Prez Gotabaya’s Viyathmaga project enters new stage

General Election 2020

Gotabaya Rajapaksa shares a light moment with Viyathmaga activists Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (center), Dr. Seetha Arambepola and Sarath Weerasekera at an event in the run-up to 2019 presidential polls. Godahewa contests Gampaha, Weerasekera Colombo while Arambepola is on the National List.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Many an eyebrow was raised when National Freedom Front (NFF) and Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) signed a five-point agreement, on Saturday (18), to function as a pressure group, within the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), to protect national interests.

Having signed the agreement, at the parliamentary polls Operations Room of NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa, at 123/2, Pelawatte, Battaramulla, the one-time JVP heavyweight and former Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) lawmaker pledged to follow a common programme. The declaration was made on the basis that the SLPP would comfortably form the next government.

Weerawansa and Attorney-at-Law Gammanpila, declared that even if the SLPP fell short of the magic two-thirds majority, required to do away with the 19th Amendment, they wouldn’t remain in the government, in case the likes of Rishad Bathiudeen , leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), was accommodated.

Bathiudeen is under investigation, by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. His younger brother, Riyaj, is held in custody under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for allegedly facilitating Easter Sunday mastermind, Zahran Hashim, to leave for India, by sea, a charge vehemently denied by Rishad. The former minister caused furore by convincing the Election Commission to request Acting IGP C.D. Wickramaratne in writing to leave Bathiudeen alone until the conclusion of the parliamentary polls. Can EC intervene in/dictate terms to the police, especially in such a delicate matter? Weerawansa on Monday (20) lambasted the EC for its intervention. Having served as Commerce and Industries Minister, during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term (2010-2015), and the Sirisena-Wickrenesinghe administration (2015-2020), Bathiudeen’s party is contesting the August 5 parliamentary polls on the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) slate. In spite of the top SLPP leadership repeatedly assuring the party wouldn’t succumb to dictates of extremist groups, under any circumstances. No less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has given that assurance on more than one occasion. However, Messrs Weerawansa and Gammanpila obviously seem to be concerned about future political developments.

Weerawansa and Gammanpila, both contesting on the SLPP Colombo District nomination list, promised the electorate

(1) they wouldn’t serve an administration that accommodated Muslim extremists

(2) they represent the interests of the war-winning armed forces facing threats from those still propagating separatist ideology

(3) oppose US projects meant to consolidate Western hold over Sri Lanka (This was an obvious reference to Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement, Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact and Status of Forces Agreement)

(4) protect national assets and promote local products and finally

(5) promote local values.

Both Weerawansa and Gammanpila lead breakaway factions of the JVP and the JHU, respectively. The NFF had five seats – Wimal Weerawansa (Colombo), Jayantha Samaraweera (Kalutara), Padma Udaya Shantha Gunasekera (Moneragala) , Niroshan Premaratne (Matara) and Weerakumara Dissanayake (Anuradhapura) – in the last parliament, whereas the JHU had one (Udaya Gammanpila). NFF Deputy Leader Weerakumara Dissanayake switched his allegiance to the then President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, in Dec 2017. Now SLFP nominee Dissanayake is contesting from the Auradhapura District, at the August 5, 2020 parliamentary polls, on the SLPP ticket.

The SLPP accommodated 12 NFF candidates on its district lists. In addition to the four lawmakers, who represented the NFF, on the UPFA list, in the last parliament, there are eight new faces. Of them, perhaps the most significant nominee is retired Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandu, formerly of the Special Forces who played a critical role in the post-war reconciliation process, in his capacity as the most senior officer responsible for Civil Security Department deployment in the north. The then Vishvamadu-based Lt. Colonel Bandu’s ground breaking handling of the rehabilitation of ex-LTTE cadres earned him love, respect and admiration from a large number of Tamils, living in the Vanni.

The then government, as well as the Army, conveniently failed to exploit Bandu’s success. The other NFF nominees, on the SLPP lists, are actor Uddika Premaratne (Anuradhapura), Gamini Waleboda (Ratnapura), Nimal Piyatissa (Nuwara-Eliya), Lalantha Gunasekera ((Gampaha), Jayantha Wanniarachchi (Hambantota), Jagath Priyankara (Puttalam) and Rohitha Thilakaratne (Badulla). The NFF has also received one National List slot (Mohammed Muzammil). Muzammil represented the NFF on the UPFA National List (2004-2010).

The PHU received much less opportunities, with popular musician Madu Madhawa Aravinda and Yasapala Koralage contesting Gamapaha and Kalutara districts, respectively. The SLPP accommodated PHU General Secretary Upul Wijesekara and National Organizer Dhammika Rathmale on the SLPP National List.

The NFF-PHU combine has fielded altogether 14 candidates, and three on the SLPP National List. Would the grouping be able to secure at least eight seats, including two National List seats, at the August 5 polls? The parliament consists of 196 elected and 29 appointed members.

A role for civil society in parliament

Civil society group Viyathmaga is also in the fray at the forthcoming polls. Having spearheaded a high profile campaign, on behalf of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that enabled the wartime Defence Secretary to secure SLPP candidature, at the 2019 Nov presidential polls, Viyathmaga is seeking an unprecedented parliamentary role. President Rajapaksa has declared, in no uncertain terms, that he wants a Viyathmaga group in the 2020 parliament. There had never been a previous instance of a President pushing for a group, of his own, in parliament, as part of a contentious bid to consolidate power, both in and out of parliament.

Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, who heads the list of Viyathmaga candidates, told several public meetings, including one organized by ‘Negombo professionals’ recently, that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa needed a parliament that could achieve, in five years, what could be done in 15 years. Among those who had been present at the Negombo event were former IGP Chandra Fernando, ex-Senior DIG H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya and retired Rear Admiral Shermal Fernando. Speaking, on behalf of Viyathmaga, Dr. Godahewa, who had held high posts in both the public and private sector, explained how the future challenges should be tackled, against the backdrop of the corona crisis delivering a knockout blow to the global economy.

With the blessing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the SLPP accommodated nine Viyathmaga contestants, on its district lists, and two on its National List. Of them, only one-retired Navy Chief of Staff Sarath Weerasekera had served as a member of parliament (2010-2015) during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second tenure, in addition to a high profile campaign in the defence of national interests. Weerasekera earned the respect of a vast majority in the country by voting against the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted at the onset of the yahapalana administration, in 2015. Weerasekera was the only parliamentarian to vote against the 19th Amendment that weakened the Sri Lankan State.

Professional Anura Fernando, too, contests the Colombo District. Dr. Godahewa, who played a significant role in the overall Viyathmaga campaign, beginning 2016, is in the fray, in Gampaha. The other Viyathmaga contestants are Nalaka Kottegoda (Matale), Thilak Rajapaksa (Digamadulla), Upul Galapaththi (Hambantota), Prof. Channa Jayasumana (Anuradhapura), Gunapala Ratnasekera (Kurunegala) and Udayana Kiridigoda (Mahanuwara). Viyathmaga is set to receive two National List slots. Former Central Bank Governor, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, who had been earlier tipped to contest Colombo, is in the National List, along with ENT surgeon Dr. Seetha Arambepola.

Viyathmaga paved the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entry into politics, at the highest level, against the backdrop of the overall deterioration of parliamentary standards, due to failures and lapses on the part of all political parties. Subsequently, Gotabaya Rajapaksa launched Eliya, to campaign against yahapalana attempts to undermine Sri Lanka’s unitary status, by enactment of a new Constitution.

Today, very few can even remember how the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe involved the Joint Opposition in the controversial new Constitution making process. The JO never realized the danger in Wickremesinghe’s project, backed by Western powers. Eliya attacked the UNP-led project while the JO participated in the process. The JO continued its role in the Constitutional Assembly, while accusing the UNP-SLFP coalition of working, in unison with the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to bring in a new Constitution.

The then High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, in his June 2016 oral update to the rights body, mentioned the move to conduct a referendum to approve a new Constitution. If not for the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, Wickremesinghe could have succeeded in conducting the controversial referendum, in early 2017. It would be pertinent to reproduce what Al-Hussein said: “Significant momentum has been achieved in the process of constitutional reform. On 10 March 2016, Parliament adopted a resolution establishing a Constitutional Assembly to draft and approve a new constitution or amendments by the end of 2016, which would then be put to a referendum in 2017. The drafting process has benefited from an inclusive public consultation process overseen by a Public Representations Committee that received submissions and held district level consultations in the first quarter of 2016”.

Viyathmaga, Eliya and Yuthukama campaigned against yahapalana projects. Gradually, the JO accepted the emergence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the leading presidential candidate. Former Gajaba Regiment combat veteran and Commanding Officer of its celebrated First Battalion, Gotabaya Rajapaksa gradually attracted members of the JO parliamentary group. Yuthukama has received one National List slot and the opportunity to field one contestant (Anupa Pasqual) in the Kalutara District. Yuthukama Convener Gevindu Cumaratunga, who turned down the post of Governor of the North Central Province, in the immediate aftermath of the presidential polls, is high on the SLPP National List.

The civil society campaign, backed by a section of the JO parliamentary group, continued until the SLPP named Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its candidate at the November 2019 presidential poll. Among those who had been at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, to welcome Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s arrival, as the next leader, was Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a veteran leftist politician, who hadn’t been so enthusiastic about the former Defence Secretary’s move. Vasudeva Nanayakkara hadn’t been alone in that view, though, gradually, all pledged their allegiance to the new leader. SLFP veteran Kumara Welgama, a staunch Mahinda Rajapaksa supporter, was the only former lawmaker to stand his ground, regardless of consequences as regards opposition to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political role. The former Kalutara District lawmaker Welgama switched his allegiance to Sajith Premadasa, in the wake of the UNP split. Welgama is in the fray from the Kalutara District on the SJB ticket.

If not for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention, the SLPP nomination lists wouldn’t have included so many professionals/civil society activists. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ensured sufficient places in the nomination lists and National List for those who campaigned for him, at the risk of political vendetta.

A new experience

In SLFP-led PA, or UPFA politics, the top leadership essentially restrict the space for newcomers to enter the parliamentary polls fray. Civil society groups never received the attention of the PA and the UPFA leaderships. Instead, civil society groups were always portrayed as anti-Sri Lanka/anti-national and routinely accused of treachery. The JO never realized the potential of the civil society grouping on their side promoting national interests, until Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped-in, in the wake of twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at his third attempt in the 2015 January presidential polls. The former Defence Secretary led civil society grouping in a high profile manner that really took those opposed to him by surprise. Perhaps they never expected Gotabaya Rajapaksa to have the Viyathmaga Convention 2018 at Colombo’s latest five-star hotel Shangri-La, on the evening of May 13, 2018. At that time Rajapaksa, who functioned as the Chairman of Viyathmaga, carried a US passport. A section of the civil society, opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, strongly believed the US could easily disrupt Viyathmaga plans by not allowing the former Defence Secretary to renounce his US citizenship.

The 19th Amendment excluded dual citizens from contesting parliamentary and presidential polls, in addition to restoring the two-term limit, meant to deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa of another attempt at regaining the presidency. The 18 th Amendment was brought in late 2010 by the UPFA, especially to allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest for a third time. Even at the time of the 2018 Viyathmaga convention – the first held on such a grand scale, the JO hadn’t been sure how to respond to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s move. The SLPP remained non-committal, for obvious reasons. The breakaway UPFA faction and the JO struggled to comprehend the reality. Ravaya and Annidda (a political weekly, edited by Attorney-at-Law K.W. Janaranjana) hammered Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s effort. Essentially, the battle against the Viyathmaga project was led by the civil society critical of the way Sri Lanka, under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political leadership, brought the war to an end in May 2009.

Civil society activist, Sunanda Deshapriya (brother of Election Commission Chairman), in a piece titled Gotabhaya Perahera (Procession of Gotabaya) in the June 3, 2018, edition of Ravaya, cogently discussed the former Defence Secretary’s strategy.

Alleging that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been backed by retired military top brass (Sunanda named retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera and retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne as key supporters, in addition to Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila), Sunanda Deshapriya asserted that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Group believed (1) the national issue did not require a political settlement based on the devolution of power (II) economic development is the panacea for the country’s problems and that war crimes weren’t perpetrated during the war (Aug 2006-May 2009).

Sunanda declared: “Whether Mahinda Rajapaksa liked it or not Gotabaya will be the SLPP presidential candidate. The US is the main factor that can thwart Gotabaya. If the US bureaucracy delayed the decision on Gotabaya’s request to rescind his US citizenship, his presidential dream cannot be realized. In the final analysis, Gotabaya’s political fate will be in the hands of US imperialists to decide whether to allow Gotabaya to proceed.”

At that time (June 2018) Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t even sought to rescind his US citizenship. He waited till early 2019 to make his move to get the US citizenship rescinded. The US didn’t make an official announcement until Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the President. The delay in Gotabaya Rajapaksa seeking US consent prompted some interested parties to believe the former army officer wouldn’t seek a political role.

In spite of the Treasury bond scams (Feb 2015 and March 2016), Geneva betrayal (Oct 2015) and Local Government polls defeat (Feb 2018) that caused irreparable damage to the yahapalana arrangement, influential sections remained committed to prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entry into politics.

Newly appointed SLFP National Organizer Duminda Dissanayake and UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, on June 4, 2018, declared President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe as their presidential candidates, respectively, at the 2020 poll. Duminda Dissanayake opposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s move until the very end. Today, he is contesting Anuradhapura, under the SLPP ticket, as an SLFP nominee.

Having failed to convince the UNP parliamentary group to remove its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to enable the continuation of the yahapalana project, President Sirisena dismissed the UNP government, in Oct 2018. In the wake of new Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failure to secure simple majority in parliament, President Sirisena dissolved parliament, in early Nov 2018. The President called for parliamentary polls, on January 5, 2019. The President’s plan however fell through due to the UNP-JVP-TNA combine challenging the move in court.

If the President succeeded, the parliamentary polls would have taken place ahead of the presidential polls. That would have disrupted the Viyathmaga project. Amidst the political turmoil, Viyathmaga sustained its operation. In Sept 2019, Viyathmaga held its second Convention, again at Shangri-La hotel, in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa receiving SLPP nomination. Among those who joined the Shangri-La event was former national cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan. Addressing a side-event, earlier in the day, Muralitharan threw his weight behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature. Muralitharan’s endorsement surprised many as interested parties continued to fault the former Defence Secretary for alleged war crimes.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is yet to take membership of the SLPP though he is the head of the cabinet. The civil society grouping tried its best to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa the opportunity to contest the last presidential polls, until the last moment. Gamini Viyangoda and Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara made a high profile eleventh hour unsuccessful bid by moving court against Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A seriously concerned SLPP had no option but to prepare to field Chamal Rajapaksa in case the court upheld the civil society move. The civil society’s right to move court should be accepted and the court ruling respected.

Obviously, the then President Sirisena made a last bid to alter Gotabaya Rajapaksha’s strategy. His plans went awry due to the UNP-JVP-TNA combine successfully moving court against takeover of the parliament. Having failed in his bid, Maithripala Sirisena is in the fray, in Polonnaruwa, on the SLPP ticket, as the SLFP contests the parliamentary polls, under the SLPP banner.

Let me end this piece by reminding the recent warning by SLPP Gampaha District Leader Prasanna Ranatunga who had been engaged in a running battle with Sirisena and SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera. Ranatunga warned in case a dozen SLFPers were elected, Sirisena could cause quite a crisis, within the government by making unreasonable demands. It’s a warning, the electorate could not ignore, Ranatunga said.

The people’s response to Ranatunga’s warning will be known in two weeks. Given the current status of the SLPP’s relationship with the SLFP, Ranatunga’s warning is likely to be accepted by the electorate. The ground situation should be examined, keeping in mind Premier and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rejection of an offer to take over the SLFP leadership soon after the parliamentary polls.

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