Sajith faction decides to form a ‘broad’ alliance Opposition parliamentary group meeting ends in chaos SLFP decides to contest on the Pohottuwa symbol US official says Congress wants Sri Lanka to accept MCC The United National Party (UNP), the country’s oldest, is facing a split in the middle after Thursday’s parliamentary group meeting ended in [...]


The United National Party splits


Sajith faction decides to form a ‘broad’ alliance

Opposition parliamentary group meeting ends in chaos

SLFP decides to contest on the Pohottuwa symbol

US official says Congress wants Sri Lanka to accept MCC

The United National Party (UNP), the country’s oldest, is facing a split in the middle after Thursday’s parliamentary group meeting ended in chaos and confusion.

The issue is over the party’s leadership. Sajith Premadasa Loyalists, who form a formidable section, want Ranil Wickremesinghe to cede the party leadership to him. However, on Thursday, the former Prime Minister and later Opposition Leader, was steadfast he would continue until 2025. “You wanted me. You appointed me. Now you say that you want a change,” retorted the UNP leader responding to calls that he quit.

The MPs meeting chaired by Wickremesinghe saw the two sides hurling abuse, indulging in acrimonious exchanges and even a brief sathyagraha . The result — Premadasa loyalists and partner leaders of the New Democratic Front (NDF) met in Parliament on Friday to form a new ‘broader’ alliance. The meeting decided that he would be the leader of the alliance which would include the New Democratic Front (NDF) partners.

It was also decided that a delegation led by Premadasa would meet Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to invite him to join. A meeting was being sought yesterday. The delegation has been mandated to offer Jayasuriya the leadership. If he accepts, Premadasa is to step down as leader. The move, it appears, is to isolate UNP leader Wickremesinghe but there are still doubts whether Jayasuriya will accept the offer. Yet, the UNP leader’s loyalists argue that the actions of Premadasa and his group violated the party’s constitution. The prerogative of ceding the leadership, they insisted, was solely in the hands of Wickremesinghe and meeting the NDF Alliance leaders like Rauf Hakeem (SLMC), Rishard Bathiudeen (ACMC), Mano Ganeshan (DPF) and M. Digambaran (NUW) on behalf of the UNP was only in the hands of Wickremesinghe, Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake as Assistant Leader, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as Party Secretary and Navin Dissanayake as National Organiser. Wickremesinghe was expected to issue a statement “very soon” saying it is the UNP that should be telling the NDF what to do, and not the NDF dictating terms to the UNP and deciding on its leadership. The statement may refer to Wickremesinghe’s willingness to allow Premadasa to be the prime ministerial candidate at the upcoming parliamentary elections, but not the party leadership. A Wickremesinghe loyalist said; “We will not allow them to ‘gahala ganna’  (take by force) the party leadership like they did the presidential candidature”.

Sajith Premadasa loyalists addressing the media after the Chaotic meeting at Siri Kotha on Thursday. Pic by Priyantha Wickremarachchi

A UNP MP, once a State Minister in the previous coalition government, has been tasked to go looking for a registered political party and symbol for them to contest at the upcoming parliamentary elections. This in itself is an acknowledgement that the UNP still retains the elephant symbol. The same person has also formulated a new Constitution for the UNP though he has not served long in the party. This is notwithstanding Wickremesinghe’s remarks at the MPs’ meeting that a further discussion could take place on January 24 since all parliamentarians were not present that day. The turn out on Thursday was 65 MPs from a total of 107.

Moves for Premadasa faction to break away from the UNP, after the prolonged dispute over the leadership, are now becoming increasingly unavoidable. After a four-hour marathon session of the opposition parliamentary group on January 9 (Thursday), the latest session last Thursday lasted 90 minutes. It began at just after 5 p.m. The impending breakup portends danger for both factions at this year’s parliamentary elections.

Disaster for UNP

True that internal issues within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led to the successful birth of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as a major political force. After the presidential election, the SLPP has foisted its own President and is confident of a convincing victory at the parliamentary polls. For the UNP, facing the hustings as two different entities, one from the party and another under a new name, would be politically disastrous. It will not only see a divide deep down the grassroots level organisations but also place the SLPP-led alliance at a much greater advantage. Other than that, it would also emaciate the UNP to levels never before in its history. The worst effect will be on the Sri Lankan people. There will not be an effective opposition to ensure checks and balances both in and outside Parliament leaving the government a virtually free run – an unhealthy phenomenon in a vibrant democracy.

Soon after Thursday’s UNP-led National Democratic Front (NDF) parliamentary group meeting was over, now Wickremesinghe backer Navin Dissanayake told media outlets that a triumvirate would function as leaders of the UNP. He said Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya who will form this troika would meet in the coming week. That suggested that a decision has been made. It turned out to be furthest from the truth. However, Wickremesinghe did ask at the meeting “what about Karu” whom he described as a “Buddhist leader.” This was when he was being pressured to make Premadasa the leader but there was no decision. At one point, Premadasa did say that if he did not wish to appoint him party leader, he would back the Leadership Council proposal if the matter could be put to vote and the backing of those present at the meeting obtained first. There was a catch in that but Wickremesinghe did not fall for it.

The meeting began with Wickremesinghe in the chair at the conference hall at Siri Kotha where the Working Committee usually meets. The Working Committee, the main policymaking body of the party, has ceased to exist with members concluding their term on December 31, last year. A new one is yet to be appointed by leader Wickremesinghe.

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena with Alice Wells

He dealt at length with the plethora of tape recordings made by Ranjan Ramanayake, who has been suspended from the party. In fact, General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam has said the Gampaha District MP will face an inquiry. Thereafter, he complained that there was victimisation of party supporters by the SLPP-led alliance government. When he was delving on the subject for a considerable time, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a former Minister, interrupted. He pointed out that the subject of discussion at their meeting was the leadership issue and urged that it be taken up. Wickremesinghe replied that a leader should take over the party only in 2025. He was alluding to the resolution adopted by the UNP at its annual convention in October last year. That event was held to confirm Premadasa’s candidature at the November 2019 presidential election.

Harin Fernando, a former Minister, also demanded that a vote for the leadership be taken. He argued that Premadasa had registered an increase of 17 percent of the votes at the last presidential election compared to the previous one in 2015. He said Premadasa would have won if not for the anti-Buddhist rhetoric of some party members. That was a strong shot at his onetime ministerial colleague Mangala Samaraweera, now away in London on an extended stay from a holiday to undergo treatment for a knee ailment. He is due in Colombo this week. That was for his remarks that Sri Lanka did not belong to Buddhists. This was in the aftermath of the April 21 Easter Sunday massacres. Fernando asked that a vote be taken on the leadership issue.

“I can’t give you a vote,” asserted Wickremesinghe. That took an interesting turn when Premadasa proposed that a vote from those present be taken first. This was to purely determine whether the majority would agree to a decision on the leadership issue. Wickremesinghe’s insistence that no vote would be taken prompted Harin Fernando to announce he would retire from politics. He complained that the leadership issue was being delayed week by week. He listed some of the contributions he had made to the party. He thanked Wickremesinghe and Premadasa for the help they had rendered, then stood up to walk out. He was, however, prevented by colleagues from leaving the hall. They kept pulling his hand and Fernando sat down ‘under pressure’. By this time, the meeting was taking a chaotic turn with some resorting to boos and catcalls. Several other Premadasa loyalists had spoken taking much of the time as the controversy dragged on. Leader Wickremesinghe declared that the meeting was now adjourned. At this stage, MPs backing him walked out. This included Navin Dissanayake, Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Sandeep Samarasinghe, Wijepala Hettiaratchchi, Ashu Marasinghe, Piyasena Gamage, Ravi Karunanayake, Palitha Range Bandara, K.K. Piyadasa and Sirinal de Mel. Onetime minister John Ameratunga left early.

There were some embarrassing moments for Wickremesinghe. Premadasa loyalists defied his ruling from the chair that the meeting had been adjourned. They abandoned their chairs and sat on the ground surrounding the main table. They wanted to prevent Wickremesinghe, who was still seated, from leaving. It was a siege of sorts. At one point, Wickremesinghe asked Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, to switch off the air conditioner in the hope that the pro-Premadasa MPs would walk out. Immediately after it was switched off, another MP rushed past others and turned it on. Later, Wickremesinghe found his way into his office room. No one obstructed him.

The matter did not end there. Premadasa loyalists chose to hold their own “group” meeting with Premadasa in the chair. One MP said it reminded him of the scene when Arundika Fernando sat on the vacant Speaker’s chair during the constitutional crisis of 2018. Ranjith Madduma Bandara proposed that Premadasa chair the meeting in the absence of the leader. Harin Fernando moved a “resolution” for those present there to form an alliance with other partner parties of the NDF with Premadasa as leader. The proceedings were videoed on his mobile telephone by Fernando, the former Telecommunications Minister. It showed the “voting” process. Casting their “vote” were 52 who raised their hands. There was no one left to oppose. There was clapping. It was “agreed” thereafter that this group would meet in Parliament on Friday afternoon to discuss the formation of their new alliance.

Such an alliance will include those parties now in the NDF. Its leaders attended the meeting with Premadasa, with his loyalists joining in. If and when the split in the UNP takes place, Wickremesinghe will be the legal leader of the UNP.  However, he would neither have the support of the NDF nor the group led by Premadasa, the deputy leader. Whether the two sides will be in a position to carry out a successful election campaign remains a critical question. That would be a bonus to the SLPP-led alliance. On the other hand, Premadasa who is poised to lead the new alliance also has his own issues.

Premadasa’s issues

Prior to the meeting of Premadasa the previous parliamentary group on January 9, there was a meeting at the Colombo residence of Malik Samarawickrema, onetime UNP Chairman. At this meeting, some of his close confidants were to complain that Premadasa was not assertive enough and remained silent without defending their actions. They wanted him to be bold enough to defend them. This crisis of confidence exacerbated after Premadasa sidelined his trusted trio who helped him become the presidential candidate – Malik Samarawickrema, Kabir Hashim and Mangala Samaraweera. Playing their roles, that too from outside Siri Kotha, were former UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Shiral Lakthilaka, Senior Adviser to the then President Maithripala Sirisena. That turned out to be a damper. After the trio were sidelined many key issues have now surfaced. Questions over disbursement of campaign funds as well as decisions on campaign strategies have come to the fore. The trio have complained they were not consulted, and their roles ignored.

Some Premadasa loyalists charged this week that Wickremesinghe would receive new benefits from the government as party leader. However, this has turned out to be a false campaign. Wickremesinghe did forward recommendations, when he was Leader of the Opposition, in the form of what appeared to be a Cabinet Memorandum seeking an office cum residence with staff for the post he held. It is much the same way there are entitlements to presidents. However, this never ended up at the Cabinet. Yet, he has received an office in Parliament. This is of course based on precedents. Two former Premiers, Ratnasiri Wickremenayake and D.M. Jayaratne were allowed such offices. In fact, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has noted that rooms were now available after the number of cabinet ministers was reduced by the present government.

Harin Fernando told the Sunday Times; “We will work in an alliance in the future. The ‘majority of 52 MPs’ decided on Friday to appoint Premadasa as our party leader. He will be party leader, leader of the alliance as well as Leader of the Opposition.”  Added Ranjith Madduma Bandara; “We hope to create a broad alliance under the leadership of Sajith Premadassa for the upcoming parliamentary election. We will act according to the UNP Constitution.” The latter remarks sounded less intelligent. If they were forming a “broader alliance” under Premadasa’s leadership, the move would violate the UNP Constitution. Of course, Madduma Bandara is known to be liberal with his words.

Asked why the resumed meeting, which is contested by Wickremesinghe and his backers, voted against the party leader, Madduma Baandara replied, “No one voted against him. They were silent. But 52 MPs out of 65 voted in favour of Premadasa.” Navin Dissanayake said on Friday night “everyone cannot come to one opinion by just having one meeting. The party needs every member. Therefore, we need to move forward.” Added General Secretary Kariyawasam, “The so-called vote had come only after the leader, who presided, adjourned sittings. Therefore, it does not constitute a group meeting. That is of no avail. It is the party’s Working Committee that has to take a decision on such matters.”  He claimed there were “no moves against the leader” at Thursday’s meeting.


If the UNP continues to remain in crisis, it was a different story with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It has virtually gone overboard to support the SLPP-led alliance at the upcoming parliamentary elections. Its overt enthusiasm is reflected in a number of decisions taken at the party’s Central Committee meeting chaired by its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena. They decided that SLFP candidates, who have their own quota of fielding 30 per cent of candidates (in terms of the Memorandum of Understanding reached with the SLPP), would contest under the Pohottuwa (Lotus Bud) Symbol. Application forms for would-be candidates were made available at the meeting. SLFP leader Sirisena who chaired the meeting declared that it was their aim to ensure that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s victory at the parliamentary election by a two thirds majority.

How the sudden change to embrace the SLPP-led alliance without raising any issues came about is not immediately clear. It was just weeks ahead of the presidential election that SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera declared that the party proposed to contest the parliamentary polls under the Chair symbol. In addition, Sirisena chose to remain “neutral’ even after the party’s Central Committee decided that it would back the SLPP. This notwithstanding, as reported earlier, SLPP leaders were perturbed that Sirisena did tacitly support the candidature of Sajith Premadasa, a claim which he denies. The CC also endorsed a decision by the party’s disciplinary committee to remove the party’s patron, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, from being the organiser for the Attanagalla electorate. “She acted against party decisions. Her actions during the presidential election were the reason. We have also taken action against many organisers who worked against party decisions,” Jayasekera said.

The SLFP decision to literally toe the line with the SLPP-backed alliance has sent shivers in sections within influential sections of the SLPP. They are worried about the aftermath of the parliamentary elections. Should the SLPP win comfortably, this section argues, about fears over what would happen if the SLFP parliamentarians are led to cross over to the opposition. How to avoid such a situation is now being examined at the highest levels. However, no decision is likely until the return of SLPP national organiser Basil Rajapaksa.

High-level visits

The issues involving two major political parties in the country played out as Colombo became the venue for visits by dignitaries from United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Japan and India this week. Alice Wells, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the US State Department, arrived on Monday on a two-day visit. She met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan.

The Sunday Times learns that Alice Wells, who was accompanied by US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz among others, sought clarification over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) deal which carries a development grant of US$ 480 million. Under the previous government, MCC jointly identified weak transport infrastructure and land administration as binding constraints to economic growth in Sri Lanka.

To address this situation, the proposed compact consists of two projects — a transportation project and a land project. The total budget is US$ 480 million. Of this amount, US$ 350 million is for the transport project to improve infrastructure in the Western, Central, Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces. The land project is to increase the availability of special data and land rights information. US$ 63 million is to be used to support technical assistance.

When the SLPP and coalition partners were in the opposition, serious doubts were cast on the motives behind the MCC deal. They claimed that the move may lead to United States and its personnel gaining a huge footprint in Sri Lanka, a position with which the US Embassy in Colombo disagrees. It came amidst clouds of dust in the aftermath of Sri Lanka concluding the Acquisition of Cross Servicing Agreement (already signed in 2007) and promoting the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. The latter was widely regarded as a move to allow US troops to place boots on the ground in Sri Lanka though its promotors couched it in different languages to point out that it was as good as a cultural pact.

Envoy Wells approached the subject of MCC with the remarks that the US Congress is keen in ensuring that Sri Lanka accepts it. Just a day ahead of her meeting with the government leaders, Robert Blake, a former US Ambassador was also in Sri Lanka. He met both President Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa. In response to the US requests, now attributed to Congress, government leaders took up the position that the MCC issue was now under review. They also made clear that they would have to heed the public sentiment in Sri Lanka. That the government has appointed an official committee to study the matter itself amounted to the rejection of a Cabinet decision. Under the previous coalition government, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera obtained cabinet approval for the MCC project.

Even on the issue of SOFA, government leaders took up the position that the matter was under review. President Rajapaksa will not go ahead without consulting all stakeholders, including armed forces chiefs. However, select journalists who were taken by the US Embassy to the Colombo Airport were told by envoy Wills that talks with the government on SOFA would begin after parliamentary elections. She made the remarks before her departure. She also made a similar remark in Washington DC on the MCC to suggest it was on the verge of being signed. This was after the presidential election.

UNHRC resolution

Another issue for discussion was the US-backed resolution (No: 30/1) before the UN Human Rights Council. Government leaders have pointed out that they do not agree with the views expressed by the US in the resolution. Although then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera co-sponsored the resolution on behalf of Sri Lanka, there had been neither Cabinet approval nor an okay from the former President. Government leaders had explained that demining operations were still being carried out in the north and development programmes would be launched there.

Towards this, they pointed out, that a respected former state officer, P.M. Charles has been named as Governor of the Northern Province. She was once a Government Agent in Jaffna and was well familiar with the needs of the people. The discussion also centred on reconciliation. Whilst ensuring that development programmes are launched in different areas in the north, government leaders have said that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would be enforced. The subject of pending Provincial Council elections, particularly in the North, was discussed. Delays, it was pointed out, were the result of the previous government amending laws to arm itself with powers to delay PC polls.

The upcoming UNHRC Geneva sessions are now engaging the attention of the government. The idea is to dissect the different components of the US resolution and adopt studied approaches to them. “We don’t want to be seen as opposing everything. We will adopt a constructive approach bearing in mind that the interests of troops, who carried out a campaign to militarily defeat terrorism are not harmed,” said a government leader who did not wish to be named. The positive aspects will be studied, and we will continue with them, said the source. The government is yet to decide whether the Sri Lanka delegation will be led by a Minister. This is in view of the impending elections.

Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Sri Lanka has been in the making for months. This was after he called off his visit for the opening of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in 2018. He arrived by special aircraft after visits to Turkey and Syria. Lavrov worked as an Advisor to the then Soviet Embassy in Colombo. Upon meeting Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena at the airport, he had asked Ayubowan, Kohomada or Ayubowan and how are you (in Sinhala). His talks with government leaders were largely on bilateral issues, including an offer of Russian military equipment. The placement of more Sri Lankan students in Russian universities also formed the subject of discussion. Government leaders exchanged views with Lavrov over the situation in West Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Russia has also agreed to assist Sri Lanka in petroleum exploration and research.

The visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi came as a surprise. He was returning from a tour of African countries. Colombo was informed that his special flight would stop over for a few hours and the meeting were quickly lined up. His talks with government leaders centred largely on Beijing’s projects in Sri Lanka, including the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City. In case of the latter, talks also focused on legal matters that require to be sorted out. He also discussed President Rajapaksa’s proposed visit to China later this month. The visit is being considered significant since some economic and financial issues are to come up for discussion.

Gareth Hayley, Director for South Asia at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was also in Sri Lanka this week. He held talks with Foreign Minister Gunawardena on a variety of issues including the UNHRC sessions in Geneva in March, this year. He was accompanied by High Commissioner Sarah Hulton.

Yamamoto Kozo, Member of House of Representatives of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, was in Sri Lanka on a two-day visit. He met President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Rajapaksa and several other dignitaries. He discussed bilateral economic development projects and human resource development in Sri Lanka.

Hard on the heels of his visit to India by Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, an Indian visitor this week was Ram Madhav, General Secretary of the ruling BJP. He met both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. After his meetings on January 14, he tweeted that he had “good meetings” with both.

There are plans by SLPP-led alliance leaders to dissolve Parliament on March 3 and conduct parliamentary elections in the third week of April. This will mean that the polls campaign will be under way during the national holidays.

A divided UNP will no doubt be in a bigger disarray over the campaign. So will the SLFP which has decided to contest on the Pohottuwa (lotus bud) symbol. This is in the wake of fears of a possible cross over by them after they win the polls — a matter on which SLPP leaders are to seek a solid guarantee. Moreover, the SLFP is stuck for funds. The Central Committee decided on Thursday to launch a fund-raising campaign. So, for them, it’s a twin task — raise funds and win votes. For the SLPP-led alliance, all that means a cake walk.


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