SLFP: The Last Stand | Sunday Observer

SLFP: The Last Stand

On November 5, loyalists of Sri Lanka’s second oldest political party will take a stand at the Sugathadasa Indoor stadium in Colombo, to resist the takeover of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) by the Rajapaksa family led Podujana Peramuna ahead of a crucial presidential election. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins the election on November 16, his victory will sound the SLFP’s death knell. The task to keep the party alive for die-hard SLFPers has fallen to a lawmaker representing a remote village in the Kalutara District, on the banks of the Benthara River. Going up against his political guru Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new party, his village and a former defence secretary with an allegedly ruthless track record, Kumara Welgama is fighting the battle of his life.

About a week after nominations were filed for the November 16 presidential election, Kumara Welgama had to run for the hills. ‘Pohottuwa’ supporters in his village had surrounded his Mathugama home, and taken his vehicle hostage. They were agitating against him, coaxing the SLFP stalwart to support Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy. Under siege, Welgama escaped through the backdoor, into a waiting car he had summoned from elsewhere. He only stopped when he got to Nuwara Eliya, nearly 200 kilometers away.

That night, intruders broke into his Mathugama home, entering through the lawmaker’s bedroom window. “They took nothing from my room. I even had a portable safe but even that was untouched. They just ransacked my cupboards,” Welgama explained sitting down for an interview with the Sunday Observer last week. When police arrived on the scene a day later, there were no fingerprints to be found. Welgama says the sniffer dogs that entered his room could not trace a scent. “The intruder may have come through the water,” he said, explaining that there was no barrier between the river that borders his property and his house.

Three weeks later, he still wonders if the break in was an attempt to intimidate him into silence. For about a year now, Kumara Welgama has been the most vocally resistant to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy in the old political coterie that his brother Mahinda once commanded. Others resisted mildly, but capitulated quickly once the nomination was set in stone. But Welgama’s opposition to the former Defence Secretary’s presidential candidacy only heightened after it became official. The SLFP strongman believes the November 16 election will decide whether Sri Lanka is to remain a democratic republic, or if the country will set course on a journey down a hard authoritarian road.

Kumara Welgama joined the SLFP as its Agalawatte Organiser 38 years ago. Today, he is the party’s third most senior organiser: only President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa have been in SLFP politics longer. He was appointed organiser by SLFP Leader and then prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Welgama recalls the first parliamentary election he contested in 1989, coming in sixth in the SLFP list and just missing out on a parliamentary seat. “That was a tough election. Fighting that election for the SLFP was like fighting terrorism. The people were prevented from voting,” he recalls. By that time, the UNP had maintained a stranglehold on power for 12 years.

In SLFP-led Governments since, Kumara Welgama has climbed steadily up the ranks, serving as deputy minister for transport, power and energy, industries minister and finally, transport minister in the last Mahinda Rajapaksa cabinet.

An old boy of St. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia, Welgama was first drawn to politics when he was posted to an estate in Mathugama with the St. George Group. “It became a habit with me to walk through the village every evening. I would stop for chats with the residents or play cricket with the boys. That entire village was SLFP,” he explained, recalling long chats with villagers about life and politics. But this was new political territory for Welgama, whose entire family had been aligned with the UNP. In the end, his chats in the village drove Welgama into politics – and SLFP politics at that.

In fact in terms of lineage, Kumara Welgama is curiously connected to two powerful SLFP families. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mother Dandina Samarasinghe Dissanayake is cousin to Welgama’s father-in-law, who bears the same surname. “They are from the same clan, in Palatuwa, Matara, where Gotabaya Rajapaksa was born,” he explained. His sister meanwhile, married a Ratwatte, linking the Welgama family to the Bandaranaike by marriage.

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The last time Welgama met Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in September, when he was invited to attend Namal Rajapaksa’s wedding.

The SLPP presidential candidate walked up the senior parliamentarian and squeezed his hands tightly saying: “Your brother is with me, you must also work with me.”

“My brother might be with you, but I can never work with you,” Welgama said he replied. At the same function, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appealed to the SLFP strongman, “work with me, you don’t have to campaign with him,” referring to candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Welgama declined again.

“But he made one request from me. He asked me not to contest as a candidate from the SLFP. I filed a deposit with the Elections Commission, but eventually I decided I would not file nomination papers,” the UPFA Legislator said. Asked if that was because of the former President’s request, Welgama replied: “In part, yes, after all he was my guru, and he asked me to do something for him.”

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In all his years serving in the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabinet, Welgama does not recall bad blood or a soured relationship with the former defence secretary, who wielded significant power during his brother’s decade in presidential office.

The Mathugama politician just does not believe Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be a democratic leader.

Until now, every Government assaulted or killed people to keep themselves in power, he charged. This was the case during 17 years of UNP rule too before 1994, Welgama explained. “It was not only Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government.”

Asked if he believed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary at the time, performed that role for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, Welgama reiterated that the assault and attack on dissidents was common to every Government.

“He was the defence secretary. So for instance, he was responsible for what happened to Lasantha. Then there was the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda and the assault on Upali Tennakoon and on Keith Noyahr. When people wanted water in Rathupaswela, they were shot dead. When young people were fighting to keep their EPF in Katunayake, they were shot dead. Fishermen protesting for diesel shot dead. 22 shot dead inside the Welikada prison. They were in jail. They called them out by their names and shot them dead.”

Welgama remembers that the slain editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge was appointed SLFP organiser for Colombo East around the same time Mrs Bandaranaike appointed him organiser for Agalawatte.

But when Lasantha was killed and all these journalists were attacked, Welgama was a member of the Cabinet of Ministers. Was he close enough to former President Rajapaksa, to get a sense of what was happening inside the Government and the ruling family the day Lasantha was killed?

“At the time the brothers were running the show. No one said anything. They kept their mouths shut,” Welgama recalls. But did he know and understand what was happening in respect of the murder? “Yes. I knew”.

This is why, Welgama says, he is so fearful about a man like ‘Hitler’ becoming President of the country. “No one will be able to criticise him. Not the media. Not politicians. Their lives will be in danger.”

When you look back at history, especially the history of the Rajapaksa regime, there is reason to fear the future, the Kalutara District MP mused.

Already, Welgama senses that newspapers and journalists were criticising Gotabaya Rajapaksa a lot less than other politicians.

“If someone like him comes to power, there is something to fear,” he explained.

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With two weeks left to go in the campaign, Welgama looks as tired as if he were on the campaign trail himself. Hectic preparations are underway for the Sugathadasa Stadium event on Tuesday. Coordination with organisers in different parts of the country, is no easy task. After the November 5 event, the SLFP resistance will have only about eight days of campaigning left to make their position known in villages scattered all over the island. Welgama is clear on one thing, he will not campaign on stages with the UNP. His call to the true-blue SLFP voter, he says, is to defeat the scourge of family bandyism that is destroying their party. “Only if the SLPP is defeated, will the SLFP live to fight another day. I just want my party to understand that. Beyond that, I will not tell them who to vote for on election day.” The Kalutara District lawmaker expects several SLFP senior members to be present on stage on Tuesday.

As a politician who remains closely associated with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Kumara Welgama could have chosen the path of least resistance. Had he backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy, Welgama would have been assured of a cabinet position at least. He’s not sure he would work well with the retired military officers that will surround a Gotabaya presidency, the lawmaker said. But for him, the SLFP-SLPP issue goes much deeper than that.

Since the SLFP had come into being, he says, the tug of war between the centre left party and the UNP had served to keep Sri Lanka’s democracy in balance. “Attempting to replace the SLFP with a dictatorial party would end that balance and mark the end of our democratic traditions,” he explained.

The only option, is to make sure the SLFP stays in the game politically. The time has come, Welgama believes, for the party of the pancha-maha balawega to stand up and be counted or face extinction. “If there are breakaways from the Pohottuwa in the future, there must be a party for them to come back to. This is the mother party, this is the party we have to grow,” he asserted.

Welgama said it baffles him that Mahinda Rajapaksa, being the seasoned political campaigner he is, has failed to see the pitfalls of this move. Political scientists say a Gotabaya Presidency will alter politics in Sri Lanka in a way we cannot imagine, he worried.

Asked if he believes Gotabaya Rajapaksa will definitely make the former president his prime minister, Welgama replied: “That I do not know.” However, he insists Mahinda Rajapaksa has to become prime minister if he is survive politically.

Still extremely fond of his old political teacher, the man who tutored him through political agitations and marches, and appointed him a cabinet minister, Welgama worries about the former President.

“I think Mahinda Rajapaksa may have made the biggest mistake of his life,” the politician from Mathugama said, “I don’t think he realises it yet.”

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