Referring to teacher, farmer protests and other crises, PM says SLPP has neglected political work among people SLPP’s Kariyawasam says dissidents should leave Govt, if they can’t stick to collective responsibility principle DEW describes the present cabinet as the worst since Independence and President as a scarecrow Trade unions’ blackout threat fizzles out; Power Minister [...]


Pohottuwa patriarch reads the Riot Act, as public anger grows over shortages of essential items


  • Referring to teacher, farmer protests and other crises, PM says SLPP has neglected political work among people
  • SLPP’s Kariyawasam says dissidents should leave Govt, if they can’t stick to collective responsibility principle
  • DEW describes the present cabinet as the worst since Independence and President as a scarecrow
  • Trade unions’ blackout threat fizzles out; Power Minister says JVP behind strike action
  • SJB sees crisis within Govt. as ‘home theatre’; says Govt. ministers unlikely to resign


Premier Rajapaksa presents a guilded party souvenir to Chief Organiser Basil Rajapaksa at the party's convention this week as General Secretary Kariyawasam looks on

When the distinguished guests attending the fifth anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at Colombo’s plush Nelum Pokuna Theatre on Tuesday, November 2nd, took their seats, it is unlikely that anyone expected the party’s patriarch, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to read the riot act to SLPP politicians and party activists. Yet, that is exactly what the veteran politician and former President did, chastising them for distancing themselves from the masses at the grassroots after coming to power.

Throughout this year, as the country lurched from one crisis to another with no resolution in sight, many of the SLPP’s talking heads that fronted media conferences or offered voice cuts to the media seemed to be living in an alternate reality from the rest of the country. Many were blind to the crippling shortages of fertiliser for farmers, and of rice, milk powder, sugar, gas or any number of other essential consumer items. It is said that there’s none so blind as those who refuse to see. For them, the economy was actually in far better shape than the media and economic analysts were making it out to be, while street protests over various issues were supposedly orchestrated by “Opposition parties and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations)”. They rejected the reality that this was a reflection of deep-seated public anger. In this backdrop, Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s remarks at Tuesday’s anniversary celebrations came as a sobering reality check.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not in attendance at the event as he was still in Glasgow, Scotland attending the COP-26 summit. The party chairman G.L. Peiris had more important business to attend to in England confirming his figure-head status in the party hierarchy, that a convention could take place without the party chairman. As such, the event was presided over by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and SLPP’s National Organiser and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

Reminding those present on the hardships they underwent to form the SLPP and eventually build it into a formidable political force in so short a time, Premier Rajapaksa stated that after having come to power, the SLPP had concentrated on the affairs of Government and neglected its political work among the people. He stressed that a party’s reputation and popularity cannot be safeguarded simply by being in government.

“I believe the recent teachers’ strike dragged on for so long because we had neglected our political work. I also think the reason behind the farmers’ protests becoming so serious is because we stopped doing politics among them. We need to understand the people’s voice and listen to it. The more we distance ourselves from politics, the more opportunities we provide to the forces we defeated to insert themselves among the people and cause chaos to obtain petty political advantages,” he cautioned.

It was a clear acknowledgement that those in the main party representing the Government had not only neglected those who voted for them, but had failed to listen to their concerns. The PM also noted the tendency among protesters to burn effigies of certain government ministers. “They may burn our effigies, but we must still go before the people,” he lectured.

The premier recalled the trend begun by young people to beautify public spaces by painting walls just days after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power. Many did so using paint purchased from their own funds, he pointed out. “They did it because they loved the country. We don’t know where that young generation has gone now. We need to see if they are waiting in line at passport offices to leave the country and engage in politics in a way that persuades them to return.”

The Government has been ravaged by internal tensions between the SLPP and coalition partners in the past few months. These tensions have erupted into open conflict in recent weeks over opposition by 11 coalition partners to the agreement transferring 40 percent of Government-owned shares in the Yugadanavi Power Plant in Kerawalapitiya to a US-based company, New Fortress Energy (NFE), along with granting the company a monopoly to supply Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

Premier Rajapaksa alluded to these disagreements by noting that what matters is not whether any party within the alliance was large or small, but their aim. All of them have been with the SLPP through difficult times. They aren’t the SLPP’s supports or crutches, he stressed. “We must all stay together. It is our duty as the main party to safeguard that unity,” he remarked winding up.

Bunch of buffaloes

CEB trade unions hold a picketing campaign to express their opposition to the Government's decision to sell Kerawalapitiya power plant shares to a little known US energy company. Pic by Indika Handuwala

The SLPP, however, continues to be incensed by the open acts of defiance by the smaller parties in the Government to the Yugadanavi agreement. The decision by these parties to hold a “People’s Council” on the agreement the day after a Government party leaders’ meeting chaired by the President has worsened the situation.

Some members from the SLPP’s coalition partners are also taking aim at the President over certain decisions he has taken. Former Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) General Secretary and former Minister D.E.W. Gunasekara made some of the most critical remarks that have so far been made about the President and his Cabinet by someone from a party within the Government. Addressing a public event on Wednesday, Mr. Gunasekara did not hold back, describing the current Cabinet as “one of the worst Cabinets since post-independence.” He also claimed that the current Cabinet is “populated by a bunch of buffaloes (Harak Relak)”.

Mr Gunasekara attacked Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s decision to grant a tax amnesty, stating that it was the 14th such amnesty by various governments over the past few decades. In the end, direct taxes will only amount to 10% to 15% while indirect consumer taxes will rise to about 85% to 90% as a result of these actions, he warned.

The former CPSL General Secretary praised the speech made by the PM the day before, saying that he believed the PM was speaking from his conscience. Mr Gunasekara then proceeded to take aim at the President, no less. “My conclusion is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now become a scarecrow. The party won’t allow me. Otherwise, I hope to write an open letter to him regarding his idiotic decisions over the recent past regarding the sugar scam, rice, fertiliser and the Gnanasara Thera issue. I want to ask whether he can’t see how these decisions are morally wrong,” he said.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam hit out at Mr. Gunasekara for his remarks, telling the Sunday Times that the communist leader was one of several in the current CPSL hierarchy who had openly sided with the former Yahapalana Government. “They supported the Yahapalana Government and were responsible for the disastrous situation the country found itself in under that Government. Only (CPSL Chairman) Raja Collure had the courage to take a stand and oppose that. Rather than criticise the President, he (Mr. Gunasekara) should look at his own party and how he was among those who presided over its decline that has resulted in them having just a single MP.”

Mr Kariyawasam, who had earlier called for the resignation of the Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila over a recent fuel price hike (but was also at a time when Mr. Gammanpila was opposing the Yugadanavi proposal under discussion with the American company) also signalled that the SLPP was unwilling to compromise on the Yugadanavi issue to please coalition partners, insisting that if they could not respect the agreement approved by the President and the Cabinet, those parties should leave. He dismissed arguments that this would weaken the Government. “On the contrary, it will actually strengthen our hands since it is these parties that have stood in the way of the President and this Government of implementing our policies,” he told us.

Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya leader Sajith Premadasa declares open the Wattala party office of Parliamentarian Harin Fernando who has been appointed as the SJB's Wattala organiser

It is ironic that the SLPP General Secretary’s views are in direct contradiction to PM Rajapaksa’s comments only a few days earlier saying that minor parties in the SLPP-led coalition must stay together.

Mr. Kariyawasam went on to say that rather than the Opposition, it was these parties that have been creating obstacles for the Government during the past two years. “They opposed the 20th Amendment, our agricultural policy and the East Container Terminal (ECT) agreement before. They opposed these more than (Opposition Leader) Sajith Premadasa, yet they continue to remain, enjoying all Government perks.”

He likened the Government’s current situation to the Yahapalana Government. That Administration, too, was plagued by infighting within its ranks that made it virtually impossible to govern, he pointed out. “In the end, this resulted in them manipulating the law to make it impossible to hold Provincial Council elections. We should adopt the attitude that Mahinda Rajapaksa undertook during his rule as President. He firmly told any coalition partners, ministers and MPs who opposed his policies to leave.”

Mr. Kariyawasam said his interpretation of the Prime Minister’s remarks earlier this week calling for unity was different. “While he did call for unity, he also stressed these parties are not the crutches of the SLPP. I don’t believe they should stay if they can’t accept our policies.”

The SLPP General Secretary is effectively daring the coalition partners to quit the Government. He clearly has the backing of at least one SLPP heavyweight to make such bold statements. His remarks underscore what many within the SLPP feel; that while coalition parties may criticise Government policies, they will still not leave because they have no future outside the Government.

Dissidents to meet President

With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa now back in the island, some SLPP MPs are already planning to call on him to sack either one or all three Cabinet Ministers from the coalition partners who have opposed the Yugadanavi agreement. They are Ministers Wimal Weerawansa (National Freedom Front), Vasudewa Nanayakkara (Democratic Left Front) and Udaya Gammanpila (Pivithuru Hela Urumaya). The argument is that these ministers have violated the collective responsibility of the Cabinet by publicly opposing an agreement that Cabinet had approved.

Energy Minister Gammanpila says he was not worried about Government MPs calling for his sacking. “That is their right, as it is our right to oppose the agreement.” He also felt that Premier Rajapaksa had responded to the allegations levelled against the coalition parties by sections within the SLPP in his speech at the party’s anniversary celebrations.

He added coalition partners still hoped to discuss the matter further with President Rajapaksa now that he has returned to the country.

President Rajapaksa returned from Scotland with the unenviable task of once again having to balance unity within his Government while also trying to take his policies forward. The dispute between the SLPP and coalition partners is not the only headache he faces. Justice Minister Ali Sabry has gone public in recent days about his unhappiness over the President’s move to appoint a Presidential Task Force on “One Country, One Law” headed by Venerable Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Mr Sabry was reported in the Sunday Times last week that he had not been consulted on the matter and was “not happy” about it.

In the wake of rumours swirling that he intended to resign from his ministerial post over the matter, there were reports that Sabry had sought a meeting with Premier Rajapaksa who had told him to speak to President Rajapaksa once the latter returned from Scotland. Efforts to reach the minister to confirm this failed.

No blackout

Unions affiliated to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), meanwhile, held a protest on Wednesday demanding that the agreement with NFE be scrapped. Unions affiliated to ports and the petroleum sector joined them in solidarity. While some CEB unions had earlier threatened to go on a two-day strike, possibly resulting in power cuts, this did not materialise in the end. Instead, they resorted to a protest outside the CEB Head Office.

Power Minister Gamini Lokuge, a one-time trade union leader himself, claimed unions had been forced to back down on their strike threat because rank and file employees of the CEB had refused to go along with it. “It was only some union members affiliated to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) who wanted to do that. In the end, only those few attended the protest,” he said.

Ranjan Jayalal of the Petroleum, Ports and Electricity Trade Union Alliance against the Sale of National Resources pointed out that it was not just CEB workers who joined their protest. Even the CEB Engineers’ Union joined in the protest, he said. “Is the minister saying even the CEB engineers are JVP now?” he asked.

Unions saw the fight against the Yugadanavi agreement as a common fight related to the country’s energy security and were united in their opposition to it, he said, while claiming they saw no need to go for a strike yet. “A Government that cannot even provide gas to the people will not be able to provide electricity either. It struggled terribly over the past few days to find enough dollars to purchase coal for the Norochcholai power plant. We know that a power crisis is coming soon. We see no reason to launch a strike now and be accused of sabotaging the power sector. The Government will do that itself,” Mr. Jayalal claimed. He said unions will continue their struggle against the agreement in other ways but will still leave the door open for a strike as “a last resort.”

Return of Harin Fernando

Many in the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), meanwhile, see the dispute between the SLPP and its coalition partners as little more than ‘home theatre’, an in-house drama of sorts designed to distract the country as the Government faces crisis after crisis. They say the coalition partners — even the Justice Minister are highly unlikely to give up their Government perks even if the disagreements are as serious as they themselves make out to be.

The SJB, meanwhile, this week welcomed back its Vice Chairman and Operations Chief Harin Fernando who is still recovering from a marathon heart surgery. The outspoken young MP is viewed by many in the SJB as a vital cog in the party machinery as it seeks to mobilise opposition against the Government. This belief was characterised by how many senior party members attended the launch of his office in Wattala on Monday (1st) after he was appointed as the Wattala electorate organiser, a shift from his Badulla constituency where he inherited his father-in law’s seat.

Mr Fernando announced to the gathering that he intended to retire from politics at the age of 60, an unusual declaration for a politician in this country, where many tend to remain in politics well into old age. The Government has also proposed that the minimum age of retirement should be raised to 60. He said he has 18 years left in politics and aims to develop at least two or three young politicians from Wattala before he left. Come 60, and Fernando could well have other ideas.

Mr Fernando again made an appeal to President Rajapaksa to pardon former SJB parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake, currently serving a prison sentence for contempt of court, even pledging to give up his MP post if the President were to do that. He also claimed that while his name had been dragged through the mud over allegations he made regarding the Easter Sunday attacks, “every word I said is now being repeated by the Cardinal.”

While paying tribute to SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa for the way in which he looked into his health while he was hospitalised, the MP also hinted at differences between himself and Mr. Premadasa regarding how to move the party forward. While there might be differences between them regarding the words they used and their ideas, Mr. Fernando said he was nevertheless proud that the SJB had given space for them to raise their voices and be heard.

Several backbench SJB MPs, notably Hesha Withanage and Chaminda Wijesiri, have been vocal in recent weeks calling on Premadasa and the party to come up with a long term strategy to bring the party to power rather than trying to score points from the failures of the Government.

Mr Premadasa met Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith this week to discuss developments related to the probe on the Easter Sunday attacks. Cardinal Ranjith has been extremely vocal in his criticism of the Government in recent weeks, accusing it of not taking action to unravel what he claims is a far wider conspiracy regarding the attacks and uncover their real masterminds.

Meanwhile, Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando, one of the most critical voices on behalf of the Catholic Church regarding alleged Government inaction over the Easter attacks, filed a Fundamental Rights Petition in the Supreme Court this week seeking an order preventing him being arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). This was after the CID summoned him for an inquiry based on a complaint by the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director Major General Suresh Sallay. Maj. Gen. Sallay’s complaint related to comments allegedly made by Rev. Fernando during a webinar, where he allegedly claimed that then Brigadier Sallay had played a role in nurturing Easter Sunday attack leader Zahran Hashim and his followers.

The Government was again forced into admitting defeat in its fight against the so-called trade mafia by lifting price controls on a host of items by revoking those gazettes. Price controls previously imposed on sugar, dhal, B-onions, tinned fish and chicken were among those that were lifted. Some of these items, particularly sugar, have been in short supply for some weeks now. There is also a severe shortage of cement, hindering the construction industry while there has also been a shortage of domestic LP gas. Many of those from poorer households have been forced to wait in queues to purchase kerosene for cooking due to the shortage of gas. All this comes amid the Government quietly allowing the state of emergency imposed to ensure an uninterrupted supply of essential commodities to lapse.

In this bleakest of backdrops, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa will present his inaugural Budget to Parliament next Friday (12). It may well be that because he is trying to ensure that people don’t expect him to perform miracles that he told journalists this week that the Government, instead of giving people relief, may actually be forced to take from them in the upcoming Budget (Ganna wei). The people are left wondering though, what more is there to take?

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