Secrecy and confusion mar ‘JO’ protest rally

  • Opposition members say Namal’s attempt to come to the forefront failed because he lacks experience and grassroots backing
  • Ranil hits out at opposition and the media, says UNP grooming young leaders to take over by 2030
  • President plays role of neutral umpire, while seeking death penalty for those found guilty of robbing public money or property

 

Wednesday’s ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO) protest ended the way it began – clouded in secrecy, confusion and even some chaos. Other than a handful of organisers who kept their strategies close to their chests, most participants were blissfully unaware, not even of the venues they were to gather at. Merrymakers who guzzled bottles of arrack fell by the wayside. There were no “buth packets” for lunch nor bottles of water for many, the standard rations on such occasions. Some received bread and Seeni sambol but that was not enough to go around. The hot sun forced a few to faint. One of them was rebel MP Sudarshani Fernandopulle near the Bo tree junction in Pettah.

If the declared objective of the protest was to demand early elections and call a halt to “political victimisation” through special courts among others, the voices were muted. Crowds chanted other slogans. Not surprisingly, when some ‘JO’ parliamentarians had their own objectives. One-time Minister Pavithra Wannairachchi declared there would be a new government on September 6. So did rebel Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MP S.B. Dissanayake. He is now busy brokering a deal between President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the de facto leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the lead party of the JO.

On Thursday, Dissanayake, who was a staunch supporter of the protest, told a news conference that the ‘JO’ event had the blessings of President Sirisena. He said that security agencies were instructed by the President not to cause any inconvenience to those taking part in the protest. Sirisena did tell the Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera on Tuesday night to ensure that Police deployed for the protest did not confront the protestors or harass them in any way. He said they should be allowed to carry out a “peaceful protest” and leave the city. There was no confrontational Police presence where the protests took place. They were uniformed but covert, hiding in by lanes and behind buildings. The directive came hours after Tuesday’s weekly cabinet meeting where Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in an unusual move, urged that the Police use rubber bullets to shoot below the knee of protestors if they violated the law and damaged public property. As reported in these columns, the cabinet had also discussed the possibility of attacks on state establishments. Were reports relating to this fake intelligence? That a key UNP Minister was urging the Government to use force on a legal protest did disturb some of his SLFP colleagues in the Cabinet.

Fears of an outbreak of violence forced several western diplomatic missions in Colombo to close early. Several private sector companies urged their employees to leave early. City streets Traffic, normally moving bumper to bumper in the mornings, was scarce.

There was confusion among a large number of protesters who were asked to gather outside Lake House — the publisher of state-run newspapers. After all, Lake House was only printing the voice of those in the Government but is not a centre of power.  Was it because there was no large security presence near Lake House as there was at the Janadipathi Mandiraya, the Presidential Secretariat, or Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister? If it was a symbolic move, then the television stations run by the state were an exception. In any case, as a protest it was meaningless since it could in no way change their pro-government stance. In the ensuing confusion, some of the protestors later marched to Pettah where crowds had gathered.

By then President Rajapaksa who was in an open roof SUV had appeared in Pettah and was being driven to see the crowds outside Lake House. Also appearing in Pettah was former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He received a marked ovation from the crowds who waved their fists and shouted “Jayawewa, Jayawewa.”  However, there was also a bad mix up. Those handling his twitter account had tweeted “Rata venuven Jana Gangak, Jana Balayak” or a People’s River for the sake of the country and a People’s Force.

It contained one large photograph and two smaller ones. This had been re-tweeted by Telecommunication Minister Harin Fernando. Barely an hour later, had Fernando tweeted again that he had removed the tweet after Gotabaya Rajapaksa had done so. Dilith Jayaweera, of the Ada Derana management had made a request to remove it. The reason – the larger picture turned out to be of vast crowds taken by a drone at a rally titled “Mahinda Samaga Nagimu”  or rise with Mahinda in the Nugegoda town on January 18, 2015. Rajapaksa did not attend the rally then but a message was read out on his behalf by Dayan Jayatilleke, who took over last week as Sri Lanka Ambassador to Russia.  Minister Fernando said “Since @ Gotabaya has deleted the misleading picture after realizing the mistake, I will be deleting my previous tweets as a matter of principle.”

In the lobbies of Parliament on Friday, the ‘JO’ parliamentarians were still talking about what went wrong at the protest. One senior member said that after Mahinda Rajapaksa paid visits to places where the crowds were converged, some of those who took part had assumed the event was over and left the area. Another noted that not many party stalwarts accompanied Rajapaksa or were seen together with him; nor did he make a speech. A third observed that plans had been afoot to stage a satyagraha until the next day. This was after the crowds had gathered. He said that the move fizzled out because the crowds began to leave. They were also in general agreement that the aims of the protest could not be achieved since the arrangements were poor.

The protest turned out to be nothing less than the baptism of Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa. He was conducting his first political operation to muster crowds for a protest. The whizz kid of the opposition is still a novice and depends more on his twitter account, be it atop the Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania or the sweltering heat in Sri Lanka. Thus, his outreach at the grassroots level showed a serious inadequacy. He no doubt lacked his father’s experience and political savvy and also his father’s friendly instincts, complained some SLPP district top notches. “He does not pay heed to what we say,” complained a senior ‘JO’ member. Thus, these responses naturally add to the oft repeated criticism over the dominance of the Rajapaksa family in opposition politics.

In fact, Namal’s paternal uncle, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the key ideologue in the SLPP, before his departure to the United States last month, had chaired a string of meetings at the SLPP office at Nelum Pokuna Road, Battaramulla. He had opposed the idea of the protest going beyond midnight. He proposed that every member representing an electorate should bring a bus load. It was Basil Rajapaksa who was credited with the large turnout for the opposition during last year’s May Day rally at the Galle Face Green. Though there were 2,758 buses deployed, there were 60 seats in each. Some were full and others were not. At least two key ‘JO’ politicians, some complained, had changed the plans. One such person, it is alleged, was away on the day of the protest. He had been at a funeral house near the SLPP office waiting to receive President Sirisena. It was only thereafter he had joined the rally.

Another, ‘JO’ firebrand Wimal Weerawansa did not hide his displeasure. Known to be run by him, a website (lankacnews.com) said quoting a television network that the protest had not been organised properly. This network had interviewed several participants. Another report further reflected the mood. It quoted Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam’s Facebook post where a satire on Mahinda Rajapaksa assuming the post of Prime Minister (after September 5) was reported. The tenor of the website reportage underscored that the event was poorly organised.

Yet, it was creditable enough that substantial crowds, which one senior Police officer estimated were more than 75,000 turned up. Earlier, the State Intelligence Service (SIS) had estimated the presence of some 65,000 and the Special Branch a much lower number. Both intelligence agencies were basing their estimates on reports from inputs that came from their district bureaus.

The ‘JO’s poor show on Wednesday also has some adverse repercussions for it. Though it succeeded in mustering a respectably substantial crowd despite the shortcomings, it failed to deliver its intended message to cause an impact. Needless to say that was a setback. The blunders in arrangements have put paid to it though the ‘JO’ support base remains intact. With the results of February 10 local council elections, the ‘JO’ has been riding a high wave that gave it overwhelming confidence. It appears the ‘JO’ has squandered some away and in the process exposed its weak points. The local polls victory which saw some rumblings within could otherwise exacerbate.

Of course, these have not come as manna from heaven to the ruling coalition. If President Sirisena appeared consistent that the protest should be allowed with no intervention by the Police, the United National Party (UNP) appeared to be at odds. It disfavoured a large turnout at the protest, a move that would have placed it in bad light. More so with its debilitating performance at the local polls. In fact, Sirisena urged Western Province Chief Minister Isuru Devapriya to withdraw the ban the Western Provincial Council Transport Authority had placed on bus operators undertaking special tours. He also sought the possibility of not holding Parliament sessions on September 4 and 5, as reported in these columns last week. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya denied in a statement on Monday that he had received any such instructions.

He is correct in his assertion that no such request was directed to him. However, ‘JO’ Parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times that “at a party leaders meeting chaired by the Speaker, Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella did say that there had been a request to him from President Sirisena not to hold sittings on the two dates.” The Sunday Times learns that Speaker Jayasuriya was not in favour of the request since that would be contrary to parliamentary traditions which he was required to uphold. Nor was the UNP in favour of such a postponement.

As is now the practice, the platoon of UNP’s “voice warriors” waxed eloquent ahead of the protest with their learned opinions. One who is usually economic with the truth declared unabashedly that it was not a protest that the opposition planned but a “civil disobedience” campaign. Another asserted that it was to sabotage the development programmes of the Government. On Thursday the day after the protest, there was glee among most of them. They seemed to sigh in relief that the ‘JO’ had not succeeded in toppling the Government or even coming anywhere close to it.

The argument defied logic. If indeed the ‘JO’ had such power to oust the coalition government overnight, it need not have waited until last Wednesday to launch a project. Those who voice such views, more often, do not realise they are ruining their own credibility. Yet, there is a fine thread of seriousness running through this serial comedy.

That is the fact that there is no cohesive leadership at times of crisis or protests perceived as threats to national security. It is no secret that different persons are told to offer different views no matter whether they are contradictory or furthest from the truth. That highlights the lack of a firm leadership. That is to speak in one voice and thus obviate the circulation of fairy tales and lay to rest any speculation.

It was only on Tuesday that Premier Wickremesinghe spoke to his parliamentary group. He struck a conciliatory note saying there would be no problem as long as the protestors were peaceful. Evidently, he was falling in line with Sirisena’s thinking. He expressed the same sentiments when he later spoke to Colombo District MPs, Provincial Councillors and members of local authorities. With that, the UNP rank and file did not offer any visible resistance to the protestors.

On Thursday, Wickremesinghe addressed a meeting to mark the 72nd anniversary of the United National Party (UNP) at its headquarters Sri Kotha in Pita Kotte. In a hard-hitting speech, he asked how a group which could not hold a protest successfully could lead a government. Noting that the ‘JO’ Janabalaya protest was to topple the Government, he claimed that the ‘JO’ had lost whatever little support it had in the country. He said the media had also lost their credibility for providing enhanced publicity to the ‘JO’. Wickremesinghe also added another assurance to his long catalogue of forecasts — that by 2030, or more than twelve years from now, young leaders would take over the UNP. He said he had groomed the next line of leaders but did not name them. That would also naturally mean he will be the UNP’s candidate at the next presidential election.

It is in this backdrop that President Sirisena dropped a bombshell on Wednesday just when the protests were still under way. He proposed that the death sentence be imposed on those found guilty of abusing public property and money. If that were to become a reality, Sri Lanka will become the first country in this planet to impose such a penalty. Perhaps, he did not mean what he said except to underscore the urgency to tackle bribery and corruption. Sirisena had earlier called for death sentence on drug lords serving prison sentences but were still directing drug-running from their cells. Already, Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera has launched an anti-drugs operation under the charge of DIG Colombo North Deshabandu Tennekoon. Since then, Police raids on drug dens have been on the increase though much needs to be done. Though not in the best English, a news release put out by the President Sirisena’s Media Division tells the story.

“President Maithripala Sirisena says the government of good governance has been committed to build a system to boost clean governance free of fraud and corruption while taking many decisions against fraud, corruption and malpractices, that were not taken during the period of 70 years since the country gained independence.

“He made these remarks addressing the awards ceremony of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises held at the premises of the Parliament, yesterday (05).

“President Sirisena said that during the past period several steps, including strengthening of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery of Corruption as an independent Commission were taken and made amendments to the Investigate Allegations of Bribery of (sic) Corruption Act and further said that it was a great achievement to establish the Audit Commission.

Also, the President said that it is expected to establish the audit service promptly which was limited to lip service for the last 40 to 50 years. 

“Expressing his views regarding the distress among the people about the delays regarding the enforcement of laws against the fraud, corruption and theft, he said that fulfilling the aspirations of the people placed on the government of good governance, steps should be taken to punish those wrongdoers swiftly. 

“The President also stressed the need to expedite the process of speeding up the lawsuits against the offenders as well as accelerate implementation of the recommendations given by the special presidential commission (sic) appointed by him to investigate serious frauds and corruption that took place in the country.

“President Sirisena said that even the death penalty should include in the laws against persons who misuse public property and public money.

“The President pointed out the importance of implementing activities free of fraud and corruption to revive the field of business in the state sector. The President also pointed out the importance of strengthening the physical and human resources of the institutions that engage in eliminating corruption and fraud.

“After evaluating information from 837 institutions, including all the state institutions, all the Ministries of the central government, all the Departments, all provincial councils, district secretariats and local government institutions, awards were presented to 101 institutions under different categories for their higher performances.

“Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Secretary-General of Parliament, Dhammika Dasanayake, Chairman of COPE, Deputy Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Auditor General H.M. Gamini Wijesinghe and others were present on this occasion.”

Other than President Sirisena’s concerns, the remarks, no doubt, are a double edged weapon. On the one hand, the Trial-at-Bar High Court has already been set up to expeditiously hear allegations of bribery and corruption against former President Rajapaksa’s family members as well as those who served in his administration. On the other, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detectives are continuing their probe, though somewhat slow and tardy, on the Central Bank bond scam. Those allegedly involved are linked to the UNP administration.

Whoever may be found guilty of acquiring state assets or robbing state funds, it would be near impossible, to hand out death penalty to them without facing both a domestic and international outcry. The question also arises whether the existing laws are adequate to deal with such situations or more legislation would be necessary. Does this mean the coalition is incapable of enacting tougher laws, instead of a death penalty, to deal with those found to be corrupt and robbing public funds? Even Sirisena’s declaration to carry out the death sentence on convicts running drug operations has come under criticism. Despite his repeated assertions, it has not been carried out. It has also met with criticism from the international community.

Sirisena’s latest suggestion of death penalty for robbing state assets and funds nevertheless underscores the levels to which it has proliferated. In essence, the coalition which has remained in office for three years so far, has not got its act together. With elections round the corner, it has placed on fast track cases against those in the previous administration but investigations into most cases still move at snail’s pace.

On top of that, other priorities have surfaced. On Thursday the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s draft 20th amendment to the Constitution was tabled in Parliament. One of the highlights is abolishing the executive presidency with no recourse to any referendum. Since this is a private member’s motion, it could take as much as two to five months to get on the order book, said a JVPer.

Hard on the heels of that move, the UNP is pressing ahead with a new draft Constitution which it hopes to present in Parliament “very soon,” according to Leader of the House, Lakshman Kiriella. He told Parliament on Friday that it would come in the form of a report from the expert panel. This draft too seeks to abolish the Executive Presidency. The question still lingers whether the coalition will be in a position to muster two thirds in Parliament for the passage of a new Constitution.

“We will first study the draft bill before we make our position known,” ‘JO’ Parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena said yesterday. Commenting on Wednesday’s protest, he said, “we had a good turnout and it is a success” However, UNP’s spokesperson Minister Harin Fernando declared “it was a flop.”

As is clear, a partner of the coalition government, the UNP, is now locked in political battle with the ‘JO.’ The other coalition partner, the SLFP leader and President Sirisena, at least formally, is playing the role of a ‘neutral umpire.’ The political circus continues.

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