Stratagems & Spoils: Backroom Campaign to Oust Rajapaksa clarified by Kapila Ranasinghe

Chamitha Kuruppu, courtesy of Daily Ft, where the title is The mission to oust Mahinda, win over Maithri and select a common candidate”

In a candid interview with the Daily FT, Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe revealed a secret mission they launched to oust once-powerful President Mahinda Rajapaksa, convince the former General Secretary of the SLFP Maithripala Sirisena to cross over and the crucial task of selecting a common candidate. Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe is one of the few scholars who has had the privilege of studying at Harvard University, Cambridge University and University of Colombo. He serves as a Director in six private sector companies, Consultant in Strategy and Innovation and a visiting lecturer for masters programs in local and foreign universities. Following are excerpts:

Kapila RDr. Kapila Ranasinghe – Pix by Lasantha Kumara

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself? A: I am one of the few scholars in the South Asian region who has studied at Harvard, Cambridge and Colombo University. I currently work for several companies. I teach in London and at several other local universities.

Q: What is your involvement in local politics? A: I am not involved in active politics and I have no intention in getting into politics, but I have been closely associating a number of politicians for a long time. I have politician friends attached to all the parties. I have helped most of them in my professional capacity. However, I was involved in the 2010 election. At that time I helped Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Government under the impression they would do some good for the country. But it didn’t take long for professionals like us to realise the country was heading towards a wrong path. I personally felt that the country needed a system change.

Q: You claim you were instrumental in the recent regime change?  A: Since I studied in foreign universities I have batch-mates from 30 different countries. Then I have students from nearly 10 countries. I have immense exposure. When I talk to them all I hear is how focussed, organised and developed those countries are. However, when I meet my Sri Lankan friends and we sit down and discuss the situation in Sri Lanka, none of us were happy about the way Sri Lanka was running. Professionals were not happy, academics were complaining, and businessmen were claiming there was no democracy and there was a lack of fair play in Sri Lanka. Since I had close links with the Government I knew things were not going well inside the Government. We all strongly felt Sri Lanka needed a system change.’
Q: Did you know the Rajapaksas personally? A: Well I knew the Rajapaksa family and some of the top Government members in a professional manner. Like I mentioned before, I helped the Rajapaksa administration during the 2010 election. I helped them with technological matters. I also dealt with the international media. I always believed the best individual or party that is best for the country in the next five years should come into power. It was with that hope that I helped the Rajapaksas. Sadly, after 2010, the Government changed to a totalitarian ruling.

Q: What was your involvement in ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa? A: In 2013, I went to see some of my friends in Cambridge. Dr. Rajitha Seneratne’s son Chathura Senaratne was also in Cambridge at that time. He too shared the same views about Rajapaksa ruling. He too felt that country was heading towards danger. But he was a step ahead of us, because he was of the view that the Government could be toppled and he was very confident about it. He had a mechanism to do it too. I was inspired and started meeting him on a daily basis. We developed a plan and we were serious about what we wanted to do. Meanwhile, Malith Jayathilake, who is currently serving as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, statistically proved that the Government was on a downward trend. He had done an in-depth study and proven that Mahinda Rajapaksa would lose. Malith’s intention was to warn the Rajapaksa administration that they were in danger, but when he submitted this report to the Cabinet of Ministers, they took it the wrong way. Rather than taking precautions, they started accusing Malith. But following this incident, the Rajapaksa camp started to shatter. Chathura Senaratne worked closely with Rathana Thero and Asoka Abeygunawardena (former Senior Advisor to Minister Champika Ranawaka), Udaya Gammanpila and Lalithasiri Gunaruwan. Former JVP member Nandana Gunathilake too participated in these discussions. Later they formed the Pivithuru Hetak organisation. However, apart from this, there were many other groups getting organised to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa. By this time, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne tried to create this ideology in the Cabinet. He often told the Cabinet that the system was not going to work. Maithripala Sirisena too held the same views. At that time Sirisena and Dr. Senaratne were not very close, but they both had similar views and ideas. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Reginald Cooray and Janaka Bandara Tennakoon too had similar views, but unfortunately they were a little hesitant to express their views openly. Reginald Cooray went with Dr. Senaratne to meet Sirisena and convince him to cross over. Cooray and Janaka Bandara Tennakoon were in the forefront. Their contribution towards this cause was significant, but at the last moment they changed their minds and did not cross over. Three months before the crossover Chathura Senaratne and I met Ranil Wickremesinghe. We met him at John Amaratunge’s residence and the meeting was facilitated by Dinesh Weerakkody. After that we met Wickremesinghe several times and had long discussions with him. We discussed who need to be pulled out from the Rajapaksa camp. There wasn’t a candidate at the time. Our only focus was to defeat Rajapaksa. But we did discuss nominating Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and even Dr. Senaratne. But there wasn’t a concrete decision as to who should be the candidate. However, the UNP wanted Wickremesinghe to contest. Wickremesinghe used to write down all the important points we discussed. He used to follow up all the points at the next session. We were very comfortable with Wickremesinghe. We used to agree, disagree, and argue with him. He was very accommodating. Many organisations were formed by this time and they all talked about defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa. Later the Jathika Hela Urumaya too wanted to work with us. Since Rathana Thero was not a Cabinet Minister, he had the freedom to work with us, but Champika Ranawaka being a Minister did not have that opportunity so he had to wait till the last moment to join us.

Q: How did you convince Maithripala Sirisena to cross over? A: There were several possible crossovers. The Pivithuru Hetak movement had initiated several crossovers. Wickremesinghe initiated a number of crossovers. Pivithuru Hetak had discussions with Maithripala and current Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva. Actually Nimal Siripala de Silva was to cross over first. Our plan was to take him to a rally at Muttaiah Grounds and announce his decision. We had a slogan called ‘A hero is born’. However, de Silva changed his mind at the last moment. The hero never turned up at the rally. We were once again having a crucial time. Wickremesinghe suggested former President Chandrika Kumaratunga should contest; Kumaratunga refused, but she was willing to help us. There was silence for some time because we couldn’t find a candidate. Meanwhile, Dr. Senaratne met Maithripala Sirisena at the Ministry. After a lengthy discussion Dr. Senaratne was able to convince Sirisena to cross over. At this point everyone was disappointed and some who worked with us were planning to leave the country. Sirisena was humble. He said he would cross over. He never said he wanted to contest but said he was happy to serve as the opposition leader. He also said he would cross alone so that others could cross over later. He was very courageous and had immense support from his family. He was silent but a very strong person. Meanwhile, some of the top UNP persons were pressuring Wickremesinghe to contest. They were secretly working for the Rajapaksas and had promised the Rajapaksas that they would make sure Wickremesinghe would be the common candidate. But Wickremesinghe had given the green light to our plan. Although Maithripala Sirisena said he will cross over alone, Dr. Senaratne insisted he would cross over with Sirisena. Some other parties had promised to bring 21 members, but the night before the crossover, we got to know it was only a fake promise.

Q: So you were expecting more SLFPers to cross over? A: Yes, because we were promised that there would be more. Some had promised Wickremesinghe, so he had told the UNP there would be more people joining us. He had pressure from the UNP. The night before Sirisena’s crossover, we were at Dr. Senaratne’s house calling people who had promised to cross over. Only M.K.D.S. Gunawardena and Duminda Dissanayake had confirmed. We tried our level best to get at least another four to five members to cross over, but it was not possible. Although they wanted to join us, they were reluctant due to threats.

Q: How much cash did you offer SLFP members to cross over to your side? A: We didn’t offer any money; we didn’t have any money. We didn’t have money to rent a campaign office. Even the UNP didn’t have funds initially.

Q: Did you have consent of all parties to make Maithripala Sirisena the common candidate? A: Yes. The UNP, JVP, Rathana Thero, Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, JHU and all other parties agreed to this decision. One positive thing was that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe didn’t demand much. We all had one central goal – that was to defeat Rajapaksa. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Tamil National Alliance and P. Digambaran also said they would help us. Ravi Karunanayake joined us during this time and he did an immense service towards our cause.

Q: Didn’t you have any threats from the Rajapaksa camp? A: We were under immense threat. Our phones were tapped. They were noticing our phone movements. The CID was following us. To make sure they were listening to our phone conversations, we planned a fake protest rally. We discussed everything over the phone and on the day we said we were to have the protest the Police was deployed and there was tight security. When we met for discussion, none of us brought our mobile phones. We used Viber to communicate. We wrote chits. I sent my driver on one month leave. Some of us used to pick up Ministers from a particular point and bring them here for discussions. We wanted a secure place to hold the discussions. We all agreed my office – this office – was the ideal place. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and all of us met in this room. We planned everything here. Sirisena and his family was under immense threat. The lives of Rathana Thero and Dr. Senaratne were also under threat. If things did not go the way we planned, I cannot imagine what would have happened to most of us. I had booked tickets for my family from Colombo and from India. If something went wrong I was hoping to flee to India by boat and then fly to London. We all had a backup plan. However, during the latter stages even the CID helped us. They were all disappointed with the system. During the election we got a few persons who were living abroad and had close links with the Rajapaksa family and planted them at Temple Trees. This was purely for security reasons. They didn’t leak us any information. They were only there to see whether our lives were under threat. They had promised to inform us if the Rajapaksas were going to do anything that involved the security of our lives.

Q: What were the other difficulties you had to overcome? A: Finances were our biggest issue. All the parties who were with us didn’t have funds. The JVP, JHU, General Sarath Fonseka’s party and Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, none of them had funds. We expected UNP to bring us money, but they too had issues. However, during the latter stages money started coming in. But let me tell you one thing, we didn’t have even 1% of what the Rajapaksas had. Even the media refused to carry our advertisements. They insisted we had to pay first to carry our advertisements. I was in the main election committee with Wickremesinghe, Dr. Senaratne, Kabir Hashim, General Sarath Fonseka, Tissa Attanayake, Arjuna Ranatunga, Eran Wickramaratne, Malik, Chathura and Malith Jayathilake. It was Tissa Attanayake who was in charge of the venues for campaign meetings. When we wanted to reserve the places we had already scheduled, they were already booked by the Government. Later we realised Tissa Attanayake was leaking all the information to the Government.

Q: How would you rate Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign? A: Actually our campaign wasn’t a successful one. Compared to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign, our one was very poor. We didn’t have a proper mechanism and didn’t have sufficient funds. Whatever we had planned, we couldn’t implement. But people wanted a change. Some were open about it and campaigned for it. Some preferred to do it silently. There many groups working on their own. Sometimes the work was duplicated. Several groups would work on a similar advertisement. We actually didn’t have one central plan. We failed there.

Q: Are you satisfied with the present situation? Is this the change you longed for? A: The system change we expected just commenced with the passing of the 19th Amendment. We are glad the independent commissions will finally come into place. But there is lot to do. Leaders may come and go, but what we actually need is a proper system. Having a perfect system is essential and we have a long way to get there. Professionals who have put their neck on the line were not given any responsibilities. We put our lives, our families and our businesses at risk to make this change happen, but we were not given any responsibility. The present administration could have got the help of these professionals to prevent corruption in many institutions

. Q: Just because you helped the present administration to come into power, how can you expect positions? Isn’t it against the ‘good governance’ you all campaigned for? A: No, we are not asking for positions, but I am talking about professionals who are capable. They will never beg the Government for positions. What I am saying is that the Government can make use of these people.

Q: Whom are you accusing? A: It is the UNP because almost all the Ministers are from the UNP. They are not deploying the most suitable persons. Take the Central Bank issue; we never saw him in the campaign. People who were about to cross over to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s side are now claiming they were the ones behind the regime change. Now everyone’s trying to claim this as their baby. That is one of the reasons why I decided to come up with this information.

Q: You risked your life to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa. What do you think about people wanting him back in active politics? A: I personally think someone who has been a president of this country twice should not get into Parliament as a MP. That is not a wise choice. He had power, money, a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and a fantastic mechanism. I have never heard of mobilising that much money and people for a single election. Having done all that, he was defeated. If he gets this simple idea, he should not even consider coming back into politics.

Q: What are your view on President Maithripala Sirisena? A: Sirisena is a strong person. One should never compare him with the former President. He is patient. He will wait till the correct time comes. He is never in a hurry. He doesn’t want to be a king. One day he will be known as one of Sri Lanka’s best and most charismatic leaders

ALSO SEE Izeth Hussain: Pluses and minuses after Jan. 8″ ... Island, 16 May 2015, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=124753

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