talks: The drama behind the drama
- 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.