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Politics


The crossover aftermath

 

  • Mahinda irked at publication of Mangala’s letter
  • Ranil congratulates Karu through third party
  • No chair for Mahinda Wijesekera at swearing-in

Politics is the art of the possible and in Sri Lanka politics is an obligation and at the same time a business that has come to stay since independence.
All this was amply displayed during the past few months in the Sri Lankan polity and the political drama that unfolded was eagerly watched by millions. A resume of what took place is appended with comment and analysis. When UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met President Mahinda Rajapaksa two weeks before the crossover, the President was keen that the split within the UNP be patched up and the problem settled amicably.
The meeting between the two leaders took place at a request made by Wickremesinghe to discuss the developing situation at that moment and the fate of the MoU between the two parties.
On President Rajapaksa’s inquiry about the internal squabbles of the party, Wickremesinghe said he would be meeting Karu Jayasuriya at the party headquarters Sirikotha the next day, where the problems that had arisen between them would be discussed.
When Wickremesinghe said this, the President imparted some of his own advice as to how he would have handled such a situation.
The President asked Wickremesinghe not to meet Jayasuriya at Sirikotha, but to invite him to Wickremesinghe’s residence and settle the differences over a cup of tea. Usually this is the style in which Rajapaksa deals with tight situations, the classic example being the problems that cropped up between Mangala Samaraweera and himself and how he dealt with the matter over breakfast at Temple Trees last Saturday.
The thinking of the President was that when the differences between the two factions in the UNP are settled, he could get the support of Jayasuriya as well as that of Wickremesinghe for the government and go ahead with the MoU that was signed between the two parties. He was also looking at working out a mechanism for the implementation of the MoU.
The government also does not want Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to leave the UNP as they feel it is advantageous to have Wickremesinghe as the UNP and Opposition Leader. But the government is also intrigued by the fact that Wickremesinghe had been travelling abroad quite often during the last few months. He spent more time out of the country than in it, while his party was plagued by problems in recent times that was leading to a split in the ranks.
Canvassing
It has now been speculated that Wickremesinghe is canvassing for the post of Commonwealth secretary general.
As the 19 UNP MPs tipped to cross over were about to take oaths as ministers, UNP Chairman Rukman Senanayake met President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees last Saturday (27) over lunch.
During the meeting, Senanayake requested the President to postpone the swearing-in of the new cabinet with the UNP crossovers by a week until internal squabbles in the party were resolved.
The UNP Chairman asked for a week to resolve the crisis in his party since Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was on a visit to Nepal and India, was to return only on February 2.
Rukman Senanayake told the President that the problem within the party would be resolved once Wickremesinghe was back in the country and that members from the UNP joining the cabinet and accepting portfolios would be allowed.
He gave an assurance that the same people who had pledged to join the government would be nominated by Wickremesinghe to hold portfolios under such an arrangement.
Senanayake also requested the President to give an appointment for a meeting for at least one and half hours to Wickremesinghe once he returns to the country, where these matters could be further discussed and a settlement reached using the MoU signed between the two parties as a conduit.
He said that such an arrangement could be made for the UNP to join hands with the government, while Ranil Wickremesinghe would continue to be the Opposition Leader.
When this matter was discussed at length, President Rajapaksa queried as to whether Wickremesinghe was serious about resolving the crisis within his party since he was out of the country most of the time. He asked as to what Wickremesinghe was doing in Nepal, when a major eruption was about to take place in his party with a large number of crossovers about to happen. “Why is he abroad at a time like this? He should be here to settle these problems. Is he really interested in the country or the party?” the President asked Senanayake.
Karu to decide
“We don’t want to break the UNP or create problems for him. We want him to remain as the leader of the UNP,” the President said. As for the request to postpone the swearing-in ceremony by one week, the President responded that it was Karu Jayasuriya who should decide about the matter.
The President asked Senanayake to speak to Jayasuriya and see whether the UNP reformist group was ready to postpone the swearing-in ceremony by another week. He said that the government put off the swearing-in ceremony by 11 days to allow the UNP to resolve its own problems.
“The original date fixed for the swearing-in was January 17,” he explained.
Then Rukman Senanayake got down to the more difficult task of telling the President that if the crossovers took place without the sanction of the party, it would result in a breakup of the MoU between the government and the SLFP.
He also said that it would spell doom for further cooperation between the two parties and that the UNP would not be ready to go into any further agreements of this nature in the future.
After the meeting with the President, Rukman Senanayake briefed Ranil Wickremesinghe in Nepal on what was discussed.
By that time Wickremesinghe had already spoken to Gamini Jayawickrema Perera who had been assigned with the task of trying to settle matters with the reformists. Perera was in Katugampola when Rukman Senanayake called him and requested him to have discussions with Karu Jayasuriya to get the date of the swearing-in postponed.
However, when Jayawickrema Perera spoke to Karu Jayasuriya, the response was that they were not amenable to a further postponement.
Jayasuriya said that they postponed it earlier as well and it would be unfair by the others in the reformist group if he decided to postpone it again. Jayasuriya further said if there were any other nominations by the Party Leader for portfolios, the reformist group did not have any objections to it and that they could be sworn in on a future date. The hectic task undertaken by Rukman Senanayake and Jayawickrema Perera ended there and the swearing-in ceremony and the cabinet reshuffle went ahead as scheduled.
There was a flurry of activity before the cabinet reshuffle with many existing government ministers not wanting to part with some of their subjects.
Among those who were quite vocal in this regard was none other than Minister Mangala Samaraweera who wrote a letter to the President objecting to UNP crossovers in the cabinet. Thereafter, he met President Rajapaksa and refused to shed any of his portfolios. By that time, it had been decided to give the Aviation portfolio held by Samaraweera to Keheliya Rambukwella. However, it was later decided to leave the portfolios of Samaraweera intact.
Also, Minister Samaraweera was objecting to Mahinda Wijesekera with whom he had a bitter rivalry in the Matara District, from being taken into the government fold and being given a cabinet portfolio. Mahinda Wijesekera’s name was deferred by the government where the giving of portfolios was concerned for some time due to the objection by Samaraweera.
Most of Samaraweera’s requests were accommodated by the President since he did not want the outside world to know of a rift between him and Minister Samaraweera. Accordingly, Wijesekara’s name was struck from the list with the hope to take him back on a later date.
Critic
Mahinda Wijesekera who crossed over from the SLFP to the UNP in 2002 along with S.B. Dissanayake and G.L. Peiris, became a severe critic of Ranil Wickremesinghe after the presidential election defeat. He was also removed from the Working Committee and his post as Matara District organiser.
On Sunday early morning, officials at the President’s office were rummaging through the Sunday English newspapers to check the veracity of information they had received that either Minister Mangala Samaraweera or one of his close friends had leaked the letter written by him to the President, to the press. The letter had appeared in several English newspapers and the President was visibly unhappy over its publication. Thereafter, it was decided to ignore the objections of Samaraweera and accommodate Mahinda Wijesekera in the cabinet creating a new portfolio for special projects. This was the reason why his appointment was made at the last minute and there was not even a chair allocated for him at the ceremony until one was hurriedly brought for him.
The decision of the President to accommodate Mahinda Wijesekara was conveyed to him early Sunday morning by the President’s Senior Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa.
In the cabinet reshuffle, the Foreign Ministry portfolio was taken away from Minister Samaraweera. The President did not want to allocate the Foreign Ministry to a new dissident from the UNP as it could create discord among the senior SLFPers. It was decided to appoint Rohitha Bogollagama, who crossed over to the government during former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s time, as Foreign Minister.
Associate
Bogollagama was brought to parliamentary politics by Ranil Wickremesinghe and was a very close associate of him at one time. He campaigned tirelessly for the UNP and even wrote a book titled ‘Nayaka Ranil’ (Ranil, The Leader), before he crossed over to the government seeking greener pastures.
Bogollagama is now entrusted with one of the key ministries in the present government. The Foreign Ministry directly deals with the country’s image and given the present situation where there is a lot of adverse publicity about the government with allegations of human rights violations and issues related to the escalation of conflict in the north east, the Foreign Ministry has a key role to play in creating a positive image of the country.
One reason given by analysts for the removal of Samaraweera from the Foreign Ministry portfolio was that he was drifting away from India and leaning towards China. This has created concern with India who is quite prissy when it comes to the geopolitical relations in the South Asian region. The government’s thinking is that Samaraweera failed to convince India regarding the present situation in the North and the East. Samaraweera’s closeness towards China could be due to his close connections with the JVP that maintain close links with China.
Shed
The other reason is that all the ministers were asked to shed one of their portfolios to make way for the UNP members who were joining the government. Mangala Samaraweera opted to part with Foreign Affairs and retain development oriented ministries in order to serve the people in his electorate. Unlike other ministers who earlier held the portfolio of Foreign Affairs, Samaraweera did not make any effort to fill the vacancies in the Foreign Ministry with his cronies.
Rohitha Bogollagama, on assuming duties as the Foreign Minster, went to India immediately where he met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Secretary, Pranab Mukherji.
Besides the cross-over drama where the UNP faced the most severe beating in recent history, there had been lot of dissension within the government ranks especially among the senior SLFP members whose portfolios had been pruned or changed to accommodate the UNP crossovers.
Among the most affected was none other than Anura Bandaranaike. Minister Bandaranaike saw his pet portfolio of Tourism that enabled him heavy foreign travel at state expense removed from him and the relatively more down- to-earth Ministry of National Heritage allocated to him. On learning that he had been given the National Heritage Ministry, Minister Bandaranaike was irked although he took oaths as a cabinet minister with the new portfolio. He felt that it was a comedown and he had been humiliated by President Rajapaksa.
Rushed
At the conclusion of the ceremony he rushed out of the hall without even waiting to pose for the customary group photograph taken after the swearing-in ceremony. It was Mervyn Silva, who was appointed a non-cabinet minister, that had to rush to Bandaranaike and convince him to come back and pose for the photograph. After the ceremony was over, several key ministers met at Mangala Samaraweera’s house to take stock of the situation with regard to the allocation of ministries and the situation that had arisen with the UNP crossovers. Among those who attended the meeting were Ministers Anura Bandaranaike, Arumugam Thondaman, A.L.M. Athaullah and several others.
Minister Bandaranaike was quite vocal in his protest regarding the portfolio allocated to him and was even contemplating on resigning when his sister and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga phoned him. She spoke to her disgruntled brother for some time and was critical about the allocation of ministries but pacified her brother and asked him to be patient.
Minister Samaraweera too insisted on Bandaranaike not resigning immediately and encouraged him to mark time. This seems to be what Samaraweera is doing until he takes some crucial action.
Gathered
Minister Thondaman told those who gathered at Minister Samaraweera’s residence that he had asked for a national subject with more responsibilities but what he had received was not so. However, he had said that he was not unhappy.
Although the objective of the meeting at Samaraweera’s residence was to form a pressure group it did not turn out to be so as there was no unanimity among those who gathered, about any future collective action. Among things that were discussed was to start attacking the government using a certain Sunday newspaper.
However, what took place at Mangala Samaraweera’s residence was reported to the President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa by Minister Arumugam Thondaman.
Another minister who was unhappy over his portfolio was Mahinda Samarasinghe. He was unhappy that Disaster Relief had been removed from him and only Disaster Management had been allocated to him. Minister Samarasinghe called the President on Wednesday and said that he was not happy with the reduction made to his portfolio. It was reported that President Rajapaksa had not taken the complaint well and had reprimanded Samarasinghe. Incidentally it was Samarasinghe’s birthday as well and there was a party at his residence in the evening, which President Rajapaksa attended around 11 pm after attending the Presidential Cinema Award Ceremony held at the BMICH the same evening. He was accompanied by Presidential Media Advisor, A.H.M. Azwer.
Interestingly most of those among the invitees were foreigners including a large number of foreign ambassadors in Colombo. Some even remarked that there were more foreign diplomats at Samarasinghe’s birthday party than at the Donor Conference held in Galle on Monday. It is said that those who attended the donor meeting representing the EU countries were either second secretaries or third secretaries attached to those embassies.
Allocation
Talking about the allocation of ministries it is noted that even SLFP General Secretary, Minister Maithripala Sirisena, seems to be unhappy over the pruning of his portfolios.
Mahaweli and Irrigation that was under him earlier has now been assigned to the President’s brother Chamal Rajapaksa.
This seems to be a strategic move with the Moragahakanda project too just being initiated. It is apparent by even recent statements made by most SLFP stalwarts that they are unhappy over the entire government being run by President Rajapaksa and his brothers.
Another person who felt badly let down in the entire portfolio drama was SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem. The SLMC high command on the previous Friday, decided that they should enter into an MoU with the government. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected an MoU and pushed Hakeem to such an extent that he had no other option but to join the government without a formal agreement or else face another split in his party. When Hakeem was informed on Saturday that he would be given the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, he was unhappy since the Ministry did not carry much weight since even the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission was directly under the President. Even Sri Lanka Telecom had been privatised. When Hakeem requested a different portfolio from the President on Saturday, he was flatly refused.
Woes
The woes of Hakeem continued when he found to his dismay that M. Najubdeen of the SLMC had not been allocated any post. Hakeem had earlier promised Najubdeen a post and had told him that the government had allocated him one. But on finding out that he had not been allocated any position, Najubdeen had found fault with Hakeem and had vowed to join the SLMC faction led by Ameer Ali. However, he too had told Najubdeen that they would have to consult their high command before allowing him in. But now Najubdeen has changed his mind once again and participated in the High Command meeting of the SLMC. This was after he heard that Hakeem was negotiating a position for him with Basil Rajapaksa.
Basheer Cegu Dawood of the SLMC who did much of the backdoor manipulations in getting the SLMC to join the government, also received the non-cabinet minister post of local government. An upset Cegu Dawood had told his friends later that he had been treated badly despite being at the forefront in canvassing people to join the government along with Milinda Moragoda.
Even SLMC General Secretary Hassan Ali and K. Baiz received deputy minister posts after much lobbying with Basil Rajapaksa. Although the SLMC had not been allocated any ministry with development projects, the President had treated the Muslim MPs who had been with him better. One case is A.L.M. Athaulla who had been entrusted Water Supply and Drainage. The reasoning for this may be that the government does not trust Hakeem and the SLMC as they could leave the government at a crucial moment.
With the bloated number of ministers it has now become difficult to find offices for them and their staff. One person who found that he did not have an office was Minister of Export Development and International Trade Prof. G.L. Peiris. When Minister Peiris went to the Ministry to assume duties he found that there was no room for him to work. Finally he had to assume duties in the office room of the Ministry Secretary, Dr. R.M.T.B. Ratnayake. Now the Secretary does not have an office in the Ministry.
Wedding
Meanwhile, several prominent politicians and top businessmen attended the wedding of the daughter of a Colombo businessman at the Trans Asia Hotel last week. Among those present were Karu Jayasuriya, Harry Jayawardena, A.J.M. Muzammil, former Chairman of the Insurance Corporation Chanaka de Silva and many others.
As the ceremony was in progress Ravi Karunanayake who was in India along with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe telephoned de Silva to find out what was going on in Sri Lanka. Mr. De Silva who told Karunanayake that Minister Jayasuriya was seated two seats away from him, said that Ranil Wickremesinghe should come back and lead from the front to build the party in the face of the present challenges.
Replying, Karunanayake said that they were now ready to take on the government. As this conversation was taking place, A.J.M. Muzammil who was close by, sent a short message to Ravi Karunanayake saying that he too was fully endorsing what Chanaka de Silva said.
Minutes later, Wickremesinghe called his friend Chanaka de Silva and asked him to congratulate Karu Jayasuriya on his behalf, a request that Chanaka de Silva conveniently ignored.
At the same time another political drama unfolded when Arumugam Thondaman who graced the occasion was told that Puthrasingamani, a member of the CWC had declared himself an independent member of Parliament and was to join the government as a deputy minister.
A visibly upset Thondaman complained to a friend of his that he would pull out of the government if that had happened. Thondaman’s friend told him that he would not discourage him from leaving the government if that had taken place. However by that time every thing had been done to pacify Thondaman and the appointment of Puthirasingamani as a deputy minister did not take place as scheduled.
As the political landscape keeps on changing all the time, many political analysts are of the view that it would be rather difficult for the UNP to come back to power within the next few years or so. It is their view that the vacant deputy leadership should now go to a person who could withstand time and take the party to victory at some point. These changes are even taking place in India where Rahul Gandhi, the son of slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is gradually being groomed to take to politics
Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa has strengthened himself with the crossovers and the JHU joining the government, the UNP is poised to continue in the opposition for another 12 years. In the circumstances, many in the party are now discussing that they should have a strong young leader from the party to fill the deputy leader post and the name promoted by many is that of Sajith Premadasa. It seems that Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will have to give serious thought to Premadasa to take the party to new heights.
Wickremesinghe after a hectic tour of Nepal and India returned to the country on Friday (02) where many people gathered at the Bandaranaike International Airport to welcome him. His tour of India had been successful where he met a number of top politicians including Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.
He apprised Manmohan Singh on the Sri Lankan situation and emphatically told him that it would be difficult for him to work with the government after the treatment that had been meted out to the UNP by the President but however he said that if the government comes up with a plausible solution for the North-East question, his numbers are there to support the government to resolve the problem.
It is now learnt that India has told the government that they would like to see the problem being solved as soon as possible and urged the government to expedite the process.

***

JHU decides to accept portfolio to support the President

President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided on a Cabinet reshuffle to muster the support of a group of UNP members after the JVP refused to join the government. The President also requested the JHU repeatedly to join the government and accept a Cabinet portfolio or else he will be compelled to depend on the UNP crossovers to strengthen the government. However, the President preferred the JHU, which also contributed to formulating the Mahinda Chinthanaya policy programme. The JHU’s stance was to support the government unconditionally as long as the President respected the agreement with the JHU.
The Supreme Sangha Council of the JHU discussed at length on the President’s invitation to take up a Cabinet portfolio. Member of the Supreme Sangha Council of the JHU, Venerable Ellawala Medhananada Thera was of opinion that it was the JVP’s withdrawal from the government that paved the way for a group of parliamentarians promoting federalism to join the government. The Venerable Thera said it could be prevented if not for the JVP’s shortsighted step and stressed that the President deserves the support of all those who want to defeat terrorism at this stage.
Venerable Omalpe Sobhitha Thera pointed out that the JVP’s main concern is the party and not the country and that they resorted to strikes, protests, and agitations weakening the government’s struggle against terrorism. The Venerable Thera said the JHU has a responsibility to protect the Mahinda Chinthanaya policy programme.
Venerable Athuraliye Ratana Thera was of the opinion that more federalists will join the government increasing the number of Cabinet portfolios to 60 that will further burden the people, if the President is not supported at this stage. The Venerable Thera said the JHU by accepting a Cabinet portfolio should prevent the appointment of seven more ministers. If the 39 JVP parliamentarians joined the government, the number of ministerial portfolios could be reduced by 35 -40, he said.
Venerable Kotapola Amarakirti Thera pointed out that it is the duty of the JHU to take the opportunity to serve the country, and that they should not hesitate to bear responsibilities. The Venerable Thera said they should support the President and prevent more federalists from joining the government.
Venerable Rajawatte Vappa Thera said the government would most possibly, dance to the tune of Hakeem and Thondaman, but the JHU should prevent any such occurrence. At the meeting that lasted for six hours, the Supreme Sangha Council resolved to accept a Cabinet portfolio and to function as a constituent party of the government.
Thereafter, Venerable Ellawala Medhananada Thera attended the Central Committee meeting of the JHU with the Sangha Council resolution. The Central Committee that confirmed the resolution decided to accept a ministerial portfolio. The next step was to nominate a person for the post.
Chairman of the Committee, Venerable Kotapola Aamarakitti Thera said as Buddhist monks they would not accept ministerial portfolios although they are eligible for such positions. Venerable Thera pointed out that a Cabinet portfolio is more suitable for laymen in view of the structure of the Cabinet. The proposal was carried unanimously by the committee.
At this stage, Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera said that Policy Planning Secretary of the JHU Patali Champika Ranawaka is the most suitable person for the post and that he has the capacity to overcome the challenges facing the country. The Venerable Thera pointed out that one of the JHU parliamentarians must resign to enable the appointment of Champika Ranawaka and that the he is prepared to do so.
Venerable Omalpe Sobhitha Thera who protested against Ven. Medhananada’s decision volunteered to resign from parliament and said that the Thera could do a better service to the country and the religion as a Buddhist monk without wasting time in parliament amid chaos.
Ven Ellawala Medhananda Thera who appreciated Venerable Sobitha Thera’s decision to give up the parliament seat recalled that the Omalpe Sobhitha Thera was largely instrumental in preventing the passage of P-TOMS bill and implementing Liquor and Tobacco Control laws. Ven. Sobthitha Thera requested Ven. Aturaliye Ratnana Thera to move forward his campaign in parliament against unethical conversions. The Thera wished to resign from the post soon and visit Singapore on a religious mission.
Legal Advisor to the party Udaya Gammanpila immediately contacted the Secretary General of Parliament and made arrangement to hand over the resignation letter on Wednesday. Aturaliye Rathana Thera advised Gammanpila to discuss with the President and make arrangement for the swearing in of the new minister. The committee decided to convene a media conference on January 31 to inform the decision to the media. The committee was of the opinion that the JHU is subject to the ill will of foreign elements that would not tolerate the offer of a Cabinet portfolio to the party and that the decision should be kept a secret until it is disclosed at the media conference.
When the meeting was about to end, at around midnight, the members worshipped Ven. Sobthitha Thera. Addressing the meeting Champika Ranawaka pledged to discharge of his responsibilities as a minister to the benefit of the nation. Meanwhile, a veteran astrologer and Central Committee Member , Kampane Gunarathana Thera immediately prepared an auspicious time and fixed the swearing in at 8.08 on Navam Full Moon poya day. When Omalpe Sobhitha Thera handed over the resignation, the Secretary General of Parliament requested the Thera to change the decision and to continue as an MP. However, the Venerable Thera said that the he will be able to do a better service to the country after the resigning from parliament. Later, the Commissioner of Elections by a Gazette Extraordinary appointed Patali Champika Ranawaka as a member of parliament. Udaya Gammanpila and Nishantha Sri Warnasisnghe were entrusted with making arrangements for the swearing in ceremony. All those concerned were of opinion that the appointment of a JHU member as a Cabinet minister was an achievement for the JHU.