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Prancing of Political Horses for Pole Positions

by Sachi Sri Kantha, July 11, 2007

Folks, the prancing phase and pole position time has begun in Colombo. For what? For the second banana slot (aka, prime minister). The current second banana, Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka (born in May 1933), has reached 74 years and may not hold the position for long...

It is a political truism among Sinhalese politicians that, the weaker the identity of Sinhalese ancestry, the louder the anti-Tamil cacophony raised by power seekers.

The standard dictionary definitions for prance (a verb) and for pole position (a noun) are as follows:

  • prance: (of horse), raise forelegs and spring from hind legs.
  • pole position: the best starting position in a horse race or auto race.

These two definitions come in handy in reading between the lines of the editorial carried by the Sunday Times (Colombo) of July 8th, under the caption ‘Donor duplicity and free-for-all foreign policy’. Here is an excerpt:

“…in this week's plea from faraway Washington, International Trade Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris goes on record saying it would be a ‘tragic error’ if Western donor nations cut aid due to alleged human rights abuses linked mainly to the country's long standing separatist insurgency. …It is the continuing contradictory statements that are making matters worse for the President [Rajapakse].

For instance, Norwegian peace negotiator Jon Hanssen Bauer is told he can visit Kilinochchi anytime to meet the LTTE, but the Information Minister says nobody invited him to do so. Then, Highways Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle trying his hand at foreign affairs, something very foreign to him, attacks the US over some statement they've issued. This is the same Minister who, when he was in charge of Trade, went pleading to Washington for extra garment quotas.

As our Political Editor says on this same page, it's a ‘free-for-all’. Yet the President seems to permit this kind of freedom of expression with caution thrown to the winds on collective responsibility. Usually, only the President or the Foreign Minister would speak on foreign affairs. Clearly, the Foreign Minister is not up to the task and the President is exasperated.

There are Ministers who tell the President that they can go to Washington and sort things out with the Americans. There are Ministers who say they can do so with the Indians; with the Brits, the EU, and the Norwegians. The President gives all of them the go-ahead, but these are just joy-rides on state expense with no meaningful results accruing.

The Minister Peiris led garment delegation to Washington for example was a total flop…”

The editorialist had provided only snippets about what is happening these days in Colombo, and how the pampered Cabinet ministers are making hay. But for the sensible reason of not slitting his own throat, the editorialist has ignored why the cited ministers such as Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and G.L. Peiris are making voluble barks and neighs. Folks, the prancing phase and pole position time has begun in Colombo. For what? For the second banana slot (aka, prime minister). The current second banana, Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka (born in May 1933), has reached 74 years and may not hold the position for long.

Soured Dreams of Anura Bandaranaike and Mangala Samaraweera

When Anura Bandaranaike – with the qualification as the only son of two Sri Lankan prime ministers - was angling for the prime minister crown in November 2005, his ambitious balloon was pricked by the current President Rajapakse, who opted for Mr. Wickremanayaka, nominally on the basis of parliamentary seniority. During the last presidential campaign, Anura Bandaranaike also was taught a practical lesson that in politics it is the norm to kick the ladder which one uses to climb to reach the roof. Here is an excerpt of a news report of Poorna Rodrigo.

“Making an obvious reference to Minister Fernandopulle, Minister Bandaranaike in his letter to the President said the Bandaranaike family had unintentionally nurtured some Frankenstein monsters who had subsequently turned against them.

Mr. Bandaranaike said during the 1975 by-election at Katana, Mr. Fernandopulle was on a push cycle, clad in Bata slippers and it was he who had given Mr. Fernandopulle the opportunity to address the crowd.” [Colombo Daily Mirror, Oct.27, 2005] 

Apart from Anura Bandaranaike (whose ambitions for becoming the prime minister under President Rajapakse were thwarted by upstarts like Fernandopulle; but Anura also dug his own pit in the 2005 prime minister sweepstakes by refraining from campaigning for the incumbent president in the last presidential election), there was Mangala Samaraweera who also salivated for the prime minister crown. It later transpired that Samaraweera was not offered the prime ministership by President Rajapakse on the premise that Samaraweera still hasn’t reached chronological maturity. Now that Anura Bandaranaike has been sidelined within the jumbo cabinet, and Mangala Samaraweera has been expelled from the same elite cabal of coterie, other contending political horses have begun to prance. This correctly explains the breast-thumping notes among the Rajapakse claque, which are euphemistically tagged ‘continuing contradictory statements’ by the Sunday Times editorialist.

Four Categories of Sinhalese Politicians

Sixteen years ago [Tamil Nation, April 1, 1991], I categorized the Sinhalese politicians into four types. These are as follows:

(1) Schemers: This breed pretends to dispense justice to Tamils but practices only opportunistic politics; e.g: all the past and present leaders of the UNP and the SLFP, who became the prime ministers and presidents of the island.

(2) Screamers: This vocal breed (mostly originating from the non-Govigama castes among Sinhalese) pretends to be the patriots of the Sinhala nation. Since they could not aspire to the top echelons of power, they vented all their frustrations on the Tamils with demonic intensity; e.g: K.M.P. Rajaratne, C.P. de Silva, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle, Philip Gunawardena, Rohana Wijeweera, Cyril Mathew and Merril Kariyawasam.

(3) Sleepers: More than 60% of the Sinhalese politicians belong to this breed. They do not care about the Tamil issue; as such, they are labeled ‘sleepers’. Many novices begin as sleepers and then graduate into either schemers or screamers.

(4) Sympathizers: This is a rare breed (e.g: Wilmot Perera, Edmund Samarakkody, Shelton Ranaraja and most of the leaders of the traditional Leftist parties till 1960) who sympathized with Tamil aspirations but did not carry adequate political clout among the Sinhalese. They have been mostly obliterated now.

The two political horses – Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and G.L. Peiris - who are now making rabble-rousing, anti-Tamil exhortations identify with the ‘screamer’ category. It is a political truism among Sinhalese politicians that, the weaker the identity of Sinhalese ancestry, the louder the anti-Tamil cacophony raised by power seekers. By birth, both Fernandopulle and Peiris don’t belong to the high ranking Govigama caste. Their names attest to this fact. If Peiris is of Portuguese origin (i.e., less than 500 years deep in history), Fernandopulle is a cross-breed recent entrant in caste-conscious Sinhalese society. The two components of this name, Fernando (of Portuguese origin) and Pulle (a corruption of the Tamil word, Pillai) reveals that Fernandopulle’s ancestors were relatively recent (i.e., less than 200 years) Tamil-speaking migrants from the South Indian shore. Eelam Tamils shouldn’t take it too personally. Both Peiris and Fernandopulle are merely following the previously trodden path of C.P. de Silva, K.M.P. Rajaratne and Cyril Mathew.

Fernandopulle’s Foray into LTTE Affairs

That Fernandopulle is an ambitious politician always angling for media publicity is no secret, and that he also has a penchant for political spin is on record. I reproduce two 2001 reports about his forays into LTTE affairs. The first is by Celia Dugger of The New York Times, and the second is from the TamilNet. These make interesting reading.

Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister Meets with Rebel Leaders

[by Celia W. Dugger, International Herald Tribune, August 16, 2001]

New Delhi – A Sri Lankan cabinet minister has made a rare trip into territory held by separatist Tamil rebels, meeting with rebel leaders just weeks after their group carried out a devastating attack on the country’s only international airport, according to an official statement.

The foray by the cabinet minister, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, into the northern Wanni region of Sri Lanka was particularly surprising since he is in charge of the aviation ministry, which oversees the airport where the rebel attack destroyed or damaged half the national airline’s fleet.

It was not clear from the two-page statement issued Tuesday by the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation whether the meeting Monday was a step toward formal negotiations. But the minister’s visit was highly unusual. The ministry’s statement said the rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, had given him ‘full security and protection’ – a remarkable circumstance since the Tigers have often sent suicide bombers to blow up such senior officials.

The Tigers posted no comment about the minister’s visit on their web site Tuesday. There is no cease-fire in the war that the government and the rebels have been fighting for 18 years. In recent weeks, Sri Lankan Air Force jets have been pounding rebel camps.

The rebels’ goal is a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. But the ministry’s statement said local Tiger leaders ‘told the minister they had no desire for a separate state and asked him to initiate a process that would bring peace with justice.’ Mr. Fernandopulle, who also holds the Christian affairs portfolio, visited the Madhu shrine, a pilgrimage site for Catholics, during his trip to the Wanni region. He said the government would donate a public address system to the church and restore its electricity, which has been damaged by fighting.

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LTTE denies talks with Sri Lankan minister
[TamilNet, August 15, 2001]

The Liberation Tigers Wednesday denied claims by the Sri Lankan government that the organisation had met and held talks with a Sri Lankan cabinet Minister during his visit Monday to the Roman Catholic shrine in Madhu, a town held by the LTTE. When contacted by telephone, the LTTE’s chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham, told TamilNet Wednesday that Aviation Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle had merely met with the LTTE’s border security guards.

A two page statement issued by Sri Lanka’s Aviation Ministry Monday said that Mr. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle ‘had the rare meeting with regional leaders of the LTTE on Monday during a Roman Catholic pilgrimage to the island's embattled north.’

‘There was no such meeting. Mr. Fernandopulle only met our border guards who provided security for the Minister who had entered territory under our control for the purposes of pilgrimage to the Madhu shrine,’ Mr. Balasingham said. ‘The minister appears to have misunderstood the role and capacity of the cadres whom he met during his crossing,’ Mr. Balasingham said.

‘Regrettably, Mr. Fernandopulle, whose government is facing severe political problems, has falsely raised hopes of peace with his peculiar claim of a meeting with LTTE leaders,’ the Tigers’ chief negotiator added. ‘The coverage in the international media has also unreasonably heightened optimism.’

The Sri Lankan government statement said ‘Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle had the opportunity to meet with local leaders of the LTTE,’ and that he had been given ‘full security and protection’ by the Tigers. ‘The local LTTE leaders told the minister they had no desire for a separate state and asked him to initiate a process that would bring peace with justice,’ the Aviation Minister claimed.

There have been no official meetings between the LTTE and Sri Lankan Ministers for over a decade. A two-year peace initiative by the Norwegian government, has remained stalled for several months after the Sri Lankan government unilaterally downgraded the role of the peace envoy Erik Solheim earlier this year, shortly before the ongoing political crisis erupted in Sri Lanka.

The Games Peiris Plays for becoming a Prime Minister

I provide excerpts from a satire column (now nearly 9 years old) which touched on the game of ‘prime minister stakes,’ indulged in by G.L. Peiris and another strong aspirant for that job, Lakshman Kadirgamar, in 1998. To quote,

“…in last week's The Sunday Times we read about the crazy games G.L. Peiris and Lakshman Kadirgamar were playing in America, at the expense of the taxpayer.

When Kadirgamar meets US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Carl Inderfurth, G.L. Peiris goes to see him. Peiris then goes to see UN envoy Olara Otunnu with whom Kadirgamar is dealing about children in armed conflict.

Kadirgamar addresses one audience in Washington only to be followed by Peiris or vice versa. And, at the receiving end was former US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Teresita Schaffer who was never so busy in her life, running from one reception to another involving the two ministers who however never met each other!

The only redeeming feature in this ‘Premier Stakes’ race was Minister Kadirgamar being good enough to meet our leader [i.e., Ranil Wickremesinghe] in New York and talk of a bi-partisan approach to politics in Sri Lanka and about dealing with the LTTE. And that is how it should be too.

G.L. Peiris, on the other hand, probably hurt (metaphorically) by Kadirgamar meeting Ranil Wickremesinghe and hurt (literally) by spraining his ankle trying to keep pace with his colleague, the ex- Trinity Athletics Lion, slammed our leader at a public meeting in Washington using strong words like "vacuous" and "irrelevant" to describe Ranil Wickremesinghe's call for unconditional talks with the LTTE.

Then, in New York, Minister Peiris had a dinner 'date' with diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, and it looked as if both did it specifically to spite Minister Kadirgamar - the public perception being that the latter blocked Mr. Dhanapala's path to the post of UN Secretary-General…” [‘Dogs may bark – Caravan Moves On’, Sunday Times, Colombo, Oct.18, 1998]

What was revealing from this satirical column was that Kadirgamar was a neophyte sycophant to President Kumaratunga in 1994; but by 1998, despite his handicaps in being of a different ethnicity and belonging to a non-Buddhist religion, even this token Tamil in the SLFP Cabinet had begun to prance for the prime minister stakes.

Anura Bandaranaike’s Epistolary Gambits

In the late 1990s, Anura Bandaranaike (then in the UNP camp) had some choice words for the prancing ambitions of Kadirgamar. Whatever is said and written, one is tempted to note that Anura Bandaranaike is not such a wimp when it comes to political script-writing. It will be interesting to see how he tackles the upstarts Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and G.L. Peiris. Due to his pedigree, the SLFP still remains his cradle. A letter penned by Anura Bandaranaike last year to El Presidente, providing an excuse for absenting himself from the SLFP Central Committee meeting held on June 28, 2006, deserves a little notice. In this Central Committee meeting, Rajapakse was unanimously elected as the top dog of the SLFP, replacing his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga. A summary of Anura's letter written in English, and presented in a pro-UNP website Lanka E News [www.lankaenews.com] dated July 1, 2006, reads as follows:

Dear Mahinda,
This is a very confidential letter, because I think only you should beware of these facts. I will not send this letter to any member of the party. I will not direct this letter even to the Central Committee. I have received a letter from the party General Secretary suggesting a few proposals to amend the party constitution. I think these proposals have kicked the party leader out of the party.

It is tough for me to choose between the President and my sister. For me to choose is a Herculean task. Whichever side I take they will say I betrayed my sister or one of my old friends, whose bestman I was. No other person had this most difficult choice to make. My deep friendship for you has not lessened anyway, neither has my affection for my sister. What I am going to say is not a decision personal decision against you. Our 36 year old friendship cannot just be forgotten. We have travelled across the world through this friendship, not only we have visited London, Moscow and Baghdad, we have played cricket in Maldives. We have staged protest marches.

When your beloved mother passed away you were in remand prison. The then government did not allow you even to attend your mother's funeral. So I spoke to the then President J.R.Jayawardane and on a personal request made by me you were allowed to visit your mother's funeral.

The two children of your brother Basil Rajapaksa were admitted to schools by me. I mention these things not because I wanted to show off that I helped you, but to illustrate how deep our friendship was.

The former President is my sister. She is a politician with incredible capabilities. She was able to bring the SLFP into power after 17 years and was able to remain in power for 11 years. During that period she won 11 out of 13 elections faced by the party including two presidential elections. She made many personal sacrifices during this period. She was just 14 years of age when she lost her father. Her husband was brutally gunned down before her own eyes. She was blinded in one of her eyes as a result of an LTTE suicide attack. The bullet proof vehicle prevented her from being blown to pieces. She ruled the country for 5 years with just one eye. She had to spend time here when her two children were in England. No one else in the SLFP has undergone such difficulties.

If we were able to find an amicable solution to this problem, what a formidable force our party would have become. It could have become the most potent political force in the country. However forgive me for not being present at the central committee meeting that decide on the party leadership. I will continue to support the SLFP within the next five years and I will give an assurance on that matter.
Yours faithfully
Anura Bandaranaike”

Here is another, recent epistolary gem from the hands of Anura Bandaranaike, addressed to the editor of Sunday Times (Colombo). It appeared in the Sunday Times of Feb.25, 2007.

“Sans a (sic) English typist, I am hand writing this letter. Your article of the Sunday Times of February 18, 2007 Page 4 titled ‘CLOWN PRINCE BACK IN THE CIRCUS” is a venomous, diabolical and vicious piece, that can only emanate from a demented mind.

You say that I ‘cried’ and apologized to the President for attacking his family and Government. There were 3 witnesses, Governor Alavi Mowlana, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Basil Rajapaksa. On the contrary, the President embraced and kissed me and never referred to my references to his family. No tears flowed from my ‘chubby cheeks.’ It was a most cordial meeting full of jokes, as it was on my birthday, the next day, where the President spent 2 hours !!!…I have no wish to hang on to ‘Visumpaya’, unlike G.L. Peiris. When my private residence is fully repaired, I shall gladly go back. Many Ministers of the Cabinet who have more than one residence in Colombo, live in state houses…”

Mark those five words, “President embraced and kissed me,” I only wonder where that Presidential kiss landed? Compared to the insipid epistolary grunts of V. Anandasangaree, isn’t the ‘letter writing’ skill of Anura Bandaranaike more polished and kissing (oops – touching)? Anura can polish some personal memories to tear-jerking effect, which Anandasangaree cannot accomplish. Though chronologically his junior and nominally a bachelor, Anura can teach Anandasangaree some deft strokes about incorporating ‘kiss and tell’ anecdotes.

If only Anura had refrained from politics to focus on his penmanship, Sri Lanka would have gained a solid script-writer for television soaps. It is also on record that in the above-mentioned SLFP Central Committee meeting, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle staged a walk-out dissenting the usurpation of Kumaratunga from the SLFP leadership [vide, Colombo Daily Mirror, June 30, 2006]. Now, I wait for another emotional epistle from Anura to Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. Who said Colombo’s political clowns are dull?

Why the Political Horses are Prancing?

Though the Sinhalese editorialists and analysts are ashamed to openly admit it, this year marks the silver jubilee of the transformation of Sinhala-biased democracy into an overtly sham democracy cum dictatorship in Sri Lanka. The architect of this transformation was J.R. Jayewardene, the first executive president under the 1978 Constitution. Following his win in the 1982 presidential elections, he cancelled the general election with a dubious referendum. Since then, all his successors who have ascended the presidential throne (Premadasa in 1988, Wijetunge in 1993, Kumaratunga in 1994 and Rajapakse in 2005) had been prime ministers first and then, by choice or chance (in the case of Wijetunge only) propelled towards the presidency. This in nutshell explains why the political horses are now prancing for the pole positions.

Bertrand Russell anticipated the descent of Sri Lankan Sinhala-biased democracy into sham democracy cum dictatorship, in his 1938 classic work, Power. Here are the two paragraphs, which appear in chapter 3, titled ‘The Forms of Power.’

“The most successful democratic politicians are those who succeed in abolishing democracy and becoming dictators. This, of course, is only possible in certain circumstances; no one could have achieved it in nineteenth century England. But when it is possible, it requires only a high degree of the same qualities as are required by democratic politicians in general, at any rate in excited times. Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler owed their rise to democracy.

When once a dictatorship has been established, the qualities by which a man succeeds a dead dictator are totally different from those by which the dictatorship was originally created. Wire-pulling, intrigue and Court favour are the most important methods when heredity is discarded. For this reason, a dictatorship is sure to change its character very considerably after the death of its founder. And since the qualities by which a man succeeds to a dictatorship are less generally impressive than those by which the regime was created, there is a likelihood of instability, palace revolutions, and ultimate reversion to some different system.”

In merely 101 words of this second paragraph, polymath Bertrand Russell had elegantly summarized (ahead of time!) the recent 25 year history of Sri Lankan politics, from 1982 to 2007.

Let me re-trace the major events. J.R. Jayewardene established the dictatorship in 1982. He was literally targeted for killing by the JVP in Aug.1987, immediately after the Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Agreement. Though he escaped death, his dictatorship was figuratively killed by the JVP in 1988 which promoted Premadasa to the presidency. There was wire-pulling, intrigue and court favor during Premadasa regime (with revolt by disgruntled rivals Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake) and the dictatorship changed character. Subsequently, Premadasa was assassinated in 1993. His death has not been investigated until now according to conventional judicial norms. Wijetunge as well as Kumaratunga who succeeded Premadasa were – in the words of Russell - ‘less generally impressive than those [i.e., Jayewardene and Premadasa] by which the regime was created.’ As such, there has been ‘instability and palace revolutions’ for the past decade or so.

Among the SLFP political horses (the likes of G.L. Peiris, Lakshman Kadirgamar, C.V. Gooneratne, Anura Bandaranaike and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle) that have pranced for pole positions since 1998, the ambitions of Gooneratne and Kadirgamar were been smothered in 2000 and 2005 respectively and their deaths have been conveniently attributed by the subservient Colombo media to LTTE without any judicial investigations.

What the editorialist of The Sunday Times had noted on July 8th about the incumbent country bumpkin grade President cavalierly permitting freedom of expression among his Cabinet cabal “with caution thrown to the winds on collective responsibility” is nothing but a premonition to what Bertrand Russell prophesied on the “likelihood of instability, palace revolutions, and ultimate reversion to some different system.”