ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 22
Columns - Political Column

The deals and the wheels

  • Angry JVP to launch virtual war on Mahinda
  • Ranil intervenes to carry MoU beyond portfolios and personal perks
  • UNP battles continue with SB seeking top post

By Our Political Editor

The one-time UNP MP now supporting President Mahinda Rajapaksa to uplift the film industry, Ravindra Randeniya, was probably the perfect man for the occasion -- the Master of Ceremonies at the historic signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) betwen the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP).

Randeniya usually doesn't get his lines in a tangle, but that is exactly what happened to the film star-turned-politician last Monday afternoon.

The cameras were rolling, but there was none to say "cut cut", as Randeniya was going live. He invited, "President Mahinda Banda.... sorry, President Mahinda Rajapaksa" to deliver his address to the distinguished invitees from the two parties. There was a chuckle all around, and an embarrassed Randeniya quickly recovered. Underscoring the spirit prevailing, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe turned to the President and said "Bandaranaike-la hewanella wage innawa ne" (The Bandaranaikes are there like your shadow isn't it).

In happier days SLFP Gen. Secretary Maithripal Sirisena greeting JVP Gen. Secretary Tilvyn Silva after the signing of an agreement to form the UPFA and work together.Then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa looks on.

Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike was seated only two seats away from the President, next only to the Prime Minister whose job was his for the asking, but which he abdicated when he did not campaign for Rajapaksa last November.

Randeniya was not the only embarrassed soul that day. Earlier, UNP's deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya was asked by the party's outgoing chairman Malik Samarawickrama to come to light the lamp, but when the announcer read out the names of the persons who were to light the lamp, it was Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and party secretary Maithripala Sirisena from the SLFP, Wickremesinghe, Samarawickrama and Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara from the UNP, who were asked to light the lamp.

It was indeed a momentous day. Not since the SLFP was founded by the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike -- together with D.M. Rajapaksa and others, had the party joined hands with its arch-foe, the UNP to work together towards nation building. Significantly, it was probably only in 1971, that the UNP, also in opposition at the time, offered its support to the SLFP Government of the day to quell an armed insurgency of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

History was being repeated, in a sense, though under different circumstances, and the UNP-SLFP marriage had resulted in the SLFP giving the boot to its one-time partner, the JVP.

At least one outcome of this MoU is the distancing of the JVP from the Rajapaksa Presidency. They say politics make strange bedfellows. And Rajapaksa, who rode to power on the JVP bandwagon, had not only ditched them but also infuriated them.

He made many overtures to maintain a continuing dialogue with the JVP to soothe the tensions and urge his erstwhile comrades and king-makers to continue the political love affairs. Emissaries offered date after date on which Rajapaksa wished to meet with JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe and a delegation. But the JVP kept on telling him they were far too busy.

That was true. They were very busy castigating Rajapaksa for betraying the Mahinda Chinthana. JVP leaders were doing so at Jana Sanvaada meetings. Their hierarchy had decided that 10,000 such meetings should be held countrywide. In a few of the meetings that have already got under way, Rajapaksa has come in for bitter criticism for betraying the mandate people gave him during last November's Presidential elections. The details were given one after the other to project that Rajapaksa was a leader who would do anything for political opportunism and survival.

The tempo is to be stepped up now. That is with the return to Sri Lanka of JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe. He was in Turkey on an official invitation extended by that Government. Yesterday, the JVP Politburo was set to meet to step up its campaign against what it calls Rajapaksa's betrayal. Contrary to speculation, the JVP has not written to Rajapaksa delivering him an ultimatum.

JVP sources say after yesterday's Politburo meeting, they will put Rajapaksa and his Government on notice. This is not only on reneging on promises made in the Mahinda Chinthana. They will also list out a number of other outstanding issues. Already the JVP has written to Rajapaksa asking him to immediately put in place state machinery in the East. This is after the Supreme Court decision de-merging the Northern and Eastern provinces. If this is not heeded, the JVP wants to make this also a campaign issue.

This UNP-SLFP marriage was clearly the initiative of a section within the UNP that was clamouring for Ministerial posts. They first tried a cross-over; but were prevented by the JVP that was still holding the reins of the fledgling Rajapaksa Presidency and influencing its decisions. Rajapaksa himself tried to win over more and more UNPers, but the numbers (in Parliament) were not sufficient for him to run a long-term trouble-free Administration. So, he went for the next option; cohabitation with the UNP.

These UNPers met Rajapaksa and his partymen behind-the-scenes and forced the hand of Wickremesinghe to agree to cohabit. A paper called Structure for Collaboration was drafted whereby it provided for UNP MPs to sit in the Opposition and be Ministers in the Rajapaksa Government.

This is the point at which point Wickremesinghe came hands-on and scuttled the move. He decided to take the negotiations to Rajapaksa on a one-to-one, and when the MoU finally came to be signed -- there was no reference to UNPers being made Cabinet Ministers.

It is for this reason, that the original brokers were the unhappiest persons at the MoU signing ceremony last Monday. They were stunned when Ven. Sobitha Thera told the gathering that the Buddhist clergy welcomed this rapprochement between the two parties, but that this exercise must not be clouded by the craving for Ministerial posts. So, when Rajapaksa asked them all to stay for lunch, they could not stomach what had happened, so they left.

On Friday, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe met for 40 minutes for the first time since the MoU was signed, and the only two topics that were discussed were the High Level Committee that was to take this cohabitation forward through some kind of modalities for co-operation; and the issue of political victimization of UNPers. There was no other subject discussed, and the issue of UNPers taking Ministries was not only not discussed, but there wasn't a hint of anything like it.

The High Level Committee is to be co-chaired by Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, but the UNP Leader's appointment of the other three members to the Committee -- deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya, incoming chairman Rukman Senanayake and ex-Speaker Joseph Michael Perera, has sidelined those who were the most eager on this cohabitation.

Prof. G.L. Peiris was one of the unhappy men. He was arguably the keenest of them all to forge this process of cohabitation. He was the author of all the documentation connected with the initial discussion, as was the one who introduced the paper for UNPers to become Ministers. On Thursday, he sought and obtained an appointment with Wickremesinghe.

At 11 am., Peiris came to see Wickremesinghe and asked him why there was no structural agreement - no documentation - no papers - no details on the manner in which the UNP would give support to the Rajapaksa Presidency. Wickremesinghe said that the spirit of cohabitation was what was more important. He said good relations were the key, and that in such partnerships one must not restrict flexibility.

Then, Peiris asked what the future of ex-SLFP General Secretary S.B. Dissanayake was in the UNP.

S.B. Dissanayake has been, for some time, knocking on the door of the UNP leadership asking for a leadership role himself. He is now asking that he be made the party's Assistant Leader cum National Organiser Secretary. This would effectively make him next to Karu Jayasuriya, but remarks Dissanayake is purported to have made at a party that he would "kick Karu Jayasuriya around like a football" - have been conveyed to Jayasuriya. This prompted his son-in-law and National List MP Naveen Dissanayake to ask Wickremesinghe whether there were plans afoot to give S.B. Dissanayake such an exalted position in the party.

Wickremesinghe told S.B. Dissanayake himself that he could not assure him such a post as there were other senior partymen, and what was more, the party constitution stated that where there is an Assistant Leader, as the case was when the late Gamini Athukorale was 'kicked upstairs' from General Secretaryship in 2001, the post must be held by an MP. Stripped of his civic rights, S.B. Dissanayake was also stripped of his seat in Parliament.

Now, S.B. Dissanayake has submitted a string of resolutions for the party to take up at the annual convention due on Nov. 19. He had come with party senior M.H. Mohamed to meet party secretary N. Weragoda with a bagful of resolutions. Among them was one to make him the Assistant Leader of the party. Ironically, the resolutions did not have a seconder. Even Mohamed had not seconded them.

Another resolution was directly aimed at restricting the powers of the Party Leader, while others questioned the appointment of a new party chairman in Rukman Senanayake and a new party secretary in Tissa Attanayake.

UNP's Resolutions Committee will now study all these resolutions, as well draft new ones that need to be passed at the convention. This committee comprises Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya, Malik Samarawickrama, N. Weragoda, Rukman Senanayake, Tissa Attanayake, Jayawickrama Perera, Kabeer Hashim, Gamini Lokuge and representatives from the trade unions, women's leagues and the parliamentary group. Judging by the members, it seems unlikely that S.B. Dissanayake's resolutions will get much accommodation.

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe summit this Friday also discussed the possible fallout from the Geneva peace talks now in progress. The UNP will come into the All Party Committee that is working out a national consensus to provide a political solution to the northern insurgency.

Wickremesinghe appointed former Finance and Constitutional Affairs Minister Kasi Choksy and G.L. Peiris to this Committee. Significantly omitted is Milinda Moragoda, who together with Peiris teamed up as the UNP Government's peace negotiators with the LTTE from 2002-2004.

Moragoda, who continues his boycott of the party leader, has now been dropped by Wickremesinghe from his meetings with foreign dignitaries. Recently, Wickremesinghe met Japanese special envoy Yasushi Akashi and US Assistant State Secretary Richard Boucher without asking Moragoda to join in.

Both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe decided to wait for the M.D.D. Peiris Experts Committee report that was due to make recommendations for a political settlement to the northern insurgency. But in the process, Rajapaksa has opened up a new flank -- the JVP, and how they react to what the UNP and SLFP jointly decide to do, would be clearly the political events that will unfold in the weeks to come.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.