When Seven major opposition parties made an offer of responsible cooperation in return for restoration of Parliament to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa they were rudely rebuffed. When his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa invited all former MP’s of the dissolved Parliament for a political conference, he was rebuffed (but not rudely) by all opposition parties. All parties except one. Of the seven opposition parties who jointly made the responsible cooperation offer, only the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) accepted the premier’s invitation albeit with reservations. By responding positively to PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s invitation positively, the TNA seems to have scored politically.
What had happened earlier was that in a related development several of Sri Lanka’s opposition parties came together for a common purpose in the national interest. Seven political parties, namely, the United National Party (UNP), Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) issued a ten – point joint statement on April 27 pledging ‘Responsible cooperation’ to the President and Government if Parliament is restored in the best interests of the country and all her people.
The opposition political parties utilized the public joint statement to put forward an offer of ‘Responsible cooperation’ to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Opposition party offer entailed an assurance of support to the Government if President Rajapaksa would rescind the gazette proclamation of 2 March or revive the old Parliament until its term concludes by the end of August. The Opposition parties would in turn pledge not to defeat the Government in a vote or block any legitimate action of the Government. This ‘Responsible cooperation’ offer or pledge was to ensure the governance of the country in a proper and lawful manner in compliance with the Constitution.
Joint Statement Offering Responsible Cooperation
The seven party leaders who lent their signatures to the ten point joint statement were Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB), R. Sampanthan (TNA), Rauff Hakeem (SLMC) Rishad Bathiudeen (ACMC), Mano Ganesan (TPA) and Patali Champika Ranawaka (JHU). The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was not a signatory to this statement. The JVP however was amenable to the opposition party joint offer to the Government but was reluctant to associate with the statement openly. Apparently the JVP was somewhat unwilling to be a signatory to a statement alongside the UNP and SJB for fear of being labelled ‘rathu aliya’ by the Pohottuwa politicos.
The Opposition party pledge and joint statement were the results of a combined effort by the parties concerned. However the primary mover behind this initiative was TNA Spokesperson and former Jaffna District Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran PC. Apparently the idea was sparked off at a TV discussion on 21 April in which Sumanthiran participated along with ex-MPs Ajith Perera and Sunil Handunnetti. When Sumanthiran mooted the idea of a joint offer by the Opposition, both Perera and Handunnetti concurred. The seeds of a joint offer of cooperation by Opposition parties were first sown then.
Ex- Jaffna MP Sumanthiran got the green light from TNA Leader Sampanthan to go ahead with the project and contacted leaders and representatives of other parties. Taking political realities into account, it was felt that a Memorandum of Understanding was not feasible. A unilateral offer by the parties was preferred. Sumanthiran formulated a draft and circulated it for suggestions and amendments. After several rounds of electronic and telephonic discussions, the final statement was crafted and approved by all the seven parties. Valuable input was provided by a top academic who also translated the document into Sinhala. The JVP agreed in principle but refused to be a signatory.
The seven party statement and proposal was e-mailed and faxed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa’s office.. It was also delivered in person to Presidential Adviser Lalith Weeratunga. Some Opposition party politicians were optimistic that the President would respond favourably but others expressed doubts. The pessimists opined that the President was determined not to rescind the gazette proclamation or re-convene Parliament. President Gotabaya’s meeting with the Maha Sangha is cited as proof of his intransigent mindset.
A recurring phenomenon of Sri Lankan politics is that of the pessimists being proven right on most issues. This is what happened to the “responsible cooperation” offer too. Instead of reciprocating with a “responsive cooperation” approach, President Rajapaksa dismissed opposition overtures firmly.
According to media reports, Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundara, in a letter addressed to former Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said he had been instructed to inform Premadasa that the President would not reconvene Parliament, and rejected the open letter sent by the Opposition parties.“It was observed that the signatories of the statement do not see the need for elections, and at a time when the entire State machinery is dedicated to the mitigation of COVID-19, are instead attempting to gain petty political advantages, and further narrow political objectives from reconvening Parliament. The signatories do not appreciate the immense effort made by the public sector and tri-forces, as well as other stakeholders in the efforts to counter the virus,” the letter sent by Dr. Jayasundara and released by the President’s Media Division said.
The letter also said Parliament had been dissolved under the constitutional powers given to the President, and the statement from the Opposition political parties calling for the reconvening of Parliament acknowledged this right.“Therefore, the dissolved Parliament cannot be reconvened. I have been instructed to inform you that the Elections Commission had initially scheduled the Parliamentary Election for 25 April, and it was subsequently decided the election will be held on 20 June.”
It was obvious that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had rudely shut the door on the opposition party offer of responsible cooperation. However a tiny window of opportunity opened up through a fresh initiative by former president and current prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. This columnist writing the “Political Pulse”article in our sister paper “Daily Financial Times” of April 29 wrote as follows – “The Opposition offer seems to have struck a responsive chord in the minds of the people. There is a groundswell of opinion that the Government should accept the opposition offer favourably. It is said that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who has a reputation of gauging the pulse of the people is aware of this. There is even speculation that the Premier may conduct a conference of political parties represented in the “old” Parliament and discuss the ‘Responsible cooperation’ offer further. It remains to be seen whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would encourage such a move.”
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Conference
Speculation about Premier convening a conference ended when the Prime Minister invited all former MP’s of the 2015 -2020 Parliament for a conference on May 4th. The Premier’s conference initiative had a surprising effect on the opposition parties. They were confused about Mahinda’s motives in convening such a conference after his brother Gotabaya had “Callously dismissed” their offer of responsible cooperation, The opposition parties seem to have erred in thinking that President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa were acting in tandem. Actually it was not so.
Instead of boycotting, the opposition parties could have proved a point by participating in the Prime Minister’s conference. They could have shown that they were really sincere about their offer of responsible cooperation. If they were smart and worked according to a coordinated plan they could have utilized the Prime minister’s conference to strengthen their claim for restoration of Parliament. It could have been used to exert more pressure on the president to relent.The opposition parties failed to recognize the subtle “differences” prevalent between “Mahinda Aiya” and “Gota Malli” on the question of Parliamentary Governance. In short the SJB alliance and UNP missed a good opportunity.
The seven opposition parties that came together and made the responsible cooperation offer to President Rajapaksa have also commenced video conference discussions on the current political situation. Among the ex-MP’s participating in these discussions are Sajith Premadasa, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Malik Samarawickrama,Mangala Samaraweera,Eran Wickramaratne, Rajitha Senaratne, Rauff Hakeem, Rishad Bathiudeen,Mano Ganesan, MA Sumanthiran, Velusamy Radhakrishnan, Pazhani Digambaram, Patali Champika Ranawala and Kumara Welgama. Initially all parties concerned including the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) represented by Sumanthiran resolved that the opposition parties would jointy boycott Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conference. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was duly informed and he too said the JVP led National Peoples Power(NPP) would also reject the PM’s invitation.
Subsequently the TNA which is the premier political configuration representing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces was compelled to deviate from this common stance and pursue an independent course of action due to a very interesting reason. Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa convening a conference of all ex-MP’s of the dissolved Parliament had struck a responsive chord in most TNA ex-parliamentarians of the N-E. In an environment where there was no Parliament with the President refusing to re-convene it, the ex-MP’s felt Premier Mahinda’s conference would provide a forum to ventilate their grievances about the prevailing situation in the North and East due to the Covid-19 spread. Many influential supporters in the respective constituencies also encouraged the TNA politicians in this.
TNA Takes a “U” turn Decision to Attend Meeting
When the ex-MP’s informed TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan that they wanted to participate in Mahinda’s meeting, the veteran politician from Trincomalee realised that the party had to attend the prime minister’s conference despite the opposition party boycott decision. This “U”turn decision by the TNA was explained to the other opposition parties by party spokesperson MA Sumanthiran. Several opposition parties were unhappy over the TNA attending the PM’s conference but respected and accepted the party decision.
In a separate development the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also decided to attend Mahinda’s meeting. Earlier Dr. Rajitha Senaratne had indicated that the UNP like the other opposition parties would boycott the meeting. Subsequently UNP Gen-Secy Akila Viraj Kariyawasam announced that the party would be attending the PM’s conference.This decision was criticized by some SJB members who insinuated that the UNP had entered into a secret agreement with the Govt. This in turn made several pro-Ranil UNP ex-MP’s jittery. They prevailed upon Ranil to revoke the earlier decision. The UNP leader too realised that he may be overruled in the working committee meeting by others. Ranil seized upon an opportunity provided by Mahinda Rajapaksa himself as an escape route. When it became known that the opposition parties were going to boycott the conference, Mahinda had enlarged its potential attendance by extending his invitation to the pre- 2015 -2020 Parliament ex-MP’s also. Now the UNP used that as an excuse not to attend and arrived at a decision to that effect unanimously in the WC.
When it became known that the UNP was keeping away , Somasundaram “Maavai” Senathirajah the leader of the TNA’s chief constituent the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) got worried and expressed his concerns to TNA leader Sampanthan. The lanky Ex-Jaffna district Parliamentarian wondered whether the TNA too should pull out like the UNP. Sampanthan however convinced Senathirajah that the TNA should attend the conference. Sampanthan gave three reasons. Firstly the conference provided a forum to highlight the north -eastern peoples grievances in the absence of Parliament at a time when the Covid-19 was spreading. Secondly it would help to establish better relations with the Govt and demonstrate to the Prime Minister that the TNA would if necessary act independently of other opposition parties in the interests of the Sri Lankan nation and the Tamil people. Thirdly it would help dispel the notion that the TNA was a UNP appendage. Non -participating would send the wrong message that the TNA was doing so because the UNP had pulled out.
TNA leader Sampanthan informed Mahinda Rajapaksa that the party would definitely attend the conference. Mahinda was delighted.The TNA issued a statement on the eve of the Prime Minister’s conference explaining the party stance. The statement particularly emphasized that the conference was not a substitute for the re-convening of Parliament. The TNA statement is reproduced in full because of its importance –
STATEMENT – TAMIL NATIONAL ALLIANCE
1. An appeal was made by the Tamil National Alliance and other political parties to His Excellency the President for the dissolved Parliament to be reconvened. The response to this request thus far has been negative.
2. In this background the Hon. Prime Minister has invited all Members of the dissolved Parliament to a meeting at Temple Trees on Monday the 4th.
3. The country and the people are in a situation of grave crisis due to the following factors.
a. The Pandemic – the Corona Virus – has been gradually escalating – much more needs to be done to eradicate it completely from our Country, there is a legitimate fear amongst the people that it could further escalate with grave consequences, the Country’s united efforts are needed in this regard.
b. At all National Elections over the past twenty-five (25) years since 1994, over Five terms of both Parliament and Presidency, the people have in the exercise of their sovereignty – their franchise, rejected the 1978 constitution, and given a MANDATE for the enactment of a new constitution, encompassing all three components of their Sovereignty – Powers of Governance – including Legislative Executive and Judicial Power – FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS and their FRANCHISE. This Mandate of the People in the exercise of their Sovereignty has not been fulfilled and the country continues to be governed under a constitution rejected by the People for over twenty-five years.
c. The Parliament elected in 2015 unanimously resolved to convert itself into a Committee of the whole Parliament – termed a Constitutional Assembly with a Steering Committee and sub committees in charge of different Subjects and an Experts Committee to formulate a new Constitution dealing primarily with three issues.
i. The Executive Presidency
ii. Electoral Reforms to Parliament.
iii. The National Question the Tamil Question – Sharing of Powers of Governance.
All political parties were represented in the several committees established, there was substantial consensus, Reports of the committees were filed in the Constitutional Assembly, the process reached its final stages, when it stalled until the dissolution of Parliament.
The National Question the sharing of the Powers of Governance, has since the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, been addressed by all political parties and political Leaders and successive Governments since 1991 – and much progress has been made – Public commitments have been made to the Country and to the International community – in regard to how this issue would be addressed and concluded in an acceptable way. The support of the International Community was obtained on the basis of such commitments. These commitments have to be kept in the interests of national peace, regional peace and world peace. It would otherwise appear that the International Community was also deceived to betray the Tamil people who were the victims.
d. The worsening economic crisis the country is facing.
We have decided that we need to attend the Meeting with the Hon. Prime Minister, because all these issues outlined above need to be addressed and to clearly indicate that we are prepared to extend our co-operation to the resolution of these issues in a reasonable and acceptable manner in the interests of the Country and all its People.
However, we wish to emphasize that the meeting summoned by you is not and cannot be a substitute for convening the Parliament. We are of the firm view that the Parliament must be convened as stated in our joint statement to deal with several constitutional and legal issues that have arisen, which Parliament alone can deal with.
Mr. R Sampanthan – Leader, Tamil National Alliance (TNA)
Mr. Mavai Senathirajah- Leader, Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)
Mr. Selvam Adaikkalanathan – Leader Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO)
Mr. Dharmalingham Siddathan – Leader, People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE)
Twelve Ex-MP’s of the TNA participated in the Conference convened by Prime Minister Rajapaksaat “Temple Trees”. PLOTE leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan and ex- national list MP Ms. Shanthi Sriskantharajah were absent.Party leader Sampanthan and spokesperson Sumanthiran refrained from speaking at the conference and let the other TNA representatives articulate the particular problems faced by the Tamil people of the North and East. Wanni district ex-MP’s Charles Nimalanathan and Dr.C. Sivamoham made very important and impressive contributions. At the conclusion of the conference Prime minister Rajapaksa thanked the TNA “specially” for having attended the meeting to express its views on the difficulties faced by the Tamil people and for making a meaningful contribution to the discussion on the anti-Covid-19 campaign.
Problems and Grievances of the Tamil People
TNA leader Sampanthan submitted a three-page document to Premier Mahinda at the conference outlining the problems and grievances of the Tamil people in the present context.The TNA also sought and obtained a separate meeting with Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss the contents of the document. Eleven Ex-MP’s of the TNA met the PM at his Wijerama Road residence on May 4th evening from 5. 30 PM to 6.20 PM. Prof GL Peiris and Basil Rajapaksa were also present. Apart from Siddharthan and Ms. Sriskantharajah, Dr. Sivamoham also did not attend.
Several matters were discussed and potential solutions to some issues were identified. Some of these were Constitutional reform, the release of Tamil political prisoners undergoing trial, presidential pardon for convicted prisoners, Permission for North -Eastern local authorities to uplift funds deposited for coping with disasters and utilse them for Covid-19 relief purposes, Increasing and expanding the 5000 Rupee Covid grant to a wider section of the N-E population, release of military occupied agricultural lands, resettlement of 2000 displaced agrarian families and the return of 512 fishing families to Myliddy.
The Prime minister made no definite promises but assured the TNA that he would discuss the issues further with President Gotabaya and resolve matters in due course. Against the backdrop of past history – where promises made were never honoured – the TNA has no illusions but the meetings with Mahinda has instilled confidence into the party that some positive forward movement was possible on at least two of the issues discussed.
The TNA’s participation at the Prime Minister’s conference and subsequent meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa,resulted in interesting reactions. SJB leader Sajith Premadasa made observations that were critical of the SLPP Government’s bona fides in dealing with the Tamil people. On the other hand the TNA’s detractors and oppnents within the Tamil polity like Suresh Premachandran, CV Wigneswaran, Ananthy Sashidaran, Selvarajah Gajendran and Douglas Devananda also had caustic comments to make.
Meetings With Mahinda Worry TNA’s Tamil Political Rivals
The criticism levelled against the TNA – for attending Mahinda’s meeting and also meeting the PM – by Tamil politicians of different hues demonstrated that the premier Tamil configuration had acted correctly. The multiple political attacks proved the truth of a proverbial Tamil saying “Kaaitha Maram Thaan Kalladi Padum” (Only trees bearing fruit are pelted with stones). The TNA’s Tamil political rivals are worried by the meetings with the Prime Minister. By responding positively to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s invitation, the Tamil National Alliance seems to have scored politically.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a Revised Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of May 09, 2020. It can be accessed here: