This week marks a momentous occasion in my political journey. After 22 years of politics in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a party to which I have given the best years of my life, I have now joined its arch rival, the United National Party (UNP).
Some are asking me whether I am following the footsteps of my father, Mahanama Samaraweera. That is not quite correct. He, along with C.P. de Silva, did quit the SLFP on the issue of the Press Takeover bill in 1964. But he then formed the Sri Lanka Socialist Freedom Party and contested the Matara seat under the symbol of the rising sun at the 1965 general elections-although it had entered into a ‘no-contest’ pact with the UNP. My father lost to B.Y. Tudawe by some 900 votes. He died shortly afterwards but he never joined the UNP!
I know that many disagree with my decision. They are even questioning my political wisdom because of some of the so-called ‘problems’ in the UNP. But I beg to differ. I have good reasons to do what I am doing and I feel my decision should be viewed from a proper political context-then it can be understood better. And to do that, I must trace my political beginnings.
Although I came from a ‘political’ family, I never harboured ambitions of becoming a politician. I was nine years old when my father died. My next brush with anything political was over 20 years later in 1986, when I had just returned from England where I had completed my degree at London’s St. Martin’s School of Art with Upper Second honours.
JR was President, the free market was flourishing and the economy was booming and I had my sights firmly set on a career in clothing design. I was also a visiting lecturer at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies at the University of Kelaniya-it was a world as removed from politics as can be.
It was then that my mother, Khema Samaraweera who at a wedding introduced me to the Grand Lady of the SLFP, Sirima Bandaranaike. I was meeting her after seeing her as a child and she was a formidable personality. Mrs. Bandaranaike was amused to find that‘Mahanama’s son is in town’ and suggested that I should organise the electorate of Matara, just like my father did. Absolutely taken aback, I simply said no and that was that.
About a year later, Jith Peiris-more famous for his plays and a mutual friend of Anura Bandaranaike and myself-met me at a party and said that both Mrs. Bandaranaike and Anura were keen for me to join the SLFP as the organiser for Matara.
Within a few days, a meeting with Mrs. Bandaranaike was arranged at Rosmead Place where she told me that I was the best man for the job because I could easily harness the affection the people of Matara had for Mahanama Samaraweera. It was an offer I promised to consider.
Around this same period the country had taken a turn for the worse. The ‘Desha Vimukthi Janatha Viyaaparaya’ (DJVP) was at its zenith and the forces of darkness from both sides of the political divide were unleashing their respective brands of terror.
When I visited Matara I found mothers handing me letters to be given to Mrs. Bandaranaike querying the whereabouts of their loved ones: having gone to the ruling party politician, the Police and the soothsayer and having failed, they were desperately hoping that ‘methini’ could help them. It convinced me that I could, perhaps, make a difference and subsequently I phoned Mrs. B and said that I was prepared to take up the challenge. Officially, I was appointed SLFP organiser for Matara on the 19th of June, 1988.
Because Matara was a hotbed of the southern insurrection, I was thrust headlong into the whirlpool of politics. Within the party too, there was an insurgency brewing. Mrs.. Bandaranaike’s leadership was being challenged by Anura Bandaranaike who was in a hurry to claim the mantle. Mahinda Rajapaksa stood by him firmly.
In the Central Committee of the SLFP, Anura had the support of the majority. As I can remember, only Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, S.B. Dissanayake, Nandimithra Ekanayake, Richard Pathirana and I openly supported Mrs. Bandaranaike. It was a baptism of fire. And having seen that through, I can vouch that the internal squabbles in the UNP today pale into insignificance in comparison!
There are interesting parallels, though. In 1989, the SLFP had 63 MPs (the UNP has 60 now), there was an extremely powerful and autocratic President in President Premadasa and there was talk that he was attempting to perpetuate himself in power through a family dynasty. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s advice to us in the midst of all this was to get back to our electorates and to give leadership to the rank and file of the party-and this must be relevant to the UNP today too.
|Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera paying homage at the shrine room in Sirikotha on Friday, after the latter joined the UNP. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama
We did that and in the local elections that followed in 1991, we won some 30 pradeshiya sabhas. Of course, the UNP had a landslide but the areas that we won in gave the party rank and file hope that all was not lost. It created a political momentum of its own and was the beginning of the winning streak the SLFP has enjoyed since. And for what it is worth, there will be local government elections next year!
What brought me into politics was my inherent belief in the right to life of all beings. In 1990, I formed the ‘Mother’s Front’ on behalf of those whose children had ‘disappeared’ during the southern insurrection.
My co-convenor was Mahinda Rajapaksa. I handled its domestic agenda and he organised its overseas activities, travelling to many countries, advocating the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka. In Parliament he requested that the United Nations should actively engage with what was happening here. In fact, Rajapaksa received a doctorate from an Indian university for his contribution to human rights in Sri Lanka!
Both of us were younger and idealistic. We believed in the same principles-freedom of expression, the rule of law, democracy, and good governance. We both supported the Free Media Movement when it was first formed. We fought for justice in the Richard De Zoysa killing and Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu was our mascot. These struggles bonded us together. Today, I am saddened that by a quirk of destiny we have to protect all these principles and causes which we fought for from the very person who championed it 21 years ago!
I would propose that the final ‘factor’ which made the SLFP coalesce into a winning unit five years later was Chandrika Kumaratunga. She had the charisma, energy and the ‘common touch’ which made her a hands-on politician in her own right. She commanded a great deal of affection. The rest, as they say, is history.
While in government, I have been a harsh critic of the UNP. As part of the SLFP-led coalition government which had to depend on other parties, I did my utmost to sustain the regime. And I was with the SLFP through thick and thin, especially when it was ousted from power in 2001. We worked harder and by 2004, through some skilful manoeuvring we were back in office.
After the UPFA won in 2004, we had an informal ‘management committee’ to decide on who the next Prime Minister would be. It consisted of the President, Ratnasiri Wikremanayake, Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha, Sarath Amunugama, Lakshman Kadirgamar and myself. I said that Lakshman Kadirgamar was my choice. I knew that President Kumaratunga sympathised with my sentiments.
Others however were of the view that such an appointment could cause a division in the SLFP and that Mahinda Rajapaksa would get the Buddhist clergy on the streets to protest. That view prevailed. Kadirgamar was obviously disappointed but being the gentleman that he was, he accepted the decision gracefully.
My support for Kadirgamar may not have endeared me to Mahinda Rajapaksa but once he was Prime Minister, it was a forgone conclusion that he would be our next presidential candidate. Anura Bandaranaike knew that his best political days were over.
In fact, at the Party’s Central Committee, Rajapaksa’s name was proposed by President Kumaratunga and seconded by Kadirgamar who made a moving endorsement. That evening, President Kumaratunga telephoned me to say she was greatly relieved that ‘everything went smoothly’.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted me to be his campaign manager, I had absolutely no qualms about it. He was my friend, I had known him for two decades, he was the Party’s chosen candidate and I went all out to ensure his victory-although I did have reservations about his suitability. My attitude was different from many of those who are ministers who are falling at his feet today; they hardly spoke a word to support him, believing that Ranil Wickremesinghe would win the 2005 election!
During this campaign, we did talk to a person with close links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at Tiran Alles’s office at a meeting attended also by Basil Rajapaksa. We asked that those in the North and East be allowed to vote but on election day we learnt that the LTTE had engineered a boycott. That was a bonus-and in the final analysis, the key factor in deciding the election.
The horror of what I had done-in being instrumental in having Mahinda Rajapaksa elected as President- dawned on me at the Kalubowila hospital as I watched Lasantha Wickremetunga fighting for his life. Two years later, I feel it even more. I didn’t in my wildest dreams imagine that Mahinda Rajapaksa would lead the country down this road.
Yes, Mahinda Rajapaksa must get the due credit for winning the war in its final phase. But I do object to his claiming copyright and sole proprietorship for the war victory. The war was not won overnight. There were many who did their bit. From the battlefield, the Kobbekaduwas and Wimalaratnes and many more paid the supreme sacrifice. Today, the very man dubbed by this government as “the best army commander in the world” is being hounded by the most vicious political witch hunt ever seen in this country.
In the political arena, D.B. Wijetunge (liberating the East), Chandrika Kumaratunga (liberating the Jaffna Peninsula) and Ranil Wickremesinghe (mobilising international support for our country through the CFA) all contributed.
Lakshman Kadirgamar was instrumental in galvanising international opinion against the LTTE and I am proud that in my short stint as Foreign Minister I was able to enlist the LTTE as a terrorist organisation within the European Union-the same group of nations which is threatening to revoke our GSP concessions today.
In fact, Velupillai Prabhakaran grudgingly conceded the effectiveness of our diplomacy when in his Mahaveer speech of 2006 he lamented that “the international community has been fooled by the government.” Perhaps that is why he paid people like the two men who were convicted recently, to report on my movements.
In 1951, when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike founded the SLFP, he said that it would be a social democratic party which will not tolerate the rule of one person or one group. That is precisely what has happened to the SLFP today-the total expenditure of the last budget was 1.7 trillion rupees of which 1.2 trillion rupees are directly controlled by the Rajapakasas!
The SLFP was always seen as a ‘common man’s party’. Today, its government is promoting a crony economy a la Marcos, while dancing to the tune of the International Monetary Fund. The endless list of promises given to the people during the last few elections are now been dismissed with disdain by the President; the President even says that he did not promise a two thousand five hundred rupee pay hike!
The SLFP always stood for ethnic harmony and reconciliation. Today, it has been hijacked by extremist chauvinist elements. Now that the war is over the government has no plans to win the peace. The country is on the verge of becoming a pariah state in the eyes of the international community and could well be hauled up before the International Criminal Court through the United Nations.
These are the some of the reasons why I am disillusioned with the SLFP. For those who point to the so-called ‘problems’ within the UNP, I can only say that the while the Rajapaksas probably do have a future, the SLFP as we have known it and the ideals it has stood for, does not have a future. And that is why I have decided to join the UNP.
I believe that the UNP is the only party with a future and that this future is in keeping with the liberal democratic political principles that I have stood for in the past two decades. I refused to rejoin the cabinet despite several invitations during the last two years, because I could not agree with the direction in which the SLFP was heading and I am walking into the UNP today because I can see eye to eye with their policies.
To those who point at the so-called ‘divisions’ within the UNP, I would suggest that this is part and parcel of any party in the opposition and that it is negligible compared to the internecine warfare that prevailed in the SLFP in the late eighties. The UNP will surely recover-and will become stronger because of it. Also, after the last Parliamentary election, it has got a fine set of young MPs-honest, untainted by corruption or violence, well-meaning and idealistic-and the stage is thus set for a revival of the Party.
I for one have been among the harshest critics of Ranil Wickremesinghe but the more I associate with him, the more I am convinced that he is the man that Sri Lanka needs. He may be weak in his public relations but his strengths in governance and his vision for the country makes him irreplaceable. If we are to move forward as a nation, especially in this post war period, we need an intellectual leadership as opposed to the photogenic ‘baby kissing – Bo sapling worshipping’ type of leadership we have now.
Sajith Premadasa is an energetic and talented young politician. So is Ravi Karunanayake. Their time will surely come. But I feel this is not the appropriate time to be in-fighting. This is instead the time to recognise the true enemies that we have to contend with rather than devouring ourselves!
I must point out that J.R. Jayewardene was not the most charismatic of leaders in 1977. Yet, he was able to project the UNP policies through a team of bright young turks which included people like R. Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanaike etc. and record a landslide victory. History can surely repeat itself for the UNP, I believe..
Some have apprehensions about the talks the UNP is having with the government on constitutional reforms. Even though the government may not have the best of intentions in this exercise, if they do say that they wish to abolish the executive presidency, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt. But such discussions should not be undertaken blindly because I feel Mahinda Rajapaksa is playing for time and trying to gain respectability from the international community which comes with co-operating with the Opposition.
But I do strongly feel that what is more important is the strengthening of the 17th Amendment. Without the independent Police, elections and judicial commissions it provides for, all other amendments become irrelevant and the executive prime minister would be as disgusting as the executive presidency. And, even if we do revert to a purely Westminster style government, the Rajapaksas can easily have a de-facto dictatorship, Zimbabwe style, by staging flawed elections.
As for me, I do not personally seek any position from the UNP! I only ask for the right to work at the grassroots level in my home turf, the Matara district. I only seek the authority to go from house to house, door to door, reorganising and restructuring the party.
Yes, earlier I did make a fuss about the symbol that we would contest under, when we were forming an alliance with the UNP. That was because I believed-and still believe-that a coalition should have a distinct symbol instead of the symbol of one constituent party, however dominant that party may be. The SLFP, for instance, readily abandoned the ‘hand’ in favour of the ‘chair’ first and the ‘betel leaf’ later-and they didn’t suffer as a result.
My final intention by joining the UNP therefore is to try and form a government that respects the rule of law, upholds democracy, displays good governance and cares about its people-not just a few people and their hangers on.
I say so because now more than ever I strongly believe the time has come to say ‘Thank you, Mr. Rajapaksa, for winning the war; now allow a set of competent people to take over the country so that all its people can make use of this window of opportunity to enjoy the peace dividend, instead of squandering it on the glorification of a selected few’.