ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 34
Columns - Political Column

Crossovers at the cross roads

  • Maha Nayakes play mediatory role in Ranil-Karu dispute
  • Lokuge, Dayaratne propose compromise deal
  • Numbers game goes on as President reflects on possible backlash from his party
  • Alles, Sooriyaratchchi complain of getting Samaraweera treatment

By Our Political Editor

In what appears to be a last ditch bid to salvage Sri Lanka's Grand Old Party -- the UNP -- it seems the leadership has turned to the country's traditional advisers to the kings -- the Buddhist clergy.

Over the weekend, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has decided to journey upto Kandy to pay a courtesy call on the two Maha Nayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters. He has told them that he hadn't visited them for the New Year, thus the visit, but the fact that they discussed the impending mass crossover by a section of his MPs into the Government was not a mere co-incidence.

Only three weeks ago, the Maha Nayakes were reported to have sent a joint letter to the UNP leader requesting him to re-appoint Karu Jayasuriya, the deposed deputy leader of the party. That letter never reached the UNP leader was the official stance of the Wickremesinghe loyalists running the Opposition Leader's office at Cambridge Terrace in Colombo 7.

Jayasuriya hotly denies that he canvassed that letter or that he is canvassing for his old post in the party. He keeps mum about whether he is to actually cross over to the Government; his silence clearly fuelling the open secret that he is indeed loining his cloth to jump across. Talking of which, it was only the other day that he refused to meet Wickremesinghe at his Cambridge Terrace office on the footing that the leader's loyalists there were waiting to strip him of his clothes, were he to step in -- Ehe innawa mage redda galawanna inna minussu.

The animus between the Wickremesinghe loyalists and the Jayasuriya faction within the UNP has now developed into proportions similar to the Dudley Senanayake-J.R. Jayewardene rift that almost split the party in the early 1970s, and the actual rift in the party when President R. Premadasa was unable to keep the likes of Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali within the fold, and they broke-away in the 1990s to damage the party almost irrevocably.

Last Monday, the Jayasuriya faction had gone to see President Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss a crossover. Jayasuriya insists that whatever decision he takes, he will remain a UNPer. This new trend in Sri Lankan politics, given the green-light by the Supreme Court, for an MP to remain a member of an opposition party and still sit in the Cabinet has opened the flood-gates for those who want the best of both worlds, satisfying their conscience and their party supporters that they are loyal to their party, and get the plums of ministerial office at the same time.

To ensure they remained members of the UNP, eight of the now certain 18 UNP MPs ear-marked to join the Rajapaksa Government came for the party's Working Committee meeting on Wednesday. Wickremesinghe, as party leader is entitled to appoint 50 members, the balance 43 to comprise the various office-bearers. As a first step in reconciliation, Wickremesinghe nominated Jayasuriya and most of the imminent crossovers into the Working Committee -- 14 of the 18 destined to cross-over.

They all came, because it was the first Working Committee meeting after last December's controversial convention which was boycotted by most of them, like G.L. Peiris, Milinda Moragoda, Gamini Lokuge, P. Dayaratne and Hemakumara Nanayakkara. What was most important for them was that the party's annual membership drive starts off at this Working Committee meeting with them purchasing their party membership cards.

So, by paying Rs. 20/- they have now confirmed their membership in the UNP, even if some of them are hell-bent on joining the Rajapaksa Government.

Those Wickremesinghe dropped from his list of 50 were Wijeyapala Mendis, Dharmadasa Banda and Imitiaz Bakeer-Markar, the three party members who took the leadership to court in an aborted bid to stall the party convention. Others like M.H. Mohamed who was not present, were to be appointed with the list of office-bearers at the next WC meeting on January 23.

Wickremesinghe briefed the WC members about his meeting with Rajapaksa late last December and on Tuesday, the day before the WC meeting. But Jayasuriya & Co., refused to brief the WC members about theirs with Rajapaksa. They seemed to have come for just one purpose -- to collect their UNP membership card.

After that meeting, however, two members Lokuge, now back in the mainstream party-fold after making some moves to cross, and P. Dayaratne, almost a certainty to jump, met Wickremesinghe for a discussion. They told him that the Government had offered 10 cabinet ministries and 10 deputy ministerships to UNP crossovers. Earlier, Rajapaksa had told the UNP leader that it was not he who was canvassing UNP crossovers, but vice-versa.

The Lokuge-Dayaratne combine proposed a formula which they felt would keep the party intact. To appoint 20 MPs officially from the party to join the Government, rather than being a UNP break-away group in the Government. And finally, they asked, that Karu Jayasuriya be re-instated as the party's deputy leader.

Wickremesinghe was not totally averse to this proposal from what it seems. He has told the Lokuge-Dayaratne duo that he would appoint a committee headed by the party's new chairman, Rukman Senanayake, with former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera and Gamini Jayawickrama Perera together with a senior lawyer to go into the matter and see if there could be a compromise reached to the simmering discontent within the party, with some wanting nothing less that a cabinet portfolio.

A last-ditch effort to have a UNP summit of sorts before the WC meeting did not materialise. Wickremesinghe's office asked if Jayasuriya could meet him for a one-on-one at 4 p.m. that Wednesday, half an hour before the meeting was to start. Jayasuriya had turned down the meeting, but agreed to meet later. Wickremesinghe loyalists were to say these were the people who go crying to Rajapaksa saying that the party leader does not speak to them.

A meeting was then arranged for Friday afternoon, but Wickremesinghe was to leave for Kandy to meet the Maha Nayakes, so it has now been scheduled for Monday. Jayasuriya is at pains to say that the meeting is to discuss "the situation in the country, and the UNP", and is not about his deputy leadership.

The Karu Jayasuriya faction that is still wavering on whether to join the Government, or not, says that if Jayasuriya is to be given the deputy leadership, then they won't go across. "Is this the burning issue now?" ask the Wickremesinghe loyalists, who point out that even Rajapaksa had told the UNP leader when they met at the Presidential Secretariat why he doesn't give back to his erstwhile deputy, that post.

A group of Buddhist monks close to both Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya also tried to intervene. Some of them are the ones who once took it upon themselves to convince the Colombo electorate that UNP MP Milinda Moragoda was a "good Buddhist" when there was some doubt as to his religion. They too requested Wickremesinghe to re-appoint Jayasuriya to his post.

These moves come in the wake of reports that Rajapaksa is unable to offer Jayasuriya and Moragoda substantial ministries were they to cross over for fear of a backlash from his own partymen. Though the SLFP Central Committee rubber-stamped what the President and the Cabinet earlier decided, i.e. to take over UNP crossovers, it is an open secret within the SLFP that crossovers are not that welcome given their political history and leanings.

The numbers game for a mass crossover still goes on, in spite of efforts to patch differences between Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya.

Karu Jayasuriya's son-in-law, Naveen Dissanayake, is one of those actively telephoning around, while Jayasuriya himself studiously avoids discussing such matters with ordinary MPs. "Non-cabinet posts are available", is the advertisement that is being placed on the notice board.

Some early crossover candidates have dropped out, in the meantime. One of them is Mahinda Wijesekera, who confirmed he would not be doing so shortly before emplaning on a holiday to the Maldive islands. His political ally for sometime S.B. Dissanayake is another, even though he was promised by the crossover enthusiasts that they would get Rajapaksa to speak to the Chief Justice and grant him a Presidential pardon so that he could get his civic rights restored.

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe himself enplanes on yet another tour abroad next week when he goes to India. This time he will be accompanied by Ravi Karunanayake, Sajith Premadasa and Lakshman Kiriella. They are likely to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Opposition BJP Leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Rajapaksa had been angry at what he felt were attempts by Wickremesinghe to prejudice foreign governments against his method of tackling the LTTE problem and the resultant human rights violations that accrued. Wickremesinghe raised this issue with Rajapaksa when they met, and Rajapaksa down-played the issue saying he was not angry with him, but Wickremesinghe maintained that Rajapaksa needed to watch his human rights record purely because he was known in foreign capitals as a one-time champion of human rights.

The two also discussed the role of the media in the current situation, and Rajapaksa was critical of a section of the independent media. There seemed to be some hint Rajapaksa was conveying to the UNP leader in so much as saying that he may be behind this orchestration against his government. The President related this to undermining the MoU between the UNP and the SLFP, which Wickremesinghe said was at stake were the cross-overs to take place. Wickremesinghe was to later tell his loyalists that the number of newspapers he is supposed to edit, and the number of TV and radio stations he is supposed to control would make international press barons like Rupert Murdoch and others look like a mediocrities. But it is not only Wickremesinghe who is beset with internal party problems. It appears that President Rajapaksa has his own share within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

One such case is the sharp differences of opinion between him and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. They exacerbated over the appointment of Palitha Kohona as the Foreign Secretary last week.

Early this week, Rajapaksa had summoned meetings of the SLFP Central Committee as well as the all Island body of party representatives. It was to win their endorsement for the crossover by UNPs MPs. Samaraweera was a notable absentee. He had told party seniors he would be in Galle and they were welcome to contact him on the phone if there was any requirement. There was, however, no phone calls to him.

A greater shock for Samaraweera came when one of his closest confidante's, Tiran Alles, Chairman of the Airports and Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka, was in trouble this week. Income Tax officials raided three of the concerns he was directly associated with. One was the recently launched Maubima newspaper that was reportedly critical of both President Rajapaksa and his brother, Senior Advisor Basil Rajapaksa. Raids were also conducted on his father's international school, Gateway International, and the CBE Group.

An infuriated Alles telephoned Lalith Weeratunga, President's Secretary to complain. The mobile phone line was not clear. But moments later Alles had a call from President Rajapaksa himself. During the conversation Rajapaksa asked Alles whether he thought he, the President, was responsible for the action by the tax men.

"Do you think I did that?" he asked. Alles replied that someone had done a "dirty thing" to him. Alles was to tell close friends that he had been very helpful to President Rajapaksa. That had of course included the role of playing intermediary during good times between Rajapaksa and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

He had said all the good he did has been forgotten now by Rajapaksa. There was another who had a tale of woe. That was another Samaraweera confidante, Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi.

One night he telephoned Basil Rajapaksa, the President's general factotum, seeking an urgent meeting. Basil, however, was with his brothers, the President and Defence Secretary Gothabaya, by then and had to tell Sooriyaratchchi that he would ring back. Late that night when Basil called him, Sooriyaratchchi wanted five minutes to call over. He met him and poured his heart out. "They are doing the same thing they did to Mangala," lamented Sooriyaratchchi only to be told that Samaraweera would eventually sort out his issues with President Rajapaksa.

In this backdrop close aides say Rajapaksa is worried about groups within the SLFP ganging up. It is in the light of this that he telephoned Anura Bandaranaike at Sethsiripaya one night. Anura was early on bed that night, not stepping out of his official bungalow, Sethsiripaya (formerly Acland House) for quite some time now since news spread of an impending Cabinet re-shuffle and his inevitable demotion. In his customary style Rajapaksa told Anura, "Lokka, how are you keeping. " He then got on to Sinhala and said "mama oyava soutthu keranne nehe (I will not humiliate you)" and asked him not to believe media reports that he was to be made the Minister of Co-operatives. Bandaranaike, who has already been told to vacate Sethsiripaya, was puzzled. "I will have to wait until Cabinet changes to see what I get," he told a close aide. "Many people say many things, but I do not know what to believe", he had added, wine glass in hand.

President Rajapaksa had also made many an attempt to meet with a delegation from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Several dates were given for the meeting but the JVP appears to have played hard to get. They were angered by Rajapaksa's move to receive a group of UNP MPs into the Government. Hence the JVP saw the invitation for a meeting with them as a "balancing act" and did want to make it appear they endorsed the cross-overs.

JVPers yesterday accused sections of the media of reporting that an umbrella organization of trade unions and other bodies of theirs was now meeting the President. The meeting was scheduled for yesterday.

Yesterday, the UNP Leader told the media after his meeting with the Maha Nayakes in Kandy, not to go by speculative media reports about what's happening inside the UNP. Everything is fine there, he said. "These newspapers only want to sell their papers," he said. So, now with the JVP accusing sections of the media, and Rajapaksa telling Bandranaike not to believe media reports, there seems to be some uncanny unanimity among these warring political leaders at least in some things.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.