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Economic war at doorstep

Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse

Whilst the two major parties were generally busy with the forthcoming Western Provincial Council elections last week, other issues took centre stage. More of that later.

For the ruling UPFA it is a case of the incumbent President winning it for the coalition. Mega spenders (heaven knows where the money comes from) were vying for space on the walls of the Western Province apparently trying to convince voters that he/she has more money than the rest and therefore has to be more popular and also therefore, has to be elected through the largest manapey. The big spenders tend to win and are almost all from the ruling UPFA, and in a country which supposedly has a high literacy rate, this formula seems to work like magic election after election!

For those candidates of the UNP it is a different story - having to trudge from house to house canvassing for support - the result of years in opposition. Little or no financial support will be available to candidates from the opposition as they are of little use to 'funders' who more often than not require quick returns on their 'investments.'

UNP's blues

Meanwhile the eight member committee appointed by the UNP to discussreforms to be proposed in regard to the powers that should be vested with the party leadership and the necessity to create a new post, met for the first time on Wednesday (18) morning in parliament.

Committee members Tissa Attanayake, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera with John Amaratunge representing the Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were present at the meeting.  The possibility of Wickremesinghe being appointed the party's senior leader whilst deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya being appointed as the party leader, was discussed at the meeting.

The UNP's four decision making bodies - the party convention, national executive committee, political affairs committee and the working committee as per the party constitution have to ratify any decisions made by the committee on party reform.

The committee which met last week, it is learnt, has made the following recommendations. 1. Wickremesinghe should preside at the national convention, 2. Wickremesinghe should preside at the national executive committee, 3.Wickremesinghe cannot preside at the political affairs committee. All decision-making powers to be vested with the political affairs committee including decisions made by the party leader and 4. Wickremesinghe would not be permitted to sit at the working committee. There, however was no agreement on this issue within the committee.

On Friday (20) night, with Wickremesinghe's approval, the committee met with President's Counsel Shibly Aziz to discuss the constitutional changes required to accommodate the recommendations. During this meeting, Wickremesinghe had made a telephone call and said his powers to preside at the working committee be retained.

The committee next met on Monday (23) and the members decided to agree to Wickremesinghe's request to preside at the party's working committee.

Following party tradition, that of any committee proposal being presented to the working committee should be presented as a note from the party leader, Attanayake prepared a note to be handed over to Wickremesinghe on the proposals to be presented to the working committee members that evening.

Signed letter

Meanwhile 20 members who gathered at UNP MP Cader's residence had signed a letter. This was a proposal to appoint S.B. Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa as assistant leaders of the party. However the letter that reached Sirikotha had only Premadasa's name in it. Ravindra Samaraweera objecting to the letter questioned the plight of the rest of the members who had not signed the letter. There are 80 members in the UNP's working committee including 42 parliamentarians.

Speaking against the clear division created in the party, Samaraweera said that 40 odd UNP parliamentarians joined the government due to such issues. He added that calls made to the party leader to prevent Jayasuriya and 17 UNPers from defecting to the government were ignored.

Ranjith Madduma Bandara told the working committee that Vajira Abeywardena's statement had proved that there were only 20 members supportive of Wickremesinghe in the working committee and that it was an embarrassment. Dayasiri Jayasekera requested the party leader to read the names of the 20 members who had signed the letter, but Wickremesinghe had remained silent.

During this discussion it was revealed that one of the members in the eight member committee, Renuka Herath had also signed the letter. Several members at the working committee expressed displeasure at Herath's decision to sign the letter given that she was also a member of the eight member committee.

Lakshman Seneviratne then posed a question to the party leadership that shocked the rest of the members. He questioned as to the fate of the funds collected by selling the party's printing press to businessman Joel Selvanayagam. He said that the printing press given by Sirisena Cooray was to be used to print the party's official paper, Siyarata, but the press was later sold to Selvanayagam for a sum of Rs. 40 million.


Seneviratne asked working committee members Bodhi Ranasinghe and Irwin Weerakkody who were members of the board at the time to respond to the question. MP Mohomed Maharoof too agreed that the printing press was sold for Rs. 40 million and that the fate of the money was unknown by the party members.

National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake said "You appointed the eight member committee and the proposals were approved by you. Therefore, why are you opposing the proposals now?" MP John Amaratunge then said that the matter could be resolved by calling for a vote. Going against party tradition, a vote was to be called to approve the proposals. This did not materialise.

Wickremesinghe then went to another room in Sirikotha and called Dilip Wedaarachchi, Ranjith Aluvihare, P. Harrison, Gayantha Karunathileka and Champika Premadasa inside and asked one of them to propose Sajith Premadasa's name as an assistant leader of the party. When the meeting reconvened, Wedaarachchi proposed Premadasa's name as the party's senior assistant leader. Rosy Senanayake seconded the proposal.

Angry response

Hearing Premadasa's name being proposed to the post, Ravi Karunanayake angrily asked if the members have been spending hours discussing the party's issues just to propose Premadasa's name. Karunanayake objected to Premadasa's name saying he had not acted for the benefit of the party.

"In that case, I will propose S.B. Dissanayake's name for the post," he said. Cader seconded the proposal.

Dayasiri Jayasekera, critical of the way the meeting turned out, said Wickremesinghe should be the "leader of the party for all time" and walked out. Wickremesinghe wrapped up the meeting stating that his powers would be vested with the deputy leader and the working committee. These proposals need to be ratified at the next working committee meeting and also be approved at the party's national convention.

UPFA's greens

Whilst the UNP's problems were essentially internal, the ruling UPFA's problems were filtering down to the people and also affecting the government's international image. Bashing any external voice is now second nature to the government, all gung ho with the Tigers on the run. The international community since 9/11and the US led War on Terror has come down hard on the LTTE and this has led to their moderate stance on the government's military thrust to wipe out the Tigers. With their backs to the wall the Tigers must be kicking themselves for having stabbed themselves in the back by consistently shying away from meaningful talks on the core issues. Once the LTTE is driven underground their political strategy is bound to change.

In the meantime using a double edged sword, a story was planted in an English daily that the slain editor of The Sunday Leader was the go between for Tamilnet and a journalist who wrote a solitary article for the website in 2003. This journalist has since written to this newspaper a retraction which is yet to be published. The hand behind the slant has now been identified as being the JVP, a journalist with connections to the Defence Ministry, and a labour tribunal case will come to the fore in other legal fora soon.

With the global recession now affecting the economy on a much larger scale than previously anticipated the government has had to eat humble pie and seek the help of the IMF and even invite the much maligned 'lender of last resort' to once again set up a permanent office in Sri Lanka. The organisation packed up and left the island in 2007.


Strangely the likes of the vocal Wimal Weerawansa have gone mute on the matter and it has been left to the likes of UNP pole vaulter Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene to do the honours by even suggesting that instead of the US $ 1.9 billion requested from the agency, the figure could be upped to even US $ 3.2 billion.

Though essentially an attempt at damage control to save face with the local electorate, the figure mentioned by Minister Abeywardene has raised eyebrows among the international community, who after having provided the requested funds will be answerable to their own funders, the tax payers. More of this and donors will be hard to come by even as the government goes its merry way splashing billions on unproductive ventures.

One such is Mihin Air. The directors of SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Air together with Treasury officials met at Temple Trees on March 26 evening to iron out the terms of a wet lease of an aircraft by the former to the budget airline. With the existing lease of the single aircraft expiring on March 31, Mihin is hard pressed to find money to extend the lease or to acquire another aircraft.

Mihin mania

SriLankan Airlines was 'requested' to lease one aircraft but has insisted that Rs. 800 million be paid up front. With the Treasury scraping the barrel to meet public servants' salaries, a compromise was reached at this meeting.

A decision was made to pay Rs. 500 million immediately with Rs 300 million coming from the Shipping Development Fund and the balance Rs 200 million in the form of a bank guarantee backed by the Treasury. That a government hard pressed for money and scraping at the door of the IMF would be this cavalier in keeping a loss making entity afloat just to keep the ego of a political authority adequately inflated is a sure pointer to the style of governance that is in store.

That the biggest commercial operation of the government, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) is going through hard times seems irrelevant in the eagerness to maintain white elephants. SLPA container through-put has declined by 30% but staff remains at a staggering 14,000. Discussions are underway to request 2000 workers to stay at home with full pay in order that Rs 400  per day per worker currently being paid for their meals could be saved. The overtime payment too has remained the same despite the 30% drop in through-put.

It is in such a background of financial indiscipline that the ruling party is expected to romp home in the financially well-to-do Western Provincial Council too - on war gains again, but the quality of the candidates put forward by the UPFA reflects the style of governance that the people can expect from the soon to be elected provincial council. Lets not fool ourselves. These candidates have been selected by none other than President Rajapakse himself.




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