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Why should a popular govt feel threatened by a most unpopular politician?

Dec 5, 2010 5:35:17 PM- transcurrents.com

By Kalana Senaratne

Sri Lanka has been provoked, and that too, in an unprecedented manner. Not necessarily due to the Oxford Union’s unilateral decision to cancel the scheduled speech of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But very simply because the cancellation was an outcome of the threats posed by the pro-LTTE, pro-separatist/eelamist groups which, having supported terrorism and the killing of thousands of innocent Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people are now demanding an international investigation concerning alleged ‘war-crimes’ committed by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

President Rajapaksa, even under such provocative circumstances, responded in an admirable manner, stating that he will continue in his efforts to unite all the people. "As a united country we have a great future. If we allow divisions to dominate we will not realize our true potential", stated President Rajapaksa. As veteran journalist DBS Jeyaraj very correctly pointed out: "A lesser man could have erupted into bitter, caustic sentiments but the president to his credit remained graceful under pressure." Clearly, then, President Rajapaksa’s "immediate statement was admirably magnanimous and highly commendable."

While the response of President Rajapaksa was magnanimous and commendable, the response of the government, within the Parliament of Sri Lanka, was not such a commendable one. An acrimonious and bitter debate followed when on 2nd December, MP Dinesh Gunawardena accused UNP MP Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena of being in London at the time of President Rajapaksa’s arrival. Attempts are being made to bring a resolution against Dr. Jayawardena. Accusations of MP Dr. Jayawardena having violated the 6th Amendment to the Constitution have been made.

The editor of ‘The Island’ (on Saturday) interestingly argued that this move by the government was somewhat bemusing. This is true, due to a number of reasons. Firstly, that Dr. Jayawardena may have established links with pro-LTTE elements is not news. This is an accusation leveled against him for years. Secondly, the sad and unfortunate manner in which those in government behaved runs contrary to the "statesmanlike statement" (as per DBS Jeyaraj) issued by President Rajapaksa. Thirdly, one cannot imagine why such a popular government should feel so threatened by a most unpopular politician in the country.

But there is another critical question that arises here. If the matter was so serious, why did the government target a single individual? Why did the government target a member of the Opposition who was alleged to have been in London, and not the very Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe? If Dr. Jayawardena had violated the Constitution, if he had really participated in the pro-LTTE demonstrations at the Heathrow Airport, could it have happened without the approval of the Leader of the Opposition? The accusation is a very serious one, and given the seriousness of the accusation, one cannot imagine how the government missed targeting Mr. Wickremasinghe. The government ought to have taken action, first and foremost, against Mr. Wickremasinghe.

Is it, then, an unimaginable development? Absolutely not! Mr. Wickremesinghe would not be targeted, he would not be attacked, so severely today. The reason why the government bypasses Mr. Wickremasinghe and attacks the likes of Dr. Jayawardena is obvious, since having Mr. Wickremesinghe as the Opposition Leader is a supreme political investment for the government.

The government is mindful of the political context, about the somewhat precarious position that Mr. Wickremasinghe is in, today. Speculation is rife that finally, after many years, there will be a change in leadership taking place at Sirikotha, sometime on the 12th of December or soon after. ‘Change’ remains doubtful of course, but the fact that there needs to be a significant change in the UNP leadership cannot be doubted. In such a context, it causes no great wonder to witness Mr. Wickremasinghe enjoying his leadership position, untroubled by the government, even though Mr. Wickremasinghe is perhaps the most prominent political leader in Parliament to have denigrated the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

More importantly, that Mr. Wickremasinghe has done so especially during the final stages of the conflict, has been so prominently and forcefully pointed out by the government – especially during election time – when day after day statements made by Mr. Wickremasinghe denigrating the Armed Forces are repeatedly shown in the government’s news channels.

Such is the irony of this episode, and some in government continue to tell us that they are deeply wounded and angered by the alleged pro-LTTE activity of Dr. Jayawardena. Plans are devised to investigate whether he was instrumental in instigating the protest movement of the pro-LTTE groups, and Mr. Wickremasinghe very happily agrees that some form of inquiry should take place! Dr. Jayawardena’s past causes so much concern. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s past is conveniently forgotten.

Suddenly, we also realize that Mr. Sajith Premadasa is facing an uphill task. His political rivals are not only Mr. Wickremesinghe and those close to him (many of them being MPs, let us not forget, who denigrated and ridiculed the Armed Forces not so long ago) - but also those in government. That is why the challenge faced by the UNP-reformist group is a gargantuan one, and the struggle is not only a political struggle confined to the UNP, but in a sense, a national struggle with formidable forces working against the reformists.

In addition, however, it needs to be noted that the suggestion made by some that there should be a reformation of the UNP and its brand of politics before a leadership change takes place is an important one. Yet, it is quite clear to many that such change ought to have come sometime ago. That necessary reformation did not take place for so long affirms the view that under the present leadership, no such reformation can be expected, anytime in the near future.

There was time to reform, there was time to reorganize, if such reformation or reorganization was considered to be necessary by Mr. Wickremasinghe and his group. Today, ‘reorganization’ seems to mean one thing: a new leader. As MP Dayasiri Jayasekera once noted, this is what the people seem to be demanding today (as he pointed out in a speech some months ago, prathi-sanwidhaanaya kiyanne ekai; apita aluth naayakayek denna). And importantly, the concern raised - that the UNP needs to be reformed before leaders are changed - can be addressed if that very change in leadership is a change which promises a reformation of the party, its politics and its message.

There is then a subtle relationship between the raucous and cackling response of the government, and the upcoming UNP Convention. Especially at a time as this, when so many are playing so many different political roles and so much is at stake, one cannot deny this. The government has made a lot of noise. Mr. Wickremesinghe seems to have understood the hidden message. But let us hope that the government is more serious about the accusations it levels against members of the Opposition.

The government cannot ignore the importance of holding an inquiry into the accusations leveled, for a long time now, against Mr. Wickremesinghe; since it could turn out that it was Mr. Wickremesinghe who remains the main culprit in this entire episode. That inquiry needs to take place before the 12th of December!

(Kalana Senaratne is a postgraduate research student at the University of Hong Kong)