Columns - Political Column

US sets UNHRC trap for Lanka

  • India also increases pressure, position of Russia and China uncertain
  • Govt.'s talks with TNA break down; national and international crises worsen
By Our Political Editor

The clock is ticking away for the Government of Sri Lanka. It is still debating whether or not to respond to a call by the United States for what it terms an "Interactive Dialogue" before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva beginning next month. That is through a discussion of the impending final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). That report is due in November this year.

Consenting to such a move would mean that participants at the Council sessions will be able to extend the discussions to the report of the UN Panel of Experts on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, matters arising from the Channel 4 videos including the one titled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields and all other related issues. They would also cover alleged violations of international humanitarian laws and human rights abuses during the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas.

This is on the basis that some of the issues raised by the UN Panel of Experts may be addressed in the LLRC final report due to be released in November, this year. In fact, speeches by members of the Sri Lanka delegations to previous UNHRC sessions have indicated that some of the matters, which were raised in the report, were under review by the Commission. Even Sri Lanka's diplomatic missions have been briefed of this position earlier so they may apprise host governments and diplomats in those countries. However, the LLRC is not officially acknowledging the UN POE (panel of experts) report or any of its findings/recommendations but may address issues on its own.

The government response is awaited by the US before September 20 when the UNHRC meets for its 18th sessions or in just over six weeks. It will continue till December 20. If a reply is not forthcoming, Sri Lankan diplomats, both in Geneva and Washington DC, have warned the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) in Colombo of the prospects of a different resolution before the Council at its 18th sessions in Geneva next month. It is to come from a US ally, a member country of the UNHRC and the character of such a resolution could be "more damaging," the diplomats have said. They are, however, unaware of the shape and content such a resolution would take. According to the diplomats, there are fears there could be calls for an "international investigation," sanctions and travel bans on those identified in the UN Panel report. The Ministry, the Sunday Times learnt is strongly in favour of rejecting the request but in complete disarray, it fears it has no strategy to altogether prevent the matter coming up. In other words, this situation means that Sri Lanka will most certainly figure at the UNHRC next month.

The Sunday Times reported in its front-page lead story last week that the US has delivered a demarche to Sri Lanka that it wants the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) discussed at the 19th sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva in March next year. To facilitate such a discussion, US wanted to obtain the Sri Lanka Government's consent and move a resolution at the UNHRC at their 18th sessions that begin next month.

The draft of such a resolution, handed over to the Government, reads, "Welcoming that the Government of Sri Lanka established the lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in order to establish the persons, groups or institutions that bear responsibility for events between February 2002 and May 2009,

Noting that the LLRC is due to complete its work on November 15, 2011, Decides after consultation and with the consent of the country concerned to hold an interactive dialogue on this matter during its 19th session.”

The idea is to list it as part of the Programme of Work (or agenda) of the UNHRC for its next sessions in March next year. The unavoidable danger to Sri Lanka in this move is the opportunity such a listing affords member countries as well as non-state actors to raise issue from time to time until it is discussed in March next year. Besides governments, even international organisations and NGOs could make contributions at the Council. It would thus become an open forum for them to air their views, which would mostly be critical of Sri Lanka.

More details of the demarche that was delivered first by the US Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Betty E. King to the Office of Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative in that city have now emerged. A demarche is a formal diplomatic stance of one government's official position, views and wishes on a particular subject. It was received by the Charge d' Affairs U. Jauhar. He transmitted it to the EAM. Since then, there have been regular consultations between Colombo with Sri Lanka's diplomatic missions in Washington DC and Geneva. However, no reply has yet been formulated to the US request.

The absence of a studied diplomatic offensive, or the lack of it, to counter the fallout from the upcoming UNHRC Geneva sessions, has continued to remain a serious problem for Sri Lanka. Whilst there is an External Affairs Ministry, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had to undertake some of the task himself. In June this year, he flew to St Petersburg (former Leningrad) for the 'International Economic Forum.' On the side-lines of the event, he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao to seek the support of the two countries. He will undertake a four day visit to China beginning tomorrow. Besides other matters, this is to re-iterate his request to the Chinese leaders on their own soil. Thereafter, he will also travel to New York to meet leaders of several countries when he attends the 66th UN General Assembly sessions that begin on September 13.

In Washington DC, the epicentre of diplomatic activity, a public relations firm hired by the Sri Lanka embassy has been at the centre of some criticism. It has come to light that Paton Boggs, a public relations firm has been paid US $ 35,000 per month (over Rs 3.8 million) with additional fees for any specific tasks undertaken. Surprising enough, for the money that is being paid, the firm has designated two persons, Vinoda Basnayake, an American of Sri Lankan origin and Anurag Varma, an American of Indian origin to liaise with the Embassy of Sri Lanka. "At least seven or more permanent PR experts could have been obtained on a monthly salary for the heavy price paid," said an exasperated External Affairs Ministry official who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons. "For the inputs we are getting," he said "it is a rip off." Moreover initiatives to win over key players in the House of Representatives the Senate and other establishments have been a dismal failure. In Geneva, though Tamara Kunanayakam, currently Sri Lanka's envoy in Cuba has been nominated, she is yet to move in.

Sri Lanka issue before the UNHRC

The Sri Lankan issue before the UNHRC will revolve around 46 countries with one member, Libya which remains suspended. They are Angola, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Djibouti, Equador, Gautemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Rumania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, the United States and Uruguay.

With just over three weeks to go for the UNHRC sessions, there is no visible thrust by the External Affairs Ministry to win the support of these member countries. It would be unwise to speculate which country will take up position in favour of Sri Lanka and who would be against. In modern day diplomacy, it is not unusual even for countries to abandon their allies and leave their seats vacant when it comes to voting on a particular issue.

In international diplomacy, there is an age-old axiom which reads: "there are no permanent friends only permanent interests" -- and those interests are mostly national. The Russians and the Chinese have had longstanding economic and military relationships with Sudan and Iran, two countries on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Both Russia and China provide millions of dollars' worth of weapons, and in turn, receive vital oil supplies from Iran and Sudan (besides involvements in massive construction and oil-drilling projects).

Still when Western countries, led by the US, penalized Iran with drastic economic sanctions spelled out in four different resolutions in the Security Council, both China and Russia went along, dropping their ally. Fast forward to Sudan: Again, when the Western powers decided to refer Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, both China and Russia caved into Western pressure. Like Sri Lanka, Sudan is not a party to the Rome Convention that established the International Criminal Court. So, al-Bashir could have been taken to the ICC only on a referral by the 15-member Security Council-- and specifically with the support of the two veto wielding members, Russia and China. Some retired Sri Lanka diplomats opine that perhaps that is the only route that Western powers could take if Sri Lanka is to be hauled before the ICC --provided Russia and China remain silent (as in the case of Iran and Sudan). But what does Sri Lanka have, that Iran and Sudan doesn't?

The Russians and the Chinese relented on resolutions against both countries primarily for one reason: national interests. And there is a hidden agenda that reads: we will support you if you do not stir up trouble in our own backyards.

Both Russia and China are accused not only of political repression but also blatant human rights violations in Chechnya (attempting to break away from Russia) and a growing militant insurgency in China's north western provinces, Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia, which are predominantly Muslim. The looming threat that both issues could end up on the Security Council agenda has helped Western powers into twisting Russian and Chinese arms.

The US move for an 'Interactive Dialogue' comes hard on the heels of the House Foreign Affairs Committee deciding to recommend a cut in aid to Sri Lanka. It came on a recommendation by Congressman Howard Berman, a Ranking member of President Barrack Obama's Democratic Party who moved for such a ban winning a unanimous voice vote. This is if the government does not address "accountability issues," ensures media freedom countrywide and withdraws emergency regulations. It followed an amendment moved to the Foreign Relations Authorisation Act 2012. This amendment, however, will become law only after the US House of Representatives and the Senate have talks on the Authorisation Act which apportions funds for the next financial year. It is for the period October 1 2011 to September 30 2012.

An eleven page Congressional Research Service report which Berman circulated to the Committee members together with his proposal to cut aid notes "…. The West's ability to pressure the Sri Lankan government was viewed as somewhat limited due to China's growing involvement in the country. China's aid to Sri Lanka has reportedly increased dramatically since 2005. In the view of some analysts and observers, China is seeking to gain influence with the Sri Lankan government as part of a 'string of pearls' naval strategy to develop port access in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

"Indian defence planners are reportedly particularly concerned with Chinese efforts to develop ports in the region. India is home to an estimated 60 million Tamil people and New Delhi has raised concerns over the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka. China is reportedly investing significantly in the development of a port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, on the country's southeastern (sic) coast. China is also reportedly helping to develop port facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, Chittagong, Bangladesh and Sittwe, Burma. Colombo was also reportedly upset with Western calls for a truce in the lead up to their defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Rajapaksa stated "They are trying to preach to us about civilians. I tell them to go and see what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Sri Lanka will be watched closely by the international community for how it handles human rights and war crimes issues related to the end of the war and for how it handles reconciliation with its Tamil minority. The international community may also be increasingly interested in the role that Sri Lanka may play in the evolving geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region."

Krishna suo moto statement

In the backdrop of these developments, India's Minister of External Affairs, S.M. Krishna made a suo moto statement in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. The term means on one's own initiative, without external prompting or explicit demand. He said "there have been a number of requests for Calling Attention Motion and Short Duration Discussions as well as Parliamentary Questions on issues relating to Sri Lanka in both the Houses of Parliament. I, therefore, propose to make a Suo Motu statement which, I hope, will respond to most, if not all, issues of interest and concern to my fellow Parliamentarians……"

Here are some significant highlights: "…….Our primary objective in all that we are doing in Sri Lanka is to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of Sri Lankan Tamils, including IDPs, and to assist in the development of Northern Sri Lanka. In a Joint Press Statement issued on the occasion of the visit of the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister to India on 17 May, 2011, I urged the expeditious implementation of measures by the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure resettlement and genuine reconciliation, including early return of IDPs to their respective homes. I am happy to convey to the House that according to information available to us, around 2,90,000 IDPs have already been resettled and only around 10,000 IDPs remain in the camps.

"Government has also articulated its position that the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka created a historic opportunity to address all outstanding issues relating to minority communities in Sri Lanka, including Tamils. The Joint Press Release of May 17, 2011, states that all such outstanding issues had to be settled in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation imbued with political vision to work towards genuine national reconciliation. The External "Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his Government's commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the on-going dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties and that a devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation.

"The Prime Minister observed recently that "the Tamil population in Sri Lanka had legitimate grievances and our emphasis has been to persuade the Sri Lankan Government that we must move towards a new system of institutional reforms where the Tamil people will have a feeling that they are equal citizens of Sri Lanka and they can lead a life of dignity and self-respect. That is our outlook towards the issue".
"The end of the long conflict in Sri Lanka has also raised questions relating to the conduct of the war. We have, in this context, noted a report issued by a Panel of Experts constituted by the UN Secretary General on Accountability in Sri Lanka. There have also been public reactions to the telecast of the 'Channel 4' documentary entitled "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields". Presently, our focus should be on the welfare and wellbeing of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Their rehabilitation and rebuilding should be of the highest and most immediate priority. A just and fair settlement of the political problem is of utmost importance. I have, nonetheless, stressed to my Sri Lankan counterpart, the need for an early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas and redress of humanitarian concerns of affected families.

"On the concerns expressed by some Members on the issue of Indian fishermen in waters between India and Sri Lanka, allow me to reiterate, at the outset, that the welfare, safety and security of our fishermen have always received the highest priority by Government.

"There have been reports of incidents of attacks on Indian fishermen, allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy. Government, through Diplomatic Channels, has consistently and immediately taken up any reported incident involving arrest or violence against Indian fishermen to ensure their safety, security, early release and repatriation. The Government has conveyed to the Sri Lankan Government that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstance and that all fishermen should be treated in a humane manner. The Sri Lankan side, while denying that their Navy was involved, has promised to seriously investigate these incidents.

"During the meetings with my Sri Lankan counterpart in February 2011 in Thimpu and in May 2011 in New Delhi, I not only conveyed our deep concern at the violence against our fishermen but also stressed the need to ensure that these incidents do not recur. In the Joint Press Release issued in May 2011, India and Sri Lanka agreed that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances and that all fishermen should be treated in a humane manner.

"……. I would like to inform this august House that we have emphasized that there is no justification for the use of force against our fishermen even though almost all instances of arrest and harassment of our fishermen seem to have occurred in Sri Lankan waters. We do need to be conscious of the sensitivities of Sri Lanka and of the many Sri Lankan fishermen who have, after a long hiatus, started fishing in that area. We are also working with concerned State Governments on our side keeping in mind that issues of fishermen affect both sides……….

"While the Government of India is of the view that the end of conflict in Sri Lanka provides an opportunity to pursue a lasting political settlement in Sri Lanka within the framework of a united Sri Lanka, acceptable to all the communities in Sri Lanka including the Tamils, it has to be kept in mind that this is a long standing issue and Sri Lanka is going through its internal processes, including structured dialogue between the Government and representatives of Tamil parties. The sooner Sri Lanka can come to a political arrangement within which all the communities feel comfortable, and which works for all of them, the better. In this context, the commencement of a structured dialogue on pursuing a political solution for national reconciliation as well as reconstruction and development is a laudable development. We will do whatever we can to support this process."

The most significant among External Affairs Minister Krishna's statement is the official acknowledgement India has given to the "report issued by a Panel of Experts constituted by the UN Secretary General on Accountability in Sri Lanka. There have also been public reactions to the telecast of the 'Channel 4' documentary entitled "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields". Though India's focus should be on welfare and wellbeing of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Krishna has said that their immediate rehabilitation and rebuilding should be of the highest and most immediate priority. Whilst noting that a "just and fair settlement of the political problems is of utmost importace, the Indian External Affairs Minister has declared that he has stressed to his Sri Lankan counterpart, Dr. G.L. Peiris, "the need for an early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas and redress of humanitarian concerns of affected families." With those words, India has joined many other western nations in taking official note of the UN panel's report and calling for investigations into allegations of human rights violations. That indeed is a marked shift. Like Congressman Berman, he has also emphasised the need to withdraw Emergency Regulations.

Krishna has also re-iterated a May 17 statement after the visit to New Delhi by Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister, Dr. G.L. Peiris. He notes that Dr. Peiris "affirmed his Government's commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the on-going dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties and that a devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation." However, barely a month thereafter, President Mahinda Rajapaksa told a high powered three-member Indian delegation that the enforcement of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was no longer on offer. He said that the government would appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee that would adopt measures to address Tamil grievances.

The trio who were in Sri Lanka in June were Shiv Shankar Menon, National Security Advisor, Nirupama Rao, former Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs and Pradeep Kumar, Defence Secretary.

SL govt. and TNA differ

What Minister Krishna called the "expeditious and concrete progress in the on-going dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties," it seemed a strange co-incidence, broke down on Thursday, the very day he made a statement to the Lok Sabha. Both the Sri Lanka government and the TNA accused each other in different statements which signalled the end of the on-going dialogue. The TNA said that they would resume talks in two weeks only if conditions set by them are met. However, the Government has declared that in view of the TNA demarche it would now set up a Parliamentary Select Committee. That meant the dialogue is now over. Here are edited excerpts of the statement issued by Sajin Vass Gunewardane on behalf of the government side:

"The condition they insisted on is that, within a period of 10 days, the government delegation should inform the TNA in writing about its position on the following matters:

(i) The structure of governance;
(ii) The allocation of subjects and functions to the Central Government and to the Provincial Councils;
(iii) Issues relating to fiscal and financial devolution

"It will be observed that these three areas, taken in combination, encompass almost the entirety of the issues involved in the discussion between the SLFP, main political party of the Government and the TNA. It is certainly not possible, nor is it consistent with the national interest to make a final pronouncement on all these crucial issues, hastily and without wider consultation, at this stage.

"Between meetings the Government has made every effort to discuss these complex issues, vital to the future of our nation, with all stakeholders in order to arrive at a consensus and in this way to build a foundation for a fair and durable solution.

"We do not think that the ultimatum delivered to the government by the TNA, which is tantamount to the attitude portrayed by the LTTE, is at all helpful or constructive for the purpose of carrying forward in a structured and methodical way a process which can reach a positive outcome only if it has the widest possible support among the public. It is this objective which the government has tried to achieve in its sustained discussions with varying shades of political opinion during the last few months…….."
"……..In the circumstances, which have now arisen on account of the demarche of the TNA, the Government will proceed with the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee……."

Here are edited excerpts from the TNA statement: "……. Ten rounds of talks were held from 10th January 2011 on the evolution of an acceptable political solution and in regard to matters of immediate concern of the Tamil people. The TNA raised the following matters of immediate concern: Resettlement and Rehabilitation of the Internally Displaced Persons, removal of High Security Zones, disarming the para-military forces operating in the North and East and the issue of the political prisoners and detainees.
"The resettlement process continues to be snail-paced with several thousand still in the camps and many more tens of thousands in transit camps and with friends and relatives. Even those who have been permitted to return to their original places, have no proper shelter nor been helped effectively to recommence their livelihood activities, resulting in there being no qualitative improvement in the lives of the people.

"Although some progress has been made in the Valigamam North High Security Zone area, several other areas in the North including Sampur in the East continue to be prohibited zones for the civilians. Para-military personnel continue to operate with impunity causing abductions, demanding ransom and even carrying out killings. The Government delegation gave an undertaking on the 3rd of February 2011 that the next of kin could check at a specified place in Vavuniya the whereabouts of their relatives in detention. To date this has not happened and credible information pertaining to the detainees continues to be withheld and denied to their next of kin.

"After the end of the war in May 2009, a programme is being implemented whereby cultural and religious places in the Tamil areas are misused, damaged and destroyed; increased militarization and military's intervention in civilian life; lands being allocated to persons from outside the North and East ostensibly for development purposes, resulting in demographic change in the North and the East, the transformation of the cultural identity of areas in the North and the East, all of which will have irreversible evil consequences to the future well-being of the Tamil people.

"Representations made to the Government in regard to such matters have not resulted in remedial action indicating that they have not received due consideration by the Government. ………………In regard to a political solution the TNA placed before the Government delegation discussion papers setting out proposals in regard to the structure of governance, the division of subjects and functions between the centre and the devolved units, fiscal and financial powers and other matters relevant to the achievement of an acceptable and durable political solution.

"The TNA invited the Government's response to these proposals and despite the Government's commitment to so respond, no response has been forthcoming for several months. Consequently no meaningful or purposeful discussion could be had on the discussion papers tendered by the TNA. This we regret to state was clearly demonstrative of the lack of a genuine commitment on the part of the Government to the evolution of an acceptable political solution……………"

"There is no point in dragging the talks without coming to any concrete decisions. We have given government two weeks' time to respond to our conditions. Depending on the response, we will decide", said TNA parliamentarian Mavai Senathirajah. Another TNA source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said, "During last Thursday's meeting we reminded that the presence of the Army and the HSZ are an impediment to the process of the talks. The government delegation did not expect we will come out with such strong demands. They listened carefully and took notes. We reminded them that there is no point continuing talks unless the previously discussed matters do not materialize. So we had to say good bye."

The Government statement makes clear that there will be no more talks with the TNA. Instead, they will move for the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee. However, this has raised a more critical question. The Sunday Times has learnt that the Tamil National Alliance will not join in the effort. The question therefore is whether the United National Party (UNP), now embroiled in a crisis (See box story on this page) will do so. Their head of communications, Mangala Samaraweera, has said they will not. However, earlier, UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, his party would co-operate. With the leadership crisis reaching a peak, it is unlikely the party will take part. That leaves the PSC to only the constituent partners of the UPFA.

That would not be the healthiest exercise in the wake of all the international pressure now building up. Naturally, that leaves the government in a dilemma both at home and abroad.

Uneasy truce in UNP

  • Ranil insists on discipline for unity; Karu's position unclear

It is a week where the role of elephants has been the focal point. Over 80 of them are taking part in the Esala Perahera in Kandy. One with the longest tusks died in Kegalle. Officials are busy preparing for a census next week after they began invading human habitat. Herds broke into homes of villagers in the north central province.

Those pachyderms are not alone. The country's main opposition, the United National Party (UNP), whose name is synonymous with elephants because it is their symbol, is also much in focus. For a second week running the crisis within continued.

Pen friends? Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe while addressing party supporters at Siri Kotha reaches out for Karu Jayasuriya’s pen. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

The latest development came on Tuesday, after UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to Sri Lanka from the UK where he had gone to attend the 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association sessions. He had cut short his stay in the UK by two days prompting him to cancel meetings or advance engagements ahead of departure.

At one of the VIP lounges at Terminal 3 of the London Heathrow Airport last Monday, Wickremesinghe took time off from protocol officials of the Sri Lanka High Commission (SLHC) in London and Jayalath Jayawardena, MP to walk out. Both British and SLHC officials asked Jayawardena who was the person he was meeting outside the lounge. He replied that it was Chandima Withanarachchi, Editor of the Lankanewsweb, a site that is banned in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, he cancelled a lunch engagement with representatives of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF).

Barely an hour after returning to Sri Lanka on Tuesday evening, Wickremesinghe went into a discussion with senior members of his party. It included Joseph Michael Perera, John Ameratunga, Tissa Attanayake Also present was Mangala Samaraweera, head of the UNP communications unit. The discussion began as reports circulated that three parliamentarians of the UNP would be suspended that night. The names mentioned were Rosy Senanayake (Colombo District), Buddhika Pathirana (Matara District) and Sujeeva Senasinghe (Colombo District). These were on charges of allegedly violating party discipline.

The news had reached Sajith Premadasa, who has once more assumed the role of leader of the rebel group. He told a meeting in Hambantota that disciplinary action should be taken first against the party leader for repeatedly losing elections and for "working out deals with the government." A private television channel gave wide coverage to his remarks.

In fact, during the discussion, a suggestion was made to Wickremesinghe to deal with a few in the party so it would send a strong message that he was serious about maintaining discipline. However, Wickremesinghe opined that his first priority was to ascertain whether there indeed is a challenge for his leadership by anyone. For this purpose, he said, he would be speaking to his deputy, Karu Jayasuriya.
The latest crisis was sparked off after Premadasa told a news conference on July 28 that he had asked Jayasuriya to take over the UNP leadership from that day. He made the announcement after he and a group of MPs and party activists met Jayasuriya at his residence. Later, Jayasuriya said in a statement that he would accept "any challenge put forward before me and do whatever is in my power to accept their support to unite and take the party forward." The announcement and the remarks made clear Jayasuriya was making a claim to become the UNP leader.

Wickremesinghe telephoned Jayasuriya on Wednesday morning and sought a meeting with him at 11 a.m. at his official residence, 30 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, near Sravasti, the MPs hostel. A 45 minute discussion ensued. Jayasuriya was to explain that "this is not an exercise to take your chair." He said that party organisations, senior members, members of the Buddhist clergy were among those who had made representations to him about the failures of the leadership. He said that the UNP was fast losing grass roots level support. There had also been accusations that Wickremesinghe was having a dialogue with the government. The UNP leader replied that the issues raised by Jayasuriya were already being looked into by party seniors like John Ameratunga.

He noted that the moot point was whether Jayasuriya was aspiring for his leadership. If he is not, Wickremesinghe said, he should make a public statement that he was not after the UNP leader's post. "I can't issue a statement," insisted Jayasuriya. If he had already told Wickremesinghe that "this is not an exercise to take your chair," Jayasuriya's predicament was worse. Issuing such a statement would only sever his relations with the rebel group led by Premadasa and dub him as falling into the lap of Wickremesinghe. On the other hand, refusing to issue a statement has made Wickremesinghe livid. He told various party groups visiting him and Jayasuriya to patch up differences that there is "no vacancy for the UNP leader's post."

Harim Fernando (UNP-Badulla District) had likened Jayasuriya to the late Dudley Senanayake. It drew a sharp retort from Wickremesinghe. "He (Dudley) did not cross over to the government side with 17 other MPs," he had retorted. That showed that though the leadership issue has lost steam, the burning tensions caused by it continue.

The one-on-one meeting ended with Wickemesinghe saying he would ask Mangala Samaraweera to issue a statement. The latter spoke with Jayasuriya a few times on the telephone to persuade him to change his mind. However, he was adamant. The Sunday Times learnt that other party seniors who were asked to issue a statement also thought it unwise to do so. Hence, Samaraweera too felt time would be a healer and let things remain. In the light of this, even the weekly news briefing of the UNP scheduled for Friday was cancelled.

It is in this backdrop that Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya met each other again at Siri Kotha, the UNP headquarters in Kotte. In a lengthy speech, Wickremesinghe said "As the leader I have to speak to the persons who think whether we have a future or not. I am the leader of the active members as well as the leader of the few who criticize. I do not need to respond to them or strengthen the Rajapaksa government or give news to the media. Our aim is to take the party forward. For this we need unity as well as discipline. We approved a new constitution. The Constitution has mentioned about unity and discipline.

Unity is strengthened by discipline. If there is no discipline there is no unity. Implement this in full. I have told the senior members to discuss with the others and gather all to this place during a certain period. I have also told the Deputy Leader to undertake this task. Thereafter we will get to gather and carry out our attack on the government….."

Jayasuriya avoided any reference to the crisis. Among other matters, he said, "The opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa and his group , religious leaders and other groups have been telling to unite all these groups and create an environment where we can face these challenges We have a responsibility as the opposition to fulfil on behalf of the people. If we have unity we can do this. The ownership of the country is not limited to a particular group….."

The leadership issue in the UNP has clearly run out of steam. However, what remains is an uneasy truce or an undeclared "ceasefire" between factions. The party seniors viz., Joseph Michael-Perera, Gamini Jayawickrama, Jayalath Jayawardena and General Secretary Tissa Attanayake have been asked to speak to Karu Jayasuriya and then in turn to Sajith Premadasa. No doubt, all this disunity will have a bearing on the upcoming polls to 23 local bodies and more importantly on the future of a once formidable and premier political party in the country. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has opted to strike when the iron is hot, and the dissension in the UNP is at its height. His government's objective is clearly to wrest the plum local government body, the Colombo Municipal Council, now the last bastion of the UNP into government hands.

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