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Political awakening after Bharatha's death

  • Ministers, Government allies voice concern over gun culture; family claims they had written to President on threats to Premachandra
  • Rajapaksa blames organisers for Colombo defeat; Wickremesinghe gets tough on critics after victory in city
By Our Political Editor

A shoot out that left a ruling party politician dead and a parliamentarian wounded seriously took the gloss away from the convincing victory the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured at last week's local polls.

They won 22 out of 23 local councils during the third phase. This hat-trick turned out to be third time humiliation for the United National Party (UNP). The only face saver was the win at the elections to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) but the party was still in the minority at the 53-member premier local body.

Barely two hours before the close of polls on Saturday, October 8, were two armed factions locked in a full frontal clash. One faction belonged to Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, Advisor to the President on trade union affairs. He was a former parliamentarian from the Colombo District with the Kolonnawa electorate being his main support base. The other faction belonged to Deshamanya R. Duminda Silva, the UPFA Colombo District MP. A holder of Sri Lanka's second highest national honour Deshamanya or pride of the nation, Silva also functioned as "monitoring MP of the Ministry of Defence." Both these titles were prominently displayed in Silva's private website which said he was also Chairman of the R. Duminda Silva foundation. He was nursing the Kolonnawa electorate as MP and frictions had continued between his and Premachandra's factions for several months now.

At Walpola in Kolonnawa where the gun battle ensued, Premachandra died on the spot. His body had been sprayed with fire from T-56 assault rifles from head to toe. One Police source said at least 40 rounds were fired.

Two bullets, reportedly from a hand gun, had ripped through Silva's skull, from an area above the right ear, causing cracks and hitting his brain. They have exited from the left side. A third was embedded inside. He underwent emergency surgery. Doctors said he was on a life support system till Thursday. It has been removed but a tube through the mouth fed oxygen to his lungs. This was removed on Friday and his breathing, doctors said, was normal. They said he responded to their voice commands by slowly moving his fingers in the right arm but his left arm remained motionless. They said CT scans were also carried out on him. During the hours when he was moved to the Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital, groups backing Silva, some armed, were in the hospital premises to prevent possible attacks on their badly injured boss. Later, Police Special Task Force (STF) and Army units moved in and were found outside several wards. On Thursday, they were replaced by the Police.

Seated crosslegged close to the casket containing the remains of slain Presidential Advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, Prasanna Gunasinghe Solangaarachchi who polled the highest number of Preference votes in the Kolonnawa electorate mourns the death of his mentor. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The sequence of events that led to the gun battle is unfolding as a special team from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is conducting a detailed probe. Yet, there were different claims by different sides preventing the reconstruction of an accurate and cohesive picture. Allegations have emerged that Premachandra fired the first shot, a charge denied by his faction.

Wimal Weerawansa, Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities, told a public meeting at Galgamuwa, Kurunegala that "when a politician goes with an underworld gang and shoots another politician dead, it is not good for the country." His remarks received wide publicity on television networks. A news release from his Ministry said, "Under the leadership of President the security forces saved the country from the Tiger guerrillas. Because of this the separatist forces in foreign countries wants to take action against the President and security forces heads. Separatist forces supporting the Tigers have gone to courts. Their aim is to prevent the head of state and security forces heads to go to these countries. In a situation like this we have to work intelligently. Separatist forces are waiting to blame Sri Lanka.

"They always blame us saying that there is no law and order in the country and there are human rights violations. When they take the law into their own hands how can you give a good example to the country? We cannot allow the underworld gangs to stain our victory. People will also not allow that to happen. What will happen if the politicians take the law into their own hands? Then the people will also take the law into their own hands. They will start throwing stones at the law enforcement agencies. Within the same party there can be issues. But these problems should be sorted out by not killing each other."

Five brothers and sisters of the late Premachandra claimed in a letter dated October 8 (polls day, before the incident) to President Mahinda Rajapaksa to "take precautions to safeguard the lives" of Premachandra and other SLFPers who have been "threatened with death."

The letter said threats to Bharatha emerged "from his own party member who switched "sides". The two-page letter added, "We do not deny that it is your prerogative to appoint party organisers, but it was very painful to watch our brother denied of his rightful place in Kolonnawa where we all were born, grew up and have deep roots in. It is more and more painful when the recent death threat emanates from an opportunist now spreading his power wings, enjoying an unduly privileged position…." The signatories to the letter are Swarna Gunaratne, Asela Premachandra, Sunethra Abeysinghe, Dharma Nanayakkara and Prishilla Wijesinghe, all living in Alberta, Canada.

Asela Premachandra, brother of the slain politician told the Sunday Times, "We asked for more security for my brother as far back in February. We sent a request to the President in writing. My brother had been given two Police (MSD) bodyguards earlier. An additional guard too was provided, but just before the elections he had been sent on a training programme and my brother was left with only two guards during the election campaign".

A Defence Ministry official who did not wish to be identified said the number assigned to Premachandra was one more than those assigned to parliamentarians. Personal protection to MPs is provided by two police officers of their choice. If they are not in the Ministerial Security Division, the selected officers are first transferred to the MSD before being assigned.

To those at Police Headquarters, the gang warfare between factions supporting Premachandra and Silva was common knowledge. Four months ago, when three underworld members who were backers of Silva were murdered, former Police Chief Dr. Mahinda Balasuriya, ordered Premachandra be investigated. This was on the basis that Premachandra too was backed by underworld groups. He was then summoned to the CID headquarters where he denied in a statement that neither he nor his supporters were involved. Police said backers for Silva included drug dealers, part of the voters from the slums in Kolonnawa. Accusations were also made that some backers of Premachandra, a senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) politician in Kolonnawa, were involved in drugs.

Premachandra and his faction were canvassing for the UPFA and sought preference votes for their candidate P. Gunasinghe Solangaarachchi at the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha (PS). Solangaarachchi polled 42,322 preference votes, highest in that PS. However, Silva, who was also campaigning for the UPFA, was backing the candidature of Sumudu Rukshan who received 8157 votes and was placed second in the preference votes. Rukshan hailed from Tamil Nadu, the name of a shanty in the area.

Government spokesperson and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, was asked at a news briefing on Thursday: "Many of the politicians have underworld members as their bodyguards. Why has the government only waken up now to disarm those holding unauthorized weapons?"

He replied, "During the past three decades there has been a gun culture in the country. It cannot be changed in a few months. In most cases where the politicians felt that the security provided to them were not sufficient, they used other persons. There have been problems due to this and that is why the government is now acting. I believe that this shooting incident was pre-planned. It was not a spontaneous reaction."

Of course, soon after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, he told Parliament that leave alone a Tiger, there was not even a cat now. In essence, he was then saying there were no armed threats.
However, if that was the government's official view, there were more from formidable sections. Leslie Devendra, Leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Trade Union Front (SLFP), the umbrella organisation of the party's unions, sent out a circular on October 9 to their branches. He said they should put up banners in their work places with the words "Mera Deshapalanaya Hela Dakimu" or Let us denounce murderous Politics.

"It is only a small number who engage in criminal activities like this. But it gives a bad message to the international community," declared Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne who spoke at the funeral. Similar sentiments were also expressed by Ministers. Here is a brief account.

Susil Premajayantha, UPFA General Secretary: "During the maiden speech of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra in Parliament, he mentioned that death sentence should be enforced for those responsible for murders and those found guilty of drug offences. This statement is valid even today. I last met Bharatha at a campaign meeting on October 5. Thereafter I saw him on a bed at the Mulleriyawa hospital. I won't speak much about it as I cannot say too much. Instead I will heave a sigh."

Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP): "We should bring an end to this deteriorating political culture. The laws and the social justice should be implemented against those who murdered Bharatha. It is only a small number who engage in criminal activities like this. But it sends a bad message to the international community."

Adding to those voices was Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Sri Naga Vihara, Kotte. He said, "The death of Bharatha is the climax of the Manape (Preference vote) battle. This should end. Today in Kolonnawa there are more than 570 narcotic dens. Foreign prostitutes have been introduced to the area. Bharatha, even in his last speech, called for an end to the drug menace".

The Communist Party of Sri Lanka, of which its General Secretary D.E.W. Gunasekera, is a senior minister (human resources), issued a strongly worded statement. It said,"The assassination of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra is not merely another murder, a murder due to a longstanding dispute,a dispute between two persons in the same party or a murder to a struggle over Manape (preference) votes. A deep analysis will reveal that it is due to the underworld which has been enriched with 'black money' being brought into the political system.

"Since the opening of the economy in 1977, the underworld has been posing off as gentlemen and pumping in money for elections and loitering in the corridors of political power. The disaster in Mulleriyawa shows that if the underworld is allowed to use state power it could affect good governance as well as the authority of law.

"The incident in Mulleriyawa showed how the law enforcement authorities were side-lined. However the people in Mulleriyawa voted wisely giving a valuable lesson to the society and to the underworld a slap in its face. The lesson from the incident is that that the underworld should not be drawn into politics. In this incident we expect the law to be fully implemented."

The Lanka SamaSamaja Party (LSSP), of which senior Minister Tissa Vitharana (scientific affairs) is a Politcal Bureau member, also issued a statement. They said "Our party has had close relations with the family of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra since his father was a trade unionist in the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. He joined the SLFP and later the SLMP and always spoke about leftist ideas. He was one of those who held the opinion that the national issue should have a political solution and went on to contest the provincial council elections under the United Socialist Alliance in 1988. He faced the era of terror unleashed by the JVP and even grabbed the weapon of the person who came to shoot him. We condemn the killing……"

The Democratic Left Front of which Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara is the General Secretary summoned a news conference. He said, "The Democratic Left Front joins the people's forces in condemning the assassination of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Until the conspiracy of the killing is exposed the funeral of Bharatha will not end. We believe that the assassination of Bharatha was due to a personal grudge. He is one of those who fearlessly fought against violence and against communal politics."
The country's main opposition United National Party (UNP), however, was silent on the intra-UPFA clashes and issued no statement. Not surprising, looking at the defeat the party suffered in 22 local bodies. It lost the Kandy Municipal Council after 58 years and also ceded the Nuwara Eliya MC to the UPFA. The UPFA now controls 271 of the 335 local councils. The main opposition decimated to the control of just 10 councils. The major Tamil party, Tamil National Alliance controls 30 of the local bodies in the North and East. At least in numbers, the TNA has emerged as a strong opposition group in the local authorities in the Tamil speaking areas. Barring the Kalmunai Municipal Council that was won by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the UPFA has overall control in all others.

The UNP retained the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), its traditional stronghold. This has given the party a much expected boost. What appears to have paid dividends to the UNP is pitching a Muslim (A.J.M. Muzzamil) as the Mayoral candidate. The thrust of their campaign was to oppose moves to evict poorer shanty dwellers from the city. Despite government denials, it seems to have worked. The win underscores the reality that the UNP derives its support base in the City of Colombo from minority groups. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was unable to gain more than two seats and even their Mayoral candidate Shafeek Rajabdeen lost.

As expected, with the CMC victory in hand, UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, came down hard on two "errant" members in his party. Buddhhika Pathirana (MP - Matara District) and Shiral Laktilleke, vociferous critics of the party leader, were suspended from their membership. That Wickremesinghe was planning disciplinary action against Pathirana came to light weeks ago during some light-hearted banter by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was at the wedding of the son of Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, at a five star hotel, where Wickremesinghe was seated next to the President, when Mangala Samaraweera was brought to the same table by Jayaratne.

Rajapaksa remarked, "We don't have to do much campaigning in Matara. Buddhika is doing it for us. I have asked Dullas (Allahapperuma) to return and campaign in Colombo." The remarks saw Wickremesinghe adding that disciplinary action was being taken against him. This was based on a report submitted to him by Mangala Samaraweera (MP - Matara District) and the party's head of media. Samaraweera is now in Canada attending an Inter-Parliamentary Union event. Laktilleke, a known public critic of Wickremesinghe, has publicly criticised him on several occasions.

The move angered deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya. He is learnt to have written a letter of protest expressing his displeasure to Wickremesinghe but the contents are not known. One source said he had complained that the disciplinary action was taken even before the newly-elected UNP CMC was installed in office and would therefore send a wrong message about the party. General Secretary Tissa Attanayake who signed the letters of suspension has since left on a private visit to Britain. Attanayake has told colleagues that disciplinary action against the two members was a message to others in the party that they had to obey the rules and the leader. He has said the leader was empowered under the party constitution to initiate action against those violating discipline.

Jayasuriya has cancelled a week-long all expenses paid trip to South Africa as the head of a UNP delegation for another reason. He was to travel to Cape Town on a German-based Frederich Ebert Stiftung trip to interact with opposition parties in that country. He is the Chairman of the Sri Lanka chapter of the Liberal Caucus. Other members of the delegation are Ravi Karunanayake (now leader of the delegation in Jayasuriya's absence), Mangala Samaraweera, Eran Wickremeratne, Dr. Harsha de Silva and Harin Fernando.

Samarweera is due to return to Colombo from his Canada trip, stay in transit at the Colombo airport for three hours, and take his first flight out on the journey to South Africa.

Jayasuriya has complained to party colleagues that the reason for calling off his trip to South Africa is the conduct of the swearing in ceremony for the newly elected UNP local body members during his absence from the country. It is scheduled to take place on October 27.

Another reason is said to be the summoning of the Working Committee, the party's main policy-making body on the same day. Party sources said Wickremesinghe is likely to reinstate Rosy Senananayake (MP - Colombo District) to the Working Committee. Ms Senanayake campaigned for the CMC polls on many occasions together with Wickremesinghe. The same sources said the leader of the so-called reformist group led by Sajith Premadasa had urged Jayasuriya to sign a joint statement to protest the suspension of Pathirana and Laktilleke. However, he had not consented to the move and chosen to write to Wickremesinghe. Later Premadasa ended up giving voice cuts to TV stations.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa also came down hard on the UPFA organisers in the five electorates in Colombo after his party's defeat. They were removed from their posts. The electoral organisers are Colombo Central - A.H.M.Fowzie; Colombo North - NauzerFowzie; Borella - Thilanga Sumathipala; Colombo East - Daya Kantha (Western Provincial Council member) and Colombo West - Senarath Jayasundara (Western Provincial Council member).

However, UPFA sources said that during his campaign, the party's mayoral candidate Milinda Moragoda had picked his own campaign organisers for electorates in Colombo. An example was Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena in the Borella electorate and Faizer Mustapha in Colombo Central. Rajapaksa is still to decide on new electoral organisers and has been sounding out several SLFP politicians.
Another important development this week is the government's decision to amend the terms of the reference of the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) (revealed in the Sunday Times of August 28) to address Tamil grievances. The move follows the resumption of the dialogue between a government delegation and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). In the wake of this, both the TNA as well as the UNP are expected to name representatives of their respective parties to serve in the PSC. Here is the full text of the new terms of reference and the UPFA parliamentarians who are moving the motion:

"A. D. Susil Premajayantha
Patali Champika Ranawaka
Rauf Hakeem
(Prof) TissaVitarana
"Douglas Devananda
Dinesh Gunawardena
Maithripala Sirisena
Risad Badhiutheen
Basil Rohana Rajapaksa
V. S. Radhakrishnan
DEW Gunasekara
Muthu Sivalingam
Perumal Rajathurai
Rajiva Wijesinha
Dullas Alahapperuma,-

Select Committee of Parliament to recommend and report political and constitutional measures to empower the people of Sri Lanka as one nation,-

WHEREAS a unique opportunity has arisen for the people of Sri Lanka to unite and work together as a nation towards the economic, social and political development of the country and its citizens;
AND WHEREAS to this end it is opportune to take steps to enhance the unity of the people of Sri Lanka and empower them to take decisions and engage in actions towards their economic, social and political development;

AND WHEREAS a Select Committee of Members of Parliament being a committee of the elected representatives of the people is best equipped to determine the nature and scope of steps to be taken to enable the aforesaid.

This Parliament resolves as follows:

A Select Committee of Parliament be appointed to recommend to this House within 6 months the initiative appropriate to achieve political and constitutional measures to-

(a) enhance the unity of the people of Sri Lanka;
(b) further empower the people to work as a nation; and
(c) enable the people to take decisions and engage in actions towards their economic, social and political development.
2. (a) That the Committee and its Chairman shall be nominated by Mr. Speaker.
(b) That notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order 95, the Committee shall consist of not more than thirty one (31) members.
3. The said Select Committee of Parliament is empowered to-
(a) determine its quorum,
(b) summon such persons and documents as it deemed necessary;
(c) examine, on oath or affirmation and person so summoned;
(d) continue notwithstanding the adjournment of Parliament from time to time, and
(e) submit interim reports from time to time."

In the earlier reference, there was reference to "a unique opportunity" having arisen for people of Sri Lanka to work together as a nation towards economic, social and political development of the country and its citizen. This provision has been deleted and the new provision states "Whereas it is now necessary to devise a constitutional framework in such manner as to ensure that all People's will preserve and promote their respective identities and live with dignity and security as one nation."

Also removed is a provision which says "…to this end it is opportune to take steps to enhance the unity of the people of Sri Lanka and empower them to take decision and engage in actions towards their economic, social and political development." The new provision added is "….such unity will promote socio, economic, political and cultural development of the peoples and the country."

Also removed are three specific clauses: "(a) enhance the unity of the people of Sri Lanka; (b) further empower the people to work as a nation; and (c) enable the people to take decisions and engage in actions towards their economic, social and political development." Three new clauses that will replace them are "(a) ensure that all Peoples will preserve and promote their respective identities and live with dignity and security as one nation. (b) enhance the unity of Peoples of Sri Lanka; and (c) empower the People and the country to promote socio, economic, political and cultural development.

The resolution is listed in the Addendum to the Order Book of Parliament as notice of motions for which no dates have been fixed. Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa is to announce the composition of the PSC after consultation with party leaders.

Whilst investigations into the Premachandra killing continue, the government has a plateful of priorities. With the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) due on or before November 15, it has given priority consideration to the PSC. Diplomatic initiatives are to be stepped up to brief foreign governments on the LLRC recommendations and thus ward off any adverse fall out at the 19th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. Some crucial weeks are ahead.

Shavendra files immunity papers in US court

Lawyers representing Major General Shavendra Silva, Sri Lanka's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations have lodged papers in the US Southern District Court of New York claiming immunity and dealing a hard blow to pro-Tiger guerrilla groups who tried to arraign him on alleged war crime charges.

The Sunday Times learns that his lawyers, responding to the summons served at his apartment on September 23, produced a "Certification of Immunity" issued by the US Department of State through the US permanent mission in New York.

In the front page lead story last week, the Sunday Times revealed exclusively that the US will endorse claims for diplomatic immunity by a Sri Lankan diplomat facing charges of alleged war crimes in a New York Court. The report said that a State Department document certifying immunity for Major General de Silva would be forwarded by his lawyers in terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), to the Southern District Court of New York.

The practice with respect to members of UN Missions, who are sued for civil cases in US Courts, is for the United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN) to produce a letter -- "Certification of Immunity" -- that states the individual in question is accredited as a diplomat according to US and UN records. In this instance, the Government raised issue with the State Department. Hence, in terms of the UN Headquarters Agreement and the UN General Convention, he is entitled to certain immunities as set forth in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR).

The news of the case filed in the District Court of New York was announced in a press release issued by the American University. This received wide publicity both in Sri Lanka and worldwide. Petitioners claimed a summons, an official court document, was served at Major General Shavendra Silva's Manhattan apartment. However, he was not present there on that occasion. Maj. Gen. Silva said earlier, he would forego diplomatic immunity and fight the case to expose the LTTE. He seems to have changed his mind in the light of legal opinion and now fighting the case on a legal footing.

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