UNP’s internal conflict persists as Karu takes off on ‘Grama Charika’

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UNP’s leadership aspirant Sajith Premadasa intensified his onslaught on the party hierarchy last week, firing a barrage of accusations and opening up a new battlefront when the crucial party convention was only a few weeks away.
Although changes are on the cards, the rebel group and Premadasa were harbouring some doubts as to whether the convention would take place as scheduled.
The rebel group discussed at length the possible options available for the leadership to put off the convention and cling on to power, of deciding the fate of the UNP.

The sudden outburst of Premadasa was understandable, when he and his followers realised that there are ways and means of postponing the convention, citing party constitutional requirements.
Party stalwarts were, however, quite amused and perturbed by the sudden outburst thinking that this could be a pre-emptive measure to grab the party leadership come December.
December bears significance to the UNP since the annual convention is scheduled to be held in December after ratifying the constitutional amendments for party reforms at the November Working Committee meeting.
However, political analysts have their qualms as to whether Sajith is ready to take over at this point of time when the party is undergoing tremendous difficulties, externally and internally.

Drastic changes
It is evident that the government is hell-bent on putting the UNP on a flat spin for their own political advantage while internal squabbles intensify by the day with callings for reforms and drastic changes in the leadership.
Nevertheless, what is patently clear is that Sajith Premadasa is throwing challenges, one after the other, at the party leadership.
The party leadership in turn has managed to mitigate those challenges where Premadasa ended up without any success, a matter of sheer frustration for others who joined him with the ambition of making the UNP a political party that could make a difference. Yet, some others think he is in dilemma whether to take over now or later, since he wants to lead the party when it enters a winning binge.
The pertinent question is whether the time is right, or will Sajith himself employ delaying tactics to the utter dismay of the people around him, is a matter yet to be seen.
The new party constitution will not pave the way for lifetime leaders and the leader as in the past has to pass the test to get his appointment ratified by the party convention.
No doubt, Premadasa is keen to grab the leadership, but there are apprehensions on his part that it would spoil his chances to be the executive president at the next possible contest.

Europe tour
Premadasa’s latest attack on the leadership comes in the wake of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tour to Europe where the latter met British Foreign Secretary William Hague and later his meeting with Minister Erik Solheim, one-time peace broker for Sri Lanka appointed by the Norwegian Government.
Premadasa for some time now is making claims to the UNP leadership on the ground that Ranil Wickremesinghe and the other leaders at the helm of the UNP had failed to take the party anywhere closer to victory.

There are questions raised about Premadasa’s claims to the leadership besides his ability to lead the party.
The first question that arises is as to whether Premadasa has put his mind and soul together to take the party to the victory line in any of the recently concluded elections. The answer given by the UNP is in the negative.
If the young Premadasa is following his father’s footsteps, as being claimed by him, he then should set an example, working closely with the present leadership and by being the driving force behind the party to make it a more people-friendly political entity as in the past.

As the stalwarts in the UNP see it, this is a prerequisite before making claims for the leadership.
They cite the hard work and the examples set by his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa who had the patience and at times expanded his tolerance limits before making his claims for the leadership in the party.
It took many decades for his father to climb the ladder to reach the top. Premadasa senior at first was a keen follower of the late Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and subsequently played a pivotal role in winning the 1977 general election alongside J R Jayewardene and young leaders at the time, such as Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali.

This is not to say that Premadasa did not have any problems with the party leadership, but he handled all of them with much maturity and acumen that he gained through experience over the years.
Though Premadasa had his own problems with the leadership, the late Dudley Senanayake when the UNP was relegated to the opposition in 1970, he did not make any claims for the leadership of the party at the early stages of his career.

Citizens’ front
He first became the deputy minister of local governments in the 1965 UNP government of prime minister Dudley Senanayake and elevated to the position of a Cabinet Minister after the Federal Party left the government and the portfolio held by M Thiruchelvam fell vacant in 1967.
During the early part of the 70s, Premadasa formed the Citizens’ Front and challenged Dudley Senanayake several months prior to former’s death in 1973.
Following the death of Dudley Senanayake, there was a huge public protest against Premadasa and he learnt through experience that Senanayake was a much-respected politician liked by the people as a leader of the masses though he represented the higher strata of the Sri Lankan society.
The question posed by many strong UNP supporters is on the contribution made by Sajith Premadasa for the progress of the party.
One senior UNP member told this column that Sajith is a peripheral leader more than a national leader since he was not in the political limelight as a national figure yet.
But, at the same time, he admitted that he could make his way to the top, provided he works for the party untiringly on a national basis not confining himself only to Hambantota.
“He should work with the leadership pinpointing the shortcomings rather than clashing, and simultaneously work his way up, which would put the party in good stead,” the UNP stalwart said.
At a gathering held at the UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya’s residence recently, the subject of Sajith Premadasa was broached by many.
The request made by them was to seek Jayasuriya’s intervention to bring forth a settlement to the ongoing conflict.
It was the fervent opinion of many that Karu Jayasuriya, as a senior UNP member, could handle the problem diligently so that it would bring about a settlement between the two, the present leader and the leadership aspirant.

Wrong message
They feel that Sajith Premadasa is dwelling on the wrong track right now, casting aspersions on the leadership that would not augur well for the party.
In their view, they told the party deputy leader, that steps should be taken to diffuse the tension that would send a wrong message to the electorate.
They also pointed out that the recent attacks aimed at the party leader is uncalled for and reminded that the West and India are equally important for Sri Lanka’s existence among the global community.
India played an active and a pivotal role during the peace efforts made by the Norwegian Government in Sri Lanka and a scathing attack on the West therefore is unwarranted, if Premadasa aspires to be the leader of the UNP.
The peace process is not only a part of the political project of the UNP but also the present ruling party, especially under the leadership of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Premadasa’s recent remarks that certain people are carrying tales to the West against Sri Lanka was described by many as an extension of the government’s offensive against the UNP leadership.

‘Tiger proxies’
His sentiments on shedding ‘Tiger proxies’ from the UNP was also discussed at many UNP forums where Premadasa was seen as a person who has not acquired political sharpness and dexterity when it comes to issues within the party.
Political analysts believe such incriminating accusations should be unleashed at appropriate forums and not publicly, that Premadasa has opened floodgates for more attacks, and even his conduct as a member of the UNP is in question.
Such is the politics of the main opposition UNP. However, in the midst of all these, Deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya is making headway with his ‘Grama Charika’ programme aimed at re-inventing the UNP at grassroots level.
The UNP over the years due to lack of cohesiveness, saw the rural vote base eroding beyond redemption.
It was evident at the last general election where the UNP’s popularity slid down to a mere 27% of the total vote polled.
Karu Jayasuriya who has been tasked with rejuvenating the UNP base at village level has drawn up a comprehensive plan to take the message to the village.
Sajith Premadasa is also planning to launch a similar programme simultaneously in the same electorate chosen by the UNP hierarchy.
Sajith may launch his programme a day before the actual UNP campaign but Karu Jayasuriya in his wisdom as a mature politician has not rejected Sajith’s campaign.
In fact, he has told some of his friends he welcomed Sajith Premadasa’s initiative as part of UNP campaign to uplift the party.

Main problem
Most of the UNP members, however, are of the opinion that young Premadasa should guard his tongue when making statements, which could be detrimental to the party in the long run.
The main problem that plagues the UNP is the deteriorating discipline in the party that was at its best during the reign of former President J R Jayewardene.
Party leader Wickremesinghe should take appropriate steps to instill discipline among the key members that would trickle down to the general membership gradually.
It appears that many key members with leadership aspirations pulling the party into different directions at their whims and fancies and the party as the biggest political entity in Sri Lanka has gone through untold sufferings over the years.

Seismic change
There needs a seismic change in the UNP’s approach and its policies to offer an alternative to the present government, but most of the UNP loyalists believe that Sajith Premadasa is not the answer for UNP’s ills, right now.
They believe that Sajith needs a complete transformation from his “Bull in the China Shop Policy,” if he is to succeed some day or the other.
Yet, others point out that Premadasa who maintains a close rapport with most of the newspaper editors in Sri Lanka had never seen in a single protest or demonstration organised by the working journalists concerning their issues, this is to say that village politics is not the only vehicle to propel to the top of the political limelight.
They also point out that Sajith is selective when taking on the government and is more confined to regional issues rather than national issues.
He also has maintained a deafening silence when it came to the issue concerning Sarath Fonseka.
Premadasa may be having his own reasons not to be part and parcel of the UNP’s campaign to secure the release of Fonseka but he definitely has a duty by the people who advocate an opposing view to that of the government, while standing for justice and fair play.
Sajith Premadasa’s present approach seems to be of a conflicting nature.
The many supporters who wanted Sajith as their leader has already left the party and joined the government and key among them are Johnston Fernando and Lakshman Seneviratne.
Another popular figure in the UNP, Dayasiri Jayasekara, is also distancing himself from Sajith owing to policy issues and questions over his double bind approach to take over the party.
They feel that Sajith, though challenging the party leadership, at the same time employing delaying tactics until he reaches the pinnacle in politics that may take some time.

Independent probe
While the main opposition is trying to get out of a tangled mess following electoral defeats and subsequent squabbles in the party, the government too is in for a dilemma over its inadequate image-building measures internationally.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s remarks on the closing stages of the Eelam War IV and his subsequent call for a probe and an independent investigation would not augur well for Sri Lanka.
This is in spite of recent efforts by External Affairs Minister G L Peiris who was in London to brief the British authorities on the progress Sri Lanka had made after the LTTE was defeated.
Minister Peiris rejected certain photographs that have surfaced in Britain allegedly portraying torture victims as fraudulent.
However, British Prime Minister Cameron answering a question in parliament, stressed the need to have an independent inquiry on the allegations of war crimes.
Prime Minister Cameron made this assertion when Parliamentarian Siobhan McDongah raised a question on Sri Lanka.
The question and answer are as follows.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): As a former PR man, does the prime minister agree that no matter how much Bell Pottinger tries to spin the Sri Lankan Government, the demands for an international independent war crimes tribunal intensify as more evidence of alleged assassination and civil rights abuses comes out?
The Prime Minister: The hon. lady makes a fair point. We need to see an independent investigation of what happened. Everyone has read the papers and seen the TV footage, but we need an independent investigation to work out whether what she suggests is right.

LTTE lobby
It appears that the LTTE lobby is still strong in many western capitals and that there should be a concerted effort on the part of the government and more particularly on the External Affairs Ministry to put Sri Lanka in the correct perspective internationally. This is where the government could seek the help of the opposition too.
The opposition leader, being a well-recognised politician, could be consulted on such occasions as to how Sri Lanka could move forward leaving behind a heavy baggage of accusations levelled by the global community.
November is going to be crucial for the country when one looks at the calendar and the events thereof.
The President is scheduled to take oaths for his second term on November 19 ushering in a new era for Sri Lanka.
The other important events are the annual Budget and, the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister
S M Krishna.
Besides these the legal issues concerning Sarath Fonseka and the continuing university crisis will crop up from time to time, which will keep the citizenry occupied.

University row
The President appears to be sympathetic towards the plight of the university students and the issues concerning them.
Addressing the weekly Cabinet meeting, he said the government and its agencies should realise the sensitivities attached to these issues and work accordingly.
He also spoke of the facilities afforded to the students in the hostels and their inadequacies.
Some ministers consider the remarks made by the President are essentially aimed at Minister S B Dissanayake.
They wonder whether SB has fallen from grace as the Minister of Higher Education.
Besides the university issue the other matter receiving the personal attention of the President is the ceremony organised on the occasion of the assumption of office of the President for a second term.

It is likely that the President after taking oaths for the second time would spell out a national policy for the next four years after which he would go for another re-election in terms of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
There will be week-long celebrations associated with the assumption to the high office for the second term with tree-planting campaigns and launching of other development projects countrywide.

Politically, the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister bears significance with the government trying to introduce amendments to the 13th Amendment in a bid to reduce certain powers enjoyed by the Provincial Councils.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced in 1987 by the J.R. Jayewardene government aimed at resolving the ethnic crisis after India intervened to bring in a settlement under the Indo-Lanka Accord.
Any kind of tampering with the 13th Amendment would certainly ring alarm bells in Tamil Nadu forcing the centre to break a long-drawn silence they maintained before and after the Eelam War IV.
Besides, India may caution Sri Lanka on Chinese involvement in the country, especially in the Northern Province.

Even today, there is a big question mark over Chinese projects in Sri Lanka with two Chinese installations facing unexpected accidents; first in Karadiyanaru and subsequently in Norochcholai.

Innovative approach
In the circumstances, it is time to ponder over these matters and adopt innovative approach to address political sensitivities arising from them.
India is much important for Sri Lanka as the closest neighbour and an emerging super power. Hence, it is important to redefine Sri Lanka’s priorities in the region.
The Court of Appeal, meanwhile, referred the legal question concerning Sarath Fonseka’s seat in Parliament to the Supreme Court.

This is to obtain a Constitutional interpretation relating to the matter.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeal has asked for an interpretation of Article 89 that deals with disqualification or forfeiture of a seat in Parliament when a Parliamentarian is convicted for a criminal offence.
The court which was divided on the interim relief prayed for by the former Army Commander referred the matter to a fuller bench of the Court of Appeal.

While the legal battle was on in the Court of Appeal, elsewhere in Colombo a meeting was held to continue with the signature campaign to secure the release of Sarath Fonseka.
Speaking on the occasion, former chief justice Sarath N Silva emphasised that justice should be meted out to Fonseka.
In his opinion, Fonseka had been incarcerated for an alleged offence which is not considered an offence under the normal law.

He also stressed the point that Fonseka was a civilian when he was tried under the military law of the country.
The President made a direct reference to this, when delivering the convocation address of the Kotalawala Defence Academy held at the BMICH.
The President said the law of the land is applicable to all equally and forces personnel are no exception.
The President said the forces personnel must comply with the normal law as well as the military law.
He said that they could not evade the country’s civil law by being in the Army.
In the morning, hours before the convocation of the Kotalawala Defence Academy, the Army Commander addressed all the officers of the military intelligence in the rank of Major and above.

Intelligence unit
The army also launched a new intelligence arm of the military 5MIC, which would operate outside North and East.
In the meantime, Major-General Prasad Samarasinghe was appointed the Colonel Commandant of the Military Intelligence.
Major-General Samarasinghe, who was the media spokesperson at one stage, was also attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in Landon as its Defence Advisor.
He was also the Colonel Commandant of the Medical Corp.
Major-General Harsha Weeratunga has, meanwhile, relinquished his duties as a member of the Board of Management at the Water’s Edge and various other organisations in the Army prior to his retirement.
Major-General A L R Wijetunga has been appointed to the board of management of the Water’s Edge in place of Harsha Weeratunga.
The opposition and the government, though show their resentment to each other in Parliament, in a rare unfolding of events were seen talking to each other in a cordial atmosphere.

Constructive talks
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in Parliament to attend the Finance Consultative Committee, meeting made it a point to listen to the opposition members and their criticism that would help the government in the long run.
Dr Harsha de Silva of the UNP had a long and constructive discussion with the President on the economy and its downturn over the years.
He pinpointed the shortcomings and praised the government for its efforts to control the inflation at reasonable levels.
At this point of time, Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal raised a point on an article Harsha de Silva has written to the Daily FT newspaper criticising the ‘Mahinda Chintana’.
Harsha has apparently said in the article that ‘Mahinda Hinsanaya’ and ‘Vindanaya’ are in existence in place of ‘Mahinda Chintana’.

Harsha pointed out that he would criticise the government only on the economic front, the subject that he knows best and refrain from going into other areas.
He said the Central Bank had taken meaningful steps, worthy of praise to control inflation and stop printing currency notes, which is the main attribute to inflation.

He, however, pointed out that the Central Bank had failed in its endeavour to keep the exchange rates at reasonable proportions making things difficult to the exporters.
He said the currency was too strong and exporters find it difficult to remain in the competitive market. He also spoke on crony capitalism where some people have become filthy rich overnight and deals going through without transparency.
In short, it does not show the kind of picture that the government is trying to portray as far as the economy is concerned.