SLFP infighting continues, TNA faces dissent
By taking part in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s 64th anniversary ceremony at President Maithripala Sirisena’s hometown, Polonnaruwa, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa showed that he is more thick-skinned than most politicians of his era.
On the one hand, the anniversary ceremony was held in the hometown of President Sirisena. As if to drive a point home, the organisers invited as keynote speaker Professor Sarath Wijesuriya, a staunch critic of the Rajapaksa administration and a key member of the Puravesi Balaya (Citizens’ Power) organization which backed Sirisena at the last Presidential election.
By inviting Prof. Wijesuriya to deliver the keynote address at the event, the SLFP wanted to indicate to its supporters that the party was repairing its ties with the civil society, which it lost due to the repressive politics during the past five years of the Rajapaksa administration.
Rajapaka’s presence at the SLFP anniversary ceremony gave a strong indication that the former President was attempting to engage in ‘reconciliatory politics’ with President Sirisena. At present, the former President has no other option but to embrace President Sirisena’s leadership of the party.
The Rajapaksa family and close associates are keenly aware that they face a number of investigations on the anti-corruption front. Clearly, Mahinda believes that reconciliatory politics is the only way-out of the present crisis.
That was one reason why Rajapaksa, who desperately attempted to regain his position as the Chairman, UPFA and the SLFP in the run-up to the recent Parliamentary election, did not seek to become the Opposition Leader of the new Parliament.
Over 50 UPFA MPs, who gathered at Parliamentarian Prasanna Ranatunga’s Colombo residence soon after the Parliamentary election, urged Rajapaksa to accept the Opposition Leader’s post.
However, some advisers close to Rajapaksa warned that accepting the post of Opposition Leader would only expedite inquiries against Rajapaksa and his family members. This advice, apparently, encouraged him to lie low and kept him out of the race from the beginning.
Former President Rajapaksa gave the first indication of his interest in ‘reconciliatory politics’ when he took part in the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a key figure in the anti-Rajapaksa campaign at the Parliamentary election, did not take part in the event possibly because she shrank from sitting alongside her one-time successor.
When the SLFP anniversary was held on Wednesday, former President Kumaratunga was in India, taking part in an international conference. Therefore, she was saved from having to share the stage with Rajapaksa.
At the SLFP event, Rajapaksa’s seat was next to that of President Sirisena and the two were seen having a congenial discussion. For a moment, party supporters forgot the unpleasant exchange of letters between their past and present leaders ahead of the Parliamentary election, crippling the UPFA coalition’s campaign during the last stage of the election.
Former Opposition Leader, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who said he was ready to give up his Prime Ministerial hopes to make way for Rajapaksa, sat next to his former leader at the Polonnaruwa event.
In his keynote speech, Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya highlighted some key issues that the SLFP needed to rectify before facing the next national level elections.
While acknowledging the service rendered by Rajapaksa during the final phase of the war, Wijesuriya said the former President’s move to lift ‘constitutional limitations’ on the executive presidency had a disastrous impact on the party.
He said it was similar to former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s move to extend her term by two years under the constitution of 1972, plunging the party into the opposition for 17 years.
When Prof. Wijesuriya openly criticized the conduct of the former President, Rajapaksa looked at President Sirisena, wearing a typical Cheshire cat smile on his face. The crux of the keynote speech was the need for transforming the party into a democratic and pluralistic political movement that cuts across all communities of the country.
During Rajapaksa’s tenure as the party Chairman, the SLFP gravitated towards an exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, alienating almost all other ethnic and religious communities in the country. That was one key reason why Rajapaksa lost two national level elections in a row, within nine months.
President Sirisena, addressing the anniversary ceremony of the SLFP, made it clear that the party should be subjected to radical transformation aiming at winning the next elections.
“This is the right time for implementing the necessary and timely changes for the SLFP.
The SLFP should be subjected to a complete transformation to create a disciplined and people-friendly party, which will be embraced by all segments of the people,” the President said. While making this statement, he also alluded to the reasons leading to the UPFA’s defeat at the last Parliamentary election.
Highly placed party sources told the Sunday Observer that the SLFP is designing a restructuring program under President Maithripala Sirisena’s direction. Under this plan, President Sirisena will visit party supporters in every district to discuss key problems faced by them.
The SLFP, at this juncture, desperately needs to regain the voter base which it has lost not to the UNP, but to the coalition partners of the UPFA. At the recent Parliamentary election, it became crystal clear that minor stakeholders of the UPFA alliance, including the National Freedom Front led by Wimal Weerawansa, had penetrated into the traditional voter base of the SLFP.
For instance, former UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha was the only ‘original’ SLFPer, who managed to find his way into Parliament from the Colombo district. All the other UPFA MPs, who got elected to Parliament from Colombo, were either members of minor parties of the UPFA or members who crossed over from other parties. This showed that the SLFP, as a political entity, has lost its strength, despite the UPFA’s significant ‘share’ in Parliament.
That is one reason why the party is exploring the possibility of distancing itself from the UPFA coalition in a bid to stand on its own feet at the forthcoming local government election. Standing alone, needless to say, is not an easy task for any political party especially after a defeat at a national level election. However, the majority of SLFP seniors are of the belief that it is the only way of strengthening the party for the future.
“Our next target is the local government election. It is a good opportunity to find young and popular leaders from the grassroots level who can take the party forward at the next national level election. Therefore, it is important to identify potential leaders and field them as contestants at the local government polls.
That is one aspect of the party’s restructuring process,” a senior Parliamentarian of the SLFP told the Sunday Observer.
Some local government members of the UPFA came under much criticism over the past few years due to their misconduct. Sampath Vidanapathirana, the former Chairman of the Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha, was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment last year in connection with the murder of a British tourist who was enjoying his holiday in Sri Lanka.
Several local government members of the UPFA have been charged with rape and other criminal activities, clearly showing that the party had given nomination to the ‘wrong people’ to contest on the UPFA ticket at the last local government polls. It is important to rectify such errors as part of the restructuring process.
Opposition Leader race
Apart from the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet on Friday, the most important development in the political sphere last week was the appointment of R. Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition. A senior Parliamentarian and a seasoned politician, Sampanthan was unanimously selected for the position by the Tamil National Alliance which has 16 seats in the new Parliament.
Sampanthan was the first Tamil Opposition leader who represents the country’s legislature after A. Amirthalingam who held the position in 1977. Amirthalingam and all other TULF MPs boycotted Parliament from the middle of 1983 for a number of reasons: they were under pressure from Tamil militants not to stay in Parliament beyond their normal six-year term; the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka required them to swear an oath unconditionally renouncing support for a separate state; and the Black July riots in which up to 3,000 Tamils were murdered by Sinhalese mobs. After three months of absence, Amirthalingam forfeited his seat in Parliament on October 22, 1983. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan was among the 16 MPs who represented Parliament with Amirthalingam from 1977 to 1983, a tumultuous period in the country’s political history. Sampanthan represented his hometown, the Trincomalee electorate, in the 1977 Parliament.
Although he only represented the aspirations of Tamils in the North and the East in his four-decade-long political career, the TNA Leader is familiar with the problems of other communities, as he received his secondary and tertiary education in the ‘South’. Sampanthan, who is five years younger than Amirthalingam, is often dubbed as the last personality of the ‘Chelvanayagam era’ in Tamil politics.
After forfeiting his seat, Sampanthan re-entered Parliament as an MP from Trincomalee after his colleague A. Thangathurai was assassinated by the LTTE in 1997. He lost his seat at the Parliamentary election in 2000 but managed to re-enter in December, 2001. Over the past 14 years, Sampanthan has represented the country’s legislature continuously, despite grave threats to his life. When the LTTE was at the height of its military power, the TNA, of which Sampanthan was the leader, came under immense pressure from both sides in the war.
Before naming the Leader of the Opposition, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had several rounds of discussions with prominent legal experts with regard to the legal basis of the appointment.
He also received a letter from Professor Vishwa Warnapala, General Secretary of the UPFA, that the party did not wish to nominate a member for the Opposition Leader’s position. When this was announced by the Speaker, many UPFA MPs of the MR faction got angry and frustrated as they handed over a letter to the President on Tuesday, requesting to name Kumara Welgama as the Leader of the Opposition. The letter was signed by 57 MPs of the UPFA mostly known to be Mahinda loyalists.
However, the MPs did not take measures to inform the Speaker that they wanted to function as an independent group in Parliament and wished to appoint Kumara Welgama as the Leader of the Opposition. Instead, by submitting a letter to President Sirisena who had distanced himself from the process of appointing the Opposition Leader, the UPFA MPs seemed to have hinted that they were not too serious about their request.
From the Speaker’s perspective, Jayasuriya had to consider several factors. The UNP and the SLFP, the main constituent of the UPFA, had just entered into an agreement to work together within the framework of a national unity government. The Speaker was not in a position to identify internal factions within political parties when appointing the Leader of the Opposition.
His only option was to invite the third largest political party in Parliament to nominate a member for the post.
The third largest political party in the eighth Parliament is the Tamil National Alliance which has sixteen seats. Therefore, the Speaker announced the TNA’s nominee, R. Sampanthan, as the Leader of the Opposition.
The biggest challenge confronting Sampanthan, at present, is to earn the confidence of Sinhala and Muslim communities in the country.
He will have to transcend ‘ethnic boundaries’ and project himself as a ‘national leader’ acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka. Sampanthan’s appointment also gives a great opportunity for the TNA to position itself as a national political party that understands the needs and aspirations of people across the country.
Speaking to BBC Sandeshaya soon after his appointment, Sampanthan said he would do anything that a Sinhalese Opposition leader would do to serve the Sinhalese community in the country. He categorically said that the TNA would not allow any party to divide Sri Lanka and they were not supportive of ‘separatist policies’. Sampanthan’s statement can be understood as a move to allay the fears of the Sinhala-speaking community over his appointment.
Sampanthan fired his first salvo at the government when he criticized what he termed as the excessive number of ministers in the national unity government. Raising his objections over the motion, he said the culture of having an excessive number of ministers must end.
However, he was careful enough not to criticize the move to form a unity government by the two largest political parties in Parliament and his opposition was only directed at the ‘excessive’ number of ministers.
“The two main parties working together could be in the national interest. This is the first time in the country’s history that the two main parties have decided to come together to constitute a government,” the TNA Leader said.
While the TNA leader and his parliamentarians strive to move towards national politics, Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran seems busy projecting himself as the torch-bearer of hardcore Tamil nationalism. Tamil political circles were somewhat disconcerted last week by the US government’s decision to present a motion at the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva backing a domestic inquiry conducted by the Sri Lankan government.
The Northern Provincial Council last week unanimously adopted a resolution pushing for an international investigation on alleged war crimes during the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka. They said only an international investigation could put Sri Lanka on the path of ‘meaningful reconciliation’.
A part of the resolution adopted by the Northern Provincial Council is as follows: “This Council wishes to emphasise that Sri Lanka’s descent into grave human, political and social rights’ violations was precipitated and reinforced by the failure of key pillars of State which were meant to protect and serve its citizens. The prolonged decline in the political culture and political will of the State and the failure of key institutions of justice, law and order, i.e. judiciary, police and the armed forces, ensured that impunity became the new norm in Sri Lanka. The Tamil community bore the full brunt of this new norm at all levels of its existence.
The prejudice among the members of the Judiciary against the minorities has been well recorded both by international organizations such as the International Bar Council and by Sinhalese lawyers such as Jayantha de Almeida Guneratne, Kishali Pinto Jayawardene and Gehan Gunatilleke in their publication ‘The Judicial Mind – Responding to the Protection of Minority Rights’.
Similarly, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) who were nominated by international donor countries and the government of Sri Lanka and vested with a wide mandate to observe all investigations and inquiries conducted by and on behalf of the Commission of Inquiry into 17 atrocities, on resigning, cited reasons which aptly captured the long history of failures on the part of the State and the entrenched institutional flaws. The reason cited by IIGEP included the lack of political will, transparency and timeliness in the proceedings, non-co-operation of state bodies and lack of victim/witness protection among other things as reasons for its failure.
For these reasons, the Council calls upon the International community to set up an international tribunal to try those alleged to have committed international crimes against the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
We urge the new leaders of the Sri Lankan government to be courageous enough to work with the International community to set up a credible international mechanism which will deliver justice and put this nation on a path of meaningful reconciliation.”
Parallel to the resolution, a signature campaign was launched in Jaffna on Friday calling for an international accountability mechanism to examine what they termed as mass atrocities committed during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict.
Representatives from the Tamil National Alliance, Tamil National People’s Front, Religious leaders, civil society representatives, Jaffna University lecturers and students took part in the campaign and the signatures were collected by activists at the Jaffna Central bus station and other places.
These developments indicate that the present political situation has compelled the Tamil National Alliance to focus on two battlefronts – in the North and in the South. While Opposition Leader Sampanthan will lead the battle in the South, former Supreme Court Judge and NPC Chief Minister Wigneswaran, who remained ‘neutral’ at the last Parliamentary election, will lead the battle in the North.