His verbal barrage this week against his coalition partner, the United National Party (UNP) leadership, publicly laid bare that relations still remain a sore, festering wound and President Maithripala Sirisena only poured more salt water on it. Those strong words also ricocheted on his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the de facto leader of the ‘Joint [...]


Feuding coalition partners meet for rapprochement

Ministerial team holds talks on how best differences could be sorted out; More meetings to be held - SLFP central committee meets today to discuss changes - Questions over whether the bickering will continue; outbursts and peace moves like a national joke

His verbal barrage this week against his coalition partner, the United National Party (UNP) leadership, publicly laid bare that relations still remain a sore, festering wound and President Maithripala Sirisena only poured more salt water on it.

Those strong words also ricocheted on his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the de facto leader of the ‘Joint Opposition.’ “I don’t have to sweat at an election campaign. He is canvassing for us,” Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times.
The JO also issued a statement saying accusations against Rajapaksa were “baseless.” Now, Sirisena is engaging the country’s two main political groupings, the UNP and the JO at the same time whilst the SLFP, which he leads, remains badly divided.

Feuding coalition partners meet for rapprochement

On Thursday morning, just the day after he made the strong remarks, Sirisena told a confidant, “I also have my limits. In the last two weeks they (meaning the UNP) have been behind various acts to undermine me. I had to set the record right.” He seemed to have no regrets and believed he had to deliver a strong message “to keep the public informed.”
Yet, moves at rapprochement between the SLFP and the UNP got under way during a two-hour meeting last morning. The four-member team of SLFP Ministers who negotiated on behalf of their party with the UNP leader Premier Wickremesinghe, just ahead of the No-Confidence motion against him in Parliament, undertook the task. They were Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sarath Amunugama, Mahinda Ameraweera and Duminda Dissanayake. All four are strong backers of the SLFP-UNP coalition.

Representing the UNP were Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera.
At the meeting held at the Stanmore Crescent (Colombo) official residence of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, the two sides discussed the formulation of a common development programme and matters related to future elections — upcoming Provincial Council elections as well as presidential and parliamentary elections in 2020.
In a bid to narrow down any differences, the SLFP team will now meet President Sirisena. Premier Wickremesinghe is also to be invited to the meeting where the team wants to emphasise that the two sides should work together, said a participant who did not wish to be named. On the question of accusations against one side or the other, it was agreed that such matters would be gone into. If there was no substance over such accusations, it was also agreed that such matters should be dropped and not referred to.

Nevertheless, Sirisena’s outburst appears to have boomeranged. The social media were castigating him. Not that the strong strictures he made against the UNP leadership were altogether new. He had made different accusations at different times in a year or more. Those in the country’s commerce, trade and industry were livid this week. Here was a President who was publicly certifying that relations between Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were still rotten. This is contrary to the belief that grew after the ministerial reshuffle in May that they had “kissed and made up.”

Both Sirisena’s image and credibility appear to have taken a beating. Not that it did not happen before. There were yet distinct differences this time. It unfolded some inherent weaknesses on Sirisena’s part as President. The sequence of events is clear proof that his outburst was the direct result of sudden provocation though it is by no means a justification. That such provocations prompt him to deliver verbal attacks both during weekly ministerial meetings and on public platforms are far too many. They are not matched by any accompanying strategy or any counter measure. Not so long ago, he charged at a ministerial meeting that it was the Prime Minister (he did not mention the name) and Minister Malik Samarawickrema who had arranged for an Air Force helicopter to fly defeated presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa and family members from Colombo to his ancestral village of Beliatte near Tangalle. At SLFP election rallies ahead of the February 10 local polls, he blamed the UNP for the Central Bank bond scam and for other undisclosed acts, from which he had saved the nation. A UNP delegation that raised issue later was told by Sirisena that his references to their party were just three or four minutes from a 45 minute speech. The media had given prominence only to what he said during that narrow time span. Of course, the fact that they had highlighted the newsworthy points, as is the standard practice, for media reportage was lost.

First to the sequence of events on Wednesday evening. It was the 76th birth anniversary of the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the then leader of the National Movement for Social Justice. The influential Thera, a champion of good governance and was a principal stakeholder in Yahapalanaya or good governance principles. His movement together with civil society groups backed Sirisena at the presidential elections. The Thera was closely associated with now Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) Chairman Sarath Kongahage telephoned President Sirisena on Tuesday to ascertain whether he would attend the commemoration ceremonies at the SLFI auditorium.

It is only then that he had learnt of such an event taking place. Sirisena had telephoned one of the organisers, Ravi Jayawardena, an active member of the late Thera’s National Movement for Social Justice and former Chairman of Rupavahini. Sirisena later learnt that due to a mistake, an invitation had not been sent out to him though a few had undertaken to do so. Thereafter, one was immediately rushed to the President’s official residence. Sirisena turned up for the event.

The Venerable Mugunuwatawana Siddadatta Thera, Sangha Nayake of Wayamba, made a brief speech that was to later provoke Sirisena. He said, “Our wish is to carry on with the work of the late Sobitha Thera. President, I hope you will not be discouraged by these words I would utter. You contested as the common candidate in the campaign led by Ven Sobitha and won the Presidential election. Thereafter, one of the senior members of a society called Ven Sobitha Thera and asked of the then prevailing situation. He asked, ‘will the Roti be baked?’ Ven. Sobitha Thera had responded, “Rotiya pitchchenwa Kesewethath, Rotiya Ettakuna wenna Ida thiyanawa” (The roti is baking. Nevertheless, it could end up half baked. It was an allusion on the working of the government.)

“I think the future thinking was reflected in those words. After the monk’s demise, he was described as a Sangha Senadhipathi (or Commander of the Buddhst Clergy). When the Sendhipathi is no more, gathering the troops is a difficult task. Once in a way we see Sanga corporals. That will not help to resolve national problems. We need to fill the vacuum created by the demise of Sobitha Thera even before preparations are made for the presidential election.

“That would be the great honour and service to Ven Sobitha Thera. The Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, is one of them who could assist. We cannot be satisfied about the achievement of the objectives of the National Movement for Social Justice. Everywhere we see and hear of things which bring pain. Hunger is increasing. Unrest is overflowing.”

Visibly angry, Sirisena told the meeting that before he arrived there, someone had spread a rumour that he would not be attending. Noting that the “Venerable Thera had said he was shocked when he learnt I would not be coming,” Sirisena declared, “I suppose he was thinking of saying what he wished to say directly to me.” He added, “Without mentioning me by name, you declared that it was after I took over the chairmanship of the SLFP that things began to go wrong. I can explain in detail how it went wrong. I am not speaking about you (the Thera). I am asking those who have gone around saying such things to come and have a dialogue with me. I will explain….” That was how Sirisena began his speech. Edited excerpts appear in the later paragraphs.

The events this week no doubt raise inadequacies in the office of Presidency though Sirisena cannot be faulted entirely for the periodic needling he is being subjected to. There have been far too many in the recent weeks perhaps with the knowledge that he would erupt with fire and thunder. If the first option was to remain calm and think of counter strategies, Sirisena chose the second, to simply hit back. In democracies where there are coalitions, internecine issues are endemic. Some leaders evolve their own strategies whilst others confront their partners. In this instance, a public hit back and switching off thereafter has led to irreparable damage in unexpected quarters including even the economy. Such lack of strategy, to say the least, is not salutary. Repetitions only add to the harm caused.

One of the consequences of the political eruptions this week is the looming question – what next? Would Sirisena’s tirade against the UNP leadership be forgotten as weeks go by and frictions allowed to continue? At least a handful of Sirisena loyalists think otherwise. Some of them were speaking among themselves that it was now time to say goodbye to the so-called national government or the coalition. They opine that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe should be allowed to continue with a government and face the issues for the rest of the tenure. They argue that in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, he would be forced to reduce the number of ministers to 30. This by itself would draw discontent within UNP ranks. The only reason why this move assumes significance is because of today’s meeting of the SLFP Central Committee. However, many senior members believe those issues will not come up for discussion. More so with new reconciliation moves by the ministerial team.

This morning’s joint meeting of the Central Committee and the Executive Committee is expected to focus on SLFP re-organization. Sirisena is expected to name a Committee and set a time frame during which period it would have to come up with proposals. Changes in positions of office bearers is also expected.

Here are edited excerpts of President Sirisena’s Wednesday speech which provides an insight into his thinking on the UNP leadership, his coalition partner at least for the next 16 months. For purposes of elucidation and to place matters in context, some comments on his remarks appear in italics.

“We have arrested some people after three and a half years. Cases have been filed in court and some are being heard. Other people are being investigated. People are asking why I didn’t do these things. I will have to answer these charges. Mr. Speaker (who was present at the function), you would recall that after the presidential election on January 8, 2015, the Elections Commissioner asked us to come and issue the final results at 2.00pm on January 9. At the time, Mahinda Rajpaksa and his entourage were all packing up to leave. The protection vehicles used by Mr Rajapaksa belonged to the President. However, he took all the brand new vehicles with him, saying he needed them.

“There is this technical device that can detect explosives within a range of some 100 metres. That device too would have been taken away in one of those vehicles. I don’t have that device even now. Only two of the newer vehicles were left to me. One of my security officers then said that the Prime Minister’s people were asking for those two vehicles. So, I gave these vehicles to the Premier. I had to use the vehicles that were discarded by Mahinda Rajapaksa. I used those old vehicles for two and a half years. Ravi Karunanayake (who was present) will testify to this as Finance Minister. I only purchased two new vehicles after two and a half years when he released money as the then Finance Minister.

“Who gave Mahinda Rajapaksa helicopters to go to Tangalle? Did I give? Those who need to answer such questions should do so. I telephoned our Air Force commander. I asked who gave him instructions to provide helicopters. At the time, the present Commander was the second in command. He told me that so and so had spoken to the Commander claiming that the President had authorised it. I had no idea. There was not even a phone call to me.

Note: Asked about the use of an Air Force Mi-17 VIP transport helicopter on January 9, 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa replied: “I asked for the helicopter. On January 9, I was still the President of Sri Lanka when I made the request. It was only later that a new President was sworn in.

“Hamuduruwane,” (Venerable member of the Sangha): You say that the Government was finished the moment I took over the SLFP as its Chairman. At the time, the UNP only had 47 seats in Parliament. I swore in Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister despite this number. At the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa commanded a two thirds majority in Parliament with 142 MPs in the UPFA. The SLFP itself had 127 MPs. Mr. Speaker, I don’t know who drew up that 100-Day Programme.

“Even now, I am honoured and pleased that you selected me as the common presidential candidate and I am thankful for it. There are now those who speak of even that with contempt, saying that they would have won even if they fielded a crow as a candidate. If so, why didn’t they do that? Why did they have to come to the General Secretary of the SLFP? I’m telling that to those who say such things. I am telling you that they chose me because they had no one else.

“At a time when the all-powerful Rajapaksa family was at the height of its power, at a time when the country was under a dictatorship and where disappearances and corruption were the norm, I stepped out like a lion. I am not an aristocrat from an aristocratic family. I am not from a wealthy family. I am not even from a family that has a history in politics. But, I made sacrifices. Many people however, seem to have forgotten that now. How can you undertake a 100-Day Programme without a majority in Parliament? Can someone answer me that? They draw up the 100-Day Programme for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who only has 47 MPs, on January 8. The next day (January 9), there’s the swearing in. From January 10 and 11 onwards, there is the programme that goes for 100 days. A booklet containing the programme also gets distributed. Among the contents is the 19th Amendment. In which country in history was a Constitutional Amendment brought to Parliament because 47 MPs wanted it? Out of the 225 MPs, 142 were opposed.

Note: The 100-Day Programme was evolved after Sirisena won the Presidential election in January 2015. It took effect on the day he was sworn in. Sirisena had favoured a parliamentary election immediately instead of a 100-Day Programme. However, his wishes did not materialise. Wickremesinghe wished to serve a short stint as Premier. Such a programme gave a 100-day opportunity to function as Prime Minister before going for general elections in August 2015. Sirisena had felt they could have gained more seats and he could lead a stable government if that 100 Day Programme did not cause a delay.

On Thursday, UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim responded to this remark saying that the 100-Day Programme was the work of all those who were opposed to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014. Though he did not name anyone, the reference to Sirisena was obvious.

“Then came the new budget proposals of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. Was it possible to get the budget proposals approved during the 100-day programme without the support of the SLFP? Was it possible to get the 19th Amendment approved without the SLFP support? After a two-day debate, the 19th amendment was due to be taken up for a vote on the second day at 5.00 p.m. Even at 5.00 p.m. the UPFA had not taken a decision. There were 142 on the other side. I spent two days in Parliament.

“I walked to the SLFP and met with them at the places they were having their meals at the restaurant, in the corridors. I visited the medical centre, visited them at homes. Since there was no understanding or agreement reached the voting was postponed for 7.00 p.m. The voting was taken at 7.00 p.m. That was possible as I had taken over the SLFP. It is mentioned that this is a consensual government. It is a government collectively run by two parties. The two main parties in the country – the UNP and SLFP – are collectively ruling the country. Will MPs come without the party? We obtained 215 votes of the 225 in Parliament. The SLFP and the UPFA gave 141 votes, one MP did not vote. That was Digamadulla UPFA parliamentarian Sarath Weerasekara.

“The Act on the pharmaceuticals policy was approved in Parliament unanimously. That was something I struggled for as the Health Minister. If the SLFP was on the other side the budget proposals could not be passed. Though there was a 100-day programme, we could not complete the work in 100 days. I was appointed as the President on January 9. Ranil Wickremesinghe was named as the Prime Minister along with me and until August 15 we could not go for a parliamentary election. We went on till the eighth month. When the Parliament was dissolved I faced the allegation that it was done to prevent the functions of the Parliamentary Committee on the Central Bank bond issue. During that period many Bills were passed by a two-thirds majority. The budget was passed. The 19th Amendment was passed. I have just seen that the Human Rights Commission has been recognised internationally for its qualitative work. These were all as a result of the 19th amendment.

“If I did not take over the SLFP as its President these could not have been approved. I did not take that position by force. I never asked for it. Many say that I took it. Where did I take it? All MPs of the party came and handed it over to me. They said Mahinda Rajapaksa was willing to hand it over and for me to take it over. When I was told this I thought how Parliament can function with 47 members. How can the 19th Amendment be passed? How can the other Bills which need two thirds be approved? How can the budget be passed? Any of them cannot be done. I am not going to mention to you as to how many acts which were not suitable to the country were prevented due to the presence of the SLFP members in the cabinet. Only I am aware of them. Mr Ravi Karunanayake who was in the cabinet may remember them. Minister Thalatha Athukorala (who was also present) may remember them. I will mention one of them. There was a cabinet proposal to release all state bank funds to the private banks. As I opposed it, the proposal dragged on for three months in the cabinet. Ravi may remember. I did not allow it to be approved. If that was approved, the Bank of Ceylon would not have existed. The People’s Bank would not have been there. The NSB would have not been there. The State Mortgage Bank would have not been there.

“I joined the SLFP in August 1967. I wrote the O/L exam in December 1967. I was 16 years old. By the time I left the Rajapaksa government to contest as the common presidential candidate I had completed 47 years in politics and built on that. You are all aware what happened during the past three and half years.

Due to my political life, a person from my family background could not have become the President. Of the six presidents only Mr Premadasa came from an ordinary family. But he too came from an urban area and had a better economic background than me.

“Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera did not support a common candidate and helped form a government to tell us to break into the Central Bank. There are many things which I could say about the past three and half years. But I would not speak about them. However, if I get an opportunity I will speak about them. I was a person who came with the good intention to ensure a Yahapalana government, but its true meaning.

“I would have earned enough money while I was the Health or Agriculture Minister. I held several other ministries earlier. I am sorry that wrong interpretations are being given about me. They claim that a number of cases on which the people are expecting results are being held up because of me.

The people did not expect an investigation against Minister (T.B) Ekanayaka about the misuse of a state vehicle. The people did not want the government to take Minister Priyankara (Jayaratna) to court because his daughter was given an appointment. The people did not expect an inquiry because Minister A.H.M. Fowzie took a vehicle from one ministry to the other when his portfolio was changed. Why weren’t the expectations of the people fulfilled? I do not want to talk about them. If possible speak to the family of sportsman (Wasim) Thajujdeen and the prosecuting lawyers and they will tell you what happened.

“I can relate my experiences in many cases. The people elected me as the President and some of the expectations were fulfilled. I am happy about the passing of the 19th Amendment, the Act on the Pharmaceutical policy. Many things suitable to the country were passed due to the SLFP. Because of our dedication we improved international relations. I am a person who played a major role in this. I am the leader who met with most international leaders and improved relations. There are many victories. Democracy was restored. Media Freedom was restored.

“People can ask what we have done in three years. I am prepared to achieve the common objectives what the people expected. I am not worried about the character assassinations as I am a seasoned politician with 47 years of experience. I do not get excited. The serious mistakes made in the past three and half years should be corrected. Sobitha Thera gives us the blessings to do the correct thing. If anybody wants any further clarification on these matters I am ready to face a discussion. Recently somebody called my home and left a message saying he wanted to meet me. He was a film director. He had said if persons want to meet me they need to pay money. I called him back and asked him to tell me more about the claim he made. There are about 100 – 150 who come to see me. I get the secretaries to attend to them and I look into their grievances within the day. Therefore, do not believe in the false claims.

“There is lots of talk about Presidential candidates. That is a crime as the elections are due only at the end of next year. Already presidential candidates are being named. This will lead to instability in the country. By creating an election interest, one and a half years before the elections, the state officials will stop their work. Various reports appear in the media. We need to be watchful. If you look at the news reports in the evening, it’s like the country is in chaos. That’s the state of our media.

“He (Mahinda Rajapaksa) hitches up his sarong, calls a News Director and blasts him in filth. Now you only have this man from Polonnaruwa. You can climb on his back and beat him, or roll him on the ground and beat him. I know that during that time (Rajapaksa time), the instructions to media were to attack any minister, but that the family was off limits. True to those orders, the media never attacked any member of the family. We were the ones who were attacked. That was the game played by the media. All those instructions came from Temple Trees. I know because I have friends in all the media institutions, both then and now. They told me, ‘what to do minister? The instructions are coming from there, so we can’t do anything.’”

At least officially, the UNP’s response to Sirisena’s strong remarks is one of stoic silence. UNP leader Wickremesinghe had advised that none of the members, particularly Ministers and MPs, should make any comments. So much so, the party’s poorly attended Working Committee meeting ended up discussing only ‘non-party’ matterson Thursday morning. That included a proposal by Ranjan Ramanayake MP to remove former Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala from Sri Lanka Cricket. On Tuesday, Parliament will elect a new deputy Speaker. When the meeting began, Wickremesinghe called upon Minister Navin Dissanayake, now the national organiser, to sit on the podium with him. It was only last week, Dissanayake declared that Wickremesinghe would be the most suitable candidate for the 2020 presidential election. In marked contrast, his brother, Mayantha, a UNP MP from the Kandy District, called for a change in Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

Minister Daya Gamage raised issue over the increase in the price of kerosene and the hardships caused to the people. Among those who endorsed his views were Dilip Vedaratchchi, Kavinda Jayawardena and Ajith Perera. Minister Mangala Samaraweera declared that he had made changes to heads of the state run electronic media and felt there was an improved performance. Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa was to heap praise on the state run print media. He declared that they were “now unbiased” and claimed “people have taken a liking to their publications.” He added that “government newspapers should be utilised for our political cause.” Only some 50 Working Committee members were present at the meeting though the membership is more than 100.

For the ‘Joint Opposition’ that has now trained its guns on President Sirisena after his remarks about his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, there were other issues too. On Tuesday ‘JO’ leaders discussed the draft 20th Amendment submitted by four MPs of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has already forwarded this draft to the Attorney General’s Department for study and report.

‘JO’ Parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times, “We have decided not to support the 20A for a number of reasons. Such an amendment will cause a serious imbalance in the existing constitution. Though this amendment is coming from the JVP, we are aware that it was only acting on behalf of the UNP. It is the UNP which wants changes – abolish impending presidential election and shed the President’s powers. We do not need it when we are already in the process of formulating a new Constitution.”

Gunawardena added, “So many promises made to us by the government have not been fulfilled. One such instance is the electoral reforms which were offered to us by the President. The JVP and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are doing only the UNP’s bidding.” He said that the ‘JO’ would launch a countrywide campaign calling for parliamentary elections. This will be done with the launch of their campaign for the upcoming Provincial Council elections, he added.
The overarching political question this week is whether the feuding coalition partners, the SLFP and the UNP, will continue to feud with each other for the rest of their term. That will only mean more outbursts and peace moves which have become a national joke. During their three years in office, most of the key pledges made to the people remain unfulfilled. Even the deaf and the blind would know that the country is in crisis though there are a few who refuse to believe.

Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
Comments should be within 80 words. *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.