Sri Lanka’s ex-leader ‘tried to stage a coup’

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena addresses the nation outside the Temple of Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Picture: AP

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena addresses the nation outside the Temple of Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Picture: AP

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SRI Lanka’s new government is to investigate an alleged attempt by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a coup to try to stay in power when he was losing last week’s election.

A spokesman for president Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power after winning Thursday’s election, said yesterday a “special investigation” would be set up to probe the alleged coup soon after the new government was formed.

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He added: “Some say this was a very peaceful transition. But that’s not the truth. People should know what happened behind the scenes.”

Until a few weeks ago, Mr ­Rajapaksa had been widely expected to easily win his third term in office.

Mr Sirisena – his former friend and health minister – d­efected from the ruling party in November, and gathered the support of other defecting politicians, opposition parties and many of Sri Lanka’s ethnic minorities, making the election a fierce political battle.

Mr Sirisena stood as the combined opposition candidate.

After conceding defeat, Mr Rajapaksa left his office and the official presidential residence on Friday, saying he respected the people’s mandate.

However, the new president’s spokesman said Mr ­Rajapaksa had made an attempt to deploy the army and police to stop the counting of votes when initial results showed he was headed for defeat.

He said Mr Rajapaksa had convened a meeting with the chiefs of the police and army and the attorney-general at midnight on Thursday and asked them to come up with a plan to stop the vote-counting. The three officials opposed the move.

“People should know about the dangerous situation that existed and Rajapaksa’s coup to bury the country’s democracy,” he said.

Mr Rajapaksa’s camp was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Mr Sirisena assumed his duties on Friday and the new government is expected to be formed today.

Separately yesterday, Mr Sirisena invited politicians from all parties represented in the 225-member parliament to join hands to form an all-party government to work for the country’s development and to “restore good governance and protect the rule of law”.

In his first address to the nation since the election, he said his prime tasks would be to reduce the cost of living, scrap unlimited presidential powers and pass some of those powers to parliament, the cabinet, the judiciary and independent ­commissions.

Mr Rajapaksa was criticised for changing the constitution to scrap a two-term presidential limit and expand executive powers, allowing him to fill the judiciary and other offices with his appointees.

Mr Sirisena refrained from speaking about a solution to the country’s ethnic issues, which were the cause of a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 when government troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had been fighting to create a separate state for ethnic ­minority Tamils.

Mr Rajapaksa used the popularity he gained from winning the war to win a second term as president and a majority in parliament.

Both Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Sirisena are members of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese ­population.

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