Wickremesinghe-led Working Committee calls for explanation from Premadasa nominees,expulsion possible within a week Opposition split boosts SLPP; ruling party leaders’ focus not only on victory but on margin of victory Confusion over re-imposition of curfew today and on June 4 and 5; banking and other sectors concerned about continuing economic instability   Last Tuesday, the [...]


UNP-SJB battle will aggravate when polls campaign begins


  • Wickremesinghe-led Working Committee calls for explanation from Premadasa nominees,expulsion possible within a week
  • Opposition split boosts SLPP; ruling party leaders’ focus not only on victory but on margin of victory
  • Confusion over re-imposition of curfew today and on June 4 and 5; banking and other sectors concerned about continuing economic instability


Last Tuesday, the five-judge Supreme Court bench was in session hearing arguments over fundamental rights petitions on the conduct of parliamentary elections and related issues when the unexpected happened.

From an upper ceiling window, a white pigeon, usually regarded as a symbol of peace, fell on the floor, ahead of the justices’ table. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Indika Demuni de Silva, was on her feet and was prompted to say; “There is a spectator.” A lawyer seated in the petitioner’s bench quickly quipped; “There is a peace dove intervenient petitioner.”

The octagonal ceremonial sittings space in the superior courts complex had been chosen for the SC sittings. Air conditioning was switched off and a few pedestal fans had been placed to keep the temperature low. Other arrangements showed that health guidelines were being strictly followed in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. A court staffer carried away the poor fallen dove, but the small event portrayed a monolithic landscape.

The coronavirus or COVID-19, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) has named it, is changing the expected, the unexpected, the planned and the unplanned, the seen and the unforeseen. Like in the outside world, it has, for good or bad, changed Sri Lanka forever. It is in every conceivable sphere. As one commentator remarked, historical periods were measured as BC (before the birth of Christ) and AC (after the birth of Christ). There will soon be two other yardsticks with similar acronyms, BC and AC but meaning Before COVID – 19 and After COVID-19.

It was not only a white pigeon that came as a reminder that a deadly virus is changing lifestyles and destinies. Just last Monday, the government took the bold step of relaxing the round-the-clock curfew in Colombo and Gampaha districts after 67 days. In all other districts, which have remained under curfew at different times, it had been relaxed. The result – the vast majority of Sri Lankans who have remained indoors enjoyed outdoor life after a long time. Government offices and the private sector, including shops, re-opened. Selected restaurants and food outlets, approved by Public Health Inspectors, opened for business.

Those measures, no doubt, fuelled greater public confidence that the country was on the road to normalcy. Rooted in their minds was the belief that stability was emerging notwithstanding COVID-19. Scientists and health experts have said that the coronavirus is there to stay for a long, long time. Yet,  remarks from local health officials said there were no more clusters except from those in the Sri Lanka Navy, one that was containable. Those hopes were quickly shattered.

The Government, in a surprise announcement declared the re-introduction of round the clock curfew on Sunday (May 31) and thereafter on June 4 and 5. The last two days were on account of Poson when crowds are expected to throng the Anuradhapura district. The sudden announcement did cause considerable confusion. It raised questions over ad hoc measures and whether or not the curfew could have been prolonged for a few more days. Just last week, as reported in the Sunday Times, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told a high-level meeting that the curfew should be withdrawn ahead of Poson, the full moon day that marks the advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the second most important date in the Buddhist calendar next only to Vesak. He even remarked at that top-level meeting that people would otherwise forget the habit of visiting temples.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, seemed determined to ensure the safety of the people from a second wave of the virus. He has won plaudits for his efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. The most recent has come from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a conversation with him on the telephone. An official statement from the President’s Office said President Rajapaksa requested Premier Modi to provide US$ 1.1 billion special SWAP facility to top up US$ 400 million under SAARC facility.” The Indian Premier also telephoned Premier Rajapaksa this week to congratulate him on completing 50 years as a parliamentarian.

However, the hurried re-introduction of curfews, without any public explanation, is sending a wrong signal. That is the fear that sudden curfews could come at any time. For the public at large, who believed that the road to normalcy was now open, to say the least, it caused confusion. Uncertainty is now a part of public life. That is contrary to the belief in the majority of them that things were headed for normalcy.  For those in commerce, trade and industry, the message — be ready for lightening curbs like curfews — is disturbing. It could erode their confidence. Another case in point this week was what government officials themselves called the ‘rice mafia.’  They were asked to release stocks and reduce prices. At the end of it all, the Government yielded to a price increase. It could also add to the losses they have already suffered apart from not being able to plan. The case is also the same for the banking sector which remained only half open. Of course, it is no secret that that the figures of those inflicted by the coronavirus has risen by Friday to 1,530.

The two areas of concern officially known at present are Sri Lankans who are returning from Kuwait and the explosion of numbers afflicted by COVID-19 in the Sri Lanka Navy. There is a paradox in the case of the former.  They were earlier a backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy and remitted their earnings in foreign exchange to their near and dear ones in the country. Now, they are stuck in quarantine centres in the countries where COVID-19 has spread. Some are visa over stayers and their status has been raised at the highest levels before the pandemic. Swarna Nilmini (52) from Gorakadeniya, Paiyagala, became the latest victim bringing the death toll to ten. She returned from employment in Kuwait. Of the 150 victims on Wednesday, 92 were from Kuwait.

The Sunday Times learnt that President Rajapaksa, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, expressed serious concern to a top Navy official over the incremental increase of coronavirus cases in the Navy. Had it not been for this, the number of victims would have been much lower and normalcy still closer. It came to light that some afflicted Navy personnel had travelled in their official buses in home leave and come into contact with others.

Army Chief’s security concerns

On Thursday, at the monthly meeting of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, acting Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Shavindra Silva spoke of “Successful management of Covid-19 Pandemic in Sri Lanka and the Way Forward”. For those in the commercial sector, it drew much interest since the man heading the anti-Covid 19 campaign was expressing his views.  A video of his speech was played at the meeting. He said, “I would like to coin the word security, as the basis for post-Covid economic rejuvenation.” He said this “encompasses military security, economic security, state and public security, food security, cyber security, human security, environmental security, etc.”

“The importance of security,” he said, “has been the key concern as it is well-linked with all other security concerned”. He added: “The first point of the way forward is – we have not left the military security for the next generation’s hand; we must start from now to securitise the economy of the next generation…. We are now at the inflexion point to determine the future of this nation. This could be the ‘finest hour’ to unite and work collectively under a well-crafted national plan to take our country into a propitious future.

“The post Covid National Security is less likely to be militaristic. As we are operating in an overwhelmingly dependent economy, we cannot undermine the fact that the impact of Covid-19 for global economy, has detrimental effects on domestic affairs as well. As of today, Sri Lanka has almost recovered from Covid-19; globally mighty economies may not recover soon. At least this effect can be anticipated until the end of 2021. Which means the economic partnerships so far maintained are no more lucrative.” The final point on the way forward, he said, “believe in the leadership and the system.”

Early this week, the total of people registered with the National Operation Centre for Prevention of Covid-19 is 15,453. Of this number, 10,797 have been released leaving a balance of 4,495 in 37 functioning quarantine centres, hotels, and hospitals. The total number Navy personnel under treatment is 300 while 357 have recovered and been discharged. The largest number inflicted is from the Colombo District followed by the Gampaha district.

Other than dealing with clusters related to the Sri Lanka Navy, the task before the government now is to focus on Sri Lankan returnees from abroad. Increasing numbers will only mean more quarantine centres, more staff, and more resources. Yet, priority to the issue becomes inevitable. The Sri Lanka Army said on Thursday night that 271 Sri Lankans were due from Belarus and they too would be quarantined in centres operated by the security forces. A Srilankan Airlines flight was bringing them.

Besides the Covid-19 and resultant developments, both for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led ruling alliance and the Opposition parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections have remained the focal point. For nine days now, the Supreme Court has been hearing submissions on eight fundamental rights petitions as well as 15 intervenient petitions. In essence, the petitioners challenge the decision by the Election Commission fixing June 20 as the date for parliamentary elections and alleged irregularity in the use of money from the Consolidated Fund. They also seek the re-summoning of Parliament which stands dissolved. The intervenient petitioners are seeking a dismissal of these petitions.

With the islandwide curfew being lifted on Monday, large crowds were seen at the Fort Railway station and other public places, but the social distancing regulations were apparently not followed by many people. Pic by Pic Sameera Weerasekara

Akila’s statement

Whilst an SC ruling is expected, political activity is heating up between the two main Opposition political parties – the United National Party (UNP) and its offshoot, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). In a surprise move, notwithstanding the awaited ruling from the Supreme Court, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam issued a news release on Wednesday about the cancellation of party memberships of those whom he says have “violated the party constitution.” In effect, he is referring to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and his backers who have handed in their nominations as Balavegaya candidates. It appears that UNP lawyers had wanted the move done before June 2, the date by which the party says the proclamation of March 2 dissolving Parliament expires.

On Friday, the UNP Working Committee was hurriedly summoned and party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe read out a statement outlining the reasons why party members who have submitted a separate list to contest the forthcoming general election should be suspended from the party.  Party senior and former Minister John Amaratunge presented the motion to suspend 99 such party members and former minister  Vajira Abeywardena seconded it.

First to the UNP statement: “A group of UNP members have taken the membership of another party and have handed over their nominations to contest for the upcoming general election. Any UNP party member who becomes a candidate through another political party by signing nominations or hope to sign nominations, should obtain prior approval of the Working Committee in writing according to section 3(c) of the party constitution. Any of the members involved in actions leading to the controversy has not acted according to the earlier mentioned section 3(c) as well as has not obtained any written prior approval from the Working committee.

“The party leadership is forced to act against members who have violated the party constitution, according to section 3(h) of the party constitution to protect the party.

“Most of the party members who signed nominations to obtain candidacy through other political parties now are expressing their regrets about that decision to us.

“However according to section 3(h) of the party constitution letters have been sent to the UNP members who signed nomination papers through another party calling for their explanations.

“All the written explanations/appeals given by party members would be discussed at the upcoming Working Committee meeting. Following that necessary action would be taken.”

The UNP Working Committee decision directly referred to those who handed in nominations on the SJB ticket. Wickremesinghe who presided declared that the UNP had no plans to form an alliance with any other party — a veiled way of saying it had no truck with the ruling SLPP-led government. He told the Sunday Times; “We are contesting as the UNP and have not formed any alliance with anyone. We are not going to join a National Government and we are going to ask the people for a mandate at the coming election to form our own Government”.

Mr. Wickremesinghe further said; “the present Government must lead. We will not hinder them in what they do. Right now, the people are not interested in politics. They are only interested in the economy and their health.”

Thus, the UNP decided to expel its members, who include SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Lakshman Kiriella, Mangala Samaraweera, Harin Fernando, Kabir Hashim (UNP Chairman), Sarath Fonseka, Thalatha Atukorala, Hirunika Premachandra, Mujibur Rahman, Ranjan Ramanayake and Harshana Rajakaruna, among other prominent party members.

That the UNPers who backed Premadasa and handed in nominations under the SJB is not an entirely new issue. It has lingered from the day the UNP split in the middle. The faction opposed to leader Wickremesinghe has spoken about a new alliance until it sprung up with a majority of former UNP parliamentarians backing it. It won recognition from the Election Commission. The UNP leaders insisted that they contest under their Elephant symbol, a move that would have allowed them some political and administrative control. Moreover, in such a situation, the provisions of the UNP constitution would have prevailed on them. Instead, the SJB chose the telephone symbol and also won acceptance from the EC. It is now only a matter of time before their alliance and the symbol appear in an official gazette notification together with candidates’ numbers to draw preference votes.

There is hardly any doubt that the tussle will end ultimately in courts with the two sides arguing their positions. It is relevant to note that Oshala Herath, UNP candidate for the Colombo District, has already filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court. It seeks to reject the nominations of Sajith Premadasa and Ranjith Madduma Bandara on the grounds that they are members of the UNP.

However, there will be many a political fallout in the UNP-SJB tussle before that. Should the UNP’s working committee, where loyalists of Premadasa were not be invited as they are suspended, decide to expel former parliamentarians, the first blow will be at grassroots-level UNP cadres, including office bearers. Although this is a logical consequence even if they decide not to expel, there will still be some who would back the grand old party through loyalty to the party and its symbol, the elephant.

More importantly, by expelling its former MPs, the UNP wants to ensure they do not form a threat after the elections. It is only reasonable to expect they could secure a number of seats more than what the UNP would receive. Naturally, this is contested by the UNPers who claim they are ahead. In such an event, they do not want the Premadasa faction to lay claims or seize Siri Kotha, the party headquarters. From the UNP’s perception, it would be another party that would be trespassing.

It seemed strange that both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa have been stoically silent during the weeks when the coronavirus forced round-the-clock curfews. This is with the exception of a statement or two dealing with fringe issues. Premadasa loyalists accused Wickremesinghe of leaning on the SLPP-led government citing an occasion when Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa met party leaders at Temple Trees. The meeting had been called over matters related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Former TNA parliamentarian Abraham Sumanthiran raised issue over a new constitution. Wickremesinghe intervened to say the event was only to discuss action against the deadly disease. He said if there were matters like food distribution issues, he could tell them to Basil Rajapaksa, who heads the Task Force. He will get them done, he pointed out.

On the other hand, Premadasa separately met Colombo-based western diplomats and heads of multilateral agencies in Colombo. Wickremesinghe loyalists claimed that he asked a lady envoy for financial assistance for the UNP — a charge which a Premadasa loyalist fiercely denied. He said that the SJB leader had been discussing the Covid-19 situation in Sri Lanka and had appealed that more financial assistance be given to the government. If this version is correct, even if he has remained silent, Premadasa did not hesitate to voice the government’s needs on an important issue. That seems unusual.

It is no secret that both the UNP and the SJB are embroiled in their own issues. Premadasa loyalists claim Sudath Chandrasekera, a onetime bodyguard of Wickremesinghe, has been placed on the UNP National List. They say it was Chandrasekera who wrote a fallacious letter to Wickremesinghe making personal accusations. Wickremesinghe loyalists argue that Premadasa had appointed Tissa Attanayake, a former UNP General Secretary, as National Organiser and placed his name on the SJB National List. One of them said; “he was a traitor to the party. From being General Secretary, he crossed over to the Rajapaksa government to win a portfolio.”

“We have given seven days for the UNP members who have signed nomination papers through another party to give their explanations,” UNP General Secretary Kariyawasam told the Sunday Times. He said “All political parties have a constitution. Members of any party have to work according to it.  We are acting because some UNP members have violated the party constitution. The next working committee meeting will take place on Friday. We are planning to discuss what action is to be taken against former MPs who violated the party constitution.” He added that the UNP was going ahead with arrangements for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Countering Kariyawasam’s arguments was Ranjith Madduma Bandara, General Secretary of the SJB. He told the Sunday Times: “The majority of UNPers are with us. The few who remain there will not be able to oust us. The few who remain at Siri Kotha, party headquarters, will not be able to take action against us.”

He added: “We are moving forward with the blessings of the people. The people will show who they favour at the upcoming general election. We knew they would do this to us. We are not afraid of the few who remain with the UNP. They are afraid of facing us. We are going ahead with our organisational activities for the upcoming general election regardless of the outcome of the FR petition in courts. We are ready to face the election.”

UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake who is a staunch backer of the ouster move told the Sunday Times: “The UNP is not an ambalama  or resting place where they can come and go at will. Action should be taken against those who tried to liquidate our party. The UNP is a historic party that has stood strong for 73 years. We will not allow that party to be destroyed. It is laughable when they say action cannot be taken because they are in the majority. The UNP has clearly said that no approval of the party leader or the Working Committee has been taken. We know the secret deals the so-called SJB had with ex-President Maithripala Sirisena to liquidate the UNP. We will not allow that to happen.”

UNP National Organiser Naveen Dissanayake, who is also backing the move, said action should be taken in keeping with the party constitution. The Elephant symbol is the widely recognised symbol of the UNP. At the Working Committee meeting it was decided that they should contest under it. However, they (SJB) did not do so. The UNP does not recognise the telephone symbol.

Calling for unity between the UNP and the SJB was Kabir Hashim. He told the Sunday Times; “I am still the Chairman of the UNP. They have not removed me from my position. I have not received any charge sheet against me. I have not been expelled from the UNP. Yet, we acted according to the decision of the Working Committee. At an earlier WC meeting, it was decided that the leader of the SJB would be from the UNP. They proposed Sajith Premadasa as the leader of the SJB and Ranjith Madduma Bandara as the General Secretary. The majority of the UNP members are in the SJB. Therefore, there is no grounds to act against us. Action should be taken against those who pressurised leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to forward a separate list for nominations. A small group is pressurising him. This group is working according to its own agenda. They are working at the whims and fancies of the government. The UNP and the SJB should join together and face the election.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe however told the Sunday Times; “We only allowed them (the Premadasa faction) to negotiate an alliance with other political parties. They were supposed to come back to the UNP Working Committee with a draft constitution for approval, which they did not do. We were also against any telephone symbol and the Working Committee had already agreed the elections will be contested by any UNP led alliance with the elephant symbol. They ignored all of this”.

Added former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera “I am a UNPer at heart whether they expel me or not.” Samaraweera, of course was once a frontline member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

The tussle between the UNP and the SJB is certain to dominate issues when the polls campaign gets under way after a new date is announced by the Election Commission. One need hardly say that it would be very much to the distinct advantage of the ruling SLPP-led alliance. As for the settlement of issues between the two parties, it will take time, probably a very long time. It may eventually have to be sorted out by courts long after the polls, unless there is a political intervention. Otherwise, both the UNP as well as the SJB are doing the ruling parties a great election favour. The question therefore may well be not whether the ruling alliance would win, but win by how much.

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