Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya
crisis within the main opposition United National Party
(UNP) has now reached eruption point with the party's
parliamentary group firmly divided into two. Yet, with
the decision to create a new post of senior leader and
the replacement choice of Karu Jayasuriya being accepted
on principle, a ray of hope has appeared on the horizon
for the Grand Old Party to settle the dispute.
was originally an intra party issue has now come out
into the open with all of its cracks becoming visible
and both groups showing no signs of relenting. And while
the battle for supremacy raged, there were other
developments, clearly engineered to discredit the
incumbent UNP leadership.
such was the Criminal Investigations Department (CID)
recording a statement from Gamini Abeyratne, a former
director of Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka)
Ltd. Abeyratne alias Taxi Abey was interrogated by the
CID for his alleged role in clearing military and
communication equipment on behalf of the LTTE when Ranil
Wickremesinghe was prime minister.
Wickremesinghe loyalists firmly believe that Abeyratne's
statement was recorded after all these years at the
behest of the UNP rebels working in collaboration with
the government to further destroy Wickremesinghe's name,
a charge the rebels reject alleging that this incident
would anyway have a negative impact on the party. Taxi
Abey, was a UNP supporter but has stronger ties with
Rajitha Senaratne, now crossed over and believed to be
working with the chief political strategist of the
government has recently commenced a special
investigation regarding dispatching high-tech
communication and military equipment to the LTTE through
customs during the 2002-2004 period.
Fine dining at Commons
Meanwhile, the backdrop for the kill was being prepared
when some 'reformists' met over dinner at Commons on
Sunday (15) night. The diners included Lakshman
Seneviratne, Ravi Samaraweera, Sajith Premadasa,
Dayasiri Jayasekera, Johnston Fernando and others. Over
a meal, they discussed how best to take on the
leadership and push for immediate reforms based on
urgent amendments to the party constitution.
cautious politician, Sajith Premadasa held the view that
a prudent course of action was to wait until the
conclusion of the Western Provincial Council (WPC)
election fearing electoral repercussions.
others promptly disagreed, claiming it would aid
Wickremesinghe to buy further time, a tactic they felt,
the party leader had mastered. "This is what happened
before the Central and North Western Provincial
elections too. We should commit the entire group to a
decision and ask for a secret vote to ascertain whether
the present leader commanded the groups' confidence,"
UNP leader got wind of the dinner discussion details and
realised that his popularity among the parliamentary
group was to be now tested through a secret ballot. He
called for a discussion with party seniors. This meeting
was attended by Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, Chief
Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, John Amaratunge,
General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and Sajith Premadasa.
Premadasa informed the party seniors that the time for
temporary measures was truly over. "Some firm decisions
should be taken and followed through. Or else the party
will go asunder," he warned.
Premadasa appealed not to prolong the problem by
delaying tactics, Wickremesinghe informed young
Premadasa that a decision has already been taken and
invited Premadasa to hold discussions with the seniors.
Premadasa also informed others that conducting any
ballot, be it secret or open would be detrimental to the
party and further embarrass the beleaguered leadership.
At this point, Tissa Attanayake spoke up, reminding
Premadasa that there was no provision for the
parliamentary group to arrive at such decisions or
conduct a ballot.
parliamentary group does not enjoy such powers. Not even
to propose that a motion be adapted to express
confidence in the leadership. That's a matter for the
Working Committee," he noted, reminding Premadasa that
his own father, President R. Premadasa went through a
similar problem as head of state and party leader.
Group meeting draws blood
next day, Monday 16, the rebels again met at a popular
restaurant, Peach Valley to discuss further how they
should work towards the goal of a new UNP leadership.
The group also resolved not to go soft at any point and
to insist on a new leadership. It was agreed that
Lakshman Seneviratne would bell the cat. This meeting
was arranged by UNP provincial councilor Gamini
Gunaratne aka Batta who is now under a storm over the
contested will of the late Anura Bandaranaike.
expected, the customary UNP parliamentary group meeting
turned into a virtual battleground. The group
traditionally meets on the Monday of a
parliament-sitting week, but this time there was a
group met on Tuesday while the House was in session and
it turned out to be a forum not just for political
discussion but angry exchanges. When the group
assembled, there rose Lakshman Seneviratne, a vocal
Wickremesinghe critic, openly calling for a replacement.
"The time is right sir, for a replacement," he said, and
was promptly seconded by another rebel, Johnston
stopping at that, Fernando faulted Wickremesinghe for
convening the group meeting on Tuesday, to which
Wickremesinghe responded that it was done to facilitate
those who were busy campaigning for the WPC election.
Intervening, party senior Gamini Jayawickrema Perera
proposed that both groups should try to adapt a neutral
position as the spill-over effect of the divisions may
prove disastrous as the party faces yet another
Buttressing this argument, Tissa Attanayake cautioned
that the internal crisis was now public knowledge and it
was the government that would benefit the most. "They
will take maximum benefit from our angry exchanges and
petty divisions. My appeal is that everyone should
protect the party's dignity," he appealed.
initial cordiality was short-lived when Moneragala
Parliamentarian Ranjith Maddumabandara cited precedents
where a secret ballot was resorted to elect an
opposition leader. He argued President D.B. Wijetunge
used the same mechanism to appoint Gamini Dissanayake as
opposition leader. "Lakshman spoke the truth. We can't
waste anymore time. We must see a leadership change," he
said, requesting for the conducting of a secret ballot.
Badulla MP Ravi Samaraweera was next. He claimed the
party is in deep crisis.
the rebels continued to argue, next to speak was Galle
MP Vajira Abeywardene, a known Wickremesinghe loyalist.
He encountered continuous disruptions by Indika
Bandaranayake, another UNP rebel. Abeywardene's point of
view threw a spanner in the works as he questioned
whether the parliamentary group was meeting that day
according to the provisions of the party constitution.
Casting doubts over the legality of the meeting,
Abeywardene opened a piece of paper, and read out Clause
8.2 of the UNP Constitution. "In the event the party
leader is not a Member of Parliament, a member has to be
appointed as the parliamentary group leader. If the
party leader is also a MP, invariably such person should
be appointed as parliamentary group leader," he read.
Next he referred to Clause 8.3. "This means, the
parliamentary group is bound by the decisions of the
Abeywardene calmly noted that the parliamentary group
leader with the highest number of parliamentarians under
his/her command is recognised as the opposition leader.
Therefore, the UNP leader was also the group leader with
the highest number of parliamentarians under his
command, he concluded. He endorsed Ranjith
Maddumabandara statement regarding the election of
Gamini Dissanayake as opposition leader.
that time, I was a Working Committee member. President
Wijetunge explained to the decision making body the
reasons for conducting a secret ballot. He followed the
same constitution I quoted. He (Wijetunge) was not a
parliamentarian and there was a newly elected
parliament. I voted against Wickremesinghe at that
time," he added.
further examples, he elaborated that the Lalith
Athulathmudali-Gamini Dissanayake rebel group opposed
the same constitution and were finally expelled using
its provisions. "If all of you are here as UNP members,
these provisions are binding on you as well," he noted.
Springing to his feet next was Vice Chairman, Rukman
Senanayake, a member who has only very recently found
his voice and displayed little political acumen.
Senanayake, who has regularly shifted electorates and is
currently treating Leader Publications and its Founder
Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge with contempt, demanded
that Wickremesinghe relinquish the top post immediately.
"What is this shameless act," he sniped, alleging
Wickremesinghe was taking cover under the party
Abeywardene intervened to add that a ballot was
necessary - stating the correct forum was the Working
Committee and not the group.
some uncharacteristic remarks was Sajith Premadasa who
identified Wickremesinghe as a leader who failed to
understand the pulse of the people. He also took
broadsides at those hailing Karu Jayasuriya as the next
leader as people who vilified the member following his
brief defection to the government.
Dayasiri Jayasekera was next. He first spoke of
speculation that the leadership was keen to promote Ravi
Karunanayake and Vajira Abeywardene to the second level
when the country demanded S.B. Dissanayake and Sajith
Premadasa be elevated to higher positions.
then turned his guns on Leader Publications and urged
the party to take a decision against our sister paper
Irudina for publishing "calculated untruths." "We should
find out the actual owners of this establishment and
canvass UNP supporters not to buy or read Irudina," he
thundered, and was swiftly aided by Ravi Samaraweera who
alleged that though Lasantha Wickrematunge was no more,
it was as if his soul reached out from the grave and
pulled the party strings.
knew that the late Wickrematunge harboured political
aspirations and he used the newspapers to that end. But
now he is not there but Irudina continues its diatribe,"
he accused, only to have UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe
defend the slain editor. Wickremesinghe noted only
Wickrematunge's newspapers provided the party with some
space to air their views and a man who had fought for
the media, justice and human rights should not be
ridiculed after his unfortunate death.
the fiery UNP group meeting was underway the government
moved quickly to take advantage of the situation. On
Tuesday morning, Non Cabinet Minister Jagath
Pushpakumara informed Speaker W.J.M Lokubandara that
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had come under
attack during a meeting inside a committee room. The
state electronic media quickly turned this into a
'breaking news' item, using Pushpakumara's statement
made under the cover of parliamentary privilege.
when Lakshman Seneviratne sought to correct the
information from the floor of the House, Pushpakumara
held his ground that a UNP legislator telephoned him and
informed him about the incident.
Post of senior leader
that case you must disclose the MP's name. I though you
had verified information," insisted an annoyed Speaker
as the Opposition Chief Whip Joseph Michael Perera
lodged his strong protest against the state media
maliciously and conspiratorially reporting untruths
about the UNP parliamentary group sessions.
Wednesday afternoon, tempers appeared somewhat calm. The
party decision-making body, the Working Committee met at
Sirikotha where a resolution to the beleaguered party's
raging conflict finally appeared. The apex body
unanimously decided to create the post of senior leader
of the party, in addition to the existing party leader's
post in the first attempt at practical power sharing.
Wickremesinghe is slated for the new post once a
specially appointed committee works out the modalities
and create a figurehead position with an advisory
committee is headed by UNP Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema
Perera and comprises General Secretary Tissa Attanayake
MP, MPs Lakshman Kiriella, Lakshman Seneviratne, Renuka
Herath, John Amaratunge, Sajith Premadasa and National
Organiser S.B. Dissanayake.
committee met on Friday at Wickremesinghe's Cambridge
Terrace office at 9 am to recommend the powers to be
vested in each of the two posts. The committee would
submit its report tomorrow (23) to the working committee
to be followed by the party's legal committee with its
learnt that post working committee discussions have led
to the suggestion by some quarters that Wickremesinghe
be removed from the working committee and be confined to
a mere advisory role. However, others including Sajith
Premadasa have opposed this position stating that
Wickremesinghe was still the party leader and decisions
should not be prejudicial or discriminatory while
insisting that the leadership be treated with utmost dignity
and respect throughout the reform process and
'Treat leaders with dignity'
topic also became a moot point when UNP legislators
casually met in the parliament lobby area. Sharing light
banter were Sajith Premadasa, Lakshman Seneviratne,
Johnston Fernando and Ranjith Aluvihare.
Premadasa held the view that Wickremesinghe's dignity
should remain intact irrespective of party decisions in
his favour or against. In the meantime, Gayantha
Karunathileka was passing by, and Premadasa questioned
Karunathileka on his views. The Galle MP quickly
responded that when Homagama Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman
Manjusri Arangala was also a working committee member,
what impression the country would get if Wickremesinghe
is stripped of that position while being the 'senior
UNP continued its infighting, personality clashes and
battles for supremacy, the result of these divisions
that are now in the public domain would become evident
in the WPC election results. Undoubtedly, people are
going to send a message to the party for the disunity
now being displayed. As such, the main beneficiary of
the Grand Old Party's inner struggle will be the ruling
alliance that has managed to quell all its divisions at
least for the time being. That if nothing else, is
the darkest clouds for the government are yet ahead and
it is the economy that will have to weather the storm.
Despite fast running out of money, Mihin Air is
continuing with the hope of SriLankan Airlines securing
and providing an aircraft on wet lease basis.
dues to SriLankan Airlines by Mihin is in the range of
US $ 1.2 million and the wet lease amounts to an annual
fee of US $ 8 million which the national carrier has
insisted be paid upfront. The Treasury is in no position
to accede to this with the salaries of government
servants due to be paid soon together with an extra
month's salary on account of the Sinhala and Tamil New
Year which means Mihin will be hard put to cough up the
cash to keep flying when the current arrangement with
the present aircraft lease is over. The main opposition
party the UNP being in disarray is a god-send to the
beleaguered government trying its level best to divert
attention as the country plunges towards the bottom of
the economic pit.