As the UNP leadership conundrum intensified and the top stakeholders prepared to address issues raised by the party faithful and the media, including The Sunday Leader, there was growing evidence that the leadership stakes had moved up a notch or two.
The last several weeks saw a growing demand for the leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe to come clean about party funds and expenses. The simple expediency of providing at least a general set of accounts – if not a detailed set – proved to be rather elusive. As more and more details, some in the form of unsubstantiated claims, continued to hit at the very fabric of Wickremesinghe’s leadership of the country’s oldest political party, there was nothing but stoic silence from the Leader of the Opposition.
With predictable opprobrium, Wickremesinghe left it to his long standing confidant, the millionaire accountant turned textile magnate and former Chairman of the UNP, Malik Samarawickrama to address the issues. In turn Samarawickrama let it be known that indeed a set of accounts covering the last Presidential Election campaign would be readied and made available to their Working Committee. At the time of going to press those accounts had not been finalised.
In spite of and despite the mounting criticism of the leadership, the reform proposals put forward were slammed by most, including Ravi Karunanayake as being cosmetic – he said the party did not need reforms that were like plasters. Karunanayake was all for real change that reflected democracy at its best.
Karunanayake had no issues with the formation of a Leadership Council which he envisaged would be made up of a small number of the most senior UNP stalwarts. The call for a Leadership Council is not a new suggestion but one that has been counseled upon by other very senior members of the party who have served the party with distinction and whose service to the nation as well as the party has been exemplary and without question.
Those very members of the party are also now voicing their grave concern at the integrity and transparency and therefore the intention of the UNP leadership. Serious questions remain, especially when it comes to the funding and expense issues.
In the early 1990’s President Premadasa recognised that a perennial problem the party faced was when it came to printing. The street-wise leader of the UNP decided then that what the party needed was a press.
Premadasa put into motion a plan that saw a separate company being formed for the purpose. The Visura Press came into being with UNP stalwarts Mahroof, Anwer Khan and others on the board of directors. The financing, which Premadasa took upon himself to achieve, came through a facility from LOLC. Premadasa with his penchant for having the best as ‘it would be dependable’ as he put it then, ordered that the best be found. It was a Heidelberg press that was purchased — the 4-colour Heidelberg press was said to have cost Rs. 30 million in 1992 — and a home was found for the press at the Premadasa Centre.
Ranasinghe Premadasa was jubilant that the party now had its own press and the separate company went into business keeping as a priority, orders for the UNP. The cash strapped operation relied on a generous benefactor to make its first repayment to the leasing company until it found its own way.
After his death and after Ranil Wickremesinghe took on the leadership, the officers of Visura were asked by Wickremesinghe in the company of Malik Samarawickrama, to hand over the press to the control of Wickremesinghe. He in turn appointed a new board in which Noel Selvanayagam was Chairman with Lakshman Athukorala, Chandana Ameratunga, Pelpola and Bodhi Ranasingha as directors. The idea was that it would be sold and the backers of the project who had also backed the party in a number of other ways would be repaid at least partly for their efforts and funds already expended. The sum of Rs 15 million was due to be repaid in this manner but never materialised. What happened thereafter to the press remains a poisonous anomaly which gives cause for innuendo, speculation and of course casts serious questions on the transparency of the UNP leadership.
The issue has been raised at various Working Committee meetings but never properly addressed. The UNP Leader’s response at the time was to say that answers would be provided next time after which the matter was conveniently – almost cosily – left in abeyance. It reminds this columnist of President Daniel arap Moi’s efforts to provide transparency at Nairobi’s International Airport in the early 1990’s. Responding to severe criticism that the customs arrival hall was so corrupt, the Kenyan President ordered that the customs area be lined with glass panels so that the crowds in the arrival area could see what went on. Apart from providing a lot of mirth at the time, there was no real change at Nairobi Airport.
The malaise that is the UNP now, clearly set way back in the years – and one of the principal issues over which the UNP saw their vote base erode was in their support or not of the war effort. Indeed the UNP had made a bad habit of this. President Premadasa disastrously arming the LTTE only to suffer at their very hands; the UNP reaction to this administration’s efforts in terms of the war was also nothing short of a disaster even though the signs were that the armed forces were making serious headway and that it would have been politically correct to be seen to be supportive of the Rajapaksa efforts especially when the whole of Sri Lanka was as one. Instead, Ranil Wickremesinghe for one, was on record while in India, saying that war crimes had been committed.
Certainly the erosion of the UNP vote base did not take place overnight or with the arrival of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Executive President. By 1994 when Ranil Wickremesinghe took on the mantle of the leadership, UNP support was already in decline and Wickremesinghe did provide inspired leadership which came to a head in 2005 when he narrowly missed out on the top job. Since then however, Wickremesinghe’s leadership has been uninspired and without medium to long term strategy. Recognising his own inability to be electable, he pandered to the clamour from his party and cleverly propelled Sarath Fonseka to the fore. He now finds himself once again at the centre of a squall that questions his leadership and indeed his “Mr. Clean” image.
Ravi Karunanayake made a lukewarm and tepid entry onto the playing field that is the leadership game at the UNP but this week saw him coming out a bit stronger. He made a statement on the pricing structure of a litre of fuel – saying how a litre could in fact be sold for Rs 53 if not for the taxes; the bad debts owed the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation by other government institutions and the general malaise that was the government policy. Lakshman Seneviratne, Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake were readying themselves to question the government on fiscal matters and policy issues. Jayasuriya being adamant that the tinkering of the constitution was not part of the mandate upon which the President was elected.
At the cabinet meeting, the issue of tuition was discussed. The President said that whilst he was all for protecting and promoting religious activities, there was a need to look into other activities too. Bandula Gunawardena blamed the spread of tuition classes on the lack of teachers and the syllabus especially to do with Science, Maths and English. If these matters were addressed, the demand for tuition classes would automatically drop he noted.
Susil Premajayantha said that the limits proposed should apply only to the younger ones as daham paasal was attended by youth up to O/levels which Wimal Weerawansa readily agreed with, adding in lighter vein that the problem of tuition would only be solved if a lady who was a daham paasal teacher was to be appointed Education Minister.
The issue of the Summit Flats was then discussed. The original term was for five years but there were some who had been there for six and others seven and eight years. Ask the six year residents to go and they would point at those who were there longer and so the cycle went on. There was consensus that fiscal powers ought to be used. President Rajapaksa calling this an epidemic, cut to the chase and said the best way was to give everybody six months and then go for fiscal powers to evict the over-stayers.
The President wanted the accounts for the IIFA event as a matter of priority, saying that the opposition was calling for these. The opposition, said the President, was quoting figures of Rs 850 million. This figure included various sums spent on matters that were of lasting benefit to the country, like Rs 400 million on the Sugathadasa Stadium which was in need of a face lift for quite a while. Champika Ranawaka said that other countries too spent money on such events in the name of promoting the nation. The President readily agreed, saying that two films were to be made in Sri Lanka and that was the best promotion for the country.
Nimal Siripala De Silva said that there was growing concern to ensure that the crossover issue be addressed due to the local government elections. At that level he was concerned that there was a possibility of crossovers to the detriment of their party. Rajitha Senaratne said that with the 19th Amendment the UNP too had indulged in the same thing. President Rajapaksa took the view that it was best to leave the provision well alone. Why, he questioned, should we be afraid of crossovers. If they wanted to go across then let them. We must not be afraid. Even my father, said the President, crossed over from the UNP to form the SLFP. The SLFP should therefore not be worried about crossovers.
The government wished to exercise greater control over gas prices and agreed that the controlling interest in Shell Gas be purchased so that the management would be returned to the government.
President Rajapaksa closing the meeting, had two further issues: one was when he said that there was a growing tendency for foreign companies to offer scholarships to our people. He wished that his ministers tell their secretaries to be transparent about these matters and not to hog the invitations for themselves.
Sometimes he revealed, the second time the invitation comes, it comes naming the person, as opposed to an open invitation which should be given to the most deserving and on merit. He had personal knowledge of these and the Prime Minister had also shown some of these to him. In finality, he also told his colleagues in cabinet that they had now found out that the former Army Commander’s last trip was entirely funded by a Chinese ammunition manufacturing corporate.