Daily Archives: October 22, 2006

Landmark SLFP-UNP deal

  • President meets Ranil to finalise MOU

  • Cooperation on key issues for two years but no portfolios

  • Divisions within division and agendas within agendas in UNP

Within minutes of a Tiger guerrilla suicide bomber crashing a heavily laden truck load of explosives at a crowd of Navy personnel at Digampathana, near Habarana, President Mahinda Rajapaksa learnt of the second painful tragedy to hit a nation that was already in mourning. Over a 100 sailors were killed in that second incident and more than a 150 injured. This came after the unfortunate deaths of more than 130 valiant officers and men in the Muhamalai debacle the previous week. Fresh computations placed the figure of the injured at over 600 at Muhamalai alone.

The President telephoned his brother, Gothabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary. A shocked and saddened President, who was already concerned by the Muhamalai encounter, wanted to know what had gone wrong. He asked why such a large number of Navy personnel were in one place along a highway. The latter was equally concerned and was busy on the telephone overseeing evacuation of casualties and ensuring new security measures were in place in the area.

President Rajapaksa’s troubleshooter, political strategist and Senior Advisor Basil Rajapaksa was away from Sri Lanka. He urged MP Dullas Allahapperuma to travel together with some colleagues in an Air Force helicopter to the scene of the incident as well as hospitals where the injured men were undergoing treatment. What Allahapperuma saw at the Dambulla hospital was heart-rending. Lack of beds had forced many of the injured, some with severe burns, to be placed on the floor. There were many young men from Kamburupitiya, his former electorate. More painful was the news that many sailors had lost their eyesight. The heavy explosion had cracked their pupils.

Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva, known for his jocular politics, and his grave sense of humour at times, remarked, that he had now got a new portfolio – Minister of Funeral Affairs. The team visited the scene and also went to the Kurunegala Hospital. By then JVP’s Bimal Ratnayake had telephoned Rajapaksa to tell him about what was going on there. Later, the team returned to Colombo to brief the President. He later got down to the task of asking Cabinet Ministers and stalwarts of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to visit the funeral houses of sailors and also see the injured in hospital.

Barely a day passed by. There was more bad news. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, Tiger guerrillas who came by boat had attacked the the SLNS Dakshina, the Sri Lanka Navy’s base in Galle. It is located at Magalle along the Colombo-Matara main highway. President Rajapaksa was angrier. The previous night, one of his staunch supporters had telephoned him from the East. He had said that some LTTE boats had set out possibly to attack a target in Galle. None other than the President – the Commander-in-Chief himself, alerted the Police. If they remained alert till morning, they failed to brief the fishermen in the area. The intruding guerrillas came in boats posing off as fishermen.

It is amidst some of the horrendous events occurring in Sri Lanka’s history that the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa was executing a dual track strategy – prosecuting a "defensive" war whilst embarking on peace initiatives. The latter is not only with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) through the courtesy of Norwegian peace facilitators. It was also with his one time arch rival with whom he has now developed a political love affair – the United National Party (UNP).

It is now clear that the talks between Government representatives and the LTTE will take place in Geneva on October 28 and 29. The stage is set and both sides are preparing themselves for some sparring at the negotiating table. But a more excruciating task for Rajapaksa, who had dumped his one time political partner the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna for the UNP, is still not sure how the latter’s support to his Government is going to take shape. The reason: all is still not well in the United National Party.

Last Monday, the UNP’s policy making body, the Working Committee, met to discuss this rapprochement. But prior to this meeting, Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met the UNP delegation that was negotiating with the SLFP. Six of the seven members were present – the notable absentee was one-time Wickremesinghe protégé’, Milinda Moragoda.

Here, G.L.Peiris, the chief advocate of the move to link the UNP with the SLFP Government referred to media reports last Sunday which said that he gate-crashed the Temple Trees meeting which Wickremesinghe had with Rajapaksa. He then went to the extent of questioning the party leader asking him why he told the press that the UNP would support the Budget.

This was ironic, because it is Peiris who is the keenest of them all wanting to support the Rajapaksa Government. Party insiders say that by Wickremesinghe saying publicly that the UNP would support the Budget, the UNP team that was negotiating with the SLFP for Ministerial stakes lost its bargaining tool – UNP support for the Budget.

Peiris asked Wickremesinghe about him going to see the President alone, at which point Wickremesinghe asked Peiris whether he cannot meet Rajapaksa alone, and whether he had to tell him (Peiris) everytime he (Wickremesinghe) wanted to see the President.

At least Peiris and Wickremesinghe were on talking-terms! Wickremesinghe’s erstwhile confidante’ Milinda Moragoda has decided not to speak to his party leader now for nearly a month. He kept his mouth shut right through the Working Committee meeting. So did S.B. Dissanayake.

The Working Committee began with the leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe explaining the background to the moves for rapprochement between the UNP and the SLFP. He then set out the sequence of events and said he was going to sign an MoU with President Rajapaksa to provide qualified support on six major national issues. He sought the Working Committee’s approval for this. Wickremesinghe said he was planning to sign this MoU by October 23.

The first to open the discussion was Gamini Lokuge. He opined that if the UNP were to support the Government, they should do so with Ministerial power. He was suggesting that the party accept portfolios, a move forcefully endorsed by Hemakumara Nanayakkara (Galle). Others backing this line were Rajitha Senarathne (Kalutara), Mano Wijeratne (Kegalle) and Bandula Gunawardene (Colombo).

Mahinda Wijesekera (Matara) said that he’s against accepting portfolios, but would go along with the party decision. Sajith Premadasa (Hambantota) and Wijeyapala Mendis (Gampaha) were among a total of 17 who spoke in favour of the Lokuge line.

Some members of the Working Committee, and later the Parliamentary Group, however, suggested that the UNP accept the Prime Ministership and 50 per cent of the portfolios. In other words – they were trying to swim with the tide, but clearly opposed to the move to accept Ministries. Those advocating this line were Vajira Abeywardene (Galle), Rosy Senanayake (Colombo), Lal Gamage (Polonnaruwa), Renuka Herath (Nuwara Eliya), Lakshman Seneviratne (Moneragela) and Johnston Fernando (Kurunegala).

G.L.Peiris again raised the issue of Wickremesinghe saying the UNP would support the Budget without even knowing what the Budget was. Only a fortnight ago, Peiris had gone to Chennai and defended the military operations conducted by the Rajapaksa Administration in a volte-face, but when he blamed Wickremesinghe for his public utterance, Johnston Fernando asked Peiris why he was prepared to accept Ministries without knowing what the Ministries being offered were.

One of the MPs remarked that what was left for President Rajapaksa to offer UNPers were Minister for the Dehiwela Zoo and Minister for the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, when a wag also remarked that a Minister for the Siri Kotha Elephant Orphanage might be more appropriate.

Consultations with the UNP rank-and-file continued throughout the week. On Friday, Provincial Councilors and Local Government Group leaders (Some Mayors and Council Chairmen, some Opposition Leaders) met. At that level the consensus seemed to be not to accept Ministries, but to provide limited support, especially on the peace process. One of the key proponents of the Lokuge line was Nalin Wijeratne from Medawachchiya.

Separately, S.B. Dissanayake met Ranil Wickremesinghe and asked that he be appointed Assistant Leader of the UNP. He seemed to have the backing of Karu Jayasuriya, the party’s Deputy Leader and Peiris, but Wickremesinghe flatly turned Dissanayake’s request down. He told the former SLFP General Secretary that he neither had the power, nor the inclination to do so, and that there were other aspirants for such a post, should the party decide to have such a post in the first place.

At this point S.B. Dissanayake snapped at Wickremesinghe and said that he either be made Assistant Leader of the UNP if he were to support Wickremesinghe, or otherwise he would support Karu Jayasuriya to be the next Party Leader. He also opposed the appointment of Rukman Senanayake as the new Party Chairman and Tissa Attanayake as the new General Secretary, only to be told that these decisions were taken at a Working Committee meeting at which he was present, and the subsequent meeting where the minutes of the previous meeting were confirmed, at which he was also present.

On Friday night, President Rajapaksa and UNP Leader Wickremesinghe had a one-on-one to finalise the MoU between the two parties. There, it was agreed that the UNP will offer two years support for the Government on six major high priority national issues. Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva joined in later because there were two outstanding issues to be ironed out, i.e. on the cross-over clause – the UNP wanted a moratorium on this – and on the manner in which this co-operation was to be given. The fact that the Mayor of Colombo dumped the UNP and joined the SLFP this week, largely at the behest of Mervyn Silva, Rajapaksa’s hatchet man, clearly indicates that Rajapaksa knows he holds the advantage when it comes to cross-overs. The issue of UNPers accepting Ministries was to be put off for later. Rukman Senanayake was to meet the President separately later that night.

Upon his return, Wickremesinghe conferred with Karu Jayasuriya, G.L. Peiris and Rukman Senanayake. Having met the Maha Nayake Theras in Kandy during the week, and received their blessings for collaboration, Wickremesinghe was to meet the bishops yesterday.
One of the victims of this joint collaboration is the JVP. Clearly side-lined, the paper on the Ethnic Issue will find the JVP at odds with the Rajapaksa Presidency. This paper says that the SLFP will opt for a political settlement to the fight against the LTTE through the existing Ceasefire Agreement and with Norway’s broker-role, both anathema to the JVP.

With the UNP-SLFP rapprochement, there was also speculation that a section of the JVP would cross over. This was particularly after Nandana Gunatilleke quit the party. Another associate of Gunatilleke, S. Amerasinghe, has already been given a job in SEMA, a state agency. Amerasinghe is from the Gampaha district and was a staunch campaigner for the JVP. There were also rumours that Wimal Weerawansa and seven others would cross over. Weerawansa was asked this by a UNP member in Parliament lobbies. He replied "I am looking for the other seven but I cannot find them." That was his sarcastic response but he made it clear that he would remain firmly with the JVP.

The Supreme Court verdict on the de-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces has also had its sequel. The order, it is said, invalidates it from the first gazette notification. The Government got worried, and Rupavahini was advised to play down the story. So too did the State newspapers, distancing the Government from the Supreme Court order.

With the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) protesting the de-merger, threatening to boycott Parliament and launch hartals in the North, the JVP has asked the Commissioner of Elections to hold polls for a separate Eastern provincial Council, and urged that the Budget should not vote any funds for a merged North and East Council.

Now that the UNP is going to work together with the Rajapaksa Presidency, it seems the JVP is preparing to become the virtual Opposition in the country.

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Can SLFP-UNP deal work?

By R. M. B. Senanayake

Many people including the Mahanayakes are commending the UNP-SLFP Agreement to adopt a common stand on the resolution to the ethnic problem. Some have even said it will inaugurate a new political culture.

What is wrong with our political culture is the lies, the deception and the stirring up the majority against the minorities particularly the Tamils to oppose any solution to the ethnic problem proposed by the party in government.

What is new about this Agreement? Didn’t the Liam Fox Agreement signed by CBK and Ranil in 1997 provide for as follows: "The party in opposition will not undermine any discussion or decisions between the party in government and any other party or group including the LTTE aimed at resolving the ethnic conflict."

It is to the credit of the UNP and Ranil that they have abided by this Agreement. The same cannot be said of the President, the JVP and the JHU. Didn’t they canvass against the CFA entered into with the LTTE by Ranil?

Really there was no need for this new Agreement except for it to be renewed by President Mahinda who succeeded as President of both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and as President of the country. The President is still to come up with his own solution to the ethnic problem if he is going back on what he promised the people. He has effectively undermined the CFA- since it is not being observed by both parties. Lawyers may well say it is constructively rescinded.

How then can this Agreement between the UNP & SLFP bring about a new political culture? Will the culture of lies, deception and stirring up the majority against the minorities, particularly the Tamils and opposing any proposed solution to the ethnic issue for political purposes disappear? Not while there is the JHU and the JVP.

The UNP and the SLFP may stop doing this although judging by CBK’s conduct when Ranil was in office even this is doubtful. There will always be political parties who will stir up the Sinhalese against any proposed solution.

This is the history of the ethnic problem and proposed solutions to it. Will history change? There will always be politicians like Wimal Weerawansa who will stir up people with their fiery language. They will incite people against any proposed solution notwithstanding the naivet`E9 of the International Community.

So to change the political culture what is required is to charge all those who incite people against ethnic and religious minorities as India did when she charged Lal Advani, the Deputy Leader of the BJP for destroying the Babri Masjis in Ayodya.

Can we expect such action to uphold the rule of law? If the Penal Code is not sufficient, although lawyers say it is adequate to do so, we should pass a law similar to the Indian law against Incitement to Disaffection against minorities. This is what should be included in the Common Agenda if the two parties are serious about resolving the ethnic problem within a united state. -The Sunday Island

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