Colombo, August 23: After much hesitation and thought, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday relieved controversial Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe of his portfolios.
This was done at the request of the Working Committee of the United National Party (UNP) to which Rajapakshe belongs.
However, according to well-placed political sources, Wijeyadasa’s sacking is not an isolated step but part of a compromise. The compromise is that Wijeyadasa goes from the Council of Ministers but remains a Member of Parliament of the UNP, with the prospect of being inducted into the cabinet later, when the dust of controversy settles down.
It is believed that President Sirisena, who is politically astute, will ensure that the Mahanayakes, the three heads of the Buddhist clergy who are strongly backing Rajapakshe, are brought on board.
Rajapakshe had cultivated and secured the backing of the Mahanayakes for his Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist line on national issues.
A Stormy Petrel
Rajapakshe had alienated the UNP’s leadership by defying the principle of the collective responsibility of the cabinet for its decisions. He had been expressing contrary opinions on critical issues such as the leasing out of the Hambantota harbor to a Chinese company and the plan to develop the Trincomalee harbor with Indian and Japanese help.
Rajapakshe not only criticized the terms of the agreement with the Chinese company, but declared that he would not rest content until national assets farmed out to foreign countries were taken back by the nation.
He had also openly confronted the visiting US Rapporteur on Torture, Ben Emmerson, by saying that the steps taken by Sri Lanka to curb terrorism and crime are the same that are being taken by Western democracies. He asked Western physicians advising Sri Lanka to cure themselves first.
But Rajapakshe’s approach to Emmerson ran counter to the government’s conciliatory stand on issues raised by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). His utterances went against the government’s foreign policy which rests on cultivating the friendship of all major powers in the world.
It was also clear to the UNP leadership, including the Working Committee, that Rajapakashe, as Justice Minister, was not vigorously pursuing the corruption and fraud cases against the former regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Rajapakshe would retort saying that nobody, including the Justice Minister, Prime Minister and President, can interfere with the wheels of justice as represented by the courts. His party men suspected a nexus between Rajapakshe and Rajapaksa.
Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe also starting cultivating the Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist constituency, Sri Lanka’s single largest political constituency.
He got close to the Buddhist clergy, including the three Mahanayakes of Malwatte, Asgiriya and Ramannya. So much so, that the three Mahanayakes issued a statement in his support saying that they will withdraw support to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government if it passed a No Confidence Motion or even a Resolution against Rajapakshe.
The support of the Mahanayakes made both Prime Minister and UNP chief, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and President Sirisena, dither over taking any punitive action against the recalcitrant Rajapakshe.
However, Wickremesinghe felt constrained to take punitive action after Rajapakshe arrogantly refused to gracefully resign, as Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake did recently.
President Srisena had suggested to the Prime Minister that Rajapakshe be given a portfolio other than Justice and Buddha Sasana as a compromise. And the Prime Minister was amenable to this suggestion. But Rajakashe continued to be defiant saying that it has to be Justice and Buddha Sasana or nothing.
It was at this stage that President Sirisena accepted that UNP Working Committee’s suggestion to sack Rajapakshe from his portfolios.
However, as part of a compromise, obviously authored by Sirisena, Rajapakshe has been allowed to remain an UNP MP. The leader of his party, the UNP, has the power to replace him by the person next in line in terms of preferential votes in the last parliamentary elections. But this power will not be exercised in Rajapakshe’s case.
And for his part, Rajapashe has said that he accepts the President’s decision to relieve him of his portfolios and that he will continue to remain in the UNP. This will enable Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to take him back into the government at a later date.
Earlier, the speculation was that Rajapakshe was going to cross over to the Joint Opposition or that faction of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But this is ruled out, for the time being.
(The featured image at the top shows the sacked Sri Lankan Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe)