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 Spotlight

Govt's fight on the international front and UNP's internal battles


R. Sampanthan, M.K. Narayanan,
Mano Ganesan, S.B. Disanayake
and Ranil Wickremesinghe

Top Indian team calls for political solution

SB drives wedge in UNP and asks
 for national list slot

Ranil calls on party to unite for
fight against Rajapakse bros

EU Joint Ambassadors get inside
track on rights violations

Mano, Sampanthan detail culture of
impunity to EU  delegation


Politics on Sunday
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti


At a time when political intensity is building yet again as the country prepares for polls in two provinces, heightening the tension last week was the sudden visit of a high-powered Indian delegation last Friday morning which also gave rise to further speculation something was brewing in the political and military fronts.

The three powerful Indian bureaucrats, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, Defence Secretary Sri Vijay Singh and National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan arrived on Friday around 11.30 am by a special flight and were flown to the capital, Colombo by VIP chopper.

The visit by the trio who were to leave Saturday morning caused much interest while the official explanation being that they were here to discuss the logistics for Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh who is scheduled to arrive in Colombo for the SAARC Summit.

However, some were of the opinion that it was also the return visit to what was made by  President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga , Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, and Presidential Advisor (Political Affairs), MP Basil Rajapakse a few months ago.

Bogollagama's quote

It is also interesting that the sudden visit came days after Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama was quoted in the Indian media requesting India not to meddle in Sri Lankan internal affairs, a comment Bogollagama later chose to deny.

Interestingly, the delegation arrived in Colombo just a week after Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe visited India and met many an Indian leader and also briefed Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan who is considered the eyes and the ears of the Gandhis and Manmohan Singh of India. The delegation left the island yesterday (21).

It is also not without significance that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga too met Menon in India two weeks earlier and discussed the developing crisis in Sri Lanka.

And in Colombo, further to the meetings with the President, Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse, President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Basil Rajapakse, meetings were also had with TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, CWC Leader Arumugam Thondaman, and Minister Douglas Devananda while SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem who too was scheduled to meet with the high powered Indian delegation was compelled to give it a miss  having to leave for India on a personal matter the very day.

Official spin

Of course the official spin on the visit was that it was to discuss the SAARC Summit and Indo-Lanka cooperation but there is no gainsaying the intensifying war and the failure on the part of  the government to forward a viable political package featured prominently in the discussions.

The very fact that the delegation chose to meet with the TNA underscored the importance India attached to discussions on a political solution but what had the government worried Friday night was information that the Indian delegation chose not to meet with Wickremesinghe.

Having heard that Wickremesinghe had met with Menon and Narayanan in India the previous week and no meeting was scheduled during this visit even as a courtesy, speculation was rife at Temple Trees there was something cooking which would not be to the liking of the presidential palate. How much cause for concern the President need have however remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, at a time when the main opposition UNP is required to turn the search light inwards and unify all forces, cracks have begun to appear yet again. While Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe struggles to overcome the crisis that is dividing his party men and threatens his party's future, there is dissension within and a ginger group in the making.

Gearing the UNP

Given that the polls are drawing near, it is now incumbent upon Wickremesinghe to muster all strength and to gear the party to face the polls. Especially so, in the light that the government is prepared to do everything possible to ensuring victory and would undoubtedly utilise all of its resources to ensure just that.

While the opposition has its own share of problems to deal with, the government has its own devils to exorcise. Chief among them are the human rights issue and the GSP Plus issue. As such, last week brought in its share of embarrassment for a government that has condoned flagrant human rights abuses and committed some violations on its own.

Joint Human Rights Ambassadors of the EU, Arjan Hamburger (Netherlands), Jan Nordlander (Sweden) and Silvia Escoba (Spain) arrived in Colombo to familiarise themselves with the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and to specially focus on human rights offenders, effectiveness of the law enforcement mechanism regarding violations, child soldiers, disarming of para military groups and the security afforded to defenders of human rights.

While the ambassadors sought to take stock of the situation, the government hit crisis point over the GSP Plus issue yet again with the likes of Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama giving bad advice to the Head of State after the cabinet meeting that it would not really make any difference and what needs to be done is to give more subsidies to the apparel industry such as on electricity. The GSP Plus remains an unresolved issue as the country's reputation hits rock bottom in many aspects making Sri Lanka an outcast in the civilised world.

Rumblings

Meanwhile, the week commenced on a negative note for the UNP. Rumblings resurfaced within the party soon after the conclusion of the eastern provincial poll. Though the poll itself was flawed, the UNP's divisions emerged as a direct consequence of the manner in which the campaign was conducted and the role-played by some party members during election time.

The criticisms were many. It was alleged that the party had outsiders interfering with internal affairs and while some worked hard, some did not. Also, it was claimed that there were parallel units within the party doing the same thing.

The slighted members felt that the fault lay with Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and that he was dividing instead of uniting the party. For example, Kurunegala District MP Johnston Fernando is the member in charge of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS).  Though he is officially assigned to do the job, there was Dinesh Weerakkody, part of the UNP associated professionals and a business personality who had summoned a meeting with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) unions and addressed them at length.

Weerakkody has even called upon the unionists to drum up support for the party and to launch some agitational campaigns for which he has pledged support and financial resources.

Not only was Johnston Fernando not informed of the meeting and was naturally taken aback, he had to suffer indignity when SLPA unionists called him to inquire about the exact purpose of Weerakkody's meeting.

Interference by outsiders

This led members to raise the issue of interference by outsiders like Weerakkody who are associated with the party but are essentially not politicians. It is up to the leadership to bring the foot down and put the house in order so that members do not feel slighted or usurped, they argued.

Besides interference, members were also critical of some of the new organiser appointments. Several new appointments were strongly opposed and there was much dissatisfaction within the UNP parliamentary group that it intensified the growing dissension.

While this is not a new situation and every political party ends up facing dissension, defection and internal crises, they manifest more when parties are in opposition with the members' frustrations running high. But this is a situation the UNP must now control.

The frustrations eventually spilled over at the UNP Working Committee meeting last week which the party leader pledged to address speedily thus ensuring the provincial election campaign will not suffer as a consequence.

Spearheading campaign

Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe appears to be personally spearheading a campaign against  the Rajapakse brothers, a challenge that most UNP members shy away from, perhaps due to fear of reprisals, skeletons in the cupboard or simply to play safe with the country's most powerful family. Whatever the reasons are, there aren't too many UNP members who are ready to take the Rajapakses head on and challenge them on specific issues. Eventually, Ranil Wickremesinghe is left with the task and is taking the flak for the same.

As the UNP crisis deepens, it is important to evaluate the role played out by a maverick politician whose role many still find difficult to define. But not so, if one looks really deep.

That takes us back to the mass exodus when 17 UNP members crossed over to the government. The fact is that they used party reforms only as a shield and the alibi is now well documented. After frustratingly long years in the opposition, they used the reforms agenda to justify the pole-vaulting.

But the campaign to form a national government and to work with the government was spearheaded by none other than onetime SLFP General Secretary and defector S.B. Dissanayake. Putting his Machiavellian practices to good use, it is SB who instigated the 17 members to join the government. It was also SB who fuelled the campaign for serious party reforms to buy time until passage was cleared.

Close to Mahinda

As for the more ambitious Dissanayake, a close friend of  Mahinda Rajapakse, returning to his flock was not enough. Driven by a desire to direct the destiny of a nation, and fuelled by the astrological predictions that he would do so some day, Dissanayake not only created conditions for the UNP to suffer an erosion of power but also was instrumental in creating a leadership lacuna. This was his strategy to debilitate the party leadership and later claim leadership for himself.

Those defections are now history. But following the recent provincial poll defeat,  rumblings within the UNP grew once more. And now, a fresh 'ginger group' has surfaced and this group includes Lakshman Seneviratne and Johnston Fernando, two Wickremesinghe loyalists. They call for party reforms, prevention of outside interference and a more strategic approach to ensure election victory.

At the same time, there are others who are taken aback by the fact that some Wickremesinghe loyalists are now questioning the conduct of the UNP leadership using the Batticaloa election results. They feel it is unforgivable that a ginger group has emerged again, at a time when the party should be doing its best to consolidate itself.

In the meantime, SB was on a separate mission using the developing crisis to his advantage.  He was busy lobbying that he be appointed to parliament as a national list member.

His argument to the party was that if nominated and his appointment goes through, that would be clear proof of the fact that he no longer suffered from any civic disability leaving him free to reinvent his political career. This also meant that he could resign from parliament and run as the chief ministerial candidate for the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council. True to form, Dissanayake got some of his supporters to lobby his case.

SB's promises

On the other hand, SB was promising to back Lakshman Seneviratne and Johnston's ginger group to the hilt and showed much sympathy with their cause. In the same breath, he pledged support to the party leadership to overcome the inner crisis that had resurfaced following the Batticaloa election. To do this effectively, he said it was best that he be appointed to parliament.

In this backdrop, a number of UNP legislators convened a meeting to discuss party reforms last week. SB surprised them all by attending this meeting Sunday night.  He created the impression that some eight MPs were backing him and they too would support the rebels' cause of demanding party reforms. Dissanayake said that his group too would add strength to the ginger group's demands and help them achieve their objectives.

He was to urge the disgruntled members to speak out at the Working Committee ensuring he too would do likewise and later in the night inform Wickremesinghe through another confidant what transpired at the meeting and guaranteeing his full support to quell the rebellion.

The ginger group felt suspicious at this point for two reasons. They are aware of Dissanayake's close links with the President and are aware of his ambition to capture UNP leadership.

Focused on victory

At the meeting, Lakshman Seneviratne, Jayalath Jayawardena and Indika Bandaranayake  chorused their desire to ensure political victory for the party at the upcoming elections and that the reforms would be largely aimed at making the UNP a formidable political force yet again.

Dissanayake meanwhile was playing his double game to the hilt. He telephoned Ranil Wickremesinghe and pledged loyalty to him and claimed that though the UNP ginger group wanted his support, he would always remain loyal to Wickremesinghe.

And finally it is well known within UNP circles that Dissanayake has indeed tried to drive a wedge between the party leadership and party membership to consolidate his own position.

However, Ranil Wickremesinghe held a series of discussions with his legislators and organisers to strategise the campaigns. He called for concrete proposals. He also told his  group that Dissanayake would run for the top post in Sabaragamuwa. He noted that the UNP would have a special edge given the fact that the JVP too was running it alone in Sabaragamuwa,  effectively splitting the UPFA votes.

But the surprise here was something else. The very person, S.B. Dissanayake who has openly claimed that if he conducted the campaign, the UNP would have won the Eastern PC was not quite up to this challenge. He was seen vacillating and now, the UNP is learning at great cost about the 'SB myth' as a doer, achiever and political strategist.

Relaunching SB

However, Wickremesinghe was determined to politically relaunch Dissanayake. He held a special meeting at his Fifth Lane residence which was attended by Dissanayake and legal luminary, Faiz Mustapha PC. They discussed the issue of SB's civic disability to run for CM successfully.

Dissanayake contended that if his name appeared on the list, the retuning officer might reject it. But Mustapha opposed this and opined that a returning officer could not do so and there were specific grounds for doing so and this was not one such. The only option was to challenge the appointment much later through an election petition, he explained.

SB however continued to insist that he be appointed to parliament. He next had the audacity to suggest that he be allowed to fill one of the SLMC national list positions.  Two SLMC national list positions are still open after three SLMC seniors quit parliament to contest the eastern provincial poll.

At Dissanayake's insistence, Wickremesinghe did his bidding, and telephoned SLMC Leader Rauf  Hakeem. The SLMC Leader was unimpressed and said that he could not simply give up a party seat without consulting his party high command.

Upto old tricks

While SB tried to manoeuvre himself into parliament, he conveyed to Johnston Fernando that Ranil Wickremesinghe sent an emissary offering a national list slot to him. The emissary according to SB was none other than Shiral Lakthileka. The truth quickly surfaced when Lakthileka denied all knowledge or carrying any such message that proved once more, that Dissanayake was up to his many tricks in a bid to achieve his political ambitions by hook or by crook.

And finally, the UNP is seeing the light. The members are finally finding out the disastrous role played by Dissanayake in his lust for power with the man emerging as someone who tried to divide the party to secure a position for himself. In fact the enemy within.

While the UNP fights the enemies within and attempts to reunite as the provincial polls draw near, there is a new political face that is emerging in the UNP. Former Army Chief of Staff, Major. Gen. Janaka Perera is to run as chief minister for the North Central Province (NCP) and is likely to be appointed defence spokesman of the UNP shortly.

There are other developments within the UNP as well. Chief among them is a drive to form a broader coalition bringing together like-minded parties who could work together.

On Monday, soon after the UNP working committee meeting, Wickremesinghe convened a meeting with several party leaders. This was attended by SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem, WPF Leader Mano Ganesan,  Mangala Samaraweera and Tiran Alles. The UNP was represented by Wickremesinghe, Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Chairman Rukman Senanayake, Opposition Chief Whip, Joseph Michael Perera and seniors, Jayawickrema Perera and Renuka Herath.

The party leaders wholeheartedly agreed with the concept of forming a broad front that accommodates many shades of opinion. But they also insisted that such a coalition should  serve a purpose. Rauf Hakeem opined that it needed a strong structure to make things work.

Common symbol

Next spoke Mangala Samaraweera who raised the issue of a common symbol. He said all parties could  then enjoy equal status within the alliance whilst maintaining their independence and their respective party symbols.

But UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake was unimpressed. He felt that a common symbol was difficult to market at the moment. As such, the symbol is still a pending issue. However, already there is consensus the parties barring the SLFP (M) would contest together under the elephant symbol at the forthcoming provincial polls.

Interestingly enough, S.B. Dissanayake surfaces yet again. It was he who originally opposed a broad coalition claiming that many would oppose such. 

It was the very same SB who zealously canvassed to form a broad coalition named the People's Alliance (PA) in 1993 and to abandon the SLFP's hand symbol in favour of the chair, the common symbol of the rainbow coalition. Now he says all elections must be contested on  the 'elephant' symbol  with the intention being to isolate the UNP and ensure its defeat so that in the process Wickremesinghe too would get isolated and ousted from the leadership thereby paving the way for his ascendancy.

Meanwhile, some of the UNP defectors are now desirous of retuning home and the prodigals are engaged in discussions with two UNP parliamentarians, namely Ravi Samaraweera and Ranjith Maddumabandara.

Overtures

The defectors who have been making overtures to the UNP for quite some time but the UNP duo waited for the green light from the party leader to hold discussions.

But some are crafty enough to project their desire in a novel way to the President for fear of reprisals. The creative few have been informing the President that they would return because the internal crisis within the UNP has now reached fever pitch and it is politically prudent to return to the fold as there was every possibility of capturing the UNP reins.

Regardless of these developments and in a show of defiance, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, frontliner Ravi Karunanayake and Biyagama organiser Ruwan Wijewardene left for France today to attend an IDU meet.

But it is not just the UNP that is having bad news. The government too is placed in an increasingly uncomfortable position. At a time when the bigwigs are calling upon the masses to tighten their belts and not to demand salary hikes comes the announcement of  PC polls well ahead of time.

It did nothing to enhance the Rajapakse administration's image when  three human rights ambassadors arrived in Sri Lanka on a fact-finding mission.

On Wednesday, they met a UNP delegation that comprised Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ravi Karunanayake and Sagala  Ratnayake  to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation. They also met up with Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe on Thursday to obtain the government's  position.

Different perspective

In the meantime, they also met TNA Secretary, R. Sampanthan and WPF Leader Mano Ganesan to obtain their perspectives.

WPF Leader Mano Ganesan gave graphic details of the abductions, disappearances and extra judicial killings in Colombo and elsewhere, supplementing his statements with documentary proof and police records. He told the visiting ambassadors that the deteriorating situation was such that it was time to invite UN intervention.

TNA's R. Sampanthan told the visiting dignitaries that it was not just the northeast that suffered human rights abuses but the country as a whole. He explained that the situation has worsened  in the northeast following the outbreak of war. He informed that there was a breakdown in the law and order situation and there was no reduction in violence targeting unarmed civilians.

Sampanthan also impressed upon the fact that despite the number of human rights violations, none of the perpetrators have been produced before courts and sentenced indicating a culture of impunity, a matter that raised the eyebrows of the ambassadors.

Sampanthan it is learned, has also raised the issue of good governance. He spoke both about media freedom and given details of the number of journalists killed, harassed and threatened and explained that some were being detained without charges being framed.

Sampanthan had informed the ambassadors that due to the failure to appoint the Constitutional Council, the independent commissions have not being set up, paving the way for serious political interference. What's more, he had drawn their attention to the debilitated Human Rights Commission (HRC) which is already subservient to the powers that be.

Both Sampanthan and Ganesan drew a pretty bleak picture as they informed the visiting delegation that the government functioned with no respect for law and order and supported the prevailing culture of impunity which amounted to a total assault on democracy. The visiting dignitaries were finally left with the impression that the government's singular ambition was to prosecute war, irrespective of the cost, especially to the non-combatant civilians.


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