Campaign by dissident group ends where it began; Premadasa’s handlers fail to achieve agendas Party leader gives 19 powers to new Leadership Council; Mangala wants focus on national issues A six-week long campaign by so-called reformists of the country’s main opposition United National Party (UNP) to oust their leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to have ended [...]


UNP crisis: Sajith’s bid to oust Ranil backfires


  • Campaign by dissident group ends where it began; Premadasa’s handlers fail to achieve agendas
  • Party leader gives 19 powers to new Leadership Council; Mangala wants focus on national issues

A six-week long campaign by so-called reformists of the country’s main opposition United National Party (UNP) to oust their leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to have ended where it began. He continues as president of the party and retains his position as the Leader of the Opposition. The main casualty seems his detractor, the man who spearheaded the drive to oust him, Hambantota District parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and one-time deputy leader of the party.


That in essence is how the curtain came down on a long-drawn political saga, the latest to encompass the grand old party. Initial calls for party reforms were blown into a broader agitation by the ‘reformists,’ (including other stakeholders), demanding Wickremesinghe’s scalp. The UNP leader did, for the first time, agree to shed some of his powers to a nine-member Leadership Council. No doubt, he has been at the butt end of criticism for the party’s failures, some his fault in not being proactive, whilst others not. Strange enough they were often exacerbated by his stoic silence. Yet, neither he nor the Working Committee felt he should quit. The reason — the party would have fallen into the hands of a group made up of political hangers-on basking heavily in the glory of one young politician, Sajith Premadasa. 

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Leadership Council head Karu Jayasuriya came together for an anti-Government protest at Fort on Thursday. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

No doubt, Premadasa, a platform orator of no mean repute and singer, is popular at the grassroots level. He had political pedigree and rose to the position of deputy leader because of these attributes and was often touted as the leader-in-waiting after Wickremesinghe. It weighed in his favour since his other senior colleague, Karu Jayasuriya, once crossed over to the UPFA with 17 other UNP parliamentarians. Some of these MPs are holding top ministerial positions in the UPFA Government even now. Jayasuriya was ‘forgiven,’ taken back to the party fold and made deputy leader. Then he contested to become UNP leader in a bid to oust Wickremesinghe during an election of the Working Committee and lost badly.

Alas, the events that played out in the past six weeks have left behind a stinking trail. It goes far beyond party reforms albeit its own welfare. Did Premadasa, even unwittingly, become a pawn in the hands of a group, some with strong links to the UPFA hierarchy, others with personal animosity against Wickremesinghe? Their operational manoeuvres were solely to force Wickremesinghe out. If it succeeded, would that have been the launch of a process to cleanse the party of those who stood up to the so-called reformists? The answers to these and other questions without doubt came as factors that consolidated the positions of most in the Working Committee (WC) when they met last Monday to make some historic decisions. 

Premadasa, the lone warrior, was left to fight his case by himself whilst all others in many ways expressed different opinions not consonant with his position. In between listening to speeches, he was busy texting SMS messages. A lawyer in the Working Committee said somewhat sarcastically to a member seated next to him, “See he is getting his instructions from his handlers.”
With a string of elections ahead, that meeting decided on a “new face” for the UNP. Wickremesinghe will transfer some of his powers given to him by the Working Committee to a Leadership Council (LC) chaired by Karu Jayasuriya, the next senior-most in the party. The UNP leader will elaborate on those powers when the LC meets for its first session on Thursday (November 14). Events at last Monday’s meeting were the result of deliberations by a troika on three different occasions on how Wickremesinghe would transfer some of his powers. The precursor to this was the humiliating defeats suffered by the UNP at the North, North Central and Central Provincial Council elections on September 21. The trio were Wickremsinghe and his two erstwhile deputies, Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa. The first meeting was on October 15, the second on November 1 and the third on November 3, ahead of the Working Committee meeting.

The roots of the process go back to when Ven. Giraambe Ananda Thera, Anunayake of the Ramanna Nikaya and ten other monks, all from the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (EBP), wrote on October 15 to Wickremesinghe. The letter titled “If the UNP were to unite and move towards victory….” set out eight points which Wickremesinghe would have to heed. Earlier, the same day they met with Jayasuriya and Premadasa at one meeting and thereafter had a discussion with Wickremesinghe. The points they set out were: (1) Wickremesinghe should serve as the senior leader of the party. In that capacity he should also function as Leader of the Opposition and attend to parliamentary affairs;. (2) The functioning of the party will be the responsibility of a Leadership Council which will enjoy full powers; (3) The Council to be appointed should be named the “Leadership Council”; (4) All powers vested in the leader should be transferred to the Leadership Council; (5) All appointments, revisions and decisions are to be made by the Leadership Council.; (6) Re-organisation of the entire party structure including the constitution of a new Working Committee should be vested in the Leadership Council; (7) A maximum of nine members with Karu Jayasuriya as the leader and including Sajith Premadasa is being proposed by the United Bhikku Front; (8) The aforesaid points should be implemented within two weeks.

The letter to Wickremesinghe also said that the Bhikku Front had received the blessings of the Mahanayake Theras. Even leaders of other religions were making similar request. The expectations of the majority of Sri Lankans and the Maha Sangha were the same, the Front said. The eight point proposal came up for discussion at the troika meeting on October 15. The Sunday Times has obtained a Sinhala copy of the minutes of this meeting. This is what an English translation says:
“The discussion based on the proposals of the Eksath Bikshu Peramuna- 15.10.2013. Attendance: Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa:

“The permission to hold the discussion was granted by the UNP Working Committee which met on October 7, 2013. Majority of these proposals do not counter the agreements that were approved by the Committee. However, it was decided in the discussion to further negotiate a few proposals and to forward these proposals for approval to the Working Committee. 
“Proposal No. 07 (The Eksath Bhikku Peramuna proposes that a Leadership Council consisting of a maximum of nine members chaired by Karu Jayasuriya be appointed) and Proposal No.08 (Completing all the aforementioned proposals within two weeks) were agreed in the discussion.

“The Proposal No. 02 (A Leadership Council should be appointed and it should have full powers) and the Proposal No. 04 (Party Leader should hand over his powers to the Leadership Council) and the Proposal No.05 (All kind of duties including the appointments, amendments, decision making of the party should be done through the Leadership Council) were prioritised and decided to be implemented by November.

“Agreements arrived at with regard to the proposals are as follows.
“01. Proposal
“Serving as the senior leader of the United National Party and as the Opposition Leader in charge of parliamentary duties.
“Being the Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe should be in command of the parliamentary duties and working with other parties and organisations.
“Due to the absence of a position called Senior Leader in the party, approval of the Working committee is essential if there is a need to establish such a position. In view of this, Sajith Premadasa would submit a proposal in that regard to the Working Committee.
“02. Proposal
“The functioning of the party will be the responsibility of a Leadership Council which will enjoy full powers.
“Mr. Wickremesinghe has already consented to hand in 19 powers which currently the party leadership holds, to the Leadership Council. The particular document has been handed over to the Maha Sangha, Mr Jayasuriya and Mr Premadasa.
“Almost all the leadership powers will be transferred to the Council through the aforesaid 19 powers. The decision to transfer powers is agreed by all. If more powers are required in addition to the above, there is room for arriving at an agreement followed by discussion regarding those powers.
“03. Proposal
“Appointed committee should be named “The Leadership Council”.
The approval of the Council’s name must be done by the Working Committee.
“04. Proposal
“The Party Leader should hand in his power to the Leadership Council.
“Same as Proposal 02
05. Proposal
“All kind of duties including appointments, amendments, decision making of the party should be done through the Leadership Council.
“Same as Proposal 02 & 04″

The above minutes, which are the official record of the first troika meeting, were formulated by the party secretariat and circulated to both Jayasuriya and Premadasa. As is clear from its contents, Wickremesinghe was not in accord with all eight points. That he did not consent to the eight points was to spark a controversy with the Front. This was after the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of October 27 quoted him saying he had not given an assurance to the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna that he had agreed to all their conditions. Wickremesinghe was also quoted as saying that any decision taken by the troika would have to be approved by the Working Committee.

The next day (October 28) the the Bhikku Front reacted. Ven. Giraambe Ananda Thera claimed in a letter that Wickremesinghe had agreed to the eight points during the meeting with the Sangha (on October 15). The prelate cited a remark that the UNP leader had made during the meeting that Mama deng sovan vu kenek vagey yai (I have now attained the first stage of sainthood). The deputy head of the Ramanna Nikaya said that the majority of the clergy and laity were in favour of the eight points. It was only a handful who were opposed. “They are people who neither loved the party nor you,” he told Wickremesinghe and added that both he and the party would win if it is accepted. Reminding him of Lord Buddha’s words Vishwaasa paramaa gnathi (the best trust can be on a relative), the prelate said Wickremesinghe should prepare the groundwork to implement the eight points.

Earlier, on October 25 the Bhikku Front also wrote to Wickremesinghe after a meeting Ven. Giraambe Ananda Thera had with former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and Kabir Hashim among others at the Asgiriya Temple. It was a re-iteration of the eight points with little modifications. For example, instead of being designated “Senior Leader,” it was suggested that the office be named “National Leader” or “Chief Leader.” Instead of “Leadership Council,” it was suggested that it be made the “National Leadership Council.” The change is said to have been suggested on numerological reasons since it was felt more appropriate.

Another organisation representing the Maha Sangha – Eksath Jathika Bhikku Peramuna (EJBP) or United National Bhikku Front – joined in the issue. In a letter addressed to Wickremesinghe by Ven. Keeniyawala Palitha Thera, they said that who should be the leader of the United National Party (UNP) or who should be selected, in their belief, was a matter that did not belong to the Sangha. Whilst welcoming the dialogue the UNP leadership has had with the Sangha, like the Most Ven.erable Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter has observed, such matters should be determined by the party in keeping with the wishes of the people. The EJBP suggested eight different points for consideration. They were: (1) A Council to run the activities of the party and granting 19 specific powers as enunciated by the leader; (2) Karu Jayasuriya to head the Council; (3) The Chairman, the General Secretary and the Communications Director to be included in the Council; (4) The responsibility of campaigns for future polls is in the hands of the Council; (5) Members to the Council to be appointed not on the basis of personal friendship or from different groups; (6) The Council strength to be ten; (7) The Working Committee can adopt a suitable name for the Council; (8) The UNP leader should lead the party, handle parliamentary matters and be responsible for dialogue with the Government and other political parties. He should attend public meetings and national events. Political propaganda work should also be under his charge.

It is in this backdrop that the troika met again on November 1 for a brief meeting which ended inconclusively. There was strong opposition from Premadasa over allowing both Wickremesinghe and the Leadership Council to function. He said it should be one or the other, a suggestion that Wickremesinghe give way to the Council and step aside. It was now becoming increasingly clear that the overriding factor in Premadasa’s campaign was not reforms but an ouster of the Leader. The meeting adjourned.

Before a third round, Jayasuriya and Premadasa were to meet at a Buddhist Temple in Kurunegala. However, it had to be shifted to the residence of UNP parliamentarian Ashoka Abeysinghe after members of the Sangha did not favour the presence of two others with Premadasa. Both have been expelled from the UNP and have gone to courts to challenge the decision. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Jayasuriya and Premadasa place their signatures on a document that urged that they be entitled to nominate two persons each to the Leadership Council apart from themselves. Three others were to be nominated by the party leader. The same day Ven. Ananda of the Eksath Bhikshu Front also telephoned Wickremesinghe and urged that he goes ahead and implements their proposals. He was told that a letter incorporating the decisions made would be sent to him. However, Wickremesinghe had not received it until the Working Committee meeting began on November 1.
Ahead of that meeting, on Monday morning the troika met. This time Premadasa said the UNP constitution should be amended. The references in the constitution to the party leader should be substituted to read the Leadership Council. If accepted, that would have meant that Wickremesinghe had no role to play and would have been effectively edged out of the party. Premadasa said if the request was not heeded, it would not be possible for him to serve in such a Council. That meeting too ended inconclusively.

On Monday afternoon, Ven. Bopitiye Dhammarathana Thera of the EBP turned up at Siri Kotha, the UNP headquarters at Kotte, to bless Wickremesinghe. He wanted Wickremesinghe to implement the proposals contained in their letter. Later the Working Committee meeting began with Wickremesinghe speaking for 45 minutes. He gave a chronology of the events that had taken place and read out the letters he had received. He said he would put the issues in focus, particularly the letter from the Eksath Jathika Bhikku Peramuna, to vote by the Committee. He said Jayasuriya would be in the Council together with Premadasa and Ravi Karunanayake. Premadasa got up and declared, “I don’t want to serve.” Replied Wickremesinghe, “I will inform Ven. Giraambe Ananda.” Those holding ex officio positions — Chairman designate (Kabir Hashim), General Secretary (Tissa Attanayake) and Co-ordinator, Media and Political Affairs (Mangala Samaraweera) too would be included. Jayasuriya proposed the name of Lakshman Kiriella. The name of Talatha Athukorale was proposed by Ajith Perera (MP-Kalutara District) and seconded by Niroshan Perera, son of one time UNP minister, late Festus Perera. Ms. Athukorale later declined to accept her inclusion. Badulla District parliamentarian Harin Fernando, a member of the “Young MPs group of 2010″ proposed the name of Ruwan Wijewardene (Gampaha District) and was seconded by Ajith Perera (Kalutara District). Two Tamil members of the Working Committee, A. Sashitharan, former Provincial Council member from Batticaloa and V. Ram urged that a Tamil nominee also be included in the Council. Sasitharan said the party must recognise and respect the Tamil voters of theirs. Wickremesinghe replied that it would be given consideration. When the Council meets on Thursday, the prospect of increasing the membership up to 11 is to be discussed. Thereafter a Tamil is also to be nominated. 
When Premadasa was invited to speak, he said he would do so at the end. Thereafter there were several others who spoke including Lakshman Kiriella, Ajith Perera, Harin Fernando, Joseph Michael Perera, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and Mangala Samaraweera. The names proposed were all unanimously adopted.

Premadasa began by saying that there should be a change in the leadership if there is going to be any reform. There cannot be a Leadership Council and another leader. The post of leader would have to be scrapped. He also referred to the decisions reached at Kurunegala the previous day and signed by him and Jayasuriya. He took a swipe at Jayasuriya by saying he had conveniently forgotten that he had placed his signature to a document that called for powers for Jayasuriya and him to appoint two persons each to the Leadership Council. An angry Jayasuriya shot back, “Yes I signed it. What we said was that the matter could be considered by the Working Committee. I cannot see anything wrong in that when several proposals and suggestions are being considered. The Leadership Council should be a constantly evolving process,” he said. He added that members should now “get down to strengthening the party and not debilitating it. We should move as a united force.”
Mangala Samaraweera noted that since he had become a member of the Working Committee, he found most of the time was wasted on discussing internal issues. “This is whilst corruption is mounting at all levels of the Government. People were facing several hardships. From now on people should stop talking about internal issues,” he said. Samaraweera pointed out that in 1992, then Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike was not in the best of health. But there was no campaign to oust her. She appointed a Campaign Committee and the party won the parliamentary elections in 1994. She planned Government formation whilst sitting in a wheel chair.

Just as the Working Committee meeting was over, Premadasa spoke to the media to declare that he had not agreed to serve in the Leadership Council. (See box story for Premadasa’s exclusive comments to the Sunday Times). On Tuesday, when Jayasuriya and party went to the Dharmakeerthiya Aramaya (Polwatte temple) at Kollupitiya, Sujeeva Senasinghe MP was to engage in a verbal duel with Jayasuriya accusing the Chairman of the Leadership Council of betraying others. TV crews that gathered to cover the event were kept out of the temple premises. Ven. Giraambe Ananda Thera seemed upset by Senasinghe’s conduct. “Api me hadagaththa daruwa gehenuda pirimida balanne nethuwa ekata weda karamu (We should work together now without being concerned on the gender of the baby we have produced),” he declared. The UNP leadership is to initiate disciplinary action against Senasinghe. 

Samaraweera, who is head of communications of the UNP, told the Sunday Times, “The Leadership Council is an excellent arrangement. We can now go to the grassroots level of the party and tell them about the 100 day programme we propose to launch.” Added Ravi Karunanayake, “When a Leaderhip Council was suggested four years ago, people scoffed at us. Now it is a reality. The size is too big, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet. However, we have a capable chairman in Karu Jayasuriya. Anyone who cannot work has proved they were acting on someone else’s agenda. They are now exposed.”
Wickremesinghe said that the Leadership Council will start functioning with the 19 powers he has divested from those enjoyed by the UNP leader.

They are:

1. Preparing national strategy and policies required by all sections of the party.
2. Preparing promotional programmes and recruitment programmes required for a membership drive.
3. Appointing Divisional organisers in consultation with the party leader.
4. Issuing directives and orders required for the party membership.
5. Initiating disciplinary action or administrative action in the event of the failure to follow directives.
6. Preparing criteria for nominations and appointing Nomination Boards in consultation with the party leader.
7. Resolving disputes regarding nominations.
8. Supervision of the progress of party office bearers and organisers.
9. Providing targets and time frames for office bearers and organisers.
10. Powers to summon office-bearers, seek independent evaluation reports or seek ideas depending on the requirement of the Leadership Council.
11. Powers to take alternative steps to overcome weak areas or to improve efficiency of party officer bearers and organisers.
12. Powers to recommend steps to improve party trade unions and affiliated organisations.
13. Proposing and supervising party communication and propaganda programmes.
14. Supervising and providing targets, timetables and plans in order to improve and direct grassroots level organisations.
15. Appointing a member of the Council or several of them to direct any election.
16. Appointing sub committees to contest elections, appointing emergency committees or sub committees to achieve party objectives or any other appointments to improve efficiency of party administration.
17. Issuing directives to speakers addressing election meetings.
18. Issuing orders and supervising the implementation of decisions taken by the Working Committee.
19. Keeping the Working Committee informed periodically about the decisions and proposals taken by the Council.
One more internecine battle in the UNP has ended, or has it? A lot remains to be done. Wickremesinghe has to convince the party’s grassroots level membership that the UNP with a “new face” and a “new message” is credible and is all set to deliver. For this, he has to play a bigger role outside the Leadership Council like leading the battle against gigantic corruption in the State sector and the different hardships faced by the people.

As one UNP senior member from Colombo, who did not wish to be identified, commented, “we believed that there was a problem with the UNP and that was what Sajith was saying. It now appears that Sajith is the problem. Of course, Ranil, has now ceded powers to the Council. He should also turn a new leaf and prove he can be a robust leader. Otherwise we will always remain where we are now.” That is the dilemma of the UNP.

Sajith sets tough conditions

Former UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa set his own conditions yesterday for a return to the newly appointed Leadership Council. He said the party’s constitution would have to be amended so the name of the Leadership Council replaces all references to the leader.

Sajith Premadasa

The effect of his remarks would be the exclusion of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe from his position. That would also mean Wickremesinghe would cease to be the Leader of the Opposition. 

Premadasa told the Sunday Times, “If a change is to be done, it has to be done properly.” He said, “I did make a precise statement after the Working Committee meeting.” In remarks made to reporters when that meeting ended, he said he had not accepted a position in the Leadership Council.

“The venerable members of the Maha Sangha pioneered the reforms proposals. I and Mr Karu Jayasuriya signed a document in Kurunegala that we would each nominate two persons besides ourselves. Three more were to be named by the leader,” he said. He added that the document had also urged that the Chairman of the Leadership Council presides at meetings of the Working Committee. 

Asked whether Jayasuriya reneged on an assurance, he replied, “I am not going to comment. Each individual has the right to make decisions. All I am saying is that I signed it. I cannot go back. I do not want to question the honesty or dishonesty of other individuals.”

At Monday’s meeting of the Working Committee, Jayasuriya reacted sharply to Premadasa’s accusations that he placed his signature and reneged later. Jayasuriya admitted he signed the document but insisted there was nothing wrong in it since it was meant for consideration by the Working Committee. 

Premadasa said, “I am prepared to come to the Leadership Council if the conditions laid down by the Maha Sangha are met. They pioneered the recent moves for reforms. It is they who wanted the party leader to be replaced with a Leadership Council.”

He said the proposals made by the Maha Sangha were “all inclusive” and they should have to go “the full way.”

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