By a Special Correspondent
President Maithripala Sirisena spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last night after bombshell revelations in the local and international media that President Sirisena had accused the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, of plotting his assassination, followed by a spate of denials by high level Government authorities came close to sparking a major diplomatic incident.
The Daily FT yesterday exclusively reported The Hindu story titled ‘President Sirisena alleges that RAW is plotting his assassination’.
Yesterday’s telephone conversation was preceded by Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Taranjit Singh making an official call on President Sirisena last morning when “matters were clarified and bilateral relations reassured”, the President’s Office said in a media release.
The PMD statement about the phone call made no reference to the President’s denial of his remarks as reported in the media. However, Modi’s Office issued a statement last night, saying President Sirisena had telephoned Prime Minister Modi and “categorically rejected the reports in sections of media about him alluding to the involvement of India in any manner whatsoever in an alleged plot to assassinate the President and former Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka”.
President Sirisena also apprised the Indian Premier about urgent steps taken by him personally and the Government of Sri Lanka to publicly reject these reports, the Indian PMO said.
“He mentioned that the mischievous and malafide reports were utterly baseless and false and seemed intended to create misunderstanding between the two leaders as well as damage cordial relations between the two friendly neighbours,” Premier Modi’s Office said.
Prime Minister Modi appreciated the prompt steps taken by President Sirisena and his Government to “firmly refute malicious reports and publicly clarifying the matters”, the release by Modi’s Office said.
During the telephone call, Prime Minister Modi had assured President Sirisena of India’s fullest support towards development and prosperity, and hailed the Sri Lankan President’s efforts to maintain good relations with neighbouring states, the President’s Media Division said in its release issued after the call.
The diplomatic damage control comes just ahead of a visit to New Delhi by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is set to meet with Premier Modi on Saturday and hold discussions on key Indian projects and investments by India.
Headlining the front page of India’s The Hindu newspaper, the report said that at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, President Sirisena had told Ministers that the Indian intelligence agency was “trying to kill” him, but added that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not be aware of the plan”. The Indian newspaper quoted multiple sources in Government across political parties who attended the meeting and confirmed the remarks.
The report also pointed to heated arguments between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe when a Cabinet paper on developing the Colombo Port East Terminal came up for discussion. The report quoted sources as saying that President Sirisena had vehemently objected to any Indian involvement in upgrading the East container terminal – a project that New Delhi has been keen to take up. Premier Wickremesinghe, however, had countered by claiming that Colombo had promised New Delhi on collaborating on the project.
Issuing a statement, the Presidential Media Division (PMD) said the Indian High Commissioner had called on President Sirisena last morning, adding: “During the meeting, all matters were clarified and bilateral relations were reassured. The statement clarified that the President had not mentioned any involvement of an Indian intelligence service in the alleged plot to assassinate him.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs soon followed, clarifying that media reports in this connection were “baseless and false”.
“The Ministry wishes to emphasise that relations between Sri Lanka and India, including at the highest level of government, are strong. It is disappointing, therefore, that matters of this nature have become the subject of distorted and erroneous media reports, taking the President’s remarks out of context, which has given rise to further media and social media speculation and the spread of unfounded fear among the public,” the MFA statement said.
The Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers also issued a separate denial, saying the contents of the news items were ‘totally false’. Cabinet Spokesman Dr. Rajitha Senaratne doubled down on the denials during the weekly briefing, insisting that all President Sirisena had said was that there were those who were attempting to create a rift between the two countries by claiming that a RAW agent was involved in the alleged plot to assassinate President Sirisena and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
The characteristically brash Minister Senaratne, who rarely watches his words at the briefing, used measured speech and refused to budge from his position, despite confirmation by The Hinducorrespondent at the briefing that the story had been corroborated by at least four Cabinet Ministers drawn from across party lines.
Minister Senaratne flatly denied that President Sirisena had claimed the Indian national arrested in connection with the ‘assassination plot’ was a RAW agent. The official communiqué from the PMD, however, admitted that a discussion had taken place at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting about the alleged plot to assassinate President Sirisena.
The spate of Government denials notwithstanding, multiple Ministerial sources continued to confirm President Sirisena’s outburst and the argument between the President and the Prime Minister, whose relations have been particularly strained in recent weeks.
The fragile ruling coalition has hurtled into another political crisis – the third in only nine months – with President Sirisena launching secret talks with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his siblings about ousting Wickremesinghe and forming a caretaker government.
The alleged plot to assassinate President Sirisena, and Kumara’s attempts to link the plot to IGP Pujith Jayasundara and the Premier may also be linked to this ongoing tension and bids to oust the UNP from Government, Ministerial sources said.
The pace of the investigations and the wider Government’s lack of interest to pursue the probe appeared to have irked President Sirisena, leading to Tuesday’s outburst, highly placed Ministerial sources told Daily FT.
Last month, Namal Kumara, who calls himself the operations director of the Anti Corruption Front, claimed he had audio recordings of conversations with TID DIG Nalaka De Silva on a plan to assassinate President Sirisena and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Kumara is reportedly a police informant, who also claims to have been employed by the Presidential Drug Prevention Task Force.
Yesterday, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Senaratne said the CID has yet to find evidence to support Namal Kumara’s claims of a plot, but he said investigations are underway.
The Indian national arrested in connection with the alleged plot has suffered mental disturbance since 2000, the Indian High Commission clarified after his arrest. The CID has found no evidence so far to indicate the Indian – Marceli Thomas – was aware of a plot to assassinate VIPs in Colombo, Daily FT learned.