Fear of assassination bid prompts sacking of ministers
Air Force to take over Colombo Airport on the eve of president’s departure abroad
At around 7.30pm on Friday evening, The Island editorial office received word that Mangala Samaraweera, Anura Bandaranaike and Sripathy Sooriyaarchchi had been removed from their ministerial portfolios. Half an hour later the state owned Rupavahini channel broadcast the announcement. People were not really surprised.
Some time ago, When Mangala Samaraweera and Tiran Alles, the chairman of the Airports and Aviation Authority began to publish ‘Maubima’ and direct scathing criticisms against the government, everyone knew where it was all going to end up. Matters came to a head last week with several disgruntled Sri Lanka Freedom Party ministers gathering at a certain location where a certain non-cabinet minister close to Mangala Samaraweera had boasted that they would within the next three weeks strike at the ‘head’ (oluwa).
A Chandrika loyalist who had been invited to the meeting had then started on a diatribe against the Sirasa TV channel (Oluwa can also mean Sirasa in Sinhala) But then this minister had been told that it was not the TV channel that they were talking about but the head of government.
The CBK loyalist had then walked out of the meeting saying that this was not going to succeed because the president’s stock was high within the country and that he was fully with the president. It is widely believed that it was this deputy minister who told the president about the conspiracy.
A few days ago, the president began his counter move by summoning key supporters to Temple Trees and telling them about Mangala’s conspiracy. By evening on Friday, the decision to remove Mangala had been taken, but the president was in two minds whether to act now or whether to postpone the move until after his state visit to China.
Something happened between 6.00pm and 7.30pm which made the president immediately issue an order removing Mangala, Anura and Sripathy from their ministerial portfolios. That was when the letters removing them from office had been prepared. They were ready by 7 p.m. for hand delivery. This columnist learns that some close friends of the president had warned him about a possible assassination bid at the Colombo Airport which was under Tiran Alles, a staunch supporter of Mangala Samaraweera.
The president probably thinking that caution was the better part of valour, decided to sack the ministers before his departure to China. On advice given by some close friends, the Colombo Airport would be taken over by the Air Force and personnel handpicked by the Air Force Chief himself would give the airport a thorough security check.
There is a strong belief among Mahinda Rajapakse’s supporters that The Maubima’ newspaper is funded by the LTTE. They have adduced various arguments to justify this claim. Since these accusations have to be verified with the Maubima management, we will not go into this at this moment. Be that as it may, suffice it to say that it is this belief coupled with the boast that they would strike at the ‘head’ in three weeks which hastened the sacking of the three ministers.
Another reason for the sacking was the statement made by both Anura Bandaranaike and Mangala Samaraweera to the effect that some anonymous caller had threatened to kill them and hang their bodies on lamp-posts. Rajapakse loyalists interpreted even this as advance ground preparation for an LTTE attempt on the president’s life with inside connivance. They hold that this was just to show the public that they too were under death threats.
That an astrological newspaper close to Mangala Samaraweera had predicted the president demise before April this year, is also held by the president’s supporters to justify their fears. Two weeks ago, we saw the UNP breaking up into two factions. But yesterday’s events show that the mutual suspicion in the SLFP is far worse than anything that existed in the UNP prior to the split.
JVP has a field day in Parliament
As the euphoria following the crossover of 18 UNP MPs to the government waned after the first week, differences arising from the decision to take in the UNP dissidents came to a head within the government. One week after the event which gave the Mahinda Rajapakse government a clear majority in Parliament, it appeared that virtually every PA minister in the government was in a state of dissatisfaction.
Over the past week, the new ministers had been assuming duties in their respective ministries. Some who had held multiple ministries had their powers pruned to accommodate the UNP dissidents. Some like Ferial Ashraff have had to vacate their former offices for the new minister to take over. And many ministers were consequently in a bad mood. Matters came to a head when the seating arrangement in Parliament had to be changed to accommodate the dissidents.
Parliament met on Tuesday for the first time after the cabinet reshuffle which brought in 18 UNP defectors into the team of ministers. In keeping with their seniority, some of the new UNP ministers like G.L.Peiris, M.H.Mohamed, and P.Dayaratne had been assigned front row seats. The likes of Ferial Ashraff and Dinesh Gunawardene had been in the second row and in the third row, were DEW Gunasekera and Tissa Vitarana. Usually, according to Parliamentary convention Party leaders were accommodated in the front row.
Dinesh Gunawardene who is the leader of the MEP asked the Speaker on what basis the seating arrangement has been decided upon. The JVP MPs who were watching the exchange with undisguised glee, chipped into the argument by saying “We also feel sorry to see those who worked tirelessly for a unitary state now being relegated to the back rows while those who tried to defeat Mahinda Rajapakse and introduce a federal system of government were now sitting on the front rows.’’
MP Mervyn Silva (of honorary doctorate fame) had joined the debate at this stage and said that the government would not allow a federal system to be introduced under any circumstances and that they would be safeguarding the unitary state.
Usually, when such heated arguments ensue, the Chief whips of the government and the opposition intervene with a view to resolving the matter. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was the chief government whip, however, did not evince any interest in intervening. When asked about the seating arrangement, Fernandopulle had brusquely said that he never asked those 18 UNP MPs to be taken into the government, nor did he have anything to do with deciding on the seating arrangements. He suggested that those dissatisfied with the seating arrangement should speak to the president’s office.
Wimal Weerawansa added fuel to the fire by asking Fernandopulle, sarcastically that the 18 UNP MPs had been supposedly taken in to stabilize the government, but now they did not have stability but only elephants and elephantine conflicts! At this point, minister Tissa Karaliyadde quipped to the Speaker that it would be a good idea to have a ‘virekaya’ (a purge) The Speaker who mis-heard it as a ‘viwekaya’ (a rest), adjourned Parliament for a quarter of an hour.
The UNP Leader’s overestimation of himself
During this short break, JVP MPs Anura Dissanayake and Ranaweera Pathirana bumped into opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and UNP MP Dayasiri Jayasekera and some others in the lobby. Aura Dissanayake, seeing that the UNP leader seemed to be in an upbeat mood, had wanted to know why he seemed to be so chirpy when the opposite should be the case. Ranil, responding to the JVP MPs’ smiling query, had replied that “The UNP had been suffering from chikengunya, of which we are now cured, but now the government has got chikengunya.”
The UNP too obviously had immensely enjoyed the consternation among the government ranks over the seating arrangements. Ranil also told the JVP MPs that the UNP’s economic advisors and ethnic conflict resolution theorists had joined the government and that the only person with his feet on the ground in the group that defected was Gamini Lokuge and that the others were all theorists.
The JVP MPs listened politely to the UNP leader’s exaggerated estimate of himself and took their leave. However, that morning when the JVP parliamentary group met in the parliamentary complex, Wimal Weerawansa had pointed out that the UNP representation in the House had gone down from 67 to 43 with the possibility of more defections taking place, and that the UNP was now basically a write off.
He stated that the UNP rank and file had been left high and dry with the UNP leader unable even to keep his MPs together and that even the ordinary UNPer will now expect the oppositional role to the government to be played by the JVP. Thus while Wickremesinghe was enjoying some kaalakanni joy in parliament over the differences that had emerged within the government, the JVP was girdling their loins to fully exploit the gaping void that the UNP leader had created in the ranks of the opposition.
JVP propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa made a special statement in Parliament to the effect that the citizenship education syllabus of the year 10 and 11 in schools have been changed to favour federalism where subjects such as the devolution of power, decentralization and conflict resolution have been introduced into the syllabus by the National Institute of Education.
The JVP alleged that a certain group of people in the NIE who were living off NGOs had introduced these new items into the syllabus. The JVP held that this was an attempt to brainwash the younger generation to the detriment of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation. This was an attempt to shape the minds of our younger generation according to the whims of the western imperialist powers. Stories of our national heroes of the past, those who fought for the freedom and territorial integrity of the country, had been removed from the new syllabus which was to be implemented from this year onwards.
Susil Premajayanth, the education minister, who stood up had told Wimal Weerawansa that “So long as we are around, nobody will be allowed to make such changes”. The JVP group in parliament then asked in one voice, who else he meant by the term ‘we’. The JVP group was implying that the SLFP was now not one party but a collection of intra party groups. But minister Premajayanth refused to take the JVP bait and remained silent.
All ministries to come under JVP scrutiny
During that first session of Parliament, the JVP had a field day riling the government. When the mosquito menace was taken up under the health ministry, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva informed the house that there were 143 species of mosquitoes, at which point, Bimal Ratnayake quipped “Mr Minister, why do we have to get excited over such numbers. That’s just a little more than the team of ministers!” When Nimal Siripala went on to explain that some countries, primarily the USA had made significant strides in the eradication of mosquitoes with new legislation being enacted for the purpose, JVP MP Anuara Dissanayake responded by saying “Why don’t we follow suit by first bringing in laws to eradicate jumbo ministerial teams!”
When an irate minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle raised an issue of parliamentary privilege over an incident that morning where he had been stopped at the traffic lights by a policeman and told in less than polite language to make way for a VVIP, the JVP made that also an occasion to poke fun at the government. Weerawansa asked Fernandopulle whether the VVIP he had to move aside for was an elephant. Fernadopulle answered in the negative.
JVP and UNP confabs
On Thursday, the JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe spoke to the JVP parliamentary group at the party headquarters in Pelawatte. At this meeting, the party leader had told those present that they should subject the operation of each ministry to close scrutiny and monitor the foreign contacts maintained by each ministry. MPs were instructed to be especially vigilant about corrupt deals in the various ministries.
On Moday, the JVP began to distribute a handbill entitled “Ali-bulath aanduwa hamuwe kumak kala yuthuda?” (What should we do in the face of the Elephant-Betel government?) The JVP hopes to distribute two million handbills island wide. The handbill criticizes among other things, the jumbo cabinet and the various devolution proposals that came up in the recent past.
In the meantime, the UNP has decided on a strategy of cultivating the second tier politicians in the electorates which were held by the 18 MPs who crossed over to the government. Last Sunday, a gathering of Provincial Councilors and Local government representatives from the 18 electorates was called to Sirikotha where the party leader, chairman and general secretary explained matters to them. Among those present were candidates who were expecting appointment as the organizer for the electorates and they had brought bus loads of people with them to push their claims.
That same evening, a meeting of JSS trade union representatives was also held to discuss the situation following the defection of both Gamini Lokuge and Rajitha Senaratne who handled the UNP trade unions. On Monday, party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, Tissa Attanayake and Malik Samarawickrema met at Cambridge Place to discuss the appointment of organizers for those electorates. No decisions were made however at this meeting.
Action against UNP dissidents
On Tuesday, the UNP working committee met and party general secretary was under strict instructions not to allow any of the UNP MP’s who crossed over to the government to come into the party headquarters with their ministerial bodyguards. They had been sent invitations to the working committee meeting as usual. However, no one attended. Karu Jayasuriya had mentioned ministerial duties as his reason for not attending. Mano Wijeratne was on a trade promotion tour of Pakistan with Minister Amunugama. Ultimately, none of the 18 defectors, 12 of whom were in the working committee turned up for the meeting.
The working committee appointed the 23-member political affairs committee, the management committee, the financial committee. Thereafter, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera brought forward the resolution that the working committee members who defected should be suspended from the membership pf the working committee. Ravi Karunanayake suggested that the 18 MPs who defected to the government should be given a grace period in which they would be able to relinquish office and return to the UNP fold, after which disciplinary action would be initiated against them.
As the UNP’s strength in Parliament has been seriously eroded, party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was concentrating on strengthening the second tier of the UNP. In accordance with this policy, a meeting of UNP Provincial Councilors and local government representatives from the Uva province was held on Thursday morning and in the evening, Wickremasinghe met the provincial councilors and local government representatives of the Western and Sabaragamuwa provinces. On Saturday, he will be addressing a similar gathering of Provincial Councilors and local government representatives of the North Central and Central provinces in Dambulla.
The newly appointed UNP political affairs committee met on Friday morning . Several new faces were to be seen in the 23-member committee – Ravindra Samaraweera, Renuka Herath, Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake and D.M. Swaminatnan were among the new members of the political affairs committee which met under the chairmanship of Wickremesinghe. The committee decided on a three pronged attack on the government highlighting the corruption and the disappearances which have become a daily occurrence all over the country. The third prong of the attack would be to remind the people of the UNP’s past achievements under its past leaders.
Part of the strategy was to appeal to the emotions of the people at this time of need to retain the support base of the party which was increasingly shaky following the defection of 18 UNP MPs to the government with talk of more waiting to crossover. Another decision taken by the political affairs committee was to replace the district leaders (Officially called district chairmen) who had defected to the government. In Kalutara, it was decided to replace Rajitha Senaratne with Sarath Ranawaka. In Kegalle, Mano Wijeratne with Kabir Hashim. In Puttlam, Neomal Perera with Palitha Range Bandara and Mahinda Wijesekera in Matara with Sagala Ratnayake. In addition to these, S. Mahendran was appointed the district leader for Jaffna with Jayalath Jayawardene becoming district leader for the Vanni.
Another important decision made by the political affairs committee was to refrain from participating in the All Party Representatives Committee. While the UNP hierarchy was planning the various disciplinary measures that were to be taken against the 18 MPs who defected to the government, there is a moderate group of MPs led by the likes of Jayawickrema Perera, Sajith Premadasa, Ranjith Madduma Bandara and Dayasiri of Kurunegala who hold that they should try to come to a settlement with the MPs who defected.
They hold the view that these people should be able to contest the next elections under the UNP banner. The contention being that if they break away completely, it will only benefit the government. The USA Agrees with the JHU position On Friday February 2 the JHU held a discussion with the American Ambassador at the Jayasekeraramaya temple in Kuppiyawatte. Several officials of the American Embassy also participated in the discussion. Ven Ellawala Medhananda and Champika Ranawaka who had just been sworn in as the Minister of Environment led the JHU delegation. The meeting lasted one and a half hours.
Ven Medhananda explained the JHU position on the northeast issue. They had explained that historically, the Tamil homelands concept was a myth. Ven Medhananda had presented a copy of the English translation of a book he had written on the Sinhala heritage in the northern and eastern provinces. He requested the help of the American government to defeat terrorism. Ven Medhananda told the ambassador that when the colonial powers were engaged in an attempt to destroy the local culture, it was an American, Col Henry Steele Olcott, who had come to Sri Lanka and began the Buddhist revival.
Ambassador Robert O.Blake had said that in his opinion the LTTE is a terrorist organization and not freedom fighters because they have eliminated Tamil political leaders and intellectuals in large numbers. He had also said that the American position was that this problem should be solved through negotiation. At this point the Minister Champika Ranawaka had told the Ambassador that they could never come to a negotiated settlement with the LTTE and that the LTTE was deceiving both the Sri Lankan government and the international community on this score. The ambassador responded by saying that the American government does not believe that the LTTE would ever settle for anything less than a separate state.
Last week there were rumours to the effect that Ven Athureliye Rathana was unhappy about Champika Ranawaka being appointed to cabinet. The story was that Ven Rathana had being eying the post himself. But a JHU source pooh poohed the rumour saying that the decision to appoint Chamika to Parliament and to the cabinet slot allocated to the JHU, was taken according to a unanimous decision by the Supreme Council of monks which is made up of Ven Athureliye Rathana, Omalpe Sobhita, Ellawala Madhananda and Ven Kotapola. The choice was unanimous. Moreover JHU sources said that Ven Rathana and Ranawaka had been together in this movement from their inception as ‘Janatha Mithuro’. The story of a rift between Ven Rathana and Ranawaka was dismissed as a JVP canard, as was the story that Ranawaka and Udaya Gammampila was going to become electoral organisers in the SLFP. via … The Sunday Island
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