Posted on March 7th, 2017
I returned from Azerbaijan on 23 June and had to go that morning to Parliament for a COPE meeting. The report on the Bond scam was being drafted, and it was clear that it would show that Arjuna Mahendran had interfered egregiously with bond placements to the great detriment of the economy. The Opposition was feeling quite confident, but this made it push its luck and indicate that it would press for a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, who had clearly been responsible for what had happened, as indicated by his spirited defence of his acolyte – and indeed the instructions he had given to less scrupulous members of COPE to delay proceedings.
But this was not the only issue of importance, and it should not I felt be allowed to detract from the reforms that had been pledged in the President’s manifesto. The most important of these, which had been ignored when the Constitution was amended in April, was electoral reform, but the President had promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until that was accomplished.
I believe he was sincere, but I worried given the rumours that were circulating about an early dissolution. However, Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the Opposition, assured me during this week that the President had again promised that he would ensure electoral reform before having an election.
One area that I had not been able to address in the Manifesto was the need for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. This had been pledged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 manifesto, and he had indeed appointed a committee headed by Jayampathy Wickremaratne to draft one. But by 2007, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, this lay forgotten, with the President and Jayampathy clearly no longer trusting each other. I was sorry about this, and told Jayampathy he should proceed, but it was clear he did not think the effort worthwhile in the prevailing dispensation.
But when in 2008 I was appointed also to the position of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following a renewed pledge in Geneva that a Bill of Rights would be introduced, I felt I could press, and Jayampathy was persuaded to reactivate his committee. We used many of the people who were also working on the Human Rights Action Plan that had been promised in Geneva, and well before the end of 2009 we had good drafts ready.
The silly season however had set in by then, and the President was concerned now only about the election. He had said work on the HR Plan should only continue after the election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe was not willing to press, nor even to bring the Bill of Rights to his attention. I foolishly asked him whether I could put it on the ministry website as a draft, which he forbade, whereas I should have gone ahead without asking him, so that he would not have got any flak.
After the election, though I was able to work on the HR plan (through Mohan Pieris, since I had no official status now in this regard), I could do nothing for the Bill of Rights. I did bring it up with the President but he told me there were things in it that could not be accepted. The only factor he could cite was the legalization of homosexuality, and though I thought his claim that this was culturally inappropriate was absurd given that it is Christianity that has hang ups about sexuality, not Buddhism or Hinduism, I was weak enough to tell him to remove that clause and introduce the rest. But he was clearly not willing to move.
Bill of Rights
Jayampathy, perhaps reflecting on the propaganda use that might have been made of the draft he had presided over, was not willing to include a Bill of Rights in the Sirisena manifesto. However I felt, useless though it might be that I should put the subject on the legislative agenda, so on 24 June I introduced yet another Constitutional amendment, to amend the Rights provisions through a Comprehensive Bill of Rights.
Two days later the President dissolved Parliament. I do not think he had been deceitful in his commitment to the Leader of the Opposition. Rather he had panicked when the Opposition indicated that, if the House expressed No Confidence in the Prime Minister, it would insist on a new Prime Minister of its choice. This was foolish, because it would have put the President in a tight corner, and given the power he possessed to dissolve Parliament, it was absurd to think that a Parliamentary majority meant anything.
Ranil it seemed had also not left anything to chance. Officials close to the President told me they thought he was committed to keeping Parliament going but, after a meeting with some of the more determinedly anti-Rajapaksa members of the international community, he announced dissolution. The conclusion they came to was that he had been in effect threatened, with dire consequences in Geneva if there were no stable government in place before the Human Rights Council session scheduled for September – by which of course those who resented our victory in the war against the Tigers meant a government in effect run by Ranil.
A lame duck
So Sirisena succumbed, and in effect turned himself into a lame duck President. That he is not happy in this role is apparent from the fact that, a year later, he finally did get rid of Arjuna Mahendran. But he had saved him in June 2015, and given the damage he continued to do – with repetition of his bond manipulations in 2016 too – the President must accept at least some responsibility for the sad state of the economy now. Whereas he might have exercised some restraint on Ranil and his shysters, he sacrificed that opportunity under pressure.
He did however try initially to increase his own room for manoeuvre. When the election was imminent, it became clear when the election was imminent that the vast majority of the SLFP wanted to work with Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was true then of practically the entire senior leadership, given that it had been ignored when in March the President appointed some members of the party into his Cabinet.
The absurdity of how he did that is understandable if he was still in thrall to Chandrika Kumaratunga with regard to the SLFP. That was the excuse he had made in January regarding his initial Cabinet appointments. Chandrika after all had no love for her party since she felt its leadership, except for Mangala Samaraweera, had rejected her for Mahinda Rajapaksa. That explains the failure to consult the Leader of the Opposition about the March cabinet appointments, and the promotion by and large of those who did not really have a respected position amongst party cadres – and who therefore had allowed Jayampathy’s sleight of hand with regard to putting the Prime Minister in the driving seat to go through. Thankfully the Supreme Court turned that little trick down, and I hope Maithripala Sirisena gathers how narrowly he was saved, with the SLFP members he had inducted into the Cabinet having done nothing on behalf of the Presidency then.
Bowed to the general will
In June, recognizing his mistake, he bowed to the general will, and gave Mahinda Rajapaksa nomination for the election. That was the only way in which he could have preserved the SLFP for, had he refused, Mahinda would have gone on his own and many of the seniors in the SLFP would have followed him, realizing that he was far more popular than the President. The SLFP then would have been decimated, and the President was right to compromise.
Sadly several of his supporters, who would never have supported Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Presidential election had he stood against Mahinda Rajapaksa, resented the President’s decision and played into UNP hands. I do not know if the SLFP was foolish in refusing nomination to them, but the impression I had was that all those the President wanted would have been included, and it was those who were bitter about Rajapaksa, or frightened, who went over to Ranil.
Certainly their claim that the SLFP was full of rogues was nonsensical since they all knew very well what the UNP had been up to.
And while some individuals they disliked did receive SLFP, or rather UPFA nomination (since the old coalition still held), those who were obviously unpalatable such as Duminda de Silva and Sajin Vass Goonewardena were left out.
With some of the more forceful supporters of the President now tied to the UNP, those who resented him amongst the UPFA Parliamentary candidates had a field day, and some of them concentrated their energies on trying to ensure that those who had supported the President from January onward were not elected. I told Vasudeva, who put forward the idea that this was essential that he was being silly, for you cannot run a successful campaign if you are working against candidates on your own lists.
Vasu told me later that he thought I was right but, like Jayampathy with his effort to make the President always act on the Prime Minister’s advice, he only accepted that admitting to what he wanted was a mistake. I think several of those in the UPFA, zealous on behalf of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but capable of expressing their enthusiasm only through attacking others, worked against their colleagues, which would naturally have confused voters.
And the President exacerbated the situation by not appearing on platforms in support in general of UPFA candidates. Having decided, against the advice of his supporters whose hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa was greater than their affection for him, that he would allow Rajapaksa nomination, he should have followed the logic of his decision and campaigned for his party. Failing to do so was foolish, and allowed those who disliked him to dominate the UPFA campaign.
Some did not content themselves simply with working against those on their own lists they disliked or distrusted. They went further and openly attacked the President. Later, when I told Mahinda Rajapaksa that this had contributed to the animosity of the President towards him, he said that that had only been some younger members and the President should not have taken them seriously. But as I told him that would have given ammunition to those around the President who disliked his predecessor, and allowed them to claim that he needed to establish control of the parliamentary party before the election was held.
Their rationale was that, if the UPFA won a majority, he would be forced to make Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister would then sideline the President. But this was an absurd argument, first because it was most unlikely that the UPFA would get a majority on its own, second because even if that happened, there would be enough individuals whose allegiance was to the President so that some sort of compromise would have been essential.
But panic prevailed, and three days before the election the President dismissed the secretaries of both the SLFP and the UPFA.
This was wholly wrong. Though a case might have been made for the changing of the SLFP secretary, given that the President was the head of that party, the UPFA was a coalition, and he had an obligation to consult the other parties to that coalition before making any decision. And while Duminda Dissanayake was a candidate of the UPFA and the SLFP at the election, and was recognized as a leading member of the party, Prof. Wiswa Warnapala who was made Secretary of the UPFA was by now seen only as a devoted slave of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The sudden sacking of senior party officials, on Friday, came as a shock, and was compounded by a legal manoeuvre designed to prevent any challenge. SLFP supporters in the country were confused, and the erosion of confidence doubtless contributed to the UNP doing better than the UPFA in areas where the UPFA had been confident of coming on top. So the UNP had a substantial lead over the UPFA in the new Parliament, and would have been able (with its ally the Muslim Congress, most members of which had anyway been elected through the UNP) to command a majority in coalition with one or other of the smaller parties that had gained representation, the TNA or even the JVP.
So, for the moment at least, Ranil Wickremesinghe was firmly in control, and the President had to recognize that his ability to put forward the perspectives of the party to which he belonged would be limited, at least in the short term.