Will ‘the group of seventy’ ever see the light of day? | Daily News

Will ‘the group of seventy’ ever see the light of day?

The three major political parties likely to be in the running for the next national elections- the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)- were seen grappling with contentious issues last week, as the jostling continues for pole position in the country’s political stakes.

The party faced with the most daunting challenge last week was the UNP. That was after Vijayakala Maheswaran, then the State Minister for Child Affairs, attending a public event in Jaffna made a statement that law and order in the region had declined to such a degree that children in the region were safer in the days when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled the North.

Maheswaran’s statement was made in an emotive context, in reference to the recent murder of a six-year-old girl. “For children in the North to be safe and for them to live without fear and return home from school, the LTTE need to be resurrected”, she is reported to have said. It is this aspect of her speech, where she had called for the resurgence of the LTTE that led to her downfall.

The statement was all the more surprising because Maheswaran’s husband, T. Maheswaran, a former UNP parliamentarian for the Jaffna district was assassinated by a person with alleged links to the LTTE. Maheswaran was killed on New Year’s Day in Colombo in 2008. The Colombo High Court in 2012 found John Pauline Wellington, a former LTTE intelligence operative guilty of the murder.

The backlash to Vijayakala Maheswaran’s speech was swift. Mainstream and social media were quick to pick up the story where a minister of the government while lambasting the President for inaction and bemoaning the law and order situation in the North and East, was calling for a resurrection of the LTTE.

The UNP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in particular, had to deal with two aspects that ensued from Maheswaran’s speech: the political fallout for the UNP both in the North and South of the country and legal consequences for Maheswaran for what could be construed as advocating separatism.

In purely political terms, the UNP could have done without Maheswaran’s dramatic outburst. While the UNP still maintains arguably the best standing among the Tamil and Muslim communities among the major parties, it is no secret that in recent years this has come at the expense of alienating the Sinhalese and Buddhist segments of the population.

pro-Sinhala nationalist stance

That didn’t happen overnight. It was brought about by the UNP’s ‘go soft’ approach towards the LTTE dating back to the 2002 ceasefire which failed as opposed to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hard-line stance which led to the decimation of the terrorist outfit and the end of the Eelam war in 2009.

Even after the war victory, Rajapaksa consciously cultivated a pro-Sinhala nationalist stance, convinced that politically it was easier to win elections by gaining an overwhelming share of the majority community vote rather than appeasing the various demands of the minority communities. It was a strategy that paid off in 2010 but failed spectacularly in 2015, leading to his ouster.

Obviously, the SLPP and the Joint Opposition (JO) were quick to pounce on Maheswaran’s comments. They demanded a debate and created a furore in Parliament where Wimal Weerawansa behaved in his characteristic uncouth manner, hurling personal insults at Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Jayasuriya handled the situation with aplomb, calling out Weerawansa for his uncivilised conduct.

Initially, Maheswaran was due to explain her comments but, with her speech caught on camera, there was to be no turning back. Following a discussion with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe where Maheswaran explained that she was emotional at the time of the speech and offered an unconditional apology, she was asked to resign, which she did.

That was a sine qua non for the UNP because keeping Maheswaran in its ministerial ranks after that statement would have attracted the ‘Tiger’ label with politically disastrous consequences in the South. The UNP is likely to lose some votes in the Jaffna district where Maheswaran has her political base, but that could be considered negligible in comparison to the potential for a greater backlash in the South of the country if she was retained.

The UNP has also commenced disciplinary proceedings against Maheswaran and a four-member committee comprising ministers Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Kabir Hashim, Ranjith Madduma Bandara and Thalatha Atukorale have been appointed to inquire into the issue.

The potential legal consequences for Maheswaran could be worse. Pursuant to a complaint received from a Buddhist monk heading a pro-nationalist organisation, Police have already commenced investigations.

Police informed the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Colombo last Friday that Maheswaran could be charged for offences that appear to have been committed under Section 115 and 120 of the Penal Code, violating the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and provisions stipulated under Article 157A of the Constitution.

Article 157A(1) of the Constitution cites that no person shall, directly or indirectly, in or outside Sri Lanka, support, espouse, promote, finance, encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka. Whether Maheswaran violated this article will now be a matter for the courts to decide. The court has already called for video footage and media reports of the former minister’s speech.

If that was an unwanted distraction for the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP were not without its travails. There had been hope in some quarters of a rapprochement between the two parties, as they prepared for national elections. Among the seniors espousing this strategy was S. B. Dissanayake. Also in agreement were Dayasiri Jayasekera and Thilanga Sumathipala.

In fact, Dissanayake went public with his vision splendid: for President Sirisena to run for re-election with the support of the Rajapaksa camp and for Mahinda Rajapaksa to become Prime Minister in any government that would subsequently be formed, for which there was no constitutional barrier.

No-confidence against PM

It was with this hope that several of those who were identified with the so-called ‘group of 16’ who voted to support the motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were appointed to party positions in the SLFP by President Maithripala Sirisena at its ‘restructuring’ exercise in early June.

For example, former Ministers W. D. J. Seneviratne, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha were appointed as senior vice-presidents of the party while Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle was appointed as a deputy secretary of the party.

All that appears to have come to nought as the SLPP insists that those in the ‘group of sixteen’ wishing to join ranks with the new party must sever links with the SLFP leadership and acknowledge Mahinda Rajapaksa as their leader. This has become a significant obstacle to reconciliation efforts between the two parties.

As a result, there is a strong likelihood that at least a few of the ‘group of sixteen’ will opt to remain under the leadership of President Sirisena. Hence the prediction that the ‘group of sixteen’ will become one with the remaining members of the JO and become a ‘group of seventy’ is unlikely to eventuate.

With political activity in the main political parties remaining in such a state of flux, more upheavals and controversies are likely. Make no mistake, the campaign for the presidential and general elections due in 2020 have already begun.



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