Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena has vowed to end phone tapping of journalists and politicians. Photo: Reuters
Colombo: Sri Lanka’s army defied orders from aides of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to keep him in power “by force” when it became clear he had lost his bid for a third term, the campaign spokesman of the newly elected leader said on Saturday.
Mr Rajapaksa’s spokesman denied the allegation, while the army spokesman said he was unaware of any such order.
It came as new President Maithripala Sirisena invited exiled dissidents back to Sri Lanka and promised to end censorship on Saturday as he began to turn the page on the authoritarian rule of his toppled predecessor.
The Sri Lankan spokesman for President Maithripala Sirisena, Rajitha Senaratne, speaks as Army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya looks on. Photo: AFP
A day after his shock victory over veteran Mr Rajapaksa, Mr Sirisena began assembling a cabinet to deliver his pledges to repair the war-scarred nation’s diplomatic standing and implement a raft of reforms.
Mr Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday evening after ending Mr Rajapaksa’s decade-long rule, was trying to form a “national unity” cabinet that would include members from a cross section of parties, an aide said.
“He will name some ministers next week and the balance after the Pope’s visit,” from January 13 to 15, said Mr Sirisena’s top aide Rajitha Senaratne, who is tipped to become health minister.
He said that Mr Sirisena has ordered the immediate lifting of censorship on dissident websites, an end to phone tapping, surveillance of journalists and politicians, and the establishment of a right to information law.
There was also an invitation to dozens of Sri Lankan journalists and other dissidents who have fled the country fearing attack from the previous administration to “come back immediately”.
“From now on, you have the freedom to criticise us. We will take strong action against anyone who tries to undermine media freedom,” Mr Senaratne told reporters in Colombo.
Mr Sirisena had promised a 100-day program to carry out urgent political and economic reforms, including moves to cut back on the powers of the president that Mr Rajapaksa gave himself during a decade in office.
Mr Senaratne said Mr Rajapaksa’s administration had sought the backing of the military to stay in power.
“The army chief got orders to deploy the troops on the ground across the country. They tried attempts to continue by force. The army chief defied all the orders he got in the last hours,” Mr Senaratne told reporters at a news conference in Colombo, the first by Mr Sirisena’s aides since the vote.
“We spoke to the army chief and told him not to do this. He kept the troops in the barracks and helped a free and fair election,” Mr Senaratne said.
Mohan Samaranayake, spokesman for the former president, said Mr Rajapaksa denied the allegations and had decided to transfer power after looking at the trend of the results in the early hours of Friday.
“When US State Secretary John Kerry spoke to Rajapaksa over the phone, the former president assured him there will be a smooth power transition as stipulated in the constitution,” Mr Samaranayake told Reuters.
Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said he was unaware of any such order made to the army. He said the military stayed out of the election process at every stage.
“Sri Lanka’s military will not do anything to disrupt the democratic traditions and process,” he said.
Speculation had been rife in Colombo just before the election that force could be used to keep Mr Sirisena voters from polling stations or even that the military could intervene if Mr Rajapaksa looked set to lose.
US President Barack Obama congratulated Mr Sirisena on his victory in a statement on Saturday.
“I also commend the outgoing administration of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for facilitating a swift and orderly transition of power,” Mr Obama said.
Mr Sirisena took 51.3 per cent of the vote, while Mr Rajapaksa got 47.6 per cent. Mr Rajapaksa, even before the official results were announced, conceded his defeat and left his official residence.