Ranil’s panacea for settling differences

  • Second dpty. Leader for UNP
  • President cuts short Nepal tour after Lahore attack
  • Bogols assures Pakistan of Lanka’s friendship

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa were on a three-day official tour of Nepal when they learned that the Sri Lankan cricket team had come under attack in Lahore during their second test match against Pakistan last Tuesday. The President began the second day of his visit by travelling to Anandakutti Bihar, a Buddhist temple situated in Swoyambhu, a short distance from Kathmandu. The First Couple undertook religious observances at the ancient Buddhist shrine and offered alms to the priests of the temple.

It was while the Presidential delegation was touring the temple that the mobile telephone of A.B. Lalith, one of the journalists travelling with the delegation, received a text message saying that the Sri Lankan cricketers had been attacked in Lahore. Lalith immediately informed the President about the news he had received. Upon hearing of the attack, President Rajapaksa immediately cancelled the rest of his schedule for the day and headed back to his hotel where he and members of his delegation tuned into BBC to learn more about the attack. In the meantime, Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake telephoned the President from Colombo to appraise him of the current situation.

Addressing Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama who was also part of the delegation to Nepal, President Rajapaksa instructed him to fly directly to Lahore in order to find out what had really transpired. The President then went on to cancel the remainder of his tour, including a visit to Lumbini and told his Secretary Lalith Weeratunge to make immediate arrangements to return to Sri Lanka at the earliest.

Speaking to Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, former Air Force Commander Jayalath Weerakody, the President asked him also to fly to Lahore immediately in order to learn the condition of the injured players. Weerakody who is based in Islamabad was provided with a Pakistani Air Force aircraft to fly the 470 kilometres to Lahore.

Minister Bogollagama however was unable to secure a special plane and was forced to fly the normal route from Kathmandu to Bahrain from where he caught a flight to Karachi and subsequently flew domestic to Lahore. By the time he reached Lahore, it was past 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

President Rajapaksa had instructed Sports Minister Lokuge to make arrangements to send a special plane to transport the Sri Lankan players back to the Island as soon as possible.

Since the President was originally scheduled to leave Kathmandu on Wednesday afternoon, the special Sri Lankan airlines aircraft to fly him back home was to be dispatched on Wednesday morning. However, with the President having cut short his visit, a special aircraft had to be flown to Kathmandu on Tuesday instead. Since the special aircraft had to fly over Indian air space in order to bring the President back home, permission had to be obtained from the Indian government for this purpose. However, since this authorisation took over three hours to obtain, the President finally left Kathmandu around 7 p.m. and returned to Colombo at 11 p.m.

Meanwhile, the President’s special envoy to Islamabad Minister Bogollagama held discussions with Pakistani President Asif Al Zadari, Prime Minister Gilani, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Shah Mahmoud and Prime Ministerial Advisor, Rehman Malik. At the discussions, the Pakistani President expressed his apologies to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister about what the Sri Lankan cricket team had to face in Lahore. President Zadari had also telephoned President Rajapaksa previously to apologise for the attack on the Sri Lankan team.


The Pakistani President and Prime Minister assured Minister Bogollagama that the perpetrators of the attack on the cricket team would be found and brought to justice as soon as possible. Minister Bogollagama in turn assured the Pakistani leaders that this incident would in no way mar relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka who have long been friends in the region.

During the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 which took the lives of some 40,000 Sri Lankans, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in London on holiday. Despite the crisis in her country, the President only returned to the Island several days after the disaster. At the time, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa held the fort and commanded the relief operations on behalf of his government.

Many people praised President Rajapaksa’s decision to cut short his tour of Nepal and return to the Island upon hearing about the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. President Rajapaksa also spoke to Nawaloka Hospital Director Jayantha Dharmadasa on the telephone early on Wednesday morning and instructed him to provide the cricketers receiving treatment at the hospital the best possible facilities and services. The President also spoke to Sri Lankan cricket Skipper Mahela Jayawardane, Deputy Captain Kumar Sangakkara and Spin Bowler Muttiah Muralidharan to inquire after their health. During his conversations with the players, the President is reported to have thanked the three world class cricketers for keeping Sri Lanka’s honour intact when they issued statements to the media soon after the incident.

Meanwhile, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and MP Ravi Karunanayake also visited the players who were receiving treatment at the Nawaloka Hospital to inquire after their condition.

Ranil under fire

Sparks flew at the UNP parliamentary group meeting last week, when a majority of MPs present called for current UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down from office and hand the party over to a person more in touch with the voters. Wickremesinghe however, in usual form, maintained stoic silence and in the end, appointed a four-member committee headed by Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and comprising, Tissa Attanayake, John Amaratunge and Kabeer Hashim to study the grievances of those who were calling for a change in leadership in order to determine whether they merited action.

The four member committee invited UNP members who wanted Wickremesinghe to step down to come before them at the Opposition Leader’s office last week and state their case. However, the chief protagonists of the rebel group demanding the ouster of Wickremesinghe declined to come before the committee, saying it was just another ruse by the UNP Leader to buy time and eventually sweep the issues under the carpet once more. Johnston Fernando, Jayalath Jayawardane, Thalatha Athukorale, Lakshman Seneviratne and Dayasiri Jayasekera boycotted the sessions.
Despite the UNP Leader’s moves to stifle the rebel movement however, it is fast proving impossible to do. Of the paltry 42 UNP MPs remaining with the party, only around 10 parlaimentarians are still in favour of Wickremesinghe remaining party leader. These include, Tissa Attanayake, Vajira Abeywardane, Lakshman Kiriella, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Sagala Ratnayake, Renuka Herath, Palitha Rangabandara, Gayantha Karunathilake and Ravi Karunanayake.

Staying on the sidelines of the leadership debate so far are John Amaratunga, Joseph Micheal Perera and Sajith Premadasa.

Wickremesinghe’s new strategy

Now realising that a majority of his parliamentary group is moving against him, Wickremesinghe has commenced a separate effort to win over members of provincial councils and local government bodies.
To this end, last Monday, Wickremesinghe summoned UNP candidates standing for election in the Western Province to Sirikotha for a meeting. Karu Jayasuriya, Ravi Karunanayake, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Joseph Micheal Perera and John Amaratunge were also present at the meeting. Wickremesinghe told the candidates that the media was publicising a leadership struggle within the UNP and warned them that such rumours could disrupt the Western Provincial election campaign.

WPC candidate M.J.M. Muzammil who expressed his views said that Wickremesinghe should remain the leader of the UNP. “The Opposition has been weakened by the fact that its membership is more preoccupied with creating a perception in the country that the Leader must be ousted instead of focusing on taking a stand against the government as a good opposition is supposed to do. At a time of an election especially, raking up these perceptions through the media could totally disrupt the polls campaign. Ranil Wickremesinghe should continue as party leader. This should not change,” Muzammil recommended and all the candidates present unanimously agreed to the proposal.

Continuing his strategy, Wickremesinghe also summoned North Western Provincial Councillors to Sirikotha last Friday (6). The UNP Leader is also in the process of summoning UNP parliamentarians individually to discuss things with them. Accordingly on March 3, Wickremesinghe summoned a MP from Matale and informed him that he was going to reform the party. Wickremesinghe informed the MP that as part of his reforms process he would create a second Deputy Leader position within the party and this would be given to Ravi Karunanayake. In addition, an assistant leader would also be appointed and Vajira Abeywardane will be given the post. The Matale MP then inquired why Hambantota MP Sajith Premadasa had not been considered for any of the positions. Wickmesinghe responded that Premadasa rarely participated in parliamentary sessions and he was furthermore not an active member of parliament.

New positions

On the other hand, Wickremesinghe said, Karunanayake was an extremely vociferous member of Parliament and was active within the legislature on anti-government issues.

Wickremesinghe has also summoned Karunanayake to give him the good news. When Karunanayake questioned why he was to be given the deputy leader post when Jayasuriya had already been appointed to the position, Wickremesinghe explained that this would be a second deputy leader position. “If I want, I can appoint even three deputy leaders,” Wickremesinghe is reported to have told Karunanayake.

Wickremesinghe then summoned Vajira Abeywardane and informed him that he would be appointed Assistant Leader of the party in lieu of his service to the UNP. However, Abeywardane had opposed this saying that he would prefer if he was appointed to a position equal to that of Karunanayake, instead of being appointed to a position inferior to that of the Kotte MP.

Learning of these unilateral moves by Wickremesinghe, the party’s rebel group has decided to commence a grassroots movement to get the party leader ousted by holding meetings with district level organisers. It is also learnt that this group has decided that it will no longer carry out orders issued by Wickremesinghe. As part of this strategy, the group of MPs boycotted the parliamentary debates on the extending the emergency regulations, the CEB bill and another financial bill last week. Although the debate was open for the Opposition to criticise the Government’s proposed bills, the quorum bell in Parliament had to be rung five times on Thursday because the chamber was virtually empty of MPs during the debates. It is learnt that the rebel group has decided that if the leadership change is not affected soon, they will break from the party and conduct themselves as an independent group in the opposition.

Campaigning in full gear
With the Western Provincial Council elections drawing nearer, the main political party campaigns are gathering momentum. The UPFA has appointed Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to head the party’s campaign committee which also includes Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha, Maitripala Sirisena and Dulles Alahapperuma. The campaign rallies and meetings to be attended by the President and the Prime Minister are also decided by this committee.

The UNP has appointed a similar committee headed by Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and comprising John Amaratunge, Joseph Michael Perera Tissa Attanayake, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. This committee has decided that the campaign would include about 1000 small rallies within the Western Province ahead of the poll date. UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is also taking a more active leadership role in this election, Sirikotha sources claim, adding that the Leader was also hoping to attend a great many more rallies for this election. The UNP Committee hopes to make the cost of living, the country’s economic crisis and the need for relief to be provided to the people the main theme of this election.

Even as the two main parties gear up for the campaign activities, the candidates of both parties are fathoms deep into their battles for preferential votes. The fact that this is a long campaign culminating only on April 25 has become a problem for candidates who have minimal resources. However, the richer candidates have no such issues.

The UPFA has declined to nominate its Chief Ministerial candidate for the Western Province. However, newspaper magnate Thilanga Sumathipala, Gampaha District Leader Prasanna Ranatunge and former Chief Minister Reginald Cooray has already commenced their campaigns to be the government pick.

Certain candidates of the two main parties have banded together in threes, the number of preferential votes available on a single ballot paper, and decided to campaign together. These candidates are promoting their three candidate numbers on a single propaganda leaflet and are also organising combined rallies. Other candidates have decided to campaign throughout a district, prompting an angry reaction from those who have confined their campaigns to their electorates only.

Since posters and cut-outs are prohibited under election regulations, many candidates have purchased advertising space in newspapers and air time on radio and TV channels for their propaganda. It is learnt that some candidates have already reserved space in newspapers for the final week of campaigning.

Several candidates and their supporters have also commenced house to house campaigning.