This is my Nation  


UNP in political tangle over Moon report

There is only one issue dominating the political headlines these days and that is the report released by the panel appointed by United Nations Secretary (UN) General Ban Ki- moon to ‘probe’ the final stages of the Eelam war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The potential diplomatic consequences of the report are many and they are dealt with elsewhere in today’s issue. However, the report appears to be creating considerable dissension in the local political landscape as well and that is a matter of concern because this is a national issue, not a petty political dispute.
Of those who have got themselves into a political tangle, the opposition United National Party (UNP) appears to be in the worst possible dilemma, not knowing whether it should oppose the report unequivocally or express their reservations in less strident tones.

Some UNP ‘spokesmen’ such as parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera were quite quick to suggest that this is an issue on which the government and the opposition should speak with one voice. This week, respected lawyer and MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakse expressed similar sentiments.
Others in the UNP however have been more circumspect. Co-deputy leader Sajith Premadasa has voiced his opposition to the report, but linked it to the release of jailed former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. Lakshman Kiriella has called for an ‘internal inquiry’ into the charges.

What is clear from all this is that the UNP is grappling between extending unqualified support to the government and wondering whether it would stand to gain if the political leadership of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is endangered in any way as a result of a potential war crimes probe.
Faced with this quandary, the UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe this week bought some time using a ruse that is only too familiar to those in the UNP: appointing a ‘committee’, to be headed by former civil servant Bradman Weerakoon.

We are not for moment disputing Weerakoon’s credentials here. Weerakoon served nine Prime Ministers in this country with dignity and distinction and his integrity is not in question. However, we need to question why he should be called upon to advise the UNP at all.
Has the major opposition political party reached such a state of inertia that it needs a retired civil servant - albeit a distinguished one - to advise it on what stance it should adopt on a matter of crucial national importance? Or, is the UNP simply dilly dallying until the critical hour passes?

Ranil Wickremesinghe lost two presidential elections - in 1999 and 2005 - because he was tainted with the ‘Tiger’ label. That may have been an unfair tag to christen him with, but the fact remains that some of his political decisions did nothing to allay those concerns in the average voter’s mind.
The ceasefire with the LTTE was a case in point. While it lasted and while the guns remained silent, Wickremesinghe was hailed as the hero who finally outsmarted Velupillai Prabhakaran and trapped him in the international safety net.
However, when Prabhakaran reneged on his end of the bargain, Wickremesinghe became a traitor overnight and was the villain of the piece. The propagandists of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led-coalition saw to that and the rest is history.

The aftermath of that is Wickremesinghe’s current plight, where he is desperately trying to reinvent himself in the eyes of the Sri Lankan public at a time when even his stranglehold on the UNP has been put to the test and he struggles to retain control over the party.
Even so, the internal divisions within the UNP that came to the fore during the recent leadership struggle seems to have taken their toll: even on national issues, the UNP is now speaking in several voices, each representing a faction within the UNP, trying to outsmart not the government, but rival factions!
It also appears that Wickremesinghe - having fathered the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE - at least ideologically subscribes to the theory that if human rights abuses were committed in the last stages of the Eelam war, the alleged perpetrators should be dealt with.

What Wickremesinghe fails to realise is that the war crimes allegations have now become an emotive issue for the Sri Lankan public. The average voter is prepared to cast aside political differences and support President Rajapaksa at least - if not the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) - on this issue.
Whatever the faults of the UPFA, its singular achievement of ridding the country of terrorism is still fresh in the minds of the public - as evidenced by the record mandates received by Rajapaksa and the UPFA at the presidential and general elections held last year.

With the President being called upon to explain his conduct by the Moon panel which is egged on by a hostile western bloc of nations, his popularity in the electorate can only rise. He is too smart a politician not to realise this and the UPFA is too well oiled a political machine to let such an opportunity slip by.
The least Wickremesinghe and his UNP can do in such circumstances is to announce that it would support the government unconditionally on this issue and jump on the patriotic bandwagon. Unfortunately, the UNP is instead trying to read the small print in the UN report and attempting to prevaricate.

If, in the final analysis President Mahinda Rajapaksa does emerge unscathed after all this hullabaloo - and that seems to be the most likely outcome anyway - one can be certain that the UPFA propagandists will see to it that Wickremesinghe and the UNP will be roasted for their sitting-on-the-fence approach.
They will be labeled traitors once again for not supporting the nation when its war heroes were being threatened internationally and there will be a sense of déjà vu which the ruling party will try to cash in on, even if major national elections are at least five years away.

It is still not too late for the UNP to salvage some credibility from the political mess it has got itself into. In the coming days, anti-Moon sentiment will be on the rise and the UNP could still throw its weight behind this tidal wave of dissent. But the big question is, does it want to do so?