Editorial/Opinion

Prez polls brings out internal strife

One of the longest ruling monarchs in history, King Louis the Great (Louis XIV) (1638 to 1 September 1715) is to have said, “I am the state” (L’etat c’est moi) when he successfully implemented drastic reforms that his predecessors wouldn’t dare to do against the wishes of the aristocracy.
It is said that Louis the Great was “able to capitalise on the widespread public yearning for law and order that resulted from prolonged foreign wars and domestic civil strife to further consolidate central political authority and reform” at the expense of certain segments of the society. With the much-needed 20th Amendment proposed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) nowhere in sight, it is likely that Sri Lanka is heading towards that direction, with the majority of the public seemingly being lured to support a strong authoritarian individual viz a viz President Maithripala Sirisena.

RW vs. common candidate

Meanwhile, the United National Party (UNP) has summoned all its organisers to Sirikotha tomorrow, which political analysts speculate will be to announce the preparation for an early presidential election. It is learnt that that topic of the day would be whether the party would field its own candidate, which is the most likely outcome with current Party Leader and two-time poll loser (i.e. 1999 and 2005 presidential elections) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe being announced as the candidate, or to opt for a common presidential candidate, as at the 2010 and 2015 presidential elections.
It is believed that the majority in the Working Committee, who are confidantes of Wickremesinghe, with some being members of his inner circle, will unequivocally support and fight tooth and nail for the incumbent Party Leader’s candidature.
However, the minority or alternative view has been to field a different or a figurehead candidate such as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who many say have won the hearts of the general public by fighting a lone battle to safeguard the supremacy of Parliament and the legislative power of the people, during the 51-day illegal coup in the face of a vicious onslaught by the combined executive President’s and usurper Prime Minister’s camps.
Several websites were rife with speculation that civil society organisations had already rallied together and would back the proposal to field Jayasuriya as the common candidate. Such a proposal states that Jayasuriya should first resign from his high post and altogether resign from the membership of the United National Party (UNP) in order to be more appealing to the non-UNP vote base.
It is also learnt that the ugly rift between the UNP Deputy Leader, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa and UNP Vice Leader, Power and Energy Minister Ravi Karunanayake has upset the UNP leadership and that issue too would be dealt with at tomorrow’s meeting.
However, several media speculated that Wickremesinghe is to have said to some in his inner circle that he has tried cautioning both culprits but to no avail, showing that the quarrel is now spinning out of control.
Nevertheless, the ugly spat went further awry this week with the two throwing further veiled threats and allegations at each other.

Noble or ignoble

Addressing a gathering in Lunugamvehera, Hambantota, Premadasa (who is also said to be presidential hopeful) quoted Lord Buddha’s words from the Vasala Sutta.
“Najajjā vasalō hōti, najajjā hōti BrāhmanōKammanā vasalō hōti, kammanā hōti Brāhmanō” (one does not become noble or ignoble by birth, but by one’s actions).
Minister Premadasa went on to say that those who robbed banks are “wasayas” (ignoble) while those who build banks are the nobles.
“Although the people wished for light, they have been given darkness. So, one must look at the action. You can never be noble by robbing banks. You can never be noble by soliciting commissions. Soliciting bribes by using your wife is not a noble deed but a ‘wasala’ (ignoble) deed,” Premadasa scoffed at the Power and Energy Minister who is the centre of controversy over recent power cuts and got into hot water over allegedly getting an apartment under his wife’s name from the mastermind of the Central Bank Bond Scam Arjun Aloysius of Perpetual Treasuries.
Karunanayake responded by saying that he did not need to reply, citing that if a rabid dog bites a person that person would not bite the dog in retaliation.
“Our party has discipline and respect, and we are bound to act accordingly. But what I want to say is that if anyone is betraying the party, I will act disregarding that person’s rank or position. By clinging to someone’s leg, if one is trying to create a conspiracy or a problem, we will not let that happen,” retorted Karunanayake.

Lower rank and file

This spat has spread to the lower rank and file of the UNP. This week, addressing a media gathering, UNP ex-Councillor of the Western Provincial Council (WPC) Vijitha Priyantha alleged that Karunanayake was the most corrupt MP within the party and challenged him to go to any village without getting beaten.
“What has Ravi Karunanayake done? In broad daylight, in collusion with Arjuna Mahendran, robbed the Central Bank, sold SriLankan Airlines, sold Sathosa, and kept the whole country in the dark. These are his actions. He is scolding Sajith, but if he goes to any village he would get a good beating. His assets would have been accounted for if late Lalith Athulathmudali’s wife was still living. He is the most corrupt individual in the UNP I have ever seen,” charged Priyantha.

Gota’s hurdles

The official public announcement of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is said to be delayed for two main reasons. One reason is the institution of civil lawsuits against the former Defence Secretary in California by Ahimsa Wickrematunge – the slain Sri Lankan investigative journalist and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge – and by a Tamil detainee – Roy Samathanam – alleging physical and mental torture during Rajapaksa’s tenure.

Impunity

International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) Executive Director Yasmin Sooka, addressing a press conference over the suing of Rajapaksa, charged that the culture of impunity related to torture and sexual violence was entrenched in Sri Lanka.
“This is about ensuring that victims’ rights are protected and it is also about ensuring that the wider world knows about what happened in Sri Lanka during this particular period. Nobody has ever been held accountable and what we’ve seen is an unbroken line in terms of the torture and sexual violence that continues in Sri Lanka,” Sooka told the press conference, held in London.
One of the civil cases against Gotabaya Rajapaksa was filed by ITJP in partnership with the Hausfeld law firm.
Detailing the context of torture in Sri Lanka, Sooka said torture is used as a system-wide policy in various institutions of Sri Lanka, including the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the security forces. There have been a number of people in the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) and CID who should have been held accountable for torture but instead found themselves promoted which “demonstrates the levels of impunity in Sri Lanka”.
Sooka was accompanied by human rights lawyer Scott Gilmore, a lawyer at Hausfeld Wessesn Jazrawi, and Roy Samathanam – a Tamil torture survivor who now resides in Canada.
The plaintiff Samathanam recalled the three years he spent in detention after being arrested in Colombo during a visit to Sri Lanka in September 2007 on false charges by Sri Lankan Police.
Initially after his arrest, Samathanam was taken to the TID headquarters where he was held on the second level, handcuffed to an office table. Samathanam, a type-2 diabetic, was denied his medications for five days until the Canadian Embassy officials arrived to see him.

Torture and sexual violence

Samathanam was later transferred to the Boosa Prison which is rife with allegations of systemic use of torture and sexual violence against Tamil detainees. He was kept in an A1 cell – a solitary cell without a toilet.
Samathanam witnessed torture and sexual violence at both the TID Headquarters and Boosa Prison.
“It never goes away. The images of girls and guys being sexually assaulted. I can still remember their faces,” Samathanam told the conference.
The Canadian Embassy told Sri Lanka to transfer Samathanam back to Colombo where he was presented with a B report which outlined 10-12 charges, including the accusation of trying to kill the former Commander of the Sri Lankan Army Sarath Fonseka during the final phase of the war.
After allegedly being physically and psychologically tortured for three years, Samathanam claims that he was forced to sign a false confession under the threat of his wife and child being raped and killed. He was released in August 2010 on a plea deal.
When asked why he filed the case, Samathanam replied that what happened to him was “not acceptable” and wants to give unheard torture victims from Sri Lanka a voice.
Speaking at the conference, Gilmore said that there had been efforts to take similar cases through the Sri Lankan judicial system but they led nowhere.
“Under international law, Rajapaksa bears command responsibility for the abuses carried by his security forces,” Gilmore said in a joint statement released today by ITJP and Hausfeld.
Rajapaksa, whom the West charges of overseeing a military offensive that allegedly massacred tens of thousands of Tamils, was formally served notice of the lawsuit at a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Pasadena, California.

MR buoyant

Addressing the media after the oil anointing ceremony at the Bellanwila Raja Maha Viharaya last week, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed confidence in SLPP winning the presidential election.
“There are no conspiracies (this time). We are ready to topple the Government. We have the right to topple this Government at any time. We will win the presidential, general, and provincial council (PC) elections. We will win all three. The people are made to suffer now. On one hand, with the increasing tax burden, and on the other, power cuts and water cuts,” lamented Rajapaksa, charging that the UNP Government was turning into a totalitarian regime.
“This Government is heading towards a dictatorship. However, we will field the candidate who will win at the presidential elections,” said a confident Rajapaksa.

Killing silence
Meanwhile, the pre-Avurudu calm and quiet was shattered by several posts on social media stating that President Maithripala Sirisena had informed several close media heads to be ready for a big announcement right after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.
Many expected that to take place on 15 April with some speculating it to be either the announcement of the death penalty being given to 13 drug offenders or declaration of PC polls.
However, keeping everyone in the dark, Sirisena embarked on a private tour of India in flight UL-177 at 7.20 a.m. last Tuesday (16) and even visited Lord Venkateswara Temple at Tirumala in Tirupati in Andra Pradesh, along with his family the next day (17), adding fodder to the speculations.
Sirisena even participated in the “Suprabhatha” ritual and made offerings and prayers to the presiding deity Lord Venkateswara (a form of the Hindu God Maha Vishnu) and was accorded a warm welcome by the Board of Trustees of the Temple. Opposition Leader Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too have visited Tirupati in recent times.
Be that as it may, Sirisena is rumoured to make a drastic political change after returning to the country and was speculated to have sought blessings for his move. Several websites have speculated that, as his ace in the hole, there might be a move to imprison the Leader of the UNP on corruption charges and appoint Sajith Premadasa as Prime Minister as a temporary measure.
Minister Ravi Karunanayake recently claimed that Premadasa was engaged in a conspiracy against the party. Premadasa’s lauding of President Sirisena’s war against drugs in public has further added fuel to the fiery rumours.
With the Ravi-Sajith spat heating up, it is likely that Sirisena might be waiting for the most opportune moment, although what exactly he is up to this time, only his inner circle and legal advisors seem to know.

TNA yet to announce

With all political circles hotly debating the presidential candidates, two main opposition parties – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the JVP – are yet to announce their stance.
Meanwhile, several factions within the Tamil polity are also up in arms against the TNA leadership, especially Party Leader R. Sampanthan.
Infamous first and last Chief Minister of the North and East Province and Leader of the Indian-backed Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) regime – which unilaterally declared independence in 1987 – Wartharaja Perumal, addressing media in Jaffna, said that it was time for the Tamil people not to think about the presidential candidate but to think about a better Sri Lanka.
Wartharaja charged that both the UNP and the Rajapaksa administration had pushed the country backwards, claiming that their only goal was to gain votes by dividing the people on racial, religious, and language lines.
He also charged that the TNA had failed to do its duty in forcing the release of lands belonging to Tamils occupied by government forces, and scoffed at Sumanthiran for trying to be the darling of the international community and forgetting the local Tamils.
“Sumanthiran too is like Ranil Wickremesinghe. In this context, I don’t see a benefit for the people if Sumanthiran gets an international office. Wigneswaran’s Tamil People’s Alliance has failed to give anything to the people although they have had five years in provincial government,” lamented Perumal, iterating that all mainstream Tamil politicians had failed the Tamil people.
Meanwhile, TNA’s coalition partners such as current Leader of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front Suresh Premachandran too have expressed disgust over TNA’s tacit support to the UNP.

JVP’s Plan B

The third force in the political sphere – the JVP – which from the very beginning opposed the executive presidency, seems to have given up its crusade to enact its own brainchild – the 20th Amendment to abolish the executive presidency, and is said to finalise its plan on a candidate of its own.
Although, it is learnt that the JVP will not announce it until the presidential election is first announced, it is likely that the JVP too is making preparations for any eventuality and is speculated to have selected a renowned university academic.
The party earlier met the leaders of SLFP, SLPP, UNP, and TNA and were in the process of meeting minority parties such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Upcountry People’s Front (UPF) in its bid to abolish the infamous executive presidential system and to reintroduce the executive prime minister (EPM) to Sri Lanka.
Last month, JVP Propaganda Secretary MP Vijitha Herath, responding to a query on whether the party would be prepared for a possible presidential poll, stated: “Almost all parties have agreed in principle and so we are optimistic. The final decision would be known within the next few weeks. However, if our first step fails, we will be ready to take our second step (of deciding on a presidential candidate),” possibly implying that the party has contingency plans in the event a presidential election was declared.
However, the abolishing of the executive presidency would be a top priority in the manifesto of any presidential candidate the JVP will field or support.