By the “Sunday Times”Political Editor
President Maithripala Sirisena has rejected a request by the United National Party (UNP) to re-activate the onetime ‘National Government’ with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and thus enlarge the Cabinet of Ministers.
It was made on Saturday night by a four-member UNP delegation led by the then Prime Minister designate Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was sworn in the next day (Sunday). They met Sirisena at his Mahagamsekera Mawatha residence. Early this week, Wickremesinghe rejected a move by his party seniors to forge a rather unusual alliance with the only Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) parliamentarian, Ali Zahir Mowlana, as exclusively revealed in these columns last week. That was also to enhance the number of ministers.
Mowlana was a close ally of the then Tiger guerrilla eastern commander Karuna alias Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharn and helped him flee to Colombo from the battlefields in the east after he broke ranks with his leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Mowlana served in the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and had a request for asylum rejected by US authorities. This was on the grounds that he was on the diplomatic staff and was thus not qualified. He represents the SLMC from the Batticaloa District, though his party leader Rauff Hakeem and others were elected at the August 2015 parliamentary elections on the UNP ticket.
This move was strongly criticised by those within the UNP and even their passive ally the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Aandu krama viyasthaavey hil hoyanna epa or don’t look for loopholes in the Constitution, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told Wickremesinghe. Some civil society groups backing the new government were also not in favour. They said it went against the spirit of the Constitution.
Other UNP delegation members who met President Sirisena were Malik Samarawickrema, re-appointed Minister of Development Strategies, International Trade in addition to Science Technology and Research on Thursday, Rajitha Senaratne, re-appointed Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, and Ranjit Madduma Bandara, the former Minister of Law and Order, now appointed as Public Administration and Disaster Management Minister. The names of not-cabinet ministers, non-cabinet ministers, ministers of state and deputy minister appear elsewhere in this newspaper.
It was Samarawickrema who proposed to President Sirisena to sign an agreement for a ‘National Government’. When Sirisena queried “what agreement,” he replied “a UNP-SLFP agreement.” Eka deng epaa. Eka dang amathaka karanna or that is not needed now. Forget it, said Sirisena, according to a source close to the Presidency.
President Sirisena, the source said, then asked whether the delegation had brought along with them the proposed list containing the names for the Cabinet of Ministers. Wickremesinghe replied “yes” and handed over a list containing 36 names. President Sirisena looked at it and declared that it should be pruned down to exactly 28. He was holding the Law and Order Ministry which has now been placed under the Ministry of Defence.
Samarawickrema, in a bid to convince President Sirisena, pointed out that Parliament had in fact given approval for a ‘National Government’. He said, “We could then appoint 45 ministers and let such a Cabinet function.” The President dismissed the suggestion saying “eka deng vedak nehe” or that is now useless. Senaratne took over the effort. He asked President Sirisena that since the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was a partner in the United National Front (UNF), whether it was possible for them to form a ‘National Government’ of their own. He replied that they could not do so under the UPFA–UNP Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) reached after the August 2015 parliamentary elections and thereafter.
President Sirisena, who had by then been perusing the list of would-be cabinet ministers asked why Arjuna Ranatunga has been named the Minister of Petroleum Resources. He used some strong language to ask whether it was wise to do so. “Sir, is there a problem,” queried Senaratne. He replied that two persons had died at his ministry in an incident after Ranatunga had gone there to retrieve some documents whilst not functioning as a Minister. How can he go and serve there, he asked.
The subject then turned to law and order. President Sirisena declared that investigations into the alleged attempt to assassinate him were progressing well now. “I have always held that such investigations should be carried out correctly and in accordance with the law,” he said. Ranjit Madduma Bandara intervened to say “Sir baya wenda epaa. Mama hariyata veday karranam or Sir don’t be frightened. I will do the job correctly.” Snapped back Sirisena, “Even earlier, you ran the Law and Order Ministry. Did you do your job or was it done for you by the Chief of Staff (CoS) of the Prime Minister’s Office.” He was referring to a onetime Law and Order Minister who serves as CoS, Sagala Ratnayake. Sirisena then turned angry and remarked “You didn’t have anything to do. Isn’t it?” He said that he would appoint a suitable person as Law and Order Minister when it was necessary and it would remain with the Defence Ministry until then.
There was a divergence of views on the composition of the Cabinet. It was President Sirisena’s view that it should be made of 28 plus 2 making it 30. That was taking into consideration the President and the Prime Minister. However, the UNF differed from that view pointing out that it should be 30 plus 2 making a total of 32 ministers.
This was how the UNF ended up sending 36 names, they explained. They included four UNFers – Palitha Range Bandara, Ravi Samaraweera, D.M. Swaminathan and Sarath Fonseka – and SLFP’s Piyasena Gamage and A.H.M. Fowzie.
President Sirisena strongly objected to and refused to consider Fonseka and was critical of but did not object to Bandara, according to the UNF. Of course he also said no to Gamage and Fowzie on the basis of them being SLFPers. The UNF fell in line and dropped Samaraweera, Bandara, Swaminathan and Fowzie in the light of the interpretation of 28 ministers. “We were more focused on getting the Vote on Account in Parliament passed without delay,” a senior UNP source said. However, the source said they would raise issue over the matter again.
Samarawickrema, the source revealed, pointed out that the names of some SLFP would-be ministers were also in the list to be sworn in as ministers. President Sirisena declared that some of them were those in “my National List” who have entered Parliament. It was the same with others who were elected. “Let it be anyone. Those going to the other side, don’t bring them here. Take them to whatever place and have them sworn-in if there is any lawful ministry,” he retorted.
That Sirisena’s relations remained bitter with the UNP was reflected in his remarks in the past weeks. A group of SLFP parliamentarians have been trying during different meetings with Sirisena to persuade him to allow them to tie-up with the UNP. The answer has been a firm ‘No”. In what seemed a ‘pincer movement’ came the initiative that the UNP delegation made. They too called for a ‘National Government’ during Saturday night’s meeting. There was a fine thread that seemed to run through some in the SLFP group and UNP leaders.
Just a day after he met the UNP delegation, President Sirisena had a meeting (on Sunday) with Mahinda Rajapaksa, recognised by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya this week as the new Leader of the Opposition. Sirisena is learnt to have briefed him on his talks with the UNP delegation and matters relating to the current political situation. Thereafter, the same night he met a group of SLFP parliamentarians. Other than the three who crossed over – Lakshman Seneviratne, Vijith Vijithamuni de Soysa and Indika Bandaranayake a notable absentee was Duminda Dissanayake, onetime General Secretary of the SLFP.
SLFPers Piyasena Gamage and A.H.M. Fowzie had crossed over earlier.
Sirisena delivered a strong message saying, “everyone here please listen.
Don’t speak. Hear what I have to say.” He said, “There will be no “national unity government” with Ranil Wickremesinghe. You will not be given portfolios. Former Minister, Faiszer Musthapha, strongly billed to cross over to the UNP, was to remark that the refusal would prompt those involved to go to Courts. Sirisena replied “Ayvaa mang balaa gannang” or I will take care of that.” He told the MPs how he had received 36 names and how he wanted the names of A.H.M. Fowzie, Sarath Fonseka, Piyasena Gamage and Arjuna Ranatunga removed, the latter from being given the petroleum portfolio.
There was more drama when the SLFP Central Committee met on Tuesday evening. Dayasiri Jayasekera, a one-time UNP MP and Rajapaksa backer, now a staunch Sirisena loyalist was locked in a war of words, after he called for disciplinary action against MPs who had crossed over. The move infuriated Mahinda Amaraweera, a key promoter for a tie-up with the UNP. He had in fact had meetings in his official residence with like-minded colleagues to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was named Prime Minister. He said he would “give up politics and leave” if such action was contemplated. “Why do you have to talk about it then,” retorted Jayasekera. Endorsing Jayasekera’s remarks was Chamara Sampath, Chief Minister of the Uva Province.
As for Fonseka, Sirisena explained, that the onetime military strongman’s name had figured in the ongoing investigations to assassinate him. It was Sirisena who promoted him to the rank of Sri Lanka’s first Field Marshal after the man had led troops to victory in the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009. He supported Sirisena at the presidential election of January 2015. The President’s stated dislike for Fonseka and the refusal to swear him in prompted Wickremesinghe to leave his name out of the Cabinet of Ministers.
Since being sworn in on Sunday as Prime Minister, an expanded Cabinet of Ministers became inevitable for Wickremesinghe. Firstly, he had to reward his party loyalists who backed him since being ousted on October 26. Secondly, he also had to accommodate those who were joining him from the SLFP, thus endorsing the UNP policies in return for portfolios. That thrust both by the SLFPers and the UNPers has been put paid and those who crossed over are now stranded. Thus, it may well be a UNP government with less than 113 MPs in Parliament. Their 106 strength is, however, bolstered by the support of 14 MPs of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) whenever it becomes necessary to maintain the parliamentary majority.
Dispute over cultural affairs portfolio
There were many issues for Wickremesinge to tackle ahead of the Cabinet of Ministers being sworn in. Just the night before (Wednesday), the Sunday Times is able to reveal how two prominent UNPers, both now Ministers, telephoned President Sirisena. One was Sajith Premadasa, who is now re-appointed Minister of Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Premadasa told Sirisena that he would not be coming for the swearing-in ceremony the next morning and his act was by no means an affront to the President. He complained that he had asked for the subject of Cultural Affairs and that had been given to Akila Viraj Kariyawasam (Minister of Education). Sirisena had replied that he was not angry with Premadasa over the issue. However, just hours before the swearing-in on Thursday morning, Premier Wickremesinghe had telephoned Udaya R. Seneviratne, Secretary to the President and sought a change. He wanted the cultural affairs subject listed under Premadasa.
The other caller was Ravi Karunanayake. He also told Sirisena that he would not be turning up for the swearing-in ceremony. Asked why, he replied it was because the Finance portfolio was promised to him and it had not been given. He wanted Sirisena not to take it amiss. Sir Ekata amanaapa wenna epa or Sir, don’t be disappointed over this, said Karunanayake. Wickremesinghe had already come under heavy pressure from senior UNP rankers not to assign the finance portfolio to Karunanayake on the grounds that it would be bad for the party and the new government. When offered the Ministry of Power and Energy, a UNP source said, Karunanayake had also sought to annexe the subject of petroleum resources but Wickremesinghe had turned it down.
Dispute over media heads
Another matter that played out was a “tele drama” of sorts which would never appear on screens. The state run Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) Chairman, Sarath Kongahage, had left his office at Torrington Square and was driven in his official vehicle on Thursday night to the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI), of which he is also Chairman. Within hours of being sworn-in as Finance and Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, had re-appointed the previous incumbent Inoka Sathyangani to head the SLRC. She had gone to the premises, asked the staff to arrange a meeting the next day. She had directed that Kongahage return his official vehicle immediately. The lawyer, one time Presidential candidate, and former diplomat promptly returned his official car. Moments later, it was President Sirisena who telephoned him. He was livid. “Who asked you to give up your appointment? I never told you. Go back immediately and ensure you continue,” he thundered. Samaraweera had also re-appointed Thilaka Jayasundera as the Chairman of Independent Television Network (ITN) but Somaratne Dissanayake, who had replaced her, was directed to continue as Chairman. Samaraweera later told his two nominees to wait till his subjects are gazetted.
Just hours before the swearing-in of ministers, Sirisena telephoned Lake House Chairman Wasantha Ramanayake. He directed that he hand over all his functions and duties to Krishantha Cooray immediately. A member of the UNP Working Committee, Cooray is widely regarded as a close confidant of Sirisena. Until the ouster of Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, he served as Chairman of Lake House. He is also Chairman of Hotel Developers, the owning company of Colombo Hilton. On Friday, President Sirisena telephoned Samaraweera and asked him not to make appointments to any positions in the Media Ministry until the gazette notification listing the subjects allocated to ministers was published. He is learnt to have pointed out that Cooray had already taken over at Lake House only to be told by the President that it was he who had made that appointment. Whether the gazette notification in question will be issued before or after he returns from a four-day private visit, overseas is not immediately clear. It is, however, clear that President Sirisena wants to retain under his purview some of the state run media institutions.
If the Supreme Court ruling that the dissolution of Parliament was unconstitutional prompted politically battle scarred Mahinda Rajapaksa to cede the premiership to Ranil Wickremesinghe, he has still found an assertive position. That is the post of Leader of the Opposition. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced in Parliament that he would recognise Rajapaksa, prompting TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan to claim he, too, held that position. Earlier, if the argument was that there were two Prime Ministers in Sri Lanka, it was a case of claims now that there were two Leaders of Opposition. A parliamentary source said that whilst the Speaker would study demands for the appointment of a Select Committee, legal and constitutional aspects were a matter for courts. At a recent meeting, Jayasuriya praised Sampanthan for his contribution as Leader of the Opposition and for defending Sri Lanka at international fora.
Thus the 52-day long chapter in Sri Lanka’s political history, one of the darkest since independence 70 years ago, came to a close at the Presidential Secretariat at the auspicious hour of 11.16 a.m. last Sunday. This was with Ranil Wickremesinghe being sworn in as Prime Minister. It was for a second time since being elected to Parliament at the August 2015 parliamentary elections. He is now holding the office of Prime Minister for the fifth time.
It is now known that Speaker Jayasuriya played a key role for this ‘sweet and sour’ occasion. Acting as intermediary, mostly over the telephone between President Sirisena and now Premier Wickremesinghe, he amicably resolved some contentious issues of concern. That was how the earliest available date and time was fixed for the swearing-in.
Just after President Sirisena swore-in Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the two fed each other pieces of kiribath or milk rice. The ritual is traditional and underscored a good future. Yet, contrary to the wide belief that the political crisis has ended altogether, another new chapter has in fact begun. How volatile that would be remains to be seen in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps, the only consolation is the fact that there is now a functioning government, a seeming stability and normalcy.