Thursday, 19 December 2013 00:39
As the UNP Leadership Council attempts to effect real change in the main Opposition party for the first time in years, why is Sajith Premadasa insisting on becoming a stumbling block?
In these troubled times, when Sri Lanka’s democracy is gravely threatened by the twin evils of autocratic governance and ineffective Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, the former United National Party Deputy Leader, is busy drawing a self-portrait.
For the second time in two days, Premadasa has openly rejected personal invitations from the UNP Leadership Council to attend its Tuesday and Wednesday meetings. Both invitations were aimed at bringing Premadasa in for discussions with the Leadership Council in a bid to resolve his doubts about the new leadership structure and convince him to take his seat on the nine-member body.
Leaving the UNP Working Committee meeting that officially set up the Leadership Council chaired by Karu Jayasuriya on 4 November, Premadasa had attempted to portray himself a martyr. Standing before the press corps following that meeting, Premadasa said he would have to refuse a position on the Leadership Council because its establishment had fallen short of pledges made to the United Bhikku Front, and its senior monk Ven. Girambe Ananda Thero.
The perfect excuse
In truth, Premadasa’s decision to opt out of the Council had been made much earlier. But a meeting with Ananda Thero and other UBF monks in Kurunegala on the eve of the crucial Working Committee meet, at which agreements were reached to take the latest reforms process forward, provided Premadasa with the perfect rationale to refuse to sit on the Leadership Council. Premadasa’s absence, his backers decided, would erode the Council of legitimacy and portray it as just another exercise in manipulation by Wickremesinghe, who in fact, still held all the cards.
Unfortunately for Premadasa and his ‘reform’ movement, all their well-laid plans fell through in less than 48 hours.
The United Bhikku Front including Girambe Ananda Thero openly endorsed the Leadership Council and its Chairman and Premadasa’s own credentials were gravely eroded among the senior monks after his decision to sidestep playing an active role in the UNP’s altered leadership structure.
One month later, Premadasa has lost the support of all but a handful of radical monks within the Bhikku Front. He and his backers are facing public criticism from senior monks within the UNP-affiliated Bhikku movement after they commenced a relentless campaign of misinformation against the new Council and its Chairman Jayasuriya. With the monks appearing to fully support the Jayasuriya-led Council, Premadasa’s excuse for boycotting has fallen through.
As the Council commences work and attempts to build bridges between fractured sections of the Party membership, Premadasa has relegated himself to the sidelines of these changes. From this place, he is at liberty to continue onslaughts against senior UNP members and issue scathing criticisms against the way the party is being run. Published and broadcast by selected media organisations, these speeches contribute to the continued erosion of the UNP brand and the notion that the country’s main Opposition party remains, in essence, divided.
In fact radicalisation appears to be the path adopted by the Premadasa faction, with or without the knowledge of the young MP from Hambantota in whose name the battle for the UNP leadership is being waged. Around Sajith Premadasa and his relative popularity at the grassroots level has gathered a motley crew of egocentric, inexperienced and vindictive political operators. The group is backed by the financial and media clout wielded by powerful business tycoons who have made it their personal mission to oust Wickremesinghe from the UNP and place Premadasa at the helm of the party.
Controlled by these corporate players, the ‘Premadasa faction’ is taking more radicalised positions every day. In Parliament and at public meetings, the small group of Parliamentarians and provincial councillors make a great deal of noise; noise that is expressly aimed at portraying the UNP as deeply divided into two factions. The game plan is simple: keep the UNP divided and prevent election success that will consistently lead to heightened calls for Wickremesinghe’s complete expulsion from the party.
It has become crucial to the success of this plan that the UNP Leadership Council fails to effect meaningful change in the way the party is governed. Therefore, the vilification of Council Chairman Jayasuriya, a man Premadasa had pledged to support for party leadership and his main ally in the UNP reforms process, was begun in the pro-Premadasa newspaper and a like-minded television station.
Karu hits out
So it was that the mild-mannered Jayasuriya, the Opposition legislator who is often first at the scene when a media organisation or journalist is subjected to violent attack, stood up in Parliament last week and launched a scathing criticism against the newspaper owned by a prominent businessman and Premadasa backer. The newspaper has flayed Jayasuriya and his supporters relentlessly since he agreed to head the Leadership Council.
In his Parliament speech, while careful to refrain from mentioning the newspaper’s affiliation to Premadasa, Jayasuriya spoke in uncharacteristically fiery terms about reporting ethics and the responsibility of the media, after he accused the newspaper of going so far as to vilify his deceased parents and question his Buddhist credentials. The newspaper and its proprietor had a tendency to take politicians hostage, turning on them viciously when they attempted to act independently, the Leadership Council Chairman charged, during the Budget debate on the Media Ministry in the House.
His speech was criticised ironically by Government MPs, who said Jayasuriya was claiming to espouse the cause of media freedom but was in fact attacking the independent press. Those listening to the Jayasuriya tirade against the Sinhala and English language newspapers were stunned by the senior Parliamentarian’s potential to strike back when he believed he was being subject to unjust attack.
A politician too often dismissed as ‘harmless’ and lacking firebrand potential, Jayasuriya in his new role at the helm of UNP affairs had shown there was fight left in him yet. It was a necessary move at a crucial juncture, political observers said, and it spoke volumes for the effectiveness of Jayasuriya’s speech that the newspaper has chosen not to retaliate except in oblique ways since last week.
For all the fire and brimstone in Parliament, Jayasuriya remains an innate peacemaker. His anger against the pro-Premadasa newspaper notwithstanding, Jayasuriya has been careful to distinguish between his younger colleague and Premadasa’s media backers.
Two days after his criticism of the pro-Premadasa media organisation, Jayasuriya chaired the Leadership Council meeting on Friday (13) that decided he would extend a special personal invitation to Sajith Premadasa to attend the Council meeting the following Tuesday (17). The invitation would be personally extended by Jayasuriya himself.
On Tuesday, when the Council convened at the party’s Sirikotha Headquarters, Premadasa did not show. Since he had not officially acknowledged the invitation to attend the Sirikotha meet, Council members attempted calling the MP during the meeting. Text messages were also sent to Premadasa’s mobile phone, urging him to attend the meeting. All of these overtures went unanswered.
A second invitation was also extended for Premadasa to attend the Council meeting held at the Parliamentary Complex last evening. The meeting chaired by Jayasuriya was still in session at 6 p.m. yesterday as the Council attempted to finalise its electoral organiser nominees to fill existing vacancies. The second consecutive meeting in two days was held in order to facilitate Premadasa’s attendance, should he choose to respond to Jayasuriya’s invitation even at the eleventh hour. The Council was keen to resolve issues with Premadasa before the UNP Convention on Saturday (21).
A similar invitation has been extended to Parliamentarian Thalatha Athukorale, a Premadasa supporter who was also nominated by the Party’s Working Committee to sit on the Council, but declined after Premadasa opted to boycott. Athukorale is likely to go before the Council on Friday (20) for discussions, it is learnt.
Magnanimity towards Sajith
Under Jayasuriya’s leadership, the Council will remain magnanimous towards Premadasa for as long as possible. As a politician and a leader, Jayasuriya will always prize unity over divisive politics, but he is only one of seven others on the Council whose patience will run out much faster.
It remains a matter of deep confusion for UNP moderates as to why Sajith Premadasa, who mooted Jayasuriya for Party Leader just two years ago and convinced him to contest Wickremesinghe, is so loathe to work with the senior politician in his new role. With the Council in charge, for the first time in years, there is finally room for imagination and the rise of a talented second tier leadership in the UNP. As the self-professed leader in waiting, it defies logic that Premadasa is refusing to grab the opportunity.
Premadasa, by virtue of being the chief instigator of the leadership reforms process, has the luxury of repeatedly flouting the Council’s invitations and requests for meetings. Each time he turns down generous requests by the Council – a body that is showing itself to be engaged in a process of change, albeit slowly – Premadasa looks to be putting personal pettiness above the need to work together to build a stronger party. It is undoubtedly with this in mind that the Council itself appears to have made a conscious decision to publicly announce its invitations to Premadasa and ensure the media is notified of his absence following each session.
Jayasuriya’s decision to remain open to a change of heart by Sajith Premadasa sends a clear signal to those who remain suspicious of the Council and its affiliation to Wickremesinghe that in this new chapter, personal vendettas and petty vindictiveness will not rule the day. As a staunch critic of the Wickremesinghe regime, Premadasa’s inability to recognise this integral difference and the potential to enact personal vendettas of his own by proxy when he fails to get his way has become the quickest road to de-legitimising his claim as the UNP’s heir apparent.
Forging his political path on the instructions and advice of those whose sole ambition is to destroy Wickremesinghe and his loyalists has already cost Premadasa dearly, even if he is yet to realise it. With every onslaught against the UNP membership and every lie published or broadcast by the pro-Premadasa media, Sajith Premadasa finds less and less sympathy amidst the party moderates. As the Premadasa faction plays out a tragic-comedy, it finds itself running out of options, with moderate sections of the UNP growing ever more wary of supplanting an inexperienced young politician and inheriting his dangerous puppeteers in the eagerness to rid the party of the Wickremesinghe regime.
On the sidelines
With the Government announcing that elections for the Southern and Western Provincial Councils are only about six weeks away, the UNP Leadership Council will have to step into high gear in order to finalise campaign frameworks, nominations and organisation for the key polls battles. As the party toys with fielding candidates with ‘star power’ to counter the Government juggernaut in the two provinces and attempts to fix its grassroots organisation ahead of the elections, Premadasa finds himself to be an irrelevant player in the equation, voiceless and powerless by his own choosing.
Beginning in January and leading up to the crucial UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva in February-March 2014, where Sri Lanka is now almost certain to face the prospect of an international war crimes inquiry, Sajith Premadasa has decided to plough his own course, irrespective of the UNP position on the issue.
Eager to pander to the Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support base, Premadasa is likely to mimic the regime rhetoric about international conspiracies and neo-imperialism in the lead up to the UNHRC sessions. His adoption of nationalistic rhetoric in the recent past has caused concern among the UNP’s potential Tamil and Muslim allies who are voicing concerns about forging a grand alliance under the main Opposition at national elections if Premadasa should be at the helm of UNP affairs. Blinded by the magic of the nationalism spell that has held the Rajapaksa regime in good stead for so long, Premadasa fails to acknowledge that the UNP must carry the minority vote as well as a significant portion of the Sinhala populace if it is to change its electoral fortunes.
But if recent events are any indication, perhaps the electoral fortunes of the UNP matter less to Premadasa than the need to take the reins of his father’s party and ride to the top of national politics – the best possible indication that he is probably the worst man for the job. It is in fact a role for which President Ranasinghe Premadasa himself felt his son was ill-suited. The sorry tale of Sri Lanka’s crown princes, those sons of talented politicians who constantly fail to live up to their promise, seems doomed to repeat itself in the Sajith Premadasa story.
Aided and abetted by the short-sighted political operators he has chosen to surround himself with, as Premadasa paints himself into a corner, he would do well to remember that he paints everyone else – even his rivals – in a much better light.