Catholic Bishop of Jaffna Rt. Rev. Thomas Savuntharanayagam generally briefs the media, and local and foreign dignitaries who meet him in Jaffna, on trends in the Northern Province including humanitarian issues in the peninsula.
Bishop Rev. Savuntharanayagam, being a religious dignitary who has personally experienced the long-drawn-out traumatic experiences with death and destruction caused by the three decades of war in the peninsula, is considered as a man whose thoughts, criticism and opinions on issues emanating from that war, are much sought after. As a consequence, it’s almost always open sesame at his official residence, Bishop’s House, Jaffna.
When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived at the Bishop’s House to meet Rev Savuntharanayagam the surrounding area was immediately put under a heavy security cover, a fact that prompted the Bishop to ask the Premier why he needed so much security to visit a Bishop.
But, letting the Bishop’s remark pass, the Premier instead got down to dealing with the issues earlier raised by the Bishop.
A couple of days later it was German Ambassador Dr. Jurgen Morhard who had strolled into the Bishop’s House for a chat with the Bishop and listen to his discourse on the ‘cold war’ that is brewing between the CM and the PM.
The Bishop had pointed out to the German Envoy the need for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Chief Minister Wigneswaran to work together to resolve post-war issues in the Northern Province, instead of being confrontational. The Bishop of Jaffna had also briefed the German Envoy on how Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Chief Minister Wigneswaran avoided meeting each other during the Prime Minister’s recent three-day visit to the North covering the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, which are administered by the Northern Provincial Council led by Wigneswaran.
How it all started
The row between Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Chief Minister Wigneswaran started following a recent interview by Wickremesinghe with the Tamil Nadu television channel called Thanthi (telegram) where the Prime Minister had called Wigneswaran a ‘liar’.
The interviewer of the television channel had told Wickremesinghe that the Northern Chief Minister had mentioned that Premier Wickremesinghe had told some of the most revered Buddhist priests in the island that the withdrawal of the security forces from the Northern Province was an impossible task.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe denying what the interviewer had said told him that he had only said that the withdrawal of troops from the Northern Province would be a gradual process and it could not be carried out overnight.
Wickremesinghe had also told in the interview that Wigneswaran didn’t meet him over the issue since he became the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister had only sent him a letter on the issue of military presence in the Northern Province.
The row between Wickremesinghe and Wigneswaran became prominent when the dignitaries avoided facing each other when they participated at an event in Palaly, Jaffna where nearly 400 acres of land were handed back to the legitimate owners who were compelled to leave the areas following the expansion of the High Security Zone in Valikamam.
The journalists reporting the event had mentioned specifically that the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister deliberately avoided facing each other at the event which was graced by President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
The event was unique as for the first time a large number of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarians representing the Northern Province were also present there.
Former Minister and EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda who is an archrival of the TNA, was also present at the event and he was seen chatting with the President and Prime Minister.
A few days after attending the event of handing over the land in Valikamam, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe visited the Northern Province on a three-day visit where he had travelled extensively attending several key meetings interacting closely with the government officials and the TNA parliamentarians on the post-war development activities.
However, the Chief Minister and the other TNA Provincial Councillors had boycotted the Prime Minister’s visit saying they were not properly invited to the meetings and other events attended by the Prime Minister.
Responding to the Chief Minister’s boycott, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had said that he would know what was best for the people in the North more than the Chief Minister and he would work closely with the TNA parliamentarians towards dealing with the problems faced by the northerners.
Serving as a judge during the crucial period in the Northern Province, Wigneswaran had read the pulse of the northerners and now with his entry into politics as the Chief Minister he has returned to Jaffna from Colombo with the formation of the Northern Provincial Council.
Though Wigneswaran had boycotted the visit of the Prime Minister, a few days later he had attended the events participated by Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne in the Mullaitivu District.
Referring to his ‘cold war’ with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe at one of the functions in Mullaitivu, Chief Minister Wigneswaran said his stance on the withdrawal of security forces from the North was unchanged and added that he would shake hands with the Prime Minister the day he agrees on the withdrawal of troops from the North.
However, the Chief Minister stressed that he was not against the presence of the security forces in the strategic locations in the North, but he was only opposing the excessive military presence in the province.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are at loggerheads over the issue of military presence in the North. But the two political heavyweights have something in common: They are both Old Royalists from Reid Avenue.
Therefore, Wigneswaran being the Chief Minister of a Provincial Council system introduced by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s mentor late President J.R.Jayewardene , another Old Royalist , the latest ‘cold war’ between Wigneswaran and Wickremesinghe clearly indicates though they coming from the same school, they have no room for broader outlook on men and matters.