The seven weeks after the press conference at which Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidature were hectic and tense. During the conference itself, I had a telephone call to say that the Presidential Secretariat had called to demand that the vehicle I was using be returned. This struck me as petty, and foolish given that Chandrika Kumaratunga had just announced that those of us who had come out in favour of the common candidate would be persecuted.
I am aware that Mahinda Rajapaksa felt he had been betrayed by Maithripala Sirisena since, even when they had had dinner together the night before, the latter had given no hint that he was going to contest. But the manner in which I was deprived of my vehicle, even while I was still technically Adviser to the President on Reconciliation, indicated the manner in which anyone who was open in their actions would be treated.
In my case the President had no reason at all to feel betrayed, since I had written to him clearly in October to say we could not support him if he did not proceed with some of the reforms he had pledged earlier. And over the last few months I had made clear the need for reform, both Vasantha and I even proposing Private Members Bills with regard to burning issues such as reducing the size of the Cabinet. Interestingly enough, Vasantha told me that the President had called him and said that he was being unduly influenced by me, but he did not bother to speak to me himself. It was only just before the common candidate declared himself that one of his confidantes, Sarath Wijesinghe, called me and said that he assumed I would support the President. But even Sarath had no answer when I mentioned what worried me, such as the appalling treatment of Chris Nonis.
I have no hard feelings though about Mahinda Rajapaksa, because I believe he was grossly misled by a small coterie around him who cared neither for him nor for the country. What was surprising was that a man of such capacity, and sensitivity to the needs of the country, should have allowed himself to be dominated by a bunch of callous rascals. I should note that, though I have never had any high regard for Basil Rajapaksa, I do not include him in the category of those with undue influence, since he was undoubtedly a man of ability. And he achieved much in terms of development, even though he was not capable of twinning this with human development, which was essential if the fruits of development were to be equitably distributed. And of course he was largely responsible for alienating the President from the senior members of his party, since the impression they had, indicated to me vividly by one of the most decent members of the Cabinet, John Seneviratne, was that he was usurping the powers of all other ministries.
But there were reasons at least, if not good enough ones, for the President’s reliance on this brother. What was totally unacceptable was the role played by individuals such as Sajin vas Goonewardene and Kshenuka Seneviratne, at whose behest the President summarily dismissed those who did so much for their country such as Tamara Kunanayagam and Dayan Jayatilleke; the indulgence shown to individuals such as Duminda de Silva and the Chairman of the Tangalle local body who was responsible for the death of a British tourist; the failure to deal with racist elements such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, and equally to stop the fuel for their fires provided by the activities of Rishard Bathiudeen, who had so effectively alienated not just Sinhala extremists but also all Tamils.
And yet I can see now why people like Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam, who had together with me recorded just before the common candidate was announced a forceful critique of the more recent blunders of the government, did not endorse Maithripala Sirisena. Dayan indeed came out forcefully on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s side, though not without having discussions with Maithripala Sirisena, whom in himself he found acceptable. But he told me that Sirisena would be dominated by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga, both of whom were anathema to him.
I had no high regard for either, but I have a tendency to hope for the best, or rather to hope for better approaches than they had displayed in the past from those who seemed the lesser of two evils. I had thus voted for the UNP in 2001 when the Kumaratunga government had brought the country to the brink of disaster, and I had voted for Kumaratunga’s party in 2004 when Ranil had so abysmally played into the hands of the Tigers. This time round I was more optimistic because, if our campaign succeeded, the President would be Maithripala Sirisena, who I felt had a good track record.
That in the end he failed, even to fulfil his most basic promises, was not I think his fault, though I do think he could have been more resolute. But the problem, I think, was that he felt badly let down by his party. He assumed, I think, that more senior members of the party would join him, but the SLFP as a whole stuck solidly with Mahinda Rajapaksa. The closest they got to having a substantial figure cross over was when Dayasiri Jayasekera, by now Chief Minister of Wayamba, engaged in detailed negotiations, requiring amongst other things a commitment that he be put him Parliament.
I knew about this because I was called up at dawn on the 1st of January by Karunasena Paranavitana, a former Rajapkasa stalwart who had been disillusioned by what was going on, in particular what he saw as racism as well as excessive dishonesty. He told me that Dayasiri had insisted, as a condition of supporting Sirisena, that a vacancy be created in Parliament for him to come in. Karu basically asked if I would agree to resign for this purpose.
This struck me as silly since, if Sirisena lost, my resigning would serve no purpose whereas, if Sirisena won, Dayasiri would be better off running his Province and working energetically to position himself to do well at the Parliamentary elections that would follow. But obviously if that was what he wanted, I had no second thoughts about agreeing, feeling that his support would be useful. I did say that, while I made no conditions, I would like, if Sirisena did win, to be given some responsibilities in education, which I had realized I knew more about than anyone else, politician or official. Karu agreed to this and was effusive in his thanks, but of course he forgot about it immediately Dayasiri failed to cross over.
I had not of course, given my aversion to, and incapacity on, political platforms, campaigned actively, but I did do a lot with regard to the President’s manifesto. This was written up in an upstairs office at Chandrika Kumaratunga’s house, but the whole process was chaotic. I also realized that the person I thought in charge of the process, Jayampathy Wickremaratne, had his own agenda, or rather was pushing actively for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s agenda. He declared when we began discussions that the first action of the new government, if Sirisena was elected, was to transfer power immediately to the Prime Minister.
I told him this was both immoral and stupid. In the first place it was wrong to ask the people to vote for one man and then transfer power to another, secondly it was silly to hand over to Mahinda Rajapaksa what he thought would ensure his victory, namely the people thinking that the contest was between him and Ranil Wickremesinghe. I recalled then that two diplomats whose views I valued had expressed the view that there would be no change of regime because Ranil was determined to stand himself, and he was unelectable.
Immediately after Sirisena announced his candidature, I had had a long talk with Eran Wickremaratne, who explained how the UNP had finally persuaded Ranil to withdraw, and support a common opposition candidate from the SLFP. It turned out that Eran had been instrumental in this, making use of a survey he had commissioned. I suspect Ranil knew this, which is why Eran, though easily the most able and honest man in the UNP leadership, was not given a position worthy of his talents, and has instead to play second fiddle to individuals with nothing like his intelligence or his integrity.
Jayampathy seemed to agree with my argument, but I later realized that what he had accepted was the practical point, and he was still determined to return to a Westminster system with the Prime Minister having full powers. It was then that I went to see Sirisena, and found him characteristically laconic but firm in his opposition to the idea. What he wanted was a reduction in the powers of the Presidency, which of course all were agreed was necessary. That was how in the end the manifesto was worded.
Meanwhile the committee at Chandrika’s house was tying itself up in knots to produce what was known as the 100 day programme, a brainchild of Mangala Samaraweera, which seemed a good idea at the time but degenerated into soundbites, most of which were not taken seriously after the election. But thankfully there then emerged someone whom I realized was a confidante of the President, though initially he was presented as a member of the JHU, whose leaders, Champika Ranawaka and the Rev Athureliya Rathana, had emerged as the most forceful members of the government to cross over to support Sirisena.
Asoka Abeygunasekera volunteered, while we were bogged down in the 100 day programme, to write up the longer manifesto himself. He produced an impressive document, building on ideas we had developed during our discussions, but adding much himself. He and I got on well, both of us being firm in our opposition to Jayampathy’s little shenanigans, and he passed on the fuller document for me to finalize the English translation. He has written a long account of these processes in a book on the change that took place which came out a few months after the election, so I will not go into more detail here.
But I will cite one clause which I introduced, which he responded to positively. Sadly I do not think anyone bothered to read that long manifesto after the election, if indeed it happened to any great extent before. Thus the following commitment, which is a key to transforming governance, has been completely forgotten – ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.’
Ceylon Today 27 Dec 2016 – https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=11837