat to their government head’s life and this deplorable attitude was very hurtful. President Sirisena said his safety and security was at stake and he had been compelled to increase his own personal security. The President made it clear to the Indian envoy that his remarks at the Cabinet meeting were basically critical of the PM and UNP component in the government about no action being taken to probe the assassination plot. He did not criticise or blame India in any way for this state of affairs.
Speaking further President Sirisena told the Indian envoy that one person arrested on suspicion of involvement and detained was an Indian national who was a Malayalam-speaking native of Kerala named Thomas. Now they are saying he is mentally unstable. He said that no further action had been taken.
President Sirisena stated that he had merely remarked that an Indian national had been implicated and thereafter had speculated that an Indian espionage agency could have been involved. He had never pointed the finger specifically at the R&AW. Sirisena also told Sandhu that he had never accused Premier Modi in any way. In fact he had gone out of his way to say that Narendra Modi would not know what an espionage agency was doing. The President said he had remarked in the same way about Donald Trump not knowing what the CIA was doing. These were all general remarks and were not specifically directed against the RAW or Premier Modi.
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI
President Sirisena also blamed some ministers in his Cabinet without naming them as the cause for the controversy. He said his remarks had been taken out of context and distorted and published in the media because some ministers had given journalists wrong information. It was part of a conspiracy by sections in his own government to tarnish his image and portray him as an enemy of India. Speaking further Maithripala Sirisena said he had very high regard for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and enjoyed a close relationship with him. In fact he had lengthy discussions with him in person in Nepal recently. Both of them were common people who had risen to the top through hard work and support of the masses. Therefore some elements hostile to him were trying to drive a wedge between him and Shree Modi. The President also emphasised that he was a genuine friend of India and that should be conveyed to Premier Narendra Modi.
Seizing upon the sentiments expressed by President Sirisena, High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu suggested diplomatically that it would be better if President Sirisena himself spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and explained matters. The suavely articulate Indian envoy told Sirisena that his Prime Minister too held the Lankan President in high esteem and that a personal one to one conversation could allay any doubts about the matter. He said the Indian premier was very concerned about this entire issue and would very much appreciate hearing from Sirisena personally. Such a conversation could bring about greater mutual understanding and strengthen ties between the Lankan President and Indian premier at a personal level as well as enhance Indo-Lanka friendship and cooperation.
President Sirisena was more than willing to talk to Prime Minister Modi. High Commissioner Sandhu suggested that it would be better if the telephone call was initiated from Colombo by the President. Again President Sirisena was ready to do so. Having obtained the Presidents consent High Commissioner returned to his office and hurriedly briefed the External Affairs Ministry. Prime Minister Modi was appraised of the situation. He too was willing to talk to Sirisena. Thus a convenient time was arranged in the afternoon of October 17.
“AYU BOWAN EXCELLENCY, HOW ARE YOU?”
At the appointed hour a call was initiated from Colombo on behalf of President Sirisena. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came on line. Narendra Modi began the telephonic conversation by saying “Ayu Bowan Excellency, how are you?” Then followed a very interesting 20-minute conversation between the two leaders. Details of the Modi-Sirisena dialogue and consequent developments will be related and analysed in a continuation of this article next week.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com