PREZ POLL 2020:
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 221
Dharmasena Welipitiya captured Gotabhaya Rajapaksa leaving the podium after addressing Viyathmaga Convention 2018 on May 13, 2018 at Shangri-la, Colombo.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Ravaya and Annida (Day After Tomorrow) edited by attorney-at-law K. W. Janaranjana, former editor of Ravaya, recently dealt with the possibility of war-winning Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa contesting the 2020 presidential election. In fact, both Ravaya and Annida allocated significant space to the contentious issue of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa entering the presidential race, following the Viyathmaga Convention 2018 at Colombo’s latest five-star hotel Shangri-La on the evening of May 13, 2018.
Civil society activist Janaranjana, co-convenor of Purawesi Balaya launched the new publication after having quit Ravaya over personal differences with the founder editor Victor Ivan, a former senior active member of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) during its first attempt to overthrow the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government in April, 1971. In spite of the break-up, Ravaya and the breakaway faction are continuing courageous journalism with no holds barred on their criticism of the government and the Joint Opposition (JO).
The possibility of Gajaba Regiment veteran Rajapaksa securing the nomination from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) seemed to have aroused many. With former External Affairs Minister and SLPP Chairman, Prof. G.L. Peiris, repeatedly declaring that it would contest the next parliamentary and presidential poll under its symbol, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa appeared to be the front runner though the breakaway SLFP-led UPFA faction (read JO) is still struggling to comprehend the reality.
Civil society activist, Sunanda Deshapriya, in his latest piece titled Gotabhaya Perahera (Procession of Gotabhaya) in the June 3, 2018, edition of Ravaya, lucidly discussed the former Defence Secretary’s strategy. Before proceeding, it would be pertinent to mention that Sunanda is the brother of Mahinda Deshapriya, outspoken Chairman of the National Election Commission (NEC), who is full brave talk, but short on action by his NEC when it comes to holding polls on time.
Alleging that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been backed by retired military top brass (Sunanda named retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera and retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne as key supporters, in addition to Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila), the civil society activist asserted that the Rajapaksa Group believed (1) the national issue did not require a political settlement based on the devolution of power (II) economic development is the panacea for the country’s problems and that war crimes weren’t perpetrated during the war (Aug 2006-May 2009) (III) continuation of waste, corruption and irregularities in the public sector.
Referring to President Maithripala Sirisena’s May 30, 2018 declaration that he wasn’t even aware of the much touted 100-day yahapalana programme, Sunanda alleged the SLFP leader was facilitating the Rajapaksa project.
He alleged that the treasury bond scams, involving tainted primary dealer Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in 2015 and 2016, had led to the current political crisis, with President Sirisena flaying the UNP.
Declaring Wickremesinghe would suffer a heavy defeat in case he contested the 2020 presidential poll, the long standing NGO lobbyist insisted that whatever the issues caused by Wickremesinghe and his henchmen, President Sirisena had no right to cause political mayhem. Sunanda Deshapriya strongly criticized President Sirisena for distancing himself from the 100-day programme. But, what really captured the attention of the reader was Sunanda’s assessment on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s presidential bid.
Claiming that the JO rejection of the JVP proposed 20th Amendment, meant to further weaken the executive presidency, indicated the breakaway SLFP-led UPFA faction was ready to throw its weight behind the younger Rajapaksa, Sunanda asserted: "Whether Mahinda Rajapaksa liked it or not Gotabhaya will be the SLPP presidential candidate. The US is the main factor that can thwart Gotabhaya. If the US bureaucracy delayed decision on Gotabhaya’s request to rescind his US citizenship, his presidential dream cannot be realized. In the final analysis, Gotabhaya’s political fate will be in the hands of US imperialists to decide whether to allow Gotabhaya to proceed."
In accordance with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in April 2015, those with dual citizenship cannot contest either presidential or parliamentary polls. Interestingly, those loyal to twice President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, voted for that Amendment. The only exception was Digamadulla MP Sarath Weerasekera.
Newly appointed SLFP National Organizer Duminda Dissanayake and UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam on Monday (June 4) declared President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe as their presidential candidates, respectively, at the 2020 poll. Cabinet spokesman Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, too, have declared their readiness to contest on the UNP ticket.
A crucial US visit amidst fresh crisis
An irate President Sirisena couldn’t have carried out such a venomous assault on Wickremesinghe at a worse time. Although, there had been public criticism of the UNP and its top leadership since nominations for the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls, President Sirisena advanced his strategy to a new level. Angry over alleged UNP strategy to humiliate him vis-a-vis the statesmanship of re-elected Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamed and deliberately leaving him out of a commemorative event to mark the birth anniversary of yahapalana architect the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, President Sirisena went all out against Wickremesinghe.
Earlier in the day, President Sirisena received a bipartisan delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives led by Congressman Mac Thornberry (Republican – Texas), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The visit highlighted the broad bipartisan support for Sri Lanka in the U.S. Congress. The powerful Committee is responsible for the supervision of the Department of Defence and the armed forces and sections of the Department of Energy.
During the visit, the delegation met President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya, Leader of the Opposition and Tamil National Alliance R. Sampanthan, State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene, Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam, Defense Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, members of Parliament, and civil society.
The high level US visit took place in the wake of unprecedented simmering crisis over some members of parliament receiving money from Walt and Row Associates, affiliated to the disgraced PTL in the run-up to the 2015 Aug parliamentary polls. The US obviously realizes high profile project undertaken by the international community (read as US and its allies, including India) to change the 1978 Constitution is in jeopardy due to continuing crisis caused by the treasury bond scams. The US wouldn’t have envisaged for a moment, the UNP ‘storming’ the Central Bank, twice, over a year apart, thereby undermined the meticulously planned project.
Having galvanized the electorate, on the basis of alleged massive corruption, during the Rajapaksa era, the US is in a deeply embarrassing position as the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government struggles to cope up with the treasury bond scam revelations. With civil society activist Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director Human Rights and Research Sri Lanka, vowing to reveal the names of all PTL beneficiaries, including religious leaders, the yahapalana government is in disarray. Another high profile US project to promote good governance and accountability in Sri Lanka, finalised in Nov 2016, should be re-examined against the backdrop of corruption charges directed at lawmakers representing various political parties. The US declaration that the three-year Strengthening of Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) would improve strategic planning and communication within the government and Parliament, enhance public outreach, develop more effective policy reform and implementation processes, and increase political participation of women and under-represented groups in Parliament and at local levels seemed hallow in the wake of recent revelations.
With the yahapalana administration in shambles, the US spearheaded political project is in serious trouble though the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) seems to be still confident it can be pulled off.
It would be prudent to examine the US response to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s possible entry into active politics. Another Ravaya article, carried in its June 3 edition, by Tiran Kumara Bangamaarachchi, also discussed the former Defence Secretary’s strategy as well as that of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Bangamaarachchi explained the circumstances under which Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recently visited the predominately Muslim Beruwela and Wickremesinghe toured the Jaffna peninsula and Kilinochchi. In spite of being severely critical of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s role during the Rajapaksa administration, the writer acknowledged that at the moment he was the most popular person in Sri Lankan politics. Bangamaarachchi asserted that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was surpassing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity and a specific strategy was being implemented to achieve that status.
The US response to the rapidly developing political situation should be examined, keeping in mind how the solitary super power threw its weight behind retired General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 January presidential poll. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the US role in getting R. Sampanthan’s TNA to back Fonseka, after having accused his army of war crimes on the Vanni east front in 2009, is in the public domain. However, Fonseka suffered a heavy defeat against Mahinda Rajapaksa, who secured 57.8 per cent of the vote against Sarath Fonseka’s 40 per cent.
At the time of the 2010 January contest, Sarath Fonseka hadn’t even registered himself as a voter and was unable to vote. The state-run media exploited Fonseka’s lapse during the last phase of the voting when it emerged the former Army Commander could not vote at the crucial poll. Recently, Fonseka declared in Kandy his readiness to contest the 2020 presidential election if his party (read as UNP) chose him. Having contested the last parliamentary poll on the Democratic Party (DP) ticket, Fonseka entered parliament through the UNP National List in early 2016, following the vacancy created by the demise of M.K.D.S. Gunawardena on January 19, 2016. Fonseka’s declaration should be examined against the backdrop of several key Uppers such as Mangala Samaraweera and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam naming Wickremesinghe as their presidential candidate. However, the civil society seemed to have written Wickremesinghe off. In an interview with Ravaya carried in its April 29 edition, Fonseka when asked whether he would be the one to face Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in case the former Defence Secretary contested 2020 presidential poll, said: "Gotabhaya will contest, if he was not arrested for wrongs committed by him. In case he came forward, the best person to face him must emerge from the people and the party. It’ll happen. I’m not saying that should be me. We’ll have to see what is happening."
Regardless of the political upheaval, the TNA and the US reiterated their commitment for a new Constitution. They seemed to be still confident of their project though the ground situation is deteriorating with President Sirisena taking on Premier Wickremesinghe. Why did Ambassador Keshap arrange a meeting between the visiting House Armed Services Committee representatives and the TNA as the former cannot be involved in the post-war political situation here. Although, brief US embassy statement didn’t say what they discussed, the TNA issued a detailed report on the deliberations.
The TNA statement revealed how Sampanthan had conveniently turned a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and the growing challenge to his position as the Opposition Leader by the Joint Opposition.
"Sampanthan briefed the US delegation on the current political situation and emphasized the importance of both the President and Prime Minister working together in order to find solutions to fundamental issues and taking this country forward. We are unhappy about the way the country is progressing," the statement quoted Sampanthan as having told the delegation.
The veteran leader was also quoted as having said: "the majority of the people in this country are willing to address the national issue once and for all. What is lacking is that the courage from the Sinhala leaders to go out to the people and explicitly tell them on the need for a new Constitution and the benefits of framing a new Constitution, he said. "Some Sinhala political leaders are trying to satisfy the hardliners than being just and equal to all people in this country, they cannot go on this path forever, it will only end up in history being repeated," Sampanthan warned.
Sampanthan said: "Especially the President and the Prime Minister must go to the Sinhala people and genuinely explain the need for a new Constitution. Since 1988 every successive government and President have made several attempts to change the present Constitution, therefore, this should not be a difficult task for the majority of Sinhala people to understand.
"We want a solution within a united undivided and indivisible country. The power-sharing arrangements should be in accordance with the international covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Expressing his concerns on the stalled process of drafting a new Constitution, Sampanthan said that a New Constitution would pave the way to solve many issues that this country had faced including the heavy debt and economic crisis, and therefore this effort could not be abandoned.
Sampanthan told the US delegation that the legitimate demands of the Tamil people in finding a lasting solution to the national question could only be addressed through adopting a new Constitution.
Sampanthan highlighted that his party was confident that if the Constitution was passed in Parliament with a two-thirds majority it would be approved by the people at a referendum, which was necessary for a new Constitution he said.
"We may have to rethink and our people will be forced to rethink our position if things do not go well and if things are not achieved within a certain time frame."
Sampanthan reminded the delegation that the Government of Sri Lanka has given a Commitment to fully implement the UNHRC resolution adopted in 2015 before March 2019. They must fast-track their process to achieve those commitments.
Sampanthan urged the delegation that the role of the International community with regard to Sri Lanka must be defined in relation to the UNHRC recommendations. The International community must ensure that the promises and the commitments given by the Sri Lankan Government are adhered to and implemented. The International community cannot be a spectator anymore with regard to Sri Lanka, if the government of Sri Lanka continues to fail in their commitments the international community must clearly state their position on their follow up mechanisms to safeguard the victims and ensure the non-recurrence of the past.
Although, the US embassy statement did refer to Mac Thornberry’s delegation meeting with civil society, the discussions are not in the public domain. But, it is not too hard to fathom at least one issue that had come up in the discussion and possible remedial action. As always, US strategy here will be primarily based on its permanent interests.
In early March, 2007, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa faciliated the Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement (ACSA) between the US and Sri Lanka which provides for among other things logistics supplies and re-fuelling facilities though a section of the Rajapaksa administration opposed it. The 2007 agreement, finalized at the onset of the Vanni campaign that brought an end to terrorism here, highlighted the importance of bilateral relations between the two countries.