Karu as Sajith’s Canary


Last week, there was some excitement over another leadership challenge in the UNP with Sajith Premadasa inviting Karu Jayasuriya to contest the party leadership and Jayasuriya throwing his hat into the ring with a public announcement that he would indeed contest. The rationale behind asking Karu to contest the leadership instead of Sajith Premadasa was on the calculation that there were some people in the party who were supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe not because they wanted to, but because their political competitors in the districts had joined Sajith and they feared that they would be sidelined in favour of Sajith’s loyalists if the latter became party leader. By putting forward a neutral figure, who was neither in the Sajith camp nor the Wickremesinghe camp, the reformists thought they would be able to win over the undecided middle.

However, Karu is now no longer a neutral individual as he is completely dependent on the Sajith faction for support. There is no such thing as a Karu Jayasuriya group in the UNP. The last time Karu tried to challenge Wickremesinghe, it was pointed out in this column that not a single person in the UNP, not even a pradeshiya sabha member or provincial councilor let alone a parliamentarian, joined the reformist group because Karu was the leadership aspirant. As such Karu J is basically a loner in the UNP today. There are only two factions in the UNP, the Ranil faction and the Sajith faction, with the latter still a minority. Since Karu is now completely dependent on the Sajith faction, he will not be able to convince those in the Wickremesinghe camp that they will not be sidelined in favour of Sajith loyalists in the event of a change in leadership.

In a situation where Karu himself is completely dependent on the Sajith faction to deliver votes to him, it will be hard to convince those who are not with Sajith that he will not be dictated to by the Sajith faction if he becomes party leader. The perception that people have of Karu J now is that he is now the nominee of the Sajith faction. Before the last unsuccessful leadership challenge a few months ago, it did appear that Karu was neither with Wickremesinghe nor with Sajith, because at that time, as we have pointed out in this column earlier, he was genuinely not with Sajith. At that time, he was not doing anything to oppose Wickremesinghe. On the contrary, he was supporting Wickremesinghe tacitly or overtly. It was only with Sajith Premadasa’s invitation to him to take over the party leadership that Karu started going against Wickremesinghe.

Switching sides is like losing your virginity. It has to happen only once and you are with it for the rest of your life. Once virginity is lost you cannot be restored to your former status no matter what. Once Karu Jayasuriya challenged Wickremesinghe at Sajith’s behest, he ceased to be a neutral figure who was not with the Sajith faction. After that leadership challenge fizzled out, Karu never reverted to his former status of not being a member of the Sajith faction. In the UNP you can only be with Wickremesinghe or against him.  There is no middle ground even though some people are under the erroneous impression that such a middle ground exists. After Karu J challenged Wickremesinghe at Sajith’s behest and failed to make it in the first go, his value as a neutral challenger ceased to exist.

There are some things which have to succeed the first time and if the first attempt fails the window of opportunity will close forever. That appears to have happened to Karu J when he failed to oust Wickremesinghe the last time. As such his value today as a neutral challenger to Wickremesinghe is very limited. He is now the Sajith faction’s nominee for the position of party leader – not a neutral challenger. Only those who would vote for Sajith will now vote for him. If he is being pushed forward in such circumstances, it would be only as a canary to see whether he will survive the test! In the old days coal miners would lower a canary in a cage into the mine to see whether any poisonous gases had accumulated inside the mine. If the canary came up alive, the miners knew it was safe to go down into it themselves. Karu J today is that canary.

John Amaratunga’s reaction to Karu Jayasuriya’s announcement that he is running for the position of party leader is understandable. Compared to Amaratunga, Jayawickrema Perera, and Joseph Michael Perera,  Karu Jayasuriya is a relative newcomer to politics. Besides, Karu’s lack of political savvy is well known to everybody. The reason why the UNP dissidents are trying to hand over the party leadership to him is not because of his superior understanding of politics but because they think he can be used as a stop gap measure for a leader to emerge later. Even to use Karu as a stop gap, he has to be voted in as leader first. People like John Amaratunga and many other party seniors probably can’t think of any reason why they should vote for Karu. Besides the fact that Karu defected to the government and came back to the UNP would irk party seniors no end, especially when such an individual has the gumption to contest for the party leadership!

The high powered advisory committee of the UNP met last Monday with all six members, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Tissa Attanayake, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Karu Jayasuriya, Ravi Karunanayake and Sajith Premadasa in attendance. The main matter at hand was the filling of vacancies in the working committee. The UNP has been functioning all this while, under emergency provisions in article 16.2 of the party constitution which says that the functioning of any decision making body of the UNP will be valid despite any irregularities in its composition or any vacancies in its membership.

Tissa Attanayake said that eight members had to be appointed to the working committee to represent local government institutions, four members to represent the trade union sector and three members to represent affiliated organizations of the UNP. In making these appointments some criteria were to be applied such as the seniority of the local government representatives and their being of such character as to be able to uphold the respect of the working committee etcetera. The two UNP dissidents in the advisory committee Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya agreed to the criteria saying that what they wanted was transparency in appointing representatives to the working committee. The selection criteria were presented to the working committee on Wednesday and approved. It is unlikely that any of these new appointees will vote for Karu Jayasuriya in the event of a leadership challenge as Wickremesinghe will ensure that he appoints those loyal to him.

Sidelining the dissidents

It appears that Wickremesinghe is gradually gearing to run the party without the involvement of any members of the Sajith group. Last week, the special committee set up to explore ways and means of getting Mano Ganesan’s cooperation within the Colombo Municipal Council met and its composition revealed the new trend in the UNP. The Mano Ganesan committee comprised of Tissa Attanayake, Malik Samarawickrema, Ravi Karunanayake and  Daya Pelpola – all Ranil loyalists. Then on  Friday last week,  the UNP’s ‘mass agitation committee’ (Virodhatha Kamituwa)  met with Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ravi Karunanayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mangala Samaraweera, Harin Fernando and Ruwan Wijewardene present. The only UNP dissident present was Dayasiri Jayasekera who is more an independent figure among the dissidents, than a die hard Sajith loyalist. One might ask how the UNP can think of a mass agitation planning committee without the participation of figures like Sajith Premadasa who have the support of the majority of the UNPers, but that’s the way things work now. At this meeting it was decided to hold a demonstration calling for the release of Sarath Fonseka on

December 10, International Human Rights Day and to commence getting signatures for the petition to be presented to the UN Secretary General.

The working committee meeting of Wednesday last week turned out to be a damp squib. People were expecting a leadership challenge at that meeting, but what was really discussed were the disciplinary measures against Mohan Lal Grero, the critera for making the remaining appointments to the UNP working committee, the punishments to be meted out to electoral organizers who failed to bring crowds for the demonstration the week before last on November 29  and getting sanction for the planned demonstration scheduled for December 10. Both Karu J and Sajith made the request that the disciplinary inquiry against Buddhika Pathirana be expedited. Tissa Attanayake accepted the responsibility of settling Buddhika’s matter in such a manner as to ‘uphold the respect of the party’. The conciliatory tone struck in the working committee over Buddhika’s matter was very different to the attitude displayed by Wickremesinghe at the last UNP parliamentary group meeting, which we described in this column last week.

Perhaps because of the impending leadership challenge, Wickremesinghe seems to have thought that discretion was the better part of valour and decided to de-escalate tensions over the Buddhika issue. Wickremesinghe saw for himself at the last UNP parliamentary group meeting that MPs tended to take Buddhika’s side and he now obviously wants to remove this issue from the slate as it tends to tilt the balance the other way. The UNP working committee ended with Wickremesinghe pointing out that the he personally and the UNP have been doing a lot on behalf of the jailed Sarath Fonseka, but that certain people (meaning the JVP) were ridiculing the efforts they were making. Yet these critics had done very little to help SF and not even raised their voices in parliament on his behalf.

Marapone and Ali Khan

Sujeewa Senasinghe scored some points last week by getting the UNP opposition leader of the Puttalam Urban Council, Abdul Mohamed Ali Khan, released from remand. Ali Khan’s matter had in fact been referred to at that stormy and unsuccessful meeting of the UNP parliamentary group that we reported on last week. In expressing general dissatisfaction with the way things were moving within the party, one MP said that the opposition leader of the Puttalam Urban Council was in remand for the past two months (three months actually) but nobody from the party had gone to see him and that when the imprisoned opposition leader’s family had approached a ‘leading UNP lawyer,’ this lawyer had asked for Rs 500,000 to appear for the case. Another MP had muttered from the sidelines "Mara porak, mara panakak!" It was then that the other parliamentarians had got to know that the lawyer in question was Tilak Marapone.

This episode in fact is true. The Puttalam UC opposition leader was arrested on suspicion of having being involved in the ‘grease yakka’ unrest that swept through the country some months ago. A police constable was killed in Puttalam in the course of that disreputable affair and Ali Khan was arrested on suspicion of having being involved in the policeman’s murder. About two weeks after Ali Khan was arrested, his two brothers, brother in law and his wife and another person had gone in a delegation to see Tilak Marapone and asked him for help to get Ali Khan released. They had explained that Ali Khan had come to the UNP from the Muslim Congress and that he was doing a lot of work for the party. Marapone had listened to all that and asked for a fee of  Rs 500,000 to appear for the case. In desperation Ali Khan’s family had then gone back to Puttalam district MP Palitha Range Bandara who had been helping them all along and Range Bandara had taken them to Karu Jayasuriya who in turn had put them in touch with Sujeewa Senasinghe who had unhesitatingly taken on the task and made three appearances on behalf of the imprisoned Ali Khan resulting in the latter being released on bail last week.

What this goes to highlight is the predicament of the UNP. Tilak Marapone was the most powerful minister in the UNF government of 2001-2004 after the prime minister. He held the portfolios of defence, civil aviation, highways and transport – four key ministries that no one else had held concurrently. This, while being a national list MP without any votes. One would think that given what the UNP had given him, Marapone would be working overtime to give something back to the party, but what the Ali Khan episode shows is that this is not so. The biggest problem that the UNP has had to face under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stewardship are ‘horoscope appointees’, people who have been elevated to high office not because they had done anything to deserve it, but were there only by virtue of good planetary combinations in their horoscopes.

Having once got a lot for nothing, such individuals will never think it necessary to do anything for the party in return. What they have seen under Wickremesinghe is those who slaved indefatigably for the party falling by the wayside while those who did nothing are elevated to high positions. So the natural reaction will be to do nothing and hope the planets will work their magic again. If we take this Puttalam case, it’s not as if Marapone would have had to go out of his way to appear for Ali Khan. When the present writer asked a member of the delegation that had gone to meet him, why they had approached Marpone in particular, they said that they had thought of approaching Marapone because he came quite often to Puttalam to appear for cases. It’s quite all right for a lawyer to concentrate on his career and charge fees for appearances. But a lawyer who also seeks to hold public office and be in a political party, will have to think of his party people too without thinking only about his career. However, Marapone, had asked for Rs. 250,000 up front from Ali Khan’s family and the remaining 250,000 to be paid later!

This episode shows more than anything, what the UNP has become today. The saving grace was that Sujeewa Senasinghe appeared for Ali Khan completely free of charge even traveling to Puttalam at his own cost. (It has to be said with gratitude that Nalin Ladduwahetty appeared free of charge for the present writer in 2000 during the giddy peak of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s reign of terror. Nalin had never even seen the present writer before he started appearing for me – he did it for the party and if he held public office later under the UNP, well, he had earned it.)  The post script to the Ali Khan episode is that at 5.00am yesterday (Saturday) the STF had surrounded Ali Khan’s house in Puttalam and they had come in at 6.00 am and searched the premises and left having found nothing incriminating.

The Voetlights fiasco

The most embarrassing episode that the Colombo legal and media fraternity has had to face in a long time is the ongoing tiff between LakbimaNews editor Rajpal Abeynayake and a leading lawyer Asoka Samararatne over an incident which took place at the Voetlights annual lawyer’s dinner a few days ago.  Rajpal’s side of the story is that this end-of-year party was a place where people traditionally expressed their ideas freely and he had taken up issue with some UNP lawyers who had earlier wanted to impeach Sarath N.Silva but who had recently changed their stance and had brought a resolution in the Bar Association condemning the government’s decision to appoint a parliamentary select committee to investigate the conduct of the former chief justice.  Rajpalissue was with the double standards in opposing Silva when he was with the other side and now supporting him after he switched sides. He had chided the UNP lawyers saying that when Sarath Silva was on the other side he was a crook, but now that he had switched sides, he was a good guy.

The lawyers Rajpal had addressed had apparently taken it up well, saying sheepishly that such was the way with politics. But Samararatne who was within earshot had got into an argument with Rajpal. The latter had said that he was not addressing Samararatne. Then says Rajpal, Samararatne had started assaulting him and uttering death threats. With this dispute, a large cross section of Colombo society has been placed in the same position that the UNP was after the Range Bandara – Shantha Abeysekera clash and the UPFA after the Bharatha Lakshman – Duminda Silva shootout. In such cases, anybody’s knee jerk reaction would be to sweep the whole thing under the carpet and pretend it never happened. Everybody seems to be intent on doing that. The Editor’s Guild had arrived at the conclusion that Rajpal had been present at Voetlights not as a newspaper editor but as a lawyer. A powerful group of lawyers too seem to be coming together to rescue one of their own from an assault charge.

Rajpal for his part states that these lawyers practice double standards. When a grenade was thrown at J.C.Weliamuna’s house a mighty hue and cry was raised over it despite the fact that no one was injured and only some windows had been damaged. However when a lawyer outside the magic circle is physically assaulted, everybody tries to belittle the whole issue. Asoka Samararatne’s take on the matter is that Rajpal had gate crashed Voetlights without paying for the dinner and had gone from table to table drinking and picking arguments with everybody. (Samararatne insists that Rajpal had not paid to gain entry.  Yet Rajpal says that he was a legitimate guest at that event and that he has proof of it.) Then says, Samararatne, Rajpal had got into an argument with Upul Jayasuriya about Sarath Silva at which point he asked Rajpal why he was shouting needlessly. At this says Samararatne, Rajpal had said in Sinhala that he (Samararatne) was ‘giving his rear end’ to Ranil Wickremesinghe. This had happened around 10.30 pm according to Samararatne.

At around 2.00am says Samararatne, Rajpal had gone to the police station complaining of assault. The police had asked him whether he was injured, and Rajpal had answered in the negative and they had also asked him whether he wants to go to the hospital and he had again answered in the negative. Samararatne says that the next day, Rajpal had got himself admitted to hospital and that the idea was to get him remanded. When the victim is in hospital, the alleged assailant is automatically remanded. Samararatne also says that a complaint has been lodged in the Kollupitiya police station that Rajpal has not paid the Rs 5,000 to attend Voetlights and that therefore he was trespassing.

What Rajpal says about this is that this accusation of trespassing is an issue that has come up to counter his complaint of assault. Rajpal appears to have the fullest backing of his employer Thilanga Sumathipala who raised a question over the assault in parliament last Friday. Sujeewa Senasinghe who was one of the few UNP parliamentarians present in parliament had in reply, read out a long list of unsolved murders and disappearances of media personnel under the Rajapaksa regime. Rajpal’s main grouse is that if this had happened to an NGO lawyer or a UNP lawyer, there would have been demonstrations on the streets but because it happened to someone outside the magic circle, the whole thing is being belittled.

Be that as it may, this tiff is proving to be a profound embarrassment for the entire legal and media fraternity. It’s embarrassing for us as well. Rajpal was a former Island staffer and colleague and is still a fellow journalist and Asoka Samararatne Associates are the company lawyers of the Upali Group! To put it mildly, we too are in a quandary. The accusations and counter accusations that are being hurled at each other by the disputants are damaging to them too. In this situation, the first instinct of the present writer is to recommend  a Tinavattaraka Kamma with regard to the Voetlights incident. In the Buddhist Vinaya,  a Tinavattaraka Kamma refers to an oft used tool of restorative justice and conflict resolution (as against retributive justice). Translated into English, it would roughly mean ‘the covering up with grass method’. What you do is to cover up everything and pretend it never happened!


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