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Sunday, 20 March 2016





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UPFA rebel rally challenges Sirisena leadership

Many political parties use ‘protest’ rallies as a powerful tool to achieve short and long-term goals when they are in the opposition. Ever since the formation of organised political parties in Sri Lanka, protests have been a part and parcel of the country’s political culture. Some protests, in fact, influenced important developments in the country’s political domain over the past 70 years.

The United National Party, which came to power last year after a 20-year hiatus, made an unorthodox move last week when it decided to stage a protest in Colombo against what it termed as the “conspirators of the opposition”. It was one of the rare occasions when the ruling party took to the streets against the opposition saying the latter was sabotaging the government’s constructive moves towards achieving economic prosperity.

The protest was organised by young Ministers and MPs of the UNP including Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Harin Fernando, Ranjan Ramanayaka, Harshana Rajakaruna and Kavinda Jayawardena. Party seniors, including Ministers Lakshman Kiriella and Sajith Premadasa, extended their support to their young colleagues when it came to organisation of the demonstration.

A large number of UNP supporters attended the protest and there was a heavy traffic blockage in and around Town Hall on Tuesday evening as a result of the demonstration. Even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had to take a 30-minute walk under the scorching sun to listen to the speeches of the young MPs who organised the protest.

The Prime Minister, however, decided to stay away from the limelight as he wanted the young MPs to take the full credit for organising the protest.

Another highlight of the UNP’s protest was the participation of former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who was appointed to Parliament recently from the UNP national list. The organisers invited Fonseka to address the gathering and the former Army Commander launched a scathing attack on the previous government, repeating some remarks he made during his first speech in Parliament two weeks ago.

UNP protest

The main objective behind the UNP’s protest was to spoil the UPFA rebels’ protest which came two days later. The UNP also wanted to demonstrate the fact that even seven months after the Parliamentary election, it wielded significant support among grassroots level voters, despite the opposition’s claims that the ruling party had lost support in the villages.

It was against this backdrop that the UPFA rebel group held its planned protest rally in Colombo on Thursday based on five main demands.

The protest, however, widened the feud between the traditional SLFP supporting President Maithripala Sirisena and the rebel group supporting former President Rajapaksa.

The day before the rebel group’s rally, the SLFP leadership held a press conference in Colombo with the aim of castigating the rebel initiative. The press briefing was held also to mark new UPFA General Secretary Minister Mahinda Amaraweera’s assumption of duties. Amaraweera, a politician hailing from the backyard of the Rajapaksa family in the Ruhuna, became a staunch supporter of President Sirisena after the Presidential election early last year.

In addition to Amaraweera, the press conference was also addressed by Minister Susil Premajayantha, a former General Secretary of the UPFA who was removed from his post two days before the last Parliamentary election.

After the Parliamentary election, however, Premajayantha switched his allegiance and joined the national unity government, led by President Sirisena, happily accepting a ministerial portfolio.

In an obvious attack against pro-Rajapaksa members of the group, which calls itself the ‘joint opposition’, Premajayantha said certain elements were making various remarks about the last Parliamentary election, without knowing what he termed as the “bottom-line”.

“If I were to correct them, they will end up in difficulties. So, they should refrain from making comments on matters they have no idea about,” the Minister added.

“Had the SLFP not contested as one party under the betel leaf symbol, we would not have secured 95 seats at the election. Only Anura Yapa (former SLFP General Secretary) and I know the reality behind the development in the run-up to the last Parliamentary election,” Premajayantha explained. What he meant was the new protectors of the former President, who have now formed the ‘joint opposition’, had no idea about the back-room machinations to give Rajapaksa nomination to contest on the UPFA ticket at the Parliamentary election.


Another highlight of the event was the presence of MP Manusha Nanayakkara at the press conference. It was no secret that Nanayakkara was an open supporter of Rajapaksa before the last Parliamentary election and he even functioned as the media spokesman of the pro-Rajapaksa group. After the election however, there were was speculation that Nanayakkara was preparing to do a somersault by switching to President Sirisena’s side, accepting a deputy ministerial portfolio.

Nanayakkara’s move this week indicated that he had already switched to the President’s camp even without any official portfolio in the national unity government. It was, in other words, an indirect slap in the face of the ‘joint opposition’ two days before their rally in Colombo.

While the SLFP waged its propaganda war against the UPFA rebels’ rally, Rajapaksa supporters too held a press conference in Colombo on the same day to create some ‘media hype’ about the rally. At the briefing, MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage, a staunch supporter of Rajapaksa, confirmed the former President’s participation in the rally. He said in addition to Rajapaksa, a group of MPs from the SLFP would also take part in the rally, defying instructions given by the party Central Committee.

Shortly before the UPFA dissidents rally in Colombo, the pro-Rajapaksa camp had to face another unexpected blow as a result of a press communiqué circulated among some sections of media.

The press communiqué, which had the signature of former President Rajapaksa, said the former President would not take part in the Hyde Park rally in line with the Central Committee’s decision. Some news websites even went on to publish it, assuming the former President had changed his mind at the last moment as a result of the pressure exerted by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

However, it was later revealed that the press communiqué bearing the former President’s signature was a fabricated one and Rajapaksa would attend the dissidents’ rally. But, the ‘joint opposition’ group however could not figure out as to who was behind the false press release. The large majority of them assumed that the anti-Rajapaksa group within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had masterminded the false communiqué.

Hyde Park

The protest rally held at Hyde Park, a small ground in the capital city, was not a disappointment for the UPFA rebels. They purposely chose ‘Hyde Park’ as the small size of the ground would exaggerate the number of supporters present at the rally. However, there was a significant crowd presence at the rally and the organisers had taken measures to arrange buses and other facilities for their supporters to attend the event.

Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Rohitha Abeygunawardena were the main organisers of the rally while Dullas Alahapperuma handled media and publicity. Wimal Weerawansa was entrusted with the task of preparing the stage and decorating it.

Over 30 MPs of the SLFP attended the rally, defying the party’s Central Committee order. Among the MPs of the SLFP and UPFA who attended the rally were Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chamal Rajapaksa, Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, Kumara Welgama, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Rohitha Abeygunawardana, Bandula Gunawardana, Gamini Lokuge, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Namal Rajapaksa, C.B. Ratnayaka, Dullas Alahapperuma, Keheliya Rambukwella, Salinda Dissanayaka, Sisira Jayakody, Indika Anuradha, Mohan Silva, P.D.Rathnayaka, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Wijeysekara, Sriyani Wijayawickrama, S.M.Chandrasena, Shehan Semasingha, Yohan Semasingha, Vimalaweera Dissanayaka, H.A. Muthukumarana, Weerakumara Dissanayaka, Piyal Nishantha, Jayantha Samaraweera, Kanaka Herath, Tharaka Balasuriya, Niroshan Premarathna, Udaya Shantha Gunasekara, Ranjith Soyza, Dinesh Gunawardana, Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammampila, Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

In addition to the MPs, LSSP Leader Tissa Vitarana, Communist Party’s Raja Collure and former JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasingha also attended the event.

This was the first time the former JVP leader, who was at one point a vociferous critic of Rajapaksa, shared the same stage with the former President.

A few weeks after the last Presidential election, Amarasinghe even staged a one-man protest at the Independence Square demanding a probe into the alleged election night coup. He also said the JVP was pussyfooting on allegations against the former first family.

However, 12 months down the line, the same Amarasinghe has now ended up in the pro-Rajapaksa camp, taking a 180-degree turn in the twilight of his long political career.

Rajapaksa’s speech at the Hyde Park rally was not very different from his last speech in the run up to the last Parliamentary election.

The slogans, the tenor and the rhetoric were the same. His speech was full of claims that very much sounded like election promises. It was a clear indication that Rajapaksa, a politician who has been in the business for over four decades, was still struggling to ‘re-invent’ himself in the post-election period.

Muscle power

It is important to examine as to why the UPFA rebel group, led by Rajapaksa, opted to show their muscle power at this juncture. It is common knowledge that several members of the former first family are now in hot water in connection with several high profile investigations.

Probably the former President wanted to send a signal to the government that taking action against his family members could cause troubles for the government in villages.

He also wanted to send a message to the SLFP that he could cause a serious division in the party in the event the party failed to recognise him where the next Local Government election is concerned.

After the protest, the former President invited all MPs who attended the rally for a dinner party at his Mirihana residence. The invitation for the spontaneous dinner party was made on the stage and it elicited a highly positive response from the MP group supporting Rajapaksa. The MPs were seen partying late into the night and some left the former President’s residence in the wee hours of Friday.

It is interesting to see whether the SLFP would take action against those MPs who defied the ban on rally participation by the Central Committee, the supreme decision making body of the party.

It is now reported that there are two schools of thought among seniors of the SLFP on taking disciplinary action against the MPs who took part in the protest.

Party discipline

One group says taking disciplinary action against who defied the Central Committee order would further deteriorate the party’s strength.

They opine that the party is already dealing with a serious internal power struggle and the Central Committee should refrain from taking action that would widen divisions in the party.

However, the other group is of the belief that the party should take stern action against those who violated party discipline, irrespective of their positions in the party.

They stress that the same law should be applied to former President Rajapaksa, although he is a former Chairman and a Patron of the SLFP.

“It is true that there are various viewpoints on the matter. However, the Central Committee has the final authority to make a decision on taking disciplinary action against them.

The majority of Central Committee members believe that the party discipline should not be violated at any cost. Even the General Secretary of the party shares the same view,” a senior SLFP Parliamentarian told the Sunday Observer on Friday, explaining the party’s position on the matter.

Power crisis

Another key challenge for the government last week was the island-wide power outage on Sunday evening – the worst blackout in 20 years. Even after the eight-hour power cut on Sunday, there were intermittent outages until Thursday as the Norochcholai coal power plant was not fully functional.

The controversy surrounding the Sunday evening blackout earned a lot of negative publicity for the government, especially the Power and Energy Ministry and the Ceylon Electricity Board.

CEB Chairman Anura Wijepala, not surprisingly, was at the receiving end of many outraged comments especially on social media platforms.

Wijepala, an electrical engineer from the University of Moratuwa, has vast experience in the field and is known as a professional with high professional integrity. Soon after the islandwide power outage was reported, he contacted Ministry Secretary Dr. B.M.S. Batagoda and informed that he was resigning.

Batagoda advised the CEB Chairman not to take any drastic decision and to remain patient. However, the CEB Chairman said he would nevertheless send his letter of resignation when the power supply is fully restored. He said he was ashamed to function as the CEB Chairman as there were three blackouts within a period of six weeks.

However, the Minister and the Ministry Secretary took a collective decision not to accept Wijepala’s resignation. Instead of accepting the resignation, they urged the CEB Chairman to remain in the position and assist the government in investigations into the power outage.

Meanwhile, the government launched multiple probes in the power outage and even the CID was instructed to inquire into the reasons leading to the incident.

Speculation was rife that the blackout might have been an act of sabotage as it was the third island-wide power outage in six months.

This idea was brought to the Prime Minister’s office by a group of young UNP MPs who met him at the Temple Trees after Tuesday’s protest.

They said there was a ‘mafia’ disrupting day-to-day affairs in the country in a bid to make the government unpopular. They also linked this incident to the protest launched by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) against the proposed ETCA agreement with India.


The Prime Minister, after taking these concerns into consideration, directed that a special committee be appointed to probe the outages and prepare a comprehensive report. At the same time, Power and Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya also initiated a separate inquiry in a bid to ascertain the reason behind the outage.

The Ministry Secretary, on Monday, also wrote a letter to the President requesting his immediate intervention to resolve a multitude of issues crippling the power sector.

“We are still short of 300 megawatts on the national grid. Norochcholai has faulted and we are presently not using our hydro power due to the water shortage,” he said in his request.

Moving a step further, President Sirisena directed that the Army be deployed to provide security at all CEB installations connected to the national grid.

The move was aimed at preventing any party with vested interests from sabotaging the power plants.

The President also appointed a ministerial committee to inquire into the matter and present its recommendations within three months.

The Committee consists of Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Ministers Susil Premajayantha, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Sagala Ratnayaka, Deputy Ministers Eran Wickramaratne and Ajith P. Perera.


The inquiries into the blackout have now revealed various administrative lapses on the part of the CEB.

One inquiry had revealed that the General Manager of the Ceylon Electricity Board had apparently turned down a request made by the Biyagama CEB installation’s chief engineer to replace the transformer at the plant. It has now been established that an issue with the transformer at the Biyagama installation was the main reason for the blackout. The request, according to authoritative CEB sources, had been made a year ago.

The documents pertaining to the request have already been handed over to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, they further added.

Another aspect that is being probed is the pace at which the relevant authorities took action for damage-control after the breakdown at the Biyagama installation.

The report of the ministerial sub-committee will be handed over to the President on Tuesday and it will contain a comprehensive analysis of circumstances leading to the power outage.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister held discussions with senior authorities of the Power and Energy sector and instructed them to take immediate action to restore power supply.

The Prime Minister stressed that the public-at large should not be burdened for the shortcomings on the CEB’s part. “Therefore”, he said, “power cuts should not be considered a solution to this problem.


The Norochcholai power plant was brought back to normalcy on Thursday and the CEB announced that there would be no power-cuts from Friday. However, on Friday morning, an unexpected development that occurred at a power station at Ja-ela sent ripples across the CEB’s top management. A sudden fire followed by an explosion at the Kotugoda Sub Station of the Ceylon Electricity Board resulted in a power cut in a number of areas in Ja-ela and Kotugoda.

The incident occurred several hours after the Power and Energy Minister’s announcement that there would not be any power cuts as power generation by the Norochcholai power plant had resumed. Therefore, there were obvious fears that the minor explosion and the subsequent fire could have been an act of sabotage.

According to a CEB official, the blast caused a fire at the substation around 4.30 p.m. affecting power supply in a number of areas in Ja-Ela and Kotugoda. The operation of turbines at Norochcholai power plant Stage I was delayed as a precautionary measure to avert a possible black-out throughout the country.He said the blast did not have any impact on the national grid.

However, the government sought an immediate report from the Government analyst pertaining to the incident. Deputy Power and Energy Minister Ajith P Perera, CEB Chairman Anura Wijepala and senior officials rushed to the scene minutes after the blast to inquire into the incident.

Such developments however have compelled the government to keep a close eye on the power and energy sector – a key element in the country’s economy – as many believe there is an under-the-radar mafia crippling daily affairs in this sector.


Seylan Sure
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