Sri Lanka-Why And How Of ‘National Unity’


N Sathiya Moorthy, 17 September 2017

If the UNP caused the sacking of Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, citing ‘collective responsibility’ as the substantiation, the SLFP has removed Deputy Minister for Tourism and Christian Affairs, Arundika Fenrnado, from the team. The UNP had begun by very reluctantly agreeing to the ‘forced’ resignation of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake over the ‘Central Bank bonds scam’. However, the party applied double-standards on the ‘collective responsibility’ front in the case of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka after he had gone on record that his successor army commander, Lt-Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, had committed ‘war crimes’ and offered to tender evidence.

The continuance of chaotic coalition Government may have raised more questions than provide any great answers to the ongoing issues of every kind facing the Sri Lankan Nation and State. The twin leadership of SLFP President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has now come to tit-for-tat (!) sacking of ministerial colleagues from their respective parties as if such belated symbolism, if any, could get tied over the constant crisis that their combined leadership has been facing since day one.

Shorn of the ‘sense of fear’ that went out of the window the hour incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded the 8 January 2015 presidential polls, nothing much has changed between the previous regime and the present one. To be fair, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe too has stopped threatening the media from public forum. If nothing else, he, his party and his leadership, if not the Government per se, want the media more than ever than any time in the past two and half years of the ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU).

Eternal instability

In the place of fear, a ‘sense of eternal instability’ has now gripped not just the Government but also different political leaderships – and with that the people at large – cutting across ethnic and ideological identities. For a change, there is talk of various Muslim political parties, which are divided only by personality-driven ego clashes of the respective leaderships, seem to be talking about coming together. The JVP is intact, or so it seems, but then there is no JVP worth the name, even like the one that was around a few years ago.

The Sirisena-led SLFP is divided with cadres and voters seemingly on the other side of the fence, with the Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition (JO) and more so, the relatively new Sri Lanka Podujana Permuna (SLPP), headed by G. L. Peiris and guided by Basil R. There is no denying the continued parliamentary party majority for Sirisena, but even his greatest admirer from within would venture to claim that he carries the party and SLFP-sympathetic voters as much as Mahinda R.

Thankfully, the UNP partner is relatively intact and comparatively strong, but a lot would also depend on how the Ranil leadership takes the party forward and the famed faction-feud of the past under check, by offering political loaves and electoral lumps. The man to watch is not possibly Ranil, but his over-quiet ministerial colleague, Sajith Premadasa, whose relative silence compared to the none-too-distant past is deafening.

If there was a pre-poll deal from end-2014, neither Ranil, nor Sajith, has spoken about it. Now that urban/urbane competitors in Ravi Karunanayake and possibly Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe are both out of the next immediate race, Premadasa, Jr, may be weighing his options and also the future of the party under Ranil and in the company of other GNU partners.

Touch of ideology, but…

The situation is no different in the official Opposition, Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The four-party combine is divided between the rival camps led by ITAK-centric leadership of R. Sampanthan and Northern Province Chief Minister, C. V. Wigneswaran. Here there is also a touch of ideology, as between SLFP and the UNP, especially in terms of the ‘national question’. Both TNA factions are for greater power-devolution within a united Sri Lanka – or, at least that is also what Wigneswaran has since reiterated in Kandy recently – but then there are approach-centric differences that have led to personality problems between the party’s top two leaders. The TNA Provincial Council group is still with Wigneswaran but as the parliamentary polls of August 2015 the larger Tamil voters seem to be still backing the Sampanthan-led ITAK group, with the other three Alliance partners mattering next to nothing.

The two Tamil leaders in particular need to acknowledge that they both are ageing and have an ideological-divide separating them. They also need to accept that the best moment for their existing or prospective Sinahala allies, political, ideological or NGO types, would be for the TNA to weaken itself and wither away. Pre-LTTE, after all, the Tamils of the North and the East had voted either the UNP or the SLFP, or both, at times in preference to the ITAK/FP and earlier alliances of such other Tamil parties.

Courts, cases and what more

At one level, it may still be tempting for the present-day rulers, especially those from the UNP, to think that the Rajapaksas’ may all be in the past, as and when more cases of corruption and the like are taken up, one after the other they are send to prison. The recent jail term for former Presidential Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga, when Mahinda R. was in power, may be an inviting proposition for them all in this regard.

On the one hand, Weeratunga’s appeal has just begun making its trip up the nation’s higher judiciary. The final results are yet to be known. So would be the case of other individual leaders, who cannot be condemned outright even if there were to be a trial court conviction against each one of them, or all of them put together.

But the problem for the present Government, especially the more dominant and prominent UNP partner is the kind of corruption cases haunting the party even after the purported perpetrators have departed. The ‘bonds scam’ is dated back to the very first month of the Maithiri-Ranil duo’s official term. There are other skeletons too jutting out of the cupboard while those of the Rajapaksas may be over-flowing, but turned old and cold, already.

‘Universal jurisdiction’

If someone thought that by continuing with the pending graft charges against the Rajapaksas, off and on, and thus keep them off-balance on the political front eternally, there again they are doing a grave mistake. On the ‘war crimes’ front their own frontline man in Field Marshal Fonseka has shot them all at once, and not just in their feet.

Today, if UNHRC chief, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has talked about ‘universal jurisdiction’ in the context of war-crimes probe, he may have been encouraged also by Fonseka-like public statements by people in responsible position, claiming that senior army official under his command had erred. The TGTE, for its part, lost no time in commenting on Fonseka’s claims even as the Government and party, of which he is very much a part seems foxed.

The Maithri-Ranil duo, on the one hand, cannot be seen as sacking Fonseka from the ministerial position as it would show the ‘Yahapalayana’ Government as trying to silence critics and witnesses who were in the best of positions to prove ‘war crimes’ than anyone else. Sacking Fonseka could also mean that he would be freer than at present to appear before any forum, UNHRC or any other, and speak his heart – if not mind!

Prince Hussein’s declaration also comes only weeks after new Foreign Minister and former Attorney-General Tilak Marapana – third in as many months – had reiterated the Government’s relatively recent resolve not to permit ‘international’ jurists and judges to probe alleged war-crimes.  What the UNHRC chief has in mind, and what the US-led western movers of the 2012 resolution on the subject intend doing could upset the armed forces and the nation much more now after Fonseka’s declaration than before it.


It is easy to assume and act upon the premise that if the Rajapaksas could be contained through graft cases and by indirect promise of protection from the likes of ‘universal jurisdiction’ on war-crimes probe. That is not to be. The Fonseka statement apart, the public mood has become so very anti-incumbency in two and half years whereas in the case of the Rajapaksas, it was mostly in the last two and half years of Mahinda’s 10-year rule.

The fact remains, whether or not the Rajapaksas come back to power, one way or the other, through one brother or the other – senior-most Chamal being a possibility, as the least controversial and relatively more acceptable even to political adversaries of the family – the vote-share of what they continue to represent cannot be wished away, for now. Mahinda has also declared his intention to contest on the SLPP flag and symbol in the interim, his idea possibly being a hope to hijack the parent SLFP in good time.

In this, Mahinda cannot hope for a better example than his bitter predecessor in Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. CBK walked out of the SLFP, then under her mother Sirimavo’s care with brother, late Anura Bandaranaike rooting the roost, only to time her return and win the nation’s presidency with the highest-ever 64-per cent vote-share in 1994. Even a year before her becoming Prime Minister and later President, both within months, Chandrika was just a dark-horse in the race that was not anyway in sight for her just then.

Anarchist anachronism

It is this that the Maithri-Ranil duo, and those that think for them, need to remember and recall constantly. Politically sidelining and eliminating the Rajapaksas is one thing, but hoping to consolidate their own hold over the high 45-47 per cent ‘Mahinda votes’ from the twin-polls of 2015, is another. It was calculations like this, and the accompanying failure of the SLFP-led Left Front under slain Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike through the late fifties that made the emergence of the anarchist anachronism of the JVP possible and potent, too.

The same can be said of the emergence of the LTTE as a militant monolith after the moderate Tamil political leadership began drifting away, if not drifting apart, but also over the head of multiple youth militant groups through the seventies. In the present-day Sri Lanka, that still leaves out the resourceful Muslim youth, who have been frustrated even more by the issue-less ego clashes of a select few leaders, who still belong in the past in every which way. The less said the better about the Upcountry Tamil youth, whose leaders too have failed them, but even more.

If sooner, than later, the multiple political leaderships of individual ethnicities do not see the writing on the wall and behave responsibly and responsively, they all may cancel out each other and render all of them equally and quickly irrelevant. Their place may not be taken by another Mahinda in the waiting, or a CBK, who was known by her name and family, but was still a dark-horse, instead by the likes of another Rohana Wijeweera (JVP), or Velupillai Prabhakaran (LTTE), or both.

Agree to agree…

The nation cannot afford it, the people (whatever be their ethnicity and political proclivity) do not deserve it.  If by working with the SLPP-JO for starters and roping in the Rajapaksas, to lead the SLFP even as Maithri continues as President and Ranil as Prime Minister, until Elections-2020, is a possibility that all stake-holders can consider, actively. Likewise, the TNA leadership could also work out a via media from within and possibly with the Muslim and even Upcountry Tamil leaderships.

All of it could well read and sound like a tall order, just now. But if they comprehend the alternative possibilities in full measure, then they may be able to agree to agree, and not agree to disagree.  Together, all parties can form a new and genuine Government of National Unity (GNU), and not just a ‘notional’ one that the incumbent one is, and work to resolve the ‘national problem’ and other constitutional issues, post-haste.

If postponing all elections, including possibly the divisive Local Government polls, would help, they should consider it actively. Maybe, once the nation had thus addressed the constitutional issues to mutual satisfaction of all stake-holders, they can rope in the international community to stay where they are now, and not continue talking about the unworkable ‘universal jurisdiction’ in object conditions.

It’s then that they could consider going their own way all over again, as parties and not factions, and face future elections as they had done all along, until 2015 – full of rancour and recriminations, but not ridicule and remonstrations. It may then be as much a clean state as the nation could hope for in the post-war era than any other initiative in the past, and any that could be construed in and for the future!

(The writer is Director, Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University