ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46
Columns - Political Column  

Rice from moon for new sunrise

  • Govt. desperately tries to get staple food from neighbouring countries as CoL soars beyond planets
  • Hitherto united JVP plunged into Maha-Wansa battle

By Our Political Editor

It seems a strange co-incidence. Leaders of different political hues are trapped in crisis of disturbing proportions as another national New Year dawns today. For the Government and its leaders, the woes are too many. Mounting living costs brought in gloom for most homes this week. Shops and markets drew smaller crowds. Inter-monsoonal rains caused havoc to the rice harvest. Finding rice from abroad at lower prices, especially for the National New Year, was akin to looking for rice from the moon. World food stocks are not that plenty for any one country to draw like that. As the saying goes; stocks were not available 'for love or money'.

Last week, a Government dignitary was so desperate that he pleaded with an Asian rice producing country to agree at least on paper to sell Sri Lanka 100,000 tons of rice. It did not matter if a smaller quantity was actually delivered, they were told by the Sri Lankan government official. If people cannot be fed on rice, they could stomach propaganda, the freely available commodity in Sri Lanka, seems the moral of the story. The coming weeks will see a further fuel price hike, not to mention further hikes in milk food and gas prices.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa greets the President of the People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao on Thursday in Hainan Province. Pic Sudath Silva

Just two weeks ago, President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the unprecedented step of summoning field commanders prosecuting the war in the Wanni. In a bid to find out reasons for delays and reported high casualties in the light of heavy expenditure, he asked questions and made notes personally. Significant enough, that move saw him take personal control of the war effort - the Government's top priority issue. In the aftermath of last Sunday's dastardly killing of Highways Minister and his confidante, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, President Rajapaksa vowed again to defeat terrorism.

Rajapaksa was compelled to avoid Fernandopulle's funeral on Thursday. He flew to China on Wednesday on an earlier scheduled meeting. The mission, at least officially, was to take part in the Bo'ao Yazhou Luntan thee-day annual conference in the seaside town of Bo'ao, Hainan Province. It began on Friday. The Bo'ao Forum is a non-governmental non-profit organisation modelled after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Davos.

However, highly placed Government sources say there was more important business for Rajapaksa in China, the largest supplier of military hardware for the ongoing Eelam War IV with Tiger guerrillas. "He has to sort out some issues and also thank China for all its past help," during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the source said. However, the source declined to elaborate what they were discussing, except to say it centred on "a critical issue."

Equally important was a meeting with President Pervez Musharaff of Pakistan, which is the second largest supplier of military hardware to Sri Lanka. Musharraf is also attending the same conference. Only three other Presidents are attending this conference: Michelle Jeria Bachelet (Chile), Nambar Enkhbayar (Mongolia) and Jakaya Mirisho Kikwete (Tanzania). Prime Ministers taking part include Kevin Rudd (Australia). Among other participants are heads of corporate bodies and former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

For the Opposition United National Party (UNP), the main crisis appears to be its continued inability to harness the public anger against the Government over a multitude of issues. Its only campaign last week has been to break old clay pots and pans to protest the mounting cost of living. That it failed to generate much public enthusiasm and found little mention in the media is no surpirse. UNP leader Ranil Wickremdsinghe has taken wing to Myanmar (former Burma) in the meantime. He is visiting Bagan (formerly known as Pagan), one of two pre-eminent ancient cities in South East Asia, the other being Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Bagan has long connections with ancient Lanka and Buddhism.

But a much bigger battle, now dubbed as the Maha Wansa Battle, one between Wansas, leader Somawansa Amarasainghe and Propaganda Secretary and Parliamentary Group Leader Wimal Weerawansa, is taking place in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The Sunday Times reported exclusively in its front page lead story last week that Weerawansa would be suspended from his party with effect from May 10. A Central Committee decision to this effect also forbids its Central Committee members, with the exception of General Secretary Tilvin Silva, from speaking with Weerawansa.

In the wake of this, Weerawansa made an emotional speech in Parliament on Tuesday, He charged that anti-nationalist elements had infiltrated the party hierarchy to conspire against him and suppress the voice of junior party members. He complained that new ideas were not allowed to flow in the party, and insisted that the country's interest should be put before party interest.

Weerawansa said the Central Committee at a meeting on March 21 decided to suspend him after the Eastern Provincial Council elections on May 10. He said Central Committee members had been prohibited from speaking to him. "I don't know why I am being treated as a leper," he complained in an hour-long emotion-charged speech, and said that he was not shy of being emotional when speaking for his country.

The statement in Parliament turned out to be an event signalling a major split in the party. On Tuesday afternoon, eleven JVP parliamentarians who were backing Weerawansa wanted to hold a news conference but found a venue was not available. The Patriotic National Movement (PNM) of which Weerawansa is a key player had slotted a news conference at Hotel Nippon at 2 p.m. that day. It was cancelled and the dissident JVP MPs were allowed to use that venue for their news conference.

From Parliament, the eleven MPs were on their way to Hotel Nippon at Kompannaveediya. Proceeding to the venue in Kalutara District JVP parliamentarian Piyasiri Dissanayake's car was Ranaweera Pathirana (JVP - Anuradhapura District). An MP pointed at Pathirana and was heard to say, "He is with Lalkantha. Don't take him to the news conference" but no one took notice. K. D. Lalkantha is the JVP's trade union leader who is stuanchly behind party leader Amarasinghe.

At the news conference, the MPs took up the position that the Parliamentary Group was unaware of Weerawansa's fate until he made the statement earlier that day. They accused the party leadership of keeping it a secret and declared party leaders had become a pawn for a few conspirators. The lone voice of dissent came from Pathirana. He locked horns with Weerawansa backers. He said the issue was an internal matter that had to be sorted out at an intra party level than from outside. He was strongly critical of the Government.

Indications that the dissident MPs in the JVP had the backing of the Government came when two gazetted officers of the Police arrived at the hotel. It was soon after Pathirana had telephoned K.D. Lalkantha, MP to ask him to send a car for him to return to the JVP office in Battaramulla. Media personnel asked the two Police officers why they were present. They replied that they had come to provide security to parliamentarian Pathirana.

But Pathirana denied they had asked for it. It seemed a credible entry for a Guinness Book of Records about the Sri Lanka Police. They were prompt to provide security to an MP even before he asked or needed it. The dissident JVP MPs then drove to the PNM office in Borella. There, the eleven MPs had a meeting with Weerawansa who was waiting for them. He explained his side of the story. Elaborating on what he told Parliament, he said there had been differences among leading members from the time of the November 2005 Presidential Elections. He said there had been secret negotiations between some members of the UNP and an MP from the JVP, a conspirator. There was no room for democracy and we need to take important decisions, if things do not improve, Weerawansa told those backing him.

The group which met in the PNM office decided that no dissident MP should criticise the JVP or make statements detrimental to the party in public. It is only if the forces of conspiracy cannot be defeated that they should form a Deshapremi Peramuna (Patriotic Front).

However, such a Front will have no truck with the Government or the Opposition, they agreed. Political analysts believe staying 'neutral' in Parliament would be a better way for the dissidents to help the Government than join it. "That way they will show how credible and independent they are. But in reality they will function as an appendage of the Government," claimed a student of politics.

On Wednesday, JVP leader Amerasinghe and three party seniors held their own news conference to counter statements made by Weerawansa in Parliament and the dissident MPs at Hotel Nippon. Amarasinghe said personalities counted in the JVP as long as they carried a membership card. An angry Amerasinghe said in response to Weerawansa's comment that he could not visit Sigiriya and Adam's Peak as a youngster because of his devotion to the party that one needed to check the record books at Rest Houses and Circuit Bungalows. There was a deadly connotation in what he said. Later, some dissident MPs argued that the reference was not to Weerawansa. They said in fact parliamentarian Vijitha Herath had whispered this to Amarasinghe during the news conference but the remarks had not caught the attention of the JVP leader.

Amerasinghe said Weerawansa continued to refuse to make statements in Parliament critical of the Government. The JVP was totally opposed to the swoops by Police on lodges and boarding houses in Colombo. Weerawansa, the parliamentary group leader of the party, had refused to condemn the swoops. The high cost of living, which was affecting millions of people was another example. When The Sunday Leader newspaper was set on fire, despite their bitter opposition to that paper, the JVP had wanted it condemned in the name of media freedom. Amerasinghe accused the Government of doing that act. Yet, Weerawansa had not condemned it. The JVP had to turn to Anura Kumara Dissanayake to make speeches in Parliament.

Amerasinghe said Weerawansa was given a chance to appear before the Central Committee and the Politburo on March 1, 7, 11 and 13 to explain his conduct but he did not avail himself of the opportunity. His absence led to party General Secretary Tilvin Silva speaking to him on the telephone.

Amerasinghe denied accusations by dissident MPs that they were not kept informed. "The investigations have not progressed so far to keep the lower levels informed," he said. Amerasinghe was asked whether President Rajapaksa was behind the JVP drama. 'Let anybody dance, they have to dance in the open," he responded.

The same Wednesday, the dissident JVP MPs met at the PNM office once again. They named Kalutara District MP Jayantha Samaraweera as their media spokesman. The next day there was more trouble. Puttalam District JVP MP Sumanaisiri Herath had visited his residence (in Puttalam) with two officers from the Ministerial Security Division. He has complained to the Police that some JVP local councillors and thugs assaulted his driver. The driver was warded at the Negombo Hospital with broken teeth. There were also complaints of vehicles of some dissidents being stolen. Details appear in a story elsewhere in this newspaper.

Supporters of the Weerawansa faction accuse the JVP leadership of briefing groups of grassroots level members about their parliamentary group leader's conduct. "They are carrying out a malicious campaign," said one of them. In a brief interview with The Sunday Times Amerasinghe declared Weerawansa and his group are supporting the Government. See box story on this page.

Although eleven JVP dissidents attended the news conference on Tuesday, one of them backed out yesterday. That was Sujatha Allahakoon, Matale District MP. She appeared at a news conference with her leader Amerasinghe to confirm she will not remain with the dissidents. Also present at the news conference was Ranaweera Pathirana.

As the rift in the JVP widens, there are strong indications that Weerawansa may now face expulsion from the party. Amerasinghe has said there is more about him to come. Weerawansa has been accused of being a strong Government ally. The issue will not be too small an issue for the Government to keep its hands off.

The imploding of the JVP came as a surprise last week. The hitherto monolith party, has begun to crack and open up. A party that keenly watched other political party's disintegrate due to differences among the leadership, most recently when the UNP split with a section wandering off to take ministerial jobs, the JVP has kept a tight lip on its own differences.

Still very little is known how the party works, its leaders are picked and the decisions carried out by the faithful cadres. Now, a can of worms seems to be opening out. The Weerawansa episode took centre stage this week despite the Fernandopulle assassination. In Parliament, the UNP had decided to disrupt proceedings over the appointment of an Acting Secretary General in Dhammika Kithulgoda.

When Weerawansa had asked for time to make a personal statement, the UNP had allowed this, and for the Emergency debate to go through, but otherwise it was a case of filibustering and uproars. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's position is this;

That while the practice in the British Parliament has been that the Queen consults the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House before appointing the Clerk to the House (known here now as the Secretary General of Parliament), in Sri Lanka, the Constitution provides for the manner in which such appointment is made by virtue of Article 65. This permits the President to make the appointment.

However, with the advent of the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, these powers of selecting an SG were vested in a Constitutional Council, though the appointment is made by the President eventually. This is the case even for an acting appointment.

Nevertheless, in the English version of the Constitution there seems to be an exception where an acting appointment can be made for 14 days. But in the Sinhala version of the Constitution, and in our law where there could be a difference between the languages, it is the Sinhala text that is binding; there is a variation of the language. In that text, an acting appointment can be made only when the substantive position is filled by someone, and not when there is a vacancy to that post, as there is now.

It is in this context that the UNP objected to the acting appointment, but now with the Avurudhu holidays intervening, the 14 days will pass, and the Government - and more so, the President will need to decide on whether he is to continue with the Kithulgoda appointment, a matter that the JVP has common grounds with the UNP in objecting to.

When President Rajapaksa met Ranil Wickremesinghe in March, and the subject of the 17th Amendment and the appointment of the Constitutional Council came up for discussion, he defiantly said "Kavuru kivvath mung path karanne ne", thus shutting the door firmly on such a happening. He complained that his predecessor had taken away some of his powers - when in fact, it was Parliament that had done it - by unanimous vote.

The post-Avurudhu period is therefore going to be one of fireworks the festivities may not be able to compare with.

Weerawansa and dissidents on Govt. platform soon: Amerasinghe

JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe

JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe charged yesterday that the party's dissident parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa and his group were supporting the Government and Government in turn was supporting them. Commenting on the current crisis in his party, Amerasinghe told The Sunday Times: "Wait for another few days. They (dissidents) will be seen on the Government's platform."

Here is his response to questions posed by The Sunday Times.

Reasons for Wimal Weerawansa's suspension from the JVP with effect from May 10:

Weerawansa is neither suspended nor expelled from the JVP. So May 10 is irrelevant.

Can you list some of the allegations against Weerawansa?

I would prefer to use the word charges instead of allegations. At this moment I can give one of the main charges only. That is Weerawansa in the recent past failed to toe the JVP's political line which was adopted by the majority of the Central Committee.

How did the suspension decision come about?

There is no suspension. The charges were made verbally by me in front of him at a plenary session of the Central Committee.

When the May 10 suspension takes effect, will the JVP hold a disciplinary inquiry?

Weerawansa will have to attend the next Central Committee sessions and prove that he is not guilty. The JVP has not closed its doors for Weerawansa or to the MPs backing him. It is always the Central Committee that will take decisions. I am only one of the members of the Political Bureau and the Central Committee.

What about the eleven MPs supporting Weerawansa?

The Central Committee will listen to them first. Then only it will decide what the next action should be.

Was there any warning to Weerawansa for not following party directives?

No. There was no warning. The JVP is a political party that is based on the principle of democratic centralism. The JVP always guarantees democratic rights to its members.

What is your response to Weerawansa and other MPs breaking away from the JVP?

What matters is not my response but the response of the Central Committee or the Political Bureau as far as these matters are concerned. I am only one of the members.

Some dissident MPs allege that their vehicles have been stolen. Your response.

It is not my job to respond over stealing of vehicles. It takes place throughout this country.

You have said the JVP will not be intimidated by dissidents. What did you mean?

I have mentioned about those few members who left the JVP in the past and made futile attempts to intimidate the party.

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