Crisis within the largest opposition grouping continues as Premadasa seeks unwavering support EU Parliament adopts Sri Lanka resolution which portends the withdrawal of GSP plus tariffs Foreign Ministry misses another opportunity to present Sri Lanka’s viewpoint just like the UNHRC in Geneva COVID-19 pandemic takes a catastrophic turn with more deaths and afflictions as Government [...]


SJB frontliners claim “fictional” reasons prompted ‘confidence’ vote on Sajith’s leadership


  • Crisis within the largest opposition grouping continues as Premadasa seeks unwavering support
  • EU Parliament adopts Sri Lanka resolution which portends the withdrawal of GSP plus tariffs
  • Foreign Ministry misses another opportunity to present Sri Lanka’s viewpoint just like the UNHRC in Geneva
  • COVID-19 pandemic takes a catastrophic turn with more deaths and afflictions as Government scurries for more vaccines; contradictory remarks continue

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya Leader Sajith Premadasa and wife Jalani visited Colombo’s Gangaramaya temple to take part in religious observances after they were discharged from a private hospital where they were treated for COVID-19.

From a private hospital in a crowded part of the city, Sajith Premadasa, leader of the country’s main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), then recuperating from an attack of COVID-19, had to fight another threat – the fear of losing his leadership. He has overcome the deadly virus attack but not the other.

Other than SMS messages to thank those who had wished him a speedy recovery, he was telephoning stalwarts in his party. He had been fortunate enough to receive a hard intelligence brief about the activities of a few. He urged their support in the wake of what he called were ‘conspiracies”. One of those whom he spoke to was Lakshaman Kiriella, former UNP Minister and now a frontliner in the SJB.

The result – the SJB parliamentary group met at the parliamentary complex last Monday and adopted unanimously a vote of confidence in Premadasa. Only 36 of the SJB’s 54 MPs were present. Premadasa has held office for just ten months after a sizeable faction of the embattled United National Party (UNP) broke away to join the SJB ahead of the August 2020 parliamentary elections. In essence, the parting was due to Ranil Wickremesinghe, former Premier and UNP leader, not conceding the leadership to Premadasa.

Kiriella, a lawyer in Kandy, told the Sunday Times, “I moved the resolution since there were several reports in the social media about divisions within the SJB. These were fictions. We wanted to put an end to wild speculation. Even the partner parties endorsed our decision.” Champika Ranawaka (former leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem, All Ceylon Makkal Congress leader Rishad Bathiuddin and Tamil Progressive Alliance leader Mano Ganesan agreed to include in a statement that they endorsed the confidence motion, on which there was no head count. Making a point in this regard, SLMC leader Hakeem said, “We are not members of the SJB. However, we do support Premadasa’s leadership, and we endorsed it.”

When the parliamentary group meeting began, Kiriella, who proposed the vote of confidence, said there was a ‘conspiracy’ against Premadasa. He said the idea behind the resolution was to set the record right. He said it was to re-iterate that Premadasa was the leader so the ‘malicious’ campaign in the social media would end. The most pertinent point was raised by onetime Health Minister, Rajitha Senaratne. “We have accepted him (Sajith Premadasa) as our leader. Why should we give credence to rumours or fiction?” He argued that if claims of such a conspiracy were true, there was justification for a resolution. That would give a message to those behind the move that the SJB was united, he said. Harin Fernando, another frontliner, declared, “Re-affirming Sajith Premadasa’s leadership is a foolish act. If there is a conspiracy against him, I am the one who would lead it. It wouldn’t happen.” He was speaking to the media after receiving his vaccination for COVID-19.

Contrary to the SJB frontliners’ assertions that they have renewed their confidence in Premadasa of what they themselves admit are “fictional threats, or conspiracies,” the alliance is torn with divisions over the conduct of the leader. To that extent there is unease within. What has heightened fears is the proposed entry of United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to Parliament. The party’s Working Committee, the policy making body, made up of his own nominees, decided on his name for the bonus seat which the party won for gaining two percent of the votes at the last parliamentary elections. He is due to take his oaths on June 22 but sections in the UNP claim it could be delayed.  One seemingly credible version doing the rounds is about an SJB frontliner working a possible deal for a key UNP position in return for his and the support of 19 others — a story that is still being challenged. One SJB stalwart, who did not wish to be named, conceded that “the talk is in the air, but we are still checking.” What hit a strong nerve in Premadasa was the intelligence information which seemed credible.

However, SJB General Secretary Ranjit Madduma Bandara told the Sunday Times,

“There have been rumours (kata kathaa) about divisions within us. Everyone voted expressing confidence in Sajith Premadasa. In this situation, we need everyone to move together for the sake of the people and the country.” This notwithstanding, one SJB frontliner, who did not wish to be identified, said, “If Ranil Wickremesinghe does enter Parliament ending the on/off guessing games, he is not going to back the SJB or our leader. He has his own political scores to settle though inevitably he will come under the Opposition Whip.”

The question, he raised, was whether Wickremesinghe would give tacit backing to the Government to further weaken the main opposition party and its leader Premadasa. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe loyalists say that leader is “willing to forgive and forget” those who want to close ranks. Yet, the prospects of him taking up an entirely opposing role in Parliament to the leadership of his friend and Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the ruling alliance, remains a puzzling question. There are differing views. It is no secret that politics apart, Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa have remained personal friends. So much so, he placed a Sri Lanka Air Force Mi-17 troop transport helicopter at the former President’s disposal to fly from Colombo to his home in Medamulana after he was defeated at the 2015 presidential election. Months earlier, he visited Wickremesinghe’s residence at Fifth Lane, Kollupitiya, to see a family member who was then unwell. They exchange occasional telephone calls.

Talking about the opposition’s role, Premier Rajapaksa told a party backer, “We are not worried about Sajith. However, we are indeed concerned about Ranil.” Those remarks are being interpreted by ruling alliance members in many ways. Some say it is to prophesise that Wickremesinghe and his party may re-emerge as the main opposition. However, detractors among them claim the remarks may be a ‘smokescreen.’ The reason – Premier Rajapaksa has stood for the return of Wickremesinghe to Parliament and has done his bit towards it. In fact, during the visit to his residence, he told Wickremesinghe he should seriously think of re-entering Parliament on the bonus seat. Yet other detractors kite fly over a possible joint approach to key political issues by Premier Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe. Of course, there are no indications to confirm this.

It is true that Premadasa was inducted the SJB leader and thereafter the office of the Leader of the Opposition during a stormy period. The COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold of the country throughout his dual roles. There were some laudable aspects. An example is how he campaigned outside the Kanatte Cemetery protesting the Government’s decision making it mandatory to cremate Muslim victims of COVID-19. The move did raise eyebrows among sections of the majority Sinhala community. It was after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka that the rule was rescinded. The Janaza (burial) grounds in Ottamavadi in the east where burials are allowed is now almost full. On the other hand, Premadasa did offend the Tamils, particularly the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) by taking part in the eleventh Victory Day celebrations near the parliamentary complex last month to mark the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. His own backers concede that he had thus alienated a sizeable segment of the Tamil community.

In the days and months during his tenure as the SJB leader, one area where Premadasa is being faulted is the way he had been appointing persons without consulting other leaders. One is the position of a Senior Advisor, who handles foreign policy issues. Sections within the party complain, that the person concerned has thrust his own personal foreign policy agenda as that of the SJB. A case in point, articulated by none other than Premadasa, is how the UN Human Rights Council won a resolution in Sri Lanka’s favour in 2009. The reason – this spokesperson was Sri Lanka’s envoy in Geneva and had seen through with it. One was the quid pro quo deal he reached with the then Indian Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. This was for the inclusion of a pledge to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution; India would not only help seek passage of the resolution. It would also lobby other member countries to vote for the resolution. It became a reality. In the recent months, in public speeches he made, Premadasa has been articulating this position to suggest it was a victory. What he did not say is that the victory is for the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. Therefore, they put up billboards in the city.

Some party members are also livid that the senior advisor had spoken about a huge SJB victory at the next parliamentary elections in 2024. He likened it to the one where the UNP received five sixth of votes in 1977. However, Premadasa is either unaware or failed to realise that this was the first time Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment to the Constitution found its way into the UN Human Rights Council resolution. A commitment was made by the Rajapaksa administration to an international body over its implementation.

Another, who was forced to leave the UNP and return to the SJB fold with considerable clout, has also come under heavy criticism. An allegation, which he strongly denies, is that he continues a dialogue with politicians in the ruling alliance and acts as a conduit. Though the issues are often raised by SJB frontliners, they are hesitating to raise issue publicly fearing reprisals. In the light of this, a mere resolution expressing confidence in Premadasa alone will not evaporate the dissension within. False or otherwise, the parliamentary group has by its decision acknowledged that there exists a “conspiracy.” If allowed to fester, Premadasa is aware, that would be his biggest challenge. This is particularly when he is both confident and believes in the intelligence information he receives periodically. This is in marked contrast to his late father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who developed his own mechanisms that helped him learn what is going on at the grassroots or top levels in the party. He did not depend on another outside source at any time.

This comes at a time when a group of SJB newcomers who were local councillors have found themselves stranded. They quit the UNP which in return sacked them. The Supreme Court this week dismissed an appeal by 69 UNP local council members who contested under the SJB in violation of the party (UNP) constitution. The Supreme Court without hearing the appeal dismissed it after taking into consideration the preliminary objections raised on behalf of the respondents. The bench comprised Justices Vijith Malalgoda, L.T.B. Dehideniya and S. Thurairaja. When the petitions were taken up, Ronald Perera, PC raised preliminary objections that the petition had not been filed properly. Faiz Musthpha appearing for the petitioners argued that permission be granted to refile the petitions.

Among the respondents were Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Working Committee members. Earlier the Court of Appeal had dismissed a writ application by former UNP members challenging their expulsion from the party. Among the petitioners was the Gampola Urban Council Chariman Anura Sampath Kumara who had been expelled by the UNP for contesting the August 2020 Parliamentary election as a member of the breakaway SJB. The Supreme Court ruling will effectively allow the UNP to replace the members who have been expelled from the party. That gives the UNP at least some representation in local councils.

European Parliament resolution

The lack of an aggressive opposition has not been all that easy for the ruling alliance. There are more serious issues cropping up against Sri Lanka. This time, in Luxembourg on Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution raising fears that the GSP Preferential tariffs on Sri Lanka would be withdrawn. This seems a replay of the events that occurred before GSP Plus was halted and later re-introduced. However, there is a difference this time. On the previous occasion if a resolution required to go before the European Union headquarters in Brussels, this time it will not be necessary. Since then, the EU Parliament has been conferred with much wider powers to act on its own.

The resolution was adopted with 628 members of the 704-member Parliament voting in favour – which means by a two-thirds majority. The question is whether the Foreign Ministry was aware that such a resolution was coming up before the EU Parliament. According to a Foreign Ministry source, Sri Lanka’s diplomatic mission in Brussels had reported that the resolution was the handiwork of “the Tamil diaspora” – something as obvious as night following day. This again is after the resolution was adopted.  What measures did the mission take to lobby members? It is also relevant to note that the Embassy had not taken steps to re-activate the Friends of Sri Lanka caucus in the EU Parliament. The one that ceased to exist was made up of Geoffrey van Orden and Niranjan Deva Adittiya, a backer of successive governments in power in Colombo. It was the responsibility of the Sri Lanka diplomatic mission in Brussels to have taken early steps. That again speaks for the grave situation in the Foreign Ministry which is becoming increasingly inefficient and ill informed.

The preamble to the resolution has different reasons. Among them:

  • Having regard to its resolution on the situation in Sri Lanka of 11 December 2013.
  • Having regard to the resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council on promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka of 23 March 2021.
  • On 13 April 2021 President Rajapaksa promulgated new regulations to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); Rights groups consider the new regulations as vague and overbroad and have warned the law is being used as a weapon targeting dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities in the country.
  • There are clear signs of accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka, while the military continues its involvement in economic activities, such as in agriculture, transport and tourism sectors; Since 2020, at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel were appointed to key administrative posts; those appointments including at least two senior military officials who were implicated in United Nations reports in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict; Reportedly there has been an increasing number of checkpoints and military presence in the former war affected regions.
  • There are signs that progress achieved in investigations into some high profile cases of killings and disappearances, as well as commitments made by the previous government to address war time abuses, as well as pre-war and post-war issues to address reconciliation, would be rolled back as the new government had formally announced it will no longer support the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of the two domestic offices established under the last government to trace, fate and whereabout of the disappeared and to provide remedies.
  • The UN Human Rights High Commissioner in a most recent report on Sri Lanka has re-iterated the cause for a moratorium in the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act for new arrests until it is replaced by legislation that adhere to international best practices; The resolution from 17 members:

1.    Expresses concern at the developments over the past year, which show a deteriorating situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including the accelerating militarization of civilian government functions, the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations and policies that increase the marginalization of persons belonging to ethnic and religious communities, surveillance and intimidation of civil society, restrictions on media freedom, and shrinking democratic space;

2.   Expresses serious concern over the new regulations to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which refer people who have surrendered or have been arrested on suspicion of an offence under the PTA or the Emergency Regulations No. 1 of 2019, to a so called rehabilitation programme; recalls that such de-radicalization, rehabilitation, and reintegration centres, regulated under similar legislation, have in the past been rife with serious human rights violations such as torture and other ill-treatment including, sexual and gender-based violence; encourages the Sri Lankan government to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act and bring it in line with international standards;

3.    Calls on the Sri Lankan Government to take the necessary measures to reverse these trends, as the recent developments threaten to reverse the limited but important gains made in recent years, to prevent a recurrence of policies and practices that gave rise to the grave violations of the past.

4.   Regrets Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from its co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and related resolutions; urges the Sri Lankan Government to act on the calls for accountability for alleged wartime violations of international human rights and humanitarian law; emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive, impartial and transparent approach to dealing with the past, to ensure accountability, to serve justice, to provide remedies to victims, to avoid the recurrence of violations of human rights and to promote healing and reconciliation; underlines in that regard the important role of the independent institutions established in recent years;

5.   Encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to foster freedom of religion or belief and pluralism by promoting the ability of all religious communities to manifest their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.

6.   Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the European External Action Service, the Commission, the governments, and parliaments of the Member States and to the government and Parliament of Sri Lanka.

In 2017, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was in the yahapalana Government, an assurance was given to a visiting European Union delegation that the Government would replace the PTA and take other measures the EU set out. A diplomatic source said that the resolution is the result of such assurances being not fulfilled. A debate in the European Parliament followed. Within months the GSP Plus was withdrawn. The source, however, added that the period this time could be shorter.  It is not immediately clear whether the Foreign Ministry in Colombo has initiated any measures in this connection. The only report so far has been about an envoy representing Sri Lanka in a European countries with concurrent accreditation to another suggesting to officials that the social media operated in those countries by Tamil groups should be monitored and called for a mechanism for it. The response was mild laughter. Obviously, the envoy was not familiar with different issues, and it brings more embarrassment.

Another significant feature is in paragraph 18 of the resolution which reads “expresses concern about the growing role and interference of China in Sri Lanka.” All this while the misgivings of the west on China-Sri Lanka relations were in hush tones. However, this resolution now openly demonstrates the unhappiness of this relationship as it is described as “growing role and interference,” the latter aspect being a new observation.

Earlier, a group of United States Congress members had handed in a Resolution to the US Congress. The Government’s thrust in this case appears to be to prevent it being taken up, but the move is unlikely to be successful. In terms of the US Constitution, “all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” On how laws are made, it states that “First, a representative sponsors a bill. The bill is then assigned to a committee for study. If released by the committee, the bill is put on a calendar to be voted on, debated, or amended. If the bill passes by simple majority (218 of 435), the bill moves to the Senate. In the Senate, the bill is assigned to another committee and, if released, debated, and voted on. Again, a simple majority (51 of 100) passes the bill. Finally, a conference committee made of House and Senate members works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The resulting bill returns to the House and Senate for final approval. The Government Printing Office prints the revised bill in a process called enrolling. The President has 10 days to sign or veto the enrolled bill.”

What is required for the motion to go before the Congress is the signatures of 20 members. One of those who has placed his signature is confirmed to be Tom Malinowski, diplomat, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. He is now Congressman representing New Jersey’s seventh district.  Ambassador Ravinatha Ariyasinha has told the Foreign Ministry that the prime mover is a Congresswoman from North Carolina where there is a large Tiger guerrilla rump. Yet, did the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington learn of the Congress resolution from the Tamilnet website? Evidently they were unaware that the resolution was in the making.

The move before the US Congress and the one adopted Thursday by the European Parliament is clear proof that since the UN Human Rights Council adoption of a resolution, there has been a unified effort by western nations to move against Sri Lanka. Such a situation is unprecedented. One is not sure whether the Foreign Ministry, in its current disposition, will be able to cope with them. too?

COVID-19 front

These developments come in the wake of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the usual misleading official denials, the Government on Friday extended the current lockdown — officially called travel restrictions. The reason is the unexpectedly rising number of deaths and those afflicted. Sri Lanka crossed the 2,000 marks of total deaths on Friday morning whilst also recording the highest declared deaths in a single day; 101.  Other medical sources said that the figure was much higher. Sri Lanka’s COVID 19 death toll stands at 2,011 by noon Friday, June 11 as the number of total infected since the pandemic started in Sri Lanka stands at 216,134.

At least 1,403 deaths have been recorded in Sri Lanka since the third wave of the COVID 19 pandemic which officially began on April 15. Around 26% of total deaths reported since last week until mid this week were either from homes or when patients were admitted to hospitals, due to non-availability of beds. By Friday, Sri Lanka had closer to 32,000 active cases.  It was on May 21 that the countrywide lockdown came into effect. From that date until Friday, there have been 922 deaths and 61,325 new cases. This clearly shows that there has been no significant progress in containing the spread of COVIO–19 despite the measures adopted during the third wave. This is both in terms of deaths and those afflicted.

Whether the free movement of traffic, particularly in the streets of Colombo and the suburbs, is a major contributory factor to the recent spread, cannot be ruled out. This week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa strongly reprimanded a senior Police officer for allotting colours for different motor vehicles. There were near kilometre long queues before Police checkpoints to obtain such coloured stickers for easy and free movement. Just days earlier, the Police required persons visiting supermarkets and retail outlets to purchase food items to walk to such places. Some did so for well over two kilometres whilst others rolled wheelbarrows to carry their stocks. Such moves came in for severe criticism from the people since they caused immense hardships to them.

In marked contrast, lorries purchasing old iron, unused aluminum pots and pans were freely moving around in the streets. So were lorries selling flowerpots. Those carrying fish or vegetables were rare. When they did come, the prices had almost doubled.

Locally the biggest challenge for the Government remains the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise in deaths and cases of those afflicted continues amidst mishandling of various issues. This includes the vaccination programme and health care measures. Added to that, the Government has been forced to cope with landslides and floods that have left at least 18 people dead and rendered thousands homeless. Amidst this, on Friday night the Government announced a steep increase in fuel prices – a move that will push living costs to an all time high. All essential food items, including the common man’s packet of rice, would increase in price. Such a move could not have come at a worst time like this week.

Now the European Parliament has adopted a resolution which portends the withdrawal of GSP Plus. That may lead to the closure of apparel factories in particular resulting in huge loss of revenue. That will deal a major blow to the deteriorating economy. More importantly, it will leave thousands unemployed. When the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka, it became a glaring exposure of how the country’s foreign policy and the diplomatic missions are run. Now, further proof has come in the form of the resolution from the EU Parliament. It is high time the authorities take a closer look and rectify the recurring colossal blunders. That is imperative for the sake of the country and the wellbeing of the people.

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