cold war continues
By Our Political Editor
It was not a joke when party leaders chose to have
a meeting on April 1 in the Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte Parliamentary
complex on Friday April 1. There was important business, including
a proposal to cancel sittings of the house for April 20 and 21 largely
on account of the festive season.
Development Minister and MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena was in a
naughty mood. He whispered to his colleague, chief opposition whip
Mahinda Samarasinghe that four United National Party (UNP) MPs were
to cross over. "They are now at the President's House,"
he said. Samarasinghe asked "are you sure?" Just then
Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva chipped in to say he was
also aware of this.
genial Samarasinghe, who is known for his friendly attitude towards
his political adversaries, slipped out of the meeting. According
to one source, he walked into a room and made a phone call to tell
his leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe the bad news. Later, he had checked
with an ITN anchor man. He also took it seriously. The ITN contact
said a camera crew had already gone to Janadipathi Mandiraya and
therefore, he said, it could be for the swearing in. However, he
was unaware who the rebellious foursome were.
Samarasinghe walked back to the meeting, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's
(JVP) Wimala Weerwansa had added to the joke. He also told him that
a crossover was under way.
from the mild distraction that worried Samarasinghe for hours, until
he later found out it was an April Fool's joke played on him, it
was business as usual. They decided not to have sittings of Parliament
on April 20 and 21. The JHU's Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera asked
why the Anti Conversation Bill, sans provisions which the Supreme
Court wanted excluded, had not been presented to Parliament. Weerawansa
butted in to say there were no 'teeth' in the Bill left behind after
the Supreme Court ruling only to be told by the cleric politician
that whatever remains should be brought in as law.
meeting ended on a cordial note since most participants, like all
other MPs, were keen to return to their electorates, and for the
lucky some, a foreign trip.
there was cordiality at the party leaders' meeting, it was badly
lacking within the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). It was
a case of cracks surfacing everywhere.
Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, was called upon by President Chandrika
Kumaratunga to head a Government-Opposition joint delegation for
the funeral of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. If he felt it was
an honour to represent Sri Lanka at the funeral of one of Catholicism's
revered prelates, Rajapakse was not pleased he was losing out on
another honour. He was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Chinese Prime
Minister Wen Jiabao.
consultations had been under way between Colombo and Beijing ahead
of Jiabao's arrival in Colombo on Friday. Outlines for a joint communique
included a Chinese aid grant of US $300 million. Chinese assistance
was also forthcoming for the Hambantota port development and for
the rehabilitation of the tsunami affected fishing industry. Rajapakse
wanted to be very much a part and parcel of this Chinese munificence.
Rajapakse knows that such bounteous showering of aid to his area
translates into votes.
that was not comforting for Rajapakse, when he set foot on Italian
soil there were other problems. In his absence, on Thursday President
Kumaratunga had summoned top officials of the PM's Highways Ministry,
the only ministerial portfolio assigned to him, for a conference.
She had done something like this a fortnight ago when Media Minister
Mangala samaraweera was away in China, and she, in a show of asserting
her authority, presided over a conference of the Media Ministry
enough, insiders say, she had also ordered an inquiry into some
allegations against Premier Rajapakse's brother, Deputy Plantation
Industries Minister, Chamal Rajapakse.
indefatigable fighter that he is, Rajapakse the Younger, vowed he
would fight back to overcome any obstacle placed in his way. Premier
Rajapakse was not alone. His fellow traveller in the delegation
to the Pope funeral, Consumer Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle
was also in a dilemma.
President Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar went
on an official visit to Pakistan, a Free Trade Agreement with that
country was signed. When it came for Cabinet ratification in Colombo,
Fernandopulle refused to table it. He was of the view that whoever
signed the deal (in this instance Kadirgamar) should present it.
He returned the documents to the President's Office. Talk of collective
cabinet responsibility and all that old British tosh.
that was bad enough, Chinese Premier Jiabao was to, among other
matters, sign an agreement encompassing trade. Naturally, in the
absence of Fernandopulle, another Government Minister had to put
his signature to the agreement from the Sri Lanka side. But this
time, he cannot complain. Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama did
the honours on behalf of the Government, and he did so only because
Fernandopulle was away from Sri Lanka.
much bigger battle was brewing behind the scenes in the upper echelons
of the State run media. The subject of scorn was Sri Lanka Broadcasting
Corporation's Hudson Samarasinghe, a one time arch loyalist of late
President Ranasinghe Premadasa now following the footsteps of President
Kumaratunga. He is known for his now unflinching loyalty to her.
So much so his daily early morning Sirasthala programme over the
waves of the SLBC never misses out on the President, almost a re-run
of the time state tv came to be nick-named 'Prema-vahini', and state
radio was known as 'His Master's Voice' denoting an old gramaphone
record label. There are songs extolling her virtues, recorded speeches
of what she said at public meetings and other glorious tributes.
all other heads of State-run media organisations, Samarasinghe,
though, was a notable absentee when the UPFA (Sandanaya) celebrated
their first anniversary at Anuradhapura. Some senior SLFPers as
well as JVPers were not to pleased. They accused him of not being
well disposed towards the Sandanaya and taking advantage of his
closeness to President Kumaratunga. Some even went to the extent
of blaming him for the exit of Karunaratne Paranavithana, Editorial
Director at Lake House.
allege that it was Hudson Samarasinghe who had prejudiced President
Kumaratunga into sacking Paranavithana. It was reportedly on the
grounds that the Editorial Director was a JVP sympathiser. Others
say Paranavithana was, however, as anti-JVP as Samarasinghe. The
Samarasinghe wrath, they say, is the result of a dispute the two
have had during the days when they worked together in the SLFP newspaper
Dinakara. It was alleged that Paranavithana had turned down a request
to publish material provided by Samarasinghe. The SLBC chief, however,
told close friends he was not behind the moves to oust Paranavithana.
trouble arose when a successor was named to Paranavithana's post.
Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, angered by some not altogether
accurate reports in the media, appointed Somaratne Balasuriya to
the post at Lake House. The Minister perhaps felt that Balasuriya,
an alumni of Sorbonne University, was known to be a good friend
of the President, and wanted to press home the point that he was
naming someone who was acceptable to Kumaratunga in a bid to win
back her evaporating confidence in him.
that was not to be. On Thursday, however, the President directed
Media Ministry Secretary Sarath Ganegala to cancel the Media Minister's
appointment of Balasuriya. Even before he could walk into Lake House
to become Editorial Director, Balasuriya was out of the post for
which he was named. That no doubt was a direct slap in the face
of Mangala Samaraweera, His Mistress' Voice on so many previous
occasions. Now the President has a big question mark over his loyalty
to her in the face of his open flirtation with her bete noir, the
this came when most media reports tried to suggest that Kumaratunga
had in effect asked Finance Minister Amunugama to run the media
ministry whilst Samaraweera officially held the portfolio. This
is furthest from the truth. It began this way. Amunugama was present
when Kumaratuanga addressed state media bosses. She told them of
the need to project the Government's "economic achievements".
She asked Amunugama to keep the state media briefed regularly. That
announcement was mis-read by those who thought that Lake House had
been brought under Amunugama's edicts.
House staffers were also led into believe that Amungama, a former
Chairman of Lake House, was taking charge. Many began contacting
Amunugama. Some were wanting to re-establish old personal relationships.
Interesting enough, Amungama was later present at Samaraweera's
own Colombo residence where Treasury Secretary P. B. Jayasundera
was also on hand. The subject of discussion was the proposed re-structuring
of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and bringing in India's Bharat
Petroleum as the third partner in the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.
Amunugama made it clear at this meeting "I will not come to
manage the State media. It is a problem for me".
doubt, Samaraweera is badly 'cheesed off'. Some of his supporters
were making a pithy point of political reality - that no one remains
a close confidant of President Kumaratunga for too long. They came
out with a long list of names. The accusation against Samaraweera
is that his closeness to the JVP had allowed that party to make
greater inroads into the state media, and through that, into the
SLFP as well. Samaraweera's confidants ask the pertinent question
'what can they do if the SLFPers do not have competent men to state
their case'. "We have only sycophants with little or no credibility,"
said one of them.
SLFP friend of the JVP, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, has
also been compelled to take a back seat. Kadirgamar and the JVP
were soul-mates in their opposition to the LTTE's self-rule mechanisms
and other ruses to carve for themselves a stepping stone for a separate
state. But the President has made it quite clear that she is not
impressed by Kadirgamar's alliance with the JVP.
this backdrop the JVP continued with its agitation against President
Kumaratunga's appeasement moves with the LTTE. At a meeting of the
Patriotic National Movement (PNM) which is spearheaded by the JVP
itself, its leaders targeted the foreign Non-Government Organisations
as the villains of the peace.
indeed had some veiled attacks on President Kumaratunga, continuing
to get under her skin with their vituperative political rhetoric.
"This country is nobody's private property," PNM speakers
thundered in a reference to any proposed referendum on federalism.
It was only the previous week, that the President hit out at the
JVP by saying that state institutions are nobody's boodale' (private
so the shadow-boxing continued. Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, the fiery
nationalist karate exponent cleric said, "the country has no
leader today. There is no leader for our race.... that is why these
leaders are saying that 80 per cent of the people will agree if
the LTTE is given self-rule".
went on to say " this country is no one's private property.
No one can divide this country. This is a Sinhala-Buddhist country
and everyone has to humbly accept that. We will not allow the UPFA
Government to do any treacherous act "
who propose a sell-out to the LTTE are not people who love the country.
We know that people who studied at St. Bridget's and St. Thomas'
cannot love the country", the monk added. What a sermon!
JVP focused however on the NGOs, saying that they had infiltrated
everywhere to turn Sri Lanka into a neo-colonial state. JVP parliamentary
group leader and propaganda secretary, and co-president of the PNM,
Wimal Weerawansa specifically targeted the President's own official
spokesman Harim Peiris and accused him of having a secret dialogue
with LTTE's S. P. Thamilselvan.
was a serious accusation coming at the heart of the President's
Office. Weerawansa went on to say, by implication, that Harim Peiris
was part of the NGO mafia.
said that they had wanted the World Bank Country Director Peter
Harold declared persona non-grata for the remarks he made about
recognising a separate LTTE state, but the NGO mafia in the Government
and the Opposition - and the media - remained mute about it.
he turned his guns on sections of the media which he said, would
do anything for foreign money. He referred to the German NGO Berghoff
Foundation by name as one of these NGOs providing funds. It is in
this backdrop that the UPFA Government marked the first anniversary
of its grabbing power through a constitutional coup d’etat
implemented by President Kumaratunga in April last year.
take a break from all this back-stabbing, President Kumaratunga
went on her nth ' private visit 'to Old Blighty where she will see
for herself the conduct of the British General Elections scheduled
for May 5. Away from the hustle and bustle of the local political
scene, she would also reflect from a distance, the state of the
nation over which she presides.