Columns - Political Column

Growing moves to oust Ranil
- More frontliners join campaign against UNP leader; Rukman put forward as alternative
- Govt. exploits divisions within UNP as parties prepare for two more PC polls

By Our Political Editor
Malefic or otherwise, political misfortunes seem to be afflicting both the Government and the Opposition alike in these turbulent times.

For the Government, no doubt, the burden is heavier. It had to battle on many fronts including mounting fuel prices, skyrocketing cost of living, an intensified separatist war, a crack down on the media where it sees as many traitors as the Tiger guerrillas and new threats of countrywide work stoppages. All this, conversely, should have translated into high-octane fuel for an Opposition to cash in on the seething public discontent and slow but sure isolation of the Government by the international community.

Alas, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is in trouble too. There is a growing move to oust its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is gaining such momentum that other disturbing issues seem secondary for the remaining movers and shakers of the UNP. Just last year, 17 of them crossed over to the Government ranks.

Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga discussing a point at the SLFP-M convention as Samaraweera looks on. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

The latest crisis began in the aftermath of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) elections. One time Minister Johnston Fernando (Kurunegala District MP) and his colleague Laskhman Seneviratne (Badulla District MP) were spearheading the move for Wickremesinghe to step down as the party leader, and to move him sideways to head an Alliance of Opposition political parties. Those promoting the change say the UNP leader should be what Sonia Gandhi in India is to the Congress Party alliance, to function as the patriarch of the Congress Party with no official designation as party leader. They want UNP Chairman Rukman Senanayake to inherit the mantle of the Party Leader.

Fernando was introduced to politics by Rukman Senanayake's predecessor as UNP Chairman, Malick Samarawickrema, a very close confidante of Wickremesinghe. In fact Samarawickrema, an apparel industrialist, had his own advent into politics as a result of his close ties with Wickremesinghe. Thus, in the years past, they were a closely knit pair working in tandem.

Cracks, however, developed recently after the Eastern elections. Officially, the story did the rounds that Fernando and Seneviratne failed to attend a meeting of UNP's EPC polls campaign co-ordinators presided over by Party Secretary Tissa Attanayake. For this, party leader, Wickremesinghe, had admonished both of them.

Party insiders had a different version. They say both Fernando and colleague Seneviratne were not happy that Sagala Ratnayake (Matara District MP) was being given greater prominence, over and above other party seniors. Ratnayake was campaign manager for the UNP in the Batticaloa District where Fernando and Seneviratne were also detailed.

“Amathi Bara” (weight of ministers), a UNP demonstration on the rising cost of living in Kurunegala this week. Pic by Pushpakumara Jayaratne

With the departure of the 17 MPs to the Government fold, the second rungers like Seneviratne and Fernando feel they have reached the tier of seniority of the Party. Many Party insiders have long complained that Wickremesinghe was working with a coterie of people, and gave as an example the fact that it was Ratnayake who was frequently picked to accompany him on his regular foreign visits. He had also made Ratnayake the Defence Spokesman for the party ignoring others. The Fernando-Seneviratne combine had also felt that Ratnayake had held the purse strings for the party's Batticaloa campaign. He had reportedly not loosened them when they needed help.

Last Wednesay, Fernando ruffled more feathers in the dovecotes of power in the UNP. He had met two of the party pole vaulters to the Government, Dharmadasa Banda and Mano Wijeratne and they were reportedly "plotting and planning" to oust Wickremesinghe. Party insiders say that Samarawickrema was not unaware of these moves. Also in the "oust-the-leader-campaign is Gamini Abeyratne (better known as Taxi Abey), a one time Chairman of Airports and Aviation Authority, another close friend of Samarawickrema with connections to Kandy where both have homes. In this backdrop, Wickremesinghe met with Seneviratne this week but not Fernando. He also had a lengthy meeting with Samarawickrema in the company of a leading journalist as well to sort out the new crisis.

The move to confer UNP leadership on Rukman Senanayake had gone far. So much so, Senanayake who is in Russia (together with Galle District parliamentarian Vajira Abeywardena) to attend an Inter Parliamentary Union event was magnanimous enough to offer to relinquish the Chairmanship of the party. He was willing to demote himself. This was whilst Fernando and his backers were engaged in a campaign to shore up more backers in a coalition to oust Wickremesinghe as party leader. One UNP parliamentarian whom Fernando broached was Puttalam District parliamentarian Range Bandara. Also helping in the campaign was UNP pole-vaulter, Milinda Moragoda, the current Minister of Tourism who is reportedly preparing to shift from Combo East to Ratmalana in preparation for the next elections. Moragoda had telephoned several UNP MPs and urged them to support Fernando and Seneviratne.
It is no secret that a substantial section of the UNP membership had varied ideas of how Wickremesinghe gave leadership to the party. Some claimed he was not vigorous enough. Others said he did not speak out as a leader but left it in the hands of lesser-known party men to do so. Yet others said he travelled abroad frequently and was not consistent in pursuing issues against the Government.
However, those expressing these and other diverse views are not united together on what they should do to overcome the situation. Some even felt the party should forge ahead with a proactive campaign against the Government, particularly against what they called the Rajapaksa combine, and the cost-of-living issues.

Among them were UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Colombo District parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake. They argue the best way for the party to consolidate its position is to be assertive enough to highlight the grave hardships the Government was placing on the people, the media and the propaganda to mislead the people over the ongoing separatist war. Backers of this school of thought pointed out that a problem with Wickremesinghe was that he was not "hungry for power."

Several newly appointed electoral organisers however have asked for more time to mobilise the masses.
Another problem besetting the UNP leadership was the fact that most of their MPs were spending more time abroad than in their electorates. For instance, their national organiser S.B. Dissanayake, has one leg in Sri Lanka and the other in Australia. Nevertheless, he complains that the party leadership has kept him out of the loop. He was bitter that he had not been given a prominent role in the UNP campaign for EPC polls, only to come out publicly and say he would have won it for the UNP -- after the defeat. He also had another grouse - that Wickremesinghe was moving closer with SLFP-M leader, Managala Samaraweera than him. This is despite his having left the SLFP and joined ranks with the UNP much earlier.

But it is another story with Samaraweera. His aides complain Wickremesinghe had forgotten the formation of the National Congress with the former Foreign Minister. Instead, he was more focused on the new tie-up with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and its leader, Rauff Hakeem. There certainly seemed several disconnections and wrong perceptions that had left an opposition divided.

Another example of UNP front liners being abroad is the case of Kegalle District parliamentarian Kabir Hashim. He was on a consultancy assignment in Pakistan for months. In addition, he is said to be now touring Europe on a three-week study tour. In the United States currently is Thalatha Athukorale, sister of late Gamini Athukorale, one time General Secretary of the UNP. With the Sabaragamuwa provincial elections due, two leading UNPers from the province are overseas.

To fend off these and other accusations, Wickremesinghe is planning a direct action programme from August. This is after he returns from yet another foreign trip, this time to France and Britain. He wants to bring Dissanayake into the inner fold. He is consulting legal opinion in this regard. This is in the light of a Supreme Court ruling depriving Dissanayake of his civic rights. The question is about his eligibility to take part in the campaign for elections to the Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provincial Council elections, especially questions on whether he should sit on Nominations Boards etc., Wickremesinghe has appointed Ravi Samaraweera (Badulla District MP) to be in charge of the campaign for Sabaragamuwa and Lakshman Kiriella (Kandy District MP) for the NCP.

The absence of party members who are abroad has prevented the UNP from taking early decisions on candidates for the upcoming elections. However, Wickremesinghe spoke with former Army Chief of Staff, Major General (Retd.) Janaka Perera in Australia this week. He will be the UNP's Chief Ministerial candidate for the NCP Council. In addition Wickremasinghe is expected to announce that Maj. Gen. (retd.) Perera will be the new UNP spokesman on Defence matters. The choice no doubt will be uncomfortable news to the defence and security establishment where the retired General has considerable following and support. Some of those in the security forces hierarchy at present were junior to him.

When the UNP's Working Committee meets tomorrow, the party's election campaign will be discussed. Some senior UNPers opine President Mahinda Rajapaksa is holding the two elections to make sure the UNP gets bogged down in polemics. They say he wants to win the elections by hook or by crook. Towards this end, they say, they are targeting Wickremesinghe in every way. When he returned to Sri Lanka after a visit to India, his entourage was prevented from travelling to Colombo along the Colombo-Negombo road. Government backed demonstrators were shouting slogans after blocking the road.

After Wickremesinghe accused Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, of being "a traitor" and not the journalists who were reporting the ongoing war, there was a demonstration outside Parliament.
Wickremesinghe raised a privilege issue and complained it was aimed at preventing him from attending Parliament. Sri Lankan envoys abroad do not extend to him the courtesies traditionally extended to the Leader of the Opposition when abroad by Sri Lankan missions. Hence, the Government has now placed a price on his head.

There seems a tragic irony that Wickremesinghe has become the object of scrutiny and criticism by both the Government and his own party. There is very little he lacks. He is educated, very well read and not tainted by allegations of corruption which easily stick to many others in the political arena. In power, he has demonstrated leadership qualities refusing to stoop to lower levels even to punish his own political enemies. He has both the humanity and humility to take criticism, give and take some instances.

Yet, he requires a few inexpensive things to win back the confidence of the people and his party. While one can't make a new man out of the 59-year-old Wickremesinghe, he needs to know that in Sri Lankan politics being a technocrat is good in government, not in opposition. In opposition one needs public relations as his mentor once said -- to convince the converts and convert the unconvinced. The sooner he does this and realises that his electorate is not Sydney, New Delhi, Bonn, Paris and London, the better. His voters are in Sri Lanka. On national issues, he must speak, and speak strongly and let his followers' follow than lead.

In this backdrop, the patron of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sprung a surprise. She was one of the speakers at Thursday's inaugural convention of the SLFP-M at the New Town Hall. She said that she was attending the function in the capacity of a senior leader of the SLFP.

"I am told that the SLFP (Mahajana Wing) wants to remain in the SLFP and campaign that the SLFP continues keeping to its original policies. I believe that they will carry out their task without harming the party policies and work towards the welfare of the party. Sri Lankan society has been forced to face many challenges and that democracy is under threat while freedom of the people is being restricted.

"It is the duty of the government to stop this situation. You cannot accept the statement saying we can't do anything about it. The SLFP was built on solid principles such as the strengthening the freedom of people, democracy, good governance. Instead some are robbing public property. Unlike today, when the war was at its peak, during 12 years of my rule the country's economic growth rate was 5.5 per cent to 6 per cent and infrastructure was improved," she said conveniently forgetting the fact that in 2001, the year she lost the general elections, Sri Lanka for the first time recorded a zero per cent growth rate.

"If the basic rights of the people are lost, the quality of creativity and independence of the people are lost. The economy is affected. Also if a handful of people are immorally robbing the wealth of the country, the people will be poor and the crime rate will increase. Extremism does not fit the policies of the SLFP. If a fair solution is put forward to the people in the north and east, they would reject terrorism. While in the south the extremists do not amount to five per cent of the population and the majority of the Sinhalese reject the notion that others should live as slaves.

"It is not right for a government which is fighting against terrorism to act like terrorists. It would not be successful. There should be alternatives to end terrorism. The only solution to terrorism and terror is freedom and democracy, Ms. Kumaratunga said.

SLFP (Mahajana Wing) leader Mangala Samaraweera said that those who criticize the Rajapaksa family were being harassed and the country was heading towards a dictatorship. "The media are also being suppressed by the Rajapaksa family. The person who called himself the caretaker of the country is now stifling all democratic institutions. Media personnel are being harassed and intimidated. Some have been killed. Others have been abducted and assaulted. This impunity should end," he said.

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa returned to the country on Thursday after attending a Commonwealth meeting in London over the week, He also met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other British political leaders. He gave an interview to The Sunday Times (please see page 1), and in an interview with the Foreign Editor of the London Times, the President slammed Britain and other western countries for adopting double-standards in dealing with terrorists. "There are no good terrorists and bad terrorists", he said, and pointed out to the funds collected in western countries, often by coercion to purchase weapons for the LTTE."

Rajapaksa said that he will not have peace talks with the LTTE -- despite the cost to civilians as a result of the insurgency -- unless the LTTE this time lays down its weapons first.

While there is nothing new to this statement, it only reiterates the fact that the Government is in no mood to soften its resolve on the war against the LTTE.

The ways and woes of Wickremesinghe
Opposition political parties are more prone to political differences, personality clashes, open squabbling and cloak and dagger intrigue than parties in Government.

See what happened to the otherwise monolith JVP just the other day. The Government also has the advantage of better surviving splits within its ranks because it is within its power to offer plums to those who wish to enjoy the fruits of office.

That's how this Government survived a minor revolt when its Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera walked out and the Government shored up its ranks by recruiting a shoal of 17 UNP MPs in one big net to maintain the balance of power in Parliament.

The UNP has been plagued with internal problems and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is no stranger to these matters, starting from his early days in politics when the 'Dudley Peramuna' and the ELJP (Eksath Lanka Jathika Peramuna) were formed as a breakaway faction from the new J.R. Jayewardene leadership of the UNP. In later years, Wickremesinghe stood steadfast with President Ranasinghe Premadasa during the Lalith/Gamini uprising, the forerunner to the DUNF.

The UNP survived these cyclonic winds -- the ELJP's then leader is now the Chairman of the UNP while the DUNF members are scattered in both the Government and Opposition -- both parties now being defunct.

While Jayewardene was able to consolidate the UNP in the face of the ELJP threat, the DUNF stab on the UNP elephant was much deeper -- and it hurt. The beneficiaries eventually turned out to be the then broken-down Opposition. Not even the return of DUNF leader Gamini Dissanayake to the UNP could help the elephant being relegated from parading the streets with the pomp and glory of office for 17 years to the wilderness of the Opposition for the past 14 years (barring two years in between).

Wickremesinghe came to the forefront of national politics in 1993 when President D.B. Wijetunga made him the Prime Minister, but soon thereafter he had to contend with a challenge from Gamini Dissanayake who boldly walked into Temple Trees in the immediate aftermath of the party's defeat at the 1994 General Election and told a startled Wickremesinghe that he wanted the party leadership.
The outgoing Wijetunga held a 'secret' ballot to see if the MPs preferred Wickremesinghe to Dissanayake or vice-versa and announced that Dissanayake had won by one vote. The ensuing Presidential election campaign saw Dissanayake assassinated by the LTTE and the leadership falling on the lap of Wickremesinghe.

The next threat came in 2000 when a group using Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya as a frontman tried to oust Wickremesinghe while he was in Norway with his then right-hand man Milinda Moragoda. Anura Bandaranaike, then Speaker and in the UNP at the time was the first to call his classmate and warn him of the goings-on in Colombo. Wickremesinghe asked Bandaranaike who was behind these moves. Bandaranaike said 'Judas is with you'. Wickremesinghe refused to believe it.

Wickremesinghe returned to Colombo meanwhile and rode the storm. Later that year, he roped in another schoolmate, businessman Malik Samarawickreme as his general factotum and to help him out. Samarawickreme obliged with the great skill of a rugby scrum-half he once was, feeding the ball from the pack (of wolves) to the runners (leadership) and selling a dummy or two on the way. He helped Wickremesinghe and the team to eventually touch down and win the 2001 election, by engineering some defections from the then Government -- no mean feat then. All the wolves ended up as Ministers in Wickremesinghe's Cabinet that year.

In 2004, Wickremesinghe faced his third major challenge. Again when he was abroad, this time in the company of US President George W. Bush, President Chandrika Kumaratunga pulled the rug from under his feet by taking over three major Ministries from his Government -- Defence, Interior and Media.

Wickremesinghe was given a hero's welcome by his party on his return but unfortunately he opted for a Government of cohabitation with Kumaratunga rather than confrontation, refusing to see the writing on the wall. Instead of taking the tens of thousands on the streets with him to the President's House and demanding the Ministries back, he came to Temple Trees where he resided instead and sent the masses home. That was the beginning of his Government's end.

In 2007, several party seniors, impatient that they would not be around when the next election was due in 2010 jumped ship and joined the Government. They said they were for intra-party democracy and collective decision-making. They have probably found it in the Government they are now serving, but the party still kept its faith with Wickremesinghe -- for better or for worse.
The Press a plague may be, but plays positive role
Last Thursday marked the 58th death anniversary of D.R. Wijewardene, who pioneered journalism in Sri Lanka with the founding of Associated Newspapers Ltd. (Lake House).

Since his return to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1912 after passing out as a young Barrister, he had been in the forefront of the campaign for independence. However, his family physician Sir Frank Gunasekera, forbade him from attending the historic ceremony in Colombo on February 4, 1948 to mark the granting of independence.
D.R. Wijewardene

In October 1930, Mr. Wijewardene, spoke at the Annual Dinner of the Eastern Newspaper Society. What he said then, interesting enough, is relevant even today. Here is his speech:

"It is a great pleasure to have the honour of responding to the toast of the Press of India, Burma and Ceylon. Personally I hate public speaking but to a newspaper proprietor the privilege of being asked to reply to something complimentary to newspapers is such a refreshing experience that it seemed too good to refuse.

"As a representative of Ceylon I felt somewhat apprehensive as to the reception I might get. To judge from the publicity Ceylon has received in the English Press of late I thought I might be regarded either as a politician of the most sinister kind of germ carrier of plague and pestilence. Some months ago I noticed that Ceylon was described in an English paper as the Island of Seven Plagues. I cannot remember what the plagues were. I certainly do not intend to ask his Excellency Sir Edward Stubbs to prompt me as he might possibly suggest that the Press of Ceylon was one of them.

"But even Sir Edward will admit that there are worse plagues than the Press. Even though newspapers are occasionally known to cause local inflammation in the body politic, they are an effective antidote to more devastating maladies of which public ignorance and prejudice, and the hardening of the heart and also the head in both democracies and bureaucracies, are not the least among them. It is not unreasonable to believe that the nations of Europe at this moment would be suffering less from hot heads and cold feet if there had been a free and more responsible press in some of the countries involved in the International angle.

"When we turn to the East we see vast communities emerging into the light of democratic ideals - a light at first dazzling, at times illusory and often dangerously blinding to politicians and to the people themselves unless protected by a free intelligent and responsible press. To those of us who are associated with the press in Eastern Countries it is gratifying indeed to have the encouragement we have had tonight by the presence of so many distinguished guests and by speeches we have listened to.
“We are particularly grateful to Sir Thomas Catto and Sir Roderick Jones for proposing to support us for the toast: When, in the future, we proprietors study our balance sheets and find that only trifling dividends, if any can be paid we shall have to recall the speech of Sir Thomas.

“As an Industrial Leader closely in touch with public life he has so well reminded us that sound journalism is still an institution worth working for particularly in the East where public opinion, public welfare as well as trade between individuals and trade between country and county can be fostered to no small extent by the Press. Personally I shall take back with me to Ceylon very happy recollections of this evening and of an occasion I should have been sorely disappointed to have missed."
Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]


Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 2008 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.| Site best viewed in IE ver 6.0 @ 1024 x 768 resolution