Maithree, Shrilal, Ashok: Last men standing

Vishnuguptha | Published on October 27, 2012 at 12:59 am

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”Theodor Roosevelt

The spectacle of October 18, 2012 at Hyde park

Not to pen these thoughts and the pertinent facts relating to these thoughts, at least for

Sarath Fonseka

posterity’s sake, would be a callous disregard for what is decent and right. The spectacle that was enacted at the Hyde Park on Thursday, October 18, the Mass Rally organized by the Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna with General Sarath Fonseka as the main protagonist of the cause for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, did not command the support of the rank and file of the United National Party, for they feared retaliatory measures from the top leadership if they decided to do so; nor did the latter encourage it. On the contrary, the Working Committee of the Party declared that if any elected representative of the UNP took part in the “Rally” he or she would be sacked from the Party. A Mass Rally organized by the Buddhist Monks who dared to challenge the might of the Rajapaksa regime, was labeled by the Leader of the UNP as a platform for General Fonseka. All Opposition parties had been invited to take part in this ‘Rally’.

Fonseka did not fall from the sky

General Sarath Fonseka did not fall from the sky. He was the Common Candidate of the coalition that fought President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last Presidential Elections. He was the Candidate, about whom the present leader of the UNP, in addition to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and other opposition political parties, went about the country galvanizing their rank and file, urging them to work and vote for Fonseka. Had Fonseka won and had he applied for the membership of the UNP, by virtue of the Party Constitution, Sarath Fonseka would have been its leader today. The Coalition Candidate, Sarath Fonseka was jailed- in terms of the American interpretation he was a political prisoner- and the moment he was released, he became the most feared political personality in Sri Lanka- he was feared by the Government and by the UNP hierarchy and some leading members of the Colombo elite as well.

The fear that grips the second rung UNPers

In the meanwhile, the frustrations and disgust that psychologically gripped the second rung of the UNP and its rank and file to a very large extent, began to be manifested in a real sense. The sentiments that were pent up for sixteen long years gave way to open verbal challenges to the Leader. A group of UNP Parliamentarians started holding unofficial meetings and their purpose, though very ambitious and noble, was to find a way to make their Party a winning entity again. The conclusion that they arrived at, in terms of implementability, was not a very easy one. They met again and again, until their numbers started swelling to render an illusion of a majority of the UNP Parliamentary Group.

Wither the Reformists group

The “Reformists Group” of the UNP, as it is commonly known, came into being after the last Convention of the United National Party which was held in December, 2010 at Siri Kotha. The challenge to the leadership of Ranil Wickramasinghe assumed real, tangible proportions at the Convention itself. Here is how one writer wrote about the ‘event’ the following week:

Grown men wept

“Thousands of party supporters crowded both entrances of the headquarters and a full-press court was in evidence from Pitakotte junction to the Siri Kotha entry point. Most of them were clad in green tops, be it male or female. The pressure was building but those who were trying to gain entrance behaved in a most fitting manner, eager to get in but not trample one another — a rare phenomenon these days, especially at political events.

“The discipline that was shown by the attendees was exemplary, to say the least. As we walked into the session grounds, the place looked packed, with the leader Ranil Wickramasinghe ahead of us and Sajith Premadasa and Dayasiri Jayasekara immediately behind. The ovation that Sajith received was a premonition of the events to unfold. And when Sajith mounted the platform to deliver his speech the crowd went berserk, reminding one of his father and those fiery speeches the UNP could boast about in the past. The opening was suspended for about six uncontrollable minutes for the ovation was so loud and stretched. When he uttered the sweet words that every UNPer waited for 16 long years to hear — ‘enough of losing’ (UNPiya paraduna ethi!) grown men were seen weeping uncontrollably, many female supporters were in tears, using their sari ends to wipe the tears away.”

Skeletal think tank

The joy and euphoria that enveloped the collective mind of the rank and file of the UNP and those of the ‘Reformists Group’ began to overflow into the traditional political corners. A skeletal ‘Think Tank’ started building around the ‘Reformists Group’. When the UNP leader reneged on the promises made to the Party on the implementation of the Party Reforms, Sajith Premadasa made one of the most gracious gestures by openly inviting Karu Jayasuriya, who up to that time was not committed to any camp, either the so-called ‘Ranil Wing’ or the ‘Reformists Group’, to take over the mantle of leadership of the Party.

Office bearers elected

Then the struggle began in earnest, a struggle to wrest the leadership away from Ranil Wickramasinghe as Leader of the UNP. One step that was taken by the ‘Reformists’ was followed up by the next logical step until they reached the zenith on December 19, 2011- the election of office bearers of the UNP.

Ranil crushes Karu in inter party poll and Ravi Kay gets annihilated by Sajith  

Karu Jayasuriya who contested the post of Leader was very badly defeated by Ranil Wickramasinghe. Sajith Premadasa scored a resounding victory over Ranil’s loyalist, Ravi Karunanayake while Daya Gamage made Dayasiri Jayasekara look like an amateur in power politics. Yet the ‘Reformists Group’ was not disheartened, thanks mainly to the untiring efforts of two Party stalwarts at Provincial Council level, Maithree Gunaratne and Shiral Lakthilaka.

Maithree and Shiral – workhorses

These two men are real workhorses. Both enjoy an enviable practice at law- comparatively speaking- and command the respect of many a UNP supporter in and out of the Colombo hub and they applied themselves to the task at hand with total dedication and single-mindedness that is sparse in today’s politicians. Their real ‘test’ was the last May Day when they had to organize the Premadasa Commemoration Ceremony. The lengths they had to drive and walk and talk to convince the UNPers to attend the Ceremony were far too strenuous for an ordinary Party man. Yet they achieved their goals. They may have trampled many a toe- it is a necessary negative baggage one collects in a long political flight- and they may have antagonized many a friend and challenged many a colleague, but run they did with the ball.

Sarath Fonseka’s release from prison dominates media cycles

Everything changed in the next couple of weeks. The release of General Sarath Fonseka from prison dominated the next few news cycles. Unofficial, yet scientific surveys were undertaken and the results of the surveys revealed that Sarath Fonseka was considered by a cross-section of the country’s population as the most formidable leader in the Opposition, edging Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya narrowly.

Fonseka as saviour

The consequences of Fonseka’s release started assuming bizarre manifestations. A sizeable segment of the Sri Lankan constituency whose sympathy is not necessarily with UNP but against the Rajapaksa regime, sought Fonseka as a savior of the times. ‘The Reformists’ stopped meeting, the ‘Think Tank’ went dry. Maithree and Shiral got closer and closer to General Fonseka, not as a leader of another political Party but as one person whose political purpose was the same as that of the overwhelming majority of the United National Party- ouster of the present regime at the next elections. Who can find fault with that?

Rain contributes to lacklustre rally

Nevertheless, in politics as in many other human enterprises, one might consider caution as the better part of valor. At the Hyde Park on last Thursday, October 18, 2012, only Maithree Gunaratne, Shiral Lakthilaka and Ashok Abeysinghe represented the ‘Reformists Group’. Rain gods did not help them either. What was promised to be a resounding success ended up almost as a non-event. Did Maithree, Shiral and Ashok commit a grievous political miscalculation? Or were they carried away by the moment’s glory? Or were they let down by some politicians.

Contextualising the rally

This seemingly sad episode did not occur in isolation. It had a context and when you contextualize the whole event or events, one could see historical parallels in plenty, even inside the UNP.

Gamini Dissanayake

When Gamini Dissanayake was not renamed to the second Cabinet of Ministers by the then President Premadasa, Gamini went to Cambridge and started a post-graduate study program. While he was at Cambridge, the talk in Colombo was that he would be taken into custody on some flimsy charges of mismanagement of the Mahaweli Program, if and when he arrived in Colombo.

Those who dared

Gamini dared. He came back without any security and accompanied by his wife Srima, started in earnest the rejuvenation of his image and his second political career. He gathered forces and collected some of the most capable and brilliant men like Lalith Athulathmudali and Premachandra and launched the now-famous impeachment campaign against President Premadasa. As one would say, what happened after the aborted impeachment motion, Gamini’s re-entry into the UNP fold beating Ranil for the position of the Leader of the Opposition, becoming the Presidential Candidate and his untimely death at the hands of the LTTE, is history; it is indeed a very sad chapter of our history.

Advice to the reformists within the Reformist group

The writer’s most candid and sincere advice to Maithree, Shiral and Ashok is very simple. Don’t blame any single individual or any group of individuals. You took a very deliberate and bold decision. In the very short term, that decision might not look like a very wise one or a very prudent one. But you had to take that decision as men, not of straw but of tempered steel.

Politics is a long journey

Politics is a long journey; it is not a destination but a continuous flow. In this long flight, there will never be any permanent setbacks or permanent victories; only temporary hiccups and temporary respites. One can never ever write anything or anyone off. Nothing can be ruled in or out. Yet the credit, as Theodor Roosevelt said, belongs to the man in the arena. You were in the arena, on the ‘burning deck’, not merely standing like the boy in “Casablanca”, but fighting every inch of the way. When one future historian arrives on the scene of the current era and looks around the barren political landscape, he might see that the three of you may be the last men standing!

This is my tribute to you.


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Maithree, Shrilal, Ashok: Last men standing

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could ...