Columns - Political Column

Airspace fiasco: Govt. makes blunder and blames media

  • At next month's UNHRC sessions Lanka's fate unknown
  • External Affairs Ministry misguided President on the incident and further damaged Lanka's relations with the US
By Our Political Editor

Reports that a squadron of carrier-based fighter jets from the United States Navy had intruded sovereign Sri Lankan territorial air space jolted the government last week. The fear that the world's only remaining super power was taking liberties with tiny Sri Lanka was the talking point after the front-page lead story in the Sunday Times last week. It was also posted on the newspaper's website, Timesonline (, where there were an unprecedented number of 'hits' for this story from a worldwide readership.

The purported detection had been made by the 3D (three dimensional) radar atop the Pidurutalagala peak, the country's tallest mountain, by the Sri Lanka Air Force. Posted atop the peak, an SLAF detachment which monitors air traffic within the country's Flight Identification Region (FIR) (also referred to as Flight Information Region) had reported just days earlier on what it perceived as an intrusion by a squadron of ten US fighter jets into Sri Lankan airspace. Though unconfirmed, they are believed to be F/A 18 Hornets. The fighter jets had appeared as ten blips on the long range 3D radar indicating the presence of the fighter squadron in the skies over the deeper seas off Galle. This radar provides three dimensions including elevation as against 2D radars which give only direction and distance.

No sooner the incident was reported early last week SLAF Commander Air Marshal Harsha Duminda Abeywickrema, had telephoned the US Defence Attaché Lt. Col. Patrick Schuler. An Air Force source said he had agreed to verify from the US Pacific Command in Hawaii the position and report back. Thereafter, he had been in contact with Major General (retired) Palitha Fernando, Military Liaison Officer (MLO) in the Ministry of Defence. In the meanwhile the SLAF chief had also informed President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The source also said the matter figured at the National Security Council meeting on August 3 but refused to divulge details. Rajapaksa was naturally concerned about the complaint of an unauthorised air intrusion and told External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris to immediately raise issue with the United States.

Peiris had not yet acted on the directive when the Sunday Times reported in its front-page lead story last week the then official government position that US fighter jets intruded Lankan air space. The report said:

"The government will protest to the United States over the intrusion of Sri Lanka's air space by a squadron of ten fighter jets. The Sunday Times learns that the protest will be handed over to the US Embassy in Colombo by the Ministry of External Affairs.

"What we are trying to establish is whether the US fighter jets had violated the oceanic air space or the territorial part of it," Civil Aviation Director Genera H. M. C. Nimalsiri told the Sunday Times yesterday.
"In terms of accepted international norms, anyone wanting to use the country's air space is required to file flight plans and obtain prior approval," he said.

"A senior Air Force official speaking on grounds of anonymity admitted that there were periodic incursions by US combat aircraft into Sri Lanka's air space. "There were occasions where we had to tell them to move out," he said.

"We have communication intercepts to confirm that they were carrier-based aircraft. In this instance we have reason to believe that the jet squadron was from the US Seventh Fleet," he said. The tracking station atop Pidurutalagala -- the tallest point in Sri Lanka -- was the first to identify the intruding US aircraft. Officials there immediately conveyed it to the Civil Aviation Authority and the Sri Lanka Air Force……."
On Monday, more newspapers, radio and television gave wide prominence to the story of US fighter jets intruding Sri Lankan airspace.

As disclosed exclusively in the Sunday Times, the government, highly placed sources in the External Affairs Ministry said, did lodge a protest on Monday. According to these sources, it came when Peiris invited the acting US Ambassador Valerie Fowler to his Ministry and briefed her on the government's position. It was that the US fighter jets had intruded Sri Lankan air space without any prior authorisation. Peiris had sought assurances that no such incursions would occur again.

These sources said Fowler had taken note of Peiris' protest but assured that she would report the matter to her government and convey its response. This she did the next day. She had, the same sources said, met Peiris on Tuesday and strongly denied that any US aircraft had intruded into Sri Lankan airspace. The meeting came hours ahead of Peiris joining President Rajapaksa on a visit to China. Later, on the same day, an official statement was posted on the US Embassy's website. This is what it said:

""Routine Flights by U.S. Naval Aircraft

"August 9, 2011
"-- The aircraft carrier USS RONALD REAGAN with accompanying ships recently transited the Indian Ocean returning to the Pacific. It conducted routine flight operations during the transit through waters beyond the territorial sea of any State.
"-- At no time did the USS RONALD REAGAN or its aircraft approach Sri Lanka's territorial sea or airspace.
"-- U.S. naval aircraft operate with due regard for the safety of civil aviation.
"-- Recent press reports indicate that the Sri Lankan Air Force, which monitors a large Flight Identification Region that extends beyond Sri Lanka's territorial airspace, monitored the transit and the routine operations of the carrier's aircraft.
"-- Responding to a request for information, the Chargé on August 2 informed the Minister of External Affairs that the transit had occurred, and the Defense Attaché's Office was in full communication with the Ministry of Defence that same evening."

Which version is correct - Sri Lanka's or the United States'? The answer lay in a single paragraph in the US Embassy statement which says "Recent press reports indicate that the Sri Lanka Air Force, which monitors a large Flight Identification Region that extends beyond Sri Lanka's territorial airspace, monitored the transit and the routine operations of the carrier's aircraft." The External Affairs Ministry source said acting US Ambassador Fowler had pointed out that aircraft of the nuclear powered super carrier named after the 40th US President, Ronald Reagan, though within Sri Lankan Flight Identification Region (FIR), was not over the country's territorial airspace. That made clear that a question of an unauthorized intrusion did not arise.

Colossal blunder

The Sunday Times learnt that due to a colossal blunder, those responsible on the Sri Lankan side, had mistakenly assumed that FIR was part of Sri Lanka's sovereign territorial airspace. Sri Lanka's territorial airspace extends only up to 12 nautical miles. The airspace beyond, though it comes within the Flight Identification Region (FIR), does not belong to Sri Lanka.

The blunder was so big that the Legal Division of the Ministry of External Affairs gave the wrong advice to the Minister, himself a onetime professor of law and he in turn advised the President wrongfully on the matter.

To get out of the highly embarrassing situation, Civil Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratne was made the guinea pig to make a detailed statement in Parliament subtly admitting the big blunder but attempting in the process to place the blame fairly and squarely on the media. He did so on Wednesday, just the day after the acting US Ambassador Fowler had explained the US position to the government of Sri Lanka. Needless to say, the latest diplomatic blunder again highlighted the rapidly failing conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy. Here is an English translation of the speech Jayaratne made in Sinhala:

"Hon Speaker,
"I wish to express my gratitude to you for agreeing to my request to make a special statement.
"I wish to make a statement with responsibility, about the reports in the print and electronic media regarding the intrusion of several aircraft into Sri Lankan air space.
"I wish to state that the Sri Lankan government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa have been acting to protect the territorial integrity as an independent sovereign nation. As the Minister in charge of Civil Aviation it is my responsibility and the responsibility of my ministry and the organisations under its purview to ensure that the Sri Lankan airspace is safe and is free of any dangers. Also we have to ensure no foreign aircraft can enter our airspace without approval and that in the event of any information to that effect the relevant security establishments are informed without delay.
"Under these circumstances, following the reports the officials in the ministry and the relevant agencies under its purview were directed to submit a report. Accordingly I have discussed the matter with the Ministry Secretary, Legal Advisor of the External Affairs Ministry and the Director General of Civil Aviation and relevant officials and wish to place the following facts before the House.
1. The airspace of Sri Lanka includes the area above the country as well as the area above the sea extending 12 nautical miles from the shore.
2. Under international Civil Aviation Agreements any civil or military air craft entering a particular country needs the approval of the particular county to enter the sovereign airspace of that country.
3. Accordingly any aircraft should have the approval from the relevant authority to enter our sovereign airspace.
4. To ensure efficient and methodical international civil aviation operations in accordance with the international civil aviation agreements, in addition to the sovereign airspace of the country in the adjacent area could be considered. The area in total including the country's sovereign air space is known as the Flight Information Region.
5. The adjacent area is considered as an international air space and does not belong to the country which is providing air navigation services.
6. In addition to Sri Lanka's sovereign airspace in order to provide air navigation services a part of the international air space too is used. This is known as the Colombo Air Information zone.
7. According to international laws, any country has the right to make use of the international air space beyond the sovereign air space of a country without interfering into civil aircraft.
8. According to the reports available it is clear that the reported incidents have taken place not in Sri Lanka's sovereign air space.
9. Though there has been an air operation in the airspace adjacent to Sri Lanka's airspace which is used to provide air navigation services there has been no violation of the sovereign airspace of the country.
10. I wish to emphasize that the reports that foreign flights entered into the sovereign airspace of Sri Lanka are without any basis.
11. I wish to say that if the media do not explain the correct position it would have an adverse reaction on the relations with friendly countries."

Adverse reaction on relations with friendly countries

Minister Jayaratne confirms two important factors. One is that the airspace of Sri Lanka includes the airspace above the country as well as the airspace above the sea extending 12 nautical miles from the shore. That is an admission that the government's accusation of US fighter jets intruding into Sri Lankan airspace is wholly wrong. He also concedes that any country has the right to make use of the international airspace beyond the sovereign airspace of a country without interfering into civil aircraft. This begs answer to the question - Who in fact was responsible for the blunder which, as Jayaratne says, would have "adverse reaction on the relations with friendly countries"?

Other than that, most of what Jayaratne said in Parliament would have made an ideal guide book to those responsible for misleading the governmental hierarchy into making wrong conclusions leading to a protest to the US. If they were aware of those basic facts, the government would not have suffered a loss of face by making a baseless accusation. The media never asked the Minister of External Affairs to invite the Acting US Ambassador and protest to her. On the other hand, the government was forced to retract its official position, only when it was told what international airspace law was all about.

Civil Aviation Minister Jayaratne has been completely in the dark about what has been going on. He was merely asked to read out a statement drafted by the External Affairs Ministry.

Jayaratne said, "I wish to emphasize that the reports that foreign flights entered into the sovereign airspace of Sri Lanka are without any basis." The second is his claim that "……if the media do not explain the correct position, it would have an adverse reaction on the relations with friendly countries." It is a serious joke on his part. Who came up first with the reports that a squadron of ten fighter jets purportedly intruding Sri Lankan airspace? Civil Aviation Director General H.M.C. Nimalasiri told the Sunday Times, "What we are trying to establish is whether the US fighter jets had violated the oceanic airspace or the territorial part of it." That remark from a government official confirmed that there were reports of an intrusion by US aircraft and they were being checked. Those remarks were also further established by the statements of a senior SLAF official who said, "We have communication intercepts to confirm that they were carrier-based aircraft."

"In this instance we have reason to believe that the jet squadron was from the US Seventh Fleet," he was quoted as saying. Further credence was given to the reports when the SLAF spokesperson, Group Captain Andy Wijesuriya was quoted in print and electronic media reports as saying that there was indeed an "intrusion of Sri Lankan airspace." He is the only officer tasked by the Sri Lankan Air Force to speak to the media. Jayaratne now says, "reports that foreign flights entered into the sovereign airspace of Sri Lanka are without any basis." If he is right, then the SLAF spokesperson had made baseless comments. However, in the next line Jayaratne instead blames it on the media.

In fairness to Civil Aviation Chief Nimalasiri, he only said his department which comes under the Ministry of Defence, was trying to establish whether US jets had "violated Sri Lanka's oceanic airspace" in his comments last week. He told the Sunday Times this week after inquiry there had been no such violation. He added" "The territorial airspace of Sri Lanka is 12 nautical miles. The international airspace is 380 kilometres. This part is assigned to the state and is known as the controlled airspace of the host country."
Evidently, expert advice on the matter, if there was any, did not reach those at the highest levels of government.

Placing the blame on the media during embarrassing situations such as this has become all too common for some government politicians and bureaucrats. On December 19 last year, the Sunday Times headlined on its front-page a story titled, "Basil stops donor-funded new buildings in north, east". It drew angry rebuttals from both Prof. Ariyaratne Athugala, Director General of Government Department of Information and Professor Sunanda Madduma Bandara, Director General (Development and Communication) of the Ministry of Economic Development. Though contradictory to each other, they contested the report which said that the Government had called for priority to reconstruction of damaged buildings in the north and east in future and halted new construction work.

When challenged, The Sunday Times reproduced a circular to this effect issued by Nihal Somaweera, Additional Secretary/Regional Development (on behalf of Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development) as proof that instructions were indeed issued. The matter ended there. An independent panel of judges picked this news report as the Scoop of the Year during the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka/Sri Lanka Press Institute Awards for 2010 held last month. The judges were of the view that the factual accuracy of the report remained intact despite the unfounded claims by two top government officials.
The previous Saturday, Wild Life Minister S.M. Chandrasena, told a news conference at his Anuradhapura residence that he plans to hand over 300 elephants to the Dalada Maligawa and other temples. These elephants were to be captured from wild herds in the country's different forest reserves. His statement was broadcast, among others, by two television stations triggering a wave of protests by conservationists. This prompted them to boycott the just concluded elephant census. Ahead of the boycott, representatives of 12 organisations called a media conference and declared they would keep away.

Chandrasena called another media conference to declare that he had no plans to hand over elephants to temples or private persons. He accused the media of spreading what he called false stories. The tape recording of the first statement made by Chandrasena together with the second one where he contradicted himself can be heard on the Sunday Times website Timesonline

A tirade against media

On Thursday, the new Police Chief N.K. Ilangakoon held his second news conference since assuming office. After brief introductory remarks on the incidence of crime and other activity, he handed the microphone over to Senior DIG Pujith Jayasundera. The latter went on a tirade against the media for branding those behind a spate of robberies and other criminal acts as "Grease Yakas" (Greased Devils). The reference came after a string of incidents where criminals have applied grease on their bodies and gone on to rob houses or were voyeurs. Such incidents have been reported from different police stations around the country. The DIG blamed the media for using such terms. Perhaps, he felt that non-usage meant the public would not know that such criminal activity takes place. As a retired DIG said, "instead of doing their job, they want to teach the media to do theirs."

The fact that daily reports that arrive at Police Headquarters from different police divisions gave nom de plumes or titles to those who had committed crimes, like for example, the several Yakadayas (equivalent to an iron man) some of whom are still evading arrest, was lost on him. If he was right, underworld names like Maru Sira, Maalu Nihal, Bomba Somey or Soththi Upali would never have entered the public domain as key players in the lexicon of the underworld of crime. There are many such instances of blame being heaped on the media by those wanting to cover their lapses or due to sheer ignorance. What is worrying is the increasing trend to do so, in most instances, without a modicum of evidence with the accusers to prove their assertions.

The latest diplomatic blunder with the United States comes at a time when relations between Washington and Colombo have hit a new low. Beginning last Monday, the External Affairs Ministry has become proactive to canvass members of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Briefing notes have been sent out to the country's diplomatic missions abroad giving them guidelines to adopt to cope with any resolution that may come up at the UNHRC's 18th sessions that begin on September 20. Envoys who are posted to one capital but accredited to countries that are members of the UNHRC have been told to travel to those capitals to explain the government's position.

Interactive dialogue

The External Affairs Ministry also responded to a US proposal for an "interactive dialogue" at the UNHRC's 19th sessions in March next year. For this purpose, the US handed over the text of a draft resolution it proposed to move at the 18th UNHRC sessions next month to pave the way. The thrust of the resolution was to note that "the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) is due to complete its work on November 15, 2011," and it adds that the UNHRC "decides after consultation and with the consent of the country concerned to hold an interactive dialogue on this matter during its 19th session." Contrary to last week's report, the draft was handed over to Sri Lanka's Charge d' Affaires at the Permanent Mission of the UN in Geneva U. Jauhar by Bruce Donahue, Charge at the US mission and not by senior diplomatic representative Betty E. King.

External Affairs Ministry sources said Sri Lanka had told the US that it was not in favour of an "interactive dialogue" and will not consent to such a move. This is because Sri Lanka did not want to internationalize any domestic issues. Instead, Sri Lanka has sought time and space to address issues raised by the US and other countries, domestically. These sources said the government's message has been conveyed by Sri Lanka's Ambassador in the United States, Jaliya Wickremesuriya to the US Department of State. The move will mean there will be no resolution by the US next month to list the LLRC report for 19th sessions of the UNHRC in March next year. However, resolutions by other countries on these lines are not being ruled out. The US position was further clarified by the spokesperson for the Department of State, Victoria Nuland during a news conference this week. Here is an excerpt of a Q & A:

QUESTION: Continuing on your lead about the U.S. giving the lead, in an interview with Headlines Today, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary (Gotabaya) Rajapaksa rejected calls from the UN, U.S., and international communities for a neutral international investigation into the war crimes. And the top Sri Lankan diplomat today reiterated his stand. So what is the latest from the U.S. for these people who are homeless and in the camps?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have said repeatedly for a long time that we support a full and credible and independent investigation of alleged violations of international human rights and law and international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka. We want to see the Sri Lankans do this themselves in a way that meets international standards. So what I would say to Sri Lankan critics is take your responsibility and mount an investigation that meets international standards. And we continue to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to do just that and to do it quickly. And we hope Sri Lankans will do this themselves. But if they do not, there's going to be growing pressure from the international community for exactly the kind of international action that Sri Lankans say they don't want.

QUESTION: On the same subject, during her visit last month, Secretary Clinton spoke to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and said, to quote, "that the U.S. is looking at innovative and creative ideas," unquote, to break the impasse, which is going on for people living in the camps and not able to go back home. Can you update us on this innovative and creative ideas of the State Department?

MS. NULAND: I'm not prepared today to go further than the Secretary went during her trip. But again, if Sri Lankans want to take their responsibility to solve these issues themselves, then they need to do it and they need to do it quickly.

QUESTION: And another - just a last one. Are you going to put a time period that you're going to give the Sri Lankans? Can it be 10 years, 20 years, or 10 months?

MS. NULAND: I'm not going to speculate on timelines.

Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa returned to Colombo on Friday after a four-day visit to China. No doubt, his talks with Chinese leaders have bolstered his confidence to face the issues before Sri Lanka. The crucial question is whether the Ministry of External Affairs which is responsible for the conduct of diplomacy and the nation's foreign policy is geared well enough. This week's faux pax over the purported intrusion of US fighter jets into Sri Lankan airspace, raises questions. More such ill-conceived and wrong assertions could pass through the EAM to cause even bigger harm to the nation and its people. That is the dilemma for the government at a time when foreign policy has become foreign to those who matter.

UNP crisis deepens as Karu tilts towards Premadasa group

It was perhaps one of Opposition United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's worst moments. Others may have come through unpalatable election defeats or unpleasant crossovers from his ranks to the ruling party.

This time, it came in the form of a revolt within the parliamentary group, a caucus that comprises elected representatives of the UNP in Parliament. Last Tuesday, 36 of them from a total of 43 were present in Committee Room 2 at the Parliament complex in Kotte-Sri Jayawardenapura. Wickremesinghe chaired the meeting. The seven absentees were Ravi Karunanayake, Ranjan Ramanayake, Dinesh Gankanda, P. Harrison, Chandrani Bandara, Vasantha Aluvihare and Kala Maheswaran.

Discussion on the day's business in Parliament ended within minutes. The item on the agenda was "any other business." Ajith Perera (Kalutara District) rose to speak. He was commenting on a party seminar held in Nuwara Eliya to explain to civilian groups the background to the UN Panel of Experts Report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka as well as the controversial Channel 4 video titled Sri Lanka's killing fields. He was interrupted by voices shouting "We are not interested in this. We want a change in leadership…."

During the elephant census conducted by the Forest Department Officials, these two elephants were captured clashing head on, in tune with the Party they represent.
Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

Perera changed course and began speaking about the divisions in the party and the need for them to unite. Without committing himself, he said, "I was told that some want Karu Jayasuriya to be given the leadership." He said he was concerned about strife in the party and wanted the leaders to unite.

Taking over from him was Sajith Premadasa, who is, for the second time leading a rebel group to rid Wickremesinghe of the UNP leadership. The first was when he made a failed and humiliating attempt. Now, he wants Karu Jayasuriya to take over. He spoke of the dismal performance by the UNP at last month's elections to 65 local bodies. At the last sessions of the UNP, he said, "we agreed for unity to take the party forward." However, even after the reforms party members who supported it were being victimised.

He said UNP leader Wickremesinghe had helped his father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa immensely. "I am grateful for that. This is not a personal issue. Karu Jayasuriya is the most suitable person to lead the party. He has been an Army officer, a private sector entrepreneur, diplomat and a Minister," he declared. Hence, Premadasa claimed Jayasuriya would be able to give leadership to the party.

He was to accuse Wickremesinghe of "running down Jayasuriya when a group of UNP MPs met him."
However, Wickremesinghe told a confidant soon after the meeting that he did no such thing and would challenge Premadasa to bring such MPs before him and prove the claim. Premadasa also accused Wickremesinghe of giving appointments to those who were defeated at the parliamentary elections. That too was without approval of the party.

Eyebrows were raised when Jayasuriya rose to speak. He said he had been lampooned by cartoonists and criticised in newspaper columns over his recent conduct. He said he had kept the party leader informed. However, he said party followers at various levels including the grass roots were now calling for a change. Though he did not amplify what the change was, the remarks, though not emphatic, made clear he was endorsing the sentiments expressed by Premadasa. Nevertheless, Jayasuriya insisted in remarks to the Sunday Times that he is not after the UNP leader's post. But, his speech after Premadasa sent the wrong message.

A visibly angry Wickremesinghe rose to point out that it was wrong to discuss leadership issues at the parliamentary group meeting. He said John Ameratunga, a senior UNPer had pointed out to him that such an issue should be discussed at the Working Committee. Wickremesinghe offered to discuss the matters raised over leadership with party seniors and inform them of the outcome. In fact, Ameratunga rose to say the meeting should adjourn since the parliamentary group was not the forum for a discussion on the leadership issue. Wickremesinghe got up to walk out. There was a cacophony of voices. Some MPs were to shout that they were not members of the Working Committee though they were elected representatives of the UNP.

Hence, they insisted that their leader should stay behind and listen to them. He heeded their demand but urged parliamentary staff seated at the main table to withdraw immediately. That seemed a clever tactical move for it signalled the official end of the parliamentary group meeting.

Kabir Hashim (Kegalle District) rose to speak. He said he had a lot of respect for his leader, Wickremesinghe. However, it was time for him to step down and make way. He was followed by Dayasiri Jayasekera. He said the group should accept Karu Jayasuriya as the leader. He said he was the best to unite the party. Harin Fernando (Badulla District) who followed said he had great respect for Wickremesinghe. However, in the current situation, there is a need for a change. He said even when he had met the leader, he had told him of this position and asked that he hand over to Jayasuriya. Harsha de Silva (National List) was the only MP besides Ameratunga to defend the UNP leader.

At this stage, Premadasa got up and read out what he said was a resolution. Here is an English translation: "An unprecedented decline of public support in the UNP in its 65 year existence and history's worst defeat and unpopularity is being witnessed in the UNP. Whereas the percentage of voting has been on the decrease instead of an increase. "The request of the majority of the party supporters of this country is that not a UNP leader by name but one who can oppose this corrupt and anti-democratic government and win back the party's and the country's confidence and of the masses. In order to fulfil this ambition the decision of UNP members who are gathered here is to make arrangements to install Deshabandu Karu Jayasuriya as the leader of the UNP."

Seconding the resolution was Ranjit Madduma Bandara (Moneragala District). He accused Wickremesinghe of taking revenge on those who had fought for reforms in the party. He said everybody should be able to get together under a new leadership. When Rosy Senanayake (Colombo District) had spoken a few words on an on-going court by UNP dissidents, the quorum bell rang. Premadasa got up to say he had raised some questions and left. Others followed and the meeting ended somewhat abruptly.
In a statement issued on Tuesday night, UNP General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake gave the official account of what transpired at the parliamentary group meeting. Here is the full text: "MPs discussed the situation of the administration of Telecom and the rights of workers. It was decided to make available all details to parliament. MPs pointed out that new guidelines on the expenditure of the decentralized budget were not acceptable and were not practical. They said it was a dictatorial step. They alleged that employment opportunities from Korea were being sold by government politicians. The group decided that a campaign should be carried out in Parliament and outside Parliament.

"Ajith Perera pointed out the need to ensure unity of the party. Mr Sajith Premadasa endorsed it. Chief Opposition whip John Amaratunga pointed out that the discussion on this subject does not come under the purview of the Parliamentary group keeping with the party constitution. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said that these matters should be taken up by the Working Committee. The meeting ended.

"Thereafter, keeping with requests that opportunity should be given to express views about the future of the party the members were allowed to express their ideas under the leadership of the party leaders and senior members. The meeting was presided over by leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Messsrs Karu Jayasuriya, Jayawickrema Perera, Tissa Attanayake, John Amaratunga.

"Kabeer Hashim, Dayasiri Jayasekara, Harin Fernando, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Harsha de Silva and Karu Jayasuriya expressed their views. Mr Premadasa suggested that the leadership be given to Karu Jayasusriya and thereafter left to attend the Parliamentary session. This was seconded by Maddumabandara. Mr Wickremasinghe said that the advisory committee met on Thursday to discuss the issue of restructuring in the party. He said this was attended by Karu Jayasruriya, Jayawickrema Perera, Tissa Attanayake John Amarathunga and Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene and several decisions were taken on the subject. He said more will be discussed at another meeting scheduled for the afternoon. The meeting terminated after Ms Rosy Senanayake and M Swaminathan discussed the issue about the case on naming the National Organiser."

Premadasa as well as his supporters are well aware that the parliamentary group is not the forum to change a UNP leader. However, the reason behind their unruly move became clear on Tuesday night. One of the participants had used his mobile telephone to tape record the speeches made. The criticism levelled against Wickremesinghe was aired over a leading television channel. That action made clear that a formidable section of the UNP parliamentary group was not with Wickremesinghe. However, he commands the overwhelming support of the Working Committee. One of the strongest criticisms levelled against Wickremesinghe by his own backers is his continuing inability to take any decisive action against those violating party discipline. This is whilst the party's internal battles are being fought in public.

On Friday, Premadasa had organised a meeting of UNP Provincial Councillors at the National Library Services Auditorium. It was to begin at 2 p.m. but kept getting put off by the hour. When the meeting began at 5 p.m., there were not more than 18 councillors present. Later, Premadasa said " The same proposal we put forward to the Parliamentary group that Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya should be made the leader and that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be the opposition leader was put forward today at the meeting with the provincial council members. He claimed it was adopted by the provincial councillors. Although Jayasuriya did not attend the meeting, he later took part in a reception for the councillors by Premadasa and his backers at the 80 Club in Torrington Square. Yet, the move enraged Wickremesinghe backers who accused him of being an integral part of Premadasa's campaign.

With elections to 23 local councils just weeks away, the main opposition United National Party (UNP) is directionless and divided. With this situation, the question is whether the party can garner grass roots level support remains critical. As one senior minister told a meeting at Temple Trees this week, the continuing crisis will help the UPFA and "we can win all councils comfortably." It is the devout UNP voters who would feel the discomfort of this internecine fighting.

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