SLFP stalwarts to prove any publicity is good publicity for politicians
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena found himself in the limelight last week in rather unpalatable circumstances, when his son was involved in an incident of alleged assault of a senior police officer’s son while holidaying in Pasikudah.
The usually affable and mild mannered Minister found himself being compared to his more notorious cabinet colleague Mervyn Silva, whose son also made similar headlines some months ago when he allegedly assaulted an Army officer.
In the incident involving Sirisena’s son, there are two very different versions of the event. The alleged victim maintains that he was assaulted by the ministerial offspring and his associates who, it is alleged, were intoxicated and attempted to take lewd photographs.
Sirisena’s son proclaims his innocence and claims that he never remarked that he was the son of the ‘future Prime Minister’. It is the latter remark-rather than the incident itself-that made national headlines and outraged Minister Sirisena.
It led to Sirisena hurriedly summoning a media briefing in Colombo and attempting to take moral high ground. There he distributed copies of his autobiography, ‘athhthai, saththai’ (literally, ‘The truth, I swear’) and claimed the incident was blown way out of proportion.
Sirisena also made some other startling claims. Citing the fact that the state media had given wide publicity to the incident, he alleged that this was a conspiracy to destroy him politically. He also alleged that if this tactic failed, he could even be assassinated.
Of course, Sirisena did not lay bare any specific details of the conspiracy although he hinted that he was being targeted by a specific media outlet because he condemned those responsible for the murder of SLFP stalwart Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra in October 2011.
This marks a turning point in a political career that began thirty five years ago in Polonnaruwa. That was when the young Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena who began life as a Grama Sevaka, joined the SLFP and was appointed a secretary of the party’s district organisation.
He rose through party ranks to become the President of the All Island Sri Lanka Freedom Party Youth Organisation but his entry into national politics came only a decade later when he entered Parliament for the first time, contesting from the Polonnaruwa district.
Five years later he was elevated to cabinet rank, being appointed as the Minister of River Basin Development and Rajarata Development by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Being loyal and diligent in serving the party, Sirisena gradually emerged as a rising political star in the cabinet.
His lucky break came when there was a parting of ways between Kumaratunga and the then General Secretary of the SLFP, S. B. Dissanayake. Needing a trusted lieutenant to steer the administrative functions of the party, Kumaratunga chose Sirisena for the job.
That Sirisena is a shrewd politician is evident from the fact that he survived when, after decades of leadership by the Bandaranaikes, the Rajapaksas took control of the SLFP in 2005. President Mahinda Rajapaksa purged most Kumaratunga loyalists of their positions but retained Sirisena’s services.
As Sirisena gradually emerged as a high profile political leader, he handled more important portfolios in the Rajapaksa government. At first he was Minister of Mahaveli Development and he now holds the vital-but troublesome-Health portfolio.
Five years ago, Sirisena escaped an assassination attempt by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when his convoy narrowly missed a suicide bomb attack at Piliyandala. The incident indicated that Sirisena had risen sufficiently through the ranks to be considered a government stalwart.
Generally regarded as a modest and amiable individual not given to flamboyance, Sirisena is well liked both by his colleagues and his opponents. Prior to last week, there have been hardly any incidents which involved him in a personal capacity.
Once, when his brother was implicated in an unsavoury incident, he promptly dissociated himself from those events, publicly stating that he may have committed a ‘bad karma’to have such a sibling in his family.
At the last general elections, Sirisena did raise a few eyebrows when he campaigned with the slogan‘Maithri yugayak udaakaramu’ (Let a Maithri era dawn’). This was interpreted as a thinly veiled announcement of Prime Ministerial aspirations.
Indeed, after the elections, when the Premiership was being speculated upon, Sirisena’s name was among those mentioned. That was not to be, but since then, Sirisena has publicly said that the Premeirship was once offered to him but that he had declined the position.
Today, Sirisena is a party senior and appears have gathered all the credentials for the job: he has been loyal to the SLFP, he has always been faithful to the leadership of the day and he has not been disgraced even while running the scandal ridden Ministry of Health wuntil last week. That is probably why the Pasikudah incident upset Sirisena immensely. Whether his outburst was an emotive response to the incident or whether there was in fact a hidden hand behind the blaze of publicity is at this point in time only conjecture.
It is understood that since his media briefing, Minister Sirisena had been advised by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to maintain a low profile. Indeed, his latest response to inquiries is that he has no further comments to make
However, media interest continues unabated. Hot on the heels of the Pasikudah incident, presidential sibling and Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa was appointed as National Organiser of the SLFP and this caused tongues to wag again, implying that Sirisena was being sidelined.
It didn’t help matters when a unit at the Ragama Teaching Hospital was commissioned a few days ago by none other than Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Minister Sirisena, within whose purview the hospital comes was conspicuous by his absence but said he had a prior engagement in Polonnaruwa.
As such, with further legal proceedings pending in the Pasikudah incident in the coming weeks, Minister Maithripala Sirisena will remain in the limelight, whether he likes it or not. It is up to the former farmer from Polonnaruwa to prove that for politicians, any publicity is good publicity.