Sri Lanka presidential committee critical of response to ‘protest movement’

Senior officials said the speed that the protest movement grew had made it quite impossible to de-escalate the threat by security measures alone.

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando

The Island


July 26, 2022

Colombo – A three-member committee that probed the failure on the part of the then government to quell the May 09 incidents was planning to hand over its report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was forced to flee the country on 13 July.The committee consisted of Admiral of the Fleet (ret.) Wasantha Karannagoda (Chairman), Marshal of the Air Force (ret.) Roshan Gunatilleke and General (ret.) Daya Ratnayake.

Well informed sources told The Island that the committee had handed over an interim report that dealt with three or four critical points/issues to the then President Rajapaksa.

Sources said that even after the eruption of violent protests at the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana, on the night of 31 March, the growing threat appeared to have been largely ignored.President Gotabaya Rajapaksa moved to the President’s House in the first week of April.

The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Service commanders, the IGP and several officers, at different levels, appeared before the committee at the Office of the Governor of the Western Province, Marshal of Air Force Roshan Gunatilleke. The committee examined the ease with which goons targeted the properties of some ruling party politicians in the aftermath of an attack the supporters of the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa carried out on the Galle Face protesters on 09 May.

Karannagoda and Ratnayake served as the Governor of the North Western Province and Secretary to the Trade Ministry, respectively, at the time of the high-profile investigation. The committee questioned the security setup that was overwhelmed by the protest movement.

Sources acknowledged that the rapid developments that threatened the entire government set-up couldn’t have been tackled by security measures alone. The rapidity with which the protest movement grew had made it quite impossible to de-escalate the threat by security measures alone, senior officials involved with the evacuation of the then President said. Sources said that the toxic combination of political- economic-social crisis simply overwhelmed the government.

Just over a week before the July 09 attack on the President’s House, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promoted Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Vikum Liyanage to the rank of Lt. Gen. and appointed him Commander of the Army.Although the government was aware that the protesters were planning to take over the President’s House on 09 July, the police and the armed forces had been ordered to protect the place without shooting.Once the defences at Chatham Street collapsed the military brass asked the President to vacate the President’s House.

Among those present at that time were Defence Secretary General Kamal Gunaratne, who was re-appointed by newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, Navy Chief Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugutenna, IGP C.D. Wickremaratne and State Intelligence Service Chief Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally.

CDS General Shavendra Silva was in Kochi, India, to attend the 6th Deputy National Security Advisor Level Meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave. Having led the government delegation at the Kochin conference (July 6-9), by the time Gen. Silva returned around 12. 20 pm 09 July, the President and first lady Iyoma Rajapaksa had been moved to the nearby Navy base where preparations were underway for them to board SLNS Gajabahu.

What really saved the day was their ability to take a route from the President’s House without attracting the attention of the protesters. Contrary to reports, the first couple had been under naval protection on the ground for some time before they boarded SLNS Gajabahu formerly of the US Coast Guard. Sri Lanka commissioned the High Endurance Cutter in June, 2019, at an event attended by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and US Ambassador Teplitz.

The Navy headquarters politely declined to disclose the time the vessel departed the Colombo port or arrived at the Trincomalee harbour. However, sources said that the vessel docked at around 10 am on July 10 in Trincomalee, where the first couple stayed the night. On the following day, the first couple flew to Katunayake air base from Trincomalee via Ratmalana.

The security forces top brass had discussed rapidly changing developments with the President at the Katunayake air base before the CDS flanked by service commanders appealed for calm at a hastily arranged media briefing.In spite of the President personally requesting Sri Lankan Airlines Chairman Asoka Pathirage to make arrangements for him, his wife and bodyguards to leave on a SriLankan flight, the Rajapaksa appointee has explained his inability to assist. They hadn’t been able to secure seats on the Etihad flight and finally flew on AN 32, one of the precious transport aircraft belonging to the SLAF.Sources asserted that had there been a proper and realistic assessment of the public resentment towards the powers that be the President wouldn’t have stayed at the President’s House till almost noon on July 09.

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