The SLFP 16 and the parable of Peter Hill | Sunday Observer

The SLFP 16 and the parable of Peter Hill

10 June, 2018
The Rajapaksa family on the tarmac at the opening of Mattala Airport in 2013  (File photo)
The Rajapaksa family on the tarmac at the opening of Mattala Airport in 2013 (File photo)

The year was 2007. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his 35-member entourage were returning from a private visit to London, having travelled there in winter to attend his second son Yoshitha’s graduation from Britannia Royal Navy College, Dartmouth.

SriLankan Airlines, fully booked for holiday traffic in peak tourist season, found it could not accommodate the presidential delegation without cancelling seats on its business class sector.

Faced with the prospect of offloading three dozen paying passengers who had booked flights months in advance, the SriLankan CEO Peter Hill – then nine years in the job, made a judgment call. He declined the presidential request.

A seething President Rajapaksa had to charter a Mihin Lanka flight to fly himself and his delegation back to Sri Lanka.

In any sane country, Peter Hill’s actions would have been hailed as being the correct corporate decision for the then profit-making national carrier.

In Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, Hill had his work permit cancelled by the BOI.

Weeks after the incident, in the face of an increasingly souring relationship with the Rajapaksa Government, Dubai-based global carrier Emirates announced it was pulling out of SriLankan which it was fully managing with a 43.6 percent stake in the company. The 10-year contract expired in March 2008 and was never renewed. Emirates described the end of the deal as an “amicable parting”. It was anything but.

The Government celebrated the exit of Emirates by serving milk rice on all its flights. The unions cheered the re-nationalisation of the country’s flag-carrier. Patriotic protectionism was the Rajapaksa way, the regime thundered, no more national assets to be ‘handed over to foreigners..’

Scarred by the SriLankan experience, Emirates has never bought equity in other airlines again. The Rajapaksa regime’s hubris and its economic policy cost the Treasury dearly: 2008 – the year Emirates ended its contract with SriLankan was the last time SriLankan turned a profit. The national carrier, taken back with such pride, has never recovered from the beating it took during years of mismanagement from 2008-2015.

Incurring the wrath of Mahinda Rajapaksa is a dangerous thing. Peter Hill, the former SriLankan CEO, declined a request for airplane seating from the most powerful man in the country. The former President never forgave Hill or Emirates, for the slight. Similar stories are told of Rajapaksa’s long memory when he feels insulted or undermined. In the decade that he ruled Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa made a deliberate effort to undermine and dismantle the country’s professional diplomatic corps, after members of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service allegedly sidelined him on an overseas trip while he served as Prime Minister in President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s administration.

The story goes that the officers paid more attention the story goes, to late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, infuriating Rajapaksa. Years later, the Foreign Service paid for this mistake.

There are lessons in this history for the sections of the SLFP striving for reunification with the faction of its party that stayed loyal to the Rajapaksa ideology and cult of personality since the former President was defeated in elections in 2015. The SLFP decision to appoint temporary office-bearers for the next 45 days in a bid to ‘restructure’, appeared at first glance to be an euphemistic way of saying it would now, after three years, begin the process to reunite the feuding factions of the party.

The bulk of office-bearers appointed temporarily are Rajapaksa loyalists, and politicians who strongly favour alliance with the Joint Opposition.

Outwardly, the former President warmly welcomes these overtures. In April, after the JO’s no confidence motion against the Prime Minister was defeated, the 16 SLFP ministers who voted in favour of the motion quit the Government and took their seats in opposition. A somewhat confused bunch, the SLFP 16 mantra is that it would work with the JO in Parliament but still consider President Maithripala Sirisena the leader of their party.

The first test of that new formula was in Parliament last Tuesday.

UPFA MP Sudharshini Fernandopulle, a member of the SLFP 16 was supposed to be the compromise candidate for Deputy Speaker between the two factions of the party. Fernandopulle’s nomination was seconded by no less than JO frontliner Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Since Thilanga Sumathipala had resigned as Deputy Speaker after quitting the Government, another SLFP candidate – was expected to be nominated to the post. But when the TNA strongly opposed the nomination of SLFP National Lister Angajan Ramanathan, the second choice was Fernandopulle.

The UNP would have none of this, since the agreement between the UNP and the SLFP was that one deputy speaker slot would be reserved for a SLFP MP serving in Government. Fernandopulle, who was a member of the SLFP 16, was no longer a member of the National Unity Coalition. The UNP therefore decided to nominate its own candidate to contest the position. Fernandopulle supporters believed that with the support of the 54-member JO, the SLFP 16 and the TNA and the JVP, she had a fighting chance.

But when the time came to vote, the TNA and the JVP were absent. The UNF coalition – was likely to back the UNP candidate. That left the JO and the SLFP 16 to back Fernandopulle. Realizing that the game was up, the Rajapaksa faction abandoned Fernandopulle’s cause. Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunewardane and a few others present in the chamber during the secret ballot voted for the UPFA MP who obtained 53 votes in all. Notable absentees during the vote were Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, his son Namal Rajapaksa and his elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa. At least 11 JO MPs were also observed hob-nobbing in the canteen during the key vote.

Clearly the Rajapaksa faction was not as invested in the contest for Deputy Speaker as the SLFP 16 would have liked it to be. Furthermore, the JO was not going to stick their necks out for a SLFP 16 candidate, if it looked to be a losing battle.

If speculation in political circles is true that the former President ordered some of his MPs to boycott the vote, that is an even more telling move about just how welcoming Mahinda Rajapaksa really is of the recent staunch loyalists of President Sirisena.

Elsewhere in this newspaper, SLFP strongman Duminda Dissanayake speaks of the upset in Parliament last week. He uses Tuesday’s example of the Deputy Speaker contest to make his point that the Rajapaksa faction does not really want an alliance with the SLFP 16. It will use the 16 MPs to its own ends, but when their interests diverge, the Rajapaksa faction closes ranks, he explains. An astute reader of his former boss, Dissanayake scoffs at his own chances of being accepted back into the Rajapaksa faction if the SLFP reunification project succeeds.

He knows, as any observer of the political animal that is Mahinda Rajapaksa should, that forgiveness will not come easy to those who abandoned ship in 2015.

So, while the overtures of welcome may continue, as time goes on it is likely to become even more apparent that Rajapaksa will cling to those who stuck with him during these last three difficult years. The SLFP 16 is vocal about its alignment with the JO, but the reality is somewhat different. Kurunegala District MP Dayasiri Jayasekera’s chances of being welcomed back into the JO fold for instance are slim, because his popularity threatens Johnston Fernando, a JO frontliner and staunch Rajapaksa loyalist since the former President’s defeat in January 2015.

S.B. Dissanayake, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane and others who were appointed to Parliament through the UPFA national list, refused to campaign with Rajapaksa in the parliamentary elections of August 2015, throwing their lot in with President Sirisena instead. They are never likely to be trusted again and in any event, they are electorally useless to the Rajapaksa faction, having failed to win seats in the last poll. The SLFP 16 will only be accommodated when the need arises, at a crucial parliamentary vote, to wrest back control of the party or to achieve a bigger political project.

As for Dissanayake and all those who crossed over in November 2014 to support the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, these are the most vulnerable politicians if the two factions reunite. They committed the cardinal sin of supporting his challenger and precipitating his fall from power in January 2015.

That strongman president, emperor of all the land only three years ago – picture his life since defeat in the presidential election.

Two of his brothers and two of his sons are facing criminal charges. On multiple occasions, the former President has been forced to visit a brother and two sons at the Welikada remand prison. At least one of his sons is being questioned in connection with a murder investigation. His officials have been tried and convicted for financial misappropriation. His cousins – both senior officials in his administration – are fugitives. Investigations into the murders, abductions and disappearances of journalists are putting massive pressure on his closest family circle, to say nothing of the corruption investigations against his staunchest political allies.

For the crime of challenging Rajapaksa electorally in 2010 – and despite losing – Sarath Fonseka was tried and convicted on flimsy charges. For months on end, the country’s war-winning commander of the army wore a prisoner’s uniform.

Now imagine the Rajapaksa anger against those who challenged him – and won.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vengeance against those who backed his challenger – and the challenger himself – will be an ugly thing to behold. In the Rajapaksa political handbook, SLFP reunification means the restoration of all power within the party to the former ruling family and its ideology.

There is no middle ground here. Without total submission to the Rajapaksa way, the reunification project is doomed to fail.

Remember Peter Hill. Mahinda Rajapaksa does not forgive.