Columns - Political Column

UNP show is over, now the showdown

  • Ranil and Sajith factions hold backstage talks amidst conflicting reports on who the party leader will be
  • Confusion over national anthem as ministers give contradictory statements
By Our Political Editor

President Mahinda Rajapaksa interrupted his speech to samurdhi animators and agricultural production officers on the lawn of 'Temple Trees' last Monday to show them a video.

In the large screen, visuals bared men and women, some young and the others old, gyrating aimlessly. The music for this vulgar display was Sri Lanka's national anthem. The occasion was the annual sessions of the United National Party (UNP) at Siri Kotha in Kotte last Sunday.

"The so-called leaders do not know how they should behave when the national anthem is being played," exhorted Rajapaksa. He asked what would happen if these leaders are involved in dishonouring the country's national anthem. "No one should be allowed to destroy our culture and its rich values," he warned.

No doubt, some of the delegates to the UNP's annual sessions last Sunday morning had turned revellers. Though early in the day, they were in high spirits, even some women, and were on assignment to cheer their idol and jeer his opponents. Some could barely walk. Some could only talk in Mariakade, the local Billingsgate lingo. They had consumed too much alcohol. Besides the national anthem, the use of Sinhala obscenities was second in their hit parade.

National anthem: the mixed notes

It was only four days earlier, Rajapaksa spoke to his Cabinet colleagues about the national anthem, to ensure that the entire nation should follow only the Sinhala version. Here are relevant excerpts from the front page lead story in the Sunday Times last week headlined; "NATIONAL ANTHEM ONLY IN SINHALA; TAMIL VERSION OUT".

"Sri Lanka's national anthem will remain only in Sinhala, the Cabinet decided on Wednesday. The move will mean that the current Tamil version will no longer be played at any official or state functions. At present, the Sinhala version of Sri Lanka Matha is used in all parts of the country with the exception of the North and the East, which have a large Tamil population.

The decision to do away with the Tamil version, the Sunday Times learned, came after a lengthy discussion at last Wednesday night's Cabinet meeting. It was the first after President Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Sri Lanka following a visit to Britain where a scheduled address to the Oxford Union was cancelled allegedly due to security reasons.

Members of the United National Party cheering at the special convention held at Sirikotha last Sunday.
Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

President Rajapaksa told ministers that in no other country were the national anthem used in more than one language. He cited an instance where one time Prime Minister, the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, had walked out of a function in the north where the national anthem was played in Tamil.

He said there could not be two national anthems and that it was a shortcoming that must be rectified. He said, "We must all think of Sri Lanka as one country……………………………..."

Most international news agencies picked up the report. It was carried on radio, television and in newspapers worldwide. Locally, it did lead to some confusion. Whilst some Ministers conceded that the matter was discussed and a decision taken, a few were not sure whether there indeed was a firm decision on the matter. Against this backdrop, Public Administration Minister John Seneviratne was to confirm the report to one news agency and later deny it to another.

He spoke with Krishan Francis of Associated Press. His report:

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - Sri Lanka has scrapped its national anthem's minority Tamil language version, a move that may add to the country's ethnic tensions after a bloody decades-long civil war.
Public Administration Minister John Seneviratne said Monday the Cabinet decided only the original Sinhalese-language version of the song should be sung publicly. Sri Lanka's constitution recognizes the version sung in Sinhala, the language spoken by the country's ethnic majority. But it is ambiguous about the Tamil version.

"There is only one national anthem which is constitutionally recognized," Seneviratne said. The decision could further divide a nation that has just emerged from a 25-year civil war that claimed at least 80,000 lives.

The Tamil-language anthem has been sung in Tamil schools and public offices in Tamil-majority areas for nearly 60 years, constitutional lawyer Jayampathy Wickramaratne said. Tamils have long complained of systematic marginalization by ethnic Sinhalese-controlled governments in language use, jobs and education.

Suresh Premachandran, a lawmaker from the Tamil National Alliance party, said the decision imposes an unfamiliar language on the Tamil people. "This will only widen the gap between the Tamil and Sinhala people," he said. "We are urging the government to withdraw this (decision)……..."

However, within hours Seneviratne turned cautious and gave a different interpretation. He was to tell the Agence France Presse (AFP) another account. This is how the AFP reported it:

"Sri Lanka has denied plans to outlaw the singing of the national anthem in Tamil after the main minority party raised strong objections to the mooted ban.

"The status quo will remain, said Public Administration Minister John Seneviratne, who is in charge of managing the code of conduct for the national anthem as well as the national flag. There is no decision to make a change with regard to the anthem and we will continue what we have been doing," Seneviratne told AFP….."

Contradictory statements, different claims in different political and diplomatic quarters over the Sunday Times exclusive report were to cause confusion. However, Media Minister and official Government Spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella threw more light. Here is the Q & A that was played out at Thursday's post-cabinet news briefing.

Rambukwella: "The Constitution clearly states about the National Anthem. There is no change in that position. Accordingly the National Anthem words, music and meaning cannot be changed".

Q: Minister Wimal Weerawansa has mentioned that the anthem should be sung only in Sinhala. What is your view on that?

A: That is his personal opinion. Even If I go to Jaffna, I will sing the national anthem in Sinhala.

Q: Can the national anthem be sung in Tamil or not?

A: See the Constitution. The Constitution is clear on that.

Q: Can you give a clear answer - can it be sung in Tamil or not?

A: There is a simple answer for that - please refer to the Constitution.

Q: So that means that it cannot be sung in Tamil?

A: The best thing is to refer to the Constitution.

Q: Could you tell us what was discussed about the national anthem at the Cabinet.

A: There was a discussion (at the Cabinet meeting on December 8) regarding the language used for the national anthem. It was decided to continue as it is. We discussed the manner in which the national anthem should be played and how people should respect it.

The 1950 Tamil version

Minister Rambukwella said the cabinet would enforce the provisions in the Constitution with regard to the national anthem. The 1978 Republican Constitution's Sinhala version, which prevails in the event of an inconsistency in the English or Tamil versions states (in Article 7) "The National Anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be 'Sri Lanka Matha," the words and music of which are set out in the Third Schedule."
However, a Tamil version which begins with the words "Sri Lanka Thaayey, Nam Sri Lanka…" has been in existence since the 1950s says Professor K. Sivathamby, a student of the late M. Nallathamby who composed the Tamil version. Sivathamby, emeritus professor of the Tamil and the Fine Arts Department of the Jaffna University, told the Sunday Times: "Even in the Indian national anthem, which is in Bengali, there is an acknowledgement of the presence of Tamil speaking people with the use of the words "…….dravida utkala nanda….."

The Tamil translation of the 1978 Constitution makes provision for the national anthem in that language. Pulavarmani M. Nallathamby has translated the original national anthem in Sinhala which was composed by Ananda Samarakoon. The words begin with "Sri Lanka Thaayey - Nam Sri Lanka….." The third schedule in the translation also has Tamil words. A ministerial source argued that it was the Sinhala version of the Constitution that prevailed in case there was an inconsistency.

Senior Government officials in the North and East, the Sunday Times spoke to said that in their districts, they have been following different practices. These senior officials did not wish to be named. In Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa, the Tamil version has been played at functions attended by Tamils. The Sinhala version was played at functions attended by the Sinhala community. At national events where both parties attended, they avoided the national anthem and played only the tune instead, the senior-most among them said.

Recently, one of them pointed out, at three different functions held in Kilinochchi when the organisers started signing the national anthem in Tamil, Army officers who were also taking part stopped them. They ordered that the recorded Sinhala version of the national anthem be played and it was done. The Army has also distributed the Sinhala version of the national anthem to schools and told them that in future they should play the Sinhala version.

There are countries, which use more than one language in their national anthem. In South Africa, five most widely spoken languages - Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English are used. Switzerland has both German and French versions. In Afghanistan, it is in both Pashto and Dari. In New Zealand, there are two - God Defend New Zealand and God Save the Queen.

The United National Party (UNP) in a statement issued on Thursday called upon the Government to make a categorical statement of the official position on the use of the national anthem. A statement from the party said that Ananda Samarakoon composed Namo Namo Matha soon after Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) won independence in 1948. Later, in 1950, the UNP government then had held a competition to select the best translation of Samarakoon's original version. M. Nallathamby had won it.

It was incorporated as the Tamil translation in the 1978 Constitution. The move had followed an appeal by the then Home Minister, the late K.W. Devanayagam. He had pointed out that Muslims and Tamils living in the North and East who spoke mostly Tamil wanted that version for use in schools and on occasions when dignitaries visited their areas.

UNP's leadership crisis

However, an issue over the national anthem is the least worry for the UNP where the leadership crisis continues to bog them down. This is in the wake of the party's annual sessions last Sunday and notwithstanding some of the last minute additions to the new constitution adopted at the sessions. New provisions were incorporated after the Working Committee had endorsed it. One such provision, reported last week in this column, was the inclusion of a clause to provide for the UNP Treasurer, besides the General Secretary, to be picked by the party leader.

Yet, a dramatic change of mood created by last Sunday's sessions is spawning a new crisis where it could either be the leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe or his deputy Karu Jayasuriya who could become the casualty. In World Cup terms, Sajith Premadasa (Hambantota District) appears to have carried all the trophies at last Sunday's annual sessions of the party.

Like his leader Wickremesinghe, Premadasa had also turned up around 7 a.m. to greet delegates. If more than 13,000 were invited, only half that number turned up. An estimated 3,000, said to be Premadasa supporters, failed to gain entry because they had no invitations. They later brought down a section of the steel tube fence and went in. However, there were no seats since the hall was full.

The the mood-change at the sessions came after leader Wickremesinghe and others had taken their seats at the stage. Premadasa walked in later, like the star singer during a music concert, drawing not only all the attention but also thunderous cheers and applause. One staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist and an avowed opponent of Premadasa admitted, "Sajith stole the show".

Following Premadasa were his other backers including Dayasiri Jayasekera (Kurunegala District) and Buddhika Pathirana (Matara District). It was clear Premadasa was riding on a high wave of delegate support at the convention. His mother, Hema Premadasa was also on stage as the widow of the President who last won a Presidential election for the UNP. She too had played an active role in mustering support, especially from her late husband's Colombo Central area to bring in the crowds.

Offers to Premadasa

Days ahead of the sessions, party insiders say, emissaries went back and forth between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa. One source said Premadasa was offered the post of deputy leader of the party with full powers. However, he had rejected the offer, a move that signalled that he was throwing himself into the ring to fight for the post of leader, though keeping his options open.

Premadasa was seemingly sceptical of the latest offer since they had been made earlier too but had not materialised. Government leaders were also trying to meddle in the internal affairs of the UNP. They worked through an intermediary, who once held a top position in the UNP. This is both before and after last Sunday's sessions. The immediate casualty of such a move would have been the deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya, who has declared he would sacrifice positions for the "sake of greater party unity". This week, Premadasa backers were busy taking count of their loyalists, those "on the fence" and those who were opposed to him.

Politics where self-interest overrides all others, at least some staunch loyalists of Wickremesinghe, including newly hand-picked National List MPs, are now in contact with Premadasa aides to send him a message that they were prepared to support him. This is not surprising since the most vociferous Premadasa loyalists in Parliament right now are protégés of Wickremesinghe and were picked personally by him.

It is against this backdrop that Wickremesinghe spoke to the delegates. If he was known for his tough stance against Premadasa and his faction in the political shadow boxing that has continued in the past months, there was great moderation in his speech. That is not all. When the session neared its end after the constitution was adopted unanimously, (a lone delegate unknowingly raised his hand in objection), Wickremesinghe and Premadasa held hands and raised them upwards. It came as a puzzle to some delegates who were conversant with the internecine problems. Was Wickremesinghe going along with the tide or was he trying to show that there was party unity now, asked one of the delegates from another.
Here are highlights of what Wickremesinghe said:

"The Working committee decided that the constitution should be passed. I am calling on you to unanimously support this and pass it. I am not going to talk about the constitution because of the lack of time. We have several constitutions passed during the past few years. We cannot go forward only with the constitution. We need the organization members to back us. Due to the 'manapa' (Preference votes) system persons have distanced themselves.

"We have organized the Grama Charika progamme for this .We will start going to villages from January onwards. The second point is that the party should have discipline. Without discipline we cannot go ahead. "Due to various decisions taken earlier there have been problems in this aspect. We should maintain discipline. Unity should prevail. We should end the disputes. We should go forward.

"The people want us to end the Mahinda Rajapakasa government era. If we have disputes, the people will lose confidence. The senior members such as Joseph Michael Perera, John Amaratunga as well as the young leadership such as Sajith , Wasantha, Hareen, Ravi, Ms Maheshwari from the north should join hands and give the leadership. Not only the young MPs , Muslims and Tamil leaders should also be created. The people expect that Mahinda Rajapaksa era should be ended. I want to hear whether you are ready . Only the UNP can challenge Mahinda Rajapakasa

"Our party has faced several challenges in the past. At one time we gained independence from the British Royal family now we are fighting to gain independence from the rule of President Rajapaksa 'kings family'. Our party gave free education, and free health facilities. We created the Mahaweli and the free economy…….

"Nobody else in the world has been abused like me. They abused me in the morning, evening and night. My name was mentioned more often than the pirith chanting. They gave me different names. However, today I have survived and the members are there. The party too has remained. Therefore, we should be ready to form a UNP government by ending the era of President Rajapaksa. At one time they got together with Prabhakaran and won the elections, the next time they were using climate of the war situation for their advantage.

They are now using the Karapincha theory (use only to get the favour and dispose off). "First, in order to end the war they handed over the job to Army commander Sarath Fonseka and after the war was ended Fonseka is in jail and KP is having luxuries. The media which helped have been stifled. Today nobody speaks. Some senior members who helped to form the government have been named as senior ministers and sent to the 'Vishramapaya'. Some others have ministries, but the important departments and institutions come under the purview of the 'Sahodara Samagama'. They are asking us what is the 'Sahaodara Samagama', as if they do not know. Some of the ministers are angry about it.

"What happened to the war heroes who have gained gallantry awards? The war heroes were promised salary increases of Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000, but instead what they have got is 12 coconuts - Rs. 600 (the salary increment) means you can buy 12 coconuts. Now they are using the 'Karapincha theory' to the public as well. They promised salary increases and more jobs. However, have they given salary increases and jobs? Organise the members at village, street and town level……."

Sajith wants Sarath Fonseka

Sajith Premadasa declared that when former General Sarath Fonseka was out of prison, he should be given UNP membership. "If we know about gratitude we cannot forget Sarath Fonseka. We should remember that he led the war heroes to win the war and similarly you should help to get him released," he said.

He added, "Fonseka will be accepted in our party to defeat the government." His remarks came after weeks of behind-the-scene dialogue with Tiran Alles, the General Secretary of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). Alles wants Fonseka to join the UNP under Premadasa's leadership. Other highlights of what Premadasa said:

"We have suffered set backs at several elections. If we are to go on a long journey, we have look back at our shortcomings, correct our mistakes, look at our positive aspects and proceed forward. Through this convention, we will give the party new strength. This is while ensuring that the party supporters win, the country too gains from this move. For this purpose, we will have two parallel journeys. The first is that the government which is corrupt should be sent home.

"A government which is spreading falsehoods has drawn the country to disaster. During the presidential election General Fonseka promised Rs. 10,000 pay rise, but the President who promised Rs. 2,500 was elected to power. Where is this Rs. 2,500 increment? We are shy to say that only Rs. 600 was given, that too without pension gains on it. The president in the budget says that it would cost Rs 1,900 million if a Rs. 100 increment is to be paid.

"Didn't he know that when he mentioned it at the Presidential election? The youth have been let down. No allocations have been made to provide jobs. There are 50,000 unemployed graduates. False promises were made in the budget speech to provide jobs for 13,000 persons. Today they speak of 'Mathata Thitha' , but instead the problem of narcotics has spread.

Ministers who only think of themselves, timber thieves and rogues, have come to power. In Dahiyawala, Moneragala I wish to point out that a Supreme Court ruling to put up a fence to prevent elephants intruding has not been implemented. This helps protect the Cannabis cultivation by politicians. The government is exploiting state resources. Today we have a government which thrives on commissions. They give relief to the public similar to coconut refuse. It is enough the UNP has lost. Therefore, I wish to emphasise that we should unite and we are confident in future national elections we will win.

Any political party faces debates, criticism, and allegations. Everything is not right - You cannot say 'Yes Sir' for everything. We are ready to embark on a long journey to victory. We have lost enough. We should have unity to win. We have debates, present ideas, but no one is left out from the party. We need everybody. From our leader Ranil Wickremesinghe onwards all others are resources of the party. I am tired at speaking at stages, but we do not end winning.

People who have talent should be given place in the party. The government has 'Polkudu (Coconut refuse) Manthris' MPs, we have 'Mega stars' as well. If we know about gratitude, we cannot forget Sarath Fonseka. We should remember that he led the war heroes to win the war and similarly you should help to get him released.

"When Fonseka gets released we should give him membership in the UNP. Like he defeated the Tigers, Fonseka will be accepted in our party to defeat the government. We have been clapping, cheering, lighting crackers, but they are no use if we cannot win an election. I am requesting that we pass this constitution. We need to reach the grassroots. We have to reach house by house, persons by person and village by village to ensure that this government is defeated."

Contrary to fears, the sessions ended without any untoward incidents. However, immediately thereafter some inebriated sections of the delegates had a free run. One Colombo district parliamentarian who led them walked up to the balcony of Siri Kotha to make a speech highly critical of the leadership. Others shouted obscenities.

On Monday, both Premadasa and Wickremesinghe held different news conferences. The former was to take delight in the fact that party reforms had become a reality. The latter was to thank all delegates for the smooth conduct of the annual sessions.

Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha, President's Counsel, who was a member of the Committee of UNP lawyers who drafted the new constitution said that it was now effective. In terms of its provisions, the party's office bearers will have to be picked within four months.

The backstage negotiations were thick and fast no sooner the convention concluded. The Premadasa faction had appointed one-time Colombo East organiser Bodhi Ranasinghe as the point-man for the 'negotiations' with former party Chairman Malik Samarawickrama who was acting on behalf of Wickremesinghe.

The euphoria within the Premadasa camp was now high and there was no way for the young man to back down from making a bid for the party leadership. He was already being criticised by some of his supporters for an 'asai-bayay' (literally 'likes but afraid) approach to the subject. Former party assistant secretary Lakshman Seneviratne, now a minister in the UPFA government, had complained that he was 'sleeping in the UNP when Premadasa roused him' and now finds himself somewhere else. Others faced disciplinary inquiries for speaking against the party leadership on behalf of Premadasa.

Time factor

Still, Premadasa showed signs of reticence. He kept telling his supporters that he was grateful to Wickremesinghe for standing by his late father during the impeachment putsch by his own party seniors, and that he could not treat him shabbily.

Ranasinghe and Samarawickrama spoke to each other on Monday, the day after the convention to find a via-media. The crux of the issue was whether Premadasa was willing to wait a little longer for the leadership, and if so, for how long more. The discussions ranged from a two year waiting period to the end of 2011.

The pro-Premadasa faction then broke up into a small representative group from among the parliamentary group, the professionals, ex-MPs etc., and they met at Ranasinghe's residence at Kirullapone. These discussions revolved around whether Premadasa was to make a bid for the leadership within the next 120 days, accept the deputy leadership with full powers, or wait till end 2011.

The more gung-ho among the group demanded making an immediate move for the leader's post. They felt Premadasa must ride the wave of the convention support. Others more sober, argued that acceptance of the post could well be the kiss of political death. Local council polls were around the corner and only a marginal increase in votes would not suffice. There was a long and hard road ahead to the next parliamentary and presidential polls in which time the government will target him thoroughly. Just as much as he is considered a fresh face right now, will he be a spent force at the time when the party needs him most.

Premadasa himself had been told by astrologers that his best time was not right now and it was later in 2011. But he told his advisers that he was not like his father who was a prisoner of astrologers and was willing to take decisions, politically. Another area he said he wished to differ from his father was that he will not isolate anyone in the party.

While this group was debating the pros and cons of what to do, something they have been unable to decide for quite some time now, came a media conference held by Kasthuri Anuradhanayake, Leader of the Opposition of the North Central Provincial Council on Wednesday at the Media Centre of the party at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo 7.

Anuradhanayake is a supporter of the party's Colombo North MP Ravi Karunanayake. He praised Wickremesinghe as party leader referring to him as burutha-parala (a strong satin rafter) and said that he cannot be replaced by an albizzia-parala (a softer albizziya rafter).

New crisis

This was enough to send the Premadasa faction once again into a rage. Ranasinghe called Samarawickrama and asked if the 'truce' was over. Not only did Ranasinghe complain to Samarawickrama, who swore that it was not the work of Wickremesinghe, but three UNP colleagues of Anuradhanayake in the North Central Provincial Council were rustled up and brought before a press conference the next day to say that burutha parala was actually being replaced by steel-parala which was even better than the burutha parala.

So this was the depths to which the country's main opposition party had sunk. More importantly, what irked the Premadasa faction was the remark Wickremesinghe made during the week, re-iterating what he had said at the convention that the future of the party lay in the hands of its young MPs and named Ravi Karunanayake, Sajith Premadasa, Wasantha Aluvihara and Vijayakala Maheswaran as those who will need to provide that leadership.

Then on Friday, Joseph Michael Perera, the chairman of the party Reforms Committee held a news conference where he said the party constitution was not revised to change the party leader and that there have been no names received for the five senior party posts that can be contested.

The same day, the Premadasa faction met once again at Ranasinghe's residence. Premadasa met party workers from 2 o'clock in the afternoon and then the representative group met at a marathon session from 6 until 11 that night.

Again, the discussions revolved round what Premadasa should do. Should he accept the deputy leadership with the powers of the leader? What is the assurance that he will get those powers if he accepts the deputy post? Leaving the leadership in Wickremesinghe's hands would mean that he controls disciplinary inquiries and local government nominations would also be in his hands.
Premadasa was again unsure of what he wanted to do. Former party Chairman Rukman Senanayake told him not to vacillate but to make a bid for the leadership immediately.

After five hours of deliberations at Ranasinghe's house, it was finally decided that Premadasa would make a bid for the party leadership in early 2011. The timing of the announcement would be decided on later/

Ranasinghe conveyed this decision to Samarawickrama the same night and said that their group was however willing to offer Wickremesinghe the post of Senior Leader, and agreed to permit him to preside over Working Committee meetings as well.

If the Senior Leader post is accepted, it would mean that the party constitution would need to be amended once again and yet another special convention held. Ranasinghe said they were willing to do that, and the amendment could be implemented by early next year.

He said that they were also willing to allow Wickremesinghe to remain as Leader of the Opposition and lead the parliamentary group. There were subtle and not so subtle messages sent that Wickremesinghe, an MP since 1977, a Cabinet Minister and twice Prime Minister must not contest and lose to someone who has only been a Deputy Minister; and that they have 28 signatures in their support from among the 42-member parliamentary group to oust him as Leader of the Opposition as well; that they would not hesitate to hand over a letter to the Speaker asking for a new Leader of the Opposition.

This has now become the dilemma for UNP leader, Wickremesinghe. Samarawickrama was to convey all this to Wickremesinghe yesterday and revert. Some of his confidants have advised him to meet the Premadasa challenge head-on. Others are somewhat sceptical.

When elephants fight, a pithy Sinhala axiom says, it is the ants that are crushed. It is not so in the case of the country's major opposition political party. Some of the biggest in the herd of political elephants have raised their trunks at each other in the past months. Within the coming weeks, they may well have to fight it out unless one side backs down. What is unclear is which elephant would do so now.

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