Political Column  

President seeks control of SLFP
By our Political Editor
One industry that thrives in Sri Lanka today with no local investment is the Non Governmental Organisations or NGOs. The more empirical ones among them have the letter "I" in front to denote International or INGOs.
Dollars and Pounds gush in for them, like oil, the black gold for the ultra rich Arab sheiks, the movers and shakers of the economies of many a country. Our NGO and INGO wallahs, however, are a different breed. They move and shake among themselves with the wad of green backs but leave an unsuspecting Government in shivers. It has happened in the past and happens now.

The latest is the visit of Martin McGuinness, Chief Negotiator of the Sinn Feinn in Northern Ireland and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He made headline news in Sri Lanka after exhorting that her countrymen should "do their best to prevent the collapse of the ceasefire and to begin negotiations for a durable settlement…" Such words of wisdom could have come from a local three wheeler taxi driver or a bus conductor. But they would not have hit the headlines. They did because McGuinness said it.

Now that he arrived, wined, dined, talked and left the shores of Sri Lanka, the story is unfurling. He was no invitee of the Government of Sri Lanka. He did not obtain a visa from the Sri Lanka High Commission to come to Colombo. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was unaware he was coming. That is no surprise for most things, nowadays are foreign even to the Foreign Ministry. Whilst Minister Mangala Samaraweera is still learning, an unhappy President Rajapakse had to call upon a former Foreign Minister, Tyronne Fernando, to come in as Advisor. "There are more chiefs than injuns," said one opposition stalwart looking at the plethora of advisors in the Rajapakse administration. Fernando quit his post as Governor of the North-East. Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema, who failed to become Navy Chief only because former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did not like his face, was sworn in last Friday as the new Governor.

McGuinness arrived in Sri Lanka without a visa. At the Immigration Counter at the Bandaranaike International Airport he told Immigration officials he was coming as a tourist. He had a tourist visa stamped on his passport. The man from Ireland was an invitee of a Colombo-based NGO which goes as IMPACT. They were able to create an impact with that tourist visa McGuinness received.

One night, he was entertained to dinner by none other than the President of the Democratic, Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse. The only reason for the move - when Rajapakse visited Ireland long years ago, he was introduced to a group of politicians there. McGuinness was one of them. Hence, he felt he owed him a dinner. Advice on protocol was neither sought from the Foreign Ministry, nor given. If the first diplomatic gaffe was lunching with the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupama Rao to solve an internal dispute involving Arumugam Thondaman, here was another. When he met McGuinness in Ireland, it was as Mahinda Rajapakse. But it was President Rajapakse who was hosting tourist McGuinness to dinner. Oh heck, what's protocol got to do with 'friends' as Mangala Samaraweera would say.

It seems NGOs do not fear to tread where fools did. Then came some complaints from the Donor Co-chairs of the peace process over last week's front page report in The Sunday Times about Rajapakse's remarks suggesting Iceland as a venue for talks. Of course, the report said that Rajapakse had mentioned Iceland in lighter vein, but that was serious enough a matter for the donors. Supposedly, a joke can be a serious thing. An embarrassed Rajapakse said that it was not an official account passed down by his office and expressed regret if it had embarrassed them.

But a more important issue - the jailing of former Minister S.B. Dissanayake - was taking centre stage at a meeting of party leaders. Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara was to tell party leaders no action to fill the vacancy was possible since the matter was still pending before Supreme Court.

Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva raised issue over another aspect. He said even if one were to assume that position was correct, although the Court had not made any specific request to stop filling the vacancy, there another important aspect - Dissanayake's absence from Parliament for over three months. In the absence of prior leave, that amounted to his forfeiting his seat.

Secretary General of Parliament, Priyani Wijesekera, was to intervene to say she wrote to the Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanayake on March 9, 2005 informing him of the vacation of Mr. Dissanayake's seat due to absence. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was to ask "what did you say in that letter." Wijesekera brought a file and read out what she wrote. She said she had called upon Dissanayake to fill the seat rendered vacant by the absence of S.B. Dissanayake. JVP's Wimal Weerawansa asked why the Commissioner of Elections did not enforce it.

That same morning Elections Commissioner Dissanayake turned up for a meeting of a parliamentary committee going into legislation concerning the issue of National Identity Cards. When the meeting was over, Dissanayake was button holed by Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Wimal Weerawansa. Dissanayake declared he found no such letter from the Secretary General in his files at the Elections Office.
"I just took custody of a copy," declared Dissanayake.

Thereafter, last Thursday Dissanayake wrote again to the Secretary General of Parliament. In that letter, he had said he was not in possession of the letter referred to and asked whether he should still initiate further action. A reply confirming the move was sent by Wijesekera. In the coming week Dissanayake is to issue a gazette notification declaring the Nuwara-Eliya (Hanguranketha) seat of S.B. Dissanayake vacant.

uestions over why action was not taken after the Supreme Court delivered judgment jailing S.B. Dissanayake are still being raised.
Against this backdrop, President Rajapakse received a telephone call from former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who is still holidaying in the United Kingdom. She was chirpy and greeted Rajapakse. Thereafter she wanted to know how he was keeping.

Then came the request Rajapakse was waiting for. Kumaratunga said she had got to know Rajapakse was planning to reconstitute the board of management of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). In such an event, she wanted to make sure she (Kumaratunga) was made the chairperson. Here was a case of Kumaratunga, who shied away from backing Rajapakse at the presidential election campaign, now seeking his help to be made chairperson of BMICH.

Kumaratunga was lamenting that she had a lot of time on her hands now with very little to do. Hence, she felt the management of the BMICH rightfully belonged to her family. It was a vile act of the late President J.R. Jayewardene that had led to the management of this international conference hall going to other people and out of the Bandaranaike family, she said.

Rajapakse was unwilling to continue the conversation. He said he had no intention of changing the board of management. However, he said "I will see what can be done." Later, Rajapakse discussed the matter with senior aides. One of them was to say that there was a lot of money in the BMICH. They were also earning a good income. Rajapakse did not appear inclined to concede Kumaratunga's request. He said part jokingly "she will use even that money to hit at me."

But on a serious note, Rajapakse is planning to wrest the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leadership from Kumaratunga. This is particularly in view of what his aides say are the many obstacles she had continued to place on Rajapakse even after he became President. They point out that Kumaratunga is refusing to concede that she is no longer President but behaves as one.

Rajapakse's close supporters are planning a massive rally of SLFP members in Colombo on a date in February. This is to mark the third month of the Rajapakse presidency. Aides say on this day he proposes to launch his campaign to win over the SLFP leadership. Rajapakse wants to apprise the rank and file of the SLFP of the obstacles he had to face to win the Presidency and how things are still being made difficult for him. He is also to reveal plans of how he wants to build a stronger SLFP that would be devoid of the control of one family cartel, which would probably see the end of an era in Sri Lankan politics.

UNP crisis sorted out? Ranil, Karu to share power
Things were also happening within the opposition United National Party. Efforts to dis-lodge party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe having failed, mass defections have been threatened by those who not only want Wickremesinghe out, but also want a place in the sun with the new government.

Temple Trees has regular visitors from the UNP ranks, and last Friday, some of the editors of national newspapers who had gone to have breakfast with the President were bemused to find UNP stalwart from Matale Alick Aluvihara and his son Ranjith seated patiently outside waiting for an audience with His Excellency.

Whether to support the Rajapakse administration from within, or from outside, or not at all has consumed much of the defeated party's time, as it has on moves to oust Wickremesinghe from the leadership. And the former issue has come in to take at least some of the heat away from Wickremesinghe distracting the members from targeting him.

That's exactly what happened at the last UNP Parliamentary Group meeting on Tuesday. In what appeared to be the big match from the Kalutara boys, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Rajitha Senaratne engaged themselves in a right royal battle of the mangoosteens over this very issue. Samarasinghe was advocating the need to support Rajapakse, with Senaratne saying that the UNP must have its own identity and that supporting the JVP should be out-of-the-question.

Samarasinghe's flirtations with Rajapakse were well-known in UNP circles, so much so that when his secretary had called a Bala Mandala (branch) meeting at Kalutara, Tilak Karunaratne, the former Sihala Urumaya leader had asked the secretary "than, mona paththe bala mandalayada me? " or " now, which side's branch meeting is this?".

Unfairly, maybe, Samarasinghe is being portrayed as someone who wants to cross over because he has a bribery inquiry against him. This is more an unfair indictment on the Bribery Commission than even Samarasinghe, because it shows what people think of the Commission -- that if you are on the right side politically, you can get away with anything.

But the backdrop to the Parliamentary Group meeting goes back to the Wednesday before when Wickremesinghe conferred with five members of the so-called Reformist faction that was demanding party reforms that would see the wings of Wickremesinghe clipped and more strength given to deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya's elbow.

Jayasuriya himself, together with Rukman Senanayake, Gamini Lokuge and Rajitha Senaratne met Wickremesinghe with ex-Hotels Corporation boss Bodhi Ranasinghe being the party go-between valiantly trying to bring about an amicable settlement to the two month old feud.

Wickremesinghe told the Reformists at the meeting that "there cannot be two leaders for any party", and that he was willing to give Jayasuriya the deputy leadership (which he already has) plus "something else with executive powers". That evening while travelling to Kandy, he telephoned Bodhi Ranasinghe and told him that he was willing to give Karu Jayasuriya the post of Executive Chairman of the party in addition to deputy leader.
An earlier request to make Karu Jayasuriya the party's General Secretary was dropped when all accepted Wickremesinghe'a argument that the party secretary needs to be full-time present at 'Siri Kotha', the party headquarters at Pitta Kotte, and this was not something for Jayasuriya to be doing.

A meeting was then fixed for noon last Sunday at the Opposition Leader's official residence at Cambridge Terrace. The same group met, and the Reformists said they were in agreement in principle, but Lokuge asked if Wickremesinghe could chair all party committees except that Jayasuriya be made the chairman of a reinvogorated Political Affairs Committee (PAC).

Wickremesinghe said "No", except that Karu Jayasuriya could act in his (Wickremesinghe's) absence. The game plan was to be that Wickremesinghe would preside at the PAC meetings every fortnight, while Jayasuriya handles the day-to-day affairs of the party, and any matters Jayasuriya cannot resolve will be brought to the fortnightly meetings before Wickremesinghe.

Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya were to name the party General Secretary, and nominate six names each for the PAC. There was unanimous agreement to this.

Then came Monday. The Reformists were unable to convince the rest of the group that what was agreed was a good idea, and there was some insistence that the names of the General Secretary and the PAC members be agreed to before that afternoon's Parliamentary Group meeting.
At 1 pm., on Monday, Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya met one-to-one, and agreed that the biggest headache for both would be to nominate their six members to the PAC, which was now going to transform itself from a mere advisory body to the party leader, to a virtual decision-making body of the party -- even over and above the Working Committee, often referred to as a rubber-stamp of the party leader's dictates.

After a one-hour meeting, i.e. at 2pm., Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya emerged to meet with the rest of the 19-MP Reformist group. Two requests were made; to make Jayasuriya co-chairman of the PAC, and to increase the PAC from 12 to 15 members. Wickremesinghe flatly refused the first request, and said he would consider the second.
The Group thus got underway at 3 pm., and began it did, with thunder from the Kalutara duo going for each other whether to support the Rajapakse Administration, or otherwise.

Various side issues were brought up. For example Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene asking whether his name had been ommitted from the PAC list, only to be told that there was no such list; Prof. G.L. Peiris asking why he was not consulted when the party manifesto was drafted, only to be told by Wickremesinghe that he had shown the manifesto to the learned professor; and Mahinda Wijesekera asking what the party was hoping to do regarding the campaign to release S.B. Dissanayake from jail.
And only thereafter, what one thought was the burning issue within the party, party reforms, was taken up for discussion. Nuwara-Eliya MP Naveen Dissanayake was one of those to explode. He used very strong words to describe his party leader, saying it was his "ego" that was at the root of the party's problems, as his embarrassed father-in-law Karu Jayasuriya sat sphinx-like to the left of Wickremesinghe. (Later, Rukman Senanayake was to tell the young Dissanayake that that was no way to talk to a party leader).

Wickremesinghe then spoke, rather movingly, to the absolute surprise of the MPs. He said he was handing over the day-to-day affairs of the party to Karu Jayasuriya, and that the next elections scheduled -- the Local Government polls -- will be handled under Jayasuriya's stewardship. He asked the MPs to support Jayasuriya, and that his support was assured. Within 20 minutes, the issue of the party leadership had been resolved -- except that though nobody raised issue at the time, a cabal that had wanted Wickremesinghe flung out of the Siri Kotha windows, was now hatching a plot to join the Rajapakse Administration, cabinet portfolios and all.

The next day, Wickremesinghe telephoned Rukman Senanayake and Gamini Lokuge to thank them for their understanding and "balance" in handling the leadership crisis. With the crisis resolved, at least for the moment, the party went for the All-Party Conference on the peace process and was able to talk with one voice.

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