Plans to stage a comeback

Ranil to step down from party leadership

• Government for major revision of the Constitution
• India has asked Sri Lanka to provide early solution to ethnic problem
• Majority of UNP membership wants Sajith Premadasa elected leader of party
• Ranil will continue to function as Leader of the Opposition

Ranil Wickremesinghe, now faced with an internal revolt against him, has decided to resign from the leadership of the party, according to sources close to him. Meanwhile, he has reportedly told his political intimates that he is prepared to ‘step down’ from the leadership if the party front-liners have no faith in him.

Committee report
The five-member reforms committee headed by Joseph Michael Perera appointed to make recommendations for re-organisation of the party is due to submit its report to party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday. The UNP leader is expected to announce his plans for the future after receiving this report.
According to UNP sources, astrologers have said that the UNP leader is going through a malefic period and the main purpose of Wickremesinghe’s visit to India was to get a ‘shanthikarma’ performed at a well-known kovil in South India to counteract the influence of malefic planets.

It is learnt that only a few people had made proposals to the UNP reforms committee headed by Joseph Michael Perera up to last Wednesday. Of the 77 Working Committee members and 48 parliamentarians in the party, only 30 persons had made representations to the committee so far, a spokesman for the committee said. Before his departure for India, Ranil Wickremesinghe had exhorted the members of the committee to be very objective and impartial in making recommendations. “Put the interests of the party before those of the leader,” he had told the committee members.

At the last meeting of the UNP Working Committee, Wickremesinghe offered the post of Deputy Leader to Sajith Premadasa. Sajith, who declined to accept the post, said he would accept only positions to which he is democratically elected, not those offered on a platter by the leader. There was also a request by a majority of membership that Sajith be elected the leader of the party. Sajith Premadasa also took up the position that all office bearers from the leader downwards should be elected by the membership. The five-member reforms committee was appointed following the proposal made by Sajith Premadasa.

It was following this momentous Working Committee meeting Sajith launched a programme titled ‘Jatika Jeewaya’ to infuse a new vigour into the party’s District Organisations called District Bala Mandalas. The meetings of UNP District organisations are now being held on the initiative of Sajith Premadasa. Sajith, whose political activity had been confined to Hambantota, has embarked on the District Organisations revival programme as his stepping stone to national politics, his political intimates say. Under this programme, Sajith held a UNP Bala Mandala meeting in Minuwangoda recently. This meeting attended by former UNP MP and the current UNP organiser for Minuwangoda Edward Gunasekera was a great success, say informed party sources.

Bala Mandala blocked
However, soon after the Minuwangoda meeting, UNP General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake had asked the presidents of UNP District Bala Mandalas not to hold meetings in keeping with a decision taken by the Working Committee at its last meeting in view of the upcoming party’s National Convention due to meet in July. The pro-reforms group of the UNP describes Tissa Attanayake’s directive to UNP Bala Mandala chiefs not to hold meetings, as a stratagem used by Ranil Wickremesinghe to prevent Sajith and his followers gaining ground in the party.
This group points out that the Working Committee had not really taken a decision to stop the Bala Mandalas from meeting pending the National Convention and the statement made by Tissa Attanayake is false and misleading.

Ravi opposes elections
Meanwhile, another group opposed to electing members to posts in the party has emerged in the UNP. The pro-reforms group members say that certain party seniors who fear that they would never be able to secure a high post in the party through an election are leading this rival group. Meanwhile, Ravi Karunanayake, who is aspiring to be either Deputy Chairman or Assistant Chairman of the UNP, says that reforms should be carried out at the grassroots level and not at the hierarchical level. He opines that the proposed move to hold elections to select suitable holders for every post in the party would lead to dissention within the party.” If there are shortcomings, let us rectify them by a collective effort. Moves akin to cutting the nose to spite the face would only send the party to wrack and ruin,” Karunanayake had told a National English weekly last week. He also charged that some of those agitating for party reforms are people who had failed even to set up a party branch in their areas.

Ranil under fire
Amid the rumblings of dissent in the UNP, a pro-UNP TV channel and a National English Weekly have launched a blitzkrieg on UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. This TV channel has begun airing a series of programmes citing measures taken by the late J.R. Jayewardene to revive the UNP and restore it to its pride of place after its ignominious defeat at the 1970 general election. The National English Weekly, in the meantime, has begun questioning as to where the massive donations that have been made to the UNP fund during the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe have gone.

A group of UNP veterans including some party MPs had last week held a clandestine discussion at the residence of former MP Vijira Abeywardene. It is reliably learnt that the objective of this meeting was to work out a strategy to change the party leadership. A long standing loyalist of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Vajira Abeywardena hoped in vain to make it to Parliament from the UNF the National List when he lost at the April 8 general election. Disappointed and disenchanted with the party leadership, Vajira has now joined the anti-Ranil group in the party and looks forward to becoming a deputy leader in a reorganised UNP. He is reportedly now holding talks with local party leaders and well wishers with this aim in view.

‘Compromise group’
A third group of the UNP comprising 35 senior members including some MPs has recently held a discussion with a view to appointing Karu Jayasuriya as the party leader while retaining Ranil Wickremesinghe as the opposition leader. The participants had agreed to sponsor Sajith Premadasa as the Deputy Leader, Dayasiri Jayasekera as a Vice Chairman and Imithiaz Bakeer Markar as the General Secretary. The group had reportedly decided to place this proposal before the next meeting of the Working Committee.

While the party seniors are still engaged in intrigues and talks overt and covert, carrying a direct impact on his political future, Ranil Wickremesinghe returned to the island last Thursday ending his four-day private visit to India. Following his return, a number of party veterans who called on him at his Cambridge office had discussed with him at length the proposed party reforms. A UNP front-liner who participated in this discussion told this columnist that Wickremesinghe had decided to step down from the leadership and he would make an announcement to this effect in a day or two. “Ranil says that he, however, would continue to function as the Leader of the Opposition. He hopes to successfully contest the election to the post of party leader at the special National Convention to be held in July. He is confident that in case he seeks election to the party leadership at the party Convention, none would come forward to contest him,” the front-liner added.

Meanwhile, Sajith Premadasa and Dayasiri Jayasekera, who had been relentlessly calling for the ouster of Ranil Wickremesnghe, appear to have changed their stance now. They now say that there is no need for Wickremesinghe to quit the leadership immediately and it would be OK if he stepped down after another few years making way for a new leader. Sajith is not in a hurry to become the UNP leader either and he is prepared to bide his time for another few years, say sources close to him.
Given this attitudinal change in rebel leaders, the chances are that Ranil Wickremesinghe will be elected the party leader at the upcoming party Convention even if he steps down from the leadership at this stage.

Constitution revision
Government has conceded a foremost place on its national agenda to the task of carrying out a major revision of the Constitution judging by the public statements being made by some senior ministers these days. External Affairs Minister G.L.Peiris, SLFP General Secretary, Minister Maitripala Sirisena, UPFA General Secretary and Minister Susil Premajayantha had made comments on proposed constitutional amendments during their public speeches in the recent past. Jatika Nidahas Peramuna leader Minister Wimal Weerawansa too added his comment on the constitutional amendments in the offing during a recent media briefing. He said that the government proposes to implement a constitutional amendment in three stages during this year. The amendment under stage one envisages changes to the Executive Presidency system. The system of Proportional Representation will be overhauled under stage two and a Senate will be established under stage three, according to Minister Weerawansa.

National issue
However, the minority political parties such as the TNA and the SLMC insist that government should submit proposals aimed at solving the national problem before going in for a revision of the constitution.
The minority political parties have also expressed opposition to the proposed constitutional revision. SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem says that in case the government is to go ahead with the proposed constitutional changes regardless, the minority community political parties opposed to these amendments would take a collective stand on them. The SLMC was due to meet the TNA to hold talks on this matter yesterday.

PR system opposed
The minority political parties, in fact, are up in arms against the proposed changes to the PR system of elections. They feel that they, the minority community parties would suffer a great injustice in case the PR system is supplanted by the Past-the-Post system. Says TNA MP Suresh Premachandran, “The removal of the PR system would pave the way for predominantly Sinhala governments where minority community parties would have hardly any representation. As for the Tamil community, they should enjoy the right to self-government under the provincial councils and an adequate representation in the central government. The removal of the PR system would not serve either of these two purposes.”
SLMC General Secretary Hassan Ali says that the TNA and his party are currently having a dialogue with the minority community parties and minority parties with a view to reaching consensus on a common viewpoint on this issue to be placed before the government.

India presses
India has asked the government to provide an early solution to the ethnic problem. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has emphasised the urgent need to address this protracted problem during bilateral talks he had had with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit held recently in Thimpu. Later the Indian government had got down a TNA delegation led by R.Sampanthan to New Delhi and advised them to accept the solution to be provided by the Sri Lankan government. The Indian authorities have provided the TNA delegates with a copy of the solution worked out by the Sri Lankan government pointing out that it would not go beyond the 13th Amendment.

Ranil-Krishna talks
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was on a visit to India last week, had reportedly held talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. They had, according to sources, exchanged views on the ethnic problem.
However, there are reports that the Tamil Diaspora is pressing the TNA leaders not to accept the Sri Lankan government’s proposals underpinning the solution to the ethnic problem in their present form. The Diaspora is also insisting that they (the TNA leaders) should urge that their longstanding demands including the right to self-determination be incorporated in the proposed solution. The TNA now being pulled by the Indian authorities and the Tamil Diaspora towards two opposite directions is reportedly in a state of indecision over their participation in the proposed talks with the government on the ethnic problem.

Meanwhile, speculation is rife in political circles that two TNA MPs and another two MPs elected on the UNP ticket would shortly cross over to the government. The Democratic People’s Front led by Mano Ganesan is expected to formally quit the UNF during this week. Prabha Ganesan from the DPF elected on the UNP ticket will shortly join the government, party sources said.

Pilgrimage muddle
The annual Hajj pilgrimage seasons for the Muslims the world over will begin soon. Sri Lankan Muslims in their thousands would visit Mecca in Saudi Arabia during this season. As a matter of practice, a Sri Lankan government delegation would visit Saudi Arabia every year well ahead of the pilgrimage season for talks with the Saudi External Affairs Ministry and the Hajj Minister regarding the facilities to be made available to the Sri Lankan Hajj pilgrims. In previous years, this customary delegation was led by Minister A.H.M. Fowzie on behalf of the Sri Lankan government.

However, sending two separate Sri Lankan delegations to Saudi Arabia this year has triggered a crisis. The origin of the crisis is to be traced to a proposal regarding the Hajj pilgrimage submitted by former UNP city Deputy Mayor Azath Salley who recently crossed over to the government. He had pointed out to the government authorities that the Hajj pilgrimage organisers are now charging Rs.450,000 from each pilgrim bound for Mecca, but this pilgrimage could be arranged with all necessary facilities provided at a cost of Rs.300, 000 per pilgrim.

Apprised of Asath Salley’s `low cost pilgrimage’ offer, President Rajapaksa had asked Salley to visit Saudi along with Deputy Minister Faizer Musthapha to make necessary arrangements to facilitate Sri Lankan pilgrims’ journey to Mecca and to ensure that all amenities are provided to them to make their stay there hassle--free. Later Salley had told the media here that he would lead the annual Hajj Pilgrimage Muslim delegation to Saudi Arabia this year.

By this time, a Sri Lankan Hajj Pilgrimage delegation comprising Minister A.H.M. Fowzie, Western Province Governor Alavi Moulana, President Hajj Pilgrimage Agency M.S.M. Farook, Director, Muslim Affairs department M.I.M. Navavi and Rizmi Riyal had already left for Saudi Arabia to attend to the preliminaries in connection with Sri Lankan Muslims’ pilgrimage to Mecca. In fact, it was to the members of this delegation, the Saudi government had issued Visas specific to the purpose of their visit and therefore, the Saudi embassy in Colombo had not issued official Visas to Asath Salley and Deputy Minister Musthapha. As a result, they had to visit Saudi on ordinary visas issued to pilgrims.

Fowzie-led delegation
Meanwhile, the delegation led by Minister A.H.M. Fowzie had held talks with the Saudi Hajj Minister in Jeddah last Thursday regarding facilities to be provided to Sri Lankan pilgrims.
The Saudi government normally issues visas to 2800 Sri Lankan pilgrims every year. However, Minister Fowzie has requested the Saudi Hajj Minister to increase this quota to 8000 this year and the latter had agreed to convey this request to the Saudi king.
According to reports reaching Colombo, Deputy Minister Faizer Musthapha and Asath Salley who were in Saudi Arabia had not participated in the official talks between the Sri Lankan delegates and the Saudi authorities. Deputy Minister Musthapha had taken advantage of this visit to go on pilgrimage to Mecca.