MAY DAY Cacophony | Daily News

MAY DAY Cacophony

Prime Minister  Ranil  Wickremesinghe

May Day was a happy day for Sri Lankan political parties as all four May Day rallies drew significant crowds.

It was quite obvious that the UNP rally at Campbell Park, Borella, outnumbered May Day rallies of other parties. However, the SLFP rally at Galle and the Joint Opposition rally at Kirulapone could also be described as success stories. The JVP rally at BRC grounds, Colombo, too, was a colourful May Day event with a significant crowd support. The JVP, over the past 20 years, has earned a reputation as the most disciplined and committed celebrators of the International Workers’ Day.

Media Ministry Secretary
Nimal Bopage

It was all too evident that Sri Lankan political parties exploited May Day to flex their muscles. The UNP used its massive May Day rally to reflect the strength of the government against all sorts of economic odds and on the other hand, the Joint Opposition used its May Day rally to convince the SLFP that the pro-Rajapaksa movement was a force to reckon with. The SLFP, at the same time, wanted to show that its core strength still remained within the party, despite the cacophony of the Rajapaksa group.

However, it is important to understand that the statistics of May Day rallies hardly translate into success on the ground. But, the Joint Opposition’s May Day rally at Lalith Athulathmudali Stadium, Kirulapone, gave rise to some important observations on the current state-of-affairs in the blue camp.

The Joint Opposition, despite their strategic blunders in the recent past, knew exactly how to choose a venue for a May Day. The Joint Opposition’s venue was a relatively small space for a May Day rally and it offered them many advantages. For instance, aerial photographs showed that the rally was jam-packed and all adjacent roads were blocked. Such photographs were widely shared on Facebook and other social media platforms by ardent Rajapaksa supporters. However, this doesn’t belittle the crowd drawn to the Kirulapone rally. According to various eyewitness accounts, nearly 30,000 people attended the Joint Opposition’s May Day event. It is also important to understand that this only amounted to one third of the crowd attracted by the UNP rally at Campbell Park.

The UPFA members present at the Kirulapone rally were Wimalaweera Dissanayake (Digamadulla), Sriyani Wijewickrema (Digamadulla), S. M. Chandrasena (Anuradhapura), Shehan Semasinghe (Anuradhapura), H. A. Muthukumarana (Anuradhapura), Weerakumara Dissanayake (Anuradhapura), Kumara Welgama (Kalutara), Rohitha Abeygunawardena (Kalutara), Vidura Wickremanayake (Kalutara), Piyal Nishantha (Kalutara), Jayantha Samaraweera (Kalutara), Kanaka Herath (Kegalle), Tharaka Balasuriya (Kegalle), Johnston Fernando (Kurunegala), Dinesh Gunawardena (Colombo), Bandula Gunawardena (Colombo), Gamini Lokuge (Colombo), Wimal Weerawansa (Colombo), Udaya Gammanpila (Colombo), Prasanna Ranatunga (Gampaha), Prasanna Ranaweera (Gampaha), Sisira Jayakody (Gampaha), Indika Anurudda (Gampaha), Ramesh Pathirana (Galle), Mohan Silva (Galle), Geetha Kumarasinghe (Galle), C.B. Ratnayake (Nuwara Eliya), Sanath Nishantha, Roshan Ranasinghe (Polonnaruwa), Sena Vidanagamage (Badulla), Mahindananda Aluthgamage (Kandy), Keheliya Rambukwella (Kandy), Lohan Ratwatte (Kandy), Dilum Amunugama (Kandy) Dallas Alahapperuma (Matara), Chandrasiri Gajadeera (Matara), Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena (Matara) Nishantha Premaratne (Matara), Kanchana Wijesekera (Matara), Janaka Bandara Tennakoon (Matale) Vijitha Berugoda (Moneragala), Pavitra Wanniarachchi (Ratnaoura), Ranjith De Zoysa (Ratnapura), Janaka Wakkumbura (Ratnapura), Chamal Rajapaksa (Hambantota), Namal Rajapaksa (Hambantota) and D.V. Chanaka (Hambantota). Its organisers said 47 MPs representing the UPFA attended the Joint Opposition May Day rally. Nearly 40 of the 47 MPs were members of the SLFP.

Over 260 UPFA Provincial Council members out of 357 and over 2,000 UPFA local government members out of 2,500 attended the Kirulapone rally, organisers said.

On the other hand, the UNP and the SLFP chose bigger and more spacious venues for their May Day rallies. Although the SLFP rally at Samanala Stadium, Galle outnumbered the Joint Opposition’s rally, it could not be seen clearly as the venue was more spacious. On the other hand, the SLFP did not have an effective social media arm to take aerial photographs and share them across all their social media platforms. While the Joint Opposition went to town with their ‘crowd shots’, the SLFP’s social media pages remained dormant. This highlighted a serious loophole in the propaganda strategy of the SLFP which still relies on mainstream propaganda platforms.

Among party seniors who attended the May Day rally at Galle were Nimal Siripala de Silva, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera, Chandima Weerakkody, Thilanga Sumathipala, A. H. M. Fowzie, John Seneviratne, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, Shan Wijayalal de Silva, Piyasena Gamage and Vijith Vijayamuni. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, a patron of the SLFP, was the notable absentee of the SLFP’s May Day rally.

Basil takes backseat at Kirulapone rally

President Maithripala Sirisena greets the crowd 
at the SLFP and UPFA May Day rally in Galle. 
Pictures by Sudath Malaweera and Rukmal Gamage

In another interesting turn of events, former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Chief Organiser of the Kirulapone May Day rally, did not seem active on the big day. It was in the grapevine that other leaders of the pro-Rajapaksa group, namely Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudewa Nanayakkara, were dissatisfied with the former minister’s involvement in the group’s May Day campaign. What perturbed Weerawansa was the former minister’s dubious track record on the anti-corruption front. It did not mean Weerawansa’s track record was clean, but he was worried that Rajapaksa’s reputation would make a debilitating impact on the Joint Opposition’s political campaign.

It was visible, to some extent, that Weerawansa distanced himself from the group’s May Day preparations after Rajapaksa became the central figure. Nanayakkara left for a personal visit to Cuba while his colleagues were busy preparing for the May Day rally. Some predicted Nanayakkara’s absence had something to do with Basil Rajapaksa’s presence. However, Nanayakkara’s void was filled by another ex-Leftist of the same calibre - former JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe.

In his speech, Rajapaksa tried hard to sound as non-controversial as possible. He explicitly said he took part in the May Day rally as a member of the SLFP.

“We have a rally in Galle too. Some of our MPs went to the Galle rally. They said they would go to the Galle rally first and then come to Kirulapone. They must be on the way now,” the former President told the cheering crowd. Despite his promise, however, none of the MPs who took part in the Galle rally attended the Kirulapone event.

“Late Mr. Bandaranaike formed the SLFP against the UNP. Today, the same SLFP has embraced the UNP. The true SLFPer is disappointed today,” Rajapaksa said, trying to woo the grassroots level SLFP supporters.

“But, when I see this crowd, I can predict one outcome. Very soon, we will have to face the repercussions. I’ve already told Namal to make up his mind to go ‘inside’ (the jail). I too will have to end up there! Probably, Basil and Gota will also join. Wimal should be ready as well,” the former President predicted. This prediction showed that the former President and the close members of his family were beleaguered due to anti-corruption investigations.

Joint Opposition May Day rally in Kirulapone.
Picture by Vipula Amarasinghe

After his speech, however, the organisers of the rally resorted to a distasteful tactic by airing a speech made by President Sirisena in 2009, shortly after the end of the Eelam war. In his speech, President Sirisena, the then General Secretary of the SLFP, praised the former President and the Rajapaksa supporters derived some strange pleasure from this despicable act. Rajapaksa, the man who led the country for over 10 years, was all smiles when his supporters frantically jeered at the old video clip of President Sirisena.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa made another interesting move to circumvent disciplinary action from the party. Before arriving at the Joint Opposition’s Kirulapone event, he attended another May Day meeting organised by a group named ‘Samurdhi and Agricultural collective’. Along with Rajapaksa, a few other SLFP MPs, namely Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Lohan Ratwatte, also attended the meeting. There were many reasons to believe that it was a strategic move to circumvent disciplinary action by the SLFP Central Committee. Rajapaksa is now in a position to say that the Joint Opposition rally was not the only May Day event he attended representing the party.

“Such arguments do not hold any water in the face of disciplinary action,” a senior parliamentarian, who is also a Central Committee member of the party, told the Daily News.

“The former President can say he represented the SLFP at the Kirulapone rally. But, did the SLFP give him approval to represent the party at the Kirulapone rally Therefore, Rajapaksa’s involvement in the Joint Opposition’s May Day event is clearly a violation of party discipline. The same law applies to other SLFP MPs who attended the Kirulapone rally,” the parliamentarian explained.

SLFP’s response to dissension

It is interesting to see how the SLFP is planning to cope with the dissidents’ rally at Kirulapone. The party, last week, sent a letter to all its members, requesting them to attend the May Day rally organised by the SLFP. The letter, however, did not explicitly inform the party members of the consequences if they failed to attend the SLFP’s May Day rally.

The SLFP, in the recent past, pussy-footed on action against violators of party discipline. When a group of party MPs attended a Joint Opposition rally at Hyde Park defying a Central Committee order, the party did not take disciplinary action fearing it would lead to a split in the party.

This, inevitably, made a disastrous impact on the the party’s internal discipline. The group supporting Rajapaksa thought the party was making ‘empty threats’ to keep them away from the former President. The situation soon grew out of proportion and the party’s decision-making bodies gradually lost control over the conduct of its MPs.

As a result of the Kirulapone May Day rally, the SLFP’s Central Committee is expected to call a meeting this week to discuss action to be taken on SLFP members who dodged the May Day rally in Galle.

SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake told the Daily News on Monday that the organising committee members would submit a full report at the Central Committee meeting on participation and other contributions made by SLFP members.

“The committee will decide on the course of action to be taken against those who boycotted the event based on the report,” the minister said.

“We cannot take action on any other rally that was held that day. Our goal was for all members to work together to make the SLFP May Day rally a success.

“We will have to decide on what action to be taken against those who did not contribute based on the report submitted by the people,” Dissanayake said.

Meanwhile, United People’s Freedom Alliance General Secretary and senior SLFP member Mahinda Amaraweera highlighted that neither the President nor any other SLFP member would take any decision regarding the issue without a proper consultation process with the SLFP Central Committee. He said the party would arrive at a collective agreement on the issue and decide the future course of action.

The same sentiments were expressed by President Sirisena when he addressed a meeting with media heads and newspaper editors last Wednesday.

While stressing that the party would embark on drastic reforms from May 1, the President said any decision on disciplinary action would be taken by the party Central Committee.

“The Central Committee now has full authority to make decisions on important matters. I will not stand in the way of Central Committee decisions,” the President said.

Bopage controversy

Newly appointed Media Ministry Secretary Nimal Bopage found himself at the centre of a major controversy last week over a statement he released to media over the use of the term ‘Joint Opposition’.

Bopage replaced Vajira Narampanawa, a senior administrative officer who was transferred to another ministry. When Narampanawa functioned as the Media Ministry Secretary, there were complaints from various circles that the Ministry was lethargic and inactive. Bopage, therefore, was entrusted with the tasks of fast-tracking operations of the ministry and handling the government’s media policy effectively.

However, soon after assuming duties as the Ministry Secretary, Bopage ran into a storm by issuing a media statement on a contentious matter.

The controversial statement pointed out that the government and the opposition have been clearly defined and demarcated in Parliament. “It has been observed that a section of MPs representing one of the constituent parties of the government are referring to themselves as the “Joint Opposition” without any connection with the Opposition Leader or Chief Opposition Whip. It has further been observed that certain media institutions and journalists are also aiding and abetting this exercise by using the term without question,” Bopage’s statement said. The statement added that the Speaker of Parliament had also emphasised the erroneous nature of this term and yet, journalists were continuing to use the term, bringing great harm to their profession.

Continued usage of the term by journalists and media institutions would set an “unnecessary, harmful and illegal precedent,” which others with vested interests may exploit in an attempt to advance their own agendas, the Ministry Secretary said. Therefore, he urged journalists to refrain from using the term in future in order to prevent bringing both themselves and their media institutions into disrepute.

The statement, quite understandably, stirred up a hornet’s nest among media circles. Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilake received numerous telephone calls from journalists asking whether the statement reflected the official position of the government. The Media Minister had to calmly explain that the government had nothing to do with Bopage’s statement and he was not even aware of any such documents.

On the same evening, Bopage received a telephone call from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Prime Minister was livid at the fact that the statement reflected badly on the government and its media freedom. One of the basic tenets of good governance was freedom of expression and the ruling coalition in their election manifestos repeatedly assured to protect media freedom. The Prime Minister directed the Media Minister and the Secretary to appear before him on Monday (02) with a detailed explanation on the statement. The Prime Minister’s office, simultaneously, issued another media statement explaining the Premier’s position on the matter.

As a damage control measure, Bopage hurriedly summoned a press conference on Friday to explain his position over the matter.

Explaining his version of the story, Bopage said he did not intend to impose any rule on the media over the use of the term ‘Joint Opposition’.

“It was a kind request; a plea. I did not consult any political authority before issuing this statement. The statement does not even ask the journalists to refrain from using the term ‘Joint Opposition’. The media has not understood the context of the statement,” Bopage said.

As expected, the statement drew heavy criticism from members of the ‘Joint Opposition’. While some demanded the Ministry Secretary’s resignation, some demanded the Media Minister to remove the official. Meanwhile, another group of Opposition MPs held a discussion to raise a privilege issue in Parliament against the statement made by the Ministry Secretary.

It was against this backdrop that the Ministry Secretary arrived at Temple Trees on Monday morning for a meeting with the Prime Minister. Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilake and Deputy Minister Karunaratne Paranawithana also attended the meeting.

At the meeting, the Prime Minister said the Ministry Secretary triggered an “unwanted problem” by issuing a statement.

The Prime Minister also directed the Ministry Secretary to discuss with the minister before issuing media statements. When contacted by the Daily News on Monday, the Ministry Secretary said the matter was resolved amicably and he would take measures to prevent such an incident in the future.


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