One evening early this week, Basil Rajapaksa, a key player in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), was en route to his home in Battaramulla after attending a meeting in Dehiwala. He had reached the Kohuwala junction when his mobile phone rang.As an aide explained, he was in his Land Cruiser with others including a media person. He was reluctant to answer. When it rang non-stop, he responded though he was not sure who the caller was.
It turned out to be Venerable Medagoda Abeytissa Thera, the chief incumbent of the Sunethra Devi Pirivena also at Kohuwala. A close associate of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the monk has been in the forefront to re-unify the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
“Kohomada apey veda piliwela issarahata geniyanney” or how do we take forward our programme of work, he asked Basil Rajapaksa. Even before the former Economic Development Minister could respond, the prelate declared “Obathumawa danna ekkenek innava” or there is someone who knows you. Soon another voice took over.
It was President Maithripala Sirisena. “Mata den kathaa karanne naa neh. Kathakaranna beri ai? or you don’t talk to me now. Why can’t you talk? he asked Basil Rajapaksa.
Then a lengthy conversation ensued.
Since the presidential election in January 2015, both Sirisena and Basil Rajapaksa had been avoiding each other. This was particularly at private functions. There were two such occasions. One was at the marriage of the daughter of Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Another was when Basil Rajapaksa was at the wedding of the daughter of Ceylon Workers Congress leader and former Minister Arumugam Thondaman. On that occasion, when he was exiting the Colombo hotel where the function was held, he saw Sirisena and his retinue coming in. They were at a distance. He returned and took a seat. Sirisena walked into the hotel only to nod at Basil and walk to a table meant for him. Now, for the first time since his election victory in 2015, Sirisena was talking to him.
Fuller details of what the duo discussed on the phone remain a secret.
However, the Sunday Times has learnt that Sirisena sought to know from Basil Rajapaksa why he opposed talks for the reunification of the rival factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The latter had responded that though he was against it on principle, after deliberations among themselves, he had not expressed reservations. He was in fact going to give it his full backing should the talks become successful. Basil Rajapaksa’s first task, as the phone call ended, was to ask the media person in his vehicle not to talk – or write, about that call.
In The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) last week Basil Rajapaksa admitted that he opposed the talks at reunification. The report said: “It was on the basis that it was against the people of this country. There were both pro-Government and those against who were opposed to it. There would be no force left for those who oppose if the ‘Joint Opposition’ were to change,” he told the Sunday Times this week. However, he said the Rajapaksas were at the butt-end of severe Government harassment. Therefore, Mahinda, Gotabaya, Namal and he met to discuss the situation in detail. It was noted that if the SLFP changed its present policies, the SLPP would have to take that into account. This is whether the SLFP is in the Government or not. This is notwithstanding the personal issues they face. Hence, there was general consensus to examine offers for re-unity and thus obviate blame for any outright rejection.
“They had noted that they should seek to stop the sale of national assets; halt Government moves to cut down subsidies; check the rising cost of living; mounting unemployment and — help to fight bribery and corruption. Particular mention was made of the Central Bank bond scam. ‘When we were moving forward with talks between the committees on either side, I knew I would be blamed if anything went wrong. I remained neutral. I thought if they decide successfully, I would do my best to get the rest of the party to fall in line,” said Basil Rajapaksa. Saying that ‘all Rajapaksas looked at it positively,” he added, “There were people who were trying to deliberately scuttle the process.”
During his telephone conversation with Basil Rajapaksa, President Sirisena made no secret of the fact that he had been trying to reach out to the one-time chief organiser of the SLFP now under corruption charges under the Sirisena dispensation. He said he had asked his brother Dudley Sirisena also to get in touch with him. Basil Rajapaksa explained that he was avoiding answering calls from unknown numbers because there were so many callers. However, he said upon his brother (Mahinda Rajapaksa) learning of it, he asked him to answer the calls. So he had in fact spoken to him.
The sum effect of President Sirisena’s call was to seek Basil Rajapaksa’s support to bring SLFP intra-party talks to a successful conclusion. The issues before them, he had declared, could be resolved amicably. On Sirisena’s side, those connected to the last ditch attempts at a dialogue with the more dominant Mahinda Rajapaksa-led faction of the SLFP – with the clock ticking close to the nominations for local council elections — remained tight lipped. One of them said the latest efforts were being undertaken by four prominent members of the Buddhist clergy.
The Sunday Times has learnt that since President Sirisena’ telephone call to Basil Rajapaksa, one mediator, Venerable Athureliye Rathana Thera, has successfully narrowed down the differences on the two sides. Yet, a lot more difficult areas remain to be completed.
As the new round of talks were under way, the most significant move is President Sirisena’s decision on Friday morning to appoint, in keeping with election laws, authorised agents for each district. In terms of the law, they could also be named for each electorate. Those agents have been already briefed that the SLFP and allied parties will contest under the Chair symbol. The proposal at present is for the rival group (‘JO’ – Joint Opposition) to share fifty per cent from the list of candidates whilst the remaining fifty per cent will be from the SLFP and its allies. President Sirisena is holding on to the nomination list until tomorrow hoping there would be a decision by that time.
The arrangement envisaged as a result of Ven. Rathana Thera’s intervention is to have an Executive Committee comprising representatives from both sides to run matters related to the polls. In addition there will also be a five member apex body with the SLFP holding three seats and the ‘JO’ two to take immediate policy decisions. There has been broad agreement over these two bodies. Names for this apex body will be nominated by Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The events since Sirisena’s telephone call this week clearly showed that the President, who is also the leader of the SLFP, is still keen to join hands with the SLFP rivals to contest the local polls. The fact that he is in some difficulty electorally, and with his party supporters around the country is no state secret. His close associate Mahinda Amaraweera, General Secretary of the UPFA, the coalition headed by the Sirisena-led SLFP recently said that the SLFP has no doubts about an election victory at the local government polls, but is now singing a different tune. He says the UNP is ahead due to the SLFP split.