to have Mahinda as President
By Our Political Editor
The President came out, with all cylinders firing,
so to say, during her first interview to the local media (Govt.
TV for sure) this week in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster.
It has been her long established practice to tongue-lash her critics
at such interviews, if you can call these 'interviews'. She was
quite restrained when she was interviewed by the foreign TV journalists
like Sir David Frost.
missed out on being interviewed by CNN's chief international correspondent
Christiana Amanpour simply because her media office did not know
who she was when a request for an appointment was made. Might have
been a blessing in disguise, anyway, after she was roughed up the
last time by CNN's Zain Verghee.
Lanka government TV, however, was her turf. And she could say what
she liked and get away with it. She slammed three sets of people,
those who criticised her nominees for the three committees that
ran the post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation work; those who said
her government was corrupt and inept at handling the situation;
and those who were critical of the 100-metre buffer zone she was
advocating for construction on the coastal belt.
critics say those whom she criticised were her own sister, her sister's
friend, and her brother, in that order. That is, however, not entirely
so. Her main target was, clearly, the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe,
whom she did not name, when she said that there were those who wanted
donor agencies not to give aid to Sri Lanka, an accusation hotly
denied by the Opposition, and by some of the donor agencies after
government media followed up on it by saying that Wickremesinghe's
visit to Norway and Britain was to ask those governments not to
give aid to Sri Lanka.
was also some discontent within her own camp. Her trusted confidante,
Tara de Mel, took very many by surprise when she suddenly packed
her bags and left the Centre for National Operations (CNO), the
nerve centre for relief operations, winding up the centre with her
departure. There was no pre-announcement, and her colleague, Tilak
Ranavirajah, the chairman of one of the other Presidential committees
(Law and Order) made a damning admission that only 30 per cent of
the tsunami-affected people had received relief.
indeed was a lot of criticism about the CNO's work, and how relief
was not getting to the affected people. Some of the committee's
members were making rude remarks in private about its chairperson.
The usual bitching that goes on in high places by people vying for
the attention of the bigwigs, and where kissing usually goes by
favour. No one came to the defence of Tara de Mel. No one. Instead,
the government media confirmed what Ranavirajah said, adding salt
to the wound -- even saying, in its editorials (which are usually
vetted by the powers-that-be), how magnanimous the government was
to make such an admission.
de Mel was too lady-like to make a rebuttal, if any. Having switched
her mobile phone off, she went incommunicado, a victim of in-house
politics. She must have thought tackling the corrupt national school
principals and the tsunami-like school admissions issue, was a far
more meritorious task.
the Presidential 'interview' Kumaratunga was not asked, nor did
she volunteer to say anything about a very close call her UPFA government
had the previous week, when the second biggest coalition partner,
the JVP, almost gave notice of quitting the Alliance. Like the tsunami,
the JVP is likened to a seaquake about to occur. There are rumblings,
and the tremors in the political Richter scale are recording high-levels,
but the PA leadership of the UPFA coalition is not taking the readings
seems to bother the JVP is not the agreement signed between the
PA and the JVP with much fanfare, and in the glare of all the publicity,
at the BMICH on January 19 last year. This was the formation of
the UPFA, which was the pre-cursor to the defeat of the UNP government
three months later. What bothers the JVP, is what it thinks is the
flagrant violations of the second agreement that was signed - the
same day - but sans all the fanfare, between the SLFP (not the PA)
and the JVP. This document was signed between Maithripala Sirisena
as general secretary of the SLFP, and Tilvin Silva of the JVP, and
referred to the procedural arrangements in the event of a UPFA government.
It referred to issues like cabinet positions, government appointments
and other important decisions that needed to be taken from time-to-time
when in office.
the past few weeks, this second document, and its provisions are
what have kept disturbing the JVP. At both their politburo and central
committee-levels, this second document is what is at issue, not
the first document which broadly deals with policy issue, on which
(probably with the exception of the issue on LTTE's demand for ISGA,
on which position the SLFP has also been taking shifting stances)
they have no major problems.
JVP leadership has been keeping Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar
and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera posted on their differences.
In fact, I referred last week to how Kadirgamar, quite oblivious
to the fact, prevented the JVP from making a public announcement
giving the government notice it would quit the Alliance when he
explained what the government was doing in regard to the relief
the discussions within the JVP leadership they feel that these complaints
of theirs are not getting registered with President Kumaratunga.
That she is not taking their complaints seriously. President Kumaratunga,
somewhat distracted by the tsunami, had her own game plan for the
immediate future. Her term of office properly expires this year.
Certainly that is what the UNP is saying. She has a trick up her
sleeve to extend the term, but that is only till the end of next
year, not much longer.
the tsumani, she was working out a twin-strategy of bringing in
constitutional amendments by working out a deal with the LTTE, and
winning over UNP MPs to her side. These amendments, worked out by
MPs Wijedasa Rajapakse, Mahinda Aluthgamage, and Jayampathy Wickramaratne
etc., under the stewardship of Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera would
have enabled her to come to Parliament going back to the Westminster-style
of government saying this Presidential form of government is the
bane of good governance.
is a perception within the JVP hierarchy that the President is moving
away from her earlier strategy believing it's not going to work,
and time is running out. The new plan, is to work a deal with Prime
Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. A rapprochement with the Premier is
what is on the cards. As everyone knows, Rajapakse virtually stormed
his way into 'Temple Trees', demanding the job. President Kumaratunga
had given a clear indication to Kadirgamar that she would like to
appoint him, and the JVP backed Kadirgamar, in writing, over Rajapakse.
followed where Rajapakse's camp felt that the PM was not been given
his dues, treated worse than a peon, but the irrepressible son of
Ruhuna could not be easily kept down. As the master of the art of
self-promotion through the media, Mahinda Rajapakse got still extra
coverage due to the tsunami factor, especially in the early days
when he ran the government in the absence of President Kumaratunga.
The current thinking is to make Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse,
the President just before Kumaratunga's term of office ends. The
formula for this is for her to step down, have Parliament elect
the next President, which is constitutionally permitted, usually
in the case of a President being assassinated (like in the case
of the appointment of President D.B. Wijetunga) or a President being
impeached. But it also permits the case where the President resigns.
Minister Rajapakse has been on a major public relations campaign
ever since he went into 'Temple Trees', initially for four months,
and President Kumaratunga believes that he could defeat the UNP's
declared candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe if Mahinda Rajapakse is
clothed with the powers of the President during the campaign.
Kumaratunga will, however, retain the SLFP presidency in this power-sharing
exercise, a situation akin to the Sonia Gandhi power-behind-the
throne situation in India. The JVP is in a dilemma. It has vowed
to see that Wickremesinghe will not become the President of this
the beginning its dislike for Mahinda Rajapakse was not a secret.
And the feelings were mutual. Now, however, relations have thawed.
They are working together, in a kind of a way, in the tsunami-hit
Hambantota district, the power-base of both sides. Not all JVPers
support Rajapakse, though, and not all oppose him either. The JVP
has yet to take a decision on this issue.
the UNP camp there is some concern. The tsunami affected their plans
for an election this year as well. In December last year, their
thinking was that the economy will collapse by the middle of the
year, with the rising cost-of-living. Now, elections are the last
thing in the minds of the people, and the cost-of-living issue pales
into insignificance in the face of the tsunami disaster.
is also the trouble of keeping a tight-knit entity when in Opposition.
Just this week, its chief opposition whip Mahinda Samarasinghe had
complained to a TV host that he needed to re-think his options.
This came when he was kept out of a television chat show on government
TV by a fiat of the acting UNP leader Karu Jayasuriya, who said
he was acting on an edict from party leader Wickremesinghe who was
touring Norway with his de-facto international affairs adviser Milinda
was asked to step down when party deputy general secretary Tissa
Attanayake called him, and said that the High Command had asked
Kabeer Hashim to replace him. When he contacted Jayasuriya for clarification,
the orders were confirmed. Samarasinghe was not amused, and naturally
so. He was then to complain to confidants about the way the party
treated him, saying the party hierarchy was being run by a coterie.
He then went on to refer to a telephone call he received on his
birthday from Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, but received no
calls from his own party hierarchy.
Rajapakse is already campaigning. Mahinda Samarasinghe was not the
only one to get a call for his birthday last Sunday from 'Temple
Trees'. On Wednesday this week, UNP front-liner Lakshman Kiriella
also received a call from Rajapakse for his birthday.
Wednesday's UPFA parliamentary group meeting, the JVP-PA confrontation
surfaced, but both sides refrained from an all-out war. President
Kumaratunga was presiding, and she began with a lengthy explanation
about all that she had done in the weeks after the tsunami disaster.
She said that the tsunami came without warning (the understatement
of the year), and that there was a lot of criticism about the government's
handling of the relief work (the JVPers were seen nodding in approval).
went on and on, until she came to the issue of housing. JVP propaganda
secretary Wimal Weerawansa broke the monologue by saying there was
a need to build permanent houses, not temporary ones. The President
reacted by giving some figures, suggesting that the government now
has to increase by 18-fold, the number of houses it builds per year.
She referred to the shortage of timber, sand and masons as she went
then targeted the UNP at this stage. She said the UNP's deputy leader
Karu Jayasuriya kept attending the all-party meetings, but after
six meetings has suddenly decided to take up issue, and the party
is beginning to provoke the people. She started on Ranil Wickremesinghe
and accused him of stopping foreign aid to Sri Lanka.
again broke in, saying how the JVP was being sidelined in the relief
work, and how UPFA cabinet ministers were making official visits
to areas represented by the JVP. He cited the example of Trincomalee
where JVP MP Jayantha Wijesekera was kept out of all engagements
connected with the visit of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Law
and Order Secretary Tilak Ranavirajah and Minister Maitripala Sirisena.
Sirisena responded by saying he was only part of a delegation. The
President then said her visit to Galle was a surprise one, and her
Presidential Security Division had asked her not to make any announcement
for 'security reasons'. Shot back the JVP, whether her PSD considered
JVP MPs as security threats to the President.
the snide remark, the President then went after the NGOs, something
that the JVP MPs would have found more to their liking. She mentioned
one NGO by name and explained how it collected funds, saying that
she had asked her ministers not co-operate with it.
evening was getting late, almost 9 pm, when she asked that the next
day's cabinet meeting be postponed, and that the discussion could
go on till later than night. (She also put off the National Security
Council meeting the next day.) The President then said how representatives
of 45 countries had visited her, and that they had all commended
her government for the way it handled the relief work despite being
a Third World country.
she came to the 100-metre rule, and said that some "stupid"
people were opposing this. "Some of them think that the tourists
must be able to step onto the beach straight from their rooms,"
she said. Her brother, Tourism Anura Bandaranaike looked thoroughly
uncomfortable with the remarks, but stood his ground. He put forward
proposals to get duty-free vehicles for those affected, including
micro vans, mini-coaches and vans. He proposed duty-free imported
fittings. He proposed the damaged or partially damaged hotels be
permitted to re-build where they stood. Any new hotels required
approval on a case-by-case basis, he argued.
came in for a volley of thunder and criticism from his colleagues,
especially Mangala Samaraweera, Dinesh Gunawardene and A.H.M. Fowzie.
The JVP, the party Bandaranaike claims he engineered to join in
the UPFA coalition, joined in the criticism of his proposal. "When
we ask fishermen not to build, how are we going to justify tourists
staying within 100-metres", the JVP asked.
Bandaranaike said he was vindicated and that his proposals were
eventually accepted. Others disagreed. There was no official communique
either from the Tourism Ministry confirming the proposal, or from
any other quarter rejecting it. It was to typify the confused state
of government decision-making right now.