Columns - Political Column

Govt. getting stronger, UNP getting weaker

  • President takes big delegation for UN sessions amid speculation over John Ameratunga
  • Main opposition party plans alms giving to mark death of democracy, but within crisis continues
By Our Political Editor

Barring a minor glitch, the take off from the Bandaranaike International Airport for President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday morning was smooth. The glitch came when two passengers, earlier living in the north, refused to be body searched during security checks. One, now a British passport holder yielded and another, a female chose not to take the flight.

President Rajapaksa boarded a regular SriLankan Airlines flight UL 503 to London en route to Berlin. Besides his security detail, joining him were External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena MP and businessman Noel Selvanayagam. The visit to Germany is private. Among other matters, Rajapaksa is to meet former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. During the devastating tsunami in December 2004, Kohl was on holiday in Sri Lanka and was trapped in a hotel in the south. This was to raise concerns in his home country. He later escaped the rising waters with the help of the SLAF.

As a tribute to the victims, the Helmut Kohl Foundation, is now building a tsunami memorial hospital in Galle. Selvanayagam is a good friend of the Foundation's chief Juergen Weerth, a former German Luftwaffe (Air Force) pilot and one time Ambassador in Sri Lanka. A planned trip to Mexico by Rajapaksa was cancelled. That visit was to have co-incided with the celebrations for Bicentinario Independence and Centinario Revolution of Mexico. Instead, a Sri Lanka delegation led by Deputy External Affairs Minister Gitanjana Gunawardena carried a special message from President Rajapaksa to Mexican President, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa.

John crossing over?

President Rajapaksa will fly from Germany to the United States. He is due to arrive in New York tomorrow (September 20). A large retinue from Colombo left on Friday for New York to be part of Sri Lanka's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) sessions. Ahead of those sessions, Rajapaksa will also take part in the plenary meeting of the General Assembly on Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Some 150-world leaders will take part in this event. He will address the MDG summit on September 22 and the General Assembly the next day. In the latter, he is listed as the seventh speaker on the opening day after Brazil, the United States, Switzerland, Malawi, Pakistan and Costa Rica.

A surprise inclusion in the President's entourage would have been United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian John Ameratunga. A former Minister of Internal Security, and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ameratunga is now the Chief Opposition Whip, a post in which he is responsible for enforcing discipline among UNP parliamentarians. When Parliament debated the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and passed it with more than a two-thirds majority last week, there was speculation that Ameratunga would vote in favour of the Government. However, he did not.

Upon receiving an invitation from President Rajapaksa to travel with him to the UN, Ameratunga consulted his party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The latter's advise was to politely decline the offer. He pointed out that Ameratunga was the first signatory to a vote of no-confidence against External Affairs Minister Peiris. So, Ameratunga left on Thursday on a hurriedly arranged visit to Washington DC. Before his departure, Ameratunga, 70, told a group of his supporters that he saw no future in the UNP. He said he would have to take a decision upon his return and urged them to stand by him.

Ameratunga's conduct came up for discussion at yesterday's meeting of the UNP Working Committee. Ravi Karunanayake (MP-Colombo District) asked what was wrong with Ameratunga. He said the Chief Opposition whip had been "whipped" by the Government to go abroad. He said Ameratunga was consorting with the Government. Talatha Athukorale (MP-Ratnapura District) alleged Ameratunga's travel costs to the US were paid by the Government. Dayasiri Jayasekera (MP-Kurunegala District) also raised similar questions. They wanted to know from Wickremesinghe what the position was.

The UNP leader said he had spoken to Ameratunga before he left. "I know him well. I know he will not quit the party," he said. Ameratunga had told Wickremesinghe he was going to see his daughter in Washington. Karunanayake interrupted to say his daughter was not in Washington but lives in Boston. Wickremesinghe said upon Amertunga's return, he would ask him to refund the money if he had gone on a Government ticket.

President Rajapaksa's entourage is expected to include renegade UNP MPs Lakshman Seneviratne, Manusha Nanayakkara and Sri Ranga, the ones who voted with the Government on the 18th Amendment. Ministers Champika Ranawaka and Nimal Siripala de Silva are also in the team. The Sri Lanka mission in New York has made elaborate plans for the delegation.

UNP Young Turks Sajith Premadasa (right) and Dayasiri Jayasekera in a pensive mood at a meeting with top professionals. Pic by Sanka Vidhanagama

Several rooms have been reserved at plush New York hotels for the Sri Lanka delegation that is estimated to be around forty in all.

A fleet of limousines have been reserved for their use. The UN issues each delegation only five passes, which means that the rest of the large delegation would have to watch the proceedings at the UN from the television sets inside the UN building. An official of the Sri Lanka mission in New York was busy contacting missions of other countries assigned to the UN to ascertain whether they could spare any passes. If one thought that President Rajapaksa was going to speak to a world forum, it would appear that he was speaking to his own delegation at a world assembly.

There is considerable interest however focused on President Rajapaksa's visit to New York, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Last Tuesday, UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky, told a news briefing at the UN "The panel of experts probing accountability issues in Sri Lanka and support staff have been conducting intense preparatory work, and indeed the panel will meet with the Secretary-General (Ban Ki-moon) this week, marking the formal commencement of its activities." The panel would thus be in session when the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN is in New York.

On Monday, Nesirky told reporters "The Secretary-General held his first meeting today with the Panel of Experts established to advise him on the issue of accountability with regard to alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws during the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka. This meeting marks the formal commencement of the Panel's four-month mandate. The Secretary-General is pleased that the Panel is fully underway and looks forward to receiving its advice. The Secretary-General is committed through his focus on this issue to contribute to lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

In his address to the General Assembly, President Rajapaksa is to counter international criticism against Sri Lanka over this issue. He will explain how a Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation is addressing the issues already raised. Another issue still under debate is whether to respond to US Government's reaction to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

On September 11, spokesperson Philip J. Crowley told a US State Department news briefing, "The United States has closely followed the progress and the passage of the 18th Amendment in Sri Lanka. The amendment eliminates term limits for the president and expands the power of the president over independent institutions, including the elections, police, and human rights commissions, as well as the judiciary.

The United States is concerned that this constitutional amendment weakens checks and balances and thus undermines the principles of constitutional democracy.

"The United States calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to promote the principles of good governance, democracy, and independent State institutions. The United States looks to the government to take measures that will strengthen democracy including appointing appropriately qualified officials to bolster independent institutions, increase transparency, enhance power sharing and dialogue, and promote national reconciliation."

There are two schools of thought. One view is that the Government has already responded to the US statement by saying the 18th amendment is an "internal matter." This was through a statement issued by the External Affairs Ministry. Later, during a meeting scheduled much before the State Department spokesperson's remarks, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella also expressed the Government's concerns to US Ambassador Patricia Butenis. During the friendly conversation, the latter was to ask Rambukwella about matters related to the media including the proposed Media Development Authority.

Hence, one view was that there was no need to repeat Sri Lanka's position and engage the United States in a prolonged debate. The other view, however, is that the Sri Lankan position should be clearly outlined to the UN since it was the appropriate forum to educate the international community. The fact that the 18th Amendment was "passed democratically with over a two-thirds majority by elected lawmakers", it is argued, should be emphasised.

Electoral reforms

In the absence of President Rajapaksa, it was Prime Minister, D.M. Jayaratne, who chaired last Wednesday night's weekly Cabinet meeting. Of particular importance was a discussion on the introduction of laws for a new electoral system for the upcoming local government elections.
Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister A.L.M. Athaulla, told Ministers that the Legal Draftsman's Office had said it would take months to prepare a comprehensive set of laws for local government polls.

However, it had pointed out that the required changes could be effected by amending provisions in the existing laws. Three Ministers - Susil Premajayantha, Dinesh Gunawardena and Wimal Weerawansa - said the Government should go ahead with amendments to existing laws since the matter required immediate attention. Since the Opposition parties have also concurred with most of the changes to electoral reforms, UPFA leaders believe it could be presented in Parliament as urgent legislation.

UNP's woes

For the United National Party (UNP), its travails continued. Officially, the party is now in 'mourning' for the "demise of democracy" on September 8. This was when Parliament approved the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with more than a two third's majority. The party leadership has decided that in keeping with Buddhist traditions that follow the demise of a person, they would hold a dana or alms giving on December 8 - the third month after "democracy" died. It will be held in Colombo where a large group of Bhikkus would attend. The party has decided to draw large crowds for this event though the move is akin to crying over spilt milk. More so when the party missed out on opportunities to protest before the Amendment was passed. The UNP officially boycotted the debate and declared it would not recognise this amendment.

Wickremesinghe spoke at a joint meeting of the UNP Parliamentary Group and the Working Committee on August 29 at Siri Kotha. The political commentary in the Sunday Times of September 5, which reported on this, said: "Wickremesinghe said that as leader of the Opposition, he would not recognise the Parliamentary Council that is being set up to handle the functions of the Constitutional Council…."
However, on Thursday Wickremesinghe struck a noticeably discordant note that raised doubts whether he endorsed the 18th Amendment. He named Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran to serve as the Opposition's nominee in the Parliamentary Advisory Council. This Council is required to make 'observations' to the President on the appointment of Commissions.

Within seconds after an SMS news message declared on Thursday morning that Wickremesinghe had nominated Sumanthiran, the Tamil National Alliance was to snub him. Sumanthiran said he rejected the nomination since his party was opposed to the 18th Amendment. TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran told the Sunday Times, "Wickremesinghe consulted Sumanthiran over the matter. The latter declined his offer of nomination and said he could not do so without consulting the party.

Wickremesinghe was informed of this since TNA does not accept the 18th Amendment." Premachandran later said that the TNA is of the view that it should not make any contribution to the Council. Somewhat embarrassed, Wickremesinghe hurriedly summoned a news conference to explain his actions. He said, "I especially said (in the morning) that under the present circumstances, after discussing with other parties of the Opposition, when I make a nomination for the parliamentary council, both members of the Opposition should boycott the Council.

"Otherwise, the Government will try to fill the positions of the Parliamentary Councils and announce that only Ranil Wickremesinghe is boycotting the Council. If this boycotting is to be successful, both members of the Opposition should boycott. When the public questions us as to why we boycott the Council, then we could answer them. I also said in the morning that because the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Opposition Leader are Sinhalese, the nominee should be either Tamil or a Muslim."

"Even though the TNA holds the second place in the Opposition as a party, I appointed MP M.N Sumanthiran without consulting the TNA. I don't have a problem with MP Sumanthiran not attending the Parliamentary Councils. I knew before the nominations that the TNA would not take part in the Parliamentary Council. I was informed of that before. The TNA said that it rejects the appointment, which is good. If MP Sumanthiran didn't attend the council meeting, only three of the five members of the Council will take part in it and that will be a disadvantage to the Government.

"Then the President will remove Sumanthiran which will be good too. He can fire them and I can appoint them. I'll keep appointing and he'll keep removing. Ranil will appoint and Mahinda will remove them. If someone resigns, I'll appoint another. The Opposition has decided, we will make the formal decision next week when we meet, to boycott the Council.

"When people start laughing at this, the Government will have to bring another amendment to the Constitution and then they can remove my power of appointment and remove the Opposition representation of the Council. That is fine with me. This one week given to make the amendment is a dangerous legislation to give our objections. No one can figure out whether a man is a thief or not within one week. It took the Government one year to find out thieves in the Government and it took them another year to catch them."

There were several startling contradictions however, in Wickremesinghe's remarks. In the first instance, the UNP had chosen to boycott the parliamentary debate on the 18th Amendment. That meant that the UNP was dissociating itself completely. In nominating Sumanthiran to the Parliamentary Advisory Council, for whatever reason he gives now, Wickremesinghe is acknowledging that he is indeed accepting the 18th Amendment -- even if he is to make a joke by making appointments that would be meaningless. The argument that he was doing so to tire the Government out is not going to make him a winner, or the Government a loser. After all, there will be a stage when the Speaker will use the discretion available to him and nominate a person.

On the other hand, if as the UNP says, it is dissociating itself from the 18th Amendment, what is the need to formally acknowledge provisions contained in it? That was certainly a loss of face for Wickremesinghe. To use his own words at the news conference, "The Government will try to fill the positions of the Parliamentary Councils and announce that only Ranil Wickremesinghe is boycotting the Council…."
Why is the leader of Sri Lanka's main Opposition party worried about Government accusations of a second boycott when he and his party had boycotted the debate in Parliament? Would that be a democratic act? Or is it because the UNP has already announced that "democracy is dead"? This episode also highlights an inherent weakness in Wickremesinghe. He does not consult other party leaders in making important decisions. There have been many instances in the past too.

UNP independents

It is against this backdrop that Wickremesinghe faced two critical issues this week. One was an announcement by Dayasiri Jayasekera (MP-Kurunegala District) that some 25 MPs would sit in Parliament as independents in the Opposition. Though the numbers are not that high, a few of them did confirm this in remarks to the Sunday Times. Here is what they said:

Dayasiri Jayasekara: "The implementation of the reforms has been delayed for several months. The leader has asked for further time to implement the reforms. We are losing time. We want this completed within this week. The leader has said he wants to groom the younger members for leadership. There was plenty of opportunity to do this earlier. We do not want to quit the party or join the Government. If we remain independent of the leadership we are sure no one will join the Government.

"We have at least 25 members from the UNP (parliamentary group) who are backing us. Its not only them, we have the support of Provincial Council and other local council members from our party. We also have the support of UNP trade union members who have expressed their support to us. Our aim is to create a group which could act against the Government".

Ashoka Abeysinghe (MP-Kurunegala District): "The local government elections are coming up and if the party continues in this manner we will not be able to face the voters. The UNP supporters are demoralized. We have to raise their morale. We need to carry on with a new leadership, as we cannot tell the voters that the reforms of the party are still on the way. We have made a proposal that the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe be made the Senior Leader and that he should hand over the party leadership to Sajith Premadasa while Karu Jayasuriya will remain as Deputy Leader. We hope this proposal will be implemented by next week. In the event our proposal is not accepted we will sit as independent members in Parliament, without joining the Government."

Kabeer Hashim (MP-Kegalle District): "We hope that at least part of the reforms will be implemented enabling us to resolve the problems before the end of the week. Sajith Premadasa is currently discussing with the party leader ways of how the issues could be resolved. Our expectation is that the split in the party could be avoided if some of the reforms are implemented.

Thalatha Athukorale (MP-Ratnapura District): "Before the next parliamentary sessions we will decide whether we should act as independent members in Parliament. The younger members called for a meeting with the leader. This was not granted. There was another meeting summoned, but one of the MPs was left out. (The reference was to Sujeeva Senasinghe, MP-Colombo District). This is the type of treatment meted out to the younger members. Though claims are made that responsibility is being shared among the younger MPs, in practice it does not take place. We need a strong set of reforms to face the upcoming local elections. If the reforms are not implemented, we will sit as independent MPs at the next sessions."

Sujeewa Senasinghe (MP-Colombo District): "The leadership has been extending support for the strengthening of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's Government. We should stop the slide in the party and prevent members from crossing over. The only way to do this is to implement the reforms. The party is travelling on the track according to the wishes of President Rajapaksa. The government will not like the formation of an independent group. The members who wish to remain independent will not cross over to the Government. If the reforms are not implemented we will act independently".

Rosy Senanayake (MP-Colombo District): "We want the reforms of the party at least before the next budget. If that does not happen, I will not quit the party, but will remain independent in Parliament. Otherwise we will never be able to rise against the President. We have been promised that the reforms will be completed by September 30."

Truce proposed

However, the actions by these MPs and others will be on hold for now. At yesterday's meeting of the Working Committee, Kabir Hashim (who earlier carried a proposal to Wickremesinghe - See details below) sounded a different note. He said things were getting out of hand in the party and the situation should not be allowed to worsen. He wanted a weeklong "truce" to sort out issues. Wickremesinghe asked "why a truce? We are not at war." Hashim was to later say what he meant was a cooling off period until issues were sorted out.

The issues, party reforms in particular, would take a longer time. Tilak Marapana, PC and former Defence, Aviation and Highways Minister, said that an entirely new party constitution was being formulated. Hashim asked whether it was not possible to amend the existing constitution to incorporate recommendations made by the reforms committee. However, the move did not gather support.

An argument ensued between Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. It came when the UNP leader criticised Lakshman Seneviratne (MP-Badulla District), now under suspension from the post of Assistant Secretary, for working with the Government right along. He said these were the people who wanted prathisanvidana (reforms). Seneviratne had even gone against the late President Premadasa by signing an impeachment motion to oust him.

Sajith Premadasa rose from his seat and told Wickremesinghe not to speak that way. "It is we who have been speaking about prathisanvidana," he declared. Wickremesinghe shot back that he too spoke of prathisanvidana. Premadasa accused Wickremesinghe of rushing to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa without telling anyone in the party while they were discussing prathisanvidana, and that he (Premadasa) got to know that Wickremesinghe had met the President only through others.

Wickremesinghe then said that he had told the General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya before he went and to ask them right now. Attanayake was to confirm the party leader told him before he went to see the President, while Jayasuriya said that he had also told him the first time, but had left a message the second time because he was at a meeting with the Maha Nayakas (high priests) on the second occasion.

Nevertheless Hashim had requested a week's grace period to work out an acceptable compromise with the Premadasa faction demanding he take over the party leadership. Ravi Karunanayake objected to this on the footing that secret talks were taking place by a section of the party. Wickremesinghe was to say that whatever secret talks may be taking place, the party's Working Committee will have to endorse the decisions.

In view of the budget debate possibly in October, the Working Committee decided to have the party's annual sessions either in late November or in December this year. They also discussed the decision on Friday by a General Court Martial finding Sarath Fonseka guilty of "disgraceful conduct" in military procurements. Both Wickremesinghe and his deputy Jayasuriya said the party should launch a campaign to protest against this. The party has also decided to launch a campaign to protest moves to abolish the Colombo Municipal Council and set up an development authority to administer the city, something exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times last week.

Another major issue was taken up at the meeting of the Working Committee yesterday. This was a proposal by deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya for a new programme titled 'Grama Charika'. Under this, all party leaders would visit villages, live there for two nights and begin educating the public of the situation in the country. The proposal was accepted and Jayasuriya was appointed to a chair a committee. It included Joseph Michael Perera, Kabir Hashim, Sajith Premadasa, Rosy Senanayake, P. Yogarajan and Upali Samaraweera.

Jayasuriya discussed the move with leader Wickremesinghe and a few others early this week. He wants civil society organisations also to be invited to join in the effort.

Ahead of yesterday's meeting, a group of UNPers met at a Kirulapone residence on Friday to discuss their strategy. Among those present were Kabir Hashim, Thalatha Athukorale, Ranjit Madduma Bandara, Piyasena, A. Sasitharan and Bodhi Ranasinghe. The discussion revolved around making Sajith Premadasa the Senior Deputy Leader of the party. Several calls were being made to him to turn up for the meeting, but there was no show.

Such a move would mean the sidelining of incumbent deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya. Wickremesinghe was not in favour of such a move. To get round this, the pro-Premadasa faction was trying to ask Gamini Jayawickrama Perera to step down as party Chairman and to hand that over to Karu Jayasuriya, but Jayawickrama Perera was in no mood for that either.

Jayasuriya's offer to resign

Later that day, Hashim met Wickremesinghe with the proposal to make Premadasa the Senior Deputy Leader of the UNP. He also wanted Wickremesinghe to ensure the choice of picking ten per cent of the UNP candidates for the local polls be given to Premadasa. Present with Wickremesinghe at that time were Jayasuriya, Joseph Michael Perera, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and Lakshman Kiriella.

Jayasuriya promptly offered to resign his post as deputy leader and remain a backbencher. Since he made a call for opposition parties to unite, an aide said, Jayasuriya felt unity in the party was essential.
Wickremesinghe was not in favour. Even in the unlikely event of this proposal being accepted, the question remained whether it would resolve the crisis within the UNP. Ravi Karunanayake, who is 18 years a parliamentarian and seventh on the line of party seniority, is demanding that he should also be given an equal position. Another was the protests the ouster of Jayasuriya would draw from the Buddhist clergy.

Wickremesinghe, UNP sources said, has taken up the position that any proposal that was contrary to recommendations made by the UNP Reforms Committee should be discussed with the committee. Since the Committee has already made its recommendations known and a new constitution was now being formulated for the party, Wickremesinghe was of the view that new changes cannot be made now. That effectively shut out moves to foist Premadasa as a Senior Deputy Leader. It also saw the possibility of a settlement to the party in-fighting over the leadership mantle, but what was clear was that Premadasa was, once again, willing to serve under Wickremasinghe. It was only last week he publicly declared he wanted to contest Wickremesinghe for the leadership. That was after vowing weeks earlier not to seek any party positions. On Friday, Premadasa addressed a group of professionals and faced a barrage of embarrassing questions. He admitted he had no magic wand to bring the UNP back to office.

There are no clear signs though that the internecine problems of the UNP will be resolved soon. The result is a Government that is growing stronger every day and an Opposition that is becoming weaker every hour.

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