The controversial United National Party (UNP) Provincial Councillor Maithree Gunaratne dropped another political bombshell in an interview with the Daily FT, alleging that if there was anyone in his party who had obtained foreign funding and assistance from Non Government Organisations (NGOs), it was only the party leadership.
Rejecting the latest allegations, Gunaratne stressed that no foreign funding was required for their struggle to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe from the party leadership since they had the people with them.
Speaking further, he expressed that Sajith Premadasa would have to fight his way up and ensure that the confidence placed in him by the people was maintained. Gunaratne pointed out that if Sajith did not combat the present situation and allowed Wickremesinghe to continue, the confidence that the people had placed on him would erode in no time.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What do you have to say about the latest allegations that the struggle to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe from the party leadership was funded by NGOs?
A: It is a total falsehood. The NGO support, foreign support, foreign aid support – all were given to the party leadership, not to any of us. We didn’t need any financial support for the struggle because we had the people with us. We are not going to act according to anyone’s whims and fancies. Our intention is very clear. We want to bring the UNP into power once again. We haven’t met any foreign people with regard to funding.
Q: Tell us what’s happening in the UNP at the moment?
A:There was a struggle for a change in the leadership of the UNP. Senior members of the UNP prevailed upon Sajith Premadasa to go for a compromise. These senior members are the members of the Working Committee. This was done in order to preserve the unity of the party.
However, the rank and file and party cadres are not willing to accept Wickremesinghe’s leadership as he is not a person who can be marketed in the Sri Lankan electorate. We know that this is not going to rejuvenate the party and make it a party which can win another election. The seniors in the party must realise that when change is needed, the change must come.
Wickremesinghe should have taken a leaf from people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena. They have done a good job for the country and led the team superbly. But when they lost the World Cup, they resigned gracefully and handed it to the next person to continue; where Wickremesinghe is concerned, he seems to be clinging onto power and sucking the lifeblood of the UNP.
Q: The 12 April deadline is now over. What will your next step be?
A: The Constitution is being violated at every turn. Wickremesinghe got himself and four office bearers elected within three days. The only person who had to be elected to the Advisory Council was Ranjith Madduma Bandara. He was the only contestant; there was only one nomination submitted to the party General Secretary.
Having got only one nomination, Wickremesinghe chose not to appoint him because he thinks Bandara is a threat to him. Bandara is a person who has taken the Party Leader to task.
During the Parliamentary elections, Wickremesinghe went to Moneragala and requested the people in Moneragala not to vote for Bandara. However, despite the Party Leader having done that, the people of Moneragala elected Bandara to Parliament. This is why I say the leadership is violating the Constitution and continuing to act in a dictatorial manner.
Q: It was believed that Sajith Premadasa would become the Leader of the UNP after 12 April. But it never became a reality. Why is this?
A: Premadasa went in for a compromise in the interest of the unity of the party. However, it certainly wasn’t the wish of the people. The Working Committee consisted of about 85 people at that time. And out of that, some 15 to 20 people had the idea of compromising and the idea of party not being split.
However, my personal contention is that when there is a crisis and cry for a change in the leadership, you can’t sort it out by putting someone as a deputy leader and getting the same person to continue as the party leader. The problem is still there. You can change whoever you want, but the result is going to be worse, in fact.
Q: Do you feel that the struggle to change the Constitution and the leadership was a waste of time?
A: With regard to the Constitution, we have now managed to put in a mechanism to change the leader, whereas the old Constitution said that once a leader was appointed, he was there for life. Furthermore, the present Constitution has an Advisory Council and it has six members: the party leader, two deputy leaders, the chairman, the general secretary and the national organiser. All appointing powers are vested with this Advisory Council.
Powers, which before this Constitution came into operation were solely with the party leader, are now vested with the Advisory Council. But the Leader is trying to act and bulldoze as before. That is the very reason why he does not want Bandara to come in as the national organiser, because he is not a person Wickremesinghe can bulldoze. He will try but I don’t think he can.
Q: You accuse the Party Leader of having violated the Constitution, but don’t you think the blame should also go to the Working Committee?
A: Definitely, the senior members of the Working Committee who wanted ‘comprise in the interest of unity’ will have to answer. Now when it is being flouted – if they have the spine – they should get up and tell the Leader, ‘in the interest of compromise we elected you and you gave an assurance that you will work together as a team, but you are going the other way.’ Unfortunately they have miserably failed to do that. I can bet anything that they are not going to do that in future either.
Q: What action will be taken against the people who violated the Constitution?
A:We have Premadasa as the Deputy Leader, so we have one foot in there. He will have to fight his way there and ensure that the confidence placed by the people in him is maintained. If he does not combat this situation and allows Wickremesinghe to continue, then the confidence people placed on him will erode in no time.
Q: Will all the appointments be cancelled?
A: Sajith will have to fight it out at the Working Committee and the Advisory Council. He will have to stand up and say that these are illegal, these are wrong and you cannot go ahead with this. He will have to fight.
Karu Jayasuriya at the last Advisory Council had very clearly said that he was not for anything that was unconstitutional. Sajith will have the support of Jayasuriya if he wants it and he will have to see that all the unconstitutional steps will be corrected.
We have already informed Sajith that this is a serious situation and he needs to act immediately. Unfortunately we are unable to be in the Working Committee or the Advisory Council.
Wickremesinghe seems to be appointing people to the Working Committee who have lost elections consecutively and have been rejected by the people. That is why the UNP has never been able to make a comeback even after 16 years.
No political party having gone to opposition has lost its votes and seats in Parliament like the UNP. In 1994 we had 94 MPs in Parliament; after 16 years we have only 43 in Parliament. The numbers of our Members of Parliament have decreased by more than 50 per cent. It is because Wickremesinghe has appointed cronies to the Working Committee who are nothing more than ‘yes men’.
We have not been able to get wind of what the people are thinking. We are being accused of being a Colombo-based, Royal College-based party simply because we have not been able to understand the needs of the people. This is why we have kept losing for almost 16 years.
There are only 43 MPs in Parliament. He should appoint these MPs to the Working Committee, because what better representative are there than the people’s representatives in the Working Committee?
At this rate we are confident that when he finishes the Working Committee, there will be about 20 members in Parliament who will not be in the Working Committee. So what is the justification? Under this situation we can’t see how the UNP is going to be in power again.
Q: Do you feel that Sajith Premadasa betrayed your struggle by going for a compromise?
A: Everyone had faith in him. We still have faith in Sajith. As the leader of the struggle, if he says ‘I did it in the interest of unity,’ it is fine. But having got there, having told us ‘I have taken one step backward,’ now we have to see him taking two steps forward. It is up to him to show this country that he is a person who can take two or three steps forward.
Q: Do you regret backing Sajith Premadasa in the struggle to change the party leadership?
A: No, we don’t regret doing that. In fact, I have no regrets at all. But we are eagerly watching to see what next step he is going to take.
Q: Do you feel that if you backed someone else, you would have been able to make the changes you wanted inside the party?
A: We instrumentally started this struggle from the Galle District way back in September or October 2010. At that time we suggested a very viable compromise; Wickremesinghe to be the senior leader of the party, Karu Jayasuriya to be brought in as the leader of the party, Sajith Premadasa to be brought in as the deputy leader of the party and Ravi Karunanayake to be brought in as the national organiser.
This suggestion was given to the party leadership in writing. I went and met Wickremesinghe and I told him and also gave to him in writing that seven organisers of the Galle District including Provincial Council members signed the document and sent it to the party. We didn’t even get an acknowledgement.
I feel that if we had followed it at that time, we would have got rid of Wickremesinghe from the party leadership. We would have not had a person as our leader who would cling on to power. We would have a person like Karu Jayasuriya who would honour his work.
Q: You are a lawyer by profession. Are these appointments legal?
A: These appointments are presently totally illegal.
Q: Some of the appointments such as the Deputy to the Opposition Leader and Deputy Opposition Whip are not in the Sri Lankan Constitution. Does that mean the UNP has violated the Constitution?
A: In the Constitution there is no provision for the Deputy to the Opposition Leader. These are provisions which are being created by Wickremesinghe, mainly to suit his requirements. I don’t think they confer any power. It is just a position offered to get over a situation.
Q: If the appointments were illegal, why did the rebels accept them?
A: As I said before, the present Leader is doing what he wants. What is mentioned in the Constitution is irrelevant to him. He is getting what he wants in his own way.
Q: The UNP recently stated that whoever criticises the party leadership will be dealt with and strict action will be taken against them. In such scenario, why do you continue to raise a voice against these issues?
A: I have been issued with a show-cause letter about four months ago. To date they have failed to call for an inquiry. If at all they were to call for inquiries, we have a bigger charge sheet against Wickremesinghe. As a Party Leader he has lost many times, consecutively. People now call him the ‘serial loser’. Under these conditions he cannot point fingers at others.
Q: What is your role in this struggle? You aren’t a senior member of the party or a Member of Parliament. Is there a personal or hidden agenda behind your involvement?
A: The UNP Constitution itself says that the main intention of the party is to come into power. My main intention is also to get the UNP into power. So if there is someone who is a stumbling block to achieve that target, I will act to remove that stumbling block. I can clearly see that Wickremesinghe is a stumbling block for the UNP to come into power.
I am only in the Provincial Council. I am not in Parliament. I have been appointed twice to the Provincial Council without being an organiser. Last time was a time when the UNP was washed out and as a lawyer I was able to maintain my position in the Provincial Council.
My main agenda is to work according to the Constitution and simply coming into power. I care less about who becomes the leader of the UNP because my main focus is to get the party into power. Whether its Karu Jayasuriya or Sajith Premadasa, I don’t care; they should also get a chance to try themselves. Wickremesinghe’s chances are over. He has exhausted three presidential elections.
Q: Don’t you think it is unlikely that someone else would get an opportunity to become the Leader of the UNP until the leadership becomes vacant?
A: No I don’t agree with that argument. You can appoint a new leader to the party. If members of the Working Committee, simply for the sake of their having been appointed to the Working Committee, feel that it is an obligation on their part to see that Wickremesinghe is being elected and re-elected, then we have no chance. If the Working Committee members reflect on the mood of the electorates, then Wickremesinghe is not going to stay there for another six months.
Q: How do you see the future of the UNP?
A: I would say that under the leadership of Wickremesinghe, there is absolutely no future for the UNP. We will continue with our struggle. There will be no major election for the next three to four years. So we are hopeful and optimistic that we will get rid of Wickremesinghe as early as we can. I will continue to fight even if I am alone!