* Rajapaksa plays a fresh trump card to create a wall of defence for himself

*May Day, a litmus test for the SLFP in implementing its political strategies

* To cross over or not, SLFP parliamentarians on the fence

*The notorious diplomat shows no reluctance to make a ‘photographic’ appearance

“A hunter must stalk his prey until the hunter becomes the hunted. Then the prey becomes the predator. Then the predator and the hunter fight”

- House of Cards

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sole intention at the moment is to get his party membership suspended.

It goes without saying that the preferred outcome of the UPFA’s May Day rally in Kirulapona is suspension of Rajapaksa’s party membership. If the party decides to suspend the membership of other Rajapaksa supporters as well, the rebel group will consider it a bonus.

The suspension of party membership will allow Rajapaksa to justify his move to form a new political party. He thinks it will save him from the allegation of dividing the SLFP – the party he represented for over 45 years.

Rajapaksa has already laid the foundation to form a new political party. He has earmarked nearly 35 UPFA MPs who will align with himself if and when he forms a new party. He knows he does not stand a chance to become the leader of the SLFP again as President Maithripala Sirisena will remain as the Executive President for another four years. He also knows, apart from President Sirisena, other senior leaders of the SLFP, loathe his comeback bid and they will not allow him to become the party leader again.

All he needs is one good reason to defect from the SLFP and form his own party. Although it is extremely difficult for a third political force to come to power in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa knows the formation of a new political party will create a wall of defence for him. To embark on this mission, he needs a valid license from the SLFP – a suspension.

On the other hand, a sudden suspension of that nature will allow Rajapaksa to play the ‘sympathy card’ with his voters. The former President might tell his grassroots level supporters that he was pushed to the wall by the SLFP and forming a new party would be his only alternative. Suspension of the ‘war winning’ President’s party membership, needless to say, will trigger a sensitive reaction from the SLFP’s traditional Sinhala-Buddhist electorate.

This is the SLFP’s dilemma right now. The party, deep down, wants to take action against the former President and straighten out its internal issues. At the same time, it doesn’t want to play into Rajapaksa’s hand and serve his political agenda. The party is now trapped in a situation where it has to keep the dissidents within the rampart, without allowing them to harm the party unity.

Addressing a party meeting at Madirigiriya, in the Polonnaruwa district, President Sirisena said on Monday that important political decisions would be made after May 1.

By making that statement, the President hinted at the possibility of drastic party reforms. The President, however, did not say whether the party would take disciplinary action against dissidents. It is clear that a sense of uncertainty looms large over the decision-making bodies of the SLFP. But, it is now crystal clear that the President is quite serious about a comprehensive restructuring programme.

As part of this restructuring plan, the SLFP’s decision making bodies have already informed all party members that distancing themselves from the party’s ‘official’ May Day rally in Galle will be considered a violation of discipline. To show that the party is serious about the warning, the SLFP has also taken steps to conduct interviews for new electorate organisers.

The first round of interviews was held at the SLFP headquarters, at Darley Road, Colombo 10. Former Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne, Ministers Susil Premajayantha, W. D. J. Senewiratne and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, and former MPs Athauda Seneviratne and Jagath Pushpakumara served as members of the interview panel. Interestingly, none of the former President’s loyalists was selected for the interview panel, sending a strong signal to the pro-Rajapaksa camp.

Floating MPs

However, there is a strong division among the SLFP’s MP group over the party’s May Day rally. Almost all MPs representing the national unity government have decided to attend the SLFP’s ‘official’ May Day rally in Galle while another group of MPs supporting the Rajapaksas have confirmed their participation for the Kirulapona rally. Interestingly, another sizable proportion of MPs, who are inclined to play it by ear, are still on the fence.

Their solution is to seek the opinion of the balamandalas in their electorates and make their decisions accordingly. It is realistic to assume that these ‘floating MPs will be a key factor in deciding the winners of the SLFP’s internal May Day battle.

However, the most active man behind the scene at this point is former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The former Economic Development Minister is the main organiser of the UPFA’s Kirulapona rally. Rajapaksa’s involvement, however, has sidelined the four chief architects of the former President’s ‘comeback campaign’ – namely Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Guanwardena, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudewa Nanayakkara. Suddenly, Basil Rajapaksa has now positioned himself as the major driving force behind the former President’s comeback bid.

Basil Rajapaksa went from district to district, speaking to ground level representatives of the SLFP and trying to convert them. He was accompanied by some MPs of the joint opposition group, including Prasanna Ranatunga and Geetha Kumarasinghe. The former minister held discussions with SLFP Local Government representatives in Gampaha and Galle districts. It was in the grapevine that the representatives who promised to take part in the May Day rally were offered various kinds of rewards.

The former minister’s presence, however, has already caused troubles for the UPFA rebel group. After the presidential election last year, many parties supporting the former President held Basil Rajapaksa responsible for his brother’s defeat. Weerawansa, in a TV political talk show, openly expressed that Basil Rajapaksa, the former campaign manager of the ex-President, was the root cause behind the defeat. The same views were expressed by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, another vociferous campaigner for Rajapaksa, several times.

It was in this context that Weerawansa’s absence at the opening of Rajapaksa’s political office in Battaramulla became conspicuous. Many believed Weerawansa dodged the opening of the political office as a sign of protest. It is also naïve to believe that this temporary disappointment will cause a serious split in the pro-Rajapaksa camp. After all, minor parties of the UPFA have no option but to cling to the former President as they do not have enough strength to function as stand-alone parties.

SLFP’s strategy

The SLFP’s strategy to counter the pro-Rajapaksa group’s plan was to hold district level meetings with the participation of the President. On the other hand, the party keeps fishing die-hard Rajapaksa supporters, by offering them various positions.

When the President visited a party meeting in Ambalangoda last week, former MP Sajin Vass Gunawardena was also seen on stage. Gunawardena, Rajapaksa’s right hand man at one point, has now switched allegiance by becoming a supporter of President Sirisena. He was also involved in the organisation of the SLFP’s May Day rally in Galle - the district he represented in Parliament for five years.

Janaka Ranawaka, another Rajapaksa supporter, was given an electorate organiser position by the party, a few days ago. He was appointed as the SLFP’s main organiser for the Kotte electorate. Soon after Ranawaka received the new appointment, he launched a propaganda campaign in support of the President, under the theme ‘Kotte Balaya Maithrita’. It was quite evident that the Mayor of Kotte had completely abandoned his former leader after he received the new appointment.

Manusha Nanayakkara, another stalwart in the pro-Rajapaksa camp, also received a deputy ministerial portfolio two weeks ago. Nanayakkara is now openly opposing the political campaign of the former President, saying no one should be allowed to create divisions in the party.

Drawing the support of die-hard Rajapaksa supporters by offering them positions is certainly an effective strategy where the internal power struggle in the party is concerned. However, it also earns a lot of negative criticism from civil society groups and other activists who were instrumental in bringing the present government into power. Especially, Sajin Vass Gunawardena’s involvement in the UPFA’s May Day rally came as a shock to many who supported good governance.

Many political observers believe that the ‘May Day’ battle will be the tipping point of the SLFP’s internal crisis. Therefore, the May Day rallies organised by the SLFP and the rebel group will be the litmus tests for their political strength. Their collective outcome will be a key factor determining the future course of action of both parties.

Udayanga saga

Udayanga Weeratunga, a relative of the former President, is no stranger to the country’s political circles. Weeratunga, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Russia, faced numerous allegations over his alleged arms deals with Ukrainian rebels.

Multiple media reports confirmed last year that the Ukraine government had lodged a complaint with the Foreign Ministry in Colombo providing details of former ambassador Udayanga Weeratunga’s alleged involvement in arms sales to separatist rebels fighting troops in that country. It was common knowledge that separatists in Ukraine were largely supported by Russia – a country that defended the Rajapaksa administration on the human rights front.

In the face of this allegation, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera assured in Parliament that the government would conduct a comprehensive probe into the matter. Government spokespersons also said it would also seek the assistance of Interpol to arrest him, following the investigation. Somewhere down the line, however, the investigation into the conduct of Weeratunga lost momentum and there was hardly any progress on the matter.

Weeratunga, a nephew of the former President, operated a Sri Lankan food restaurant in the Ukrainian capital Kiev before he was appointed Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Moscow 10 years ago. He functioned in the same position until the new government ordered his recall to Colombo together with all political appointees who were heading missions overseas. Weeratunga, a political appointee, was in fact the longest serving Sri Lankan ambassador in Russia.

During his tenure as the Ambassador, Weeratunga got involved in several important arms deals such as procurement of MiG-27 ground attack aircraft for the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). The transaction is currently being investigated by the Police Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID).

Fingers were also pointed at Weeratunga over the mysterious death of an individual named Noel Ranaweera, an unmarried 37-year-old translator and an assistant secretary at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Moscow in Russia, on June 11, 2014.

The then ambassador Weeratunga had told the family that Ranaweera had died in a road accident in Southern Russia.

His body was brought to Colombo by air four days later, and at the funeral parlour, relatives had seen a big bruise in his neck. 


Despite their suspicion, Weeratunga had told them that all the investigations had been carried out in Russia, and that a fresh investigation was unnecessary.

Family members also alleged that until Ranaweera’s burial on June 18, Weeratunga and his associates had remained at the house where the body was lying.

Quite interestingly, Weeratunga and Ranaweera had a long-standing association. According to Ranaweera’s family members he had worked in the restaurant owned by Weeratunga, in 2002.

It was also revealed that both Weeratunga and Ranaweera maintained a joint bank account at a private bank in Kadawatha. During the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka (2013), Ranaweera had visited Sri Lanka with a 60-member Russian delegation for the Commonwealth business forum.

Following claims made by Ranaweera’s relatives, the Attanagalla Magistrate ordered to exhume the body of the former Sri Lankan embassy official and conduct further inquiries.

However, the law enforcement authorities are yet to ascertain whether former Ambassador Weeratunga is behind Ranaweera’s killing.

Weeratunga, issuing a statement a few days after the controversy, categorically denying all the allegations leveled against him. Interestingly, the former Ambassador’s denial had so many loopholes and it left enough space for various speculations.

“The story that I had supplied arms to separatist rebels in Ukraine and that President Petro Poroshenko’s government had complained to the Sri Lankan foreign ministry about me is a complete lie.

I am in possession of a certificate issued by the Internal Affairs Ministry of Ukraine dated 1 April 2015 bearing number 668588 to the effect that I am not being investigated for any crime within Ukraine. The Spokesman of the Ukrainian foreign ministry Yevgeny Perebenis told the Russian language unit of the BBC back in March this year that the Ukrainian government rejects this story about my supplying arms to the Ukrainian rebels. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Ambassador in India who is also accredited to Sri Lanka has informed foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera and foreign secretary Chitranganie Wagiswara that this allegation against me is false.

I live at present in Kiev the capital of Ukraine and if I had been supplying arms to rebels fighting the Ukrainian government I would not be able to live there.

The allegation that I was responsible for the death of Noel Ranaweera an employee of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Russia is another fabrication. The latter died as a result of being run over by a lorry driven by a Russian citizen named S.V. Samsonov in the premises of the Don Plaza hotel in the city of Rostov on 11 June 2014.

The incident has been recorded on CCTV cameras and there is a criminal investigation and court proceedings against the driver of the vehicle.

The head of the Second Asia Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs S. Kabulov has confirmed these details in a letter to S. Pathirana the Acting Sri Lankan Ambassador in Russia on 4 June 2015 and added that there is no investigation in Russia against Udayanga Weeratunga in relation to this matter.

The documents issued by the Ukrainian and Russian authorities in relation to these matters will be E-mailed to all media organizations separately,” Weeratunga said, in his denial.

Despite his claims of innocence, Weeratunga did not return to the country to clear his name.

Although he said he was in Ukraine, the former Ambassador, a few weeks later, visited the Sri Lankan Embassy in Tehran with a request to certify a power-of-attorney copy to get some of his heavy baggage in the Colombo port to be cleared.

The Sri Lankan Embassy, however, declined his request on the condition that he returns his diplomatic passport to which he had replied via email on May 9, stating that he would not return the diplomatic passport.

It is against this backdrop that former President Rajapaksa, who is currently on a personal visit to Thailand, met Weeratunga in the Southeast Asian country. Former Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Pieris was also with the former President when the latter met his nephew in Udon Thani, Thailand. Weeratunga also took part in some religious activities with the former President and was not reluctant to appear for photographs.

Even though the objective of the meeting between Rajapaksa and Weeratunga was not clear, it revealed that the former President still had access to his nephew who was beyond the reach of the government’s law enforcement authorities.





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