Basil as minister, what next?
- CID now probing charges against Mangala, arrest possible
- Mohamed labours and produces a mouse for rebel elephants
- Double-talk dentist emerges as hatchet man, attacks newspapers
It was the loquacious non-Cabinet rank Minister of Power, Mervyn Silva, who let the cat out of the bag. During a private visit to Bangkok last week, he told Sri Lankans resident there that he planned to quit Parliament. That was to make way for Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be sworn in as a member on the National List.
Borella no show? Not more than 200 people gathered to hear the 'Reformists' speak
Even before Silva could return to Colombo, the news was out. Government circles were buzzing with reports of an attractive package being offered for him to sacrifice his National List seat. He had already been made the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organizer for Kelaniya. That was replacing his one time non-cabinet ministerial colleague, Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, who has been sacked. In addition, he was to be appointed Chairman of the Ports Authority. Other highlights of the package, Government sources say, may continue to remain a secret. Silva seemed content with the move. "I can nurse my electorate and look after the port. I am a man who can do anything that is given to me," he told a Sri Lankan friend in Bangkok.
Government sources believe Basil Rajapaksa will take over as Minister of Nation Building. Such a Ministry may take under its fold a number of Government Departments, Statutory Bodies and Corporations that have not been assigned to any Ministry following the recent re-shuffle. At present, Basil Rajapaksa plays a key role in spearheading "nation building" projects. During his visits to District Secretariats, already, he discusses projects with politicians and officials at the district level. Rajapaksa was not available for comment. Aides said he was away on a private visit to the United States - it's income tax filing time in the US now, and being a resident there, he must do what everyone else there must do.
Probe on Mangala
The move came as CID detectives launched another probe, this time on allegations against ousted Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ports and Aviation, Mangala Samaraweera.
His colleague, Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, being held on grounds of criminal misappropriation of government property was re-remanded this week. CID detectives have questioned the executive of a cement company to ascertain whether they made any payments to a Matara-based foundation that functions under Samaraweera. Detectives were also in Matara questioning several persons to ascertain whether they had paid money to obtain jobs from Samaraweera. They allege that the probe is a prelude to arresting Samaraweera, much the same way they did to Sooriyarachchi. This is purportedly in retaliation for their statements and actions against the Government after being sacked as ministers, they claim.
The party leaders meeting in Parliament on Friday saw UNP "pole vaulter" and Kegalle district parliamentarian Mano Wijeratne turn up. In the past when he was in the UNP, he had been the party's nominee for such meetings. He continued even after the crossover to the Government's ranks. The crucial question of appointing a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the recommendations made in the COPE report was taken up. Wijeratne objected strongly to any move for another Select Committee since the COPE constituted a Select Committee by itself. Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara urged the party leaders to resolve the matter among them. It was then decided to write to the Attorney General and obtain his views. This was after Wijeratne and one time Speaker, Joseph Michael Perera locked horns over the issue.
The UNP break-away group was figuring in other issues too. The UNP 'Reformists' who accepted ministries in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government were a bit embarrassed after the sacking of Samaraweera and Sooriyarachchi, not so much as ministers, but as party organisers for Matara and Kelaniya respectively after they had gone against that party's leadership. The issue of 'democracy' and 'reforms' within the Government was not really theirs to call - after-all, they are UNP MPs still, and their interests are of what happens within the UNP.
The first show of strength by the UNP 'Reformists' after they joined the Government, was scheduled for March 15 at Colombo's Borella ward, the thickly populated stronghold of the Party. Octogenarian Mohamed Hanifa Mohamed, who has held the seat for the past forty plus years, and is now the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, was the chief organiser. Roads were closed, a huge stage erected, green flags hung, policemen made to check offices and shops in the neighbourhood saying that the Home Affairs Minister (and the breakaway group's humane face) was visiting. For good measure, The Marians, a popular pop-group, was hired for a beat-show after the speeches. That was meant to be the magnet to pull crowds.
By all accounts, the entire show was a total flop. Not more than two hundred people gathered to hear the 'Reformists' speak. The front row seats were occupied by some old ladies protecting themselves from the slight drizzle by green umbrellas with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's picture, given during the 2005 Presidential election.
Photographs that appeared in this newspaper told the story. Mohamed, with hands on hips, angrily wondering where his supporters were. After some time, he just put his hands over his face and took a nap. It was indeed, a pathetic start to a campaign for what has been named the UNP - New Democratic Party.
It was a bitter lesson to these cross-overs, and a disconcerting one too. If Mohamed of Borella could not muster more than 200 people for an important meeting, where the 18 MPs were to be present for the first time in public to explain why they joined the Government, what would be the plight of the others, many of them half the age of Mohamed, with a political future.
In contrast, a special convention of the official party was held at Party headquarters, 'Siri Kotha' two days later. Party members coming for the meeting past Borella were passing the green flags hoisted by the Mohamed-Jayasuriya breakaways. Inside Siri Kotha, Ranil Wickremesinghe was firing on all cylinders. He came out hard directly at the President himself, referring to the administration as being run by Rajapaksa Incorporated, and one that was riddled with Dooshanaya (Corruption), Beeshanaya (Fear) and the Rajapaksa poshayana (The portion for the Rajapaksas).
Then came the face-to-face confrontation between the two UNP groups on Tuesday. It was the UNP's Parliamentary group meeting prior to Parliament proper. All but C.A. Suriyaratchchi and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene of the 18 UNP MPs who joined the Government attended. On the agenda was the party's endorsement for a Select Committee to probe the interim report of the Parliamentary Oversight Committee - COPE - which had made some adverse comments on the way several public enterprises were managed, and privatised.
The COPE report had made some negative comments in three areas which involved two of the breakaway leading lights - Karu Jayasuriya and Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda. One was the privatisation of Sri Lanka Insurance, the other of Lanka Marine Services, and the third - the debt of Rs. 5 billion to the Central Bank by a finance company in which Moragoda's family had a direct stake.
Wickremesinghe said that the Working Committee of the party had approved support for this Select Committee, and that he was placing the proposal before the Parliamentary group now for its support.
Up sprang Hemakumara Nanayakkara and Rajitha Senaratne - one a cabinet minister, and the other a minister of sorts to oppose this move. Both argued that the COPE report was only an interim report.
After some debate, the matter was put to vote, and the official party won the day with a 21-15 vote, one of the breakaways, Edward Gunawardene, ducking the vote.
The meeting was not all of arguments. It was spiced with a sprinkling of jibes between the parties. The official UNP MPs jeering saying "Me ali-horu da horu-ali da" (are these elephantine rogues or rogue elephants), acidic comments at the breakaways from the party whose symbol is the elephant. Not to be outdone, the mouthy dentist from Kalutara, Senaratne retorted "Me ali newe - nari" (these are not elephants, but beasts).
Thereafter, these MPs still claiming to be UNPers walked across from the Opposition Parliamentary group meeting, without any qualms, to the Government Parliamentary group meeting. This was probably yet another Guinness Book record. Saumyamoorthi Thondaman, the grand old man of the CWC broke a record some years ago by sitting as a Government Minister, while his MPs sat in the Opposition benches. These UNPers have broken that record. MPs who can sit in both the Government and Opposition! What a mockery, this parliamentary democracy.
Senaratne has now taken on the role of the self-appointed hatchet man for the Rajapaksa administration. Only last week, it was he who lambasted dismissed Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. It was yet another one of the ironies of politics. Here was Samaraweera, hardly 15 months ago leading a campaign to have Rajapaksa elected as the President and to defeat the candidate Senaratne supported. Today, Minister Senaratne is top dog, thanks to Samaraweera's very efforts, and has the political cheek to question Samaraweera's political conduct.
This week, Senaratne was still at it, looking to score brownie points with the Rajapaksa Presidency. At the Cabinet, he was to question the independence of this newspaper house, saying some of the newspapers from these stables were being forced to attack the Government due to factors other than editorial considerations. There's none so committed than a convert.
In the meantime, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's (JVP) Politburo met soon after their firebrand politician Wimal Weerawansa staged a demonstration outside the UN office in Colombo to protest against interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe was to note that the Government was not paying heed to the issues raised by the JVP with regard to foreign interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. The party decided to hold a meeting on April 3 to explain to its membership countrywide the implications of the issues involved. The JVP will hold its May Day rally either on April 29 or 30 since May 1 is Vesak Poya Day.
The Politburo also decided to raise issue over the Government's decision to appoint Dayan Jayatilleke as Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Speakers were strongly critical of Jayatilleke with some of them branding him a "political opportunist." Weerawansa said Jayatilleke had publicly expressed his support for the separation of the country when he was an activist of the Eelam People's Revolution Liberation Front (EPRLF). During that time, speaking for the EPRLF on numerous occasions, he had advocated the cause of a divided Sri Lanka by publicly promoting Tamil Eelam. And now, he pointed out; he was a strong advocate of the Government and had been rewarded with a diplomatic posting. JVP parliamentarians are to pose a series of questions to Jayatilleke when he appears before the High Posts Committee in Parliament. They are to cite reference to some of the public utterances he has made as a staunch activist of the EPRLF.
The unveiling of a portrait of the late J.R. Jayewardene in Parliament was also to seem some uproar. UNP's Ratnapura district parliamentarian Mahinda Rathnatilleke raised an issue of privilege. He complained that MPs could not park their vehicles in garages allotted to them and urged Speaker Lokubandara to go into the matter. Joining in was Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who said it was the late Jayewardene who had been responsible for the parliamentary complex. He had looked after the rights and privileges of MPs. He urged the Speaker to ensure that like President Mahinda Rajapaksa's security, he should also ensure the security of MPs in Parliament.
Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle speaking on behalf of the Government declared that President Rajapaksa would not be coming to the House. However, he was unaware that Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, who had learnt that the President was not coming had telephoned him and urged him to turn up since some heads of diplomatic missions too had been invited. That was how President Rajapaksa made his entry into the House. A UNP parliamentarian was to joke with a JVP colleague that whoever makes the last request to the President has his way.