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Politics

   
 

UNP fights its own battles as UN battle looms ahead for govt.


Champika Ranawaka, Rauf Hakeem,
Ban Ki-Moon and Ranil Wickremesinghe

The crisis within the main opposition UNP has assumed gigantic proportions and it reached boiling point last Wednesday when the UNP's decision-making body, the Working Committee met.

The Sirikotha meeting experienced frayed tempers coupled with gentle coaxing while the beleaguered party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe maintained stoic silence when members issued him an ultimatum to announce a voluntary decision to gracefully step down, the period being three weeks.

The leadership dilemma of the UNP is not a new phenomenon. Frustrated by repeated electoral defeats and a pro-LTTE label the party has failed to shake off, if the leader now refuses to quit the party's top post, a devastating split is imminent.

While a rebellious group of legislators were gathering signatures calling for the convening of a special parliamentary group meeting to discuss the party's future, the Working Committee where the Western Provincial Council (WPC) election was to be the key topic, instead turned into a virtual battleground with several parliamentarians requesting Wickremesinghe to step down without causing further friction and faction within the party.

Collective agreement

Despite the turmoil within, the members collectively agreed not to divulge any information with regard to the discussion on the leadership as it could harm the party, especially on the eve of a crucial provincial council election.

"Sir, we respect you and your leadership. You have made a significant contribution to the party and held it together during difficult times. But now the people need to see a change and the party must evolve," said Kurunegala Parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekara who belled the cat.

It was Jayasekara himself who proposed that the details of the discussion should not be divulged.

Others like party senior Gamini Jayawickrema Perera too intervened to add that the members held Wickremesinghe in high esteem but the UNP deserved an opportunity to evolve. "Sir, you should step down on your own. Otherwise, some members might even feel compelled to resort to drastic action," said Perera.

Some members even predicted a stinging presidential defeat if that precedes a general, and further predicted it would devastate the party and destroy the political careers of the remaining UNP legislators.

Determined

Though he did not elaborate, Perera's claim had the ring of truth. Some of the parliamentarians are determined to see Karu Jayasuriya replace Wickremesinghe as party leader for an interim period and vow to sit as a separate opposition group in parliament if their demand is not met.

The group also conceded that Wickremesinghe should continue both as Opposition Leader and a senior advisor to the party.

Thought MPs spoke with feeling, they paid tribute to Wickremesinghe's long innings and his contribution to the party, with the majority speaking of the party's continued electoral defeats combined with the UNP's policy on the war causing serious erosion in the party base at grassroots level.

While Wickremesinghe maintained stoic silence and listened intently, speaking for the first time on the issue of leadership was Hambantota legislator Sajith Premadasa. The MP has come under severe criticism in the recent past for not being a team player and not speaking on issues of importance including the need for a replacement in the party leadership.

While signatures were being gathered for the letter urging Wickremesinghe to summon a special parliamentary group last week, some UNP parliamentarians openly critiqued Premadasa for not being willing to speak about the leadership crisis despite being one of the three people who would be direct beneficiaries of the action they had proposed.

Frustration

Premadasa spoke of the need for internal democratisation that led to defections and a deep crisis within and proposed that it was time for the party to look at new faces and begin to evolve before the Grand Old Party becomes a thing of the past. He was promptly backed by Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and Earl Gunasekera who spoke of increasing frustration amongst party cadres.

After the meeting, some of the members expressed their unhappiness not over Wickremesinghe but his right hand man, Malik Samarawickrama. Some MPs openly faulted Samarawickrama for creating cliques and causing dissention within the UNP to the extent that it added to the growing unpopularity of Wickremesinghe.

There were others who envisaged a much larger role for National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake. MP Ravi Karunanayake expressed the view that he could enter parliament at the next general election while R.M. Abdul Cader professed that Kandy would prove an ideal base for Dissanayake who could aspire for national leadership on a future date.

Now that the matter of an interim leader has been discussed, the group is eager to further pressurise the leadership.

The group is now agitating that UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe should appoint a leader for an interim period, namely Karu Jayasuriya and immediately step down allowing a new leadership to emerge thereafter.

The MPs are however confident that the beleaguered leadership may agree to an interim agreement and relinquish his powerful position in the party within a few weeks.

On a trip

The leadership crisis was not the only topic that was discussed at the UNP Working Committee last Wednesday. There was UNP Vice President Rukman Senanayake attacking the slain Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and both The Sunday Leader and its sister publication Irudina alleging the two newspapers caused the downfall of the party.

This diatribe did not find much support within the UNP given that other members had others concerns well over settling scores with a newspaper and a deceased editor. Suffice to say that Senanayake had been in the UNP for decades and made less than significant a contribution to the party founded by his own grandfather except to piggyback on the Senanayake name.

It is also pertinent to mention that such bravado was not exhibited when Wickrematunge was alive as he sought to blame a newspaper group for the inability of the country's largest political party to capture the imagination of the electorate time and again.

With the poll date being announced for the Western Provincial Council (WPC) election, political parties are now back at their drawing boards to strategise their victory. All the main political parties are now getting their electoral assessments well ahead of the April 25 election date.

As election fever begins to slowly rise in the province with many UPFA candidates already on the prowl, some of them have already launched their house-to-house campaigns and poster campaigns in a prelude to stepping up campaigns in the coming weeks.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) convened a special meeting to discuss the WPC last week. Having both its candidates defeated at the recently concluded Central and North Western Provinces, the JHU was playing on the back foot. Having reaped no gains last month, the party officials are now worried about having lost its original following before five years are out.

Critical view

At the special meeting last week, the JHU also took a critical view of the party's political future. But the meeting turned into a mini battle between the lay members and the saffron clad.

The lay members blamed the monks, all nine of them for not being effective politicians and for their failure to articulate the JHU's many positions in parliament. They further alleged that the monk MPs have done little to nurture their electorates to qualify for nominations. A JHU senior accused: "At least you all have not visited the electorates since getting elected for the mere purpose of delivering a sermon at a party faithful house."

This enraged the monks who in turn turned their guns on Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka.

They claimed that people voted for the monks because they respected the saffron robe but blamed the lay politicians for being divided and fighting amongst themselves, the reason for the decline of the Sihala Urumaya.

It was then proposed by some that hereafter only lay candidates should be fielded, a proposal that met with vehement opposition by the monks.

An interesting proposal emerged next, to assign new districts to the nine monk parliamentarians. The reasoning behind this suggestion was that the JHU priests were unpopular in their respective districts and the party should not run the risk of allowing them a re-run in their original electorates.

Shifting bases

It was then decided to shift Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero from Kalutara to Gampaha District. It was further decided that Champika Ranawaka should contest from Colombo and Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thero should retain his national list slot as the party leader.

It was none other that President Mahinda Rajapakse who wanted the JHU to contest the previous provincial council elections to test their popularity and is now pushing the party to contest the WPC polls.

Given the erosion in its party base, the JHU has misgivings about running for office in the decisive province with a much diluted vote base but feel compelled to demonstrate they are still a force to reckon with. 

The party membership was of the view that Udaya Gammanpila has an unblemished record and hence to field him as the party's chief ministerial candidate. He resigned his post of CEA chairman before signing his nominations and is now conducting a polythene free and environment friendly election campaign.

While the JHU was settling inner disputes and getting geared for the polls, former WPC chief minister Reginald Cooray who originally did not wish to contest this time nevertheless submitted his nomination papers.

But Cooray was informed by President Rajapakse in no uncertain terms to not harbour any chief ministerial ambitions. The cold war between Rajapakse and Cooray is an old one that stems from the belief that Cooray was a Kumaratunga loyalist who also played a role in the former president's drive for peace through a negotiated political solution.

Cooray supporters were however livid to learn that their candidate, the last chief minister has been reduced to a mere ordinary candidate. As opposition to the decision grew, the President's compromise formula was to appoint him as the Kalutara District Leader with Prasanna Ranatunge to head Gampaha.

Conspiracy

An undeterred Cooray has already commenced his campaign, not making any bones about the fact that there is an inner party conspiracy to destroy his political career.

Meanwhile, President Mahinda Rajapakse did not rest on his laurels either. He was not too pleased with the poll analysis following the two recent provincial victories and told his confidants that it does not augur well for a country to have over a million voters not casting their ballot.

The UPFA's nomination lists for the WPC were signed on Monday. Candidates placed their signatures at the Presidential Secretariat between 2- 6 pm except one. Thilanga Sumathipala signed his nomination papers at UPFA General Secretary, Susil Premajayanth's residence. Like many other politicians, Sumathipala too is guided by the stars and had an auspicious time according to his birth chart to place his signature.

The UNP nomination board too, predictably ran into a mini storm with three organisers from the province refusing to contest despite an earlier decision by the party to have all electoral organisers contest this time. 

The nomination committee had its plate full when Kolonnawa Organiser Karunasena Kodituwakku, Colombo West Organiser Bodhi Ranasinghe and Dehiwala Mt. Lavinia Mayor Sunethra Ranasinghe declined to run. The party leader and then nomination committee were of the view that if unable to contest, they should resign their electoral organiser posts. However, a final decision on this matter, true to UNP style, was postponed until later.

There were others who were not keen to contest such as Colombo West Organiser Rosie Senanayake. She was summoned by Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to the Cambridge Terrace office where it was explained to her why it was important that she contests. Senanayake later included her name in the nomination list.

After the finalisation of UNP nominations, the party appointed Lakshman Abeygunawardene as Colombo District Leader for campaign purposes, Kithsiri Kahatapitiya for Kalutara and Lawrence Madiwela in charge of Gampaha.

CM not named

Though the names of Karunasena Kodituwakku and Imtiaz Bakeer Marker were proposed for the top post, the UNP decided not to name a chief ministerial candidate. Importantly, both the main political parties have so far not named their chief ministerial candidates.

Meanwhile, the SLMC this time around has decided to go it alone. The SLMC leadership earlier proposed three SLMC candidates be given nominations. When the UNP discussed the number of slots that could be offered for the SLMC, the response was that it needs to be discussed with the SLMC High Command.

As such, the UNP nomination papers were signed in two stages. The UNP members signed their papers on Tuesday and the other parties contesting on the UNP ticket finalised their papers on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem informed the UNP leadership that the offered slots were not sufficient and announced the party's decision to go it alone.

With the UNP crisis and Western Province already beginning to generate much political heat, and fresh calls from the international community and the LTTE to announce a no fire period came the UN Security Council's decision to address the worsening security and humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka.

The island's Permanent Representative in the UN, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara learned about the Security Council report that was to emerge on Sri Lanka, and promptly informed President Mahinda Rajapakse as Mexico stood poised to call for action.

Diplomatic manoeuverings

With diplomatic manoeuverings taking place in New York and Britain, the government managed to stem some of the bad publicity it could have received internationally. 

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council issued a report dated February 26 expressing grave concern over the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka.

It significantly noted with concern that the Sri Lankan government has rejected calls by the US, UK, Japan and the EU for a negotiated truce and are looking for an unconditional surrender from the LTTE.

It added that the LTTE has indicated a desire for a ceasefire but are unlikely to agree to surrender their arms, a pre-condition of the Sri Lankan government for ceasefire negotiations. 

It further records that on February 6 the Secretary-General spoke to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse about the worsening humanitarian situation in the conflict zone and conveyed his strong concern about the heavy casualties, including children. 

On February 24 the Secretary-General called for a suspension of fighting to allow safe passage to civilians trying to flee the conflict, it adds.

The UN Security Council report added that in the last month, the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) appeared to be moving into a decisive phase.

"In recent months, the Sri Lankan army has succeeded in confining the area controlled by the LTTE to about 34 square miles. Humanitarian groups estimate that there are about 250,000 people trapped in the area and that the combination of its small area and intensity of the fighting was leading to disproportionate risks for civilians."

It added that civilians trying to leave the war zone have been targeted and recruitment of child soldiers is on the increase and the troops were indeed moving into the LTTE's last bastions.

Suggested action

The UN Security Council report listed among the suggested action, for the Council members to discuss the issues relating to protection of civilians in the conflict zone, encourage the Secretary-General to continue the organisation's effortsto assist in solving the humanitarian crisis and to urge preventive measures be taken to prevent further recruitment of child soldiers and the release and rehabilitation of those caught up in the conflict.

With the European Union also reviving its call for a truce on Monday, Sri Lankan diplomat in Brussels, Ravinatha Ariyasinha commenced further diplomatic manoeuverings to impress upon the EU not to make any attempt to breathe life back into the LTTE in its final hour.

Despite the UN, UK, US, EU and now the TNA that comprises Tamil legislators from the northeast joining the chorus, the government has refused to announce a no fire period. The TNA's position, strange as it may appear is to urge the government to announce a unilateral truce and then to mount pressure on the LTTE to consent.

Defence Spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella last week scoffed at the TNA proposal saying it was one that refused to recognise reality. " The position has not wavered. The government demands an unqualified laying down of arms without which there will not be any political discussion with the Liberation Tigers. In any case, it is a matter of time," he claims. 

As the 58 Division pushes forward in the Puthukkudiyiruppu area, it is the government's firm belief that the war is almost at an end. But what is murky is the future that lies ahead. While territory may be cleared, there appears no possibility of a credible Tamil political leadership emerging from the northeast.

At present, those who enjoy political office as well as others are mostly reformed militants or political discards or spent forces. The ideologically rich are already marginalized or cast off from the mainstream.

Post war, building a Tamil political leadership that can deliver results to the northeastern civilians remains the country's next hurdle. It is not a challenge that could be so easily met.


 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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