ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 24
Columns - Political Column

How Ranil defused the revolt

  • SB - Ranil meet and make up
  • President meets JVP tomorrow to seek its support again

By Our Political Editor

The negotiations got underway last Sunday night with a dinner hosted by former Christian Affairs and Interior Minister John Amaratunga. The main Opposition United National Party (UNP) was on the verge of a major split, and Ranil Wickremesinghe no longer its undisputed leader.

On Wickremesinghe's behalf were the host himself, ex-Speaker Joseph Michael Perera, one-time NWP Chief Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Lakshman Seneviratne, Tissa Attanayake and Bodhi Ranasinghe. On the 'Reformists' side were former Ministers Gamini Lokuge, Dharmadasa Banda and P. Dayaratne.

The eating must have been taken very seriously, for the meeting got really nowhere. They adjourned for a Monday luncheon meeting starting at 11 a.m at P. Dayaratne's house. There, the 'Reformists' - those who wanted to clip the wings of the Party Leader came better represented. G.L. Peiris, S.B. Dissanayake, Mano Wijeratne, and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene joined the trio of the previous night, while the Wickremesinghe Camp dropped Jayawickrama Perera from their side on the basis that they were not too sure if the politician from Kurunegala was with them, really.

This was a more substantial meeting where there was some camaraderie displayed. S.B. Dissanayake went to the extent of saying that the eight resolutions he signed asking for reforms within the party were not really his own, they were a collective decision - that he only "belled the cat" - and played the role of the pusa (the cat).

The one nagging problem however was the appointment of Tissa Attanayaka as the new Party Secretary. They could not agree to this, and the 'Reformists' kept throwing up the name of Jayawickrama Perera.

Many of the so-called Dissanayake Resolutions were amended - for example, the suggestion to include 22 District Chairmen and 22 District Secretaries in the Working Committee was pruned to a total of 22 from the Districts on the simple basis that the room in which Working Committee (WC) meetings are held can't accommodate more than 100. The WC now has 86.

At 5 p.m. that Tuesday - 24 hours before the WC was scheduled to meet, yet another attempt was made at reaching a settlement. This time, they met at Dharmadasa Banda's house. This meeting got acrimonious when Rajitha Senaratne walked in and Lakshman Seneviratne objected to his presence saying the negotiating teams cannot be expanded at this stage thereby further complicating matters.

A proposal to have Attanayake and Jayawickrama Perera as joint secretaries as a way out was overruled on the grounds that the Elections Commissioner had held against such a post on a previous occasion involving the JHU. The meeting ended abruptly as Joseph Michael Perera walked out of it saying it was heading nowhere.

Then came Wednesday, the day of the WC meeting. A proposal was made to have incumbent Secretary N. Weragoda remain in that post as a compromise choice, and Attanayake stay as Assistant Secretary. The Wickremesinghe Group refused to budge. It was Attanayake - or a vote at the WC for them.

Lokuge (one-time Tourism Minister) and Ranasinghe (one-time Hotel Corporation Chairman) now on opposite camps, were kept at the Opposition Leader's Office at Cambridge Terrace till the Reformists gave the green light, but none showed, and at 2:45 that afternoon the former called the latter to call it a day. A showdown was fast approaching, both sides seeing who will blink first.

At 4:30 - half an hour before the scheduled WC meeting, the two sides met again at one last throw of the dice. Enter Ravi Karunanayake. Nobody was quite sure on what side he was. That guessing game paid Karunanayake dividends as he came as the Good Samaritan by offering a Committee to study these reforms as the answer to the impasse - with himself of course, on it.

Outgoing Chairman Malik Samarawickrama presided at this meeting inside the Party Secretary's Office. Here, Karunanayake, G.L. Peiris and Rajitha Senaratne were bitter critics of the Party Leader. At times the exchanges were heated. Peiris once insisted that these resolutions must be passed - sammatha karanna oney; to which Lakshman Seneviratne said he had come to saakachcha (discuss) not sammatha (pass) these resolutions.

This meeting went on for almost three hours, mainly on the appointment of Attanayake - to the crucial post of Party Secretary. Everyone knows why that post is important. That is the post the Elections Commissioner recognises as the official stamp of the party, especially for party recognition, symbol recognition, and at election time. The Wickremesinghe Group must surely have realised the extraordinary interest shown by the 'Reformists' for that post.

But the Reformists probably realised they would not be able to muster the numbers to out-vote the Wickremesinghe Group at the WC.

Just the previous day, Wickremesinghe's Office asked 65 of the 86 WC members to a meeting with the Party Leader. Forty turned up, and five who didn't come, pledged their support; while the balance 20 came in from the Provinces the next day and also assured support. Known opponents were not invited - so were some of the fence-sitters.

Bandula Gunawardene was one of the 40 present. After meeting Wickremesinghe, he went to a dinner that night hosted by Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, where the 'Reformists' were assembled, and told them about the numbers that had pledged their support to Wickremesinghe.

Behind the scenes, Wickremesinghe's apparatchiks were preparing for war. They knew the 'Reformists' had 12 speakers; who they were; and what they would say.

They had 12 to match them, in sound and in substance. Then, they left the heavy artillery - Vajira Abeywardene, Johnston Fernando and the like, for the final onslaught.

While the last minute negotiations were in progress, the party hierarchy - Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya at loggerheads no doubt - hadn't yet lost their nerve. They decided that they will keep out of the fray themselves, and allow their respective Camps to do the negotiating.

Both share the same room at 'Siri Kotha', the Party Headquarters, and they spent some awkward moments seated at their respective tables - without talking to one another - until a verdict had been reached.

Both groups then went in to meet the UNP leader with the settlement that had been eventually reached. It was finally agreed to support Attanayake as the Party Secretary. As they made known their joint decision, Wickremesinghe pulled out a rabbit from his hat - or so to say, the trump card he had kept with him since the previous day.

It was in the form of a legal opinion he had obtained from President's Counsel L.C. Seneviratne on the eight resolutions submitted under S.B. Dissanayake's hand. The opinion held that the eight resolutions were ultra-vires the UNP Constitution. In short, the eight resolutions drafted by a Professor of Law, were all invalid.

Wickremesinghe then read out the opinion to the two groups for the first time;

The opinion stated that S.B. Dissanayake had proposed far-reaching changes to the UNP Constitution and had submitted them within the stipulated time period (but then, that seemed to be the only thing he had done correct). He had not even stated whether his resolutions were aimed at amending the UNP Constitution by addition, deletion, repeal or replacement of a provision - which was a legal requirement.

With regard to each of the eight resolutions, the opinion said (extracts);

"……….Resolution No. 1 seeks to completely change or alter the composition of the UNP Working Committee. Accordingly the Leader of the Party would be able to nominate only 10 members and the other members would be appointed as specified in the Resolution. As this Resolution results in amendments to the Constitution, it would be necessary for the proposed Resolution to state in terms of Article 5.3 if the said Resolution is to be accepted. But the proposed Resolution 1 does not state so and is therefore not in compliance with Article 5.3 of the UNP Constitution.

" Resolution 2 - This Resolution seeks to amend the manner or mode of the appointment of several office bearers of the Party. The Deputy Leader, Assistant Leader, Chairman of the Party, General Secretary and the General Treasurer of the Party are all appointed in terms of the provisor of the Constitution. ………The proposed Resolution 2 does not state so and is therefore not in compliance with Article 5.3 of the UNP Constitution.

" Resolution 3 - This resolution contemplates the appointment of the office bearers named therein to be appointed at the Annual Party Convention to be held on 19 November 2006 should be ratified by necessary amendments to the Party Constitution to be effected at a subsequent Convention to be held within three months. Amendments of the Constitution cannot take place ex-post facto the compliance with Article 5.3 of the UNP Constitution.

" Resolution 4 - This Resolution seeks to reject the General Secretary appointed by the Party Leader on 3 October 2006. ……..In any event in terms of Article 8.6 (a) the Leader shall nominate the General Secretary and in terms of Article 8.6 (c) the person so nominated by the Leader shall be ratified at the Convention of the Party. Therefore the Annual Party Convention is obliged to ratify the appointment of the General Secretary.

" Resolution 5 - This resolution also, for the same reasons as apply to Resolution 3, contrary to the UNP Constitution. Before any person can be nominated and appointed to a particular Post, that Post must be created in accordance with the UNP Constitution…...
" Resolution 6 - This Resolution states that any provision in the UNP Constitution contrary to the Resolutions Nos. 1 to 8 must be deleted. It is thus an omnibus Resolution. …Thus this Resolution is invalid.

" Resolution 7 - This Resolution states that any Rule promulgated under the UNP Constitution which is contrary to the Resolutions Nos. 1 to 8 must be deleted. It is thus an omnibus Resolution…. Thus this resolution is invalid.

" Resolution 8 - This Resolution is not valid in the form in which it is proposed…..

" ….. For the reasons set out above, we are of the opinion that the above eight Resolutions proposed by Mr. S.B. Dissanayake are not valid and are contrary to the procedure for the amendment of the UNP Constitution. As such the Working Committee should not place these 8 Resolutions on the Agenda to be placed before the Annual Party Convention scheduled to be held on 19 November 2006 for consideration or acted upon by the Convention.

" It must be noted that in terms of Article 10.6 of the Constitution, voting at the Annual Party Convention shall be by ballot or by any other method at the discretion of the Leader or the person who presides thereat. However, the Constitution does not specify the manner of conducting a vote of the Working Committee. Therefore the Working Committee must decide by a vote taken in the customary manner, i.e. by a show of hands".

An acceptable settlement - and a legal opinion under his belt, Wickremesinghe was understandably in a magnanimous mood. He told the self-styled 'Reformists' that he could have "thrown out" these resolutions, but he would rather keep the unity of the party, and so accommodate their suggestions. Having said that, they all trooped to the WC meeting where the others had been waiting for over two and a half hours.

It was around 7.30 pm when the Working Committee eventually assembled for the meeting. The compromise formula was briefly, as follows;

  • The reforms called for be entered in the WC minutes
  • None of the eight resolutions be accepted in their original form
  • The composition of the WC and the Political Affairs Committee be changed by discussion between the two factions
  • A Reforms Implementation Committee be constituted comprising the Leader, the Deputy Leader, Ravi Karunanayake (some objected to him) and two others.
  • The composition of the future Working Committee would be as follows;

The Leader, Deputy Leader, Chairman, General Secretary, Treasurer, National Organiser, 4 Senior Vice Chairmen, 6 Vice Chairmen, District Chairmen, 5 MPs elected by the Parliamentary group, Chairmen and Secretaries of the JSS, LJEWU, Teachers Union, State Employees Union, Convenors of the Law, University Students, Doctors, Farmers, Fisheries, Arts unions, Chairmen and secretaries of the Youth, Women, Students wings, Chief Ministers or Leaders of the Opposition in the Provincial Councils, Pradeshiya Sabha Chairmen or Leaders of the Opposition, Group Leaders representatives, Mayors, Leaders of the Opposition or group Leaders in local councils, 15 appointed by the Party Leader, and representatives from any party organizations the Working Committee deems fit to appoint.

The entire WC was there in force when the meeting began - except for one staunch Wickremesinghe voter - Rosy Senanayake, the former Mrs. World who was in the UK. What was to be a ruckus event, turned out to be a rather damp squib. It lasted less than half an hour.

A jubilant Wickremesinghe emerged to face the flashing cameras and microphones of the media corps assembled outside, and to the cheers and crackers of supporters - bus loads of people from Hanguranketha and Kalutara having long left as the evening grew older and the news had filtered through that the Reformists putsch had not succeeded. They had a long way to go back home. Those who remained were the supporters brought by the Wickremesinghe Camp.

That evening's dinner and musical show to celebrate the 'revolution' was called off, as the vanquished S.B. Dissanayake called the victorious Party Leader shortly past 11 p.m. and asked for an appointment to see him. Having first advised him not to fall prey to the schemes of others, Wickremesinghe said he would meet Dissanayake after the 10:30 a.m. conference the next morning (Thursday).

But the two eventually met only on Friday morning. Both apologized to each other - Wickremesinghe saying that he may have delayed the Party reforms process, and Dissanayake saying he was only interested in inner-party democracy, but that he was firmly behind the Party Leader, and would not leave the Party.

It was interesting that he would refer to 'leaving the Party'. There had been much speculation that the modus-operandi of this new drive for Party reforms was to take the shape of a walk-out of the WC meeting, followed by taking the UNP to court against the WC, and for it to culminate in an eventual cross-over by these UNPers to the ranks of the Government with the obvious aim of clinching portfolios. The fact that at least one of the Reformists leaders secretively had a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Friday before without informing Wickremesinghe or his own fellow travellers, only thickened the plot.

The UNP seems to work a lot around lunches and dinners, and it was therefore no surprise that Ravi Karunanayake was quick to host a post-WC party at his residence. He had been one of the first to burst into the Party Leader's office after the settlement had been reached to congratulate him on overcoming this 'crisis', and said how happy he was at the way it ended; only to be spoilt by Lakshman Seneviratne who came behind him, and overhearing those remarks, said " Are these the things you said at the discussions - why are you saying different things at different places?". Keen to avoid a scene, Karunanayake withdrew with his books in hand.

The Party he later hosted was a "Victory party for the Leader", and probably meant to break some ice - both into the glasses as well as politically.

There was a lot of the former, but very little of the latter. Milinda Moragoda, the one-time protégé now turned conspirator of Wickremesinghe downfall continued with his 7-week long boycott of his one-time mentor.

As this column had it last week, he had been busy directing operations from the Singapore Hyatt the whole of last week. On his arrival in Colombo on Tuesday, he had summoned his coordinators for a strategy session on the 'Way Forward'. Moragoda had clearly identified himself with the anti-Ranil Camp. His office was a hive of activity typing letters, printing posters, delivering statements to the press, making calls, all against the Party Leader.

At this meeting, Moragoda had got some UPG (United Professional Group) members - the Party's so-called intellectuals - to compare their own reform proposals with those sent by S.B. Dissanayake. Questions were being asked as to why these UPG proposals should be discussed at Moragoda's office; after all, this was an official Party group - not a Moragoda group.

(As an aside, the Founder-Convenor of the UPG Tudor Munasinghe has written in to say that he had only asked Party Leader Wickremesinghe to consider the UPG proposals on party reforms together with the N.G.P. Panditharatne Committee report -- and that he had not supported the Dissanayake reforms).

Meanwhile, Moragoda had boasted that he and Karu Jayasuriya could get Cabinet posts just for the asking, but they would rather reform the Party.

Despite all this pre-conference hype, Moragoda did not say a word at the WC meeting. Nor did he take any active part in the negotiations showing how averse he is to arguing his case in the face of a hostile audience. He was busy doing nothing, really. Most of his viewpoint had to be articulated by Matara MP Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene.

At the Karunanayake party, he looked at, but did not talk to Wickremesinghe. So too was G.L. Peiris to ignore his Party Leader.

Wickremesinghe and his loyalists were able to arrest and put down the party revolt, but the UNP remains a Dis-United National Party. What arguably gave Wickremesinghe some advantage in this issue was the twin factors that the coup leaders were seen as adventurists - or buccaneers who jump from one ship to another in search of a mess of pottage; and the other, that with the exception of a few - they were not long-time UNPers in the first place.

S.B. Dissanayake and G.L. Peiris have been in the UNP for hardly five years. Moragoda, Karunanayake, Hemakumara Nanayakkara, Rajitha Senarathne for not that much longer.

But Wickremesinghe also saw some of the Old Guard turn against him - M.H. Mohamed, Dharmadasa Banda, Gamini Lokuge and P. Dayaratne. Many opted to remain silent not agreeing with either of the two factions.

An angry Wickremesinghe Camp made it a point to indicate that in all this excitement, Karu Jayasuriya's name has yet to be nominated to continue as Deputy Leader by the Party Leader at the Annual Convention next week.

Some years ago, then UNP Leader J.R. Jayewardene was under some pressure to appoint a Deputy Leader. The shrewd man he was, Jayewardene appointed R. Premadasa as 'Deputy to the Leader' - not Deputy Leader.

The healing process will surely have to begin very soon if the UNP is not to be relegated permanently to the Opposition. There are miles to go and work to do. Outflanking your Party upstarts - and winning elections - are two different things.

Meanwhile, the south resembled a battle zone where troops and police were ready to respond if there were guerrilla attacks this week. Naval craft patrolled the seas off Tangalle. Armoured Vehicles and heavily armed troops were on the ready. This week President Rajapaksa was at his country residence "Carlton" in Tangalle. It was for ceremonies connected with the death anniversary of his father D.R. Rajapaksa. Security precautions were so tight that roads had to be temporarily closed.

There were complaints that some children were unable to attend school. Rajapaksa used the opportunity of his sojourn in the south to speak to local SLFP politicians. Some of them made it a point to relate what went on during the JVP Jana Sangvaada (People's Debate). They said the President was severely criticized. They wanted him to counter the situation. "Balamu, Balamu," (Let us see, Let us see) Rajapaksa responded with a broad smile. Some also spoke of the SLFP's Memorandum of Understanding with the UNP. The accord, they said, had not gone down well with the local level membership of both the SLFP and the UNP. He was also in touch with UNP leader Wickremesinghe on the telephone from Tangalle. They had several lengthy conversations at least one extending to almost an hour.

Though he planned a meeting with the JVP last Tuesday, Rajapaksa was still in Tangalle. He got a message across to the JVP that he was unable to keep the engagement. Later, on Tuesday forenoon Rajapaksa returned to Colombo. The Air Force VIP helicopter bringing him touched down at the grounds opposite Parliament fuelling speculation that he would visit the House. Security personnel in Parliament were alerted. Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva even walked into the President's office in Parliament to see whether he had turned up. Police Chief Victor Perera who was at a Consultative Committee meeting in Parliament was also told that the President was due.

Instead Rajapaksa alighted from the helicopter, boarded his official vehicle and drove to a funeral. Thereafter he visited the Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital to meet with injured soldiers. He also kept a close watch on developments within the UNP, particularly what would portend on Wednesday when their Working Committee met.

Rajapaksa was yet conscious of JVP's reluctance earlier to meet him. He questioned an aide whether the JVP was still reluctant to meet him. When told they were not averse to such a meeting, Rajapaksa invited them for a meeting tomorrow morning at Temple Trees. The JVP team will be led by leader Somawansa Amerasinghe and includes General Secretary Tilvin Silva and Parliamentary Group leader Wimal Weerawansa. Rajapaksa is to give them a brief on Tuesday's budget proposals and seek the JVP support.

For the JVP the date is significant. It marks the anniversary of the capture and death of their leader, Rohana Wijeweera. A commemoration event is scheduled for tomorrow evening at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.

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