Ranil’s Intransigence fed Chandrika’s Personal Agenda
By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Chandrika was diffident after the chaos of 2001 which had alienated members of her party and brought Ranil into power. But adversity brought out the best in her as always, and Ranil played into her hands over time when he treated her with contempt.
The first instance of her asserting herself has been noted, when she supported the navy to stop the Tigers bringing in weapons when Ranil along with his Defence Minister had not been willing to do this. And then they went further in wanting her to sign over powers to the Minister of Defence. Though she refused, Marapana went ahead and gazetted the notice anyway.
That moved Chandrika to decisive action. She sought from the Supreme Court an interpretation of whether this was acceptable, and the verdict was that she as President was responsible for Defence. She used that ruling to dismiss Marapana, and also the Interior Minister who was in charge of the police, but she also took over the Ministry of Mass Communication on the same date, 4 November 2003.
Ranil was in America at the time, but the UNP under Karu Jayasuriya organised a massive demonstration to meet him at the airport when he returned on the 7th. Some of his supporters expected confrontation, but Ranil contented himself with declaring that he had the support of George Bush.
The Norwegians who had brokered the agreement with the LTTE flew to Sri Lanka to promote a compromise, but went back unsuccessful. Chandrika, having found less support internationally than she had hoped, with the Indians too remaining non-committal, was willing to return two portfolios but Ranil remained adamant that she should restore all three.
The Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupan Sen, who was rumoured to have been advising Chandrika, given the Indian dissatisfaction with what seemed the impending ascendancy of the Tigers under Ranil’s watch, advised Ranil to compromise, telling him that the Congress Party was likely to get back into power at the next Election and they would support Chandrika solidly against what they saw as a community of interests between Ranil and the Tigers. But Ranil continued confident that his other foreign friends would weigh in on his side, and that Chandrika would not dare to dissolve Parliament to seek a majority.
He was strongly supported in this approach by one of his forceful new supporters in the party, Ravi Karunanayake, who had clashed bitterly with Chandrika in Cabinet. His view was that, since the SLFP was now allied with the JVP, there was no way voters would support it. And he scoffed at the idea that voters would be even more disenchanted with the UNP since it now seemed to be allied with the Tigers. For the TULF which strongly supported Ranil was now totally under the control of the Tigers and indeed its leader Sambandhan was willing blithely to declare that the LTTE were the sole representatives of the Tamil people.
Chandrika was still not sure how far she could go, but then in December a Buddhist monk who had been bitterly critical of Ranil’s dealings with the LTTE died suddenly, and the massive outpouring of grief that followed made it clear which way the wind was blowing. Chandrika took heart from this and then dissolved Parliament early in 2004.
Though she contested together with the JVP under a new United People’s Freedom Alliance, she did not get a majority, and indeed the UNP, together with what was now known as the Tamil National Alliance, got just a couple of seats fewer than the UPFA and its Tamil ally, Douglas Devananda’s EPDP. But obviously the UNP could not form a Government with the TNA, and the nationalist party which had won 9 seats by putting forward only Buddhist monks, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, were more inclined towards Chandrika rather than Ranil. But interestingly a couple of them broke ranks when the Speaker was elected, so W J M Lokubandara, who had replaced Ranil as Minister of Education under Premadasa 15 years earlier, became Speaker.
Ranil then once again lapsed into passivity, hoping doubtless that he could win the Presidential Election which was meant to be held at the end of 2006. And with nothing to stretch her, Chandrika did the same. She was by this time irritated with her own party for, whereas she had hoped to appoint her distinguished Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar as Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa who had been Leader of the Opposition when Ranil was Prime Minister staked his claim and could not be gainsaid.
Kadirgamar was not too upset and worked together with Mahinda but that made Chandrika even more furious. Sadly her anger led to withdrawal of support for Kadirgamar’s efforts to build up an internationally respected think tank for foreign relations at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. She had appointed him its Chairman after the death of her mother who had held the position for a couple of decades, and he had hand-picked a Board that had moved ahead swiftly, starting new courses and building up links with institutions in India and China and the United States.
But all that came to a halt. And then she sidelined him too with regard to dealings with the Tigers, which were resumed for she had made it clear, as he had underlined after her takeover of the Defence Ministry, that she would continue with the Ceasefire Agreement.
But she ignored him, even though the tsunami that struck in December 2004 put the Tigers further on the back foot for it badly affected the Mullaitivu area which was their stronghold and where they were trying to build up a navy. But it also affected the Government badly for Chandrika was away when it struck and was furious that Mahinda Rajapaksa seemed to have handled the problem as well as could be expected. So 2005 was occupied with her efforts to reassert herself, including establishing committees to support those affected by the tsunami, the members of which were individuals she felt she could depend on, some with no other qualifications for the task they were entrusted with.
And guided by another personal friend rather than her Foreign Minister, she entered into an agreement with the Tigers for a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure, known as P-Toms, which gave the Tigers substantial control of the affected area. But the JVP, which had left her Government in June 2005, challenged the constitutionality of the provisions and the Supreme Court struck down some of them.
Meanwhile the JHU had asked the Supreme Court for a ruling as to when Chandrika’s second presidential term should end. Uncertainty had been precipitated by the UNP deciding to agitate for an Election in 2005 on the grounds that the last Election had been held in 1999 and a presidential term was six years. This was to ignore the bizarre provision in J R Jayewardene’s constitution that an incumbent president, if re-elected, did not take office immediately but only on the next anniversary of his original Election.
UNP supporters such as Karu Jayasuriya seemed to acknowledge that the UNP campaign was based on a fallacy, but they went along for the ride, perhaps hoping that such agitation would make it clear that the Government was not popular. But they were hoist with their own petard when the JHU moved the Court and the Court took advantage of an ambiguous phrase in the provisions in the Constitution and ruled that ‘A construction that results in hardship…or which leads to … uncertainty and friction …..has to be rejected and preference should be given to that construction which avoids such results’.
The ruling was almost universally welcomed for the country could not live with uncertainty for another year. But Chandrika had only herself to blame, for the problem she had created, by taking oaths a year before she should have, had been highlighted then and she could easily have remedied the situation. And remarkably, her lawyers did not bother to study the text carefully so as to explain the ambiguity the judges pounced upon.
Chandrika had hoped that the party candidate for the presidential Election would be her brother Anura, but he had hardly any support in the party and Mahinda Rajapaksa was chosen. She seemed to make the best of a bad job in accepting this but then both she and Anura did not help him in the Election, and seemed to make it clear that they would prefer Ranil Wickremesinghe to win. But the rest of the party rallied round, including her principal supporter in the SLFP, Mangala Samaraweera, and when the results were declared, Mahinda Rajapaksa had won, if narrowly.
Their writ was not questioned now, given the controls they had been permitted to entrench after the CFA, so hardly anyone voted in those areas. Ranil had been counting on Tamil support to win, and was bitterly disappointed by the Tiger decision. But it would not have been easy for him had he been seen to have won primarily because they had backed him.
And apart from foolishly counting on them, Ranil had blundered in trying to push Chandrika out prematurely, for otherwise her Government was likely to have become more unpopular and she would have had more opportunity to create problems within the party by pushing Anura Bandaranaike’s candidacy. But none of that happened and Ranil once again lost the Presidency.