No portfolios for Maithripala Sirisena and his backers SJB duo hold talks with Ranil Wickremesinghe on new UNP leadership and a possible re-merger A 20th Amendment to replace some 18A and 19A provisions Measures to re-boot economy Swept by a landslide two-thirds majority at the August 5 parliamentary election, the empire hit back. That politically [...]


Ministerial appointments: Loyalists rewarded


  • No portfolios for Maithripala Sirisena and his backers
  • SJB duo hold talks with Ranil Wickremesinghe on new UNP leadership and a possible re-merger
  • A 20th Amendment to replace some 18A and 19A provisions
  • Measures to re-boot economy

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and brother Chamal Rajapaksa taking part in religious ceremonies at the Audience Hall of Dalada Maligawa before the swearing in of ministers began. On the extreme left is former President Maithripala Sirisena. PHOTO CREDIT – PRESIDENTIAL SECRETARIAT

Swept by a landslide two-thirds majority at the August 5 parliamentary election, the empire hit back.

That politically devastating onslaught for many came in the historic hill capital of Kandy where a new Cabinet of Ministers and State Ministers were sworn in on a cool but cloudy Wednesday. The message it gave a nation became clear as one minister after another, one State Minister following the next, queued up to receive their appointment letters.

It was at the stately Magul Maduwa (Audience Hall) of the sacred Sri Dalada Maligawa where kings and courtiers held court in the days of yore. Armed forces commanders, members of the Buddhist clergy in large numbers, small groups from other faiths, officials and politicians who will guide the destinies of Sri Lanka for the next five years were present amidst the red and white trappings. So were their supporters, some of them noteworthy donors, who underwrote the election campaign.

The three most politically powerful brains in the country who sat at the apex of the Sri Lanka Podujana Nidahas Sandanaya (SLPNS), or the Sri Lanka People’s United Front, led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had been at work, even before the polls began. They were President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Basil Rajapaksa. They took time off to take stock of the years past and focus on the present.

The result: those who remained loyal to them and the new-born SLPP were well rewarded. The idea was to ensure their hands were strengthened and to demonstrate that “their loyalty was not in vain.” That seemed to say all others should take note, too.

And now, they are focusing on priority issues. One is to re-boot the economy shattered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The other is the immediate introduction of a 20th Amendment to the Constitution, possibly within two months. Now on the drawing boards, the idea behind, is to make a string of changes in existing provisions of the 18th and 19th Amendments. Some of them are to clear what is being described as “ambiguities.” These include the question over the subject of defence.

Lawyers supportive of the government say the President is entitled to hold this portfolio. However, others opposed to it say that the 19th Amendment prohibits such a move. Some of the other changes will relate to the Constitutional Council, which government leaders believe, has so far been functioning mostly as a political tool. An example that is being cited is the appointment of an Inspector General of Police (IGP) on allegedly political considerations. Then ruling party politicians have spearheaded the move. The independent commissions now existent will remain but may face modifications. Provisions that relate to a two-term time bar on elected Presidents will not be changed.

A group styling itself the One Text Initiative conducted an opinion poll in July this year on the 19th Amendment across different communities. This was through 13 questions from 200 respondents. Their 18-page findings note that “people do not accept or reject the 19th Amendment as a whole. Instead, they have a more nuanced view of various components of it.” It adds that the “respondents were in favour of the President holding Ministerial portfolios whilst they also preferred the two-term limit to the President.” However, some of the presidential powers such as the declaring of a State of Emergency, some were of the view should be subject to Parliamentary approval. The report said, “in conclusion, the responses show a diversity of opinion on the 19th Amendment.” They tended to prefer some checks and balances on the Presidency, such as some executive powers being shared with the Prime Minister. It has noted that “the provisions of the 19 Amendment were rejected and the trust in Independent Commissions has eroded. (Note: a good example is how the Police Commission functioned). Future surveys are necessary to obtain a more nuanced understanding of the people’s perception of the 19th Amendment.”

The Government is also mulling over the introduction of a new Constitution which will consider a number of factors including more powers to Provincial Councils. That will be to strengthen the 13th Amendment. In this regard, also under active consideration is to rescind laws that vest powers in the Government not to conduct PC elections — a law which was passed by the Yahapalana government with the strong backing of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). That way, these councils which were set up to address Tamil concerns following the ethnic violence in July 1983, left the power in the hands of the government. TNA frontliners Rajavarothayam Sampanthan (leader) and Abraham Sumanthiran were among the prime movers together with Yahapalana leaders.

The fact that President Gotabaya and Premier Rajapaksa consulted each other over all issues after the parliamentary election is known. Formal confirmation of Basil Rajapaksa’s role came in the form of full-page ads with a large photograph in the media on Friday. The words in the ad are meaningful. It says, “Today, we stand proudly on our feet with an unprecedented mandate for change, thanks to the people’s struggle that you led fearlessly since January 8, 2015. We as a nation pay tribute to your selfless patriotic leadership and service.” The words are from a relatively unknown “WE Sri Lanka.” The underlying message is that the troika has focused on developments in the past years.

Sri Lanka’s three topmost bureaucrats – P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga (Senior Presidential Advisor) and Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the Prime Minister, at the swearing-in ceremony. Behind Dr Jayasundera is retired Major General K.B. Egodawela, from the Presidential Secretariat.

Yet, those responsible seem to be exceptionally attuned to developments and the reference to the previous presidential election wraps up matters in context. During the election campaign last month, some opposition groups attempted to exploit what they claimed were serious differences within the troika. Even mundane issues were highlighted in the social media. This week’s developments make one reality distinctly clear. At times of need, the unity among the trio, albeit the family, is like an intricately woven steel mesh, all united and focused. Of course, this is not to say there are no differences in views or positions. They do exist but fade away when serious issues come to the fore — a characteristic which was absent in major opposition parties though filial links are relatively less. There was proof of this in the current week.

That is how former President Maithripala Sirisena, who won a record 111,137     preference votes in the Polonnaruwa district, became the first casualty. It was on November 21, 2014, that he quit then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government as Minister of Health. The night before, he met Rajapaksa at Temple Trees and ended having hoppers for dinner. However, he did not reveal his future political plans, not until the next day. At a hurriedly summoned news conference that afternoon at the New Town Hall, he declared he would be the opposition’s common candidate at the 2015 presidential election. In Sri Lanka where political nick names are quite common, he was jocularly referred to as Aappey (or Hopper). This time, Sirisena contested on the SLPP ticket.  Contrary to reports, including a reference in these columns last week, the trio did not consider Sirisena for any ministerial position. Incorrect are also reports, including those in the social media, that he would be given “an elevated position”.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera told the Sunday Times, “soon after the election results were known, I sent SLPP leadership the names of 14 of our members in the order of their seniority. This was to consider anyone of them for portfolios. On top of the list was the name of our leader and former President, Maithripala Sirisena.”

Later, he said, he had forwarded three names for ministerial positions. They were Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Ameraweera and himself. “My name was dropped from the Cabinet appointments and I have been given a State Ministry. They did not even consult us. This is not good. This has created internal issues for us in the party,” he added. For the only National List position, he said, he had nominated Dr Rohana Luxman Piyadasa, head of the Media Faculty at the University of Kelaniya. However, the SLPP nominated Suren Raghavan, former Northern Province Governor, whose name was on the SLFP list after Prof. Piyadasa, he pointed out.

Other than that, Jayasekera, who contested under the SLPP ticket from the Kurunegala district, was named State Minister of Batik, Handloom and Local Apparel Products. As the title reveals, this is the first time such a portfolio has been created. Compared to the past, there were no posts of Deputy Ministers this time. The State Ministers, unlike deputies, are entitled to a Secretary to their Ministry and are considered as having a higher status.

The SLPP made its debut in Sri Lanka’s political landscape with a major victory at the local council polls in 2018. Then came the failed vote of no-confidence against former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in April 2018.

This led to a group of MPs quitting the Yahapalana government and joining the SLPP then led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. They included those who held powerful ministerial portfolios and wielded considerable political clout. Following senior MPs in the Government did not receive any ministerial portfolios: Maithripala Sirisena, Susil Premjayantha (Colombo district), Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (Kurunegala district), Ranjith Siyambalapitiya (Kegalle district), Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe (Colombo district), S.B. Dissanayake (Nuwara Eliya district), Mahinda Samarasinghe (Kalutara district), W.D.J. Senaviratne (Ratnapura district), Dilan Perera (Badulla district) and Chandima Weerakkody (Galle district).

However, S.B. Dissanayake, who brokered the 52-day government, was named as Chairman of the Nuwara Eliya District Co-ordinating Committee. Chairpersons and members of 23 such committees have been named to cover the administrative districts. They will be responsible for development work in the respective districts. It is relevant to note that the District Secretariats too have been brought under the purview of the President.

With the swearing-in over, the portfolio holders and most of the newly elected MPs turned up at the President’s House in Kandy for lunch hosted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. As it usually happens, the victors or those who got portfolios were present whilst others left Kandy for Colombo. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa were seated in one table with their spouses for the buffet lunch of Sri Lankan rice and curry. There was also vegetable biriyani with an array of vegetables.

Other than rewarding loyalists who stood by the Rajapaksas, Wednesday’s appointments also saw only one Muslim (Ali Sabry) and one Tamil (Douglas Devananda) in the Cabinet of Ministers. However, besides Sabry, also on the National List were two Muslims, Faleel Marjan, a gem businessman from Beruwala and Mohamed Muzzamil (a frontliner of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front). Though there were no Cabinet Ministers from Viyath Maga, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s body of professionals, five of its members were appointed as State Ministers. They were Seetha Arambepola (Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation), Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (Provincial Councils and Local Government), Nalaka Godahewa (Urban Development, Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal and Community Cleanliness), Channa Jayasumana (Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals) and Ajith Nivard Cabraal (Money and Capital Markets and State Enterprise).

There were no ministerial positions for SLNS partners Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Only one member – Weerasumana Weerasinghe – was elected. However, LSSP leader Tissa Vithana has found a place on the National List. Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda received his previously held post of Minister of Fisheries, one in which he can not only help the fisher community in Jaffna and the outlying islands. He could also help fisher folk in other parts of the country and exporters. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), whose late leader Arumugam Thondaman has been replaced by his son Jeevan, won a State Minister position. It is Estate Housing and Community Infrastructure.

For the TNA, whose seats fell from 16 to 10, with the threat of one more leaving, the week has been challenging. Earlier, the TNA’s strength was bolstered by the presence of Vijayakala Maheswaran and D.M. Swaminathan, who were from the Yahapalana government. At that time, the TNA extended tacit and sometimes open support to the then government. This week saw a video in which one of their stalwarts, Sumanthiran strongly exhorting that any accusations against him about election malpractices will end in prosecution. The lawyer threatened to take them to courts. This was his response to allegations, strongly denied by him, that he had ‘manipulated’ election results by rigging the votes of another candidate. This, however, is hardly possible. Groups opposed to him have been spreading the news amidst reports that one reportedly affected candidate was to take the matter up in courts.

Sumanthiran’s popularity in the north took a downward plunge after he told a video interviewer that he abhorred Tiger guerrilla murders and violence. He was right but the remarks angered the Tamil diaspora groups overseas. Most criticised him whilst some are still supportive. Another minus point for him has been that he persuaded the TNA to extend its support to empower the then Government to dissolve Provincial Councils. This week, two other elected MPs in the Jaffna district, C.V. Wigneswaran and Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, rejected his request to unite. Bringing them under his fold was to strengthen his political clout.

A pertinent point in regard to the North and East was made by Basil Rajapaksa, the architect of the SLPP, during a television talk show. “Going by the votes cast at the presidential election, if we were to contest, we would have won only five seats. However, by asking partner parties to enter the fray, we won 11 seats.”

Besides, the TNA has also been hit by a new internecine crisis. Mavai Senathirajah, leader of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITA), under which the TNA contested, was displeased that Thevarasa Talayanesan had been nominated without his knowledge. He accused two TNA MPs, Sumanthiran and Sritharan of having taken the decision without consulting him. As protests grew, the duo travelled from Jaffna to Trincomalee to meet TNA leader Sampanthan. A compromise formula has now emerged with two and half years for Talayanesan and the remaining period for one of Senathirajah’s nominees. Now the Political Committee is to meet to take a decision on the matter.

There were disappointments and disenchantment among some SLPNS parliamentarians over the portfolios they received or did not receive. In the case of lawyer, Ali Sabry, who was nominated on the National List and later sworn in as Minister of Justice, there was displeasure in some quarters. A leading prelate of a prominent religious order spoke to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to re-consider the move. Similar requests also came from hardline sections of the Buddhist clergy. Their apprehensions were two-fold. One was the far-fetched view that by way of his portfolio, he could interfere with those against whom court action would be initiated for being responsible for last year’s Easter Sunday massacres. The matter is now before a Commission of Inquiry where some shocking revelations have surfaced. Another was the claim that he would use his office to ensure that he would push through laws relating to the Muslims.

However, Sabry stymied his detractors by making a public statement barely 24 hours after his appointment. He declared that he stood for the punishment of all those responsible for the Easter Sunday massacres and would not hesitate to do the right thing. Premier Rajapaksa won praise from an unexpected quarter for picking Sabry. It was from former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He said in a tweet, “Well done PM for appointing Ali Sabry as Justice Minister despite opposition by ‘voice-cut sadhus.’  However, he added,

“the rest of Cabinet is uninspired and the subjects of State Ministers are hilarious.”

Onetime Justice Minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, did not hide his disappointment. He told a confidant that he had earlier been offered either the Education or Justice portfolio. Later, he had learnt that he had been earmarked as a State minister and hence he did not travel to Kandy for the swearing-in ceremonies. Pointing out that Sabry was President Gotabaya’s personal lawyer, he added that the new Justice Minister was junior to him and always addressed him as “Sir.” Contrary to those claims, Sabry had taken part in political activities and was one of those in the forefront of the SLPNS in Muslim areas. Presidential sources said that despite Wijeyadas Rajapakshe’s lament, there would be no change. Another point Rajapakshe has been making is how he saved the Rajapaksas from being prosecuted when he was Justice Minister.

Prof. G.L. Peiris had been in favour of the Foreign Relations portfolio. However, he later accepted the portfolio of Education and Higher Education. Dinesh Gunawardena has been reappointed Foreign Relations Minister whilst Admiral Jayanath Colombage has taken over Foreign Secretary. The outgoing Secretary, Ravinatha Aryasinha, is tipped to be Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France. Mahinda Ameraweera (SLFP – Hambantota district) also told a colleague that he would have been much happier if he received another portfolio. He is now Minister of Environment. A new team of secretaries have also been named for the 27 ministries. However, some amendments are likely. Women representation in the Cabinet has been just one, Pavithra Wanniaratchchi (Health).  There are two female State Ministers – Seetha Arambepola and Sudarshani Fernandopulle.

Issues within the UNP

Twelve days after the parliamentary election, issues within the United National Party (UNP), the country’s oldest remains unresolved. Though former Prime Minister and party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared he wants to step down, at least for now, he appears to be waiting for a new leader to be chosen. There are still others in the party who argue that his recent actions only mean that he wants to continue. This became clear when he told a meeting of the Working Committee, the party’s main policy making body, that the current issue of  leadership has to be resolved within “the coming one and half months.” Some senior members read this as a message that he wants to stay for the upcoming Provincial Council elections though Wickremesinghe loyalists denied it.

By Friday, contenders for the post of UNP leader had extended to at least seven. They are Ravi Karunanayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Daya Gamage, Vajira Abeywardena, Ruwan Wijewardene, Navin Dissanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga. This is besides a call for former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to reverse his decision to retire and take over the leadership, at least temporarily. Wickremesinghe has also had a one-on-one discussion with him though what they talked remains unknown. However, this move was not accepted at the Working Committee meeting. Strong objections were raised by Vajira Abeywardena and Tilak Marapana, two close associates of Wickremesinghe, with both saying there should be a young person. Consensus was reached on the matter.

In a “special press release,” the UNP declared that the party leadership should be handed over to a young leader. It said: “The Working Committee of the United National Party met this morning (14) under the chairmanship of Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.  There was a lengthy review of the results of the last general election.

“All those who expressed their views at the meeting pointed out that in order to allow a new leader to take over the party, immediate action should be taken giving priority to the views of the party members as well. Accordingly, it was agreed to take necessary steps to select a new young leader that recognizes the national aspirations, while giving the opportunity to all those who aspire for leadership to come forward.

“Accordingly, a leader that suits the country and the party will be selected from the candidates who expressed interest in the post. As an initial step, an active mechanism will be set up to assign new responsibilities to the young leaders of the party. It has been decided to offer the leadership of the UNP to a young leader who will emerge from within the party, taking into account how successful they have been in carrying out their responsibilities.”

An uneasy feature is the opposition by one or the other to the seven names of those in the running. One of them strongly campaigning for Jayasuriya was UNP Assistant Leader Karunanayake. He said he should be given the leadership “unconditionally.”

Amidst this, an important development was the advice by some sections of the party to Wickremesinghe to give the leadership to “a trustworthy person.” They warned him to “make sure you don’t give it to the wrong person and let the party fall into the wrong hands.” There have been suggestions to hand over the leadership to Sajith Premadasa, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader. This is notwithstanding assertions by Premadasa at a news conference that he would never return to the UNP fold.

Significant enough, the advice gained some traction triggering a string of backchannel moves. The result: two of the SJB’s leading members — Kabir Hashim (also former Chairman of the UNP) and Thalatha Athukorale — held an hour-long meeting on Friday evening with Wickremesinghe. A source in the know of the talks said the SJB duo had their leader Sajith Premadasa’s concurrence and “it was a very cordial and friendly exchange of views.” Wickremesinghe had explained the sequence of events since the parliamentary electionsand his intention to step down as leader. He told the duo that should there be any acceptance for a re-merger under Premadasa’s leadership of the UNP, he would have to first consult the seven UNP aspirants and obtain their consent. Thereafter, it has to be put to the party membership at a convention.

Another high-ranking source strongly associated with Premadasa spoke on grounds of anonymity. He said, “It is highly unlikely the SJB will now re-join the UNP and Premadasa will take over the leadership. This is a ploy by Wickremesinghe to divide the SJB and its constituents.” Premadasa was holidaying in Kandy. Moreover, seasoned one-time UNP frontliners, like Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera, who had a personal rapport with Wickremesinghe, are no longer in the scene to continue a dialogue. That rapport was the binding factor in keeping negotiations on track before the UNP split.

References in last week’s political commentary have drawn a response from Harsha de Silva, now an SJB parliamentarian from the Colombo district and former State Minister. He said “…..I am a Sinhalese and I actually got some 17,500 more votes than Patali Champika Ranawaka in Colombo. I hope you will make that “correction next week.” In another message, he said “…the media seem to always downplay my achievements…”

Firstly, as it is noticeably clear, there were no references whatsoever to either Harsha de Silva or Patali Champika Ranawaka receiving votes in these columns last week. Regrettably, de Silva has not been able to comprehend the gravamen of what was said — that the SJB polled more minority votes. Thus, his receiving 17,500 more votes than Ranawaka does not mean all those votes were from Sinhala voters or is relevant. Comments were made on the totality of votes. This is unless he had a supernatural vision to see voters mark the cross and knew their ethnicity one by one. His claim that the media downplaying his achievements warrants a response too.

During the parliamentary election campaign, the sole achievement he marketed was being a “pioneer” of the Suvaseriya free ambulance scheme. It is no secret that former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was solely responsible for the assistance for this project from India. In a letter to Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, dated September 26, 2016, he said “On behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, I wish to thank you for your wholehearted support in our endeavour to replicate one of the most effective public services – Emergency Pre Hospital Care Ambulance Service…. Excellency, I am really pleased to say that this pioneering saving programme showcases the Best of India. It will no doubt further strengthen the friendship and the special bond that exists between the people of Sri Lanka and India.” At most, de Silva, as a State Minister, was only overlooking the project and by no means a pioneer. Why blame the media for calling a spade a spade?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though he could constitutionally have 30 in the Cabinet of Ministers, has chosen only 26. In the case of State Ministers too, he had chosen 39 when he could go up to 40.

This is after a parliamentary election which was conducted with no major incidents or allegations of serious malpractices. Even if no foreign observers, for whom the country had to foot bills for expenses, were not there, the polls were unhindered. There were more NGOs and INGOs, some genuine and others dubious, backed by western diplomatic missions keeping a watchful eye. For all of them, the August 5 parliamentary elections have sent one a stunning message. Democracy exists in Sri Lanka. This is a tribute to the people. Not even the self-exiled groups carrying out a venomous campaign, backed by vested interests, can now say democracy is dead in Sri Lanka. It is only their dubious campaigns in the different foreign capitals that have died but a government cannot relax. It must deliver.


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