ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20
Political Column

SLFP-UNP talks: The drama behind the drama

By Our Political Editor

  • Ranil wanted one-on-one, then three came, then five others
  • Who alerted GL and Milinda to gatecrash into Temple Trees talks?
  • President faces crucial decisions: Crossover group or entire UNP

Just eleven months into office, the political fortunes of President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa seem to be akin to tropical weather. Sometimes it is cool and pleasant. Other times it is hot and uncomfortable. If the political climate has switched from one to the other, yet another in the form of an unpleasant and unbearable phase set in this week.

With success after success by the military in their battle against Tiger guerrillas, he rode the gigantic high waves of public popularity. None of his predecessors has won so much public acclaim in such a short time. The mass euphoria led to people of all political hues enduring spiralling living costs and hourly waits at traffic queues due to security checks. In homes, hotels, clubs, casinos, bars, taverns, tea boutiques and barbecue parties among others, the talk was about Eelam War IV. It is good he is putting an end to this once and for all was the chorus among those who spoke.

But last Wednesday that well earned glory was shattered by an unprecedented military debacle. In war, successes and failures are like night and day. But the military action in the killing fields of Muhamalai was different and disturbing for many reasons. Neither the political leadership nor hierarchy of officialdom was aware. Their embarrassment was enormous. If Government's peace negotiators were hoping to sit down for talks with Tiger guerrillas from a position of strength, the latter seem to have wrested it.

In Sri Lanka, giving casualty counts to illustrate a point or describe the magnitude of an incident can tend to be misleading. Yet, official accounts showed that at least 134 soldiers died. Of the 483 said to be injured, 283 have been described as being in a serious condition. The debacle, the worst in the separatist war since everything began and ended in just over two hours, will have its political fallout in the weeks and months to come. It underscored once more that underestimating an enemy and thus an underestimated response can be disastrous. Like in the past, this lesson does not seem to dawn both on the political and defence establishments. Details of Wednesday's incident in Muhamalai appear in the Situation Report on the opposite page.

These details worried Rajapaksa. He told his Ministers and even his staff to visit hospitals in the City where the wounded soldiers were being treated, and to extend all help to them and their families.

For President Rajapaksa it was important that a debacle such as what happened at Muhamalai on Wednesday did not occur. It is without taking that untoward disaster into account that he planned to double up his efforts to go to the negotiation table with a string of successes in hand. He reiterated his commitment to world leaders he met last month and repeated the pledge last Monday to Donor Co-chairs.

A Commitment to that objective saw Rajapaksa distancing himself from his strong pro-war ally, the Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the party that helped him become President last November. He rejected their demands that included the abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement and expulsion of Norway from its role as peace facilitators. If he thus dumped a close ally, Rajapaksa sought to embrace his political arch enemy, the United National Party (UNP), largely aimed at finding a middle ground towards the peace process. He was going to prosecute the war - and peace - in equal measure. And that is the political drama that is now at play. The latest episode shows the sorry or pathetic state of affairs in the country's foremost political party, the UNP. If it barely played the role of an effective opposition, which would have kept the Government under check, but rivalry and betrayals have led to opposition to be split into factions.

Upon his return from Australia early on Tuesday morning, Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's office wrote to Gamini Senarath, Additional Secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking an appointment. He had asked for a one-on-one meeting over the President's call for the opposition to support the Government, a process that had been set in motion with Wickremesinghe being dragged screaming.

A reply reached K.P. Dayaratne, Co-ordinating Secretary to Mr. Wickremesinghe from President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga.

In that, Weeratunga had informed the UNP leader that the President had given him an appointment for Thursday.

Ahead of that meeting with President Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe had a meeting with his deputy, Karu Jayasuriya. Wickremesinghe had told him that the President had given him an appointment for Thursday. Then, Jayasuriya asked who he was taking with him to meet the President. Wickremesinghe said that he had asked for a one-on-one meeting. It was only then that the UNP leader learnt that the letter sent to him by Weeratunga had been copied to Jayasuriya. However, no mention had been made in his copy of this fact. Jayasuriya showed the letter to his leader. It became clear an orchestration was under way.

Wickremesinghe aides were not happy. They said that democratic convention required that when an Opposition Leader asked for a one-on-one meeting that the President had to give him such an audience. "The Queen never asks Tony Blair to come with his cabinet", one remarked.

At Wickremesinghe's request Dayaratne telephoned Senarath to ask about the composition. He was told "dennek, thundennek genda" (bring two or three persons). Wickremesinghe had then decided to take Jayasuriya and Rukman Senanayake, the new Chairman of the UNP. He had informed party stalwarts John Ameratunga and Malik Samarawickrema about his nominees. The others in the UNP delegation, G.L.Peiris and Milinda Moragoda are virtually on boycott mode with Wickremesinghe, and up until that time had not even spoken to him after his return.

Wickremesinghe arrived in Temple Trees. Leaving his two colleagues on the ground floor, he walked upstairs. Being an incumbent of that stately home for successive Prime Minister's of the past, he knew the geography of the place. There he sat down with Rajapaksa for a one-on-one that lasted some 22 minutes. Wickremesinghe's talks centered on UNP's support for the ongoing peace process. If it went on track, the UNP was even willing to support the Government's budget proposals in Parliament.

Wickremesinghe wanted Rajapaksa to re-activate the Constitutional Council and enhance allocations for the decentralized budget.

There was also discussion on the appointment of Parliamentary Committees to oversee ministries. This was a seventh document which UNP's G.L. Peiris had forwarded. There was controversy over the issue since it had not been endorsed by the UNP delegation negotiating with the Government. Wickremesinghe said that the subject could be taken up later. Questions were raised on what these Committees were all about. Rajapaksa thought these were the Committees set-up under the Donoughmore Commission, which did not seem to be the case. Wickremesinghe said this measure, as well as the move to extend co-operation to the Government on six agreed areas, would be discussed by his party's policy making body, the Working Committee. Thereafter, it would go for endorsement by the party's parliamentary group.

Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa were told that G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda had arrived at Temple Trees. Wickremesinghe did not ask them to come. Then - who did?

They had been allowed in by the security staff at the main gate, but those at Temple Trees said their names were not in the list provided to them by the UNP.

Peiris and Moragoda were let in, and immediately, Wickremesinghe asked that John Ameratunga, Ravi Karunanayake and Malik Samarawickrema be asked to come immediately. They joined in. So, eventually, the UNP's full team turned up.

Rajapaksa had on hand Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Susil Premajayantha, and Nimal Siripala de Silva among others, not the full team, because they were also asked to have only three.
The talks lasted only some 12 minutes, much less than the time taken for the one-on-one. The UNP agreed that they would support the Rajapaksa Administration in specific areas including the peace process, nation building, economy, good governance, electoral reforms and social development. Jayasuriya was to say at the meeting that President Rajapaksa should make sure there were no private deals but only one with the UNP. Both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe thanked the respective delegations for the work they had done, which seemed to be moving at the speed of greased lightning.

Hours later, Wickremesinghe addressed a news conference saying that his party would support the upcoming budget and appoint two members to the Consultative Committee of the All Party Conference. He said an implementation Committee would also be set up to ensure proper execution of the common programme agreed to by both parties.

Wickremesinghe said Rajapaksa had offered cabinet portfolios to the UNP, but that a decision would be made after consulting the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group. "Both parties will concentrate on the national issue given the urgency to resolve it," said Wickremesinghe.

Tomorrow morning, the UNP Working Committee meets to take a decision. It is only the UNP parliamentarians who have become active showing interest in joining hands with the Government. Various other groups, the rank-and-file, including trade unionists and professionals are strongly opposed to the UNP joining the Government and accepting portfolios. In the light of this, it is most likely that the Working Committee will decide tomorrow to extend support to the Government but refrain from taking any portfolios.

But what about the UNP Parliamentary Group? Two prime movers are G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda, two arch enemies who are united in their efforts to join the Government. It was this duo who jointly encouraged Wickremesinghe to be more lax with the LTTE soon after the Ceasefire Agreement was signed. Last week, Peiris became one of the champions of Government's military actions contradicting his public assertions to the contrary during the then United National Front (UNF) regime.

Wickremesinghe confronted Peiris during a dinner hosted by the professionals group of the UNP. Peiris was sporting a long face, as Wickremesinghe said in his speech that Bradman Weerakoon would soon have to meet with Peiris before the UNP makes known its decision. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government, which sections of the UNP and the Government are in a hurry to sign and thus distance the latter's ally, the JVP, is now being formulated.

At the Temple Trees meeting John Amararunga asked Rajapaksa about crossovers. The SLFP delegation responded by saying that they would accept crossovers only during election time.

Hence, the question still remains whether the parliamentary group would opt to support the Government and take on portfolios. In such an event, if the UNP per se does not support, the prospects of a breakaway faction joining the Government is very much a possibility. The guessing game of how many would cross over, varies from 27 to 8.

In this backdrop, sections of the UNP, who were against Wickremesinghe were also mooting an amendment to the party constitution. This was to reduce his powers, extend the term of party organizers for more than a year and prevent ad hoc appointment of members to the Working Committee. The subject came up for discussion at an Iftar dinner at the residence of former Minister and Speaker M.H. Mohamed. Among those who attended were Mahinda Wijesekera, S.B. Dissanayake, Hemakumara Nanayakkara, Jayalath Jayawardena, Bandula Gunawardena and G.L. Peiris. Barely had the dinner ended, the news had already reached Wickremesinghe.

Whatever decision the UNP makes tomorrow, it will be critical for Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the best, if all goes well, the UNP could decide to support only the issues that will be covered by the proposed Memorandum of Understanding. In such an event, there are strong prospects that those seeking portfolios, like G.L. Peiris, and others may choose to cross over. In such an event, even the proposed MoU will, like the Ceasefire Agreement, remain only on paper. How much would that help President Rajapaksa remains the question.

More so when his close political associates, the JVP is distancing itself by the day. It was only last week the JVP's Politburo decided on a countrywide campaign. Their leader declared that "hathuro than mithuro vela" (or enemies have now become friends) referring to Rajapaksa's new rapprochement with the UNP. The JVP has decided to hold 10,000 Jana Hamuwas (meet the people) programmes between October 23 and November 5. This is for a "Jana Sanwaada" or a public debate on the Government reneging on promises made in the Mahinda Chinthana.

All these developments show that President Rajapaksa, less than an year in office, had to deal with several fronts. Even if a breakaway faction of the UNP joins him, would he then get the support of the UNP for the budget? Would the UNP's support for the peace process then become a lukewarm issue? Could he then turn back again to a JVP that is now on the warpath.

President Rajapaksa seems politically beleaguered. He will need more support to face guerrilla threats, rising international protests over human rights issues and above all to cope with an economy that is facing a severe strain. The comings week no doubt are crucial.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.