Columns - Political Column

Dramatic turn in UPFA-UNP ties

  • New dialogue with Rajapaksa helps Ranil ride party crisis
  • Others, including DNA, invited for talks on constitutional changes
By Our Political Editor

The lift off for two Air Force Mi-17 transport helicopters from the Army grounds in Fort last Wednesday came at 7 a.m. Instead of troops or lethal weapons, the cargo, for the first time, was 30 Sri Lanka cabinet ministers. They headed to Kilinochchi, the centre of power for Tiger guerrillas until last year.

An hour later, the two choppers landed at the Air Force base in Vavuniya. Base commander, Air Commodore Rohinta Fernando greeted the visitors and ushered them to a buffet breakfast that included kiribath, string hoppers, roti, bread, even rice and curry. Later, they boarded again for a 20-minute flight to the grounds within the Security Forces headquarters in Kilinochchi. Moments after they alighted, a gleaming Air Force Bell 212 configured for VIP movements touched down. A smiling President Mahinda Rajapaksa set foot on Kilinochchi soil to a welcome from his ministers.

Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe at the Anuradhapura ceremony

If his previous visits were to greet and praise troops for their military victory last year, this time it was different. The man who gave political leadership for the military defeat of the guerrillas was taking his government to the very ground from where the late Velupillai Prabhakaran, campaigned for a separate Tamil homeland. For some ministers, it was an emotional journey. So much so, one of them told a colleague it was like King Dutugemunu and his counsel visiting Elara's lair after having defeated him.
According to the Mahavamsa, the chronicle of Lanka's ancient history, the Tamil Chola king in the present day South India, ruled Sri Lanka from the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Dutugemunu, a young Sinhala prince fought him. After his forces routed those of Elara, Dutugemunu closed on him on elephant back and felled the aged king with one of his darts in 161 BC.

Others made their own assessments from what they saw. There were distraught, sombre and some cheerful faces among the civilians. Remnants of the war remained. Despite stepped up development activity; there were hardships for the civilians. For them, escaping the trauma of a bloody war was thus more burdensome.

Development work

Rajapaksa and his ministers arrived to hold their first cabinet meeting outside Colombo. Even before it began, it was clear the weekly meeting in Kilinochchi would be different to others held in Colombo. The agenda focused mostly on issues related to the north. Main among them was the reduction in the price of petrol, diesel and kerosene -- a clear public relations drive. Other decisions included the reconstruction of the Mankulam-Mullaitivu road, allow a state owned Chinese company a contract to upgrade healthcare facilities and permitting students in IDP camps to continue university education.

Another Chinese company won a tender to develop the Matara-Beliatta railway line together with CGR (Ceylon Government Railway). An Indian company was given approval to reconstruct the northern railway line. If the larger part of projects in the north went to China, India also had gained some of them in the north in developments that reflected a shift in geopolitical realities in Sri Lanka.

Usually, under 'any other business, the critical political and other happenings over the week are discussed, but not so on this occasion. Perhaps, this is understandable since the ministers were deliberating on matters of state inside a military camp. The previous week's cabinet meeting was cancelled. Rajapaksa had flown to the Maldives to play the role of a 'peace broker' to bring together President Mohamed Nasheed and the Maldivian opposition parties. Just this week, disregarding Rajapaksa's advice to cohabit with his political rivals, Nasheed thrust his shaky government into further political turmoil by arresting one of the Maldivian opposition leaders. He was detained by the Army just after midnight. That action was from a man who vowed to uphold democracy when he took over as President from his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

If Rajapaksa did not choose to brief his ministers about his visit to the Maldives, there were also other issues for discussion. Main among them were matters related to the UN Advisory Panel and the resultant 'fast unto death' by Minister Wimal Weerawansa. He was demanding that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon disbands the panel he named to advise him on accountability issues during the final phase of the separatist war in Sri Lanka. Yet, another was the withdrawal from August 15 of the GSP Plus concessionary tariffs by the European Union. The move will deprive Sri Lanka of Rs 56.5 billion or more every year. Fears have gripped the apparel industry following this move.

This week, a Pakistani investor whose apparel factory in Sri Lanka employs 2,000 workers, said he was planning to pull out. External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris declared a week earlier that the 15 conditions placed by the EU for the restoration of the facility were "not negotiable" since they infringed on "Sri Lanka's sovereignty".

However, this week, after meeting a EU delegation at the External Affairs Ministry, the same Dr. Peiris declared, "dialogue is the only means to move forward."

Apart from a classic display of typically confused thinking at the helm of the country's affairs, the remarks seemed to suggest that Sri Lanka still wants to talk with the EU. This is after rejecting the EU's conditions outright earlier in what appears to be the Government's new 'on-off' diplomacy. The EU Mission Chief Bernard Savage was also quoted last week in this newspaper as saying that the Sri Lanka Government wished to continue the dialogue with the EU on GSP Plus concessions.

After the cabinet meeting, Rajapaksa chaired a progress review meeting of Uthuru Vasanthaya (Northern Reawakening). Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who heads the campaign, made a presentation followed by Northern Province Governor retired Major General G.A. Chandrasiri. There were periodic interceptions by President Rajapaksa. At one point, he turned emotional too. He said, "We should be grateful to our troops for enabling us to be here today".

At another point during the discussion, the President turned angry. He noted that officials were not conveying to the public the correct picture in the Wanni. Though there were broken homes on the roadside, many in the hinterland have been rebuilt. "Mama enakan inna oneda wahalak daanna" (Must one wait for me to come to put up a roof"), he asked. He said officials were not doing enough to convey to the people how the government was spending vast amounts of money for development work in the area. He directed that besides Tamil officials, more Sinhala and Muslim officials too should be deployed in the area.

He warned that those who were not projecting the development efforts of the government to the people in the area would be dealt with.

Development work, he said, was being carried out with foreign aid. In addition people, both in the north and the south, were paying for it. He also lashed out at the NGOs. Rajapaksa saw the distribution of 25 tractors and 2,000 bicycles to selected civilians.

Ministers drove in an air-conditioned coach after the meeting to the newly constructed chalet occupied by the SF Commander, Kilinochchi, Major General Chandana Rajaguru. There they were served a buffet lunch. The chalet overlooks the sprawling Iranamadu tank. The conversation among some ministers turned to the days when the tank was used for seaplane landings by the LTTE. That was to bring guerrilla ideologue Anton Balasingham from the neighbouring Maldives to the Wanni. He had flown to the Maldives from Britain not wanting to risk a stopover in Colombo during a phase of the peace negotiations with the then United National Front (UNF) government.

Later, Rajapaksa and Ministers took part in a public rally in the Kilinochchi town. There, he spoke for ten minutes in Tamil before he walked to his helicopter for the flight to Colombo. Ministers followed suit in the two Mi-17s. A larger volume of the Air Force assets was put to use last Wednesday. This included placing fixed wing aircraft to ferry officials from Ratmalana to Vavuniya. Some of the officials also travelled in vehicles. The next outstation cabinet meeting will be held in Moneragala. It will be followed by a progress review meeting of development work in that district.

Constitutional talks

Just a day ahead of the cabinet meeting in Kilinochchi, there was political activity of greater significance in Colombo. UPFA leaders met with their counterparts in the main opposition United National Party (UNP) last Monday to discuss constitutional amendments.

The Sunday Times has learnt that informal contacts between the two sides led to this political summit. Playing the role of a key intermediary was a leading business magnate closely associated with the UNP. During these contacts, Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has voiced his party's opposition to the Executive Presidency and therefore his difficulty in supporting related constitutional amendments. This included amendments to allow a presidential candidate to contest as many times as he or she wished.

The outcome of the back-channel dialogue was a declaration by Wickremesinghe at a briefing with newspaper editors on a draft Freedom of Information Act he wanted to table in Parliament as a private member's motion. It was held at his Cambridge Place office on Thursday (July 8). In response to a question, Wickremesinghe said his party was willing to co-operate with the government to create the office of an Executive Prime Minister (EPM). He said the opposition did not favour a constitutional amendment to enable a president to contest many times or enhance other powers. However, the office of Executive Prime Minister, if constituted with democratic checks and balances, would receive his party's support.

The next day (Friday, July 9) was the final vote on the budget in Parliament. That morning Wickremesinghe met with senior opposition leaders. They included his deputy Karu Jayasuriya, Mangala Samaraweera, John Ameratunga and Tissa Attanayake. There was consensus that a UNP delegation should engage the government on the proposed constitutional reforms. There was no reference to the role of an intermediary or on how the back-channel dialogue had gone on. However, the requirement to meet President Rajapaksa for talks over constitutional reforms figured.

By Friday afternoon, Rajapaksa had telephoned Wickremesinghe and invited him. That Saturday morning, he drove to Janadipathi Mandiraya for a one-on-one meeting. The duo discussed the general aspects of the proposed constitutional changes. Rajapaksa said he was not in favour of a Westminister style of government. Wickremesinghe concurred but added that there were salient features that could be adopted. Whilst Rajapaksa was in favour of provisions of the 17th Amendment creating independent Commissions for the Police, Elections, Bribery etc., being changed, his opposition partner declared his party had a different view.

Wickremesinghe agreed with the President that a UNP delegation would meet at 5 p.m. on Monday. Wickremesinghe appealed to Rajapaksa not to say anything adverse to his deputy, Karu Jayasuriya who would be in the party delegation. The latter was among a group of UNPers who crossed over in 2007 to government ranks and held a cabinet portfolio. He returned to his original party thereafter in 2009.
Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, the Sunday Times learnt, discussed a number of other matters during an informal conversation. The meeting had to be wrapped up after the UNP leader said he had a public meeting to attend in Kadawatha.

Later that Saturday, Wickremesinghe telephoned Jayasuriya to brief him on the meeting. He said he would be in the delegation to meet President Rajapaksa on Monday evening. He also telephoned Mangala Samaraweera and urged him to join. However, Samaraweera, a former Cabinet Minister in the Rajapaksa administration said he would prefer not to take part. Yet, he told the UNP leader that the talks were a "constructive step forward" and assured "full support". Wickremesinghe also telephoned Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's (JVP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake to say that a party delegation would meet Rajapaksa. He said he would keep the JVP informed of the outcome.

Wickremesinghe picked Jayasuriya, former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera (Kurunegala District). He was also to include John Ameratunga but he was abroad. Since Hakeem was away on an urgent engagement in Kalmunai, Lakshman Kiriella (Kandy District) replaced him.

Waiting to greet the UNP team was President Rajapaksa and a group of ministers. They included Basil Rajapaksa, Dallas Allahapperuma, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Maithripala Sirisena, Dinesh Gunawardena, Susil Premajayantha and G.L. Peiris. There were clasped hand greetings of Ayubowan and handshakes all round when the two teams met. Then they got down to business.

Rajapaksa was to say that he was in favour of the office of an Executive Prime Minister since he wanted to attend Parliament. This would also ensure accountability and answerability to Parliament. However, he said he had strong reservations on the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. "Owa thiyala hari yanney nehe. Dhannavaaney Maladiviyine wenne dey. Oya prassney thamai thiyanney." (Leaving those things is not going to be good. Can you see the problems in the Maldives? That is the problem that exists there.) He was alluding to a conflict between the President and Parliament. Some aspects have been tried even in Israel but it had failed, he added.

Meetings at different level

The talks led to the formation of three different teams. Wickremesinghe will meet with Basil Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena and colleagues to work out the modalities for the office of the Executive Prime Minister. UPFA sources said they were of the view that if the creation of such an office was accepted, they would want the EPM to be elected at a national poll. These talks are to begin on a date which two sides will agree upon next week.

UNP deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya will hold talks with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris on proposed changes to the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. Jayasuriya has already begun meetings with civil society groups to prepare himself for the talks expected to begin next week. Senior members will join the two sides to assist during the talks.

A third team of UNP leaders talked to their UPFA counterparts on electoral reforms including those at the provincial and local level. UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake met a team led by Basil Rajapaksa at dinner at the residence of Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on Thursday. The other members of the UNP team were Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Lakshman Kiriella, Joseph Michael Perera and Hassen Ali (on behalf of SLMC). One of the subjects discussed was delimitation at the district level to be carried out by an official committee. It is to be headed by the District Secretary and comprise an Assistant Commissioner of Elections, a representative of the Census and Statistics Department and a government official. The committee will study the geography and the ethnic composition of the districts.

Wickremesinghe expects the three different teams, at the end of their discussions, to formulate three different documents. "These documents will be made available for public debate," he told the Sunday Times. He said, "That way we will not only ensure transparency but also explain our decision to engage the Government on constitutional reforms that would benefit the people and the country."

There were some heated moments too. When the talks were nearing an end, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera said "api awey sathbawen." (We came in trust). In the past, when talks had failed with the UNP, Rajapaksa had taken factions in the party to the UPFA fold. He wanted to know whether he would do so this time too.

"Mama gaththey nehe. Egollo apey paththeta awa," (I did not take them. They came to our side), Rajapaksa declared looking at both Peiris and Jayasuriya. The UNP deputy leader was livid and promptly declared it was wrong. He said he would like to set the record straight but Wickremesinghe intervened and said that the matter should end there.

They said their farewells and parted ways.

Diplomats briefed

However, Wickremesinghe had drawn the attention of Colombo's diplomatic community to the move. They wondered whether the latest dialogue portended a new relationship between the UNP and the UPFA, one where both would work together. India's High Commissioner Ashok Kant and United States Ambassador Patricia Butenis were among those to call on Wickremesinghe to learn first hand the details of the dialogue.

The UNP leader conceded that if the Opposition's proposals were accommodated in the proposed constitutional reforms, there were prospects for the UNP to work together with the Government in the national interest.

However, such a reality is a long, long way off since both sides have to reach accord on several thorny issues. Whilst the UNP would like to see an Executive Prime Minister answerable to Parliament sans the powers now vested in the Presidency, UPFA leaders are keen to retain them. In such an event, the exercise, as a political observer points out, will be nothing more than pouring old wine into a new bottle. Even that may not happen, he warns. One such area is the immunity conferred on the President.

Basil explains

Why then did President Rajapaksa abandon constitutional amendments to allow him to contest many terms and turn to the opposition for help? "We could easily pass the constitutional amendments with a two thirds majority. We have a clear mandate and need only seven more votes in Parliament. This is not an impossibility," said Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who is also a senior presidential advisor.

He said there were three mechanisms through which the Government could have made constitutional changes. One was a Constituent Assembly, the second a Parliamentary Select Committee and the third through dialogue with the Opposition parties. "We have chosen the third approach," he said. Conducting the dialogue and issuing reports in parts is not the final one, Basil Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times.
"We will still have to do the constitutional changes in three different stages," he said, adding that President Rajapaksa would write to the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), inviting it also for talks on the proposed constitutional changes. There were indications yesterday that the DNA would first demand the release of its leader, retired General Sarath Fonseka, before it could engage in any dialogue.

Ranil the winner

"International events also had a bearing on this," said Wickremesinghe commenting on the dialogue with the UPFA. The remarks co-incided with Minister Peiris' volte face on the GSP Plus issue. He first shut out a dialogue with the EU but declared later that dialogue was the only way forward. Thus, a UPFA-opposition accord on the proposed constitutional changes, if successful, will have the main opposition party on board to make a joint plea for the restoration of tariff concessions. Even if the loquacious Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella publicly demanded that the facility should be given to Sri Lanka "without any conditions," the seriousness of the situation, it appears, is now being felt at the highest levels of the government.

Only time will tell whether the UPFA-UNP talks on constitutional reforms will be successful. However, there is still a winner. That is Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader. He has seized the opportunity of a dialogue to stymie his opponents who wanted him ousted from leadership in his own party. The talks show he now has the blessings of President Rajapaksa and could remain unshakeable.

Nothing could be more damning than that for Sajith Premadasa (Hambantota District), who was heading a group that wanted to oust Wickremesinghe. At a meeting of the UNP's Working Committee weeks ago, he called his leader "a liar". This week, at a news conference, he was asked whether he accepted Wickremesinghe's leadership. He declared "anivaarayenma" (or definitely) in a comment that reflected the changing realities.

However, Premadasa's exclusion from the UNP delegation for last Monday's talks was not the only issue. Even within his own group, there has been serious grumbling over his recent utterances. In a month when the World Cup soccer matches were played in South Africa, in Colombo Premadasa appears to have kicked into his own goal. This week, he strongly defended the Government on a number of critical issues including the UN Chief's appointment of the Advisory Panel and the withdrawal of the GSP Plus tariff concessions.

A leading member of Premadasa's group spoke to the Sunday Times on grounds of anonymity. "I am one who strongly believed that Ranil should go. Now, I feel Sajith also should go. He should join the government. His views are much the same as theirs and is only enhancing President Rajapaksa's image. But who is there to take over?" he asked.

Others, however, defended young Premadasa saying he is only trying to win back public confidence that the UNP is not an anti-national party, and that he feels he must speak up for Sri Lanka against foreign interference, and win the hearts of the Sri Lankan voters once again for the UNP. There seems no plausible answer and that remains a dilemma for the UNP. Though Wickremasinghe appears to have won, the crisis within his party might worsen in the months to come.

Developments on Friday show that the Sajith faction now wants to patch up differences with Wickremesinghe. This faction met at a Kirullapone residence on Friday evening to discuss new developments within the party and their strategy for tomorrow's (Monday) Working Committee meeting. The main policy-making body of the party is meeting tomorrow to discuss the Reforms Committee report. The group decided to support the report but to move an amendment that Provincial Councillors and members of local bodies too should be in the electoral college. This is in addition to members of the working committee and the parliamentary group.

However, on Friday evening several senior UNPers were among those who attended a workshop at the Galle Face Hotel for MPs and Provincial Council members arranged by the National Democratic Institute.
Karu Jayasuriya spoke with Sajith Premadasa and his backers. They responded positively to hold talks to smoothen the ruffled feathers within the party hierarchy. The talks will be held at Jayasuriya's Amerasekera Mawatha residence in Colombo 5 today.

The outcome of today's talks will determine the mood of the dissident group at tomorrow's Working Committee meeting. If no accord is reached, they want to demand an explanation on the business magnate's role in brokering a meeting between Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe. They accuse him of "double dealing" and claim he had done so whilst conducting a dialogue with the dissidents encouraging them to step up pressure to remove Wickremasinghe.

Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe at the Royal College special assembly. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

The success of today's talks would also mean President Rajapaksa has done another first. By inviting Wickremesinghe for talks, he has unified his opponent's party. If they failed, he would be a winner for he had widened the gulf within factions in the UNP. That would be the second chapter in his book of political checkmating having won 21 MPs during the first effort. That is politics in Sri Lanka.

Whoever remains in the main Opposition seems to need not only the blessings but also the support of the government to survive. On Friday, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe virtually spent the day together. In the morning they were at the Royal College special assembly to commemorate the school's 175th anniversary. One would recall that Wickremesinghe 'cut' the school's prize giving at which Rajapaksa was the chief guest months ago.

This time, they were like old friends chatting away. That afternoon they met again - this time in Anuradhapura at the Ramanna Nikaya Upasampada (the Buddhist higher ordination ceremony of the Ramanna Sect). Both, the President and the Leader of the Opposition spoke of the on-going discussions by the respective delegations on constitutional reforms.

They seem to have come to some consensus that next year's local council elections will see a doubling of councillors with a shift to a blend of the ward system and the proportional representation system. This would be a 'pilot project' that could be then extended to the provincial councils and eventually the next parliamentary elections.

The 17th Amendment and whether a future Executive Prime Minister should be elected directly by the people were also to be discussed by these two delegations.

Wickremesinghe is now bracing himself for the Working Committee meeting tomorrow, while he packs his bags to visit a 1,000-year-old Buddhist monastery in Kashmir. Island-wide protest rallies against the Rajapaksa regime have already been launched under his direction; their issues being the cost-of-living, the impending dictatorship, and local issues of the area where the protests are. He vowed not to remain in the monastery - but to return and lead his party and the Opposition.

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