by Dharisha Bastians
On Friday (7) afternoon, the eve of provincial council elections in three provinces, a certain gathering took place at 101, Rosmead Place, which houses the corporate offices of Democratic National Alliance (DNA) National List Parliamentarian, Tiran Alles.
Consultations that lasted for hours, took place between Alles and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and a few of the DNA MP’s other close associates.
It was around this time that the news first broke that Alles had resigned from his position as General Secretary of the Democratic National Party (DNP), headed by former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka and around which the DNA was constituted when Fonseka was fielded as a common opposition candidate in the 2010 presidential poll.
It has now been learnt that Alles has indeed handed over his letter of resignation to Fonseka, although the latter has refused to accept it so far. Fonseka and his wife, Anoma, continue to maintain to the press that they have received no such letter from Alles.
First reported on the social media website Twitter by senior journalists, news of the resignation spread like wildfire with almost every news outfit also reporting that they were unable to reach either Alles or Fonseka for comment on the development. Speculation and conspiracy theories mounted as the afternoon wore on. Government insiders claimed that the DNA MP was expected to cross over and be granted a deputy ministerial portfolio.
Trouble in paradise
The trouble in paradise in terms of the DNP had begun some months ago, party insiders knew, when Alles, credited with having negotiated the former General’s release with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was allegedly adamant to block any attempt by Fonseka to join forces with the Ranil Wickremesinghe led United National Party. According to sources close to the former General, Fonseka has also been increasingly irritated with Alles’ position about the Sri Lanka Mirror raid. The CID raid in June on the offices of the Sri Lanka Mirror and the arrest of the website’s staffers was widely condemned both locally and internationally as another blow to press freedom in the country.
However, Fonseka, who has declared media freedom to be at the forefront of his political policy, was mum on the incident, presumably because he was unwilling to irk Alles, who took a hard line against the issue in his publications. Fonseka and the UNP Deputy Leader, Premadasa were noteworthy opposition members that did not comment or condemn the raid. Premadasa in fact, claimed at the UNP Working Committee that one of the websites in question, Sri Lanka X News had repeatedly attacked him. According to sources close to the former Army Chief, the General has been registering a degree of frustration at the level of control Alles wields over him, following his release from prison in May.
Fonseka confidants claim that Alles’ attempts to take control of and own politicians, as in the case of Mangala Samaraweera (who also resented the tactic latterly) was not something the General was comfortable with. Sarath Fonseka, as history has proven, repeatedly, is a one-man-show. Furthermore, as a man who commanded hundreds of thousands troops not so long ago, Fonseka prefers to give orders rather than take them. The fissures between Fonseka and Alles, were therefore fairly predictable, with some analysts noting after watching the pair in discussions just days after the General’s release, that a split was imminent although it was not clear how soon it would come.
Rising tensions notwithstanding, it is now alleged that the straw that broke the camel’s back in this case, was a candid interview Sarath Fonseka granted to the Sinhala language Randiwa newspaper weekend before last. The interview which the newspaper had headlined: “Tiran cannot control me” attained wide publicity after news broke of Alles’ alleged resignation.
Speaking to a journalist at the newspaper, Fonseka denied that Tiran Alles was dictating terms to him, especially in terms of his reaction to the Sri Lanka Mirror raid. The former army chief told the newspaper that he would not stick his chest out to defend Alles’ agendas and denounced the raid and attacks on Ruwan Ferdinandez, the opposition activist and coordinator of the websites under scrutiny.
In what some observers called a 1-2 punch, responding to a question by the Randiwa journalist who asked whether his position on the Sri Lanka Mirror issue wouldn’t anger his friend, Fonseka said “there was no such friendship between Alles and myself.” Adding fuel to the fire, the former Army Chief also went on to criticise the UNP reformists, saying that they should realise that “when they point one finger at Ranil Wickremesinghe and his leadership, they are pointing four fingers at themselves.”
Naturally the remarks did not sit well with Alles and furthermore his close associate, Premadasa, who believed Fonseka was jeopardising the reform movement within the UNP. Sources close to Alles claim that the DNA MP was irate about Fonseka’s candour to the newspaper and was in discussions with Premadasa and other confidants about his future political plans.
Characteristically, Fonseka appears to be back-pedalling somewhat following his revelations to the newspaper, now allegedly claiming that Randiwa had misinterpreted his statements. Be that as it may, the die was cast, and Alles has now officially handed in his resignation to Fonseka and according to reports, is ‘done’ with the General. Given the role the DNA MP played in negotiating Fonseka’s release deal, speculation abounded that Alles would be joining the government and would receive an important deputy ministerial portfolio. But it is now coming to light that Alles has decided to stay in the opposition and offer his full backing to Premadasa to carry forward the struggle for the UNP leadership.
While some reformists claim that Alles is an asset to the UNP’s reform movement because of the newspapers at his disposal, one reformist who declined to be named opined that if Alles was to join the government, it would be a blessing in disguise for the UNP. “If Tiran joins the government that will leave Premadasa free to work with the UNP Leadership and could finally give the UNP supporter on the ground what he wants – that is for Ranil, Karu and Sajith to work together and unify the main opposition,” the UNP MP explained.
In fact, following the release of the provincial election results, the UNP reformist group appears to be divided on how to proceed with its intention to oust UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. While sections of the UNP are elated about the fact that the party achieved a healthy 35 percent average in the predominantly Sinhala speaking provinces of Sabaragamuwa and North Central, where the party was practically washed out in local government polls in 2011, others hold a different view. Some factions of the reformist group believe that the achievement of nearly 35 percent in the two provinces was a result of the UNP taking on the government and an unnecessary victory for Wickremesinghe.
While one faction of the reformists believe that the struggle for a change in the UNP’s leadership should be fought simultaneously with an agitation against the incumbent regime, the other believes that the government should only be taken on under a different UNP Leadership, to ensure that Wickremesinghe is not given undue credit. The party’s rank and file and many of its senior MPs however are keen to build on what they view as success in the provincial polls, and feel that it is time for the UNP to begin taking advantage of the growing unpopularity of the incumbency.
Ranil Wickremesinghe meanwhile, party insiders claim, is in a buoyant mood, spurring his party members on to build on the first flush of election “success.” Wickremesinghe even came out with an expression of thanks to UNP voters, for going to the polls amidst fear and threat of intimidation.
Analysts quip that only eternal optimists like the UNP membership would take heart in defeat in all three provinces in play. However, the leadership appears determined to see the glass as half full, and in some cases, perhaps with justifiable reason. Local government polls in 2011, the third major poll to be held following the government’s triumphant war success over the LTTE, resulted in a UPFA landslide, with the governing party obtaining over 80 percent of the vote in some areas.
In last Saturday’s poll, while the UPFA continued to sustain healthy margins in most areas of Sabaragamuwa and North Central, it proved to be far from a washout of the opposition, with some electorates proving far too close for comfort for the ruling party. The UNP leadership is taking heart in the results of the Medirigiriya polling division in Polonnaruwa for instance, where the UNP lost by a little more than 5000 votes, while the Polonnaruwa polling division was also a relatively low margin of victory for the UPFA, which obtained 48,222 votes against the UNP’s 33,880. In both divisions the UNP received a healthy 40 percent of the total votes cast. In some areas of the Kegalle District, the results told a similar story.
The Ruwanwella polling division was a dead heat, with the UPFA obtaining 19,116 votes against the UNP’s 15,562. In Ruwanwella, neither party obtained a 50 percent majority, with the UPFA percentage being recorded at 48.45 percent. The UNP lost by just over 3000 votes in Deraniyagala, another area the party feels it has made significant gains. Overall, compared against the 2008 provincial council election results, the UNP’s margins have dipped in both Sabaragamuwa (40 percent) and North Central (37 percent), but UNP polls analysts claim the dynamic was different in 2008 with the government still unable to claim military victory over the LTTE.
As for the third province in play in Saturday’s poll, the fate of the Eastern Provincial Council is still undecided as hectic backroom negotiations are currently underway to obtain the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress by both the government and the opposition. The SLMC, which following intense deliberations, made an eleventh hour decision to contest alone in the east, instead of under the UPFA banner, is being wooed by the Tamil National Alliance and the UPFA which obtained 11 and 14 seats respectively, in order to form the provincial government.
On Monday (10) two days after the poll, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan wrote to Eastern Province Governor Rear Admiral (Rtd) Mohan Wijewickrema, saying it had the majority to form the council, together with the UNP which obtained four seats and the SLMC’s seven seats. Sampanthan’s letter indicates that the opposition alliance is a foregone conclusion although things do not appear to be quite so uncomplicated in Colombo where the decisions are being made. However, following the release of the results, Batticaloa District provincial councillor and former deputy mayor of Colombo, Azath Sally issued a press statement saying the government did not have a mandate to govern in the East.
Sally’s statement said: “This Government has no mandate to govern this province. 400,000 people have rejected the government of His Exellency Mahinda Rajapaksa .UPFA was able to get only 200044 votes against the three major parties in the province which collectively obtained 401645. The UNP has decided to give unconditional support to the TNA. TNA is willing to concede the Chief Minister’s post to the Muslims. The SLMC must accept this and show the world that we can work together without the support of the government. This is a great opportunity for both Tamil and Muslim communities to work together.”
Despite these two developments however, SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem is yet to announce a decision on the matter of the Eastern Provincial Council. SLMC insiders claim that Hakeem is in frantic negotiations with the Rajapaksa government, in which he holds the portfolio of Minister of Justice. The UPFA has repeatedly expressed confidence that the SLMC would join hands with them, with Minister Susil Premajayanth speaking at a meeting after the release of the results and expressing incredulity at the prospect of the SLMC not deciding in favour of allying with the UPFA. “Minister Hakeem is Minister of Justice in this government, his party is in the ruling coalition now; how can he go any other way,” Premajayanth told the crowd.
The SLMC High Command held a meeting to decide the matter on Tuesday evening, but there has been no decision announced so far. However, sources within the party say that Hakeem is requesting more ministerial portfolios in exchange for extending the SLMC’s support in the East. Other theories about the negotiations are that the government is offering a Muslim governor for the Eastern Province, in exchange for being allowed to appoint a Tamil Chief Minister as per its arrangement with Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan.
The UPFA is also mulling a shared arrangement to woo the SLMC, saying it would be a Tamil chief minister for the first two years, followed by a SLMC chief minister in the next two. However, analysts say there is a flaw in this plan from the outset, with it depending wholly on whether the incumbent resigns the post to give way to a successor, failing which the government will be forced to bring a motion of no confidence against its own Chief Minister.
A divided Congress?
If Hakeem decides to go with the UPFA in the East, giving the party a majority of 22, together with the SLMC’s 7 seats and the one seat accrued to the Wimal Weerawansa led National Freedom Front which contested the east independently, there is bound to be renewed tensions within the Congress, as witnessed during the party’s indecision about whether it was going to contest under the UPFA banner or not in the east. Several SLMC members like Sally believe that the only reason the SLMC got such traction in the east was because it decided to contest independent of the government.
They claim that with the government’s growing unpopularity and the fact that the Muslims do not believe the UPFA prioritises Muslim aspirations, it would have proved a death knell for the SLMC to contest with the UPFA. Under the circumstances, some sections of the SLMC believe that it would better honour the mandate the party received in the east, to make sacrifices in the short term, towards long term gain that would help the party to increase its credibility with Muslims, by allying with the opposition.
Having wrested control of Sabaragamuwa and the North Central Province, the government is desperately keen to hold on to the Eastern Provincial Council as well, which it believes would send a signal of the support it enjoys even in the non-Sinhala speaking areas of the island to the international community. This is especially important to the government in light of the high profile visits scheduled for September, including that of US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian affairs and former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert O. Blake who arrived in the country yesterday (12).
This is to be followed by the arrival of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s technical team tomorrow (14). In fact, although President Rajapaksa has reportedly told some of his ministers that the election results were nothing for the government to celebrate about, he will no doubt be glad to be facing his latest international challenges, commencing with these visits and ending with the Universal Periodic Review in October at the UNHRC, flushed with victory at the provincial polls.
Blake is to meet with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and other senior government officials, for briefing and discussions on the government’s recently unveiled LLRC action plan. The government is keen to have the US accept this plan as a positive step Sri Lanka has made towards fulfilling its obligations as per the UNHRC resolution adopted in March this year. This is the key point of engagement with the US, which is not setting its sights on the upcoming UPR in Geneva, but on what strides Sri Lanka makes on its post-conflict reconciliation and accountability obligations ahead of the next UNHRC session in March 2013.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay’s technical team, which is a precursor to her own visit to Colombo, presumably prior to the March 2013 sessions, has got the government working over-time to showcase the best-case scenarios in terms of its reconciliation plans and steps taken to improve its human rights record.
Minister G.L. Peiris has vouched for the fact that the team will be allowed restriction free access and full transparency on the part of the government. The team will be allowed to travel anywhere they wish, the Minister said, however noting, twice in the last two days, that the visit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s advance team has nothing to do with the UNHRC resolution adopted against Sri Lanka in March. At a press briefing at the External Affairs Ministry on Tuesday, Minister Peiris reiterated that “the team arriving in the island as a precursor to the visit of Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay was in no way related to the resolution adopted against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions in March.”
However certain threads of correspondence originating from the office of the UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, belie this claim. In an email dated Friday, September 7, Senior Human Rights Advisor, at the UN office of the Resident Coordinator Cynthia Veiko writes the following: “I am writing to inquire whether you would be available to meet with the 3-person OHCHR technical team from Geneva that will be on mission in Sri Lanka from 14-21 September to follow up on the March 2012 Human Rights Council Resolution.”
According to Veiko, the technical team will be led by Chief of the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and North Africa Branch at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Hanny Megally, Oscar Solera from OHCHR’s Rule of Law Unit and UNHRC Sri Lanka Desk Officer, Azwa Petra. The technical team is due to hold wide-ranging meetings with government and non-government stakeholders of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process, with a special emphasis in their focus on humanitarian issues, reconciliation and interestingly, Muslim issues.
It is likely that Minister Peiris’ repeated assurances about the visit of the Technical team having nothing to do with the UNHRC resolution passed in March, is an attempt on the part of the regime to ensure it stays on message with its electorate about refusing to bow to international pressure in terms of how it proceeds with reconciliation in the post-war phase.
This is despite Sri Lanka’s submission to the UPR, a country report as to how it has sought to improve its human rights situation makes it abundantly clear that Colombo has decided to cooperate with the UNHRC despite its bragging to the contrary. The UPR which takes place every four year involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States. The UPR will take place when the UNHRC’s 14th Session opens on 22 October this year.
If the UNHRC session in March is any indication, preludes and prologues to Geneva usually result in some degree of bickering and internecine conflict within the government. With more than a month to go for the next session to commence, signs are already rampant that the traditional tug-o-war between External Affairs Minister Peiris and President Rajapaksa’s Special Envoy on Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe is already underway.
Last weekend, the External Affairs Ministry was forced to retract a statement made by Ministry Secretary Tilak Amunugama, who told reporters that Sri Lanka’s UNHRC delegation for the UPR would not be headed by a minister, but by the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinha.
However, EAM Public Communications Director General Sarath Dissanayake said the Secretary’s statement was not factually correct, and that no decision on the head of delegation had been made so far. Media reports indicated that the statement had to be retracted after Samarasinghe lodged a strong protest with Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga regarding the issue.
Insiders now speculate that with tensions on the rise already, Geneva may once again prove rough seas to navigate for the Sri Lankan team courtesy: Financial Times