Columns - Political Column

If not Ranil, who?

  • UNP leader survives to fight on due to lack of suitable successor
  • International pressure on Govt. grows as smashed Tigers come up with surprise SAMs
By Our Political Editor

Time is fast running out for Tiger guerrillas. This week advancing troops confined them to some 21 square kilometers inclusive of the civilian safety zone. It is a matter of time before the Army regains control of that little area and thus denies them a world record that has lasted over two decades - the only guerrilla group to hold territory and run a virtual parallel administration.

Even if there is ground zero for them within a matter of time, there are still concerns at the highest levels of the Government. One is about the international links of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a network it could continue to use to foment trouble. This aspect has already been acknowledged by senior military leaders when they asserted that even after losing all the ground they dominate, the threat factor would remain in different forms.

The latest to underscore this reality came this week. Troops fought bitter battles with guerrillas in the general area of Puthukudiyiruppu. Air Force helicopters that rushed in to evacuate casualties were fired upon. Within seconds, the onboard Self Protection System (SPS) activated and prevented any damage. It soon transpired that the guerrillas had used Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) though the exact version is yet to be established.

He’s the one: Ranil Wickremesinghe discussing a point with Tissa Attanayake and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera when they visited the Gangaramaya Temple on Tuesday.

The news, needless to say, has shocked Colombo's intelligence community. Since the military crackdown against guerrillas by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration since 2007, there has been no known instance of missiles being used on aircraft. So much so, it made them believe that they no longer possessed it. Confirming this were other factors like continuous air raids on rebels positions in the past several months had only drawn 23 mm, 50 mm, machine gun and rifle fire. Moreover, there had also been reports that guerrilla attempts to procure SAMs from black market channels had failed in Eastern Europe and South East Asia.

Now, the question is being raised whether the SAMs used for this week's attack on Bell 212s were smuggled in recently. This is on the basis that if the guerrillas possessed it before, they could have put them to use. A less likely argument put out by some sections of the intelligence community is that the guerrillas had them but waited till the urgent need arose to use them. Both the defence and the security establishment are busy seeking answers to these questions and many others.

Naturally, the focal point of attention in this regard is the LTTE's procurement chief Kumaran Pathmanathan. He also functions under a plethora of pseudonyms including KP and S. Pathmanathan. It was only two months earlier, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran named him head of his organization's "Diplomatic Relations." The well publicized move was akin to naming an "international heir apparent" to oversee the guerrilla assets including bank accounts with fat balances.

It was only last year Pathmanathan made headlines after news reports that he was arrested in Chonburi near Pattaya in Thailand. Officials in Colombo claimed that he was to be extradited to Colombo. However, Thai Government officials later strongly denied he was ever taken into custody.

It is in this backdrop that Foreign Minister, Rohita Bogollagama, visited Bangkok this week. He announced that he had told the Thai government to be wary of the LTTE since it could tie up with criminal gangs and other international terrorist groups to foment terrorism. He told reporters that whilst the conflict with the LTTE "may be on its last leg, there is a concern that the guerrillas, with their knowhow and expertise, could transform themselves and be problematic for the international community."

Bogollagama met Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. He told reporters that a wide range of issues including security co-operation, investments and cultural exchanges between the two Buddhist countries were discussed during his visit. Thai Foreign Ministry's deputy spokesperson Thani Thongpakdi said Bogollagama had asked his counterpart Kasit "to keep a close watch on possible LTTE activities in the country and not to let the group use the kingdom as a launching pad against Colombo." He, however, added that the Sri Lankan Minister did not give specific targets for surveillance and added that Thailand was willing to help.

Another aspect that has engaged the attention of the government is enhancing security measures in areas outside the battle zones. This is particularly in towns and villages regarded as most vulnerable. The move, as reported previously, comes after the suicide bomb attack at the Godapitiya mosque in Akuressa. The government is conscious of the "sleeping cells" the guerrillas have developed outside the battle zone.

As the heavy fighting continues, London, a hub of guerrilla information network, was buzzing with reports that Charles Anthony, son of Prabhakaran, sustained minor injuries due to artillery fire by the Army. Earlier, the Ministry of Defence said he and his father had been observed mingling around with the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Civilian Safe Zone. Another who had sustained bad injuries was LTTE activist Balakumar, once a leader of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS).

The plight of IDPs trapped in the battle zone appears to be a cause for concern worldwide. This week, the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry sent a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressing his grave concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in that country and the government's failure to allow humanitarian groups full access to provide relief.
He said: "I'm deeply troubled by the Sri Lankan government's failure to protect its citizens from the ravages of a brutal campaign. Increasing numbers of civilians have been killed or wounded in the 'no-fire' zones, and both the Tigers and the government forces share responsibility." He also emphasized the need to protect journalists.

In a bid to demonstrate further that a political package is still on the cards, President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for talks. However, the TNA said such talks were only possible if there was a ceasefire and the plight of civilians was resolved.

Ranil's battles

Meanwhile, the ding-dong battle in the main opposition United National Party (UNP) continues. UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had reason to celebrate his 60th birthday last Tuesday. That's the compulsory age of retirement for public servants who even get extensions after the statutory age of 57 when most have the option to retire.

Politics is different in many aspects to normal vocations. There are no minimum educational qualifications for entry and many refuse to budge even if dragged by six wild horses. Only a Supreme Court verdict can probably de-throne them.

On Monday, Wickremesinghe was to face what was yet another challenge to his leadership. A group within the party had had enough of his lackadaisical leadership, losing election after election and doing sweet nothing to rectify the weaknesses in the party; mis-reading the ground situation, especially over the military offensive against the LTTE, placing over reliance on external forces to pull the chest-nuts out of the Opposition's fire. They had told him so before, and on Monday they were to tell him again, for the last time, in the words of Oliver Cromwell “you have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart.I say, and let as have done with you. In the name of God, go”.

They were in for a bit of surprise. The previous week, the Working Committee of the UNP, the party's main decision-making body had discussed the stripping of Wickremesinghe's powers as the all-powerful party leader. A long simmering issue was at boiling point. A fresh group of dissidents had renewed their campaign to oust him at last week's Parliamentary Group meeting, and carried it forward to the Working Committee.

At the Working Committee it was resolved that an eight-member committee come forward with a set of proposals that would set in motion the amendment of the party constitution so that the party leader (Wickremesinghe) would be unceremoniously kicked-upstairs to a ceremonial senior party leader position, and to anoint the deputy leader (Karu Jayasuriya) with the powers and the position of a new party leader.

The very composition of the eight-member committee (as reported in these columns last week) was indicative that nothing would flow from such a committee. It comprised those vehemently opposed to Wickremesinghe, and those vehemently supportive, and at least three seniors who would watch which way the wind was blowing before sticking their necks out in a limbo.

The other factor was that the committee was given less than 100 hours to come up with its proposals - which included legal drafting of the amendment to the party constitution. It was an almost impossible task. However, the meeting was fixed and there was a full show - over eighty voting members of the Working Committee were present. Party members were staying tuned with mobile numbers of the Working Committee members they knew. Government ranks were curious spectators. The media were agog, reporters on full alert and sub-editors asked to hold the pages waiting to report the fall-out. Radio and television stations and mobile phone news services waiting to beat all with their breaking news burst.

The meeting began at 3 pm on Monday at 'Siri Kotha', the party headquarters in the not so new administrative capital of Sri Jayawardhanapura, Kotte. Party General Secretary Tissa Attanayaka began the meeting - with Wickremesinghe in the chair, by reading out the letter sent by the party to Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama sacking him from the UNP.

This may surprise some, who may justifiably wonder whether he is still a UNP member. Bogollagama was fortunate that the Supreme Court held in his favour when the UNP sacked him several years ago after he met Wickramesinghe one afternoon, and with nary a word to him went straight thereafter to President's House and met Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and joined the Government as a Minister of Something.

The party was found fault with for not adopting the correct procedures in his sacking. And so, he remained a Government Minister, promoted to the post of Foreign Minister, while still, technically being a UNP member. This time round, the legal eagles of the party tried to rectify their previous mistakes and sent
him a letter saying that they have learnt that he has been appointed the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organiser for Kotte and asking for his defence to the charge before his sacking.

Having not heard from Bogollagama in the seven days allotted to him for his reply, the Working Committee proceeded to endorse his sacking from the UNP. It is unlikely that Bogollagama will go once again to Court and insist he is still a UNP member, while being the SLFP organizer for Kotte. Of course, nothing is impossible in this day and age. Twenty-six other provincial level politicians were also sacked from the party for crossing over and contesting elections from the Government ranks.

With those formalities over, Attanayaka read out the minutes of the stormy previous meeting of just the week before. He said he was tabling a report of the eight-member committee that was appointed the previous week to go into the amendments of the party constitution. It contained six points - the main point being the creation of a post of senior leader and that of a leader, both of whom will share power with the latter holding the major portion of the political power.

Attanayake bombshell

The committee's findings were proposed by Malik Samarawickrama, the one-time Chairman of the UNP, and believed to be a Wickremesinghe loyalist. They were seconded by Dayasiri Jayasekera, one of the vociferous opponents of Wickremesinghe. This looked a perfect balance to most members of the Working Committee, many of whom believed that all the backstage manoeuvring had been indulged in by both factions, and this to be the final arrangement.

But lo and behold, Attanayaka dropped a bombshell. He read out another communication sent to him saying that he had received a letter containing 22 signatures of UNP Members of Parliament (MPs) saying that they were supportive of Wickremesinghe being the Leader of the party and the Leader of the Opposition - and then another letter containing the signatures of 27 members of the Working Committee supporting Wickremesinghe as party leader.

The 22 MPs who signed the letter were: Abdul Cader, Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayaka, Joseph Michael Perera, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Dilip Wedaarachchi, Naushad Mohamed, Dunesh Gankanda, Sagala Ratnayaka, Akila Viraj Kariawasam, P.Harrison, Earl Gunasekara, Edward Gunasekara, Abdul Haleem, Alick Aluvihara, Mohamed Maharoof, Sarath Ranawaka, Chandrani Bandara, Larrine Perera, Champika Premadasa, Sarathchandra Rajakaruna, Palitha Ranage Bandara and Ranjith Aluvihare.

Some MPs - like Joseph Michael Perera and Kabeer Hasim refused to sign this though they were strictly not in the anti-Wickremesinghe camp. There was some opposition to the fact that Renuka Herath was one of the signatories when she was one of the eight-member committee that had just made some recommendations.

That immediately caused a major rumpus inside the hall. This was no storm in a tea-cup. It was like a tornado that swept across the room. It gave an immediate signal that Wickremesinghe had wrested the support of a sizeable section of both, the Parliamentary Group and the Working Committee. The Parliamentary group has 42 MPs without the Speaker. If they were able to produce 22 names, the likelihood was that the Wickremesinghe faction had the majority of that group.

It was at the last Parliamentary group meeting that the issue of Wickremesinghe's ouster was raised in the new offensive to oust him. On that occasion, last week, Lakshman Seneviratne (Mahiyangana) proposed Wickremesinghe's ouster, and Ranjith Maddumabandara (Moneragala) seconded the proposal so that party wags remarked this was the latest version of the 'Uva rebellion'. Several others like Johnston Fernando, Jayalath Jayawardene, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Samaraweera, Rukman Senanayake etc., supported the proposal. Only Galle's Vajira Abeywardene stood by the party leader, at least when it came to speaking. He was heckled and berated in strong and foul language. Even if there were speakers supportive of Wickremesinghe, they would have been reluctant to speak out seeing the reception Abeywardene was receiving. But the Wickremesinghe camp was always confident that it commanded the silent majority. It did not want a secret ballot, because the situation was such that a secret ballot meant a different scenario, and an open vote favours the incumbent in such situations. It was noteworthy that neither side at that stage was confident of its support. The anti-Wickremesinghe faction did not want to risk an open vote, and the Wickremesinghe faction did not want to risk a secret ballot.

The reading of the twin letters naturally irritated the group wanting Wickremesinghe's ouster. It was even more than just irritation; they saw the wind taken off their sails. The noise they had generated did not match the support they had behind their campaign. When it transpired that the signatures were obtained the day before at a secret meeting held at the residence of Abdul Cader, one of the MPs from the Kandy district, Dayasiri Jayasekera was to ask why only 22 MPs were called for a meeting. He asked if this was not a move to split the party. Jayasekera asked that when a party-appointed committee had given a report, could further submissions be made. Instead of coming to one common decision at the Working Committee, Jayasekera complained that the party was being split into different factions with secret meetings.

In the cross-talk that ensued it transpired that it was Vajira Abeywardene who was instrumental in this secret meeting that brought forth the support for Wickremesinghe. He admitted that it was he who handed over this letter to the party General Secretary just before the Working Committee meeting began, and he asked whether the group wanting Wickremesinghe's wings clipped did not hold secret meetings to plot his ouster.

A total number of 40 Working Committee members spoke at the meeting that lasted six hours, going on till 9 at night. The group asking for Wickremesinghe's ouster said that the party's heart was not with their leader, that the Buddhist clergy was not with him, the military had been ridiculed - in general, that the party had lost all confidence in him to win any more elections for the UNP.

Those who spoke on Wickremesinghe's behalf, like Abeywardene and Daya Gamage (Ampara) argued strenuously on behalf of their leader. So did Velautham), a provincial council member from Uva who, speaking in Sinhala, said that it was only Wickremesinghe who was trusted by the minorities, and asked what any of the other aspirants for the top job had done to win the minority vote. They said that what the dissident group was trying to do was against the party constitution.

Puttalam's Ranga Bandara and the new Leader of the Opposition of the North Central province Anuradhanayaka vehemently opposed the creation of new posts in the party. Rukman Senanayake, Johnston Fernando, Ravi Samaraweera, Jayalath Jayawardene, Lakshman Seneviratne, Ranjith Maddumabandara and Sajith Premadasa were at it again saying the party had had enough of Wickremesinghe.

While this talkathon was going on, some Working Committee members had fallen asleep. In the midst of the melee, some were silent spectators. Among them, heavyweights like Karu Jayasuriya, S.B. Dissanayake, Ravi Karunanayake. There were those who were vociferous at the start of the oust-Wickremesinghe campaign like Thalatha Atukorale, the female firebrand from Nivitigala who was now silent.

Other seniors like John Amaratunga and Joseph Michael Perera were non-committal, but a remark from the former steered the debate in a different direction.

Amaratunga asked for a vote for anyone wishing to be a leader, other than the leader himself. This prompted the latter, former Speaker, Joseph Michael Perera to say "You are talking about a Senior Leader and a Leader", who is going to be this Senior Leader. One felt that with all this discussion that matter was wrapped up. The general opinion was that Wickremesinghe was going to be kicked up-stairs as a ceremonial Senior Leader and Karu Jayasuriya was going to be the all-powerful Leader wielding all the political powers in the party. But there was no answer to Joseph Michael-Perera's question.

He kept getting up twice, and then thrice, still to no avail. He then went on to accuse Wickramesinghe of putting forward four candidates from his Ja-ela constituency for the forthcoming Western province election thereby weakening the prospects of his own son's chances. He said that his son had to contest from Negombo (Gampaha district) as a result. The gravamen of his argument was that party front-liners like Jayalath Jayawardene were intruding on his turf and the party leader was giving his acquisence to this. Ironically, Jayalath Jayawardene is one of those spearheading the move to kick Wickremesinghe out as party leader.

When Amaratunga asked again for the need to vote in all those wanting to be deputy leaders, assistant leaders and assistant deputy leaders of the party, S.B. Dissanayake, the joint National Organizer of the party made his first remarks; "Ow, ow okkatama thiyanna one" (yes, yes, you must have elections for all). Dayasiri Jayasekera also supported this suggestion.

Jayasekera is one of the anti-Wickremesinghe movers, but he made it plain that in the process of shifting Wickremesinghe out of his job, the vacancy should not be filled by Karu Jayasuriya. He also said "okkatama chandayak thiyamu" (let's have elections to all). Most of the anti-Wickremesinghe faction wanted Jayasuriya to take the party leader's place as a stop-gap to the immediate issue of who was going to fill the vacancy when Wickremwsinghe was ousted, but by no means did Jayasuriya have the party's overwhelming support for the cause. Even the group that wanted Wickremesinghe ousted was divided as Jayasekera's position indicated.

It was generally accepted that Jayasuriya's position in the party has taken a heavy blow since his departure in February 2007 to become Minister of Home Affairs and Public Administration in the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. They point out that the Government could have collapsed in the 2007 Budget had the 17 UNP MPs who crossed over remained with the party and voted with the Opposition. That was the time that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had broken away from the Rajapaksa administration, though others argue that had the UNP-led Opposition had the majority votes at the time, the JVP would have voted with the Government to prevent the UNP from getting an advantage.

The respect he had has evaporated to a great extent within the UNP. Jayasuriya probably knows this better than anyone else. That is why he keeps silent, not wanting to be seen as the one hankering for position - and power with that position. Dayasiri Jayasekera was to say that anyone who wanted a position in the party should apply for it, and the party must vote them to those positions.

It was at this stage, that Wickremasinghe and Jayasuriya were urged by the party to work out a formula by which they could share power. Wickremesinghe's position was that he had already shed some of the powers he enjoyed to the Political Affairs Committee, and that he was prepared to formalize this arrangement. The suggestion of the two of them co-chairing this committee was shot down as impractical. The two party seniors had already discussed this issue and there was nothing new to go over, so they seemed to go through the motions of adjourning - and returning with the recipe for good management.

The Political Affairs Committee (PAC) will be headed by Karu Jayasuriya, while the Working Committee (WC) will be headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The PAC will report to the WC, which will be the final decision-making body. Thereby, Wickremesinghe retained the final decision-making power. He would also be the one to appoint the 20 appointed members to the WC. A move to split this power into two and allow Jayasuriya to pick 10 and Wickremesinghe to pick 10 was not accepted. There would be no new position called Senior Leader, there would be no amendments to the party constitution, there would be no powers vested with Karu Jayasuriya over-riding Wickremesinghe's powers.

However, the PAC will now select electoral organizers and the like. There, Wickremesinghe has lost some of his sole powers to appoint whom he wishes. The appointment of Dinesh Dodangoda as a National List MP early in his tenure as party leader without consulting the party came in for heavy criticism.
When everyone felt the meeting was tapering off with this being the finality that was reached, an MP from the Hambantota district, Dilip Vedarachchi got up to propose the name of Sajith Premadasa as an Assistant Deputy Leader of the party. This woke up the sleeping members - and Ravi Karunanayake, who unusually had remained silent throughout the lengthy proceedings.

Karunanayake, the MP from Kotte was to ask "api mechachara katha-kare mekeng ivara karanna da?" (did we do all this talking to finish with this?). He lashed out at what he said was an insidious attempt to give positions through the back door. For long, Karunanayake has been opposing young Premadasa's rise to the party hierarchy. He promptly proposed the name of S.B. Dissanayake to this same non-existent post. Abdul Cader from Kandy immediately seconded Dissanayake's name.

The issue fizzled out soon, but if one aspect was to emerge from Monday's meeting, it was that, while there was some consensus that Wickremesinghe's leadership of the party had been wanting in many respects, and there was indeed a groundswell of opinion, even among hard-liners and party faithful that Wickremesinghe was letting down the party and the party voters, there was almost equally, no particular support from any other candidate to take over. There was no common candidate, so to say, “so that they could say out with Wickremesinghe, and in with - who?”

Wake-up call

For Wickremesinghe, this was one more wake-up call from his own party. He came too close to the edge of the precipice and managed to walk away unscathed. But this is a pyrrhic victory for him, if he wins the party leadership and loses the forthcoming Presidential or general election for the UNP, whichever comes first, and that, in the not-too-distant future.

Galvanized into action, Wickrem-esinghe realizes that his public relations is a sore-point and that in Sri Lankan politics, a smiling face and warm handshake can be more important than knowing how to tackle the intricacies of the world economy. He needs a major overhaul to his approach to the electorate, and he seems to have started setting about the task ahead with some political aplomb.

First, on his birthday, he visited the Gangaraamaya Vihara at Hunupitiya, which has long connections to his family. There was a renewed interest in showing that if you are to do politics in Sri Lanka, the knowledge of Buddhism (pragnya) is only secondary to visiting temples and offering flowers (sarda).
At the temple ceremony, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita Thera said that like his uncle, the late J.R. Jayewardene who ultimately became President after a tedious political journey, Ranil Wickremesinghe still has time to be President one day. He said that no-one can keep winning all the time, and similarly, no-one can keep losing all the time. He urged the UNP leader to read 'Kumara Rodaya', and the story of a fat man and lean man who went to the jungle and were chased by a bear.

The lean man climbed a tree and escaped, but the fat man could not do so, and he began to run. After a while he could not run anymore, and fell down. When the bear approached him, he lay motionless pretending to be dead. The bear then sniffed the man's face and went away. Thereafter, the lean man came and asked the fat man what the bear told him. The fat man said the bear told him to be wary of friends who desert him when one is in distress.

Ven Galaboda Gnanissara Thera of the Gangaraamaya Vihara and Ven. Dr. Kollupitiye Mahinda Sangharakhita Thera of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara also spoke in glowing terms of Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe himself made it a point to say that he was born in independent Lanka 60 years ago and studied around the Kumara Rodaya and other Sinhala literature texts.

He said that he gives merit to the political leaders he worked with, viz., Dudley Senanayake, J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and D.B. Wijetunga who faced victory and defeat with equanimity, and that the Dhammapada teaches one to face challenges with fortitude. Then, he got his political shot in, saying that 60 years ago, Sri Lanka enjoyed the strongest economy of all Asia, and asked what it had become today. He pledged to uplift the economy, restore democracy and usher peace.

The upshot of the event seemed very much to shore up Wickremesinghe's fallen image as a nationalist leader, having the support of the influential Buddhist clergy. His next step was to host a dinner for the Working Committee members at his residence on Thursday night.

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