New President rides high wave of popularity, carves a niche by projecting himself as distinctly different from predecessors Ranil due back tomorrow while party faces crisis within crisis over leadership and related issues Once neutral Sirisena now on four-wheel overdrive for Rajapaksas, but unlikely to get top post after general elections As an old year [...]


Great New Year likely for Gotabaya, while UNP faces worst crisis


New President rides high wave of popularity, carves a niche by projecting himself as distinctly different from predecessors

Ranil due back tomorrow while party faces crisis within crisis over leadership and related issues

Once neutral Sirisena now on four-wheel overdrive for Rajapaksas, but unlikely to get top post after general elections


As an old year gives way to a new one in just two days, what lies ahead is the concern of most Sri Lankans.

Expectations have been heightened after this year’s most significant event, the presidential election on November 16. That a ruling coalition, religiously dubbed as a good governance (Yahapalana) government, heaped burdens on the people and worked contrary to the pledges it made became clear following the remarkable mandate Gotabaya Rajapaksa received.

Despite foreknowledge of impending attacks on Easter Sunday April 21, the fact that more than 268 men, women and children paid with their lives, sent a nerve wrecking chill in most parts of the country. It caused a fear psychosis that spread far and wide. The large death toll from a terrorist attack came when Tiger guerrillas massacred over 774 policemen in the East in June 1990. Second was the July 1996 guerrilla attack that led to the massacre of 207 persons whom the LTTE had taken prisoner in Mullaitivu. By a strange coincidence, also on April 21, 1987, a car bomb was exploded by the LTTE, killing 113 persons at the Central Bus Station in Pettah, the third largest toll. The Easter Sunday attack was different in character and came from Muslim extremists linked to a global network. They preached their ideology and the same tactics were used. Tiger guerrillas raised money in one theatre, purchased weapons in another to fight a separatist war in Sri Lanka.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is said to be carving a niche for himself by projecting that his style of governance is different from his predecessors. During a surprise visit to the Department of Motor Vehicle office in Werahera, he is seen listening to the woes of the people who have come to obtain their driving licences.

Easter Sunday massacres were underscored by the majority of more than 1.3 million votes Gotabaya Rajapaksa won. In other words, those in the “south” so to say, lived in fear till they placed a cross on the ballot paper whilst a government was on “auto pilot.” The probes were conducted more to protect political backers of the former regime than to elicit the truth. Key witnesses, who saw the birth and growth of a new terrorist entity as senior Police officers, were not asked to testify. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is yet to name the masterminds or how the local group was linked to global terror. A Commission of Inquiry is now going into the matter.

The polls proved wrong the forecasts of a college of the country’s renowned astrologers. They foretold in a chorus that the National Democratic Front (NDF) backed Sajith Premadasa, the United National Party (UNP) deputy leader, would win. Bolstering it were the large crowds that turned up at NDF rallies and found prominence, particularly in the social media. A large crowd, it is now known, is by no means a yardstick to measure election victory. Those converging were mostly the politically conscious who are discerning enough to judge for themselves other than those who are paid. Meals and transport are free. The outreach of the social media through mobile phones has made this important transition.

In the 43 days he has remained in office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continues to ride the high wave of popularity. He is carving a niche by projecting himself as a distinctly different personality from all his predecessors. There are many factors that highlight this. One is the appointment of most persons to head state institutions based on their qualifications. He has resisted moves to foist political nominees with little or no knowledge. This is notwithstanding some differences in opinion at the highest levels over leaving out other contenders, who had been staunch supporters and worked during the election. To that extent there is disgruntlement which has become the talking point among sections within the government. Those who complain argue that with a parliamentary election due, they would find it difficult to seek their support.

Adding to his popularity is the ban on import of motor vehicles by parliamentarians, urging Ministers and MPs to go through public channels when they leave or return to the country and an ongoing review about personal security requirements for politicians. Yet, President Rajapaksa is embattled by a serious issue that concerns the public. Though for no fault of his, prices of rice and vegetables have skyrocketed. Expensive items have vanished from the shelves of supermarkets and other shops. An example is the price of onions. Just ahead of the presidential election, the price for a kilo of red onions which stood at Rs 240 has shot up to between Rs 690 to Rs 700.  Green chillies which stood at Rs 250, to Rs 300 have risen to Rs 550. These have been caused by crop failures due to incessant rains. As has been the practice over the years, the Ministry responsible resorts to news releases to warn traders to sell at a controlled price or face action. It ends there.

Firstly, most retailers do not heed such warnings. That such shortages come just three months ahead of the National New Year adds to the issue. Coupled with it is the impending parliamentary election. If President Rajapaksa has resorted to conducting surprise visits to government offices, the ministers responsible have stopped at news releases and media conferences. Thus, the issue is worsening. Making consumer items rare or their prices higher is one sure way in which the public can be turned around to dislike a government. This is why the short sightedness of those responsible should not be ignored. One of the first acts of President Rajapaksa was to revise the previous government’s burdensome tax measures. It was intended to bring relief to the people. The tax relief is yet to reach the consumer in the form of benefits resulting in scarcities and price increases.

International front

On the international front, the signals have been somewhat mixed though there was also a significant gain. Ahead of his visit to New Delhi last month, President Rajapaksa declared in an interview with an Indian website, his first, that the agreement with China over the Hambantota Port should be re-negotiated. He termed it as a “mistake.” However, just a few days ago, he told foreign correspondents during a luncheon meeting that there was no need to re-negotiate such an agreement. He said only the security aspects would have to be looked at.

In the wake of the remarks, the Chinese Embassy said in a statement:“On December 19, H.E. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met with the Foreign correspondents based in Colombo, making it clear that the Sri Lankan government will not re-negotiate the existing agreement on Hambantota Port, and the commercial contract that has been signed will not be changed due to government changes. The Chinese side highly appreciates the remarks and is willing to guide relevant enterprises to work with the Sri Lankan side to expedite implementing the established agreement and further promote the prosperity and development of Hambantota Port, once again that it highly respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The security and control of Hambantota Port is entirely in the hands of the Sri Lankan Government and Navy, which is not any different from other ports in Sri Lanka.” 

The statement by the Chinese embassy in Colombo included a colour photograph of a ship departing the Hambantota Port in their official website. The remarks correcting what he said before did cause a flutter in the Colombo based diplomatic community and raised eyebrows in New Delhi.

Nevertheless, the manner in which the government handled the Swiss embassy saga has won praise including from an unexpected quarter, the Opposition. At least two NDF different seniors, both not wanting to be identified, said that the issue was tackled “very well.” Their point was that Colombo did not yield to pressure from the Swiss in emphasising in stronger terms that every Sri Lankan should follow the laws of the land.

Of course, they did stretch a point by allowing the counsel for the Assistant Migration Officer, Garnier Banister Francis, to be present when CID detectives recorded a statement from her. In addition, the Swiss Embassy staff watched at a distance though they could not hear what was spoken. These were to ensure there is transparency and a move to demonstrate the bona fides of the government. The case will come up before the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Fort on Monday. Banister Francis, who is now in the “Y Ward” which houses twenty female remand prisoners has been assigned a lady prison official. Officers work on a roster round the clock to provide her additional protection.

Though not surprising, some of the Colombo-based NGOs which have no alternative but to depend on dollars from donors set out their own policy over the Swiss saga. One of them decried and pilloried the media for naming the Swiss embassy staffer. They cannot be blamed for being blind to realities. In the very countries that espouse the Swiss case in Colombo, the media are free enough to run bold headlines on such issues. At first, Bern refuses to co-operate with the government which applies the laws of the land. And then, their NGO wallahs sing in a chorus that a Sri Lankan working for a diplomatic mission should not be named.

A corollary to the Swiss saga is the role played by parties locally and this has become another key aspect of the investigation. More than 40 telephone calls from a mobile phone to Garnier Francis around the period immediately before and after CID Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva fled Sri Lanka, is an aspect of the inquiry being conducted to ascertain what Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declared was a conspiracy against the government. Banister Francis has said that the phone used by her was now with the embassy and the CID had sought a court order to obtain it.

Defence and security front

On the defence and security front too, changes are in the offing. One such move on the drawing boards is the amendment of the Chief of Defence Staff Act — a piece of legislation that was introduced when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President. In terms of that law, the Chief of Staff is to be appointed from among the senior-most of the three-serving chiefs of the Army, Navy, and the Air Force. A change is being considered to facilitate the inclusion of a senior officer whom the President deems fit, either retired or serving.

There are also other challenges. Ahead of the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva in March, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is due to release its report in February 2020. The Foreign Relations Ministry has learnt through diplomatic channels that there is increased activity before the March sessions and that a more critical report on Sri Lanka was in the making. One of the key issues for the government is whether it would still stand for the co-sponsorship of the resolution, a commitment made by the previous regime.

Ironic enough, there are no claimants for this co-sponsorship except from then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. President Sirisena has publicly declared that he was unaware. Nor did the Cabinet approve any proposal for it. This is much the same way he, as Finance Minister, obtained Cabinet approval (before the presidential election) for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) deal with the United States. This decision has been reversed by President Rajapaksa’s Cabinet and a committee is now studying the matter. The National Economic Council (NEC), set up and later disbanded by former President Maithripala Sirisena, had forwarded a report recommending against going ahead with the MCC deal. Those within the Council allege that a week later, a Cabinet memorandum was forwarded to dismantle it. There is still strong pressure by a powerful NGO to persuade the government to accept the deal.

A revision of diplomatic postings overseas is also on the cards. Altogether 14 political appointments made to Sri Lanka foreign missions have been annulled and they have been told to return before December 31. Some have returned and the others are expected. Amidst this, at least two posted in different parts of the globe, it is learnt, are seeking asylum in their host countries. Funny enough, the reason given is that they fear for their lives. They will create history, for this is the first time the country’s envoys are seeking asylum in the host capital.

Parliamentary elections

It is in this developing scenario that the new government is preparing to face the parliamentary elections. It does not take an astrologer or a soothsayer to say that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna-led alliance would win comfortably. It is weighted heavily in its favour. One of the main reasons is the disastrous state of affairs in the United National Party (UNP), which leads the National Democratic Front (NDF). Amidst its mounting woes, so far, two former ministers have been arraigned before courts. Former Megapolis Minister Champika Ranawaka was arrested, remanded, and later released on issues arising over an accident in 2016. The matter is now before courts. Ranawaka told a gathering including members of the Buddhist clergy at his new residence in Battaramulla that he had done no wrong.

Together with ex Minister Rajitha Senaratne, Ranawaka was at the forefront of the campaign in late 2014 to oust the then regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, for Senaratne, the issue is over a news conference he held two days before the presidential election. He produced two persons who claimed they drove ‘white vans’ in which abductions were carried out. They declared that those abducted were fodder for crocodiles in the swamps of Moneragala. They also said that that a large quantity of gold seized from Tiger guerrillas during the conclusion of the separatist war had been illegally transported to Colombo. Investigations revealed that these were total fiction and the stage play (the news conference) had been produced and directed by Senaratne. Some of his former ministerial colleagues were aghast. The two persons, who also had cases against them, have confessed that they were paid a million rupees each for saying what they did. They had originally asked for Rs 1.5 million each. A Corporation Chairman under the Health Ministry, appointed by Senaratne, it is alleged, had paid the money.

Despite a request to the CID by Attorney General Dappula de Livera to arrest and produce Senaratne before a Magistrate, they have not been able to do so. Those in the once premier flagship of the Police Department did not know where Senaratne was. Nor did the former Health Minister, who has brazenly made several incorrect statements as government spokesperson then, think it correct to fight his case in the courts. He absconded and on Thursday night admitted himself to Lanka Hospital. A Magistrate visited him there after he was “arrested” and remanded him till tomorrow. It was hilarious that UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam told a news conference that Rajitha Senaratne had “the freedom of speech” to say what he wished at a news conference. Being a lawyer, he should have known better. Paradoxical enough, the UNP is facing its worst crisis before a parliamentary election. Its leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe took off to South India on a yearend holiday.

He is in Ooty, described as the gem among southern hill resorts in Tamil Nadu. Some 2,200 metres above sea level, Ooty or short for Udhagamandalam is a resort town in the Western Ghats mountains. Founded as a British Raj summer resort, it retains a working steam railway line, Stone House, a 19th-century residence, and the circa-1829 St. Stephen’s Church.  Making it worse, the UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa, was stoically silent over the two incidents. No statements have been forthcoming. That the party is headless during a double crisis does not bode well for it.

Wickremesinghe is due to arrive in Colombo today. He is scheduled to meet party seniors ahead of a meeting of the parliamentary group. It is to take place either tomorrow or on January 2.  The main issue within the UNP now is over the party leadership and the Prime Ministerial nominee. Wickremesinghe expects to retain the leadership and has declared he would concede the premiership to Premadasa. Of course, to wear that mantle, he has to win the parliamentary elections. Yet, the UNP wants to define positions so that the members are not locked in disputes when the campaigning begins. One of the main causes for the protracted delay is Premadasa’s on again and off again approach.

Some of his own backers call it the Aasai Bayai or ‘love it but frightened’ doctrine. There is no gainsaying that he played the role of a presidential candidate remarkably well, give or take a few bad lapses. One of the lapses was to locate his campaign office in Vauxhall Lane and not at the UNP headquarters at Siri Kotha in Pita Kotte. As reported earlier, the campaign was run from there by former UNP General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake and former Presidnt Sirisena’s Senior Advisor, Shiral Lakthilake.

It is now confirmed that the move was to make three top-rungers in the UNP livid. They were Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera and Kabir Hashim, entrusted specifically with the campaign and side-lined later. The trio have on occasions confessed to close friends that the funds received were sufficient to run the campaign but Premadasa has countered it by saying he is in bad debt. This is the first time in the country’s political history that a party in power has not been able to muster sufficient funds for a polls campaign. Not even when they were touted largely as the winners.

UNP reforms

Amidst the imbroglio, Wickremesinghe wants to make changes to his party’s constitution to ‘broad base’ its leadership structure. This can turn out to be the fly in the ointment during talks to reach accord. Wickremesinghe backers say that he wants to ensure changes and see party unity is restored should he decide to quit. Issues will have to be resolved almost immediately if the party is to launch even a reasonable election campaign. “He does not want to give up when a crisis within the party is midway and face accusations of destroying it,” said a source close to Wickremesinghe. Of course, others argued that the delay was to prevent Premadasa winning the leadership. Parliament can be dissolved by the President any time after March 2 next year. Sections of the ruling alliance believe polls are likely only after the National New Year season is over. Efforts are also under way to widen the membership of the National Democratic Front (NDF) by drawing the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Informal soundings have already been made with the JVP and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, JVP spokesperson Vijitha Herath said, “We have already formed the National People’s Power movement and our next goal is to expand and strengthen to face the election. We will not be forming any alliance with the UNP.”

In an upcoming election campaign, Malik Samarawickrema may not play a role. He wants to retire from politics. He has given up his private residence in Colombo and opted to stay in an apartment. Mangala Samaraweera, who was touted as quitting politics after his image took a severe beating over his controversial remarks, has chosen to remain in politics. He is now holidaying in London. For him, it has been a paradoxical about-turn. He once asked Premadasa to look in the mirror after the UNP deputy leader called Ranil Wickremesinghe a napunsakaya or a eunuch. Weeks earlier, Premadasa, without referring to him by name, hit out saying there were ministers who made controversial remarks and that contributed to his defeat.

The post presidential election period saw Premadasa literally withdrawing into a shell and turning non-aggressive and staying incommunicado. The post-election developments are sure to affect Premadasa’s campaign. However, party General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasa told the Sunday Times, “We will strengthen every UNP “Balamandala” to secure a victory in the election during the upcoming year.”

He added, “We are doing everything we can to maintain unity within the party, but if we continue to move without it, we will have no options.” Therein lies the crux of the problems within UNP. The more the crisis prolongs, the more time the party would take to activate the grassroots level organisations and launch a campaign. The UNP also has to be mindful of the so called vaasi peththata hoiyya votes or votes for the side that has profited. These votes will not come to the NDF.

Another key issue would be who would lead Premadasa’s parliamentary election campaign besides the all-important issue of funds? The question arises because of the trio – Samarawickrema, Samaraweera and Hashim – were virtually left out during the presidential poll. In the event of a unified agreement being reached, a campaign committee and other related issues could be endorsed at a planned convention possibly in January, next year.

Parliament vote

Amidst these developments, there was speculation in political circles over what would follow the ceremonial opening of Parliament on January 3. Formidable sections of the NDF want to seek a debate on the policy statement by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It will enumerate the policies of the government including areas that will receive priority attention. A main question over this is whether or not the opposition will call for a division at the end of the debate. A government minister, who did not wish to be named, said there was no move “at all to prorogue Parliament” and added that “there will be no issue in conceding a debate.” However, he refused to comment when asked about a vote. “That is a matter to be decided at higher levels,” he pointed out.

Yet, a group of SLPP-led alliance members are to raise the issue over Speaker Karu Jayasuriya visiting the remand prison to meet former Minister and Jathika Hela Urumaya leader Patali Champika Ranawaka. A note prepared by them claimed that 16 MPs who were then in the opposition were in remand prison, but the Speaker had not paid them visits. Speaker Jayasuriya, however, contends that he paid the visit since he was not formally informed, in keeping with parliamentary tradition, that Ranawaka, an MP was arrested.

Sirisena’s political moves

The same alliance where the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is a partner is yet to decide on the symbol under which their members would contest the parliamentary elections, SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera told the Sunday Times. He said the alliance of 18 political parties would contest to “form a strong, stable government for the next five years.” He said discussions on issues related to the parliamentary election would take place with SLPP leaders.

Maithripala Sirisena, who remained “neutral” during the presidential election, has not only regained SLFP leadership but has now vowed both to President Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa that he would ensure a two thirds victory. In motoring terms, he has now gone on four-wheel overdrive for this purpose, to ensure the forthcoming election campaign produces that result. How far that peace overture will go is not clear but the SLPP leadership is incensed with the “neutral” role he played. They say they have many reasons to believe he tacitly backed Premadasa. That makes clear that Premadasa will have no secret ally at the parliamentary elections and no tacit support. That is not all. It has also put paid to Sirisena’s wishes to gain a top slot in the government as a cabinet minister. Yet, he will contest the parliamentary elections on the SLFP quota from the SLPP-led joint alliance. The prospects of a victory for him are not in question.

Another critical issue for the government in 2020 is the fate of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Whilst a formidable section of the government wants it to remain intact, there are others equally formidable who want it abolished altogether. The 19A is largely the product of two lawyers in Parliament backing the UNP. Its emergence also generated political controversy.

Commenting on the advent of New Years, American journalist, the late Bill Vaughan, once remarked: “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  However, it would be a different story when it comes to the next parliamentary elections. Both the optimists and the pessimists know the outcome already. They do not have to lose any sleep over it.



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