At an auspicious hour in the morning of Friday November 19, Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, will stand in the lawn opposite the old Parliament building in Fort to be sworn in for a second term as President of Sri Lanka.
The venue is symbolic for many reasons. Until 1948, the British Coat of Arms adorned the top of the building signifying colonial rule. Since independence that year, the arms of the Dominion of Ceylon replaced it. In 1972, a panel board covered it with the arms of the Republic of Sri Lanka. The building was constructed at a cost of Rs 450,000 and opened on January 29, 1930, a year later it was to become the State Council of Ceylon until 1947. Thereafter, it became the House of Representatives. In 1972, it was named the National State Assembly. It was re-named Parliament of Sri Lanka in 1977. When Parliament moved to Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte in 1983, it became the Presidential Secretariat.
|President Rajapaksa in Matara yesterday. Pic by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk
The venue, however, was not chosen for its symbolism. A ministerial team tasked to arrange for nationwide celebrations to mark the event was influenced by the military. When he took his oaths for the first term on Saturday, November 19, 2005, the military was unable to do the honours for Rajapaksa. Hence, this time, they want to give their chief the grandeur he deserved for the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas last year. Top military officials told the ministerial team that for logistical reasons it was not possible for them to conduct such a grand tri services event to honour the President in Anuradhapura. Hence, the decision to have the swearing in ceremony in the sacred city was abandoned.
Former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake headed the ministerial committee that included Maithripala Sirisena, Champika Ranawaka, Wimal Weerawansa and Dallas Allahapperuma. Countrywide observances will begin on November 15 and end on 21. These will include celebrations and religious events. One of the highlights is a ship, with members of the Maha Sangha on board chanting pirith (Buddhist verses of protection) embarking on a voyage circling Sri Lanka. It will begin from the Palk Straits in the north, the waters that divide Sri Lanka and India. With the help of the private sector, exhibitions depicting the political career of President Rajapaksa and the achievements of his government will be on display. There will also be carnivals to ensure greater participation of the public. There will be tree-planting ceremonies countrywide.
On November 22, the newly-sworn in President Rajapaksa will present the UPFA Government's second budget in Parliament. A wage increase for state sector employees with a call to the private sector to follow suit will be among the bonanza. Almost at the same time Rajapaksa swears allegiance to the Constitution for the second time, the first ship will enter the Hambantota (Magampura) port. That is a message that the southern port town is to become a new, booming commercial city with an international airport, an international conference hall, an international cricket stadium and other new infrastructure facilities. In what seemed a new trend, property values in the area are shooting up. Developers say this is in marked contrast to the greater Colombo areas where there were increasing signs of prices dropping and lesser demand.
In November 2005, soon after winning the presidential election, one of those who telephoned to congratulate Rajapaksa was then incumbent President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The former, then Prime Minister, lived at "Temple Trees." The latter, the President, occupied Janadipathi Mandiraya (President's House). She had by then heard that Rajapaksa had made his own arrangements for the swearing in. An auspicious time (3.36 p.m.) on Friday, November 18 was fixed. Kumaratunga asked him not to take his oaths that day and to wait until after November 23 that year. On that date, she had planned a ceremony at the Army Grounds.
That was also to be Kumaratunga's farewell event. She planned to inspect a guard of honour, make an address to the troops (and to the country) and depart as President. Rajapaksa said she could still have her farewell but as far as he was concerned, he wanted to go ahead with the swearing in. It was an auspicious day, he said.
Later, on astrological advice Rajapaksa changed the date from Friday to Saturday, November 19, 2005. That was believed to be more auspicious than the earlier day. This was to lead to a spat between Rajapaksa and Kumaratunga. The latter was to accuse him of listening to people around him and doing things. The remarks were a veiled reference to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), then a constituent partner in the United People's Freedom Alliance government. "I don't listen to gossip nor do I act on it," retorted Rajapaksa. Ahead of taking his oaths in what was once the Well of the Parliament, however, Rajapaksa drove to Janadipathi Mandiraya for a chat with Kumaratunga.
On November 19, when President Rajapaksa is sworn in for a second term, in accordance with the Constitution, all ministers and secretaries to their ministries will cease to hold office. The vast majority of them and the secretaries, UPFA sources said yesterday, would be re-appointed. However, a surprise, these sources said, would be the "omission of one or two and the inclusion of new faces."
The weeklong celebrations and ceremonies over Rajapaksa's second term in every district coupled with the budget next month also have another important focus. It is the upcoming elections to Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas. Elections to these local authorities were last held in 2006 and were due again in 2010. However, they were not conducted and these local authorities were granted a year's extension. These terms will end in February, next year. The government plans to hold local council elections by March, next year.
In another significant move, President Rajapaksa has embarked on a programme to travel to districts and chair Development Committee meetings. He has already done so in Ratnapura, Kilinochchi, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee and Kalutara. During these meetings, he has been raising issue with MPs, members of local councils and the officials on development programmes in the area and the progress made. He has also consulted them over social issues and ordered remedial action. In doing so, Rajapaksa had already ventured into the local polls campaign well ahead.
Important aspects in this regard are two new Bills the government will seek passage in Parliament with regard to local authorities. One is a Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Bill to amend the Municipal Councils Ordinance, the Urban Councils Ordinance and the Pradeshiya Sabhas Act. The second is a Bill to amend the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance. These Bills have already been forwarded to Provincial Councils. They have been given a month's time to examine the provisions and make their findings known to the government. Both the government and the UNP have also reached broader agreement over the provisions. However, a few areas remain to be sorted out.
The Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Bill seeks far-reaching changes in the composition of the Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas. As is the present practice, the Minister in charge of the subject will determine the number of Councillors in these local authorities. However, in terms of the new Bill, the Minister will determine other Councillors not exceeding 30 per cent of the total number elected. This is to "represent those electors who have not secured any representation in the Council," at the elections. The move is intended to ensure greater representation of women in these two councils. The government and the UNP are in disagreement over this. Whilst the government is placing the responsibility on the Minister, the UNP wants it vested in a proposed National Delimitation Committee.
|Anoma Fonseka at the ‘Black-Shirt’ protest at Borella on Monday. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam
In all these Councils, the new draft bill lays down that the Mayor or Chairman shall be deemed to have resigned from office if their budget is not passed within two weeks. Contrary to the current law, a Mayor, Deputy Mayor or Chairman who resigns or vacates his office, shall however continue to be a Councillor.
A highlight of the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill is to establish a National Delimitation Committee to demarcate local authority areas including wards. They will determine the boundaries of each ward and assign a name and a number. The division of areas into wards will be carried out taking into consideration (a) the ratio of ethnic composition of the local authority concerned, and the need to ensure equal representation for each ethnic group in that local authority area;
(b) the geographical area of the local authority and its physical features; (c) the population of the local authority area and the density of such population, and (d) the level of economic development of the local authority.
The outcome of the impending local polls, in the light of the internal feuding in the main opposition United National Party (UNP), is almost foregone. The fact that the UPFA is set to win most councils is not in doubt. Yet, UPFA leaders want to ensure the levels of popularity of the government do not dip. This is particularly in the backdrop of, the jailing of former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka on charges of "disgraceful conduct" over military procurements. On September 17, a General Court Martial found him guilty of "disgraceful conduct" over procurements. He is serving a sentence of 30 months.
Quite clearly, the JVP or more pointedly the Democratic National Alliance, the umbrella organisation of which it is the key player, has distanced itself from the United National Party. Its campaign platform will centre on Fonseka. The all-important question thus remains whether the DNA alone could garner wider public support and let it gain momentum without the support of the UNP. Some of the recent developments bring this question to sharper focus.
"Sarath Fonseka is not an issue," President Rajapaksa told his ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting last Wednesday night. He forbade them from making any public statements in the future that Fonseka or his family members should seek a pardon from the President. That was not necessary, he said. These remarks clearly meant that the government has effectively shut the door on an unconditional release of Fonseka. The government leaders had made clear earlier that the only way out would be for either Fonseka or a member of his family to seek a pardon.
Neither Fonseka nor his family is willing to heed this requirement. His lawyers, Romesh de Silva PC and Saliya Peiris through Paul Ratnayaka Associates filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal on Friday. They want the Court to issue writs quashing:
- The decision by the then acting Secretary General of Parliament (acting on behalf of the Secretary General) informing the Commissioner of Elections that Fonseka's seat as a Member of Parliament has fallen vacant.
- The direction made by the Commissioner of Elections Dayananda Dissanayake to the Returning Officer, Colombo District, to fill the vacancy.
- The decision by the Returning Officer to send a return to the Commissioner of Elections containing the name of Lakshman Nipunarachchi in order to publish his name in the Gazette as a Member of Parliament for the Colombo District "for the purported vacancy."
- The Gazette notification causing the name of Nipunarachchi to be published as being declared elected to Parliament.
Besides this, even the appeal made last week by opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, to President Rajapaksa to use his powers to "remit the whole sentence" would be of no avail. As revealed last week, Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President checked with Naufel Abdul Rahman, Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, whether Wickremesinghe's letter had the consent of Fonseka. Rahman who consulted his leader later confirmed that he (Fonseka) had nodded acceptance. This was when the opposition leader met him in prison. However, Anoma Fonseka, wife of the former General told the Sunday Times last week that no member of the family would make an appeal for pardon since her husband had done "no wrong." Sections of the DNA felt that Wickremesinghe was making the request acting as a voice of the government, a charge that he strongly denied. He said he made the appeal as the leader of the opposition and a member of the opposition parliamentary group.
In this backdrop, the divide between the UNP and the DNA over the Fonseka issue has widened irreparably. This week, Wickremesinghe asked Mangala Samaraweera, whom he tasked to hold talks with the DNA to form a common alliance over the Fonseka issue, why his efforts did not materialise. Samaraweera replied that he had discussed the matter with the DNA's Tiran Alles. "I told him that we were considering one of two names - People's Movement for Democracy or People's Movement against Dictatorship. The next thing I knew is that they have already formed the movement and held a news conference," Samaraweera told Wickremesinghe.
Samaraweera complained that the name he suggested to Alles - the People's Movement for Democracy (PMD) - "had been hijacked." Anoma Fonseka had chaired a news conference to announce the formation of the PMD together with some civil society groups. However, DNA members argued that the issue rightly concerned Ms Fonseka much more than the UNP. Her husband is in jail. "Why should she and the DNA wait to be led by the UNP over the issue? If they (the UNP) were genuine, they should have joined us," said a DNA member who did not wish to be named. However, Samaraweera's complaint is that when his talks with his one time close associate Alles for a common alliance ended, his ideas have been seized rendering him in an embarrassing position with his leader. Wickremesinghe was to tell him that the UNP should forge ahead with its campaign to seek the release of Fonseka.
The divide became even sharper when the UNP did not officially take part in the mass "black shirt" rally, (like the black shirts worn by UNPers as a protest during the debate on the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament), at Borella last Monday. Ms Fonseka, who headed the PMD, did not invite Wickremesinghe for the event. Instead, she telephoned UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya. He said he had a throat infection and could not take part. UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Mangala Samaraweera were also asked. Both declined politely saying there was no formal invitation to their leader or the party.
The issue was to figure at the UNP Working Committee meeting on Friday. Wickremesinghe explained the role played by him and the party over the Fonseka issue. The UNP had espoused Fonseka's cause much more than the DNA, both locally and abroad, he said.
However, in an interview to be published in a Sunday Sinhala newspaper (today), Wickremesinghe said JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake had declared the DNA would have nothing to do with the UNP over the Fonseka issue. He said it looks like the JVP wants to do its campaign alone.
He alleged that DNA's Tiran Alles had obtained the good offices of a leading member of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to urge the government to relax security during their rally near the Welikade Prisons last Monday. "I learnt from the Police that they wanted to stop the rally to prevent any violence. However, there was no such obstacle after a deal was worked out. Please check this matter yourselves," Wickremesinghe told members of the Working Committee. He pointed out that earlier; there were troops and police deployed outside both the prisons as well as the route the protestors were to take.
Due to this "understanding with the government," reached by Alles, he claimed, the tight security was relaxed and the protestors were able to move around near the prison area. He charged that they want to keep Fonseka in jail and use his name in a campaign to mislead the people. Wickremesinghe said President Rajapaksa heeded Alles' request because he did not want any incidents at the rally to mar his oaths taking ceremony next month. The UNP leader also said that Alles was due to meet President Rajapaksa over the Fonseka issue.
Following him was Mangala Samaraweera who said that the UNP had done much more for Fonseka than the JVP. During the early stages, ahead of the presidential campaign, the JVP had wanted to put forward the former Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva as a common presidential candidate of the opposition. He said that as a response to the DNA, the UNP should not have anything to do with them but pursue their own course of action. The party has decided to organise a protest campaign in Colombo on November 7 and entrusted deputy leader, Jayasuriya to make the arrangements. He will chair one of a plethora of UNP committees for this purpose.
Samaraweera added that Wickremesinghe had made a bigger sacrifice by ceding his candidature at the presidential election to Fonseka. He said the plan of the DNA, particularly the JVP, was to make Ms Fonseka a "Corazon Aquino." Aquino was the first democratically elected female president and head of state in the Philippines. She is remembered for leading the 1986 people's power revolution. She took to politics after the assassination of her husband Benigno Aquino at the Manila International Airport by the agents of the then President Ferdinand Marcos in August 1983. Ms. Aquino's people's revolution ousted the authoritarian regime of the late strongman Marcos and restored democracy in that country.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times "We will not join the UNP in the campaign to secure the release of Sarath Fonseka. The UNP's decision to contest the April Parliamentary elections on in its own led to this situation. This provided the opportunity for President Rajapaksa to win the elections. There are several issues, which the people are faced with, but Ranil Wickremesinghe is concentrating on the party reforms. Therefore, we will not be working with the UNP in the campaign to secure Fonseka's release. We will team up with other democratic groups to carry out a campaign".
The communication gap between the UNP leadership and the party's parliamentarians remains. This seemed so even with the leadership and the party's supporters. This is why three of its own parliamentarians, Dayasiri Jayasekera (Kurunegala District), Sujeeva Senasinghe (Colombo District) and Palitha Thavarapperuma (Kalutara District) took part in the DNA rally though there was no formal invitation to the UNP.
Jayasekera told the rally, "……..I also wish to tell President Mahinda Rajapaksa that people in the villages, whether they are UNP, JVP or SLFP without any differences light lamps to bring curse on the President for his action which he has taken against the hero who liberated the country. The President, to get over this curse, is saying that he should seek a pardon. I wish to say that to ask for pardon he has not done any wrong. If an acceptable court gave this ruling, we would have agreed with this judgement. This kangaroo-court consisted of judges who were punished by Sarath Fonseka. They have given this disgraceful judgement. Nobody is ready to beg for pardon. We should take this campaign from village to village until we secure the release of Fonseka and restore democracy…….."
Jayasekera told the Working Committee that he noted that a larger segment present at the rally were supporters of the UNP. He said Anoma Fonseka and Tiran Alles invited him. Wickremesinghe was to interrupt him to say, "Even after you made the speech, JVP's Lal Kantha criticised you." Joining in was Upali Samaraweera. He said he had invited Ms Fonseka for an event demanding the release of her husband. She had told him to contact a junior official of the DNA and make the necessary arrangements. "They do not want us now. We have even asked our people to sign the petition to release Fonseka," he said.
Wickremesinghe leaves for Britain tomorrow. He is due to meet Foreign Secretary William Hague. He has also sought a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron. He will fly from there to Norway for a meeting with Erik Solheim, Minister for International Development and Environment. Solheim headed the peace process with Tiger guerrillas when Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister. This was during the Norwegian brokered ceasefire agreement of February 2002.
On Friday, more than 800 members of the Buddhist clergy, from the "Joint Committee of Bhikku Organisations," gathered at the Upcountry Cultural Hall in Kandy. Speakers at the event said that the jail sentence had been imposed on Fonseka because he had violated the law. The cultural hall is located in close proximity to the Dalada Maligawa. This meeting was the counter to one held by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita Thera outside the Dalada Maligawa demanding the release of Fonseka.
What appears to be a UNP counter to the government's plans to hold celebrations on a grand scale for President Rajapaksa's swearing in played out at Siri Kotha, the party's headquarters in Kotte on Friday. UNP parliamentarians, local councillors and district organisers were present for the formal inauguration of Grama Charika (Rural Tours) - a brainchild of deputy leader Jayasuriya. The party office was decorated with lotus flowers, coconut leaves and Pol Thel Pahanas (coconut oil lamps), a change in atmosphere from mod cons promotions which the party is known for.
Wickremesinghe, the main speaker at the event, was to complain that the "media" are now gagged but added that "we can survive." He claimed that the UNP managed to form a government in 1977 without much "media support." However, it was the late J.R. Jayewardene who headed the UNP then. There was literally no private media functioning. The Times group had a government nominee, a Competent Authority on its board. The Dawasa group was sealed. Public discontent against the ruling party was high.
The Grama Charika programme begins in Horana on October 30 and will continue until the next day. UNP leaders and civil society groups will live in the homes of party supporters in the area, share meals together and discuss issues to garner grassroots level support. UNP leader, Wickremesinghe will only take part in a lunch event during this tour. Though there was a good turnout for the launch, some members of the so-called Sajith Premadasa faction including him were not present. The next Grama Charika will be held on November 6 and 7 in Matara to be followed by a Kandy campaign on November 20 and 21.
Jayasuriya told the gathering at Siri Kotha, "We embark on Grama Charika not for the benefit of the people along a path to a dream world. We want to lead them along a path through our political activities which will finally lead them to realise their political aspirations." He quoted the late D.S. Senanayake who said, "Our voters are not like a flock of sheep which you can urge at your will. You have to convince them by reasoning. Therefore, we have to have an organisation in each village and town. These organisations will act with highest degree of patriotism and responsibility. Ours is the party dedicated to the regular development. I believe this statement is valid even today."
A conspicuous absentee at Friday's UNP Working Committee meeting was Sajith Premadasa. He told the Daily Mirror on Friday he would not be taking part as a mark of protest against what he cited as "the delay in implementing long awaited political reforms to the party."
He said that the meeting would be another "time wasting exercise" and added it was time that the "party hierarchy stops hoodwinking party supporters." He repeated the same sentiments over BBC's Sandeshaya Sinhala broadcast on Friday night. He said taking part in the meeting was a waste of time. Instead, he had engaged himself in development work in Hambantota, he said.
The Working Committee did discuss reforms. Wickremesinghe said the new constitution of the UNP would be placed at the next meeting in November. Thereafter, it would be placed for approval before the annual convention in December. He said he had together with General Secretary Attanayake and other leaders met the Drafting Committee.
They had said that the Constitution, based on the recommendations of the Reforms Committee and unanimously endorsed by the Working Committee was almost complete.
These developments show that the bickering within the UNP continues. This is at a time when the gulf in the UNP's relations with the DNA, or more particularly the JVP, is widening leaving the opposition in splinters. That appears to be an unwitting gift from the opposition to President Rajapaksa on the eve of his swearing in for a second term.