With his manoeuvres failing, Sirisena may settle for an SLPP-SLFP alliance, where he is not the candidate, but gets a suitable place Drops plans for non-binding referendum amid opposition even from his own SLFP members; CBK keen that SLFP should not wither away Presidential election likely to be between two main candidates – Gotabaya and [...]


President ponders options; focuses on one choice


  • With his manoeuvres failing, Sirisena may settle for an SLPP-SLFP alliance, where he is not the candidate, but gets a suitable place
  • Drops plans for non-binding referendum amid opposition even from his own SLFP members; CBK keen that SLFP should not wither away
  • Presidential election likely to be between two main candidates – Gotabaya and a UNF-backed nominee


President Maithripala Sirisena’s political metamorphosis continues with just over four months to go for this year’s presidential election.

Here are a few passages from his most recent political Wish List:

First: His Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) sought a joint political alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), so he could be their presidential candidate. It became a mirage as there was increasing reluctance. The shaky dialogue continues on other issues, but the chances of his becoming presidential candidate are zero.

Second: He told the United National Party (UNP)-led Cabinet that he would not back a joint coalition alliance and would support a “winning candidate” within their ranks. The news spread fast and triggered speculation that he had worked a deal to foist another UNP presidential candidate. If indeed there was such a move, nothing happened.

Third: Incensed by his announcement to the Cabinet, his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarians sought clarification. They said, like him, they also wanted to take their own decisions over their political future. He denied he made those claims at the Cabinet though he said so. The MPs, 23 of them, signed a formal request that he should be their presidential candidate. The idea was to remain one entity. Sirisena agreed to make an official announcement that he would be the SLFP presidential candidate. It never came. These MPs are now furious.

Fourth: President Sirisena wanted to conduct a non-binding referendum to seek public views to conduct the general elections first. The scheduled presidential election was to follow. Last Sunday, just after he returned from his visit to Tajikistan, he took note of these columns where the issue was widely reported. Earlier, he had consulted several political leaders over the matter. That included Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as revealed last week. As said last week, Attorney General Dappula de Livera had opined that there was no impediment to conducting a non-binding referendum. He was empowered to do so. However, as his private legal advisors pointed out, he had no constitutional right to dissolve Parliament to facilitate parliamentary elections. That was the bitter lesson Sirisena learnt when he dissolved Parliament in October last year. The Supreme Court held it was unconstitutional. He did not want to make another mistake.

He had changed his mind. He asked his party General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera to announce he would not go ahead with the proposed non-binding referendum. “There has been discussion on calling a referendum. Though the President has the power, it is practised as a non-binding one. The President does not have the power to dissolve Parliament,” Jayasekera told a news conference at the SLFP office in Darley Road on Tuesday. He added, “Everyone from the opposition including us called for parliamentary elections. The request was also made jointly by the SLFP and the SLPP.” This gamble also failed.

Fifth: President Sirisena on Wednesday told the SLFP Women’s Front at a meeting at the party’s Darley Road headquarters that there would be an “honourable decision which will not cause injustice or embarrassment to the party or its supporters” over the presidential poll. He dismissed prospects of a major three-cornered tussle (at the presidential poll) and said it would be between two main contenders. Interesting enough, the usual news release of his speech was not released. A Presidential Media Division source said they were under instructions not to distribute the full text. A senior SLFPer, who did not wish to be named, claimed that it was to prevent the party parliamentarians from being annoyed again. That is for saying one thing at the Cabinet and another to the party women’s group. He is worried it would again upset the MPs, the senior said. President Sirisena’s remarks to the Women’s Front came after groups of those present said he should continue to give leadership to the country. He was evidently buoyed by that call.

Nevertheless, why should he have second thoughts in publicising a speech he already made? Or has he also realised that he had done so prematurely? Whatever the answers are, a closer focus in the wake of his four failed efforts listed above, the fifth does highlight some interesting aspects. One, a logical deduction, is that he entertains thoughts of not contesting this year’s presidential election. That would make it a contest between two major sides, the UNP-backed United National Front (UNF) and the predominant Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-backed opposition.

The prospects of Sirisena backing the UNP are very bleak if not out of the question. His relationship with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has turned very bitter and apparently irreconcilable. That this has led to serious stumbling blocks in governance and contradictory positions is all too well known. In this backdrop, it is no secret Sirisena has been supportive of Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, who is being backed by a section of the party. Yet, a declaration of public support for Premadasa’s candidacy by Sirisena can spell political disaster for the former. Most of his backers do not like the idea for fear of losing the elections. They worry that they will lose considerable grassroots level support. On the other hand, Ranil Wickremesinghe is still a strong contender and wants to remain in the fray.

He still retains control of the Working Committee, the UNP’s main policymaking body which would have to decide on a candidate. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, the other front runner, has placed a condition – he would contest if the party wants him. Some civil society groups and even western missions are backing him. With UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim taking his oaths as Minister ignoring the advice of his colleague Malik Samarawickrema to inform the leader (Wickremesinghe), divisions in the party are widening. This week, Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale, a Wickremesinghe loyalist for long years, declared she would back Premadasa as the presidential candidate. She vowed to seek her leader’s support for this. Whether the Premier will make way for Premadasa, who has been blowing hot sometime and cold at other times, remains unlikely if not impossible. For these and other reasons, mending fences for Sirisena with the UNP is a tough task, one that is almost insurmountable.

That leaves him with only one choice – form an SLFP-SLPP common alliance and support it. Contrary to all the speculation, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the opposition’s presidential candidate. He is recuperating in Singapore after open heart surgery. Doctors have declared he would be fit for a less arduous polls campaign. Gotabaya Rajapaksa still awaits the formal renunciation of his US citizenship. Of course, the de facto SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has said repeatedly that an official decision of the party’s presidential candidate is yet to be made. He repeated this assertion in recent interviews with foreign publications.

Formally, the opposition candidate for the presidential election will be announced at the annual convention of the SLPP that will be held at 2 p.m. on August 11 at the  Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. On this occasion, Mahinda Rajapaksa will also take over as the Leader of the SLPP. Basil Rajapaksa, the architect behind the SLPP chaired three different meetings on Friday in this regard. The first was with the party MPs, the second with serving and former Provincial Councillors and the third with local council members.

Interesting enough, President Sirisena’s remarks to the SLFP’s women members have already resonated at the highest levels of the SLPP. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has been spending time consulting not only constituent leaders of parties in the opposition but also his own party stalwarts. The consensus – one of them explained – “is to accept Sirisena’s support though we may lose a few votes here and there” but added “a lot of things have to be sorted out first.” On Thursday, Mahinda Rajapaksa met a group of partner leaders of the opposition and there was a discussion on the “hostile attitude” of SLFP General Secretary Jayasekera. Two of the SLPP critics were C.B. Ratnayake and Keheliya Rambukwella. They were among a group of MPs who were strongly critical of Jayasekera’s public utterances. Some were uncharitable and claimed he may “go back” to the UNP which he quit.

Leaders of opposition partner parties and those in the SLPP decided on Thursday that they would give Mahinda Rajapaksa the mandate to decide who he should invite to ensure they win the presidential election. He has now been empowered to take suitable decisions in this regard. Sirisena’s entry as a strong player in a joint opposition common alliance if it materialises, has both good and bad forebodings. The good is that he will, under some format to be designed, remain in politics and continue to play an important role if the opposition presidential candidate is elected. It will also ensure the security and well being of Sirisena and his family. The bad side — Sirisena’s move may sound the death knell of the SLFP. The fact that the SLFP has no other presidential candidate is one thing. More importantly, some of the remaining parliamentarians of the emaciated party have continued to have back channel talks with either the SLPP or the UNP to join their ranks if they could become candidates at a parliamentary election. The first to knock at the door are members of the now defunct Provincial Councils and even those who are still serving.

In such an event, a question that looms large is whether it would see the re-entry of onetime President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She is now patron of the SLFP and is known to have privately remarked to friends and colleagues that the party should not be allowed to die. Yet, how many of the current SLFP parliamentarians would remain, for fear of losing positions and perks that go with it?

Like the four efforts from President Sirisena’s Wish List that did not materialise, the fifth may turn futile too, but the abiding feature is the willingness of the two sides to continue talking. This is notwithstanding deep suspicions on the SLPP side over some of the utterances of SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera. One was his comments at a news conference on Tuesday that should Gotabaya Rajapaksa become President, the Cabinet would have seven family members. In what seemed a plea to pick on Sirisena as the presidential candidate, he said “we have not come to a decision to contest alone.”

Jayasekera made a numerical argument at the news conference  – in the local elections of February 2018, the SLPP polled 5 million votes, the UNP 6.5 million and the UPFA around 1.4 million votes. “The presidential candidate needs 6 million to 6.5 million votes and that is why we say the two sides should get together,” he pointed out. In painting this backdrop, Dayasiri seems to make a stronger logical case for Sirisena. The President has already asked the Attorney General’s Department to expedite cases that include those concerning Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a pressure tactic which he believes would compel the SLPP to re-consider his case for presidential candidature. However, it will not change the course of events the party has traversed so far. With that as a benchmark, the two sides may agree on politically acceptable position for Sirisena.

The SLFP–SLPP talks last Monday were called off after Thilanga Sumathipala (SLFP) sent a letter to Dullas Allahapperuma (SLPP). He asked “Can we re fix the date between June 25 and 28?” The SLPP agreed for the talks to be held on June 25. The SLPP had already made a detailed study of the draft constitution presented at their previous round of talks by Nimal Siripala de Silva, the senior deputy leader of the SLFP. The next step that was planned for one person from each side to function in a Committee to study the draft and submit their recommendations. Once the SLFP and the SLPP agree to the Constitution, the latter is to negotiate with its other partners to be a party to it. There is already consensus on the matter.

In the fast-changing political climate, exacerbated to a large degree by the Eastern Sunday attacks by IS-backed Muslim extremists, uncertainty remains a key factor. However, President Sirisena appears to have resigned to the fact that he will rather not be a presidential candidate. That is with the support of the 24 SLFP parliamentarians and a few others who have vowed to back him. He knows only too well that a defeat stares him in the face. Like our World Cup cricket team members, he has played many an innings not checkmating the opposition but his own partner in governance, the UNP.  In this open-ended game, he has been stumped many a time and bowled over, Yet, he has not been able to get the UNP team out altogether though he can make strong claims for being the Man of the Match for staying at the crease for so long.

On the other hand, for the UNP (albeit the UNF), the great spin bowler and adept batsman that he is, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has withstood President Sirisena’s googlies. Many of his other players now want to Captain the team and the marketing campaigns have begun. That is the political World Cup in Sri Lanka though the spectators or the voters wait in awe for the elections to see who will score most. It is not an easy challenge for any one of them.

Is Kariyawasam running a parallel operation as advisor?

Former Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam, who is accused of rushing through the lopsided Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the United States, came in for strong criticism in Parliament on Tuesday.

Speaker Jayasuriya presiding at a controversial meeting with envoys of Islamic countries.

In the course of the discussion, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya admitted that Kariyawasam was being paid by a foreign agency under USAID for serving in Parliament as an advisor to him. The reference was to Development Alternatives Incorporatd (DAI), the implementing agency for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

When the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) reported on June 6 that Kariyawasam was being paid by funds from the US Federal Government, he said in a tweet @TimesOnlineLK resorts to deplorable reporting with no prior fact-checking. Yesterday it did the same by misrepresenting my contractual employment with the Parliament of Sri Lanka and the Hon. Speaker as his Advisor on International Affairs.

Now Speaker Jayasuriya has confirmed in the hallowed chamber of Parliament that Kariyawasam was indeed being paid with US funds. Hence, what he calls “deplorable reporting” and “no prior fact checking” to use parlance Kariyawasam is familiar is nothing but terminological inexactitude or simply a down right lie. So is his claim that he is on contractual employment with the Parliament of Sri Lanka and the Hon. Speaker implying he gets paid by them. Like the Speaker, why did he not come out with the truth?

First to what transpired in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon with Speaker Jayasuriya in the chair.

“Dinesh Gunawardana: Mr Speaker, I request special permission from you to clarify these two matters. It is reported that Mr Prasad Kariyawasam has been appointed to Parliament as an international affairs adviser to the Speaker, but that he is being paid by the US Government. There is no such rank among the list of officials Parliament has given to us. How can Prasad Kariyawasam, who is being paid by a US institution, be acting as an International Affairs adviser to you? This raises serious questions regarding Parliament itself.

“Last week, you summoned foreign envoys to your official residence for a discussion. There is no issue in that. You have the right to meet foreign envoys. You summoned the IGP for this discussion. You are entitled to do that too. However, even the Chief of Intelligence was summoned to this discussion and he was discussing intelligence information. Did no one advise you not to do that? The intelligence chief of the country, who knows all the intelligence and secret information, including investigations that are ongoing, was summoned to your official residence along with the IGP.

“Speaker Jayasuriya: That is wrong. He was not summoned to my official residence, but to Parliament.

“Dinesh Gunawardena: Fine. But summoning the intelligence chief in front of foreign envoys has not been done by any other Speaker. We also need you to clarify whether Mr Prasad Kariyawasam, who is paid for by a foreign Government, is only there to advise you, or whether he also gives out other information.

“Speaker Jayasuriya: Firstly, the envoys of Muslim countries have already issued a statement regarding the situation in the country. They have expressed their dismay and regret over certain matters. As such, I convened a meeting of envoys of these Muslim countries in Parliament to brief them on the latest situation. The IGP came for this meeting, along with other senior officers. It was good that this meeting took place, as otherwise, there would likely have been a campaign against Sri Lanka. Even the EU countries issued a statement a few days ago. The meeting was to brief the envoys of the Muslim countries and ease their fears. The meeting was held with good intentions to explain the current situation and give a guarantee on security. There was no leaking of state secrets.

“As for Mr Prasad Kariyawasam, he is a former Foreign Ministry Secretary. This Parliament currently has connections with 50-60 other Parliaments throughout the world under Parliamentary Diplomacy. It is these programmes that facilitate MPs to travel to foreign countries to understand how Parliaments function there, to obtain scholarships and strengthen Parliamentary Democracy.

It is not USAID that is paying him but another institution under it. He assists me in work related to such programmes. There is no intention of giving secrets to foreign countries.

“Dinesh Gunawardena: There is no issue about paying his salary through Parliament. But it is a question that anyone in Parliament can raise: Why is a former Foreign Ministry Secretary, who is now paid by a foreign institution, working here in this capacity?

“Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa: The important point he (Dinesh Gunawardena) is making here is that Parliament is an independent institution and is supreme. We have no objection if he’s being paid by Parliament. We are saying that it is wrong for him to be working here while being paid by a foreign country. We should establish a mechanism for him to be paid by Parliament. Otherwise, it could lead to a wrong picture developing in society that we are surrendering to foreign influences,

“Speaker Jayasuriya: It is unnecessary (to pay him through Parliament). This programme is aimed at strengthening Parliamentary Democracy. Around 60-70 MPs here have already gone on foreign tours to learn about strengthening democracy using these same funds. These funds have also been used for Parliamentary Committees.

“Wimal Weerawansa: Former Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam brought severe pressure on the then Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi to sign the ACSA agreement with the US. He is being paid by USAID not to work for the Sri Lankan State. He has a friend (names a former Foreign Ministry official now with the Ministry of Finance) and it is she and Prasad Kariyawasam who are working the most to ensure that US ambitions are achieved. They are also working towards getting the SOFA agreement signed. It is serpents who are loyal to the US such as them that you are keeping here in Parliament. They have no loyalty to this country.”

One does not doubt the bona fides of Speaker Jayasuriya, a former military officer, diplomat and a much-respected politician, in his decision to obtain the services of Kariyawasam as an “Advisor on International Affairs.” However, it is a very serious error of judgement. No other Speaker in Parliament since independence has employed an International Affairs Advisor, that too using funds from a foreign country to pay for them. The extension of that principle would mean he could also have, for purposes of argument, an Advisor on Tourism, Finance or even Water Supply and Drainage and so on. Is it not beyond his brief as Speaker, whoever may hold that office?

The Cabinet of Ministers is assigned that responsibility by the Constitution. The task of summoning Colombo-based diplomats, like the standard practice in other countries, is the sole responsibility of the Foreign Minister or his Ministry Secretary. It is also the responsibility of the President or the Prime Minister, particularly during exigencies. The fact that he met diplomats in Colombo from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Countries (OIC) in Parliament has given rise to the belief that there are now three power centres in Sri Lanka. Besides the President and the Prime Minister, it is now the Speaker who has literally played the role of the Foreign Minister cum Defence Minister though he is well meant in his intentions.

The matter did not end there. An investigation by the Sunday Times revealed some disturbing trends. It was Prasad Kariyawasam, in his new role as the Speaker’s “Advisor” who invited the OIC envoys for a “briefing.”  He is now duplicating the work of the Foreign Secretary. That is not all. Kariyawasam also ensured that the Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Director of Military Intelligence were present. Who empowered him to play the role of Defence Secretary is not clear? The position of “Advisor” became his passport to play his previous role with the pay of his foreign masters.

The worst came when the conference was over. The Speaker’s Media Office released photographs of the envoys and the country’s top intelligence officials seated around a table. The news release said “The ambassadors and high commissioners of Islamic countries have told Speaker Karu Jayasuriya that they would welcome a common law in Sri Lanka that would apply to all citizens irrespective of their ethnicities.”

There are three customary laws which are still in use in Sri Lanka –  Kandyan law, Thesavalamai law and Muslim law.

The Kandyan law is the customary law that originates from the Kingdom of Kandy. This is applicable to Sri Lankans who are Buddhist and from the former provinces of the Kandyan Kingdom.

At present it governs aspects of marriage, adoption, transfer of property and inheritance, as codified in 1938 in the Kandyan Law Declaration and Amendment Ordinance. The Muslim law is applicable to Sri Lankans who are Muslims by virtue of birth and conversion to Islam. It is different from Islamic law and governs aspects of marriage, divorce, custody and maintenance, being included in the Act No. 13 of 1951 Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act, the Act No. 10 of 1931 Muslim Intestate Succession Ordinance and the Act No. 51 of 1956 Muslim Mosques and Charitable Trusts or Wakfs Act.

The Thesavalamai law is for Sri Lankan Tamil inhabitants of the Jaffna peninsula. The law was codified by the Dutch during their colonial rule in 1707. It is a collection of the Customs of the Malabar Inhabitants of the Province of Jaffna (collected by Dissawe Isaak) and given full force by the Regulation of 1806.  For Thesawalamai to apply to a person it must be established that he is a Tamil inhabitant of the Northern Province. The law in its present form applies to most Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. The law is personal in nature thus it is applicable mostly for property, inheritance, and marriage.

An OIC diplomat who attended the Speaker’s meeting said, “we were summoned to be updated on the measures the government has taken to ensure peaceful co-existence of the communities as well as on security and stability in the country.” He said we never agreed to “the introduction of common law since that is not our business. That is an internal matter for Sri Lanka. We never said anything of the sort the news release claimed.”

The envoys are now seeking meetings with President Sirisena, Premier Wickremesinghe and Speaker Jayasuriya to set the record right. One of the envoys said, “We want to tell them not to look at us through western eyes. We are friends of Sri Lanka and are only seeking peace, harmony and the safety of all people.”

The diplomats included those from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Would it not have been better to ask the Foreign Ministry to have invited envoys of these countries should there be a need. This clearly shows that Kariyawasam was running a parallel operation.

The opposition also called a news conference on Thursday to voice its concerns over Speaker Jayasuriya recruiting Kariyawasam. “He was not able to give us a satisfactory answer,” said Dinesh Gunawardena. He asked why Kariyawasam was appointed and added “there are suspicions since this was privately done.” He said President J.R. Jayewaredene “had to tell a onetime Speaker M.A. Bakeer Markar to go home after he had summoned the then IGP without the President’s permission. E.L. Senanayake was made Speaker later,” he said.

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